GET ON TOP OF YOUR CASHFLOW:
From workflow and time management tools to quotes and invoicing apps, there’s a wealth of utilities out there to help you get on top of your creative project budgeting
All the tools, services and utilities you need to master your creative budgeting, from time management to workflow
creative agencies pride themselves on their work but there’s more to running a successful studio than the design itself. The nitty gritty of studio and project management is a necessary evil, and although nobody became a designer because they loved chasing invoices, no business will survive (let alone thrive) without taking its cashflow seriously.
The good news is that there’s a raft of studio management tools out there to help you keep on top of workflow, time management, quotes and invoicing, many of which integrate with existing programs like email, calendars and accounting software like Xero or MYOB. The bad news is that there are so many to choose from, and on first glance so many similarities between the options (even the websites look largely the same), that it can feel overwhelming.
Andy Brattle runs Beyond, a branding and creative agency that employs 10 people across its studios in Maidenhead and London. In the early days the agency used self-created systems to manage the administrative side of the business, but as it grew something more formal was needed. Beyond worked with TrafficLive for a few years before switching to Streamtime, a popular, integrated studio management tool from New Zealand that was developed very specifically for creative agencies (rather than some programs that are aimed at all types of small business).
“Streamtime is the hub of our projects’ operational processes,” Brattle explains. “Because it’s geared around agencies there aren’t many things they’ve missed out – it’s fairly comprehensive.”
He likes the fact that Streamtime’s developers understand the particular ways design jobs work. So for example it easily allows Brattle and his team to attach third-party costs to quotes for clients, because they know agencies often outsource elements like print production or copywriting.
But as well as specific features, Streamtime allows Beyond to streamline the day-to-day business and keep on top of its finances. “We need to have a system that groups everything together, both internal and external, as well as costs and time against a single job. Streamtime automates all of that for you and it’s a big win,” Brattle says.
For Adam Kensington, Streamtime’s UK/Europe team leader, it’s this ability to simplify studio admin that is the tool’s biggest strength. “Streamtime is designed to ensure that agencies spend more time doing what they’re best at – being creative – and less time managing their business,” he explains. “We constantly look to our design community to help us build and develop our product in line with their changing needs.”
A major concern for Beyond when moving away from the in-house designed
templates was to find a platform that gave them the control they craved over the look and feel of the documents it generates. “We wouldn’t be practising what we’re preaching if we weren’t looking at it across all touchpoints,” says Brattle. “It was definitely a key consideration for us, because it allowed us to continue presenting ourselves in a way that we felt was truly representative.”
Another big consideration for agencies is cost, and just as the services offered on different software varies, so do the price points. Streamtime is one of a number of platforms around the £20 to £30 per user per month mark (along with StudioCloud, Briefcase and FreeAgent).
As with any outlay for the studio, it’s vital to think about what your business really needs. For bigger agencies with multiple jobs on at the same time, bringing together the studio’s activities using Streamtime or FreeAgent may be very useful. But at smaller agencies this may be overkill, introducing layers of admin that get in the way of creatives doing their jobs. Here a more dedicated invoicing tool like Billings Pro could be as far as you need to go.
Billings Pro is a popular time tracking and invoicing app and starts at around £6.50 per user per month but it is usually used in conjunction with other programs. Singapore-based studio Foreign Policy uses Billings, alongside Harvest, Basecamp and Slack, and such a proliferation is common. Foreign Policy’s Arthur Chin admits financial matters “suck up a lot of resources and time” but he likes being able to customise invoices on Billings and use its intuitive interface.
But Chin is still on the hunt for a program that goes further. “The best possible invoicing tool should be one that allows online payment. That way, once a payment has been made electronically, we get a ping. That would help simplify the process enormously.”
For creative directors who run studios, being able to track how much time employees are spending on specific projects and keeping on top of cashflow is obviously extremely useful, but there can be a tension between these very practical demands of studio management and the creative culture that design agencies naturually thrive on.
Carl-Johan Lindqvist is the co-founder of Lundgren + Lindqvist which employs four people in its studio in Gothenburg, Sweden. Lindqvist sees sound financial management as intrinsically linked to the agency’s creative productivity. “However tempting it may be to spend all our time on the creative work, we believe that any company that does not keep track of its cashflow will face serious troubles sooner rather than later. It is not our favourite part of the job, but making sure we maintain a healthy balance in our books is one of the things that give us the ease of mind we need to do what we believe to be great work.”
But Lindqvist admits that asking people to constantly log their hours can sometimes jar in a creative environment. He uses Flow to help bring together different aspects of different projects, but he doesn’t want to limit his designers.
“It can be crippling to keep too steady a check of time. Looking back at a project, we sometimes realise that we have spent a daunting amount of extra time on it, however the extra time spent on one project will often pay off somehow down the line. We might learn something that helps us in another project, and the extra effort often makes the project better, resulting in more new work.”
It seems that no studio management tool is perfect and a lot of designers are ready to voice frustration with their quirks and limitations, as well as being forced to juggle multiple programs to get the right mix of services. Of course, there is one other solution. “There’s too much duplication across tools and there are also integrations that we would love to have with the services we use (automatically showing people’s holidays on the project planner, for instance),” says James Chambers, co-founder of London-based Animade. “The only way to get these features is to build something custom – we’re lucky to be in the position to be able to do this in house, so we’re giving it a shot.” Next month: How to avoid the most common legal pitfalls for designers.
“THE BEST POSSIBLE INVOICING TOOL SHOULD BE ONE THAT ALLOWS ONLINE PAYMENT. THAT WAY, ONCE A PAYMENT HAS BEEN MADE ELECTRONICALLY, WE GET A PING. THAT WOULD HELP SIMPLIFY THE PROCESS”
Equip yourself and your studio with these financial tools and you’ll have no problems when it comes to balancing the books