Miles Burke

Startups, digital marketing, small business & more.

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The Best Kept Secret

Ham Radio contesting in the Australian bush

A common complaint when speaking to managers of web teams, is the often large disconnect between being busy, and the goal of all business, being profitable.

I had the same dilemma years ago. We’d start on projects, feel like we’re doing the hours expected and a few small jobs in between — but we never seemed to make the money we’d calculated.

Where was the profit going? The answer — and one of the best kept secrets — is time. Without an indication of how long it actually took to complete a job, you’ll be unaware if you charged enough for the current job. And when a similar job comes long, you risk underquoting the work, if that’s what has happened.

The first golden rule here is track time on large projects.

Secondly, we’re all bombarded every week with those small “it should only take 15 minutes” jobs. Five of those, and we’re talking about an hour and a quarter a week, perhaps more. How are you tracking those? Gut feel? Stop it!

So you can see why I say that the second golden rule here is track time on the smaller tasks as well.

Ideally, every member of your team (or you, if you’re a freelancer) should clock every minute of the day into a system which allows you to quickly grab some useful details:

How many hours spent on this project this week?
How many hours available for this project before reaching budget?
How many interruptions this week, and what did they cost in time?
How long do those frequently repeated tasks actually take to do?
Once you’ve recorded weeks and months worth of this data, it allows you to accurately predict how similar tasks and projects will take in the future. You may now know that it takes four hours to build a widget. Instead of quoting that “gut feel” of two hours like you’ve done previously, you’ll be able to quote the right amount and win back those losses.

Say you charge $100 an hour, and build five of these widgets every month. That’s 60 a year, and if you’re short-changing yourself two hours every time, that’s a whopping $12,000 a year in losses. Find other repetitive tasks that you’ve been under-quoting (and if you’re only now starting to instigate time tracking, I guarantee you will!) — you’ll start kicking yourself you didn’t do this before now.

You can use any number of methods to record the time: paper time sheets, local computer-based software, or web-based tools. There’s a plethora of different tools available to you, and I’ll list a few of them below for your perusal.

Best of luck, and enjoy the challenges of increasing your billable hours per week!

This post first appeared as part of Issue 446 of the SitePoint Tribune, a very popular email newsletter that I am co-editor of. Thanks to SitePoint for allowing me to reproduce the work here.

Manage Your Money

Camping in Manjedal, Western Australia

I’ve received a few reader emails recently, asking me what I think of different online and offline accounting packages, and which one I use.

Well, I’m an old-fashioned type, so I use an offline accounting package. This is primarily because there’s more than one business entity I’m involved with that uses the same software.

However, if you’re starting out, or still deciding on the right accounting package for you, here are some thoughts.

There are plenty of accounting system choices available to you, both traditional offline packages and web-based.

Features and costs vary widely among the options on the market. Any accounting package you consider should allow you to track items such as:

accounts receivable
accounts payable
general ledger
stock or inventory
purchase orders
sales orders

Most systems allow you to send an invoice or receipt as a PDF by email, as well as the old-fashioned “print out and mail” method. Some of the newer versions also feature handy functions, such as time sheets (so you can input your hours directly into the system), mail merge (to enable a basic mailing list), and automated debt collections or reminders.

Speak to other colleagues to find out what they use, and search for reviews and tutorials for these packages online before making any commitment.

It’s also very important to ask your bookkeeper or accountant for their advice prior to making a commitment; they’ll probably be very useful also when it comes time to set up your initial accounts.

In my book, The Principles of Successful Freelancing, I cover some of the popular packages available. Here are six that I look at:

Traditional Software

Quicken have at least five versions of their product, ranging from the ultra-light starter edition, to the premier edition, which integrates with banks, tracks investments, and more.

With 15 different suites, QuickBooks have everything from home finance tracking through to Retail, Accountant, and Payroll editions.

With their four products — FirstEdge through to Premier — MYOB have payroll, time billing, inventory, and even a simple contact database included.

Web-based Software

FreshBooks is both an invoicing and time tracking system, with widgets available for desktop integration, sophisticated reports, and integration with the big-name payment gateways.

Less Accounting
The individuals at Less Accounting make a point of saying that, instead of “some bloated accounting package,” they offer simple small business accounting software.

The most mature of the web-based finance offerings, Saasu rolls out new features regularly and has tight integration with social networks, search engines, and CRM systems. They have all the regular software features as well.

Whichever system you end up choosing, it’s vital that you become familiar with how it works. That way, you’re able to gain a quick snapshot about your business profitability and current standing at any time.

This post first appeared as part of Issue 442 of the SitePoint Tribune, a very popular email newsletter that I am co-editor of. Thanks to SitePoint for allowing me to reproduce the work here.

Keeping Life and Work Apart

Cable Beach, Western Australia

Many of us recently had a short holiday to celebrate Easter. Regardless of how you feel about the religious significance, it’s important to embrace a well-deserved break once in a while.

I’ve written before about managing the tricky balance between work and life. It seems, however, from what I’ve been reading on Twitter and hearing from people, there were still plenty who worked over the Easter weekend.

Sure — some of us may have had strict deadlines to meet; still, it seems that many others enjoy playing the martyr, working the weekend because we’re possibly just badly organized.

A trick I learned a while ago is to have an occasional “time audit.” You may already use a sophisticated time-tracking system for your professional output; however, this is more an audit of how you spend your day every day. The idea here is to write up a table, with the columns denoting the next seven days, and the rows representing various broadly defined activities.

For an example, you may use activity headings such as:

travel to/from office
client meetings
project work
family dinner
web surfing

What I tend to do is write the activity headings in once I’ve actually done them — and remember to keep them broad.

At the end of a week-long trial (and remember, maintain your habits as you usually would spend them), add the rows up, and see where those 168 hours of your life went. Typically, most people still manage to shock themselves — with plenty thinking they work far less than they actually do.

Now, look at your activities, and see which ones really are less important to you, and see how you can change your weeks to incorporate more of the high payoff activities. These would include high profit work, exercise, family time, AND sleeping (very much a high priority).

Make this audit a habit to undertake every six or so months, and you’ll soon tame the time beast!

This post first appeared as part of Issue 442 of the SitePoint Tribune, a very popular email newsletter that I am co-editor of. Thanks to SitePoint for allowing me to reproduce the work here.

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