Relationships Are Key to Business Success

My husband and I have both owned and managed our own businesses and have learned quite a lot about succeeding on your own as small fish in a big sea. In very differing businesses – mine a freelance writing and design venture, his a synthetic grass dealership — we found similarities in what makes our small businesses grow and prosper.

strengthIt isn’t the business plan, or the mission statement, or a fancy office, or investors, or any of the ideas a lot of people associate with business success. It is people, and our relationships with them. If you, as a business owner, take time for your clients from first contact to final sale and beyond, you will do well. If you listen, ask about their kids, find out what they do for a living or what they enjoy doing in their free time, tell them about yourself, you will develop a personal relationship with clients that will yield benefits in the end.

You will be first on their minds when they need more work, or when someone else asks them for a recommendation, because you cared enough to invest just a little bit of time in them. It is true in business and it is true in education. If I show even a modicum of interest in my students and talk about myself, the feel comfortable, secure, and ready to likewise invest themselves.

The parent company of my husband’s dealership pays a lot of money to a sales expert who provides all the dealers around the country with materials and script to help them deal with clients and close sales. For a person to whom this aspect of business comes naturally, the script feels stilted, forced, and transparent. While I’m sure it is a valuable resource for those dealers who are not gifted in relationship building, it sits unused in our home office.

In fact, Chris and another owner were asked to speak to dealers at the last national conference to share their insights on what makes their businesses so successful. Without comparing notes ahead of time, the commonality was the relationship building with clients – be they home-owners, commercial ventures, or landscape architects. A lunch here, and surprise bagel drop there, and even just an immediately returned phone call make all the difference in the world.

Yes, you are busy. Yes, you have more than enough to do when you are running your own business. Yes, it sounds impressive when you talk about how there aren’t enough hours in the day. But take a minute or two with a client, give them your full attention, and will will be assured that you stay busy, stay profitable, and stay successful.

Still a Freelancer at Heart

Almost a decade ago I threw in the towel on my freelance writing and design career to take on a full-time, work-for-someone-else gig as a high school English teacher. It was the exact right move at the time. Running my own business (marketing, accounting, interviewing, writing, administrative duties, and the like) took a lot of time and commitment, and at the time my young and very active family needed my attention more than the business. And as a bonus, I fell in love with teaching.

freelanceBut as kids are prone to do, my sons grew up and needed me less and public education became less and less appealing, and I began to daydream about my business and social lunches of days past, creating my own schedule and procedures, and even taking mid-morning dance breaks (yes, dance breaks) to keep the energy going. It didn’t help that in the interim my husband left his corporate position and began his own business at home. (A certain green-eyed monster started peeking around corners.)

I decided to go back to school for a master’s degree while I contemplated what my transition out of teaching and into freelancing again might look like in a vastly different world. Was I romanticizing my freelance experience, or was I really, truly happy doing it? In my honest opinion, I was. Now, did I make the money I would need now to make ends meet? I’m not so certain of that, but I know freelancing is calling to me loudly.

Several people I have spoken with in the last few months have not been big proponents of going it alone, mostly because they dislike dealing with people who want more than the original agreement offered, or clients make unreasonable demands because they don’t understand the nature of the business, or the just point-blank hate dealing with the accounting side of things (read: demanding to be paid). But I was okay with that — all of it. I have yet to hear a convincing argument to derail my ambitions.

Here is a little infographic from Mashable I thought did a nice little job at looking at both sides of the freelancing argument:

freelancing

Pretty cool, huh?

Next post:  Some keys to succeeding in owning and growing your own business, as learned by the Powell Group (OK, my husband and I).

 

Forget About Finding Your Audience – Create It!

I came across this video from Jason Fried, co-founder of 37Signals and co-author of the book I’m reading, Rework. In it, he discusses one of the factors that has made 37Signals so successful – transparency. When you are creating a product, starting a business, or developing a process, talk about it, document it, and most importantly, teach people about it.

Don’t go into stealth mode and be all secretive while planning a big reveal. Share it. That’s what companies like Google and Zappos do, and I think we can all agree they do what they do well. As a very small business, it would cost a lot to hire a PR firm or buy advertising, and the ROI would be dismal. But, if I talk about what I’m doing, the obstacles I’m facing, the successes I’m having, I will create my own audience, brand my own business, and maybe even learn a few important things along the way.

Here’s the video. It’s worth the time.

Jason Fried, 37Signals, Marketing by Sharing

I’m not a Fan of Work, But Rework is Another Story

rework1

I saw this book referenced in a recent blog post as I skipped around from tidbit to tidbit, and was fascinated by a quote from the book that essentially said that it was ridiculous to do something one way just because it has always been done that way. Something about that idea struck a chord with me, so I hopped online and downloaded the book.

Whoa! I want to work with these people at 37Signals. They seem to be my kind of people and their ideas ring true to my approach. The funny thing – maybe the dangerous thing, too — is it gives me a dab of encouragement with my business-maverick ways that will absolutely drive my business partner (with an MBA) crazy. I’m sort of like Kunu in the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall – do less.

Now, don’t go getting that confused with lazy, because it’s not. It’s about using time and resources as efficiently and creatively as possible, and not getting stuck on the stuff that mostly doesn’t mean anything in the first place.

Partner: Business plan?

Me: Nope.

(See “Planning is guessing” — “Decide what to do this week, not this year. Figure out the most important thing and do that.”)

Partner: Mission statement?

Me: Nah.

(See “Live It or Leave It!” — “Standing for something isn’t just about writing it down. It’s about believing it and living it.”)

Partner: Then set a goal for the number of contract you need to have before you start out.

Me: Meh. I’ll do what I do.

Without being arrogant, I have been pretty successful in most of the things I’ve done. I have the most reliable, dependable, dedicated, organized, hard-working employee anyone could ask for: me. That’s all I need.

“Don’t let yourself off the hook with excuses. It’s entirely your responsibility to make your dreams come true.”

Amen.

rework2Now all of this doesn’t mean I’m throwing caution to the wind. I’m a mom, a wife, a student, a teacher — I take care of a lot of people. I would never chance their futures, safety, or trust in me. That is why this very serious line in Rework jumped out in a true, but snarky, presentation of ideas:

A business without a path to profit isn’t a business, it’s a hobby.

So, to recap for my MBA, business plan-loving readers: I’m not using a business plan, but that does not mean I’m not following a path to profit. Is that a good enough compromise?

At this point, I am half way through this great book, and halfway on my way to starting (restarting) my own business. And I’m okay with that on both counts.I will continue reading and receiving validation from Rework (and add another post because this book is worthy of it), and plug along on this adventure. I’m not worried about getting it all right the first time right now. Why?

I’m better off with a “kick-ass half, than a half-assed whole”

I’ll talk to you later. I’ve got some ass kicking to do.

 

CSS Specificity & Me, a Love-Hate Relationship

In the past couple of projects I’ve worked on for my grad school projects, I’ve run into frustrating issues with tiny elements of my webpages. I get to a point where I want to throw my laptop across the room, or fantasize about the damage I could to to it with a solid Louisville Slugger. Usually, I have to walk away, regroup, and/or call a classmate for help. And both times it was an issue with my CSS specificity.

While I have been playing with CSS for a year now, I somehow was still struggling with being so very specific. It just wasn’t clicking until I got in touch with The Force. Okay, it wasn’t that exact part of a Smashing Magazine article titled “CSS Specificity: Things You Should Know.” It was mostly the introduction to the calculations.

The theory behind it is giving everything a value. The values are based as such:

specificity-calculationbase

In even more detail, the number assignments are as follows:

1 * { } 0
2 li { } 1 (one element)
3 li:first-line { } 2 (one element, one pseudo-element)
4 ul li { } 2 (two elements)
5 ul ol+li { } 3 (three elements)
6 h1 + *[rel=up] { } 11 (one attribute, one element)
7 ul ol li.red { } 13 (one class, three elements)
8 li.red.level { } 21 (two classes, one element)
9 style=”” 1000 (one inline styling)
10 p { } 1 (one HTML selector)
11 div p { } 2 (two HTML selectors)
12 .sith 10 (one class selector)
13 div p.sith { } 12 (two HTML selectors and a class selector)
14 #sith 100 (one id selector)
15 body #darkside .sith p { } 112 (HTML selector, id selector, class selector, HTML selector; 1+100+10+1)

(Did you see The Force at work in there?)

So, using some more borrowed graphics from Chris Coyier in his article “Specifics on CSS Specificity” for the web resource CSS-Tricks.com, it becomes clearer what takes precedence over what.

cssspecificity-calc-1

cssspecificity-calc-1 cssspecificity-calc-5

Being a visual person, somehow the #, ., and : all started falling into place.

In Coyier’s words:

  • If the element has inline styling, that automatically1 wins (1,0,0,0 points)
  • For each ID value, apply 0,1,0,0 points
  • For each class value (or pseudo-class or attribute selector), apply 0,0,1,0 points
  • For each element reference, apply 0,0,0,1 point

You can generally read the values as if they were just a number, like 1,0,0,0 is “1000”, and so clearly wins over a specificity of 0,1,0,0 or “100”. The commas are there to remind us that this isn’t really a “base 10” system, in that you could technically have a specificity value of like 0,1,13,4 – and that “13” doesn’t spill over like a base 10 system would.

Even a non-math, journalism major who was convinced to take “Math Fundamentals” – Venn Diagrams and all –upon entering college, I can get this. I won’t say I’m necessarily an expert, but I am a lot closer to getting there.

 

A Font Fanatic Faces Failure

fontsYes, it’s true. I love fonts. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it many times again — I love fonts. But I’ve discovered that like a demanding high-maintenance girlfriend or sister, sometimes fonts just don’t love me back.

A case in point was a recent mock-up for a website I submitted for one of my classes. I could not for the life of me find a font for the main head of a website for a professional wakeboarder and the chunk of text I dummied in was horrible. Unfortunately, everything I tried was worse than the previous one. I was frustrated and out of ideas. I closed the file and moved to the next project, trying to ignore it.

Finally, out of ideas I stumbled upon and then purchased a font called “Veneer” by  Yellow Design Studio. It was a handcrafted font that had the right look of vintage and grunge that resembled the wear and tear of a wakeboard or surfboard. I paid $15 – not a big deal for a font that I will be using liberally while working on this site from here on out. But was paying for a font the lazy way out?

veneerBecause we’ve been away from our design theory classes for a bit — and are muddling through coding classes with mostly just mediocre designs that reflect our reluctance to challenge our coding too extensively — it was nice to have the reminder of the role fonts play in design. (By the way, it was worth the $15.)

I love the artistry in creating fonts, and the artistry in using them especially well. Fonts have a character and a mood and a life of their own. The need to perform, breathe, shine. I had forgotten that. Trying to fit them into a box on a page was my mistake. Finding Veneer in my time of despair was refreshing and exciting. It allowed me some creativity and energy, while allowing me to keep a pretty simple design,especially when simplicity is really my main goal with this site.

Where fonts used to be limited to a small assortment that were deemed acceptable for their high legibility on screen, now fonts are able to break out of the mold a bit more freely. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am rather a font snob. Come at me with a flyer in Comic Sans and I am likely to walk away without a word. Don’t even get me started on Papyrus or Kristen. Give me invisible or give me Wow. And by “invisible”, I mean a font that is so natural it doesn’t draw attention to itself. By Wow, well, you know what I mean.

Hello, Helvetica.

And then, as usually happens, I was bombarded by fonts this week. I was keyed into Google fonts by an instructor and sent a hilariously awful link by another former newspaper colleague. The latter I’ll save for later, the former we’ll look at now.

googlefontsI’m almost embarrassed to admit I really had no idea about Google Fonts. (I hope to be more knowledgeable when I graduate from this program – so for now my excuse is that I’m just a student.) At the time I’m posting this, Google Fonts features 624 font families. Google Fonts allows users to sort and filter through hundreds of fonts in minutes, viewing them as words, lines, or paragraphs with whatever parameters they enter so it will look exactly as it is supposed to on a page before committing to it. Once a user chooses a font, they can choose the code format and copy a small snippet of code. (I chose the CSS option.) What an excellent tool for designers, and how fitting that it is Google yet again coming to the rescue.

 

The Magical World of jQuery

In one of my grad school classes, we have tackled JavaScript and are playing around in the world of jQuery, which is turning out to be a lot of fun. There are some very simple, yet versatile and functional plugins ready-made and waiting to be used. Just of few of the best plugins of last year include text transformations, including arcing and ballooning, and creation of bold responsive headlines and interactive graphics and slideshows. Two plugins in particular caught my attention, most likely because I have use for one of them in a separate project right now and the other is just so cool for a reader like myself.

While I will leave it up to you to read up on the features of each of these plugins, I will share with you the though process I’m using to select these.

Get Turn.js

getturn

First of all, this is just plain cool. You can make your content look and act like a real book, magazine, or catalog. As you read through, you can turn the pages and follow your progress through the document. This plugin is responsive, which I really like and uses HTML5 and CSS3. Now, I am just looking for an opportunity to use this plugin, and may have a project in mind.

One of my clients owns a synthetic grass dealership in the Tampa area called ForeverLawn of Tampa Bay. ForeverLawn features a wide variety of products for a myriad of uses. This would be an awesome way to showcase their products, descriptions, and projects.

PicStrips

picstrips

While I could relatively easily achieve this effect in Photoshop, this plugin saves a lot of time and adds a big bang of style to otherwise placid images. PicStrips allows me to choose the number of strips, the amount of white space between strips and at the bottom and tops of each strip. The project that immediately came to mind was for a website I’m creating for a professional wakeboarder. (The skateboard images may have been a trigger for this idea, too.)

This style of image presentation offers an edgy alternative to a single splash (no pun intended) image I had in mind.

While I have just skimmed the surface of these jQuery plugins, I can already see the possibilities opening up as I strive for competence in communing in the online world.

Diving into the PHP Pool Head First

PHPdiveTrying PHP for the first time this semester has been intriguing. Having just become comfortable with creating web frameworks and styling them up a bit, venturing into the depths of functionality sparks that coding bug in me that really likes the “puzzle” aspect of it all.

In fact, that aspect is what has fascinated me with all of the languages I’ve been picking up. The less fascinating part is that the more I pick up, the less I feel I know by comparison. Know what I mean? Probably not. It’s one of those lack-of-confidence, self-doubting things. As with a lot of the things I’ve learned so far in my graduate degree program, I find that the best resources for information about the online world is in the online world. Often reading what others have bumbled through themselves makes me feel better and gives me a little encouragement to keep plugging along.

Mashable is one of those resources I get lost in (in a good way) very quickly – especially with all of the SXSW information flowing this week. While playing around, I found three related articles on PHP. While all three were advice from the same 10 experts, each was divided according to PHP experience level – beginner, intermediate/advanced, and pros/cons. Each article provided unexpectedly useful tips, most of which amounted to “DIVE IN!”

For beginners, the panel of experts recommended doing at least as much homework as to avoid the lazy label. Google before asking, read code of seasoned developers, read up on data storage, and learn security. The next step is to find a mentor and/or community and try out open-source projects. And the best tip of all: Just do it.

The most stressed word for intermediate and advanced PHP coders is “community”. Most experts recommended joining a specific community or the online PHP community as a whole by asking questions, staying current, looking at other developers’ codes, helping noobs, and giving back. Next on the priority suggestion list is coder responsibility like keeping code simple and clean, finding and using better tools, and maintaining your existing code.

The third and final article touted the strengths and limitations of PHP, which most agreed were the same list, meaning the strengths were flexibility, ease of use, low entry barrier, and volume of resources and the limitations were flexibility, ease of use, low entry barrier, and volume of resources. The biggest takeaway from this is PHP comes with responsibilities to keep it clean, keep it simple, and make it secure. Otherwise, go for it. Play, explore, use, and have fun with that puzzle.

 

Good communication and trust go hand-in-hand

handshakeAs I again set my sights on venturing into the world of freelancing in online communication, I find myself redefining communication. After all, I come from a generation that has gone from corded rotary kitchen phones to do-everything iPhones, from cutesy stationery to instant email, from friendly drop-ins by neighbors to Skype conversations with family far away. Back in the day, as they say, all the self-help books on personal and business communication centered on actively listening to the person speaking — mostly, well, in person.

While the channels for communication have changed, the basics are still the same: be clear, be consistent, listen. The biggest difference is that the messages we are trying to convey in all aspects of our lives must be tailored to the medium, without changing what Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell calls the “human moments” – those interactions of being in the presence of someone and having his or her emotional and intellectual attention. The idea of human moments may be evolving, but changing the message in any way undermines any trust that you need to get your message across.

Think about how much we communicate every day. I’m not just talking about talking here. We communicate in hundreds of ways every day: talking, emails, body language, facial expressions, communicationphone conversations, Facebook status updates, Tweets, texts, blogs, ….are you getting the idea, because I could keep going like Bubba expounding on his shrimp? As a teacher by day, I spend every minute of my eight-plus hours with students communicating information and feedback, not to mention communication with parents, other teachers, administrators, and other educational stakeholders. As an aspiring web designer and marketing freelancer, I spend a great deal of time making sure the message I’m sending is the message my clients intend. We are communicating constantly. To be taken seriously, be it personal or business communication, we need to establish and maintain an element of trust in our communication relationships.

In today’s fast-paced world, building trust may not be as difficult a task as it once was. As Steph Hay, founder of NovaCowork and co-organizer of the DC Lean Startup Circle, wrote in her August 2012 article for A List Apart, being real and more human is real.

“Real is trustworthy. Trust in that,” said Hay.

Hay applies what she calls the “Mom Test”. She suggests we stop fixating on what makes each of us different when we approach online communication, and instead acknowledge the more human side of who we are, what we do, and why people choose us. By reading copy either to Mom or with Mom in mind, we can call ourselves on the bullshit and cut down to what is real.

Approaching communication, be it online or in person, with a genuine effort to be real while also being accurate and consistent is a great way to establish trust. Making it effective to maintaining that trust is another story.

trustAccording to Steven Snell in February 2009 edition of Smashing Magazine, communication is a fundamental element of web design that often takes a backseat to visual attractiveness. Design, development, and content works best in tandem. In his article, “Clear and Effective Communication in Web Design”, Snell offers several tips for effective communication, goals for communication in web design, and results of good communication. Prioritizing communication, keeping it simple, keeping it relevant, and making everything count or get rid of it are just some of his recommendations for building trust. Good communication that helps visitors understand the site’s purpose, reduces bounce rates, create less frustration, and reduces the numbers of unnecessary inquiries goes a long way to maintaining trust among visitors.

From the first minute of the first day of classes every year, I communicate to build trust. From the first meeting with a potential client, I communicate to build trust. From the first hit on a website, I communicate to build trust. Communication and trust, trust and communication — forever hand-in-hand.