Jay Fanelli is the co-founder and creative muscle behind Pittsburgh web shop Full Stop and trans-national fake union and t-shirt emporium United Pixelworkers. I'm always impressed by Jay's work and entrepreneurial spirit. Also, he's a fellow Pennsylvanian.
The man is clearly doing something right: he's managing a design shop and running a successful company, and has lots of other product ideas to work on. All with zero project management. When I realized this, I had to know more about the operations and the magic that Jay and his partners make.
I sent Jay an interview a while back, fully expecting that he'd be too busy to work through it with me. I'm totally grateful for the time he took on this, and really impressed by the result. Read on for some great insight on running businesses, managing products, and the PM instinct.
BH: I'm intrigued by your entrepreneurial spirit. How did your design agency spin into a tee shirt company and more?
JF: We had a lot of heroes when we started Full Stop. Among them were people like Coudal Partners, 37signals, Aaron Draplin, and Design Commission, companies that started as design studios but developed successful products on the side. Obviously, some of those companies made the switch to products completely, although that wasn't our aim. Client projects are great, but they don't scratch every creative or entrepreneurial itch. Doing client work and product work is more fulfilling for us.
How have new ideas started? Give us a little background on how you've come up with these great, successful ideas.
We come up with a lot of ideas, but you only ever see our successful ones. Trust me, we throw a lot of crap at the wall, and not all of it sticks. United Pixelworkers is an idea that came to us at a time when, frankly, we didn't have much else going on client-wise. Most of our other successful ideas since have been branches of the United Pixelworkers tree. But we've had plenty of other ideas that never got off the ground: an iPad app, a Q&A community, various sports-focused ideas (one we're working on right now).
Has it been hard to keep track of all of your projects, or do you have people managing each?
It's not exactly hard to keep track of them all; it's hard to make progress on them and give them the attention they deserve. Our hope is that in the chaos of it all, our projects don't all end up needing design or development at the same time. We have a tendency to pass the baton of project management back and forth between us. It gives us operational flexibility, and our clients like the one-on-one contact with all of us. It helps strengthen our relationship.
You guys don't have project managers in any of your businesses. How are you managing budgets and timelines?
We don't manage budgets very well, to be honest, and that's a big blind spot for us as a company. We estimate a fixed budget—we generally don't do hourly—sign the contract, and do the work. We haven't been burned too badly yet, but it's coming. We've tried several times to track our hours, but as any project manager knows, tracking hours is a cat-herding exercise. It's especially difficult for us, because our days are splintered into 10-minute fragments of design, development, contracts, packing and shipping, marketing, customer service, phone calls, emails, etc.
We manage timelines a little better, but only by aiming so far down the road. It's easy to hit one deadline in two weeks, it's much harder to hit five deadlines in a row stretching for three months.
Are there specific tools you use to keep the work on track?
We've used a litany of project management tools over the years to varying levels of success…the usual suspects: Basecamp, Evernote, Harvest, etc. We're been using Trello for about six months, and it seems to be working well for us. In my decade-plus of working in web design, I've yet to see something that works as well as a big visible whiteboard in the office. That doesn't help distributed teams much, but we're three people, often in the same room.
Do you like how those tools work for you or would you easily throw them away and start fresh?
Project management tools are like content management systems: most are terrible, a few are sufficient, none are perfect. I'm not a huge fan of detail in project management tools, because details change, and the more they change, the more someone needs to keep them current. Managing a project management tool shouldn't become a job unto itself.
What happens when a new idea comes up and you want to build it? Is there a process that you follow, how do you decide who's taking things on?
If one of us has an idea, he usually badgers the other two guys into submission…at least that's my process. We're smart guys, so any idea we have is likely to be a good one. But the execution of that idea is what counts, and if we don't have the time to execute it properly, we usually wait until there's an opening. Cotton Bureau, our latest internal project, is an idea that's been around in one form or another for more than a year. We only started building it in late 2012.
Have you ever hit a point where you had to say, "Okay, this is too much. We need to slow down and re-prioritize?"
We hit that point every day. We have a tendency to say "yes" to everything, and that has definitely caught up to us this year. We're managing a design studio, a successful t-shirt brand, an upstart t-shirt brand, and a new startup concept. We started a podcast recently. We're trying to speak at industry events more often. We're teaming up with a local friend on an app concept. The list only ever seems to get longer. It's quite a bit for three people to handle.
What would be the tipping point for you to hire a PM or Operations type of person?
We'd probably have to double in size before we hired someone to keep all the balls in the air. In a perfect world, we'd take on a smaller number of more lucrative projects, allowing us to stay small and self-managed. That said, I like how Dan Mall runs his studio, SuperFriendly. SuperFriendly is a two-man shop, Dan and Matt Cook, who handles all project inquiries, writing contracts, and project managing the external team, which allows Dan to focus on design work. Seems very successful for them, and goes against the conventional wisdom of "you only need a project manager once you reach a certain size."
Considering that you are managing a lot, you have to have some PM skills. What are they?
I'm more of a people manager than an organizational one. I know how to motivate, how to communicate with employees and clients, how to gain trust and build relationships, how to deal with crises, how to anticipate responses, how to navigate politically. I keep myself relatively organized, and I have a good memory for ongoing events, deliverables, meetings. My time management skills, however, are approaching zero. I'm an epic procrastinator. Unless I'm under the gun, I can't accomplish anything.
If could impart any knowledge on someone who's going to be managing a lot of projects, what would it be?
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Deadlines will slip, budgets will be broken, mistakes will be made. Those things are unavoidable. How you communicate those events internally and externally will determine your fate.
Thanks for an awesome interview, Jay! Now, readers, go and buy a tee shirt!