In our summer business planning class, we ask people to select an Area of Devotion – like lead generation, or building up a back catalog, or improving conversion rates – and then set a goal for that area. Then we ask, “What does success look like for this goal at the end of six months?”

The reason we ask this question is because we want them to come up with a specific goalpost that will feel satisfying to reach.

It’s like when you’re cleaning up for company to come over – if you don’t know what “success” looks like, then you’ll never feel like you can stop cleaning. You’ll always feel pressure to do more, or stress about what’s left undone. And we’re kind of shooting for neither, here. Specific goalposts are necessary for closure.

The specific goalpost also helps you choose what kinds of actions to take. If “success” is taking your current train wreck of a website and making it into something that you can show people without embarrassment, then you’re going to choose things that clean things up visually and make it easier to navigate. You are not going to prioritize things like analytics, SEO, or internal cross-linking.

But – if you were just shooting for “making your website better”, you might. And that’s a recipe for angst. So we ask, “What does success look like for you at the end of 6 months?”

The more you can clarify and realistic-ify your expectations surrounding success, the more likely you are to actually get things done on a day-to-day basis. Feeling like you’re succeeding makes you want to succeed at other things. It’s a virtuous cycle.

If you do not feel like you are chalking up regular successes, you will feel drained even when you are making progress.

Your brain will work very, very hard to stop you from doing things if it does not feel like there’s a point in doing them. That’s one of its jobs.

So if it feels like the work you’re doing is just a drop in the bucket, or it feels like it’s not going to make a difference, then screwing around on Wikipedia for an hour and calling it “research” is a lot more appealing than doing something that actually moves you forward.

You’re feeling bad, and your brain is going to hijack your attention and turn it to something that will take the focus off of that. Usually that’s some form of trivial distraction, or some other work-related task that feels like it has more immediate value.

This is why you end up with projects or plans that don’t get worked on for months, or even years. You experience massive resistance to taking action because as far as your brain is concerned, what’s the point? Even the work you are doing doesn’t feel like progress.

But if you give it a point, and you make it something reasonable to accomplish in a specific timeframe that also has a meaningful value … well, now things get cooking.

Try this exercise for something you’re stuck on right now.

1. Take something that you know you need to prioritize, and think about what needs to happen for it to be “done.” Not perfect, not 100% done, but done enough for you to consider it a success for now.

2. Then look at a specific timeframe and ask yourself what level of progress seems reasonable to make in that timeframe. It could be six months, or it could be a week. It could even be today.

(And when we say “reasonable”, we mean “reasonable.” Not you at your all-out best and nothing going wrong and never having to stop and pee. Think about what tends to cause normal, “this is life” delays, like sick days, writers block, hangovers and technical difficulties. And, of course, peeing.)

3. Next, take that goalpost and write down why this will be meaningful to you. Maybe it’s because you’ll feel like you’re finally moving on it. Maybe because your goalpost is a concrete deliverable that helps you get to the next step of the project.

It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it matters to you. It has to feel like real success, like something is happening that you can feel good about. And we’re talking active good, here – not “Well, I’m supposed to do this, so I guess I should.” Make it something that can leave you feeling better at the end.

(If the thing you’re doing doesn’t have an “active good,” then you can think of something more interesting that you can be doing once this is done. That can be a good way to add that value when the work isn’t particularly rewarding.)

4. Finally, think about how you’re going to feel about yourself when you get there. Take a while to really picture it. Plant that seed in your brain so it knows there’s a point to doing this thing.

The more success you let yourself viscerally experience, the more you’ll succeed in business.

Success breeds success. You’ve got to feel it to continue to make it happen. And it’s just too easy to feel like you’re failing and you’re not getting enough done to grow your ittybiz the way you hoped you would.

Feeling like you’re failing isn’t exactly a business asset. It’s a great way to shoot yourself in the foot, though.

You might want to try this way instead.

About the author: Naomi Dunford started IttyBiz in 2006. In her free time, she likes to… ha! Free time. You’re adorable. Learn more about her here and catch up with her on Twitter or Facebook.

How to love your customers

We’re bringing back some old favorites by request. If there’s anything you’d like to see us run again, please get in touch. This one is for Jenny.

Originally published December 7, 2009 as Crushed Hopes and Spicy Chicken.

I’m not a big cook. I’m not a cook at all, really. I didn’t cook before I started IttyBiz and I sure as hell don’t cook now. My husband and I eat out a lot, and if we’re not actually eating in a restaurant, somebody’s going for takeout.

One day, we were having one of those not-really-an-argument arguments, the kind you’ll often see in couples who are very aware they would be completely and totally screwed if they didn’t have each other. They’re mad, but not mad enough to risk saying anything stupid, especially in front of the kids. Since I don’t care how mad I am, I’m still not cooking, we went out to the Mandarin, an Americanized Chinese buffet.

His favourite dish at the Mandarin is called Spicy Chicken. Sometimes they have it, sometimes they don’t. It’s weird, because everything there is so static normally. But Spicy Chicken is a sometimes treat.

The way we handle the Mandarin is pretty routine now. He sits down with Jack while I go up and fill two plates – a dinner plate for me and a side plate for Jack. I come back with our food, and we switch off. Jack’s food requires preparation and organization and coercion, so I’m usually busy enough sorting him out that I don’t really start eating until all three of us are seated.

This night, he sits back down, pretty silently. (Having not-really-an-argument arguments is particularly easy when you have children who are more than happy to chatter enough for all three of you.) I go to eat and he says, really quietly and without really looking at me, “They had my Spicy Chicken today.”

Where we segue into the modern human condition

Have you ever seen those people in restaurants who don’t speak to each other? They’re not fighting or anything, they’re just generally grumpy? Same with movies. You’re in line to see a show and there’s fifty teenagers who look like they have made boredom their life’s work. Sometimes you and I are like that too. Bored. Anhedonic. Numb. Cynical.

But deep down, every person in that restaurant, everyone waiting in line, is us.  At one time or another it was our first trip out to dinner, our first time at the movies. Our excitement was enough to shatter glass. Our hope was palpable. We had not yet decided that hope was for losers.

Beneath layer after layer of disappointment, disillusionment, betrayal, confusion, rage, fear and Keeping A Stiff Upper Lip is a profound and fundamental human hope that maybe something nice will happen today.

For a moment, a flash really, I saw my husband as a fellow human being, a nice man who was looking forward with cautious hope to his favourite dinner. Probably not, but maybe.

I saw the 16-year-old who knows that his parents don’t have any money for a birthday present this year, but maybe they’ve been saving money for years and he might actually get a Mustang. Probably not, but maybe.

I saw Jack, who can’t eat birthday cake like other kids, saying, “maybe there might be Rice Krispie cakes at this party?” with that little lilt at the end that asks a question and trusts I’ll know the answer and deliver it with mercy. Probably not, but maybe.

Your customers are these people too.

I sell internet marketing products, and my industry has a bad reputation. It is generally assumed, because of my profession, that I am out to screw everyone and anyone. Not even for the money, necessarily. Just for the sheer joy of screwing someone over.

Somehow, despite this, I am blessed with a lot of very nice people who buy my products repeatedly. Considering the habits of some of my peers, it’s a miracle I sell anything at all.

In internet marketing, and I imagine the weight loss industry is like this as well, while people consciously know there is no magic wand, they continue to hope you’ll sell them one for $47. When you don’t, most of them realize that their hope was misplaced, but some become really, really angry. Then they send you emails.

I sold thirty-five thousand dollars worth of products in the last two weeks. We got a lot of email.

I am very lucky to have a lower than 1% return rate in an industry where 20% is standard and 50% is still in the realm of normal. I received a lot of beautiful letters from people who were grateful for the sale we ran and more so for the payment plan. But, numbers being what they are, we still got some returns.

If you sell how-to products for a living and you’re not in the habit of lying about what your products will do for people, your returns will generally fall into two major categories. One, your product was too advanced. Two, your product was too basic. (The guy who returned SEO School for too much swearing and the other guy who returned Online Business School for not enough swearing are, naturally, the exceptions to this rule.)

But every now and again you get a return from somebody who’s just out for blood. Maybe they want to make good and sure you’re going to refund their money. Maybe they’re pissed at you. Maybe they’re pissed at everybody. But they’ll write a treatise on exactly how much you suck and why.

We got a return from somebody who told me OBS should have been renamed Online Business 001: Business Lessons for Total Imbeciles. They told me they felt totally betrayed. They told me they were crushed.

My first desire, me being human and all, was to publish their letter in its entirety here. To rant and scream and make fun. To say that “crushed” is a term better reserved for miscarriages, philandering spouses, and lifelong pets found dead on Christmas morning.

But then I thought about my husband and his Spicy Chicken and I stopped.

This person entered into a situation full of hope. They held their breath for a moment before clicking “Buy Now” and thought, “Maybe this time it’s for real.” For whatever reason, that for which they hoped did not materialize. They are disappointed and sad, and I’m sorry for that. Who the hell am I to say what should or shouldn’t crush a person?

Inside every customer…

Inside every customer is a little child in the supermarket, hoping beyond hope that their father will buy Cocoa Pebbles instead of oatmeal, just this one time.

Inside every customer is the awkward teenager thinking that maybe, just maybe, this new pair of jeans will make the popular boy think she’s beautiful.

Inside every customer is a tired housewife who hasn’t been given anything more romantic than a tea towel for three decades, but still dares to believe that maybe that envelope under the tree has cruise tickets tucked inside.

Don’t be angry. They’re just human. Try to love them anyway.

About the author: Naomi Dunford started IttyBiz in 2006. In her free time, she likes to… ha! Free time. You’re adorable. Learn more about her here and catch up with her on Twitter or Facebook.

How to ask for feedback

I was in a conversation on Facebook recently with a woman I’ve known for a long time.

This lovely lady has a new venture she’s working very hard on, and she’s wondering if she can send it over to get my feedback.

(Incidentally, IttyBiz is on Facebook! Please come and click Like and validate our existence! Ahem. This was done for many reasons, most prominent among them that my mother and my kids have been nagging me for years. You’ll be happy to know that now IttyBiz is on Facebook, they have moved on to nagging me about Pinterest and YouTube, respectively. I believe this has been the plan all along.)

Anyway, feedback.

If you are involved in any type of creative or innovative enterprise, you undoubtedly find yourself in a similar position. We’re all desperate for feedback.

We ask our friends and family but they’re non-commital. Or their answer is so pathetically simpering that it wasn’t worth asking. Or, upon hearing their answer, you realize they were the wrong person to ask because they’re utterly unqualified to even have an opinion.

Or the last time we asked, one of those things happened, and we’re not going to do THAT again, and now we’re in an echo chamber.

We ask critique partners, and colleagues, and mentors, and consistently, we don’t get what we’re looking for, or sometimes, we don’t get anything at all.

In my chat with the lovely lady, I was able to put words to something I’ve been trying to articulate for a long time, and I thought I’d use the power of push button publishing to share it here today. Perhaps it will be useful to you.

Your best bet is to consider specifically if there’s anything you want my opinion on. Like if it were a novel – what questions would you ask your beta readers? They can probably answer, “Do you think the protagonist is a self-obsessed jerk?” or “Is scene three remotely believable?”

If you just ask, “What do you think?” they’re not going to know if you mean “Did it make you cry?” or “Do you think it’ll sell enough in the next 24 months to enable me to quit my day job?” or “Can you please look for typos and plot holes?” And if they don’t know what you want to know, they’re going to avoid answering you in fear of getting it wrong.

“Give me your feedback” usually means one of two things:

1. “Please, for the love of God, tell me I haven’t wasted my time.”

2. The polar opposite of that, “Please, for the love of God, tell me if I’m wasting my time.”

If the asker is in the first camp and you treat them like they’re in the second camp, congratulations – you’ve ruined someone’s life and probably your relationship along with it.

If they’re in the second camp and you treat them like they’re in the first camp, congratulations – you’ve completely annoyed them and now things are awkward.

But to make things more complicated, almost everybody who says they’re in second camp is unconsciously in the first. They honestly believe they’re in the second camp because they are fully confident they have created something near flawless and can therefore happily take whatever minor constructive criticism you dole out.

They say, “Be brutal. I can take it. I honestly want your feedback.” (I know. I’ve done this.)

This is probably not the time to tell them they’ve wasted six years of their life and you’re pretty sure nobody on earth will ever buy this thing.

And to make things even MORE complicated, an opinion is just an opinion. So if I think they’ve wasted six years of their life and I’m pretty sure nobody on earth will ever buy this thing – I could be wrong. That’s pretty much exactly what I thought about Steve Jobs and the iPad.


How to ask for feedback… and get a decent answer.

Put the burden of responsibility on yourself to figure out the job requirements in advance.

Imagine you were hiring this person from a freelancing site, and you were paying them by the hour.

You would be very clear in your job requirements. You’d tell them exactly what you were looking for and exactly what you were not.

We would never go to a freelance editor and say, “Tell me what you think.” We would not go to a marketing consultant and say, “Tell me what you think.”

Instead, we would say things like, “Is my offer clear?” (Not, “How can I make my offer better?” because “better” is subjective and has different definitions for different people. If you say better, do you mean “clearer” or “more appealing”?)

We would say things like, “Does my pricing sound fair and reasonable?” (Not, “Does my pricing sound good?” because “good” is subjective and has different definitions for different people. If you say good, do you mean “more attractive” or “more premium” or even “more intuitive”?)

We would say things like, “Is my About Page boring?” (Not, “How can I make my About Page better?” What do you mean by “better”? Do you want to sound like a bigger deal? Do you want to sound more qualified? More professional? More approachable? Do you want more calls to action, more jokes, fewer “coffee aficionado” references?)

“I’d love your feedback” is far too vague a question to ask somebody because what you mean and what they think you mean are almost impossible to match up.

Tell them exactly what you want to know. You may not know what you want to know, but that is not their problem. You cannot expect people to answer a question you yourself cannot articulate.

So if you want your feedback to be better (ha! better!):

  • give a list of very specific questions,
  • make sure none of them require psychic abilities, and
  • none of them require the use of the Subjectivity Rosetta Stone to answer.

Last? The art of giving feedback, according to Jack, aged 7.

My son, Jack, says this on the matter:

If they ask you “what do you think?” and you think it’s terrible, you should probably pretend you thought they just wanted you to check the spelling. Then you can answer, “Well… it’s spelled perfectly.”

So… your key takeaway?

Come and Like IttyBiz on Facebook, of course!

About the author: Naomi Dunford started IttyBiz in 2006. In her free time, she likes to… ha! Free time. You’re adorable. Learn more about her here and catch up with her on Twitter or Facebook.