I’ve Been Interviewed: Thoughts on Small Business, Virtual Companies, and My Workflow

A couple days ago, I was interviewed for the first time (okay, for the first time not related to my sim baseball league). Interestingly, though, it was by one of the members of my sim league. Paul Patrone is finishing up a class and needed to interview someone “in the field” about their job, their day to day duties, qualities needed to do a job like that one, advice for job seekers, etc. I figured I would toss it up here in case there is anything anyone can take from it.

Thanks to Paul, too, for giving me the opportunity to reflect on some of this… to really see how I’m doing things.

Paul: [What is] the history of your company… being start up is part of that, right?

Adam: I work for a company called BatchBlue, a small startup based in Providence, RI. We are a six-person company that builds web applications for small businesses. The company has been around for about a year and I joined the team this past May.

Paul: So what projects, activities and services is BatchBlue working on now?

Adam: About the most I can say right now is that we’re building our first web application for small businesses. We’re focusing quite a bit on simplicity, since small business owners really need to just get their work done as quickly and efficiently as possible. They don’t have much time to devote to struggling with software. Every small business is also unique, so we are trying to make sure we make our applications as flexible as possible—without making it too complex.

Paul: So with 6 people, do you have an organizational hierarchy? And if so, what is it?

Adam: We actually do. We have two teams. For lack of better terms, we call them the Tech team and the Communications Team. We have two people devoted exclusively to Tech, two devoted exclusively to Comms, and two (I’m one of them) that have roles on both teams. One thing I love about small companies is that I get to wear a lot of hats.

Paul: Ok, so wearing many hats is a benefit of this situation for you?

Adam: Right. I have a lot of different interests and this way I get to fulfill them all. I create mockups for new products and new features, then code the front end. But I also am involved in such decisions as how much to charge for projects, which conferences we should attend, how we should build our help section, etc. That way, I’ll never get bored!

Paul: I can see that, with so many things to do, how do you schedule your time? How do you prioritize what you need to do?

Adam: Even though we are a distributed company (meaning no central office and we all basically work from home), we meet fairly regularly, be it at coffee shops or somebody’s house. We have general strategy sessions at those meetings to ensure everyone is on the same page. But in addition. we recently started sending out daily update emails. These are just a few bullet points about what you did yesterday and what you plan to do today. That way, if anyone deviates from the main goal, they can easily be pulled back in.

I find that these emails not only help the company keep tabs on what everyone is doing, but also helps me to make sure I don’t dwell on any single issues for too long. If something is holding me up, I move to the next item on the list and then go back. This way I make sure I’m always productive.

Paul: That sounds pretty good, working from home brings me to my next question… what are the working conditions like? ¬†I’m thinking not too bad.

Adam: If you demand order in your work environment, then my arrangement is not for you. I have a 2 1/2 year old and a 6 week old baby, so I work around them, as opposed to visa versa. I have no problem working whole swaying a tired baby. But every day, I need at least a good chunk of time where I have both hands free to get my main tasks for the day done. Often, I’ll do this offsite at a coffee shop. If my wife and kids go out for a while, though, I’ll use that as the hardcore working session of the day. I also work a lot at night—and apparently don’t require much sleep.

But for my last job, I drove 70 miles each way to get there. I wouldn’t trade the extra time I have with my family for anything.

Paul: Yeah, not having a long drive is like a raise in and of itself. So, what would you say are your strengths in this position, and what are your biggest challenges?

Adam: The biggest challenge is that with such a small company, you can’t leave anything to anyone else. We all have our specific roles. If you let something slide, nobody else is going to pick it up. You are accountable for every aspect of your job, as if you yourself are an entire department or division of a larger company. But at the same time, when the company experiences success, you feel it on a much deeper level because of your involvement.

Paul: So what do you think are your [personal] strengths?

Adam: I pride myself on my attention to detail. I’m also dedicated to making anything that I create be as high quality as I can. Right now, I’m working on something that I didn’t create originally, so in order for me to be comfortable with it, I essentially had to blow up the whole thing and build it from scratch. I’m versatile, which lends itself well to the many hats that I have to wear. I like to learn and I’m not afraid to step outside my comfort zone. So, taking part in marketing strategy sessions (I have no formal marketing training, but I read a lot of “new” marketing blogs) is exciting for me.

Paul: [You mention] marketing blogs. Interesting. Are their any other sources of information that you use for your job? Sites, blogs or newsletters?

Adam: I avidly read many blogs—as long as they have an RSS feed so I can add it to my feedreader. Adding many sites’ feeds to a feedreader allows you to read (or more importantly, skim) the content of dozens of sites without having to go visit them at all. So, I have folders of feeds for web design, marketing, competitor’s products, and online magazines as well as feeds for social network communications (Twitter feeds, Flickr photo streams, etc.). It’s all about keeping a finger on the pulse of an industry that is literally changing every day.

Paul: So, run through your typical work day for me… just a day in the life type thing, but more details on the job.

Adam: I’m usually up around 7:00 when Ella (my 2 1/2 year old) gets up. I’ll open the laptop, but I would really call that “working” yet… mostly catching up on feeds and emails. If my wife is going into work that day, I help her get the kids all set to go (they go with her—sweet setup) and I usually am starting to sit down and actually crank through stuff around 10:30. Other days, I have meetings at 10:00. On other days, I have no meetings and everyone is at home that day, so I’ll find an offsite spot sometime between 10-11. From there, it is a hardcore working session with only occasional (if any) looks at email and feeds until sometime between 3-5. Then it is hanging with the kiddos, figuring out a plan for dinner, then deciding which child I get that night for the “ready-for-bed” process. When Ella’s in bed, I do things like throw in some laundry, boil some bottles, etc. and then start working again in the 9:00 range. I generally will do that until midnight or so, but this “working session” has more breaks for things like email, feeds, and stuff around the house. And honestly, when my youngest wakes up a couple times during the night for feedings, I’ll take a quick look at email (maybe even feeds)—just quickly.

But the nice thing is, it’s a flexible schedule. If I want to splash in the pool with Ella for a couple hours, I go do it. I can always make it up later. This is clearly not a 40 hour a week job. I knew that going in. What I told places that I interviewed was “I have no problem working more than 40 hours a week. I just want to pick the hours.”

Paul: What do you think the requirements and desired characteristics are for a position like yours?

Adam: There really has to be a genuine love for what you do. That may sound trite, but it completely true for a job like this one. There are a ton of web designers out there. There are plenty of positions where you can make websites for other people, employ questionable markup, deviate from standards, and ignore accessibility and usability and you will get away with it. Many places really don’t care about the details. They just want to see a web site. When you are making your own product for yourself or a small company, you need to pay attention to every little detail and make sure you do it right. It’s not a project that ends. It is your livelihood.

To make some text lay out properly, I snuck some inline styles into my HTML tonight. It works. I doubt anyone would ever notice. But I have to put them in an external sheet. I’m going to go to bed thinking about those ugly inline styles that are sitting in my markup. Why? Separating style from markup is simply the right thing to do. And I need to do it the right way because this is something I truly enjoy doing. Attention to detail has to be the #1 thing that is needed for this job. It also is the #1 thing I looked for when hiring people in past positions.

Paul: What would you say is the salary range and benefits for a position like yours?

Adam: Web designers that don’t go above and beyond to continually improve themselves probably generally sit in the $40-50k range, though I have seen some make far more than that and I wonder how it happened. In a position that involves this constant self-development, it takes a few things. Most importantly, it takes a company that will recognize those attributes and pay for them. But these positions—this is just a ballpark figure—are how you get into the $60k and up to and over $100k+ range. I’m not sure how much the industry leaders bring in, since I can’t call myself one of them. As far as benefits, the better positions offer more leave time and are more apt to pay for career development (tuition reimbursement, conferences, seminars, books, etc.). Most full time gigs, I believe offer the typical health, disability, 401k, etc.

Also worth mentioning here is that the companies that don’t “get” how much work web development is when it is done right don’t pay as much because they still see “web designers” as a dime a dozen. This is because they are happy with people that churn out FrontPage junk.

Paul: OK, what about advancement possibilities? With such a small startup, are there any?

Adam: As a small company grows larger, the staff will likely grow. So, this opens up leadership opportunities for the early employees, if this is what they are interested in. It is also possible for a small company to put a robust architecture in place that allows them to scale to hundreds of thousands of users with minimal staff additions. In those cases, as revenue increases the staff has the opportunity to advance financially. Also, some small companies actively seek to be acquired, which can lead to a payoff.

Paul: What are the expected changes for this career field?

Adam: For the web in general, that is an incredibly loaded question. But for web application development, I expect that the novelty of getting things done using only a browser (as well as the “oooh, shiny” focus people place on the underlying technologies) will wear off and people will just gravitate towards the tool that works best for them.

I think interoperability will be huge, too. Locked systems won’t get used. People will want to own their data. Developers won’t own the data, just provide services that allow you to do great things with your data.

Paul: What is your future outlook?

Adam: The ideal outlook for me is we are successful in launching our product and have a steady customer base that is really into what we are doing. We like to work closely with users via user groups, usability tests, forums, and blogs, so we like to know what makes them tick and what problems they need solved. I hope to continue this relationship with customers even as we grow so we can ensure we are fulfilling direct needs of users (as opposed to fabricated problems we THINK they need to solve).

I’d like to eventually expand to an entire line of interconnected products that help small businesses get themselves organized so they can keep their focus on the goals they started their business in order to fulfill.

I’d like to stay small, stay local, and stay flexible as well.

Paul: So what specific advice would you give somebody looking to get into the Web Design field?

Adam: Make sure you are really committed to it. A lot of the work you do will be undetectable by others. For that reason, you need to be incredibly disciplined. You need to make sure it something that you strive to be good at. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to figure out how to advance. If you haven’t yet, learn about web standards. Learn about usability and accessibility. Web design is no longer just about painting pixels in Photoshop. It is more communication than it is design.

Paul: Cool, and that is very true… I mean a company is trying to sell itself with their website. You need something more than the basics, but you also do not want to go overboard with the bells and whistles and scare off somebody too. Well, that’s about it. I knew you would make a good interview and you didn’t disappoint, that’s for sure!

Adam: Good to hear. Thanks!

Comments are closed.