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Make sure you know what type of company you run

You may think you’re a developer or designer or coach or under water basket weaver. You’re not really any of those things though. Sure you may write code or design, but that’s not really what your job is.

May Marketing Series

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The most important things to read this year

When we’re young, we search and search for who we really are. This is often most apparent in our teen years as many of us run far from the beliefs our parents tried to instill in us throughout our years under their care.

In my house my brother went the route of tattoos and ‘punk’ style clothing, knowing full well it would anger my father to no end. There were many loud discussions about his choices as my father’s opinions were challenged and my brother pushed to find his authentic self.

of dirty hair

I was in my late teens and early 20s when I really strove to find the person I am now. I went through a phase with dreadlocks and what I call my ‘mountain man’ phase where I didn’t wash my hair for six months.

One thing I didn’t dive into, though, was opinions contrary to those I was brought up with. Challenging established beliefs is something many of us avoid. We fear that challenge because we wonder deep down inside if the things we hold dear can actually weather the storm of challenge. What if all our beliefs prove to be hollow? Under examination, will we be proven to be hollow, straw people with no substance?

of hard work

But here’s the thing:  By not really challenging our beliefs with differing opinions we run the risk that our beliefs will get blown over by some bigger storm later. Like muscles that get exercised to the point of breaking down and then build themselves back stronger, so too our beliefs can only truly become strong when we put them under pressure. Inside this pressure cooker is where they get refined. When they get broken down and we are forced to rebuild them, we almost invariably rebuild new beliefs that can withstand the force that crumbled the old ones.

So many people around you are lazy when it comes to self-examination. They sit back and read list posts online that confirm their beliefs and offers three new facts to spout when they get challenged. While they may feel they’re currently comfortable in their own skin, the sad truth is that they haven’t even started the quest to find that skin in which they fit.

Let’s agree to not be those people. If you’re religious like I am, dive into books that say religion is silly — and reason out why, in the face of evidence, that your beliefs may not be true. Then reconcile within yourself why you still sit firmly in your faith.

your reading

When I was working on my book on proposals I didn’t just read one book on writing good proposals. I read every single one I could get my hands on, including books on agile methodology that said proposals up front were a ridiculous waste of time. In fact the most important reading I did was books that I didn’t agree with. On those I made the most notes as I came up with arguments around why I didn’t believe them.

I had, also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones – Charles Darwin

Even in the midst of that I think I missed something. I didn’t effectively dive into the shoes of the writers of those books and try to understand their perspective. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it’s simply not something I thought of. This diving into the opinions of other so deeply that you understand why they hold them is the only way to really challenge your own beliefs. If you stop before that then you’ve stopped your work short of the best it could be.

of searching

In his book, The Shallows, author Nicholas Carr says this about Google:

…no matter how long the company is able to maintain its dominance over the flow of digital information, its intellectual ethic will remain the general ethic of the Internet as a medium – The Shallows

We spend much of our days searching for solutions to the problems we’re having. For most of us this portal to the Internet is Google. While there are many amazing things about this search engine and its ability to produce results relevant to what we want, there is also a secret, insidious side that warps our view of any field we investigate online.

Using its fancy algorithms, Google shows us relevant search results. If you’re looking for a local sushi place then this is great since Google will filter out all the sushi restaurants that you can’t get to for lunch today. If you’re looking into your deeply-held beliefs, this is damaging. By continuing to display only results similar to those we’ve clicked on before, Google is helping our confirmation bias grow ever stronger. We’re merely greasing the pathways of the beliefs we already hold. Since everyone is already deeply entrenched in confirmation bias as a way of life, we trend towards polarizing views, believing the ‘other side’ is some grand villain who does nothing but evil.

By continuing to feed our confirmation bias we risk turning into brittle beings, holding onto shallow beliefs with an iron fist. When the smallest challenge comes up we know deep down that the things we hold dear won’t stand up to the stress. So we go on defense — we lash out with name-calling and vitriol, hoping that by yelling loud enough we will prevent the dissenting voices from putting us to the test. Our vanity in this tells us to assume that the other side is dumb and worth our contempt.

If you don’t want to be that person, then be prepared to do the work required to have an opinion.

of the work

It really only takes one thing to develop a strong belief that can weather the storm of challenge with grace and eloquence. In the words of Charlie Munger:

I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.

We too must strive for this ideal, this quest to be able to master the opinion we don’t agree with. Not just understand the opinion, but become an expert on it. Doing so gives us credibility in the eyes of those with whom we disagree. Once they see us as an expert on their opinion they’ll have to concede that if we still don’t agree, we must at least have something valid to say.

That means that we need to learn to read a book properly. We need to move past just letting our eyes skim the page as we focus on the 77 other things currently vying for our attention. We need to focus deeply on that which is in front of us and realize that we’re saying no to many other valid opportunities which simply aren’t for us.

We must be willing to invest the time needed over years to really dive into both sides of an idea and reserve judgement until we have the required understanding.

When we slow down like that we can be the person that others look to as an expert. Our beliefs will be strong and reasoned and calm. We won’t feel the need to retort with vitriol and minor challenges to our beliefs because we know that we have put in the time needed to build our beliefs on a solid foundation.

Then we’ll be that quiet, strong person we seek to become. It won’t be tomorrow, or the day after, or next week or next year. But you’ll look back and realize that slow growth has produced something solid that you’re proud of.

photo credit: pahudson cc

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Are you changing this just because it makes you more comfortable?

There are lots of cool tools out now. Developers can dive into a new JavaScript framework almost every day and each one is bigger/better/faster than previous ones. These new tools are often shiny and fun, and there is nothing wrong with trying them out, but there is something wrong when you foist them on your clients.

Maybe you’re not a developer but you help clients with marketing. Let’s say you have a site analytics tool you prefer. Maybe it’s the CRM that your clients use, or their web content management system.

You should have tools that you know well, and that you prefer. However, don’t assume your clients will feel the same way. If you’re frequently changing every client to a new tool you are likely doing many of them a disservice.

Change for a reason

Just because you have your preferred tool doesn’t mean that it’s the best choice for your client. Even if it is the best choice, it doesn’t mean you should be the one to change what your clients use.

Before making any change on behalf of your clients you need to ask yourself a few questions.

1. Will this provide more value than it costs?

Any new tool takes time to migrate and then time to train users. Let’s say that the total cost of migration and training is $1000. Will moving to the tool earn them at least $3000 more this year? Will it earn them $10K more this year?

If your answer is, “I’m not sure” then you shouldn’t be making any changes.

Only change things for your clients if they’re going to earn back at least 3x the cost of the change.

2. What is the problem with their current choices?

All choices have trade-offs. A CRM that has great reporting may not have great tools for making connections between different clients with similar needs. If your ‘perfect’ CRM has those client connection tools it may be really tempting to change CRMs to get something you’re familiar with.

But is the lack of your favourite feature really a problem for your client? Are they losing money because of the problems with their current choices? Is it possible to solve that problem by changing how they use their current system?

If you don’t have a real problem causing the client pain, you don’t have a reason to make them use your preferred tool.

Make sure you’re solving a real problem with your changes.

3. Am I just choosing something that I feel comfortable with?

We naturally get comfortable with anything the more we use it. My chosen code editor is Vim, which has a particular way of working with text. Any time I try out another solution the first thing I look at is ‘does this have vim keys?’. I’m just not comfortable working with a code editor that doesn’t have this feature.

Consultants make decisions for their clients for the same reasons. They’re simply comfortable using Option A instead of what the client is currently using. They regularly ignore what’s in the best interests of their client just so they themselves feel a bit more comfortable.

Don’t be that consultant who makes changes for clients for the sake of personal comfort. Make sure that your client will earn more, and that any change will solve a real problem your client is currently suffering from. Finally, run your choices by someone you trust to help make sure that you’re not defaulting to something you feel comfortable with.

If you can do those things, you’re going to be providing much better service to your clients.

photo credit: legofenris cc

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You need to embrace this one thing to become the person you want

We all have some idealized form in our heads of the person we’re going to become. Maybe our ideal has bigger muscles than we do, or makes more money or is more respected in the industry.

Whatever it is, we aspire to be that person yet we often struggle with how to get there. We flail around trying many things, but almost all of us avoid one thing — almost as hard as we try to find many things to attempt.

If you are reading to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article. You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity. You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head. – How to Read a Book

Just like you must read books that are over your head to become a better reader, you must do things that are hard to become better at your craft.

An athlete doesn’t go to the gym and work out with weights well within their physical limit and expect big gains in performance. They push themselves to the limits, over and over and over. The most elite athletes do this for months or years, and although they may barely see any improvement in performance, they’ll take that extra pound they can lift or those two minutes shaved off a marathon.

They don’t go for the easy life, they work hard every day.

In Shop Class as Soulcraft, author Matthew Crawford tells the story of a senior mechanic who can just ‘hear’ a problem with an engine. Maybe it’s not the sound but perhaps a certain pattern of glazing on a part and just know what the issue is. This level of knowledge, which we all aspire to in our craft, does not come with five easy tips or rote memorization of a series of rules. It only comes with years of practice. You have to miss seeing the signs 10 or 20 or 30 times and then suddenly it dawns on you. Maybe it’s even unconscious — something in the back of your mind peaks its head up and you suddenly realize you have a solution to your problem.

The point is, it takes time to get to this state of being in any part of your life. Sure, look for rules and tips that might provide a shortcut, but expect it to take years to become awesome at your craft. Expect failure and look for ways to push your knowledge.

It is only through struggle that we grow into the people we want to become. It’s that terrible client project you delivered poorly on — the one that finally convinced you to follow everyone’s advice and find a niche. It’s that next bad project — the one that leads you to cut out entire types of work because you realize it’s not fun and not where you excel.

photo credit: lord_dane cc

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You provide value by solving a client’s problem

I hate hourly pricing. Why? Because on the client side, it’s way too open-ended and for you, it doesn’t factor in the years of experience you’ve built up prior to the current project you’re pricing. It also puts the value in simply showing up, not in producing real results with your time.

Butt in seat??

Clients don’t pay you to simply show up and sit in front of your computer for the day. They don’t even pay you for the years you’ve spent in the industry. You can have 20 years experience and be worth $5 to a client.

The only thing that clients pay for is the application of your knowledge to their problem. If that’s confusing, let me say it again another way. The only thing that clients pay for is a solution to their problem.

They don’t care if it takes you 20 hours or 100 hours as long as the problem is solved. They don’t even care so much how much you charge as long as they see a return on their investment that is greater than your cost.

As my friend Megan recently said:

I’ve never paid out more or been simultaneously more dissatisfied with the output of other contractors (some, not all) than right now, in this entitled, inflated landscape. You know what undercuts our industry more than low rates and spec work? High rates and a bad experience. Inflated cost and a failure to deliver on time / respond promptly / be kind / kick ass.

All of those people she was working with simply expected that showing up was worth something. It’s not, so don’t settle for showing up.

photo credit: clement127 cc

Clients don’t want perfection – they want someone that digs in to the mistakes

If, no wait, we all make mistakes so WHEN you make a mistake don’t run from it. Clients don’t want someone that runs from mistakes they want someone that digs in to the issues at hand.

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Don’t participate in the culture of easy answers

We live in a culture of easy answers. We’re drawn to a blog post titled, “5 Tips to Solve Every Problem You Have in 5 Seconds” truly believing that this fantastic claim could possibly hold any truth. We figure that by using these tips we’ll suddenly gain the same level of success as the author. We even put these tips into use for a whole two weeks and then seem entirely astonished that success doesn’t follow.

When faced with this lack of instant success we don’t tell ourselves the truth — that success is going to take years of hard work and perseverance. Instead, we go looking for some other ‘successful’ person’s five tips to solve everything so that we can implement those tips for two weeks.

Finding a niche

Once a week I get an email from someone asking how to find the niche they should be in. They say they’ve been trying and it’s hard, so what’s the one thing I would do to find my niche right now? I always respond that they should read Book Yourself Solid and do the work. Almost invariably I get one of two responses. Either they’ve read the book but didn’t do the work or, three weeks later I hear that they read the first chapter and don’t have the time to do the work.

The question is the same. They want to know if I have a faster method.

10k hours

We’ve all heard the story that it takes 10,000 hours1 to become an expert at something, but that’s not the full story. If you look back at the study from which that phrase came, it really takes 10,000 hours of deliberate, focused practice to become good at something.

Note I used the word deliberate there. If you want to get good at a sport, it’s not just playing the sport. It’s practicing the movements you have trouble with and breaking them down into the parts you need to improve, and then intentionally working hard to make those movements better. Simply showing up and playing street basketball every day for a few hours will not make you NBA-worthy in 10k hours. Even breaking things down on your own is not the best way to excel. You need someone who can see the things you struggle with and provide feedback on the changes that need to be made2.

In your business, trying those five tips from a blog post for two weeks is not deliberate practice. Though most people fool themselves that it is.

Charles Darwin had the first components of his famous theory of evolution in 1838 but didn’t publish what we know today until 1959. He spent the years between looking at his theory of evolution on the side while he published works about coral reefs and a number of books on geology. Einstein worked on his theory of special relativity for 10 years.

I began to narrow my niche once I really started to do the work in Book Yourself Solid, and it took me six months to start to get narrow enough. It then took me another 12 months to really get into the niche and get lots of referrals for the work I wanted.

That’s 18 months of work, and I still don’t think sitting here years later that I’m tight enough in my niche. I still think I could narrow it more, make my marketing tighter, and out of that charge more for projects I like. In fact, I just decided there is more work I won’t do this week as I tighten my niche.

Every 12 months I go through the initial work in Book Yourself Solid and afterward I cut some of my clients and tweak how I think about my niche.

If you’re tempted to email me and ask for a three-second, two-step solution that will miraculously reveal your niche and make your business into what you’ve always wanted — Don’t bother!!! I don’t have it and it doesn’t exist.

What makes a great network? It’s not just social media, it’s face to face meetings. It takes time and follow up. There is no instant solution – Jeff Goins in Tribe Writers

If you want to rise above your peers and charge more and work for awesome clients you love on projects that are interesting, start doing the damn work.

Simply by sitting down and answering some questions about your business out of Book Yourself Solid you’ll land in the top few percentage points of business owners. Most of your peers are too lazy to do the work you’re doing.

If you take those questions and start to put together a basic marketing plan, like writing content targeted specifically at your niche, you’ve again pulled yourself above most of your peers.

The only thing that’s going to get you ahead in business is doing hard work every day. Do the work that no one else has the time for. Do it every day for years and you’ll look back and all that work you’ve done will have amounted to a legacy you can be proud of.

If you just let yourself look for quick fixes be prepared to have the same crappy business you have now.

  1. This was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. ↩︎
  2. There is a great podcast on how the 10k hours rule has been misunderstood. Go listen to it. ↩︎

photo credit: silverback40 cc

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How to start running effective meetings today

If you’re still in a job and looking to get out working for yourself, one of the best things you can do is to start running better meetings.

In almost every company someone can call a meeting with 10 people that costs over $1,000/hour but would never actually spend $1,000 of company money. Then on top of having way too many people at a meeting, they let the meeting drag on in unproductive ways. What’s worse, in most cases the meeting produces nothing and didn’t need to be called in the first place.

Here’s how to run an effective meeting.

Small meetings with your boss or coworkers

When you’re meeting with only one other person then you should begin preparing a few days before the meeting. You need to send them over the three most important things you need to talk about during the meeting and the single decision that you want to be made by the end of the meeting.

You should also ask for the three things the other person wants to talk about, and the single decision they think needs to be made by the end of the meeting.

Quite often you’ll find that the single decision you think needs to be made and the single decision your boss/coworker thinks needs to be made differ. If so, you’re not ready to have a meeting. Don’t have a meeting about a meeting — that’s just a waste of everyone’s time, and recursive.

Prepare in advance, and use a few emails to agree on the single question that needs to be answered by the end of your scheduled meeting.

Then when it’s time to have the meeting, start with the other person’s top concern. Remember to listen and ask good questions. Your goal should be to re-state the opinion of the other person as effectively as you can. If you can’t do that, then you don’t understand them yet. It’s not about arguing your side, it’s about understanding it from both sides so that you both can come to the best decision for the company by the end of the meeting.

Once you understand the position of the other person, you can move on to what you have to say. Seeing the time you’ve put into understanding them, most people are more than happy to sit and listen and question deeply so that they understand your position.

Then make the decision and move on.

Group meetings

Once a meeting involves more than two people you need to do more pre-work to make the meeting effective. You should have an agenda and a single decision to make by the end.

The biggest reason that group meetings fail is that there has been little or no work done beforehand to make sure the meeting is awesome. There are two key areas you need to cover up front.

First you need to cut as many people as possible out of the meeting. Stop playing office politics and only invite the people that need to be there. The more people you can cut from a meeting the more likely it is to end with success, and on time.

Second, you need to cut the scope of decisions that can come out of the meeting. You can do this up front by getting some consensus via email about the truly viable options. Only those options that have been agreed to via email should be on the table during the meeting. Leave the others off and if someone brings them up, just say no.

Ending meetings

If you’ve run an on-point meeting up to the end, you’re only about 20% of the way to making a meeting effective. The end is not the time to just stop the meeting and let everyone go their own way. It’s time to do the following four things.

First, you need to make sure that if there are tasks to be accomplished out of a meeting they have names attached to them. Before everyone goes, make sure you go over which tasks each person is responsible for and make sure that they acknowledge their responsibility.

Second, put a timeline on those tasks. Way too often the tasks just walk off never to be seen again. You shouldn’t be playing a game of Where’s Waldo? with things that need to get done.

Third, make sure that each person with a task knows who they need to follow up with when the task is done. Often that’s going to be the meeting organizer, but don’t assume people will follow up. Make it clear. Clear enough that you can always just ask them who they’re reporting to when the task is done and get them to say it.

Finally, go over all the tasks that need to get done. Clarify the timelines they’re on, and who is getting reports of tasks done. Do this via an email to the people that were in a meeting. Taking this extra step to make sure things are written down is going to help ensure the tasks really get done and that everyone knows they’re done. Don’t let that follow-up stop with a single email either, but follow up on the due dates and make sure things are going according to plan. If you can, follow up before the due date to make sure that things are not getting off track.

What if…

Almost every office has that one person who always has objections to any idea. Quite often they get thought of as the ‘realist’ in the group, but way more often they’re the person who helps maintain the status quo. They don’t like risk and will do everything in their power to make sure that no one sticks their head up and takes any risks at all.

If at all possible, don’t invite this person to your meetings. Let them weigh in via email and take a look at the objections they bring up during the meeting, but don’t let them come. Keeping to the status quo is what average businesses do, and no one wakes up hoping that they’re merely average.

The other person you shouldn’t invite to your meetings is the person who doesn’t really engage in the work up front to narrow the focus of the meeting. When they show up they ask a bunch of questions that were answered in email and bring forward ideas that were already pulled off the table prior to the meeting. If you have one of those people in the meeting you need to talk to them privately afterward. Let them know that not doing the work up front to engage with the topics is wasting everyone’s time and they won’t be invited to future meetings if they don’t do the work.

What if someone brings up a great idea that should be talked about? Of course talk about it, but give it a time limit and seriously discuss which of the other ideas should be removed from the agenda because it’s of the lowest value. Don’t let people just endlessly add new ideas to the table (unless you’re running a meeting to generate a wealth of ideas). Not every idea is good and you need to start saying no to more of them.

Sometimes you get into a meeting and you can’t make that single decision. There may be new information, or maybe you didn’t do great work up front to make sure everyone was aware of the options. Even if you can’t make that single decision you need to make sure that people leave with the responsibility for obtaining the required information that will allow you to make the decision you need to make. Still do all the follow-up and plan the next meeting ensuring that you’ll have the information required.

If you want to be an awesome consultant, start at your job by running awesome meetings. Increasing the productivity of a meeting and decreasing the time they take will make you much more valuable to your current employer, and will mean that you run awesome meetings when you’re out running your own business.

photo credit: bobsfever cc

The best time to become a great consultant is when you still have a job

I know you want to leave that job as fast as possible, but don’t. Don’t miss the opportunity to start being a better employee and practice being a good consultant. There is no better place to practice.

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Curtis McHale

Helping business owners not work all the time