Thursday, August 07, 2008

Be Your Start-Up

It's impossible not to ponder striking it rich at a start up, but there's another alternative if you're looking to make some good money -- build your brand.

In January of 2005 I created a blog. I truly can't remember why I created it, but I do remember that I was making $60,000 a year. Then in February I joined ThoughtWorks and my blog became part of blogs.thoughtworks.com. I had instant readership, but not a lot to say.

Two and a half years and a lot of blog posts later I turned down an offer that was $174,000 a year. This wasn't $174,000 a year because the work sucks. It was a good job, but I wasn't ready to leave ThoughtWorks. It's been a year since then, and I know it was the right decision.

Now, I didn't make millions, but tripling your salary in two and a half years is still quite nice. There's no question that my brand was responsible for my ever increasing salary requirements. In fact, when I was interviewing two of the three interviewers started their interviews with "I read your material, you've got exactly what we need here. So why don't you ask me the questions instead". My brand had already gotten me the job.

Building a brand isn't as hard as you might think. There's really only 3 things you need to focus on.
  • Writing
  • Presenting
  • Contributing
If you do all three of those, you'll have a brand in no time.

But, before you do those three things, you'll need to read two books that will give you the proper guidance.note: both books are required reading whether you are building a brand or not.

Once you have the requisite reading covered it's time to make your mark.

Writing
Writing isn't hard. Writing well is hard, but you're a programmer, so you needn't worry about that. No one expects you to be a good writer, they're happy if you are, but they're forgiving if you're not. Don't use your poor writing skills as an excuse not to write.

Don't know what to write about? The answers are all around you. Anything you do that's interesting, there's 100 people searching Google for how to do it. Any question a colleague asks you, someone is searching Google for the same answer. Anything that's valuable to you... yes, someone is googling for it.

Take the time to write the answer in a blog entry. People will remember if your blog consistently shows up in their Google searches.

Create a blog. Blogger is free and definitely good enough. Here's a few thoughts on blogging.
  • Don't roll your own, you don't need the maintenance headache.
  • Name it something simple, but be sure to include your name. Disco Stu's Ramblings is funny, but you want to build your brand, not Disco Stu's.
  • Buy your name as a domain and put the blog as a directory (I didn't do this correctly). If I had it to do over my blog would be at http://jayfields.com/blog. This is important for Google Page Rank. If you do it the way I did you'll have different page rank for your homepage and your blog. Not the end of the world, but not ideal.
  • Keep it focused. If you want to write about programming and gambling, create two different blogs. Also, avoid "Sorry I haven't written in awhile" posts. People aren't dying for your next post. They're subscribed because they want technical content, not stories about how you've been busy remodeling your home.
  • Keep blog posts short if possible. Anything over 1500 words is article material. If you can't find somewhere to publish the article, then your blog is fine. But, remember that people don't like reading long blog entries (like this one)
At first, stick to writing blog entries. They're not too hard and don't require as much polish. They also let you start building a catalog of material. Once you have enough similar posts, start rolling them into articles to post on InfoQ or other similar sites. Eventually, if you write enough articles, you can roll them up into a book. It will take years, but so does writing a book from scratch and doing it this way allows you to get constant feedback without any deadline pressure.

Presenting
Of the 3 things you need to do, I think presenting is the hardest to get going with. You aren't likely to pick up a speaking spot at a good conference if no one has heard of you. So, you'll need to rely on your writing to build your brand a bit, then you can present on the topics that you write about. Alternatively, if you create some open source software that generates buzz you can also pick up a few speaking engagements. Getting started is the hardest part, but once you give a few good talks you'll quickly be turning things down because you just can't fit it in your schedule.

If you're serious about speaking I also highly recommend SpeakEasy. I spent two and a half miserable days at SpeakEasy learning how bad I was at public speaking. The experience was priceless. I can't say enough good things about what I learned in those two and a half days.

Contributing
The last suggestion is the easiest. Contribute some open source software. There's so many ways to contribute.
  • Pick an existing project that you use and create a patch for an outstanding bug.
  • Extract something interesting from your codebase and release it as open source. You don't need millions of adopters. If you create something valuable to 20 people you'll gain 20 people advocating your brand.
  • Be the documentation guy. Almost all open source software suffers from poor documentation. Make it your speciality. You'll quickly make friends if you do the work others don't feel like doing.
  • Join a mailing list for your favorite open source project and be active. Be the guy that's always willing to help the recent adopters.
I'm sure there's other ways as well. It doesn't matter how you contribute, just get out and start contributing.

Oh, and don't submit patches as disco_stus_brother. You're name is your brand, use it.
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