Do We Have to Do It That Way?

We went on a road trip this week up into New England, just to get away from work for a few days. On the road, we stayed in a few different hotels.

At pretty much every hotel room I’ve stayed in over the past decade, there’s been a tiny coffee machine in the room — something like this:

hotel coffee machine

To me, they’re like the alarm clocks in hotel rooms: Something that’s purely decorative. In all the nights I’ve stayed in hotels, I don’t think I’ve ever used one of these machines.

But one night on our trip, in Burlington, Vermont, the front desk explained that they’d recently renovated the rooms, and made a small change. Instead of a coffee machine in each room, they’d built a coffee bar on each floor, available to all guests. We’d find it at the end of the hall.

When we went upstairs, we noticed it right away: They’d built out a full bar area with coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, as well as sparkling and still water on tap. And in the room, where there’d usually be a space for a coffee machine, the hotel had been able to carve out a bigger space for a desk.

It was a small thing, but it got me thinking: What else are we doing simply because we’ve always done it a certain way? Sure, a coffee bar instead of a machine in every room is a small tweak for a hotel. But to me, it suggested that this hotel had asked some interesting questions when redesigning their rooms. They’d clearly asked guests what they wanted, and likely heard that guests wanted a better selection of coffee and water on demand. (Why is it that at most hotels, to fill up a water bottle, you have to go to the hotel gym?) They’d almost certainly noticed how many of those coffee pods were going unused by visitors. (Do those get thrown away? Do they just sit there, waiting for another guest?) And they’d considered how costly it is to maintain hundreds of small coffee machines instead of just a single machine on every floor. (Where do you even get the in-rooms machines repaired?)

The result was a simple but really smart innovation. And I’m betting that if you took a step back and looked at your work, you might find a few opportunities for improvement, too, simply by asking two questions:

Why do we do it this way?

And: Do we have to?

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I took that photo of a tiny coffee machine at a different hotel. In retrospect, I probably should’ve taken a photo of the coffee bar, too!

Ask Simpler Questions.

people raising their hands

When I sit down with a potential client, the first thing I do is start asking a few questions.

Often, I’ll be excited to interject a few suggestions or ideas. (“Oh, I love that you’ve tried that! You know, I’ve got a client who tried something like that last year…”) I know that if I start talking, I might ramble on for a while. So I’m always working to quiet that urge. When I give the client space to open up, I typically get the best answers from them.

Whenever possible, I try to keep my questions as simple as possible. I start with the big questions:

∙ Where do you see opportunities to improve?

∙ What do you hope to achieve with this project?

∙ What does success look like for you?

And then I start to drill down further. A question about success, for instance, might lead to other specific questions:

∙ What metrics matter to you?

∙ Where are you tracking those metrics?

∙ How much do those metrics influence the choices your team makes?

If I can ask a question in a single sentence, I do. Be direct, and give them room to reply. After that, it’s up to you to listen — and when they’re ready, ask another.

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That photo of people raising their hands comes via photographer Edwin Andrade and Unsplash.

Brand = Trust + Time.

clocks

How do you build a great brand? It’s simple, at least in theory: By establishing trust over time.

Trust is about relationships. It’s about setting expectations for your reader, your user, or your customer, and then exceeding them. It’s about being there when they need help. It’s about doing good work that serves them well. It’s about asking questions, and listening to their answers. It’s about doing the right thing for them, and being transparent about your choices. It’s about offering them good value for their money. Trust is hard to win and easy to lose, so you have to treat your audience with respect, and hope they keep placing their trust in you.

Some might disagree, but trust can’t really be bought. It’s something that must be earned, through thousands of tiny actions, over the course of months and years. There is no shortcut to establishing trust. You can hire a spokesperson to recommend your product, ask your clients to refer their friends, or spend big on marketing. But those merely accelerate the process — they put you in position to build relationships faster. You still need to do the hard work of establishing trust with that audience, and that’s only going to be done over time.

Trust and time, trust and time. To build a brand, it’s the only way forward.

———

Those clocks come via Heather Zabriskie for Unsplash.

Do The Stuff That Doesn’t Scale.

So here’s a story: It’s September 2019, and I’m flying to New Orleans for the annual Online News Association conference. It’s my first one representing my own business. I’m not Dan from BuzzFeed or Dan from The New Yorker anymore.

I’m Dan from Inbox Collective.

I want to do something to make as many connections as I can while I’m there. All year, I’ve been doing stuff that doesn’t scale — guest posting on other blogs, doing podcast interviews, sharing my content 1-to-1 with friends in the industry. My newsletter’s growing, but I know there’s more room for growth.

So I announce that Not a Newsletter is throwing a happy hour. (Naturally, I call it Not a Happy Hour.) I invite anyone to come out — drinks are on me. I hand my credit card to the bartender and hope the bill won’t be too extravagant.

50 people showed up that day. A bunch of readers brought friends, which meant that I got a few newsletter subscribers out of it — but I also landed three new clients from that night, and got asked to give a keynote talk at a conference. (The total bar bill: About $400.)

When you’re growing an audience and building a brand, do things that don’t scale. That’s where your initial growth is going to come from.

And remember to tip your bartenders well in the process, too.

Don’t Worry About That First Step. It’s Often a Doozy.

When you take the first step on any big project, you might step in it. You might start off on the wrong path, or make the wrong hire, or ask the wrong questions.

It happens. It happens to all of us.

One misstep doesn’t doom a project to failure. It might shake your confidence, but keep moving. Keep asking questions, keep trying to find your way back. Don’t let a bad first step send you permanently off course.

You’re Building a Rubber Band Ball.

my rubber band ball

I still enjoy reading The New York Times in print, so five days a week, a copy of the paper shows up on my doorstep, wrapped in a rubber band. A few years ago, I wasn’t sure what to do with all those rubber bands, so I decided to try to build a rubber band ball.

If you’ve never built a rubber band ball, the hardest part is building the core. You take a rubber band and slowly tie it into a few knots. Then you do the same thing with another rubber band, and then another. Eventually, you’ve got a few knots, and you push them all together into what will become the nucleus of the ball, and then wrap a few rubber bands around them to tie them tight. The core isn’t very big, so you have to wrap the rubber bands around four or five times to get them to hold firm.

At the start, the rubber band ball doesn’t look like much. In fact, it looks pretty odd. If you tried to tell someone that the thing you were building was a rubber band ball, they’d probably look at you funny. What you’ve created is a misshapen, half-inch-wide tangle of rubber bands, with rubbery ends sticking out at various parts.

But then you start adding to it. Every day, you wrap another rubber band around it. After a week or two, you’ve still got a weird looking ball. But over time, day by day, it grows a little. A month or two later, you’ve got something that roughly looks like a marble. Five or six months later, it looks like a gum ball, maybe an inch or two wide.

You keep adding to the ball, every day. The individual bands don’t seem to make much of a difference. But every few months, you look at it carefully and realize: This thing’s really growing. It’s not a single band that makes a difference, but hundreds of them, built atop one another, that have turned that tiny core into something real.

Trying to build an audience isn’t all that different. At the start, you’ve got some family and friends paying attention to your work. But you keep putting in the hours, every day, every week, and over time, things start to grow. You don’t always notice the growth — a few new subscribers there, a new fan there. The daily growth isn’t enough to turn heads. But you notice it when you look back every quarter, every year. The audience is a little bigger, a little more loyal than it was before.

You keep putting in the work. It’s rarely a case where one single step changes the trajectory of your work. It’s usually a series of small efforts, done over and over again, that build into something big.

An audience isn’t built from a single viral piece of work. Audiences are built by building trust with your fans, by doing great work that resonates over and over again. Building an audience is an act of patience, of repetition, of care.

In a way, you’re building a rubber band ball. Add to it every day, and give it time. It’ll grow.

———

That’s my rubber band ball, four years on and still growing.

Why I Work So Well on Planes.

me, flying back to New York on March 12, 2020 — my last work trip

I miss flying.

I miss those hour-long flights to Boston to Pittsburgh — just enough time to pull out the laptop and work on a deck or a memo for 45 minutes. I miss those longer flights out west — 90 minutes of work, an hour of reading, and then a movie I’d never seen before. I miss that time in the airport lounge, that feeling when I know I’ve only got 20 minutes to reply to as many emails as I can before the flight boards.

I suppose what I really miss, as I think back on it, is that flying puts me in a place of focused work. At home, I can get easily distracted, but when I fly, I usually don’t buy the WiFi on the plane. That means that when I’m sending those emails before I take off, I’ve got a timer in my head — 20 minutes, 15 minutes, 10 minutes before I disconnect. It means that when I’m on the flight, I can only do the projects I’ve preloaded onto my laptop before I took off. It means that I can do the work I have to do — and then say, alright, it’s time for a break.

The structure of flying seems to put me in the right mood to work. I tend to do really good, focused work on flights. I think part of it is the timing of the flight, and part of it is the feeling that it’s OK to take a break and spend 90 minutes watching a movie — a mid-day movie on a Monday would feel like a waste of time on a normal day, but on a flight, it feels pretty normal. One more thing: On flights, I’m not bouncing from call to call. That helps with focus, too.

I know I won’t be traveling again for a little while longer, and this isn’t a post where I’m going to make suggestions as to how to recreate the feeling of travel from home. It’s just this moment where I’m thinking about the way my work has changed in the last year, and the way it might change again a few months down the road.

Anyway, I miss flying.

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That photo’s aboard a flight home from South Carolina to New York on March 12, 2020 — my very last work trip of the year.

You Have to Do the Work First.

it's a long way to the top

There’s a project I’m working on right now, and I’m pretty excited about it. Sometimes, I’ll spend a few minutes thinking about the positive outcomes: What might come of the work, how others might want to get involved with it, too. I’ll daydream a little about where it might lead a few months or a few years down the road, thinking of what happens if this and that and the other thing all go right. If I really get lost in my own head, I’ll start wondering about how I’d publicize the project — the interviews I might do, the outlets that might want to cover the work.

And then I remember that every hour I waste thinking about the work instead of doing it is an hour I can’t get back. None of this can happen until I start doing the work first, and who knows where the work will actually lead me.

So: I forget about the next steps and the what ifs, and I get back to work.

———

That photo by Victor Lozano for Unsplash is a reminder: There’s a long way to go to the top.

Remembering Tiffany Shackelford.

In 2011, I got the chance to participate in a small startup competition in D.C. to talk about Stry.us. The next day, I got an email from a woman named Tiffany Shackelford, then the Executive Director of Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. She wanted to know if I’d be interested in speaking at the annual AAN conference.

I hadn’t met Tiffany at the event, but she saw something the night before that piqued her interest.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of her offer. I was 24, and I’d never spoken at a journalism conference before. Still, Tiffany thought there might be a place for me on the AAN stage.

I couldn’t make the event that year, but Tiffany promised she’d be in touch again. Sure enough, the next year, I got another note from Tiffany: Would I be interested in pitching a talk for that year’s event?

That’s how in June 2012, at the AAN conference in Detroit, I led a talk about responsive design for newsrooms.

Since, I’ve been lucky to speak at events all over the world. But Tiffany was the very first to give me a shot, and for that, I’ve always been grateful.

Tiffany died this week — she’s one of the more than 300,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19. Reading remembrances from other journalists about her, it became clear: What Tiffany did for me, she also did for countless other journalists. There are a lot of us in the journalism world who are better off because Tiffany was in it.

Thanks for everything you’ve done, Tiffany. I’ll do my best to use my platform to give others that first shot, just like the chance you gave me.

A Wish for the Year Ahead.

As we wrap up 2020, and look towards the new year, I wanted to say a few words:

So many of us are hoping that when the calendar flips to January, we’ll slowly begin to move towards a more normal world. As I look through my Instagram feed, nearly every day, I see another photo of a friend receiving their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. That alone is reason for optimism.

But no matter what 2021 brings, I wish for you to think back upon this year as a reminder: of how connected we can be, when we choose to be; of how kind we can be, when we choose to be; of how giving we can be, when we choose to be; of how engaged we can be, when we choose to be.

2021 will be an opportunity, too, to choose to work for a better world, in whatever ways you can. There is no returning to the lives we had before this virus, but together, we can build a world that is different, exciting, and far more just. I wish for you the courage to choose that future.

In this new year, I wish you and your loved ones good health, and I wish you the optimism to believe that brighter days lie still ahead.

Be safe, be well, and happy new year.

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That photo comes via Nora Schlesinger and Unsplash.