Is “sales” a dirty word?

Justin Jackson writes:

“Making sales” feels kind of sleazy, doesn’t it?

For a lot of us, our feeling about sales stems from a bad experience with a salesperson.

The problem is, most salespeople are selling someone else’s product; they’re not directly invested in the product itself. A car salesman is a good example: he doesn’t design, build, or distribute the cars, he’s just responsible for moving them off the lot. This can lead to the kind of predatory behavior that we dislike about salespeople.

But you’re different.

You’re not selling someone else’s product.

Sales and marketing are very difficult topics for a lot of solo consultants and freelancers (and entrepreneurs generally). So much so that it often kills their business aspirations (or makes their lives far more painful than necessary during the first few years).

It’s important to unlearn the belief that marketing and sales are inherently bad. (They’re not.) Both are tools, necessary ones at that. How you choose to implement them in your own business is entirely up to you. You can create more cynics… or create more value in the marketplace.

How

Be authentic in your communication with said marketplace.

An advantage most solo entrepreneurs and small businesses have over corporate marketing: it’s easier to be “human” because there is less abstraction between the market and the creator. Take advantage of that strength.

Optimizing Assistance Efforts in the Developing World

Pippa Biddle, in a very frank post on her personal blog, reflects on her assistance efforts in the developing world, beginning with where she started:

Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.

Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level.

I’ve had similar inklings in the back of my mind on this topic when it comes to volunteer efforts and philanthropy, but never sat down to think it through fully. Pippa’s post already has helped further my thinking it this area. I thank her for posting it.

It’s not enough to want to do good. The world is full of well intentioned, yet wildly ineffective, people. Worse, even good intentions can have negative consequences. This isn’t cynicism. Quit the opposite in fact. To have an impact in a desired way, one must develop an effective strategy and be willing to tweak it along the way.

At the same time, there is no shame in trying things then using that new information to adjust our strategy. We’re always working with imperfect information. It’s how we react and adjust along the way that determines whether we end up where we want to be or have the impact we want to have.

Thinking a bit more strategically when it comes to our own volunteering, philanthropy, and similar efforts can only be constructive. Same goes for optimizing our approaches to problems that will continue to persist long after we’ve left the scene.

Of course, as with many things, analyzing our own situation is never quite as simple and obvious as we’d like it to be. At the end of the linked article there are additional thought provoking comments from others. One comment from Jeff Allen, directed at Pippa, stood out to me in particular:

When an emergency (man made or otherwise) hits a population, and it overwhelms that local capacity that you say should have been building libraries or caring for kids, then people are more than happy to work together with outsiders to get their community up and running again. I’m talking about emergency, short term humanitarian aid. It requires special skills which you are developing from your experiences so far. Keep learning things, useful things that people will need your help to learn because they won’t have the time to learn it “right”. And keep practicing the humility you have (it’s a rare gift). You’ll need a lot of that.

This.

My First Visit to Space

My first experience with a shuttle – an open house at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Lompoc, California in November 1984. Fittingly it was also the very first Space Shuttle built.

(Click for full size view) The tall orange jacketed man is my dad and I’m holding my dad’s hand in the blue jacket. All of 4 years old. My mom and younger brother, Joe, only 4 months old, were behind the camera. I have no idea who the guy looking at the camera is.

I’m holding my dads hand in this photo that my mom dug up, looking upward at the Space Shuttle Enterprise. Besides being on tour around this time, it was used to test the shuttle launch pad at VAFB. It’s now in New York and and officially designated as a historic “place” in the National Register of Historic Places.

Sadly, I have no memory of this first-person view, but I was a devoted fan of space exploration and science from my earliest memories not long after that. And even my earliest memories of computers, and inter-connecting them, involved NASA (I remember, specifically, how I thought I could access NASA computers, even before I owned or even knew what a modem was. Not sure why I wanted into their computers, but it made sense at the time.)

How to charge what you’re really worth


A bit back Mike McDerment, the founder of FreshBooks, and Donald Cowper, published a free eBook called Breaking the Time Barrier — How to Unlock Your True Earning Potential.

The tagline is “Learn how to charge what you’re really worth. Read this book and find out how you can earn twice as much as you do today.”

It’s an excellent guide, and it’s free (well, you can donate if you like, but not until AFTER you’ve read it).

Many of the approaches discussed are similar to the work of Alan Weiss, of Summit Consulting, namely the proposal structure and value-based fees (which is not a bad thing; I’ve learned a lot from Alan’s body of work in this area), while being a bit more accessible to the typical freelancer (if nothing else simply because many are already familiar with FreshBooks).

It is a fairly quick and easy read eBook and anyone doing freelancing, consulting, or quasi-consulting service-based businesses will get something out of it.

Breaking the Time Barrier — How to Unlock Your True Earning Potential. (Cost: Free, ironically.)

15 ways to get paid with less hassle as a freelancer (or consultant)

These are the techniques I’ve found most effective to get paid fast when doing technology freelancing.

1. Ask for a portion of the fee upfront.

This one seems obvious to me now, but I went several years before I moved beyond the “work a bunch of hours then send an invoice and wait” model. You can do this whether you are fixed fee or hourly, basing the latter on an estimate.

2. Ask for the entire fee upfront.

You’d be surprised how acceptable this becomes once you simply start making it your convention. And, really, it’s not all that strange when you consider that you can’t drive away with a car (or even walk out of Walmart) before paying for your purchase, as well as the fact that in most cases you are taking on greater risk than the client is by working on a project for a client for a few weeks or months with only the “hope” that you’ll get paid at the end. You are a freelancer, not your client’s banker/lender.

3. Set expectations upfront.

If the buyer can make the full investment decision upfront, rather than hope or guess, it’s easier to get paid faster. A lot of delayed payments are really because the buyer is disappointed with either the fee, the value, or the result. If your fees are fixed and thus entirely set upfront, this is easy. If you charge hourly/daily/weekly, estimate conservatively and… see the next item.

4. Offer compelling value.

I prefer to not only discuss the project upfront, but to then come back to the client with a written summary (which ends up being the proposal). The summary is in my own words but drawn entirely from our discussions. It contains, at a minimum, with a nod to the value-based fee model taught by Alan Weiss:

  • The situation appraisal
  • The business objectives (outputs/improved conditions) tied to the work
  • The believed value of the work (business-wise and sometimes personally and professionally for the buyer)
  • The implicit or explicit metrics or indicators of success for the work against the objectives

In this way, the buyer and I don’t proceed until there is a true “meeting of the minds” over the value of the work. It’s easy to get into a discussion about the inputs (tasks), but the real value is in the results. The better understanding I have of the ideal result that the client has in mind, the closer I can tie my work to compelling value. And the happier the client will be to pay, period.

5. Constantly communicate.

You know when you should be providing updates. Generally it is whenever you’ve promised to, just before or after major milestones, when there are hiccups that may impact scheduling or results, or any other time you know you should but are avoiding doing so only because you are concerned about the reaction. 🙂

6. Meet commitments.

If you make a promise, meet it. Simple, but not always easy. If something isn’t going as planned, just communicate that and adjust. Unless you make a pattern of it – or don’t learn from your mistakes – it’ll be probably okay.

7. Use plain language. (Avoid legalese.)

Don’t create proposals that require legal departments / attorneys to get involved. And if you can’t avoid it entirely, keep them sane. Business is risk.[1]

8. Make it easy to pay you.

Accept checks, eChecks (ACH), and all major credit and debit cards as well as, if possible, via multiple processors. I accept payment via PayPal, Google Checkout, and Stripe. There is overlap between these, but every buyer/client has their own favorite service. I don’t care which they use, just as long as they pay as promptly or – preferably – as rapidly as possible.

If you are concerned about paying 2% to 3% on credit card transactions, you are overlooking that you are in a high margin business. Paying 3% on credit card transactions will make you cringe sometimes, but don’t overlook the big picture. You are providing a service with an 80%-90% profit margin. And, having money in your hand – rather than “in the mail” – is the difference between an actual sale and just talk. It’s also the difference between putting food on the table and starving waiting for money to arrive in the indefinite future.

9. Follow-up when a payment is late. Do so immediately and in a professional, consistent, and assertive manner.

I suggest clear language that doesn’t whine (it’s not their problem you can’t pay your mortgage, but it is their problem they are failing to fulfill their commitment). I prefer automated follow-up so that it always happens, otherwise I will put it off. Most on-line invoicing solutions can be set-up to do this automatically for you after a configured number of days.

10. Always make payment arrangements and discuss payment problems with your buyer (the decision maker / business sponsor), not the client’s bookkeeper or accounts payable department.

The buyer can escalate, assert their authority, and negotiate when there are problems. They are also the one who is impacted if a missed payment results in a project delay. The A/P department on the other hand isn’t any of these things.

11. Generate professional invoices that are easy-to-read.

They should clearly describe the work, account for every hour (if you are billing for time), and reference the project, proposal, and buyer clearly. Make them very simple, without any extra language or legalese.

12. Send invoices in a timely manner and do so consistently.

Immediately upon gaining agreement on a proposal. Consistently at milestones or the agreed upon dates. If possible, generate and schedule delivery ahead of time. If a series of invoices is likely, you can even provide them all upfront with rolling due dates, if that seems like it’ll be helpful.

13. State a late fee on every invoice generated that applies if it is not the balance is paid in a timely manner.

Pretty self-explanatory. A flat fee or charging interest are fine, but if the latter make sure you understand usurp your state/country specific restrictions on charging interest.

14. State all invoices as being “Due upon receipt.”

If you learn an organization is taking advantage of this phrasing to not pay within 7-10 business days, change their next invoice to be “Net 15” (due in 15 days). If they can’t pay on time, tell them to use a credit card.

15. Offer a small discount for pre-payment in full upfront.

I always ask for a portion of the fee upfront for every project, while offering a small discount for pre-payment in full upfront (in the 5% to 10% range). For projects I consider to be relatively small (e.g. <$5,000) I don’t offer a discount, but outright require full payment upfront.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/damianspain/9345483102/


  1. I am not a lawyer. 

Are you making these backup power generator mistakes?

Personal lessons from managing a critical facility.

A very common problem for facilities with critical loads is that the power generator doesn’t start when it is needed. Fortunately[1] this can be remedied in the vast majority of cases.

When I say critical loads I am talking about computer data centers, hospitals, schools, stadiums, police stations, 911 centers, office buildings, or whatever you’ve deemed important enough to attach a backup power generator to.

The Situation

You, or your organization, has a critical load and has also gone to the trouble of spending the money on investing in a generator backup power source for it.

The Objective

This is simple enough: keep the power on.

The Problem

A local newspaper reported on a sewage spill in the county I live in:

About 20,000 gallons of sewage spilled from the California Men’s Colony prison at 4:10 p.m. Sunday when power was lost and an emergency generator did not start. The sewage flowed into Chorro Creek, which flows into Morro Bay.

The fault was apparently that the generator did not start after a utility power failure:

“The power failed and then our backup generator failed, so it was kind of like a double power failure,” said Mike Minty, chief engineer at the prison’s waste water treatment plant. “It’s all fixed now.”

If you operate a data center or critical facility that has a power generator, there are some very easy pro-active actions that can be taken to mitigate the most common problem I observe: the generator fails when the power goes out. For most, that’s not the hoped for outcome of the capital they’ve invested in making their facility more resilient to utility power outages.

While there’s always a possibility that shit this can happen even if various preventative actions are taken, the chances are far lower if a handful of items are paid attention to. I am not privy to the maintenance procedures at the California Men’s Colony waste water treatment plant, so I’m just using their outage as the thought provoker and not judging them.

The Cause

When a generator “simply does not start”, rarely is that the entire story. Rather than being the root cause of the outage, it’s the manifestation of the maintenance and monitoring practices.

In my experience it’s usually a symptom of a lack of a pro-active culture surrounding the backup power system. Sadly, some organizations that invest large sums of capital into their backup power systems (and, presumably, whatever the critical load is they are protecting), don’t factor in proper operational costs and fail to implement appropriate procedures to see to it that appropriate preventative work is performed. This diminishes the return on investment on the capital invested in the entire system.

The failures then flow through to two areas:

  1. Maintenance
  2. Monitoring

The usual failure scenarios are one or more of:

  1. Generator fails to start (common)
  2. Generator starts, but fails under load (common)
  3. Generator starts, but no power reaches the critical load (less common)

The end result is the same: the critical load loses power.

The Solution

In the case of a generator, here’s the practice I’ve learned to follow:

Weekly no-load automatic tests (usually this can be programmed into your automatic-transfer switch)

  • What this verifies:
    • basic generation functionality
    • control functionality from the ATS to the generator (a simple cabling problem between the ATS and genset, even if both are completely operational and test out fine, can ruin your entire day)
  • Labor involved should be to verify:
    • genset actually starts on its own (checklist item)
    • inspection of the gauges for anything unusual (temperature, voltage output, battery voltage, fuel levels, etc.)
    • physical inspection of generator, looking for unusual sounds or animals that have crawled inside of it (I’ve had cats inside..)
  • Costs:
    • Junior technician or facility maintenance person, approximately 15-30 minutes one day per week
  • Risks resulting from implementing this procedure:
    • Nil. Won’t have a real load on it. Nothing will be disconnected during the test.
    • A risk is that this procedure isn’t completed every week. I suggest requiring a small checklist report to be filed each week with a colleague or supervisor (and making sure they know to expect it so that if it doesn’t come they go in search of a reason why) to make sure something isn’t missed just because somebody “got busy”, was out sick, went on vacation, etc. To verify it was really done and not just filled out paperwork, listen for the generator tests (duh!) and have the run hour meter reading from the generator be one of the fields filled out (which should be going up every week).

Monthly (or Bi-weekly) Manually Triggered Actual Load Tests

  • Verifies:
    • Takes the place of the weekly no-load every fourth week
    • Mechanical functionality of the ATS
    • Electrical functionality of the ATS
    • Real functionality of the generator (many problems do not manifest themselves when the generator is running without a load or with only a very low load)
    • That the facility is not exceeding the capacity of the generator (doh!)
    • That there aren’t some weird charactistics of the load or the backup power system that are interacting in a way that will lead to power loss
  • Risks
    • If you do not have UPSes for computer systems and other pieces that can’t lose power for even a few seconds, which are in turn fed by the generator, plan accordingly how to do this type of test. For a data center with UPSes, a monitored test can be performed. The worst that occurs if there is a failure should be a very brief loss of air conditioning while you switch back to main power so you can isolate what went wrong. Computers should run from the UPS batteries briefly.

Yearly (or Quarterly) Dummy Load tests

  • What this verifies:
    • Often the generator will not be under 100% utilization, even during the monthly actual Load tests. Some generator problems will not manifest themselves except under heavy load.
  • How to do this:
    • Have a testing and maintenance contract with a company that specializes in this. They can also assist you with other matter maintenance activities. Look in the yellow pages or speak with other folks who have backup generators — ignoring the folks that say they don’t do anything special to make sure their generator works when they need it of course. 🙂

Things This Solution Should Catch

Some of the causes of the inability to start, that would have been picked up under the above system, that I’ve observed are:

  • Generator battery fails
    • Causes: Age, No installed smart charger, Cabling disconnect during maintenance or due to loose connector that is shaken off during generation operation
  • Basic care and feeding of the generator overlooked (it’s like a car: think oil, spark plugs, etc.)
  • Empty fuel tank
    • 🙂
  • Bad fuel
    • There are different types of diesel, depending on season and location
  • Animal trapped inside
    • Not good for you or the animal
  • Power cabling from the generator to the load broken or poorly connected
  • The power consumption of the load exceeds the capacity of the generator
  • The generator is flakey under load
    • This is why you must test the generator under load when it is not actually needed, both with the a dummy load and a real load (see dummy load testing above, for example)
  • Transfer switch control wiring to the generator fails
    • Loose connections, low quality cabling, too much water in conduits, construction smashes underground conduit (unknowingly even sometimes)
  • Programming modified on the auto-transfer switch
    • No longer activates generator properly
    • No longer cuts over to generator under conditions desired
    • Turned off. 🙂
    • May have been an accident or the little battery in the ATS running lower (should be checked quarter with a volt-meter and replaced at least every year)

It’s good to be aware of these so that the staff implementing the system can understand the specifics of the problems they’re looking for.  They do require a checklist system — something for a junior tech or maintenance person to perform/verify on a regular schedule. These items are easy and even “cheap” both in absolute and ROI terms.   I’m reminded of a couple quotes I recently wrote in my journal (credit to Robert Rosenthal for these two sayings):

  • “If the cheap solution fails, it may be the most expensive option of all.”
  • “No one ever went to the board of directors and said, ‘The project failed but I’m proud of the fact that we paid next to nothing to implement it.”

  1. or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it