Collective

For various reasons (mainly economic and geographic) Winnipeg is a Freelance town. Freelance is a topic I write about a lot in this blog these days, writing is one of the ways I deal with the stress of economic uncertainty brought about by freelance employment. The feast v. famine nature of freelancing is not for the faint of heart and it’s compounded by the isolation of working alone.

On paper, I should not be nearly as successful as I am. I don’t do any overt marketing, I’ve never done a cold call (though, I have cold tweeted) and I rarely respond to job board postings. Yet I’m able to get by based on a very small network of trusted connections. I don’t write this to boast about my good fortune. I’m writing this because it feels like I’m doing it wrong, it feels like the bottom is going to drop out any day now, like the other shoes is going to drop, it scares the hell out of me and I feel like there should be a better way.

The Problem: Marketing

The cause of the famine periods of the feast/famine cycle could be boiled down to lack of marketing. When you’re dealing with an excessive amount of work during a feast it can be hard to set aside time to work on marketing, which only leads to compound the famine. In practice, this means that your work has to speak for itself and this is obviously less than ideal.

There are two fundamental marketing problems for an independent professional.

The first is finding new clients. The traditional solution for finding clients is the amorphous “networking.” It’s a term that can encompass any number of things, including “social networking” and Christmas parties. But I think if you asked most professionals what networking looks like, they’d describe something like an informal meetup group or a more formal group like BNI. In my experience, this type of networking sucks, the signal to noise ratio of quality to shit leads, is totally out of whack. As someone who cares more about quality over quantity, bad leads are unacceptable.

The second marketing problem is branding. Branding is a huge topic that I’m not super well versed in, but in this context I simply mean an identity that communicates who you are and what you do; that servers to indirectly attracts new potential clients. In my experience, building a personal brand is really, really hard. Building an audience for that brand is even harder. Contrary to the opinions of pro bloggers and advice gurus, building a legitimate personal brand on a national (let alone international) scale is unattainable for most individuals. I guarantee that every personal brand with more than a few thousand followers on the internet is the product of a team of people (but that is a topic for another day).

The Solution: A Collective

For a long time I’ve had this thought that something like an artists collective should exist for all the various trades that go in to making web stuff: coders, designers, writers, etc. I’m sure that if you’ve gone to art school you are familiar with the concept. As someone who did not go to art school, I had to look it up to make sure I’m talking about the right thing.

Wikipedia defines an artist collective as:

…an initiative that is the result of a group of artists working together, usually under their own management, towards shared aims. The aims of an artist collective can include almost anything that is relevant to the needs of the artist, this can range from purchasing bulk materials, sharing equipment, space or materials, through to following shared ideologies, aesthetic and political views … Sharing of ownership, risk, benefits, and status is implied, as opposed to other, more common business structures with an explicit hierarchy of ownership such as an association or a company.

The main difference between a web workers collective vs. traditional artists collective is the need for supplies, physical materials and the pooled capital required to buy these things. As virtual workers we have very little overhead in terms of supplies and equipment; and little need for physical meeting space. That said, I there is a lot of value in share aesthetics and shared ideologies regarding the web as a vehicle for free expression.

I see a formal collective as a potentially a great solution to the problems of marketing skills and work individually. By putting intentional thought into a group identity, then acting as a group, displaying work as a group and representing the collective when interacting with the community, these artist collectives implicitly marketing themselves. They build a reputation for a certain type of work and the collective audience of each individual member props up the group.

Granted the economics of being a professional sculpture or painter aren’t exactly the same as the economics of building websites. But I don’t think they’re that far removed either. At the end of the day, you need clients who value your work.

Thoughts?

I’m far from an expert on the subject of collectives. Perhaps is a non-sensical idea. Perhaps something like a co-operative would be more fitting.

I am interested in hearing from other web professionals. As well as people who’d purchase the services of a web professional.

Would you value being a part of something like this? Would you be encouraged to hire a member of a collective?

PS. The sub-text of this post is my belief that a idea of traditional “company” is a bad fit for the web and a worse fit for the way that people work in the 21st century.

Photo credit: Victor Grigas.

Nylas, an email client for 2016

I have been experiencing an unusual burst of adventure and excitement surrounding some of the tools I use. Over the past week and a half I have been trying out Nylas N1 as my daily email client.

Nylas is an open source, extensible email client. It follows the recent software development trend of editors like Sublime Text and Atom. The app focuses on core functionality and relies on the community to add features and visual themes. As a developer you can build the app yourself and use it for free, but you’re locked out of some of the paid functional. So, I signed up for the free trial to give it a full shot.

Nylas has three features I was most interested in:

1. Social Sidebar

When you open an email, the right-hand view pulls up social info for the sender. Including their Twitter picture and other social links. I thought this would be kind of cool and useful. However, I ended up ignoring it entirely.

2. Read Reciepts

Back in the bad old days of Outlook Express (and beyond), you were able to send a “read receipt” to your recipient. IIRC this depended on a proprietary (or non-standard) attachment. The recipient would have to acknowledge the read receipt, then an email would be send back to you in the background and your local copy of OE would process it and produce a “read” checkmark somewhere in the UI. A horribly Kludgy and inefficient process!

Nylas handles read receipts with a server-side process, similar to the way Mail Chimp, etc track opens and clicks. It’s totally seamless.

I found this to be a compelling, albeit creepy feature. My main complain is that the there was no in-app way to disable the notification. Though, seeing someone open your email immediately after sending it, then not hearing back from them (ever!) is also horribly disheartening.

3. Snooze/Send Later

Prior to Nylas, my email client (both on desktop and mobile) has been Google Inbox, prior to that I was using Mailbox. A key feature with both clients was “snooze,” it allows you to basically resend an email to yourself at a later date (or location). My stress level surrounding email decreased 1000% when I started using snooze, I can’t live without it.

I had assumed that Nylas’ snooze feature would sync with Google Inbox’s snooze. Unfortunately they don’t, so Inbox on my phone had no knowledge of the snoozes I’d set in Nylas. Bummer.

Send later is sort of the opposite feature to snooze. It’s a great way to compose an email to a client at midnight and have it automatically send during regular business hours, for example. In the past I’d used Boomerang to send later with gmail. I had been missing the feature since Boomerang is not compatible with Inbox. Nylas’ send later works as advertised. Bonus.

Conclusion

Nylas is good. It’s been a long time since a decent alternative has entered the email client arena. I recommend you give it a try.

Unfortunately, there’s one big issue. The search, it just doesn’t seem to work right. I found myself switching back to inbox to search almost every time.

And there are a few other minor issues that will prevent me from using it.

  • It’s slow. I found significant lag between issuing a command and it actually being sent to the server.
  • Emails are unsorted. I’ve grown quite accustom to the way inbox groups email by day. Nylas just shows one big ugly list.
  • Minor email rendering issues. Sometimes emails appeared to be super wide and off the screen.
  • Lack of enhanced email. Google Inbox shows useful snippets for certain types of emails (orders, receipts, newsletters, etc)
  • Other minor UI issues. Various parts of the UI seemed a little unrefined. These issues varied somewhat depending on the theme I was trying, leading me to wonder if the theme API is buggy.
  • Read Receipts, snooze and send later are all paid features. It’s hard to argue that these features combined are not enough to justify $9/mo and since they rely on Nylas’ servers they couldn’t really exist without paid support.

These are all fairly minor, I know. But for me they add up to a deal breaker.

How to Keep Your New WordPress Site Running Smoothly

So you just launched a WordPress site for your business, everything is up and running. Pages load quickly, SEO is better than ever, you paid your development team. Now you’re all set for the next few year, right?

In an ideal world, this would be true. Unfortunately, the Internet is a dangerous place and software is not perfect. With WordPress presently powering 1/4 of the Internet, it is a huge target for hackers and internet miscreants. Left untouched, your site is almost guaranteed to become infected by malware at some point in the future.

Click “Update!”

Clicking that “update” button in the WordPress admin is the single most important thing any WordPress site owner can do. In Windows or macOS these types of security updates can seem like a pain, annoying nag messages that you always dismiss immediately. While these updates are important for desktop computers, in reality, your desktop machine is typically removed from outside attackers by 1 or 2 levels of routers. Your website on the other hand has to be accessible to the broader internet in order for the public to have access to it.

One fact that might be overlooked if you’re unfamiliar with software development is that the vast majority of security patches are in response to a reported issue. What this means is that, potential attackers already have the information to create mass exploitation tools by the time you see the update notification in WordPress.

To put it another way: In my time working with WordPress, I’ve never see a compromised WordPress site that is totally up to date with all updates.

Is It Safe?

One concern that causes many computer users to put off software updates is the fear that something will break. While this fear is not totally unfounded, most software updates are safe, most of the time. When dealing with WordPress updates, you’re looking at new code from different sources. Core updates come from the WordPress open source project, these updates are all vetted by professional developers. Plugin updates are submitted by the plugin author. The experience level of these authors varies widely, they could be hobbyists working on the weekend or large teams of professional developers.

So is it safe?

Minor WordPress Core updates are safe. The minor updates are the updates where the main version number (ie. 4) does not change. The WordPress team takes great care to ensure that updates do not break anything.

Major WordPress updates are probably safe. Again, the WordPress team has a great track record of building in backwards compatibility. So, your site probably won’t break. However there are two caveats. 1) Major features in the WordPress admin will likely look and/or act differently; 2) Some plugins may stop working.

Plugin updates should be safe, but it depends. With a few notable exceptions, most well written plugins will update without issue.The same rule of thumb about major and minor updates apply to plugin updates, a major version update is more likely to break something. A good WordPress site developer will only install plugins that they’ve individually vetted, I never install plugins for my clients that I do not trust.

Be Proactive

A number of plugins and security solutions have started to become available for WordPress over the past few years. They are essentially virus scanners and firewalls for WordPress. By setting these up, you should be able to fend off additional threats or at the very least disable malware if it happens to make it onto your site. A Google search will reveal many good options. My current go to plugin is Wordfence security, I install it on all new sites. I like it because it works well out of the box and it typically does a better job finding malware than the other plugins I’ve tried.

Conclusions

As developers, I think we often do a bad job communicating the importance of ongoing maintenance and security. After all, it’s a little embarrassing to have to concede that this great product you just spent weeks of time and a good chunk of money on, is a giant bullseye for internet miscreants. It can seem like a slimy up-sell to suggest a maintenance contract.

In reality, if you’re comfortable reading and digesting release notes, you should be able to handle keeping WordPress up to date. If you’re less of a tech-DIY person, you may want to get in touch with a developer.

One more thing: Backups

Backups are always a good last resort. I didn’t mention them in this post because backups are typically a poor malware recovery solution. Two main reasons: 1) The type of malware that affects WordPress rarely corrupts content; 2) it can be difficult to pinpoint when a malware infection started, so you won’t know which backup to restore to.

Want to do Lunch?

Working in a real physical office, with real physical humans has many terrible aspects. I mean, this premise is the entire concept of The Office.

However, one of the things I do miss is going out for lunch. I miss the excuse to spend money on good food, I miss the escape from everything else and I miss the face-to-face interaction. As a freelance web-work with a good chunk of my clients in other timezones; client lunch meetings are few and far between and leaving my desk in the middle of a busy day to take myself out for lunch seems like a chore.

I’d like to propose some kind of a regular freelancer/web-worker lunch situation. I’m not too sure how to get the ball rolling exactly. When I’ve mentioned this to local freelancers in the I’ve been met with disinterest. So maybe it’s a bad idea or maybe I just failed my charisma check that day. I can’t possibly be the only person in this boat, can I?

In any case, if you’re in the Winnipeg area and you like the sound of this idea, hit me up on twitter or leave a comment on this post.

Photo Credit: Visitor7

I’m Looking for Work

Sorta.

It’s been a while since I’ve updated my employment status in a public forum. So for the record, I’m open to take on freelance projects. Being a freelancer is kind of like the Schrödinger’s cat of employment. You can’t tell if you’re really employed or not until you open the box… maybe that doesn’t quite work.

So, at the this very moment I am comfortably busy, but not too busy to take a break and write a blog post. Next week, I can’t be certain that I’ll be just as busy, even though all signs point to yes.

If you know of any interesting projects, please drop me a line or hit me up on twitter.

In an ideal world, I’d prefer to work on medium scale projects, with a team of my choosing. But is this state of quantum employment flux, all comers welcome.