Thursday, July 27, 2006

Back from Green Marketing Seminar with Precision Web Marketing

Well, after a long and particularly insane ride home (I swear that I93 exists to make drivers REALLY HATE their cars) I have returned from co-presenting a seminar on Green Marketing with Michelle Girasole of Precision Web Marketing in Providence. The group was intimate, but attentive, and I had a great time chatting with them about more eco-friendly ways to promote their businesses, including green printing, blogging, and e-mail newsletters. I look forward to having the chance to do that again—public speaking is one of those things I truly love to do, and it gives me a chance to use that theatre training I never thought I'd use again!

After the seminar, I stopped by to visit a good friend and took a trip to Pawtuxet Village in Cranston—my old hangout, before I moved up to Somerville a year ago. It's a beautiful, quaint little village right by the Pawtuxet River, just up the street from where I grew up. While I was there, I stopped by Little Falls Bakery and CafĂ© (please don't pay too much attention to the aesthetics of their site—ack!) to pick up a couple of their Multigrain scones, which are one of my absolute favorite breakfast items ever, and one of the things I miss most about living in Cranston. Little Falls does it right—they're an institution in Pawtuxet Village, and I think that's mainly because they don't need to market themselves all that heavily to people—they're in a very convenient location just at the beginning of the main part of the Village, they provide great food (all their scones are amazing, and their low-carb bagels are good enough to convince even someone who loves carbs to give them a try. The coffee rocks too) and great, friendly service, and they try to give back to their community. Little by little, word of mouth leads to more customers, and those customers tell other people, and so on and so forth.

The fact is that, while all the other things that business owners do to market themselves is good and valuable, there is so much to be said about just being good at what you do, and about being good to other people. When you do something nice for someone, whether it's helping them with an issue they've been having, sending them a helpful article about something they'd be interested in, or even just smiling and saying hello—they remember that, and they remember you. And getting people to remember you is half of successful marketing. So, as you go along in your workday, take some time to be good to people—it'll always pay you back.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

the zen kitchen has a new mascot!

benjamin, the zen kitchen mascot
Thanks to my best friend Rae, the studio now has a new temporary mascot - Benjamin (above), a very adorable bearded dragon that Rae needed to find a home for during the summer. My cat Persephone, who has been trying to turn herself into the studio mascot for quite a while (see right) Persephone, also the zen kitchen mascot has been very cute about the whole thing—she hasn't gotten jealous yet, but she's FASCINATED by the cricket tank sitting under the stairs. She has literally spent the last three days perched next to the tank, staring at the crickets inside.

Having a bearded dragon is an interesting venture. The crickets under the stairs keep chirping pretty loudly, which gives the studio a sort of calm feeling, like I'm at my computer in the middle of the woods at night. It's all very Zen. Meanwhile, I now have two animals posing for my attention on a regular basis - Persephone has a habit of lounging strategically every time you look at her, as if she's ready for her closeup, and Benjamin keeps striking little poses for me in his tank, which is right on top of a large counter along the side wall of my office. I was a bit worried that having the two distractions—I mean loving, friendly creatures—would make me less productive, but thus far they really haven't.

This is one of the benefits of having your own studio or home office - you have the power to make the space yours. Plants, artwork, curtains, plants, even animals - you can create your own haven of productivity, however you want to set it up. This was something I always missed with full-time and contract gigs - the ability to make a space mine and only mine. Too often, there were office policies against personal stuff being in a cube, or limits on what was allowed; in some cases, I was even forced to share a small cube with another contractor, which led to consistent issues not only with productivity, but with interpersonal conflict; anyone who's ever been forced to work in cramped quarters with another person probably knows the types of issues that come up. While not all space-sharing situations are horrible, sometimes you just get stuck with That Person. You know—the surly dude who does nothing but complain about the company and his coworkers, or the girl who spends most of her time regaling you with tales of her latest dating adventure, and it just makes your work life miserable (or at least, less productive).

Why does this seem to be such a trend in companies? Is it only in New England (where I'm from), or does this happen nationwide? A happy workforce is a productive workforce—studies have shown this time and again—yet so many companies downsize staff and then force the remaining folks to work long, thankless hours, or they take on contractors without having the space to house them appropriately. If I had a dollar for every time my knees were against a filing cabinet while I was working for 9+ hours a day, I'd have a pretty hefty sum in my savings account right now.

Put it this way—people are more productive if they're comfortable. You spend at least 1/3 of your life (if not more) at work—if you can make people comfortable, keep them happy, make them feel appreciated, they'll do more for you, be more committed to their jobs and more productive. If you don't have room for another contractor, find people who have the right software at home and let them telecommute. If someone has to commute an hour or more just to get there—either pay them more or let them telecommute. If people want to bring in potted plants, let them bring in a potted plant. Let them listen to their music (as long as it's on headphones), and make contractors (especially those who are staying more than a few months) feel like they're part of the team. Some companies are already doing this—for example, my experience at CVS/Pharmacy was one of the best I've had in years; I had my own largish cube, which afforded privacy and room to spread out my work, and the manager was hands-on enough to give you direction, but hands-off enough to trust that you knew what you were doing. Let's see it happen more often, especially in larger companies.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Your personality is your business - developing healthy business relationships

Over the past week, I've found myself involved in a series of conversations with various people in my network about business relationships. Whether you're just starting out in business or you've been doing it for 20 years, relationships are the key to any business, service or otherwise. Learn how to navigate them well, and make sure to treat people well, and you can build a solid base of support - something that any business needs.

To me, the most productive business relationships are those that involve a mutual sense of support, respect and trust between the individuals involved. As a designer, I need to know that the client I'm involved with appreciates my work and trusts me to do the best job possible for them. In return, I make every effort to do my best work for them, and I become a loyal supporter of their business, using the tools I have available, including promoting them through my website and word-of-mouth, to help their business succeed outside of what I'm able to do for them graphically. I am happy to say that I genuinely love working with my current clients, and I won't accept the work unless I can say that going in.

However, if I'm dealing with a potential client and I feel there's a lack of trust or respect there, I'll work to find a solution for it, and if that sense of respect isn't there despite my best efforts, I don't take on the client. It isn't worth it to me or my business to work with someone who isn't going to respect what I do for them - a client who doesn't value what effective design can do for their business, or who will make blanket negative statements about design or designers in general, isn't going to commit to their end of the client relationship, and will often turn out to be a) more trouble than they're worth, and b) a relationship that inevitably results in substandard, ineffective work, usually because the client isn't willing to take an active role in giving the designer what they need to do their jobs effectively. Of course, this isn't what the client sees - they just see that they paid you all this money and your work didn't get results, and that confirms their already negative view of the design industry in general. Clients can be funny that way.

In one of the conversations I had this week, I was told that, like most people who work for themselves, I sometimes let my personality lead my business instead of letting my business thinking lead it. My answer to that, although I couldn't quite articulate it at the time, is why wouldn't I?

The fact is that any business, despite what people want to believe about corporations being soulless and evil, is based, first and foremost, on humans. Not machines, not products, not processes and policies, but humans. If you're selling toasters, you're concerned with the humans who are buying those toasters and making them happy. If you're a banker, you're concerned about the humans that are going to your bank, and making them happy. Business is 100% a human endeavor. To overlook the part that personalities play in that endeavor is, in my opinion, sorely misguided.

This holds especially true in service businesses. In the case of a big corporation, you have a chance for more anonymity, and often, the only people you'll be dealing with is your coworkers. While I wouldn't advocate being an antisocial jerk there either, the shy, timid, and less social creatures of us will often find themselves a bit more at ease in in-house situations than in the often scary world of working-for-yourself. But even in that case, it's important to find room for your unique personality wherever (and however) you choose to work.

In the case of those that have made the self-employment leap, your personality becomes an even more important part of your business, because frankly, you ARE your business. The more authentically you present yourself, and the more effective you can be at navigating different people's personality differences while still remaining true to who you are, the more effective you'll be as a business owner, and as a fellow human.

For example, my personality (as many will attest) is very strong and very outgoing, with a tendency towards stubbornness. If I believe in something strongly enough, I'll argue it till the death, and this can cause problems with people who aren't open to other opinions (or who just don't like people who aren't afraid to speak their mind or ask tough questions). I also, however, tend to be very friendly, and I love to help people. My clients range from non-profits and entrepeneurs who have never dealt with a professional designer before to the design directors and content managers of mid-size to large companies, who are very used to working with designers.

As a result, depending on the client, I can find myself dealing with very different situations and very different personalities on a given day. In addition, during the feeling-out process in the beginning of a potential client relationship, I find myself assessing the client based not only on whether the work will be a good fit for my style and my interests, but whether the person I'm dealing with is a good fit for my personality. This, to me, is the ultimate in business thinking leading my business - if I'm not working for people I like and can get along with, I won't do my best work, and I won't be able to sustain the client relationship.

Another key thing I've learned about client relationships is patience. As I mentioned earlier, a number of my clients were not accustomed to working with professional designers before they came to me, and as a result, I often find myself in a situation where what I take for granted is something that the client wasn't aware of, and has resulted in a number of interesting learning experiences in the realm of client-designer communication.

But this is another key thing I've learned: effective communication and conflict resolution. Over the years, I've gone from situations where I found myself so frustrated by a client or boss that I've found myself bursting into tears or getting nasty with the person; over the years, I've learned not only to see the other person's point of view whenever possible, I've learned to almost immediately recognize people that are going to press my trigger points, and AVOID DEALING WITH THEM!

This, in my opinion, is the absolute most important thing for service professionals to remember - go with your gut. If someone is giving you a vibe that makes you think you're about to flip out on them, walk away. Walk away quickly, do not pass go, and do NOT collect $200 (which is often about what you'll end up collecting from said individual in exchange for your hard work anyway).

Another important thing I've learned (alas, the Very Hard Way) is covering all the bases right away. A good contract or proposal should lay out everything that should reasonably expected of you as the designer, and everything that you, as designer, expect from the client. The client should know whether they're providing content, and what form that "content" needs to take. They should know whether proofreading or spellchecking of content is a service that's being worked into the quote. They should know how many revisions they're entitled to, and what happens if they go over that. They should also know what happens if they all of a sudden decide to move on. If something gets missed in the communication attempt, don't kill yourself over it - but do make sure to clear up any misconceptions as they arise.

Let's face it - we're all human. Mistakes and conflicts will arise from time to time, in business, as well as in life. We can't control how other people are going to behave, or whether we're going to get along with everyone we meet. What we can do is stay true to ourselves, treat people with fairness and equanimity, and not invest our time or energy in people that just aren't a good fit for us. If we can do that, we can then build a network of people who enrich our lives, and our businesses, and whose lives and businesses we enrich in turn and everyone's happy.

By the way, yes - I am an optimist.