11 steps to building the perfect project

While we’re always eager to strike new ground and get working as quickly as possible, planning is the be-all and end-all of the success of any project. As the saying goes — fail to plan and plan to fail.

I’ve seen eagerness get the better of judgement. I’ve seen people lunge straight into the work side of things and be content to worry about the details afterwards. I’m not one of those people.

The best laid plans…

A few years ago, I took a former client to County Court because they were simply unprepared to let me plan a project they way I’d recommended from the very beginning. And then when things went wrong, the client simply would not accept responsibility for their own failure and refused to pay.

Now, taking my own advice, I chose to invoice the client in stages, mitigating the losses I suffered. However, because of their incessant adding of new bells and whistles, the latter stage of this failed project ballooned and the whole thing simple couldn’t be maintained.

Building the right foundations

So what’s the solution? As usual, the solution is best served when we first describe the problem in simple terms. During the County Court proceedings, I needed to make the case against the client as simple, clear and unambiguous as possible. And I did that by way of an extremely simple analogy.

Imagine you’ve been contracted to build a house; a small abode, not too dissimilar to a bungalow. You dutifully ask the client all the right questions, to which you receive clear answers and the work commences with you laying the foundations for the house.

But then the client realizes the true value of the land and changes their mind — now they want a twelve story apartment block. But they also want all of this work doing for much the same price you originally agreed to for the bungalow. And worse still, on the same plot of land on top of the same foundations.

That was my predicament described in painful detail. Sat across from me in the County Court room, the now former client squirmed with growing discomfort while his colleague looked away impassively and shame faced.

Yes, I won the case, but I’d rather not have been there in the first place. As clearly as I’d explained to the client these issues from the very outset, they were unprepared to heed my articulate protestations concerning the perils we were destined to endure, as we would eventually face each other down across a very solid wooden table in some anonymous County Court room somewhere in Yorkshire.

So again, what’s the solution? There’s no way of over stating how important trust is in all of this. And trust is a two-way street. Also, trust your instincts. I didn’t. Why? Because while I was prepared to plan ahead, I was the eager fool. So matters weren’t helped by the fact that I was being lied to by the client, which my instincts had informed me of, but I continued working with the client regardless.

Trust isn’t absolutely essential, so long as both parties adhere to what’s been agreed. Yes, that’s some kind of trust, but not the right kind. As we all know, trust is a hard-earned quality of any relationship, and for some, it’s simply not a given they can be trusted.

Laying the foundations of a successful project

Sadly, there’s no magic trick to managing client expectations. But there are a number of things you can do help insulate yourself from the death of a project, or to work towards keeping a project alive when circumstances are at odds with you and your carefully laid plans:

  1. Once the client is happy with using your services, reply to them either by post or email with a confirmation of the brief (or at least what you both agreed on), with a copy of your terms & conditions, and ask them to reply to this correspondence, which will be your proof of receipt and a tacit acceptance of your terms & conditions. And in a court of law, this acknowledgement is as good as a binding agreement between yourself and the client.
  2. In addition to agreeing on what your activities will be, the client has commitments, too — enshrine their commitments in the brief, also.
  3. Once they have agreed on their commitments, don’t be afraid to chase the client down when they’re being tardy. Yes, this can be an annoyance for them, but it’s preferable to seeing the project languish, stall or possibly even fail.
  4. Be thorough, objective and assume nothing — don’t be afraid to ask the obvious, as you’d be surprised just how many times the stark staring obvious gets over-looked!
  5. On the subject of being thorough, keep complete and precise notes of everything, and I mean everything — every form of correspondence, every conversation and every decision or moment of indecision. What you know is vital, and can serve as an audit trail, should things go wrong. Also, in keeping such detailed records, you increase your value to the client, as they may then rely on your for such things.
  6. Know who all of the stakeholders are in a project, and know what their roles are. As much as you can, limit the number of stakeholders who are charged with defining your work schedule. You do not want to commit to work that you may not be paid for.
  7. More importantly, don’t be afraid to say “no”. Seriously, Saying “yes” is often synonymous with “I don’t know, but I’ll try”, and that’s as good as a lie.
  8. Break the project into deliverable and demonstrable stages, invoicing at each stage.
  9. If you foresee problems, explain them to the client as clearly and as early as possible.
  10. Don’t allow yourself to be railroaded into doing something you know is either illegal or not in the best interests of the project.
  11. If the client begins to make additions and / or amendments to the project, assess their potential for disruption and be prepared to move them to the end of whatever stage you’re working on, or even the end of the project. While the client may have you believe those additions and / or amendments are vital, be thorough, objective and assume nothing — and stick to the plan.

Sometimes, the needs of the project are far greater than the wants of the client. Articulating that to a client takes a deft touch that not all can summon up the words for. So clearly, perils remain.

That aside, armed as you now are with various ways of staving off project failure, the only thing you may lack is the guile, the gumption and the sheer guts to ask those obvious questions and to say “no” where and when appropriate.

Beyond that, you should now have the right idea about how to manage a project and all of its attendant delicacies and details. So good luck!

Do you have your own project tips, tricks and things to avoid? If so, why not share them in a comment.

Q: customer acquisition versus customer retention?

As any business owner will tell you, usually through allegory, analogy or cliche, running a business is a balancing act, like spinning plates. And they’re not wrong! You’re either generating leads or doing the work. And of the latter, which is the most important — customer acquisition or customer retention.

Personally, I don’t think it’s as simple as “or” but actually “versus”, because for the most part, they conflict with and exclude each other.

It’s a contentious subject, and it’s a subject I’ve been aware of more subconsciously than anything else. And thanks to an article on the Marketing Donut asking where the priority lies in customer acquisition or customer retention, I had a mind to comment:

“If you’re a small business just starting out, many will have no clients, or perhaps only a small selection, so their efforts absolutely must fall into the pursuit of new customers.

For the established businesses like Octane, new clients can be a diversion from the main focus, which is that of servicing the loyal band of clients I’ve had, in some cases, for over ten years.

For the very large businesses — and here I’m thinking of telecommunications and utilities giants — customer loyalty is almost an anathema; they simply cannot afford to dedicate time and resources to consumers or small businesses.

I never set out with the intention of being a big business, or of being a business that deals with big companies, because I know first hand where that can lead. And in the end, you’re not living a lifestyle, but chasing money, and that’s not for me.”

Just to clarify that last paragraph, while I don’t exclude large businesses as clients, I have to be wary of engaging with them, given my size relative to theirs. Also, when you deal with large businesses, you’re often not dealing with the decision makers, and that for me is almost a total waste of my time.

Why? Because for the most part, I need a very direct dialogue with the people I’m dealing with, something that not all appreciate or welcome. And then there are the questions I ask which are either outside the remit of or not immediately answerable by the people I may be dealing with.

Right now, entering into 2011, my priorities are firmly with three clients, all of which have invested heavily with Octane in so far as the projects I’m working on at the moment.

So when new work comes along, the conversion I have will be an honest one — I’ve prioritised my loyalty to those clients who’ve been loyal to me.

Managing and making the most of your software

Let’s face it, our businesses probably wouldn’t function without a computer or two, yet we do things every day that leave us vulnerable should things go wrong. So let’s assume your software is broken, or you can’t do something and you need help — well here’s how to make the most of your software and solve those problems.

Finding the right software resources

First up, I’m not going to explain how to use this or that piece of software. What I am going to do is explain how to ask the right question to the right people in the right places.

Bookmarks and Favourites

So you’ve bought some new software. Good for you! Now go to the website of the company you just bought it from and bookmark their:

  • home page for your country;
  • their blog, perhaps subscribing to their feed;
  • their support section, and;
  • their support forums.

I’m using Apple’s Safari as my main web browser to manage all of my bookmarks, which I’ve organized into folders. I use Safari because I can synchronize all of my important data with my iPhone, so I’m always connected.

Important data — that’d be like passwords, right? Here’s my 7 security tips for your computer and the web.

So instead of groping around, wondering what the hell to do, you have instant access to the web resources you’re going to need to solve those problems.

All good software vendors will be as connected as possible, not just hiding behind a premium rate telephone number, or some Byzantine and labyrinth-like support structure, to wear you out before you’ve found the help you need. And those vendors that are really connected will be socially networked…

Twitter and Facebook

While hooking up with your software vendors via a social network might not smack of support, it is in so far as paying attention to their messages, which are often hints, tips and notifications of security patches and upgrades. Also, with Twitter, you get to message them directly and stand a good chance of getting a reply to your question.

If they have a Page on Facebook, then you’ll see much the same as you will on Twitter, but more in depth, with comments from other users and what their thoughts are.

Sometimes, you might get more help from the user comments than from the vendor themselves; especially if you’re considering an upgrade but it turns out to be problematic for some.

Why not read my beginner’s guide to social networking?

When software goes wrong

First of all, don’t panic! Write down your problem, try to re-create that problem and then make some notes. Sometimes, major problems can result in a loss of data, so get into the habit of saving; make that thumb and forefinger save shortcut an instinctive reflex!

Urgent problems

Once you’ve got your notes, write them out as a series of 1, 2, 3 style steps, explaining what you did, right up to (and perhaps beyond) the problem you encountered.

Next, go to the support section for the vendor of the software and look for a support contact form, where you get to add your details and your notes. This is urgent, so follow up with a call.

Why bother with the support contact form if this is urgent? Because this will be the basis of your support query, which they will then work from. Also, this offers you some redress, should they have problems dealing with your support query.

The next steps are crucial, because we can’t assume you’re dealing with the right people first off. Most support calls will lead you to the front line of support, often called level one, which are people who’re often reading from scripts and might not be technically familiar with the software. If you know you have a genuine problem and it is urgent, ask to speak to someone senior to them.

Next, make more notes! Seriously, take names, mark down the time and make complete notes of what they’re telling you. Because if things go wrong here, you’re going to need those notes.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced problems with support personnel and used my notes because they simply haven’t even bothered following their own support tickets, or even making any support tickets in the first place.

Dazed and confused?

Well, you may be as well posting your problem into their support forums, for other users to help you with. In most cases, you’ll need to create an account before you can post (unless you’ve not already done so as part of the registration / sign-up process), but it’ll be worth the effort, believe me.

Some of the people you’ll meet on their are as or more knowledgeable about the software than the people who wrote it. Also, the people who maintain the forums — the moderators — will often assist, too. These people are the ones you’re really going to benefit from most.

But, before you post anything, use their search engine first, to see if anyone else as had the same problem as you. Sometimes, you’ll find a whole stream of similar problems, with solutions already provided.

Sometimes, their search tool isn’t the best, so what do you do? Why, use Google, of course! Google is often much better at finding things on forums than the forums themselves.

Software Q&A

So your problem is small, mildly annoying, but otherwise not a show stopper. Try messaging them on Twitter to get an answer. Or, you can just Tweet a message with their @name in it, to get their attention.

Some people confuse being rude with asking for support, by posting borderline abusive messages with their @name in them, for effect more than anything else. I suppose it goes without saying that you shouldn’t do this!

And finally…

Aside from the vendors themselves, there are plenty of unofficial resources out there, many of which are well maintained and very, very popular. Mostly run by fans, these places can be abuzz with tips, tricks and solutions. So be on the look out!

If you can’t explain what happened, don’t expect much more than a fake frown and a shrug of the shoulders from the support people. So there are no software tricks and keyboard shortcuts when it comes to getting the help you need — you have to be calm, methodical and have the right resources just a few clicks away.

Martha Lane Fox and the rise of the web app’?

A recent review of DirectGov by “Dot Com” survivor and digital thriver Martha Lane Fox caught my attention. Why? Because she’s helping raise awareness of what I do for a living — build web applications. And when Martha helps me, she also helps you, too.

Digital numbers

DirectGov is a portal-cum-directory for a whole slew of government services, initiatives and resources. What I see is a start, but there’s much, much more that can be done. Fortunately for us, Miss Fox appears to agree.

Hmm, still wondering what I’m talking about, I see. Before reading any further, you might want to have a squint at my primer on web applications, whereupon all will become clear!

By way of an abridged background, British-born Fox, founder of Last Minute, the leisure travel website, managed to retain her government advisory role, surviving the General Election defeat of the Labour Party who brought her to table in the first place. Contrast that with the departure of business “Tsar” Lord Sugar. But that’s politics, and Sugar is a Labour man, which probably explains everything.

Championing the web application, sort of

Anyway, Fox has reviewed the DirectGov collection of web-enabled services, offering several recommendations. That aside, what’s most interesting about this whole review, for me, isn’t the review itself, or even DirectGov for that matter. And the less said about the politics the better. No, what’s really interesting is that the whole idea of web-enabled services — henceforth referred to as web applications — have been pushed into the unblinking gaze of the public eye, and that of many a politician, too, I no wonder.

For a company like Octane, this is crucial, because this room to breath helps legitimize what I do for a living; which is designing and developing web applications.

At some point, the hope is that the conversation won’t start with the question: “So what is a web application anyway?” but with: “So I have all this data, fifteen members of staff divided across three different locations and I need them all to be able to manage that data. Can you do that?” Well of course I can! But right now, that conversation is some way off, and I have to scramble through that explanatory briar patch before I get to the aforementioned money question.

How does this raised awareness help you?

Good question. Firstly, at the governmental level at least, over the next few years, more and more of your transactions will be on-line. Everything from accounts being filed with Companies House, to VAT returns to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. I’m already doing this kind of thing, but there are many of you who aren’t. More crucially, your accountants probably aren’t, either.

Anyway, as time passes by, you now get the whole web thing. In time, you’ll understand the difference between a website and a web application. You’ll begin to realize there’s money to either be saved or made, and that has very direct impact on your business.

So the conversation then changes. More resources become available, more businesses like me enter the fray, and services emerge, allowing you to do things over the web that were unthinkable just three years ago, all without costing you too much money.

Your expectations are now higher because you appreciate what can be achieved, and what your business can achieve, via the web. You reap the rewards of your curiosity, just like Premier UK Venues did all those years ago when I built To Book for them.

How does a web application help save money?

Miss Fox recommended the Conservative-Democrat coalition party move a third of services onto the web:

“Shifting 30 per cent of government service delivery contacts to digital channels would deliver gross annual savings of more than £1.3bn, rising to £2.2bn if 50 per cent of contacts shifted to digital.”

So how does that work? Well, in different ways. Especially if you compare print to a web page:

“She contrasts the process of applying for a student loan, which ends with the printing out and signing of a 30-page document, with the simplicity of booking a flight.”

The fact is, print costs a lot of money. The cost is divided several ways. Firstly, there’s the initial production, which is unavoidable, irrespective of the media, then there’s the design phase, actual print and then finally delivery. Then there’s the re-prints, which becomes a constant cycle. Clearly there’s a huge argument for going paperless, which I’ve discussed previously, and is doable for some.

Work smart, go web-based, save money

Are there any other ways in which a web application help save money? To answer that, I must quote myself:

  • Automating business processes saves you time
  • Increased work capacity
  • Reduced data errors, loss and duplication
  • Work more efficiency
  • More accurate data entry
  • Save money over time (greater ROI)

In conclusion

Getting a big-up from a big industry name like Martha Lane Fox won’t happen often, so it’s up to people like me to make the most of these moments, when awareness is raised and people are just that more curious, or educated.

But these are curious times in which we live in, and right now, in spite of the hardships many are likely to endure, Octane is getting along nicely. All of which is rather prophetic really, given my earlier thoughts on how a web app’ can save a business money during a recession.

Aside from me whoring what I do to pay the bills, the core aspect of what I’m driving is that you can adopt the same perspective as myself — by striving for the precision of thought and vision to take a good long look at what you do and remove waste and refine what remains, wherever possible.

Don’t ever become complacent and believe that what you’re doing is the best you can do, there’s always room for improvement. Just ask Martha Lane Fox.

What inspired me to start a web design agency

Sifting through the updates on Facebook, a question caught my attention which triggered a flash of memories right in front of my eyes: “What inspired you to start a business?” This being a Sunday, I thought I’d walk through some of those early memories once more.

What inspired me to start a business?

The question posed by StartUp Donut prompted a reply from me, but I soon started to wander off-topic, meandering into the minutia of the why and the when. So I reigned in my thoughts and decided to put them all here, on Octane.

To answer the question, I just wanted to be the master of my own destiny. The thought of working for someone else simply wasn’t (and still isn’t) in the least appealing to me.

In the beginning…

Originally, the intention was to start up Octane with a couple of guys from college, but things just didn’t work out that way. I was, in many ways, forced into the decision by circumstances largely outside of my control.

At the time, I was working in Leeds, as a new media designer, which entailed designing and building interactive CDs, web design and elements of video and 3D production. The first 3 years were excellent, but then the last 6 months became utterly intolerable. I still don’t know what happened, but something had clearly changed in the guy I was working for. In the end, I had to go.

In hindsight (which is always 20-20 vision), I should have looked for employment elsewhere and built up my network. But I didn’t. I should have waited until I had someone who could partner with me to handle the sales and marketing. But I didn’t.

At the time, web design was very, very new. So I was striding straight into a completely new market, with all the perils and potential you’d expect. And even today, what I do is still widely unknown and new to many.

I also saw a lot of confusion on the part of businesses, business owners and marketing managers, who weren’t quite sure what the whole “web thing” meant. And inside that moment of perfect confusion, a circling swarm of web design agencies were visibly preying on the the confused and the bemused.

From the very beginning, I was determined to, firstly, do things my way, and secondly, to do things right by everyone I did business with, and to be as honest as necessity would allow, without harming my self in the process. That mentality and philosophy stood me in good stead, and I began to win the respect of not just clients, but of those other agencies who, over the coming years, would see me as a constant in an ever-changing industry.

So from 1999 to about 2004, I was more a fireman and a trauma councillor than a web designer — intervening in emergencies and then tending to the people burnt by one disaster or another. While that earned me a solid reputation and won me a substantial amount of referral work, selling directly was extremely difficult because I was guilty by association and constantly walking through dirty water.

The first 10 years really didn’t hit home until after the event, sometime in late June of 2009. Again, in hindsight, I ought to have done more to celebrate the occasion, but things were hard for everyone I knew and the moment just slipped by. But I did manage to scribble together a few thoughts on my time running Octane from 1999-2009:

“There have been trials. There have been tribulations. I’ve survived everything from the bursting of the Dot Com bubble to the current global economic downturn.

For any business to last ten years is a major milestone. But for a web design agency, I breath very rarefied air, shared by few others.”

A special kind of hell.

Running your own business is a trade-off between control and stability, and it’s a trade-off I’ve been a willing participant of since 1999.

I see so many businesses and business people fail for so many totally avoidable reasons, many of which are as a result of poor decision making, over-reaching self interest, an inability to say “no”, and a lack of vision and objectivity.

Conversely, a lack of success is not always the presence of those things, but an absence of good fortune and an array of friends and colleagues to assist wherever they feel able to. Those early decisions to go alone have proved to be instrumental in my relative confinement as an individual and not a team.

But the thought of giving in and working for someone else, to be beholden to their politics, and having to be a witness to all of those bad things is to me some kind of purgatory. I simply could not stand being a party to and being expected to be a participant in a failure of thought and deed, when I know for sure there are better and more viable ways.

“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” — Paradise Lost, John Milton

The future of Octane?

Right now, the future of Octane looks very bright! I’m presently working on a number of large projects, which I fully intend writing about in due course. Rather than tease, I can tell you about two in particular.

Qwiktax started out as a relatively modest bookkeeping web application, but has since grown into a more mature, feature-complete accounting package, designed to allow small businesses to manage not just their bookkeeping, but employee payroll, fixed assets and VAT, as well as view on-going trading results, loans and profit & loss accounts. So far, we’re making good progress, but there’s still much to do before it’s complete and ready for general release.

To Book is an existing web application that is to be re-designed and re-developed, taking it to version three. In simple terms, To Book is an accommodation management tool specific to the needs of one particular business. To Book 3 will be a generic system, which we can sell to just about anyone who wants to take control of their event management needs. To Book 3 will be, by far, the most ambitious project I’ll have undertaken so far, and I just can’t wait to get going. Right now, we’re moving through the various agreed stages of the project plan, having signed off the initial wireframe designs and flow diagrams, I’m now moving onto the actual design stage proper.

Here and now…

So, all in all, there’s much for me to look forward to and exciting times ahead. With winter just around the corner, and all of the attendant festivities in tow, there’ll be no let up for me, but that’s business!

StartUp Donut — What inspired you to start a business?