Miles Burke

Thoughts on startups, small business, marketing & more.

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The Best Kept Secret

Ham Radio contesting in the Australian bush

A common complaint when speaking to managers of web teams, is the often large disconnect between being busy, and the goal of all business, being profitable.

I had the same dilemma years ago. We’d start on projects, feel like we’re doing the hours expected and a few small jobs in between — but we never seemed to make the money we’d calculated.

Where was the profit going? The answer — and one of the best kept secrets — is time. Without an indication of how long it actually took to complete a job, you’ll be unaware if you charged enough for the current job. And when a similar job comes long, you risk underquoting the work, if that’s what has happened.

The first golden rule here is track time on large projects.

Secondly, we’re all bombarded every week with those small “it should only take 15 minutes” jobs. Five of those, and we’re talking about an hour and a quarter a week, perhaps more. How are you tracking those? Gut feel? Stop it!

So you can see why I say that the second golden rule here is track time on the smaller tasks as well.

Ideally, every member of your team (or you, if you’re a freelancer) should clock every minute of the day into a system which allows you to quickly grab some useful details:

How many hours spent on this project this week?
How many hours available for this project before reaching budget?
How many interruptions this week, and what did they cost in time?
How long do those frequently repeated tasks actually take to do?
Once you’ve recorded weeks and months worth of this data, it allows you to accurately predict how similar tasks and projects will take in the future. You may now know that it takes four hours to build a widget. Instead of quoting that “gut feel” of two hours like you’ve done previously, you’ll be able to quote the right amount and win back those losses.

Say you charge $100 an hour, and build five of these widgets every month. That’s 60 a year, and if you’re short-changing yourself two hours every time, that’s a whopping $12,000 a year in losses. Find other repetitive tasks that you’ve been under-quoting (and if you’re only now starting to instigate time tracking, I guarantee you will!) — you’ll start kicking yourself you didn’t do this before now.

You can use any number of methods to record the time: paper time sheets, local computer-based software, or web-based tools. There’s a plethora of different tools available to you, and I’ll list a few of them below for your perusal.

Best of luck, and enjoy the challenges of increasing your billable hours per week!

This post first appeared as part of Issue 446 of the SitePoint Tribune, a very popular email newsletter that I am co-editor of. Thanks to SitePoint for allowing me to reproduce the work here.

Manage Your Money

Camping in Manjedal, Western Australia

I’ve received a few reader emails recently, asking me what I think of different online and offline accounting packages, and which one I use.

Well, I’m an old-fashioned type, so I use an offline accounting package. This is primarily because there’s more than one business entity I’m involved with that uses the same software.

However, if you’re starting out, or still deciding on the right accounting package for you, here are some thoughts.

There are plenty of accounting system choices available to you, both traditional offline packages and web-based.

Features and costs vary widely among the options on the market. Any accounting package you consider should allow you to track items such as:

accounts receivable
accounts payable
general ledger
billing
stock or inventory
purchase orders
sales orders

Most systems allow you to send an invoice or receipt as a PDF by email, as well as the old-fashioned “print out and mail” method. Some of the newer versions also feature handy functions, such as time sheets (so you can input your hours directly into the system), mail merge (to enable a basic mailing list), and automated debt collections or reminders.

Speak to other colleagues to find out what they use, and search for reviews and tutorials for these packages online before making any commitment.

It’s also very important to ask your bookkeeper or accountant for their advice prior to making a commitment; they’ll probably be very useful also when it comes time to set up your initial accounts.

In my book, The Principles of Successful Freelancing, I cover some of the popular packages available. Here are six that I look at:

Traditional Software

Quicken
Quicken have at least five versions of their product, ranging from the ultra-light starter edition, to the premier edition, which integrates with banks, tracks investments, and more.

QuickBooks
With 15 different suites, QuickBooks have everything from home finance tracking through to Retail, Accountant, and Payroll editions.

MYOB
With their four products — FirstEdge through to Premier — MYOB have payroll, time billing, inventory, and even a simple contact database included.

Web-based Software

FreshBooks
FreshBooks is both an invoicing and time tracking system, with widgets available for desktop integration, sophisticated reports, and integration with the big-name payment gateways.

Less Accounting
The individuals at Less Accounting make a point of saying that, instead of “some bloated accounting package,” they offer simple small business accounting software.

Saasu
The most mature of the web-based finance offerings, Saasu rolls out new features regularly and has tight integration with social networks, search engines, and CRM systems. They have all the regular software features as well.

Whichever system you end up choosing, it’s vital that you become familiar with how it works. That way, you’re able to gain a quick snapshot about your business profitability and current standing at any time.

This post first appeared as part of Issue 442 of the SitePoint Tribune, a very popular email newsletter that I am co-editor of. Thanks to SitePoint for allowing me to reproduce the work here.

Keeping Life and Work Apart

Cable Beach, Western Australia

Many of us recently had a short holiday to celebrate Easter. Regardless of how you feel about the religious significance, it’s important to embrace a well-deserved break once in a while.

I’ve written before about managing the tricky balance between work and life. It seems, however, from what I’ve been reading on Twitter and hearing from people, there were still plenty who worked over the Easter weekend.

Sure — some of us may have had strict deadlines to meet; still, it seems that many others enjoy playing the martyr, working the weekend because we’re possibly just badly organized.

A trick I learned a while ago is to have an occasional “time audit.” You may already use a sophisticated time-tracking system for your professional output; however, this is more an audit of how you spend your day every day. The idea here is to write up a table, with the columns denoting the next seven days, and the rows representing various broadly defined activities.

For an example, you may use activity headings such as:

sleeping
travel to/from office
client meetings
project work
family dinner
web surfing

What I tend to do is write the activity headings in once I’ve actually done them — and remember to keep them broad.

At the end of a week-long trial (and remember, maintain your habits as you usually would spend them), add the rows up, and see where those 168 hours of your life went. Typically, most people still manage to shock themselves — with plenty thinking they work far less than they actually do.

Now, look at your activities, and see which ones really are less important to you, and see how you can change your weeks to incorporate more of the high payoff activities. These would include high profit work, exercise, family time, AND sleeping (very much a high priority).

Make this audit a habit to undertake every six or so months, and you’ll soon tame the time beast!

This post first appeared as part of Issue 442 of the SitePoint Tribune, a very popular email newsletter that I am co-editor of. Thanks to SitePoint for allowing me to reproduce the work here.

Grow your own Sales

Many people I’ve spoken to recently have repeated the same words: new enquiries are down, because people are wary of starting new projects in the current climate. This is an excellent opportunity for you to increase your focus on sales, and there’s no better customer to sell to than an existing one.

Ask any successful salesperson and she’ll tell you — it’s cheaper and often easier to sell to an existing consumer, than to sell to a new one.

Think about it. With a new prospect, you need to build a relationship, gain their trust, explain the merits of your product or service, prove to them you have the skills and reputation, and that they stand to benefit from what you can offer. Then, you still need to procure that sale — a lengthy process indeed.

With an existing client, you’ve already achieved the above (I hope!). You can skip most of that, and jump straight to offering solutions to their requirements.

“But we only built their web site a year ago,” I hear you say. Start by looking at your current offerings, and see if there’s a service or product that you’ve developed since you last spoke to them that they may be interested in.

Then, consider what else they may need.

Perhaps they’ve created dozens of pages of bad content in the content management system (CMS) you installed for them. You could approach them and suggest you edit their copy. Maybe they’ve lost their way with search engine optimization, and you need to help tune their web site back to perfection.

Does the client have an email newsletter? You can design and develop a system for them to be able to send regular newsletters out. Maybe they started small on the Web, but now could be a time to speak to them about adding ecommerce or installing a CMS, so they can take care of maintenance themselves.

These may often seem small compared to your standard projects, however a handful of these jobs can easily fill gaps in your schedule, and help you touch base with a rejuvenated customer.

Let me know how you go. I’d be interested to see what products or services you create as additional extras.

This post first appeared as part of Issue 438 of the SitePoint Tribune, a very popular email newsletter that I am co-editor of. Thanks to SitePoint for allowing me to reproduce the work here.

Interview with Chris Winchester

Gantheaume Point Broome

Two weeks ago, I made the journey to New Zealand to attend the well-known web conference, Webstock. On my first day there, I spotted a man wearing a bright yellow T-shirt which read: Remember me? I met you at Webstock looking for a job.

What a great idea! Here he is, wearing a T-shirt promoting himself in a fun way, looking for a web industry job in the perfect environment — a web conference. Little did I realize, until speaking with Chris, that there was more to the story.

You see, Chris heard about the conference only two weeks beforehand, and traveled from the other end of the globe — the UK — to spend a few days in Wellington looking for a job.

Here’s the story in Chris’s own words:

Hi Chris, thanks for speaking with me. Tell us some background as to your decision to quit your job and travel over 11,000 miles across the world to NZ.

My great-grandfather’s brother, Tom Garratt, who like me was from Liverpool, jumped ship in Wellington and set up a printing business in the 1930s — a business that, I believe, is still run by the Garratt family today. In his way he was a facilitator of mass communication and, I guess, so am I but in a 21st century context; so it feels like there’s a resonance there.

I’ve had family and friends in NZ all my life, and spent a year in Christchurch as a little kid, but I rediscovered the country for myself when my wife and I came over a few years ago on our honeymoon. It might sound a bit cheesy to say we fell in love with the place and the people — but we did, so I will!

Then a couple of years ago, after our daughter was born, we were looking at what we could do if we sold our two-bedroom flat in London. We considered buying a small three-bedroom house a bit further out of London, but then we realized we might be able to come over to NZ and have some real space.

It’s a long way to move — about as far as you can go (the moon’s yet to open for business) — but we thought if we let the opportunity slip by, we’d always wonder about what we missed.

So, you told me that you only heard about the conference two weeks ago — how did you prepare?

We’d been waiting in a queue with the NZ immigration service for quite a while, and knew that if one of us got a job offer over here that should speed things up. So we were just starting to research potential opportunities. My wife, Nikky was surfing around and said, “Ah, it’s a shame you missed that.” She’d found the Webstock site. I realized there were still two weeks to go and therefore it was possible to come over and meet everyone. So I threw together a bit of a personal marketing campaign.

I went straight online and ordered a bunch of T-shirts from spreadshirt.net that read, Remember me? I met you at Webstock looking for a job. As soon as they arrived a couple of days later, I went into my parent’s back garden (as we’d sold our flat!) to take photos of me in the shirts. I was balancing a camera on top of a snowman as I didn’t have a tripod; wish I had a picture of the snowman taking the picture of me! Ah well …

So, once I’d taken the pictures I fired up Photoshop and put together a set of business cards saying, Web monkey seeks job with my T-shirt photos and web address. Then I ordered a big pile of them through moo.com by special delivery. It was getting a bit tight for time by this stage, as I needed to be on a plane a couple of days later. I even had to order myself a new laptop bag and suitcase, as the ones I had were unsuitable for the flight. Fortunately everything arrived just in time.

I had to retrieve my passport from NZ House in London as it was with the immigration authorities and I was up in Liverpool. So I had a mate pick it up and I met him at Euston Station for a Cold War-style handover, on the way to Heathrow on the Friday morning before Webstock. I spent Valentine’s Day in the air and arrived in Wellington looking (and feeling) a bit bemused on Sunday afternoon.

Fantastic! So what inspired your T-shirt and business cards campaign?

I have absolutely no idea! It just popped into my head. The four colors of the cards were chosen because they were the only colors that Spreadshirt had in organic cotton for the T-shirts, and I was trying to be vaguely green.

Although, how I can say that and justify the carbon hit of flying halfway round the world I’m unsure — I’ll have to think that one over. I really wanted bamboo shirts as they’re so comfy, but the European Spreadshirt site has yet to produce them, which is a bit of a shame.

Come to think of it, icebreaker shirts would be the ultimate … maybe one day!

Once I knew I had four different colors I had a quick think about what I could do to tie the card set together. I had a copy of the Beatles’ Help! album with them doing semaphore flag signalling in the snow, and I thought maybe I could do that. I tried to copy their poses, but a friend tells me the cards actually spell “NUJD”, not “HELP” at all!

You’ve been in Wellington for a few days now — how do you feel you’ve been received?

Everyone’s been great! They are really welcoming and encouraging, apart from one lady who said, “I don’t think people are really doing business cards any more.” But hey, fair enough, each to their own. I’ve had a really warm reception, including the weather!

I’d like to say a really big thank-you to the local web community — it’s been a real pleasure to meet you all, and I hope we’ll be working together soon!

Thanks for your time, Chris, and I hope you’ll keep us up to date in your adventures towards landing that job.

This post first appeared as part of Issue 436 of the SitePoint Tribune, a very popular email newsletter that I am co-editor of. Thanks to SitePoint for allowing me to reproduce the work here.

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