I started freelancing in high school. Even though I didn’t really know it at the time, I’d started my own business at a time when most of my peers were applying for whatever jobs would work around their school schedules. Some how this experience has translated into an assumption that I know something about how to help younger entrepreneurs get a start.
I’m not really an expert in how to get kids to start their own businesses, but I know that I had a clear advantage: I surrounded by entrepreneurs from the day that I was born. The grand majority of my family run their own businesses. That translated into a very different approach to earning money than most of my friends had. I never automatically assumed that I needed to find a job to put money in my pocket. Part of that approach was a result of a long progressions of helping out with various family businesses as needed. There was always a relative who needed someone to handle a big data entry project or hand out flyers. — which may have lead directly to freelancing as an easy starting point.
One of the biggest advantages I’ve had in life comes from growing up around entrepreneurs. It’s an experience that business school just can’t replicate.
The Advantage of Growing Up in a Family Business
I’ve talked about the situation with other business owners and coming from a family of business owners does seem to normalize the idea of entrepreneurship, at the very least. Ashley Brooks had some seriously similar experiences. She comes from a similarly entrepreneurial background: “My grandpa started his own business and passed it on to two of my uncles; I have an aunt and uncle who own their own print shop; another uncle left his day job to start his own insurance company; and I have an aunt who’s done some freelance editing herself. People in my family just didn’t seem to do well with day jobs, and they were all extremely successful at their own endeavors. I never questioned that I could do it that way too.”
That last bit echoes one of my experiences. After spending enough time with entrepreneurs, especially those who you are related to, it becomes a lot harder to land and hold one of those day jobs that I’ve heard so much about. Part of it is sheer practicality: it’s hard to get results from resumes with big employment gaps or with a work history where your last name matches the sign on the door. But part of it is that, especially these days, it gets a lot harder to accept that you’ve got to do all your work between 9 and 5 or the whole world will fall apart. If I decide to do my work between 10 and 7, nothing truly dramatic is going to happen, but a lot of jobs assume otherwise.
Recognizing that there are options beyond that 9-to-5 grind can be incredibly difficult if you haven’t seen the alternatives in action. I’m a pain, constantly trying to help certain friends strike out on their own, but when I’m the only person who those friends know with a business of her own, I’m far less persuasive. Having people in your circle of friends and family who actually show that there’s not just one way to make a living is almost a necessity for someone who really wants to become an entrepreneur.
The Advantage of Not Having to Explain Yourself
One of the reasons that entrepreneurship is at least a little easier for someone who grew up in a family business or in a family of entrepreneurs is because those family members will generally be supportive of the idea of someone else in the family striking out on her own. Starting a new business is incredibly difficult. Starting one while listening to your family tell you that you’re crazy is much harder.
Only two of my family members have ever questioned my ability to launch my own business. It’s no coincidence that both of those family members have held a succession of day jobs and aren’t entrepreneurs themselves.
Don’t worry, though: I do get plenty of those concerned calls from relatives wanting to check up on particular aspects of how I run my business. My family doesn’t leave me concern-deprived, by any means. But, in addition to that concern, I get a bit of a pass when it comes to prioritizing my work over other parts of my life. Sure, the whole family would love to spend more time together — but most of us are realistic about picking which holidays to celebrate as a clan and which we’re each going to be open for business.
(That isn’t to say, however, that certain people can’t take that permissiveness too far. We all know which member of our family won’t make it to any family get-togethers because he spends 80 hours a week at his business.)
The Advantage of Seeming Perfectly Normal
Going back to those questions I get about how to encourage kids to take a look at entrepreneurship, I’ve got to say that the most important step is to make running your own business seem like the normal thing to do. Otherwise, you’re going to be in a situation where business ownership seems entirely aspirational — something everyone would like to do eventually but that is out of reach right now.
While I don’t have a ton of numbers to back me up, my experiences show that young entrepreneurs usually only emerge when they have friends or family who have also gone into business for themselves. Having a mentor who can provide advice on the nuts and bolts of running a business is part of the reason, but that’s not all of it. Knowing that your uncle, who has gone through four wives and shouldn’t be left alone with a six-pack, can run a business does a lot for making entrepreneurship really seem possible. It may even make starting your own business seem like a complete no-brainer.
In those sorts of circumstances, a kid may start thinking of her own future without quite as many constraints. While I went through quite a few potential career paths (I thought I was going to go to law school for quite a while), I definitely assumed that I would work for myself and wind up at the top of the food chain through most of my plans. Ashley seemed to have a similar experience, despite have somewhat more focused goals: “As for my entrepreneurial family, I guess I’d never realized how much it impacted my outlook on work until I graduated college. I knew I wanted to freelance way before it was the cool thing to do. When I was in 8th grade, I remember knowing that I wanted to be an editor, and I wanted to work from home on my own schedule.”
Family isn’t Everything for Encouraging Entrepreneurship
College tends to screw with an entrepreneur’s plans: while there are plenty of schools that put heavy emphasis on helping students, most schools are very clearly set up to feed students straight into jobs after granting those all-important diplomas. Both Ashley and I spent several months post-graduation applying to jobs that we didn’t particularly care for. Ashley was a lot smarter than I was: “Once I was in college, I adjusted my plan a bit: I assumed I’d work as an in-house editor for a few years to build connections before I struck out on my own. Long story short, that plan changed after I spent four months applying to jobs I wasn’t crazy about, for companies I didn’t care for, in locations that meant a long commute. I was already doing some freelance work, so I said ‘screw it’ and started putting all that extra time into building my business.”
I actually landed one of those jobs I applied for, took it, and then quit after a week and a half. I might have been able to stick out that particular job longer if I hadn’t had some freelance work already coming in, as well as a belief that I actually had to. But it was an awful job, in the way that many jobs immediately after college are, and I had no driving assumptions that the world had to be that way.
In fact, I was working off of assumptions that directly opposed the idea that I had to deal with a job that made me miserable. With freelancing, and even with the odd jobs I’d had both with family members’ businesses and assorted college departments, I’d had a pretty good time. I usually wound up doing work that I enjoyed, with people I enjoyed hanging out with. I’m not about to suggest that you should only do work that you’re passionate about, but I’d like to believe that we should all be able to find work that we either don’t dread every morning or that we get paid more than enough to make worthwhile.
But because I had that sense that I could be doing more, plus some real world business experience from my time in family businesses, and the belief that running a business just wouldn’t be that hard, I went whole hog into working for myself. I see my family background as a major advantage in that respect.
Image by Stock.xchang user Bubbels
Deep down, I’m always surprised when I can give someone a dollar and I get something back. Money — paper or plastic — doesn’t really seem like it should be worth anything. We’re all in on this giant unspoken conspiracy to agree that money will continue working and that we can exchange it.
But while we all do a good job of playing along, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about why the concept of money works. I read an interview with economist Neil Wallace that provides a little insight. I’m going to copy a chunk of the interview here (you can read the whole thing here. The TL;DR is that money is memory — a way to track and exchange favors more than anything else, but Neil Wallace says it better. ‘Region’, by the way, refers to The Region, a publication put out by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, which published the interview.
Wallace: Now think about Robinson Crusoe, after he meets Friday. They don’t need money, but again, there might be plenty of absence of double coincidences. Now think further. Here we are in the middle of Pennsylvania. There are lots of Amish communities around here. When they’re isolated, the usual story about an Amish community—or an isolated Israeli kibbutz—is that they didn’t use money.
Region: Trust was their currency.
Wallace: Well, that’s a word that Douglas Gale used, but it’s probably not the best word. Think about this Amish community. The vision is, if my barn burns down, then everybody will come and help me rebuild it. In economics, we try to rationalize behavior without altruism, if we’re able to; so what makes that work without altruism? Everybody notices who shows up to help rebuild it.
Region: A sort of credit accounting.
Wallace: Yes. And the guy who doesn’t show up, if he does that repeatedly, will get kicked out eventually. This can work without money because people remember what people have done in the past.
Region: So, money is memory.
Wallace: Yes, “money is memory” is a casual way to state that. Now, that’s a hugely powerful idea that I and other people have been working with.
Cryptocurrencies Are Just Memory, Too
The concept of ‘money is memory’ works surprisingly well when we think about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Effectively, every Bitcoin has a record of who mined it and who has held it since — not by name, but by an identifier that lets users be sure that a Bitcoin is a genuine piece of spendable currency. The unbroken chain of provenance lets everyone (at least those who use Bitcoins) agree that a particular Bitcoin is real and not fradulent.
That sort of memory of exchange shows, over and over again, that currency really is a series of shifting of obligations on to the next person. With a cryptocurrency that is essentially unbacked, the only way to get value back out of the money that you have somehow earned is to keep it moving.
Dogecoin is a cryptocurrency with a sense of humor. Based on the ‘doge’ meme (where pictures of a Shiba puppy are surrounded by broken English discussing something amazing, usually in Comic Sans), Dogecoin is similar to Bitcoin but worth far less at this point. A small community of users has sprung up, many of whom have started using Dogecoin as a way to tip people who are doing cool things online. On the Dogecoin subreddit, for instance, there’s now a tool to allow you to reward other reddit commenters with Dogecoins when they share something clever or useful.
Perhaps even more so than other currencies, Dogecoin’s use as a way to tip or otherwise acknowledge small bits of awesomeness reflects the real value of money as a way to trade memories. It’s a way to share a memory that is not quite big enough to be worth paying for — building a barn is a big memory, while sharing a witty comment on a link isn’t nearly as momentous. But even those tiny transactions will build up over time: on a site like reddit, a respected contributor has access to an audience. The same holds true for most websites. When someone consistently shares interesting things online, they’re rewarded with attention, which can lead in turn to financial benefits. Dogecoin tips just allow us to track smaller increments of memories.
The Long Memory of the Internet
It’s funny, in a way, that we have this sense of the internet as the elephant that never forgets: sure, technology has an awkward way of ensuring that your high school shenanigans you shared to Facebook will come back and bite you. But we’re talking about tools that are only a few years old — perhaps as old as a few decades if we’re going to include email — and that are already dealing with an overwhelming amount of data.
Yes, our collective memories are all online, including the ones we regret, but we’re already approaching a point where sorting through all the details is getting tough. What happens when Facebook actually has twenty years of your photos, updates, and likes? What about fifty years? Sorting through all that data to pull out value is going to make current big data efforts look rudimentary at best.
But having that data available also going to make the real value of memory clearer — and make sense of ‘money as memory.’ As we do business on a global scale, we need to be able to comparatively value products and services. Most currencies are essentially contextual: we know the local currency’s value within our day to day activities, but we can’t really guess what another country’s currency is really worth (and the whole idea that people get rich off of trading currencies can be downright scary). But with a shared currency, we can make financial decisions we trust on a global scale. We can trade the memory of painting a house in the U.S. into the memory of a meal in Argentina into the memory of writing software in Thailand.
Cryptocurrencies Aren’t Ready Just Yet
While I am enthusiastic about the concept of digital currencies, I haven’t jumped in — I’m certainly not one of those devotees who have committed themselves to using nothing but Bitcoin! That’s because Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies to a lesser extent, aren’t yet stable enough to truly act as a useful global currency. Over the course of 2013, a Bitcoin’s value had two zeroes tacked on to the end, going from $13.50 to well over $1000.
That sort of extreme variation makes it impossible to use Bitcoin in day-to-day business. Even if there were business owners willing to rely on Bitcoin (rather than to accept it as something of a novelty act), the fluctuations have led many users of the cryptocurrency to hoard their money, with the expectation that the value can only continue to increase. We’re essentially in the middle of a Bitcoin bubble — sooner or later, the whole thing is going to fall apart.
And that’s okay. Consider this a first go at the cryptocurrency learning curve. The first recorded fiat currency (currency backed by a government but not pegged to gold or silver) was in 11th century China. The situation fell apart pretty quickly, with the government printing more money and causing inflation. It took a couple of tries for fiat currency to work out. It’s going to take a couple of attempts for cryptocurrencies to work out the kinks. But in the long-term, there’s an incredible potential for the effectiveness of the concept of a digital currency.
Image by Flickr user dilettantiquity
I’m a big fan of public libraries. The sheer amount of time I’ve spent in libraries (including those I didn’t actually have a card for) makes every library feel a little like home.
While I love wandering through the stacks, I’m comfortable with how the best libraries firmly embrace technology. As long as there is still a librarian around who can direct me to the next great novel I need to read or tell me how to find that incredibly obscure fact I need for an article, I don’t care if that librarian points me to an ebook, a website or a physical book. That’s because one of the greatest values librarians provide is that of curation — without an expert, it’s hard to navigate the giant piles of both data and stories the human race has managed to produce. In fact, my experience of wandering the stacks is not universal: many libraries require readers to request a book from a librarian or through an automated system. That in turn means that readers must know what books they need, which makes curation ever more necessary.
With that in mind, there seems to be an opportunity for libraries to take their position as curators a step further: why don’t libraries publish ebooks?
I don’t mean actually printing books, mind you. I’m talking about finding material, editing it and releasing it online in a digital format. Libraries can act as small presses, releasing publications only in electronic formats.
Let’s Talk Problems First
I pitched the idea to a friend of mine who is a librarian and the whole conversation got pretty excited very quickly — the idea has a lot of appeal, at least to those of us who nerd out on information sciences. We did manage to make a couple of passes at what the big problems are going to be for the average library considering whether to start publishing ebooks.
On the most basic level, resources are always a problem. Libraries are typically non-profits or governmental departments. As organizations, libraries aren’t exactly known for having giant piles of cash to throw at experiments. Many libraries have a hard time keeping the doors open. In theory, at least, publishing some ebooks could bring in revenue for a library, but building that revenue stream is going to take upfront investment, at least of time.
I’d like to say that running an ebook publishing house — especially at the small press level — is easy enough to do. After all, I’ve published a stack of ebooks without any special training. But while it’s easy to get started publishing online these days, it’s also incredibly easy to get into trouble. Copyright law, for instance, is so arcane that most people just throw up their hands, rather than trying to figure out how it works. The average small library isn’t going to have an intellectual property lawyer on staff and also lacks the resources necessary to handle any sort of copyright lawsuit.
But these seem to be the biggest problems that a library interested in publishing ebooks faces. They’re at least as manageable as raising the funds for new buildings, which libraries have to do on a somewhat routine basis.
Libraries Can Win at the Publishing Game
The average library actually has some resources that put such institutions ahead of typical self-publishers, if not many small presses.
The biggest asset most libraries possess is that they already employ librarians — a class of workers who absolutely have to be tech-savvy to hold a job. The need for technology is not something new for librarians: my grandmother was one of the first people I knew who had an email address, because she had to have one in the early Nineties as part of her job as a university librarian.
Digitizing records (a routine process in many libraries) requires many of the same skills as setting up an ebook. Anyone who can handle the necessary technology to operate a local library is going to be able to learn at least the basics of publishing ebooks online.
Digitization represents an additional benefit: any organization that bothers with making electronic copies of paper documents (and other non-digital records) sees at least some demand for those records. The typical library owns collections of materials that people are interested in accessing, such as family history records and local information, as well as the personal papers of local notables and other documents that sneek into the backrooms of any such institution. Just creating ebook versions of such records could at least support the necessary efforts to preserve such documents. Given the people willing to pay to travel to the areas their families once lived in, I can’t imagine that family tree researchers wouldn’t be willing to pay for curated local records in digital format, especially if they can’t travel to the library in question.
Build From the Local Community
My local library district offers books and other media. But the individual libraries are also crucial parts of the community because they have meeting spaces and even arrange for certain types of experts to speak. That sort of tie makes the idea of ebook publishing even more appealing, at least in my mind.
Having community ties means that a library has supporters it can rely on for the funds and volunteer power necessary to build a publishing program, as well as a built-in audience that may want to purchase ebooks (rather than just checking them out temporarily from the library). But given that many writers’ groups meet at their local libraries, there’s a lot more opportunity there: libraries can work to curate the local writing available, helping the community publish its own works and accessing writing with a local bent.
Local authors always need evangelists, like the librarian or bookstore owner willing to take the time to set up a ‘local author’ display. Librarians can be champions for their communities on a whole new level in this little thought experiment. On a certain level, the idea of libraries publishing ebooks makes me think of the monastaries that housed libraries and scriptoriums before printing presses made wide-spread publishing an option. Librarians in those days might have effectively decided what books would continue to exist by choosing which would be copied. They curated the information important enough to be preserved for their communities. Today, just about any piece of information can make it into a format where it will be preserved, but we need curators to decide which pieces are important enough to be read — a purpose that libraries are uniquely suited for.
What Libraries Need to Get Started Publishing
Libraries, as a general rule, have some sort of fundraising mechanism already in place. There are similar systems for finding volunteers. I’m not going to suggest reinventing those particular wheels.
But there are some specific resources that the average library will need to recruit. These could be resources that the libraries in question pay for or they could be provided by volunteers.
- A graphic designer: While it’s possible to format and publish an ebook with nothing more than the word processing program already on your computer, it’s always easier to sell an attractive package.
- A copyright expert: Just having someone review proposed book contents to make sure that a library has the right to publish the necessary material will save a whole lot of trouble. I don’t know how in-depth that process needs to be; it would be nice to have an intellectual property lawyer weigh in on the question.
- A commitment to some specific ebook formats: Ebook publishers spend a lot of time chasing each other’s tails on what formats to publish in. I’m not prepared to make that sort of decision for anyone, but I’m personally banking on Kindle and PDF for most projects.
- Marketing help: This one is probably the toughest. Libraries have great local audiences, but promoting anything beyond those nearby groups will be hard. If the money’s available, spending some on marketing help is going to be one of the most useful investments.
I could see a startup or even a non-profit creating a turn-key solution for libraries interested in publishing their own ebooks (if you decide this is an idea you want to pursue, email me so I can introduce you to my librarian friends). I could also easily see a few consultants popping up who offer to parachute in and teach a ‘publishing for librarians’ program (ditto).
Personally, there’s a whole stack of books my library could publish that I’d be happy to slap down some virtual dollars for. I’d love to be able to support local authors and local libraries at the same time. I’d like to think that people who don’t spend quite as much time in libraries as I do would be willing to do the same.
Image by Flickr user Saint Louis University
When writing blog posts, particularly for clients without a budget for images, I rely heavily on the kindness of strangers — those strangers who post their photographs to Flickr under one Creative Commons license or another. I’ve been known to get downright snooty about how carefully I search out the images I can legal use; it irritates me to no end when someone tries to tell me that they can just use any image they find online. But while I have my nose in the air, I also feel a bit hypocritical: I’m not contributing images back to the Creative Commons pool that other people can use for their own projects.
Photography isn’t my passion; I mess around with Instagram and other photo apps, but I don’t do much else. I don’t have a lot of photos I feel are worth releasing to the world.
I don’t think I’m taking advantage of all those photographers who feel comfortable sharing their work despite my pangs of guilt. I’m religious about providing links back to the work of the photographer (or other creative) who provided the work I’m relying on. When requested, I’ve even gone back and edited old posts to make sure that I’m linking to a creative’s preferred online presence or using the anchor text the photographer prefers.
Appropriate attribution is the least I can do, though. Good stock photography is expensive and photographers licensing their work under Creative Commons are (at least theoretically) foregoing some income. Links are something of a currency, at least online, but they may not be enough to keep the Creative Commons ecosystem healthy. What I should do, at least in my own mind, is to release some amount of my own writing under a Creative Commons license, to be freely used.
So why don’t I release my own work under a Creative Commons license?
Part of it is a question of mechanics: I earn my living from my writing, at least the first time a given article or ebook appears anywhere. Licensing work in such a way that I can get paid requires hanging on to copyright, at least in the short-term. I’m not saying that those photographers posting their work under Creative Commons licenses shouldn’t be able to earn a living. However, more than a few of those photographers have other sources of income.
But part of the problem is that there’s no clear incentive for me to release copyright: if I write well, I’m going to get those inbound links (the currency of of the web). It’s relatively rare that anyone wants to republish an article that’s already freely available on the web on some other website. The search engines don’t reward such behavior, after all. I do occasionally get requests to reprint my work offline, in actual print. I routinely allow non-profits to reprint my work without charging them a fee. I’m even open to allowing someone who stands to turn a bit of a profit use my work without recompense. But there are plenty of companies that I’d rather not license my work to without compensation (such as textbook publishers, who have occasionally approached me in the past).
The Existing Incentives for Open Source
The Creative Commons and open source communities have a huge amount of overlap. But open source is more effective: more people using open source software seem to make a habit of putting work back into the eco-system. The open source approach to software is very well established: if you’re currently reading this, you’ve touched multiple pieces of open source software even if you didn’t realize it. Many content management systems, servers and other online technologies run entirely on open source software.
WordPress, for instance, is made available under the GNU General Public License, an open source license. Anyone who wants to download WordPress’s files and use them to set up a website can. There’s a clear benefit to that kind of availability: WordPress has been downloaded over six million times, which doesn’t even take into account the number of WordPress.com accounts there are or the number of developers who have set up multiple WordPress websites from a single download. There is no way for a software product to grow that dramatically in a closed system — and that kind of growth can be a major incentive for someone to contribute to open source software. While WordPress’s contributors haven’t exactly become household names, they do enjoy a certain amount of celebrity among people in the know.
There isn’t a lot of money that goes with that relative fame. There are a few particularly profitable WordPress-based businesses, as well as other companies based on building open source software. The licenses, however, aren’t built with developing strong business models in mind, purposefully. There are some options, like Creative Commons’ Non-Commercial license which allows for free use of creative work, provided that it isn’t for a commercial process, while still allowing the creator to financially benefit from her work, but these licenses aren’t always the easiest to earn a living from. That’s not necessarily a problem, provided that the creatives making their work available under some sort of open source license feel adequately rewarded.
Some people just want an excuse to work on cool projects and to make sure that other people have access to those cool projects. But altruism and fun aren’t the strongest of incentives. If something else comes up, it’s easy enough for an open source contributor to walk away from a beloved project: maybe someone else will take over maintaining it, maybe not. It’s a question of whether someone else has as much passion for a given project as that project’s founder.
There are certain side benefits that have evolved that lead people to contribute to open source for less noble reasons. For software developers, writing code under open source licenses can be one way to build up a visible portfolio. That in turn can make finding paying employment much easier: recruiters routinely go through popular open source projects to find prospects, as well as browse through profiles on GitHub.
Are Those Incentives Enough?
Even with the incentives present in building open source software and releasing other work under extremely permissive licenses, there are plenty of projects that just wither away. The underlying files may be available online somewhere but they aren’t updated to work with newer software versions or kept current otherwise. These are often projects that individuals and organizations depend on and have a vested interest in improving.
In my mind, these situations are proof that there’s room for further incentives for open source communities. I’ve seen more than one situation where a company wound up hiring a developer just to bring an open source project back up to the point where the software was usable again — and then choose not to release that code for some reason or another. There needs to be a cultural incentive for companies (as well as writers like myself and other creatives out in the world) to pass material back into the open source and Creative Commons ecosystems.
At a minimum, that means creating mechanisms for streamlining that process and educating users about ways to support open source. Returning to the WordPress community for a moment, it’s worth noting that many users who set up blogs on WordPress.com or even on their own sites don’t understand what open source software is. They just know that they can use WordPress for free. Even a little education goes a long way with such users.
Where does all this leave the open source ecosystem?
Perhaps it’s not in the easiest place in the world, but the situation is actually pretty good. We’re incredibly lucky at this point that enough people are willing to give their time to creating amazing projects that the rest of us get to use and enjoy. The ecosystem is healthy enough, at this point, to keep going for the foreseeable future.
But just because things are humming along now doesn’t mean that there isn’t opportunity for improvement. It’s a good time to discuss how we want to grow open source communities in the future and what we want the norms of these communities to be. We are starting to reach a point where some of the original proponents of open source may be thinking about retirement (Richard Stallman, the author of the GPL, turned 60 this year, for instance). That means that those of us who are newer to the worlds of open source and Creative Commons are going to need to step up.
So, what do you want the licensing of your creative works to look like in the future? How do you want to benefit from them and what are you willing to give back to the community?
Image by Flickr user Dennis Skley
This October, I’ll be speaking at FinCon, a conference specifically for financial bloggers. I’m excited about the opportunity because I’ve blogged about personal finance on various sites since 2007.
I’ll be talking about how to effectively bring in bloggers to help you grow your site — the precise topic is “Building a Great Blog with Voices Other than Your Own”. Trust me, there are right ways and wrong ways to manage a blog with multiple writers and I’m going to get deep into them.
Interested in attending FinCon? There’s a flash sale on tickets running this Thursday and Friday — August 22nd, 8 AM CT to August 23rd, 11:55 PM CT. During the sale, tickets are $179. On August 24th, they go back up to $249.
Furthermore, I’m prepared to sweeten the deal. I’m going to offer hour-long consulting sessions while I’m in St. Louis. I’ve done the math and I can offer five of these sessions and still actually hear speakers. These sessions will be free to the first five people who buy their FinCon pass through my affiliate link.
Obviously, I’m going to profit from such sales — that’s the point of an affiliate link. But even if you calculate out the share I make as an affiliate, I’m only earning about $90 per consulting session. That’s $25 less per hour than you can currently work with me in any other way. But I’m offering these sorta, kinda free consultation blocks for two reasons: First, I don’t get a lot of opportunities to actually sit down in person and talk with clients. I miss it. Second, I’m hoping that I’ll get to know a few of you before I speak, so you’ll feel that you just have to come here me speak. I live in fear of giving talks where no one actually shows up, so I’m happy to offer a bribe.
Want to grab one of these sessions? Click the link and buy your ticket. Then forward me the confirmation email. I’ll email you what I need from you to prep for the session (like what website you want to talk about) and time slot options. Already got your ticket, but still want a consultation? Email me and we’ll figure it out.
One of my journalism classes in college included an exercise require each student to write her own obituary. There were plenty of discussions about what makes a life interesting and worth more than a few lines on the obits page. The goal was to learn to write an obituary, but the class seemed to conclude that we first needed to learn to write a death notice for all those people who didn’t seem to warrant anything longer.
College kids are generally jerks, I’ve since decided. But the underlying question is an important one: How should you live your life? What’s good enough?
It’s a question that’s obviously been on Colin Wright’s mind as well. This summer, he released Act Accordingly. It’s a shortish ebook, weighing in at 78 pages, in line with the core message.
You have exactly one life in which to do everything you will ever do. Act accordingly.
It’s a reality that most of us need to be reminded of on a regular basis. We set our priorities and work hard, but do we really spend time on what we truly want to accomplish? I’m not talking about setting up things so that our lives are easy and neither is Wright. We need challenges to keep things interesting and to keep from stagnating. But we do need to focus, preferably on something we’d prefer to be known for and that we personally enjoy.
The book is a fast read. I recommend it, especially if you need a reminder of what you really want to be doing with your day.
My sister finished her capstone project for her degree in graphic design this spring. Before I jump into some thoughts that her work sparked, check out this short (two minutes) video about how she taught kids in Baltimore how to create signs — and why. The site for the project is here.
I’m proud of my sister’s project because she put a whole lot of work into it. But the process got me thinking: why do we think in terms of creating just one capstone project or one senior thesis?
Sure, anyone who tries to do two projects of that size at one time may not survive to come out the other side. But we treat college (and perhaps graduate school) as the best opportunity for someone to dive into a giant project and put it on display for critique.
I’ve Had to Do More; Why Should I Suffer Alone?
I should provide some context. I did a massive paper to complete the graduation requirements for the International Baccalaureate program in high school. I created a new magazine from scratch in order to graduate from college. I participated in a massive group project where we essentially created a new product and a marketing plan to go with it to complete my master’s degree.
I like ridiculously massive projects. I routinely seek them out for myself. Publishing an ebook isn’t that much less work than some of these projects have been. So I’m biased in favor of looking for these sorts of opportunities. There’s also a certain element in my reasoning that I’ve had to do massive projects to mark the milestones in my life, so everyone else should, too.
But, even with that bias accounted for, it seems a bit ridiculous that most people only wind up doing one of these massive projects with the intention of showing it off.
Sticking a Flag in the Map
At least in theory, we’re always improving our skills. That’s the whole point of maintaining a portfolio and updating it regularly. We need to be able to show off our best work; it proves our value in our chosen fields.
But a senior thesis isn’t always our best work. Rather, it’s a project that forces us to reach for something we may not be quite ready for. It requires us to apply skills that we haven’t yet mastered, in a fairly flashy way. It comes with an expectation that we will publicly present this big piece of work and accept critiques on it. A senior project is as much a part of the learning process as it is proof that a student actually attended the necessary classes to earn a degree.
For those of us committed to being life-long learners, not routinely pulling out all the stops on a project in the vein of a senior thesis is illogical. Sure, we may apply new skills in little pieces and avoid the risk of public failure. But we don’t have a map of how our abilities progress — we don’t plant flags in our personal maps that say that we’ve conquered a whole new skill set.
Just the Right Amount of Stress
I’m not talking about doing an intensive project every year — I’ve just about lost my mind on every capstone project I’ve done, desperately working so that the damn thing is done and off my plate — and not even every other year. Something on the order of once every five years sounds about right to me.
The stress should stay, though: it’s a result of actually having something (like a grade) on the line. We make major breakthroughs and figure out entirely new approaches because failure is not an option. When a whole degree is on the line, almost everyone can produce. Academia may be on to something with the requirement that professors must ‘publish or perish.’
However, it’s pretty tough to find a situation where something big is on the line after you get out of school. Sure, you can keep going back for graduate degrees, but eventually you will run out of places to hang diplomas. Massive work projects can be stressful, but it’s rare that you find yourself pushed that far out of your comfort zone: projects might have short deadlines, but it’s rare that you’re given work that you haven’t already proved that you can accomplish.
That only leaves social expectations as a driving force for this sort of project. Social expectations got me through a bat mitzvah, including learning two Torah portions (quick translation: double the work most Jewish kids have to do). Well, social expectations and the promise of a big party. We all stress about what our friends think of us; why not direct that angst towards something useful, like proving once every five years that we are absolutely amazing?
Making Your Own Milestones
It would be nice to be able to tie the sort of big creative pushes to other milestones in our lives, but let’s be honest: having a kid or getting married are stressful enough markers all on their own.
Telling all of your friends that you’re committing to getting a big project done — something that scares you and excites you and stresses you out — is about as close as you can get. While that adds more stress to the process, it also adds a little bit of that ‘must succeed or else’ quality that we need in order to push through. Without that drive to make it through, without the consequence that (at least in our heads) our friends will laugh at our failures, it’s hard to tackle something big and scary.
If you’re willing to go all in, you may drag some of your friends along for the ride. Since misery loves company, I consider this a benefit. I’d love to see our society just generally expect us to do something cool every couple of years. It would help all of us get to those cool ideas that just seem a little too hard to pull off.
We all know the importance of building great skills in our chosen fields. If you’re a writer, you need to practice writing constantly. If you’re a developer, you need to constantly write more code. If you’re a painter… you get the point. But there are a host of hidden skills that go along with being successful in these fields, whether you want to work on your own or you want to work within a larger organization.
One of my sisters is about to finish up a degree in graphic design: she already freelances and has landed some great internships. But she’s had to learn the mechanics of both worlds on her own. Her program teaches students how to build portfolios, like any traditional art school, but doesn’t give them a grounding in how to price their services or negotiate a salary. Almost no colleges offer those sorts of classes — and those that do, focus on a more theoretical level while teaching business majors.
How Do You Learn Hidden Skills?
I lucked out in terms of learning how to run a business: I was drafted into various family endeavors from a very young age. I learned bookkeeping because a family member needed someone to type numbers into QuickBooks and I wanted to understand why what number went where. I learned plenty of other administrative skills in similar ways. The experience didn’t entirely prepare me for running my own business — my family tends to prefer selling products to selling services, which is where I started — but it was a great basic education.
Not everyone has the option to learn from family members or even mentors who can guide you through what hidden skills are truly necessary, though. Sometimes, you have to dig deep to find out that there’s even a skill set that will solve your problem! The ability to document work processes fell into that category for me for a long time. Since all the businesses I worked for didn’t really have a habit of writing down how certain tasks were completed — there was usually a founder around who planned to only leave the business in a casket and so acted as the source of all knowledge. But as my business has grown, I’ve found myself in the position that I didn’t want to constantly teach people how to do a given task over and over again.
The hard part wasn’t finding resources to learn the skills necessary; rather it was figuring out what to search for. Searching for information about documentation often takes you straight to help on writing documentation for code. That’s an important skill set, but I was actually looking for something broader at the time. It’s an issue that many people seem to run into: we know we need to learn something, but don’t know the terminology or jargon to look for. The situation is even more complex when you consider that each speciality has its own hidden skills: a developer needs to be able to document her code, while a writer needs to be able to fact check her articles.
The Cure is Talking Shop, At Least for Now
Surprisingly, my (nominal) competition has been one of my greatest resources when learning how to tackle hidden skills. Just casually talking shop has lead to many discussions about how we each operate our businesses, letting each of us discuss problems and offer up solutions. And even if one of my peers can’t directly recommend a solution that will work for me and my business, she can at least introduce me to some new vocabulary that lets me continue the search on my own.
While I love talking shop, though, I’m not entirely enamored with this approach. I’d still love to see more creative training courses introduce some of these hidden skills, even if that means there’s a little less time dedicated to improving our craft. Every entrepreneur (past, present or future) can benefit from taking a bookkeeping class, no matter whether you’re a freelance writer, a startup founder or even a babysitter. Knowing how those basic functions of your business work can make a world of difference.
A note just for developers: I’m speaking during Day Camp 4 Developers on Friday. The theme of DC4D #6 is ‘Non-Programming for Programmers’ — which falls right in line with what I’ve been talking about here. It’s an online-only conference, so attendees can be anywhere. Tickets are $40 and, yes, I get a cut of that. But I believe in the value of this conference, which is why I’ve spoken at it multiple times. So, if you want to learn some of the less obvious skills that go into programming, buy a ticket.
Image by Flickr user Edinburgh City of Print
It’s still not that easy to find good guides to creating online portfolios: it’s rare enough that a guide gets published at all that many of the books available are still stuck in the dark ages.
Rock Your Portfolio Website, by Wes McDowell, however, is a modern take on portfolios, as well as an easy read. McDowell is a web designer and writes from that point of view — but the resulting ebook can be used by any creative building a portfolio.
I particularly like that McDowell puts an emphasis on case studies and testimonials, but does not just relegate them to their own page. It’s important that prospective clients see why you’re so great to work with on every page of your website.
McDowell also pointed out a few ways to build better relationships with your website visitors that I’m considering how to put into practice on my own site. For instance, he recommends taking a photo with each of your clients — something that will really drive home both that you’re a real person and that your past clients adore you. It’s not an easy proposition when you consider that many of my clients are literally on the other side of the globe, but it’s worth the effort to figure out how to take at least a few photographs.
Take a look at McDowell’s own portfolio website: you can tell that he knows what he’s talking about.