One day a friend asked me how work was going and I replied, “death by email.” It was accurate in that I was spending around half of my day writing emails to clients about their projects and hating it. Eventually, we closed out those projects and things slowed again, but before I knew it, I found myself giving the “death by email” update to someone else. Unfortunately, this phrase begin to become more and more frequent to the point where some days I would stare out the window and mutter it like a lunatic. It was my little psychotic mantra.
Some people like writing emails. Idiots for example. (Ha!) However, I had better things to be doing and I was wasting my time in my inbox. On the other hand, those emails were essential. Communication had to occur in order for the projects to move forward. There was no getting around the need to email back and forth in order to get and keep things progressing.
When I set aside the time to think about it, I realized that it wasn’t the emails that were the problem. The problem was that we had become more successful in landing projects. Additionally, because web development is often an ongoing need, we were continuing to get new projects from our previous clients. All this incoming work required more and more project management and email just happened to be the medium through which I was doing it. However, there wasn’t more and more of me. While I was good at managing projects by necessity and experience, it wasn’t something I enjoyed, and it prevented me from actually moving things forward.
The solution was clear: we needed to hire a project manager. Someone who would be able to dedicate 100% of their time to all the emails and phone calls that come with managing projects. Someone who wasn’t an idiot, but loved writing meticulous emails.
Simple enough, right? The only problem was that I wasn’t psyched about taking on the additional overhead. I wasn’t sure that we could afford it and wasn’t happy with the idea of driving down our profit.
Eventually, I decided that it was something we had to figure out how to make work. “Death by email” had to stop. I found a PM and was able to train them to use our processes within a couple of weeks. A month after I hired them something magical happened: I was no longer emailing clients. And when they wrote me, I simply asked our PM to respond in my reply (“Jack, would you please update Sarah to what this will take?”). It was like clouds had lifted – all of a sudden I had time and mental space that had been muddled with project management pollution over the course of years of growth.
Not only was I no longer spending half my day in my inbox, but our revenue went up. This is because I had never calculated throughput.
Throughput is a measure of how quickly you can execute projects (X projects per month/quarter.) Slow throughput is the tax you pay by doing project management yourself. Once you have someone whose dedicated focus is to communicate and manage projects, they keep things moving, and you get your time back to execute. This results in projects getting done quicker and more getting billed each month.
So how exactly did I find and hire someone? How can you do it?
I was concerned about the risk of taking on the extra overhead and you should be too. To mitigate this, I recommend you hire a project manager as a subcontractor for a limited period of time. For me, I had several saved months of operating expenses and this helped insure against failure. Additionally, I had years experience hiring and knew the ropes. Because of this, I looked for a PM to work with us for three months.
If you feel like you are in an especially tenuous situation where you don’t have a savings cushion and little experience working with subcontractors, you should start with a single project. This will not free you of your inbox, but it will give you a taste of what’s possible and allow you to try people out without over commiting. As an additional upside, if you are concerned about managing someone else, this approach lets you benefit from a PM by having them as a partner, not subordinate. There is less upside, but also less downside.
To find someone, I tapped my network for referrals. I know one veteran project manager who I clearly could not afford, but she did connect me to someone solid who wasn’t as established as she is. This is the way that lots of web development work occurs: masters referring to journeymen when the prices aren’t right or they are too busy (we do this in our agency all the time.) Whether or not you know any project managers, this is a proven route to find someone and I would start looking for referrals by reaching out to experts in your area.
The first time you do something, the particulars are all unknown and the route seems murky. This is a breeding ground for procrastination and apathy. Remember that if you take no action you will continue to fritter away the hours of your life in your inbox. Identify your obstacles, make a plan to surmount them, and take the first step. Fortune favors the brave!