WordCamp Boulder session review; WordPress Consulting

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending WordCamp Boulder. Just like last year's WordCamp in Denver, it was organized by the guys at Crowd Favorite. They had done a great job last year and I expected nothing less this time around.

This year's event had two main tracks, but also included a 3 set of sessions that were more of a discussion than presentation. One of the sessions that interested me most was the WordPress Consulting discussion led by Alex King from Crowd Favorite and Nick Gernert from Voce Communications. It was held in a coffee shop around the corner from the main WordCamp venue and we squeezed roughly 40-50 people in for the discussion.

I've been doing WordPress consulting work for the past couple years. Initially I was doing it as a side project on nights and weekends. In January I started working for 9seeds (the company I run with two friends) full time. Heading to the session I felt that I had information to share, but even more to learn myself. Here are a few of the topics from the session that really hit home for me, along with some of my own thoughts sprinkled in.

Do you present your company in a way that makes it seem larger than it is?
This is a topic I've always found interesting. When you create your company's website, you want to give the impression that you can handle your client's needs. But, does that mean making it seem like you have a large staff? I've never been a fan of trying to make it seem like we are a corporation with hundreds of employees because I feel it would be very hard to maintain that facade. Plus, if you ‘trick' a client in to hiring your company, when they do find out it's just you in your basement, how is that going to make them feel? Are they going to be comfortable that you are telling the truth on everything else?

For me it always comes down to being personal. When I write blog posts on our company site, it's still ME that's doing the writing. I try and use “I” instead of “we”. When I talk to clients (or prospects), I mention who's going to be working directly on the project.

Remember this: Companies don't do business with companies. People do business with people. No matter what, the finial decision to work with your company comes down to a PERSON making the choice to work with YOU.

Do you provide and charge your clients for project plans, documentation and test cases?
During the session, the following question was posed; When you have completed a project and are ready to show it to your client, do you send them a one line email telling them their site is up?

Think about that for just a second. How many times have you completed something and then just fired off that one line response? Your client may have just spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars and you tell them their site is up and provide virtually nothing more. Yikes. I've done this on several occasions, but hopefully I've done it for the last time.

This topic spawned in to the discussion about documentation and how much you provide to your client. The first type of documentation was the contract and statement of work. I had to agree 100% when somebody else suggested that they typically only write a contract and SOW for larger projects while the smaller (4-8 hour) projects, they typically don't bother creating a contract. We weren't alone. Most everybody in the room was nodding their head. The point was then made that it's those smaller projects (or the clients on the tightest budgets) who end up being the ones who need that documentation the most. If for no other reason than to get an agreed upon list of functionality that makes up the project.

How do you find the bigger clients who will pay for documentation?
As the discussion about documentation continued to roll on, it seemed that the larger the project, the more time was being spent on documentation. That is when a lady in the crowd asked the one that all of us face as consultants, How DO you find clients with a budget? We all shared a bit of a laugh because no matter how long you are in the consulting business, we will never really have that question answered. There is no perfect formula.

That being said, there were several excellent suggestions on how to market yourself. Really, that's what this question boils down to anyway; marketing. Word of Mouth was by far the most popular way that people are finding clients. Your past work speaks for itself, and if you did great work, the hope is that your client will tell their associates about you. Networking was another big response. Attending events like WordCamp or local meetup groups is a great way to meet people. But for me, the biggest source of requests comes from being a presenter at an event. I have been lucky enough to be invited to speak at several WordCamp events, but even before that, I would give 15-30 minute presentations to local groups. Not a presentation about my company, but topics like “How WordPress can help you and your business.” If you show somebody a way to help their business or accomplish a task, you instantly become an authority to them and when they need assistance, guess who they are likely to call first. You!

Your client doesn't just pick you, you have to pick your clients!
When you first go in to business, you are thrilled any time ANYBODY is willing to work with you. You take on any project thrown your way because you need to do silly things like pay the rent and buy food. When you are struggling to make ends meet, your ability to be choosy is limited. There are still times when you should step back and ask yourself if taking on this client is the right thing to do.

It's OK to take on projects that are a LITTLE above your experience level, but taking on a project way over your head early on can be devastating. You may want to consider handing off a client who's needs are out of your reach (for now) to one of the other developers you've met at a WordCamp event. Believe me, referring business to another developer/agency is a great way of getting yourself some incoming referrals. Remember, not every client who contacts that other developer is going to be a perfect fit for them either.

There are definitely other reasons you may want to consider passing on a particular client. The best thing I can tell you is to listen to your gut. If something just doesn't feel right before you agree to the project, make sure that there aren't warning signs of a bigger issue coming down the tracks. If you can't see a clear start, middle and end to a project (or at least a specific phase of the project), have another look at your contract and your estimate and ask yourself if you think you are going to have trouble completing the project for the amount you quoted or how easy it will be to add to that quote if the project gets off track.

How much to charge?
One of the hardest things in the world to do is estimate how long something is going to take to complete. Think about the last time you set out to clean your garage. “oh, this will only take a few hours” turns to 2 full weekends pretty easily. The same is definitely true for web development.

There are several ways to charge you clients, but the two most common are; flat rate for an entire project, and hourly billing. No matter which you go with, you'll still have to do some sort of time estimate to gauge how long the project is going to take you. No client is going to blindly accept hourly billing not having any idea how long a project should take. Just like you aren't going to come up with a flat rate without having a general idea of how much time it's going to take.

How much you charge per hour is entirely up to you. You will have to play with your pricing over time. One of the suggestions was that every six months raise your prices. If you aren't seeing a rise in clients turning you down for being too expensive, then you likely weren't charging enough before.

It was very comforting to hear a room full of people who were all on much the same path as we are, but at different points in their own journey. I feel that we (9seeds) are still in the early stages of our companies development and still have a ways to go before we really find our stride. I left this session with a ton of ideas and am looking forward to implementing several of them very soon!