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.


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?


The All-Caps Crowd

Don’t send me connection requests on LinkedIn if we haven’t worked together. It’s not what LinkedIn is for. Oh and I would also super appreciate it if folks quit sending me “introductory sales emails” via LinkedIn messages.

It’s like when the “all-capsers” hit Craigslist . . . You are ruining the “neighborhood.”

If I wanted that stuff I’d still be checking my Myspace page.

K thanks.

Sometimes Marketing — I mean, Everything — is Typing

KeysRecently I received an email from a male colleague. He asked me to type (or, on a second reading, “get”) several names from business cards into our database. A red mist invaded my brain and I began scribbling notes for a blog post to be titled “Is Typing a Feminist Issue?”

Once upon a time, women were afraid to admit we had typing skills because we feared our employers would not be able to see beyond them. I have always typed fast. At the peak of my part-time jobs in college I was hitting around 105 words per minute. Although I took perverse pleasure in scaring co-workers with my noisy keyboard, I left my typing speed off my resume.

I once met the legendary Sylvia K. Burack, editor and publisher of The Writer magazine – a friend of my mother’s had arranged an informational interview because I wanted to be a writer. One of Ms. Burack’s first pieces of advice was to list my typing speed on my resume. “But I don’t want to spend my life typing,” I mewled.

Why were so many women asked to type? It’s not because people thought women could not do more than type; it’s because, in those days, men couldn’t type – and it needed to get done.

Years later, I noticed one of my junior designers was spending a lot of her time struggling with purchase orders and simple data entry when she had to send a job to press. She invited me to her graduation ceremony, where one of her professors asked me how I felt about the way the school had prepared her for a career in design.

“Well, she can’t type,” I began. The professor’s reaction was huffy, like mine to Ms. Burack: “Well, we don’t want our students to spend their life typing. We’ve trained them to be creative!”

“Congratulations,” I said. “You have ensured that your students do spend their life typing. It takes me five minutes to type out a purchase order, and it takes your prize student 30 minutes. This means I have 25 minutes more than she does to be creative.”

One of my colleagues was reminiscing about the secretary he had when he was a CEO back in the early 90’s. “I wish I had a ‘Martha’ now,” he said. I had no doubt — watching him painfully hunt-and-peck his way through an email made my teeth hurt.

In an age where so many things are automated, avoiding unnecessary work has been made into such a virtue that it seems to be confused with avoiding work, period.

The guy with the business cards didn’t see the value in spending an extra five minutes per card to add new prospective customers to our database. The funny thing is he actually scanned the cards in using a flatbed scanner, which would have taken me a lot longer than typing them.

The mistake I made was thinking he was asking for my help out of sexism. This isn’t true. He respects me; in fact he believes that I have a magical way of transforming the cards into data. (It’s called a business card scanner, but someone still has to make sure the data are correct).

My son’s high school does not teach typing — it teaches Microsoft Office, but not keyboarding. (I hope they’re not supposed to copy-paste their papers.)

Marketers and salespeople don’t want to spend time processing “Alice doesn’t live here anymore” emails because it’s tedious work. “Someone else” or “An intern” should be doing this, the thinking goes.

Performance reviews and other professional rewards don’t reward behavior that contributes invisibly to productivity or quality. No one posts “Mavis Beacon” on his LinkedIn profile under “Harvard Business School.” But the brilliant marketing email you write today may have a lower-than-expected open rate because you didn’t capture the names of the last 200 high-value contacts and you didn’t spend time cleaning your data for the last 24 months.

Just because you can type out fifty emails before your first coffee doesn’t mean you should. That said, it makes sense to pay attention to the skills you need to get all of your job done, or all of your life done, not just the fun parts.



Save Your Company Tons of Cash with this One Easy Fix

An email goes out to all 1000 of a company’s employees: “Remember to update your personal information on our new portal…”

The email doesn’t mention the link to the portal or any instructions as to how to find it. Worse, the reminder email comes from a different person than the one who originally informed the employees of the portal. Furthermore, it goes out to all employees, not just those who haven’t completed the task yet. Each employee needs to find the link to the website where they’re supposed to do the work. (Who would have sent the email? When did it come in? What’s the website called; maybe I can search for that? Did I do the work in the first place? How do I check that?)

Let’s do the math. (See illustration).Simple math to calculate the cost of sending a poorly thought-out email

If you suppose that your employees cost the company a conservative average of $30.00 per hour, this email just cost the company over $1000.

How many times have you issued or received an email saying “Please reply to last week’s invitation” or “Go to the travel website”? If you want to write more effective, helpful reminder emails:

  • Don’t be afraid of insulting people by reminding them where to find the information they need. No one except psychopaths will be angry with you for reminding them, but people will be annoyed if they have to waste time remembering or finding the extra information they need.
  • Remember that other people are not in your head or in your daily work. Things that may seem obvious to you are often unbelievably opaque to your colleagues.
  • Include a copy of your Outlook meeting agenda both in the meeting invitation and in an email, bearing the same title as the original meeting, immediately following. People don’t always read a meeting invitation before accepting it.
  • Send out a “homework reminder” the day before a meeting if you’re asking participants to come prepared for the meeting. Remember to include all the information the participants need to prepare for the meeting . . . or you’ll have to read this post all over again!

Delegation is like Making Coffee

CoffeeI received a stark lesson in delegation about a week after the birth of my son. Beforehand, his father and I had envisioned our house would be overflowing with family and friends bearing gifts and offers of help. Optimistically, we posted a list entitled “What can I do?” which included “Do a load of laundry! Wash a few dishes! Run to the store and pick up a package of diapers! Bring a coffee. Yes, with caffeine!”

Our house was indeed overflowing with family and friends. They brought gifts like engraved pewter thingies, framed sayings, and baby clothes so nice you didn’t want to put them anywhere near the peeing machine. They also offered to help . . . One even videotaped me while I was breastfeeding. Can you spell WTF?

Through it all, I tried to prove that I could still function effectively . . . The house had been vacuumed! We had ingredients on hand to suit everyone’s dietary preferences! Cheese sandwiches were being broiled! Crying baby was being fed!

My sister offered to make a pot of coffee. And then, as she dumped a pile of ground beans into our French press pot, I corrected her: “No, Deb, you have to measure six level scoops . . . ”

That would have been the last pot of coffee she ever made for me if I hadn’t suddenly realized my mistake. Maybe that’s why no one was doing our laundry – they knew I would complain when something shrunk (I’d done it before, and I will do it again). Or bringing diapers (what if they brought the wrong kind?) This is why they were bringing useless gewgaws and trying to participate in our family life with their video cameras. I couldn’t say it was the “wrong” pewter spoon or tell them they were using the wrong light. I’d been doing things independently for so long that I’d gotten this confused with leadership. I’d never learned one of the most important rules of delegation, which is:

If you want to delegate tasks, you have to accept the risk – or maybe even the certainty – that they won’t be done the way you would have done them.

But What If It’s Important To Do Things Right?

If you’re going to get a task done, you have three choices:

  1. Do it yourself. You know it will be done right . . . but you may miss the chance to do something else that is more important.
  2. Ask someone else to do it, and spend the time teaching him to do it right. (You may be spending more time teaching him to do it than you would have spent to do it yourself. This stops many people from delegating. However, if you teach someone to do something today, he’ll be able to do it for you tomorrow . . . correctly.
  3. Accept that it won’t be done “right” and maybe that’s okay.

Have I Learned My Lesson?

When you’re managing people or projects in a work setting, it’s important to understand that their efforts to help are very much like the gifts people bring. They want to do the right thing, and the trick is to encourage them to continue offering their gifts without criticizing their efforts in a damaging way. In other words, be gracious.

I believe I’m still working on this. Going forward, I resolve to drink more “wrong” coffee. But don’t you dare shrink my favorite pants.




Lessons from the Kitchen: When is the Meeting Over?

In planning meetings, take some hints from how you plan a meal“When are you done eating dinner?” my smart friend asked. It was a trick question; the answer was “You are done eating dinner after you have washed and put away the dishes.”

With this simple philosophy, my son (eventually) learned to wash the dishes after finishing a meal.

In running meetings, it is best practice to circulate an agenda ahead of time, and send out a memo afterwards summarizing what was agreed to in the meeting, including any action items. Yet this is so rarely done . . . why?

Don’t the People at Microsoft Ever Pee?

I believe that part of the problem lies with group calendars and how we schedule meetings. When you are leading a meeting, do you book an extra fifteen minutes afterwards to allow yourself to “wash the dishes”? Or do you bounce from one meeting to another, barely allowing yourself time for a bathroom break, and end up with a page of scribbled notes that you probably won’t get to process before your series of meetings the next day?

Consider this: If you don’t spend the extra time to make sure the items you agreed upon in the meeting actually get done, why did you have the meeting in the first place?

Here are three important tips to make sure your kitchen is clean:

  • Be Realistic. I’m sure you know someone who crowds your schedule with 30-minute meetings that always go five or twenty minutes long – don’t be that person. When setting a meeting, be realistic about how much time will be needed to accomplish your meeting agenda. When leading a meeting, gracefully bring it to a close a few minutes before the scheduled end time.
  • Plan a Break. When booking a meeting, also schedule a separate 15-minute time slot for yourself right afterwards. After the meeting ends, use the next ten minutes to write and send the meeting notes to the participants, and take five to grab a glass of water. Because the business world’s most popular group meeting software defaults to 30-minute time slots, this will normally allow you an extra 15 minutes to catch up on urgent requests from co-workers and so on. If you can’t take this extra time between meetings, it is possible that you have a larger problem – you are going to too many meetings to be effective.
  • Plan your Homework. Also take the time to add the meeting action items to your personal task management system, so that you can honor the agreements you made in the meeting.

Just as it is a joy to begin cooking a meal when your kitchen is already clean, it’s a joy to arrive at work without a swarm of unknown action items.

Please comment!

Have you tried this method? Is fifteen minutes enough time to wrap up a meeting? Do you feel pressure from your colleagues to schedule more meetings than you can handle?