There Are No Rules

I'm trying something new again. I decided to record this week's newsletter as a short episode of my podcast, The Gently Mad.


I’ll go ahead and tell you the secret: no one knows what they’re doing. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but you’ll have to listen to the episode for the extra goodies.

If you feel like subscribing to the podcast, you can do that here. And if you’re feeling extra nice, a review and rating of the show would be most appreciated.

A Failure Isn’t Always A Failure

A couple of months ago I wrote an article about how it was time for a change. In fact, the article was titled, "It's Time For A Change". Clever, I know.

In that article I talked about how, after five years of being a solo entrepreneur, I felt like it was, well, time for a change. I had been given an opportunity to join the amazing team at Lift UX as Director of Product. My role was going to be leading the charge on a new family of products related to the the company’s acquisition of

There were a number of terms to the deal, including the acquisition of some of my products and a partnership in the company. Since we had been attempting to build very similar products in our spare time, I decided, along with Chris Wallace and Brad Miller (the co-founders and owners of Lift), that it made a lot of sense for us to join forces.

However, after a short two months together, we have decided to end our official relationship. I still respect the hell out of Chris and Brad and the team at Lift. They are doing some amazing things and I hope I was able to help start what Churchthemes will eventually become.

Nevertheless, it became clear to me over the past few weeks that my vision for Churchthemes and my role in that vision differed in some significant ways from Chris’s and Brad’s. There are no hard feeling between us and we parted ways amicably.

However, I’m still tempted to look at this experience as a failure, even though it wasn’t. And it has taken several days of clearing my head and writing down my thoughts to figure out why. My hope is that sharing this with you may be of some benefit as you examine your own experiences and decision-making-process in regard to employment, freelancing, entrepreneurship, etc.

So here goes…

I realized very quickly that there was a reason I have been self-employed for so long. I LOVE working for myself. I just do. It’s in my blood. The freedom and flexibility that comes with self-employment is something I knew I valued, but didn’t realize just how much I valued until I didn’t have it anymore.

Sure, there are myriad stressors involved with self-employment:

  • Work/life balance is hard to achieve.
  • You have to wear many hats and be good at a lot of things besides your main craft.
  • An often irregular income can be very hard to deal with and lead to mountains of stress.
  • You must have a high tolerance for risk and the ability to stay calm and productive in the face of lots of uncertainty.

But, the truth is, I never minded those pressures. At times, like any normal human being, they would get to me and I would find myself overwhelmed. However, those “risks” are also part of the thrill. There’s a thrill to waking up every morning and knowing you are the master of your domain. You can make this day anything you want it to be. The possibilities are endless.

If you can’t tell by now, I’m a wide-eyed, whole-hearted dreamer. And I’m ok with that. I embrace it as part of who I am and find no shame it.

In addition to the control over my schedule, I love being able to choose the projects and/or products I work on. And I found that losing that freedom took a greater toll on my well-being and general happiness than any of the stresses of being self-employed.

You may not agree. Maybe for you, a steady paycheck and the sense of security that a job and a regular schedule brings is where you thrive. And that’s completely fine. We’re all different.

But for me, I found the wind quickly drained from my sails. I realized that the job I thought I’d been hired for and the job I actually ended up doing weren’t exactly the same and my path to partnership in the company was not as clear as it had appeared.

Again, this is not a criticism of Chris and Brad. If I were to choose to be employed at any time again in the future, it would be with those guys. They are some of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure of working for.

But that’s just it. I don’t want to work for anyone. As I said above, I just plain love working for myself. And that isn’t something on which I can put a price tag.

So, why wasn’t this experience a failure? After all, it would be easy to look at that way, since it only lasted for two months before I decided to move on.

First, I learned a lot about working with a team. It was a huge struggle for me, but I now have a much greater understanding of exactly what it takes to run a successful team.

Second, I learned a lot about myself. I discovered the things that are truly important to me in my work. When I agreed to take the position, I viewed is as an experiment. An experiment that I hoped would be successful, but an experiment nonetheless. I had never been employed in the web industry other than a short stint with an agency when I first started out that I don’t think was a good representation of a modern web shop. So I had no idea what it would be like. There was a chance that I would love it. It was something new. But, as I’ve been saying in the last 900 words or so, I discovered that it just wasn’t for me. I am happiest and at my best when I am working for myself.

Third, I learned that decisions (even big ones) aren’t irreversible. I’m a baptized, grade-A over-thinker. I tend to obsess over even the tiniest decision as if my entire future depended on making the right choice. But this simply isn’t true. And this kind of over-thinking often leads to doing nothing out out fear of making the wrong choice. I have missed out on many opportunities because of this fear. But I hope this experience has helped me see the error of my ways, at least a little. I tried something and found that it wasn’t for me. There’s nothing wrong with that. I hope I will now have an easier time trying new things, knowing that if I change my mind, the world will not collapse around me.

So What Now

As of this week, I’m back to my freelancing ways. I have five or six products that I really want to launch, as well as some client work to wrap up. In addition, I’m looking for new projects, so if you know of anything, I would appreciate any referrals you send my way. My focus is on WordPress design and development, custom WordPress themes and responsive website builds.

I plan to take a small sabbatical to plan out the next six months and the paths to version 1 releases of several new products. In addition, I am doing lots of podcasting and have several new shows in the works (one of which is being prepped for public radio distribution through PRX, which I am beyond excited about). Another of my new show ideas is about relaunching a freelance career and all the sweat and thought and strategy that goes into that. I have a lot of plans to do things differently this time around. If you think you’d be interested in a podcast like that, please let me know. If I get enough interest, I will definitely make that show a reality.

A few things to keep an eye on:

I am super excited about my immediate future. I feel like I’ve rediscovered, in some ways, who I am and what I truly value. I don’t know what the next few months hold or where exactly the work will come from, but I’m going to be doing the work I want and in the way I want. A blessing for which I’m truly thankful.

How to Have All the Time in the World

Busyness. It's a sign of pride these days. The problem for most of us, is that even if we don't take pride in being workaholics, we don't know how to change. Especially for those of us who are entrepreneurs, there's a never-ending pile of stuff to get done. I'm sure you know exactly what I'm talking about.

I read an amazing post this week by a guy named Austin Grigg. In it, he talks about the problems with always being busy. I couldn’t agree more with what he wrote and it was a real punch in the gut at this stage of life, precisely because of all the chaos that fills my days.

I loved this bit:

“I want to live like I have all the time in the world. I want to slow down and savor the beautiful things of life. I want to give myself away to what is truly important. I don’t want to be someone vexed in spirit, always busy.”

First of all, what a freaking beautiful sentence. Second, I want that too. And I’m feeling the weight of time as I get older. My kids are growing up. There’s a limited amount of time that they will call me “daddy” and want to crawl into my arms every day for a snuggle.

And, to be completely honest, that alone is worth more than all the fame and success a business could ever bring.

My encouragement to you is to follow Austin’s advice. Slow down. SLOW. DOWN. Take notice and really experience each moment. It sounds completely cliche, and I know that. But it’s true. It’s the little moments that make up a life. And they are so valuable.

It’s Time For A Change

When I first decided to pursue a career in the web, it was because I wanted to build my own businesses and make my own things and experience the freedom of controlling my own destiny.

The web industry is a wonderful place for the entrepreneurally-minded and I definitely found those opportunities within its borders. I’ve been a freelancer now for almost five years. I built a web design and development shop from the ground up that has supported me well. I’ve had the opportunity to work with (and for) my friends, which has been truly delightful. I’ve started lots of side projects, some of which have actually turned into their own businesses (Lift Themes, WP Theory, Goodstuff), and killed even more before they ever made it out the door.

I’ve really enjoyed my time doing client work and making websites for people. But I’ve come to the realization that if I want to accomplish the things about which I’m most passionate, I can’t do it alone. And I don’t really want to, if I’m honest. The time has come to take the next step.

I’m excited to announce that, as of today, I will be joining the folks at Lift UX and UpThemes as Director of Product, which is a fancy way of saying that I’m going to be spending a lot of time doing the things I love most–brainstorming, strategizing, storytelling, breaking, fixing, building… You get the idea.

I connected with Chris Wallace and Brad Miller (the founders of Lift) over a common vision for a family of products that we’ve all been working on in various forms for some time. We’ve spent a lot of time brainstorming and sharing our ideas with each other. In the end, we decided that it made a lot more sense to join forces and make something truly great, than to go it alone.

So, what exactly is this product we’re going to build? I’m glad you asked. Coinciding with my move to Lift is the acquisition of, the first church-specific WordPress theme shop on the internet. Up until now, ChurchThemes has primarily been a provider of free and premium WordPress themes built specifically for churches. The company has seen nearly 45,000 downloads of its products in the three short years since it opened shop.

We’ve got big plans for ChurchThemes and my primary role will be overseeing and leading the charge on those plans. The long-term strategy for ChurchThemes involves a marketplace where theme sellers can offer their own church WordPress themes. The marketplace will also hook into a new hosted website solution specifically for churches. ((There are number of hosted solutions out there, but we’ve got some cards up our sleeves we’re not ready to share just yet. Think HappyTables or, but blow-your-mind-awesome!))

We’ll be releasing more information in the near future about this new venture and what we hope to accomplish with it. In the meantime, you can whet your appetite here. If you want to be among the first to see what we’re up to, get yourself on that email list.

Building a product is hard. Building a great product that changes people’s live is downright magical. But if anyone can pull it off, it’s the Lift team. They’re a group of people who really believe they can change things. And as Steve Jobs is famous for saying, it’s the people who really believe they can change the world, that actually do.

The Horn Doesn’t Matter

I've been a musician since I was 5 years old. My parents afforded me the opportunity to play lots of different instruments and one of my favorites was the trumpet.

I spent hours listening to stacks of jazz and classical records from heroes like Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis and Doc Severinsen, and dreamed of being able to play like them.

But there was a problem. I hated practicing. Practicing was hard. In reality, I was more obsessed with the *idea* of being a great trumpet player, than actually playing. But I wouldn’t figure that out for many years.

So I became obsessed with gear. Even as a kid, I was a gear whore (some things never change).

I thought if I used the same gear as my heroes, I would be a great trumpet player. I would save my allowance and use that money to buy mouthpieces, mutes, bags and other accessories.

One day I was telling my teacher how I planned to save up and buy a Bach Stradivarius (a horn that cost thousands of dollars and was similar to the models played by many of my favorite trumpet players).

He encouraged me to try one first, so I did. My mom drove me to a Ken Stanton music store in Marietta, Georiga (where I grew up) and I asked to play one of those amazing trumpets.

I sat there in a practice room staring at that horn for several minutes before working up the courage to play something. When I finally did, I was shocked that it sounded exactly the same as the beat up Yamaha I had been playing for years.

Needless to say, I was pretty disillusioned. I related the experience to my teacher and he said something to me that I still remember:

“The horn doesn’t matter. It’s how you play it.”

I continued to play trumpet throughout grade school and into college. I always enjoyed it and I was good at it, but I never put in the sweat and practice needed to be great.

I’m a web designer now and I often find myself doing the same thing, obsessing over designs or platforms or processes or mechanisms. It’s easy to get distracted with tools, because some part of me thinks that if I just had a killer design, my blog would take off. Or if I had a better process or writing environment, I would finally be able to be a great writer.

But deep down I know that’s not true. We get good at things by doing them every day. By practicing.

If there’s something you want to do, then just do it. It really is that simple. It’s not easy, but it is simple.

A famous writer has been quoted as saying, “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”

The few successes I’ve had in life can be directly attributed to that philosophy. The philosophy of doing.

My encouragement to you is to start that thing you’ve been putting off. Stop obsessing with the idea of doing something and just do it. I guarantee you’ll be happy with the results.

Say What You Can Say

Stop worrying about what you don’t know and say what you can say. This is advice my friend Chase likes to give me, but if I’m honest, it has yet to sink in.

Stop worrying about what you don’t know and say what you can say. This is advice my friend Chase likes to give me, but if I’m honest, it has yet to sink in.

So often I find myself struggling to produce because I’m trying to say things I can’t say. In an effort to seem valuable to my heroes, I imprison myself by trying to write things they will find impressive.

But here’s the truth: I’m not as good as my heroes. There’s a reason I look up to people like Jeffrey Zeldman and Jason Santa Maria. They’ve been doing this stuff for a long time and comparing my output to there’s is a losing battle. Comparing myself to anyone is a losing battle.

You may not be able to speak directly to your heroes. They are far ahead of you for good reason. They have learned from experience, things you have yet to learn. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to say.

I may not be able to write an article about how to grow a design shop into one of the foremost shops in the world, but I can speak to the thousands of freelancers out there who are just starting out and worried about where their clients will come from or how to price their first jobs.

I probably can’t write an article about CSS or web development that would teach Chris Coyier something new, but there’s a lot I can say to the people behind me.

And here’s the thing, it takes doing it to get better at it. The reason our heroes are so good is because they were able to overcome their fear and just keep doing it, day after agonizing day.

Find the thing you can say and focus on that.

My friend Chase said it the best I’ve ever heard anyone say it:

Basically I saw the things that other people where saying, and I said to myself, “I need to say those kinds of things.” So I said those kinds of things in those kinds of ways. And everything came out all markety and weird…That’s what I thought I was supposed to do.

Here’s the thing, we often say things in or content, our marketing, our writing, whatever, that may not necessarily be true, because we think people want to hear it.

But I’ve learned something. For me and maybe for you too, the things that I make get better when I stop worrying about the things I’m supposed to say or what they want to hear or anything like that, and I start focusing on “What do I really know that I can say.”

Stop putting on yourself the burden of being remarkable. Fuck remarkable. Just be yourself. We all have something to offer. We all have something say. There are always people out there we can help.


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.

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.