The Texas Plant Tour Was a Lose/Lose Situation for Tim Cook

The news started out benign enough, at least in the context of living in today’s timeline. The Twittersphere couldn’t contain its giggles when US President Donald Trump took to his legislative platform of choice to announce that he’d just “opened” a new Apple manufacturing plant in Texas.

The event, in fact, wasn’t an opening, and the plant’s existence had nothing to do with Trump’s influence. What transpired was a tour of a facility owned by a company called Flex. Flex has been assembling Mac Pros within those walls since 2013. This is nothing new.

Shortly after, however, the wheels started coming off the bus for Apple and CEO Tim Cook. Cook had accompanied Trump on the tour and was standing by him during a news conference when the president made a series of false or unsubstantiated claims about his involvement with Apple, the plant, and its operations. He then launched into a verbal diatribe on the US Congress as well as the media.

While this was happening, two other events took place simultaneously.

  1. Trump’s people filmed and photographed the event and used it as part of their re-election effort. And,
  2. Tim Cook stood by and didn’t say a single word.

Now, it’s no secret that Apple’s PR department hasn’t had an easy couple of weeks. Its relationship with China, as well as its perceived abandonment of those struggling in Hong Kong (and weak attempts at an explanation), have left it in the impossible situation of wanting to sell millions of its products to millions of people whose governments are perfectly fine with that – so long as those people can’t use the products to learn about, discuss, criticize, protest, or change their governments.

This post, however, isn’t about corporations and the roles and responsibilities (if any) they should be forced to take on in the fight against oppressive governments. It’s about Tim Cook, his thrusting of Apple into political Thunderdome, and where this all goes from here.

Under Jobs, Apple rarely strayed into politics. Granted, the global situation was significantly different during those times and, frankly, Jobs just might not have seen the need. Had that need emerged, it’s really not too hard to imagine a flustered Jobs approaching a senator, or even a president, forgoing the handshake, looking the official in the eyes, and loudly asking just what exactly the fuck they thought they were doing.

Cook, however, is much more the statesman, and his use of Apple’s influence and power in the political arena hasn’t gone unnoticed. But yesterday’s events show that it’s time to start wondering just how far he’s willing to go to placate those who wield significant power over the world in which Apple operates and sells its wares.

For evidence of that claim, one needs only look as far as yesterday’s events. After the tour, a reporter asked Trump if he was considering making Apple exempt from a sweeping set of tariffs the administration is levying on goods imported from China. “We’re looking at that,” was his response.

Talk about a lose/lose situation. If this was a Choose Your Own Adventure book, no one would buy it.

To go to war with the White House and publicly challenge or correct the President of the United States and embarrass him while he’s considering tariffs that could cost your company ridiculous amounts of cash, turn to page 23.

To say nothing while the President of the United States misrepresents his involvement with your company and then uses it as a backdrop for a campaign video and a stage for attacking American institutions like Congress and the media, thus drawing the ire of the activist public, turn to page 45.

No thanks…I’m putting this piece of shit back on the shelf.

In the moment – a moment I’d wager that Cook didn’t know was coming – he had a fraction of a second to decide what to do, how to respond, weigh the risks, phrase a possible response, and then execute that response. Done properly, his best case scenario might have been a Twitter rebuke and an hour or two in the news cycle. Done too aggressively, however, and the impact to Apple could have been hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars, as the tariff decision just so happened to not go Apple’s way.

Apple’s fans and customers are frustrated with the company and its recent placation and, some would say, embrace of China’s invasion of its citizens’ privacy, oppressors in Hong Kong, and…well…the Trump administration as a whole. Cook appears to be perfectly happy to kiss the ring and play the role of personal Apple Store Genius to the president.

But, he’s also being rewarded for his diplomacy. A tariff exemption would be a huge win for Apple, and Cook’s continued influence could potentially help shape technology policy for the foreseeable future. Apple’s influence on things like privacy, encryption, and even social issues both in and out of tech could be a net positive when compared to the alternatives.

Moving forward, however, some decisions need to be made and some boundaries need to be set. At the very least, some consideration needs to be taken in Cupertino for the optics of having the CEO of one of the world’s most beloved technology companies cozying up to one of the world’s most controversial leaders.

The fact is that Tim Cook got bullied yesterday. The question then is how much more shit he’s going to take before he reminds that bully that he runs a trillion-dollar company, and how he’ll counter if – no…when –the bully hits back again.

I Kept a Client for Two Years. It Was A Terrible Mistake.

When I first launched into freelancing about five years ago, I did so under the auspices – some might say romance – of the literal and historic origins of the term. The story goes that the word “freelance” comes to us from back when battles were fought with swords and shields. The “free lance” was a skilled soldier not bound to any king or lord. Rather, his services were available to the highest bidder. He would fight for whoever was paying him until the work was done, collect his coin, and move on.

For someone who had reached the end of his rope with the monotony of day-to-day corporate life, the freelance life was incredibly appealing to me; especially when I could talk about it using those kinds of words and ideas. Sure, I would need to define a skillset that allowed me to achieve the necessary level of authority to earn the freedom and independence I so desired in my work. But once I had created something that was viable and marketable, the notion of going into a situation, fixing it, and moving on to the next challenge was about as close to an ideal way of making money as I could imagine.

“Maintenance” would cease to be a part of my vocabulary. “Status quo” would be for everyone else. Settling in, getting comfortable, and plodding through the day-to-day would be for those who hadn’t been asked to resolve something the company was otherwise unable to resolve on its own.

After all, if they could, I wouldn’t be there.

This is how things went for the first few years of my endeavor. I’ve had the pleasure of working with clients around the world to overcome a wide variety of issues. I’ve elevated businesses and their leaders. I’ve helped to secure millions in investment and even more than that in revenue. I had successfully become the person working behind the scenes that no one knows about – the one who goes in unseen, affects the necessary change, collects my coin for a job well done, and moves on to the next battle.

And then they entered my life. For confidentiality reasons, I obviously can’t discuss who they are. For readability reasons, we’ll call them The Client.

The Client initially contacted me with a very specific set of needs. They had launched a new initiative, and the very nature of that initiative meant that someone had to handle it from the outside. This was very much a “come in and shake some shit up” kind of engagement – one of my favorite kinds. There was internal resistance, there was conflict, there was everything you’d expect to see when you’re trying to get a cruise ship to change direction with the agility of a jet ski.

I’d be lying if I denied that it was ridiculously fun. And, even better, it worked. Our mission succeeded and I was asked to do the same thing for a couple of other projects The Client had in the works. Failing to see the harm and enjoying the longer-term stability of a client that had a lot of work to be done and paid on time (otherwise known as hitting the freelancing jackpot), I accepted.

Anyway, after a while I finished those jobs, got paid for my efforts, virtually shook hands with my former employer, and walked away in search of my next temporary king.

See, that’s how this story should have ended. But it’s not. In reality, I became a de facto employee of The Client, allowed myself to become integrated into a full-time team and organizational structure, attended a multitude of meetings where I quite literally never said a word, took my orders, and woke up day after day feeling like I…had a job.

Mind you, this was not an “oh look, I have a new contract job to do” kind of feeling. No, I had a full-on job. A “roll out of bed in the morning and get ready for another day at the office” kind of job. The kind of job where the only thing missing was forced office birthday celebrations and a hellish commute either stuck in traffic or stuffed into a subway car with no option but to endure other people’s music through their shittily-fitting ear buds; a fate I was spared only because I worked from home.

The machine that fueled the maintenance of the status quo and squashed anything that tried to shake it up began firing on all cylinders once again within The Client’s walls, and I went from being an intentional wrench in the works to just another cog. I was no longer expected to fight and challenge and change. My role was now to shut up, get in line, and do what I was told.

This post, however, is not an indictment of The Client.

Quite the opposite really. I’ve written this post to indict myself. I’m indicting myself on charges of complacency, laziness, and greed and I’ve already found myself guilty on all counts. But, like the criminal who apologizes not out of remorse for their actions but out of remorse for getting caught, I must now also repent.

The Client paid well. They paid on time. The work was simple and the money was easy and they were willing to continue sending me barrels of cash in return for a minimal emotional or intellectual investment, so what kind of moron would I be to walk away from what others would say was the perfect work situation?

The simple fact of the matter is that I kept this particular relationship going for far longer than I should have because I sold out. I traded my soul for a paycheck and I abandoned the very thing that made me start doing what I do in the first place: my desire to use words to create opportunities for my clients and help them exploit those opportunities for everything they’re worth.

It was clear that my help in that context was no longer needed by The Client for quite some time. I knew it and they knew it. In the context of creating change and opportunities, my assistance wasn’t even wanted by the end. As time between contacts dwindled, drama reached a crescendo, and the river of tasks that was once swollen to its very limits dried up, I finally did what I should have done so long ago and formally terminated the relationship.

Having had some time to process, analyze, and learn from all of this, I’ve resolved to apply the experience’s lessons to my business from this point forward. I’m sharing them here for anyone else who might find themselves in the same situation.

First, I will never promise and/or dedicate all of my available bandwidth to a single client. That was one of the first things I did for The Client and I did it because of how much work they were promising. They also had limited experience working with a freelancer and I wanted to allay any fears they might have of my departure before getting it done. While I may have promised to forsake all others when marrying my wife, I’ll never do it for a client again.

Second, I now understand the power of recognizing the feeling of “this isn’t why I started doing this.” Frankly, if you’re in business for yourself and you’re not enjoying executing on that business, then why the hell are you doing it?

If I ever have to work with a client in a way that makes me wonder why I rolled out of bed that morning, then I will cease doing business with that client. Sure, there will be highs and lows. But when the lows start trouncing the highs, it’s time to walk away.

Third, I will never again compromise my business and professional needs for a paycheck. Was it nice not having to wonder about the next deposit into the bank account for a while? Absolutely. And, my time with The Client happened to coincide with a very expensive long-distance move. Having The Client’s money as a steady source of income did wonders to help pay for that move.

But the truth is that things with The Client should have ended long before the move even became a factor. Had I severed ties and moved on when I should have, The Client would have been a memory and “just another client success story” instead of a vivid example of what happens when you keep a relationship going long after its expiration date has come to pass, and the subsequent blog post about it.

As freelancers, we are in business to accomplish our tasks, collect our payment for achieving our employers’ goals, and move on to the next kingdom that requires our assistance (and is willing to pay our price for it). It is a key principle of doing what we do for a living.

I forgot that for a while, but I assure you I’ll never forget it again.

Apple TV+ Isn’t a Streaming Competitor – It’s an Add-on

With today’s launch of Disney+ the tech blog world is alight with comparisons to that other streaming service that launched this month, Apple TV+. Not content with simply having access to another library of content to enjoy, Apple TV+ is being tossed into cage match after cage match – first against stalwarts like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, and now against Disney+.

Apple TV+ versus Disney+ compared – the streaming wars escalate,” reads a headline on appleinsider. The lede? “The next phase of the streaming wars is upon us. On November 12, Disney+ launched with an overwhelming catalog of content. Here’s how it stacks up to Apple TV+.”

Apple is, obviously, quaking in their trillion dollar boots. Do you know how concerned they are?

The latest App Store email subject reads as follows: “Be the first to stream Disney+…right now!” I don’t want to get too crazy here but it’s almost like Apple sent out an email to its App Store subscriber list and told everyone about Disney+!

Wait – that’s exactly what happened. Here’s why.

Apple TV+ is not a fighter in the “streaming wars.” Apple TV+ wasn’t launched to get anyone to drop their Netflix subscription or unsubscribe from Hulu or force a choice between it and Disney+. How could it be? At launch, the service only offers original programming from Apple’s own studio. And regardless of how good it is (audience approval currently sits at an average of about 90% across the four main titles) it can’t hold a candle to the one-two punches of partnered content plus original content offered by Netflix or anyone else in this arena.

But it doesn’t have to, and Apple knows that – it would just be really nice if the rest of the world could also figure it out. For those that are deep into the Apple ecosystem, Apple TV+ is just another service like News+ or Arcade. It is a value-add that only serves to make the ecosystem that much nicer. If you want to see what they’ve produced, you subscribe (assuming you don’t have it free for a year like most). If you don’t find any value in it, then skip it.

There is nothing lost or gained in either direction – especially at the non-trial rate of five whole dollars a month. Like the Mac and computers, the iPod and music, the iPhone and mobile communication…even the Apple Card and personal finance, Apple has simply taken entertainment and video content and given it its own touch.

“Wars” generally have victors. They usually come with winners at the expense of the losers. Apple TV+ could lose 70% of its subscribers tomorrow, disappear, and Apple would still be a trillion-dollar company. If Netflix lost 70% of its customers, Netflix would cease to exist.

If anything, Disney+ exists in the gray area between Netflix/Hulu and Apple TV+. Its library is vast, but it is also exclusive – it just owns more properties, and those properties are big. After its own content combined with Marvel, Star Wars, and Fox, everything else is just icing on a delicious, mouse head-shaped cake. The move to pull it all under one paywalled garden might have pissed off the consumer world, but the business move was brilliant. And at just two dollars more per month than Apple TV+, it will be a fantastic add-on to any folder full of icons for our streaming services of choice. But, just like Apple TV+, it’s not going to replace Netflix for anyone. Or Hulu. Or Amazon Prime Video. It’s just another option. And if it fails (doubtful), Disney will keep chugging along.

So let’s cut the drama, stop trying to force competition where there really isn’t any, grab a beverage and a snack, and just enjoy whatever content we want on whatever service we want. There’s certainly no shortage.

Beside, the real war is between the streaming services and the cable companies. And the more we focus on pitting the streaming services against one another rather than realizing that we now have the greatest al la carte collection of content available to us we’ve ever had, the happier the cable execs are to sit back and watch.

Apple Card, Hansson, and Our Insatiable Appetite for Outrage

I’m scrolling through my Twitter feed this weekend when something catches my eye. It’s a retweet of someone I’ve never heard of and the first sentence has me doing an instant double-take.

“The @AppleCard is such a fucking sexist program.”

Cue the sound of a needle scratching to a halt on a record (some of you know this sound, others will have no idea what I’m talking about). This person is levying accusations of sexism against…a credit card. Ok – you have my attention. Who are you?

A click on the profile tells me that the accuser operating as the Twitter handle @dhh is the creator of the web development framework Ruby on Rails, the founder and CTO at Basecamp, a best-selling author, and a Le Mans race car driver. I still don’t know his name because none of that means anything to me and he doesn’t have it on his profile. I guess he just assumes that you don’t have to Google to know that his actual name is David Heinemeier Hansson.

Hansson is pissed. He’s gone on a multi-tweet tirade detailing the saga of his wife’s application for an Apple Card; a credit card program created by Apple and issued by banking juggernaut Goldman Sachs. Her application returned a credit limit 20x lower than his even though their finances are unified and they’ve been married “for a long time.”

In a series of tweets that attacks everything from blind faith in algorithms to mansplaining; from the utter shock that support reps wouldn’t have any insights into the proprietary algorithms used by Goldman to determine creditworhthiness (“Hi tier 1 customer service rep new hires! Today we’re going to tell you about our algorithm that we use to issue $10 billion in credit for a new credit card!”) to his thoughts on society’s marginalization of women, Hannson’s Twitter tirade takes more turns than…ahem…a Le Mans race track. Sorry – I had to. And yes, I’m just as mad at myself for making the joke as you are for me making the joke.

The tirade ends with Hansson’s lamenting a knee-jerk signup for a credit check with TransUnion and, according to a posted screenshot, paying for it with an Apple Card (I wish I was kidding). His wife is also given a “VIP” update to her credit limit; a fact that came as a shock to many. You see, for those without 356,000 followers on Twitter, the only available remedy for when your limit comes in lower than you’d like or your APR comes in higher than you’d like is to wait six months, establish a history, and then try again. It is indeed a truly hard life here among us simpletons.

Our tale, however, does not conclude here. Hansson’s rant got the attention of the New York Department of Financial Services, an agency tasked with regulating Wall Street (so, you know, they’re really effective and totally on your side). A spokesman confirmed that an investigation is underway, so taxpayer money is now being used to look into why Hansson’s wife got a credit limit lower than what he thought she should get.

I assure you that nothing will ever sum up the first part of the 21st century more than what you just read.

It’s the perfect storm of navel gazing, virtue signaling, and social justice (in fact, that’s also the perfect description of most of Hansson’s Twitter feed). And it is crystal clear evidence not of a society’s, bank’s, or tech company’s inherent bias against women, but our society’s outright addiction to outrage. In fact, I’d argue that Hansson’s tweets were custom-tailored, designed, engineered, manufactured, and packaged specifically to create as much outrage as humanly possible. The sad part isn’t that it worked, but that it worked so well.

Acceptance of Hansson’s premise would first mean accepting the idea that one of the largest financial institutions the world has ever seen decided to anchor a significant portion of its business to not extending credit to half of its customer population – a scenario made even more preposterous by the fact that according to most available sources, iPhone ownership is driven by women.

Second, you’d have to have irrefutable proof that this was happening across the board. Application and acceptance of an Apple Card is done completely through an iPhone. Decisions are generally rendered in under a minute and, as previously stated, Goldman has thus far issued about $10 billion in Apple Card credit.

So, aside from a few highly-amplified voices on Twitter (yes, I acknowledge that Woz himself chimed in with a similar story), what has the global breakdown been on Goldman credit issued to men versus women? Does a human being check these numbers at any sort of interval so they have something to say at staff meetings on how things are going with Apple Card? Do we seriously believe that a person of the caliber necessary to work in such a position lacks sufficient gray matter between their ears to be capable of wondering – perhaps even aloud – why the company is issuing orders of magnitude more credit to men than women; especially when more women own iPhones than men (thus leaving sweet, sweet Apple Card money on the table)?

Say it with me: anecdotal evidence is not good enough in these situations. This is true regardless of whether you’re a race car driver, a computational genius (put your pants back on Hansson, I was talking about Woz), or one of “the rest of us.” For every story that shared Hansson’s experience, I saw one that also had higher credit limits issued to women over men. Does that disqualify the accusation? What’s our actual sample we’re using to levy a claim of sexism in Apple Card issuance other than Twitter users who applied for Apple Cards? Or, is that all it takes now?

For this to be a systemic issue illustrative of one of society’s greatest woes, wouldn’t the discrepancy have to be so obvious that it would be virtually undeniable? After all, factors of 20x are large enough on their own. When scaled to $10 billion, they become even more magnified. Why then is this the first we’re hearing about this “crisis” since the Apple Card launched in August? Surely, the Hanssons and Wozniaks can’t be the first couples of means with iPhones to see such significant discrepancies in credit issued in the past few months. Before we start throwing Apple and Goldman execs in a lake to see if they float, shouldn’t we take a look at a bit more evidence?

Last, why is Apple even in this conversation, let alone accused of sexism itself? Apple’s not issuing the card – Goldman is. Apple’s not issuing the credit – Goldman is. Apple’s not coming after you if you don’t pay your balance – Goldman is. If accusations are going to be levied, shouldn’t they at least be levied at the correct party?

Don’t try to make that argument to Hansson though. “I’d be surprised to learn if the team at Apple working on this wasn’t over-represented with men,” he writes in another tweet during his tantrum, “or at least women who haven’t had to worry about credit approval. Easy to go with status quo when it flows for you.”

Ok, hold up. Let’s dissect this for a moment.

“I’d be surprised to learn if the team at Apple working on this wasn’t over-represented with men.” Ok – that’s easy enough to understand. Next.

“I’d be surprised to learn if the team at Apple working on this wasn’t over-represented with…at least women who haven’t had to worry about credit approval.”

Oh! Women like Jennifer Bailey perhaps? You remember Jennifer Bailey, don’t you? She’s the Vice President of Internet Services and Apple Pay at Apple and the woman who took the stage at the keynote to introduce Apple Card.

As a guiding hand in the creation of a new Apple service, is it Hansson’s assertion that Bailey worked to create a product that was specifically designed to minimize and disadvantage women who don’t share her wealth? Did he ask her?

Surely if 350,000 Twitter followers can get you a VIP update to a credit limit, it can get you a quick reply from an executive at a company you’re attacking for sexism. Hell, maybe there was someone else in the room and they heard her say “you know what I want to see? I want to see our logo on a credit card that fucks women who don’t make as much as I do. And let’s make it titanium while we’re at it.” I’ll bet they all laughed and laughed. Someone probably ripped a hundred dollar bill in half just for the gigs.

Has anyone like that come forward?

Wait…now I’m getting confused. I thought I was supposed to be outraged at Apple for having a sexist credit card. But now I’m supposed to be outraged at rich women (and, I think, some dudes) for creating a credit card that underserves not rich women.

Be right back – searching my house for some ibuprofen.

Do bear in mind through all of this, however, that the outrage machine has no time for any of these questions, especially when its throttles have been pushed to the stops and the conductor is stopping only to marvel at his creation and amplify those that are amplifying him. With his fame now stretching into its fourth day and his name now being uttered from the lips of those at Good Morning America, CNBC, Bloomberg, and others, Hansson must be giddy at the thought of turning those 350,000 Twitter followers into 500,000. I wonder what kind of VIP benefits you get at the half-million mark.

So what’s my point? If you’ve read this far and concluded that I’m simply a part of the patriarchy that is also now apparently colluding with rich women in an oddly specific effort to keep not-rich women down, well, you’ve wasted your time. I don’t know any rich women.

My point is that accusations demand evidence. Regardless of their size, regardless of their scale, accusations require evidence to back them up and actual, civil discussion to determine their merits. It could very well be that we discover that there is something screwed up in the Goldman algorithm that is making it issue disproportionately low credit limits to some women. And if that’s the case, then Goldman should be made to apologize and remedy the situation and see that it never happens again. If the act was intentional, then some people should lose their jobs.

But one or two or 30 or 50 or 100 or 500 instances out of $10 billion is not evidence of sexism. It is evidence of a rounding error. Let’s all just calm down a bit, take our fingers off the trigger, and spend some time asking some questions before we take our pitchforks to Cupertino.

Or wait – was that Wall Street? Ah fuck it – wherever we’re supposed to be mad today.

Using Content Development to Build Authority and Be the Expert

The conversation started innocently enough.

“I’ve had a chance to take a look at your site and, at first glance, it’s very well developed. It’s graphically pleasing and flows well. The problem is that it doesn’t do much to establish you as the person that someone should make this purchase from. Based on your site, you’re really just another vendor.”

“What do you mean? I’ve got a ton of graphics at the bottom that show all of the awards I’ve won!”

“Well, awards are good but if I’m looking for someone who really knows their product, I’m going to want the person that can explain that product to me inside and out. They need to show that they live and breathe this thing. Awards, frankly, can be bought. We need to establish you as the real deal in this industry.”

After a few moments of deafening silence (and fully expecting to hear the phone being hung up on me), the client came back.

“Fine, so how do we do that?”

Those were the words I needed to hear. “How do we do that” is why I do what I do. Now that this barrier had been overcome we could actually have a real conversation about the client and his business.

See, it used to be that all you needed in order to claim that you had an online presence was a website with a picture or two and a listing of your address, phone number, and hours. It was the digital equivalent of hanging a sign on your door and waiting for customers to come moseying in.

This worked great way back when we could isolate our business to our surrounding town or village and only one or two other people might have offered a competing good or service. Today, however, businesses have to understand that they – like it or not – are probably participating in a regional; if not global, marketplace and they need to do something to differentiate themselves in that marketplace.

For some, the immediate instinct is to start competing on price. I want you to say this with me:

Competing on price will only lead to a race to the bottom. A price-motivated customer will buy from one of your competitors if doing so means they can save a penny. This is not the customer you want.

Instead, your ideal customer is one that values not only your product or service but also the knowledge about the product or service that you bring to the table. You probably have years of experience doing what you do. It’s what motivated you to go into business in the first place. And that, dear reader, is what we’re going to sell.

This product or service of yours isn’t just a commodity to be offered for the lowest possible price. It is something that you have nurtured for years and your customers will have those years of experience standing behind every purchase they make from you.

The question is how we use your web presence to demonstrate that.

Well, it just so happens that you’re doing business at the greatest time in human history for those who need to demonstrate their expertise in their marketplace of choice. Your website is so much more than a sign on a door. It is a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week, 365 day a year (or more…they keep working on leap years!) marketing powerhouse that serves one purpose: delivering your message to anyone who will read it.

Your strategy, as a result, needs to focus on four key ideas:

  • Attracting visitors
  • Keeping visitors coming back for more
  • Establishing your authority with those visitors
  • Converting visitors to clients, customers, or advocates

We’ll tackle each of these, and more, in future posts. Since this is the first post on this topic, I wanted to keep it nice and basic. But, for now, think about what your website currently does to attract your ideal customer. Are you casting a wide net and going after everyone you see or are you being selective and targeting your ideal customer and working to bring the perfect solution (which, of course, is you!) to them?

Your LinkedIn Profile Isn’t Getting a Second Look. Here’s Why.

The closure of a long-term contract relationship has me paying a newly renewed amount of attention to my social presence. Tangentially, I’m also paying new attention to the social presence of others – namely, my competitors. The primary target of that attention? LinkedIn.

In most cases, the searches I’ve run against LinkedIn have shown me companies that might benefit from the particular types of services I offer. But, in other cases, I search for writers; sometimes for possible collaboration but most searches are run simply for competitive analysis. I find myself routinely asking: If my profile came up in a search with 20 of these other writers, whose would stand out? Whose would get clicked? Whose would get dismissed without a second thought?

I have to tell you – I like my odds.

For all the value it can provide, it is disheartening to see most people, both those that come up in my searches and those that LinkedIn suggests as people I may know, still treating the platform like the red-headed stepchild of their online social presence.

When used properly, LinkedIn provides an amazing opportunity in that it is the online representation of your professional existence. Other sites exist for sharing vacation photos and your musings on this week’s episode of Why, In the Name of All That is Holy, Am I Watching This?

But, jobs can be won and, in some cases, careers can be built off of having an effective LinkedIn strategy and profile. Yet, for all the talk you hear about how useful it can be, most people’s use of LinkedIn borders on the atrocious – and I’m not even talking about the writing.

Now, don’t get me wrong; a lot that writing is bad. And, as a writer, I’m supposed to tell you about the importance of well-constructed sentences, the absence of typos, and a demonstration of an ability to present yourself – and your professional attributes – in clear and concise ways. But I’d venture to guess that many of you don’t even get past the results list.

And there is no reason for that to be the case.

We live in a time where the acquisition of a reasonably high-quality (actually, let’s set the bar even lower….how about just decent) photograph is as easy as throwing on something professional-looking, pulling your phone out of your pocket, handing it to a friend, and offering a cup of coffee or a pint in exchange for 15 minutes of their time to grab a few pictures of you. Statistics dictate that one of those pictures will probably be usable as a LinkedIn photograph.

Why some people feel compelled, then, to use the same pictures they’re using on Facebook or other social networks as their LinkedIn pictures, I will never know. In searches on LinkedIn I have found profile photos including:

  • Photos obviously intended as wedding portraits (say it with me: rented tux =/= suit. And now I have to wonder if you even own one of the latter)
  • Pictures of people’s pets (I’m not hiring your cat. And now I’m not hiring you either)
  • Family portraits – of the entire family (which one of you actually wants to connect with me?)
  • Pictures obviously shot at a bar (at least I’ll know what you look like at happy hour)
  • Pictures obviously shot after a night at said bar (at least I know that you can’t hold your alcohol)
  • Pictures that have obviously been cropped to exclude others (just have someone take a picture of you – did you really think I wouldn’t notice the arm around you or the 3 other shoulders in the picture?)
  • Pictures of an American flag (well, at least your I9 shouldn’t be an issue)

Now, is my LinkedIn profile photo perfect? No. Far from it. Those of you who choose to connect with me on LinkedIn will notice that the lighting is a touch harsh, my facial expression is a bit less than ideal (I mean, those eyes. Really?) and, overall, it’s really not the most flattering picture ever taken of someone. It needs to be replaced at some point.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not great, but it meets my immediate requirements:

  • It is obviously a headshot
  • There is no one else in the picture – either in full or in part
  • It is well lit
  • The background is out of focus
  • Posting it in a professional context does not embarrass me

Can you say the same thing about yours?

If you have a profile on LinkedIn, regardless of whether you’re spending any time on the site, you at least want people to read what you’ve accomplished. Stop making your profile photo be the thing that prevents that from happening.

We’ll work on the writing for it later.

How (not) to Write a Job Listing on Upwork

Contrary to the view of many freelancers, I believe that sites like Upwork can be very helpful in introducing a freelancer to a market that he or she may not have otherwise had access to.

Now, does Upwork have its problems? Absofuckinglutely. But there are also benefits to the platform, particularly when talking about the new freelancer. A new freelancer who might be testing the waters or working on building their business during nights and weekends is not going to be able to invest the time and effort necessary during normal business hours. Having access to a global marketplace full of people looking for particular skill sets can make a tremendous difference – especially when that marketplace is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

At the same time, the freelancer who already has a steady book of clients and no issues finding new work may use these platforms on occasion to simply see what else is out there. Networking, referrals, and other methods for finding, and keeping, work certainly have their place. But, frankly, there is nothing wrong with opening the laptop every so often and just taking a peek at what is available. You may find a dream client that wanted to give using freelancers a try and that was the only way they knew how at the time.

The flip side of this, however, is the employers’ side. Spend enough time looking through various job postings on freelance marketplaces and you’ll see posts that run quite the gamut. And, it will become painfully obvious that some employers, quite honestly, just have no idea what it’s like to work with a freelancer. They insist on applying classic business principles and ideas to a non-traditional method of getting work done.

To help resolve this quandary, I’ve created a short list of dos and don’ts for you to follow the next time you decide to wade into the freelance pool in search of the right person to get your project completed.

Do state the actual task in the listing. If you are looking for someone to write content for your website about growing catnip, then state that you are looking for someone to write content for your website about growing catnip.

As such, don’t be vague. “I need someone to write content” is a brilliant statement of the obvious – you wouldn’t be posting a job if you didn’t need someone to write content for you. The question is what kind content do you need written? Does it fall within my skills, abilities, and interests?

If I don’t have the answers to those questions I won’t know if we can work well together and I’m not going to apply to your posting. Instead, I’m going to invest my time in reaching out to posters who clearly state their needs because I’ll know, from the start, that I can make an impact on their business.

Do understand that you are hiring a freelancer and not a full-time employee. The freelancer who views your post may be working with one, two, or ten other clients at that particular moment. Regardless of the number, however, the freelancer operates in this arena because they do not want to be an employee.

I saw a job listing a while back that stated that the freelancer needed to be available on Skype for all 9 hours of the business day. They were required to attend every morning meeting and afternoon wrap-up. Tardiness to these meetings would result in immediate dismissal. Repeated failures to answer Skype messages would result in immediate dismissal. Taking too long to respond to an email would result in immediate dismissal.

Not only is that a company that I would never freelance for, it is a company that I would never work for. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you are hiring a freelancer to solve a specific problem for you. Our days can be incredibly varied. Some days may mean that I’m at my desk from the time I wake up to the time I realize that I haven’t eaten yet and my cats want dinner. Other days, I may have errands to run or want to get out of the house for a while and go for a bike ride or a hike.

If you want to know the key to working with a freelancer it is this: Give me a task and tell me when you need it completed. Understand, however, that how that task gets completed will be left up to me.

Don’t be grandiose in your posting. “We are only looking for the very best. If you’re not the best, don’t even bother applying. If you’re mediocre, we don’t want you. We’re the best and we only work with the best.”

Oh just stop.

The reason that you’re not hearing from people on posts like this isn’t because there’s a limited amount of talent available – it’s because those of us who are good at what we do have no desire to work with someone who would make this their introduction.

Don’t ever ask for free work. Look, I get it. There are a lot of bad freelancers out there. And, there are a lot of people out there calling themselves freelancers who are basically just trying to turn a quick buck at your expense.

But asking for free work as a trial is not how get around this problem.

As a freelance writer, I have no shortage of work that I can present to you as an example of what I am capable of. They are called writing samples and every one of us has them. I will gladly go through my writing samples and I will find something that presents my skills in a way that shows whether I am a match for you or not. If you want something that shows my ability to research, ask for a sample that involved a lot of research. If you want something that shows my ability to evoke emotions, ask for something that I wrote for that purpose.

But, my time, and my skill set, is valuable. Producing free work for you in hopes of getting your job is simply not an option.

Do be responsive. If a freelancer that you are interested in gets in touch with you, provide them the courtesy of a timely reply. It will show that you value their potential impact and that you are serious about the work you need done. It will also increase the possibility of you booking that freelancer before they find work elsewhere. If you found their reply to your post appealing, odds are that a few other companies did as well. The odds that they replied only to you in their last search session are incredibly low.

Lastly, don’t forget that you get what you pay for. If you’re a bargain-basement client looking for 2000 words for 10 dollars, then understand the caliber of work you are setting yourself up to receive. If you want quality, then you’re going to have to be willing to pay for it.

Hiring a freelancer is not the journey into the unknown that you think it is. By understanding just a few key differences, you can increase the odds of setting a relationship in place that will pay for itself tenfold, for you and for the freelancer. And, when both sides are happy with their arrangement, amazing things can happen.

A Beautiful Break from the Routine

The vast majority of the work I do involves people that I have never met. I seek out local clients, sure, but most of my clientele resides in other states, if not countries, from my own.

It makes the act of forming and creating true, actual connections challenging. While we both work toward the same common goal, that goal is expressed and communicated mostly via the methodology that I’m using right now: fingers on a keyboard.

This is, for the most part, fine. As my clients’ voice to the outside world, one of the things I pride myself on is my ability to deduce and decipher personalities, nuances, and the rest of the things that make us unique as individuals, solely from the things that I read from them.

I take the sum of our interactions and create, in my mind, a persona for each and every client I have. One of them “writes” very directly. They do not beat around the bush and they present their information with an almost robotic efficiency. Another seems like they could have gone into business as a professional storyteller rather than the line of work they chose. They approach their business and their style with a familiarity that puts customers, and potential customers, at immediate ease.

I will, at times, write for both of these clients on the same day. The end of those days will, at times, involve scotch.

In my daily routine, the ding of an email is a call for attention. The subject line of a message sitting in my inbox is the patient wait for me to tend to a need. The typeface of a message’s content is the “face” that’s presented during our interaction.

Sometimes something happens, however, that completely reintroduces a client to me.

I woke up one morning early last week week to an email from an overseas client. This isn’t uncommon. I was expecting a status update or a question on something we’re working on. Emails from my clients on the other side of the world stack up overnight and wait for me to sort through them with coffee each morning.

This email, however, contained none of those things. What I found instead was a picture.

The client had gathered their team in front of a lens, snapped a photo, and sent it to me.

Typed out, this all seems so simple. After all, in today’s mostly visual world we take photos almost every day. But the feeling of seeing that photo, especially since it was not expected, is something that will not soon be forgotten.

See, I knew what my primary contacts within the organization looked like; I’d seen their pictures numerous times. I did not, however, have the slightest idea what anyone else in the company looked like. I’d never seen the smiles on their faces. I’d never seen their eyes and the way they shine as they work toward success; for the company and for themselves.

I could have walked past any one of them on the street and not thought twice. I could have spent hours in the same room with them and had no idea that they were as dependent on me for their prosperity as I was on them, in some part, for my own.

It’s all too easy to forget in this world of keyboards and monitors that there are real-life, actual people on the other side of these devices. It’s easy to forget that, while an email may just be a collection of words, those words represent the collective hopes and dreams of so many others.

This holiday season, as meals are consumed, gifts are unwrapped, and thank-you’s are exchanged, I’ll say a silent thank you to this client for giving me a look inside their world from a few thousand miles away. I’ll thank them for a wonderful reminder of what these relationships mean. And, I’ll thank them for a beautiful break in a morning routine that reminded me, yet again, of why I do what I do.

Your “Social Media Expert” Probably Isn’t One

Like most, I’m exhausted by the incessant flood of bad news and catastrophes that hit our news and social feeds. But, geopolitics aside, this blog isn’t about analyzing the roots of terrorism, causes of climate change, or the discussion of appropriate responses to any of the world’s ailments. This is a blog written by someone who writes words for other people and knows how to market ideas. That being the case, there’s something that I want to talk about that keeps happening in our world as web marketers – and it’s appalling.

It’s indicative of the continued erosion of the value of social media as a vehicle for real engagement; of the vast number of so-called “social media experts” that have, time and time again, proven that they have no idea what social actually means.

While the human in me recoils in horror at what transpires in a time of crisis; whether it’s an ocean away or much closer to home, the professional in me never fails to recoil when I look at my Twitter stream.

You see, when news breaks, Twitter is my default go-to. The media has largely proven itself to be an entertainment industry first, a money-making enterprise second, and an actual news reporting entity somewhere down around number eight or nine on the list. As such, I mostly ignore it. But the ability to get information quickly and from multiple sources simultaneously makes Twitter a no-brainer when it comes to following a breaking story.

My personal and professional streams are one and the same. The account I use to get news and information is the same account that I use to keep up with the goings-on in my industry. And, as incredible as it seems in the time of crisis, my industry never fails to keep on keeping on.

So-called social media experts continue tweeting out self-serving links – links to posts they wrote, links to posts that other people wrote, links to classes they want you to sign up for, links to live video chats they’re hosting – with no acknowledgement of what’s happening in the world around them.

Of course, anyone who has been online more than a day or two knows that these people aren’t sitting in front of their TVs watching these events unfold while they write and send these tweets. Hell, anyone who has almost any social presence whatsoever knows that most of what you see today isn’t actually composed in real time. It’s all automated – pre-composed and calendared to go out at regular intervals to ensure that your “voice” continues to be heard, even when you’re nowhere near a computer. It’s today’s way of gaining “influence” and, frankly, it sucks.

You know why it sucks? Because there’s a dirty little secret that no one wants you to know. Here it is:

If it wasn’t for automated services, most of the people who run these accounts wouldn’t have anything to say.

Look at the tweet count on some of them…most are in the high 5-figures while some have easily cleared the 100,000 tweet mark. What’s the best case scenario for a signal to noise ratio on an account that is tweeting out anywhere from two to five links per hour? Or, perhaps even more importantly – when do they have the time to read the things that they’re recommending that you go out and read yourself?

They don’t have the time because they haven’t read the links. If they had, they would never get anything done. Mathematically, there’s simply not enough time in a day.

But above and beyond all of this: regardless of your opinion of automation, the role of social media in developing influence, engagement versus broadcast, or any of the other “issues” in our industry (because “issue” seems like such an overstatement in this context), one thing has become absolutely essential to understand:

If you’re going to automate your social media presence, you pause it when the shit hits the fan.

This is the price you pay for the gift of being able to put your “influence” on auto-pilot. The thought process should, quite literally, be:

Oh my god, this event is horrible.

I need to suspend my social media automation, now. Not in a minute or two…right fucking now.

I unfollow a lot of people when tragedy strikes for the sole reason that, in that one instance, they prove to me that they don’t know jack shit about social, empathy, or – perhaps most simply – what it means to be a human being.

If they did, they would have known that shutting down the automation of their self-serving promotion was job one. We’re still people behind these keyboards and no matter how much you want to say that times have changed and the “social mission” has changed, your stream is still you communicating to the world.

And just like the death of someone’s parent is the wrong time to ask about that five dollars they owe you, a national or global tragedy is the wrong time to tell your followers about the 67,243rd link that you think they should read.

The Folly of False Feedback

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

Winston Churchill

I’ve been part of quite a few freelancing groups online. They’ve been based mostly on Facebook and they’re the kinds of groups that revolve around some blogger’s ability to have created a community around her- or himself.

You know the types – read the site, sign up for a newsletter or two, and then BLAM – join my private Facebook group (like there’s actually some barrier to entry) to get even more information and meet other like-minded entrepreneurs. We can all celebrate the awesomeness of our lives together!!

I quickly realized that I’m not cut out for these groups. They’re too….touchy-feely. They exist solely to prop people up when, in reality, a lot of the people involved need reality checks more than they need support. When you’re a “writer” and you post a link to one of your typo-ridden blog posts for circulation and no one calls attention to its shortcomings for fear of “tearing you down,” well, that’s a problem. (like this last sentence…holy run-on, right??)

Yet comment after comment in these groups is the same:

“Oh, this is great!”
“I really needed to read this today! Thanks!”
“Sooooo good!!”

and, my personal favorite….

“OMG – totally adding this to my Buffer.”

OMG, kill me.

In reality, the comments should go something like:

“Decent start, but your sentence structure needs a little work…keep going!”
“I got a little lost on the point you were making in the third paragraph. Otherwise, it’s a great start and I’m looking forward to seeing the finished version!”
“D’oh! There’s a typo in the second paragraph. Fix that, re-work the fourth sentence in the fifth paragraph, and fix that big block of text in the middle of the page. But you’re on to something!”

Ok, so by now you’re probably asking if I’m in a particularly bad mood as I write this. Truth be told, I might be feeling a bit snarky. But that doesn’t negate a very important fact of life and the thread that will run through today’s post. And that is…..

People don’t learn unless they are criticized.

Tell someone that they’re good at something when they’re not and they will continue to do that thing badly. You haven’t propped them up – you’ve done them an incredible disservice.

Now, I understand when friends do this for other friends. I operated as a professional photographer a few years ago and, like most people with a camera, I loved taking pictures and sharing them with my circle. The feedback was always amazing:

“Sooooo good!!”
“WOW!! Absolutely gorgeous!”
“Love this!!”
“Beautiful pictures, Eric!”

Admittedly, this was great for the ego. But, I was also self-aware enough to wonder if the same feedback would be possible from complete strangers. And, sure enough, it wasn’t until I sought the advice and criticism from those who didn’t actually know me that I started to get better at my craft. It would take years of this particular kind of growth before I would have the audacity to charge for my work.

The same thing has happened with writing. I’ve shared a few pieces with friends along the way. They were, of course, very supportive. But it wasn’t until I started putting my words in the public eye and seeking out true criticism that I started discovering the things that I really needed to improve upon. Because, guess what…there actually were faults in the writing. There were cracks and there were things that needed my attention. Hell, there were full-on holes. There was massive room for improvement.

This is what puzzled me about these Facebook groups. These are people who don’t technically know each other. They’re not friends, per se. They are merely people united under the common flag of having started working as freelancers. They are looking for some sort of common bond to share with others. They are looking to learn, to grow, and to make themselves better and give themselves a better chance at success.

So, why do they decide to spend that time lying to each other??

Here’s what happens in a situation like that.

Our freelancer in question posts blog post after blog post to their group. Week after week, they post their little “tidbits” and life stories and week after week they’re told how good their posts are. Never mind that it’s work that probably wouldn’t make it past a 7th grade English teacher. No, we’re going to keep telling our freelancer that their posts are great and we’re going to comment on them and maybe even share them with others.

Then the freelancer decides to go after a job. Propped up by months of positive feedback for mediocre work, the freelancer confidently goes after a job, somehow gets a win – probably based on personality – and starts working.

Two weeks later, the client is livid.

The work is mostly unusable and will require the client to go find another freelancer to fix it – spending even more money because they are now effectively having to buy this work twice.

The freelancer is crushed. Literally….crushed. They have no idea what just happened. Every single word they’ve ever heard about anything they’ve ever produced, even from the strangers in their Facebook groups, has been positive. But, when it came down what matters, they failed miserably.

So what was the difference? What was that thing that mattered? It’s simple.


Clients expect value for the money they are giving in exchange for your work. They are enriching you financially so they damn well better be getting something in return. They’re not paying you in feedback or in slots in their Buffer queue. They’re paying you with cash. Legal currency that could do just as much for them as it can do for you.

Keep that in mind when you’re feeling like stepping outside of the guarded walls of your positive feedback loop. Seek out critical eyes that have no problem telling you that your work is just ok.

Opportunities to improve are everywhere – even in the places we don’t want to look.