Be Your Business: Don’t Forget to Fail Well

Photo Credit - Chuck Olsen CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Photo Credit – Chuck Olsen CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Adversity: The New Normal

It happens. Things go south and it’s not even clear how. Your client and you can’t see eye to eye, or your enthusiastic new business partner has dropped off the radar. The project you’ve invested weeks, months, or years into may never see the light of day.

Failure comes in many forms and the increasing complexity of our projects and the world they operate in doesn’t help. Despite our best efforts, learning the hard way is often the only way. Perhaps this is why modern startup culture has rallied around the mantra: “Fail fast. Fail early. Fail often.” But I spent the better part of my career failing, and the experience leads me to believe the common refrain to be lacking.

Like gymnasts who train to fall properly, I believe we must learn to fail well. Something I never did. It took me 12 years and spectacular failure as a freelancer and as a startup CEO, but I think I’m starting to learn the art of failing well.

Don’t Make Things Worse

Here’s the framework I use. I hope it helps you remain lucid in the face of failure and, FSM willing, makes your next failure a little less painful.

  • Managing Yourself: Stay calm. There are plenty of fish in the sea. Mindfulness meditation, hikes, and frequent visits to the beach helped me through my most challenging failures. We can easily be our worst when things get rough, so proactive self-care is fundamental to failing well.
  • Managing the Relationship: Failure tests relationships with coworkers and with clients. Do not seek blame – most failures are collaborative – but do a post mortem. Your goal is first to establish a conciliatory, productive, tone, and only then dive into the nitty gritty of resolution. Be generous. Learn to apologize well. And, when appropriate, cut your losses.
  • Managing Your Reputation: Do not bad mouth former clients and coworkers. Learn to tell your story without peppering them with mitigating factors – they sound a lot like excuses. But actions speak louder than words, so focus on doing good and learning from the failure.

Those should help you think through your next rebound. But I’d be remiss if I left you with advice only in the abstract. I have stories and practical applications of the above framework in depth, and I’m happy to share my wisdom.

Upgrade to Better Failures

I will close with my list of the top 10 freelance pitfalls. Do your best to avoid these, or at least learn from them!

  1. Fail to Measure: Do not put this off. Do not believe the voice in your head, you should be measuring even if you don’t “have to.” Track your time. Watch your cash flow. Without data, both your business and your welfare is subject to the winds of intuition. With data, you can build ever more precise estimates and craft ever more lucrative proposals.
  2. Work Without a Contract: I don’t care if you are BFFs or married to your client, you need a contract. Even if money is not changing hands, a contract brings clarity to critical issues like ownership of intellectual property, communication standards, and warranty/maintenance. Don’t want to pay an attorney? Look online for templates, or just write a “Memorandum of Understanding” in plain English and have both parties sign it.
  3. Over Commit: It seems obvious but we humans are skilled at overestimating our own abilities, so it bears repeating. Of note, it is shockingly easy to over commit if you have failed to measure and do not know either your capacity or the current utilization of that capacity.
  4. Give it Away for Free: Pro bono work is good. But ask for a recommendation, referrals, or a case study. Even if your invoice shows a 100% discount, send that invoice. And if you’re doing a free consultation, remember you’re there to build a rapport, not to instruct your lead on how to provide the service you are offering.
  5. Surprise a Client: I’m not talking about flowers or wine here. I’m talking about failing to set expectations, or over promising then under delivering. People are more forgiving than you think, so alert them at the first sign of danger. Nothing is worse than radio silence.
  6. Do Everything: Don’t be everything to everyone. Even generalists need a specific hook. Consider subcontracting for things that aren’t central to what you offer. For instance, don’t do your own taxes just because you can. Your time is more valuable than that.
  7. Be an Island: You cannot learn all of the things, and there’s no better way to find new opportunity than to meet new people. Engage the world around you, seek community online and offline.
  8. Work Yourself Out of a Job: Sure, you didn’t choose a creative profession just to find yourself doing sales. But if we only engage in our craft, one day we’ll finish a project and go white with horror as we realize we don’t know where the next check is coming from. We must learn to juggle promotion and production.
  9. Put All Your Eggs in One Basket: Failure is inevitable, but diversity builds resilience. Don’t set yourself up for catastrophic failure by having only one client, or one marketing channel, or one pitch.
  10. Lose Touch with Your Clients: The easiest way to grow your business is by selling more to the clients you already have. Stay “top of mind” with a newsletter and cards for birthdays or holidays.

I’m sure there’s a lot I’ve missed. What advice would you add?

Be Your Business: Meet Your Marketing Future

Later this week, I will turn 46 years old. Not a particularly noteworthy milestone, and I don’t say it as some sort of “dude, you’re old” message, but rather more like, “it’s never too late to define yourself”. Here’s what I mean.

Recently, Forbes published an article talking about marketing trends to watch next year. In it, Forbes contributor Avi Dan talks through some interesting developments, and in them, something extraordinary happened.

The Rise Of The Marketing Technologist

Companies using digital marketing strategies are preoccupied with your eyeballs: using these computers, mobile phones, basically anything with a screen on it to try and get you to engage and interact, with the possibility that you might, someday, possibly, turn into a paying customer. Treating the digital world much like they would the broadcast and print worlds they’ve been working in for decades or longer.

And while the so-called fundamentals are sound, their execution of it is wanting.

So, I was excited to read the following:

We will witness the emergence of the marketing technologists. Too many companies think in terms of digital marketing. Instead, they should be thinking in terms of marketing in a digital world. The best marketer in a digital world would be the marketing technologists, people with heavy digital DNA and technology acumen.”

Themes such as authenticity, transparency, agile processes, lateral thinking, and breaking down traditional silos all play prominently in any marketing campaign going forward, because they’re the only ones that are expected to really work going forward. Sure, the old shotgun spray-and-pray marketing will still be seen out there in the world, as it steadily rides the curve under the noise floor of consumer attention spans. But as businesses need to execute these new strategies and apply these new ways of thinking to marketing problems, they’re going to need people who can actually, you know, do this.

“Crap, this is me they’re talking about!”

For the last two decades, I grew up immersed in this lifestyle. Occupying the gap between business and technology has largely been a “red-haired stepchild” situation: at first glance, nobody can quite tell what value you bring to the marketing process: you’re not purely product, and you’re not purely marketing. However, as soon as you open your mouth and use your technological know-how to inform how people will perceive and receive the marketing strategy, the product people say, “he understands us!” and the businesspeople say, “I get it!” Suddenly, instead of being the red-haired stepchild, you’ve become the “lovely auburn-haired wunderkind”.

Of course, I have my own name for it: Unicorn.

Can You Get Here From There?

However, while we can’t all be mythical magical creatures, there is a very closely related cousin to the unicorn who is equally capable as marketing technologists: we call them generalists. These are rare people who simultaneously exist across many skill categories, who aren’t easily pigeonholed into a single role (though many middle managers try their hardest to do exactly that). These folks have wide and seemingly improbable interests. They are hard to identify, and even harder to retain, mainly because you don’t realize who they are until they’ve moved on.

Occupying the gap between business and technology has largely been a “red-haired stepchild” situation

What’s more, there is no recipe for becoming this nexus of technology and business know-how. If there was, every MBA program in the world would churn out as many of these beings as possible.

Okay, that isn’t helpful, but this might be: When you find yourself struggling to work out a digital marketing strategy, realize that it might be that you’re thinking about the problem the wrong way. Try turning it into a question of how to demonstrate your company’s relevance to your audience, letting them know that you get them, that they are your tribe and you are one of them. The hard part here is that it can’t be forced or faked.

Most importantly: if you don’t feel connected to your audience in that way, then find someone who does. Hot tip: they are not likely to be the marketing consultant, or the MBA graduate, or the cousin who “knows social media”.

It’s more likely to be an unassuming person from the community who listens and observes but rarely speaks. However, when he or she does speak, the things they say are profound and insightful. And if you can get them on your team, you should rejoice, because that person will be your greatest marketing asset this coming year.