Web design business tools

How SD gets the day to day business done.

When asked what I do for a living, my response is generally, “I’m a web designer.” And while it’s certainly true that I spend the majority of the time building websites, I also spend a lot of time running my business. I don’t have a full time business manager or accountant, so finding the most efficient and effective systems are a priority (see this post on my dream system). I thought I would outline my business related workflow here by following a fictitious client, Joe, as he travels through a typical Spigot Design job flow.

Joe is looking to get a website created. He searches in the Google for local web designers, and is impressed with the great work we do (yeah, it’s my story, so I’ll embellish it a bit). So he sends us a note through the contact form to inquire about getting a quote for his skydiving company. He’s in the System.

Enter the Matrix – Step 1: Highrise

Tool description:
Highrise is a web based CRM, or Customer Relationship Management tool.

The website contact form sends me an email with Joe’s request. It also contains his email address. The first thing I do is to get Joe’s info into Highrise. I enter his name and his email, but that’s all I’ve got so far, so the rest of it, like company name and phone, will have to come later. I also enter his request into the notes section. Here is where I keep a running list of notes about Joe – how I first made contact, what my response to his request was, what his response back to me was – all listed out by date, with the latest note at the top for easy reference.

Making contact – Step 2: Reply from Highrise

Highrise allows me to respond via email directly (sorta) from the system. I click on Joe’s email address, which opens my email client (Apple Mail) with a message to Joe. In the BCC field appears an email address that looks something like this: [email protected]. This is a nice little feature that sends a blind copy of the email back to Highrise, and lists it in the same notes history section I mentioned before. Sweet!

When Joe emails back to say he’d like to meet, next Monday at 11, I immediately copy the contents of that email into Highrise. So far, I have a complete history of my dealings with Joe, kept neatly in one place. He’s also given me the rest of his contact info, so now I’ve got that entered into Highrise as well.

Time and place – Step 3: Schedule the meeting.

Tool descriptions:
iCal is my calendar application (Mac only).
gCal (Google Calendars).
BusySync allows automatic synchronization between iCal and gCal.
MobileMe is a service from Apple for sharing all sorts of stuff, calendars included

iCal is Joe’s next destination. I’ll enter there the date and time of our meeting, into my ‘Spigot Design’ calendar (iCal allows me to keep multiple calendars). Joe then gets to take a wild ride as all of my various calendars get synced-in: From iCal, BusySync sends Joe’s meeting event to gCal, Google’s free, web based calendar. I use gCal to allow easy sharing of calendars with my business manager, who also happens to be my wife. And since we share our gCal calendars, she’s now up to date as well, including her iCal since she’s also using BusySync. And if she needs to make a change to Joe’s event, updating it in iCal starts the process again, back through BusySync, to gCal to my gCal to BusySync to iCal. Whew.

And since I use MobileMe, my iPhone calendar is updated almost instantly with ‘push’ notifications. Any calendar I look at now will tell me when and where I’m meeting Joe.

Update: BusySync is no longer necessary for syncing iCal and gCal. See Google Calendar CalDAV/iCal syncing now official from TUAW for more information.

Let’s get this project started – Step 4: The PMS.

Tool descriptions:
Project Pier – Open source project management system

I skipped over the part where we present a proposal for Joe’s project, so let’s just assume that he’s psyched to go with us – he’s accepted our proposal and signed the contract – and handed over some green.

The next step is to get Joe’s project set up in the PMS, ProjectPier. PP is an open-source and self-hosted application that keeps me abreast of everything that’s going on in a particular project – including messages, comments to those messages, file uploads, tasks and deadlines. And since it’s open-source, I am able to build my own theme, with the look and feel of my own website.

Setting up Joe’s project is a snap. I create a new client, Joe’s Skydiving, add joe as a user – which will send him an email with his login credentials, and then I create a new project – Joe’s Skydiving website. I’ll create a welcome message to Joe, orienting him with the PMS and encouraging him to have a look around.

As the project progresses through the design process, the PMS is where comps get uploaded and discussed, and it is where Joe uploads items such as copy or images. Once the design phase is complete, and Joe is head over heels on the design, I create a special message titled – Final Design Sign-off – to which Joe will reply that he approves the design, and we can move on to the development stage. This is an important message, as it’s now ‘in writing’ and any changes to the design from here on out are beyond the scope of the contract – and charged at an hourly rate. Luckily Joe and I went through the contract carefully beforehand, and he understands the consequences of changing the design once development has started.

Keeping the train on track – Step 5: The time tracker.

Tool descriptions:
Harvest – Web based time and expense tracking

Even though I bid Joe’s website on a project basis rather than by the hour, I still want to know how much time I spend on it. That’s where Harvest comes in to play. Joe gets plugged in there too, as a client, and as a project. Within his project I have several tasks already set up, such as – Comps, Comp Revisions, Programming, Project Management, etc. This allows me to track time spent on Joe’s project in great detail. I’ll know how long the design phase took – how much time was spent in meetings – how much time was spent internally on the project. This information has been invaluable in bidding projects accurately.

Harvest also allows me to track any expenses Joe’s project may incur, such as stock photography, or fonts. I also have an internal project set up, so I can track expenses that aren’t directly attributable to Joe. That new Apple Cinema Display I’ve been coveting comes to mind.

I’ve written before about how much I like Harvest, and I’m still hoping that Iridesco comes to the rescue and builds my dream app.

Rolling the dough – Step 6: Get paid.

Tool descriptions:
Quickbooks – Lesser of all evil accounting software

I’m going to say right up front that I hate Quickbooks. It is what it is, and until Iridesco comes to the rescue and builds my dream app, it’ll have to do.

Invoicing and accounting get done through QB, and Joe will be getting a pdf version of the final bill.

And that’s all I really have to say about Quickbooks.

Checking the feedback – Step 7: The follow-up.

Following up with Joe is important, thanking him for his business and checking in to see how happy he’s doing. I’d also like to get a testimonial if he’s willing, so I’ve put a nice reminder to myself in Highrise to send him a thank you note a week or so after the site is launched, as well as a note to contact him in a couple of months to get feedback.


The best part of my job is the design part. The business part I’m not so good at. Thankfully I have a system for that. It may not be the best system or the most efficient – I often find myself wishing there weren’t so many tools to keep updated – but the important thing here is that I have a system. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without it.

0 thoughts on “Web design business tools

  1. Nice summary of tools. You may also want to check out Intervals, a web-based project management tool that includes time tracking and task management. It could help you consolidate some of your productivity tools down into one app.

  2. These are useful tools. Check out DeskAway – a sìmple and powerful social project collaboration service that includes cal, contacts, issue tracking, reports and even a twitter-like \”what are you working on?\” updates.

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