As I type this, my mind wanders to a year ago.
I found myself sitting in a meeting with a prospective client whom I’ll call Frank. He came to speak about his new idea. He had found us via a Google search result and was eager to speak with some qualified experts about it.
When he stopped by the studio, we sat down in one of our conference rooms and within two minutes, he asked if he could use the whiteboard.
As he began to draw some boxes and arrows on the board, he stopped himself and said with a huge grin, “My apologies, you’re the first group of people outside of my close friends and family that I’ve ever talked to this idea about!”
Frank’s enthusiasm was infectious.
As we talked through his project, we came to understand that his idea was still in its infancy. It was abstract, to say the least. As interesting and clever of an idea it was—he didn’t have a clue as to how it was going to make him money…yet.
As we wrapped up our discussion, we told him that while we could definitely help build the project, we wouldn’t.
Why? Because Frank didn’t have any metrics for the project, aside for its cost. We sent him away to think about a variety of questions, including: How would he pitch his idea?, Who would buy his product?, How would he choose an agency to partner with?
We invited him to call us when he’d settled on his answers.
A decade ago, we might not have paid much attention to that but having seen so many projects come through our doors—we’ve had a front-row seat in witnessing what differentiates successful from unsuccessful ones. Our team has spent thousands upon thousands of man hours working on projects that no longer see the light of the day. There are a number of things that can lead towards a project dying…most of them being things outside of what we as designers and developers can control.
What we can control—is who we decide to work with.
If you contact an experienced team with a half-baked project idea, you’re likely to be put on their “Someday/Maybe” list.
Conversely, if you contact a team and only have a half-baked project idea without any real notion of how you’re going to get a healthy return on your investment… and they ask you to sign a check to begin building it…I would suggest that you run like hell.
Are You Crazy?
In my humble opinion, starting your own business is fucking insane. It takes one to know one. My business is probably quite different than the one that you’re building. I have a certain skill set that has come in handy to folks like you for my entire professional career. For the past thirteen years, I’ve listened to entrepreneur after entrepreneur tell me about their novel idea and plans to “change the world.” Occasionally, I find myself sitting there thinking to myself, “this person is nuts… and they have a great idea!”
To really make it in this industry, you have to be someone who doesn’t let risk overshadow potential. I’m not advocating that you start a business on a leap of faith…you really should be calculating your risk to the best of your abilities. More specifically, you have to be(come) someone who is okay with the prospect of spending money and potentially never earning any of it back.
The only return that you’re guaranteed is the experience.
Over the years, I have met many first time entrepreneurs. I have also met a lot of 3rd and 4th-time entrepreneurs. Approximately 20% of the latter group had any measurable success with the previous ventures. Most of them came to us with the hopeful wisdom of, “I have two failed startups. Third times the charm, right?” and then there was the occasional, “I sold my last startup and have a new idea that I would like to explore.”
The one thing they all seemed to have in common? They were all a bit crazy.
Are You Qualified?
Everyone has ideas. Why are you the right person to turn your idea into reality?
Thanks to the gift of hindsight, I believe you should be collaborative, decisive, reasonably patient, analytical, and organized.
Do you work well with others?
If you’re about to hire a team to work with you on your project, you need to recognize gaps in your knowledge and be okay with that. Are you looking to delegate or are you seeking a team to build with you? Our most successful projects were where we felt like a valued partner rather than just a vendor.
Why does this matter to us? Quite simply, pride. If we choose to work with you, it’s because we believe in you and your project, and we want to play an important part in your future success. We want the time that we put into our work to mean something.
We give a shit.
Why does this matter to you? When you hire a partner, you’re gaining a group of people that will make it their personal mission to help you and your project succeed. Partners help you invest in your project wisely.
Projects benefit from stakeholders who can make the hard decisions early and often. We’ve witnessed far too many projects sit on important decisions only to waste time, energy, and money.
In the early stages of a project, it’s critical that our clients come with clear, prioritized goals. If you’re hesitant to commit towards one direction and prefer to keep your options open, your project will lack focus. From there, it’s not far to the cemetery of half-assed products. Neither of us wants to go there.
In 37signals eBook Getting Real they write..
“Stick to what's truly essential. Good ideas can be tabled. Take whatever you think your product should be and cut it in half. Pare features down until you're left with only the most essential ones. Then do it again.”
This requires tough decisions.
Throughout the project, you’re going to be faced with question after question that requires thoughtful and timely decisions. If you’re the type of person that needs a lot of time to mull over decisions, you might become the bottleneck in the process. This can increase the risk of scheduling delays, extra costs, and frustration between you and your team.
If we ask ‘when do you need this by,’ and you can only respond with ‘as soon as possible,’ you’re probably used to disappointment. Agencies eager for work will say yes without carefully thinking about the effort it will take to deliver.
Quality work takes time. A quality agency partner will manage your expectations and work out timelines collaboratively. While you might be paying for their time, they are also serving other clients. If you want more control, you may want to hire a full-time employee.
Having said that, if you find yourself working with an agency that continuously fails to manage your expectations—replace them. When you work with an external team, your time is equally valuable. Just be sure to be honest with yourself that your expectations are reasonable.
Remember Frank from the beginning of the article? He couldn’t make sense of his business’s numbers. That was a recipe for disaster. Though he had a clever product idea, he was unable to assess whom his market was and ultimately, whether he would make any money as a business.
Over the years, I’ve had far too many clients realize too late into the game that they didn’t understand that this was a massive gap in their planning. While a good agency should be prompting you for useful data throughout the project, it’s also easy for an agency to make assumptions that the client knows what the hell they’re doing. After all, it is their project. Their money. Their decisions that are ultimately steering the ship.
Agencies with a partnership mentality won't let the ship get too far off course. They'll make sure that the ship's charts are in order before setting sail.
Each component within your project has an associated cost to build and maintain. It also has a potential value. It gets tricky when you begin to assess whether each component will add value to your customer. Early on in a project, you have to make some risky decisions about what to include. For everything you do include, treat it as an experiment that you’ll analyze once your customers have a chance to try out your product.
When the data informs you that a feature isn’t appealing to your customers, you must decide whether to double-down and invest in improvements, or abandon that component entirely. Tracking how each micro-improvement impacts the project’s value can make the difference between success and failure.
If this is an area that you believe you’ll struggle with, find someone who can help. Some agencies can help with this, but as a stakeholder, it will only make you wiser to brush up on your skills in this area. It’ll make you a better decision maker.
As someone who runs an agency, I know that we can only organize what we can control. We’re often at the mercy of our client’s own organization skills. Everyone has their own way of managing their time, priorities, and project. When we work together, we have to invest time in learning about each other’s process so that we can figure out how to be as efficient as possible.
Disorganization slows everything down. Whether it’s shifting the focus of the project, having unpredictable availability, forgetting a scheduled call, neglecting deadlines for giving feedback, or paying their bills late, it all adds friction to the process.
What happens to these problem clients? We fire them. Trust me. It happens. No agency owner can, in good conscience, ask his team to be okay with a dependably disappointing client. That would impact my employees’ satisfaction and my ability to attract and retain amazing talent.
You expect your agency to be as organized. We expect the same in return.
A Little Secret From Sales
Once you contact us, we will add you to our Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool. We document a number of details about each prospective client beyond the basic name and coordinates. If you fill out our contact form, we’re going to research you before we respond.
We want to know the following:
- Where are you from?
- What is your background?
- Do we have any shared connections?
- Do you have an online persona?
- Are you an authority on anything?
- Again, who the hell is this person?
- What you look like. (Putting a face to a name goes a long way when you hop on a phone call or come to an introduction meeting.)
We document what we find. Then, we use a number of details to prioritize who will get more of our attention sooner. If make a living out of building stuff for the online market, expect to hear from us quickly. But if you aren’t easy to find online, you’re unlikely to get a quick reply.
No need to start posting photos of each of your meals online (I do that enough for the both of us)… but if we can’t easily find you on LinkedIn, we’re going to doubt that you’re our next amazing client.
Before we invest potentially thousands of hours into a relationship with you, we’d like to get to know what we might be getting ourselves into. Is that reasonable? I’d like to think so.
Before you get to reach out to agencies, go online and search for yourself. What do the search results say about you? Does it look like you’re a professional entrepreneur?
If not, don’t worry. You can improve this rather quickly. Head over to LinkedIn, update your profile, get references and testimonials from past collaborators. Show that you’re qualified to be a stakeholder.
For extra credit, solicit testimonials from with any external partners or vendors as well. I’d love to hear what their experience was like working for you.
Lastly, Do You Have The Time?
It might surprise you when you realize how much time and mental energy your project will require. If you’ve started to think of it as your ‘baby,’ you’re heading in the right direction.
If you can’t keep up with the pace of your agency, things will come to a grinding halt, costing you, even more, money.
When prospective clients contact us, we pay close attention to the time of day that they introduce themselves to us, respond to us, and propose meeting times. If you live in the same time zone and only respond to questions at 11 pm, we’re going to question your availability throughout the course of the project.
Having said that, we’ve had some clients who contact us while they’re still holding another full-time job and set the expectation that they are wrapping that up and will be making themselves more available very soon.
At different stages of a project, it can be critical to respond to our questions in a timely manner. You don’t want to become the bottleneck of the project.
I recently asked some of our existing clients about how much time they have to dedicate to their projects on a weekly basis. Their responses ranged anywhere from 10-20 hours each week. That’s time spent asking us questions, replying to our questions, working with our project manager on next priorities, and thinking ahead. The rest of their time was spent networking, talking to potential customers, recruiting alpha and beta testers, and figuring out how they were going to best market their product once we made it happen.
Ideally, you’d start doing this from day one, not after your product is complete. Consistently talking to your network, your potential customers, and your tester will clarify the shape of your product.
Before you jump into this…be honest with yourself.
Do you have the time to make this happen?