The Psychology of Business: Talking Yourself Up

The one overwhelming question that most freelancers and small business owners have is, “how do I get more clients?” It’s especially true of people just starting out, but it is a constant question, because more clients means more work, and more work means more revenue. It’s difficult to see, then, the fact that clients are all around, everywhere. Maybe the kid making you a sandwich at Subway needs a blog made, or maybe your friend Bill needs an app that can help him more efficiently reconcile his accounts receivable with his paper billings.

 

The first thing I want to note is that nobody is ever going to ignore your email because your grammar and spelling were too good. Even if they weren’t expecting to hear from you, a well thought out, properly worded email will get you a lot further than one of those, “i ned wurk $60 a hour.” Getting the work is about making a good first impression, and a comporting yourself in a professional way will help you get more responses from your marketing efforts.

A fairly common thing I have noticed, and that has been covered by Ramit Sethi, of I Will Teach You to be Rich fame, is that it’s common for people to devalue themselves when communicating orally. By devaluing I mean using phrases that indicate that you aren’t sure about your abilities. Clients that are accustomed to hiring others can pick up on these like a cat can smell tuna fish, so they’re definitely things to avoid.

Phrases like, “I guess…” and “Maybe…” can instantly lower your rate. The key is confidence—being able to say resolutely, “Yes, I do this and this is what it costs.” Having a lot of confidence in your skills and your price tends to impress and makes you more attractive as a worker. I’ve seen it myself in hiring freelancers. Those that indicate that they aren’t taking any more business and are very firm on their price come across as much more capable than those that waffle on about, “my rate is negotiable, blah blah blah.”

So, if you’re in the market for clients then these two things are essential to avoid. Proofread your correspondences, because in most cases a misspelled word can result in a lost job, and avoid being too flexible in terms of price and what you can do. Confidence is key, and it makes you seem much more competent, and thus, that much more desirable.

 

Tools I Can’t Live Without: Round Deux

After some time, I wanted to communicate some more tools of the trade that not only make my business life easy, but actually a downright pleasure. Again, I’ve experimented with all manner of productivity tools and other stuff, but these are a few that I have found are particularly useful, have a great concept, and do a damned good job. Without further ado:

Mint.com

If you haven’t heard of Mint then you have probably been living under a rock for the past few years. But if you have, Mint is a site that lets you view all of your financial information in one place. It’s exceptionally secure, so you give it access to your online financial accounts, and it tells you balances, recent transactions, has budgeting tools, savings goal calculators, and can send you emails when you exceed your budget for a given category. Sure, you can check your accounts individually, but having them all collected in one place is really handy. There’s also a mobile app, which makes me want to recommend it to you.

Fitocracy

While this isn’t strictly business, it helps you keep track of your workouts, and producing good ideas and good work requires you to be in the best of health. Fitocracy is a fairly new idea that has managed to gameify going to the gym. It is set up like a social networking site that lets you log workouts. Each different exercise has a point value. Said points accumulate, earning you levels, unlocking achievements, and generally getting you more attractive. Be sure to go regularly though, they deduct points if you haven’t worked out in a while.

Google Chrome

As of last month, Google Chrome was the web browser of choice for around 35% of the world. That’s not too bad by itself, but I like it for a different reason. As compared to Firefox, it is more stable. See, Firefox runs as an individual application, so if one of your tabs crashes you lose all of the other ones. Chrome, on the other hand, runs each tab as a separate task, meaning if one freezes then you can just close that one tab instead of the entire application. That little function has saved my butt numerous times and makes me a convert. It tends to be problematic on older, slower systems, but anything that is less than a couple years old will handle it, no problem. Plus, adding new functions is a lot easier—Firefox uses extensions which are somewhat cumbersome to install, while Google has the whole thing set up to install new features, like a to-do list/calender, without restarting and with the convenience of an international store with user ratings. Not too bad for free software.

That concludes another installment of software that I can’t live without. So far I haven’t had any problem with any of these—quite the opposite in fact. They help me stay productive and less frustrated, and I imagine you’ll get similar results.

Is a Completely Original Idea Bad?

I’m sorry to say that a truly original idea is very difficult to come by. The Good Book says that, “there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:19)”–yes, it’s important to cite your sources—and by and large, it’s fairly true.

But what if you had one? It does happen from time to time. The issue I’ve had with my few original thoughts is that I usually defeat them before I get motivated to try them. My logic is, “if it was a good idea, somebody would already be doing it. Nobody else is doing this, so there must be something that makes it impractical.” Sound familiar at all?

Well, I’m hoping to refute that, for my sake and yours. If nobody else is doing it then they most likely haven’t thought if it yet, or more hilariously, did, and had the same thought as above. But I also want to cover a couple of the things that you may not think about when you’re considering whether a product or a service is feasible.

Firstly, your product or service is only part of the equation. You can’t start a business installing mercury reflecting ponds anymore, but there is also marketing and distribution to worry about. Think about the issues you will have with transportation, which is often the limiting factor in selling anything. You could have a fruit that is, hands down, the most delicious thing in the world, but if it spoils 5 minutes after being picked, then it won’t do you any good. The same goes for services—you can’t work nationally or internationally as a plumber, and you can’t always make sales calls in person.

The other side of it is marketing. If you truly have an original idea then it is going to be a little difficult to convince people that what you’re selling is legitimate; unless it has it’s own appeal, but if that’s the case then you shouldn’t be worrying about this so much. The other side, is how similar is your idea to an existing product. Say you’re trying to sell a revolutionary new television remote—there are a lot of big name businesses that will either try to buy you out or, barring that, simply block your access to the market.

My advice then? If you have a truly original idea then start small. Get your patents and or trademarks to protect yourself from coattail riders and get to work. If you can get one person to pay for your product, then you can be reasonably assured that it has appeal and that you can market it to to a broader audience. You can worry about big industry players trying to block you when you’re successful. As long as you have the logistics figured out and have people that are ready to give you money, you are in the clear.

How Much is Too Much for Employees?

I wanted to broach this question after seeing this article from Business Insider, which talks about how Evernote pays for housekeepers for their employees. Is that even a good idea? Throwing certain benefits into a compensation package is a fairly standard practice; having catered lunches, free swag now and again, and other little things to let your workers know that they are appreciated is great, but is there a limit to what you should give?

The story itself is fairly short, simply offering that Evernote does, indeed, offer around 250 of it’s workers paid-for housekeeping. An unnamed employee noted, “[The house cleaning] eliminates a decisions I have to make. It’s just happening and it’s good, and I don’t have to think about it.” The CEO, Phil Libin, explained, “Happy workers make better products. The output we care about has everything to do with your state of mind.”

To top it off, the company also offers employees $1,000 every year for a vacation. So, the question I pose is, is that too much? From a purely economic perspective, a business wants to pay and give as little compensation as possible for as much talent as possible. In the real world though, skilled workers require a higher salary, and often other benefits. Medical, dental, and a retirement plan are standard, but the kind of stuff we see in tech startups is doing something interesting to workers in the IT field.

My thought is that no longer is a job simply a job (mainly in IT, but in certain companies outside of that as well). A job is a means to pursue passion and work towards a common goal that you can relate to. That goal is going to make the CEO and stakeholders money, so naturally, you need to be paid. They demand a lot of skill and time, and in turn, you demand not only money, but other things that make your life more comfortable. Catered lunches, an office foosball table, and housekeeping come to mind.

It may be the case that skilled workers are demanding more, but at the same time, Libin came right out and said why they’re doing what they do. Keeping workers happy is essential to the health of a business. Ever wonder why service sucks at movie theaters? The popcorn makers earn minimum wage, so they give you minimum wage service. Give them stuff that keeps them happy and worry free, and the service improves. The same is true for any profession—no worries means a clean, clear mind that can tackle work related problems more efficiently.

So, is paying for your employee’s housekeeping giving too much? Naturally, it depends on your business and how much money you’re willing to part with benefits, but for Evernote, I say no. Do whatever you can to keep your workers working happily, and you’ll see a successful business.

Entrepreneurs I Admire: Richard Branson

Today I’d like to take a little time to examine one of the people that serves as motivation for me, Sir Richard Branson. I find his story particularly compelling, and frankly, am impressed with how this guy embodies the entrepreneurial spirit. You may know him as the Chairman of the Virgin Group, which handles everything from air travel to films to flowers and now even space travel with Virgin Galactic. His story is an impressive one, and I hope that some of what I tell you here will serve as inspiration for your own pursuits.

I expect that Branson’s childhood was similar to most; his father was a barrister—that’s “fancy talk” for a lawyer—in England, so he had a solid middle class home, but his lineage isn’t to cool part. At only 16 years old, he started his first business with a mail-order record service. He conducted the operation out of the crypt of a church, and advertised in The Student, a magazine that he helped run. Thus, Virgin Records was born. He operated under that name, selling popular records at discounted prices, at the suggestion of one of his employees, who reasoned that the name was apt because none of them had any business experience.

A few years later, he scraped together enough cash to make his own brick and mortar store in London. Of course, having a well-known location had some problems, and he got popped for selling records that were considered export stock. So, yes, even somebody as successful as Branson can see an inconvenient lawsuit. But with help from his family, he managed to pay the outstanding taxes and fines.

The single store proved enough of a success that only a year after opening it, he started the record label Virgin Records, signing bands like the Sex Pistols, buying a gay club, and generally diversifying and growing his operation. That is, until 1984, when he decided, “hey, I want some airplanes,” and formed Virgin Atlantic. Again in 1999, “hey, I want to sell cell phones,” with Virgin Mobile, again in 2005, “hey, I want a spaceship,” with Virgin Galactic. I could take you through the detailed history, but that would be a long read.

And now Richard Branson is the man we know him as: a billionaire, world record setter, humanitarian activist, and head of a multinational organization that he created. We can all learn a lesson from his story. For one, it pays to diversify. He wouldn’t have had all the success he did without branching out and doing new things. For you that may be adding a writing service to your existing blog development business. Another is that bad things happen to everyone, sometimes at the least opportune times. Branson’s mother mortgaged her home to help pay the outstanding taxes he had after he opened his first store, and he wound up selling Virgin Records to EMI in the 1980′s to help keep Virgin Atlantic’s head above water. Everyone has problems, and there is nothing to do but your best to solve them and keep moving forward. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Branson’s mother helped him with taxes, Nik Powell helped him buy a recording studio, and many others did a little to help along the way. So let Sir Richard serve as inspiration, and get out there and succeed!

I’ll be posting one of these on occasion, but if you know of an entrepreneur that we should know about, leave a comment!

Increase Productivity in the Background

We all respond to two different types of motivation according to an old saying: the carrot and the
stick. But that old adage is a little dated. Sure, the easy way is to make good or bad consequences for
finishing or not finishing your work, but there’s another way to guide your efforts away from pictures
of cats and towards the good stuff: ignorance. Here are a few applications that, for the most part, run
in the background and can help you get things done more efficiently:

Write or Die

Available for the iPad or your regular old machine, Write or Die puts the “prod” in productivity,
according to the website. I’m partial to this nasty little app because it does a great job of encouraging
writing by discouraging the time you spend not writing. See, if you spend a certain amount of time
not writing, then WoD will give you a reminder, ranging from a gently-worded pop-up to actually
deleting what you wrote before. Of course, it’s not for editing or hardcore word processing, but
rather a utility that will get you to pump out material. You can pick it up here for $4.99.

Dropcloth

Formerly a Mac-exclusive, Dropcloth is a nifty little app that overlays a solid color window over the
desktop, which I’ve used to much success for clearing the screen for webcasts and to even more
success for blacking out distractions. It’s a huge help if you need to focus on one application, and best
of all, it’s free! You can pick up a copy through lifehacker for Windows and iOS.

f.lux

There’s something about staring into the warm glow of my computer that, for some reason, makes
me hate the thought of a reasonable bed time. Well, that’s because, according to the makers of f.lux,
computer screens look great because they are designed to mimic natural light, which you probably
shouldn’t get too much of at midnight. f.lux automatically adjusts the color temperature of your
screen depending on time of day, making it easier on your eyes and better for your sleep cycle. This
may be more of a lifestyle app than a productivity one, but I usually do my best work after a decent
night’s sleep. Pick it up free here.

StayFocused

Sometimes, just sometimes, we need a little extra help to stay away from time wasters like Facebook
or whatever it is you like to do. StayFocused is a Google Chrome app that blocks a customizable list
of websites for a certain amount of time, and can be fiddled with to allow those sites for a certain
amount of time. I’m not saying that it’s the most pleasant approach to getting things done, but I’d be
lying if I said it wasn’t effective. You can pick it up for free in the Google Chrome store.

The Details of a $100 Startup

Recently the book The $100 Startup from Chris Guillebeau has been making some waves. With this economic climate, it’s all too common to see skilled people without work creating their own businesses to keep the bills paid. And the cheaper it can be done, the better. But starting a business with $100 is a lot tougher than it sounds, and it takes a certain kind of savvy to make it work. I’ve always said that there is a super power in low-overhead, profitable-from-day-one businesses. Not having to raise capital to pursue your ideas is a great thing, if it can be done. Here are a few ways to keep costs down when building a cheap startup:

Forget about “Business Plans” or “Financial Forecasts”

Chris Guillebeau, in his book, says “you don’t need a business plan, you don’t need to spend too much time planning, you don’t need a large amount of money to launch, and you don’t need special skills or expertise.” and he is right. I’ve seen too many people get stuck in the “paralysis of analysis”. If this is your first startup, and you do not have a lot of skin in the game, give it a shot and GO for it. People tend to learn the basics of their business sectors by being thrown into it.

Don’t Buy the Cow

We’ve all heard the adage, “don’t buy the cow if you get the milk for free,” and it applies to a startling amount of stuff in the business world. There is a lot of free software available that does just as well, if not better than for-pay stuff. Take Open Office at www.openoffice.org for example. It offers about 99% of the features of Microsoft Office and it doesn’t cost $100 per license. Anti-virus software can be had for free all over the place, and premium service for a lot less than the big names like Norton. AVG and Avast! are popular free options that offer premium service for cheap. So don’t spend money on the big names when you can get the same functionality cheaper or even free.

Invest in the Important Stuff

While you should avoid unnecessary expenses and generally be cheap when it comes to certain things, it’s equally important to spend on quality. Purchasing a quality item or service in the beginning can save a lot of trouble down the road. What’s important changes by business; if you’re a software developer then you probably will get frustrated with a $50 laptop from Craigslist, or if you’re a bicycle messenger those cheap tires will cause more harm than good. Prioritize the stuff that is integral to your operation and don’t cheap out on them.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

…that is, if you have one. Building a business takes time, and after overhead expenses, many businesses don’t see a profit until the third month of operation, at the soonest. Having an extra source of income and taking things slow will let give you the time to make smart decisions instead of the, “We need to launch NOW!” attitude that grasps many of us. Once your business proves that it can support itself is when you can quit your regular work and focus on building your brand new money-maker. But Guillebeau notes specifically in the book, “in the battle between planning and action, action wins.” Taking action when action is needed is important, but it’s equally important to check the water before diving in head first. Products always end up launching behind schedule, and you never can perfectly judge the time a project is going to take. You don’t want your runway of cash to run short in the process, thus stifling you from growing!

The Gender Wage Gap: What You Should Know

It’s a fact of our working world that women are paid less than men, but the reasons and other details about this income disparity are not well known. Many of us with jobs in this economy are too busy counting our lucky stars and can’t be concerned with unfair hiring practices. Asking for a raise or demanding a higher salary in an interview may rock the boat enough to get you back on unemployment.

The discrimination that is present in the workplace isn’t new, and I don’t think that it’s something we should be so happy to accept, even in a bum economy. To quote Rocky (2006), “…if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth!” We’ve made a lot of changes to close the gender wage gap, and in some places it has actually reversed, but that doesn’t mean we can slack off.

By the Numbers

By most estimates, the national average pay gap puts a female worker’s salary at 77% of that of her male counterpart. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families the numbers vary by state; their data shows that a female worker’s income at around 84% of a male counterpart’s in California, and 64% in Wyoming. And those are just overall—minorities have it even worse. Look at the staggering fact-sheet for my fellow Alabama women.

There is, to some extent, a reverse gender gap as well. A New York Times article points out that, in some major metropolitan areas, single, childless women make up to 20% more than their male counterparts. The wage pendulum is starting to swing in the other direction, at least in a few cities (though this could be the ‘edge case’).

What’s Behind It?

Since it’s been studied, people have been trying to figure out exactly why women make less than men. Many point to maternity leave and motherhood as an explanation. There is some degree of economic risk in having an employee that may require some months off; it’s much easier to hire a man because paternity leave isn’t legally required in the U.S. In addition, it’s presumed that his female counterpart will need to take additional time off to care for the little one.

Another commonly cited reason is that women don’t negotiate as aggressively as men. According to the study, Who Goes to the Bargaining Table? The Influence of Gender and Framing on the Initiation of Negotiation, “framing situations as opportunities for negotiation is particularly intimidating to women, as this language is inconsistent with the norms of politeness…” Other studies have found that the women who do negotiate tend to be penalized for it, more so than men are.

And these are two potential reasons. Sociologists, economists, and other -ologists constantly work to find and explore new explanations.

What Can We Do?

That’s tough. What can one do about anything that’s engrained in society? President Obama has already taken a step forward with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which lengthens the statute of limitations for cases involving discriminatory pay. Katie Donovan, who lectures on negotiating to overcome the pay gap, has drafted legislation that will require businesses and payroll services to provide salary ranges to their applicants. We’re much closer to an equal business world than before, I believe.

 

What are your thoughts?

Productivity Tips: Work Like a Well-Oiled Machine

There’s not a soul out that there can say they spend 100% of their working hours actually getting work done. It’s all fine and good if you can manage everything, but what about during crunch time? Of course, there are a million different tips to “hack your brain” and increase your productivity floating around, but these are the few that I have put into practice that netted good results.

Allocate Time

An easy way to get yourself motivated to start a particularly boring job is to allocate a small amount of time to do it. I’m not talking about planning your whole day, just taking a block of time, say 5 minutes, and devoting that exclusively to work. It’s a lot easier to convince yourself to do something you don’t really want to do if you’ll only do it for a few minutes. And half the time, if you spend those minutes working, you’ll wind up getting a lot more done than you thought.

Don’t Multitask

It’s been covered by publications like Wired, but multitasking is horrible for your productivity. It may make you feel like you’re getting a lot done, but you wind up splashing more than swimming. Set aside time for individual projects, whether you need a few minutes, hours, or even days. If you focus on getting one thing done at a time then your work will be better and you’ll get it done faster than if you try to juggle other things. I prefer to multitask on a ‘Macro’ level not on a ‘Micro’ level, meaning that I will multi-task different projects on a per-day basis (one day dedicated to one project)

Don’t Finish

Don’t finish your work before you take a break. If you leave a task halfway done, then it’s a lot easier to get back into what you were doing, pre-relaxation. Hemingway supposedly left a sentence unfinished before going to the kitchen to freshen up his drink, letting him immediately pick up where he left off. Your brain wants closure, and if you leave something undone then you’re a lot more likely to get back to it, instead of browsing Reddit when you finish your break.

Schedule Some “Me” Time

I’ve found that I am a lot more productive after I have some time to pursue my own interests. In practice, that means I wake up an hour before I absolutely need to, and spend that time reading up on the news, my terrible stock choices, and maybe some sports, but your leisure activity and time may vary. Doing some low-intensity reading or other activity before working functions like a warm up for the brain, and has helped me stay productive, even in the face of distracting coworkers.

behind the scenes CEO – the mentors

Mentors, as Wikipedia states:

“This is the source of the modern use of the word mentor: a trusted friend, counselor or teacher, usually a more experienced person.”

One of the most important lessons that I have learned, and that I try to teach, is that “The wise learn from other people’s mistakes and fools from their own.”

 

I would not necessarily take it that far, but I prefer to say that if you do the same thing over and get the same results, that’s insane. A “smart” person learns from their own mistakes, but a wise person learns from the mistakes of others. Pushing things to failure and not succeeding builds character and invaluable experience.

To an entreprenuer or experienced business person, helping others succeed is a way for them to continue to validate themselves as well as find potential new business ventures. Take a moment to ask successful friends of the family or hit your social network. Find a more experienced person – same industry is a plus but not necessary. There are many lessons that can be learned that are true regardless of business-type or industry. Learn to take advice at face value and evaluate it for yourself. Many larger cities have investment groups and startup “accelerators”. Do yourself a favor and go to a “pitch night” – the connections you make with like-minded people will be invaluable.