Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Three things I’ve learned from the music business

My first adventure in full-time self-employment came when I got fired from a regular job duplicating audio cassettes. Do you remember those? That was in the days when the CD’s were just beginning to take off.

I came home and told my wife that I’d been fired. She said something that changed my life forever. She said, “Well, honey, I think it’s time you tried to do your music.”

At the time, I wouldn’t have imagined those words being actually spoken by my wife, but she did. And we began the adventure. First of all, doing studio work, then live sound mixing. The business grew, and somehow, we managed to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads.

As it was going along, I learned three things, which I wrote as: Hansen’s Three Laws of Survival in the Music Business. They are:

1. The more you can do, the more you can get paid to do
2. If someone offers you money, take it
3. Do what you can with what you have

It turns out that they are the same for any self-employment situation. They could be called the Three Laws of Entrepreneurship. Let’s look at them one at a time.

1. The more you can do, the more you can get paid to do.

I started out many years before by learning how to play instruments and how to write songs. As I began to learn how to work in a studio, I also learned how to arrange and produce songs. I learned how to mix bands in live venues. The point is that the more I learned, the more opportunities I had to make money within the music world.

This isn’t the same as diversifying. I was still making music. I wasn’t doing music and car washing. But I was learning more and more, constantly learning about things that would make me a better musician.

In any business, the more you can offer a customer, within your focus, the more opportunities you have to make a sale. Stretch too far out of your focus, however, and you’ll end up stretched thin and unable to serve well.

2. If someone offers you money, take it

This seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Yet time after time I saw musicians let their attitudes get in the way of accepting money. And then they’d complain because they couldn’t make a living at it!

When I was growing up, I hated country music. Couldn’t stand it. The thought of even being remotely connected with anything country turned my innards. But then, thankfully, I learned that’s not a healthy attitude. One day, after recording a blues session, I was offered a steady gig, three nights a week, as the house sound engineer for a country/western dance club. Without even thinking about it, I accepted. For several years, I was there making the bands sound great, making contacts, and, of course, making money.

The lesson here is to not let your personal quirks get in the way of serving a potential customer.

3. Do what you can with what you have

There have been many times in my life where I’ve caught myself in “mope mode”. This is where I trap myself in a dark cloud of wishful thinking. I can tell when I’m in those kinds of moods because I’ll hear myself saying lots of things like, “If only I had…” or “I wish I could do…”

Usually, I get stopped in my tracks in music when I convince myself that without this or that particular piece of equipment, or without this or that opportunity, I can’t move on. I can’t go anywhere.

One of my mentors taught me this rule, and I can always count on it to raise me out of the funks. Instead of pining for something, I say, “What can I do right now to move forward?” And then I do it.

I’ve got, right now, in my basement studio, far more recording capability (at least as far as the technology goes) than the Beatles did when they recorded the masterpiece Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. What right do I have to mope? Above my keyboards in that studio hangs the adage, “Gripe Less, Do More.”

I’ll admit that I don’t always live by these three rules like I should myself. But when I do, my business and my musical life moves forward. When I don’t, it grinds to a crawl.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Do Nice Guys Finish Last?

A few years ago, while perusing one of those craft fair/boutique things at a open-air city festival, I found someone selling plaques with catchy sayings on them. One of them caught my eye, and really struck me. I asked the vendor about it.

“Oh, that?” He said, “That’s some good advice for parents.”

That’s true. Where was the quote from?

“Oh, that’s in the New Testament somewhere…”

So, I looked it up, and sure enough in the tenth chapter of Matthew, in verse sixteen. Now normally, I don’t like to quote Bible verses in a business-oriented article, nor do I intend to get all preachy and give a sermon. But what this verse says has such a universal application, and especially appeals to the business world, that I want to share it with you.

The verse says, “…Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

What amazing advice! Think of the words we often use to describe the business world. They include such scary images as: Cutthroat, dog-eat-dog, every man for himself, swimming with sharks, and lots of other things. Why is that? Because business is competitive. And we’re all trying to get a slice of the pie. And if my slice is bigger, then it must mean that yours is smaller. The best way to grow your business is to crush the others like the slimy bugs they are.

And while that approach helps some companies survive, ultimately it leads to a closed off, distrusting industry, in ways that hinder progress and overall growth.

The other side of the coin is disparaged, though. If you’re kind and helpful, then people take advantage of you, and then turn around and squash you like a bug. And that’s not helpful either. That’s why you’ve got to be tough and take the world by the throat and drive to your goals, no matter who you have to trample on the way, right?

I keep remembering something I learned a long time ago about the win-win negotiation. It’s not easy to achieve, but it is possible. It’s all about understanding the people you’re working with and trying to arrive at a settling point that is beneficial to both of you. That’s not the same as compromise. In that situation, you want something (A), and I want something (B), so we both settle on something neither of us wants (C). More often than we think, we can arrive at what we both want (A+B), and both be happy.

“But,” some people say, “If I try to help my competitors achieve their goals, then I lose. How is that a win-win?”

It’s not. That’s a win-lose, and you just lost. The idea is to help them get their goals while holding fast to your goals as well. If you ignore what you want and need out of a deal, then you’re setting yourself up for attack. If you’re only “as harmless as a dove”, you’ll get your goose cooked. But the verse also tells you to be “as wise as a serpent.”

How can you do that? Well, first of all, keep your eyes and ears open, and don’t go naively into a situation you don’t understand. Research as much as possible and know about all of your options. Listen for deception or misinformation. Listen also, to understand the things others want. How can you help them get to their goals if you don’t care what those goals are? At the same time, you need to know clearly what your own wants and needs are, or you won’t be able to stand up for them.

It’s a delicate balance, at times, but with time and experience you can be both strong and easygoing, both assertive and generous, both protective and open, all at the same time.

Wise as serpents, harmless as doves…

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

When the Apple Falls Too Far From the Tree

Imagine that in your back yard, out by the fence, there’s a big apple tree. It’s been growing there for many, many years, and it’s gotten really big. So big, in fact, that many of the branches reach out over the fence.

Your next-door neighbor really likes the tree. Partly because it’s big enough to shade most of his backyard as well, and also because every summer, he’s able to pick fresh apples off the branches on his side of the fence.

Here’s the question: Is he stealing your fruit?

That’s a very interesting dilemma. On the one hand, let’s say that you get along really well with this particular neighbor, and for many years you’ve never had any problem with him helping himself to all the fruit on his side of the fence. After all, there’s plenty there for everyone, right? Plus, that means that you don’t have to pick half the apples or prune half the tree.

And maybe sometimes, when his wife is baking pies, she might make an extra one, and they might bring some over to share back with you. Having good friends live next to you is great, isn’t it?

But what if they don’t know you that well? Or what if you don’t get along? That could put some more difficult wrinkles in the scenario, couldn’t it? Who really owns the apples?

Now let’s change the scenario again. Let’s suppose that it’s not an apple tree that’s reaching out to cross over the property lines, but your wireless computer network. These days, for just a few dollars, and maybe a half hour, a couple of computers in a house can be hooked up to a home network. In my house, for example, there are three computers. My music workstation, my kid’s game computer, and my wife’s laptop. Because my wife needs to use the computer while she’s supervising the kids in various places in the house, she needs the network to be wireless. It’s really cool.

But—that also means that the signal for the wireless router broadcasts in a circle, and ignores our property lines. That means that, in theory, someone sitting in a parked car in front of my house with a laptop could access the internet, and even my home network through my wireless connection. Someone in the house next door could tap into my network.

There are some that say that it is “theft of service”. They’re using the internet connection that you paid for, and using it on their own. It’s being compared to tapping into someone else’s cable TV line for your own house. The difference is that cable doesn’t “broadcast” a signal that crosses into someone else’s property.

There are others that say that your right to complain ends with your property line. “If you put the signal out there, I can use it!”

Now, if you (with the wireless router) know about it, and like your neighbors, and you want to provide them with access, that’s probably your choice. But again, what if you don’t get along with your neighbors? Or what if one of those neighbors downloads or hosts kiddie porn, or sends out spamming messages through your network? What if they hack your computers and extract valuable personal information from your hard drive?

One very obvious way to stop this from happening is to simply make sure that your in-home network is secure and password protected. Most wireless routers that you can buy can set this up very simply. Just make absolutely sure that you change the password from the default. If you keep the default settings, you might as well not have the protection.

Some have taken the opinion that if you don’t secure your system, you are giving tacit permission to be hacked this way. It’s like saying that someone who leaves their keys in their car is asking to have it stolen. Fortunately, in this case the law doesn’t back it up. If they steal your car, they can still be arrested and prosecuted.

It’s best to protect yourself, not just from being hacked, but from someone using your network and your access to do something unethical or illegal. Make sure the apples don’t fall far from the tree.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

How to Be an American

My wife and I just recently got a taste of grass-roots politics. It was a new experience for us. For my wife, because she’s been pretty apolitical for as long as I’ve known her. For me, because I’ve never been that active on a state or local level. The experience taught me a lot. Let me tell you the story:

As many of you might know by reading my articles and blogs, we have a six-year-old son in a wheelchair with Cerebral Palsy. Throughout his (so far) short life, we’ve dealt with a lot of government and private programs to help provide all kinds of necessities for him. We’ve gotten wheelchairs, physical therapy and equipment, modifications to our house, all funded in whole or in part. For this, we thank you, the American taxpayer, because much of this would be completely out of our reach without it. His nighttime feeding formula, for example, costs $2000 a month. His powered wheelchair costs over $25,000.

This year, our state legislature began its two-month-long session, and as always approached the budget. The problem with setting out the state budget is that everyone wants to get a slice of the pie. And the problem with that is that, for the most part, the needs of all those that want the funding are valid. Schools, roads, business development initiatives, these things all enhance the state and are very important. Medical care money is also critical. And this term, there were lots of debates about how the state should spend its money.

Well, my wife is very active as a parent and family advocate for disabled children. She works for a state agency part-time, and is very active in helping Utah families, even in her downtime. When the budget proposals came out, she and many others had to become lobbyists. There was a particular program that they were lobbying for. It provides services to families of disabled children, and runs with a waiting list that’s currently 7-10 years long. The budget proposal that was before the house would have cut its funding even further, in a year that saw an overall budget surplus! “End The Wait” was the slogans from T-shirts and buttons as they shook legislator’s hands.

It was interesting to watch my non-political wife learn how to meet and influence the state legislators. She might not have had an interest before, but when needed services to her child were at stake, she became like the mama bear fighting for her cub. Meetings, subcommittee testimonies, emailing campaigns, many hours were spent rallying the disabled community around the capitol to help fund a critical program.

I participated, especially in the email campaign. At first, I didn’t even know who my representatives in the state legislature were, much less how to contact them, or where they stood on the issue. But I did a little research and joined in the fray. I learned some valuable things on the way. Let me share them with you:

1. Be a part of the process.

The first step is to realize that “Government by the people” means that we need to be aware and involved. Read the news. During your state legislative sessions, find out about the bills that are being considered. Many won’t impact your life. Many others will. Here’s another hint: It works on a federal level, too.

Choose issues that impact you and your business, and that get you passionate. Learn what the facts are, so you can discuss them intelligently.

2. Do Some Research.

Like I said, at the start of this, I didn’t even know who my representatives were, nor what districts I lived in. A quick trip to the Utah State website and I was able to find the map outlining the districts, and the names of the representatives, and their email addresses. A quick Googling would easily turn up any number of government watchdog sites that would report on how various state and federal legislators voted on certain issues. Find out who’s with you and who’s against you.

3. Contact Your Legislators

Sometimes it’s valuable to meet them face to face, sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes a simple email or letter can work wonders. If you do communicate in writing, make sure that your letter is concise, but thorough. Don’t just tell your legislator how you want him/her to vote, but also why. Tell your story. How will the bill in question impact your life? This will go much farther than quoting facts and figures.

At all times, however, it is vital to be polite and respectful. Channel your passion into effort, not into shouting or name-calling.

Finally, I learned that being American is all about being a part of democracy. You and your business are what make this great country strong. You want to be patriotic? Sure, fly the flag, but don’t stop there. Make a difference. One of the things I love most about my country is that you and I both have the right, and even the obligation, to make our voices heard. Even if our voices clash. If we’re peaceful in our disagreement, we can both have an impact on our government.

The impact we had? The final budget significantly increased the funding to the program for the disabled that we worked so hard to promote. God bless America!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Believe, But Not Everything

Some will say, “Whatever you can believe, you can achieve!” or “Just believe in yourself”, and lots of other things that motivate and inspire.

And I agree with those things. It’s important to have vision. It’s important to daydream, and then to act on those dreams.

It’s also very helpful, when dealing with the ‘net, to have a certain dose of healthy skepticism. This may come as a shock to many, but let me let you in on a little secret: Not everything you read on the net is true!

What?! How can this be!?

Well, even though the ‘net is relatively new in the history of the world, lying isn’t. And since it’s really the same old people that are on the net as existed before the net, most are great, wonderful honest people, but some are not. Let me give you some examples of some of the lies that have spread, some benign, others dangerous:

A long time ago, an email circulated claiming that Microsoft and AOL were testing an email tracking system, and they’d pay you as much as a dollar for every person you forwarded that message to. This one was relatively tame. The only danger in getting sucked into this one was that if you sent it to your family and friends you might annoy them, or get yourself embarrassed when one of them pointed out that it was all bogus.

Then there was the “Bear Virus”, AKA “jdbgmgr.exe”. In this email, the letter warned you of a terrible virus and gave you instructions to search for and find the infectious file on your computer, named jdbgmgr.exe. But the “virus” was the email itself. It turns out that everyone has the file, not because they contracted any virus, but because that file was an integral part of windows, and it was on everyone’s computers. And the email showed you how to delete it!

Fortunately, that was OK, because, while it was integral, it wasn’t a critical file. Unless you like debugging java programs.

The Nigerian money scams, where someone claiming to have a big, big chunk of money spirited away somewhere, and is looking for someone to help them get it out of their country. I understand that some people actually got caught in the scam and lost some significant chunks of money. This one’s very malicious.

The most common one I see right now are the “phishing” (pronounced “fishing”) scams. These emails try and cheat you out of critical financial access information, that the perpetrators can then use to empty your accounts.

An official-looking email comes in (and I currently get three to four of these A DAY), from somewhere like PayPal or eBay, or some other money or financial institution. I’ve even gotten these from banks that I know I have no accounts in!

Of course, even though they look real, they’re not from PayPal or the bank. It’s someone disguising the email. It’ll say that I need to verify some information in order to keep my account active. Conveniently, they’ll provide a link for me to click on. When I do, without realizing it, I’m taken to a website that looks very much like the spoofed company’s site, but is in reality not. There’s a form for me to input my account number and my PIN or password. In one easy step, I’ve given them access to my money.

So how do you protect yourself from all these dangers? The first is to have, like I said, a healthy dose of skepticism. Look at everything with a cocked eye. Ask yourself, “Why would a government official from Nigeria be offering ME 15% of 20 million dollars?”

A second line of defense is to check things out. When I get a suspicious email, I’ll go first off to http://snopes.com and check it out. There’s reports on almost all of these, and you can see if it’s real or bogus.

When you get an email that you think is phishing, the best thing you can do is to not click on the link in the email. Rather, go to a web browser and type in the address of the site (like http://paypal.com), and then login with your username and password. Then check your account. If you do that, you’ll know that you’re in your real account. In fact, most communication from the real companies now will tell you to do this, and not include a link anyway. Here’s some more ways to detect a spoof at PayPal’s site.

Just don’t believe everything you read, OK?