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Dear Past Stupid Self: Financial advice we wish we could tell our post-grad selves

Dear Past Stupid Self: This is what you should have done to make my easier. Kind Regards, Future Less Stupid Self

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financial advice

h2>Dear Past Stupid Self,

This is what you should have done to make life easier.
Kind Regards, 

Future Less Stupid Self

What we all wish we could say

I’ve been doing part-time and full time freelance work for the last 5 years. It’s so easy to get caught up in the hyper-flexible work environment that comes with freelancing/contracting. The fact that your office is also your house can make it difficult to create a truly separate “workspace,” let alone a separate “company.” Treat your freelance business like a completely separate start up. Below are a series of notes to my previous self. Some of the things that I wish I had known/learned/executed in the past.

Hey Jackwagon, 

If it doesn’t make money, it’s not your job. It’s a hobby. Get profitable, stay profitable, BECOME MORE PROFITABLE!

This is directly related to your ability to plan – and it directly impacts your ability to succeed.

The HUGE metric to stay intimately acquainted with is your overall profitability – Ads MUST make money. Purchased email lists MUST make money. Buying people lunch MUST make money. If anything results in a negative ROI, eliminate it with severe prejudice.

BONUS: This is a skill that will make you attractive to almost any perspective employer out there. If you understand what it takes to be profitable, and are able to adjust accordingly, you go from someone who needs to managed to an independent problem solver. It’s like catnip for employers.

Dear Dummy,

Quit flying by the seat of your pants (or skirt, depending on your preference).

I used to plan in blocks of time. “From X to X, I’m going to prospect. Ok… times up! Move on to the next task. Look at me! I’m being organized!”

“I have enough money coming in to cover my expenses… It must be working!”

No. (Insert Grumpy Cat Face)

You are being lazy and getting lucky.

It doesn’t matter if you work for “The Man” or for yourself. Create a detailed business plan. Then stick to it.

This goes beyond a simple “I’m going to network here, prospect here, email this company, advertise here, etc. (If you have a 9-5 job, planning things like: networking, skill acquisition, career arcs, etc. are also invaluable – Do the things that no one else is doing).

Build out your full stack business plan: Financial, Marketing, Sales, and Operations. I know, your company is going to be completely different next year, that doesn’t mean you can’t plan this year out. At the very least, you should have a quarterly plan. You can still shift and pivot based on your changing workload, family life, and business developments. Yet, you have a plan of action that keeps you grounded and focused.

At the end of each month and quarter, do a “post mortem assessment” to determine what went well, what flopped, and ways to improve both areas.

Dear Stupid,

Take care of the things that matter first. It’s called “Adulting.” Do it. Otherwise, this will be your area of biggest regret in 5 years. 

A lot of people skate by if they have a standard 9-5 job because companies offer standard perks. It is easy for them to set things up, there’s typically a price break, and it’s a standard part of the onboarding process. It’s much easier to do the bare minimum and just let the default settings carry them. You have no such luxury.

These are boring, hideous, and lame things that can change your life for better or for worse.

– Set aside revenue for health insurance. With the Affordable Care Act, you now get a huge financial hit for failing to obtain coverage. Here are some great health insurance options for freelancers. In a lot of cases, the expense can be written off on your taxes.

– Set up a retirement account. The Roth IRA is your friend and its never to early to start saving. If you can, max out your contributions and look for other ways to invest. The more you can sock away now, the easier your retirement will be.

– Don’t just have a savings account. SAVE! According to Forbes, 63% of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency. Don’t be a statistic. Determine the absolute maximum percentage of your monthly income that can go to savings and get it out of your checking account at the beginning of each month. You’ll be less likely to spend it on superfluous expenses and if an emergency arises, you can always tap into the account.

It’s not fun. It’s not sexy. It just sucks. However, spending a couple of weekends on these areas is the best possible thing you can do to secure your long-term financial health. If you don’t know how to get started, contact a financial planner or a friend who knows their stuff.

Hello Numbskull,

Credit cards are not capital investments. Don’t treat them as such.

This topic deserves an article of it’s own. Credit cards are a quick and easy way to secure short term financing. They are also a great way to bury any chance of being profitable as a freelancer. It’s often a huge temptation to justify putting expenses on your “company card.” – Tread carefully.

Pay off your card as soon as you can to avoid long-term fees and interest payments. Paying your credit card debt is the ONLY valid excuse you have for not saving like a good adult. Get out of debt and do your best to stay out.

Dear Dummy, 

Uncle Sam doesn’t care about you or your special snowflake. 

Start thinking about taxes all year long, not just in April. Set aside the appropriate percentages of your income so when tax season comes around, you don’t get caught scrambling for cash.

In addition, you should know how to sort and categorize your expenses and incomes so that you can maximize your deductions and limit your tax liability. Familiarize yourself with your Federal and State income tax codes and your status to make sure that you’re planning throughout the year.

Hey Idiot,

Be conservative with your scarcest asset. 

Time is the only asset that it’s impossible to get more of. You can always earn more money, reduce costs, or develop more skills. Time, on the other hand, is completely finite. Unfortunately, it’s also the first resource we tend to trade. As you look at the areas you are investing in, make sure that you are getting a good return on your time investment.

“Could you be <insert desired outcome (making more money/learning better skills/networking better/a better person/etc.)> if you dropped X so you could do Y?”

Remember, it is not necessary that you are using your time in a poor manner (although… you could be), It’s that you are not using your time in the best manner.

Do not allow the tyranny of the urgent to overpower the execution of the important.

Dear Past Self,

You have a lot of opportunity coming your way. Hang on for the ride of your life. Work hard. Play hard. Don’t listen to the haters. Strive to do work that matters. And remember, stop to smell the roses every now and then.

Cheers!
Future Self

What would you tell your younger self?

#DearPastStupidSelf

Dave Novotny loves writing about cutting edge technology and business innovation. A creative by nature and a number cruncher by blood, sweat, and tears, Dave loves telling the story that the numbers and analytics write in a way that connects to people. When he's not crafting copy, he's out hiking with his wife and two rescue dogs, Jackie and Loki.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Hank Miller

    April 8, 2016 at 6:18 am

    Very well written, why the anon “AG staff” and not the author? Sounds like Lani….

    Flying solo since leaving the military in 89 I would add:

    Hey Buckethead – Never – EVER – think your excrement doesn’t stink. The second you take your foot off the gas and look to cruise you will be run over and a grease spot on the road.

    Hey DumbArse – You will screw up, occasionally badly. Own it, make it right and learn from it. Doesn’t matter who did it, why or any of that – you are responsible for everything that’s done or or not done.

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Opinion Editorials

Improve UX design by tracking your users’ eye movements

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Research shows that the fastest way to determine user behavior and predict their response is by watching their eyesight. Use this data to improve your UX design.

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UX design being created by a designer on a laptop.

By design, an ice cream truck is meant to entice. It is colorful, stupidly loud with two whole songs from the 30s (usually off key because no one is left alive who can service those bells), and lots of colorful stickers that depict delicious frozen treats that look nothing like reality. If you need an off model Disney character that already looks a little melted even when frozen, look no further.

This is design in action – the use of clever techniques to drive engagement. Brightly colored decor and the Pavlovian association of hearing The Sting in chirpy little ding dings is all working together to encourage sales and interaction.

These principles work in all industries, and the tech sector has devoted entire teams, agencies, companies, groups, and departments to the study of User Experience (UX) explicitly to help create slick, usable applications and websites that are immediately understandable by users. Tools to improve utility exist by measuring user behavior, with style guides and accepted theories preached and sang and TED-talked all over.

The best way to check behavior is to observe it directly, and options to check where someone clicks has proven invaluable in determining how to improve layouts and designs. These applications are able to draw a heat map that shows intensified red color in areas where clicks congregate the most. An evolution of this concept is to watch eyesight itself, allowing developers a quicker avenue to determining where a user will most likely go. Arguably the shortest path between predicting response, this is one of the holy grails of behavioral measurement. If your eyes can be tracked, your cursor is likely to follow.

UX design can benefit greatly from this research as this article shows. Here’s some highlights:

Techwyse completed a case study that shows conversion on landing pages is improved with clear call-to-action elements. Users will focus on objects that stand out based on position, size, bright colors, or exaggerated fonts. If these design choices are placed on a static, non-interactive component, a business will lose a customer’s interest quickly, as their click is meant with no response. This quickly leads to confusion or abandonment. Finding where a person is immediately drawn to means you should capitalize on that particular piece with executable code. Want it boiled down? Grocery stores put Cheetos front and center, because everyone want them thangs.

Going along with this, Moz found that search results with attractive elements – pictures and video – are given much more attention than simple text. We are visually inclined creatures, and should never undervalue that part of our primal minds. Adding some visual flair will bring attention, which in turn can be leveraged usefully to guide users.

Here’s an interesting study – being that we are social animals, follow the gaze of others. If you’ve ever seen kittens watching a game of ping pong, they are in sync and drawn to the action. Similarly, if we notice someone look to the left, we instinctively want to look left as well. While this sounds very specific, the idea is simple – visual cues can be optimized to direct users where to focus.

The Nielsen Group says we look at things in an F pattern. I just think that’s funny, or at least a funny way to describe it. We follow from left-to-right (just like we read, and as websites are laid out using techniques first developed for newspapers, it naturally makes sense that we’d do the same). Of course, cultural or national differences arise here – right-to-left readers need the opposite. Always be sure to keep your target audience in mind.

Of course, there are several other findings and studies that can further promote idealistic layout and design, and it should always be the goal of designers to look to the future and evaluate trends. (Interestingly, eye tracking is the first option on this list!)

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Opinion Editorials

Easy ways to help an unhappy customer

(EDITORIAL) We’ve all had to deal with an unhappy client or two, and maybe some situations didn’t play out too well. Here are some simple tips that will help.

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unhappy client

Who here hasn’t had a client get aggravated for what seems like no good reason?

(Raise your hand!)

Who here hasn’t had that awkward “I hear what you’re saying, but…” conversation?

(More hands!)

Whether you’re providing marketing work, strategic planning services, graphic design ideas, or basic business advice, you’re going to run into the occasional client who Just. Is. Not. Here. For. It. And it can be so hard to help that unhappy client get back to a place where you can all come together to get the job done.

(Hands! Hands! Hands!)

Especially in this day and age of angry emoji reaction clicks, dealing with confrontational feedback can require a new level of diplomacy and tact. You’ve got an unhappy client who doesn’t have the ability to communicate their “why” to you, so instead, they go nuclear and your inbox is suddenly filled with the kind of unhappy vitriol you’re more used to seeing in your Facebook feed.

How do you handle it?

Because… you can actually handle it.

First and foremost, understand where the negative reaction is coming from. They’ve asked you for help with their cherished project. Maybe they wouldn’t be happy with anyone’s work. Maybe they can’t quite communicate what they want. Regardless of where the sticking point is, understand that the sticking point is (a) not your fault and (b) not going to be acknowledged by them.

So then, the second step… remove yourself from the criticism. Even if they make it personal, remove yourself from the situation. Look at it in terms of the work. The client wants X. You feel you have given them X, but they see it as Y. Can you see it from their perspective? Because if you can, you are way more than halfway there. Where are they coming from?

If this is an external review, on Google or such, just ignore it and move on. It’s done. You can’t argue it. But if it’s feedback you’re getting from a current client and your project is still in play… seriously, take a deep breath and give it a harder look. It might feel personal. But is it?

The best assumption to make is that there is something else going on. If you can keep your cool and work with your unhappy client to determine what’s making them uncomfortable, in a non-confrontational way, and to get them to an acceptable delivery — you’ve won. Because you’re continuing to provide them the service they’ve come to you for.

So take a look at the situation, and figure out the best response.

1. Is the argument clear?
Don’t waste your time trying to establish whether you’re right or they’re wrong. Instead, look at framing it in terms of what the client is trying to accomplish. Ask them to give you specific examples of what they hope to achieve. Allow them to tell you what they feel isn’t good… in fact, encourage them to tell you why they’re unhappy with what you’ve given them. All of this will help frame what they’re looking for and what you need to give them in round two.

2. Is their feedback relevant?
Well, yeah. There are times when you know that your client knows nothing. But they feel the need to demonstrate that They Know What They Are Doing.

Let them.

Just let them tell you, and let it go.

And… keep searching for that nugget of truth in what they’re saying. Their feedback may seem ridiculous. But what’s at the heart of it? Look for that. Look at this negative reaction as a signpost for what they’re truly after.

3. IS IT WORTH DEBATING?
This fits right in with number 2. They feel passionately that you need two spaces after every period. Is this something you really need to argue? CHOOSE. YOUR. BATTLES.

If your client really wants to engage on an issue … two spaces, or the use of a particular phrase … then let them say their piece. Then say your piece. But giving them room for an out. And once again, think about it from their perspective.

Maybe it’s someone who didn’t spend all their time in their first post-college job debating the niceties of the Oxford comma. Does it ultimately matter to the overall success of the project? If it does… go to the mat. Show them, with respect, why it’s important. But if it’s just a point of pride for you, the provider? Can you let it go?

I can’t sometimes. So I get it if you can’t. But still, it’s a good point to keep in mind. A good question to ask yourself, as a provider of a service. Which sword do you fall on… and why?

Clearly, you shouldn’t just roll over because a client has turned nasty. But neither should you turn every unhappy client response into your personal cause du jour. When you encounter negative, hostile client reactions, take a moment. Try to see it from their point of view. At the very least, the shift in perspective will help you handle their concerns. And at best, you’ll re-frame the discussion in a way that gives you both a handle on how to move forward.

You might learn from the exchange. Or maybe you’re just right, dammit. But you still have to think about what’s worth getting worked up over.

Finally, don’t let it bring you down. If it’s serious enough that you have to part ways over their reaction, help them do so amicably. Point them in the direction of someone you think might be able to accommodate their ideas. Stay positive for them, and for yourself. Then chalk it up to experience, and take the lessons on to the next client.

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Opinion Editorials

This website is like Pinterest for WFH desk setups

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) If you’ve been working from home at the same, unchanged desk setup, it may be time for an upgrade. My Desk Tour has the inspiration you need.

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Man browsing desk setups on My Desk Tour

Whether you’re sitting, standing, or reclining your way through the pandemic, you’re most likely doing it from home these days. You’re also probably contending with an uninspired desk configuration hastily cobbled together in 2020, which—while understandable—might be bringing you down. Fortunately, there’s an easy, personable solution to spark your creativity: My Desk Tour.

My Desk Tour is a small website started by Jonathan Cai. On this site, you will find pictures of unique and highly customized desk setups; these desk configurations range from being optimized for gamers to coders to audiophiles, so there’s arguably something for everyone—even if you’re just swinging by to drool for a bit.

Cai also implements a feature in which site users can tag products seen in desk photos with direct links to Amazon so you don’t have to poke around the Internet for an hour in search of an obscure mouse pad. This is something Cai initially encountered on Reddit and, after receiving guidance from various subreddits on the issue of which mouse to purchase, he found the inspiration to create My Desk Tour.

The service itself is pretty light—the landing page consists of a few desk setup photos and a rotating carousel of featured configurations—but it has great potential to grow into a desk-focused social experience of sorts.

It’s also a great place to drop in on if you’re missing the extra level of adoration for your desk space that a truly great setup invokes. Since most people who have been working from home since the spring didn’t receive a ton of advance notice, it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of folks have resigned themselves to a boring or inefficient desk configuration. With a bit of inspiration from My Desk Tour, that can change overnight.

Of course, some of the desk options featured on the site are a bit over the top. One configuration boasts dual ultra-wide monitors stacked atop each other, and another shows off a monitor flanked by additional vertical monitors—presumably for the sake of coding. If you’re scrambling to stay employed, such a setup might be egregious.

If you’re just looking for a new way to orient your workspace for the next few months, though, My Desk Tour is worth a visit.

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