Don’t Be The Guy In The Pool With A Shirt On

Perfectionist. Detail-oriented. Cynic. Earnest. Authentic. Real. Meaningful. Passionate. These are all things that I hide behind. They are my excuses. They are the shirts I wear when I'm in the pool.

But underneath the shirt is the real me. Fear. Self-deception. Needing to be liked. Approval whore. That’s what I don’t want anyone to see.

But some days I wake up and want to tear off the shirt and live as free as a streaker at a football game.

But there’s that fear. The fear of judgement. The fear of being thought an idiot, or worse, a loser. The fear of being discovered as someone who isn’t very interesting, doesn’t have much to offer and isn’t needed by anyone.

I tell myself I’m detail oriented and a bit of perfectionist. But it’s not true. I obsess over the details because the details are all I have. If I don’t have details or designs or mechanisms or processes to obsess over, then I’m left with actually having to do something; to ship something. And that’s the greatest fear of all.

Deep down, I’m terrified of what people will think of me and of being a failure. Seriously, terrified. Take-a-bottle-of-pills-and-jump-out-a-window-rather-than-face-it terrified.

But that is no fucking way to live. I’ve done it for 33 fucking years and I can tell you, it’s no fun. And while I’m dropping f-bombs, I might as well say it again, FUCK! (sorry mom).

I build these personas based on what I think people will like, what I think they will respect. Every time I open up Photoshop or IA Writer or sit down at the drum kit, a cloud of angst settles around me as I set out to create or write something people will find impressive. And not just impressive, but so damn good, it will be linked to thousands of times and retweeted for all eternity.

How arrogant and insane is that?

Why are these fears so crippling? Why can’t I take off the shirt and bare my man-boobs proudly to the world and not give a fuck what anyone thinks?

I have designed and redesigned blogs hundreds of times over the last 10 years, but probably written less than 50 posts. I have dozens of side projects left half-finished. I have genuinely good ideas all the time. But I don’t do any of it.

I never ship because I can’t face the potential of failure. But this is failure in itself. The only thing worse than being the fat guy in the pool, is being the fat guy in the pool with a shirt on.

But I’m not kidding anyone. People can smell fear and insecurity. And, frankly, I reek.

Living this way is exhausting. I don’t know who it is I’m trying to please. So what if I fail? So what if people think I’m a loser?

I’m pretty sure there are at least three people (my wife and two daughters) who will not think that. Why can’t that be enough?

Don’t mistake what this is. It’s not an attempt to be “real” or “authentic”. I’m not trying to help anyone or garner praise for being raw. It’s an honest baring of my soul and some of my deepest fears.

I’m tired of hiding. I’m tired of missing out on the joy of creative expression. I’m tired of this soggy, wet, t-shirt that’s not really hiding anything anyway.

Adam (the one with the t-shirt)

You Get What You Price For

As workers of the web, we are constantly trying to tell clients they get what they pay for. This year I’ve been learning the reverse is also true; we get what we price for.

When I first started Bottlerocket I priced myself low and took every job I could get. Often, that’s what we have to do when starting out. But the fear of having no work seems to drive many of us to maintain that modus operandi long after we need to.

We have high standards for our clients. We want them to understand that the work we do is valuable and they shouldn’t comparison shop for design the same way they would for a toothbrush. But then, as designers, we turn around and do the same thing in the way we price our services.

So many clients try to haggle with me on pricing. I constantly here phrases like, “Can you give us a deal?” or, “Can you come down 10 percent?” I never went to business school, so maybe I’m missing something; but when I go to the grocery store and buy a gallon of milk, I understand that the price is whatever it is. I don’t go to the checkout and ask if they can “give me a deal.”

“But there’s a difference between products and services,” you might say. Not really. I don’t haggle with my mechanic, plumber or electrician either.

I also have clients try to bargain with me about when they pay. I refuse to do Net 60 or Net 30 or Net anything. Payment is due when payment is due. I can’t think of a single service I pay for where I could say, “Awesome, I’ll send you check in 60 days,” and not be laughed at.

It’s our own fault that clients think this way about web work. We accept these attitudes as normal, so they do as well. But it’s not normal. I provide a professional service at professional rates with professional expectations. It is what it is. I’ve politely declined to work with many clients who don’t understand this or aren’t willing to work this way. And my business is better for it.

If you price low in order to get work, then you’ll just have to do more work to make the money you need. And trust me, the higher-priced projects are way more fun to work on. And not because you’re making more money. I don’t understand all the psychology behind it, but clients that pay me a lot also respect me a lot. They tend to understand the value they are receiving and what exactly it is they’re paying for. There is nothing more stressful than working for a client whose no. 1 priority is finding the cheapest price.

One of the biggest factors, I believe, in how clients perceive you is your willingness to walk away. You command the respect you deserve when you’re willing to do that. It seems illogical, but the moment I tell a client “no” they seem to want me even more. Saying “no” gives you an irresistibility factor. It’s kind of like dating, we tend to want the people we can’t have.

I’m not suggesting you be a jerk or start turning down clients hoping the reverse psychology will work. I’m suggesting that you respect your own work and process and be willing to walk away when the client is not on board.

Believe me, the projects you have to bend over backward to get will not make you happy. And I’m not talking about hustle. I’m not talking about working hard and doing the best job you can do. I’m talking about haggling. I’m talking about clients who think they own you and who think you should be honored to fill out their RFP.

I’ve been laughed at so many times because of my rates. And that’s good. If a prospective client’s first reaction to my prices is to think, “He can’t possibly be worth that,” then I know I’m on the right track. Because then I have a chance to explain to them why I’m worth that cost. I get to have a conversation about what their business really needs. It’s not usually what they think it is.

Sometimes it doesn’t work out. A client simply doesn’t have the budget to hire me and we part ways on good terms. More times than not though, those same clients come back to me six months later having invested in something of lower quality that they’re not happy with.

In the end, I firmly believe that you get what you price for. If you let a client know that you will do anything, sacrifice any principle, to get their business, you may well get it, but you won’t be happy with it.

Pricing isn’t the only factor, but it’s a big one in determining the kind of clients you attract. If we want clients to respect the value we bring to the table, we have to price accordingly. I promise, the projects you win without sacrificing your value will bring you much more satisfaction.

When Enough Is Enough

The past 10 months have been explosive for my company, Bottlerocket. In 2012, we’ve grown in almost every way. We’ve grown the team, taken on more diverse projects and tripled in revenue from 2011. And yet, it has left me wondering what it is I really want to do and how I want to be spending my time.

In one of our recent bi-weekly phone calls, Brian Hoff and I were discussing how growth is addictive. There’s a rush that comes from watching your business double every month. And while growth can be a great thing, I’ve found a subtle shift taking place in how and why I work. I’ve started basing all my decisions around maintaining the growth rate. It’s gotten to the point were I feel down or upset when one month is the same as the previous month, even when I’m making more money than I need and more than I’ve ever made before.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about how busyness becomes an end in itself. We stay busy without really examining or knowing why. Growth has turned into the same thing for me. I’ve started chasing the money. And in doing that I think I’ve lost sight of why I started Bottlerocket in the first place.

The reasons I launched Bottlerocket in 2010 where largely about lifestyle. I wan’t to be self-employed. I wanted to make enough money to support my wife, who is a stay-at-home mom, and my kids. I wanted to have the flexibility to work from home and be around my family, to take the afternoon off and go to the park with my girls, and to generally work when and where I please. Most of these things have suffered this year as I’ve begun to chase more and more growth and income.

A lifestyle of “more” can never be satisfied. With more income comes more purchases, with more clients comes more employees, with more infrastructure comes even more infrastructure.

I realize that if I wanted to build a company, some of this growth has to happen. But I never wanted to build a company. I wanted freedom and independence. I wanted to be a craftsman, an artist. And there seems to be a line where more money actually starts taking away from those things.

So all this week I’ve been asking myself how much is enough? At what point can I say, “I’ve got enough money and I don’t need any more.” And that’s really tough because it’s ingrained somewhere in my head that more is always better. I spend so much time accumulating. Eventually accumulation has become the hobby. I buy more books than I will ever have the time to read. I buy bigger cars and houses simply because I can afford them. It’s as if the joy of reading, for example, has been replaced by the joy of owning more books.

It is ridiculous how much “stuff” I have. At 32 I have a bigger house, newer car and more money than my dad ever had. And yet I still feel that I haven’t arrived, that I haven’t yet achieved success. My dad didn’t have a super-important, super-high-paying job. But he also wasn’t gone all the time (physically or emotionally). He was around. He provided. I felt loved. How have I lost sight of these things?

I’ve worked several evenings a week and every Saturday for the last several month. I’ve told my wife that it won’t last forever and that I’m just in a growth phase. But there’s no end in sight. And honestly, however much money I made by working instead of going to the fall festival with my girls and missing Saturday trips to the aquarium seems completely insignificant now.

Just to be clear, sometimes, as providers, we have to put in tons of hours to make ends meet. And there is no shame in that. Providing for one’s family is honorable. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about after that point; when you’re able to provide, but keep going full-speed because enough is never enough.

I’m not yet sure what this means for my future. I’ve already started taking some steps to restructure my business so that I’m not working all the time. I’m looking for things to cut out and ways to change the pattern of accumulation that drives me. I don’t know how to do it yet.

One of the ideas I’m starting with is intentionally limiting my income. I’ve picked an amount that I need to faithfully support my family and I’m not going to work beyond that. I’m not going to build an empire (of stuff or work) that I don’t need and don’t want at the expense of time with my family and enjoying what I already have.

Contentment is a hard discipline to practice. I’ve failed miserably at it and have, ironically, experienced less satisfaction in life.

I’ve got some interesting ideas for my business and personal life over the next couple of months and into 2013. I’m not sure if it will work, but it’s worth a try.

The Days Are Long But The Years Are Short

We spent the evening playing and jumping, tickling and hugging, laughing, coloring and watching cartoons before she feel asleep; her last night as a 4-year-old.

Thinking about my oldest daughter turning 5 tomorrow is insane. I know it’s a cliche, but I can’t help but wonder were the time has gone.

On this night five years ago, I was feeding my wife all sorts of funky food hoping to induce labor. Finally, early the next morning we made the drive to the hospital and later that day I held Izzie in my arms for the first time.

The doctor pulled her out and immediately handed her to me soaking wet. As I cleared away the fluid from her eyes and the rest of her face, her little eyes fluttered open and they were bright blue. And then, as we stared at each other, she smiled.

I can’t describe what I felt in that moment. It was a rush of feelings really; fear, joy, love, responsibility, ecstasy, smallness, greatness. But mostly, it was the first time I had ever felt such an utterly unconditional love for someone else. I knew in that moment I would do anything for her, that me and my selfish world didn’t matter anymore.

I still feel that way. Every time she looks at me with those bright blue eyes and tells me she loves me, that feeling is there. It makes me feel so small and powerless, that I am this little girl’s entire world. But I also feel thankful. Thankful that she’s mine. Thankful that I get to raise her and spend the next dozen or so years with her before she moves on into her own life.

Someone once said, “The days are long, but the years are short.” Well, I’m hoping to squeeze as many days out of these years as possible. Happy Birthday Izzie.



In Search of Depth

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel busy. Most days my brain feels like an overstuffed file drawer in danger of collapse at any moment due the sheer amount of information that must be processed and dealt with.

I think this is fairly common. It’s staggering how many balls we all keep in the air everyday. Besides the pressures of work and family, we live in an always-on, always-connected world that seems inescapable. We’re so busy that eventually we forget why. Busyness starts to become an end in itself. And when we start to question why we’re so busy, why we live the way we do, we often find that we just don’t know. It’s a question that can be really uncomfortable. We don’t want to think about it because it quickly leads to deeper questions, such as “Am I living the life I really want?” And from there it’s a short trip to the existential crisis of “Why am I here?” and “Who am I?” But even if we wanted to process these questions, we don’t have time.

Why is this a problem? What’s wrong with being busy? It’s unsatisfying. There’s a yearning that can’t be quenched with activity, and it’s universal. That’s why the mid-life crisis is so cliche. We all desire space to think and let our minds wander and process the experiences of life. And this doesn’t just happen at mid-life. I’ve felt this yearning for as long as I can remember. Yesterday, I found this paragraph in one of my old journals from college:

I walk around in sensory-overload most of the time, because there are so many things I want to think, read and write about. All these ideas are fighting for space in my head, and there doesn’t seem to be any winners. I think they end up killing each other because by the time I sit down to write, there is nothing. Nothing at all to say. None of the ideas have been left standing. They have all fallen in the fight. There are so many things vying for my attention that sometimes I just want it all to stop. I want to go away to an island with nothing but a few well-chosen books so I can just sit there and think.

We all, at some point, experience this longing for something more, something more than days filled with activity and picture taking and Facebook posting. I think what we’re searching for is depth.

Depth creates meaning and a sense of fulfillment. But it’s hard to define. It’s elusive. We know it when we feel it, but can’t exactly put our finger on what creates it or how we can grab hold of it.

At first, I thought depth was achieved through quantity and quality of time. And I think in some ways that’s true, but it’s not enough. First of all, what is quality time? When we say we are going to spend quality time with someone, what does that mean? Defining it with certain activities or quantity doesn’t work. I can spend an hour in the park with someone and walk away feeling like it was a waste. On a different day I can spend an hour in the park with the same person doing and saying the same things and walk away feeling that we had some “quality time,” that we achieved depth. Why is this? Why are we able to recognize quality, but can’t put our finger on what exactly it is?

The reason I think defining depth is so elusive is because it’s different for each of us. But there is some common ground. William Powers is an author who defines it this way:

It’s the quality of awareness, feeling, or understanding that comes when we truly engage with some aspect of our life experience.

It can be anything at all–a person, a place, a thing, an idea or a sensation. Everything that happens to us all day long, every sight and sound, every personal encounter, every thought that crosses our minds is a candidate for depth. We’re constantly sifting among these options, deciding where to deploy our attention. Most float around in the periphery of our thoughts and remain there, but a select few wind up in the mental spotlight. We train our perceptual and cognitive resources on one conversation, one fascinating idea, one task to the exclusion of all others. This is where depth beings.

There are times when I’m able to experience this with work. When I’m focused on doing one thing really well (and not thinking about everything else that needs to be done) I get into a sort of flow where time disappears.

And that’s why busyness is such a detriment to depth. Not necessarily busyness in action, but busyness in thought. Everyday we become more connected to everyone around us. And even activities that used to provide solitude are now connected because we keep our iPhones or Androids with us at all times. We live in a constant, hour by hour connectedness to the people and world around us.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for the technology of our age. I like being able to access anything I want whenever I want. But I wonder if this access is diluting real enjoyment and depth. We’re spread so thin that we don’t have the time or mental energy to give each experience its proper due.

Information and media consumption is one area that, for me, is severely affected. I listen to a lot of music and I’ve often wanted to try an experiment. What if I picked one of my favorite bands or musicians and decided for a whole year to only listen to their catalogue? Let’s say U2 or Counting Crows for example. Limiting myself in this way would mean that I would listen to every single song they’ve ever produced and I would listen to each of them over and over again. I would have the time and opportunity to contemplate the shifts in thought and style through the years and discern the experiences behind their writing, all of which would bring depth to my experience of their music.

I could be wrong, but I think I would experience more enjoyment and have a greater appreciation of music in general. If a singular focus is one of the elements (or at least the starting point) of depth, then limiting ourselves to fewer options could be a catalyst for great joy.

Another way of thinking about this is, if you’re always on the lookout for more and better, you’ll never really be happy (go deep) with anything.

This has ramifications beyond media consumption. It impacts all of the choices we make. For example, how much more community would I experience and sense of purpose would I feel if I made a point to get to know and get involved in the lives of my neighbors?

The big hurdle for me is that the busy, always-on, always-connected world in which we live seems unavoidable. It’s part of life in the 21st century. However, I’m not sure that’s really true, or at least I hope it’s not.

I don’t have a solution. This post has been an almost stream-of-concious musing born out of an insanely busy week. I feel like I want to try something drastic, like delete my Facebook account and all my RSS feeds, get rid of my iPhone and pick a few good things on which to focus my attention. But that’s harder to do than to say, or maybe I just don’t want it badly enough yet. If you don’t hear from me for a long time, then you’ll know I took the plunge.

It’s OK to Be Yourself

Let’s be honest, the pressure to conform is a bitch. It starts at the earliest stages of life and many people never escape it.

I think we are born with an innate desire to be liked and respected. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We all crave connection and one of the building blocks of any meaningful relationship is a mutual respect for each other. But, like any good thing, this desire for acceptance, love and respect can turn into a demanding slave-master. And that is a miserable existence indeed.

I’ve found this to be particularly true in business. I’m a freelance web developer and when I started out I spent a lot of time pretending to be something I wasn’t in hopes it would bring me success. I started Bottlerocket almost three years ago and only recently did I figure out that it’s ok to be who I am. I don’t have to copy the “successful” studios to be successful myself.

In the beginning, I tried. I followed conventional wisdom and removed most of my personality, opting instead for a slick, ad agency-like brand and web presence. I made my company appear much larger than it was, offered dozens of services and hoped clients wouldn’t find out the truth.

I struggled to get business and the business I did get was no fun. After a year of doing this I was seriously considering going back to regular employment because I hated what I was doing. I was stressed all the time trying to keep up this image of a full-service agency that could compete with the best in the world. Every time a prospective client would call, I would put on this stone-faced, Don Draper bravado, all the while praying they would accept my proposal because, in reality, I was completely broke.

I thought everything had to be perfect for me to be successful. I had to have all the answers. I had to not need anyone. My writing had to rival Michael Chabon; every website had to be this stunning Jason-Santa-Marian beast that would launch to great applause and adulation. I thought if I could just be like those guys, clients would come running.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. I’m not Michael Chabon and I’m not Jason Santa Maria. And the truth is, I wasn’t fooling anyone. People can smell fakeness a mile away.

About a year and a half into Bottlerocket, I started being myself with my clients. I’m a pretty open-book kind of guy. I crave authentic conversations and deep friendships. I can also be pretty sarcastic and a bit of a jokester. And I realized that my favorite (and most successful) projects were those where I didn’t hide these things behind a straight-faced, business persona. I’ve found that realness beat slickness every time.

I saw an immediate change in my business. First, I started really enjoying my work. I wasn’t hiding behind a fake persona anymore. Second, I started getting a lot more work. My business has tripled this year. Clients not only keep coming back, they recommend me to others on a regular basis. Since the beginning of this year, I have had more work than I can keep up with and I still don’t even have a live portfolio. I raise my rates on a regular basis, but clients keep coming.

I’m not going to say that all you have to do is be real and you’re business will skyrocket. Skill and professionalism are essential to success. But you can be skillful, professional and authentic at the same time.

My friend, Yaron Schoen, wrote a post recently related to this topic and you should read it. I loved this part:

Don’t get me wrong, the product should get the job done well, efficiently and save the user valuable time or even add great value to the users life. But is that enough? Soon, the utilitarian efficiency of a product will not be the reason users come back (if that isn’t the case already). Perhaps the reason users stick around is the same reason we keep going back to our dentist. It’s the personal relationship that trumps. If the web is indeed a customer service medium, I’d say the best customer service is an honest and friendly face.

So if you’re funny and irreverent, go with that. If you’re a suit-and-tie business dude, go with that. Be who you are. There is plenty of work to go around, and being yourself will actually attract the kind of clients you’ll enjoy working with.