Hey, summer: where’d ya go?

Do you ever fall asleep on an airplane only to wake up when the wheels hit the tarmac? In a mental fog, you’re thoroughly flummoxed by the realization that you’ve arrived at your destination.

I feel the same way as I sit here in mid-October and look back at the summer. I rub my eyes. I think, “Where did the time go?” “How did I get here?”

Prior to starting my writing business, I’d heard tell of the “Summer Slowdown,” when many creative firms and indie professionals found that business tapered off. And sure enough, I’ve come to recognize that pattern in my own workflow: After a busy first and second quarters, projects came more slowly in July and August. And then …

On the Tuesday after Labor Day, the phone started ringing (or, rather, the e-mails started flowing in) with new projects. In just he first few weeks of fall, I’ve:

  • helped my good friends at Rule29 in Chicagoland redevelop the content for their shiny new website
  • worked with the team at Enrich Creative in St. Louis to write copy for their new business development campaign
  • contributed short pieces to Cincinnati Magazine’s annual “Best of the City” issue … including a profile on the city’s best local bacon. Yes. It’s a difficult job.
  • developed original recipes for a new customer magazine for Kroger.
  • begun leading the content marketing strategy for the 2014 HOW Design Live event next May in Boston. (If you’re a creative pro, this should absolutely be on your radar. HOW’s taking a rad new approach to the program and has landed some superstar speakers.)

We who own small businesses understand that there’s a natural ebb and flow to our workloads. Assuming that we’re doing the marketing work required to prevent those “feast or famine” scenarios when there’s absolutely nothing on the horizon, we have to get comfortable with the fact that sometimes we’re less busy. And that’s OK.

In fact, that slowdown is essential — it offers opportunity for us to take a break, to rejuvenate, to work on our own projects. In addition to playing several midweek rounds of golf in July and August, I worked with the immensely talented designer Jill Anderson to overhaul my recipe website, writes4food.com. I skipped a couple of months with my own marketing newsletter, but I updated my online portfolio. I read books related to my work (Michael Pollan’s excellent “Cooked”) and not (Dan Brown’s page-turner “Inferno.”)

Two and a half years into running a small creative business, I’m finally seeing those ebb/flow patterns. And I’m giving myself permission to do my own stuff — or heck, to knock off early — when things slow down.

What about you? How do you fill those quieter, non-billable hours? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Speaking of writes4food.com … I invite you to check out my newly redesigned recipe website, with better searchability, new recipes and a fresh new look!

Downloading after the Creative Freelancer Conference.

I’m scratching my head that it was more than 2 weeks ago that I was in beautiful San Francisco for the Creative Freelancer Conference and HOW Design Live.

The interim has been hectic: First, my little vintage recipe project on my food blog scored some national media attention, which derailed work for a few days (in a very good way; more on that to come). Then, there was a holiday-shortened week. Now, as I’m about to head off for vacation, I’m swamped.

I was humbled that Ilise Benun of Marketing Mentor, the brains behind the operation, asked me to present at CFC for the first time, after 5 years in various hosting and programming roles. The session was, at its core, about roadblocks—in the form of money (the harsh realities of billing for your work and paying taxes), minutes (the ups and downs of the freelancer’s workload) and marketing (that we need to be realistic and not too hard on ourselves).

I talked about how well-prepared I thought I was when I launched my freelance writing business, and about how I’ve nonetheless run into all the roadblocks I thought I’d drive right past on my way to fame, glory and success.

In fact, my CFC presentation was a metaphor for its content: I hit a roadblock, in the form of technical difficulties that prevented me from seeing my notes on the podium laptop and left me rattled. I didn’t meet my own (perhaps overly lofty) expectations for the presentation, and I was disappointed.

But I learned two lessons: 1) print your notes, knucklehead! And 2) expect and prepare for technical difficulties.

What is a conference if not a learning experience, right? Even though this was my sixth CFC, I continue to glean nuggets of wisdom from it. Here are some ideas that really stuck with me:

The Arc of Failure: Intro and closing speaker Luke Mysse talked about the progression we go through when we’re reaching for a goal, no matter how big or small. We start off at launch with a lot of momentum, work uphill until we reach a plateau … and think: I’ve worked so hard; now what? Why isn’t this as good or interesting as I expected? We then enter a downhill slide into disillusionment, at which point we have two options: recommit or settle. What do you do when you hit that plateau?

The Importance of Values: Supersmart Sarah Durham talked a lot about values, both personal and professional (and the intersection of the two). Values—like balance and decency and collaboration—should drive business decisions, underpin the work and unite the team and client. Note to self: Add a list of my top 5 values to my website.

You Be Cool, I’ll Be Cool: The wildly talented illustrator/designer Jessica Hische (who’s also ridiculously cute and funny) talked about this as a guidepost for every contract. In fact, it pretty much informs any client relationship.

Content, content, content: Good thing I love to write, because Mark O’Brien says we should all be adding 2,000 words per month to our websites, through blog posts, white papers, pages, etc. I figure this post gets me a quarter of the way there for July.

And then there was keynote speaker Austin Kleon, a writer who draws and author of “Newspaper Blackout” and “Steal Like an Artist” (upon which his presentation was based). Wow. I was so incredibly inspired by this guy (and images from his session appear throughout this post). Austin gave everyone permission to be inspired by work done by the people who’ve gone before us, to borrow the best from our creative heroes and make it our own.

Worth Reading

I’ve seen a number of great recaps of CFC and HOW Design Live, including:

From Jill Lynn Design (my web design partner)

From Loretta Robinson

See what you missed via Pinterest

Healthy fast food: how much of a pipe dream is it?

I’ve always liked Mark Bittman’s recipes, but I’m glad he’s moved over to the Opinion pages at The New York Times. He’s joining the voices of Marion Nestle (whom I heard speak recently, a real thrill) and Michael Pollan and others (and why aren’t there more of those others??) in advocating for serious change to our agroindustrial food system. Amen.

There are two fronts for this effort toward change: at home and in restaurants. Bittman’s latest story for The New York Times Magazine addresses restaurant food—particularly fast food.

What I’d like is a place that serves only good options, where you don’t have to resist the junk food to order well, and where the food is real — by which I mean dishes that generally contain few ingredients and are recognizable to everyone, not just food technologists. It’s a place where something like a black-bean burger piled with vegetables and baked sweet potato fries — and, hell, maybe even a vegan shake — is less than 10 bucks and 800 calories (and way fewer without the shake). If I could order and eat that in 15 minutes, I’d be happy, and I think a lot of others would be, too.

His conclusion: Yes, healthful fast food is possible—and it’s gaining traction. Healthful fast food won’t be as cheap as the Dollar Menu (of the three—fast, cheap, healthful—it seems we can have two). Small fast-casual restaurants in California (natch) are leading the way. But there’s hope: Chipotle started out with just one outlet, and look at where they’ve come.

Read more of Bittman’s article: Yes, Healthful Fast Food is Possible. But Edible?

Presenting: What you learn when you teach.

I’m just back from Edible Institute in Santa Barbara, a 4-day gathering of food magazine editors and publishers, foodies and locavores. My people. The conference had two parts: an informational meeting for folks who own and publish Edible magazines (there are nearly 80 of them throughout the country), and an issue-oriented conference for those interested in local food.

I was thrilled to present two sessions during the editors/publishers’ meeting, where I shared strategies and tips for making the editorial process run smoothly. It was an incredible experience. And I discovered that by teaching, I learned a ton.

Presenting = giving. I was super nervous about this presentation. If you’ve been to a HOW Design Conference in the past decade, you may know that in my host role, I’d welcome participants to the event. But let me tell you: Standing before 4,000 people to say a quick ‘hello’ wasn’t nearly as knee-knocking as presenting—with slides and handouts and everything—to 40.

My session targeted an audience of Edible editors and publishers, nearly none of whom had magazine experience. Magazine experience I have in spades. So I worked very hard to prepare a professional-looking Keynote presentation (with slide backgrounds created by talented designer Jill Anderson).

Most important, I aimed to share a ton of great information. I approached the presentation from a position of giving; I knew that the attendees struggled with getting their magazines produced, and I knew I could help. An opening slide read, “My goal is to minimize your pain.” I shared “insider secrets” for producing a magazine. And people told me throughout the weekend how much they valued what I had to offer.

Presentation is rooted in the word ‘present.’ This has a double meaning: 1) give freely of your time, expertise, information, ideas, and 2) be there, be fully engaged.

Presenting inspires clarity. As you gather information to share during a workshop or conference presentation, you dig deep into the material. The process of researching, organizing and editing clarifies your own thinking about the subject. When you have to explain how something works or decipher a complex topic—particularly a subject that you’re very familiar with—you have to look at it from the perspective of a novice and make the information accessible to everyone.

I stuck around after my presentations (back-to-back sessions on Friday) for the rest of the weekend’s program. And I’m glad I did. After expending a lot of creative energy Friday, it was great to recoup that by listening to inspiring speakers from the food community.

We need to refill regularly. As creative professionals, we pour ourselves into our work. No matter how rewarding the project, it still takes from us. And we need to make time to refill. That’s why conferences rock. Being among your peers, among people with shared passions, among people you can learn from—the energy boost is immeasurable. It’s hard to allocate time and funds to attend an event like Edible Institute or HOW Design Live (use my discount code BRYN if you’d like to register for the Creative Freelancer Conference).

Maybe it’s not a big conference every year. But it’s critical to refill the well regularly, whether it’s by attending a conference or a smaller, local gathering that can inspire you.

We can make a difference. One of the highlights of Edible Institute was Marion Nestle’s keynote presentation. Dr. Nestle is a nutritionist and one of the nation’s leading voices advocating for healthier diets and changes to our food economy. In our current socio-political-economic climate, where supersize portions are the norm (did you know that a Double Gulp soda has 800 calories, nearly half our daily intake?), food labels are deliberately misleading and food companies are ever-pressured to deliver shareholder value, “it’s impossible for people to practice personal responsibility.” But we’re not stuck. We have a lot of power as individuals to spark change. We can “vote with our forks” by choosing healthful foods, supporting local growers and producers, and sharing our tables with family and neighbors.

 “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”

— Orson Welles

On being helpful.

photo by Marc Falardeau, used under Creative Commons license

Once, while working on a Habitat for Humanity building project, one of the construction pros volunteering on the job told me, “You have good worksite awareness.”

I took it as a compliment … and then asked what he meant.

Good worksite awareness is about paying attention to the work and workers around you, anticipating what needs to be done and offering to pitch in however you can. It’s about being helpful.

‘Help’ is sort of a loaded word. Shouted in panic, it signifies danger. In a certain context, it identifies those in a position of servitude. Some people have trouble asking for it, for fear it demonstrates a weakness.

In business, though, ‘help’ can be a powerful word. And I’m seeing this four-letter verb more and more as I research and collaborate with other creative companies that exist to serve clients. Maybe the word sounds soft to some, isn’t aggressive enough, doesn’t demonstrate strategy.

But all manner of business relationships—client relationships, customer relationships, co-worker relationships, employee-manager relationships, vendor relationships—would be more successful if at least one of the parties entered in from a position of service and giving. And if we’re not in our chosen profession because we want to make some kind of contribution to others and to the world, then why are we?

How to Be Helpful in a Business Setting

Think of every business transaction or conversation as an exchange of assistance: You’re busy. I can help. You need a product or service. I can deliver. You have a question. I have the answer.

Ask, “Can I help” or even better, “How can I help?” Initiate a new-business relationship in a positive way by asking your prospect what they need (and then offering a solution). “How can I help?” is a question that can reveal challenges or pain points; it’s a great research query.

An offer of help is a great lead-in to a conversation that can close a sale. “I’m ready to help” is much more powerful than “Are you ready to buy?”

On your website and in conversation, frame your work as it assists your clients, solves their problems, improves their business, makes the world a better place. Demonstrate how you help.

Finally, when you need help, ask for it. Shouldering a crushing workload or struggling with a problem that’s a little over your head serves no one. Open yourself to the knowledge and wisdom of others. But don’t assume that someone will jump to your aid; you have to ask for help.

I’m touched by the idea that when we do things that are useful and helpful—collecting these shards of spirituality—that we may be helping to bring about a healing.
—Leonard Nimoy

Worth Reading

How to Be Helpful—A 7-point list, including my favorite bit of advice: Don’t be more trouble than you’re worth.

Don’t Be Nice; Be Helpful—If you think being helpful means being a pushover, this article from Harvard Business Review (about delivering constructive criticism) will help you walk that line.

Worth Eating

Peanut Butter and Jam Thumbprint Cookies—Where I come from, an offer of help is likely to be accompanied by a batch of homemade cookies or soup. Help yourself to this recipe for classic peanut butter and jam cookies.

 

Fast food: Why we need to slow down

We eat in our cars, at our desks, on the go, in front of the TV. We eat drive-through, take-out, delivered, packaged and prepared meals.

We need to slow … down.

Consumer trends around the globe show that over the past three decades people are purchasing more prepared foods at the grocery and eating out more. It’s projected that we’ll spend a record amount at restaurants in 2011. We’re consuming an increasing number of calories and bigger portions. Simultaneously, we’re getting less healthy.

While debates rage over the food industry’s contribution to our growing waistlines and our resulting health problems, the bottom line is this: What we eat, where we eat and how we eat are all 100% under our control. We can choose to eat a fast-food lunch on the go (spending that extra $6 and adding 150 calories to our day). We can throw a frozen meal in the microwave and call it dinner.

Or, we can dedicate an hour of the day to cook and enjoy a meal with our families. We can spend a few minutes in the morning to eat a healthy breakfast. Eating sensibly doesn’t take much time or money, but it does require you to make a conscious decision to do so. Here are some steps you can take:

Respect food. Prepare it with love, enjoy it with mindfulness, use it to your healthy benefit.

Shop your local farmers’ markets. Studies on both coasts have shown that farmers’ market produce is comparably priced to grocery produce—and it’s much fresher, it’s better for the local economy and it’s more sustainable.

Be mindful of what you put in the shopping cart. Why buy salad dressing that’s full of high-fructose corn syrup and preservatives, when you can make your own salad dressing for much less money and better health?

Be careful about coupons. Buy-one-get-one on PopTarts seems like a good deal. But is it? Is that coupon prompting you to buy something you don’t want or need?

Read more about these and other steps you can take toward your own slow-food movement and eating healthier today in my article for SparkPeople.com: Why a Fast-Food Nation Needs a Slow-Food Movement.

Food and cooking trends for 2013.

As a writer who covers food and cooking, I’m always scouting other food websites, chatting with local farmers, interviewing chefs and producers, and generally scoping out the food scene. Like design (the other much-loved subject of my freelance writing career), food is constantly changing. Here’s what I’m most looking forward to in the coming months (and years):

foodie trends for 2013

farm to table

Maybe this prediction is premature, but I think that, increasingly, farm-to-table isn’t a thing anymore — it just is. Chefs are sourcing good ingredients (as are home cooks); they just aren’t squawking about ‘Blah Blah Farm heirloom vine-ripened just-picked baby tomatoes’ on their menus. Instead, they’re simply serving high-quality goods without fuss. And home cooks have embraced the explosion in the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. (up from about 3,100 in 2002 to more than 7,800 in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture).

the evolving food economy

I think we’re midway along a continuum:

industrial > organic > local/regional > healthy/sustainable

In other words, we’re evolving from a food system that’s dominated by big brands and national scale, past the organic movement (which has its benefits, to be sure, but isn’t the final solution for our mass-produced-over-processed-long-haul-trucked food economy) to the locavore trend … to, I hope, a point where we’re talking about how healthy a food is and how sustainably it’s produced, and not just its source. Health-conscious, food-loving consumers are in Phase 3 of the continuum, and they’re starting to drag more mainstream eaters in that direction.

heirloom foods

We’ve encountered heirloom varieties of vegetables in seed catalogs and restaurant menus for some time now. Next up: dried heirloom beans. California grower/producer Rancho Gordo really started this trend, and now I’m seeing it locally, as dried beans have just recently appeared in my neighborhood farmers’ market. These heirloom varieties can be challenging to grow (and they’re likely a pain in the neck to pick and process), but they’re deeply flavored and wonderful in all kinds of cooking.

old-fashioned cooking methods

Similar to the trend in heirloom vegetables, restaurant chefs and home cooks alike are returning to time-tested methods, including fermenting, canning and wood-fire cooking. A recent interview with chef Michael Paley of Cincinnati’s highly anticipated Metropole restaurant, confirmed this 2013 food trend for me. Paley cooks on a custom-built wood-burning hearth — not because it’s cute or trendy, but because he loves the challenge of creating top-quality dishes that truly leave an impression on diners. Likewise, I can’t see culinary trends like canning, preserving and fermenting tapering off any time soon.

vintage recipes

Not only are we cooking in old-fashioned ways, we’re embracing old-fashioned recipes. My own Clara Project here is a personal example of this interest in vintage recipes; Paley’s resurrection of generations-old German sausage recipes for Metropole’s charcuterie program is another. Comments I’ve received on The Clara Project seem to indicate that fellow home cooks are returning to much-loved family recipes.

the new homemade trend: yogurt

Last year, I ran across so many posts and recipes about making simple homemade cheese like mozzarella and ricotta. The DIY dairy product trend for 2013? I’m betting on homemade yogurt. I’ve done it; it’s beyond easy and super delicious. Here’s my recipe for homemade yogurt.

simplicity

For this new restaurant trend, we’ve gone past molecular gastronomy, with its foamy, freeze-dried laboratory experimentation, back to foods that taste like what they’re made of. When you’re sourcing great ingredients, the best preparation method is to cook simply and get out of the way. Of course, simple is harder than it looks, particularly in a restaurant. As chef Paley told me: “What keeps me up at night is that this stuff is way too simple. You don’t want fall on your face doing something super simple.”

I’ll take the challenge of keeping food simple, welcome the continuation of retro cooking methods and embrace a food movement that goes beyond local.

Here’s to a healthy and delicious 2013!

 

Patience: a business virtue (not just a personal one).

One of the biggest (and most difficult) lessons I’ve learned in my first year and change as the owner of a small creative business is the value of patience.

I don’t have much of it, frankly. But I need more of it.

I work quickly. I’m efficient. Once an idea sparks, my writing process moves without delay. I reply to e-mails quickly, return phone calls promptly and … well, you get the picture.

My business connections, on the other hand … they don’t act with the same speed or respond with the promptness that I do.

I get it, truly. I was there just over a year ago: over my head in work and responsibility, dealing with a constant stream of “drop this and do this instead” requests, shifting on a dime to deal with the latest business initiative.

I work as fast as I ever did, but the pressures on my time are far less. In effect, that creates a perception that others are not moving as quickly as I am. Not the case, certainly. And that’s where patience comes in. Patience to know that prospects will respond to my persistent follow ups when they need my writing help. That clients will provide feedback I need as soon as they’re able.

I had a recent podcast conversation about this very topic with my good friend and sherpa, Ilise Benun. If you’re in a creative business and you’re interested in marketing, you should know about Marketing Mentor and Ilise’s wonderful advice. Listen to our conversation here.

What virtues are you struggling with?

Hostess will seat you sign: patience

photo by SierraTierra, used under creative commons license

The power of our food choices

Regardless of our politics, I think it’s safe to say that most of us feel completely disconnected, misrepresented and dismayed by government. It can make us feel powerless: After all, what individual can affect changes in the policies and systems that work against us? Big Money and Big Industry and Big Pharma and Big Ag shout louder and wield more influence and therefore shape the country and society and economy we all live in.

At a food and farming event, I glanced a bit of hope, and it’s this: We CAN make a difference by the small choices we make, especially when it comes to food.

Earlier this year, I attended the annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association and, while I’m not a farmer or grower or producer, it was amazing to be in the company of those folks. I attended sessions about season extension, cover crops, companion planting, seasonal eating (other sessions dealt with topics like business planning and marketing for small farms, large-scale composting, raising livestock, fracking and Monsanto and GMOs). Over and over, I heard the mantra that the food community is at the heart of a movement (or revolution or whatever you want to call it) that can reshape our economy, our health, our industry, our environment, our communities and our relationships.

Now, before you think I’ve gone and drunk the Kool-aid, I’ll admit that I am already part of the choir to which the event was preaching. I’m not a farmer, but I know that my health and wellbeing depends on farmers doing their work with integrity and care. I love good, healthy, local food, and so I benefit from their labor.

The most important takeaway I gleaned (pun intended) from the conference was this from Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety: We are not consumers. That which consumes, destroys. We are creators. And with every choice we make about our food, we can create one of two futures: 1) an industrialized, modified, commoditized, adulterated food system, or 2) a localized, holistic, humane, just, biodiverse food system. WE get to decide.

A few other nuggets I jotted in my notebook:

  • Because of poor soil stewardship, in 2008 alone, 2 million acres of Iowa farmland lost 20 or more tons (each!) of topsoil … it all washed down the Mississippi River, carrying with it chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. There’s a huge biological ‘dead zone’ at the Mississippi DeltaThink about this for a sec.
  • Collectively, we’ve invested more than $600 trillion (that’s a ‘T’) in the global derivatives market. The world’s GDP is $65 trillion. Do the math: There’s not enough money to cover those investments—and this complex financial system is incredibly opaque and off-the-radar. We’re making incredibly risky global investments … and yet, the farmer up the road can’t get a loan to buy fencing to house his livestock? WTF?
  • We need to break the physical and psychological disconnect between the industrial food system and our plates. Andrew Kimbrell noted that we’d make very different choices if we could see what goes into making this stuff.
  • Food is the most intimate relationship we have with our environment.

Here’s the thing: We have the power to improve our communities, our economy, our bodies, our planet. We do. We can shape our future simply through the foods we choose to eat ourselves and share with our families and neighbors.

‘Chunking’ big projects into manageable tasks.

I returned from the Creative Freelancer Conference in June to face a week packed with project deadlines. But my project-planning calendar showed me that I the following two weeks were fairly light project-wise. And that two-week window gave me the time I needed to digest what I’d learned at CFC, turn that information into a to-do list and start taking action.

That to-do list included tasks like creating a list of SEO keywords for my website and using the site’s built-in tools to better optimize it. And developing an e-mail newsletter. And drafting messages for key groups of contacts.

It was great to have several days where I could dive fully into my own business tasks. But that’s rare; typically, we indie professionals have to weave those tasks in and around client work. If you find it challenging to tackle business development and marketing work, it’s helpful to break those big projects into chunks, and deal with them one at a time. Devote a half day once a week over 3-4 weeks, and you’ll make good progress.

I chatted recently with Ilise Benun of Marketing-Mentor.com about managing marketing projects, what I learned at CFC and other cool stuff. You can read a snippet of that conversation here and listen to our podcast here. In fact, Ilise and I have been doing podcasts since I launched my independent writing business last year; see those here.

How about you? How do you make time for working on your business?

Photo of Bryn Mooth and Ilise Benun at the Creative Freelancer Conference

Ilise and me at last year’s CFC