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Tools to run a design agency

A couple of years ago we wanted to modernise our studio setup for file storage, email, backups, remote access and software. “What’s the best setup?” I thought. I searched for useful tips and although I found some helpful snippets, there wasn’t much around, so I thought it would be a good idea to share our setup.

Illustration showing the various apps we use

For context, we’re a 9 person team but much of this probably still applies to slightly bigger or smaller teams.

What we had

For a long time we had a pretty old school hardware setup. We used a mix of Macs and PCs for design and development, had a Small Business Windows file server which also controlled our email and backups were done manually using external hard drives (which of course means we never backed anything up).

What we wanted

Before making any changes, I made a list of the things we wanted to achieve:

  1. Improve security of files (backups)
  2. Improve speed of file access
  3. Bring IT support in-house as much as possible
  4. Improve opportunities for remote working
  5. Spread cost by reducing one off costs and going subscription based as much as possible

Going all Apple

Our first change was to ditch the PCs and get everyone on a Mac. The whole team now uses 27” iMacs (apart from Mike who’s got a MacBook Air). We’ve got a 21” iMac on our breakfast bar which we use during our morning stand-up to refer to schedules and a Mac Mini hooked up to a TV in our meeting room for presentations and video calls. We used to keep the old PC server in a cupboard for browser testing until recently.

Thing is with Apple stuff: it costs a lot. So, we lease most of our hardware via Apple Business Financing. This not only helps spread the cost of ownership but also means we can upgrade our hardware every 3 years. Who wants to own a 4 year old Mac anyway?

File Storage

When we moved to all-Apple, we bought a 3TB Time Capsule to store all our files. This worked well for a while. It gave everyone access to files via the network and allowed us access from outside the studio via iCloud’s ‘Back to my Mac’ feature.

Recently though, as we’ve grown a bit the old Time Capsule has been lagging. So, we’ve just upgraded it to a 6TB NAS drive.

Much better. It’s now super fast across our 1GB network and now contains all our files. We’ve got a ‘live client folder’ where we keep current projects, a work archive for everything we’ve ever done and an internal folder for all our own stuff.

It also gives us complete access to all our files remotely so people can work from home (or wherever) when required.

Backup

My biggest worry before the change was losing all our files. With the old backup method of swapping external drives daily (which we never did), a fire or burglary could have lost us everything.

So now we have 3 places we keep data:

NAS

Our NAS has two mirrored drives, so if one dies it can be easily replaced and the data will copy over from the second.

Physical backup

We’ve got a big external drive that backs up from the NAS, so if both NAS drives die we’ve got a full backup on site.

Cloud backup

I really wanted a cloud backup for the worst case scenario—fire or theft. After looking at the various options including AWS and Backblaze I chose Crashplan, and it’s brilliant. After a long initial backup (ours took 3 weeks), Crashplan now just works in the background backing up every night ensuring we always have an off-site copy of all our data. Recovery is simple via the desktop app too. You can simply navigate to a folder or file and restore it to your desktop.

It wouldn’t take too long to restore our ‘live client’ folder if needed, but Crashplan will also post a physical hard drive with your back up on for a fee.

Email, calendars and docs

In place of our PC Windows email server, we moved all our email and calendars over to Google Apps. This has helped in a number of ways: We can now manage email in-house with no IT support, setting up new hardware is a breeze and everyone has much better remote access via Gmail and their own devices. We use Apple Mail and Calendar which work really well these days.

We use Google for all basic docs too. Our proposals and client docs are written in Google Docs/Sheets so we can all collaborate on them. I wanted to banish Microsoft all together, but we do still have an Office 365 Business subscription to get access to Word, Powerpoint and Excel for dealing with client documents.

Apps and Tools

When it comes to running a small design agency there’s a lot to do. We use a whole range of apps and tools to help us. Here’s what we’ve got:

Creative Cloud

We have a Creative Cloud for Teams account for all the designers and devs. The Teams version is great as we can manage users and set up new team members really quickly. It also helps spread the cost of software.

Harvest

All our invoicing, estimates, time tracking and financial reporting are done with Harvest. It’s not perfect, but it’s about as good as it gets.

Forecast

We use Harvests sister app Forecast for scheduling all our work. Forecast gives Sian (our studio manager) day-to-day control and a detailed overview of what everyone is working on. Ironically it doesn’t integrate with Harvest as much as we’d like, but it’s relatively new on the market.

Xero

We use Xero as our accounting software to manage cash flow, track sales, bank reconciliation and payroll. It integrates seamlessly with Harvest too so estimates and invoices are synced up nicely.

Yolk

Yolk, (inside Bluegg, gettit?) is a CRM/project manager we built for ourselves years ago. It’s not too pretty, but it really helps us have an overview of what projects are ongoing, keep important notes and allows us to set alerts for chasing up clients and prospects.

Trello

We use Trello for managing new enquiries and prospective projects. When new enquiries come in they get entered, and we have boards set up for various stages (meeting arranged, proposal sent, won and lost etc).

Basecamp

Like everyone it seems, email is the bane of our lives. So, we use Basecamp for communications with virtually all our clients. This helps keep discussions well organised and massively reduces the number of emails we have to deal with.

Slack

To reduce email further we moved all in-house written communication over to Slack. We have a channel set up for each live client as well as a couple of in-house ones. It’s also helped with reducing interruptions and shoulder taps during the day, as people can deal with any notifications when it’s convenient.

Dropbox

To avoid file mismanagement we don’t use Dropbox too much, but we do have a Dropbox Pro account for emergency file access and gathering content from clients.

Charlie HR

Charlie HR replaces Timetastic which we used to use to track holidays and leave. Charlie is more of a complete HR management tool which allows us to onboard new team members, create team profiles, keep important notes and documents, as well and tracking leave and sick days.

Bugherd

As part of our UAT (user acceptance testing) process we use Bugherd to help clients report bugs on website projects. It works pretty well, allowing clients to collaborate when testing and producing a kanban style workflow for squashing bugs.

Slickplan

We produce all our sitemaps with Slickplan. It’s pretty basic, but allows us to version control any changes. There’s definitely room in the market for a more sophisticated site-mapping tool.

Shutterstock

Stock images suck, but not all our clients invest in commissioned photography, so needs must. It’s also handy when you need a quick icon or two. Shutterstock isn’t cheap, but it’s contains a pretty wide range of images.

Vimeo

We’ve got a Vimeo Plus account for hosting any video we produce.

Bitbucket

We use Git for our version control and we host the repos on Bitbucket, which is sort of like Github but allows private repositories for free.

Digital Ocean

We’ve tried a ton of hosting providers. We’ve hosted a lot of sites with Heart and LCN but for the last 18 months or so we’ve completely moved over to Digital Oceansince it’s geared exclusively towards developers. It allows us to provision server environments specific to the requirements of each website/app.

Egghead.io

We’ve been subscribing to Egghead.io for Paul and Matt to keep their Javascript mojo on the cutting edge.

Treehouse

We’ve recently subscribed to Treehouse to help with the team's professional development. Everyday’s a school day, right?

Costs

To wrap up I thought it would be useful to list all the monthly costs for various services and apps we use everyday:

Crashplan: $13.99/month
Google Apps: £33/month
Office 365 for Business: £8.50/month
Creative Cloud for Teams: £228/month
Harvest: $90/month
Forecast: $35/month
Xero: £29/month
Yolk: Free
Trello: Free
Basecamp: $50/month
Slack: Free
Dropbox Pro: £7.99/month
Charlie HR: Free
Bugherd: $49/month
Slickplan: $8.99/month
Shutterstock: £165/month
Vimeo Plus: £49.95/year
Bitbucket: Free
Egghead.io: $19.99/month
Treehouse Pro: $49/month

So, that’s it. That’s pretty much everything it takes to run a small design agency. Some of the team called me a nerd for being interested this stuff, so I thought "I'll show 'em!" by finishing with my favourite gif of all time. That makes me cool, right?

Gif of a cat falling off a roof

This post is valid as of July 2016 so will probably be outdated quite quickly as we change how we do things pretty quickly. We are currently reviewing all of our processes so may well be able to refine this list soon. We’ll post any updates as they happen.

Any questions, comments or feedback on how we could be managing things better would be awesome—hit us up on Twitter.