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.
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.