One size doesn't always 'fit all'
Ever since I started building for the web I’ve had a bit of an aversion to “off-the-shelf” solutions. That’s not to say that they’re no good - far from it. The ever expanding range of online services for small businesses is so rich and varied there is almost too much choice when it comes to making a decision that is right for you, and if you make the wrong choice it can be difficult to change. When you’ve been using a certain system to manage your day-to-day affairs, it can often be more hassle than it’s worth to migrate to something else so you just live with the inconveniences and workarounds and accept them as part of the process.
This is partly why I’ve always had a tendency to build things myself. Our website CMS, Traffic, has been in existence since I was a freelancer. I originally built it for myself before I even realised there were open source solutions available like Wordpress (which was still just a blogging tool). I don’t believe that it’s pointless to build something just because there’s already something similar available.
When we started Whitespace we had already been talking about building some kind of project tracker to keep on top of our work so I started putting something together, beginning with a simple client database. This soon led to adding an estimate and invoicing system, and soon after that a database to keep track of all the domain names and hosting packages that we manage for clients. We’ve been using this in-house system from day 1 and we’ve named it “Blend”. The projects database had been added quite early on, but due to time constraints I never quite got it “production ready” so we settled for an existing system which we’re still using.
Last year, our friends and collaborators Ticktockrobot expressed an interest in a similar kind project tracker. They had already used software like Basecamp, Trello, Monday etc. but found that they easily became bloated with so many “boards” and comment threads that it was easy to lose focus and stray from the original brief. With the projects database already in place we saw an opportunity to use Blend as the “admin” interface and build a front face for clients on their own website, connecting the two with an API.
Ticktockrobot is an animation studio and their projects, like most design jobs, go through 2 or 3 interim stages before final delivery. We built this into the client interface with clear sign-off points and gave them the ability to specify the number of allowed rounds of feedback for each stage. The client is able to leave comments but must tick a box to confirm they understand that further changes after sign-off can incur additional fees. This was quite important to them because animation can be very time consuming to alter so it’s really important that things are checked thoroughly.
The system is working very well for them and they’ve received really good feedback from clients. What we like best about this approach is that everything happens on Ticktockrobot’s own website. They have a login to access their projects and there are no other links to remember - the overall focus is keeping it simple for the client.
“We came to Whitespace, who built and host our current website, with a rather challenging brief. Often we find clients are unsure as to the process in creating an animation, and often during the production process feedback gets lost in a string of emails and conversations that can be hard to track, revise and review.
We wanted to create our own bespoke client portal that would enable the client to review each stage of the process and provide feedback in a clear and concise manner, all in the same place. We wanted it to be part of our website so it was always easy for our clients to find it. Lastly it needed to be simple and to the point. Many off-the-shelf project management tools have too many options and features that end up clouding and confusing the pure functionality of the portal, without being used or required. Steve, whitespace’s head of web, understood immediately what we were trying to achieve.
As we progressed with the build and started to use it, we discovered certain features were needed to improve the usability. Every time we suggested these Steve took the time to thrash out the details before employing it perfectly. The process has been a challenging yet rewarding and a fun one to work on, largely in part to Steve’s patience, understanding and forthright attitude in creating something that has already become the centre point of our production process. We can’t recommend Whitespace highly enough. The end product works brilliantly and as intended and is already improving both client relations and production efficiency for us. Thank you!”
Simon Armstrong, Creative Director, Ticktockrobot
I guess you could call Blend a “CRM” but it’s certainly not as involved as something like Hubspot or Salesforce. It’s also not an accounts system to the level that Xero or FreeAgent are (although it does talk to Xero behind the scenes to keep accountants happy). It’s a powerful tool for us now; we built it for simplicity but it has a little bit of everything. It’s a bit of a blend.