Why I Deleted 2,346 People From My Email List

Imagine you’re standing in a room filled with people.

You’ve come to teach them. You’ve lugged your workbooks and fancy presentations, and you’re hopped up on three cups of coffee and who knows what, because OMG I have to stand in front of all these people. You were the kind of kid who got up early for school and did all their homework. As an adult, you’re prepared for the zombie apocalypse and your passport’s up-to-date. So you’ve spent hours preparing for this moment and as soon as you open your mouth to speak you notice that…

Half the people in the room are tapping on their phones. They’re tethered to these phantom limbs with their buzzing and pulsing lights. Some even do the unspeakable — they make phone calls on speaker. They pound at their miniature keys, and the tap tap tap reverberates. You consider killing these people — just a little bit. But homicidal impulses are so 2013, and instead, you kick the phone-tapping chumps out of the room.

What remains are the people with their laptops and notebooks ready to take notes. What remains is their laughter and thunderous applause. You got rid of the dead weight, the people who weren’t interested in all that you have to give.

Now, you’re surrounded by the people who matter, and you’ve got their undivided attention.

Last week, I deleted 2,346 subscribers from my email list. This fact would make the people who clock their stats like listening for a heartbeat apoplectic. Who removes that which they’ve worked hard for? But I’ve never been one for vanity metrics and mass market appeal. I’m polarizing, and I’m okay with this.

Believe me when I say that every unsubscribe and unfollow is a gift. People are doing the work for you to self-select themselves out of your orbit. No longer do you have to pay to send them emails they’ll never open or read. No longer do you have to convince them you’re the one when they’re shtupping30 other people in the joint.

Your life isn’t an episode of Hoarders. You don’t need more to be significant.You don’t need to be one of the cool girls with shiny hair or a guy with hair to matter. You just have to care about connecting with the people who care about what you have to say. Numbers are irrelevant, only serving to deliver false comfort.

I have friends who have been on the NYT bestseller list. My first book sold 10,000 copies, and I considered that a triumph because that’s 10,000 people who read the words I worked decades to create. Fewer people read my second book, and I’m okay with this too because these are the people who write me to tell me how my work has shaped and impacted them, and that means more to me than a number I can brag about. A number that is temporal and fleeting.

So when you see people brag about their 100,000 Instagram followers or talk about the millions on their list — who the fuck cares? You are not them. I’ve heard people complain that they only have 600 people on their email list, to which I respond with: imagine sitting in front of those 600 people. Do they feel small now? Are they insignificant because they’re not more? They don’t carry a few extra zeroes on their back?

If a person self-selects to be part of your world, this is a gift. They’re giving you something valuable — their attention. Maybe down the road, their money, but that’s not everyone’s end game and it shouldn’t be. And when someone steps out of the room, that’s a gift too because you didn’t have to make the effort to drag them by their collar out.

If you’re into freelancing, writing, or marketing — you want to get on my list.

Don't Be A Nightmare Client

We all have stories about that client. The client who suddenly became an expert in the thing they’ve hired you deliberately to do. The client who revels in screaming, belittling, bullying, and micromanaging you because they believe cutting a check permits them to be indecent. Let’s not forget about the client who refuses to understand that the minor task they’ve asked you to do doesn’t take five minutes because doesn’t everything take five minutes?

While the majority of clients are delightful, every freelancer will regale you with their Rod Serling-level tales. We try to blot out the nightmare project and the client’s torture tactics, and we tell ourselves to watch for the signs. The five-alarm fires and flares that tell you to run, not walk, away from the project. Because there are limits to what one will endure for a paycheck.

I’ve spent half my twenty-year career on the client side, and the remainder in client service and the simplest and most profound lesson I’ve learned is this:when you treat people with compassion and respect, they will go the distance for you. When you demean people, they will deliver the bare minimum: no bells, no whistles, no glinting red blows at the end of the engagement. Instead, the freelancer will collect their check, scream expletives about you into pillows, and move on to the next.

If you want great work with all the trimmings, set your ego aside and take some advice from someone who’s straddled both sides of the career fence.

You Hired An Expert. Stop Acting Like One

The smartest and most successful people know what they’re good at and what they’re not good at. They’re not insecure about the fact that they don’t know how to amortize equipment on a balance sheet or program a website or segment their customer base. Instead, they hire experts to do the work that will move the business forward. From the visionary, Steve Jobs:

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

If you were satisfied with your vetting process and the freelancer’s portfolio and case studies, why would you second guess their work or doubt their competence? If they’ve done the thing that you’ve tasked them to do, repeatedly and successfully, why don’t you trust them?

This is not to say that you shouldn’t challenge your consultant or ask them tough questions. A consultant’s job is to educate you about the process and the solution they’re implementing for your business, and they should provide adequate and informed answers to your questions. But at one point, you need to shut up and trust them. The more you act like you’re the expert (because reading a Wired article or watching how-to YouTube videos does not an expert make) and the more you question and micromanage every aspect of their work, your consultant will spend more time managing you instead of the work you’ve paid them to do. I’ve heard freelancers joke about adding an “asshole tax” to clients they know will be combative and difficult.

If you’re hiring a web designer, your job isn’t to be a web designer. Your job is to make sure that what they’re developing will satisfy your objectives and resolve your challenges. You ask them questions as it relates to your business, goals, and objectives to ensure that they’re on task and on time — not how they do what they’ve done hundreds of times before you. Successfully. For clients who weren’t as insecure.

You Take Forever to Pay Them

How would you react if I told you that your biweekly paycheck was going to be a few weeks, perhaps a few months, late? Mortgage, food and car payments don’t magically take care of themselves, and if you expect work to be delivered on time, freelancers should expect to be paid on time. Don’t treat them like a character out of Oliver Twist.

Your Freelancer Isn’t Your Full-Time Employee or Personal Manservant, Punching Bag, etc.

On the brand side, I’ve worked for terrible people. People who were manipulative, abusive, and abrasive. People who hurled salad bowls — filled with salad — clear across a room. However, that’s no excuse to use your freelancer as a punching bag or a repository for your pain or frustration. Company bureaucracy and politics are not their problems — they’re your problems. You hired an expert to help you solve a problem for your business, not to bear the weight of your professional baggage.

And from a pure decency perspective — why not treat people they want you would want to be treated? Your consultant isn’t a vendor; they’re a trusted partner. And your abuse doesn’t grant you more power — it’s a glaring spotlight on your insecurity and character.

The simple act of respecting and valuing the experts you’ve hired will ensure you get the best out of them instead of the bare minimum.

Also, it’s important to recognize that freelancers aren’t full-time employees. While freelancers are glorious for your P&L, you have to face reality. Freelancers are not available 24/7, on your schedule. Freelancers do not have to adopt all of your systems. They’ve designed and perfected a workflow, communication and systems processes that ensure a standout work product. If they’re spending time learning how to integrate your systems into their workflow and dealing with your desperate need to hop on a call every five minutes — guess what? You’re taking time away from the work you’ve hired them to do because now they’re dealing with the bureaucracy that is your company and the attitude that is you.

Freelance projects are short-term in nature. Respect their boundaries and systems, and you will get the solution you invested in, and they’ve promised. Your work will be delivered on time, on budget.

I learned this while I was heading up online marketing at HarperCollins and a consultant taught me how to be a good client. The result? I got the work I wanted, delivered ahead of schedule with a few extras thrown in for good measure. In a serendipitous twist, years later they would become my client.

The World is Small, and People Love to Talk

Years ago, I fought with an executive at a major cosmetics brand. Even though they were in the wrong, I was a smug, overbearing, annoying asshole. When I became an equity partner in a digital/social agency in New York, our CEO pitched this exact person our services. I had to deal with the ramifications of my bad behavior, and I ended up swallowing my pride and apologizing to this executive. We won the business, but not without telenovela-level dramatics. I learned that the world is smaller than we think, and the people we abuse in our come-up are the ones we report or defer to on our way down.

People talk. Word-of-mouth can crush careers. You may be the smug client calling the shots and cutting the checks until circumstance reminds you that karma always has your direct dial. You never know who will be your boss or who you’ll need for that professional recommendation or job. And you never know who’ll be the person who surfaces in your life in ways you least expect and the way you’ve treated them in a former life haunts you in your present one.

Be kind. Be decent. Be respectful. Because you never know under what circumstances you’ll face your freelancer again.

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How to Build a Brand Platform

While the online space and social media have ushered in access to knowledge previously locked away in library stacks, continuing education classes, and on microfiche, they’ve also opened the door to scam artists and faux marketers who hock five-figure online courses and master classes riddled with inaccuracies.

Business coaches peddle their wares while they have zero experience beyond building an Instagram presence. I’m not knocking anyone’s hustle, but I’m questioning how factors of luck and opportunity (in addition to hard work, of course) can translate to the complexities of small businesses and corporations. What may have worked at a particular point in time may not work for others without understanding the discipline of marketing.

Rampant misinformation is spreading like a pandemic. Five-page glossy PDFs reduce building a brand to picking a logo, font, colors, and writing a diary entry on behalf of your dream customer. That is not how you create a brand.It’s a dangerous, half-baked shortcut that could hurt your business.

Then there’s the issue of access. I’m tired of seeing boldface names brag about seven-figure sales (which isn’t net income), yet their programs are available only to a specific segment of people who have financial resources and time.What about the people who can’t fork over $1,500 for an email-marketing course but desperately want upward mobility?

I have a certain level of disdain for people who have the means to give back but don’t, especially when they dangle the content carrot that is the webinar.Rarely is real, actionable knowledge conveyed through a free webinar.Instead, it devolves into a long, painful advertisement for a course, e-book, master class, etc., that the guru of the moment is selling for the low, low price of $997.

I’ve complained about this online before, but a wise friend told me that complaining doesn’t achieve anything—action does. Hate what’s out there?Forget about the scam artists and put out a counterpoint. Publish the knowledge and information I want people to access.

Learning how to build a brand can easily be a quarter-long MBA course, but I’m going to distill the essentials into a eight-part series, complete with real-life examples and tactical exercises to get started.

I’ve spent over 20 years in marketing on both the brand and agency side. I’ve worked in digital since 2001 and in social since 2006. My work spans industry sectors from retail and consumer packaged goods to book publishing and health care, but my sweet spots are beauty, publishing, media, food, finance, and luxury. Some of the brands I’ve been privileged to work with includeHarperCollins Publishers, Time Warner Cable, Mattel, Verizon, Estée Lauder, Calvin Klein, Banana Republic, The National Board of Medical Examiners, IHOP, DeLonghi, David Yurman, and Novartis. Over the past year, I’ve focused on small businesses and startups principally owned and/or operated bywomen and underrepresented communities. I’ve taught marketing and brand-building to artists at USC , and I’ve been sharing content on this platform since 2014.

In short, the tools and knowledge you’ll get from this series have been implemented successfully in big brands and scrappy startups.

Let’s start with the basics: What’s a brand? A brand is a perception or set of associations consumers have of a business. Those perceptions originate from the story you tell about your business, the vision, the values you hold, the products and services you offer, and how your customers are transformed as a result of using those products or services.

Developing a brand requires defining, articulating, and asserting your messaging and then translating that message into channels where consumers can interact with your business. Creating a brand requires research, brainstorming, data, insights, and a clear vision for your business. The brand guides and drives every decision in your organization.

What I’m saying may all sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people dodge this first, critical step in favor of sexy tactics like social media, video, influencer marketing, etc. They consider brand development an expense, a fluffy PowerPoint presentation, when in fact it is the foundation of their marketing and messaging. It’s like building a house with a straw roof and no floors and then wondering why it falls apart when it storms. You have to take the time to build the roof and floors instead of going straight for the chaise lounge, gossamer curtains, and fancy candles.

In my eyes, a successful brand satisfies four components.

1. Brand Platform Development

Brand development includes the strategic and creative design and architecture of a brand based on the market, customer, and business factors.Consider this the blueprint of your house. You’re creating the foundation, guidelines, and rules before you even lay the first brick. In its simplest terms you’re defining:

  • Who you are

  • What you do

  • Who else does what you do

  • Why you do it

  • Who you do it for

  • How you do it differently or better than the competition

There’s a lot to unpack from each of these seemingly simple questions, and that exploration is the driving force behind the visual and strategic representation of your brand.

You can’t effectively create a visual identity system (the visual tools that an organization uses to communicate a brand, including logo, logo use and application, typography, color palette, imagery, design, and layout principles)without first defining the key elemental components of your brand. I use an eight-step process to develop a brand, which I’ll get into in a hot minute.

A brand strategist/marketer creates the brand platform. A creative director/graphic designer designs the visual identity system. The strategic and creative resources work in concert to ensure that the optical components are a correct, robust representation of the brand. Often, the visual identity system guidelines will lead with vital elements from the brand platform to show the symbiotic relationship between the two.

Not many brands publish their full brand platform online, but here’s an example to give you a sense of the components: NC State’s brand platform.

For visual identity examples, note that some terms are interchangeable and pretty much mean the same thing:

2. Brand Expression

Based on your brand development and visual identity guidelines, brand expression is the external evocation of your brand. From websites, pay-per-click advertising (PPC) and social media ad banners, and brochures, to TV ads, radio spots, and billboards, the brand expression is your way of communicating your brand to your intended audience.

3. Brand Expansion

Expansion grabs a megaphone and shouts your message and assets to the masses in the form of marketing, advertising, and public relations (PR).Consider this the distribution phase of your brand process. In the brand expression phase, you created the collateral; in this phase, you’re distributing it in service of your business, brand goals, and objectives.

4. Brand Authority

This is the phase where you showcase your dominance, provenance, and authority in your particular industry. Brand authority can be an assertion of your market dominance or disruptive difference or the critical accolades or success you’ve gained as a result of your business’s work in your particular sector. Lawyers showcase how many cases and settlements they’ve won on their websites. Industry leaders speak at conferences or publish books on thought leadership to educate or elucidate other professionals in the sector. In short, brand authority is about establishing that you know what you’re talking about from a place of experience and success.

Brand strategy is a plan that businesses create to embed themselves in the minds of prospects and customers. It uses the above four elements to build recognition, sentiment, and preference. When a company is successful at brand strategy, consumers know who they are and what they do as well as the brand’s look and feel, and they’ve also now formed an opinion about the brand.

For the purposes of this entire tutorial, we’ll focus on brand platform development.

Brand Platform Development

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve cobbled together an essential eight-step process for building a brand. Every marketer has their own method of brand platform development, but I’ve found the systematic nature of this process has worked consistently for my clients, from small businesses and startups to F100 companies. How we define a brand is in direct response to the customers we want to target and how we want to differentiate ourselves from the pack. The eight-step process I use includes: 1) customer, market, and brand analysis; 2) elevator statement; 3) signature story; 4) positioning and purpose; 5) benefits and reason to believe; 6) brand personality, voice, and tone; 7) SWOT analysis; and 8) Messaging strategy.

Step 1: Customer, Competitor, and Company Evaluation and Insights

Everything in marketing starts and ends with data. If someone tries to sell you a brand-building course and there’s no mention of analytics or insights, you’re dealing with amateur hour. You can’t build a brand without data—the end.Data lays the foundation. It gives you context. Data allows you to define where you fit without feeling your way through the dark. However, data is directional—it can only take you so far. The trends, insights, and patterns you glean from data, married with you and your experience, are the one-two punch you need to build an effective brand.

First, get to know your customer, because you’ll need to understand their wants, needs, and preferences so your brand and messaging resonate and make an impact. Get to know your market because you can define where you fit and how you stand apart. And then ask the hard questions about your business: What you do, who you do it for, why you’re doing it, how you’re doing it, and is it working? If you have an existing business, this is about evaluating the efficacy of your brand and messaging to determine where you’ve veered off the road, and for new companies, this is about being clear about what you’re trying to build.

If you don’t have absolute clarity, you don’t have customers.

Know Your Customer

Placing your customer on the back burner is where a lot of people screw up.They build their brand, their voice, their content strategy, logo, website—the whole shebang—and they forget about their customer.

Your brand is not in service of you. If that’s the case, what you have is a hobby.Your customer should be at the core of your brand because they’re ultimately going to determine the success of your business. Without customers, there is no business because they are your business. Your customer wants to know who you are, what you stand for, and how you’re going to make their lives better or easier or just plain fun.

Your customer or “target audience” is a group of people whose attention you want to attract, the group you want to cultivate a long-term relationship with.The goal is to find them; get inside their head to understand their wants, needs, preferences, and lifestyle; and ensure that your product or service (and how you talk about it) is relevant.

Remember, your customer isn’t the entire world. You’re going after groups, or “segments,” of people. Otherwise, your marketing will be diluted, generic, and dull. For example, let’s say you have a business that sells bespoke high-end suits for men online. You wouldn’t say, “I want to target every man in the world!” Instead, you might say, I’m interested in style-conscious affluent millennial men who work in industries that still require suits.

You’ll attract customers on the periphery, but if you only wanted to target men, you couldn’t create a brand or distinctive messaging that spoke to your target’s wants, needs, and lifestyle.

If you market to everyone, you’re marketing to no one.

Once you’ve figured out who you want to reach, get to know them. Now you have to become a CIA operative. The idea is to create a fully realized person—because who develops relationships with a data set and a PowerPoint presentation? First, get basic demographic info (i.e., age, gender, income, marital status, geography, education, career). Then, get to the good stuff:psychographics and behavioral data.

Behavior: Who are they? What do they want and how do they act? What are their habits? Are they formal in communication or do they use emojis? Are they online? If so, what sites—social media, blogs, forums, etc.—do they visit? Go deep. Learn everything about your customers from the magazines and TV shows they consume to when and how often they use their smartphone.

Motivation: What prompts them to act? Why would they come to you? What experiences have they had with products/services in your sphere? How have your competitors served them? Consider the six C’s of consumer motivation:content, cost reduction, choice, convenience, customization, and community.

Influences: Who do they trust? What resources do they use to search for and vet information? What sites do they visit and rely on for objective opinions?For example, travelers look to TripAdvisor as an authority they can trust because the site is composed of third-party reviews from people who’ve put down money on the places they’ve visited. And the data backs this up.According to TripAdvisor, 79 percent of users will read six-12 reviews before selecting a hotel, and 83 percent will “usually” or “always” reference TripAdvisor reviews before booking.

Pain points: What keeps them up at night? What do they need to make their life easier or better? When they complain, what do they complain about?Identify your customer’s core challenges and struggles—when, how, and why they experience them.

Journey: Get a notebook and write down their complete experience before, during, and after engaging with your product as a diary entry. Research and talking to your customer will help with this. This also leads to a smart exercise that allows you to take baby steps to visualize their journey: the empathy map.

The empathy map is a great tool that gets you in the head of your customer,and it’s also a preliminary step in crafting their journey. It helps you understand the following:

  • What do your customers know about the business you’re in and the products you sell? Are they shopping the competition?

  • How do they feel? How do they want to feel?

  • How do your products get them in their feelings?

Okay, at this point you’re probably overwhelmed and wondering how you’ll access all this information about your customer.

You can conduct primary research (focus groups, interviews, and observations) and/or secondary research (industry news, third-party studies and analysis, websites and social networks, and internal resources). Google can deliver a gold mine of secondary research resources, and I wrote a great quick and dirty how-to on using Amazon and YouTube to learn more about your customer.

To get you started, here are some free/inexpensive resources:

You can also do some quick customer research on SurveyMonkey or Google Forms. (We’ll get into segmentation in another tutorial. I’ll show you quick and dirty ways to do it and how to get fancy if you have the resources.)

The more you know about your customer, the more effective you will be at creating a narrative that resonates. Customers care about personalization, relevance, and context. If you’re not speaking to them about your business in a way that relates directly to them, they won’t care or listen.

And it doesn’t hurt to do some sleuthing on how your competitors are talking to their customers. How, where, and how often does your competitor speak about their business? Are they successful? Are there any gaps? Is your customer talking back, and if so, what are they saying? What insights from this can you employ for your business?

Once you’ve done all your research, you need to talk to your customers like they’re real people instead of segments or random data points plotted on a whiteboard. Consumers have expectations of you, and your job is to understand what they want and how to make that the center of their experience.

Know Your Competition

Context is crucial, and you can’t define your place and point of difference in your industry if you’re not aware of the overall size, health, players, and trends in the marketplace. No brand is created in a vacuum. Before you started your business, you probably did a lot of research on the market including:

  • Market size and CAGR (compound annual growth rate): How big is the market, is it growing, and at what pace?

  • Market health and sustainability: Is your industry stagnant or booming?Lately, we’ve seen the emergence of “blue ocean” brands. These are companies that carve out a new business model or way of communicating within an existing market model. Think about how NEST, Warby Parker, Everlane, and Casper have changed the way we thought about home heating systems, eyeglasses, cashmere sweaters, and mattresses. Are you forging a new path or competing in an existing one?

  • Do you operate from a standard business/operations model, or do you have a new way of working? For example, Everlane and Cuyana stand apart from online retailers because they sell directly to the consumer and are transparent about manufacturing and operations.

  • Do you have an expertise or insight difference or advantage?

  • Competitors: Who are the major and minor league players? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How do they differ from you? What works/doesn’t work about their products and messaging? How are they talking to their customers? Are they doing an excellent job of it? Mainly, you want to analyze your direct competition while also keeping an eye on adjacent competitors—those companies that hover around your industry but don’t directly compete in it. They’re speaking to a similar customer and they have the potential to enter your market. For example, let’s say you’re a bank that offers lending products to its customers. An adjacent company could be a fintech (financial technology) startup like SoFi that offers similar online and mobile financial products and has the potential of getting into direct lending.

  • Product life cycle: Introduction, growth, maturity, and decline compose a brand’s product life cycle. Where is the market right now and where do you fit? Are you introducing a new product in a mature market? Do you dominate a niche of the market? Are you a specialist or a generalist? The Ansoff Matrix helps you define where you sit in the market structure and your potential for growth, which would impact how your brand is positioned and messaged. The matrix is a strategic planning tool that helps businesses map their growth strategy through four possible market combinations.

  • Are you a market veteran? Do you have years of trust, reliability, and expertise? Are you a new player? Are you looking to redefine the industry?Or, as the tech kids say, “disrupt” it?

  • Key customer segments: This is a slight variation on the customer analysis you performed because you’re looking at the industry writ large and understanding the larger pool of customers instead of the segment you directly want to appeal to. Think about Forever 21, Eileen Fisher, and Versace; they’re all apparel, but they’re capturing different audiences based on demographics, psychographics, and affinity. Once you determine where you fit, you’ll have a more refined understanding of your base.

  • Innovation and market trends: Who’s driving change in your sector? Is your industry prone to innovation or is it stagnant? Where do you fit in the trend spectrum? Are you forward thinking? Are you a first-to-market or a cautious conservative? It’s essential to keep pace with customer and industry innovation and evaluate where your business falls on that spectrum and when/how you should adapt.

  • Barriers to entry, ease of exit: How easy is it to enter and leave your market? Are you the Hotel California of brands? If your business is harder to get into, you can use that to your advantage, like how blue ocean brands are giving their business some breathing room.

All of this research and analysis is also important when it comes time to develop your positioning and purpose. It forces you to consider where you sit on the industry curve and which factors define you and make you stand out.

Know Your Company

The hardest part of building a brand is being honest about your business. We love our children even when they’re hurling sharp objects in our direction. We tolerate the tantrums and missteps, and we’re probably the least objective person in the room when asked to list their worst flaws and weaknesses. But in business, that kind of love could be your ruin.

Remember that time when you sat in your manager’s office and they proceeded to review your annual highlight reel—the good, the bad, and the areas that could use a little improvement? You learned about the tools you needed in your professional toolkit to be competitive and grow. An annual performance review gives a clear sense of how you’re viewed and valued in your organization.

When you’re building a brand, no one is peering over your shoulder and evaluating you. No one is objective about your unique selling points and product benefits—except your customers. Most CEOs view success through the lens of profit, and anything that doesn’t contribute to that profit picture is an expense. And we all know how businesses see expenses.

Many people mistakenly view the brand-building process as a nonessential cost. You can’t get a direct ROI (return on investment) or ROA (return on assets) from positioning and messaging, but you also can’t make real decisions about your business if you’re on shaky brand ground. How do you sell more products if you don’t even know how to talk to your customer, what words to say and when and how to say them? How do you stand out if you don’t know what makes you unique? Why should prospective customers believe your claims and promises if you’re unclear on why they should believe? No business can be successful without the brand fundamentals crystalized.Period.

Often, we’re caught up working in our business instead of on our business.The part of the brand development process that forces you to be objective and honest about your products, purpose, positioning, promise, message, and customer is critical for long-term growth. Introspection, honesty, and self-discovery are essential, whether you’re a startup or an established brand.

Take a deep breath and get surgical about your brand with the following three exercises. They are an orderly way for you to evaluate your business, customer, products, competitors, and market position—all of which are powerful when building brand fundamentals.

Brand Exercise #1: Brand Evaluation and Assessment

I. The Essentials

Give short answers to these questions.

  • What do you do? [category]

  • How do you do it differently/better than your competitors? [positioning]

  • Who do you do it for? [audience]

  • Why are you doing it? [pain point solving/solution providing]

Goals and objectives: What is success to you? Please describe your short- and long-term. Goals should be SMART goals and straddle qualitative and quantitative:

  • Business objectives and goals

  • Brand objectives and marketing goals

  • What metrics have you used to benchmark and measure brand health and growth? What metrics do you feel are important for the long-term health and viability of your business?

  • Revenue, number of sales, average order value, site traffic, conversion rates, social media engagement, press/influencer coverage

II. Brand Questions

What are your vision, mission, and brand values? Stumped on what these terms mean?

Mission: Describes the purpose of your organization and how you’ll achieve that purpose. For example, Patagonia’s mission statement is “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Vision: An aspirational statement that outlines your long-term objectives and goals over time. For example, Patagonia’s vision statement is “We’re in business to save our home planet.”

Values and belief system: Your values and beliefs are the guiding principles—that which matters most to you—that drive every aspect of your business.It’s your moral compass and core and gives you and your employees a sense of purpose and direction. For example, Patagonia’s stated values are the following: 1) Build the best product. 2) Cause no unnecessary harm. 3) Use business to protect nature. 4) Not be bound by convention.

  • What are the rational and emotional benefits of your product or service?

  • Do you have any existing research about your customers?

  • Who is your current customer? Do you have any demographic information? (For example: age, gender, geography, education, HH1, marital status, home ownership, device ownership/usage, etc.)

  • What about buyer behavior? Where, how, and when are they buying your products?

  • What about psychographic information? Psychographic information can include the following: 1) any attitudinal information regarding how they would use your products? 2) media consumption habits: What are they reading, viewing, listening to? 3) Who influences their decisions? Where do they go for decision validation? 4) What are their pain points? 5) What motivates them to seek out your product? What are the steps they take when getting your product or service? 6) Think about your ideal customer. Who, generally, do you want to serve? 7) Think about the customer you want to repel. Who don’t you want to service? 8) How do your customers perceive your brand or business? Is there a disconnect? Does your brand have weaknesses? If so, how would you like your brand to be positioned? 9) Who are your main competitors? Include direct competitors and perhaps companies in adjacent industries. 10) How do you believe your presence compares with your competitors? What are you better at? What are your competitors better at?

III. Product/Services

Outline your products/services: What do they do? What are their functional and emotional benefits?

Do you have a hero product/service? Do you have product lines/other services?

What are your primary sales channels? Do you have channel partners? Or do you sell directly to the consumer? Direct to businesses?

How is your product different from, or better than, the competition? Do you have a competitive edge (i.e., patents, research, distribution, supplier advantage, IP, resources, experience, product innovation, etc.)?

What results are you promising? What outcomes will your customers experience if they use your product or service?

Why you? What makes you an authority on the products/services you sell? Why should consumers trust you versus the guy down the street?

Brand Exercise #2: Brand Reflection

Taking the time to answer the following questions will be critical when formulating the remaining components of your brand platform:

What are you most passionate about when it comes to your brand and business? What change do you want to evoke or create in the industry you’re in?

What is your purpose?

What are you good at? What’s your brand’s core genius?

What makes you different from the pack? Do you have any advantages that make you stand out? Specific areas of expertise? Specific methodologies, i.e., ways of doing things that differ from your competition?

What do you want to be known for?

What are you offering in your business? What are your services? Be as detailed as possible. Write this as if a client has contacted you and asked what you offer.

What services do you not want to provide?

What services do you plan to offer in the future?

Why did you start your business? What was missing in your industry? What gap are you trying to fill?

What problems are you trying to solve for in your business? What solutions do you hope to provide?

Describe your ideal customer. Who are they?

What’s your client’s biggest problem? What do they need you for?

What kind of transformation do you want your customers to experience?

Step 2: The Elevator Statement

The elevator statement is the “cocktail party conversation” part of your brand.It’s the answer to the question: “What does your company do?” The elevator statement doesn’t need to be sexy; in fact, fluffy copy can distract from your offering. The goal is clarity and brevity. It’s not the whole of your brand, but it’s the elevator, the one-to-two-minute description. The elevator statement and the signature story you’ll get to in the third step lay the foundation for your positioning and clear direction for your creative copy and visuals.

Framing your elevator statement is easy when you use the be/do/have technique:

  • Being: This is your “why.” What characteristics do you bring to your business?

  • Doing: This is your “what.” Define your business.

  • Having: This is the outcome your client will experience as a result of working with you.

For example, a millennial legacy planning and coaching company created this elevator:

  • Be: As socially conscious female millennial wealth recipients, we’ve experienced familial mortality moments, premature loss, and tough transfer conversations — all while trying to define our identity, how we fit in the world, and how we can evolve corporate and financial success to service and significance.

  • Do: At Company A, we arm the next generation of ambitious and intentional female wealth owners with the tools, resources, and frameworks they need to transform their family’s financial success to personal and societal significance.

  • Have: Our method transforms women of multigenerational wealth families from asset recipients to confident, compassionate leaders. You’ll have stronger communication and negotiation skills, confidence, and stronger relationships.

Step 3: The Signature Story

The signature story tackles both the big questions and the minor ones. Why did you create your business? What motivated you? Who do you want to serve and why? Is there a glaring gap in the market that you can fill? What’s your “why”?

But let’s make it plain and simple.

You meet someone at a party. You hate parties because people and apparent feelings of awkwardness and psychological despair. (Oh. Is that just me? Okay.) You make small talk and then you exchange the superficial, “So, what do you do?”

You wouldn’t blurt out a manual or copy from a sales funnel page, right? No, you’d tell them about the business you created and why you did it. Maybe you’d talk about your vision and mission. Not everyone’s in it for the money, and perhaps you want to leave your mark on the world in a particular way.What bolts you out of bed and keeps you up at night? What struggles are you discovering along the way?

You tell this story in your own words and voice; it’s unique because it’s from you. You might speak super fast and become animated when you get excited, or maybe you’re thoughtful, measured, and speak from a place of experience and perspective. But there’s a story you want to tell, and it comes from inside you.

We understand others not by thinking, but by feeling. We feel first, think second. Scientifically, we home in on “mirror neurons”—creating words that simulate your customers’ actions and the thoughts and feelings behind their actions. They feel like you’re talking to them, about them.

The Science Behind Effective Stories

According to Bluesumac, this is how parts of our brains respond to stories:

  • Dopamine: The brain releases dopamine when it experiences an emotionally charged event, making it easier to remember and with greater accuracy.

  • Cortex activity: When processing facts, two areas of the brain are activated (Broca’s and Wernicke’s area). A powerful story can engage other areas, including the motor cortex, sensory and frontal cortex.

  • Neural coupling: A story taps into parts of the brain that allow listeners to transform the story they hear into their own experience.

  • Mirror neurons: Listeners will experience activities similar not only to each other but also to the speaker/storyteller.

A good story is made from a few key ingredients. First, authenticity is important. A real story is more powerful than you think. We forge connections with people who proudly wear their vulnerability. Real stories attract the people you want to serve and empower you to communicate with them.Serendipity is how your business launched as a result of a coincidence, an accident, or simply the lucky stars. Specificity adds value. Use specific images, words, and cultural signifiers that your customer relates to and understands.

The signature story and elevator statement drive your brand story in the way you combine the emotional with the practical. Your story highlights your values and belief system as well as what you do, why you do it, why clients should trust you, and how they ultimately benefit. All of this is key to forming your positioning statement as it zeros in on what makes you a special snowflake. And it’s so important to center your customer because you’re creating a brand in hopes that it will attract the people you want to serve.

The point of the signature story is to make your story their story. The signature story is about you understanding their challenges and coming up with a solution. Most brands fail because they only talk about themselves.Customers are selfish—they want to know why they should care and why you matter to them. It’s a nuance in messaging, but an important one. Browse website homepages. Within 15 seconds (or less!), can you gauge how you directly benefit from a product or service, or have you just read a paragraph about the company? It’s the difference between these two statements:

All about the customer: 
Are you lying awake at night in terror over the fact that you’re giving birth in a few months and you haven’t even planned for your nursery because who has the time, money, and Instagram-worthy style? Are you nervous about finding safe, nontoxic furniture and bedding for your newborn? If you’re overwhelmed by all the options, we have your solution. With over 15 years of experience, we design, source, and create full nurseries for new moms on a budget.

All about the business owner: 
Hi! I’m Jane and I have over 15 years experience in nursery design. My work has been featured in VogueTown and CountryParentingSTFU Parents, etc., and I work with all the celebs. I design nurseries that are ‘gram worthy without robbing your wallet.

The first story addresses the mindset of the customer head-on and then poses a solution from someone who has the experience and goods to back up the promise. Consumers want to know that you’re thinking about them 24/7.

The second story is a bio that centers the person behind the business instead of the customer. You can (and absolutely should) have this kind of bio, but it should be the antecedent to the customer. You (the business owner) serve as the back-up dancer for your customer, Beyoncé.

To make story magic happen, you need to inspire your customers’ imagination. Identify their problems and solve them. Make them sit up and pay attention. Give them something they didn’t expect — especially since everyone else’s offering is mass-market. Associate your brand with your fresh take. Project that freshness, imagination, and intrigue onto you.

Humans aren’t necessarily attracted to the allure of the new, as much as we like to see things we’re already familiar with in a new way.

— Google’s Engagement Project

Step 4: Positioning and Purpose

Brand Positioning

Brand positioning is defined as the territory you occupy in your customer’s mind relative to your competitors and whether they believe that you’re the best option to meet their needs. How can your company address your prospects’ desired outcomes in a way that no one else can? You won’t find positioning statements on a package, website, or store shelf. Rather, it’s an internal exercise that drives all the key decisions in your organization. It defines what you say, where you say it, how you say it, and to whom you say it. It guides what you produce and how you market and sell it. Effective brand positioning relies on competitive research and analysis, consumer insights, and an honest evaluation of where your business stands and fits in the marketplace.

You create positioning through the target, category, benefit, and evidence:

  • To (target): Start by addressing the audience you’re serving directly. Specificity is key. For example, you wouldn’t refer to all millennials in your positioning, but might be focused on African-American millennial women.

  • Your brand is the (category): In which industry do you operate? Your category or market gives you a point of reference that helps define the space in the marketplace where you compete.

  • That is the (benefit): Define the promise you’re making to your audience.What are the main benefits you’re delivering?

  • That’s because (evidence): Why should your customers believe you? What support points, evidence, and claims can you use to back up the benefits?

Your positioning is driven by your market, customer, and brand insights, and it speaks directly to your customer with clarity and confidence. Consider the following questions when crafting your positioning:

  • Does it set your brand apart in a way that puts people on pause?

  • Is it agile enough to allow for long-term growth?

  • Does it speak to your customer in a way that’s clear and direct?

  • Is it consistent across all aspects of your brand?

  • Can you own it? Is this statement exclusive to you or could it be reflective of every shop on the block?

Example: Amazon used this positioning statement back when it almost exclusively sold books: “For World Wide Web users who enjoy books, Amazon.com is a retail bookseller that provides instant access to over 1.1 million books. Unlike traditional book retailers, Amazon.com provides a combination of extraordinary convenience, low prices, and comprehensive selection.”

Brand Purpose

The purpose is the business’s reason for being, not selling. It’s human and puts the consumer at the center of the brand. The most successful brands build their positioning into their purpose—shifting from, Where do I stand? to What do I believe? What are my values? What are my vision and mission? Why did I start this business? What keeps me going? What sustains it?

Brand purpose is your brand’s philosophical heartbeat.

So you’ve finished the industry and customer research part of your work. Now, it’s showtime. Sometimes even big brands aren’t able to succinctly or articulate what makes them distinct. The next few exercises will help you when establishing your positioning and purpose.

Example: Target does an excellent job at articulating its brand purpose, as does Patagonia.

Exercise 1: Fast on Your Feet

This exercise invites you to list the first three things that come to mind when thinking of your brand. Single words, not sentences. They can be nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. But pick three things and don’t overthink it. Take two-three minutes to complete this exercise.

  1. _______________

  2. _______________

  3. _______________

Exercise 2: First, Only, and Best

Fill in the blanks:

We are the first to _____________

We are the only who ___________

We are the best at ______________

Exercise 3: Find Your Promise

A promise is a thing you are telling a customer you intend to do for them. It’s the reason they should buy from you. But getting at a great promise means understanding both the functional and emotional benefits you impart. Jot down as many as you can think of for both, knowing that ultimately you’ll need to be able to pick the top benefits that surpass the pack.

Step 5: Benefits and Reason to Believe

Brand benefits are the tangible and intangible value that your customer experiences as a result of using your product or service. There are two types of benefits: rational (or functional) and emotional.

Rational benefits relate to the specific performance of the product or service, i.e., what the product does and how it performs to expectations. For example, a Dyson upright vacuum purports to offer superior suction compared to other vacuums on the market, with the lowest maintenance (i.e., no bags, no filters to clean).

Emotional benefits relate to how your product or service makes customers feel. What results or outcomes do they experience as a result of using your product? Let’s stick with the Dyson vacuum. Superior suction and low maintenance mean you save time and feel content that you have a tidier home.

The reason to believe (RTB) is, simply put, why your customer should believe you. What makes your claims and promises credible and trustworthy? Your RTB could be anything from your experience in the field, proven results and testimonials, products backed by extension research or science, etc. Your customer is skeptical because they’ve heard the promises before. Their clarion call is: Prove it to me.

Step 6: Brand Personality and Tone of Voice

Remember that people buy from people not brands, and the more you can bring your brand to life, the more abundant, meaningful connections you can cultivate. Our vibe is all about how we show up, behave, and engage. You’re making a deliberate act of personal expression and staking your claim on your verbal and visual style—effectively, stamping your signature.

Claim your words, vibe, visual aesthetic, lingua franca—this is your first mighty step in your content and channel strategy. How do you want your customers to perceive you? What adjectives would they use to describe you?

Brand Personality

Personality in this case refers to the human characteristics, emotions, and attributes embodied by a brand. It’s a brand made human by the Dr. Frankenstein of marketing departments, although far less nefarious. Your personality is how you show up and act in front of your customers. Your personality is composed of your tone of voice—all the elements that make an individual unique and establish their identity.

Brand Tone of Voice

Tone of voice is the expression and embodiment of your personality, beliefs, and values — the person behind the brand. Your tone is not only about how you speak, but it’s also the words you use and how you use them (i.e., the cadence and rhythm, velocity, and length of your speech). Think of the voice you use every day. It exists and is part of your personality and energy. Think of the words you use and how you use them. Think of the images, colors, and fonts you cleave to. Consider the tenor, pitch, and velocity of your voice. Claim your words and -isms. Establish your style.

But remember, you’re not limited to adopting the voice of your owner. What might work for a small business would be an epic fail for a multinational corporation. Imagine the CEO of Taco Bell’s voice all over social media? I shudder to think. You could be you, a character, or the creation of the voice of your brand—it all depends on the size of your business, the industry you’re in, and what feels right and natural to you.

For example, do you speak fast or with a drawl? Are you loud and bombastic or quiet and reserved? Do you speak in long, ornate sentences or are you punchy and to-the-point? Do you use emojis? Do you use industry jargon or plain English? Are you cashing in on all your 50-cent words or are you keeping it simple?

Examples: Mailchimp’s and Bank of America’s voice and tone guidelines.

Your guidelines should include:

  • Examples of your voice in practice: Give examples of what would be “on brand” and “off brand.”

  • Dos/Don’ts.

  • Brand as individual; create a mood board of your brand as if it were a real person.

  • Real brands and people you can channel.

Step 7: SWOT Analysis

SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It’s a way to evaluate your business in the context of market conditions.

Strengths: What are you good at? What unique skill sets do you have that put you at an advantage? What do others (e.g., customers, partners, vendors, competition, etc.) think you’re good at?

Weaknesses: What are your weaknesses? How do your competitors have an edge? What do others perceive as your vulnerabilities?

Opportunities: What trends or business or market opportunities on the horizon could positively impact your business? Is it a geographic opportunity? A more affordable vendor or acquisition candidate?

Threats: What are your competitors doing that could negatively affect your business? What’s shaky about your business that needs resolution? For example, do you have enough funding or cash flow? What impact do your weaknesses have on your threats (they’re often inextricably bound to one another)?

Examples: SWOT analyses from AmazonCoca-Cola, and Tesla.

Step 8: Messaging Strategy

Your content strategy brings all of the brand’s puzzle pieces together. Now that you have a fundamental understanding of your customer, landscape, company, and brand message architecture (i.e., story, positioning and purpose, brand benefits, and RTB), you can design a messaging strategy for each of your customer segments, media, and B2B (business-to-business) partners. Then you expand the core messaging strategy to create essential content pillars—the fundamentals of your content strategy.

Each step builds and expands upon itself. You started at a simple place of talking about your product and evolved into a sophisticated matrix that predicates what you say, where, how, and when you say it. Your message becomes expansive and specific, knowing that the messages you use in product copy will be different from an Instagram Story.

Building a brand takes work. It’s a marriage between your passion and experience and a world of data available for the taking. At the end of the day, You’re creating your own personal Frankenstein—something that is so close to being a person in the flesh. And if making a brand was as easy as buying fancy fonts and getting someone on Upwork to create your logo, we wouldn’t see so much convoluted mess in the marketplace.

Getting your business off the ground requires you to be scrappy, agile, and surgical about your costs, but this is the one investment in your business that will save you in the long run. Don’t sidestep the brand development process in favor of other investments because, without this process, when it comes time to go to market, you may not be clear on what it is your selling, why your customers need it, and why you should be their first choice.

How to Write Winning Freelance Proposals

When it comes to new business, I’ve learned that you have to be clear, concise, and comfortable with asking for the sale. In a former life, I was a partner in a digital agency, and I grew our portfolio from $1MM to $20MM in four years. In the process, I gained thirty pounds, got grey hair and frequent anxiety attacks, but that’s a conversation for another day. When I quit working for a narcissistic sociopath six years ago and started consulting, I used the tools I’d acquired to convert prospects into clients.

My win rate exceeds 95%.

How do I do it? I’ve designed a simple three-step process that starts with a conversation and ends with a bulletproof proposal. Here are the keys to your win rate.

It’s Not About You

You’ve had the initial call with your prospective client and you let them do the talking. In thirty minutes, you learned about their business and pain points. Closing a client comes down to demonstrating that you know the client’s challenges and you’re the one to solve them. Many consultants make the big mistake of using the proposal to talk all about them — their experience, their portfolio, their capabilities, and their fluffy cat. If your prospect doesn’t know your background and experience before the intake call, you’ve lost the business. As soon as I get a lead, I send a brief note outlining my background and experience, attaching my portfolio and case studies. Making the case for “why you” is about their assuaging doubts and cultivating comfort. Clients want to know they’re talking to a seasoned, results-driven pro. You want zero doubt before that first call.

After the call, it’s all about the client.

Open the proposal with a recap of your discussion, restating their challenges, goals, and objectives. The rest of the proposal is proving you’re in the solutions business.

Remind Clients of Your Results

Although I just went on a mini-rant about how to not make the proposal all about you, you do want to reiterate specific aspects of your experience that make you their ideal partner. For example, you can call out industry and vertical expertise. You can highlight previous case studies where you’ve solved for similar challenges using the CAR format:

  • Challenge: Define your mandate.

  • Action: Outline the action you took.

  • Result: Show the results.

Essentially, you’re reminding them that you’ve done what they’ve tasked you to do before and successfully. Also, proposals are often circulated internally for feedback and review, and you want to show the team that you’ve heard their concerns and why you are the best person to address them.

Speak to the Solution

This is the most essential part of the proposal! I’ve seen vague outlines that are an open invitation for scope creep and agita. In concrete and succinct terms, articulate your services and the components of those services that will ultimately satisfy the assignment. For example, let’s say a client’s social media content strategy is serving as the primary cure for insomnia. They’re making too many rookie moves and they’re not connecting with their customer. They have zero engagement rate and the CEO is frantically waving their phone with your competitors’ social channels bookmarked. Your proposal would outline:

  • Outline your discovery process: how you’ll immerse yourself in the brand, business, and target customer. Although you’re a direly needed fresh pair of eyes, you also want to make sure you can craft a strategy and content that compels and converts.

  • Define your social media content strategy approach: Be clear and specific on the steps you’ll take to design a winning content strategy. From competitor and adjacent industry research and mood boarding and brainstorms to mapping out their 3-H content strategy, share what your client should expect to receive.

  • Explain how you’ll optimize and measure for success: Marketing is all about measurement, so you want to be precise on the qualitative and quantitative measures you’ll employ to establish benchmarks and define success. Also, be clear on your optimization approach. Do you plan on evaluating content performance on a monthly basis? Do you A/B test, etc.?

  • Quantify and specify how often you’ll create content calendars, how many posts you’ll create per channel, per week (original and 3rd party reposting), and whether you’d be responsible for creating original visual and video content. If so, what kinds of content? Images, video, gifs, Lives, etc. How many pieces of visual content will you be editing and formatting? This is important because this is where scope creep can take a project from profitable to blood-sucking leech-level unprofitable.

When it comes to your solutions, BE SPECIFIC.

Explain Your Process

Believe it or not, this is the second crucial part of the proposal because in this section you’re communicating how you work. Not setting clear expectations from the onset is often the reason projects become a psychological nightmare. This is the place to define:

  • Your process: Your communication and workflow — the tactical nuts and bolts of your day.

  • Communication: Get specific on when and how often you communicate. Do you have weekly check-in calls? Do you guarantee a response within 24 hours? Do you not work on the weekend or do have specific office hours? Do you send call recaps to ensure you and your clients are on the same page? How a do you structure the review and feedback process?

  • The software, tools, and technology you use to get the job done: For example, I use Dropbox, Asana, Google Suite, and Slack for file, communication, and workflow management. Do you use Hootsuite to manage social media? Show what’s in your toolkit. Know that some of this will be a negotiation with your client because you don’t want to impose a process that impedes progress. Each client is different, and you’ll have to negotiate the tools you’ll be using.

  • Your approach: This is your secret sauce. Your big-picture strategic workflow. This is how you get to the solutions that will solve your client’s problems. For example, on my brand strategy projects, I outline the first two week’s of activity to get to positioning statement, key messaging, benefits, and narrative. I’ll also show where the clients are involved in the process: Week 1: Asset Request + Review (FS); Week 2: 2-day discovery work session (FS + Client), recap report, which details key learnings and opportunity; Week 3: Delivery of brand provocations, positioning and purpose, benefits, RTB, and key messaging statements.

You’ll gain tremendous insight into your client relationship based on their response to your proposal. I joke that this is the phase when all the nightmare clients come out of the woodwork. The, wait, you’re not going to respond to emails within 3.2 seconds of receiving them? I can’t expect that you’ll make edits at 2:30 am when I have insomnia and I’m firing out emails?

Be Clear About The Deliverable, i.e., what they get.

While clients appreciate the strategy, advice, and best practices, they also want to get clarity on the deliverables. I often create a chart where I outline my services in one column and in the next column I’ll specify the deliverable’s format and timeline. Let’s say a client wants you to manage all of their influencer marketing efforts monthly. You would detail all the components of the service and the deliverables:

  • Influencer strategy in PPT format (<- Yes, I inform the client of the format because you would be surprised the level of confusion and frustration that ensues in the sending and opening of documents. You don’t want to send a Keynote file when everyone in the organization uses PowerPoint.)

  • List of targets, asks, and assets, budget, timeline

  • Campaign copy, influencer pitch and all communication in MS Word format

  • Monthly recap and performance report in XLS format

BE CLEAR on what they get and when they get it.

Define Success and How You’ll Measure It.

Clients love this because it allows them to rationalize their investment and determine whether your proposed solution worked. You’ll sometimes hear marketers use the term “KPIs” or Key Performance Indicators. That’s just a fancy way of saying what kinds of data they use in evaluating the success of a particular strategy or tactic.

Metrics can also be tricky because not all measures of success are quantitative, and they shouldn’t be. With brand work or anything that involves driving awareness or consideration (preference) for a brand, the results aren’t something that can be immediately measured. Your proposal should be clear on how you’ll work with your client to establish a benchmark (i.e., a starting point from which to measure) and how you’ll evaluate the efficacy of your work.

Include a Project Timeline and Resources

Every project, even retainer work, has a contracted start and end date. Set parameters for the project as well as any additional resources involved and what their roles will be on the project. This is important because some companies bar the use of subcontractors. Also, your client will want to get to know their partners and all the members of their dream team!

Show Me the Money

Ah, the moment we’ve all been waiting for with bated breath. This guide isn’t about how to set your pricing or whether you should charge a project rate or hourly (I only charge project rates), however, what is important about this section is to set a fair rate for your work, when they should pay you, and any fees you collect if they’re negligent in paying you.

Set your ideal terms. Don’t draft what you think a client would want. Remember, this is about you making money by providing them with a solution. In the past year, I’ve had two clients who have paid upon receipt of the invoice. That’s where I start, and I’ll go up to N30. I also require 50% of payment up front. If it’s a mix of project deliverables and a monthly retainer, I’ll do a 50% of the project fees at signing and 50% at term, and then I’ll bill at the first of the month for the retainer.

If your client is legit, they will never have a problem paying for your work. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and deserve.

Close With Next Steps

In marketing, we have a phrase that there should be no dead ends. Every action should lead to another action. I employ this in proposals by setting up a time for review and discussion. For some clients, I’ll outline what the next two weeks will look like (i.e., proposal finalization, SOW/MSA, onboarding, etc.)

End the story the way you started it. You heard them, and now you’re excited to get started on the solution.

Get on my email list!

How to Score That First Freelance Client

The most agonizing part of being a freelancer is managing deal flow. Most of the time, you’ll have your head down doing your work until you complete a particular project. When the dust settles and you’ve collected the cash from your final invoice, you look up with abject terror to realize there’s nothing on the horizon.Or maybe you’ve taken a hacksaw to the chain that’s been binding you to your 9 to 5, only to realize you’re a newbie, fresh product — no one knows that you’ve quit your job and are now in the freelance game

How do you score those first few important clients when you’re new to the hustle or you’ve found yourself in a financial Sahara?

First, let’s talk about gig sites. Repeat after me: Just say no to Upwork.

Competing on price is a zero-sum game. You will always be the loser.


There’s nothing more demeaning than a financial race to the bottom. Sites like Upwork and Fiverr benefit those who are hiring because they force freelancers to compete on price. And let me be crystal clear about this: Competing on price is a zero-sum game. You will always be the loser. There will always be someone who will offer to do the work for half your rate in half the time, regardless of whether the product is garbage.

Upwork is the biggest con going. Trust me, you can build a legitimate freelance career without having to devalue your work or deal with a middleman taking a princely cut.

Okay, whew. Digression over. Let’s get back to business.

1. Decide What You Want to Do

Don’t freak out. This isn’t a lifelong commitment. For my first two years of freelancing, I only did social media projects until I woke up one day wanting to tear my hair out. I was good at social media strategy, but I hated social media strategy. That’s when I realized that just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean I need to do it for a living.

But don’t feel bad if you have to take gigs you don’t want at the beginning or during droughts. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of being picky. I’ve taken on projects because, at the end of the day, I had bills to pay.

Now, get clear and specific about your goals by asking yourself the following questions.

What do you want to do?

Decide on the products/services you want to offer. Let me share three magical words with you: multiple revenue streams. Generating income from various sources not only minimizes the risk of not getting work, it also diversifies your work. Your ideas are fresh and you rarely get sick of what you do. I have five streams going right now: strategy work, 1:1 coaching, writing, performing audits (i.e. I tell you what’s wrong with your business), and products/courses (coming in 2019). All of my work comes from my experience in storytelling and marketing, but I’ve chosen different ways to use my skills to make money.

Who do you want to do it for?

Visualize your dream client. And no, your dream client isn’t just someone who pays you on time, although that is certainly dreamy. What kind of business are they in? How large is the company? What are the company’s values, and do they align with yours? How does your client value you? For example, I’ve shifted my model this year to use my 20+ years of experience to help women-owned businesses and POC/marginalized business owners. The majority of my clients are small to mid-sized companies, and they view me more as an integral partner than as a vendor. These businesses aim to create products and services that truly meet the needs of their customers. They operate from a place of honesty and integrity, which aligns with how I want to live my life.

Why do you want to do it?

Yes, we all want to make money, but that goal isn’t self-sustaining. After a while, you’ll realize money is a thing, but not the only thing, and then you’ll risk being resentful of the work you do. Do you have big dreams of leaving the world in better shape? Do you have a skill that would truly help and transform other people or make their lives easier? A sense of purpose can be a constant motivator.

Where do you want to work?

Does your work have a geographic component? Where are most of your ideal clients located? Do you want to work virtually or one-on-one with people, in person?

2. Validate Your Idea

Do the research. Is there a demand for your work? What are people paying for it? Make sure you price yourself wisely — there are scores of online calculators that can help you figure out your rate. Determine if you want to be paid by the hour or by the project. I could write a whole piece on

hourly vs. project, but for now, I’ll just say that at this point in my career I only do project rates.

3. Shout It From the Rafters

Tell everyone you know that you’re freelancing: your mom, your best friend, your dog, the barista at Starbucks… you get what I mean. Work can come from anywhere, but no one will offer you work unless you announce that you’re looking for it. I routinely send brief emails to my network outlining the kinds of projects I’m taking on and asking if they or someone they know is looking for a bomb-ass consultant. Email everyone in the free world: Do you need help? Do you know anyone who needs help?

4. Work Your Network

I’m a shy introvert. The idea of networking gives me palpitations. I used to go to networking events and just stand in a corner — the only thing that was getting worked was my cheese plate. But don’t worry: You can expand your network without being smarmy about it.

Join private Facebook and LinkedIn groups related to your industry

Connect online with people who run in similar industry circles. Why? Because who doesn’t want support — a place where you can field questions, punt ideas,and help others. Here are two more magic words: overflow referrals.

The more people you have in your corner, especially if they’re good at what they do, the better; you’ll find that work gets shared. I’ve seen countless freelance gigs posted in the Dreamers // Doers Facebook group, as well as a ton of other groups. I’ve also made a few friends online and those relationships have scored me projects.

Work your contacts

I have a philosophy that if I don’t like you, I can’t get on the phone or spend time with you. I want the time I spend with people to be gratifying. Have coffee with your peers. Schedule Skype/FaceTime dates to talk shop or buddy up with a peer for ongoing mutual support as accountability partners.

Ask your friends for specific introductions to people in their network, but don’t be vague. Don’t just say, “Can you hook me up with someone in your network?” Rather, say, “Do you know someone in nonprofits who works in social media marketing? I’d love to hook up with them for [X reason]. Could you make an intro?”

A key point: Never ask for or make blind introductions. Always ask each party if they want to be connected. It’s good professional etiquette and it ensures both parties are interested and not put in an awkward or compromising position.

Connect with past employers/former clients

You’re probably thinking, Oh, if they need work they’ll just know to contact me. Please stop thinking this. People don’t have elephantine memories and they’re not psychic. People can only see a few feet in front of them, so you have to be in front of them.

Reconnect with old clients or past employers and ask if they need help with something. Assess their business, sites, emails, and social channels and suggest ways you can help take their business to the next level. It shows you did some legwork and you have specific ideas on how to make their business better.

5. Be Open

Sometimes you need to get crafty because you have bills to pay. Work your revenue streams, but also think about smaller projects you can take on that will provide some quick cash. Recently, I created portfolios for fellow freelancers by pairing my wordsmithing and positioning abilities with designed templates on Creative Market. When you need cash, nothing is beneath you.

At the end of the day, you just need to find that person to hire you to do one thing. That’s enough to get the ball rolling.

The Ultimate Resource Guide for Freelancers

Hold onto your pantalones, my friends, because you’re in for a resource RIDE.

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about my Second Act challenge. I thought I’d give you a breather to sit with your answers because next week we’re going to talk about how we build something new, step-by-step, from your foundation. I’m not talking Vesuvius, friends. This isn’t scorching the earth to start anew. This is about taking what you have and making it into something real and tangible.

This week, I’m talking about resources. Resources I use in my business and day-to-day. Believe me when I say that I’ve tried EVERYTHING. I’ve signed up for every email list imaginable, and have downloaded dozens of tutorials and tried all the software platforms. However, I’ll save you the heartache of the hunt. Today, I’m sharing what works for me and why.

Whether you’re a freelancer or rocking a 9–5, I know you’ll find something useful here because I believe that knowledge should be shared and abundance far outweighs competition and scarcity.

Buckle up. Let’s get this resource party started. For efficiency, I’ve divided up the goods by section for ease of scrolling.

1. Client Management/CRM

Dubsado: When it comes to client management, I believe in the path of least resistance. I don’t want complexity; I crave simplicity and Dubsado is the ONLY client CRM system that I’ve stuck with. I’ve tried Honeybook and Freshbooks and I always return to Dubsado. Here’s why:

They have a super simple contract management and invoice system: If I want to send out contracts or invoices, Dubsado makes the process super simple with sample templates you can customize and a means to track document opens and responses. No more wondering — did they get??? YOU KNOW.

Their lead management tool is the tops: Using simple code, you can embed a contact form into website that will drive and sort leads into Dubsado. This is great because I get to track leads, update status, and convert them to jobs when I’ve closed on deals.

Cool workflows: I can’t tell you how much time I’ve saved by creating workflows. For example, when a prospect emails me, I have auto-responders set up based on query type/desired services. I also have workflows established for new clients. As soon as a contract is signed, they get an automatic email outlining our engagement and next steps.

Unfuckwithable Words: I am on board with whatever Ash Ambirge is selling. I started out with her free email challenge, 25 Days to $100K. I loved the depth and specificity of her recommendations — tangible tactics on how to make more $, price yourself, etc. Then I made the leap and purchased her Unfuckwithable Words, 300 scripts to navigate all areas of client, vendor, and employee management. If you have an issue, she has a script. I can’t tell you how much I’ve used this and it’s saved me the anxiety of drafting emails for those DIFFICULT conversations. She also has a stellar legal kit that has a crapload of contract templates for every imaginable freelancer scenario. I ONLY recommend things on which I’ve spent my hard-earned money and her tools are worth the investment.

2. Cash Money Management: I’ve hired bookkeepers and half the time I don’t even understand the reports they send and I wished that everything could be digital and mobile-first. Enter Bench. They manage your books, expenses, and all that jazz for $115/month. Tell me what bookkeeper competes with those prices! Learn more about their features. More importantly, I use them as a conduit for my tax filings. They organize my life such that when I hand over my docs to my accountant, filing my taxes is a breeze. And there’s nothing that gives me more stress than the IRS. Real life.

I use Countless.io for accounting and I can’t tell you how smart and methodical Brittany is. She’s been my accountant for the past two years and I’ll never go back. I used to work with an old bro who would make judgments about my financials and I got tired of feeling ashamed. Plus, Countless is run by whip-smart millennials who get digital and the freelance game. They’re also up on all the latest tax laws and rules, by state. Note, I live in California and they’re in NY filing my taxes virtually.

3. Time Tracking/Meeting Scheduling: I use Timely to track my hours on a project so I can get crystal about over-work and profitability. They have an incredible interface that tracks your time automatically based on applications and browsers used when you’re logged into your desktop/mobile. I use Calendly to schedule meetings, as I got tired of the back-and-forth of when are you available?

4. Email: Words cannot express how much I HEART Mailchimp. You can be an idiot and use it. I like it because it’s easy to use and their tutorials are first-rate. A lot of my blogger friends swear by ConvertKit and many of the big dogs use Infusionsoft since it has advanced targeting and segmenting capabilities (i.e. you can get fancy AF when sending emails).

When it comes to email marketing, I will say that I think Jenna Kutcher’s List Building Lab was pretty formidable. She even has a free webinar if you want to learn more. I’ve purchased two of her classes and was pleased with how much I’ve learned and the ease in which the information is presented. If you want smart emails in your inbox about all things…email, check out Val Geisler’s missives.

5. Social Media: I’ve been in the social media game since 2006/2007 so I know what’s what. I created a free doc on the automation tools I love and use. Also, check out this guide to using social if you’re an entrepreneur, and here are docs I’ve downloaded/compiled that help you navigate InstagramFacebook (including FB ads), and Pinterest.

6. Website: I am a HUGE fan of Wordpress for blogging and more sophisticated content management system. I used Wordpress.org because there are fewer limitations when it comes to customization and plug-in integrations.

When it comes to my P&K site, I use Squarespace since it’s super simple and the templates are pretty stellar. I will say that I’m NOT a fan of Squarespace’s TOS where they can use your work in advertising. I wouldn’t recommend this platform if you are an artist. However, if you’re creating a simple site for your business, it’s easy to use and customize. If you can’t shell out the cash for a web designer, I recommend using Empress Themes. I used them for my Wordpress blog and found the designs to be clean and elegant and the integration simple. If you can afford a designer, I recommend my friend, Lorissa of Being Wicked.

7. Podcasts: I LOVE podcasts. Here are some of my essentials: Being BossGoalDiggerAmy Porterfield’s Online Marketing Made Easy, Seth Godin’s AkimboPat Flynn’s Smart Passive IncomeThe Creative Class Podcast. I always get pragmatic, practical information. For the millennials in the house, I think you’ll like The Creative Empire Podcast (though I’ll be honest and say that one of their recent shows gave me a rage blackout because they had a brand strategist who didn’t understand what brand strategy meant and conflated copywriting and brand strategy. However, if you ignore that nonsense, they have some pretty great episodes.

On a side note, I will say that I am ALL ABOUT The Touré Show.

8. Smart People: Whenever Regina sends an email, I open it. Immediately. Her courses and content are free of jargon BS and are actionable. Whether it’s creating group coaching classes or building your email list, her insights are spot-on and her advice is smart, pragmatic, and results-driven. Her free resources are RICHES. If you download anything today, download Regina’s gospel. It’s real. I’m trying to be low-key about this but I’m a total fangirl.

9. Brand Development and Strategy: I’m going to be honest — there are a lot of brand predators posing as house pets out there. People who do not actually know the discipline that is brand development and strategy and they reduce it to copywriting and logos, which is infuriating and couldn’t be further from the truth. I can crank out marketing plans in my sleep, but brand work is HARD, methodical, and intensely data-driven. I found this excellent FREE book on the basics of brand strategy and development. Read this before you ask questions. If a strategist doesn’t start with data (and I’m not talking about scraping blog comments and amazon reviews), RUN.

I ranted about this on Twitter this week because there’s nothing more aggravating than people who don’t know what they’re talking about, peddling their services on the cheap, which it makes it harder for pros like me to convince a client that brand work should START at $8K.

10. SEO: When it comes to SEO, I recommend that you hit up my friend Cariwyl if you need a pro.

11. Free Design Resources/Templates: Half the time, I can’t afford to get fancy so I go to Creative Market for most of my needs. You can find ANYTHING here. I’ve purchased fonts, portfolio and document templates, PPT presentations — you name it. All super affordable.

12. Podcasts: I recommend Pat Flynn’s podcasting course. It’s INCREDIBLE.

13. Everything Else: I’m loath to use the word “hack,” but this Hack Guide is the utter truth. I’ve also written dozens of articles on all things business, career, and writing. Read them. Learn how to quit procrastinating. You have 8,760 hours per year. How to use them. And don’t forget the comprehensive guides, tutorials, and templates I’ve created for you.

Let's talk about brand story + voice

It’s seems as if everyone in a five-mile radius is talking about brand voice and story. What it is, how you get it, and how you apply it to your business. Some get it right while others maybe mainlined too many Gary V. videos and get it terribly, terribly wrong.

If someone doesn’t understand the difference between brand development, brand story, and branding, RUN. Building a brand is not about a logo and color palette and brand development involves data, insights, and market research.

If someone starts talking about how content is king and engagement is queen, RUN. Preferably to the nearest shower so you can cleanse yourself of the nonsense. Nothing’s “king” or “queen.” Stop re-engineering the basics into newspeak. This is about you, your story — what you say and how your say it — and how that story connects with your intended audience in a way that’s honest, real, and meaningful.

Why did you get into this business? What did you set out to achieve? Why do you think you matter? What are your values? How do you show up for your customers? How do you convince them that you’re not just another mouthpiece spreading the disease that is noise and viral videos?

This is what you need to focus on, not listening to the “guru” of the moment.

In this short guide, I’m going to tell you what a brand voice and story are, why you need it for your business, and how you can map it out over the course of a few days. If you’re not shilling or shady, life is simpler than you think. I’m also sharing a 33-slide slide deck on creating your brand positioning and purpose. Enjoy and share the riches.

Who am I? I’m a marketer who’s been doing this for 20 years (brand side, agency side, and out on my own) and I have all the grey hair to prove it.

What’s a Brand Story?

The Brand Story tackles both the big questions and the minor ones. Why did you create this business? What motivated you? Who do you want to serve and why? Is there a glaring gap in the market, which you feel confident you can fill?

But let’s make it plain and simple.

You meet someone at a party. You hate parties because people and obvious feelings of awkwardness and psychological despair (OH, THAT’S JUST ME? OK.) You make small talk about how you know the host and then you exchange the perfunctory, so, what do you do?

You wouldn’t blurt out a manual or copy from a sales funnel page, right? At least I hope you wouldn’t. No, you’d tell them about the business you created and why you did it. Maybe you’d talk about your vision and mission. Not everyone’s in for the money and maybe you want to leave your mark in this world in a particular way. What bolts you out of bed and keeps you up at night? What struggles are you discovering along the way.

You tell this story in your own words and voice — it’s unique because it’s from you. You might speak super fast and act animated when you get excited or maybe you’re thoughtful, measured, and wistful. But there’s a story that you want to tell and it comes from inside of you.

And how you tell it? Well, let’s keep reading.

“One of the best things about stories is they’re totally unique to you. So nobody has your story and nobody can copy your story. So this is a very intelligent and strategic way to leverage your uniqueness in the marketplace.”
— Marie Forleo

Who’s your customer?

This is where I see everyone fuck up royally. They build their brand, their voice, their content strategy, logo, website — the whole shebang and they kind of forget one important, seriously crucial, how the fuck can you forget this…


Everyone gets into the ME ME ME game that they forget that customers are all about ME ME ME and they’re the ones with the money to get you on the tropical island vacation you want so much.

I got my story all gussied up, ready to PARTY but where do I take the story? Who do I tell it to? A lot of marketers develop brands and then they take that package and shove it down the customer’s throat. I like to do things in a common sense way. Understand my customer from the jump and then tailor my voice and messaging accordingly.


Getting to know your customer

This is also hard because we make projections who we think our customer is and what they need and want and often we are wrong. Do the research. Dig into Amazon reviews, comments on blog posts, forums where your customer is hanging out, social media, and how your customers are connecting (or not) with your competitors. Talk to your intended customer, look at data online (resources like Pew, comScore, Nielsen, reputable statistically significant studies can now be found online, for FREE), conduct surveys and informal interviews. You want to know:

•Behaviors: Who are they? What do they love?. Go deep. Everything from the magazines and TV shows they consume to how often they use their smartphone. This is not about demographics. This is about sketching out a real person. I like to do this by imaging a “week in the life of” and jot down all the things my customer did when they woke up to when they collapsed into bed. In detail.

•Pain-points: What keeps them up at night? What do they need to make their life easier or better? When they complain, what do they complain about?

•Motivations: Why would they come to you? What experiences have had they had with products/services in your sphere? How have your competitors served them? This leads me to…

•Their Journey: Get a notebook and write down their complete experience (from the trigger that’s the problem to post-purchase and in between points of purchase) as a diary entry. Research and talking to your customer will help with this.

•Influences: Who shapes their opinion?

Here’s some math for you

Your Story + Knowing Your Customer’s Story =

(drum roll)

Your Brand Voice Guide

What’s a brand voice guide?

Consider the Brand Voice Guide a blueprint for how you communicate. How you bring your story to life and create the tone + tenor for your brand.

The idea is that if someone was gagged and blindfolded, they could distinguish — based on what you say and how you say it — your brand from the pack. The BV guide outlines:

• Brand essentials: These are the basics: positioning + purpose, benefits, and reason to believe. You need a foundation to refer back to. Think of this as your starting point.

• Brand voice, tone, and personality: Are you chatty and conversational or formal? Are you witty? Do you use slang? Are you more focused on being a trusted authority or a trusted friend/colleague? Think of how Blue Shield talks to its customers vs. Glossier, Peloton, or BMW.

• Language: What kind of words do you use and how do we use them? Are you about the 50 cent vocabulary or down-home and simple?

• Details ON who your brand would be if it were a person. Their habits, behaviors, tastes, and preferences. This is you bringing your brand to life.

• Brand voice do’s and don’ts.

• Examples to give context and see the voice in action.

Why do I need this?

There is SO MUCH NOISE out there and the specificity of your story will help you stand out. No one wants the sea of same or a shameless rip-off of an original. What I’m getting at is that your brand voice and story forces you to be focused and consistent. It shows how you’re different than every other kid on the block. And you’re forced to make deliberate choices about your business.

Consistency. Focus. Uniqueness. ARE KEY.

Imagine your voice is all over the place. One day you’re dropping slang like “glow up” in a newsletter (I did this) and the next you’re formal and using every multisyllabic word in the thesaurus. One day you’re saving the manatees and the next you’re talking about cash money millions. You can be more than one thing, but you have to be consistent, focused, and unique about your story, values, and voice.

Otherwise, it’s kind of like meeting someone with multiple personalities. It’s inconsistent and exhausting. More importantly, you don’t establish familiarity. That means no trust. That means no business. If people have to work to understand you they’re not going to work with you.

Don’t be the flavor of the moment. Be what your brand demands you to be. Lean into customer expectations and wants. Be consistent, true, and honest to your story, voice, and your business.

How do I create a brand voice and story?


Think about a simple story. Why did you get into the game? How you think you can change it. Maybe you lost everything and decided to rebuild your life? We like to call that a transformative moment. Maybe you got fed up with your crazy incompetent boss screaming in your face?

Maybe you took a trip that changed your life. Now, the goal here is to find stories that can either teach your customer something or create a more meaningful connection.

Grab a sheet of paper. Write this story down.

THINK ABOUT YOUR CUSTOMER. What are they expecting from you? What do they want and need? What are their behaviors, pain-points, motivations, journeys, and influences?


Why? Because if you don’t know how to speak the language of your customer, they won’t listen. These inputs will shape your brand voice guide.


Ask yourself the following questions:

• How would you describe your brand? Use adjectives.

• What adjectives do your customers use when they talk about your brand? Are you in sync?

• How would you NOT describe your brand? What adjectives would make you WEEP if you heard your customer use them about your brand?

• What personality do you want for your brand? What kind of tone do you want to use? How do you want to communicate?

• If your brand were an individual, who would it be? Map out their person’s traits, habits, behaviors. I create a complete profile of a person and map out their day. The more specific you are, the better.

• What are words you use a lot? What are words (language) you don’t use?

• Do you have copy or tone quirks that make you special or stand out?

• Are your sentences long or short? How do you use punctuation? Are you about visuals/emojis?

How do I use this in real life?

1. Perception is EVERYTHING. Write a few documents in your brand voice. A letter, an Instagram post, the About page on your website. Show it to people. Ask them what they think.

Are you making the impression you want to make?

You can also use a site like UsabilityHub.com to test your messaging in front of real people and see what works.

It’ll take a few tries to get it right and that’s OKAY. We’re looking for PROGRESS not PERFECTION.

2. Use the guide as the foundation for all the copy you create. Remember, consistency is key. But also remember this: even though your brand voice should be the same across all platforms, you might have to tweak it and tailor your content so that it works for the platform. And by platform, I mean social media, email, television, paid advertising, influencer campaigns, press releases, etc. Every platform is a little different so you have to exercise nuance in your copy to account for typical behavior on the platform and what customers can expect from you.

Know that if you’re talking to everyone, you’re talking to no one. Be specific, don’t be afraid of having a point-of-view. When you try to attract everyone, your voice and story become generic and vague because you’re trying to appease the masses. Ironically, when you’re specific on your difference and the customer you’re serving, you’ll attract the right people to you and this is what the game is all about.

Social media management should be EASY. Here are my top ten automation tools!

I remember when there was one social media channel. One. Companies were still buying billboards and full-page newspaper ads. Yes, that’s me in the corner chilling in my sarcophagus, passing time with my abacus, and sending emails from my Hotmail account.

But I digress.

Then the last decade happened and then the deluge. Then the big cultural shift. And then every kid on the block had a Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, and insert 50 other social media channels.

Here’s the thing. Social media is work. You have to create content, post it, monitor it, optimize it, and then you hope and wait for the magic—a connection with your customer. But then…there’s, you know, the rest of your business to run. Emails to respond to. Problems to solve. A life to live with your friends and loved ones.

Imagine if your load was a little lighter. Imagine if some parts of your day were a little easier. Enjoy this resource list—my top ten must-use social media automation tools. What’s automation? Technology that takes care of some of the work—leaving you time for what matters most: your business.

I'm about to drop a FREEBIE. Yes, you don't need to subscribe to my email list. This is TOTALLY FREE. Here are my top ten social media automation tools!

Sometimes the money isn't worth it. When to fire a horrible client.

Years ago, I landed a whale. This was a client you could casually name-drop in a conversation and put someone’s heart on pause — if you were the name-dropping kind. My team was jubilant. Gifs circulated, music blared, and pizza was ordered. We practically made a template for the inevitable agency case study with the brand’s logo in lights. If only we had seen the arrows pointing to the client with the word RUN propped above their heads. If only we had noticed the chalk outlines of the dozen or so fired agencies, discarded PowerPoint presentations and Odyssean conference calls trailing in their wake. Maybe I knew, but chose to ignore the warning signs that this boldface client would end up becoming a complete and utter nightmare.

It started with the creative director who OD’d on Gary V videos and read one too many Mashable articles. The creative director proclaimed himself a social media expert and proceeded to doubt and micromanage our every recommendation. Every minor tactic (e.g. a Tweet promoting our new launch) had to be backed with research and rationale on the level of a PhD dissertation. However, that paled in comparison to the review process where we went through at least 26 rounds of feedback. I remember inserting a clause into the SOW that stipulated we’d provide three rounds of changes, and then each subsequent round would bear an incremental charge. My boss, the agency’s CEO, deleted that clause from the contract because nothing should get in the way of revenue including his staff’s emotional stability. Pfft. Who cared about sanity or hours burned (thus making the project unprofitable considering the boldface brand’s meager retainer), the days at a time when our client was unavailable or when he constantly pivoted when you’ve got a mortgage on a west village townhouse? #amirite?

After an abusive tirade that brought my account director to tears and the staff to day-drinking, I walked into my our president’s office with the numbers to prove that we were pulling staff away from other clients who managed to be decent human beings (who knew?) and several team members had threatened to quit. By then, I learned that you couldn’t fire lucrative-looking clients in an agency unless they were hurting the bottom line. The account in the red and the team screaming red were grounds for us to fire the boldface client. Simply put, the client took more time and grief than they were worth.

Sometimes, the revenue and the bragging rights aren’t worth it.

For the past five years I’ve been out on my own and I can finally set standards for the clients with whom I want to work. I only work with people who consider me a partner instead of a vendor and I pay attention to the signs during the proposal process to determine whether a client is a fit or if they’d be a PITA.

A solid client-partner relationship comes down to respect and communication. Naturally, you want to do everything to salvage the relationship including stepping up the communication, creating more efficient processes, and compromising because every battle doesn’t need to turn into a war. However, certain situations necessitate firing a client — especially if you’ve tried and the partnership continues to suffer. Sometimes you have to cope with the crazies because you have bills to pay (been there, done that), and everyone has their red line, the limit for how much they’ll take. Also, remember, you’re running a business not a non-profit. If a client is straining and draining, this could have an adverse effect on your other clients. Remember when I had to make the revenue/expense case? That comes into play even more than ever when you’re a consultant.

Here are my top five reasons to fire:

  1. The “Why Are You So Expensive?” client: It’s perfectly normal for a client to ask how you came to an hourly fee or project rate, however, repeated questions are signs of red flags. Repeated requests to reduce your rate, work on spec (no way, no day), or promises of business referrals (if you do great work, you should be comfortable asking for referrals without having to work for less) for a reduced rate should be regarded with suspicion. There have been times when I’ve lowered my fee for a dream or cause client, but I do not compete on price. It’s a losing proposition. Someone will always underbid me and I have enough experience and confidence to know that my work is not a race to the bottom. Be wary of someone who nickel and dimes you every step of the way.
  2. The “This Can Be Done in 5 Minutes” client: Remember when I mentioned respect a paragraph or so ago? The client who believes that everything is so easy, or is baffled as to why something would take longer than ten minutes is a prospect that should send you running for the exits. A good client hires an expert who fills gaps in their business. They should trust that you know how long a task should take and that you would give honest implications of schedule changes and unreasonable timelines. If they don’t, they lack a basic respect for what you do and they will gaslight you every step of the way. I live by the Triple Constraint Concept in project management. You want something fast + high quality: it’ll cost you. You want something fast + cheap: it’ll be low quality. You want high quality + low cost: it’ll take time.
  3. The “I Flunked Communication 101” client: This is probably one of the most important aspects of a client-partner relationship. A lack of established lines of communication could put a project in jeopardy, and communication extremes are just as precarious. If you’re dealing with a ghosting client (do you really like sending 500 “just checking in” emails to then hear from a client that they need X deliverable by tomorrow, 2pm EST or ELSE) or an overly needy client (see #5) — both will get you no satisfaction, as the song goes. I had a client who could never properly articulate what they wanted, even when they were presented with examples, questioned, and coached. Hours and dollars were wasted even when they liked the finished product. Why? They were never quite satisfied with it. Their constant nitpicking on the small stuff took time away from the things that really mattered. They didn’t understand that done is often better than perfect, which leads me to their micromanager…
  4. The “Don’t Mind Me Stalking and Screaming Over Your Shoulder” client: Who feels empowered when they’re micromanaged? While your client may know their brand and business inside out, they hired you as an expert to help them with an aspect of their business. When they get too involved in the strategies and tactics for which they hired you, or if they constantly second-guess or question your judgment, fire them. Micromanaging represents a lack of respect, and it also demonstrates an unhealthy level of control. Micromanagers never grow into leaders because they don’t know how to trust and let go. As a result, your work will be inefficient and you’ll probably be blamed for every misstep and failure — even though the client did the equivalent of wearing earmuffs while you offered your expertise and recommendations.
  5. The “Why Haven’t You Responded to my 35 Emails in 10 Minutes” client: Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. I used to tell my staff that they should take their work seriously but we’re not curing cancer. Not even close to it. While it’s important to be responsive to your client, you don’t need to be on a gurney answering emails. Set communication expectations from the onset. Now, I even bake into my contracts and remind them in my onboarding email series. I note the hours of my availability in time zone, when they should expect to hear from me, and communication protocol for emergencies. And by emergency I don’t mean, that pixel is off-center. You had better be on a gurney. You don’t have to act like a first-responder when it comes to emails in order to be an effective consultant. Sometimes a response requires time and thought, and it doesn’t always pay to be instantly available and immediately reactive. If a client fails to understand that and has a rage blackout that I’m not holding my phone at 3am, we have to part ways.

The last thing you want to do is cut the cord on a relationship, especially when your livelihood depends on it. In five years, I’ve only let two clients go and trust me, I took a lot before I decided I couldn’t take anymore. However, I’m now attuned to the warning signs in the proposal phase — how a client communicates, what kinds of questions they ask, etc. — so I can avoid the painful process of saying, it’s not me, it’s you.

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Progress is better than perfection

When I was small I wanted to be a lawyer, writer, actress, neurologist, and a baker of many fluffy vanilla cakes. It had never occurred to me that I couldn’t be all of these things at any given time — the word impossible was foreign to me. Children build beautiful kingdoms that adults find ways of ruining with their reason, cynicism, and age. And the once stalwart kingdoms become impenetrable walls we build for ourselves. We cloak ourselves in the familiar and the known, and all that childhood beauty falls way to doubt and fear.

We start out believing we could do everything until we say, well, maybe we can do these three things. We mock that wide-eyed openness and arms outstretched. We say things like, stop acting like a child, as if wonder is something we have to abandon as we age. We’re desperate to get older, to posture and collect years like trading cards until we realize we’ve compartmentalized beauty. All that’s left are pragmatism and reason.

I believe in a life in three acts — the middle is where we make a mess of things and the third is our passage to return to that from which we’ve come. There’s a different kind of wisdom and wonder that comes from the tacit acceptance that we have fewer years ahead. I think about this a lot as I’m still stuck in the betweens, that messy second act. I’ve been in three-decades of the I Can’t Do That, There’s No Time For That, and Why Would I Start Over training programs, and it’s only recently that I’ve stepped back and said, quietly, why not that? Why not return to that kingdom, the mess of children in the wet streets of summer running every which way, but really they’re moving toward what moves them. What makes them happy and whole. There’s something tactile and immediate in that, and it’s something that puts my heart on pause.

For most of my life, I was a wearer of masks. There was the overachieving student, the ambitious writer, and the career executive. All of the masks carried the weight of perfection. The stakes became higher. You didn’t send out manuscripts to editors unless they were polished. You didn’t go on an all-night bender before an exam. You kept your grief out of the workplace and replaced it with a smiling mannequin of yourself, a waxed facsimile of the pained original.

You made calculated, informed risks. You debated. You considered by committee. You reviewed the data and the story it told you.

It only just occurred to me that the masks I wore were walls. The overthinking and obsession with perfection pulling me away from the things that move me.

I’m 42, which I’m told in certain circles, is the new 32. While I’m not entering my third act, I am feeling the weight of mortality. I am thinking about how I’m writing my story and the legacy I leave behind. I’m also conscious of how tightly wound I was for most of my life and now I’ve embraced a different kind of mess. One where I start and stop many projects, and, at times, I’ll have multiple projects going on at once. I’m reaching out without fear of losing face. I’m trying not to obsess over my laundry list of failures. I’m slowly unbinding myself from shame.

I don’t want perfection anymore. I want progress. I want play.