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Lessons learned from 25 years in the business

A quarter of a century ago today, I left my job at as marketing director for the Kenan-Flagler Business School to open my own consulting business. A lot has changed since then, giving me plenty of opportunities to learn some valuable new lessons on top of the ones I learned working in my family's business growing up.

champagne celebrating The Word Factory's 25th anniversary

25 Things I’ve Learned Over 25 Years

  1. Create opportunities. Accelerate success by not waiting around for good stuff to fall out of the sky. Yes, it’s important to recognize an opportunity when it’s staring you in the face, but it’s equally crucial to make opportunities happen for you. For instance, a client made an off-hand comment about another team having trouble making the new messaging platform sound less marketing-y and more consumer-y. I piped up that we’d be glad to give that a try since the customer-facing content we’d been producing was performing well so we knew how to talk to them. We’ve since done several messaging “translation” projects for the brand team.
  2. Establish processes. There’s all kinds of automation available in every vertical these days, but even if you’re not relying on AI or technology, establish a few processes to help you get your work done efficiently and effectively. For instance, we use a standard template for blog posts that has all the meta data fields and character counts already built in so we can just type and go. We developed a messaging framework. We use Basecamp to keep projects and teams on track with automated reminders and version control. We even have a standard approach to pitching stories. All this helps us work faster.
  3. Understand feedback. Most feedback isn’t very useful. Don’t perpetuate the problem. Don’t ask people to “let me know what you think”. Instead, ask for specific insights that will improve the work: what's good about it (so they don't change that), what would make it better (i.e., more details, tighter writing, less jargon), and what's missing (key data points, a strong voice, a clear idea). This yields higher quality feedback that you can act on or not. Similarly, when someone asks you to “take a look at this”, ask them what specific concerns they have or insights they want. My default for a nonspecific request is always good, better, missing. Learn more about giving better feedback.
  4. Be just enough better. It’s tempting to bring the full force of our awesomeness to every project, but the (somewhat controversial) truth is that being too much better often backfires, so that instead of establishing your value-add, it makes you look show-offy and can make others feel self-conscious and resentful. Yes, be the best – but not necessarily YOUR best. Be just enough smarter, faster, better than the competition and increase your fantastic-ness incrementally from there.
  5. Learn fast. I know it’s popular to fail fast, but that’s got a negative connotation, so let’s focus on learning fast. That means staying up not on every new development in your field, but on the ones that seem important or have relevance to your work today and in the coming quarters. Go to conferences, follow influencers and experts you trust, sign up for webinars. And experiment and iterate as often as possible when the stakes are low.
  6. Take calculated risks. We don’t grow or progress without a little risk-taking. So say yes to things that stretch or challenge you. Calculated risks are safe bets that help you learn without much jeopardy. Saying yes also works in no-risk situations.
  7. Say yes. If you’ve done improv, you know that the way to keep a scene going is to say, “yes, and…”. It’s also an effective way to keep conversations going. Instead of “no, but we can do this instead”, say “yes, and we can do it this way”.
  8. Handle competing priorities. Juggling is a core skill, but it’s no good if you have too many balls in the air. There are tons of ways people resolve conflicting priorities. I used to rely on the Important/Urgent method, which is good, but I evolved that into “weighted shortest job first”, from the Agile methodology (read about it here). I keep a backlog of assignments organized chronologically by project increment, which is visible to everyone. Then I make a personal list of the three priority tasks for today and don’t do anything else till those are done.
  9. Do small things for bigger impact. Notice how your boss or clients want things done and do them that way. For instance, I noticed that revisions from one client included underlined key words and highlighted contextual links, so we started doing that the content we submitted to them. It was hardly any extra effort, but the client noticed and appreciated that we saved him a step. These little things are how you start building loyalty.
  10. Choose a specialty. You could select a vertical, like science writing or financial management, and do well as long as the skills are in demand. Or you can specialize in something wider. For instance, I’ve got solid domain expertise in healthcare and commercial real estate, and developed practice areas at The Word Factory that focus on those. I’m also a whiz at operations, which is a specialty that benefits both my company and others I consult with. So that’s a wide specialty. Same with writing. Every person on our team is a strong writer, period. Web writing, sales activation, messaging, straight journalism, speeches – whatever needs to be written, we can do it well. That’s a “broad” specialty.
  11. Understand your velocity. In each job, there are things you need to do regularly. Obviously for my team and me, it’s writing. So I pay attention to how long it takes us as a team and as individuals to create different types of writing so we can estimate delivery times accurately. This is critical not only to set budgets and deadlines correctly, but also to schedule work in a manageable way across the team.
  12. Seek out other opinions and perspectives. We all have our bubbles. Seek out people who think differently that you do, who have had different life experiences than you have, and who work in different areas than you do. This gets you beyond the easily labels of corporate diversity efforts to a place where you get really meaningful insights and advice. Get my tips for creating a diverse team. 
  13. Share your strengths. A lot of folks don’t like sharing what works for them out of fear that the secret sauce will be stolen. Look, if you’ve got something akin to the original Coke recipe, or the exact blend of 37 herbs and spices in a KFC bucket, lock that baby up. But for most of us, what passes for “trade secrets” isn’t so valuable. I’ve also learned that even though our (copyright-protected) writing strategies are available for free on this very blog, I’m not losing business. In fact, it creates business from people who engage me for staff training or conference gigs. Be a mentor and advocate for others, too. It's incredibly rewarding.
  14. Know your weaknesses. Each of us has something we’re not great at. The key is to know that and decide to either shore it up (especially important if it’s in high demand) or not worry about it. If you choose the latter, make a point of getting to know people who are great at that in your organization or outside of it so you always have a go-to. “Yes, and I’ll bring in my colleague, Steve, for that.”
  15. Connect people. Having a good network is another one of those baseline business requirements, especially in my line of work. But using your contacts effectively is a next-level skill. Be the person other people contact when they need a referral to someone who can offer advice, solve a problem or make something happen. Connecting people is a great way to raise and maintain your own profile, too. See how to improve source diversity.
  16. Make people look good. When somebody refers me or puts me on a project team, I add a priority to my to do list: make them look smart for choosing me. Take a little more time getting to know the person and their relationship with the referrer. Put in a few good words for them, too. It’s a tiny additional effort that’s a nice thing to do for someone who helped you out.
  17. Know what matters to your boss/client and their boss. Paying attention to the concerns, objections and preferences of your immediate supervisor or client helps you make small and large decisions to address those. Going one level further empowers you to understand and deliver even more value up the ladder, which increases satisfaction and loyalty.
  18. Check your work. I can’t believe this bears repeating, but judging by all the people who say, “Your work is so clean; we hardly have to do anything to it”, I’m guessing there’s a lot of sloppy work out there. Stand out in a good way by reading your work closely (not just spell checking!) and double-checking your logic. An extra round of revisions doesn’t take that long but it has a big impact on the experience of the person receiving your work.
  19. Be reliable. Trust is crucial to success. Be a reliable source, consistently delivering quality work or information. You’ll be rewarded.
  20. Keep your commitments. And when you can’t, which legitimately happens, tell the affected parties as soon as you can, with new deadlines or an alternative source.
  21. Move around. Changing positions during the day does have physical and mental benefits. Think about a standing desk (I made one from a bookcase) perhaps with a FluidStance, which I love. We also have a FitDesk in the office, which is great on low-resistance for conference calls or at higher resistance for triaging emails or watching a webinar.
  22. Set your rate right. This is one of the hardest things for freelancers and agency folks, and one of the most important. Christopher Penn has great advice on this, so I’ll just say that it’s important to know the difference between cost-pricing and value-pricing and to decide which one works best for your business and financial goals.
  23. Use your skills for good. Put your talents to use for the causes you care about. It helps build the organization's capacity or support campaigns. It expands your network. It feels good to do good. It makes the world better. Even if you don’t have time for board service or volunteer work, you can make personal care kits for homeless people you see daily, or you could shop at or collect items to donate to your local charity thrift shop.
  24. Have fun. Not every minute of every workday is fun, but capture the times that are and amplify them. We keep a bottle of sparkling grape juice in the fridge, ready to pop when someone has a big win. We play instant jukebox, where someone emails out a theme or a band and everyone else shares a song title (audio tracks or videos, highly encouraged). Shoot baskets. Do lunchtime karaoke. Have doodle contests. Do anything that's fun and joyfilled.
  25. Take time off. This is a hard one for a lot of people. It’s too easy to feel like we’re going to be left behind by more dedicated staffers or competitors who are “always working”. And that might be true in some cases, but for me, anyway, time away from the work makes me better at the work when I get back to it. I don’t often work late and rarely on weekends any more. And all I ask of my family at vacation time is a one-hour window first thing in the morning to check VIP emails only. I have more energy for sure, and more processing capacity to think bigger, write better and be more effective.

So that's a quick look at 25 things I've learned in 25 years of business ownership. Thanks to all the clients, colleagues and interns who made -- and continue to make -- it all possible. And especially to my partner in everything, Steve Peha.

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