Be Like Chip And Jo: Start with a budget

The first thing I do when I wake up in a hotel room is usually turn on the tv and start flipping through channels. I don’t have old-school tv at home and I forget sometimes what flipping through channels feels like. It’s nice every now and then.

One of the shows I discovered while flipping is HGTV’s (of course) Fixer Upper with Chip and Joanna Gaines. One of the elements of the show that catches my attention is that they always start with their client’s budget. That determines what houses they look at and what kind of features they can provide their clients based on their budgets.

Good companies with good projects have budgets. This remains true whether it’s a Target Warehouse project or a “Uncle Moe’s Pie Shop” online ordering project.

Clients often ask me, “how much will this project cost?“. I counter with “well, what is your budget?“. This is not to take advantage of them. I am not thinking “I hope they say $60k because I think it’s going to cost $30k”. This is hard to convey because this sort of question gets asked when we least know or trust one another. I can see how this can come off as snake oil salesman-y.

I am not asking for a budget because I am trying to take advantage. I need to understand the budget so I can give immediate feedback on whether the project is doable, if it will be tight, or if there is plenty in the budget. If you want to an online ordering system and you have a $5,000 budget, we are going to have to get crafty..and it will most likely not require any code. If you have a $300,000 budget, we will be able to implement your vision and there will be plenty left over for continued support, your marketing, and maybe even your hiring.

If we start with a budget instead of scope, we will immediately start talking about real things that matter now. We stop talking about down-in-the-weeds, individual features which is a waste of time at this very early stage of the project. With a budget out in the open, the discussion revolves around the goal of the software and what the high level jobs of the software are. The small features will change.

The scope will change as the project goes on. Trust me. I’ve been managing projects for a long time and that is the only true constant. So the scope should always be managed by your budget as there will never be enough money or time to build everything you want. Start with the thing that is really managing your project.

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