One of the biggest takeaways for me while managing the Studio Production Department at Zappos.com after being acquired by Amazon.com, was that the most efficient way to “Flex” with the ever-changing volumes (particularly in fashion) was to build a “core team” and rely on freelance talent.
The information in this post might seem obvious to most, but if you’re finding yourself struggling with backlogs during peaks, and under-utilized staff during slower months then maybe there’s some valuable nuggets that can help your staff to keep costs and turnaround time low in regards to the Service Level Agreement (SLA).
Or maybe this post can come in handy to forward to someone who might not be familiar with the Studio Production area and everything that they’re responsible for?
Getting back to the efficient way to flex, let’s start with what I mean by “Core Team“. For me building my core team consisted of two major criteria to ensure success.
1. At Least One Senior Member for Each Function of the Studio Production Process.
I’ll start with point number one. When you breakdown the Studio Production team(images) or Content team(copy) you’ll find that there are core functions/areas of expertise that make up the operation as a whole. For most operations, the below are the most typical areas that I’ve found.
Studio Production Core Functions
· Studio Operations
Responsible for handling the physical movement of the products in and out of the studio operation. Also responsible for prepping the products for shoots (prep), as well as returning the products (putaway) in like-new condition to their next destination.
· Style Team
Responsible for styling the products in the correct trends, assisting the photographers on set with styling products according to the style guide, and of course ensuring the products are styled appropriately with accompanying brands. You wouldn’t pair those Nike shorts with that Adidas top, would you? I didn’t think so.
· Photography Team
Responsible for taking all of the lovely photos and ensuring they’re in focus, lit correctly, and all angles/shots are captured successfully according to the style guide.
· Post Production
This team ensures that all images receive the necessary retouching required to be ready to be published live. The fishing wire and sticky tack you’re using to prop up handbag handles are going to need to be removed by this team.
There are a ton of moving pieces in the day-to-day operation, so this is the function critical to ensuring that your freelancers, models, etc. are all scheduled, coordinated, and ready to go as you need them when the volumes dictate.
Copy and Content Enrichment Functions
· Size & Fit / Product Information Coordinators
I’ve heard many different names for this function, but they always serve the purpose. Their job is to gather the size & fit, measurements, and/or factual information about the products. When I say “factual” I mean the unopinionated information about the product that is important to the customer.
This might include the material composition of a product, it’s the country of origin, how tall or wide it is, or whether or not you should order a size up or down because it’s cut differently compared to other products. It’s important to note that this function doesn’t always have to sit separately under Copy
The copywriting team is responsible for the long(er) form writing technique that often ads a bit more of your brand voice to the product page as well as additional information about a product that might not be covered by the previous Size & Fit, Measurements team.
Similar to the Admin/Producer role within the Studio side of the operation, the copy team will need at least one person who’s responsible for the final approval and QC of the written information that’s being submitted. This role in smaller operations can also serve as the double-duty with taking care of booking and assigning freelance copy tasks.
Important Note: The Studio Production Cross-Trainer
Once you have the outline of your core operation, it’s important to ensure that you have at least one experienced/senior member within that core function. Senior in the sense that they have enough knowledge and experience within that area so that the manager or department head doesn’t have to hand-hold for that area to be successful.
To the manager, this person will be the single point of contact of subject matter expert (SME) if you will. It’s ideal to have at least one other supporting person underneath the senior in-order to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks if someone calls in sick, goes on holiday, or needs to take an extended leave of absence.
When you find yourself in a situation where it’s not feasible to have two employees in the same function, ie your volumes or budget doesn’t permit, I’ve found that it’s best to cross-train a senior from another function on the foundation of the under-covered function.
Side note: I’m personally a huge fan of cross-training regardless of the situation. Your team can never be too equipped with knowledge of how the other functions operate and how their piece fits into the larger puzzle. Cross-training has several benefits too. One it ensures that there are fewer knowledge cracks in your workflow, which means things keep moving even if someone’s not there. Secondly, it’s a great way to promote internal growth and career progression for the individual. The deeper understanding that each team member has of each of the functions, means they’ll have an easier time moving up to oversee larger portions of the operation as the business scales. It’s truly a win-win!
2. Have Enough People in each area to cover 10% more than your lowest volume periods
This is the second major criteria to consider when setting up your team to “flex”. To calculate this one, you’re going to need a few numbers handy. You’ll need the forecasted volumes of products you’re expected to receive (typically broken out by month, but the more granular the better), the category breakdown of said products, and the average daily production rate per one person per each function and category.
For simplicity sake of this post, I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of forecasting based on shot type, gender, and product category.
With your numbers handy, the next part of the process is to look at your forecast and determine what is the minimum monthly volume.
If you’re in seasonal fashion, you’re most likely going to see two dips and two peaks. This is, of course, the Spring Summer peak that starts arriving Feb and goes down around June and the Fall-Winter peak that starts arriving August and runs through the end of Cyber week (end of November). It’s the low periods that are critical to focus on, as those are the points where you’re more likely to have un-utilized resources.
The way I like to think about unutilized resources is similar to how I think about going outside in hot and cold temperatures. When it’s cold outside (peak volumes) you can always put on more clothes (or add more freelance resources) to stay warm. But when it’s hot outside (low volume periods), there’s only so much you can take off before you’re naked and still getting baked in the sun. In this analogy, the comfort of your body is equal to the comfort of your budget, and it’s critical not to burn cash.
Previously, we took a deeper dive on the daily problems for studio production team
Once you have your lowest points outlined, go ahead and multiply that volume by 1.10, thus giving you 10% more volume than what you’re anticipating. Back out the resources required in each function using the daily productivity rate per function times 20 (the average amount of working days in a month for one person).
Using this formula, you’ll arrive at the number of resources required in each function to form your core team. Should you find that some areas require less than one, then you still need at least 1 in that area, so the minimum number will always be at least one in the core functions. Remember the SME in each function and cross-training for backup? That’s where this is most essentially applied.
Last but not least it’s time to look at the remaining peak times of the forecast. You’ll need to essentially take the same productivity rates expected against the larger incoming volumes to arrive at the number of freelance resources you’ll need for each function.
Forecasts and goals change along the way, but the above is more of a broad stroke philosophy on how in the past I’ve managed to build out core teams, and then scale using freelancers to cope with the increases in volumes along the way. This is a practice that’s almost universal within eCommerce Studio Production teams and the earlier a team can build with this scaling technique in mind the better in my opinion. Be sure to stay on the lookout for a part two of sorts to this article where I cover the pros and cons of building a “pool” of individual freelancers, versus using a freelance agency.