Archive for January, 2012
As per my last Freelancing verses Contracting post, with contracting we are being paid for our time, not for the products we produce. So when I contract, it makes sense to me to ensure that I leave their offices each day as soon as the agreed hours have been met.
That may sound harsh or inflexible, but look at it this way – if a contract for resource time is for 7.5 hours a day and you end up skipping lunch and staying for an extra 30 minutes at the end of every day, that can add an extra hour or 90 minutes of effort a day. Over a week this can add up to 7.5 hours – or an extra day of work. You are not being paid for that time, so what you are effectively doing is either discounting your rates by 20%, or you are reducing the length of the final contract by a day a week. If you do an extra week a month of unpaid work, its one week sooner when the contract will end (or wont get renewed).
Of course one of the problems of leaving on time is that you are running out of the door when the permanent workers may still be working. But wait a minute – they are doing that not for the love of the work – they are doing it in the hope of a pay rise, or to further their career or just to keep their jobs. As a contractor, you have none of these to worry about. So why shouldn’t you leave on time?
I have found the best method of easing into the ‘leave on time’ is to initially work the hours agreed plus a bit more for the first week, and then to explain to everybody how I will miss a transport connection by leaving after the agreed time (oh the traffic is so bad after 5:15pm around here, oh I just miss my train connection, etc). Then make sure you leave on time. But to signal the exit by setting a discreet (but audible) alarm on my watch to signal and remind me when its time to end the day.
That way you do the hours, do the job, but your alarm is the one nagging you that it’s time to go.
Of course some contracts do pay overtime – in which case this is not needed. But generally that’s not the way contracts work – you have a day rate for a fixed length of day. So stop robbing or short changing yourself, and get out of the office on time.
PS – In case you are worried that this may effect any contract extensions, I have used this system on all my previous contracts, and never have I not been renewed or extended.
For most freelancers and contractors, one of the things that customers want is regular status updates. This may be to provide regular updates on project development, or support provided, activities completed or support/development time used. Generally, I have 2 or 3 regular status updates that need to be sent every week or so.
Yesterday, I was given a great tip for providing easy status update emails.
Now whilst I am able to avoid having to send project progress status emails thanks to my cloud based project system, I still have to report support time usage for customers who have pre-booked some support days, or quick updates to senior company managers who insist on being kept in the loop but don’t want to go looking for the information. This tip I was given has saved me lots of effort.
The tip is to simply set up an email with the status report, type a default template email (“Hello, this is how much support time we used…” etc) but before pressing send, use the “Delay delivery” option and set the date to the scheduled status date. Then, include yourself in the blind copy (so you know when it’s gone, and have the template for the next week or month).
The email will then sit in your outbox, waiting. Whenever I do an action which will need to be reported, such as do some support work, I just click on the outbox pending email, and add it to the email text. Come the day of the status update, it gets sent automatically with the progress to date. Effectively, I am using the outbound email as a notepad (so much easier than trying to remember it all).
When the status emails do get sent, I of course get a copy. With this copy, I then simply hit “reply to all”, and I have the next template email for the next status run – just remember to change the “Delay delivery” option to the date that the next email is due and remove this weeks/months activities.
Note, with this system it is worth setting the status template email to initially say something like “This week, there has been no activity” so the email makes sense if not changed – this no activity can be removed and replaced with the activity once something happens.
Effortless status reporting. Thanks for the tip Richard.
Here in the UK, there is a great divide between Freelancing and Contracting work. Whilst there are a multitude of differences between the two types of work, for me, the difference is fairly clear:
Freelancing – Working with a customer, to provide a product or service. This will consist of an agreed project, where the work if quoted, agreed, and fixed by way of a final delivery. This delivery can be a product, a report, a site visit, a web site or anything else. BUT, something agreed upon is delivered. You get paid for the delivery rather than the time.
Contracting – A contracting role is where a resource is provided to a customer for a fixed length of time, and during that time, the resource works on the activities dictated by the customer which will typically vary during the contracted period. You get paid for the time (normally paid by day at an agreed day rate) rather than upon completion of a delivery.
Now both of these activities can be carried out at a customer’s office, or can be carried out at your home/business office. Both can be provided to the customer directly, or through a third party agency. Both can be based on a hand shake, or can be nailed down with complex contracts. Other than the product delivery Vs resource difference, the lines defining freelancing and contracting can be fuzzy.
For me and my own business, the majority of the work I perform can be classed as falling into the Freelance category.
But here is a confession…… now and again, I love to do some contract work. Generally, I like to do some contract work at least once a year. More if time allows.
The way I view it is that contract work is the Bread and Butter of my business. It pays pretty well (but no where near as good as a nice juicy freelance job), is nice and dependable, and the money is regular. However, Freelance work is the Meat in the freelancing-contracting sandwich. It is (generally) more interesting work, you have all the benefits of (generally) working from home (or a location of your choice) and you are the boss of your time and schedules. Plus with freelancing, you have the option to run multiple freelance projects at the same time.
Given a choice, Freelancing for me is far juicer than contracting.
Why I love to Contract
So you may then ask, if I love Freelancing work, why then do I make sure that I do some contracting work at least once a year? Well, there are many advantages to doing a contract stint for a few months for your average freelancer. For me, the advantages outnumber the disadvantages:
- Contracting for a short while forces me back to a regimented routine of 9 to 5. It is terribly easy to fall into the easy working days that freelancing allows, so contracting reshapes my days
- Contracting allows me to make more connections out in the field. There is nothing better than picking a contract with a high flying company, and working with their teams for a solid block of time to build those connections for future work
- Allows me to refresh my ideas of what commercial companies need. As time changes, so the demands of companies change. When sitting in an isolated environment of a home office, it is too easy to miss the subtle changes going on in the real world (such as technologies now being used, what products are starting to be shunned, etc)
- Contracting can fill the void (time wise and cash wise) between freelancing work and so reduce the unpaid ‘sitting on the bench’ time
- Whilst contracting, this for me is the perfect time to ramp up the freelancing marketing activities, and land freelance work ready for the end of the contract
- I always find the mixture of ‘regular’ type office work when combined with a dynamic work approach (as demanded with a contract) together with working on new customer projects a way of ‘blowing out’ the cobwebs. When I return back to freelancing a few weeks later, I am generally more energised and productive.
For me, a mixture of Freelance work, with some contracting thrown in from time to time is the perfect combination.
One year ago today, I evaluated a number of cloud based project management systems to help reduce my administration effort for my customer projects. In the end, I boiled this down to 2 strong candidates (having discounted such products as BaseCamp as being very light on features for a typical freelancer or small business), and finally selected TeamworkPM as the solution I would use.
Having used this system for a year now, I thought it would be useful to re-review TeamworkPM, and explain why it has transformed my business.
Providing a Customer Project Portal
Initially, my main requirement was to introduce a cloud based project system which in turn would provide an easy to use method where my company and my customers could communicate whilst working on projects. I wanted a system which would allow my customers to keep track of their deliveries, to be able to track progress, communicate any design/time issues and so ultimately reduce the amount of administration I would need to provide. I thought such savings should lead to reduced management time, therefore reduce any risks and associated costs.
Whilst a number of project management systems provided a customer portal, I initially selected TeamworkPM as my preferred solution because not only did it tick all my client portal boxes, but the use of the client portal was crystal clear and could be fully branded with my company domain, colour scheme, logo and titles. As far as my customers are concerned, the project portal is part of my own web site. I even provide a link to my branded TeamworkPM login screen as part of my main company web site.
All of the customers who have used the portal have commented how easy it is to use, how clear the information is, and how they can find the information they need. Most of these comments were given to me generally as part of a project wrap up process. For customers to report this to me as part of general project meetings proves to me that TeamworkPM most definitely is an asset to my communication with my customers.
Clarity, Focus and Time Saving
Beyond my initial requirements, I have continued to find more and more uses for TeamworkPM when working both on internal projects (I have a marketing project in TeamworkPM) and with my customers projects.
Whilst initially intending to use it only for external customer projects, I found that the reporting, alerts and screens were so clear, it was actually easier to use TeamworkPM for tracking other internal projects within my business. The whole process of having a clear list of tasks, with tracking, alerts if not completed, and a central associated file store ( for specs, designs, scripts, delivery files, etc) brings clarity and focus. It really helps when juggling multiple projects at the same time.
Whilst I initially hoped that TeamworkPM would help reduce the amount of project updates my company would need to produce, I am happy to report that it virtually eliminated project based discussions. In my last four fairly complex projects, once the project was defined and included in the portal, I cannot recall a single email or phone call regarding dates, status updates, slippage or next actions. All communication could therefore be focused on the design and delivery, so administration time and costs associated with running the projects virtually vanished. Customers could simply log into the portal and see for themselves what was being delivered, when, and what the current status was.
We also ended up using the TeamworkPM file storage system for delivery of all files associated with the project (designs, source and run-time). All of my customers loved the fact that they were automatically notified when files were available, and that they could retrieve them at their leisure. They also loved the fact that all previous versions of files were retained, and so they could go back to older versions should they be needed.
The only feature currently missing from TeamworkPM in regard to using it as a file store for projects is the ability to see when a customer downloads a file. This would be a nice feature, but having checked, none of the other cloud based project management systems I originally looked at recorded or audited this information.
There has been no doubt that using TeamworkPM has been a real boost to my company. In terms of reduced administration for project management, it is equivalent to having an additional member of staff who is running the projects for me. Certainly, the reduction of time spent updating customers on project status or emailing files has meant that TeamworkPM has paid for itself many times over.
But in addition to the time and money that has been saved, it has made my company look more professional and has made the flow of information between my company and my customers virtually seamless. I cannot praise TeamworkPM in this regard high enough.
TeamworkPM is a near perfect cloud based project management administration system. I say near perfect, as there are still a few options which I would like to see introduced. Whilst it produces lots of nice reports and gantt views for project overviews, it still lacks project task gantt views – but this is only a small consideration as the task list works well enough and standard MS project files can be uploaded and viewed. As I say, I would also like to see a flag (or get an email) to say that a customer had downloaded or viewed attached files – but that is just me being picky.
I am very glad that I took the plunge a year ago to start using a cloud based project management system. I dare say that one of the others would have done the job equally as well, but TeamworkPM has proved itself to be the right choice for me.
In fact, two of my customers who used TeamworkPM to track the projects I did for them have now adopted it as their own project management system for their own customers.
If you or your business runs any form of projects, I can really recommend using a cloud based project management system. And whilst there are many products out there, I can highly recommend TeamworkPM.
One tip that I was given many years ago was to start a project the right way. It was suggested to me that the best way to do this was through an initial ‘Summary of Understanding’.
Generally, when you start a contract, or meet with a prospect or chat about a freelance job, the client will do a brain dump of what they need. The term ‘Brain Dump’ is a good description, as in the majority of cases, they don’t have anything on paper – everything they explain comes directly from their brain to their mouth and into your ears. Because of this flow, their thoughts, requirements and needs can come out as a jumbled collection which you need to put into order to create the project or proposal.
A Summary of Understanding
So before any quotation is produced, work started, or plan put together, it is worth investing the time to quickly create a Summary of Understanding. This is a short (can be a single page) document which details your understanding of their needs and requirements. This document can then act as a working plan that everything else is generated from. Your client or prospect will undoubtedly find it valuable as it documents their muddled thoughts. And with your branding (logo, name, web site, etc) all over it, your credibility is boosted even before the project begins.
But if you are clever, it can be used to also boost revenue. Not only should it contain an outline of the project, but it can also be used to check with the client that there is nothing missing, and you can use it to suggest additional options that maybe they hadn’t thought about. There has been many times that I have produced a summary of understanding, only to have the customer contact me to say that they had thought of 3 or 4 other items they needed (that they had originally forgotten about), or that they liked the sound of some additional options I had suggested and to include those as well.
Format of Summary
When I produce a Summary of Understanding (or Requirements) document, it tends to be either 1 or 2 sides of A4. They all generally have the same basic layout which includes:
- An overview (in descriptive text) of what the client is looking to achieve and why (new software because old software is out of date, new web site for a launched product, etc)
- A bullet point list of the features that the delivery should contain
- An overview of their dates as discussed (start date, expected delivery date, any other key dates)
- A list of recommendations (from you) for additional items
- A list of recommendations (from you) for first steps
- A list of recommendations for stages (if the project is going to be large, and it is best ‘chunked’ up)
One Word of Warning
I have often found that the Summary of Understanding can lead a prospect to increase the scope of work by 25%, 50% or even 100% of the original requirement; prospects can get very carried away. So when it comes time to convert this into a quotation or project plan (if already engaged on a T&M contract), it is best to provide figures and time based on the original core requirements, with the additional suggested items added as ‘optional’ extras outside of the original project totals.
It is far too easy to be called in and produce a proposal for a project only to find that the additional elements price you out of the market. By listing them as optional elements in your cost or time proposals, the customer can select the elements they require based on their budget, and still allow you to keep within expectations where their vision goes beyond their spending limit.
One of the problems that can occur with the feast-and-famine cycle for contractors, freelancers and small business owners is the funny logic that begins when we are in the famine mode. When we are sitting around, bored, looking for work, sometimes logic can fly straight out of the window. This is especially true when it comes to maths.
At the end of the famine stage, it may be that a contractor or freelancer is sitting with a variety of paths open to them – with roads leading to different contracts, or with 2 or 3 potential new customers, not knowing which one to take or put the most effort into landing.
The boredom, the need to be active, but also the desperate need for money may cause us to jump in the wrong direction.
Let’s say that a contract or freelance job is offered which pays (for the sake of keeping things simple) a rate of £500 or $500 a day. But, there is the prospect of another job or contract which pays £600/$600 a day, but won’t come in for another week.
In a world where the chances of getting both are equal, the obvious choice is the one that pays the more money. Right?
But hold on. If we have 5 days of unproductive time to wait for the higher rate work – that actually dilutes the value of the 2nd job – the average day rate is reduced when we factor in the 5 days of unpaid time.
Assuming that the contract or job runs for a month, the immediate start contract pays a day rate of £500/$500 – as no unproductive additional time needs to be factored in. However, the £600/$600 job is actually reduced to £490/$490 (1 month equals around 23 workable days, PLUS the 5 bench days = 28 days).
So waiting to take the higher paid work would actually cost you £230/$230 in lost revenue over the course of the month. Whilst this figure may not be high, is still a reduction in earnings. When you add in the week of sitting around, maybe the choice is not so obvious after all.
When I produce estimates or quotations for customers, I generally produce them quickly and easily using the tools available to me in FreeAgent (the on-line accounts system). This works for the majority of quotations as I can use the price list system to easily apply standard items, and the quotations are emailed to my customers using my pre-defined template layout.
However, now and again I have to produce more detailed proposals – with lots of text, examples, concepts, terms and payment profiles. The sort of quotations we all have to produce now and again – the multi page proposals for those ‘larger’ projects.
Recently, I have come across two new cloud based applications which could make the process of quotation generation that little bit easier. Especially where the quotations are repetitive in nature (where the same text is used over and over again).
Both systems are designed around producing quotations. Both allow you to define customers, define price lists of common tasks, templates for look and feel of quotations (colours, fonts, graphics etc) and allow you to add free text. Both systems then allow you to quickly generate new quotes by pulling in items from your price list (then saying how many items/hours/days are required) – and will do all the maths for you including adding sales tax/VAT.
Both systems will also allow the quotations to be sent to your customers by email, to view the quotations in web or PDF views, and both will even let your customers accept (or comment) on the quotations on line.
So initially they appear very similar. However, it’s the way that they generate the quotations, and the integration that sets the two products apart. Whilst both produce similar cost breakdown in the same way, its how they deal with the text that surrounds the figures that is of interest.
Quoteroller is the newer of the two, but for me, has more potential. The big plus for me is that it integrates with FreeAgent. Whilst this is currently restricted to pulling your contacts in (which saves a lot of setup time), the developer says it is early days and hopes to push quotes back out to freeagent in due course. However, it also integrates with Basecamp, Highrise, and Fresh books.
QuoteRoller allows the definition of template ‘pages’ – you can have standard text of any pages which cover any subject required. Within this text you can paste ‘tokens’, so it can insert the client name, company name, project name, quote number and so on in the text for you.
You can define as many templates as you like to cover all kinds of different quotations – and use the same layouts, words, proposals and information over and over again. The templates can include text, images, tables, video, HTML and even links to external web sites. Templates can also be imported from ‘the community’ of users, so regardless of what type of company you run, there will be a template out there to get you going – you just need to customise the text to the way that you prefer to work.
Whilst QuoteRolloer is good, the one thing that is missing for me is a common catalogue of text BEYOND the template that I could pull in before the quotation is complete. As an example, I could create a template which covers everything I do, but have a section that I wanted to pull in for overseas customers which talks about conversion rates. If they could include this, it would be perfect. It also has one major limitation (at time of review) that when entering the cost breakdown, you can only enter whole numbers as a quantity (so if you charge per day, you have the option of 0 or 1, no half day options).
QuoteRoller is free to register and use. However, once you get past the set limit of quotes per month, you need to pay to add additional quotations.
Quoterobot is similar to QuoteRoller, but seems less flexible on the setting of templates. Whilst it is just as powerful on the pulling in of cost items, you have to enter more text at the time of creating quotations rather than using templates (of standard text blocks).
However, quoterobot is stronger in terms of payment terms planning. You have the ability to put payment terms per week and it will include a payment plan chart for your customers which is a nice feature.
The one disadvantage with quoterobot is that its price model is designed around a pay to try pattern – so to give it a try you have to have a credit card handy which I didn’t like (although you can cancel after 30 days if you don’t like it).
If you have to produce any large or repetitive proposals/quotations, either product could save you an awful lot of time.
There are lots of software tools I use on a regular basis. Other than the always open email client (I use outlook), Word is generally open, as is Evenote. However, there has been one tool which I must always have to hand – it’s in constant use and has saved me so much time. That tool is SnagIt.
Snagit is a Windows and Mac screen capture application. It sits in the Windows icon tray, waiting to be called in to action.
One click of the mouse (or activation using the alt+printscreen keys) and it produces a control form which allows the capturing of screens, text and parts of screens with ease in a variety of different formats. It can capture whole screens, windows, multi scrolling windows (perfect for web sites which go beyond the fold) and small areas of screen using a window ‘click and drag’ selection box.
All versions of windows have had their own screen capture methods (such as the Windows 7 snipping tool), but none of them make the process easy, fluid or produce pleasing results.
Snagit’s features also go beyond simple screen capture that makes SnagIt so powerful. You can add borders (like fade or torn edges to indicate a partial screen is shown), annotation (in the form of circles, boxes, arrows, text, etc) and save captures to a catalogue for future use.
When preparing presentations, proposals, manuals, specifications, user guides or even emails, this tool has been a godsend. I can quickly include visuals with the minimum of fuss and distraction.
Snagit is not free (£39 or $59), but it is a tool worth having.
If you like the features of SnagIt but are not willing to pay for the software, then there is a free alternative in the form of GetGreenShot.
This alternative product has many of the same features as snagit, but is not quite as easy to use and does not support as many options for edging of captures and catalogue storage.
But you get what you pay for.