How to Get a Step Ahead

Aside from working your butt off, cultivating your inner gladiator, and letting out a motivational roar every Monday, how can you get a step ahead of the competition?

Public speaking.

I’ve worked in many industries where competition is strong — engineering and the construction trades. Frankly, when they see me coming, they do their best to run me over. I’ve noticed. Don’t worry — I’m tough. It’s a fun and challenging dynamic.

One time, I went to a seminar in Menomonie regarding upcoming regulations for the landscaping industry. We were paired up with other attendees (IOW, other business owners and the competition). Our task? To design a landscape that would comply with new watershed regulations.

We had a few minutes to prepare, and the other 2 members of the team verbally tried their best to assert their own ideas. Then, it happened. We were asked to present our ideas.

Immediately, both men volunteered me to present.

They were nervous to present their ideas — even though it was really informal and not a big deal. In my brain, a bell rang. Why not develop the one area where other people scramble to get away from?

Consider — if you want to get ahead, instead of running with the pack, check to see what they’re running FROM.

Heidi Schreiner is a public speaker. She has spoken on topics such as leadership, culture, and marketing presentations for organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce, writers groups, and Toastmasters. Want to know  more? Contact me, and let’s chat!

Design Differentiates

I know of a guy who actually spent thousands on a bicycle. That concept to me is way out there, but, hey, he bikes a LOT. Thing is, the major decision for him of WHERE to purchase that bike (he bought locally – YAY!) came down to the company website. Simple as that.

He found a local bike seller, but didn’t like their website, so he moved on to option #2 (different local bike seller). How many times does this happen?

Every single day.

Design does this. Too, too many times as a designer, I found those who KNOW the value of design. They understand. Here it is in a nutshell – it’s there, whether you invest time and finances into it or not. It communicates to your clients what you are really like – whether you say anything or not.

If you are a photographer, hopefully your website is modern and beautiful, so that a visitor (potential client!) will know that you understand that visuals are important. THEN, they can relax and look at your photos which should communicate the same – that you understand visuals and how to put them together.

Design is everywhere.

It’s all around us – in our homes and how the rooms are laid out. In our coffee cup. Our clothes. Even the glass jar that our salsa comes in.

When you’re a small business, you absolutely have to be different than every other business. If you are a commodity, you are giving your customers permission to shop only based on price. AAarrgh!

THAT is a losing game, peeps!

If you are doing what many businesses do and cutting pricing down to the bone or giving tons of discounts off your costing, you are sending the wrong message – that you are cheap, just like everyone else. That’s BAD!!

Instead – whether you are a window washer, electrician, or dog groomer – you must differentiate. Be different.

HOW do I do that, you say?

Design does that. If your branding is nailed down and well thought out, branding will communicate what nothing else can. If you have a killer logo, business card, and website, your customers will many times choose you over the guy whose branding is stuck in the 80’s or just icky (or branding that communicates the wrong message).

Also, think about other things you can do to be different. If you visit clients’ homes as a contractor, are all of your vehicles newer, so they don’t drip oil on their driveways? Do they have extra mirrors for safety? Do you have a 24 hour emergency service policy? It might seem simple, but each of these things can make you BETTER than your competition!

If you have any of the above policies or items – like safer vehicles – make sure that you plan how you will communicate this to your potential clients.

You KNOW that you are better than your competition, so how will you SAY that?

In case I didn’t communicate it clearly enough before – be different.

Design differentiates.

Leadership and Learning by doing

There’s only so much you can get from books. I’ve read 1000’s of books in my lifetime. Hundreds of them are about business and leadership.

I love books.

Books can get you to a lot of places. They’ve got loads of great information in them. There is a point, however, where you have to put the book down and get busy.

Getting up in front.

Recently, we had the Eau Claire kickoff for 1 Million Cups. I had the good fortune to be the emcee for the event. It was fun! 1 Million Cups gives business owners a chance to network over coffee (1 Million Cups of coffee, perhaps?). It’s also a way to learn from each other. Each week, business owners with a business that is less than 5 years old can present their idea and tell their story. At the end, the group audience asks questions and gives advice to help these entrepreneurs on their way. We all learn in the process.

Some of the folks on the organizational team are younger than I. I see in them the enthusiasm that it takes to be great at something, and when none of them shot their arm up to be the emcee, it got me thinking.

One of the ways to be successful (in my humble opinion) is to grow yourself as a leader. On-line, you could be a thought leader. Off-line, you could be presenting seminars about your area of expertise, speaking up at business meetings, or emceeing an event for young start-up businesses. It’s not easy, but that’s why you don’t see everyone doing it. If you want to make your mark in your industry, this is a great way to do that.

Start learning about leadership.

I’ve been a member of Toastmasters since 2013. In Toastmasters, you can grow your leadership qualities as much as you want. It takes work, of course, but there are people to help you and projects aplenty.

In my time at Toastmasters, I’ve gotten used to getting up in front of people. Then, I was elected into several leadership positions, and I … learned by figuring it out along the way. I asked questions and made mistakes. I connected with people and asked more questions.

Sometimes at work, it can be tough to take on new projects with confidence. This is especially true if you’ve not done it before. Don’t let that stop you.

More and more young people could be getting a step up on their careers by practicing getting in front of people on a regular basis.

This spring, I will be presenting ‘How to lead so they want to follow’ at the Spring Convention for the District 35 Toastmasters. The very first thing that I will be discussing is how to put yourself in leadership situations, so you can learn. Without that, you can’t get there from here.

Being a leader gets you noticed. Getting noticed is like free publicity. Free publicity is like cake. Everybody likes cake*.

*vague reference from Shrek because I’m like that.

Finding Your Design Process

One of the things that I love about super juicy knowledge is how it rings true for more than one thing. Case in point – art. The other day I was watching a YouTube video on art. I love to draw, but, frankly, I’m out of practice because I had hit a wall.

It felt like drawing took SO much effort without much improvement. Yes, I can draw what I see (mostly), but I wanted to become much better. How to improve?

Iterative drawing video to the rescue –>

Basically this video talks about being a creative analytical person. Ouch! Right? Yes, that’s me. I am analytical, but I love everything art, design, and creative. Being artistic can be difficult for me.

Here’s where it gets interesting…

The video by Sycra talks about iterative drawing. Basically drawing something 20 times instead of once. Don’t worry about perfect, instead explore the possible. Draw something 20 times and afterwards, analyze how it went and if you like it.

Please understand that I wish I would have thought of it this way 10 years ago. It’s gaining muscle memory (and process habits) that will improve art much more quickly.

It reminds me of an experience…

Several years ago, I was called regarding landscape design for a residence for new construction. It sounded like it would be worth a look, so I scheduled an appointment with them at their home.

Driving along, the road was soon surrounded by trees. Hills rose and fell around me. Eventually, I made it to the residence only to be confronted with a driveway that was so rutted, it seemed almost impassible.

Once I had a look at the site, I was hopeful. Here, the house was perched on the side of a hill. Two levels opened up to the view. Even better, when I met the clients, they were fun, interesting, and open to ideas.

We discussed their hopes and dreams, spoke about their style, and got to know each other over a plywood table. (I was their first visitor in their unfinished dining room!)

As I was leaving, I was feeling that warm rush of ‘new design’. I was eager to start right away as my ideas were already beginning. Then, I heard someone call out, ‘Oh! No straight lines!’


My style is architectural, geometric, modern, classic – it’s all about squares, rectangles, circles, and arcs – forms. LINES!

I didn’t want to freak out on the front step, so I mentally filed the comment to the side for later consideration.

Note: Sometimes clients feel as though lines are stuffy and no fun. As though wavy lines are natural and natural = good. The thing is, it’s just not that simple.

Ok, back to the story.

Back at the office, after the survey, I had drafted the existing landscape on the computer when it happened. I got stuck. I would draft something, hate it, erase it and start over. In the back of my mind I kept hearing, ‘No straight lines!’ It was like those mornings where you have too much coffee and just end up stressed instead of awake.

After several days of this, I was stressed out because now I was eating up all this time with nothing to show for it. How to break out of this awful cycle?

I figure it wouldn’t hurt me to just stop and really think about what was going on. When I did stop, I noticed something – I had been printing out little portions of the design, sketching on it, and then drafting it back into the drawing. THOSE parts were working fine.

Second, I figured I had to let loose and toss out this crazy ‘No straight lines’ thing. Gone! I had some large 24”x36” prints made up and gave myself permission to design whatever I wanted for that day.

Do you want to know what happened?

I designed the entire landscape in 2 hours.

What had frustrated me for days was suddenly beautiful. Yes, I still had to draft it back into the computer, but it was designed. Yes, there were a few straight lines, but here’s the kicker…

The owner never said beans about it. I was ready to defend my choices because they were solid – he didn’t care. He got a landscape with beautiful arcs and circles (and a few straight lines), and he and his wife loved it.

Lessons learned –

  1. Use iterative design to design or draw multiples of times. Give yourself permission to waste some paper. Analyze it AFTER you’ve played with it, not while you are designing.
  1. Figure out how YOU design best – even if it is on paper or directly into CAD via computer mouse – because I have heard of architects that MUST draft directly into the computer. There is no best way – there’s only YOUR best way.
  1. Finally, trust your gut. Stressing out kills creativity. You’re in this because you love design and when you’re in The Zone, it’s all good. Creativity must have that Zone where you play. Cultivating that is especially important if you’re analytical like moi.

I’ve plunged back into things full force — and I’ve drawn more in 3 days than I have in a long time. Final lesson for me — Do what you love, analyze, understand, repeat.