Taking next step from doing everything myself

My business is essentially myself (with my wife doing admin duties). She is pregnant with twins and due here shortly. With life for us changing so drastically, we’ll likely have less time to run the business and work on client projects. As it stands right now, I’m pretty much at my peak on project load.

Here are my concerns:

My advantage with clients is customer service. I answer emails within 30 minutes, often make changes to their website same day. When a prospective client calls, they are talking to me - the guy that actually makes the websites, decides project pricing, knows the project load and can make an accurate estimate on timeline all in the initial phone call.

I have tried bring in subcontractors to help out with simple stuff like supporting basic website maintenance and updates. These things are typically pretty simple and don’t take much time but when you have 5-10 clients emailing you every day for updates instead of 1-2 it adds up. However, every time without fail the sub does things in weeks not hours like I typically do and what my clients are used to. They also typically find a way to F things up.

I understand you get what you pay for, but the problem is I can’t find a good support person. I’ll pay the higher range hourly to get someone who knows what they are doing, I just cannot for the life of me find someone that is good but wants to do support. Typically good people want to do more interesting things than make text updates or add photos.

I also feel uncomfortable about handing over the sales side. As mentioned, I can sell a person right on the initial call without having to say “I’ll email you a quote tomorrow” or “let me speak with our design/development team”. Right now I feel like nobody else but me can do this for my business.

The major obstacle is that I cannot afford a full-time support or sales person nor do I have the need for one. I’m just not sure how to get past this “stuck” point of being close to overloaded but not being able to afford full-time help.

Another major obstacle I just realized is technical. I have all our client files locally. How would I transition to allowing a subcontractor access to our client files so they can make changes as needed?

I had friend that owned a construction company. Because he could not find anyone that he trusted to delegate tasks to, he did everything himself, with his wife doing the books. When the work load started to affect his personal life, he needed to make some tough decisions.

Perhaps it would be good to think about some basic assumptions.

Is it really important that everyone under you do everything exactly as you would, or is their way OK?
Does the business really need to grow? Or would you be satisfied earning more for the work you’re doing?
Maybe it’s time to sell the business?

It’s not important people do things exactly the same as me, coding/design wise. But if someone can’t answer an email within a week or complete a 15 min change within 2 weeks - then that is unacceptable no matter what.

I do need the business to grow another 30% or so, but with that additional 30% I could afford someone to help out. I need it to grow a) because the business is our sole income b) I won’t be able to put the same amount of time as I do now. If I can’t put the same amount of time, someone needs to help out. To pay that person(s), the business needs to bring in a bit more.

I hadn’t considered selling the business, no idea how much a small web design business would be worth. If I did sell it, I’d have to find a new venture to bring in consistent revenue.

Seeing as your tasks seem pretty simple technically I would like at hiring a CS/design student to do them part time.

It’s extra money for them, a good resume builder, and if all goes well you’ll be able to keep them for a few years until they graduate and then they can often recommend a replacement to take their place. They also are generally quick to respond as they don’t have families and the such to take up their non-partying time.

You could always contact a local college and talk to a professor to see who they would recommend.

You need to read The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. The entire book is about moving from a one-person “do it all yourself” business to a system that works. It’s a great book, and I recommend it to anyone who’s a freelancer or owns their own business.

I’ve been in exactly the same position. Baby, nearly sole employee - on and off contractors for some projects. I now made it to 2 full time contractors with the 3rd one coming up.

The most difficult point is having 1 full time contractor. You need to bring in the sales to feed that person, but he’ll feed you only half. Note, you need to check your margins - 2 contractors should be able to make enough profit for your salary.

What I’ve done is:

  • hired only the best technically

  • they need to be hungry, either young or big outgoings.

  • I’ve put into a job ad exactly what I want: http://www.automatem.co.nz/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=48&Itemid=49 and got it.

  • They also need to be incredibly self sufficient, less than 5% of their billable time for your project management

  • find technically difficult and interesting projects for them.

  • Then don’t do the projects as quickly as you can, but mix in the maintenance. Let the contractor decide when to do it, just the turnaround time counts.

  • Clients need to learn that simple fixes cost now 3 hours. The contractors will often refactor your projects.

How to work in a distributed manner:

  • get a WebDAV file server/ use Google Docs
  • use an issue tracking system (mantis here)
  • use a time sheet system. Especially for maintenance you always need to know where you’re at. The contractors need to have their time sheet up to date at the end of each day, even more often is better. We have a simple rule here, if its not in the time sheet, it won’t get paid. If its in the wrong month, same. We use Workflowmax
  • get a subversion server to share your code. We run it on our own server

HTH, Jochen

If a lot of this is simply updating content on the website. Have you considered selling them a content management system that they can edit themselves. There are a lot of good selling points to this. Instead of emailing you the changes they can simply input it on their CMS and the updates take effect immediately. You can charge them a monthly fee for using the system. You could have a coder whip you up one or use a pre-packaged one online.

They could then replace text/photos on their site with ease and whenever they want, you’d simply need someone (hopefully the same person) to install these on each client site, they should be simple enough CMS’s where the client can take 5 minutes to learn the whole thing. If the CMS system breaks you gotta have someone to fix it.

This cuts down on your workload heavily, you’re still collecting client monies for content changes, and you can focus on more of the sales aspects. Sell this as a positive alternative and a well designed system will help sell itself.

It’s not always just making text changes, it’s usually a bit more complicated than that but not something that could easily be handled by a client in a CMS. For example, a client wants to upgrade their version of X-Cart. The automatic upgrade script ran into tons of errors so we need to do some of the patches manually. This is going to be an extremely time intensive thing. It’s also that isn’t all that glamorous. So finding someone with the experience to know how to perform this upgrade and someone willing to do it is very hard.

This has been the same question posed by a lot of people.

Here is what I would do.:
Get a cheap webcam and record yourself for 2 weeks.
Record Sales Calls,
Service Calls,
How you work out what to charge,
How you do the accounts,
How you do everything that matters in your business.

Then Sit down and Write out checklists for every major aspect.

Like the following:

  • Receiving a Phone Call Checklist:
  • WRITE: Ensure you have grabbed the CALL clipboard and write copious notes as you listen to the call.
  • WELCOME: Hi Welcome to “yourbusinessname” your speaking with ???
  • LISTEN: Listen and Listen and Listen to the caller (only try to figure out whether its a SALES or SERVICE call at the begginning)
  • DECIDE: Work out whether you are taking a NEW client call or an existing clients. Look up the Client on the System and highlight JOB history

etc etc etc

This was just a silly example but you probably get the idea.

This is a LOT of work to begin with but this will be the only way you can scale your business and grow.

WHEN you hire get SMART people with TOP attitude and get them to FOLLOW your checklists.
Smart people with lots of experience sometimes have a hard time with checklists and standards but if you want your result most of the time then you have to put the work into telling people how that is!!!

READ the E-myth for Contractors as well

What about trying to find a partner to take on some of the load. I recently bought a few clients from an old friend who could not manage them with his current lifestyle (works full time and freelances part time). It’s actually benefited both of us!