Saturday, December 12, 2009

5 conversation killers in a first-client meeting

Driving through the mountains east of Pittsburgh yesterday, I caught a fuzzy radio broadcast with a great tease: "After the break...the 7 worst types of small talk."

Alas, the actual segment wasn't as juicy as I'd hoped--the guest's verboten topics were the things you could probably guess if you've ever been to a cocktail party: Don't talk about your golf game (no one cares, even other golfers), wine (unless you're sure the other person is a oenophile), what route you took to the party (ZZZZ), kids (no one cares, even other parents), dreams (unless you want to be flagged as a flake), and stocks (you're probably either bragging or whining). The signal faded out before the final one, but I'm guessing it was religion, politics or sex.

But it did strike me that there's an analogy for freelancers headed into a meeting with a prospective client, when the inevitable lull in conversation comes around but the sale hasn't closed. The nervousness and excitement can cause us to blurt, blab or otherwise inject nonsense in ways that can be every bit as deadly as the items above:
  • Talking about how slow business has been (smells like eau de desperation)
  • Talking about being super busy (it's a fine line between being highly sought and overwhelmed)
  • Recounting a tale of bad or unruly clients (risky, though you might be able to get away with something that's funny and has a happy ending)
  • Penalty fees/rules/restrictions (e.g., number of rounds of revisions)
  • Talking too much, period (even if it's positive and upbeat stuff)
You need to know yourself and how you react under the pressure of the first meeting. Better to be armed with a bunch of good questions that can drive the conversation where you want it to go. Ask the client if it's OK to record the conversation, and then listen to it afterward to identify the weak points of your presentation. And for the love of all that's holy...please don't talk about the weather.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Arizona Dust

I'm taking a break from loading the trailer while a snowstorm drops the first of 30 centimeters on us. My computer will get boxed next, so this will be my last post till I hit the road in the morning.

Yes, our Canadian tour of duty is complete and it's time to head Phoenixward. Too many thoughts rattling around in my head to do any of them justice, so I'll let Blue Rodeo, a quintessentially Canadian band, handle the outro for me. Their lyric--"As I’m eating Arizona dust/And wishing I was home"--testifies to the power of returning to the places that make you happy, even if they're not the same for each of us (and occasionally 180 degrees different).

Monday, December 7, 2009

Announcing Freelance Forecast 2010 survey (again)

The Freelance Forecast 2010 surveys have closed, and the results of this year's more than 400 participants have been posted at DoctorFreelance.com

If you'd like to participate in next year's survey there is also an email sign-up link—welcome aboard!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

An open letter to the White House "Jobs and Economic Growth Forum"

Dear Friends:

Perhaps my invitation to today's White House forum got lost in the mail, but no worries--I'm not the kind of guy to risk a felony by crashing a party at your place.

While you were jawboning at roundtables and breakout sessions, talking about not talking about 30,000-foot solutions, munching on bagels and sipping fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, it was an average day out here in the real world. The vast majority of your fellow citizens were busy at our desks, in the fields, at chalkboards, behind the wheel, on duty or patrol, working on projects, prospecting for new business, keeping people healthy and safe, and, depending on whose numbers you believe, 10.5 to 20 percent of us were simply looking for gainful employment.

As some are fond of saying, let me be clear. I'm not writing to whine--I love what I do. The reason I wanted to drop you a line is because of a couple of conversations I've had this week among peers and associates. You've surely heard the old aphorism that "the market hates uncertainty," and I'd say that fairly represents the feeling at the grassroots business level. Those of us microbusinesses that don't really register on your radar (because we don't have lobbyists, lawyers, stock tickers, or labor unions), well, we're a little freaked out. We're scared that The Powers That Be are going to bail out another company, bank or governmental entity, fund alarmist "emergencies," hire more bureaucrats, print money 24-7, or tax the bejeezus out of us, or all of the above.

Meanwhile, we small fry don't have the luxury of spending money we don't have currently or won't have in the future. We know we're not going to get billions of dollars in bonuses (*cough* Goldman Sachs *cough*). We wouldn't be eligible for unemployment benefits, so we just keep figuring out what we need to do in order to pay the bills. There ain't no such thing as "too small to fail."

You want more businesses to hire people? Start eliminating uncertainty. Stop wasting money on crap.

Then again, the realistic side of me reckons not much will come out of your little summit. (I've been to my share of forums, so I know that the baloney gets sliced pretty thin, and have heard the 4 p.m. cry of "More coffee, stat!") Indeed, the most comforting item I saw about your exclusive confab was a single sentence tucked way down at the tail end of an AP story: "Administration officials said they don't expect major policy announcements from the forum."

But, just for giggles, I'll look forward to seeing the meeting minutes once you've typed 'em up. Thanks in advance.

Sincerely,
Jake Poinier
Boomvang Creative Group
Phoenix, Ariz.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Announcing Freelance Forecast 2010

The Freelance Forecast 2010 surveys have closed, and the results have been posted at DoctorFreelance.com.

If you'd like to participate in next year's survey, there is an easy email signup box in the right sidebar of the Dr. Freelance page.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thankful

When our kids were small and subject to dwelling on a bad day, we instituted a rule at bedtime: Each of us, including my wife and me, had to name the best thing that had happened during the day. If you wanted to list more than one, that was OK, but the idea was that you went to sleep with a clear positive thought even if you'd had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Nowadays our kids are up later than we are, and therefore no longer tuck-inable, but hopefully it is a principle that they can carry through the challenges that lay ahead in adolescence, young adulthood and parenthood.

It's a fine way to end a day. There's a great deal to be said for appreciating people and events that make us happy.

I'll be traveling tomorrow and unlikely to be online, so an early thanks to my readers--family and friends, peers and partners in all of your various media and with all your myriad talents, clients and your ideas and spirited approach to business--as we head into the holiday weekend. Happy Turkey.

Friday, November 20, 2009

7 reasons to reject lowball freelance work

How low will you go in accepting an assignment? In 7 Reasons Why I Won't Write A $15 Blog, blogger Carol Tice describes being lowballed by an agency and enumerates the principles that led her to say "no." Of the seven reasons, #5 "I want to take a stand," leads her to create a petition for writers who won't take less than $50 for an assignment.

It is an interesting tactic. If nothing else, Tice elicited emotion--she drove lots of comments by posting on LinkedIn, and the topic also sparked a separate discussion over at Freelancer Writerville II (free registration required) when I posted the link there. A while back, I posted a video of Harlan Ellison ranting about people who work for free, screwing up things for everyone else, so, yeah, I am empathic to the concept that people should stand up for their right to be paid a fair wage.

While I wish her the best of luck, I see a couple of challenges in formalizing such a cause:
  1. Although there is a Freelancers Union, we're inherently un-unionizable in any significant way. I cherish my independence, and I believe that the vast majority of freelancers feel similarly. I'm skeptical that a petition will carry much weight in the marketplace, and I'm confident enough in my own abilities to know that I'm my own best advocate.
  2. At the risk of retreating into a sports metaphor, writing is analogous to professional baseball--some are superstars and some barely make it to the big leagues, but the vast majority toil away in AAA, AA, or A for smaller bucks...and a lot of others play just for fun. A player with marginal talent who wants to make a six-figure income ain't gonna get it. One with scads of talent who is underpaid needs to do a better job of negotiating.
  3. I simply don't view this as a moral issue. As much as I disdain the content mills out there, I don't believe they're doing anything but meeting a need for low-cost, low-quality content. Nobody is forced to work for them, so using the word "sweatshop" is a bit precious. They're purchasing the editorial equivalent of cheesy clipart. Good luck with that.
Discussions about pay never fail to strike a nerve. Freelancing isn't unique in that respect, though it is very personal as far as what is acceptable. As Rodney Dangerfield once said, "Look out for #1...but don't step in #2."

Update: A great pricing anecdote via photographer Tim Gruber, Picasso and Pricing Your Work:
Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.

“It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”


So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.


“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”


“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.


“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”


To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

101 Reasons Freelancers Do It Better

The Editorial Freelancers Association passed along this little item from HR World, of all odd places: "101 Reasons Freelancers Do It Better." Yeah, they stretched it a bit to tip it over the 101 mark, but they still get an "A" for blending humor & truth.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

11 Myths of Owning a Small Business

No matter how creative you are, your success as a freelancer ultimately hinges on your abilities as a businessperson. So, the headline "11 Myths of Owning a Small Business" in the Nov. 17 Forbes.com Entrepreneurs Newsletter caught my attention. And, as is always the case in listy-number thangs, I sat down to see how my experiences matched up with their opinions.

My conclusion? It's worth taking two minutes to read the article and another two minutes to run through the slide show, since the text only reveals some of the myths. (Which seemed goofy to me, but whatever.) I found myself agreeing with most, particularly how you can't "do it all yourself" and how risk-taking and passion are often overstated or overrated. Some of the myths don't really apply, such as "you can set your own schedule," but that may be more aimed at the bricks-and-mortar entrepreneurs in the Forbes audience. (Then again, deadlines can surely box you in if you let them.)

By the way, you can sign up for Forbes's free email newsletters in the right-hand column at the link, about halfway down the page. I've found there's usually at least one freelancer-applicable article per issue, sometimes more.

Friday, November 13, 2009

What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?

I took a deep breath. I had scheduled a phone appointment with someone for a company newsletter article, but when I call, I get dumped straight into voicemail. When I finally reach her, 45 minutes later, she's in a meeting and...let's just say her demeanor is "gruff."

I provided an escape clause, "Is this an OK time? I'd be happy to reschedule," but she stepped out of her meeting and we did the very brief interview. I wrote up the article, and sent it to her for review the following morning.

To my amazement, she responded quickly, was complimentary and didn't have a single change. Interestingly enough, she also thanked me for "being patient" the previous day--so she evidently recognized that she'd been out of line.

I find it odd when people for whom you're essentially doing a favor act as if you're inconveniencing them. I was writing an intercompany article with the sole purpose of making her and her department look good. We'd booked a time that she neglected to put in her calendar--no big deal. Once you've blown it, however, in my version of The Game anyhow, you're supposed to default to an immediate, on-the-spot apology. You only get partial points for a day-after one.

I was "patient" because I recognized it as the only way of getting the job done, not because it's my preferred mode of operation. We're all busy, but courtesy makes life a lot more pleasant--and a much better impression.

Heading into the weekend, a video tie-in to the post headline. Elvis Costello cut the most famous version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," but Nick Lowe (who wrote the song) sets a more leisurely pace.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans and Remembrance days

With one foot in the U.S. and one in Canada, a Veterans Day thank you to those who served and a Remembrance Day thank you for your sacrifices.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Playing grammar referee

As an editor, you break up your fair share of grammar skirmishes and pray no one gets hurt. Yesterday afternoon, one of my creative partners asked me whether "important" or "importantly" was the correct word in this sentence:
More important(ly), can you help us find XXXXX?
I'd long ago been taught that's a ly-free zone, with "importantly" being reserved as an adverb to describe to describe an action; for example, "The judge strode importantly to the bench." With a bit of nagging doubt in my head, I did a bit of research to ensure I wasn't wrong.

As it turns out, it's a bit of a sister-kiss: Either one is acceptable usage according to Merriam-Webster's and other authorities, though my web search indicated a slight lean toward "more important." The reasoning is that it's not modifying a verb, it's modifying the entire phrase that follows it--you could think of it as "[What is] more important, can you help us..."

Alas, as with all grammar minutia, whichever way you write it, a stickler on the other side will read it and think "AHA! You big dummy!"...forgetting that it doesn't mean a darn thing in the ability to convey or understand the message. I am reminded of the big-endian vs. small-endian argument among the Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels. Eat your softboiled egg any way you please.

UPDATED: While we're on the subject, Yolander Prinzel of Freelance Writerville alerted me to "Error Proof: How to defend yourself from grammar pedants" from the October 4, 2009, New York Times Magazine. Clever stuff.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Persistence vs. pestilence

Recently I was talking with a freelance writer/editor who quoted a stat that made me cringe. She'd been to a seminar where the speaker had declared something to the effect that, on average, it takes 7 follow-up contacts with a prospective client before they'll do business with you.

Not only do I call B.S. and question how the heck this seminar swami derived the magic number, I'd suggest that type of approach is hazardous to a freelancer's business.
  • My professional experience is that, after one or two calls, a prospect is either in or out. I need to use my judgment on how close I am to a "yes" and if and when a follow-up is appropriate.
  • My experience as a prospect is that, if someone calls me that many times, I am going to get irritated. You don't have permission to do that, even if I expressed initial interest.
  • Rather than trotting back to the same "maybe" target repeatedly, you're likely better served to devote your energies to finding new prospects elsewhere. Contact enough of them, and you'll undoubtedly find a few that are happy-to-talk-to-you, one-call deals.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Horror story

With Halloween lurking, I believe it's fitting to share the scariest moment in my freelance career. Back in the Early Aughts, I'd been assigned to write a profile of professional golfer Tom Lehman for a now-defunct magazine called 85255 (the ZIP code of a tony North Scottsdale, Ariz., suburb). The interview would take place at Tom's house, and would be simultaneous with the photo shoot--never ideal because of the mayhem, but you take what you get.

The interviews with Tom and his wife went smoothly, and the photos, including a shot of the whole family jumping on their backyard trampoline, were perfect. Energized and excited, I hopped in my car to drive home, and started to play back the interview tape so I could brainstorm the story.

It was empty.

I turned the volume all the way up till it was hissing. Nothing. To my utter and complete horror, I saw that I hadn't flicked the switch back from using it in "phone in" mode from a prior telephone interview. The cassette hadn't recorded a single word.

Heart pounding, I pulled onto the shoulder of the desert road, and frantically scribbled chunks of remembered dialogue and anecdotes on my yellow legal pad while they were still fresh in my head. (Mercifully, I had jotted a few notes during the interview, though not nearly sufficient to write a 1,000-word story.) I sat there for an hour, racking my brain to try to recreate the past hour's conversations.

Amazingly, augmented with a brief call to Tom's wife the next day to clear up some timelines, my scrambled roadside effort was enough. (Had I not discovered my error till a few days later, it would not have been.) Evidence, I suppose, that God looks out for widows, orphans, drunks...and freelancers.

I no longer own that old-school microcassette recorder, though its lessons of doing a sound check and having hard-copy backup are scorched into my brain. My digital recorder, which I wrote about over the summer, offers the peace of mind of a visual level monitor. But until I've completely transcribed an interview, and backed it up in my Time Machine, I have to confess: This experience always haunts me, and always will.

Do you have your own horror story, about a nightmare client, evil assignment or deadly deadline? Enter it into the Freelance Writerville II Scary Freelancing Story Contest (registration required)--in addition to fame and fortune, you could win a $10 gift certificate to Amazon!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

SpecialtyBuzz profile is up

A quick thanks and hat tip to Jenn Escalona at The Life and Times of a Freelance Writer for featuring me as her SpecialtyBuzz Q&A of the week. In addition to interviews with various writing style and subject matter experts, Jenn's blog features lots of thought-provoking posts and links--definitely worth adding to your daily feed.

Punctuated equilibrium and freelancer evolution

In another life, equipped with better math skills, I would have been a scientist. Then again, it doesn't stop me from enjoying science any more than my marginal skating talents prevent me from rooting for the Boston Bruins.

One of the scientific theories that has always stuck in my head is punctuated equilibrium, popularized by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould in the early 1970s. At the risk of oversimplifying, the concept is that evolution occurs in bursts of rapid change and periods of stability rather than as small changes on a smooth curve.


You can probably see where I'm going here: Punctuated equilibrium is a pretty keen metaphor for our individual lives in general, and for our careers in particular.

Looking at the graph, you need to consider two types of punctuation event: 1) being acted upon by an outside force or 2) choosing to do something different. For me, examples of the former would include having a client go bankrupt or, more pleasantly, having my phone ring unexpectedly with a prospect for a multi-thousand-dollar project. Examples of the former include teaching myself html during the early days of the Web or doing a marketing blitz to announce a new service line.

On a deeper level, such events are inextricably tied--you make choices that subject you to outside forces, and outside forces require you to make choices. But I would argue that, unlike the dinosaurs who had no idea when a meteor was going to hit or a volcano was going to blow, as human beings we have the ability to read, react and adapt to our circumstances.

Over the next few days, consider where you are in the chart. Are you on a flat spot, cruising contentedly...but maybe a bit bored? Are you on a steep upramp, hanging on for dear life...but thrilled at the challenge? Like it or not, you're evolving.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tech talk - Mighty Mouse gets disappeared?

I'm a fan of Apple computers, but was 100% underwhelmed by the Mighty Mouse. The scroll ball was nifty when it was new, but there was no satisfactory way of cleaning it, and the Bluetooth interface was absolute crap. (I bought two of them before I said no mas and gave the Targus Wireless Mouse a shot.)

Evidently, I wasn't the only dissatisfied user--as of today, the Mighty Mouse appears to have been replaced with the Magic Mouse. "Look, Ma, no scroll ball!"

For the moment, I'm OK with the Targus and not in a hurry to drop $70 on the new MM. You'd never mistake the Targus for an Apple-designed product--it's awfully twitchy until you get used to it, and it's less customizable than I'd prefer. But rather than a ball, it has a glass lens on top of the mouse that allows you to scroll with tiny motions of your index finger, i.e., nothing to get dirty.

I suspect it will last until my dog drives her nose under my forearm and sends the thing flying across the room, which is one of her favorite tricks.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Free" advice from Wired's Chris Anderson

I don't commonly link to articles I've written, but I'm making an exception for "The Freeconomics of Speakonomics," which appears in the October issue of Speaker magazine. It's a feature about Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, from an interview we did shortly after his best-selling book Free came out.

My reason for posting is twofold:
  1. Chris responded to my interview request within two hours of being asked, and within another two hours, his assistant had provided a half dozen times for me to choose from. That kind of response time is incredibly unusual, and should be praised to the skies.
  2. Even though the story is targeted at professional speakers, there are some parallels and lessons for freelancers. As an entrepreneur, "free" is something that you can't ignore, but you can leverage to your advantage.
Whether you ultimately agree or disagree with Chris's conclusions, Free will challenge your assumptions about pricing and value. His blog, The Long Tail, is one of my regular reads for the same reason.

Friday, October 16, 2009

What is the sound of 10,000 motivational-guru heads exploding?

While editing an article, I needed to research the author's use of the old saying that the Chinese characters for "danger" and "opportunity" combine to form the ideogram "crisis." (I initially thought the writer had the equation mixed up.) As it turns out, this well-worn phrase, which John F. Kennedy popularized and serves as a key tenet for more than a few motivational speaker/self-help empires, is to Far Eastern wisdom as Panda Express is to Asian cuisine:

Lisa: Look on the bright side, Dad. Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for "crisis" as they do for "opportunity"?
Homer: Yes! Cris-atunity.

I won't tell you how I edited the article, but I'm curious to know what you'd do under the same circumstance. What's your responsibility to the writer of an article containing a little nugget of popular-but-false wisdom?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Danger sign: The third wheel

If you could invent a client Geiger counter, the sudden appearance of a third-party consultant would ring it like a freshly unearthed chunk of uranium.

It's only happened to me a few times, but I was reminded of the dangers a few weeks back in a first-meeting conference call. Everything was going swimmingly, until the client offhandedly mentioned that she had hired a marketing/branding expert to help hone her company image.

Uh-oh.

Our creative team gamely put together the folder and brochures on a rush schedule, but the die had been cast. The addition of another party--with a vote on our fate but with whom we had no contact or collaboration--created a process akin to doing microsurgery with mittens on. You just can't do it. We ended up getting paid for our time, but in the big picture, everyone's time was wasted. Ours. The consultant's. The client's. She would have been better off simply hiring the marketing/branding expert to provide the creative materials from the outset.

The moral of the story? The only time a third wheel makes sense is if you're building a tricycle.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Mommy-Blogging Bait

I'm not a mommy blogger and don't consume beauty products other than soap and toothpaste, but as a former denizen of the custom-publishing world, this story in Ad Age caught my eye... "P&G to Launch Custom Beauty Magazine Rouge in U.S.: Package Goods Giant Plans to Build Database by Relying on Mommy Bloggers to Spread the Word." The scale of the project is pretty astounding for a mailed piece:
Procter & Gamble Co. is enlisting help from mommy bloggers as it makes over its Canadian custom-published quarterly Rouge for a full-scale U.S. launch expected to reach 11 million households in both countries by next year....
...The appeal driving mentions of Rouge among bloggers is pretty simple: It's available at the internet's favorite price (free) and comes loaded with coupons, which happen to drive much of the routine chatter regarding package-goods brands in social media.

I do wonder if the mommy bloggers will get behind the cause without a quid pro quo; maybe the bad economy is what makes coupons an attractive ploy. Even without knowing the cost per unit, I'm inclined to think that P&G will eventually kill the physical magazine and focus on the web site after a few issues (i.e., once they've captured the names). Then again, a custom publication isn't at the mercy of the horrific ad sales environment, and with publications going out of business, it may be a buyer's market in the print biz.

Anyway, they got their links and couple of minutes of free press out of me, so I guess I'm an honorary mommy blogger after all...

"You don't have enough talent to win on talent alone"

Posting about Miracle last week got me to thinking about my single favorite Herb Brooks quote from the movie. "You think you can win on talent alone? Gentlemen, you don't have enough talent to win on talent alone"--as he runs them through interminable, brutal drills immediately after a distracted pre-Olympics effort against Norway.

The point obviously applies as well to business as it does to sports, maybe even more so, because sports is more meritocratic. It's generally easier to judge athletic performance in terms of scoring, defense, and times than it is to measure business outcomes at a personal level. In the corporate world, there are usually too many variables (unless you are a front-line salesperson), and that dynamic compounds for creatives, because we're usually several steps removed from the sale.

So, what lies in the abyss beyond pure talent? Here are two thoughts...

Measure what you can, when you can: Marketing master Denny Hatch always talks about how direct mail is the acid test of creative skills. It is nothing if brutally honest, because it proves whether something got read and provoked an action. Even if you're not working on a direct-response project, is there something about your project you can measure? Can you test Sample A against Sample B? Did you create a more-efficient process that saved a quantifiable amount of money? (For the love of all that's holy, no focus groups, please.)

Augment your talent with superior internal or external customer service: Let's face it, creative brains come preinstalled with a hypercritical streak; some of us just do a better job of hiding it. A crabby SOB like baseball pitcher Randy Johnson can get away with it because he throws 100 mph, and people indulge photographer Annie Leibovitz's tantrums because of her skill behind the lens. I don't have that option. Whether you're a solo act or in an agency or corporate creative department, you can set yourself apart by developing a reputation for being easy to work with in addition to being talented. Take criticism objectively. Be flexible and come up with alternatives pre-emptively. Chant "Serenity now" until you've chased away the demons.

***

Follow up: Some interesting background about Friday's video in this article, How 4-year-old boy mastered 'Miracle' speech in YouTube hit.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Your weekend pep talk


I'm on scads of deadlines today, so no time to talk shop. But a friend of mine posted this video that got me all pumped up, and I thought y'all might enjoy a little inspiration, too.

And if you don't recognize the speech, your penance is to rent "Miracle" this weekend.

Update: Behind the scenes...How 4-year-old boy mastered 'Miracle' speech in YouTube hit.

Miracle-Herb Brooks" Pre-Game Speech

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What, exactly, are you scared of?

If Facebook is a 24-7 gathering with friends, LinkedIn is the neverending tradeshow mixer, except that it's your gluteus that aches instead of your feet. The vast majority of conversations veer toward the tedious and self-promotional, and tediously self-promotional, but every once in a while there's an item that sparks a vigorous professional discussion.

Over the weekend, a guy claiming decades of freelance experience was asking for advice on acquiring new clients, since his usual contacts had dried up with business and referrals. Recommendations were all over the board; I was among the many who opined that cold-calling was the best approach. Everyone had positive, concrete, go-git-'em suggestions.

In response, he acknowledged that cold-calling was probably the right move, but then proceeded to explain the reasons he didn't really want to (he hates rejection, takes it personally). He added that what he *really* wanted to know was "what job title" he should be approaching at graphics companies to get work. Finally, he said that two emergency projects had come in, and so he was busy again. KThxBye.

I can't fathom how someone could survive or enjoy entrepreneurship with that kind of attitude. I also wondered what kind of customer service he delivers. Beyond that, what I really don't get is his fear of selling himself and his services, if he indeed approaches this as a business. Is a "no" honestly something that you should take personally? There's enormous peace of mind derived from being emotionally objective in the sales process. You are not your job. Rejection is no more a condemnation than acceptance is an indication that you're a wonderful human being.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Honey, I think I've got writer's block!"

Was doing a web search for the Algonquin Hotel in St-Andrews-by-the-Sea, located about an hour south of us in New Brunswick, Canada, when I was stopped in my tracks by the following promotion at the legendary Algonquin Hotel in New York City:
Writer's Block Rate: Receive 25% off of the best possible rate. When you book through our website, simply by showing a work in progress or a published work upon check-in.
"But, Jake," you say, "A center-city New York hotel is going to be expensive." True, but the bright side is that the $500-plus nightly rate means you'll "save" $125 or more!!! A glance at the history page reveals that it's more than an intriguing marketing pitch--truly, you might be able to pick up some positive writing mojo. (Which, for that kind of dough, you darn well better.):
From its inception, manager (and later owner) Frank Case created a vision for The Algonquin as New York’s center of literary and theatrical life. His enduring fascination with actors and writers led him to extend them credit, in the process luring such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and John Barrymore.

Famed women flocked to the hotel as well, as The Algonquin was unconventional early on in accommodating single women guests. Over the years, these have included Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, Helen Hayes, Erica Jones, and Maya Angelou.

Three Nobel laureates visited on a regular basis, including Sinclair Lewis (who offered to buy the hotel), Derek Walcott, and most memorably William Faulkner, who drafted his Nobel Prize acceptance speech at The Algonquin in 1950.
The promotion, if you've got $375 plus tax burning a hole in your pocket, lasts through the end of 2009.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Bully Pulpit

"Don't worry," my friend Jim used to say. "You're not totally worthless--you can serve as a bad example." Today, as a counterpoint to my post-Labor Day post, an ode to workplace tyrants and bullies, and the "benefits" thereof. (Sorry, not naming names, eh.)

Most of us aren't in the working world terribly long before learning a lesson: No matter how tough your parents were, you have no idea what's in store once someone is paying you to obey, whether they're a freelance client or a full-time employer. There are maybe a half-dozen of them that stick out in my own career, ranging from garden-variety micromanager to full-on, desk-pounding, neck-vein-bulging maniac.

From a bully at my first job, I learned (daily) that titles don't necessarily equal talent, and vice versa, and so never to assume one from the other. Another taught me that tyrants can come in unassuming packages, a rule underscored by yesterday's parade of fools at the UN. And yet, several of the most-demanding managers, coworkers and clients were also the wisest, and pushed me to a higher standard, taught me innumerable tricks of the editorial and marketing trades, and provided insights about business in general. I guess you could describe such a dynamic as unpleasant but worthwhile--a rite of passage.

How you deal with the various incarnations of bossy behavior requires recognizing that what motivates you and deciding whether the best course of action is to stand your ground or catch the next bus. Because one thing is for sure: You're not going to change them.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"I sell my soul, but at the highest rates."--Harlan Ellison

Crazy busy today, so I just wanted to pass along this epic rant--accompanied by a NSFW warning!--by legendary sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison: "Pay the Writer." He's got a bit of a reputation as a cranky guy, as you can see from his wiki entry, and it comes through loud and clear.

Nonetheless, what he says is absolutely on point. Writing is a business. Writers deserve to be paid. People who work for nothing are fools. Companies that want something for free should be scorned. (That's my G-rated version.)

Rinse. Repeat.

And did I mention the link is NSFW?

H/T to Liz Craig for the find, and for a darn good rant in her own right.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Minds thinking alike

Direct-mail legend Denny Hatch is right on target with his musing today: "What authors can learn from the great copywriters." He takes several newspaper columnists to task for sloppy prose, with scathing examples.

In his little diatribe, he echoes the technique I described in my Friday post about the best writing advice I'd ever received:

Journalists and authors, please take note of the dictum by freelance direct response copywriter Pat Friesen: “Normally, the best lead paragraph is buried somewhere in the middle of your first draft copy.”

Anyway, it's worth reading the whole thing--Denny says it much better than I could summarize it. While you're at his site, I highly recommend signing up for his free "Business Common Sense" email newsletter, too. I don't always agree with him, particularly when he injects politics, but he always makes me think.

Friday, September 11, 2009

What's your best writing advice?

What's the single most important piece of writing advice that you've ever received? I can name mine easily: Lew Fishman, an editor when I was on staff at Golf Digest's trade magazine, had bloodied up one of my articles. (Rightfully so.)

"Most of the time, the first two or three paragraphs you start with are B.S.," he said, pointing to two red-felt-pen "X" marks at the top of the paper. "Just cut them, and that's where your lead is."

It's a technique that, 20 years later, I use every day. The principle not only works for feature stories, but for web content, advertising copy, emails, press releases, written correspondence, editing someone else's copy...you name it. Don't vamp. Get to the point. At first, I felt awful about leaving carefully crafted text on the cutting-room floor. As I came to understand how effective it was, guilt gave way to relief.

For most creatives who are talented enough to make a living at it, trying to explain how you do what you do doesn't come easily, whether you're a writer, designer, illustrator or photographer. (It's a "feel" thing, right?) Nonetheless, it is worth occasionally revisiting the technical aspects of your craft, even if it's only to remind yourself of the power of the simplest tools.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Search me

Took a quick cruise through my Google Analytics to assess what topics drove the most traffic over the summer. No big surprise that six-figure freelancing and mommy blogging were among the leaders, though I confess that's a tad disheartening; I was attempting to inject some realism into a get-rich-quick world. Then again, who am I to dash the hopes of boxer-short billionaires and tighty-whitey titans?

I had to chuckle at the fact that the Sons of Maxwell "United Breaks Guitars" video delivered a real spike. (Even though I'd used it as a jumping-off point to discuss customer service, I'm sure googlers were a bit baffled to end up on a blog discussing freelancing and small business topics.) On the other hand, it seems as good a time as any to link to their second video--which features a catchy singalong hook, guys in lederhosen, and a white van with UNITED duck-taped on every side:
United Breaks Guitars: Song 2

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Velveeta sandwiches

In an entry a few weeks back, "Res ipsa loquitur," I'd piled on (along with a million other people) in opining about an ad agency intern's public nastygram to her former employer.

Today's post is triggered by two items in the same vein: 1) An article in the New York Times about the trend in students (or rather their parents) to pay for internships, "Unpaid Work, but They Pay for the Privilege," and 2) a LinkedIn discussion this week based on a letter titled "A beginning writer bitches about the publishing industry."

It's said that bad luck and celebrity deaths come in threes, so perhaps it stands to reason that stupidity also is happiest in a trio. Several common threads run through these three items, but to me the most important is this: a sense of entitlement. The world does not owe you a living, and it doesn't even have to be nice to you. As a wise old man once told a younger me, when I was whining about something or other, "Son, 'fair' is something you enter your prize pig in."

So, what the heck does "Velveeta sandwiches" have to do with anything, you're wondering? They were my standard lunch fare when I was an intern (at a New York Times-owned magazine, ironically enough) making $4 an hour, after earning my bachelor's degree but before being hired full time. And, no, I wouldn't trade that summer for the world.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ten years after

I'm not one for remembering exact dates, but it was just about this time 10 years ago that I split the corporate scene and started my own enterprise. It has gone quickly, as good things do.

Recently, a business acquaintance of mine to whom I hadn't spoken in two years dropped me a line on a social networking site. I'm not one for remembering exact dialogue, but he told me that during our last conversation, I'd talked him off the ledge and gotten him re-energized on running his own business, which he's still doing and still enjoying. (You can check out Pete Wright's work at Fifth & Main, which features his Internet producing/broadcasting/storytelling talents, and Acoustic Conversations, which helps musicians promote their tunes and stories.) I was incredibly humbled that my words could have that kind of impact.

Which led me into a cascade of thinking about the people who've influenced me and supported me along the way, including teachers, coaches, friends, teammates, colleagues, bosses, editors, clients and my family. And not the least my dad, who advised me to sock away enough money that you can tell any boss at any time to, well, "take this job and shove it," though he wasn't that delicate about it. You can never be free if you're shackled to your next paycheck. It's true if you're in the corporate world, and equally valid if you're an entrepreneur.

I hope you took yesterday off to goof off, relax and recharge. On this day after Labor Day 2009, I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on the people who've helped you get where you are. And then take a moment to consider the people whom you influence in the business sphere...and what you can do to help them get to where they need to be.

And if you're like me, it's time to get back to that stack of overdue thank-you notes.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tool of the trade

Aside from my computer, there's no tool more important in my freelancing arsenal than my Olympus DS-2 digital recorder. (Prior to owning it, I went through probably a half-dozen microcassette recorders of varying crappy quality...and still have a bunch of those stupid tapes lingering around.) The other item that goes hand in hand with it is the TP-7 recording device, which is an ear bud that allows you to record both sides of the conversation when you're talking on the phone. Yes, I always ask if it's OK to record; I've only had two people say no.

In short, here's why I can't live without it:
  • If I'm playing back a fast talker, I can slow it down to 87%, 75%, 60% or even 50% of actual speed. If I need to blast through tedious stuff? Speed it up to 125%, etc.
  • It allows me to capture exactly what someone said, no note-taking required. Clients love it when they hear their own words...and interviewees appreciate the accuracy.
  • Depending on what quality setting it's on, it can hold hours of content
  • I can download everything to my computer through a USB cord
I'm not a huge gadget guy, but this thing is an absolute lifesaver. Note: The links are to Amazon, but you can shop around for a better price.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Are you serious?

It's a constant refrain at this blog to treat your freelancing like a business. (That's not to say that you shouldn't be massively creative or just plain goofy much of the time, but rather that there are times when you can't.) Part of that is being responsible for yourself when things don't according to Hoyle. Yeah, I'm talking about insurance.

Health insurance. From my Freelance Forecast 2009 survey (click here to download the pdf) earlier this year, I know well that health insurance is a major sticking point for us solo practitioners. An article titled "Health Insurance for Freelancers" at Freelance Switch offers a wide range of ideas and links--the comments are recommended reading as well. It's worth the time to investigate your options and even revisiting the details of your current plan. Back when I first went freelance, for example, I discovered personally that COBRA was far more expensive than what I could get on my own for the coverage I wanted.

Disability income insurance. Today's cheery thought from Freelancers Union: You're much more likely to have a period of disability than you are to die. (Yet many of us have insurance to protect against the latter but not the former.) The good news for freelancers is that we're in a low-risk field and premiums are cheap. I've owned a policy from Country Financial for several years.

Errors and omissions insurance. Also known as professional liability or publishers/media liability, you may have to show proof of this if you do contract work for a larger company; depending on your business, it may make sense to have a policy anyway. Some basic info to start your research can be found at ChubbPro E&O and Publiability, which offers a program called WriteInsure that is targeted specifically at authors, self-publishers, bloggers, freelance writers, and small publishers.

Disclaimer: I'm not an insurance professional and I don't play one on TV. The above links and opinions are provided to get you thinking about and researching the topic as it applies to your business, not as specific recommendations. What you want, need and can afford ultimately need to strike a balance with your risk tolerance and life circumstances. But I will say this: When you consider that these are the types of insurance that an employer would purchase on your behalf if you were a full-time employee...isn't it in your best interest to take a serious look at how well you're protecting yourself?

Friday, August 21, 2009

A little housekeeping

Through other channels, I've been informed by several folks that the comments link has been buggy and occasionally unusable. So, please accept my apologies if you've been among those experiencing a problem--your shared insights, stories and humor keep me going.

Based on the blogger.com help page, I have "reset the widget template"...hopefully that will help.

In the meantime, shoot an email to Jake (at) BoomvangCreative (dot) com if you're still having issues.

Have a productive, profitable day!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Monetizing Your Brain

An old editor of mine used to keep a folder into which he'd toss ideas that were interesting but not quite broad enough to warrant coverage. Once he had a critical mass of related or semi-related tinder, the spark was lit.

That thought occurred to me this week as...


For any business, pricing your product or service properly is absolutely critical to survival, let alone profitability. Your spreadsheet includes not just the hard costs and time to execute the project, but the overhead costs--everything from the furniture, office supplies and utilities to healthcare and insurance.

My experience is that creatives in general (and freelancers in particular) tend to shoot too low--whether it's due to lack of experience, poor business sense, or simply undercharging for doing something they enjoy. Obviously, it's difficult to always put a monetary figure on something you've produced through nothing other than the gray matter between your ears. But one thing is for certain: If you fail to price your skills right, your clients will surely fail to value them properly.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

You may be a winner! Or...maybe not.


I jinxed myself.

Last week over at the always thought-provoking Teenie Thoughts, copywriter/blog philosopher-in-residence Teenie lamented getting copy back that has been "hacked and twisted and uncarefully rewritten." Smartaleck that I am, I responded glibly that "I don't try to fight it anymore" when someone wants to change my words.

Which is all well and good until I was reminded today that "not fighting it" occasionally comes with its own peculiar punishment.

The backstory: A long-time, loyal client needed a one-time-insertion newspaper ad for a sweepstakes giveaway. The prize was terrific--worth several hundred dollars. The challenge, though, was that I couldn't write the copy I'd ordinarily recommend for a case like this, i.e., an unsubtle screamer that pounded home the message WIN A *BLANK* AT *BLANK* WORTH $XXX!!! This company's branding approach simply won't accommodate such crassness; and belaboring that point with my contact would only frustrate us both, since she knew it was a battle she couldn't win with her higher-ups.

I did my best to harden up the soft-sell approach, and off the ad went to design. Approved, and off it went to the printer.

In the back of my head, I was clinging to a hope that the ad might work despite itself, based on the strength of the offer (albeit buried deep in the copy, *sigh*) and the company's name. In the front of my head, I knew that was pathetically naive. So, when I contacted the client this morning to inquire about the results, I was unsurprised to find out the response rate was crummy.

There are a lot of painful aspects to me about this, not the least of which is that, given exactly the same scenario again, I'm not sure I'd be able do anything differently. Just call it a TKO before the bell even rang.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Eight wrongs don't make a right

Came across this little beauty in the UK-based Times Online about the New York Times' error-riddled obituary of Walter Cronkite. The correction, one of history's longest and, as the Times Online notes, frankest, read as follows:
An appraisal on Saturday about Walter Cronkite’s career included a number of errors. In some copies, it misstated the date that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and referred incorrectly to Mr. Cronkite’s coverage of D-Day. Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968, not April 30. Mr. Cronkite covered the D-Day landing from a warplane; he did not storm the beaches. In addition, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, not July 26. “The CBS Evening News” overtook “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC in the ratings during the 1967-68 television season, not after Chet Huntley retired in 1970. A communications satellite used to relay correspondents’ reports from around the world was Telstar, not Telestar. Howard K. Smith was not one of the CBS correspondents Mr. Cronkite would turn to for reports from the field after he became anchor of “The CBS Evening News” in 1962; he left CBS before Mr. Cronkite was the anchor. Because of an editing error, the appraisal also misstated the name of the news agency for which Mr. Cronkite was Moscow bureau chief after World War II. At that time it was United Press, not United Press International.

It was so bad that the paper's public editor felt obligated to write an op-ed, "How Did This Happen?" Well worth reading...particularly by the Times staffers.

But wait, there's more! From Gawker, which has apparently been beating on Alessandra Stanley for years: Play-By-Play: The Self-Loathing NYT's Ultimate Alessandra Stanley Flogging

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Playing "Easy to Get"


A not-insignificant portion of my freelance time is spent tracking people down. For corporate copywriting clients, that time is generally on their clock--no harm done, part of the frictional cost of doing business. When it's a resource I need for a magazine feature, however, any runaround comes at my expense--deadline and pay rate.

A few weeks back, I contacted a well-known political figure for an article in Speaker magazine, which named her as one of the nation's 25 top professional orators. She replied by email that she was too busy, and her assistant was equally unhelpful and unresponsive. I frankensteined together a profile from existing public documents; serviceable enough, but unsatisfying.

Contrast that with yesterday. I'd been assigned to write a profile about someone whose book currently resides on the New York Times bestseller list. Mentally, I prepared myself to endure a multi-week game of phone tag that would push me up against my deadline, and to perhaps never reach him at all.

Low and behold, I received a positive email response back in less than 2 hours. Within 3 hours, his assistant had sent me a list of 10 possible interview times to choose from. Woohoo! There are all manner of conclusions you can draw from this type of response, not the least of which being the difference in responsiveness one can expect from a businessperson compared to a politician. Most of all, it reminded me how powerful a personal statement it is to be easy to reach, fast to reply and eager to help.

I can't reveal his name or the name of his book at the moment, but will do so at a date closer to publication. I'm about halfway through the book, and very much looking forward to interviewing him later this week.

***

I'm still wrapping my head around what a surprising and fantastic trip we had through Atlantic Canada, and will write further in the coming weeks. But what I will say is that St. John's, Newfoundland, was the most genuine, most welcoming place I've ever been. (I was going to say "bar none," but they're kinda famous for the several dozen watering holes on George Street.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Vacation, all I ever wanted

I always find it curious when self-employed folk resist taking a vacation, as if the world would stop spinning in their absence. No, you don't get paid while you're gone. No, an important new business call might come in and there's no one there to answer it. It's the circle of life, Simba.

So, today we're off--sans kids and sans electronic connectivity--to Cape Breton and Newfoundland for 10 days of simply messing around in boats, on bicycles, and on beaches.

I'll look forward to catching up with all y'all upon our return on July 26. Be well and be good. But not too good.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Freelancer's Guide to Getting Paid--on Time


A few weeks ago, a commenter asked me to address how freelancers can deal with slow-pay or no-pay clients. Seems like we've tapped into a trend, based on today's Wall Street Journal article titled "Freelancers' Guide to Getting Paid--on Time" [subscription required*]. The WSJ article cites a stat from the Freelancers Union that 77% of their members have clients who didn't pay at least once. Frankly, that seems low, unless a lot of their members haven't been around very long.

In any case, their first few solutions are what I use for my own business--no rocket science, just common sense: Don't be embarrassed about asking for what you're owed, try going straight to accounting if you're getting a runaround, withhold future work (politely but firmly), and offer alternative payment plans (two or three installments, for example).

The other three solutions, however, come with caveats. "Consider adding late fees," as the author admits, may get you labeled as high maintenance. "Consider working with freelance-liaison firms" is all well and good if you want to go the Guru or oDesk route, but as I've said many times here, I don't. And the final solution, "Sue the company in small claims court," isn't something I particularly want to get involved in. Mercifully, I've never gotten skunked on a job large enough that would have made it worth the money and psychological capital to pursue.

Here's the deal: The riskiest job is the first job you do with someone, particularly in a crappy economy. So, some suggestions in addition to those above...
  • Be realistic. If you're soliciting new business now, you need to accept that there will be flakeouts. I experienced it in 2000-01, the same thing is true now, and it's part of being in business for yourself. Don't spend the money before the check has cleared.
  • Request a deposit on new jobs and on existing clients who have had payment challenges in the past. This serves a tri-fold purpose: 1) It gets you some money upfront, 2) it confirms that the client is serious and 3) it provides some negotiating leverage. If someone won't agree to pay a deposit, that is a major slow-pay/no-pay warning sign.
  • Be patient. The best way to ensure you get paid on time is to work for people with whom you've developed a business relationship of trust. There are no shortcuts.

I was hoping to find a guy wearing the traditional barrel-and-suspenders outfit for today's clip art, but no luck.

*The Wall Street Journal is the only online subscription that I pay to receive, and it is absolutely worth the $103 a year.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sons of Maxwell: "United Breaks Guitars"


Anyone who's ever had luggage delayed, stolen, damaged or pulverized by an airline will appreciate this Sons of Maxwell video and the backstory on the band's website about the destruction of a $3,500 Taylor guitar and subsequent customer service runaround. A couple of thoughts, in no particular order:

  • This Canadian band's humor, employed in a video that's now been viewed nearly a half-million times, is a far more devastating approach than 100 handwritten letters and phone calls to customer service
  • I love, absolutely LOVE, the fact that they call out the name of the customer service person that gave them the final "no"--instant, well-deserved infamy!
  • What conversations are taking place at United right now about how to handle all the negative PR they're getting?
  • Do you think they regret taking responsibility and doing the right thing?
  • Will United approach things differently next time? Do you think their competitors have taken notice?
  • How many times over have these guys made back their $3,500, thanks to people like me having downloaded Dave Carroll's solo CD at $10 a pop? I think their only mistake is to not have any of the Sons of Maxwell albums available on iTunes. I emailed Dave; will let you know if I hear anything, but I suspect he's got a busy schedule!
  • Dammit, I wish I could play the guitar. Or sing worth a crap.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Reese's Peanut Butter Cup principle, in action


During the '70s and '80s, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups ran a famous ad campaign in which a person carrying a chocolate bar and another carrying a jar of peanut butter would run into each other, and, after a flash of indignation, discover what a delicious combination the two flavors made together. I'd rank it as one of the most memorable ads of my childhood.

So, this morning, a college friend of mine alerted me to the Venn diagram you see above, while a post over at the rough-and-tumble Why Advertising Sucks raised a discussion about how you define success, and how others often try to define it for you.

To me, standing at the intersection of visual diagram and blog post, it seemed like peanut butter smashing into chocolate--better together than separate.

At the risk of going all Zen on you, I offer no answers of my own here--I only suggest that each one illuminates simple truths that are worth pondering for yourself.

Note: In the interest of giving credit where it's due, there's also a discussion about the "How to be happy in business" diagram over at What Consumes Me, the blogging home of its creator, Bud Caddell.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Res ipsa loquitur

A friend posted this link on her Facebook page. As a person who operates on the periphery of the Phoenix ad world I thought it too interesting to not share. I guess it is catching fire 'round the blogosphere.

Open Letter From an Ad Agency Intern


I have some sympathy for the author, to the extent that she's expressing thoughts that have popped into every intern's head since it was called "apprenticeship" in the Goode Olde Days.

But.

As I keep telling my kids, like it or not, companies and schools are going to search everything you say and do online for the rest of your lives. Not every thought in your head needs to be expressed online. Assume people have a camera phone aimed at you. It's a crappy deal in too many ways to count, but best get used to it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Tale of Two Costcos


Our first visit to a Canadian Costco showed it to be a reasonable approximation of the U.S. version, minus the booze department. (Not having $10 jugs of Yellowtail is a dreadful minus, but I digress.)

In four-plus months we've found Canadians to be exceedingly orderly and polite in lines, which makes queue-intensive activities such as skiing and shopping generally pleasant. But Costco's Scylla and Charybdis of bulk toilet paper and 12-paks of Chef Boyardee seems to have jammed the collective radar: The parking lot was utterly chaotic, and inside, with the monster carts and no evident traffic pattern, was no better.

We survive the melee and arrive, overflowing, at the checkout. But they don't take the Costco credit card. And our debit card won't work at the checkout or ATM because it has a VISA logo on it. And our Canadian debit account doesn't have enough cash to cover the bill.

Uh-oh. The line is growing and we are Ugly Americans in progress.

Ah, but here's where Costco and its employees shined, a testimonial to good hiring and training. The cashier swiftly hailed a manager to let him know what was going on, pulling us aside with the full cart and our receipt so that the line could keep moving. She'd also overheard us say that our card usually works at Scotiabank, and so she pointed out the one on the other side of the mall. I hustled across the lot (dodging cars) to get the dough, came back, and paid the bill.

Costco's customer service hit exactly the right notes. The cashier was profusely apologetic, which she didn't need to be, but it certainly made us feel less horrible at having caused the snafu and nearly an international incident. The lesson for client relationships is that there's no benefit to beating up a customer when they're already doing it to themselves.

The epilogue is that we took a 20-minute wrong-way detour before getting on the right highway to go home, but, hey, you probably could've predicted that.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Just enough time for a quickie

For the weekend, I'm recommending a visit to design legend Milton Glaser's "Ten Things I Have Learned," part of a speech he delivered to the AIGA back in 2001. I remember seeing the text of it back then...and was thrilled to rediscover it yesterday.

A tip o' the cap to Rob Haggart at A Photo Editor and Tim Gruber at Waitin' on a Moment for the original and their riffs on it, and to Phoenix photographer Ken Easley, who pointed me to their blogs. So, an essay by a graphic designer, tipped off by a trio of photographers to a writer. That fits nicely into my Grand Creative Convergence Theory--that is, anybody who's selling a piece of their grey matter for a living has an enormous amount in common.

A busy day and an abbreviated one, since we're off to Nova Scotia for the Not Since Moses 10k Run/Walk--across a tidal flat to an island in the Bay of Fundy, where the tides rise 30-plus feet in 6 hours. Incentive to make haste, eh?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How do you treat your one-off clients?


In an ideal world, a creative in the marketing/advertising space lives in a sort of Lake Wobegon of clients--everyone's smart, loyal, pays well and has above-average products and services for you to work with. Alas, we don't live in that world.

So I think back to a day on my cross-country drive, somewhere in Nowheresville, Texas. I'd stopped at a little diner for gas and lunch, and was astounded by the friendliness of the crew--big smiles and hearty howdoyoudos as if I were a long-lost cousin whom they'd been expecting all along. The chicken sandwich, fried okra, and shake were splendid.

Realistically, though, what's the business benefit to acting like that? I have to imagine 99.99% of their traffic is from passers-through who'll never be back, and who couldn't possibly offer word-of-mouth benefits.

Anyway, my reason for bringing it up is that they taught me a simple, elegant lesson that stuck with me: Even a one-off client is worth your best effort, just for the sheer principle of the matter. I feel obligated to pass this little diner's story along. Maybe that's why they do it.

The photo is our dog, Bagheera, posing in the wee hours in front of the trailer we towed from Phoenix to Fredericton. I bought it from a farrier, but have since removed the upper lettering so that it reads "Experienced * Dependable"...because I'd be unable to shoe someone's horse if asked.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Tale of Two Borders


We're four months into our year-long Canadian adventure. Suffice it to say, the cultural differences have been more significant than we'd anticipated, and more than you'd ever realize in a two-week holiday jaunt. Not in a bad way, mind you, but surely in ways that make you think.

At the risk of oversimplifying, our goal while we're here is to follow the Switzerland principle: Take no sides. We've encouraged our kids to err toward silence while the States' way of doing things takes a daily bashing from classmates and teachers. My wife and I have strived to be models of neutrality in the face of same. (It's actually quite humorous when someone goes on an anti-U.S. rant thinking that we're Canadian.)

But as we were chatting over breakfast this morning, we hit upon kind of an interesting nonparallel (perpendicular?) situation from our experience in the States. Our home is in Phoenix, a few hours from the Mexican border and the Sea of Cortez. We have friends, many of whom have lived in Arizona for years, who hate Mexico. They do not go there. They do not care that the beaches are beautiful, the beer is cheap, the food is great, and the people are friendly. Like Dr. Seuss's Sam I Am, they won't go if invited, and they'd never go on their own initiative.

In contrast, you don't have to go very far around here before finding scads of people professing to dislike the U.S. who nonetheless cross the border on a regular basis for cheaper and more-varied shopping, half-price booze and vacations. (As above, I find it humorous rather than injurious to my patriotism.)

I make no judgment presenting this here, not on Canadians for going to the U.S., nor Phoenicians for refusing to go to Mexico. I know full well that we are just one data point in one province, and I am aware that you can't draw an equals sign between traveling to the U.S. and Mexico.

It is simply, as Rod Serling used to say, "for your consideration..."

Monday, June 15, 2009

Right said TED

A friend recommended this video over the weekend and I was riveted from the first moment. You probably know Mike Rowe from his "Dirty Jobs" show on the Discovery Channel, in which he serves as an apprentice in various dangerous, stinky or just-plain-gross industries. And you may have heard of the TED (Technology/Entertainment/Design) Conference, an annual 4-day confab of big thinkers who speak for only 18 minutes each--it's the event during which Bill Gates set free a jar of mosquitoes into the audience to illustrate a point about malaria. The event is $6,000 a seat, but you have to admire the fact that the organizers post all the videos on the web for free.

Be forewarned that Mike's opening anecdote is not for the faint of heart. But trust me when I say it's ultimately a deeply philosophical commentary about the nature of work, and that it's well worth the time to watch it--as are all of the TED videos.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Freelance job opportunities...a mile wide and an inch deep


It's a clever-enough business concept, and I even toyed with launching one back in the late '90s. But I just have to express my ongoing skepticism about contract-job aggregators (e.g., Elance.com and Guru.com) as a way for freelancers to eke out a living. To me, it seems like a speedy way of making a six-figure income in which two of the figures appear *after* the decimal point.

On the other hand, these sites are damn good at getting publicity for themselves, and they seem to be growing in popularity. Some recent stats from an article titled "Negotiating the Freelance Economy" (subscription required--sorry!) in the Wall Street Journal.
"Between January and March, employers posted 70,500 of these work-for-hire positions on Elance.com and 43,000 on Odesk.com, which represents increases of 35% and 105%, respectively, from the same period in 2008. Sologig.com, which lists remote and on-site freelance jobs, says its average monthly postings have more than doubled to around 13,500 per month in the past year."

It was interesting, though: In the article comments, a few people were as vociferously positive as those of us who were bah-humbugging. So, here's my position: They're welcome to have all the low-bid-wins jobs they can get. Too much chaff for my tastes, and I can only imagine the loathsome bottom fishers that have emerged from the mire of the crappy economy.

Hold on a sec...I just realized that several of my last posts have focused on ripping what's bad as opposed to extolling what works. (Cranky? Nah, it's just fun!) Stay tuned for some positive how-tos in an upcoming entry.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Babies, don't let your mommies grow up to be bloggers

I subscribe to the free daily AdAge email blast, and I'll usually click through on the most interesting link in any given issue. Today's video, "Inside the Mommy Blogger Business," caught my eye based on an offline conversation I've been having with Chronic Fatigue in response to my "Make a six-figure income as a freelance writer" post last week.

The video is only about 10 minutes long, and offers some interesting insights on the growing number of women who've successfully monetized their blogging. Primarily, it sounds like the ones who have a large following then get hooked up with a big brand name can probably make a living at it, or at least get a bunch of free crap. Nonetheless, if 8 million women (by AdAge's estimate) currently publish blogs, forgive me for being a bit skeptical that there's a measurable percentage of Mommy Millionaires, or that your odds aren't better to win the lottery than they are to be "discovered" by Wal-Mart.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

$59.50 screwdrivers and other bad ideas


We've all heard about the feds paying $300 for a hammer. They're a bloated bureaucracy; that's what they excel at. But even a non-bloated, non-bureaucracy runs the risks of such inefficiencies. All it takes is for otherwise-smart people to fail to think things through.

About a year ago, my neighbor Anne-Marie borrowed a screwdriver from me--a standard-issue Stanley phillips head. Then she accidentally left it in a rental car. She said she'd replace it, and I told her not to worry about it. Then she moved out of town.

Fast forward to last Friday. I'm running my freelancing business in Canada, but maintain a U.S. business address in order to make life convenient for my clients. We've also forwarded all of our home mail to the business address, and every two weeks, the mailing service packs up and forwards everything to us in a letter-size Priority Mail envelope.

So this week's shipment comes in a huge box, and inside that is a smaller box, and inside that smaller box are two bubble-wrapped (!) screwdrivers from Anne-Marie. (Addressed to "Matt," which just added to the unintentional comedy.) For fun, let's do the math:

  • 2 new screwdrivers=$20
  • Postage to send screwdrivers from Anne-Marie to Phoenix=$4.50
  • Excess postage to send big box instead of letter size to Canada=$20
  • Original lost screwdriver=$5
  • Screwdriver that I'd already bought 11 months ago to replace the lost one=$10
  • Jake's lost braincells=Priceless

Because my head already hurts, I'm not going to calculate the time cost of all of the participants, or worry about why someone would bubble-wrap a screwdriver. And, in her defense, she had no idea of the Rube Goldbergian route her kindness would take. But let's just say an alternative plan would have been, for example, mailing me a $10 bill or $10 check. Or simply forgetting about it altogether.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Make a six-figure income as a freelance writer!


OK, hang with me for a moment. Earlier this week, a discussion started over at The Ad Contrarian with regard to the relative value of posts that drive a lot of traffic versus those that drive a lot of comments--and the disheartening fact that your best-written blog entry often has little to do with it being your most-read one. One guy joked that his highest-traffic post involved the top 10 euphemisms for "dropping the kids off at the pool."

Which brings me to the title of this post. If you Google "earn a six-figure income," you will quickly learn that there are a bunch of career choices out there that seemingly guarantee a six-figure income: blogging, staying at home, and, naturally, freelance writing. If you are one of my regular readers, you already know that I'm being an utter and complete smartass. If, however, you arrived here through one of those searches, a few words of wisdom...

At the risk of sounding holier-than-thou, I'd say that there are few reasons worse to choose an industry than it seems an easy way to skate to $100,000. That's as true of freelancing as it is anything else. As a part-time rowing coach, I'd quantify it as every bit as asinine as parents who want their kids to row so they can get into an Ivy League college.

Can you earn six figures as a freelance writer? Yes. Yes, you can. Is becoming a freelancer a great career move? Perhaps. Perhaps it is. But going in, you should be aware that the market will test your entrepreneurial skills far more than it will ever value your ability to mash a keyboard.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute


A few weeks back, I riffed on the aggravating nature of nonstop incremental changes. Today, some thoughts on their evil cousin, Mr. Last-Minute Change.

Now, don't get me wrong--I like to make things perfect, too, and I can't stand to see a goof glaring back at me from a printed page. But I've been around long enough to know that 1) the later you add changes, 2) the more changes you make, and 3) the more versions of a document you've seen, your odds of creating a new, worse error start to trace an upward-curving parabola. It's as much a law of physics as it is human nature.

That's a lesson I learned the hard way: I was managing editor for a magazine that sent a last-minute "patch" to the printer to correct a typo...but in the mad rush to get the press running neither the bleary-eyed art director nor I noticed a small issue in the final blueline proof: The printer hadn't clipped off the bold heading that blared something to the effect of "PATCHES PAGE 14." So, that's exactly how 200,000-some-odd copies of the magazine read. Mona Lisa, meet Mustache.

In consoling ourselves, we prayed the message was so cryptic that our readers didn't think past "Hmm, that's odd." I felt a bit better a year or so later when my sister sent me a tearsheet of a magazine page captioned "BLOWQUOTE FROM SOME GUY GOES HERE" underneath the photo of a very dorky-looking Some Guy.

Obviously, the web takes the sting out of many mistakes because they're not technically permanent (outside of screen grabs). Nonetheless, I find the prurient itch to change things up till the clock striking 12, and then once again at 12:01, remains.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

"No one goes there no more. It's too crowded."


At the Saturday farmer's market here in Fredericton, there's a small prefab hut that houses two competing samosa vendors side by side. (Samosas are a stuffed triangular meat or vegetable pastry in the same culinary family as an empanada, pasty or my friend Lara's Craven Haven Jamaican patties.) A buck each or a dozen for $10.

But from a sales perspective, it's a curious dynamic: Every weekend, Yummy Samosas (shown in the photo) is empty, while Samosa Delight often has 50 or more people standing in line. Samosa Delight has a wider variety of filling options, which undoubtedly has something to do with the difference. On the other hand, after you've waited 20 minutes in line, the service is Soup Nazi-esque. When a window opens, you damn well better already be in motion towards it, and you'll get a dirty look if you give them a $20 and they're low on change.

So, this morning, I tried an experiment and gave Yummy Samosa a try. Instantly, three or four customers lined up with me. Sure enough, each vendor's spicy chicken tastes like...um, spicy chicken. Makes you wonder if Mr. Yummy Samosa should pay people to fake standing in line. That's what I'd do, along with giving out free samples.

The title of the post is widely attributed to Yogi Berra, commenting on an overly popular New York bar, but who knows.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Stop me if you've heard this one before


So an American attorney, a Canadian tax accountant and an American CPA walk into a bar...

Well, they didn't really walk into a bar--I've been talking with them in trying to get some international tax issues sorted out. Being self-employed in another country comes with a heap of implications far beyond the usual capabilities of QuickBooks, TurboTax, voodoo and chicken blood.

Long story short, we were informed by the Canadian tax adviser that I am going to owe taxes on my "worldwide income" to Canada for the time I am here, and U.S. law provides for the Foreign Income Exclusion so I'm not in double jeopardy. (Note: All of my clients are in the U.S., but because I am doing the work while residing in Canada, they have a claim on the taxes.) So far, so good.

After arriving at the arcane intersection of immigration law and tax law, however, I concluded that there was another key step: I needed to make sure I wasn't obligated to pay into both countries' social security systems. This is precisely what the US-Canada Social Security Totalization Agreement does, and we have similar treaties with dozens of countries.

You can read the legalese in its entirety if you can't get to sleep tonight and/or want to have nightmares, but here are the steps I'm taking based on the counsel I've received:
1) Apply for a Certificate of Coverage as a self-employed individual from the U.S. gov't.
2) Present said certificate to the Canadian gov't.
3) Apply for an Individual Tax Number for Non-residents, which gives me a route to pay taxes to Canada.

"And the taxman’s shouting ’cause he wants his dough
and the wheels of finance won’t begin to slow."
--The Jam, Burning Sky

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

One person's "negotiation" is another person's head banging against the wall

After dealing with a few hours' worth of idiocy and bureaucracy unrelated to work, I needed a laugh today. This was just the ticket: The Vendor-Client Relationship in Real World Situations. Disclaimer: Mercifully, this doesn't resemble any of my existing clients, only the ones I've cut loose, never to be heard from again...

Monday, May 25, 2009

By any other name


A client of mine that's been in business for nearly 20 years is going through a bit of what I'd diagnose as name anxiety disorder. They're pretty well convinced that their current corporate moniker is confining them to a very specific market and inadequate to appeal to the market that they'd really like to go after.

It's a challenge--their name is indeed bland, and contains a word that is both overused in the business world and says nothing about what they do. At the same time, they're torn, because the owner of the company is well known and well liked in the business community, so there is equity in the name that they've been using for two decades.

Even as we go through the exercise, I'm from the camp that it's the company itself that ultimately determines the success of the name, not the other way around. But surely one of the lessons, when naming your company, is to not paint yourself into a corner from the outset.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Animal spirits


Québec City was our destination of choice for the Victoria Day long weekend--absolutely magnificent place, like Paris with the haughty edge dulled by Canadian politesse.

On Sunday, my wife and I headed out sans-enfants to Restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens for an afternoon appetizer and cocktail. They're not kidding about the "anciens" part (the building dates to 1675) and their repertoire includes wild game that we'd never seen on a menu before, such as wapati.

We ordered a pair of La Fin Du Monde ("end of the world") beers, and meanwhile tried to crack the French code of the menu. Foie gras seemed like a suitably French thing to order, and caribou sounded like fun. "Would you like the caribou before the foie gras?" the waitress asked in broken-but-passable English, and we said "Oui," or more likely "Por favor," which is a hard habit for me to break.

Five minutes or so later, the waitress dropped off the two beers and a small cocktail glass containing a light amber liquid and a lemon twist. My wife and I looked at each other, and were certain something had been lost in translation. When the waitress returned, I smiled and pointed at the glass and said, "Um, I'm sorry, but what is this?"

A puzzled look crossed her face and she said, "It is caribou. Did you not want?" The 12-watt lightbulb goes on in my head that I had misread aperitif as appetizer, which it most assuredly was not, and thus we had not ordered the meat from a large horned animal at all, but rather some sort of identically named cocktail. The waitress started to apologize and say that she'd take it back, but we started laughing and insisted that we wanted to try it.

After returning home, we confirmed that Caribou is indeed an authentically Québécois drink--something like a sherry, and notorious as the drink of choice for winter Carnival revelers. It also confirmed the old saying that experience is what you get when you don't get what you want. Particularly when you're traveling, there's nothing better than that.