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.

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.