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What I Learned In 2014

October 09 2014 // Life // 181 Comments

(This is a highly personal post so if that isn’t your thing then you should move on.) 

It’s not 2015 yet but I already know what I learned in 2014. I have Follicular Lymphoma. Here’s my story.

Stomach Pain

Ouch with Nails

Last year I began to have some stomach issues. The first time it looked like it might have been food poisoning, which I blamed on Chobani. One minute I was fine and the next I was throwing up and had abdominal pain and bloating for the next 48 hours.

I binge-watched action flicks until I was okay. Afterwards I felt a small twinge on my left hand side of my lower stomach. I didn’t want to be the guy that let something go and have something bad happen so after three weeks I saw a doctor. He thought it might be diverticulitis and suggested a change in diet and referred me to a gastroenterologist.

I remember talking to a school-parent friend at a Halloween get-together about diverticulitis. It sounded both dreary and scary. I was bummed.

Colonoscopy

Fletch Prostate Exam

In early April of this year I got over my fear and got a colonoscopy and endoscopy. The prep for this was truly nasty – chugging a substance that tasted like purple chalk death and then having what looked like pee come rushing out of your bowels for the next 24 hours.

The results of the test were basically clear. No diverticulitis and only some mild irritation was noted. In short, idiopathic IBS. Or for the rest of us, ‘you have some screwed up intestinal issues that don’t seem to have a known cause.’

This was a relief to some degree but also not. What the hell was causing my flare ups?

Flare Ups

Solar Flare

Because over the course of the year I’d have small flare ups. Usually I’d wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning with the pain, go downstairs and take some Tylenol, Gas-X and/or Mylanta and lay on the couch watching TV to distract me from the cramping pain until I fell asleep.

Food seemed to be the culprit. I’d drink beer and then have that cramping abdominal pain. I’d eat onions and that seemed to trigger it. Never were these flare ups that long nor exceedingly painful. They were 5-6 on the pain scale. I figured it was just my stupid intestines and getting old. So I gave up beer (oh sweet IPA) and avoided onions.

I had maybe 5 or 6 flare ups of varying intensity and went for a long time (3 or 4 months) with no flare ups at all.

Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday Candles

Friday night was my birthday and I was going to a nice restaurant with my wife, daughter and parents. By the time we got home I could tell I was having a flare up. I took Tylenol and some Mylanta but the pain got more intense. At 11pm, after about 3 hours of truly intense pain (8-9 on the pain scale) I drove myself to the ER.

I checked-in and sat there tapping my fingers together as the pain surged and watched Volcano with Tommy Lee Jones. Once in the ER they pumped me with 4mg of morphine (wow is that a strange feeling) and took at CT scan of my abdomen.

Hospital

John Muir Medical Center 2014

Soon after the CT scan I was visited by a doctor who said they wanted to admit me to the hospital because they’ve found abnormal lymph nodes on my CT scan that needed more investigation. When I pressed her she admitted that the worry was that what they were seeing might be lymphoma.

The world just became very clear and the focus of things shifted. I’m not saying I believed it right then and there but for whatever reason it felt true and just like that I felt the axis of my life changing and I simply had to adapt.

I called my wife at this point and gave her the news. I was stunned and scared but numb too and not just from the morphine.

Diagnosis

OMG LOLcat

On Saturday I was officially admitted to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. I noted that my room was on the Oncology ward and when I saw the Oncologist she said that, in her opinion, the odds that it was Lymphoma was 70-80%.

The best way to tell was to get a biopsy of one of the lymph nodes and the fastest way to do this was for me to stay in the hospital until Monday when that department was working. So that’s what I did.

It wasn’t horrible but it was odd laying there in the oncology ward watching football, an epic 18 inning Giants game win and a marathon of Bar Rescue.

The biopsy itself was a piece of cake but the waiting was the worst part. Because at this point I think I’d come to terms with the idea I had cancer. Sure I read the test results and tried to find evidence that it could instead by some sort of infection. Many House jokes were made. Sarcoidosis anyone?

But Wednesday around mid-day I got the call that confirmed the diagnosis. I had follicular lymphoma.

What’s Next

Kick Cancer's Ass

I’m going in for a bone marrow biopsy tomorrow (wow, that hurt) and a PET scan next week to determine the true severity of my lymphoma. (Do you capitalize it or not? I don’t know but I choose not to give it capital status right now).

From there it’ll be a 6 month regimen of chemotherapy. I’m already busy researching what specific cocktail might make sense for me and will discuss that with my oncologist after all the results are in. But it looks like I’ll be starting treatment by the third week of October.

I will kick cancer’s ass.

Make no doubt about it. No matter the severity I will beat this ugly thing to the ground and kick it a few times on the way down in hopes that it won’t return. Mind you, it probably will. But if it does it will get another beat down.

Lymphoma isn’t curable but it’s also not fatal.

Follicular lymphoma (FL) is not considered a curable cancer, chiefly because it is considered an indolent, or non-aggressive, cancer. However, ‘incurable’ should not be mistaken in this instance for ‘fatal’, as most patients with FL will not die from their lymphoma. It is considered a manageable disease, so often patients will endure some form of therapy, then go from months to years without any therapy or symptoms, then take up some form of therapy again when necessary.

So the odds are that I won’t die of Lymphoma. But I’ll die of something else! Oddly, that’s pretty comforting. My goal is just to be here for as long as I can (like 40 more years damn it!) so I can see my daughter grow up (oh man, getting teary eyed) and live a great life with my wife.

I don’t want lymphoma to define my life. So I absolutely plan on working during my treatment. However, I will probably scale back on new clients (even more), may need some flexibility and may not be able to travel. I’ll know more soon.

Lymphoma is an unwanted guest but will be a speed bump in the scheme of things. So while it’s important to manage this disease it’s also important to love the life I have and to keep doing most of the things I normally do.

What You Can Do

Right now there’s not much others can do. I’ve got a very supportive family here and access to wonderful healthcare. Of course I appreciate your thoughts and encouragement as I kick cancer’s ass.

I’m a believer in ‘particles’ and magical thinking. (In my spare time I chant ‘I’m going to be okay’ over and over again.) So think of me getting better. And if the time comes when I need the support from a larger group I’ll absolutely reach out.

Perhaps I’ll just keep updating this post with my progress. I’m not sure I want to start a whole new blog (cancer doesn’t deserve that) nor do I want to have multiple posts here on this topic. Because I do intend to keep blogging normally.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned.

What I Learned in 2013

February 26 2014 // Career + Life // 24 Comments

(This post is a personal post about running Blind Five Year Old, building on similar posts for 2011 and 2012.)

It’s nearly the end of February and I haven’t completed my now annual ‘What I Learned’ post. That should tell you that one of the things I learned is how quickly time gets away from you.

If you’re looking for a post where every problem has an answer with a pretty bright red bow on top then you should click the back button immediately. Because while 2013 was a crazy successful year, it was also messy and confusing.

Success Devours Time

I won’t humble brag. It was a great year for the business. I moved many clients to retainers and wound up working with three top 50 web properties according to comScore. The work was interesting and challenging, revenue was up and I was more than comfortable financially.

Winning

Yet, success introduced new problems. If you’d like to play the smallest violin now, please go ahead. I get it. It feels strange to complain about success. Yet, here I am about to do that. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want the opposite. But here is my reality.

More clients meant more client work. A lot more. The result? I had a choice. Dial down the time I spent learning or building the brand. When I got serious about the business back in 2010 my ratio of client work to learning and brand building was 50/50. For me, the choice was obvious.

I spent far less time building the brand. One only need look at the number of blog posts to see how my output diminished. Mind you, I made the most out of the blog posts I did manage to publish. But it was an anemic year in terms of output and that bothers me not just from a business perspective but because I enjoy writing.

Perfectionism Works (For Me)

Good Is The Enemy of Great

Part of the problem is that I’m a perfectionist. I’d probably tell you I simply had “very high standards for the quality of my work” and I could even talk myself into believing that. But it probably looks a hell of a lot like perfectionism.

So at the beginning of 2013 I was hell bent on embracing the ‘done is better than perfect’ mantra. Jonathon Colman would be proud. But you know what? Didn’t happen.

Not only that, but all the evidence seemed to indicate that spending that extra time to make my work that much better … paid off. Even if I was late delivering the work (which happened more often than I’d like), the quality of the work was such that it carried the day. The delay was suddenly explainable given the quality and success of the recommendations.

Yes, you still have to produce results. And I did.

Sales Avalanche

Having a sales funnel is important. You don’t want a client or two go dark and suddenly be struggling. I had this mentality as I spun up the business. Yet, in 2013 I was actively turning away business. This sounds and feels ugly since I know others aren’t in the same situation.

Most of the clients I wound up taking on were through referrals. Why did I get these referrals? Because of the quality of my work. Work that I’d taken a lot of time to get just right. That’s what I’ve learned. Great work creates … more work.

There are other factors involved in this sales windfall. One is the fact that I’ve created an sort of A-Team perception.

The A-Team

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them….maybe you can hire The A-Team.

I don’t blog on traditional platforms to gain exposure, though you might find me referenced there (and I’m very grateful to those authors for doing so.) Hopefully I continue to create content that merits these links from talented professionals.

But the clients I want are looking for the person behind the scenes. The guy who isn’t on all those crazy industry blogs you can’t trust. Now, that’s not how I think of them but that’s how a lot of the people I want to work for think about them. So instead they ask their colleagues if they know someone they can trust.

Scarcity is a powerful marketing tactic.

In addition, there’s a supply and demand issue in the digital marketing industry, with way more demand than (good) supply. This was driven home to me in a conversation with Mike Ramsey at SMX Advanced last year.

He asked me whether I had ever done any traditional advertising for the business. Never, I responded. He then asked me if I could name another industry where you could build a successful business without advertising. I couldn’t.

Juggling Fail

Dropped and Cracked Egg

So what this all adds up to is that things fall off the plate. You can only juggle so many things. You’re response time to email goes up. You deliver work late. The smaller requests for your time may go ignored.

It makes me feel fucking awful.

I still try very hard to get back to as many people as possible. To answer questions. To respond to every blog comment. Yet, there are only so many hours in the day and I’m not a workaholic. My wife might disagree with that statement since I work 7 days a week. But it’s not 10 hours a day. And it’s on my own schedule. If I want to binge watch House of Cards I can do that.

Right now I simply have to acknowledge that I’m going to drop the ball here and there. I’m not Superman.

Don’t Think About Doing It

Action Jackson Action Figures

One of the ways I was able to become more productive was to catch myself when I began to think about doing something. I’d think about returning that email. Or I would begin to compose a blog post in my head. Or I’d ruminate about the steps I needed to take for an upcoming audit.

Thinking about these things took up a lot of time. Time I could spend actually getting work done. And in the case of blogging, once I’d written it in my head I was far less passionate about putting it down on ‘paper’.

So I made a real effort to start doing what I was thinking about doing. I haven’t mastered this and sometimes realize I’ve been thinking about doing instead of actually doing for a the last 15 minutes. But I’ve gotten a lot better.

I find that doing something in the physical world helps a lot. Taking something from my honey-do list, something as simple as folding and putting away my clothes, can help to put me back on the right track.

Are We There Complacent Yet?

Complacency Kills Grafitti

I’m probably not as paranoid as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs were when they were at the top of their game. But I try very hard not to get complacent. I shouldn’t feel like I can get away with delivering an audit late. But the thought creeps into my mind as I juggle commitments and that’s a bad place to be. Because at some point that’s going to bite me in the ass. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But it will.

It already did to some degree.

At the beginning of 2012 I began writing Marketing Biz for Marketing Land. In 2013 I started to get paid for that work. By March I was spending more time than I’d like on it (getting paid for it made me want to do it better), my interest waned and there were some creative differences about the column. Nothing serious but it was mutually decided it would be best to shutter Marketing Biz.

I stayed on and helped out with the Period Table of SEO Success Factors. I was proud of and enjoyed that work. But I dropped the ball on the next project and was quickly asked if I had enough time to continue and I gratefully took the opportunity to say no.

I tried to do too much and wanted to keep that working relationship with Danny Sullivan and Matt McGee. Not because of the connections they have (screw that) but because they’re just smart, good people. So leaving on those terms sucked.

Exposure vs Scarcity

Exposure

The selling point for doing all of the above was, to some degree, exposure. In our industry you don’t get much bigger than Search Engine Land and Marketing Land. (Though I was proud as a peacock to get one of my posts on Techmeme last year.)

I thought of Marketing Biz as a natural out-growth of my normal curation activities. Not only that but it wasn’t content I would have put on my own blog. So Marketing Biz was my own little place where I might build a reputation and exposure beyond traditional SEO.

That was different than writing a guest post or even being a contributing writer. It didn’t violate my thoughts on guest blogging. It helped that I wasn’t after more exposure at that point, but I’d like to think if I had to do it all over again that I’d do it the same way.

The real question was did I need more exposure? I was turning away business as it stood. I wasn’t eager to drive more people to my door just so I could say no or, even worse, take on additional business and juggle even more work.

Obviously I need to continue to build my reputation, but I’m not sure that’s accomplished by heaping on more and more exposure.  I don’t want to fade away completely and I grok the mere exposure effect. You need to have some degree of mindshare. But I don’t feel the need to be trending all the time.

I haven’t figured out the balance yet. But I do know this. I  want to continue to earn my reputation not coast on it.

Scaling Experiments

House of Cards

Three years ago I had the opportunity to chat with Wil Reynolds. He admitted that he never really thought he’d scale SEER to its current size. But people came to him asking for his help and he wanted to say yes. The only way he could was to bring more people on board. I understand where he’s coming from. Totally.

Yet, I also know I’m not cut out to run a big operation (alone). I don’t enjoy managing people. Well, some people I do. (Hello Keith, Kirby and Jeremy!) But I have a really short fuse when it comes to effort and the ability to pick up new material.

Keep up with and (better yet) challenge me and I’m a great boss. Fall behind and make me explain something twice and I’ll make your life a living hell.

But 2013 was the year that I was going to experiment. I didn’t hire anyone. That’s a huge step! But I did bring a few people on Voltron style on specific jobs. They’d do a fair chunk of the audit punch list and I’d review, edit and add to it as well as do most of the client interaction and presentation.

It worked okay but it didn’t save me as much time as I had hoped. Maybe that would get better as I worked with them more and I’m still open to it to a certain degree. Admittedly, it did feel good to write and send those checks at the end of the project.

I’m just not sure scaling satisfies me. I might be able to make more money but the incremental amount doesn’t seem like enough unless I loosened my grip on the work product and took on a lot more clients. I’m not really prepared to do that. I want to be involved in the client work. I want to unlock the riddles and chase down the red herrings.

This year I’ll be experimenting with other ways of scaling.

Friends

Friends Logo

Despite a lot of the negativity in the industry, and there’s a lot to be negative about, I found a number of colleagues who supported, encouraged and inspired me.

Whether it was someone like Dennis Goedegebuure giving me a good reference to a massive client (which I secured), watching Joel Klettke evolve and hit his stride, chatting with Dan Shure, IMing with Zeph Snapp or plusing with Mark Traphagen, I was reminded of how lucky I am. (I’m leaving a ton of great people out here but I only have so much space. But the entire community of those who link, Tweet, comment, plus and generally support me continues to overwhelm me.)

I want to be the same person I was when I met these people. Or as close to the same person as I can be, since you’re constantly evolving as a person. I recognize that getting out there, following the golden rule and staying grounded is essential.

I don’t ever want to feel like I’m too cool for school.

And for someone who works at home, having these relationships is huge. Don’t get me wrong, I love working at home. The days I have to drive to a client on the Peninsula or when we’re driving back from my daughter’s tennis class during rush hour remind me just how much I abhor commuting.

But normal interactions, both work related and off-topic, help to break things up and keep you connected. Isolation can be a real issue if you’re working at home so making time for real conversation is important.

Organize!

Color Organized Cars in Parking Lot

Enough of the trials and tribulations. I had to have done some things right to have gotten here, right? I sure did.

I’m super organized. I have a digital filing system so I never have to wonder where to find something. I have another filing system (very limited) for my payables and receivables. Nearly everyday I clean up my desktop and make sure nothing builds up.

I live by my Google calendar and I often block off time for client work, making it easy for me to get focused and not schedule too many meetings that require context switching and reduce productivity.

I also refined a whole bunch of business templates so that I have off-the-shelf ready templates for proposals, agreements, kick-off notes, audits, guides and invoices. For some I even have a few different flavors based on the type of engagement. Doing all of this work up front makes a big difference.

Sometimes it feels like I’m tidying up as a form of procrastination but being organized makes me feel calm and that’s important.

Sweat

Sweating

I kept the weight off this year for the most part, got a Fitbit and stayed active. It’s great going into the garage, getting onto our elliptical machine and sweating for 45 minutes as you stream an episode of Arrow on Netflix. Seriously, how cool is technology?!

I also took up tennis. I’d played here and there and my wife played in high school and a wee bit in college. But it was watching my daughter take classes from Coach Joe that really got both my wife and I back into it. Let me tell you, you can learn and pick up a lot just by watching a very talented, passionate and personable tennis pro teach others. (There’s a lesson here about learning overall if you’re paying attention.)

Exercise helps clear my head and helps me solve problems. It’s a lubricant of sorts, allowing me to unclog a whole bunch of mental blocks.

Best Job Ever

Best Ever

Despite my bitching and moaning, this is the best job I’ve ever had and I sometimes take a step back and am amazed, a goofy smile rising to my face. I make good money working with great clients doing something I genuinely like doing from the comfort of my own home. Jackpot!

But the real treasure has been spending time with my wife and really being here for my daughter as she grows up. Yesterday when she got home she told me about a new game she and her friends made up at school called Monkey In The Middle Two Square. (The rules are quite complicated.) Late last this year I attended her geography bee and even had to cancel a phone call because who knew a geography bee would take nearly two hours!

Do I have all the answers on how my business will evolve? Nope. And that’s okay. Anyone who tells you they have it all figured out is either stupid or lying (or both.)

2014

Looking Forward

This year I look forward to blogging more. I’m going to talk about attention hacking and argue against the filter bubble among other things. I want to attend and potentially speak at Pubcon Las Vegas.

I’ll look to pivot some of the business into being a start-up marketing advisor. Because it turns out I have a pretty good track record helping start-ups secure another round of funding or positive exit.

Of course I also want to continue to help my clients to crush their business goals. But most importantly, I plan to stay healthy, happy, optimistic and connected. Something I wish for all of you reading as well.

Finding A Look As Well As A Sound

October 28 2013 // Life + Marketing // 9 Comments

(This is a personal post. While it does have a lot of marketing insight it’s also a bit introspective so you’ve been warned if that’s not your thing.)

In the past year I’ve been interviewed by a number of folks. One of the questions that often comes up is who has influenced my work.

I get the sense that thy want me to reference other people in SEO or the marketing industry overall. And don’t get me wrong, there are a number of smart folks out there but most of my influences come from outside the industry.

Artists

At the end of the day I am influenced and inspired by artists. Musicians are often at the top of my list and I regularly listen to music as I do my work, whether it’s Daft Punk or The Chemical Brothers to get me through large chunks of analysis or Adam Ant, Kasabian, Cake or Siouxsie and the Banshees as I put together blog posts or conference decks.

I am continually impressed by artists who go out on that ledge with their own work. Of course nearly everything is derivative in some form, but I admire those that are able to express something in their own way, to put their twist on it with passion. I connect with those that aren’t afraid to be authentic.

Adam Ant Full Costume

I mean, Adam Ant ladies and gentleman! Sure, he’s been a bit off the map psychologically but it doesn’t change his music and his appearance.

“I grew up in the glam era and, for me, every album should have a look as well as a sound.”

See, I appreciate that sentiment. That’s what I think about when I’m working, when I think about what I stand for and what I want people to remember. A fair amount of what I’ve written lately connects to this central theme.

Expression

Ominous Van Gogh

Artists are investing something of themselves into their art, or at least the ones that matter do. You have to find your own voice, not someone else’s voice if you’re going to make an impression.

Will what you express always find an audience? Nope. Sometimes it just might take a long time for you to finally get that recognition, for people to understand what you’re trying to communicate. Or maybe it never happens. Face it, not everyone is expressing something of value. #truestory

But it is the attempt, on your own terms, that matters I think. Or at least that’s what I’ve embraced. This is slightly different then the failing your way to success mantra. I believe that, but I think what you’re failing at matters a lot.

For well over two years I blogged here in relative obscurity. Did I get better over those two years? Hell yes! I still think some of those early posts are solid but it took time for me to put together that my content had to ‘have a look as well as a sound.’

Authenticity

Ubik Book Cover Art

But I also try to put as much of myself into this blog, both in normal posts and the more personal ones.

I’m not talking about the ‘the mistake I made that turned out to change my business for the better’ posts that seem to be so en vogue lately. Yeah, we get that you can learn from your mistakes but it’s all too … tidy.

But reality is messy and I feel like it’s exposing that reality that resonates. A better representation of this is my Google+ feed where I share things that I find funny, interesting or poignant along with my normal industry content. It could be the IPA I’m drinking at Beer O’Clock or a picture of some Sleestaks.

And many of my blog posts are actually just me documenting stuff that I’m figuring out, because there’s always something more to learn.

Periods

Violator Depeche Mode Album Cover

The trite thing to say is that I’ve been lucky to have such success, but that type of humble brag isn’t authentic. I worked hard (and continue to) and am very happy for the recognition. While I can’t reveal many of my clients due to NDAs I’m damn proud to count 2 of the top 50 websites as clients.

I had a plan to develop my personal brand and I attacked it with 50% of my time. One of the things that worked out early on was exploring Google+ and Authorship. I didn’t do this because I thought I could make it into something but because I truly did see something interesting.

But should I just continue to blog about those things even if my interest has waned? I think many people, sites and brands get stuck doing what has brought them success in the past. And that makes sense in many ways. Marketing is often about finding what works and repeating that.

Not only that but the fans and followers you’ve garnered provide a huge boost to your confidence to say nothing of their ability to amplify your content. I can’t tell you how meaningful it is to have that support. I don’t take that for granted for a second.

But if you’re an artist, you evolve and grow.

What you want to express changes. In talking about writing this post with my wife she told me about how she and her friend listened to Depeche Mode’s Violator album when it first came out. They hated it. It was a departure from their prior work. It took her time to embrace the new album but today it’s still one of her favorites.

So I did write about Authorship again recently but I feel like that was an ending. I doubt I will again. Instead I’ll continue to write and explore what I’m passionate about. Maybe that won’t be as popular and that’s … okay.

Don’t get me wrong, I hope it is! No artist doesn’t want to achieve success. But just as importantly, success doesn’t define them.

Inspiration

Drive's Scorpion Jacket

So in the end I am influenced by those who inspire me to do better, who challenge me to get out of my rut.

It’s those that I read, look at or listen to and make me feel something. It’s that photo of Los Angeles that brings back a flood of memories. It’s the mood that Wang Chung’s To Live and Die in LA instantly creates. (Seriously folks the entire album is incredible.)

So maybe I’ll get up in this jacket at a conference and turn my presentation into a performance. Or maybe I’ll just work to encourage my clients to be authentic and to find a look and sound for their content.

No matter what it is, I’m energized by the idea of putting myself out there (again) and taking those risks and seeing how people react.

What I Learned In 2012

February 14 2013 // Career + Life // 53 Comments

2012 was a fantastic year for Blind Five Year Old. I met most of my goals, came to a few epiphanies but often found it difficult to juggle everything at once. In all, this is what I learned.

Stop Comparing

Comparison Is The Thief Of Joy

There are a number of ‘names’ in the SEO community and there’s a growing trend to share your journey – to open the kimono so to speak. (Sort of like what I’m doing here which is going to be strange given my next statement.) The odd thing about this transparency is that it puts a bit of pressure on others. Or maybe that’s just me.

I had a chance to sit and chat with Wil Reynolds. I talked with Rhea Drysdale. They were generous with their time and gave a lot of excellent advice. Yet for a brief while those conversations also made me feel pretty lousy.

I started wondering. Was I doing enough to build my company? Was I falling behind? After establishing myself and building my brand was I frittering it away? Would I just be a ‘lifestyle business’? Shouldn’t I get bigger and build an agency? Are they so much better at this stuff than me?

I came to realize that I wasn’t enjoying my success. And that sucked, particularly because I was doing really well. So I decided to stop comparing my journey to those of others.

I am not Wil or Rhea or Rand. They all provide amazing advice based on their journey and personal situations. Mine will be different because I’m different. Hopefully I’ll learn from their insight and experiences but I’m sure I’ll make some of the same mistakes they made as well as others as I find my way. And that’s okay.

Take Risks

Take Risks

One of my goals was to speak at two conferences in 2012. Mind you, I’d never spoken at a conference before and while I’ve done plenty of trainings in front of large groups this would definitely be out of my comfort zone. I’m still an introvert at heart.

I snagged a spot at SMX West 2012 to speak about Authorship. I worked on that deck for ages. I obsessed over it. Then I found out that the presenter notes wouldn’t be available. Yikes! I was incredibly nervous but there were people like Aaron Friedman and Nick Roshon who were eager to see me present and gave me encouragement.

I was up there on stage with Dennis Goedegebuure. He’s done a lot of speaking and seemed … unflappable. “Do you still get nervous?” I asked him. “Oh yeah, every time” he replied. That made me feel better and helped me more than he probably realized. The presentation was … okay. I think I read a bit too much, had slide problems and went long, which meant Vanessa was about ready to shove me off the stage.

It was done. It had gone well enough. People didn’t heckle me and there weren’t any Tweets about how much I sucked. The world kept spinning. I needed that experience because the next time I presented was at MozCon 2012 in front of about 800 or so people. Crazy! I’m not sure Rand knew this would only be my second presentation or not but I’m very thankful for the opportunity he provided.

With the help of some amazing advice I was able to build a much better deck this time. I was a total and complete wreck before I presented. So if you met me there before my slot I might have seemed a bit preoccupied. (A thank you to Mackenzie Fogelson, Pete Meyers and Cyrus Shepard for distracting me with interesting conversations.)

I think I did well. It felt … good, which was an odd sensation for me. And the feedback and score I received validated my effort.

I’ve always taken risks throughout my career and that has to continue if I’m going to grow.

Retain Confidence

Have Confidence

I’ve had a crisis of confidence a few times in the past, mostly brought on by my own harsh criticism. That didn’t happen this year but between comparing myself to others and working myself up into a lather about presenting, I may have had a few doubts here and there.

But you have to kick those gremlins out of your head. Confidence is so important. Don’t confuse that with being a cocky douchebag. Confidence simply means that you know you’ve done everything you can do and that you’re comfortable with what you’re putting out there. It’s also acknowledging that you’re not always going to be right. That’s life so get used to it and move on.

This piece from Todd Mintz was brave and worth reading. Todd’s a smart and talented guy but he gets smarter and more skilled as time goes by. The post shows that we can only be confident about where we are at any given point in time. Will we make errors? Sure. But we learn from them and get better. Don’t look back and let mistakes sap your confidence, let it fuel it instead.

Keep Learning

 

Keep Going

In this industry you simply must keep learning. My definition of SEO is quite broad, which means that I need to know a little bit about everything.

Everything is a lot! Some of it you’re not going to understand at first but you have to keep pushing. Ask questions, even dumb ones. Just keep picking up new skills and experimenting. I can not stress enough how beneficial experiential learning is in this business. Don’t just take my word or some expert’s word on how something works, try it yourself.

Because we’re in a post modern SEO era.

Postmodern SEO develop strategies and tactics based on individual context, not on preconceived “Best Practices,” or some blogger’s interpretation of “standards.” Instead we consider things like business goals, risk, longevity, audience and others to build individual strategies.

Do. The. Work.

Watch The Clock

Time Slipping Away

There are simply not enough hours in the day. Success has been great but it also means I’m juggling a lot more. I’ve got more clients. I’ve got a part-time writing gig at Marketing Land. I’m speaking at conferences. I’m keeping up on industry news. And the email just never stops.

I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me. That would be ludicrous! These are good problems. But I haven’t quite mastered how to balance everything yet. I’ve contemplated stopping my #ididnotwakeupin series. I’ve missed out on requests to contribute to articles. Sometimes things just fall through the cracks. And I hate that.

Through it all I have guarded my personal time. I’m still working more than I ever have, but I don’t pull that many crazy hours. I take the time to build Legos with my daughter, play family games of Ticket To Ride, watch episodes of Nikita or just have an afternoon off with my wife.

Love Your Calendar

Mayan Calendar

The primary way I began to take back control of my time was to rely on my calendar. I started to put everything in my Google Calendar, including all those ‘tentative’ meetings. Because the worst thing that can happen is you tell three people you’re available on a certain day and within the span of a few hours they all try to book the same time.

Not only were there fewer missed connections but I was able to see the time I had available for other work. It became more and more clear that I had to book hours to do the work too.

Keep Fit

Lets Get Physical

I also made time to workout. I lost 30 pounds and kept it off by counting calories and working our regularly. I admit, part of this was driven by pure vanity. I didn’t want to stand up in front of a lot of people and look bad.

Besides the obvious health benefits, the other reason was also selfish. Staying fit made me a better thinker. Working out let me clear my head and afterwards I was definitely sharper. I think of working out a little like being organized. It takes a bit of time each week but it makes me a lot more productive.

Ditch False Modesty

Grumpy Cat

I ran into Marty Weintraub at both SMX West and MozCon. It was at the latter that he basically called me out. He complimented me on my presentation and I did the ‘aw shucks, thank you, just trying my best’ routine and he told me to stop with the false modesty and instead simply say thank you and accept the praise.

That doesn’t come naturally to me but it was a turning point. I needed to embrace those who appreciated me. I mean, there are going to be plenty of folks who try to tear you down in life so when you’re recognized as being good at something just run with it.

Overcome Guilt

The More You Care

That image will give you a headache right? And that’s the point I’m making here. Guilt is awful but I’ve got a lot of it.

I don’t have much guilt about ‘making it’. I worked hard and put in a lot of time and effort. But I recognize that I didn’t do it alone. I was helped by many many people along the way. So I try to do the same. But that’s not always easy. I despair when I don’t get back to someone’s email or Google+ post.

I even have some guilt about mentioning some people in this post but not others. How can I leave out people like Matt McGeeAnthony Pensabene, Jon Henshaw, Bill Sebald, Zeph Snapp, Max Minzer and Tadeusz Szewczyk.

And I’m leaving a ton of other people out here! I don’t want to slight anyone. I want to acknowledge their contribution and worth. I value my Google+ community. I care. A lot. Yet it’s nearly impossible for me to communicate that. So I’m letting go of that guilt little by little.

Yet, I doubt I’ll get rid of all my guilt because I think it makes me a better person.

Battle Perfectionism

Done Is Better Than Perfect

Am I a perfectionist? If you have to ask yourself that question I think you’re likely closer to one than you might think. I have very high standards and I like to present things when I have pulled on every little thread and packaged it up into something that is appealing as well as informative.

This wreaks havoc with my time management and I try to live by the ‘done is better than perfect’ mantra. I nod my head when Jonathon Colman talks about it and often give this exact advice to others. Yet, I find it tough to follow in practice.

The reason why is that my quest for superior quality at all costs has netted me a really nice referral business. I know I should give myself a break but I fear the slippery slope of sloppy work.

Yet I’m beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel as I work on some other projects and collaborate in different ways. That said, don’t expect this to become a high volume blog … ever.

Embrace The Unknown

Embrace The Unknown

I remember when I would interview for a job and I’d get that ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years’ question. Based on my life experience I was usually honest in telling people I had no idea. Shit happened and you just never could know how things would turn out. You can only open the door right in front of you and see where it goes.

So I don’t know how Blind Five Year Old will grow, though I think it will. I don’t know what new things I’ll be doing this year. Maybe I’ll build a product. Maybe I’ll do more writing. Maybe I’ll write a book. I just don’t know yet and I’m okay with that.

It’s not that I’m not ambitious or that I don’t have goals. I am and I do. It’s just figuring out which direction to go and opening that door.

What I Learned in 2011

December 30 2011 // Career + Life // 17 Comments

Way back in 2007 I decided to strike out on my own and begin consulting. I had a number of clients and things were going well. The snag? I wanted to buy a house and banks were simply not loaning money to folks who didn’t have W-2 income. Well, they might but not to those who didn’t have 20% to put down and Bay Area housing prices made that difficult.

At the time one of my clients was anxious to get me more involved and by early 2008 we agreed on an arrangement where I’d work three days a week as an employee, giving me the ability to pursue consulting the other two days. It was a great arrangement that provided stability and flexibility for the next three years. I know this isn’t a typical arrangement and I was (and still am) sincerely grateful for the opportunity.

But in 2010 I was turning down more business than I was taking on and I lost a few prospective clients because they weren’t sure I had enough bandwidth. I also, finally, bought a house and no longer had a pressing need for W-2 income. So I decided it was time to return to my initial goal – to consult full-time and run my own business.

Strangely, it was a bit more nerve-wracking this time around. I’d grown comfortable and now had a mortgage looming over my head. But those just weren’t good reasons not to move forward. I’m a big believer in taking risks, particularly when I’m betting on myself.

So how’d it turn out?

Well, all in all, 2011 was a great year. I filled up my list of clients, was nearly always busy, made good money and got to spend amazing time with my wife and daughter. But it wasn’t all roses. I learned a lot this year – about myself and about running a business.

The Power of Gratitude

Thank You Painted on Street

never needed to drum up work. The work came to me. Referrals remain the lifeblood of my business. This might be atypical. Remember, I was able to take on clients part-time for a number of years. I was building a track record and securing endorsements that would pay off in the future. As soon as I began to wonder if things had finally dried up I received at least one but usually more inbound inquiries. I do not take this for granted.

But there are important lessons to be learned when I think about the amount of business I get through referrals. First, you must deliver great work. The referrals won’t come otherwise. When you’re working for a client, you’re not just working for them, you’re working for all the clients they might refer to you in the future. Let your client down and you cut off a valuable part of your sales funnel.

This also means keeping up with clients both past, present and future. This isn’t easy for me. I’m not a social animal and while I think about a lot of these people, I don’t often reach out to say hello and touch base. Nor do I like to pursue prospects to see if they’re ready to engage. But I made an effort this year to do so and it paid off. I slacked off on this in the last few months. I’ll change that going into 2012.

In the past I thought this type of outreach was intrusive but I find that most people enjoy a quick email. It usually leads to interesting discussions and, yes, the occasional referral. Sometimes just being top-of-mind is what gets you in the door.

Another thing. When someone helps you out with a referral, say thank you. Even if that referral doesn’t pan out, thank them for thinking of you. Never forget the power of gratitude.

Respond ASAP

Stopwatch

As the year wore on I got more and more inbound emails and inquiries. They competed with emails from current clients and outstanding proposals. Not to mention the comments people were kind enough to leave on this blog or those who paid me a kind word on Twitter.

I’ve read, again and again, that responding quickly is critical. Yet, I didn’t do a great job of this. In part, I was hobbled by the desire to craft the perfect response. Was it important just to respond or to respond with something of substance? What I’ve learned is that it’s better to lean toward the former, in part because my idea of substance was often far more than was expected.

I’m not saying you should be glib but the adage that a little bit goes a long way fits in this scenario. I still fight this battle though and often let days and days go by before I respond. This is bad. Don’t do it. I’m hoping to turn this around in 2012 and respond quickly and see where those conversations go and not hold myself up to some ultimate standard of communication.

So if I ignored you this year, I apologize. It’s not that I didn’t care. In fact, I still remember nearly every email I didn’t return and every Tweet I didn’t acknowledge. Hopefully I won’t paint myself into this guilty corner in 2012.

Build The Brand

Fingerprint

I decided to spend a decent amount of time building my personal brand. I took to heart some advice from Rand Fishkin about blogging. I did more of it and made it easier for people to share my content. I also spent more time promoting myself, through Twitter, via comments on other blogs, on Quora, LinkedIn and on Google+. I’m still better at promoting other people than myself but I came a long way this year.

I also became a Sphinn editor which then morphed into being a Marketing Land curator. It was one of the best things I did this year. I got to know and learned from folks like Matt McGee, Michelle Robbins, Danny Sullivan, Hugo Guzman, James Svoboda, Todd Mintz, Jill Whalen and many more. It also ensured that my information consumption was being put to good use.

You see, I consume a vast amount of information. On a typical day I’m dedicating approximately two hours to reading articles, analysis, responses and posts on a wide range of topics. To be honest, I think being able to make sense of all that information, connecting the dots and finding trends that I can pass on to my clients is valuable. Some of that also shows up on Twitter and Google+.

Building the brand also meant being more social. I did a fairly good job of this online. I thought my Valentine’s Day post was a good start and from there I upped my interactions on my blog and via Twitter. I also embraced Google+ and used it as I had FriendFeed, posting a diverse amount of content that let people get to know the ‘real’ me.

I also took advantage of an opportunity and went to see Amit Singhal, Ben Gomes and Matt Cutts at the Churchill Club. Not only did I get to see them, I had a chance to chat with each of them as well. It reminded me that I need to get out there more often, even if I’m a bit socially uncomfortable. Again, my thanks to Rick Bucich who was my wing man. We could be social awkward together and that makes a huge difference.

Earlier in the year I had botched SMX West. I’d received some shocking personal news that really rocked me. I won’t go into here but suffice to say I didn’t attend many sessions and even when I did I wasn’t really there. Yes, there are other conferences and perhaps I should have gone but … I didn’t.

This year I’m looking to attend at least two conferences and speak at one. While there I’ll remind myself to be more social and meet all of the people I’ve been talking to throughout the year. Putting myself out there and letting people put a person to the words is important.

One of the results of my brand building efforts was the opportunity to participate in the SEOmoz Search Engine Ranking Factors and Google News Ranking Factors panels. There’s a bit of virtuous cycle here. Your brand gets a boost by being on these panels which amplifies your brand moving forward and helps you secure more business which in turn increases your brand, if you’re continuing to do good work.

I remain dedicated to doing great work for my clients.

Better, Faster, Cheaper

Daft Punk

The old better, faster, cheaper adage is that you can only do two of the three at any given time. I wasn’t going to be cheap. I’d already learned that being cheap diminished my contribution and often attracted the wrong type of client.

So I settled on better and faster. The problem? Everything took longer than I expected. Part of this is my stubbornness around being better. When I do something, I want to do it really well. It wasn’t about meeting the client’s expectations, it was about blowing those expectations away. It was about pulling on every little thread in a site audit to make sure I didn’t miss something.

All of this made being faster, while maintaining my level of quality, a challenge. At times I thought about doing things ‘good enough’ or finding ways to simply deliver what the client expected. Why was I knocking myself out? But being thorough and thoughtful was part of my DNA. Not only that it was a point of differentiation. It’s what I stood for. And as I’ve already discussed, delivering great work doubled as my sales funnel.

It’s also one of the reasons I turned down a number of guest blogging and speaking opportunities. My own blog posts take between two and five hours each. (This one is well above that.) I don’t think that’s going to change. I’m methodical and I’ll do an extraordinary amount of due diligence before I’m comfortable putting something out there.

Building vs Doing

Jenga Game Balancing Act

Obviously, I’m a big believer in building your brand and business. That takes work. Blog posts. Quora. Google+. Twitter. Commenting. Seriously, there’s a lot of work involved in building and promoting your business. Balancing the time you spend building the brand versus doing the work can be difficult. Doubly so if you take into account my personal expectations of quality.

I fought this see-saw battle all year and expect to do so again in 2012. There’s just no way around it.

Fill Your Pipeline

 

Eggs

Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched. There were times when I thought I had a slew of business lined up waiting to go. But I’d already learned to keep piling on prospective work. Because suddenly a few of those potential clients go silent, there’s a change in management or you simply don’t get that business.

And what’s the worst thing that happens if you book too much business? Seriously, that’s a good problem to have. That’s when you buy a bunch of Red Bull, work with clients on timelines and deliverables and bring on a few trusted colleagues to help out.

Send Me …

Tuxedo

Cranking out proposals and contracts isn’t as easy as it sounds. You figure out quickly that different clients want different types of things and that, in turn, demands a different type of approach and response. I took time to build proposals for a variety of types of projects and even came up with a menu of services.

Having been the recipient of a lot of proposals and contracts over the years (even from others in my industry) so I had a general idea of what was expected and how they were presented. Honestly, the amount of diversity here is incredible. I’ve seen cookie-cutter PowerPoint decks, simple one page word documents or a novella worth of FAQs being used as proposals.

In my eyes, the level of professionalism just isn’t that high. So of course I wanted to do better. I spent time and energy getting a standard look and feel to my materials. The same fonts. The same formatting. The same iconography. I wanted to put my best foot forward every time.

That took time but by the end of the year I had a lot of collateral squared away and ready to go which made the proposal process a lot less time consuming.

Cross the Ts, Dot the Is

Magnifying Fine Print

Then there are contracts. You need to have your own but you also need to be prepared to review and sign those provided by clients. Don’t just glance at this stuff. Read the contract and make sure that you are okay with the terms. If you’re not, make suggested revisions. Now, I didn’t get tangled up in a bad contract this year, but that’s partly because I changed terms prior to entering that agreement. Don’t be afraid to do this.

I might also add that twice I had clients correct errors (minor legalese errors) in my own contract template. While this is embarrassing I am thankful that they took the time to review the contract and provide that feedback. I’m better for it.

Going Steady?

 

Ring

So you land a new client and you’re doing a site audit. Some of these are one-time engagements but most of the time you (and the client) are hoping that it turns into a long-term relationship. The question is how to structure those engagements. I’ve avoided retainer based engagements because there are times when I’ll feel like I’m not delivering enough value and other times when I feel like that client is soaking up way too much of my time. Honestly, I was more concerned about the former.

While I might be able to drive a few clients into a retainer based relationship and have a set amount of money coming in, I just didn’t want that added pressure and the question in the back of my mind – am I doing enough? That said, I had enough clients asking for this that I decided to give it a try. So far, so good.

I structured my retainers so I had some protection from being ridiculously overworked. That helped put my mind at ease on that side of the equation. But what about that feeling that I’m not contributing enough? What I’ve found is that it’s about trust and reliability. Clients need to trust that you’re looking out for their interests and that you are there with advice and recommendations that they can trust and believe in. Having that resource, on call, is valuable. This is even more important in a field where things change frequently and there is a slew of conflicting (and bad) advice.

I haven’t figured out the best way to seamlessly move from audit into a long-term engagement but the majority of my clients do take this path. It’s usually not the same and that makes it strange and bumpy at times. I’m not sure this is a problem I can or should solve.

For Love and Money

Love Greater Than Money

Invoicing and keeping track of accounts receivables wasn’t that big of a problem. I have a nice invoice template I’ve used for years and diligently track unpaid invoices. In 2011 I only had one client who I had to chase down for payment.

You do begin to learn who pays quickly and who is cutting your net 30 arrangement to the very last day. Sometimes cash flow became an issue, particularly when I had to pay subcontractors or vendors. That’s certainly something I’ll work on in 2012.

Outside of that I didn’t actually like doing the invoicing. Crazy isn’t it? The thing that gets me paid always felt like pulling teeth. Reviewing everything I’d done and tallying up the hours and deliverables was just not fun for me. Getting those checks in the mail certainly did!

I just really like what I do and am able to make a good living at it. For that I am very lucky.

The Right Clients

Astronauts

You need to get good, quickly, at figuring out which clients are right for you. For me, this means they’re already knowledgeable about SEO and Internet marketing. I want smart teams that I can partner with and engage in meaningful dialog that moves the site and my knowledge forward. Because make no mistake, you are constantly learning in this business. Every new engagement brings a new set of challenges and reveals a new wrinkle that you might not have seen previously.

I don’t want clients who are constantly questioning the validity of SEO. I avoid those who can’t bring resources to bear on recommendations because I want to see results. I’m not a big fan of politics so I avoid large organizations. Discount hunters are also usually bad news. I’ve also experimented with small business and local clients but my services just don’t scale for most of these folks.

There are plenty of posts out there about  bad clients but it’s really on you to find the good clients. Don’t be afraid to turn away clients who you know are going to be a time suck. Another way to handle this is to bake it into your proposal. Pricing yourself out of potentially bad relationships is a very valuable technique.

In the end, I want clients who understand that I’m going to tell them the truth, whether it’s popular or not.

How Much!?

Cat Covering Ears

Medical coverage costs a metric-fuck-ton. I’m using foul language here because it really is that bad. The amount I pay for medical coverage is obscene. I’m looking to lower this cost in 2012 but there’s also a huge amount of complexity and fear in switching plans. I’ve been through this rodeo just in switching plans when I went from job to job. But it’s even more difficult when you’re self-employed and worried about making sure your family has health coverage.

In addition, the quarterly tax payments can be a drag. I don’t mind paying taxes. I’m quite happy to pay my share. But the chunks you pay are sizable so you really have to plan ahead. Get yourself a CPA if you’re going to start a business or even just do a fair amount of consulting. The $500 I pay mine is well worth it and has saved me money and countless hours of my time.

Stay Active

Me on Mount Diablo

I let my health slip a bit this year. I didn’t eat well and didn’t exercise as much either. This is odd since I’m spending so much time at home. I’ve already begun to change this and will be a healthier person in 2012. This is important because being active can help you work through problems and simply think better. Diet can also have a profound impact on your mood.

All of this is wrapped up in making sure you keep motivated. Like or not, sometimes that motivation leaves you. You get stressed and get jammed up. You feel like you’re juggling too much and that you’ll never catch up. You wake up and you just don’t want to tackle what’s in front of you. It feels enormous and endless. That’s where being active can change things. Get out on the bike and ride for a few hours and you clear your head and come back energized.

More or Less

Dali Clock Painting

I am a huge believer in life/work balance. That said, now that I’m running my own business I am working a lot more. Part of this is the fact that I work at home. I’m upstairs in my office, wearing an old Google fleece and some sweatpants. I’m up at 6am every day looking through my RSS feeds and soaking up as much information as I can instead of spending an unproductive hour or more commuting.

The days begin to blend together. Weekdays and weekends aren’t so different so you wind up putting in hours on the weekend too. But it’s all on your own terms! That’s the great thing.

So if I want to stop and go for a bike ride with my daughter. I can do that. If I want to watch Breaking Bad on Netflix in the middle of the day. I can do that. The flexibility is amazing. So even though I might be working more hours I’m also spending more quality time with my family and doing the things I really want to do.

Leverage

Pick a Direction

It got to the point where I was essentially booked solid. If you’re charging an hourly rate, you can only make so much. There are only so many hours in the day. Sure, you can use fixed pricing on audits but most of the time you’re not making much more there. You figure out the hours you need and price the audit accordingly. Honestly, I probably short-changed myself more often than not. As I mentioned, everything takes longer than you think.

So you begin to think about how you could get to the next level. Did I want to build an ‘agency’? Maybe but I’m a better leader than manager. So you begin to think about other ways to leverage the expertise you have. This is where I’m looking in 2012. Once again, I’ll be balancing initiatives to build and expand the business versus doing the work. So, while I may not be an agency per se, I think there’s a strong possibility that I’ll want to bring some other people in next year.

This might give me just enough time to explore new ways to serve clients. Maybe I should write an ebook or a real book? I did a number of SEO training sessions this year, maybe that’s something to pursue.

I have a great but complex idea for a WordPress Plugin. I actually did a substantial amount of research here, wrote a solid product document and contacted a developer but it just never got off the ground. I could restart that project.

And then there are other ideas outside of this industry, one of which would provide bloggers with a new revenue stream.

I don’t lack in ideas. I lack in time. And with that time constraint I vacillate. I want to pick the ‘right’ one. But I know that’s not the right way to approach things. Pick one. Try it. If it works, awesome. If it doesn’t. Learn from the failure and move on to the next idea. It’s easier said than done but I’m committed to this philosophy in 2012.

Cut Up Learning

October 03 2011 // Life + Technology // 6 Comments

Is information overload a problem our new digital society must solve or are we changing how we learn?

Information Overload

We’ve gone from a handful of TV channels to more than 500; from a few radio stations to streaming music on demand; from reading the local newspaper to reading publications from around the world.

The Extracting Value from Chaos report from IDC iView provides a staggering overview of our digital footprint.

In 2011, the amount of information created and replicated will surpass 1.8 zettabytes (1.8 trillion gigabytes) – growing by a factor of 9 in just five years.

It’s not just digital either. We see this trend in the publishing industry where print-on-demand and self-published books have skyrocketed (pdf).

Book Publishing Statistics Graph

This does not include Audio or eBooks.

Of course, we’re also sharing all of this information at an accelerated rate.

Facebook Law of Sharing Graph

Zuckerberg’s Law of Sharing states that sharing activity will double each year.

You know that information is increasing, but you might not realize just how much and how fast it is increasing.

Curation

As the amount of information increases many have looked at ways to sift through and make sense of it all. The goal is to find signal amid the noise. Plenty of folks are trying to apply different techniques and algorithms to winnow things down to only the most interesting and relevant.

KnowAboutIt, XYDO, My6Sense, Trunk.ly and Summify among others are all trying to cull the web and deliver the ‘right’ information to your inbox.

Aggregated social curation sounds logical but I haven’t found it very valuable. I find the stuff I already read (or would have found) anyway. Maybe it works if you’re not drinking from the information hose, but most of us are doing more of that in one way or the other. I can’t imagine relying on just these services for my information.

Many believe that serendipity is an important part of information consumption, but most of the services give this lip service at best. They’re doing more of what a good brand marketer would do, cranking out extensions to a known product. In this case that product is the type of content that you and your network of ‘friends’ are reading. I think you quickly reach a local maxima where you’re not finding new things and making new connections.

Today’s curation seems more like an echo chamber.

Distraction

Info Freako by Jesus Jones

Nicholas Carr thinks the Internet is doing evil things to us and Google might be making us stupid. NPR books summarizes Carr’s thesis as follows.

Carr believes that the Internet is a medium based on interruption — and it’s changing the way people read and process information. We’ve come to associate the acquisition of wisdom with deep reading and solitary concentration, and he says there’s not much of that to be found online.

Carr might be right about the distraction of the Internet. But this is but one way in which we acquire information. I watch two hour movies straight through, can read a book for hours at a stretch and still conduct lengthy phone calls. The idea that we can only process information in one way seems like an odd conclusion. It would be like saying that because we possess the ability to drive that athletic prowess will decline.

Taking it a step further, there is an assumption that we process information uniformly. Here’s where fiction helps reveal a greater truth. The Ghost In Love by Jonathan Carroll explores the division of personality. We are different people throughout our lives, day-by-day and even different people at the same time.

How can we be kind when you were so mean to that stranger the other day? How can we be intelligent when you made such a stupid mistake the other week? Many people struggle with this seeming paradox. But we’re not robots! We’re not just one monolithic entity that does things the same way every day. Not only do we evolve over time (just think about your musical tastes) but we’ll react to information in different ways on an hourly basis. Much of this has to do with context, but I think there are more complex factors at work.

So why do we persist in this notion that we can only comprehend information in one way. That’s just patently untrue.

Cut-Up Learning

The cut-up technique was made popular by William Burroughs and is performed by cutting up content and putting it back together in a different order. By doing so, it reveals new words, new insight and new meaning. It’s a type of non-linear learning.

I believe the Internet, the great distractor, is a digital version of the cut-up technique. It is actually more powerful because we can cut-up more information from a wide variety of topics and mediums.

We’re so consumed with capturing just the right thing, those few articles that will provide insight, that we miss the opportunity to piece together and make connections to a larger puzzle.

The goal isn’t to curate and aggregate the content into neat little packages but to cut up the information to unlock trends and insight.

Skimming

I read a large number of RSS feeds, a diverse blend of literature, photography, analytics, SEO, technology, life hacking, science, local, marketing, design, UX, humor and start-up related blogs. I also let the river of information flow through platforms like FriendFeed, Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

Do I read every post word for word? No. I’m skimming a lot of the time, both in terms of the type of content that is being generated (the theme and pulse of activity) and the actual content itself. Skimming doesn’t mean I’m not getting value from that content. By skimming through a variety of pieces, topics and media I create a very different view of the data that is swirling around me.

That also doesn’t prevent me from taking a deep dive on any given piece I find. In fact, I’d hazard that I locate more of these pieces through the act of skimming.

Cut-Up Example

Live Long and Prosper by Han Solo with Malcolm Reynolds Image

So lets go from theory to practice. I believe Google is extremely interested in creating some sort of AuthorRank based on the quality of and engagement with the content that author produces. Here’s the cut-up that leads me to this conclusion.

I watch Steven Levy interviewed by Matt Cutts, and find both Levy’s mention of being outranked by Huffington Post interesting but also note the look Cutts gives someone in the audience directly after this remark. I watch this video after authorship is rolled out by Google at SMX Advanced. This is an example of how the cut-up technique doesn’t need to be linear.

I keep track of the debate around identity on Google+ and see how their inflexibility on the issue is rooted in ensuring confidence in authorship. I watch the high rate of iteration in the rel=”author” program and note who is leading those efforts. I look at which Google Webmaster Central videos in this latest series are released first. Because they record them in large chunks, so the authorship video getting to the head of the line signals a sort of priority.

I read about the acquisitions of companies that measure engagement with content. I ask questions about what Google is doing with PostRank and (repeatedly) get no response. Silence can be a very loud signal.

Those are all signals within the actual topic, though they might be in different media. But I also pay close attention to how Facebook is implementing EdgeRank and note the direction LinkedIn is going as well. Again, those are closely related to authorship and identity so it’s not going too far afield.

But there are other vectors that might seem unrelated. I listen to artists who are irate at how their work is taken and used without credit. I key in on articles that highlight the music that is most often sampled by new artists. I listen to the Rick Astley and Nirvana mashup. I laugh at the misattributed quote meme but also think about what it represents. I uncover distasteful social proof manipulation and dive into the argument about influence and whether Klout is accurate.

Alone, each of these things are of passing interest, but with access to so much information I find greater context and meaning.

Mind Hacking

The digital age allows us to peer over the shoulders of more people. A lot of them may provide little to no value but some will be intelligent and provide thoughtful commentary and links. I’ve become adept at quickly recognizing the difference. It’s reminiscent of what Gladwell talks about in Blink.

Maybe I am an outlier and my information consumption behavior is non-traditional, but given the rate in which information is accelerating I believe more and more people will adopt (or be forced into) this type of cut-up learning.

I used to scoff at the number of people Robert Scoble followed, invoking Dunbar’s Number as my defense. What I’ve realized is that there is a vast difference in social relationships versus information discovery.

I still believe in Dunbar’s Number as it pertains to relationships but not when it comes to information discovery. I doubt highly that Robert is truly friends with the 32,000 people he follows on Twitter. But he is adept at taking the stream of information those people create and gaining value from it.

Tools

Certain tools can help to make cut up learning easier, in part by simply letting you organize what you’ll skim. Google Reader is an absolute stellar resource. And no one has beaten the original FriendFeed friend of a friend functionality in delivering new and random things to my worldview. G+ is slowly getting better since I do find a diverse blend of technology, science, art and business that I can peruse.

The curation services? I’ll use them. But they’re more like an information safety net. My interaction with them is limited to no more than a 10 second skim and scroll of the content for confirmation.

But in the end, the biggest tool we’ll have is our mind and our own ability to collect and process all that information. Maybe our brains are being rewired but who’s to say that’s a bad thing?

TL;DR

I found an article the other day that opined that the way to succeed in business was to know where the customer was going, not where they were now. This was a proxy for how I felt about the difference between curation services and cut up learning. Curation can tell you where things are now, while cut up learning can tell you where things are going.

Information overload may not be a problem we have to solve but instead could lead to a new way of learning. Skimming things does not make us shallow, it may actually make us rich.

Doppelgangers

August 10 2011 // Humor + Life // 3 Comments

I’ve thought about this post for a while but never pulled the trigger. But with the ruckus over names on G+ and the ridiculous Same Name reality show I thought it was finally time to blog about doppelgängers.

Doppelgänger

Merriam-Webster defines doppelgänger as:

1: a ghostly counterpart of a living person 2 a : double 2a  b : alter ego b  c : a person who has the same name as another

The emphasis is mine and I’m using that version of the definition here. It’s easy to find Internet doppelgängers by doing a vanity search on Google or setting up a Google Alert on your name.

So without further ado, let me introduce you to my three doppelgängers. (Who knew I was so talented?)

Pro Freestyle Skateboarder

AJ Kohn co-founded One Skateboard Co and is an accomplished freestyle skateboarder.

AJ Kohn at the 2010 World Championships of Freestyle Skateboarding

The odd thing is we both grew up near Philadelphia. Because of this, every now and again I get a random email from someone looking to reconnect with him. In a few cases it’s been tough for me to persuade them that I’m not that AJ Kohn.

Amateur Baseball Player

AJ Kohn is an infielder on the Plainview Bucks, an amateur baseball team in Minnesota.

Team Photo of Plainview Bucks

I don’t know which one is AJ Kohn, but I do know that he’s the star of the team, batting .424 with 31 hits, 11 runs and 12 RBI.

Marine Biologist

AJ Kohn was the first to report that some cone snails hunt fish by paralyzing them with a powerful neurotoxin. Their sting can even kill people!

Cone Snail

Now Professor Emeritus at University of Washington, he dedicated his professional life to “understanding of the evolutionary processes that have led to high biotic diversity in tropical marine environments.”

Passion

I take great comfort in my doppelgängers because they remind me to be passionate about what I do. Each AJ Kohn followed a passion, whether it be skateboarding, baseball or marine biology. I admire that.

What about your doppelgängers? Find yours and tell me what they’re up to. #doppelgangers

Valentine’s Day Thank You

February 14 2011 // Career + Life // 12 Comments

I often fail to thank folks properly. I mean to do it but … I wind up getting busy and then a week goes by and then a thank you seems false. Yet, I truly do appreciate it!

Invisible Double High Five

So it seems apt on Valentine’s Day to thank the many people who have influenced, supported and helped me over the past year.

Aaron Bradley (@aaranged) at SEO Skeptic has consistently provided engaging dialog on my blog. I hope to return the favor. Aaron is a thought leader, willing to rely on his own critical analysis in looking at a subject.

Michael Martinez (@seo_theory) at SEO Theory isn’t going to give you the same old SEO spiel found on hundreds of other blogs. Like Aaron Bradley, it’s great to find free thinkers in an industry with plenty of sheep.

Rob Diana (@robdiana) at Regular Geek is amazingly smart and engaging. Not only has he been a great supporter but he is vital to helping me find the best information on the Internet.

Matt McGee (@mattmcgee) and Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) are great people who have given me the opportunity to be an Editor at Sphinn. I sincerely appreciate their confidence.

Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) is a decent and generous guy. He may not always provide the answer I want to hear, but he’s nearly always there with an answer nonetheless.

Paul Buchheit (@paultoo) is, among other things, the founder of FriendFeed. That alone gets him on my list but his personal blog has also been inspirational.

Rick Bucich (@rbucich) has been a long time supporter of me and my blog. He’s wicked smart about SEO, so it’s a real compliment to have him in my corner.

Andrew Hanelly (@hanelly) has made some complimentary comments on the blog. That’s great, particularly since his own blog is great as well.

Jeremy Post (@jeremypost) is the best colleague I’ve had since I began SEO. Smart, hard-working and an all around good guy. He keeps me on my toes. Bonus – he brews his own beer.

Jonathan Mendez (@jonathanmendez) at Optimize and Prophesize provides amazing insight, bridging search and display. I’ve been lucky to interact with him a few times and always feel smarter afterward.

Lisa Barone (@LisaBarone) at Outspoken Media was kind enough to feature my Facebook SEO Guide in one of her posts. I’d be lying if it wasn’t nice to be acknowledged by one of the ‘cool crowd’ in the industry.

Rand Fishkin (@randfish) is CEO and Co-Founder of SEOmoz. You’d have to live under a rock not to know of Rand. I don’t know Rand personally, outside of a small email exchange, but his personal blog has been influential. I’m blogging more and better able to deal with haters because of his writings.

Aleyda Solis (@aleyda) at Aleyda Solis has been a tremendous supporter. My Spanish isn’t very good so I’ll simply say muchas gracias.

Kirby Freeman (@kirbyfreeman) is whip smart with a true gift for building product. She made me look good.

Michael Fruchter (@fruchter) has been a great supporter and another source for great content.

Micah France (@micah_france) has been generous with his comments and Tweets. They don’t go unnoticed.

Eric Logan (@ericloganvanman) is nearly always the first person to Like one of my posts on FriendFeed. It just seems like he’s got my back.

Roberto Bonini (@rbonini) is also quick to Like my content on FriendFeed. I appreciate it.

Louis Gray (@louisgray) introduces me to new and interesting services – constantly. He’s perhaps the nicest guy you’ll ever meet too.

Tad Chef (@onreact_com) at SEOptimise is always interesting and was kind to include me in his 30 Great SEO Blogs You Might Not Know Yet.

Elisa Gabbert (@egabbert) at WordStream is smart and funny. It’s awesome when someone like that references your work.

Alexia Tsotsis (@alexia) put my contact information smack dab on TechCrunch. That can’t be bad for business.

Tamar Weinberg (@tamar) at Techipedia does a fantastic job finding the best in Internet marketing. It was an honor to be on her list of Best Internet Marketing Posts of 2010.

Matt Gammie (@mattgammie) has been an interesting new and diverse voice. I appreciate the dialog.

Derek Perez (@perezd) at Perezium is wise beyond his years. He’s a hoot to be around but serious about the intersection of code, UX and start-ups.

Chris Eppstein (@chriseppstein) is an amazing Software Architect. Many of our conversations about search wind up as blog posts. I hope that continues.

Srikanth AD (@srikanth_AD) has been a great supporter, particularly on Quora.

Jill Whalen (@jillwhalen) at High Rankings is quick with an answer and always has an informed opinion. I may not always agree, but I like that she’s got an honest point of view.

Mark Essel (@VictusFate) at Victus Spirtus let me ride shotgun on his entrepreneurial ride. It’s been amazing to follow and his frequent blog posts often point me in interesting directions.

Mahendra Palsule (@ScepticGeek) at Skeptic Geek is a gold mine of information and insight. I’m thankful for his support and appreciate his editorial prowess.

Kristi Hines (@kikolani) at Kristi Hines is a dynamo. I certainly appreciate the mention.

Ruud Hein (@RuudHein) at Search Engine People is a great writer and search historian. Bonus – he’s friendly on Twitter.

Barry Schwartz (@rustybrick) has included me in a number of his daily search recaps. Thank you.

Danny Brown (@dannybrown) is a paragon for all bloggers. He’s smart, down-to-earth and incredibly responsive.

Greg Sterling (@gsterling) at Screenwerk was kind to chat with me at SMX Advanced. He’s the guy to talk to about local and mobile.

Bill Slawski (@bill_slawski) at SEO by the Sea provides an incredible service to the SEO industry. We all appreciate it.

Donna Fontenot (@DonnaFontenot) at DazzlinDonna is as generous and nice as she claims to be.

Bill Rowland (@billrowland) at Nexus Interactive Marketing has commented on the blog a number of times. I’m thankful for his contributions.

Marty Weintraub (@aimclear) at aimClear for reminding me that search is fun. I hope to deliver as much value when I next present.

The music is playing so let me quickly squeeze in others who have written about me on blogs, mentioned me on Twitter or included me in their daily news.

The number of folks who have been kind to me is overwhelming. I hope I continue to earn your comments and support. And I know I’ve left off a lot of people (particularly folks at FriendFeed). So thank you to those that I have unintentionally missed.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Quora’s Not A Competition (But I’m Winning)

January 03 2011 // Life + Social Media // 2 Comments

It’s a new year and like millions of others I’ve taken stock and made some resolutions.

The Dark Passenger

Perhaps it was in this state of mind that I caught myself turning Quora into a competition. It’s not (or shouldn’t be) and my initial motivations for answering were more altruistic than self-serving. But like some dark passenger (hat tip to Dexter), my competitive nature has emerged. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with being competitive.

I’ve been criticized for being too self-assured, cocky or condescending. “You seem to think your opinion is always right.” I’ve heard that a number of times. My response is another question. Why would I give an opinion that I didn’t believe in?

While true, I doubt that response helps my case. That’s not to say that I’m never wrong or that I don’t change my mind. I can be persuaded to see another point of view. I enjoy intelligent debate.

That brings me to Adam Lasnik, who started off the new year with two great blog posts. I wholeheartedly agree with his publish first, think later criticism. His musings on why and whether we should contribute to sites like Quora got me thinking.

Why are we contributing to Quora? It’s a funny business in a way. Quora’s business is our contributions. It’s the same knock I have against article directories. They make a business on your content, leasing back a small fraction of their trust and authority in the form of backlinks. It’s not a particularly healthy relationship.

Is Quora different?

I still see value in contributing to a community like Quora and Stack Overflow. I don’t think a policy of isolation is the right course of action. Sharing your expertise is good business. But it makes me think about the motivations for contributing. On the face, you want to share your knowledge with someone. They have a question. You have an answer.

But it’s not like someone asking you in person, or via email or any other number of mediums. They’re not just asking you. Instead of getting one answer, they’ll get a number of answers. That can often be good, but it’s then up to the person or community to determine which of those answers is … best. Dress it up as most useful or interesting – people assign judgment to your content.

Keeping Score

Should we be surprised when we get caught up in wanting to have that best answer? It reminded me of a lyric from Love’s Not A Competition (But I’m Winning) by the Kaiser Chiefs.

I’m not sure what’s truly altruistic anymore,
When every good thing that I do is listed and you’re keeping score,

Whoa.

So I’m guarding against this ego based, game mentality. I don’t want to want to be first to answer a question, nor do I want that dark passenger to push me to contribute more. I’d like to be far more collegiate in nature, because this isn’t a zero sum game.

Don’t Lose That Billy Idol Sneer

November 19 2010 // Life // 6 Comments

(From time to time I post things outside of search, marketing and social media. This is one of those posts. So if that’s not what you’re looking for, this is your time to bail.)

For my birthday I received a Kurt Kinetic Bike Trainer. I’ve been on it a lot lately, spinning away in my new garage while listening to a variety of music. Yesterday it was Billy Idol’s Vital Idol, a collection of extended versions and remixes of some of his more popular songs.

I’m not exactly the biggest Billy Idol fan, but he – and this album in particular – captured a moment in time for me. I recall driving down to the shore (Long Beach Island to be exact) during the height of summer. I left at 3 or 4 in the morning to beat the traffic that inevitably stacked up on the two lane highway. It was rather desolate, my headlights making a small hole in the darkness as I flew past the gnarled Pine Barrens on Route 72.

Vital Idol was in the cassette player. The music was loud, drowning out the roar of the wind through the open windows. The adolescent sex fueled lyrics, thumping beat, synthesized surround wash and Steven Stevens blazing guitar riffs seemed to make the car fly.

What I remember is being in that moment. Being completely content – not complacent – but simply enjoying the small horizon ahead of me, arriving in LBI and doing whatever felt right once I got there. The future was small, yet large. What happened next? I simply wanted to find out.

Return to splendor

I believe that state of mind is important to retain. Yet, as we get older we accumulate responsibilities (families, mortgages and retirement portfolios) and a history of experience (success and failure) that makes it difficult to do so.

Instead of being consumed with the future and protecting ourselves, what if we let things happen? What if we got that teenage swagger back? What if we didn’t dwell on that track-record of experience, the knowledge that failure could lurk around the corner?

Am I talking about risk taking? Sort of, but not really. Am I talking about ‘thinking out of the box’? It’s more about throwing the box out altogether. That box is how things are supposed to be, but why are they supposed to be that way? Who says!

Paul Buchheit has written eloquently about this on a few occasions, helping to remind me not to live based on fear or lack of imagination.

It’s a nice day to start again

Thankfully my past is littered with examples of starting again. When I knew advertising wasn’t going to be my career, I quit. No job to go to, just the knowledge that it was time to move on. I did data entry temp work for PBS in Alexandria, Virginia until I got a job in fundraising.

When that job disappeared, a retroactive job freeze of all things, I took it as a sign. I drove cross-country from D.C. to San Diego with girlfriend (now wife) and cat in tow. When I tired of fundraising and wanted to get into Internet marketing I moved to San Francisco.

The Web 1.0 bubble burst and I wound up back in fundraising at De La Salle High School. One of the Lasallian teachings is that you can only take the step right in front of you. You can only make the next best decision. Trying to forecast the future is fruitless because each decision leads to something completely different.

I’m not a religious person, but this resonated strongly with my own personal beliefs. So when I broke down sobbing at an assembly, mourning a miscarriage and depressed over my job, I knew it was time to really do something.

And I did. I got back into Internet marketing. In fact, I got into search marketing. And see where that led?

Sweat, Sweat, Sweat

Here I am today, a husband and father with a new mortgage. The reflex for economic stability is huge. Yet, I began consulting because I wanted to spend more time at home with my family. I had no idea if it would be successful. But it was and I couldn’t be happier.

So now I spin on my trainer. I sweat. I sing along with my 17-year old self. My heart is full and I look forward to what comes next.

I tell myself I’ll do the Mount Diablo Challenge again in 2011. I tell myself that I’ll continue to work from home and spend time with the family. I tell myself that I’ll figure out ways to leverage my growing consulting business. There will always be people who say you can’t, but if you’re one of those people, you’re doomed from the start.

I had chronic appendicitis as a child. I’ve been hit by a car while bicycling. I’ve been mugged. I was unemployed for nearly a year. I dealt with the heartbreak of a miscarriage. I went through a crisis of confidence. Do those experiences make me stronger? I don’t know. But I know I have my sneer back.

It’s a sneer that says I’m going to enjoy the life I create … and you can’t stop me.

Don't Lose That Billy Idol Sneer

Don’t lose that Billy Idol sneer