Dare to be stupid

UPDATE: Doug’s presentation can be found here

Doug Poretz of Qorvis is my hero.

OK maybe not, because I just met the man. But boy did he crystallize a lot of thoughts that have been running through my mind in the past month or so.

I was one of the many people who were recently laid off as companies have had to re-calibrate after a dismal last quarter or so. But I never got down. In fact, in some ways I felt liberated.


Because I have been what I feel is one of the most fortunate people to work on the web. I have been the web producer for every We Media conference and as a result, it has been my job to be at least a little fluent in many many areas. Blogs, RSS, social networks, chat tools, load balancing, meta redirects, email forwarding, web video, web audio, knowing when to make some of these a priority and when to cut your losses and move on.

So, how does this relate to Mr. Poretz?

Early on in his opening talk at the IdeaBlob session tonight at We Media, he talked about his Socratic moment. Because I wasn’t typing fast enough, I will sum it up as such.

Socrates decided he would rather be stupid about things than think he was an expert and be actually not.

This is the essence of how Poretz has built his business.

“I decided I was better off being stupid about certain things and knowing it, verses being intelligent about one thing,” he said.

This resonated with me big time because I’m in the process of building a larger client base and I find myself having to answer the question “what are you?”

I always flinch at this question because it feels like a trap. While I am currently billing myself as a “blog emancipator” who has considerable expertise with Movable Type and WordPress, I don’t want to claim I am an EXPERT at CSS, MySQL, PHP, RSS, design, sysadmin tasks, SEO, social networking or the myriad other things that go into making a rich web experience. I don’t want to claim expert status in these areas because I am very well connected to people with vast knowledge in each of these areas.

And this is where Portez helped validate my perspective about such conversation pitfalls.

“Are you focused on the tool or are you focused on the goal?” he said.

Bingo. This echoes the sentiments I gleaned from the wonderful O’Reilly book “Subject to Change” and its message of “the process is not the goal.” (Disclosure, I was a web producer for O’Reilly until, um, what time is it?)

The second thing that resonated with me was how Qorvis bills clients. They don’t bill based on hours,

“If we’re moving to a knowledge economy, we shouldn’t be working with a manufacturing economy standards,” Poretz said. “If we’re supposed to be creative and intelligent and smart, why aren’t we?”

This approach is something I’ve been doing for a while, with relatively good results. Some people I talk to think I’m crazy for approaching things this way. But when the conversation focuses on what the client is ultimately trying to achieve, they will usually be fine with your pricing if they feel that you are the best person/company to handle their specific needs.

And because Qorvis is a communications firm, the conversation tonight also centered on the best ways to get out a message.

Poretz urged the audience to use any and all distribution channels available, but don’t be beholden to any of them.

“Companies are communicating to reach a goal, not to hear their voice,” he said.

I asked him during the Q&A portion about his approach to convincing a client to embrace the new channels that require more back and forth with the audience than ever before.

His (paraphrased) answer: It’s about reputation, he said. To the degree that they have faith in your reputation they will accept your recommendation.

I have a long, long way to go to build up the reputation I ultimately hope to have, though I’m at the point where I’m neither afraid to tell a client what I think as well as what I don’t know. Both have benefits and burdens. But I’m finding out pretty quickly that it’s a reassuring approach to take, even after a layoff in the middle of a recession/depression.

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