Wednesday, October 14, 2009

High-Resolution Cameras Mean Big Files

I recently received an email from my mother that included a Word document full of pictures she had taken with her spiffy new 10-megapixel pocket-camera. The pictures were great, but the Word document tipped the scales at a whopping 30 megabytes. It would have been rejected by many email systems, which often have a limit of 10 meg or so.

On the one hand, having original high-resolution images is great if you plan to make posters or use them for a screensaver, but for most purposes, the extra resolution is overkill. Particularly on the Web, you rarely see images wider than 500 pixels, and even a 3-megapixel camera can do a respectable job of that. If you plan to send pictures through email or put them on a Web site, you can make the image files a lot smaller by reducing the dimensions of the images.

For example, the Word document my mom sent displayed multiple images on the page. Even though each image is only displayed at about 45% of its original dimensions, the entire original image file is embedded in the Word document. If she had resized the images before putting them into the document, the document would have been much, much smaller.

Fortunately, you usually get some kind of image editing software with your camera so you can resize the photos yourself. Unfortunately, almost no one uses it. It takes extra time to make a lower-resolution version of your images for email and Web use, so few people bother. I'm sure many people wouldn't know where to start, and may not even realize there's an issue.

My wife Susan has written a couple of articles on this subject. They are posted at our ComputorCompanion.com and LogicalTips.com web sites:

Image Editing Tips

Resize Lots of Photos

I've also had to deal with the problem from a Web development perspective. When users upload photos to web sites, the files can be so big that the server throws an "exceeds maximum request length" error. I recently wrote an article on my NerdyMusings.com web site on how Web developers can address that issue.

Configuring ASP.NET for Large File Uploads

If you like to send photos to family members or put them up on your Web site, you should really consider taking the time to learn a bit about your image editing software. Once you learn the secrets of cropping, rotating, resizing, and enhancing your photographs, your picture-taking experience will never be the same. And I mean that in a good way!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fast and Easy are Relative Terms

In her Publishize article this week, Susan writes about being realistic regarding what fast and easy means when it comes to writing your book:

Write a Book the Fast and Easy Way

When she told me the slant of her article, I pointed out that both of those terms are relative. "Exactly!" she responded. When you think about what "fast and easy" means, you need to be thinking "compared to what?"
We've learned that lots of would-be authors want a fast and easy solution for writing their book. We've also learned, after self publishing ten books in three years, that writing books can be fast and easy, once you know what to do. That is one reason why we are committed to self publisher education.

One thing you can do, starting today, that will make your future publishing efforts faster and easier is to start writing. It doesn't matter what. Write blog entries. Write how-to articles. Just write. Exercising your "writing muscles" is one of the best things you can do to make writing your book faster and easier.

Susan often quotes her father, who puts it simply: "Writers write."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Step Over the Line

Someone once told me "there's a fine line between being self-employed and being unemployed." I'm sure that any independent consultant can relate to that sentiment. When things are good, you proudly declare that you own your own business. When things aren't so good and you are desperate for work, you start to feel like you are unemployed and look wistfully at your friends who are taking home a steady paycheck.

I recently read a blog post from Diana Schneidman titled How to Get a Job Today that got me thinking about the "fine line" from another perspective. A lot of people who normally go the "safe and secure" route of a traditional job are finding themselves unemployed. Some of these folks are realizing that, if they have skills that an employer can leverage into profit, then perhaps they can do that for themselves.

When the job market is difficult, the idea of self employment is less scary. But can you successfully sell your skills in the marketplace? I'll let you in on a secret: that's exactly what you have done every time you went looking for a job. The truth is that selling your skills "direct to consumer" might actually be easier than selling them to an employer middleman.

To an employer, you are a generic widget that fills a position in a larger scheme, and there's little that differentiates the job from one employer to the next. It is harder to sell your services to a broad market than a narrow one, so one marketing advantage you have as an independent operator is that you can niche your services to the best vertical market for your skills and interests.

I won't pretend it is easy. Operating a business involves some degree of familiarity with the four basic business disciplines: Marketing, Finance, Legal, and Operations. When most people think about running a business, they focus exclusively on Operations because that is the part they know the best. That's "the job." Fortunately, you can outsource just about anything you aren't comfortable doing yourself, but what saves you time will certainly cost you money.

But really, what are your alternatives? Go back to work for a company that doesn't appreciate what you do and that will make all the real money from your creativity? And you're doing it for what? Job security? Sorry, but job security is a myth. Gone are the days of the gold watch. If you do get close enough to earn any retirement benefits, the bean counters will recommend that the company get rid of you. Of course, you'll get laid off in the next economic downturn long before retirement is even a consideration. And the layoff will come when you are least prepared for it.

Perhaps you are concerned about the risk of starting your own business. What about it? It is our nature to put more weight on the potential for loss than on the potential for gain, even when the potential for gain is actually much higher. Do you believe in yourself? What would it mean to you if you were successful as an independent businessperson? Doesn't the potential gain go far beyond just the monetary aspects?

My wife Susan and I have been operating our business Logical Expressions since 1994. It has been glorious at times and it has been frightening at times. When things were at their worst for us in 2001, I even went "back to work" for a while in Corporate America, but I knew at the time it was only a temporary solution to make ends meet. We changed the nature of our business and got back on our feet. That's one tremendous advantage you have as a small business: you can switch direction to meet changes in the market almost instantaneously.

We've learned a lot in that time, and we've shared most of what we've learned through our various newsletters, web sites, and self-published books. One of the things we learned was that writing a book is a good way to demonstrate your expertise to a skeptical marketplace. That discovery is responsible for one of the shifts in our business focus. We now help other small business people publish their story and share their knowledge. Our book Publishize describes that process.

What I'm getting at is that starting a business does not mean you have to commit yourself to building a massive organization or investing a ton of money. You start small. Sell your skills to those who need them, but who can't afford you full time. Over time, develop products you can sell alongside your services (like your book!) and outsource the work that is not a good use of your time.

Your goal is to eventually build a business that requires less and less of your time to keep making money. Even if you never get there, you'll be better off than if you keep trading hours for dollars at company after company that does not appreciate your contribution.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Managing the Expectations of Your Service Customers

If you are a consultant, coach, or service provider I'm sure you've heard these comments from your customers:

  • Can we just throw in this one more little thing?
  • I know we talked about X, but I don't see it here.

The reality is that customers don't understand what you do for them: that's why they come to you for your assistance. That "one little thing" they ask for is rarely little, nor is it just one thing. Also, during the course of multiple conversations while you try to work out what the job will entail, many possibilities are discussed and some items are approved while others are not. It is not uncommon for one side of the discussion to get confused about what was finally decided, unless both sides keep good notes.

Of course, there's one elementary solution to this problem: Make sure you have a clearly-written contract and scope of work. But even if you have both, you can still end up in conversations that start with the comments I mentioned above. Those conversations happen partly because customers don't read the contract and scope of work, and partly because they don't really make the connection between the scope of work and the quote you give them to do the job.

The real problem comes back to the fact that customers don't understand what you do. You can't manage their expectations with a piece of paper, but you can't expect them to learn what you do, either. What you can do is put the relationship between the scope of work and the quote into terms they'll understand.

After having many of these conversations myself, I've come up with two customer guidelines that apply to virtually any service business:

  • If it costs me time, it costs you money.
  • If it is not spelled out in the scope of work, it is not part of the job.

These guidelines may sound obvious, but experience shows that your customers won't "get it" the first few times, and some never will. You could say that the latter are the customers with "unmanageable expectations."

If you have a customer who has difficulty with the two guidelines, don't worry, you have a fallback position. When they ask you to expand the scope of work after the quote has been accepted, break out the secret weapon question:

  • Would you like me to put that item on the wish list for the next quote, or do you want me to do it now and bill it on an hourly invoice?

The secret weapon question is an instant reminder of the two guidelines. Ask it often enough, and even the most stubborn customers are likely to latch on eventually.

I'm sure I really sound like a hard-ass here. Hopefully you detected a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek in my tone. The truth is that sometimes you give extra work away, or you realize that you meant to include the item the customer asks about. I usually expect a certain amount of "tweaking" along the way, because you can never anticipate everything about the job. But I can tell you this: the customers who are most likely to get "freebies" from me are the ones who understand and appreciate the extra work they are getting. It can't be part of their expectations.