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., and 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 and 43,000 on, which represents increases of 35% and 105%, respectively, from the same period in 2008., 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.