In this episode we talk with designer, educator, brand developer and entrepreneur Dennis Field about the benefits of teaching, the value of sharing your mistakes and what you’ve learned, why Dennis chose to position himself as a studio instead of a freelancer, how to find the clients that are right for you, and so much more.
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Dennis Field on Twitter: @dennis_field
Dennis’s website: iamdennisfield.com
Read Dennis’s blog: blog.iamdennisfield.com
Jane Portman: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the UI Breakfast Podcast! And I’m your host, Jane Portman.
Today we are starting a new series of interviews with amazing consultants who will share their secrets of client onboarding. This is dedicated to our new product, Client Onboard, which helps consultants interview new clients. You’re welcome to sign up for updates at clientonboard.com.
Today our guest is Dennis Field. He is a great web designer, author, and the co-founder of the web consulting studio Greenline Creative and the online songwriting community Frettie. His passion is mentoring other designers to help them reach their goals. His blog is followed by hundreds of designers all over the world. He’s currently working on his first book called The Designer’s Handbook.
Jane Portman: So, hi, Dennis!
Dennis Field: Hey! How are you?
Jane: I’m doing great. Thank you so much for coming.
Dennis: Excited to be here.
Jane: Fantastic! So before we start, I would love you to introduce yourself to our listeners. Can you please tell us what you’re doing now and share some background how you actually got to this point?
Dennis: Yeah, so currently I spend most of my time just mentoring designers, helping them navigate the industry in a way that gets them to reach their goals much faster than maybe if they were just kind of going at it on their own without a guide. I still do a fair share of consulting as well, but my focus leans more towards that.
I started my career focused more on branding and somewhat traditional print work at a retail design firm where I worked on large clients like the NFL, Walmart, Target, and then kind of shifted into running my own design studio, and then kind of things evolved from there, moving from just a small, in-house, I guess you could say, web studio, to having an office, to hiring freelancers, contractors, and getting larger clients all over the world. So it’s kind of how I got to where I am today.
So I also spent some time working at a San Francisco based design web shop, a San Francisco based start-up focused in Silicon Valley doing UX design. Now that’s why I’m here today with more focus on the education aspect.
Jane: Yeah, that’s great. Teaching is the best way to market your skills, certainly has proved very valuable for many people. And it’s also probably a nice feeling just to be teaching people, right?
Dennis: Oh, I love it. It comes so natural to me, so I’ve been doing this type of thing for a lot of my career, but I haven’t really set out and did it formally, I guess you could say. I blog and stuff like that, but I’ve always spent time going back to universities and colleges and talking with seniors getting ready to graduate and kind of set the expectation. So it’s nice to finally actually shape it into something a little bit more valuable than just on a local level.
Jane: That’s great. Tell us about your book. How does that correlate with your teaching career?
Dennis: Yeah, so the book is just a number of ideas, thoughts, and experiences that I have, not around the craft of design because I feel like there’s a lot of great resources for designers around craft and how to design a website or how to use Photoshop. But there’s not a lot of great resources around what to expect from the industry, how do you navigate the industry, how do you set yourself up for opportunity, and how do you do it in a way that actually can create you real money versus just kind of being positioned as just the designer in the mix. So it’s really set to be kind of a high level view as to everything I’ve learned that obviously applies to other designers to give them a guide at any point in their career. They can kind of pop it open and see if I can offer any value, like a handbook, I guess.
Jane: That’s great. Do you share a lot of client stories with your audience?
Dennis: Yeah, I absolutely love transparency. I feel like the more we can share the good, the bad, the ugly, the better everybody will be. So obviously there are things that I may not say an exact client name, obviously, but I do share my experiences.
If you follow my blog, a lot of that is kind of the same tone. It’s about being real. You know, I think the more we can be honest in our approaches and our stories, the more we can all learn. I think there’s a level of, like, as designers, we have to be, not perfect, but we always want to be, you know, we don’t want to share our weaknesses, and that’s okay.
I mean, I think there’s a place for that, but I also feel like mentoring and showing your faults and saying, hey, this is where I started, this is where I am today, and these are the pains that I went through. You know we’ve all been through it, so it’s good to share that. So I like to be as transparent as possible.
Jane: I’m sure that’s something a lot of people value in aligned resources, so I’m sure you’re going to have success with that.
Dennis: Yeah, yeah, it’s fun. A lot of the responses I get are, “Wow, it’s like you’re talking to me,” or, “You experienced the same thing as me.” And that makes me feel like I’m on the right mark, so.
Jane: Fantastic! So let’s get to our main topic of the conversation, the client work. And let’s go back in time to your first days as a designer. How did it feel, and who was your first client?
Dennis: Yeah, so I was super motivated for my first client. I was kind of pivoting. I guess you could say I was ready to kind of do the consulting gig. And I really didn’t know. I wouldn’t call it consulting then as much as I was ready to go out on my own and learn what it would be to maybe eventually build a studio. But I wanted to have my own clients, and I wanted to manage the process of it.
So I knew that’s what I wanted to do. And I remember sitting down at my kitchen table with a monitor and a hard drive, and creating my first folder that said “clients” and thinking, “Wow! Would I ever fill this thing up?” And it was kind of an interesting moment for me because I was like, I’m getting ready to set out on my own.
That first client was, I actually quit my job for a $5,000 client. Kind of risky, thinking back, but then I was like, you know, if I’m going to do it, now is the time to do it. So it was a very small jump-start that provided an income that I could make by off of in the bare minimum. But it gave me an opportunity to get paid for something, but also put a lot of energy into one client. Then that kind of snowballed.
That first client was a pediatrician who was getting ready to start her own practice. And because we put so much energy into that and delivered on such a high level, it just kind of helped that referral process along, and a lot of our business at that time was doctors getting ready to go out on their own. So we would get a nice referral source of branding, websites, and stuff like that.
Obviously pricing and stuff changed through time, but it was a nice way to kind of get a good kick-start going, so that was kind of the first project. And the client was great. I mean, we did some really fun things there and very open to the design process, and it was really a nice freeing experience.
Jane: It still sounds like you didn’t really have a very slow start. You had a rather high budget client right away, not like you started in a garage doing small gigs of a few hundred bucks.
Dennis: I was lucky for that one because, when you’re starting off, you’re really focused on, you know, what are you bringing in. And you are too as you get more involved. But I remember winning a project. Oh, $600 for this and, you know, things started to get to that point where I remember looking back on the year and seeing what I made in one year. And I was like, got a long way to go, you know.
But it was nice to kind of have that chunk of money. Now what we delivered for that price was ridiculous. I mean it was a full website, stationary, branding, I mean the whole package. So for that price, it wasn’t priced appropriately. But, like I said, the value really was in getting something started that I could put my name to and say, okay, this is the type of work we do. But, yeah, you could say it was kind of a good project to kind of get kick started with, but they weren’t all like that early on.
Jane: That’s great. At what point did you start calling yourself a consultant, if you did eventually? And was it like a quality shift in your career?
Dennis: From day one, I knew I wanted to set myself up to feel as much as an agency or a studio as possible. I never went at it and said I’m a freelancer, and the reason was, you know, it’s perception. And working in small studios, large companies, I notice that a lot of it is how clients perceive you.
At that time, we weren’t focused a lot on the web, so pulling clients from all over the world. It was more on a localized level through our network. So early on, I never said, okay, we’re a consulting. I did try to position us with some type of value in a company, so I focused on the details.
I made sure that every piece of our brand was touched in a way that somebody could look at it and go, okay; they’re not just doing this in the afternoons. They’re actually putting time into their presentations and stuff, and they’re really trying to shape something that is of quality. And I feel like I’m investing in a studio that’s going to be by my side for a while. So I didn’t; I guess I wasn’t really saying I’m a consultant then, but I tried to position myself as that.
I would say about probably four years ago is when I really started to look and see, okay. Well, it was probably more like five years ago. I need to be seen more about this is the stuff that I can do on my screen. This is the design, as clients see it. But more as, like, okay; this is the value we are bringing to a client. We’re bringing real value. And the minute you realize that, the minute you can start to say, okay; I’m doing more than just reacting to a client’s needs. I’m actually consulting them, helping them move along and reach their goals in a more meaningful way, so that’s probably when I really started to elevate that word.
Jane: Did you employ any tangible deliverables that would differentiate you from a regular freelancer? Maybe did you use special type of reports or presenting your work in a special way?
Dennis: Yes, I did. I focused on making sure that at any point that I looked like a business. So whenever I would do, like at the time I was just doing invoices, I used FreshBooks. If any communication felt like it wasn’t just coming from me, actually that’s the reason why we chose a company name because I wanted to make sure it was less about me, more about an entity.
And the other thing that I did, I mean presentation is huge, and I have a whole course around that. But everything that we presented, we presented — we would spend more time on our presentations than a lot of times some of the work because it’s how you set it up.
Like with our clients, I never wanted to say, well, here’s one 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper that here’s all your logos. We really guided them through as to what we were creating for them, making them understand or helping them understand, I guess, what we were going to deliver. It’s about not telling them what they see on paper, but telling them what you’ve created and showing them what it will be in the future. We tried to spend a lot of time on that, and I think that helped differentiate us a lot from the market.
Jane: I’m glad to hear that it really worked. So did you make any mistakes back then, anything specific you probably wish you knew back then when you just started that could have kind of pivoted your career?
Jane: Or helped it much better?
Dennis: Yeah, so I would say the biggest thing, and I think it pertains to the project, Client Onboard, is really that validation. My goodness, we were taking stuff that I look back on and go no wonder we didn’t make any money off it, and why would we even quote that, like why would we even spend the time on that. And it wasn’t until you look back on things that you realize that, yeah, for postcards. Certain projects, there’s just really not enough money that you can squeeze, not that I’m in the business of squeezing money out of somebody, but there’s not a lot of value to be seen in certain pieces of design.
For example, we were doing, early on, because I was more of a print focused person, the web kind of a came out of a need, and obviously the trends in the industry and where we are today. But I focused a lot on, oh, I can do stationary packets. I can do print postcards. I can do all these things that really it’s hard to make a lot of return on that because they’re going to provide you with some content, and you’re going to do your best to just make that look good on a postcard, and maybe throw a concept or two in it.
But it was really hard to price it out because, to me — well what I found is there’s a bottom line that somebody is willing to see what a postcard is worth versus what it really takes to do it. Same thing with a business card. It’s like if you tell them the value, and you try to sell them on the value, they’re going to look at it like, well, it’s just a business card to me. I don’t really need to go that far into it, and I don’t need the custom stocks, necessarily, and those were early on.
That was at the peak of the recession because that’s when I didn’t realize it, but that’s when things kind of tanked, and that’s the time I took that risk, so some of that may have had to do with it. But ultimately those are the types of projects today that I just don’t even bother working on because there’s just not enough there for somebody to field it to pay that premium price for, so validation is important, I guess.
Jane: That’s right. That was one of my questions, actually. When you did hire employers that were standing behind your back, did it actually increase your criteria or did you become less selective or more selective about the clients? How did it influence you?
Dennis: Yeah, so the first employer, I guess you could say, that I brought on was Julie. I look at it as a hire because we actually had to — You know, obviously we’re going from having my income through Greenline and then another income through my wife, Julie. But when you bring that in all under one company, you’re kind of hiring. That’s money you have to make up in a way, so that changed the way we positioned ourselves.
But when it came to like freelancers and stuff, because we tried to stay, and we do try to stay very flexible, so we can put the right people in the right place. So I never really said, okay, we’re going to hire this person. We look down and we were doing things like that and exploring those options, but to actually hire, it just made more sense for our business to just kind of do the freelancing gig. But it does change.
Any time you have to split up a pie, I guess you could say, and even when you have partners, I think that’s one of the hardest things is when you have a partner or, in our case, a husband and wife team. It’s easy to look and say, well, it’s all one pot. But really, Julie’s time is Julie’s time. My time is my time, and you have to build at it correctly.
And there’s only a certain client who is going to see the value in having a team on their project. That’s okay. There is a designer and a client for everybody, and it’s important to know who you are and what you want, so you can price appropriately, as well as validate appropriately. Yeah, you’re going to go after — if you need more money to kind of go across your team, you’re going to have to bump up your skill, your offerings, as well as your — to get into a different price point, I guess you could say, and then into a different type of client because that kind of all happens all at once.
Jane: So did you find yourself niching in or, on the contrary, broadening your scope?
Dennis: Yeah, so when it happened, I can think of the exact day. We were sitting there, and we were like, we were running a lot of work, actually, out of our home office, and even having interns and stuff. That kind of starts to get a little weird, right?
So we knew we wanted to invest in a studio in downtown Columbus. There’s a great location. But we knew there were only a few ways to do that, right? You either take on more projects, more clients of the same, and that doesn’t necessarily work because you’re just doing more work. It doesn’t provide you with enough return. You’re just doing more work. It’s kind of a trade-off, I guess: more clients, more work, but you’re not really making more. You’re not changing your bottom line much, you know.
So we knew we had to do a complete brand overhaul. Stop saying we’re the agency that’s not like any other agency in the sense that, you know, we don’t have the overhead. That was the big thing. That’s what we were saying, you know, but we do agency work without overhead.
But then we realized that we do have overhead. I mean, even when we were working out of our home office, there’s overhead. But when we were going to invest in a studio and take that next level to get clients that actually valued our work, it was going to require getting up there and saying, okay, we are now an agency or studio, and those prices, everything about it would have to reflect that. And with that, it completely changed the type of clients who came through our website.
Positioning yourself is so important, so the minute we flipped the switch on the new site, at the time I almost kind of took pride in kind of positioning it in a way that would scare off some of the clients, the types of clients we were getting because the time to validate them.
Jane: That’s exactly what’s needed sometimes.
Dennis: Yeah, you have to take that hard stance because you’re going to spend a lot of time when you’re validating a client. Sometimes you get to the end of it and you go, wow, that was a lot of wasted time. You know, even if that’s through email, it’s just like, wow.
You get better at things. You kind of start to know what the red flags are, but we really tried to just eliminate as much of that as possible right from the beginning with our brand, and you just have to take that hard stance. Then everything else starts to come out of it because if you’re talking to a certain audience, they’re going to be attracted to you. And if it’s more of a profitable company, you’ll attract them naturally. It’s like a magnet, and then your prices and everything reflect that.
Jane: Absolutely. So what’s your process of taking on new clients? What do you do? Do you have like a special ceremony or process?
Dennis: Yeah, we do. Usually they come through a referral. If they come through the site, we pretty much can validate those. There’s a lot of red flags, I think, some standards that happen. You can tell when somebody is going through and just blasting every studio in town or all over the web to get their project done, and those are patterns that you can kind of recognize. Usually those we kind of just do a small reach out.
I never like to not reach out to somebody. That’s the worst thing you could do. Even if you’re busy, let them know you’re busy. But what we do with those is we just simply run them through kind of a quick, high level, hey, this is, let’s see what you’re interested in, and this is what we have, and this is kind of how things roughly break down.
But once we validate their budget, more or less, and what they’re trying to do, and make sure that at least we know they have some more stake in this other than I just want something to be pretty, then we start going into, okay, let’s set up a time to sit down and talk more about your goals and then see if we can actually be a fit. That could be a phone call. That could be a meeting. It just depends on the type of clients and how many people are involved.
Then from there, you just kind of continue to validate. But I preferably love to have a really clear scope, even if that’s subject to change, but a really clear first round scope before we put together proposals. But, yeah, so it’s usually just kind of running them through a quick funnel of, based on that level of entry, so it starts usually just validating high level, like, do you really understand. If you say a logo, I don’t just create logos; I create brands. How does that stuff reflect to their, you know, how do they see that price point.
Jane: Yeah. I don’t create logos ever.
Jane: Because it’s just a painful process of putting those four logos on a single sheet of paper and trying to sell it. That’s impossible.
Dennis: Well, again, there’s that threshold that it’s so hard because they look at it, and they go, it’s just a logo. And it’s like, well, you see it as just a logo. And that was strategically used even early on as never using the word “logo” and focusing more on a brand because, with a brand, we’re talking logo, the whole package. We offer the whole strategic aspect of branding and what that consists of from tone of voice and all the concepts that go around that.
They start to see beyond, okay, this is a tiny logo. We’re talking about an ecosystem. We’re talking about how this is going to work in print and how does this all resonate, and what does it mean for your customers and stuff. It changes the perception, and it also scares off those who just, like, I just want a logo. And that’s fine. You can just get a logo.
But it’s hard for us to just do logos. It’s like almost impossible because I’m like trained to do this process that I learned through my days in working with large clients. It’s like I can never break that. Even if somebody says, hey, can you just do me a quick logo? It’s like I can’t break that quick logo process, like there’s no quick logo. And once that’s ingrained as a process, it’s like I’m just giving away time at that point. I’m giving away value, and it’s just not good.
The same thing with like posters and stuff, it’s all that same type of thing. I mean I’ll do some gig posters every now and then, but usually I do that and chalk that up to just experience and fun. But it’s hard to just say, okay, I can price this poster out for your event, you know, because there’s not enough there.
Jane: Being a designer by trade, how far do you go discussing business details with clients? We just mentioned that branding issue, but there’s plenty more. Do you ask for revenue numbers, and are they willing to discuss it with you?
Dennis: Yeah, I generally do, and I think this starts getting into building that trust and stuff. I go in, and I try to be — once I know they’re serious, and they say, well, I really love your work, and we see the value you’ve done with Client X, that immediately kind of, you know you’re kind of working with somebody who sees it. So I’m not afraid to ask them.
The big thing I always use is as a big example is somebody usually comes to us with a solution. Generally, a potential client is going to say I need a website, I need a logo, or I need this, or whatever. But you have to go deeper than that. You have to ask them why do you feel like you need a website. Usually that starts to open up things.
With some of the clients we’ve done, we’ve found that the website really wasn’t what the needed. They just needed to consider some different processes internally. Yeah, maybe a micro-site. So I like to try to — I’m not afraid to go into the details as much as possible. I mean, obviously there is a point where you can tell like, eh, that’s probably not my wheelhouse.
But at the same time I think a couple years ago it was really quick for everybody to just say we need websites because they weren’t seeing the numbers converting because the economy might have been down, and they’re just jumping to the fact that, oh, we haven’t touched our website in ten years. You know, yeah, definitely a website is going to help if it’s ten years old, but what can you do immediately. That’s what I try to focus on, like what can we do today that starts affecting your numbers. Some of that is just, sometimes it’s free advice I’ll give away in a meeting just to kind of show them that I’m trusting and I’m not here to make this about money, but I’m here to make this about creating great solutions and making sure that they see that value in hiring us.
Jane: That makes fantastic sense. How do you approach the process of giving estimates, writing proposals?
Dennis: Yeah, so I used to do estimates. I used to think, oh, a nice shiny piece of paper that gets sent over to them or whatever. But I found the minute you start doing estimates in the traditional sense, you’d start getting the, well, what if we take this out. Everything becomes line-itemed. I’ll still send an estimate in the sense that here’s what you’re going to get, so they have a paper trail, obviously. But it’s usually attached with a proposal.
What I found that works best for us today is, it’s usually about ten pages or so, and it’s just kind of an outline of an overview, you know, goals, what we’re going to deliver on. None of that is line-itemed. It’s not like this amount of time is going to be X amount of dollars for hooking up the content management system. It’s just showing you what’s included with a dollar, a price point. And then that’s a whole separate proposal.
But then there’s a whole other piece that is just time lined, and that’s when we look at how does this break down across the length of a project. This is where it gets fun because now they see the value in what we’re delivering. Then they start focusing clearly on the way things are structured from a payment, I call it a payment process.
But they see how this break ups across the month. Then they go, well, that’s not really all that bad. And we can then start talking to them about different alternatives like, well, and we can do this in a way like billing weekly, you know, however we want to structure things depending on the needs of their project, time line, and stuff.
But I like to really show them visually how much work and how much time is into something. You know, when they see six months, and they see how that breaks out and what we’re going to hit every month, not only do we have time now to like clarify scope a little bit more; they can start to see the amount of work that’s put into it. And I always include what needs to be done on their end to make sure we hit time line and stuff.
Jane: Absolutely. Do you use questionnaires at any point before or after you live chat to collect data from the client?
Dennis: Not in a formalized way. When I do meet with them about like branding and stuff, I do, and that’s usually I’m asking them questions like what types of brands resonate with you. I always try to get them thinking — like as designers, we take for granted that we can look at something and break it down and say, okay, that’s what modern looks like, or that’s what vintage chic looks like or whatever.
With clients, you kind of have to guide them through that process. So the questionnaires for branding would be like, obviously, what are your goals, what are you trying to achieve, who is your audience. But then I try to get into some of the look and feel, and not because I want that to dictate what I do. It just gives me a frame of reference. You know, it gives me an idea as to like what they envision as their brand, not that I’m going to do what they want, but it gives me a clear understanding of where I need to be and where my starting point should or shouldn’t be. What it also does is it gets them involved in the process.
I may say, what kind of computer do you use? If they say, well, I use a PC, or if they say I use a Mac, that was clearly two different types of feels. I’ll say where you shop, where do you like to get your clothes? Things that starts to get them thinking about what they like and don’t like in taste because it does me no good to completely show them something that’s not anywhere near what they’re thinking, not that I deliver exactly on that because then it comes down to the actual, you know, what are their goals for the project. But it at least gives me a starting point.
Jane: Thank you for sharing that. That’s certainly very helpful because it’s all these intangible things we are tackling, being a designer, it’s very hard to verbalize and especially hard to gather that from a client.
Dennis: Yeah, yeah, and what it really does is it voids that moment when you go round one and you put it down and they go, I don’t even like a modern font, you know. Whoever is making that decision, a lot of times they’re making that decision with design around their own subjective opinions. Yes, they have respect to the end goal, but they’re usually going to go, I just don’t like that font.
Then you get into this battle of like trying to talk them into that font where I try to avoid the little battles and focus on the big battles because I think that’s where the value really is. If I’m off on my font for round one, but I hit them on the tone and where we’re going on a high level, it’s a win. It starts the conversation at that point. It doesn’t become a back and forth discussion around should it be this type of red or this type of font.
Jane: That’s right. How many versions do you present to your clients?
Dennis: I present one kind of brand, one to two brand concepts, so like what this means, what this tone is. Then if you do branding, you know there’s a number of ways to execute on that brand from a logo standpoint. That I may just kind of throw, you know, two to three kind of logos that reflect how that brand could look.
And that’s what I’ve learned through time is the way people see a logo is just tiny, you know, these little logos. But these little logos make up something much bigger. So you have to show them what that big thing is, and then you break down a few logo options. Then you start to kind of break things down a little bit more.
Then with web, you know, that’s kind of a little bit different when it comes to concepts because you’re really looking at, I mean there’s a lot of great layouts that are already proven layouts. It more still comes down to, okay, what’s that brand that lays on top. That’s kind of a little bit different process. We’ll present design boards in that realm where we present a handful, two or three of those, like this is kind of how things could look. Even then I try to push them into more of a brand discussion because I think that’s when things — it always has to start at the brand.
Jane: That’s totally true. That’s totally true.
Dennis: It’s really hard to have a discussion around changing your website’s look, feel when you haven’t discussed the brand part of it because everything is so interlocked nowadays. Strategy for a website is different because it goes beyond look and feel, and I think that’s the biggest miscommunication is having that discussion with your client early on that just changing the look of your website does not mean you’re going to change your bottom line at all. It has an impact, obviously, but we have to talk strategy.
We have to talk about how are you converting, what’s not working, and how does this website affect the bigger picture. It’s never just, yeah, I just need a new website design, and that’s when you can easily, in that early onboarding, ask those questions early on and you’ll start to get the: I’m not sure; I’ve never done this before. Then you start to get into the discussions that are less about I just need this website, more than like this looks like it’s involved. Then that’s when you have a much clearer idea who you’re working with.
Jane: Is there any advice you’d like to give other consultants about client onboarding, how can they make it faster, smoother, and less painful?
Dennis: Yeah. The red flags, like I had a blog post where I just kind of talked about the red flags. Early on you don’t know the red flags because you’re just excited for an email to come in on Friday saying, hey, I want to work with you. That’s a success.
But if you’re having a really tough time getting somebody nailed down for like a meeting or a call, that means, in my mind and through my experience, they’re going to be really tough to hit those deadlines and hold themselves accountable. Either they’re just too busy to take on a project at this time. It’s nothing ever personal, but there’s a limit to where you have to feel like you’re giving them every bit of your time. It’s a two-way kind of process. They have to be held accountable, and so do you. So making sure that they kind of respect your time, and that means if they’re canceling a lot or doing things that make it hard to even have that first initial meeting, it’s probably a red flag.
If they come to you saying, hey, my — we’ll get this every now and then. This one always cracks me up, but it’s like, hey, my developer or my designer just left. We were working on the project, and they just bailed on it. That’s a huge red flag because, yes, there’s instances where things don’t go good, and you kind of have to let go of a client. But most of the time somebody has it in them if they’re willing to take money and work on a project with somebody to at least see through their part of it and then have the discussion to say we’re no longer going to work together.
If they bail in the middle of a project, there’s more there than just this designer/developer just isn’t held accountable or isn’t of value. There’s something with the client that may be a little askew, so another red flag. So just looking at the red flags early on and knowing what you’re really focusing your time on. Validating clients that aren’t willing to see the value is just wasted time, and those are good to just let them know that you’re not taking on any projects or whatever you need to do to kind of derail that.
Jane: In those cases that you mentioned, they’re usually followed up by something: Can we start tomorrow?
Dennis: Exactly. Yes, that’s the other, the third one that is always big. You know, well, you need this — you know, we’re working on an event, and we need this tomorrow. Yeah, and I’ve learned. And I’m guilty; everybody is guilty of saying, yeah, I’m slow right now. I can crank that out. But I’ve really found that time, you can’t make up time, I think, no matter how fast you work.
And we used to do this. We used to make exceptions around our websites and our branding work and say, okay, it’s only going to be — we could probably do it in two months or so or one month because a lot of times that early work was, and even still, but a lot of the early stuff was, you know, we’re working against a time line of a grand opening for an office. So you have a time line where they need to have things launched. So they’ll come to us two weeks out and say we’re getting ready to open our practice in two weeks, can you get us a website? And you’re like, I can get you a small website, and maybe I can get that up.
But I learned that it still takes time because there’s still client feedback. There’s still all these variables that you aren’t even — it affects you, but it’s not even your responsibility that still have to be done. Just the approval process sometimes on a project, depending on the price point, can take weeks just to get the initial deposit to begin. So it’s like the two weeks, three weeks, those just don’t work. I mean everything pretty much, you know, obviously unless it’s very clear and cut, for us is usually four to six months out. Plus we can then manage our client flow and stuff better too. We know what we’re working on with the schedule.
Jane: Yes, I’m guilty as charged because we are all born to help people with their problems.
Jane: And whenever anybody comes up with a problem, it’s so hard to say no.
Dennis: Yeah, you feel bad.
Jane: Especially if it’s a big problem.
Dennis: Exactly. You feel bad. Like oh, my gosh, I just got bailed on, and I’ve got this website that needs to go up like next week. Can you just help me quickly get it up? And then you realize what mess you might be dealing with once you agree to doing it.
That’s the same thing with spec work and free work. That’s a whole other debate and discussion. It’s just like, you know, time, you can’t speed up the clock. Like I used to think I’d just work faster, and it just doesn’t happen. I’ve got a number of clients where we did that early on, and we just wore ourselves right out, you know, and burns you out. It just isn’t always healthy. So it’s best to just avoid those. And it’s not because you’re putting somebody else, because I think we feel guilty too because we don’t want to put that on somebody else’s shoulders as another designer. But like I said, there’s always a designer for every client.
There are designers who would benefit from projects like that, that are just you need to get in and get out. That’s why we don’t really do a lot of maintenance work because that tends to be a little less — it tends to be kind of last minute sometimes, and it’s hard to kind of put together. It’s hard to structure maintenance work, so I like to look at that more of a monthly consulting thing versus maintenance on a website.
Jane: Yeah, so is there anything else you’d like to add that could make life easier for those people who are listening to us, those consultants?
Dennis: Yeah. Respect, early on, your value and really think about how is your design, your ideas, your concepts really helping a business. I wish I knew that going into it because I think I was young. I was like, yeah, I just want to create great design, and I just looked at everything as a design piece. You know I want it to look good. I want to help clean up the world with all the bad design, you know, all the bad websites for doctors.
That gives you a nice motivation, but that doesn’t make you a lot of money. You need to be comfortable with having strategic discussions with your clients and understand what they need for you, so you can go into those and have those hard conversations with confidence and see. And it’s a lot easier to sell yourself because you want to be seen as a partner. You don’t want to be seen as an expense.
Jane: That’s the biggest truth I’ve ever applied to my own business too, so thank you so much for sharing that with our listeners.
Dennis: No problem.
Jane: Dennis, please tell us what are you planning for your next big thing?
Dennis: Right now the next thing I’m working on is a portfolio workshop. I just kind of started teasing it with a landing page last week. The response has been really great. I’m working on kind of that course. It’ll be just like a five-day online crash course on creating a portfolio online that actually attracts the types of clients that you want to work with, so that’s the big thing that I’m doing, focused on right now, as well as the book, so all really exciting things that I think will help. Hopefully will do great things for the design industry as a whole, but will help a lot of handful of designers as well.
Jane: It’s so enjoyable to listen to you speak about that because you’re obviously having that passion in teaching and sharing your insight. That’s amazing. Thank you so much for sharing and coming today.
Dennis: No problem. Thank you.
Jane: Dennis, can you please tell us where people can find you online?
Jane: Thanks very much. Thank you for sharing your insight today, and I hope to have you as a guest one more time eventually.
Dennis: That’d be great. Thanks, Jane. I appreciate it.
Jane: Amazing! Have a lovely day.
Dennis: You too!
Jane: Thanks so much.
Dennis: Thank you.
Jane: Oh, yes, this was an amazing conversation! Dennis has such a treasure chest of advice for all of us and, what’s more important, he’s so willing to share. Stay tuned for more interviews like this. Please search iTunes for UI Breakfast, or go to uibreakfast.com/podcast. Or you can sign up for updates at clientonboard.com.
This was your host Jane Portman. You can find me on Twitter @uibreakfast. Thanks for being with us, and have a lovely day!
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