What it means to me to be a free agent

June 24, 2010
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Seth Godin posed 16 questions for people making a living as a free agent. While the people I currently help and those I might help in the future may benefit from knowing the answers here, it’s more important to put in words why I do what I do to make sure I understand that for myself. Still, I hope this little exercise provides a helpful window into how I work and who I am.

Seth Godin posed 16 questions for people making a living as a free agent. While the people I currently help and those I might help in the future may benefit from knowing the answers here, it’s more important to put in words why I do what I do to make sure I understand that for myself. Still, I hope this little exercise provides a helpful window into how I work and who I am.

1. Who are you trying to please?

It’s easy to say “I’m trying to please my clients” but I don’t think that’s a complete answer. My satisfaction as a designer, developer, and service provider comes directly from how well I’ve solved other peoples’ problems so, in the end, I’m truly trying to please myself. If someone is unhappy with their site or their logo or their blog then I take it personally and, for my own sake, do everything I can to figure out a better way or a new look.

I look for this satisfaction from the very beginning of a project and try not to take on anything that I’m not going to be proud of in the end. I like to make other people look good and I like to help other people succeed and if I don’t think I can do that (because of the starting point or the project or the person I’ll be working with) then I won’t take the project.

2. Are you trying to make a living, make a difference, or leave a legacy?

This question really made me think…

I know I’m not just trying to make a living, that’s been clear from the start (it’s been clear, at least in my head, since I went back to school 7 years ago). I try as hard as I can to make a difference, both in the way people work and in my industry in general. That’s been a big motivation to keep going but it’s also a big reason I keep blogging (and want to even more). If people can do better work, reach more people, make more money, and/or understand something better because of me, I’ve succeeded and I feel great.

But a legacy? I’ve thought about the business I want to own, the team I want to build, the office I’d love to outfit but it never really occurred to me that I would be building a legacy. In fact, in never occurred to me that I could. Though I’ve never really framed my activities as legacy-building, I’ve always been looking forward to creating jobs for people and building something that can stand on its own. So I guess the answer is yes, I am trying to build a legacy and I think this question just gave what I do a name.

3. How will the world be different when you’ve succeeded?

The world will be different in two ways:

  1. There will be more business owners and individuals on the web who understand what’s going on around them and how to use the tools that are available.
  2. There will be more attractive, easy-to-use, and well-coded sites and applications out there.

Not a particularly difficult goal for the most part.

4. Is it more important to add new customers or to increase your interactions with existing ones?

I don’t think I could choose one or the other and I work to maximize both (as much I as I can with my time limited to 168 hours a week). In many cases, I’m setting up sites and teaching people with the outcome being a site that they can maintain on their own. If I have to be a day-to-day part of the operations on a site I’ve built then I probably didn’t really do my job very well. On-going check-ups are one thing but content management has matured to the point where web novices can do great things on their own. I like empowering people to not need me.

I do, however, put a lot of energy into communicating with my clients and making sure they understand all of their options. I’m sure this is why I have so many word-of-mouth referrals and returning clients. I hate to burn bridges and I’d rather do the work and finish the project correctly than get paid for every minute of my time. I also put my current clients ahead of any leads I’m pursuing as it’s only fair to complete work you’re on the line for before taking anything else on. In that way, I inadvertently choose to put existing clients ahead of others.

5. Do you want a team? How big? (I know, that’s two questions)

I do want a team but the size is not something I’ve thought about. If I had to come up with a number:

  1. One excellent designer who knows how to write code
  2. One excellent programmer who understands good aesthetics
  3. One excellent writer who understands SEO
  4. One excellent finance person who understands sales
  5. One excellent generalist who understands how it all comes together

So, count it up, I would say 5 great people who all understand customer service and how to have a good time.

6. Would you rather have an open-ended project that’s never done, or one where you hit natural end points? (How high is high enough?)

I like the idea of a project with natural end points that can be worked towards though almost anything can be improved so I’m not sure you can really categorize all projects into one or the other. Would building a business be an open-ended project that’s never done? What about a web application? I like a mix of both (building and maintaining JoshCanHelp and blog as well as starting and completing individual projects).

The “how high” question is a common one, especially as it pertains to a design. When is a design complete? I think a design is complete when it does what you set out to do and nothing more. This makes sure you’re always looking towards completion and leaves the door open for improvement if that becomes a goal.

7. Are you prepared to actively sell your stuff, or are you expecting that buyers will walk in the door and ask for it?

I’m understanding more and more the “art of the sell,” particularly as it pertains to my business. At first, my attitude was “if they want it, they’ll pay my deposit and we’ll get started.” This worked for the most part but I had a lot of people drop off or disappear before anything was started. Now, I try to make moving forward with me as easy as possible by:

  1. Explaining the process and the technology as best I can
  2. Making sure they hear that, yes, I can do what they need to get done
  3. Providing a very clear path forward, whether it’s a bank of questions to answer, a distinct choice to make, or an easy way to pay the deposit.

My job as a salesperson for myself has much less to do with selling something than it is with getting people ready to go through the process. Building a site is just as hard for the client as it is for me; it involves tough decisions, a lot of work creating the content that will appear on the site, and a lot of time working with me to get the right look and feel. Helping people to understand what lies ahead and how I can help them get through it not only makes for a smoother journey but makes it easier for people to commit to moving forward with me.

8. Which: to invent a category or to be just like Bob/Sue, but better?

Easy: invent. I like to solve problems creatively and when you do that, you create new genres. Outperforming an incumbant, however, builds genres as well. Many people want the same old thing, a copy of a nice-looking site that they can call their own. Other people want something a bit different. When you start to re-think how a site can be built, you start creating new categories of sites.

9. If you take someone else’s investment, are you prepared to sell out to pay it back?

If I ever find myself in that position, I believe I would “sell out,” though I have a tough time understanding what, exactly, that would mean. If you change your product to appeal to a broader, more motivated, or more cash-flush market, is that always selling out? If you take a niche product and make it more broadly appealing, is that selling out? If you change something to make more money and you still like what you’ve got, is it still selling out?

I believe in investor value over personal satisfaction (I don’t see it as the pinnacle of importance, though) so if I ever found myself at a point where I didn’t like what I was making, I assume that there’s always a way for me to leave and hand the keys over to people that believe in it. I won’t work on something I don’t believe in so if it’s me or the product, I’m out.

10. Are you done personally growing, or is this project going to force you to change and develop yourself?

Done personally growing? That’s hilarious… I won’t be done personally growing until I’m dead and buried. I will continue to grow, change, learn, and develop through the rest of my life as it’s a big reason why I get up in the morning.

11. Choose: teach and lead and challenge your customers, or do what they ask…

I like to teach, lead, challenge, guide, resist, and sometimes annoy my customers. If they trust me and can voice their opinions and hesitations, we’ll do just fine. I don’t like to just build what people ask for, I like to push a few boundaries, look at a few options, and help people do their best.

12. How long can you wait before it feels as though you’re succeeding?

I’m impatient in general but I know that about myself so I can wait a while before I get confirmation of how well (or poorly) I’ve done. That doesn’t mean I’m not freaking out with the mic on mute and the webcam off but I’m not going to let that show. Everything in due time, I really believe that.

13. Is perfect important? (Do you feel the need to fail privately, not in public?)

I think perfect is important. I fail in public and I fail in private but I’ll shoot for “polished” before I’ll shoot for just “functional.” On the web, there is so much to consider before you launch a project – design, interaction, search engine structure, keywords and phrases, site speed, social media interactions – and to just complete a few is a dissevice. In the beginning, I would casually mention that we could do a bit of keyword research or I’m able to create a Twitter background but that leaves so much undone when people just say “no thanks.”

But I’m digressing a bit… in the end, I’m looking to create the most complete, best product for who I work for. Many times, this means launching at “close” rather than “complete” and I think the iteration and testing that comes once it’s live is a very critical part of the process.

14. Do you want your customers to know each other (a tribe) or is it better they be anonymous and separate?

One of my favorite things to do is to connect people that can help each other. To that end, I’d love to throw an annual party for my clients and get people together to network and chat. I’d love to see what I learn by bringing all these people together and hearing what they had to say about me and what I do.

15. How close to failure, wipe out and humiliation are you willing to fly? (And while we’re on the topic, how open to criticism are you willing to be?)

Failure is painful but necessary. Wipe out is scary but always on the horizon in this line of work. Humiliation, however, is frightening and, I would guess, completely avoidable. If I invest my time and money into something that sounds like a great idea and it falls flat on its face, I wouldn’t be embarressed if I could explain (to whomever would listen) why it seemed like a great idea at the time. I think humiliation would come from making a really dumb move without thinking about it or proclaiming something totally ridiculous on a whim.

Then again, aren’t failure, wipe out, and humiliation all just states of mind? If I went broke doing something I loved to do that didn’t end up being a commercial success, I might not consider that a failure and I might not consider my state, if I’m still surrounded by the people I love, wipe out. If I did something really stupid but I wasn’t embarrassed about it, can I still be humiliated? If I stick to my guns while people call me names, is it still a humiliation if I truly don’t care what they think? Something to think about….

16. What does busy look like?

Busy looks like having your hobby be overflow from your career. Busy means waking up earlier than others to get essential things done. Busy looks like Saturdays in front of the computer and Sunday nights preparing for the week. Busy looks like me.

I think the more important question is: where does busy stop? If I am answering emails on my phone while I’m at a restaurant with my wife, that’s too far. If I work all day without stopping for a whole week, that’s too far. If I’m juggling to the point where people are beginning to ask me 3 or 4 times for something to get done, that’s too far. If the quality of what I create is suffering because I have too much on my plate, I’m not doing anyone any favors, particularly myself.

A lot of what I do involves creating, either designing or building something. You can’t create very well if you force yourself to create 10 hours a day, several days in a row, it just doesn’t work that way. Also, it’s easy to forget that answering emails, chasing down paychecks, and talking to clients all count as work though, oftentimes, you can’t claim the time. This kind of work can eat up 5 or 10 hours a week sometimes and take up time you could be doing something more important: creating or resting.

I’ve been working very, very, very hard for the last 8 years working full time or more, earning a BS in Chemistry, and building this little business I have going. I have tested my limits over and over and know my limits pretty well. I’ll push it now and then but I always expect to pay for it in one way or another.

Thanks for listening!

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