Jane Reports from the FrontLines
Jane Gets the Scoop

Smart Couples Online: #1

Ah, how the day has flown. This is Thursday, in case anyone lost their calendar, which means there should be an interview posted here...so, where is it? I had it somewhere. I know it was here...on my desk...no, in a file on the bookcase...wait a minute, there it is...in my gmail account.

At last...a bit late, but well worth it, as you will see...this week's Smart Man Online interview, which turned into a Smart Couples Online interview (I originally thought of calling it: Smart Couples Do It Online but decided not to risk the search engine spiders, which would have put a whole different meaning on that phrase).

This post will be live today and all day tomorrow... since Lip-sticking has been out of the office all day and couldn't post this at our regular time. We just think it only fair to leave it up for a full day, through Friday. You will see why, when you read it.

Tim and Felicia Slavin are poster-parents for the new millennium. They are home-based businessfolk who traded corporate business lives for the simple life...and the opportunity to do two valuable things: (1) be at home with their children, and (2) offer other small businesses expert advice and support, using their many years of experience. Both Tim and Felicia have backgrounds in the media. They met...well, let's go to the interview to learn more about this new millennium couple .... it's a doozy, folks. Settle in and get comfy, now...

Lip-sticking: Tim, your website-- Reach Customers Online -- (RCO) contains some excellent articles and advice for folks who want to make money doing business online. Some people would question your willingness to 'give' away the store! Why are you offering your good work for free? (I hope you will go into the Creative Commons License, which I noticed on the bottom of your site. To my surprise, not many people know or understand it. Please feel free to elaborate, if you like. It's important enough to use some space on.)

Tim: Thanks. I appreciate sites like Adaptive Path that not only tell how they work but also the reasons for their process. They even include sample files. When I research answers to a problem, I hate sites that only tell you enough to hire them. I feel suckered. So the choice was fairly easy. Also, my site helps people find and use low-cost and free internet tools and keep up with internet best practices. Free articles are a natural fit.

People from all over the world have linked to some of my articles. And a number of my articles score high with Google because few people write for free at length on the topic; for example, How to create an editorial process or How to code an html email newsletter. I have had to solve these problems and so I wrote down my results to help other people.

I use the Creative Commons license because at heart I'm a tree-hugging granola boy from Northern California. What goes around comes around. It's great that Creative Commons provides a legal structure to share information a variety of ways. Being open generates far more activity, interaction, and growth than being closed.

Lip-sticking: Tim: I noticed information on RCO about Open Source. I'm a fan of the Penguin. You seem more knowledgeable than I, though. What's your background in Open Source and do you recommend it to folks as an OS, or for their desktop?

Tim: I can’t recommend Linux (yet!) because I have not had computer space. My new laptop will have enough space for a dual boot. But there are many open source software tools that I have found, tested, and used over the past nine years.

I got interested in open source software because I'm cheap. And because the companies I've worked for and my clients also have been cheap. Internet projects suffer the same budget constraints as traditional marketing and IT projects.

Open source software harnesses the best a group of people technology has to offer, to solve common problems. Linux is an obvious example. But you can go to SourceForge, Hot Scripts, and other places to find thousands of scripts that solve many problems, from ecommerce applications like osCommerce to DadaMail. There's even OpenOffice which competes with Microsoft Office. Describe your need and chances are people have built free or low cost applications.

That said, open source software must fit your business and IT strategy, the same as off the shelf software. It’s not a slam dunk.

Lip-sticking: Felicia, first of all, tell us how you feel being able to work with your husband, the father of your children, a man we know you must love and admire. Do you have an 'all work and no play' attitude for working hours, with a relaxation mode to follow, or is there some other secret you can share with us about working successfully, at home, with your significant other?

Felicia: It was hard to adjust to working together at first. I actually am a person that likes my space. But, I've grown to enjoy Tim's companionship. Mostly, it works because we treat it like any office situation where you have coworkers. Plus, we get to go out for company lunches (dates) from time to time.

Tim: About a month after I started to work from home, Felicia told me to get out, get a real job, this was her house and she was tired of having me underfoot. I laughed at her, gave her some space, and figured things would blow over. They did.

I'd say success keeps you busy and helps keep you out of each other's hair. There are a couple things that help us be successful.

One big rule I would offer is to put your office far away from the kitchen. Every morning, when I first sit down to work, I pick the 1-3 things that I must do that day, and then finish something at 10, 1, and/or 4. And every week, Tuesday through Thursday, I try to do at least one thing a day to find and reach prospects for work in the next 2-3 months. It also helps that we divide the work of running the business. And when we’re feeling house bound, it is great to make time to go for a hike or in town for errands.

One thing I like: I got to build by hand a nine foot plank desk to fit a space in our kid’s playroom. We work at opposite ends with computer equipment in between. We’re together yet apart.

Lip-sticking: Felicia, women are opening home-based businesses in record numbers, so my research tells me...and many of them are partnering with husbands, so it seems to be a trend. Would you say the work you're doing now, and the way you do it (at home with Tim) is satisfying? Did you ever imagine you would be doing this, when you were just a little girl?

Felicia: I wanted to be a mommy-baker as my first job. I guess I sensed right off the bat that I would be a mommy and would need a "day job" that would allow me the flexibility to raise my kids. It is satisfying to know that I can be around for the children and take care of the laundry, too, all during normal business hours. However, it’s not all champagne and roses. Being entrepreneurial means that there are slow times as well as busy times. It's not always for the faint of heart.

Lip-sticking: Also, Felicia, before I go to a couple of questions for the two of you, tell us how much you shop online. Do you find shopping online worthwhile, or just another chore? Or, are you still malling it instead of mousing it?

Felicia: I do some of my shopping online and some in the mall. Let's say it depends on my mood and how busy I am with work. I still like to get up and move around a little.

Lip-sticking: For both of you (each can answer separately, or one can answer for both of you): Tell us the trick to 'persuasive marketing' which you mention on the Red House Communications site that promotes your writing.

Felicia: Persuasive marketing is marketing that engages the reader and interests them in your product. Simplicity and humor seem to work well.

Tim: The only trick I have found is to pay attention to the power of individual words.

In college, at the University of Michigan, I sat in on a graduate class in the Journalism school with Flora Lewis of the New York Times. She was a wonderful cuss with lots of stories and ideas about how to write. She told us a story about being in Eastern Europe somewhere on May Day, wandering down a side street only to find trucks stuffed with farmers and their wives wearing their Sunday best.

Lewis claimed that if she had asked these farmers why they were there on an empty street they would have lied and extolled the glories of Communism and May Day. Instead, Lewis asked what brought them there. They smiled and told her they really could not say. Which, of course, was the truth. To their government, they were cattle trotted out on May Day. To themselves, they had a rare day off and a chance to dress up and chat quietly with neighbors.

Asking WHY makes people defensive. Asking WHAT makes people open up. It's those small distinctions that make the difference between average writing and powerful writing, connecting or not connecting with customers.

Lip-sticking: For both of you, again: How did the two Web sites come to be designed so differently? I prefer the Red House Communications site as a design...is that because Felicia had more input into that one, with Tim designing the better part -- or all -- of the Reach Customers Online? What do you think that means -- from a gender viewpoint...if anything at all?

Felicia: Tim really pulls us along on the web sites. Yes, I did take more of an active role on Red House. We looked for examples of other marketers that we liked and determined what worked best and what didn't. Then, we did the design and writing. We went for simplicity.

Tim: So you don't like my website?! The difference is that Felicia had a big hand in our Red House site while the other site is my baby. [We Knew it -- intuitively!]

The Red House site also is designed to work with Macromedia Contribute, a neat low-cost WYSIWYG content management tool. I used the Red House site to develop a code set that I re-use with some clients to build their sites more quickly and cheaply.

Lip-sticking: For both of you-- again-- Where does blogging fit into the overall marketing scheme of online tools? Obviously we reached Tim through his blog, and were happily introduced to you, Felicia, but you don't seem to be blogging. Was this a conscious decision, to have Tim be the family blogger? Is blogging working to reach YOUR customers... on both and/or either Web sites?

Felicia: Okay, I'm a little behind the curve on all of this stuff - I told Tim he was crazy to spend so much time writing something that nobody would read. But, luckily, Tim is a little ahead of the curve.

We have used internet technology since around 1988 when we got a Prodigy account and bought a Hyundai 286 with a wonderful orange monitor. Yes, the same Hyundai that makes cars. Tim still has his Mac PowerBook 145 from that era. While I may not feel comfortable building websites, I have been online for many years researching, shopping, and even buying airline tickets, as far back as Prodigy.

Tim: Felicia keeps asking me when my blog will have ads so that we can pull in at least five cents a month to help pay the bills.

I have had a website since 1995 or 1996, first AboutWebs.com and now ReachCustomersOnline.com. The AboutWebs site landed me at least one big staff job. I discovered that having a website with lots of useful information helped separate me from my peers, made me different in a good way.

Blogging provides exposure, another way to feed our sales channel. While we've gotten more work from networking, the website has pointed a few interesting people our way. The same Darwinian numbers game applies to website leads as applies to networking. Only a small number of all possible deals actually happen.

To me, blogging is over-exposed, especially all the hype around blogging the two political conventions here in the US. Aping journalists is not blogging. Blogging is about collecting information and sharing it with a like-minded community. It works best if it’s done on the quiet, without hype, without pressure. The community can be friends, political comrades, or prospects and customers. Journalism, on the other hand, is about The Scoop, getting news first, and The Story, milking an event for all its worth then running off to the next one.

As an aside, there are huge, so far untapped, opportunities for weblogs to counter the ill effects caused by journalism’s worship of The Scoop and The Story. Blogs have the potential to serve as collective memory for important issues that take too long to play out, for example, stories about political corruption, environmental issues, and economic policy. This applies to liberal and conservative viewpoints, and those in between.

I often see that traditional journalists can’t be bothered to mention facts from other stories, never mind prove or refute those facts. They’re too busy chasing the latest part of the story. Blogs that act as ombudsmen for important stories and facts, keeping up with changes through a blog with the ability to search past items, maybe even archive key documents, that would be an important public service. Blogs could be used to formulate and implement policy changes, building consensus then directing action. Blogs could widen the political discussion and the people who participate in the political process. Today most of this information is hard to find. The average person has little or no voice, no way to educate themselves on important issues.

Lip-sticking:Tell us the story of how you met -- since Tim opened the door on that when I asked him for this interview.

Felicia:We both worked at Showtime. I needed boxing footage for an on-air promo and got caught in a huge game of "pass the buck" with people saying I can't help you, call this person. I wound up calling Tim's boss. Tim answered and asked me why I was calling and then offered to help. He actually stood out as a nice guy after that call although it was months before we dated.

Tim: I've always thought finding each other because she needed footage of two people trying to kill each other was an amusing harbinger for our marriage. However, I don’t remember her phone call. I do remember a wonderfully tipsy Christmas party at the South Street Seaport in NYC. I saw this knockout lady at the bar with a white silk blouse, black skirt, and great legs. We've had lots of fun. It's great we can work and grow together professionally.

Lip-sticking: As far as reaching customers online...in a world that is still exploring this new business model of having customers online...is what you're doing working? If you could change ONE thing about your life now (work or play) what would it be?

Tim: Every time our internet connection goes down or my computer dies, I am reminded and amazed that we make money pushing pixels. It’s wonderfully ephemeral, like selling air or carrying coal to Newcastle. Happily, our customers make money because of our work. With clients in CT, NYC, Chicago, and the SF Bay Area, working from here in CT works just fine.

Felicia:I want a bigger house. We're kind of on top of each other right now. It’s especially difficult because the kids playroom had to become our home office.

Tim: We did see in California recently a new home with two offices, one in front with a courtyard view and one in back next to a putting green and a barbeque grill. That would be cool.

[picture courtesy of Tim and Felicia's children, Maddie and Tommy, thanks, kids!] rhc_felicia_tim_0812042

There you have it! Two great people, man and woman, husband and wife, mother and father, working together, living together, parenting together...in a world that makes it possible through pixels, bits and bytes.

What's not to like about that?


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