Episode 271

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Project management is a challenge for every agency, regardless of their size or tenure. Many agencies have a physical project board on a wall or are using Excel spreadsheets to try to keep everything in check. Unfortunately, these rudimentary project management systems end up costing agencies time, money, and even clients. But it does not have to be a source of frustration or profit evaporation.

If your agency has been resisting a project management system, it’s time to recognize that you are choosing to put your agency at risk. A shop without a more sophisticated tool and process for getting the work done on time and on budget will experience missed deadlines, scope create and frustrated clients. It’s not ideal from your team’s perspective either. No one wants to drop the ball or disappoint a client or teammate.

Agency owner Peter Coppinger knew all of this too well. His own shop, located in Dublin, Ireland was struggling to find a tool that would help them keep everyone in alignment and manage all of the details of every job without fail. That frustration led them to decide to design a project management tool of their own, Teamwork, which is one of the more popular options among agencies throughout the world. His software now powers more than 20,000 businesses.
During our conversation, Peter walks through the common mistakes agency owners make with project management and some best practices for overcoming them – all with the goal of profitably growing and scaling your agency.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

 Managing Projects Effectively

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Pitfalls that many agencies face when it comes to getting the work done
  • Why agencies should be tracking and charging for every little piece of work they do
  • Peter’s best practices for managing projects effectively in the agency world
  • What characteristics agencies should look for in their search for a qualified project manager
  • Why effective project management is the key to growth and scale
“It’s easy to be a busy fool. As you scale your agency and add more people, you need to make sure you are scaling your profits as well.” @irlTopper Click To Tweet “You’re not managing projects effectively if you’re constantly whipping people to get work across the finish line. You want your team to be self-reliant, and project management systems play a major role in that.” @irlTopper Click To Tweet “Some customers are willing to pay more, and you need to have systems in place that can extract that value.” @irlTopper Click To Tweet “People who are managing projects effectively are usually a rare combination of organized and good at dealing with people.” @irlTopper Click To Tweet “Every agency has similar kinds of daily projects. If you don’t write down and organize the steps it takes to get them done, you will never be able to scale your agency.” @irlTopper Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Peter Coppinger:

Tools & Resources:

Speaker 1:

It doesn’t matter what kind of an agency you run, traditional, digital, media buying, webbed out, PR, whatever your focus, you still need to run a profitable business.

The Build a Better Agency podcast presented by White Label IQ, will show you how to make more money and keep more of what you make. Let us help you build an agency that is sustainable, scalable, and if you want, down the road, sellable.

Bringing his 25-plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. Coming to you from Agency Management Institute. It is always my pleasure to hang out with you every week, so thank you for listening. Thanks for making the time.

I have two goals with every episode. One is that I hope that I am asking the questions that as you’re listening to the interview or conversation, you’re like, “Oh, gosh. I hope he asks this.” Or there’s a question in your head, and then it comes out of my mouth. I’m always trying to channel all of you in these conversations to ask these questions that I know are top of mind for you, just like they are for me as an agency owner.

And then also, I always ask my guests to be mindful that I don’t want this just to be a conversation that does not generate action. So I’m always looking for action items, things you can start to do, things you can stop doing, maybe a twist on something you’re doing. I have no doubt that today’s guest is going to give us plenty of that.

So before we get into me telling you about him, and what we’re going to talk about, I just want to remind you that as always we have lots of resources on the Agency Management Institute website. So there’s webinars you can watch, there are videos you can watch, and all of the weekly videos that I do. If we’re not connected on LinkedIn, please reach out. All you have to say in the LinkedIn invite is that you’re a podcast listener. I’m happy to connect with you.

But every week, I do a video with a little thought or tip. Usually they’re three or four minutes, so bite-sized thought or tip that I think will be helpful to you. Those are all also archived on the website. But if you want to get them live every week, then connect with me on LinkedIn and you can get them there.

But anyway, there’s all kinds of free resources on the website and I hope that you go there and you poke around. There’s eBooks to download and all kinds of things that we’ve just put there as tools for you. I would be delighted if you would take full advantage of those and visit the site regularly, and just keep consuming all of the free stuff that we’re putting there. It makes me perfectly happy.

People will say, “Well, don’t you want me to buy something?” “Yeah, if someday, there’s something we could do like a workshop or something like that, that’s helpful for you, absolutely.” It would be great to have you at those events as well. But I’m also absolutely fine with you never giving us a dime. If you just keep finding value in what we do and we’re helpful to you, that’s a good day for me. So please don’t feel bad about feeling like you have to level up in some way. We’re happy to have you if you want to, but I know for some of you that’s not an option, or it’s not of interest to you. That’s perfectly fine. Absolutely fine.

All right. Let me tell you a little bit about our guest. Our guest is a gentleman named Peter Coppinger. And Peter is the co-founder and CEO of Teamwork. And Teamwork as you know is a project management tool or system software, I guess, technically, that many, many agencies love.

The reason why agencies love it is because it was built specifically for agencies by agency people, as you’re going to hear Peter tell the story. This was born out of his own frustrations as an agency owner and wanting to create something different and better that would be useful for his team originally. And then, it occurred to them that other agencies would benefit from it as well.

So Peter is an agency owner, former agency owner. He’s now sold that agency and focuses completely on Teamwork. So he’s an agency owner, he’s a SaaS producer and creator. He also spends a lot of time … You’re going to hear in his accent he is from Ireland. He spends a lot of time helping other businesses and startups in Ireland think through their dream and build that out. So he’s a great encourager of entrepreneurism.

He also has a couple of daughters. He and I have that in common, that he’s the dad of a daughter. And he also is a big traveler, so we have a lot in common actually. I’m excited for you to meet him and to hear a little bit of his story. So let’s just jump right in. Peter, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Peter Coppinger:

Fantastic to be here today. Thanks for having me, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

You bet. I think most people know you, or certainly from my introduction, they know that you are the genius behind Teamwork, which many agencies use and love. But I think a lot of people probably don’t know that your origin story includes that you used to have an agency. Right?

Peter Coppinger:

Yeah. I think genius might be a bit much, but I’ll take it. But years ago, we actually ran an agency for over seven years, and we were pretty successful. In Ireland, we have a lot of American multi-nationals actually, and we were doing a lot of big projects for Pfizer, for example. We’d access the Pfizer world network. Built a lot of their internal systems, their best chemistry websites and all this. We were thriving but we needed a better way to run our agency. That’s where Teamwork came from.

Drew McLellan:

It’s fascinating to me that there are so many origin stories for software built for agencies that were borne out of an agency’s frustration to do something.

What were some of the mistakes, some of the things that you bumped into as an agency that made you feel like a tool like Teamwork was necessary? What were some of the things you kept banging your head against the wall?

Peter Coppinger:

Oh, where do I begin? I think there’s just two parts to the mistakes we made. There was general agency mistakes we made that had nothing to do with software. That was part of our inexperience. We were straight out of college. We made all the mistakes and it took us years to wise up.

But we went from being completely unsophisticated and not knowing what we were doing to being pretty sophisticated. And then we got to the point … I can talk about some of those mistakes if you want.

But then, we got to the point where we had a whiteboard in the corner of the office that we listed all our projects. We responded to customers in the order that they were screaming at us, which is probably not a good way to run your business.

Drew McLellan:

Nope. Nope. Not ideal. Right. Right.

Peter Coppinger:

We also had an infinite amount of tasks. We couldn’t see a bird’s eye view of what’s going on. We had endless meetings and so on.

So we tried … There were a couple of very simple task management products out there. Some of them are still going today. Some of them are popular. But the task management systems are very basic. You put in your tasks and that’s grand, but you can’t really see what the priorities are. You couldn’t at the time, attach files to tasks. You couldn’t see the bird’s eye view of all the projects that are going on and juggle priorities. You couldn’t link tasks up together so that the client needs to give you the logo before you can design the website. You can’t cut up the website until you design it and so on. All the other systems were just too simplistic. You couldn’t put in recurrent tasks, you couldn’t set up templates because a lot of your projects are very similar so you want to set up templates and optimize things.

So after just being frustrated trying product after product after product, we’re product guys. We were building sophisticated stuff for our clients all the time. So one day, we just had an epiphany. I think it was after we got off some really bad support from one of our competitors. We just said, “Screw this. Let’s create our own project management system because there’s just a huge gap in the market here.” That’s where it came from.

We started building it every Friday. We dedicated Fridays to building Teamwork. Once we had an initial version, we started using it to run our agency and we refined all the rough edges off it. And then, we threw it up on the internet. I think it was October 4, 2007, I’m tempted to say. That was it. Gave ourselves a high five and went home to bed. Two days later, we had our first sale.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. At what point did you decide … So what happened to the agency?

Peter Coppinger:

So we got to the point where we got about 30,000 monthly recurring revenues, so maybe 120,000 a year or more. But we got pretty far along, the SaaS model. Making the product was our passion. It was all we talked about. Myself, my co-founder and me, we were talking about features we needed to add. We loved dealing with customers. We were just super passionate about it.

We went from working one day a week on it, to working two days a week on it, to working three days a week on it. We got the point where we weren’t really enjoying the client work anymore. We had this big book of clients and we didn’t want to drop the ball, and we didn’t want to let them down. That’s why we held onto it for so long. But eventually we found another agency who were really good guys, and we gifted them our entire book of customers. We said-

Drew McLellan:

That’s a great day for them.

Peter Coppinger:

Yeah, they were like, “How much do you want for this?” We were like, “We don’t want a thing. Our only ask is that you don’t drop the ball.” They were watching me and they were like, “No. No. We have to give you something.” But we insisted.

We did this tour where we went around to all our customers and we explained to them that these guys are taking over, and there’ll be a transition period. All our customers were very worried, but it went really well and the guys did us proud and they really look after all those customers. I think they still have all those customers today. That went really well, and that freed us up to then go full time at Teamwork, and to really double down on what we wanted to build.

Drew McLellan:

You didn’t even get a pint of beer out of this? [crosstalk 00:10:05]. I’m just thinking we have to offline, we have to talk about your negotiating skills.

Peter Coppinger:

I do think we got a few pints of beer off them over the years.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. All right. All right.

Peter Coppinger:

To be clear.

Drew McLellan:

Then I feel like it was a fair deal.

Peter Coppinger:

It’s a fair deal.

Drew McLellan:

So now, 10, 13 years in, you’ve watched tens of thousands of agencies working through the system, you talking to them about features they wanted, all of that.

So project management, I think, is one of the most challenging aspects of agency life. I think agencies struggle with this, particularly small agencies that don’t have a dedicated person that is driving the traffic function and project management through the agency. What are some of the mistakes that you see agencies making when it comes to getting the work done?

Peter Coppinger:

Yeah. So first of all, not systemizing everything. Every agency has similar type of work you’re doing all the time. We see people that are winging it from project to project, and they’re not really adding that scale.

They might be growing their agency, but they’re not scaling their agency, and there’s a big difference. They’re busy fools. It’s easy to be a busy fool as an agency. You really want to make sure that you’re actually scaling. As you add more people, you’re scaling your profits as well.

They’re not doing things like putting in their recurring tasks. They’re not bringing their clients into the projects, so they’re operating in silos. I mean we had it with Teamwork. One of the mistakes we made for years, sorry, in digital crew when we were an agency, is that we were just too nice. We weren’t charging for all these extras. A customer will call us at Friday at 5:00 PM. They would say, “Oh, could you just do this quick thing on the website.” Next thing, we’re there for four hours adding something to the website, and we forgot to charge for it. With Teamwork, all that goes away. You charge for every single penny. You can manage your retainer work.

That’s another thing. I think systems for managing the retainer work, every agency really has some retainer work, and if you don’t manage that well, it can kill your business as well.

So the bird’s eye view in profitability, so most people are busy just trying to get the work done, but you don’t see that bird’s eye view of how many projects are we scheduled? When do we deliver them by? Do we even have enough people to work on these projects? So make sure that, if you know that you’re going to be busy in three months time, you can see it building, you can start planning to add some capacity to your team in advance.

Drew McLellan:

So Peter, if I think about the one grouse that every agency owner has, it is scope creep. It is that they give a client an estimate, and they have a clear set of deliverables, and they have a set price tied to those. Somehow, they end up doing 27 extra things, not charging for them, and losing their shirt. So talk about how does an agency prevent scope creep?

Peter Coppinger:

Yeah. We definitely had this in the early days of digital crew. This can kill your agency. And this can be the thing that’s sapping at all your profits. This can be the difference between thriving and just barely surviving or going out of business. So you have to get this right. You’ve no choice.

Everybody starts and they define the project pretty well with the customer. And then over time, things pop into the customer’s head, and they come back looking for things now. We all want to be super nice to our clients, and we typically do these things and we don’t charge for it. But it’s a critical mistake.

As long as you track every bit of work you’re doing, and you can show that to the customer, in my experience they have no problem paying for that extra work. But the critical thing is you have to log it and you have to log time against it.

So you need a system. It doesn’t matter if that’s Teamwork, or something else, but you need a system where every single requested bit of extra work can be logged, can be approved and you can log your hours against it. And then, you simply can export that and show that to the customer at the end of every month. You can say, “This is how you’re doing against your retainer. Do you want to increase this? Do you want to keep going?” But if you don’t do that, you’re going to go out of business. It’s that simple. Or you’re never going to scale your agency.

Drew McLellan:

I think for a lot of agencies where the struggle is, is the owner agrees with that mentality, but it’s difficult to get the account people wired that way. Because the account people they see their job as making the client happy. They perceive that no client is happy when you say, “Yes, we can absolutely do that for you, but it’s out of scope, therefore it’s going to cost more money.” Right?

Peter Coppinger:

Yeah. So you have to be a bit ruthless with it. Your client people have to know that this is how the business makes money. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Peter Coppinger:

This is how the business works, right? There’s a certain element of being ruthless. If you want, and this works well for a lot of people, is you give a cut to the account people. That fixes that problem instantly. You know?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Peter Coppinger:

If they’re getting 1% of anything above what was originally agreed in the first bit of scope, they’re going to really be tracking those hours and making sure they milk the customer for every penny they can get.

If you think about it, I mean part of your job is to obviously deliver results for the customer, but the second part of your job is to do that in as profitably as possible.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. Well, and I think for a lot of agency owners they are so closed in terms of sharing the financials with their employees. I think part of this is you’ve got to help your account people understand how agencies make money. And how the account person either contributes to that or detracts from that.

Peter Coppinger:

Exactly. And something that’s related I think is, there’s always some customers that are willing to pay more. You have to have systems in place that allow you to extract that value. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Peter Coppinger:

Because pricing is completely subjective. For example, if you’re selling an app, you should never have just one price. If you’re selling a car, you should never have just one price. You should have the car with the extras and so on.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Peter Coppinger:

Same thing in this world. You should have this sheet of extras that you can put in front of the client. And so, if it’s a website, it could be like, “Hey, would you like us to do an audit of your SEO every year?” Whatever it is. You could come up with a list of 20 different things, and the customers that are less price sensitive will check on four or five of these things that are super easy for you to deliver. Some of them are literally just you click a button and you added it on. That’s the difference between you making a 30% profit and you barely breaking even.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. We teach the strategy of three prices. And knowing the psychology is when you offer somebody three choices, and we see this in all the softwares and everything else, I think it’s 96.7% of people pick the middle price.

And so, if you only offer them one price though, the psychology of that is that they’re going to try and talk you down from that price.

Peter Coppinger:

Absolutely, yeah. It’s amazing as well, if you have a top tier price, you will be shocked at the amount of people that will pick it for no other reason than that they feel like they’re big. So actually-

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Right. Right.

Peter Coppinger:

… there’s lots of logic behind this. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Well, and I think the companion to the scope creep problem is the undercharging problem. I would imagine if you were a little startup, you guys were just out of college and you’re working with somebody like Pfizer, I suspect you tripped over that problem more than once.

Peter Coppinger:

Oh, big time. We always went above and beyond. We were busy fools. There was one Christmas where there was a third co-founder and he said, “Look, I’ve done the hard stuff. I’m going to Australia.” It was that Christmas, myself and Dan, my co-founder said, we had a look. We were busy fools. We were the hamster in the wheel going nowhere. We were just working every hour we were given but not making a profit. I thought about this over Christmas.

That January, we doubled our prices, we got really laser-focused on running a professional agency because it was either that, or go out of business.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Peter Coppinger:

We started in staged payments, we stopped a long scope creep, we charged for every single extra hour of work we did, and all our customers, shockingly, had absolutely no problem with it. They were happy with the price increase. They were happy with the pay for every single hour of extra work we were doing. And suddenly, instantly our agency was profitable.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think a lot of agencies who are undercharging their clients, they think that the clients are going to be upset. But I believe that most clients know when their agency’s undercharging them, and they’re just waiting. They’re not going to knock on the agency’s door and say, “Hey, you should charge me more.”

Peter Coppinger:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

They’re just waiting for it to happen, for the agency to catch it. Right?

Peter Coppinger:

It’s exactly what a customer said to me. He was actually an administrator in a local college we did a lot of work for. He said, he started smiling and laughing, he said, “I was wondering when this day would come. We’ve been getting away with this for years.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, right.

Peter Coppinger:

There is a psychology as well that you should test your pricing. Every now and again when you get a bigger project in, especially if you’re busy, that’s a good opportunity to test at 10%, 20%, even 50% increase in your price and see what happens.

Drew McLellan:

Right. I’m always telling agencies, if you don’t get, “No,” 25-30% of the time because you’re too expensive, then you’re leaving money on the table.

Peter Coppinger:

Yeah, that’s how you scale. Exactly. Completely agree with that. That’s what our experience showed as well.

Drew McLellan:

And then, when did you guys start rolling staged payments into the mix.

Peter Coppinger:

Yeah, so it was around the same time that we wisely stopped with everything else. There was a list of things that we wised up with. Staged payments, we actually had one customer sting us for about $50,000. So it was one of these things where we were hired to do work. We didn’t have a contract. There was a time when we just took people at their word and their handshake. And there was somebody who was fired in their company. We had done a load of work and we, the owner said, “No. We’re not paying you for that work.” We lost about $50,000. It was actually after that we said, “Okay, let’s make sure we have contracts going ahead.”

In addition to contracts, from that January on, we said we’re going to take stage payments. 30% at least, it depends on how big the project is. If it’s a relatively small project, 50% upfront. If it’s a bigger project, we always get 30%, 30%, 20%. So at least if anything happened at the very last phase, or if the last phase dragged on for too long, at least we’re not losing out to long on that.

Drew McLellan:

Right. I think a lot of agencies need to make that change, where they are not waiting for that either total payment or that final payment of 50%. Even prior to the pandemic, the larger the client is, the longer their payment terms. And now, with businesses being really mindful of cashflow, one of the things agencies have had to be really thoughtful about in 2020 is making sure that their payment terms set them up to be able to keep paying the bills they had to pay, because they knew their clients were going to drag it out.

Peter Coppinger:

Yep. Definitely. The only thing that really helps with this is having somebody dedicated to payments. So somebody who is spinning invoices and chasing invoices, even if that’s an intern. But make sure that person is ruthlessly efficient and very direct. They don’t have to be rude but they are very assertive. Call up the customer like, “We’re still waiting on that payment.” But position them as the bad guy and your account managers and the people actually doing the work can be the good guys. But that’s a healthy kind of tension to have, I think. That works really well.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. I think the worst think you can do is put your AE in that position.

Peter Coppinger:

Oh, definitely not. Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

They’re the client confident, and now they’re the hammer on the invoice. That doesn’t work well.

Peter Coppinger:

No. Huge mistake. Huge mistake. But also make sure that they’re in the loop, and that they know that there’s good cop/bad cop in here, going on here.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yep. Absolutely. Because you’re watching thousands and thousands of agencies manage projects … And I think this is an achilles heel for many agencies, is they do exactly what you talked about, which is they’re cruising along and either everything is tribal knowledge in their head or they’ve got some version of a board or maybe they have an Excel spreadsheet, but they are cobbling along with their project management until something break. It’s usually some big thing that breaks. They drop a ball and everybody’s scrambling all weekend to keep the client happy. What are some best practices? Regardless of tool, what are some best practices around how should my agency management moving work through the business?

Peter Coppinger:

Yeah, okay. Most people start with nothing. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Peter Coppinger: