Are Free Tools Really Free?

I just read a great blog post on HubSpot about using Trello’s free tools to manage your relationships with contacts. While I don’t think that this is a substitute for a full-featured CRM like Salesforce, it’s a great example of how free tools can be hot-rodded to do the same things as “big business” users are doing with their expensive systems.

While I’m a big fan of free tools, there are some cautions to consider before using one.

Sometimes the free or cheap tools actually perform better than their costly counterparts – but aren’t scalable, or lack key functionality. Website builders like Squarespace and Wix make absolutely fantastic websites, but if you decide to abandon that platform (or the platform fails, as some do) you are stuck with some really hard-to-work-with HTML code. Excel creates great charts, but you can’t make them into EPS’s, and if you want to make beautiful graphs in a professional tool like Illustrator you need to jump through hoops.

These kinds of drawbacks are extremely frustrating to a freelancer who might use a more standard, professional set of tools, because it’s hard to explain the risks to someone who just wants a “really cool website, fast.”

There’s also a danger in using too many free tools. If you own your own small business, you’ll be tempted to adopt a free tool ‘because it’s there.’ But then, you either need to become an expert in using the tool yourself, or you need to find an expert in using it. Suddenly, you’re spending time on the tool or on a problem caused by having adopted the tool, instead of on running your business.

One freelancer reported that to succeed with one client, she needed to be an expert in MailChimp, Wix, and WordPress, Unbounce, and integrations between Unbounce, eBay and Amazon. Doubtless a large agency could have done this, but my client was exactly the type of client that these ‘free tools’ appeal to – a small client with a low budget, so by definition they weren’t hiring a large agency. She said, “I used to be concerned about scope creep – now I’m concerned about tool creep.”

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you hop on board with a new free tool:

  • What’s my plan for integrating this tool with the others I already use?
  • If it’s a design tool, how will I keep my branding on-point if my current designer can’t or won’t use it?
  • How much time is it going to take me to learn to use the tool?
  • Is it really going to solve my business problem or am I adopting it for the gee-whiz factor?
  • What is the risk of the tool “going away” in a few years or months, and if it does, how will that affect my business?
  • What happens when I exceed the terms of “free” – can I afford to pay for the tool?

A few of my favorite free tools are Box (I use it to store professional certificates, study materials, downloaded eBooks, etc.), Evernote (Recipes!) and Brainscape (I’ve been using its free flashcards to learn Finnish). What are yours, and what are the risks you think about when committing to a free tool? Please add your thoughts in the comments.

 

Thoughts on Plagiarism

When I was in college, the administration took plagiarism extremely seriously. Any student who was proved to have copied another’s work was severely penalized. I don’t remember for sure, but I think the penalty was being “expunged” – worse than “expelled,” being “expunged” meant that the offender’s admission was revoked and all records of his having attended the school were destroyed. Being “expunged” sounded to me like being pulled out of a drain with a toilet plunger – you were the crappiest crap, so crappy that the college did not want you mixed in with their sewage.

In other words, plagiarism was such a gaspingly horrible sin that during  four years of college I never heard of a single person daring to plagiarize an academic paper.

There was one incident, relating to our student newspaper, that has stayed burned into my mind.

A student copied a piece word for word from the current edition of a popular weekly magazine  . . . and our student newspaper published the review. The offense was only talked about in hushed tones because it was considered so grave and was so embarrassing – primarily for the nature of the offense, but, as a footnote, how stupid it had been to copy something that could be so easily discovered. Rumor had it that only a personal connection between one of our paper’s editors and the publisher of the magazine had saved the student newspaper from being sued. The editor who had allowed the piece to be published walked around for weeks in a depressed fog and no one dared mention the student’s name, the incident, or the word “plagiarism” in his hearing.

As commentators here in the United States struggle either to be the cleverest in excoriating the Trump campaign for its error, or, on the other hand, to excuse or minimize the nature of the offense, we would do well to consider the impact of the public dialog on our younger generation.

Do we want students of today and tomorrow to feel it’s okay to plagiarize? Or do we want to retain the sense of shame and horror that my generation had, before a scandal was something that was erased in the next news cycle?

Argh! Your Email Went Out With A Mistake

One of my favorite customers always finds mistakes in my marketing email, so I have an extensive list of the mistakes you can make. Wrong date, missing link, old subject line . . .  My favorite one? I misspelled my own last name in the “Reply-To” field. I picture this guy (he’s in a different time zone) spending his evenings combing through my emails, clicking every link, and topping off his glass of red wine with a smirk when he finds an error.

I’m sure this has never happened to you, but if it has, read on.

Anecdotal evidence (probably along with some studies) shows that your “Oops” email may actually get more attention than the original email. Why is this? As any good salesperson knows, people like to feel “better than” you. This is why presidential candidates try not to act like smarty-pants (smarty-pantses?) and why a popular selling system coaches its trainees to borrow a pen from their prospects.

Depending on your company culture, you may be able to inject some fun into the subject line. My favorite of all time came today: “Argh! GRB Hubba Hubba Gala – Address included” . . . what made it so funny is that “GRB” (the company’s acronym) actually sounds like an extension of “Argh!” and then “Hubba Hubba” . . . OMG. I bet the open rates went through the roof.

Don’t go doing this on purpose, but if you do make a mistake, send out an “Oops” email and move on. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Flag

His shirt was white and so crisp-looking I imagined I could hear the hiss of the steam iron; his suit, equally perfect, a somber charcoal color. He stood tall on an expanse of dewy grass, in an early spring chill, cranking three flags down to half mast – to honor the victims of the attacks in Brussels.

Everything about this man spoke of respect – from the way he dressed to greet his customers and colleagues to his assumption of the morning’s first duty – something he could easily have delegated to one of his staffers. His appearance and actions made an indelible impression upon me. And this impression associated itself in my mind with his company’s brand – Northern Bank.

As the company’s three flags flew at half mast, and I continued my walk to work, I saw another company across the street that hadn’t bothered to lower its flag even as the death toll climbs past thirty.

Everything your employees do both inside and outside your company, reflects on your company’s brand. Curious, I Googled Northern Bank and one of the first articles I saw mentioned it had been rated one of the Boston Globe Top Workplaces. This didn’t surprise me at all – it takes a good company culture to reinforce a company’s brand.

What kind of flag does your company fly?

We Are Teabags

This was the subject line of an email I recently wrote to a colleague. The email was about why it is a good idea for people from completely different departments in a business to exchange ideas and share information – because, like tea, their ideas about best practices can diffuse throughout the company.

But that is not the point of this post.

The point is, it started an email chain. The subject line “Re: We are teabags” has hit my in-box a few times today, and every time, I’ve opened that email first because the subject line is so weird that it jumps out at me.

I’m not recommending you write subject lines that are completely different from the subject matter. This is disingenuous, and while it may get higher open rates, it will also annoy the recipients.

My point is that a little creativity in subject line crafting goes a long way towards attracting extra attention in your recipients’ in-box.

This works whether you’re crafting a marketing email that will go out to a large audience, or whether you’re simply asking a colleague for a meeting.

What are your favorite subject lines? What’s your pet peeve with subject lines?

 

“She’s So Immature”…No Duh

“She’s so immature.” This is a favorite insult among younger people (it’s usually said with a somewhat immature-sounding snarl).

Certainly there are many occasions that call for this comment… Names changed to protect the young.

  • Tom, age 22, decides to take up pipe smoking because it seems like a good affectation.
  • Jean, 23, spends most of her day at the office with her phone on her lap so she can send and receive texts from her friends, who are doing the same thing at their own offices.
  • Caleb, 25, spends the first part of the day wandering around the workplace asking everyone how their weekend was. He sits down at his desk in earnest at 10:00 with his breakfast next to his mouse.

As much as many of us crave youth, we despise immaturity, usually denying our own immaturity in the process.

“When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, to think as a child, to reason as a child; but now that I have become a man, I have done away with the traits of a child.” (1 Corinthians 13:11). The Biblical Paul reminds us that life has a natural cycle.

In other words, young people are supposed to be immature. The Bible recommends that young people listen to their elders, but there are also many admonitions to elders not to exceed their authority.

How does this play out in the workplace? People just starting out their careers come to offices desperately needing guidance on everything from how (and when) to answer an email, to the location of the kitchen (and how much time they should spend in the kitchen).

Sometimes there are workplace rules, like an employee manual which struggles to keep up with trends and tools (has excessive Facebook messaging been forbidden in your workplace yet?)

Often, however, younger workers are left to their own devices as older workers, toiling behind closed doors, struggle to keep their own toehold. Or an insecure manager might micro-manage an employee’s work, leaving him to think of his boss as the enemy.

Formal mentorship programs try to bridge the gap. These may be doomed to fail if:

  • a company does not already have a culture where experience is admired
  • the experienced people are overworked and overtaxed, so they don’t feel they have time to offer their skills
  • the younger people are also overworked, so they don’t feel they have the time to participate
  • there is an absence of trust, so that people feel the difficulties they share with their mentors may later be used against them
  • there simply are not enough older people in the workplace – they got trucked out to make room for the pool table

Does your corporate culture encourage a continuing, respectful dialog between older and younger workers? If not, what steps do you think should be taken to promote this? Please share your ideas in the comments here!