Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What, exactly, are you scared of?

If Facebook is a 24-7 gathering with friends, LinkedIn is the neverending tradeshow mixer, except that it's your gluteus that aches instead of your feet. The vast majority of conversations veer toward the tedious and self-promotional, and tediously self-promotional, but every once in a while there's an item that sparks a vigorous professional discussion.

Over the weekend, a guy claiming decades of freelance experience was asking for advice on acquiring new clients, since his usual contacts had dried up with business and referrals. Recommendations were all over the board; I was among the many who opined that cold-calling was the best approach. Everyone had positive, concrete, go-git-'em suggestions.

In response, he acknowledged that cold-calling was probably the right move, but then proceeded to explain the reasons he didn't really want to (he hates rejection, takes it personally). He added that what he *really* wanted to know was "what job title" he should be approaching at graphics companies to get work. Finally, he said that two emergency projects had come in, and so he was busy again. KThxBye.

I can't fathom how someone could survive or enjoy entrepreneurship with that kind of attitude. I also wondered what kind of customer service he delivers. Beyond that, what I really don't get is his fear of selling himself and his services, if he indeed approaches this as a business. Is a "no" honestly something that you should take personally? There's enormous peace of mind derived from being emotionally objective in the sales process. You are not your job. Rejection is no more a condemnation than acceptance is an indication that you're a wonderful human being.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Honey, I think I've got writer's block!"

Was doing a web search for the Algonquin Hotel in St-Andrews-by-the-Sea, located about an hour south of us in New Brunswick, Canada, when I was stopped in my tracks by the following promotion at the legendary Algonquin Hotel in New York City:
Writer's Block Rate: Receive 25% off of the best possible rate. When you book through our website, simply by showing a work in progress or a published work upon check-in.
"But, Jake," you say, "A center-city New York hotel is going to be expensive." True, but the bright side is that the $500-plus nightly rate means you'll "save" $125 or more!!! A glance at the history page reveals that it's more than an intriguing marketing pitch--truly, you might be able to pick up some positive writing mojo. (Which, for that kind of dough, you darn well better.):
From its inception, manager (and later owner) Frank Case created a vision for The Algonquin as New York’s center of literary and theatrical life. His enduring fascination with actors and writers led him to extend them credit, in the process luring such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and John Barrymore.

Famed women flocked to the hotel as well, as The Algonquin was unconventional early on in accommodating single women guests. Over the years, these have included Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, Helen Hayes, Erica Jones, and Maya Angelou.

Three Nobel laureates visited on a regular basis, including Sinclair Lewis (who offered to buy the hotel), Derek Walcott, and most memorably William Faulkner, who drafted his Nobel Prize acceptance speech at The Algonquin in 1950.
The promotion, if you've got $375 plus tax burning a hole in your pocket, lasts through the end of 2009.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Bully Pulpit

"Don't worry," my friend Jim used to say. "You're not totally worthless--you can serve as a bad example." Today, as a counterpoint to my post-Labor Day post, an ode to workplace tyrants and bullies, and the "benefits" thereof. (Sorry, not naming names, eh.)

Most of us aren't in the working world terribly long before learning a lesson: No matter how tough your parents were, you have no idea what's in store once someone is paying you to obey, whether they're a freelance client or a full-time employer. There are maybe a half-dozen of them that stick out in my own career, ranging from garden-variety micromanager to full-on, desk-pounding, neck-vein-bulging maniac.

From a bully at my first job, I learned (daily) that titles don't necessarily equal talent, and vice versa, and so never to assume one from the other. Another taught me that tyrants can come in unassuming packages, a rule underscored by yesterday's parade of fools at the UN. And yet, several of the most-demanding managers, coworkers and clients were also the wisest, and pushed me to a higher standard, taught me innumerable tricks of the editorial and marketing trades, and provided insights about business in general. I guess you could describe such a dynamic as unpleasant but worthwhile--a rite of passage.

How you deal with the various incarnations of bossy behavior requires recognizing that what motivates you and deciding whether the best course of action is to stand your ground or catch the next bus. Because one thing is for sure: You're not going to change them.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"I sell my soul, but at the highest rates."--Harlan Ellison

Crazy busy today, so I just wanted to pass along this epic rant--accompanied by a NSFW warning!--by legendary sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison: "Pay the Writer." He's got a bit of a reputation as a cranky guy, as you can see from his wiki entry, and it comes through loud and clear.

Nonetheless, what he says is absolutely on point. Writing is a business. Writers deserve to be paid. People who work for nothing are fools. Companies that want something for free should be scorned. (That's my G-rated version.)

Rinse. Repeat.

And did I mention the link is NSFW?

H/T to Liz Craig for the find, and for a darn good rant in her own right.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Minds thinking alike

Direct-mail legend Denny Hatch is right on target with his musing today: "What authors can learn from the great copywriters." He takes several newspaper columnists to task for sloppy prose, with scathing examples.

In his little diatribe, he echoes the technique I described in my Friday post about the best writing advice I'd ever received:

Journalists and authors, please take note of the dictum by freelance direct response copywriter Pat Friesen: “Normally, the best lead paragraph is buried somewhere in the middle of your first draft copy.”

Anyway, it's worth reading the whole thing--Denny says it much better than I could summarize it. While you're at his site, I highly recommend signing up for his free "Business Common Sense" email newsletter, too. I don't always agree with him, particularly when he injects politics, but he always makes me think.

Friday, September 11, 2009

What's your best writing advice?

What's the single most important piece of writing advice that you've ever received? I can name mine easily: Lew Fishman, an editor when I was on staff at Golf Digest's trade magazine, had bloodied up one of my articles. (Rightfully so.)

"Most of the time, the first two or three paragraphs you start with are B.S.," he said, pointing to two red-felt-pen "X" marks at the top of the paper. "Just cut them, and that's where your lead is."

It's a technique that, 20 years later, I use every day. The principle not only works for feature stories, but for web content, advertising copy, emails, press releases, written correspondence, editing someone else's name it. Don't vamp. Get to the point. At first, I felt awful about leaving carefully crafted text on the cutting-room floor. As I came to understand how effective it was, guilt gave way to relief.

For most creatives who are talented enough to make a living at it, trying to explain how you do what you do doesn't come easily, whether you're a writer, designer, illustrator or photographer. (It's a "feel" thing, right?) Nonetheless, it is worth occasionally revisiting the technical aspects of your craft, even if it's only to remind yourself of the power of the simplest tools.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Search me

Took a quick cruise through my Google Analytics to assess what topics drove the most traffic over the summer. No big surprise that six-figure freelancing and mommy blogging were among the leaders, though I confess that's a tad disheartening; I was attempting to inject some realism into a get-rich-quick world. Then again, who am I to dash the hopes of boxer-short billionaires and tighty-whitey titans?

I had to chuckle at the fact that the Sons of Maxwell "United Breaks Guitars" video delivered a real spike. (Even though I'd used it as a jumping-off point to discuss customer service, I'm sure googlers were a bit baffled to end up on a blog discussing freelancing and small business topics.) On the other hand, it seems as good a time as any to link to their second video--which features a catchy singalong hook, guys in lederhosen, and a white van with UNITED duck-taped on every side:
United Breaks Guitars: Song 2

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Velveeta sandwiches

In an entry a few weeks back, "Res ipsa loquitur," I'd piled on (along with a million other people) in opining about an ad agency intern's public nastygram to her former employer.

Today's post is triggered by two items in the same vein: 1) An article in the New York Times about the trend in students (or rather their parents) to pay for internships, "Unpaid Work, but They Pay for the Privilege," and 2) a LinkedIn discussion this week based on a letter titled "A beginning writer bitches about the publishing industry."

It's said that bad luck and celebrity deaths come in threes, so perhaps it stands to reason that stupidity also is happiest in a trio. Several common threads run through these three items, but to me the most important is this: a sense of entitlement. The world does not owe you a living, and it doesn't even have to be nice to you. As a wise old man once told a younger me, when I was whining about something or other, "Son, 'fair' is something you enter your prize pig in."

So, what the heck does "Velveeta sandwiches" have to do with anything, you're wondering? They were my standard lunch fare when I was an intern (at a New York Times-owned magazine, ironically enough) making $4 an hour, after earning my bachelor's degree but before being hired full time. And, no, I wouldn't trade that summer for the world.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ten years after

I'm not one for remembering exact dates, but it was just about this time 10 years ago that I split the corporate scene and started my own enterprise. It has gone quickly, as good things do.

Recently, a business acquaintance of mine to whom I hadn't spoken in two years dropped me a line on a social networking site. I'm not one for remembering exact dialogue, but he told me that during our last conversation, I'd talked him off the ledge and gotten him re-energized on running his own business, which he's still doing and still enjoying. (You can check out Pete Wright's work at Fifth & Main, which features his Internet producing/broadcasting/storytelling talents, and Acoustic Conversations, which helps musicians promote their tunes and stories.) I was incredibly humbled that my words could have that kind of impact.

Which led me into a cascade of thinking about the people who've influenced me and supported me along the way, including teachers, coaches, friends, teammates, colleagues, bosses, editors, clients and my family. And not the least my dad, who advised me to sock away enough money that you can tell any boss at any time to, well, "take this job and shove it," though he wasn't that delicate about it. You can never be free if you're shackled to your next paycheck. It's true if you're in the corporate world, and equally valid if you're an entrepreneur.

I hope you took yesterday off to goof off, relax and recharge. On this day after Labor Day 2009, I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on the people who've helped you get where you are. And then take a moment to consider the people whom you influence in the business sphere...and what you can do to help them get to where they need to be.

And if you're like me, it's time to get back to that stack of overdue thank-you notes.