Sunday, March 23, 2008

Beating the Lonely Entrepreneur Syndrome

Laurel Touby, who I've written about before (Mediabistro: Timeline to Success) built a multi-million dollar empire to counter the loneliness she felt as a freelance writer. She organized parties for journalists - other lonely people like her - and made a huge business out of it (Laurel's featured in this month's Inc. Magazine: "How I Did It").

Marci Alboher recently wrote a blog post about how it's so much better to have someone teach you things than to learn them by yourself (see My Technology Training Program). Business tasks (or anything, really) are definitely more fun if you're sharing them with someone else.

In addition to learning or companionship, I also need "peeps" for guidance and support. As a new entrepreneur I have to make decisions every day, and am faced with the prospect of taking actions that seem incredibly scary in my distorted mind. So aside from my weekly meetings with action partners (which I wrote about last week), I also check in every other day with my friend Andrew Deutsch (right).

Andrew has worked in sales for over twenty years (he also plays a mean jazz guitar and can shoot out jokes like it's open mike night at the Comedy Strip), and is now creating a training program for salespeople that he wants to "take on the road".

We help each other with the more general tasks of running our businesses, aka our "to do" lists. I've asked him for feedback on handling clients, and on venues for a workshop I'm giving next month. He patiently listens when I keep bringing up tasks (over and over again) that were supposed to have been completed (I'm happy to say I finally hired an accountant!).

In turn he's asked me to edit pitches, pick photos for his website and comment on his target market profile (I've also handled his occasional non-business-related dating dilemmas). My thinking can sometimes get faulty and I've been ready to toss out perfectly good ideas until he points out some benefit that I overlooked. And it's great to share my successes with someone I don't have to explain the whole story to.

Don Corleone had his consigliere, I have Andrew. Which is fortunate because I have a lot on my plate for this week, so I'm glad I don't have to do it alone!

Monday, March 17, 2008

A Plug for Action Partners

Remember back when we had to do homework in school? It would go something like this: We'd attend a class where the teacher would lecture on a specific topic, (ah, how I miss Biology and Accounting - not!) then there would be several chapters of new material to read followed by an exercise related to it. By the end of the semester - whether we liked it or not - we would have gained knowledge on a whole new subject matter.

That's kind of what I'm experiencing with my action partner, Nicole Rose (that's her below, photo credit: David Garvey, What's an action partner, you might ask. Well, before I go into that, let me give you a little background.

I met Nicole about 4 1/2 years ago when we both attended a course for entrepreneurs. She was just launching ODM, her graphic design and web development company, and I was in the initial stages of exploring the possibility of working for myself. It would take me a few more attempts before I took the plunge, but Nicole has had her business up and running since then. We've bumped into each other through the years at various networking events, but when I saw her in January I was going through a bad case of "generalized business plan preparation anxiety", so I asked her for a little guidance. She pointed out that she was actually in the process of revising her own plan, so why not work on them together?

We immediately agreed to meet the following week. After our first session, however, doubts started popping up. Was I ready to divulge every little detail of my master plan to someone else? Were our businesses too similar? Wouldn't we be going after the same clients? Wouldn't that be a conflict? Trust has always been an issue for me - it took me years and a few painful market downturns to finally admit I needed to hire someone to assist me with my investments. I do my own manicures and pedicures because "no one can do them better them me" (yeah right). And I could have avoided one or two painful heartbreaks had I listened to my friends' dating advice. But I am getting better at it. I brought up my concerns to my new action partner, and Nicole, so much the wiser, confidently allayed my fears. She didn't see conflicts, and, realizing I had much more to gain than to lose, I jumped on the bandwagon.

Little did I know how effective our arrangement would be. We've had about 7 meetings so far, each time tackling a different section of our business plans, sharing our "homework" and giving each other feedback. If we feel stuck on something we ask for help and usually find a solution between the two of us. Then we plan our assignments for next time. Having that task in mind helps to spark ideas during the week, and even more stuff pops up when I'm doing the research and writing it down, so it's like my brain is on steroids. This week I came up with a novel approach for art galleries to promote their openings, which will help me target them as clients, and I've added a few more elements to a proposal I have for a magazine I'd like to prospect. Sometimes these new ideas seem too big for me, like a beautiful gown that doesn't quite fit. But I'm not judging them. My task is to put them down on paper and then let the Universe conspire to help me "grow into" my fancy dress.

Nicole and I have also decided to swap some services, like she'll help me with the design of my logo and signature, and I'll help her with her e-newsletter and online social networking strategy. We're doing this as if we were each other's clients, so we get to test out our services and give ourselves feedback on the process. Nicole, for example, has amazing customer service - from her follow-up communications to her proposals - even the recording on her voice mail makes her look and sound professional.

On my own, working on my business plan felt like lifting an 800 pound gorilla. But together with Nicole and our weekly meetings I'm making major progress. In fact, it's been such a positive experience that I've taken on another action partner (yes, I admit it, when it comes to business, I've become a polygamist!). Constance Gustke is a writer and journalist who, like me, got her start in Wall Street but has since moved on to cover design, technology and the luxury lifestyle market. We both have separate web business concepts that we'd like to develop, so for the past three sessions we've brainstormed and plotted and mapped out ways to make things happen for us. Constance calls us the "Laverne and Shirley of the 21st century."

So if you want to get things done, my advice is don't do it alone! Find someone you have something in common with and then, buckle up for the ride! Do you have structures in place to help you with your projects? Please share them!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Schools Using Facebook to Track Alumni

Talk about blast from the past. In the last few weeks I have met or corresponded with a handful of old high school chums I haven't seen in, well 30 years. And a lot of it is due to Facebook.

My old alma mater, Dana Hall School, a very traditional, conservative New England all-girls boarding school, got hip to new media last year by launching a Facebook page for alumnae. Corinne Corrigan, who is their Director of Alumnae Relations and a fellow member of the class of '77, was behind the effort. She told me she was anxious to get it going but faced delays as the school was in the midst of setting a policy for Facebook. It turns out that they had to limit student's use of the social networking site because it was interfering with their studies (surprise surprise). But once that was addressed they gave her the go ahead.

I found all this out at a reception the school held here in Manhattan last week (which I got invited to thru Facebook), where I also caught up with some of my former classmates. They're all doing such interesting stuff! That's me in the picture with the white turtleneck, and to my left is Nancy Kelting, who is an investment banker at JP Morgan. Xanda McCagg (to my right) is an artist and entrepreneur (she just launched Art Introductions), Linda Kimbrell owns a tropical resort hotel along with her husband called Casa Cayuco in a small island off Panama's coast, that's Corinne with the "I Love NY" t-shirt, and Susana Copperman who works for HSM, a company that puts together business forums with world leaders. But the biggest surprise of all came when I found out that Joy Haywood, who was not in attendance, just moved to South Africa as interim head at Oprah Winfrey's Leadership Academy for Girls. Way to go Joy!

Getting back to Facebook, when I asked Corinne why they decided to create a page on the site she explained that it was mostly to reach the more recently graduated students. "Our target is the young alumnae, 10 years out. After college they tend to move around a lot and don't respond to traditional modes of communication, so we'd lose track of them", explains Corinne. "Their home address is unknown, there's no email address or phone number so we'd have no way of getting in touch with them." But the one place you can be sure to find them is on Facebook.

Fundraising is crucial to private schools - at Dana Hall 30% of operating funds come from alumnae and other gifts - so tracking down former students is important in that effort. "We use Facebook to invite people to events and ask questions. When the Class of '03 had their 5th year reunion we sent out a post to find out where people wanted to eat dinner. We also use it to ask others "do you know where so-and-so is?" It's a great way to use the collective memory pool and generate Dana memories," adds Corinne. For alumni it's fun to see pictures and find out what everyone is up to. The group has grown to 597 members, and now the individual alumni classes are setting up their own Facebook pages, like there's one for the Class of '86, and '98 and '03.

Schools are finally following in their student's footsteps and finding clever ways to use Facebook for their own purposes. Seems like the tables have turned, with the teachers learning from the students!

Does your alma mater have a Facebook page?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

What's your widget strategy?

Dan Greenfield of the "Bearnaise Source" wrote a post recently (Putting a Face on Social Networks: Corporate Facebook Pages) about how major corporations are using widgets especially made for Facebook to send traffic back to their own sites. Blockbuster lets Facebook users create their movie "wish list" and get updates on upcoming films; with Verizon they can download music videos to their cellphone and send them to their friends; Sprite lets them create a character, add features to it and interact with others. Why are all these companies jumping into the widget bandwagon, and more importantly, should you also jump in?

First of all, widgets are not thinga-ma-gigs, doo-hickeys, or chachkas, as my friend Andrew suggested when I brought up the topic. They are mini applications that allow users to do a particular thing. Also known as gadgets, add ons or plugins, they are short pieces of HTML code ('s not as geeky as it sounds!) that you can easily add to your website. With blogging software like the one I use you just cut and paste the code into a page element and presto! It appears as if by magic (and if I can do it so can you!).

Back in October I briefly touched on how startups are using widgets to drive traffic to their sites (Startup Camp and Conference) but it's definitely worth revisiting because these little "apps" have big benefits. They make your website "stickier" by making it more dynamic and interactive. Widgets can be entertaining, informative or engaging (or all of the above) but the bottom line is they give your readers a little somethin'-somethin' for spending time on your site.

While I'm still searching for that "killer app" that's going to shoot my page views into the stratosphere, I've slowly been adding a few here and there. If you scroll down my sidebar you'll see them: "Subscribe to this blog", "Subscribe to my RSS feed", "Latest News:", "Search This Blog", "Mogulific Books", "Amazon Deals" and the "Meetup Link" - those are all widgets. And I'm no web developer...

But please be warned: Some widgets are addictive! I could have easily spent the afternoon on Widgetbox's Take A Shark Break, where you get to choose from four different sharks and four different ocean environments. The shark will follow your mouse as if it were its next meal - I could play shark & mouse forever! And that's great news if you want visitors to spend more time on your site.

Here's a few websites that have plenty of widgets to choose from, and they even allow you to customize them. By the way, they're all free:
Google Gadgets
Yahoo Widgets

Do you have any favorite widgets you'd like to share with us? Please do!