Monday, 6 June 2016

Make Mountains into Milestones

I recently returned from four refreshingly long days in Lutsen along the beaches of Lake Superior’s north shore. The weather was warm and calm enough to spend one of the mornings in a kayak. After scooting along the shoreline, our tour guide led us out in to the lake, far enough out that the shore was a distant sliver. We stayed out there a bit, appreciating the clear, fresh, water. We had gone far enough out that we could no longer see any man-made structures. No cabins. No lighthouses. Just trees, mountains, and the lake water.

Our tour guide, knowing he couldn’t point us in the direction of our resort (for we couldn’t see it) pointed out two peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains and directed us to point our kayaks between them. Ten minutes later, we were close enough to shore to see human scale again. Our guide then pointed out a distinctly colored cabin along the shore and had us turn slightly and paddle toward it. Then, ten minutes later, he pointed out a series of townhouses peaking out from the evergreens and we turned ever more parallel with the shore heading toward them. Five minutes later, our resort was within sight and he directed us in for a landing.

Big transformative projects are like this journey back to shore. None of the landmarks the guide used were our final destination, they were the landmarks we could see from where we were. We all knew that our destination was out there, was real, and was our final destination. These intermediate, temporary landmarks made the journey more comfortable and far less overwhelming than if we made a beeline for a pinpoint beyond our field of vision.

It’s June 2016. Week 23. The mid-point of the year is three short weeks away.

The milestone projects my clients and I initiated in December and January are now going live (you may see a few of these coming to your favorite websites). These foundational efforts, are all incremental steps toward a larger effort that will take us through the end of the calendar year. Like the guided kayak journey to shore, our final destination is still hidden behind the horizon. We’ll still need to adjust our heading against a couple more milestones. Against a couple more iterations.

These iterations allow us to capture greater fractions of larger project’s business value sooner than the projected 18-month timeframe. It also builds resiliency into the project and the teams. As we’re able to set the heading to the landmarks we can see more details reveal themselves with each adjustment.

There are two take-aways:

  1. If you haven’t yet scheduled a long weekend enveloped in nature, out of range of your mobile phone service, do so this week.
  2. If you’ve lost sight of your destination on a big project, identify intermediate destination you can see that’s in the same general direction, one that will help you make substantial progress – both directly & indirectly. Adjust and repeat. If you’d benefit from a guide to supporting you along the way, give me a call.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

What My High School Art Teacher Taught Me About Business

Unlike every other class in high school, I remember art class being completely self-directed. Yes, in English I could choose which book I wrote a 3-page report on and in History I could choose whether or not I paid attention at all, but it was art where I felt I could wholly and completely pursue my interests. The medium, subject matter, and technique were all up to me. With one caveat – I had to write a proposal and Mrs. Topdahl needed to approve it.

The proposal had to include a brief description of the project, a timeline, and 3 goals and their corresponding measures of success. These were the metrics determining my grade. The goals were frequently things I continually struggled with: improved use of color, improved craftsmanship, more accurate depictions of human figures. As a teenager, I’m sure I wrote in some softballs from time to time. Mrs. Topdahl knew if I wasn’t challenging myself, reject the proposal, and send me back to re-write it. I remember spending entire class periods working on proposals. Once the proposal was approved, I’d get to work acquiring materials and scheduling milestones. We’d have check-ins throughout the defined timeline to discuss project status, which aspects of the project were working and which I needed help with. But mostly, from acquiring project materials through to final presentation, I’d work autonomously towards the defined goals.

While the proposals defined what a successful end state looked like, they never defined exactly how to arrive there. There was still plenty of room to explore the heart of the project and discover something both delightfully significant and significantly delightful. This is still art after all. Not every project was a resounding success. Some were complete messes.

Either way, by the next class period, I was drafting another proposal.

That was nearly a quarter century ago.

Before I drafted the proposal for a design internship.

Before I earned a BFA.

Before I went out on my own.

Before I read anything by Alan Weiss.

Looking back on the hundreds of professional projects I’ve worked on, the successful ones have 3 things in common:

  1. The client and I partnered in outlining the project’s goals, agreed on the proposal, then I worked autonomously.
  2. Determining how to achieve the goals was up to my experience and expertise – not included in the proposal.
  3. They had nothing to do with my use of color or depictions of the human figure.

Thanks to my high school art teacher, Mrs. Topdahl, for teaching 16-year old me how to be an independent professional.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

How I Learned to Get Up Before My Kids

Despite a bad habit of staying up until 2am most nights, I hadn’t used an alarm clock for at least 6 years. Likely a decade. When I was up that late actively working on a project (versus binge listening to music or watching Netflix), I’d joke my ‘second day’ was from 8pm – 2am. Yes, I’d be worthless until lunch, but at the time my clients were 2 timezones away. I continued to be a night owl when I became a father. Once the kids were asleep and the day was behind me, usually 10pm, I’d be inspired to start one project or another.

When my oldest was still a baby in the crib, sometime between 6:30 and 7am he would fill his diaper so loudly it’d wake his mother and me. I’d get up to change him. As he grew older, he’d just yell for me: “Papa, Papa, Papa, Papa, Papa, Papa…” until I picked him up. Once he could walk, he’d get himself out of bed, toddle down the hall into my bedroom, work his way to my side of the bed, shouting “Breafkast Time!” at my sleeping head. In case I didn’t immediately respond, his little sister was hanging in the shadows. Every morning. 7am.

I’ve always equated the sleep deprivation of having a newborn in the house like that of finals week in college. It’s intense but you know you’ll be able to sleep in a week. Or twelve. Sleep deprivation and older kids is different. You can’t cross off the days until they’ll sleep through the night. They are. You aren’t. There’s no relief in sight and it’s the worst version of you they see in the morning.

On one especially challenging morning I had an epiphany, “I’m a better dad when I’m up before the kids than if they wake me up.”

A deceptively simple goal.

To achieve this, my sleep deprived mind reasoned, I needed to get up 30 minutes earlier. To do that, I needed to sleep more deeply and more restfully. With a more restful sleep, I could wake up refreshed and ready to help the kids. I researched natural sleep aids and picked up a 3 month supply of melatonin. At about 11p each evening I’d take one tablet and about 30 minutes later I’d feel drowsy and head off to bed. Easy. This regimen worked great for a couple of months. I’d fall asleep when my head hit the pillow and wake up alert. As I reached the bottom of the pill bottle, I developed a tolerance. Ninety minutes after going to sleep, my eyes would shoot open and I’d be wide awake. Higher dosages just made it worse. Some nights, lying wide awake at the ceiling, I couldn’t remember if I had taken it at all.

In September 2011, I heard about the Zeo Sleep Coach from Jamie’s links blog. The Zeo is an alarm clock that monitors your sleep cycles and goes off at the most appropriate point ahead of your alarm. Along the way, it quantifies your night’s sleep in a single “ZQ” score.

You’ll need to wear the supplied headband for it to work. The instruction card in the box warns your spouse will mock the fact you need a headband to sleep.

As I accumulated more sleep data, I could easily hit a 76, 78, or 80 ZQ. The card says, this was slightly lower than others in my age group. Nothing else. No odd periods of wakefulness through the night, no irregular sleep cycles, nothing out of the ordinary. Just a slightly lower ZQ score and the expected mocking. I tried to game the ZQ score. On weekends I’d score the occasional 90. With a maximum of 10 points per hour it was tough to crack 100. But I did. Nine times. All time high of 117. Looking deeper into the data, I could see my sleep cycles were consistently 90 minutes long. Shifting my awake time 30 minutes earlier didn’t fall within that window. I reset Zeo’s alam clock accordingly. When it worked – it worked brilliantly. I’d get up with the alarm, start my day, and be dressed and fed before the kids demand I help them with the same.

The Zeo had a 2 significant downsides. The first – it considered your alarm time as the latest possible waking-point rather than the most appropriate waking-point in your sleep cycle. The second – and one I believe will be a significant controversy of the 21st Century – Zeo stored sleep data on an SD card encrypted. The recommended way of decrypting the data was to create an account at and upload the encrypted data file to their servers. Having my personal biological data captured and encrypted by a device in my household that only I was using with the default method for me to access that personal data was through a for-profit company’s servers – that’s completely unethical. Accessing my personal data on a device I purchased shouldn’t require a soldering iron. Especially when it’s a csv text file. Especially when the company in question quietly goes out of business and their domain reverts to a GoDaddy landing page.

Thankfully by this time, I had 18 months with the Zeo and had cracked the secret to getting a good night’s sleep. Once I accepted it and worked through a sleep debt, I could consistently wake up unaided before 6:30a.

Three years ago, if you would have told me this secret to getting a good night’s sleep without the aid of technology (electronic or pharmaceutical), I would have replied with a hearty scoff and a, “No, that can’t be it.”

It turns out the boost of inspiration I get every night at 10pm is my mind’s counterintuitive way of expressing drowsiness. Something like that boost of inspiration you might get as your mind wanders in the shower. Rather than simply take note of the inspiration, I’d immediately act on it. The blue light of the computer monitor would compounding my alertness. Before I knew it, it’d be 2am

Now, I don’t start anything new after 9:30 and aim for lights out by 10:30pm. This guarantees 5 90 minute sleep cycles before morning. The night owl in me still scoffs. I let him. The last score he got was a 58 (still displayed on the dust-collecting Zeo). He’ll never appreciate how enjoyable and productive mornings are.


Those hours before sunrise became a kind of sacred space to me, and I’ve used them over the years to do whatever work has been most important in my life. – Steve Leveen

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Where’s Your Buyer Platform?

A few weeks ago, I met with a local small business owner. We first met back when we were both solo and have met for coffee every 6 months or so since. He now maintains an office downtown full of employees. Towards the end of our time together, he asked which social media services I was actively using.

“None. My buyers aren’t there.”

He concurred that none of his business came through those channels either and that he’s considering deleting all his accounts. What’s been holding him back?

The sense that his future employees are active on these social media services and that not being present will make future hiring more difficult. I reminded him of the business he’s growing, the family he enjoys, and that his employees should do his recruiting since they’re who this hypothetical new employee will be working with anyway.

So, yes, delete the accounts. Your future isn’t there anyway.

Over the past 5 years, I’ve built, released, and retired a number of my own products (Cullect, Kernest, typerighter, and some even smaller ones). The revenue from these projects keeps both my server bills and my knowledge of the latest tech current. They don’t pay the kids’ yogurt bill, the tax bill, the mortgage bill, or my retirement. These expenses are covered by my consulting and coaching engagements. These are engagements with:

  • corporate executives challenged with transforming a multi-channel organization into a digital-centric organization,
  • leaders of digital-centric organizations charged with increasing growth and revenue,
  • founders fighting to pull their startup out of the din of banality.

Most important of all – they all have families they love, kids they don’t spend enough time with, and hobbies they haven’t pursued in much too long. In short, their calendars are booked solid with challenge and fulfillment. These are not people outraged by the latest Twitter, Linkedin, or Facebook drama (product-related or otherwise). These are people fighting to make their vision a reality. Every. Single. Day. Fighting to transform their organization’s products and culture. They’re not tweeting it.

So, how do you get in front of your buyers? That’s your job to find out. It’s not a new job. Nor is it one that can be solved by the hottest new technology. It’s solved by building relationships – not followers – atop a platform that’s unique to your remarkable business.


“These aren’t ‘business media platforms.’ Those, you create on your own, not with followers or friends, but with prospects and clients.” – Alan Weiss

Friday, 18 October 2013

Photo by Cult Gigolo

No Client Work Before Lunch

Patrick and I have been meeting for a Monday morning coffee for years now. It’s an excellent way to start the week. As good as it is, it still fell by the wayside when my new daughter was born. Once we reconvened, he asked me what I found valuable about our conversations.

Without thinking I replied, “How it reduces my available time.”

This is to say, the longer Patrick and I are discussing long term goals, world-changing projects, and how we’re striving to be better the less time I have available to get sucked into drama du jour/Twitter/Facebook/Hacker News. Priceless.

Six weeks ago, I came up with an experiment to see where this idea breaks.

  • Monday – Thursday: No client work before lunch.
  • Friday: No client work after lunch.
  • No client work on weekends.

I now have recurring appointments in my calendar for: strategic thinking, reading, writing, attending my favorite class at the local gym. Sure, even in these short 6 weeks the time for these things have been constrained due to, well, life; compiling documents for the accountant, meeting with prospective clients, attending the end-of-unit preschool party, taking the baby to the doctor, even some client work snuck in this week.

    The biggest benefit?

  1. With rules for when I do client work, I’m much more protective and focused on generating value for my clients during those hours.
  2. I always break for lunch

Even with my current 62.5% success rate [1], I’ve found myself focused and motivated at reaching project milestones within the scheduled time. Yes, I’ve had some late lunches on recent Fridays. I’m OK with that. This model is something like a really long reverse Pomodoro (focus on play for 3 hours then on work for 4 hours) though I prefer to think of it as the Oxygen Mask Principle (take care of yourself first, then you’ll be better able to take care of others).

1. My inbox zero success rate for this same time period is 75%. I believe they are directed related.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Why Are You

I’m writing this from the wonderful, artful park a couple miles north of my house. It’s close enough that I could – and really should – spend a little bit of everyday here. Yet, this is the first time in more than a year I headed up here alone to work.

In college I knew at some point I’d work for myself. Yet, at no point did I write down “Be my own boss” or “Work for myself” as a goal to work towards. It seems as inevitable as aging and “trim earhair” is not a Goal To Write Down. Yet, before I turned 30, I was president of a corporate entity, invoicing clients, depositing checks into a corporate account, and paying myself a regular salary, all from the spare room. Unfortunately, I didn’t really believe it. It all seemed just so flimsy and abstract. Of course, any day now someone will offer me a position at an actual, concrete entity. Any. Day. Now. Well, the mortgage is still due, so I’ll keep on keeping on.

When my third child was born and I looked into the clear skies of his newborn eyes and I was met with a:

“Are you serious? About working for yourself, I mean. Are you actually serious about making that – work?”


He was right to ask. One kid didn’t significantly impact my lack of work life balance. And while it was significantly more challenging – two kids didn’t provide cause to rethink things either. Three however. And to be perfectly honest – I wasn’t serious. I hadn’t been serious. I was walking backward. He didn’t blink though. He wanted an answer. I needed to decide, either be serious or get a damn job.

Fine, fine. Ok, I’m serious.

Off I went meeting with more clients, closing more business, booking more projects, promptly overwhelming my calendar and myself. So, despite the many strong recommendations against the idea, I hired employees. I needed to ensure they were doing that magic combination of; work they were good at, work the client asked for, and work I wanted to sell. All this added far more than 3 straws to my camel’s back. At its apex (or nadir), I was hunched over a laptop struggling with some tiny client project on a beautiful summer day while the rest of the family was laughing and swimming in the river. Yes, I had my best year ever. Yes, I regret not being in that river.

Since then, I’ve let all the employees go and continually revisited the question Augustus asked me when we first met. It took me a few years, but I think I finally understand his question. It wasn’t really about working for myself – it was about knowing why I was. Beyond “nobody’s hired me yet” I had never answered why I wanted to work for myself. Answering ‘why’ took less than 3 minutes:

  • to spend time with him, his siblings, and my wife throughout the banality of the day
  • to be in control of my work environment
  • to have low overhead so I can be selective and excited about the clients I engage
  • to provide my clients a value-rich, intimate, and unique engagement
  • to focus on long term leverage, not short term fixes
  • to continually provide opportunities for my own personal and professional development

Many times in the past decade I’ve failed to be serious in these 6 areas. I’ve failed to take advantage of these 6 benefits of working solo. I’ve too often been a horrible boss — to myself. No more. After spending the past 5 weeks focused on my family, getting my office just about where I want it — I’m enthusiastic about my current projects.

And I have a goal for the next decade — written down. A bunch of them in fact. One of them is work from the park more. StrengthFinder 2.0 says I do better with written down goals.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Things I Assumed I Needed to Start a Consulting Business

Days into starting my own business, I sat down at my newly acquired desk and wrote down a list of things. Things I assumed I needed to purchase immediately to be in business. While I lost the list at some point in the past decade, I remember three things about it; it totaled more than $10,000, was quite lengthy, and I have yet to purchase anything on it. While I don’t remember everything on the list, I do remember a handful:

4 Things I Assumed I Needed But Didn’t

  • An office outside my house
    For the first few years I was in business, I toured office spaces and frequently spent days not working in my home office – always assuming that I’d find a place more comfortable and productive. I mean, all artists have a studio, right? It took 3 moves and 7 years, now my home office is my most comfortable and productive place.
  • A Chair
    For the last 2 years, since converting my desk to a standing desk, Markus has been in the closet, loaded with baby clothes. After losing the desk chair I also lost chronic neck pain and extreme late afternoon fatigue.
  • Buying Software from Adobe
    I’ve never been a fan of any of Adobe’s software, but always assumed I’d have to purchase Creative Suite, if not just InDesign, or at least a library of fonts. Turns out – none of it. Between open source software and far less expensive software – I’ve never actually needed to purchase anything from Adobe. These days, not even Acrobat Reader is on my machines.
  • Business Cards
    When I started out, I had a friend-of-a-friend letterpress some gorgeous business cards. Then I ran out, got distracted, and realized that capturing the other person’s info and following up is a more efficient way to initiate a relationship. After that -contact info is in the phone and email logs.

While this first list is pretty useful, there’s also a second, perhaps a more important, list. This is the list I wish I had when I started out.

4 Things I Didn’t Know I Needed

  • A Regular Schedule
    I start my day sometime between 8:30-9am, and I conclude it sometime between 4:30-5pm. Monday through Friday. Each days’ activities are scheduled at least 3 days in advance in iCal. This provides just enough structure to switch into my work mindset.
  • To Get Outside for a Walk Everyday
    Even a short 15 minute walk is enough to get some fresh air, change the perspective, and return refreshed.
  • A Hobby or Two
    Think of it as cross-training your brain. Different activities exercise different aspects of your grey matter. Creative solutions come from mixing different concepts in a new way. Hobbies build up other skills and insights that will only serve your work. Plus, they provide a nice place to rebuild small success when burnt out looms.
  • A Giant Wall Calendar
    All my most important milestones are on the wall calendar right behind my desk. I review it at least twice a day, so much more accessible at a glance than anything electronic.
  • Thursday, 18 April 2013

    What The Princess Bride Can Teach Independent Consultants

    I’ve frequently joked that I take much of my approach to working as an independent consultant from The Princess Bride. Knowing all jokes are half true, Patrick Rhone asked me for the punch line.

    Here are six:

    1. “Let’s look on the bright side: we’re having an adventure, Fezzik, and most people live and die without being as lucky as we are.”

      Adventure. That’s exactly why we go independent. For some adventures you’ll need a team. Maybe not right away, perhaps down the road. Ad hoc is fine, in fact it’s preferred. Sometimes members of your team will start out as competitors. Keep your mind open to creating ad hoc teams as projects and adventures warrant.

    2. “Look! He’s right on top of us. I wonder if he is using the same wind we are using.”

      Independence removes much of the weight of other organizations allowing you to move much more quickly towards your goals, as well as identifying smaller, more unique opportunities that larger teams don’t see the significance in. It’s worth mentioning here that just because someone is traveling in the same direction you are doesn’t mean you have shared goals or intentions. It just means you’re traveling in the same direction.

    3. “Get some rest. If you haven’t got your health, then you haven’t got anything.”

      You’re exhausted and you feel like your projects are taking the life out of you. Stop and take care of yourself. If you’re not taking care of you – you can’t take care of your clients. Only you know what you need to perform at your best – and it likely starts with eating well, exercising at least every other day, and every night getting a full night’s sleep.

    4. “You just wiggled your finger. That’s wonderful!”

      Sometimes you feel mostly dead. In these times, celebrate the small victories. Remember, you’re working towards a larger goal. Progress towards a goal, no matter how minor – is still progress.

    5. “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says otherwise is obviously selling something!”

      Yes, selling. Dedicate time each week to gaining new business. As an independent, people are buying you – or more specifically – they’re buying access to you. In return you relieve some pain on their side. Identify their pain, how you can ease it, and your sales process will be much more straight forward. Thought, it still may take twice as long as you expect.

    6. “Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

      There’s no such thing as job security. Even in piracy, and honestly, your current salaried position isn’t nearly as glamorous as storybook piracy. Maybe, just maybe, you’re the one person your boss will have replace him when he retires. Far more likely: he’ll go down with the ship.

    Tuesday, 29 January 2013

    3 Principles of Success for Independent Professionals

    Hi! I’ve heard about you for a few years now (originally from Richard Fink), and have enjoyed reading your blog posts. As a web designer who’s striking out on his own to learn programming and build his own business, do you have any advice? Cheers! – Josh

    For the past decade, I’ve been working for myself. Over that time, I’ve had good fortune and made significant missteps. The services I offer my clients today are purposefully and dramatically different from those I offered my first day in business. Across all those challenges – I’ve found 3 constants:

    1. Define what success is for you. Eliminate everything else.
      You can’t have someone else’s success. It’s theirs. It doesn’t fit you in the same way their clothes don’t fit you. The longer you chase after someone else’s success – the further you’ll drift from the success that is uniquely yours. And the longer you’ll be uncomfortable. The world obey’s Sturgeon’s Law. Your success lay somewhere within the remaining 10%. Each day, pursue something that matches your definition of success while eliminating something that doesn’t. This means saying ‘no’. You must do it deliberately. The world doesn’t believe you want to be successful. Stop proving it right.
    2. Force work to fit into your life. It’s the only way you’ll have one.
      In your preferred calendar, enter regular fixed appointments for exercise, steps toward personal life goals, time with loved ones, time away from technology. Always, always keep them. Work is insidious and will tempt you to blow them off. Don’t let the bastard. It’ll kill you. I’m serious – the Japanese even have a word for it – karōshi.
    3. Find a good accountant specializing in independent professionals. Treat them like a partner.
      Good accountants are worth every dollar you pay them. Ones that expertly handle both your personal and professional finances – doubly so. They will force you to be honest with yourself and your business. This honesty brings out who you really are – see #1.

    Tuesday, 27 November 2012