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Tune your site instead of redesigning it all the time

Companies often flush away millions upon millions on worthless, pointless, “fix it once and for all” website redesigns. All types of organizations are guilty: large government agencies, Fortune 500s, not-for-profits and (especially) institutions of higher education.

Worst of all, these offending organizations are prone to repeating the redesign process every few years like spendthrift amnesiacs. Remember what Einstein said about insanity? (It’s this, if you don’t know.) It’s as if they enjoy the sensation of failing spectacularly, publicly and expensively. Sadly, redesigns rarely solve actual problems faced by end users.

I’m frustrated because it really doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s look at why redesigns happen, and some straightforward and inexpensive ways we might avoid them.

The Diagnostic Void

Your users complain about your website’s confounding navigation, stale content, poor usability and other user experience failures. You bring up their gripes with the website’s owners. They listen and decide to take action. Their hearts are in the right place. But the wheels quickly come off.

Site owner

Most website owners don’t know how to diagnose the problems of a large complex website. It’s just not something they were ever taught to do. So, they’re put in the unfortunate, uncomfortable position of operating like country doctors who’ve suddenly been tasked to save their patients from a virulent new pandemic. It is their responsibility, but they’re simply unprepared.

Vendor

Sadly, many website owners fill this diagnostic void — or, more typically, allow it to be filled — with whatever solution sounds best. Naturally, many less-than-ethical vendors are glad to dress up their offerings as solutions to anyone with a problem — and a budget. The tools themselves (search engines, CMS’, social apps) are wonderful, but they’re still just tools — very expensive ones, at that — and not solutions to the very specific problems that an organization faces. Without proper diagnostics to guide the configuration of tools, any resulting improvements to the user experience will be almost accidental.

Design agency

Sometimes design agencies are brought in to fill the diagnostic void. And while not all agencies are evil, a great many follow a business model that depends on getting their teams to bill as many hours as they can and as soon as possible. Diagnostics can slow the work down (which is why clients rarely include a diagnostic phase in their RFPs). So, many agencies move to make a quick, tangible impression (and make their clients happy) by delivering redesigns that are mostly cosmetic.

A pretty face can last only a few years, but by then the agency is long gone. Invariably, the new owner wishes to make their mark by freshening or updating the website’s look. And another agency will be more than happy to oblige. Repeat ad nauseam, and then some.

Oh, and sometimes these redesigns can be pricey. Like $18 million pricey.

See why I’m so grouchy?

Forget the Long Tail: The Short Head Is Where It’s At

Whether you’re a designer, researcher or website owner, I’ve got some good news for you: diagnostics aren’t necessarily difficult or expensive. Better yet, you’ll often find that addressing the problems you’ve diagnosed isn’t that hard.

And the best news? Small simple fixes can accomplish far more than expensive redesigns. The reason? People just care about some stuff more than they care about other stuff. A lot more. Check this out and you’ll see:

Monster Graph

This hockey-stick-shaped curve is called a Zipf curve. (It comes from linguistics: Zipf was a linguist who liked to count words… but don’t worry about that.) Here it is in dragon form, displaying the frequency of search queries on a website. The most frequently searched queries (starting on the left) are very, very frequent. They make up the “short head.” As you move to the right (to the esoteric one-off queries in the “long tail”), query frequency drops off. A lot. And it’s a really long tail.

This is absolutely the most important thing in the universe. So, to make sure it’s absolutely clear, let’s make the same point using text:

Query’s rank Cumulative % Query’s frequency Query
1 1.40% 7,218 campus map
14 10.53% 2,464 housing
42 20.18% 1,351 web enroll
98 30.01% 650 computer center
221 40.05% 295 msu union
500 50.02% 124 hotels
7,877 80.00% 7 department of surgery

In this case, tens of thousands of unique queries are being searched for on this university website, but the first one accounts for 1.4% of all search traffic. That’s massive, considering that it’s just one query out of tens of thousands. How many short-head queries would it take to get to 10% of all search traffic? Only 14 — out of tens of thousands. The 42 most frequent queries cover over 20% of the website’s entire search traffic. About a hundred gets us to 30%. And so on.

It’s Zipf’s World; We Just Live in It

This is very good news.

Want to improve your website’s search performance? Don’t rip out the search engine and buy a new one! Start by testing and improving the performance of the 100 most frequent queries. Or, if you don’t have the time, just the top 50. Or 10. Or 1 — test out “campus map” by actually searching for it. Does something useful and relevant come up? No? Why not? Is the content missing or mistitled or mistagged or jargony or broken? Is there some other problem? That, folks, is diagnostics. And when you do that with your website’s short head, your diagnostic efforts will go a very long way.

The news gets better: Zipf is a rule. The search queries for all websites follow a Zipf distribution.

And the news gets even jump-up-and-down-and-scream-your-head-off better: Zipf is true not only for your website’s search queries. Your content works the same way! A small subset of your website’s content does the heavy lifting. Much of the rest has little or no practical value at all. (In fact, I’ve heard a rumor that 90% of Microsoft.com’s content has never, ever been accessed. Not once. But it’s a just a rumor. And you didn’t hear it here.) Bottom line: don’t redesign all of your content — focus on the stuff that people actually need.

You’ll also see a short head when it comes to your website’s features. People need just a few of them; the rest are gravy.

And there’s more. Of all the audience types that your website serves, one or two matter far more than the others. What tasks do those audience types wish to accomplish on your website? A few are short-head tasks; the rest just aren’t that important.

As you can see, the Zipf curve is everywhere. And fortunately, the phenomenon is helpful: you can use it to prioritize your efforts to tweak and tune your website’s content, functionality, searchability, navigation and overall performance.

Your Website Is Not A Democracy

When you examine the short head — of your documents, your users’ tasks, their search behavior and so forth — you’ll know where to find the most important problems to solve. In effect, you can stop boiling the ocean…

Sailing the ocean

… and start prioritizing your efforts to diagnose and truly solve your website’s problems.

Now, let’s put these short-head ideas together. Below is a report card for an academic website that starts with the short head of its audience:

Diagram

In other words, of all the audience types this university website has, the three most important are people who might pay money to the university (applicants,) people who are paying money now (students) and people who will hopefully pay money for the rest of their lives (alumni). How do we know they’re the most important audiences? We could go by user research; for example, the analytics might suggest that these audiences generate more traffic than anyone else. Or perhaps the university’s stakeholders believe that these are the most important ones in their influence and revenue. Or some combination of both. Whatever the case, these three audiences likely swamp all other segments in importance.

Then, we would want to know the short-head tasks and information needs of each audience type. We might interview stakeholders to see what they think (column 2). And we might perform research — user interviews and search analytics, for example — to find out what users say is most important to them (column 3).

Of course, as the good folks at xkcd demonstrate, stakeholders and users don’t always see things the same way:

Universal site

That’s why talking to both stakeholders and users is important. And once you’ve figured out the short head for each, you’ll need to earn your salary and, through some careful negotiation, combine your takes on each audience type’s needs. That’s what we’ve done in column 4.

Finally, in column 5, we’ve tested each task or need and evaluated how well it works. (Because it’s a university-related example, letter grades seemed appropriate.) You can do this evaluation in an expensive, statistically significant way; but really, enough research is out there to suggest that you don’t need to spend a lot of time and money on such testing. More importantly, these needs and tasks are often fairly narrow and, therefore, easy to test.

So, after testing, we can see what’s not going well. Finding information on “mentoring” is hard for applicants. And current students have a devil of a time when they “look up grades.”

Now we’re done diagnosing the problems and can begin making fixes. We can change the title of the “Paired Guidance Program” page to “Mentoring.” We can create a better landing page for the transcript application. The hard part, diagnostics, is out of the way, and we can now fix and tune our website’s performance as much as our resources allow.

From Project To Process To Payoff

These fixes are typically and wonderfully small and concrete, but because they live in the short head, they make a huge and lovely impact on the user experience — at a fraction of the cost of a typical redesign.

The tuning process itself is quite simple. It’s what we used to arrive at the report card below:

Chart

If you repeat this simple process on a regular basis — say, every month or quarter — then you can head off the entropy that causes fresh designs and fresher content to go rotten. Thus, the redesign that your organization has scheduled for two years from now can officially be canceled.

Your website’s owners ought to be happy about all this. And you should be, too: rather than tackling the project of getting your website “right” — which is impossible — you can now focus on tweaking and tuning it from here on out. So, forget redesigns, and start owning and benefiting from a process of continual improvement.

Special Thanks – Illustrations

Eva-Lotta is a UX Designer and Illustrator based in London, UK where she currently works as an interaction designer at Google. Besides her daytime mission of making the web a more understandable, usable and delightful place, she regularly takes sketchnotes at all sorts of talks and conferences and recently self-published her second book. Eva-Lotta also teaches sketching workshops and is interested in (something she calls) visual improvisation. Exploring the parallels between sketching and improvisation, she experiments with the principles from her theater improvisation practice to inspire visual work.

Manage Events Like A Pro With WordPress

If you’ve ever tried working with, coding for or just thinking about anything to do with events, you know they are a total nightmare in every possible way. Repeating events, schedules, multiple days, multiple tracks, multiple prices, multiple speakers, multiple organizations, multiple payment options — the list goes on on for quite some time.

Today we’ll show you how to make event management an easy — nay, enjoyable — task by making WordPress do the grunt work for you. We’ll be looking at out-of-the-box WordPress features, plugins and themes and a DIY approach to managing events. Please do let us know if you have more or better ideas.

In A Nutshell

I know some people don’t like to read lengthy reviews, so here are my recommendations in the shortest possible form. We’ll look at all of these recommendations in depth, so read on if you want to know more about them.

If money is not an issue or you just want the best possible combination of products, I recommend using Event Espresso to manage the events and Eventure from ThemeForest to display them. This will set you back at least $125 (more if you need add-ons for Event Espresso), but it will give you one of the most powerful event-management setups you can get without touching any code.

f you don’t need a payment gateway, multiple-day event-specific options or other advanced features or you’re on a budget, you could use Events Manager Free VersionEvent Espresso Lite or Events Made Easy. These are all free and easy to use, providing roughly the same functionality. You might also want to purchase a theme to display your events nicely, which will set you back at least $35, but this is in no way required.

Event Management Features

Before we get to specific tools, let’s look at some of the features we get from an event-management system. You might not need all of these, but looking at them is useful when planning your system.

EVENTS

Obviously, our event-management plugin should at least support events. The ability to create events that are separate from your regular posts is a powerful feature, allowing you to add events to your website’s existing content.

EVENT TAXONOMIES

Regular posts can be ordered into taxonomies — categories and tags. Having separate taxonomies for events (i.e. event categories and event tags) is useful for separating them from your regular content. If you organize Web development conferences, you might want to differentiate between design- and coding-related ones, or you might want to single out JavaScript- and Ruby-related ones. Your regular content might have nothing to do with Web development, so having separate taxonomies would come in handy.

REGISTRATIONS

Allowing people to register for events right there on your website can greatly boost attendance. The path a user has to take from discovering your event to participating becomes that much shorter, which translates into a better user experience and more registrants.

You will also need to be able to manage registrations through the back end. Registrants should be listed somewhere, with easy access to their details.

PAYMENT GATEWAYS

The ability to accept payments online breaks down another barrier between your events and potential attendees. A feature that allows you to accept the widest variety of payment methods would be ideal.

SPEAKER MANAGEMENT

As a software programmer, I don’t like when I enter data somewhere and it’s not stored in an easily reusable way. The ability to manage speakers across your events is a big plus because it opens up access to powerful features later on. This feature should include the ability to add biographies and photos of speakers to the website.

VENUE MANAGEMENT

As with speaker management, having all your locations stored properly will make them ease to reuse in future. If you need to schedule another event at the same venue, there’s no need to reenter the details; just select it from a menu, and off you go.

PARTICIPATING ORGANIZATIONS

Another nice feature is being able to attach companies to events. Companies will often host events, and giving them some recognition for it is a nice thing to do in return.

SPONSORS

Almost all major events have sponsors that contribute in some way (usually with money). They often require you to add their logo in various places. Being able to add the names, descriptions and logos of sponsors for an event would be handy.

NOTIFICATION MANAGEMENT

There are two kinds of notifications we might want to control. On-site notifications are shown to users once they perform specific actions. When a user successfully pays for a ticket or encounters an error while registering, an on-site notification should pop up to let them know what’s going on. Being able to tailor the language of these to your style would be a nice feature.

The second type of notification are email messages to participants. Confirmations, reminders and so on would all be customized to your style.

FORM MANAGEMENT

Controlling the information to gather from registrants is key to finding sponsors and making the lives of users easier. Being able to control this on an event-by-event basis would be best. Some events require less information from users, others more.

COUPON MANAGEMENT

Many events offer coupons for promotional purposes. If you want to engage users beyond your website, then giving coupons for third parties to distribute is a great tactic. Creating multiple coupons for various events would enable you to manage a full-blown coupon campaign.

PRICE MANAGEMENT

Another way to persuade visitors to register is to offer different price options, such as early-bird pricing, student discounts, last-minute offers and so on.

MULTIPLE DAY EVENTS

Many events have so much going on that splitting them into multiple days is the only way to go. Being able to control this from the administration section would be a great plus, especially when coupled with price-management options (such as registration for one day only).

REPEATING EVENTS

If you are organizing a repeating event, you wouldn’t want to have to create it from scratch a hundred times a year. Scheduling and repeating tools would help minimize your effort.

POWERFUL GLOBAL AND MISCELLANEOUS SETTINGS

A great event-management system has to have great global and miscellaneous settings. Settings for creating an events listing page, changing currencies, setting time zones and so on are all part of a complete system.

 

Complete Solutions

All of the WordPress plugins in this section are paid plugins, but if you’re running a serious operation, then the first two listed here are well worth the money.

The three best plugins around are Events PlannerEvents Manager and Event Espresso. Event Espresso is by far the best of the lot, but all three are versatile and under constant development.

EVENT ESPRESSO

Event Espresso is the cream of the crop. It has built-in support for almost all of the features mentioned above (except perhaps sponsor management) — and much more! It enables you to set up multiple forms of payment, multiple event dates and times, multiple prices, discounts, promotions (coupons), locations (even virtual ones) and emails. It also creates posts for events automatically and does so much more!

Event Espresso also has a free “Lite” version, which gives you a taste of the solution. The lite version is actually pretty robust and can be used for simple situations. It includes event and attendee management, automated emails, customizable registration and PayPal Standard Payment.

You can easily tailor the design of event listings to your current theme. If you are willing to dish out the money for this plugin, I recommend getting a premium website theme as well and modifying that as needed.

Event Espresso is not cheap, but its feature set is top notch, so the price is justified. The basic version costs $89.95, which contains all of the features that 95% of people will need. From there, you can download free and paid add-ons to the basic system. Some free add-ons are for payment gateways, social media and calendars.

MailChimp integration, recurring events management, developer customization options, WordPress integration, Groupon integration, multiple event registration and shopping cart integration (coming soon) is available at between $25 and $35 a pop. Most of these are well worth their money, although getting the WordPress members integration for free would have been nice, because that’s not a huge programming leap.

 

EVENTS PLANNER

Events Planner is another well-rounded system. It doesn’t have all of the features of Event Espresso, but it does give you a lot to work with. Event categories, tags, instructors, locations, companies, notifications, payments, registrations and more can be managed with ease.

The main difference between Events Planner and Event Espresso is that the former’s UI is less polished, and some features found in both are not as well implemented in it. Despite this, Events Planner remains extremely flexible and robust. If you don’t want to part with almost a hundred bucks, you’ll be able to grab Events Planner for $39, plus another $24 if you need plugins that supports advanced date- and time-specific functions.

Events Planner does not have a lite version, but you can create a custom installation yourself andtest drive the pro version. This is a little unusual for plugins, but it does mean you can fully test it before purchasing.

A gallery will be added here with 3-4 images of how an event is displayed by default, a screenshot from the admin, etc. The images can be found in the images/gallery/ folder of this draft

 

EVENTS MANAGER

Events Manager is very similar to Events Planner in many ways. Some features have a better UI in Events Planner, while others are better in Events Manager. Were the price not so different, it would be a matter of preference, but because Events Manager costs a lot more than Events Planner, I would not recommend this solution.

Events Manager will set you back $75, and the price buys you only one year’s worth of upgrades. There are no plugins or add-ons here (which could be a good thing), but the higher price and losing access to updates after a year seems a bit cheeky at this price point.

Events Manager has a free version that gives you a lot of functionality. It supports event and booking management, recurring events, locations and more.

A gallery will be added here with 3-4 images of how an event is displayed by default, a screenshot from the admin, etc. The images can be found in the images/gallery/ folder of this draft

Of the three, Event Espresso is the clear winner. It supports every feature the other two do and a lot more. It also has handy (albeit slightly expensive) plugins, with more to come. Even at $89, if you run a successful business (or plan to), it isn’t a high price to pay for the features you get.

If you can’t spend that much on a plugin, then Events Planner is a very capable alternative that will not leave you wanting. When all is said and done, it does cost less than half of Event Espresso and still has 80% of its features. I would still heartily recommend it.

If you don’t need payment options, however, and you need a free solution, the free version of this plugin might be your best option. Have a look at the partial solutions below.

 

Partial Solutions

Quite a few solutions do not offer advanced features such as payment gateways and coupon management but do allow some flexibility and customizations for events.

The best options for a simpler approach are All-in-One Event Calendar, Event Organiser and Events Made Easy, as well as the free versions of Event Espresso and Events Manager. In a showdown, it would be a close call between Event Espresso and Events Manager.

All-in-One Event Calendar creates a new post type for your events, allowing you to keep blog posts and events side by side. It supports event categories, tags and a few other options. Because it allows you to create a calendar page, it’s a great solution if you need something simple and workable in minutes.

Event Organiser has all of the same functions plus a lot more! It has permission settings, permalink settings, importing and exporting options and even venue support. In addition, it has an admin calendar view that gives you a useful overview of your events.

Events Made Easy has all of the features of All-In-One Event Calendar (except event tags), and it supports registrations and locations. If you absolutely need to support on-site registration, this would be the easiest to use. The UI is the least polished, though, so it won’t look as pretty in the administration section, but the features are solid.

 

FINAL VERDICT

Despite the great features offered by these plugins, I would stick with Event Espresso Lite or the free version of Events Manager. Apart from offering more functionality, they will also ease your transition if you need the full-blown system later on.

Using WordPress Out Of The Box

If you don’t need to manage data for each event, WordPress’s core functionality will do just fine. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Use posts to store events.
  • If you want to be able to have regular posts as well, distinguish them using categories.
  • Create top-level categories for distinguishing organizations, sponsors and venues.
  • Use your website’s registration functionality to manage past attendees, or use it as a master attendee list if separate registration is not required for your events.
  • Create pages for important information such as payment options.
  • Use PayPal buttons in event posts to let people register and pay directly through PayPal.

Many of these features are far from optimal for event-intensive websites, but if you just need something simple that you can set up in 10 minutes, give it a go.

If you do choose this option, pay close attention to consistency. If your goal is expansion, you are guaranteed to want a better system later on, and consistency will ensure that you can make the switch without a hiccup.

 

Comparing All Of The Options

There is a lot to learn and a lot of options if you want to get started with event management. To make your life easier, here is a table with all of the features discussed, along with the solutions that support them. Click on the image to go to the large version (it’s a bit small to look at here).
Large version

 

Event-Friendly Themes

While the plugins do a nice job of helping you manage events, they are not designed to make your website pretty, which is equally important. No matter which route you take, you will need to do some work to make things fit perfectly, but some premium themes out there will shorten this process. Eventure

$35 | Large screenshot | Live preview

Diarise

$70 | Large screenshot | Live preview

Events (from Elegant Themes)

Large screenshot | Live preview

Eventure

Large screenshot | Live preview

 

Conclusion

Whichever solution you choose, you will have to put in a few hours of work to make your website work well and look good. I usually advise using free software whenever possible, but this happens to be one of those areas where I would go with a complete solution. Getting it right from the get-go will save you a lot of headaches in the long run.

If you can afford to spend over $100 on managing events, go for Event Espresso, coupled with one of the premium themes mentioned above.

If you want to spend as little as possible, then try Events Manager Free VersionEvent Espresso Liteor Events Made Easy. If you don’t plan on expanding a lot or you need multiple price points, go with Events Made Easy because it is completely free, with no paid version, so supporting the developer by using his product would be a nice gesture.

If you do plan on expanding, go with Event Espresso Lite because the pro version will have everything you need when you’re ready to buy it and you won’t have any migration or data problems.

Why writing Project Proposals is a bad idea?

After several grueling days I had finally finished the proposal. I sent it off and waited for a response. Nothing. After a few weeks, I discovered that they were “just looking”. Despite the urgency and aggressive timeline for the RFP (Request For Proposal) plus the fact that we had done business with this organization before, the project was a no-go. My days of effort were wasted. Not entirely, though, because the pain of that loss was enough to drive me to decide that it wouldn’t happen again.

Why writing Project Proposals is a bad idea?

I work at a Web development company and we’ve experimented with proposal writing a lot over the years. We’ve seen the good and the bad, and we have found something better. In this article I will share the pains that we have experienced in the proposal writing process, the solution we adopted, and our process for carrying out that solution. I’ll also give you guidelines to help you know when this solution is and isn’t appropriate.

Proposal Writing Causes Pain

After several years of writing proposals, we began to notice that something wasn’t right. As we considered the problem we noticed varying levels of pain associated with the proposal writing process. We categorized those pains as follows:

The Rush
Getting a proposal done was usually about speed. We were racing against the clock and working hard to deliver the proposal as efficiently and as effectively as possible. However, sometimes corners would get cut. We’d reuse bits and pieces from older proposals, checking and double-checking for any references to the previous project. While the adrenaline helped, the rush gets old because you know that, deep down, it’s not your best work. Besides, you don’t even know if you’re going to close the deal, which leads to the next pain.

The Risk
Our proposal close ratio with clients that came directly to us was high. We’d work hard on the proposals and more often than not, we’d close the deal. The risk was still there, however, and I can think of several proposals that we had spent a lot of time and effort on for a deal that we didn’t get. Not getting the deal isn’t the problem — the problem is going in and investing time and energy in a thorough proposal without knowing if there is even the likelihood that you’re going to close the deal.

The Details
The difference between a project’s success and its failure is in the details. In proposal writing, the details are in the scope. What work is included, what is not, and how tight is the scope? Now, this is where the “rush” and the “risk” play their part. The rush typically causes us to spend less time on details and the “risk” says: “Why spell it all out and do the diligence when you might not even get the project?” A self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps, but a legitimate concern nonetheless. Selling a project without making the details clear is asking for scope creep, and turns what started out as a great project into a learning experience that can last for years.

Now, writing is an important part of the project and I’m not about to say you shouldn’t write. Having a written document ensures that all parties involved are on the same page and completely clear on exactly what will be delivered and how it will be delivered. What I’m saying, though, is that you should stop writing proposals.

Write Evaluations, Not Proposals — And Charge For Them

Write Evaluations, Not Proposals — And Charge For Them

A few years back, we decided to try something new. A potential client approached us and rather than preparing another project proposal, we offered the client what we now call a “Project Evaluation.” We charged them a fixed price for which we promised to evaluate the project, in all of our areas of expertise, and give them our recommendations.

They agreed, paid the price, and we set out to deliver. We put a lot of effort into that evaluation. We were in new territory and we wanted to make sure that we delivered it well. So we finished the report and sent it to them. The client liked it, agreed with our recommendations, and started a contract with us to do the work.

That project became a game changer for us, starting an on-going relationship that opened doors into a new market. It was the process of the evaluation itself that brought the new market potential to our attention, and gave us the opportunity to develop this business model. It was a definite win, and one that a project proposal couldn’t have delivered.

What Is A Project Evaluation?

A “Project Evaluation”, as we’ve defined it, is a detailed plan for the work that is to be done on a project, and explains how we do it. We eliminate the guess work, and detail the project out at such a level that the document becomes a living part of the development process, being referred back to and acting as the guide towards the project’s successful completion.

The Benefits Of (Paid) Project Evaluations

As we put our proposal writing past behind us and embraced the evaluation process, we noticed a strong number of benefits. The most prominent of those benefits are the following.

Qualification

If a client is unwilling or unable to pay for a project evaluation, it can be an indicator that the project isn’t a match. Now, we may not always charge for evaluations (more on that later). We also recognize a deep responsibility on our part to make sure that we have intelligently and carefully explained the process and value of the evaluation. After all that is done, though, you may run into potential clients who just don’t want to pay what you’re charging, and it’s better to find this out right away then after writing a long proposal.

Attention to Details

Having the time available to do the research and carefully prepare the recommendations means that we are able to eliminate surprises. While the end result may be a rather large document, the details are well organized and thorough. Those details are valuable to both the client (in making sure they know exactly what they’re getting) and to the development team (in making sure that they know exactly what they’re delivering).

No Pricing Surprises

Figuring out all the details and ironing out a complete scope means that we’re able to give a fixed price, without surprises. This gives the client the assurance up front that the price we gave them is the price they’ll pay. In more than a few cases, the time we’ve spent working out the details has eliminated areas of concern and kept our margins focused on profit, not on covering us “just in case.”

Testing the Waters

When a potential client says “Yes” to an evaluation, they are making a relatively small commitment — a first step, if you will. Rather than a proposal that prompts them for the down payment to get started on the complete project, the evaluation process gives us time and opportunity to establish a working relationship. In most cases, the process involves a lot of communication which helps the client learn more about how we work, as we learn more about how they work. All this is able to take place without the pressure of a high-budget development project. And by the end of the evaluation, a relationship is formed that plays a major factor in the decision process to move forward.

Freedom to Dream

Occasionally, we spend more time on an evaluation than we had initially expected. But knowing how our time is valued has given us the freedom to explore options and make recommendations that we might not have made otherwise. In our experience, the extra time and energy that the context of a paid evaluation provides for a project has consistently brought added value to the project, and contributed to its ultimate success.

The Evaluation Writing Process

The Evaluation Writing Process

Over the years we have refined (and continue to refine) a process that works well for us. As you consider the process, look for the principles behind each step, and if you decide to bring this into your business, look for ways to adapt this process and make it your own.

#1 — Do the Research

The heart of the evaluation process is the research. If it’s a website redesign project, we read through each and every page on the website. We take notes and thoroughly absorb as much content as possible. Our objective is to get to the heart of the project and gain as much of the organization’s perspective as possible.

If it’s a custom programming project, we try to get inside the project’s concept, challenge it, look for flaws in the logic, research relevant technologies, and work to make recommendations that keep the goals of the project in mind.

We spend time with the client by phone, over Skype, via email, and sometimes even in person. As our research uncovers problems or finds solutions, we run them by the client and gather their feedback.

The research process allows us to go deep, and in our experience it has always paid off, giving us a thorough grasp of the project and providing a foundation to make intelligent, expertise-driven recommendations.

#2 — Offer Recommendations

Each project evaluation is different. Depending on the nature of the project we may make recommendations regarding technology, content organization, marketing strategies, or even business processes. The types of recommendations we make have varied greatly from project to project, and are always driven by the context and goals of the project.

When it comes to areas of uncertainty for the client, we work hard to achieve a balance between an absolute recommendation and other options. If the answer is clear to us, we’ll say so and make a single, authoritative recommendation. However, when an answer is less clear, we give the client options to consider (along with our thoughts) on why or why not an option might be a match.

We share our recommendations with the client throughout the evaluation process, and when the final report is given, there are rarely any surprises.

#3 — Prepare the Scope

After we’ve worked through our recommendations, we put together a technical scope. This is typically the longest part of the document. In the case of a Web design project, we go through each page of the website, explaining details for the corresponding elements of that page. The level of detail will vary based on the importance of a particular page.

The scope document is detailed in such a way that the client could take it in-house, or even to another developer, and be able to implement our recommendations.

As the project commences, the scope document will often be referred to, and can function as a checklist for how the project is progressing.

#4 — Prepare the Timeline & Estimate

With the scope complete, calculating the cost and preparing an estimate becomes a relatively straightforward process. While how one calculates the price may vary, all the information is now available to see the project through from start to finish, identifying the challenges, and determining the amount of resources required to meet the project’s objectives.

Note: Prior to the start of the evaluation process, we nearly always give the potential client a “ball park” estimate. So far, that estimate typically ends up being about ten times the cost of the evaluation.

We take the estimating process very seriously, both in the ball park stage and especially here within the context of an evaluation. Once we set a price down we don’t leave room for “oops!” and “gotchas!”, and that means we are extra careful to calculate as accurately as possible, both for our sake and for the sake of the client.

Now, because of the nature of the evaluation, we are often able to research and explore options above and beyond what the client originally brought to our attention. In the case of a Web application, this might be an added feature or a further enhancement added onto a requested feature. Within the scope of the evaluation we carefully research these extras, and when appropriate, present them as optional “add-ons” within the timeline and estimate.

They are truly optional, and while always recommended by us, we leave the decision up to the client (there’s no use wasting research energy on an add-on you wouldn’t fully recommend). In cases where the budget allows for them, they are nearly always accepted. In cases where a tighter budget is involved, the add-ons are typically set aside for future consideration.

When Evaluations Are Appropriate

A project evaluation functions like the blueprints for a new office building. Imagine that I own a successful construction company, and I have a number of world-class office construction projects to my credit. A new client comes to me after seeing some of my work and tells me “I want a building just like that!”. Assuming, of course, that I own the rights to the building, I can say “Sure!” and tell them how much it will cost. Why? The blueprints have already been drawn.

Now, there will be variable factors, such as where they choose to have the building built, and any customizations they may request matter. But in most cases no new blueprints will be needed, and I can proceed with construction without charging them for the plans.

Suppose another client comes to me after seeing one of my buildings and asks me to build an entirely new design for them. A new design calls for new blueprints all of their own, and these must be developed before the project begins. Can you imagine a large-scale construction project without any blueprints?

Web development is the same way. In our experience, evaluations are appropriate when a client comes to us and asks us to take on a project outside of our existing set of “blueprints”. Examples where we’ve found a project evaluation necessary include:

  • A redesign of an existing website.
  • Developing a new Web application.
  • Bringing new technology into an existing project.

Without an evaluation you’re either left to go ahead and do the research on your own (with the weight of the rush, and the risk on your shoulders) or you’re stuck making as educated a guess as possible for the scope of the project. This dangerous guessing in a situation where an evaluation is appropriate can leave you with an estimate that is too high (which can mean losing the project) or even worse, an estimate that is too low.

When Evaluations Are Not Appropriate

When a project is familiar, and doesn’t require an evaluation (or fits within the scope of an existing type of evaluation), we give an informal, direct estimate along with a scope of the work. Small to mid-sized Web design projects typically fall into this category. While the content and design are new, the process isn’t. The key here is the experience and confidence in your abilities (and the abilities of your team) that the work will get done within budget to the expected delight of all parties involved.

Conclusion

Project evaluations up until now haven’t been given much attention. I would suggest it is a simple concept that has been overlooked and passed by amidst the rush of a booming Web development industry. I invite you to implement the process, experience the benefits, and stop the pain of proposal writing.

How to deliver exceptional client service?

We often hear companies, including Web agencies, boast about how they provide exceptional client service. But how do they define exceptional?

Consider this scenario. You are hired to design and develop a new website for a retail client. The client loves the design, and the pages you develop use the latest in HTML5, CSS3 and responsive design, resulting in a website that works wonderfully across browsers and devices. The e-commerce features of the new website help the client significantly increase their online sales, and the entire project is delivered on time and on budget. Now, is this “exceptional” client service? I don’t think it is.

When the client hired you, they expected that you would design and develop a great website. They also expected it would be done according to the timeline and budget set during the planning stages of the project. As successful as this project may have been for both you and the client, in the end, you did exactly what you were hired to do. You did your job.

Just Doing Your Job Vs. Delivering Exceptional Service

Nothing is wrong with “just doing your job.” In many cases, that alone is a tall order. So, while doing what you were hired to do is nothing to be ashamed of, it is also not exceptional — nor will it set you apart. There will always be other agencies or designers that will be able to do the work as well as you can — and there will certainly be someone willing to do it cheaper! The service you provide is how you can truly differentiate yourself.

Exceptional client service is about going beyond what is realistically expected of you. It is about surprising, and often delighting, customers, turning them into enthusiastic referral sources and lifelong clients who stick with you not only because you do great work at a fair price, but because the value you bring to them goes far beyond just your products.

In this article, I’ll detail a few of the ways that I have tried to take my own client service to the next level and deliver a better experience, starting with the most important aspect: the relationships that you establish with the clients who hire you.

superhero
There is a difference between doing what you were hired to do and delivering a superheroic level of service. (Image: JD Hancock)

Creating Real Relationships

Here’s a quick exercise. Write down your five most important clients (how you define “important” is up to you). Then, write down as many things you know about those clients that have nothing to do with their business or the work you have done for them. What are their hobbies or passions? How many kids do they have? How old are those kids, and what are their names? Where do they like to vacation? Things like that.

So, how long is your list? If you’re like most people I speak with, probably not very long at all. We learn everything we can about a client’s business, but we often fail to discover anything substantial about our clients as people. If we do not engage with our clients in a real, personal way, then we are just another vendor — and vendors are easily replaceable with better cheaper options. However, clients are much less likely to consider replacing people with whom they have real relationships.

So, how do you start learning more about your clients? Simple: ask them questions about themselves and their lives, not just about their business.

Asking Real Questions

When I give this advice to others, it is often met with some apprehension. Asking someone about their business goals is easy. Asking them about their life outside of the office is harder. We often avoid getting personal for fear of offending the person or saying the wrong thing; but by being overly cautious, we miss the chance to create a real relationship.

Whenever I get nervous about getting too personal with a client, I remind myself of a story. A few years ago, I had the privilege to work on the website for the Tori Lynn Andreozzi Foundation. This non-profit foundation was named after a young girl who, walking home from school one afternoon, was struck by a drunk driver. Tori survived but was forever changed. Today, she is in a minimally conscious state, unable to walk, speak or eat.

In one of my first meetings with this client, I sat down with the head of the foundation, Tori’s mother, Cathy. I began the conversation simply by asking her, “How is Tori doing today?”

Cathy smiled and answered that Tori was doing well. We had our meeting and discussed the website and the project. As we were wrapping up, Cathy thanked me for asking her about Tori. She explained that so many people avoid asking about her daughter, fearing the news would be bad or that Cathy would be upset by the question. The truth is that, even though Tori has bad days, Cathy always enjoys talking about her daughter and was very happy to be asked about her. By asking Cathy how her daughter was doing, I showed her that I cared about more than just the project.

tori-lynn-screenshot
The website for the Tori Lynn Andreozzi Foundation

Today, Cathy is one of my favorite people to speak with, and we begin every conversation by asking how each other’s children are doing. We have much more than a great client-vendor relationship, all because I asked a real question, honestly cared about the answer, and created a real, human connection in the process. Had I been too afraid to ask that question, I might never have been able to build the relationship that I have now.

Don’t be afraid to ask your clients real questions. If they don’t want to answer you, they won’t. But for those who do (and you will find that most, if not all, of your clients will be happy to have a real conversation that has nothing to do with business), you will be well on your way to building real relationships.

Participate In More Than Just Projects

Another way to build a relationship with a client that goes beyond the project is to participate in their events. If the client runs a non-profit organization, they might have fundraisers or similar events that offer you an opportunity to support their cause and nurture the relationship. Go to these events and participate. As a bonus, you will also be helping a worthwhile cause.

Not all of your clients will have fundraising events, but they might invite you to holiday parties and other gatherings. Take advantage of these opportunities to interact with your clients outside of a normal business setting. It will go a long way to reinforcing those real relationships that you are trying to create and show that you are more than just another vendor.

Similarly, consider inviting clients to some of your events to show that you view them as more than just a source of business. When they arrive, greet them warmly and enjoy their company, leaving business talk for another day.

Help Them With Services That You Do Not Provide

Clients may hire you to design and develop a Web presence for them, but in the course of the project you will often discover that they need other services that you do not provide. By listening to their needs, you might learn that they have issues with their payroll company or their accountants or some other aspect of their business.

Look to your own business and the vendors you use. There may be a service or company that you have had success with that you could recommend. Also look to your other clients to see whether they offer services that fit. If appropriate, set up a lunch meeting between you, the client with the need and the client that might be able to fill that need. Not only will you be taking two clients out for lunch, you will hopefully be helping them both by making a valuable connection between the two companies.

When a client can say, “I hired this company to design our website and they ended up helping us revamp our entire payroll system!” you position yourself as much more than just their “Web team” — you show that you are a valued business resource and a trusted advisor.

Pick Up The Phone

Good communication is key to any relationship. Still, judging from the number of clients I speak with who are unhappy with their current Web team — not because they do a poor job, but because they are unresponsive — quality communication is not always a given.

Regularly updating your clients by email is important, but also pick up the phone every now and then, so that you become more than just that distant person behind those electronic updates. By hearing your voice, clients will feel more connected to you and the project. It also shows them that you value them enough to take the time to make a personal call, and it gives you a chance to talk about something other than business.

Conversation
Regular phone calls allow you to have real conversations with clients, communicating at a personal level that email and other electronic updates do not allow for. (Image: opensourceway)

Face The Bad Times Head On

Have you ever had to share bad news with a client, but rather than pick up the phone to discuss the issue, you waited and sent an email at 5:15 pm on a Friday? By doing this, you may have bought yourself a few more days before having to face the client’s worried questions, but you also damage the relationship by hiding behind an email. It also means that the client will read the bad news first thing on Monday morning; definitely not a good start to their week, and definitely not the way to treat a valued relationship.

Here’s a secret: clients do not expect you to be perfect. They do, however, expect you to be honest. When something goes wrong, let them know quickly so that they are not blindsided by the issue later on. And never deliver bad news by email. Picking up the phone to discuss the news lets you reassure the client and answer any questions they may have. An after-hours email certainly won’t do that for them.

If the matter is handled correctly, the client will not remember that something went wrong. They will remember that you were honest and kept them apprised of the state of the project, even when it did not go according to plan.

Be Thankful And Show Appreciation

When was the last time you thanked a client for working with you? How did you do it? Did you send a basket of cookies or chocolate with a generic “thank you” message, or did you do something more personal?

Too often, we fail to even thank our clients for their business. We are so keen to finish a project and move on to the next one that we forget to properly show our appreciation.

While a basket of sweets and a generic message is better than nothing, consider sending a personal, handwritten thank-you note.

Handwritten letters have become all but extinct these days. With the rise of electronic communication such as email, social networks and text messaging, so few people take the time and effort to actually write a letter. The gesture of a personal letter will delight and surprise your client, not only because you have thanked them, but because the way you did so was personal, memorable and the perfect cap to a successful project.

Thank you!
A thankful, personal handwritten card is a great way to cap off a successful project. (Image: irrezolut)

Why wait for the opportunity? create your own!

As many people who work in a creative field like design and development may already know, sometimes our clients just do not understand what it is that we are trying to achieve. The boundaries that we are seeking to push are not ones they approve of for their project, so our creative ideas get backburnered until we can find an appropriate project as well as an agreeable client where you can flex these creative muscles freely. In fact, the standard business processes, especially the ones we allow ourselves to be strapped into, tend to work against us in this aspect.

Allow me to elaborate. For most creatives, the most genuine and innovative ideas can often come without provocation. Which is unfortunate, because that tends to relegate these ideas to one of two categories. The personal project category that we get to whenever we find the time to break away from our work plates to snack on something different. Or to the professional project pool where we wait on that client who will allow us the freedom to incorporate this idea into their project. At other times, the ideas we have tend to be in response to the client, their business or something they have laid down — some sort of foundation — for us to build upon. These ideas are somewhat prompted.

Aces
Don’t just wait for the aces! Image by fitzsean

Now this is not to say that the prompted ideas are any less potent or powerful than the ones that we arrived at alone, only that the ones we get to by ourselves tend to be more imaginative and exciting in our eyes as those are the ones we feel unencumbered by the clients rules or specs. Which also means that they are the ones that we get to work less on due to the fact that we have to pay the bills, and in most cases, that means some kind of compromise on the part of the creative mind. We can say that we think outside the box on every project, but we have to admit that when a client comes to us, they have one or two ideas in the bucket ready and those specs can be considered somewhat of a box that we must work in.

That Is Just How Business Works

Now I know that there are some who are scratching their heads, knowing that this is just the way how business works, and they are confused at to what exactly we are asking them to consider. And yes, we understand that this is the standard way by which this game is played. Businesses have needs — they turn to other experts or specialists to have these needs met. They explain exactly what it is they are looking for, and the experts comply, delivering the experience that hopefully surpasses the client’s expectations. But what if we could change the standard rules of gameplay here on a much wider scale, affording this much freer approach to any designer or developer who wished to truly work unhindered.

Think outside of the box
Think outside the box! Image by west.m

Just a quick note: this article is not trying to say that working with all clients is a dull, innovation adjacent venture, or even trying to say that you will never have to work under these more standard rules of gameplay. But we usually have ideas of our own — ideas that we would love to see through without having to compromise or consult with a client or anyone else for that matter to approve what we are doing.

Think of it like the difference in a movie director working independently on a film rather than working for a major studio. They have much more freedom to make the film as they see fit, without any interference from above. For a while this was an approach that not many designers or developers have thought to not be feasible, but that is all changing.

Thanks, by and large, to the avenues being created by and granted access to by the Web.

The Game Changer

Before now, and in some ways still, we have always had to take our ideas to someone else in order to help us make them happen. We had to reach beyond ourselves to find those with the means and know-hows to reach further than we had access in order to get our idea out to the masses and have it connect with the audience. Essentially, we had to sell our idea to someone else in order to get distribution and manufacturing. However, the Web is granting creatives the chances to write their own opportunities, and make things happen for themselves, without having to depend on someone else.

Understanding that the term “sellout” tends to carry negative connotations, but what I mean is that we have to pitch the idea and someone has to buy in order for it to happen. When they buy, that tends to put them in the controlling seat. They hold the final say over the outcome of the project, or even where the project ends up. For some creatives, that compromise alone can take a lot of the fun and excitement out of the equation. But without those buyers, the project would tend to remain an unrealized effort. So there has been an underlying coercion for creatives to play the game and compromise their ideas when necessary in order to connect with the masses.

Strategic game
Plan your game – several moves ahead. Image by DoubleM2

Enter the Web, and services like Kickstarter, communities like YouTube and Vimeo, and suddenly the middle men that we needed to make our innovative ideas a reality, are not as much of a necessity as they once were. There is a great article by Ryan Carson that highlighted two examples of just how those in creative fields who are no longer waiting for opportunity to knock, instead create those opportunities for themselves. And in these cases, what remains important is that they remain the ones calling the shots.

Now I know there are those who think that this is approach is a complete waste of time. However, already today there are creatives who are just as equally excited about this evolved approach which allows them to completely take the reigns of their creative projects. So below we have taken a look at both the benefits offered and challenges posed by this new gameplay structure to help better see what exactly this approach means and entails.

The Benefits

First, we are going to look at the pros to taking charge of our creations and marching forward with them on our own as the masters of our own destiny. If you are one of those who is on the fence about this whole issue, or even if you are standing firmly against it, perhaps this section will have you rethinking things and getting you to come down on the side for it.

Shot-Caller

This has already been mentioned in the article; however, given its weight, it deserves a deeper examination of just what makes it so important. For most of us in the design and development fields, we have had to work with a client whose lack of understanding of the field can negatively impact the resulting project once their uncompromising input has been implemented. This can hugely effect our resulting takeaway and perspective with which we begin to view our chosen fields. Especially, if we find project after project that comes with compromise after compromise. This can effectively end up sapping our excitement and stifling our creative energy.

Defining targets differently
You’re your own boss and choose your own target. Image by HikingArtist.com

Another side effect these compromises can have is that we end up having to lose some truly innovative element of the project because of the client’s wishes, and our work can somewhat reflect a staleness on our parts as a result. When users see the final design and interact with it, they only see the compromised end result. They do not see the processes or the decisions and conditions that ultimately led to a creation that could essentially be much less than its potential. And it is this end result that is looked upon as the limits of our abilities. Client’s input is useful and necessary, but sometimes it’s not exactly what is best for our users. And yes, design is not art, but a medium for delivering messages across, but as designers we are often quite restricted by the decisions made for us, not with us.

But when we are the one who is calling all of the shots, our creative energy can flow freely, and our imaginations are subject to no one’s approval or standards. And there are those who would say that using a service like Kickstarter, where you outline a project and potential investors commit to contributions to fund your creative venture, does not put you in the driver’s seat per se, as you are still having to “sell” your idea. However, the big difference is that the sponsors and investors you get via Kickstarter do not expect to be able to provide some kind of creative input. You are the one in control.

This also means that you are the one in control of the timeline for when and if the project sees the light of day. This can be key, as there are times in the design and development fields when those elements are out of our hands and they end up derailing the project far from its potential or intended destinations. There are times when we work so hard on a project and have put so much into it until we have molded it to what we feel is perfection, only to turn it over and have it altered or never see the light of day. Consequently, there are times when we feel (for whatever reason) that a project just will not come together and should be abandoned, but we can’t drop it, so the end result is a sub-par product that nobody is actually happy with. In this field of play, those calls are all ours.

In Short:

  • You have to deal with less compromises that sap your enthusiasm and excitement for both the project and your field.
  • Your reputation does not suffer from compromises the client forced us to make.
  • You do not have to worry about outside interference, our imagination is not subject to approval.
  • Your project outcome is completely in your hands, and your hands alone.

Time and Money Saver

It may seem like somewhat of a contradiction that this approach could actually save time and money, but when you look at the first example of designer Frank Chimero and his design book that he now can completely finance via Kickstarter, you can see how this approach can do just that. More often than not, in order to get a book published and distributed within what is commonly seen as the mainstream, you would first have to spend weeks, possibly months, writing and rewriting both the outline for the book and the book proposal (not to mention the numerous e-mails, phone calls and meetings with possible publishers). All of which is done without any guarantee of being published and distributed.

Kickstarter
Frank Chimero’s project “The Shape of Design” on Kickstarter.

In the end, all of the time that is taken to write up these proposals and outlines for the books take away from the time we spend on billable work. And in some cases, the entire book or some parts of it must first be written before we are able to get any interest from publishers or distributors. So that time has to be accounted for as well. But by harnessing the Web and social media, we can now find the means to publish and distribute the book on our own — without consuming much time and often the costly process of seeking out and involving the proverbial middle men in the project. For instance, Smashing Magazine produces printed books independently, without the middle man, and so can you.

This is a big step forward, and helps to connect the potential investors directly to the creative individuals, without the compromised hands of the mainstream middle men getting into the project, which simply feels more conducive to innovation. Compromised decisions can end up hurting the project’s potential. This can also mean that we will end up with less forced input which can lead to time consuming revision after time consuming revision which could end up compromising the overall impact of the message. Which might further translate into lost sales. Therefore, we can see huge savings in both time and costs by opting for this new paradigm.

In Short:

  • We can save a lot of time, which tends to equal money, in both the initial and final project stages via this route.
  • Taps potential investors directly into the source of ideas, without any agendas or middle men getting in the way.

Smoother Sailing in the Client Pool

Now, one possible benefit that we could see spring forth from this approach is the higher chances of landing dream clients. This may seem a bit far fetched, but if there were more designers and developers writing their own opportunities and launching their own projects then that is going to create interest in the client pool, right? Essentially, going the route, you can effectively choose between working on a client’s project or creating your own which you could put in your portfolio or even gain some exposure with and consequently connect with some potential clients.

Besides, since you are engaging your heart and soul into your project, you are more likely to produce a remarkable product — a product that will help you gain new insights, learn new creative fields and leave a mark in the design community. You can also create a well-respected name for yourself. And it’s certainly worth trying.

Profit-Sharing

One of the biggest problems that anyone working in any creative field faces, is the undervaluing of their time and talents. This can come either in the guise of those who simply do not see the value of what we do, or in the form of those who capitalize on our creativity without having contributed to the creative process in any way. Whatever form it may take, it means that someone is profiting off of your creativity.

Now, there are cases when there is a service attached to it that we could not handle ourselves. Back in the day, distribution was one of the main incentives that creative persons had to aligning themselves with this model in which they create the product, and do not get to see the majority of the profits from the project. Designers and developers have been signing on with company that provided them with the space and tools they need to do the work for years because of the sheer cost it saves them. Only to sacrifice shares of the profits from their work, not to mention the ability to do the work that they necessarily want the way they want it. But again, this is not the only paradigm on the market anymore.

You want to organize a design conference and sell tickets for it? There are services for you. You’d like to build up a shop from ground up? Again, there are tools for you. You don’t have to rely on anybody, but instead you can just put together everything you need and leverage the potential of social media to back up your projects.

Natashawescoat.com
Natasha Westcoat creates live online paintings. She saves herself the percentages that galleries, art dealers and online intermediaries, might charge if she sold the work through them.

With no middle men to have to share the profits with, this new approach can also allow us to get the bulk of the revenues generated from the projects that we have created. In the example provided in Ryan’s article, Natasha Westcoat’s live online paintings, not only does she save herself the time and effort of seeking a gallery show to find buyers, she saves herself the percentages that galleries, art dealers and online intermediaries, might charge if she sold the work through them. Here, she controls the profits. So it is exciting to see that the old profit share piggyback model is not the only path in which designers and developers find themselves in these days given the reach and access afforded to them by the Web.

In Short:

  • With this new model, the person who is generating and creating the idea is the one who will reap the majority of the rewards from their work, as it should be.
  • No longer do we have to share the majority of our profits with those who offer us services that help spread the word — not create it.
  • With the middle men gone, the revenues can be more evenly and fairly distributed.

The Challenges

Anyone who is seriously considering taking on the “independent” route, needs to understand that there might be some challenges in the road ahead. These are serious considerations that should be made before moving forward.

Weight of the World

Most of the time that we take on a project, there are going to be some elements of that cause us some bit of stress. Be it the timeline, those we are working with or compromises made. But we tend to be somewhat compartmentalized in the project and therefore our stress levels tend to be as well. If there is stress involved in the project, we can bet that we are only experiencing a fraction of that stress through the buffers provided by the numerous rungs in the ladder above us. Also, because we are usually stacked somewhere in a hierarchy, the instigators of the stress are somewhat abstracts to us. For example, if we are working with a big company, we tend to not have to interact with the client or public directly, it is done through a series of intermediaries. So when they are upset, we get hints of that, but not necessarily the brunt of it.

A pints a pound the world around
No matter where, the burden is the same. Image by Kristian Bjornard

This is not the case when we are stepping up as the masters of our projects. We have no buffers or barriers which allow us to compartmentalize any of it. We are baring the full weight of this world on our shoulders, and are not shielded from the reactions of the public. It all rests on us. Every cog in the process, from creation to marketing, from production to distribution is our responsibility. Either we have to handle it ourselves, or we have to find the right people to put into those roles to ensure that it all goes smoothly and according to plan. If it doesn’t, the blame will fall on you and your reputation — no one else’s. Also, we need to makke certain decisions that we don’t necessarily know much about: e.g. if you decide to print a book, what about fulfillment and support?

This can admittedly be a terrifying step to take, especially when you have never worked through all aspects of the project process before. If you are not strong in marketing, or have never actually overseen the production step by step, doing these tasks for the first time can seem overwhelming. And it is easy to see why many would rather play it safer instead of working on a more demanding and involved approach. For many of us, no benefit is enough to willingly accept the entire weight of the project on our shoulders.

In Short:

  • If you pick the “independent” route, you are responsible for everything, and you alone will own each of the project’s successes and failures.
  • No matter where your strengths are lacking, you have to find ways to fill those gaps and pick up that slack to ensure the project succeeds.
  • You have no buffers to the reactions and fallouts from the project — you have to deal with it all directly.

Confidence Factor

Another consideration that must be understood is that you are not selling the idea alone, you are also promoting yourself. Which is where confidence comes into play pretty heavily. It is easy to have faith in an idea and be able to get others to sign on and ascribe to that idea through the confidence that you are reflecting in it. However, when you are the head of the pyramid, it is not just faith in the idea that all parties involved need, everybody needs to have faith in the main person behind it.

That faith in oneself is harder to project with enough confidence to necessarily have others clamoring at your heels wanting to throw in on the proverbial backing bandwagon. And given that many of us might not be used to having to promote ourselves and effectively market ourselves in order to make a project happen, this could be a necessary adjustment. It is one thing to effectively market ourselves into a job, where we are pitted against other individuals, but in this case, we are marketing ourselves against an entire, well, market. It is not just about the idea, but about our ability to make it real. Whereas now we are competing with what can be seen as more financially stable companies, not just the ideas they are pitching.

As part of a company, when we go forth with an idea, there is a reputation behind us, more than just our own. When we do it alone — not so much. So once again it is easy to understand how this could act as a deterrent. On the other side, it might as well be an area that not deters you, but vividly alerts you to something that you are going to need to work on before you move ahead.

In Short:

  • It is not just the idea under scrutiny, but your ability to make it happen as well.
  • You must be able to effectively position and market yourself and your project against the rest of the market.
  • You do not have any other reputation backing the project other than your own.

No End in Sight

Finally, you must consider that if you are going to try and create your own opportunities and run with them, you will be running for a long, long time. When you are the one spearheading the entire project, and overseeing all facets of the process, there is no end of the line where you just get to hand it over and then move on to the next project. You have to stick with this project and ride it out for the entire reach and life of the project. No matter where it leads, you have signed on to following, and that could prove to be a very long haul indeed. Somewhere, that road could potentially keep going, always requiring some level of dedication, if not participation, on your part.

Can you picture what will be the end
Can you picture the end? Image by N3T1O

This could effectively undo any of the time saved benefit that got you looking favorably at this idea in the first place. So you have to look reasonably at the long term time investments and consider how much time the project could require to completely determine if the project will be worthwhile to pursue. Keep in mind that the project will eventually endure beyond their initial projected commitments, althought the exact details depend on the project itself. And it would be better to realize this before beginning and getting others to commit, so that the project does not fall short of its potential because you actually underestimated your own project.

In Short:

  • You may have to be willing to commit to it for however long the project survives to maintain its integrity.
  • There is no point at which you should be expecting to be able to just cut and run from the project without seeing it through to the absolute end.

In the End

Doing things on your own is risky but worthwhile. There is certainly some merit to creating your own opportunities. The tools are available; the medium for connecting with friends, colleagues and like-minded people is available; and you can freely explore your creativity and skills using both of them. I honestly believe that this new culture we observe today might change the rules of the game and I anxiously wait to see what interesting new developments spring up as a result. Please share your opinion in the comments section below.