Time is More Than Just Money

By Deane Barker

One of the things we constantly struggle with at Blend is capacity. I’m very blessed to be able to say we have more work that we know what to do with.

Every day, new deals just seem to fall from the sky. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant, but it’s true. David, our sales guy, constantly builds new deals out of nothing rubber bands and paper clips, as near as I can tell. He’ll come to me with a potential project, ask me for some numbers, and in a few weeks, we’re suddenly working on it. I have little idea of what happens between point A and B.

As such, we constantly run on the ragged edge of sanity. I keep telling myself that things will let up someday, but they never do. I never thought – in my wildest dreams – that my biggest problem with my business would be having too much business. That this fact is true is something I’m very, very grateful for.

But, what do you do about it? As more and more business comes in the door, you essentially have four options:

  1. Get more efficient

  2. Hire more staff

  3. Subcontract

  4. Turn down work

The first option is something we need to get better at. There are some serious inefficiencies around here that need to be addressed. But in terms of platform, eZ publish is about as capable and efficient a CMS as you’re ever going to find, and it’s what we start almost all new projects with, so re-work is minimal. I’m fairly happy to say that we tend to solve problems only once around here.

The second option is viable too. We could staff up. But we’re at seven people now, and as Aaron mentioned the other day, throwing staff at the problem reaches a point of diminishing returns. You have to train them, and more people just exaggerate your existing inefficiencies. Additionally, I’m a little leery of the economy right now – I think 2008 will be a tough year for America – so adding overhead keeps me up at night.

The third option – subcontracting – can be problematic. We’ve done this in some situations (and we’re doing it now on one project), but it’s often more work than just doing it yourself. You have to train the subcontractor on the idiosyncrasies of your company and the specific project. Additionally, “riding range” over the project takes time, and you’re essentially on the hook for someone else’s work, which is nerve-wracking. I find myself digging through subcontractors’ code, and getting all in a tizzy about things.

Which brings us to the fourth option: turn down work. This is hard, for three reasons.

  1. It’s just not in most people’s nature to do this: People want to pay me money. This is a big deal to me. Every business has lean years in the beginning, and this scary experience tends to stay with you.

    Notice how people who lived through the Great Depression always clean their plates at every meal? There’s a reason for this – if you went through a period where you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from, you will always make the most of every meal you get.

  2. Some projects are just cool: This is a big problem for me. I can’t evaluate a project strictly on its economic merits. There are a lot of projects I would do for free, just because I’m hopelessly in love with Web development. Throw in the fact that someone wants to pay you, and these get hard to turn down.

  3. Turning down an initial project can prevent a good relationship from starting: What may be just a simple, isolated project can turn into a huge relationship over time. Our biggest client relationship right now came out of a single, innocent-looking project. If we had turned that project away, the relationship would have never started.

Blend, like most Web development firms, has aspirations of creating a product line. 37 Signals is the poster child for this, but even our esteemed rivals over at Electric Pulp have developed several products that I assume are doing quite well. Blend currently has three product ideas bouncing around, any one of which I’m confident would be a raging success.

But how do you free up time to work on a product when project work has you plowed under? If it was just a question of money – how do we replace Joe’s billable time while he works on a product? – it would be much easier. We have several venture capital options open to us right now, in addition to a sizable (and unused) line of credit sitting around.

But it’s not about money. It’s about time. And while time is money, it’s sadly also more than that. If that’s all it was, this would be simple.

This is item #200 in a sequence of 354 items.

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