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Building Confidence, Competence and Happiness for Success as an IT Contractor

Build Confidence, Competence and Happiness for Success as an IT ContractorThe very nature of IT can be lonely, especially so for someone working independently. As an independent contractor, you generally don’t have any immediate colleagues. Often your clients want to hand over their problems for you to fix and they don’t want to be caught up in technical issues they don’t understand. They’re happy to leave you on your own. Once you start working on projects you may be surrounded by the world of bits, bytes, code and networks, with little to no human interaction.

It’s enough to make you feel like the old Maytag repairman, the loneliest guy in town. Worse than simply being lonely, your confidence, competence, and happiness can suffer if you’re working in a black box with little to no communication and feedback. You need all three of these attributes to win jobs, negotiate rates, and deal with clients. The good news is that you can take proactive steps to enhance each of these.

Keep your confidence high

Practice regular techniques to maintain a high level of confidence and provide motivation.

  • Solicit customer feedback. If you utilize a simple feedback process, most of the time you’ll get thanks and positive comments. This is not only satisfying, but will help you better understand what your clients value. At times you will get negative comments. Think of these as gifts to help you improve. After all, without feedback, no improvement is possible. Address the issues and your next clients will not have these complaints.
  • Set milestones and goals and celebrate achievement. Since you don’t have a boss to give you a pat on the back, be your own cheerleader. Rather than waiting until the end of a major project to give yourself some recognition, do it daily. Be sure to reflect back on what you have accomplished; don’t just grimace at the long to-do list remaining.

Keep your competence high

In order to be confident, you need to be competent.

  • Benchmark within the IT and greater business field not only for specific technology solutions, but also to understand characteristics and practices of the best IT people.
  • Create your own self-assessment. Using the benchmark information and customer feedback, create a self-assessment process that you can use with each project or client for honest reflection on your strengths and weaknesses, what you delivered, and how you could have done things better.
  • Reinvest in yourself by improving in any areas where you have gaps and building new skills. The world of IT changes practically overnight, meaning clients have constantly changing needs. Stay ahead of the curve by carving out some time to become knowledgeable in new technologies in advance.

Be happy

You are spending 40, 50, or more hours each week at your job. Take steps to make work fun and rewarding.

 

  • Create your own team. If you work independently, you don’t generally have the socialization opportunities that other 9-to-5 business folks have. But you can make them. Take the time and energy to partner with your customer on a personal basis. Participate in networking events. Find a mentor. Put together a team of resources that you can call on for help and reciprocate in turn.
  • Smile. Call center employees are routinely trained to smile while they’re on the phone since customers can hear the pleasantness in their tone of voice. That same effect can work for you in IT, even if you’re the only one who “hears” the smile.
  • Love your work. If you find that the work you do has become tedious, find ways to transition to something that piques your interest. New clients, new technologies, new approaches, and even working in a new setting can make the work itself more enjoyable.
  • Be assertive to meet your rights and needs. Studies have shown that assertiveness at work can help deliver happiness. Although your policy may be that the customer is always right, that doesn’t mean you should let customers walk all over you.

Have difficult clients? Fire them.

Consider this situation. You have a client who:

  • Constantly changes requirements while you are working on his or her project
  • Always demands work to be done on a rush basis, creating disruption to your schedule
  • Asks for a little bit more when you’re approaching the end of the project… and doesn’t understand that a scope change deserves more payment
  • Rarely expresses satisfaction or gratitude
  • Seems to distrust you, even after you’ve worked together multiple times
  • Pays less or takes more time than your other clients

If you do all-in unit costing for this client, including your time for extra bits of communication and changes, you might find that you’re getting a lot less in payment per hour of attention and generating a lot more personal stress compared to any of your other clients.

Of course, your first efforts will be to work with the client through communications and contracting. With tact, process skills, and plenty of patience, you might be able to groom this troublesome client to be as professional as the rest of your customers. However, sometimes this type of client just doesn’t get it… and never will. If that’s the case, you might want to cut your losses. After all, if you get rid of a “bad” client who consumes an inordinate amount of time and causes you stress, you can replace him or her with one or more “good” clients you absolutely love working with.

If you want to fire a client, you will have to be tactful. Let the customer save face to the extent you can without compromising your values or losing significant money. You don’t want to create such hard feelings that your client starts a word-of-mouth campaign to discredit you.

What’s the bottom line?

Until you become the next IT whiz with a success like Apple, Amazon, or Facebook, you’re likely to continue to work largely by yourself and rely on yourself. But that can be quite okay. As the noted author Wayne Dyer said, “You cannot be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with.”

Visit Acuity Training’s guide to confidence for specific assertiveness tactics to apply throughout each step of your freelance process.

15 Amazing Collaboration Tools for Remotely Managing Teams

This post by Nick Darlington was originally featured on the Freshbooks Blog on May 30, 2017.

The remote working trend shows no signs of slowing.

15 Amazing Collaboration Tools for Remotely Managing TeamsGallup’s Work and Education Poll in 2015 highlighted that 37% of U.S. workers say they have telecommuted to work, which is four times more than 9% in 1995. And a survey of business owners by Virgin Media Business predicted that 60% of office-based employees will be working from home by 2022.

You only have to Google “remote working statistics” and you’re bombarded with statistics highlighting this trend. You’re also presented with statistics on the many benefits of remote working like improved productivity, happier employees and better customer retention.

While the distributed working trend continues with clear benefits, management faces a new problem: How to remotely manage these teams.

It shouldn’t surprise you that many companies now embrace remote working. In fact, some companies – like Buffer – already have fully distributed teams.

But, while the trend continues with clear benefits, management faces a new problem: How to remotely manage these teams. While there are guides and case studies online-Zapier‘s account of remotely managing teams stands out- it’ll take time for companies to acclimatize. After all, change doesn’t happen overnight.

Luckily, with the growing trend, there’s also a proliferation of online collaboration tools. These tools are helping companies with the shift. Here are 15 of the best—across categories like communication, brainstorming, project and time management.

Online Collaboration Tools for Communication

Chances are, you know Google Hangouts and Skype. There’s no question these are powerful platforms for remote communication. But, there are other remote working tools to consider.

#1 SLACK

As a business owner, I use Slack to communicate with my team daily. Typing this, I see the Slack desktop app out the corner of my eye. When I receive a message from my team, I’m instantly notified.

Slack provides a simple chat interface, but don’t let its simplicity fool you. You communicate in channels organized with hashtags. Create any hashtag you like from SEO, website design, incoming leads, proposals, contracts and more.

Channels ensure all conversations, files and documents are where they should be. You don’t spend time searching for specifics relating to a project. If information gets lost, search for it with the handy search function.

Alternatively, share confidential information in private chats.

Integration with other apps is also possible. For instance, MailClark lets you send emails and Facebook messages in Slack.

There are powerful features in the Free Forever Plan but upgrade anytime for advanced features. Slack pricing starts at $6.67.

#2 YAMMER

Yammer is a social media network for business. Communicate privately with colleagues, share documents, files, like someone else’s status and collaborate effortlessly.

Access the platform with a simple sign-up using your company email address. Because it’s owned by Microsoft, integration with SharePoint is possible. What’s more, this online tool is entirely free.

#3 APPEAR.IN

Appear.in is a video conversation app offering split-screen sharing.

Create a chat room with no sign-up, registration, or downloads. Visit their site, create a room link, and share with up to eight people, for free.

Access is available via any device although you need the app when signing up on iOS.

premium version is available for $12/month.

#4 QUIP

Quip is your central hub for online communication. Create, share and discuss documents centrally—in real-time.

With Quip, you don’t spend time searching for information as there’s one version of your work. No more long email chains and multiple versions of your work. Also, use their mobile app to communicate on-the-go.

Quip offers a unique free trial. It’s based on activity, not length of time. Thereafter, pricing is $30 for a team of five and $10 per extra person.

Online Collaboration Tools for Brainstorming

Ideas are the lifeblood of any organization. Far too often people think up an idea but don’t act. These three online tools will help move an idea from conception to execution.

#5 IDEAFLIP

Ideaflip is a space for your ideas. It’s a simple, yet powerful web app that:

Converts your thoughts into ideas.

Lets you share those ideas.

Helps you refine those ideas with real-time collaboration.

Group brainstorming sessions are possible with a desktop and mobile version.

Join for free as an editor, contributor or viewer and access a limited amount of idea boards. The basic subscription starts at $9/month for access to unlimited idea boards.

#6 MINDMEISTER

This collaborative mind mapping tool allows you to capture, refine and share ideas with colleagues and collaborate.

Currently, over 7 million people use it to brainstorm, take notes, plan projects, and work on other creative tasks.

MindMeister is web-based, meaning no downloads or updating, and it works with your preferred operating system—Windows, Mac, or Linux.

If you want to take things further, why not integrate MindMeister with MeisterTask, the online task and project management app for teams.

Sign up for free and access three mind maps or upgrade to a personal, pro, or business plan. Pricing is $4.99, $8.99 and $12.49, per month, respectively.

#7 CONCEPTBOARD

Conceptboard is another visual online collaboration tool optimized for creatives and remote teams. It’s a one-stop solution for crafting and managing projects and feedback.

The online tool provides a flexible canvas that expands as you add content. Create mood boards, map out strategies and brainstorm live.

Sign-up for a free trial for 30 days. Pricing starts at $28.50 for three users and $9.50 for each extra user.

Online Collaboration Tools for Managing Projects

Project management is difficult at the best of times, but managing a remote team can be even more difficult. These five collaboration apps will help.

#8 TRELLO

Trello is a collaboration tool that makes organizing projects fun by combining lists, cards and boards.

Your board is your project that consists of cards on lists. Sound complicated? It’s actually quite simple. For example, you may create a “blog board”. On the blog board, you’ll have different lists like, “incoming brief”, “freelance writer busy writing”, “internal review” and “with client”. With this workflow, you can move the individual cards on each list from start to finish.

With Trello, see what projects are on-the-go, who’s working on it, and where something is in the process. Move content through your editorial calendar, products through the development, phases and leads through the sales process… the possibilities are endless.

The Forever Free Plan gives you access to unlimited boards, lists and cards. But there are limitations like the size of files you can upload. For premium features like integrations with Google and Salesforce, upgrade to a business plan for $9.99/month.

#9 CANVA FOR WORK

Don’t have the money to pay an expensive designer? Have a little DIY design streak in you? Canva is the easy-to-use design software that lets you create your own designs without spending a fortune. Admittedly, many designers also use the platform.

While the free version packs a punch, for more features upgrade to Canva for Work. Use the intuitive drag and drop editor to create stunning graphics and designs. Access more designs, templates, logos, fonts, custom brand colors and collaborate on designs in the “team stream”. Pricing starts at $12.95/month.

#10 EVERNOTE

At its core, Evernote is a note-taking tool. But, it can double as a powerful collaboration tool for managing projects.

Adding notes is easy, and as you add more notes, the more useful it becomes. This article on Lifehacker highlights the many uses of Evernote. From using the Web Clipper to creating project notebooks to sifting through notes with saved searches and using notes to move between related information—it’s clear Evernote is a powerful tool. Here are some other features:

  • Create project to-do lists to organize projects.
  • Collaborate remotely on a group notebook with easy notebook sharing.
  • Create as many notebooks as you want. While creating many notebooks seems counterintuitive, Evernote curates important content for you.
  • Transform your written notes into a digital format and store in the relevant project notebook.

It’s available on iOS and Android. While free to use, you can upgrade to the Plus Plan for $3.99/month or $34.99/year. A premium version is also available.

#11 FRESHBOOKS

As you may already know since you’ve found your way to our blog, FreshBooks is cloud accounting software designed for small service-based businesses. But our platform also offers an online collaboration feature to help you manage projects.

Collaborate with team members, invite employees, contractors or clients and communicate about existing projects.

You also don’t have to spend time searching for files with centralized file storage. And if you’re on-the-go and want a quick project update, access the current project overview straight from your smartphone using the iPhone or Android app. Manage your work or an entire remote team—the choice is yours.

A free trial 30-day trial is available, no credit card required, with plans starting at $15/month.

Online Collaboration Tools for Managing Time

Time is a finite resource. And if time’s so important, then managing it is too, right? Here are five online collaboration tools that will help you better manage your time.

#12 TEAMBOOK

Struggling to plan your team’s schedule? Use Teambook to see who’s working on what, and when, in real time.

Make smarter decisions by tracking current staff availability, budgets and time spent on projects. For example, If someone is spending more time than they should on a project you’ll know, and can get to the root of it.

Sign-up for a 15-day free trial. Thereafter, pay $39 for the Pro Plan, giving you access to 40 projects and unlimited users.

#13 DOODLE

Meetings, whether you love or hate them, are essential for checking in with employees, getting status updates and reviewing progress. But managing meetings are time-consuming without the right tools.

Enter Doodle.

It’s a simple scheduling tool that integrates with your existing calendar—from Outlook to Google Calendar. Add as many calendars as you want.

Also, you don’t need to switch between applications and appointments sync automatically. Neat, right?

A free version is available with paid plans starting with the Private Plan for $39/year.

#14 ACUITY SCHEDULING

Acuity is another online appointment scheduling tool. It lets your clients view your availability, in real-time. They can self-book appointments, cancel or even reschedule. Here are some benefits:

  • Zero confusion about appointment times with auto-adjusting time zones.
  • Only let clients see what you want them to see with “privacy” features.
  • Prepare for meetings with intake forms that capture pertinent information.
  • Accept payments with Stripe, Square, Braintree and Authorize.net.
  • Integrate with your favorite existing platforms (like FreshBooks!
  • A 14-day free trial is available. Upgrade to one of three plans, starting at $10/month.

#15 CALENDLY

I used Calendly for the first time when a client shared a link via email. I copied and pasted that link into my browser before hitting enter. The client’s calendar appeared and I selected a suitable appointment time. The app then added that time to the client’s calendar. Using Calendly is *that* easy.

To get started, just sign up and inform Calendly on your availability. Calendly does the rest. When you’re ready, schedule an appointment by doing what my client did.

Notable features include:

  • Auto-adjusting time zones.
  • Integrations with Google, Outlook, Office 365 and iCloud to prevent double bookings.
  • Automation of tasks through integration with apps like Salesforce and Zapier.
  • Works well for individuals and growing teams.

Try for free or upgrade to their Premium Plan for $8 per user, per month.

Remote working is here to stay. As a result, more and more companies are embracing it and experiencing both the benefits and challenges that come with it. Luckily, with the trend proliferating so too are online collaboration tools that can help.

One More Thing to Consider…

FreshBooks also offers a time tracking feature that lets you track time spent on projects for clients.

Log into FreshBooks to access the time-tracking features. Click the “Time-Tracking” tab. Start the time or log hours you’ve already worked. Based on the accurate time data you can:

  • Focus on important work without worrying about tracking time
  • Capture all billable hours meaning there’s no lost revenue
  • Automatically bill clients for work
  • Keep track of your team: know what’s working and what isn’t and better allocate resources
  • Pull tracked time directly onto an invoice for quick and easy billing

Try FreshBooks free for 30 days.

These 15 highlighted tools are among the best. Have any to add? Please let us know in the comments below!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Darlington is a feature writer, B2B Blogger, copywriter, and co-founder of WriteWorldwide. If you’re a business looking to create a stronger brand, gain industry authority, capture more leads and get more clients, visit nickdarlington.com.

5 Ways Web Developers Can Stay In-The-Know

This post by Dennis Furlan was originally published on the Freshbooks Blog on July 18, 2016

5 Ways Web Developers Can Stay In-The-KnowWe all have childhood memories that stay with us.

For me, one of these memories involves visits to the doctor. Specifically, what stood out to me during these visits was the fact that the doctor used to always interrupt an examination, leave the room and come back again minutes later. Every single time.

For years, I wondered what that was all about. Until, one day, after a session was over, I walked into the hallway past a door that was slightly ajar. I peeked in and was surprised by what I saw. In his room strewn across tables, chairs, floor—you name it—were medical books.

At this instance, I learned that the doctor used to leave during sessions and go into this office in order to look up what might be ailing me. In other words, even the most educated among us need to keep current with their profession.

This is as true for web developers as it is with doctors. However, when you’re with a client, the last thing you want to do is leave and look up your solution in a book. Instead, the challenge for web developers is to stay current, so that those valuable meetings with clients are as smooth and effortless as can be.

Here are some specific ways that web development pros can stay current with their profession.

1. Blogs

Blogs offer a mix of casual (but useful!) content for consumers, including web developers. And with the vast offerings of the world wide web, there is little shortage of blogs offering timely and engaging content on the industry.

A List Apart: A magazine/blog that covers all aspects of website creation since 1997. It has a special focus on web standards and best practices, which is useful for web development pros looking to keep up with their trade.

Six Revisions: Began as a traditional blog, but has branched out somewhat to become a general news website for professionals in the field of web development. The site is targeted towards developers and web designers, with a focus on both websites and apps.

2. YouTube

One of the great YouTube features is that it’s an easily accessible platform for anyone who wants to create video content. This includes video tutorials, which can be incredibly helpful in fields such as web development and web design, where more hands-on, visual approaches may be beneficial for learning.

TheNewBoston: Provides guidance on a wide range of topics for audiences in programming, design and development. In fact, TheNewBoston has over one million subscribers. So, if there’s a web development process you’ve been itching to learn, this is probably the place to find it.

Adam Khoury: If you’re a fan of tutorial-style learning via YouTube, Adam’s your guy. This video channel offers tutorials on topics like coding and design, and covers a laundry list of web development technologies, including JavaScript, PHP, SQL, HTML, CSS and ActionScript.

3. Twitter

One of the signature attractions of social media is embedded in the name itself: it’s a media platform that’s, well, social. If you like to find information all in one place, Twitter is a great platform to use to get a glimpse of what web development gurus are actually like.

Brendan Eich: The inventor of JavaScript and co-founder of Mozilla. Eich’s Tweets regularly, sharing his thoughts on issues relating to web development, as well as a little taste of who he is outside of work.

Codrops: A more newsy resource, Codrops shares web development tutorials, provides frequent updates, insights and resources. So, if there’s a specific web development or web design topic you’d like information on, Codrops is a good account to follow on Twitter.

4. Newsletters

The newsletter is another seemingly ageless media platform. In fact, newsletters have made the transition quite nicely from print to digital—a trend that also comes with some caveats. In the web development world, here are a couple of trusted and useful newsletter sources:

JavaScript Weekly: As the name suggests, it provides a weekly email roundup of everything new in JavaScript programming. Unlike the flood of daily newsletters you typicall receive, the JavaScript Weekly newsletter is sent once a week and is a go-to destination for web developers to stay up to date on anything JavaScript.

Hacker Newsletter: Another weekly source of information for web development professionals, focusing specifically on industry news related to startups, technology and programming. The newsletter’s content is curated from the Hacker website, so subscribers can read material they may have missed on the site.

5. Forums

Internet discussion forums have been around for a while and still are because they offer the topic specificity of blogs and news sites while also featuring the personal interactivity of social media. Basically, if you’re in need of answers to specific web-development questions, a web forum is your destination.

webdeveloper.com: A source for digital discussions on topics from HTML, XML and CMS to graphics, design and mobile apps. JavaScript as a topic has almost 500,000 posts in over 100,000 threads.

KirupaForum: Another forum destination for web development aficionados with the Kirupa website—web development and design instructors since 1998. The forum itself has a unique structure. All threads are on one page, with an infinity scroll. But you are able to filter through threads at the top of the page.

So, say farewell to clunky encyclopedias and get accustomed to the plethora of information available on the web. Web developers from all over are using it to stay up-to-date with the trends.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dennis Furlan is a freelance writer who covers a broad range of topics of interest to today’s selective content audience. Visit his website DennisFurlan.com.

When Co-Workers Interrupt Your Discussion

This article by Mark Swartz was originally published on the Monster Career Advice blog.

“And now for the key point of this articlWhen Coworkers Interrupt Your Discussionse. It’s that –“

“Hey,” says an interrupter, “I have a question. Also I disagree with what you said earlier.”

“Umm, we can come back to that shortly. Now…ah, where was I?”

Getting cut off while speaking is irritating. At work it’s like handling a heckler. You get disrupted and your idea is hijacked.

A good communicator can deal with interjectors. Even for chronic disruptors there may be no need for drastic measures.

Allowing Interruptions Can Harm Your Credibility

Part of any job is conveying your thoughts and ideas effectively. If you frequently allow colleagues to walk all over your words, what sort of impression do you make?

People may begin to think you lack confidence to assert boundaries. Your ideas may be viewed as less valuable since you don’t protect them from interference. A lack of protest could also imply they can take credit for your ideas with few repercussions.

Why People Don’t Let You Finish Talking

Not all interruptions are bad. Sometimes colleagues have something really helpful to add. They simply don’t want to risk letting the moment pass. It could also be their brain works faster than yours does. They’re impatient to comment. Or culturally they’re still learning Canadian business norms, not realizing they are being rude.

Then there are creeps who try to undermine or one-up you. Their intent is negative. These are people – along with chronic offenders – who’ll need special treatment.

Could It Be Your Fault Too?

You probably aren’t a trained communicator. So it’s possible you’re making some basic conversation errors. Here are several that invite listeners to jump in abruptly:

  • Be concise and highlight your main point early. Otherwise people interject to stop you from being longwinded.
  • Speak at a level that people can hear easily. If you’re too quiet it might be interpreted as a lack of confidence.
  • Did you prepare adequately? How about rehearsing to reduce hesitations such as umm, ah, mmm or long silences?
  • You get nervous and start losing your place, saying the wrong thing, not speaking with authority or conviction.

Keep an eye on your body language too. Facial expressions, the way you sit or stand, eye contact and hand motions can support (or work against) your spoken words.

 

How To Stop Interrupters

Handle transgressors appropriately. Coworkers who seldom disrupt can be treated very politely. Announce as you begin that you’ll gladly deal with questions and comments as soon as you’re done speaking. If one or two people interject anyway, acknowledge them but remind them of your earlier instruction.

When that fails try more aggressive approaches. Start by asking for input from others. That can block repeat interrupters from taking over. Next fight fire with fire: cut the person off and tell them you are going to finish now. A brasher tactic is to speak over the offender until they stop.

Chronic interlopers should be spoken to in private. Be pleasant. Point out that you’ve noticed their actions and wonder if they realize the effect they’re having on you and others. Hear them out. If possible reach an agreement to be mutually respectful from now on.

Defensiveness Can Backfire

Over-reacting to getting interrupted reflects poorly on you. Keeping your cool shows you’re made of the right stuff. But try to avoid letting yourself be a doormat.

Is it your boss or their supervisors who won’t let you finish? Communicating with managers takes special care. It may be worth letting them say their piece.

Save your objection for encounters you have a better chance of winning.

How Will You Know When It’s Time to Incorporate?

This post first appeared on the CA4IT Insights blog on March 20, 2017

How Will You Know When It’s Time To IncorporateIn short, there’s no single milestone in a business’s maturity that dictates incorporation. It depends on a lot of variables, so it may require self-evaluations at multiple phases to determine when exactly the timing’s right for incorporating your small business.

When you’re conducting those evaluations, it’s important to create an accurate profile of your company and to give consideration to what it’ll look like as a corporation. There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to the title.

In the former column, you’ll have much greater flexibility with your taxes, including how you pay yourself—salary, dividends, bonus—or even if you pay yourself. A 15-percent preferred tax assessment on the first 500,000 of profit may prove to be all the incentive you need to leave your earnings in the company.

In the latter, incorporation isn’t inexpensive. And when you’re starting a business, expenses can already feel too numerous to track, let alone cover. Perhaps the only thing more precious than funding in those early days is time. Incorporation’s going to take a big bite out of that, too, because there’s more paperwork that’ll need to be filed—separate tax returns, notifications of share sales and directors’ actions.

If there is a brief answer to the question at the top, it’s this: Incorporating a business in Canada should not be entered into lightly. The more you understand, the more comfortable you’re likely to feel with your decision.

As one of the most respected accounting networks across Canada over the last quarter-century (and one of the few that’s ISO-registered), CA4IT specializes in business accounting services, including incorporation advising, for independent contractors, consultants and entrepreneurs. Click here for a free (no-obligation) consultation.

How to Ace a Job Search Test on Spec Assignment

This post by Jon Simmons first appeared on the Monster Career Advice Blog.

If you’re asked to complete an assignment as part of the interview process, this is your time to shine.

How to Ace a Job Search Test or Spec AssignmentSometimes, the interview process can feel never-ending. There’s always one more piece of the application to submit, one more interview with the team.

That “one more thing” is often a spec work assignment or test, and it’s a crucial one to get right, because it means you’re being seriously considered for the position.

“I always use spec work with candidates,” says John Engel, president of executive recruiting firm Knowledge Capital Consulting in Charleston, South Carolina. “It’s the final stage of recruiting. The top five finalists get a spec assignment.”

We asked career experts to offer tips on how to make sure your spec work gives you the best shot at beating out the other finalists and getting hired.

Reflect the company in your assignment

You know the old adage: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. To connect with a hiring manager at a company you’re largely unfamiliar with, imitation in spec work can work wonders.

“If you’re doing a writing assignment, it helps to look at the tone of the copy or articles on the organization’s website,” advises Deborah Hankin, VP of Talent, SYPartners, a consulting firm in New York City. “Is it formal? Casual? Authoritative? Your assignment should mirror that tone to show you fit that culture.”

It might be tempting to put your own spin on an assignment, but in most cases, hiring managers want to see if you’re able to produce the kind of work they’re already doing. If they want you to take things in a different direction, they’ll tell you. So even if the style of the work they produce differs from yours, your safest bet is to take your cues from it. This not only makes it more likely that your assignment will pass the test, it also shows that you’ve done your homework.

Ask clarifying questions

Unsure about the assignment’s directions? Having trouble understanding a specific sentence in the guidelines? Don’t just guess at what it might mean or wait until it’s too late. Address it right when you get the assignment.

“Ask smart questions—succinctly and judiciously,” says Hankin. “Remember, [hiring managers] are very busy. If you ask too many questions, you can be seen as not being able to navigate intentional ambiguity.”

For example, if your assignment requires sources, you might ask how many they’d like to see, or how the hiring manager would like them represented (linked in the body of the report or as footnotes or endnotes?).

“If you can’t reach the hiring manager to ask questions, simply make a note in the assignment stating your assumptions,” adds Hankin. “At least if your assumptions are off-base, [the reviewer] can understand your logic in how you solved the challenge.”

Know when to be creative—and when to follow directions

Which is more important, completing an assignment by the book or putting your own spin on it? It depends on the type of role you’re applying for.

“In the creative professions, showing multiple methods to accomplish a task are often welcome,” says Elaine Varelas, managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management company in Boston. “An accounting role may be much less interested in your creative approaches.”

You can never go wrong by delivering more than what they asked for, so feel fee to go above and beyond. Besides a few hours, there is nothing to lose by submitting more work than required in a spec assignment, and it elevates your work above other candidates who only submit the bare minimum.

And finally, what’s the one thing you should always get right? The deadline. Nothing creates a bad first impression like missing a deadline, so whatever it takes, if you want the job, don’t be late with your first assignment.

3 Reasons Why You Need a Business Bank Account

This post by Nellie Akalp originally appeared on the Freshbooks Blog in February 2017

Keeping It Professional: 3 Reasons Why You Need a Business Bank AccountAs a small business owner or freelancer, you probably encounter a lot of overlap between your business finances and personal finances. On the surface, it seems simpler to just have one bank account—after all, it’s a centralized place to keep tabs on client payments that come in, and personal and business expenses that go out.

However, there are several reasons why you must separate your business finances from your personal finances. For one, having a business bank account will separate itself from your personal assets, while streamlining your tax records. But that’s not all. Below are the three reasons why opening a business bank account is crucial for your business and your financial sanity.

Reason #1: A Business Bank Account Keeps the “Corporate Veil” Intact to Protect Your Personal Assets

Many small business owners form a limited liability company (LLC) or corporation because it helps shield their personal assets from things that might happen in the business—for instance, if the business is sued or can’t pay its debts. This is known as a “corporate veil” since it forms some separation between the business owner and the business.

In order to keep that personal liability protection, you need to properly maintain your LLC or corporation. This includes drawing a clear line between your business finances and your personal finances. By creating a business bank account, you ensure that your business is its own entity and separate from you as an individual.

In addition, if your business is ever sued, the plaintiff may try to pierce your corporate veil by showing you haven’t maintained the corporation/LLC to the letter of the law. In this case, they can go after your personal assets. In instances like this, that’s why it’s absolutely critical for LLCs and corporations to keep business finances completely separated from personal finances.

Reason #2: A Business Bank Account Helps You Stay Organized Come Tax Time

Combining your personal account and business account is asking for more trouble that you’d think. Ultimately, combined accounts make it harder to stay on top of your books come tax time.

You may find yourself spending countless hours wading through the past year’s transactions—including personal trips to the grocery store—just to find business expenses to write off. Having separate accounts streamlines your recordkeeping which, at the end of the day, saves you time and ensures you won’t miss any legitimate deductions.

Reason #3: A Business Bank Account Gives You More Credibility to Your Paying Clients

When you’re running a business, it can look a tad unprofessional to pay your contractors with a personal check or have your clients write a check to you as an individual. Will this ever be a deal breaker? Probably not. But, having a dedicated business banking account can send the right signals as you scale your operations and evolve from freelancer to business owner.

As a side note, if you’re running your business as a sole proprietorship, you don’t legally need a separate bank account for your business, but it’s still a good idea for the second and third reasons. Having a business bank account can help make your case to the IRS that you are indeed running a business and are entitled to deduct your business expenses should you ever be audited.

You Ready? What You Need to Open Your First Business Bank Account

Opening a business bank account is a relatively simple process. To make things easier, you can open an account at the same bank where you already have a personal account, so you only have to deal with one institution. Alternatively, you may receive reduce banking rates if you belong to a professional group or organization—such as a group for writers, veterans or performers. Check if they offer access to business checking services through a specialized credit union. This can be a great option.

No matter where you choose to open your business account, you’ll need the following documentation:

  • Your company’s EIN (or Federal Tax ID number).If you don’t already have an EIN for your business, you’ll need to get one from the IRS. You shouldn’t use your personal social security number to open a business account.
  • Articles of Organization / Articles of Incorporation.If your business is structured as an LLC or Corporation, then you’ll most likely need your Articles of Organization/Articles of Incorporation that’s signed and stamped from the state. You may also need to show your Operating Agreement.
  • Certificate of Good Standing.In some cases, you may also need to get a certificate of good standing from the state. This documentation essentially says that your business is up to date on its state taxes and other requirements.
  • Tax ID, social security number, DBA.If your business is structured as a sole proprietorship, you’ll need less documentation, since sole proprietors are considered more like consumers than a business. In this case, you’ll most likely need a Tax ID, social security number, as well as a DBA (Doing Business As) registration if you’re using a business name that is different than your personal name.

As your business grows, it’s crucial to build a proper legal and financial foundation. Opening a separate bank account is one small step in that direction, and will help keep your books organized, as well as ensure your business and personal lives remain separated. In addition, opening a bank account will help form your business’ credit history—a big milestone should you ever want to take out a business loan or line of credit in the future.

About the Author: Nellie Akalp is a passionate entrepreneur, small business expert, professional speaker, author and mother of four. She is the Founder and CEO of CorpNet.com, an online legal document filing service and recognized Inc.5000 company. At CorpNet, Nellie assists entrepreneurs across all 50 states to start a businessincorporateform an LLC, and apply for trademarks. She also offers free business compliance tools for any entrepreneur to utilize. Connect with Nellie on LinkedIn.

Are You Making Offensive Comments Unknowingly?

This post by Mark Swartz was originally published to the Monster Career Advice blog.

Are You Making Offensive Comments Unknowingly?You don’t think of yourself as insensitive. Co-workers generally laugh or smile at your jokes. It’s rare that someone complains you’ve hurt their feelings by something you’ve said.

Then a colleague files a complaint against you for making an offensive remark. How can this be? You ask yourself. I don’t remember being inappropriate.

The rules of office etiquette are changing. Yesterday’s tolerated comments may be unsuitable today. Do you know how to avoid being an offender?

Diversity Can Create Uncertainty

If everyone at work was similar to you it would be simple not to offend. There might be unspoken rules about off-limit subjects and acceptable ways to communicate.

In diverse workplaces cultural norms vary. It can be harder to tell who you might upset by saying the wrong thing. You may sincerely believe that you aren’t coming across as abrasive. After all, your friends, family and work buddies never complain.

Definition of Offensive Comments

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, offensive remarks are in the ear of the receiver. Each person will weigh what you’ve said against their own sense of what’s tolerable.

If they consider your remark offensive they’ll see it as one or more of the following:

  • Personally repugnant, in violation of their moral or decency standards. For instance if you make a sexually suggestive joke.
  • Personally insulting, like when you belittle their work performance or intelligence.
  • Bigoted, as in judging others based only on their skin colour, religion or political beliefs.

Offensive statements cause people to cringe. Those who are affronted feel attacked or otherwise upset. That’s why you need to be aware of the impact your words are having.

Bigotry

A remark can be distressing if it stereotypes people. Bigotry is a broad category that covers some heavy duty typecasting. Statements that reduce a person to a set of prejudged traits belong here. They diminish the importance of respecting others as individuals.

Racism and sexism are in this category. So are sweeping comments based on age bracket, disability or sexual orientation. Same for marital and family status or country of origin.

Good thing there are ways to minimize your tendency to pigeonhole people.

Put Downs and Insults, Even In Jest

It’s unlikely you blatantly insult your boss and colleagues. More probably any put downs are made with a measure of humour. It can be fun to point out someone’s shortcomings – or to exaggerate their behaviour – in a non-hurtful way.

Except there’s a possibility of your intent being misinterpreted. Some people don’t find those sorts of comments comical. There’s also a risk that no matter how harmless the remark, the person on the receiving end is insecure or overly sensitive. They could react negatively.

Be careful about making people feel vulnerable. That’s especially true when publicly shaming others to motivate them.

Raising Sensitive Issues

Are there topics best avoided where you work? You might offend accidentally by bringing them up, even if you do so innocently.

Recalling embarrassing incidents that everyone wants to forget falls under this banner. Revealing somebody’s personal information without their permission does as well.

Watch That You Don’t Violate Policy

The workplace is not a 100% free-speech zone. Your employer may have policies that govern what’s off-limits. Read the employee manual for guidance. Study the sections on mutual respect and acceptable communication practices.

These policies could extend to what you say online. Express your controversial opinions to trusted followers. Offensive social media remarks that are publicly visible might get you called in for chat.

Online and off, it isn’t that you have to walk on eggshells in fear of offending someone. What you need to ensure is that you’re delicate in what you say or write, and never blurt out something that could be taken as harassment or bullying.

Get More Positive Stress at Work

Positive pressures create a way to balance out anxiety and worry

This post by Mark Swartz was originally published on the Monster Career Advice Blog.

Get More Positive Stress at Work (Positive pressures create a way to balance out anxiety and worry)Here’s some sunny news about stress: certain types can actually be good for you. A bit of pressure and nerves gets you focused.

But too much of what happens at work creates “distress” (negative tension). Like lack of control. Or not enough resources to do the job well. That can lead to ailments of the body and mind.

Creating more positive tension, also known as “eustress,” takes a conscious effort. A number of techniques are available to turn this into a healthy habit.

Good Stress Builds You Up

We all know the symptoms of stress. Over time the bad kind can lead to health problems, or play havoc on emotions unless dealt with.

Eustress does the opposite. There’s still tension and pressure involved. Only it challenges you to try harder, reminds you to concentrate on what’s important, and generates results that improve self-confidence.

Good stress is a great antidote to negative tension. There is less wear and tear, more drive toward accomplishment.

How Eustress Is Experienced

You know that feeling of butterflies in your stomach? Not the kind that makes you violently nauseous, or leaves you paralyzed with fear.

It’s more like the nervousness you feel on the way to a job interview you’ve prepared for, or before making a presentation in front of your colleagues.

The adrenalin is flowing. Your heart pumps faster and louder. All of your senses seem amplified. This fight-or-flight response makes you more alert and ready for the tasks at hand. It seems like whatever is about to happen will be within your coping abilities.

When the challenge you’re facing is completed, relative calmness returns. Eustress tends to be short-term and event-specific.

Typical Good Stressors At Work

There are lots of examples of positive personal stressors on the job. These may include:

  • Starting a new job or career you’re excited about
  • Receiving a desired promotion or raise
  • Relocating for work after asking to be re-assigned
  • Getting ready for a much needed vacation when things are busy
  • Preparing for retirement

 

Big events such as changing jobs or relocating don’t arise frequently. So you’ll have to produce your own eustress on a more regular basis. Consider the examples below.

Learn a new skill

It can be stressful to try and pick up new knowledge or skills. Yet it ultimately brings about self-improvement and increased personal marketability. Those are the hallmarks of eustress.

Set Firmer Boundaries

Have you said “no” recently when the boss asked you to work nights and weekends? Standing up for yourself takes gumption. It often creates tension at first, which encourages you to take care and do it respectfully.

Volunteer To Do A Presentation

Few things boost your profile like giving a well-prepared talk. Yet few things are as nerve-wracking as public speaking. The secret is to know your stuff, cater to the needs of your audience, and rehearse till it hurts.

Deal With Workplace Conflicts

It is risky to confront an annoying colleague or supervisor. However if something must be done, proceed in ways that are likely to generate eustress. Plan your approach carefully. Try to propose win-win solutions. And do your best to keep emotions in check.

Take On A Stretch Assignment

Step out of your comfort zone every so often. Offer to work on a committee that puts you in a leadership role. Attempt to solve a problem that no one else has been able to.

Eustress Versus You Stress

Worry and strain are among the many aspects of working life. They need to be balanced with positivity in your daily routine.

Eustress is beneficial pressure that ignites your resolve to succeed. Insert more of it into your overall activities. At first you may feel increasingly vulnerable. But as you learn to manage the fears, you can harness those butterflies to fly in formation.

Terrible Tax Advice Exists — Here’s How to Spot It

This post by Janet Berry-Johnson originally appeared on the Freshbooks Blog in March 2012

Terrible Tax Advice Exists—Here’s How to Spot ItHow do you know you have a great accountant? He has a tax loophole named after him… All jokes aside, tax is a complex subject and, despite decades of talk about simplifying the tax code, it just seems to get more confusing each year. After a decade of working in public accounting, I can’t count how many times clients came to me to ask about sketchy tax advice they’d received from dubious sources.

“My neighbor says Social Security income isn’t taxable.”

“My girlfriend’s dad told me I can deduct all of my vehicle expenses if I set up an LLC.”

“I saw an ad on TV that promised me a bigger tax refund than the competition.”

“I heard that paying taxes is voluntary.”

When you’re seeking out sound financial answers, be wary of the source. Next time someone offers their tax advice, look out for these 8 red flags.

  1. The Advice Sounds Too Good to be True

This kind of advice usually involves tax-free income or being able to deduct personal expenses.

According to the IRS, all income is taxable unless the law specifically says it isn’t. Life insurance proceeds, scholarships, gifts and inheritances, child support payments, welfare benefits and damages for physical injuries or sickness are all types of income that may not be taxable. However, there are a few situations where they might be. When in doubt, consult with a qualified tax pro.

Personal expenses are rarely deductible. Some common exemptions are home mortgage interest, real estate taxes, medical expenses and charitable contributions. They’re allowed as itemized deductions on Schedule A of your Form 1040. Other expenses for your personal residence or vehicle are only deductible if they are used for business. If a friend tells you he writes off all of his home or vehicle expenses, he’s practically telling you he’s committing tax fraud. Don’t take tax advice from a crook.

  1. The Advice Lacks Context

Above, we mentioned that certain types of income are usually non-taxable, but may be taxable under certain circumstances. The tax code is rarely absolute. When you read the code, you’ll see a lot of words and phrases like “generally,” “except under certain conditions,” “usually” and “in most cases.”

Most tax pros joke the answer to any question starts with the words “that depends.” Be wary of any advice that doesn’t take your unique situation into account.

  1. You Have Difficulty Understanding It

The tax code is complicated, but a good tax pro should be able to explain any basic rules, deductions and credits that apply to your return.

Remember: you are responsible for everything on your tax return, whether or not you paid someone else to prepare it for you. If you don’t understand something, ask! If you’re getting a much larger return (or owe more money) than expected, consult someone and find out why.

  1. There Might Be a Conflict of Interest

Look out for tax advice from people who are seeking to receive a commission or kickback. Some tax pros are also qualified to give financial advice but avoid taking advice that comes with an ulterior motive. The person might suggest you invest in a real estate venture that they hold a stake in or recommend financial products for which they receive commissions or referral fees.

Don’t be afraid to ask, “How will you benefit from this?” if you suspect the advice is not in your best interest.

  1. The Advice Suggests Taxes is Voluntary

No matter how many times these arguments get shot down in court, some people continue to claim that the payment of federal income taxes is “voluntary.” This claim is based, in part, on the fact that the IRS itself describes the way we file and pay federal taxes as “voluntary compliance.”

As the fact-checking website Snopes points out, “common sense dictates that if paying income tax were really voluntary, that tidbit of information wouldn’t be known to only a small cadre of tax protesters while millions of other Americans annually forked over considerable amounts of money they weren’t obligated to pay.”

As numerous tax court cases have shown, neither the obligation to file a tax return nor the payment of income taxes is voluntary. File your return and pay what is owed. Otherwise, you’ll soon find out just how mandatory paying taxes really is.

  1. The Advice is Referred to as a “Tax Shelter”

There are a few bonafide tax shelters such as those related to oil and gas exploration and development. However, most are at least bad deals from a business viewpoint, and at worst they violate tax law. Any business deal that needs to be structured as a tax shelter to be profitable is not a sound business deal. Good business deals show profits before tax considerations.

There are also tax shelters that promise you’ll receive $400 in deductions for every $100 you invest (or some similar “too good to be true” scenario). The tax authorities are constantly investigating such tax shelters. If you get caught avoiding income taxes by illegal means, you’ll have to pay back taxes, plus interest and some hefty penalties.

  1. Someone Promises You a Big Refund… Before They Look at Your Info

Every year during tax season, the commercials, ads and billboards that promise huge tax refunds begin to flood in. No accountant can get your refund faster or bigger than anyone else. You are entitled to the same refund, whether you prepare the return yourself or hire a professional.

Anyone promising they’ll get you the biggest refund may be padding your return with credits you’re not entitled to. Don’t fall for the hype.

  1. You Receive No Advice at All

Even if you normally prepare your own tax return, you may occasionally run into a new situation and need help. Major life changes, such as selling real estate, buying your first home, starting a new business or adopting a child usually means significant changes to your tax filing.

Don’t be afraid to seek out the advice of a professional. Even if you want to prepare your own return, most tax pros will be willing to sit down with you to answer questions and offer advice on your unique situation. The hourly rate they’ll charge may be well worth avoiding an audit—or paying a penalty for filing an incorrect return.

If you’re unsure, seek that advice from a certified and experienced tax pro. Look for someone with a credential, such as a CPA or EA. These professionals are well-trained, held to a code of ethics and required to maintain up-to-date knowledge.

At a minimum, all tax preparers in the United States are required to obtain a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). You can use this search tool available on the IRS website to find a preparer who holds a professional credential or voluntarily obtained a certain number of continuing education hours each year.

Getting professional advice is more expensive than getting advice from your skateboard buddy, but think of it as insurance: pay a small premium today to avoid an expensive disaster tomorrow.

About the Author
Janet Berry-Johnson is a CPA and a freelance writer with a background in accounting and insurance. Her writing has appeared in Forbes, Parachute by Mapquest, Capitalist Review, Guyvorce, BonBon Break and Kard Talk. Janet lives in Arizona with her husband and son and their rescue dog, Dexter. Outside of work and family time, she enjoys cooking, reading historical fiction, and binge-watching Real Housewives.