How Reachable Are You?

I don’t have an iPhone or a Blackberry, and I don’t want one. My cellphone can’t receive text messages, let alone images or video messages. If someone needs to reach me urgently, then they call me. If it’s not that urgent, an email will reach me fairly quickly.

I like it that way.

It comes down to choice. I spent 10 days in the fall in Denmark, and didn’t check my email a single time. I came back to a mountain of messages (over 300 requiring a response), but I enjoyed my vacation. I was able to relax and not think about work.

Reaching me while not on vacation is similar. If I’m working, then send me an email – I’ll be notified within seconds of its arrival. If you need me urgently, call me. If I can’t answer the phone, leave a message and I will call you back as soon as I am able. If you can’t reach me by calling, then there is no other way to reach me short of physically locating me.

Sorry, it’s the way I operate.

I don’t want to be fully accessible 24 hours a day. If I’m eating dinner, I don’t want to think about work. Sure, I can turn off the notification, but I’d rather go the simple route of not having a notification in the first place. I’m actually fairly accessible, you just need to know how to best reach me.

At some point in the future, I’ll likely break down and get an iPhone or similar device. Not by choice, but by need. I recognize that for some people, working with such a device is necessary, or provides other benefits. Travelers, for example, can avoid pulling out their laptops just for their email. Other applications running on those devices can provide other benefits.

So, what will it take to get me on such a device?

Well, my employer could insist. Or I could end up spending more time on the road. Or perhaps I’ll see an app that I just have to have, and therefore cave to temptation.

But I don’t want to be more reachable. I think my life is fine the way it is right now.

Just Say No

There’s something special about working with a small business. Whether it’s the fact that things might be handled a little more casually, or that you know every employee by name, birthday, and hobbies, it’s a little more comfortable.

Nothing lasts forever, and if you’re dealing with a successful small business, then sooner or later, the company gets larger, and many of the things that made the company special are no longer available. With over 50 employees, you’re lucky if you know the names of the people working on your project. The owner/founder no longer has time to talk to you as often as you would like.

As the owner or founder of a small business, it’s important to recognize this difference, and try to work with it. From what I’ve seen, the biggest change that happens to growing businesses is the ability to say no.

When a business is growing and expanding, there is temptation to accept every job that floats your way. No matter the request, your business can handle it. After all, you’ve gone from 5 employees to 25 employees, and need to make sure that you have enough work for all of them, so the more work the merrier.

Little could be further from the truth. While having idle employees is not a healthy state for a business, having employees do work for which they are unqualified, or over-qualified, to do, is also not a healthy state for your business, as it generates either frustration on the part of the client that the work is sub-par, or on the part of the employees that they are working on boring stuff.

Accepting every bit of business that comes your way does not necessarily improve your business. As a sole proprietor, you may have had that luxury, but once you start building a brand, that freedom is gone. When it was only you and a few employees, again, you may have been able to take all the work that came your way, but when you’re creating a business, that freedom disappeared.

Most small business owners have learned how to say no:

  • No, I won’t take on that project, because it’s too big for what my company can handle;
  • No, I won’t work with this client, because he doesn’t pay when he says he will;
  • No, I won’t work on this contract, because it’s not what my business is trying to do.

However, during periods of growth, saying no to any one of these becomes more difficult – your business needs the work and income to support its new size. However, from the perspective of your clients, it’s necessary to continue to say no when the client or project does not further your business, and when they detract from your company’s ability to satisfy your clients’ needs.

Saying no isn’t bad for your business, it helps define what your business stands for. Your business is defined as much by what you don’t take on as by what you do take on.

So please, when growing, continue to say no to those projects and clients that don’t help your business grow in the direction you envision, it will help improve the image of your business in the eyes of your clients, and at the end of the day, everyone will be happier with the outcome.

One Year is Not Enough

In a recent conversation with a coworker, we were discussing the fact that some people had been working at our company for over 30 years. We moved from there to the other side of the story, in which there were some people who had really short stays at the company, working there for between 6 and 12 months. I then commented that the first year at a company doesn’t really count.

In fact, I continued, if you work at a company for less than a year, people think of how long you’ve been at the company in months, and are therefore a newcomer. You don’t know how the company operates (true or not), and you haven’t established your credibility and expertise yet. Once you cross that one year mark, things change, and you start to be accepted as though you’ve always been working there.

When looking for another job, a one-year stint at a company on your resume will immediately raise the question as to why you were there for only a year. While there are a few good answers (the company was bought out, I moved to another city), most are not. At only a year, it’s unlikely that you reached the limits of your potential at the company – if you did, it raises the questions of why you elected to work at a company with such a short career path.

The sweet spot is somewhere between two years, at which point you could have established yourself in the company, and 7 to 10 years, by which point you run the risk of being trapped in your seniority.

Yes, there can be such a thing as staying at a job too long. Many jobs have benefits and perks that come along with seniority. At the point that the value of those perks makes a jump, it can be difficult to make the decision to leave the job for a new position, in the process giving up those benefits that you spent years working your way toward.

When looking at your career path, make sure that the stops and pauses along the way are long enough to gain the benefits and lessons of the stop, but not so long that you appear to have become a permanent fixture there.

Tied to a Provider

Much of my work is done through colleagues – for example, I have a few graphic artists that I can hire on a regular basis, some SEO specialists, marketers, branding consultants, web developers, and so on. While I can do some of all this work myself, most of my clients need a combination of experts in various fields, and bring me onto the project to find the appropriate experts and coordinate the team.

However, what this also means is that in meetings with clients, I’ll bring along another expert appropriate to the situation to provide additional perspective. On occasion, it will come out during the meeting that my colleague doesn’t actually work for me, but with me. The questions that immediately follow are:

Who owns the relationship?

What happens if one of us moves to Malta or is otherwise unavailable?

These questions have very real ramifications to the client. The client needs to know who is liable for the work agreed upon. Who does the client turn to if there is some level of dissatisfaction with part or all of the work done through our agreement. Additionally, if someone moves away, what happens to the client’s work and support? What if one of the people I hired moves away?

The Relationship

In answer to the first concern, the answer is always the same – the relationship is owned by the middleman. The reason for this is simple – the one coordinating the various parts of the project including working with multiple vendors and service providers makes most sense to be the person the client uses as the primary contact for the project.

That being said, the client should be provided with the contact information for each of the vendors where appropriate. The middleman needs to know what’s happening with all aspects of the project, but does not need to control every communique.

Disappearing Vendor

If one of the vendors is no longer available, then from the client’s perspective, there’s no issue. The middleman locates a replacement for the vendor, passes on the relevant information to the client and vendors, and the project carries on. Often, the middleman can hold onto copies of the work in progress as well, so that little is lost even if the absence of the vendor occurs suddenly.

Disappearing Middleman

If the middleman disappears, the client can directly contact the vendors and manage the relationship themselves. Much of the value to the middleman is provided upfront in giving referrals, with the ongoing value being that they act as both project manager and client relationship manager to the various parties.

Client Benefits

The benefit to the client is therefore two-fold. First, they don’t need to search for each vendor, or manage each of those relationships. They can manage a single relationship for the project, and trust that the various people needed to do the work will be available as required. Second, if there’s a change to the vendors, this is little chance that both the middleman and the vendors will choose the exact same time to be unavailable – which means that the client is not tied to a single provider, but to two halves of a pair.

This flexibility can make it easier for a client to switch providers at any level. They can cut out the middleman and stick with the vendors, or insist that other vendors be used and that the middleman work with the new vendors. In either case, the client is left with both the control and the flexibility.

Vendor Benefits

The benefit to the vendor is that they don’t have to manage a client relationship, and can be assured that work coming through specific middlemen will be with known associate vendors. The marketers will know who the graphic artists are, the developers will know who is managing the SEO work, and it will be consistent between projects. This results in higher quality over time, and reduces the risk inherent in assembling new teams who haven’t worked together before.

The trouble is finding someone who coordinate such projects, and who can find a good balance of vendors in multiple areas to provide real value to the clients. Since there is a cost to the client for having a project manager, that person must bring real value beyond coordination and bring in referrals, quality control, and risk reduction.

Enter Optimal Upgrade Consulting Inc. This is what we do.

Visitors and Organic Growth

A question that has come up on several occasions is how to build a large user base for a website that depends on its users for content. The first users will have little incentive to stay – after all, there’s no content there yet. Later users will not arrive, since the earlier users have not provided anything yet.

There are, fortunately, a few options available to you, each with its merits, each with its shortcomings.

Self-Production

This method is useful when the content in question can be produced by a single person, but is too much work to be produced by solely one person. An example would be a collection of data – collecting the data isn’t difficult, merely time consuming. The owner of the site can therefore spend a few weeks collecting some data to get the site started, raising the conversion rate for new users.

Simulated Users

Sometimes, you need the appearance of social interactions in order to grow the site. The easiest way is to create a few “fake” accounts, or get your family and friends to create accounts, and keep it up for a few weeks. As new users join, some of the originals can drop off, or, if they’ve enjoyed the site, keep on using it.

Buying Users

Sometimes you need a large influx of users, well beyond what you can arrange directly through your social network. In that case, you may need to buy users – give them free accounts, increased privileges, or send them tangible merchandise.

Which is for you?

There’s no single answer for all new sites. I’m working on one site that is giving away accounts to all users who sign up pre-beta launch. Another site I’m building will be giving away a one-year membership to the first users who sign up. Yet another site I’ve been involved with worked with creating a dozen demo accounts, which were replaced with the first dozen real users.

If you have an idea for a site that relies on its users for content, get in touch with me, and I can help you understand how each of these systems might apply to your project in particular.

I Eat My Mistakes

I have a simple guarantee with my business, one which has cost me a fair bit. Over time, I’ve come across a few other businesses with the same type of guarantee, and I prefer to give them my business. The long and short of it is that I eat my mistakes.

What I tell my clients is that I stand behind my work – if they find an error in my work, then I will fix it at no charge. When working on a project, this may not be a big deal. After all, the project should have been budgeted to account for this, and if it wasn’t, there’s no reason that the client should be impacted. When working by the hour, however, this can be a significant cost, since the hours worked fixing mistakes are unpaid.

I recently had a pair of chairs reupholstered and asked what the guarantee on the quality and accuracy of the work was. I was told that before any work is shipped back to a customer, two fussy old ladies look at the work, and decide if it passes muster. If not, it is sent back to be fixed. If the chairs arrive back at a customer, and the customer finds an error, then they are picked up and returned to the shop, and the work is redone.

The catch is who has to pay the cost of redoing the work. I was surprised to discover that it’s the tradespeople, not the company, that pays the cost of mistakes. However, this makes perfect sense. The tradespeople will be paid to do the work once. If it takes more than one try, then the company won’t pay them, since they were paid to produce quality. They must finish the work on their own time now that they made an error.

My work is the same, to some extent. My clients are paying me to produce a certain level of quality and reliability. Yes, my cost upfront might be a little higher than the next person, but my price upfront is the only price. As a consumer, I hate hidden costs, where the listed price is one thing, but you have yet to meet someone who actually paid that. As a supplier, I do my best to avoid such fees, but the catch is, I may have to join those hidden fees with the base price.

All in all, though, my customers generally appreciate the fact that I do guarantee a price. It allows them to budget properly for the project, and they have a greater level of confidence that they will be happy with the final outcome.

Why Do You Pay Too Much

I was chatting with someone a week ago, and he mentioned to me the price he was paying for a particular service. As it happened, I know the amount of effort involved in doing that kind of work, and raised some surprise at the price he was paying – it was about 5 times the going rate. After a little clarification, it turned out it wasn’t quite so bad, maybe only off by 100% instead of 500%, but it left me wondering.

Why do some people allow themselves to be exploited so badly when it comes to buying a service?

What came out of the conversation I was having was that he had hired a fairly skilled and experienced tradesman to do the work for him, and had been informed that he was getting a bargain. Without another quote to compare against, he had little to verify this against, and had to rely on the provided portfolio to make a decision. Naturally, the portfolio was outstanding (I happen to know this tradesman’s work).

What bothered me, however, is that the project he was hiring for was fairly straightforward, and could be done by an entry level trades-person. This is similar to hiring the top lawyer in the country to fight your $100 traffic ticket. She might charge you $5000 for her time, and be sure to get you off, but the question is, do you really need such top talent?

Of course, some people will tell you that they insist on the best, and are willing to pay for it. The price itself is not an issue, as long as they’re getting the best service possible. Without doing some fairly extensive research, though, they are often unaware that they are not, in fact, getting good value for their money.

As an example, look at the case of the lawyer. A $100 traffic ticket is not worth a $5000 lawyer – while $5000 might be a good price for the talent you’ve hired, it’s bad value for the need you’ve filled.

As such, I see there being two reasons people allow themselves to be taken advantage of like this:

  1. They are misinformed about the level of complexity of the task at hand, thinking they need much more than they really do;
  2. They insist on paying for the best, and therefore don’t know the difference between overpaying for the same level of work.

How much research do you put into your purchases? Do you know the difference between a good deal and good value? How can you tell?

Choosing an Online Image

With thanks to @robsarj who inspired this post with a question about selecting a new avatar.

Last week, I saw a question on Twitter regarding a choice of images for an avatar – should it be an action shot, or perhaps stick with a more formal portrait. Several messages later, it became quite clear that not only does the answer depend on the use of the avatar, but also on the audience and impression desired.

What’s it for?

In order to select an image for your avatar, you need to think about the environment in which your avatar is being viewed. Is it personal, or professional? Are customers looking at it? Co-workers? Friends? Public?

The answer to this question can help you determine the type of image that will best convey who you are to the person looking at it. If your answer to this question is personal, then there are few rules – you select an image that either reflects who you are, or who you wish you were.

If, on the other hand, the use is professional, or there’s a reasonable chance that people who know you professionally will come across the image, then you need to proceed more carefully.

What’s the norm?

In any industry, people have a preconceived notion of what a worker in that industry looks like. Bankers are imagined to be wearing 3-piece suits. A programmer is visualized to be dressed casually.

Remember, this isn’t about accuracy, but about impressions. If you told someone what your job is, there would be some level of expectation as to what you would look like, what you would wear.

When you select an image, the question becomes whether you want to reinforce the imagination, or contradict the imagination.

Reinforce the imagination

There are certainly benefits to presenting an image that fits the imagined picture of you – it provides a level of comfort to your viewers, and can establish a solid first impression – you fit the mold that someone else defined.

If you saw a picture of your lawyer in jeans and a t-shirt, it might make him memorable, but it will also impact his credibility up front, because he doesn’t look like a lawyer. That’s not to say that lawyers shouldn’t have pictures of themselves in casual attire, but that perhaps it would not be a good choice of avatar.

Contradict the imagination

On the other hand, presenting yourself in a different manner than the norm does make you memorable. A well-chosen image can portray someone who is not afraid to break down barriers, who can define their own path. If your industry has the reputation of being aloof, then dressing down can make you appear more approachable. If your industry has the reputation of being overly casual, dressing up can make you appear more organized.

Play the expectation

What is important here is not so much the image you select, but that you recognize how it will be viewed by those who do not yet know you. Your picture has the potential to create a first impression, and you need to be aware of what kind of impression that picture will make. What will also affect the impression is the context in which the picture is viewed, which means that you may want several different pictures of yourself for different environments.

My choice

If you are connected to me on several site, and have been for some time, then you may know that I use the same image on all the sites I’m a member of. The reason is simple – I want a completely unified presence. The image itself, though, has been changed a few times.

Original Profile PictureThe original image (shown at the right) shows a silhouette of me, taken while on a four month trip to Israel in the summer of 2005. I used it as my profile picture for many years, since it showed me in a casual environment, but also gave a sense of mystery and anonymity, an appearance I thought I wanted.

This image didn’t pass the test of time, though. While I did receive many comments on the picture (including wondering if I had touched it up, to which the answer is no), it wasn’t at all professional. Once I started moving onto sites other than Facebook, it was important to me that I be recognizable, and that people who viewed my profile be able to identify with me.

Current Profile Picture I switched through several images, eventually settling on the image shown on the left. The picture was taken on the day of my engagement at Casa Loma, in the summer of 2006. While I was still avoiding using a formal portrait, I did find a picture that showed my face (albeit wearing sunglasses, which is potentially taboo).

This image is very different than the previous one, in that it does portray some level of professionalism. Without knowing the history of the image, it shows someone who can dress well (at least I think so), and confident.

Remember, the image is not about accuracy, but about impressions. The second image, in my opinion, tells more about me in a professional setting than the first. I’m not looking for mystery, but for competence, confidence, and generally professional.

Were these two pictures the first you saw of me, what would you think? That’s what the choice of avatar is all about – making the desired impression on the people who will see it who do not yet know you.

How about you – how did you go about selecting your avatar? What kind of impression do you think it makes?