What’s the difference between business and self-employment? Is what I’m doing a business or a job?

I found myself asking this question this morning. Here’s what I told myself.

The key difference must be whether future revenue is directly the result of future labor. If I can earn $100 next week only by working on my business that week, then I’m self-employed. But if I can reasonably expect to get that $100 regardless of how hard I work, whether I take a vacation or work overtime, then what I have is a business.

 

Unfunded startup businesses are brutally difficult, and feel like unsuccessful self-employment, because you work 60 hours a week to earn that measly $100. Some weeks 90% of what you do is recurring, mundane work, and only 10% of it actually builds the business into a better state. That 10% is what you live for those weeks. If you do it right, over time you create an infrastructure of revenue that comes without regard to your personal effort that week.

There’s an inflection point in entrepreneurship. If you never get past the inflection point, your business ventures will always be low-wage jobs. That point is break-even. Not for the business, but for you. If you can break even every month, pay your rent, buy your food, and see the occasional movie (or whatever it is you do when you’re not working), then you no longer need to keep every last dollar you earn.

800px-X_cubed_plot.svg

Here’s why that’s an inflection point:

Suppose you work 60 hours a week and earn $200 more than you need to live and be happy. 90% of that 60 hours may still be recurring, mundane work. It’s not building. But you’re supposed to be building, right? So don’t keep that $200. Take it and outsource the mundane work.

$200 goes a long way. If you hire someone at $20/hr, that’s an extra 8 hours you have to build your business each week (after taxes, overhead etc.). You’re still breaking even, so pretend the $200 wasn’t yours. And $200 can go even farther than that. Thanks to the Internet, you might find someone great to work for $4/hr, where $4 is a good wage. That’s a lot of time for you, and you’re providing needed employment.

This is why growth businesses don’t pay dividends.  They reinvest them.  So if you’re a bootstrapping entrepreneur, you shouldn’t dividend yourself, either. Break even and reinvest.  The same is not true for self-employment.  If you’re self-employed, you need to keep that extra $200 for a day when you can no longer work.

So, at the bootstrapping stage, that’s the difference between business and self-employment.

MassLandlords.net Conversion Rates and Statistics

MassLandlords.net is at the point where we have enough traffic to learn something about our site design, in particular, our conversion rates for member sign-ups.  Here’s an update that speaks simultaneously to how new I am at this, and also to the kinds of opportunities we have with statistical analysis.

The site has a “join” page, which presents visitors with two options:

  1. Give us just your email now to subscribe to our monthly newsletter; or
  2. Pay us now to have full access to the site and/or local meetings.

On May 21, the top part of the page went from this:

 

2014_05_21 - join before

to this:

2014_05_21 - join afterIf I were to summarize the differences, I’d say:

  • Fewer words
  • Easier English (“newsletter” instead of “each month we’ll blah blah blah”)
  • Tighter focus on alternatives with the ellipsis

The big, juicy “button” visible in these screenshots submits your email to register as a free member.  The really best features of the site are accessible only to paid members, and all the payment options are further down the screen. Since the paid sign-up design remained constant through the May 21 transition, I’m leaving it out of the analysis here.

One month later, today, here are some changes we’ve observed:

  • “Time on page” down 42%
  • “Bounce rate” down 56%
  • Rate of sign-up for the “free monthly newsletter” up 7x (700%)
  • Paid registration rate down 50%

Are those changes significant?

Enter what my brother taught me, “Fisher’s exact test.”  The probability that I would have gotten these results by random chance was very high for all changes, save one:

The odds of the free sign-up changing 7x by random chance are 1%.

Conclusion?  Maybe Landlords don’t want “each month we’ll give you premium content for free.”  What the hell does that mean?  But a newsletter?  Yeah, that sounds good.

But we should be careful.  All the statistics tell us is that between May and today, the people looking at our join page were significantly more likely to sign up for our email than from April to May. But the stats don’t say why.

Other factors include changing the privacy language, tightening the design up to remove whitespace, modifying that button, and a host of external factors, like the kinds of paid advertising we were doing to drive traffic.

Let’s talk about that button in particular.  Much is written about button size and color and shape.  In this case, our button changed because our CSS decided to do its own thing, and we let it go.  We didn’t intend for it to look different.  So don’t take this button as part of some big strategy.  It’s not, and I would be surprised if a deliberate button redesign could drive as much of a change as we saw.  When people write about buttons changing conversion rates, they conjure up images of cartoon character Stimpy being unable to resist pushing the beautiful red button, even though he knows it will erase history.

It’s worth watching Nickelodeon’s ads to see this clip.

The other benefit of running some stats behind the scenes is that we don’t have to panic about the decrease in paid registrations.  It looks like we lost half our paid customers, probably all of those to free email sign-ups.  But the probabilities are in favor of this change being a random fluctuation.  We’ll just continue to monitor it to make sure.

The Digital Gentrification of Facebook and the Internet

digital gentrification

One of my concerns the last month has been a change Facebook made to their algorithm.  They’re basically making it impossible to reach fans of business pages without paying to promote posts or get likes.  They call it “declining organic reach.”

If you decide to pay for likes, the results may surprise you.  I wrote in December about the problem of “promiscuous likers“.  This is now getting more serious attention.  One blogger created this viral anti-Facebook video in February.  I like his approach and his larger dataset better than the work I did last summer.  (Check it out if you’re thinking about advertising.)

Despite the twin pitfalls of declining organic reach and promiscuous likers, Facebook’s new algorithms still allow businesses with money to move into the neighborhood, set up shop, and get customers.  Meanwhile, poor companies and startups vacate their properties.  This process is nothing new.  It’s called gentrification.  Facebook is digitally gentrifying.

The same process is probably happening with Google AdWords.  Years ago cost per click ads were an order of magnitude cheaper.  Now you can easily pay $10 per click.  For some keywords, it makes no sense.  Then again, neither does overpaying for a brownstone in an up-and-coming neighborhood.  But rich people do it, and the poor folks leave when they can’t pay the new rent.

There’s a serious issue being discussed right now that threatens to gentrify the whole Internet: net neutrality.  In a nutshell, they’re talking about allowing Internet service providers to charge more for bandwidth needed to stream music and videos (mostly videos).  Netflix and other established players will be able to afford these higher prices.  Meanwhile, poor video startups may close up shop.  If the current ruling stands, ISP’s could charge any company and kill any startup they pleased.

I’m not pessimistic about this.  Facebook and Google aren’t the only ways startups can reach customers.  ISP throttling will inspire creative work-arounds.  But it does seem as if digital gentrification will take away the last of the low-hanging Internet fruit.  The amount of capital already at work online will throw up barriers to entry, and in desirable neighborhoods like Facebook, startups and small businesses will need to pony up or move out.

It seems there ought to be implications for investors in startups, as well.  If a company’s goal is just to “get eyeballs,” meanwhile deferring monetization and revenue in order to encourage fast growth, this strategy will probably require more capital than at any time in the past.

Fortunately, there are still two good ways to acquire customers for cheap: direct sales and search engine optimization.  Each of these costs you nothing but your time.  By working both in parallel, you can simultaneously interact with customers to find out what they want, and produce content that will attract future customers.  Now, even SEO is gentrifying a bit, as it’s already impossible to catch up to behemoth, highly ranked sites for certain topics.  But all you need to do is get started, and your niche is too tiny for the behemoths to fit into.

So if you’re upset that Facebook has undercut your online marketing, move to another neighborhood.  Once you’re moving at a faster speed, you can set your eyes on that Facebook property you’ve been wanting.

Angel Investors in Boston

ArtistBomb, Inc. has not pitched in front of any investor or group of angel investors in Boston.  We’ve had plenty of practice, and plenty of one-on-one conversations with mentors and gatekeepers.  Their questions and comments have surprised me.  These folks aren’t what I thought.

The Investor Spectrum

Investor Spectrum According to Doug

At the far “conservative” end you have Ben Graham, a conservative unsurpassed by anyone.  Ben Graham was Warren Buffett’s teacher.  He said, above all, you need to have a margin of safety.  Value a business assuming:

  1. egregious omissions or misdirection may exist in the information you have,
  2. growth will be no faster than at any time in the past, and probably much slower,
  3. the best picture of the business comes only from looking at many years of performance averaged together, especially down years, and
  4. if all else fails, you can sell the furniture.  

Consider all this when you value a business, and if the business securities still look cheap, you have a margin of safety.

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger took the idea of margin of safety and combined it with the idea of economic moats.  Find a business with something truly unbeatable, like Coca Cola’s global recognition, and you can sleep easier at night knowing that no competitor can hold a candle to you.

At the extreme other end of the spectrum is Yosemite Sam, prospector and speculator.  His investment strategy is characterized by hope out of proportion to evidence.  

I thought all startup investors were like Yosemite Sam.  That was my limited experience, anyway.  In talking to angel investors in Boston about ArtistBomb, though, I’ve been surprised by how many of them care about margin of safety (like, revenue), economic moats (like unbeatable advantages), and track record (strong team).  These investors are, at best, only a distant cousin to Yosemite Sam.

But Yosemite Sam is out there.  Shouldn’t you just try to find him and be done with fundraising for a while?

Three Kinds of Funded Startups

I think you should probably forget about Yosemite Sam.  The crummy startups that I’ve seen him fund have been either

  • Digging in Fort Knox, OR
  • His personal friend.

The great startups that I’ve seen funded by others have what conservative investors want (at least, appropriate to their level of development).  They have margins and moats and track records.  And because they have these things, they’re most likely going to work out just fine.

Is your startup up to the task?  What do you think you’d do differently to get towards margins, moats, or track records?  Let me know in the comments below.

How I’m Spending My Time: Update

Back in September I wrote a short piece about how I was spending my time.  Since it’s about six months later I thought I’d update the graph.

Doug Quattrochi's Personal Time Tracking Data 2014_02_25

These are 40 day moving averages.  When I think about where my financial future lies, I think it’s mostly ArtistBomb and partly MassLandlords.net.  The way I spend my time backs that up.

The period in December where I focused less on ArtistBomb and more on the Worcester Property Owners Association (WPOA) coincides with the end of the restructuring effort at the WPOA.  This put in place a new Board of Directors and a new action team, and roles were changed for most folks.  Now WPOA is moving forward smoothly and the focus there is on MassLandlords.net, which I’ve spiked out separately.

MassLandlords.net has the potential to be a unified source of digital resources for landlords in Massachusetts.  I’m enormously proud of the work done by Stellar Web Studios and the WPOA Board of Directors to help get this project off the ground.

You can see that other projects, like the BagPack for Hands Free Groceries, and even this blog, are getting less attention now.  Partly this is because they’re getting less traction, partly it’s because they’re more clearly “lifestyle” activities.  Yes, I like selling little grocery carrying straps on the side.

ArtistBomb.com and MassLandlords.net have been improved by what I learned with Hands Free Groceries and dougjq.com.  So even if the latter properties aren’t as valuable, it’s not like the time spent there has been wasted.

Last month I commented on an article written by Rob Go that included the idea entrepreneurs should focus on “one company at a time”.  I think about that when this graph gets updated every couple of days.  Would either ArtistBomb or MassLandlords.net go faster if I wasn’t also actively landlording?  Yes.  Would they go faster if I were focusing on one and not both?  Yes.  Well, am I doing the wrong thing by splitting my attention so?

It seems like both businesses – ArtistBomb and MassLandlords.net — have the same kinds of challenges.  In particular, can you reach enough of your customers at a low enough cost to make it worthwhile?  The interesting thing about working both at the same time is that each has a different set of tools available.  So in theory I can work with two different teams trying different tactics.  What I learn at one can be brought to the aid of the other immediately.

From that point of view, I don’t think split focus is really so bad.  Not right now, anyway.

Thoughts?  Leave a comment.

 

New York Times Advertising Rates and Where to Place Ads

Last summer I picked apart a Sunday edition of the New York Times print newspaper with an eye on learning where people like to place their ads.  Which sections carried which types of ads?  What does ad specificity predict should be the New York Times advertising rates?  I’ve been sitting on the data for lack of time to share it.  Here you go:

Section NameAds SeenFocused?
TravelHotels, travelingYes
Arts & LeisureTicketed eventsYes
NYTimes MagazineBusiness topicsYes
AutomobileDealershipsYes
Real EstateBrokers, apartments for rentYes
Sunday StylesFashion (exclusively!)Yes
MetropolitanMusic, mattresses, closets, air conditionersNo
Book ReviewNew books, kindle, wine clubYes
Sunday ReviewShell gas, jobsNo
Sunday BusinessBlackberry, auctions, iPhone appYes
SportsWatches, golf help, event tickets, NYTimesNo, thin
Main SectionCiti, Dior, Bloomingdales, Cartier, luxury jewelry, watches, clothing, AT&T, Starbucks, BMW, Sony, Chiropractors, theatre events, mattresses, NYTimesNo

Where to Place Ads

You can see that some sections have obvious alignment with the ads people choose to place there.  The travel section has ads for hotels and travel services.  Duh.  Four of the sections surprised me for their lack of ad-content synergy.

  • The Metropolitan section was home goods and music.
  • The Sunday Review had a corporate PR piece by Shell Gas along with some job opportunities.
  • The sports section was thin on ads and had at least one (I feel like possibly two) New York Times fillers saying, basically, “your ad here.”
  • The main or front section of the paper — not sure what it’s called — had a lot of very expensive items being advertised, along with mattresses.  That tells you how much money there is in mattresses.

New York Times Advertising Rates

I guessed that the demand for ad space ought to correlate with the specificity of ads in that section.  Anyone selling mattresses in the Real Estate section would probably be out-bid by brokers and landlords pushing their better-aligned services.  Was that true?

The New York Times rate cards offer different charges for different types of content.  Presumably this offers a way to improve ad relevancy.  Here were the 2013 rates for half page ads (63 contract column inches), in black and white, run-of-the-paper (can be placed anywhere), with New York regional distribution (if applicable):

Section NameGeneral Open RateFocused Open Rate
Book Review$24,200$20,625 (small press)
New York Times Magazine$43,640n/a
Sunday Business$43,640$57,960 (cause and appeal)
$65,457 (mortgages)
$83,160 (security financial notices)
$97,902 (banks, credit cards)
Real Estate$80,136$53,424 (commercial or residential real estate)
$65,457 (mortgages)
Travel$43,640$72,639 (tours, transportation, resorts, hotels)
Automotive, Sports, and Metro$53,613$28,791 (dealers)
Arts and Entertainment$43,640$47,376 (local live entertainment)
$48,762 (restaurants)
$58,905 (fine arts, antiques)
$63,693 (movies)
Metropolitan$17,262n/a

The New York Times reports that their audience is about 5,000,000 readers.  That puts the Cost Per Mille at $10, which is in the range of what I’d expect.

I expected that more specific ads would cost more.  That turned out to be true for the Business, Travel, and Arts sections.  These ads were highly focused, and the advertisers there paid dearly to appear.  Clearly those advertisers were interested in those sections.

But for the Book Review, Automotive, and especially Real Estate sections, it cost less to list a specific ad than a generic one.  If there had been any takers for generic ads, the New York Times would have run those ads preferentially for revenue’s sake.  No takers.  So I would guess that “ad relevance” was the goal in lowering these section’s prices.  Surprising?  Apparently New York real estate, for one, needs little advertising.  I believe it.

Except for the metropolitan section, the sections that weren’t highly focused apparently don’t have separate rate cards, which means someone purchasing a “run of the paper” ad in a listed section probably had their ad bumped elsewhere.  That would explain the randomness of these sections.  For the Metro section, you can see the price is much lower than anywhere else.  That explains the randomness here, for sure.

Summary

This gives an idea of where you might place your ad, if you’re thinking about advertising in the New York Times.  Advertising rates are comparable to online advertising, although the breadth of readership clearly requires more up-front commitment than a Google AdWords campaign.

For full rate cards, visit the New York Times media kit.

How to Stay Productive and Get Things Done When Tired

It’s nice to look back on a day and think how productive we’ve been.  But all too often our natural ups and downs take us to a point where we’re too tired to get things done.  The best advice I was ever given wasn’t about “taking a break,” or “getting some coffee.”  But those do help sometimes.  Really, the advice boils down to “prepare to be tired.”

What does it matter if I’m not productive?

Think about your bathroom at home.  If you’re like me, you don’t have a maid to come in and clean it.  You have to clean it yourself.  You really have one choice about it:  clean it yourself or don’t.  No amount of preventative care is going to keep grime from coating every surface.  If you’re productive enough to keep it clean, you’ll enjoy a higher standard of living than someone who isn’t and who doesn’t.

The same applies to your work.  The same applies to everyone’s work.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides the data to make this graph, which shows relative non-farm productivity per hour since 1947.

us_non_farm_productivity

This gives some value to how much higher our standard of living is now than in 1947.  We enjoy at least four times the standard of living.  Three examples:  quick healthy food options, Internet data sources, and cars that start reliably in zero degree weather.  I’d say those three are at least 10x improvements.

So you can sit back and relax, or you can do something to work towards that car you’ve always wanted.  (It’s not a mid-life crisis, it’s about standard of living!)

So how do you get things done when tired?

Don’t do easy stuff when you’re full of beans.

Let me reiterate that:  being productive when you’re tired is more about not doing than doing.

Here’s the example that drove it home for me.  I used to grade papers and write problem set solutions for a technical class.  The professor running the class looked at the dark circles under my eyes and said, in effect, “I can see you’re not coping.”  (He likes to cut to the chase, and I appreciate that.)

“Grading is easy, right?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“These problem set solutions are not very good, are they.”

“No.”

“Do your problem set solutions when you’re fresh.  Knowing you, I’d say that’s in the morning.  Grade papers late at night.  All you’re doing is pattern-matching against the solution anyway.  You can do that in your sleep.”

And he was right.  Very, very right.  It’s been a while, but maybe I can still grade thermodynamics in my sleep.

You can stay productive and get things done when tired

The Getting Things Done Implementation

To prepare for being tired, you need to resist the temptation to do easy things when you’re fully alert.  But you don’t want to forget the easy things that still need to get done.  Enter David Allen’s seminal book, “Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity.”

Allen advises a “collection habit.”  That means when you think of something that needs doing, you write it someplace you’ll check later.

For me, that’s an Excel spreadsheet.

Whatever format you use for your task list, it should indicate the context in which you’ll do the task.  Some tasks require a phone.  Others require a specific person.  Any task can be put in the context of your energy state.  Here’s a screenshot of my actual task list:

Sample "to do" list allowing for being productive when tired

The column headers are

  • Which project does this task support?
  • In what context can the task be done?
  • What is the task?  (Really specific, so I don’t have to think too hard about it)
  • Status. (blank = not done, “waiting for” means we’ll filter it out until the tickler comes up. “maybe someday” is a parking lot)
  • When do I want to be reminded about this task?

You can see down the “context” column that all these tasks require a network connection (most do nowadays), and

  • The “high energy” tasks are things I do when I’m energized.  They’re often long tasks.
  • The “scattered” tasks are the things I do when I’m over-caffeinated, likely to be interrupted soon, or tired.  They’re all short little things or things that don’t need much concentration or willpower to do.
  • The “leisure” tasks are things I do when I have some fun time.

The natural implementation

If you’re too tired to filter a spreadsheet down to “tired” tasks, just look around your desk.  Something can be filed.  Something else can be shredded.  That collection of receipts can be entered into QuickBooks.  That coffee mug can be washed out.

That is, as long as you didn’t do those this morning when you were operating at 100%.  If you did, you’ll be staring at a clean desk with an egregiously difficult cover sheet to write for that TPS report.  Not good.

Saving these light-weight tasks amounts to planning a productive little break.  While your tired brain is resting, you’ll still be doing productive things that need to get done.

Try it and see for yourself.

Goodbye, My Blackberry

I purchased my Blackberry Storm in the summer of 2008.  It had been a sturdy and dependable companion, so it was with some sadness this October that I came to feeding it into a machine.

First, let me acquaint you with this miraculous phone:

  • Encryption so strong that not even Middle Eastern governments could crack it.
  • A touch screen so sturdy you had to push it in until it clicked.
  • A case so invulnerable it scratched whatever it landed on more than it was scratched.
  • An OS so complete that you really didn’t notice your lack of apps.

Alas, despite a new battery and some serious sleuthing in tech forums, the phone became prone to overheating and locking up, requiring frequent hard resets.  I got myself a modern Droid Razr.

Using the Droid Razr’s digital assistant, I set a reminder to ring me when I was near the Woburn Mall.  There I had seen a thing called “ecoATM,” which promised cash for my phone.  I put the Blackberry and its cracked and worn belt clip into my car and went about my business.  The reminder occurred when, where, and as promised, and soon I was standing before the ecoATM with my dearly departed Blackberry.

If you have an old phone, you should try ecoATM.  It’s a remarkable process.  It will take any phone — any phone, it says — and determine what it is, how good it is, and whether anyone else in the world can make use of it.

There’s a part of the process where the machine scans your phone and produces the correct wire to connect to it.  That in itself is worth your time to see.

My Blackberry, it turns out, was in “good” condition.  This picture of the ecoATM screen shows part of the process.  Also, it’s my first Razr selfie, created when I inadvertently captured my shadow:

blackberry_at_ecoatm_2

“Your phone is ‘good’ so I can give you $4 for it.  Do you want $4 for it?  You can’t change your mind.”

“Okay,” I said.

Out came four wrinkly ones. Gone forever went my Blackberry.

The ecoATM invited me to drop my worn belt clip into the bin on the side of the machine.

There are a few remarkable things about this story:

  • My new phone is so capable, it helped me dispose of my old phone.
  • The ecoATM was able to identify me (“I see you’re not a thief”) and my phone (“I see your Storm 9530 is not stolen”) and my phone’s secret inner workings (“I see it still has the default factory RAM”).
  • Somewhere someone is getting more than $4 of value for this old technology.

I love all of that.  Some day — many miles into the future — I hope to dispose of my Corolla this way.

The Ugly Truth Behind Paying for Facebook Likes on a Facebook Business Page

The Experiment

I recently tested paying for Facebook likes on a Facebook business page.  It seemed like a low-effort way to build a channel for future marketing messages.  Start with some good page content, put in some money, and watch it grow.  In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have expected so much.  Let me show you what I did and you can see for yourself whether there’s an underlying “ugly truth”.

The ad I created ran over the summer, around August.  Facebook ads are undergoing new development, so what was true about the procedure this summer may now require modification.  But I think the overall procedure must be the same.   Start with an appealing image and some good text, like this:

Should you pay for Facebook likes with a Facebook business page ad?

I’ve completely distorted the ad because I don’t want any of my paid likes to see it here and think, “Oh man, he’s talking about me!”  I’m not talking about you.  Probably, you’ve never seen the Facebook page on which I ran the ad.

The ad used the full glory and power of Facebook targeting.  Find me people:

  • in certain US cities,
  • between the ages of X and Y inclusive,
  • who like culture, geneology, or the arts,
  • who are not already connected to my Facebook business page,
  • who are in one of the broad categories related to culture.

When someone likes your Facebook business page, you sometimes get a notice.  Depending on their privacy settings, you can cyber stalk them (just a little, harmlessly) to see whether they might match your criteria.

The Data

Of my 38 likes, Facebook told me the names of 14 of them.

Of these 14 names, four of them had privacy settings that blocked some or all of my research.  Based on reading the remaining 10 pages, I could see that four of them (40%) were what I would consider my dream customer.

What about the other 60 percent?

  • One most likely lived in a city I hadn’t specified.
  • One was devoted entirely to pornography (no, that wasn’t my ad).
  • One had liked a lot of things with the word “respect” in it.
  • One was devoted to hatred of the police (but he lived in the right city).
  • One had such varied interests, I could only see that they had liked 2,100 things.

And this is where I became suspicious.  Looking again at all of my new potential customers, I saw that the one who “liked” the fewest business pages liked 350 pages, the one who liked the most liked almost 3,600 pages, and the average “like count” was over 1,800.  For comparison, in my own social circle, the average “like count” is something below 100.

The Ugly Truth

Imagine that you and each of these business pages are all posting on Facebook at the same rate.  That means the “like” you paid for has a 0.05% chance of seeing your content.  Once they see it,

  • There’s some percent chance they click it,
  • Some other percent chance they click towards making a purchase,
  • Some other percent chance they actually make a purchase.

At about $1 per like, I could imagine having to spend over $50,000 (to get over 50,000 likes) before I could reliably turn a single post into a paid customer.

I think the ugly truth, therefore, is that Facebook lets you pay for Facebook likes by farming out your ad to users who will like anything.  Facebook surely knows who these people are.  The use of promiscuous likers, in the advertising context, means that the likes for which you pay are even less valuable than you think.

In the end, I decided to cancel paying for likes.  It doesn’t make sense unless you have a marketing department with dollars to burn.

How Twitter Became an Alternative to Small Claims Court

In July I did some freelance consulting work for a client who shall remain nameless.  If you’ve been following my posts, you will remember who this was.  You can imagine my dismay in October when, after many attempts to contact the client for payment, I filed a small claim in Worcester District Court.

The money was as good as gone.  The clerk at the backed-up small claims court said that it would be at least a year before the client would even be served.  Past that, there’s the hearing, then the judgment, then the execution.  It was a long, hopeless road.

Redemption

Enter Trevor Chang, an old friend and, as it turns out, a wise one.  He read my previous post and casually suggested over Facebook that I tweet to the client.  Twitter is, at its core, a public forum.  Maybe a modern day scarlet letter would get the client’s attention.  It seemed a good alternative to small claims court and a years-long wait.

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I proceeded timidly.  At first I tweeted directly @{insert client name here}, and only that I had sent an updated invoice.  I did this in October.  Then, on Thursday, November 14, I tweeted the following:

I wrote this blog article about @{insert client name here} a while ago.  Still no response. {link}

Friday afternoon, November 15, my inbox contained an email from the client.  This was his first communication with me since August 13, 2013.

The email was angry.  Vituperative can be your “word of the day.”  It was vituperative.  “How dare you break non-disclosure and defame my good name” etc. etc.  It ended with, “I’ll pay your invoice if you take down that blog article.”

I replied, in effect, “I’m sorry it took a blog article to get your attention. Deal.”

Within an hour money had changed hands — righteously, I might add — and the blog article, which never had done more than pose the question of malfeasance, had been taken down.

So, incidentally, have my tweets.

The blog article was search-engine optimized for effect.  I’m proud to say it was on the front page of Google search results for the client’s name and business name.  But that, combined with my dozen increasingly stern communications, had no effect whatsoever on the client.  Not even when I threatened small claims and then actually did file in small claims court was there so much as a peep from the client.  None of my growling had any effect.  What broke the logjam was the merest tweet.  “Hey, @{this guy} owes me money, take a look {link}.”

Reflection

I find Twitter incredible.  I look at my Twitter feed and I feel washed over in garbage.  But sometimes certain tweets pack a relevancy and a punch that makes me feel like I’ve found a diamond in a coal mine.

And because it’s one of basically three(ish) digital channels (website and Facebook being the other two), companies attach enormous importance to what others will see on Twitter.  Take the JP Morgan Tweetup Disaster as case in point.  Call it a “microblog” if you will.  It’s also a 17th century scaffold.

What’s the most memorable tweet you’ve ever written?  Did it accomplish something good? Let me know in the comments below.

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