Sharks and videogames – these are the two passions I’ve been most vocal about, certainly on this website.
However, there is a third passion, the subject of which has been present at most of my successes and absent from most of my failures.
Admitadely, there are many things that could fit that description: sarcasm, chocolate, misanthropy, consideration for the opinions of others, disinterest in the opinions of others, consciousness, etc. The list goes on, but the answer is of course: spreadsheets.
I do love me a good spreadsheet and there’s not a hobby, profession or aspect of my life which hasn’t benefitted from their use in some respect.
There are a number of people like me, including one Richard Sumner. Richard is the owner of Spreadsheet Solutions, a business who specialise in (lest the name not be sufficient) solutions involving spreadsheets.
Richard was kind enough to spend some time getting into the weeds about what makes for a good spreadsheet, the surrounding psychology and the realities of running a spreadsheet business.
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Cutting the bullsheet about spreadsheets
Ed: Hey Richard, thanks for taking the time to talk with me about your work. We connected on LinkedIn some time ago (though I’d be lying if I said I could recall exactly why?) and I’ve read every update you’ve shared regarding your output with real interest. Spreadsheets are rarely hot topics of conversation despite their myriad benefits, so I appreciate the opportunity to speak to someone for whom they’re such an important part of life.
I am going to assume nothing of my audience (all three of them) or the accuracy of my own presumptions, so please bare with me while I ask seemingly basic questions – at the most fundamental level, what are spreadsheets good for?
Richard: Good question. They’re good for almost everything. Every time you’re thinking that you could do with some software or an app to help with business administration, a spreadsheet could usually help too. Many associate them with accounting, but they’re useful for all sorts of applications. I’d be bold enough to say that 99 times out of 100, it’s the user restricting what a spreadsheet can do, and Excel could do more.
Ed: So what is the difference between a good and a bad spreadsheet?
Richard: There’s so much to this, but I believe one huge difference is the layout. I get sent loads of spreadsheets to remake, and I can honestly say that almost all are badly laid out. Some people spend time learning fancy formulas, which does help, but then drop the ball with the layout. I even wrote an ebook (that I give away for free) about how to design spreadsheets properly. There are some other simple fixes, like locking the spreadsheet, that make a spreadsheet better. If the spreadsheet is easy to use, clearly laid out, efficient in what it does, and produces the results that you need, then you’ve got a good one.
Ed: From that, it sounds like the usability of a spreadsheet is a concern that many people might overlook. That no amount of formulas or calculations are going to help if the way they’re all organised isn’t compatible with how a user reviews and interprets information. As a creator, where would you say most of the challenge lies? Is it the formulas, the layout, or both?
Richard: I think it’s the formulas that get people to realise that they need help making it. Most people’s ideas exceed their capabilities and they come to me. It’s the formulas that highlight that. My personal opinion is that the bad layouts are a bigger issue, but many don’t even realise it. One common issue with spreadsheets is that formulas get over-written. This is clear that something is wrong. Firstly, the formulated cells should be locked. Secondly, the data entry cells should be separated from the formulated cells, and they should both be colour coordinated differently. So, you should fill in the cells with yellow headers, and not the ones with blue headers. If you try and edit a formulated cell, it should stop you. This is not difficult to do, and we haven’t even got to the formulas yet, but so many don’t get this right.
Ed: My expectation is that a well performing spreadsheet has just as much to do with your understanding of user need as it does the specific formulas utilised. Is this accurate and if so, how do you determine what a user ‘needs’?
Richard: Absolutely, this is a large part of the job. I spend time (usually meeting virtually) with people asking them questions. Not just about the spreadsheet, but the process before and after the spreadsheet, so that I can make it as efficient as possible. I’m actually a very structured and organised person, so I tend to naturally look for the best way to achieve anything. I think many other spreadsheet creators lack this skill and fall short in determining what the client wants and needs. They often try to get clients to do what Excel is made to do, where as I get Excel to do what the client needs it to.
Ed: On your point about being organised and structured, is that a common trend among people who purchase professionally made spreadsheets? Are they generally quite organised people who wish to continue that trend, or is there a portion who struggle with being organised but recognise the benefits it can provide?
Richard: It’s a mixed bag. Some come to me because I can make better spreadsheets faster than they can. Others come to me because they have no idea what they’re doing or need but they heard I can help. Most people who come to me want to be organised, some already are, and some just aspire to it but are not yet there.
Ed: Following on from that, I suppose I have a more general question about the broader psychological impact spreadsheets might have. For example, a friend of mine was recently struggling at their job and questioning whether the financial benefits were justifying the emotional, physical and psychological drain.
I suggested that they draw up a spreadsheet of what they currently pay for, what they might have to sacrifice if they were to leave the job completely and some formulas they could use to calculate the pros/cons of the available options. To some extent such an exercise is obvious from a financial planning perspective, but for me it was more about getting them to objectively consider the value of their time.
They ultimately decided to stick with the job, not because they’d ‘have less money’ but because when viewed in context, the value of the benefits it facilitated greatly outweighed the drawbacks when viewed objectively. That’s something you can very easily miss when you’re engulfed in the immediacy of a situation. The exercise bought a degree of clarity that in turn has helped this person recognise that a more effective, disciplined use of their own time and mental separation from the job could well make them more effective both in and out of it.
I don’t mean to over simplify their situation and I’m not suggesting that spreadsheets are a free alternative to therapy, but I do think there’s something to be said for the broader mental benefits spreadsheets afford by helping you separate the wood from the trees. Is this something you’ve witnessed either yourself personally or in your customers?
Richard: Yes. I actually asked my biggest client (he’s bought over 50 spreadsheets) what emotion led him to me. He said it was anxiety of not knowing keeping him awake at night. This is someone with data for the nation, but he didn’t really know what it meant until it was too late. He can now use that data to analyse it and report on it, so that he has a clear picture of what it says. I also find personally that it decreases stress as I have all the info I need. I know all the jobs I’m busy with, how far I am in each, how much I’m making from each, what’s coming up, where I am financially, what I’m due to work on the next day, etc. I’m now not constantly worried about projects or constantly thinking about ‘what I’ve missed’. It frees my mind up to concentrate on the task at hand.
Ed: What are common misconceptions you find that people have about spreadsheets?
Richard: They think it’s only for bookkeeping, they think they’re prone to error, and they think they’re outdated. None of these misconceptions are even close to being correct.
Ed: Why do those misconceptions exist? Are they usually because people tried to make their own and they didn’t work? Perhaps they’ve been burned before?
Richard: I think there are different reasons for each misconception. People think spreadsheets are for accountants, because many accountants use them (especially before bookkeeping software) so they associate them with accounts. I think many people think they’re outdated because they’ve been around since the late 70s. As for them being prone to error, that’s possibly because anyone will have a go at a spreadsheet, even with no experience. Imagine if anyone had a go at programming software, imagine that disaster. It’s not the platform to blame. In fact, software leads me to the main reason I believe spreadsheets have a bad name. Software sales reps. I constantly see mistruths being posted by software sales companies to try and elevate their products above spreadsheets. I’ve seen them comment on how prone to error spreadsheets are, how outdated they are, even how dangerous they are, etc. I once challenged a company on this, the rep eventually said that he ‘had to say that to get his clients to buy the software’ and he actually liked spreadsheets. I think they need the lion share of the blame. Then you’ve also got the government doing stupid things and blaming spreadsheets..
Ed: How do you address those misconceptions? How much of it is a question of cost benefits as opposed to nurturing an appreciation?
Richard: This is what my marketing boils down to, educating people about what can be done using Excel. Many use Excel already, and just come to me because I can do more with it than they can, but some still get spreadsheets made when they hate using Excel. I’ve even resulted to making games and art in Excel to show people how versatile it actually is. Using Excel can be much more cost effective than custom software if it’s possible. I’ve made spreadsheets before that would have cost at least 30 times more to make as spreadsheets.
Ed: Would it be fair to say to anyone therefore considering the use of a spreadsheet (either done themselves or through a professional such as yourself), that they try not to treat it as a rigid object? It’s something that needs to grow and evolve with the situation it relates to, if it’s going to be useful?
Richard: There are two sides to this coin. Yes, they are adaptable and should grow as you do, absolutely. On the other hand, there are often many ways to do this, and a simple edition while making it, could save hours of work later on. For example, if you’re breaking your sales into categories and reporting, I’d ask how many categories you’d need. It makes no difference if you need 5, 10, or 20. If you ask for 5, I’ll give you 10. They’ll take the same time to make, but if you added in 5 in a few months, it could take hours to unpick everything and add some more in. There are also cases where I would build a spreadsheet one way, but if I knew you wanted another feature in the future, I would have built it another way, so knowing what your future plans may be can often help. So yes, they can grow as you do, but future proofing the spreadsheet as much as possible can save time and money later on.
Ed: Is there anything spreadsheets cannot do that you wish they could, or might one day?
Richard: There are a few functions that I’d like to see, but no major changes. I like the fact that it’s familiar and constant. I generally like the changes they make, and am keen to see where they take it. There is a feature in Excel where you can suggest changes and upgrades, which I do. They are often quite open to suggestions.
Ed: How much of what makes a spreadsheet effective is not down to the work itself, but the customer’s implementation of it? For example, I’ve found spreadsheets useful for planning my cashflow over the course of a month – but if I ignore them and spend more than I’ve forecast on halloumi wraps then the benefits have been for nought. Is this something you’ve often run into and if so, how do you cross that barrier?
Richard: Yes, the best spreadsheet in the world is only any good if you put the data in and act on it. This is why I find out what the client wants to achieve, if I can get the spreadsheet to help them achieve their goals, they’re far more likely to use it. I also make it easy to use, and sometimes even assist with the entry (drop down lists, colour changes, etc) to encourage proper usage. I have even sometimes made the spreadsheet more fun, like sorting the data into league tables. The clients were interested to see which products made it into the Premier League, which lead them to check the sales data. Having said all that, you can lead a horse to water, buy you can’t always make it drink.
Ed: Have you ever had a customer whose been guilty of behaviour such as that which I outlined, but then blamed you for not getting the results they wanted?
Richard: Not really one that blamed me, but I have had someone contact me to tell me that the graph wasn’t working. When I checked, I determined that it wasn’t working because they hadn’t put any data in where they needed to. I don’t think they were being difficult, they just got confused and then panicked.
The spreadsheet business
Ed: Could you please take me through the process of creating a spreadsheet for someone, from the initial consultation right through to the final work being delivered?
Richard: It’s usually not very complicated. I have an initial virtual meeting, and can often go away and make the spreadsheet from there. After the initial meeting, I do a layout of the headers and specify what will be on each tab. I then send that with the quote. Once I’ve got the go-ahead, I make the spreadsheet. I may need one or two other meetings, and even the spreadsheet is done, I do another final meeting to hand the spreadsheet over and show them how to use it. At this point I can fix any snags and finish it off. I usually quote a fixed price, so that there are no surprises for the client.
Ed: How frequently do projects veer off from this? Is there always a degree of iteration required or are most cases relatively straightforward, in that they follow a clearly defined path of delivery?
Richard: Most are usually there or there abouts, because I make sure I know what is needed up front. Yes, some do realise a different potential, so need to be changed, but they are few and far between. Sometimes the client asks for X because they don’t think Y is possible, then they’re impressed with what I make so ask about Y afterwards. I do try to get this out in the open at the start, but don’t always do so. The fact that I usually do the layout up front, we’re usually both on the same page and happy with what needs to be done.
Ed: On occasions where iteration is required, how do you account for these financially? Do people get X amount of revisions or do you cost those changes up on an itemised basis?
Richard: I do offer a few changes, but if it gets too much I simply quote for the changes as I would for a new project. I do try to keep those fees down as I don’t want to take advantage of people, but they can’t just get update after update for nothing. Businesses grow, processes change, and demands grow, so I do a fair bit of extra work on previously made spreadsheets.
Ed: Can you give me a pair of examples representing the extremes of user cases for spreadsheets? As in, what is the most simple and what is the most complex situation requiring a spreadsheet that you’ve worked on?
Richard: I’ve made some simple finance calculators, money in versus money out equals profit. I’ve made some incredibly complicated price calculators. One in particular had so many variables, that I think it got away from me in the end. I’ve done a few updates since then, and I’m scared that it may develop a mind of its own and come after me. I’ve also made some project management tools that have been quite involved and complicated. I’ve often taken Excel to the edge to achieve what I need, so yes, some complicated spreadsheets.
Ed: At what point would you say a user case exceeds, or is irrelevant to the strengths of spreadsheets? Have there been any occasions where you’ve got maybe half way through a project and realised that what the customers wants/needs is something ‘other than’ a spreadsheet?
Richard: Maybe once, but I have stopped a few projects before even starting. There are some projects that are just too big or have too much data, and it would not be wise to do in a spreadsheet. I’m not scared to advise against using spreadsheets when it’s the right call. I will say that there are more cases where people DON’T use spreadsheets but SHOULD than the other way around. There are some applications too that are not right for spreadsheets, I also explain that to people if they try to use them incorrectly. If I can’t deliver what I believe the client needs, or if I know of a better solution, I won’t take the project on. I want people to value what I create. I have gone against my judgement once or twice at the request of the client, but then I’m upfront about what I will deliver.
Ed: How do you determine ‘enough is enough’? What I mean by that is I imagine it’s easy to fall into the trap of constantly adding calculations, variables or outcomes to a sheet, similarly to the idea of ‘feature creep’ in software development. How do you resist this temptation, if it occurs?
Richard: I used to get sucked into this trap, but I’ve somewhat outgrown the temptation. I realise that spreadsheets need to be efficient, and part of that is not overwhelming people with information. I try to make a solution that requires minimal input, while delivering what the client needs. I do try to deliver more than what the client expects, but I don’t get sucked into adding stuff for the sake of it, especially if it complicates the situation.
Ed: What’s your background? I understand you are South African and then spent some time in Canada?
Richard: Yes, I was born and raised in South Africa. I decided to immigrate to Canada some time ago, but ended up coming to the UK after about 5 months of being in Canada. I’m glad I did, because at least you guys play rugby and football, and I still don’t understand ice hockey.
Ed: Having lived in South Africa myself I’d be interested to hear whether you observed any differences in the use or perception of spreadsheets between there, Canada and the UK? If so, would you say those differences are based on culture, industry, or something else?
Richard: I think more Canadians and Americans would use spreadsheets, as they seem to be far more widely used there (not to say we don’t). I also think the businesses around the industry (Excel training, businesses like mine, etc) are far more abundant in the US and Canada than here. I’m not sure why, it could be their ‘give it a go’ attitude. It took me a long time to gain momentum here in the UK with this business, as there are not many who do what I do, so I had to do a load of educational posts. The idea of getting someone to make you a spreadsheet felt like a weird concept. Now that I’ve got people to see the benefits, they’re all over it. I think it would have been even harder doing this in SA. They would benefit the most, as spreadsheets are way more affordable than custom software, but South Africans are quite stubborn. I don’t think they’d be keen to dish out money for something they think they can do themselves. Maybe I’m wrong. The only business I’ve had from South Africans have been those living here. I’ve had business from Americans, Aussies, Canadians, Kiwis, and some from various European countries.
Ed: What prompted you to do spreadsheets full time? Have you always worked with them or did your interest branch off from another?
Richard: I was asked a simple question. What would you do if you won the lottery and didn’t need money? I said I would make spreadsheets for businesses. That was the start of Spreadsheet Solutions. My background was in sales and project management, however at most jobs we didn’t have the right software. I was often tasked with making spreadsheets to do what we needed because they couldn’t or wouldn’t buy suitable software. That’s where I discovered my talent and passion for making spreadsheets.
I actually hear this a lot – certainly since making the move into Product Management. You come across a lot of people who find themselves in a position as a result of solving problems in another. For me it comes back to the idea of ‘necessity being the mother of all invention’ – you identify a problem, commit to solving it ‘somehow’ and irrespective of what comes out of the other side, you learn things about yourself that you might not have expected by virtue of having gone through that journey.
But no amount of that can necessarily prepare you for the realities of running a business. You can have all the passion for something in the world, but if you struggle with the practical demands of ‘buying and selling’ (to put it simply) then you can actually find yourself in a position where that passion can become poisoned.
Ed: Was this ever a concern for you going in? Were there any specific fears you had about doing this as a business?
Richard: Absolutely. Although many fears I had turned out to be no problem at all, and many things I was not even aware of or stupidly optimistic about, became huge issues. I think many have the grand ideas and lack the structure or internal processes. I was the other way around, I had the processes down to the letter, without really knowing how to get the business in. One example of this was that I was too scared to put my website live, because I wasn’t 100% ready with my internal processes. I expected enquiries from day 1. Needless to say, when I did go live, the influx of incoming enquiries was nowhere to be seen. I’ve actually written a book called 40 Facets of Starting & Growing a Business which goes through some of these lessons I learned. Here’s the link if you’re interested – https://spreadsheetsolutions.biz/buy-our-book/
Ed: What would you suggest to someone who is in a similar situation to that? Whether they’re selling spreadsheets or bedsheets, what practical advice would you give someone is on the fence about whether they should (or more importantly, could) make that jump?
Richard: I’d suggest talking to a business owner. Not necessarily someone in the same industry, just a similar business. There are certain things that you just don’t think of, like not knowing where next month’s paycheque is coming from. Some can’t handle that, it took me years to come to terms with it. There are also many other responsibilities like tax, financial records, legal paperwork, etc. Many issues you don’t face while employed but will have to deal with now. I think people need to see as much of the whole picture as possible, the opportunities as well as the potential issues, before deciding. You don’t want to keep yourself back because of fear, but you also don’t want to fail because you didn’t appreciate and anticipate the risks.
Ed: What’s the biggest challenge you face running a business based on spreadsheets?
Richard: At the moment I just need more hours in a day. I do find marketing and educating people about what is possible quite difficult, but I’m getting there and the work is flowing in much faster now. I haven’t arrives yet, but I’ve certainly come a long way since I started.
Ed: And to send on something painfully trite – where do you hope the business will be if we were to speak again in five years time?
Richard: You know what, I hope it’s similar to where it is now. I have no plans to take on staff, as it is a lifestyle business. As long as the work keeps flowing and I can handle it, bring it on. My availability should increase next year as my son goes to school and my wife can take on some of the admin work, but once I’m full up with work then, that’s as far as I want to grow the business.
If this is the first of my ‘Conversation with…’ features that you’ve read, I do encourage you to check out my others while you’re here. My previous conversation with Sam Cassidy (CGI Artist) was especially informative and I hope to follow up soon with some more interesting tales from folk whose professional activities had to respond to challenging circumstances.
Cheers for reading!