Specialist or generalist? – part 1

swiss-army-knifeknifeThe most common question I’ve heard from solopreneurs is “should I specialize in a niche or be a generalist?” My advice, almost to a one, is to find an area in which you can focus and become known as the go-to person for that niche.

I learned this lesson myself when I first started my research business, way back in 1991. I was coming from a background in the telecom industry, so I figured that I would focus in that area. I reached out to my colleagues in AIIP to introduce myself and tell them of my specialization, which back then was fairly unusual. I knew there weren’t going to be that many times when anyone would get a request for a telecom expert, but I figured that they would remember me and could be good referral sources.

Sure enough, I was able to get my business going by being known as the telecom research queen. I was brought into larger projects for my familiarity with obscure resources within the US Federal Communications Commission or the International Telecommunications Union (hey, maybe it’s not sexy, but it’s a living). And, of course, once a client got to know me, they would use me for other business-related projects, regardless of the industry.

They (and I) realized that my real specialization wasn’t that particular industry — it was my ability to scope out, research and analyze an industry, and create a report that enabled my clients to make a decision.

What are the unique skills that you bring to every job you do? Is it your ability to work with clients to identify their underlying needs when they can’t figure out what they want? Are you the one who can interview anyone about any topic, and always glean amazing insights for your clients? Can you take a vague idea and turn it into a brand identity that transforms a client’s image into something fantastic?

I went from an industry focus to being focused on enabling better strategic business decisions, but you don’t have to leave your field in order to succeed. In my next post, I’ll talk about the value of specializing within an industry rather than being a generalist.

Two super-searcher tricks

searchingI’ve been an online searcher since the 19-mumbles, and I’m still learning new search tricks. Here are a couple of tips for mining online databases that I picked up from Cynthia Hetherington, a Big Kahuna in the private investigative world, during an excellent webinar on due diligence she gave for AIIP.

When you are exploring a new resource for information on individuals and want to figure out how far back in time the dataset goes, try searching for a common name like Smith. Since it’s a safe assumption that there will be Smiths in even the earliest records, you can just sort the search results in chronological order from earliest forward, and you’ll probably see the first year of coverage. You could use the same approach with any other type of database — just search for something that is likely to occur very frequently, and then see the date of the earliest record you retrieve. Searching an export database? Try a common export like machinery. Checking out a database of news articles? Search for the word President.

Another trick I learned from Cynthia relates to those times when you’re looking for reliable information on a topic and keep turning up too much irrelevant material. Try restricting your search to only government sites by adding to your search the phrase site:gov. Sure, it’s a very restrictive search and probably won’t turn up a lot of results, but the sites you do get will probably be useful. Cynthia recommended using this technique when looking for public records on individuals and needing to weed out all the resellers of government data.

(I was surprised at how useful this was. When googling bull snakes, having found one living in my backyard, I wasn’t finding much reliable information. Even the Wikipedia entry was full of “citation needed” notes. Limiting my search to .gov or .edu sites, I turned up several useful articles from university extension services and state government web sites. Bull snakes are our friends!)

[ADDED: Tara “ResearchBuzz” Calashain reminded me that she built an awesome Google Custom Search Engine that limits the search to just US states, counties and cities. See her description here.]

What search tricks have you learned recently?

Google News Lab – for more than just journalists

google-news-labEvery now and then, Google re-brands the portal it’s designed for journalists. They just put out a press release announcing the Google News Lab, so I had a reason to look at the site again. In no particular order, here are the reasons why you—yes, you, non-journalist—should go look at the News Lab.

First, it’s designed from the user’s point of view rather than a Google engineer’s POV. What a concept!  To start with, the shortened URL to get to the site is a mobile-friendly g.co/newslab. While you may not have had the foresight to register a three-letter domain like Google did, consider creating short, customized URLs for any site you want people to get to easily.

The front page offers multiple ways to engage with the site. There are four large graphics that offer brief tutorials for the various Google platforms, organized by Research, Report, Distribute and Optimize. Each of these areas features five to 10 tutorials on very focused, targeted activities relevant to journalists—everything from using Google Earth to creating consumer surveys and shaping stories to encourage binge watching.

There are also links across the top of the page, breaking out the content by type, including Tools, Data and Programs. The Tools link takes you to all the tutorials; the Data links offer examples of innovative ways that journalists and news organizations have created insight using Google’s data sets, and Programs highlights partnerships Google has with media organizations and the journalist community.

Much of the material in these lessons could be of use to solopreneurs as well. Do you know how and when to use Google’s reverse image search? Are you tagging your YouTube videos (webinars, podcasts, etc.) so that they are easily findable by your audience? Have you checked out Google Public Data Explorer‘s data sets and data viz tools to spice up a presentation?

Beyond raising your search and analysis skills, look at the News Lab for ideas on how to present your services or products in ways that make sense to your user community.

My Clients Can’t Afford Me!

One of the most common concerns I hear from my coaching clients is “my clients are too cost-conscious – they can’t afford my usual hourly rate.” My response, as uncomfortable as it may be to hear, is that it’s your job to find a client base that doesn’t think twice about how much you cost. Yes, I know it’s hard to find new clients… but is it really easier to try to get your existing clients to pay you what you want to get paid?

The problem isn’t that there aren’t any good clients — it’s just that the well-paying clients haven’t heard about you yet. If your prospective clients gasp on horror when they hear  that your project will cost $500, you have learned a useful lesson – you are not talking with people who understand your value. No harm; you simply need to pivot and determine another approach that enhances your profile and reputation with people who have the need for your high-value services, a recognition of your value, and the ability to pay what you are charging.

One of the first things I do when I am finding too much push-back to my prices is to conduct some reality-check interviews to learn what my clients really value today. What are their biggest concerns right now? What are they most challenged by? What do they wish they could accomplish that they can’t? I am always surprised by what I learn and, even after 20+ years in business, I am reminded to continually question my assumptions about what “I know” my clients value. Once I find out what their pain points are now, I can modify how I talk about my services and focus more on the current challenges my clients are experiencing.

What’s YOUR hourly rate?

If it’s not at least $150/hour, you’re undervaluing—and underpricing—yourself.

Join me on Tuesday, June 9th at noon EDT for a webinar that will change how you think about pricing.

In this live, hour-long webinar, Getting Paid What You’re Worth: Pricing Secrets of Info-Entrepreneurs, I will cover:

  • The 7 Deadly Pricing Sins
  • How to use MEB’s Hourly-rate Calculator
  • Why we undercharge
  • How to re-think your pricing to focus on value

Then I’ll give you the 3-minute tour of my new online course, Pricing For Solopreneurs.

After that, I will take all the questions you have – I plan on 30 minutes of Q&A at the end of the webinar.

I am charging $10 for this webinar. Why aren’t I giving it away for free? Because my expertise and insights have value. Sure, $10 isn’t much, but it’s a recognition that you expect value from me, and I expect to provide a LOT of value to you.

Join me Tuesday, June 9th at noon EDT.

P.S. The webinar will be recorded, but only the attendees of the live webinar will be offered a 50% discount off my 7-module online course, Pricing For Solopreneurs. I will also do a drawing during the webinar for a copy of The Reluctant Entrepreneur: Making a Living Doing What You Love.

Got questions? Email me

Adding a zero to your budget

As I mentioned earlier, I was recently in the market for a graphic designer to create a new template for my online courses. (Watch this space for the first course on pricing strategies.)

Adding a zero I could go to Elance or Fiverr and find someone who could probably deliver a perfectly serviceable template for a very modest fee. In fact, Fiverr specializes in jobs that will cost no more than $5. (Why would anyone work for or hire someone for $5/job? I have used Fiverr to get a 3-D image of an ebook; it probably took the designer 15 seconds and it would have taken me more than $5 worth of my time to do it myself.)

But this template really matters to me, and I knew that I would get a lot of use out of a well-designed template. I would rather pay more and get something of much higher value. And I wanted someone who would engage me in a conversation, who would take the time to listen to some of my presentations to get a sense of how I project myself. I wanted someone who really wanted my business, and who makes a living through maintaining a sterling reputation and generating word-of-mouth referrals, not someone whose main selling point is that he is cheap.

So, I had a choice of several price points for my custom template:

  • Over 200 people on Fiverr offering to design a PowerPoint template for $5
  • Over 3,000 people on Elance designing PowerPoint templates for under $15/hour
  • 1 person I found through a referral who charges around $500 to design a PowerPoint template

I was happy spending 100 times as much as I would have had I hired a Fiverr for this job, and I am probably at least 100 times happier with the results. Why? Because I wasn’t just shopping for a PowerPoint template. I was looking for someone who was willing to invest time in learning about who I am and who could create something unique that will reflect me best.

As you think about the services or products you provide, consider what you could do that would add a zero to your value to your clients. What can you do that will push you outside your comfort zone and into your Zone of Inspiration? What can you create that no one else has thought of in quite the same way? What can you do that is unlike anything else?

Mary Ellen’s Amazing Hourly-Rate Calculator

My coaching clients often ask me for advice and help with setting an hourly rate. While I encourage them to use per-project rather than hourly pricing when talking about budgets with their clients, it’s helpful to have some hourly rate in mind on which to base that project price.

Here is my calculator, in all its math-nerd glory. And remember, this is your minimum hourly rate; your actual rate will be increased based on the value that you provide and the difference you make to your client.

Download Mary Ellen’s Amazing Hourly-Rate Calculator(XLS) or (PDF)

Here’s what it looks like:

Minimum Hourly Rate Calculator

Non-reimbursable expenses & overhead NOTES
Association membership $ Association membership: AIIP and your clients’ key association
Conferences $ Conferences: cost to attend two professional conferences – AIIP and your clients’ key event (registration, travel, hotel, meals)
Insurance $ Insurance: health, general liability, disability
Magazine subs, books $ Magazine subscriptions, books: 1 business paper and your clients’ key sources
Office equipment $ Office equipment: assume new laptop every 3-4 years, plus ~$500/year for software
Office supplies/expenses $ Office supplies/expenses: telephone, ISP, web hosting, email list hosting, premium social media accounts, etc.
Online subscriptions $ Online subscriptions: annual fees, any non-transactional expenses you can’t bill back
Professional fees $ Professional fees: CPA, bookkeeper, attorney, coaching, etc.
Rent $ Rent: Can base it on % of floor space if you work from home
Retirement fund contributions $ Retirement fund contributions
Salary $ Salary: what you want to pay yourself
Profit $ Profit: 10% of your salary (this is what funds growth and risk-taking!)
Taxes $ Taxes: set aside at least 35% of anticipated salary
Other expenses $ Other expenses specific to your situation
Total expenses, salary, overhead $
# of hours/week you work
# of billable hours/year (half your working hours/week multiplied by 45 weeks)
Total expenses / # of billable hours/year $ Your MINIMUM hourly rate, before value-pricing



Why nerdy passion matters

I’m often asked by people who are just starting their business whether they need to specialize and how they can differentiate themselves. I recently had a great opportunity to see from the buyer’s point of view what really matters when buying a professional service.

I am in the process of developing a fabulous course to help reluctant entrepreneurs figure out how to best price their services and I realized that I need a customized PowerPoint template. There are tons of graphic designers out there – how was I going to choose someone who could capture my essence, create something I will like, and be fun to work with? I went to the discussion list of a local group of women writers, knowing that they have similar needs for high quality, professional service and reasonable cost.

After looking at the portfolios of a number of designers, I had narrowed my choice down to a couple of people who sounded good, so I had short conversations with both of them. One of the designers sounded fine; she listened to my description of what I was looking for, she tossed a few ideas my way, and said she would send me a proposal. Ho hum. The other designer got my business, though. Why? In a word, passion.

As we were chatting about the font I was currently using for my template, the second designer commented that she had seen that font around town. “Whole Foods used it in one of their in-store banners, and you know that coffee shop at Main Street and Walnut? They have that font on their storefront. I like how it conveys a mix of informality and excitement.” I was entranced; I had found someone who loves her job so much that she can’t help herself from noticing graphic design as she makes her way in the world. This is someone who isn’t just doing graphic design because it’s a way to make a living; she is doing this because she can’t help herself. She is, among other things, a font nerd.

I want to hire people who are passionate about what they do… whatever it is that they do. My chimney sweep loves what he does and we often wind up chatting about stoves and firewood after he finishes his annual cleaning. My therapist is one of those people whom even the grocery clerks confide in. My housekeeper reorganizes my linen closet just because tidy linen closets make the world a slightly better place.

The professionals I hire all get nerdy about what they do, and they love their work. They are solopreneurs who all have strong client bases and lots of word-of-mouth referrals. They may not be the only person in their field, but they are the ones who get real satisfaction from their work, who care about their clients, and who bring inspiration to their job.

When prospective clients call you, do they come away with a sense that you are a passionate nerd about what you do, too? How effectively do you convey the joy you bring to every client’s project? How else can you show that you are in business because you love what you do?

Why Facebook Matters

I often give presentations and workshops on using social media for both research and marketing, and I am still surprised by how many people look at Facebook with mild disdain. “I have better things to do than post selfies and videos of my dog,” they sniff. “And how could I possibly find value from other people’s selfies and dog videos?”

I’ve got two answers to these concerns. First, you can treat your Facebook account just like any other social network profile. Assume that everyone can view your updates, and keep them at least “business-casual” — vacation photos are OK as long as you’re fully clothed and not holding a drink with a little paper umbrella in it. I use  my Facebook page as a way to show a less formal version of myself than what people would find on LinkedIn or on my web site. A less-appreciated benefit of being on Facebook and interacting with colleagues, friends and family is that I have a better sense of how to search Facebook and what groups to mine for answers and insight.

My second response to the Facebook skeptics is to look at the latest statistics from comScore on smartphone usage. According to comScore’s March 4th press release, 75% of the mobile phones in the US are smartphones. And what are people doing on those 184,000,000 phones? The top app, used by over two-thirds of users, is Facebook.

comScore Reports January 2015 U.S. Smartphone Subscriber Market Share

If that many people are checking Facebook, then I want to make sure that I’m in front of them on Facebook. It isn’t my only online presence, of course, but it’s one where I know a lot of my potential clients are hanging out.