All posts by LeAnn Nowak

6 things small A/E firms should consider about QuickBooks (and why I love small firms)!

I have a 25 year history in the A/E industry that started at a small software company in Fort Collins, Colorado.  They shall remain nameless but we offered an accounting/project management system for small architectural/engineering firms.  Over the course of the first 18 years of my career I got to know how these firms manage their businesses intimately.   That firm was acquired by another company that mainly had a focus on the larger AE firms and my love for the small business had to take a back seat.   My career took a different turn or two over the last year but recently landed me back with a firm that is similar to where I started and I love it!

Praesto AE was developed by an Engineer, for engineering firms (of course, working just as well for architects too!).  The system is a unique product because it doesn’t try to also be an accounting system – the founder of our program recognized that most small firms would be using QuickBooks for accounting and it would work fine for the financial side but that these firms need the same time/billing and project management features that are afforded to larger firms with some of the “big” (and more expensive) packages that are out there.  So, rather than replace an accounting package – we push your data over to QuickBooks for you.

A/E firm Principals have asked me many times about the size that a firm would need to be before they would move away from QuickBooks and look at some of these fully integrated packages.  There are many parts to the answer:

  1. Do you employ an “accountant”?  Is your firm large enough to have a full-time person doing your books?  Or do you have a person that answers the phones, maybe does some marketing and does the books?    Can you afford to pay more for what we might consider a full blown accountant vs. a bookkeeper?
  2. Do you want to easily be able to replace your front office staff if the need arises?  It is generally easy and normally costs less to find someone that knows QuickBooks.
  3. Is your outside accounting firm willing to work with you if you are using a system they might not be familiar with?
  4. Consider what you don’t like about QuickBooks for your A/E firm.  Generally the parts that don’t work so well for you have to do with the fact that you need the front end component to be project based.  (The piece that Praesto AE covers for you.)
  5. What information do you need at your fingertips? If it is project information that you need daily then having a system like Praesto will give you what you need.  Your bookkeeper can provide your financial reports for you as needed but I’ve had many Principals tell me that as long as they can see the over/unders on schedules and budgets that they can keep a pulse on the business on a daily basis.
  6. What is your comfort level with having your accounting system on the workstations of all employees that might only need time/expense entry?   Granted you can block access with security settings…but all the same it’s about a comfort level.

So if you are a small A/E firm and you want the advantage of using QuickBooks, one of the most widely used accounting systems available, but you know that you need industry specific business/project management, take a look a www.basebuilders.com.

And, remember, we know (and love) small firms!

 

“Kiss a lot of Frogs” or Strategies to Take Your Engineering Firm to the Next Level

I’ve spent the last two days in Phoenix at the ACEC Annual Fall Convention.  Not only is this an opportunity for us to exhibit and talk to engineering firms about Praesto (our project management system for small firms) but it’s also an opportunity for me to gather tidbits of information I can share with our network.

This morning I sat in on a roundtable where the topic of discussion was “What strategies could be employed to take your firm to the next level?”  Below is my synopsis from the session.  I was with a group of 12 Principals from firms that ranged in size from 10 to 500 and covered the board as far as MEP, Civil, Structural, etc.

 

  • Keep up on technology.  Building Information Modeling and Revit were the most talked about topics in this regard.
  • Grow from a single office to multiple locations. Go where the money is.  Grow organically rather than looking at an M&A situation.
  • Diversify your markets.  The most success is seen when you have one Principal or Project Manager in charge of each silo.   (This might also lead to opening another office…again, go where the money is.)
  • Structure your organization so that you can go after projects as the Prime not just a Sub.  Build the relationships you want to have with the Architects you work with.
  • Develop new leaders. Build talent.  Foster an environment that is focused on recruiting good people and retaining them.  Everyone is hiring from the same pool and recruiting good engineers to tough right now so be creative. Provide professional development and build the people you want.

When we reconvened to the larger group our spokesman said he would summarize it as “you have to kiss a lot of frogs”.   The firms that held on for the past five years basically did whatever it took to survive.  They looked at maps, they looked at markets, they kissed a lot of frogs and found the prince.

Industry Association Involvement: Five ways to help convince your technical team it is worthwhile!

I have had the privilege of belonging to the Society of Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) for more than a decade.   I originally “targeted” this association because I was marketing/selling marketing database software to Architecture/Engineering firms.   I thought I would go to a few luncheons and get leads and sell software.   This organization was a prime target for my sales efforts.  I had high hopes of bringing home a stack of business cards from each meeting.  I would drive the hour to Denver once a month, shake some hands, close some deals.   Boy was I wrong!

Instead, this group shaped my career and took it places that I wouldn’t have imagined.  I can honestly say that I’ve learned almost everything I know about marketing to this industry from SMPS.   I ended up realizing that I would need to get to know the members on a more personal level before I would be able to earn their business.  So I joined a committee. Again, my main goal at the time was to generate leads.  I soon found out that what I would learn and the relationships I would form would be much more important than just bringing home a business card.

Sure, I’ve sold a lot of software to the members of this organization over the past decade but the leads didn’t fall into my lap and it didn’t even end up being the most important factor in my renewal of my membership year after year or the time I ended up volunteering.  Instead, it was the lessons learned and the education gained.

At a recent SMPS event I heard discussions about trying to get your technical team to go to industry association meetings.  People were saying that they get the same feedback from their staff as I had felt when my supervisor asked me to get involved — “Show me the Money!  Why offer up my time when I don’t get a solid lead or a quick turnaround on a project award or a sale?”

Well, in 11 years, these are the four main things I would say I have gained from my involvement (which ended up including sitting on several committees both in Colorado and at a National level, going through their certification program, and even being the Colorado Chapter President back in 2006-2007).

  1. It gives you credibility.  If you are involved in an association and you have given back through committee or board involvement you will have the respect of your peers.
  2. You can practice speaking in front of groups.  Your technical team needs to sharpen their interview skills and they have the opportunity when they are speaking to these groups.
  3. It puts you in front of existing clients.  You might not always get a new lead on a new project but you will see and converse with existing and past clients on a regular basis.  They will often give you invaluable feedback in a more informal setting.
  4. Education. Most of these associations offer education events and what you can learn about the industry is priceless.
  5. Goodwill.  Do something good for your industry.

Most likely you will have to be upfront with your team and let them know that the leads won’t come pouring in just from showing up at the association meetings but hopefully you can convince them that the good that will come from their true involvement will be invaluable.

5 Questions to Help You Evaluate Your Project/Business Management Systems for 2014

Tags: Project Management | Date Posted: | Author:

Fall is in the air.  It is fourth quarter already.  The year has flown by.  This is a time to prepare your business for the year ahead.  It is time to assess your business systems and determine if you are prepared for 2014.  I urge you to take some time now to evaluate the following:

  • Your Financial Systems
  • Your time/expense tracking applications
  • Your marketing/business development tracking

In order to evaluate if what you currently use is working appropriately or if you need to make some changes for the new year – ask yourself these questions.

  1. What is our average percentage of profitability on a project basis?
  2. What is the percent of projects that run over budget? Percent under budget?
  3. Am I able to assess the time spent on projects by phase? Billing Rate? Employee?
  4. What is our won/loss ratio for opportunities we pursued?
  5. How much time are we spending doing duplicate entries between various systems?

Are you able to answer these questions? Are you taking a semi-educated guess at it?   Do you definitely know the answer to number 5 is “too many hours!”?  Many small architecture/engineering firms don’t have the proper business management tools in place to even begin to know this valuable information.   If you can’t answer these questions then now is a good time to prepare for 2014.   If you want to have better business success next year then it is time to put proper systems in place.  Be wildly successful by investing in industry specific project management software today.

I would love to talk with you about your business assessment as well, to help you be ready, – contact me at leann@basebuilders.com to chat or check out our website to preview our architecture/engineering business/project management software.

Project Management Software – Push Your Limits for Success (and my attempt at 104 miles)!

I did complete the Century.  I can say I’ve ridden 100 miles.  In fact, I rode 103 but I was not successful at completing the 104 mile course.  I will tell you all about my ride at the end, for those of you following my story, but first let’s talk about Project Management software.

As I rode for 10 hours in the hot desert sun and wind, I was pushed beyond every limit I thought possible.  Emotionally and physically.   Sometimes we have to push beyond our limits to achieve success.  We have to step outside our box.  We have to give it all we’ve got and then some.

Many small architectural/engineering firms don’t implement project management software because it seems a daunting task.   You might feel you are too busy, you feel like you are too small of a firm, you don’t want to spend the money; you don’t have time to implement or migrate data.   But you need to get out of that mind set and take a leap so that you can be more efficient and more profitable.

It is imperative that you are spending time on the “business side” of your business.  The most successful firms have something in common – they have industry specific systems in place to help them monitor project milestones and budgets, to track time/expense in a real-time fashion.  They have systems for proposal and client relationship management tracking.   You have to spend time on these overhead items, you really don’t have a choice – but implement a system that is designed for a firm like yours and you can be efficient in managing your projects, accounting and marketing.

It might be painful to make the initial investment or to put the time in to get your data setup and to learn a new program but if you push yourself beyond your limitations then you will be able to achieve success.   I won’t sugar coat it, it’s not always easy to make a change or to bring in a new software system but if you implement a program that is designed for your firm and is affordable and has training available that you can do on your own time, then it will be easier.  If you choose a system like Praesto AE, that is designed for small firms and integrates with QuickBooks then you won’t have to learn or replace your accounting – if you make a wise choice you can make the change easier.

Parts of implementing a new system will push you to your limits but parts can be easy (if done right) and in the end you will have data at your fingertips and you will feel successful.

That is how I feel about my ride.  Part of it was definitely painful but part of it was easy.  In the end I still felt a sense of accomplishment.  It started out to be a beautiful day.  We took off at 6:40am and the first 15 miles we sailed down the Las Vegas Strip and headed toward Red Rock Canyon.  It was exhilarating.  Even as we competed for “King and Queen” of the Mountain with 13 miles of climbs in the Red Rock Canyon, I felt pretty good.   I was on track to finish the ride in my desired 8 hours.  And, then came the winds.  For most of the remainder of the ride we were faced with 40-50 mph head winds.  On flats where I should have been flying it was hard to move faster than 4 or 5 mph.  The temperatures also reached 100 degrees when it had been forecasted to be in the upper 80’s.   As I said, I was pushed to every limit as the afternoon set in.  Luckily, there was a stretch through a trail system that was full of beautiful peaks and valleys and for a short time the wind was at my back, it was easy.  But then the last 20 miles of the ride was back into the wind.  I was looking to finish in about 10 hours. I couldn’t feel my toes and my lower back was on fire.  I could almost see the finish line (just under a mile away) when I was crossing rail road tracks and the wind caught my bike and on trying to maintain control I got the wheel caught in the track and took a spill.   I couldn’t go on.  My handle bars were bent and my body was scraped and bruised.  I knew I had completed over 100 miles, my original goal, and I knew my body couldn’t take anymore.  So I called it a day.  I was on that bike for just over 10 hours and even though I was sore and tired I felt that sense of accomplishment and I still call the day a success.  I might have failed at the 104 miles, but I feel accomplished all the same!

Implementing project management software might bring some scrapes and bruises too but at the end of the day, it will bring wild success and a sense of accomplishment as well.

Architects/Engineers – minimize your non-billable time and focus on doing what you love!

I’ve been stuck running on the treadmill.

I am sure that most of you have heard about the torrential flooding in Colorado.  I am lucky enough to be in an area that wasn’t hard hit.  We had some roads closed due to the flooding and the kids were out of school on Friday but today my community is fairly back to normal.

All of this rain has meant keeping the exercise indoors.  Working out, with it being just one week prior to my 104 mile bike ride, is a necessity.   I have to keep my muscles moving and keep conditioned.   So, I am running.   I don’t mind running but I would rather be out on my bike.   It would be more beneficial for me to be working on the plan, to keep my project on task.

You know the feeling.  It’s the same feeling you get when you would rather be designing, when you would rather be finishing up those drawing, when you would like to finish a project but you have to stop what you are doing and take care of the business.   Maybe you have to bug your employees to get timesheets in or you have to get invoices out the door.   Maybe you are trying to see if your project is on track to meet a milestone and you have to dig through paperwork and make phone calls to find out what you need to know.  You get stuck doing something that needs to be done but you would rather be doing something else.   You are taking time away from billable work and taking care of the overhead.

I want to be as efficient as possible in my workouts so when I get on the treadmill I do use some inclines and I try to do intervals so that I get the most out of a limited amount of time and so that I keep my legs in good working order for the bike ride that is so quickly approaching.

I know you want to be as efficient in taking care of business as you can be so that you can get back to really what matters to you as well.  It is worth the investment to have an industry specific project management system.  If you can cut the time it takes to get your invoicing done, if you can put your fingertips on project reporting – such as milestones and budgets then you can get back to what you love.  You can be more efficient and stay focused on the project work and the work that brings money in the door.

I have to do the treadmill and you have to take care of the business.  But let’s all be as effective as we can so that our real projects are wildly successful.

Check out Praesto AE if you need a robust business/project management system that is designed with the small firm in mind.

(My thoughts go out to those more seriously affected by the Colorado floods and to those suffering from loss on the New Jersey shore once again.)

What derails your projects? Architects/Engineers need to manage “flat tires”!

My cycling training plans have taken some unexpected turns during the past few rides.  I’ve been derailed with a small accident, flat tires, dropped chains and even trains stopped and stuck in my planned path (twice!).   These are all things that a rider can recover from but it definitely changes the plans for the day and in turn that can affect my overall training plan as I am closing in on my Centric – now just two weeks away.

What derails your plans — your projects?   Is it scope creep?  Is it low utilization? Is it not properly allocating resources? Is it a long invoice cycle?  Maybe your budget wasn’t correct to start with and now you have unforeseen change orders.

As an Architect or Engineer you have to closely monitor many facets of a project in order to stay on track and many things can easily derail a project from coming in on budget or on time.    If you have inefficient software systems it can become nearly impossible to manage all of the different parts of the project that need to come together to ensure success.

The right software will let you create your fee proposals, set budgets, manage your resources, shorten your invoice cycle and track change orders.   The right tools will put information at your fingertips that can help to quickly monitor all of these areas so that when you are derailed you can react quickly and make changes to get back on track.

Being able to dust off my wounds, fix my flat or my chain or to re-route around a stuck train will keep me on my bike.  I know I can’t avoid these issues entirely but I need to be able to react to the unforeseen circumstances so I can keep moving forward with the most success possible.   Of course, an industry specific project/business management software system isn’t going to increase your utilization or make certain that you have the right resources available at all the right times but it will let you react so you too can keep moving forward and reach max success.

Architects/Engineers: It’s time to plan for 2014, ask yourself these 5 questions…

It’s after Labor Day and normally that brings a feeling of Fall in the air, but here in Colorado the heat continues.  It is expected to be near 95 degrees every day this week.  The 104 mile road bike ride that I am training for later this month is in Las Vegas so the heat here brings an opportunity for me to train for what could be a 100 degree (plus) day for the Gran Fondo.

I have to be prepared for what is ahead of me.  I assessed the situation and built out my list. I have to fill both of my water bottles and a Camel Back.  I have to have liquid gels to replenish my energy.  I need to lather on sunscreen and continue to apply lip balm throughout the ride. I need to remind myself to stop at all support stations to take in a moment of shade under a tent or to douse myself with a water bottle to help feel refreshed for the next segment of miles ahead.   The ride is a few weeks off but I can’t wait until the last minute to plan.

To me, Labor Day also signals heading into year-end, fourth quarter will be here soon.    This is a time to prepare your business for the year ahead.  It is time to assess your business systems and determine if you are prepared for 2014.  I urge you to take some time now to evaluate the following:

  1. Your Financial Systems
  2. Your time/expense tracking applications
  3. Your marketing/business development tracking

In order to evaluate if what you currently use is working appropriately or if you need to make some changes for the new year – ask yourself these questions.

  1. What is our average percentage of profitability on a project basis?
  2. What is the percent of projects that run over budget? Percent under budget?
  3. Am I able to assess the time spent on projects by phase? Billing Rate? Employee?
  4. What is our won/loss ratio for opportunities we pursued?
  5. How much time are we spending doing duplicate entries between various systems?

Are you able to answer these questions? Are you taking a semi-educated guess at it?   Do you definitely know the answer to number 5 is “too many hours!”?  Many small architecture/engineering firms don’t have the proper business management tools in place to even begin to know this valuable information.   If you can’t answer these questions then now is a good time to prepare for 2014.   If you want to have better business success next year then it is time to put proper systems in place.  Be wildly successful by investing in industry specific project management software today.

I asked myself many questions (and did a lot of research) in order to know how to prepare for a bike ride in the desert, so I could decide what equipment I need to have, what has been working and what needs changed.  I am taking the steps now to be ready.   I would love to talk with you about your business assessment as well, to help you be ready, – contact me at leann@basebuilders.com to chat or check out our website to preview our architecture/engineering business/project management software.

The Business of Architecture/Engineering: It’s not the fun part?! Five things your systems should do!

You set out to build and design.  You wanted to make an impact in the built-environment.    You wanted to spend your days doing what you are really good at.   You got a degree.  You probably chose a specialty.   You found a job – or maybe started a firm of your own.

Then came time sheets, and the need to track reimbursable expenses, and to setup phases/activities and be able to break down an invoice that gives the client detail in all of those areas.   It came time to budget and to set project milestones.  It came time to determine if you were profitable – not just overall but on a project basis, because you realized you need to know where to spend your time and focus your efforts.   Then you need to do business development and write proposals and follow-up with existing, potential and past clients.  And, dare I use the word collections?

Did you think you could get by with using a combination of disparate systems to track all of the above business entities? Are you spending hours doing duplicate entries between your spreadsheets, home grown databases and generic accounting systems?   Does this pain sound familiar?

It gives me a headache just writing/reading about all of it.  So how can it be fun?   It can be fun if it’s painless, it can fun if it is done quickly and with the right tools.  It can be fun if it yields results and keeps you spending more time doing what you love and less time on non-billable overhead.

Whether you are a Principal or you are an accountable employee, as an Architect or Engineer, you will need to be involved in the business side of the business.

So let’s picture a prettier world.

  1. Your staff is entering time slips on their iPad or iPhones, they are putting these entries and expenses into a system designed for Architects/Engineers so they have activated phases/activities available to them.
  2. Project Managers are able to take this project data and have real-time information at your fingertips that will let you know if you are on, over or under budget.  Your project milestones are also right in front of you so you can see if there are any delays or room to wiggle.
  3. All of the data you are entering into your AE specific system is flowing right over to QuickBooks so your accounting team has the data they need, in a system they are familiar with.
  4. The same system has an address book of all clients/contacts – tied to projects.  You can enter your notes, follow-up and tasks so you can track your business development efforts and client promises.
  5. As a bonus, you can also prepare your proposals from this same, single system.  You have access to past data to use for preparing the next pursuit and you can forecast on what you expect in the door.

Make the investment.  Find a business/project management system that is built for you and what you do so that you can do what you love – build and design and leave the work to your systems.  And, have fun doing it.  “Do it with passion or not at all!”

You’re selling your time right? 4 timesheet metrics Architects/Engineers should measure.

If I’ve learned anything in the past weeks of training to cycle 100 miles it is that you really need to know which metrics to measure and you need to do it!   With the new Garmin tool, I had so much information at my disposal that I really needed to figure out what to focus on – the cadence, the miles per hour, the heat of the pavement, etc.    I know that all of the information is important and there are times that each metric has its’ purpose but after a lot of research and reading, I decided which numbers were most important to me and I’ve used this information to help me be more successful in my rides.

As Architects and Engineers, if you have a project management system in place, you will also have a lot of information available to you at your fingertips.  Just as with the information the Garmin provides me, this is all good information to have — but really, what is the most important?

You have information (or should with the right system) on project profitability, you can see if your projects are over or under budget and on target for schedule or if you are going to be behind.  You can analyze your fees, earned values and ratios. But what is most important?   As an Architectural or Engineering firm you are selling time, you are selling the skills of your team.  So isn’t it critical to measure how that time is spent?

At a minimum, by project you should be able to graphically measure time spent by:

  1. Phase
  2. Billing Rate (Staff Type)
  3. Staff (specific employee)
  4. Activity (Task)

If you can monitor where you time is being spent on your projects, you can make your staff more efficient so billable hours are maximized.  You will also want good reports that will break down direct vs. indirect and take a profitability factor into account and show you potential billings from each employee.

For my cycling, I am choosing to measure miles per hour.  There is a lot of good information available to me but when I can look right down at the monitor and know that I need to kick it up a notch so that I can meet my scheduled time  — well, that is the number I want at my fingertips.  I might need to know my cadence in order to pick up the speed, but ultimately it is staying on schedule that matters to me.

If you could look right at your monitor and see if your time is being spent appropriately (on the right phases, tasks, etc.) – wouldn’t that be the most important numbers you would want to monitor?  In the end it might be most important to measure profitability but you can’t be profitable if you are not appropriately selling your time.

Visit www.basebuilders.com to learn more about time tracking for Architects/Engineers.