The web design and development industry is in a nice little bubble. It seems that, no matter who I talk to, more people than ever have a consistent amount of work coming in. Not surprisingly the types of clients are a big part of this change. More and more people who have been saving money because of the recession are feeling a little more comfortable in the economic environment that we have going on now, and are putting that money in getting their businesses online, taking business practices to the cloud, and even starting new web applications that build on APIs and other frameworks created by the likes of Google and Facebook.

This “niche market” has design and dev shops working on a myriad of different applications. Everything from litigation and law to production organization, social networks to viral marketing campaigns… it’s a good time for us techies. I’ll even go so far to as to say that this wave of business slightly reminds me of the crowd of Bieber fans outside his hotel when visiting the U.K.. It seems this spur has come from the successes of Facebook and Twitter, and the biographical-turned-motivational movie The Social Network, hence my reference to it being “The Social Network Fever.” I mean, if they can come up with something so simple and end up making billions of dollars, why can’t I?

It’s a nice situation we’ve gotten ourselves into. From taking anything we can get (“famine”, or what I like to call freelance prostitution), to being able to pick and choose clients (“feast”, or high-end freelance prostitution), we have to be able to choose our clients wisely, lest we get caught up in their excitement and fail with poorly thought-out ideas. And because of this, we have a few problems that occur:

  1. How do I choose those clients wisely? Every client comes with another great idea – how can I know which ones I should choose to put time and effort into, and has the highest chance of success?
  2. Will I be able to handle this extra workload? If not, do I have someone who I can collaborate with that will be able to be up to par with my work, be affordable, and have the time?
  3. What happens when the bubble is burst? “Everything that goes up, must come down.” George Burns said it, so it must be true. How can I make sure that in a few years down the road I’m not in the situation I may have been a couple years ago?

They’re all very valid questions and worries that goes through a small business owner’s (or freelancer’s) head. We can expand our business all we want, but what happens when we’re not as busy?

How do I choose clients wisely?

Every client who comes through The Phuse is interviewed to find out if we like them. Note I don’t really say anything about their idea – for us the person is more important than the product. We’re confident that teams with the right people can make big things happen with the smallest of ideas.

Think of it like a blind date where you’ve never met the person and are trying to find out if there is a fit. Generally speaking, we’ll have done a little bit of due-dilligence by Google searching the potential client’s name and business (usually sending us to LinkedIn accounts that make us feel like stalkers), and even got them to do a project questionnaire, but that doesn’t give us a whole load to go with.

Usually clients that are brought on board are ones that seem:

  • Enthusiastic about their product or service.
  • Interested in our processes and ideas as much as theirs.
  • Who care more about getting the job done properly than budgets and numbers…
  • … but at the same time are people who are goal-driven and want to get kick-ass results.

Usually we can tell this by the client’s attitude over the phone, how easy they are to meet with (timezones play a big part in this), how quick they are in responding to questions, and what experience they have in running successful applications in the past. Since we’re a specialist group, we also look into who will be doing their development or who else has been contracted on the project and meet with them to determine chemistry. From developers to directors, customers to employees, everyone has a different set of goals and responsibilities that (when overlooked) ends up in the failure of the project.

All in all, this little interview process takes anywhere from a week to a month depending on the size of the business and the proposal process that is necessary to getting a project going. Now, you might be saying “woah, James, hold on a second – I have no one to bill those hours to!” At this point in the project, you’re at a risk of wasting your time (= money) on a project you may not even get or end up not being interested in. Even still, the risk you take by putting time into this menial work can save you a lot of hassle later.

Now, first impressions are important, but we also shouldn’t judge books by their covers. Expect to have clients who come through and end up disappointing you. A philosopher once said that you can learn more from someone in an hour of play than in a lifetime of conversation; similarly, after the first round of iterations on a deliverable you’ll know whether or not the client is going cause you to need some extra hours with your psychologist.

Still, practice makes perfect, and as you sift through clients you’ll notice distinct differences in them that will help you in deciding who’s projects you want to spend your resources on.

Will I be able to handle this extra workload?

Not enough people are honest with themselves these days. Whether it be overspending on products and services that we’ll never end up using (anyone out there still keeping up with their New Year’s resolutions?), or taking on more than we can handle, we need to take a serious look at not how much we can potentially work in a week, but how much we do work in a week. Someone going from working 5 hours moonlighting a project can’t expect themselves to be able to handle a 20 or even a 15 hour a week project overnight.

Similarly with the huge amount of small businesses that have started due to the market we’re in, we can’t expect one person to do the work of a team of 5 or more people. So why do we even think that we can do this at all? I don’t know many people who work even a 40 hour week consistently, how can we? Around the point where you’re booking extra hours at the local self-help clinic, you should probably start looking into the talent that is sprouting out of our industry. This is the simple (yet complex with note of paying people and managing) answer to our problem.

Even still, this beautifully saturated market right now also proves some problems we need to overcome when hiring. With the amount of people busy, we find people either raising their rates, or just simply not able to take on any new projects. It leaves us to go on a “trial and error” run finding people who, coming full circle now, aren’t honest with themselves and end up taking on more than they can handle, or just simply don’t have the right attitude. Similarly in this case, you end up doing just as much work as you would have had to before when you took on the project yourself.

Not to scare anyone, but it’s a scary time right now in the industry. A lot of people are either working full-time jobs right now and are moonlighting (read: can’t handle extra work like they say they can), or end up flopping halfway through a project because they find employment elsewhere. Keeping good talent and challenging them is tough for any small business that can’t afford to hire someone on full-time or bring them into an office environment. This causes people to simply not take your work easily and put it behind everything else they already have to do, causing you to look like the idiot to clients when things aren’t done on time.

Okay, James. Enough on the rant there, buddy (you’ve officially scared the hell out of me and made it tough for me to trust people) – what am I supposed to do?

Easy answer: Stall.

Like I mentioned before, the interviewing process with us can take anywhere from a week to a month based on the size of the business and the people involved. When we have a lot going on, we don’t adjust the velocity of certain projects to allow for new clients to be brought on board – instead we slow down new clients being onboarded with extras that will make our lives easier. Here are some bulletproof ways to slow down new clients while you make room for them:

  • Get all the paperwork signed! Make sure that the client has sent you (either electronically or via mail) the appropriate paperwork to get the project started, signed.
  • Require payment upfront. Most clients like to pay us via cheque as we’re based in Canada and PayPal adds extraneous fees that no one likes to pay. Often times, it takes a week or two for payment to be received (longer if an accounting department is involved).
  • Stretch out your research and planning phase. Create story boards, basic wireframes and sketches, and other basic deliverables that you can send to a client slowly over time. (E.g. if you have a set of a dozen wireframes, send two a day for a week and you’ve saved yourself another week.)
  • Split up the project into parts. Whether you split the project into: branding, web design, web development, or whether you split it into hours, this gives you time to try out handling the project. If at the end of a certain part of the work you find it’s not a good fit, it’ll give you the opportunity to step away from the project.
  • Be straight with your clients! Let them know you’re busy right now, and let them know that you are excited to work with them. The more honest you are with your clients, the less irate they’ll become and the fewer heated phone calls you’ll need to answer.

The first three points may seem like I’m trying to tell you to deceive your clients. Simply put, I am. This doesn’t only benefit you and make you look awesome (because you’ve put the onus on them to get things going faster), but it also gives them some breathing time that they likely haven’t had to think out their ideas, provide you with more feedback, et cetera.

The other two options? Well, they’ll likely get you taken off the project. But it was worth a shot!

What happens when the bubble is burst?

Analysts are saying this is a 3-4 year bubble we’re in where we should expect to see a lot of work coming our way. For those of us who are doing this as a side-business to our full-time jobs, we know we’ll likely be fine if anything happens because we’ll have stability in work (knock on wood). But for those of us who aren’t, we have a big problem that we need to address now before we get there.

  • Team up with like-minded people – but not like-talented people! The specialist movement is overwhelming. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is important in finding people to align yourself with. If you’re a front-end dev, find designers and back-end development teams, and vice-versa!
  • Create plans for projects that go beyond their launch. Discuss alternate ways to continue working with each other like maintenance retainers that give you the ability to go through their site each month and make tweaks to keep it up to standards.
  • Keep in touch with clients. A lot of successful web applications’ creators will have other ideas that they want to launch, and will know other CEOs and CTOs that you can be recommended to. Clients love when you take genuine interest in their product or service – remember, their success can mean yours as well!

In closing

This past year with our business has been extremely exciting. It’s been nearly a complete year since we started redesigning our brand and website, and to have it launched (read: not completed, we’re still iterating!) is like a dream. We’d actually been handing out business cards with branding that didn’t reflect what was on our site for quite a while there. (True story, and bad brand decision: don’t give out said business cards to potential dates at a bar or club when you’re slightly (alright, heavily) intoxicated. If you’re one of those girls… how YOU doin’?).

Going through nearly half a dozen team members that didn’t work out, signing dream clients that we would never have thought we’d get the opportunity to work with, and more… it’s been a trip! From these experiences we’ve gone through, we’re hoping to be able to share this wealth with all of you over the next while.

  • Clients don’t only choose you, you choose your clients.
  • No matter how confident you are coming out of an interview, you’ll only really know if a project is going to work when you start working with them. (Although, interviewing still helps weed out the obvious ones!)
  • Sometimes bringing on more people isn’t the best option.
  • Slow and steady wins the race.
  • Choose your friends wisely. (Keep your friends close and your enemies farther.)

And hey, if you think you’ve got what it takes to work for a team that is as excited to work as you are (I’m calling you, designers and front end developers!), drop us a line – we’d love to be proved wrong!

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