Freelance Advice: Wear Socks at Home

6:30 am – my alarm goes off.

I roll out of bed, silently promising myself I’ll dial that alarm back to 5:30 one day – but given my old habit of going to work for 10:00, 6:30 is already a serious improvement. That I’m more productive in the morning is just one of the things freelancing has taught me – a lesson learned after several 16-hour days working late into the night and wondering where my energy went.

Morning hours are precious – the rare time of day where my reserves are topped up and even the ugliest projects seem manageable. Turns out creativity and focus are a bit like house pets – let ‘em rest up and give ‘em some food, and they’ll be around to play most of the day.  

Eyes a bit blurry, I head down the hall and into the kitchen to throw together some kind of breakfast. When you’re focused in on business, your health is one of  the first things to go. I’m trying to get back to eating right, a goal sandwiched between revenue targets, ideal body fat percentages and places I hope to travel in the next 12 months.  From the kitchen to the shower, from the shower to my desk room.  It’s a common ritual – why bother explaining it?

Because as a self-employed person, it’s easy to wake up, flop out of bed, throw on whatever’s close to you and head to your desk. No breakfast. No shower. And why do your hair? Nobody’s around to see you, right? You might be tempted to see this complete lack of obligation as a perk.

“Work from home in your underwear!” The dream.

Careful. It’s a trap.

Around month 5 of this little adventure, I looked up and realized some terrible things. For starters, pride in my appearance had reached an all-time low. I’d throw on a trusty plaid shirt, my best jeans and some dress shoes when I was meeting with a client – but at home, half the time I was lucky if I had a shirt on under my hoodie – the same hoodie I’d worn the day before. Probably the day before that, too. Cologne bottles gathered dust. No sense in trying to smell nice for the rabbit downstairs.

Worse still, I’d gained weight – devoting what was once gym time to squeezing out that next few hundred bucks. Days were cyclical and blurred together  - a hazy time spent rebounding between my desk and my bed, interrupted by the odd trip to the mail box and a walk to the bank to cash all my cheques. My left eye would spend up to a quarter of the day twitching – a sure sign of being sleep deprived, strung out on caffeine, or stressed.

At times, all three.

Let me stress that this sudden nose dive in basic life skills was not the usual for me. I’m no Martha Stewart and I won’t make Abercrombie & Fitch’s summer campaign, but I didn’t grow up a slob.  

When I started out on my own, I thought hustling hard meant giving 110% to my business. A work ethic that began as a means of avoiding failure (work hard so I don’t go under!) became a work ethic focused on earning as much as I possibly could by drowning my days in an office chair and avoiding frivolous things like eating.

I was thrilled to be building a business and excited by being greeted with early success. But I was exhausted, fattening up and dressing like someone from Trailer Park Boys. Worse, every conversation with friends began to be dominated by my work, what I was doing, my new leads. It became an unhealthy focus. I was missing out on the rest of life.

That’s when Derek (if you’ve been reading my blog, you know he’s someone I consider a mentor) shared a simple idea with me:

“Wear Socks at Home.”

Socks are usually the last thing people put on in the morning – and the first thing you stop wearing at home. If you’re wearing socks, chances are good that you’ve showered. If you’ve showered, you’ve probably shaved. And so on, and so on. In other words, bring structure back to your life, one small step at a time. Make time for breakfast. Dress up like you’re going out in public. Schedule in gym time. And know when to shut it all off and just be with friends. 

The basics – but it’s not hard to get lost.

I don’t work in my underwear any more. I’ve got alarms on my phone to wake me up, get me out of my chair hourly, remind me to eat, tell me to go to the gym. It’s okay to have ambition, okay to throw yourself into a dream, okay to work hard and sacrifice things to build the life you want.

But while you’re building your great big life, don’t forget about the rest of it – even the “small” stuff.

Wear socks at home.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

Rudy’s Bus (An Unexpected Business Lesson)

When I was in junior high, my older sister and I would wake up early every morning, shlep our heavy backpacks and trudge down two blocks to wait for the school bus.

We’d hear that big yellow behemoth before we’d ever see it – a low rumble as it bounced its way down the hill, and then the high-pitched squeal of the breaks as it screeched to a halt on the unmarked pavement in front of the corner we stood on.

The door would swing open with a characteristic squeak,  and there would be Rudy, welcoming us with his big, wrinkled grin.

Rudy was our bus driver.

He was older – I’d put him firmly in his seventies – and heavy-set, a robust and unabashed Italian immigrant with hands like sandpaper and a voice that hadn’t faltered with his years.

Rudy was a bit of a firework – at one moment gentle as a spring breeze – and in another, he’d rumble louder than the bus bouncing down the hill. When he got angry, he was the total embodiment of that stereotypical “argue in the streets” Italian temperament (complete with hand waving). 

And boy, did he get angry.

See, Rudy had rules.

Or rather, one rule. It was simple: Respect him and his bus, and he would respect you. Disrespect either and you had one hell of a talking to coming your way.

Rudy absolutely refused to put up with kids’ crap. Shoot spitballs at him, and he’d be on you in a hot minute – in traffic if that’s what it took. Bully another kid, and he’d descend on you like a bear protecting their cub. He heard everything, saw everything – and when he saw something he didn’t like…

“GET OFFA MAH BUS!”

He wouldn’t hesitate to pull that thing over and make you walk the rest of the way. Some kids found it entertaining to push his buttons until he spewed a shower of expletives, threats and Italian colloquialisms. He found it entertaining to watch them haul their ass to school.

But he was no monster. As I mentioned earlier, Rudy could be unbelievably thoughtful and kind. When he learned we lived just up the street, he began dropping us off right at the door (we were the last stop). He gave my sister flowers. He spoke warmly with us. We’d give him Christmas presents; he’d give us a big smile and door-to-door service.  Despite all the thunder and lightening, he was a wonderful soul.

I didn’t know it then, but Rudy was teaching me something important.

Let’s face it – being a bus driver usually isn’t seen as a high position.  Tell people you’re a bus driver at parties and you’ll probably get sympathetic looks. And yet, millions of parents count on bus drivers just like Rudy to get the job done safely and get their kids to school.

Rudy took his job seriously, but he refused to be walked on.

It was his bus, and he commanded that space.

Rudy taught me that no matter what your job was, you ought to have some pride and a little backbone.

Pride doesn’t just mean getting the job done – it means standing up to those who would take advantage of you and throwing them off your bus, while doting on those who make it all worthwhile.

It’s an attitude I’ve carried into my writing.

Many businesses still view writers as disposable assets who can be walked on, pushed around, negotiated down and taken advantage of. I’ve taken flack in the past for my sometimes over-the-top approach to dealing with these people.

I do it because I love what I do and believe it is valuable enough to defend.

“Pull your head out of your ass, you’re not that important”

“Ha! Trouble is, writers are a dime a dozen. If you won’t do it, we’ll find someone who will.”

That’s the kind of feedback I’ve gotten from people who disagree with the apparently lofty pedestal I put writers on. But I’m not about to change.

I won’t stand for being paid extremely late – or never. I can’t sit quietly after the umpteenth e-mail asking me to work for free. I’m not going to undercut myself down to pennies on a service I know can make a business thousands – and yes, I’m offended when you ask me to.

It’s not ego. If I don’t fight for me, nobody will. That doesn’t mean that I get all worked up and mail a box to everyone who pays late – just that I’m not afraid to toss them off my bus. Why waste time?

But on the other side of things, I try to dote on the clients who “get it”. The clients that respect creativity, treat me fairly, look at me like a professional instead of a word-cow to milk… those clients, I aim to delight -whether with consistently strong work, extra revisions, surprise discounts, impossible deadlines…

I’m proud of the positive relationships I have with the “good ones”. I’m thrilled to see their ranks growing.

But a lot of writers are enablers.

They’re unsure how to stand up for themselves, unsure how to build a business instead of scrape together sentences for a few bucks. So when I do things like send non-paying clients a giant box with my invoice in it, it’s those folks whose attention I’m trying to get.

Like, “Hey, what you do is valuable. Don’t get walked on. You have alternatives.”

And that’s who I’m trying to reach now.

Sadly, Rudy passed away awhile back.

I was sad to find his obituary in my morning paper one day. It’s been years since I waited for that rumbling bus , but it’s a lesson I won’t soon forget.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

Ho Ho Ho…. Pay My Invoice!

Freelancers have all had those clients who seem to conveniently forget to pay their bills after the job is done. After 120 days without getting paid, I decided to take a rather… unconventional approach to getting a former clients’ attention.

This video tells the story:

The following is a copy of the letter I sent as part of my “special delivery”:

 

~*MERRY CHRISTMAS!*~

Dear ____________,

Wow, time sure flies, doesn’t it? We haven’t spoken in over 120 days now. I think that’s a crying shame. What happened to us, old chum? You used to e-mail me back within the hour – and call me at 8:30 in the morning! Ahhhh, those were the days.

Of course, the reason we haven’t spoken is not for lack of effort. I did e-mail you. Repeatedly. And I know you saw those e-mails, too – my invoicing software tells me so. Still, no responses, and ESPECIALLY no payment. You vanished like the ghost of sketchy client past.

I remember fondly the last time we met in person. You shook my hand, looked me in the eye and told me you would treat me like a professional. Then, you stopped writing back and decided never to pay me for the work you used. That’s enough to land you on my naughty list.

But the holidays are all about togetherness and good cheer – so I thought I’d look past that and send you a little something. You can consider it a thank-you gift.

Remember how you wanted me to learn the ins and outs of your business? I took that seriously. Rewriting your unfortunate attempt at a marketing guide taught me that when someone is ignoring your attempts to contact them, sending them some “3D mail” is a good idea. So I thought,

“What better way to get his attention than to send him a gift-wrapped, four-foot box?”
And so, here we are. You’ve opened my box, and now you’re holding my invoice. The system works! But that’s not all you taught me.

Thanks to you, I learned one of the most important lessons a new freelancer can learn: Always work under a contract. It’s a lesson you’ve taught some of my friends, too. Word gets around.

See, you might do “most of your business on gut feeling”, but from now on, I do mine with paperwork.

As an extra-special thanks for that lesson, I’ve included some condoms as part of your gift, just in case you want to screw some other writers.

Now, just because I got you a present doesn’t mean I want you to feel obligated to get me one – but if you do, I wouldn’t mind the money you owe me. Just a thought.

Merry Christmas!

Your friend,

Joel

Answers for the curious:

1. Why waste all that time and money sending a package asking to get paid? That seems pretty stupid/counter-productive.

Because I thought this would be infinitely funnier than small claims court – and I saw this as a chance to turn an invoice I thought was dead into a few new projects and some laughs. It was absolutely over the top – and it worked. Still, It’s not about the money, it’s about the principle. I never believed doing this would actually get me paid; that they responded at all was a bonus. 

Honestly, I mostly did this for my own entertainment. Canadian winters are cold and boring, we have to keep busy somehow.

2.You didn’t have a contract? You totally had this coming!

No argument there – I was an idiot! And  if you work without a contract, you’re an idiot, too. I wasn’t joking when I said I learned valuable lessons from this experience. I was naive and agreed to the job without any paperwork because it was asked for in an urgent rush. I won’t make that mistake again.

That said, contracts aren’t magic cure-alls for getting paid on time (or at all). Choosing the right clients is a big lesson to learn, too.

3. Who is the company/person you dealt with?

I deliberately didn’t name any names and went to great lengths not to expose the business in question. To the business’ credit, they’ve offered an apology and told me they’ll pay the invoice. I believe they’ll follow through (Author’s edit: As of 2 minutes ago, I’m completely paid out!), it’s just a shame it took them so long.

I want this to be a happy ending for both parties and  I don’t have any desire to damage their business or hurt their character – they’ve got a lot of happy clients of their own. We just won’t ever work together again, as they have a rather ugly history of treating writers poorly.

4. Aren’t you worried this will cost you work/give you a bad reputation?

Not really. The type of people I want to work with will find it funny and see the creativity in my approach to solving the problem. They might even relate to the crummy feeling of not being paid for months at a time.

The people I don’t want to work with will think I’m an unprofessional, immature douche-canoe with too much time on his hands – a valid opinion they’re completely entitled to. You can’t please everyone, and I’m not bothering to try.

5. I have some scathing commentary about your big ugly mug/writing ability/filming quality/how much of a stupid idiot moron you are! Care to hear it?

Nope – but I’m terribly sorry you feel that way and invite you to mail me an enormous box full of glitter in protest. It’s vindicating, believe me! 

Merry Christmas – and don’t get taken advantage of.

 Like the cut of my jib? Banter with me on twitter, scope my business site or marvel at my hubris.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

Why I Hate the oDesk/Elance Model (And You Should, Too)

Today, oDesk and Elance announced a massive merger. As a freelancer, you’d think I’d be excited (or something).

I shrugged.

I’ve never grabbed work from either one – and I hope I’m never in the position I’d have to.

I hate oDesk’s model – and so should any talented, self-respecting writer.

Let’s drop the robe and let the truth squirm around naked for a bit: People who use oDesk are looking for just one thing: Cheap work.

That’s problematic for a few reasons:

1. Businesses come looking for lowest bidder who shows an ounce of talent.

You’re in a race to the bottom to see who can undercut themselves the most. Do you want to work with people who value your abilities, or just your price point?

The freelancers who make a great living have changed the conversation from, “Here’s how much we can pay you” to…

“Here’s my level. Want to be on it? Here’s what I cost.”

Being on oDesk or Elance sends the opposite message. You’re a faceless “producer”, despite what the fancy profile and rating system tell you – chosen for being the cheapest option that’s the least likely to screw things up. Needless to say, talented writers vacate the oDesk premises as soon as they possibly can, so the talent pool is shallow. 

2. Businesses on oDesk and Elance see content as a commodity. 

The businesses every writer should want to work with aren’t won’t make you cram “lawn mower repairs” into a guest blog as many times as possible.

Serious businesses won’t outsource their content to a massive puppy mill of cheap labourers. They value their content enough that they dare to invest in it, knowing that actual people might read it one day.

The idea that nobody is willing to pay well for strong content is a big, stinky lie. Far away from oDesk is a great big world of companies who see strong writing as a critical business asset and will pay top dollar for it. Those companies don’t visit Elance.

If you’re willing to work for such low payouts, then you’re guilty too! You confirm their belief that good writing just isn’t worth paying for.

3. Low price points create terrible incentives.

If I’m a writer who makes $5 for every 500 words, my incentive is to try and do as many jobs as is humanly possible in order to scrape together something I can buy groceries with. At such a woeful wage, the incentive is to write quickly, not effectively.

I don’t care about your brand.

I don’t care about your business.

I don’t care about your customers.

Your project doesn’t mean a damn thing to me other than the $5 I get at the end before I go fart out another word count for another cheapskate.

This creates an economy where businesses get EXACTLY what they pay for – rushed, plagiarized, spun, barely-English content from writers who have found ways to cut corners.

4. oDesk/Elance is for the terrified.

If you’re a career writer on oDesk (as in, it constitutes most of your work), it’s time you got the backbone to stand up for your talent. Instead of building something out of nothing, you’re rolling around in a big, mediocre safety net.

THAT is why so many freelancers are willing to work for pennies: fear. Fear that jobs won’t come. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of not knowing where to begin. Ahhhh! Scary! Oh no!

If you really believed you were talented, you’d take a risk and invest in yourself. Grow some balls, take a risk and build yourself into a business. Not knowing where to start is no excuse – there are mentors, resources and helpful guides at your fingertips, if only you’d go looking for them.

5. Low-paying jobs attract more low-paying jobs

Ok, but what about using these platforms to build up your portfolio? Unfortunately, if your portfolio is full of  crappy guest posts, you only attract more of the same.

Nobody is going to comb through your portfolio and think, “Yup, this is the person we want to hand the big bucks to for a mission-critical campaign!”

By accepting jobs below your value, you throw open the door to more projects below your value. It’s a vicious cycle. If you want to exit that cycle, you need to set your own (justified) rates and refuse to take on projects below that threshold.

Things may be especially tight for awhile during the transition, but it’s better than things being tight forever. The longer you hover around in the oDesk work, the harder it is to get out.

Yes, I know you need to pay your bills, but there are better ways to find work: Alliances with local consultants/agencies/web dev shops chief among them. And if you’re good at what you do but the kind of work you want isn’t coming in, create it.

Demonstrate your talent by marketing yourself.

 Want to succeed as a freelancer? Get off oDesk and Elance as quickly as you can.

Like I said, most talented writers stay far, far away from these platforms, opting instead to approach businesses directly and earn jobs through referrals. You won’t ever build a career on these platforms, make what you’re worth or get the projects you really want.

I can’t give you any greater incentive than that.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

150 Days Without Pants: The Business Casual Story

Nearly five months ago, I quit my job as an SEO for a digital agency, packed up my keyboard and took four steps around the corner from my bedroom to chase the glamorous dream of hunching over a keyboard and writing for other people.

I left an environment I’d spent almost five years in – a place where I could come in at 10 without raising an eyebrow, worked with a group of friends and had a lot of control over deliverables. I was also leaving  a lucrative field with a scarcity of talent that all but guaranteed a six-figure income if I wanted it. 

Instead, I opted for a notoriously undervalued job, where half the writing tells you how poor you’re going to be and the other half tells you how hard it is to get steady work. I had no formal training in writing, spare a few English courses here or there. No journalism or communications degree.

Five months and a 40% raise in my income later, it’s becoming obvious that I couldn’t have possibly made a smarter decision.

That’s the short version of the story. The long version is a little more interesting.

It’s not often I indulge in personal storytelling – at least, not to the community at large. I’d like to call that modesty, but it’s more fear than anything.  And five months as a “freelancer” (a word I still cringe at) is hardly enough for me to start waving the victory banner and giving people advice. 

Still, I think I’ve got a story worth telling. I’ll let you be the judge.

“She’s absolutely terrible, Jen!”

I was back at my desk at the agency, reviewing the writing of a freelancer we’d hired for a project. Jen, a good friend and a project manager, was often a sounding board in moments of frustration.

“Listen to this,” I said, holding a crumpled up printout – the first draft.  ”"This golf course is occupied by luxurious trees.” Occupied? What is this, the blitzkrieg of Poland? Who the hell wants to golf on a course that’s occupied by trees? And how can a tree be luxurious? Just awful.”

This was just one of four batches of writing I’d reviewed so far. In every case I’d had to almost completely throw out what I was given and rewrite it – this in addition to juggling my regular work in SEO. I was not a happy camper.

I had grown up writing, aced my English classes, volunteered for local papers (they had free pizza on Wednesdays) and had accidentally published a book (a story for another time). Still, I didn’t see any future in writing. Newspapers weren’t for me, and I’d rather chew off my fingers than write technical manuals.

I was oblivious to there being any other option.

“What are we paying this chick?”

“$40 an hour.”

“$40 AN HOUR!? Are you SERIOUS?

At the time, $40 an hour was, in my mind, an incredible sum equivalent to the lofty incomes of civil engineers, lawyers and perhaps Warren Buffet. It hit me like a tonne of Hardy Boys paperbacks: People actually made money writing – a revelation laughable in its simplicity and revolutionary in its truth.

I thought to myself: If a terrible writer could command $40/hour, what would someone who knew what they were doing be worth? I talked to my boss, convincing him to fire the writer and pay me her wage instead. He agreed. The seed was planted.

I was sitting in a church, watching the Tallest Man on Earth.

I sat with a new friend,  Chris Pecora – a local graphic designer.  I mentioned to him that I was moonlighting as a copywriter. He said if he had any projects, he’d let me know. I wrote it off  as a pleasantry.

So when Chris wrote me an e-mail introduction to a friend looking for a writer, it was a bit surreal. Of course, not nearly as surreal as my first meeting with David, a local marketing consultant who had a job that needed doing.

We sat in a coffee shop – him cool and collected, me sweating bullets in my nicest button-down shirt, darkest jeans and newest sneakers. I’m pretty sure I even got a haircut. I had two goals going in to that meeting.

1. To avoid revealing how little professional writing work I’d actually done, and

2. To make at least $40/hour in the process.

We chatted. He liked my little portfolio. And then he asked me, “Alright, so what do you charge?”

I almost pooped my pants.

What do I charge? Thinking as fast as I could, I blurted out an absurdly overcomplicated response.

“Well, we’ve never worked together, so the first 10 hours will be $40.”

“Alright. And the next?”

Crap. I hadn’t even thought about the possibility he’d accept. WhatdoIdowhatdoIdowhatdoIdo?!

Not wanting to sit there making scrunched up faces like a constipated gargoyle, I finally spat out the only answer I could think of.

“After that, it doubles.”

“Hmm… Ok.”

It took everything in me not to fall out of my chair. My first official freelance gig ever, and I had somehow landed $80/hour. I felt like I could buy France. I smiled all the way back to the office.

Fast forward two years.

I’d picked up a handful of writing jobs on the side that made for some excellent beer money. I had also managed to make friends in the digital world – mostly by changing my strategy from “kiss a lot of butts” to what came more natural: “make fun of everything.”

People appreciate humour – most of the time.

Despite having a great boss, SEO was feeling less fulfilling. I began to see limitations in my ability to be effective; the agency and I were moving different directions – them towards the analytical, myself towards the creative – though interestingly I felt like SEO itself was moving the creative route, too.

It was the year after the first Panda update had rolled out – the first blow that got everyone talking about content again. When Penguin finally rolled out, demand for good writers went absolutely Hiroshima.

People were going bonkers bananas for content, and I could create it.

I started thinking seriously about writing full-time, but everything I read said that freelance writing was a terrible career choice. And frankly, spending 10 minutes browsing oDesk is enough to make any creative want to curl up in a ball and cry.

But then again – did I really want to keep trying to force a future in SEO? Despite unparalleled flexibility in my job and being surrounded by friends, trying to win the Google game was turning me into a jaded bastard. My usual sarcastic humour turned into bitter, unfunny tirades. My family noticed how little I was smiling, how low my energy was, how much I seemed to brood all the time.

It wasn’t the job, the people or the pay – I’d simply lost my spark. Writing seemed like the way to get it back. I needed a change.

People might say they want great content – but few put their money where their mouth is.

I was told it was low-paying work; that it took years to break through and that it’d never pay what I could make doing SEO. Over and over, I heard how hard it would be to make a living and that it’d be hard to find steady projects.

I thought I might have a chance.

I had a business background; I could see the big picture. I’d spent almost five years analyzing data to help make clients make business decisions. My history in digital had given me two enormous assets: a network who would trust me with work, and an understanding of exactly what digital agencies were trying to accomplish with content.

But more than any of those reassurances, I wanted to be able to say I went for it – that when my fictional children sat on my lap in the future and asked me “Dad, why are we wearing potato sacks?”, I could at least explain myself with the poetic notion of living your dreams.

So in June of 2013, after struggling with the battle between comfort and adventure, I submitted my month’s notice.

I went freelance as of July 1st. Jobs were coming in, my website launched; things were looking like they might just work out.

And then I got the biggest curve ball of all.

While at MozCon, I got an e-mail from a recruiter, asking me to interview for the role of SEO Director at a massive firm that handles accounts for a whole lot of household names. It came with a lot of responsibility, control and a 6-figure paycheck nearly double what I’d been making prior.

It’d be hard work that would test the business training I’d been longing to use for years.

But this was a huge wrench in my plans. I’d only just finished branding Business Casual; I’d put my heart and soul into that little cartoon character and everything it meant for me. And now, just as soon as I’d taken a risk and stepped out on my own, comfort came calling with a nuclear-powered megaphone.

So tell me, what kind of idiot would turn down a title and pay grade like that for the “work-a-day life” and “meagre income” of a freelance writer? 

This kind of idiot.

After going through three rounds of interviews and receiving an offer, I ultimately chose not to take the job. This is no hippy love-in, but I realized after a few sleepless nights that success meant more than just a healthy bank account.

I was happier than I’d been in months. I was building something new. I had total control over whether or not I succeeded or failed. I had clients – and I still get giddy over the fact that they are MY clients. As in, they chose to work with me.

This was where I wanted to be.

And while I felt peace in my decision, the fire of uncertainty still burned bright. I printed off the job offer and pinned it to my bulletin board with a circle around the dollar figure I’d just walked away from.

This would be my reminder. Every morning, I’d look at it and remember exactly what I gave up to chase this idiotic dream of bashing a keyboard for profit.

It paid off.

I plan to share my strategy for success in another post, but so far, I have been affirmed many times over in my decision.

It’s been just about 150 days since I chose to leave my old job. 150 days working without pants in the comfort of my tiny little home office.

I’ve consistently earned 40% more than what I was making at my previous agency. And though I know work will always ebb and flow, last month I actually turned a profit higher than what my salary in the SEO director role would have been.

I celebrated by buying myself the cheapest dual monitor I could find and a keyboard that didn’t have things growing in it.

I’m not looking for pats on the back. This is not an exercise in self-congratulation or a chance to wave ambiguous income figures in people’s faces like I’m some kind of genius big shot.

Let’s be serious ladies and gentlemen, it’s been just 5 months. I have no misgivings about the fact that work could dry up or that something could go horribly wrong (like a sprained wrist). I’m still making all kinds of mistakes – but I’m growing through them.

But though it may sound bizarre coming from someone known for his cynicism, I wrote all this because I want other people to believe the same tired cliché that I had almost written off:

Do what you love, and the money will follow.

Then again – when you do what you love, the money might not matter so much anyway.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

90 Seconds or Less: Don’t be “Affordable”

I was chatting with someone I consider a mentor yesterday, when they dropped a gold nugget of unconventional wisdom that aligns perfectly with the business strategy I’ve taken with my writing work.

We were chatting about pricing and costs – and how often writers (and other consultants) are timid to quote what they’re worth out of a bizarre, misguided protectiveness of a client’s budget. I’m not talking being “cost-concious”, I’m talking the internal monologue you have when sitting at your monitor, wondering how to quote:

“Ack, but if I charge X, it will come out to Y – and I just don’t think the client has the budget for that!”

Boo frickety hoo. Contrary to the opinion we seem to be pre-set with, you do not exist to save your client money: you exist to MAKE them money by creating value for their business.

And that’s when Derek shared his mind:

“Don’t be affordable.”

“You don’t want to be the “affordable” option – the guy they come to with their ragtag projects. You don’t want to be the guy who is delivering steak on a McDonald’s budget.”

What he said next is what really hit me:

“You want to be the guy where they say, “Man, when we get some money – when we’ve got a budget to do something awesome – we want to work with Joel.”"

Why chip out a day-to-day doing minor, bland jobs that don’t excite you? If you’re any good at what you do, why settle for that kind of work?

And yet, so many talented writers eek out a living for bottom of the barrel wages because they’re afraid to take any pride in their work or hear the word “No”.

Sometimes, “No” is “Not now.”

Prove you’re the BEST option, not the most affordable one – and then hold yourself to that standard.

Whether you’re a writer, graphic designer, consultant, SEO, content strategist – it doesn’t matter. Work to be the option people want to be able to afford.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

An Open Letter to the Editors of Search Engine Journal

NOTE: SEJ has since responded to criticisms with what I think is a very fair and mature reply: You can read it here. I never intended this to be a personal attack, nor do I harbour ill will toward the publication. I merely wanted to point out what others and I had noticed: that quality was suffering. Many of you seemed to echo that sentiment, and I’ve gotten many messages from people who agree that the point needed to be made.

Still, I do not want to build my reputation on the back of jabbing others’. I believe SEJ is serious about trying to improve, and so I’ve chosen to take this post down at this time. I appreciate everyone who has commented and all of the upvotes on Inbound (we went to #2 overall, even above Rand’s interview – which is crazy – but also, not somewhere I think the post needs to be in the long-term as SEJ cleans up their act).

Thanks for reading.

————————————————————–

Joel Klettke is a writer-for-hire who most certainly does NOT double as a cleaning lady.

When he’s not busy kick hornets’ nests and not-leaving-well-enough-alone, he’s writing bios in the third-person and shamelessly promoting his Zombie 404 Page, because, well, it’s pretty dang cool and he paid a developer to create the friggin’ thing.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

The Clients I Want to Work With

Here are the clients I want to work with:

Bring me your parallax dreamers, your daring content adventurers, bring me the copy projects that could get you fired. Bring me the companies who want to BE the next Dollar Shave Club or Old Spice Guy – not just rip them off. 

Bring me those who want humour and won’t shoo it away with a red pen and an over-starched collar when it actually shows up. The ones who won’t choke their humanity with a style guide that lives on a different planet than their customers do.

Bring me the steak eaters and the fine diners – not the McDonald’s elite – or the ones  content to drink regurgitated  Tang from a thought leader’s shoe and preach about the way it cured their cataracts.

Bring me the ideas people with rolled up sleeves; the ones who aren’t content to clink glasses over “ideas” and would rather get muddy in the trenches and drink schooners when the work is through.

Bring me the process people – the ones who fly by the seat of their pants, but take along a co-pilot. Bring me the honest ones, the ones who believe in contracts and paying on time as much as they believe in firm handshakes. 

Bring me the ones who would rather smash their typing hands than betray the allegiance of their audience; the ones who would sooner say nothing than abuse keyboards on a deadline.

And please, if nothing else, bring me the ones who don’t believe in word counts.

(If you’re like this, I’d be overjoyed to hear from you: Business Casual Copywriting)

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

Counterpoint: Why I Will Always Ask You To Share My Content

My good buddy Dan Shure wrote a piece today about how he won’t ever ask anyone to share his content. It’s pretty compelling, you can check it out here (and should, since you won’t have a sweet clue what I’m rambling on about if you don’t).

In summary, Dan makes the following points:

  1. That shares are the one true metric he has for gauging whether his content is really excellent or not. Why ask people to share  if they don’t actually find value in it? You’ll just dilute your perception of whether or not your content really is great.
  2. That great content will get shared because it’s so great. Well, actually, because so many people will find value in it that they’d like to share it of their own accord.
And those are nice points – you don’t want to feel like your content only got shared because you asked. Except that I vehemently disagree with his overarching point. I think asking people to share your content is a good thing, and here’s why:

1. Because getting the ball rolling and earning honest feedback are not mutually exclusive ideas.

Really, they’re not. Have you ever spent time on Reddit? There’s some amazing content that will never, ever see the light of day because a few key people decided to downvote or ignore it. Does that mean the content sucked? No, it just means there was nobody there to help out in the critical moment it needed a push start.

I am part of the “underground share asking” Dan talks about for the sole reason that having advocates for your content can help make great content visible. I know who pushed the car, but where it goes after that is entirely up to the community who comes into contact with it via my “first-sharers”.

I can still get that critical feedback Dan wants so badly!

In fact, I’ll probably get MORE of it, since MORE people will be exposed to my writing. The fact that a few friends shared it out on my behalf doesn’t taint the fact that people have brains. If my content stinks, sharing will begin and end with my friend circle.

2. Because good friends will tell you your content sucks.

The peer group that I vet my writing through has the ability to tell me something blows donkey chestnuts instead of sharing it out. For as much as it’s an amplifier, it’s also a sounding board. If I write a real stinker, these are the first people to tell me that it needs work.

In fact, I’ll often bounce my pieces off them before sharing to ensure my content WILL BE the best content I can possibly put out instead of hitting “publish” and just hoping somebody influencial stumbles across it and falls in love.

Not sharing out your content is like hiding in your basement and expecting Prince(ss) charming to come crashing through your window and propose.

It’s a bad idea.

So share your content. Build a peer group. Vet your pieces through them – and when they’re ready, share the crap out of them for each other and let the community at large decide.

Or, sit twiddling your thumbs and pray for greatness. The choice is yours.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

Turning Wolves Inside Out

King Richard

As a kid, my Opa Richard was larger than life. In my eyes he had this strange celebrity status; I mentally equated him with John F Kennedy. A strong, commanding figure with a thick head of hair that rivalled Elvis’ and a face that belonged in the black and white snapshots of history books.

He was the first relative to see me after I was born and the first to visit me at the hospital when I made an ill-fated attempt to swallow a nickel. As a child, he built my cousins and I a playhouse in his backyard. As an adult, he sold me my first home.

He lived just around the corner from my parent’s house and was an integral part of my life.

The Oddball

Opa had a lot of funny quirks. He hated the Queen and made a point to announce that he wouldn’t go visit her “if she was over in the next cul-de-sac”. He threatened to disown anyone in our family who listened to Mick Jagger, lamenting how “that idiot is paid to dance on a stage like a monkey”. He’d repeatedly go by himself to those photobooths in the mall and snap a string of wild-haired photos. When we asked him to, he grew out an enormous beard and looked almost exactly like Sadaam Hussein.

All of us cousins used to put on little shows for the adults – magic, drama, dance – and then pass around a metal, golden apple to collect our fee. We saved this for years, making grandiose plans as to how we’d spend it. We visited once to find the money completely gone. Opa had gone out and bought the most obnoxious boombox we’d ever seen with it, blasting German Volksmusic through the house at decibels we could hear from our place around the corner.

And he could surprise you. Our entire family was shocked to find him defying his firm Baptist roots, lured to the dance floor by my cousin Kayla for a spirited rendition of twist-n-shout. It wasn’t his kind of dance, but for an 80-something, he could really move.

The Storyteller

He loved to find a joke or story to tell and would recount it with a smirk and a gleam in his eye that gave away the punchline before he could say it.

When we were young, Opa used to tell us a story about his Dad, whom he lost when the soviets stormed their farm in Russia (the reason he would never cheer for Ovechkin). According to his legend, his Dad was once out in a field when a wolf came and attacked him. Without so much as a flinch, his Dad plunged his hand deep into the wolf, grabbed its tail and turned it inside out.

As a child, I firmly believed this was true. I believed Opa could do it too, if he tried.

I thought he was invincible.

When we were really little, he’d throw his hat into an open fire, wait for us to scream about it – then reach in and pull it out with his bare hands. We were amazed every time – who was this man who could feel no pain?

When he was 84 years old, he was still roofing sheds. On his own. I’ll never forget waking up one morning last year to the sound of scratching on my roof, going out my front door and seeing my octogenarian grandfather on a 20 foot ladder using a crowbar to clean my eaves trough. He was an unstoppable force.

But Opa was not always an easy man.

Having left Russia without his father to build a life here, Opa was fiercely critical of anything he perceived as a waste of money. He had an iron will and a way of doing things that you would question at your own peril.

My first-ever attempt at mowing a lawn was his. I nearly left in tears when he shouted down at me, asking if I was blind (I missed some rather obvious strips) and commandeering the lawnmower to do it himself. Years later, after spending hours mowing his lawn while he was away, he phoned me to tell me it was the best he’d ever seen. This felt like winning the lottery. His approval mean the world. His disappointment was crushing.

He was a handyman, but you couldn’t ask Opa how to do things. He assumed everyone should be able to figure it out, especially since he, a German immigrant with a “4th grade Russian education”, had no problem. His criticisms could be harsh whenever he felt like you were being too loose with funds or too lazy to do a job the “right way”.

We sometimes questioned if he was bipolar, as this pointed fury could unpredictably evaporate into an extraordinary kindness and demonstrations of love. After I bought my house, he locked himself away in my garage, insulated the entire thing and hung cabinets without me even asking him to.

He just knew I’d need them, and couldn’t build them myself.

A Hard-Earned Legacy

Some of you may be surprised that I am recounting some less than flattering things about this man I so deeply respected. But you need to understand – this was an integral part of who he was to his family – a sometimes cantankerous presence that was often a point of both humour and frustration.

He came with bristles, strong opinions and an invulnerable stubbornness, yes.

But when you turn the wolf inside out, you quickly find that his was a soul that would give anything for the safety and security of his family. There was a love there that didn’t always know how to express itself.

He was a builder. He laid our foundation. It was no coward’s work. He took immense pride in it – and in us. He was affirmed when he saw us succeed, needed to see us level headed and making wise decisions. And for every barb and thorn, there was a moment of gentleness and a wit that would come alive when he told a story or played a joke.

Happy 85th, Opa. Couldn't fit all those candles on the cake.

Near the end of his life, someone asked my Opa what I did for a living. He replied, with what I can only imagine was his characteristic smirk, “I have no idea, but I believe he’s doing well.”

The End of an Era

Yesterday, I stood by my Opa’s bedside as he finally lost his battle with lung cancer. It was surreal to hear the slow winding down of the oxygen machine, the pump rising and falling for the last time, the strange quiet as the birds who had somehow still been chirping at 10:00pm went suddenly quiet, as if on cue.

He was strong-willed until the end – a man who wanted to live on his own terms and die on his own terms. They had brought a hospital bed to his house. In one last hilarious act of defiance, he more or less refused to go near the thing. It was not what he wanted.

He breathed his last at home, in his own bed surrounded by his children. I was able to see off the man who was among the first to welcome me here. I choose to believe that after arriving in heaven, he shook hands with his Dad before giving God a hard time for how he’d laid all of the shingles.

Long Live the Patriarch

A few months ago, in an attempt to immortalize my Opa in some meaningful way I created this painting.

His legacy to his family is enormous. He used his personal success to help kick start others – especially his grandchildren. It hangs in the front entrance of my home – the home he helped make possible through his generosity. It will remind me of him every single time I open that door.

He may be gone, but the impact he’s had will spiral through generations.

Thanks for everything, Opa.
I’ll miss you.

 

Posted In: Personal Ramblings