In Praise of the Lowly Invoice!

Want to know how your business works, or doesn’t work? Get out an invoice. 
I recently consulted with a fairly large firm that is really three separate interior design firms being operated under one brand and one roof. (Residential, Hospitality, and Model homes.)
To try and figure out what resources could be shared among the teams (thus saving money) I decided to interview each of the team managers, individually. I thought for a long time about how to organize those interviews so that I could compare and contrast the information I received from each manager.
After quite some difficulty in sorting things out, I landed on the lowly invoice as the perfect organizing tool by which to discover every aspect of their workflow. Think about it. Before you can generate an invoice:
  • A job must have been won. Where did it come from? Why did you win it?
  • A job must have been priced. Who determined hours or items and markups or otherwise determined a budget?
  • What is the contribution margin expected to be?
  • A contract or proposal must be created, delivered and approved.
  • A job must be in progress, but how far along is it? How much is left to bill?
  • And after the job is over, how will you compare actual to projected numbers to determine how you did, and how you can improve in the future?
If you want to know how your business really works, or doesn’t work, walk yourself and your team through an exercise like this. It can get more complex, as at any stage (say, markups) there might be an out-of-system Excel spreadsheet leading the way. But you’ll still learn a lot tracking how information finds its way onto an invoice. And then, take one last step that I once recommended to a client—design your invoice.
What I mean by that is to make your invoice as attractive, as cool, as appealing as your designs! Let it represent your style, not just your accounting system. An invoice…cool? Sure, why not?

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