Not getting paid—and liking it

Businesswise, the last few weeks have been quite active for me. I’ve heard from lots of new clients and have started quite a number of new projects. I’ve even heard from old prospects I’d forgotten about, and I’ve had interest crop up from new contacts. I noticed, however, that while I’m working an awful lot, I’m spending quite a surprising amount of time on non-billable work.

Usually, I’d determine this Not a Very Good Thing. It’s always dangerous, when you’re running a business, to fall into the trap of spending too much time working on the business, and not enough time working in it, but I suspect I rather tend to err on the other side, and I could do with spending more of my time making my business run a little smoother.

So, I may be crazy busy, but I’ve been investing some time into setting things up so that my projects can run a little more smoothly, which I expect to be well worth it in the long run.

1. I started using Basecamp.

I avoided using Basecamp for ages. I’m a big fan of bootstrapping it, and as a result I avoid anything that entails a monthly fee like the plague. I’m also only a one-man op, at least most of the time, so I don’t usually need a great deal more co-ordination than “sending out emails back and forth”. I once installed a standalone project management system, and found it ineffective: I was spending too much time entering dates and todos and doing administrative tasks, rather than actually achieving anything productive, and my clients were confused by the interface and process. Accordingly, I gave up on the idea of project management.

Then, along came the Nightmare Project. If you know me, you’ve probably heard of the Nightmare Project. (Not to be confused with the Nightmare Nibbler, which was actually a Dream Project, and needs to be added to my website very shortly.) I may still be working on the Nightmare Project on my deathbed. It’s been mismanaged; it’s out-of-control; and every day there are twenty different emails flying round, indiscriminately reply-alled. I have no idea if files I’m sent are final, there’s no repository, no organization, no whatever. It causes me an immense amount of stress and I have very little control over the situation, as the project management isn’t in my hands at all.

I signed up for a Basecamp trial and realized that if I’d insisted on using it to manage the project, I’d be able to avoid most of these problems. The client would also have a clear idea of their responsibilities, and how they impact the overall timeline.

I’m still testing Basecamp, but I’m fairly enamoured with it right now. The monthly fee is low enough that I won’t really notice it, and the benefits that it will yield—better managed projects, projects that are completed faster, and a better grip on timelines—will almost certainly be worth it.

Basecamp in action! It's going to look a LOT busier for me in there once I get used to scheduling-stuff, but so far I'm finding it's really wonderful.

2. I set up tests.

As much as I swore never to develop for IE6 again, I still need to test on various versions of IE. Browsershots and its ilk are helpful, but if you’ve ever tried to isolate a CSS bug using their system—well, you’re probably still trying. I’ve always intended to install a test suite for various IE incarnations (6, 7, 8, 9) but have often had troubles making it work. Then I discovered the magical WineBottler, and now everything just magically works. This means that I’m much more likely to test across multiple browsers, rather than just quietly hope they won’t give me any trouble. (Admittedly, not the most effective way of approaching the problem.)

3. I’ve started working on a website framework.

I build a LOT of websites. I’ve always maintained I need something of a “working draft” template—something I can use as a base to get up and started with. My base, of course, is very much a work-in-progress, especially since I have the organizational skills of a monkey on meth, and I need to have two, basically–one for WordPress, and one for non-Wordpress sites, though I don’t build those very much at ALL anymore. What I’ve got right now is something of a mash-up of things I like—half HTML5 Boilerplate, half Wordpress’s default TwentyTen theme, with a hook into, and jQuery. I’ve gotMAMP properly set up and am using it again, and I’ve got a blank-slate WordPress installation so I can test out all my themes locally, all at once. I’m building up a library of my favourite fonts, packaged into @font-face folders, all ready to drag-and-drop into place, and I’ve got ready-to-roll folders of my favourite plugins for jQuery and WordPress. I’m working on integrating Lettering.js and Baseline, but I’ll need to properly test both these tools first, to make sure they’ll mesh with my workflow, to ensure that I properly understand how to make use of them, and that they won’t conflict with any other tools used. A work in progress, indeed!

4. Miscellaneous “other stuff”.

I finally redesigned my contract template so that it actually looks like a designer might have made it. (Before, it just looked like an unformatted Word document. Seriously, I don’t know how I let that happen for so long.) I also cut out writing schedules into the contract, since Basecamp is now Officially In Charge Of That. I cleaned up my fonts (sort of. This is a huge, multi-faceted job for me.) I’m itching to redesign (or “realign”, as the case may be) this website, again, and I’d like to eventually start doing some real-live marketing, which I simply don’t seem to do anymore at all.

So, even though I’m not really getting paid for all this work I’m doing, I feel like it will pan out well. With the number of contracts that seem to keep popping up, I think it’s about time I either raised my rates again, or limited the number of contracts I’ll take on at once—ideally both, actually, although it’s hard to limit contracts as I often can’t control the timeline of a project. (Another thing I’m working on, though it does require some client wrangling.)

My next big step is probably accounting—I use Billings for my invoicing/estimating/time-tracking, but it’s flawed and it doesn’t work out my accounting properly, so tax-time ends up being a bit of a nightmare every time it rolls around.

I foresee shoes in my future, if I can ever get that particular hurdle figured out. Maybe next year!

Like these! Maybe if I can figure out my accounting before the end-of-year (so very unlikely), I'll buy myself intensely expensive shoes. More likely, though, neither of these things will happen.