Almost daily I talk to someone who claims to be slammed. Swamped. Super busy. I hope these people are just exaggerating and not actually missing out on life. Because time is the one resource we can’t get more of, in recent years I have focused on making sure life does not pass me by because I am busy. And if I am busy, it better be worth it. Below are some strategies I use to avoid common time drains.
Mail in forms are a time drain. For me every paper bill represents 10 to 20 minutes of time. I need to get it from the mailbox, open it, review it, scan it, pay it, record the payment, and then dispose of it. For a business owner like me paper bills can add up to days of lost productivity each month.
Like most people I opt for paperless billing and automatic payments whenever possible. And that’s the catch: many companies do not yet offer those options. If digital billing and payment options are not available I often try to pay a year in advance to minimize bill paying to a yearly event.
You might laugh, but receiving a paper check in the mail causes me a great deal of anguish. As a business owner I receive paper checks several times a week. Presuming that each check takes about 30 minutes to process and deposit, which involves a trip to the bank, I lose a great deal of time and money per check.
I avoid receiving paper checks at all costs. I push for payment via direct deposit, which is more secure and faster for everyone involved. Even payment by credit card, which takes a 3% bite, is preferable to paper checks that can cost even more to cash. Going forward I am considering charging a fee for processing paper checks. I am also considering requiring payment in Bitcoin.
What is a good seat in this fast-moving business environment? Traditionally, our first thought would be the cozy corner office far away from those bright, naked cubicles by reception. But this is the 21st century and peace of mind is dictated more by solving problems and being productive than creature comforts like a quiet environment or a pleasant view—or even the freedom of a virtual office. No, the “good seat” in business is about managing technology and personnel needs. And that can be done from either side of the hypothetical desk.
Whether you are performing the job or having someone perform it for you does not matter. The important thing is understanding the big picture of what it takes to get the job done. Make sure you have a contract that clearly defines the scope of work, the infrastructure necessary for success, and the procedures for resolving problems. Not understanding the business model and its processes will put you in a no?win situation. Does the upgrade require new hardware or software? What does the maintenance phase look like? Who has control over the data? Will the budget be enough to see the project from start to finish? You don’t want to go in half?assed because cutting corners simply won’t get the job done. No, you are going to need to be fully assed to sit in that seat over the long haul.
So you have a fresh new idea for a product. Maybe an iPhone app, a web application, whatever. You saved up some money or wangled some investors, but instead of hiring a team to develop your project you want to subcontract out to an agency. Your thinking is that the agency can get your product to market swiftly as they have in house all of the designers and developers needed to build your dream.
In the last 15 years I have hired many agencies. I have also worked for many agencies. Heck, I even ran an agency. Let’s say I’ve seen the agency issue from all sides. So I wrote this post to share a few things to keep in mind when going the agency route. Most also apply to hiring a freelance designer or developer, but the focus is agencies—the types of companies that have fancy offices, charge boatloads per hour, and invite 25 people to every meeting (account managers, project managers, salespeople, developers, designers, freelancers, random dude not doing anything that day).
You Can’t Have It All
When hiring an agency you can’t expect to get a high-quality product at a good price delivered on a fixed schedule. An agency salesperson will always try to convince you that they can deliver on your schedule. If they are working on an hourly basis they will assure you that they “already added tons of padding to the budget.” And besides, their designers and developers are the best in the world! Simply accepting that you can’t have an outcome where quality, budget, and schedule are achieved you should maximize for one or two. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can have it all.
Most Agencies Don’t Care About Your Little Project
The best agencies spend their days working with the big boys, the Fortune 500. These clients have massive budgets and are a good agency’s bread and butter. Simply put, your little startup project is not going to get the best resources or the most attention. An agency will always choose a Fortune 500 client over you. Sorry.
Agencies Hire Lots of Freelancers
Agencies rely on freelancers to save money. They pay some eager freelancer $50 an hour (no benefits, no taxes) and bill them out for $150 an hour. The problem with these subcontractors is that they come and go—in some cases halfway through a project. Transferring knowledge from one person to another is costly, jeopardizes the schedule, and can negatively impact quality. Agency turnover can make you wonder if you should have just hired a freelancer yourself.
Your best bet is to make sure your agency is not going to subcontract out your project. If it’s unavoidable, be sure that your contract details what happens if things go wrong with the subcontractor. Also, confirm that an agency employee will manage the project. I have seen it happen over and over again: the agency hires a subcontractor for your project, puts you in contact with said subcontractor, and then takes a backseat. Dumping project management on the client is pure negligence on the part of the agency. (I doubt that it happens with their Fortune 500 clients.)
Ah, feedback. Life is unbearable if you cannot speak your mind, but in our everyone’s-a-winner culture anything short of ebullient praise is viewed as an affront. And so, to show that you’re not a glass-half-empty sort—you see the positive stuff, too!—you start with a few compliments before slipping in the unpleasant news. But you don’t want to end on a bad note so you close with something upbeat—another compliment or some hearty encouragement. Congratulations. You just served a “shit sandwich.” In more refined circles it’s called a “praise sandwich.” Either way, it’s a classic rookie mistake. Your protégé will take one look at this questionable offering and either see only the praise or only the criticism. You end up with the status quo or a new enemy.
(And in these wild and wooly times you don’t want an enemy. Best case: low-level passive aggressive retribution. Worst case: a digital smear campaign against you—that inexplicably goes viral. But I digress…) Negative feedback is not more palatable when it is preceded by a warm fuzzy: “You did a great job, really. But you don’t seem to understand the concept of a budget.” Even worse is verbally teeing up with a qualifier calculated to (a) distance yourself from the turd (“I hate to tell you, but…”), which often sounds disingenuous or (b) manage the response (“Don’t freak out, but…”), which usually has the opposite effect. Rather than feel gently enlightened, the recipient of your mixed message will either be confused or think you’re an asshole.
I hate cash. I think most people do. Life is much simpler in a paperless world. But I don’t love plastic, either—I am looking forward to Bitcoin taking over the world. Until Bitcoin is a household name, however, credit and debit cards are the next best thing. With a few caveats: some merchants only accept credit cards for values greater than a certain amount. And some merchants charge you a fee for using your credit card (it might not hurt, but it does sting). What many of these merchants do not know is that they are in violation of the law and credit card network rules.
Minimum Purchase Maximum
Thanks to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which went into effect in 2010, merchants that accept credit cards can legally impose a $10 minimum on credit card charges. However, they must impose it on all cards (not just American Express, for example). For more information check out the article Merchants May Require Up to $10 Minimum Credit Card Purchase. And the next time you encounter a minimum of more than $10 raise a stink with the merchant. I do.
Checkout Fee Limits
In 2013 the credit card networks set a limit to the checkout fee a merchant can charge. Has a merchant ever charged you 50 cents for using your credit card to buy a soda? Unless you were buying a $12 soda, that charge was against the rules. The limit to how much a merchant can charge is typically around 4% (0% in at least 10 states). For more information read this great article: Checkout Fee: Charging Credit Card Fees to Customers. Don’t let merchants overcharge you for using your credit card.
You will get more out of life by saying yes. Not saying yes (i.e., saying no) is often rooted in fear. Perhaps you are afraid of failure. Or financial ruin, burnout, injury, insanity... It’s a clusterfuck out there, and saying yes could be asking for a big bowl of trouble. But have you ever admired someone who seems truly unbounded? Someone who eagerly accepts offers you wouldn’t even consider? Someone who confidently launches farfetched schemes? Free from the burden of doubt and worry, these people seem to be able to improvise their way through any situation. Who are these yea-sayers and have they really transcended their limits and stepped into the flow of abundance? Or have they just stepped in it?
Because as any naysayer knows, if you say yes all the time you will get too much out of life. Saying yes is like asking to be spammed. You will end up doing things you don’t want to do. If not actual disaster, you at least run the risk of disappointment, boredom, and annoyance. It’s ok to say no. Life will go on. Sure, there’s a lot of pressure—both external and internal—to say yes. People like it when you like the things they like and do the things they do. And there’s your own fear of missing out, fueled by the constant view of the other side of the fence afforded by carefully edited Facebook and Instagram posts. But it’s ok to say no if you’re not truly motivated by the opportunity. It’s ok to say no if saying yes would cause you great inconvenience. It’s ok to say no without a detailed excuse.
Over the course of my career I have had the good fortune of working with many innovative business partners. Regrettably, some partnerships ended poorly because my temper got the best of me. For years I was convinced that I did not get along well with others. But recently, upon deeper reflection, I concluded that something else was to blame because I have many great business relationships that have endured the test of time. So what sets me off? What makes a partnership toxic for me? In a nutshell: risk takers. I do not like taking risks. It’s not my style, and I can’t relate to it.
A scan of the entrepreneurial landscape suggests two fundamental types: risk takers and small bettors. Apple (under Steve Jobs), for example, took large risks—betting the company many times over. In contrast, Twitter has few big bets in its history (heck, it started as a side project), growing instead through iteration—one small bet at a time. Because both forms of entrepreneurship can lead to success, the question of which is better is settled by your tolerance for risk. I prefer to make a small bet, analyze the results, and build on that effort because it is the more risk-averse approach to growing a company.
When forming a business partnership make sure your entrepreneurial styles align. Compatibility with respect to risk can help you avoid painful and costly conflict down the road. Maybe take a trip to Vegas together: if your partner is sitting at the blackjack table the entire time while you sip fancy drinks by the pool, maybe you're not a good match.
Not so fast. Checklists save lives. And limbs—literally. The next time you are laying on an operating table, you should hope your doctor doesn’t have the same bad attitude toward checklists you had before reading this post because studies show that when surgical teams use checklists, deaths decrease by 40% and complications decrease by more than 30%. Those impressive numbers are the reason you should learn to love checklists regardless of your vocation.
I know, checklists are boring. They may be the nerdiest way to increase your efficiency and reduce costly and time-consuming errors. A sexy robot would so much cooler, but a checklist is way easier to produce. Trust me. But before the how, let’s take a look at the why, which is dead simple: No matter how good you are at what you do, a checklist will improve your outcomes. Checklists serve to document essential processes. They ensure consistency and promote accountability. Even the act of creating checklists can be beneficial, leading to the improvement of policies and procedures and encouraging collaborative dialogue among team members.
I’ve been a hard-core list maker for a long time, but I’m a recent checklist maker. A while back I was browbeaten into creating a checklist for a complex business process. I thought a checklist was unnecessary. More to the point, I was pretty sure nobody in their right mind would want to use the 11-page end result. I had better uses for my time than creating a tool that could only expect to suffer the humiliation of being ignored, like the spork. But the checklist was effective. People appreciated having a roadmap to their final destination, and they actually liked using it. So I became a convert.
There is a trap I have fallen into more times in my career than I would like to admit. I tend to stay too focused on the technology because that is what I know and am passionate about. The thing is, there’s more to a successful digital startup than the technology. For illustration purposes, let’s say I come up with a great idea for a service that will really help me and possibly others: a social network for dogs called DogBook. As a technologist I can pretty easily map out the digital design and development processes that need to happen to launch the service. But in the case of a social network for dogs technology is not the real challenge—marketing is.
That’s right. Getting the attention of possible users in a cost-effective way is the real nut to crack. I hate to break it to you, but if you build it they still might not come. All good startups set out to solve a problem. But when deciding whether to chase an idea it’s important to determine if the core challenge is technology or marketing. For example, in the case of Google the biggest hurdle was technology: building a badass search engine. In the case of DogBook, the difference between success and failure is marketing: customers need to be aware that DogBook exists and is awesome.
Question: What do the majority of business owners hate doing the most? Answer: Bookkeeping. Easiest quiz ever. That time-consuming data entry you have to stay on top of to truly understand how your business is doing—or at the very least, to satisfy Uncle Sam—is a pain. Well, buckle up because we at Cloudmanic Labs are pumped to announce a sweet new Skyclerk feature that will drastically cut the hours you spend bookkeeping: Snap!Clerk.
It’s easy: using your mobile phone simply snap photos of your receipts on the go—and Snap!Clerk does the rest. Your receipts will be instantly uploaded to the Skyclerk servers, analyzed, and accurately entered into your ledger. Pay. Snap!Clerk. Done. How painless is that?
If you are the control freak type (many of us are) don’t worry—you can choose a certain label or two, add a note, or select a particular contact, and Snap!Clerk will fill in the rest. Snap!Clerk is accessible via mobile and web interfaces, and you can even upload receipts by email.