Today we present Steve Spalding. This is a detailed interview that you can learn much from. You will learn about a difficult challenge he faced, how mentors influenced him and an underlying message and much more. Steve firmly believes that when things go wrong in our lives, we should extract the lessons. Great advice! We conduct these interviews so that you can learn from the experiences of others. That is part of what mentoring is about.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
What I’ll tell you is that I find questions like that to be hard, on principle. The problem, I guess, is that I never know what it is that you want to hear.
The easiest thing to say is what I do. I run a small firm called Crossing Gaps LLC. We help big brands and small creatives tell their stories using the web, which really is a fancy way of saying that we do strategy design and consulting.
On top of this I write. I write for my blog, howtosplitanatom.com and I write for our stable of side projects.
When I’m not doing that I spend the rest of my time waxing poetic on Social Media channels. Right now I’m pretty deeply interested in psychology, behavioral finance and how all of that ties back into the ways we use the web for business.
What’s a typical day like for you?
It starts off with a lot of email. In general, the first hour of my day is spent catching up on the emails that I neglected to answer the night before.
The rest is split between working on client deadlines and taking chunks out of internal projects. I try to focus on one thing in a day. I’m finding that I get a lot more accomplished that way. It used to be that I would flit between whatever project caught my fancy and load the rest of the day down with client work. By focusing my energy on accomplishing one thing, I’ve found that I burn out a lot less frequently and it frees my mind to think creatively again instead of just moving along the treadmill.
How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?
I stay motivated by splitting my time across multiple projects. I know common wisdom holds that you should dive into one thing and work on that until you’ve made your millions, but this always struck me as the wrong idea.
When you keep your head buried in anything for too long you start losing perspective, and when you lose enough perspective you start making mistakes. Doing work on different things that require different parts of my brain, makes all the projects seem more fun (because I know I have a limited time to do them) and I’ve found it makes them more successful because I’m happier.
If you had to start over from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
I’d be more patient.
Every mistake I have ever made in business has been because I have tried to rush things along when what I really needed to do was look at them critically. Great businesses aren’t built in a week, they aren’t even built in a month or a year — if you can’t be patient and work slowly towards a real, manageable goal you are going to find yourself in a lot of holes you might have otherwise avoided.
That being said, I really don’t feel like I would have done anything differently. Every mistake I have ever made has been a teaching experience. I’ve always felt that people underestimate the value of really screwing up.
What’s the most important business (or other) discovery you’ve made in the past year?
My most important business discovery has been that working more does not mean working better. In the last few months I’ve realized that you need to take some time out for yourself and do things completely different than what you spend 50-60 hours a week doing or you’ll start to stagnate.
Go for a hike, learn about Jazz, take a trip to New Zealand, do something entirely different and see how it ties back into your day job. You might not think that your career has anything at all to do with the plot of Pulp Fiction, but the lesson that most entrepreneurs really need to learn is to take lessons from everything they do.
It’s a badge of honor among entrepreneurs to brag about how many hours you work on your business, that’s great and I do it all the time myself but the truth is that success is much more a function of efficient time use rather than raw volume.
What’s one of the biggest advances in your industry over the past five years?
In the realm of Social Media (where I work most often), the biggest advances are coming as large companies start to care less about the number of people coming to their sites and start to care more about the quality of those people.
Almost every client meeting I have starts with the person wanting to get millions and millions of hits, as if traffic alone was somehow going to drive their business forward. I have to tell them that if that is all they want, that’s not too hard but no matter how many million people show up to see whatever stunt we devise to attract them, none of it matters at all unless those people eventually turn into customers.
I think companies are getting a more sophisticated understanding of how to read their own analytics and this understanding is translating into making discussions about “quality over quantity” a lot easier.
What are the three threats to your business, your success, and how are you handling them?
Unfortunately, when you are in an information or knowledge based business like mine you only really have one threat — obsolescence.
Every day you wake up and your industry has moved forward a step, if you aren’t keeping up then it won’t be long until you have nothing to offer your clients that they can’t just read on the Internet.
I think the hardest thing about working in this field is the fact that not a day goes by where you can be complacent. If you are not constantly improving then you’re dying, and that death will come suddenly and without warning if you aren’t paying attention.
How do I handle that?
Well, mostly, I use the Internet a lot. I also try to avoid the trend lines. I am more apt to observe early adopters rather than be one myself, if you spend your time too deeply tied to the hot new trends you start to lose the forest for the trees and when you make your living off of the trees, that can be a serious problem.
What’s unique about the service that you provide?
I think the most unique thing we provide is that we try to avoid stunts. A lot of Social Media tactics can devolve into pet projects that look great in a case study but don’t provide real client value.
At our core, we are educators, I want our clients to leave us, not only able to use the infrastructure we’ve built up for them effectively, but to also use some of the intuition that’s necessary to grow.
What do you observe most people in your field doing badly that you think you do well?
I think a lot of consultants spend a great deal of time making their jobs look as complicated as they can. It serves a purpose, I know, if it looks like you’re doing magic then you can charge an astounding rate as long as you don’t give away your trick but I think it does a disservice to the client.
I have always been of the opinion that when the client is doing well, we do well, and the best way to help that along is to make it easy for the client to understand what it is that we are doing.
Describe a major business (or other) challenge you had and how you resolved it.
We started working on this project when the economy was starting to nose dive. The golden age of Venture Capital investment and million dollar valuations was dying down and everyone, in every sector that mattered to us, was tightening their belts.
What’s even funnier is that when budgets get cut, the first thing to go is — you guessed it — marketing.
We had fewer clients, willing to spend less who always wanted more work done.
The way we dealt with it is, I think, the way entrepreneurs deal with any problem — persistence. We took our licks, did some work for way less than it was worth, got some experience under our belts and eventually we started filling out our client list.
After six or seven months of grinding, we got to the point where it was easier to say “no” to things that we didn’t want to do. In consulting, I think the ability to say “no” is the truest measure of your overall success.
Tell me about your big break and who gave you.
I think we had a number of big breaks.
On a personal level, my big break into entrepreneurship came from a local VC — Dan Rua — who many years ago was kind enough to listen to me ramble about one bad business idea after another until I finally figured it out.
Professionally, I consider every one of our clients a “break.” When you are working through a terrifyingly bad economy, anyone who decides to open up their checkbook to you is fantastic. Sometimes the “biggest” clients end up saving you but more often it’s the little guys who stick around month after month that get you through the toughest times.
I can’t say enough how much I appreciate our clients big and small and the dozens of “breaks” they have given us.
Describe one of your biggest failures. What lessons did you learn, and how did it contribute to a greater success?
The “failure” question is always hard. As I said before, I see all of the things that have exploded on me as being a natural and necessary part of my growth as an entrepreneur.
If I had to pick one, it would be a project called Orangeply. It’s not terribly important what it was supposed to do (it had nothing at all to do with citrus fruit) but it is a classic example of paralysis by analysis, our team spent so much time putzing around deliberating about server capacity and where we should put UI elements that we never even started on the code. It was a project that generated a spectacular amount of paper while managing to accomplish nothing at all except teaching us all a lesson about the value of iterative building.
I think that project, along with the half-dozen other failed enterprises and hundreds of conversations with other entrepreneurs has given me a keen insight into what works and what doesn’t in web-based business. It has also given me the ability to help guide other entrepreneurs away from problems that might otherwise capsize their projects.
What are three events that helped to shape your life?
- I wouldn’t call it an “event” but I would say my parents, they instilled in me a few things that I think have served me spectacularly — a love of knowledge and a strong work ethic. Without both I don’t think I would be where I am today.
- Deciding to go to school at UF. As weird as it might sound, I think my life would have been entirely different if I had gone to college in the northeast as I had originally planned. There is something about seeing technology from outside of the big hubs that gives you a unique perspective. I think all good business is based on unique perspective.
- Deciding to leave the company I was working at to start my own business. That one seems pretty self explanatory, if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be here answering questions for you among other things.
What’s an accomplishment that you are proudest of?
Survival. Considering the economy that I started working for myself in, survival is easily my greatest accomplishment. It would have been so easy to fail and we definitely had more than our share of opportunities to fail but somehow we managed to pull through and I couldn’t be more proud.
How did mentors influence your life?
I like to believe that I learn something from everyone I talk to, that’s why I love chatting with different kinds of people.
As for my mentors, I think that all the people I would consider mentors had shared one thing in common — they have given me the opportunity to make mistakes.
What’s one core message you received from your mentors?
I think that is the core message. To grow as an entrepreneur, you need to have the freedom to make mistakes. If you don’t, you can’t expect to do anything interesting.
People grossly underestimate how complex business can be, they assume that everything will work out exactly as planned. What I will say is that in all cases that I’ve seen, it never does.
One of the few good things a mentor can give you is the room to breathe that you need to learn this for yourself, find a solution (or not) and fail with your head held high.
They need to teach but only after they’ve let you do it yourself for a while.
Which resources (books, movies, training etc.) did your mentors recommend to you?
I get book recommendations from all over. I think my favorites right now are:
- 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
- A Random Walk on Wall Street
What are five ways that you can apply Steve Spalding’s wisdom, knowledge and experience to your life? Many readers read this blog from other sites, so why don’t you pop over here The Invisible Mentor (top on the right side)and subscribe by email or RSS Feed. I created a Mini Learning Toolkit and you can grab a copy by clicking here. Let’s keep the conversation flowing, please comment.
About Steve Spalding
Steve Spalding, Electrical Engineer, Editor of the critically acclaimed technology/business blog How To Split An Atom and marketer who specializes in using the Internet as a distribution channel to increase the overall effectiveness of marketing campaigns.
He has had experience building start-ups, working at them, and speaking to dozens of Founders and CEOs during his years as a blogger in the space. His work has been cited by numerous sources including the LA Times, Forbes and Geoff Livingstone’s marketing and new media book, Now Is Gone.
All book links are affiliate links.