SMICK.NET | Website of Mike Smick Graphics and Web Developer

Some thoughts on SaaS projects and pricing

There are a lot of web services out there that impress me. Some I’d really like to commit to but I simply can’t justify the cost. It may benefit me to have but I just can’t make myself pay money for it against what I feel is a proper price. I think the pricing structure on many of these new services is just off and becomes a turn-off for sole-proprietors. Because there is a lot of competition, it makes your product easy to ignore. The trend of $29.99 per month a very common price for SaaS products. Things like SaaS accounting or enhanced social media tools and bulk email software show that trend. I’m starting to see $39.99 as a base price too. I think some of these programs can become deeply ingrained in the workflow of companies. And some find their service uniquely meeting their needs. So big deal on the price right? Well I think it’s fair to make a few comments on pricing and SaaS trends in general from a perspective of a small business owner.

  1. Your name doesn’t mean diddly to me once I’ve evaluated your service. I know you needed a funny name to capture me and the attention of media and the heart of the public at first but it ends there. The service is either strong or weak. And the more “creative” the name, the more silly I may find recommending it to others. (e.g. GIMP). If your service is disappointing and you’ve associated it with baby mongoose well then congratulations, I now hate baby mongooses. (mongeese?) Whatever, just don’t overdo the name. I’d rather have a boring name and be rich than any alternative really.
  2. When you base your pricing directly on your competitors and other Saas projects, or in general follow trends, it’s obvious and annoying. I realize imitation is like an economic model, but a lot of us think you simply have no clear way of justifying anything. I realize that I may be hard to please and others buy into the trap more easily, but keep in mind that when you compare yourself to others, you also have to react more often to others. So if your competitor that you worked so hard to match drops their price, where does it leave you if you based everything so closely on others.
  3. I’m seeing 7 and 14 days trial are common and “Sign up Free” button next to that, as if you you think that’s somehow incredibly generous. Now I realize you read a blog post somewhere that said that was a cool way to get sign ups. But once again you’ve helped me conclude how unimpressive you are at this. Here’s a hint for you: At companies large and small, nobody has any time to evaluate something properly and share their thoughts and get feedback in just 7 or 14 days and be able to do a demo with everyone. Even 30 days still looks like you are stingy idiots. All of us evaluating this crap (I mean your really great offering) know that it’s costing you barely pennies to have our account folder created. All the communication is auto-generated so when you put a 30 day limit on this it just sounds artificial and arbitrary and lacks confidence. Instead why not give me three months to evaluate the software. Let me have enough time to make a decision among my 5 stakeholder colleagues. And what if I get everything done in that 3-month period without paying? Well if that scares you, it sounds like you need to kill off free trials all together. Because I know plenty of people who can complete the same project in seven or fourteen days that others would stretch to three months. Someone can always game the system. I think this comes down to confidence and actual worth. If your service is more of a one-and-done kind of thing maybe a monthly fee isn’t really appropriate and you need to view it that way.
  4. Take a look at Turbo Tax and TaxCut. Nobody likes paying for tax software. But we do it. And we sit on it for months, finally use it for 2 days and then it gets binned till next year. We paid maybe $30 or $99 for that and it’s something we could have done essentially for free on paper. I’m not necessarily praising Tax Cut or Turbo Tax because I can’t get over the fact that the IRS doesn’t have it’s own legit tax wizard software. And that we pay less for submitting (paper) which takes more overhead on their end to bother with. Whatever. What I’m saying is just look at those models outside your industry especially those where everyone buys them almost like mindless drones. Find out what they might be doing right.
  5. Don’t act surprised that people want to self-host. Why not plan for it where you can make some real money from that option. Some companies really don’t like or have policies against having 3rd parties host their data. They may really love your offering and would use it except for that it can’t be self-hosted. They might even be more than happy to pay a massive sum in order to use your software in-house. And your fee structure could be wildly different for that kind of client. These clients might be trying to move away from some buggy Sharepoint install and replace with your service. They could be paying a consultant team $50,000 a year to maintain it. If yours is a dedicated service that requires less maintenance, you might still be able to make say $15,000 or $20,000 by having a self-hosted method, provide support that beats a more generalized consultant and everybody is happier.
  6. Have a one-project model. Not everyone is going to live in this software. Sometimes it’s just a piece of software you use for a phase of one project and then you get out. I realize that I could just unsubscribe, but I don’t want to deal with that chance that the project gets postponed in the middle and then resumes 45 days later and this fee is just another detail to worry about. If I know that I can get this phase of my project out of the way by using your software and it’s gonna just work and not disappear, I’d be comfortable choosing your service. Did you all forget that people pay for peace-of-mind? Well start remembering because that’s really the point of software, to make the details easier to deal with and give us a comfortable workflow that matches our brain better. People might prepay for the software, use it actively for 2 months, would like it available but uneditable for 14 months and afterwards completely deleted. Account for this, make it easy for us to pass costs to our clients in a predictable way.
  7. I look at the number of users limitation on Saas products and again it just looks artificial. Artificiality breeds mistrust. Think about it. because I have four people I have to pay 10 times the amount because I’m suddenly an enterprise customer? The thresholds simply aren’t generous or realistic enough for me. One user vs three users isn’t bogging down your servers. Smart customers know this. So why are we pretending that this threshold is meaningful. I don’t have an answer for this dilemma that fits every company but I can just reiterate that peace of mind and engendering confidence should be the goal. Arbitrary limitations do not engender confidence with me. Or consider this. Show me why a fourth person makes all the difference in the world and should double your cost and my price. Give me a page that explains why four users increases your support volume so much that you have no other choice.
  8. Equal price for additional users doesn’t feel right. Although I can see in some cases it probably makes the most sense. It’s very democratic but let me just comment on this structure a bit. So if I have your program dedicated to a specific set of tasks my company depends on, I probably have a dedicated user for it and happily pay $XX.95 a month for her to get her job done. But I probably also have people who sort of buzz in and out to check on things just periodically. One one hand, I don’t want to set functionality limits on these secondary users, but they will use it so much less that the value isn’t as high for them. To me those users shouldn’t cost the same as the dedicated user and maybe should be considerably less. The upside is if it’s cheaper to add people to the account the more likely I’ll add more people and you might gain another $4.95 a month for three more users who logged in two times the entire quarter. This is another example of setting people’s minds at ease and reinforcing the reality that it costs very little to have an account on a server somewhere.
  9. If your website has default Bootstrap written all over it, and your app looks like bootstrap that’s totally fine with me. Absolutely fine to the point where if you’re getting complaints I think you should ignore them. Bootstrap can do most people quite well. Because it’s so common it also caches well and speeds everything up the more popular it is. It handes web app functionality and it’s a very cost effective way to do UI. Rather than a yawn, I’ll probably think you’re a pretty smart team. With that said, by using unstyled bootstrap also revealed that you’ve leveraged and saved money from open source software and I absolutely expect savings passed on to me. Can you see that there’s a distinction. That I expect a savings yet I’m not devaluing it? There is a real distinction there in terms of reputation. I actually think it’s very smart business. I use a self-hosted app right now that’s bootstrappy for invoicing. I like it a lot and I know that it can be modified more easily and upgrades and add-ons will also share that efficiency. It’s a good move to play in a lower-overhead tier. Because of that, I will not absolutely demand, but I will assume a better price. Keep this in mind and adjust accordingly. But be smart about it. Look at fast food. It’s very inexpensive and very profitable when you make efficient decisions. Software can be better because efficiency decisions don’t effect long-term health either.
  10. I wasn’t sure I’d get to ten, but here goes. Leave behind older browsers without shame but do your best to support all the latest ones especially mobile. Some things are available on Chrome that aren’t on Firefox and that bothers me because there’s cutting edge and bleeding edge. Certainly IE and Android and iOS and Opera make it pretty difficult task to support everything. Old browsers don’t really help you or your client base. And though I said earlier that you should support the idea of self-hosted installs and the opportunities there I firmly believe that older browsers hinder you moving forward efficiently. Moving to Saas offerings to me is a signal to progression. And the amount of time trying to implement something sophisticated such as a html5 canvas app backward compatible to previous versions of IE mean that the rest of us pay a lot more for your overhead to maintain a very small number of clients. As a result, features and fixes and mobile improvements don’t happen because the team is forced to focus an inordinate amount of energy to old stuff. With that said, if a product of yours worked on IE in a previous version, maintain that version for people and allow people to cross-grade smoothly if possible, but don’t continue to move backwards. If I’m stuck on IE8 for the next three years, I’m probably not used to change and improvements anyway so keep me on the old version that gets little to no upkeep. Consider scaling your prices accordingly too. If the old version gets 5% of the maintenance maybe the agreement needs an end-of-life clause and an adjustment to pricing makes sense. Use these old versions to leverage customers to upgrade to the latest browser and version of your system. Make it clear that an upgrade savings leaves IE8 behind and the benefit is a cheaper monthly price. Consider these options and don’t discount the benefit to transparency for things like this. If you need to change prices to support old systems or new upgrades, make it clear and transparent.

My last comment regarding Saas pricing is that no matter what you think about your product, it’s no where near as essential as email and reliable email can be had for $24 a year down to near zero. So if you’re not as essential and everyone falls back on email as the most dependable way of transmitting communication, how does that configure in how people will perceive your product’s value and what will convince them to sign up. I see this a lot. A product is useful and replaces email chains and attachments but it’s priced way out and the added hassle of getting everyone on board with logins is a brain hassle that we end up paying for when we can just fall back to email for the time being. Think about that.

January 12, 2014 at 12:43 pm | computers, freelance, rants, webdev | No comment

Ways of organizing your CSS to achieve flow

Could you be writing your CSS better? I’ve been thinking about my project flow lately and noticed there’s a lot less flow and a lot more rework than there should be. I think that’s because I’m always trying new things. But I suffer the consequences of not establishing consistency and clarity. In this post, I’m talking specifically about how you wire up your main CSS file. When I talk about organization here, I’m talking about categories inside that css, so it’s easy to traverse. I firmly believe it can help speed up development and improve everything.

CSS Comments

This is how you can create categories. Write CSS comments out so they visually look like category headers.  Example:

/* ========   This is a Category Separator CSS comment   ========= */

Everything under this comment would be idenfied with it as a category.  I’ve made a lot of variations on this type of header. I’m not sure what  you like but using special characters appears to work well. I like Equals signs because they create a thick obvious border.

Categorize by function

What are the bits of CSS affecting?  Consider that if you are covering font changes, you can group all your typography under one header. So when you make a font change, presumably that section will be easy to find and less stuff to read through. Same for layout. Are you changing the padding for one or more divs? Put it under the Layout / Div category.

/* ========   Reset (if applicable)   ========= */

/* ========   Colors   ========= */

/* ========   Typography   ========= */

/* ========   Layout / Div   ========= */

/* ========   Misc classes   ========= */

Categorize by task / override

CSS means Cascading Style Sheet. The cascade is like the waterfall down a multi-level rock formation. The code described at the top, falls all the way down. So the global rules you put at the top. Underneath that, you continue with the exceptions to the rule, going from genral to specific. You can think of this and how your project is built. The template will have some standard things, and trickle down to the very specific. Some changes might only occur on specific pages, while others only occur in a single spot on one page and never again.

/* ========  Base (styles every page)   ========= */

Things like the menu bar, the header maybe (unless it will change in appearance leveraging CSS)

/* ========   Site Section Level changes   ========= */

/* ========   Specific Page Styles or Overrides   ========= */

/* ========   Occasional Styling   ========= */

/* ========   Minutiae (could almost be used inline but decidedly better here)   ========= */

Categorize By Visual Areas

This one is really common for me, but I grow it organically for each project rather than commit to specific labels each time. I’m not necessarily sure how not to do this in some respect on projects because my brain thinks this way.

/* ========  Body  (A few type or color global values )  ========= */

/* ========  Header  ========= */

/* ========  Navigation Menu  ========= */

/* ========  Content / Main  ========= */

/* ========  Gallery  ========= */

/* ========  Sidebar  ========= */

/* ========  Footer  ========= */

/* ========  Misc. or further addendum ========= */

I just want to point out this last Misc. section I also would add things like classes that the WYSIWYG editor uses.

Collaborating with Others

If you work alone, you benefit from being able to drive standards 100%. If you work with others, you want to best conform but also to discuss and agree to ways to do projects. Mostly it will come down to cross-training.  A lot of developers do quick and dirty CSS while fixing the widget they are working on and unfortunately never go back to clean it up.  This behavior will go on and it just needs to be repeatedly trained.  Ongoing project improvements and maintenance require some attention to details.  When you put things in categories a benefit you’ll find is eliminating redundancy. When everyone is referring to the same codeblock of CSS for edits to the base or header or typography, there’s a good chance they will see the previous entry for that class so it won’t be repeated.

When you work in a version control system you can see who added what to the code, but whether or not that’s the case, consider this. Some changes might be best identified near the code itself.  Let me give a quick scenario.  Let’s say you are a 3rd party agency taking on a new section of the site.  Your front end dev may not have a couple days to get a full understanding of the site, and all the current or outdated pages under the hood. Your task might be to build a certain landing page page in the CMS. If you have say 4 hours to work on something while the main developer is on leave. Instead of meddling with the code, create your own section.  If it happens to break some outdated legal page, at least your code is easy to find.

/* ========  Edits by Open Ground Co (for x landing page 11.30.2013) ========= */

Another variation on this, if you happen to need to make a fix to an existing line, consider a quick comment after it:

.classname {padding-left:-1.2em; }  /* == OG edit 11.30.2013 == */

These variations and tips are attempting to say the same thing: “Begin with the end in mind.”

December 1, 2013 at 12:36 pm | computers, CSS, design, freelance, Front End Development, graphics, webdev | No comment

The secret sauce of freelance is caring about the client and their project

I had a long talk with a buddy of mine the other night.  He’s having a lot of trouble focusing on a particular project. It’s something he’s fully capable of and can’t seem to leverage a personal commitment to take care of the work. He’s missed deadlines and managed to make himself miserable over it.  It has gone from something that needed to get done, to affecting his confidence in his own capability.

I make no assumptions here because I’ve been in a similar position and besides it’s really hard to pin down what any individual’s block might be. Why can’t they focus? What is it about a project that isn’t working for them? Where did the motivation go? Why aren’t they able to take charge and help the client?  Sometimes it comes down to a way of thinking about the problem, like when a project is too big or we want it to be too perfect before we even start.  I know I’m not alone in stalling on on projects because unless I see it to a specific depth in my minds eye, I want to hesitate rather than go down the wrong path. Then there’s the  unnecessary worry, confidence issues and simple bad habits and boredom. Imagine how much better a plumbers day is when he gets to work on good hardware with good tools and connections, vs the day when he’s got broken old pipes that crumble in his hand when he touches them.

What really hurts us is that empty space that opens up from the vagueness of a project plan or the hesitation to move the ball forward. That empty space is quickly taken up by something more interesting or an urgent problem from somebody else. And another day or week goes by.  The moments you do think about the project are fleeting and it gets smaller and less significant in your mind. You’ve long forgotten what you needed to do and that old email is buried. Until it all comes crashing back to you in the form of fear and stress, and eventually a kind of dread or loathing.

The secret to making it happen for me has more often been the simple notion of caring for the person. You care what happens to your client, and you associate your actions directly to whether they succeed or fail. You tie yourself to their happiness in the space you have control over.  You care that they meet their goals, you care that they can move onto the next great thing once they get this out of the way.  And you care that they took the time to work with you for something rather than somebody else. Along with that, instead of viewing the problem as time you don’t want to spend, it helps to be grateful that you have the opportunity to help people at this level, rather than be in a place where even the basic necessities of life are scarce.

How you define ‘caring about your project’ must go beyond clean and elegant code or efficient processes. It must be overwhelmingly a desire to cultivate a relationship and a sense of duty and commitment. Exercising those muscles will make you successful and keep you earning even when you have a big screw up or your choice of expertise goes into obsolescence.

June 4, 2013 at 4:27 pm | freelance, inspiration, learning, philosophy | No comment

Website time-wasters and the light tendency of habit

The internet will be the end of some people. It will ruin their otherwise intelligent (and even productive) brain and skillset. Because it’s so frightenly easy for somebody to indulge in the wrong content that will take them away from their goals. If you have goals to produce something new, a news aggregator site like Reddit or Hacker News, indulging in them for too long will take away the mindshare that would help you create the kind of output you’re capable of.

track-switch - Photo by Peter Kaminski - Flickr.com/creativecommons/We think of addiction and bad habits as being this pull we can’t seem to break free of. But if you observe more closely, you start to see how many habits are really just small tendencies. We know what we are supposed to do, but our brain has wired a bad habit. A bad habit isn’t always that strong, we just have the process locked down. And disrupting it is just as easy as indulging in it. Think of it like that track switch lever for a train. Flip the switch, and your off on a completely different course.

My brain loves the new and loves exploring. And it gets rewarded because I found the right sites that feed it exactly what I want. If your brain loves interaction and gossip, your rewards might be easily met from Facebook. If you like to laugh at people acting silly, your dish of rewards is found at Youtube or College Humor. But you can switch the track and it’s not like you’ll suddenly throw a fit or crash. Once on the new course, you’ll think, “Well I’m better off doing this other thing anyway.”

I’ve had a browser extension called Leechblock for Firefox installed for years. I certainly don’t use it enough but I’m really seeing how valuable it is.  It might actually save someone from ruining their career. That’s how important this or plugins like it can be. You enter a web address or a list of them and make them a blockable set. So if you’re too often checking news in the morning. Enter those sites and block them at those times. It’s probably your weak habit or tendency to browse these sites, and it may be all you need. The way you know it’s a weak tendency rather than a real addiction is if you can think back on days when you just forgot about them or didn’t visit because you were so focused on something you actually made more important. It’s very likely that you’ve avoided them for real work before. So there’s no reason you can’t do it more often. Other than inaction or lack of desire that is. Another test is, if you had a site that you used to go to, but now kinda sucks, or went dead. You moved on. It’s not like your still tapping in that old url years later with bloodshot eyes waiting for it to come back. You changed tracks.

Leechblock for Firefox

If you keep sabotaging yourself despite using a blocker, maybe it’s time for something stronger, like further reinforcement such as editing your hosts file to fully prevent those sites.  If you don’t want to ever check a specific site again, you can add it to a permanent block list in Leechblock or through a hosts file.

leechblock-blockpage

When you do habitually type that url or open that shortcut, you will met with the Leechblock Block page. It’s generic, but you can make that alternative blocker page any page you want. So instead maybe have it send you to your online todo list, or to really break the pattern, maybe have it redirect you to something you hate, such as an image gallery of a really annoying pop music artist named Minaj or Bieber.  Or to a custom message page you make, like a big bold quote about habits or confidence or motivation. “Y0u’re an epic (whatever) with some serious chops, stop doing things that make your bank account shrink!”

On Google Chrome, you can use Nanny, or StayFocused which are similar.  For Safari, something called Waste No Time is available, though I haven’t tested it, as Safari is not something I ever use. For Internet Explorer, the solution is really not to use Internet Explorer.

Here’s the thing.  You don’t just correct your procrastinating tendencies by reading a blog post. I mean you might, but I’m writing this thing and I’m well aware that I’ll still delay things. But as you are procrastinating, it’s important to remember that all the crazy sites and articles and videos about news and technology, they all use your brain. Your brain uses a lot of energy and it’s a finite amount for the day really. So if you’re going to distract yourself due to the pain or boredom of an upcoming task, at least you can do is be a little productive about it right? No rule says you must read a specific site while procrastinating.

Productive Ways to Procrastinate when your brain wants to delay a task

Lastly, you already know all this don’t you? So do I. And we’ll still waste time. But since it’s often a weak habit, based on a light tendency rather than a need. It’s ok to try different ways to disrupt it and have them fail.  And you can have a little fun with it too.

May 20, 2013 at 12:21 pm | computers, freelance, inspiration, learning, tools | No comment

The Forgotten Adobe Customers

Adobe has announced their move to Creative Cloud this week.  And though it seems like a great deal to some, I’m beyond skeptical and downright disappointed. For one thing, it’s not really a great price as far as cloud storage goes. To get 20 GB of space, you can spend a heck of a lot less on your own hosting where a much smaller number of people will be hitting your own server every day. So your throughput will be better elsewhere for less money.

I’m sure Adobe knows who their customers are right? But I think they will find after a while, these forgotten user-types will have stopped buying the software and Adobe is going to miss it.  Will somehow the funds recovered from piracy make up for it?  Maybe. Or will the pirates just continue to pirate the best version out there?

The Administrative Assistant

This user is employed at small or medium business, like an architectural firm and the boxed Creative Suite Standard was purchased for them for occasional uses such as photo work, newsletter development, presentation graphics. The facts about this user are interesting. They don’t actually need the Creative Suite. It’s way too powerful for the kind of superficial edits that it will be used for. Lucky for Adobe though, the company boss purchases the license for the potential use by the employee. And it’s convenient for them to have the software around.  They get it installed and don’t have to think about it much.

The IT Guy with a Creative itch

This is a very common archetype if you will. The IT guy might own his own copy or convinced the boss to purchase the extra license.  The IT guy bangs on the companies fledgling website using Dreamweaver and a little Photoshop. Of course his graphics always display out of proportion, but things work. Maybe he’s aware of other options for web development, but this is the tool he knows is popular and was easy enough to get started and find tutorials. . Again seeing the potential of it’s use over time, it was a purchase made to get tasks done and scratch that itch.

The Retiree Hobbyist

He or she has graduated their careers and maybe is moving into a new hobby or startup doing weddings or nature videography / photography, and to maybe play around with music a bit.  Sure their Windows computer has the movie maker software on it but they never bothered to notice.  The Video Collection was a steep purchase, but they were sure they will have EVERYTHING they need to get things done. Because they often get stuck on things, weeks or months will go by on projects because they aren’t sure how to complete various tasks. They also have the patience and available time to return to something completed and rework it after they’ve learned a new technique.

The Disenchanted Freelancer

This person is me.  Not on the continuous upgrade path, but willing to spend on the new Adobe Collection every odd or even version to stay up to date with colleagues and vendors. Things are expensive to stay current but on the plus side, a having those older boxed versions to outfit a second computer for an intern or collaborator, or to make an aging machine capable has been great.  As far a loyalty goes, a freelancer is about the best Adobe can hope for. Despite being more than capable of learning other tools, the freelancer uses Adobe because it’s convenient. The freelancer owns his / her own company name. They like having their own systems in place. They like not having a boss to tell them what to spend time and energy on.

All of these users are valuable customers and revenue for Adobe. And yet all of them represent a thin thread, easily broken.  That thin thread for many was the creative potential that owning your own software brings. Sure they won’t be able to crank out webpages, or videos or right away, but if they can sit on it for a while, let the ideas digest and come to fruition.  Then they can make something special or useful.  Or they won’t. But the point was the potential. With Creative Cloud, you remove that potential.

The disenchanted freelancer will sign on for a month when absolutely necessary to fix up a problem in an incompatible proprietary file, but otherwise, there’s no benefit to paying to borrow software for many of us.  Ask the IT guy whether he’s cool with yet another subscription. I mean he only pays for TV, ESPN, HBO, Family Cell Phone plan, kids hockey, Netflix.  Will the boss pay for a creative cloud subscription for the admin assistant or will he figure out that Office has Publisher and she can use Picasa or some online photo editor to handle the image crops. And the Retiree? Good luck getting his money now on something he’s only using 11% of realistically.

I’m not sure presenting people with the decision every month or even every year if they want to keep using the Creative Cloud is a good idea.  Because it’s a reminder of whether or not it’s worth their time or money. Whereas before somebody only had to worry about if they were living up to their creative potential.

May 9, 2013 at 10:45 am | computers, design, freelance, graphics, publishing, rants | No comment

Good work by itself is not the tie that binds us

I am losing a couple clients this week. Just by coincidence, I got 2 phone calls that gave me that sinking feeling. And both clients are moving on to proprietary systems, which I almost never recommend. Part of me is shrugging off the situation because it’s not due to something I did or didn’t do directly. New representatives at the organization have become familiar with another system and see the best route to evolving their project is going with that system. You can’t control who gets hired or takes over a department or seat at your clients office.

However, the other part of me that isn’t shrugging this off is that I know that things could be different if I had created a different history with the client. There are dozens of opportunities every year to hit touch points of client service. Things that aren’t even work related. Some of them can be unique to the client, some can just be part of a routine or even automated. For example, sending thank you notes, or occasional greetings. Checking in with questions or recommendations Maybe even better,  asking people to become part of a community you / I created, such as a helpful newsletter tailored to clients.

Had I done those things, I would have spent very little investment per client, but I might be getting the next project opportunity. And that client is likely to deflect the other options, as they can see what they would lose. That  and as time goes one, I’d continue getting the referrals that client my provide. Because if somebody leaves you, even with no burned bridges, you probably just aren’t going to come to mind when their friend or colleague asks them about who to work with.  To sum that up, it’s possible you can do a great job and create a weak bond. That’s the problem. You, me, we all have to do good work while also creating a stronger human bond in the process.

I’ve always had a problem with lock-in, in terms of software. I like the open platforms so clients feel more comfortable to change, move and pivot as they need to.  But the lock-in I could be striving for, is one completely self-imposed. If my clients are tied to me through that connection or bond of a good relationship, I’m in a much better position and the business and my clients continue to benefit.

I remember at a previous job, I would ride with sales people to their client locations for training and technical support appointments. At the time, I was surprised at how often the sales person would be inquiring about the client’s kid’s soccer games and other life events.  At the time, I thought it was a surprise that anyone could remember so much, and wondering, what it just a little too pushy? Looking back, I understand it much more. A good sales person makes a habit of creating those bonds. Someone might say, well that’s shallow, because clearly the salesperson is doing so out of self-interest and keeping the client’s business. Ahh, but I must argue, you see a habit is something that you do without thinking. And I’ve come to believe that it’s less likely scenario that something habitual like that has a shallow undercurrent.

Test it! Ask a good sales person what it’s like to lose a client like that where they’ve cultivated a bond.  Ask how much of what they are feeling is about the money.

May 9, 2013 at 5:12 am | freelance, inspiration, interesting | No comment

Every Other Day is a Hackathon

My colleague and I were talking about ways to bump our business to the next level so we can help more clients. And more importantly, maintain the energy of a project all the way through it.

Being a couple of freelancers and agency expatriates, we were thinking of a new model of client-service and project work. Being tied to the 9-5 model isn’t really appealing and we want to avoid the mistakes and not just copy other agencies.

We started thinking that there may be serious benefits in building client projects using the hackathon model. But one where you get paid and the client gets served.

Thing about hackathons, as opposed to code sprints is that hackathons have a fixed start and end time and they truly leverage the energy of the moment and through collaboration. Code sprints are nice paths to burnout. We think a hackathon model helps knock out the small holdups. It’s this push to complete in a short time, and by leveraging a assembly process and clear objectives, which might just win.

Whereas most hackathons are often learning meetups, this type would be building something and getting paid. You might be part of the company, or you might be a contractor or intern, or maybe a first-time visitor.  We also thought we could invite people to shadow or visit who might want to learn the process. Maybe an intern model where they watch first and then can eventually become a paid participant.

It’s daunting to build an entire site, but when broken down into the bite-size chunks, it almost seems like a few hours is more time than you need. Part of standardizing will help the collaborative process, templates, expectations. Once done and commit your chunk, (e.g. the site header) it will be merged with the sidebar and footer which was being made by the collaborators next to you.

We also think once it’s done, a good debriefing. What got completed, where do we stand. And communication with the client, we have a clear statement of progress and a very exacting number of hours to report if we so choose.

We’re interested in doing a trial run on a project and see where it goes. We think it could build some camradarie and really get people to focus on the one project, vs a normal day of putting out fire after fire and losing site of one’s goals.

March 6, 2013 at 10:50 am | freelance, interesting, philosophy | No comment

My new Gold Star System for keeping clients happy

I’ve made so many mistakes. And here’s a big cause. Because a certain level of customer service requires a personality that reaches out on a continual basis. To help people in your own business, you have to assume that they need to hear from you frequently.  Assume they’ll get upset if you don’t.  This is my biggest mistake. I care about the people I help out, but I also have this mechanism in my brain that makes me indulgent in the specifics of problems I solve rather than the emotions of the people I’m helping. That same indulgence puts me into a mode where I don’t want or feel I can’t communicate comfortably until a problem is solved or understood sufficiently.

This makes my clients crazy. I sort of know this, but it’s not always the active thought in my mind. In my field, you come across problems constantly and often there’s no logical prioritization at work. If I’m a surgeon and had 2 patients and I had to operate on both of them, one needed urgent but simple heart valve clearing, and the other had a fish hook really jammed really good through his hand like I’ve never seen, well guess what? Let’s just say I’m not a surgeon for a reason.  My brain works on the wrong problems, because those problems are the ones that I obsess over.

Anyway, I’ve accepted that I will always have a bit of chaos to deal with and can reign it in the right leverage.  The gold star system. Or the black mark system if you want to call it that. Either way, allow this system to fix your / my lack of communication.

A new client decided to work with me / you because ideally we are the best. Or the best they could afford. Regardless, now that you’re working together, you have a relationship to maintain that is measured by 6 gold stars. You start off with 5 1/2 stars.  And your communication and ability to set expectations makes you gain or lose them. For every time, you fail to communicate, you lose a gold star. Every time the client has to call you up and check in, means you haven’t set the expectation. After 5 of these mistakes, (OR LESS!) you’re down to one-star. Basically your client is looking for an out. They wouldn’t hire you back, they are just begging for this project to be completed.

I’ve gotten myself to one star several times. Because of my inability to set an expectation and demonstrate that I care about my clients feelings.  And wouldn’t you know it all I had to do was just have that embarrassing call earlier and just get better at it.  What I mean is the call that you have to say AGAIN that you haven’t made progress, that you’re stuck something or got sidetracked. And just be a grown up about it. It’s better for them to get sick of you that way than to not hear from you. And you won’t want to keep making those calls so you will eventually prioritize better over the next day or so you gave yourself as breathing room between calls.

It’s common for me or anyone lose a couple stars during the course of a relationship but you don’t need to do THAT much work to keep your reputation and your stars to a good level and manage it.

So next time you / me, when there’s that passing thought that maybe I’ll put off that call until I have something to show, or try to get that fix in just under the wire think of it as a question: “Do I really want to lose a gold star over this bit of laziness, shame, inability to fix or solve or prioritize something on time?”

And the next question should be asked once a week or so, “How might I get 7 stars out of this relationship?” Imagine what seven stars would be? It’d be like you’ll be seen in such a good light that you’d have to make a huge effort to lose a star. You’d have to stab them or something because they see you as such a positive force in their lives.

Let’s not go overboard here, just do your damn job.

January 15, 2013 at 2:22 am | freelance, inspiration, learning | No comment

Track your phone calls with a web form

I read recently some people wrote down every call they made or received and tracked them with a tearaway notepad.  And they could put these sheets of calls into their file folders. I thought this was a great practice, just as part of documenting your day. Easy and you never know, how beneficial

Phones track calls nowadays giving the call records, but I’m kind of privy to clean those out once in a while. I wanted a way to document what was said on the call, any commitments made etc.

I decided, why not make a form specifically for documenting calls. Gravity forms would do. And what I wanted was to list the caller, date, notes from the call and any commitments made.

I then password protected the page and now I can log those calls. And at the end of the quarter or year I can take a look at it.  I wanted it to have a simple mobile theme as well.  Funny thing is, I used the form for 2 days without realizing that I forgot to add a place for the person’s phone number.

So once I fixed that, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to be able to quickly review those?  So I found a plugin called Gravity Forms Directory and you can display your entries onto a page using a shortcode. Boom.

Call Tracking Form

January 15, 2013 at 12:50 am | computers, freelance | No comment