How 4Site Interactive Studios Stays Profitable Serving Non-Profits

“Productive feels empowering.
I just click around the interface and I’m able to get the information I’m looking for really quickly.”

— Heather Schneider,
Senior VP of Production at 4Site

Digital creative agency

7 Staff

Washington, DC

4Site Interactive Studios has been providing creative digital services to the non-profit community in Washington, DC since 2001. For almost two decades, their team has brought hundreds of organizations online, providing them with ongoing strategy, support, and content creation services. 4Site partners with organizations that align with their values, which allows them to take pride in both the work they do, and the people whom they do it for. When it comes to client work, the biggest value they bring to the table is something they like to call creative user engagement. We spoke with Senior VP of Production, Heather Schneider, Bryan Casler, Vice President of Digital Strategy, and Heming Nelson, President of 4Site to learn about their company’s journey with Productive and how they’re benefiting from the tool to this day. 

Can you tell us what 4Site’s processes looked like before Productive?

Heather: In terms of processes, we’re a very process-conscious organization. We start every week off with a company-wide production meeting where we review the workload for each team member. We discuss ways to adjust tasks so that people who are overbooked can share their work with people who are less utilized. Historically, this was a very manual process where we adjusted the tasks for the week in a project management system. Before, we would summarize the information in a Google Sheet where we could compare task estimates from the PM tool with actual time worked. We pulled time entries from a separate time tracking tool which was used to send billable time activities to Quickbooks.

Did you know what your profitability was like back then—both on a larger scale, and from a more granular point of view?

Heming: Because our time reporting was never linked to tasks, we didn’t have a lot of insight into that. Previously, we got profitability information by running custom reports in Quickbooks Online, but we could only get broad numbers on how profitable each job was, nothing on the individual tasks, or service, or employee.

What were your main blockers when you started looking for a project management tool?

Heather: We wanted to assign and estimate tasks, and then track time against those tasks. As a small firm, we always had trouble investing the necessary energy in a complex PM tool like JIRA. We tried a number of lightweight tools, but ultimately decided our volume didn’t justify the time spent on data entry. 

What made you opt for Productive in the end?

Heming: We chose to move to Productive because we could both assign and estimate tasks, and then track time against those tasks. Utilizing Productive’s nicely documented API, we also pulled all this information into a custom report that mirrored the Google sheet our team members had gotten used to for planning our weeks. What ultimately sealed the deal was the amazing responsiveness from the Productive team. You’re so responsive to our requests and not only teach us ways to use Productive, but also take our feedback into account for future enhancements. We love the team, we’re excited by all of the functionalities of the tool, and we can’t wait to see new features get rolled out over time.

Heather: We chose you because from the beginning, you had pretty much every feature that we were looking for. I’m not quite sure how we found you, but we were all really amazed from the start that Productive was actually a real product, because it really met all of our needs.

“We used to have a project management tool, a time tracking tool, a support tool, a way we handled opportunities and sales-driven processes. Those were all separate tools that we had, and it wasn’t good. It also meant that all that data was being lost every time we switched between tools, or we had to find a way to normalize the data between them. And now, the fact that it’s all in one, it’s really a game changer.”

How has managing projects at 4Site changed from the time before Productive?

Heather: Since we switched to using Productive, it’s changed the way we operate quite a bit. We are able to now see out into the future—far more than we were ever able to see before. So, in the past,, I would get a question from Sales or our President, Heming such as: “Hey, when do we have capacity to start this?” and I would go: “I don’t know!” It was always a guess.

We’re able to see our schedule out for the next three months easily, and I can put in tasks where I know we have work coming up. That allows me to make sure that I’m not overbooking people or it lets me know where people are overbooked and that I need to get some resources to help us out with the workload. That’s been the biggest shift—at any time Bryan can ask me “Hey, when do we have free time available?” and I can tell him.

Bryan: We used to have a project management tool, a time tracking tool, a support tool, a way we handled opportunities and sales-driven processes. Those were all separate tools that we had, and it wasn’t good. It also meant that all that data was being lost every time we switched between tools, or we had to find a way to normalize the data between them. And now, the fact that it’s all in one, it’s really a game changer. I care tons about the budget and making sure we’re not going over budget, but I probably care more about making sure that the team has a balanced workload.

Heather: The TODO lists within Tasks, that’s been a big improvement for us, we use those all the time, that helps assign small things in the projects. Oh, and time tracking on each task, that is also a huge game changer. We never had that before in our previous project management tools, and while it’s been there since the beginning, it just still amazes me every day—that I can actually see how much time has been logged against a task, how we’re doing against our estimates. It just allows me to get in there and get insight into what’s happening, in a way that feels really empowering. I feel like it helps us grow after each project, to try to do better for the next ones. 

“That was the big thing: we were actually really able to lean in on the product features, whereas, with other tools, it was like a boat with holes. We were always patching or making excuses. Holistically, at the highest level, and the emotional level, Productive makes us happy. We like to tell other people about it, we like to promote it, we like to try to pitch it.”

Can you name a few other tools that were options for 4Site at the time?

Bryan: We used a bunch of tools over the years. Productive’s great. When we were looking at all the different tools, we needed a little bit more than just a project management tool, that’s one of the unique things that Productive offers. A lot of the other tools will say “Hey, we have time tracking!” and they go, “We’re integrated with Harvest,” or another time tracker. Integration, yes, as far as a bullet on some marketing materials, but not actual meaningful value for us as a team. Instead, it creates more overhead and more burden for us, instead of solving problems. So, when we looked at Productive we saw it was all in there, and it was actually well done.

That was the big thing: we were actually really able to lean in on the product features, whereas, with other tools, it was like a boat with holes. We were always patching or making excuses. Holistically, at the highest level, and at the emotional level, Productive makes us happy. We like to tell other people about it, we like to promote it, we like to try to pitch it. Since we’ve been on Productive, one of the things that has changed dramatically is we really confidently enforce that when a project starts, all of our communication goes through Productive. We don’t do person-to-person email unless it’s our client’s lawyer who we’re talking to.

What about your interaction with the Productive team?

Bryan: One of the big things is that you really listen to feedback and the rate at which you incorporate that feedback—that, for me, is a feature of being with Productive. You guys are super accessible, you actually do what you say you’re going to do, it’s done in a thoughtful way, instead of a way that adds more burden.

Heather: Whenever I write to your Support team, I always find that I’m struggling not to write “Hi, team!” and I’m happy to talk to everyone, because I do consider this a partnership. The way that we interact, it’s not really transactional like we’re just some unknown customer to you. It could be because I’m very vocal, but it does feel like it’s a really good partnership between Productive and our team, and we do all feel like our feedback is being heard.

We’re really well aligned in terms of what your expectations are regarding the tool, and ours. How about your sales processes? Do you manage that in Productive, too?

Heming: We’ve been using the Sales tool quite a bit more since we’ve been using custom fields because we can track additional data, and the big thing for us is doing revenue projection. This is because we have the probability, the deal amounts, and then we added a couple of custom fields so that we can more finely tune that projection.

Bryan: The Sales feature in Productive is nice since we enter the data once, and then if we win the job, the client and budgets are already set up. It also saves us a lot of time communicating the details of the job once the deal is won and transformed into a new project within the system. I just want the tool to work for us and be a non-issue for our clients. I don’t want them to ever be talking to me about Productive. If they’re talking about the product, then it’s not fading into the background and just being a tool in the project.

We know you guys are big on profitability and tracking time. In general, you want to be mindful about how much profit you’re bringing in. What do you feel, has Productive helped you with monitoring your margins?

Heming: Yeah, it made it a lot easier to check out the productivity per person or job. When the crisis hit, all of our event production jobs dried up. So, switching those resources over to different jobs was a lot easier and understanding where the new revenue was coming from has helped me plan. It’s a very simple calculation that’s done and I can just pull up the report,

Bryan: I think the other thing is that when you’re split across lots of tools, you don’t feel as confident as to what’s in there. Is it capturing all the information that needs to be captured? With Productive, it’s all in one place, for the most part.

Heming: As a professional services firm that works for non-profits, our margins have always been tight, so we’re constantly looking for ways to improve our efficiency. Whether it’s through communicating with clients through Productive by adding them to our projects, or understanding where we consistently over or under-estimate our work. Now, we can see a lot of that information built right into the UI of Productive. And we’ve entered in all our cost and overhead information, so we look forward to seeing the numbers for each of our employees.

Did you rethink your hourly rates and adjust them after getting a more accurate view of your profitability?

Heming: We changed our pricing last fall, and we changed it based on the information we got out of Productive. Before we were charging $150 an hour across the board. We went to a slightly tiered model based on who was taking more time and what was the actual revenue per hours spent on different types of projects. It became pretty apparent that the ad hoc on-demand support was disruptive to our workflow. We basically made every dollar that we billed, so we raised that significantly. That way, we both take pressure off the team, because we saw that it was disrupting their work, but also because we could charge a higher rate and then realize those revenues to make up for that frustration. 

Has your team’s efficiency improved?

Heather: Having the ability to do multiple budgets within one project and know that we’re tracking time really accurately is important. In the past, we’ve never been able to do that and to see where we’re going over and to tell a customer: “Hey, you know what, we’re at the point now where we need to start thinking about more budget,” and then creating that separate budget which we track time against is really valuable. 

You guys are basically power users. Would you say that after a year and a half, you are pros at Productive, or do you feel like there’s room for improvement in terms of learning what you can do with it?

Heather: I do feel like we are pros at Productive, but we’re also pros at using Productive in the way we know how to use it. There’s probably different ways of doing similar things that we don’t know about.

“It’s one thing to talk to somebody, it’s another thing to know that you’re being listened to. It’s a real interaction and a level of access that I don’t have with any other service that we work with.”

Which Productive feature is your favorite? Where do you see your jobs thrive?

Heather: My favorite thing is the calendar view of my open tasks, and I also have a saved filter for each of the team members. I start my day, every day, by looking at everyone’s open tasks to see what might not have been done the day before and what they have planned in the days ahead. I’m constantly moving things around in the calendar view because I love that I can drag them to try to balance everyone’s workload a little bit better. Time tracking per task is totally amazing. The new feature of start dates and due dates on tasks, I love that. Especially because we’ve now set up our custom reporting so that if a task goes across two weeks, we’re able to divide the time between those two weeks.

Bryan: I’ll second that. I have bookmarks in my browser: the first one is my time tracker and the second one is a calendar view of my tasks. That’s where I do 90% of my work, in and out of that view. That’s where I’m looking at my schedule, planning my day, planning my week. In terms of other areas, it’s just really nice to have all my sales opportunities tracked in there. I’m able to track everything, get my reporting, do my planning and have it with a level of confidence that I’m not second guessing what’s in there. 

Heming: I’ll just wrap up with the support we get from you guys. I don’t think I’ve ever waited for more than a couple of hours to get a reply from you on anything. Generally you’re available, and you send me emails describing the issue and why you can’t do something that we want to do. We appreciate how much you work and how responsive you’ve been. That’s my favorite feature.

Bryan: It’s one thing to talk to somebody, it’s another thing to know that you’re being listened to. We still have plenty of ideas, but like I said, you got a lot of the big ones out. When we have that conversation with you, it’s a really honest conversation, rather than I feel like I’m talking to a client services representative who doesn’t know what an API is and I can’t ask a technical question. They’re just going to try to wrap up that conversation and maybe pass it around internally. We’re talking with people who themselves are experts in the product and know what that’s about, or you’ll be like “let me go ask somebody”. It’s a real interaction and a level of access that I don’t have with any other service that we work with.

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