This Week In Business

On Competition: Why There Is More Then Enough Work For All Of Us

Running a business means taking a fair bit of rejection. This company is no exception.

Rejection is part of life... does it mean we should be afraid of competition? Photo by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/telemax/7035075623/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Rejection is part of life… does it mean we should be afraid of competition? Of course not. Photo by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/telemax/7035075623/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Just a few weeks ago, we lost a bid on a large project to another company. It was a project was local, run by people we know, and matched our skill set. It would have also kept both Alice and I paid for three months. The loss felt not just expensive but very personal.

Fast forward to this past weekend being at a conference with other web developers. A lot of them are way more established, experienced, or otherwise ‘more than’ Breaking Even.

What do these two unrelated events have in common?

Every so often, in a moment of insecurity, I sometimes worry about ‘the competition’.

Ninety eight percent of the time, I relate to ‘the competition’ as I do at a conference. We can learn from each other and be valuable colleagues to one another. But sometimes, I feel a pang of insecurity. It’s not very attractive, helpful, or really very realistic.

Here’s why so-called ‘competition’ isn’t going to get me down, and shouldn’t get you down either.

The internet is huge… and getting bigger.

That’s to say there is a lot of work to do: millions of websites to create, marketing campaigns to implement, blogs to grow. There is more then enough for everyone in my industry and everyone wanting to enter it to work now into retirement.

Not online? In your business, you have a bigger market then you think you do and new people entering it all the time. (You may just need a new way to reach them.) Think about it and I’m sure you realize this is true no matter your industry.

We all need colleagues to do better work.

What’s the best way to understand something better? Listen to several people explain the same thing. Read multiple books by different authors on the same topic.

The more people in your industry, the more quickly it can improve and the better you can become. As the keynote speaker Paul Orwig said at the conference (a proverb): “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Companies are run by people.

People are unpredictable. Most of the time, this can be super annoying.

But sometimes that’s a good thing. For example, a web developer leaves the field… and offers you all their clients. Your businesses merges with another. Your business and another look for ways to collaborate on a common project.

We are all moving around all the time, leaving the work force, coming back into the work force, changing companies, creating companies, retiring.

The larger your network of people in your field (your ‘competition’), the more likely you can take advantage of opportunities like the ones above.

So as you see, ‘competition’ is the wrong way to think about it. It’s why I never use that word except when I think it in a moment of insecurity… about myself.

When a potential client invokes it (usually to get me to come down on a price), I tend to want to run far away from that client, not think badly about Company A.

Colleagues. That’s what I have. And that’s what you have to. And in those moments where you feel ‘less than’ remember that that’s how you’re feeling about yourself… and get back to work.

Some Of My Favorite Motivational Videos

I spend a lot of time watching online video. More than I should probably admit.

Sometimes, these videos distract me. These are usually animal videos.

But other videos kind of give me some inspiration to work hard and do more. Here are three of my favorites:

Productivity from Randy Pausch

This video is about productivity and achieving dreams from a very smart charismatic professor who happens to be dying. If you want some general productivity ideas or just a kick in the pants, this will do it. Everyone from high school students to someone about to retire will get something out of this lecture.

Negotiation from Ramit Sethi

This is the only business ‘class’ I ever paid for. While aimed at freelancers, Ramit Sethi will teach you the scripts you need to negotiate. (If I’ve used any of these on you, sorry.) These series of videos are part of that course and can give you some useful tips on raising your rates, negotiating with providers, and other useful stuff.

Goal Setting With Marie Forleo

If you have a big dream you want to tackle, Marie will break down the process of brainstorming into steps you can implement. This half hour video, if you do the exercises, will give you a goal and ways to work towards it. Since I can’t embed it from her site, here’s the link: http://www.marieforleo.com/htgayw/

Do you have any productivity/educational/business-y videos you like to watch? Share the links in the comments!

 

Some Thoughts On Being A Female Run Business In A Male Dominated Industry

The last conference I went to had a record number of women… 23%.  This was a statistic that people were impressed with (as in ‘Wow, there’s a lot of women here!’) but, as even the author has acknowledged, we have a long way to go.

female-symbolIt’s true that 78% of web developers are men and I know that women in male dominated fields like science and engineering can also identify with me: It can be a little hard not seeing a lot of people ‘like you’ out there.

I’m annoyed that, in 2013 as an established professional, I am still dealing with sexism. I can think of the prospective client who said after I asked if he’d sign a work agreement ‘Do you have brothers? Because you seem really aggressive.’ (I ‘lost’ his email.) Men (yes plural) have commented on my looks during a video conference. My weight and whether it has gone up or down has been discussed… in front of me.

Sometimes the sexism is a little more hidden. As the only woman on a conference call, I am asked to take notes. A man will find wonder out loud if I am able to ‘handle’ a certain kind of technical project.

What I really want to say to all this is, “Would this be happening to me if I was a dude?” but I don’t.  Because I am supposed to be sweet after all.

I will say that most of this is thankfully by older men. Over time, there will be less of them to contend with. (OK, maybe that last comment wasn’t so sweet.)

I will also mention that there are plenty of people (both men and women) who are completely respectful of my skills and expertise. But here are a few rules I play by:

I can’t be arrogant. 
I can’t say I’m ‘the best’ at something without people thinking I am cocky. This trait is rewarded in men but humble is my only way to play the game. One of my clients wanted to say he was ‘the best’ at something. I told him it was gutsy but really what I meant was, ‘I can’t get away with saying anything like that.’

I can’t nag.
When men do it, it’s called ‘following up’ or being aggressive. I have to get what I need from someone very carefully if I need to ask for it repeatedly or else I will remind them of their wives, girlfriends, or any other female who has asked them for something over and over.

I can’t show any lack of knowledge.
If I admit I don’t know something, I see people’s confidence falter. I feel like if a man admits the same thing, he is being ‘honest’. Because of this, I overprepare for every meeting and overresearch every decision.

I’ve wanted to bid on a few web projects as ‘Nick’ just to see what would happen… but I think instead I will chose to work with people who don’t mind working with a girl. 🙂

Women in male dominated industries, are you playing by unspoken rules too? Men, have you accidentally been sexist without realizing it? Everyone, am I overly sensitive to this divide? I’d love your thoughts about all this!

The post that inspired this: http://choycedesign.com/2013/02/04/women-wordpress-the-web/

 

 

 

Project Management Software

asanalogoIt seems like it would be pretty easy to run a two person business with a few subcontractors, right?

Well increasingly, it wasn’t easy. Emails get lost or misfiled… that and I can’t easily look at my email and know a project status if Alice is working on a design or Matt’s working on fixing a functionality issue for it.

Matt found Asana in his travels and we’ve been using it really successfully over the last three months. Every client is a ‘project’ and we can assign tasks to each other with due dates, easily attaching notes, comments, and actual files if we wanted to. Then if a client calls or emails, any of us can check on the project status and let them know what is going on. It’s integration with Google Apps made it an easy choice for us… oh, and it’s free.

In addition to the business side of Asana, there is also a ‘Personal Projects’ section which no one else on the team can see but you. You can put reminders to ‘bring back library books’ or ‘make bedroom curtains’ which can have subtasks associated (ex: buy fabric, measure windows, etc.). There is also the same ability to set due dates.

What the Asana interface looks like. From http://allthingsd.com

What the Asana interface looks like. From http://allthingsd.com

What are Asana’s weaknesses?

  • There is no way to locally download (ie download onto a computer) the file. In other words, not being able to back up ourselves means we are a little vulnerable (But with Dropbox and Foursquare also using it, we feel in good company).
  • Asana emails you when others in your team make changes with no way to control the amount of email you get.
  • There is no Android app. Since we are an entirely an iPhone company at the moment, this isn’t a problem yet but as we grow it might become one.

Now, no project management software will ever be perfect. You’ll probably need to try out a few to find one you like. I would suggest doing this by yourself or in a small group before making your company use it. Nothing like making people learn a software they will never use to lower company morale and make people not tolerate other changes in the future. In your shopping around here are some questions you may want to ask:

On your network or web based?

The first big decision is whether you are ok with your system being ‘in the cloud’ or you want it on your local computer network. Clearly, I am pro-cloud (hence using Asana, which lives online and can be accessed in any web browser or on my iPhone) but if you aren’t there are systems out there you can install on your computer network for internal use only if you feel like you want the system to be more insular.

Do you need full CRM capabilities?

Basecamp and other software like it is pretty full featured… and at $50+/month, you’d expect it to be. But we don’t need a full CRM where clients can log in and other bells and whistles related to that so we are forgoing it. What you don’t need is as important as what you need in terms of making any software decision. It could save you money… or simply a steep learning curve.

How can tasks be organized?

Sometimes you may feel limited by how a project management system categorizes. Maybe you can make subtasks but can’t assign deadlines to those like you want. Maybe you want the search box to search for content words within project notes and it won’t. You’ll only know if you like how your project management software organizes things if you organize a few separate projects in it.

Do you need other features (time tracking, live chat, etc.) or can these be accomplished elsewhere?

We use spreadsheets for hours/billing and Google chat for chatting so we weren’t looking to have these functions… but you might be. Make a list of ‘dream’  integrations (Time tracking to Quickbooks, client login with their Gmail, etc. dream big!) and prioritize each one and you’ll be more likely to end up with something that’ll work within your company.

But if you are looking for some relatively simple software to make you more efficient, we love Asana and think you might too. Let us know what you end up finding/trying so we can get to know other options out there!

Why You Give (Some) Information For Free

“It seems like a lot of social media people give information for free.” one of my friends mentioned today. The implied question being, why is that?

Giving some free stuff away doesn't mean your company won't make money. Mozilla in the tech world is an excellent example of sharing information to build value.

Giving some free stuff away doesn’t mean your company won’t make money. Mozilla in the tech world is an excellent example of sharing information to build value.

As people in the information business, we know it’s important to give some of our product for free in the way of blog entries, white papers, etc. Here’s why people give away something for free that they didn’t necessarily get for free:

Information builds credibility.

Does this person know what they are talking about? Do they seem like the kind of person I want to do business with? This is information people will want to figure out before contacting you.

Having free information out there for them to peruse allows them to see for themselves 1) This person is legit and 2) I may even like them as a person. These are both infinitely important in the service industry since the people you hire to provide services tend to be the people you spend time with. Information let’s people get to know you… and giving it away some for free means you are not some money hungry jerkface who’s only in it for the paycheck.

Information builds value.

You know who the best customers are in some of my experience? People who have tried to do it themselves. In trying to build a website or run a social media campaign, people will contact us saying that doing the job well is harder than they expected. They realize there is a lot to know and do, and that they need our help.

It may feel weird to think about giving away something you figured out but guess what happens when someone tries to do it? Some either succeed and love what they get out of it, becoming loyal potential customers. Others attempt and fail… but guess who the first person they think of to call is when they do?

It may seem counter intuitive but put information out there about your services or products. Having an understanding of what goes into either will show your potential customers what’s so valuable… and why they can get that value from you.

Information gives part of the story… and leaves people wanting more. 

Let’s say you read my article about Twitter hashtags (the most popular blog post I’ve ever written for no apparent reason). While it is helpful, it’s really like I’m reading you page 59 out of a book of things I know. Sure there is a topic but does reading it make you understand how to use Twitter entirely? Of course not. What someone with a deep knowledge on a topic can give you are tips and tricks but knowing that information in a context is infinitely more valuable.

What you know about what you do is more than you could write in 855 blog posts (you’re reading post 856 of this blog right now, and there are plenty more topics to cover, trust me!). And the more people know, the more they’ll want to know… if they are interested of course. But guess who buys stuff? Interested people.

Social media people are not silly people with gobs of free time on their hands. They know if they put out information, free information even, it’ll be good for their business. At least I think they are. 🙂

The Two Things You Need To Work From Home

Does working from home mean you are suddenly relaxed and attractive? Stock photography seems to think so. Check out istockphoto.com for more hilariously inaccurate gems like this.

Does working from home mean you are suddenly relaxed and attractive? Stock photography seems to think so. Check out istockphoto.com for more hilariously inaccurate gems like this.

‘It must be so nice to be in your pajamas all day.’

‘You can do whatever you want- that’s so cool!’

People think a lot of things about working from home, like somehow those who do have some magical gig where they get paid to watch reality television and eat Lucky Charms.

I wish.

For the first three years of Breaking Even, when it was only me, I worked from home. I read the usual tips about working from home. The ideas typically include things like putting on ‘real’ clothes and starting at a set time. In other words, treat it like a normal workday where you’d leave and go work elsewhere. I am completely behind this concept.

For awhile, I did this badly. But then I figured out the two secrets to working at home. You need:

1) transition ritual where you transition into work and out of work. For most people, that’s what their commute does for them.

2) discipline to train others and yourself not to distract you. Because how other people react with reinforce (or undermine) what you are trying to do.

Transition Rituals

My former office at home. Cute but having to have it in my living room meant I had to create my own work-life boundaries. You can too.

My former office at home. Cute but having to have it in my living room meant I had to create my own work-life boundaries. You can too.

My transition ritual into work involved taking a shower, drinking french press coffee, and walking my dog. I would then feed my dog, feed myself and then start work by 9 am. Yes, even in my 220 square foot studio apartment with a three step commute from my bed to my desk, I needed a ritual. For the start of the day, I recommend a combination of getting things done, eating breakfast, and anything you need to do that involves feeling like you are ‘waking up’.

My transition ritual out of work usually involved doing something moderately mindless like some data entry while watching a 20ish minute television show on Hulu. This way I was able to eek out an extra few minutes of productivity while getting into relax mode.  To end your work day, I recommend doing something that needs to get done businesswise but is kind of tedious (like putting in payments into Quickbooks or updating your email Contacts list) while feeling like you are ‘relaxing’.

These are my recommendations. Experiment and see what works for you!

Ask other people how they do it and read other people’s experiences and you may find something you haven’t thought of. Some people’s rituals will fascinate you. I once read about someone who got dressed, got in their car, drove around the block, parked in their driveway again, and walked back in the house to start their work at home day.  The only thing that matters is finding an into work and out of work ritual that work for you. Even if they are a little insane.

Training Yourself And Others

If your significant other comes to your house at the end of the day and comments about how you haven’t done the dishes, set that crap straight.

If your friends try to Facebook chat with you, ignore them.

If you find yourself starting to think about cleaning your bathroom or rearranging your closet by color, put the idea on a list to get it out of your brain and keep working.

The temptations of being at home are numerous. Sometimes you have a noble purpose of wanting to be productive so your family will wow at how you juggle both work and home in an effortless way. Sometimes you are trying to procrastinate and you feel like a naughty kid getting away with something when you do it. Or it could be that your friends have worked with other people all day and the only conversation you’ve had is with the mailman and you are a touch lonely. These are all valid. But these temptations trying to pass off  as needs can not be met during your workday.

In terms of being good to yourself, give yourself a break, one in the morning and one in the afternoon just like legally they’d have to give you if you worked at a job outside your house. I used to keep a kitchen timer on my desk at home and when it went off, I could stop working and take a break (usually after 2 hours). Use your break time to do some dishes (if you really want) or chat with people on Facebook (if you really want). Thing is it’s your break so do something that feels like a break. It is up to you but I recommend getting away from the computer if you can for it to truly feel ‘breaky’.

In terms of other people, it may take a few months to set expectations. People who aren’t in your situation aren’t trying to be jerky, they just don’t understand. So take some time and let them know you can’t talk because you are in the middle of something. Follow discussions up with behavior that is consistent with what you are saying: don’t answer personal phone calls during the work day, keep chats under five minutes that aren’t work related, and let people know they can’t just stop in because you may have a conference call or other time sensitive activity scheduled. The interruptions will die down and people will respect that you are working when they see that you aren’t doing fun stuff between 9 to 5. Or whatever set time you’ve established. ‘I don’t call you during the day anymore because I know you’re working.’ one of my friends said to me a few days ago, completely unsolicited. Exactly.

On the same level, I keep work stuff separate too. I don’t answer work calls during non work hours. If something is urgent, people will leave a voicemail and I can call them back. I try to take one full day off from the computer every week (usually Sunday). Because while you don’t want life to interfere with work, you also don’t want work to interfere with life.

Will you seem like a hardened drill sargent by enforcing this boundary? To some maybe. But this is your life we’re talking about and anyone who needs you to be available to them 24-7 with no regard to your needs or sanity is not someone you want to be buddy buddy with anyway. The enforcement stage usually is only a couple months until people get used to your schedule. And as they respect it, you’ll find yourself starting to respect it more too.

Working from home? It’s not that difficult but it takes a certain kind of person to do it well. Be that person.