Based in Salt Lake City, ThoughtLab is a “web design and digital experience agency” that emphasizes progressive, highly customized design and software for extremely diverse companies including eBay, Skywest Airlines, and Blendtec. Because each project demands new code, new looks, and new ideas, it has become very nearly a core value of the company that every single project differs fundamentally from previous work.
Put another way, when it comes to pleasing clients, ThoughtLab is always starting fresh.
Concurrently managing 30 to 50 highly diverse projects creates a demanding project management environment, one that quickly outstripped the capabilities of the firm’s past project management and communication tool.
“We really committed, but our previous solution ultimately wasn’t cutting it,” says marketing director Brandon Wright. “Too many things were falling through the cracks. For me in particular, notifications and alerts were a nightmare; I was either overloaded or not getting enough. We needed a replacement.”
That was two years ago, and the replacement was LiquidPlanner, a cloud-based project management solution based on a sophisticated predictive scheduling engine that usefully applies historical data to the uniquely customized projects that are ThoughtLab’s specialty. For Wright, LiquidPlanner is a way to manage marketing projects.
“My role is to bring in customers, to take them from ‘unaware’ to ‘converts’ with various initiatives,” he says. “LiquidPlanner makes it easy to divvy up tasks to my internal team, track progress, and track results. For example, for a recent A/B test we ran on our own landing pages, I created a task to install tracking software, a task to review, and tasks to automatically report updates to the developers and me. We found winning variants much more efficiently.”
However, LiquidPlanner does a lot more than manage the marketing at ThoughtLab.
“I live in it,” says chief operations officer Peter Tomala. “We use it for everything—scheduling, forecasting, efficiency reports, invoicing, you name it. A good chunk of my day is spent in LiquidPlanner, and it’s made us more efficient and profitable.” He can also put numbers to those increases; since Tomala joined the firm in January 2018, operational efficiency has increased by 50 percent and 2018’s projected revenue will be the largest in the design firm’s 18-year history.
Integrated into Everything
ThoughtLab is used to adapting and customizing existing solutions for their clients, and they applied the same mindset when integrating project management into all their operations. Invoicing is a good example: integrating LiquidPlanner into invoicing software turned out to be a revolution with positive cascading effects across the whole enterprise.
“Basically, we can pull hours from LiquidPlanner planner projects into our invoicing solution, and it’s saved us a lot of hours every single week,” says Tomala. “It’s also one of our best methods for assuring quality and improving communication with our clients. We’ll never go back.”
The process starts when creating estimates for potential new projects. Historical project data and LiquidPlanner’s predictive scheduling engine are used to estimate the hours needed from various resources, such as coders and designers, and this provides a solid schedule and cost estimate. LiquidPlanner is used to create the bid, and then, without any data reentry, the LiquidPlanner folder is used to manage and track the project. Managers have daily access to customized graphic reports and dashboards that monitor progress, and they can reallocate resources as needed with simple sliders and priority lists. These adjustments are automatically published to all affected projects and stakeholders.
ThoughtLab organizes much of their work into two-week sprints, and every two weeks hours are extracted for invoicing. All project hours are tracked in LiquidPlanner, and billable hours with descriptions are imported into the invoicing with just a few clicks. Tomala says, “It saves our managers several hours every week, and compared to manually extracting hours into a spreadsheet, it saves our accountants a day or two every few weeks. It’s a huge benefit.”
The benefits extended into two unexpected areas. “We’re actually able to do all our quality assurance in LiquidPlanner; we track the time spent on bug fixes and testing and have a lot more visibility in those areas,” Tomala explains. “And, transparency to clients has also improved dramatically. The invoicing reports we generate for clients tell them what we’ve been doing and that we’re meeting the schedule. It’s also an excellent way to track and approve any change orders. We still talk to our clients, of course, but meetings and conversations are reduced because the invoice itself is an important ‘touch’ that they find reassuring.”
From a marketing perspective, Wright says that integrating project management with customer relationship management has been important. “We have a link that allows LiquidPlanner and our CRM to talk to each other. It’s simple, but making our CRM solution aware of our project management allows us to send and track estimates and to greenlight projects.”
Simple & Comprehensive
Isn’t all this customization and integration slow and costly?
Not really, according to Tomala. “We were concerned about development time for the invoice integration, but fortunately, it turned out to be really simple. It took about a week for one or two guys. We’ve done additional integration across our entire enterprise in chunks, and it’s all been fairly easy.”
This level of project management integration with enterprise solutions is relatively unusual and may be partly due to ThoughtLab’s culture. “Most of our company works together in our Salt Lake City office, with only a few contract workers and some remote work,” Tomala says. “That helps. When we consolidated on LiquidPlanner for project planning, we did have some initial resistance—people were afraid of being micromanaged—but that resistance went away so quickly it amounted to a culture shift. We can track efficiency with full visibility to everyone, and now we don’t have to give ‘pep talks’ to the entire company. We can be more focused and work with individuals who need help or training. It’s created a lot more trust in our company, and it must be working—we’re growing by leaps and bounds!