Change Catalyst with Shanna Mann: Strategy & Support for Sane Self-Employment

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It’s an interesting exercise, to try and ‘replace’ yourself. As some of you may know, I run several businesses — this one, the Amazon retail business, and my ‘sideline’ of articles for pay. I’m also a very serious gardener (a very time-consuming hobby), and, I occasionally suffer from repetitive strain injuries that limit my ability to work at a computer.

I like juggling these various aspects of my life because they tend to balance me out. When I have only one focus— one business, one goal, etc, I suffer from tunnel vision and destructive single-mindedness. Multiple threads, each with overlapping demands, is a forcing function for my time and priorities.

As time has gone on, I’ve gone from simply casting aside lower priorities, to finding a backup, to selecting people to take over the responsibility entirely. It’s been a very worthwhile process, even aside from the productivity clawback.

That thing you do (And what it’s worth)

You should try this. Try writing a job description of one of your business responsibilities. Specify the level of expertise and English proficiency. Then see what the job is ‘worth’ by seeing who applies. In some cases, it will be very little. Usually of this is because you chose ‘entry level’ as your experience level. Other times you see that, since updating plugins doesn’t require native English skills, it can be done by someone in Bosnia. And so forth. These are not things I’m necessarily recommending that you outsource, but it might help to know in the back of your mind that it could be one day.

In some cases, the hourly rate will be quite high. This will be due to the experience or rarity of the qualifications. Sometimes, prices are used as a proxy to signal quality, even in a purely commoditized, global workplace like Upwork.

Either way, you can learn one of two things. Either “hey, this is pretty inexpensive to outsource, I’m going to think about doing that” or “Holy shit I can’t replace myself without going out of pocket. I better raise my prices.”

Every time I talk to someone about this, it triggers some existential angst. The reasons fall into three general patterns:

  • It doesn’t matter what other people charge for this, I can’t afford to outsource it
  • I could outsource it, but I don’t think that person would do it right
  • If the people are selling my service for $X, what does that say about MY price?

However hard it is to hear, this is important information for you to consider. Your business doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You exist within a market. You need to be aware of the realities of that market.

Is there gold under your feet?

This isn’t about figuring out whether you’re underpriced — that’s just a side effect. It’s more about looking at the allocation of your resources; time, attention, and money.

As self-employed people at a such a small scale, we can easily become insulated from the reality of the market. In some cases this is great! It can mean that you’ve built a following or curated an ecosystem where people are willing and able to pay upmarket rates.

And in some cases it’s bad, like when you get pushback from clients on your already-low rates.

But mostly it’s pretty neutral, like the way that you don’t realize that you could have someone maintaining your website for a fraction of the time and money you spend on it now, merely because they know what they’re doing, and they’re only doing one thing at a time.

And that’s where the possibility of leverage comes in. You don’t realize you could outsource these things, in most cases because you never looked. That tends to mean that there are big wins just waiting for you to notice them.

If you’ve thought about outsourcing but felt daunted by the effort it would take, or you thought it would cost too much, I would encourage you to pick 1-3 non-critical tasks that you do — updating the plugins on your website, sending invoices, putting information into spreadsheets, or whatever, and then typing a general description of the role into Upwork. Just try it. It’s just information. You don’t HAVE to do anything with it.

I’m just saying, you might get some ideas.

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My mom was a nurse and before that a baker, so when me and my three siblings were growing up she was anal about hygiene. Every task began with washing your hands, and every task ended with washing your hands. I suppose trying to keep four grubby-handed kids clean in the middle of a dusty ranch, she probably erred a little on the side of overkill.

And even today, when I walk into the kitchen I wash my hands. And when I come in from outside, I wash my hands. It might have started as a way to prevent cross-contamination, but for me, it’s just what I do to signal to myself the transition from one (physical) task to another. Maybe this is what it takes for me to establish a habit — years of someone shouting “Did you wash your hands?”

But when it comes to other things, I have difficulty establishing these kind of clear-cut boundaries, sometimes called “task hygiene.”

For instance, just as I’m typing this, I have the impulse to check and see if the credit card website that wouldn’t let me log in yesterday will let me log in now. I’m sitting next to a pile of unfiled receipts and a stack of un-thrown-out mail.

There was nothing preventing me from filing or throwing those things of my desk, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t just jot down a note to myself to check on the MasterCard account later. But I didn’t and I don’t. Why? Why is good productivity hygiene hard to maintain?

Similar to the concept of “task hygiene” (where you execute one task wholly and completely before moving onto the next) is the concept of “clear to neutral.”

Clear to neutral is where, after a task or at the end of the day, you take your workspace back to a neutral, could-do-anything state. And again, it’s weird, I have ZERO trouble, for instance, setting up coffee for the morning or picking out my clothes or having the car packed and ready to go (Thanks for that habit too, Mom!) but the idea of “putting away” everything on my desk, and especially within my computer does not seem to register in the same way.

And maybe it’s a personality thing. Maybe I prefer to anticipate more than complete. My husband goes the other direction. He loves to finish things. But on the other hand, he was taking wraps for lunch for something like 4 months before he struck upon the idea of creating the whole week’s wraps at once. I think he just quickly got into the habit of building a wrap every morning and it didn’t occur to him to change it up.

So working on this anticipation/completion rubric, depending on which way you tip, there’s no reason why you (I) couldn’t switch the emphasis from one side to the other. So for instance, I wouldn’t be “cleaning up” my desk at the end of the day. I would be “getting it ready” for the morning. Is this a stupid distinction? Maybe. But maybe it is a necessary one to put the emphasis where it will be most motivating.

So what motivates you?

Figure it out, and you’ll be that much closer to getting the things done that you want to see done.

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My husband is in the habit of reading me passages from his books that he thinks are unusually good. And he has excellent taste.

In this most recent instance, Israeli thinker Yuval Levin makes the argument that in our scientific age, we tend to think of everything as a technical problem.

“The confidence of science, born as we have seen from the continuing successes of the physical sciences, builds this confidence in social sciences, working on the notion that the human realm must be open to similar sort of understanding.  Surely, a nation that can go to the moon can put an end to poverty at last, they say. “If 600 scientists working together can produce the atom bomb,” the chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews said in a speech in the late 1940s, “then 600 scientists could be put to work on the job of ending intergroup hatreds.” What we must do is put the greatest minds of the age to work on discovering the answers to our social problems, and then implement the solutions which they find. These experts, be they the ‘brain trust’ or the ‘wise men’ or the ‘best and the brightest,’ are smart enough to discover the solutions.

“The unstated assumption underlying this view, of course, is that solutions are there to be found in this way. The notion that technical experts will solve the social problems inherently relies upon the proposition that the social problems are technical problems. This view, an essential element of the social scientific mindset, melds well with the practicality of the American. The answers exist, and the knowledgeable experts can find them. Once they are discovered, solving the problems of society becomes a question of implementation. Asked by a Senate committee in 1966 how long it would take to end poverty in America, Sargent Shriver — President Johnson’s point-man on the war on poverty — looked down at his notes, at his graphs and his figures and said “about 10 years.” He meant it.”

Tyranny of Reason, 2000.

As I so often do when Chris reads me this thinky stuff, I had an insight. When people want to know how to solve their business problems, frequently the problem is not a technical one. Just like you can’t ‘fix’ generational poverty by providing food and housing. Something more subtle has to shift — values, social attitudes, or perhaps only something as simple as the expectation of success instead of effort unrewarded. At best, you could say that the technical solution is only half the solution — the easier half, which is why it’s so enthusiastically pursued. The other half is nuanced, opaque and frequently unique to the people and circumstances.

If persistent poverty seems like an unfairly difficult problem to apply the scientific method to, then let’s look at a smaller one.

For over a decade, Auburn University architecture students have been working on a design for a home that is affordable for people in poverty, but also pays market wages for the construction crew.

Well, they solved the problem. Using innovative building techniques and thoughtful design, these homes cost only $14K in materials and are as elegant as the most bespoke Tiny House.

And then they ran into the problems that are not amenable to the scientific method.

  • The plans don’t conform to code. Not because they’re unsafe, but because they’re not how things have always been done. So, they are frequently rejected out of hand.
  • Even if the plans get through the approval process, building crews aren’t familiar with many of the techniques. Therefore, many builders aren’t keen to take on small projects with a lot of upfront time invested learning all these weird new ideas.
  • While middle-class people can manage to scrape together $20K to pay for the home outright, the impoverished people it was designed for need a mortgage. And that’s the biggest hurdle. Banks don’t want to give mortgages for an amount so small. It costs them $2300 to draw up a mortgage agreement, no matter the size. For a $100K house, it makes sense, but not for a $20K house. It would be like you driving across town to save 3 cents a gallon on gas.

These problems are solvable, but it’s going to take a different kind of solution. You have to educate people– you have to make them want to be educated. You have to somehow shift the levers of incentives so that banks (or somebody) finds it worthwhile to grant $20K mortgages. And for construction companies to want to learn these new construction techniques. And for building inspectors to understand engineering enough to see that the construction plans are sound. This really isn’t the type of work most people enjoy doing, so we stick to the nice, clear-cut technical problems.

And it’s the same way when we look at problems with our businesses.

We don’t mind the hard work — truly. We just don’t like the messiness and open-endedness that comes with wrestling with the non-technical side of our problems. It feels Sisyphean — you labor and labor and you have so little to show for it (not to mention it’s emotionally wracking.)

But that’s why at least half my writing is more philosophical in nature. We need to have an opportunity to work through the messiness, if only in small bites. Even if we’re just looking at the issue from a slightly different angle.

Trust me, I love a good technical solution. I want to give you one. But in business, the technical solution looks like a tip post — it tends not to have, either emotionally or practically, the impact on our business that we desire.

So where does this leave us? Well, pretty much where we were to start with — but with the better understanding of the issue. The answer, if we find it, probably won’t be elegant, clear-cut, or widely applicable. I think that helps, though, don’t you?

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