Project management: An Interview with Lemonly
Hello and welcome to the first in a series of interviews that henceforth shall be know as "The Nusii Interviews".
Today I spoke to Becca Eisenhauer and Morgan Hauck who are both project managers over at Lemonly. Lemonly is a digital agency based in South Dakota in the US and they've worked with some huge clients. They've teamed up with companies such as LEGO, Salesforce, Marriott Hotels and more recently Entrepreneur Magazine. They specialise in visual data, otherwise known as Infographics, and I managed to catch up with them both this morning to have a quick chat about the processes and workflows that get Lemonly from lead, to happy satisfied customer.
You can listen to the audio version of the interview or read the transcription below.
Becca and Morgan: Hello!
Nathan: How you guys doing?
Becca and Morgan: We're doing great.
Nathan: Excellent. Do you think you could tell us a little about yourselves and your various roles at Lemonly?
Becca: Certainly. I grew up in Sioux Falls in South Dakota. I left South Dakota for about 3 years to travel after graduating high-school. After which I went back to South Dakota and went through business school at the university of South Dakota. After that I went to college and got into the banking industry where I started in finance and later fell into project management. Kind of by mistake. I worked in the financial industry for about 5 years and then wanted a change. There was a job opening at Lemonly for a project manager…and now I'm here.
Morgan: I went to college here in South Dakota for advertising and marketing and I actually started as an intern at Lemonly when I was in college. I started as a project manager intern and kept doing that my senior year of college part time, while I was doing the rest of my course. When I graduated I became a full time project manager here. That slowly led into other areas, so I'm also our community manager. I help with our marketing efforts online, updating our blog and our website. I'm kind of the voice of Lemonly on social media.
Nathan: OK. I can see how you sort of moved into project management but Becca, it sounds like yours was almost a side-step. How did that come about?
Becca: Sure. My position at the bank…there was a lot of room for improvement. When I took that position a lot of things were paper based. We were balancing teller draws using pen and paper and big Excel sheets. So I kind of just raised my hand and said, "There's gotta be a better way to do this." We had basically a AS400 system and we weren't pulling the data off the system to balance the teller draws. A process that took me about 30 hours per week, was cut down to about 5 minutes a day! Management took notice of that and the continuous improvement methods that me and my boss were applying and slowly led me into apply the continuous improvement mindset throughout the company. I quickly transitioned into a project management role, while all I did was continuous improvement initiatives within the financial industry.
Nathan: Wow, that's an enormous reduction in the workload!
Becca: It was pretty crazy. I have to thank the lookup formulas in Excel for that. We were just utilizing the tools that we had. So basically I became a project manager that focused on continuous improvement initiatives.
Nathan: As I mentioned in the intro, Lemonly works with some really big names. What is it that you guys are doing that others aren't?>Doing one thing and doing it well… has really opened a lot of doors for us.
Becca: I think we just started with a very niche market, with infographics. Our CEO owned an inbound marketing company called 9Clouds, and they made an infographic on the side for a client. They realised the value of infographics and from there they paid attention to their customers and started creating more and more. Lemonly was born out of Lan Clouds.
Morgan: Essentially why I think we get to work with these big brands is because we are so specialised, in data visualisation and the infographic space. There aren't that many companies out there that 1. Do it, and 2. do it well. I think what we have here is a lot of talented designers that as well as being great designers are great at visualising data. This isn't something that all designers can do. We have some great talent, not only here in Sioux Falls, but we also have remote workers in Canada, Idaho, Miami… So we really just look for the best people around that can make something look beautiful and also make sense. I think marrying that design sense and data is something we do well and that's why brands take notice and why we have the opportunity to work with such wonderful clients.
Nathan: Do you think it's made a difference choosing to specialise and go with a niche as opposed to being a general design agency?
Morgan: Definitely. I think doing one thing and doing it well and then refining that process and getting even better, has really opened a lot of doors for us. I think that if were were a general agency here in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, we probably wouldn't even get looked at by these brands we look after. Specialising was definitely key for us.
Caption: Becca Eisenhauer teaching project process improvement concepts
Nathan: I always love to hear that. The ongoing debate between generalists and specialists…I'm a big fan of niche. Do you think you guys could walk me through a typical project workflow? How do you go from potential lead to satisfied customer at Lemonly?
Morgan: Sure. Let's look at a static infographic client. A lot of our leads come in through our website. We use a product called hubspot that gets our initial leads to us. Formerly our CEO would reach out to potential clients, but now we actually have a business developer at Lemonly. Either John or Ryan will take the lead, try to have a small chat with the client, discuss their needs, price things out, and then get a project manager involved. We have something that we call "getting started" questions where the client would fill out a series of questions and try to explain their needs, due dates, all the logistical planning, tone, theme, and everything about the static graphic.
Then the project manager gets looped in and we have something that we call a kickoff call. This is where we walk through those "getting started" questions with them and discuss anything else that maybe got left out. Do they need working files, do they need a printable version of the infographic, where's the infographic going to live? Size etc… Then, us project managers would jump on something like Nusii and create the proposal with a detailed timeline, with the deliverables and due date. We tend to work backwards from the client's deadline. So if their project is due April 21st we'd go to April 21st and work our way backwards. We'd then send a proposal to the client, after they accept it we move the designer in.
We then prep the designer. Sometimes we have the designer join us on the kickoff call if we know who can design the project, from there the designer takes the reigns. They create something called a wifeframe and a moodboard. A wireframe is a really basic, black and white layout of the copy. Actually I should probably rewind a little bit. Sometimes the client will have the copy ready to go, usually we say one and a half pages is perfect for an infographic, but we also have a full copywriting service here at Lemonly so they can fill out those "getting started" questions and we will do all the copywriting for them.
We work with a lot of ad agencies, and they have the copy ready to go but for some clients we'll do all the marketing and copywriting for them. From there the designer takes the final brief and puts it into the wireframe. You won't see any illustrations at this point. You'll see maybe a shape that says illustration logo here…so very, very basic. And that's paired with something called a moodboard. Like if you were redesigning your kitchen, the interior designer would give you paint swatches and fabric samples, colours and things like that. There will be a colour palette on the moodboard with screenshots of different illustrations that inspired the designer. So those two pair together (wireframe and moodboard) so the client can get a look and feel for how the infographic will appear. Once we get sign off on the wireframe and the moodboard the designer moves into full-on design mode where the infographic really comes to life. There are also rounds of edits within the design and wireframe stage. We just keep going at it until the client is very happy.
Caption: a snapshot of a project management future process
Nathan: It sounds like there are several points of contact between yourselves and the clients. How do you manage all this back and forth. Do you use email, or do you have other software involved? How do you keep track of everything when there are so many moving parts?
Morgan: One of our largest clients is Marriott, the hotel chain, and they're on Basecamp with us. We use Basecamp for our project management and communication. So we would post our drafts in there and we would ping them each time we'd post a moodboard, wireframe or design draft. If we have other clients who are not on Basecamp, which most of them are not, then we'd use Gmail.
Nathan: So a very simple email, back and forth.
Morgan: Yes. But as project managers we are copying and pasting our communications within Basecamp that happen on Gmail. Everything is in Basecamp, but not all of our clients are on Basecamp.
Nathan: Do potential clients always get to the "getting started" questions? Do they always get that far or do you have a prescreening process in place? I'm sure you don't work with everybody that approaches you.
Morgan: I would say we don't work with everyone that comes to us. Sometimes timelines just aren't right, prices aren't right etc. This is where our CEO and business development come in with that pre-call or pre-email just to discover whether that relationship is there, if timelines and everything else work. The only time people will get those "getting starting" questions is if they're saying, we do want to work with you, the rough timelines work and those prices are great. That's when they get those initial questions.
Nathan: Great. I know a lot of freelance consultants struggle with the whole prescreening process. We sometimes invest time with a potential client without actually really knowing whether they're a good fit us. With regards to how you guys work at Lemonly, you've got your systems down…Do you think a lot of what you do can be adapted and used by freelance consultants to run their own projects?
Becca: Ye, Morgan works with a lot of freelancers. I'll let her take this one…
Morgan: Yes, I think the things we do as a process could definitely work well in the freelance world. Having checkpoints throughout the project and making sure everything is OK, instead of just working on a product with no touch points leaves a lot of room for a client to be unhappy or change their minds. So just making sure that they pay attention to those touch points and having "getting started" questions and talking a lot before the project gets started helps a lot. I would say what we do can translate over to the freelance world.
Nathan: How often might you keep in touch with your clients throughout the life of a project?
Becca: Most static projects (infographics) last about 3 weeks, start to finish. We would usually contact our clients every other day, just making sure everything is OK. Showing them where we're at, letting them know when they'll get a new draft, things like that.
Morgan: I would just like to put an emphasis on following the timeline. You put a timeline on there to fit within your queue, to make things are as smooth as possible. I think a lot of times our clients get busy, like everybody does. So it's really important, especially for freelancers to follow up with their clients and saying, "Hey, in order to deliver the draft next Tuesday, I'm going to need your feedback by today."
Make sure you stay on top of getting feedback from your client, so that you can move your process forward and not run into any fires that you have to put out down the road. Emphasis to the timeline is key.
Caption: Infographic for Marriot International[/caption]
Nathan: Those little details, are they spelled out in your proposals and contracts? For example, how you expect the client to respond, and things like that.
Morgan: Yes, feedback from clients is in our proposals loud and clear. It'll say, "Feedback due from Marriot, next Tuesday" or whenever the case might be. So we get feedback on the moodboard, wireframe and drafts and that can consist of many, many rounds of revisions. So staying on top of dates and making sure you're getting feedback is huge!
Emphasis to the project timeline is key.
Nathan: I think most freelance consultants have been on the receiving end of the waiting game. Often we forget to include that part in the proposal or contract.
We come from the freelance consultant world, and when we first started building Nusii we spoke to a lot of studios and agencies about their workflows and systems, we still do. How important do you think internal systems are to a place like Lemonly. How important are they to the success of a business?
Becca: I think it will make or break an agency, because if you don't have a process in place how can you be sure that you're continually delivering quality products to your clients? How are you sure of what they value? If you're doing your processes differently every single time then you're delivering different types of quality, maybe errors slip through your process…So you really have to prevent fires before they happen. The best way to do that is to get a process that works for your company, and keep improving on that process.
Nathan: I imagine that it is a continual process and something ongoing.
Becca: Ye, when I came to Lemonly, my third day actually, we went through a process map so that I could get trained and onboarded so all of our project managers could execute projects the same way…or close to the same way. Now every six months we go through our processes. Our future state becomes our current state, we practice and execute on that current state and then we improve it again, and again and again. We've made it a point to review our process every six months. We bring our designers in, we bring our developers in and we ask, "How can we make your lives easier and better? What types of things are you seeing that we're missing?" Everybody's involved, it's not just us in a vacuum making our own process up.
Nathan: Wow, I'm sure there are so many studios and agencies that don't do that. I've worked for a few of them.
Becca: I actually think that in the agency world, most don't. It's such a simple concept that helps tremendously, both in clients' lives and employees as well. It's a great piece to have in the puzzle. All you need is some butcher paper, post-it notes and pens. You just map out your process, call up the areas where you think you need improvement and then design a future state based off that current state.
Nathan: Who doesn't like being asked how their work life can be made easier!
Becca: It's part of your job as a project manager to make things go smoothly and improve the way you do business.
Nathan: Becca, I believe you were the champion for Nusii over at Lemonly. I'd love to know a little bit about how Nusii has changed the way you guys are approaching proposals and how it fits into your workflow.
Morgan: So I think our CEO, John put out a tweet…we were using proposal software that we weren't really happy with. John put out a tweet asking what software people were using and voila. What we like about Nusii is how easy it is for our clients. Also the look, design and feel really fits in with Lemonly's brand.
Before we weren't able to go in and edit a proposal once it had been published, but now we can simply go in and edit. It's realistic for our clients to change different elements of a proposal, that's normal…we can just go into Nusii and edit and change. Just really simple things.
Also it's not bulky for our clients. They don't have to login to anything, we can send them a simple link where they can see their proposal. Oh, and the auto-saving. You don't have to constantly save, it's just like a Google Doc where it'll save automatically. We really like that.
Nathan: Ye, I have to be honest when I'm using desktop software now I get freaked out when I have to hit CMD+S.
So what does the future look like for Lemonly?
Becca: That's a great question… I think we're going to continue doing infographics and data visualisation and story telling. I think the medium of how that's delivered will change over time. Something that we're looking into next is a lot more interactive pieces. Instead of just static pieces, things that people can move and customize, more of those storytelling experiences that people really sit down and take the time to read, interact with, play with, share… I think that's where we're heading next. Really incorporating wonderfully written copy into wonderful design with more personalised experiences. What that looks like, we don't know yet, but I think that's the general consensus.
Morgan: Ye, and not staying with the curve, but staying ahead of the curve. Being innovators, people come to us with new ideas. We're not reaching out to gather new ideas, we're the ones making them up.
Nathan: I already think it's great that you guys are so specialised in what you do, in that sense you're already ahead of the curve. It's great to see someone actually doing something a little bit different and reaping the benefits from that.
Thank you so much for taking the time out of your mornings to speak with me. Before you disappear and head off for your coffee, where can people go and find out more about you and Lemonly?
Becca: Go to Lemonly.com That's our website. You can follow us on Twitter. We're also on Facebook as well, but our website is a great break to your day. We have tons of infographics about every possible topic you could think of. If you need to learn anything about healthcare or best destinations in the Caribbean, then we have it all! Lemonly.com would be a great place to start. Our contact information is on there as well. Pretty easy to get hold of us.
Nathan: Fantastic. Thank you Becca, thank you Morgan. Have a great day.
Also be sure to check out their work here: Lemonly Infographics