Archive for the ‘Business Acumen & Career Advice’ Category

Listen, bro. I like you. And I wouldn’t tell you this if I didn’t like you. But don’t do this. I’m miserable. I’m going to quit soon. You don’t want this to be your life. There’s nothing good for you here.

– The guy giving me a ride home from a corporate recruiting dinner during my senior year in college.

Imagine all of the thoughts going through my head at that point. This is a 25 year old guy I looked up to and was trying to impress so he would say good things about me to his bosses. This is the guy one rung up from where I would have started in the organization. This is a guy working for a world class professional services organization.

You might think, wow, so you took his advice right? But sadly the answer is no. I was turned off, I thought he was jaded, and I briefly considered telling the firm to take him off the recruiting team.

When I look back at that experience, I realize he was the one person who shot me straight out of the many recruiting processes of which I was a part. And this is the problem with the way many organizations recruit new talent. They put on their “recruiting face” and try their best to convince the best talent to join their team.

Along the way, they wine and dine, talk the talk, and suck up to the top recruits. But they forget one little detail. Those recruits actually show up to work some day. And when they show up, they see what’s going on around them just like everybody else. You can sell an incredible culture, great people, and exciting work… But if a talented person shows up on day one and realizes that everything you sold her was a load of crap, they’re not going to stick around very long.

I look at it like this. If you were a 5-star football recruit deciding which college you would like to play football for, would you decide to join the team that sucks and has a terrible coach? Or would you decide to join the team that already has all stars and has a coach who is a level five leader? And if you were sold a great team, a great coach, and a great culture of winning, but arrived and found something completely different, would you stay? Or would you transfer?

You can pour any number of resources into recruiting. You can pour an equal number of resources into marketing. You can create an image that is revered and respected. You might even be able to trick some really talented people into joining your organization.

But if you have even one person who feels the way the guy did who tried to warn me about what I was getting into, then you’d be better off fixing what’s wrong internally before going after top talent. Otherwise you’ll end up with a whole bunch of very talented people running around telling people not to go to work for you…

And nobody wins when that happens.


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I had the great privilege of being asked to speak at TEDxUGA 2014. It was a full-circle experience for me, as I was a part of ODK on UGA’s campus just when it was getting involved with the early conversations around hosting a TEDx event on UGA’s campus. Then, in its inaugural year, I helped lead the TEDx student organization through a mission, vision, and values exercise, which was a blast.

This year, I got to deliver a talk that centered on the idea to which I have given my life over the past 2.5 years. I called it, “From TGIF to Living for Monday: A New Career Approach for a New Generation at Work.”

I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, I hope you’ll share it far and wide. My goal is to have this talk viewed 1,000,000 over its lifetime. As soon as it hits 100,000 views, I’ll get to work on Living for Monday the book.


If you’d like to offer feedback or words of encouragement, you can reach me at barrett@livingformonday.com.

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Before or after you read this post, it might be helpful to read this one to get some context about what Living for Monday was.

On Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014, I made the decision to shut down Living for Monday.

Why I made the decision does not matter, but know that many hours of careful thought and consideration went into it. We built an incredible vision for what Living for Monday could one day be, but in the end I believe Living for Monday might be better as an idea than a business.

A decision like shutting down a business can be tough for an entrepreneur. After all, the task at hand in getting a business to sustainability requires that you integrate your personal identity with the venture in many ways. Different people handle decisions like this in different ways.

This post could take many forms to announce the decision. I could go on an emotional journey, exploring all of the ways things could have been different. Or, I could blame everything on other people.

Instead, I choose to celebrate Living for Monday as a smashing success of a project that played out over the course of 2.5 years. I got to explore ideas, learn more than any institution could teach me in a classroom, work with incredible people, and understand what it takes to build a project from the ground up. Ultimately, I’m filing Living for Monday away as a great idea with powerful resonance that I explored to its fullest extent. A grand success.

Of course, in running a project over the course of 2+ years, it’s easy to learn alot. I figured I’d share as many of those lessons as possible with you and hope that you can benefit from them. It turned out that I came up with a round 50, for no particular reason than that I could think of no more lessons learned for now.

Here goes:

  1. Design matters.
  2. Content matters.
  3. Great design without great content lacks impact.
  4. Great content without great design loses part of its’ potential.
  5. The people you are surrounded by set the bar for what you expect to achieve.
  6. Being alone is not a permanent state of being. It is a temporary state that either beats us down or leads us to the sense of community we have been seeking all along.
  7. Servant leadership inspires others to serve as well.
  8. A great business does not a great idea make. Some ideas are better to remain as great ideas rather than be bastardized by turning them into business ventures.
  9. Leaving a great idea as an idea (in written, audio or video format) is sometimes, ironically, the best way for the idea to make money.
  10. Some of the best businesses are not brilliant ideas, but rather simple solutions to real problems as expressed by real people.
  11. Consistency builds trust, followership, and growth… Especially if you seek intentional growth through consistency.
  12. Any given project is just “one note in your song” as my friend Richard Boehmcke puts it. No one piece of work or art defines you. It is the body of work for which you will be remembered.
  13. You are not your work.
  14. Any person who evaluates your worth as a person should be shunned. There are too many people who will build you up to accept hurtful criticism from a person who himself is challenged with his own demons. Pray for him and move on.
  15. Any person who offers sincere and honest criticism of your work should be kept close.
  16. The number of people who are willing to offer sincere, honest, valuable criticism is small.
  17. Knowing when to quit is important.
  18. It’s easier to know when to quit by adequately defining a project to begin with. Establishing clear outcomes, timelines, and resources you’re willing to dedicate to a project will save much heartache.
  19. Decisions and deals made out of necessity are dangerous. Our immediate needs cloud our judgment, especially if those needs are financial.
  20. An investor is only valuable insomuch as she is aligned with the founder’s vision and complements the founder’s skills/knowledge/experience. A misaligned investor creates heartache, desperation, and disappointment. The corollary, of course, is that an aligned investor is an asset to be cherished and integrated into a project.
  21. Charisma and belief are necessary but not sufficient for execution. As a million people before have made clear, a great idea only matters in its execution.
  22. Metrics are meaningless unless they lead you closer to your vision and goals. A feel good metric is nothing but a distraction from the work at hand.
  23. If given the choice between recognition and doing more great work, do more great work. Whatever recognition that work deserves will come naturally. If you make the work the reward, you will be unstoppable.
  24. Earned media is more valuable than engineered media. The intersection of the two is best of all.
  25. The world (of business, of politics, of [insert anything here]) is unfair. The world is not a meritocracy. You can become cynical or you can learn the game. Learning the game can help you make your world more meritocratic.
  26. Nobody owes you anything. Not a sale, not a job, not anything. If you aren’t willing to work for the sale or deliver results in the job, you are expendable and should expect that you may find yourself without paying work at some point in life. This is harsh but true… But knowing the truth makes it actionable.
  27. People, even with big titles, often have no idea what they are doing. All people — people in the most important roles in the biggest organizations — are just trying to find their way just like you and I.
  28. Those same people are most concerned about the urgent tasks or activities that directly affect their selfish interests. Ask a business executive how they are thinking about population growth and its’ affects on our sustainable future and they will say population growth is good for business. Ask a scientist and they might disagree.
  29. Collective consciousness is a wonderful idea. I believe in it. I believe that community-driven decision making builds a sustainable future. I hope my generation will embrace that idea. But that idea does not drive decision making today.
  30. Nothing is a sure thing. Anyone who says they have a sure thing has simply not been exposed to the alternative possible outcomes. Confidence is key, but willful ignorance is dangerous.
  31. Reactionary decisions are often driven by poor reasoning. Starting a business because I was disillusioned with what I found in one small corner of corporate America does not make it a good decision to start a business.
  32. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is felt on an individual level, everyday. If basic financial needs are not met, our minds are mastered by that reality. Only once we reach a basic level of sustenance are we able to focus on higher levels of self actualization.
  33. Beyond our basic sustenance, money is not a powerful motivator. In fact, once our basic needs are met, money is only valuable in the impact it allows us to make on the things we care about, not as an end in and of itself. Money is a tool not an end.
  34. Money is not real. It is simply a means of exchanging value. Ultimately, it is not “yours” and you cannot take it with you when you die. Money helps you achieve outcomes that matter while you are here. It also help you to help others achieve outcomes while you are here.
  35. Owning a successful business does not mean you are good at doing everything that goes into operating a high performing team or organization. It means you have found a pain in the market that people were willing to pay to solve. The effectiveness of your organization is something entirely different.
  36. Shared organizational culture creates organizational effectiveness. Organizational effectiveness creates performance.
  37. Brand perception is a reflection of internal culture. A conceived or aspirational brand will crumble under poor internal culture.
  38. Every service, website, and product you use makes money, even if it is free to you. Google is not free, it is paid for by advertisers. This blog is not free, I am only able to write this blog because I make money elsewhere. Wikipedia is not free, it is supported by generous donors.
  39. Firing clients can sometimes be the quickest path to success.
  40. People will say they would buy what you’ve made because they don’t want to say no, or “call your baby ugly.” The best way to know whether you have created or are creating something of value is to ask real people to pay real money. If you ask for money before you’ve even built the thing, even better. It will save you time, money, and energy.
  41. The significance of our work is motivating. People who consistently perform at high levels draw their motivation from alignment with personal goals, alignment with personal beliefs, or inherent interest in the work itself. Any other motivators are false motivators and are not sustainable over time.
  42. Many people quit their work because of bad bosses, not because of the work itself. When we are not led, when we do not believe in our boss, when a boss is not willing to grow and learn herself, then we feel no loyalty.
  43. Our lives can be broken into seven categories of well being. 1) Spiritual. 2) Relationship. 3) Mental. 4) Physical. 5) Financial. 6) Career. 7) Adventure.
  44. Autonomy, connectdness, and growth greatly affect our sense of fulfillment in life and work. To feel a sense of autonomy in the choices we make everyday. To feel a sense of connectedness to a community. To feel an alignment between what we believe to be true about the world and the actions we take. These are the things we seek.
  45. I can hand you a specific set of directions, or I can hand you a map. I could give you directions based on my own experiences, which could have very little to do with your own experiences or starting point. The results you achieve by making use of that map depend entirely on the starting point. Your ability to understand your starting point and then apply the map to your situation will directly dictate your outcomes. Maps are more uncomfortable than directions but often more fulfilling.
  46. People would rather you do the work for them then show them how to do it themselves. Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime is true. However, teaching requires a willingness to learn. Many people do not have that willingness. Sometimes it is driven by fear, sometimes by past experience, sometimes by the combination of the two.
  47. Growth is scary. We reach our potential when we consistently make ourselves uncomfortable. Knowing this does not make it any easier to be uncomfortable, but rather it allows us to understand what we are feeling and its value to our future.
  48. Being in relationship with other people has implied risk. The value those people provide back into our lives is worth the risk, as long as we first apply the right filters to the people we allow to influence us.
  49. Much of the marketing, advertising, and messaging we see in the world is designed to build up a sense of fear and inadequacy within us. Fear drives us to make impulse decisions. Creating a filter for what messages we subject ourselves to allows us to create a more intentional reality for our lives.
  50. Avoiding the real work does not make failure any more or less likely, it just delays the inevitable. Do the real work first and fail or succeed early. Waiting to fail does not make failure less painful.

The inevitable response to a post like this is: “So, what’s next?” To be frank, I don’t know. I never gave myself the option of a Plan B while I was running Living for Monday, and I think that was the right move. Further, I put a requirement on myself that I would spend 4-5 days feeling the emotions of ending a project.

So, today I start looking for what’s next. I have many potential options in mind, and perhaps I will share some of the process on this blog. Ironically, I’ll be taking much of my own Living for Monday advice as I search for the next exciting opportunity on my path.

If you have ideas or want to have a conversation about opportunities to work together, please send me an email at Barrettallenbrooks@gmail.com

In the meantime, let me know what I can do for you.


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You look out at the crowd from the side of the stage. You feel the butterflies and your palms are sweaty. You hear your name from the conference organizer and you get ready to climb the stairs to the stage. 30 minutes of uninterrupted talking is in your immediate future.

That’s the feeling I still get everytime I get ready to speak in public. Granted, I’m not a seasoned vet of the national conference speaking circuit, but I’ve probably had more opportunities to speak in public than 80%+ of people my age. It’s a privilege I’m grateful for and one I’ll continue to take advantage of as I work hard to become a great storyteller and communicator.

Over the next two months, I’ll have the opportunity to speak at two conferences I’m very excited about:

I’m incredibly excited and humbled by both opportunities, which means I’m taking my preparation very seriously. I’ve invested time in books and people that have helped me understand how to create a prep process that will help me feel prepared to deliver a great experience for the audience. 

I figure sharing my process for preparation could be helpful for others, so here goes.

Research and Resources

First off, the resources I think are most helpful for learning how to design, practice, and deliver a great talk:

  • The Minto Pyramid Principle – Perhaps one of the best books of all time for understanding a framework for structured, clear communication. This is required reading for management consultants, and I believe it is one of the best books to read for current or aspiring public speakers. It’s ridiculously expensive, but it delivers real value.
  • Stand and Deliver by Dale Carnegie Training — a good introduction and overview to the preparation process for delivering a pro-level presentation
  • How to Deliver a TED Talk by Jeremey Donovan — the author has taken the time to analyze hundreds of the most successful TED talks to understand what makes them engaging and powerful. He shares overall strategies for presentation prep, design, and delivery
  • Resonate by Nancy Duarte — Duarte is also the name of the author’s agency that builds custom slide presentations for executive-level speakers. This book presents the principles Duarte has learned in analyzing some of the most powerful speeches of all time.
  • Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte — Another book from Duarte focused specifically on the visual presentation of information through presentation software. The book outlines how to most effectively create a presentation companion.
  • Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds — This is a great overview text on building a process for presentation creation and then turning it into an engaging set of slides that will make the presentation better (rather than making the audience’s eyes glaze over).
  • Top 20 TED talks of all time — This is a list of the most watched TED talks of all time as of the end of 2013, according to TED itself. Once you have an established understanding of frameworks and theories, it is incredibly helpful to see real examples. These talks would be a great place to start developing an applied understanding of how to deliver a great talk.

The Framework

The first thing I do in preparing any talk is to come up with the key idea. This is much the same as writing an article. I always come up with a headline first, then write the article, then rewrite the headline for the best outcome. Presentations can be created in a similar fashion.

Once I have an idea of the outcome, I try to stick to a 3×3 outline with an intro tagged on the front and a conclusion on the end. The framework looks like this:

  • Key Point #1: Problem
  • Key Point #1: Proof
  • Key Point #1: Premise
  • Key Point #2: Problem
  • Key Point #2: Proof
  • Key Point #2: Premise
  • Key Point #3: Problem
  • Key Point #3: Proof
  • Key Point #3: Premise

The key points support the main message of the talk in one of two ways, which come from The Minto Pyramid Principle. First, you can use the key points to explain how the main message works in practice. Or, second, you can use the key points to explain why the main message is true or why the audience should believe what you believe.

So, if your presentation main message were “Atlanta Tech Village is the best place to work in Atlanta” then the three key points might be:

  1. You can meet other smart entrepreneurs
  2. Atlanta Tech Village a widely recognized brand in Atlanta
  3. They have free snacks

This would be a “Why” logic to support your main message.

The problem -> proof -> premise framework comes from a combination of Resonate and How to Deliver a TED Talk. The problem -> proof progression highlights the principles from Resonate, in which Duarte argues that some of the best speeches in history create a picture of some problem in the world and then contrast that with a vision for the future. The problem = problem; the premise = an anecdote or visionary tale of the future.

The proof -> premise progression comes from How to Deliver a TED Talk in which Donovan argues that great presentations first use anecdotes or research-based evidence to tell a story that proves the key point. However, the story does not directly make the point until after the audience has been led through the emotional up and down of the story to reach a similar conclusion on their own. The premise comes when you outline and clearly state the key point, creating a shared language and instilling the point in the minds of the audience.

With this framework, you would introduce your main message. Then, you would outline the key points to come, preparing the audience for the checkpoints along the way. Then you would work through each key point using the problem -> proof -> premise structure.

This creates a feeling in the audience of: “I hear the main message” then “I know what to expect over the next 30-60 minutes” then “Oh no, that’s a problem! Oh, but that is a really cool vision for a better future. Wow, that’s a really intriguing point and he already proved it to me with that story.” then “Ah, I see, that was part 1, now we’re moving on to part 2.” then “I get it, the key message was BLAH, he supported that with the three key points, and his conclusion made one last passionate argument for why we should believe what he believes.”

One last point: I try to keep a talk to three key points, but sometimes I will include as many as five. The fewer key points you make, the more likely the audience will be to remember your message and be able to relay it to others. There is only so much an audience can process in one presentation. Your job is to make them intrigued enough about your idea to learn more, not to relay all of your knowledge in one hour.

Research + Anecdotes

One further practice I like to incorporate into my presentations is tying research to anecdotes. Research proves that there is some basis for the points I am making. Anecdotes create an emotional tie to the data presented by research. The combination of the two make the connection between theory and practice, logic and emotion.

Practically speaking, research and anecdotes can be tied into any part of the 3×3 framework. The problem can and should incorporate an anecdote that relates back to some research proving that there is a real problem. The proof can use an anecdote to relate back to research showing what is possible if some change is made in the world. The premise can summarize all of it into a key point the audience can relate to because you have appealed to both logic and emotion.

Creating the Presentation

To sum everything up, here is a bullet list for my project prep process (I’ll let you know how it works out for me after these two talks):

  1. Understand the conference’s theme, audience, requirements (time/space/etc), and background
  2. Create a main message or “headline” for the talk
  3. Create a list of outcomes for the audience
  4. Write a blog post based roughly on the outcomes to get everything related to the topic out of my head and onto paper
  5. Create a 3×3 outline, starting with key points and then problem + proof. I do this on sticky notes so I can see them arranged in a 3×3 grid. I don’t write the entire thing out, just create bullets that serve as cues for my talking points.
  6. Create an introduction and conclusion
  7. Record a practice session using the outline
  8. Listen to the practice session.
  9. Make edits
  10. Repeat steps 7-9 five times
  11. Decide whether slides will make the presentation better or simply distract the audience from the message
  12. Sketch slides on post it notes based on my edited outline
  13. Repeat steps 7-10. Here I have the sticky note sketches in front of me and practice for when I would switch the slides as I speak.
  14. Create digital versions of the slides using presentation software (Keynote/Powerpoint/Prezi/etc). Primarily image-driven slides. No more than 10 words per slide, preferably less than 6.
  15. Repeat steps 7-10. Make updates in the slides accordingly.
  16. Finalize presentation.
  17. If time, edit the original brain dump blog post based on the finalized presentation. This is where you can include all of the information that didn’t fit into the presentation. You can add footnotes, images, graphs, detailed research references, etc.
  18. Edit the document and create a PDF version. Send it to the conference organizer after the presentation to provide to attendees. They will appreciate a take home that helps them dive deeper if they are interested in the topic.

I believe that if I am going to speak in public, I should be well-prepared and engaging. Most presentations I have seen throughout my life have been incredibly boring, do not effectively use research + anecdotes, and leave me wondering what else I could have done with the hour I spent listening. My aspiration is to give the best talk anyone in the audience has ever heard. I won’t reach that bar every time I speak (if ever). However, if I’m not willing to shoot for that bar, then I believe I should save everyone time and energy by foregoing the opportunity to speak at all. 

How do you prepare for presentations? How could I improve my preparation process? Who is the best speaker you have ever heard in person? What was the best talk topic you have ever heard?

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I’ve had a recent experience that highlighted how important it is to focus on customer priorities as opposed to our own.

When we focus on our own priorities, it makes the customer experience painful. Some customers will deal with it, but many more will leave. Focusing on yourself means that you structure timelines according to what is convenient to you. It means that you create messaging that talks about you instead of talking about and to your customer. A focus on you neglects the fact that there is a real person, with real challenges and opportunities sitting on the other side of your process. The process has a thin veil over it that does a poor job of masking your agenda and priorities, making the customer feel like a pawn in your game.

Flip the script and consider what it means to have a truly customer-focused mentality in all that you do. The messaging on your website is directed at the goals, challenges, and questions of your customer. They arrive on your homepage and think, “Ah, this feels like home. They know me.” Your timeline for the project or presentation or training you want to get to the finish line could come completely from asking the right questions about your customer’s commitments and priorities right now, making them feel like a participant in the process. Your milestones and checkpoints along the way could be built collaboratively so your customer feels engaged rather than like they’re being put in a maze with a predetermined outcome.

Being you-focused or customer-focused is a choice. It’s a choice that reflects your business philosophy, the way you treat customers, how you’ll behave in moments of conflict or stress… The list goes on, but in short this choice reflects on everything a potential customer needs to know about you. From a customer standpoint, it feels good to be an engaged participant in the process. In fact, it makes me want to work harder to pay you and create a stronger partnership.

Of course, the opposite is true as well. The more you focus on you, the more I consider the possibility of looking out exclusively for myself. If that means finding someone to replace you, oh well, it doesn’t affect me.

Make a choice, but recognize how that will affect your business/event/nonprofit in the future.

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I got an email recently that asked me how to price a potential freelance project. The question was specifically related to social media work, but I think my answer applies to many different freelancing explanations.
For context, here was the email I received:
Okay, so below are the things my contact had requested me to do over the weekend. Their overall goal that they’re involving me in is the company’s social media marketing
1. Research the company that they are helping
2. They want Twitter and Facebook content creation and release for at least a month.
3. They’re looking into articles to float around the blogospher. They want me to a 4 week editorial calendar
So by Sunday I will be sending them a PPT presentation of how I propose to get the company’s product introduced to the market via Twitter and FB; I will advise them on how often to post and how to track engagement using FB’s analytics tools.
So my pricing concern is actually two-fold. How do I price the proposal and then how do I price the services I’m proposing once they approve it?
Let’s ignore the specifics in favor of general strategy for pricing for a project like this.
Before we get started, here are a couple of things to consider:
For perspective, a person who makes $50,000 a year in salary makes $25/hr assuming a 50 week year and 40 hour work week. A person who makes $100,000 in salary makes $50/hr. Any freelancer should charge more per hour than the equivalent they would make in a salaried position. The reason is that a freelancer will almost certainly work less then 40 paid hours per week. You have to make up for the lost time spent on operations, marketing, building relationships, selling, and everything else a freelancer does outside of the paid work.
I would highly recommend you read this article before you get started with any kind of freelancing. It is mind-shifting when it comes to seeking and accepting work, pricing, and managing clients.
On the topic of pricing, you basically have three options here, which are numbered below.
  1. You can create the proposal as a project, including a timeline through the end of the first month. You’ll want to estimate how much time the entire “project” will take you to complete — don’t share this with the client, just know it for yourself. Multiply the estimated hours by what you want to be making per hour for this kind of work. That is your project price. If they want to pay less, your job is to negotiate by saying that you are happy to cut back on some of the services provided in exchange for less money. That way you are not diminishing your value, but rather trading less work for less money.
  2. You can establish the relationship as an initial project + monthly retainer. In other words, you can structure your proposal for an ongoing work arrangement that extends beyond the first month. In this case, you would establish a fee for the first month of work — the initial research and strategy work — which you would price like a mini-project per #1 above. Then, you would propose a monthly fee for a specific set of responsibilities in months 2 to infinity.
  3. Charge hourly. This is the simplest way to charge, but it also limits your ability to learn and creates poor incentives. I hate charging hourly, but it is definitely the most comfortable way to get started. Decide what you think your hourly rate would be, track your hours, and bill the client every week, two weeks, or month according to your agreement.
A few things to consider when deciding between pricing strategies:
  • If you price this as a project, make sure you are very clear about the timeline, expectations from the client (what they have to do to make the project successful), deliverables, and responsibilities. Your deliverable should be concrete, agreed upon, and tied to deadlines. Your payment should be tied to the completion of those deliverables. This is how you provide value without charging an hourly rate.
  • You can use the project pricing and still propose and ongoing monthly retainer. The best method for this is to propose the initial project and then have a final slide of your proposal that paints the picture of what an ongoing monthly partnership would look like (benefits, responsibilities, cost, etc)
  • Only charge hourly if you can’t do anything else. Hourly sucks for you because you have to track and justify every hour you spend. Additionally, if you want to make more money, you have to work more hours. Hourly sucks for the client because they just want their problems solved in as little time as possible, they really want outcomes not just hours worked, and they have to scrutinize every hour you spend. Additionally, it’s harder for the client to predict what they project will cost, which is just stupid for everyone involved.
  • The opposite is true of project pricing — the less time you take to complete the deliverables with excellence, the more money you make per hour — your incentive is to efficiently delight your customers so you maximize your return on time invested. This makes the client happy while making you more money. It’s also much less stressful for both parties.

What did I miss? What would you have suggested in response to this email? Do you have another pricing strategy that has worked well for you in the past?

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David Cummings* wrote a post last night that hit on a subject I believe is paramount to the success of any organization, whether a startup, established business, or a student group at Georgia Tech.

The post is about the difference between inbound marketing and building a passionate community. In it, he sums his point up with this:

Inbound marketing is about relevant content while a passionate community comes from compelling leadership.

David posted his post to Twitter and I replied with this:

It was important to me to be able to elaborate on the concepts David touches on, which is why I’ve written this more in depth post/response/conversation starter. I hope you’ll join in.

I’ve structured this post in four parts, each of which corresponds to a quote from the post above. At the end of this post you’ll find a footnote that answers the question, “Who the heck is David Cummings?” in case you’re not from Atlanta or have not yet heard of him.

“Standard content, while keyword rich, often isn’t edgy or strongly opinionated.”

Inbound marketing can be so much more than relevant content, but the point is well taken. The average inbound marketing strategy uses content that is just “ok.” How many company blogs do you read religiously? Probably not very many, because most suck. (There are exceptions, of course.)

In order to bridge the gap between mediocre and truly great content, I believe you have to start thinking about content like a media company does. If you’re not willing to do that, then content is reduced to an SEO tactic, which is probably why David makes the point above.

Take a look at the content being produced by media companies like Fast Company or The Verge. The Verge’s Small Empires hosted by Alexis Ohanian could win awards for the production and entertainment value. Fast Company has multiple sites exclusively dedicated to serving different segments of their audience with compelling content.

What could you take away from these companies and apply to your inbound marketing strategy to create something more than SEO bait? I ask my self this questions constantly and we’re proactively pursuing ways to make our content more like a media platform and less like a simple inbound marketing strategy.

Think about the way RedBull, GoPro, Behance, and others approach content. They compete with media companies for educational and entertainment value. Whether we like it or not, everything on the internet is in competition for attention, including your inbound marketing strategy. The more delightful and remarkable we can make our content, the more we’ll be able to attract an audience that will lead to a passionate community

“Offline interaction and building personal rapport is an important ingredient in cultivating a community.”

I believe this is the most important point in the entire article. We’ve reached a point of near saturation in the content market. In MBA programs, they teach competitive strategy that covers topics like gaining market share in a saturated market. These are the kinds of challenges faced by companies like Coke and Pepsi. It’s also what opens the door for market disrupters.

Well, we’ve reached a point of market saturation for content. People have so much access to information that it’s distracting, so the early adopter crowd is starting to cut back their consumption. They go to a select few content outlets (if they read, watch, or listen to anything at all online) that they have carefully vetted over time. In this kind of market, your content has to be positively remarkable to stand out and win market share (like I said above).

However, I believe a key strategy for winning attention-share™ (kidding), is the ability to bridge the gap between online and offline communities. In fact, I believe in this strategy so much that we’ve essentially bet the company on it. That’s a strong statement, so let me explain why.

Last summer while working on the Krypton project with the team, Seth preached to us that real learning happens in person, face to face, when people have to get vulnerable with one another and hold each other accountable. We bet the future of Krypton on that fact, and the results we saw from the groups that embraced the concept were remarkable.

When I look across the business world, I consistently see examples of in-person community building exponentially accelerating the growth of “1,000 True Fan” bases, raving fans, and brand advocates. Attendees of the World Domination Summit leave Portland every summer singing the praise of Chris Guillebeau, the WDS team, and the speakers they select to be on stage. So many people talk about it that they can’t create enough spots for everyone who wants to attend to show up in person. There’s no space big enough in Portland to accomodate the number of people who want to attend.

CreativeLive brings in a small group of passionate learners to participate live as classes are filmed in studio in Seattle and San Francisco. Their growth trajectory has been absolutely astonishing. People rave about the value of being in person for a CreativeLive course or a Chase Jarvis Live Interview (Chase cofounded Creative Live).

And why not?

When you get to be a part of something live and in person, you feel a different kind of connection to it. Online, you can read a piece of content, X out of the page, and never remember the name of the site that provided the content. I’ve done it 1,000,000 times.

But if you overcome the fear to show up in person to an event that connects you to other people who make you better, you become a raving fan. (Of course this assumes a well-executed, well-targeted, and well-attended event.) You leave an event like that feeling energized and wanting more. Now, when you return home, you have a real and compelling reason to add the company’s blog, podcast, or video channel to your reading list because you’ve become a passionate member of the community.

There is NO substitute for offline connection. However, he parallel here is that greatness is key in the case of both content and events. Produce great content and you’re more likely to create dedicated readers. Create a great event that connects a thriving community and you create raving fans.

Final point: personal rapport does not have to come from one-on-one interaction with each person in the community. By putting on an event, each person who attends and gains value from having attended associates that value with you, whether they spoke directly to you or not.

“Audience engagement is readily measured based on number of comments, retweets, and follow-up emails.”

Yes, you can measure some online engagement through comments, retweets, and emails. In my experience, comments and tweets are a cheap and flaky currency. An article may spread far and wide on the wild west of the internet without delivering any real value to the creator. Commenters on Hacker News could care less about the creators of the content they are debating. People who share great content from Lifehacker will mostly never think twice about the author.

Further, the vocal minority will always be far louder than the silent majority that make up a loyal community, especially in public-facing forums. If you can grow the vocal minority consistently, then you’re really onto something. Think Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters.

I believe that a better measure of engagement begins with permission — permission to send content to a person’s inbox. The engagement of email subscribers through repeated clickthroughs is a good sign for keeping a community engaged. If that leads to a growing vocal minority, even better. But perhaps best is the conversion from an email subscriber to an in-person relationship via an event like I mentioned earlier.

The ideal “passioante community funnel” may, in fact, look like this: Site visitor –> email subscriber –>  one-on-one virtual exchanges via comments/social/email –> in person relationship. This fortuitous cycle creates a core group of passionate people that will continue to drive the growth of a community.

“Amazing storytellers, like the best programmers, are 10x more effective than their colleagues.”

This point stands on it’s own in many ways. It’s been true throughout history that the best storytellers have an uncanny ability to gain influence. The loudest storytellers may win in the short-term, but the storytellers who hone their craft with an eye on the long game are the ones that end up growing a following over time.

A great storyteller can create an excellent piece of content that connects to a person’s deepest hopes, fears, or dreams. They can also craft an event that rallies individuals to a common cause around which a passionate community can be built. The best storytellers can be the best leaders because while facts may provide proof, people connect most deeply to stories.

I believe we’ve entered a new age where storytelling ultimately wins. As we move more and more to a service-based, post-industrial, technology-driven economy, we are in a race to win people’s hearts so that we can earn their permission to occupy their attention. The storytellers who can resonate with an audience most deeply are the ones who will build passionate communities.

Overall, this is a topic I am extremely passionate about. I believe community building may be one of the most underrated and understudied topics in the professional world. I hope we can keep the dialogue on this topic going as various organizations around Atlanta continue to work to build thriving communities of their own.


*I’ve referred to David a couple of times recently either on Twitter or here on this blog. If you aren’t from Atlanta or don’t know who he is, he co-founded Pardot, a B2B marketing automation startup, in 2007. He went on to sell Pardot to ExactTarget just before being named Ernst & Young’s entrepreneur of the year (I used to work for Ernst & Young). Since then, he has perhaps become best known for using a portion of his earnings to found Atlanta Tech Village, a 5-story, 100,000 square foot building I call the epicenter of the Atlanta startup community (also where Josh and I work and will continue to work as we grow the Living for Monday team).

David blogs daily at DavidCummings.org, where you can learn more about his story. I have mentioned him often in recent times because I have had the chance to meet him personally, in addition to the fact that he is part of a very small group of Atlantans putting out content worth reading on a regular basis. If you’re curious about other startup/tech/business bloggers out of Atlanta, here is a list to start with.

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