Quick—think about the last time you interacted with a client. It probably felt pretty straightforward. Your client tells you what they need, you talk about any details, and the conversation is done. I recently had an experience that reminded me that every client interaction comes with layers upon layers of assumptions that we often miss.
Ever since I posted in LinkedIn about the impact of artificial intelligence on the information profession, I’ve started seeing AI everywhere. And, as predicted, it’s not taking over our jobs – it’s automating something we didn’t realize we could automate. AI in Google Mail is already sorting the spam from our inbox and suggesting content as we compose messages. I’ve noticed this as I started using the Google Messages app, and it’s definitely strange. Here are three recent text conversations and Google Message’s prompts:
As I was driving the other day, I passed a panel truck for Panorama, a local company that handles landscaping and maintenance services. Their tagline?
Enjoy life! We’ll manage the details
Like my favorite tagline from The Cleaning Fairies, We give you your weekends back, and Old Dominion Freight Line’s Helping the world keep promises, it focuses on why their clients would use them, not what they do or how they do it. Landscaping, housecleaning and trucking are three service professions that can be seen as commodities, just as many solopreneurs can feel like they are competing with the cheapest alternative on the web. By focusing on their commitment to their customers’ outcomes, they’re able to differentiate themselves from their competitors.
Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The Story of Success, advocated the principle that it takes 10,000 hours of what he called “deliberate practice” to become an expert in your field, whether it’s programming, performing music, or playing basketball. Subsequent studies have called his premise into question and, in any event, not all of us aspire to become the next Bill Gates, Yo-Yo Ma, or Michael Jordan of our field.
However, I believe that a version of this metric applies to infopreneurs, both those just starting their business and those who are pivoting to a new market or providing a new service. Based on hundreds of conversations I’ve had with fellow infopreneurs, I believe that it takes 400 hours of work to get a business to its first paying client or its first client in a new field.
Procrastination has so many negative connotations; it’s often seen as an indicator of a lack of self-control or inability to manage your time. As someone who <ahem> does some of her best work under deadline, I have learned to distinguish between strategic procrastination—what I call finding the last best moment to address something— and simple avoidance of something I just don’t want to do, when my inner two-year-old wants to stomp her feet and say “you’re not the boss of me!”
Here are the clues I look for when a deadline looms and I’m still not working on the project.
Having seen Hidden Figures and read the book it was based on, I can’t stop thinking about Dorothy Vaughan, one of the African-American “computers” (mostly female mathematicians skilled in complex calculations) at NASA. When she was faced with the prospect of being replaced by a newly installed IBM computer, she taught herself and her staff how to program in FORTRAN. Rather than bemoan this disruptive technology, she gained the skills she needed and made her whole team more valuable to NASA.
While most of us aren’t responsible for getting astronauts into space and back home safely, solopreneurs also have to adjust when something new and unexpected enters the picture. If we don’t, we may sit up one day and realize that we don’t have the kind of schedule that lets us enjoy our family, or we never seem to have enough money, or our usual clients just aren’t sending us as much work as they used to.
These situations usually arise because we are no longer aligned with what our clients most need, value and will pay for… we are focusing on the HOW of what we do rather than the WHY. Here are some prompts to help you start thinking differently about yourself and your business.
No one likes to think about worst-case scenarios; we all imagine that we will live an accident-free life and our business will run smoothly until we retire. However, just as we buy insurance while hoping we never need it, we should look at our business operations and imagine what would happen if we suddenly became incapacitated by injury or illness or if you got hit by the proverbial bus. Who would notify your clients, pay your bills, and put your business on pause? Does that person know who your clients are or how to log into your email account?
In addition to estate planning, we solopreneurs need to plan for the unlikely situation in which someone who isn’t familiar with our needs to step into our shoes. The following are thoughts on how to write up instructions for where a family member, trusted friend or colleague could find everything needed to put your business on pause or, in the worst case, close it down for you.
Fill out this checklist (click here for an unannotated version) and give a copy to two people who might be called upon to help in an emergency, keeping in mind that a trusted colleague or good friend may be more familiar with your business – and the issues of a solopreneur in general – than a family member.
I recently had several projects that required transcripts of audio and video recordings, including a great conversation with Kim Dority about finding her unknown unknowns. I identified four services that were regularly mentioned and ran tests to compare their suitability. (Note that this is distinct from dictation software such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking; my focus was solely on tools that reliably transcribe recorded speech and generate a reasonably well-formatted and punctuated document.)
I tested these tools by uploading fifteen minutes of a podcast and comparing both overall quality and specifically the number of errors in a test paragraph. I found that they differed primarily in how many filler words (“um” and “uh”) they removed, whether they could distinguish between speakers, and how well they identified the start and end of sentences and punctuated accordingly. None of the transcripts were perfect but the two 3-star tools offered what I consider good-enough transcription. You will still need to review the transcripts and polish them if you want to publish or distribute them, but this is much less time-consuming than transcribing manually. Note that all these services offer a free trial, so test them with a representative sample of the audio or video you are working with, to see how well each one meets your needs.
At the AIIP 2018 Annual Conference, I’m giving a presentation on how to Make Yourself Irreplaceable: The Secret of ‘Reality-Check Conversations’. Also called informational interviews, these conversations (not emails or surveys) are essential for solopreneurs who want to become competition-proof and provide services their clients need, value and are willing to pay for.
Following are some resources for making yourself irreplaceable:
My slide deck on the reality-check interview from the AIIP conference
My interview with Kim Dority about how she discovered her unknown unknowns
My white paper on the reality-check interview
My webinar on the art of the informational interview
Want help on setting up or conducting successful reality-check interviews and make yourself irreplaceable? Maybe I can help.
Recently, I was talking with Kim Dority, a friend and colleague and one of the smartest people I know, and she was telling me about how she had recently pivoted the focus of her business. First, she developed a compelling write-up of the services she could provide to graduate schools to better attract, support and retain qualified students. She then sent this out in an introductory letter to a few of her top prospects to see how it was received. She followed up with conversations, either in person at a conference they were attending or on the phone, to discuss what she could do for each of those prospects. It turned out that no one wanted to buy any of the services she had so carefully crafted. Instead, they all asked for something specific to their needs – to run their internship program, or to develop a series of workshops for alumni. She could not have predicted the outcome of any of these conversations, but each one resulted in some type of consulting engagement.