9 min read
Seven Degrees of Strangers: First Separation
Welcome to the next installment of the Jear-Bear Letters. After a half year hiatus, we’re back with a new series called “Seven Degrees of Strangers”.
The title is a play on “Seven Degrees of Separation” where you are at most seven links away from knowing any random stranger on Earth. So if I met a stranger on the street, I could trace them to at most seven degrees of separation until I found a connection.
Over the course of the next 7 weeks, I will write about the conversation I had with 7 people, each one degree of separation away. I’ve chosen communication as the theme for each conversation, trying to understand what it means to communicate to each other and how can we build connections when we don’t know the stranger. You’ll get to hear their stories and experiences, and how I relate to them.
Why are you doing this project?
It started with a thought about connections. On LinkedIn, you can see potential new friends who are second or third degrees of separation. I wondered, who are these people? How does everyone know each other? If I continue down the path of separations, could I meet someone famous?
Then in May, while I was conceiving the idea for this series, I went to a talk with Bill Burnnett and Dave Evans. They are professors at Stanford who wrote a book called “Designing Your Life”. In their talk, they asked everyone to turn to their side, speak with their neighbor, and ask them something you need help with. I turned to my neighbor, we introduced ourselves, and I asked about a question about appropriative technologies. She didn’t have any tips, but she knew someone who could direct me to who might.
I pondered about the interaction for a week. It’s not an everyday feeling for me to ask for help from strangers. Even though the woman didn’t know someone directly, she knew of someone who could get me closer to my answer. This project is my exercise to practice that power of connectedness.
Throughout the series, we’ll find out what connectedness means to other people. And build a new connection by the end of our conversation.
The First Degree of Separation
To begin this series, I reached out to my friend, Simon Gondeck. He’s an entrepreneur and web developer for his own consulting company, MG Web Partners. Besides catching up with an friend, I wanted to probe him about starting a company. Simon did not disappoint. In our conversation, he went over that and so much more.
Simon’s a recent grad from the University of St. Thomas with a B.S. in Accounting. I met Simon three years ago at a software bootcamp. At the time, he was on his summer break; he was one of the younger members of our cohort. He clicked with me because I grew up in the Bay Area and he wanted to know if I knew G-Eazy. I didn’t, but I know people who knows the rapper, and Simon kept asking more questions about the Bay Area.
And I loved Simon’s enthusiasm. We paired programmed a few times and hung out outside of the program. I got Simon to join our final team project where we created a social network for grieving. Simon was a total team player and whooped my ass into gear when we took a break at the gym.
Simon’s an athlete and spent his college term playing lacrosse player. Unfortunately, at the time we were talking, he was recovering from an injury when we had the interview. I realize that he’s a person to go to for my atheletic questions, so in the future, I’ll be reaching out to him more.
MG Web Partners
After the software bootcamp, Simon returned to school, living in St. Paul, Minnesota. He got a part-time job working at a web consulting company. While on the job, he discovered he was compensated far less than the contract stipulated.
An epiphany came when he was at a yoga class. The studio were in need of a website, but all of the contractors they found were out of their budget. Simon and his friend Johnny and he drafted a reasonable offer, and they got their first contract. MG Web Partners was born.
Lessons on Starting a Business
Before their first contract, Simon and Johnny had little to no knowledge on how to draft one. They looked online to figure out what a contract should say. And contracts weren’t the only thing they had to figure out for the business.
Simon brought on his twin brother, Sevy, to help out with growing the business. One of their challenges the team faced was to find more customers. They drove around the area, going business to business to attract more customers. They sent out an email campaign last June, seen below.
My partners Johnny Mulvahill, Sevy Gondeck and I have started a web design and development company called MG Web Partners. We specialize in building businesses remarkable websites that deliver new customers and drive revenue.
We help three kinds of companies:
- Companies with outdated websites
- Companies with poorly designed websites
- Or Companies that just need a new website
Most companies fit one of these three scenarios, so if you know of anyone, please forward them my contact information and I promise we’ll take good care of them.
Simon was hesitant to use email marketing and social media because he viewed it as mass spam. He didn’t want disinterested people to see his work, and worse, find he was bombarding friends and family with unnecessary mail. Sevy convinced Simon to reach out and not worry about that. What you write will have no interest to some people, and a lot of interest to a few people. You never know who those people are until you cast a wide net.
Listening to Simon talk about his business reminded me how much we learn on the job. When we talked about the details of drafting proposals, Simon talked about the mistakes he previously made. For example, it’s better to draw up a proposal that’s less stringent and allows for flexibility with the client. And it’s better to make the process transparent, so the company uses Proposify, a website that allows clients to review proposals while also giving the business insight into how their clients are reviewing their proposals.
Upon reflection, Simon says the best strategy that attracted the most customers was word of mouth. In the business of contracting, referrals matter more. Having previous clients tell potential future clients of their work has been more substantial than other techniques. And with every new client, the business learns they learned something new.
And while we’re on clients, how do you communicate with them? Simon has found the best way is to make a phone call or face-to-face. Texting and email interactions are easy to evade and do not convey the same tone as his voice.
After the customer signs off on the proposal and agrees to the timeline, the team gets to work on the project. After the first design iteration or prototype, the team shares it with the customer to review. The team has learned that it reduces the amount of time on wasted work if there’s less guesswork on details.
The team has worked with clients all over the area. All of the team members have graduated college. Sevy will be leaving the company later this summer to join Deloitte. Simon still plans to growing this company, and getting the formula right before bringing more people on.
Questions for me
After our conversation about MG Web Partners, Simon turned the tables and asked me a few questions. The benefit of being a first connection is they already know something about you. And in Simon’s case, he’s a long time reader of the Jear-Bear letters, so he had some questions around writing and growing an online presence.
Simon asked some advice about creating a writing habit and how to get through writer’s block. One of his goals is to boost his company’s blog by writing more frequently. I had a few recommendations for him.
- Write a minimum amount every day. I choose a page a day.
- Read “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lammont, or at least the chapter on “Shitty First Drafts”.
- Don’t be afraid to delete. This one took me a long time. In fact, while writing this section, I deleted half of my work because it didn’t matter.
- Don’t expect success. As counter-intuitive as it may be, that piece of advice helped me release what I consider terrible writing to my letter friends. A few of those letters have been very well received, like my “Caltrain Suicides” letter and my “Lost Keys” letter.
- Editing is just as important as writing. And its corallary: Polishing takes more time than writing.
- Find peers to review your writing. Earlier on in my letter writing, I decided to open up each letter for critique. I reached out on Twitter to see who could be my critique, and a few people helped me. I’d send a draft out, and they would give me some helpful criticism.
I asked Simon what’s one thing he wants people to take away with.
Over-communicate with clients. It might not always be clear what they want. Don’t do it over email. Do it over the phone or in-person, if you can.
At the end of each interview, I asked the participant to choose the next person for me to interview. At first, I was loose on criteria, but as I progressed with each interview, I decided to give the participants a question. Who is someone you know you would like to hear an interview from?
I didn’t get to ask Simon this question, yet he knew intuitively I was looking for someone interesting. And he didn’t disappoint. Hope that’s tease enough for you to continue reading.
I’d like to thank Simon Gondeck for being the very first participant. Without you, I wouldn’t have started this journey. I’d also like to thank Evan Roer for illustrating the series’ letterhead and an accompanying graphic for this letter. Both of you rock.