Managing Internal Projects To Success


An agency’s priority is billable work which is at odds with the very nature of internal projects: non-billable work. Redirecting billable talent to non-billable work may not seem like short-term dollar sense, but smart agencies are realizing the long-term benefits, and their success is benefiting them in countless ways.

I’m one of the founders of Made for humans, a digital design and development studio based in New York. We’re the team behind Float, the team scheduling application.

We started building Float back in 2012 as an internal tool to understand who was working on what and when. It was a nights-and-weekends job. The first version we’d call an MVP, but really it was just all we could afford to build at the time. However it solved a real problem, and we soon figured it could help other agencies too. It’s now in use in more than 50 countries and used to schedule more than 400,000 tasks.

Internal projects can have many potential benefits beyond revenue: PR for the agency; exploring emerging trends to fold back into future client work; experimenting. “They’re vehicles for learning” says Andy Whitlock from Made by Many. It can also counter the increasing lure of good talent to startups, enough to fulfill the underlying appetite of ‘if only we could do it our way’.

Most people that have been in the industry long enough will argue that agencies just aren’t capable of successful internal projects. For the most part they’re right. You need only look at the sad state of some of the world’s biggest agency websites to understand the politics in assigning talent to ‘NB’ work. While large agencies such as BBH, Razorfish and Ogilvy, led the creation of experimental Labs in the late 2000’s, a lack of direct revenue and increasingly aggressive quarterly targets from their umbrella brands, left most to disintegrate. Their originators eventually moved to Google, and those expensive Labs were converted to meeting rooms.

But if you dig deeper it’s the smaller to medium-sized agencies that are figuring it out. Less constrained by process, not hamstrung by financial micro-targets, they have been given the freedom to try stuff.

37signals kickstarted the success stories ten years ago when, as a web design firm, they built Basecamp. They went on to ditch the design firm and build eight more products. MailChimp started as a side project in 2001 for The Rocket Science Group. Metalab develop Flow, Peak and Ballpark while still managing a client list that includes Slack. Teehan & Lax, famous for their iOS GUI templates, also have a lab for experimentation. They see the investment as “the cost of doing business”.  And Focus Labs just released the iPhone app, Clique, for storing and managing contacts on your phone.

How do they break-through where most others fail? Here’s a few lessons from our own experience building Float:

  • Define the project purpose upfront. Surprisingly not many people can answer clearly when asked: what is the purpose? But defining this upfront will help define what success or failure is. Is the purpose revenue? PR? Improved internal productivity? This work is going to be an investment so it should be clear what the payoff is.
  • Focus on applications where the path to revenue is clear. If the purpose is revenue, select business models that don’t rely on long runways or a critical mass-volume of users. SaaS and shopfronts (e.g. selling WordPress templates) are low-risk returns that deliver revenue upfront.
  • Assign owners. Ensure you have internal champions assigned to these projects. Without accountability it’s easy for projects to slide, lose momentum and end up forgotten when client work ramps up. Hold people accountable and schedule regular checkins.
  • Be your best client. Write a brief, dedicate a team and a timeline. If the aim is to fit this work in between other projects initially, that’s fine too, but set yourself a clear goal and deadline.

Non-billable work is often translated as non-revenue-generating work. But with the right support, process and management, the work can derive value for an agency that far exceeds an equivalent billable hour.