This Week In Business

Shove It, Hustle Culture

I have a bone to pick with our internet/side hustle/startup culture.

Hustle is not the only thing.

It’s not even the most important thing.

And I am going a step farther to say it’s hurting us: as individuals, as companies, and as a society.

A couple things that I’ve been consuming lately have made me think more about this.

Gurus Show Us We Can Win If We Hustle

Watching a GaryVee video about his 2017 Flip Challenge via a Facebook ad that was served up to me, I realized how many times as a society we are presented with these kind of stories. A bit of background: you see him buying stuff at a garage sale and reselling items online to make a $1000 profit in one day. The unsaid message being: anyone can hustle and make money. (A quick Youtube search of the ‘2017 Flip Challenge review’ will show you mixed reviews on it.)

The Only Measure Of Hustle Is ‘More’

I’ve also been listening to a podcast called ‘The Dream’ about MLMs. The reason a lot of people do badly in direct sales/MLM companies/network marketing and don’t report fraud is that there is a pervasive culture in these companies that if you work hard enough, you will be successful, which actually isn’t true. (You can listen to the podcast if you’re interested in learning more about that.)

We Feel Less Successful Than We Should

This article about millennial burnout really spoke to a lot of my friends. More and more conversations I have with people are about how they feel like they should be working harder. And it started to piss me off that very capable, effective people in my life were feeling inadequate because of hustle culture.

(Feminist note: I’ve noticed a lot of ‘hustlers’ are men with wives and families. I am willing to bet that the wives of hustlers do A LOT in the way of domestic and emotional labor that makes this lifestyle possible.)

The Foundation Of Hustle Is OK; It’s The Application I Have Issues With

I get why the hustle in some ways can be an empowering message. It means we can’t expect to sit on our couch in front of the TV every night and get to a different place where we are right now. It means despite all the things around us that are out of our control, how hard we work and what we do with are time are things that not only matter but in our direct control.

I just think our hustle hard culture is taking its toll, in three main ways:

Toxic Hustle Culture Part 1: People attribute more to their hard work than other factors, giving it a weighted and inaccurate level of importance. First of all, the ‘it’s all work’ idea of success is not accurate. Studies like this one have shown that talent is not the largest factor in someone being successful. In my own success, besides hard work, I can list connections, access to capital, alumni networks, and a supportive family as the actual reasons I am still here ten years later.

Toxic Hustle Culture Part 2: All this extra work is literally making us sick.
Anxiety is on the rise and studies like this have shown stress is linked to actual sickness like cardiovascular disease. Googling ‘stress + insert-illness-here’ is going to probably show you at least one study linking them. And you know what makes for a less productive workforce? Health issues. Working harder often means cutting into things like self care and sleep, both of which are vital to our function as humans. Not good.

Toxic Hustle Culture Part 3: There are diminishing returns after working x amount of hours a week anyway.
The law of diminishing returns works in many areas of life. Ex: Working out three hours a day rather than one doesn’t make you three times more jacked. Sleeping 12 hours instead of 8 doesn’t make you 30% more rested. You get the idea. And the same goes for work hours. Studies like this show that working over 50 hours a week shows you actually become less productive. So not only are the extra hours cutting into our health time and not as important as other factors, they actually don’t even mean as much as they should.

In short, the hustle that costs your health also has limited gains and those gains can actually be attributed to other things.

Yes, by all means work hard and feel proud of your daily contribution. But f%^* the hustle.

And finally, my favorite quote that counters hustle culture, which makes total sense if you think about it:

“If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” – George Monbiot

Maybe this has made the case for you and you think, “Ok Nicole. I get it. The hustle is low grade killing me. But what am I supposed to do?” For me, it’s come down to these three things:

  1. Do more important stuff, more often. The hustle will have you cold calling 100 businesses. Your reason will decide to call the ten you’ve worked with before who may buy your new product. Reason wins.
  2. Cut out the less important stuff. The hustle will having you take twenty courses about optimizing ads on your website. Your reason will have you pick a course and go deep with it. Reason wins again.
  3. Prioritize your health so you can produce your best work. The hustle will have you sleep three hours a night. Your reason will shoot for eight. Reason wins a third time!

So let’s keep working hard. Putting in a good day doing high quality work and life stuff is a great thing we should all do.

But $%&* hustle culture. Because it is only lining the pockets (and creating celebrities) out of people who seem to want us to burn out believing it.

Freeing Working Hours

All the gurus tell us that time management is key.

But trying to get efficient at pointless stuff is a complete waste.

I began splitting myself between Maine and New York a few months ago. I have about a nine hour drive I do twice a month, sometimes four times a month.

While this is a scenario few people would envy, I’ve made it work… but the key was freeing up 18 hours a month to do it.

Sounds like a lot, I know. Let’s take a step back in time for a moment…

Efficiency At A ‘Real’ Job

When I used to work a ‘real’ job, my goal the first three months was to do everything as expected. 

Every job before this one I ever had was brand new position before I got there, which meant I had to listen to what my bosses and coworkers wanted and see if I could do it all. Could I help with this project AND produce that report in one day? Could I do the training on the new software and plan that upcoming event in the same week? It felt like a rush to try to do it all and, mostly, succeed.

But I also knew I could only work like this, I’d only want to work like this, for a limited time.

After a few months of executing all tasks possible, it was time to look at everything I did and say, “OK, what can go?”

One job had me make the weekly report that was about ten pages long. I noticed what sections the bosses cared about and cut it to two pages.
I was a bit panicked trying this. This report took less than an hour to make.

Guess what? No one noticed the much shorter report.

This made me brave. What else could I cut while still getting everything important done?

In the end, I would try to free up ten hours a week so I could pitch in and help with coworkers, or take time to learn new things, or otherwise contribute better to the company. My goal was efficiency over busy and to improve the job for the next person that came along.

I really do always want people to get their money’s worth when they work with me. And finding efficiencies made me look at my job with fresh eyes and kept it interesting.

Being self employed, I haven’t thought of freeing up time in awhile. I haven’t thought of myself as someone who creates meaningless tasks, or more accurately, keeps tasks that once served me but don’t anymore.

But that eighteen hours of monthly driving made me rethink it all. After ten years of doing everything expected of myself, it was time to ask ‘What can go?’

Step 1: List all commitments.

This felt like it should be easy but I forgot whole committees, whole projects, whole sets of chores I do all the time. Anything that took up any kind of regular brainspace/time, even fun stuff, went on the list. Taking my recycling once a month? Picking up farmshare vegetables? It all counts. Even fun commitments are still, well, commitments.

Step 2: Cut.

This felt hard, and personal. One of the items that gave me some bang for my buck was quitting a business group I helped start and was involved with for four years. The weekly meetings off my calendar meant four hours a month. I still get a little sad seeing the group emails (and things continuing on without me) but it wasn’t possible anymore.

Part of what helped with the cutting was telling myself these cuts are for now. If I try a life free of bringing my own recycling to the transfer station, I can decide I miss those deep conversations you can only have over a pile of cardboard at 8 am on a Saturday… and I can add it back in.

Step 3: Hire help.

Usually, the things you do yourself are the things that bring you joy or the stuff you are pretty particular about. Getting rid of the stuff you hate, or even just the stuff that takes up brain space can feel like taking a bigger load off than it actually is.

I *hate* scheduling my own meetings so now, Nate does it for me. He isn’t stressed out looking at my calendar like I am and he’s a smart enough dude to know he can’t schedule a back to back meeting if they are a 20 minute drive from each other. Win-win, I’m getting to see more people without the stress of coordinating it.

I will also say sometimes getting rid of stuff is way less expensive or time consuming than you think. I hauled my own trash for years and then found out it cost $7/week for a service to pick up up to six kitchen size trash bags (I don’t even use that much in a month) and I could skip three weeks each month if I wanted. Really?!? $7 was what it took to free up an hour of my life once a month and have my car not smell like garbage for half a day?

All I’m saying is look into it. “Hiring help” doesn’t have to be a rich future self thing.

Step 4: Plug the drips.

There is probably a bunch of stuff that didn’t make your commitments list but is stuff you do regularly. One thing I used to do regularly is add new people on Google+. I have these kind of small, recurring tasks in my project management system.

Now that you have some of your big recurring stuff either gone or getting taken care of by someone else, you may find it easier to notice the little stuff like this, dripping away at your time.

This morning I deleted the recurring task of ‘Finding 10 new Google+ friends a month’. If I stay at 500 Google friends for awhile, I’ll be ok.

Step 5: Reevaluate.

I haven’t gotten to this stage yet but my goal is to look at this once in awhile and see what things I want to add back and what new things to take away.

For this little New York/Maine commute, I decided to get rid of 9 hours a month in my personal life and 9 hours a month in my work life. 

When I tell people this, they usually think I’m insane. Then I ask them how much time they spend on Facebook or watching TV a day and to carry that through a month. And I tell them I have an Audible subscription. And then they kind of get it.

We all have cuttable stuff.
We all have things that take our time that are sort of non negotiable, like a morning commute (or a two days a month commute in my case). 
So it makes sense to combine the two and see how we can be more efficient in our own lives, and hopefully make room for the things we have to do and want to do.

Because why not try out another version of life while we can?

Marketing Tactic: Doing Something People Aren’t Willing To Do

As Tim Gunn would say, I 'made it work' so I could live stream the Bar Harbor Fourth of July Parade as I promised by duct taping my 15 inch laptop out the window.

As Tim Gunn would say, I ‘made it work’ so I could live stream the Bar Harbor Fourth of July Parade as I promised by duct taping my 15 inch laptop out the window.

Bar Harbor, Maine has an epic Fourth of July celebration. It starts with the local Rotary Club’s Pancake Breakfast, followed by the parade at 10 am, and an afternoon of activities that include a craft fair, lobster races, and the MDI Seafood Festival (and, for many, a very popular activity commonly called “shopping”). In the evening the Town Band plays opening act to an impressive fireworks show that caps off the day. In addition to these Fourth of July spectaculars, Bar Harbor also happens to be the town one of my coworking spaces is in.

This year, I saw a few people in Facebook groups asking if anyone was going to livestream the parade. I had already agreed to volunteer the lunch shift at the Seafood Festival– and since I was coming into the fray anyway, I decided why not do something nice by coming in a little earlier and streaming the parade.

Despite using computers all day in my work, I’m not much of a computer hardware person so I started testing an hour before the parade. It took me a bit to figure out that I couldn’t use the amazing camera on my iPhone 6 for a continuous Facebook Livestream because the connection kept resetting.

After a few false starts (with people watching), I realized I could use my laptop camera and plug that directly into our network so I didn’t have to worry about WiFi. Once it was working, I duct taped my whole setup halfway hanging out our window.

In doing this, I figured out why people hadn’t offered to do it: it’s a pain. You need good internet, good equipment, a good power supply, and a good location.

Because we did the broadcast from Anchorspace (our coworking space), I did the Facebook Live broadcast from the Anchorspace Facebook page. I posted to a couple local groups and to my profile how to access the video (the direct link to where all our videos on our page are:

I told them that Friends of Acadia was also livestreaming, linked to both pages, and posted that if they ‘liked’ either page, they’d get notified when the broadcast started. A little salesy? Yup. Instructive and useful though for people unfamiliar with Facebook Live? Absolutely.

Here’s what I was reminded of: when you go out of your way to do something people are asking for that no one else seems to want to do, they appreciate it. 

Here’s a graph of our Facebook likes:

Now these weren’t just 25 Facebook likes I bought off the internet but real people connected to Bar Harbor–whether living here or coming regularly on vacation–the exact people I want to know about Anchorspace.

This group’s first interaction with us showed them that I was resourceful, fun, and tech savvy.

We also generated a lot of goodwill. People watched from other states, wishing they could be here. One woman recovering from an illness wasn’t able to attend but was grateful to watch. While these types of goodwill are not measurable, they are still worthwhile.

In other words, I think it’s always nice for us to look around our communities, our markets, our lives and see where people are asking for things without people providing them… and if we can help, we should. It’s our responsibility as people to make things easier for others… and if we make a few sales or get a few Facebook likes in the process, that’s ok too.

And if you want to watch the parade, here’s the recording (feel free to fast forward through the first five minutes as I figure out the issue and duct tape the computer to the window sill!):

How Do You Communicate Your Business Culture?

I am in the process of opening a second business location (it’s in the works; we’ll announce it when we have things like an opening date!) and, as Grant Cardone would say, the whole thing is giving me better problems.

We can’t escape problems entirely ever, but I think most of us would rather deal with the problems of having 10 million dollars than the problems of having 10,000 dollars! Life is not really about getting rid of our problems, but instead about putting ourselves in a position to face better problems.

One of our ‘better’ problems is this second business location thing communicating company culture. I can’t be more than one place at once so we have to set the tone of Anchorspace’s culture at two geographically different locations without me having to defy relativity by being at both.

I think a big part of why most companies make their employees go in a location and sit on their butts in a chair for X hours a day (even if location isn’t important to the job) is because they are either:
a) too lazy to communicate the company’s culture or
b) they have no idea what their culture even is.

How do I communicate our Anchorspace culture across two locations so we attract the right kind of customers and create a really amazing environment for everyone? How does anyone do that?

Option 1: Staff/Board Training

One way to communicate corporate culture is to make sure everyone is working from the same knowledge base. When you ask someone to ‘greet the customer,’ what should this person ask or tell the customer? At Anchorspace we made a ‘member wall’ in our main office with everyone’s name and face. So when a member walks in, we can greet them in a different way than someone new. We may ask a member if we should make another pot of coffee whereas a new person would be offered a tour.

Clearly this option takes more time because it involves working with people one on one or in a group setting but I like that it gives people input. If people are remote, I don’t see how this couldn’t be done with video trainings coupled with regular check-ins during which there is a clear agenda.

I know for our marketing company, our yearly retreat is super helpful in getting everyone reinvigorated and on the same page. Here’s our process and a sample agenda if you are interested in running a retreat with your small team.

Option 2: Reinventing The Employee Handbook

If you want something a bit less hands on or time intensive, why not revisit that stale employee handbook you have? (I haven’t looked at ours in a year and I’m not even sure Jane and Nate have seen it!)

A handbook not only gives your new hire the information they need and covers your butt as the employer, but it can also communicate work culture. Here are some non-stuffy examples (one involves an interactive website; another finger puppets):

Think of your employee handbook reboot as a way to address corporate culture in a fun and memorable way.

Check out the amazing corporate culture of Zingerman’s; even their ‘thanks for applying’ page has personality:

Option 3: Clear marketing messaging, online and off.

Do you refer to people as customers or clients? Or maybe you say community members or partners or cowpokes?
I know it seems pretty basic, but picking a word for the people who spend money with you definitely is making a decision… And with your business you’ll make seemingly endless, little decisions that all add up to a culture.

What kinds of adjectives you use? Fonts and graphics? Descriptors? Sotheby’s International Realty are the most detailed marketing guidelines I’ve seen, from acceptable email signature formats to how headshots need to be taken but it does explain their consistency across their international range of markets!

A lot of people refer to these as ‘branding guidelines’ but for most people, that’s things like logo treatments, acceptable fonts and colors, and other design elements. But being comprehensive and making sure you use similar tone of voice and more subtle forms of branding will definitely set the tone for your company culture.

Are you like me and just haven’t necessarily given a ton of thought to this? I know I didn’t think I was very particular… until someone else was doing the work, then suddenly I had all kinds of opinions.

In other words, having a company culture and communicating it not only attracts the right customers to you but also prevents you from becoming a controlling jerkface kind of a boss, which makes everyone happier. Win-win-win.

So give a thought to your company culture because as you scale up or even change course, it’ll give you a lot of direction. And if you want to geek out, this is an article I’ve bookmarked for detailed future reading:

Vivre your corporate culture!

I Left My Business for a Month and Nothing Bad Happened (Part 2)

We have a series of great ‘and nothing bad happened’ articles. Check out ‘I Bought Facebook Fans And Nothing Bad Happened‘ and ‘I Doubled Our Social Media Posts And Nothing Bad Happened

Last week, in “I Left My Business for A Month and Nothing Bad Happened Part 1” I talked about keeping the businesses running while I was physically in another place. This week, I’ll talk about the other side of the coin- getting involved in a new market. Ten years in the same location, especially in a small town, is almost the definition of “comfort zone.” Sure, we’ve grown and challenged ourselves so that our business isn’t frozen in time, but the time to innovate is always now, and travelling to upstate New York was part of that process.

While I was in a new location, I needed to set myself up to meet people. Something most people find surprising about me is that I’m an extroverted introvert, which means talking to people requires energy from me and I almost never want to do it. Once I AM doing it, I’m fine, but afterwards I definitely need to spend some time alone to regroup.
So what’s the best way to get into a new community, besides finding one that theoretically needs your products/services? Here are a few things I did in my new community of Potsdam, New York:

  • Met with Chamber of Commerce director to talk options about integrating into the community (Note when you meet someone who has NEVER heard of you, it’s best to be ready to give something value added for their time, whether you’re buying them breakfast or just going to send them some really great free resources about what you talked about.)
  • Meet with the local SBDC with your theoretical new additional location business plan and some questions ready to go.
  • Connect with any local business incubators and be in their space if at all possible. Set up a short meeting with people who work there to let them know what you’re doing and how you could help.
  • Connect with the local library and offer a workshop. We did a free workshop and gave a donation to the local SPCA, which meant that the library promoted it because the workshop was in their space, and the SPCA promoted it, too.
  • Check out local meetups and attend to meet new people. I attended a local artist group and we got to tour this cool museum and people shared their work.
  • Find a local business that will let you host an ‘open house’ of sorts and promote it to the local media via a press release, your new local contacts, and a Meetup announcement. (Aside: because I did this, I ended up on a panel of entrepreneurs for North Country Public Radio!)
  • Go to the local happy hour spot by yourself and sit near some nice people.
  • Join local Facebook groups. (My LOL moment was when I joined the ‘Potsdam Rocks’ Facebook group, thinking it was going to be about community development but then upon acceptance, found out it was about… painted rocks.) Ask local friends recommendations for good groups to join.
  • Ask every person you meet who else you should meet. Use Facebook or LinkedIn to find contact information and name drop your mutual connection, offer beer/coffee, or otherwise see if you can meet these people in real life.
  • Meet with local economic development directors or city planners and ask them questions about the community and how you can best provide business services.
  • Go to a local Rotary club meeting (and any other civic groups you can find).
  • Attended a meeting for volunteers at the local dog park (which my dog loved).
  • Visit the local food co-op and learn about getting involved with local food movement (Aside I found the best cheese scones I’ve ever had.)

(Wow, when I see it all listed out, and remembering I did normal work too, no wonder every time someone asks me about my ‘vacation’ I sigh.)

Within each of these community outreach moments, I tried to do the following:

  1. taking the opportunity each interaction to start other interactions. ‘Who should I talk to about that?’ or ‘Who else should I meet?’ are great questions, and
  2. trying to bring value to any interaction I had. I figured if I didn’t know someone and they were taking their time to help me, the least I could do was give them some free consulting and/or food.

Because I made the leap, I am now in talks for two good size proposals I would not be having the chance to do otherwise. I also had time/mental space to finish some big projects (like adding a learning management system to Anchorspace’s website and creating an online store of the cool designs we commissioned from graphic designer Jill Lee on Society 6.) I even brainstormed an idea for an e-course about running a business while depressed. I am not sure if I would have gotten some of this stuff done, or had some creative ideas, if I didn’t do a reset outside my workspace.

So the results of my experiment are seeing that not only could I run a multi-location company in the short term, but I could use the new location as an advantage not just for myself personally but for business as well. I’ve seen many of my successful business role models run businesses in multiple locations and I don’t see why I can’t be one of them in my next decade. I will also say as a total plug, upstate New York has some of the nicest most welcoming people I’ve ever met. I was surprised to make some real friends during my month long stay. And I hope as I broaden my scope, my two hometowns will support the work we are trying to do and grow.

And, if you’re new to the area (or ANY area, really), the steps I took in New York to start meeting new people and connecting with the community are worth trying for yourself. They’re great for making both business and social connections that will last for years (at least 10 🙂 ).

I Left My Business For A Month And Nothing Bad Happened (Part 1)

We have a series of great ‘and nothing bad happened’ articles. Check out ‘I Bought Facebook Fans And Nothing Bad Happened‘ and ‘I Doubled Our Social Media Posts And Nothing Bad Happened‘. 

Next month, Breaking Even will have been officially in business for ten years.

My friends joke that I know EVERYONE in our small town and I think that’s mostly true. And even if I haven’t met someone, typically when I say my name, they’ve heard of me.

I’m not saying this to sound like a conceited jerk- if you hang out in a town with 5,000 people for 10 years and have a bit of a social life, you’d probably know most everyone too. And basically what I’ve found in the last year actively trying to do more sales is that if people want to work with us, they have in the past or are now. Sure, new businesses come into town once in awhile, but the reality is at a certain point, in order to grow Breaking Even I have to look beyond my backyard and the people I’ve been happy houring with.

Combining this current local market saturation with the wanderlust I’ve always had, I thought I’d spend last month seeing if I couldn’t tap into a new market. As someone who has run local businesses for a decade, this is my experience, so finding more local businesses (who just happened to be somewhere else) seemed natural.

So I silently left for four weeks and ran my businesses from upstate New York (2 hours from Montreal, wohoo). So how did I do it?

The key to this working was buy-in from my coworkers. We had the world’s shortest staff meeting about two weeks before I left where we established who would do what location-specific tasks (checking mail, mailing out purchases from our ecommerce site, etc.) I wasn’t able to do. I already know I couldn’t ask for better coworkers but I was worried they would think my month away was an extended vacation while they worked their fingers to the bone. Or that I would be unreachable. Or that they’d feel lonely and/or resentful. Of course, this was just me needing to 1) get over my own self importance and 2) make some documentation of some of my more mundane tasks (how to check mail, what to open, where the checkbook was, etc.) We’ll debrief in our upcoming staff retreat but it seems like the place didn’t burn down while I was gone and no one called/emailed me angry, so things did indeed run without me.

Just some of my scheduled meetings in Zoom. Best $19 I spend every month for the pro version.

The other thing I needed to do before I left was get clients used to talking to someone that wasn’t me. Because of my workaholic tendencies and my predictable schedule, I have made myself constantly available over the last ten years. People often stop in to try and run into me and that can be a time suck.

The reality is Kassie can answer a ‘When does my domain name expire?’ email as well as I can and Jane can schedule someone who has rented the Anchorspace conference room without my help. So for the few months before my planned departure, both Kassie and Jane have been emailing clients about work directly. The reality is that if things escalated or just got complicated, then I could be brought in. And every time I feel guilty for not fielding an email, I think of selling something, doing consulting, or some other use of my time and I feel ok. But this took a few months to phase in (and in a lot of ways is still happening).

I also had to use technology to keep in touch with clients. So I had five clients who wanted to meet while I was gone and four opted to take me up on the Zoom meeting (one said she’d wait until I was back). Of the Zoom meetings, I lost one client who wanted someone more locally available. For those I held remote meetings for, I offered to record the meetings so they could review them and one really liked this option. Meanwhile I got my third ever largest contract in my new location. The moral is you can’t please everyone but moving things to digital platforms 1) was an easier sell being a digital agency and 2) offered convenient options like after-hours meetings, the ability to record, etc.

It’s safe to say that for never having done this sort of thing before, this part of the experiment was a success for the most part. But, this was only a fraction of the overall experiment- in addition to keeping the home fires burning, I also had to get involved with an entirely new market. Stay tuned for part two of this post, which is all about networking in new territory!