As your small business grows, the processes and culture you have in place to scale are critical to achieving your goals. Listen as Charles Delfs, Founder and CEO of Delfs Engineering and FMBetterForms talks with Susan about Beyond the Chaos and how a fractional COO can free small business owners by providing structure and organization. They discuss the operational challenges that happen at different levels of the business, the importance of creating company values and culture in sustaining long-term growth.
- Who is Beyond the Chaos?
- Operational challenges as your business scales
- What is an Entrepreneurial Operating System and why you need one
- Managing the many moving parts of your business
- And more!
Please find the full video transcript below:
Susan: Out of the office and it’s been a challenge to them and it’s kind of fun to be one of those people that’s like, “What do you mean? Of course, we know about Zoom.” Then also I’ve been a business owner for five and a half years. I started Beyond the Chaos five and a half years ago. And believe it or not, I have 33 years as a FileMaker user. So I’ve been in the community since 2010, but in my first job, we used FileMaker. So it’s been a long time.
I’m also a home chef and you get to use a lot of project management and operational skillsets when you’re throwing seven-course dinners for 12 people. It’s true, for me, as fun to plan that, as it is to actually host it. So I guess it’s a hobby that actually applies to what I do. I don’t know, is that really a hobby? I don’t know. We’ll see.
So what do we do? What does Beyond the Chaos do? We improve the operations process, straight up. If you have a process, we can help you simplify it. We can help you streamline it or refresh it. If you don’t, we can help you create it.
Many small business owners definitely have a process, but it’s all in their heads, which makes it incredibly difficult to delegate that and to share it with the other team members.
We can manage projects for you, actually white list as a team member and go in there, look like we’re part of your team, manage clients, manage your team, handle all of that and facilitate the project to completion. Essentially, we’re managing those details so the business owner doesn’t have to. We want to get you out of that. We can work on a long-term or a short-term basis, but it’s always part-time— we never go in full-time.
Our goal is to set you up so that long term, you do want to hire your own project manager and bring them in and we will even help you do that. We’ll help you write the job description. We’ll help you interview and we’ll hand over our projects. So there never has to be that moment when you’re like, “Oh gosh, we’re ready to fire them. What do we do?” We want to actually help you fire us. We have a team of six consultants and it’s always growing. We’re always adding. If you know somebody who’s an expert in these areas who wants to work fractionally, send them my way.
Who do we serve? Small professional service businesses, fewer than 25 people who deliver projects to their clients. That’s the gist. We work with a lot of software development houses, not only FileMaker, others as well, but a lot of FileMaker houses too. We work with accounting boutiques, not tax-type companies, but more like accounting or they are full service, maybe fractional, CFO types. Creative agencies, we work a lot with marketing agencies, advertising agencies, and we’re coming into the home services market. I don’t know if any of you have ever had a remodeling done to your home, and then you get all these people to come and they quote your house, they measure everything and they spend all this time with you and they talk through what they’re going to do. And then you never hear from them again. They have an operations problem.
So we’ve been trying to get into those areas to help those people better serve their clients and better serve themselves, grow their businesses better. If you’ve noticed through this, we also actually have a law client, which I was surprised was open to actually thinking of a case as a project. So if you look through all of these things, we use that term project very loosely as to what we’re looking at, but all of this can be run as a project. Essentially, we’re serving overwhelmed business owners whose businesses are running them. Overwhelmed is a great trigger word. If you just feel buried and you don’t know what to do next, that’s when we jump in and we’re like, “Do this next.” We can help set priorities and sort things out.
So why would we create Beyond the Chaos? Why did I do it? Well, first, I have an innate gift that I’m required to share. I can absolutely organize anything, anywhere, anytime, and so can most of my team. When I was about four. Hold on, I have a prop here. When I was about four, my mom would dump these buttons. This is a whole jar of buttons. And these are the original buttons. Dump them out on the floor while she sewed. And I would start sorting them by size, color. I’d build a little graph of, “Oh, there’s this many in this color and this many in this color.” So it would get bigger and bigger. This is not normal play, if any of you have kids, that is not normally how kids play.
So there’s something that I’m required to share here. It’s a God-given talent. The other is that we wanted to help more than one business owner at a time. I have really been doing this for small businesses and for the owner for my whole career.
I just didn’t really click to the fact of why am I doing it one at a time. Let’s serve a whole bunch until about six years ago when this concept came into my head. Our goal here is to improve the personal lives of business owners, not just their businesses.
We believe that by making their businesses better, the business owner themselves becomes a whole person. They are acting less in the world of overwhelm and they are better able to relate to their family, their team, their vendors, their clients, and it really impacts American society as a whole. It’s exponential. And that is actually our first and primary value here at Beyond the Chaos — is impacting American society as a whole, and also Canadian society with Charles. We’ve had several other Canadian clients.
Charles: I’m not the only Canadian here.
Susan: I know.
Charles: We have like half of them today.
Susan: So maybe I should change that to North American society. So what are our values here? We believe that we should interact based on a service-minded Christian belief system. You don’t have to be a Christian to be a client; you don’t have to be Christian to work with us, but it’s that service… Servant leader mentality that we want to bring to all of our client interactions. We believe in a lifestyle-oriented workplace, and that’s not only for our clients, that is for our team. We’ve been able to hire people who want fractional part-time work because they’re caring for a sick grandbaby, or they’re a mom who had a great career and just needs to stay home with kids and wants some part-time work to keep her sane. So any of those things help us to build that lifestyle-oriented workplace and we believe family comes first.
We also believe that the right technology and this should appeal to all of you guys very much. The right technology helps businesses run more effectively. So making sure that you are using the right tools at the right time and the right places and that you don’t have 10 000 of them, that they’re nicely streamlined, is important to help your business run effectively. We’re very committed to client service and we become an extension of our client’s businesses.
Many times we get so involved with the owner that we really feel like we’re running the business with them, which is when we really feel like we started to partner and are growing something together. We love that feeling, and we are very committed to being an extension of our clients’ businesses. And we’re also very committed to creating chaos and drama-free environments. We don’t want everybody running around with their hair on fire all the time. Might it happen from time to time? Yes, but hopefully we’ve given you space that when your hair is on fire, you know, just exactly how to put it out.
So how do we help? One thing we do is help choose software for operations. I know many of you are FileMaker people. We actually don’t usually recommend a homegrown FileMaker solution for project management. There are too many off the shelf that do everything and trying to recreate your own system to do the things that these off-the-shelf things already do. It doesn’t make any sense. We’d rather free you up so that you can spend time focusing on creating that software for your clients, where you get paid, as opposed to fixing bugs or being limited by an internal solution. So we do help choose software for ops, we help create and manage processes around operations and project management.
So essentially think from the first time a lead contacts you, the whole path all the way through to the end, when you get a great case study or a fantastic testimonial or perhaps an example to use for your portfolio. What are all the steps there that take you through to make sure that you’re successful in the end? We create templates. So anything that can be repeated, we want to make sure that, that is clear for the team, and it’s clear in the software, how to do that. And then we’ll train your team on the process and software, which helps you as a business owner, start to hold them accountable.
So once you have shared with your team what the expectation is of the process in using the software, now it’s much easier to sit back and say, “Where did the process go wrong?” When something went wrong. You’re not even talking about what did the team member do wrong, you’re talking about together, let’s work together to improve that process so it doesn’t happen again.
So being able to have that accountability and that new management tool is a big part of what we’re creating. And then, of course, we’re also managing projects, clients, team workload, that kind of thing. I mean, essentially we’re not just consultants that come in and tell a small business owner, “Hey, listen, we know you have a lot to do, but here’s a whole other laundry list of things that you ought to do, that you’re never going to do.” We actually jump in and do them for you. So that’s who we are.
I’m going to share, hold on, let me get this cat down. I’m going to share here an operations audit that I’ll offer to everyone on this call and I’ll post, once I take these slides down, I’ll post this link here in the chat. It’ll get you three recommendations on how to improve your business operations free. You just have to go fill out this audit so I know enough about you to give you those recommendations and I’ll post it in the chat too. And then here is my email address if you want to reach out to me. So that is really the gist of who we are. And from there, now that Charles walked away, I was about to ask him to share his experience.
Charles: I’m here.
Susan: He’s there.
Charles: Just over the side of my desk.
Susan: All right. So, Charles, I would love it if you could kind of start the conversation.
Susan: By sharing what your experience has been and the impact it had on your team.
Charles: You mentioned that you work with different sizes. And I want to kind of dig into that. What are the sizes of dev houses we’ll say, because that’s mostly what we have in common or we have our verticals or whatever, that are having issues in the sense of, you have the sole developer? And quite often, I get a chance to speak with so many different developers all the time. And one of the things I hear all the time is, “Well, we tried to add another person, but it didn’t work.” That’s probably the… Almost that exact verbatim is what I hear all the time. We tried to add another developer, but it didn’t work. And then it’s usually based on some other reasons. Where do you find the sticky points for growth and for those kinds of things?
Susan: That’s a great
Charles: For the real small teams, that is.
Susan: So there’s obviously a sticking point at the first, there becomes another sticking point about at maybe four people up to five, then there’s another one after you get to five, about 10. And each of those sticking… And it will continue. I mean, as you get older, the agency I worked at in Chicago, we went from 40 people when I started, up to 75, and then it was 2008. So we very quickly went down to about 50 when everything in that world crashed. And each of those challenges, increasing and decreasing, is an operational challenge. So to go from one person, me, just me to two, a lot of people have in their head, “Oh, I need some help. I’m just going to go hire someone to get some help.” Except that you have created no structure for them to work in.
You don’t know… You’ve set no expectations, but you have them as the owner. You have really clear expectations in your head of what is going to succeed, but you’ve created a situation where that person can’t because they can’t read your mind. And I think-
Charles: That’s exactly what we found. I found… I started consulting mostly to dev houses and the odd client, my own. And then I added another developer, and it took me literally two years to figure out how to assign them their work, and that was crazy long.
Susan: All you’re doing the whole time is telling them what to do every day, which really isn’t that helpful to you. And then you’re looking at what they did. And you’re like, “Well, you didn’t do what I wanted or you didn’t do what I told you.” Except that you weren’t clear on what you wanted. That communication is hugely important. And the other part of this is being able and willing to let go because their way might be different from your way. But you have to assess at the end, did it reach the goal you challenged them to reach? And that can be very hard for someone who’s very used to working independently.
Charles: The next step that we encountered was that three to the five-ish range. And that’s when you have to have some clear organization, that’s the first bit of, like the first… I found the first level, eventually after a few years, the person kind of reads your mind, and then they can start to work autonomously. Then the three to five-level, nobody’s reading your mind at that point, you have to actually start to assign a little bit more or just wait another three to five years by the time they all could figure you out.
Susan: If they don’t leave.
Charles: So what is the biggest things that you see that people run into, we run into at that three to five level? What’s the structure there? Is it just delegation or?
Susan: So the three to five level becomes a time when you can’t as one person touch them every day anymore — one to one you can interact. You can talk, you can answer questions. You can help them read your mind. For the three to five, you can’t do that anymore because you can only be in so many places at one time. And if all you’re doing, then is teaching them to read your mind. Then you are still not accomplishing any more than if you just took one of those clients yourself or that kind of thing.
So that’s when you need to start with some vision. And where is this team going? Why are we here? Who do we serve? Why do we serve them? So that your team can get on board with that first. And then how? How do we serve them? Onboarding becomes a much bigger thing. You need a process for how you’re teaching someone once they join your team, all of the things that you expect, how you work, what tools are they required to enter time in? You start to need a policy; you’ll probably need to start defining when your holidays are, when are you closed? It’s things like this. You’re really starting to become a real company, as opposed to a freelancer who has some help.
Charles: So you mentioned about the documentation and years ago, 20 years ago, whenever the book came out, Michael Gerber’s The E Myth, I read and with the previous businesses we started to really document those things, procedures, programs, and policies, but I never did it with this business, which is kind of funny.
I never did it. It’s like, “Don’t need to, it’s software.” I know every in and out, but we started to do that.
That’s one of the things that you brought to the table, is starting to document those processes. And at first, I think a lot of people don’t bother doing it, and I’m not sure maybe you guys could tell me how many of you have documented processes for things like onboarding, which we never really had. But now that we onboard more people, it’s so important to have them walk through this workflow, you also mentioned software. Sorry, go ahead.
Susan: What’s even more important is an off-boarding process. Because an off-boarding process can be an emergency.
Charles: I see. So you have to have that documented more.
Susan: If you have to fire someone for cause or somebody explodes on a client and walks out the door, you have to really fast, figure out how do you get them out of all those things that you put them into. So off-boarding can become a really important thing.
Charles: And that’s probably exceptionally important in our industry because they have so much software connection access and things like that as compared to somebody who’s working on a production line. You just kind of move over and fill up their space. And now jumping to the next level, the 10 person level. That I found that was even bigger. I think the three to five-ish that was a big one. And then this 10 person level starts to… There’s another notch of learning there. And it seems to me, and maybe you can address this, it seems to me that the biggest thing is some type of management layer that’s in there.
Susan: Yeah. At that point, you’ll get sucked into, as the owner, you’re going to get sucked into all the HR issues all the time. And by HR, I don’t mean people acting up or that kind of thing, but it’s, “When can I go on vacation? I need this time off.” And also, “I don’t know how to do this” and they keep going to you and you have no layer between you and them, and you and your client.
So you’re sucked into all these details at a much greater pace because there are so many projects, so many clients now to support these people. As you grow and add more and more people, you are separating yourself from your team and from your client intentionally, but your vision is still what’s running this company.
So you still have to be setting the tone as to what you’re expecting in your business with your client, how you’ve created now, a brand that every member of the team is responsible and required to share with the clients and each other. Definitely, you’ve established a culture at that point. And part of what becomes the owner’s job at that point is making sure that culture stays in place as well as probably at that point, all you’re doing is selling and marketing. You’re probably not doing any of the work at all anymore.
Charles: So that’s interesting. You mentioned culture, and that’s something Al said that we added to the table, courtesy of yourself and Erin, is to define what our goals are, or our company culture is, and constantly get reminded of, “Wait a minute, this is what we agreed on that the culture is.” So it’s almost a beacon and every time something doesn’t quite fit into that, it gets pointed out. And it becomes very evident that it gets pointed out. Whereas before, as the solo placement, we’d always be constantly just kind of ignoring a lot of that stuff. So how can other developers start to build up a company culture? Can you do that with just two or three people? Or where does that really kick in?
Susan: Absolutely. You can do it with two. It is really about, as the owner, what you want to establish as your workplace. I shared our values when I was going through the presentation; we measure a lot of things against those values. And it’s important that whether you have two people or 10 people, everything that you’re doing points back to that. So establishing them really starts with, as a business owner, a small business owner, to me, what do you want your environment to be like? And then how are you going to share that with like-minded people so that you get on the same page?
And you’re also able to weed out employees that don’t fit. These values are on our website. If an employee or team member does not like the values, man, there’s a step right there that’s self-eliminating. They’re not even applying to work with us, same with clients. If those don’t appeal, that’s self-eliminating, and it helps a lot in narrowing down who you’re going to work with and why you’re serving them. And if you can put that in the background of everything you do from two people to 500 people, you’re going to create that environment within your company that you want. You are going to demonstrate that outwardly as part of your brand. I will tell you, I’ve been involved with well over a hundred small businesses, and everybody has culture, whether they’ve established it or not, there’s always culture.
Charles: So sometimes the culture is, no culture.
Susan: Sometimes it is… Or it’s bad. So there is always culture. It’s just how intentional are you going to be about creating it in your own company?
Charles: Does anybody else in the meetup here, do you guys have any type of clear core values? Like a statement in that fashion? I saw Marshall on here earlier.
Susan: Yeah. Marshall has to have some.
Marshall Micheals, MainSpring: Yeah, we’ve got five tenets that we follow, that we do a lot of contests around. Every month we do attitude awards, which anybody in the company can offer to another person when they see somebody attending one of these tenets. So, yeah it’s pretty… When you get bigger, as you said before, Susan three to five is-
Like you said before Susan, three to five is pretty straightforward. When you have a small company, it’s easy. You’re seeing everybody, everything’s going on. But these tenants are kind of the core that you’ve got to rally around it to kind of set up what kind of company you are and what you believe in and your daily actions too like how do you talk about clients or are clients idiots and this guy’s a loon and blah. That perpetuates across the clientele or across the group. But yeah. And I couldn’t agree more with your process. I was just driving around the other day thinking about how even the most famous, most wealthy folks, rock stars, their process is to play the same song list every single night.
It’s the same thing. They were creative when they created it, but they’re doing the same thing over and over. So, I am a complete process guy. Your offboarding process, I think is on point too. We’ve run into that a little bit like, oh, developers leaving. Okay, what do we do?
That’s the worst time. What passwords do we have to recapture? What clients do we call? Do we need equipment back from them? What do we need to close… Like, you do not want somebody walking out the door, try to figure all this stuff out.
So that is totally on point. And I’m not saying people leave… Like life happens. People leave for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t mean that you are a crappy company. It means that maybe other opportunities have come up or maybe they need to find their happiness elsewhere. We never fire anybody. We give them the opportunity to find their happiness elsewhere.
Susan: I love that. That’s culture though. That right there is culture. Marshall, how many team members do you have now?
Marshall: Well, we’re a company of 65. But in my development group, we’re up to nine. A whopping nine. And we have just a ton of processes around what they do, how they do it, and what’s expected of them. There are a couple of dashboards that I watch religiously that have to do with time, time booking, where they book their time. I do customer calls to find out how we’re doing independently of what the developers are doing. But Susan you know me, I’m Mr. Structure and Mr. Process and Procedure. So it’s interesting.
Marshall: You said 10 is the next thing. And we were stuck at five forever. And I think that was more of a function of sales than of development. But it’s interesting, your perspective on where those stop points are because it’s like, okay, what’s the next thing? What’s the next club I have to put in my bag to get over the next hurdle? You could play a par three course with what, a seven iron, a putter, and maybe a wedge. But if you get into a regular golf course, you better pick it up.
Susan: Yup. For sure. And Marshall, some of what you’re talking about there too. There’s a book out. I have not read it yet, but I’ve actually heard a lot about it and I recommend it. It’s on my list. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. And it is about exactly what you’re talking about. We’re going along, everything’s working great. Okay. But I can’t take the next step because you need a different golf club, right? You can’t do the same thing to take the next step.
Marshall: I think one of the harshest things that I ever had to go through, 30 years in business, the people that helped me start the business are no longer here. And I came up with the term, it’s kind of cold, but I came up with the term of a booster rocket.
Where certain employees can get you from here to there, but their skill set, their mentality, their… Whatever the story might be, they’re just not capable of taking you to the next level.
When you recognize that, that’s one of the saddest days. Because here’s somebody who’s been super loyal to you and then what you start doing, you start finding jobs for them. And then every month you’re moving them around like, oh God, this guy’s great. I got to move him over here. And then they start not doing so well, then you move him over here.
Then you move him over there, and it’s rough. But at the end of the day, you got to hire to where you want to be, not where you are. And sometimes there’s a little carnage along the way, but those are tough days man. Because the developers you have, maybe the PM that you have today that’s handling those five people, you get up to 20, no matter how much training, no matter how beyond the chaos engagement you do. Susan, I’m sure you see it, you walk in and go, Ugh, sadly that dude has to go.
Susan: Yeah, can’t do it. Yeah, absolutely. I think the layers of management that you also have to be, have to put in place are important to get there too. I see Arin Preston is on the call here. Arin actually worked for Adatosol for a while as the operations director and then also worked with Beyond the Chaos, which is how she got connected with Charles. But Arin has a lot of experience in the EOS traction setup. And Arin, I don’t know if you want to talk a little bit about how those different management levels play out. Sorry to put you on the spot.
Arin: No problem. No. Yeah. These are the things that I really am passionate about and I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it work. Implementing EOS, just that’s what I happen to like and I’ve seen it be successful. But it is basically about culture, about establishing values and establishing some kind of a structure. My own company (DataVast) just hit the 10 person mark as well, really struggling. It seems to me what I’m seeing a lot in other companies is personnel issues. Like you mentioned Marshall, what do you do when your best developer just doesn’t fit the culture? And they’re dropping the ball in key areas. That’s a really hard position to be in, but it’s something that I see a lot of owners just facing constantly.
Arin: So, EOS kind of helps you to address things like that to establish some kind of a structure and a management layer. At a certain point where Charles is at, where I’m at, you can’t be engaged with every single person on your team. There’s just no time. And definitely not the energy. So some of these things really help to kind of guide the ship and identify problem areas. We have some core values for my team, but being a remote team and I think a lot of people have remote teams these days. That presents another set of issues. And how do you keep everybody feeling connected and really build that culture in a remote environment? But I feel like there are things that you can do that really promote that.
And being consistent with your team, I think is important. And just letting them see that your core values aren’t just a list of ideas. But it is something that is truly important and that you’re responsive to, that you call it out and really call out people that are exemplifying those things. And make sure that you’re not caving to people that don’t because your team will notice that. So these are just some of the things that I’m dealing with right now and I know a lot of other people are dealing with, but happy to talk with anybody about EOS if you’re interested. But for those who don’t know, it stands for the Entrepreneurial Operating System. I don’t know, Charles, if you want to say something about the impact it’s had on you.
Charles: Yeah. So basically it’s a set of guidelines that you use to run your organization, your ops for the most part. From meeting structure to things like core values. So we were talking about core values a number of times. I’m just going to share my screen quickly.
These are Delfs’ Engineering core values. Just to give you an idea what sort of, that kind of thing looks like.
So the idea of this EOS stuff, and this is something that Erin brought to the table, and it’s been really good, is that we have some structure to what we do. We used to have a weekly… So we don’t have a daily standup because I don’t think you can have daily standups too much unless you’re really super tight and organized. We weren’t at that level yet. So we have a weekly Monday meeting stand up with it, with everybody on the team.
We also have a weekly management meeting as well. So the weekly management meeting follows a very defined structure and it’s kind of a top-down type structure or a point form. And then each point, each section of the meeting expands. So we start off with just a quick thing like what are your highlights for the week? What are the best points from last week? What are the worst, both professionally and personally? And we do the same thing in our standup, weekly standup as well. And then from there, we talk about all of the tasks that we’re working on. Are we on track or off track? That’s a simple, literally a one-word answer, 15, 20 seconds each thing. Are you on track? Yes. If you’re on track, there’s no action that’s needed.
Charles: If you’re off track, what is the action that we need to take? Do we need to talk about it in the next segment of the interview, or sorry, of the… Been doing interviews last week. The next section of the meeting or do we need to… If you’re on track, there’s nothing that needs… There’s no action that needs to be taken. Then we jump to the third section, which is basically your delegation section, which is how we going to address all of those points. Those are the things you actually talk about. And just that alone, that little structure, as a takeaway, adds such a difference to the productivity of a meeting that it’s incredible. We used to do our weekly standups and I used to kind of wing it, just talk about whatever.
And that always kind of went sideways. And I don’t think we got anything out of it. Now, everybody on our team knows exactly what everybody else is doing at the beginning of the week. So we know what projects we’re working on. We don’t know the specifics of the project, but we do know that say Eduardo’s working on some base code optimizations and Christina’s working on something else, and so on. So we have a really clear idea of that. And I think that really helps as a team and the culture helps get everybody a lot more engaged. And I thought I saw Jason was on this call. Is he still here? Did he maybe jump off?
Jason: Yeah, I’m right here.
Charles: Right. So, Jason can probably add to that. And Jason, I was saying earlier, like when we started off, it probably took Jason about three years before he could read my mind. And I still probably get frustrated. So having this level of organization has kind of allowed us to do most of the growth in the past year based on that. And so we are pretty thankful for that to all of you. And I don’t get a chance to… I keep saying to myself, I should email Susan.
Actually, that brings me to something else I wanted to actually ask Susan about is her style about the way she operates her business. Because you haven’t really… You sort of talked a bit about your core values a little bit there, but there’s something that I started noticing became very evident as soon as we engaged you. And that was… The first thing was we had a bit of a kickoff meeting.
We talked and right away, it kind of put me at ease. It’s like, yeah, you clearly understand what’s going on here. Then you delegated to one of your team. So my first response is, yeah, but now I’m going to get like the B person, not the A person. I want the A person, right? People always want to talk to me in our group, even though I’m not necessarily the A person on a given topic, but that’s generally the thought process. And that’s what I sort of felt.
But I trusted you. And then I realized that the B person is not a B person. The B person is another A person. But you stayed engaged with us. So how do you go about doing that? What I mean by that is you consistently do follow-up emails and touch base emails. And in the email you talk about, you always mentioned a few key points that we’ve just come across a couple of key problems. So it may be really realized that there’s clear communication between your team and you, right? You weren’t out of the loop in any fashion. We had problems with an employee basically going AWOL about six months ago. And I think we talked on a call literally maybe a couple of days after that. So, how do you keep that communication, I guess, is where I’m going?
Susan: Well, there are several things. First, I’m project managing my clients. I have a reminder to me for a certain amount of time to touch base with them so that I am always in touch with them at least once a month. If something big comes up, I will go out of my way to reach out earlier. I think that was the case, Charles, in this one situation.
The other is that my team knows that if they’re handling it, great handle it. But if something big happens, I need to know about it. So one is we might help each other solve the problem or come up with better solutions for the owner together. And so I encourage that between my team members, whether we’re doing it just through Slack and multiple people are involved or if we’ve got to get on a call and brainstorm together, we want to try to present not just one person’s way to solve a big thing, but a collective experience.
And so I encourage that. My team is very good at letting me know when there are big things. If things are going along swimmingly, I usually don’t hear anything, which is great. That’s what we want, right? And then before I touch base with everybody every month, I am reaching out to that person to say, Hey, what did you do this past month to add value to this client? And that also establishes with the team member that they’re not just doing day-to-day, that they are adding value. So what problem did they solve? They have to think through that too. And then I get that information. I’m able to recap that to the client and then ask the client, Hey, how are we doing? I want to know how you think we’re doing. This is what I think, what do you think?
Susan: And then I’m always willing to offer an opportunity for the client to talk with me directly at that point, too, whether they just want a chat or to give me an update or a little bit of input on something. So, that’s really how I make that happen. Some of it is establishing that culture, that Arin was mentioned, that virtual culture.
That’s a challenge.
I mean, I started off before everyone arrived saying that I’d been sick for a week. My whole team is sick. I don’t know how people all over the whole country are sick, but we’re all sick. So there is some virtual virus as well, but the funny part about interacting with people on a tool like Slack is there are others. I’m hoping you’re all using something like that. And, how do you establish a culture in your Slack? I have been part of countless clients, Slack groups, and I can tell within a week or two of getting in those, what their cultures are like.
Charles: That’s interesting.
Susan: How are they communicating with each other? How are they communicating behind the scenes? Are they pulling people in for help? Are they interacting every day? Do they say good morning every morning when they come in? My team answers questions every day. When they’re actively working on a project, they come in when they start work and say what they did yesterday. What was the thing? Not a laundry list; I don’t want everything. But what’s the big thing you accomplished yesterday? What’s your focus today? Do you need help or is there a stopper? Do you need to thank somebody for helping you? And then we answer a fun question. The latest one I think was, what’s your favorite Thanksgiving food?
Charles: This is over Slack?
Susan: This is over Slack. And my team is virtual and they’re all subcontractors. They are not employees. So I’m not telling them when to sign in. I’m not telling them a time. They have to do that. I can’t. It’s not legal to do that, actually. But when they sign on, whenever they start their day, that’s how they start their day. And so they’ve checked in. I’ve got some people that’ll do it at five o’clock because they work on the west coast and they’re working with them at three.
So it really depends on when they start work as to when they check-in. And it’s fun. The other is that if you see something like, oh, this is what I’m doing today, you can go — oh wait, why are you doing that today? That’s not your priority today, right? So it gives you as a manager, a way to kind of take a pulse on what’s going on. And it gives the team members an opportunity to share something that is going on. That’s how I know everybody’s sick, right? That’s been in their check-in every time. I’m sick now too.
Charles: I have Frazier on the call. I’m going to put you on the spot if you don’t mind Frazier. Your team’s grown quite a bit? Frazier is a specialist in accounting and in tax. Just for background reference, if you’re Canadian here and you’re looking for a tax accountant, Frazier is your guy. How have you found that you’ve managed your team now? Have you had to, sort of, learn, jumped through these similar hoops?
Frazier: Yeah. Actually, everything you guys have been mentioning, like going from zero to five, five to 10. We’re at about 14 now and that’s when I’m starting to really feel in it. Really, it’s the communication.
I can’t micromanage everybody every day. I have to start really delegating certain clients and creating teams. And so yeah, that’s been difficult to manage.
I think the biggest thing is making the technologies all work together because I’ve got HubSpot and accounting software, tax software. I’m constantly trying to make the whole workflow talk to each other, right? So, yeah, all these things really resonate with me and I think 12-14 is really my limit now. And now I’ve got to kind of look at it and go, okay, how do I… That book, What Got Me Here, Won’t Get Me There kind of thing is, that’s where I’m at right now. So I would like to scale, I could… Actually, my marketing and stuff I can bring it in. I could double tomorrow, but I just couldn’t do the work or manage it, right?
Susan: I’m a firm believer in that, Frazier, is that if you don’t have your fulfillment set up first, don’t go sell. Because if you’re going to sell into something that’s going to break, your team’s going to be unhappy. Your client’s going to be unhappy. You’re going to be unhappy. So make sure that the fulfillment process is moving smoothly and you have a plan before you start overselling.
Frazier: Yeah. Well, that’s… Our core success has been we’re trying to go for the Google review. We’re really customer-centric that way, and we’re looking for the happy email at the end. So we’re really focused on that. So if I’m getting happy emails every day, five-star Google reviews, I kind of measure things that way and go, okay, that’s good. I get an angry client email even once a week or something. I’m like, okay, we got a problem here. Where are we falling down here? How come we’re not communicating… And it’s, usually, communication. Or we’re not following our policies or something. Why is that, right? So yeah, I do not want to grow anymore unless I can do a fantastic job for clients. I think I can get there. It’s really the technology like simple things just having HubSpot work properly. Like technology.
Frazier: It just drives me crazy. Up to a certain level, it’s good, and then… Or Facebook, just iOS update and just throws everything to… The whole marketing plan for the next six months is shot. So, if I had kind of a plan for the technology and processes too. Like, your comments about offboarding were making me laugh because I suffered that a couple of times recently and it’s like, oh no, it’s passwords and everything. If you’re rushing, then it can be an HR issue and everything else.
And I have no process for it. So other than help you do well and give them an email in ROI, right? So, yeah. It’s been a good process up until this point, but I think I’m a bit stuck as to how I can scale now. Because it frustrates me a little bit that I don’t think many people can bring in the clients that I can and I’ve really worked at that. And now I never thought that I’d have an issue with operations. I’m an accountant tax-wise. I’m good in court. I got processes down, but I never have processes for a team, right? So it’s a good conversation. I think I will be actually calling you later on and maybe you can help me out.
Susan: Absolutely. Open to that for sure.
Charles: It’s interesting that you mentioned the technology and about-
Susan: Anybody here know anything about technology at all?
Charles: Yeah. I was just going to say what 80% of the people on this call, it’s like, oh yeah, we can just do that in a couple of hours, right? But the funny thing is we don’t. It’s a plumber’s pipe. It’s always a leak kind of thing. Like that’s what I find. That we can integrate anything, that’s pretty much how I got my chops. But one of the things that Arin introduced and said, okay, well what are your tools? And it’s like, yeah, I can’t work with this. She didn’t say that. But I’m sure she felt-
Susan: No. I’m probably the one that told her that she can’t work with that. No, tell them you can’t work with that.
Charles: Yeah. So we changed. We changed our software, and it took us a few months to get things, sort of, migrated across. It’s not an overnight process because it rocks about a little too much, maybe. And there’s also reluctance probably on the owner as well. But we changed all of our software, and in all honesty, some of the software we move to in some ways I don’t like, but it accomplishes the goal. And it’s not about what I like. It’s about what gets the job done. And that’s the biggest change we made. So we had to change our time tracking application. We changed our project, but we didn’t really have a project manager. We had, sort of, a task-board type Trello-kind-of-ish thing. We’ve changed that now. Some of our team are tasked with building those integrations.
We’re building a monthly or weekly email. So any kind of that gets worked on, we’re going to send them an automated email and say, here is exactly the stuff. These are the down to the minute that everybody’s worked on it. Here’s your balance remaining and all that kind of stuff. So that’s getting built this week and then other automation as well. So, Susan, you have a chance to work with… Like I was looking… I was on your website again yesterday, last night. And I looked at your referrals. I guess they are quotations. What do you call testimonials?
Charles: And there’s a real who’s who in there. So that’s kind of really good because one of the things that it does is everybody on your team, even if project managers change out. What I’ve noticed is that they’re bringing a lot of fresh ideas or different ideas.
So, Arin brought of a ton of organization and is pretty awesome that way. Pretty much indispensable now. But Susan Jacobson brought to our team the concept of conditions of acceptance and organize that with one primary client, which we’re doing maybe a hundred or so hours a month of development with. So, that was a really big thing. How much cross-pollination can we do? Is there anything else that we can, sort of, get out of that?
Susan: As far as other smart people that can teach you more things?
Charles: Yeah. I’m not saying, yeah, give us some new ones, by any means. I’m saying, what can we do as owners or operators? I mean, we have these things like meetups and stuff like that where we talk about these ideas. But they don’t really get done.
Stuff like that, we can talk about these ideas. But they don’t really get done. Ideas are cheap, right?
Susan: Well, one is, you’re exactly right. Saying, oh, I want to do this, okay, great, that’s a dream, but if you start putting together a project plan to make it happen… what are the tactics we have to execute, who is assigned to do it when, and what’s the deadline? Build a project around ideas. Now you’re actually going to execute, otherwise, just pie-in-the-sky. You’re absolutely right about ideas, but how we bring ideas in is through experience.
The people that we bring in have dramatically different backgrounds. We have a certified project manager. She’s no longer certified, but she brings to the table a way of doing things that is very, very structured.
She has to tone that down a lot for the small businesses because you guys don’t want to see a whole bunch of pretty reports. You actually want the project to run instead. So she has to tone down the pretty reports and move to actually managing that project more so. But she brings all that with her.
So there is a great understanding of what you might need to see, so where can you go find that in your tool? To your point about the differences between Arin and Susan, their backgrounds are just greatly different. Arin was an operations manager at a FileMaker software house. She’s going to bring some things that very much apply to your structure — more than she might bring to an accounting company. But at the same time, operations and project management are the same. No matter what you’re applying it to, the actual function of the communication, the facilitation, the structure is the same no matter the business, you just have to figure out the little details that fit in, which is what we’re all good at.
Having that range of experience on my team also helps me figure out who might be the next best. Who’s the best at the beginning, if they leave or something changes, who’s the next best, or who might bring a different perspective that could solve a problem differently? I had one client, and to Marshall’s point about not saying that clients are bad, I won’t say that this was a bad client, but she wore me out. She wore out three other people on our team, and, finally, I had to set her free. It is just one of those, if you’re not going to listen, if you’re not going to take any advice, if you’re going to keep blaming us that something’s broken but you won’t let us fix it, we can’t help you.
And so to that point, it didn’t matter how much experience these people brought or how many different perspectives they brought, or how many different styles they brought, if the owner’s not open to listen and open to change, we can’t affect it. So it really depends on the willingness of both parties to listen and to change.
Charles: So, using me as a client and all other developers as a client, what are we the least willing to budge on? If you could say, well, I’ve worked with a lot of these dev houses and similar businesses and I’m always finding that owners never want to blank?
Susan: I can’t say it’s only about dev houses.
Charles: Yeah, sorry.
Susan: It’s really about… It is consistent across the board, but initially that small first jump of two to five, it’s letting go. It’s to stop being in every detail. You just have to stop, and that, either some can’t do it because they’re so controlling, they’re such control — let’s face it, if you’re a small business owner, you’re a control freak. I’m totally a control freak too. But if you can’t let go enough of that to say, I trust you, you got it, come see me when there’s a problem… if you can’t be a good manager, then that’s what’s going to stop you.
And that’s the biggest problem I see, is most of the people that we work with within this small space, 25 or fewer, the owner started the company because they were really good at something. They are really, really, really good at something. And having to let that go to become a business owner and to become a good manager is a really hard transition. It’s really hard.
Charles: Interesting. So, Jason, how would you say because you’ve been with us for, I don’t know, maybe four years-ish or something like that?
Jason: Almost, yeah.
Charles: How would you, if you could talk candidly? Well, you can.
Susan: Permission granted.
Jason: I’m on the spot as well, huh?
Charles: What have you noticed that we’ve changed in terms of over those years, because you were the first, you were assistant right-hand person number one and then we went from there to now. Are there things specifically that it’s like, okay, yeah, you were a real control freak or?
Jason: Oh yeah, you were.
Charles: Thanks for that.
Jason: Well, you left yourself open for that one. You learning to let go and give more authority and autonomy to myself and perhaps others in the team was definitely one of the things I saw change and evolve over four years.
But I think the big thing is moving to more of a company feel, so when I first got in with BetterForms, it was, well, actually when I first started working with you, BetterForms were just something you talked about. It was originally; I was doing just FileMaker work on production flow. That was how I originally started working with you. And you talked about something called BetterForms that may or may not have worked out down the road.
Charles: That’s right, yeah.
Jason: And then when BetterForms started up, I think it was mostly you, then you were giving some of the stuff to me, and I think Lindsay Clark might have been involved in some projects there. But even that was independent of what you and I were doing, which is why I’m not 100% sure. And then the team evolved more. You got some more people involved who were doing the UI side and things got built up to what they are today, where it’s a much more cohesive team.
Charles: Do you feel like there’s a different culture now? Is that something that, from your perspective, has changed at all?
Jason: Well, yeah. Four years ago was kind of along the lines of what I think Susan was talking about at the beginning where since you only had really one or two of us, I think you really only had myself with maybe Lindsay at that point. So there was a lot one of one, more one-on-one time and you jump in. For example, when you and I first started doing the BetterForms stuff and the client projects picked up, we had things like Monday and Wednesday mornings, you and I would meet for about two hours and we would work just on client projects, just you and I.
And now that got phased out and you’ve got the team working on a client project and it’s mostly you jump in when there are questions or when we reach a block where it’s like, everyone in the team had to go at it and we still haven’t come up with the solution.
Charles: Right. So basically access the owner.
Jason: Well, like three years ago, if you remember when you first got me involved in BetterForms, to get the client projects moving, as you and I met Monday and Wednesday, and it was really just you and I one-on-one working on the client projects for a few hours.
Charles: Yeah, and that was very chaotic.
Charles: The rest of the time was chaotic.
Jason: That was one of the things that changed as you got more of a team involved than it was the team working more on the projects and it’s now at least I find for at least the projects I worked on, the only times you really step in and get involved is when we have a significant number of questions or like I say, everyone in the, you mentioned with the team where you encourage those collaborative problem solving, so I don’t go necessarily for you right away for it, I go to say Eduardo or Mohamed, or I go to Lindsay Clark for testing or some idea bouncing, and then it’s only after I’ve gone to all of them and we’re still roadblocked.
Charles: So that ties into what Susan was saying about social where we actually open up about getting your life back.
Charles: It’s not so much for me about getting my life back, because my life is pretty much the same thing anyway, in terms of my play and work are the same, I think for all of us, but it’s about being able to continue to actually develop on work on business and not get bogged down.
Jason: It’s about you reaching the point now where you can trust that we work together enough on the team that yes, we’re going to go and solve a problem, and if for example, myself, I’m set to work on the project here and I run into a difficulty, you’re not necessarily the first line of defense that I go to, I go to Eduardo or Mohamed or for Christina who’s on the call; she went to me yesterday with a question about the client and then we only brought you in after we both got.
Charles: So, Susan, so that’s really the testimony of what you’re saying or the backup of what you’re saying is that people are reluctant to let go and to do that, if we could learn that earlier, I think everybody would progress a lot. Is there anybody who has one or two, Dave what problems do you guys run into if you only have a few people or some people that are subbing underneath? Dave, are you there? That’s a picture of Dave’s pie, by the way, if you’re looking at the screenshot.
Susan: It looks delicious.
Charles: Yeah. So yeah, that’s interesting. What are the takeaways, I guess? Could we really, we could do right away, what’s something that if I’m a one- to three-person team, what is something I can go do for the rest of the day right now?
Susan: Okay, so that’s a great question. I haven’t really thought of it that way before. But one thing that you can start to put in place right away is calendar blocking. I’m a firm believer in this, and as a business owner, if you are not doing this, you are missing a great tool to help you manage your workload.
Charles: And what would that look like? So we’re marking off spots to work or to?
Susan: Yes. And so I recommend you start with what do you do in your life that’s spiritual, whatever that is, meditate, go to church, do readings, whatever, put that on your calendar first across the board. So without your soul, you ain’t got nothing. Second, move to your health, your physical health. Are you working out, when are you eating, are you ordering McDonald’s from DoorDash every night or are you actually cooking?
Make some time in your day to stand up, take a break, eat lunch — put those on your calendar, so all these things become repeating events on your calendar. The third step is to start to put in your family, your friends, your social, what are the things that you’re obligated to do, what are the things you want to do. If you have kids and you’re missing all of their soccer games, maybe you need to make one. Put it on your schedule and make sure you’re there.
So we’ve covered the three reasons we work. Our soul, our health, and our family. Guess what, work can fill in every other hole. So start with that and then block out as your first work block as a business owner, when are you going to focus on working on the business — maybe it’s every Tuesday from nine to noon, but make that a priority and an appointment with yourself that nobody gets that time on your schedule.
You’re not interrupted, your team knows what you’re doing, take away all distractions, and you can use the Pomodoro techniques during that block. So pick three things that you’re going to focus on for work and the Pomodoro method is to work 50 minutes, a 10-minute break. So what that does is it helps you set a deadline for yourself of I’m going to work this problem for this long and then I’m going to take a break.
Now, if you have a big one, maybe it’s all three of your blocks that day. If you have a small one, maybe you’re doing three different things, but setting that deadline for yourself and setting those top three priorities of what you’re going to focus on will make a huge difference in your business. So I would say do some calendar blocking that way. There are a lot more details of how you can get into calendar blocking to be productive, but that’s the gist of it. One thing, if you are a developer and you want to develop as a business owner, you don’t want to give that up, block that too, every Thursday I’m going to develop between noon and 5:00, block that on your calendar too. And that’s what you’re going to do.
Charles: Interesting. Doug, do you do that at all? Do you block off time and stuff?
Doug: Not in the way that Susan’s suggesting, not in a strictly regimented fashion like that. I look at the week because the week is so fluid, so I look at things that come in, I create a plan for my week, and then Monday morning, parts of that plan have to get thrown out the window because things have come up that I didn’t expect. So I actually do a funny thing. I have a list of each day in the week, what things I’m going to do on those days in the order in which I’m going to do them. Then every day I write the current day at the top and I take from my list for that day and have the plan for that day and things that don’t fit into the plan for that day get slotted into a spot over the next week.
Again and again, the plan for the current day is not at all what I had anticipated earlier, but at least there’s a plan, at least there’s something to go to. In the times when it turns out that my plan isn’t thrown out the window, first of all, I’ve got an order of operations, I’m going to start here and I’m going to get to here, and I have at least, I’m never just casting a boat, trying to think of, what do I feel like next, what client is bothering, putting the most pressure on me, which project am I furthest behind on, none of those things are driving the order in which I do things in because I planned out an order. I’m always readjusting, but I’ve got a basic plan. So that works well for me, and I’ve done it that way for a long time.
But with respect to serving my spiritual needs and my physical needs, I have a regimen, for instance, I run every single day, so I just do it and I don’t do it at the same time, but I do it no matter what and I’ve literally not missed the day in over 10 years, and it’s because I just decided that I was going to do that.
So every single day I look at my schedule and I figure out when I’m going to fit it in. And sometimes I’ve literally done it in the last— like I’ve done it at 11:00 PM. I’ve literally been in bed and remembered that I didn’t do it that day and got up and gone and ran, but I always do it. So if you have habits that you’re committed to, you don’t necessarily have to, you don’t necessarily, you just don’t have to do the same thing at the same time every single day.
Susan: Oh, I agree with that.
Susan: I agree with that. And so Doug, to that point, part of the point about the calendar blocks is that now you have, and I could talk about time blocking for an hour, but you now have little Tetris blocks on your calendar that you can move around. And, hey, I’ve certainly arrived at my Tuesday morning focus on the business time and gone, yeah, I so am not in the right mind frame for that, so what can I swap out. Can I do it on Thursday, and what can I move on Thursday to today to fill up that time and still get everything done? So it gives you a structure. Doug to your credit, having habits is hugely important. But I think Charles’ question is more about how do you develop those habits, how do you establish a habit in the first place.
Charles: Yeah, I’m just not wired that way, that’s about how I feel. So it’s very challenging. Somebody will say, Hey, can I make a task for you, it’s like, yeah, I’m so not task-oriented. So I need to somehow figure out that.
Susan: Well, and you don’t have to figure out that.
Susan: If you ask me, what’s my very favorite thing to do, it’s check something off a list, that is never going to be your answer.
Susan: Right. So what works for you? Doug’s method works for him, so stick with a method. But I do think that if you are not locking time to focus on the things that matter, you will just let little crap fill in the blanks, no matter what you’ll just let little crap fill in the blanks and you’ll let work overtake all of the other things in your life that are important to keep you a healthy human being.
Charles: Doug, what about the team, like, developers and things like that? Have you run into the same kinds of things because you see I haven’t been consulting really that long. We’ve been more working for the dev houses, which are very project-oriented?
Doug: Well, I’ll say a couple of things. One is that if you have some fairly clearly defined ways of working, it’s very difficult to get other developers to come along with you and to work in the way that you like because they’ve got the way that they like. And so it makes it hard. I had a couple of years ago two projects that I got two different developers working on and gradually over the course of a few months transitioned them to be the main primary developers on those two projects.
Both those projects went from being very firmly on the rails to total crash and burn over the course of the next maybe six months or four months or something like that. And it’s really a lot of it boiled down to just a short period of time over which I was not able to pay attention to what they were doing and thought that they were in control and they weren’t, and it was bad.
Doug: And I’ve still paid the price for that today when I have to make changes in those databases. It’s super painful. So I think a big part of the problem for doing what we do is ensuring that everybody is pulling in the same direction and developers all have their own ways of doing things and that’s okay. Some developers are more flexible though than others, and the ones that are maximally flexible are the ones that are most valuable by a long shot. I know super brilliant developers that are not flexible in the least and have their very, their pet way of doing something and that can be really expensive, that can get really expensive fast if it doesn’t fit with the way that you’re doing things.
Charles: That’s something even myself as a developer I’ve had to really loosen up on. I have a very strong opinion of code as many of you know, and I’ve had to when helping somebody else pair coding with somebody else, I’ve had to say, you know what, you can do it this way, and as long as the end result, I think somebody mentioned that earlier, as long as the end result is the same, there’s nothing wrong with doing it their way. My code is not the only code that has to run in the world, it’s all replaceable.
Susan: Hey Charles, I would say that’s true, as long as they’re doing it in a way that other people can come behind them.
Susan: Some sort of Frankenstein thing that nobody can figure out later. And so when it comes to code, there can be some requirements that a business owner can put on. If you want to Frankenstein something together because it’s the faster way to do it right now and the client is in an emergency need and we got to knock it out — at least comment so that somebody can come in later and fix it. Raise your hand that this needs a bigger fix later. Those kinds of things are important. And you can put some coding rules around your team that helps you get to that point, that doesn’t limit their ability to think for themselves.
Charles: So I think the big takeaway is really, again, it’s about really about letting go, not letting go and losing, I don’t want to say losing control, but not losing structure or requirements or specifications, but just letting go and allowing a little bit of autonomy so people can do things. And then building that confidence. I think that was a big one for me with working with Jason because Jason was the first developer I work with on my projects. We’ve paired with other developers, lots of times.
And it was until I felt confident enough that, Hey, can you write this API that can do this, and I didn’t have to, hardly do any code review or anything like that or walk through it or anything that took a long time for me to let down that. But now I look at say, Eduardo, who had written, he’s written a bunch of stuff for our entire cloud infrastructure and all the APIs that connect to that, and I’ve done very minimal code review on that. And it’s not that his code is better because technically Jason’s code is better from a FileMaker perspective because he’s got a lot more experience, but I managed to let go and it works fine.
Susan: If you can’t let go, you cannot grow. You can’t. Think about Charles, what Jason was talking about, how you met with him two hours a day, twice a week. How often can you do that and keep growing? If you have 10 developers now, that’s all you’re doing is meeting with each developer.
Doug: You know what though Susan, it’s how you let go.
Doug: You have to be able to let go, but it does not just say, okay, I’m going to let you run in your direction. You’ve got to make sure that they’re running in the right direction and that’s the thing. And that’s why I think two hours a week or rather two hours a couple of times a week is a really smart way of approaching it because you at least are making sure that they’re running in the right direction. Yeah, go ahead Charles, sorry.
Charles: No, I said, yeah, I said, it became like a handoff. I built confidence and there was enough consistency between different ways of doing things.
Susan: But you can’t do that now, Charles.
Charles: No. But at least now I know that Jason and I are.
Charles: But at least now, I know that Jason and I are very in line with how I want things. And how he wants things, for that matter, now. So we have a lot of consistency there.
Doug: Yeah. And I’ve done that too, spent years getting to really know some of my core people that I work with every day and getting us on the same page so that we are, as I was saying, “Running in the same direction.” So that we all understand each other and know what their expectations are. My expectations in them and their expectations in me.
Susan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s the important part, the intention and the expectation has to be very clear.
Charles: But just to circle back a little bit, Susan Jacobson from your team brought the concept of conditions of acceptance, and basically, when we’re speaking out a bigger project for somebody, we have a project that could be potentially 1600 hours or something like that. To say, “Here is more in some verbiage that defines what the end result is.” So that we don’t get all kinds of crazy feature creep and we still fundamentally meet the objectives.
I think with code, it’s almost the same there as well, is that as long as this routine does this, this, and this, that’s important. It’s not crazy under the hood like he said, no Frankenstein stuff underneath there, but it’s presentable. I think you can reach a level of presentability pretty easily with most developers and saying, “This is what we at least want. We want some documentation, we want these things broken up into such a fashion.”
But as long as you have the conditions of acceptance, you can do the same thing really with code and that’s what really Test Driven Development is. We define the test first and then we write the code afterward. If the code passes a test, then there’s nothing wrong with the code. If it doesn’t pass the test or if it passes a test and there’s something wrong, the test is to blame, not the code. And the condition of acceptance in a project is almost, in some ways, to blame not so much what we’ve done, not often. That’s totally true, but that’s what it seems like.
Susan: I would think that would apply. The conditions of acceptance are great for big projects and I can see how it can apply to code, and to the point of having more and more people, growing bigger and bigger, and not being able to spend that time with them. You can spot-check, right? So if you have a new employee, maybe you’re spot-checking them once a week or once every day even.
And if you see red flags, you can stop it early. Over time, maybe, it’s just here or there with different people. So you can put some process into place to help you maintain your standards without having to spend excessive amounts of time. If you’re training someone, that’s a different story. Now, that becomes part of your onboarding process of how you’re training this person to do what you need to do, but if you’re hiring an expert, it’s a different situation.
Charles: This has been excellent. We don’t really have a time limit as such, but we did slate about an hour and a half or a little bit over that. Don’t need to necessarily terminate things by any means but I don’t want to also hold everybody up for too much longer. Does anybody else have anything they want to contribute? Kevin who’s in Australia right now and he just wrote in Slack or in the chat, that is 3:34 AM here in Sydney.
He experienced the same problems. He was a junior developer at Goya, where he experienced some pain, but now he’s also training some junior developers himself and running into some different issues, about figuring out that path. And the one thing I can say for that, Kevin, is the code reviews are really, really key and pair coding. I think that is so important that we don’t do it in this community, but it’s done in a lot of other development communities.
Pair coding is when you’re spending time. Two people are writing a chunk of code and you think, “Wow, you’re not that efficient at it,” but you significantly reduce the bugs, it gets done. You don’t start detracting to things like looking at your email or checking your texts or going to the washroom or anything like that. It becomes a very, very focused session and maybe an hour to two hours most is about all you need. And you can really kick some butt that way in terms of bringing people online with what you’re wanting to do everything from variable names to the structure of code, to where the work ethics and documentation and things like that too.
So it’s a definite win. One other thing I can also say about pair coding is it has nothing to do with the talent of both sides. You can have somebody who’s a nine and somebody who’s a three in terms of experience and the three will equally contribute to the nine’s work because the mistakes that we generally make are tactical, very simple things like syntax, variable names, we forget stuff. We don’t have everything in front of our brain as we’re moving around and the other person looking over your shoulders, even if they know nothing about code, will automatically add another 10 or 20% to your ability. And I speculate that’s with a lot of other things as well, but definitely with pair coding.
Susan: I think the other important thing when training junior developers are to make sure that you also train them on where else can they find help besides you. What are other resources that they could reach out to find the answer to? Because that’s how you get better at this, are you figure it out, right? And if you’re constantly telling them, “Oh no, do it this way.”
They’re not using that problem-solving exercise, I guess, to go and figure it out and they can bring that solution to you and say, “Would this work?” So also solves, reduces your time spent when they’re coming up with a solution. But if you’re just answering every single question without pushing them in the direction of, “Check the Claris Community, did you go out on the FMSlug slack? Where else are you looking for answers? How are you solving problems?” That becomes a big thing too, for their future.
Charles: We’ve recently implemented, and that was a real big problem with us, as we grew, that was one of the major control or major pains that we had to mitigate in order to grow. And that’s to stop projects from spiraling out of control in terms of hours. And it was turning out that we were eating about 50% of our billable hours almost every month. Some months, $6-7,000 of hours that we just have to eat, because it’s just unreasonable to build for them because our team went out of control and it’s not their fault. It was our process.
So one of the things we’ve done now is every new piece of work. We don’t just start working on it. We say, “This is a feature. Let’s code on the number of hours. Let’s get buy-in from whoever is going to be working on that. But how long do you think this chunk will take?” And I started implementing, I don’t know if anybody else does this, but I know he’s not on the call right here, but Marshall’s team does this. This is where I learned it from is to use a Fibonacci sequence for billing.
So basically the idea is that you start modifying Fibonacci. So you start off with half an hour, one hour, two hours, three hours, five hours, eight hours, and then don’t really go anything above eight hours, you’ll go up to 13. Anything that you think that’ll take, let’s say — do you think something I can do in about 45 minutes that would round up to the next Fibonacci sequence? If it’s an hour, do you think it’s going to take an hour through the budget too? If you think it’s going to take two hours and 10 minutes, it’s really a three and so on.
Susan: And then Charles, when you get to that eight, you don’t take it to 13. Does that mean you have to break it?
Charles: Break it down. Then it’s not granular enough. So break down whatever that thing is that you’re doing for the eight hours. Well, I’ve got to research for two hours. I got to do a couple of tests for another hour and a half in some mockup thing. And then I got to do something else. So we keep breaking those pieces down so you can get more accurate. And then that seems so far, and this is something that’s brand new. So it’s not really tried and true yet. We haven’t months underneath.
It’s only been a month and we’ve only done it on about four projects so far. But that seems like it’s a lot better than letting things spiral out of control. The other big thing that we did is we have a rule now, it’s a 20-minute rule that if you’re stuck on a problem for more than 20 minutes, stop, reach out for some help. And we’re trying to do that more often and we want to ingrain that as a culture, that it’s fine to reach out for help. I do it all the time. I hop on calls and say, “Hey, can you have a look at this and get some second opinions on it?” It has nothing to do with your skill level. It has to do with that you become blind or obtuse to things.”
Susan: Right. And so you do want them to go try to problem solve, but you don’t want them to do it for 20 hours?
Charles: Yeah. It can be for four hours but somebody else can solve it in five minutes. And that often is the case. We’ve had numerous times like, “Holy cow, just took seven hours. And I could do it in 10 minutes without exaggeration. And that was only because they got stuck and they didn’t reach out for help.”
Susan: And they went down a rabbit hole. They felt like they couldn’t. Yeah. So I think that the time limit is an important thing.
Charles: And that wasn’t so bad when we were just developing for our internal stuff, right? It was okay, it was just part of the development. It just produced our timeline down the road. That wasn’t so bad, but when you’re doing it for a client, that’s when it became really costly.
Susan: I see it.
Charles: How do you keep stuff from spiraling out?
Susan: How do we, or Doug?
Charles: Yeah. Sorry, Doug. Yeah.
Doug: Well, and that is precisely the problem that I had a couple of years back that I was talking about was not paying attention for a little while and then things spiraled. And it became really expensive. I was trying somebody out new the beginning of this year and to prevent it from spiraling, what I do is I have regular meetings daily, or every other day going over what they’ve done since the last time we talked and talking about how they’re going to do the next step.
And if they follow along the path that they say they’re going to, then that’s great. And if they don’t, then that’s a really important red flag. You have to figure out why and go over things with them… And with this particular person that I tried out earlier in this year, it turned out that he was saying, “Yes, yes, yes. I agree with the approach and all of that.” But really he didn’t, and he had his own way of doing things and he didn’t feel comfortable doing things in a way that I wanted.
And he ended up burning up nearly 40% of the budgeted time for the project and really did. And 40%’s a hard number, really did. I’m estimating now 10% of what he did actually contributed to the final product. So that was really expensive. But I found out early enough that it was expensive, that I was still able to pull it in and not lose money. But if I weren’t watching every day or every other day over the course of a few weeks, I wouldn’t have known that in time.
I probably should have identified it a little bit earlier, but I let him continue because I want people to find their own way as well. I don’t want to be really too strict and too controlling, I want to find the right balance. And I have to get comfortable with them. They have to get comfortable with me. So we’re learning about each other over that period of time. So I have to be willing to spend some money on learning and getting to know each other.
Charles: That’s where the software came in, helped us a lot, quite a bit as well, which is what beyond the cast helped us to switch into is more granular itemization if you will. That gives a lot more transparency to clients. Now we can say, “Hey, this is exactly what the person works done. This is why it took 37 minutes. When you thought it was just a type of change that we could just change.” So that kind of thing. And I think that seems to help a little bit. Susan, Jonathan just asked a question here. He says, “Susan, can you speak on some of the management issues involved in non-standard pricing schemes, such as fixed pricing or value pricing? I sometimes sense people will get hives if you mentioned moving away from billing by the hour.”
Susan: That’s definitely true. They do get hives, but there’s a lot more money in not billing by the hour if you can make it work. The biggest challenge with both of those things is that it should be part of billing by the hour, but we feel like it’s more flexible. It’s scope management. That’s really the important thing. If you tell people for X dollars, I’m delivering X thing, then you better be real clear on what X thing is. To Charles’s point, the conditions of acceptance can be part of that, or very specific. You will have this layout. You will have that layout, that type of thing. And you can’t go off of that on a fixed or value-priced project.
You have to be willing to say, “That’s not in the current scope. Are you willing to put that on hold until we’re done with what we agreed to accomplish? Or do you want to engage in a change order so that we can address the effect it’ll have on the timeline and on your budget?” That’s really the big difference between a fixed price or value price type approach, as opposed to hourly. But quite honestly, I think you should be doing that in your hourly too because whether or not your client is willing to give you money by the hour, they also have some expectation of how many hours you told them it was going to take to do this.
I manage it the same way, but I think developers sometimes feel like they have more flexibility by the hour, but they don’t. The client still has an expectation that you’re meeting. You gave them an estimate of how many hours. They’re going to hold you to that just as much as somebody who gave a fixed price or value price, they’re going to hold you to fit their budget. You can’t just show up and say, “Oh yeah, well it took a hundred more hours. So here’s the bill.” You can’t do that. Either way, you have to manage that scope.
Charles: Arin’s smiling, because we’re both thinking of the same thing right now. We recently had a client that asked for some chunk of work to be done, maybe five or six points. And then one of those points was a very small thing that we didn’t specifically see the price on. It was just a little slider thing that the hotels, you can set the range of price, high and low dollars that you want to adjust. Well, that’s a really complicated thing to incorporate into their software. And that took about, I don’t know, maybe five, six hours, that thing alone, just to do.
All the other stuff was half an hour here, 27 minutes there, and that kind of thing. And then during that scope of work, that sprint, they also came up with, “Oh, can you fix this bug? And can you do these other three or four things?” That was technically not part of that but we did it at the same time and next thing you know there’s an extra 30, 40 hours on their bill. And of course, that was a big issue. So we can totally relate to that by just defining those things and saying, “Yeah, we can fix this. It’s going to be about this much time.”
Susan: Yeah. They don’t know. Your client doesn’t know. I think one of the things that we forget in software development is because we’re doing this every day… the client has a whole other job, right? You’re building them the tool to do their job. So they don’t have any idea if they say, “Oh, can you just move this over here?” They’re like, “Okay. I use Microsoft Word. I know how long it would take me to cut and paste.” Right? They have no idea that could turn into a 10-hour ordeal.
So it’s your responsibility as a professional to educate them and let them make the right choice. They might come back and go, “Oh, 10 hours? Yeah. It doesn’t matter that much. I’m not interested in doing that. Just leave it.” And the other thing that comes up when you start making, regardless of your pricing scheme, when you start making on-the-fly adjustments to things, have you taken the step back to really figure out how this plays into the big picture overall.
If you’re moving one thing for one client in a large organization, how does it affect the other departments? How does it affect the overall use of your tool? How does it affect the UI? All these types of things affecting a little change might seem like not a big deal, but all of a sudden, somebody from another department’s now mad at you or you broke something unintentionally. So those little changes can be a big deal.
And I would go to the slider thing, Charles, one thing that I think is important, especially if you’re fixed or value pricing is making sure that if there is a disagreement of what something is supposed to be, that you as the person who scoped it had something in mind when you were scoping it. So you win that battle with the client, even if the client says, “But that’s not what I thought it was.”
Well, now you’re going back to the client and saying, “Well, this is what we intended to deliver. And it does work based on our intention from the beginning.” So now maybe we have to have a conversation about, well, what did you expect and what would it take to get there? And you have that opportunity then to work together. Maybe you do what they want at a slightly reduced rate, or you’re willing to throw this in, but take this out. But you have to use your intention when you scope as they go by, not their understanding. And that can be an issue with the client.
Speaker 1: I can contribute. I think, no matter how small the sprint or no matter how limited in features a request is, it’s really important to prototype with a wireframe. Even if it seems absolutely trivial because if they come back three weeks later and say, “That’s not what we intended.” The process of prototyping is to prevent that. It’s to make sure that everybody’s on the same page about what this is supposed to vaguely look like or what the workflow is vaguely supposed to represent, not requiring a lot of work, Balsamiq mockups, anything very, very crude take, maybe 90 minutes maximum to draw.
Charles: And you bang on with that, by having that prototype, that automatically dictates what the application’s going to be. We have our own design department, I guess, a department of one and a half, and we’ll make up functional prototypes where the client can sit and click through it and say, “Okay, this is how it’s going to work.” So when they come back to us and say, “Hey, there’s no slider on here. Oh, did we miss that? Was it on the prototype?” “No. Well, it wasn’t.” “Okay.” We can add that as a feature request and then treat it separately and that really seems to help anyway so far.
Speaker 1: Yeah. I would also suggest that the more used to doing really bare-bones prototypes as developers, it really helps us communicate not only to the client but to ourselves, about what we intend to do. So it gets everybody on the same page, including developers getting a clear understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing.
Charles: You know what? I think you’re banging on with that too because we see this all the time when I help people build apps. That’s one of the first things we do when we onboard we say, “Okay, what is the app? You, what do you want it to do?” Almost all developers will get so stuck in the UI minutia of things that they forget about the big picture of what the app is going to do.
And so I’ll usually jump onto a tool like whimsical, a drawing tool that we use and just whip up something, “Okay, this is what it’s going to do here, here, here. We really need about three layouts to do this, and this is how it’s going to function.” And that really helps to define things because very seldom have I seen most developers have a clear vision of what the app is supposed to do, and they just want to start adding stuff because they can.
Susan: Charles you’ve just defined what we do. Replace business owners with developers in developing an app with your operation’s business. It’s the same thing.
Charles: Yeah. This has been great, Susan. I think we’ll probably wrap it up soon here.
Charles: I do actually have a 12:15 appointment as well. So somebody else just messaged me that they do as well. Susan, if we want to get ahold of you, what do we have to do?
Susan: I will put my email address here. Here, let me re-paste that operations audit. If you want to take that, you can also email me at [email protected]. Biz is important, .com won’t get to me. But feel free to reach out, happy to talk to any of you. Thanks so much for having me, Charles. I really appreciate the opportunity to share.
Charles: Oh, thanks for joining us. And everybody who contributed, thank you very much as well.
Susan: Yeah. That’s been great.
Charles: We had a pretty good turnout, so some good questions. Awesome. Okay. Thank you very much.
Susan: Thank You all. Bye-bye.