My Top Tech Tips

October 23, 2006

In running my business, I use a number of cool technologies — technologies to play audio and video on my websites, for blogging, for desktop productivity, and more. Today’s blog entry is a list of my favorites — many of which are free. Please leave comments with your favorite technologies (no spam, thank you). You can download this list as a pdf by clicking here.

WEB – This blog uses all three
1. Goal-Free Living Free WordPress.com blogging or WordPress.org for download (I use the download version)
2. Goal-Free Living Value Aweber for autoresponder, newsletters, webforms and more ($20/month or less and very powerful)
3. Goal-Free Living Value 1and1 for hosting – relatively cheap and reliable. Inexpensive domain registration. Free newsletter and website builder software, plus much more

VIDEO AND AUDIO
4. Goal-Free Living FreeWindows Media Encoder – Converts various video formats to WMV format. Free from Microsoft.com
5. Goal-Free Living FreeRIVA FLV Encoder – Software that converts video (except WMV) to FLV (flash)
6. Goal-Free Living FreeWeb Audio Plus – converts MP3 and WAV files to flash audio with buttons for website. Free from CNET.com. This was used to create the audio message above.
7. Goal-Free Living FreeFlowplayer – Software for playing flash videos on your website
8. Goal-Free Living FreeAudacity – Audio editing software
9. Goal-Free Living FreeWindows Movie Maker – Simple video editing that comes with Windows XP
10. Goal-Free Living Value Total Recorder – Records streaming audio, microphone input, line-in input, as well as CDs and DVDs. Extremely useful! (highcriteria.com)
11. Goal-Free Living Value Yasa Video Converter – Converts videos to any format. Useful if converting unprotected DVDs (VOB) to editable video.
12. Goal-Free Living Value DBPowerAMP Music Converter – useful for converting from one audio format to another (e.g., from WAV to MP3) — $14 from DBpoweramp.com
13. Dazzle analog to digital video converter – allows easy transfer of VHS to computer for editing or DVD creation
14. Xilisoft DVD ripper – converts copyright protected DVDs to MPEG files – xilisoft.com ($35)
15. Radio Shack Phone Recorder Controller (Model: 17-855) allows you to record phone conversations on your computer or on any recording device. $27

BUSINESS GROWTH
16. Goal-Free Living Value PRLeads.com – inexpensive PR opportunities from journalists who want to interview experts
17. Goal-Free Living Value PRWeb – cheap and free press release posting which landed hundreds of newspapers hits
18. The National Publicity Summit – Landed the Oprah article here (nationalpublicitysummit.com)
19. Google AdWords and Yahoo Search Marketing – pay per click web advertising

DESKTOP PRODUCTIVITY
20. Goal-Free Living FreeSharpReader – Free RSS software for aggregating feeds from blogs and news (sharpreader.net)
21. Goal-Free Living FreeSkype – speak to friends around the world for free
22. Goal-Free Living FreeDownload Accelerator Plus – useful for quickly downloading lots of files from websites – free from speedbit.com
23. Goal-Free Living FreeLookOut email search engine for Outlook (free from http://tinyurl.com/46shl).
24. Goal-Free Living FreeGoogle Desktop – Free desktop searching engine
25. Goal-Free Living FreeTrillian – Instant Messenger integrator that is free
26. Goal-Free Living Freepdf995.com for free software to convert any document into a pdf file
27. Datadepositbox.com – remote back-up of data. Recently saved me when my hard drive crashed
28. instantpublisher.com for easy book publishing directly from Word documents

MOBILE
29. BlackBerry Pearl (8100) from T-Mobile (just got it and LOVE it)

USEFUL WEBSITES
30. istockphoto.com for inexpensive images
31. Goal-Free Living Freespeakeasy.net/speedtest for testing your download speeds

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How to Develop a Compass-Driven Strategic Plan

October 4, 2006

Last week I gave a presentation on “goal-free” Strategic Planning to a group of professional speakers, all of whom are sole practitioners. Over the course of 90 minutes, I discussed many concepts, including the one I write about here: Compass-Driven Strategic Planning.

Fundamental Business Activities

All businesses, no matter what size or industry, have four fundamental sets of activities (also known as “processes” or “capabilities”):
- Develop Products and Services: Research & development, intellectual property creation, product design and development, etc
- Generate Demand: Marketing, sales, customer acquisition, customer service, etc
- Fulfill Demand: Manufacturing, distribution, inventory management, service delivery, etc
- Plan and Manage the Business: Strategy, finance, technology, etc

As a starting point for your business, generate a list of all activities that fall within these four fundamental processes. Click here to view a sample one page list for a professional speaker.

In order to create a sustainable business, proficiency in all four areas is necessary. Sole practitioners tend to focus their attention on only one or two of these processes, exposing their company to great risk. Here are some of the most common pitfalls:

- Excessive focus on the delivery of product or services (fulfilling demand) leaving limited time to create and maintain a pipeline of work (generate demand).
- Mismanagement and neglect of finances due to a lack of immediate priority.
- Reliance on one product or service with insufficient time for the development of new products. One sure way to end up out of business is to rely on one product indefinitely.

Why are sole practitioners so susceptible to these pitfalls? As with most companies, but more notably with small organizations, resources are at a premium; time being one of the most precious commodities. The challenge is that there is never enough time to directly manage every piece of the business. One solution is to focus on differentiators and outsource the rest. However, the real solution, especially for a small business, is a bit more complex.

Targeting

In the Goal-Free Living secret, “Use a Compass, Not a Map,” I discuss the concept of finding your compass: This is the intersecting point between passion (what you love to do), skills (what you are good at), and value (what creates value – for you and others). These three attributes should drive your planning strategies.

We will start with the two dimensions that are more personal in nature, passion and skills, then overlay the value dimension later.

Create a 2 x 2 matrix. One axis is passion—from high to low. High passion implies this is an activity you love to do; low passion is something you would rather not do. The other axis is skills—from high to low. High skills are the activities where you have the necessary skills; low skills are those where you do not.
Now, that you have this 2 x 2, plot your previously listed fundamental activities onto the matrix.

Then, let’s look at the resultant quadrants.

Targeting Matrix

Low passion/low skill: Outsource: If you don’t like doing something and you don’t do it well, then the best solution is to “outsource” this work. Find someone else who enjoys this task and has the skill set to execute it at a higher degree. This can be done through bartering, hiring employees, using contractors (I use elance.com), summonsing friends and family, revenue sharing, or any other creative collaborative strategy. In short, get someone else to do these low passion, low skill activities.

Low passion/high skills: Minimize. If you don’t want your job to become work, you probably want to outsource these capabilities as well. However, if you are starting out and finances are an issue, you may want to continue doing these activities for now. To keep yourself motivated, try to find a way of getting yourself excited about these activities. One way may be to turn them into a game. In general, you want to “minimize” the amount of time you spend on these tasks.

Low skills/high passion: Learn. If you love doing these activities, then you may wish to acquire the necessary skills. This can be done through a variety of means including training, mentoring, or researching. If you anticipate a steep learning curve, you may wish to find a partner during the learning process who possesses these talents. This will help to ensure that your business keeps moving forward while you gain the necessary skills.

High skills/high passion: Target: This is the sweet spot of your business. “Target” these areas. If you love the work, are good at it, AND it adds value to your market, put most of your energies here. If this is your core business, then you have chosen wisely. If not, maybe it is time to re-evaluate the business you are in.

These last two quadrants should reflect your business priorities, with an emphasis on the high skills/high passion work. By combining passion with skills, you are likely to be more effective, efficient, and satisfied in your work.

Value

Once we are clear where our skills and passion lie, to ensure success, we must now overlay one additional dimension: value.

The final test is to validate your priorities against the “value” equation. Just because you love to do something, does not mean it is vital to your business. Conversely, some less than desirable activities may be critical to your business success.

Although there are many dimensions of value (e.g., value you create for customers, revenue you generate for your business, etc), for our purposes here, we will focus on “strategic” importance. Strategic activities are those that define the organization’s special nature, differentiate them from the competition and are fundamental to the direction of the business. We will define activities that are not strategic as being “tactical.” Tactical activities support the business, but are not THE business.

Unfortunately, determining whether an activity is strategic or tactical is not necessarily black or white as there is a range of “strategicness”. For example, if you are Apple Computers, financial work would most likely be tactical. It adds value, but it is not strategic. Although Apple’s ability to manufacture high quality iPods is of great importance, their ability to design innovative products is most important. Therefore, design is clearly strategic and manufacturing falls somewhere in between the two ends of the spectrum.

If we add in “value” to our matrix and plot our tactical activities, we end up with some new strategies that look something like this:

tactical matrix

high passion/high skill: Extend. If you are passionate and skilled in a particular area and it is not currently strategic, consider how you might “extend” that capability. Ask yourself, “How can I make this a strategic part of my business? How can I create extraordinary value for customers by leveraging this expertise?” Perhaps one way is to offer this service to others who are in a similar business. For example, professional speaking is my core business. However something that I am both skilled and passionate about is securing business with large corporations. Therefore, I could potentially offer this as a service to other professional speakers as a source of additional revenue.

high passion/low skill: Apprentice. If you are passionate, but not skilled in a tactical area, these activities will become a distraction to the business if you invest too much energy in learning. One alternative is to use the apprentice model, whereby you hire someone to perform this activity, while you learn from them. In the future, you may choose to do this activity yourself.

If we add in “value” to our matrix and plot our strategic activities, we end up with some new strategies that look something like this:

strategic targeting matrix

For strategic activities with low passion: Rethink or Partner. If you find that the predominance of your strategic activities involves work that is not of interest to you, you may need to “rethink” the business you are in – especially if you lack the necessary skills. Although it is difficult to be successful in business where you are neither skilled nor passionate, this does not mean you are fated for failure. Maybe you hate sales, yet the sales function is critical to the success of your business. In this case you may wish to “partner” with someone who enjoys this work and excels in this area. In this sense, we are moving beyond the traditional outsourcing model where activities are transactional in nature, such as: hiring someone to build your website, do your taxes, or create marketing materials. Here, the partnerships are more extensive and deeper in that your collaborator becomes part of your business. Their role is strategic. Bottom line: build a strong relationship with a compatible business partner, and your business – and your partner’s business – will thrive.

[NOTE: I discuss targeting and levels of value in depth in Chapter 7 of my book, 24/7 Innovation.]

Conclusion

By focusing your energies on those areas that matter most, you create a greater opportunity for success. When you leverage your personal skills and interests, you not only become more productive, motivated, and creative, your work becomes less stressful. This, in turn, will give you more energy and perhaps boost your desire to “work” longer hours. When you are focused on what you love, work is miraculously transformed into fun. By surrounding yourself with capable people who are committed to your success, you end up with a repertoire of skills and talents to compliment your own. In doing this, you create a more flexible business with the ability to respond quicker to changing market conditions and evolving personal needs. This means that you need fewer plans and can operate from a more “experiential” perspective. You become more successful with less effort. Isn’t this what everyone wants? This is Goal-Free Living.

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Tips from Tom Peters’ Brand Manager

September 11, 2006

I am the Vice President of Programming and the President Elect for the New England National Speakers Association. I held my first meeting in this role the other day, with Erik Hansen, Tom Peters’ Brand Manager, as our guest speaker for the day. Erik had lots of fantastic ideas that he shared with the group. Here is my list of his top tips.

Business Basics and Branding
1. People Love Lists – Use numbered lists as a way of sharing ideas. That’s why I am creating his tips as a list.

2. “Screw Around Vigorously” (SAV) – Have a bias for action and “just do stuff.”

3. Use Rapid Prototyping – Rather than analyze everything to death, take action and learn from your failures. Fail often and fail quickly.

4. Building the Brand Creates the Brand – He quoted John Moore, author of Tribal Knowledge, “Contrary to what you may have heard or thought, Starbucks never sought to create a brand. Instead, the company passionately sought to create appreciation for a better tasting cup of coffee.”

5. Your Brand is “What People Say It Is” – Someone from the audience asked Erik to define a brand in 5 words. The brand is not your logo or marketing materials. It is what the public says it is.

6. Brand You, Not Your Business – There was much discussion on what was more important to brand – you or your business. In the case of speakers, Erik felt that since you are the product, you are the brand. Based on this recommendation, I am going to rework all of my websites (goalfree.com, 24-7innovation.com, and others) into a steveshapiro.com website. Goal-Free Living, 24/7 Innovation, and my other work are just projects. I am working on an umbrella theme, such as, “Steve Shapiro, the Guy Who Helps You Get Out of Your Own Way.” Or something like that.

7. When Branding You, Find a Common Anchor – Erik talked about how the “!” on Tom Peters’ materials has become his icon that everyone remembers. This did not create the brand, but rather reflected the brand. Find a similar mark and use it on all of your websites, books, presentations, etc.

8. It’s All About Connections and Conversations – Your brand is the conversation that people are having about you and your products/services. And the more you can stimulate these conversation on the internet, the more buzz that gets created.

Content, Conversations, and Connections
9. Blog – Erik said that the five most important steps are, “1) Do good work and lots of it, 2) Blog, 3) Blog, 4) Blog, and 5) Blog” Do you think he likes blogging? He believes this is a great way of generating buzz, links and connections.

10. You Can’t Write Too Much – Tom Peters is known for writing volumes of content on his blog. To date, he has roughly 400,000 words. Given that the average book is 50,000 words, his blog contains as much content as 8 books.

11. Give People a Reason to Visit Your Website – If you don’t have compelling content, no one will visit. And no one will link to your site.

12. Promote Other People – On Tom’s website, he has his “Cool Friends.” This promotes other people in addition to Tom. Of course if you include content other than your own, this gives people more reasons to visit your site. And it gives more people reasons to link to your site. In fact, I am one of Tom Peters’ “Cool Friends.” Here’s the link.

13. Use Guest Bloggers – If you write a blog, get others to also write blog entries. This serves multiple purposes. It creates more content and more reasons for people to visit and to link. And, if you are like most people, you will want to take vacations from your blogging. If people see your blog is not updated regularly, they will stop coming back. Guest bloggers can create content when you don’t want to.

14. Share Everything – Instead of hording your intellectual property, give it away. This attracts more people, more buzz, and convinces buyers that you really know your stuff.

15. Place Comments on Other Blogs – Search http://blogsearch.google.com/ for other blogs that might have similar topics. If you write about leadership, search for leadership. Comment on blog entries on other sites and include links back to your site. HINT: Leave comments on my blog; it’s a start.

16. Seek Out People With Similar Interests – Did you read a book on a topic that is related to yours, or maybe just of interest? If so, call them and start a real conversation. These people may become advocates, business partners, or idea generators.

17. Use Link Websites and External Websites – Look into sites such as technorati, del.icio.us, changethis.com and others that can help bring more links to your site. Also take advantage of YouTube, Flickr, and others places where you can post pictures and videos, with links back to your site.

Other Ideas
18. Google Search Yourself – Go into Google and search for yourself every week. This gives you an idea of what others are saying. It also helps you determine if your marketing efforts are working.

19. People Love Cards – Tom created a number of “flash cards” that he sells and uses in his workshops. One set of cards were designed by IDEO.

20. Try New Things – Go for things you don’t normally go for. Read magazines you don’t normally read. These will give you new and different insights/perspectives.

21. “Aspire to be The Dumbest Person in the Room” – Quoted from Cool Friend Sally Hogshead’s book Radical Careering. Surround yourself with bright people. And, always look for the nuggets in what everyone is saying. There is gold everywhere.

22. Be Controversial – Tom’s book, Re-Imagine, gets 5 star ratings and 1 star ratings. Not much in the middle (personally, I love it). If you try to please everyone, you will please no one. In your speeches, say something provocative as a way of engaging the audience.

23. Minimize Friction – Make it easy as possible for people to get to you and your content.

24. Be Real - Before posting, I asked Erik to review the list. There were 23 tips on the list I sent him. So I suggested that if there were two more tips, it would round to 25. He wrote back, ” I like 23. 23 is a real number, unlike 25, which is a number that everyone would use. If I see that someone has 25 tips, I know that they worked it to come out to 25, meaning that there are some repetitive ideas in there. Whereas 23 is 23. You don’t try to come up with 23 tips. It just so happens that you extracted 23 tips from what I said. Therefore 23 is a lot more real than 25. So, I’d prefer to stay with 23.” And with that last tip, we have 24. Another real number.

Thanks Erik!

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Save BIG With My Top Travel Tips

August 25, 2006

From time to time, I will post blog entries which are not directly related to the goal-free topic, but rather are related to the process I went through for pulling together the book. Topics may include getting published, blogging, or internet promotions. If there is a topic that is of particular interest to you, write me. Today I am talking about travel.

Back in 2003, I interviewed people for Goal-Free Living during a 12,000 mile road trip where I used wireless (cellular) internet access in my car to book rooms in 68 hotels ranging from 5-star luxury in Las Vegas to 1-star motels on the various highways. It was an interesting experience and it allowed me to try many different booking techniques. I have refined my approach over the years.

Here is my process for booking a hotel at the best rate

1. First research hotels on Orbitz (or whatever traditional booking system you prefer: Expedia, Travelocity, Hotels.com, etc. I will use Orbitz as the example for simplicity).

2. Next, go to Hotwire.com to see if there is a nicely priced property in comparison to what you found on Orbitz. Hotwire does not show you the property name, but it does give you the price, the general location, star rating, and amenities. The prices on hotwire are sometimes as much as 40% off the best price you will find elsewhere. Unfortunately, the savings can be close to nothing. Yesterday, I booked a hotel in Denver. The best price on Orbitz was $86. I got it for $57 on Hotwire. That’s a 30% discount. Not bad.

3. But don’t stop here. Next, go to Priceline.com and offer a rate about 20% lower than the best price on Hotwire – using the same location and star rating. With Priceline YOU name the price for a given star ratings. You might want to check out bidding support sites for some help in your bidding (I don’t bother). With Priceline, I have found hotels for 60% off the Orbitz price. But don’t go too low, or your bid won’t be accepted and you won’t be able to re-bid the same star rating and location (for a period of time). I found that Priceline is consistently the least expensive option, if your bid is accepted.

4. If your bid is not accepted, you have a couple of options. You can go through this process again for a different location or star rating. Or you can just go back to Hotwire for the purchase.

5. Research Hotwire a bit further to get a clearer picture of which hotel you might get. Go back to Orbitz and enter the search criteria. Click on the “Expand search options” link and check off the amenities listed on the Hotwire property of interest. You should end up with a relatively short list (often only one or two properties) that match. This will give you a decent idea of which property you might get on Hotewire.com. Remember, Hotwire tends to give you mainly major chains like Marriott, Hilton, Radisson, Holiday Inn and the likes.

6. Unless you find a desirable property at a large discount on Hotwire, you may want to consider booking the tradition route.

7. But before booking on Orbitz, go to the hotel website for the chain. For example, if you are thinking of booking a Courtyard by Marriott, go to the Marriott website and search. If the price is the same (or better), I usually book through the chain website as they typically have better cancellation policies and more generous rewards programs. Be sure to see if a AAA discount applies. Always double check the cancellation policies.

8. Before making your final decision, you may want to check other websites, such as sidestep.com which claims to search over 100 travels sites with one click.

9. Finally, book your room and enjoy your stay!

Tips about Hotwire and Priceline

  • When using these websites, if you stay in a hotel for several nights, it seems that the rate is determined by the highest rate for the period. So, if you are staying in a hotel Wed – Sun, you might get a better rate by booking Wed – Thu (weekday pricing) separately from Fri – Sun (Weekend pricing). Using this approach, I saved 45% extra during the weekend. Had I booked Wed – Sun as one booking, I would have paid the higher weekday rate all four nights.
  • It appears that the rate that the hotel gets paid by Hotwire is about $10 less than the price you pay (a couple of hotels accidentally printed the rate they received on my check-in documentation). I have used this to my advantage on a couple of occasions. If I want to extend my stay, I sometimes do this with the front desk and they have honored the even lower price ($10 below Hotwire.com). Don’t count on this though.
  • Hotwire has a “double the difference” policy. If you find the same hotel on the same date sold elsewhere for less, they will refund double the difference. I only had this happen once and they promptly refunded the money. Be sure to read the terms and conditions for details and restrictions.
  • Caveats about Hotwire and Priceline

  • Hotwire and Priceline are a bit risky. You are not assured of the hotel you will get. Although most of the time I have been happy, occasionally, you get a dud deal. As tickets are non-refundable, if there is a chance your plans will change. For this reason, I tend to book my hotels with Hotwire or Priceline at the last minute.
  • The star ratings are always accurate on Priceline.com (or sometimes you even get upgraded). However, on a few occasions, the star rating on Hotwire was inflated (a 3 star hotel was listed as a 4 star, for example). Both sites use their own rating system that is not always the same as on Orbitz. And keep in mind, star ratings do not mean quality. They mean amenities such as on-site restaurant or the availability of dry-cleaning.
  • You do not get frequent flier miles (or frequent stay points). This is also the case with purchases on Hotels.com and sometimes the other 3rd party websites.
  • You need to pay up-front, so if cash flow is an issue, take that into consideration.
  • A service fee is added, so consider the total cost (you are given these on the final page before confirming your purchase). An accurate comparison can be made between the total cost on these websites with the cost + tax on Orbitz. Unfortunately, you can’t always easily calculate the taxes on Orbitz.
  • Although the process might sound complicated, it does not take much time. And it can save you a bundle. Do you have any other tips, tricks, or caveats?

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    Sobering Statistics About The Book Industry

    July 3, 2006

    I recently attended the Book Expo of America (BEA) — the annual convention of the book industry. Thousands of new books are on display by hundreds of publishers. As an author, it is daunting to see how many new titles are released each year. In fact, I was given a few statistics that you may find interesting (and shocking).

  • Each year, there are 172,000 new books published in the United States.
  • Of the 172,000, only 1,000 books sell more than 50,000 copies in retail channels
  • Less than 25,000 sell more than 5,000 copies
  • 93% of books published (160,000) sell less than 1,000 copies
  • According to one source, there are also over 200,000 books published in the United Kingdom each year. That’s nearly 400,000 books published each year in just the US and the UK.
  • Sobering statistics for anyone who is (or wants to be) an author.

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