A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory

Three Lessons From My First Year as a Business Owner

bf_cubeOn October 1, the Brick Factory turned one year old.  We had a great first year.  We are in a good place financially and have done some fantastic work that I’m really proud of. 

On a personal level, the launch of the Brick Factory has been a big change for me.  Transitioning from running a five person department to a twenty person company has been more challenging than I thought it would be.   In the last year it feels like I have gotten accounting, law and business degrees while  holding down a full time job as a web strategist at the same time.   It has been stressful and fulfilling.

And not surprisingly, I’ve made a ton of mistakes.  In an effort to hold myself accountable and refocus, I wanted to share the three biggest lessons I’ve learned in my first year as a small business owner.

(1) Solve the hard problems.

Those of you who know our company are familiar with our back story.  The core Brick Factory team worked together at a firm called The Bivings Group for many years and split off to form the Brick Factory last Fall.  I learned a ton during my time at The Bivings Group, and when I started the new company I had a long list of improvements I wanted to make.  We have gotten through a lot of our list.

We launched a 401K.   We instituted disciplined and transparent financial procedures.  We transitioned to a much better time tracking solution.  We moved our email hosting to Google Apps.  We transitioned most of our hosting to the cloud.  We implemented a regular review process for employees.  We started holding regular company events.   Employees are paid via direct deposit.  Etc.

All of this is great, but when I look back it is clear that I focused on solving easy problems, or problems I had no choice but to address.  The bigger, messier challenges we face weren’t tackled aggressively.  We failed to address problems that that would take months to fix as opposed to days or weeks.  Two specific examples come to mind.

  • Our personality as a firm is put our head down and do our work.  It simply isn’t in our company DNA to self promote.  While I think this trait is admirable in today’s world, it can be limiting.  It has prevented us from putting together far reaching marketing plans for the company.  As a result,  we don’t have the mindshare we should given our size and accomplishments.  As we look to grow in year two, we need to force ourselves out of our comfort zone and work to more aggressively promote the company. 
  • Our core team has worked together a long time.  As a result  a lot of our processes for developing websites are very informal.  As we’ve taken on larger, more complicated projects, this informality has led to inefficiencies and unneeded stress.  We always seem to do things the hard way.  As we enter year two, we need to take a critical look at all our processes and fix what is broken.  This is hard, tedious work, but it is something that has to be done for the company to scale.

In year two, we need to continue to solve small problems, but not because we’re avoiding the hard ones.

(2) Think beyond the financials.

Founding the Brick Factory was a big risk for me.  I have a lot at stake professionally and financially.  I also know that financial mismanagement is the number one reason businesses fail.   Given that, it should come as no surprise that I have placed a big emphasis on financial success in year one.   This focus has largely been a positive, as we have been very disciplined and have hit all of our financial targets so far.

But it has also led to a bit of tunnel vision.  I have been so focused on the financials that I have lost sight of other aspects of the company at times.  As we enter year two, I need to spend just as much time and energy on non-financial business goals as the financial ones. 

(3) Run the whole company.

I worked at The Bivings Group for ten years and spent seven of those years running the Client Services department.   Given my background, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that at times I’ve fallen into the trap of acting as the head of the Client Services department instead of the head of the entire company.  I was actually really good at thinking about the big picture in the beginning when everything was fresh and new.  But as the year went on I started throwing myself into client work more than I should have, and not doing a good enough job leading other aspects of the company.

Moving into year two, I need to make sure I manage the whole company every day.

Living in a HTML5 World

Web development is sometimes like playing Whack-a-Mole. Since there are several different browsers (Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Safari, others) running on different operating systems, it is really frustrating to develop for all of them since each has their own quirks. Fortunately, the most recent versions of Chrome, Firefox, and Safari render sites enough alike that we rarely run into differences between them. However, when dealing with Internet Explorer 7, 8, and 9, the rules completely change, causing us to spend a ton of time tweaking sites to render correctly when using them. It is important to keep the differences between browsers  in mind when incorporating new technologies like HTML5 — the focus of this post — when performing web development work. Understandably, older browsers (even those that many people still use) do not support newer technologies, and accommodating older browsers should remain part of the strategy.

HTML5 is a new version of HTML that is continuing to gain more widespread adoption.  It offers web developers new opportunities, but older browsers — including IE 7 and 8 — don’t support it.  Further, since HTML5 is a evolving standard, browsers support different HTML5 features.  Even considering all of this, we have decided to develop features in HTML5 — even if we have to account for older browsers.  As web browsers and the Internet continue to evolve, using HTML5 is a must.

Another important reason why we’ve done this is to better conform to the rapid rise of mobile browsing. For instance, Apple’s iPad, iPhone, and iPod don’t support Flash, but they do support HTML5.

Here are three factors that we keep in mind when developing sites with HTML5.

Backwards Compatibility

So, if HTML5 isn’t supported by older browsers like IE 7 and 8, then how can we use HTML5?  Fortunately, there are workarounds for older browsers.  For instance, we have used javascript libraries like Modernizr to modify the HTML5 elements in older browsers so that they work.

There are times when such workarounds are not sufficient, and that is when it is important to develop an alternative version of a feature for older browsers.

Two Pronged Development

HTML5 uses elements like svg (scalable vector graphic) images well.  However, there are some known issues with such elements in some browsers.  For instance, in IE svg graphics don’t work well.  An example of an issue is when there’s a transparent overlay above the svg image  to add additional information to the image, the overlay prevents events that occur when one hovers over or clicks on a section on the svg.  Thus, when using a svg image for an interactive map, this would require a Flash version that is used in concert with browser detecting code set to display specific versions in specified browser versions.

Mobile Development using HTML5 and device specific apps

When it comes to mobile development, using HTML5 has its advantages.  For instance, by using HTLM5 developers can focus on one user experience versus variations between multiple versions of applications (one for iPads/iPods/iPhones, one for Droids, etc.).  For awhile Facebook decided to place major emphasis on the HTML5 browser version of its site so that it could more quickly update it across multiple mobile platforms. However, Mark Zuckerberg concedes that this approach has a significant negative side when he said, “I think the biggest mistake we made as a company is betting too much on HTML5 as opposed to native.”  That is because they did not write the HTML5 application in a way that was as efficient as it could be on mobile devices.

While Facebook still needs to focus on HTML5 since many people still access Facebook through their mobile browsers, it devoted “too much” attention to the HTML5 version of the site, and in hindsight Zuckerberg feels that Facebook did not devote as much attention to developing and improving its device specific apps as it should have. Recently, it has rectified that by releasing a new version of its app for Apple devices that has better performance.

It is important for organizations to make an assessment of their mobile strategy. How many resources should the mobile version of the site receive? If developing an app is deemed important, how much attention should that enjoy to ensure that the apps run smoothly? The answers to these questions will vary from case to case.

5 Common Mistakes Nonprofits Make When Redesigning a Website

Here at The Brick Factory we work with a variety of nonprofits, trade associations and advocacy groups. While each organization has their own unique set of challenges to undertake, its clear there are some recurring hurdles that we jump through on many of our projects.

We put together a quick list of five issues that seem to pop up pretty frequently:

1. Building for your internal organization

For most nonprofits their website is a tool for the public to interact with the organization. While this comes natural for some, it can be a huge problem for others. One of the largest struggles we face on a day to day basis is to work with clients to transform the intricacies and detail of an organization into information the general public can digest and understand. Its very easy to get locked into making a site that is a reflection of an organization’s internal structure. It comes natural, thats how most of an organizations staff probably perceives what they do. The trick is that the majority of the public probably isn’t looking for information on how your organization is broken up into different departments that handle x, y, and z – they’re trying to understand in broader strokes what you do and why they should care.

My advice would be to approach the redesign with your supporters in mind. What do they want to know about you? How would they want to interact with your organization? Taking a step back and approaching it from an external role can really improve your site design and strategy.

2. Locking into a proprietary content management system (CMS)


I know – surprise, surprise an open source digital agency touting Drupal and WordPress as content management systems. Well, there is a reason we chose to work on these two platforms – their flexible, cost efficient and well documented. With a proprietary CMS you run the risk of development constraints, higher cost, and significantly fewer support options. Not happy with your digital agency? Tough luck finding someone else that can or will work with a complicated custom CMS. Want to change to another platform? You’ll likely need to pony up a bit more cash to make it happen smoothly. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good proprietary content management systems out there, just make to fully research all the options out there before committing to one.

3. No established web program goals


I can’t tell you how many times organizations have come to us without any established goals for their website. Seems simple right – collect email addresses, interact on social media, solicit donations, wash, rinse, repeat. Well its not quite that simple and it doesn’t happen with a snap of a finger or with the launch of a shiny, new website. It takes work, planning and time. Sorry to break it to you, you’re not going to raise millions of dollars online overnight, you’re not going to have a massive email list just by having a newsletter signup form. Don’t believe anyone who will tell you anything different, there isn’t a magic bullet for success on the internet (well, except pictures of cute animals).

Web strategy is like baseball, good teams know that you can’t come up to the plate and swing for the fences every at bat. Too often you’ll strike out and look silly. You need the singles, doubles, and triples to win games. While not as flashy, they’ll produce results just the same. Then, when the time is right, we try and hit one out of the park.

4. Too many cooks in the kitchen

This is a tough one. Internally, its hard to decide who has a voice and who doesn’t – we feel your pain. Unfortunately, if those tough decisions aren’t made upfront the rest of the process can be ten times more painful. There is nothing more draining to a site planning process than when mass approval is needed. A tear comes to my eye when I receive the dreaded ‘I’ll circulate this to my team’ email. We get it – its important to get feedback, just not on every single decision.

I think the best approach is to leave the details and as much of the planning as possible up to a small group. That small group should be chosen to best represent the rest of your organization and should have the full trust of your staff to make the right choices. Otherwise everyone will need their say and everyone will want to be the exception in what should be a fluid, overall web presence for your organization.

5. Not budgeting for continued maintenance and improvements

Websites are very easy to build and forget – unfortunately, thats a recipe for failure. Often its difficult to find the staff and financial resources to maintain your web presence. My advice would be to make it a priority and it will pay off. Settling for redesigning a website every few years and not touching anything in between will come back to bite you every time.

We see the launch of a new website as really the start of a project so we start the discussion of ongoing site maintenance at the beginning of every project. Don’t make the mistake of letting your website stagnate and become a brochure. The time and effort that you budget upfront will go a long way in making sure you will be successful in the long run.

Have some difficulties in redesigning your organization’s site that aren’t on the list? Let us know in the comments.

The New USATODAY.com

Re-imagined is a term usually reserved for remakes of curious 1960’s movies and second acts of flamboyantly-colored Dodge automobiles. Re-imagined is a histrionic way of asking us to give something a second pass. Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes was re-imagined with a bewildered Mark Wahlberg in place of Charlton Heston and the result was a very long first date for me that turned out very badly indeed. Dodge re-imagined their Charger as a heavy, brutish road predator that the police now use exclusively, it appears, to harass yours truly for excessive speed (court dates pending).

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USATODAY.com has alerted us to their redesign with a slog of banners and videos and social networking efforts containing the buzz-word reimagine, which according to my spell check, isn’t a word. I don’t concern myself with that any more than might I watch a video explaining a website redesign to me. Let’s just dive in, rather, and see what all the ruckus is about.

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I have entered the site, moving quickly past the new logo (which may require some discussion as well) in default view (versus cover view) and the initial pass is pretty impressive. I’m used to the big picture/story, top-heavy layout for a news site and I think that style makes sense, but I think this new idea might work out just fine. The big story, in this case Mitt Romney’s head, is high and tight and yet still unobtrusive because I have an additional 10 (and with a click, 20) headlines at eye level as well. There are a lot of choices above the fold and new visitors may find this experience a bit like fighting through a low end diner menu, but I’m willing to put up with stock info, unending layout options and other goofy add-ons to get through the experience (and this required blog post).
You can customize your experience here at USA Today. I get that.

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One of the options I might actually use is the cover view tab that allows for that top heavy view I’m used to. The photography is outstanding, as expected, and for certain stories the photography would be the draw. Below the fold are Today’s Lead Stories, presented either visually in a grid or as more traditional headlines. Right Now is a rather urgent title of the more frequently updated content that runs the entire sidebar. The bottom of a page is a truest test of a complete web design, I think, and USAToday.com finishes off their effort pretty well. Besides unobtrusive and attractive icons for feedback, applications, staff index, etc., the site index link brings up a full footer that completes the page design beautifully and usefully.

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The sub levels are not in any way watered down designs of the home, but content-packed homepages themselves. There is no real hierarchy in the site. Part of what makes this redesign attractive to me is the amount of real content on every page above the fold. Deep vertical scrolling has been acceptable in news sites for a while and will continue to be but having as much new content where I can see it immediately has been done with great care on this site and never overwhelms the user.

USA Today never capitalized on what their paper’s core strengths were, in my opinion, but I feel like they have taken a significant step here. This is a big news site now and a good upgrade for the online news experience. For USA Today, it’s huge and positions them at or near the top of the current crop news site designs.

10 Great Nonprofit Websites

As a firm one of our focuses is on building websites for charities and non-profits.  In an effort to find some inspiration, we recently looked through the sites of   Forbes list of 200 Largest U.S. Charities. We picked our favorites based on web design and how well we think they communicated the mission of their nonprofit organization. It was interesting to see the difference between the marketing needs of humanitarian groups and those of other charity groups. World Wildlife Fund, for example, used powerful photography to solicit sympathies, where the Metropolitan Museum of Art utilized a streamlined art showcase to represent the sophisticated museum style.

Following you will find ten great sites we came across.

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

Placing the photo near the action toolbar on the right is a smart way to draw attention to where nonprofits want it most. They also do a great job of making the donation tab stand out.

 

American Museum of Natural History

Vibrant photography in the slider beautifully shows the museum’s various concentrations.

 

American Red Cross

One large emotional photo and a call to help makes this site appealing and direct.

 

Art Institute Chicago

Using the artwork as a background for the entire site and the stacking of the toolbar tabs gives this a very contemporary feel — a feel true to the museum itself.

 

Food for the Hungry

Their black and white design is crisp, and their use of relevant photography that matches the color of their logo is a nice touch.

 

Direct Relief

The site has little going on besides a vivid, compelling image and a donate button, which is not a bad thing at all.

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is another example of an art museum doing a great job of incorporating elements of the museum’s style into its site.

 

Robin Hood

The grey and white with lime green accents looks good, but it also suggests a break from the norm, much like the organization’s mission statement.

 

Teach for America

They present easy navigation and great photography.

 

 

World Wildlife Fund

They not only had high quality photography, but their choice of images was especially powerful. The picture itself is a call to action.