Non-Competes in a Down Economy

I keep inching and inching into the beat of my colleague, Ray Capece of Venture Files, but I think it’s pretty important and weighty times for web professionals and small business owners alike. Unlike anytime in our history, the uncertainty of the future of our world and country are great.

Everyone is speculating about what the economic downturn bodes. Some Evangelicals I’ve talked to think that the investment of the Federal government into banks represents something akin to the fulfillment of end-time prophecy regarding the mark of the beast.

Others more focused on geo-political analysis believe we are seeing the end of the American Empire.

All of this is speculation and may or may not have merit. We simply don’t know. However, what we do know is that people are losing jobs, including in the web industry. We do know it’s hard for people to sell their homes without walking away still owing a mortgage. We do know that the impending baby boomer retirement wave just got pushed back.

A lot of companies, particularly smaller ones, like to use non-compete clauses to ensure that good help doesn’t go to a competitor when that help leaves. But what does that employee do when they are laid off and still have a non-compete?

While I will give my disclaimer that I am not a lawyer, I will say that anecdotal evidence suggests that non-competes are mostly unenforceable. Most laws are drafted in such a way that non-compete only have grounds when trade secrets are in play but countermanding court rulings suggest that no company can restrict someone from making a living.

Talk to your lawyer if you are unclear. At the end of the day, I suggest staying in a stable job if you can at least for a year or so until we put some distance between now and then. If you absolutely must leave, you probably don’t have to worry about non-competes with the economy the way it is. Take the job you can. Just don’t go sharing the information specific to the company you left with the company you are joining. That would be competitive and would probably be enforceable.

Also, if you can, honor your non-competes because it will speak better to your character. Sometimes it’s not possible. I get that. But all things being equal, if you can honor your non-compete, do so. When I left b5media, I was under a non-compete. In fact, I still am for another month or so. After my announcement, I had a number of blog networks approach me asking me to come work with them and I turned every one of them down because I made an agreement that I very well could stand by. So I did.

You Must Be Somewhere

It’s 2008 and with 2008 comes technology. It’s awkward, I realize, for some small businesses to justify the use of social networks, blogs etc. After all, how can a small business trying to remain profitable encourage employees to waste time on Facebook?

Please Help

We think of companies like Dell and JetBlue as examples of companies that “get it”. Even this weekend at WordCamp where I hammered the ideas of Marketing, Message and Brand, these companies came up as examples of companies engaging in the social space, including blogs.

But these broad examples are still the exception to the rules. Most companies still don’t realize that they need to be in the space, engaging with not only customers but possible customers.

I met one gentleman this weekend who owns a construction business but is an English major. He decided he would start writing DIY and home improvement stories in the form of a blog and is making big waves.

I’d say most home improvement companies don’t blog. They probably aren’t on Facebook. Probably not tweeting on Twitter.

There’s a company here in the Baltimore area that has a radio spot. In the radio spot, the owner says he personally goes to every job site every day until a job is done. When that’s the way most companies operate, it’s easy to think there is no time for social media.

Here’s the secret sauce, though, that many are missing. Your customers are behind the walls of social networks and on blogs talking about you somewhere. Trust me. You can’t afford not to be part of the conversation, and there’s no legitimate excuse not to participate.

With the economy the way it is, it is truly a cheap way to market, do public affairs and drum up business. Why wouldn’t you do it?

Vegas Casino Rocks the Social Media

Earlier in the week, I caught wind of LuxorLV on Twitter. By now, many companies are jumping on the social media bandwagon, recognizing that there’s something there to use in their marketing efforts. Some companies just “get it” and some companies literally struggle along trying to figure it out.

Knowing I was coming to Vegas, I quickly set up a meeting with Brandie, the beautiful young woman behind LuxorLV. (Note: She is not the stripper displayed in LuxorLV avatars, so please don’t spam her looking to get some action, thanks!) She is literally rocking the tweetstream and getting a very positive reception in the space, something that is hard to do.

She related a story to me of how one twitterer early on intentionally tried to get under her skin, by antagonizingly asking to stay “under the spinx’s ass”.

Many marketing types coming from a traditional background might handle such “negative customer reaction” in a much different way. Brandie’s philosophy is that everyone deserves a response, though she admits that it was tricky to try to figure out quite the best way to respond.

Brandie has a very personal interaction on Twitter, which is a marked difference between other casino/hotels that are also engaging in a much more traditional “push marketing” sort of way. Though she shrugged it off as “everyone trying to figure out the best way to use the medium”, she concedes that she is younger than most and uses text messaging religiously already. “I already text message 10,000 times a day with my friends,” she claims in a somewhat exaggerated way. “It’s how I communicate with my friends”.

Luxor Hotel is owned by the MGM Mirage company who owns, according to Brandie, 60% of the resorts on Las Vegas’ Strip. The company as a whole is very interested in engaging customers in the social space but, as with most companies of size who are in exploration mode, like to test things out on small scales first. Therefore, Luxor often leads the rest of the company by engaging in new marketing techniques. So far, they have not necessarily noticed an improvement in business, but they certainly are garnering good will wherever they go.

Luxor is engaging on more than just Twitter as well. Their Social Media page lists YouTube, MySpace, FriendFeed and Facebook as well. Not listed is their Brightkite presence.

As usual, I love to see the intersection of social media and real life, and Luxor’s efforts are very genuine. Their returns are coming. If you’re coming to Vegas, book with the Luxor and support the social media community.

Business Consulting Etiquette

A lot of people ask what I do. Depending on the person, I’m a blogger, or an editor. To others I’m a WordPress consultant. Still, to others, I work with Lijit as I used to work with b5media. Notice I said with and not for.

The choice of words is very intentional. Though I own the work I do, and make it mine (or I wouldn’t do it, to be honest), I am a self-employed contractor. To that end, I am constantly getting referrals, cold call emails, etc asking if I can help company X or person Y do task A, B or C.

Generally, an email will come that says something like this (fictional):

Hey Aaron-

how are you doing? I’ve got a WordPress project that I need to have done and I was talking to [insert name]. He mentioned that you do this kind of work. I was wondering if you’re taking work right now and if maybe we could do a quick phone call this week to see if it’s something that interests you.

Thanks,
[insert name here]

This is a pretty standard email, and it’s for all intents and purposes perfect. It gives me a brief overview of what services I might have to perform without boring me with details. It also serves to possibly pique my interest.

Generally, if the idea (again, without the details) is interesting to me, I’ll respond and we’ll work out a time for a call. The client may need me to sign NDAs. I’m generally okay with that as well. If it’s not interesting to me or I simply don’t have time to take on work, I’ll let them know that as well.

It’s all about setting expectations early and reinforcing as often as possible.

The first call is an important call. It is the first time a prospective client and I have a chance to interact in person. It is not intended to be a “details” oriented call. It never, ever should be. In fact, a first call should be short.

In this call, there are two specific things that need to happen. Both parties are responsible for one.

  1. The client should have very specific goals, and timelines and be able to articulate them. At this time, I’m taking notes and listening. Usually, I’ll save questions for later. Again, have your 30,000 foot view ready to go in this meeting, but don’t get me into a guerrila war early. There is no contract yet, I can walk away.
  2. I should be prepared to ask probing questions about your expectations of me, your budget, your timeline, your platform. I’ll probably ask you if you have a project manager in place or if I’ll be responsible for identifying specs, milestones and goals.

Be aware that some consultants charge to be on the phone for this call. I do not, but some do. You should understand that and make sure you know the ground rules in advance. When in doubt, ask.

Tangent: It would be good to have an expected budget as well. Understand that I charge a lot, as most professional consultants do. We’re independent. We make more. It’s the game, and it’s everywhere so don’t whine when I give you a triple figure hourly rate. Thanks.

Usually, when this call ends, I will have a good idea of what you want to do and the resources you have to do it with. I’ll have a pretty good sense if I can do it (both in my own calendar, and skillset). I’ll be honest with you and decline the work if I need to. Usually, I’ll indicate a timeframe to provide a quote and we’ll be off to the races.

I say this because today I had a very bad experience with someone who didn’t outline expectations early. I received an email that gave me no indication of what I was being requested for and indicated a referral from someone I know.

Today, when we had our initial call, I was tossed into an Adobe Connect session and they asked me to share my screen. No, never, ever.

Turns out they wanted to watch me use their site and learn from how I used it. This was not communicated or articulated in any way. Second of all, as a professional, my computer is my silo. I have documents and email open that are proprietary and confidential. I will not share my screen with anyone unless I initiate it in the context of a pre-agreed on demo. In addition, the guy I talked to today had no intention of securing my services, and assumed I would just go along with his plans. This is an assumption that should never be made with a professional of any sort.

It’s the little things that matter.