Cafe Witness

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Call for Help: The John Herman Request

John Herman is a great social media innovator in New Hampshire. I met (and was wowed by) him at the original PodCamp Boston. He emailed his friends today with a (fun) call for help.

He and his wife, Danielle, are finalists in a contest to win some rockin' home improvements. As his email states:

This summer my wife and I endeavored to win a contest to celebrate the
buying of our first home. We entered a video on a whim, but it looks like we truly have a chance to win the grand prize.

I don't ask for much, but I think it would be amazing if my wife and I won this contest just as we moved into our new home. (For those keeping score, my wife and I will have moved three times this summer. Most of my projects were put on hold since much of our time was spent without a proper stove and refrigerator - but with the addition of intruder squirrels. Our journey will be over in a few weeks. Just think how much sweeter it would be if we won?!

Clicking the link above (or this one) will take you directly to the page for John & Danielle's video. Watch it, then vote for it by clicking the number (1 to 5) below the video dial (hopefully 5!) -- only one vote per computer.

If he wins, maybe he'll invite us all over!

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Monday, July 30, 2007

The Power of the People?

I'm a big believer in the power of the individual. But magazines and websites that generate endless lists of the "movers and shakers" in technology, politics, the arts, etc., are glorifying the individual at the expense of the other side of the equation: no individual can effect change without motivating communities.

Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise were once top box office forces. Then they behaved in ways that caused the masses to scratch their heads (or worse), and they saw their power erode. An individual is only as powerful as his or her ability to motivate others.

Seeing as we're in the middle of the Web 2.0 lifecycle, where's the list of the most powerful communities online? Is Digg's userbase really more powerful than Newsvine's? Does Facebook have more clout than MySpace?

How do you quantify that power?

And, what about this tricky variable: is a community more or less powerful when taking into account the exact individuals that community holds sway over? I.E., does being a Digg user automatically give you a louder voice because you have a marginal influence over Kevin Rose, rather than a more anonymous site creator?

What are your thoughts?

Also, here's hoping this concept gets picked up by someone whose community is more powerful than mine. ;)

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Fishbowls and Treehouses

Quick: who's your audience?

Most of us know who our TARGET audience is. We know who we're EXPECTING to interact with our product / service / message ("PSM"). We may even have demographics that PROVE whom our audience actually IS...

What we're forgetting is everyone ELSE who may stumble across our PSM by accident... or through the back door... or on referral... or any of a million ways we didn't plan for.

Does your PSM "work" for the people OUTSIDE the fishbowl?

Even The Pros Get It Wrong

To wit, the photo above. How many of you noticed that "Vanilla" is misspelled on the Glade packaging? Apparently, no one at Glade did, either...*

Odds are, no one at Glade lost their job over that gaffe. The people who already buy Glade vanilla spray know what the canister looks like. They don't even stop to read the label.

But what about potential new users? Will they be dubious of a product from an industry leader who can't even spell the product's name right?

Industrial Shorthand

At my old job, I edited industrial safety videos. Due to time constraints, these videos are pumped out quickly, which means it's vital to get the information across as CLEARLY and QUICKLY (in regard to production time) as possible.

While on a recent visit to the old office, I realized just how UNCLEAR some of the information in these videos would be to anyone without a working foreknowledge of the subject covered.

With a few extra graphics, more explanatory video clips and some clarification of the actual script -- all very small investments in actual production time -- that video would be FAR more valuable as a learning tool.

But why make those changes? After all, their target audience is already paying for them as-is.

A Ladder to the Treehouse

Very often, we as creators of social media -- whether we're writing text, making graphics, shooting video or communicating in general -- make presumptions about our audience.

If we're proactive, we assume they know at least as much about our subject as we do.

If we're cynical, we presume the general public doesn't CARE about our subject as much as we do.

And if we're ignorant, we presume our audience will stick with us even when we sell them short, take them for granted or deliver less than our best.

In all cases, we don't take the trouble to make our conversations accessible beyond the immediate, expected audience -- our personal fishbowl.

We might therefore blame the audience when they can't follow our line of thinking. We might accuse them of being lazy, or having short attention spans, or simply bad taste.

What we're losing sight of is that our audience, by and large, WANTS to like what we do. People who stumble across us WANT to be entertained, WANT to be informed, WANT to be pleasantly surprised. If all we do is reinforce THEIR presumption -- that we're of a treehouse mentality, uninterested in admitting them because they're "not as cool" -- then we certainly can't complain when they don't take an interest in what we do... or tell their friends... or subscribe to our RSS feeds... or pay our bills.

Granted, your existing audience may love what you do despite -- or even BECAUSE OF -- the fishbowl you've created. But for everyone who blindly follows your lead because they've become complacent in your fishbowl, there's another person who actually knows how to spell "vanilla" -- and they'll do business with someone else who bothers to do the same.

* UPDATE: As has been mentioned to me off-blog, "vainilla" is a Spanish spelling of "vanilla," and "spray" translates bilingually as well. Fair enough. But, by that rationale, if "spray" translates bilingually, why doesn't "vanilla"?... Someone find me a bilingual French canister that says "chocolat spray," please...

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

FilmCrave: A Question About Social Media Userbases

FilmCrave is a new film-based social networking site. By "new," I mean it looks like it's only been up for a week or so, judging by the number of users and film ratings involved.

But I'm addicted to it. Here's why:

1. I Love Film

And when you love film, you also love to talk about film with other film-lovers, and find new films you might enjoy. (You also feel obliged to defend your favorite films from the slings and arrows of others.)

All of which means I, as a film lover, am going to spend copious amounts of free time on a site that allows me to customize my film-loving experience.

The IMDb is a great encyclopedic resource, but it leaves a LOT to be desired in the social networking / semantic web side of the equation.

YMDb is essentially the tip of the film-based social media iceberg.

Flixster is a big, slick, well-designed social site built around film, but despite using it extensively for all of one day, I've never felt the need to go back to it. It failed to generate an emotional response in me, much less any kind of brand loyalty.

For now, FilmCrave has my attention.

2. Points Systems

Every time you rate a film on FilmCrave, you earn a point. If you write a short film review (240 characters or less), you earn 3 points. Long film review (over 240 characters)? 5 points.

The more points you have, the higher your status on the site and the more bells and whistles you can unlock. Right now, the only difference between user levels is how many films you can have listed in your Top Movie List -- 25 movies at entry level (or "Aspiring Actor," as it's called), all the way up to 50 movies at "Director" level (of 500 points). But, presumably, more features will be added as the site grows.

In the meantime, who doesn't love earning points?

3. Ground Floor Adoption

Admittedly, the newness of the site may have a lot to do with its appeal. It's great to find something that can only get better over time, while still offering enough value to keep my attention in the short term.

In addition, there's a peculiar sub-reason why finding the site so early in its lifecycle is compelling: at this stage, every vote REALLY counts.

This actually bridges into a second topic related to FilmCrave in general, and social networking in particular:

A Social Network Is Only as Useful as Its Median Average User

There's a reason Facebook is perceived as the high ground of social networking sites, whereas MySpace is ridiculed as the intellectual ghetto: Facebook was built for Ivy League college students first. The rules and culture that evolved there were directed by high-end users.

Meanwhile, MySpace is a wild west mentality that rewards brash individuality, not intelligent discourse.

I mention this because FilmCrave is an example of a topic-based social network (in this case, movies) that can very well become a victim of its own popularity among specific subsections of its own population.

Right now, the bulk of the users appear to be young, populist filmgoers. Because of the small member base -- likely only a few degrees of separation from 24-year-old creator Alex Olson -- a predilection for specific types of movies (specifically '80s films and action films) is understandable.

But let's compare FilmCrave with the IMDb for a moment and see where the differences in userbase lie.

The top-rated films on FilmCrave (as I write this) are:

1. Fight Club (1999)
2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
3. The Matrix (1999)
4. Pulp Fiction (1994)
5. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
6. Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
7. Se7en (1995)
8. Memento (2001)
9. Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981)
10. The Godfather (1972)

Meanwhile, the top-rated films at the IMDb are:

1. The Godfather (1972)
2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
3. The Godfather: Part II (1974)
4. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)
5. Pulp Fiction (1994)
6. Schindler's List (1993)
7. Casablanca (1942)
8. Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
9. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
10. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

# of films in BOTH Top 10s? Four (Shawshank, Pulp Fiction, Empire and Godfather)

# of films in the FilmCrave Top 10 older than 1980? One (The Godfather, 1972)
# of films in the FilmCrave Top 100 older than 1980? 35
# of films in the FilmCrave Top 100 that are foreign? 2

# of films in the IMDb Top 10 older than 1980? Five
# of films in the IMDb Top 100 older than 1980? 51
# of films in the IMDb Top 100 that are foreign? 13

As you can see, the FilmCrave userbase trends both younger and less cosmopolitan than the IMDb userbase -- no great surprises there, given its starting point.

What will determine the end value of FilmCrave is how well (and, honestly, whether) the site is interested in attracting film lovers of all stripes.

Thus, in the interest of helping FilmCrave (and ALL social media sites) open its doors as wide as possible -- should it choose to do so -- I offer:

5 Tips for Creating Inclusive Social Sites

1. Let the Users Build the Site

I'm a fan of foreign films and classic films. Some of my favorite films -- especially the foreign titles -- aren't even listed in the FilmCrave database. What I need is a way to add films to the database so they can be fairly represented as choices for other users.

There's a reason recent American films will receive disproportionately high ratings compared to foreign films or classics -- they simply aren't there. Allowing the users to include new films in the database -- perhaps in tandem with IMDb, Netflix, etc. -- would remove the onus of hand-selecting the films (and potentially alienating some users, due to neglect) from Alex and his fellow coders and empower the users to build the site in all directions.

(Speaking of which, allowing users to create their own Top X Lists, using any criteria -- Top 10 Canadian Films, Top 10 Michael Caine Films, Top 10 Films Starring a Washed-Up TV Celebrity -- would be a nice touch.)

2. Be Aware of Language Barriers

You can tell a site has been coded by someone under the age of 30 when a half-star rating is explained in the alt-text as "This movie sucked donkey balls"... Establishes the devil-may-care attitude of the creators? Sure. Invites intelligent discourse on WHY some films are better than others? Not so much...

3. Be Open to Conflicting Opinions

Watching one episode of On the Lot should be enough to make anyone fear for the future of our American film industry. But it's obviously not an isolated problem, as Alex's own reviews of the following films depict:

Lost in Translation: "Hmmm. Why is this good or even interesting? I guess maybe people look at some movies and try and relate the characters while I look at movies to look up to characters. I couldn't do either in this one. It is bad, but not recommended."

Singin' in the Rain: "Beautiful and entertaining at times, but some times I was let down so much that I decided I didn't like it. Maybe further views can help out this film, but I am afraid it is dated?"

Amelie: "I do not understand this film. To me it was boring and a little bit romantic. There were a few scenes that were ok."

I'm not trying to paint Alex as a film snob's pariah -- he's as entitled to his opinions as anyone else. What I'm interested in is in seeing how scalable a venture FilmCrave will be when it's being created by someone whose opinions and evaluations of films seem to be borne from such a narrow-minded point of view -- not just in regard to film, but in regard to other people in general.

Granted, it's up to fans of these films (and others) to vote for them and explain their merits in OTHER reviews -- which is precisely the reason the site works. And I wouldn't be a bit surprised to find out Alex is purposely "gaming" his own system by writing purposely incendiary slams on popular films. But still... it makes one wonder about the bigger picture.

4. Realize Not All Users Are American

Like many sites, FilmCrave allows users to list their hometowns and current cities -- but they're all presumed to be living in America. There's no field for anyone living outside the USA. (No wonder there are so few foreign films in the database...)

5. Make Information Exchange as Easy as Possible

To rate a film on FilmCrave, I can either search for it in the search bar, locate it on someone else's ratings list, or... yep, that's it. I can't search by director, actor, genre, plot, location, keywords, year, etc.

The easier it is to find what I want to talk about, the more talking I'll do. If you want your users to talk, give them 80 ways to reach their goal, not one.


I realize I'm being presumptuous by offering FilmCrave (or anyone else) this list. What I'm presuming is that they'd like as wide a userbase as possible, as opposed to one that drills deeply (i.e., primarily American '80s & action film lovers).

It's my suspicion that no one creates something that's open to the public without wanting to include ALL of the public... it's just that, sometimes, we forget there's a larger component to the public than just our own point of view.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

5 Ways Twitter Changes PR

If you haven't heard, Twitter is disrupting email, blogging and all other forms of traditional information exchange?


Immediacy AND personality.

Thus, if you have a message / product / experience to share, keep in mind these 5 Ways Twitter Changes PR:

1. The (Immediately Actionable) Trusted Referrals of Friends

As Mobasoft's Michael Bailey twittered yesterday:

My personal habit of Twitter link click-thru is probably 90% - on other web-sites it's more like 2%. Links from people I follow rank higher.

But here's the catch: Michael (like most of us) isn't clicking through links his Twitter friends are sharing because their ad copy is compelling, or because their logo or ad campaign were designed by a major PR player -- he's clicking through because of POSITIVE WORD OF MOUTH... which the destinations behind those links have NO (direct) control over.

2. The Power of @

Twitter is designed to enable conversations. To respond to someone else's tweet, a user addresses the original speaker by placing an "@" in front of the speaker's twitter handle -- for example, @mobasoft -- followed by their response.

Thanks to Twitter's design, including that @ symbol makes the speaker's Twitter handle a clickable link, leading any other curious users back to the speaker's Twitter profile. There, a user can see all of the speaker's recent tweets. This is useful for discerning what comment may have led to the response in question, but it's also allows a casual observer to see a snapshot of exactly what the speaker is all about.

The more interesting YOU are on Twitter, and the more conversations you can instigate through compelling questions / comments, the more inbound opportunities innocent bystanders will have to stumble across who YOU are and what YOU'RE all about.

3. Brevity is King

Every update (or "tweet") a Twitter user posts is limited 140 characters. This forces EVERYONE to think like a copywriter: how can you be descriptive, witty AND compelling within the constraints of the 140 character limit?

Twitter is teaching a whole generation the basics of Strunk & White's Elements of Style, entirely by accident. Good twitterers (tweeters?) quickly realize that adjectives, adverbs and adjunct clauses are expendable. What matters is the MEAT of the tweet.

4. Your Responses Matter as Much as the Questions

The more Twitter contacts you have, the faster the tweets scroll up your page. Blink and you'll miss something.

But the more interesting a question or comment, the more likely people will continue talking about it. This keeps the original link or "thread" alive long enough for you to stumble across it in its third or fourth iteration (if you missed it the first time around).

Thus, the longer a subject is "bumped" up the tweetstream, the more likely it is to be seen by not only its intended audience (the speaker's), but by others as well (every responder's, who may not have been on the original speaker's list). But what keeps a subject "alive"?

Part of it is the nature of the subject / comment / question in the first place -- and part of it is how compelling YOUR response is. I can't tell you how many tweets I've clicked through based solely upon a somewhat cryptic, emotionally charged or patently hysterical response to someone ELSE'S original tweet. Because the responder did such a great job at creating a compelling response, I became engaged in conversations I would otherwise never have followed -- and learned information I would have completely missed out on.

5. Twitter Is Not a Laundry List

Very often, I receive notifications that "so-and-so" is following me on Twitter. I'll then click through their name to see who they are. If they're interesting, I may "follow" them back, because I like a good conversation. By clicking on their name, I can see all their recent tweets and decide for myself whether I think their sum total of twit-friendly conversations is interesting enough for me to want to keep an eye on.

On the other hand, I'll sometimes click through and find that "so-and-so" is actually just an automated RSS feed, or an aggregator, or a PR stunt by some clueless company -- and I'll ignore them.

Why? Because I'm not on Twitter to be spammed -- I'm here to have interesting, bite-sized conversations. And a laundry list of your blog posts is not a conversation.

Open letter to companies intending to assign an employee to "seed" company information on Twitter: please enable that person to actually BE a person. Encourage him or her to post tweets about the job, the office, or what was interesting on YouTube during today's lunch break. Their JOB might be to promote the company, but the WAY to promote the company involves adapting the message to the medium.

On Twitter, if you're not a human being -- with opinions, flaws and friends -- you don't stand a chance.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Pittsburgh Photographers, Assemble!

If you're a Pittsburgh-based photographer, photo lover, or just looking for a place to unwind on July 28, Creative Treehouse is hosting an event called Capture Pittsburgh. It's a low-key gallery show of Pittsburgh-related photos, along with live music, food and drink (BYOB if 21+). The event runs from 6 PM - Midnight. Click the pic for a full-size explanation of the festivities.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Value of Keeping Your Word

Like most humans, I need to use the restroom on occasion. When I'm working from a cafe, that's always a hassle because there are very few cafes in this city where I feel comfortable leaving my laptop / phone / notebook, etc., laying about untended. (It's no indictment of the character of Pittsburghers -- I wouldn't want to leave my equipment laying out ANYWHERE.)

Today, I took a flyer. The guy sitting next to me at the 61C was working just as diligently as I was, so I asked him, "Are you going to be here for two seconds?"

"A little more than that," he said.

So I got up to use the restroom, with the implied contract that he would keep an eye on my stuff.

A few minutes later, I come back to find him fully packed up and ready to leave. Apparently, by "a little more" than two seconds, he meant three. But he was standing by my table, keeping watch (and his word), until I got back. I thanked him and he took off.

Mind you, I don't know this guy. He doesn't know me. We're just two guys working on laptops in a cafe. But because he accepted my request to watch my stuff, he stuck to it, even when he could have gotten up and left -- or taken my stuff with him.

Think about that the next time you promise something to a client, a friend or a stranger -- what is YOUR word worth?

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

5 Tips for Streamlining Workflow

Like most human beings, I'm perpetually overwhelmed with hundreds of duties from my dozens of jobs, hobbies and obligations. Between a weekly web video series, freelance videography / audio / writing / consulting, and being a co-organizer of PodCamp Pittsburgh 2, it seems my to-do list is forever expanding.

Meanwhile, I have a wonderful relationship, friends and family to spend time with, plus my own interests, which I'm always trying to find space to squeeze in during the day -- often at the peril of productivity.

How do I juggle it all? Not extremely well, I'm afraid. But I have learned a few ways to save myself the occasional headache and, when I'm lucky, steal some well-earned relaxation time as well.

1. Delegate!

The biggest problem I have with delegation is being able to communicate the basics of a duty clearly and quickly enough that, by doing so, it doesn't actually take longer than it would if I simply did the duty myself. That, and I'm a control freak.

But I realized (fairly recently) that I can't do EVERYTHING, and when I try to, most of it gets done at half-strength because I'm dragging myself across the finish line.

Instead, I've found a few capable assistants whom I can rely on to accomplish the simple or time-consuming tasks that I don't HAVE to 100% do myself. Chief among these: information gathering and sorting, database management, recurring promotions, and test-driving new sites / applications / software.

2. Keep All Your To-Dos in the Same Text File

I admire David Allan's Getting Things Done, but I've decided to simplify my life even more: I now keep everything I need to do in one text file, perpetually open on my desktop. I list all tasks, day by day, as well as "floating" tasks and other miscellanea, "in case I get time"...

If I have a complex, multi-faceted task, I'll list all obvious actionable parts of it, indented, beneath the task's title. This helps me keep track of the steps in the project. If I delegate something to someone else, or I send an advance email about something, I italicize it (to indicate it's in action but out of my hands, for now) and move it to a follow-up date on my text file.

Some might find this approach decidedly luddite, especially when there are so many killer web apps being designed to make the entire process look and feel 1000 times trendier. But by the time I figure out how to use most of them, I could have crossed another 5 tasks off my text file...

3. Turn Routine Maintenance into Playtime

One of the most un-sexy duties in computerdom is backing off completed files. My hard drives are routinely littered with long-finished projects I simply haven't had time to clear off. So I've begun making that maintenance a priority -- because when I'm burning a DVD, I can't do anything else with my machine. This frees me to read, or exercise, or play my timeworn copy of NBA Live 2004. (Yes, I'm old school.)

4. Fridays Are for Loose Ends and Future Plans

After lunch on Fridays, motivation is universally low. Instead of working half-assedly through an existing project, I use that time to:

- plow through any loose end emails I've been putting off
- clean off the crap that's accumulated on my desktop
- revisit some of the dozens of websites I've bookmarked during the week (thanks, Mashable) to see if they require further investigation / integration

I also look ahead to next week and see what my major deadlines / projects are. Is there anything I can do to prep? Advance emails I can send? What's my expected worfklow? Being able to start from "go" on Monday, as opposed to spending precious "action" hours figuring everything out, is invaluable.

5. Insist on Keeping Weekends Free

I've been doing this for over a month now and, with one exception (traveling to Israel for Blogference), I've been able to maintain a stringent refusal to work (much) on weekends. I still check email (sometimes), and I still do emergency fixes to existing projects (when required). But otherwise, I spend a LOT of time hanging out with friends... or family... or running errands... or reading...

I find that knowing I'm enforcing this "time out" with myself makes me actually work harder during the week to get everything done. The last thing I want to do is wake up on Monday and deal with a half-finished project I should have wrapped up on Friday.

These are my tips, forever in flux and always open for debate. What are yours?

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007


I just had a surreal moment in which I had to switch among my three (count 'em -- three) Twitter accounts to add new friends. This involved hopping between:

My personal account

The STBD account, and

The brand new PodCamp Pittsburgh account.

While in these accounts, I realized they weren't all "friends" with each other, so I added them (aka myself) as friends with one another (aka also myself).

I was then bombarded with half a dozen emails informing me that I was now friends with myself... over and over...

If I keep this up, I'll need to break out my hardcover Dungeonmaster manual (circa 1986) and curl up for a night of private reading...

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5 Tips for Working with Freelancers (from a Freelancer)

Yesterday, I mentioned 5 tips for freelancers, based upon my ongoing learning curve as a freelance videographer / writer / jack of all trades.

Now I'd like to address the other side of the conversation: tips for companies on how they can work better with freelancers. Again, these tips are based upon my own experiences, as well as the success (and horror) stories of my colleagues. They're intended to help the freelance process run more smoothly for all parties involved, not to ruffle anyone's feathers in particular.

1. Pay Promptly

Freelance is by no means a secure career, which means the contractors you've hired are budgeting according to their expected deadlines and pay dates. By and large, freelancers don't have much rubber room in their bank accounts. If one client is slow to pay, it disrupts what's usually a very precarious house of financial cards -- and it makes that freelancer question working with you again.

Also, realize that freelancers who live outside your city or state may have additional holds placed on your paychecks by their banks, which can slow the payment process up to an additional week. Thus, if your company has the flexibility, paying freelancers earlier than the last possible minute is always appreciated. It's also a great incentive for the contractor to work even better / faster the next time around, because they come to trust you as a client they can rely on for paying promptly.

2. Understand Who You're Hiring

Sometimes the person you're considering for a job is an expert in her field. And sometimes she has absolutely no relevant experience. How can you tell the difference? It isn't in the pricetag; it's in the quality of the work.

It may also be in the quality of their support system.

These days, a contractor can be reasonably expected to farm out certain aspects of a job that they're not as facile in. If you hire someone to reprogram your website, rewrite your content AND redesign your logo, odds are, you're going to receive a finished product that was actually created by 2 or 3 people -- even if only one of them filled out your tax form. How do you know you're getting what you think you're paying for?

Google prospective contractors. Find examples of their work. Just as important, find out what circles they travel in, and then Google the work of those people as well. If your contractor is going to be farming out side work to his colleagues, you want to ensure that the median quality level of work among that support system is something you're comfortable with.

Through this vetting, you might also discover that the person you think you're hiring is actually a quiet force among his peers -- or is all talk with no connections to speak of. The size of that personal web speaks volumes.

3. Establish Clear Communication - and Deadlines

Time is money - for both employer and contractor. The longer it takes a freelancer to turn in a project, the more it's going to cost. Likewise, the more that freelancer has to tweak, re-edit and completely redesign after the initial review, the less time he has to work on other projects -- and believe me, he has other projects. He HAS to; otherwise, he'd be broke.

When you give a freelancer unclear directions, when you change the project specs midstream, or when you fail to adhere to review deadlines, it complicates your contractor's workflow. At its mildest, this creates logistical conundrums like a paucity of hard drive space because a freelancer is trying to juggle multiple (unfinished) projects within limited resources. At its worst, this means a freelancer must reallocate time, effort and possibly additional resources (including other people) from another job to yours -- and that means that other job will probably also require multiple re-edits, this time due to minimal attention being paid during production.

This creates a vicious cycle of underserving multiple clients -- which, believe it or not, freelancers hate to do -- all because one project they thought they understood turns out to be a tangled mess. There is a silver lining to this problem for the contractor, though -- additional review costs, which will be tacked on to the final invoice. Save yourself AND the freelancer the hassle and agree upon the specifics and hard deadlines for the project well in advance.

4. Minimize the Chain of Communication

Regardless of the size of a company, it seems a universal truth that anyone in a position of even moderately senior management will insist on putting their thumbprint on any project that crosses their desk. It's an unspoken belief that by NOT making some sort of comment, they're somehow not doing their job and will be seen as unnecessary in the food chain, soon to be removed from all reviews entirely.

This leads to an endless stream of relatively minor notes -- a font change here, a color change there, a suggestion for different background music or a slight pan to the left or the renaming of the "About" page to the "About Us" page -- that, when added up, usually makes a freelancer want to throttle the entire company. It's not that we object to the changes IF THEY'RE NECESSARY; it's that we hate wasting our time and resources in placating the ego of someone who's hoping to turn their own performance review into an office one door closer to the lunchroom.

How many pairs of eyes does it take to sign off on a project in your company? How quickly can each of those people be reasonably expected to turn around their review? How imperative is each person's review, really? The greater the number -- and the longer it takes -- the more expensive it's going to be for your bottom line.

5. Be Idealistic with Word of Mouth

Most freelancers make a living primarily from referrals. The cost of actively pursuing new clients, in both time and money, is a luxury few working freelancers can afford.

Thus, if you like someone's work, consider making that freelancer's portfolio and contact information available within your trusted circle. A freelancer would much prefer to work with clients recommended to them via other clients, because they can trust the word of this new entity based upon the implied endorsement of the existing client.

Likewise, if you're unhappy with someone's performance, it's better to be tactful about your disapproval when discussing this person with your colleagues -- or, even better, say nothing at all. Slamming someone's work rarely makes you any friends in the industry, and word of mouth has a way of working itself back around to the source. Plus, you wouldn't want your peers to discover that the real reason a freelancer flaked was because you were impossible to work with and changed the project specs five times in a month...

These are my tips. Do you have more?

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Monday, July 09, 2007

5 Tips for Freelancers

As someone who's been earning a living (or so they say) from freelance video, audio and writing work over the past 2 years, I thought I'd share 5 freelancing tips for new or existing freelancers, with one caveat: most of my lessons have been learned by NOT DOING what I know I SHOULD do.

Thus, please allow my failures to pave the way for your success -- and my own.

1. Insist on Half Payment in Advance

Freelancing means never having enough money in the bank. It also means you're frequently working for people who DO have money in the bank, and who realize it's in their best interests to keep that money there as long as possible.

Because a traditional billing cycle means you won't receive the full amount due for your work until a month after the job has been approved -- or later -- it's best to insist that the client pay half the total fee for the job up front. This provides you with much-needed operating cash, so you don't starve to death while waiting for an impossible-to-reach senior VP to sign off on your work for the next month.

(You can also offer a discount on the total price if the pay the ENTIRE sum up front, but this has one undesired effect -- it makes the ENTIRE job feel like a distraction because you've already cashed the check and are mentally prepared for searching out NEW work, not finishing an "old" job.)

2. Charge What You're Worth, Not What the Market Will Bear

It's not your fault if you live in a small market, and you may have to price according to the market norms in your field. But, by and large, if you feel you deliver quality work on time, you're worth AT LEAST the market average -- and often more.

This is not a license to price gouge. This is merely a much-needed reminder that people who work for themselves need not price themselves into the poorhouse simply because they feel awkward, guilty or shameful for charging someone what they actually feel (or know) they're worth. Good work is hard to find. Allow your pricing to reflect your confidence that you can deliver above and beyond the norm -- if you can.

3. Deliver Early and Extra

This presupposes two things: that you know what the deadline is (there should always be a deadline), and you know what the minimum expectations of the job are. Then, do everything in your power to deliver maximum quality ahead of schedule.

Sometimes this means providing multiple "looks" on a design, or editing something multiple ways, or throwing in an extra webpage that you know should be there, even if the client didn't think she could afford it. And, yes, sometimes this means pulling an all-nighter (or two). But the dividends your reputation will reap are worth it.

Realistically, you won't be able to accomplish this for every client, especially if you're working multiple jobs that are pushing your resources to the limit. But if you can achieve one of the two (either early or extra) on every job, you're doing two things: you're providing more than the client expected, and you're giving them a reason to not only work with you again, but to recommend you to their friends as well.

4. If You're Working, You're Losing Money

Freelance isn't about getting one or two clients whose checks will pay the bills next month. Freelance is about getting 10 or 20 clients whose checks will put your kids through college. Thus, if you're working on an assignment, you're losing money -- because you're not getting NEW work.

There are only two times when you can pat yourself on the back as a freelancer: when you sign a new contract and when you cash a new check. Everything in-between -- the communication, the work, the finished product -- is all simply part of the job. These are all things you should (nay, must) do well, but they must also be done as quickly as possible.

Because once that advance check has been deposited, the only thing that matters is getting the next check to pay next month's rent. What stands between you and that check is the work -- so plow through it, because you have phone calls to make, emails to send and new clients to meet.

5. MANY Clients or GOOD Clients, but Never Few Clients

How you build a client base is determined by your desired lifestyle.

If you have many clients, you'll always have some work to do. Most likely, you'll have LOTS of small, low-paying jobs that churn up much of your available time.

The upside? You're forever guaranteed a steady trickle of payments, which should enable you to reliably budget your income while you build your base.

The downside? You're forever angling for the next job... and then the next...

If you have a smaller number of GOOD clients, you'll be able to work on high-paying, high-profile jobs -- with higher expectations and less room to exceed them.

The upside? Your paychecks will be bigger, as will your profile, enabling you to garner work with other, larger clients.

The downside? Your paychecks may be few and far between, since your client base will be smaller -- but, when those checks DO arrive, they'll turn your days from famine to feast.

As you can see, what DOESN'T work in this equation is having a few small clients who provide intermittent work and inconsistent payments. Because the nature of freelance means you must forever have one eye on the next job, the next check and the next bill to be paid, you must protect yourself behind either a thick wall of steady work or a high wall of choice assignments. Anything less and the payments won't arrive fast enough to fill in the gaps.

These are five of my own observations after two years of freelancing. Do you have anything to add?

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Leave Your Keys in the Fridge: How to Make Web Video the Ask a Ninja Way

I was fortunate to see Douglas Sarine and Kent Nichols (of Ask a Ninja fame) do their "45 Minute Film School" presentation at the Blogference this week. The pic above links to a 5 minute highlight reel from their speech.

Tellingly, it begins with a slide called "Legal," because they advise entering the web world (or any world) with a clear understanding of your business goals AND the roles you and your partners are expected to play.

Other highlights:

- "Make it faster. If you think it makes sense, speed it up. You should be uncomfortable with the speed of your own video."

- "Only use what you have. If your friend has a Ferrari -- or a camera -- YOU don't have that Ferrari -- or that camera."

And, my personal favorite:

- "Put someone's keys in the fridge." (If this means nothing to you, you're probably not creating web video.)

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Recapping My Trip to Israel

After much ado, I finally made my way to Tel Aviv for the Blogference this past Saturday. Instead of being able to stay for 4 days, as originally intended, by new itinerary called for me to land on Sunday night, speak on Monday and fly home Monday night at midnight.

Funny thing about El Al Airlines security staff: they get a bit suspicious when you're only flying to Israel for one day.

Like, check your bags for an hour and then escort you to the gate suspicious.

Nonetheless, I made my flight (thankfully), and arrived safely in Tel Aviv around 5 PM Sunday night. There, a driver was waiting for me. The downside? He didn't speak English, which made for a quiet car ride to the hotel. The upside? He knew where there was candy hidden in the cab...

I checked into the Crowne Plaza hotel, which is one of several hotels along a promenade that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. It also provides complimentary cookies to its guests. (As my girlfriend has said, my retelling of the trip makes Israel sound like Candyland...)

Kfir Pravda picked me up from the hotel and we grabbed dinner on the beach, then drove down to the nightclub district, which is mostly comprised of converted warehouses that now offer booze.

There I met everyone else from the conference: the IDC faculty and staff, some local new media creators (including Blonde2.0), as well as my fellow presenters, including Douglas Sarine (Ask a Ninja), Andrew Baron and Joanne Colan (Rocketboom), Om Malik (GigaOm) and former MediaBistro honcho Garrett Graf.

Ask a Ninja's Douglas Sarine fields a question from Israeli media's Ayelet Yagil.

We drank. We chatted. We grabbed dessert at a chocolate bar. (All right, so it really is Candyland...)

On Monday, we hopped in a van and drove to the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya -- which, I was told, is former military property -- for the conference. The school is only a year old, so events like this go a long way toward establishing their relevance and future direction. Based upon the passion and instincts of Dr. Latar and his faculty, I think they're definitely on the right track.

While blogging this entry, I realized I had more to say about the individual sessions than I thought, so I'll save the specifics for future entries. For now, suffice it to say that the atmosphere was very PodCamp-like, with experts and audience members alike able to share ideas that pushed the conversations forward in unexpected ways.

After the conference, I met some folks with interesting business ideas -- like Abbey Content's Alan Abbey -- as well as some students who put Israeli web media into perspective for me: in a nutshell, blogging is considered an activity for Israeli youth. After someone completes his or her mandatory military service, the expected lifeplan moves from college to business to family -- there's no real time for a creative outlet, or anything else seen as needlessly frivolous.

I'd counter that that's an obstacle worth overcoming, for one specific reason: I had no idea what Israeli culture was like until I flew there myself. Otherwise, all I have to go by is what I see on the news. By that rationale, all I ever expected to see was a country in perpetual, daily conflict with an embedded enemy, rather than the complex, multifaceted and completely "normal" culture I observed.

For example: I had no idea that Israel had such a high population of Ethiopians. Apparently, Israel helped huge numbers of Ethiopians escape from Ethiopia a generation ago, when their own government couldn't (or wouldn't) provide for them. Now, second-generation Ethiopians are growing up knowing Israel as their home, which creates an interesting multicultural mix with its own problems and perks.

Personally, I'd love to see more social media created from Israel... or any other nation, for that matter. The more easily we can all communicate WITH each other, the more the rest of the world can learn ABOUT each other... and ourselves.

Thanks to everyone who helped make my trip to Israel possible. I'll have more insights about the actual Blogference sessions themselves over the coming days.

PS After the conference, I flew home -- again on El Al, though this time without the security snags -- and I must say, the food on El Al is among the best food I've ever had on any airline. My dinner en route to NYC was one of the best meals I've haad all year. This means either El Al has cornered the market on in-flight food or I need to start eating in better restaurants...

UPDATE: See my handheld highlights from the Ask a Ninja presentation!

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