Monthly round-up: February 2016

February has been a really good month, and as I’m terrible at recording achievements I’ve decided to try to start keeping much better track of what I’ve been up to. This has the added benefit that I can’t always write up a case study for my projects for quite some time, or I don’t cover everything I do, so certain things tend to get lost along the way. There were big changes this month, both in terms of project focus and life, so let’s have a look at the headlines.

The big move!

After an excruciating year on several fronts, the start of February finally, finally heralded the move that had been hanging over me and messing up most of my plans for the latter half of 2015. I can’t begin to explain what a huge weight this was, both personally and professionally, and it is so great to be done with it. I’m now in Suffolk, very close to my ‘proper’ office but most importantly with a great home office that’s surrounded by quiet rather than a building site – hooray!

As I’d tried to plan all along, I took quite a bit of time off to coordinate the packing and logistics, plus a good chunk after move day to be able to sort the house out properly. There was a lot of painting, pressure washing, steam cleaning, drilling, hammering, and box management. There’s still yet more smashing and painting and gardening to do, but those will have to wait for a while.

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This is not a building site.

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Doing good

Due to the huge unknowns of the move timelines, I’d (mostly) cleared my schedule at the start of the year, which gave me some nice freedom amongst the cardboard boxes and paint to have spontaneous chats and do some immediate work that I don’t always otherwise get to. I used this ‘in-between’ time to put into action one of the things that I’d decided on at the start of the year – a bank of time for doing good.

One of the key areas for growing a business is establishing pricing structures for work, and three years in I feel pretty happy with the level that we’re at on this front. We’re less pricey than most agencies (because of the lack of overheads), but at a level where the cost is representative of the good work, though being told “the value is good :)” by clients is always nice! Clients are happy, we’re happy.

However, one thing that I have struggled a bit with is how to be able to contribute to smaller projects. A lot of projects have come my way that I’d have loved to have got on board with but they simply can’t afford standard rates – usually because they’re some kind of very early start-up or charity. A day or two’s consultancy can rapidly eat up a good chunk of their budget. I typically offer a charity discount, but even between charities there’s a very big difference between budgets for some of the larger organisations with major backers and more local, tiny causes. When you get into variable pricing you’re rapidly faced with the ethical quandary of whether it’s right to charge some people more just because they’re a large corporate, and from a business perspective you’re then faced with a potential ‘loss’ of taking on a small project over a more lucrative one. It’s all a bit messy, but I knew that I didn’t want to end up in a place where I could only work with bigger companies.

What I decided to trial this year was the concept of a bank of limited time available at a heavily reduced rate. There’s a maximum of five days available per cause per year (so it doesn’t get eaten up by one thing), and I’m aiming to spread the time throughout the year rather than chucking it all at the first things that come along. The problem of ‘what makes you worthy?‘ remains, as I’m not offering this to everyone, but I actually see it more as investing in, or donating to causes that I personally really believe in rather than having generic selection criteria or applicants. It’s very case by case, and so far seems to be working well.

Teaching at West Thames College

The first of these was to become involved with Together We Create, “a fab little charity that runs award-winning creative workshops for young people in schools and community settings across London“, who were putting together their Tech Talk programme. I’ve been involved with universities and schools in the past, and I really wanted to get involved with this because I’ve experienced first-hand what it’s like to do a web course with almost no industry relevance.

The vision was to gather some tech professionals who would then run a series of individual workshops for Sixth Formers at West Thames College in order to introduce them to the process of product design – I was to do the Scoping and Prototyping sessions. A full write-up is needed here because I have so much to say about the whole experience, but needless to say both the students and TWC team were brilliant, and I was so thrilled to get the feedback this week and to see what people had remembered.

A snippet of feedback provided by one of the students at West Thames College
A snippet of feedback provided by one of the students at West Thames College

Start-up consultancy

I really love being able to work with start-ups – very often the help that is needed aligns really well with what I can offer, with a mix of technical, strategic, and user thinking.

Last year I was approached by a local businessman who works in the recruitment sector and who was interested in finding local people to work with. This really resonated with me, as I’d absolutely love it if there could be a stronger digital economy in East Anglia. He had two digital products that he was hoping to build, one slightly more straightforward than the other, and it was great to hear that he’d made a good start on the first when he got back in touch this month. Because the small product is quite simplistic and is already underway the founder was really looking for a quick independent sense check, and pointers for what they should do better when they moved on to the larger product. I therefore spent a bit of time becoming familiar with the project materials, the code within their repos, and met with the founder and CTO in order to provide some feedback.

I was also really pleased when Bec Evans, who I’d done some work with in the past on her Write-Track project got back in touch. Her and her partner had spent the year changing things up strategically and had some new plans for the product platform, and again wanted someone to provide them with some support and guidance. We’ve agreed to catch up on a weekly basis so that I can dip in and out when needed.

Regular bookings

One of the highlights of my month is always heading down to Godalming to work with with my travel client, Hotelplan. Spanning brands like Inghams, Ski Total, Esprit Ski and Santa’s Lapland (amongst other more summer-led ones), as you can imagine it’s quite busy being in the middle of the ski season! This month we have been working on some internal process improvements, and it was brilliant to see the new system being talked through by their new PM, as well as hearing that two major foundational web projects have been launched. There’s lots in the pipeline for them this year, and I can’t wait to see what we can get done.

Other notable things

Schedules rarely align, but this month I was pleased to be able to get to Colchester Digital and to catch up with organiser Dean in real life rather than on Twitter. I also finished off my course of rollerblading lessons (another thing that needs to be written about properly), and spent a lovely afternoon in London with a friend giving some advice around career progression towards transformation-focused roles. In addition I dusted off the source code of a small Rails project that I’ve been creating for too long (and getting stuck horribly on the visual aspects) – © 2014 in the footer, ouch. That’s another thing that needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Onwards towards April…

Last week I kicked off a new project with my old friends at the ODI. Alongside them and two other development parties I’m working on a project for Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board), who fund and support science and technology innovations that will grow the UK economy. There’s a user research piece so I’m currently planning interviews and workshops, as well as a focus on the data and technical possibilities, plus making sure that everything runs smoothly in terms of the management process and maintenance. My favourite mix. It’s going to run into April, and is sure to keep me on my toes.

Does any of this work remind you of things you’re currently wrestling with or have coming up? There’s now limited availability towards the end of April and we’re booking into May, so please get in touch if you’d like to explore whether we could help with what you’re trying to do. I’d love to hear from you.

Read more from the blog

Back in time:
Undertaking website reviews

Forward in time:
Indirectly listening to your audiences

Posted by Sally Lait

Sally is the lead consultant and founder of Records Sound the Same, helping people with digital transformation. She's also a speaker, coder, gamer, author, and jasmine tea fiend.