The Happy Studio – Commit Only to What You Can Control.

So here it is. The most important advice we can give you. It’s the thing that changed our work lives fundamentally from the ground up and that made us more profitable, and happy in one fell swoop. We quit committing to things we had no control over.

Client work is a nefariously tricky to tame. People change their mind, push dates, and generally demand the irrational. We were stuck in the same boat for the first few years of our business. Projects ran terribly over time, and over budget through seemingly no fault of our own. We were doing great work, but making more enemies than friends. It was borderline unbearable.

Actually that it was unbearable ultimately led to us trying something that had seemed impossible only a few months earlier. We quit promising things. Not all things, -but most of them.

Schedules slip. If you get to the bottom of why they slip, -it’s usually on the front-end. If the planning goes smoothly, and the deliverables are organized well, the process goes like clockwork. The problem with us was usually with deliverables. We had absolutely no control when the client would get us the deliverables, -so we had no control over the planning phase. By the time we got to the starting line, we were already behind.

Inevitably we would start designing without a firm grasp on the totality of the content. It was an awful thing to do, -but we felt so pressed to make progress it was the only thing we knew to do. The client would call and ask why we hadn’t shown any mocks, and we were not brave enough to say “because you haven’t got us every last drip of deliverables we need to get started with.”

We find that people can be very tough on us about making progress, even if they’re the ones holding said progress up. It’s human nature, and there is no sense fighting it. Our answer: we started embracing that fact, and writing our proposals accordingly. Our proposals today have no actual dates in them. We make promises about the gaps between client input. We say things like:

Home page mockup: 2 weeks after wireframe approval
2nd Page mockup: 1 week after Home page approval.

Every step is inherently tied to the previous step… We don’t really care if our clients take 3 weeks to approve the homepage, – our delivery date keeps sliding accordingly.

No one single thing can ruin a project more than revisions. It’s such an important part of what we do that several of the articles in this series revolve around how to deal with them. It’s the one thing we have thought more about than any other client service topic in our business.

The fact is that clients will change things. Design is an evolutionary process. People need to see things before they can react to them. Most of the clients we have in the business world are quite frankly terrible at visualizing. It’s not their fault, -they’re great at things we could never do. But again, it’s something we have made a point of realizing, and trying to embrace. Walking into any project, we tell our clients up front that there are going to be revisions. We say that we’re very swift, and adept, and great at what we do, – but we’re not mind readers, so there inevitably will be changes along the way. It sets a great stage for us to build on. People walk into the situation with a correct assumption.

The second thing we do is write our proposals split into two parts. The first part is the promise. It’s the budget, and the deliverables that we 100% commit to, and that we unarguably are going to give for the stated price. It’s called a quote, and it’s very different from the second part of our proposals, which is an estimate. This second part describes all of the things we cannot control. Changes to nav midstream. Doing multiple versions of an ad. Changing the color 4 times. We find that revisions can comprise around 10-15% of the cost of an average job, so we budget accordingly.

The quoted amount never changes. Even if we budgeted totally wrong we keep our promise. If we find efficiencies along the way, and come out better than our hourly rate: congratulations to us…

This budgeted revisions estimate is flex space, and we include it in our estimated total for the project. If the client is wonderful to work with, and amazingly organized, and somehow escapes the process without a single revision, -they don’t pay a dime of the estimated amount. If they wander, and are indecisive, they can use that budget plus some. We just promise to keep them appraised of how the money is being spent, and how quickly. We watch that revisions budget like a hawk. We very rarely have a project go over budget.

The revisions budget actually does several things:
* It establishes the premise that everything in the project costs money.
* It gives us leverage in deciding which revisions get made, and which get pushed back against.
* It gives our clients who often have bosses to answer to, some flex space to adjust along the way and still be on budget.
* Escaping the prison of the hourly wage is a good thing. Otherwise the better you get at your job, -the less you make.
* Everyone likes a project that comes up under budget.

External Costs
We always write our external job costs up as estimated amounts. While we do our homework quite specifically to make sure the vendors we rely on stick to their budget, we give ourselves some wiggle room. Our early days in business saw a few projects go horribly over budget because someone forgot to do their math right. It’s impossibly unfair to penalize your client for internal mistakes like that.


    Andrew Witherspoon 08/10/2009

    The two-part proposal (quote+estimate) sounds like a tried-and-true system. I really like the relative deadline system too, it takes all the uncontrolled variables out of the mix. This may be my favorite post of the series, thanks for sharing!


  2. Jarrett Green 08/12/2009

    These happy studio posts are always my favorite. Not having come a large studio myself, we’ve been winging the business side of design work since we’ve started. Every year we get a little better with the whole process, but we still end up in some impossible, going to have to eat a little crow, situations. I still don’t know what a real proposal should look like 🙂


  3. Entermotion 08/13/2009

    Jarrett, some of us have worked at bigger studios, but this particular bit didn’t evolve from that experience. In fact bigger studios and agencies are likely to approach things much differently. Combinations of retainers, profit sharing, and other stuff is pretty common at the big end of the market. But for us, and the size of projects we typically work on, it works really well. However, maybe the moral of the story is to keep experimenting. Thankfully we got to a place in our business where we had the freedom to give some things a try just to see if they worked. Some things we’ve tried over the years have worked, -others, -not so much. We’re very excited to be starting to write our web proposals now with support for IE6 being optional. Maybe clients will be fine with it, – maybe not, (we really hope they’re fine with it though!) but we change some small part of our process like that almost monthly…


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