5 Steps for Taking on Something New

Jun 24 2011 by Phillip Zelnar | 11 Comments

It’s a scenario most solo web professionals find themselves in now and then: You have the opportunity to work on a project that includes something you haven’t done before, and that something is pretty big. Maybe it’s editing video for the web, conducting user-testing, or creating a mobile web design.

Whatever it is, it seems to be a capability worth adding to your repertoire.

But how do you know if it’s the right move? And what should you tell your client about your lack of experience?

It’s happened to me, both as an independent consultant and as the owner of a small design and development firm (Poccuo).

After countless conversations about "investing in learning" and "the ethics of competency," I figured I’d share five steps that I fall back on when the opportunity to add a new capability pops up.

1. Do Your Homework

If you’re considering taking on a task you haven’t tackled before, it’s key to understand what’s involved before you commit to the project.

Take some time to check out blogs, books, tutorials, and tech docs on the subject. Don’t worry about the details just yet, just the big picture: Are you confident that you can tackle the task? How much time will it take to learn the ins-and-outs? Will you need new hardware/software?

Once you’ve taken a good look at what’s involved, you can make an informed judgment about how doable it really is.

Feeling iffy, unclear, or like you could easily get in over your head? Then it’s probably not a good fit, or at least not something that you want to try to learn in the context of client work.

2. Decide If It’s a Good Fit

Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should, right? Deciding on taking on something new and investing your time in learning a new capability isn’t just about the project at hand, but also about where you want to go after that project.

I usually try to avoid business clich├ęs like "think about your long-term strategy," but in this case, it applies completely.

Learning usually involves a significant investment of time and effort, whether in the form of formal training or trial and error. Additionally, a new skill is like a car — it needs constant maintenance and regular refueling, both of which take time and resources.

In the context of client work, it’s inherently more stressful and risky to decide to take on something new than sticking to your tried-and-true skills.

Below are some questions to ask yourself to help you decide if taking on something new is an investment worth making.

Will this new skill extend your capabilities in a way that makes sense? If the service is in demand and will help you land future projects — for example designing/developing mobile sites is currently a lucrative and relatively new space — then it’s probably a good investment because you’ll achieve an ongoing return.

But if the project requires you to learn an outdated programming language that no one is likely to ask for down the road, it may not be the best way to use your resources. Sure, you’ll be able to tackle the project at hand, but then what? If the skill doesn’t make you more marketable, it often makes more sense to subcontract the work or skip the project so you can focus on new capabilities that have more reach.

Do you have room in your schedule for learning? Learning takes focus and time, and when you learn a new capability, you want to make sure to build a full understanding of it.

If the new skill you’re tackling is coding HTML email templates, for example, hacking at a template until it "works" may get you through the project, but it won’t help much the next go-round.

When you’re adding a skill, try to learn the fundamental "how and why" so you can extend the new capability to a broader range of future projects. What’s this have to do with your schedule? When you’re rushed, you tend to focus on learning just enough to get it done and, a lot of the time, that isn’t enough to resell later.

Will you like where it takes you? Your goals should dictate the services you offer, not vice versa. If your goal is to focus more on information architecture and less on programming, learning jQuery won’t help you get there.

Consider if the new skill moves you in a direction you want to go, and don’t be afraid to turn a project down when the new capability involved doesn’t. In my experience, the "Jack of all trades, master of none" approach doesn’t map very well to web design and development.

3. Consider Finding Help

If the task you’re trying to take on is hefty, the project has a tight timeline, or you’re just not sure where to start, then it may be a good idea to find someone who can help.

My suggestion: track down a freelancer who has the experience you’re missing and ask them to provide consultation to help you get started on the right foot. Then if you get stuck, you’ll have someone you can ping for advice. It may be a bit of an investment (possibly one that the client won’t care to pay for), but in my experience, the stress it eliminates is well worth it.

4. Be Up Front

When a potential client asks you to do something you haven’t done before, you don’t have to decline, but you should be up front about your lack of experience.

Being direct shows that you’re looking out for the client’s best interests, and that you’re confident in your ability to tackle the new task. The worst case: they’ll tell you they need someone with previous experience, but you’ll at least have left them with the impression that you’re honest.

"There is no litmus test to say one firm can do the job and the other can’t, or that a firm without a certain kind of experience can’t learn."- AIGA. "A Client’s Guide to Design: How to Get the Most Out of the Process"

Whatever you do, avoid creating the impression that you have experience that you don’t actually have. Misrepresenting your capabilities is a lot like lying on your resume: unethical and, sometimes, actionable.

If you feel the client is getting the wrong impression about the services you provide or experience you have, don’t shrug it off — address it immediately. Otherwise, if things don’t go smoothly, the client will probably feel misled and, if the circumstances are serious enough, may even try to go after you legally.

And from a legal standpoint, if something untrue is presented as a fact, or if a critical fact is concealed or left out of the conversation, it’s misrepresentation. It isn’t necessary that misrepresentation be intentionally deceptive (when it’s not, it’s called innocent misrepresentation). If your client entered into the contract based on misrepresentation, a court may rule that the contract is voidable. Depending on the state and scenario, the client could try to collect damages.

So, be honest, clear, and careful.

5. Make a Strong Case

Put yourself in the client’s shoes. What will they be worried about when you let them know you want to take on the project, even though it’s something you haven’t done before?

Usually, two things: If it will get done right, and if it will get done on time. Make it your mission to show them it will.

When you talk to your client, share your research (and test runs) and explain how any experience or knowledge from past projects will help you tackle their request. I often find myself saying things like, "While I’ve never worked with MooTools, I’ve done plenty with JS and jQuery, so I won’t be starting from scratch." It can also help to reference a few projects that exemplify your ability to capture a new skill on the fly.

In my experience, clients tend to evaluate designers and developers based on personality and portfolio. If you have those two covered — and can show a track record for successfully taking on new tasks — then I think you’ll find that clients will give you a shot at the project.

Final Thoughts

Learning a new skill can be tricky, particularly when it’s being done in the context of client work.

And while it’s never black-and-white, I hope these tips will prove to be a helpful starting point the next time the opportunity presents itself for you to add, or to not add, a capability.

Related Content

About the Author

Phillip Zelnar loves design and building websites. Phil’s a principal at Poccuo, a boutique design studio in Washington, DC that he founded in 2007. He also runs Notologist and occasionally teaches a class or two. Find Phil on Twitter at @pzelnar.

11 Comments

Andrew Devlin

June 24th, 2011

This is a really good article for discussing client honesty. At our agency we subscribe to the Agile Manifesto (combined with sprint delivery of projects), and it’s a great way to progress through a project. It provides a lot of transparency between you and the client, which helps them feel that they are truly involved, and getting what they want from the project. Utilising a similar process when discussing the actual work beforehand is definitely advisable – and if you end up winning the work, your early demonstration of being trustworthy can help appease the client further through the project, when important decisions need to be made.

Tao

June 24th, 2011

I totally approve of this. +1 confirm.

Abid Omar

June 24th, 2011

This is really something problematic. Are you going to charge the client for learning the new technology? I don’t think, at least of myself, learning something new (say Ruby On Rails) and becoming good at it, in less than 100 hours. If you are billing $70/hour, that’s $7000. This is not a trivial amount of money, and may get for the client half of the project.

You need to stick to your skills. If, one day, they don’t pay the bills, go and find the new skills that do and invest in them.

Kyson Kane

June 24th, 2011

yep, always be upfront if you can do it–I learned that the hard way. lol. Thanks for the great article, this was interesting.

Phil Zelnar

June 25th, 2011

Abid –

Funny you mentioned that. I struggled with whether or not to speak to the billing issues in this article.

When it comes to asking the client to pay for learning, I’ve heard plenty of arguments both ways. Some folks think that because you wouldn’t be learning the skill if you weren’t working on the project, the client should cover the time. Others think that if you can continue to market the skill beyond the initial project, it’s unreasonable to ask the client to pay for the hours spent developing it.

Personally, I think it depends a lot on the scenario and relationship with the client. In my experience, it usually turns out to be a bit of a compromise, it’s just a matter of finding what feels right for both sides.

Floricel

June 26th, 2011

You said it right! This article is not only significant for the world wide web but this could certainly be useful in all aspects of ones work.

Plus going through all the learning process just takes so much of the time. But fact is: it’s just part of the whole process and which we just have to accept and do.

Great insight! And thanks for sharing it.

Floricel

Mike

June 26th, 2011

Well, I can’t see charging a client to learn something as fair. For those that have programmed we can all agree, because you have just learned something and it “works”, doesn’t mean that it is the best/most efficient way of doing it. Sometimes half-ass is okay and sometimes it isn’t.

Panos

June 27th, 2011

i agree +1

Vladimir

June 27th, 2011

Thanks for these 5 awesome and easy tips :)

Maor

July 16th, 2011

Thanks a lot for sharing! I’ve ran into such circumstances in the past and managed to get along with them. A great article!

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to the comments on this article.