Following up on Nimble Info-Entrepreneur webinar

Businesswoman archI recently gave a webinar for AIIP on The Radically Nimble Info-Entrepreneur: remaining relevant and maintaining value. (If you’re an AIIP member, you can watch the webinar recording in the members-only area of the web site. If you’re not, you can download the slide deck at We had more questions than I had time to answer, so I have answered the rest of the questions here.

Q: Can you learn and push the comfort zone while volunteering? Are those skills transferable?

A: During my talk, I mentioned the importance of learning to push our comfort zones, and the value of volunteering as a way to stretch ourselves and learn new skills. Yes, volunteering to lead a committee is a great way to push your comfort zone. Offering to serve on a committee, on the other hand, isn’t. Frankly, if you’re not the one accountable for the outcome, then you don’t have skin in the game. If you really want to push your comfort zone, step up and offer to lead, and invite real accountability; don’t just be part of a group.

Q: Could you talk about balancing the goal of being responsible/changing quickly with the fears of choosing a ‘wrong direction’?

A: I talked about taking risks and always growing (even if you’re a bonsai business), which brought up this question. First, I am always taking several new approaches to my strategic marketing, with the assumption that at least one of them won’t work. If I became immobilized by the fear of making a mistake, I’ld never do anything. So, I decide what approaches I want to take, how much time I will invest in each approach, and what my metrics for success are. Then I put in the energy needed to give this approach every chance of success.

For example, one of my approaches might be to focus on a new market, based on my reality-check interviews. I might decide to identify three MeetUp groups my prospective clients are likely to be at, actively participate in at least three meetings for each group over the next two months, and evaluate at the end of that time how many leads I have of people who have the interest, need and budget for my services. I know that at least one of those groups won’t be appropriate for me; I just don’t know which one until I put in the legwork. So, the bottom line is that I assume that I will select at least one “wrong” direction. So what?

Q: How do you deal with services you are ‘tired’ of offering? Do you just walk away? Wait until the clients for that go away, and then drop the service? Do you have some creative examples of how you changed your services?

A: One of the biggest benefits of being self-employed, IMO, is being able to not do stuff I don’t want to do. Say, for example, I have offered basic literature searches to clients, and I realize that not only is this kind of boring, but I’m also not adding a lot of value to what I provide. My first step is to look at what I’m doing and figure out what I could do that would add more value, even if my current clients might not be willing to pay for the additional value. Could I also offer an analysis of the key thought-leaders in the field? Could I add a review of social media? What else could I do with the results of my research to make my deliverable more valuable? Then I look at what clients would be willing to pay for this additional value (yeah, read my article on reality-check interviews to find out who’s willing to pay for it) and I focus on those clients.

Q:  How do you measure how much fun you’re having? 😉

A: One of the questions that nimble entrepreneurs ask themselves is “How can I have more fun?” As a long-time entrepreneur, I’ve seen lots of people try out self-employment while still watching the job listings for anything that looks appealing. My measurement of fun centers around how tempting a full-time job sounds, and I can say that, in almost 25 years, I have thought about becoming an employee for a total of about 4 minutes. As long as being self-employed is still way more appealing than being an employee, I know that I’m having plenty of fun. And thanks for asking!

Moving up the value chain

Do you think of yourself as a freelancer? self-employed? a consultant?

  • Freelancers see themselves as a set of hired hands, handling the overflow work or filling in for someone else. Their value is in being a substitute for a full-time employee.
  • Self-employed people see themselves as a one-person business, looking for ways they can help their clients.
  • Consultants and business owners view themselves as partners with their clients and focus on learning what their clients’ critical needs are and exploring ways to help their clients achieve their goals.

Your success is tied to how you see yourself in relation to your clients. The more focused you are on the client’s outcome—what happens after the project is done or the product is delivered—the more your clients value you and the more valueable you are to them.

For example, someone who sees himself as a self-employed transcriptionist describes his business as listening to a recording, typing up what he hears, and sending it to his client. If, on the other hand, he finds out that the transcription will be used as the basis of a speech and creates the transcript in a specialized format, he’s thinking like a consultant. He identifies a need and works with his client to find out how he can make his work more useful to his client and more directly targeted to his client’s need.

Being an entrepreneur means looking at yourself in a different way. If you try building a business by being the therapist with the lowest rates in town, you’ll find that your clientele will leave you for the next therapist who’s just starting her practice and pricing herself low. Instead, you can focus on what problem or desire your clients have that you can meet in a way no one else can. Sure, there are lots of financial planners out there, but who else brings your 15 years of experience working with families with special-needs kids?

Clients value and pay you based on how much value you provide, not just how much time or effort you put into the job. For the same amount of time, you can increase your value exponentially by focusing on how you, as your client’s partner, can contribute to your client’s goals.


Are you frictionless?

ball-bearingsHaving the mind of an entrepreneur means always looking at yourself from your client’s perspective.

  • How easy is it to find your contact information (not just a form to fill out)?
  • How easy is it to get you on the phone?
  • Are you nice to work with or do you have a reputation for being prickly?
  • How clear are you about your prices and services?
  • How confident do you sound?
  • How demonstrably committed are you to each client’s project?

When is the last time you sat back and looked at how frictionless you are for your clients? In a time when freelancers will work for $5 (, we need to distinguish ourselves by demonstrating our responsiveness and high value. Are you acting like the high-end professional that you are? Do your clients see that?

Failing your way to success

failI have been reading Scott (“Dilbert”) Adams’ latest book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (or at your local library). I found some chapters more useful than others, and I’m not inclined to rely on the advice of a cartoonist for diet and exercise. That said, my copy of his book is full of highlighting where I found his ideas particularly useful of thought provoking.

His approach of failing your way to success resonates with me, particularly when I look at my failures as steps forward. As Adams commented, “I’ve long seen failure as a tool, not an outcome.” I fail on a regular basis; in fact, if I haven’t made any mistakes lately, I assume that I haven’t been trying enough new ideas. Of course, failure only succeeds if I actually learn something from it.

One of the things I could have only learned by trying and failing was that, if I want to be seen as high value, I shouldn’t be nickle and diming people. I wrote a collection of eTools on various aspects of running a business (they’re over at my store) that I thought were pretty good. I priced them at $9 and anticipated a nice steady stream of revenue. Hahahahahahahaha! Then I realized that I would benefit far more by giving away my ideas than from charging for them. People still pay me for my ideas… in the form of presentations, workshops, consulting engagements, and business analysis. I’ve made more from one workshop I landed because of my reputation and expertise than I ever would have made through selling $9 eTools.

I hate telemarketersA lot of my early marketing efforts for my research business also failed. Direct mail? Yep, tried it, got no response. Lesson: people don’t buy high value professional services based on postcards, regardless of how cleverly designed or how frequently they are sent. Cold calling? I tried that technique while working for a small research firm and learned that, well, I’m not cut out for telephone sales.  And–surprise–people don’t buy high value professional services based on a cold call, either. (See my free eTool, Friends Don’t Let Friends Cold Call, for more on this particular lesson.) Advertising? Back in the days when people actually used phone books, I advertised in the yellow pages. All I got from that were calls from people who thought I was a free on-call librarian and who were shocked that I expected to be paid to conduct research. Once again, people don’t buy high value professional services based on directory listings.

Eventually, I learned my lesson that attracting clients is much more effective than chasing after them. If you want to see some of my ideas for marketing techniques that don’t involve cold calling, see my 20-minute podcast, “10 Tips for Kick-starting Your Marketing“.


The Un-Elevator Pitch

elevatorWhen someone asks you what you do, do you freeze up or start stammering? You need a concise, memorable response prepared for all the times when you’re asked about your work. This is sometimes called your “elevator pitch.” Why? Imagine stepping into an elevator with your biggest prospect. She turns to you and asks, “So, what exactly do you do?” You have 30 seconds—the time it takes for the elevator to get to her destination on the 25th floor—to describe yourself in such a way that she immediately understands why you are the solution to her problems.

Unfortunately, most people see their elevator pitch as an opportunity to tell their life story and rattle off a laundry list of services they provide to their clients. All this does is serve to notify the victim listener that this person is more interested in talking about himself than about what he can do for his clients. Instead, create an anti-elevator pitch that focuses on results instead of activity. Three alternatives I recommend include Elevator Q&A, Elevator Ping Pong, and Elevator Story-Telling.

Elevator Q&A
Paul and Sarah Edwards, the authors of a number of books about home-based businesses, describe a useful formula for developing your 15- to 30-second introduction. The template they use is this:
“You know how [describe typical clients’ biggest pain point]? Well, I [solve problem] by [providing this].”
For example, “You know how frustrating it is when you have to make a strategic decision without all the information you need? Well, my company helps you make better decisions by providing you with insight on your competitors.” Or, “You know how hard it is to care for elderly parents when you don’t live nearby? Well, I coordinate local care for my clients’ loved ones throughout the Puget Sound area, and consider each one to be part of my family.”

Elevator Ping Pong
Instead of developing a pitch, remember that you just want to get a conversation going. So, when someone asks you what you do, give an answer that invites further interaction. A therapist might say “I help my clients live amazing lives”.  (I learned this approach from a man who sold automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and would tell people that he was in the human jumper-cable business. If that doesn’t invite at least a “what?” from the listener, nothing will…) Think of a way to describe yourself that is intriguing, thought-provoking, or even startling.

Elevator Story-Telling
We humans are innate storytellers. An effective way of describing yourself so that you are memorable is to tell your listener a story in just three sentences. The first sentence describes the client’s situation; the second sentence tells what your client got; the last sentence says what your clients were able to do next. An example from my own experience is, “A product director was considering a move into the organic personal care market. I provided an overview of the market, with the key issues summarized. My client decided to focus on organic baby care products, an area in which they had a clear advantage.”

Keep the following in mind as you work on your personalized version of the answer to, “So, what do you do?”
•    Avoid industry jargon or buzzwords such as “solutions.” Word of mouth travels a lot farther if people outside your field understand and can describe to others what you do.
•    Keep it short. They’re asking you for a reason to use your services, not to hear your life story.
•    Make yourself recession-proof. What are your clients’ critical needs—things they view as essential, not just nice to have?
•    Focus on benefits that provide clear added value. Talk about services that your clients can’t or won’t do for themselves and that solve a problem or help them achieve their goals.
•    Make sure you can deliver your introduction with enthusiasm. If you’re excited about your business, others will be as well.

Practice your 15-second un-elevator pitch with everyone you encounter, and watch their responses. If you get a blank stare, well, you just learned one way not to describe yourself. Keep at it until you have found a few intros that feel genuine, you can say with passion, and that the other person understands. Everyone can be part of your word-of-mouth network if you learn how to effectively convey why people love your product or services so much.

Does a 9-5 job look tempting?

Many entrepreneurs occasionally yearn for the (perceived) stability of a regular job, where they just show up five days a week and get paid every two weeks. Maybe it’s during a time when you are experiencing a client drought, or perhaps when you are working far too many hours for what you’re getting paid. You find yourself over at or, browsing through job ads.

diverI consider this a symptom of a need to commit. My spouse often uses the analogy with her clients of being “in the pool or out of the pool”. Either you are willing to jump in and swim, or you will sit and dangle your legs over the edge, unwilling to fully engage.

To extend this analogy, looking through job listings while you are running a business is like being in the pool but still hanging on to the ladder. Yes, you’re in, but you are never going to actually swim until you let go of that ladder. It will still be there if you decide you can’t swim anymore; your focus needs to be on swimming in the pool.

If you feel yourself succumbing to the apparent allure of becoming an employee, think about what it is that you don’t like about your business right now. Rather than divide your focus and energy between finding a job and building a business, choose which avenue you want to pursue wholeheartedly. The following concerns are often mentioned by entrepreneurs who are considering traditional employment. See if any of these sound familiar to you, and consider your options for getting refocused on what you really want to do.

  • Are you scared because you don’t have enough (or any!) clients? A lack of clients simply means that you haven’t yet figured out what your clients most value and how to effectively communicate your expertise. If your current marketing approach isn’t working, you need to conduct some research to find out what your clients really want and how they describe their most pressing needs.
  • Are you not able to cover all your overhead expenses? The financial realities of being self-employed have hit you. You suddenly find that you have to pay the employer’s portion of your Social Security (FICA) taxes; you are now charged the full cost of your health insurance payments. Be sure that you have set your billing rate at a level that ensures you can pay for the additional overhead of self-employment. See my free eTool, What’s My Hourly Rate? How to Set Your Professional Fee to Ensure You Make a Profit for thoughts on how to price yourself.
  • Do you miss the stability of a regular pay check? First, remember that no employment is guaranteed. Instead of relying on one employer for all of your income, you are building a base of multiple “employers” (we call them clients). And if you want to reduce your cash flow fluctuations, explore ways to create ongoing relationships with multiple clients. What can you provide every month that your clients value and that they can’t get anywhere else?
  • Do you miss the atmosphere of the office and the presence of colleagues? Some entrepreneurs get their fix of office buzz by working in coffee shops and other busy venues. They appreciate the stimulation, while still being able to go back to their quiet home office after a couple of hours of noise and activity. Other entrepreneurs seek out local networking groups and other face-to-face meetings where they can interact with other people on a regular basis.

Being an entrepreneur means getting a daily reminder of your strengths and weaknesses. You regularly push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Your business continually evolves as you learn how you can provide the highest value for your clients. You will always be learning new skills to better serve your clients’ needs. And you will always be challenging yourself in new ways, some of which may have you reaching for the ladder out of the pool. Take a couple of deep breaths and decide whether you want to climb out of the pool or push yourself off the side and into the deep end.

Talking about WHY, not WHAT or HOW

In preparation for my presentations at the 2014 SLA Annual Conference & INFO-EXPO (that’s a mouthful), I went through the online directory of exhibitors to get some good examples of vendors describing themselves by value rather than by lists of features. I was dismayed to see that virtually all of them simply described the company (“we’ve been in business for X years”, “a global leader in information blah blah”) and mentioned what services they offer.

Very few exhibitors took the time to tell exhibit hall attendees why their product or service would be meaningful or would enable the attendees to accomplish their goals. Only a handful talked about the value they provide to this group of professionals. Given the cost to exhibit, I would expect a little more energy invested in figuring out and articulating their value proposition.

If you’re having trouble articulating the why of your business, check out the slide deck on my presentation, “I Am Not A Brand!”: Building your personal and professional profile.