Show 88: Two fat ladies

Paul Boag

On this week’s show: Paul shares some thoughts on recording your creative ideas, Marcus discusses setting up a web design company and we review the Principles of Beautiful web design by Jason Beaird.

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Housekeeping

Before we get into the news there are a couple of housekeeping items I want to share with you all…

Eric Meyer Competition

In last week’s show we ran a competition to win a free ticket to Eric Meyer’s upcoming London workshop. The response to the competition has been truly phenomenal with a surprising mix of answer to our question…

“In which episode of the boagworld podcast did I first mention the subject of web standards?”

The answer was actually the very first show although we did have many suggest it was show 2. Although Show 2 was dedicated to web standards they were actually mentioned in the very first episode. Very well done to all of those of you who spotted that little trick in the question.

Anyway the winner, selected at random from the correct answers is… John Thixton.

Congratulations John, we will be in contact shortly to get you signed up.

Thanks very much to the guys over at Carson Systems who were kind enough to supply us with the free ticket. Don’t forget that even if you didn’t win you can still sign up for the workshop on the Carson systems website.

100th Boagworld

Next up, you may remember that a few weeks back we talked about the fact that we wanted to have a little celebration to mark the 100th episode of the boagworld podcast. Well, thanks to the organizational skills of Ian Forrester we now have a date and a venue. We will be recording the 100th episode of boagworld live at Ye Old Cock Tavern, London on Saturday 20th October 2007.

As well as recording the show live we are going to put a big wad of cash behind the bar so there should be free drinks for a while. We really appreciate all of the support you guys have given us over the last couple of years and want to in some way say thank you.

If you can possibly turn up it would be great to see you. Book it in to your calendar and sign up on upcoming. Please take the time to sign up on upcoming because it gives us an idea of how many people are coming.

News and events

Web redesign is a bad strategy

My first news story of the week is yet another post by Gerry McGovern. This article definitely makes up for his previous post about the best sites being ugly sites! This time around he talks about a particular passion of mine. He argues that website redesigns are nearly always a bad idea and that it fails to address the underlying issues.

This is certainly a position I have held for a long time. I believe that sites should evolve instead of going through a succession of wholesale redesigns. McGovern argues that redesigns too often happen for the wrong reasons such as changes in management, boredom, or a feeling the site has fallen into disrepair. I couldn’t agree more and would encourage people to think twice before complete overhauling their website.

YSlow for Firebug

Those lovely folks over at the Yahoo! Developer Network have been kind enough to produce a great plugin to the firebug firefox extension. I have spoken on the show before about how firebug provides loads of useful functionality to web developers including the ability to edit, debug and monitor both CSS and Javascript on live sites. However YSlow adds to that already impressive line up of functionality.

YSlow analyzes web pages and tells you why they’re slow based on the rules for high performance web sites. It analyzes any web page and generates a grade for each rule and an overall grade. If a page can be improved, YSlow lists the specific changes to be made. It also calculates the total size of the web page for both empty cache and primed cache scenarios, as well as information about cookies. Finally, it lists all the components in the page allows you to view the HTTP response headers for any component.

Find redundant CSS selectors

Talking of useful development tools for firefox, you might want to check out the Dust-me selector which has been released by the sitepoint guys this week. The dust-me extension helps you find unused CSS selectors.

You know what it is like. Maybe you are working with somebody else’s CSS file or maybe you are working on an old website and can’t remember what you have done. Whatever the case you don’t know what half of the CSS selectors do and so dare not remove any just in case they are used somewhere. Enter Dust-me.

Dust-me will monitor the pages of a website you surf around making a list of any unused styles it finds in attached stylesheets. The list is constantly updated as you move from page to page. Once you have looked around the whole site you end up with a definitive list of styles which can be safely removed. Nice!

Although this is useful I am sure there must be something out there which scans all of the HTML pages and saves you the effort of navigating around the site. If you know of such a tool post it on the show notes.

Marcus’ bit: Setting up a web design company

We got this question from Ali:

Have you done any podcasts on how to start a business? More specifically a web design company such as the one you have. Just a request if you have not done a podcast, could you have a whole one dedicated to starting a web design business. I mean how to start one, start with business plan or just start one day building websites for various people and build your own portfolio?

We have previously discussed the aspects of running a web design company, recently covering who you should look to employ and a little bit further back a fairly long piece where Paul and I reminisced about setting up Headscape. However, we haven’t really looked at the initial set up properly.

Though we’re not going to dedicate the whole podcast to it, I thought I would cover some of the things you need to think about.

Business plan?

To be totally honest, unless you are looking for funding, then I think writing a business plan is a waste of effort. I do think it is a good idea to write down what you want from the business and how you think you want the business to be viewed – in essence, a mission statement (though it has to actually mean something!).

It is also worth asking yourself where you want the business to be in 2, 3, 5 and 10 years time. Keep reviewing and don’t be afraid to change as your views and your business changes.

Coming back to funding; unless you are looking to develop a product and therefore require R&D time (and therefore backing) you shouldn’t really need any funding. If you can run your business from home the set up costs are fairly minimal.

Forecasting

Running a web design company, from a business point of view, can be a fairly nervy existence. Put simply, there is only so much work you can take on at any one time and clients will rarely wait for you to be ready, so there is always a point in the not too distant future (1, 2 maybe 3 months) where the work ends.

Therefore, not only do you need to be out there pitching for work, you also need have a good idea of what you need to make each month to break even. This takes thought and usually the input of someone with some accountancy experience. Producing an annual financial forecast has been invaluable to us as we know exactly where we stand throughout the year.

Keep a close eye on productivity as this is the bane of the fixed price service business. It’s very easy to get excited about a big new contract but they are usually the ones that end up being priced badly, take much longer to complete than originally expected and therefore ending costing you; not only on the visible bottom line but also in lost sales because you couldn’t take on new work.

Keep searching for new clients

When a business starts it tends to rely on a handful of clients to survive. This is perfectly normal but it means that young businesses are placed at risk if they lose one good client. I have always said that sales get easier and easier as time moves on based simply on numbers. In other words: the more clients you sign up, the more referrals you will get.
So, in the early days, make a particular effort to gain new clients as well as relying on existing ones.

Ok, that covers some general good practice, but what about some of the more detailed stuff.

Decide on branding

Here’s a few fundamentals:

  • Company name
  • URL – Obviously relates hugely to the previous point!
  • Logo/ corporate ID – you will need letterheads, business cards, invoices etc
  • Build your website – much as this is the biggest pain possible, it is fundamental. In the beginning it’s that old rock and hard place scenario where you can’t win new web design work because you only have a holding page, but you can’t build the site because you are working on precious paid work. I wondered recently why I tend not to work so many evenings as I used to – now I remember!

Boring stuff

  • You will need to register your company. In the UK this costs money, not a great deal but you will need to do it.
  • Limited company, partnership, sole trader? Take advice from professionals on this and other items here.
  • Insurance – I covered this in a recent podcast so I won’t go into detail, but you do need to look at:
    • Professional indemnity
    • Public/product liability
    • Employers liability
    • Key man
  • Contracts – you need to sort out your standard contract documentation before you start and make sure that it is used for all jobs.

Pitching early on

Even though it can feel like you don’t stand a chance against more well-established agencies, you do hold a few aces:

  • You have fresh ideas
  • You’re keen
  • Even though your company doesn’t have a much of a portfolio, there is no reason at all why you can’t demonstrate work done at previous companies as long as you’re honest about it and explain, in detail, about your role
  • You’re cheap! However, don’t continually undercut your own margins or you won’t be in business for long. Be prepared to walk away… be prepared to walk away!

Initial prospects

This is when friends, family and old work colleagues come to the fore. Even though I have just pointed out some of the good points relating to early businesses, gaining some business ‘easily’ through your contacts is highly recommended.

The cost of sale is usually much less so, again, you are helping out that bottom line and giving yourself more time for production work and pitching.

Consider outsourcing

Finally, try to build up a group of trustworthy contacts that you can outsource to a) when it gets really busy and b) if there’s a part of a project that is outside your skillset.

Paul’s corner: Recording creativity

I like to think of myself as an ideas person. I guess that is another way of saying that I am crap at implementing the ideas I have. One problem I used to suffer from was recording the ideas I had in a form that I could refer back to later. Overtime I have developed a couple of techniques that help me manage my ideas better. Whether you are a designer, developer or website owner, we are all required to be creative in our jobs. We are all looking for ways to become more creative. With that in mind I thought I would share some of those techniques with you.

Review: The Principles of Beautiful Web Design

This week I have received probably the most sarcastic and rude question ever to be sent to me. However, at the heart of all that cheek there was actually a very good question…

Once you have got to grips with the basic of HTML and CSS where do you go next?

Its a good question and there are a lot of potential answers to it. However one of the more sarcastic comments that surrounded the question made me think that perhaps the next step is to ensure a good grasp of basic design principles such as layout, typography, imagery and colour.

This in turn made me think of the book I am reading at the moment, “The Principles of Beautiful Web Design” by Jason Beaird.

Jason’s book really is a basic introduction to good design practices for the web. It is ideal for developers, amateurs or indeed anybody looking to improve the look and feel of their website. It is made up of 5 chapters each dedicated to one aspect of good design; layout, colour, texture, typography and imagery. It really is very good and talks a lot of real sense. I could imagine this being very useful for web site owners who want to understand the design process better and be more informed when signing off designs submitted to them by an agency.

However, what surprised me the most was how useful i found it myself (as somebody who calls himself a designer). I was intending to have a quick flick through the book so I could get the gist of what was being covered. However, I found myself being drawn in by Jason’s friendly writing style and by finding myself continually going “oh I forgotten about that” or “I really should spend more time doing that”. In short it works as a useful reminder service to designers too.

Check it out. Its a worthwhile read if you want to go over the basics.

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