Getting Past Roadblocks: Keeping Your Digital Agency Moving at Top Speed

We all know the feeling: you’re driving down the highway, top down, wind in your hair, not a care in the world. Suddenly, you see a string of brake lights up ahead. Traffic comes to a dead stop, then moves forward at a slow crawl—and whether you reach your destination is now entirely dependent on someone else.

As you’re ramping up your web agency, you’ll often feel like you’re zipping along at top speed. But sometimes you’ll come to a screeching halt as your process gets complicated, your clients lose focus, or your hosting crashes one of your websites.

SuperFriendly Founder Dan Mall has a unique perspective on keeping projects running smoothly. He is the sole employee of his agency, assembling a custom team of “superfriends” for every project. We asked how he keeps projects running smoothly without the consistency of an established team, and his advice is great for agencies of any size.

Read on to learn about four common types of roadblocks and project management tips for getting through them.

#1 The Process That Won’t Progress

It’s easy to get bogged down in the complicated process of running your own business. Sometimes every next step seems to depend on three other steps, which are tied to three other steps. You may find yourself running out of momentum, not sure what needs to happen next and in what order.

Roadblocks related to organization and project management can be solved with good tools and buy-in from everyone on the team on what process to follow. Dan makes sure everyone is on the same page before each team starts a project: “I do one-on-ones with everyone on my project team to know what drives them. I ask them what they think will be good for the client as well as what personal goals they have on the project so that we can achieve both. If we’re doing something great for the clients and people are accomplishing something near and dear to them, I can’t think of a better outcome,” he says.

Before you start handling client work, it’s a good idea to get a general overview of the process you’ll use for every client. Smashing Magazine’s Luke Reimer has a good  web design process outline here. In general, your process will look something like:

  • Planning

  • Kickoff meeting

  • Discovery process

  • Concept and wireframing

  • Site build

  • Launch

  • Feedback

  • Billing

  • Support

As you lay out the process, you may identify bottlenecks. Try using the “Five Whys” process to get to the root cause of the bottleneck to keep your work progressing smoothly.

As you refine the web project management process, make sure you:

Ruthlessly prioritize

As the founder of your digital agency, you’re the business’s most important asset.  Carefully consider which of your efforts contribute most to a project’s momentum and success. Save your time for those, and don’t be afraid to drop less crucial tasks. If a task isn’t your strong point, consider delegating, automating, or dropping it.

Don’t succumb to perfectionism

You won’t be able to do everything perfectly, and you won’t always get your way. Place constraints on how long you take to develop an idea or complete a project and keep your emotions out of it. While it’s important to deliver projects you’re proud of, knowing when to let go and wrap things up will do wonders for your business—and client relationships.

Hire help when needed

You’ll have enough to think about day to day as you build your agency. Even if it’s just an app, TaskRabbit, or Odesk freelancer, hire help for the tasks that are either not your strong suit or not a good use of your time.


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#2 The Client That Never Responds

Sometimes the person slowing things down is the one who should be most invested in keeping the project on target. Clients can be slow to deliver assets or return communication, which leaves you sitting on your hands. In some ways, it makes sense: they’re your first priority, but you’re most likely not at the top of their list. You’ve done all of the normal outreach - reminder emails, follow-up calls, the works.  To help your clients help you, here are a few more tactics for lighting the fire.

Set up regular check-ins

Your project is just one of many in your client’s world. Even if they want it done, they may not take time to do the work that’s needed unless you get them to commit. Set up weekly meetings and reconfirm the morning of if needed. Give them action items after each one and regularly check in on progress.

Make it incredibly easy to act on to-dos

Never underestimate the power of simple next steps to keep your client moving forward. Share meeting notes with clear to-dos and deadlines, links to all relevant documents, and any information they’d otherwise have to look up to act upon. Break tasks down to their simplest steps so your client has an easy path to success.

Use project management tools to hold everyone accountable

Dan says, “I think good project management is about helping clients see the future. I often ask my producers and project managers to maintain some sort of project hub and a living project plan that gives some insight into what’s coming up.”

Tools like Teamwork or Basecamp provide a system for making requests, hitting milestones, and sharing project files. A good project hub can keep you on track too—the worst is finding out the obstacle you were stressing about was actually you all along.

Of course, it’s important that your project management tools are a good fit for your client. Dan says, “Regarding tools, my teams are pretty flexible to what works best for any given client. We don’t enforce any one in particular; what good is a well-oiled Basecamp project if your client sticks to email? We try to find out what best suits the client’s culture and pick a project management tool that most naturally fits into that.”

Bill by milestone to keep everyone invested

Most successful creatives find that charging a percentage of the project cost up front protects them from doing unpaid work. You can extend this protection by deciding on milestones with your client, then breaking the payments into chunks. For general website builds, a milestone billing model may look something like this:

  • 50% downpayment of total project cost to get started

  • 25% due when beta site is built and ready for content entry

  • 25% due before launch

Projects that have more complex functionality requirements or custom deliverables may be broken down into additional milestones. Billing by milestone is a smart practice financially and psychologically—you’ll get paid more reliably and they’ll have already paid a significant portion of the project cost by the time you finish.

Remind them of progress made—and upcoming goals

Depending on the project, you may be able to show measurable improvement before the end of the project. Remind the client of progress since the last phase or milestone and get them to share whether they agree.

If you can, help them set goals they can get excited about. Plan to show off their new website at SXSW, or launch an online campaign in time for the holidays. Having a deadline they can’t move themselves will help keep things on track.

Peel back the layers

Your roadblock might be that they don’t like the way things are going, but aren’t sure how to tell you. Scheduling a client feedback meeting that invites straight-forward feedback about the project, process and deliverables thus far. Ask your client what you’ve been doing right, and what they wish you’d do better. Often an honest conversation can help to strengthen your relationship and reignite the project fire.

Call in the big guns

As a last resort, you may need to remind your clients of their obligations under your contract. Dan says, “When clients don’t respond, I call my lawyer. That usually does the trick.”

But no matter what you do, some clients’ decisions are out of your control.  They may have gotten excited about the project and their boss reprioritized. Or they want more than they can afford. Or someone in house fixed a few things and it’s “ok for now”. Sometimes you may have to back off gracefully and revisit the project later.

If you’ve decided to give the client some space, refocus your time on other prospects and clients. Hopefully your next client won’t be...

#3 The Client That Never Stops Responding

Everyone makes the same mistake starting out. They either take on a client that’s too demanding, or don’t charge up front and the project never ends. If one client is hogging your resources—especially without paying extra—that’s a roadblock too. You’ll have to learn to identify the difficult clients, set boundaries, and end a project before it has a negative impact on your budget. You’re much more likely to avoid this type of client, though, if you:

Define scope clearly from day one

Explicitly communicate the scope and put the rest under additional support hours the client can pay for after launch. “My sales process is intentionally long so that I can make sure that the client understands the terms of our agreement and how we’ll be doing work together,” Dan says.

Set boundaries and stick to them

This might mean not taking calls after a certain time, or agreeing to a limited number of revisions to wireframes and comps before starting development. Dan says, “I spent a lot of time with my lawyer crafting a solid Service Agreement that specifies what the client will be getting, so the terms are pretty clear what’s in scope and out of scope.”

Don’t negotiate on price, negotiate on scope

If you let a client talk you down on price, you’re giving them clear signals that you can’t hold your ground. Don’t be surprised when you’re asked to do “one last change” a million times. If you feel like you’ll lose a deal to price, decrease the scope of work or break the project into two distinct phases—where you get paid in full at the end of each.

#4 Tech That’s a Wreck

Working with clients means being opinionated on what technology to use. You can’t do your best development work unless you can rely on the design tools, development workflow, hosting, and website management tools you’re using to deliver your final product. However, you’ll encounter clients who also have opinions—they use a custom CMS, they only want to pay $3 for hosting, or they like to use Word for page layouts.

Help your clients make good decisions on website technology

If you have a good client, you’ll want to develop a long-term relationship. This means being their partner, helping them make decisions that will affect their website and business down the road. Get involved in the technology conversation as early as possible, offering them recommendations of your favorite hosting and infrastructure options and weighing in on what will provide them with the best total cost of ownership. A low price tag now often means headaches and hefty bills later—don’t be afraid to share your opinion if it will help them view you as a trusted partner.

Give them ongoing performance and support

Too often, agencies hand over a web project just to watch it lose its luster once it changes hands. Whether the result of scarce resources, inexperienced developers, or poor workflow, a neglected website can lead to big security vulnerabilities, outdated modules or plugins, and slowed performance.

Agencies can keep a website project moving—and the revenue streaming—after launch. Choose development and hosting technology that allows you to tune performance, make security updates, and build out cool new features for your clients on a support agreement. You’ll make solid recurring revenue and your client won’t have to worry about maintaining a site on their own.

Getting Your Momentum Back

When you start to see brake lights on the highway to building your digital agency, don’t let road rage take over. Whether the problem is a convoluted process, a slow-to-respond or overly-intrusive client, or inadequate technology, you can be proactive and take steps to get the process moving. With a little focused effort, you’ll be feeling the wind in your hair again in no time.

Learn how Pantheon’s workflow can eliminate roadblocks. Check out our recordedwebinar, Automating Your Team’s Workflow with Pantheon.

Topics Agencies, Digital Agencies, Education, Agency Partners

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