On Software, Sewing, and the Craftsman

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My wife, Eleanor, runs a small side business making some extraordinary things with needles, thread, and cloth. She makes quilts, dresses, stuffed animals, clothes, and reupholsters furniture to round it off. She’s been honing her skills, trying new things, and improving her craftsmanship for many years. She’s very good and has some faithful clients.

Recently, it occurred to me to ask her a seemingly innocuous question:

When a client asks you to make something you’ve never made before, what do you tell them it will cost?

“First of all,” she replied, “every single job is something I’ve never done before.”

Boom. I think we’re on familiar ground here.

I wrote some questions for her to answer in an email and this post shows her responses. Her answers appear in italics.

I find this a fascinating discussion of project estimation and craftsmanship.

What do you do when the client doesn’t know what they want?

There are two kinds of clients that fit into that category: 

  1. Those who have some sort of unqualified vision and hazy idea of what they want, but lack the vocabulary and expertise to complete their thoughts
  2. Those who want something different from what they have, and don’t really care much beyond that.

Customer  #1 is the most work of the two.  They deserve and require time, since they are paying me for my services.  It takes time sitting with these clients, talking through concepts, drawing things on paper, asking questions and offering ideas trying to get to the core of what they want, what they actually need and what’s physically possible.  I have found that it takes a high level of skill to create something that is perfect to someone else.

Customer # 2 doesn’t happen often, but is a lot of fun!  These are the rare clients that enable my inner artist to flourish and shine, with no constraints or outside demands.  These are the clients want something new and shiny, but don’t have a huge list of demands. They want some sort of element of surprise. 

Problems ensue when I think I’ve got a #2 and didn’t ask enough question to realize I was dealing with a #1. 

How do you charge your clients?

Certain jobs have a set fee.  These are tasks I’ve done for 20 years; I know how long they take, I could do them in my sleep, and they’re the same regardless of the client.  On the incredibly rare occasion one of these jobs isn’t what it appeared to be, my bad and I eat the cost (and I’ll pay more attention next time!).

Other jobs, the custom jobs, are harder to price out.  Now that I have a larger body of work, I have a better idea of how long things take.  If it’s something I’ve never done, I estimate my time in my head, and then (because I’m always overly optimistic in my estimation) I double that to come up with my estimated total of time.  Then I factor in  what my time is worth per hour. 

I also have to know what other professionals are charging for similar services, as it’s tough to get clients if I’m charging twice what everyone else wants for the same service.

Do you tell them up front what a job will cost?

If it’s not a custom job, I always tell my clients the cost up front.  I may adjust the cost of a task between clients, but I don’t change the price after I’ve quoted on non-custom jobs.

Pricing custom jobs is a lot harder.  I run my formula:  estimated time, doubled, multiplied by an hourly rate.  And I offer that as an estimate.  I explain to my customer that it is an estimate to the best of my abilities, and that the price could fluctuate up or down.  I’ve learned that I don’t want the clients who aren’t willing to work within this structure;  these tend to be the people who really, really want custom work and really, really don’t want to pay custom prices.

What do you do when it takes longer than you thought?

I’ve found that the bigger the project, the more willing the customer is to accommodate  an extended deadline.  At the first sign of missing a deadline, I call the customer. It helps a lot, at this point, to be able to show my customer what I have actually accomplish already.

Also, if it’s something I’ve never done before, I tell the client that I’ve never done a job exactly like that one, and my time estimate is only an estimate.

On a long or complex project, when do you consult with the client to guide your decisions?

If it’s a client #2, I don’t usually consult with them once I’ve started the project.  If I’ve come to a point where things veer wildly in opposite directions, I may have the client stop by to choose option A or B.  Usually, with customer #2, I do it how I want to do it.

Custom jobs for a client #1 elicit a lot of phone calls.  I like to check with the customer at each phase when I’m not completely sure what they’d choose;  a 2 minute phone call takes a lot less time than picking 150 staples out of someone’s wingback chair.  I have never had a customer be irritated with me for making sure I was meeting their needs.

5 thoughts on “On Software, Sewing, and the Craftsman

  1. I ave been spending a lot of time recently with my brothers. Both have been doing construction management for of large and small construction jobs for the last 30 years. When I started to ask them how far out the plan deliverables they said 3 weeks to 3 months. Anything longer was a swag. Sound familar?

    So many times we think project management, planning and tasks must be so much better understood in other disciplines. It does not appear to be the case…

  2. Good to see that someone else doubles the estimate on custom jobs. I always find it hard to do, but over time have discovered the estimates are more accurate.

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The opinions and content expressed here are my own and not those of my employer.