I get a lot of questions from other business owners and freelancers on how do we manage our projects. What tools do we use? How do we use them? How much do they cost? And much more. It’s important to note that for us this is a constantly evolving process. The way business is done in our industry changes extremely fast and we try to keep up with it.
We are always looking for new tools and new ways that can help us be more productive. At the same time, it’s really important to know why you’re applying these tools. Sometimes people get lost. They use tools because it seems cool, not because it helps their business. Be careful and evaluate each tool properly and try to figure out if it really does help your business.
In the blog post I’ll reveal our whole process to you in great detail. From initial sales to project management and hopefully you’ll find something that can help your business here.
One tool to rule them all
So the main tool we recently switched to is Productive from the awesome fellows at Infinum. Infinum is a big software agency themselves which means they know a lot about the needs of a business like ours and they tailored the software to fit our exact needs.
Productive helped us combine 3 tools we previously used into one. Before we used Trello for sales leads, Asana for tasks and Paymo for time tracking. With Productive we get all of those tools in one package and it’s really smart and knows how to connect all the data into a bigger picture that is always trying to answer one big question – is your business profitable?
Apart from Productive, a really big part of our process is Invision which we use for design specs and documentation. This is something we named Living design documentation. I dedicated a separate blog post to it here. Other than that Slack, Zeplin and Avocode all play big parts in our process.
Everything starts with a good lead
Our whole process starts with leads. A lead is a prospective potential future customer. We always get our leads in one way – recommendations. We strive to do high quality work and live off our recommendations – every single customer we worked with in the past 4 years came to us because some other happy customer referred them to us. It’s something we are very proud of. So usually a lead gets in touch with us through email mentioning how they have a project for us and how they got referred by somebody who already knows us.
When this happens we put the lead into the Productive sales pipeline. The sales pipeline looks like a kanban Trello board. You have horizontal columns with cards inside them representing potential business deals. Each column is a “stage” in the sales pipeline. Every lead enters the pipeline in the “Opportunity” column.
As negotiations move on the customer moves up in our sales pipeline. We do an estimate, we do some negotiations, and if we get the job the lead gets converted into a project. The project then gets assigned some budgets (eg. the budgets might be 10 000 EURs for design and 20 000 EURs for development and 3.500 EUR for project management). These budgets help us track the profitability of the project.
The project kicks-off
At this point people start working on the project. And they start tracking their hours. So designers do UX & UI designs, they post them to Invision and do rounds of feedback. Once again I’ll refer you to my Invision post where this is all described in detail. The designers get all of their feedback through Invision and that’s how they get assigned tasks.
At the start of the project we invite the client to Slack and we use that for real time communication with them. The important thing here is to move away from email communication as soon as the project start. We try to teach the client about the different tools we use and get them to use that. Email is inefficient, slow and communication often gets lost.
We also use Confluence to build a knowledge base about the project. How Confluence is organized depends on the project, but we usually create small posts with knowledge – like how to setup something specific about the project.
Design inspection – Avocode & Zeplin
When the design is finished development kicks in and we first turn to Avocode for web stuff and Zeplin for mobile. If you haven’t heard of them, they are two tools with a similar purpose. They help developers inspect PSD & Sketch files. For instance if you’re doing web it will measure your margins and paddings automatically. It will also create small snippets of CSS for elements with the font family, sizing and much more. Using Design inspection has really incresed our productivity. If you don’t use these tools I highly encourage you to start.
Both tools have similar features but Avocode didn’t until recently have the ability to handle mobile apps design very well. It got that feature about 7-8 months ago. We still keep on using both as different teams prefer different tools. We might combine them into using just one tool in the future.
During development when a feature is complete quality assurance kicks in. First we do an internal round of testing. Designers and project managers do a pass on the project and write all of there issues as Productive tasks and assign them to developers. The project manager manages the tasks. He might close or reassign some. The developers then go through the tasks and work the issues. When they are complete they assign the tasks back to the person who created the task and the person checks if the task was solved like they expected. If everything is ok the task gets closed.
After internal quality assurance is done we make the project visible to the client and do a similar round of quality assurance with them. Over here the role of the project manager becomes more prominent. He handles the communication with the client and he might filter out requests from the client that move beyond the scope of the project.
Time tracking and profitability
It’s important to note once again that during the whole time of project development everybody uses Productive to track their time. This includes project managers too. Productive has information about salaries of all the team member. Based on the time spent it calculates how much of the project budget has been spent and if the project is profitable.
The time tracking system has two great features. First reminders for time tracking can be set. We have it setup so that somebody gets a notification if they haven’t tracked at least 7 hours by 18:00. The second nice thing is a really good overview of daily number of hours tracked per person. This is something we we’re really missing in our old system and it enables a manager to spot right away if somebody forgot to track their hours.
Beacuse of how everything connects well in Productive, at the end of the project we know exactly how profitable the project was. This helps us know if the business is doing good, but it also helps us with future decisions. If we are estimating a similar project, we can go back to this one and use the hours to help make the estimate more accurate.
This has turned into a really long post. I didn’t even scratch the surface and I omitted a lot of things like specifics about our development and design processes and the tools we do there. But those are topics for another post. I will give a similar disclaimer I give at the end of most of my posts. These are the tools and processes we use. It works for us. Just because it works for us doesn’t mean it will work for you. Don’t follow it blindly. Learn from it and think good about if something really increases your productivity or you are using it just for the sake of it.