When you were a kid, you probably wanted to be an astronaut, professional athlete, or princess. Or maybe, like me, you wanted to be a Sientist.
These jobs probably didn’t make the Top 100 on your list:
- Burger flipper
- Sanitation worker
- Project manager
Yet, if there’s one obvious way for freelancers, creatives, and consultants to make more money, it would be effective project management. It’s not glamorous work. It’s rather like picking up nails in the driveway. You can minimize the cost and risk of flat tires and get where you’re going faster.
In this case, “faster” means better profit margins, more repeat business from happy clients, and more referrals. Each client will represent higher lifetime value for your business.
I’m sure you’re riveted to your seat. But hear me out.
How I Accidentally Learned Project Management
Like most consultants, project management is a role — you might even say a “discipline” — that I stumbled into by accident. Several gigs into self-employment, I realized that selling only one copywriting services made finding enough work difficult. People only needed so many websites. By the time I finished writing their new content, I would be back to hustling.
Sure, my expenses were $1200 per month at the time, but a man cannot live on frozen pizzas and old jar of mustard alone.
Even a business bumpkin could see that some clients didn’t know what to do with their new web content once they had it. They would ask the nearest person with some semblance of marketing expertise — namely, me — questions pregnant with opportunity: “Now that we’ve finished our website, how do we get more business with it?” “Do you know a good photographer?”
Why were people asking their lowly copywriter for help growing their businesses and hiring talent?
This is where the old “Fake it ’til you make it” maxim comes into play. I had enough sense to parrot back some stuff I’d read, and soon enough, I learned that any common-sense recommendation can turn into more work.
To be the expert, you only have to be one lesson ahead. In fact, you can sell what you are learning while you are learning it.
That being said, selling an outcome first and then teaching yourself how to produce it can cause mega anxiety.
“What if I make a mistake?”
“What if I can’t deliver results?”
“What if they find out that I finished frankenstein-ing together my branding strategy a mere fifteen minutes before our meeting?”
Business is a lot like middle school. You feel insecure until you realize that all the cool kids are insecure too.
No one is watching. No one is waiting for you to fail. And even if the odd client tries to blow the whistle on your temporary inexperience, you have a humble answer ready: “I’m a fast learner, and my goal is to over-deliver. If you see ways that I can improve, I’m all ears.”
The real risk has less to do with your imposter complex than with trying to handle all fulfillment or production yourself. Trying to do everything yourself is the same as selling your own time. You can inadvertently construct a low ceiling.
To grow, you must relinquish control.
Effective Project Management = Bigger Margins
Hire other people who are better, smarter, and faster than you. Sell their services.
I wore many different hats and became a one-stop shop for my clients’ business growth needs: strategy, design, development, writing, marketing, and hiring. I went to client meetings. I had phone conferences and answered the emails. I kept the designer on task and worked out the timeline with the web developer. I kept the project as a whole on time and on budget.
Because my reputation and my brand were on the line, I became the project manager by default. I was the one who assembled the team and the one responsible for the budget. It was up to me to bring the project to a successful conclusion.
My 1099 contractors gave me quotes for their pieces of the project, and I took home whatever was left over. The more effective the management, the bigger the margin.
You Can’t Afford Not To
I certainly didn’t set out to be the project manager. For the longest time, I would have identified myself as a footloose, fancy-free writer who didn’t exactly miss deadlines but did wait until the very last minute to submit drafts.
But when you’re wanting to make more money and sell less of your own time, you cannot afford — literally or figuratively — a self-indulgent approach to creative work.
Inspiration is a dragon: it will charm you one moment, and burn you the next.
For growth to be sustainable, you need a better process and a deeper roster of talent. You have every incentive to master project management. The faster you finish projects, the more profitable they tend to be.
Your business and strategic partners will appreciate your ability to get things done, your contractors and employees will gain confidence in your ability to pay them on time (and will make you a higher priority as a result), and your bank account, if it were a person, would be down for a casual makeout.
7 Ingredients for Profitable, Effective Project Management
The challenge is reworking your workflow while it’s flowing. (There’s a tongue twister for you.) You have every incentive to improve your project management and every excuse to put it off while you’re in the trenches. If your projects aren’t moving as quickly as you’d like, I’d urge you to rethink your project management right now.
Let’s talk about how to set yourself up for a satisfying journey. Here are seven things every project needs to succeed:
- Clear goal
- Defined budget
- Easy access to assets and resources
- Complete instructions
- Well-defined milestones
- Hard deadlines
- Executive producer
Think back on a project that exploded in your face. Did it lack one of the above? Probably.
This one should be obvious. People are paying you money in exchange for a positive outcome. What is it? What does a home run look like? Write it down, put it in the project brief in Google Docs, and share it with everyone.
To help yourself and your team succeed, define the budget. That way, when someone suggests a new feature for an app, you can say, “We’d better save that for Phase 2. Otherwise, we’ll blow the budget.”
A limited budget helps with quick decision-making. For example, after I hired a Unity programmer on Upwork.com and we started development, he pinged me on Skype, saying he would need twice the number of hours in his original estimate to finish the project. After probing a bit with more questions, I decided that he was telling the truth.
I felt for him: When I was a young freelancer just getting started on my own, I had made the same mistake. But despite my inexperience, I could foresee that asking the client to pay, quite literally, for my mistake can sour the relationship.
I told my Unity guy that there simply wasn’t any more money in the budget, which was true. It was up to him to decide what he thought was the right thing to do: quit the project or finish it for the original price that he quoted me. He decided to finish the project.
Setting a budget will prevent you from overcomplicating a project (and potentially hurting your business) because you feel bad: “Oh, he’s working twice as long, so he should get paid twice as much.” Don’t get me wrong: I believe empathy is important, and I often give my contractors bonuses. But when the projected cost of a deliverable doubles, the ROI may not justify the upfront investment. Canceling the project altogether may be the smartest move.
A budget can thus help you make more prudent, dispassionate decisions.
You also need to empower your team by giving them all the necessary assets and resources they need to do the job: ideas, plans, documentation, log-in credentials, time, files, software, tools, laptops, equipment, money, training, lines of communication, and decisions.
The longer they have to wait for this logo file or that username and password, the longer the project drags on. The longer the project drags on, the less profitable it is for everyone involved, including the client.
I have learned that it is better to insult someone’s intelligence than to make assumptions. If you have a certain way you want things done, then you’d better give your people step-by-step, “I’m treating you like an imbecile” instructions.
+ Onboarding docs explaining your process in tedious detail are your friend.
+ Links to blog posts, forum discussions, and documentation are your friend.
+ Comprehensive project briefs are your friend.
+ Screencapture videos are your friend.
+ GDocs is your friend.
Increasing margin for error by assuming your team understands what needs to happen and how? Not your friend.
I admit it: I used to procrastinate. I was underemployed and I had tons of free time. Yet, I’d still wait until the last minute to ship.
I was stupid, and it caused needless stress, and I changed.
But you know what? I still work with smart, talented people who procrastinate. They underestimate the time that certain projects and tasks require. They overestimate their knowledge, skill, and efficiency.
They shoot off an email the night before a big deadline with what what I call a “smokescreen question.” A smokescreen question is a stall tactic. It creates the impression of progress: “I must be working on the project; otherwise, how could I ask this really important question?” But upon closer inspection, the question-as-excuse is rather flimsy. In fact, the project brief probably answered the question weeks ago. In asking the question, your frantic subcontractor hasn’t proven his unwavering commitment to the project. However, he did confirm that he gave no attention whatsoever to the project until he sent that very important email with that very important question at the very last moment.
The best way to avoid smokescreen questions and potential delays is to break up a project into smaller milestones.
Pick dates, assign specific deliverables to each one, and get verbal commitments from your subcontractors:
“Yo, Design Genius, I want three initial logo concepts by end of business on Wednesday. Can you commit to that?”
“Yo, Design Maestro, I want the chosen concept in three color treatments by end of business the following Tuesday. Can you commit to that?”
“Yo, Design Sensei, I want the first round of revisions for the chosen concept in the chosen palette, by the Monday after that. Can you commit to that?”
If Design Genius misses the Wednesday EOB cut-off, then you send him the ol’ How’s it coming? email. If he misses the next delivery date, then you have a kind but firm conversation. If he still comes in late, you fire him.
Too much is riding on predictable turnarounds for you to waste time on third, fourth, and fifth chances. After a certain point, accepting excuses is being stupid. You’re in business to make money, not friends. And besides, do you want friends who don’t keep their word and make you look bad? Your best team members will become friends because they have integrity.
Always trust people to deliver on time, on budget. Then, verify. Milestones are a series of tests to prove professionalism. If a subcontractor displays habitual lateness, fire him. Hire slowly, and fire quickly.
Perfect, unfinished projects don’t make you or your clients money. But finished, imperfect, profitable projects can buy you a trip to Scotland or pay off your debt. Perfect is the enemy of done.
Any project without deadlines is a train without rails. You can’t get where you’re going without clear parameters to keep everyone budget time and prioritize tasks.
Effective project management requires strong leadership. Your team needs you to call the shots. Your projects aren’t democracies on the client side or on the creative side.
If design by committee hasn’t ruined one of your projects yet, just wait. If it has, then you know too many cooks in the kitchen is a surefire way to spoil the meal.
So it’s up to you to set clear expectations with the client: “I want one decision-maker and one point of contact.”
How they manage the decision-making process behind closed doors is up to them. But you’re not going to participate in the comedy of errors that is asking other people, “What do you think?”
My brother-in-law’s younger sister’s roommate thought the colors didn’t pop.
Did she now? People who have no business with your business will be happy to offer up their opinions like so many turds on bone china.
Ask for too many opinions, and you’ll also get these special prizes:
- Contradictory change requests
- Incessant delays
- Endless iterations
- Marathon meetings and conference calls
If you were going in for open-heart surgery, you’d probably hand the scalpel to the gal with ten years of hands-on education. I’m the gal. Pardon me if I ignore what the roommate thought and kindly ask that you refrain from asking for outside opinions in the future.
So yeah, Executive Producer. One person in charge. One person calling the shots. One person to blame when things go wrong. One person to clean up the mess. One person who ensures that design by committee doesn’t sink the project in a stinking mudhole of mediocrity.
Phew. Glad that’s over.
A Parting Thought
Professionalism is a two-way street. You must hold yourself to the same standards that you set for your team.
Respond quickly to their needs. Take care of them. Be fair to them. If you make mistakes, admit them openly and freely before making things right.
Assemble a fantastic team, and you can sell other people’s time, expertise, and skills. Honor and serve your team, and they’ll show their appreciation by making your projects their top priority and always giving you more than you paid for.
Do you want to build a profitable business you love?
Duh. Pony up that email address, and you can learn from my failures. You can laugh at my mistakes. You can envy my success at croquet, slow running, and modest bank accounts. Let’s make good money and leave the world better than we found it.
No-nonsense business advice for content writers and freelancers. Served warm with a side of dad jokes.