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Don’t Take On That Project!

The following is a guest post by Edward Guttman, Director of User Experience at CodeStreet, LLC and Harvest customer. Ed has been honing his craft as a designer for close to 20 years, and here he shares his thought process behind deciding which projects to take on.

Let’s say your design firm is looking at a healthy sales pipeline and the signs are that you may get more work than you can handle. Everyone should have such problems, right? Should you just hire more people and grab all the work you can? Maybe not. There is a good chance that some of that work isn’t good for your business because it doesn’t align with your goals and your company vision.

Everyone who starts a business does it with some goals in mind and a vision of what kind of company they want to be. Most prospective clients have no idea what these are, so it’s up to you to make sure that you only pursue and take on work that best serves your needs. At my firm, we found that a useful tool was to establish assessment criteria that helped us to filter out work that we didn’t want to take on. These criteria gave us an agreed upon framework for our discussions and allowed us to make decisions efficiently and with confidence. We defined this framework by identifying three key things that an ideal project would provide us:

Venn diagram of an ideal project

1. We will learn something valuable

Learning something valuable could mean a range of things. For us, it meant picking up new skills, working in a new medium, getting into a new industry, gaining further insight into an area we already had some familiarity with or getting a chance to do something we’d never done before. Projects in this category allow you to gain greater depth at what you already know, expand into new services and growth opportunities, rise to new challenges and stimulate your brain.

2. We will have a great addition to our portfolio

Every designer wants an interesting portfolio that represents their skills and highlights their creativity, and they want clients that people have heard of or can easily look up. Doing a great portfolio project allows you to shine — it builds pride and keeps on giving long after completion by being great for case studies, marketing materials, lecture topics, blog posts, articles and books. You can even show them to your parents when you go home to visit.

3. We will receive a healthy payment

There is no avoiding the money issue. You can’t build a business without money, but most designers don’t want it to be the only thing they’re chasing. Do too much of that and the business will have no soul. It doesn’t feel good to say “I’m just doing this for the money”. But it’s also important to be able to take payment so you can see tangible results for your skill and hard work, not to mention treating your folks to dinner once in a while.

I mentioned that these three are the components of an ideal project — but everyone knows that the world isn’t perfect. Not every project is full of interesting new challenges backed by big budgets. In our experience it is all too easy to find work that fulfills one of the criteria, and it’s rare to hit all three. But satisfying two of them is feasible and helps to prevent taking on fun projects that don’t build the business, relying on bread-and- butter work that becomes a bore, or doing money jobs that leave you feeling empty.

So the next time you receive an RFP, an inbound lead, are making cold calls or even are thinking about your marketing strategy, try taking a step back first to see if these assessment criteria can help you to focus on the work that is worth taking on. If these criteria don’t cut it for you, take a look at your goals and your company vision and establish three criteria of your own.

You will end up turning some work down, even as that practical part of you cringes at passing up an opportunity. Refer the client to your best competitor or someone you think is better suited to the work, and you’ll have done the better thing for your business, yourself and the client.

Are you one of the many successful Harvest customers? We’d love to hear stories and lessons about your business. If you have something to share, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

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This was posted in Business, Design, Project Management, Small Business 101.
  • Nice article. It reminded me of an interesting article by Scott Hanselman about a venn diagram that he created (and that went viral) for an article about dream jobs.

  • Great article and all very very true. Quite often we will take work on ‘in good faith’ that it will pay well or be a worth portfolio piece… then the client leads us down a dark path, twisting the project into some unforgivable beast that we don’t want to put our name to. We are on an eternal quest for a steady supply of quality ‘ideal projects’ :)

  • Particularly like the bit about referring the client to your best competitor. It feels unnatural to think like that, but there’s a lot of logic in it. Other great thoughts in there too, thanks for posting.

  • @Tom: Regarding, “the client to your best competitor”, check out Selling the Invisible. It’s chalk full of info about this, and how to effectively market and sell services.

  • Liam O'Leary on December 8, 2011

    Good article, I really like the idea of the three criteria and using them to gauge a project. I needed to use that earlier today.

  • Thanks @Jim. Trying to source myself a copy as the moment

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