How Go From Slacker To Super Productive – Lessons From Mark Shead

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Choosing to live the entrepreneurial life seems to be the cool thing to do.  After all, no boss, no set schedule, controlling your own destiny, and unlimited earning potential are all possible for an entrepreneur.

The entrepreneurial journey reminds me of sailing through the Caribbean.  The blue sky, the crystal clear water, and the wide open spaces are metaphors for the opportunities the entrepreneurial journey offers.

However, we only see clear skies, and tend to overlook the rope burns and the dangerous rocks and reefs just below the surface. These are the unseen obstacles that sink and destroy many people on their entrepreneurial journey.

If you want to make your journey a success, I recommend that you heed the advice of those who have charted the waters before you.  Mark Shead, founder of Xeric Corporation, has successfully charted the entrepreneurial waters for the past five years.

Sure, he’s had his fair share of rope burns, and even been marooned a time or two, but he’s still in the waters, and he’s doing well.  Mark has graciously agreed to do a two-part Q & A to help all of us on this journey avoid certain dangers (and to give a few tips to make the journey smoother).

Q.  Looking back over the past 5 years of running Xeric Corporation, what were some initial mistakes you made that hindered your growth?

A. 1. I made a mistake assuming that people would go ahead and pay their bills. Early on I wasn’t aggressive enough about collecting money I was owed. I always assumed that if someone didn’t pay, it was probably because something had come up and I’d be their top priority the next month. In most cases, I later found out that they were simply paying the companies that were constantly asking for payment.

2. Another mistake was not working hard enough to manage the relationships higher up the chain. I had one situation where I focused too much on meeting the needs of the people I was working with and not enough on checking in with their boss or their boss’s boss. When the person I was working with got fired, that left me without the personal connection to the company.

Q. What types of marketing and/or advertising have been successful in growing your company?

A. My main form of advertising is something like this:

“Hey, I know this really smart guy named Mark. You should give him a call and ask him about that problem.”

This is what my clients tell their friends, and it is about the best form of advertising anyone could hope for.

My marketing strategy is to meet people and prove my value at no charge. Generally I’m giving my knowledge away for free (at least initially) and charging for execution. So I’m happy to sit down and spend some time with pretty much any prospective client, getting to understand their issues and making suggestions. At the worst case, they get some solutions and know whom to call for more. I get someone who knows me well enough to pass my name on to others.

One of the reasons this works well for me is because it can be difficult to explain exactly what I do, but it is very easy to demonstrate when we sit down and start talking about solving problems.

Q. What role has played in your business growth and entrepreneurial journey?

A. Surprisingly little. I haven’t really tried marketing to my readers on Productivity501 and most of them don’t really know much about my work outside of that website. However, the site gives me a large pipeline that I can draw on if necessary and I’ll probably be making use of it in the near future. Part of what has held me back from trying to market more on the blog is that most of the consulting I do doesn’t scale to large numbers of clients.  I can’t simply take on an additional 100 consulting clients overnight.  However, things like books, training and online services do scale, so those are the things I may try to match up with Productivity501 in the future.

Q. Entrepreneurs often try to juggle too many things and their productivity slips.  What are some things entrepreneurs can do today to drastically increase their productivity?

1. Learn to focus. Here is a scenario: You are working on something and a program gives you a message saying you’ll have to wait for 45 seconds.  Maybe it is copying a file, rendering a video, compiling code or whatever. You’ve got 45 seconds you need to wait. What do you do with those 45 seconds?  Most people jump on CNN, Facebook, Twitter, or do something so they won’t sit there bored for 45 seconds. The problem is, they never come back in 45 seconds.  If you teach yourself to stay focused on the task at hand, you will be dramatically more productive — even if you just sit and think for those 45 seconds. You can also stand up and stretch, but don’t jump to a website that is going to suck up the next 5 to 15 minutes of your time.

2. Physically write down the three most important goals for the day.  Write it down, using a pen, on a real physical piece of paper in the middle of your desk. This doesn’t replace your master task list. It doesn’t mean those are the only things you are going to do today, but it does represent the big “blocks” you need to have moved into place by the end of the day in order to declare the day a success.

Our modern task-keeping tools can make it easy to keep a collection of hundreds of tasks. You don’t want the forest distracting you from the three most important trees you need to deal with in the next 24 hours.

3. Figure out how you define success. This isn’t always more money. If you could make 10 times as much, but spend your life being away from everyone you love, is that success? If you could work hard and buy a mansion that you are never home to enjoy, is that success? It may be different for each person, but make sure that 20 years from now, you are going to be happy with how you spent your time today.

Q. What are some of your favorite productivity tools that every entrepreneur should know about?

A. Google Apps – The paid version is very much worth the $50 per year, particularly if you have an Android phone. Here are some of the things it does for me:

  • My contacts stay synced across all of my devices.
  • If my phone is lost, I can locate it on a map and ring it at full volume even if it is set to silent.
  • If I can’t find my phone, I can wipe it remotely.
  • I can quickly create forms for people to fill out using the spreadsheet — for example if I’m doing a group interview and need to compile all the answers into one place.
  • My calendars stay synced between my phone, my wife’s phone, and both of our computers.
  • The additional storage space means I can keep all of my email correspondence and look up anything from the past whenever I need it.  I get all this access from my phone as well.
  • I have higher email sending limits than standard Gmail.
  • My chat transcripts are all archived and can be searched along with my emails.
  • I have a support number to call if there is ever a problem.

Note taking/keeping software – I use both DevonTHINK and Evernote. DevonTHINK is mainly reserved for documents while Evernote is what I use for things that would have normally been put on sticky tabs or on scrap paper. I can go into DevonTHINK and quickly pull up all the contracts and paperwork for a client or check my taxes for last year. With Evernote I have instant access to all the random thoughts I have had about a particular topic, client, etc. I have some notes in Evernote that are simply things I want to review about a particular topic. When I learn something new that I want to remember, I stick it in one of these notes. Then when I have some downtime, I can pull it up on my phone and review it.

Spreadsheets – If you really know how to use spreadsheets, you have an extremely powerful tool. Most people know how to use a spreadsheet to total numbers, etc. but if you really learn the functions, you can use it to take apart a list of text, rearrange it, remove duplicates, and do hundreds of other things.  Many times I’ve found myself getting ready to write a piece of code to solve a problem only to realize that I could do the same thing faster in a spreadsheet.

I hope you found Mark’s answers as valuable as I have.  His blog Productivity501 provides tips, tricks, and advice to help you become more productive (and more successful).  Here are a few of my favorite posts:

The Five Most Important Leadership Traits

12 Tips for an Organized Desk

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