Building Trust In a Virtual Team

This is a guest-post by Chris Bowler.

With all the technology available to us today, no matter what your company’s setup is like, you most likely have a few virtual coworkers.

Most corporations today are at the very least a heterogeneous environment — traditional offices mixed along with off-site coworkers or staff working from home.

Some companies are completely virtual. And research suggests that the biggest challenge to having an effective team is trust amongst these coworkers.

Why is trust so vital to a successful, productive team? In the simplest terms, a team works together to be productive.

And in order to work together, rather than work simultaneously, team members need a level of comfort with the abilities, competencies, and intentions of their teammates.

Trust enables a team to focus on tasks at hand rather than protecting each member’s own interests. The interests of the group become the interest of each individual.

How to Build Trust

So how can a team build trust? Different tactics will work for different types of groups, but there are some general concepts that will work for any team.

Social Interaction

This is probably the most important idea. Getting team members to know each other is crucial, and meeting in person is generally the best way to do that.

Even if a team is geographically dispersed, the benefit of meeting in person should be measured against the cost of getting a group together.

Of course budget and scope of a project may dictate whether or not this is feasible, but it should be the first option considered.

Share Leadership

Another key factor for any employee is ownership. Why do small startups have such passionate team members?

Because they have ownership in the product they are creating. And so it is with sharing leadership: give team members areas of responsibility to manage and they will ‘own’ a portion of the end goal the team is trying to meet.

Communication and Predictability

Communication on its own does not build trust. But it is the beginning of building that trust. Once enough communication occurs, teammates are able to learn the patterns of one another.

This leads to predictability, which is where trust begins to form. Being confident in the type of response you will get from teammates allows you to focus on the content of a message instead of the recipients possible reaction.

Consistent Processes

Teams have particular bits of work that need to be performed repeatedly. Because of this we build processes (how to create a new account, submit a change request, commenting on code etc).

And in order to be effective, processes need to be consistent. And communicated. When people know there is an overall ideal that should be adhered to but have never been given a logical, step-by-step plan for how to achieve that ideal, frustration will reign.

Build processes in a way that everyone on the team can at the very least be confident that all team members are performing these particular bits of work in the same manner.

And a crucial element to laying the foundation for processes is ensuring that each team member is included in any communication about these processes. Which leads to…

Ensuring Inclusion

In a virtual or heterogeneous team, in order for all team members to feel a part of the team, they must feel included.

This can be even harder for a team with a centralized office with outlying team members. All the points discussed so far are needed to ensure this feeling of inclusion exists.

All team members need to be a part of any significant communication and have avenues available to provide feedback.

Communicate

One last item that needs to be mentioned is miscommunication. This has been discussed plenty before but is important enough to warrant a mention.

With a virtual team there will always be incidences of mixed signals. When 90% of communication is body language, electronic communication will often result in messages being received in a manner not intended by the sender.

Of course you want team members to be sensitive to this issue and proactive in resolving any misunderstanding that occurs. But there are also some good practices to keep in order to reduce the miscommunications:

  1. Write your emails while thinking from the recipients point of view.
  2. Keep messages short. Flowery prose will turn people off.
  3. Hand in hand with point 1 – brevity. Get to the point.
  4. Write a good subject line. Set the background for the message content.
  5. Leave the jokes for other mediums. One person’s joke is another person’s insult and in an email there is just too much of a possible misunderstanding.

Awareness Is the Beginning

Building trust within a virtual team can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. It starts with being aware and making the issue a priority. B

y using a lot of these tips, teams can bond quickly no matter what their setup and learn to trust in one another. Once you have trust, the focus can wholly be placed on the goals of the group.

 

How to Rock Retirement When You’re Self-Employed

This is a guest-post by personal finance blogger Jim who writes at Blueprint For Financial Prosperity.

With all the talk of Social Security becoming insolvent and our retirements lasting into the 80s and 90s, there’s no question that proper retirement planning is crucial for everyone.

If you have an employer, you probably have some sort of defined contribution plan (401k, 403b) and, if you’re lucky, might even have a defined benefit plan (pension).

If you’re a freelancer, or an aspiring freelancer, you don’t, and won’t, have access to either of those great plans.

So, what’s a freelancer to do?

Luckily America was built on the backs of small business and there are plenty of retirement programs available.

I’ll go through the major ones today so you get a good feel for them and are able to research them further.

For the purposes of today’s discussion, we’ll assume that you’re a sole proprietorship or pass-through LLC entity.

Disclaimer: Before you make any financial decisions of any kind, please consult your accountant or tax attorney first. There may be inaccuracies in this post but I have tried to be as accurate as possible. Just remember, I am not a professional tax attorney or financial adviser, I’m a freelance writer.

Roth and Traditional IRA

You may already be familiar with the Roth and Traditional IRAs as they’ve seen plenty of press lately. Both share the same contribution limits of $5,000 a year, meaning your total contributions to Roth and Traditional IRAs must be less than or equal to $5,000.

If you contribute $1,000 to your Roth, you can only contribute $4,000 to the Traditional. These limits are also based on your earned income, here is a listing of the contribution limits for both IRAs types.

The difference between the two is significant. A Roth IRA takes post-tax dollars but grows tax-free.

The Traditional IRA tax pre-tax dollars but grows tax-deferred. When you contribute $1 to your Traditional IRA, you are able to deduct $1 from your taxes.

As the Traditional IRA grows, you will not be taxed on anything inside it, it’s tax-deferred. When you begin taking disbursements, or payments, in retirement, you will pay your tax rate on those earnings as income.

With a Roth IRA, you do not deduct the contributions in the beginning but you are not taxed on the earnings when you begin taking payments in retirement.

SEP-IRA

A SEP IRA, the retirement plan I use, is a type of Traditional IRA. It was designed specifically for the self employed and small business.

It’s a Traditional IRA from the employee perspective, sharing the $5,000 contribution limit, and contributions are tax deductible.

It gets more interesting from the employer perspective. The 2008 employer contribution limit for a SEP IRA is $46,000 or 25% of your net adjusted self employment income, whichever is smaller.

This means that while you can only contribute $5,000 as an employee, you can contribute far more as an employer.

When you set up a brokerage account to handle a SEP IRA, you will have the opportunity to mark contributions as either employer or employee.

The downsides to the SEP IRA are for those business that have ‘eligible’ employees. An eligible employee is someone who is 21+ years old, has had 3 years of service in the last 5 years, and earned over $450 in compensation.

The amount you contribute as an employer must be the same for all employees. If you say you are contributing 10% of income, you must contribute 10% to each and every employee.

Individual or Solo 401(k)

An Individual 401(k) is very much like a SEP IRA. The difference is that it comes with greater administrative rules but may allow for a bigger contribution and the ability to borrow (much like a regular 401k) against the funds.

The difference between the SEP IRA and Individual 401(k) is in the employee contribution. Participants can contribute, as an employee, 100% of the first $15,500 of compensation, much like the regular 401(k).

Then, the employer can kick in the same 25% SEP IRA calculation – meaning you could contribute more towards your retirement with an Individual 401(k).

Other Plans

There are a lot of retirement plans out there but I feel the Individual 401(k), SEP IRA, and Roth IRA, capture the major pieces of the retirement puzzle for us freelancers.

If you are interested in something like a pension or defined benefit plan, check out the Keogh Plan.

14 Defenses Against The Anti-Entrepreneurial

Anyone who attempts to free themselves from the shackles of corporate slavery will undoubtedly meet with resistance from unlikely adversaries: friends and family.

As much as you know in your heart that you were born to be an entrepreneur, freelancer, or web worker, very often the people closest to you will be unsupportive.

It’s not that they don’t care about you, they just come from a different world. Employees are from Mars, entrepreneurs are from Venus.

Because our friends and family often have a completely different perspective from us, sooner or later they’re bound to ask that question we all love to hear: “Why don’t you just get a job like a normal person?”

To survive as entrepreneurs, we need to vigorously defend our entrepreneurship against these formidable opponents, ideally without hurting our relationship with them.

In doing so, many of us will take on one of the following personas.

Defense #1:

The jerk

Who they are:

Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. The jerk goes straight for the kill to preempt an attack.

What they say:

“I don’t want to waste my life at a job I hate just to be a total loser like you. If you had half a brain you’d understand.”

The pros:

It will quickly get people to leave you alone.

The cons:

It will quickly destroy most of your relationships.

Defense #2

The martyr

Who they are:

Entrepreneurship has its price. The martyr is quite verbal about the sacrifices they’re making, hoping to elicit sympathy.

What they say:

“I can’t hang out with you guys, I have way too much to do tonight. Poor me, I never get to do anything fun anymore. Bring me back something nice.”

The pros:

It might get people to do something nice for you.

The cons:

It drags everyone down.

Defense #3

The rationalizer

Who they are:

There are plenty of logical reasons for being an entrepreneur, and the rationalizer can put together an airtight argument to defend their case.

What they say:

“The first benefit of entrepreneurship can be traced back to ancient Egypt…”

The pros:

It shows that you’ve done your homework, thought this thing through, and made an informed decision.

The cons:

No one will care.

Defense #4

The kid in a candy store

Who they are:

The ordinary seems extraordinary to a kid in a candy store. By reacting to everything as if it were the greatest thing since sliced bread, they think people will have to be impressed with how entranced they are.

What they say:

“No thanks, I’d like to go to Disneyland with you, but my work is way too much fun. Every minute brings a wonderful new surprise, and I just can’t tear myself away from this!”

The pros:

It might convince people that you’re happy.

The cons:

It might sound a little phony.

Defense #5

“I’m rubber, you’re glue”

Who they are:

Any onslaught aimed at this person will harmlessly bounce off and stick to the assailant.

What they say:

“You know, you’re always complaining about how awful your job is. Why don’t you look into freelancing so you can have more control over your life?”

The pros:

It shows that you’re not bothered by what anybody says.

The cons:

Many people don’t like unsolicited advice.

Defense #6

The underdog

Who they are:

Everyone loves to root for an underdog. This type will position themselves as someone you can’t possibly root against.

What they say:

“I know this is going to be extremely difficult, but I really want to stay home to be with the kids. I just have to make this work. Can I count on you for moral support?”

The pros:

You’re likely to get your own little cheering section.

The cons:

They’re cheering because they feel sorry that you don’t have a chance.

Defense #7

Clark Kent

Who they are:

This type disguises their entrepreneurship so no one knows who they really are. When duty calls, they disappear when no one’s looking. They secretly get their work done and then reappear. If asked where they were, they make some excuse about errands they had to run.

What they say:

“Oh, an entrepreneur was here? Golly, I’m from Metropolis. I see entrepreneurs every day.”

The pros:

They avoid conflict because no one has any idea what they’re doing.

The cons:

A double life takes its toll.

Defense #8

The bragger

Who they are:

While not outright insulting, the bragger is not shy about telling people how successful they are.

What they say:

“Why would I want a job? I make more money working from my bed than I ever did in a stuffy old job.”

The pros:

It’s hard for anyone to attack someone who’s displaying success.

The cons:

Nobody likes a bragger.

Defense #9

The zealot

Who they are:

Whenever a zealot comes in contact with anyone, they make sure to put on the mother of all happy faces.

What they say:

“Is this the best day ever, or what? Every breath I take gives me new life. Every ray of sunlight is a gift from God. Excuse me while I go sing to the bluebirds again.”

The pros:

The bigger the parade, the less people want to rain on it.

The cons:

Everyone will wonder if you’ve joined a cult and will ask them to drink the Kool-Aid.

Defense #10

The surgeon

Who they are:

To a surgeon, an unsupportive person is like a tumor. You don’t try to reason with it, you cut it out.

What they say:

“I’m sorry you can’t support me in this venture, but life’s too short to be held back by negative people. Goodbye.”

The pros:

A tumor that’s completely removed probably won’t be back, at least for a while.

The cons:

Cutting someone out of your life eliminates all the positive experiences as well as the negative.

Defense #11

The delayed gratifier

Who they are:

By making sacrifices now, the delayed gratifier expects to achieve greater rewards later. Anything that’s currently not going well is just a sign of progress to them.

What they say:

“I’ll have to pass on the movie this time. By spending two years doing what most people won’t do, I can spend the rest of my life doing what most people can’t do.”

The pros:

You’re not being overly optimistic. You’re acknowledging that you’re making sacrifices, but to you it’s worth it.

The cons:

Two years later, you’ll look pretty bad if you still haven’t gotten anywhere.

Defense #12

The (wo)man on a mission

Who they are:

This person thinks the fate of the human race is dependent on their business success.

What they say:

“I’m on a mission from God. This is my destiny. This is my role in the universe, and my work is what holds together the fabric of the space-time continuum. If I don’t succeed, Zion will fall.”

The pros:

People might be too freaked out to criticize you.

The cons:

People might be too freaked out to come within 100 feet of you ever again.

Defense #13

The guilt tripper

Who they are:

Instead of putting up a defense, the guilt tripper disarms their critics by giving in to them.

What they say:

“Well, excuse me for having to supplement my income to make ends meet! Not all of us get to go to Harvard and have everything handed to us on a silver platter like you! I will now avert my gaze while you ascend your spiral staircase into heaven, your majesty!”

The pros:

People who feel guilty won’t attack you.

The cons:

This can wear down your self-esteem.

Defense #14

The workaholic

Who they are:

By being fully absorbed in their work, the workaholic will be too busy to notice any negativity directed towards them.

What they say:

“I’m sorry, Bob, what did you say? I’ve got to take this call right now. Can we meet up tomorrow? No, that won’t work. How’s your July? Actually, mine’s terrible. You know, I’ll just see you when I see you.”

The pros:

People will take you seriously if they see that you mean business.

The cons:

Someone in this situation may be paying too steep a price for success.

Which one are you?

 

SEO Scams: 7 Signs That Someone is Trying to Rip You Off

This is a guest post from Josh Garner, a practicing SEO professional. He’ll be sharing some of the things small business owners and the self-employed should be wary of when looking to hire an SEO.

As an Search Engine Optimizer (SEO), my job is to make use of a number of methods in order to help a site rank higher in the search engines (Google, Yahoo!, MSN, etc.).

I’ll save you some of the boring parts, but SEO is a pretty important aspect of any serious business venture with an online component. However, my business is also a pretty strange one.

It requires a lot of experience, research, and patience to effectively get a website to rank highly. Because of this, a lot of what I do is still a mystery, even to clients I’ve had for over a year.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of “SEOs” out there taking advantage of the unknowing site owner, leaving a bad taste in their mouth about what SEO is and how it can help.

With this post, I would like to give you a few signs that someone is trying to rip you off. These are seven signs of SEO scams.

Sign #1. We can rank your site in 48 hours!

Boy, I wish this was possible. It sure would save me a whole lot of time slaving over my computer like a maniac, pouring over search term trends, conversion reports, traffic and ranking reports, etc.

I wouldn’t be spending hours on end modifying and optimizing content until my SEO fingers bleed. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case.

It takes hours to find the right search terms. Depending on the size of a website, it can take days to implement changes.

It takes weeks to see the initial effects. It can take months to get things going in the right direction. If you’re being promised results in a few days, your being offered a money pit and little more.

Sign #2. We sill submit your site to 1,000 Search Engines!

Put aside the fact that I’ve been doing this job for years, and I can only name about 10 search-engines without cheating.

Instead, consider the fact that I haven’t submitted a site (personally or professionally) to a search engine in over three years now. Even the guidelines of the search engines themselves tell you it doesn’t really do anything for you anymore.

The major search engines have also been in this business for years, and they’ve gotten pretty good at finding sites themselves. No need to submit, let alone pay someone to do so.

Sign #3. We will get thousands of links to your site!

This claim is usually paired with an incredible time frame, but the sheer number of links promised alone is beyond amazing. First, it’s not the number of links coming to your site that makes a difference.

It’s the number of QUALITY links. Second, where are all of these links coming from? Probably what’s known as a link farm: a large number of websites set up in order to link one site.

The search engines don’t normally appreciate this practice, and it can lead to penalties. Third, it’s more likely a straight out lie.

Even scammers don’t waste their time with link farms. It takes too much more time to set all that up than it does to just take your money and disappear.

Sign #4. Have your site optimized and promoted for only $71.95 a month!

In my first point, I hinted at the amount of time and work I put into a single website. Not only making the changes, but keeping up with the site’s progress, promoting it through links and thinking of ways to drive traffic to the site.

Consider the countless hours I’ve spent learning what it takes to rank a site. Consider also the returns a proper SEO campaign offers a site. Ranking well for a competitive search term can yield some pretty nice rewards.

Think we would do this for $79.95 a month? Not to sound crass, but I wouldn’t even open my laptop for that much money.

If you’re serious about your site’s success, expect to spend no less than a few thousand dollars, and that’s low end. There are some SEOs that charge $1000 an hour for consulting, and they are worth every penny.

Sign #5. We can’t tell you what we are doing: it’s a trade secret.

Other than a few tid bits you find after years of doing this kind of work, there really isn’t a whole lot of “secret” information. We aren’t paid because we have some incredible secret wrapped up.

We are paid because of the experience we have in dealing with the search engines, and the success we can bring to the site’s table.

If someone makes this claim, they either don’t want you to know how poor the service is, or they have no idea what they are doing.

Sign #6. We know a guy at Google.

I love this one. Mostly because I know a guy at Google. I also know a guy at Nissan, but I still make monthly payments. I know a guy at Sprint, and I still pay a monthly bill. I know a guy…well…you get it.

Think of the search engine ranking factors as the closely guarded secret formula for Coke. You have to get pretty close to the code to have even a clue about what goes into it.

The guys and gals that do know for sure what the factors are also fully understand the legal implications of giving away such secrets to some guy charging you $79.95 a month to rank your site in 48 hours (like how I tied all those into that one?).

Sign #7. We guarantee page 1 rankings!

Nobody can do this. Nobody. In SEO, there are no guarantees on rankings, traffic, or any other measure. Think of SEO like advertising (that’s really all it is, just online).

The best marketing guys don’t guarantee anything either. Neither do doctors or lawyers. You hire these professionals based on the questions you’ve asked them, their past successes, experience, etc. SEO is no different.

Good SEOs are good SEOs because they have spent years learning and testing, and know of the measures most often needed to produce results.

So if anyone guarantees anything, they are only guaranteeing that you will be wasting your hard earned money.

Bonus

So how do you find a good SEO?

Well, leave some comments on what you think about this post.

How to Write Your Way to Online Success (Even if You’re Not a Writer)

This is a guest post from Joshua Clanton, a freelance web designer who blogs about web design, creativity, and productivity.

Do you remember a few years ago when social commentators were talking about how the western world was quickly becoming a post-literate society?

Though it may be a bit premature to say what will happen in the future, with the rise of blogging and the ubiquity of email, it seems that the death of writing has been greatly exaggerated.

And for those who work online, writing is even more crucial than it is for brick and mortar businesses, since it often replaces face to face interaction.

The Why

In most businesses, face to face interaction is one of the most important communication channels that we have. Not only is it among the most important, it is also the one with the highest bandwidth.

We are constantly sending physical signals about our trustworthiness, our commitment, whether we’re likable, etc. But online, for the most part, we have to do without that.

Eliminating this high-bandwidth communication channel means that we have to find other ways of conveying the same information.

While phone calls and video chats may help, the most common way that we interact online is through writing. So the trick is to turn our writing from a low-bandwidth channel to a high bandwidth channel.

There are, of course, some people whose online business is writing. But even if that’s not your niche, there are still very practical benefits to writing well.

Among them are:

  • Clearer communication with clients and colleaguesWhile email and instant messaging don’t require great artistry, they do require clarity of language if you want to communicate effectively
  • An engaging website and blogYou may hire someone to write copy for the static portions of your website, but more than likely you won’t want to pay for every article on your blog. If you can write articles that are both engaging and informative, it will make your website much more attractive.
  • The ability to market yourself on other sitesIf you can write interesting and informative articles for your own site, that means that you can also write articles for other sites, extending your marketing further than it would reach otherwise.
  • A more professional appearanceWhen forming an impression of someone’s professionalism, doesn’t the quality of the writing weight into that, at least a little? Of course, bad writing canbe overcome by good ideas, but why put obstacles in the way of your ideas?

The How

The benefits are pretty straightforward, but how do you learn to transform your writing from low bandwidth to high bandwidth?

My suggestions would be:

  • Read good fiction and non-fiction books.Reading non-fiction is obvious. But why should you “waste” your time with fiction? Because fiction often has a higher bandwidth, using tools like storytelling, emotional involvement and suspense. And you can potentially learn more effectively from fiction than from non-fiction.
  • Get a copy of The Elements of Style.This is the manual for brevity and clarity in writing. Once you get your copy, read it from cover to cover, and then reread it.
  • Read blogs like Copyblogger, Write to Done, and Men With Pens.Having a constant stream of good writing tips is very helpful when writing is part of your daily life. Eventually, you’ll come up against a writing project that you just can’t seem to figure out. At times like that, just ask yourself, “How can I apply their latest tips to my writing?” If that doesn’t work, odds are that they’ve got helpful advice in their archives.
  • Get friends and colleagues to critique your writing.This depends a bit on what your friends and colleagues are like. You don’t want people who just say that your writing is great, nor do you want people who just say that your writing stinks. You want people who will read thoroughly and then tell you what works for them and what doesn’t work. Of course, you also want to evaluate whether those who critique you have biases contrary to that of your target audience. (For instance, programmers may be unreliable judges of an article written for designers, and vice versa.)
  • Analyze the best writing in your genre and figure out what makes it the best.If you’re a self-improvement blogger, this would mean looking at sites like Zen Habits and Steve Pavlina’s blog. You probably don’t want to do things exactly how they do, but you want to gain an understanding of why their way works. Once you have that understanding, you can apply it to your own writing.

Of course, the most important part of learning to write well is to actually sit down and write!

The You

Now it’s your turn. Has writing helped you and your business? Are you where you want to be with your writing? What are you doing to improve it?