Last night I attended the monthly London Web meetup to see Andy Budd present ‘7 Tips from 7 Years of Clearleft’
For those who don’t know Andy Budd was a CSS pioneer who started up an agency in Brighton called Clearleft that has been generally seen as a leading light in UX & Web Design over the last ten years.Their clients include Channel 4, ITV, Mozilla & Amnesty.
As the very first book I read on CSS, CSS Mastery, was authored by Andy Budd – I somewhat naively thought that this talk would have a heavy web development angle – i.e. that it would involve strategies of version control, language preferences and project approaches.
This was not the case as Andy confessed early on that he had not written a line of CSS in about 3 years and was now wholly concerned with the business side of Clearleft.
As it happens, the talk was moreso pitched at freelancers who were thinking of starting their own small agency. Here are my notes;
1. Build Your Reputation Network
Andy spoke about how the majority of Clearleft’s work comes via word of mouth and because of this a lot of prospective clients are the right type of clients as they have personally recommended. Networking is part of your job as that is how you might out what people have the same ideals and working practices as you or your company. People believe/trust other people who they meet face to face – much more powerful than “online” connections.
2. Specialise, Specialise, Specialise
You cannot be all thing to all men. Pick a couple of areas you are good at and get great at them. Clearleft chose to be UX experts when many clients had no idea what UX was.. and it took a lot of blood sweat and tears to convince them why they should be bothered with UX. “Why should we pay you to do wireframes when no-one else has even mention it?” If you have conviction in your ideas, stick to them. You may also have to turn away work if it doesn’t fall within your chosen remit – this will be difficult.
3. Keeping Afloat should Not Be Your Biggest Priority
Clearleft try to have at least 6 months runway in front of them at any one time – you should not be always trying to keep the wolf from the door because you then take on projects you don’t really want to take on or know you should really take on – recipe for disaster. Compounded by need to then take on cheap staff to work with bad clients.
4. Quality Counts
When Clearleft started, they were anal about quality – everything had to absolutely perfect before it could be launched -however, they started missing shipping deadlines. Compromise has to be reached. Bad designers are always happy with their latest project. Good designers/agencies are always a little disappointed as they know things could have been slightly better here and there.
5. Hire Good People and Build a Culture
Happy staff produce happy work. Team Activities, Conference/training budgets, Hackdays. Hire people who are smarter than you and get to f**k out of their way while they make great stuff. Andy admits he is now the stupidest person at Clearleft.
6. Don’t be Afraid to Turn Down Clients
You’re only as good as your last project and if your gut instinct tells you this client might not be a good fit for your company that’s probably right. If a project is gong badly, don’t blame your clients, blame yourself – you chose to work with them. Some clients will throw money at you and then use you as a resource. That’s not a collaboration and will not produce good work. When you take on shit projects, you can’t take on the really good one that turns up a week later. Clearleft had to turn town 2-3 career defining projects because they had over-stretched with shit projects.
7. You cannot design a website in 5 days
Clearleft never do “Discovery Phase” for free. Many agencies do – quickly and badly – because they’re doing it for free. Setting yourself up for a fall as you cannot understand a clients content/needs/aims/idiosyncrasies in such a short period. Ideally projects should have a 4-6 week exploratory stage with 2 people who will work with the client intimately to tease out the full requirements of the project before committing to longer stage build.