Is SEO evil?

Some bloggers that I read are uncomfortable with some of the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques that some people use to draw traffic to their Web sites.

Of course, there are lots of disreputable ways to generate traffic by staying one step ahead of Google. “Search engine spam” is a fast-growing business practice.

As a result, SEO kind of gets looked as being a “dark art” – just a newer version of telemarketing or e-mail spam.

I’m not sure if that attitude is entirely fair.

If you’re going to be the first search result on Google, you’d better have good, relevant, well-thought-out content that actually is useful to the people who are searching for that term.

There’s a lot of bad content out there – in all sorts of categories. As long as you’re putting out information and ideas that provide a useful service to people, I don’t care if you had to manipulate a few things to move up on the search rankings.

SEO is not evil – as long as your content is good.

The economics of snow removal

One of the earliest principles of economics that I learned in Econ 101 is the idea of “comparative advantage.”

This idea holds that if someone else can do something more efficiently than you can, it makes economic sense for you to pay them to do it.

I recently decided to hire a snow removal service to plow our driveway. They charge $40 and it takes them about 20 minutes to do the work.

Normally I would be reluctant to pay someone to plow my driveway. After all, I’m young, I’m in good health – I’m perfectly capable of shoveling my own snow. (We don’t have a snowblower – although we should probably get one, since our driveway is the size of an aircraft carrier.)

But these are not “normal” times. I have a lot of demands on my time right now. I’m trying to balance a full-time job, raising a family, while at the same time trying to start my own business. So for this exact juncture in my life, it makes economic sense for me to pay someone to do snow removal for us.

It would have taken me three hours to shovel that entire driveway. (And it was really cold that day – subzero windchill.) Assuming I can earn at least $50 an hour, I could earn $150 in the time it would have taken to do a job that someone else can do more efficiently for $40.

This is economics at work. It’s not always such a “dismal” science.

Five words that can make you thousands of dollars

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to ask for what you want.

For example, every year, job seekers give up hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income because they fail to negotiate their starting salary.

I know – in “this economy” we should all be grateful just to have a job. But if you have a job offer from a new employer, don’t accept it until you’ve asked them the following 5-word question:

“Can you go any higher?”

If you’re being offered a job with a certain salary, before you say “Yes,” say: “Can you go any higher?”

What do you have to lose? Chances are they’re not going to rescind your job offer just because you asked for more money – and if they do, then you don’t want to work for them. Good companies don’t punish people for negotiating for what they’re worth.

This works for freelance work as well.

If you have a client who you’ve worked for in the past, and this client knows that you do good work, before you agree on the budget for your next project, say: “Can you go any higher?”

If they like your work and they know you’re reliable, chances are they’ll give you some more money. After all, it saves your client money to not have to go out and put a project out for bid every time they need help. It saves your client time to work with an established contractor who understands their business and their needs.

Workers have power – even in “this economy.” Don’t give it up too easily.

Five little words can make you thousands of dollars per year – hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of your working life: “Can you go any higher?”

There are no gatekeepers

Every market has its “barriers to entry.”

  • You can’t be a dentist without going to dental school.
  • You can’t be a lawyer without passing the bar exam.
  • You can’t get a job at a big-name consulting firm without having an MBA from Stanford or Wharton or Northwestern, etc.
  • You can’t launch a best-selling book without going on morning talk shows and getting a great review in the New York Times.

But here’s the thing – with the Internet, it’s increasingly possible to get a following – and make a perfectly good living – in whatever your area of interest is. You can become a recognized expert on wine, or antique toasters, or small business marketing, without ever having one of these more “traditional” seals of approval from the traditional “gatekeepers” that keep people out of the market.

In the new world of online work, all that matters are your personal credibility, authenticity and personal connections. And no single “gatekeeper” is responsible for deciding who can compete.

Do what you love and the money will follow?

“Do what you love, and the money will follow.”

I’m not sure if I entirely agree with this old adage.

After all, a lot of people try to do what they love, only to find that there’s no market for what they offer.

Every year, restaurants, boutiques, art galleries and quirky coffee shops go out of business (despite the passion and high hopes of the founders), cupcake bakeries and scrapbooking stores and other once-trendy business ideas fall out of favor (despite the “love” that went into their creation).

So what’s the answer?

Maybe we shouldn’t think of it in terms of “love.”

The market doesn’t care what you “love.” The market cares about what you can deliver that provides a benefit. If you want to be successful, you need to be “other-focused.” Be humble. Be of service.

So instead of “Do what you love and the money will follow,” maybe we should say:

“Be of service, deliver value, and create something that meets a need for someone else. Then the money will follow.”

You are not a widget

One of my biggest frustrations with corporate culture is the tendency for companies to treat everyone like interchangeable parts.

That is such an outmoded, out-dated, obsolete way of thinking!

People are not widgets. We’re not meant to sit in boxes all day under bad lighting in a gray office. We’re not meant to kowtow to petty authority and avoid asking tough questions for fear of reprisal.

This is not the 1920s – we’re not working on assembly lines anymore. We’re not all doing the same, repetitive task over and over again – and companies that treat their employees this way are not making good use of their people’s potential.

In the “knowledge economy,” the most important resource that any company has is the creativity of its people. And this applies from the top to the bottom of the organization – anyone can have a good idea. The most innovative companies are good at generating ideas and insights and efficiencies that can originate anywhere within the organization.

Of course, some creative people are discovering that they’re never really going to be fulfilled by the job that is laid out for them in the corporate world.

Sometimes the best job you will ever have is the one you create for yourself.

Start now.

Worst advice ever

A lot of people have given me advice over the years. Sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it’s not. Most of the “bad” advice I’ve been given was very well-intentioned and I don’t hold it against the people who gave the advice, but I think it’s interesting to reflect on why this advice was “wrong” for me.

So here it is: some of the worst career advice I was ever given.

  • “Be a teacher.” One of my college advisers told me that he thought I’d be a good teacher. And I was, for awhile – I taught English in Japan for a year on the JET Program. However, I knew, even at the time that he gave me this advice, that I wasn’t cut out to be a “real” teacher for the long-term. By the end of 12 years of school and 4 years of college, I was pretty much done with academia. I wanted a new arena to compete in. And I had certain ambitions that I didn’t think could be fulfilled by teaching – maybe that sounds sad, but it’s true.I have a lot of respect for good teachers, and I know that education is one of the most important things that we as a society can invest in for our future, but I don’t want to be the one in the classroom all day. I’m too impatient. I couldn’t put up with all the crap that teachers have to put up with – not from the kids, but from the other adults.
  • “There’s nothing out there.” One of my other college advisers said that there are no good jobs out there and nothing in “the real world” could ever be as fulfilling as being in school or working at a university. And it’s true for him – he’s a great adviser and faculty member, and he loves what he does. But as for me, I’ve found that there are plenty of good things to do out in the world beyond college. And with the new world of online entrepreneurship, it’s easier than ever to create a job that suits your interests and talents and passions. (Not “easy” as in, “the money just rolls in” – you still have to put in the time and effort – but it’s easier than ever before to get connected to customers and advocates and fans and people who can help you.)
  • “Don’t go to Japan without a solid game plan for what kind of job you’ll have when you get back – it would be disastrous.” One of my professors said that if I didn’t have a good idea of what kind of job I wanted to do when I got back from Japan, I might end up floundering in long-term unemployment. It didn’t work out that way. I wound up getting a job as a speechwriter for the Governor of Iowa – and at the time I went to Japan, I had no idea that I would ever get a job like that. Planning is good, but sometimes opportunities arise where you least expect.
  • “You can’t make any money as a writer.” This person was skeptical of my plans to be a professional writer. Well, I make between $50 and $100 an hour on Elance, so that’s not too shabby. It’s a lot more than I’ve ever made sitting in a cubicle, and the work is a lot more fun, and I have complete freedom for how and when I do the work. No matter what you want to do in life, there are always people who will tell you that it’s impossible. Don’t listen to them.

Sometimes when people give advice, the advice they’re giving is more about them than it is about you. We are all influenced by our own experiences, perceptions and biases – it’s hard to give advice that is uncolored by our own hard-won life lessons.

I’ve decided to stop asking for advice about my freelance business. Instead I’m spending my time meeting new clients and doing the work.

Besides, in the time that it takes to set up a networking meeting with a prospective career mentor, I can bid on 100 projects from people who are looking to hire freelancers right now.

What I’ve given up

If you want to start your own business, especially while working at a day job and keeping up your relationships with your family, you need to be prepared to give up some things.

For example:

  • Television. I hardly ever watch TV anymore. Of course, I already wasn’t watching much TV because we don’t have cable, but still. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish when you’re not staring at a TV screen for 2 hours (or more) every weeknight.
  • Nintendo Wii. I used to play the Wii quite a lot – especially Tiger Woods Golf (which is entertaining for all the wrong reasons now that Tiger’s personal foibles have come to light). Now that I’m so busy with freelancing, I don’t have time for video games.
  • Books. I don’t do a lot of reading for pleasure right now. And I miss it – it’s hard. I used to be a big reader and I would read several books each month; I would always read before bed. Lately I’m up late working or corresponding with clients before bed, so that has cut in to my reading time.
  • Friends. I don’t socialize as much as I used to, prior to starting this journey toward self-employment. I’d like to see my friends more often, but it’s hard. Part of this is caused by the lack of spontaneity that goes with having children, I suppose.
  • Sleep. One of my goals for my freelancing is that I try to get the work done without giving up too much time with my wife and child. That means that I often don’t really start my freelance “work day” until 10 p.m. at night (or later). I suppose this isn’t entirely healthy, but it can be exhilarating. I love the feeling of hammering out a draft in an hour, and then hitting “Send” right before midnight. I love checking my e-mail first thing in the morning and getting client feedback from various other time zones.

It’s not always easy. There are times when I’d rather be watching TV or reading a book or having a cup of tea rather than be on my computer, bidding on new projects, working on current client work, or doing the various administrative tasks that go with being self-employed.

But ultimately, I don’t feel like I’ve sacrificed anything that is too important. My goal of being self-employed is far more important to me than any of the minor sacrifices along the way.

We are all artisans now

In the olden days, we all were farmers.

Then the Industrial Revolution happened and we all were (more or less) interchangeable parts on an assembly line.

In the future – and to some extent this is already happening – we’re all going to be artisans.

Not “artists,” but artisans – independent practitioners of a creative craft. Like carpenters, or jewelry makers, or potters – but instead of physical objects we will be crafting ideas and information and knowledge.

(I think “artists” get a bad rap, by the way – if you tell people you’re an “artist,” it has kind of a flaky, whiny, self-indulgent connotation to it. Being an “artisan” sounds more dignified – like you produce something of tangible value. I don’t like telling people I’m a “writer” because it sounds irresponsible – it’s like I need to justify myself in advance by saying, “No, don’t worry – I’m not trying to do anything artistic – I’m just trying to ply my trade.”)

Debunking fears of self-employment (Part 5)

Part of a continuing series on the fears that hold people back from being self-employed.

There won’t be enough business to keep me in business.

This is a big fear for every would-be self-employed person. “Will there be enough business to keep me afloat? Will enough clients want to pay me well enough for what I do?”

Every business is ultimately a leap of faith. Whether it’s a car mechanic or a restaurant or a cupcake bakery, some businesses fail and others flourish. It seems to me that the businesses that succeed have some kind of underlying “it” factor that drives their success – something that makes it clear that the people in charge are doing what they were meant to do.

If what you offer is good enough for people to want to tell other people about it, you’re probably going to be all right. If you’re offering something that is valuable and worthy of people’s time, the world will support you. You’ll find the right people who will be good customers for your business – and they will tell others about you.

After all, how does any business find enough business to stay in business?

The great thing about the Internet, in spite of all the spam, clutter, noise, and scam artists out there, is that the Web makes it easier than ever before for people to connect with others. That’s ultimately what it’s all about. The Web makes it possible for word of mouth – the oldest and most profitable form of advertising – to be amplified to infinity. If you’re good, someone is going to find out. It’s easier than ever before to share your story.

Of course, you still have to work, you still have to hustle – you can’t just put up a Web site and expect money to magically appear in your bank account – but if you’re diligent, authentic and focused on your best skills, the Web makes it easier than ever to carve out a profitable niche (or multiple niches) in the world.