When To Hire a Professional to Help You Push Your Career Forward

When do you hire a professional to help you move your career forward? Sometimes this might be paying for a specific thing (such as a website); othertimes, it may be hiring expert advisors to help you move past a barrier and develop a strategy via training or consulting.

I have recently been addressing this topic for myself, as I have been outlining in the previous two blog posts of this series:

Today, I want to discuss the decision-making that goes into when and how to go about hiring a professional to assist you.

Deciding You Need Help

The hardest part of achieving a goal is starting. The second hardest part is to not stop, to keep going. Deciding that you need assistance is not a sign of weakness, it is often admission of reality: that you can’t do it all.  Sure, you can get by all by yourself, a jack of all trades; but sometimes having is help the difference between success and continuing to run on that hamster wheel.

Hiring someone can provide expertise that you simply don’t have. Yes, you could read a book. But that is not the same as years of real-world experience, truly executing, not just learning theory.

Hiring someone can also save you time. Likely, you are juggling many things with few resources. Putting someone on your team to tackle a specific task means it frees you up to do other things, and pushes you forward more quickly.

For me, I built We Grow Media for nearly two years before I made many investments in hiring others. I wanted to make sure it was stable in terms of cash flow, but I also wanted to really learn more about who I served and how I served them. In the beginning, you make assumptions. I wanted to be SURE that whatever I invested in was exactly the right thing to encourage further growth.

Who To Hire

There are so many people out there who offer professional services. You need to find someone you trust and who will get the job done. I tend to break this out into two parts:

    1. Ensuring it’s someone I connect with. So I get a recommendation from a friend, or have a phone chat with someone I am considering hiring first. Or maybe I follow them on social media to get a sense of their work style and personality.
    2. Don’t just assume someone can deliver the goods – where possible look for real proof that they can execute on what they promise. Maybe this is experiencing the results of their work or it could be social proof – talking to their past customers.

Personally, I like hiring those who are building a small business, people who I can partner with and help them move towards their goals just by doing business with them.

Do your research on their background. Reach out to others who have worked with them. Look for a long track record. Go with your gut too – those who feel right.

Scary Legal Agreements

When possible, get an agreement that clearly states parameters, timeframes, process, deliverables, fees, etc. I used to be scared of this stuff – there is something about signing your name to a contract that can make people uncomfortable. But I have found that it sets proper expectations and protects people on both sides. Making too many assumptions will lead to serious problems down the road. You don’t want two people’s memories differing about what was agreed upon. Put it in writing – that way you have a paper trail and proper expectations.

Did I hire a lawyer for most of this stuff? Nope! There are loads of free guidelines and agreements online. Use those as a starting point – but keep it simple. I don’t like agreements that are more than a single page. I have also spoken to friends who have done this stuff before, which gave me lots of wisdom from those I trust.

Don’t be afraid to negotiate agreements. READ THEM! Fred Wilson, a very successful venture capitalist, has written in the past that no clause is “standard” in a legal agreement. (I can’t find the link to his great story on this, sorry!) If something doesn’t feel right, address it. Don’t be afraid to have a clause removed or modified. It’s better to address issues up front to move past them, than to let the fear linger in the back of your mind, and threaten to affect the relationship down the road.

I look for long-term partnerships, even if an agreement only addresses the short term. The idea is to build a relationship and resources that grow over time.

Focus on Communication & Relationships, Not Just Stuff

A big focus for me is working with those who work WITH me, not just do something FOR me. There is a value in the working relationship, in having conversations, not just sending email.

Some people put barriers to connecting – to me this is a warning sign. Examples: there is a form you need to fill out before you chat; you can’t find an email address; they try to keep things ONLY on email, never on the phone. I don’t mean these are “red flags” in terms of them not doing great work, I mean in terms of whether they align to the method in which I like to work. You have to consider how you work best with others, and keep that primary in your mind as you consider who to hire on a professional basis. Communication is critical – if those channels aren’t open, you will receive less value regardless of the other person’s skillset.

Consider how you are building relationships for the long-term, how you can find new ways to work together, to provide resources, and to assist in other ways of helping each other succeed.

The people I have hired recently are those I would openly recommend to others. Not because I get some kind of affiliate commission (I don’t), but because I want their business to grow, and have others benefit from their expertise.

As I detailed in my website redesign process, I would gladly recommend Ben and KJ from Spruce Solutions if you need work done on your website. Likewise, if you live in the New Jersey area, and need a great photographer, consider reaching out to Meridith Bailin Hull. I really enjoyed working with her, and loved the photos she created.

What About the Money!?

If money weren’t an issue, of COURSE each of us would hire people all the time, and always only the BEST of the best. But money is an issue  – we have limited resources to work with, and want to ensure that every dime that we spend somehow repays us down the road with a quarter.

Pay people to help achieve goals that truly move your career forward. Maybe it’s a “thing,” such as a website. But maybe it isn’t – maybe it’s a service or expertise that helps you develop a strategy or move past a barrier. If you walk away from the experience much closer to achieving your career goals, then it is likely money well spent. So: define your goals clearly before you consider what you are hiring people for.

Work in phases when you can. It’s tempting to say that you will hire an agency to build your career from the ground up. They make promises, and send you a huge bill for the service. But… why not step through the process in phases. One thing at a time – one investment of your resources at a time. You learn things in the middle of a process that you never could have imagined at the outset.

Don’t always think that the most expensive option is always the best. Sometimes the most expensive option is only that: the most expensive, not the most EFFECTIVE.

Likewise, don’t always think that the biggest player – the most prominent name in a field is the person you need to hire. Some big names leverage their skills and experience across so many different projects that you get a mere sliver of what they are capable of, especially at the price you can afford. Sometimes hiring an upstart provides 100% of their resources – they NEED for you to succeed in order to further their own career.

When You Can’t Afford Something: Negotiate

When needed: negotiate. I am always SHOCKED that people are too sheepish to do this. That someone will send them an estimate for a project of $5,000 and even though they could afford $3,500, they end up just saying: “No, sorry, I can’t afford $5,000,” and walk away. Work with people to come to a price that works for each of you.

Measure the investment against how much it would cost you to do it yourself. Could you do it yourself? If so, how much time and resources would it take? I could have redesigned my own website. BUT – it would not have turned out nearly as nice at what Ben and KJ provided me, and it would have eaten up TONS of my time – time better spent on other projects that deliver more long-term value to my business.

Don’t Disregard the Emotional Benefit of Working With an Expert

Most people don’t pursue their dream in life. They will tell you it is because of some barrier such as time or money. But often it is fear – it is lonely to take a risk to build something that no one else expected of you. It’s too easy to just do what you have always done.

Hiring a professional can be the key thing that pushes you forward to attacking and achieving your dreams and goals. It builds momentum. It means that there is someone in the world 100% focused on making this happen for you. Imagine that. It’s HUGE. Most of us spend our days surrounded by people trying to ensure things don’t change. That you remain as you are, in your station. But when you hire someone, they wake up in the morning focused on helping you achieve.  Are you paying them? Sure – of course. It doesn’t come cheap. But then, if it’s the difference between you becoming what you want to be, and not, well, maybe it’s worth it.

Thanks!
-Dan

How I Redesigned My Website

I just launched a new design of my website, and wanted to take you through the process with the hope that it may answer any questions you have about how to approach a project like this.

 

Why Redesign Your Website

We always have to start with the goals, perhaps by answering the question: why bother spending the time and money to redesign your website?! Yesterday, I talked about the need to differentiate yourself in order to really build your brand. For years, I relied on free website themes and templates for my websites, and I am a huge advocate for this – it’s a great way to jump into the pool and focus on things that matter most: identifying your purpose, developing great content, and connecting with others.

But… sometimes a template is limiting. You look like everyone else. You find yourself making strategic decisions based on what the template allows you to do, not what you would do if you really had the freedom to create exactly what you wanted.

For me, 2012 is about new partnerships and scaling my business. About really honing what it is that I do. My website is a PRIMARY way I connect with the world. It needs to reflect exactly what I am about and encourage others to connect with me. I was ready to make an investment to not have my web presence consist of a cobbled together mix of free components. That I would invest in doing things right.

For many – that is a hard decision. We live in a culture where we expect most things on the web to be free. We only buy physical goods when they are on sale at the store. Choosing to spend hundreds or thousands on a website seems absurd to many. It’s like paying to use Facebook or paying to see the sunset.  Professionals add insight and experience that enhance what you are building. Tomorrow I will talk a bit more about the value of hiring professionals.

 

How to Find a Web Designer

To find a web designer, I wanted to work with someone who was starting a small business as I had. Someone I could build a long-term relationship with so that I had someone I trusted I could always work with, and help them drive their business forward.

I spent time paying attention to websites I really liked. Sometimes the website had the designers name on it, other times I would ask who designed it. I reached out to a few people to get a sense of pricing, of availability and process. This part of the process is scary for three reasons:

  1. Price. You see all kinds of advice online as to how much you should spend on a website.
  2. You don’t know what you will get. Even if you like someone’s work overall, you will clearly get something unique.
  3. You need to align to someone else’s process. Sometimes this can be a very regimented process, with issues and processes that are new to you.

I suppose it’s like going to a new hair stylist in the big city to have something drastic done. You wonder why it costs so much, and worry what you will look like once they are done with you!

One of the people I spoke to was a former colleague from my old job, KJ Parish. I knew she had gone out on her own to provide web design services, and she had been super helpful on some small issues earlier in the year. (also, she plays in a band, which I think is cool) She has joined Spruce Solutions to provide not just web design services, but full development as well. So I began speaking with KJ and Ben Heller of Spruce about my project.

Why did I end up choosing them? A few reasons:

  • They didn’t hesitate to get on a Skype chat with me. They didn’t send me a requirements document or some long legal agreement to sign that outlined that I can only email them X number of times per month. They were open to listening. Yes, we had very clear parameters to our working relationship, it was very professional. But it allowed room to work TOGETHER and ensure we could develop something special.
  • They both knew their chops. It was clear not just on their resumes, but in conversation, that they knew the right questions to ask, and were nimble and knowledgeable in how they answered my questions.
  • Having TWO experts on my team really meant the world to me. An expert developer (Ben) and an expert designer (KJ) – I knew that the experience between the two of them would benefit me in 1,000 ways during this experience.

Something about Ben and KJ felt right. So for me, the answer was clear. When you are searching for a web designer, go with someone that feels right. Don’t just convince yourself by a list of skills or promises. You have to work WITH these people, it’s not the same as buying a washing machine.

We negotiated on timeframe, deliverables, price. We came to a place where everything seemed to work for everyone. Part of this process is respecting the value that the developer/designer provides. Again, this should be looked at as a partnership, as members of the same team.

 

Knowing What You Want

To best communicate what I wanted, I spent a couple of weeks putting together a 40+ page design inspiration book. Here I included the following:

  • My goals – make this overt, don’t assume the designer knows what you want! For me, I wanted a site that was very focused on a few things. I wanted to remove every pixel that wasn’t absolutely essential.
  • Screenshots of sites I liked, and made notes of what I liked about them. Things such as white space, or font size.
  • Concerns – I directly stated things that I was most concerned about. Again, never assume. I shared screenshots of sites that I DIDN’T want mine to look like. There is a fine line between site that is bold and focused, and one that doesn’t communicate well.
  • Colors, tone and style – what I wanted the site to convey and examples of how I was thinking about it.
  • A wireframe of the homepage. I went into Adobe Illustrator and created a REALLY basic layout of what I thought the homepage needed to have on it. Looking back on it right now, it’s neat to see how Ben and KJ took that wireframe and made it SO MUCH better.
  • Thoughts on logo design. This was another thing they were doing for me. I shared examples of logos I really liked, talked about the term “We Grow Media” and which words were most important and why.
  • I reviewed key elements of the interior pages of the site such as About Us, Speaking, etc. Again – I shared lots of screenshots and notes.

As you look through the inspiration book, you see the same words pop up again and again. “Bold” is one of those words. I provided this document to Ben & KJ and we then addressed any remaining questions.

 

Logo Design

We started off with the logo design, figuring this would set the tone for everything else. I made the decision to move away from foilage (due to the word “grow.”) There are so many other logos out there that use a small sprout within it, very similar to what I had been using up until now. While the metaphor of a plant growing is apt to what I do, the visual wasn’t necessary.

We quickly came to agreement on the letterface and balance of the words, but the graphic to accompany it took longer. A number of images/styles were presented, and one really jumped out at me. We went through multiple versions of it, getting closer and closer to a graphic that I felt told a story.

But… we hit a speedbump. Just before I was going to finalize it, I found another company using a similar graphic. I didn’t feel comfortable with that – simply out of respect for that company – so we began making modifications to it. Honestly, this was the hardest part of the entire process because I felt the pressure to represent everything about what We Grow Media is in a simple graphic.

As we got closer to deadline, I made a big decision: kill the graphic. It was good, but I didn’t have a 100% feeling behind it, and didn’t want to get the rest of our design process off track because of it. Sometimes you have to remove something in order to move forward; in this case, it was the graphic in the logo. I like what we came up with for the typeface – simple and clean, with a nice balance of the words.

 

Making Hard Decisions

For the website design, Ben & KJ provided five initial designs – really to establish the mood and pallete. This is a critical part of the process, where we take things from what “could be” to what it “will be.” These are two different things – you have to make hard decisions quickly.

One design jumped out at me as much bolder than the others, and we quickly went down that road. What followed were a series of refinements. At each step, I tried to be conscious of getting what I wanted, but respecting their time. Too many web design projects get caught with endless noodling: asking too many questions, always adding one more request to the list.

One thing I learned in the process was to be careful to not change too many things at once. There is a temptation to “fix” so many other things in the site. For example: do I change my email newsletter sign up from from three input fields to just one? Do I transition away from using Disqus for blog comments? The issue here is that with each additional thing you change, you exponentially increase the chance of something going wrong, and of delaying launch.  In the end, the process forced me to analyze every page, and make hard decisions – and we launched on time with a site I am super proud of.

 

The End Result

What I ended up with is the design you see now, but there is so much more. The entire thing was built from the ground up in html 5, and is a completely custom WordPress install. This isn’t a modified template. The backend of the website, where I manage all the content, has these special areas that make it easy for me to update different sections of the site, such as the big featured box on the homepage, the services boxes beneath it, and various sidebars for interior pages. They sent over a nine page user guide with step-by-step instructions on how to manage it all.

It really blew me away how much more powerful that made the site for me. Thanks so much to Ben and KJ of for their amazing work!

-Dan

The Importance of Differentiation in Growing Your Career

If you are someone who hopes to make their mark on the world, hopes to engage and build an audience, and create a legacy for your work – how do you differentiate yourself from the millions of other websites, books, and social media profiles out there? How do you effectively communicate what you are about and engage those you want to connect with most? Because you just have a split second to communicate that.

This is a question I chose to address for myself recently, and in a series of blog posts, I want to take you through the process. I just went through a redesign of “my brand” in order to ensure I best communicate what I am about, and that there is differentiation between me and the thousands of others out there who work in the same space I do.

The elements of my “brand” that I focused on:

  • My key message: the statement I will repeat hundreds of times online and offline about what I do here at We Grow Media, and what I am about as a person.
  • My photo: with social media, my headshot is shared thousands of times per day online with those I know and those I don’t yet have a connection to.
  • My website: This is my home on the web, the place that should embody everything that I hope to create.

The focus of the process were to ensure I was clear as to what my goals were, who I wanted to connect with, and how to best communicate that.

 

What is Differentiation?

Differentiation is about not being a commodity – something that is so common, that you are forgettable. How can you have an impact on the world and create a legacy if others see you as “just another person” doing the same old thing. The process of differentiation has two sides:

  1. Inward: we all want to do so many things, but often fail to prioritize. You see this all the time in products and services that try to prove they can do everything. But the challenge is in focusing: in choosing just a handful of things to do well. When you differentiate, it is often not about adding more, but taking things away so that you are left with only that which matters most.
  2. Outward: that you need to understand the goals and desires of those who inspire you, who you hope to engage with. Too often, people gloss over who their intended audience is, and what truly engages them. Doing the research needed to understand their motivation is critical in differentiating yourself, and again, focusing only on what matters most to those you serve.

Sometimes we do what is popular – we design a website that looks like what everyone else is doing, we wear the same clothes as others too. We want to fit in. The downside of this is that what is popular becomes vanilla – it is the wallpaper of our world, and you no longer stand out. When you believe what everyone else believes, you have to begin questioning if you believe anything at all.

“Best practices” sometimes mean that strategies and tactics are so proven that everyone is now trying the same thing. And when that happens, the value of the “best practice” can diminish.

 

Is This Process Merely Self-Indulgence?

Every detail matters. Below, I will talk about my goals and some ways I changed how I communicate “my brand” to better connect with others. At times, the process may seem self-indulgent, that none of this should matter. That buying new clothes is missing the point – it is about who you are as a person that matters. That no tagline will really change how others view you. Insert the whole rant on “authenticity” and how one should leverage it for marketing.

I don’t think this is a self-indulgent process. I think this is about focusing on the details to ensure that every element of what you do is centered on one goal. That you are honing how you communicate to the world. That you are cutting away what is unnecessary, and improving that which is left.

Before and After

So let’s take a look at the before and after of this process for me. How did I do in evolving how I communicate what I am about, via three areas: my key message, my photo, and my website. Let’s dig in:

Key message
In the Fall, I began working with a small group of “advisors” – friends who are great at communication and marketing. For weeks, I had calls and meals with them, working through different exercises meant to ferret out what I hope to achieve with We Grow Media, and how to best communicate that. The process was akin to what I imagine therapy to be like – it takes you deep inside – and for awhile, you end up with more questions than answers.

Previously, my brand message was muddled. It was described slightly differently on every social media profile. When I met someone at a conference, I would adjust how I describe We Grow Media based on who they were – and how I felt We Grow Media would connect with them. The issue with this is that I was always dancing around the key message, but never really nailing it.

What I came up with working with my advisors is that my work with We Grow Media is about: Helping Writers & Publishers Make an Impact and Build Their Legacies.

Here’s the long version:

“We Grow Media provides writers and publishers the strategy and tactics they need to impact their communities and build their legacies, by focusing their branding, content, and marketing. For writers, we offer education via workshops and personal instruction. For publishers, we offer consulting services that go beyond “best practices” to create meaningful strategies that will provide measurable, long-term results.”

Is it perfect? Likely not. But it is MUCH more focused, and it speaks to what I believe passionately in, and how I help those who I enjoy spending time with. You will see the words “impact” and “legacy” mentioned throughout this blog post, and much of my writing. These are words that derive a lot of meaning for me, and helps share what I hope my work will achieve for others.

Like everything, these key messages are a good starting point. They will probably evolve over time, getting more focused, and even better at making connections.

Photo of me:
For the photos, I asked around to find a local photographer whose work I liked. Through a friend I found Meredith Bailin Hull. We spent two hours together wandering around the town I live in, and she took literally hundreds of photos.

I had shown her images of others that I liked, told her about what I do, who I work with, and the ways I like working with them. This helped set a tone, and allowed her to understand what the photo needed to convey. My old headshot was fine, but it was snapped quickly on my iPhone, with some Photoshop work done by me on the background. Let’s compare the old photo (left) with the new one that Meredith shot (right):

I know – part of you may be thinking that this doesn’t matter. Just “be authentic” don’t put some kind of sheen on top of who you are. But the goal here is not to become glossy and fake, but to ensure I can most clearly represent who I am, what I am about, and who I want to connect with. Something like a new headshot is a small detail, but these details matter. Would you walk into a job interview in sweatpants? Of course not.

It’s a subjective opinion as to which image is “better,” but I really like Meredith’s work. The final image we chose will be used across my social media presence:

And even extend to things such as business cards:

I think that photos do matter, and the process of creating one that works helps me differentiate who I am in a variety of settings.

 

Website
My old website was created with a free WordPress theme that I downloaded from the web. I customized it a little bit, and overall, felt proud at being able to create this all by myself, pretty much for free. But here is a problem, because it’s a free WordPress theme, that means anyone can use it as well. Here is a friend of mine who liked it and used it for her site, my old site is on the left, hers on the right:

I have ZERO problem with her using the same WordPress theme – it’s a nice looking website. If you want your website to look like this, grab the free theme here. But We Grow Media is not just some hobby,  it embodies my purpose both professionally and personally – this is something I take very seriously. How well do I communicate that if it is clear to others that I only take it seriously enough to create a free website that can be built by someone with limited web development skills (me!), during a single weekend.

So to differentiate and to better communicate what I am about, I hired a web development firm: Spruce Solutions. I worked directly with two people at Spruce: Ben who is a very experienced web developer, and KJ who is a very experienced designer. I will detail our process in a blog post tomorrow, but just compare the new homepage with the old:

The difference is night and day because it more clearly communicates what I am about. This is a custom design that cannot easily be copied, and was built from the ground up with a team of experts who had my personal goals in mind from start to finish. That is a critical step in differentiation – not just doing what is easy, but doing what is right.

The web and digital media have provided each of us so many ways to create our own platforms and connect with others, all largely for free. If you are serious about growing your career, consider how your online presence is differentiated from others around you. Look at the details and really challenge yourself to focus not just on design or aesthetics, but how EVERY aspect of your presence communicates who you are, what you are about, and how you want to connect with others.

Have a great day!

-Dan

 

The Value of Iteration, Testing & Data in Creating Profitable Digital Products

Are you looking for a way to guarantee increased audience size, engagement and revenue around your digital products? In this guest post for Emedia Vitals, I share a methodology for doing just that, comprising of these steps:

  1. Create a process of iteration
    When you find something that works, instead of just copying it and subjecting your audience to more of it, why not optimize what you are already doing?
  2. Always be testing
    Use A/B and multivariate testing to constantly improve your products and services. Test everything: headlines, segments of your list, ways of promoting it, images, different layouts and colors, etc.
  3. Use the data quickly
    The trick is to use data in a way that drives decisions. When you look at metrics, you should be able to define a single action you can take based on what the data tells you.

Click here to read the entire article on eMediaVitals.com.

The Year Ahead for Writers and Publishers

I had the pleasure of speaking with Joel Friedlander of TheBookDesigner.com about the year ahead for writers and publishers. Check out the 24 minute video interview on Joel’s site, along with his description. I have also embedded it below so you can get a preview:

Thanks so much to Joel! He can be found on Twitter at @JFBookman.
-Dan