How To Get Where You Want To Go
Yes, but No.
I'm not talking about travel. I'm talking about how you achieve goals, objectives and non-physical stuff like that. We have all had the experience of making a plan or setting a goal that proved hard to implement or achieve. Somewhere in the process, often right at the beginning, obstacles appear. Not tasks, but real ’how am I supposed to do that’ obstacles. I am going to show you why that is a good thing and not the ’killer’ that you might suppose it is.
I have been using this free graphics tool for three years. Canva is a graphic design program that anyone can use. It is drop-dead easy. Check it out here.
Canva has proven itself to be so helpful that I recently started using the Canva For Work version that has a few bells and whistles I like. $12.95 a month saves me at least an hour a month, but you won't need that. Canva is free and really powerful.
I got the opportunity to design some school buildings right out of college. They were fairly large projects taking six months to a year for the design phases. There was lots of time to recover from missteps. After a couple of these I got an admin building for a small school district. By comparison this was a three-bedroom house in scale. Before I had a handle on what the project would entail, I started focusing on the entrance and how I wanted that to work. After a day or two, the question came. "What the hell are you doing?" I explained about the importance (to me) of the entrance. "Do you even know if this is going to be 1-story or two? Does it fit the site?"
Should You Have Written Agreements
Everyone urges you to have written agreements for your design projects. There really isn't a good reason for not having a contract. However, we were rarely able to accomplish the goal of 100% of projects having a written agreement.
Our best effort to achieve this goal was to simplify the process. The two tools that we found helpful were a Letter Of Engagement, and our own Standard Agreement. There isn't anything wrong with standard AIA agreements. They aren't even hard or time-consuming to complete. But formality and exactitude get in the way.
When you are looking for work, this may seem counter-productive; but it is a good practice to evaluate every job beforehand.
Your insurance agent, your attorney, and your marketing advisor will all agree that making sure this project is worth pursuing is a good thing. The insurance agent and the attorney are looking at the potential for trouble that working with this type of client, this particular client or this project type can lead to.
Your marketing advisor is looking at the big picture of where you want to go and whether this opportunity is a step forward, sideways or backwards. The type of work you do and the people you work for speaks volumes to all your clients and potential clients. Choosing the right projects and the right clients is a key element in developing your niche and reaping the rewards that come from not being a commodity.
From a purely business perspective, a project is like a new product line. You should evaluate both before jumping on board. For a project a detailed evaluation doesn't need to take much time, especially if you have an established method for doing the evaluation. The attached form came from combining several processes that were recommended to us over the years.
The thrust of the evaluation is to uncover any concerns you have about the project or client beforehand, and then to develop a plan for addressing those concerns or "passing" on the project.
We found it works best with just two or three people involved: the person who found the opportunity and who knows the most about it, a principal of the firm, and perhaps one other senior person.
Once you go through the process a few times you will find that you want to keep the form handy as a kind of questionnaire to use with potential clients.
I’ve read recently that organizations are starting to recognize that they no longer function like a hierarchy, which comes to us from a military model that is probably 10,000 years old. Instead they recognize that a network is closer to reality. In a network each node (person) is connected to several others. Sometimes there is a client-vendor relationship. I would include boss-employee relationships under client-vendor for the sake of simplicity. Simplicity might be at odds with clarity, though. Other times the relationship is more peer-to-peer or even resource-researcher.
What nodes do you see in a smallish design firm?
It's kind of odd that you can't easily draw a network because there are very few tools that can handle it. CAD is the handiest (lucky for us), but outside the design field what would you use? Lucidchart, mind mapping, drawing tools like the Inkflow app? Because until you draw the network, it's pretty hard to think about it. That’s one reason hierarchies have worked so well - just assign people to roles: soldier, squad leader, platoon leader, company commander, etc. No need to draw it.
Mind mapping doesn't work unless your program allows interconnections - this one (iBlueSky app) doesn't. Fig 1.
Lucidchart works pretty well. Fig 2. A Lucidchart network diagram lets you use shape, color, line types, and arrow heads to convey information about your network. This might be better than CAD. Lucidchart’s toolbox makes it pretty easy to recognize all the subtle relationships in a network. (In Fig 2 I used their ’Flowchart’ shapes with one of the simple themes.)
I tried Inkflow, too, but I didn't see any benefits of drawing the network by hand, even if you can cut and paste easily to re-arrange nodes. Fig 3.
I think we are in for some really big changes when you combine this management concept, the prevalence of contract workers and the move to embrace more telecommuting. Design firms don't seem to be in a leadership position on these changes except maybe contract workers, thanks to the Great Recession. Not being a leader, though, doesn't mean you won't be affected.
I tried for years to sketch our organization; now I see that I wasn't using the right concept/tool to tackle the job.
Here is an article with an interesting comparison.
I have always found that one of the key parts of getting a grip on the firm's finances is to have a good idea where the money goes. You might not need all the line items in the budget template here, we didn't; but it is helpful to start with all the possibilities and narrow things down from there. The first time we developed a budget, we broke down all our expenses from the previous year into these accounts. This budget template can be downloaded here.
Every time we budgeted we found line items from last year's actual results that seemed to be getting larger and larger contrary to how much we wanted to spend. It is helpful to shine the spotlight on issues like these to find out what is really going on. At the very least you can look for other ways to offset the increases.
The expenses fall into four categories - Reimbursable Expenses, Direct Expenses, Indirect Expenses, and Marketing Expenses. Technically Marketing is part of Indirect, but we wanted to break out the total for special attention.
Reimbursable Expenses are amounts spent that will be reimbursed by clients. It is very hard to be accurate about reimbursables, and you might choose to ignore them for the purposes of your annual budget.
Direct Expenses are amounts that you spend in designing projects. This is mostly the part of salaries that pays for the design time. Occasionally there is some other expense, like printing that you include as part of your fee. If that is customary for you, add a line item or two for those items.
Indirect Expenses are amounts that you spend to run the firm. These are the majority of the account line items. Even though you need to spend these amounts to provide design services, you don't do any of these things specifically for a project. If you do, then they are Direct Expenses.
Marketing Expenses are amounts that you spend to obtain design work, all your business development cost go here. As I mentioned above, these are technically Indirect Expenses.
One of the chief benefits of going through the budgeting process is to get control of where the money goes. It is hard have profits if you are always being surprised by where you spent the profits.
What does a Trailing Twelve Month [T12M] Chart do?
Hopefully, you are tracking how much new work you sign up each month. This is good data, but there can be many, many reasons why a given month is either up or down when compared to recent months. So the idea of the T12M chart is to also look at the total sales for the past 12 months by simply adding up the past 12 months.
What's the benefit of the T12M?
By totaling the past 12 months, these ’reasons’ for ups and downs month get wrung out of the data and you are left with the trend. An increasing or upward trend is good, and you want to keep doing more of whatever you are doing. A decreasing or downward trend means corrective action is required right away. The 12 month total for sales is like looking at your batting average for the season. There is no positive story that explains a lower batting average. It simply needs work.
How does it work?
As the example in the image shows, you simply record three bits of data every month - the amount of sales, the month-year, and the total of the past 12 months. This last piece of data is calculated by a simple SUM formula. Each month ’fill’ the formula into the new month’s 12-month-total-cell. Very simple. This example shows the process step-by-step. The only tricky part is setting up the charts to display the graphs. The graphic above came from the ceotools website. You can also buy the XLS spreadsheet already set up and awaiting your data ($20).
The beauty of the T12M chart is its ’early warning system’ effect. A downward trend will always predict a cash flow or loss of profit. Immediate action will minimize the situation. And of course there is no end to the things you might want to track - monthly revenues, monthly number of blog posts, client contacts, ...
I suppose some people haven't heard about Evernote, space travelers, perhaps. Evernote is a database, but without the aggravation. You store notes, pictures, files, audio clips and just about anything else that is digital in Evernote. Years ago these things would have been physical items and you would have put them in manila folders and binders. Why? Just in case you might need them sometime. Of course, you could never find them later.
Evernote is the digital equivalent of folders and binders of your stuff - except that you can find that gem again, usually in less than a minute. AND it is on your phone. You don't have to find the folders and binders first. If lots of your gems are physical, take pictures of them, scan them, and drop them into Evernote.
Besides being great at abetting pack rats, Evernote can be used to help you with more day-to-day real tasks. But before I describe other ways you might use Evernote, let's review the features.
First is cost. It is free. I used Evernote for about three years before I got a Premium account which costs $5/mo or $45/yr. The reason I went Premium was to share stuff that others could edit or add to. The free account allows sharing without editing. The free account has a 60 MB limit on how much stuff you can add per month. I haven't come close to hitting the limit, but I can see how you might. You can see all the limits here. There isn't a total limit! Check out the Premium features, too, while you are there.
After four years I have 3244 Notes, 21 Notebooks, 83 Tags to give you a benchmark. This screenshot of my tags will give you an idea of how I use Evernote.
Back to uses. I like to use Notebooks for subjects like IFTTT Feed, personal, a journal, Office Receipts, Project Records, Office Records. Some of these choices are driven by integrations and automation. You can upload just about anything by email and using # before the Notebook name and @before the tag name places it right where you want it.
Tags are like categories or folders. Some I use almost like notebooks, because when you select a tag just notes tagged with it are shown. Other tags help find things. Examples: project designations, CEU records, iPhone notes/records, house, PAID, topics and published. You can exclude tags as well as add them. I search my store of 'topics' all the time and it helps to exclude the topics that I have 'published'. Reminders work for me for long range one off tasks. Shortcuts I use for a short list of frequently used notebooks and tags.
One little feature that I really use a lot is the checkbox on the formatting menu. Whenever something is likely to become a task, add a checkbox. This would just be window dressing if it wasn't possible to search your entire database for all the notes containing unchecked checkboxes. Love it.
Searches are very powerful on the desktop app and the iPad, less so on the iPhone. The difference is how you can add multiple search terms. My workaround for the phone is to tag things I expect to need as favorites or to save the search so it can be used. Having all this information available on your mobile devices is really handy.
One of the techniques I picked up is that starting a tag with a special character will cause it to be listed first. It also has the effect of grouping all those with the same initial character. I use a ’/’ to begin a project tag, e.g. /SL-TR, which stands for Stevens Library Toilet Rooms. Searching for ’contract’ and ’/SL-TR’ finds the contract for that job.
I think that as everyone gathers more and more information it becomes increasingly tedious to wade through your file folders to find a document like a contract. Evernote solves that problem. The only shortcoming of a database approach is that a drawing file, for instance, can be shared but managing updates requires a new version to be saved. This isn't automatic like it can be with Dropbox where files in use on your computer are kept in synch with everyone else's computer.
Nevertheless Evernote is a strong collaboration tool for sharing research (screenshots), reference (PDFs), pictures and notes. Unlike files like a dwg, spreadsheet or Word doc which can't be edited in Evernote; a note can be edited and remains up-to-date for everyone sharing the note.
You may have noticed that I have a poll running. Take a sec and vote. Polldaddy is embedded in Weeby and is pretty easy to use. I think the actual free Polldaddy account is even easier, and it has the benefit of offering a few more features - like quizzes! Take my Masonry Expert Quiz below to learn a bit about masonry and see how Polldaddy works/looks. BTW there are several themes/color schemes for your polls, surveys and quizzes.
How did you do?
Well I explain here why I think surveys are a handy marketing tool. With a survey you accomplish several things at once.
First, you get feedback - you learn something from your audience.
Second, with a properly worded survey, you can leave a marketing message by, say, giving the impression that you are on top of some topic that interests your audience.
And third, you put yourself in front of your audience another time, reminding them of your existence and your brand.
There are other more mundane things that you can do with a poll, or survey. For instance, find out which date is workable for a meeting; see what the crowd thinks of going bowling; test out an idea with ratings (thumbs up/down or number of stars); you get the idea. There are a number of ways to collect the data. Besides code to embed in a website or blog, as I've done here, there are links that you could add to an email; or even create a group email with the tools on Polldaddy's site.
My new toy will probably appear here a few more times before I am distracted by the next shiny thing.
A lot has changed for both Basecamp and Nozbe since this article was first published in 2012. Nevertheless the comparison is still useful, and both services are worth serious consideration.
Below is a comparison of Basecamp and Nozbe followed by the Comments on the features. If one of these helps your productivity, it will almost certainly pay for itself. I suggest testing both.
Basecamp is a service of 37signals. Visit Basecamp here.
Nozbe is a service of apivision and is developed primarily by Michael Silwinski. Visit Nozbe here.
1. Pricing is generally comparable, but your needs will likely make one or the other more attractive. However, cost is not a key issue. If one of these helps your productivity, it will almost certainly pay for itself.
2. Basecamp shines in this regard. Nozbe would take some fussing with to make sharing with clients work well. In many cases sharing your project management tools might not be needed.
3. Multiple task lists are simple with Basecamp. Nozbe uses just one task list per project, but it would be simple to set up multiple lists using similar but distinct names to monitor the lists, e.g. New School - DESIGN and New School - ADMIN.
4. Both tools work well on mobile platforms. Basecamp uses a mobile view of the website that only allows viewing. However, you can change to normal website view and with some enlarging of the view make edits and additions. There are several third party paid apps that overcome this situation. Nozbe has a paid app that works very well on a phone.
N1. Nozbe doesn't use templates. However you can enter multiple tasks at once so it is a simple matter to assemble the standard tasks in a text document for re-use and insert them when and where needed.
N2. Nozbe does have a calendar, but it contains all tasks across all projects. Upcoming tasks cannot send reminders or alerts.
N3. Nozbe uses the 'Getting Things Done' concept of Context. This allows you to tag tasks with one or more category of your creation. You can then view all the tasks of one category. For example, you could tag tasks that need to be done at the project site, or by phone, or that involve a certain person or company. It is a nice feature.
N4. There are a number of things that you can add by email, but comments on a task is not possible.
N5. Nozbe does send out notices by email when a task is completed, but there is no way of indicating what you are working on. If this is important a separate Google Chat could provide a similar functionality.
B1. Discussions are a place to set out a goal or status for everyone's benefit. All team members can contribute to the discussion. Preparing for a presentation might be done this way. Team members can give feedback and ask for help / ideas. Discussions can be real time but remain available until deleted.
B2. Basecamp has a page that shows everything that has been going on in all projects.
B3. 'Looping in' is a way of soliciting input from someone who is not part of the project team. Their response becomes part of the project record automatically.
B4. Text documents can be anything - strategy planning, a new spec section, etc. - multiple people can contribute in real time over the Internet.
B5. Archiving a project saves it but takes it offline. It does not count against you project limit. The archived project can be activated anytime.
I like picking colors. I don't do it very often and so it takes a bit of effort to get my head into it. This can be frustrating when only one color needs selecting, especially if the color isn't very important. Well, now there is an app for that.
Color Snap is an App provided by Sherwin Williams for free. And while it can do much more, I love the way it makes simple work of picking that one color. Here is how I make use of it.
Let's say you want to pick an accent color. Take a picture that shows the current color. Point to the color in the photo to select it. The app matches it to the closest color in the system. From there you can look at four coordinating colors. The colors seem to be two pairs, each pair containing one lighter color and one darker color. (See the bottom photos.) Select one of the colors. Done.
Another approach, using the iPad app, after you have 'pulled' a color from your photo; you can select it to see its details. This will include a list of any 'collections' that include it. From there select 'Explore Color' and select one of the collections to see other colors that are part of the collection. The collection will contain several colors that "go with" your starting color, but not all will be great choices. Some discernment is required.
By the way, there is an iPad app as well as an iPhone app. They are very similar but the features are more numerous on the iPad version.
- Explore color - For both iPhone and iPad. Pick a color and get colors that harmonize with it
- Match a photo. For both iPhone and iPad. Take or select a photo and pick a sample of color. Then four complementary colors are available.
- Paint a scene. For iPad only. Take a picture, outline areas and apply colors
- Paint calculator. For iPad only. Provide the area and the number of gallons is calculated.
- Store locator. For both iPhone and iPad. Use your location or enter a zip code and get a map or list of locations nearby.
- Product Guide. For iPad only. Explore Sherwin-Williams' products.
Since the App is free, I suggest getting it and playing around with it to see if it is a 'keeper'.
Here’s how I used it on a recent remodeling estimate.
First, I assembled a list of line items that will be needed by editing a specifications Master Table Of Contents.
Second, I used Construction WorkZone to look up the unit costs on the line items. I found 54 of the 66 line items in Construction WorkZone. This is just a few less than I might have wanted. I used allowances for several line items because the effort of putting together a quantity did not seem worthwhile. So I basically guessed at about six line items out of 66.
Third, I added a ten percent contingency as a judgement call. The project is in CDs; it is a remodeling; it isn’t very large.
The last step is to add the quantities and do a gut check. Here’s what it looks like so far.
For years my firm bought ’Construction Cost Data’ to assist with unit costs in our estimates. More recently CostWorks provided an electronic version that saved your research for you. Now that I’m retired the $200 per year for either seems like overkill for what estimating I am likely to do.
Fortunately, I stumbled upon Construction WorkZone about a year ago. On an annual basis, Construction WorkZone is one quarter of the cost with about 80-90% of the usefulness. (Even cheaper if you subscribe just when you need it.)
Register for free to look up 10 items; or sign up for monthly use - $.99/first month, then $3.95/mo., cancel anytime.
The data search looks like the screenshots below.
The localized cost modifier seems to be a constant percent when I spot checked it. So you could do that just once on your subtotal.
The key features of cost estimating don’t require exact unit costs, which don’t exist anyway. Just look at the bids you receive for proof.
SUMMARY - PROs
Lots better than guessing
Low learning curve
SUMMARY - CONs
A little more time-consuming than I would like
Must transcribe costs, which is error-prone
Results not saved for you (so take screenshots??)