Archives for the month of: August, 2009
screwdriver collection by Flickr user Evil Erin

"screwdriver collection" by Flickr user Evil Erin

As most of my readers know, my wife Andrea Jarrell and I are both “solopreneurs” — she has been at it a lot longer than me, but we are both quite accustomed to this way of working. Andrea is preparing for a panel where she will be talking about the trials, tribulations, and rewards of starting one’s own enterprise, and she asked me if I would be interested in pulling together a list of resources for folks who are starting their own effort.

As I thought about it, the exercise became quite fun — and I hope useful. Since 2003 I’ve been working in a home office and all this time I have been an early adopter of tools and techniques. I’ve got some setups that really work well for me. Maybe they will be useful for you too.

I’ve divided the list up into Infrastructure (things you need to physically or administratively set up), Tools (items you need to do your work, within the infrastructure), and Software and Services.

Infrastructure: Your entrepreneurial operating system

  • Internet Provider — This is perhaps the single most important piece of “infrastructure” you can set up. Make sure you have the fastest and most reliable Internet connection you can afford. If you have a choice between fast and reliable, go with the latter. We use a Verizon DSL line that is rock solid. I have experiment with Comcast, which in theory would have given me faster speeds, but it was abysmally erratic. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow.
  • Network — You will need a wireless router in your home. There is no need to use a “wired” system, wireless is fast enough and secure enough. Netgear is good. Make sure you change the password on the router so it is not “admin” or “password” which is what the default often is. And make sure you give it a unique name, too.
  • Wireless Phones — Again, my chief concern here is reliability. The network is more important than which phone you use. For all-across-the-nation coverage, Verizon is superior to all others. If you don’t travel a lot, and another carrier is better for you in your area, go with it. For instance, westerners may want to go with Sprint. Avoid T-Mobile.
  • Phones — Do not waste money or time installing a “new phone line” wires. Use a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phone number like those available from Vonage (which I have used since they began, and very happily) or from your current phone provider. The advantage of having a VOIP line is that you have far more control over it. Vonage has a service where it will transcribe your voicemails and email them to you, and it is usually very accurate.
  • Web Site — Yes you need a web site. No it does not have to be fancy if that is not required for your business. But something is necessary. You are best served paying the money and buying a domain name (yourname.com) and setting up whatever you want there. I use GoDaddy, which is very easy to set up and has lots of free add-ons. For your web site, you can just create a blog with some key entries. WordPress and Blogger will let you do this, for free. Create a main entry, an “about” entry, a “products” or “services” entry, and a “contact” entry.
  • E-mail — This is probably the most used piece of infrastructure you will have. If you get a domain name, it will probably some with a number of email addresses. Go ahead and set one up. Now you have some choices. You can just go ahead and use Outlook or another email program to check your email, or you can do what I do which is use the far superior interface of Gmail for your email. (Gmail is Google’s mail product). You will need to create an account in Gmail, and then you can have your Gmail account check the “yourname.com” account on a regular basis. (Bonus for the tech-savvy: use Google Apps to do this for better branding.)

Tools: The things you use to get work done

  • Fax — As with phones, there is no need to set up a special fax landline. Use eFax, which will give you a fax number you can give out for a nominal monthly fee. When people fax to the number, you get a pdf emailed to you. Cool!!
  • Cell Phone — Of course you have one. It might be useful, since you’re solo and may need to be able to get more done remotely and without backup, for you to have a smartphone. That’s like the iPhone, the Blackberry, the Palm Pre, or the like. It is very frequent that I need web access while I am on the move. I could not work without a smartphone.
  • Laptop — I am an outlier on this. A lot of my friends love their MacBooks. I think it’s crazy to get a laptop so large. I am very happy with the Lenovo 3000 V200 series, which is a nice combination of size, power, and price. Make sure whatever
  • MiFi — This is a relatively new product that is great. It allows you to connect to the Internet using wifi, even where there isn’t any. You set it up through your cell service provider (we use Verizon’s and love it).
  • Backup — Make sure, make sure, make sure you have a backup system for your laptop. We use a “network connected storage” device by Iomega. It is basically a 1TB disk drive attached to our router. (A terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes.) The key is to remember to backup regularly. The single best solution I have yet found for this is to use a program called ViceVersa Pro. It runs in the background and continually checks my “My Documents” folder. If it changes, it updates the Iomega disk. This piece of software is a little tricky to set up but it is so worth the time that you are a fool if you do not do it. This piece of software is the chief reason I do not use a Mac — it only exists in Windows.

Software and Services: What you work on, and with

  • Accounting — If you are in business, you need to manage your money. That means you probably need Quickbooks. Even if you have an accountant, she or he will probably still tell you to get Quickbooks. So get it. There is a definite learning curve so set aside a weekend to figure it out. You do not have to go hog wild — just set up the bare minimum you need. But do it. It’s like Quicken . . . only better.
  • Office Programs — Yes, you can get free office software, all of which is highly compatible with Microsoft Office. If you do not share documents too frequently with colleagues, this can work very well. The product is Open Office. But most people get Microsoft Office. You probably should, too.
  • Calendar — If you get Microsoft Office, you will have a calendar and email program (Outlook). This is fine. But I travel a lot and I sometimes travel without my computer. This is the main reason I have migrated just about everything I can over to Google tools: Gmail, calendar, tasks, contacts. They are free. If you use Google Apps (see above, and it’s not free) it is more secure.
  • Collaboration — To collaborate with clients and colleagues, I routinely use Google’s collaboration tools — especially Google Docs. These are essentially documents you create online. You can give other people access to them on a password basis, and they can make changes to the document too. A record is kept of all changes so you can roll back mistakes. It is a great way to work on any number of things.
  • Notes — As a solopreneur, you will spend a lot of time working on your computer. A note taking program is very useful. I use Evernote, which automatically syncs up with the web, so I can actually access my notes from anywhere.
  • Virtual Assistant — A lot of people are nervous about leaving an employer, in part because they have gotten used to having backup for administrative tasks. There are a number of people who are jumping in to fill this need.
  • Twitter and Facebook — This may seem funny to have as a “business tool,” but I firmly believe Facebook and Twitter belong here. I am not thinking of them as marketing tools — though they can be, and reams have been written about how best to do and not do that. But I am thinking of them as supports for your solopreneur efforts. If you cultivate decent networks on these services, you will have a group of people you can turn to for help, advice, and troubleshooting on a moment’s notice. For instance, need a virtual assistant? Ask your Twitter network whom they recommend!

There, I hope that’s helpful. Once I hit “publish” I am sure I will think of some more ideas. Maybe I will do an “intermediate” post sometime in the future!

Bridget Donnell Newton, 51, a city resident since 1981, has become an official candidate for the Rockville City Council. “We received a call Friday afternoon from the City Clerk and my signatures have been validated. I look forward to campaigning and hopefully serving the citizens of Rockville come November 3rd.”

Newton has long been active as a community leader, serving on the West End Traffic and Transportation Commission and as Chair of the Compensation Commission and the Town Center Action Team.. She was appointed to the County Committee tasked with choosing the location for the new Rockville Library and was instrumental in keeping the library in the town center. She is a former President of the West End Citizen’s Association and Beall Elementary PTA .

Known for her willingness to listen and her ability to bring people together to reach a consensus decision, Newton is passionate about allowing the process of good government to work.. “Politics is the art of the possible”, says Newton, “and I firmly believe that when civil people have an open and frank discussion, the final result will be a combination of the best ideas that are on the table.”.

As for the role she sees herself playing if elected, Newton says :“Rockville has always been known for our wonderful neighborhoods, public services and amenities. I see the role of the council as setting policies that reinforce and support these assets. In this economic climate, we must be vigilant about protecting our resources and that includes our citizens. I look forward to continuing my efforts in making Rockville the best it can be – for all her residents.”

The campaign will hold their Kickoff at 5:00pm on Friday September 4th in the Town Square.

Yesterday I had the good fortune to be part of a very interesting conversation at United Way headquarters. This venerable organization is trying to help its 1,300 local chapters, each with a high degree of autonomy, make the shift from an old model of working (fundraising oriented with direct relationships with company heads) to a new model of working (impact-oriented with direct relationships with individual donors).

To its great credit, the United Way reached out to a group of people who work in various areas of social change, civic engagement, and organizational effectiveness. I was very grateful to be invited to be part of this group, which included a number of friends and colleagues, and a few people I worship from afar. I was part of a group that included Allison Fine, Chris Gates, Thomas Kriese, Lisbeth Schorr, Michael Smith, Tom Watson, and others.

IMG_2141-1 by Flickr user Troubadour

"IMG_2141-1" by Flickr user Troubadour

Aside from the substance of the meeting, something came up that was very interesting to me.

As some of my readers know, I have been working with John Creighton on the idea of a new, citizen-centric institution. There are fundamental differences in how institutions need to act in the new public landscape. John and I have recorded two videos (“Public Leadership Beyond Institutions” and “New Challenges When Public Leaders Engage The Public“) on this and have more in the works, as well as a study and report we hope to complete in the near future.

Old Guard, New Guard

Yesterday’s meeting seemed to throw the struggle between “old” and “new” public leadership into sharp focus. There was a very definite tension throughout the conversation. Some people, who had labored for many, many years for social change, felt very strongly that they know what ought to be done and what it takes to create effectiveness. On the other hand, there was also a handful of participants who just as strongly felt that too many of the “things we know” are no longer valid and that new ways of operating — with different assumptions about how hierarchies work — are necessary. At times these disagreements were rather heated. We didn’t come to blows, but still.

Here’s a table I drew for myself during the meeting that illustrates some of the differences:

Old Guard talked about New Guard talked about
“social change” “community impact”
“movements” “actions”
“issues” “conditions”
“alignment” “local ideas”
“what’s proven” “what’s possible”

What became very evident to me is how allergic the one worldview is to the other. In the meeting I found myself marveling at how the “old guard” bristled at the new ideas. But on reflection, I am equally interested in how cranky the new guard was too.

We are at a shifting point and there really are two ways of looking at institutional hierarchies. An equilibrium, at least for the time being, has to be established, and it will be very hard to do.

But it is something institutions will need to grapple with, because such organizations include both kinds of people among their decision-making structures.

I want to give two shouts out to a couple of colleagues in particular: I am grateful to Mike Wood at the United Way for inviting me, and I am astounded at the skill Dave Moore (of Collaborative Communications) showed in facilitating a challenging conversation.

Me in last year's Marine Corps Marathon

Me in last year's Marine Corps Marathon

As you may know, the Marine Corps Marathon is coming up in October — October 25, to be exact. I plan to run in it again this year. I am excited! Last year I came very close to my goal (I finished at 4:13:58). This year I hope at least to beat last year’s time, with a stretch goal of cracking four hours.

As I did last year, I am once again running with the Organization for Autism Research charity team.

My friend, Annie Corr, has autism. Her parents, Nancy and Ed, have honored me by asking me to do very small things to support her once in a while. Little things like a drive to the caregiver’s, or staying over a few hours into the night when they need to be away. I have come to know Annie and she always makes me smile.

Donating to the Organization for Autism Research will help that organization make practical research available to the field, to improve the lives of all people with autism, like Annie.

If you are willing and interested, you can donate here at this page.

There is no lower limit. Last year friends and family helped me raise $1,770. Let’s beat that!!

I do understand that there are many causes. My cause may not be your cause. I understand that! So, please, do not feel any pressure with this. Simply give if you feel so moved.

If you are the head of an organization and interested in gift matching in return for sponsorship (you know, like if I wore a logo t-shirt during the race or something like that), please get in touch with me.

Yesterday an article titled “How Facebook Ruins Friendships” predictably made the rounds of social media as people debated its pros and cons. The article’s argument hinges on three points: 1) that people say inappropriate things on social sites; 2) that much of it is trivia; and 3) this is annoying because no one wants to read all that.

Gartner Hype Cycle

Gartner Hype Cycle

This is another example of an overall social media backlash that is building steam. This is natural, as many of the shiny new social tools move along the Hype Cycle (pictured at right). After the initial glow, there’s a deep crash as disillusionment sets in, and finally technologies even out.

As people slide down into the Trough of Disillusionment, it’s useful to point out where criticism has merit and where it’s just froth. Much criticism at the moment is the latter.

In another article, I’ve pointed out how social media is very similar to the telephone when it was spreading through society. Similar criticisms abounded then — especially that inappropriate things were being shared, that it was all trivia, and who wants to hear that stuff anyway?

The thing that today’s criticisms do not appear to understand is that there is nothing inherently intrusive about social media. It’s opt-in. That is why it is a superior carrier of ephemera and trivia, and can foster a better connection between people than many other forms of at-a-distance communication. People can be free to share a wider variety of things (yes, including what they may be eating) and others have the option of tuning in or not.

Compare that to cute cat emails forwarded by Cousin Edna — which cannot be avoided in the same way. To Edna, she’s doing you a favor by sending you some positivity. To you (if you don’t like it), she’s cluttering your inbox. But if Edna were instead using social media (like Twitter or Facebook) you would not need to get cranky about the cat-mail. Just “hide” her feed in Facebook, or “unfollow” her on Twitter.

(I apologize to my friends named Edna for grabbing the name as an example. Uncle Horace is just as susceptible to such behavior.)

If you are like me, you have probably heard a number of friends complain bitterly about Twitter (and, to a lesser extent, Facebook status updates) by saying something like: “Why do you think I care what you had for lunch?” It’s a fair enough question if you discount the opt-in nature of most social media. That is, if your analogy is “Why would I want an email about what you had for lunch?”

But that’s a false analogy — I’m not emailing you, and if I were, I would definitely not email you my lunch menu. It would be rude. But, there may be some people who might find it interesting that I am eating at a particular restaurant, or eating a particular dish, or just that I’m having lunch. The transaction cost of letting them know is near zero, and the burden on others’ attention is near zero too.

The analogy, then, is not to email or the telephone — but to a public social event. In that situation, ephemera and trivia are welcome and tolerated. Some people will only want to talk business, and others will only want to talk cute cats. People at the event can gravitate to the people who interest them and contribute in ways that work for them, and everyone can get along.

So I tend to discount angry diatribes against Facebook and Twitter as just crankiness. Sure, there are good guidelines for effective use, but hard and fast rules make little sense and one person’s best practices are another person’s worst practices. So there’s room for all.

In case you wondered, I just had a container of cottage cheese for lunch.

Club Choices by Flickr user Daquella manera

"Club Choices" by Flickr user Daquella manera

Humans are social beasts. They are driven to form groups. Every group has its own set of rules — its etiquette.

Social media is no exception. A stable set of norms is emerging that governs online behavior. Some of it is adopted from the etiquette of early online environments — like DON’T USE ALL CAPS is a long-standing norm from email.

Other norms are new and may or may not be stable. I wanted to try to write a few of the emerging norms down, especially ones that govern how people with lots of connections behave toward those with fewer connections.

Think of it as a “how to be nice” list. You’ll notice that a lot of it is just common sense from the “real” world transferred into the social media space.

  • Don’t just use your Facebook and Twitter accounts to promote your own stuff. Promote others’ work!
  • Share credit generously. If you find a link through someone else and share it, try to give credit to as many people in the chain. If you have to cut off someone in the chain (for space reasons, for example), make sure you keep the original.
  • If someone shares a post by you (by “retweeting” a link, sharing a FaceBook link, or sharing one of your original blog posts) it’s nice to thank them publicly. So, for instance, in Twitter if I share a link and then you say “RT @bradrourke Fighting panda video http://is.gd/1nbqJ” the correct response from ME is “@you Thanks for the RT!”. That way others know that I noticed your original sharing of my link.
  • Make sure it’s clear who’s saying what. If you comment on a link, make sure it doesn’t look like part of the original. Like this: “(Me: blah blah blah.)”
  • In FaceBook, if you are sharing something that another FaceBook friend originally brought to your attention, mention that person. It’s nice!
  • In your blog, if you use a photo from the Web, make sure you have permission to do so! If it’s a Creative Commons photo (like the one on this post) that requires attribution, make sure you give it fully and include a link to the original.
  • If you are commenting in a blog, avoid criticizing people by name so the thread does not devolve into a flame war. When people feel attacked they fight back.
  • Don’t be afraid to use goofy punctuation, as it softens the harshness of typed communication and makes you seem more human.

I am sure there are more good tips, these are just a few. Add to them in the comments!