A Quick Introduction
I recently closed my business, Creo, after 6 amazing years. There were many reasons why, and even more lessons learned from the experience. In this series I want to be completely transparent about what went wrong, and ideas about how I should have have dealt with it, in hopes that you won't fail from the same problems.
I don't have all the answers, and welcome your feedback about how you would have dealt with the problem. In addition, I am committed to be as honest and transparent as possible in these posts. If you have specific questions you want answered, please message me on Twitter (@justzeros) or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Skype me at "marcuscreo"
Lesson 1: Don't Serve Left-Overs
(NOTE: After you're done reading this, check out Patrick McKenzie's brilliant response to this problem!)
As a consultancy we sold our time, energy and expertise to accomplish the client's goals. A normal selling conversation sounded like this:
Phase 1: Beginning
Client: We need to get the web application launched within 60 days, and then we have additional items to finish by the end of the year. It's a big job, are you up to it?
Me: Sure, we've got a great team and lots of experience. We'd love to be your long-term vendor and partner with you over the coming year to reach your goals.
Client: That sounds great, finding good people is so hard. When can you get started.
Me: Let's get you on the schedule for next week, and we'll get moving!
Phase 2: Three Months Pass...
Client: You guys rock! Now that the site has launched, let's get started on some clean-up items. We have some bugs that need fixing, and a few features our customers are adding.
Me: Sure, what is your monthly budget?
Client: 20 hours a month for the next 4 months
Me: Sounds good.
Phase 3: Three Weeks Pass...
Client: Haven't heard from you in while. What's the status of those clean-up items we spoke about?
Me: Um, we're working on them. We're swamped, but we should be able to get to them this month.
Client: Ok, how many hours have you used this month?
Me: 4 hours
Phase 4: Three *MORE* Weeks Pass...
Client: Remember me? We really need to get those bugs fixed, what's the ETA on them?
Me: Well, everyone's really busy, but I'm pretty sure we can get them done next week.
What the heck went wrong?
I'm serving the client left overs. Left-over hours, left-over energy. My team was small, so it was "all hands on deck" for Phase 1, to deliver an amazing product to the client. Delivering an amazing product is important to us, not only because we're "craftsmen", but because we've heard it's easier to sell work to existing customers than to new customers. So we put all our time, energy, drive, joy and creativity into this project.
In Phase 1 the project is our "main course", what we're putting all our effort into. It's our current focus, and no matter how good our intentions, it's very hard to spend time on anything else.
Now, this isn't our first rodeo, but we knew this project wasn't going to last forever and so about half way through Phase 1 we started looking for the next project. This is a very natural thing to do, as we have to eat. (And as you know, eating is very, very important. )
In Phase 2 we have good intentions, but most of our focus is on the Next Big Project (TM). 20 hours a month is a great goal, and a lot can get done, but it's not enough to make it anyone's primary focus, so things start to slip. Our promises of being the "long term vendor" are still fresh in our mind, and we want to do the "right thing for the client", so we accept the ongoing work with just of 20 hours / month.
In Phase 3, the client is seeing the slippage, and the "To Do" list hasn't really been touched. A few items got done, but no where near the 20 hours per month budgeted. The client is now getting our "left over" time. We're optimistic that if we can just plan the work better (or get the programmers to act like task switching cogs), we can fix the problem.
In Phase 4, the client was frustrated, and I was embarrassed. The empty promises have squandered all the good-will and trust you had worked to hard to build up, and any chance of a referral is out the window. You try to improve the situation, making promises, re-arranging schedules, compressing the work into a single period, etc. But in the end, the client leaves out of frustration that you simply can't deliver what's needed. Truth be told, they were right.
Why you do it...
Serving left-overs will absolutely kill your business. You didn't like it when you Mom did it, and your customers don't like it either. You can get away with it for a while, but it won't be long before your customer's realize that you're serving them warmed-up goulash and charging them full price. They certainly won't recommend you to anyone else, which kills your best avenue for getting new leads.
You do it because you're not paying attention to the shape of your projects. Knowing the shape of your project of your project is key, and the shape of my projects could be illustrated by the effort applied to a project over time. Below is an example graph showing the shape of our projects.