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Freelancer or Agency?

Following a fantastic AWDG event Wednesday night, I had a conversation with panelist Marc Hershovitz (disclosure: Marc is also my attorney) about the difference between a freelancer and an agency. Based on the discussions at the event, he asked if we in the web industry have a skewed idea of the definitions of freelancers and agencies.

Wikipedia defines a freelancer as “a person who is self-employed and is not committed to a particular employer long-term”, and an agency as “a service based business dedicated to creating, planning, and handling advertising (and sometimes other forms of promotion) for its clients.”

This is fine for semantic purposes, but does it hold up in the real world? I’ve always subscribed to the idea that a freelancer is someone who works by themselves, for themselves. And to be clear, there’s certainly no shame in that. You only become an agency when you decide to build an organization around your business. You hire contractors and/or employees to work with you, therefore you have an agency.

Marc’s opinion was that outside of our industry, a Freelancer is seen as someone who exclusively works for agencies and similar organizations – but not directly for clients – while agencies (whether one person or 1000) do work directly for clients. This is an important observation.

Should You Care?

Imagine yourself at a cocktail party speaking to someone who isn’t in the web (or any related) industry. They ask what you do and you tell them you’re a freelance web designer, thinking they will understand what that is and may want to hire you to build a website. But it’s likely they have the same impression Marc does, that you only work for agencies. Instead, you should tell them you’re an independent design agency so they know you’re available for hire.

Or should you?

There’s a bit of ego attached to how you define yourself, your work, and your business. How you define your business to the people you work with could have an impact on the structure of your contracts and relationships. In this case, for conversational purposes  it’s probably best to consider the context of your discussion and define your business accordingly.

There are legal and financial considerations, too.

If you’re accepting work on a 1099 basis under your personal social security number (a terrible idea for many reasons which we can discuss another time) you’re more likely to fit squarely into the freelancer category. But for legal and financial purposes, you really should form an LLC and run your business as an agency. You can still tell people you’re a one-person show if you like. Hell, call yourself a freelancer if it makes you feel better. But at least have the good sense to run your business as a real business.

If that’s not your thing, just SUGTW and go get a job.

Edit: The “Freelance to Agency” podcast may also be of interest to you.

Design Corrosion

Is it me, or is most software getting worse as it tries to appeal to more people? As an application’s customer base grows, developers must consider an ever widening set of user feedback, eventually risking design by committee.

Cameron seems to agree, posting this:

This a slow corrosion. It sneaks up on you. Staying true to your core customer base becomes very difficult if you want to gain users. More people, more problems. With each new group of users you’re tempted to change your product to make them happy. Their requests a siren song promising loyalty and prosperity, but often leading to bloat and obscurity. Which is why it’s super important to understand who you’re designing for and why you’re doing it as early as possible. It helps keep the guideposts visible.

Make sure the problem you’re solving needs to be solved, you know who you’re solving it for, and that they like your solution. There’s nothing more powerful than a group of people who love your product enough to pay you for it.

On Speaking

There must be something in the air. Just recently I removed myself from a conference lineup because the organizers neglected to inform me they wouldn’t be paying for my travel and hotel expenses until after the schedule went live. A few friends removed themselves from the same event for the same reason. Then I wake up this morning to find Remy and Christian have both written good posts about the same topic. They say things happen in threes, so here are my thoughts.

As a conference organizer and speaker (and a previous life in the entertainment business) I can clearly see both sides of this coin. I’ve said it before “from my years in rock-and-roll, I know that without talent, there is no show.” Rather than blather on before my first cup of coffee, I’ll just post an excerpt from something I’ve already written (but not released) about meetup, event, and conference planning:

Your attendees are coming to see great speakers talk about interesting or helpful things. They aren’t paying to see sponsor’s ads or pick up free swag. There are many less expensive ways to get a t-shirt. The content of your event is what people will remember. When was the last time you heard someone say they were going to a tech conference because they have great cupcakes? Your speakers are the most important thing about your event. Treat them that way.

In nearly every event we’ve run, speaker’s fees, travel, and accommodations have been the single largest budget item. Remember, without great speakers you just have a trade show. At the minimum you should pay for travel and hotel expense, ground transportation to the event, and WiFi in the room for every speaker. You have to remember you’re asking them to take time away from their work, family, and other obligations to speak at your event. This is a much larger investment than just the hour or so they spend on stage.

Some speakers will ask you to pay them a speaker fee. Most who do are worth the price. Pay it if your budget allows and they are a good fit for your event. If your budget doesn’t have room either go get more sponsorship dollars or tell them you can’t afford it. Don’t negotiate. Don’t barter. In some cases they may offer to waive the all or part of the fee if you do something of value for them, but it’s their choice. Never ask them to do trade or discount their fee.

Show Me the Money

All events have three main revenue streams: Speakers (knowledge revenue), Sponsors (dollar revenue), and Attendees (dollar revenue). The relationship is pretty obvious. Speakers are the show, attendees pay to see the speakers, and sponsors pay to be seen by attendees. Notice the order? Speakers, attendees, sponsors. That’s the priority you need to keep in mind.

This isn’t to say speakers have nothing to gain by speaking at your event. They do. But they’re already paying to be there with their knowledge, effort, and endorsement of the event. It’s flat rude to ask them to pay money, too. That’s what sponsors and attendees are for.

If you’re running or planning to run an event, and you find you don’t have the budget to treat your speakers properly then you shouldn’t have the event until you do. Period. Go get more money. There are lots of ways to make the math work regardless of the size of your event. It’s your job to figure that out.

I’ll post more about all this soon. Now it’s time to SUGTW.

Renegade

Just last week a friend and I were chatting about real estate, and the outdated agent/broker system. The MLS is horrible, and most agents are too busy chasing new deals to court the ones they have. It’s a sloppy, inefficient mess.

“Why hasn’t someone shaken this up? It seems ripe for disruption.”

He’s right. Real estate is ripe, if not overdue for a sea change. But transforming a huge industry is hard. Which led us to the question:

Where does change in a giant stagnant industry come from?

I’ve only seen change come from two types of people: Newcomers and Renegades.

Newcomers look at things with untrained eyes. They see problems in the status quo, and have ambition to fix them. They are energetic, full of passion, and looking to make their mark.

Renegades worked in an industry long enough to understand it well, but became frustrated and left to do something else. The new business exposes them to alternative ways of thinking. Their youthful vigor and passion reignited, they see the old business with altered eyes.

Both of these people have something the entrenched worker-bee doesn’t. Fresh perspective. It allows them to see how to improve the business in ways they could never see from the trench of daily work.

How can you get fresh perspective on your business, career, life?

Change. Break your habits and routines, then form new ones. Make new friends. Go to new places. Shake it up.

Think like a newcomer. Be a renegade.

40 in 240

Back in 2010, Todd Schnick approached me with an idea about writing a short e-book about what it takes to succeed in business-and in life. He called it “40 in 240, the intrepid mini-MBA project“. The premise was 40 people would share their advice to MBA students and aspiring young business people in 240 words or less. While some of the references are dated, the advice holds up well.

Here’s what I wrote.

As a child, you enthusiastically told anyone who would listen that you were going to be an astronaut, doctor, or rock star when you grew up. We all did. Yet, in 2010 the most popular careers in the US are: network analyst, physician’s assistant, medical assistant, health information technician, software engineer, physical therapist aide, fitness trainer, database administrator, veterinary technician, and dental hygienist. Seriously, who dreamt of being a database administrator? The shrewd reader also noticed that 60% of the careers listed above are subordinate roles. Shrewd reader, is it your passion to be an accessory to someone else’s dream? I think not.

Somewhere between the wide-eyed avidity of youth and adulthood’s discovery of the “real world”, something regrettable takes place. People let pragmatism guide decisions, and override zeal. They lose touch with their passion. Don’t let this happen to you.

I’m not advocating everyone pursue rock stardom or space exploration, but to listen to the voice of passion inside you. You hear it already, you need to listen. There are many articles on finding and following your passion. Read them, find it, and follow it relentlessly. There is no greater satisfaction than succeeding at something you truly enjoy doing.

If your quest is to become rich, your success will be empty. If your goal is to be famous, your fame will be lonely. But, if you follow your passions to greatness, your wealth and satisfaction will be endless.

This little e-book is packed with wisdom from smart people. And it’s free. Go read it.

Unlabel

Marc Ecko‘s story is one of the lesser known (or at least discussed) amidst the business community. That’s a shame. It’s a great one.

I read his new book, Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out, over the holiday break and was pleasantly impressed. It’s full of real life insight from the bruising experience of creating Ecko Unltd. I recommend it for business owners of all ages.

Here are my favorite excerpts:

My “vision” didn’t start with billions, my vision started with a can of spray paint and what I could do with it in the next thirty minutes. Entrepreneurs lose sight of that. When Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built their first motherboard, they didn’t envision the iPhone. Visions can start small. Visions should start small. They’re incremental, like building Legos.

This is dead on. While you might have ambitions of being an industry juggernaut, you must stay focused on short-term goals.

If you can’t express your idea convincingly in black and white and slap it together on a Xerox machine—I mean low-budget—then your idea is not believable. … It’s ideas, not dollars. Artfulness, not computer graphics. Not models. Not celebrities. Believable, defendable ideas.

Another gem. Keep the message of your brand simple and believable.

A brand does more than tweet, a brand does more than talk, a brand does more than just cultivate perception. Think about what your brand is without the crutch of social media and words, and make sure that it can stand on its own actions. Talk is cheap without action. … The great equalizer for WHAT YOU SAY is how you will EXECUTE.

Too many people focus on talking about what they do rather than doing it well and letting the story tell itself. He goes on to say this:

What else is branding other than a promise that needs to be delivered? … Great brands are nothing more than streams of connected promises that always deliver. It’s critical that these “promises” be truthful. Talk can be romantic, but talk alone is cheap. It’s easy to get wound up in the art of creating the slick veneer of “brandspeak,” but great brands aren’t built on snappy copy or slick graphic design. They’re established through the relentless repetition of promising something and then delivering on what they promised, often beyond expectations.

and later:

Ralph Lauren is one of the most authentic brands in America. Ralph Lauren–itis, however, is when other designers or creators, instead of creating their own authentic brands, are distracted by the pomp, trappings, and style of someone or something else. This causes emulation, inauthenticity, and can result in personal—and professional—failure.

Perhaps my favorite quote touches on something many people tend to overlook; exactly how hard it is to create something meaningful, something of value.

And in the full-contact sport of entrepreneurship, you will get dirty, bloody, angry, and depressed. It’s silly to pretend that’s not the case.

There are many more great passages, lots of plain-talk anecdotal stories, and other gems in these pages. Do yourself a favor. Give it a read.

Buy it on Amazon

Double Wrap

Earlier this week I posted this photo of how I wrap the cords for my MacBook Air’s power cable. The Internet subsequently exploded. Something like 20,000 people retweeted, reposted, or otherwise shared it, often prefaced with phrases like “genius tip!” or “why didn’t I think of this”.

The MacBook Cable Double-Wrap

Then it began to appear in articles on OS X Daily, Cult of MacThe Unofficial Apple Weblog, and ultimately on Lifehacker. Of course this just spread things even farther. I also posted how wrapping the cords this way enables you to plug it in without unwrapping the large cord.

photo 3

As my friend Fabio said:

Enter the Fray

Some people questioned how this would strain the cord where it connects to the charger block. If you’ve owned a MacBook or been around these charger cords for any significant period of time, you’ve probably seen the insulation at this critical junction where the smaller cord enters the charger block fray and become unraveled. It’s a legitimate concern, so I posted this photo showing how to leave some slack so there is no strain on this connection. To be fair, Apple did have a problem with this which resulted in this class action MagSafe Power Adapter Settlement, so I can understand people’s hesitation to do anything which might stress the cords.

photo 2

This seemed to appease most people, but not Roberto Baldwin who wrote this article in Wired telling people this would strain the internals of the cord. I can understand a layman’s skepticism about this. Mr. Baldwin quotes the fine fellows at Monoprice, who corroborate his opinion. While this is possible, it would require you twist the cord against its natural curl. Sure, many people don’t know there’s a right and wrong way to wrap cord. This video is for those people.

However, I’m not one of those people. As some of you may already know, I spent a decade as an audio engineer. We installed sound and lighting systems in churches, theaters, nightclubs, and the homes of people who could afford to spend $20,000 or more on a home theater system. We also toured with several rock-n-roll bands and worked with countless live acts. Cable fatigue is a very real thing. Poorly wrapped cables can (and will) fail faster than properly wrapped ones, costing an audio company a lot of money. I figured this out. I know how to wrap cord. Given the viral spread of the double wrap technique, let’s assume most of the people who want to try it don’t know how to properly wrap cords.

The Large Cord

This is very similar to a typical household extension cord. Three individually insulated 18 AWG stranded copper conductors grouped together in an outer insulating PVC jacket, something very similar to the Southwire SVT Cord. These cords are quite strong and can endure some substantial abuse before failing. I’ve dissected one of my extra ones so you could see how thick the insulation and jacket are at the connection in question.

Dissected MacBook power cord connection

If you’re still concerned about this part failing, just disconnect it before you wind the cable up. Considering they are less than $10 on Amazon, you could just order a spare or replacement if/when it does fail. A small price to pay for the added convenience if you ask me.

The Small Cord

This one isn’t easily replaceable, and the concern seems to be about the extra stress placed on the cord by having it hold the large cord in place. On the surface this seems legitimate, but if we think about it a little more it doesn’t really add up.

Compare the two photos below. You’ll see the traditional way winds the cord much tighter, resulting in more bends and more acute stress at each point along the cable where it is bent. Also, the cord closest to the power block is wound much tighter than the rest, sometimes with sharp 90° bends where it goes around the flaps on the power block. More bends equals more stress, especially when the person doing the wrapping isn’t aware of the proper way to wrap cables. You can see the Double Wrap method results in less curvature in the cord for the entire length.

Photo2

The Double Wrap

Photo1

The traditional wrap

About the stress of the small cord holding the big cord in place. The large cord is trying to escape. The small cord is holding it in place. That creates stress. However, we’re dividing that stress across 9-10 wraps of the cord, so each section of cord only sees a fraction of the pressure.

It’s about convenience, right?

Let’s boil this down. Assuming the average lifespan of these cords is three years. Also assuming you use this cord on a daily basis and have regular work-weeks (working 260 days a year). You’d be wrapping and unwrapping the cord 1560 times over its life. Now lets say the Double Wrap decreases this by 15% (which I disagree with, but hey, this is all hypothesis anyway) reducing the lifespan to 1326 wraps/unwraps. For me, it’s worth losing 234 uses to gain the efficiency and convenience of having my cords stay together. That saves me time and frustration. Incremental efficiency gains are very powerful in the aggregate.

I’m sticking to it.

You might disagree and that’s okay. I’m okay with that. I might be the guy spending $79 to replace his 15% faster than you. I’m okay with that, too, because I’ll be the guy cleverly wrapping my power cable and smiling because it’s not frustratingly tangled in my bag. You can be the other guy concerned about the cord. I have other stuff to think about.

Untold

The disclaimer Fred Wilson led his recent post “The Billion Dollar Valuation Club” with says a lot. Read carefully (emphasis mine):

This is a very useful exercise in the VC business since it is these big wins that produce the vast majority of returns in the business. I am not sure it is that is worthwhile exercise for entrepreneurs since you can bypass the VC business entirely, keep all or most of your company, and sell it for $20mm and have a big personal and financial success. That’s another way of saying that focusing on the huge wins is something VCs do, will keep doing, and need to do, but it can be a colossal waste of time and energy for everyone else. Unless, of course, you raise money from VCs. In which case, you are getting into the game and will be impacted by it.

Essentially, the way I read it, he’s validating the idea that entrepreneurs can build a business without VC. Sure. We know this already. But we don’t talk about it enough.

Too much of the media is focused on so-and-so raising their seed round, or the team who finished their Series A, or worse, the “[Company Name] just signed a [large number] sq ft lease in [part of town]” stories. These are just gossip. It’s easy for companies with a marketing/pr budget to get press by spoon-feeding stories to reporters repeaters who amplify them, all for the (potential) benefit of the VCs who granted those budgets to begin with. It’s shameful. We should look deeper.

There are more bootstrapped companies out there than you think, and many of them are doing great things. But these stories aren’t low hanging fruit for so-called journalists, so they go untold. It’s the bootstrappers, the entrepreneurs, the little people who need the exposure of media most. VC backed companies and pet projects of those who’ve already made their “big exit” will be fine. Not to say these endeavors should be neglected, but let’s not give them the sole focus of our precious attention.

Doing something about it.

Just here in Atlanta, there are plenty of great stories to be told. We also have the greatest mechanisms in the history of mankind to tell these stories. And we should.

As a result of the Core Reaction a few weeks ago, a few friends and I assembled a team of talented people to lead the charge telling these (and many more) stories. We’re focused on Atlanta. Not just on startups, though. We want to tell the untold stories of what makes Atlanta great – from the great little pho place on Buford Highway to the board room of Home Depot. We want to tell the stories others ignore, and amplify the best of what’s already being told.

Untold

Webster has two definitions for untold.

1) a :  not told or related, b :  kept secret.

2)  too great or numerous to count.

Isn’t that great? One word with two definitions that both accurately describe the situation I’m talking about. Let’s talk about the doers, the people who are making things happen. Let’s tell the untold stories. Let’s talk about the people who bypass the traditional ways of getting there. Let’s help them along.

Tell me your story. I’d love to help spread the word.

Crunch Time

It doesn’t matter what you do, where you do it, or how good you are. Inevitably you’ll have that day, that moment. The moment when it all comes to a head. You’re in the pressure cooker, and it’s do or die.

But it isn’t one moment.

Sure, there comes a time when everything comes to a tingling adrenaline filled crescendo. But these moments are always preceded by other related events, clearly foreshadowing the “the big moment”. Don’t say you didn’t see it coming. You did. You just didn’t prepare well enough.

In season 3 of Louis CK’s show “Louie”, he encapsulates this struggle perfectly. Without spoiling the show, Louis is trying to get a big gig. It’s hard. Harder than he thought possible.

In this clip, Jack Dall (played by David Lynch) is telling Louis that it’s time to step up if he wants to get the gig.

Tell the truth. You’re just scared, like a rookie. You’re like some kid at a talent show with a number pinned to your shirt.

Watch the clip. It’s powerful. I’ll wait here.

Stinging words, no doubt. Words that put Louis in a tough position. He had to make a choice. We’ve all felt that at one point.

We have a choice.

How often are we confronted with these life changing moments? How often do we do the comfortable, easy thing and walk away from a huge opportunity? Chances are, it’s too many times. Regret tastes terrible.

Instead we should embrace these moments and face them head on. We must condition ourselves, build resilience, tenacity, grit. As my Grandfather (and yours, probably) used to say “…if it were easy, everyone would do it”.

Often times our fear is completely unjustified. We’re scared to try because it might hurt, they might laugh, we might fail. This is a common anxiety. One we should overcome. It’s in our heads, and it’s unhealthy. Instead of shrinking in the shadow of an obstacle we should push through the emotional and mental pain we inflict on ourselves and seize the opportunity in front of us. Or at least try.

Because trying feels better than quitting. Now SUGTW.

UX Salaries Compared

There is a lot of buzz spooling up around Atlanta as a tech hub. And for good reason. You don’t have to go far to find an article about how Atlanta has a high quality of life, low cost of living, and a deep pool of talent and ambition.

But this post isn’t about rhetoric. It’s about a small slice of salary data.

Onward Search recently published a UX Jobs Salary Guide for the top 20 UX markets in the US. The guide shows a breakdown of sub-disciplines within UX, and the reported salaries for those roles. Being curious how Atlanta stacked up, I took that data and did some math.

I only looked at the top 10 cities on the list as ranked by the number of job openings in each city over the last year, according to SimplyHired.com. They are, in order of job listings: New York, San Francisco, Seattle, San Jose, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Austin, and Washington DC.

Normalizing Salaries with Cost of Living

Looking at how the salaries compare in different cities only gives you part of the picture. To get a real comparison you need to factor in cost of living. The US Census has data on cost of living. We’ll use that.

Cost of living by city with the deviation from Atlanta:
* – Average of Manhattan (216.7), Brooklyn (181.7), and Queens (159)
City Composite Index Deviation
Atlanta 0.96 0.00%
Austin 0.95 -0.10%
Chicago 1.17 22.28%
Seattle 1.21 26.99%
Boston 1.33 38.60%
Los Angeles 1.36 42.68%
Washington DC 1.40 46.55%
San Jose 1.56 63.28%
San Francisco 1.64 71.55%
New York 1.86* 94.35%

Normalized Salary Comparison

Based on a $100k salary in Atlanta, this chart shows what you’d need to make in other cities to have the same buying power.

Comparative Salaries by City

salary-chart-comparison

Cost of Living Adjusted Salaries by City

Each of the charts below shows the actual average salaries as reported by Onward Search, and the cost of living adjusted salary for each city using Atlanta as a baseline. It’s pretty eye opening.

To be clear; the charcoal bar represents the salary you would need to have a comparable standard of living as Atlanta.

Legend:
Actual Salary
Cost of Living Adjusted Salary

UX/UI Designer

salary-chart-ux-designer

UX/UI Developer

salary-chart-ux-developer

Information Architect

salary-chart-information-architect

Visual Designer

salary-chart-visual-designer

UX Researcher

salary-chart-ux-researcher

Mobile UX Designer/Developer

salary-chart-mobile-ux

How We Got Here

Of course, some of you are questioning the numbers. Here’s where they came from. Rather than bore you with a giant table for each role and city, here’s how I calculated things. We take the low and high salary for each role and city and average them. Then we calculate the deviation like so.

(Chicago Cost of Living – Atlanta Cost of Living) / Atlanta Cost of Living
ex. (1.169 – 0.956) / 0.956 = 0.2228033473 or 22.28%

This tells us the cost of living in Chicago is 22.28% higher than in Atlanta. That’s our deviation. Then we take the salary in Chicago, and multiply it by the deviation to see what the comparable salary would be there.

Here’s the data for the UX/UI Designer role:
City Low High Avg Adj
Atlanta $82,000 $117,000 $99,500 $99,500
Austin $63,000 $90,000 $76,500 $76,420
Chicago $78,000 $110,000 $94,000 $114,944
Seattle $70,000 $99,000 $84,500 $107,304
Boston $87,000 $122,000 $104,500 $144,835
Los Angeles $75,000 $107,000 $91,000 $129,837
Washington DC $83,000 $118,000 $100,500 $147,281
San Jose $97,000 $137,000 $117,000 $191,043
San Francisco $93,000 $132,000 $112,500 $192,992
New York $92,000 $131,000 $111,500 $216,702

You curious types can view and comment on the entire spreadsheet. Your politely worded feedback is welcome.

Summary

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive study of salaries in the web/tech community. I’ve only posted this here because I found it interesting, and to be honest, it supports my long-held opinion that Atlanta is a fantastic place to have a tech company.