There’s Too Many ThinkTanks

 

so here’s the story:

back in the mid- to late-nineties, i made a lot of music.  i was angsty and in high school, and spent a lot of time focussing that angsty into some screamy tunes set to bad synthesizers that i called music.  i even had a fake record label.  or three.

first, i used Abyss Records.  it was half homage to Slayer’s “Seasons in the Abyss” (which in eighth grade was often pronounced “ay-bee-us”) and half a tribute to the dark void of my soul.  because dark void records didn’t have as much of a ring to it.

when i moved onward from my exclusively thrash and death metal choices in music to more punk and riot grrl, and likewise my approach to songmaking, the label changed as well.  this time i released tapes under the CRAP Records moniker.  this was partially an acronymn for “Chris Reynolds’ Abyss Productions” and partially a self-deprecating nod to how bad the music i produced was.

think-tank-full-colorlater, when i got a tad more serious, and also somewhat better at what i did, i had an epiphany and found a name that was both edgy, serious, and had the same kind of dual meaning of its’ predecessors without the same level of sucking: Think Tank Productions.  i even had a logo.  this was about 1996.  the internet was young.  i was on my first computer built by NEC with a relatively new operating system called Windows ’95.  I started learning html by viewing source code and practicing on several GeoCities homepages.  I was connected to the internet via a 28.8 modem through a fledgling company called EarthLink.  back then, Think Tank sounded new and fresh, and i was pretty proud of myself for thinking of it.

i used the Think Tank name for various things over the years including music and a couple student films i did in college.  so, when erin and i decided to start a t-shirt company and she said she liked thinktank as a name, we went with it.  it was only natural to stick with the name when we decided to do web design.

here’s the thing:

it’s a long time since 1996.  back then, thinktank website design would have been cutting edge, new, fresh, creative, all these great things that they were in 1996 when i had the stroke of genius and came up with that name.  but now, not so much.  just here in the salt lake valley there’s a think tank creative, and thought lab design studio, and they both do graphic design.  there’s also a think tank in san diego, and various think tanks all over.  and they all do design.

we decided that if we want to be as creative, unique, and artistic as we say we are, we need a name that speaks to all of those things.  and we can’t be one-of-a-kind when there’s 9 other think tank graphic design studios.  so we’re changing the name.  we figure, this is our first year, we’ve learned a lot, and grown a lot, and you’ve grown with us, and if we’re going to do it, now is better than later.  so come january 2009, we will start transitioning to a new name and domain: enter Arcane Palette Creative Design.  i will still use thinktank for the new tshirt dealio i’m doing on zazzle.  erin’s gonna start making custom jewelry to sell on etsy, and has already decided to use a unique name for that; Arcane Palette will be exclusively our web design face.

this is only going to be a good thing for us and our clients — we’ll be easier to find, having a more distinctive name to go by.  when we create a site as arcane palette, you won’t be doing a search on google and say “which arcane palette?”  

speaking of faces, and arcane palettes — erin got me a photoshop filter for christmas.  now that may not sound exciting, but i’m pretty excited:

 

Mister Retro -- Permanent Press

 

simplifying things, cutting off painful extremities

so last week, erin and i decided to cut off iFreelance for good.  we’ve gotten a good run on Elance and we’ve only really gotten 1 fix-it job on iFreelance, the interface isn’t as good, the support and payment isn’t as easy (for either party) or well developed, and the jobs are fewer and tend to be less money.  so we closed down shop on iFreelance.

similarly, we’ve been talking about dropping heritage as a source for freelance work, as well.  we don’t make as much money, the projects are more work, the customers are often frustrated and upset by the time they get to us, they didn’t pick us as designers, but the company, and therefore the projects are typically less the types of things we really want to be doing. additionally, it’s been months since we had a project that wasn’t a pain and actually was something we enjoyed doing.  on the contrary, pretty much every single project we’ve had lately has been completely horrible, including the one i’m working on right now in which the customer doesn’t pick up the phone when i call, and responds to my emails in one sentence that does not answer what i’m trying to find out.  it’s a joke and it’s been a week and i haven’t gotten any information yet.

which has made us step up our exit strategy a bit.

the original plan was to wait and see how the off-season/winter treated us as freelancers and evaluate heritage after january and maybe drop them then.  at this point, the amount of stress and hassle and time wasted dealing with their stupid and non-functional bueracracy makes me think that we’d be making more money if we were not taking anything from them and just doing stuff on our own through our site and Elance.  more money, because we get more out of working for ourselves (since we set the prices and it all goes to us, so we make more from doing less), and because we’re not wasting time dealing with people who don’t respond to us and stressing out about it.  and time, in this business, really is money.

so.  the new plan is to drop heritage after this project.

i won’t say anything bad about heritage (well, not more so than i have already, i guess).  the experience wasn’t all bad.  on the contrary, we learned a lot, and have done really well.  but the system is flawed, the outsource department is often left hanging and seemingly ignored, with very little support from in-house staff or training material to go off of.  increasingly, and especially since we’ve been able to make money doing this outside of heritage, the inefficiencies and pain points of working with them are made more obvious and it makes the experience more abrasive.  it’s hard to be an advocate for the company as a designer dealing with customers when i’m so frustrated with the situation.  the projects have slowed to a crawl as the number of outsourcers has expanded and the amount of projects being moved to the design phase are hung up in the gathering content stage, and even those that do get moved to design are woefully incomplete.  at least when we’re dealing with our own customers, they know what they want, they have their content, or not, and know that they’re responsible to.  if they want a specific feature, we can give it to them, if they don’t, we don’t.  we don’t spend time and patience haggling about enhancements the customer doesn’t really need or charging them a gross amount for things that should have been included.  it makes dealing with customers, and the project, even more painful than it should be and takes time away from doing what we should be doing which is, designing their site.  in my mind, i’m much more able to ensure good customer service if i’ve been with them directly from the beginning.  coming into the story at the end, after they’ve already been pissed off for 3 months about nothing happening on their site does not a good customer service experience make.

but it has been a learning experience and a good jumping off point.  but it’s a lot like tech support — no one with any actual talent stays with it forever; if they knew their stuff, they’d be doing something else.  it’s a good intro job, but it’s time to move on.

freelance success!

after a month of being frustrated and writing bids on projects we wouldn’t get, erin and i re-evaluated what we were doing, how we were approaching the business, and what we should be doing.  since then, in a little over a week, we’ve scored 7 new projects on Elance and completed 4 of them.

saying we’re excited would be an understatement.  sure, we’ve had to cut our prices to be more competitive because many buyers are wary of new providers, but now, while we still have the new provider tag next to our name on our bids, we have positive reviews and a history of completed projects — we end up looking better than the other new providers.  and we’ve only had to stop bidding on things we didn’t really want anyway, and take projects we’re more interested in.  the ultimate decision was to play to our strengths — we don’t like making professional, corporate websites nearly as much as we like making fun, artistic websites.  and anyone who wouldn’t want to hire us because we’re not professional enough is someone we wouldn’t want to work for anyway.  so we’ve changed some of the language on the thinktank site and changed how we word our bids to be much more honest, and conversational, and less canned.  and it seems to be working — we think we’re really the only ones who talk like human beings in our bids and it seems to be attracting a positive response (oddly people seem to feel more comfortable with that…).

and this is working for ourselves, not through a third party.  which means that when we do work for someone they can say we did a great job, not the company we’re working through, which all just reflects better on us.  we’re really just excited we’re doing so well.  and it means we can cut down the number of projects we need to take from that other freelancing job.  it may be a while, yet, before we feel comfortable cutting them off entirely, but since doing these Elance jobs, we’ve had to chase down our customers much, much less, and they’ve been much easier to work with, and we don’t need to worry about calling them during business hours or really talking on the phone at all.  And oddly enough — although hws says that their customers are the type that want their site up cheaply and asap — the projects we’ve been working on outside of hws have gotten done faster than those for hws.

it’s all just so much more satisfying and rewarding and we’re really starting to feel like we know what we’re doing.  and, you know, i’m excited, too, because we’re expecting our business cards to arrive tomorrow.

busy busy busy

so we’re back from our road trip.  i really meant to post a list of the fun and interesting stories that happened, but, you know, i didn’t have time.  as per usual.  i would like to state outright, however, that hitchhiking for gas in the middle of Nowhere, Utah isn’t very fun, but truckers can be awesome in a pinch.  (I’d like to thank the guy from Underground Solutions who was driving to SLC from San Diego who picked me up, and also the guy from a local utah trucking company I can’t remember who gave me a ride back to the car.  For anyone interested, we ran out of gas here — note how there’s nothing around…)  that was the most interesting, but not the most stressful event that happened.

alas, we’ve been busy.  we added a new phase to the thinktank reconstruction and that is converting it into a WordPress CMS type site.  i’ve said before that if you want to do a CMS, probably WordPress isn’t the best option, but we want to have a bunch of wordpress themes that we’ve built that we can show off so we can show that we’re good at them, and for something small (although getting bigger all the time) like the thinktank site, it works fine.  we’re still doing the theme switching thing, but we’ve only integrated one theme thus far.  the prototype site is up over here and the old site will be pulled down once we finish doing the other themes (and then build some more).

also, we did a redesign of the kidsblog and imported that into wordpress also.  erin did the design and we’re super-excited about it.  i helped with the integration, but mostly it was her.  meanwhile i’ve been playing with the laptop and discovered i can use the iSight (that’s what the camera is called, apparently) to make movies.  gavin really likes seeing himself on the screen so we’ve started encouraging that by starting a vlog that’s posted on the kidsblog.  i’m really hoping to make that a regular feature in addition to the usual news, updates, stories, and pictures of the kids.  i’ve considered doing the vlog thing myself, but i still haven’t settled on it.  so, until i do, this is all you get:

in other news, i want to test out Elgg when it’s released next week and i need volunteers to help beta test it for me.  head over here for info or to voice your interest.