This Week In Business

Friends And FreelanceSwitch: Why I Am So Lucky

For 24 hours (yesterday) the story of my business was on the front page of a major website. I’ve gotten so many calls, emails, and social media messages congratulating me (that I’m still following up on) but I think it’s only right to explain the reason for this ridiculously good luck.

A brief moment on the 'home page' on FreelanceSwitch. I'll take it!

A brief moment on the 'home page' on FreelanceSwitch. I'll take it!

Melanie Brooks, the author of the article, has been a colleague, mentor, and friend since I’ve met her and I’d like to write a short ‘love’ letter about her.

What drew me to Melanie at the small business conference we met over four years ago at was her enthusiasm. Nothing fake about it, she was genuinely into what she was doing. She was also smart, funny, and warm. It was one of those ‘instafriends’ situations but as we talked, we learned we actually had a lot in common. We both worked in newspapers, had ridiculous online dating stories, and were known as the ‘tell it like it is’ person in our respective social circles. Mel is a true kindred spirit and I am lucky to have gotten to know her as well as I have (and to continue getting to know her).

But what I am most thankful for about Melanie, even more than her writing this article, is that from the moment she met me, she believed in my business and in me. Some days even more than I did. She is one of the few people in my life who never thought I was crazy and went so far as to actively support me in my venture mainly in the way of dealing with a teary or exhausted version of myself. (When you can call someone crying, you know they are worth keeping around!)

While it’s nice that people are congratulating me, telling me they ‘always knew’ I could do it, I will always remember the few people who said it first. Melanie Brooks was one of those people. And as one of the smartest people I know, I believed her.

Ok so my point is while I’m flattered that  I even got on this really cool, well-read website, the friendship that got me there means the most. And that makes me tear up a little. Maybe I should call Mel crying. :^)

You can read the full article here on FreelanceSwitch.

Seven Reasons You Should Work For Me

I’m taking the hiring of my first full time employee very seriously. As my friend Ogy put it, this is an important decision because I am essentially doubling my company. I can’t help but think more about this on Labor Day.

Jennifer Hooper has done some fine work here at Breaking Even Communications but she is off to get her masters degree so it’s time to find a replacement, quite a task really since Jennifer is so awesome.

Over the last month, as I emailed colleagues and friends about leads, they have asked me, “Nicole, what are you really looking for?”

Above all, I am looking for a good person: hardworking, smart, friendly, interested, and honest. Anyone who fits that description I can train on the technical aspects of the job. (And I am pretty patient too since I remember what it is like to learn this stuff!)

And I have decided whether it takes me a month, two months, or six months to get the right person here at the second desk here, I’m going to do it.

If you are thinking about applying to work at this company (and meet the basic requirements as stated here), here are a few reasons I think you’d like to work here at Breaking Even Communications:

1. Rewarding work.
Helping small business owners and non-profit boards is pretty rewarding. People contact Breaking Even Communications because they want to learn about the internet, and watching the light bulb moments people have is pretty fantastic. If you want a job where you are making a difference and solving problems, this is a job where you’d get to do that.

2. Different every day.
Whether it’s a bed and breakfast learning about Twitter, a retailer optimizing their Youtube channel, or a non-profit needing some blog direction, you get to learn a bit about the goals, and challenges of a variety of clients. Breaking Even Communications has between forty and sixty clients at a given moment meaning there is never a dull moment!

3. Get paid to learn.
Want to learn more about internet and business, both from online resources and directly from colleagues in the internet marketing industry? At Breaking Even Inc., we build in time for professional development so we can stay on top of it all. So if you like to learn about web development, this is a good way to do it.

4. Flexible schedule.
Honestly, sometimes you need to be in the office or helping at an event like a workshop. But a lot of the time, you can work from home, your favorite coffee shop, wherever! One perk we can offer you is the ability to work with your schedule. Yes, very aware that there are other things to life besides work!

5. Live in Downeast Maine.
The saying is you can’t be a real Mainer until you’ve spent a winter, so this job can totally help you meet this unofficial requirement. Plus, it really is very fun to be in such a beautiful place with nice people year round. And when summer 2012 rolls around, you already have a job in Bar Harbor.

6. Your boss is pretty cool.
I (Nicole Ouellette) am a pretty nice person, and I think I’m a pretty good boss. More importantly, I am always trying to get better. Here are some recommendations here: http://www.linkedin.com/in/nicoleouellette Even better, ask around about me!

7. Get in on a growing company.
If you are the kind of person who wants to make a lasting contribution to a company, Breaking Even Communications has been growing steadily (and at times exponentially) and is going into its fourth year (!) of operation. Your ideas will be heard and as the company grows, you could play an increasingly important role (and help shape it within the company). That’s pretty exciting!

So Happy Labor Day to you and if you know someone who’d be a good fit for this company, please pass this post along. (It’s my 800th blog post, can you believe it!? Time flies when you’re having fun!)

This Month In Business: Spending So Much Money Edition

Before I became a business owner, I always marveled at the sheer number of microbusinesses in Maine, specifically those with one employee (the owner).

“They could grow if they could hire help” I thought, kind of naively.

This month, I hired my first employee. This was a needed and welcome change but I realize now what a huge step and financial risk it is to go from one to two people. Suddenly, I needed office space and equipment, workers comp and liability insurance, payroll services… I spent money much quicker than I made it this last month. And I’m really hoping my huge financial gamble pays off.

In addition to the financial stresses, I’ve also had to get organized and create systems: an employee handbook, email accounts, a shared calendar, file sharing, etc. The stuff that worked great (or at least ok) living in my brain and on my computer now suddenly has to be out there for someone else to share, add to, etc.

I ran into a fellow business owner a few weeks ago who was very skeptical about my hire. “You can’t expect to do twice as much work now.” he said, trying to be helpful.

I certainly don’t expect my employee to put in 60 hour weeks, lie awake a night worrying about money, etc. That’s my job. If someone would do that besides me, I’d worry about them!

I do hope this will allow my company to move into that next level. Because if it’s a question of turning down work or being able to do more, I bet you know what I’d rather do.

Has anyone else went from a one man or woman show to a multi-person business? What advice do you have for this transition?

This Month In Business: Needing Help Edition

So the good news is, while I used to write this business update every week, I now seem to be writing it every month. I’ve been doing this because I’ve actually had a lot of work to do. (I know, *gasp!)

But it really does help to have some kind of check in with myself, since I don’t have a weekly meeting with my boss, a quarterly report, or other sort of evaluation. You, as my blog readers, help hold me to some accountability. For that, I am very grateful. Because I totally need some!

Here’s what I’ve been up to besides actual paid work:

1. I enrolled in an online business course.

You may have heard of Earn1K which is a business course aimed at freelancers. I’ve been on the email list for awhile and finally decide to take the plunge after a couple of months of realizing I’ve been not as focused as I should be on the overall direction of this business. In terms of business course experience, I took an eight week seminar from Women, Work, and Community two years ago, read a couple business books, wrote a business plan, and called it good. Plus it’s been about 6 years since I’ve taken a full on course and I figured it was time for some much needed personal development.

So far it’s been going really well and already the time and effort I’m putting in to develop my ideas is paying off.

2. I got a cash infusion from Mom.

I realize there are a few things I’ve considered doing for money that are unrelated to my business but was considering because I needed some cash. A combination of a few projects running longer than expected and a couple bills paid at the beginning of the year meant I had less cash on hand than I was expecting at this point.

My debt to income ratio is around 1 (breaking even!) but a bank will pretty much only talk to you if you’ve got a ratio of about 1.5.

Over Christmas, my mom had told me to ask for help if I needed it so I decided to take her up on her offer and borrow some money. She was kind enough to present a zero percent interest rate and put the check in an ‘I’m proud of you’ card. Thanks Mom! I’m already sleeping better and plan to pay her back in full by the end of the year if not sooner.

3. I’ll be having two upcoming seminars which one of my more connected friends is helping me organize.
Anyone who has ever eaten dinner with me knows how much I like food. My friend Paul is a food distributor who sells to many local restaurants. When he came to me and suggested we do a couple workshops geared at the hospitality industry, I jumped at the chance.

So if you are in Downeast Maine and run a food-related business check out the two workshops: www.socialmediafood101.eventbrite.com and www.socialmediafood201.eventbrite.com

4. I finished a really big project, with much needed help.
A couple months ago, a friend of a friend wanted some help developing a real estate website. I looked at the online landscape at other real estate companies and saw that what she wanted was possible, even if the websites themselves weren’t the prettiest or most functional websites I’d ever seen. So I gave her a quote for her real estate website and she accepted.

What followed were many unexpected complications: database access issues, formatting issues, code for site design interfering with search function. You name it and it happened. It became clear very early on that I could not handle this on my own so I pulled in a friend to help. Then another. Then another. Through coding, coffee, and sheer determination, we finished the site, exhausted from late nights and early mornings.

I learned three things from this experience:

1) Don’t be cocky in your abilities to do something you’ve never done before. Take the time you think it’ll take and double it. Worse case scenario you give money back.
2) If you are pulling people in, outline the project tasks and responsibilites clearly. Chances are the work will be difficult enough and there’s no need to add communication issues to the mix.
3) You don’t have to know everything but you have to know people who can help so you can collectively know everything you need to.

So the website is launched and I thank Nicholas Peterson, Matthew Baya, and Jeremy Mason for their help with it. And that said, if you know someone who needs a real estate website, I’m now your gal.

Anything you needed help with (and got help with) this month?

(Come on, make me feel there are a couple of you out there who needed the help of other people this month!)

These Three Weeks In Business: Crashing Edition

These past three weeks, my Mac, my PC, and me have all crashed. Let me explain.

Many people think if you happen to be good at internet stuff you are also good at computers. Not so.

I am truly terrible at physical computer issues. And in the past three weeks, both of my computers have bit it.

My Mac was the first to go. I was giving a group presentation when it decided to do software updates. So I could continue with the presentation, I did a force quit. Two friends, one week, and a lot of Mac Forums reading later, I had to reinstall my operating system. I get it, if the Mac is updating its programs, let it finish. Lesson learned.

While dealing with my sad Mac, my PC (which is a desktop computer I do a lot of my work on) began acting wonky. It quit programs mid-use, stopped backing up my files with Mozy, and other nonsense. I tried the usual stuff: defragmenting, running virus scans, etc. but nothing worked. Hundreds of registry errors and a few days with a computer savvy colleague, it’s back.

Then I crashed. I was sick for a week and last Saturday, I slept until 11 am. And I’m a normally early riser. Must be all these late nights working, which I am finally going to do something about. But more on that in a minute.

Besides all the crashing, here’s what has been going on:

I got a smartphone.
I finally bit the bullet and got an Android phone. Verizon has much better coverage in my area than ATT and since I do a lot of things with Google anyway, it was a good choice for me. On a recent trip, I found I had much less anxiety when I was able to check my email once in awhile and not walk into hundreds of emails after the weekend was over. Also when I was in computer limbo, it was nice to be able to check email and keep up with what was coming in.

I turned down work.
I got an email from Elance saying someone wanted me to bid on a project. I was flattered… until I went to look at the specifics. The bid was $25/hour below my minimum hourly rate and it was a very short term project. It felt good to turn something because I didn’t need to do it but at the same time, it made me wonder how many legitimately cool projects I was missing working on, which made me realize.

I realized I needed help… and no, not that kind of help.
It’s time to hire someone. And before announcing this in a formal way, I thought a lot about the kind of person I wanted to hire and why.

What I really need help with is administrator type stuff: invoicing, answering emails, and some basic copywriting to start. That’s not to say there couldn’t be more but to be able to work on big project, I need some help taking care of the small details.

I’d love to pay someone $25-$50/hour but this is such a gamble that I have to start off much lower in terms of pay. If I take on someone else in terms of being responsible for their pay, I need to know I can make payroll. If I can’t, I’ll never sleep. Plus it’s much easier to say “Wohoo, we’re kicking butt, I can pay you more now!” than “Wow, I’m paying you too much, I need to cut your salary.” That would not go over well.

The second thing to consider is if I am going to train someone, I need someone who is going to stick around, preferably in my geographic area which is where I am and where a majority of my clients are. Downeast Maine is an expensive place to live that alternates between a busy summer season and a dead winter season. That said, I need the help year round and I can’t have someone who disappears in the summer.

And thirdly, I  need someone who is going to listen to me. Now I’m not a big ‘power’ person but I do need there to be a bit of professional distance for my first employee.

I’ve put out the call to the guidance counselors at my local high school and to a contact at the local liberal arts college. We can debate the pros and cons of high school versus college students but in terms of the trainable tech savvy person who can be happy with a part time job and stick around for a couple years, students seem to be a logical choice. But we’ll see.

When things happen like this in a business, it’s really easy to get bogged down trying to fix it all yourself. But at a certain point, it’s smart, and even just sane, to say, “Hey, I need help” and throw some money at the problem.

Have you crashed anything recently? If so, how did you uncrash it?

This Week In Business: Gas Station Coffee Edition

I always know I’m going on a big trip when I am drinking terrible gas station coffee. I kind of look forward to it actually!

After my presentation at Social Media FTW with Lenny Tracy of the Maine Real Estate Network, who sat through it. See how relieved I look? -Photo Courtesy of Maine Today

After my presentation at Social Media FTW with Lenny Tracy of the Maine Real Estate Network, who sat through it. See how relieved I look? -Photo Courtesy of Maine Today

This week, I headed to Social Media FTW in Portland to present about business blogging. Nothing like standing up in front of 150ish people with a mic on knowing you’re being videotaped. I had a good time but I was also really nervous… I think it went well anyway!

If/when the presentations go online, I’ll link them on this blog. But for the moment, here is a link to the slides of my presentation. You know, in case you want to feel like you were there.

Here’s what else happened this week:

Matt and I got a little more organized with the Downeast Learning workshops.

There seems to be two groups of people we contact about our workshops. 1) Publications who need to know about something way ahead of time to be able to publish it. and 2) People who only need it about a week ahead (as in they need a time constraint to actually register). Matt organized our press email list (and we have a separate email list we maintain off the Downeast Learning website of other people).  Now we can make sure the notification goes out twice: once a month ahead for the publications (and people) and once one week ahead to remind folks to sign up.

Matt and I are also going to try to live stream this next workshop to see if we can have people remotely register to attend workshops. We’ll keep you posted about if it worked.

To make sure we got in the print version of the Ellsworth Chamber newsletter, we also decided on our workshop topic for next month. You’ve Been Yelped! is all about the use of online review websites and how they can help businesses and non-profits can get and use online reviews to their advantage. There, now you know a month ahead! Though honestly, if anyone would sign up this early, you’d officially shock me.

My blog continued its move to Wordpress.

At the talk I gave, I told people how I’ve moved my blog three times to different software/domains. I swear this move to Wordpress was the last (from MyBlog, a Joomla component, in case you were curious).

Last week was the big move: making the software live and making sure everything worked overall. This past week has been tweaking things. I’ve been adding plugins, tagging blog posts, and otherwise polishing the content that’s on this site.

Do you believe it’s been four years since I’ve started the Breaking Even blog? Crazy!

I decided to tell people I would have to hold off on their work for a few days… and the world didn’t end.

I think those of us who work alone can think the world will don’t end if we don’t do everything right away. I had applied to be part of the Social Media FTW conference a few months ago and the last few weeks, work has gotten really busy. Ah, timing.

I had two choices: 1) Not sleep for the next month. or 2) Tell people there was going to be a bit of a delay. Since I need sleep so I don’t become Crazy Sleep-Deprived Nicole, I opted for option 2. Guess what? The world did not end. My clients were ok waiting a couple days. I love that people are reasonable…

I had breakfast with someone absolutely inspiring.

Samantha Warren is one of those rare people that has managed to be friends with a lot of my friends on Facebook without me having met her. And it’s not one of those cases where she knows people from one part of my life. I decided we should meet for breakfast, as cool people and fellow small business owners.

We had such a nice time: great conversation about life, work, and all the people we have in common. One idea she had that I thought was great was making a ‘procedures’ document, in case someone ever has to take over work for her (and also as a checklist to make sure all things she does get done on schedule). Anyway, if I ever need a wedding photographer, I think I’ve got one.

So while this week was a lot of driving, it was a great week in terms of meeting people and networking.

If you met me this week, I do hope you’ll comment below so I can follow you online as well. Have a good rest of the week!