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.
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 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??)