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Is this the best way to accomplish our goals?

Have you ever tried to coach a team towards an end goal but failed? Either because you can’t get your point of view across or because the discussion gets sidetracked continuously into things that are not that important? 

I have tried to send documentation to be studied that points at the right solution. That did not work. 

I have tried to use my experience and authority to give them the best solution and move on to the implementation phase. That did not work either. 

I have tried allowing them to learn on their own and to figure it out eventually. That also did not work because of time constraints. 

And guess what the common denominator is to all the failed attempts? Me! 🙂

My thinking says: if they only had the right information, they would see things like I do. Unfortunately, that is not true. As I am discovering, each one of us sees the world through a different lens. Our views may be similar, but they will never be the same

Today I was studying Seth’s book “Stop Stealing Dreams.” And I was fascinated with how many ideas he can share, without giving any advice on what to do! And not only that, but almost every paragraph had me stop and ponder what was said. I could feel the cogs in my brain getting a good workout!

I had to digest the entire book to figure it out finally. And the answer is now simple and obvious. Seth asks a lot of questions, inviting the reader to think for herself!

And the most potent question was:

Is this the best way to accomplish (…insert goal here…)?

This question serves double duty:

1. It makes sure that we know and agree on what the goal is. If we don’t, we need to go way back in our discussion and check and decide on our goals again. 

2. Once we agree on the goal, asking “is this the best way” opens everybody’s mind to contribute in a focused way towards the goal. 

The key difference for me is that I no longer dish out my solutions but instead invite everyone to contribute. The best way that the group finds may be way better than what I had initially thought the correct answer was. We all learn, and we move forward together.

I will definitely give implement this one in my communication.

“I need help! I have a problem!” Syndrome

“I need help! I have a problem!”: I see a lot of emails with those titles almost every day. And in some cases, these emails are sent to public figures who may have large audiences. 

What goes through my head is this: 

“Does this person seriously think that their email will be picked out of the thousands and get a reply?”

And the answer is that probably yes, or they would not have sent the message in the first place.

For me, that is selfish thinking and selfish expectations. Especially for someone who has a broader audience, the email situation is asymmetric. There is way more incoming email than one person could possibly read, let alone send a response. 

And this also applies to social media communications.

I am writing this post here because I have seen a similar trend in the business world where people send messages asking for a job or offering their services to anyone who has a contact form on their website. 

These messages boil down to: “Hey, I am intrigued by what you do, can you hire me?” or “Hey, some nice content here, do you need SEO on the website?”

How would you feel if a stranger came up to you on the street and said that to you? Would they seem trustworthy? Would you think that they genuinely have your best interest at heart? Would you be eager to work with them? 

I understand that sometimes crises happen. I know there are situations where you desperately need to put food on the table and keep the lights on. But the problem is that everyone else also has their own issues to think about; they have their own story running in their head. The fact that you have a big problem, does not give you permission to but in and ask to be hired or offer a service that is not needed. It just creates friction and noise and lowers your chance to be seen as trustworthy

This shotgun approach has a math justification. It is free to interrupt many people in the information age and demand that they focus on my problem. So, the logic says, I just have to interrupt a lot of them, and eventually, I will get a hit! 

If you are doing this, how is it working for you? I bet that it’s not working very well.

The Alternative is to be generous and respectful.

Imagine that you are indeed about to approach a stranger in real life, not online, and you will see how face-to-face interaction changes the dynamic. 

None of the short meaningless pick-up lines would work. You would need to show genuine empathy and generosity. 

Being generous does not have to be about money. You can be generous with your time, attention, and emotional labor. Before you contact a potential lead, do read their about page, their social media activity. Get out of your head and your problems, and do your best to comprehend their story and problems. Once you feel you have seen the world through their eyes, only then you can go to them and say:

“Hey, I’ve been following your activity for a while, and I know a big launch is coming. Do you need any help with that? I am especially effective at creating and distributing flyers!”

If you were honest with your investigation and were paying attention, your lead was thinking or worrying about this issue. By mentioning it directly and specifically, you show that you care and that you’ve spent the time and the effort of getting familiar with their business and their problem. 

Do you see how this would set you miles apart from some just bombing with generic “I don’t care about you, please hire me” messages? 

The key to solving your problems is to help other people solve their problems first. 

Keep that in mind, when you send your next email or post your next message on LinkedIn. Are you selfish? Or generous? 

What does the client want?

Some time ago…

Some time ago, the conversation with a potential client would be something along the lines of:

“How can I help you?”

“I want a website to sell my products.”

“OK, great, this is a price and you’ll have in a month.”

A month later…

I’d show her the site, and the reaction would be: “Well, this is not even close to what I had in mind…”

I had to change the game and ask more questions 🙂

“What colors do you like?”

“Red and blue.”

“Great, and font wise?”

“I want something elegant, precise!” 

“For images?”

“Oh, something joyful and warm…”

“Excellent! This is the price; you will have the site in a month”.

A month later…

I’d show her the site, and the feedback is: “This red is not red enough, and now I realize the red and blue are a bad combination! Can we try yellow instead of blue? And the font is too girly for what I have a mind. We are going to need new images as well. The top one is ugly, and the rest don’t match the brant at all.”

Oh, the frustration.

At some point, I’ve spent two weeks back and forth, trying to nail down the shade of blue. That was a waste of my time and the client’s time!

I had come to believe that the clients don’t know how to communicate (I had a much shorter description for this). I had resolved that I would never even discuss with someone who could not write a technical specification that we can agree on, and that I could deliver. 

This decision blocked many customers, but more importantly, blocked important learning. 

The Breakthrough 

I was watching a video from Chris Do. He’s a designer who also teaches business, and I admire his style. To me, it feels like he is talking to me specifically. The kind of decisions you need to make in design apply in software and for anyone who uses creativity to solve a problem. But I digress. 

Back to the video. 

He was taking questions from the audience, and someone asked: “How do you deal with clients who don’t know how to communicate what they want?” Ah! The golden questions! I had the same struggle. I perked up, waiting for the knowledge to be bestowed on me. 

Chris looked into the camera, and you could tell that the question was really testing his patience. Hm… And he said: “How many times do I have to tell you that the good-communication is on you! It is your responsibility to help your client articulate her problem and then discover if you can help her.”

All the pieces began to fall into place in my mind. I suddenly understood that in blaming the client, I was not only asking the wrong questions, but I was not developing a critical communication skill. 

In the present time…

When a client wants to work with me, they better be ready for a ton of questions :). As someone jokingly said, they need to feel like they’ve been to the shrink after the first discovery session. 

Here is how the conversation might look like:

“I want a site that can help me sell my products.”

“Sure, that is something that I specialize in, but out of curiosity, what problem are you trying to solve?”

“Well, I need to increase my revenue, obviously”

“OK, that makes sense. How do you know that having a website is the best way to solve this problem?”

“I don’t know… everybody does it… what other options are there?”

“I am glad you ask. Before I can answer that, I’d need to know more about your business. It’s OK if I ask you a few questions?”

“OK…”

“At the moment, how do you generate your revenue…”

And this would go on for a while. 

In the end, what I need to know is:

– what is the biggest problem that this customer is facing 

– how can I help them discover this problem if they don’t know it

– how can I help them articulate their underlying needs 

– in the end, are we a good fit? Can I help her with what she really needs? Can she afford me? Do we like each other well enough to work together for a few weeks or months? 

And by the end, the client would also need to know

– how do I work

– can she trust me

– what is my price range

– what kind of a solution can she expect

– is hiring me the right choice for her

In Conclusion

Make sure you correctly diagnose the problem before you prescribe a solution. If the solution you’re thinking of is not the right one, you need to find out as soon as possible, not at the end of the process.

If you found value in this article, let me know in the comments below or on Facebook. This feedback will help me understand what to focus on in the following posts. 

Go create the New Paradigm today!

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face

The quote in the title belongs to Mike Tyson. And while I don’t condone violence of any kind, there is a lot of truth to that quote!

I read his quote in a business book a few days ago, and it was one of those things that have an after kick. Only after I got to the next page, I started to laugh at the very graphic explanation of an unexpected big surprise, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. 

Why was this so funny to me? 

It is funny because I am a big fan of plans and lists and thinking ahead and having a strategy. 

But more often than not, something happened along the way (the so-called “punch in the face”) that threw my plan out the window. It does not look funny in the moment, but looking back, it is pretty amusing. 

So what is the connection with web applications? 

To understand, let us look at another useful quote, the Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will!

This quote is a more pessimistic view of something that is statistically true: “If anything can happen, it will happen.” It does not matter if it’s good or bad, but since the bad one hurts, that’s what got captured in Murphy’s law. 

When you build a web application, you do your best to plan, to foresee potential problems, and avoid the common pitfalls. The more experience you have, the better your plan is, and the more future problems you can avoid. 

But here is the kicker: no matter your expertise, if something can happen, it will. And since there is no such thing as a perfect product, the inevitable will happen sooner or later. A surprise that does not fit into your carefully crafted plan. 

This idea is not an excuse to stop caring and stop delivering excellence. It is just a word of caution that humbling experiences await you/me in the future :).

The reason I enjoy Tyson’s quote more is because of the visceral feel to it. I rely heavily on planning and my past experience, so when the rug is swept from under my feet, that scares me. I have always managed to recover, eventually, but still, I am not looking forward to the unpleasant experience of free falling. 

However, I am told there is another way. And that is “falling with grace.” Accept that you cannot foresee everything and that the unexpected will hit you, and you will fall. But you can learn to fall with style, to fall forward, and to bounce back. 

My plan to deal with the unexpected is to have backups, a cash reserve that can come to the rescue of the project, and always keep in mind that: if something can happen, it will! I should add to that more practice in falling :D.

The Importance of the Value Conversation

All too often, when a person contacts you for a job, you’re eager to say yes and get started! 

I now know that this is backward. 

Instead of being eager to get started, the first step should be to determine if you and the potential new client are a good fit. 

They have money to spend, and you need the work, so you are a perfect match, right? Well, not so fast! 

Here is what is going to happen if you and your client are not a good fit:

– communication will not be clear

– because of communication issues, the scope of the project will not be clear

– because the scope will not be clear what you will deliver will be all over the place

– customer will not be happy, will ask for endless changes

– you realize that what you get paid does not even cover the costs to have this project delivered

– you will be resentful and being to doubt your career choice

Sounds familiar?

At the beginning of a transaction, the only power you have is to say “NO,” so don’t give that up with a quick “YES.” 

Instead, try to dissuade this person from working with you. This way, you get out all of the objections from the start. 

Why did they call you specifically? Why didn’t they go to our competitors? Do they realize that you are likely the most expensive option they have? 

These questions will uncover some fascinating information that you wish you knew before you started the project. 

If they are still talking to you, they clearly value your expertise over your competitors, and they understand that you will not do cheap work. If they are not talking to you anymore, realize you were not a good fit, and you were able to determine this in minutes instead of months.

Now it is time to determine what kind of value you can create for your customer. 

The vital thing to notice here that I said “determine value,” and not “solution.” We are not thinking of solutions yet. And for me, this was a big aha moment. 

Unless you know what is valuable for your potential client, you will end up creating stuff that is mediocre in their eyes, or “OK” at best.

Another distinction to be made here is to understand that sometimes you will be talking with someone who will spend not their money, but their bosses money. And in that case, the question if their mind is: “will my boss approve of this and like me more or not?

Ask a lot of questions, take notes, and reflect back to them what you understood they value about what they want to achieve. 

Example: creating a website is not a “value goal.” Asking more profound questions, you may learn they have a product they want to promote and eventually sell. And today, there are ways to get into that without having to have a website. The solution you will end up offering will be very different than what they asked before. And you only know this because you asked about value first and only then you thought of solutions. 

But there is another less obvious benefit for having the value conversation. You will take notes, and you will agree to deliver on the value points discussed. So when you ship your project, they will be delighted with the result, or you will have to show them how the solution meets all the agreed-upon value points. And even if they “don’t like it” for whatever reason, if it delivers the value you agreed on, then you kept your promise, and now it’s time for them to keep theirs.

And a trustworthy business or one that delights gets referrals. Everybody wins! 

Credit where credit is due: These ideas are a shameless steal from Blair Enns – Win With Pitching. I sincerely believe that the more businesses adopt the value discussion midset, we will all be better off. We will charge more for our services, but the client will be happy to pay because they get the value they were looking for, and now that is crystal clear to them. 

I am ending with a quote from Seth Godin: 

“Yes, you will pay more, but you’ll get more than you paid for.”

How do you find customers?

I know this is a burning question in the minds of many entrepreneurs and freelancers. 

I don’t have a “how-to” guide that will guarantee your success, but I would like to share my perspective because it is not just about getting more business, but also about creating a better world for everyone :). I also admit that what I about to share does not apply to everyone or every business model.

My first customer was my first employer. They were buying what I had to offer, my unpolished, raw programming skills fresh out of school. I did not like that customer, but they taught me a lesson: 

your customers should find you, rather than you finding them. 

It took me almost a decade to understand it, though. 

My second customer was my second employer. But this time there was a big difference. They called me, and I had to decide if I wanted to work for them, not the other way around. They had already decided they wanted me there.

This may seem like luck, and that is what I also thought for a while. But it happened again with the third employer. And after that, I stopped being an employee and became a freelancer. And the people I work with today found me. 

It wasn’t until I read about inbound marketing that I understood what was going on. And that, in fact, luck was just a part of it, and maybe not the most significant part. 

What I was not doing was not sitting around, waiting for clients to call. I was continuously working. Either to improve my skill or to generously solve other people’s problems. 

When I began my freelance work, I’ve spent the first two years doing volunteer work. And they have been the best years. In those times, I would only do work that was profoundly satisfying to me. And I discovered how nourishing it is for the soul to be able to choose the people you are working with or working for. 

To paraphrase Seth Godin, the way to get clients is to do work that matters for people who care and to do so generously.

Can you run a business and not talk to anybody?

At my core, I am a computer nerd. I am excellent at talking to computers. Not so much when it comes to other human beings.

For a long time, this was the only thing I would do. I was the happiest when I got the project specs on paper, so I could read them and implement them, by myself.

But when I decided to become a freelancer, I realized that I had to talk to other people. I had to talk to the people I wanted to serve about their goals and their vision, but also about money. There were times when I knew had to say “no,” but I couldn’t. There were times where there was a conflict that had to be resolved through better communication.

I wish I could say there is an easy “how-to guide” to learn to communicate better, but there isn’t. I just had to practice — one awkward conversation after the other.  

And it is still hard at times. Especially when I need to make a change in how I price things, or in the terms of the engagement. 

So why go through all this trouble and stress of learning to be a better communicator?

Although it seems obvious now, here is the lesson I resisted the most: to find clients and to keep finding better clients, you need to learn to communicate. There is no way around this. 

You need to know how to tell your story compellingly; how to communicate your pricing and how to negotiate in your favor. You need to be able to use your conversation skills to determine how you can best create value for your clients. And, in some cases, you need to know how to let some clients go. 

By avoiding communication, I would frequently make wrong assumptions about what was valuable for my client, and that would jeopardize the relationship and the project. 

If you don’t learn to communicate better, you will have to let someone else do the talking, write the copy on your site, create the video, and tell your story. And even if they do a good job, they are not you :). You will continue to depend on someone else. It will be comfortable, but you will be limited to your view from the “back seat.”

If you are still not convinced then maybe this will shake you up a bit (as it did me): 

“The better communicator will determine the price.” 

A business-savvy website should consider money, and therefore price. And you can spend a lot of time and money optimizing the technical bits, but if your communication is off, your success will be limited.  

I will end this post with a book recommendation. It is the most expensive book I’ve ever bought, but it’s worth every dollar: Pricing Creativity by Blair Enns. Don’t think that if you don’t work in the creative business that this book does not apply to you. It does! And it is all about communication.

A gorgeous website is different from a GOOD website

Can over-designing things become a problem?

We like pretty things. I get that.

We like the restaurant to be clean and inviting. Easy to understand.

But where do you draw the line? Where do you find a balance between pretty and functional?

I struggle with finding this balance my work. I want to use data to make a decision and not just my gut feeling.

I am a computer nerd. I design software, I write code, and I take pride in my work. But I am often faced with this dilemma:

Should I invest more in software design or graphic design when working on a project?

Nobody will use a pretty app that is not working.

I think we can all agree on that.

At the other extreme, some people will use an ugly app because it solves a big problem reliably.

But I want to do better and find some middle ground.

Good software design improves stability and performance. Makes maintenance easier, thus reducing the costs.

Good graphic design makes the user experience more comfortable. Reduces the learning curve and makes your application more widespread.

So how do you split your budget? Is it 50/50? Or should you focus more on performance, for example?

The more I think about this, the more I realize that your target audience is the one that will dictate what your focus should be.

If you have software that helps people to solve a big problem, probably nobody will care that it is ugly, not intuitive, and incredibly awkward to use. If they are desperate for a solution, they will accept one, no matter how it is delivered.

On the other hand, if you are talking about a game with bubbles… well those need to be some pretty bubbles to keep the audience engaged. In the case of games, you are not after a solution; you are after an “experience of play.”

How does this apply to websites?

I guess if your offer solves a significant problem, you can be forgiven if your site’s design is still from the 90s. But if there is a lot of competition, then a good design may help you stand out.

And this word “may” is where the problem comes in for me. How can I quantify it in terms of a website goal? It is intuitive to think that a good design will increase sales, but you also need to know how much? You need to have some idea of how close you will get to your end goal, so you know how much you are willing to invest in that good design.

Designers are very excited to make things pretty, to make them pop, to make them unique. And I understand that. You are making art, and you want it to be beautiful. But is it really useful?

I fall into this trap myself with software when I over-design something just for the pleasure of creating a “perfect design.” But in the end, that does not benefit the client all that much. There are so many examples with people doing very well, by using poorly designed tools.

They’re also amazing designs, both software, and graphic, that nobody uses.

To help make this decision more comfortable (and profitable), I’d like to know a way to quantify the benefits of excellent graphic design. Any thoughts?

WordPress and the Email Problem

Have you ever had a WordPress site and your outgoing email was just getting sucked into some kind of black hole, never to be seen again?

I have discovered through experience that this is very common. And the problem is not with WordPress, it is actually with your hosting provider.

The only reason WordPress seems to be the most affected it is because it is so widely supported by hosting environments and that it is free. And not all of the hosting providers do a good job with delivering your email.

When your website is using what is called a “shared plan”, this means you share the server resources with other websites as well. And those websites may not be as friendly and ethical as you are. In fact, because it is free and so easy to use, there are many people who abuse the email feature of WordPress to send spam.

The easiest solution for the hosting providers, in this case, is to just block the outgoing email capability for everyone, including you!

This does not only affect shared plan users.

After 10 years or running an online business, and keeping an email quality score of 9+ out of 10, our email got suddenly dropped. We had a dedicated server, so we were not sharing our IP with anyone else. And we only found out of this problem because of our customers complaining about not getting their orders delivered. Yaiks!

Contacting support did not help. There was just a general reply that all outgoing email was now routed through a different grid and they were very strict in their rules. The problem was that everyone was treated the same: spammer or genuine business! And of course, the common rules were those applied to spammers. The good history and reputation of our business did not matter anymore.

Complaining did not help so I had to look for

Alternative solutions

There are two that I found:

1) Move to a different hosting that knows how to manage outgoing email well. At the moment of writing, the only one I can recommend is SiteGround.

2) Buy an outgoing email service.

I will focus on the second one because there are some mistakes I made and lessons that I learned.

Since we were used to having free outgoing email with our server, it did not make sense to me to get a paid service. So I just looked for companies who offered free email delivery if you stayed under a certain quota.

This plan backfired big time. Most of our email was sent all right, but it was going straight into the spam folder of most of our customers.

Out of the Spam Folder

The problem was that the free plan was again shared with other people who were in fact spammers.

It was time to do the math and it became obvious that we were losing a lot of customers because we could not communicate with them any longer. At this point paying for a high-quality outgoing email service began to make much more sense. Once I took the leap I had no regrets. The kind of tools you get with a paid service, and most importantly the deliverability, generated more than enough customers to cover the costs.

For an online business where it is important to stay in touch with your audience, it makes sense to have a paid email solution.

I have used SendGrid in the past and I was very happy with them. But I have moved to MailChimp because of their better automation and better integration with WordPress.

Some Technical Details

Correctly setting up outgoing email involves some technical details about DNS, MX records, DKIM, SPF and others. These are beyond the scope of this article, but if you need some guidance ask me in the comments section.

What is Value Based Pricing and Why should your business care?

If you hire me to do a website for you and it takes me 40 hours to do it, would you pay me $6,000 dollars? What if it takes me 20 hours? Should I charge only $3,000 because it takes less time and effort?

I used to think that indeed, if something takes less time to do, then I should charge less.

But there is a problem with this approach. Charging for time punishes me for being good!

As I have built many websites, I can work really fast, I have a lot of prebuilt components that I know how to integrate, and I can foresee and prevent a ton of problems. This means that I can produce a quality site much faster than a couple of years ago. But because I put less time into it I get less money for much better work. The better are more efficient I get, the less money I make.

Because of this conflict, there is always a counter pressure that says: “don’t work fast, don’t be efficient… because the slower you work the more you can charge the client”. When I charge for time-spent there is no incentive for me to deliver high-quality work fast, other than my personal integrity.

An alternative way is to do “value based pricing”.

This means that you should charge what is worth to the client, regardless of how much time or effort you put into it.

This may sound unfair to you. I know that was my first reaction! Just because I have more money to spend this means I should be charged more? That sounds like a rip off!

So let’s look at an example.

You have realized that you have more mobile users on your website than you used to. But your website is not mobile friendly! This means you are potentially losing a lot of customers.

After crunching the numbers you realize that if you got 10% of the mobile users to buy from you, you would double your annual revenue from say $200k per year to $400k. So that is an increase of $200k per year.

Do you think is fair to spend $20k to get that increase in revenue? That is 10%. I think it is fair. And there are people willing to spend 50% to get that increase because they will continue to generate the new revenue year after year.

So the question should not be how much does it cost, but rather how valuable is this to me and how much of that value am I willing to spend to get it? 10%, 50%, 80%?

Why would you spend 50% and not 10%? The answer is that spending more reduces the risk of failure. You know the saying “don’t spend a lot of effort to solve a small problem and don’t spend little effort to solve a big problem”.

Why is value based pricing important to your business?

The short answer is that it gets you to think on how you can add value, instead of how you can cut costs. There is no limit on how much value you can add, but you can only cut costs so much before there are no more ways to cut.

And when you think about value, instead of cost, you get clarity.

Here is what I mean. When a client wants to hire me to do something I try to work with them to determine the value of what it is they are trying to do. And in some cases, they realize that they were focusing on the wrong thing. They were willing to spend money on a change that did not actually add any value to their customers.

Thinking about value first made that clear and allowed them to make better decisions on how to serve their clients!

Credits

This post was inspired by Chris Do from TheFutur. Thank you, Chris!