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Non-Disclosure Agreements

“We need you to sign our NDA before we can discuss the project with you.”

From time to time a potential client will say this or something like it. I get it, they want to protect their intellectual property from the competition or the general public. This is an understandable concern, and we don’t take our client’s concerns lightly. We work with some startups, and they seem to be more sensitive than most companies. Larger companies are oftern trying to protect something they’ve already invested a lot of time and effort into. However, NDAs are not a great tool for protecting information. Mark Suster covered this in 2009, saying…

You shouldn’t worry about NDAs because they’re mostly unenforceable or unprovable anyways.

No matter the reasoning for deciding to sign an NDA, being careless about signing them can lead to trouble, so we’ve decided to simplify the process. Here’s the how and why.

Most NDAs Are Too Complicated

The problem is no two NDAs are the same. Different attorneys put emphasis on different things, or use slightly different language to describe similar things. If you sign every NDA someone asks you to it can get messy real fast.

At Nine Labs if we sign an NDA for the courtship phase we use this simple one. Here’s the entire thing:

Nine Labs hereby agrees upon receipt of materials from __________________ (“Client”), which contain information of a confidential and proprietary nature, to make all reasonable efforts to prevent unauthorized disclosure, copying or publication of concerned information and to protect it as its own. Without limiting the generality of the foregoing, Nine Labs agrees to take such actions as may be reasonable to limit disclosure by advisers, associates and/or co-workers who may gain access to the concerned information.

Nine Labs agrees to use the information solely for evaluation of the project concerned and for no other purpose without the prior written permission of Client.

Nine Labs shall not be held responsible for information already in the public domain, information which becomes public domain through no action or omission of Nine Labs, or information obtained legally from a third party.

This non-disclosure agreement ends one (1) year after date of signature.

That’s it. No craziness. Simple enough that a layman can read and understand it.

Reviewing Legal Documents Is Expensive

Signing different NDAs with different bits of language simply isn’t practical for a small team without in-house counsel. We’d have pay our attorney to read, interpret, and advise us on each one so we know what we’re signing. 99 times of 100 that’s not a justifiable cost.

Our Master Services Agreement Covers it Anyway

Our Master Services Agreement has robust language surrounding the issues of IP Assignment, non-disclosure, etc., so having multiple agreements which address the same issues is difficult for either side to enforce legally, should that become necessary.

We’ve made a decision to use our Simple NDA for the courtship phase, and let our MSA govern these issues once we actually decide to work together.

It’s Also About Focus

We don’t want to spend out time talking to attorneys. It’s nauseating and costs too much (sorry, Marc). Keeping the NDA process clean and simple allows us to spend more time doing what we’re good at, and what we love.

Next time you get an NDA request, see if you can simplify the process. You’ll be glad you did.

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Swim Lanes

Two meters is much narrower than you think. Maybe it’s fine if you’re just lounging around. But if you’re trying to accomplish something, like, say, winning 22 gold medals, it’s a pretty small space to work in. There’s definitely no room for distractions.

Distractions are Toxic

According to Gloria Mark, a leader in interruption science, “once distracted, a worker takes nearly a half-hour to resume the original task”. There are numerous articles on how we’re actually not wired for multitasking, and how distractions kill productivity. We claim to know these things in the modern workplace, yet we fall into the same old habits of distracting ourselves and each other on a near daily basis.

This leads me to one of our core maxims at Nine Labs:

Don’t ask a question you can find the answer to in less than 20 minutes.

The idea is simple, if you can find the answer to your question in less time than it would take to distract someone else and for them to get back on task, don’t distract your team mate with the question. Now back to the swimming pool.

Whether it’s visual design or company strategy, everyone on the team has a specific range of skills and does their best work when they are allowed to focus on performing in that arena. Performance of each of these skills is necessary for the success of a project, and ultimately, the success of the business. These are the swim lanes defined for each team member. Everyone on the team should do their best to stay in their lane and – perhaps more importantly – not drag someone else out of theirs.

Being in your swim lane as staying is a state of flow; focused and productive. Getting out of your lane leaves you blurry and ineffective.

Easier vs. Better

While it might feel easier to ask a team mate a simple question about a project, if the answer lies somewhere in Basecamp, HipChat, or a Google Doc, go find it there. Chances are it will just take a few minutes to find it, you’ll know where the answer is, and you won’t have pulled a team mate from their swim lane.

“But isn’t having the ability to ask for help part of the benefit of being on a team?”

Sure it is. Here are a few tips to try (they work for us):

  1. Have a time on the schedule for open team discussion and collaboration. This can be as frequent as you like. Find a rhythm that works for your team.
  2. Create clear signals for when it is and isn’t okay to inturrupt you. For us, it’s having your headphones in. Status messages are also good (that’s why all the chat apps have them). Set your status to ‘Do not Disturb’ when you need to focus. Conversely, you have to respect these signals when you see them and not distract your team mate.
  3. Have a bat signal, use it sparingly. Create a clear structure for what constitutes an emergency and how to communicate that to your team. Don’t abuse it, though. If you cry wolf too much your team won’t take you seriously when you do need help.

What if I can’t find the answer in 20 minutes?

This is bound to happen, so your team should have a plan for what to do when it does.

  1. Poke your head up and see if the person who has the answer is readily available.
  2. Ask if they have a moment to help (this is super-important).
  3. If they say yes, ask the question as accurately and concisely as possible (see: how to ask good questions).
  4. If they don’t know and need to get back to you, unless it’s urgent, post it in your project management system and tag a time to follow up.

Respect People’s Time

There’s a lot more to being an effective team than just getting your own work done. A lot of it is allowing other people to get their work done, too. This could mean overcoming your reflexive tendency to ask for help. It’s counter-intuitive. It’s hard at first. But after putting some structure around how and when you ask questions, you’ll see the team’s performance increase in short order.

So next time you think of asking a team mate something simple, first ask yourself “Can I figure this out?”. You probably can, and that’s better for everyone.

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Deposits

At Nine Labs, we have a standard Master Services Agreement which all our clients sign before we begin work. Every once in a while a potential client comes along who wants to change the terms to suit their needs.

A common issue is the deposit.

We take a deposit on every project regardless of size. On anything under $10,000 (which is rare) we request the full budget up front (more on this later).

Calculating the Deposit is a pretty simple process with slight variations based on how the project is setup.

Value Based Projects

We split the total project budget into three pieces: 50% up front, 25% at the projected midway point of the project (determined by date, not deliverables), and the final 25% at the projected end of the project (again, determined by date). For projects over $100,000 we’ll sometimes change this to 30/30/30/10 depending on the exact deliverables and scope of the project.

Retainer Arrangements

When it’s a retainer relationship, we take the first month’s retainer as the deposit and immediately send the invoice for the 2nd month on Net 15 terms so that the payment arrives ahead of the month for which it’s due.

Deferred Payment

Sometimes a client will ask to defer payment on the deposit citing Net 30 terms or some other reason, and usually that reason makes complete sense to them. In this case we tell them we’re happy to wait for the check to arrive, but we won’t begin work until it does.

Partial Payment

A cousin of the deferred payment, taking part the money now and the other part in 30 days puts you in the same boat as waiting for all of it. In the case, we tell them that we’ll just wait until the full deposit has arrived before we begin work.

Small Budget Projects

Occasionally a really cool project with a very small budget (e.g. under $10,000) comes along. This might be a local indie shop, a non-profit, or something else that really gets the team excited. If the team really wants to do the work we’ll take these projects on and generally try to complete them in one or two sprints. In these cases we request payment in full before the project begins.

The main reason is that the administrative costs of getting a project up and running alone can run several hundred dollars, and paying the team for work on a single sprint can easily get into the low four figures. We don’t want to be held up from making progress on things while we wait for another payment from the client. Getting the entire budget up front eliminates these bottlenecks and allows us to get to work.

Beginning work without payment is dangerous.

From a cashflow perspective, not having money in the bank to pay your team puts you in a very bad position. By not taking a deposit, you’re using budget from previous projects to pay for the work product of the current one. That puts you in a perpetual cycle of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”, and, trust me, that’s a downward spiral you don’t want to ride. What if the current client doesn’t pay (for whatever reason)? You’ve delivered a work product and paid your team, and are left holding the debt. Some might say that’s the risk of running a business. I say mitigating risk (especially financial) is being smart about how you run your business.

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User Feedback and Product Design

Occasionally people invite me to talk at their conferences, workshops, etc (you can invite me, too). After a recent talk at ATDC, one of the attendees sent this email asking about user feedback.

What are your thoughts on how much user feedback/input should be involved in product UX design and at what point should you seek the feedback? So for example, should the functionality and “polish” be 50% there or 95% there before putting it in front of users or somewhere in between? We want to start collecting user feedback in an alpha release soon, but also don’t want to ruin our first impressions from users until it’s more polished. It seems like a balancing act of timing.

This is a somewhat common question in conversations I have, so I figured it’s a good idea to answer it here.

How much user feedback should be involved in product design?

The easy answer is “as much as possible”, but that’s not the whole picture. You can go get feedback on your product from dozens of people tomorrow. Just walk out on the street and start asking people questions. You have to be careful, though, and not just because you might get pepper sprayed.

You have to ask the right people.

Before you ask anyone a question about the thing you’re building you have to make sure they are the target person your product is for. It’s an extreme example, but you wouldn’t ask a 23 year woman about a product for 67 year old men. She isn’t who the product is for, so why would she have any valuable feedback to give?!

If you don’t know who you’re designing for, you’re doomed to fail from the start. Start by defining your target market, then define personas within that market who define and fit the profile of your ideal customer. Once you’ve done that you can go find people in the real world who fit that description. There are a handful of ways to find them, most of which are pretty easy and low cost.

Now back to the question…

The sooner you get an initial round of user feedback the better. Just be careful not to ask people about too many things at once. Keep your research very focused. You can ask about the overall aesthetic of the product, OR ask about a specific workflow or feature, but don’t ask people too much or the answers will start to skew.

About First Impressions

While it’s true that you can’t ever get them back, you can’t allow yourself to think that one handful of people’s first impressions will set the reputation of your product for life. Literally every product you use today started as a crappy drawing on a napkin, paper prototype, or sketch on a whiteboard. Then someone took a photo and started iterating. Slowly the product evolved into the thing you’re using today. Having doubts? Have a look at how some popular websites looked at launch.

Ask Early. Ask Often. Vary Your Audience.

Bottom line, ask (the right) people about what you’re building as soon as you can. Then get them to come back in a few weeks once you’ve made some progress and ask them how it works. This is user-centered design and it’s proven to work well in a variety of environments.

Don’t ask the same people over and over and over! Get different groups of people together (make sure they represent your target market and defined personas) as you build. The more people you can show your product to as you build it, and make them a part of the design process, the more chance you’ll have at building a loyal audience for the product once it actually launches.

Happy user testing!

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A Place to Call Home

Since moving back to Atlanta in 2008 I’ve seen the web / tech / creative community landscape change quite a bit. There are undoubtedly more groups, meetups, events, and activity now. We’re growing as a community, and with growth come growing pains.

Over that time I’ve personally organized or helped organize over 200 events (that’s 3 events per month on average). Some might say I’m more event organizer than web professional, but we’re not here to talk about which hat I’m wearing.

The Good-ole Days

For a long time the AWDG was fortunate enough to have access to a large room at the Portfolio Center. It was easy to get to, there was ample parking, seating for 200 people, projector, audio, a good vibe, and it was close to a good variety of places to have a post-event cocktail with friends. During this time the group grew rapidly and the community became tighter. Having a consistent place to meet gave stability to the group. It was a great arrangement. But all good things come to an end. Enrollment at the school increased and they needed the space for their core business; teaching students.

Bouncing Around

Since AWDG left the Portfolio Center we’ve been using a variety of spaces. MailChimpHypepotamus, Ogilvy & Mather, Strongbox West, Georgia Tech, and a few others have all been gracious hosts. While these companies and organizations are all great friends to the group and a tremendous asset to the community, they each have unique constraints which make it difficult to “call them home”. As an example, it would be awkward to have someone from Campaign Monitor speak at MailChimp, or to hold an event about running your own agency at Ogilvy & Mather. You get the idea.

What about Atlanta Tech Village, you ask? They aren’t on this list for one simple reason. They’ve never hosted an AWDG event. It’s not that we haven’t tried, but ATV is startup focused. AWDG is not. Consequently their schedule is full of their own events and they don’t have space on the calendar for ours. I don’t fault them, they are focused on one constituency and serving them well. I appreciate the fortitude and rigor it takes to maintain that type of focus. ATV is for a different crowd and that’s cool with me. This brings me to our first obstacle…

Availability

Mostly, each organization has a mission which — while overlapping with — doesn’t perfectly align with that of the AWDG. Our use of their space will always be secondary to their needs for the space, and rightly so. It’s their space. They can use it however they like. No hard feelings. This can make scheduling difficult as we can’t predict when each space will be available.

But what about all the great ballrooms, event centers and similar spots around town? Glad you asked. That brings up my next point.

Cost

While many of the spaces mentioned above can be free, some are not. The economics of this are clear (or should be), so no need to dwell on that topic other than to say cost certainty is important to any organization, especially one which is run on razor thin margins. We can’t afford to spend thousands to rent an event space. Most of our events have between 60 and 150 attendees paying $10 each. We have to buy food and often pay for travel and hotel expenses for the speakers. Do the math.

“But there are free options”, you say. Yes. They also have their challenges.

Parking and Accessibility

We’ve looked at meeting rooms, empty office space, small theaters, etc. They all suffer from one of two things. Not enough parking or they’re way off the beaten path. Since the people who attend our events work all over the Atlanta area we need a location that is both central and easy to get to from the widest variety of places. Remember, these people have day jobs. Most our events start at 6:30, so people have to fight legendary Atlanta traffic to get there. Too much time spent on the road will keep people from attending.

Amenities

Even if a space is available, affordable, and easy to get to we have to consider if all the stuff we need will be there. Do they have enough seating? Is there a projector, podium, and audio in place? Is there a restaurant nearby that can provide catering? For that matter, are there tables, ice, coolers, and such available to hold the food when it arrives? What is the proximity to a post-event watering hole?

That’s a lot of unknowns to deal with for each and every event. Especially when you host as many as we do. When you look at cost, availability, location, and amenities it becomes very difficult to find a good space. I’m currently paying an assistant several hundred dollars a month to deal with finding venues and coordinating all the ancillary needs for events. It’s too much and it’s not sustainable.

What’s a guy to do?

Scratch your own itch, right? Instead of continuing to struggle with this problem we decided to try an solve it. The solution? Our own space. Not only would AWDG benefit, but all the other related meetups and groups would too. There are over 40 web, tech, and creative groups in Atlanta. I’ve talked to many of their leaders and organizers. We all suffer the from same issue. A new space all our groups could use would solve it. Not only that, we’d be able to hold a great number of events and help the community grow even larger and more robust.

We we’re looking at space in Midtown and West Midtown. There are a handful of interesting conversations taking place. It looks like this is going to happen, and soon.

We want to create a space that can seat 150 people with a small stage, big screen, clear sound, and fast wifi. Somewhere easy to get to, walking distance to coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and nightlife; and where parking will never be a problem.

If you’d like to participate in any way get on the email list. We’ll keep you posted as things develop.

 

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8 Days

This will be quick. Please read it all.

I’ve been hosting and managing the Atlanta Web Design Group for nearly 5 years. A lot has happened in that time.

  1. It’s grown from 200 people to nearly 3000. Sadly, there’s no good way for you to connect with each other online.
  2. We’ve had a great number of events full of fantastic info. All of which exists only in our memories. There’s no online archive.
  3. Many of you have asked for and suggested features and other things the group could do to provide more value to members like you. There’s just no way to make those happen on Meetup.

I could go on and on, but I promised this would be quick.

Managing the group and the events we host is a lot of work. I love helping the community grow and prosper, but we’re at a breaking point.

You might not feel it, but we really need to have our own website to make it easier to participate in the group, get information about events, and all the other things you’d like us to do.

We can do this.

The only way the group can grow and be better is to build our own website to connect all the things we do in one place. And the only way that’ll happen is if you back our Kickstarter project. You want a better AWDG. Why haven’t you backed it yet?

You have a choice.

Be a hero, back the project to help us grow and improve — or — live with the status quo and know we could have been more.

Every dollar counts. I’m counting on you.

Make it Happen – Back Our Website Project

Thanks for reading…

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Freelancer or Agency?

Following a fantastic AWDG event Wednesday night, I had a conversation with panelist Marc Hershovitz (disclosure: Marc is also my attorney) about the difference between a freelancer and an agency. Based on the discussions at the event, he asked if we in the web industry have a skewed idea of the definitions of freelancers and agencies.

Wikipedia defines a freelancer as “a person who is self-employed and is not committed to a particular employer long-term”, and an agency as “a service based business dedicated to creating, planning, and handling advertising (and sometimes other forms of promotion) for its clients.”

This is fine for semantic purposes, but does it hold up in the real world? I’ve always subscribed to the idea that a freelancer is someone who works by themselves, for themselves. And to be clear, there’s certainly no shame in that. You only become an agency when you decide to build an organization around your business. You hire contractors and/or employees to work with you, therefore you have an agency.

Marc’s opinion was that outside of our industry, a Freelancer is seen as someone who exclusively works for agencies and similar organizations – but not directly for clients – while agencies (whether one person or 1000) do work directly for clients. This is an important observation.

Should You Care?

Imagine yourself at a cocktail party speaking to someone who isn’t in the web (or any related) industry. They ask what you do and you tell them you’re a freelance web designer, thinking they will understand what that is and may want to hire you to build a website. But it’s likely they have the same impression Marc does, that you only work for agencies. Instead, you should tell them you’re an independent design agency so they know you’re available for hire.

Or should you?

There’s a bit of ego attached to how you define yourself, your work, and your business. How you define your business to the people you work with could have an impact on the structure of your contracts and relationships. In this case, for conversational purposes  it’s probably best to consider the context of your discussion and define your business accordingly.

There are legal and financial considerations, too.

If you’re accepting work on a 1099 basis under your personal social security number (a terrible idea for many reasons which we can discuss another time) you’re more likely to fit squarely into the freelancer category. But for legal and financial purposes, you really should form an LLC and run your business as an agency. You can still tell people you’re a one-person show if you like. Hell, call yourself a freelancer if it makes you feel better. But at least have the good sense to run your business as a real business.

If that’s not your thing, just SUGTW and go get a job.

Edit: The “Freelance to Agency” podcast may also be of interest to you.

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Design Corrosion

Is it me, or is most software getting worse as it tries to appeal to more people? As an application’s customer base grows, developers must consider an ever widening set of user feedback, eventually risking design by committee.

Cameron seems to agree, posting this:

This a slow corrosion. It sneaks up on you. Staying true to your core customer base becomes very difficult if you want to gain users. More people, more problems. With each new group of users you’re tempted to change your product to make them happy. Their requests a siren song promising loyalty and prosperity, but often leading to bloat and obscurity. Which is why it’s super important to understand who you’re designing for and why you’re doing it as early as possible. It helps keep the guideposts visible.

Make sure the problem you’re solving needs to be solved, you know who you’re solving it for, and that they like your solution. There’s nothing more powerful than a group of people who love your product enough to pay you for it.

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On Speaking

There must be something in the air. Just recently I removed myself from a conference lineup because the organizers neglected to inform me they wouldn’t be paying for my travel and hotel expenses until after the schedule went live. A few friends removed themselves from the same event for the same reason. Then I wake up this morning to find Remy and Christian have both written good posts about the same topic. They say things happen in threes, so here are my thoughts.

As a conference organizer and speaker (and a previous life in the entertainment business) I can clearly see both sides of this coin. I’ve said it before “from my years in rock-and-roll, I know that without talent, there is no show.” Rather than blather on before my first cup of coffee, I’ll just post an excerpt from something I’ve already written (but not released) about meetup, event, and conference planning:

Your attendees are coming to see great speakers talk about interesting or helpful things. They aren’t paying to see sponsor’s ads or pick up free swag. There are many less expensive ways to get a t-shirt. The content of your event is what people will remember. When was the last time you heard someone say they were going to a tech conference because they have great cupcakes? Your speakers are the most important thing about your event. Treat them that way.

In nearly every event we’ve run, speaker’s fees, travel, and accommodations have been the single largest budget item. Remember, without great speakers you just have a trade show. At the minimum you should pay for travel and hotel expense, ground transportation to the event, and WiFi in the room for every speaker. You have to remember you’re asking them to take time away from their work, family, and other obligations to speak at your event. This is a much larger investment than just the hour or so they spend on stage.

Some speakers will ask you to pay them a speaker fee. Most who do are worth the price. Pay it if your budget allows and they are a good fit for your event. If your budget doesn’t have room either go get more sponsorship dollars or tell them you can’t afford it. Don’t negotiate. Don’t barter. In some cases they may offer to waive the all or part of the fee if you do something of value for them, but it’s their choice. Never ask them to do trade or discount their fee.

Show Me the Money

All events have three main revenue streams: Speakers (knowledge revenue), Sponsors (dollar revenue), and Attendees (dollar revenue). The relationship is pretty obvious. Speakers are the show, attendees pay to see the speakers, and sponsors pay to be seen by attendees. Notice the order? Speakers, attendees, sponsors. That’s the priority you need to keep in mind.

This isn’t to say speakers have nothing to gain by speaking at your event. They do. But they’re already paying to be there with their knowledge, effort, and endorsement of the event. It’s flat rude to ask them to pay money, too. That’s what sponsors and attendees are for.

If you’re running or planning to run an event, and you find you don’t have the budget to treat your speakers properly then you shouldn’t have the event until you do. Period. Go get more money. There are lots of ways to make the math work regardless of the size of your event. It’s your job to figure that out.

I’ll post more about all this soon. Now it’s time to SUGTW.

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Renegade

Just last week a friend and I were chatting about real estate, and the outdated agent/broker system. The MLS is horrible, and most agents are too busy chasing new deals to court the ones they have. It’s a sloppy, inefficient mess.

“Why hasn’t someone shaken this up? It seems ripe for disruption.”

He’s right. Real estate is ripe, if not overdue for a sea change. But transforming a huge industry is hard. Which led us to the question:

Where does change in a giant stagnant industry come from?

I’ve only seen change come from two types of people: Newcomers and Renegades.

Newcomers look at things with untrained eyes. They see problems in the status quo, and have ambition to fix them. They are energetic, full of passion, and looking to make their mark.

Renegades worked in an industry long enough to understand it well, but became frustrated and left to do something else. The new business exposes them to alternative ways of thinking. Their youthful vigor and passion reignited, they see the old business with altered eyes.

Both of these people have something the entrenched worker-bee doesn’t. Fresh perspective. It allows them to see how to improve the business in ways they could never see from the trench of daily work.

How can you get fresh perspective on your business, career, life?

Change. Break your habits and routines, then form new ones. Make new friends. Go to new places. Shake it up.

Think like a newcomer. Be a renegade.