The Shortest Business Book Ever

I'm all about you opening for business. Photo via:

I’m all about you opening for business. Photo via:

I have several friends who have very recently started their own businesses.

I am pretty encouraging about this sort of thing, so long as they aren’t remortgaging their house or selling their children to pay for it (or something similarly crazy).

Honestly, six years ago when I started doing this part time, all but about ten people thought I was weird. Then when I quit my job almost three years ago, me being weird got updated to me being crazy.

Someone who I had considered a bit of a mentor up until that point said: “Well that’s gutsy. Good luck, I guess.” Whenever I see this person, I still think of her unsupportive comment.

I will never be that wet blanket for someone else’s dream. (So long as they are not jumping off a financial cliff with no safety net that is.)

Because of my lack of business background and my relatively short climb to moderate success, people ask me for advice. A few people really wanting to charm me say I should write a book.

But my business book would be the shortest book in history:

1) Don’t spend more money then you make. It’s really tempting to go out and buy a new computer, spend $100 at a stationary store, and otherwise buy things for your business that are more pretty than functional.

Here’s an exercise to show you most stuff you want to spend money on is kind of pointless. Try to remember the paint color of the last restaurant bathroom you were in. Or how big the sign in front of the last storefront you went into was. Exactly. Your customers care far less than you think they do.

2) Do good work. Competing only on price, you will never be able to compete with the larger firms or big box stores. So you clearly need something that is good. It doesn’t have to be unique (though that does help). Just good or ideally great.

If you have a good reputation, that’s going to be  your hardest working advertisement. You can’t buy it or fake it (at least indefinitely). Because people are going to talk about you and your business when you aren’t there. You want them to… and you want them to say good things.

3) Be nice to people. This isn’t just to your clients. This is to waiters, interns, people you meet who don’t seem important.

People are mobile. I met a good friend of mine when we were both copy and pasting at newspapers. Now she’s the editor of a statewide publication. Don’t get me wrong, I saw greatness in her when I met her (and her in me). But this just goes to show you that people you are dealing with in one situation you may meet in another… so you might as well be nice.

If you do those three things, you can run a business. I swear it isn’t rocket science. Sure, success takes some luck but if you follow the above three rules, you’ll be ahead of the business starting game!



How To Make A Good RFP

When larger organizations or businesses put a web design project (or other projects) out to bid, they often make an RFP (request for proposals) that they email to prospective candidates or post online somewhere. This includes basically a summary of what they are looking for. Then if someone is interested in bidding, they can write a proposal based on the criteria and submit it for consideration.

As someone who reads a lot of RFPs and occasionally consults people on how to write them, I thought now might be a good time for a blog post about them from a designer’s perspective (writing proposals/bids with them in mind). I use the example of website design but some of these can apply to any RFP.

Think ahead.

When you are in an industry where you do subcontract work, you have to line up work months ahead of when you’ll actually do it. Because you have to build in time for the projects you already have going on, the stuff you’ve promised people you will do, and any sporatic stuff that may come up for inactive clients. It’s a balancing act.

Just to give you an idea, I’m bidding on work I’ll do in July. So think of approaching your RFP process before your busy season, for your sanity and your designer’s sake.

Creating an RFP will make sure you are comparing apples to apples. 

I once lost a job for a restaurant website. I somehow got to see the winning bid afterward. It did not include putting their menu online, making a mobile friendly version of the site, and other (I thought) necessary items for the website that I had included in my more expensive proposal. Clearly the person making the decision had just went to the bottom of each bid sheet and looked at the final number.

Different web designers think different things are necessary. Different clients think different things are necessary. The only way to put everyone on the same page and fairly compare bids is to write an RFP including your requirements, your timeline, your budget, and anything else you want considered in your website design. Yes, it is worth taking the time to do because you will get what you want in the end. Because you’ll have asked for it.

Focus on what you want in terms of functionality. 

As my friend and virtual coworker Matt Baya would say, we have to bake the cake (put the content and functionality into a website) before we ice it (design it).

Now content on websites had been made relatively easy by content management systems like Joomla, Wordpress, and Drupal. I can probably show your board, staff, and you how to update content on your website in about an hour once it’s online. (But if you are doing a responsive site, your designer will need all the content going on the website up front.)

The ‘hard’ part of website development though is how the site will function. Do you need a bilingual website? A website that updates from a real estate data feed? A form that populates a spreadsheet? These functional things will take up a majority of your website designer’s time. If you want an interactive map, business directory, ad spaces with the ability for advertisers to log in and change those ads themselves… these are the things to put in your RFP to get a true quote.

Good, fast, or cheap, pick two. 

Speaking of this, make sure to communicate priority of each item. If you want a $4000 website with a ton of functionality done in four weeks, it’s not going to happen. I mean I want to marry a millionaire sushi chef who does supermodeling on the side and loves cleaning my house… But you get my point right?

If you have a tight timeline and a limited budget, you’ll need to give up some functional requirements. If you have a limited budget and want a website ‘like the New York Times’ (I have actually heard this exact phrase multiple times), you’ll need to work on a longer timeline with someone who’s probably very busy with other projects.

In your RFP, let people know what your main concern is…. and don’t feel bad that it’s your budget. Just say so up front.

Everyone wants a ‘nice clean’ design, instead ask about design process and example work.

I would be shocked (well actually really amused)  if anyone told me they wanted an awful, cluttered design for their new website. Everyone wants a clean design that’s modern, like Apple’s website. (Three different clients have told me this exact example.)

But here’s a common thing I’ve seen. People will show me their brochures, business cards, sign, pictures of their store and then they’ll show me a website they like that looks *nothing* like their brand that they want me to make for them. This is where there has to be some meeting of the minds because your website should look like your brand. Maybe just in a more modern way then your 10 year old brochure can.

If it were me, I’d trust the firm you choose to come up with something for using any materials you have to give them, assuming you like other designs they did for people. Ask to see their portfolio and ask about their design process rather than specifying design in the RFP. If you like the firm’s past work and their process, you’ll end up with a design you like, trust me.

Asking for things like spec designs before you award the project is like trying to eek free work out of us, not cool.

If you seem high maintenance, we will stay away. 

There are little clues in your proposal that will make spending the four hours I’ll take to write it not worth the effort, mainly if it seems like you will be a giant pain in our butt.

Some clues you will be high maintenance:

  • Making it seem like I have to jump through a lot of hoops to get the project. (This makes me feel like you want someone desperate for the work and does not create a super healthy dynamic.)
  • You trash talk your previous provider. Listen, they might not have been fantastic but you did pick them and if they are still in business must have some redeeming quality.
  • You have someone on your committee who ‘used to design websites’ and constantly mentions it. (This usually means I’ll be dealing with someone who is going to be vaguely combative about every decision.)
  • The committee can’t name who the point person will be. Corresponding with five different people about edits on a development site is a nightmare. One person should be gathering all feedback and have the final say on behalf of your business or organization.

So to summarize, writing an RFP is totally worth it if you want a website to look like and work like you want with your main criteria met. It also makes sure that as you are comparing different design firms that you have more of a fair even basis to do so.

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:

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:




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

What the Asana interface looks like. From

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. 🙂

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