Crowdsourcing has picked up a lot of good press over the last few years. Entrepreneurs can now raise cash for projects through Kickstarter. Philanthropists and volunteers can collect funds on platforms like IndieGoGo. Researchers and developers can build cheap, large-scale workforces through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. They follow the work of organizations like SETI which for years have been making use of thousands of idle computers to sort through massive amounts of data. For a long time, it’s seemed as though the power of the crowd could do lots of good and never any wrong. The reaction to the Boston bombing, though, has shown what can happen when an online crowd becomes a connected mob — and raises important questions about how even freelancers and small entrepreneurs should be using networks to build their businesses.
What Went Wrong?
Following the bombing Reddit’s users took upon themselves the task of sorting through the hours of video footage showing the crowd at the Boston marathon. Thousands of eyeballs, they believed, would be able to help the police look for suspicious behavior among the crowds in the stands. Having isolated individuals who appeared to be up to no good, the community’s tech-savvy members could then get to work on identifying them. They would also be able to scour the local news, Facebook pages and forums for information about people who could have been involved.
Social media is usually treated as a marketing tool, a way to build a relationship with a market, maintain that relationship and make sure that it’s ready when we’ve got a product to sell. We use it to make sales, and we want to be sure that whether we’re pitching watercolor paintings or computer programming the time we invest in writing tweets and uploading photos to Facebook are hours that deliver a return. Otherwise, what’s the point? No one understands better than freelancers and small business owners that every hour has a price and that time spent on activities that don’t deliver a measurable return is time spent not earning.
But there’s more than one way of measuring the return on social media activity and more than one goal for a professional social media account. Sales delivered through social media are nice but they’re not the only reason to tweet, post and upload to Instagram.
Those multiple benefits are already known to large corporations. Raytheon, for example, is an aerospace and defense company that sells rockets and radar systems to government buyers. Nothing the firm writes on its Facebook page or its Twitter timelines is going to affect the chances that it will win a contract from the Department of Defense for a new air-to-ground missile system. Those sorts of decisions are influenced by prices and jobs, delivery schedules and capabilities, not sharp photography uploaded to a social media page.
When I started freelancing a dozen years ago, it was meant to be a stopgap. The Web company I’d been working for had popped with the Internet bubble and freelancing seemed to be a good way to keep some revenue rolling in while I looked for my next job. I’d seen Elance open on a friend’s computer, joined and within a week had landed my first job. I picked up a second job a couple of days later and haven’t looked back since. I still work for that second client and my client base is now solid enough for me not to have to pitch for jobs or bid on projects. Work comes to me and the ten bucks a month I pay to Elance now functions as a kind of unemployment insurance, keeping my reviews, my ratings and my profile up to date just in case I need it. It’s been a long time since I have needed it.
Freelancing turned out to be my next job.
I have learned a few things over the last dozen years or so. These are the most important things I’ve picked up:
You’d expect to see creative agencies using Twitter to promote their clients. Even seven years after its launch, the platform retains a certain cachet. As Facebook saturates and stalls and Pinterest struggles to get past its audience of shopping-addicted women, Twitter has managed to hold on to and grow its audience of mostly urban microbloggers. Its market of 200 million and the challenge of cramming a message into just 140 characters give Twitter a strong appeal among the creative types who get the fun of being brief, witty and connected to other brief, witty types.
It’s no surprise then that plenty of companies have come up with creative campaigns on Twitter to promote themselves — or their clients. Simply Zesty, a UK digital agency, produced a list of five of the most “brilliantly creative campaigns that used Twitter” in 2012. They included Ben and Jerry’s promotion of Fair Trade Day for which the firm built an app that used leftover characters in tweets to push a fair trade message; a drinks company in South Africa that created a tweet-operated vending machine that turned every purchase into a public announcement; and a commercial for Mercedes Benz that let Twitter users choose the plot of an unraveling story.
And yet, while Twitter has provided plenty of creative campaigns for big brands, it’s rare to find creatives marketing themselves on the platform — which is why a new idea from Floyd Hayes, the former creative director of “specialized guerrilla and non-traditional advertising agency,” Cunning, has attracted so much attention.
Bad clients are easy to describe. We’ve all had them and in more than twelve years of freelancing I’ve had my fair share. I’ve had clients who paid late or didn’t pay at all; who demanded additions to projects but were surprised to see the days added to the bill; who said they wanted one thing until I delivered it when they realized they actually wanted something completely different; and who imposed impossible deadlines forcing me to work nights and weekends then sat on the finished work until it was out of date. Clients like these turn up in a freelancer’s career but they don’t turn up as often you might expect and they pass quickly. Most clients, like most freelancers, are reliable and professional. They know roughly what they need, they pay for the work and they’re grateful for the skills and talent you can bring to their project. Clients like those are easy to find.
Perfect clients though aren’t just harder to find; they’re also much harder to describe. That they should pay the bills on time and without argument is a given. That they should make your efforts feel appreciated and important would be a part of it. That you can rely on them to deliver work on a regular basis so that you can count on their income to the same degree that they need your deliverables is important too. Freelance life is unstable; a client with regular demands goes a long way towards stabilizing a schedule.
The (Almost) Perfect Client
When it comes to freelancers carrying their laptops to cafes and turning coffee bars into offices, the rules are relatively clear. They’re a mixture of common sense and consideration with a big tip to the wait staff thrown in. Break the rules and the worst thing that will happen is that you have to find a different café or spend more time working from home. For telecommuters, though, the rules are a great deal tougher. Human resource departments, especially in government organizations, tend to pour out detailed eligibility requirements before they allow employees to set up a cubicle in their bedroom. Their suspicion of this new way of working makes the risks higher even as the practice becomes more popular; get the rules wrong and you could find your telecommuting privileges revoked and your job pulled back into the office.
Here are the rules to follow if you want to retain your opportunity to work in your pajamas:
1. Don’t Work in Your Pajamas
I finally did it. In fact, I did it twice. Not only did I trade up to a smartphone at last, but I betrayed Apple and bought an Android device. In terms of productivity, it looks like I made a good choice.
The enhancements from my old dumbphone are clear enough. Texting is easier with a real keyboard; Bluetooth means that I can talk while I drive to the offices of local freelance clients; being able to listen to audiobooks and podcasts in the car, neither of which I could do on my dumbphone, turn time on the road into valuable learning time.
I could have done all that with an iPhone, of course, and sticking with Apple was tempting. When I’m not in front of my PC, I’ve usually got my face stuck in front of my iPad. Part of the reason for buying a smartphone was to replace my first generation iPod Touch, bought as soon as Apple announced it was getting into the touchscreen business. I’ve grown used to carrying it around for the last five years but I haven’t been able to upgrade it since iOS 3.1, the earphone socket doesn’t work (the first generation shipped without a speaker), it’s painfully slow and the irreplaceable battery now dies before the end of the day. Had I swapped it for an iPhone, I would have had access to all of the apps I’ve bought and downloaded since the day the App Store opened. Sharing from my iPad to the iPhone would have been a breeze: all of the documents stored on iCloud would have been instantly accessible on the iPhone. And the OS would have been familiar and supported by the largest selection of apps available in the mobile market. Developers generally develop for iOS first, then think about adapting to Android. If a productivity app is available, it’s available on the iPhone.
Back in July 2012, Rory Cellan-Jones created a Facebook page for “VirtualBagel Ltd.,” a company selling downloadable bagels. The page contained a small amount of basic information, a picture of a bagel and a description of a dream of delivering virtual bagels across the Internet to a Web full of virtual eaters. He then created a Facebook ad with a budget of $10 targeted to people aged under 45 interested in cookery and consumer electronics, and living in the United States, the UK, Russia, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, an audience of around 112 million customers. Twenty-four hours later, his $10 was gone and his page had picked up 1,600 likes — an instant community.
It’s a story that should show the power of Facebook and its main product. With just ten bucks any business, even one completely new to Facebook, can use Facebook ads to build a big audience in no more than a day.
Except that it didn’t work.
In December, 2012, more than 14 million people tuned into NBC to watch a show about mentors. Four professional singers competed to attract a team of hopeful stars and train them up to see who would become the best of the bunch. The Voice, based on a Dutch television show, has been a huge success, the format spreading around the world and creating dream careers for winners Javier Colon, Jermaine Paul and Cassadee Pope. But the show hasn’t just been good for the student singers and entertaining for viewers. It’s also delivered a powerful demonstration of the benefits of mentoring — of learning how to perform tasks under the guidance of someone who already who knows how to complete them well.
It’s a method that’s not new, of course, nor is it limited to rising performers. Tennis player Andy Murray’s first Grand Slam title at last year’s US Open has often been put down to his decision to hire former world number one Ivan Lendl as his new coach. And even when he was the best golfer in the world, Tiger Woods worked alongside a trainer and now takes instruction twice a week in the off-season from Sean Foley, a golf coach who places a strong emphasis on biomechanics and physics. If the best in the world can see the benefit of learning from people who haven’t even reached their heights of success, then surely entrepreneurs, freelancers and anyone hoping to achieve a goal should be looking for a mentor.
Image courtesy: Friends Coffee House
I use a couple of cafés for freelance work. Both are within a ten-minute bike ride of where I live. Both have seats, tables, coffee and wifi access… and that’s about where the similarities end. One café is on a busy commercial street. It’s mostly empty when I arrive first thing in the morning so there’s always an electricity outlet available. But it doesn’t sell the filter coffee I like so I’m usually done drinking my double espresso ten minutes into my two-hour stay and have to put up with looks from waitresses wondering when I’m going to leave. The rock music the barista plays is irritatingly loud and the only reason it always falls to me to ask him to turn it down is that most of the other patrons are old enough to have trouble hearing. It’s a convenient place to go when I have chores to run but it’s a terrible place to work.
The other café sits opposite a park at the bottom of large office building that houses law firms, a health services company and a local outlet of RedHat. It sells good coffee but at nearly $4 a cup, it’s not cheap. It only has four electricity outlets against one wall and three more in one socket next to the bathrooms so there’s a good chance I’ll be working on battery power. The layout, with a long bar and glass dividers, feels more like an airport waiting room than a relaxing drinking hole but the music is soft enough not to notice and there’s always plenty of people writing Linux on laptops or holding meetings at tables to make me feel like I’m working not hiding in a coffee joint.
The Five Whys and the Drill Down Technique are two methods to identify and understand the root causes of problems that hold up a growing business. Both have the advantage of being simple and easy to use. Neither will require you to spend time drawing complex diagrams or remembering counter-intuitive strategies. (You won’t need a stack of folders or a willingness to follow David Allen, for example.) That simplicity though, masks weaknesses. Used alone, the Five Whys can create results that are too disorganized to point usefully to solutions and may suggest false trails. The Drill Down Technique helps to lay out the causes of problems clearly so that issues can be addressed but it doesn’t always help to uncover those causes.
Used together, however, the two methods can both identify the causes of problems and plan a path for their resolution. Here’s how it works:
Principles of the Five Whys
You could draw up a long list of all of the lessons for success that Steve Jobs has passed on to the world around him. His talent for public speaking turned product launch press conferences into international shows watched by hundreds of thousands of people online. It’s impossible now to imagine the launch of a major tech product that doesn’t involve a large auditorium, a casually-dressed CEO and a backdrop of giant screens. His attention to detail is legendary. The stories of him tossing an early iPod prototype into a fish tank and pointing out the bubbles to prove that there was still space under the hood that could be squeezed out may or may not be apocryphal (and is still slightly nuts) but it’s an inspiration to other managers wondering just how hard they can push their staff. But there’s one lesson that really stands out and it dominates Steve Jobs’ career, from his early partnership with Steve Wozniak to the launch of the iPad: his creativity.
It was unique in Silicon Valley. It powered Apple’s rise, then Pixar’s rise then Apple’s return as the most valuable company in the world. And it’s the lesson which has most influenced me — and which should most influence you too.
Know Your Talent, Not Stuff
That old saying about finding a job you love so that you’ll never have to work another day in your life just isn’t true. You will have to work even when you’re doing something you love, and the work you do will be hard and the hours will be long. But for the most part, when you’re following your passion, those hours will be far more enjoyable, far more rewarding and much more satisfying than the sort of labor you do for someone else’s firm or when you’re completing projects that don’t make you excited.
And it’s possible.
Internet marketing, supportive online communities, fundraising ventures and long-distance payment systems now mean that anyone with a creative spirit, a sense of entrepreneurialism, a willingness to learn, the determination to succeed and an activity they love doing can turn their passion into a business.
For many entrepreneurs, a new business starts with a trip to the bank. They either present their business plan to the loan manager at their local branch and hope for a line of credit or they head to the Bank of Mom and Dad to ask for an advance on their inheritance. But banks these days are holding onto their cash and not all parents are able to write a check to finance all of their children’s business ideas. If venture capitalists and angel investors aren’t willing to fill the gap, you still have options.
Here are five you’ve never considered.
Talk to a Pawnbroker
From its website, Stormy Studio looks every part a professional digital production company. The website is beautifully designed, the portfolio is impressive and the announcement of a prestigious award run by the company’s founder, Jon Draper, is enough to give any potential client the confidence to pick up the phone and discuss a project. But a clue to the way the company actually works lies in its description of a “local and world wide team” who can assure “quality, speed and competitive costs.” The business is part-time and run from Draper’s home as he works a full-time job at an animation studio. His employees are himself and his wife and that “local and world wide team”? A freelance graphic designer, music composer, photographer, 3D modeler/animator, and a mobile developer scattered around the world and ready to take on work as it comes in. Stormy Studio is a company based on outsourcing. But while outsourcing is helping Jon Draper achieve his goal of running his own full-time production company, it’s not a solution for everyone at every time.
One problem, although perhaps not the biggest, is the cost. Sharing the work also means sharing the revenue so that winning a job worth, say $5,000, may result in less than a thousand flowing to the company if most of the work is outsourced. When that revenue minus outsourcing fees is earned without effort, outsourcing looks like a good deal, an opportunity to make a profit while allowing others to do the work.
From a Specialist to a Manager
There’s no easy way to make money doing the things you love. Whether you’re into photography or painting, ball games or biking, you’re going to find plenty of competition for the money that people are willing to spend on that activity. But earning money from a passion isn’t a zero-sum game, and not all competition is equal. Only a small number of the people who enjoy taking pictures, for example, take pictures that are sellable. Only a small number of those people will even try to sell them — and an even smaller number will know how to sell them.
Combine your talent and expertise with knowledge of the right sales channels for your works and you can make money doing something you currently do for fun. It might not be anything like as hard as you think.
Working in cafes might be one of the biggest advantages of freelancing but your choice of “coffice” will have a dramatic effect on your ability to get work done. Even Starbucks varies from site to site with different locations attracting different types of people, building a different atmosphere and influencing your mood and the speed with which you work. When companies like Google and Apple put so much thought into designing office space that enhances creativity and maximizes productivity, it pays not just to know your local coffee places but to understand which work you should be doing in which Java bar workspace.
The first thing you should be considering is the simplest: electrical outlets. Older cafes especially can have relatively few of these but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should give them a wide berth. It just means that you’re going to have to get your work done before the battery in your laptop calls it a day.
If you know that a café is short on electricity, you’re going to be sprinting. Depending on your machine and its age, you could have as little as two or three hours before your computer shuts itself down. That might be only as long as you wanted to stay anyway but knowing that lingering could shut your computer down in mid-flow will help to keep you focused on the job and your eyes on the screen.
The problems with all of the productivity systems that friends recommend, experts sell and self-help guides suggest is that they take so long to understand and implement that by the time you’ve finished putting them all in place, you could have shot a viral video, redesigned your website and written The Great American Novel. They take more time than they save. There are, though, a few little tweaks that you can make to your workday that will save you bags of time and massively boost your productivity.
Streamline Your Gmail