Referrals From Unlikely Places

Thoughts on how treating those clients that drive you crazy can help grow your freelance business.


Just Stop Playing

When we think of “playing” during work, most of us might think of games. Maybe you have a thing for World of Warcraft and you let your game time bleed into your work time. That’s the obvious thing we think of when I mention “playing”.

But most of us play in other ways that interfere with our work time and focus. Some people spend way too much time exploring todo list apps, trying to find the perfect one (hint: there isn’t one, so stop looking). Others can’t seem to stop making spreadsheets that analyze the health of their business. People can “play” with things that they feel are justified as essential parts of their job.

They aren’t essential, though. We just like to think they are. Finding the perfect productivity system isn’t essential. Really, it’s not. Do you know what is? Capturing every important task and note that comes your way, keeping them organized in a master list, and then working off of that list using common sense and your priorities as a guide. Everything else is fluff. Everything else is “playing”.

Stop playing. Stop fussing over the tools and just do the work.

Look, If I billed you for every hour you spend futzing around with a productivity app or a new notebook—meaning I literally forced you to pay me an hourly rate for that time—I am fairly confident that you would stop doing it. But here’s the deal: it already costs you money, you just don’t see the deductions from your bank account in the same way.

When we waste time on our tools, that’s time we could have used to do billable client work. Work that you can invoice. Work that contributes to your paycheck and your bottom line. Work less, earn less. Work more, earn more. It’s simple math. When you are exporting all of your tasks from your todo app and importing them into this week’s hot new thing, you are wasting time that could be spent elsewhere.

Do you want a raise in your freelancer salary? Do you want to accomplish more meaningful work? Do you want to get better at what you do? Stop playing with your tools and start working. It’s that simple.


Butter and Time

I quit a lot of things in the last few months, and I want to tell you why.

Earlier in the Spring, I quit producing the Read & Trust Magazine. This summer I stopped posting daily freelancer/productivity articles here on this blog. I’ve even pared back my social media usage, which means less chats with people I really like interacting with.

You might ask why. Honestly, I wasn’t sure at the time. What I do know is that this year has been incredibly busy for my design business, and with a limited amount of time, I’ve had to chose between serving my clients or serving myself. It’s not fun giving up things I love, but on my list of priorities, chatting with people on twitter about Apple products is very far down the list below providing for my family.

Looking back I realize I was living through one of my own lessons. Specifically, the idea that our time and energy is limited, and resources spent in one place have to be pulled from something else. I spread myself way too thin, like a pat of butter on a large piece of toast, and eventually things started to fall apart.

I’ve severely pared down who I am and what I do lately. I essentially do client work all day, and co-host the weekly Home Work podcast, and that’s it. If an idea for a post gets stuck in my head, I’ll write it out, but I’m not forcing anything. And it feels good.

I think my busy Spring sapped my reserves, and that by taking a break from so much, I’ll be able to do more later. That might mean occasional posts here as I learn new lessons, and that might mean future side projects. Only time will tell.


A Man Divided

I blog in two places. I run multiple websites covering the many projects that I have live and active on the web. I wear many hats — too many, perhaps — and it’s all starting to take its toll on me.

I feel as though I am struggling through an identity crisis. I design for clients by day, but my extracurricular activities are pulling me apart. Who am I? Am I a freelancing advocate and coach? Am I a fantasy writer? Am I the maker of helpful products? Perhaps I’m all of those things, but doing them all separately, in different places and under different names can’t be helping my crisis of focus and direction.

The reality is simple: I am one man, not many. I’m not a designer and business writer and fantasy author and product designer; I’m just Aaron Mahnke. The things that I create are fragments of my soul, and to keep them separated and segregated into their own corners of the internet is akin to locking away siblings, never to see each other again.

I need a change.

My personal writing needs to be consolidated to one site. My books, tools, products and freebies all need to live there, where my readers can find them with the greatest ease.

Not everything can move, though. Read & Trust is a product of its own, and needs to live at its own unique URL. And my design business will always need to have its own website. But other than those two strands, everything else can be combined.

Those pieces all need to start moving soon. The longer I stand as a man divided, the longer I will suffer this identity crisis and lack of direction. I need to become whole again.


Thoughts on My Social Hiatus

In my own imagination, my absence from social media has been as pronounced as Kiera Knightly’s lower jaw, but in reality I think I’ve barely been missed. No worries, though. I’ve done this before and know what to expect, though it’s been years since my last hiatus. Still, I’m human to dream of being missed, right?

Part of the reason for stepping back this time is that I’m just so busy. Not with busy-work, mind you, but a dramatic expansion of my workload. I have a lot more on my plate these days, and while I like it, it meant taking an inventory of where all of my time is going. It’s like being in an airplane that’s losing altitude. First you toss the empty seats, and then the cargo, and finally the essential supplies. You might even kick the annoying people out, too, but that’s the stuff that only happens in the movies, thankfully.

My evaluation revealed to me just how much of my time was being spent in places like Twitter and App.Net. I couldn’t believe how much of my time I was spending on something as mind-numbing as “checking my stream”. I wrote ‘spending’ but I think what I really meant was ‘wasting’. You can only read so many tweets/posts about RSS services and apps before your eyes bleed and you start to want to become a beet farmer. In the Ukraine.

It’s not always the topics, but the vapid, anger-filled apocalyptic nature of each of them. Everything is the end of the world. Everything is super-bad, or super-good. Everything is the best thing since sliced PSD’s, and everything else is the Devil’s sperm, ready to impregnate our minds and turn us into the worst consumers imaginable if we ever touch the stuff.

Do we really need to panic about how we’re ever going to manage to gather and read all those articles on why Apple is beleaguered or the latest blurry photo of an unknown internal component for the next iPhone? Is iOS 7 (not a public release, but a beta version, mind you) really worth hundreds of designers lining up on either side of the issue like some sort of Dadaist West Side Story, ready to flick open their styli and stab someone? Honestly, it’s not important.

You know what is important? Feeding my kids. Money doesn’t grow on trees, unless those trees are Work Your Ass Off trees and you’re patient enough to give them time to grow and produce fruit. I have to work hard each day to earn my keep in this world, and I’m doing it for a few other human beings I really care for as well. I get an average of seven hours each day at my desk. Less than five minutes is equal to about 1% of my available work time. A half-hour is a massive 7% of my daily income.

So the choice I’ve faced each day is to either spend all of my time doing the work I need to do, or spend most of it doing that stuff, and the rest on things that have no lasting importance whatsoever. This isn’t about being a snob and downplaying the stuff that other people might deem important; this is about perspective, about what will matter in five years or even ten. To me, at least, this is about growing up and being a man.

But listen, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for discussion and community and social interaction. That’s what has made this hiatus so difficult. I miss the people. I miss the conversations. Not all of them or even most of them, but some of them, at least. But I’m not interested in talking and writing about something as asinine as Google Glass and how it’s going to revolutionize the way the top 1% of the wealthiest nation in the world is going to conduct their entitled, abnormally unique lives.

When are we going to talk about something truly important? How many hundreds of hours have been spent just this week criticizing the decisions of companies that, frankly, never asked us and couldn’t possibly care one iota?

The conversation — the Greater Conversation, mind you — needs to elevate. It needs to push us to greater places, inspire us, challenge us to be better and do better and think better. But right now, the Conversation is laying on the bottom shelf in an abandoned 7-Eleven in rural North Dakota, covered in filth and going nowhere.

We have moments, sure, but it’s inconsistent at best. One moment we are waxing philosophical about something deep and full of meaning, and the next we are shoveling yet one more load of fuel into the gaping furnace that is the ego of some sensitive, coddled internet celebrity.

Let’s talk about the things that last. Let’s talk about making lives better around us. Let’s talk about making choices that aren’t about blessing ourselves, but rather about helping others. Let’s talk about the things that would still matter to our great-grandparents, and the things that people will still be talking about when we have grandchildren of our own.

Those conversations are more rare and happen at a much slower pace, though. They don’t eat up our time like fighting over UI changes does. And that will free up time for us to spend on doing our real work and taking care of our families.

I’m sure I offended you, and I sincerely apologize for that. It’s not my goal to belittle anyone reading this, and I fully acknowledge that what is important to one person might not necessarily be important to another. Much of this rant is subjective and open to debate (ironic, I know).

Just understand that you have two choices after reading this: get angry and defensive, or look for the good pieces and find a way to help out in your own small bubble. I’m not 100% right about all of this, so arguing with me about being wrong is pointless. I just want people to be a lot less dismissive than they tend to be. We all owe each other that much, don’t we?

Am I crabby and idealistic? You bet (get off my lawn, while you’re at it). But dammit, we can do better than this, can’t we? Prove it.


A Temporary Refocus of Energy

I talk a lot about how we have a limited amount of time, money and energy. The truth is, I write these posts using the remaining scraps of my time and energy after logging tons of client work each day. So, when something new comes up, something has to give.

I’m currently in the midst of wrapping up a new project for Frictionless Freelancing that I’m super excited about. And if it’s been difficult finding time to read my daily freelancing stuff, you just might love it what I’m cooking.

So, to that end, I’m going to pause the posts here for a bit while I wrap up this new thing. I’ve been posting here daily for nearly three months, so it’s going to feel weird. Hopefully, though, you’ll agree that it was worth it.


The Ultimate Freelancer

On Ecuador’s Mt. Chimborazo, there is only one ice miner left. We works alone. He works hard. He works because it’s what he was born to do.

Watch Baltazar Ushca’s story. As a freelancer, I appreciated the honesty and brutality of his life. It’s as pure as the ice he carries, and as rich as the history he inherited.


What’s Your Purpose?

The next most important thing to having a goal is to have a purpose. Why do you do the things you do? What drives you to make the choices you make? How are you wired? What is the reason for all of the motion and action you do each day? Are you merely flailing your limbs and running in place, or is there a purpose for every movement?

The best way to discover the answer is to look backward. What lessons can you pull from your experiences? What were the elements of your job that brought you the most joy and fulfillment? In what settings did you come alive? What type of project makes you smile every time a client brings one to you?

Image two photographers in a room together. One bills himself as a “portrait photographer”, and the other speaks about herself as “a photographer who is committed to capturing the beauty and awe of everyday life”. What’s more appealing to you?

Your purpose is the story, written by your past, that informs your journey into the future.

Know yourself. Know your motivations and reactions and resonations. Be self-aware and driven to tapping their information to hack your future.


The Wanderer

A traveler without a destination is a wanderer. Wanderers waste effort and time and resources in their quest to go…somewhere. They are the most inefficient travelers in existence.

No one decides to be a wanderer, though. It happens when they lose their destination. They have no plan, no goal, no reason. Wanderers don’t wander because they are lost; people wander because they’ve lost their focus.

As a freelancer, you are a traveler. You will go places, do things and accomplish an enormous list of tasks over the course of your career. But if you aren’t careful, you might become the worst of travelers. Without a goal, every day becomes the same. Punch in, punch out. Do the job and go home. Rinse and repeat. It’s a life without a destination.

Don’t wander. Set long-term goals, and then a ton of sub-goals to get you there. Then use each day as a vehicle to move you forward toward a specific place, idea, achievement or state. Holding that target in your mind is what keeps you from wandering around for weeks or months.

Don’t be a wanderer.


Dear Freelancer

Dear Freelancer,

You get up each day and hit the grind without a boss to guide you. You set goals, chase them down like cat chasing a squirrel, and never let up until you reach them. You know yourself well enough to commit to responsibilities that depend on your very best efforts, day after day.

You bet your livelihood, and sometimes that of your family, on your ability to get things done. You talk to strangers, believe that people you’ve never met will send you real money, and abuse substances (namely sugar and caffeine). These are things we teach our kids to never do, but you’ve somehow turned them into an art that generates results.

You do a dozen things you hate – like bookkeeping and networking events – just so you can do that one thing you love. You look toward the future more than anyone I know. You only let the past serve as a reminder of past success, not a source of fear and doubt. You have courage and faith.

You’ve chosen a career that is absent of any false sense of security. You go without sleep and food to please your clients. You believe so much that hoodies are here to stay that you’ve bought a dozen. You have a light footprint and incredible flexibility, and this makes you so much more attractive to your clients than the Big Boys.

Don’t give up. Sure, there are always going to be bad days. But those are mere islands in a Sea of Awesome that laps against your bare feet. Wiggle your toes and enjoy it.

You’re appreciated.