The Best Advice

A college professor friend of mine recently asked for the best piece of advice we had ever received as we started our careers.  I have gotten a lot of really great advice over the years, but there is one piece of advice from early in my career that was by far the best piece of advice I ever received.

Get over yourself – Be confident, focused, humble & grateful, not cocky and entitled. Yes, you have worked hard and are probably very smart and talented, but there is a fine line before you cross over from being sure of yourself into appearing obnoxiously overconfident.  Remember you have a lot to learn about your job, yourself and the world around you.   Make sure your employer and your new coworkers know that you realize that and you are open to being taught.   No job or request is too small for you. If you are asked to make copies or get coffee, do it.  Everyone who is really successful did their time doing the the shitty work too.  Embrace it and learn from it.

Most importantly, treat EVERYONE – from the CEO to your co-workers to the janitor to the person at the coffee shop – the same – as if they and their contributions are valuable and you have something to learn from them.

Your attitude and work ethics will get you as far, sometimes farther, then the results you produce.




What do I work on first?

In both my consulting business and from friends, I get a lot of questions similar to this one…
“I came up with a list of 14 possible projects to work on yesterday but now I need to narrow them down to ones that will, well, work.  When you have a list of projects, is there some equation you use to determine the priority?”
Although the process of prioritization comes naturally to some, it can still be a time waster for many.   We can get so wrapped up in setting priorities and writing lists that we fail to take action and move forward with completing the things on the list.  Since I can be as guilty of this as anyone, I work with a simple structure to prioritize those things on my to-do list. 
1) Deadlines – obviously the soonest deadline gets the first attention
But for those items when deadlines are not a factor –
2) Try to alternate easy/short projects with a longer/harder projects. By allowing yourself time to do projects that you can complete in a shorter period of time you are consistently rewarding yourself with the feeling of finishing something.  This feeling of accomplishment and completion are crucial to maintaining motivation when your to-do list is long and/or complex.
3) Try and determine which of the 2 or 4 projects you will enjoy doing the most. Put 1 or 2 of them at the top of the list and 1 or 2 of them at the bottom.  You get to start with something you enjoy and have something else you will enjoy towards the end.   It is the ages old carrot – stick method of motivation.  Start with something you enjoy to motivate you and get your creative juices flowing and then accomplish other things by knowing there is a fun reward at the end.
So those are my tips on how to prioritize.  How do you prioritize that never-ending to-do list?

Things we like… Red Tettemer + Partners & Under Armour

The team at Red Stapler Consulting knows what we like and what we believe in.  One of the things we like to do is share.   In that spirit, we have decided to start a semi-regular series sharing things we find that highlight some of the things we like and believe in.

So what are some things we like?

Passion blended with creativity

Things that help businesses grow

Things that bring communities together

Things that help people

And the candle on this birthday cake of goodness – Effective uses of social media that do any or all of those things.

The inaugural entry in our Things We Like series is a campaign developed by the creative masters at Red Tettemer + Partners.  They have hit a trifecta!  A social media campaign that is creative, is helping a business (their client) grow and is helping people (college students).  Check out the Under Armour Ultimate Intern Team program.

Does it get better than this?  Simple, clean, straightforward, fun and giving a few lucky college students the opportunity to have “the most memorable summer of your life.”   It reaches the demographic where they like to communicate – on Facebook.  It is fun without being goofy.  It is intriguing. It tells you what you need to know, but holds back just enough to make us want to fill out the application to find out more and get to have the fun they are promising.  And it is all wrapped up in a solid marketing principles.

Definitely a +1 in the Things We Like category.  Head on over to Facebook and give them a Like – They deserve it!

Philly “BloggerGate”

Last night I attended the “Bloggergate” Happy Hour where city officials tried to answer questions and provide explanations of the current city tax regulations and how they are applied to members of the creative economy and freelancers.  There is an excellent writeup on the Phillyist site, so I am not going to summarize everything that was discussed.

I posed a question that seemed to be on the minds of many of the local bloggers I know –
The current Philadelphia revenue regulations require that anyone conducting business and receiving revenue in the city of Philadelphia is required to have a Business Privilege License.  An issue that arose among the blogger community is not the requirement to have the license and pay taxes on actual income.  The issue is the “recreational” blogger who does not blog for income.  They may place an ad on their site and charge just enough to cover hosting and domain renewal costs.  They are now being told because they receive revenue (the payment for ad placement) that they are a business and are required to have the Business Privilege License and pay taxes.  Obviously because it is a break-even financial arrangement, they will not owe any taxes, however, they are now being required to buy the Business Privilege License which likely amounts to much more than the amount they are charging for their blog ads.  Is this issue being looked into?

The city indicated that, because of situations exactly like this one, they are looking into the relevancy and applicability of the Business Privilege License.  They made no promises that change would come, but they are considering options.   They genuinely seemed to have had their eyes opened to some of the differences in conducting business in this new creative economy.   That the old ways of regulation and collecting taxes have to be re-evaluated to better apply to how a large majority now do business.  It is a start.

Several other freelancers and business owners asked questions and expressed their frustration with the current tax system and the complexity of starting a business in Philadelphia.  To the city officials credit, they listened and did their best to explain the current system.  The city gets props for showing up on “our” (the tech community’s) turf, National Mechanics (as opposed to say a stuffy room in City Hall), for listening to the questions and complaints and for, at least appearing to, trying to understand the issues and questions.  No one got the answers they wanted last night, but anyone who came expecting instant results was being unrealistic.   As I said to KYW’s Robin Culverwell,

“The fact that they called this meeting tonight, they’re willing to come out, they’re willing to take questions of any kind is a positive step forward.”

50 Ways to Leave Your…Client

You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan 
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free                        (50 Ways to Leave Your Lover – Paul Simon)

Every once in a while we come across that situation with a client that we know we just can not make work.  Whether it is an unreasonable client, changed expectations or just personality differences that are preventing us from doing our best work, the reality is that sometimes we just do need to fire our clients.  For our reputations, for our pocketbooks and most often for our own sanity or the collective sanity of our teams, we just need to walk away.

Unfortunately, like any relationship, we have usually gone into these business relationships with high hopes of this being “the one”.  The long term client that we enjoy working for, doing work that intrigues and inspires us and making a decent buck doing it.  Now, like a bad boy/girlfriend, we have to figure out how to disentangle ourselves from this client.  Just like you would in a romantic relationship, do a truly honest evaluation for yourself. Is this an irretrievably broken situation?  Are there changes that could be made on either side to change the situation and make it reasonable to continue the work?  If you have done that and still feel that you must fire the client, then the sooner the better.

It is always a tricky situation.  The first thing you must do is look at the “out” (cancellation, exit or termination) clause in any agreement or contract you have with this client.  What are the terms that allow either of you to exit the relationship and what actions have to be taken before you are released from your contractual obligations?  Don’t have an out clause in your contracts/agreements?  Get one. Now!  Consider it your prenup – we never want to think about getting divorced, but if we aren’t protected before the rings go on, we can lose it all.  Make sure you understand the contract cancellation terms and that you fulfill them to the letter.  Do you not leave yourself open to claims of breach of contract because your agreement required something as simple as delivery of written notice to a specific address and instead you sent an email to your contact at the company.

Second, you must make sure that you have performed all of the work that you have already been paid for.  Either that or be prepared to issue a reimbursement to the client for any prepaid, uncompleted portion.  You never want to leave them in the position to say that you were paid for work that you did not do. Have all the financial details worked out before you communicate to the client that you are ending the relationship.  Know exactly how much has been paid, for what specific work and be able to clearly and accurately communicate that to your client.  Also be able to articulate how much may still be due to the client (or in some cases to you), what it is due for and when you expect to issue the reimbursement to them (or expect payment to be issued to you).  Also, be prepared, per the terms of your agreement, to turn over any and all documentation or work product belonging to the client or that is a result of the work done for the client.

Third, if there is uncompleted work, have a contingency plan ready to give the client.   Be the kind of contractor that you want working for you.  Don’t leave them completely in the lurch (unless they have never paid you, then maybe they deserve it).  Lay out what additional work may need to be done.  It does not have to be a detailed plan for them, that is their responsibility, but at least be able to say, “I was retained to do X,Y & Z and only X & Y have been completed, you will need to make alternative arrangements if you still wish to proceed with Z”.  Simple but courteous.  Often clients have hired us because they don’t know what to do, at least if they have a direction, they can take the steps necessary to replace you. And you take less of a risk of the client badmouthing you to anyone who will listen.

Now to the tricky part, telling them.  The best way to accomplish this is to be short and sweet.  Don’t get into pointing fingers or accepting blame.  Don’t go into any deep details, only those that are necessary to conclude any outstanding business.  Just advise the client that you no longer feel that you are in a mutually beneficial relationship.  Always stress that you regret taking this action, but you feel it would be in both of your best interests to dissolve the relationship.  If you have someone else that you can refer the client to, that is always a nice way to end the communication.   If the client comes back and wants to know why, then be prepared to be tactful, but honest.  You are probably doing them a favor by telling them the truth.  Be sure to have examples ready if they question you.  Also be prepared to stop discussing it.  Like most difficult breakups, some clients will keep trying to get you to go round and round, basically trying to wear you down. Before you get into the conversation, know your stopping point so you do not get frustrated or angry and leave the conversation on a bad tone.

Try to do the “break-up” in the manner in which you had most of your communications with the client – ie. by phone, email, face to face.  It is only respectful.  If you feel it will be accepted better in writing, then do so. If you end the relationship face to face or via telephone,  I also recommend following up with a letter or an email just reiterating what you said, confirming that any prepaid work has been completed, any final details that have to be resolved (payment, document or work transfer, etc…) and wishing them the best.

This is never an easy or pleasant situation to be in.  it is however necessary to know how to handle the situation in the most professional, mature manner possible.  Your reputation depends on it.  The client will probably not be happy, but if you can walk away on civil terms with no one screaming lawsuit or breach of contract, it’s probably a win-win.

Are you running your business or is it running you?

As entrepreneurs, freelancers, small business owners – take your pick of what you want to be called – we are called upon to not only wear many differents hats, but shoes, shirts and pants too.   In seconds we may have to go from being the receptionist to the CEO to the janitor.  Then, somewhere in the midst of doing all of that, we also have to do the things we get paid to do, the things we are passionate about, the things that we took that risk and started our businesses to do.

When a business fails one fairly consistent response from the owner, if they are being honest, is “I was overwhelmed. There was so much to consider”.  There is a lot to consider and a lot to do.  The key is to stop your business from running you and turn to running your business.  This means spending significant time identifying just what your goals are and a solid, realistic plan on how to achieve them.  It also means accepting your limitations and knowing when to ask for help.   We are not all good at everything, as much as we might like to be or think we are.  Most of us have gone into business for ourselves because there is one or a few things we are really good at.  One of the keys to making sure we are running our business rather than it running us is to acknowledge what we are not good at.  You may be The Rock Star graphic designer, but if you are lousy at writing, your proposals will suffer and so will your business.  If you are the world’s best writer, but you are lousy at math, your books are going to suffer and so will your business.

Almost as important as what we are not good at, is what we don’t have time to do.  The bottom line to having our own businesses is exactly that – the bottom line.  Primary in our decisions should be the lifestyle that being an entrepreneur allows us to have, but if the bills are not getting paid, there is no lifestyle.  If you are spending too much of your time running your business and not working on the things that build your business and bring in the money, you are losing out on opportunities.

So how do you make sure that you are the one in charge of your businesses destiny?  Start with identifying your end goal and your plan to get there.  Then take a long, hard, probably soul-searching look at yourself and, if necessary, your team.  What are you good at?  What do you like to do? What are you passionate about?  If a team, what are your combined and individual strengths, and more importantly, what are your weaknesses?   Once you have honestly assessed what you should be doing – the things you are good at and passionate about – now you can begin to evaluate the things you are not good at or don’t have time for.   Is your bookkeeping piece the one that needs work?  Do you fall behind on new contact/potential lead follow-ups?  Are you bad about remembering appointments or your clients’ birthdays and company anniversaries? Are you lost when it comes to marketing or think that social media is filming your friend’s birthday party?    Once you know what you don’t know, you can begin to develop a plan to overcome the gaps in your knowledge or your processes.

Maybe the answer is something as simple as taking a quick class and re-learning skills you already had, maybe you need to reallocate the resources your team already has to better play to their individual strengths, maybe the answer is to turn to a professional.  For everyone and every business, the solution will be different.  One key thing to remember is that occasionally spending money to hire someone to do the things you don’t like to do or are not good can ultimately be a savings.  It is a savings in the aggravation, wasted time, worry and lost billable hours you would otherwise experience.  Now this does not mean turn over the reins to your business to someone else!  It is still your business and you should always be actively involved in every aspect of it.  What it does mean is you find someone with skills you do not have to be your partner.  Make sure they understand your business and your vision as clearly as you would have your team or employees understand them.

So now, the question for you is what do you need to do to stop your business from running you? Or more importantly, away from you?  I’d love to hear your answers – so please keep the comments coming.

Why service is important…& how AT&T didn’t understand it today

I will warn everyone at the onset that this is a rant.  A  long rant specifically about AT&T wireless. 
My oldest son graduated from high school this month.  As a graduation gift, his grandmother and aunt gave him $100 in AT&T gift cards to put towards the purchase of a new cell phone.
So off we went yesterday to the local AT&T corporate store.  We were greeted by a very nice young man who was helpful and patient with my rather indecisive son.  Unfortunately my son was not eligible for an upgrade on his phone for another 11 months.  He did not like either of the under $100 phones that he was eligible to purchase.  They were older models, bulky and not "cool".  The two that he did like were both well over $200 regular price.   Now to one of the main reasons that service matters – Mike, our great salesman, was trying to come up with creative ways to find my son the phone that he wanted at the best possible price.  He finally came up with a very creative solution.  I already have a Family Plan with 3 lines.  If I was to add an additional line to my plan for only $9.99 per month (and given what my cell phone bill already is, that's peanuts), then my son could purchase the new phone as if it was for the new line at less than 1/3 of the regular price.  Happy smiles all around!
Mike proceeds to process the order of a new line and the purchase of the phone.  Now the first thing that AT&T has got all wrong.  Their corporate store sales reps have to call the same customer service number that everyone else does.  There is no special direct line for them which results in them being put in the call queue and on hold.  So after 10+ minutes on hold, Mike speaks to a "customer care" rep.  He then proceeds to tell me that he can not add another line to my account because I have a charged off account with AT&T.   Now how it is possible that I have 3 working phone lines with a charged off account? How it is possible that I have only had 1 account in my own name with AT&T ever and that one for approximately a year ?  After a half hour on the phone with customer service, we (the customer care rep and I)  finally determined that when I added my sons 2 lines to my account, they 1) changed my account number without telling me; 2) only transferred some of the charges from the old account number to the new one; 3) left the old account number open with a balance on it.  So there has been a balance on an old account for several months now.  That account was eventually put into collections and charged off (hello negative point on my credit report!)  All of this without my knowledge. I eventually spent almost 2 hours on the phone talking to 2 different customer service people, a customer service supervisor, a receivables/collections manager and a customer service manager.   What was utterly ridiculous is that I was standing in the middle of an AT&T corporate store, full of customers, arguing with these individuals.  They were fully aware that I was in the store and did not seem to have any concerns whatsoever that I was pointing out that not only had they made the original mistake, they could no longer tell me what I owed them for because the bills were no longer available because of how old they were and that their actions, in addition to failing to notify or bill me, caused a negative entry on my credit report.  They failed to acknowledge that this discussion could negatively impact the sales in that store that day, as well as the reputation of the sales people in the store (who, by the way, were absolutely wonderful!) .  What I have failed to point out up to this point is that the balance that I was being harrassed about was $76.22 (less than half of my monthly bill!).  Rather than someone stepping up and saying, "we're sorry, Ms. Bell, we understand that this was a mistake made on our part and we are going to waive this charge and have the collection report reversed"  No, they were rude, stubborn and obnoxious.  They acknowledged that a mistake had been made, but continued to insist that they only was to resolve it was for me to pay the now $89.47 immediately and then it would take up to 2 weeks for them to reverse my account.
This was no longer acceptable. I had to threaten to discontinue my service, which even meant giving up my precious lifeline, my iphone.  I had to threaten to sue them for negatively impacting my credit report (damage to my reputation), harrasement  and mental anguish (mine and my son's).  And I promised a blog post on my experience!  After all of that, we finally reached a compromise.  I had repeatedly told them that if I owed the charges, I was not disputing paying them.  What I did not know was did I owe the charges or were they simply an error also.  The compromise consisted of them closing the old account, transferring only the $76.22 to my current account, removing all indications that the account had ever been in collections, including reporting to the credit bureaus, and locating and sending me copies of all of the bills that include the past due amount.  I will review those bills and if they are charges I legitimately owe, I will pay them.  If I do not think they are, I will be allowed to dispute them.  They would also immediately remove any prohibitions on my account so that we could add the line and purchase my son his phone. Now why did it take 2+ hours, several elevations of my blood pressure and  2 people walking out of the AT&T store without making their purchase to reach this point? 
Now, I do have to qualify this story with a note that this is the very first time I have had bad service from AT&T, in their stores, online and with their customer service.  Most of my experiences with them have been very good, but this is the one that will stick with me.  This is the one that I will tell people about.  This is the one that will nag at me everytime I pay that monthly bill.  This is the one that again makes me sad and concerned about our society and the apparent slow degradation of our basic humanity, sense of civility, basic manners and respect for the concerns and feelings of others.  I want someone to prove me wrong, is there a company out there that will?

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