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The Best Tools of 2016

We use a ton of tools to make the business development and client services portion of our gig work right.

Beyond just the standard toolset of After Effects, Getty Images, and other serviceswe have also found our favorites. Our clients have noticed – our surveys on “how we’re doing” have begun to RAVE about our project management and service levels (after we weren’t where we needed to be earlier).

So, we’ve decided to make a list of our ten favorite tools that we rely on every day.

The Best Agency CRMs

insightl-ly

 

 

 

Close.io for acquiring customers. Insight.ly for staying organized and serving them.

Close.IO has everything you need to begin great relationships with your customers. Close.IO is a Ferrari. You can create amazing queries and get through a sales or prospecting session faster with it than with anything else I know. You can create scripted sequences with all of your customers and configure it quite easily. The reason I love it is because I can do the sales I need to do in about 90 minutes a day. They also nailed the frictionless component of it, so there’s very little data entry.

We also use Insight.ly for retaining customers. Insight.ly is a work truck – hauls gravel, does a great job of it. Insight.ly is great for light project management, for collaboration and keeping information in one place. It’s got a friendly mobile app. Our “two-headed” system may not be ideal, but what Close.IO does, it does really well. (A special mention goes to Contactually which is so tempting and so close to being amazing).

The Best Proposal Engine

The best proposal engine for agencies is hands down, Proposify. We did a comprehensive review of ALL the software out there at the beginning of the year, and Proposify was the very best. There was other software that works, and Proposify does have some areas of opportunity.

But when you want to get a proposal out the door that gets the deal signed, this is the way to go.

The Best Online Meeting Tool

Zoom.US. This has been the winner for us – hands down. It’s elegant, fast, and “client ready.” Google Hangouts was what we were using before, but there were often issues with clients, scheduling, conferencing options (like easy calling in via phone), and meeting time reminders.

Zoom fixed that. We can record, memorialize, and do whatever we need to do.

There are LOTS of decent contenders in this category. Skype works fairly well as do some other platforms.

The Best Project Management Tool For Agencies

Basecamp 3. Hands down. The reason it works is that it is tuned to have *just* the right amount of detail, and *just* the right amount of notifications. The biggest benefit is that we can onboard people right away. We use it for a lot of different parts of our program.

We have experimented with their “templating” system which is essentially creating a master project and doing a copy of that to start new work.

There are features we miss but essentially, Basecamp does a great job for us.

Other good stuff: Trello works and our friends at Fizzle use it for big picture planning.

The Best WordPress Platform:

Thrive Themes. We haven’t even fully implemented what Thrive can do, yet we’re getting more leads and better results than we had in the past. We’re putting more of our work on Thrive and once we roll out the full implementation we’ll be happy.

Thrive allows us to build pages, save templates and create boxes that convert on the fly.

The Best Writing App For 2016.

ulysses-app

Ulysses is certainly our best writing app.

It takes a different – and better – approach as it organizes large text files in both “smart folders” and normal ones. It takes what IA Writer started and perfects it with a “just works on any OS” ethos. I use it every day for:

  1. A personal journal
  2. Writing Simplifilm Scripts
  3. Writing Blog Posts
  4. Writing Bigger projects

There’s a distraction free mode that just works, and they’ve got the inbox nailed down as well. The speed with which you can put stuff out is plenty remarkable.

Best Email Service For 2016

MailChimp. Why? Because it’s simple, it’s affordable (with a FREE tier that is really generous) and you can make beautiful emails on it without any problems. We’ve tried the higher end ones (Drip) and what they add in features, they give up in usability. If our list gets bigger, we’ll reevaluate, but at  6080 subscribers, MailChimp is the only serious choice.

Best Scheduling Service for 2016

YouCanBook.Me. It has really great features, and when someone books, I can craft a custom experience at any level. The one bummer about their service is that they overuse internal notifications, and tell us we have an important message when it’s simply an ad for more of their service. I can’t abide that.

Calend.ly is the runner up. Calendly looks way nicer and way better, but it fails because, at any price tier, you can’t redirect someone to a custom page after booking them. On YouCanBook.Me, you can easily do this with zero problems.

Most Underrated Tool For 2016: The Status Update

Nothing has saved us more time than getting the Status Update dialed in correctly. At our company, we’ve tuned our Status Updates to near perfection so our clients know what to do, they know when, and they know when we need to have them do it.

Our Status Update works great.

What Tools Do You Use?

Most of these tools were recommended by a client or a friend. Which ones do YOU use at the moment? Please, take a moment to leave a message in the comments. What are YOUR favorite tools? I’d love to see them in the comments or you can email me!

When You Get To Market The Tools You Love: 15Five

For a few years now, my company, Simplifilm, has used a really cool service to stay connected and in sync and in rhythm.

It’s called 15Five, and it’s part of the HR 2.0 Movement. There are so many uses for it- it’s a true platform.  Simplifilm’suse has been to make sure that our company stays connected, on the same page and moving in the same direction.

How 15Five Works

You give it questions.  It asks the employees some – or all – of those questions each week.

Those questions take a few minutes for employees to fill out. And they are emailed at regular times.

You get the answers in a secure form that produces granular privacy. We want to learn how people are feeling, how things are going. You also keep a regular record of things, and there’s a way to “raise your hand” without raising your hand.

You also keep a regular record of things, and there’s a way to “raise your hand” without raising your hand.

How Simplifilm Uses 15Five

We use it as an ambient listening system where all of our team can come to us with problems without making it a big deal. So if we’re doing something that disrupts the quiet enjoyment of our work, 15Five can automatically give us a chance to make spot corrections.

We use 15Five by sending out a questionnaire every Thursday. The team answers it as they can and we have something to talk about on Monday in the 1:1s we have. The genius part of it is that the littler annoyances can easily be ironed out. We can see how people are feeling.

The best part is that it is a third party. Our team interacts with the system and not the people. Concerns are not personal attacks.

With 15Five, it’s not drama, just data.

I got news that things that I was doing weren’t going well. It was nice to have this information.

What’s been really great is to get to work with their team from the beginning of their product until now. They have cleaned up their interface, reduced the friction and added features at a great clip. This video was part of their new drive and new features where built their OKRs in. (Objectives and key results).

The best thing about my company has been the opportunity to work with our great clients. This was no exception. We’re pleased to add 15Five to our portfolio and to call them friends.

So check out the video above. Or just start a trial on their website.

I promise it’s great stuff, and we are proud to include this work in our portfolio.

The Agency Client’s Bill of Rights

What rights does a client have?

When someone pays you money and agrees to trust you with their brand – or even their career – shouldn’t they automatically get something for it?

Shouldn’t certain things just be givens?

When a marketing director hires us, they risk their job.  Because chances are, the only thing the boss is going to look at is the work that got done on a video.

When an author hires us, they are trusting us with their life’s work.  So, shouldn’t that trust mean that we go beyond the agreement?

I. Every Client Has The Right To On Time Delivery (On Every Milestone)

If the agency causes any part of a project to be delayed – even by one second – the client is must be offered a full refund.

Any agency without this policy in place is guaranteeing you that they are going to be nightmarish to work with.  That they don’t respect your time – a more precious commodity than your money.

Agencies pretend to be artists when in truth, most are simple amateurs.

On-time delivery should be table stakes, and yet we are told again and again it’s ‘refreshing to work with us because we stick to our project plan’.

When Simplifilm struggled it was simply because we took too many jobs.  We’d bet on a client-side delay or a rally.  Or, we’d pawn off the fault of the delay to the client – always possible to do but it’s the hallmark of an amateur.

II. Every Client Has the Right to Regular Automatic Status Updates

If a designer is working on a project, every client has the right to hear from them at periodic and predictable intervals.

“Hey, what’s the status of my project?” is an email that no client should ever need to send out.  Ever.  That’s a straight-up insult to them.

It is a failure of respect so massive that a refund is definitely in order.

If the provider of design work is so disorganized that they aren’t prepared for a simple status update, then it’s certain that the clients are dealing with hacks.

Clients trust us with their most important projects, and to make any client chase us for information shows we don’t care about them.

III. Every Client Has the Right To Complete & Useful Updates

A client’s time is respected when they are given enough specific information to make a decision.

“We’ll get this to you ASAP,” is something that we used to say.  How utterly worthless.

What does ASAP even mean?  Tomorrow?  Next week?  As soon as we feel like it?  What does ASAP mean?  I mean, how soon is now?  (I had to get my Smiths reference in).

What we’re basically saying – to our client – is “go away, we’re doing something else more important right now, and we don’t respect you enough to offer any transparency.”  We can thank the great customer service expert Steve Curtin for leading us to this insight.

Now we send updates like this:

“Hey, we got your request, and we’ll be able to turn it around tomorrow by 3pm, worst case.  We’ll try for sooner, does that work?”

The format we use is what now, what next, and exactly when. The habit takes time to build, but when you make and keep commitments you save the client money.

It’s also more operationally efficient because the client doesn’t have to begin a follow-up cycle that nobody wants.

IV. Every Client Has The Right to a Written Project Plan

“I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”
-Dwight D Eisenhower

With a plan, a client can understand the playing field.  Clients can now grade us.  They know what should happen and when, so they can feel comfortable with the whole process.

Amateurs run from this because it requires thought.  Good agencies run to it because it widens the gap between us and our competitors.

Is our project going well?  Poorly?  What are the steps?  When will feedback be due?  How do we determine success or failure?

A written plan – beyond the proposal – covers the progress.  Redundant respect and reassurance.

V. Every Client Has a Right to Enough Time For Feedback

There must be adequate time for clients to give feedback built into the schedule.  

Agencies are famous for pushing feedback delays onto their clients.

“I would have been on time, but we thought we’d get feedback sooner,” is the amateur’s favorite excuse.  As if feedback is a big surprise.  “Ooooh, you wanted input on our $15,000 project?  Wow!”

The need to collect and respond to feedback has always been a large part of creative projects. Having a plan without that time is simply not liking your client enough to set them up to win. 

“Enough time” can vary and it depends on the client.  Good agencies ask up front.  Sometimes clients have stakeholders they need to touch base with.

VI. Every Client Has the Right To Know the Consequences of A Reschedule

Client delays happen.  It’s part of any business, and it’s as predictable as the need for feedback.

Sometimes the result is minimal on the final delivery, but other times the wrong delay creates a domino effect that’s felt for a long time – and the client would choose something else if given the option.

An example: a 3 word script change may cost a week in production time when it happens at the wrong time.

Let’s say the client requests a script change on a Thursday.  The Voice Artist is out of town and can’t get back to us till Tuesday.

When he does, there’s a routine, but minor, mispronunciation of a technical term.  We get it back late on Tuesday.

Then we can get it into production, if we don’t have to change the shotlist, storyboard, and intended style frames.

That’s a domino effect.  And it could have been that the client didn’t care that much about the script change and it certainly wasn’t worth a delay in the delivery date.  That’s why a client has a right to know in advance what the consequences of changes will be.

VI. Every Client Has the Right to Have Overage Disclosed In Advance

Clients must be warned about overage and change orders before they are incurred even if it’s written up in the agreement.

Sometimes creative work pivots.  This is just a fact of life.  It’s sometimes a great idea to invest more to make good projects better.  What also happens is that agencies famously spring a “surprise bill” on their clients.

After all, the client signed a master agreement, and they knew that this particular change created overage.

Nope.  The lines between an additional revision and a change order can sometimes become blurry.  So when something that’s requested incurs overage, a professional should take the initiative and be straightforward to clarify it.

Overage is often a very good idea.  If you’re making a great video and you come up with something at the end of the process to make it spectacular, well, if it happens to cost a few dollars, who cares.

VII. Every Client Has the Right to Respect

You can’t take their money if you don’t respect them, too.

We see sites like Clients From Hell, we watch videos like this (well done and funny, but fundamentally wrong.  The creative underclass, hacks and beginners take comfort in their failures at places like this).

It’s OK to do business with someone.  It’s OK to not do business with someone.  What’s never OK is to take a project or a client that you can’t get behind.  If you have to take money from someone you don’t respect you are not a good designer, and you’re not doing good work.

VIII.  Every Client Has A Right To A Good Spec

The responsibility for providing a useful and valid spec lies the provider of design.

So many amateurs know that a client wants something else, but they have a sloppy or muddy spec that they hide behind.  A client – without specialized expertise – may trust their developers and designers.

Without a solid spec, we don’t have a target to hit. We don’t understand the goals of design and we can’t comment on if this is – or isn’t – appropriate.

IX. Every Client Has A Right To Know They’ve Been Heard

Every client should get feedback and changes read back to them with proper technical language.

Feedback is part of the process.  And a lot of times agencies “shuffle off” the feedback.  They start to work on what they think the client says.

Why not confirm it?  Reword it into correct design language, show you know it, and confirm that’s the right choice before doing it.

It’s only a little bit of extra work, but it removes so much subjectivity.

Clients are buying design, but they are not trained designers.  To expect them to have perfect design language is absurd, so we have to take that responsibility. 

X. All Clients Have The Right To Only Say Things Once

When something is said to one person in the company, it’s said to everyone in the company.

Once you tell something to one person in a company, you’ve told it to the whole company.  Whenever a client says something – and they are paying a good fee – then you should know.

It’s easier than ever with Slack, Zoom and other tools.  A process should support and confirm a client’s desires.

The Big Challenge

Breaking any of these rules means that the project has failed.  And that the client should get an immediate refund.

Because the provider has stolen money, and more importantly time.

Because the project lacked alignment.

That’s our standard.  So when you’re comparing providers, ask if they provide a service guarantee as tight as ours.

Why We Made This?

Because we have made every mistake you can possibly make.  From making client repeat themselves to giving vague and careless status updates to missing intermediate milestones.

Doing this well has two benefits: we dramatically cut down on revisions.  And our clients became happier.

We also increased our referrals, client satisfaction and everything else.

Just yesterday we got this nice message in our inbox:

screnshot

That’s the result of a well-done process.

Take Action!

When design is sold correctly, packaged correctly and the process is smooth, everyone benefits.

Get our “bill of rights” agreement for use.  Simply put your email in the box below.  When you do, you’ll immediately get the Client Bill of Rights for use with every design contract you ever use.

How To Eliminate Your Risk When Choosing New Creative Partners

Welcome to the age of the creative partner.

Most big companies are more and more reliant on outside partners – especially for marketing. Done are the days of one agency with departments that handled everything. That “department store” model is dead because it was impossible for a big firm to compete with specialty shops.

But now, companies have a new problem! The new problem is that with more vendors comes more risk. You have to work with a number of companies, and you have to take the time to vet them.

Because if you pick someone that doesn’t perform – it has huge consequences especially in high-profile projects.

So, we wrote this post to give you a quick guide to eliminating most of the risk when working with new vendors.

Insist on a Performance Guarantee

Here’s a hint. If they don’t have a bold public performance guarantee in place for every client then they don’t stand for anything. Sure, most agencies will make one for you, and guarantee you to get a contract. But that’s not the point. You want someone with a process that’s designed to do something perfectly.

Because when you get one big piece settled the rest falls into place.

But if they don’t have one in place then you don’t know what’s going to happen. The presence of a guarantee in one area generally means that the rest of the project will go as they plan it. It’s an indicator that they’ve thought things through.

Our guarantee is that we will deliver every milestone on time or early or you can get all of your money back. That is the linchpin that drives our whole business because it makes sure that we have that big part in place.

Insist on a Written Project Plan

We begin every project – always – with a written plan that goes all the way to the end and includes every major touchpoint. We started this several months ago and it made everything smoother for every client. We used to ‘wing it,’ and we learned that that created random results.

Now we deliver better work with less effort from everyone because every client knows when they’ll need to be available for feedback. Many companies do this on request, but it should be a standard part of every service every time.

This means that our client gets to plan on having resources available for the parts of the project where we collaborate.

Know Exactly Who Did The Work

Look at their portfolio. Is there some work that is magnificent? Jaw dropping? Are you a little jealous of it? If not, move on.

Have they done work in – or similar to – your industry with success? Ask specifically who did each part. A lot of agencies may make small contributions to the big picture and then try to take credit for the whole piece. Ask what they did, ask how they did it, and ask who else contributed.

Insist on Frequent Updates With No Excuses.

We offer client updates every other day, and daily on request.

This happens automatically without them having to chase us.

Why? Because it’s the minimum standard to show we respect and care for our clients. We get it – in video work – so many of our customers are risking their work reputations by choosing us.

For a marketing manager, the one minute video we make together may be the only look-in that the CEO gives on their performance that quarter. So it’s gotta be great. They trust us with their jobs, the very least we can do is show them the same consideration and share progress each day.

There’s no “perfect system” to making choices like this, or reducing risk. However, this will weed out the bad apples and help you keep your gig.

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Hidden Content

Why Do Some Change Orders Cost So Much?

A couple of years ago, we had to put together a simple change order for a client that added a tagline to their brand name. They needed the key words in the script twice. Seems fairly straightforward as far as jobs go.

And of course we wanted to help! So, we charged what voice talent needed plus a fee for our time. It looked like a couple of hours of simple work. The client agreed our fee was fair and we swiped.

Except it wasn’t. It wound up taking over 40 hours work on our end for a number of reasons that all “went wrong” at once. We had to retime the entire audio, we had to find a new voice talent because the initial voice left the industry. The audio mix then had to be redone. All of that after we’d agreed on a fee.

What Goes Into a Change Order…

Here’s what goes into a “regular” change order.

  1. We have to understand: The change order has to be understood. This isn’t a small part of the process and it takes time to do. Something like “Just make the logo stand out more,” could mean a number of things. Are we isolating it and zooming in? Are we adding a drop shadow to it? Are we making sure that the logo stays in motion the whole time?
  2. Calendar Risk:  The work has to be assigned and scheduled. This isn’t the hard part, usually.
  3. Original Assets: The original file and assets have to be found. We archive everything and have a thorough process where we keep things for 3 years, but sometimes files get corrupt (thanks, Dropbox).
  4. Computer/Software: A computer with the same environment has to be procured. If we started in After Effects, we have to finish in After Effects. Or Maya or C4d or Final Cut or Premiere. Sometimes some projects may have multiple programs in different scenes. After Effects versions change fast to keep up with the times, and sometimes they leave behind old ways of doing things so that scenes have to be rebuilt.
  5. Audio: The audio has to be edited and music redone. We don’t just slap a track on at the end of a project, good companies sync the visuals with the rhythm. A small change can push the timing off throughout.
  6. Learning The Project: Someone must become familiar with the project again: looking at old work, old writing and old code takes a minute to “get back into” the project. This takes time, and has to be factored in.
  7. Pricing: Change Orders must be priced in a way that’s fair to Simplifilm and fair to our client. Clients don’t understand that if an entire video costs $10-12,000, then why does a 5 second change order cost $2,000 or more?

The above is just what happens on an ordinary change order with no special issues.

Other things that may happen:

  • Domino Effect: Good craft means scenes are built with the whole of the piece in mind. Changing one early part creates work later because there is a ton of interdependency in any good piece of work.
  • Profit Risk: When we build an entire Simplifilm we make some money. When we do a change order we make less. We have to be good to the company in order to be around to continue to do change orders in the future.
  • Licensing Risk: Sometimes stock media is picky about how many times it’s licensed to show up. When we do a change order we have to relicense it, and sometimes we’re simply not aware of what had happened.

That’s what goes into a change order, and while we ALWAYS want to help our clients we have to make sure that we’re fair to Simplifilm, too.

So, we’ve taken a path of charging a little more to do change orders. We’re happy to do them, we just have to make sure that it’s fair to our company. Within about 60 days, the change order fees are less because a lot of the risks don’t exist. After 60 days, our fees are increased.

This was made just so people could understand that it’s not just “a quick drop in.” We want to be able to help all of our customers and support the folks that support us. It just needs to be fair to everyone!

 

How To Save A Troubled Creative Project

Nobody sets out to make The Phantom Menace. But they make it anyway. Talented people working hard fail.

[box]Welcome back to process week, part III. Two more to go. The first two are here & here. They are preventative. This one is curative![/box]

It will happen. Despite all preventative measures you will encounter a project that goes wrong. Sometimes it’s a matter of things being “just a little off.” Other times things are wildly wrong – a key misunderstanding.

Let’s assume we set everything up for success. That the business arrangements worked out.

And someone raises their hand and says “we’re in trouble here.” What should we do?

First: Ignore Sunk Cost: Should This Project Continue?

https://twitter.com/AndySwan/status/745613446826307584

Sometimes a good agency (with a good client) will make a mistake and should find an honorable exit. Despite the time and hours working together we have to ask: what does finishing this project bring both parties?

Does the project still matter? Are the goals viable? Is the reason that it’s been hard because it’s an unimportant project?

Second: Defend Against Late Joiners

In our business, we’ll lock in a brief, script, tone and design elements, and sometimes, the “big boss” will show up wanting to change things. Wanting to reverse decisions.

This always feels bad, till you realize that it doesn’t have to be bad.

When we get late joiners we ask:

  1. Did the brief change?
  2. Did we change?

We have to identify that – “This is a departure from our existing goals, so what do we do about it?”

First, if you have been impeccable in all things, you needn’t panic. The client may change what they want, and cover the costs. Or they may stick with the brief. Either way, it’s just business.

OK, now let’s assume that we’ve decided to move forward on the project.

What attitude should we have? Simple:

No Judgements, No Punishments, No Lectures

It’s OK for projects to morph. It’s perfectly fine for clients and providers to change their minds about work.

People change their minds all the time.

It’s not the time to punish them, lecture them, or judge them for being indecisive.

Sometimes when you go to a hotel, you need to change rooms because, on reflection, being closer to the conference floor is more important than having a panoramic view. That’s not a mistake, that’s a choice borne of knowledge. So you ask to move. The hotel should honor your request. Occasionally, there’s a fee for changing rooms (let’s say that the centrally located room is a more expensive room). That’s fine, and choosing to pay that fee is fine.

What’s not fine is snarky remarks about changing your mind. Your goals may have improved upon further knowledge.

So consider this as we move into the next steps:

Have an Alignment Meeting (or two)

The next part of the process is to have an alignment meeting.

No matter who calls time out and raises their hands, you have to have a meeting.

The purpose is to see what gets us to the finish line. Who cares who is at fault here. Everyone wants the project to be successful. There are no secret saboteurs. It’s hard to do these and let issues roll off your back, but it’s the best way to salvage the project.

Stuff isn’t working. That in itself is unfortunate. So we are saying “we’d like to have a meeting to increase the chances of a good outcome here, and get this project to a place where we’re confident in everything.” That acknowledges the troubles, but it puts the blame on nobody.

We don’t put our clients on the defensive, and we don’t let routine processes cause us to apologize (clients hate it when their vendors are weak).

So the goal of this meeting:

  1. Learn what’s not working as specifically as possible.
  2. Figure out what we can do to make things right.
  3. Compare what’s necessary to the original plan.
  4. Plant the seeds for a change order.

All four steps are important. We recently had a client who changed all their branding right before a project was supposed to go live. We had to be prepared to make the reversal of existing decisions a change order.

Agree to a Revised Plan

Now you’re cooking with gas. You’ve figured out what you need to make this hit the finish line.

There are three elements to a revised plan:

  1. New Timeline
  2. New Deliverables
  3. New Business Arrangements

Not everything has to “change,” but they should be addressed. This should agreed by the client:

  • Hi, Client, We have agreed to use the new logo and color scheme throughout. Our original deadline was  the 15th, and now it’s going to be done on the 16th. Provided there are no further changes that are caused by this, there won’t be extra fees.

 

All three elements have to be in play when we are making a project cover.

Use Precise Language To Describe The New Plan & Sign Off

The responsibility – under every circumstance – for having an understandable spec is on the provider. Not the client. Period. You can always tell a bad designer because they mock clients for not having a nuanced and precise design vocabulary. Or they rush into business with someone too soon.

The new plan has to use design language. That’s clearly explained and understood. That’s agreed. That’s different than whatever didn’t work well.

Then sign off on it.

Finally: What Not To Do

Remember that this is business.

A client not liking something isn’t a personal attack on your company and its values. As long as everyone is well intended, plays fair, and doesn’t get emotional about it.

You don’t have to grovel or feel bad because you deliver a lot of work to a lot of clients. You are impeccable and didn’t have any issues so far. It’s part of a routine process, no more unusual than having to search for parking in Manhattan.

You are presenting an idea that doesn’t work. I know a ton of people that think Stanley Kubrick is a great director. I think his movies are tedious and boring. Doesn’t mean that Kubrick isn’t a great director with a great audience. The other clients that have paid and referred you are what validates your work.

So don’t get emotional.

This job may fail, and you could still be a legendary creative team. One job doesn’t make or break you.

After all, George Lucas produced Star Wars and Howard The Duck within 10 years of one another. We remember Star Wars, and are reminded of Howard The Duck.

What about you guys? Do you have an idea to recover troubled projects?  If so email me at projects@simplifilm.com and let me know what we should add to this post.

How To Prevent Problems In Creative Projects

This is process week here at Simplifilm, and yesterday we talked about client communications.

Today we’re talking about preventing problems.

Be Impeccable

Be Impeccable With Your Word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean.

-Don Miguel Ruiz

First, in order for your project to work, you have to be impeccable in your actions. If you say something will happen on Tuesday, it’ll happen on Tuesday by 1pm, client-standard-time.

Why? Because the client is expecting it, she’s aware of it, and if it happens later than you told them they will say that they are fine with it, “no worries,” but they spent the day expecting it and having it come late in the day is a bummer.

These little cracks and kinks are things that a client will forgive you for. They’ll tell you “no big deal.” But the client will lose confidence in you. A little at a time.

The way to fix this? Keep your word.

Plan Everything

“In preparing for battles I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable”

-Dwight D. Eisenhower

The first thing you have to do is have a robust plan for each element of your process. Some type of project management software – like Basecamp or Asana is useful for sharing a plan.

The plan should cover every element of what it takes to ensure that your project is successful. Assume nothing.

Does your video need to go live on Youtube? Put that up as a checklist item. Make sure someone is accountable for it. Do you need something from the client? Same deal, put it up.

Do you need to select a color palette? Include a tagline? Put some notes together and make it happen.

Our tools for this are the creative brief.

Pad All Deadlines

“It wasn’t that things were harder than you thought they were going to be, it was that they were hard in ways that you didn’t expect.”

-Lev Grossman

The most important thing you can do is add two layers of padding in every deadline you have.

Internal Padding You take the time that it should take to begin a project, and you add at least 50% to it. Stuff goes wrong. You have to expect it, and internally know what something’s going to take.

Promise Padding The next thing you do is add another 50% plus 1/2 business day to when you promise it to your client or stakeholders. This way you don’t miss a deadline.

Preview & Proof Everything Before Doing It

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

-Albert Einstein (commonly attributed)

The worst thing that can happen is wasting work. Many hours and a lot of thought go into a project and it’s…wrong. It misses the brief, it doesn’t work, it has choices that we know aren’t happening.

This is exactly why we use references.  (Similar work that will evoke similar emotions with a similar style).

This way, we don’t risk wasting time on a path that won’t work (and risk having to bill a client for an error). We take small risks and “bake them in,” getting consent a step at a time.

When we combine these tools:

  • Be impeccable
  • Plan everything
  • Pad deadlines (to support being impeccable)
  • Preview and Proof

It all starts to come together.

Wait For Assets Before You Start

The last thing that we have to do is to wait for assets before you start a project. A lot of times you’ll see clients jumping the gun; “Yes, we’ll send the logo tomorrow, but we need something from you first.” This isn’t the way that great projects are built. You wait for the client to come through – for their benefit – because if you get to the middle and are chasing assets, you risk having to bill them for wasted work.

Conclusion: You Can’t Prevent All Issues

Now, you can’t predict and prevent all issues that come up. But you can eliminate 80% of them with an exceptional process.

How To Improve Your Client Communication [Process Week Post #1]

Welcome to Project Management Week on the Simplifilm blog.

We’ve spent a ton of time and effort on project management and improving our process.

We’ve learned this year that having excellent people in the production process leads to better creative work. So we’ve spent the last two months improving that process. 

HOW TO IMPROVE CLIENT COMMUNICATION

By establishing the way we communicate with clients we save a ton of time, energy and effort. By having sound communications you can:

  • reduce the time that projects are “out for revision”
  • reduce the number of revisions (which is what clients want)
  • increase – dramatically – the referral and rehire rate
  • spend less time going down paths that don’t work

Here’s why a process works. Projects are more alike than different. Clients themselves are more alike than different. What a client wants from a design team is to have an efficient, well handled, beautiful project done perfectly. Design teams want the same thing.

So we’ll state all that.

First, the obvious things are table stakes. Having good manners, being nice, speaking in terms of how decisions benefit the client all apply, but we’re already doing that.

This week is all about improving client communication.  So without further ado, here’s how.

Idea #1: You Must Have A Plan To Communicate Your Process

We have a memorized and rehearsed on-boarding call. This creates a “performance” mindset that helps us set the tone.

We also have a process roadmap that we share with our clients so that they can ‘keep score at home’ and follow our process (especially in relation to the deadline). We also get to say what will happen when a client is late on something (that sometimes it has an increased impact).

Our plan includes:

  • Onboarding call: an initial call that displays mastery and sets the tone.
  • Process roadmap: our “as you go” list of things that still need to be done.
  • Process messages: scripted, predefined messages that share with the client how much we’re in control.

Since we’re a video agency and all of our clients get videos from us, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every thing that we do.

We simply write out what must be done.

Your business may have different needs, but you’ve gotta have a plan in place.

Idea #2: You Must Communicate Completely

The easiest way to explain complete communication is to share with you what incomplete communication looks like. Let’s take the example of sending a first version of a video:

Dear Steve,

Here is your delivery- hope you like it.

-Chris

Now, what we’re doing wrong here is this:

  1. We don’t tell them what type of delivery it is. They don’t know if it’s a draft, a final copy or just a random thing.
  2. We don’t tell them what the next steps are. Do we need something from them? Will they get something?
  3. We don’t tell them when we need action.
  4. They don’t know what the consequences for inaction are.

Imagine the back and forth – how many more emails this badly written email will cause.

Let’s change this to something useful:

Dear Steve:

As promised, here’s the initial version of your video.

What we’d like you to do is to get us feedback tomorrow by 10am – we can do a call if you’d like, or you can fill in this form [LINK].

After we get your confirmation, we’ll usually need about 2 business days to make any changes. We’ll confirm our timelines again at that time. Do remember that this video is needed by September 22, so if it takes a while to get feedback that could be an issue with our timeline.

Thanks!

Chris

We call this method Exactly What Now, Exactly What Next, and Exactly When. When we use this consistently, all of our projects go much more easily.  We also spell out the consequences for inaction here.

Idea #3: You Must Gently Remind People Of Business Arrangements

One of the silly things that happens on the Freelancer blogs and groups is that they expect the client to have memorized all of the terms of their agreements. When a client forgets, they are enraged! How dare they!

Occam’s Razor applies: The client wasn’t evil, he simply forgot. Remember: they signed the deal ages ago. It was one of 6 competing proposals. In fact, when’s the last time you remember every detail of your own…home mortgage?

Often, a client will ask for extra things. They’ll do this at all times in the process, and you so you have to remind them of their business arrangements.

PROACTIVE REMINDER EMAIL: Glad we’re done! Just wanted to let you know that now that the script is finalized, any changes will mean a change order (which will obviously have a nominal fee).

The other thing clients will do is ask for changes that aren’t covered.

The answer, of course is always yes. No matter what they want. But it’s a different type of yes. See below.

CLIENT: Hey we’d like another script change here.
YOU: Absolutely! We’re happy to arrange that for you, and we’ll be eager to get going. As you may recall, we’ve finalized the script. To change it at this point will be just $1500, and it will cause us to shift the deadline from September 20th to October 2nd. Once you confirm that’s OK we’ll make the change!

This starts a conversation, and often times a client will be happy to order the extra work. (Note: all change orders must be profitable, not just churn. You have to be fair to your own company and have profit in every action you take, otherwise you’ll get hurt. Ask me how I know).

Conclusion: The Rewards Are Great And The Stakes Are High

We know that we get better referrals when we stick to the process. Referrals and rehires where all of our profits come from. And whenever we have regretted something, when our company has underperformed, it’s because we’ve abandoned our process.

My friend Steve Curtain talks about how to do better than going through the motions here on this post.

Some client cultures will do all they can to disrupt this sort of thing. They will stall, they’ll complain, they will stop what they are doing to keep things from happening. Even when this happens, stick with it. Because you can seriously limit the damage that they can do and have a profitable, fun business.

We commit to process so that every client under every circumstance has the best shot at getting a great result with their projects.

Tomorrow’s post is about how to prevent project management issues from happening.

Tell me what you think – what’s the most important part of client communications?

The 11 Steps To A Great Creative Process

Our Creative Process is what gets things built. It’s what we count on when things get hard (and yes, things get hard at every company).

The Process makes everything better.

When things break down it’s usually because we have abandoned our process. The Process is the source of all integrity.

What we’ve done here is broken down our creative process and adapted it to any creative project that we can think of. Even though we’re a video company, our process can be adapted to just about any creative effort.

Some parts of the process seem formal/boring, but we know from experience that projects with a process outperform projects without. Sometimes “just doing it” is faster, and sometimes it even works, but more often than not it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t lead to good results.

Step One: Discovery & Intake

The first step is listening. We learn about what the goals of the client (internal or external) are. We look at the competition, we look at what others are doing. We also collect & organize assets from the client.

Discovery is learning about the client’s goals and opportunities.

Intake is getting what we need to do our job.

The questions here will be things like:

  • What is your vision for this project?
  • Where are the logo files?
  • Are there any “must airs” in this project?
  • Are there “third rail” ideas or clichés that we can’t use?
  • What are competitors doing and how are the competitors marketing?

The Goal of discovery & Intake is to get the things you need to do and research your job.

Time Commitment: 1-2 hours, plus some research which varies.

Step 2: Write A (Simple) Creative Brief

If you can’t agree on the goal of the project, it’s nearly impossible to deliver a great video.

So the creative brief is where we lock in some goals for the project. Sometimes the goals will have numbers, sometimes not.

“To create a video that allows people to get the point of our product in 90 seconds,” is one.

“To create a video that moves opt ins from 1.4% to 6%,” is another.

“To create a video that provokes curiosity about our book project.”

We’ve made a video-specific article that details this process, but the keys are:

  • Who the audience is.
  • What they are supposed to know, do or feel.
  • What they need to remember.
  • Any must-airs (i.e Intel Inside) by third parties.

Time Commitment: This will take 60-90 minutes.

Step 3: Gather References

Nearly every work of art and beauty started with references. Star Wars famously used Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to inform everything that they made together. Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist references this process. More to the point, the title of the book steals from Picasso.

So you want to find work that evokes the emotions we want.

Having 3-4 pieces of prior art and what you liked about them will save time.

You’ll spend 60-90 minutes here if everything is working correctly.

Step 4: Create A Script

Notice that the script is a foundation of the video. But before we do that we have work to do. RedBull and Starbucks both sell caffeinated drinks that provide energy. But they market their offering in different ways to different markets.

Not every project is a video, so this may be a “framework,” a goal, a takeaway. In an infographic, you’d “do your research.”

We’ve written about this process here.

Time Commitment: Up to 12 hours.  Generally a good script takes between 3-5 hours per draft, and we generally see 2-3 drafts per script.

Step 5: Create an Outline

In video, we call this a shot-list.

A blog post or e-book may have some text.

This is where the script marries the visuals. In a PPC campaign, you may have a bunch of initial ads that you write for further use.

The outline part will be where all of the elements begin to come together, and you can start seeing what’s happening before you over invest in a bad direction.

Time Commitment: Varies by project, but takes about a 1-3 days.

Step 6: Create Some initial Design Work

We call this the “style frames” in our business. We want to create a look at our first visuals at this point and go from hypothetical to reality.

We use style frames to share what’s happening here, but in other design projects your mileage may vary.

Step 7: Cast Your Project

In a video we have a lot of moving parts:

  • Voice Artist
  • Script Writer
  • Creative Director
  • Producer
  • Lead Designer
  • Client Side Producer

Sometimes these roles are the same, sometimes they are different. We need to know exactly who they are so that we can get confirmation from the right folks.

When there is a team leader, we want to have someone who collects consensus and advocates for some work.

Step 8: Create Some Scenes

In video, we call this a motion test, which is generally 10 or so seconds of original, first quality work. In other creative work it would be important bullet points, important concepts to use.

We also may try to take on the riskiest parts of what we’re doing first.

We want to anchor a video project around a few scenes because THOSE scenes are what has the best chance to be memorable.

Step 9: Create an Advance Copy

We don’t believe in first drafts. A client should never have to see one. Because it’s work that they shouldn’t have to do.

We call the initial version of any work an “Advance Copy.” Because, from our perspective, it’s the first version of good work that the client gets to see. And it should be delivered first.

Because we do a lot of upfront work before we begin.

After this, we add any polish, or details that are needed to take something from A to A+.

Step 10: Quality Control

Ideally we’ll do quality control at the end of every step we have, and then again to finalize the project.

Details will be minded here, and we’ll make sure that something looks good so that it’s consistent and professional. This is something that no client should ever be expected to do.

Step 11: Release & Launch

The last step is overlooked. But distribution and buy-in are an important part of any process.

We’d never know about E.T. if Universal didn’t have a group of people that printed film and posters and got that into theaters.

If a video falls in the forest it doesn’t make any sound, does it?

Without a pre-planned, plug and play distribution strategy any project will always fail. Consider exactly how to make this happen.

I have seen great videos we’ve made die on the vine because there was no plan in place to release them. A most unnecessary failure.

Have Faith: It Gets Easier

Adopting a process always feels like a “it gets worse before it gets better” moment. That’s true in most cases. The way you “naturally” do things will often produce better initial results than working a process. Baseball players that rebuild their swings see a decrease in power and average until it gets better. Then it gets better.

However, once you work a process, and create a streamlined system you’ll find that everything moves along a lot faster, the work is better and the troubles go away.

This allows you to treat your clients better, the way that they are supposed to be treated.

The Transparent Service Business

I’ve always been a fan of the transparency movement. I didn’t have the guts to make the time to do it myself.

Recently, it’s started to bug me. Because I trust the transparent companies. Even when – or especially when – they cop to mistakes.  

A few people that do a good job:

  • Nathan Barry, ConvertKit CEO. An example post is here. He said “not all dollars are created equally,” and that hit home to me very specifically in the way that he means it. We’re working on a recurring revenue/subscription model because of this guy.
  • Pat Flynn is an individual leader in this space. You can find what he has here.
  • Rand Fishkin, both personally and from a business perspective. This was a favorite of mine.
  • Buffer (all about transparency). They did it in foul weather here.
  • WP Curve’s Dan Norris (they’ve slowed down the reporting: http://wpcurve.com/monthly-reports/)
  • The Money Lab (aka Matt Giovanisci) is all about that.

This inspires me. And it’s sobering as we try – really hard – to make our company a great place to work and more. I love those that are honest about their businesses in fair and foul weather.

I don’t want to be writing some self-congratulatory post-mortem on Medium in a couple of months. It’s important to describe our company in terms of present & future. The past is over, we all agree.

Where We Are

Right now we have been delivering good work for several years. We had some quality issues between November and probably early April of this year. This is described in part here. It was largely a consequence of not having a growth plan. It’s the consequence of being overly dependent on me for everything. Those issues are largely corrected (once he’s back from his honeymoon, we’ll introduce Tim).

Right now, we can comfortably handle 6 projects a month. (Though in July, we’ll deliver 11.) That’s mostly because of the hangover effect: June we delivered 3 and there’s normal variance when you’re dealing with single digit units. Quarters are consistent, but months often aren’t.

The issues are debt. Because I had too much overhead, and in 2015 I bought my partner out, we didn’t accrue as much cash as we would have liked. That, and I went on an Ahabesque grow-at-all costs ethos. I grew revenue, but I grew expenses more. That’s been corrected, but only recently.

Our debt right now – and our biggest creditor is Uncle Sam – is $130,000 (we rounded up to account for interest). With the ultra-lean expenses that we have now, it’s realistic to get all of that paid off by the end of the year.

Where We’re Going

I want to be a great company, not a great big company. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 2mm with a team of around 10. That feels right. Profitable. Generous. Capable of being kind. I want to keep Simplifilm as an investment and a vehicle for my own creativity.

What We Will Report AKA The Real Metrics

So we have to have a list-type monthly report with some commentary. We’ve recently added a very promising Sr. Producer that is really handling our clients with vigor and aplomb. He’s been a relief and a godsend to us.

The Core C’s: Completed, Contracted, Collected & Combined

This is the core numbers. The marketing numbers that follow are largely curiosities. Not particularly important in the scheme of things, with the exception of prospecting hours.

The core metrics I care about are as follows:

Completed Units and Dollars: This is work that has been delivered, accepted and paid for by our client. There are no loose ends. As my friend Chris Lema says, it’s Done-Done.

Contracted Units & Dollars: This is stuff that’s been signed for. The orders that come from our availability. The client must have signed, and payment must be in order. We’ll derive average prices from this.

Collected Cash: Exactly how much we’ve collected from our clients, and where it came from. This will include change orders and original work. Collected cash is the revenue metric we like to see.

Combined: Since we’re dealing with small amounts of units (under 25), a three video project that gets delayed could have an impact on us and we could still be performing well. We want to be ahead of our goals. That means that if we have a month where we complete – but don’t collect – it will penalize or reward us accordingly.

Right now it doesn’t make sense for us to do this any faster, the goal will be to do it better by our own quality of service metrics.

The Marketing Metics

Appointments, Leads, Subscribers & Uniques are the metrics for marketing.

Our marketing goals are finally defined.

Appointments: This is someone that is qualified to purchase from us, who meets & keeps an appointment with us. This is the real goal. The make/break.

Leads: Someone who fills out a form and wants to become a lead and to work with us here & that understands pricing. That’s a lead.

Subscribers: Someone that subscribes to our Lessons Learned newsletter.

If we had one goal it would be to generate a ton of qualified appointments. 

The next goal would be to add new subscribers. These are people that join our list, on purpose, and confirm. We got a subscriber the other day before we really launched. Goal for July would be to net 100 subscribers.

The Sales Metrics

Sales is about prospecting, presenting and closing. The core numbers are caught in the above situation.

Presentations: The number of qualified people that met with me on purpose with the potential of buying from us and getting our work featured. All the appointments + 10 more is the goal here. So 30 Appointments. We’ll get 30% of them wanting to work with us and pick 10.

Prospecting Hours: The goal here is to do 40 hours each month prospecting. This means calling on past leads and warming people up to get referrals. The trick here is to do this every week, even when we are selling well.

Proposals Sent: How many proposals I send out at any given time is an important metric for our business.

Expenses: The Missing Link.

We have two expense categories:

  1. Overhead: this is the salary and expenses of everyone.
  2. Production Expenses. This includes every cost incurred because we took a job. Including cost of sale. At some point when we are at about 10 projects/month we’ll look at changing this and breaking down a separate cost of sale category.

Right now, expenses sit at $4,600 a month. This includes:

  • stock art subscriptions (getty etc).
  • production manager’s salary (he gets a heavy incentive for deliveries, so he accepted a below market salary).
  • SAAS (contactually, convertkit, hosting, basecamp.)
  • iPhones (personal & business).

As far as production expenses go: we want to keep production expenses at around 60% of the sale. Once we break cost of sale out we’ll want to be at 45%/15%.

Client Privacy:

Unless the client chooses to make public their information we’ll respect their privacy and sanitize the data. This will mean that we redact some people but probably not a ton of them.

The other thing that will leak out is that clients pay different prices. This is based on when they came on board with us. I try hard not to outgrow the clients so if you’ve been a consistent customer since you started, we support you at about the price you came in at.

July’s Goals:

We’ll start every report with our goals. Since this is the zeroth edition of the monthly report, we’ll list our goals for July.

Here’s where they are:

Core Goals: (C’s)

Completed Work: $100,000. This is stretched because of monthly variance.

Contracted Work: $65,000 We want to sell 6 projects this month. This will account for a mix of :30s and 2 minute projects.

Collected Revenue: $66,000. This will represent deposits on new work plus existing work.

Combined Work: $231,000. This is an ‘inflated’ number, but it represents a healthy standard. We’ll back down to $180-200 in future months.

When these goals are hit, the month will be great. Everything will be gravy after that. We’ll take gravy. But that’s what we want to do.

Marketing Goals

Appointments: We want to set 20 appointments with buyers that come in automatically.

Leads: Simplifilm wants 30 total leads. 20 of them will be pre-set appointments (i.e. every lead is an appointment).

Subscribers: Simplifilm wants to generate +150 gross subscribers. In August we’ll worry about net subscribers. We have a list that we have largely ignored, so I expect to lose 200-300 subscribers from the jump.

Uniques: Simplifilm wants to generate 8,000 unique visitors. That more than doubles what we’re doing these days.

Sales Goals

Presentations: We want to do 30 presentations in July.

Prospecting Hours: I want to have 40 focused hours prospecting at a highly efficient rate. Because I’m going to focus more on that, I may be switching to Close.IO to make this happen (Close.IO’s lack of texting is criminally deficient).

Proposals Sent: I want to get 15 proposals out. 6 is then closing 40% and that’s about right. We may sell a mutli video project.

Project Goals:

In addition to running in real time we want to ship a few projects.

  • Formalize all of our pricing. (That’ll come next post.)
  • Decide on tiers: do we stay where we are or add a premium tier?
  • Finish our home page
  • Re-add our testimonials to our site page.
  • Get a better 404 page built.
  • Finish our process video.

That’s “enough” improvement to build our site out and make a lot of progress. We’ll be back with a rundown of how all of this went by the end of the month.

This is a big month for us. I’m excited about doing everything we can do to make an impact for our client and customers.

It feels good to bathe in the sunlight of transparency, and I look forward to reporting good things in the near future.

Why Every Service Business Needs a Growth Plan:

I’m in year 6 of my company. And in this entire time, we’ve had more good times than bad times.

But we’ve had tough times for sure. All of our wounds were self inflicted, due to us not having a growth plan (or a pricing strategy).

This post covers both.

Times where we had to surf the payables. Times when had to take a few jobs that we didn’t like. Times where we couldn’t support our friends the way that we’d like. Times where we had to start working with someone that we thought may not be a great fit, but had no choice.

Sure, we wanted to get big, but we were doing it haphazardly. Opportunistically. Taking big chances by accepting proposals, and then hoping it worked out. It worked out a lot.

This is what I wish someone had told me when I started. That fast and sustainable growth is possible. That you can do it and stay sane and stable. This plan is made for service businesses & freelancers between $60,000 a year and $2mm. Above that you have a different type of organization, and a different set of needs.

Another caveat. My friend Paul Jarvis talks about how you want to design your life first. And let the amount you want to work drive growth, and not just grow for its own sake. Take that advice (a good summary is here).

The Consequences of Uneven Growth: Staffing, Client Selection & Cash Flow

The big issue was that we had to staff with a gun to our head. And when we have 45 days to deliver something, we weren’t in position to be selective with the design talent that came in.

Perfectly good designers aren’t always a fit at any given company. Morton’s Steakhouse is a well admired company. So is In and Out Burger. Chances are not a lot of operators would be able to be interchangeable, even if the salary was the same. Realize that someone being “not a fit” isn’t a value judgement on them and we’ll get a lot farther.

Plus, it takes time to learn if someone is good at designing, or good at interviewing. Agency services (24 Seven, Creative Circle, TCG etc.) sent abysmal, unqualified, and inept candidates that “checked the box,” but consumed management hours and were well versed and prepared to chew up clock time without producing deliverables. Example: One guy was waiting on assets and didn’t tell us that he didn’t have them for a few hours of billable time. Technically our fault. But still.

Our second consequence was that when you grow you always have to front money before you get a return. Sometimes there would be a long gap. And so we’d have to take other work with inappropriate clients. People that were demanding, or people that didn’t have an interesting product.

This put pressure on cash flow. You had to sell to make things work to fund your obligations, both past and present. It was easy to get out of balance because entrepreneurs are, by definition optimistic.

Without a rubric, it’s easy to get out of whack.

Is Your Business An Inadvertent Ponzi Scheme?

This imbalance can happen easily. Without malice or bad intentions it’s easy to become an Inadvertent Ponzi Scheme. How?

Simple. When you need new cash to meet past delivery obligations – you are a Ponzi Scheme. Now, every business goes through a Ponzi Period. That generally happens at an early stage, when a business is new and only making $10-20k per month in revenue. That’s the gap that you have to bridge with every enterprise.

At that point, the risk is low because it’s fairly simple to cover gaps with personal resources, and there isn’t a situation where a minor event can create a domino chain of death spiral.

When you get bigger the risk becomes much more pronounced. When you’re doing $80k or $100k, personal resources can’t generally close the gap (nor should they). So you become a Ponzi Scheme.

How To Create a Growth Plan For Your Service Business

So let’s say you want your business to have more revenue, and to grow consistently. You have to plan for it to keep yourself on a good path. You want to grow:

  1. Without overwhelming stress.
  2. Without ever letting your service standards slip (hopefully by using new people to increase them).
  3. With a plan to build a company that creates and stores wealth and value.
  4. Without having to kill yourself to do it.

To do that, you have to plan for growth and not just be haphazard about your future. A growth plan needs to be in place to make this work. Here’s how.

Step 1: Assess Your Delivery Capacity. It’s Everything.

The first thing you have to do is assess your capacity with your current team. How much can you deliver? I mean perfectly with a perfect process that is impeccable in every area. That increases your Net Promoter Score, and makes people become raving fans.

Hopefully it’s more than how much you can easily sell. However, if you have more capacity than ability to sell, in a lot of ways, that’s even better, because your engine won’t be flooded.

Exactly how many units can you deliver and wow every customer without having any stress or friction internally? That’s your current capacity.

Step 2: Schedule Deliveries & Productize Your Service

The next step is to schedule your deliveries. On a calendar. This will have deep business ramifications because it allows you to sell “slots” which make a service business act like a brick-and-mortar with actual inventory. It doesn’t really matter if you have 2 or 20 slots per month. Putting them on a calendar is the thing that matters because they somehow become “real.”

Defining your service-based offerings is making your business into a “product.” Depending on the complexity, we’ll probably want to tighten up the rules a little bit here for what’s offered and what’s not.

Simplifilm currently delivers six projects a month. Three “mid-month” and three “end of month.” This will keep cohorts in rhythm and save us time. This will also benefit our clients because we’ll be able to deliver a coherent (and, we hope, excellent) experience.

Step 3: Create Margins

One of the biggest mistakes we made was a forgivable reliance on “optimum” conditions for delivery. Everyone will do it. Because founders are gung ho about what we’re doing. And because we always believe things will go well.

Margins are vital. Because you can make mistakes. Because you aren’t reliant on perfect conditions. Because there will be both sick days and vacation days that you have to work with. In our case 6 projects per month is right. It allows room for error, and we’re not overly reliant on luck, good fortune, or good clients to deliver. And, if we WANT TO, and if things are smooth, we can consider selling another slot (we won’t for a while).

You need two types of margins. Money margins and time margins. The time margin is more important than the money margin.

Step 4: Increase Prices on A Schedule

Currently, our average ticket is around $11,000 per project, depending on style. Some clients pay less, many clients pay more, but that’s a good working estimate for us. We will soon publish current pricing and talk about how and when we will increase it as we move towards transparency.

But, before you grow your units-per-month you want to grow your prices.

Some targets:

Design Businesses: 50% gross margins.
Consulting Businesses: 75% Gross Margins.
Professional Services Firms: 45% Gross Margins (less if you’re big).
Development Shops: 50% gross margins.

Mileage may vary depending on the type of business you are, but in general you want higher gross margins than your industry average because margins are the store of value and source of stability.

Remember, you are talking about the per job gross margins here. You would consider the following costs:

  1. Labor (and founder labor counts, within reason).
  2. Merchant Services (Square, Paypal, Stripe, etc).
  3. Production Expenses (i.e. stock art, a design library, a plugin).
  4. Cost of sale: commissions to sales reps, referral fees, some marketing budget share.
  5. Omnibus Delivery fee: we now charge $350 (internally) per project to cover things we purchase like subscription services. This is charged to “overhead,’ but it’s a real thing. This isn’t seen by the customers as they don’t like complex invoices.

I would raise prices (and service levels) until our margin is exceeding our industry norms by about 10%.

How do you know when to raise prices? That’s the part that this system makes simple. In step 3 we have scheduled our deliveries and productized our service. We have slots on paper 6 months into the future at any given time.

When they are sold 90 days out – we raise our prices by 10-20%. A 5% raise isn’t meaningful enough to bother with, there generally won’t be much resistance. There may be a gap between intake and getting around to this.

Depending on your market, you may want to go through a couple cycles of this before you increase capacity. My bias is to use Net Promoter Score of +50 as a rubric to determine if we’re OK to grow units or not.

There are more sophisticated pricing models. And maybe you could convince me that one would be helpful. But this is what to do.

Step 5: Add Capacity (Or Increase Service Level & Price)

Finally, you’ll add capacity (units) or increase services (offering & price). Adding capacity is simple for us: we just increase adding the # of units we’re doing, and staffing to that goal.

I would recommend keeping the growth at about 20%, or 2 hires per cycle. Generally – whichever is less. Early stage startups may be different. I’d also bring people in understanding that for a 3-6 month period they are going to be making a smaller contribution than they will in the future, so we want to rely on new hires as .5 or .6 of the capacity of a normal hire as they learn the process and systems that you need to be successful.

Finally. Putting It All Together

The net-net bottom line for a growth plan is that it has to fit with what you want for your business. There is risk – both in too many or too few units per month. On our end, we won’t work when any given client is more than 25% of our total revenue, even though it temporarily curtails our growth.

Now let’s also consider what’s possible. On this program, we can grow about 20% per quarter. That means every 3 quarters we effectively double in size (if we want to).  That’s fast enough to be a great growth company, especially for a service business.

The other way we grow is via recurring revenue.

For Other Reading:

Low Quality Clients – Jim’s Marketing Blog
Service Business Growth:  Entrepreneur Magazine
How Agencies Can Grow- A well reasoned counterpoint to this piece.

The Two Measures Of Quality

One person can absolutely ruin the work of the rest of our team.

Examples:

A salesperson that doesn’t set expectations correctly puts too much pressure on the design staff. And nobody’s happy.

A production manager that doesn’t email the client frequently enough will make them stressed out, and stressed out clients will make retaliatory revisions. 

A designer that doesn’t confirm a font choice will make us look sloppy in front of our clients.

That’s the stakes of team play these days, and that’s just the simple (and maybe unfortunate) reality of the way the world works.  Team play means that we have to have team commitment.

It all gets to how we measure quality, and what our standards are.

We Must Always have Higher Standards Than Our Clients

Let’s quantify what success is by what it’s not:

  • A good-looking video delivered one second late is a failed project.
  • A project where the salesperson didn’t set expectations right is a failed project.
  • A project that doesn’t create original art, or get to the heart of the story is a failed project.
  • A project that strikes the wrong tone is a failed project.
  • A project where the client had to ask “where’s my stuff” is a failed project.
  • A project where the client was stressed out and didn’t see the process is a failed project.
  • A project with technical errors that weren’t QC’d internally is a failed project (i.e. wrong font, wrong choices).

There are tons of people that know how to do what we do. There are tons of “explainer production shops”.  Tons of teams that can ‘use After Effects’ that produce beautiful work.

Clients take delivery of crap work with haphazard experiences all the time.

That’s good enough for the 90% of people that live under Sturgeon’s Law.

We’re meant to be better than this. It’s only a little more energy to change the world.

Get it? Any non-excellence in any area means the project failed. Most clients are kind. Most of the time they don’t point out when we failed. Doesn’t mean we didn’t – totally – fail.

The other point is, most clients won’t know why something was great.

When we have successful projects – where the communication and quality works perfectly? We always, always get referred and rehired on profitable projects.  

We have failed in many of these areas because we didn’t understand the stakes. We’re wrecking the work of others when we don’t do our jobs.  Not honoring the late nights, the long follow up cycle.

QE & QD (Quality-Quality)

So being here, at Simplifilm – in everything we do has to have the highest standards in:

  • Quality of Experience (QE)
  • Quality of Deliverables (QD)

If we win one – and are in the top 1% – any business will double each year. If we’re in the top 1% in both – there’s no limit to how well we can do.

What Is A Quality Experience?

“The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.”
-Lorne Michaels

QE is harder to define than QD.

From the first encounter with us – till a year after the video has been delivered – the whole thing felt like “wow, thanks.”

This means that intermediate milestones are hit – without failing.  This means that we anticipate the things a customer will eventually need and do them without asking.

This means that we’ll make sure that everything follows the brief and there are no technical errors.

What Is A Quality Delivery?

All of the ‘end results’ have the product of thought and care. In our business here is the start of what a QD is:

  • The story has the elements we want.
  • The script is on point and on pace. Makes sense and sounds good.
  • The visuals look good on every frame.
  • The video represents the company as ‘good quality.’
  • We cover the brand message that we intended to cover.
  • Did it respect the goals?
  • Did it achieve its goals?

There are lots of things, but this is the end result. Did the project do its job? Did the project do what we had asked it to do?

What Matters Most?

Many places have a quality delivery. Given time it’s almost always fine. Almost nobody delivers a quality experience.

In the battle between the two, we choose picking QE over QD.

Any failure in QE or QD ruins projects, but it’s simpler to recover in QD than it is in QE.

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