Running Lean: Tech Efficiencies to Help Manage Remote Work

Running Lean: Tech Efficiencies to Help Manage Remote Work

Running Lean: Tech Efficiencies to Help Manage Remote Work

Times have changed. (Understatement of the century, right?) Now that almost everyone is working from home–either whole offices or segments of teams–there’s a focus on not only maintaining productivity but also enhancing it, since this is our model for the foreseeable future. There’s also the fact that since many businesses have discovered how cost-effective it is to run a business remotely, there are plans for many to stay that way, even after the pandemic has been sorted and offices are re-opened at large. Overhead can be reduced, many people are happier when allowed to self-regulate a little, and both of those things combined can be a great business situation when they’re in harmony.

However, in order for a remote situation to be as cost-effective as it can be, it has to be managed in a particular way. Even before COVID-19, most of our operations at DayCreative were remote, and many of our team members are in other states. Since we’ve been running a pretty robust business that way, even before the pandemic shut down, I thought I would share some of the practices that I believe have helped to make our remote operations effective.

There are four main areas that I’d like to highlight, that I believe represent the main quadrants of managing remote work; communication, project management, time tracking, and file storage and sharing. In our day to day operations at DayCreative, these are the sectors that constitute the main business of the agency, and they’re pretty applicable no matter what your business type…so let’s talk about them.

Communication

Since everyone’s decentralized, how do we communicate and not suffer Death From 10,000 Emails?

You need to find a modality for communication, and you need to use it. Our go-to is Slack, and it functions as a message board, in essence. We use it to communicate about projects, similar to texting, but the bonus is that it can be organized into threads, making subjects easy to find. Ever tried to scroll through text messages? Slack is the antidote. We can easily find out where any of the team members are in their part of development, and you can integrate clients as well, if your business needs an interface capability for clients. We use the free version, since we don’t need a lot of bells and whistles, and it interfaces with the other apps we use.

NOTE: Someone will likely not be fan of whatever modality you use, at first. While there’s something to be said for consensus, many individuals just need to try something for a little while and get used to the learning curve. Promote the “Give it a chance!” mindset unless/until it’s really obvious that it won’t work for your team before you bail and try something else.

Project Management

Since you can’t walk down the hall to someone’s office, how do you grab files?

A decentralized team still needs to work as a team. Flow is an app that I’ve used with success, and I would describe it as a high-level to do list. There are other resources–Trello, etc.,–but I like Flow because you can put it on your phone, or PC and create tasks, due dates…I open up Flow and my to do list just magically appears in front of me. It has drag and drop functionality, so bonus points for simplicity, and features related to production that are valuable as well. When you have a team on Flow, tasks are assignable. It is probably my favorite app that we use. 

Time Tracking / Estimating / Invoicing

Tracking time, invoicing, estimating–these are necessary. QuickBooks is a frequently used tool for businesses…I’ll be frank; I hate it. I use it for some things out of necessity, but I outsource my bookkeeping for the most part. I use a time-tracking and invoicing app called Harvest that I like, that allows for tracking by project, or client…you can make it fit your needs. The icon can be in your toolbar for managing your timer, and it also allows you to create estimates and invoices, which are extremely valuable. In a business like ours it’s important, and this allows you to clone common templates. I can send out an estimate within ten minutes, thanks in large part to this app. We also link it with our Stripe account, and receive the majority of our payments online – which makes our cash flow much more efficient. You can even schedule past due emails to gently remind clients to pay up.

File Storage

In our business, there’s a lot of file sharing going on – and design files are not small (and able to be sent via email). If you work in a file-heavy sector, you need robust solutions that are user-friendly and cross-modality functional. We use Dropbox, which offers personal or business licensing, and the personal offers more than enough for our purposes, surprisingly. We use the highest personal option though, and it allows for transfer of large files easily and quickly. Everyone has access–saving local copies isn’t necessary. It almost replaces an in-office network, and if clients have a Dropbox account as well, sharing across accounts makes coordination even easier. There are other options, but Dropbox is time-proven, reliable, and recognizable to most people who have used the internet for any length of time.

This isn’t a comprehensive guide to high-level success at remote work, by any means, but honestly…it’s not rocket science. If you have the basics covered, and a reliable, responsible team, covering these four bases gives you a foundation for a solid work-from-home system.

Ain’t No Shortcuts

Ain’t No Shortcuts

Ain’t No Shortcuts

After close to a decade in the creative marketing business, I realize that some of my observations may sound a little “Hey, you kids get off my lawn!”, but this is one thing that really grinds my gears so to speak, and I feel compelled to share.

When I meet someone who is a “consultant”, at a networking event or other function, they often have the appearance of doing very well–fancy car, nice suit. But when I ask what area of business they focus on, they generally always respond, “All of it.” Not sales, not finance…”all of it”. Questions about other specifics (“So, what’s your fee structure? Is it a percentage? A flat fee?”) are also met with vagaries.

What experience has borne out for me, in many of these instances, is that later on you find out that this individual was very successful in some single type of business–construction, maybe–and then sold the business for a solid profit, and now wants to make money consulting, since the perception is that consulting is easy money…just telling people what to do and getting paid for it.

It’s not uncommon to discover a year or two later that those (wannabe) consultants have taken another job for someone else; usually in sales. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Generalities aside, very often these scenarios come about because individuals want to take shortcuts. There hasn’t been serious work put into the “Why” of their personal success, there aren’t processes that have been codified that they can share. They may not even have a basic understanding of business as a whole, or how businesses that differ from theirs function, which seriously hampers your ability to guide someone who is in a field other than one you have personal experience with. (By the way, while I’m skeptical of business consultants, I’m a strong supporter of business coaches, as evidenced in the post Get A Business Coach.)

They may know some tricks, but there’s no professional cohesiveness, no firm foundation of business knowledge. It has an infomercial vibe.

I have had clients who have hired people like this, and then asked me down the road, “Why did you let me do that?”

While it bothers me as a general practice, the most troublesome incarnation of this phenomenon is when they attempt to “optimize websites” for clients…in a way that interferes with what I’ve put together for them. I’ve seen situations where a “business consultant” tells a client that we’ve built a website for that they’re going to amp up their SEO, and then do a lot of very shady work that causes more harm than help. 

That’s a big no-no.

Companies who trust people who are not experienced professionals to alter websites constructed by professionals often reap the whirlwind. (I have a client right now who trusted an individual who did this very thing, and we’re still trying to fix it. Very expensive mistake.)

There are no shortcuts to engineering powerful search engine optimization. It takes time. 

The things that work are simply the things that work. A website that is built for optimization. Relevant content that is optimized, social media that feeds your funnel. These are the building blocks, and yes, sometimes they take time to work. But…they work.

Shortcuts will simply take you back to the beginning…where you often have to pay to start over.

Confidence is necessary for a startup to be successful, and it’s necessary for a good business coach to lead others. But to think you know the most in the room, and not take into account the best practices (which are called that for a reason, by the way) of the various segments of business, especially SEO (which I’m particularly invested in, of course), is not good consulting. It’s not good business, and it’s not good leadership.

You have to see the industry as a whole to offer good solutions to clients.

Blind spots are especially dangerous if they aren’t acknowledged. Arrogance is a red flag, and it will keep people from working with you, because ancillary businesses that partner with you want to get paid. Arrogance and blind spots often lead to failure. (And unpaid invoices.)

The “Get Rich Quick” mindset and the wild west attitude don’t typically lead to a sustainable long-term business success. Sometimes they do, but I’ve been in business for a while, and that’s not what I’ve seen…and in my work I see a lot of different types of businesses.

Even with private equity funding. Angel investors. Still prone to flame out.

Don’t make the mistake of looking for the “hack”. Be humble. You may know a lot, but you don’t know everything, and being teachable will yield so much more than arrogance. If you’re not able to take advice from those who specialize in an area, or even the business people who might be older, and not tech-savvy, but people savvy…you’re not someone people will want to partner with.

Look towards building sustainability. Financials that hit targets. Strategies that make sense, and have the input of professionals, whether it’s marketing, sales, operations, or any other segment.

The growth may not be super fast, but it will be an investment. Look towards the next several years, not the next few months.

Just to show that I don’t hate all consultants, I’ll offer my thoughts about what makes a good one:

Number one…identify your key value propositions. What are the things you know the most about? The areas where you’ve excelled, that are applicable across all areas of a business? What is your formal system? What are the process steps?

It’s often more about the consultant’s sales persona, than the actual offering. How do you come alongside clients and help them get what they want?

Number two…there’s no replacement for putting in work. It’s fun to simply tell people what to do, but you have to have walked it out and seen that it works before you offer the advice to someone else. Build a team around you. Find partners you trust. Be sure you have relevant experience.

And if you’re looking for a consultant and they’re counseling you about a shortcut that sounds maybe a little too good to be true…just remember that shortcuts are very often time (and money) wasters. You may be at risk to lose way more than revenue through shady practices than you realize. You may damage your business reputation, which can be impossible to overcome.

Do the work, faithfully over time.

A Letter to My Younger Self

A Letter to My Younger Self

A Letter to My Younger Self

Day Creative just celebrated our 8 year anniversary, and as I reflect on almost a decade in business, I thought about my younger self, and what I would say if I could send a letter to that guy.

Sometimes I can’t believe I’m still in business (and doing this well). A little background; I don’t have a business degree, my education is in film. The worldview that I saw modeled, through parents and other adults, was, go to college, get a degree, get a job in the field your degree is in. Then go to work for someone forever, and hopefully they have good health benefits!

So that’s the route I started on. However I got to a stage in life where that paradigm just wasn’t working. At the time I was working for a corporation in Oklahoma City and living in Norman, so I was engaging in that typical rat race commute. We started having kids and I just felt like my family was getting my leftover energy, not the best of me. It wasn’t ideal. At the same time I started doing some design on the side to make a little extra cash, and then it occurred to me that I could build a business around this pursuit that I enjoyed, and have the added benefit of actually being around. 

The decision was made to turn the side hustle into a business, and it was exciting. When I made it to the one year mark I reached out to a business coach connection I had made and told him, “Hey! Can you believe it? I made it a year!” His response? “Call me back when you make it to year five.”

Uh, Thanks?

Statistically, the estimate is that about 20% of small businesses fail before the first year — most do make it to the point I was so proud to reach. However, only about 50% survive past five years and after that? Dismal chances.

We did survive, however, and now we’re at year 8! Those years have been full of lessons, and evolution. Even though we succeeded, if I could, I would tell my younger self a few things. Three, to be exact.

Build long term relationships

Owning a business is mostly relationship building. When I first started, the thinking was, “Who will hire me and pay me well and on time?” It was purely transactional. I would finish a job, get paid and move onto the next client job. What I didn’t realize is I had a giant hole in my business–I wasn’t circling back after the transaction portion of the relationship was done to find out their thoughts, future needs, or how I could do better.

Now, I’ve learned that I don’t just want the contract for designing their website, or other pieces of business. I mean, I do want that, but I want to understand their business so that I can offer guidance for the next project. “Have you thought about this? I feel like this would benefit you.” The goal is to be a partner; a trusted advisor. Becoming an outsourced marketing department is much different than simply offering a la carte services (which we still do, of course), and that’s our goal. We have a lot to offer, and while the business is still a business, it’s better for everyone if the relationship focus is kept at the forefront.

I’m happy to say that we still have clients that I’ve had since the beginning eight years ago — I have become a trusted advisor, and we’ve become friends. Attending games together, going golfing…that type of relationship is the best kind of business relationship because building trust means that you can provide more value. I’ve had clients build from simple services to assisting with bigger events–one company did a fundraiser for an employee that had cancer, and they trusted us to help. Longevity happens when people trust you, and they trust you by having multiple opportunities to see you perform in the way you promise.

Find a business coach, STAT

I would say this to any small business owner starting out (and do), but particularly to my younger self because I didn’t have a business background. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I wasn’t quite sure how to get there. Someone with practical experience and knowledge to guide and inform me was valuable, and I think if I had engaged my coach sooner, I would have benefitted earlier. If you’re new to this (or even if you aren’t) you may have blind spots, or things you’re doing that you could improve that you can’t see yourself.

One of the first questions my coach asked was, “What does Day Creative do? What services do you offer and which ones give you the best margins?”

I didn’t even know what a margin was. Yikes. 

It’s hilarious in hindsight, but my first year or two with my coach wasn’t fun. It was a lot of tracking and examining data. I hated it! I’m a creative person. I don’t like sitting and crunching numbers, but as I looked at our data I saw the wisdom in taking all of this into account and it began to shape my decisions. Developing new revenue streams, improving efficiency…all of the things that lead to sustainable life for a small business, I understand now, and can enact them easily. All because I worked with a business coach.

Most local branches of the Small Business Administration can help you find a coach or small business incubators that offer free or scaled help for those starting small businesses…find one with experience that fits your needs. You’ll get more bang for your buck if you find one that has diverse experience, an understanding of all aspects of business. Sales, finance, etc.

Learn to specialize

This piece of advice that I would give my younger self is maybe a little unexpected. When I first started, my goal was to be a full-service branding agency. I wanted to specialize in great design, from logo and a branding systems to website design and all of the little corollary pieces that go with it.

At a particular point my business coach and I were doing some work to pivot the business towards generating recurring revenue, and I found myself doing a lot of social media management. It was okay, but it wasn’t what I was best at. It was a good move because of the numbers, and it was workable, but I wasn’t happy doing it. My coach suggested only doing what I was good at – which sounded awesome, but I wasn’t sure how to grow revenue with this approach. But I trusted him and moved in that direction.

This had a couple of effects; one, when I focused on the work that I am the best at, it yielded success and provided opportunities to then grow the team at Day Creative by bringing in people who specialize in the other things I wanted to offer. It also made me happier because I was doing what I was actually best at – which yielded even more growth. Focusing on solving your customer’s problems is always the correct approach, and when you provide high quality work doing what you are best at it makes it even better – instead of trying to be something that you aren’t. 

Even in the last two to three years, we’ve transitioned to becoming more of a website shop. We have partners that handle the back end hosting, and we have a creative team that can produce a website that represents our client’s brand — it smells like them, it’s going to move the needle with their customers — and also provides all of the analytics and reporting data they need to grow the business. 

In the past 8 years we’ve gone from my original grand scheme to be a branding agency, to being content with being the best at creating websites and driving traffic to them. We provide growth for our clients by leading with what we’re best at. In the last two years, we’ve built partnerships with other agencies to produce their websites, where we become their go-to when they hit capacity. Specializing can open lots of unexpected doors.

Those would be my three main points, if I could send a letter to my younger self, starting my own business 8 years ago. Think about long term relationships, get a business coach as soon as possible, and find a niche.

Here’s to the last 8 years, and here’s to 8 more!

Innovating Your Business in the Face of COVID-19

Innovating Your Business in the Face of COVID-19

Innovating Your Business in the Face of COVID-19

There are several examples right now of businesses pivoting in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and the challenges that it has brought along with it; some have changed their models completely, others have simply modified their services to address social distancing-induced needs.

It can feel a little questionable, looking at ways that your business can potentially profit around a pandemic. People are losing loved ones, and it’s natural to struggle with unfamiliar emotions, or the sense that it’s somehow wrong if this time presents opportunities for you to adapt your business to a need that is in place because of COVID-19.

That being said, if there’s a way your company can be beneficial to your customers in this time, you have to realize that it’s not helpful to anyone to wait until life returns to “normal”…not only because you could lose the chance to be helpful, but also because there may not be a return to what we knew before. There may really be, as so many have said, a new “normal”, and if you wait too long to act, you may not have a business by the time these new limitations are gone.

So, once you’ve dealt with the feelings, and realized that you need to pivot, what are the practical steps?

 

Re-evaluate Your Purpose.

The value you provided customers before may be different in the face of working from home, managing kids who are also at home, and being disconnected from previous resources. Is there a NEW way you can lean into what your client base needs now? How does it look different? Where are their new pain points? Find those, and you’ll find your purpose. Once that’s done…

 

Create New Solutions.

Could you consult about the products you previously offered? Offer subscriptions to services that were purchased piecemeal before? Leverage technology by offering online video options? We learned that one of our clients who offers software solutions is pivoting away from that approach to consulting, to help their clients navigate issues around cleanliness and recovering lost revenue. I think this is a brilliant apporach, because that has got to be the number one thing most businesses will be considering in the near future. Almost anything is possible when the world is still connected via the Internet, which brings us to the next task on your list…

 

Establish or Update Your Online Presence.

For businesses that have been based in a brick and mortar location, the impact of not having an online presence will be a hard one. A current projection is that one in four small businesses will go out of business during this crisis; social distancing has already closed several, and if you don’t have a vibrant online presence, you can’t maintain the contact you need with your customer base in order to provide services. If you have a website but it’s out of date, bear in mind that ease-of-use is a high priority, and the competition in the online marketplace is steep. Getting or updating a website is crucial to engaging clients and keeping them engaged, especially when more time than ever is spent looking at content. The bar is higher than ever.

Adding an online store (with a do-it-yourself platform like Shopify) can save sales. The addition of a chat bot makes a tremendous difference in customer engagement. Creating short videos and posting them to a YouTube channel can capture worldwide exposure. A digital makeover can be a huge difference-maker for your business.

And once the digital presence is there…what’s your social media strategy? Your blog and email marketing content? This is another area that will change; helpful, authentic content is going to be even more important in the online marketplace. With the over-exposure to content, since people are so focused on online content right now, dynamic content will stand out, and set you apart. But make sure its about helping them; not how awesome you are.

The change in definition for “normal” doesn’t have to mean the end of your company or the services you offer. But business adaptation in this environment is definitely something that a majority of entities are going to need to adopt in order to continue to be of service, and since the foreseeable future is one based on social distancing, that means finding digital solutions.

When you’re ready for direction and practical help, reach out to us. In the meantime, stay safe, and plan for a productive future.