Buenos Aires is a city of little surprises, like turning a corner and seeing a milonga, tango social dance, in the middle of the square. People dancing, listening to live music, having a beer with the spring breezes whispering of a wonderful summer to come.
“Failure isn’t fatal, success in’t final; it’s courage that counts.” — (generally attributed to) Winston Churchill
Failure may not be fatal, but it certainy isn’t fun. And today I reached a failure point.
Like most failure points, this one didn’t start today. I think it actually started two weeks ago, when the potential client I had arranged to teleconference with didn’t show up for two hours. That’s a bad sign, but I ignored it because, honestly, I was excited that this could be my first $85/hr project. I was willing to overlook a lack of professionalism in order to make a little more money, and set myself up at a new rate.
As of right now, I don’t really regret that. But I did ignore a signpost.
The next signpost was the same — another missed meeting– but this one came while I was already billing the client… so, I thought, “It’s okay. He misses a meeting, but he’s paying for the time. It’s a little frustrating, but no real loss to me.”
Similar was the flood of defocused, forwarded communication. He was in communication with an approvals and listing agency, and instead of sending me his requirements on the job, he forwarded me the dense back-and-forth without any summaries. Unprofessional, a little time consuming to sort through, but again, the client was paying for the time.
He didn’t respond to some of my questions, crucial for moving the project forward. Frustrating, but I filled the time with the other aspects of the job. Then, he did reply, but being tacked into the dense forest of other forwarded messages, I missed it. That one reflects very badly on me; I apologized and moved forward.
Another missed meeting. More time that the project isn’t moving forward, but hours are being billed. His loss, not mine, right? Wrong.
What I should have paid attention to there was that it all meant my client wasn’t getting full value for the time he was purchasing. Was it my fault? Well, partially yes and partially no. But ultimately, and more importantly, it reflected on my work.
So when I got a message that he was concerned about our overall progress versus cost, I shouldn’t have brushed it aside with a list of original projections and breakdown of current hours, showing how close we were, in my mind, to the schedule. My intention was good, and the tone was polite and professional, but I didn’t really shift over into his perspective. As a young guy (27) who was obviously not very professional, he definitely wasn’t considering the hours he’d chewed through with the inane (yes, I’m a bit angry) emails or multiple missed meetings. So, while I thought I had sufficiently addressed the concerns about productivity with the breakdown and clear steps forward, the air between us wasn’t clear.
Today’s meeting shouldn’t have been a surprise. After going through the list of items and questions about the project, he brought up his concern about our ongoing project and the total cost versus achievement. At first he simply requested that we change all the future projects over to fixed price, quite reasonable from his perspective, I’m sure. But with all the lack of communication and issues, there is no way that I’m going to let the guy waste my time and expect the same end product at the same cost. He’s obviously uncomfortable with the idea of continuing as we are, even with more detailed communication about hours for each task and closer tracking of where time goes. We ended today’s conference with him requesting I hold off on more hours till we have a chance to discuss estimated hours for additional aspects of the project.
And I came off the phone feeling like I’d been punched. I felt like I’d failed. Not in a huge way, but enough to where my income goals are shot for the month, and I have a quite unhappy client on my hands.
What I’m thinking right now is that I’ll refund half of the hours for last week, send over the files with some minor tweaks to make the progress on the project clear, and tell him to find another freelancer. It’s the only way I can think of to a) make sure that my client feels relatively good about a relatively bad situation, feeling that he at least got value for the money spent, b) keep my ratings intact, which allows me to spend so much less time bidding jobs, and c) avoid having to deal with this guy anymore.
Any thoughts before I pull the trigger? Have any of you had similar experiences?
I’ve been postponing writing, getting caught up with other projects (the excuse) and not really knowing what to write about (more honestly). A big part of my block has come from confusion. June was a remarkably successful month– but I wasn’t sure why. I wanted to be able to give steps to follow, be able to say, Do This and you will Earn Money. But I couldn’t figure out why my income spiked so much, and I was afraid it would dip back down low again, leaving me looking like a fool.
I’m currently able to relax a bit right now, secure in the knowledge that many other things will keep me looking foolish enough for the time being.
June was, as I’ve mentioned, unprecedented. I’ll post full income stats sometime soon, but essentially it was Dec-1k, Jan-4k, Feb-3k, Mar-2.5k, Apr-1.5k, May-1.5k. In March I had a trip to Hong Kong and bought my tickets home for my July visit, and in May I went on the motorcycle ride, and by the end of May I was hovering just above and below $1,000 in my bank account. It was a bit nerve wracking.
But then June hit, and as I said last time, I’d produced as much in the first nine days as I had brought in during either April or May. And that little change in phrase of produced versus brought in was part of a series of important mental shifts. But more on that in a moment.
The first important shift happened while travelling, when I wanted to stay in a cheap hotel (~$6 per night each) and my buddies wanted to stay in a nicer place (~ $20 per night each). I was focused on cost– my friends were focused on value. Because when we stayed in a nicer place, we could each work comfortably for 2-3 hours, as opposed to working uncomfortably or not at all. The benefits of the additional money spent were huge, and it’s much easier to sell yourself to a client when you’re happy and relaxed. So, number one: focus on value, and sell the same.
A second very important change was something I’d been working on for a while, neatly captured by a phrase from a friend of mine: I learned to lean in. What? The hardest thing for me had been talking to clients via Skype or telephone. I don’t like phones, and I dislike video chats even more. So, I avoided them. I neatly told myself it was due to the lifestyle I wanted to live, using Ferris as an excuse to avoid what made me uncomfortable. But in June, I began suggesting conferences at every opportunity. Yes, it made me uncomfortable, and so I needed to do it as often as possible. This is also related to Cal Newport‘s discussions of deliberate practice: masters become great by always working on the areas which are difficult. Otherwise it’s play, not practice. So, I suggested video conferences, I took jobs which were slightly beyond my skill set, I asked for more per hour than I had any history of earning.
Related to the video conferences, I radically changed how I sold myself, and how I communicated overall. I read this amazing article on email structure, and applied it to every bit of communication I used. Essentially, every paragraph has a point now, and after giving information, I end each paragraph with either an action point or a question. (I’ll post my actual proposals soon for you to see it in practical application.) And as I said, it’s no longer just email.
Every conversation I have with a client, and every email, has a goal. An express, often written, goal. So, the goal of writing a proposal is to get the client to reply with interest and more information. My call to action at the end of the proposal always offers two good choices: “Would you prefer to continue this conversation via teleconference, or would you like to arrange a teleconference later this week?” Notice both options are them talking to me. Do they always? No, but I do make it seem the obvious choice. I also will switch the order of the two depending on my interest. The second option is slightly stronger, and so I place my preferred option second. And this happens for every email; I always end with the next step.
Before a phone conversation, I write down 1-3 goals I’m going to try to achieve, and look at how I’ll do that. What are the points that will demonstrate that my goal is good for them? I often write those down, too.
At the intersection of leaning in and communication sits difficult communication. There are often emails I want to procrastinate on responding to. But I’ve realized that responses generally have a 24-hr. window of positive emotion. After a day, people start to feel like you’re ignoring them. I’m selling myself as a person who is easy to communicate with; that’s why they’re hiring me instead of the perfectly qualified Indian engineer at 1/5 my rate. So I have to make good on that. Even beyond that, keeping in mind this window forces me to deal with issues instead of avoiding them, resolving them and getting them off my mind. Am I perfect at it? No. But it does help to push myself in that direction.
Alright, this is #_©/°π€ long for a blog post, but I’m almost done. I promise the end is exciting.
The last big change was boring: it was accounting and bookkeeping. I began estimating hours for each project, and listing them on a board with earnings and due dates. This covered two important aspects: I more accurately predicted my schedule, allowing me to fill in any free time with projects while still meeting deadlines, and I also was able to track value production instead of income. Income is dependent on pay schedules, bank transfer times, and client timeliness. Value production is under my control, and highly motivating.
And perhaps motivation was the biggest change. I’d decided the month before that loving life, being excited about what was happening, was hugely important, and so I began to make decisions on it. When thinking about my upcoming trip in July and the work I would need to do, I asked myself, “What would make this trip more exciting?” And, feeling like a motorcycle ride would be exciting, I chose to buy one. Late at night, when my pen would scratch across a sketch I was finishing for a client because I’d fallen asleep, I would think of buying a bike, the feel of riding through the mountains, and I would force myself to finish.
How much of a difference did this all make? I had a goal for June of earning 5k in a month so that I could buy a KLR 650 in Colorado. In April and May I’d earned about $1,500 each month, and I thought that $5,000 would be ridiculous and almost impossible. And in a way, I was right: I blew right past 5k and my final tally of work produced in June was just over seven thousand two hundred dollars, more than four times my prior two months.
I spent a week just feeling that: life is going to be short. Part of it was certainly my birthday: hitting thirty is a rude reminder of aging, and definitely started the thoughts rolling.
My life is 1/3 over, and that’s the best case! I eat healthy food, stay active, andand have long-lived relatives, but I also ride motorcycles, travel a lot, rock climb, cliff jump — honestly, there have been a couple of things that should have killed me already. And that got me thinking: “Am I living the life I want?”
And the answer was no. Not a resounding no, not a cry of desperation, but just a quiet whisper of, “There’s more”.
My favorite quote is by Rilke, begging his friend to “have patience” and “learn to love the questions themselves” to eventually “live your way into the answer”. Eric Erikson’s stage development theory suggests a similar sort of life experimentation, postulating that full psychological development, where a person is securely living in the life she has chosen for himself, can only be achieved after a period of purposeful, committed life experiments.
When he is in this stage, she isn’t bouncing randomly from lifestyle to lifestyle, but committing to a life, working through it, learning from it, then growing and changing what doesn’t fit. I’m there.
My life has been good, and so much better than life as a teacher, but some of my schedule hasn’t fit well. I’d been really stressed about work, barely landing new jobs; I was burning out. I needed some change.
And it really was the worst time for the motorcycle trip my two good friends were suggesting. I needed to make money, not spend it! Could I afford to take off work? What about the money I needed to save for my trip to the US? How could I do it?
By jumping in. I worked some on the trip, but more importantly I was living a dream and spending time with two driven entrepreneurs. We discussed business strategy, challenged each other — and had an absolutely amazing two weeks on motorcycles. And now I’ve already earned more in the first 9 days of June than either April or May. Life’s good.
I’ve realized that writing in this blog is important. Not for my readers (you three are really great, thanks for reading), but to keep a sense of perspective about what I’m doing. Day to day I’ve found myself wickedly discouraged by how things in the business are going, and without taking a step away, making less money and having more risk — being an entrepreneur– can make you feel pretty idiotic.
January and February were busy months, and by March I felt like my life was tipping too far towards work to be balanced. I cut back and joined CrossFit, something I’d been meaning to try.
It was great for a bit, but as my focus shifted I didn’t pay attention to the fact that while I was completing work, I wasn’t bidding much work. I stayed busy but didn’t keep the pipeline full, so by mid-April I was starting to run dry. With a trip to Hong Kong to cover visa regulations (good trip, but pricey city) and a ticket home for a wedding (not mine) this summer, I’m hitting a low spot on cash reserves (small cash cache, so to speak).
The last week or so has also been interesting because I finally got the drip irrigation emitter prototypes in. The initial tests were dark, very dark. With that being tied as my largest job (and the other still in machining), if they don’t work I can’t afford a refund. I was very seriously contemplating quitting and trying to find a nice, stable corporate job I could work at and pay off my loans.
Honestly, I haven’t ruled that out completely. But a great thing happened up in the mountains Tuesday morning, when Nin’ta and I were sitting on a guesthouse deck overlooking a jungle-upholstered valley. Coldplay’s Viva la Vida came on while I was trying to get a handle on my worries.
The lyrics of that song have always gotten to me, the idea of a fallen king now sleeping in a tiny room and sweeping the street for food — and being okay with it. Life has ups and downs, and sometimes it’s a fight. But it’s vital that we keep a grander perspective on life, and step away from our struggles and imagine the larger epic of our lives.
“I used to roll the dice,
Feel the fear in my enemies eyes…
Now in the morning I sleep alone,
Sweep the streets I used to own.”
Maybe things are good for a while, and maybe not. But every event is part of our own story, and it’s important to own our stories, perfect or not, because these are the only ones we get.
There’s a classic Sufi story about an ancient king who was immensely powerful, but like all of us, had his ups and downs. He gathered the wisest of his advisors and asked that they make him a magic ring that would make him feel better when he was sad. After a year of trying all their spells to no avail, they finally cast a simple gold ring inscribed with four simple words: This too shall pass.
“There’s no such thing as the real world – just a lie you’ve got to rise above” -John Mayer
Your world is negotiable. What you perceive as normal will cause the world to conform, if your conviction is strong enough. For major change, you’ll need incredible strength, which often throws us off. But nobody lifts 500lbs on their first deadlift, and no one can be expected to cure cancer with their first try. The worst mistake is assuming that even small change will be too difficult.
I’ve never liked conflict. Even as a baby, I’m told, I didn’t cry and complain as much as most babies; I didn’t cause problems. When I was eighteen I took a personality test that determined my motivation was “primarily peace”. And there is nothing wrong with peace, as long as healthy boundaries are maintained. But sometimes minor conflict now yields amazing benefits.
“Si vis pacem, para bellum. [If you want peace, prepare for war.]” ~Bonaparte
I woke to a disturbing message from Mint: my bank account was over-drafted. Worse, it had four overdraft fees. Four! At thirty-five dollars each, I was being charged one hundred forty dollars in one lump sum, the same amount I’d just spent on a round-trip ticket all the way to Hong Kong!
Now, I’ve paid my share of fees to banks. In the past, I would have looked at this, determined I was bad for not paying attention, decided that the bank was fair for punishing me, and felt guilty for being bad with money. The consequence? Guilt and a low bank balance.
Today, I decided that the bank re-ordering my transactions so that it could double the fees wasn’t reasonable. I decided that paying $35 because of a small mistake and hanging returns (foreign ATMs don’t post immediately) was something forgivable, and that I would fight to have the fees removed.
(On a separate note, it’s not just forgivable, but also very avoidable, so I’m going to keep a $500 cushion in each account for now until I have a better system to track spending.)
So, I called up Wells Fargo. The first customer service representative was helpful, and instantly offered to remove one of the fees, plus half of the other three. That was an $87.50 credit for a 3-minute phone call!
But I wanted the whole fee removed, and I decided to keep pushing. I asked for the remainder of the fees to be refunded, which required her to speak to her supervisor. She came back apologizing for both the hold and the fact that she couldn’t credit any more back to my account.
I thanked her, but wasn’t ready to let go, and asked to speak to her supervisor. A few minutes later I the supervisor reiterated his subordinate’s offer. I explained the issue with the hanging returns, and again asked for the full refund. Two minutes later he was quoting me a reference number and promising the full $140 refund within 48 hours.
That is the most my time has ever earned. It wasn’t difficult, but it did require me putting aside my fears and old assumptions. More than anything, it makes me wonder, what else would change in my life if I were a little less reasonable?
Special thanks for Ramit Sethi for inspiration. Try this yourself.
I just bought a book on Amazon, the money being automatically withdrawn from my account, causing me a moment of doubt stemming from several years of always thinking about the expense of a book here and there and what it might do to my savings. And then I thought of how things have been going and felt profoundly grateful that I really can afford the book, that I’m earning significantly more than I need for my daily expenditures, that I can enjoy a new novel guilt free.
This month has been rough. It turns out I was weak on something I had thought would be very easy — getting parts made. It should be just like shopping, right? Wrong. Oh, so, so wrong. The first really big job I landed will be a month behind schedule soon, mostly due to difficulties in acquisition. I’d figured on getting quotes from three shops and presenting them to my clients with a recommendation. In the end, I contacted a total of thirteen gasket companies and nearly as many machinists, just to find three of each that could provide real bids for the parts.
Needless to say, it took longer than expected. Also needless to say, my clients are less than thrilled about the current pace of work. My only hope now to right the job is to keep things at a fast trot from here in, provide a correct schedule, and see what I can pull off. On the plus side, my worries about the parts not working have been put aside.
Beyond that, this month has been stressful. I have another project, also slightly delayed, that I’m balancing against two new projects. And with the delays, I know my income won’t be as high as I’d predicted.
But, at the end of the day, I am actually learning a lot about business, specifically now about task management, which I’ll write more about soon, and part sourcing. And I’ve just been able to buy a new book to read. And that’s pretty good for a new business.