Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The High Cost of Free Labor

When I was in college there was a word that floated around the halls in whispers. It drew people in, it had a story attached to it, and it caught the attention of anyone who heard it – it was the word “internship”.

What Belongs to History

Once upon a time, internships were seen as being set aside for, and granted only to, the most exemplary individuals. The way to get an internship took time, effort, and the ability to connect with the people who could get you to where you wanted to go. It carried an uncommon caché that lauded the intern as the bright eyed next generation. It was a springboard for worthy candidates to help them gain real world experience and prepare to enter the workforce while building on the knowledge they were gaining by investing in their education. In sum, not too long ago, internships were both a rare and effective way to kick-start one’s career.

In principle, an internship is a great idea: A company hires an enthusiastic individual looking to build a career in that field and nurtures them, at little or no cost, into eventually becoming a fully functioning member of their workforce. Internships were once a sort of farm team where a company might have been looking to create a position and would tell the candidate, “Tough it out over the summer and when you graduate you’ll be on the team – we have high hopes for you”.

Times Change

It didn’t take too long for people to learn that the path to a better job and a better life went through the area designated for the intern and the volunteer. So when the cat got out of the bag, everybody was out looking for a chance to get some experience that would often serve as nothing more than a way to fill out one’s resume. In no short amount of time, people who had worked as interns were becoming less and less likely to be taken on by the company they worked for, or would parlay their internship experience to go and work for another, sometimes rival, company. Suddenly companies started experimenting with what kind of tasks they could get away with delegating to their interns, and just as suddenly some companies began to realize that branding a job as an internship could be a quick and easy way to get cheap, even free, labor.

The Rise and Fall of the Volunteer

Not all that long ago, seemingly well-intentioned projects would hire volunteers who would trade their labor in exchange for a meaningful experience, usually overseas, that could change lives. It was a direct exchange of labor for experience, straight up. Because of the rising number of volunteers looking for experience to once again, fill out one’s resume, the opportunities became more numerous and the exchange is no longer so direct. Nowadays, aside from the smallest community volunteer group, all volunteers are pay volunteers as in they pay to volunteer. The volunteer experience of working for free has become an actual commodity that people pay for, and is now a business in its own right.

Where We Are

The net effect of intern-volunteer inflation has been to render their titles virtually meaningless. Tales of internship woe among the young are ubiquitous as they are being charged with doing real work, involving long hours for no pay, and coming away from their experience disillusioned and with little to show for it. Within many companies the intern has become a position like any other usually connoting that they are responsible for all tasks deemed beneath that of the full-time staff. Once reserved for individuals who were otherwise green in the workforce, it is now not uncommon to find college graduates, and individuals with several years of relevant work experience, settling for the role of intern by virtue of the fact that internship positions continually replace what were once legitimate full-time jobs.

What Can We Do?

I wish there were clear answers. The truth is, the following are just suggestions: 
  • Always try to create full-time employment.
  • Make it a policy to pay every employee better than the minimum wage.
  • Let your full-time staff share the load of the less desirable, no less important, duties of the company – don’t create a position specifically for them.
  • Recognize that interns are there to learn, so you are the teacher and your company is the classroom – so offer them an educational experience.
  • If you are someone looking for experience, instead of dropping the big bucks to essentially just travel, find the most local grassroots organization that you can and just say, “I want to help”. The rewards from that kind of community involvement are far more gratifying in the long run.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Work-Life Balance: Remember, it’s Saturday!

It was a glorious Saturday afternoon in early summer and I was hunched over a picnic table garnishing a hamburger when my cell phone rang. I had been in the middle of a good laugh after someone had told a delightful little anecdote but noticed it was one of my employees and, since they were calling me on the weekend, thought it must be something important.

I politely excused myself and gave my employee my undivided attention. I had handed him a rather large project from an important client and several weeks earlier had asked him how long it would take to complete the project. They were apologetic that this was the day that they had said they would be able to finish it, were almost at the finish line, but that friends had come in from out of town.

Before he could even finish his story I asked why he was working on the project when it was so beautiful outside. I told him quite succinctly to stop his work and go out and enjoy the rest of the day and not bother me until Monday.

When I returned to finish garnishing my burger, the group of acquaintances I was sharing this beautiful barbecue with looked at me with their mouths agape saying, “I wish you were my boss”.

“Telling an employee to enjoy life is a boss’ job,” I replied. And I truly mean that, for the following reasons:

1) I handpicked my employees and I trust each and every one of them. I also know that none of them slack off when it’s not time. I let him set the parameters of when the job would be completed, I understand the nature of his job and what it would take to actually complete the project, and I knew full well that his finishing it in a couple of days meant I wouldn’t have to break any promises to our client. So we’d stay in good standing regardless. My experience has shown that giving my employees a great deal of freedom has yielded better results.

2) There is no evidence that working longer hours makes a person more productive. In fact, there have been several studies that outline the benefit to a company’s bottom line by giving employees greater flexibility in their working hours and that overworking employees can have very negative effects. Some studies even go so far as to suggest that overworking an employee can lead to them suffering from a variety of health issues leading to them having to miss work. If that weren’t enough, at least one study, Impacts of Late Working Hours on Employee’s Performance: A Case Study on Engineers in Telecom Company of Pakistan, by Quereshi et al., even suggests that overworking an employee could lead to unethical behavior including, “sexual harassment and breaching the code of conduct of the organization”.

3) I know that if I behave erratically, or make irrational demands from my employees, that it makes them question if we are a good fit. Pushed too far and I could be down one employee and that can be worse than the work not being done on time. Although telling him, “Sorry bud, the work has got to get done” might not have been an irrational demand on my part in this particular instance, I’m still stating quite clearly to him that work is more important than his relationship with his friends.

What is more important?

So this does raise the question: what actually is more important, work or friends? Many people spend more of their time, in a given week, at work than anywhere else, so we are forced to make several considerations based on this fact. The first is that, if they are going to be asked to spend so much time there, is it too small a thing to ask that they enjoy themselves? Second, should work and life really be kept so separate and need to be kept in balance, or is work very much a part of life that should fit harmoniously with all the other aspects of existence that we engage in? And finally, in business, it’s important to remember that relationships are everything, and that the social capital you build in fostering them, whether with clients or with staff, will last with you for the rest of your life.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Power of Affiliate Marketing

A savvy entrepreneur is always looking for alternative sources of revenue and affiliate marketing can be a powerful way of generating income while cutting through a lot of the time consuming legwork of manufacturing, branding, and developing marketing strategies. At its core, affiliate marketing involves bringing a particular product to the attention of your consumers and sharing the revenue generated from the sale of that product through you, with whoever supplied the product.

Affiliate Marketing in Real Time

As an example, in order to provide context, imagine that Happy X is a supplier of natural supplements. GrowNatural is a health food store that deals with naturally sourced products. Happy X is trying to promote its launch of a brand new supplement designed to help people get more essential vitamins and nutrients. All sales are done online and delivered by Happy X’s supply system through their warehouse in order to keep shipments centralized and all revenue streams traveling through Happy X. Happy X has a strong history of delivering a great product but are looking to expand their reach, so they approach GrowNatural in hopes that they will help sell their product as an affiliate. GrowNatural also has a strong base of loyal customers, some of who may not be familiar with Happy X. Should GrowNatural make any sales through their clientele of Happy X’s product, they then share the profit.

Responsibilities of, and Benefits to, the Supplier

As the manufacturer of the product, Happy X’s responsibilities to GrowNatural is to provide them with all the materials required to sell the product. Happy X provides GrowNatural with all the necessary copy and links that they can post on their website with all the revenue sharing streams and stat tracking in place. In the short term, although Happy X loses money to GrowNatural in direct sales, Happy X regards any sales through GrowNatural as sales that would not have otherwise been made. In the long term, although the return on investment may be less than through a direct sale, Happy X now has the attention of the customer and has widened the base of its clientele.

Responsibilities of, and Benefits to, the Affiliate

Affiliate marketing is really the lazy man’s approach to making sales. Ultimately, the more effort an affiliate makes to push a particular product the more sales they can expect to make. It is the affiliate’s responsibility to make their customer base aware of a particular product and then back that product with their seal of approval. Any new product opens up a new revenue stream for the affiliate. In this case, Happy X has done all the work in developing the product and making it available to the consumer. GrowNatural, as the affiliate, is tasked with merely making their following aware that this product is available. How they go about this is completely up to them, but can involve any marketing strategy under the sun. It can be as simple as a banner on their website or as an involved as an email blast to everyone on their list. Affiliates that communicate regularly and are in tune with their audience tend to be the most successful.

Some Do’s and Don’ts

There are some very salesy people out in the world who generate their entire income through affiliate marketing. There are even websites and hubs where you can sign on as an affiliate to sell just about anything. However, it’s usually preferable to find a niche and stick with it. If you have a particular talent for something, or consider yourself an expert in any subject, it is advisable to market products that are closely related to that subject so that you can justify being an authority on things related to the product.

Don’t ever market a product you don’t actually believe in. Although it can be tempting to strike out and begin to market anything that can make you money, remember that anyone who purchases through is considered part of your following. They go through you because they trust you and suddenly providing them with an inferior product can result in losing their trust and the income that they generate.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Co-working Spaces for the Self-employed

With a rising popularity in self-employment and freelancing, co-working spaces have become a popular phenomenon that has been embraced by those who work independently, but crave a sense of community in response to working in relative isolation.

Co-working spaces are essentially communal open-space offices and are an affordable solution to having a working environment outside of your home that is not a private office. They are popular among freelancers, entrepreneurs, start-ups and independent contractors.  A simple Google search will show that there are a wide range of co-working opportunities in most major cities in North America.

Besides being an affordable alternative to a private office, a co-working environment can provide many other advantages.

Escaping Isolation

Working in a home or private office can leave one craving face-to-face interaction from others during the day – especially those who aren’t clients! Self-employment can be isolating when your day to day activities are individual ventures. Co-working spaces provide the opportunity to work independently while being surrounded by others. Taking regular coffee breaks or having engaging in some water cooler gossip can help break up the day, create new friendships, and give you a chance to clear your mind from the daily grind of self-employment.

Creating a Community

Those who work in co-working spaces generally have the same values and influences, as they are usually made up of entrepreneurs and freelancers who are working hard to develop and build their business.  As the co-working environment is usually an open concept, it aids in developing relationships and finding inspiration from those around you. As friendships form, the community will naturally rally around each other and help each other out, building a mutual bonding through independent work that one can’t experience when working alone.


With a sense of community in the co-working space, networking opportunities will naturally follow. It’s great to find contacts that may be able to help you out in the future and for you to offer your services as well. Looking for a copywriter? Chances are someone in your co-working space has a recommendation. It’s much easier to go with a trusted referral rather than searching online and hoping for the best. Surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals can help your business grow and can build some strong and lasting relationships.