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Category Archive: Work

Self Employment – Workload Hell

October 23, 2011

Self employment, a great way to slowly drive yourself insane with constant nagging doubts, unrealistic deadlines and ridiculous working hours. But on the the other hand you’re your own boss so you can work in your pants.

I’ve been self employed for the majority of my work life – since 1998. There are some benefits to this manner of working, there are also some disadvantages which can over time become hellish burdens if you allow them to, which on occasion I do. The real crux of self-employment is taking responsibility for your situation. It can be easy to allow a problem to recur, grow out of control and leave you blaming clients, suppliers or the industry as a whole – which is not to say that there are not problems caused by clients, suppliers or the industry as a whole, just that many are not or if they are can be solved relatively easily.

The biggest issue I deal with pretty much constantly is that of workload. Most freelancers/studio owners face this, you either have not enough work to cover the bills or so much you don’t know where to start and cannot cover it all. I’ve been consistently fortunate in the respect I’ve never really had a point where I’ve had a lack of work (for more than a day or so anyway). Unfortunately the offset of this is that combined with my slightly obsessive disposition I’ve had very little in the way of time off for the last 14 years. When I started out this was not a massive issue, I was ok to work late nights and most weekends, the last year (since my son was born) this has become more of an issue, I don’t necessarily have the long hours available to fit in and my priorities have changed.

Not enough to pay the bills?

Stating the stunningly obvious, the problem with a lack of work is the lack of income that comes with it. As mentioned above this is not a situation I have been in as yet. Ever aware that I inevitably will be one day I do have a basic plan in place for when this arises (although it does need some work). Regardless of how successful you feel you are right now it’s always sensible to be running some form of low level marketing – to keep in practice as much as anything else – and to have a plan in place for when things start to wane.

I’ve been pretty lax for the last decade or so, all of the work we’ve picked up has been through word of mouth so I’ve felt very little necessity to promote. This is bad on two levels, firstly because it means I’ve not got anything in place for when things do slow down but also as I’ve very little control over the direction of my business and effectively get dragged by the tide (more on this another time). I do now have a basic strategy in place for new business finding which I’m hesitant to present until I’ve had a crack at, as may be clear it’s not an area I have any great knowledge of.

There are plenty of articles/books/tutorials out there on business building and I’m not eager to add to them with my unproven technique, as an incredibly basic breakdown my strategy is pretty much:
1. Engagement
Both ‘real world’ and social media networking. Nothing more complex than communicating with those in our industry on a regular basis and making ourselves known through general purpose profile raising.

2. Being really quite good at what we do
Obvious? Maybe, maybe not. Just making sure we really do supply the best service we can.

3. Portfolio
Something we can throw out at prospective clients to show them how absolutely awesome we are. More important than some  think, it’s possible to land certain types of jobs with minimal discussion if your portfolio is spanking.

4. Self Initiated Projects
The sort of work I really want us to be doing is not necessarily the sort of work we are doing right now. We are very unlikely to pick up certain types of project if we don’t have a track record with them, rather than bemoan the Catch 22 situation this puts us in we will be doing ‘sample’ projects in these areas for ourselves (NOT for free for anyone, that gives out the very wrong message that we are cheap).

There’s one very important thing to bear in mind when trying to get in new business, especially when things are tight: DON’T PANIC. It’s very hard not to sometimes but as soon as you start on this path you’re going to end up making some horrific mistakes: accepting work you really shouldn’t, dropping your rates, etc.

To much to work out what’s going on?

My speciality is having far more work on than I can possibly handle. At the outset this sounds great and friends look at me like I’m mental when I bemoan having more work on than I can manage, but it can be as dangerous as having not enough to do, if not more so in some ways.

The primary issue with an overwhelming workload (aside from no sleep and an enforced diet of pizza and fried chicken) is ensuring a consistent quality of work. It’s easy to do things well when you have plenty of time and space but as timelines get tighter your ability to keep any eye on the details can drop dramatically. This can lead to unhappy clients, missed deadlines and general frowning all round. The other main business issue is lack of time deadens innovation. While I will accept that innovation can happen under pressurised circumstances often it does not. Rather than looking for fresh approaches to jobs when under pressure, you are more likely to be just knocking them out as quickly as possible using whatever methods you already trust. I find that the biggest breakthrough’s we have had are on projects (personal or paid) where we’ve had plenty of time and space to experiment. Lack of innovation will not necessarily damage your business but it’s not going to help you build your business to the next level.

Most obviously the immediate solution to a hectic workload is to employ more people to deal with it. This is a lovely theory that doesn’t always work out too well. For a small business, taking on salaried staff can be a killer, freelancers are a good solution if you are not in a position to salary staff. Regardless of where your help comes from you’re going to have to get them acquainted with your business practices, clients and projects, this in itself can eat an awful lot of time. The best approach is a little bit of forward planning. Start taking on freelancers when you don’t quite need to, this gives you that space to get to know them properly and work out the best way of working together, then when things kick off you already have the relationship sorted. Importantly don’t treat your freelancers like a commodity, foster a proper working relationship with a selection of freelancers who you will consistently supply work to. Anyone I hire freelance I’d be happy to have as salaried staff (and hopefully one day will).

Ensuring your rates are correct can be a very effective regulator of workload. In times past I’ve ended up with a massive overload of work much of which is low quality* and achieving little other than taking up time that should be spent on other projects. Setting appropriate costs has the positive effect of filtering out the time wasters and the crappy projects which you probably shouldn’t be doing anyway. It’s always good to be a little flexible and I will drop our rates (a little!) for the right project but very rarely and only if I’m 100% sure it’s not going to backfire on me. Often those who barter and knock you down the most will turn out to be the most difficult to deal with in the long run. As a rule it’s better to hold out for the higher paid/more rewarding, and less annoying projects if your situation allows.

Very close to ensuring correct rates, be picky about what sort of projects you accept. When I first started out this would have seemed irresponsible at best, the idea of turning away work is counterintuitive but can make sense. There are certain types of job that we’ve accepted in the past which have not been in line with our business model. Doing the odd bit here and there is fine but these things can snowball and you can end up having to completely redirect your business. This could work out if the new direction is one you are comfortable with and pays the bills well, but if not you need to do something about it. There’s a couple of options here. You can expand your business to include these projects (outsourcing is very much your friend here) in such a manner as to ensure you have the resources to continue pushing in the direction you want to go. My preference is to get to know other agencies who do cover the sorts of projects we would rather avoid. This allows us to redirect the projects elsewhere while keeping the client happy and helping out whoever we pass them onto. Good karma which should hopefully flow back our way in time. Of course there is the fear with clients for whom you do assorted projects that if you pass on one of them they may take everything elsewhere (as has happened to us before), this is a risk that needs to be considered carefully and would be best dealt with by accepting the projects but outsourcing.

Once again stating the obvious an incredibly important aspect of managing workload is effective time management and ensuring you are as organised as possible. An insane amount of time can be wasted by bad business practices, and you probably don’t even know you’re wasting it. I’ve had a degree of success with the Getting Things Done method although I have found a need to revisit it on occasion for a topup. The web is full of advice and applications to help get you organised and there’s absolutely no excuse not to. Regular review of your practices is strongly advised, it’s easy to slip into bad habits especially as your business grows and evolves.

Hopefully this helps to prevent a stress related breakdown for someone! I’d love to know how other small agencies and freelancers deal with long term excessive workloads. Please let me know in the comments below.

Disclaimer – I’m not a sociopath. I have a degree of concern for my fellow man and try and conduct my business in an ethical manner. I fully appreciate that if you take the ‘it’s just business’ point of view to running your commercial affairs you probably have none of the problems above and have slightly scarier solutions if you do.

* Low Quality Work = Work that is unlikely to lead to anything further and whose outcome is something that I wouldn’t want to let anyone know I’ve been involved in. Often happens when a client insists on doing things a certain way (the wrong way) and refuses to accept advice. Previously I would grit my teeth and think of the money, now I’m less inclined.

Building Walls

January 24, 2011

So, let’s say you hire a builder to build a wall in your garden. The builder gives you some advice about where he thinks the wall should go, how high it should be and what sort of bricks it should be made of. You ignore his advice because it’s your garden and you know your garden better than he does.

He builds the wall where you ask, using the materials you requested and at the height you felt appropriate. You decide you don’t like the position so he knocks it down and starts again in the new position.

This time you decide the wall is too high, so he does some builder stuff and makes it lower. But then, suddenly, you realise it looks stupid at that height in that position so you ask him to move it elsewhere. He knocks it down and starts again.

Oh no! It’s the wrong sort of bricks. It clashes horribly with the shed where it is now. You ask the builder to change the type of bricks in your wall to nice yellow ones. He knocks it down and starts again.

Damn! It’s too low, you can see the neighbours ugly child over it. Not a problem, the builder makes it a bit higher.

So you’ve got a nice yellow wall that carefully obscures the ugly children next door but doesn’t clash with the shed. But something’s not quite right. Oh, you can no longer see out of your kitchen window. You are sure the builder mentioned something about this previously but you opted to ignore him because you know your garden better than he does (silly builder).

One last time. You ask the builder where it was he thought the wall should go (and how high, and in what colour), he tells you again what he said at the start and you agree to it (of course it was completely your idea all along, he knows NOTHING of your garden). You finally have a nice wall that obscures whatever you need obscuring while not obscuring whatever it is you don’t want obscuring. You are happy, the builder is happy.

The question is, how many walls should you have to pay for? You only have one new wall in your garden so surely you only have to pay for the one wall?


July 25, 2010

Recent attempts to work smarter rather than harder have been an utter failure. As the business grows and we get busier and busier I’ve needed to look at our business practices and workflow. It’s so far not worked out so brilliantly.

I used to write a fair amount of our tools and all of the frameworks and code for our websites and applications. Originally this was because there was little option, there were no free or cheap versions of the tools we needed and the frameworks available were challenging at best. Of course this wasn’t all bad it gave me a greater understanding of the underlying technology and probably increased my coding skills far more than downloading plugins and other people’s code ever would. But, as many people pointed out it did make development a relatively slow and arduous process which in the new age of Agile Development would see me left behind.

It took a while for me to change my ways, I still have an OC like obsession with understanding exactly how everything works and will still rip a framework or plugin to pieces on occasion to make sure it does what it claims. I’m now a complete jQuery convert and massively happy with WordPress. I went halfway with PHP, I tried a bunch of frameworks but just couldn’t get on with any of them so wrote my own, it took about six months (mostly research) but works perfectly for us and allows us to put together full online applications in a matter of hours. It’s not ‘finished’ and never will be, I constantly add to it and improve it but it’s lightweight and flexible and does exactly what we need (and nothing more).

So with frameworks for php, javascript, actionscript and a shedload of standard setups for html and css I’ve embraced the agile, flexible world. Next step was to improve workflow and project management. This is where it’s all fallen down a bit. I really don’t want us to go back to the bad old ways of writing every tool ourselves, I need to sleep sometimes. I’ve spent a lot of hours over the last couple of months researching and testing project management and workflow tools and I have not found anything I would be happy to use. There’s a lot of dross out there combined with a lot of well written but feature-weak applications. The grind now is that I could have probably used the time better to have written something in-house. I still don’t want to but if I can’t find the right tools soon it may be the only option.

We now have two choices: 1) Use a whole bunch of unrelated tools in a haphazard manner, tying them together with apis where possible or 2) write it ourselves.

Working smarter and faster is fine if the quality tools are available but if you have standards you may be better off doing it the long way.

In case you may be able to suggest anything, our primary requirement right now is a decent project/task manager which supports:

  • Multiple projects per client
  • Client access
  • Recurring tasks. This is the absolute most important feature
  • A wiki

That’s it. To be fair we did find one piece of software that covers it pretty well but it was way outside of our current budget.

This new fangled internet thing

July 10, 2010

I was going to post this on our business blog but it’s a little too negative, although still interesting and amusing (to me anyway).

I have a minor pet hate/OCD issue: people using tools incorrectly. I’m aware that this is often a bad stance and misuse of tools and techniques in certain areas can create new concepts and push boundaries, but often it just makes life difficult. I have a very specific pet hate which I’ve given up slapping people over because it seems utterly endemic. My hate is the use of Google’s search box as your location/address bar. I have witnessed many many people who when supplied with a url to enter into their browser will go straight to the Google search box (toolbar or homepage), type the url into the search box, hit search then click the first link that comes up. Google is not (yet) the internet. I can just about bear elderly relatives doing this (just) but I have witnessed peers and colleagues (who shall remain nameless) who also carry out this horrific crime. My complaint to peers has always been that it’s a bad practice they may well pass onto their friends, clients, relatives and pets (much like herpes). Apparently it makes no difference, you end up at the same place in the end anyway.

  1. You’re increasing the number of keystrokes/interactions to get to your destination. Ok, so it may help if you suck balls at spelling but is that really an excuse for things such as bbc.co.uk? You know who you are.
  2. Waste of bandwidth. Yeah yeah, it’s a teeny tiny teeny bit of extra bandwidth being used. It adds up.

Recently I have been vindicated in my slightly twitchy obsession with this. We had a bit of a crisis with a client due to users complete lack of awareness of this basic issue.

A client sent out over 50,000 printed letters to it’s members (they are a charitable organisation). In the letter they included a URL for a document their members needed to download and print. Unfortunately, they didn’t inform us of this in advance. They just added a file to the server and sent out the physical letters. The URL was not massively complex, but a bit tricky, it was mixed case with a subdirectory. Something like http://www.mysite.co.uk/ourfiles/ThisDocumentV2.doc. Due to the nature of the document it was not linked from anywhere on the website itself and it was not sent out by email, private enough to not directly link from anywhere but not private enough to actually protect it.

So letters sent, we were completely in the dark about both the letters and the file, until we started to get bombarded with complaints from the client that the server was down, files were missing, we had broken something somewhere. After some very confusing communication we found out about the letters and the file. The letters had arrived that morning and the client had suddenly been inundated with complaints from users who couldn’t access the file. I requested the client forward the complaints to myself and I’d investigate.

I knocked up a standard apology email including a link to direct download the file but also asking the users if they could try doing whatever they had been doing before and supply us with a screenshot and their browser version – we supplied links to two helpful pages (I have temporarily mislaid) one which explained in very simple steps how to email a screenshot the other which displays your system info in an easy cut-n-paste format. We had a fairly minimal response including one very angry chap who informed me he wasn’t a computer expert and had no intention of sending a screenshot. From the responses we did receive it became very apparent that a lot of people* have no clue where you are supposed to type a URL. Seriously, they were sticking it literally anywhere but the location bar, anything that looked vaguely like a search box was being used to try and access this document, their search bar, Google’s homepage, the Yahoo homepage, in one case the search box in their email client.

The lesson we learned here is to, erm, make sure clients warn us before sending out 50,000 letters with a URL in. We do push for more integration with our clients and with those that want our involvement we make sure we always know what they are up to so we can assist and advise where appropriate, not everyone wants (or can afford) this level of attention and so sometimes these things happen.

We also learned that people can get really angry if you ask them to send you a screenshot.

* An awful lot of people in this client’s target market anyway.

Grumpy Developers (it’s all just work isn’t it?)

April 25, 2010

I’ve always assumed I’m the most difficult, argumentative developer/designer in the country. Apparently not, there are far worse and they’re everywhere. A couple of longstanding clients have recently commented on how comparatively easy I am to work with, specifically my degree of tact when dealing with difficult projects. I am not being ironic.

I bitch and moan constantly about some of the work I have to do, friends, relatives and the less knowledgeable project managers look at me like I’m mental and trot out the traditional line “well, it’s all paid work isn’t it?”. Here’s the problem, it’s not about whether it’s paid work or not. Anyone who has entered a creative industry through choice generally has an expectation of the quality of work they will be doing, an expectation of job satisfaction. Sounds pompous, probably is, but that’s the reality. Often I can deal with crappy deadlines and budgets better than bad design and implementation decisions, I don’t expect to have much say on budget or timeline (for agency run jobs), but I’d like to at least have my opinion heard when a client makes a stupid decision which may damage the final quality or outcome of a project.

From a personal perspective, here’s why your developer/designer may be getting the arse with you for what you perceive to be completely reasonable requests:

The constant redo
Asking them to redo the same piece of work over and again because the client can’t quite decide if it should have the blue border or the green border? The repetition can make me very stabby indeed. There’s the next part of the project to move onto and I’ve just wasted a day shifting the same pixels back and forth (or worse a week), and really I already know which is the best decision and have probably yelled it down the phone a couple of times.

The Neverending Project
Mmmm… scope creep the bane of my existence.  Several things here, firstly project fatigue, after a while of staring at the same project you just can’t face it any longer, you need to switch to something else for a while. Adding just another page/button/function may seem trivial but even that ten minute task can make you lose the will to live. Secondly, on a more pragmatic level we’ve probably got something else lined up to be getting on with and if the scope creep has pushed us past deadline there’s someone else on our case about starting their project. Finally, and most importantly, an awful lot of scope creep includes totally unnecessary and pointless additions which I feel (sometimes incorrectly) will have a negative impact on the final outcome, I don’t want to release something crappy and bloated if it can be avoided.

You’re wrong, wrong wrong
Faced with a decision that’s clearly bollocks by a client or project manager I have two options. I can shut up, carry out the bad instruction and take the cash or I can explain why it’s clearly bollocks. The latter has a tendency to go down like I’ve just murdered someone’s granny. Some idiot somewhere has made the clearly bollocks decision and may well be very proud of it (recently: “I’ve used MS Paint to adjust our website layout, can you please implement this”) so there’s a high chance they are going to get offended when you tell them as much, the project manager doesn’t want to pass this message on and so pushes for the clearly bollocks decision to be implemented regardless of how wacky it is, I dig my heels in and explain repeatedly how clearly bollocks it is. No-one is happy. Don’t let the client get involved in the creative process, they’ll only arse it up and piss of those who are being paid to design.

I want to do it properly
Especially with a big project, I might be putting months of my life into a website. I don’t want the end result to be a bucket of sick. It’s partly the portfolio argument, in that I want to be able to proudly display every site I do in my portfolio to try and garner new work, but in reality I never update my portfolio (so rarely I’m not even going to link to it). More seriously, it’s pride in my work, I know that if I release anything that’s got even the slightest issue that’s will be the only thing I will notice when I look at it again, I’ll never be able to show someone the website without apologising in advance for the strange way the menu works or the odd clash of colours in the footer.

There’s plenty more that gets on my tits on a daily basis but it’s nice outside and I don’t want to stare at a screen all weekend. Generalising horribly, if your developer or designer doesn’t get the nark on with you from time to time, they probably don’t give a crap about their work and could work a little harder at it (or they are bottling it up and will one day come at you with a sharp pencil).

A dance as old as time

April 7, 2010

A beautiful dance, reflecting the struggles of mankind in an act as simple as sending a mass-email.

We meet once a week
I’m emailed that week’s marketing email.

and we talk of what’s to come…
I insist we put a delay on the delivery so they can properly proof read it, fair chance no-one has yet, they insist it’s MEGAURGENT and must be sent IMMEDIATELY, NO DELAY!!!

We take our first steps…
I correct the horrific spelling errors and lightly proofread the mailout. I would proof-read it more thoroughly but hard to do so when being constantly questioned IS IT DONE YET IS IT DONE YET IS IT DONE YET?

The dance proper begins…
I queue the mailout up to be sent in an hour and send them test copies. They say URGENT SEND NOW NO DELAY!!11!! I insist they read the test copies and check them. They say URGENT SEND NOW NO DELAY!!11!! (for even a 20 minute delay will weaken their marketing message until it is nothing but a fine morning mist dissipating in the sun. I pretend I have gone deaf and leave the delay on.

We conclude our dance for this time.
Two minutes before the mailout is queued to go I’m contacted with MEGAURGENT FIX IT FIX IT FIX IT!!111!! For why? Because there were some glaring inaccuracies and the name of the MD was spelled wrong (again).

And onto the next time, when it will be as though we haven’t already done this a thousand times before. Each time fresh, the same steps, although with slightly different timing.

Actionscript 3 File Browser

May 4, 2009

In the spirit of trying to cram far more into the first quarter of the year that is probably healthy I’ve been learning AS3. Just completed (well make ready for initial release) my first AS3 application. It’s a file browser/selector for the php content management system I’ve been writing since January. The CMS has been pretty successful so far, clients have been very positive about it’s ease of use and the flexibility of the code means I’ve already re-purposed large chunks of it for other projects (mostly small budget web-template systems). There’s still a lot of functionality I’d like to add to it if time allows and I’d love to make it open source and more extensible but right now I don’t have the time.

The only horrible flaw with it was the file management system, although you could upload files, group them, add meta data and assorted other stuff, the act of including one in a content page (as an inline image, link or whatever) was a pain in the arse. It was mostly done through a plugin in TinyMCE which wangs up a popup with a list of all the files uploaded to the file library as clickable links. This is fine if you have 5 files and you know the filename of the file you are looking for but it becomes ungainly and irritating if you have any greater number of files. So for my first AS3 app I put together a nice file browser which gives you thumbnails all nicely paginated with a set of filters (alphanumeric, by file group and by file extension).

It has a couple of bugs which will need to be ironed out and I’d like to completely update the layout and some of the functionality to make it a bit of a smoother process. There’s a couple of flaws with the usability which I want to address BUT overall I’m pretty happy with it for a first version and a first AS3 project. I’ve integrated it with a couple of our client’s CMS systems and I’ll see what the feedback is like.

Click here to play with the online demo
AS3 File Browser

Prague Photo Guide

March 25, 2009

Like that, not that, but like that

January 12, 2009

Here is a lesson by example. This is absolutely not how to deal with your designer. This is more common than makes me comfortable.

I’m off to stick my head in the oven.

Holding page of wonder

October 2, 2008

A quick holding page that appeared to transform into something a little more flamboyant than expected. For Moonshine PR

Moonshine PR Holding Page

Moonshine PR Holding Page

Hopefully Emily doesn’t beat me to death when she sees what I’ve done to her website. I very nearly animated it in flash but fortunately (for you and her) time is short tonight.

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I am Bob. This is my blog. It is an outlet and a substitute for real life. It contains my art, photography, illustration and thoughts on mental health (I deal with anxiety on a pretty much constant basis).

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