This Week In Business

The Death Of Branding

Since the beginning of this year in particular, I’ve been reading a bunch of articles about the death of brand loyalty, Forbes and The New Yorker’s recent articles in particular.

To summarize (probably overly so): people now have access to information. Gone is the ability to take out a hundred thousand dollar ad campaign in Time magazine with your logo and have millions of Americans swooning over owning that item.

Gone also are the days where it was cool to walk around with a Coach wallet covered in logos.

What, you don't want this $20 wallet covered in a brand's logo?

What, you don’t want this $20 wallet covered in a brand’s logo?

So not only do we care less about having a cool brand name literally on us (as a collective anyway) but we can also comparative shop, bid, and otherwise get what we’re paying for until our heart is content.

So is branding dead? Not really, it’s just reappeared in another form. Like a zombie.

We now care more about who we buy from than we ever did. 

To demonstrate this idea, let’s look at mattresses.

 1950s- Englander mattress’ brand name is on this ad twice… and associating itself with Goodyear, another brand.mattress-ad-1950s

2014- You can buy a locally made mattress delivered to you on a bike. Mattress Lot delivers mattresses on bike to people in the Portland Oregon area.

Ok might not be fair to compare a large brand to a local mattress store but this is our economy folks. People who own local mattress stores can do well too.


A business started in 2010 to be getting half the amount of Google searches as a brand in existence for over 100 years? Not bad!

As you see in both these cases, we have a ‘brand’. In case one, it’s the manufacturer and in case 2, it’s the store selling certain kinds of products.

Consumers understand that many of our products are being manufactured in China, Bangladesh, and other countries… so we have to make that ‘human’ connection with the person selling the product now, not necessarily the manufacturer.

I bet you can think of a few ‘brands’ you and your friends still love. Maybe Converse sneakers or Subarus. But I bet your loyalty is stronger with the businesses where you buy those things now than it ever was before.

As a small business owner, I’m excited to live in a time where I don’t need to promote that I carry x and y brands but can instead run the best business I can selling the best products and services I can find. And here’s hoping you are too.

Selling Stuff Online: A Very Abbreviated Guide

Being in the ‘internet’ industry, I get a lot of questions about buying/selling stuff online. I thought I’d put together a little chart to help you figure out what site you should use to sell something:

Website Description Examples
Craigslist The worse formatted website ever, best for getting rid of bulk stuff locally. Think anything you’d want to make at least $50 on. Also have solid rental section if you are trying to rent an apartment or commercial space. My landlord trying to sell 5 desks, my landlord advertising his office rental space that I took advantage of three years ago.
Facebook Groups Centered around usually a local and sometimes even specific interest (i.e. Local and kids items for sale). Bonus of instant gratification and buying from someone you know. File cabinet I bought off my friend Mel, giving away a cactus.
Ebay Yes, people still use this site but it’s mostly for collectibles or people otherwise looking for specific items Your baseball card collection (collectors will pay more money than your friends), items that can be free/cheap to ship.
Microsites/Apps that sell specific kinds of things Sites/Apps have cropped up to help people sell specific kinds of items (Ex: Etsy for handmade goods, Poshmark for brand name used clothing and accessories for women) Orla Kiley purse, the pile of slippers you meant to give away as Christmas gifts but they are too cute to be given to people who don’t deserve them.

makeallthemoneyMy point is not all sites are created equal. Some questions to ask yourself as you move forward:

  • Do I want to mess with shipping?
  • How important is local?
  • Do you want the best price or the least amount of hassle?
  • Would you rather sell to a friend?
  • What technology do you use and how much technology learning can you handle?

(Note: If you have things to sell on Ebay and you are semi local, I have a friend just starting her business. Contact me and I’ll put you in touch!)

My point is, we all have some stuff we could stand to get rid of and make a few bucks on in the process. And if we actually take the time to sell it in the right location, we can make the most money possible for the amount of effort we want to put in.

How Hiring A Caterer Made Me Better At My Job

hiringacatererSome of you may or may not know I’m getting married this year. And even though I’m holding a small wedding, there is some coordination that needs to happen.

For me and Derrick, the two most important things to spend our money on were 1) food and  2) photography.

While other things are also important, food is something everyone who attends the event will experience… plus Derrick and I like to eat. We knew it was going to take up a large majority of our wedding budget.

As someone who’s never planned a large event before, it was a very enlightening experience to spend a good amount of money on something I didn’t completely understand but know I need.

I now get how most of you feel hiring a web professional.

Here’s what I learned along the way.

I judged people based on their websites.

I was told there was a very good but very expensive caterer… which I had a hard time believing when I went to the website. The large format pictures were blurry, it was not mobile friendly, and there was no useful information on their site (like sample menus or how much per person could be expected).

Now I may be more web savvy than the average person but all of us have seen enough websites to know when someone looks legit or not. These people looked like they could barely run their business by looking at their website.

I want to tell about half the people I looked at to pony up some funds and get their website looking legit… because they might be leaving a lot of money on the table.

Open ended questions scared the crap out of me.

I’ve NEVER done this before. I have no idea how it works.

With one person I emailed with, they wanted to know what I wanted to know ‘what I had in mind’. Like that was all they asked me.

This put pressure on me to think of what they meant. I had given them the number of people, the day and time, and the approximate vibe I was going for ‘casual buffet style brunch’. What else do they want to know? Did they want a menu? Did they want me to send pictures? I still have no idea.

Having a questionnaire would help me understand what they need to know to quote me. Our eventual caterer had a list of what she wanted from me so that was a much easier initial email to answer.

Other people have thought of the questions you should ask. 

When you are ready to hire someone (you’ve got past that initial stage), you need to be really clear on what you’re getting or not getting.

The great news is wedding websites, blogs, and your friends have great ideas of questions you should ask before you hire someone.

Armed with questions from a Real Maine Weddings checklist, I asked questions of our caterer and got my answers which helped make the decision.

Hire someone you like.

If someone is providing you services, you’ll have to be able to talk with them and have it feel like they are addressing your concerns.

If someone seems pushy, difficult, or otherwise has personal traits that are going to grate on you, that’s a good enough reason not to hire them. Your gut instinct is an important instrument, use it!

So yes, hiring a caterer was an exciting and terrifying step. Exciting because it means we are closer to our goal, terrifying because we are writing a check to them bigger than a mortgage payment.

Those of you who have hired Breaking Even on some good interactions and faith in us, I thank you. I now understand that feeling better than I ever have and I am lucky to have you.

And to those of you out there providing services and not getting a lot of phone calls or emails, ask yourself:

Does my website look legit and answer some basic questions for potential customers?
Do I have a list of questions I need answered to give a proper quote/follow-up answer to frame the discussion?
Am I prepared to answer the basic questions other people have told my potential customer to ask me?
Could a personal trait be holding me back?

If I Want To Speak More, Time To Practice…

Me talking about the Facebook with a phantom Diet Coke that seemed to appear on my podium despite the fact I don't drink it.

Me talking about the Facebook with a phantom Diet Coke that seemed to appear on my podium despite the fact I don’t drink it.

Part of this year which is making it really different from previous ones is that, now that I have a functional, profitable business, I now have the luxury… and responsibility… to steer this ship even more intentionally than I have been. And this means taking the time to ask some basic questions:

What do I WANT to be doing more? Where do I see myself in the next five years?
(These become much easier questions to ask after you have passed through the ‘desperate’ years of asking for work and taking for whatever you could get so you can pay the rent.) 

I have decided that, in 2014 and beyond, I want to do more speaking gigs. I enjoy them, people seem to enjoy coming to them, and it is something that can actually make money.

What I realized in looking at my site is this desire doesn’t seem very strong. Other than the ‘speaking’ slide in the slideshow, who would really know that I am a dynamic person who can make a three hour workshop seem like a few minutes? (An attendee’s words, not mine- felt like three hours to me. Three good hours but still three hours!) Who would know I was a ‘valuable professional development opportunity’?

No one. Because of this recent truth bomb I’ve figured out: no one is going to book me to speak for their group if they haven’t seen me speak.

The fact it took me this long to figure this out is sad.

Part of my ‘Year of Doing More Speaking’ is to put myself out there more, in the way of a weekly video.

I’ll post this short weekly video on my Youtube channel (feel free to enjoy my ‘dinner party’ and other music mixes there too), and also on social media channels. I haven’t decided where all the videos will go on the site yet and I am also toying around with an email list just for people who want to get the new videos.

I have some other goals too (personally and professionally) but this one I thought was an important one to mention that might interest you if you read and like this blog!

And if you have a question you want me to address in this video series, please send it in to me or leave a comment on this post.

While the idea of editing a seemingly rounder version of myself weekly for the next year doesn’t excite me, I hope me putting myself out there brings more speaking gigs into my life. Because until people can virtually meet me, they are not going to let me meet 100 of their conference attendants in real life. If I sound like I’m doing this mainly because it’s good for me, I am. But I am hoping it turns out that I’m going to enjoy this more than I thought.

Here I go…

Three People Who Will Never Pay You (And How To Sniff Them Out)

I’m pretty good at reading people. It’s part having a constantly on B.S. detector, part having met a lot of different kinds of people in my life and business.

Some people have tried to waste my time. And I don’t want them to waste yours too.

Here are three kinds of people I completely avoid; why I want to stay away from them; and how I know when they are standing in front of me.

rightdowntobusinessThe Right Down To Business Person
Traits: Usually wearing straight-from-work clothes at the party even though it’s Saturday night; knows next to nothing about you as a person; doesn’t really do small talk
Most likely to: Ask me some work question at a party then walk off when someone more important walks in the room.

As someone who grew up with a father constantly questioned about business stuff in social situations, I am trying to do the opposite of what he did by changing the subject when I am at a party/social thing and someone brings up work. Sample exchange:

Right Down To Business Person (RDTBP): So Nicole what do you think of this Google+?
Me: I think it’s a good tool for reaching certain markets and doing better in search… Hey, how’s your daughter liking college?
RDTBP: She likes it… but what about how I would use Google+ in my business.
Me: You know what? Why don’t you email me about this Monday? I’ve had a couple glasses of wine and I might not give the best answer. (smile and pause) But I’m so glad Sarah is doing well, have you been down to visit her yet?

I have this kind of exchange, at least once, at every social gathering I go to. It’s not that I don’t love my job, I am also actually genuinely interested in other people outside of their work… and I want them to be in me too!

These kind of people take themselves really seriously, and they don’t seem to want to talk to someone unless they can get something for it. It makes me feel like they’re using me and I don’t like that feeling.

(Note: They never email me on Monday about the question they had. They are content to hold on to the next question until next time they see me rather than pay for any of my advice. Oh well!)

fakeprenneurThe FakePrenneur
Traits: Super vague about what their business does/sells; lurking on Facebook groups and anytime someone asks about their type of business they chime in “I can do that”; probably has not actually made enough actual money at their business to sustain themselves; (100% of the time in my case they are male)
Most likely to: Stand in the back of the room at a presentation I am giving, arms folded with a skeptical look, and approach me once everyone leaves with a vague but seemingly important business deal.

These people, to me, are hilarious. They usually carry themselves like they’re really important. They don’t have the quiet confidence of the actual important person in the room; they are more showy because they want you to notice them.

Usually the best way to get rid of these people is to ask them for more information. Like most insecure people, if you ask them for more than they know about, they freeze.

Fakeprenneur (FP): So your presentation was interesting but I don’t entirely agree with it. (Most fakeprenneurs appear to be dudes who have all read the same pickup artist book about negging.)
Me, shrugging and uneffected: Well we all have our areas of expertise and ways of communicating. Glad you liked it!
FP: I have this commodity that I need to move quickly, it’s something in every household so my target audience is everyone. I have no interest in doing this, I want to hire you. What’s this going to cost me?
Me: This sounds intriguing. If you can send me your website link or product info; a specific profile of the target customer who purchases most often from you; and what your marketing budget is, I’d be happy to work something up. Here’s my email address.

I then proceed to never hear from them again.

These people are a nightmare to work with because they think they are smarter than you without actually knowing what they want.

knowledgejunkieThe Knowledge Junkie
Traits: Quotes Seth Godin/Gary Vaynerchuk/insert-tech-guru-here; sits in the front at a presentation and talks more than any other person there; follows you on social media, subscribes to your email newsletter and will do anything else with your business that’s free
Most likely to:  Email me after a presentation with everything they would have added; use jargon incorrectly

As the internet doubles in size every 20 days or so, there is no way I can keep up with EVERYTHING going on… and these people really have ideas and opinions on what I should know:

Knowledge junkie (KJ): Did you read that article in the New York Times about how Snapchat’s servers were compromised. (Aside: I made this up)
Me: No but it sounds interesting and security is always a big deal online. What did they find?
KJ: Really? You haven’t read it? I mean you are in that industry so I thought you would have see it. Anyway, it seems like… (go on for about five minutes while I listen)
Me: Well I’ll have to check it out!

These people are a nightmare because they think they already know everything about your area of expertise. Heck, even I’m not that arrogant. And as I’ve learned, talking someone out of a bad idea is harder than talking them into a good one.

So as you see from my post here I have a hard time with:

1) People who I feel are using me.
2) People who feel like they are better than me.
3) People who need my help enough to (sort of) ask me for it but won’t actually use the good advice I give them.

So if you see these people in your travels, exchange a polite email, smile at them across the room, like an occasional status update but otherwise stay away. You’ll be happier (and richer) for it!

P.S. If anyone is an illustrator who’d like to draw these people, I’d totally pay you to do it! I love using credited stock images for comedic effect but I do wish I had the artistic knowledge to properly back up this blog post!

Why Your Customer Can’t Be Everyone

More fun posters here:

More fun posters here:

When I ask business owners who their typical customer is, about half of them say ‘everyone’.


So then I try another question. “Who is your best customer?” and I start pressing for details, like income, interests, age, and other details, it turns out that they usually have a relatively clear idea.

What’s the problem with thinking of everyone as your customer? It seems pretty harmless… but could actually lead to a lot of heartache.

Pleasing all people pleases no one.

Have you ever tried to design a website for a 25 year old and an 65 year old at the same time?

People want different things… and whether you are producing a rack card or a website, you need to create something that is going to attract your ideal customer.  You are communicating to customers in writing, images, video, and more… and different styles tend to attract different kinds of people.

Below are two online dating websites. Neither excludes people by age and for comparison’s sake, I blurred the names on both in case that swayed you:



Now neither of these sites actually discriminates on age… but some subtle design, text, technology, and photo decisions lead you to think (depending on who you are) you are in the right place or the wrong place.

So in subtle ways, you are targeting some people to somewhat purposeful exclusion of others. If you actually tried to design a website that appealed to all people, it would be super generic looking… and actually appeal to no one. (The site closest to this? Facebook but really if you look at it, it’s the information your friends disclose, not Facebook, that makes that site work well for you.)

Attracting people who don’t want to buy wastes your time and resources.

Think of these things (which may or may not have happened to you in the recent past):

The time you spend talking on the phone to that person who called about buying insert-item-you’re-selling-here but can’t actually afford it.
The money you spend on that broadly targeted Facebook ad that sent two clicks to your website and zero sales.

What do these two things have in common?

In both instances you have reached someone, but in both cases you have mainly reached someone who isn’t interested.

Think you can turn them around with your smile and cheery speech? Most people have decided within 5 seconds whether they like you or not so good luck with that.

The time or money you spent broadly targeting a large group could be reduced in reaching a smaller, more specific group.

Here’s an example from my Facebook profile (in case you don’t know me, I’m a straight, engaged female who is social media consultant with a bachelors degree). Which one makes me roll my eyes more?


I actually might want to get a masters degree so I get that… but attracting a man for a lasting relationship? I think I’m set!

The social media education company is not wasting their time on me but the ‘Enchant Him’ program clearly did. (Yes I totally clicked, if I would have waited until the end, I would have found the secrets to making a man mine forever… oh well!)

Knowing who your people are allows you to do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t.

Who’s our ideal audience? Middle aged, middle class white women with bachelor’s degrees who are decision makers at a small business or non-profit in coastal Maine.

Now does everyone we work with fit that stereotype? Of course not. But this majority of people tend to attend our workshops, subscribe to our email newsletters, come in for consulting, and serve as our liaisons with their company/non-profit on our larger projects.

In general, they are most likely as a group, to be on Pinterest and Facebook, less likely to be on Twitter and Google+.  In case you don’t believe me, some graphs from (by the way, there is more than this available- fascinating website!):



OK so are you ready to see what the largest social referrers are on our website (NetworkedBlogs by the way is a Facebook app)?


I know, mind blown right?

But seriously, if you know your people, you know not only how to spend your time marketing but this information can help make all kinds of other decisions for you. So knowing who your people are helps you spend more time on the right things, and less time on the wrong ones.

Now I hope when someone asks you who your target customer is, you don’t say everyone… because not only is it not true but it’s costing you money.