Online Systems: Incoming Messages

If I was going to pick an area I felt least equipped to write about, it would be dealing with messages. I go through stages where I am super on top of things. Sometimes, I’ll completely miss a message only to get a polite ‘Um, did you get my text?’ three weeks later.

systems-graphic-incoming-messagesSo in some ways, I am the most terrible person to write this blog post but  in other ways, I am kind of the perfect person to do it. Here’s the steps I am following to rein in my own message demons:

Step 1: Make A List Of Everywhere I Get Messages

So I get messages the following places:

  • Email
  • Text Message
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest
  • Snapchat
  • WhatsApp
  • Phone
  • Google Chat
  • Skype
  • Snail Mail
  • Asana

Now clearly some of these need to be checked/responded to more often than others.

Step 2: Set Up Filters

If I get one more “You can be approved for $500,000 cash to use in your business’ call one more time, I may scream. So getting an app that filters these calls from even making it to my voicemail is a wise thing for me to spend time setting up (I may even pony up $0.99 for the best app to do it with).

Finding ways to filter messages will decrease the overall volume of what you are dealing with so it’s a good first step. You can also avoid duplication. For example, do you need Facebook to email you when you get a message? If not, turn that feature off and save yourself an email to read. If you follow a company on Instagram, do you also need to follow them on Facebook if they are posting the exact same messages? Ideally you want to deal with every message once, or as few times as possible.

Step 3: Set Up Times And Deal With Outstanding Messages

So if you are anything like me, dealing with your initial backlog will be painful, not just because you realize you missed some stuff but because it may remind you of past/unpleasant relationships or interactions. Remember, facing it now will save you having to review it later.

I have made a half hour each week in my calendar to deal with the following outstanding:

  • Email messages
  • Text and phone messages
  • Gchat/Skype
  • Snail Mail

(I check my social message for a half hour daily.)

Now part of this step is I need to find a way to ‘archive’ stuff I want to save but not look at daily (the voicemail ‘happy birthday’ message from my memere). Again, an initial time sink of doing this, I will save myself a few seconds every time I don’t have to relook at the same communications. Clearly, overall a worthwhile investment. I doubt once a few months go by and I chip away at past messages, I’ll even need half an hour.

I’ll talk about outgoing messages in our next blog post (to me these are clearly related issues but can be treated separately) but looking at my plan, my seemingly endless messages now seem manageable in a couple hours a week. Ode to an Era

Here’s a fact that’s hard to fathom in these late days of 2015: MySpace (remember that?) was once the web’s most visited site, surpassing even Google. Also, MySpace employed 1,600 and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.myspace_logo

I have nostalgia for the old MySpace. Like for many, MySpace was my first, full-blown introduction to social media. My reasons for joining were basic. It was the mid-to-late aughts, I was single, living by myself in a city that rolled up its sidewalks by 7 p.m. and was snoring complacently by 7:15 p.m. In other words, I thought it might be a good place to meet women.

Social media was big, but hadn’t truly gone mobile. The place to update your status was on your desktop at work, not on your phone in the bathroom.

But during those lonely, bad old days, MySpace introduced me to folks and their interests, and made me feel a little less isolated. I had a creative outlet where I could blog. I could, to some extent, personalize my page.

The introduction of playlists on MySpace was great — we were able to share music in a simple, off-the-cuff way. I place the blame for my introduction and brief obsession with Morrisey’s “Find Out For Yourself” squarely on the shoulders of a MySpace who lived in Mexico of all places, and with whom I connected with totally by accident.

Plus, I got to be friends with Tom. You remember Tom, the guy who you were friends with by default, and couldn’t figure out why. Tom was the company’s co-founder, and we all had to be friends with him, whether we wanted to or not. Tom got crazy-rich when he sold his goofy social network to News Corp.

In 2007, however, I started noticing a change in MySpace. The wallpaper was frequently taken over by garish advertisements for movies I had no interest in seeing, for one thing. For another, the whole experience was getting a little too noisy. I felt like I was staring into some amped-up billboard every time I logged in. It was time to start seeing other social networks.

Besides, there was this emerging social network called Facebook that, by contrast, seemed simple, understated and — I dare say — elegant by comparison. This was back when Facebook was still being targeted toward a younger crowd, long before it had been embraced by people like your parents and Ben Carson supporters.

So, I migrated. So did a lot of other folks, including Tom, who wrote in a 2011 Facebook post: “People seem very confused why I’m on Facebook. I’ve had a profile since 2005 and a “fan page” since 2009. … Why am I not on MySpace? Because, I left the company in early 2009, and like most of you, I don’t like using it anymore.. not a fan of what the new folks have done with MySpace.”

Tom hasn’t appeared to have posted to his public Facebook page since 2014, but still has nearly 1.5 million followers. None of those follower were by default, either. He’s since taken up photography and has been traveling the world. One assumes that he fuels his private plane with raw cash — seeing as how he sold in 2005 his company to News Corp. for a half billion.

Meanwhile, the network he started resembles nothing of what it looked like 10 years ago. MySpace was purchased in 2011 by Tim and Chris Vanderhook and Justin Timberlake for $35 million. It’s their space — music and entertainment oriented.

That’s not to begrudge them any success — with 50 million unique users recorded in November 2014, MySpace appeared to be on the edge of a renaissance. But it’s not the same. MySpace now brands itself as a place where artists can connect with an audience (or rather, consumers). It’s not such a hot place for average schmoes to connect with each other.

I will say this, their ’80s hair metal channel is pretty amazing, but between Spotify, iTunes, Beats, YouTube, the whole thing seems redundant.
So with its A&E focus, will MySpace be around in another 10 years? I think the more appropriate question is: Will it matter?


Earlier this spring, Instagram decided that it’s users really needed the ability to hashtag their emojis, meaning you can now search for any emoji and see what others have posted (if they use the hashtag, of course). This wasn’t a life-changing moment for me- if anything, I thought it was unnecessary but mildly entertaining…and promptly forgot about it. In my life and work, I have a lackadaisical approach to the emoji and no strong feelings toward them. It turns out, other people don’t necessarily share my lukewarm attitude. Some are convinced that emojis are a plague brought down on language by younger generations, while others believe they enhance our communication, pushing us toward language 2.0. After observing such heated opposition (with my feet still planted firmly in the middle ground), I dug a little deeper into the world of emojis.

The very first thing I learned: there’s actually an emoji dictionary. This is a crowdsourced effort from the World Translation Foundation (yes, WTF). Similar to Wikipedia, the Emoji Dictionary allows others to jump in and contribute where they will. I got sucked into the myriad of definitions and example uses of the current emojis (below is one example, used purely because the Example Use was hysterical to me).

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 2.00.58 PM

After perusing the dictionary for a tad too long, I had the harrowing realization that I’ve been using emojis based on my own interpretation. What if I’d accidentally been misusing an emoji in a really embarrassing way? Sure, in the grand scheme of the world, emoji misunderstanding isn’t the worst case scenario. In fact, it’s actually pretty common according to this article. Like many others, I assumed the two hands together emoji was more of a prayer, but it’s intended use is to be a high five. As mentioned in the article, the world of emoji hashtags is really one of the only places where you might find a Lamborghini side by side with a prayer for Nepal.


I think it’s fascinating that something as simple as an emoji can be interpreted differently among different people across the world. We all have unique perspectives and experiences, so why would our emoji uses translate similarly?

Speaking of emojis getting lost in translation, another delightful discovery I made was the Emojili app, where you can chat with people using only emojis. Last August, two friends the app as a joke, but it’s shutting down at the end of the month due to lack of funding. I read this hilarious article about one girl’s misadventures with Emojili (so that I could avoid downloading it myself for a couple days pre-shutdown). As if one emoji wasn’t potentially misleading enough, try stringing them together to form a coherent sentence. Last April, a couple decided to spend a month using only emojis to communicate. To be honest, I probably would’ve lasted a week and then broken up with him out of sheer frustration, but I’m happy to report that the couple made it through, and learned a thing or two about what works/doesn’t work in their non-emoji communication style.

So, conversations using too many or only emojis can have semi-disastrous results, but conversations that have one or two may actually help clarify tone according to this article from The Atlantic: “The biggest problem about all electronic communication is that it’s toneless. In the absence of tone, people read negative tone into it.”  In other words, we are a cynical lot and if tone is unclear, we assume the worst. Things get hairy in the professional realm- it’s been observed that the acceptance (or, perhaps more appropriately, “tolerance”) of emojis in the workplace is because of the millennials now entering the workforce (is it just me or does everyone love blaming the millennials lately?). . To me, the “Are emojis work appropriate” question is best answered by a combination of your profession, whether your superiors will frown upon it, and common sense. Sure, emails to your co-workers can probably benefit from the occasional tone-clarifying emoji, but if you’re corresponding with a client, probably not. Again, it all depends. Just because you can doesn’t always mean you should.

This post has really only cracked the surface of what emojis mean, how we use/interpret them, and what their future holds. Academics are studying what emoji use can predict about our personalities, which I’m curious about looking into a bit more. For instance, behavorial studies can even guess what emoji you’re most likely to use based on nationality. Okay, well, maybe just if you’re Canadian...

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?

Connecting With Other Bloggers

What’s one of the best ways to get more traffic to your blog and get better at blogging faster? Being friends with other bloggers.

Blogger friends you know in real life can be a great resource. But let’s say you don’t know any bloggers or, more specifically, you want to talk to other food bloggers to get more specific ideas for your blog called All Mac and Cheese All The Time. (Are there ‘mac and cheese’ blogs? Actually yes there are several!)

Like any relationship, you don’t want to meet bloggers and begin immediately leeching on them. You have to build up a rapport first before you ever ask for a link to your blog, advice, or any other blog-related favor.

Stage 1: Hey I’m Here

The first thing you want to do is let a blogger know you are reading. Yes, part of connecting with other bloggers involves reading their blogs. (If you thought you could get out of this without showing any interest in other people, sorry.)

In this stage, you are simply reacting to another blogger in a way that they notice.

One way to do this is to leave a comment on their blog. Here’s a blog called ‘From Away’ that I commented on:

Key to blog commenting 1) Read the post, 2) Be sincere, and 3) If you want your face to appear, go to and register your email for a free account.

Key to blog commenting 1) Read the post, 2) Be sincere, and 3) If you want your face to appear, go to and register your email for a free account.

As you see, I left a pertinent comment (not just ‘Nice post’) and I linked to my blog in a non-obnoxious way. So if you follow a few blogs and leave comments over the course of a few months, the blog author (in this case Jillian) will get to know you by name and sight, even though you two have never met.

Don’t comment on *every post a blogger does though, makes you seem desperate. Play it cool, dude, you are courting these bloggers.

In the social media world, you can do this by replying, commenting, or liking their blog post. They’ll start seeing your name or Twitter handle and say, “I wonder who this person with fabulous taste is.”

Stage 2: Hey I’m Sharing Your Stuff You’re So Cool

Once you’ve been making yourself visible to the blogger, it’s time to take your relationship to the next level. Now you have to share their stuff to your network.

Here’s my cousin Celina sharing a blog post:


My cousin Celina liked my blog post and shared it with her Facebook friends. Awww. That 'Awww' is how bloggers feel when you share their stuff.

My cousin Celina liked my blog post and shared it with her Facebook friends. Awww. That ‘Awww’ is how bloggers feel when you share their stuff.

So yeah, if you’re a blogger, you can share a link to another blogger’s post on your Facebook page, on your Twitter account, or on your own blog. They’ll notice the traffic spike… and if you do it in a way that associates your name with said traffic spike, they are going to like you. (P.S. The iStockphoto use was completely intentional. If you read the blog you’ll see what I mean.)

Stage 3: Hey Can We Talk Sometime?

So you are becoming something of a blog groupie. You’ve been reading comments, you’ve been sharing their stuff. You have asked nothing of them. This is the way true friendship works people so good job!

Over this time in your blog reading, you are probably going to powerfully connect with a few bloggers because you like their stuff and end up liking them as people. When I think of this, I think of my relationship with J at Budgets are Sexy and Kelly at Almost Frugal. Love them!

Now that you are contacting your bloggers directly, there are any number of things you might want to do with them. You may want to interview them for your blog, or ask them some blog advice… you could want any number of things from them actually.

As a blogger, I get pitched at least once a week (As a former daily blogger, I was pitched way more back then). Here’s a fairly typical email I got last week (Think of this as ‘how not to do this’):

When you contact your new blogger friends, don't do this. Remember it's about relationships people!

When you contact your new blogger friends, don’t do this. Remember it’s about relationships people!

Here’s the thing, even if you do ask for a favor in that first email, at least the people you are talking to will know who you are because you have gone through the first two stages0. What I’m showing above is an email version of a cold sales call. Don’t do this unless you want to face more rejection then acceptance.

If your message is personal and you’ve actually done the thing you are asking the other person to do (like your Facebook page, leave a blog comment, etc.) then you are much more likely to at least get an email back.

Stage 4:  Hey Let’s Do Something Together!

Here’s what’s weird, you are actually going to make friends from blogging. Yeah, like Phil from London who is now one of my best friends… I met him from my blog. Cool right?

If you’ve been corresponding with a blogger, reading their stuff, etc. it might be really cool to do something together. Maybe you do a podcast or guest blog on each other’s sites for a week… It’s up to you really. And now that you are friends with this blogger, you can combine your powers and get more done. More could mean more traffic to your blog but it could also mean more interesting topics/kinds of content, more opportunities to sell your product(s), or other versions of more… In our case, Alice and I got an awesome place to stay in London for three weeks last spring.

If you blog long enough, you will get to this point of having blogger friends. But remember the internet is like real life. You wouldn’t go on a first date and immediately ask the person to be your boyfriend. You wouldn’t go to a job interview without looking around a little at the company’s website. Do your homework and build relationships in the blogosphere and you too will have a great blog that many people you don’t yet know will get to see.

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!

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