What Cultivating A Community Garden Plot Can Teach Us About Running A Startup

IMG_5229This year I cultivated a community garden plot in Boulder, CO, for the first time. I had previously never gardened before, and this experience has been an immensely rewarding one due to both the bounty of fresh homegrown veggies that have come from it as well as other less-tangible rewards reaped. I made a lot of mistakes and have learned a lot from this process and those who have helped me through it. As the summer growing season winds down, I have noticed striking parallels between gardening and startup life. Many garden-variety lessons are very applicable to working at startup. Here are a few of them.

Lesson: You may be unwittingly cultivating a weed.

There were two big plants growing in the east side of my plot I convinced myself were eggplants. I tenderly watered them, weeded around them, and ensured they got plenty of light. Once the “other” eggplants in the west side of my plot starting bearing real eggplants, while the east side eggplants still remained barren, I asked a knowledgeable fellow gardener about the situation. My fellow gardener politely informed me that I had been spending significant time and resources on…weeds!  I felt very silly. I didn’t know these were weeds when I so gingerly cared for them. And once I learned the truth, I had no choice but to pull them. Startup leaders: recognize that you may be putting a ton of energy towards a project, campaign or other resource you think is going to yield a return, only to realize down the line you have been growing a weed (or, in my case, two of them). The key is to remove that weed as soon as you find it; don’t let sunk costs of the various investments you have made in keeping this weed-in-disguise alive hold you back from removing it quickly once you see it for what it really is.

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to ask for advice.

I don’t think any of my plants would have grown without the help of incredibly knowledgeable and generous gardener friends. The same is true for startups: finding mentors (board members, dedicated accelerator mentors, industry peers, and other entrepreneurs) along the journey is crucial for success. Asking for help all the time is key–and ideally, you’ll help others with what you’ve learned, too.

Lesson: Unfortunately, many weeds are hard to identify until they are big.

Many weeds, when small, look just like the things you are consciously trying to grow. Or, they are just too small to notice. Is that a kale sprout or a vine weed that’s going to one day grow to suck the life out of your melon plant? Is that actually an insidious pocket of “bro” culture happening in your engineering department masquerading as playfulness? Is it going to grow into a full-blown problem? Pay close attention to things that may or may not be weeds, and then address them out at the root as soon as you realize what they are.

Lesson: Weeds are much harder to pull once they are mature.

Another reason to address potential problems at your company as soon as possible: once weeds have grown, they’ve got much deeper roots and are that much harder to remove. Suddenly, what would have been an easy fix two quarters ago now becomes a much bigger (and usually more expensive) problem. Fix problems early to save a lot of pain.

Lesson: Place many bets, then ramp on what is working and jettison what is not.

I planted a lot of vegetables that did great this season—and a few that did not do so well. The melon plant only made one tiny, tasteless melon and then shriveled into a brown heap. But the cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, and squash have done brilliantly. So I focused on those and tried not to worry about what did not work. I made sure to pull out the melon plant when it turned brown and clearly wasn’t working rather than let it take any more nutrients from the garden.

Startup growth is all about experimentation. You are placing many bets across many channels, and then need to ramp on what works well, and then cut the resources from what is not working. 

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Lesson: Recognize when something isn’t working anymore—and be willing to move on.

Related to the previous lesson, sometimes something is working well for a while, and then one day no longer does. I harvested lettuce from the same plants for much of the season. I cut back the lettuce leaves, and then, miraculously, they would grow back where the stumps were. Then one day, a fellow gardener came over to my plot and said, “did you know your lettuce has bolted? You won’t get any leaves from it at this point.” I had not realized this, but once I discovered it, I felt a little hesitant; was it really time to let these go? A flood of memories of the bounty from the summer came back. I had to face a fundamental truth about gardening and startups: sometimes things work amazingly and then, when the season or other conditions change, no longer do. So I pulled out those bolted lettuce plants and composted them. Lesson learned. What at your startup once was working but now longer is? Be willing to do what Ben Horowitz calls “the hard thing about hard things” and move on. 

Lesson: Planning ahead is everything.

The importance of this cannot be overstated: you really need to plan ahead for a garden or a startup to function properly. On a startup marketing team, for instance, annual planning ensures the maximum number of sales-qualified leads are created by budgeting and allocating the right amount of resources. By planning what goes where in your garden, you can ensure the right plants work together, and know ahead of time when things will grow.

Lesson: Control what you can and let go of what you cannot.

You can put a fence up for deer. You can cover the leaves of your tomato plants with diatomaceous earth to prevent aphid attack. You can water and weed diligently and properly cage your tomatoes. And sometimes, though you’re certain you’ve done everything you can to create the right conditions for growth—you still lose. It happens. Control what you can, move on from what you can’t.

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Lesson: Assemble a great team and embrace community.

It may come as no surprise that community is the key to a community garden. I travel for work sometimes, and throughout the growing season have gone away for multi-week stretches, leaving my sweet garden behind. Luckily, I have great relationships with fellow gardeners—in particular, my amazing neighbor Rachel, whose plot is perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Rachel helps keep my garden alive (and thriving) when I’m not there. And the times when Rachel has been out of town, I have been honored to help care for her beautiful plants, too.  Our community garden team has taught me so much about how to care for the plants I’m growing. We share our knowledge and produce with each other, and help weed and water each other’s plots.

Startup leaders need to know that their team can back them up in case of absence or absence of attention. They also need to develop superb relationships with other companies, including their partners and customers, but also other companies within the ecosystem. Cultivate startup community and adopt what Brad Feld calls a “give first” mentality. That means watering other people’s plants without expecting them to do the same for you–knowing full well one day it all comes back around.

Lesson: Take pleasure in the process.

Many mundane garden activities have become a pleasure. I now look forward to removing weeds (obstacles), spending time watering (investing energy and resources), and deciding which squash blossoms to harvest when in order to maximize a few mature squash returns from the plant (analyzing the landscape and taking appropriate action). These basic tasks all bring me a lot of satisfaction. As startup leaders, we participate in and also get to watch our proverbial gardens grow—with pride. It is not always a joyful experience to be “in the weeds” of a startup, but there can be a lot of satisfaction gleaned from the effort. Where can you take pleasure in the process of running a startup?

Lesson: Share the glory

Arguably the best part about gardening is getting to share the bounty with those around you. Great leaders acknowledge how the efforts of their teams contribute to the wins. What are some fruits of your startup labor that you can share with your team, your customers, your partners, and your community?

Final Note

It is important to note that I have been growing the garden for fun and supplemental food rather than for subsistence. Things may have been different if I had been counting on the veggies to feed me and/or my family and it hadn’t worked out. Many founders put everything into their companies, and it’s hard to cut losses when everything is riding on your company succeeding. I’d be really curious to hear if this metaphor resonates with others in the startup world. Thank you for reading! Sarah

Year In Review: Reflections On A Spectacular 2015

From client acquisitions to speaking on several panels for the first time, to stepping away from my consulting business and becoming a full-time, proud Rocketeer, to helping grow the local diversity in tech group I founded in my home city of Boulder, CO, Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup, to over 225 people, plus hosting and participating in a dozen local events in Boulder and beyond, 2015 has been a year to remember. Best of all, I’ve also had the privilege of working with some truly amazing people, companies, and mentors. To close out this memorable year, I thought I’d share some of highlights.

Three of My Clients Got Acquired–And Then One Of Them Acquired Me

Hiking near Los Altos with ServiceRocket CEO Robert Castaneda and VP of Enterprise Ray Bradbury the day after joining the company.

Hiking near Los Altos with ServiceRocket CEO Rob Castaneda and VP of Enterprise Ray Bradbery the day after joining the company.

Perhaps the biggest professional news of my year involved the extraordinary success of my clients. Among this list of successes included three acquisitions: Learndot, a Customer Education platform for Customer Success-driven businesses sold to ServiceRocket in January 2015; Taxify (part of ShipCompliant), a Boulder, CO-based B2B tax automation SaaS was acquired by Sovos Compliance in April; and, most recently, Frontleaf, a Customer Success analytics platform was acquired by Zuora in May to become their Z-Insights product line. Read more about the acquisitions, and how thrilled I am to now be a Rocketeer at ServiceRocket.

Named One of MindTouch’s Top 100 Customer Success Influencers To Meet at Pulse 

Top 100 Customer Success Influencers at Pulse.

This year MindTouch listed me as a ‘Top 100 Customer Success Influencer to Meet at Pulse Conference.’ I was honored by the mention, and enjoyed connecting with others on the list as well as the uncounted numbers from incredible companies who deserved to be on here. Grab the PDF list of influencers on the MindTouch website.

Customer Success Twitter Chat Thrived

In 2014 I launched the first-ever Customer Success industry Twitter Chat (#CustomerSuccessChat) while consulting with Frontleaf (acquired by Zuora in May ’15). Frontleaf co-founders Tom Krackeler and Rachel English were totally on board, and together we launched the chat back in 2014, and in 2015, it really took off. The monthly twitter chat brought together Customer Success enthusiasts and practitioners to talk shop, share best practices, and discuss overcoming challenges.

The chats consisted of lively real-time discussions including a series of questions on one topic (onboarding, sales and customer success, etc.) leveraging the #CustomerSuccessChat hashtag Twitter. We asked subject experts to mark their calendars to guarantee a high-level discourse, and others from the world of software adoption and customer success were also invited to weigh in on. After the chats, the Frontleaf team and I compiled chat recap blogs highlighting the gems from each one. This one on Customer Success as growthhacking is my favorite. At the moment I’m not running the chat, but maybe some form of it will return in the future.

Helped Launch The World’s First Customer Success Podcast

When Frontleaf asked me to devise a new channel to reach their target audience, I researched and created a plan to launch the Customer Success industry’s first-ever podcast exclusively dedicated to that topic. In early 2015, Customer Success Radio, the first-ever podcast about all things Customer Success and the cloud, hosted by Frontleaf co-founders Tom Krackeler and Rachel English launched to great acclaim. The show served as a phenomenal source of leads and buzz for the company. The podcast archives are really worth a listen. While the podcast is currently on hiatus, Tom and Rachel tell me they will hopefully continue the podcast in some form at Zuora.

The experience of creating a plan for a podcast from soup to nuts was invaluable, and the lessons learned along the way have been very helpful in the creation of the brand-new podcast Bill Cushard and I will be co-hosting through ServicerRocket Media. Look out for “Helping Sells Radio” podcast in the first quarter of 2016.

Grew Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup

Flatirons LGBTQ Tech MeetupIn May 2014 I founded Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup in an effort to increase diversity and inclusion in tech in Boulder, CO and beyond. In 2015, with the help of epic co-organizers, we hosted a dozen local events, became a NCWIT Affinity Group Alliance Member, and continued to be supported by our amazing sponsors SendGrid, Pivotal Tracker, Galvanize, and more. We even got a shout-out in the Denver Post and hosted an official Boulder Startup Week event. I’m so proud of the community we’ve built and are continuing to build here in the Rocky Mountain region and beyond. I look forward to working with more local companies and organizations and to hosting and participating in more events in 2016.

Moderated ServiceRocket’s “Helping Sells” Webinar Series

Throughout 2015 I co-hosted the webinars in ServiceRocket’s “Helping Sells” series alongside ServiceRocket’s Head of Training and Director of Marketing, Bill Cushard. This year we interviewed industry leaders talking about customer education, customer success, software adoption, and more. Guests included expert GitHub trainer Peter Bell, Behavioral Design (Gamification) Expert Yu-Kai Chou, ClientSuccess Founder/CEO Dave Blake, and many other industry thought leaders. You can check out the archives and look out for more great webinars featuring all-star guests in 2016.

Spent A Month At ServiceRocket’s Office In Santiago, Chile

This year I had the incredible opportunity to spend a month working out of ServiceRocket’s office in Santiago, Chile. ServiceRocket is a major contributor to the growing startup community in Santiago, and it was a blast to join the team there to host and participate in events and work on projects together.

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Enjoying empanadas with incredible ServiceRocket team in Santiago, Chile.

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Hiking in the Andes near Santiago, Chile with ServiceRocket colleagues.

Was A Panelist At S-Factory Event In Santiago, Chile

In October, S-Factory accelerator, which is run out of Start-Up Chile, invited ServiceRocket’s Chief Operating Officer Erin Rand, accountant Noelia Rio and me to speak on a panel to discuss how we’re “rocking it”. I was honored to speak to the entrepreneurial audience about growth marketing, our company values, and how we approach software adoption and customer success. S-Factory Executive Director Patricia Hansen was an engaging moderator, and I enjoyed participating as well as listening to and learning from insights shared by colleagues Erin and Noelia.

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Speaking at S-Factory (part of Start-Up Chile) in Santiago in October 2015.

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Participated In NewCo Boulder Diversity In Tech Panel

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Speaking at NewCo Boulder “Diversity in Tech” panel in November, 2015

In November, I was a panelist on the “diversity and inclusion” panel at NewCo Boulder, hosted at Quick Left in Boulder alongside Quick Left’s VP of Engineering Chris McAvoy and Executive Leadership Coach Gerry Valentine, moderated by Rachel Beisel. I loved being a part of the discussion and getting to chat with people after who wanted to continue the conversations about “bringing your whole self to work.” I shared personal stories as well as lessons I’ve learned from working with Silicon Valley Women of Influence, ServiceRocket’s COO Erin Rand and VP of Marketing Colleen Blake, both of whom do amazing work to increase inclusion in tech. It was cool to hear that people enjoyed the panel and that QuickLeft may want us to recreate the panel again.Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 2.30.45 PM.jpgScreen Shot 2016-01-01 at 2.30.28 PM.jpgScreen Shot 2016-01-01 at 2.32.21 PM (1).jpg

Interviewed Hooked Author Nir Eyal With Bill Cushard

Sarah_graphic-05I helped crowdsource edit the book Hooked by behavior engineering expert Nir Eyal and have been a huge fan of his work for a while, so it was a big honor to get to interview him and Bill Cushard for ServiceRocket Media. It was an amazing discussion about behavior psychology, customer education and software adoption. Listen to the interview.

Looking Forward To 2016

I’m grateful for the amazing people and companies with whom I had the privilege of working in 2015. Thank you to everyone who helped make this such a special year, and for being on this journey together.

I’m excited for what’s to come in 2016. In the first week of January, I’m headed to ServiceRocket’s office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for team building and to work on projects with our team in KL. ServiceRocket Media has some awesome projects in store including a brand-new podcast, epic webinars, and much, much more. Happy New Year! Thanks for reading. Sarah

Advice For Founders: Stop Running Your Startup “Like A Family”

Before joining the amazing company I work for now, I spent several years doing marketing consulting for various stage B2B startups. As a result, I’ve been granted insights into many different startup cultures ranging from the excellent to the mediocre to the occasionally crappy.

Even if you sell the most incredible product in the world, if your workplace culture isn’t great, you’re not doing it right. Since recently (finally) reading The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, I really agree with his perspective that a great company culture is essential.

To make your company culture great, your most important values must be lived by you and your team. After all, company mission statements are only as strong as how well they’re operationalized.

On this topic, I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend where well-meaning founders make the mistake of deciding to solve the “values/culture thing” by declaring that their startup is going to run “like a family,” especially during early stages. Here’s some thoughts on why “running your company like a family” is a really bad idea.

Saying you run your company “like a family” is extremely vague, and by doing this, you may create confusion among your team.

More often than not, when a CEO says to her team that she wants to run the company “like a family,” what she really means is that she wants to run the company according to her definition of how a family runs. After all, no two families are alike. How Jack the CEO’s family operates may be vastly different than how Jane the VP of Sales’ family functions. This leads to terrible and avoidable miscommunications.

Let’s say Jack the CEO calls his executives into a meeting and tells them that the company will now run “like a family” and that he expects leaders and their teams to act accordingly.

What if in Jack the CEO’s family, it’s common to call people out on their mistakes in public settings. After all, a little public shame is how people learn to correct their mistakes, right? So, without explicitly verbalizing any of these assumptions about what family means, Jack expects that when telling his executives to “run their teams like a family,” they’ll align with his understandings.

When Jane the VP of Sales heard Jack’s speech about “family,” she would have likely unconsciously applied it to her own understanding of family. Jane’s family does not behave like Jack’s family. Jane’s family only delivered criticism in private. People are praised in public, and given constructive criticism in private. Period.

When Jack the CEO sits in on Jane’s meeting with her Sales Development Reps (SDRs), one of the SDRs, Carl, reveals that he’s very behind on his numbers for the quarter. To Jack’s surprise, instead of tearing into him in front of the other SDRs, Jane centers the discussion around best practices and what everyone can work on as a team to improve processes. Jane plans to address Carl’s individual issues with him after the meeting in private and to review his performance improvement plan then. But Jack butts in, “Carl, why is everyone else outperforming you? Do you take this job seriously?” Jane goes beet red and after the meeting feels unsettled and confused. Why would Jack  undermine her authority in front of her team, and why he would blatantly go against their stated values? After all, wasn’t this company supposed to run like a family?

This is a pretty simplistic example, but you get the point. If you think a family should behave a certain way, chances are someone else disagrees. So don’t run your company “like a family”. State your explicit values instead.

Your experience of family is inherently subjective, but you likely won’t see it that way—and unchecked subjectivities are a big problem.

Perhaps in your family everyone was supportive, so you think running a company like a family means supporting each other. Great. But what if being supportive in your family also meant that while men in the family worked, women were expected to work only until they had children and then stay at home? So when your VP of Product comes to you announcing she’s going on maternity leave, will you treat her “like family”?

Some families are toxic, and you may unwittingly turn your company culture toxic if you run it like your family.

This is a point I’ve been intimating along the way in this post, but a lot of families are, simply put, dysfunctional and toxic. Maybe in your family you “just don’t talk about” the alcoholic gambling father in the family, so when the CEO’s personal problems start affecting his performance, or he does something unethical, it’s understood no one is to confront it lest they be breaking the family code. After all, you’re family! This is a really big problem and it’s surprisingly common in companies that run this way.

You can’t easily fire or lay off your family.

As Ben Horowitz shares in his book, as CEO or leader, you’re going to have to lay off people, many of whom are really, really great but who just aren’t the right fit anymore or because you personally failed them in some way. Depending on what stage you’re at in your company, it’s not a question of if this will happen—it’s a question of when. And running “like a family” will make it much harder for you and your executives to do this. Because it’s really hard to lay off “family”. Startups aren’t, and can’t be, families.

Better Alternatives Exist

On the surface, running your company like a family sounds like a nice, cozy idea. Family can be a source of a lot of joy and community for many people. But I’d argue that even if every single one of your employees right now consists of your actual family members, still don’t run it “like a family”! Instead, create company values that are specific and actionable. Some examples from leading companies:

  • Talk straight. (ServiceRocket)
  • Results first, substance over flash. (Rackspace)
  • Focus on the user and all else will follow. (Google)
  • Deliver WOW Through Service (Zappos)
  • Respect for the Individual (Accenture)
  • Move fast and break things. (Facebook)
  • Take work but not ourselves seriously. (Kappost)
  • Feel Free (Twitter)

Note that these values have nothing to do with “family” but may overlap with how some families operate.

Final Thoughts

I implore you, startup leaders: stop running your companies like a family. If you have that written somewhere in your mission statement or on your website, take it out right now–or at least be very specific about how you as a company actually define operating like a family. Instead, think about all of the good things you see in family and write those down as values that your company should embody.

Special thanks to Daniel Nelson, Founder of Food On A Truck, for his feedback in an early draft.

Three Of My Clients Got Acquired This Year, And Then One Of Them Acquired Me

For the past few years I’ve specialized in digital marketing consulting for B2B SaaS companies. I’ve really enjoyed helping my clients build out their marketing programs to reach their target markets. I’ve helped bootstrapped and VC-funded startups define their positioning, increase their brand awareness and thought leadership in their niche, and generate increased leads and sales. I’ve learned so much. And, perhaps most importantly, I’ve also had the privilege of working with some phenomenal people and teams.

A Series of Client Acquisitions

One of my clients, a Google Ventures-backed veteran in the SEM space, famously shuttered this year. But most of my clients, I’m pleased to say, have wildly succeeded this year. Among this list of successes included three acquisitions: Learndot, a Customer Education platform for Customer Success business sold to ServiceRocket in January 2015; Taxify (part of ShipCompliant), a Boulder, CO-based B2B tax automation SaaS was acquired by Sovos Compliance in April; and, most recently, Frontleaf, a Customer Success analytics platform was acquired by Zuora in May to become their Z-Insights product line.

Joining ServiceRocket As Senior Manager of Growth Marketing

Hiking near Los Altos with ServiceRocket CEO Robert Castaneda and VP of Enterprise Ray Bradbury the day after joining the company.

Hiking near Los Altos with ServiceRocket CEO Robert Castaneda and VP of Enterprise Ray Bradbery the day after joining the company.

I had loved working with the Learndot team. I did some of the best work of my career at that point with founder Paul Lambert and the Learndot crew. One month after the Learndot acquisition (February 2015), ServiceRocket hired me to consult with them on a part-time basis to help promote Learndot, and we quickly ramped up to a full-time consulting engagement. In retrospect, my work with ServiceRocket was a bit like falling in love–slowly at first, but then all at once. I hadn’t realized it, but even before I was consulting with ServiceRocket full-time, I was thinking about them and our work together constantly, reflecting often on the amazing team with whom I was working and the really interesting and creative projects we were working on.

With the amazing ServiceRocket team at Gainsight's Pulse Conference 2015

With the amazing ServiceRocket team (and special guest SalesLoft) at Gainsight’s Pulse Conference 2015

I truly believe in ServiceRocket’s mission, leadership, values, and culture, driven by extraordinary CEO Robert Castaneda. ServiceRocket enables Customer Success for software companies and their enterprise customers through training, support and utilization. When ServiceRocket invited me to join the team as a full-time employee as Senior Manager of Growth Marketing, it was a dream come true. My work as a growth marketer is a fun and challenging blend of content, PR, social media, and demand generation, and is truly further extension of all of the work I’ve been doing in the Customer Success world all along. The team is led by VP of Marketing Colleen Blake, an award-winning Silicon Valley Woman of Influence and incredibly talented marketer and leader. I feel honored to work with and learn from her and the rest of the talented ServiceRocket team every day.

Final Thoughts

I’m so incredibly proud of my amazing clients who have “leveled up” in big ways this year, as well as the small but meaningful roles I got to play in their successes. I’m also prouder than I can express to be a full-time Rocketeer! I am still learning constantly every day, especially from leaders in our field who inspire me, and I look forward to continuing on that journey and creating valuable marketing experiences and content for ServiceRocket customers and the Customer Success industry. I plan to continue blogging here to share insights, news and ideas from the world of customer training, Customer Success and SaaS marketing. I hope you’ll stay connected and continue growing with me on this journey in the membership economy.

Thanks for reading. Sarah

What I Learned From My First Unplugged Vacation In Two Years

Blue Lagoon in Iceland

Relaxing in Blue Lagoon during my recent unplugged vacation in Iceland.

As a consultant or freelancer, there’s an incredible amount of freedom in terms of the where and when of your work. As a result, it’s often surprisingly hard to take a fully unplugged vacation. Many of us are only paid for time worked or results delivered, and because we can often take our work with us anywhere, it can be pretty hard to fully “get away,” even on a so-called getaway.

I’ve spent more than a few working vacations where I’m partly on vacation, and partly working. I actually really like working vacations. For instance, while on vacation in the Bay Area earlier this year, I was also able have a productive business meeting with a local client and as well as get other work done at the San Francisco office of my local Boulder coworking space, Impact Hub. I really enjoyed that trip, but even a semi-working vacation is a very different kind of experience than a fully unplugged vacation. There is some relaxation, but never the fully “off” feeling you get when you unplug completely.

This great New York Times article on the importance of vacation highlights research indicating that that even before we experience signs of fatigue, it’s important to take fully “off the grid vacations” to reset our brains. It turns out we’re biologically wired to take pauses from the constant influx of information, both work-related and otherwise. Many startups are starting to offer unplugged vacation as a perk, and some even make them mandatory in order to keep talent feeling fresh. (Source) This makes sense from a business perspective, as “several studies have shown that people who work overtime reach a point of diminishing returns.” (Source)

Last week, I took my first fully unplugged vacation in two years: a 6-day trip to Iceland. While soaking in geothermal hot springs, hiking mountains, visiting glaciers, volcanos and lagoons, spending quality time with my partner completely off email and iPhone, I put all of my energies towards two tasks: adventuring and relaxing. I came back feeling renewed and more ready to solve problems for my clients than I think I would have if I’d taken a semi-working vacation. Maybe it was placebo effect, but I really did feel a “brain rest” that’s been fueling me now that I’m back in Boulder.

The ‘net is littered with stories of Tim Ferris-types who’ve moved their business to paradise, or who are on a full-time global travel spree, all while maintaining a successful consultant business. As I mentioned before, that’s great if you want to constantly be half-working, half-vacationing. And garden variety semi-working vacations are still great. But for me, taking a week off in Iceland showed me that it’s really important to take unplugged vacations, even if you don’t feel you need them. Even though I didn’t feel “burnt out” before I left, I feel remarkably refreshed upon my return. In terms of the business that I usually take with me on trips? One of my clients had one of the best weeks ever in terms of visitor traffic and user acquisition while I was gone, in great part due to the content, social and ad setup I’d put in place the week prior to leaving. With ample planning, you can take a fully “off” vacation, and you can likely feel confident it’s going to make you happier and more productive upon your return.

If you’re thinking of taking an unplugged vacation, and can find a way to make it work, I really recommend it.

I’d be curious to hear in the comments if others prefer semi-working vacations, or those of the unplugged variety? 

Follow-Up Interview With Neil Patel: Should You Hire A Marketing Consultant?

I recently wrote a rebuttal to Neil Patel’s post on hiring marketing consultants, and simultaneously reached out to Neil to see if he’d be interested in doing an interview with me to discuss the topic. I’m delighted to report he agreed, and to share our dialogue with those who have been following the debate on whether or not you should hire a marketing consultant. Topics covered: what’s the difference between a consultant and a contractor, and what should entrepreneurs keep in mind when hiring? 

Sarah Brown: In your post, you mention how successful you were as a digital marketing consultant; you said you got rave reviews, and still receive tons of inquiries from companies wanting to hire you as a consultant. You clearly delivered real value to the companies with whom you worked. Even so, you say companies shouldn’t hire digital marketing consultants in most cases. Can you explain why you had this change in perspective?

Neil Patel: Hiring a consultant is great if you want to speed up your growth. Most people look to hire marketing consultants to solve broad problems. The issue with this is most consultants aren’t jack-of-all-trades. For this reason you should only look to hire a marketing consultant when you want them to help you solve a specific problem that will result in an increase in growth.

SB: You qualified your pretty controversial article title by saying that companies should sometimes hire marketing consultants, but only after they’ve laid the groundwork themselves and are truly ready. How do you define “readiness” for taking on a digital marketing consultant? Can you elaborate on this?

NP: Once you have a business that is generating revenues well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, and you’ve tested a lot of different marketing channels and approaches yourself, you can then take that data to consultants and see what they can help you with.

SB: You mention that digital marketing consultants can’t solve every problem for a client. I completely agree! But, I’m curious, are you really seeing a lot of consultants billing themselves as miracle workers to prospective clients?

NP: A lot are. Consulting shops make more money when they are full service, for this reason they try and do everything even if they aren’t experts at “everything”.

SB: I totally agree that a CEO needs to lay the groundwork before they are ready to hire anyone (sales, marketing, customer success, PR, etc.). But can’t a consultant help with that process, especially if they’re super experienced in the market niche? Wouldn’t that be a good case for companies to hire a consultant, as long as goals and deliverables are clearly defined?

NP: In this scenario it would work, but it is an expensive solution. Unless your business is well funded, I wouldn’t recommend this solution. Nonetheless, if you hired the right consultant, it would speed this process along.

SB: Sometimes, startups can’t afford to hire a full-time expert in content marketing, social media, PR, etc. but they can afford an expert consultant for part-time work. In that case, the marketer is more like an “in-house asset” vs. an employee or typical consultant. Would you still recommend companies hire interns or college students rather than take on an expert in these cases?

NP: Yes, I would prefer to hire hungry college students. Ones that are quick learners and can help you with a lot of your marketing problems. At the beginning you don’t need an expert to come in and solve your problems. You need someone junior who can just execute and lay the ground work. An intern is going to be much cheaper as consultants rather not focus on the execution part.

SB: Given the growing remote workforce movement, would you recommend a first hire be a marketing employee vs. a consultant? Or, maybe an employee-ish consultant? Maybe we’re having trouble with terms, here. I consider myself an in-house asset or contractor, someone who strategizes and executes vs. what you’re describing. What do you recommend for startups?

 NP: I prefer a contractor. This way you can pay them for the time you use, yet they won’t charge you an arm and leg like a consultant.

Thanks to Neil Patel for engaging in this dialogue. In the comments, I’d love to hear your views on the subject.

Neil PatelNeil Patel is the co-founder of Crazy Egg, Hello Bar and KISSmetrics. He helps companies like Amazon, NBC, GM, HP and Viacom grow their revenue. The Wall Street Journal calls him a top influencer on the web, Forbes says he is one of the top 10 online marketers, and Entrepreneur Magazine says he created one of the 100 most brilliant companies in the world. He was recognized as a top 100 entrepreneur under the age of 30 by President Obama and one of the top 100 entrepreneurs under the age of 35 by the United Nations. Neil has also been awarded Congressional Recognition from the United States House of Representatives.

 

Why You Should Hire A Marketing Consultant: A Rebuttal To Neil Patel’s Post

Why you should hire a marketing consultant

A recent post on Neil Patel’s blog suggests you shouldn’t hire a marketing consultant. The gist of the article is that, despite having been a lauded, successful marketing consultant himself, Patel argues against hiring marketing consultants.

Before launching into my rebuttal, I feel it necessary to point out that Neil Patel offers paid online marketing courses for entrepreneurs to teach themselves how to do marketing. It’s in Patel’s best financial interest to convince entrepreneurs not to hire marketing consultants and instead pay him money for his products and e-courses. It’s likely he wrote this just to get people to click the controversial headline and convert (aka buy his instructional products).

So, knowing this article is likely just click bait to sell his own products, as a professional digital marketing consultant, I feel it necessary to respond. I respectfully disagree with Patel’s sweeping claim that hiring marketing consultants is never a good idea. I think he’s doing a disservice to his audience of entrepreneurs in a lot of his misguided, if well-intentioned, advice.

We’re going to go through Patel’s post line-by line, reader, to point out where his words are false. I’ve used Patel’s original article subheadings to organize my critique.

Consultants aren’t miracle workers

Patel starts out his troubling post by letting us know how in-demand he was and is as a marketing consultant. It’s not empty bragging; we all know Patel is skillful businessperson, which is why we all read Quick Sprout. Patel even says he still gets a thousand inquiries or more per month, despite no longer running his marketing consultancy. Patel tells readers that he received rave reviews and got great results for his clients while running a multi-million dollar marketing consultancy. He then goes on to say that hiring all marketing consultants is a bad idea. If you’re having trouble following the logic, you’re not alone.

“I’m telling you that you shouldn’t hire me, or any consultant for that matter, to help you with your marketing.” – Neil Patel.

Patel’s first reason you shouldn’t hire a marketing consultant is that consultants aren’t “miracle workers.”

He says: “If you have a bad product, a low converting site, or an offer that just doesn’t make sense, driving thousands of visitors to your website won’t fix your business.”

I absolutely agree with Patel on this one. No marketing consultant should take on a client  they think has a bad product or broken business model. But for every entrepreneur who hires a marketing consultant thinking it’ll be a panacea for their broken business, there are those who do have viable products and just need to figure out how to tell the right stories about them to the right audiences, aka marketing. Marketing consultants are not doing their jobs correctly if they don’t manage expectations from the outset.

I’m not sure what Neil claimed to be for his clients, but I personally care about a lot more than clicks and site traffic. There may be marketing experts who are just focused on bringing in visitors, but I urge against categorizing all marketers as single-minded in their approach. Perhaps his article should have been called, “Why You Shouldn’t Hire Someone Just To Drive Traffic To Your Site If Your Site Is Terrible And Your Product Needs Work.”

You can’t build a skyscraper without laying the foundation

The next point Patel makes is that entrepreneurs should “build their foundation” instead of hiring a digital marketing consultant. “Even the best marketers can’t turn around a shitty business, which is why you need to focus on creating a great product or service before you talk to a marketing consultant.”

At this point, Patel is saying you should consider hiring a digital marketing consultant, just after building the foundation of your business. We’ve already touched on the hypocrisy of this claim, but it warrants further exploration. It isn’t clear why Patel doesn’t just stake the claim that you should wait until hiring a marketing consultant until you’ve built a business foundation. Why throw all marketing consultants under the bus, per the title? Part of my job as a marketing consultant is to not take on any clients who I think lack the foundational elements of their business. This includes: solid value propositions and at least awareness and plans for ameliorating things like lackluster websites and social media presences.

You need to walk before you run

In the next point, Patel seems to be firmly changing his position that you shouldn’t hire a marketing consultant. He says he recommends trying to market your business by yourself before hiring a consultant. Again, that sounds rational–much more so than the title and thesis claim that you should never hire a marketing consultant. Just as many advise doing sales, customer success, and other business aspects before hiring, I think advising CEOs to do their own marketing first is a great idea. A CEO especially needs to have a strong grasp on the market positioning of his or her product. Patel recommends things like optimizing SEO, speeding up your site, starting a blog, interacting on social networks, etc. as things leaders should do before hiring. Again, Patel and I couldn’t agree more.

But then Patel loses me yet again. He says, “If you aren’t able to do all of the things above, you can always hire an intern or a college kid to help you out. Again, don’t look for a consultant.”

This part is especially troubling to me, and I believe is the worst advice given throughout the piece. I am all for lean startup business models, but hiring inexperienced help early on can seriously sabotage your startup and sap your energy. It’s a shame that Patel advises this, because hiring an amateur always leads to wasting time and money, undoing mistakes instead of reaping the benefits of a seasoned professional who has helped numerous other startups solve similar problems. Imagine if Patel had advised hiring a designer who is still in school learning Adobe, or a developer who just finished reading a book on Rails.

There’s nothing wrong with startups hiring interns to help with marketing, but that should be no substitute for expert marketing strategy and implementation. At the least, a marketing consultant can hire and manage a less experienced team to ensure all efforts are aligned and goals are being met. Patel laments that marketing consultants are “expensive,” which is another worrisome claim. What’s expensive is your business never getting off the ground because you’ve hired someone who has never done startup marketing before. Do you really want to hire someone who has little experience in your market and have them spend your time and money doing trial and error? Imagine your product never taking off because you’ve become burnt out trying to redo your website copy without the help of a professional content marketing expert. Do you really want to go the “cheap” route?

When to hire consultants

In the penultimate paragraph, Patel finally admits that hiring a marketing consultant is actually a good idea.

“Once you test the waters and try to grow your business on your own, you can consider hiring a consultant. Make sure you hire him or her for specific tasks instead of all your marketing needs.”

This is great to see, but I wish Patel had been more upfront about his perspective that someone should hire a marketing consultant after they’ve done the necessary work instead of not at all. He suggests the cases in which hiring consultants who meet specific needs has really helped his business, and advises not to look for “one-size-fits-all marketing consultants.”

I absolutely agree with Patel on this. I am sometimes asked to do things outside of my core competences, and I am always upfront about where my strengths and weaknesses lie. For example, I will not run and/or optimize clients’ PPC campaigns. It’s just not what I do.

Final thoughts

I completely agree that a lot needs to happen before you can bring on a marketing consultant or team (just as a lot needs to happen before you can hire a sales team). An excellent consultant can and will work with you to identify and build out assets you need, and/or advise when you need to improve other aspects of marketing than those they specialize in.

In my experience, startups and marketing consultants are often perfect matches. Many great startups can’t afford to hire full-time marketing experts, but they can afford to pay for an expert marketing consultant who can work as an “in-house asset” to strategize and deliver on measurable goals. A great marketing consultant can be agile and meet the unique needs of a company. S/he can work directly with CEOs and other consultants, and act as if they were an employee. Delivering measurable value should be their primary concern. Like any field, there are top performers and those who under-deliver and underwhelm. A great marketing consultant would never charge clients for what Patel calls “thumb twiddling”.

The right marketing consultant—one who works with you as if they were an employee, who has already worked with dozens of other startups and helped them accomplish their goals across various market segments—is a fantastic choice. They can also help you build out the foundation elements that Patel mentions in the post. Hiring an “intern” or “kid” can waste a lot of time and money. It’s far better to find a marketing consultant with reasonable rates who will get it right the first time.

In sum, I’m grateful for Patel’s dialogue, and would love to continue the discussion here. Have you ever hired a marketing consultant? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Interview With Carly Brantz, Director Of Revenue Marketing At SendGrid

I’m so excited to share today’s interview with Carly Brantz, Boulder, CO-based Director of Revenue Marketing at SendGrid. Carly generously spoke with me about the challenges and rewards of leading revenue marketing for a successful tech startup, as well as insights into increasing diversity and empowering women in tech.

Sarah Brown: What’s your background, and where are you from? 

Carly Brantz: I am a Boulder native and have spent my life in the beautiful bubble of Boulder.  In college I studied Business and Spanish with big hopes of working internationally and using Spanish.  I found myself working in tech immediately after college, working for a data analysis and visualization software company.  For the last ten years, my focus has centered around email and email deliverability in a variety of marketing positions.  I began working at SendGrid when we were less than 30 employees and it has been an adventure being part of an extremely fast growing company.  Email is constantly evolving and it makes my job interesting to stay on top of the latest changes and how that is impacting what we do.

Sarah: What’s your favorite part of your job as a revenue marketer for SendGrid?

Carly: I love having clear goals and expectations of me so the transition I’ve had over the last year of being tied to a revenue number and having a quota has been exciting.  I am so proud of my team and the extremely sophisticated programs they have created.  It is rewarding to see them in a constant state of improvement.  The executive team has given us the freedom to try and test new opportunities, which allows us to be creative about new things to experiment with.

Sarah: As a revenue marketer, how do you fit into the bigger picture of the goals of your organization? What departments/teams do you usually work with directly?

Carly: At SendGrid, we have four primary revenue stripes: Direct, Self Service, Partnerships and Customer Success.  My team is responsible for supporting each of those stripes with relevant content, lead generation, outbound advertising, nurture programs and optimizing landing pages and emails. In addition to that, I am responsible for the Self Service revenue number with clear goals and focus around growing that revenue number and making it simple for customers to sign up for a SendGrid account on their own.  I work very closely with others in the Revenue department to ensure we deploy tactics to improve conversions, close business and provide an excellent customer experience.  I work with and depend on our Business Information team to provide the details on each stage of the sales funnel to make informed decisions.  Lastly, I work closely with Finance for closed loop reporting and ROI so that I can analyze the impact of programs and our revenue attainment.

Sarah: What are the biggest challenges you face on a day-to-day basis working as a revenue marketer? How do you meet those challenges?

Carly: With my team supporting all four revenue stripes, it can be a balancing act to figure out the right resources to allocate to each of those stripes.  Much of that is addressed by continuously tracking and testing everything we do in order to find the sweet spots.  I am a very data driven person and I’ve never liked the assumption that marketing decisions are based on a hunch.  That being said, it is sometimes challenging to find the data or know where I need to dig in deeper to find the answers I need. Fortunately, we have great tools and people to help provide me the analysis I need but there are times that customer behavior changes or website traffic is in flux and I don’t have one clear explanation.

Sarah: As someone who blogs on the subject, what do you think are the biggest challenges women face in tech?

Carly: I have been reading a lot about women and our hesitation to try new things or take risks because we are afraid to fail or lack the confidence to take a firm position.  I can certainly relate to that as I am pretty risk adverse. I believe many women in leadership roles and in tech lack the confidence and the feeling of being worthy to try something that may not work.  There is beauty in mistakes because you learn how to improve.

Sarah: Are you connected to other women in tech? If so, what has it been like to compare roles and discuss the growing trend?

Carly: I wouldn’t say that I specifically seek out other women in tech roles to form relationships.  I am connected to other women, but it has developed more naturally. I think it is important to identify themes that women are noticing in technology, to share what we are learning.  I am always fascinated to hear how other companies break out their teams and learn from where they have found success or where they noticed changes needed to be made.

Sarah: On SendGrid’s blog, you wrote a great post about “sitting at the table.” Can you share more about what this entails?

Carly: I was inspired by Sheryl Sandburg’s book Lean In.  She articulated so many of the things I have felt and seen in my career but couldn’t quite pinpoint. I know personally, I have a tendency because I am grateful of everything I have in my career, to limit myself by not asking for more. Men ask for more, all the time, I see it every day, they don’t think twice about it.  We need to ask for what we want (and more!) and encourage other women to do the same.   I also find it easier to advocate for others rather than for myself.  I have been extremely fortunate to have an incredible role model and boss, Denise Hulce, VP of Revenue, who has encouraged me to ask for what I want, to voice my opinions and speak up when something doesn’t feel right.  This has helped push me out of my comfort zone.

Sarah: SendGrid is an active ambassador with NCWIT. What is the organization working on and why should people learn about their efforts?

Carly: Since our inception in 2009, SendGrid has partnered with NCWIT—the National Center for Women and Information Technology. NCWIT is an incredible organization that provides resources, research, and community outreach that help to create more opportunities for women in technical roles.  Over the past few years, we have sent groups to NCWIT’s summits and we are committed to continuing to participate in discussions that will create more opportunity for women in technical roles here at SendGrid and at our fellow tech companies as part of their Entrepreneurial Alliance, Pacesetters program, and their “Sit With Me” initiative.

Sarah: Anything else you’d like to share or elaborate on?

Carly: As a mother of two young girls, I have learned a lot over the past few years about treating myself with understanding as they grow up and as my career grows.  I think all moms have guilt one way or another and I was someone who was limiting myself because I was a mom and I was judging myself if I wanted more in my career because I didn’t want it to negatively impact my kids.  I think it is really healthy for women to have passions outside of their children and I believe that my kids benefit from seeing me in a successful career and having a focus in areas that are not centered around every move they make.

Carly Brantz of SendGrid featured on Sarah Brown MarketingCarly Brantz is a veteran in the email deliverability space working to make email simple and easy for developers by regularly writing whitepapers, research briefs and blog posts about email, technology and industry trends. Follow Carly Brantz on Twitter.

How Liberal Arts Colleges Prepare You To Work For Startups

Liberal arts grades can do very well at startups.

The Internet is filled with articles featuring college dropouts who’ve achieved impressive successes in the startup world. There’s this piece from Mashable, this one from Upstart, and this article from Forbes, just to pick a few. There have undeniably been those who do well outside of the confines of college as they prepare or launch their startup. However, while it’s certainly not the right choice for everyone, I’ve recently noticed how my liberal arts education profoundly prepared me for daily life working with startups.  I had some startup-relevant experiences through work and internship opportunities during college, but I’ve also found immense value return down the line even through just what I gained in the classroom.

Here are a few of the ways that I’ve found liberal arts colleges prepare you to work for startups:

1. You learn to go to the source.

source

My alma mater, Vassar College, has a saying, “go to the source.” This means getting to the source of an issue in order to find answers. It applied just as well in history classes as it did when solving issues as part of student groups or through community service projects. When you go to the primary source to solve a problem, you can often find new insights that you’d miss if you only checked out secondary or tertiary sources. My friend Cordelia, also a Vassar grad, wrote a fantastic piece on how she sees her role as a developer at Salesforce as that of an archaeologist. Cordelia writes that she often excavates old code, and must learn to understand it before she can build upon it in new code. This “go to the source” attitude applies to startups that are attempting to make an impact or disrupt existing industries by offering new value in the marketplace. Going to the source also involves questioning previously held beliefs about what will work best through doing multi-variate testing of landing pages, social campaigns, ads, and more. By being trained to get to the source to find solutions–including through understanding the experiences of your customer and his/her pain points–you’ll be many steps ahead of your competition.

2. You learn how to create compelling, data-based arguments–and, if needed, adapt them.

Using data to make arguments in startups.

In liberal arts college, every thesis you argue needs to be backed up by supporting references and sources. Learning how to stake a position based on data is what I do all day long working with startups. Why should a startup post in LinkedIn groups at a certain of day? What is the optimal number of blogs to publish per week to fuel the inbound lead generation funnel? What budget should a b2b startup allocate for display advertising, and on and on. All of these questions can and should be answered by data. Additionally, data changes over time, and it’s crucial to be willing to go back to the data and continue to test your hypotheses to see if they still hold true. In liberal arts environments, we learn to question as new theories, studies and data emerge. This is crucial to being effective and agile in the startup world, as well as keeping up with the ever-changing digital marketing landscape.

3. Learning ethnography prepares you to study the experiences of your startup customers.

Learning how to address the needs of your customer in startups.

Many liberal arts colleges have an anthropology or sociology requirement that teaches you how to do ethnography, which Wikipedia defines as “research method designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study.” Ethnography training has helped me immensely in learning how to collect data and survey responses in order to understand and address my startup clients’ needs, fears, and goals, as well as those of their target customers. By studying ethnography, you can also gain valuable insights into bias and how we often project our own experiences onto others. When startups don’t assume what their customers want and instead actually take the time to truly understand their customer’s experiences, they are usually rewarded with customer loyalty and increased success in the market.

4. You gain an understanding of how to approach and deliver constructive feedback.

Constructive feedback is very important in startups.

In my college nonfiction writing seminars, we had a concept called the “feedback sandwich.” Structuring criticism with what worked, what didn’t, and what was good but could be slightly improved (sharing some negative feedback betwixt positive feedback–hence, the sandwich) is incredibly effective. Sometimes feedback has to be 100% constructive, but often, there’s great stuff mixed in with not-so-great stuff. When editing writers’ blogs, I try to always highlight what’s good as well as what needs improvement. It usually helps us all focus on the constructive criticism without taking things too personally.

5. You learn how to lead small groups that can effect big changes.

Tribes by Seth Godin.In college, student groups I was involved in rallied together small groups of students, faculty, and staff to organize service projects, bring speakers, plan events, and more. Learning how to mobilize small groups to effect change is an invaluable startup skill. Seth Godin calls this phenomenon of small, strong groups making an impact “tribes,” which you can learn about in his book and Ted Talk on the subject.

6. You learn to recognize and understand societal inequality.

Inequality still exists in startups.

The liberal arts classroom offers many opportunities both through coursework and class discussion to unpack and recognize societal privilege and inequality among diverse populations. In the startup world, there’s still an undeniable lack of diversity at the leadership levels. Being aware of inequality and why it’s existed throughout history through the lens of a liberal arts education can help us move towards embracing a more equal startup world. Brad Feld, MIT grad and local Boulder VC, wrote a powerful article about increasing the numbers of women in leadership roles in tech.

7. Liberal arts colleges teach you how to write well.

Writing well is crucial to startup life.

This is the single-most important thing I learned in college: how to write a damn sentence. It behooves each of us in the startup world to learn how to express our ideas through cogent, clear writing. I took it for granted that I could write during school, but after, I’ve found it is pretty much crucial to my everyday life: writing social media strategy plans and social media posts, website copy, client proposals, startup client blogs, creative briefs, content marketing maps and, of course, emails.

8. You learn how to think broadly in order to solve problems.

Businesses need to think broadly to solve problems.

Liberal arts degrees are all about interdisciplinary thinking, and you have to think across silos in order to be effective in startups. I really like this Customer Success Summit talk by Jeanne Bliss on how startups can solve problems across departments. In order to address your customers’ needs, you’ll need to think broadly and across your startups’ departments.

Concluding Thoughts

Nothing can replace real-world startup experience. That’s why groups like Tradecraft, which train smart people to work in high traction roles at startups, are so great for those starting out, as they immediately immerse participants in real-world startup work. And, of course, in technical roles, it’s crucial to find people with technical skills above all else. But, for anyone worried their liberal arts college education isn’t helping to prepare them to achieve their goal of making a difference at a startup, I’d encourage them to reconsider. I’d also suggest strongly hiring liberal arts grads for your startup!

Does your startup hire liberal arts grads? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Six Ways That Being An Independent Contractor Transforms You

I was drinking my coffee with almond milk and stevia this morning and was thinking about how I have changed a lot since becoming an independent marketing contractor several years ago. After chatting on the subject with some of my fellow independent contractor friends, I’ve confirmed that there are indeed some universal things that we all go through when we make the transition into being full-time freelance. Here’s a short list of ways that being an independent contractor transforms you:

1. You begin to think and exist in multiple time zones.

Working remotely and simultaneously thinking in various time zones.

At any given moment, I know what time it is in Palo Alto, Dallas, Calgary, New Delhi, Johannesburg, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and, of course, my hometown, Boulder. I cannot help this. After repeatedly coordinating with contractors and companies spanning multiple time zones and continents, your brain begins to automatically convert to various times even without consulting world clocks. I have discussed this phenomenon with various independent contractors with whom I’ve worked, and they have each had the same thing happen. You can’t shut it off, and you wouldn’t want to if you could, because it’s so useful.

2. You become more in tune with your natural rhythms.

morning13n-1-web

Are you a morning person? I am. I vaguely sensed this during my years when I was working in-house for companies and nonprofits, but now that I set my work schedule, I’ve discovered that I do some of my best work far before the 9am crowd sits down to get to it. I also get a second wind in the early evening. Instead of being forced to end my work at 6pm like I did before becoming an independent contractor, I can pick up where I left off for an hour or two when I feel my freshest. The result? I work primarily when I am totally focused and on, because I have the freedom to allow myself to take off when I need a break to grab a bite, hike a mountain, or go to the gym. Marie Forleo has a great post on the subject. Other contractor friends need to wait until the sun goes down to transition into high gear productivity.  Because I am committed to working when I naturally feel inclined to, clients benefit because they get my best work, all the time. It’s a win-win.

3. You form meaningful connections with people you’ve never met in-person.

Online friends

I have many clients and fellow independent contractor friends I’ve only ever “met” on Skype. I’ve shared the joys of a new puppy adopted by a graphic designer co-worker in South Africa via Go-To-Meeting; I’ve shared genuine laughs (and done great work!) with a website designer based in Calgary; I regularly talk about local events going on in the Bay Area with a client even though I haven’t lived there for several years. I worked with a client in Los Angeles and finally met most of the office team after several months working with them remotely. When the company flew me out to meet the team, it felt like I already knew everyone–because I did. Thanks to the Internet, you don’t have to work in the same office to share a deep respect for other human beings with whom you co-work. That’s a weird thing to explain to those who are used to only networking with in-person offices, but you learn how to work around it and genuinely connect with those you haven’t met face-to-face.

4. You learn to become very skilled at conveying what you do and why it’s valuable.

Value proposition is something independent contractors must convey

Every single successful independent contractor I know has had to learn how to convey the value of what they do with others on a frequent basis. Though I’m versed in digital marketing and showcasing the value of the solutions I deliver to clients, and most of my work comes from referrals, each of my successful graphic designer, UX/UI and developer friends have had to learn how to sell themselves and their work services. It’s another thing that comes with the turf. I like Derek Halpern’s Social Triggers blog post on the subject.

5. Your beliefs about retirement change.

Retirement

I believe in investing for retirement and planning for it in the traditional sense, but when you’re an independent contractor, life doesn’t feel like it’s leading up to an eventual goal of being able to retire to finally do what you want–that’s our reality, right now. It’s a powerful place to be in and one that changes you on a deep, and I’d dare say even spiritual, level. FastCompany’s recent article is a great long read on the subject.

6. You develop a great sense of self-reliance and also learn how and when to ask for help from others.

Getting help as an independent contractor

It can be daunting and somewhat unnerving to not rely on anyone else to take care of everything for your work concerns. As an independent contractor, you have to figure out how to set and keep a budget, do your taxes (and plan for them), find and purchase health insurance, host and maintain your portfolio and website, manage your billing and schedule and client relationships and tackle various other tasks most people in traditional work settings don’t have to think about. You learn how to manage each challenge, and when you have trouble, you learn that you can and must seek help and guidance from trusted sources and fellow contractors who’ve been through the ropes. With Freelancer’s Union and other free resources available online, it’s not too difficult to solve challenges. You just have to be willing to ask for help.

Closing Thoughts

This list isn’t exhaustive–I wanted to share a few ways my independent contractor colleagues and I have changed, and would love to hear others’ thoughts about this topic.

Are you an independent contractor or business that hires independent contractors? Have you noticed anything else that should be on this list? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.