The Poor Man’s Cloud-Based CRM and Project Management Solution
Posted Nov 5, 2011

Over the past few years, "the cloud" has gotten quite a bit of press. Everything seems to be going to the cloud: accounting, word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, customer relationship management (CRM), address books, scriptwriting, project management, photo editing, and even video editing. Most companies are betting on the cloud to be the primary environment where people will do most of their work and entertainment.

Personally, I'm crazy about the cloud. My whole business is run on it. This month, I'm going to share with you my homemade, cloud-based CRM and project management system that I've pieced together over the years. It can stand on its own, or it can be used in conjunction with other solutions you may use. The beauty is that it involves using programs many of you are already probably familiar with and using every day. But I want to give you some specific practices that can elevate your use of these programs to a state where you literally may not ever need to pay for another paid service again (or at least for a while).

CRM and Project Management Overview
Before we get started, let's establish exactly what I mean by CRM and project management. In a nutshell, CRM comprises the systems used to track clients and leads effectively and efficiently. It may include the ability to capture notes about clients/leads, send estimates/invoices, track communication, send templates, and so on. Arguably, the most widely used and well-known CRM system in the event video world is ShootQ (www.shootq.com). Originally created for wedding photographers, it has evolved and grown to become a staple for many video studios as well. Perhaps the most well-known enterprise-level system (i.e., used by Fortune 500 companies) is Salesforce.com.

Project management systems are collaborative programs that make it easy for teams of people to work on the same project. They typically allow users to post work files and comment on them, create "blog like" discussions about topics, track project milestones and deliverables, assign to-dos, etc. In essence, they provide a single online location for team members to share information. Perhaps the most widely used project management system among small businesses today is Basecamp (www.basecamphq.com).

Programs such as ShootQ, Salesforce, and Basecamp are excellent tools for doing what they do. But none of them are perfect. And as you might guess based on the title of this article, the investment in these programs can be significant for small businesses.

Throughout my 20-plus years in the business world, I've been able to use a number of CRM and project management solutions including Basecamp, Campfire (the CRM solution from the makers of Basecamp), Freedcamp, Action Method (created by Behance, LLC, the company behind the website the99percent.com, which all of you should be reading!), ShootQ (which we currently use primarily for our photography business Teen Identity), and even a FileMaker Pro database. Cost aside, there are two aspects of all of these programs that I've found problematic in my business as a small studio: 1) feeling overwhelmed with the learning curves associated with each and 2) getting clients to use them as they're supposed to.

Regarding the overwhelmed feeling, it's not that I can't figure these programs out. It's that I'm already doing so many things and juggling so many different forms of technology, having to keep up with even one or two more very complex programs often gets to be too much. So, quite by accident, I started creating systems within the programs I use every day: Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Evernote, YouSendIt, and Dropbox.

Regarding client use (or lack thereof), it was frustrating reminding clients to post questions in Basecamp instead of shooting me an email about a topic I wanted tracked in the system or getting clients to create their logins for one of these systems and getting them in the habit of signing in when necessary.
The most beautiful aspect of this radical system is that, for the most part, it doesn't require my clients to change their use habits. It involves programs that many of them are most likely using already. Or it may require them to sign up only once (such as for a Dropbox account) and then use the Dropbox folder on their computer just as they would any other folder.

Who Is This For?
The system I'm going to describe is best suited for a one or two person operation (most likely a husband and wife team). I'm guessing a good portion of EventDV's readership falls into that category. But even if you don't, I think you'll still be able to apply much of what I'll share to your business as you may discover uses and capabilities not heretofore considered.

I should also state that this system is just as imperfect as the other programs I mentioned. It definitely isn't for everybody. But if cost is an issue for your business (and in this economy, how could it not be?), and/or if you've experienced some of the same frustrations I mentioned, then read on and open your eyes to a new way of managing your business.

What Is the Cloud?
Before we dive into this system, let me give you a quick primer on the cloud. Understanding how a thing works is the first step to removing any fear or hesitation you may have.

In a nutshell, the cloud is just a bunch of huge mainframe computers located in highly secure and temperature-controlled environments. On these computers are billions and billions of gigabytes of data-your data, swirling and circling the Ethernet cosmos. Chances are you are already using a form of the cloud and may not even know it. If you use any kind of online email system such as Gmail, you're on the cloud. If you use iTunes, you're on the cloud. If you have any kind of account with a company that requires you to log in to a website to use its service, you're using the cloud. Your personal identifiable information, your financial information, your passwords, all of that information is already on some mainframe somewhere, most likely the same mainframes hosting all the cloud-based programs I referenced earlier.

The cloud is also very safe. All the sites I mentioned use either 128-bit or 256-bit encryption. Encryption is the encoding and transferring of your data. At 128-bit encryption, it would take modern-day computers longer than the age of the universe to cycle through all the possible decryption keys. In fact, your data is probably safer on these systems than they are on your own computer (assuming your computer is connected to the internet).

How Does My System Work?
Admittedly, this may sound convoluted and maybe even complicated. But that's only because I'm talking about a disparate number of programs. You may say, "Why deal with all these programs to do these tasks when you can use just one or two CRM/project management programs?" That's a fair question. The answer is simple: I'm already using these programs frequently. So using them for CRM and project management doesn't really add to my workload or learning curve. And as I mentioned before, my clients and/or collaborators are using them too.

Furthermore, I have bookmarks for all these programs set up in my browser. So accessing them is quick and easy and takes no more keystrokes or mouse moves than if I were in one CRM program navigating its features and menus. I'll go one step further than that. I synchronize all my bookmarks across computers and browsers using Xmarks.com. So whether I'm on my iMac, my wife's iMac, or our MacBook Pro, and regardless of whether I'm using Chrome (my most excellent browser of choice), Safari, or Firefox, I can still get to those bookmarks.

Here's a brief overview of how I'm using these programs:

• Google Gmail, Contacts, and Contact Groups as lead and client databases
• Google Groups for project discussions among disparate team members
• Google Calendar for reminders and assigning tasks
• Google Docs for templates, lead capture, and project management
• PayPal to send invoices
• Evernote for project notes and archiving client correspondence
• Dropbox and YouSendIt for sharing client files

Now let's dive into the specifics.

The CRM-to-Project-Management Cycle
To get a feel for how I make this all work, let's follow a prospective lead from first contact to delivery.

1. First Contact
Joe Schmoe of ACME Financial Corp. sees my work on one of my recent Google+ posts that somebody has shared and says to himself, "I need to contact this Ron Dawson dude." He shoots me an email that says something like this: "Just watched the video you made for JKL Studios. Nice work. How much will it cost for you to do the same for my company?"

I hover over Joe's name in the email, and in the tiny tooltip window that appears, I click "More" then "Add to Contacts." This takes me to the contact window where I can add all Joe's pertinent information. This is also where I'll type notes from my phone call with him, which happens next.

Ron Dawson

I speak with Joe on the phone for about 30 minutes. At the end of the call, we resolve that I will send him a proposal within the budget range he suggested (which is in the $10,000 to $15,000 range). I'll also send him a no-holds-barred higher bid outlining what we could do if ACME can kick the budget up to $18,000.

Joe sent me an email, but he could have just as easily filled out the form that I created with Google to capture leads. The information is stored in a Google spreadsheet that can be periodically imported into Google Contacts.

Ron Dawson

2. The Proposal
I log in to Google Docs and open my video estimate spreadsheet. I duplicate the template tab, rename it "ACME Video," and then enter all the numbers for Joe's proposal. I copy and paste all the fields to create my no-holds-barred estimate too.

Ron Dawon

Then, I open up my Google Docs "DDM Proposal" template. It has boilerplate information about me and Dare Dreamer Media and what sets us apart for other video companies. Even though I may have covered these issues in that first phone call, this proposal will be shared with other members of Joe's team, so I want to make sure they have all the same information. I tweak the proposal as needed, particularly by adding a section that breaks down the deliverables and total investment. As I wrote in my article about making corporate bids, I don't give a line-by-line breakdown, but I only include those things the client can actually see, such as number of shooting hours, final deliverable, and so forth.

Ron Dawson

Once the proposal is completed (and I've had my wife/business partner read it), I go to File > Email as attachment. I can then select the format I want to use to send the proposal: HTML, PDF, Open Document, Rich Text, Plain Text, or Microsoft Word. I select PDF. I select the check box to have the email cc'd to me. Since I've added Joe to my contacts, it's easy to pull up his email and shoot off the document.

Ron Dawson

3. The Follow-Up

A key part of any CRM system is the ability to easily track follow-up communications. I want to remind myself to follow up with Joe in a week. So I create an event in Google Calendar called "Call Joe Schmoe." I put his phone number in the "Where" field. I then set three reminders: email, pop-up, and, for good measure, a text message. Typically, I'll make this an "All day event" so that it does not appear in my actual calendar space (all-day events are listed in the top section of the day's events instead of within the hours of the day).

I do this because there's no particular time of the day I will call. I just need the reminder. But in some cases, it may actually be a good idea to set a specific time to follow up, such as 10 a.m.-either way works.

4. Closing the Deal
I get my reminder pop-up a week later. I go to my Google Voice page, click on Contacts, find Joe's number, and then dial it from my computer. I use my USB mic and Google Talk to speak to him rather than calling him from my cell; Google Talk has better reception. (Yes, I have AT&T. 'Nuff said.) Joe says he loves the proposal. His company decided to go with the $12,000 budget (oh well, at least I tried). After some chitchat, I hang up and make a note in Joe's contact file, which I can do from the Google Voice window where his name appears.

Ron Dawson

Next up is the contract. I head back to my Google Docs homepage and open my DDM Agreements template. I make a copy and rename it "DDM-ACME Video Agrmnt." I make all the necessary changes to the contract and then save it. Now comes the fun part. I have two choices at this point: I can send him the contract the same way I did the proposal, or I can have him sign it electronically. I use Adobe EchoSign (yet another cloud-based app; learn more at Echosign.com, which allows you to upload contracts, add fields, and then send the contracts for electronic signature. The signer can either type his or her signature (and it uses a signature-looking font) or use the mouse to do a real signature. Once the document is virtually signed, it comes back to me for my signature. After all signatures are complete, each party receives a signed PDF for his or her records.

Ron Dawson

Since I'm keeping this whole system in the "poor man's" category, I use the free version of EchoSign, which allows up to five contracts a month. Once I go beyond that, I just send a PDF to the client to sign and ask to have it scanned and emailed back to me.

Ron Dawson

I duplicate the Google Docs workflow spreadsheet I created, which has a list of everything I'm supposed to do over the course of the project (e.g., invoices, follow-up, meetings to set up, etc.). Via email I can share the spreadsheet with all the key stakeholders on my team who are involved with the project (my wife, shooters, and editors, if applicable). This spreadsheet can serve two purposes: keep everyone updated on the status of the project and make sure I don't forget anything.

I also have a master Project Tracker in the form of a Google spreadsheet that I share with my wife; with it, we can both keep track of every project I'm working on. I edit most of the work I do, but on the rare occasions I send a project out to be edited, I include a column on the tracker for the editor's name and the hard drive I sent to him or her.

Ron Dawson

5. Invoicing
My payment schedule for commercial clients of $10,000-plus gigs is 25% upfront, 25% prior to shooting, and 25% prior to editing, and then the balance is due prior to delivery. I use QuickBooks for Mac and immediately create four separate invoices for each retainer. I date the invoices based on the approximate times they will be due.

Another important aspect of any cloud-based CRM feature is the ability to invoice clients, remind them of invoices, and give them the ability to pay online if they like. Enter our old friend, PayPal.

I have created a whole set of invoice templates in PayPal. One is for video production retainers. I create a new invoice from that template. PayPal gives you the ability to upload your logo so the invoice has a branded look. I write notes to the clients thanking them for their business, and I let them know that they can pay for this invoice securely online or send a check to the address on the invoice. PayPal lets you work either way. If they choose to send a check, I can mark the PayPal invoice "paid" and designate the payment type as check. Naturally, if they pay with a credit card, the funds go into my PayPal account, wherein I transfer them to our bank account, usually immediately. Once a month, I download PayPal transactions into QuickBooks.

I set reminders in Google Calendar for sending out the other invoices, as well as for following up on payment for any invoices I've already sent.

6. Client Communication
We now head into the project management side of things as I start working with Joe and ACME on their video and distribution strategy. Communication is done through Gmail and by phone. I create a folder for ACME in my Clients folder, which, in turn, is part of my Dropbox folder. Dropbox is a file-sharing cloud-based system that has become amazingly popular. In fact, as of the writing of this article, it was named the fifth most valuable startup by Business Insider. It allows you to create a folder on your computer that syncs with the cloud. Anything you drop in that folder gets synced online and can be accessed from wherever you have an internet connection. It's free for the first 2GB of data.

You can share folders in your Dropbox account with your clients, thereby giving them access to any files placed in that shared folder. Assuming they don't already have a Dropbox account, if they sign up with a link you give them, you get an additional 250MB added to your account. You can keep doing this up to 8GB ... all free. I create within my ACME Dropbox folder an "Internal folder" (files related to ACME that I don't want them to see) and an ACME "Shared" folder for files we both can see.

Ron Dawson

Early on in the project, I'd ask Joe to send me a Video Brief, which is a document that describes in detail what the video should be like, who the audience is, what the objective is, etc. I save this to the shared folder. ACME's marketing VP will send me the style guide, which outlines the company's font and color palette for branding purposes. That also goes in that folder.

I also create an ACME "Notebook" in Evernote. Evernote allows you to capture anything (notes, webpages, PDFs, etc.), access it anywhere, and find it fast. Once I unlocked the true power behind this free app, I went bonkers! It's absolutely amazing everything that you can do with it. I use it for notes, ideas, receipts, scanned documents, webpages, and more. I set up my Evernote so that I can email notes directly to Evernote. Any emails I send to Joe that I want to be specifically set aside, I bcc to my Evernote email address. I add the tag "@acme financial" somewhere in the subject so that it gets routed to the correct notebook. I can tag the note with categories by adding the "#" sign (e.g., #clients).

The marketing VP wants to make sure ACME's branded motion graphic logo is used in the video. It's a huge file (almost 1GB). I don't want to use up so much of my Dropbox limit on one file, so I send him the link to my YouSendIt.com dropbox (not to be confused with my Dropbox account, with a capital "D"). You can upload up to 2GB-sized files, so it works perfectly.

Once the video is complete, I upload it to Vimeo with password protection. Joe has a larger group of people who will be reviewing the video, and I would like to have all their comments in one place; this way, everyone can see them and reply. So I create a Google Group, make it private, and then send email invites to everyone on Joe's team who will provide input. Think of Google Groups as a sort of miniforum where topics are created, and replies to those topics can be made by group members. You can manage the settings so that replies are emailed to the group members and, via email, members can reply back. (Basecamp and other project management tools work like this too.)

7. Delivery
Once the video is complete, I use my YouSendIt account to send the client the final web-optimized HD file.

Addressing the Drawbacks
As I mentioned earlier, this system is best suited for small operations where one or two people in your company need access to these systems. That makes it perfect for one-man bands and mom-and-pop shops. However, some aspects of this system won't work as well for larger teams.

For instance, the beauty of a traditional CRM tool is one database where anyone on the team can access client information or see a client history. With my system, only people with access to your Gmail will be able to log in and see contacts, read contact notes, and the like. That's why it's great for mom-and-pop shops (I'm assuming you trust your spouse with to access your Gmail) and one-man bands. But if there are others you want to have access to that information, it becomes more complicated. There are a couple ways around this issue:

Use Evernote. Make sure all-important client communication is copied to the Evernote notebook for that client and then share that Notebook with key players.
Delegate access. You can delegate access to your Gmail account to other Google account holders. You do this under the Mail Settings > Accounts & Import Tab. Delegates will be able access your email from their own accounts, as well as send email on your behalf (messages sent by them from you will be noted "sent on behalf" or "sent by Delegate"). Delegates will not have the ability to change your email settings or password. This is an excellent system if you're using a virtual assistant. Delegate access can be revoked at any time.

All other documents and databases related to this homemade system can easily be shared with any number of people on your team.

The other drawback is the inability to see all the activity related to a client in one location (such as invoices paid, services or products bought, revenue generated). I get most of this information from QuickBooks, but there's no central online repository for each client. I think that is, perhaps, the greatest drawback. But as I said, the system isn't perfect. But frankly, this drawback has never been too much of an issue. The kind of projects we do and the interaction with the clients we have is such that it's not important. They aren't buying numerous products. In most cases, they're getting one product: a video. The recurring clients may get another video next year, but it's still only one video (or maybe a film series all related to one project). I would suspect it's the same for a wedding or event videographer.

Our photography business is different though. Clients may buy numerous products throughout the year. So for now, we still heavily use ShootQ for that. But the beauty of my system is that it's totally compatible with ShootQ (or any other system for that matter). Use ShootQ and other systems for what they do well; then you can use my system for everything else. The more I can stay within the confines of the tools my clients and I are used to using every day, the better.

Try It Out and Free Stuff
If you're interested in trying out my wacky (yet effective) homemade CRM and project management solution, I've created templates and blank forms to get you started-all are free. Just head on over to www.daredreamermag.com/resources.

In the end, remember this: It doesn't matter what system you use; all that matters is that you use a system.

Ron Dawson (ron at daredreamer.net) is president of Dare Dreamer Media, a new media marketing and video production agency. He and his wife, Tasra, are co-authors of the Peachpit Press book ReFocus: Cutting Edge Strategies to Evolve Your Video Business. Ron is also a two-time EventDV 25 honoree.