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Sustainable Computing: A Business Evolution

I’ve been into technology for over 30 years, primarily for its usefulness in producing content or achieving a goal. At the time, though, I didn’t realize it would be my business, too.

I remember using the wired remote control of our VCR to program it when I was about 8. Around the same time, I was revealing codes in WordPerfect version 5, too. That was on a DOS-based PC, our first home computer. I first met a Mac at my dad’s office and fell in love with its more intuitive interface.

I was also a resource to faculty, staff, and peers throughout my schooling experiences. I remember helping with the Apple IIgs computers we started using in fourth grade and the Macs in the Career Center in high school.

Building devices from scratch was never of much interest to me. The only reason I would take something apart was to clean or repair it. I much preferred to understand and appreciate the value of existing technology, often to help others do the same.

It wasn’t until almost a decade later, though, that I would discover how to combine my passion since childhood of helping others with the enthusiasm I drew from useful technology — and these two with a strong value for eliminating waste and a knack for high-efficiency in to the world.

Our First Mac

In 1994, I started to experience the Internet. (There is currently a difference of opinion about whether “Internet” should be capitalized: Oxford vs. Associated Press.)

I was at a computer camp hosted at Georgetown Prep in D.C., learning the ins and outs of Yahoo!, AltaVista, and Lycos. All three were brand new at the time and I remember that Lycos had only so far indexed 400,000 webpages. Nonetheless, I learned about keyword searching and started to develop good skill in finding desired content.

The following year I started high school and in the summer of 1996, I did a bunch of computer purchase research for my mom. I think it was August when she purchased our first Mac: a PowerMac 8500.

We equipped it with an external modem, subscribed to dial-up internet service from Erol’s (now RCN, which Mom still uses), and got our first email address. I set us up with Netscape Navigator and soon Netscape Communicator, and we had a solid means of browsing the web and sending and receiving email.

Sustainable Computing: Helping people learn to use computers more efficiently might mean that they can spend less time using them overall.

A Business Takes Shape

Three behaviors came naturally to me:

  1. Discovering how people are using new technology
  2. Learning the language and translating it into terms other people can understand
  3. Helping people find the right tools to accomplish their goals and coaching them to use theses tools productively

Wow! I made these connections 20 years ago, however only in the last year did I finally define my business this way. Nonetheless, I ran with it and quickly stepped beyond my parents to consult with their friends and colleagues.

Combining my passions for environment and technology, I based my business on a core philosophy: Helping people learn to use computers more efficiently might mean that they can spend less time using them overall. Hence: Sustainable Computing.

Mom had imbued me with skills in page layout and design; she worked in National Geographic’s design department almost ten years before. Having worked on several school projects using PageMaker, too, it was easy for me to produce my first business card. I designed a simple logo by placing an icon of a classic Macintosh inside a triple-arrow recycling symbol.

I laid out the card with my name, business name, logo, email, address, and phone number. Though I left little room to breathe, I also added a tagline: Service that Keeps You Going.

Finding Independence

When I graduated high school in 1999, I bought my first personal Mac, a “Lombard” PowerBook G3. In my first month of ownership, I tripped over the power cord, sent the computer to the floor, and killed the hard disk.

Amazingly, I got it repaired under warranty, and from then on I was super careful with all of my gadgets. My iPhone stays in my pocket when I’m not actively using it. If I need my hand for another task, away goes the phone.

During college, my independent consulting was limited to summertime opportunities. However, I worked for over two years for Ithaca College’s IT department, providing computer support and guidance to faculty and staff.

This experience enabled me to strengthen my troubleshooting skills with both Macs and PCs, broaden my knowledge base, and become more patient. It also brought good password creation wisdom and taught me the value of confidentiality.

A New Approach

In my second year of college, I took a course in organizational writing and publishing and was influenced by a mini-course in marketing communication. I used it as an opportunity to experiment with several new publications for my business, including a booklet, two brochures, an envelope, a newsletter, and a print media ad.

On the centerspread of the four-page newsletter, I described my design process, including that of a new business card:

  • I’m attracted to the multisided card design with elements grouped as odd numbers; a friend showed me they’re easier to remember at only a quick glance. So, I built off my letterhead banner and watermark logo, made text bigger, and simplified it.

The front my new card turned out much cleaner and easier to read as I moved my address and phone number to the back. For the next decade, I would print my own business cards, using leftover green cover stock from a book Mom and I had worked on several years before.

Second Business Card (Spring 2001)

The Next Iteration

Most of these 15-year-old documents sat in a folder untouched. Only the ad I redesigned as a flyer to distribute, but I was never very good at posting flyers. Rediscovering these files, however, I see that I already had a strong value of feedback and an expectation that new business would mostly arrive through referrals from existing and past clients.

Soon after graduating, I redesigned my logo with a more modern Mac icon and a recycling symbol that appears three-dimensional. I changed the typeface of “Sustainable Computing” and scrapped on the two-sided design. While my card got busy again, I don’t think it was too difficult to read with seven distinct elements.

Also, I was learning to better market based on the specific activity of my business and some of its ultimate benefits to my customers, so I composed a new tagline: Guiding Mac Users to New Productivity and Happier Living.

Third Business Card (2004)

The Fairer Platform

Over the years as I consulted with both Mac and Windows users, I discovered an interesting trend. Most Windows-using clients would hire me to fix their computers. I would show up, sit down at their computer, and they would walk away, leaving me to figure out how to resolve a particular issue.

This trend of PCs being broken and needing to be fixed works well for many technicians who are focused on a single solution. However, I much prefer the interpersonal engagement with a client, an opportunity to learn their needs, generate scenarios, and help them identify the best course of action.

So, in 2009 I decided to stop consulting with PC users. Functionally, Macs tend to just work. I enjoy the more pleasurable experience of chatting with Mac users about their computing experiences.

I have found that each Mac user has a unique set of needs, preferences, and expectations about how technology should work for them. This leads to a good amount of frustration that we discuss in detail and I help resolve. Then, we discover new opportunities for growth and success.

By these passions combined, I coach Mac users!

Coaching with Kindness

In 2011, after five years living and working in sweet community at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, I followed many of my friends from that time and moved to Berkeley, California. I wanted to dive deeper into areas of business that felt lacking in my current career.

I had searched for an MBA program with a core value of sustainability, a diverse student body, and accommodation for my wide range of interests. The ideal graduate program surfaced: an MBA in Design Strategy (DMBA) at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

Yep! An MBA at an arts school.

The instructor of the program’s communication course, Elle, became a client and mentor. She encouraged me toward a gentler demeanor with clients and helped me simplify my communication and infuse it with more kindness. During one of our exchanges, Elle suggested I change the wording of my primary service from “consulting” to “coaching.”

Smiles for Success

All in all, the wisdom I acquired and the projects I experienced in the DMBA rippled out to my business development. I have significantly shifted my line of questioning with clients, who appreciate my patient, inquisitive approach, wealth of knowledge, and ability to meet them where they are.

A smile seems to be the primary evidence of success in my line of work. It shows a client’s delight when I help them understand the behaviors of their devices and when they discover how easily they can finally be productive.

When I was ready to print new business cards in 2012, I continued to iterate on my design. I reintroduced a back side to highlight the skills I was developing during my MBA program. On the front, I kept the same logo, added my website, and offered a new tagline: Coaching Mac users to computing confidence, productivity & smiles.

Business Card front (2012) Business Card back (2012)

Taking on Sustainability

I spent a year after graduation working on a venture project. During this experience, I improved my customer development skills, learned about many complexities of business incorporation, and considered an new avenue for my future.

However, my partner and I were unable to execute on our product, even after thoroughly validating our idea, so we shelved the project. Afterward, I decided to return to my coaching and see if I could make it a sustainable business for myself.

“I coach Mac users,” I tell people. I love having a clear pitch about what I do. Feeling passionate about my work adds value to the wisdom and confidence I am able to offer others to improve their experiences with technology.

Trending Clients

I started a profile on Thumbtack, a website that helps customers find and hire professionals for various service jobs. Thumbtack has helped me find an average of 10 clients per year. I also grew my client base by attending more events in my community and networking with people, and searching Craigslist for Mac gigs.

One of those Craigslist posts two years ago landed me a job as an onsite consultant at a nonprofit in San Francisco. I’m there twice a week to ensure staff users (all Macs) are up to date and problem free, and to administer various backend systems. The work has made it more convenient for me to take clients in San Francisco, as I would not generally make the trip across the Bay.

The trend I’ve noticed among individual clients is that most book me for two or three sessions in the first month or two. Then they’re able to be self-sufficient most of the time. They might book two to four sessions a year and/or reach out occasionally with a quick question that we can resolve by email or phone.

I estimate that I need a minimum of 300 client sessions a year to stay in business.

Fast Rate of Turnover

So quickly being out of a job is actually a blessing because I receive great feedback and know my services are effective. However, this also means I need a rolling series of new and existing clients to stay afloat.

In the last couple of years, I have only experienced one or two seasons with client sessions and other work engagements filling each week to the brim. I felt like I could sustain myself if the frequency continued. However, I’m currently in a slow period and exploring new avenues to reach more people.

I estimate that I need a minimum of 300 sessions a year to stay in business, or a combination of individual clients and long-term contracts with organizations. Know any nonprofits in Berkeley that need ongoing, occasional tech support? (Mac users only, of course.)

Time for New Business Cards

At the end of last month, I discovered I was running out of business cards. It seemed notable that 500 cards lasted a little over four years. However, I did not keep track of when I opened the second of the two boxes. I suspect that was not more than 18 months ago.

I started working on the next edition. Initially, I was content with largely the same design, the front and back each revealing one side of me. As I expressed to my trusted proofreaders, “I wouldn’t want any prospective client to miss out on skills represented by the other side.”

However, I quickly realized that these two sides are so integrated in me, it would be stupid not to share them in a more integrated fashion. I also received good feedback that my card needed three things:

  1. simpler messaging on each side
  2. to be easier to read overall, even at a short distance
  3. to more precisely target my customers’ value of minimalism and desire to be in control of their lives

I decided to stick with the brown kraft paper stock I got last time, and was attracted to a new white ink option and the uniqueness of rounded corners. A significant redesign resulted in a more modern looking card with less repetition of words.

On my current card, the word “computing” appears three times on the front. In the new design, it’s present just once on the front and once on the back. I was also quick to eliminate the shadows that seemed cool before but quickly proved faulty. They made the name of my company near impossible to read in low light.

My clients are most at ease in their native habitats, whether at home, in an office, or at a neighborhood café.

The Road to Disintegration

I just started using Desk.com as a platform to organize my clients and our engagements. This addition will enable me to be more prepared for each session and make it easier for me to identify trends in my business overall.

Part of my deep integration between personal and professional has kept my personal email address on my business card for over 15 years. While it communicated my values well, I opted to get a little more professional with a business email that better represents my offering and its benefit to customers. Also, I recently registered a new domain (confidentmac.tech) and am experimenting with its usefulness.

I’m still envisioning new approaches for next time, including more artwork or imagery on at least one face. However, I think I’m satisfied with this iteration and look forward to seeing how clients and colleagues react.

The cards are being printed this week and I expect to receive them by next week. The latest version of my tagline: Coaching Mac Users to Take Control, Build Confidence & Smile.

Business Card Proof front (2016) Business Card Proof back (2016)

New Networks Come Knocking

A week ago, I went to my friend Saul’s boat-warming party. I had not seen him in a while and it was good to catch up, especially on our respective businesses. Saul owns Stoll Custom Framing, a picture framing shop in Berkeley.

Toward the end of the evening, Saul mentioned his affiliation with BNI, a business networking company. BNI helps entrepreneurs and business professionals acquire new business through referral marketing — and Saul’s involvement was working.

Broken into regional chapters, BNI members meet weekly, often in the early morning hours before many folks need to be “at work.” Headed out of town for the week, Saul needed a sub at the upcoming meeting and invited me to take his place. I was at least curious about the change of pace that would have me in a networking group at 7:00 am, so I accepted.

Toward Growth & Prosperity

Already, I feel pretty closely tied to a new community and excited to officially join “Best Referral Network,” one of the Berkeley chapters. Many of the members are also excited for me to join as my industry is unrepresented in the group — and they need my services, too!

The conversations I had at last week’s meeting and at an informal mixer 36 hours later have inspired me to charge full speed into a new phase of my business. I’ll be at this week’s meeting, too!

I believe it’s reasonable for me to take on a great number of new clients, fill my schedule on a regular basis, and build Sustainable Computing into a prosperous, satisfying, and delightful business experience. I have set some steep goals for the next 18 months and look forward to discovering where I am at the end of 2017!

Join My Business Adventure

Want to be part of my journey? If you use a Mac, or even an iPhone or iPad, or if you’re thinking of buying a new device, you’ll probably benefit from a session with me. Click the link in the top right to email me.

Who are my clients? Some are entrepreneurs, including coaches, healers, and musicians, often struggling to keep their data in sync. Some are executives who need help with personal or business technology challenges. Some are elders learning to use computers for the first time or just trying to keep up with the times.

All are looking for simpler ways to engage with technology and still accomplish their goals. Most appreciate learning shortcuts that help them to be more productive. And they want enough confidence to feel free to explore and help themselves.

Also, the crowded, noisy, time-constrained atmosphere of Apple Stores doesn’t interest my clients. They are most at ease in their native habitats, whether at home, in an office, or at a neighborhood café. I’m happy to meet them where they are most comfortable.

Is this you? Do you know anyone with these values? I really appreciate your referrals.

… One More Thing

Before I turn 40, I need the financial stability to take one summer off of work. Why? Four years before my birth, Mom set another example for me.

She participated in the inaugural Bikecentennial ’76 Ride Across America. For two months, her group of a dozen humans and one dog cycled from the East Coast to the West. They carried their own gear and camped along this 4,200-mile journey.

Bikecentennial, which later became the Adventure Cycling Association, headquartered in Missoula, Montana, has become the go-to source for bicycle touring routes in the United States. Last month, I visited Missoula with Mom to join hundreds of other cyclists and their families and celebrate the 40th anniversary of their rides.

I was already interested in completing a similar journey in my lifetime and this particular experience inspired me to do so within the next four years.

Mom & 3 Vultures at Bikecentennial 40th Anniversary

Ben

Ben

Mac + Sustainability Coach at Sustainable Computing
Ben
Ben
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