Coffee Shop Etiquette for Entrepreneurs and Writers

My favorite office smells like coffee.

It’s not any particular place. It’s any independent coffee shop that has decent wifi and grinds their own coffee beans every couple of hours. I love the sounds and the smells of the place, although the milk steamer is a little obnoxious at times. And I appreciate the relationships I have with the baristas and the regulars.

Inside Duo 58. One of my favorite local coffee shops, and the inspiration for this article on coffee shop etiquette.

Inside Duo 58. One of my favorite local coffee shops, and the inspiration for this article.

Any old coffee shop will do, although I prefer independent coffee shops. I even made maps of the independent coffee shops in Indianapolis and Orlando, and often visit new ones just to find hidden gems around the city. I’m even sitting in one of my local favorites, Duo 58, as I write this.

Several years ago, for four months, my business partner and I left our old office and spent our rent money on coffee, working six hours a day out of the Hubbard & Cravens in Broad Ripple (Indianapolis). It got us outside in the winter, we met a lot of new people, and I came home every day smelling like freshly ground coffee. It was only because we wanted somewhere more quiet and with faster Internet speeds that we returned to our old office.

I learned a few lessons about coffee shop etiquette and some of the things that drive coffee shop owners and managers nuts, or make things difficult for entrepreneurs, writers, and laptop warriors to find decent shops to do any work.

Here are five coffee shop etiquette rules every coffee shop commuter needs to follow when working in your favorite local java joint.

  1. Buy something every 2 hours. I make it a point to spend at least $5 every two hours I’m at a coffee shop. It gets expensive, but when you consider that a shop not only has to pay their baristas, they’re paying for their equipment, lights, HVAC, and fresh beans. If you camp out for six hours on a single $2 ice tea (that you keep getting free refills on!), you’re taking up valuable space that better-paying customers could be using, and you’re eating into the owner’s already-thin profits.
  2. Heidi and Kelly. They're studying to be physicians assistants. I invited them to sit with me while I wrote this.

    Heidi and Kelly. They’re studying to be physicians assistants. I invited them to sit with me while I wrote this.

  3. Never take up a 4-top for yourself. A lot of coffee shops have 2-top tables that are ideal for one or two people, but also have a few 4-tops for larger groups. Try to avoid sitting at a 4-top unless you’re either holding it for more people, or all the 2-tops are taken up. Remember, the whole reason the coffee shop exists is to get the highest number of people in there, and if you keep four other people from sitting down, they lose a lot more money than you’re spending. At the very least, be willing to share your table with other people. Which reminds me. . .
  4. Always offer to share your table. A friend told me she once went into a coffee shop that was filled with single individuals sitting at 2-top tables. She asked one young woman if she could share her table. The young woman said “No!” rather rudely, and my friend sat down and said, “I’m sorry, the place is crowded and this one is big enough for two people. I’ll move as soon as another one opens up.” Instead, the young woman insulted my friend, and called her “entitled and selfish” before storming off, no doubt to look up the definition of “irony.” If you’re at a full coffee shop, be a decent human being and invite someone to join you at your table. I’ve been at Duo 58 all morning, and I’ve invited three different people to sit with me during my time here. Besides, you never know who you’re going to meet as a result of your kindness.
  5. Keep conversation volumes low. I’ve been in coffee shops that sound like a high school cafeteria at high noon. While you don’t have to whisper to your meeting partner, you don’t need to use your outside voice either. It’s especially bad when you can hear someone else’s conversation from 30 feet away. Or as my friend, Sheryl Brown (@BionicSocialite) says, “Set the tone of your voice to that which is comfortable to the space. Pay attention if you naturally have a booming voice — people tend to follow your lead. (T)hey think you’re hard of hearing and start yelling to match your voice.
  6. Don’t watch Netflix or YouTube. Video takes up way more bandwidth than audio, photos, and text. And a coffee shop is not here to give you free broadband so you can binge watch Disjointed. Other people are trying to do actual work and/or study online, and your videos only slow down everyone else’s experience. It’s one thing if there are only one or two of you in the place, but when it’s half-full, you’re slowing everyone else down. Either switch to your personal hotspot or download movies when you’re at home. Don’t use more than your fair share of the wifi, especially since you only bought a small coffee to begin with.

The coffee shop explosion has nicely coincided with the rise in entrepreneurship and small businesses, giving us a place to work, network, and meet with potential clients and partners. But if you’re going to spend more than an hour working in a coffee shop, try to remember the store owner is in business just like you.

If you take up space without buying anything, or make a general nuisance of yourself, you only make the experience bad for everyone else. It’s this kind of behavior that leads to coffee houses putting limits on their wifi, or removing their wifi entirely.

If that happens, then I’m working at your house.

And I won’t tip you.

FL Entrepreneur Can Fulfill 12 Days of Christmas for 76% Less Than Leading Experts (PRESS RELEASE)

For Immediate Release
November 17, 2017

(ORLANDO)—Entrepreneurs know how to get things done with less money, fewer resources, and in a shorter amount of time. Humor writer and Florida entrepreneur Erik Deckers recently demonstrated that by hypothetically fulfilling all the items mentioned in the 12 Days Of Christmas. Deckers was able to find everything for $8,407, nearly 76 percent less than PNC Bank’s proposed cost of $34,558.65.

For the last 33 years, the PNC Financial Service Group has calculated the cost of every item of the classic Christmas carol. Deckers, a newspaper humor columnist and small business owner, decided he could do better. He did some basic Internet research and contacted a couple of friends, and came up with a figure much lower than PNC, and wrote about it for his latest humor column.

12 Days of Christmas. A real entrepreneur can fulfill this for $8400.“The swans and the dancers were the budget killers,” said Deckers. “PNC was spending nearly $13,000 for seven swans a-swimming, and another $13,000 on nine ladies dancing and 10 lords a-leaping.”

Deckers said he checked a bird-selling website and sourced seven swans for $3,050. He also contacted a friend who works in entertainment at Disney World.

“Based on her recommendations, I think I could get 19 male and female dancers for $50 each for a two-hour gig, plus a couple passes through the craft table,” said Deckers. “That’s $4,000 to PNC’s $26,000.”

Deckers also researched other poultry hatcheries for the geese, partridges, and French hens.

“PNC was spending $180 on French hens,” said Deckers. “I found five of them for $7.75 apiece. That’s $38.75 total, with two hens left over for Easter eggs next year.”

Deckers admits this is all tongue-in-cheek, and he appreciates PNC’s annual efforts. But he also wanted to show that small businesses can achieve nearly the same results as large corporations, especially since they don’t have the same resources.

“There are plenty of entrepreneurs in this country who are doing great things on shoestring budgets,” said Deckers. “We don’t all get millions of dollars from venture capitalists, and we don’t have the huge budgets of the corporations. So we get things done by being resourceful and calling on our professional networks for help. I thought this was a great way to remind people of that fact.”

About Erik Deckers

Erik Deckers has been a newspaper humor columnist since 1995, and has owned his own small business, Pro Blog Service, since 2009. He recently published the 3rd edition of his book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (Que Biz-Tech), with co-author Kyle Lacy. The book is available on Amazon.com, and at Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million.

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Photo credit: Xavier Romero-Frias (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

Twitter Verified Self-Proclaimed White Supremacist

Twitter verified a Nazi yesterday.

You know those little blue checkmarks some people have next to their Twitter handles? That basically “verifies” that yes, this person is at least semi-famous. Or is someone of “public interest.”

A few years ago, when the Verified symbol first showed up, only celebrities had them. Movie stars had them. Rock stars had them. Professional athletes had them. Big-time authors had them.

Basically if you had a little blue checkmark next to your name, it meant you were someone famous.

Then, less famous people started getting them. Journalists of national publications got them. Radio DJs got them. Local TV anchors got them.

And soon after that, not-really-famous-but-you’ve-maybe-kind-of-heard-of-them people started getting them. Scott Monty (@ScottMonty) got one, partly because he’s been a big name in social media for years, partly because he’s a well-known Sherlock Holmes podcaster, but mostly because he was in the public eye as Ford’s social media manager for years. Other local journalists got them, novel authors, and small business owners.

Even people who have over 100,000 followers (that they most likely got through cheating) but haven’t even published 10,000 tweets are Verified. (I know, because one of them followed me yesterday.)

I, however, am not.

I’ve struggled with whether I even want the little blue checkmark. On the one hand, it seems rather needy and high school-ish, like jumping on the latest fashion trends because all the cool kids are wearing them. On the other hand, I never did what the so-called “cool kids” did in high school because I thought they were morons.

My good friend and book co-author Jason Falls (@JasonFalls) is not Verified. He thinks it’s stupid. And I mostly agree. It just seems so needy and insecure to try to fit in with the cool kids, because the cool kids are by and large insufferable asshats.

Still, it would be nice to have. There’s still a small part of me that wants that little blue checkmark, because it would be so validating. Like what I did was important. And in the public interest.

But I don’t have it.

Twitter verified this white supremacistOh, it’s not for lack of trying. I applied for it a few weeks ago. I cited the four books I co-authored — including Branding Yourself (which has a whole chapter on Twitter), No Bullshit Social Media (which mentions Twitter constantly, and was a groundbreaking social media book in 2011), The Owned Media Doctrine, and of course, Twitter Marketing for Dummies (which I “ghost co-authored” in 2009).

I also mentioned my newspaper humor column, which I have written every week for the last 21+ years.

And I mentioned that I was the 2016 Jack Kerouac House writer-in-residence.

But it wasn’t good enough. I received a rejection email that didn’t actually explain why I didn’t get it. That’s fine. I can deal with that. Maybe my books aren’t famous enough. Or they were all written more than four years ago (although the third edition of Branding Yourself dropped this month). Or that nearly all the 10 Indiana newspapers that publish my column are weeklies.

Or maybe it’s because I’m not a white supremacist.

Because Twitter verified Jason Kessler, the self-professed white supremacist who organized the Charlottesville white supremacist rally that left one protestor dead.

They verified him, and Twitter went nuts and started tweeting to Twitter’s CEO @Jack Dorsey in protest.

Am I bitter that I wasn’t verified? No. Am I angry? No. Am I annoyed that a Nazi was verified before I was?

Sure, a little bit.

I write books that help people find jobs. I write books that help businesses be more successful. I write newspaper columns that make people laugh. I don’t try to oppress people, denigrate minority groups, organize violent rallies, or joke about the death of a protestor and call her “a fat, disgusting Communist.”

I mean, if you were to ask people who should be verified I would hope “four-time non-fiction book author” would rank somewhere above “white supremacist Nazi dirtbag.”

Doesn’t that make sense? That someone who contributes to the betterment of society would be slightly more worthy of verification than someone who calls for the wholesale genocide of an entire race of people?

I mean, I know I’m old-fashioned, but I figured helping people succeed was more noble than joking about their deaths.

At the very least, Twitter, don’t verify this guy. Remove the verification. I don’t have to have it. In fact, I don’t think I want it anymore. If you’ve granted it to something you find on the bottom of your shoe, I don’t want it.

But for God’s sake, don’t give it to someone who promotes hate and genocide. I thought you were better than that.

Who’s Who In Branding Yourself – The Case Studies in the 3rd Edition

We’re five days away from the new edition of Branding Yourself (published by Que Biz-Tech, a Pearson imprint) coming out, when it will be available on Amazon, as well as in Barnes & Noble.

This edition was less of a revision and more of a major overhaul. We had new tools to add and a lot of tools to drop. I deleted a couple mentions of MySpace and had to delete every third-party Twitter app that Twitter had blocked and destroyed. We added a few new sections and fleshed out a few that we had shorted the last time.

We promised them 300 pages; it’s 385 pages now.

We also redid most of the case studies, with a few exceptions, replacing some of the previous studies with new, more up-to-date examples of people who have used certain tools and techniques to build and promote their own brand.

We kept Starla West, Hazel Walker, and Lorraine Ball because they’ve been very important to our own growth in this area, but we added a lot of people who have done some amazing work in the last few years. These are people we have been friends with, appeared on podcasts with, followed like little puppies, or been intrigued and mightily impressed by. In many cases, two or three of those things at once.

These are the people we wrote case studies about, or at least called out, in the book. We’re grateful to all of them for participating and answering our questions, making this edition of Branding Yourself the best — and thickest — one yet.

Who’s Who in Branding Yourself?

  • Mignon Fogarty: Mignon runs one of the most popular language and grammar podcasts, Grammar Girl, and has managed to turn that into a series of grammar books as well as the Quick And Dirty Tips podcast network. She was also kind enough to read two of my essays on her podcast. You can follow her on Twitter at @GrammarGirl, which I strongly recommend.

  • Park Howell: Park (@ParkHowell) runs the Business of Story podcast, and I’ve been lucky enough to appear on it. In fact, I get to be on it again in December to talk about telling your brand story, which is the subject of Chapter 2.
  • Jonathan W. Thomas: Jon and I were travel writers for the Indiana Office of Tourism Development (along with Amy Magan), and he’s also the creator of the very popular Anglotopia, the blog about life, culture, and entertainment in the United Kingdom. His whole career is built on his blog, and it’s even gotten him some free trips to the UK as well.
  • Anthony Juliano: Anthony is VP and general manager at the Asher Agency in Fort Wayne, and a social media strategist. We wanted to include him in the book when we first started talking about the new edition, but forgot until he posted something about teaching on LinkedIn about teaching a LinkedIn class. I said “serendipity, bay-bee!” and emailed him.
  • Qasim Muhammad (@MuslimIQ): I’m a big fan of this guy. Qasim Muhammad is a Muslim writer, speaker, and teacher, and puts up with some of the worst shit from people, but he doesn’t back down, and he looks to teach whenever he can. (But he’s not afraid to clap back either. Hard!) And he’s actually changed some minds about Muslims and gotten people to see them in a different light. Best of all, he loves dad jokes, so that makes us brothers.
  • Paul Anthony Jones (@HaggardHawks): As a lover of language, I have several language-related Twitter accounts I follow. And @HaggardHawks is my other favorite (tied with @GrammarGirl’s). He publishes old terms that were used 100–400 years ago.
  • Lynn Ferguson & Mark Tweddle: This is our big celebrity addition! Lynn Ferguson (@LynnFergy) was a writer on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, is a host of The Moth Story Slam, and was also the voice of the Scottish chicken on Chicken Run. She and her husband Mark now have a company, You Tell Yours, where they teach people to tell stories as a way to build self-confidence, learn to speak in public, and learn how to speak their own truth. If we ever do an audio version of this book, I want her to read it.
  • Crystal Washington is one of the featured case studies in Branding Yourself.

    Crystal Washington and me.

  • Crystal Washington: I’ve been a fan of Crystal’s (@CrysWashington) for several years. I’ve watched her turned her social media savvy into an international speaking and consulting career that sees her sharing knowledge with major companies, large conferences, and audiences that measure in the hundreds and thousands. I finally got to meet her in September, when she was in Orlando for a trip, and we got to visit for 20 minutes before she had to fly back home.
  • John Wall: One half of the Marketing Over Coffee podcast with Christopher Penn, John (@JohnJWall) has been podcasting since the early days. They’ve turned their in-depth marketing knowledge and willingness to share into becoming some of the leading marketing voices in the country.
  • The Eephus Podcast: I love baseball and baseball history, and Marty and Larry (@EephusPodcast) tell some of the funniest stories about America’s pastime. Even my kids like to listen, and they don’t like baseball. While they didn’t get a case study, they certainly deserve a shout out. And so I mention them here in the hopes that they’ll feel morally obligated to buy the book.
  • Dewey McGeoch: I met Dewey at the Indianapolis Fringe Festival when he was performing with his now-husband Douglas in the Screw You Revue. (Their 2010 final night’s performance is still the funniest damn show I’ve ever seen.) I gave him a copy of the first edition of Branding Yourself, and he said they had been using social media quite extensively, but had stopped after his laptop was stolen. He started up again (I’d like to think it was because of the book, but I know it wasn’t), built up a strong online audience, and the two are now full-time drag performers in New York City.
  • Sheryl Brown-Madjlessi: Sheryl (@BionicSocialite) used to live in Fort Wayne, Indiana, about two hours from me. But we both had to travel to Boston just to meet at MarketingProf’s B2B Conference. Since then, we’ve been great friends, and I’ve watched, amazed, as she got an entire financial services firm to buck up and start using social media. (I mean, these guys won’t write down directions to the bathroom without running it by Legal first!)
  • Hazel Walker: Hazel (@HazeWalker) is the co-author of several books with Ivan Misner, founder of Business Networking International, including Business Networking And Sex. And she used to hassle Kyle and me about wearing jeans to give presentations. I still wear jeans, but we took her lessons of Giver’s Gain to heart, and totally stole it for Chapter 12 of the book.
  • Dave Delaney: Dave (@DaveDelaney) is a master networker, so much so that he wrote a whole book on it — New Business Networking — also published by Pearson. (We’re publishing buddies!) He also runs the Networking For Nice People, which I write a monthly column for.
  • Lorraine Ball: Kyle’s very first job out of college was working for Lorraine (@LorraineBall), and she was my networking mentor back when I was first learning how it all worked, as well as learning my way around the city. We both owe her a lot, and she continues to influence us even now.
  • Jay Baer: When Jay Baer (@JayBaer) first moved to Indiana from Arizona, he came to the Blog Indiana kickoff party where I had a chance to eat tacos with him and tell him about his new home state. I also took him to MacNiven’s, a Scottish restaurant in downtown Indianapolis on Mass Ave., and took a video of him explaining how to eat their 8″ wide hamburger. (There’s a video of it somewhere on YouTube.)
  • Kate Toon & Belinda Weaver: The Australian hosts of the Hot Copy podcast get a mention because they do a stellar podcast, and have earned a big following for them, their services, and their online copywriting classes.
  • Doug Karr: Doug didn’t have his own case study, but he was mentioned several times throughout the book — I can think of four off the top of my head. Doug (@DouglasKarr) owns DK New Media, and has been one of the leading marketing technology writers and thinkers over the last 10 years. A lot of what we know about social media, we stole from learned from him by paying close attention.
  • The Branding Yourself cover

    The Branding Yourself cover. Isn’t it pretty? The people at Pearson/Que Biz-Tech did that.

  • Starla West: Starla (@StarlaWestIntl) is so accomplished, she always makes me feel like I’m not doing enough. Her story about how her personal network helped her launch her business literally within minutes of quitting her job has been included in this book since the very beginning. And her “I Got a Guy” philosophy is the very essence of networking. I published a version of it on my blog.
  • Jackie Bledsoe: We met Jackie (@JBledsoeJr) the day of the first Branding Yourself book launch in December 2010 at the downtown Scotty’s Brewhouse. It was his birthday night out with his wife, and he wanted to come to our book launch. We sat and talked for a while, and started hanging out and became good friends. I can’t think about that night and how it has led to some amazing opportunities for Jackie and his family without getting a little choked up.
  • Jason Falls: Jason (@JasonFalls) is one of the leading thinkers on social media, and I’m happy to count him as a friend. He was also my co-author on No Bullshit Social Media, the first social media book with a swear word in the title (and the book I started on two months after Branding Yourself was finished. He has used his accomplishments and his personal brand to land two amazing jobs and two start two separate companies, all in the eight or so years that I’ve known him.

These are the people who have had an impact on us, shaped us, or just given us a lot to think about over the last 10 or so years. We liked them enough to include them in our new edition, and I wanted to thank them publicly.

As of today — October 23, 2017 — you can get the latest edition of Branding Yourself for 31% off the cover price. The book is roughly 385 pages long, and retails for $29.99, but you can get it for $20.61.

Be sure to order a copy for you and some for your colleagues or friends who are job hunting right now. We’ve written Branding Yourself to help people change careers, redefine themselves, or even find their very next job.

Personal Branding: Cultivating the Right Relationships

Starla West is an executive presence and business leadership coach, “helping business professionals their interpersonal and leadership effectiveness.” She’s also in the third edition of Branding Yourself (pre-order your copy here), which drops on October 28. The following is the information she provided me for her case study. I wasn’t able to use all of it, so I asked if I could reprint it on my blog. This is what she wrote.

Why Do It?

If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a million times: Effective networking is all about farming, not hunting. The goal is to cultivate relationships and gain trust. If we network only when we have to, we are way behind the game, as the full benefits of networking are most often realized after solid relationships are developed and maintained over time.

I have to admit I never fully understood this until I left the corporate world to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams. Prior to starting my own business, I was a consultant for various financial institutions throughout the United States. My job was twofold: 1) help my clients obtain more than their fair share of new customers (bank executives), and 2) help them keep these customers for as long as they possibly could.

Starla West says personal branding is all about cultivating valuable relationships.

My good friend, Starla West!

To effectively assist my clients, it was crucial that I quickly gained (and maintained) the trust and support of my clients’ executive teams. Needless to say, day in and day out I called upon my relationship building skills to “win over” these bank executives. Over time, these relationships eventually strengthened. At the end of my eight years as their consultant, these executives were more than just business acquaintances; they were now my friends.

How did I know that? Well, late on a Thursday evening, as I comfortably sat with my feet propped up on the sofa, I sent an email to my clients announcing I was leaving the company and starting my own business. After pressing Send, I closed my laptop, turned, and placed my feet on the floor. No joke, no exaggeration! Within 30 seconds, my phone rang. I thought, “Wow! I just sent that!”

I answered the call. It was the senior vice president and director of marketing for a large client of mine in Florida. I assumed he was calling to wish me good luck, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. He was calling to share his marketing knowledge and advertising expertise with me. He wanted to help catapult my business into full operation as quickly as possible by helping me develop a marketing plan. I couldn’t believe it! This extremely busy man who is next to impossible to catch on the phone was graciously giving me two full hours of his time and expert advice, and I didn’t even ask for it!

Over the next 24 hours, I received phone call after phone call and email after email from clients who wanted to help. This is when it really hit me: Networking is simply relationship building. If cultivated and nurtured correctly, these relationships develop into lifelong friendships that include a healthy balance of giving and receiving that and over time positively impact your professional growth and advancement.

How’s Your ‘I Got a Guy’ Network Looking

Could it use a little tender loving care?

The above lesson was further reinforced when my husband and I learned our friend, Alan, was badly injured in an automobile accident. While visiting Alan in the hospital, we learned our friend, Brad, was taking care of Alan’s personal matters since he didn’t have family living nearby.

During this conversation, Brad mentioned the other driver’s insurance company was calling non-stop. He was avoiding their calls because Alan’s insurance provider mandated, “Do not speak to that insurance company until you’ve hired an attorney.”
Let me pause my story there and ask, “Would you know the type of attorney needed to help your friend through this horrific situation?” If your answer is a personal injury attorney, you are correct.

That said, at this very moment, do you know a personal injury attorney whom you also like and trust?
If your answer is NO, welcome to the situation in which Brad found himself. He said, “I don’t know who to hire, Starla. I don’t want to call those ambulance chasers you see on TV but I also don’t want to pick one from an online search,” to which I replied, “I agree. You shouldn’t do that.”

I stepped out into the hallway and did a mental scan of my personal and professional relationships. Within seconds, I returned to Alan’s room and said to Brad, “Let me reach out to my friend, Amy. She’s a partner at one of the big law firms here in Indianapolis. This isn’t the type of case her firm would take. However, Amy is well-connected and I trust her. She will tell us which attorneys in Indianapolis to work with and which ones to stay away from.”

I immediately sent Amy a text and within 30 minutes she responded with a recommendation. I passed it along to Brad and said, “I know Amy very well. I trust her so this is who you should call.”  Without hesitation, Brad contacted the recommended attorney the following day.

Let’s take a moment and think about what happened.

  1. Brad needed help and I was able to help him because of the extensive network of relationships I’ve built and nurtured for well over 15 years.
  2. To help Brad, I reached out to my friend, Amy, whom I met at a business event two years prior. I was comfortable asking for help because over the last two years, Amy and I cultivated and nurtured our relationship to a point that we like and trust each other.
  3. But it didn’t stop there. To help me, Amy reached out to her network and confidently referred a personal injury attorney whom she liked and trust.

Let’s recap…

  • Brad used his network to help Alan.
  • Starla used her network to help Brad.
  • Amy used her network to help Starla.
  • And Amy helped another attorney by referring his services!

THAT is how an ‘I got a guy’ network works!

Networking is about building relationships with people whom you can share your knowledge, expertise, and talents and add value to their lives, and when done correctly, you’ll enhance your visibility and anchor your brand in the minds of others and eventually become a part of their ‘I got a guy’ networks.

As you continuously add to and nurture your ‘I got a guy’ network, it will always be full of individuals you like and trust and can comfortably refer and reach out to whenever you need assistance

Outrunning The Little Man: Dealing With Impostor Syndrome

There’s only one person I’ve ever been afraid of my entire life.

He’s average height, and skinny, very skinny. He’s got a bad combover, wears outdated glasses that are too large for his face, and a tie clipped onto a pistachio green short sleeve shirt. He’s an older Kip from Napoleon Dynamite. He’s very officious, and kind of an asshole. The kind of guy who loves wielding his teeny-tiny bit of power over other people’s lives.

I call him “The Little Man.” He’s not little in size, but in spirit and vision.

I live in fear of the day The Little Man knocks on my door. He’ll look at a form on his clipboard and say, “I’m sorry” — except he’s really not — “but there’s been a mistake. You’re not supposed to be a writer. You’re supposed to be a claims adjuster. Sign here, please.” I’m afraid The Little Man is going to show up one day and take everything away because of a clerical error.

Impostor syndrome makes people worry there's some bureaucrat out there trying to get us and fix some error about our lives.I’ve been looking over my shoulder for The Little Man for the better part of 30 years. Ever since I published my first column in my college newspaper, I’ve been trying to outrun him.

It’s like the movies. The hero runs as fast as he or she can, knocking shit over into the bad guy’s path. But the bad guy just steps over everything like it’s not even there.

So I’m amassing evidence to slow him down and prove him wrong. Evidence to show that his form is wrong, and that I’m where I’m supposed to be.

I’ve thrown four books in his path. Twenty-one years of newspaper columns. Thousands of blog articles. Writing awards. Writing residencies. Speaking opportunities. But he won’t stop. I’m throwing it all in his path, and he won’t even look at it. He’s a mindless bureaucrat, a drone who refuses to see evidence in front of him or use common sense. He only believes what the paperwork says, despite what real life is showing him.

I’ve been running for 30 years, and he won’t stop coming.

I thought I escaped him once last year, when I was a writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando. It’s a prestigious residency where only four writers are chosen out of over 300 applicants from all over the world. To me, this confirmed that there had been no error, there was no form on a clipboard.

“This will stop him,” I thought. “There’s no way he can find me here. I’m supposed to be here. They said so.”

But when I stepped inside and closed the door on my first day, he was right there on the sidewalk in front of the house, staring up at it. In fact, it was the closest he’d ever gotten.

He chases my other artist friends too. They’ve seen him, following them wherever they go, whatever they do. To a man and woman, they’ve all seen him, no matter how successful they get, no matter how much stuff they throw in his way.

In fact, the more successful they are, the closer he gets. So we all run faster and work harder, and throw more stuff in his way. But he steps over it and continues on.

It’s a rare artist who isn’t afraid of him. Every capable creative professional I know keeps one eye on their work, and the other looking over their shoulder.

The ones who aren’t afraid often don’t know enough to be afraid. They’re not committed to their craft and they don’t take it seriously. The Little Man leaves alone those artists who wait for inspiration or think they’re masters of their craft. (Because even the real masters don’t think they’re masters; they’re looking for The Little Man too.)

So we work, because that’s the only thing that lets us outrun him. It doesn’t stop him. He never stops. Because he’s waiting for the day that I stop, when I give up and quit running. That’s when he’ll get me. That’s when I’ll have to take his pen and sign his form, and finally give up on my dreams.

But that’s not today. Today, I still have things to do and dreams to win. I still have the energy and the drive to work, and to outrun him one more day.

Photo credit: Max Pixels (FreeGreatPicture.com, Creative Commons 0)

What Are You Best At?

I was at a networking luncheon recently where a sales trainer was giving a talk about how companies often race to the bottom when it comes to their pricing.

“Over 51 percent of customers say they buy on price first,” he said. “So what do salespeople do? They lower their price to grab the sale.” That means more than half your potential customers are not interested in whether you’re the best person for the job, they want you to be the cheapest.

“The problem,” a promotional products salesperson said to me later, “is that those clients will turn around and dump you for a dime.” She told me about a nonprofit she had been working with for five years, and she recently lost them in a carousel of marketing coordinators and the old “you have to get three proposals” shuffle.

Never mind she had given them decent pricing for the past five years. Never mind that she had bent over backward to meet frantic deadlines (thanks to their own bad planning), or made deliveries herself to ensure they had what they needed just in time for some event or other.

There was a new marketing coordinator she didn’t have a relationship with, and she was gone. (My friend is determined to win them back though, without compromising on price.)

That got me to thinking about how I do what I do, and why I charge what I charge. I started thinking about what I’m “best at.” Which of my skills are more defined and developed than any of my others. And which of those skills I can offer to potential clients as a premium and not a “me too” service.

For those of us in the service business, especially freelancers, the one thing we have to offer is our “Best At,” that thing we do better than anyone else.

If you can identify your Best At skills, you can work with the right clients all day, and never have to scrape bone for those price-focused clients. But if you focus on price because you can only offer the same general service as everyone else, you’re going to have a tough time finding lasting success and loyalty.

Freelancers, What’s Your ‘Best At’ Skill?

Paul D'Andrea shooting on location. One of the freelancers who has found his Best At skill.

Paul D’Andrea shooting on location.

For some freelancers, their Best At skill is photography, but not just photography. Their forte is art photography, or sports photography, or business headshots. For others, their Best At skill is accounting, but not just regular accounting. They specialize in small business accounting, or forensic accounting, or fast food franchise accounting.

If you can figure out what you’re Best At, you can define your niche. It’s not just your passion or that thing that speaker said at that seminar. It’s the thing that you can do better than anybody else, even if it’s just a tiny small difference from everyone else in your field. It’s the thing you practice and focus on, over and over, until you can do it in your sleep.

I’ve got a photographer friend whose top skill is shooting business headshots. He’s great at other photography, but very few people shoot business headshots as well as he does. As a result, he’s able to get work from area corporations and charge his professional rate. No one is trying to get him to drop his price in exchange for exposure. No one is telling him, “I have a digital camera that’s just as good.” No one is trying to nickel and dime him, asking for discounts in exchange for less work.

He has planted his flag on Headshot Hill and people are willing to pay his rate, because they know he’s the king of that hill.

Another friend specializes in long-form video with lots of visual effects. He’s hired by larger companies with larger budgets to produce long videos that tell their brand story. The companies that want someone to interview talking heads with an iPhone can’t afford him; the companies that can afford him want something more than talking heads and iMovie special effects. He’s planted his flag on his own hill, and people are willing to pay what he asks for, because he’s the king of that hill.

The Other 49%

Earlier, I mentioned that 51% of customers are focused on price first. That means a majority of your potential customers will throw you over just because they found a competitor that will do it for 5% less than you.

You don’t want these customers. Sure, they’re nice, because they’re a source of revenue, and we always need revenue. And if you need the work to feed your family, you should take every cheap client you can until you can find better ones.

But I’ve found that the price-driven customers will eke every little crumb out of your relationship, bleed you dry with feature creep, delayed payments, and demand the most attention while being the smallest portion of your revenue.

So don’t get attached to them, and never, ever try to build a business on being the lowest-priced vendor they’ve got. That just speeds you along the road to failure.

Instead, focus on the other 49% that care about craftsmanship and quality. Focus on the 49% that knows your work is going to be seen by the public, run their company, or make their lives easier.

If you’re an accountant, it’s your work that’s going to keep them out of trouble with the IRS and out of jail.

If you’re a digital marketer, it’s your work that’s going to drive their marketplace exposure and generate their revenue.

If you’re an IT professional, it’s your work that’s going to keep their network running and safe from cyber attacks.

These are jobs that should not be left to the lowest-priced provider. These are the people whose work can make or break a company. If clients buy these services on price, they’re going to get burned badly with damages and recovery costs that run 10 times as much money as they saved.

A couple months ago, a prospective client asked me to justify my pricing, given that some freelancers would write blog articles for only $5. So I shared my 20 year background, detailed my list of publications and the books I’ve co-authored, and explained my various specialties. I also pointed out that the $5 writers typically did not have a mastery of English, probably plagiarized or re-spun a lot of their work, and that she would spend so much time editing and rewriting their work, it would eat up all the money she had saved by buying the cheapest option.

And I stood firm on my price.

Of course, I never heard from her again, which was fine with me. I knew she would never be satisfied with my price unless I charged $4 per article. That’s the kind of customer I don’t need, and the kind I’ll never work for.

That’s because I know my Best At skill, and I work to get better at it every day. I read, I study, and I practice. I hone my Best At skills the same way a professional athlete works to keep in top shape for their job.

I don’t just want to be the best I can be, I want to be one of the best in my industry. That way, when someone comes to me and asks me to lower my price to be more in line with what less experienced writers are charging, I can say no.

Because I don’t want to be driven by price and spend my day chasing down client after client whose only concern is whether my writing is the cheapest they could find, with no concern of quality.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers