Beach Reads for a Business Owner

In one week, I’ll be at the beach. My out of the office message will be set on my e-mail, but like many business owners, my mind will be still very much focused on my passion — building my business. So in addition to sunscreen and sandals, I’ll be packing a stack of books that I’m hoping will inspire me. Here’s what I’ve picked, and why. Have tips for others? Leave them in the comments below. Happy reading!

Rework
by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

No venture capital. That’s how 37Signals has built their business, and it’s how we plan on building ours. We’re already avid readers of the 37Signals blog, and use this humbled-beginnings software company as a beacon for where we want to go.


Do More Great Work.
by Michael Bungay Stanier

This was a recommendation when I purchased Rework, but the subtitle got me — “Stop the busywork, and start the work that matters.” Having just come back from my corporate-world stint, I haven’t quite shaken the busywork bug. I feel compelled to be doing something all the time, almost like I have  a looming mid-year review over my shoulder. I’m hoping this book will give me ideas of taking control over my own schedule, and to, well, do more great work.


Making Ideas Happen
by Scott Belsky

When I freelanced, it was simple. If something needed to get done, I did it. In corporate, the team was so big that I knew my myopic role and did just that. But now, we have a small team, and a long list of things we want to do. I’ll be looking to this book for ways to get our ideas off of our index cards and into the hands of our customers.


The Official Scrabble® Brand Word-Finder
by Robert Schachner

One of the first things I do every morning is play a game of Scrabble on my iPhone. I find it’s a great way for me to wean in the day (I’m naturally a night-owl). Lately, I can beat the Normal setting without a challenge, but I’m stuck when it comes to Hard. I plan on using this study guide to beef up my Scrabble skills not only for my own enjoyment, but to ensure that I win at family game night (I have a slight competitive side, too.)


Ladies First: History’s Greatest Female Trailblazers, Winners, and Mavericks
by Lynn Santa Lucia

Stories of others who have risen to a challenge are most inspiring. So what better fodder for dreams than a collection of women who have changed the course of history. From Christine de Pisan, Europe’s first professional female writer, to Dorothy Levitt, the first woman to compete in a motor race in 1903, I can’t wait to read the seventeen mini-biographies and maybe find a piece of myself among them.


Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life
by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr Lilian Cheung

Mindful living has had a profound impact on my life. It helps me make better decisions in both business and in life. One aspect of mindfulness is around how we consume our food. Too often, I find myself gobbling down a breakfast bar because I’m running to a meeting. This book, written by one of the world’s preeminent Buddhist authors, shows how you can maintain a healthy weight and attitude simply by paying attention to your food.

7 Tips to Instantly Give Your Content Personality

Content with personality sells. Brands spend big bucks developing a distinct voice that makes them stand out. Conversational words engage your prospects instead of putting them to sleep, or worse, buying from someone else. This idea of copy that is personable and professional at the same time is what I built my career on. And here are some tips I’ve learned along the way to help your brand stand out from the pack.

1. Keep words and sentences short.
Big words do not make you sound smart. (I actually had to re-write that sentence. Originally it said, “Big words make you sound pretentious.” I have to keep even myself in check.) Long sentences make you seem boring. Readers, especially savvy web-oriented ones, don’t actually read — they scan. Short sentences keep these scanners more engaged, which leads to more sales. I try to keep most of my sentences to one thought, or clause. Sometimes two. More that that, and I try to break it up into separate sentences. Another way to put this idea is, “write like you talk.”

2. Use contractions.
When we’re talking casually, we use contractions — those “shortcut” words like can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, etc. We say – “I’d love to join you, but I can’t. Maybe next time, when I don’t have a conflict.”  In conversation, we’ll use the non-contracted form when we need to clarify or make a point. For example, “Joe, for the last time, I will not go on a date with you. Please, do not ask me again.” Using contractions instantly lightens the tone of your communications, and (you guessed it) makes your readers feel more engaged with your content.

3. Choose the “sparkle” word.
Which has more personality? “We’re happy to announce…” or “We’re thrilled to announce…” They essentially mean the same thing, but “thrilled” jumps out just a little more because it’s more exact. Happy is generic. It’s probably the first word you’ll reach for. Stretching just a little bit for that vibrant word can make your copy sing.

4. Write in the present tense, active voice, second person.
In non-academic terms, this means – avoid the words “have” or “been” and use the word “you”. Writing in this style is one of the most powerful ways to connect with your reader. It puts them in the here and now. It makes it feel like you’re having a conversation with them through the screen. Compare, for example, these two sentences: “We have enjoyed working with wonderful clients like you.” Versus, “You are a wonderful client. Thank you for your business. It makes ours more fun.” See the difference?

5. Know which (few) grammar rules you can break.
On occasion, I’ll start a sentence with “and”. I sometimes end with a preposition, too. That’s because these grammar rules help facilitate the conversational style. But there are some rules that when broken, make you look silly, or stupid, or ignorant. Here’s just a small sampling.

  • Your (you own it) vs. You’re (you are)
  • There (not here) vs. Their (it belongs to them) vs. They’re (they are)
  • Assure (give support) vs. Insure (to buy or sell insurance)
  • Affect (verb) vs. Effect (noun – can you put “the” in front of it?)
  • “A lot” is two words.

There are plenty more, and feel free to vent in the comments below. To keep your writing neat and tidy, try typing your opposing words in a search engine with “vs” between them. You can also check out The Grammar Girl.

6. Accessorize with styles.
Not to sound like your high-school English teacher, but rhetorical styles such as alliteration, metaphor, similes, rhyme, and repetition are marks of great writing. So use them. A word of caution though; too much of any of these styles, and you can easily swing to the other side of the personality pendulum (the one where you sound like an amateur and we don’t want that). It’s best to think of these styles like an accessory — add enough to accentuate your content, but not too much where you overwhelm the message.

7. Read out loud before you publish.
And by “out loud”, I don’t mean “really loud and slow but still in my head”. It means with your voice, at a natural volume. In addition to catching typos, this form of editing is perfect for making sure your content is conversational. Does it sound natural? If there’s a sentence that just doesn’t flow, work with it until it sounds right. Then, give your content to someone who hasn’t read it yet. Ask them to read it out loud. Then, massage any phrases that tripped them up.

With these simple tweaks, you can transform writing that’s bland and impersonal, into content that brings your readers closer to your brand. These are great tips for all sorts of business communications in both print and web. Have a question about how to implement these styles? Have a story about how you turned your copy around? Want to vent about your grammar pet peeves? Put it in the comment below.

Thanks, and happy writing!

Taking the leap…again.

b&w photo of girl diving into a lake

Next Tuesday is my last day at Capital One. It’s been a great ride. I’ve made lots of friends and learned a ton, but I never quite shook the own-your-own-business bug.

I’m thinking it’s genetic. My brother’s an entrepreneur, too. And when you look at our childhood, it’s not hard to see why.

When I was five (1986) my father left his job as an IT big-wig, bought a Macintosh computer, and started a graphics design company with my artistically inclined mother. I asked him “Why?” for a project in 6th grade. His reply? “So I could see you get off the school bus every day.”

I grew up stapling blank invoices to manila folders for a penny a piece.

In middle school, I started running my own business doing “over printing.” This was before digital printing came along. My parents would create a shell brochure for companies with multiple offices. My brother and I would collect orders from individual offices and carefully feed the glossy paper through a bubble-jet printer, set it on the floor to dry, run it through a folding machine, and ship it out. My father and I still laugh about my mishaps with the (really finicky!) folding machine.

By early high school, my parents had merged their business with a pre-press and printing company. I came up with the name and tagline — Proximus; Next generation printing — by opening my Latin dictionary. That was my first foray into copywriting and I’ll never forget the thrill of seeing my idea scattered all over signs and stationary.

At the age of 24, I quit my job in sales because of an ethical belief. When I became frustrated in the job search, my parents bought me a laptop, desk, and a copy of Quickbooks. Within a month I had landed three clients. For three years I finessed my skills and made my living as a freelance copywriter. I started a blog. Capital One read it, a recruiter called me out-of-the-blue and asked me to come write for them.

That was two and a half years ago.

For a while, I really enjoyed the steady paycheck, vacation pay, sick days, and 40-hour work weeks. These were luxuries I never had when I worked on commission or freelanced. The first week, my manager would have to remind me to go home at 5:00. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Compared to the 14-hour days I was used to, I essentially felt like I was leaving at lunchtime.

I got a bonus and flew to Australia. I won the 3-legged race at the Brand Olympics. I went to some kick-ass conferences. But I also stopped blogging, watched my inspiration slowly fizzle, and became daunted by corporate politics.

Then, last September, I bumped into one of my best friends from high-school at our 10-year reunion. He owned a software company and needed marketing help.  The next day we sat by the pool and dreamed about offering copywriting and coding services to designers. In November, I became a Partner in Corgibytes. Two weeks later, we had our first client. In March, he proposed — at the same spot where we dreamed up our business plan (I said yes). Today we’re living that dream.

I suppose for some people, the itch to be an entrepreneur is just inherent. You do it because you don’t want to do anything else. Because you’d rather work for yourself 14 hours a day than work for somebody else for 8. And because life seems more fun after you dove in than it ever did watching from the dock.

Reconciliation

Since coming to Capital One in December of 2007, I’ve struggled to find a balance for this blog. For the past year and a half, I used this blog as a marketing tool for my freelance business. Now that I’m not building a business, I found it difficult to see why I should bother continuing to post. Hence the sabbatical.

Here’s the realization I’ve come to over the past few weeks.

1. I have a passion for small businesses. I genuinely believe that small business is the coal that keeps the American economy blazing. My (and lots of other marketers’) ideas and experiences can help small businesses thrive.

2. I’m proud of where I work. Capital One is a world class brand filled with smart marketers that I learn from every day.

3. Even though I work at a company, doesn’t mean I can’t still help small businesses. In fact, I’ve learned more since working here than I did in the years I freelanced. My experience is more valuable than ever.

4. Thanks especially to Brian, Juli and Becca for helping me see the value of my writing. I’m so inspired by your initiatives.

5. In the changing economic landscape, GREAT marketing is more important than ever. ROI, ROI, ROI!

How to Get More Customers (Even If You Hate Selling)

www.gardenplantmarkers.comMy mother created what I think is a purple cow. An avid gardener, she was frustrated with the market’s lack of a quality garden plant marker, so she set out and created her own. Every gardener she’s shown it to flips over how great these things are – so simply showcasing the product should be enough to create a selling frenzy, right? Wrong.

“If you build it, they will come” may have worked for Kevin Costner, but if you as an entrepreneur embrace this laissez faire philosophy, prepare to watch the product to which you’ve dedicated so many hours die on the vine. Selling is a simply a critical skill to success.

However, if you’re like my mother – the thought of selling is overwhelmingly intimidating. Over homemade chicken soup on Sunday she expressed how, “I’m simply not wired that way. I get nervous and the words just don’t come out right.” Sound familiar?

If so, read on for ideas on how you can pitch your product without feeling like you’ve underminded your integrity.

Enthusiasm Makes the Difference
Norman Vincent Peale was right – if you can’t get excited about your product or service, who will? Do you believe you’re the best? Deep down in your gut do you know that someone’s life will be just a little better because of what you’ve created? Then let those feelings show. Passion is contagious. When you’re genuinely happy and wholeheartedly believe that your product is the best on the market, that confidence can help your conversion rate.

Action: Often when we get excited our hearts beat stronger, we talk faster, louder or softer. However, these are signs of being nervous and uncomfortable – not self-confidence. Set up a video camera to record yourself. Sit down, stare directly into the camera and answer this question – “Who is someone special in your life and what are the qualities that make you love them.” Pause. Get a glass of water. Sit down and stare again while answering this question – “What is your product/service and why should someone buy it.” Then watch the tape. Do you notice a difference in the intonation and inflection of your voice? Chances are you were more comfortable talking about your someone special than your product. Continue recording until you are equally as comfortable with your product.

Use a Net – Not a Pole
If your product is fulfilling a specific niche (which it should) blasting your message and seeing who bites may not be the most effective use of resources. Instead, go to places with a high density of potential customers. Think of catching fish in the ocean with a single pole versus catching fish in a barrel with a net. The “barrel” might be a chat room, blog, forum, conference, or event where people are saying “Help – I have this problem and need a way to fix it.” When they ask for a solution and you provide it, you’re not selling – you’re solving.

Action: Brainstorm places where your potential customers might hang out in high numbers. Think beyond the tried and true and attempt to uncover unconventional places to market your product or service. Then go there with your I’m-here-to-help-you attitude.

Sell by Referral
Form relationships with other entrepreneurs who offer a complementary product or service and cross-pollinate your prospects. For example, when I was a freelance writer, I spent a fair amount of time meeting with graphic artists and graphic designers. Why? I knew that a potential client would most likely seek out their profession first when a project arose. By educating my partners on the value I brought to the client, they happily recommended me when a client needed help with their writing.

Action: Who are your potential partners? Write down a list of products or services your customers use in addition to yours. Then, seek out places where these referral sources congregate, go there and begin to make friends. Often time these relationships take time, so be patient and give these new relationships the care they deserve.

Related Links

7 Lies that Prevent Your Great Idea from Becoming a Real Business – by Greg Go

How Sales Techniques Work – by Lee Ann Obringer

Marketing For the Deer-in-the-Headlights Crowd – by Dawn Rivers Baker

10 Tactics for Top-Notch Testimonials

Testimonials – the magical way to turn boasting into evangelism. Sure, they’re effective – and their use is hyped in every corner of marketing communications. But just how do you go about gathering them? Here are 10 ideas:

1. Have something worth talking about. Having a mediocre product that simply meets expectations encourages silence. People talk about something that is either 1) really awful or 2) really amazing. The closer you are to the middle, the less chatter you hear.

2. Put a feedback button on your website. Encourage your customers to send you their opinions – regardless of whether they’re “good” or “bad”. In truth, they’re all good.

3. Give to get. The networking organization BNI hypes the benefits of “givers gain”. And it’s true. Give colleagues a well-written testimonial and ask for one in return.

4. Use LinkedIn. Log in to your LinkedIn account and under the “Service Providers” tab at the top left click on “Request a Recommendation”.

5. Paraphrase & e-mail. When a client gives you a verbal testimonial, send a friendly e-mail thanking them for the conversation, paraphrasing what you heard and requesting permission to use their testimonial.

6. Give stories the spotlight. Weight Watchers encourages participants to submit success stories. Stories sell. Bragging bores.

7. Market research sweepstakes. Give respondents a prize for completing a survey about your company. Prizes encourage response rates.

8. Ask for specifics. When writing a survey, break down large, open-ended questions into bite-sized, directive questions which are more likely to receive a response.

9. Give credit. Did a great idea come from customer submitted feedback? Share the credit to entice readers to share their opinions.

10. Strength in numbers. When requesting testimonials, ask for quantitative data. For example, “After hiring Randy, my profit increased by 20%” or “Gina helped reduce my production time from 2 weeks to 3 days.”

Related Links

Fastread: How to Get Testimonials for Your Product by WorkatHomeChannel

How to Get Quality Testimonials by Mike Williams

5 Tips for Getting Freakin’ Awesome Testimonials by Brent Hodgson

10 Ways to Become a Writer (That Gets Paid)

If you’re looking to transition your love of writing from hobby to vocation, keep reading – this post is just for you.

1. Own Your Talent – You are a writer. No matter how listless and gray your cubicle is, or how many people tell you “that would never work”, your passion is the fuel that will drive your career. Whenever you are in doubt, say to yourself (out loud if possible) “I am a talented writer and am in the process of building my successful career.”

Action: Check out The Secret for an emotional jump start.

2. Pick a Niche – Trying to be everything to everyone makes you nothing to nobody. Instead of trying to be a Jill-of-all-trades, pick a passion and write about that. Do you want to be a travel writer? a food critic? a copywriter? a fashion writer? a business writer? a sports writer? Owning a niche also helps others connect you with employers more easily.

Action: Start a blog about something you’re passionate about and use it as part of your portfolio.

3. Will Write for __________. While I am not necessarily an advocate for giving your writing away (see below for pro bono work), writing for barter is an effective way to beef up your portfolio without feeling like you’ve sold out your talent. When I first started, I bartered with a nutritionist, a life coach and a couple other services so that I could get my career off the ground. (Disclaimer: there are specific tax implications for working on barter and I would suggest discussing them with your accountant.)

Action: Write a list of services that you’d use given the opportunity. Keep your eyes peeled. You never know when an opportunity will come your way.

4. Pack Your Portfolio. As a writer, your portfolio is one of the most important tools of your trade. Pack it with your best work, testimonials from clients and visuals. Organize it based on category. For example, mine is a red, leather-bound three ring binder (office store under $15) with tabs labeled: Testimonials, Direct Mail, Web Copy, Press Releases, Fliers, Advertisements, and Articles.

Action: Purchase a high quality portfolio and nice, heavy paper to print your writing.

5. A Testament to Testimonials. In addition to the testimonials in the front of my portfolio, I also have testimonials beside their respective project. It helps reinforce the success of a particular piece and is a major selling point for using my skills.

Action: Send out a request for testimonials to all of your clients. No clients? Try friends, teachers, or family.

6. Pro Bono Can Pay Off. Charities and non-profit organizations are constantly seeking volunteers. Offering your services to reputable organizations can help you make connections, bulk up your portfolio and give back to your community.

Action: Do a web search for organizations in your area. Contact two that you find interesting and inquire about opportunities to volunteer your writing.

7. Publish Yourself. With today’s technology, it’s easier than ever to market yourself. Capitalize on networks like LinkedIn, Facebook and Lulu.com. Submit articles to aggregate sites like work.com or about.com. And most importantly, have a blog and website to make your portfolio searchable.

Action: Set up an online portfolio using a simple web tool such as Yahoo! or GoDaddy.com

8. Make Business Cards. You are a writer, right? Then lend yourself some credibility with professional business cards. And don’t skimp on the quality. Nice, heavy stock paper with a clean design is an investment well worth the effort.

Action: Go to http://www.vistaprints.com and order business cards with your new title.

9. Designers Are Your New Best Friends. Want to get lots of clients quickly? Attend a networking function for graphic designers with your new handy-dandy business cards. Clients often go straight to a designer when they need work – seldom do they seek out a writer. And designers usually hate writing and will be glad to refer the writing portion of the job to you.

Action: Find an area networking event geared to graphic designers. Attend, shake hands and make friends.

10. Stop Whining. Start Writing. Quit complaining that you could be something more. If you want to be a writer – write! Every day. No exceptions. Becoming a great writer takes hard work and dedication. Don’t waste your talent.

Action: Write something every day. No exceptions.

Related Links

A Few Words on Laziness and Responsibility by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Do You Call Yourself a Professional Writer? by Laura Spencer

How to Be a Professional Writer by L.C. Peterson

Becoming a Writer Seriously by Thomas Colvin

How Do You Become a Writer by Amanda Eyre Ward