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Can anyone with experience in running a start-up software/web design business give me a few solid recommendations on how your general client experience works?

I'm interested in what sort of communication takes place up front after a client contacts you desiring a website for their group/organization/business/etc and then what sort of actions you take from agreement to completion.

Some specific areas of my inquiry include:

  • How do you go about gathering information and requirements for the software/website? (phone calls, emails, etc)

  • How do you communicate your ideas/layout/features for the website to the client? (create sketches, create actual simple prototypes, etc)

  • Do you create a sort of finalized conceptual that becomes part of the agreement?

  • Do you draw up a contract and what general things are contained in that contract (I'm not looking for legalise, just general things you consider)?

This isn't a general business question but is directly in the realm of a software-related start-up so any suggestions or advice on how to approach these topics from a software/web design focused business perspective would really be appreciated from anyone whose worked through some of these things already. Thanks so much in advance.

7

I am in the fifth year of running my own web design and development business. I hired a legal professional to help me with my terms and conditions and despite the copyright notice on my website, my terms and conditions have been copied by web design and development firms all over the world, often with very little changes. I guess I should be flattered!

How do you go about gathering information and requirements for the software/website? (phone calls, emails, etc)

For larger projects, I suggest getting clients to complete a web design brief or similar. This is a standard form that is sent to clients to gather key information. The type of information collected in a web design brief will include (for example):

  • client contact details
  • current web address (if any)
  • current hosting (if any)
  • key aim of the website
  • required features
  • who will supply the images for the website
  • who will supply the logo for the website
  • who will supply the text content for the website
  • look and feel of the website
  • approximate number of pages
  • website target audience
  • who will maintain the website
  • expected time frames
  • anything else the client thinks you should know

It can be useful to meet clients face to face at least once if you are in the same geographic area.

Ideally at a face to face meeting, ask clients to show you some websites they find inspiring can help in figuring out what they are after. Get them to point out the features that they like on each website e.g. is it the layout, the colours, the responsive slideshow, the contact form etc etc.

How do you communicate your ideas/layout/features for the website to the client? (create sketches, create actual simple prototypes, etc)

Use the information you have collected to write a project proposal outlining the proposed deliverables and associated costs and time frames.

Depending on the complexity of the project, you might include in the proposal a draft menu structure and layout using tools such as yEd and Balsamiq.

On simpler projects you could specify that the menu structure and layout can evolve in consultation with the client.

When dealing with larger organisations, ask them to designate a single point of contact so you receive consistent rather than conflicting instructions.

On most website projects, I evolve the website design and development in parallel and provide access for clients to monitor progress and provide feedback if I have gone off-track. On some (usually clearly defined) projects, it is easier to work without constant feedback and provide the delivered project at the end for review and adjustment if required.

Do you create a sort of finalized conceptual that becomes part of the agreement?

This can be useful to help define the scope and to refer back to if the client goes off on a different tangent so that an additional fee can be charged for clear variations.

You might be comfortable with certain clients (e.g. ones you have worked with in the past) to let the design and structure of the website evolve, and build this into the budget.

Do you draw up a contract and what general things are contained in that contract (I'm not looking for legalise, just general things you consider)?

Ideally it is best to eliminate assumptions on both sides or state any assumptions to make it clear what is and isn't going to be delivered.

I suggest you create some standard terms and conditions that can be included in each proposal to make it clear what is and isn't expected.

Examples for a web design job might include such things as:

  • the deposit amount before work will start
  • payment terms
  • any additional expenses (for domain registration, web hosting, stock imagery etc)
  • any delays in supply of content entitle you to extend the completion date
  • limits to the number of design changes before they become chargeable variations
  • client responsibility in regard to licensing of supplied materials such as stock images etc
  • no guarantee of specific search engine rankings
  • non disclosure of client's confidential information
  • whose responsibility backups are
  • ownership of domain names and web hosting
  • cross browser compatibility expectations
  • limitation of liability on e-commerce websites
  • review period and approval/rejection of work

I think you have to expect and allow for a certain amount of variation when embarking on a large project and build this into the budget. This usually results in an optimum solution being delivered that you can both be proud of.

Some clients will try to take advantage of you and you need to be constantly on the alert for variations to the agreed scope so you can point this out to the client at the time. I have made the mistake in the past of allowing a small variation without saying anything to the client and then before realising it, have spent many hours on something for which I have no formal agreement to charge anything extra for. A better way to handle this might be to send a short email to the client explaining that the item doesn't appear to be in the agreed scope but you are happy to include it for free if it takes less than half an hour etc. Then there are no surprises for the client if there is an additional item on the invoice if the task goes over the stated limit.

  • Amazing advice Neil, thank you so very much, your answer is invaluable! – KodeKreachor Jan 9 '14 at 13:19
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This is not a complete answer, as I don't really have time to write one at the moment, but I wanted to take a minute to address a few issues relevant to the contracting questions you raised in your post. (My apologies if any of this seems self-evident or is already on your list of things to do.)

Do you draw up a contract and what general things are contained in that contract (I'm not looking for legalise, just general things you consider)?

I'm sure you realize that web and web application design is a VERY risky business, for both you and the customer. If you want a better idea of what can go wrong from both sides, google "software design risk management." So, because this is a risky business you are venturing into, you need to take steps from the get-go to minimize the worst of the risk to both parties in order to have a successful experience. In particular, there are several points during the process where things could go wrong for YOU, and you need to be able to ensure that if that happens, your books aren't summarily put into the red or that you aren't put out of business altogether.

First, many clients will ask you to do a LOT of work up front before they sign a contract or advance you any funds. Sometimes they want you to go all the way to showing them a complete UI and working prototype before they pay. This is pretty unreasonable, from my point of view, because it puts all the risk on you should they decide they don't want to continue the project for whatever reason, or decide after a while to go with someone else to do the work. (It is even possible that folks like this may have several other design firms on the hook at the same time doing all this work before they make a decision. To my mind, this is like telling five tailors to make you a special suit and not picking which one you are actually going to pay for until the pants are just about ready to hem.) You need to decide how much work you are willing to do up front and stand firm or at least negotiate aggressively if pushed to do more than that. Standing firm on your terms and work is part of being professional, but it is difficult to do, especially when first starting out. There is nothing wrong, btw, with asking for some "earnest money" up front when starting a new project. Or at least, working that into the very early checkpoints with the client.

Second, you need to have some idea of how to set firm expectations of what you are planning to do for the client, and have that in writing and signed off by the client. You need to state your process for handling disputes and changes. If you do not have a "change management" process in place that you follow with your clients, you may find you've done twice or three times the work you thought you agreed to do by the time the project is over. Everyone always wants more, that's human nature. Once they see what you can do for them, you will probably get a lot of requests to "gold plate" things or add more functionality here and there. These may all be very small changes, but they add up fast into lost revenue. The key here is to have the project scope set out clearly and agreed to by both parties beforehand. I'm not saying you should turn down new work, just find a way to firmly tell them that you'd love to do that, but you need to finish what you contracted to do in the first place, because that's the professional way to do business, and then after that, you would be thrilled to talk about "version 2." ;-)

Third, some clients are slow to pay. Payment terms definitely need to be spelled out in detail in your contracts. As an example - I once worked through an advertising company that billed their clients NET 90 days. So of course, their clients paid on day 90 or 91, if not later. They expected to be billed on the same terms and not until their clients paid them. And, of course, the advertising firm paid their bills on day 90 or 91! So, if you can't afford to wait 6 months for payment of work done, be sure this is spelled out from the very beginning. I hate to say it, but when it comes to money, some companies will try a lot of really shady stuff to make their bottom line look good - at the expense of yours.

Finally, another way to cover your tail, financially, is to set up certain check points during the process, and have the client sign off on work completed to that point. And then bill them for it immediately. Make sure the client understand that this protects them, too - they don't have to pay before they see work they approve of. And, of course, it protects you, because you aren't waiting till the very end to get all of your money. That is always risky, risky, risky. But doing it this way, if they were to abandon the project in the middle of it, well, you're covered because you've billed and been paid for all or almost all of the work you've put into it to that point. Or, if they take your initial concepts and specs and then shop them out to a $2 an hour overseas web sweatshop, well, then you are covered for that much, anyway. It may be little compared to what you were hoping to make on the project, but at least you didn't give it away for free. (We won't go into the ethics or intellectual property aspect here.)

So, just some thoughts to consider on the contracting aspect. Best of luck!

  • What an amazing collection of advice, thank you so much!! – KodeKreachor Jan 8 '14 at 19:09
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    You're welcome! Been doing web app dev since the mid-90s, much of that time as a freelancer or contract worker, so I've seen a few things along the way. – TeresaMcgH Jan 8 '14 at 19:37
  • I've been personally burned on that 90 turns into 6 months thing, and learned the hard-way I should never be billing only 1 client at a time. – virtualxtc Jun 16 '18 at 6:41
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Wow, Teresa was spot on! I'll add this:

Wherever the road takes you, a repeating theme you're going to see is "move the risk". What is that? Let me give you an example. You're a web designer. When you're using your favorite HTML tool - that you've spent good money on - and something's not quite right, you can PICK UP THE PHONE and get an answer (to some degree), whereas with using open source, you run the risk of having no support at all. Then you're stuck, and your ability to do your business stops.

I'll tie this in now. Clients will want to "move the risk" first and foremost by having you bid out for fixed price. That way, if you haven't asked the right questions up front or you didn't budget so that the price you charge allows you to eat and pay your bills, it's not their problem, it's yours. They've moved the risk to you. On the other hand, if you're billing by the hour, then the client can goof up as much as they like over time, and it should make little difference to you since you're earning by the hour. In this latter scenario, the client is exposed to the risk. The latter scenario is the best one when the client knows they need your services, but also want to engage you in figuring out exactly how.

Learn some accounting terms. "NET DUE ON RECEIPT" is your best friend. Net 10, Net 15. As Teresa mentioned, some clients want to pull that stuff where you don't get paid until they get paid. But you can't use that line with your electric company, phone company, or landlord, right??? So don't fall for it. As a matter of fact, ask for net 10/15 terms up front. ALWAYS make it a point to discuss this before you start any work. Some clients will say, "our standard is net 30". Don't be afraid to counter with better terms. Big businesses may do net 30 as a matter of course, but will do shorter times ONLY IF YOU ASK. so ASK ASK ASK. The worst they can say is "no" and then you can make an informed decision. An organization that has trouble with net 10 or 15 terms might not be a good client anyhow (cash flow problems).

Google "how to research trade references". If you have any doubts about how well a client will pay their bills, you should be asking their other vendors (basically a credit check) or asking for some money up front. If the retainer can cover your business costs and cover your living expenses, and THEN the client doesn't pay at the END, at least you still have a roof over your head.

No spec work for fixed-bid projects! If you are required to deliver project plans, drawings, or technical documentation as a condition before actually starting the technical work, you should be getting paid for this. When you turn over the project for the client to use, that's known as a deliverable, but turning over the documents is ALSO a deliverable. You might structure things UP FRONT so that payment must be rendered by the client for each stage of deliverable. If you don't make it known that you expect to be paid, very few clients are going to make it a point to do it.

Be prepared to bill for time on the telephone and constructing e-mails. This is valid, don't be fooled! Your time is valuable and you will doubtlessly run into that client who feels it's okay to call and talk to you all day. On a fixed-bid project, this is murder to your profits.

In summary, there's a lot to the EMOTIONAL aspect of the work, and if you aren't prepared to stand your ground when necessary, the wrong client will run all over you. Be judicious, and not too "nice". Good luck!

  • Thank you very much for your great advice and for taking the time to share! – KodeKreachor Jan 9 '14 at 13:20
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    Agreed, agreed, absolutely AGREED. Btw, as Codenoire has said, the accounting stuff is one of the more important "hats" you are going to be wearing as a freelancer. So, if you haven't taken a basic accounting class somewhere along the way, you may want to do that, or pick up a good "Accounting for Dummies" type book. It is very helpful to know how to set up and maintain your books, and knowing a bit about accounting practice allows you to "speak the language" with your clients when discussing terms. – TeresaMcgH Jan 9 '14 at 15:39

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