To All the Blogs I’ve Loved Before: My Happy 10th Anniversary with WordPress

wordpress-love-300x295A decade ago – almost to the day – I penned my first post on WordPress about my crazy dog Chili on a blog called Random Musings on Life. I was hesitant, shy, and certainly not confident about that first post, but I knew I had to express myself. The post was personal, contained awkwardly-sized images, and was fun to write. I won’t forget the moment I hit the light blue “Publish” button. I still get that same combination of fear and excitement to this day.

Looking back on 10 years with WordPress, I realize the indelible impact that blogging has had on me, and how it serves as a time capsule of my personal and professional evolution as a writer.

When I discovered the WordPress platform in 2008, it was the tipping point for blogging platforms: Blogger.com (bought by Google in 2003) and WordPress (still independent) were duking it out for dominance, and it seemed anyone with an internet connection was calling him or herself a “blogger.” That became my perfect moment to start writing in public, hone my craft, and freestyle whatever was on my mind. Most importantly, I, too could claim those blogger bragging rights.

I had sublimated my love for writing after a brief stint as a cub reporter post college. Instead of the path to journalism greatness, I pursued higher-paying jobs as a Silicon Valley careerist, first in the corporate tech world, and then in my own marcom business in ’99 (here we are 19 years later!).

Though I did write in my communications roles, most was uninspired and none stirred passion or a strong connection. Think: technical data sheets, sales campaigns, and carefully-crafted emails to higher-ups (though I guess those could be considered creative non-fiction).

Over those early years, I tried to get a handful of feature articles published on the side, but submissions were ignored or editors wrote back with “Love it but we’ve covered this before.” I was always late to the game and, worse yet, I wasn’t becoming a better writer.

That all changed with WordPress: For the first time, I could write whatever and whenever I wanted and get published with the click of a button. Voila!

Many times in 2009, I wrote poorly-constructed but passionately penned blog posts on just about everything: the Barack Obama presidency, the personal effects of the recession, an anti-Facebook rant that now seems prescient, ethical issues of eating meat. You name it, and if it interested me, I turned it into a blog post, or at least a draft. I curated an overflowing list of topics that I would write about one day (many still there). I promoted posts to family, friends, and colleagues. I got likes, shares, and comments. I was in blog bliss.

After a year of flexing my writing muscle, in 2010 I started a new blog called Marketing Sparks (now on my current website). It focused on all things marketing to build credibility for my business, and yes, that hokey word…”thought leadership.”

I even recruited my Dad, an established writer and stellar editor, to read drafts, where he pointed to poor sentence construction or a witty turn of phrase. (Side note: my Dad started his own WordPress blog on education a year after I started mine. Without fail, he cranks out two posts weekly. I am still blown away by his dedication).

My writing confidence grew on a variety of marketing topics: from evaluating Groupon competition to why QR codes are dumb (I haven’t changed my opinion on that); praising Mad Men product placement to questioning cosmetic manufacturers’ claims. In the process, I also tuned up my interviewing and research skills. Best of all, blogging supported my goal to establish myself as a writer, which paid off in spades for business and bylines.

I got a gig as a small business columnist on a popular blogging site after doing a guest post. I was invited to write for a national PR digital outlet after the publisher saw a blog post he loved. (Along the way, I also found out publications’ dirty little secret: many “pay” in bylines when you’re not well known. Fair? Maybe not, but that’s a whole other blog topic.)

Despite the financial downside, the upside was that these articles helped establish my place as a legit writer for hire. I started getting gigs without bylines but with the pay: I was a blog ghostwriter for a famous psychologist, a nationally-known customer experience expert, and a number of CMOs and engineering leaders. I sealed the deal with several clients sharing related expertise on the blog.

During those years I threw myself into writing, I also became a pretty big blog nerd. I attended blogging conferences, a WordPress boot camp, and joined a blog meetup where I met a fellow writer that has since become one of my closest friends. (He’s also replaced my Dad as editor so blame any mistakes on him).

As part of my evolving interests, when I moved the Marketing Sparks blog to an expanded website in 2014, I started looking more inward at my business and blogged about issues freelancers face, offered tips working with clients, and other related topics.

Now in 2019, another big change is coming: I’m moving my website to the WIX platform for technical reasons. Luckily, I can integrate my WordPress blog so I’ll bring my followers and SEO with me!

On my 10th year with WordPress, going down memory lane is a reminder of what a wonderful canvas it’s been to explore my writing. It is a living, breathing journey that will continue to evolve.

I thank my readers for all of their support along the way. Your clicks, shares, and comments will never be forgotten.

See you on WIX!

 

Image credit: PhotonicsSweden

 

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Do Politics and Small Business Mix? I Say Yes.

politicsA day before the 2016 Presidential election, I wrote a piece about the strengths and weaknesses of the Trump and Clinton campaign. But I left out one thing: who I was voting for. Why? I didn’t want to come off as biased or call attention to my political leanings.

A lot has changed since then. We’ve endured Trump in office for almost two years – the longest 21 months of our lives, whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, Independent, or household pet. For those of us who are not Trump loyalists, it’s hard to stand by and do nothing during a massive amount of turmoil, divisiveness, and government corruption.

For big brands, turns out it’s a mixed bag to take a stand on political and social issues in the Trump era. In a June survey, two-thirds of American consumers want companies to share their views on social media, particularly when there is a business connection to the topic. For millennials, that approval number is even higher. Sharing those views is unlikely to change consumer minds, however. Worse yet, if they disagree with the views, more than half said they are less likely to purchase from the brand.

And while consumers expect companies to peel off the corporate mask, what are the risks and rewards for a small business or consultant to showcase their political views? Though eyeballs on brands are much greater than a little business, the impact in the small universe of clients, vendors, and followers can be equal or more.

Post-November 2016 election, one of the changes I made to my business was to step out behind my name. Here’s what I learned:

Have a game plan

Assess your social media channels and decide where it makes the most sense to post your views. Since I don’t have a Facebook business page, no issues there (I’ve always been comfortable being open on my personal page, despite the strong possibility of Russian bots hovering). I selected Twitter to express views since it naturally blends my personal and professional lives like no other social channel. Because LinkedIn is exclusively business focused, I only post articles about overlapping political topics, such as the recent voting PSA or the Colin Kaepernick Nike Campaign effect.

Know the risks

Revealing your political views in front of the world means you’re prepared to take some heat. I knew from the outset that I could alienate current and potential clients who may find my perceived Trump trashing on Twitter annoying. I was willing to face consequences and be OK with it. (Then again, I have more than one client.) I haven’t experienced any blow-back – yet anyway. On the positive side, I’ve bonded with certain vendors, clients, and colleagues in the industry as we group-therapy our way through these difficult times.

Be judicious

No one wants to see partisan posts all day long, including me, so mix it up. I typically tweet three to five times a day, interspersing political tweets that I find particularly relevant, smart, or entertaining. I also “like” tweets as an alternative to retweeting, which cuts down on newsfeed noise. Of course, as any good marketer would, I monitor trending topics and which political tweets are getting traction.

Be tolerant of others’ views

Lastly, one thing we’ve learned in Trump times (besides the fact that if we walk away for an hour, an insane new political twist occurs), is that we’re in the most tribal of times – right, left, middle – we stay on our sides. To say it’s polarizing is an understatement. We should at least listen to others’ views – whether clients, friends, or God forbid, family. It doesn’t mean we have to agree, but we should be respectful, or refrain from discussing altogether. If we don’t, Trump’s divisiveness works.

Bottom-line, it’s fine for me or anyone else to espouse their views, but the most important opinions matter on November 6.🇺🇸

 

 

 

From the Consultant Files: Make That First Impression Count

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We all know that phrase, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Trite as it may sound, it’s also true. I put the shoe on the other foot (to borrow another cliché) and recently interviewed vendors for my website redesign. It was a stark reminder of how important that first meeting is. Here’s what I learned.

Do Your Homework

When I interview for a gig, I prep: research the position, company, potential client, you get the idea. One of the vendors I spoke with seemed to have no clue about the project (even though I emailed her about it in advance). Worse yet, I had to spell out my website address, which is my name. Don’t be that vendor. I’ve learned everything I need to know before we (don’t) go any further. Being unprepared reflects poorly— either you’re not interested, too busy, disorganized, or all of the above. Harsh? Yes, but goes back to that first impression.

Go Easy on the Critique 

That first call with a potential client always walks a tightrope: You want to show your value, but too much feedback or criticism can backfire. For instance, when the gig is to rewrite website copy, I don’t trash the current site since the person I’m speaking with may have approved it, or worse yet, wrote the copy. I let the client lead the conversation. One vendor suggested I get rid of my blog, even though I told her it was part of my marketing strategy. Another commented that it was a “red flag” when I told her I was busy and might be delayed in getting back to her sometimes. (Ironically my red flag was  her saying that.)

Gig First, Money Second

No consultant wants to waste time on a job that is not in his or her price range, including yours truly. But it’s not the first question that I ask about a contract. Sure, it’s in the top three but we’ll get to the money soon enough. One email exchange with a vendor ended the job before it even started when he relayed his minimum project amount (which was over my threshold). It reminds me of that famous quote from former supermodel Linda Evangelista back in the ’80s: “I don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day.” It’s not always wise to reject a gig outright before you have all the info. What if this work leads to bigger and better projects? Or I can introduce you to others that can hire you? Don’t close a door before you know what’s behind it.

Follow Up the Right Amount

We’ve all been there, even for a 9-5 job: You have that first call, everything goes great, and now you have to gauge when to check back in. You want to show that you’re interested but not appear desperate. There are no hard and fast rules, but do something (unless you don’t want the work). Several vendors followed up at the right cadence; one even sent me ideas for potential design directions. Another vendor’s proposal didn’t come through due to an internet service glitch, which I only found out by contacting her. On the flip side, there can be toooo much communication. One vendor asked me to fill out a lengthy questionnaire before our call, even though I told her we were having an intro chat (she then shrunk the meeting invite to a measly 15 minutes). Unsurprisingly, that didn’t go over well.

Chemistry Matters

Like most relationships, that first call is a microcosm of what’s to come in the future. Did you have a natural back and forth, or was it awkward and stilted? Did the person ask the right questions? Did you have anything in common? While being chummy is not a requirement to work together, a decent rapport and good communication are. You’ll be collaborating closely, so pay attention to how you relate to one another. Building a client relationship isn’t just about your expertise, it’s also the interpersonal dynamics. Both matter and are part of the hiring package.

Treat Referrals with Care

When someone gives me a referral, I am not only grateful, but well aware I have an inside track to getting the contract over some random vendor. But it’s also not a guarantee I get the gig either. I still have to put in the work to show you’re the best fit for the job. Of the referrals for my project, some weren’t right fit, which is to be expected. That’s why I extended the same respect to the them that I would want when I don’t get a job. After I made my decision, I notified the candidates and thanked them for their proposals. We all put time and energy into landing a gig, so don’t leave vendors hanging.

In the end, I followed my gut from first impressions: I chose someone that I thought had the right mix of skills, clearly wanted the work, came with good references, and seemed reliable. Hopefully my next blog post won’t be another cliché: “Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover” 😆

photo credit: Frabz.com

 

Blogger Commitment Extraordinaire: An Interview with Larry Cuban

 

X9PSO6cF_400x400I’ll come right out with it. My Dad, Larry Cuban — Stanford emeritus professor, former high school teacher, district superintendent, and prolific author on education — is the epitome of writing discipline: he’s been cranking out blog posts two times a week for nine years…yes, almost a decade.

I wanted to find out how he does it, to inspire others to start on their blogging journey, and to motivate bloggers already in the trenches (including his own daughter👩‍💻).

Tell me a bit about your blog.

It’s called Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice. I aim for 800 words for each post, two times a week. I have at least one point I want to make. I use lots of examples to back up the point, and then I take a position on it.

What specific topics do you cover?

Because it’s education and includes both policy and practice, it gives me a lot of latitude to write about what I want — from state and federal policy to school reform to classroom lessons. Education is so connected to other institutions in our society so it’s easy to also analyze business, the practice of medicine and teaching, and other similar topics. I try to make connections between things, it makes writing more challenging and interesting.

How do you find blog post ideas? Do you have an editorial calendar?

I am always reading a lot of books, newspapers, magazines, other peoples’ blogs, and a lot about corporate, medical, and governmental practices. Ideas just kind of get married to one another, and that to me is exciting. I don’t have an editorial calendar but I do have some regular sections on the blog. There is a monthly feature on education cartoons with different topics, for instance, how teachers and kids use digital tools, and an intermittent post I call “Whatever happened to..” about past innovations and popular school reforms over the ages, like teaching machines and phonics. I also do an anniversary blog post every year thanking readers and featuring annual blog stats.

Do you ever run out of topics?

Ideas don’t always come to me. Sometimes I’ll ask others to do a guest post. Other times I’ll recycle posts and update them with a new opening and closing. Then there was that “Poems about Education”… not such a big hit. Readership dropped. Not doing that again.

I still marvel at the fact that you write twice a week. How the heck do you do it?

That’s a complicated answer: One, I like to write. Sometimes you hear blogging is passé but I find it very invigorating intellectually. I like to take ideas that I have and convert them into prose that gives me a chance to express myself. Secondly, the blog is a vehicle to teach others. I’m highly motivated to share because I think my ideas matter and give me a form of teaching. Teaching has been a major part of my life.

What advice would you give to would-be bloggers, or those in need of a writing adrenaline shot?

Ask: Who is your audience? Once you have an audience, read other blogs you admire and try to figure out an angle that gets at what you want to communicate. It’s important to always have a hook. Also, have the self-confidence that what you’re saying matters to the audience. Last but not least, make a commitment to try to do it for at least year. Writing, revising, and editing is hard work but very satisfying when you push that button “publish” and hear from readers.

 

 

 

Five Questions for the Freelancer

Becoming-a-Freelance-Article-Writer-1170x731It’s National Small Business Week! That got me thinking about the friends, colleagues, and random folks who ask me questions about running a freelance biz. So here they are, in no particular order.

Is it hard to start a business?

Yes and no. You can make it as easy or complicated as you want. If it’s just you and you’re working out of your home office, it’s pretty straightforward.  If you’re going to be setting up a remote office, doing tons of promotion, etc. you’re taking on more at the get-go. But you will need to do the essentials, like a DBA (if you’re naming your business), a business license, biz cards (yes, I still have one and I use it), any necessary office equipment, a simple website, and an accounting and expenses program. I also recommend that you put aside a healthy chunk of money in the bank before go out on your own. When I started out in 1999, I cashed out stock at my prior company, which helped with startup costs and slower times. Which leads me to the second question I get.

Don’t you worry about getting business?

Fact: If you’re not concerned where you’re next job is coming from, you shouldn’t be in business for yourself. Even when I have the steadiest of gigs, jobs can end ANYTIME and sometimes do. Or last for years. Change of personnel, budget cuts, and other factors can turn on a dime. There’s always an element of risk. Some months I’ll have tons of work and leads, and others can be dry as a bone. There is also the investment of time to get a contract and it doesn’t always pan out. That’s why it’s critical to stay sharp, focused, and consistently be on the hunt for your next gig. I attend networking events, actively search on Linkedin and job lists, and put out the word to my network. It’s a constant cycle and requires a certain tolerance for risk. This is the beauty and the beast of having your own business. Embrace it or stick with 9 to 5.

How do you decide how much to charge?

That is the $64,000 question and an enigma wrapped in a quagmire. There are standard industry rates for many freelancer roles, but other factors go into deciding how much to charge. Here are some criteria I take into consideration that can push a rate up or down: Is it long-term or short-term opportunity? Is it with a cool company I want to get on my resume? Is it a startup that doesn’t have a lot of cash, through an agency, or a big corporation? Is it on a really interesting project that I’ve never done before and can use as a new type of work sample? Ultimately, I have to feel that what I’m being paid is fair, otherwise it will cause resentment on the job. Know your market worth and it will make saying yes and no a lot easier (remember to stash some cash too!).

What time do you get up? 

This is the most annoying question I get. There is this persistent image of the freelancer waking up at 10am grabbing some coffee, watching daytime talk shows or binging Netflix, and then eventually working for an hour in the afternoon. This is only on Fridays. Kidding. Truth is we don’t get paid unless we work, so there is high motivation to sit at the desk, co-working space, or couch and get sh*t done. We can make our own schedule since we know the deadlines, but many of us work strange hours, or weekends. Conversely, we’ll also have those slower times regular employees don’t. That’s when we can grocery store or run errands or schedule lunches during the day — but sorry to burst your bubble — a life of luxurious relaxation this is not.

Would you ever go back to a full-time job?

I tried that once in 19 years and not long after, I was back in the freelancer’s chair. Once I had a taste of that freedom, I didn’t want to go back. Sure it’s nice to get a regular paycheck, benefits, etc. but there’s another price to pay, and for me, it’s a lifestyle choice. I love picking and choosing the jobs that I want, meeting new and interesting clients, and learning new products. And if the the gig turns out to be a disaster, I can walk away, relatively unscathed. Of course I still do my fair share of griping about the contracting lifestyle, but in the end, I’m in the fly solo zone  — and that’s exactly where I want to stay.

What other questions do you wonder about? Freelancers: what are some of the common questions you get? What did I miss?

 

 

5 Ways to Make the Best Use of Your Freelancer’s Time (and Your Money)

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Big companies. Small companies. Startups. I’ve worked with all of them as a contract marketer and writer over the past almost two decades. They all have one thing in common: no standard way to work with freelancers.

How could they, though? There is no rule book or baseline. Based on my own experience, here are some practices I’ve learned that will always make financial sense that next time you bring in the contractor.

Start Work on Done Deals

Change happens. It’s a natural part of any project. However, some deliverables are more “dynamic” than others (See, I told you I was in marketing). If your project is in a state of flux, halt the contractor until the work is on lock down. Why waste everyone’s time and money on something that isn’t rock solid? I had a client for years that was hurry-up-and-wait on every project. I would block my time, work just a wee a bit on the project, release the time, rinse and repeat. Finally, this year, I decided 10th time’s a charm and became “too busy” for the work. Sad but true.

Don’t Use Contractors For Internal Processes

I would hazard to guess that 99% of freelancers despise administrative work (it might also be half the reason we left corporate America). Put it this way: We hate bureaucracy more than your average bear. Filling out forms, chasing people down, and working through internal systems… lots of work and little payoff for everyone involved, including whoever is tasked to explain everything to us and get us up to speed. Here’s a better idea: Assign those tasks to an employee that can do it faster and at less cost. It’s not the “not my job” thing but “doesn’t make sense” thing.

Think Before You Meet

Ask yourself this question first: Does the freelancer really need to be in on this meeting? If it’s essential for background, introductions, or a working meeting, then by all means yes. If it’s a nice-to-have or a routine team check-in that doesn’t involve our work, leave us out. Reminder: You are charged for each hour that we log. Even if it’s a project fee, put that time to good use. We could be focusing on your deliverables instead. A positive trend I’ve seen the past few years is 30-minute meetings. Corporate America has realized that when you have less time, you’re more productive and get sh*t done.

Embrace the Brain Dump

One of the biggest learning curves for freelancers is ramping up on projects with new companies. As we gain more experience, we also become more adept at figuring things out quickly. Please help us along by giving us the scoop on everything: work background, org charts, and anything else that is going to help us do the work more efficiently. Clients often say “I feel like I’m overwhelming you” in a brain dump, but we’re used to soaking up new information up like a sponge, and want it — everything will make sense later. This should also include the lowdown on politics, where to tread lightly, etc. It’s not gossip; it helps us get the job done without incident, which in the end, makes everyone look better – including you the client.

Write the Job Down

Sounds simple, but it doesn’t always happen in the rush to “get the contractor in ASAP.” No matter what the timeline is, written roles will always trump the possibility of your freelancer misunderstanding his or her priorities. Whether it’s a formal job description or an email with a bulleted list, provide some sort of document. If and when new responsibilities get piled on, the scope can be reviewed for time and budget. Last year, I was provided cryptic one-word answers to the role I was taking on, and sure enough, it ended up being a hodge-podge of tasks. That was my bad, but as contractors, we always learn new lessons, no matter how long we’ve been doing it!

On any new contract, both the client and consultant are  responsible for a successful project — but it will be the client who leads the consultant down the path in a straight line instead of falling into expensive potholes all along the way.

 

7 Changes I Made to My Freelance Business in 2017 (That I Won’t Regret in 2018)

2018   

As a freelance marketer for almost 20 years – many aspects remain constant – but 2017 wasn’t that year. Shifts happened in the way I do business – some of them painful and others enlightening. Maybe it was changing priorities, collective consulting experience, the political climate, or all three – but it happened and I’m grateful for it going into 2018.

#1 Don’t Hide Behind Your Brand

With Trump in office, many big brands decided took a stand – even us little “guys” (and women) got in on the action. Whether it was his immigration policy or slashing national monuments, I was inspired to express opinions on Twitter interspersed with my normal dose of industry content. I questioned: Should I be tweeting negative things about the administration? Should I open a pseudonym account? After all, personal branding 101 would advise that you put your “best self” forward, not necessarily your “true self.” But in these dangerous times, it was more important for me to be human than to worry if potential clients would be turned off by my views.

#2 Good Riddance to Client Drama

This year, after a short stint, I walked away from one of my all-star worst clients at a well-known Silicon Valley company. It wasn’t easy.  Yes, I was very unhappy there, but in the past, I would have gone through rigorous mental gymnastics to make a difficult situation work. But this past year I decided life is too short to spend time with difficult people. Of course, I’ve had occasional lively discussions with clients over the years, but when a person is downright unpleasant on a regular basis, it time to move on – no amount of money is worth it. Severing ties is a hard pill to swallow financially and emotionally, but it’s also liberating knowing there are always new clients I haven’t met yet. 

#3 Don’t Get Distracted by Shiny Objects

AI. Chatbots. Self-driving cars. Bitcoin. Fintech. Sound familiar? Of course, these are important and trendy tech topics that dominate the daily headlines. Last year, I spent too much time reading sexy articles that have little to do with my work. While interesting for conversations and increasing my general knowledge, I now focus more effort on content that benefits my clients and business. That time investment has much higher ROI than learning about the latest fashion-forward wearable.

#4 Take More Work Chances

Speaking of shiny objects, in the past I would have said “no” to contracts out of my wheelhouse. This year, began saying “yes” and in the process, also became more open to change. Learning about new industries like cannabis testing, management consulting, and solar energy got my brain neurons firing overtime and fueled new work interests and ideas. I now have new expertise and fresh confidence that I can take with me when another client comes along in one of these fields, or for something completely new. 

#5 There is No “Free” in Freelancing

Let me explain. This past year, I interviewed for a communications gig at an older, well-known tech company looking to reinvent itself. As I moved through the interview process, I was told no candidate had yet met their criteria as the “purple unicorn,” (that should have been my sign that something was amiss). Soon thereafter, the potential client wanted me to write an article on their product as another step to get the contract. I declined and ended the opportunity. Why? I had delivered a range of writing samples to demonstrate my credibility as a freelancer. At this point in my career, the work should speak for itself. If it doesn’t, I’m not a good fit for the role. This is not meant in a “cocky’ way, it’s that I have the confidence in my skills, and so should my clients.

#6 Give Yourself a Work Check-Up

Freelancers rarely (to never) have the luxury to sit down and develop a business plan or ask hard the questions like: What could I be doing better to service my clients? Am I networking enough? Is my online content full of digital cobwebs? We often to get so focused on clients, we neglect our own business needs. Working on improvements requires extraordinary self-discipline, especially when you’re busy, but it’s also a necessity. For 2018, I’ve identified several business areas to tackle and incremental action plans to get there. Baby steps are better than no steps.

#7 Say Yes to Vacations or Staycations

It’s widely known that freelancers often plan their time around clients and don’t proactively plan vacations. When we do have time off, it’s typically a slow work cycle (in which case we’re not working so shun spending money). Instead, I took advantage of unplanned time off a few months ago with a last-minute vacation to South America (thank you 85K travel miles). It’s easier said than done when you have bills to pay, but breaks help recharge your creativity and readiness to conquer the business world.

Whether it’s a mid-life crisis, personal growth goals, or other transformations, listen to the voice and follow your gut. Though sometimes difficult, embrace these shifts and you’ll be a better and happier consultant (and person) because of it.  After all, the only thing that is constant is change.