Let’s face it: the economy is really challenging right now. To review: We have a teetering economic system that’s been reeling from a severe housing crisis (caused by a combination of greedy investment bankers and gullible homeowners); we have an unemployment rate that seems to be permanently floating just above 9%; we have companies shipping jobs overseas by the truckload (especially to China)–and that’s across just about every single manufacturing sector.
This past weekend, my company sponsored Betascape, a conference focused on the intersection of art & technology. One of the speakers was my good friend, Jan Baum, who has been working her tucas off to launch Towson University’s new digital fabrication lab. Jan’s talk focused on how digital technology is allowing artists and designers to rapidly prototype and produce new works that were entirely impossible before. She talked about a lot of things, but one thing that stuck with me was that these technologies are enabling new business models.
And that sparked an even more interesting discussion with my friend, Gayle Carney, founder and executive director of the Center for Technology Services, about how underserved communities are not introduced to technologies such as Jan’s digital fabrication lab. In fact, it’s often not an issue of lack of access, but rather the issue is that no one talks to them about the possibilities that technology can hold–as a producer.
One of the strongest narratives in American culture has become that we are a society of consumers. Today, that is a narrative that needs to be reversed. The US was founded with a DIY attitude that says build it if it doesn’t exist. That says we can work to solve our problems through innovation–not consumption.
With the economy in the shape its in, we have to realize that economic structures that created and fostered a strong middle-class (which is needed for strong consumption) no longer exists–at least not in the sense we are used to. We have to realize that the jobs of the future are jobs we create ourselves. In other words, in a world where job opportunities are shrinking rapidly–we need to create them ourselves. More importantly, we need to work with the working poor and teach them how to be entrepreneurial, how to create their own jobs, and how to carve their own future. It’s not going to be achieved by working hard. It may not even be achieved by going to school (especially because our education system is in such disrepair). It’s going to be achieved by putting the tools such as a digital fabrication lab into their hands. We have no choice, unless creating a class of citizens who are permanently unemployed is an option. Which it shouldn’t be.
That’s what one boss once told me as the reason why I shouldn’t be included in new business pitches. According to this boss, you have to be a bullshitter to really sell marketing . According to this boss, you have to simultaneously butter up, suck up and tell the client exactly what they want to hear in order to win their business. And according to this boss, I didn’t have that. I am not a bullshitter.
And he was right. I don’t like lying to people. I don’t feel comfortable sucking up to the, or even stretching the truth. I prefer to be up-front, tell people the truth–even if it’s not what they want to hear. Since starting my business, I’ve always sought to be open and honest. Tactful, of course, but not selling something I don’t believe.
Unfortunately, I’ve had a few experiences recently where perhaps the client was looking for more bullshit than I was able to provide. According to some feedback I received, I did not project enough confidence in these circumstances. Although I didn’t feel that was the case, I can understand where I could’ve been more inspiring. In another situation, I failed to make the case that what we were offering was a high priority, or a necessity. But, perhaps in these situations I didn’t believe in what I was saying–deep down inside. And apparently that came out. Because I’m not a bullshitter.
It’s hard to look at these situations and not feel like I could’ve performed better. After all, there’s always room for improvement. I’m just wondering, would I have accomplished what I wanted to if I were a if I were a “bullshitter?” I’d like to think the answer is that it doesn’t matter. I’m hoping that it doesn’t matter. I’d also like to think that I can achieve what I want to–without bullshit. But clearly, some clients need it. Too bad I don’t have any.
I must profess: This American Life is the most amazing media outlet that exists today. Period. The stories are moving, insightful, fun, and educational in a gentle way. I love TAL so much, that I listen to it at the gym. I listen to it when I go for walks. I listen to it when I’m on a long drive in the car. In fact, one of the few times I don’t listen is when it normally airs (I love technology).
Anyway, I went for a walk today and listened to about 1/3 of this fantastic episode from August 12th.
It’s the story of a young man who grew up loving amusement parks, and is now a manager at one. If you want to see what passion for a job looks like, look at this guy.
For example, he does this great training videos:
The guy has one of the hardest jobs ever: managing teenagers. And he does it. Flaw-less-ly.
One of the hardest things to do at times is being enthusiastic, and revving up your employees. But revving them up is only part of the story. What makes this guy so great is that he also empowers his employees while also setting boundaries. His incentives are in line with the amusement park’s brand, which makes it all so darn perfect.
It really got me wondering: How am I going to empower (and rev up) my employees?
A lot of motivational speakers will tell you to do what you love. Some make it seem like it’s just that simple step towards being “happy.” Others don’t sugar-coat it as much, reminding their audiences that even if you’re doing what you love, you often have to work incredibly hard to get what you want.
Either way, they’re only telling you half the story. It’s not enough to do what you love. You also have to do something constructive–something that contributes to society. By contribute, though, I don’t necessarily mean giving back or doing something that’s socially responsible (though those are certainly worthy pursuits).
What I mean is that you have to do something that produces something tangible. For example, I love drinking scotch. I don’t think I could make a very good living doing it, and I don’t think that drinking scotch is very productive (though certainly it is entertaining, at least to me). There is no tangible product created when I drink scotch (unless I drink too much, and I doubt anyone wants to touch that).
This begs the question: What is tangible in public relations? Some would argue that everything in PR intangible. But I drive traffic to websites. I help businesses convert visitors to customers. I help businesses engage directly with their audiences, and indirectly through blogs and mainstream media. For some of what I do, I think it’s a real challenge to show what tangible effects my company’s efforts have. There are ways to measure success, not all of it expressible as a tangible, monetary value.
Throughout my career, I’ve rarely chased money. Whenever I’ve chased money, I’ve only found myself coming up dissatisfied (more on that another time). While I’ve chased things I enjoy doing, I have more often chased things I want to do. The money has always come once I’ve figured out what it is I want. And sometimes, what I want is not what I love. And vice-versa.
For example, I don’t always want to work long hours, but I often do in order to get everything on my plate done. I certainly don’t love working long hours, but almost always, once a project wraps up, I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
And that is something that I both want and love.
Recently, a number of posts by some people I enjoy reading have decried the usefulness of television. Seth Godin recently wrote that ideas “don’t come from watching television.” In explaining how he writes three blog posts a day, Chris Brogran says that he doesn’t watch television (he also says he doesn’t spend time reading blogs endlessly). And a few articles I’ve read recently decry the amount of time children spend in front of screens, be they TVs, computers or iPhones.
While it’s true that we all face a massive amount of distractions these days, television is but one source of distraction. And it’s not all bad, either. Any medium–be it television, online video, websites, radio, Twitter, Facebook, etc.–has room for both quality and trash. They are but blank slates that allow us (to greater and lesser extents) to create realities. As consumers of media, how we choose to consume media makes the difference. What we do with the information, whether we choose to let it inform, educate or even inspire our lives is entirely up to us.
This might be oversimplification, but it’s a matter of using our time wisely and making smart decisions about what we consume. Moreover, it’s also a matter of finding the right outlet for our consumption. Personally, I would probably have not chosen to pursue a career in communications if it weren’t for The West Wing. Specifically, the show allowed me to imagine what it would be like to be a communications director, a press secretary or a strategist. Granted, I only became a communications director, and my career in politics was short-lived, but the show set me on course to become what I am today.
It’s true that TV, like other media, are designed to be consumed passively. But that doesn’t preclude our own ability to consume them actively, to take what we consume and use it to fuel our own imaginations and ambitions. In other words, how we apply our consumption matters matters more than what we consume.
One year ago, I walked off a cliff. More like jumped off. I left the comforts of a job that paid well so I could start Evolve Communications. When I started, I had a general idea of what I was getting into. I read a lot of business books, talked to a lot of other entrepreneurs and business owners, and tried to learn as much as I could about how to run a business.
One year later, I’m glad to say that I’m still learning things. Almost every day. Here’s a few things I’ve picked up along the way:
If you think you’ve made it, you haven’t.
Around the middle of Spring this year, I thought I had made it. I had been working really hard, had a few clients under my belt, and was starting to feel a little burned out. So, I stopped working as hard. What I forgot is that it generally takes about two months to land a new client (that’s from initial conversation to signed contract). So, by the end of May, I realized that I didn’t have a huge amount of work coming in. Whoops.
The truth is that you can never stop. You can take short breaks, but you need to keep the wheels of commerce moving.
Choose your priorities wisely.
When you own a business, you often have to juggle a lot of different balls simultaneously. Either it’s a full plate of clients, or it’s new business meetings, or it’s just making sure your business is healthy. There’s only so many hours in the day (unfortunately), and there’s a finite amount of work you can accomplish in that time. This is especially true if you provide service like I do, where you are billing for your time.
There’s a million more things I’d like to do to support my business, including more marketing. The truth is, though, I don’t see a huge need for more marketing. All my clients have been won by networking. I’m not saying this is true for every type of business, but in the marketing consulting world, it’s entirely about building relationships. That’s been my focus for the past year, and continues to be the focus of my business as it grows.
Push yourself past your limit. Then grow.
This is something I sort of knew going into the business, but it became even more apparent as I picked up more work. There were times where I’d worked past 2 a.m. for weeks on end. That sounds like a lot of work (it is), and might seem like a sign to hire someone. It isn’t. While there have been times where I wished I had an employee, I knew that it was financially untenable at the time.
Fortunately, I’ve grown past that. I now have a fantastic part-time assistant who is like a right hand to me.
The bottom line for anyone looking to go into business is that you have to absolutely love what you do–enough to deal with the parts you don’t love. I know I’m not the first person to say this. No matter what, there will be challenges. There will be ups and downs (hopefully more of the former). Keep an open mind. Be flexible. And most importantly: be creative.