This week on the Boagworld show we ask a single, very important question – How do we keep the client work coming in?
Paul: This week on the Boagworld show we ask a single very important question. How do we keep that client work coming in? This week’s show is sponsored by Videoblocks and Vivaldi. Hello and welcome to the Boagworld show the podcast about all aspects of digital design, development and strategy. My name is Paul Boag and joining me on this week’s show is Andy Clark, Drew McLellan, Sam Barnes, and Marcus Lillington. Hello all.
Marcus: Hello Paul
Paul: We got pretty close to just not bothering with this show this week didn’t we?
Marcus: Yeah, I’m not meant to be here, I’m on holiday Paul. That’s how much I like the show and you. There you go.
Paul: It’s not, it’s nothing to do with like. You just… The only reason, the only reason you’re here doing the show is because basically this podcast is your only vague effort at marketing.
Marcus: Takes the knife from his heart. (Laughter)
Paul: Deny it, tell me that basically this is it as far as marketing is concerned. I have no idea how Headscape has survived as long as it has with you…
Marcus: Actually, that’s quite interesting because that, kind of partly, covers what I’m going to talk about today. If we get to me.
Marcus: Well, sort of. There is kind of a connection.
Paul: Yeah, because we’re talking about the cliff, isn’t it. You’re always three months away from oblivion when you run an agency.
Marcus: Yeah, Hmm.
Sam: Well this is got off to a cheery start!
Marcus: I do do some other things Paul. But this is definitely the lion’s share of my marketing effort.
Paul: Yes, an hour a week when you can be arsed.
Sam: Whilst on holiday, I might add.
Marcus: Whilst on holiday, yes. Thanks Sam!
Sam: No problem!
Paul: Don’t stick up for him. Nobody does that. This goes against the premise of the show. So Marcus nearly didn’t turn up because he is on holiday and can’t be arsed. I seem unable to be able to get into the room, where we… As in the virtual room where we do this. And Drew is rapidly having to delete files off of his computer so that he has got enough space to record this.
Drew: It’s like when there is a forest fire, you know how they sort of scuttle ahead of it trying to clear space to stop the fire spreading. That is kind of what I’m doing here. I think I’m okay.
Paul: I’m very pleased you’ve just described our podcast as a forest fire.
Drew: Not nearly as successful Paul, not nearly as successful as a forest fire.
Paul: But does cause devastation in its wake. (Laughter)
Andy:I’ve got a bag of liquorice if anybody…
Paul: Oh yes I forgot that bit. I forgot Andy nearly came unable to joined us on the show because he stuck his teeth together with liquorice.
Andy: And is still not finished so if you can’t understand what I am saying then it will be because of it.
Sam: He’ll have to put his spare set in. (Laughter)
Paul: You must be of that age, mustn’t he?
Marcus: Yeah, was it 60 yesterday Andy?
Andy: It was 51 thank you! Cheeky bastard.
Paul: So yes, happy birthday for yesterday.
Marcus: Andy would have been in the school year above me. He would have been one of the bully boys.
Paul: Oh, he must have been a bully surely?
Andy: I would have slapped you round the head.
Paul: Yeah, I bet you were really horrible at school. Yeah, you would have been.
Andy: No, no, no, I was a bit of a Wendy at school, really to be honest. I don’t think I ever really got into any trouble at all. Ever.
Paul: Were you kind of a bit of a geeky, nerdy kid? I bet you played things like football and stuff like that.
Andy: Oh God no! No.
Andy: No, I hated sport completely. In fact in the fourth year when I must’ve been about 14 or something, I actually fell over and injured my neck and had to go to an osteopath and the osteopath basically gave me this note to say that Andy can’t do sports until his neck is better and I kept that note and kept photocopying it and getting my mum to sign it for about the next five years or so. So I never actually played rugby or football.
Paul: My trick was that I used to be so… I used to have really bad hay fever. So what I used to do is I would sneak out at break time, just before P.E. rub my hands in the grass and then rub my hands on my face to the point that my eyes would swell shut in order to get me out of PE.
Marcus: Tricky in the winter though Paul.
Paul: Yeah, it didn’t work so much in the winter
Marcus: You’d just get muddy.
Paul: Which was worse, because in the winter the ground is rock hard and they make you play rugby. And so I remember very vividly with rugby, because I would basically stand as far away from the ball as physically possible, you know, and avoid it at all costs. And there was one game of rugby where for some reason I looked up and this ball descended towards me and I accidentally caught it! Which was entirely an accident. Then I looked around and I saw just a wall of aggressive -looking boys running towards me so I ran away from them as fast as I possibly could and then eventually one of them caught up with me and tackled me to the ground at which point I scored a try! Because I happened to be standing in the right place when he managed to catch me and tackle me to the ground. And that is the only time I have ever scored a goal, a try or anything.
Sam: Hang on a minute, this sounds a bit like Forest Gump!
Paul: No, I swear to you.
Sam: What was your nickname at school? Was it Forrest?
Paul: Forest Gump wasn’t out at that point. And I swear to you that that is the truth. I forgot that it happened in Forest Gump actually.
Marcus: I’m quite impressed Paul that you scored a try full stop. That’s pretty good!
Paul: It was only because, it was pure luck. So there you go.
Marcus: But you would have had to have got past or through the marauding boys to have scored a try. The only way you could have run away from them was to go behind you, back to your try line.
Paul: Perhaps I scored a try for the wrong side!?
Andy: Well, I was paying so much attention in a game of school rugby once that I didn’t realise that we had changed sides at half-time.
Paul: Oh I’ve done that.
Andy: And then I tackled somebody who was running towards me and he was on my team! (Laughter)
Paul: That’s quite good, I quite like that one. You see, now I’m worried about my story. I’m worried that actually I’m just remembering the plot of Forest Gump. Because you’ve got a point there Marcus, why, I ran away from the boys so how did that work?
Marcus: Well, unless they’d all been clamped over one side I suppose… Maybe there had been a scrum and everyone was around there and got bogged down. And you were right on the other side then you could have run past them because they would have been all the way over there. So, it’s not impossible.
Paul: Marcus we use sporty at school, you must have been?
Marcus: I was house captain.
Paul: Oh gore, you’re obnoxious.
Marcus: (laughter) Hundred metre record holder.
Paul: That is terrible.
Marcus: Only because I was so much bigger than everyone else.
Paul: That’s the other one I did once. You know you have to jump over a horse. Not a real horse! In Dorset… Yeah in the gym, we couldn’t afford proper equipment so we had to jump over a real horse because obviously you have a lot of those wandering around in Dorset. So I ran towards this horse to jump over it and there’s a little trampoline-y bit that you have in front of it. I hit the trampoline, my foot went through the corner of the trampoline and I whacked headlong into the end of the horse and head-butted it. (Laughter) My PE teacher actually laughed out loud and he came up to me afterwards and apologised and said that it was massively unprofessional. Because of course the entire class just disintegrated into laughter.
Marcus: Paul Boags broken his neck again!
Paul: Yeah. I hospitalised someone once as well.
Marcus: Excellent, well we had… Talking about those, like a vaulting horse isn’t it? That thing you’re talking about? We had one lad go over there tried to jump and you’re supposed to kind of, pop your hands on the top of it, but he missed and went down the other side and he had landed on his knee on the floor and his kneecap had gone out at almost 90°. To the side of his leg and it was like “oh, dear that’s a bit rough!”
Andy: Now I will put a link into the show notes. I don’t know whether you know, if I’ve mentioned this before but when I was at school back in the 19….
Paul: 20s…! (Laughter)
Andy: Early 80s I suppose. They came and filmed a TV documentary series about my school. It was called Kingswood. And they had already done one a couple of years before about this posh knobby private school somewhere down south, Dorset or somewhere! And then they came and did one proper comprehensive school in the Midlands and they filmed this. It took about two years and by the time that they had finished it I was actually in sixth form and they did this sort of discussion programme at the end of the series. The typical sort of BBC programme presented by Ludovic Kennedy with various heads of education and the headmaster and knobby people and me! So I was… it was my thing. With a tie and everything… And actually I got an email from an old friend of mine who I was actually at school with. She sent me a link to… Somebody has put all these things onto YouTube. So, I will find this link, I will put it in the show notes if anybody wants to see what a complete and utter pillock I look like in about 1982.
Paul: Yeah, and he really does look like a complete and utter pillock. It did amuse me. Not quite as much as Marcus in Hands to heavens days but…
Marcus: Ahh, yes. That was fantastic.!
Paul: It was borderline that. So Sam, I’m going to guess that you weren’t very sporty at school.
Sam: I was very sporty.
Paul: Oh, really?
Sam: Yeah, I was Mr. football, hockey whatever, you name it. And actually I was playing sports from a really early age, weekends and at school, and it was only because of that that I got into this industry. I tore my cruciate ligament twice which meant I really couldn’t play any more. So I thought I would go into the other room and see what that box is and here I am today!
Paul: Oh dear, so you could have been like a professional football player or something if it wasn’t for your injuries?
Sam: Well, yes let’s go with that! I could have been professional.
Marcus: He probably would have been one of the backs for the England rugby team, I reckon.
Paul: You reckon?
Marcus: Yeah you, super-fast.
Paul: Yeah, he’s got that look about him. Yeah.
Paul: Drew, you’re borderline. I can’t work out whether I would say you were sporty or not. You are now, I know but…
Drew: I was about the least sporty person. I would go and hide in the music room. But I was off school one day in the fourth year and my form had to submit a team for the cross country championship and so because I wasn’t there, for a laugh, they thought they’d sign me up as team captain.
Paul: Oh, no!
Drew: So I get back to school the next day and find out that I was running it that day as team captain. Anyway, we only bloody one!
Paul: Yes!! In their face.
Drew: I showed them.
Paul: Yeah. So there you go now, I had this whole section at the beginning of the show where we were going to talk about future tech. But instead we have talked about past sport. Which is I think just as interesting really. And we have made up for it by having a lovely link in the show notes to Andy looking like a pillock, which is always good! What I want to know Andy is how did you get yourself selected. Were you one of the… Were you like, did you have some society that she ran for kinds of rebels without a clue or something like that? He’s gone!, He’s wandered off. Either that or he’s forgotten his mic is muted.
Sam: Unless it’s got really out of hand now.
Andy: You mean to say get on the telly?
Paul: Yes, because I mean why, out of the whole school, did you get picked as the honoured child to represent the entire school on BBC TV?
Andy: I was actually head of the sixth form at this point. Like a school council. And I was the head of sixth form. So yes…
Marcus: Was that head boy?
Andy: Not quite. No, we didn’t have head boys or head girls. We had like a school council which I like to think of as like a Soviet Politburo. And I was…
Marcus: You had people done over that you didn’t like?!
Andy: Exactly, and I was Khrushchev.
Paul: I did get the distinct impression that you were… From seeing you on that video that you were like campaigning for student rights and all that kind of crap. Very PC and right on.
Andy: Yes I was.
Marcus: He still is, come on! Andy “Brexit” Clark.
Paul: He’s just opinionated, there is a difference.
Andy: I’ve just found the link and I am putting it into show notes right now.
Paul: That’s going to be so funny. Right, okay. Let’s then move on from that glorious start to the show. I do apologise, dear listener, that we’ve done nothing for 13 minutes. Let’s talk about our sponsor and then it will be 15 minutes without doing anything! Videoblocks who’ve been supporting this whole season, and it is very much appreciated, are an affordable subscription-based stock media site where you basically get unlimited access to premium stock footage. They also have a sister site called Audioblocks that offers unlimited access to premium stock audio, as you might expect. And it’s a great, great value really if you’re doing any kind of video or audio work. Instead of having to pay per download, which quickly gets quite expensive if you do any kind of regular video or any kind of regular audio. Instead they’ve got a subscription model. You pay one fee for the whole year then you can download as much as you want, not only is it as much as you want, it’s unrestricted use. You can use it in whatever way you need to. So they’ve got a selection of over 150,000 videos and 130,000 audio files. And for the average subscriber, because you download so much, it works out as less than a dollar per download over the period of the year. You pay one fee over the year and you download so much it only ends up costing you about dollar per download. They’ve got some really good high quality stuff that’s brilliant to use. I have used a lot of their material myself. They have done a really nice listener package for you where you get a years subscription of both Videoblocks and Audioblocks for only $149. So that’s the $100 discount on their usual price tag for people that followed the show. You can find out more about them at videoblocks.com/Boagworld2016. Even if you’re not intending to buy go check them out at that link because then they will want to sponsor us again! Which is great because then I get more money! And that is ultimately what the show is all about. So there we go that is… I suppose if Andy, being right on and a Unionist at heart, would probably argue that I need to share the revenue from this show with the rest of my guests, but no. I will just replace you Andy, if you are going to say that!
Andy: Not even a bit of liquorice.
Paul: I’ll buy you a bit of liquorice. Although liquorice is the devil’s work. So as far as I’m concerned by new liquorice would be punishing you.
Drew: I think you’re confusing the devil with the Dutch
Paul: I don’t get that joke… What, can someone explain it to me?
Drew: It’s the liquorice.
Paul: Yeah, but why Dutch?
Drew: It’s Dutch isn’t it?
Sam: No idea.
Paul: how would anybody know that?! (Laughter) I mean, if we were talking about Lego maybe. But not liquorice.
Andy: Lego is not Dutch!
Paul: I knew that! (Laughter) where’s Lego from them?
Marcus: Denmark. Further round.
Paul: You see, Marcus didn’t know either.
Marcus: Over there…! Scandinavia.
Paul: We are calling this new segment of the show “Show your ignorance!” What would you like to show your ignorance about? Seriously, I had no idea liquorice was a Dutch thing.
Drew: I could be wrong, I could be completely wrong. I had it in my head that it was.
Paul: That’s great, that’s brilliant. I love it. Let’s just… Well, we do the rest of the show on sweeping assumptions and generalisations so why not that bit?
Round Table Discussion
Talking of sweeping generalisations and assumptions, let’s do our discussion bit. Marcus, I think it would be really good for you to kick off considering you had that wonderful teaser at the start of the show.
Marcus: Ooo yes, I left everyone hanging didn’t I?
Paul: You did! The tension has been killing me ever since. So do you want to share a little bit of what you want to talk about today?
Marcus: Yes, this is probably at the forefront of every agency owners mind, all of the time, every day. And it’s the fact that if you do project work, which most agencies do, i.e. you don’t create a product and sell the product. I’ll come onto that in the minute. But if you’re doing project not product work for client A and then client B and the two will overlap then you’re looking for client C, there is always a point, usually about 2,3 or 4 months in to the future, depending on the size of the agency, when you haven’t got any work. Because obviously you can’t take on… Well, you could take work on for a year’s time but nobody ever comes in and says I’d like you to do a project in the year. They expect you to be able to start within a month or so. So you’ve always got this kind of “so you can do so much work and that work will last until two, three months into the future and then what?” So there’s always this concern that suddenly all the work is going to run out. And that kind of did happen to us in 2014, not completely. But we had a couple of projects that we expected to win and we didn’t. And it made into really a rather unpleasant time. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about today. What I wanted to talk about today is what can we possibly do to try and avoid that? I mentioned the development of products, which is something that Headscape is trying to do 5, 6 years ago. And we’ve talked on the show about that in the past about why that didn’t work specifically for us. I think it’s because our hearts weren’t really in it and we took too long to do it. But it is a possible way an agency can go. That didn’t work for us. I am just wondering, does anybody else who is in the agency world that you guys know who’ve developed products actually made any kind of serious income from it? Obviously, I know there are software developers… Everyone points to Basecamp and things like that, where they’ve made a fortune. But if you are going to put the effort into another stream of revenue it’s got to make you quite a lot of money. Otherwise it’s not worth putting the effort in. So, I just wondered if anybody has got stories of other people that have, who have made that decision to develop a product and then have put a lot of effort into it and have successfully been making a great deal from it ever since. Because well done them!
Paul: I guess Drew and Rachel would be an example of that. Because they used to do client work before perch.
Marcus: There you go.
Drew: Yeah, I mean, I guess that is exactly what’s we did. We were a web development agency and we were doing… we were basically working with design agencies. Sort of partnering with them doing the techie side of their projects. We launched perch as a side project that we literally spent about 6 days, three weekends working on and just launched. Thinking this might be interesting! And what happened with that is it grew fairly steadily but reliably over a course of about two years. To the fact that it then came about equal with our agency revenue. So we had to make a decision at that point and it was probably the most difficult point in terms of the transition was when we were 50% client work and 50% product work. Because what we found, we hadn’t anticipated so much, is that the requirements in terms of the communications and that sort of thing between those two different worlds is quite different. When you are working on projects for clients you tend to have kick-off meetings and plan out the work, you don’t stop communicating but you go away and start doing the work and then start feeding back in quite a structured way usually. But with a product where you’ve got customers and you might have thousands of customers rather than half a dozen clients you are getting requests coming in all the times. There might be pre-sales questions, there might be technicals support questions. There might be things that you suddenly need to pay attention to because you’ve got a live product with payments coming in every day. Perhaps you need to tweak something about your payment integration that has to be dealt with. So the demands that we found we had with the product were quite real time demands that are unpredictable and coming in all the time. That really conflicted with our project, client project work because it is almost impossible, when we were at that point was almost 50–50 it was almost impossible to say right today I am going to work on this. Because there would just be a constant stream of other things coming in that had to be attended to and we found that we needed to decide either we step back from the product or we step back from the project work. We can’t have the same people doing the same things. Or I guess we try and step up, bring in other people to do some of the project work. It kind of got that crucial point of just these two things conflicting as work that any individual needs to deal with.
Marcus: I remember hearing, I think it was Jim Kodel??, I think he might have been on this show actually, many years ago, saying that it was one of the best days of his life that he realised that there was more than 50% of the revenue was from the products that they had created rather than the client work at they were doing. And to him that was the green light, all systems go, we go down this route. Was that the same for you Drew?
Drew: I guess was it was. And part of that was personal in that we had been doing client work for quite a long time at that point and with the way our business was, because we were doing this thing, partnering with design agencies, it was kind of an old-fashioned model of somebody else outside our company would do some design work and send us photoshop files and then we would turn that into a website. We were kind of becoming aware that that model of working just wasn’t viable for getting the best results for the web project. In needed to be more collaborative so we were kind of at the point of realising that we need to change something about how our business functions. That was at the same point as then reaching this 50–50 tipping point with the the product income. So for us it was kind of an easy decision. It was like, let’s focus on the product stuff.
Paul: It kind of depends on what your question is Marcus. Because essentially what Drew and Rachel did and what Jim Coudal did is that they moved away from an agency model entirely towards a product-based business. So in a sense they didn’t do what you were originally saying. They didn’t push that cliff back any, they just changed the rules of the game.
Marcus: Yes, I think my question regarding product development is can you do both? And I think from what Drew was saying is that you can’t. It doesn’t work. I guess if maybe you were a 50 person agency and you could dedicate 20 people to agency work and 30 people to product work, may be then. But I suspect even then it would probably cause frictions, I’m not sure. There was another aspect to trying to avoid the cliff is the idea of charging clients ongoing for support and maintenance and that kind of thing. I’ve always thought that the model of charging clients X percentage of the value of the project going on for support and if you don’t use it up within a certain amount of time it just gets written off, I’ve always thought that was rather unfair to clients. And we don’t do that we kind of… Obviously we provide support for our clients that want it but they basically buy a Time Bank of credits that don’t ever run out. Because when they run out you can have some more. But I’m just wondering actually… My question here is actually are we too soft and actually the more traditional software company type support arrangement is actually really part of ensuring that you don’t fall off the cliff and it means that you will remain around for your clients. You won’t suddenly kind of go out of business and that really I am getting it wrong possibly on the nicer view towards support.
Paul: I certainly… I have a time bank approach that I use and yes they do expire after a year or whatever period you set. And I think that is acceptable because I think what it also does is it motivates the client to keep developing, to keep moving forward. Which is what they should be doing anyway. I mean Sam, you’ve worked with a lot of different situations and clients. You must have come across these kind of support arrangements?
Sam: I mean, yes support arrangements we’ve had them but as you say they don’t last very long they don’t tend to pull in much money. In my experience. I think rather than the product approach the one I’ve seen the work relatively well, especially if you focus at it, is actually go down very specific account management route. So yes you’re still doing your projects but we used to see them as our way to begin a new relationship rather than just a project. And all the while that we are working on that project we are looking for ways that we can perhaps be useful to them in that area, or maybe not in that area. As you know when you work for a small agency and you work with companies you have to live that company. You get to find out all aspects and it’s amazing what opportunities you can find. But that was always the way that seemed the path of least resistance to getting that kind of revenue and filling those gaps up over the months.
Paul: So how would that work? In the sense that.. are you talking about that they pay you a fixed retainer and you just use as many of those hours as you can within the retainer. What is the business model?
Sam: I think that’s where you want to end up ideally. Maybe even a longer fixed term kind of contract. But what would typically bridge between the one-off project and the account management would be that kind of change in the client’s perception of you from someone that delivers a thing to someone that delivers a service. That is what we say we do all of the time. I think we get into the mindset. Plus, we’ve also got have the right people. You talk about when do you know when to stop and focus on a product, it’s the same sort of thing with recruitment. When do you start having a dedicated account manager and these are the experts who can really leverage that client. So when you typically find a project manager or maybe even the CEO or someone like yourself Marcus doing that job but when you focus on that as a strategy, without it being a sneaky strategy, like you say it kind of pays off from time to time. I can’t say we have got to the point where we were filling up the year ahead but we definitely saw some of those gaps filling up in the future because we knew this company was there.
Marcus: I certainly… There’s two points there. Existing clients, certainly if it is a big project for a brand-new client, there is bound to be more stuff going to happen in the future and you will be talking about that while you do the first projects so yes we can allow for that going forward. But that is not the same as being on a retainer. And that is a bit of a dream place for most agencies.
Paul: But I don’t think Marcus, and having a bit of an inside view of Headscape, I don’t think Headscape has been aggressive enough in going after those retainers. Because I actually think retainers, if they are done right, are a good deal for the client as well because I think a good retainer basically says “we believe that you should be continually improving and adapting and making your website better.” Rather than going through this boom bust cycle of redesign. We’ve talked about that loads of times on the show and it is the way, continual iteration and improvement is the way that any website of any significant size should be designed. So, that doesn’t lend itself to a fixed price, fixed project model particularly well. Because it relies… every new project feels like a new cost, feels like a new outgoing. So as a result they don’t tend to happen. A retainer model, on the other hand, where you say “okay I’m gonna pay this agency X amount and they are going to continually develop. They are going to be doing user testing, they are going to be doing iterations, they are going to be providing us with reports and feedback showing the progress that they have made. They are going to be working hand-in-hand with an internal contact within the organisation.” Not only does that encourage that continual iteration it is good from their business point of view because they can now budget. You are going from a capital expense where every project is a new and unexpected expense to a continual investment which is very predictable and very knowable. I don’t think Headscape is pushed that heavily enough. I mean, that is the route that I have gone down with some of my clients and it has worked very well. That they pay a flat fee per month and I am always there to support them. I am always there to help them. So, you would have to structure in a slightly different way but I actually think it’s a very beneficial approach that is under-utilised in the industry.
Marcus: Yeah, I think there is… I have two responses. One is that I agree maybe that is something, certainly with some clients I can think of who we no longer work with, that that may have worked with and also I think it is something a lot easier said than done. Some clients just aren’t interested in that, they want you to be there for them but they would not… It’s like trying to get some certain clients to pay for something on time and materials. It’s like, “No we can’t do that. We will only work on fixed price basis”. And some would never… They would only work on a time bank basis rather than a retainer.
Paul: Yeah, and that’s fine. I’ve got no problem with that if they don’t want to work in that way. But I think often, and I say this also about, often we self censor ourselves and that kind of situation that we go “Ah, they’ll never go for it!”. So we don’t talk to them about it, we don’t give them that option. And I think that can be a mistake that I see quite a lot that, you know, if you don’t ask you don’t get. I think putting it in front of the client, outlining the benefits, outlining alongside that the alternative approaches like time banks or whatever else and let them decide. It is instead of saying to ourselves I will never get it past our client or they won’t like it they won’t think that way. I said exactly the same about in-house teams I see it all the time in in-house teams. An in-house team knows some great thing that they want to do but they go all my boss will never agree to it and so they never ask them. So I say if you don’t ask you don’t get. Personally.
Marcus: I guess what it comes down to is that you’ve got to, if there’s a client where you can see a great deal of value in you being part of their relationship going forward then it is worth going for. If the amount of value that you could bring would be quite little from month to month-to-month then you probably not worth bothering having the conversation. But if there is a definite “You can bring value to this client going forward” it is worth having the conversation.
Paul: You know, I would argue just judging by the kind of clients that Headscape works with, you know, universities, large charities et cetera, that actually I would have thought that would apply to pretty much all of them.
Marcus: I’m only thinking of one where… We had a client where we did kind of have this kind of ongoing strategic relationship and actually we were charging may be double the amount they could actually spend of any value.
Paul: And I know the client that you are talking about and I think the problem there, and this is the key I think to a retainer being of value, is that in that you were relatively passive. We, well I was there at the time, so we would wait for the client to come to us with things that needed doing.
Marcus: Not on that one. That’s why I brought it up!
Paul: Oh, okay!
Marcus: We were paid basically to… We were making recommendations. We were measuring whether they were being successful or not and basically there wasn’t enough for us to do for the amount that we charged them.
Paul: Oh, okay. Well in which case you charged too much! Rather than the model being wrong, if that makes sense.
Marcus: Yeah, we should have just charged for half the amount of time then it would have been bang on. I just bought it up as an example of the one time that we really did have a chat with the client about it and they were like “yeah, yeah” and we didn’t get it right. But Hay hoe, these things happen.
Paul: Andy, you’ve been very quiet.
Andy: No, I’ve been… This is one of the things that I seriously need to figure out how to fix in our business. Because we are suffering, and have suffered from exactly this for about the last 18 months, I suppose. It’s been a bloody awful year financially for us, this year. We’ve done some really nice work but the pipeline has literally, I mean it did fall off a cliff. There is no doubt about that and I think the reason for that is sort of last summer we decided that I was going to rewrite hard-boiled. Because we were so desperate to get out of our bloody publishing contract. The way to do it was to write a second addition. So we thought right, how long is that going to take, It is going to take six weeks. To basically do the amends and the bits and pieces. So we could easily sort of fit six weeks into that quiet July, August period that we normally get. And anyway sod’s law was that it was a much, much, much bigger job than I had anticipated it being and it ended up taking over three months. And I can’t write and do work at the same time so it was pretty much solid and I didn’t do any work and I didn’t do any sales, most importantly, for those months so by the time that we actually finished the book and got it out there late November we had absolutely bugger all to do. Because that sort of three months sales cycle I hadn’t been taking care of. There was nothing lined up.
Marcus: Scary isn’t it.
Andy: It was, it was very, very scary. So we knew there might be a couple of things happening that were more or less confirmed for the New Year which is why we essentially said “We’ll take December last year off and paint my kitchen!” And you know do some other sort of business related stuff. But then when it came to the start of this year fortunately a few things started to trickle in. But we have really suffered from me not paying attention to that sales cycle for three months. It kind of got me wondering about how we could make money that wasn’t dependent on the time that we spent sitting in front of computers. And I think that is the holy Grail.
Paul: Yeah, and I don’t necessarily think that’s… I think that’s a bit of a, kind of a fools gold. I mean there are some elements, selling a product is obviously one way of doing it but what I’m more interested in… That’s saying we want a continual revenue stream that is going to come without direct intervention on our part of spending time in front of the computer. But the truth is even if you have a product, as Drew and Rachel will testify, you still have got to sit in front of that computer. You still have support calls you’ve got all of those other things to do. So for me getting away from that cliff and that kind of edge is about being able to fill up the pipeline further ahead. So for me it’s about things like, the way that I’ve done it is these retainer arrangements, where every three months or every month or however you choose to structure it, I’ve got money coming in their because I know that that is going to happen and I know because they’ve signed up for year. I have arrangements where I do training that I do pretty much every month. So I know there is going to be a bit of money coming in from that every month. Speaking, I find works well because that is always further ahead because you can plan further ahead when it comes to conferences and speaking arrangements. So it’s about identifying the type of work that either happens on an ongoing basis come what may, like training, like retainer arrangements or stuff like that, or stuff that is planned further ahead, that would be my perspective on it. I can see a couple of hands up so…
Andy: We are going to do a couple of things, we have been working over the last couple of months was a business consultant Chris Thurlow who has been helping me figure out a strategy for moving forward because being continually hungry for new business is incredibly tiring. And what we are trying to look at, and your suggestions are gold, is moving away from, potentially moving away from working on just a project to thinking about things more in terms of an account. You know how in old advertising agency days, I suppose it still happens, they will win a big account and they will work with a client, or have a contract for X number of years or whatever to do whatever ad. agencies do. Well we can’t really do that on the web. People often say, “do you charge… Do you haven’t maintenance contract?” And to me, you know, unless you’re patching WordPress plug-ins websites don’t need oiling so the idea of a maintenance contract has never really sat well with me. But the idea that we can do some form of ongoing consulting or mentorship or particularly now that I’m doing a lot more work with in-house teams. That is the kind of thing where I’m looking to say, sign up with the client, and say “we’re going to charge you X amount for doing the job with you now, but then a certain amount going forward.” Which is not necessarily tied to a deliverable but it is much more about improvement and expertise in that kind of thing. And we are going to do that alongside making some stuff to sell because we fancy doing it.
Paul: Yeah, and that’s fine. If you fancy doing it then by all means go ahead and do it. But I do exactly the same as you Andy, I work with clients over the longer term where I’m consulting with them and really digging into their business and spending time with it. It works, I’m looking at my pipeline now and I haven’t filled up the months entirely, so for example January is always a bit kind of crappy. So I’m three grand off my target for that month. But then February, March all the way through to May isn’t looking too bad at the moment. And I’ve got stuff going right the way through to August next year.
Andy: You know we don’t have that. It’s one of the things… Misunderstanding… That’s not the word I’m looking for. It’s one of the things, the misconceptions, I suppose that people have about me or our business or the work that we do or whatever. But no, we don’t have that pipeline. I’m looking at an empty calendar from the end of January onwards. Now, stuff always lands we haven’t marketed ourselves for 18 years but stuff always kind of falls through the door. But you can’t rely on that in today’s market and it is stressful and tiring to be so hungry all the time. So that’s why we are working with Chris and that’s why we have to try to move away from the falling off a cliff model.
Paul: Hmmm,. There’s like hundreds of hands up in the “room”. Drew, can I come to you next because I did mention about, earlier about that if you move to a product it doesn’t mean you can sit back and relax. I imagine it’s something along those lines that you’re going to say is it?
Drew: Yeah, I guess I was thinking that actually may be there is sometimes there are types of products where you can sit back and relax, certainly a lot more than… We tend to think of the type of products like… We doing agency work, let’s also launch a web app. that does something that is complimentary to what we do. Then there’s also the more passive income type things like writing a book or, Rachel does a CSS grid training courses. You can just go and sign up on her site and get videos and everything and learn all about CSS grid. Now obviously that was a lot of work to put that together initially but now that sits there and there isn’t really any day-to-day involvement from her to need to be able to do that and, you know people come along and buy it. So I guess that, writing books, like little e-books or small things or maybe you could encapsulate some of what you know as a business and share that in some way with your contemporaries. Yeah, more passive income type product than something that is actually a distraction from your core business. I think that is another interesting aspect to think about.
Paul: Yeah, I mean, I’ve done that certainly. Obviously you make a little bit of money from books, I’ve got video courses that I do. I mean something, Andy, that I can imagine you doing is some of this producing design assets, reusable design assets that people can help themselves to as well. That is a passive income I guess. But whether you would want to get into that side of things I’m not so sure. Whether it’s you?
Andy: Well no. Funnily enough it is something that I am working on right now in fact. This week and next week, and I’m not going to go into a lot of detail in terms of what exactly it is that we have been doing a lot of work in the kind of “pattern library design systems style guide” sphere for a long time. I am very, very disappointed with the way in which most people present that stuff. So we are actually working on something which hopefully brings a little bit more creativity to that area. And we’ve got a couple of weeks before we start a new client project so actually let’s spend it making something that we can sell later on. So I don’t object to that at all. It’s about time I bloody capitalised on some of this infamy, I suppose. All of these years I’ve been going out there doing conference talks for other people. I have never been that sort of person that speaks about something that I then backup with training or consulting or whatever. I’m not like, for example Luke Wroblewski…
Paul: Or me.
Andy: Or you, where there is a very direct kind of link between the thing that I talk about on stage and then “oh, we will hire him to do this”. I spoke about comic book design for two years. Nobody… It doesn’t translate into money whatsoever so I suppose in hindsight I could have been a little bit more businesslike about that. And that’s the thing that’s changing now.
Paul: And that’s the thing you hit the nail on the head there, is that, you said it is well earlier, that marketing, continually marketing yourself, continually selling is absolutely essential in our work. Whether it be doing podcasts like this where I hope that afterwards somebody might give me a ring and say “hey you said this on the show, I would like to follow that up with you” or me mentorshipping agencies would tie in perfectly with today. “And you can find out more about that at…!” But yes you get the idea. It’s relating your products and services directly to the stuff that you are putting out into the world is really, really important as well. Sam?
Sam: Yes, it’s just one last thing really. Having come from small, through medium, and having seen all sorts of agency sizes I can really testify to the fact that the temptation and the money says that the people who are selling or running a business are the ones who should try to forge these accounts that we are talking about to begin with. But every time I’ve seen that attempted it tends not to go too well, I think mainly because of time and the people aren’t experts at that skill. All I will say is when I’ve gone from environments where there’s no sort of dedicated account manager or account management function, even if it’s one person whose job is that, and then I’ve gone to it, where they do have it, the difference is really noticeable. A lot of project managers or business people think that they are fantastic at handling clients but there is a difference something about that account management without strategic vision in mind and also they can really help to just very subtly change the people that are working at your business to think a bit more like that. It’s a very subtle movement but when I’ve gone from without to with it just seems like… What I’m saying is if you can afford it I think you should think about hiring someone to try and do this rather than do it all yourself.
Paul: Now would you… Is there a kind of size. I can imagine an agency of Headscape size or up needing a dedicated account manager but with people like Andy and Andy’s business…
Sam: That’s the tricky thing. Whether you can get someone not as experienced to do it? This is why I don’t run a business, exactly for this reason.
Paul: Because I’ve got to say personally, I think there’s a huge benefit when the business owner is the person liaising and working with the clients. I accept what you’re saying about… It’s not a straight sales role. Marcus I would describe you more as account manager than a salesman.
Marcus: Yes. You if we are viewing a salesman as somebody who kinda bangs the phone and chases after RFPs and that kind of thing, then no that’s not me. Basically because I think for the value of work that we are looking for you are not going to be very successful if you try to be a kind of straight salesman like that. So the vast majority of the work that we have won over the years has been because we have worked with our existing clients, we’ve done a good job so they have therefore hired us to do more, they have spoken to other people, their friends who are in other organisations who are similar. So it is kind of very much my job to ensure that that happens basically. And yes that is an account manager role if you like. But I strongly believe that it should be the owners of the business that are doing that job. Certainly in a small agency like us. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t think we managed to kind of successfully grow past 20 people. As I’ve said many times we’re now back down to 10 people. But when you get to 20 and I imagine when you get 30 people, 40 people, you need to trust other people to do that job for you. And that is something that I was always uncomfortable with. I always said that I think it is the owner’s job to bring the work in and I think the best way to do that is I have just said is to work with the existing clients and just try and get your reputation out there. Further and further afield.
Paul: Yeah, I mean, it’s a really interesting subject this whole idea of pushing out that fall off and the make-ups of what your agency does. We’ve actually spent the whole show talking about this one thing and I’m happy with that. Because I think it’s really good. The things that… Just to kind of summarise what has been said in my mind, that if you want to push past that three-month barrier you have to be marketing and promoting yourself on a continual basis. So not allowing that kind of boom/bust, “Oh, it’s gone quiet let’s panic and do a load of marketing stuff” and then when you get busy you drop it. You cannot allow that to happen. I think products are a really interesting way, but I totally agree with Drew’s comment about maybe focus more on products that are passive. Passive income stuff, unless you want to move away from project work entirely like Drew and Rachel have done. That is a different ball game entirely. I think Andy is entirely right as well about pursuing more consultant relationships with clients because I think that naturally lends itself towards ongoing work. I think looking for those retainer-based arrangements where you proactively manage the relationship with the client is another really good opportunity. So actually there’s some really cool stuff in here and I think it is possible, I know it is possible to build a business which doesn’t have that drop-off point, or at least not so dramatically. So, there we go, that is pretty much it, I think, for this show. That was actually really good discussion! I think a lot of people find that very useful.
Now, we have got our second sponsor which is Vivaldi, joining us this week. Vivaldi is a browser that you may or may not have heard of. I thought I would do something a little bit different with this so instead of having me telling you a little bit about Vivaldi what I have done is I have asked them to say a little bit about Vivaldi and what they think makes it a different kind of app. So we are just going to play a little bit of audio from the guys here telling you a little bit about Vivaldi.
Paul: Okay, so that’s Vivaldi. You can find out more about them at boag.world/betterbrowser. Wonderful. Right, so, that is it. Really interesting discussion, only covered one topic but wow that was one hell of a topic and really interesting discussion so thank you for that Marcus. Let’s go quickly round the table and find out where people can discover more about our panel today. Drew, where can people find out more about you?
Drew: On Twitter I am @DrewM and on the web can find me at 24ways.org, especially during December.
Paul: Oh yeah, we’ve got December coming up haven’t we! So not long. If you don’t know about 24 ways it is an advent calendar of articles that makes you look smarter. Something along those lines, isn’t it?
Drew: That’s exactly it Paul! Yes, those are the exact words. (Laughter)
Paul: It’s not far off it, I know there’s something about smarter in an advent calendar.
Drew: The full title is “24 ways to impress your friends”
Paul: Ah, that’s it!
Drew: It’s a daily, oh, I don’t even know! It’s web design and development articles.
Paul: Yeah, and of course because Drew only has to come up with 24 of them for the whole year they tend to be really high quality. And there really really interesting stuff so definitely subscribe to that. So Andy where can people find out more about you?
Andy: People can find out more about me and they can hire me as a web designer or consultant and everything else at stuffand nonsense.co.uk or you can send me a tweet, my DM’s are open, @Malarkey.
Paul: Ooo. So yes don’t… Definitely, again… Andy’s not shy at blowing his own trumpet but I will do it for him as well. If you need to design services or design consultancy he is absolutely the dog’s bollocks! As the phrase goes. Talking about the dogs bollocks and people that provides incredible design services there’s Marcus where can people find out more about you and Headscape?
Marcus: Headscape.co.uk and yes you can hire us as well! Although we’re kind of like quite busy right at the moment. Book us up for in about six months time! (Laughter) Is that okay, can I say that?
Paul: Yeah! Schedule yourself in, it’s fine. It does raise another interesting issue which is part of this whole three months cliff thing is that clients don’t plan far enough ahead and digital in particular is really reactive in a lot of businesses which worries the shit out of me but anyway… That’s a whole other conversation in that. Sam, where can people find out about you? You don’t need hiring do you?
Sam: Nope, no. If you want any Percy pigs I’m your man, that’s about it. You can get me on Twitter @theSamBarnes and the website is theSamBarnes.com.
Paul: And it’s worth checking out Sam’s website especially if you ever have to manage any kind of project. He writes great articles about various aspects of project management. So definitely subscribe there as well. Also Sam, didn’t you have a couple of things you wanted to push this week?
Sam: Yes. So there are a couple of conferences that I am involved in in the project management area. So the first one is called Deliverconf that’s going to be in Manchester at the end of January next year. And you can get that at deliverconf.co.uk. And the other one is called Ground Control and that is going to be in April next year in London and you can get more details on that at 2017.groundcontrolconf.com.
Paul: And again, if you work in any kind of digital project management role or oversee projects these conferences are great. They are such a good place to have a good moan about everything that is is difficult.
Sam: What I think is different about these two particularly and the DPM summit in the US is that I think it is now transitioning from… It was very much about digital project managers and management now it is just anyone that delivers work. You know…
Paul: Ahh, okay.
Sam: Whatever it is, it is quite a nice… Is a natural evolution I think to that so…
Paul: Absolutely. I was supposed to be speaking at deliver comp but unfortunately I’m not going to be able to now. And I am absolutely gutted. I really am.
Sam: You’re not on the site any more, I’ve checked. They’re done with you. That’s it.
Paul: It’s so sad. But it’s an excellent conference. Definitely go. As you can tell I’m not happy. Anyway we spent far too far to much much time bigging up other people’s stuff so let’s get onto the important content before we wrap up, which is Marcus’ joke which he has prepared weeks in advance and has not just been looking it up right now.
Marcus: It’s true. Yep, I suddenly had a moment of panic earlier that I didn’t have a joke. This is not the first time this has ever happened on this show. But it looks like Mr Clarke has a joke so I’m going to defer to him.
Paul: Oh, I missed that.
Andy: Well, in the I’m feeling miserable because I’m sitting here under the grey skies of Brexit, in the spirit of continuing my Australian obsession “What kind of music do kangaroos like?”
Paul: I know I’m not going to like the answer to this, go on.
Marcus: That’s to my level! Thank you.
Andy: There is a chorus of silence there.
Marcus: Now you know how it feels.
Paul: I was going to… I considered playing the laughter soundtrack, clip thing but it didn’t even deserve that Andy.
Andy: I know it was fairly tawdry to be honest.
Paul: That was disappointing. All right, so thank you very much guys for tuning in for this week’s show I hope you enjoyed it and I would really be interested to hear people’s comments on this one. Because I think it is such an interesting area that anybody who runs or who is part of an external agency face the whole time. So go along to Boagworld.com. Let’s see if I can work out what the URL is. Hang on, just a second. You see this is where I should should plan in advance other than just winging it! Because I would really like people’s comments so… If you go to Boagworld.com… Wow my sites taking a long time to load at the moment. This is where you regret…
Marcus: I can fill in while you are doing that, but basically I was just thinking because we had a whole show on my subject that I don’t have to do any more topics for the rest of the year? Do I get the time off?
Paul: No no no no. It doesn’t work like that and you know what, do you want to know something is really annoying. This flipping thing isn’t loading. Here we go, let’s go with this. So it’s Boagworld.com/season/16… This is such a crap URL for an audio podcast /episode/1607. You going to remember that one! Aren’t you. So just go along to the website look up season 16 and go to episode seven and comment. I would really like to hear people’s feedback over this particular issue do you have a three month cliff or even less. Have you found a way of overcoming it, and yeah, check out what other people have said. All right, thank you very much for listening and speak to you again in a weeks time. Bye.