This is my (very minimalistic) presentation (yes, that’s blood spatter) from the 2nd annual WordCamp Europe, held September 27-29 in Sofia, Bulgaria. A follow up blog post can be found here http://www.jennybeaumont.com/how-come-every-time-i-get-stabbed-in-the-back/.
Here is the full transcript:
With the new color coding for the WordCamp Europe conferences I noticed that this was labeled a business track, and while I will be sharing business experiences, well…I’ll let you judge whether my ideas fall more on the side of business…or humanities
I’d like to begin by telling you the story of how I came to live in France.
I was just out of college and I was in love. I know, cliché, right? I probably would have followed him anywhere—who knows, I might have even ended up here in Sofia—but he was finishing his undergraduate work in Political Science at UC Berkeley and as it turned out got accepted into an exchange program in Lyon. So for a year or so I travelled back and forth, working in the US, then going to France for a few months until I blew all my cash, then I’d go back and start all over again. Clearly this wasn’t a long-term solution. We wanted to be together and he wanted to stay on in Europe so I needed to find my own thing. Back then my big dream was to become a professional photographer. I’d done some freelance work—a few architects, a rock band, a couple of magazines—and figured the best way to work on my language skills, perfect my technique, and do some networking would be to go back to school. And I was accepted into the École de Condé, a prestigious photography school also in Lyon.
But then one day Peter says to me, “We should start a web agency.” Just like that. At first I thought he was crazy—I mean what did we know about making websites? What did we know about running a company for that matter? But the more we talked about it, the more he convinced me and the more excited I got. I mean, be my own boss? In France? It started to sound pretty good.
We talked Peter’s cousin, Karen, into joining us—she actually knew how to design and build websites. That was going to come in handy. But we were just twenty somethings and mostly broke, so we needed a little seed money to get us started.
Before doing anything desperate like going to a bank, we turned to the families for money. And we didn’t go empty handed. Our business plan had an ambitious mission statement, a presentation of the team and the services we’d be offering, market analysis, marketing strategy, and an overview of our known competitors.
It wasn’t bullshit.
We had done our homework and had identified about a 3-year gap in growth between the web sector in the US and France at the time. France had some catching up to do, and it felt like having a window into the future. It was like having a time machine and being able to go back 3 years to make a sure bet. With that kind of competitive advantage, how could we not succeed? All of this was of course mentioned in our beautifully bound business plan, complete with charts and graphs and numbers and projections.
We slid copies across the table to each parent and sat patiently while they indulged us.
Then Larry, Peter’s father, looks up at us, takes a couple of pulls off his pipe and says “What happens if Karen and Jenny decide to run off and be together? What then?”
There was a moment of silence while the three of us exchanged glances…and then we all burst out laughing. He had to be joking, right? But when we looked back across the table, we were met with straight faces. They weren’t laughing. So we pulled ourselves together and assured them that that wasn’t going to be a problem.
They agreed to give us the money and off we went off feeling ready to conquer the world (or at least the web market in Lyon).
But as it turned out, Larry was right. No, now before you go letting your imaginations run wild, there was no torrid affair, no sordid love triangle (don’t look so disappointed!). But that’s not really what he was asking, was it? He might have done us all a greater service by not being so cryptic at the time—but what he was really asking us was, “Are you prepared for when shit gets real?” And the answer was no.
There was no section in our business plan that talked about homesickness. There were no projections for overcoming culture shock and no statistics related to feelings of guilt that can build up around taboos about money. We hadn’t done any research on the various causes for depression or how to mediate situations when you’re no longer sure whether you’re discussing business decisions or dredging up family history or old lover’s quarrels.
Our market study was right on the money and our competitive advantage was real, but none of it would amount to much because we weren’t prepared for the day to day. We were young and had idealized what it meant to be in business, and we hadn’t factored in our basic human interactions.
Peter and I split up a year in and he was the first to leave the company. Karen and I continued on for another year and then went our separate ways. We certainly had our successes but throughout there was a lot of blaming, a lot of name-calling and quite a bit of backstabbing as trust broke down and we each sought to fend for ourselves.
So How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed in the Back, My Fingerprints Are on the Knife?
That conjures a lot of imagery, doesn’t it?
Pain and betrayal sure, but it’s the implied complicity that makes the question so compelling.
Someone sticking it to us from behind implies that we’re victims, and sometimes even if the blow comes straight at us, and hits us in the gut or in the heart, that’s how we feel. We feel betrayed, we feel hurt, we feel treated unfairly. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic encounter. I’d like to posit that, even in the smallest interactions, as soon as we enter into relationships with people, whether they are our business partners or our customers, not only do we play a vital role in every interaction, but when bad things happen, we are ultimately responsible.
Wait, what? I got screwed over, and it’s my fault? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
Even if we feel like the knife came at us from behind, it’s not usually really a surprise. On some level, we saw it coming. There were signs, but for whatever reasons we either chose to ignore them, didn’t see them for what they really were, or were too afraid to face them head on.
Now I’ve found that once we recognize this, once we accept that role we play in our basic, human interactions—as web professionals, as freelancers, as agency directors and employees, as plugin and theme authors—we become more sympathetic and more responsible, sure, but mainly, we start become keenly aware, alert to those signs and warnings and therefore better able to navigate those difficult situations without stabbing ourselves. Taking responsibility doesn’t have to be a burden, it can be a huge gift.
I hadn’t intended to submit a proposal to speak here at WordCamp Europe…but then a couple months ago I got inspired when Brianna Norcross, who you might know on Twitter as @sarcasmically, tweeted “What’s the dickiest thing a customer has done.”
She was directing this toward plugin devs, but I figured any client stories were fair game, and I was reminded of a project that I worked on that went terribly awry and had a profound impact on me.
A little over 5 years ago I was approached to build a social platform where users could come post questions, and have people vote on the answers. The answers would be yes no I don’t know, and after voting people could see the results displayed as a bar chart representation. The questions would be categorized and searchable, and users would also be able to comment in order to discuss beyond the merits of yes no I don’t know. This was back when sites like FML were gaining traction and probably before Twitter was as popular as it is today. So it was in the “air du temps” if you will.
Now I’m not a marketer, and I’m not an investor – I’m a person who builds things. I solve problems – and my favorite problems to solve are those that other people have either failed at or have deemed impossible. Those really get me going. I’m pretty sure that if this client had come to me saying, “I have this concept and I’d like to know what you think – how we might market it and make it a go viral,” I would have said, I can’t help you.
But that’s not what he said when he came to me. What he said was, I gave a lot of money to this agency, and they couldn’t make it work. And it was true he showed me the prototype which didn’t really look like much, and it flat out didn’t work. It was a mess.
So for me, it was a technical problem and a UI challenge. And I accepted it. I wrote up a solid proposal, created visual mockups and got him to sign off. Then I set about to actually build the thing. This was not a WordPress project btw…
Anyway, early on in the development phase, I started getting signs that things were off. Like the fact that he stopped answering my emails. And I couldn’t get him on the phone.
I plowed forward and finished the project. At least for me, what I had produced corresponded exactly to what he had asked for and what we agreed on. I’m not saying there was no room for improvement, just that I felt like I had done my job. When I did finally hear back from him, it was in the form of a very lengthy and very nasty email. He said that my work clearly showed that I wasn’t the “visionary” that he thought I was. He then went on to say that I was overly needy and that in no uncertain terms I would have to go back to the drawing board and “figure it out”. His words.
I had never been talked to like that before – and I had no idea where it was coming from. The client was no longer willing to participate but I couldn’t figure anything out on my own. So I turned to my cousin who had originally referred the client to me, and explained the situation. I told him about the nasty email, but how everything had started off so well, so why was this guy being such a dick?
My cousin says to me, “Jenny, I’m sorry, but this is your fault.”
Wait, what? I got screwed over, and it’s my fault? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
My cousin owns and operates a construction business, mostly doing kitchen and bathroom remodels in the greater Chicago area. He proceeded to explain to me his intake process and how he carefully screens his prospective clients. He sits them down and makes sure they know that they’ll have to take a very hands-on role in the process. That they’ll have to go through catalogues and accompany him to stores to pick out every little detail of their remodel, from the color of the paint on the wall to the doorknobs on their cabinets. And if they intimate the slightest disinterest or unwillingness to make those decisions, then he’ll cut them loose. Because he’s been through it before – the customer who said, oh yeah any old thing will do, and then changed their minds down the road and didn’t want to pay the consequences. Sound familiar?
He told me, Jenny you’re the professional. It’s up to you not only to decide who you work with; but to devise, communicate and enforce the rules of your profession. It’s your show, and nobody’s gonna do it for you. You have to be in charge, not your clients. And it’s up to you to make sure they know that, and that there are consequences if they don’t follow the rules. So yeah, if you got screwed over, it’s because you did something wrong.
I was already hurting, and hearing these truths sink in was like twisting the knife, it was excruciating. I knew all that stuff. Hell, I thought I had done all that stuff. So, where did I go wrong?
Because the client came to me recommended by a family member, I probably let my guard down. Especially too because in the beginning everything seemed to be going so well. Too well maybe. When clients are quick to sign off on things, without looking at them in detail or asking any questions, that’s usually a red flag. It means they aren’t fully engaged in the process. This can occur because they are either in a hurry and want to take short cuts, or because they don’t think it’s really work or work they should have to do, or because they have some kind of mental block—often a fear of technology, but also fears related to their business, finances and goals—that prevents them from taking a hard look at things and really wrapping their brains around it. Like me when I work on my taxes.
And I plowed ahead, even when I knew something was wrong. I had my feuille de route, and he was busy. Instead of enforcing my contingency plan, I told myself that I was doing the client a favor. I assumed we had trust and I was overly confident in that and in my abilities.
Also, I have no idea what that client might have been dealing with. I took his affront very personally because, well, he was attacking my character, and my ego didn’t like that very much. But who knows what might have been on in his personal life or his business life that might have spurred his bad behavior. He was lashing out, but maybe it wasn’t only at me.
When I told him that going back to the drawing board would require an extended budget, he didn’t take it so well. In the end we agreed to walk away, and split the cost. It was a big financial loss for me, but a huge professional gain. Not that I would never make mistakes again, but it was the project that finally taught me to look for the fingerprints on the knife.
Many of us enter and live in the work place with the notion that, to be a professional, we have to separate our work lives from our private lives. I think that’s bullshit.
Unless you’re schizophrenic, your work self and your private self are the same person.
Yes, of course we compartmentalize, and no, the pillow talk or morning conversation we share with our spouses isn’t meant for anyone else. I’m not talking about privacy and of course there are boundaries. I’m talking about remembering and taking into account that our daily business interactions are also basic human interactions. What we’ve got going on in our lives – what they’ve got going on in their lives, it matters. And it effects us, no matter how good we are at putting on a happy face when things are tough, or wearing a poker face when we get excited about something.
Sometimes, people are dicks. There’s no doubt in my mind. I can be a total dick – sometimes I call the phone company and pick a fight just blow off some steam. (I totally do that).
A couple of weeks ago I was working on translating a WooCommerce extension that I bought, when I came across some missing gettext calls. Which in and of itself isn’t enough to turn me into a dick, but that day I had baggage. First of all, it was one of the more expensive WooCommerce extensions and for a feature I didn’t think I needed when I started the project. I thought I would get it directly in WooCommerce. So I was grumpy about that. Plus, I was having to translate this plugin into French, and contrary to popular belief I am not a translator and as much as I love the French language, there are days when I just wished everyone spoke English. So add a little grump there. Now if you’ve already used the Woo ticket support system then you know that there’s this really long required drop menu where you have to select the extension you’re writing in about, except that not all of the extensions they sell are actually in that list and there’s no “other” option. So I was apprehending that too, and that made me grumpy. Despite deleting the first very dicky version, what I did write in clearly showed my disgruntlement of the situation. Before they got a chance to reply I went back to stare at the plugin code when I noticed that the text strings were actually debug notices. And I literally laughed out loud at both my silly error and my own grumpiness and promptly wrote back to the Woo guys to say, NEVERMIND.
When I’m the client ? I’m often in a hurry, watching my budget, juggling a lot of things at once, and I can be impatient.
If you clients are being dicks, rather then get caught up on their possibly bad behavior, look at how you might go about making their lives easier, at taking away a level of grump that they might in fact be getting from interacting with you. What’s your long required drop menu?
I worked on a project this year where I had written up an elaborate proposal and in two languages because the clients are a franco-anglophone couple. Within the first 2 weeks after signing the contract, I received a bunch of emails asking questions, the answers to which were all in my proposal.
At first I was a little miffed, but I took it as an occasion to reinforce my control of the project. I started my reply by kindly asking them to take the time to sit and reread my proposal, that many of the answers they were looking for could be found there. But then I proceeded to answer their questions. There’s no point in punishing people for being…human. And showing my willingness to take the extra time to explain things, as well as explaining how they could help themselves, went a long way into motivating them to make greater efforts. From that point on they became truly engaged and the project ran really smoothly.
People don’t always read the fine print (even at 36pt), they look at the bottom line. It’s annoying, but it’s a fact, one that you must integrate into your show. A lot of the things that might annoy us about clients or colleagues, that might make us call them dicks, we’re probably guilty of ourselves. I always try to remind myself that my clients have clients; some of whom they probably think behave badly at times. That’s a common ground. That’s a place you can work from so that conflicts are easily resolved and frustrations are quickly addressed and dispersed. That’s avoiding getting stabbed altogether.
You can’t change people or their behavior. You can only change your own. But in being mindful about our own behavior, about owning our roles and responsibilities in every interaction, in every relationship, we can be a good influence. You can instigate change.
I doubt that anything could have been done to save my relationship with Peter – we had our problems before deciding to start a company together. But I do think that had each of us taken greater responsibility for our roles and our actions, and if we had gone to greater lengths to communicate with one another and listen to each other’s struggles and needs, that we would have made a stronger team, we would have suffered less, and we probably would have stayed together a lot longer.
I doubt that I could have satisfied the client who was in fact looking for a visionary to bring his social polling platform to life. Because I don’t think he really knew what he was asking for and where to turn for answers. It would have been wise for me to walk away sooner, or at least put a halt on the project at the first signs of trouble. At the very least I could have come out still in the black, and possibly even have helped him to realize his own error in mistaking me for something I was not. But again, that’s on me, right?
I don’t think there’s a recipe for knowing when to walk away and it’s always a tough call to make. One of the biggest fears is thinking that walking away from something means failing, or that maybe we’re wrong and will miss out on something good if we do. Only you know your own limits. I have constantly pushed and tested mine over the years, and it’s made me a stronger person. But man, I’ve bled a lot. Walking away never means failure, because it will always help you grow if you are mindful of your reasons and check any knives for fingerprints on your way out the door. And there are endless opportunities and possibilities out there – you’ll no more being missing out on something if you leave than if you stay. You always have a choice. I say choose to meet the challenges and the responsibilities that go with them head on. Blaming other people for my rough times or failures had never done anything but make me more miserable. Taking charge, confronting things head on and owning my own shit? Has only ever uplifted me.
So I was playing with this idea of the Humanities vs. Business…
And I really like the thought that, first and foremost, we are all in the Business of Humanities. At least we should be.