Show me your process, not just your perfection

“Show us your process, not just your perfection.”
—CJ Casciotta

This mandate hitting my ears was just one of dozens of eyes-wide moments at last week’s STORY 2018 conference in Nashville—an annual conference that’s been called “TED for Creatives.”

It will take me a while to type up the pages and pages of notes I brought home from this immersive, two-day gathering for artists, creators, and storytellers. I brought colored pencils and markers with me and used them to circle, star, underline, and annotate, in a feeble attempt to somehow capture the wild energy of the event. (It was that kind of conference…the kind where the colors just fly.)

The title quote, in particular, stuck with me (it’s bright green in my journal). What does it mean?

Every day we’re assailed by images and videos and books and articles and ads that are evidence of something that’s reached perfection—or at least as close to it as is possible for the creator. Completed, polished, effective.

We’re not interested, or so they say, in seeing the path the creator had to take to get there. We’re taught in myriad ways that the only thing of real value is the finished product. I take issue with that more than I can explain.

What happens if the ONLY images we ever see in life are of things in a state of perfect completion, or perfect beauty, or perfect symmetry and balance? Is that natural? How does it make us feel?

By “us,” I’m especially referring to those of us who are neck-deep struggling with our own creations.

We’re writing our book, seeking out our ideal clients, building our business/practice, developing offerings that people may support us by buying. And all with that inner clock ticking expectantly: Perfection. Now. Perfection. Now. Perfection. Now. Faster.

On the days when the words just won’t fall on the paper, when new clients just seem to be deaf to what we offer, when things just won’t take shape, I sometimes feel as though if I see one more perfectly-coiffed mega-guru telling me about her latest wildly successful $5000 coaching package – that has, by the way, only 3 spots left, so hurry hurry hurry – I am going to scream.

On those days, more than anything, I want to talk to others who are still in their process too. I want to know where people are stuck, because I too might be stuck, and perhaps (like freeing each other from a mire) we can help each other get un-stuck.

I want to know that someone ELSE is frustrated that their promotional efforts aren’t hitting the mark yet, and they’re not sure what to adjust.

I want to see the rough drafts of a new article, the flawed prototype of a new product offering or even just the first notes scribbled in a frenzy on the back of a flattened-out Starbucks coffee sleeve. I want to smash the illusion that successful ideas are supposed to burst forth from our heads, fully-formed and perfect and with no effort whatsoever.

I want to see the process and the perfection, not just the airbrushed final product.

Do you?

Just speak to me as a friend

“Forget about the microphone. Just speak to me. As a friend.”
—Lionel Logue to King George VI, The King’s Speech

I have any number of strange mathematical fantasies waltzing through my head at any given time.

Here’s just one of them:

I would like to have a special bank into which I could somehow locate, harvest, and deposit all the wasted time in the world. (I know. But it doesn’t have to make sense.)

For example, I think about the volumes of time we spend, as people working for ourselves, trying on different voices and approaches and pitches and complex strategies in the attempt to attract new clients. I’ve literally watched some of my people spend half of their working hours wringing their hands over “how can I say this in a way that gets attention?” or “will this impress a potential client?”

The overall question seems to be, “Which Me is the most likely to gain their confidence and get them to purchase what I’m offering?”

I’ve been there too. Oh heck yes. In bumpy times I find myself slipping into it again, and have to get quiet inside and re-gather all that makes me Me.

I can’t speak for everyone, but the Me that has helped me attract the very best people for my work has been the Me that sees them all as friends.

They’re friends who are confused or discouraged. Friends who are trying to figure something out. Friends who see learning a new skill as the key to more time/income/confidence. Friends who are feeling isolated, disconnected and a little lost in this increasingly tangled and confusing world. Friends who just want a little more peace, or a little more beauty in their lives.

When I speak to people (in person, on the phone, in writing) as friends, with an open mind, open heart, and genuine care for their well-being, all kinds of good things happen in my business.

So back to that time bank. Imagine if we could gather all that time we spend trying to be someone else. That time spent trying to be the Selves that “achieve” rather than the genuine Selves that we are at heart.

Oh, the things we could do with it.

How about summer camp for grownup entrepreneurs? That extra day in the week we’re always feeling we’d like to have to get things done? Time for some spectacular no-holds-barred self-care?

Or maybe just…time to joyfully, thoughtfully seek out more of the people we want most to attract to our work.


Of work and gardens: How to survive and thrive in any weather

Many may not know that when I’m not at a keyboard I’m outside growing a mountain of organic food every year. When I’m not helping people with their online marketing stuff, for a big part of the year I can be found in my 30′ x 40′ patch out back, monkeying with the tomatoes and garlic and kale and pumpkins.

We have a very short growing season here at 7300 feet elevation — about 3 months in between frosts, to be precise — and so I relish every minute I get to spend out there eating snow peas fresh from the dewy vines.

From the too-hot of August, I can look back at winter with a clear head. Though I wrote the following from the deep freeze of January, I can still feel it just as strongly now.

January 16:

When you’re a gardener in northern climates, January stinks. The ground is frozen solid, with not a speck of green to be seen anywhere. I stood out there this morning, steaming mug of coffee in hand, and indulged myself in a little melancholy. What kind of person willingly does this to herself? Who grows things in a place where 3/4 of the year is spent wishing for the other fourth? Suffering hail storms and freak cold snaps and squirrels just to have the perfect Caprese Salad?

Being burdened with a brain that whips out analogies without provocation, that long-suffering person is not much different than the folks I serve with my work.

They struggle to get the word out about the wonderful work they’re doing in the world, using a medium that can be challenging at best, exasperating at its worst. They try websites, email campaigns, free giveaways, social media, YouTube videos. They write blogs so people will get to know them; they suffer through Facebook’s ever-changing algorithm that seems stacked against their posts ever being seen. They try to please Google, just to have Google change its mind every quarter about what ought to rank in its top ten. Some days, despite all the TLC in the world, their efforts seem to bear only a scrawny carrot and an undernourished bean or two.

Here are five things I’ve learned from growing food in an unpredictable place:

Give your efforts the best chance for success.

I’ve been accused of being an over-preparer. When I want something to grow, I give it deep, loose, fertile soil – sometimes two feet deep – so that it has every opportunity to grow up strong. Deep healthy roots mean a resilient plant that in turn produces delicious things for you. In the same way, investing a lot of love and time and thought into your new efforts to market yourself gives those efforts deep roots that are far-reaching, able to withstand drought and disaster.

Yeah but, you’ll say, I do put a ton of time into what I offer.

I know you do. But it goes even deeper than that. Identifying who you’re speaking to, and what they need the most, then creating something that solves a known need — this is the path to fine relationships and a fine harvest. What you offer might be incredibly soulful and beautiful and the work you were meant to do. And you should do it. But if you need to involve other people in it, or make money offering it, you have to find a way for it to be relevant to something your people are feeling acutely and specifically right now.

Sometimes you just have to trust.

Each year I grow at least three kinds of potatoes. In between spring planting and the time when I turn over the soil and find bucket of spuds underneath, I have to trust that something’s happening under there. I do the best I can to get the green plants above ground healthy, but if I go digging around twice a week to find proof that it’s paying off, I’m just wasting time.

There’s an element of trust at work in both soil and business. I can’t force it. I just have to do my best, build all the relationships I can, and trust that the payoff is coming. There is no sense panicking because you don’t see 1000 hits on your website in its first week. Things can take time to grow, to attract links and friends, and percolate through your audience. Much can be happening underground and you just can’t see it yet. Keep sharing your work and your thoughts, keep connecting with people, and it will pay off.

Remember that everything goes in cycles.

Underneath the frozen earth of one patch, I have a year’s worth of garlic for my kitchen. It was planted in the fall and will be harvested next summer. This is not its time to be green. Right now, down deep, it is slowly growing, feeling out its environment, sending out roots before shoots. It knows its proper time. I am compelled to write a book this year, but it is not time to sit down and knock out chapters yet. My coach friend wants to offer an innovative flavor of coaching, but first, she’s working with a few test clients to see if it actually benefits them. I have several clients who want a website, and are immersed in the work of gathering what they want to say and offer before rushing into that next step. Be aware of the different seasons of your work — which phase of it is best for the energy and resources you have right now?

The right tools are critical.

There’s a business owner locally who can pinch a penny until Lincoln says “ouch.” He looks for the absolute cheapest in everything, regardless of whether it will serve him best beyond next month. The place he hosts his website is free, but severely limits what he can do with his site, and it’s hard to find on the Web. He uses the cheapest printer, and the substandard materials his clients see affects how they think about him. The email provider he uses won’t send out his blog posts to subscribers automatically, so he ends up writing them twice. And so forth.

I have a shovel I purchased 22 years ago, hand-forged in England, heavy steel with a sturdy ash handle. It is still the shovel I use every day. It cost me $70.00 in 1993. If I had purchased the cheapest tool for the job, not only would I have likely had to replace it every year ($14 x 22 years) but I would have suffered the frustration of having the thing break at a bad time, or not be able to do what I needed to do.

We always advise folks to invest in the right tools and services that will move you forward, right from the beginning. Note that I don’t mean the most expensive — just the ones that truly serve your needs, and create space for you to do your best work.

Stay aware of whatever’s out there that will help free time, money, and brain damage for the work you love.

I have a tiny tool in my toolbox that looks like a horse syringe: a clear tube with a red plunger at one end, a little hole at the other. It has one job. You fill it with the teensy-weensy seeds like carrots and lettuce, ones that are so tiny it’s impossible to just plant one at a time with clumsy bare fingers. Without it, I wouldn’t die, but I would waste seeds, waste time, and spend hours later thinning the seedlings that come up in clumps, a process that always traumatizes the survivors. A $3 gadget saves time and ensures a better harvest.

There are new tools and services out there that can take the stress and adversity out of a small business owner’s life. The ones you use are 100% dependent on what you need. They might include things like

Time Etc., a virtual assistant service that offers thousands of talented potential helpers to time-stressed people for less than $30/hour….perfect when you’re trying to research the best email service, flight to Brussels, nontoxic office supplies, etc. is an in-person version, vetted/insured somebodies who can do things like shop for your groceries so you don’t have to live on Big Macs when you bump through an 80-hour work week. helps with tiny but important tasks, the kind that would take you hours but will take them fifteen minutes (ahem, for $10).

Postmates gets your package across town in an hour.

(I wrote about Privacy Badger, Boomerang, Acuity Scheduling, Zoom, Loom and FB Purity in this post recently – lifesavers.)

There are new and different tools every day that make life easier, free your time, or get things done that have been languishing. For most, you can give them a try with little or no investment. Seek them out; it will save time for the things that matter more to you.

Whether you are cultivating buyers for your book or roses next to your porch, may your harvest be astonishing this year.

Building a small business that matters: 3 ways to be a force for good AND be profitable

Last year I wrote a book called Storytelling for Small Business: Creating and Growing an Authentic Business Through the Power of Story. (It’s a cool little bite-sized book, or so they tell me. Check it out if you’re interested in that topic.)

What most folks who’ve read it don’t know is that the subtitle of the book was originally slated to be Building a Business That Matters Through the Power of Story. But someone in my trusted circles raised a red flag. “To me, that sounds like I have to have an ‘I’m-changing-the-world’ mentality in order to benefit from the book. There are lots of good people who just don’t think of themselves like that…I’d advise you to change that if you want people to read it.”

So I did.

Hey, now, cut me some slack. It was an introvert’s first book. I’d been sleepless about the whole process already, and that advice sounded reasonable enough. Of course I wanted people to read it. So I changed the name.

And, of course, I regretted it the minute I punched the publish button on Amazon.

Because here’s the awful truth about me: With every tiny cell in my body, I think our businesses should matter. And what’s more, our businesses can matter.

All of them.

The art of “doing well by doing good” isn’t just for the behemoths with a whole floor devoted to their department of Corporate Social Responsibility.  From an artist painting in her garage after her day job, to brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants, to the biggest brands we can name, every one of us has the ability to shape our livelihood into a force for good. Let me show you.

What ARE you going on about, Margaret?

What does it mean to have a “business that matters”? It may mean different things to different people, but for me it means looking at what my business creates and shares—products, services, artwork, knowledge—and seeing it through the wide-angle lens of what I want to be able to show for the 80-odd years I get to spend on this planet. 

  • What do I stand for/against? What matters to me? If that’s a tough question for you, look around your life, your social media, or your record of charitable contributions. Whatever it is that riles you up—or chokes you up—should give you a clue about what you stand for.
  • What am I doing to put legs on the things I care about, over and above “likes” on Facebook or the occasional donation?
  • Given all the hours and energy I spend doing my “work,” how can this time support something that matters to me so that my head, heart, and feet are all pointed in the same direction?

There’s always some grumbling about the idea of altruism in business. In addition to the hardliners who prefer keeping work and purpose separate, many will dismiss the idea of weaving them together because it sounds hard, futile, and expensive. It doesn’t have to be any of those things. In fact, I’m seeing more examples every day of small businesses who’ve connected with a bigger purpose and suddenly gained the traction and the following that had eluded them before. Why is that?

Times are changing.

Buyers care more about who they buy things from. Mission matters. People will keep buying cars from Tesla (regardless of deliverability woes) because their vision is to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” rather than “be the industry leader in blah blah blah.”

People are willing (and often able) to pay more for something created by a business that has a heart and a conscious (in other words, by businesses that matter). It often comes with the bonus of it simply feeling great to support someone we like and admire.

Employees want to work for businesses that are run by good people. They want to work for people they like and admire, and want to feel like part of something bigger and more important than just keeping shareholders happy.

The face of business startups is shifting. As the social world gets more difficult to navigate, there’s a rising wave of self-employed people who are guided by the “triple bottom line” (profit, people, and planet) and not just dollars in, dollars out.

If that last one is you, well, welcome to the clubhouse. I’m glad you’re here.

And I’d invite you to consider these three ways to build a bigger “why” into the work you do.

1) Do it to add a little soul to what you already offer: Go beyond trading a good product or service for money

Ever think about what your work/business is already creating MORE of or LESS of in the world?  More peace of mind. Less poison in our cosmetics. More independence from the broken medical establishment. Less isolation and loneliness. More beauty to make our home feel like home. Less factory-made food. My point? If you’re looking for ways to make money while making a difference, you may already be halfway there.

Even if you find yourself teetering toward bummer, I’m not one of those types, know this: it’s not something reserved for artists and coaches and activists and nonprofits. You can add a thoughtful, soulful element of connection to any business. You just may need to find the right road to it.

A cafe or restaurant can choose to cooperate with other businesses in town to help solve a local problem.

A real estate broker can educate young couples or even college students on saving to buy a first home, or special loans/programs available to help them.

A small farm can set up a day for “gleaning” (picking whatever is left after a big harvest) to support local hunger efforts.

A private trash collection company can host a workshop (or give away an ebook) on how easy it is to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

A bookstore can set aside a corner of the shop with comfy chairs for purposes like job help, tutoring, or teaching ESL.

A hardware store can help teach people to be more frugal and self-sufficient by holding a class on easy fixes around the house or helping tools last longer through proper care of them.

An accountant can set up a payment button on her website that allows people to donate small amounts to a fund that helps older people/nonprofits afford her financial advice and guidance.

Anyone who offers a healing service/product of some kind can offer different price tiers so that more people can at least experience a taste of the goodness you offer.

All of these things matter. They make something better in addition to satisfying the need to turn a profit. And, in fact, they often help you turn a profit.

2) Do it to go big or to go…little.

You know why I like Patagonia? Well, there are a hundred reasons. But the main one is probably that they pledge at least 1% of sales or 10% of their pre-tax profits—whichever is more—to grassroots environmental groups often overlooked or rejected by other corporate donors.

You know why I like the small eco-friendly burger chain Larkburger ? Because they wrapped an entire business around responsibly-sourced/scratch-made food and recyclable/compostable everything, and profitably model what every restaurant in the world should be like. It’s hard to find a quick place to eat that lets me be zero waste (We’ll go a dozen miles out of our way to patronize their businesses.)

You don’t have to be Patagonia, or even Larkburger. But maybe you could be like Steamers Coffeehouse in Arvada, Colorado, which trains and employs developmentally disabled people to staff its restaurant, prep kitchen, and jam businesses. Or like my friend Michael, a psychologist in New York who volunteers as a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Worker. Or our little local saloon that reduces and recycles everything, including recycling fryer oil (they donate the rebate check for that to children’s charities in Africa). This isn’t one-size-fits-all.

Even if you’re tiny, or still trying to get traction financially, you can matter. Some ways:

  • Joining an affiliate program offered by a vendor you use often, with proceeds going to a cause
  • A donate button to support a charity
  • Explaining yourself on your About page, include your reason for doing this
  • Giving a certain percentage each year to a particular organization or movement
  • Taking a day off each month to volunteer (and blogging about it to shine a light on that cause)
  • If you sell knowledge—think practical, hands-on, marketable skills—consider gifting a local women’s shelter, job assistance center, or charity to help elevate their clients.
  • Rather than using Fiverr for subcontractors, investigate the local community college’s intern program or job board.

Just pick something that matters to you, and find a way to support it with your business. Not for the press or the marketing bump, but because it’s who you are.

Do it to know who you are.

In Bernadette Jiwa’s great little book Story Driven: You Don’t Need to Compete When You Know Who You Are, she defined a great company this way: “…They don’t try to matter by winning. They win by mattering. The people who build them know what they stand for and act on those beliefs.”

It doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself a small business or a solopreneur or a freelancer or just someone who works for yourself. If your work matters, you are part of pushing us toward something better, or at least helping arrest our slide into something worse.

To me, building a business that has the guts to stand for something isn’t just one of the best ways to spend a life. It’s also one of the best ways to stand out in the noisy world of mainstream marketing, and make a good living that makes a difference.

Here’s to working on something that matters to you, and growing a business that matters to everyone.


Doing small things with great love

Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.
Mother Teresa (paraphrased by many)

When we work for ourselves, we can be doing big things or small things.

Big things might include creating an offering that reaches and enhances the lives of thousands upon thousands of people. Starting a foundation. Quitting your job and devoting your life to building schools in Africa. Beautiful stuff.

And then there are small things, like

being 100% honest with your marketing on every level so you don’t contribute to the disillusionment and hardening being caused by common marketingspeak

responding to all people with patience and civility, even if they are unskilled in how they phrase their “ask”

running your business in a way that doesn’t add to the mountains of paper, plastic, and toxic waste that will sit in a landfill for a thousand years

just being kind and clear in your day-to-day contact with the world

Remember that doing the small things with great love can have a positive ripple effect in the world that matches that of the big things. And it creates a You that makes life feel better on every level. It can make us feel more at peace with ourselves, de-stress us, lower our blood pressure, and generally help us tune into the “…the current of poetry that runs through all things” (actually written by J.D. Salinger).

Zing! Becoming truer and truer versions of ourselves

The problem with reading good books is that there’s never just ONE great, soul-opening quote, there are always several. I can’t get this one out of my head either, from the introduction to this book:

“…I hope the story of our company can serve as a little light that will shine into people’s hearts…so that many more of us will actively transform the world, day by day, with meaningful work that allows us all to become truer and truer versions of ourselves.
—Shawn Askinosie, Meaningful Work: A Quest to Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul

Beautiful arrow straight to the heart.

Looking back through the years since I started working for myself, I can see the pattern of becoming a truer version of myself so very clearly. Nothing’s been so surprising.

People I talk to believe that when you do it for a while, you get better at this ‘business thing.’  They think you’re constantly getting bigger, broader, building UP with skills and experiences. They want to build UP too.

But in fact, what I’ve found is the opposite: As the years pass I’m peeling away layers. It hasn’t been like stacking boxes of skills and wisdom higher and higher so I can get somewhere. It’s been like digging down, allowing myself to get closer and closer to what lies at the core of me.

And as we close in on that, something magical happens: Our intuition can finally take over, and the evolution of our work isn’t arduous anymore. Writing blog posts isn’t hard anymore. Even day to day business “bumps” aren’t a chore anymore, because the answers come singing out from that omniscient center of us that knows what’s meant to happen.

Who knew?  Not me. Not until now.

The notion of our work being a two-part harmony

Sometimes my mantra for the day comes to me early. Sometimes later. Sometimes right before bed. Today, I was fortunate to find this thought upon which to meditate almost immediately after opening my eyes in the morning.

“All business vocations should strive for greatness (excellence/quality) and goodness (heart). All business vocations should have a harmony between profit and the desire to do good work for the world. How do you do this? By pursuing both priorities all the time.”
Shawn Askinosie in Meaningful Work: A Quest To Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, And Feed Your Soul

Do I pursue both of these priorities all the time? I know that, when woven together, they make an almost unbreakable combination that can carry me through “dry” times, times of doubt, and times of excitement with grace and purpose.

Do I give them equal weight and equal space in my daily activities?

On marketing’s place in the world

“Marketing should magnify the truth, not manipulate a message.
Our job isn’t to get everyone to believe us.
It’s to give the right people something to believe in.”

Bernadette Jiwa, Story Driven: You don’t need to compete when you know who you are

How’s that for something to wake up to?

I’ve long had a problem with marketing, at least marketing the way it’s largely been done over time.

Having come out of that business, I am cursed with the memories of countless little rooms where the same conversation took place over and over again: “What can we say to get people to buy this?”

Oh, there were variants, like “What can we tell people about our company so they’ll want to buy from us?” and “How can we convince people that they need this?”

Only rarely did I see a product or service that was marketed like this:
“Here’s who we are, and here’s why we created this. It helps (these people) do/feel/be (this way), so we invite you to give it a try and see what you think.”

An example that comes to mind:

When Bevel’s Tristan Walker talks about why he started a health and beauty company for people of color, he was motivated by how hard it is to grow up in a country where cosmetics and grooming products have been crafted with one ethnic group in mind. It was hard to find the right makeup colors if you were a dark-skinned woman, for example, and impossible to find shaving razors designed for men with coarse, curly facial hair that made shaving hell (think razor bumps…ingrown hairs…ouch). And that’s more than just an inconvenience.

When he was a young Wall Street intern, a fellow trader sneered at him to ‘clean up the hair on his face.’ “I remember being mortified not only by the fact that the guy was a jerk, but also that I didn’t know what to do,” Walker says. “There were just no products for me on the market. For a hundred years, we haven’t had products that have worked for us.” (Fast Company)

The marketing of their product lines on Walker & Co’s website magnifies the truth:
For people of color, it was very hard to find beauty/shaving products that helped them not be mortified.
So they started a company to solve that problem, because life shouldn’t be like that.

No screaming, no scarcity, no subtle or not-so-subtle social pressure.

The message isn’t, “You know you’ll be less attractive/less popular/less happy if you don’t buy/wear/experience our stuff.”

It’s “There wasn’t enough of this in the world, so we made it for you AND for us. We’re in this together.”

I like that.

What’s the truth of your business, your practice, your work?
What does the world have too much of, or not enough of?
What do you offer that helps tip that balance?