5 Lessons I Learned in 2014

According to my credit card statement, the holiday season is upon us. During this time, when people are busy wrapping up their year and combing Groupon and other websites to get the best deals possible on gifts, don’t forget to plan for 2015. What are your top goals that you’d like to accomplish? How will you get there?

While how to do that may be for another blog post, before you do that it’s important to look back on your year and take a fresh look at your successes, failures, and lessons learned. With that in mind I’m looking back at the biggest lessons I learned this past year.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Like most people, I have a lot of stuff going on at any given time. I’m an employee, a supervisor, a son, sibling, boyfriend, friend, grandchild … the list goes on. Like most people, my mind tends to wander and think about the aforementioned stuff fairly often. Studies have shown that men aren’t particularly great multitaskers, so it’s become really important for me to break things down into their simplest parts and prioritize them.

How have I started to do that?

  • I’m ruthless now about throwing away most items I don’t use or think about after one year. This doesn’t include mementos. This does include clothes, electronics, books, appliances, and paperwork. I live in a studio apartment, so maximizing space is important – but the less things around to distract you, the less cluttered your mind becomes. I’ve done the same thing in my office as well.
  • I plan for the week ahead every Sunday. This includes work and personal life – any big items I know I need to accomplish or remember, I write it in a planner so I can keep tabs on it. Once I write it down, it becomes real to me. I also read this cool article that gives a way to reframe every week. Everyone plays multiple roles in their life – and if you want to keep balance among all of them, you need to plan for it. I started doing this a couple of months ago and it not only helps me stay on top of things, it also helps me keep perspective that I’m not just defined by one role in life that I play.
  • Each day when I get to work, before I check my email, our company’s Intranet, or internal social feed, I write down the major items I want to accomplish for the day and complete at least one before I open my email. Email and social media (yes, even work-sponsored ones) have a way of trying to take over your day’s agenda. Don’t fall into that trap. Give yourself flexibility to deal with the most urgent items that may come up, but make sure you are still driving toward major tasks you know you need to complete.
  • I’ve set ground rules for myself on what social media networks are for what purpose, and how often they need to be updated. For me, Facebook and Instagram are for personal purposes. Twitter and LinkedIn are more for professional purposes. My blog, which I’m terrible at updating, is a mix – but leans more toward professional purposes. Is this the same for everyone? Certainly not. But now I have allowed myself the freedom to know what needs to be updated when, and where.

Insurance and warranties are worth the money spent.

2014 is the year I officially became a car owner for the first time. 2014 is also the year where I popped a tire on the way to work, woke up to my car not even bothering to unlock, and getting turned away for necessary service at a car dealership.

Car ownership can be thrilling, but at the same time expensive and stressful should something happen to your car. While I don’t need it for my livelihood day in and day out, it’s a big investment. While I avoid protection plans on simple technology purchases like the plague, I don’t skimp on a $10,000+ investment.

AAA costs me $95/year, and they came within an hour and got my spare tire on so I could go on my merry way. My extended warranty on my car allowed me to work out with the dealership where I bought my car (not the closest one to where I live) getting priority service completed and a rental car for a week, free of charge. It just turned out to be loose wires (yes, really, that’s it) but knowing I was insured and backed by a warranty gave me peace of mind I needed in a moment completely devoid of it.

Listening to finance reporters every day is stressful and unnecessary.

I try to invest money when I can, whether it’s an IRA, 401(k), etc. I don’t pretend to be Warren Buffett, so I’m more of a passive index funds diversified across different asset classes kind of guy. With that said, if you watch finance news or read it on a day-to-day basis, riding the highs and lows of the manic market will drive you nuts. September and October alone (and now, the middle of December) would be enough to make your stomach churn, with the market going on a roller-coaster ride you’d sit in line for at Six Flags for hours.

I now refuse to read daily stock stories and only check my investments on a monthly/quarterly basis, since this is money I won’t need in the next five years. Stick with your guns and the market will give you a return in the long-term. I found that I can accept moderate risk, but not as aggressive as many advise those who are 30 years old like I am. Knowing that means I have to accept less long-term gains, but know that my stocks won’t all drop to nothing if the market crashes. Now that I understand my risk profile and have a clear plan for stock allocation, I can stick with that ruthlessly regardless of market conditions. When I do check my investments, then I can make a decision as to whether I should change index funds, rebalance, etc. Will it change when I get (much) older? Sure. But for now, this works and is one less thing for me to worry about.

Focus on the present, otherwise life will pass you by. (Read: Be grateful.)

I’ve always been very much focused on what I need to do next that I’ve often forgotten to enjoy what’s right in front of me. While I think it’s important to always look for the next opportunity and keep yourself focused on your ultimate goals, you need to take a step back and be grateful for what you have, right then, in that moment. And you should do it more than just at Thanksgiving. For those who celebrate this US holiday, going a full 11 months without thinking about how grateful you are for what has taken place that entire year means you’ve missed 11 months of positive energy.

You can do this in any number of ways, whether it’s through prayer, journaling, talking to friends, or setting aside a fixed period of time every day/week/month to simply focus on what you have. You’ll realize that you have more than you think – and even if you are going through legitimately tough times, it can help bring some positivity to what may be a very negative situation.

Do your best and everything else takes care of itself.

When I was in elementary school, I had a principal who used to tell us all the time, “Do your best and it’ll take care of the rest.” Being seven years old, I didn’t fully grasp or have any sort of perspective on what that could mean, but thankfully I never seemed to forget it. (I guess repetition really does work.)

What I’ve taken that to mean now in my personal and professional life is that you’re not always going to know exactly how to do something, but if you give it your honest, best effort, everything always works out the way it should. And 99% of the time, you’re better off because of it.

Does it mean everything you do will always be a success? Absolutely not. I’ve tried things many times and failed, but I’ve learned something valuable from most of those obstacles and become better as a result of them. Taking on additional responsibilities at the office this year, many times not have a lot of experience handling those tasks, helped me stretch myself in ways I never knew possible. Some things worked, some things didn’t – but I learned a lot each step of the way.

And ultimately, for Type A personalities like me, knowing I gave the best effort I could gives me peace at the conclusion of each task. Whether it works out or not, I won’t always know right away – but I can move onto the next thing knowing I did the best that I humanly could. I have faith that everything works out the way it needs to, good or bad.

As we have just a couple of short weeks until a New Year, my hope is that these lessons I’ve learned will carry me into the new year with a new perspective, ready to tackle the new challenges that come my way and goals I have set for myself.

3 Ways to Be an Employee Advocate by Sharing Content

When it comes to product launches and other major announcements from companies, generally a communications or marketing team sends out a bill of materials pointing to everything you can use and share with customers and prospects. It’s hard for everyone in a company to stay on top of what’s new, much less share it with others. However, it’s vital to start to take advantage of your company’s new, fresh content and share it even more regularly with customers, partners, industry influencers, and prospects.

Why?

1. 90% of B2B buyers are already using social media tools, often to research and execute purchases. (source: Forrester)
2. It can take up to 6 touches between prospect and supplier through the buy cycle before the prospect will consider a purchase. (source: B2B Marketing Conference, DMA)
3. Everyday employees are two times more trusted than a chief executive. (source: Edelman Trust Barometer 2013)
4. 77% of consumers are more likely to buy a product when they hear about it from someone they trust. (source: Nielsen 2013)
So, as a communications professional, how can you help empower your company to share even more great content across their personal social media networks? Here are three ways … in order from least resource intensive to most resource intensive:

Dlvr.itdlvr.it, literally meaning “deliver it”, is a free service that allows you to automatically share blog posts via an RSS feed on LinkedIn and/or Twitter. Once you take the five minutes necessary to set it up, you never have to worry about it again. You’ll automatically be sharing all relevant company blog posts with your network and/or followers. This is great for those who are constantly on the go.

Update internal social media networks regularly – If you’re a Communications Manager, mandate your team to post all new blog posts, bylined articles, case studies, press releases, and news mentions on your company’s internal social media network, such as Yammer, if you have one. (If you’re a team of one – then definitely do this yourself!) If you don’t have something like Yammer, find a way to meet your fellow employees where they are – if it’s regular email newsletter updates, go for that. If it’s an Intranet, use that. Go to where you have the most captive audience. Then, update your coworkers on the material you just published. Tell them why it’s cool, and then give them a Tweetable (140 characters or less) update they can simply copy and paste into their own social networks. Make sure that you use a tracking code in that link so you can measure how effective your internal sharing campaign is, adjust, and make improvements as you go.

Encourage employees to follow company social media networks and share the updates – This is obviously the most resource intensive way, but there are ways to optimize your time and make this a regular habit.  At AvePoint, we regularly update our corporate Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google+ accounts with fresh content all the time. Constantly encourage employees to follow your own company’s social media channels and they’ll be able to quickly see all the content you’re putting out – and they can simply retweet or edit and share with their own followers. Get the response from your coworkers that they’re not paid to sit on social media networks all day like you? No worries – tell them that there are tons of social media platforms out there that allow you to aggregate updates from multiple networks and set up search streams according to specific terms. Personally, I use Hootsuite and I have a search set up for “AvePoint”. That way, I see all updates that either include the word AvePoint or come from our social accounts. Then, I can select which ones I want to retweet with a click of a button. Like this:Hootsuite Screenshot

 

Hootsuite and many others, including Buffer, allow you to schedule when you want your social media updates to be sent to your followers. AvePoint is a global company, so we have social media updates going out at all times of the day (and night) – but my Communications team works Eastern Standard Time hours. Scheduling is the key.

There are countless other methods to help compel employees to share company content, but these are just a few that have worked for us so far. It seems small, but it can go a long way in not only keeping your employees up to date on the latest and greatest coming from your company … but also paying customers and (hopefully paying soon) prospects.

 

 

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish: Credit Cards and Millennials

Stack of Credit CardsRecent studies find that 63% of those 18-29 years old don’t own a credit card, with many interviewed stating that they have no interest in getting one. Reasons given were:

  1. Afraid of going into debt.
  2. Security issues – namely, the countless credit card breaches that have taken place in the past year or so.

In the short term, sure, it make sense to not want to go into debt (or more debt if you’re among the million still paying off student loans). And to be honest, the magnetic stripe is a 50-year old or so technology that in today’s day and age is sorely outdated. So much so that in many places in Europe, they’re just about fully on chip-and-pin technology for their credit cards. It’s also much harder today to get credit cards than it used to be, and with good reason. Before the Great Recession, it was pretty easy to get a credit card. You could lie on applications about your income and no one was really checking – you could be an 18-year-old making nothing, write down that you make $40,000 USD a year, and get a credit card with a $8,000 limit.

But in the grand scheme of things, you will need to have a history of responsibly using credit cards to have a good credit score – or at least be able to significantly alter it in a short period of time … if you want a new car, house, even a job. The article does a good job balancing millennial sense with what the facts actually are. Saying that you’re afraid of going into debt and therefore you should never have a credit card doesn’t solve your main issue – which is that you feel there’s no way you can spend within your means. That lack of control will harm you whether you use a credit card, debit card, checks, cash, bookies, or otherwise. You have to fix the root of the problem rather than just taking away the toys that enable it.

Plenty of millennials believe that their debit cards are safer, but that’s just simply not true. JPMorgan Chase, anyone? In most cases once money is taken out from your checking account, it’s gone and much harder to recover than if you simply have a fraudulent credit card charge. Plus rewards on credit cards if you spend and pay back responsibly are all the rage – whether it’s cash back or points for travel. I will admit that many debit cards now offer similar rewards.

The stat at the end of the article is the most disconcerting: Of those polled, only 40 percent of millennials who do have at least one credit card pay their balances in full, compared to 53 percent of adults who are 30 and older. Three percent miss payments entirely.

So basically those who do have credit cards habitually spend more than they can pay back, learning probably from the nearly half of those in the older generation who do the same. Are there times when there is a major emergency and you have to spend more than you can afford? Sure. But I’d wager that most of those not making full payments aren’t in that boat. A credit card is a tool, which can be used for good or it could blow up in your face. Simply avoiding them because you believe that you can’t be responsible is a poor short term choice to make that could have some terrible consequences for your future. Make a budget, find ways to live within your means, stick with it, and the peace of mind that you will gain with that is worth not dropping $670 on the new iPhone if you’re not up for a renewal.

When I was buying a car earlier this year and I had the full credit score and report Ford Credit pulled on me, I was thankful that I had avoided the big shiny objects when I was younger. It paid off in a great car loan rate. Five years ago buying a car was out of the question, but as I and many other millenials on the older end of the spectrum are quickly finding out … life changes pretty quickly.

Blogged on LinkedIn: Five Low-Tech Steps to Tame Your Email

Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m a fan of technology. If it wasn’t for technology, I wouldn’t have a job. I’ve spent the last seven years of my career covering technology both as a journalist a marketer. With that said, technology is just a tool. It won’t magically make you any more or less productive.

In fact, there are studies that find people check email at least 30 times an hour, get anxiety over how much their inbox is clogged, and get distracted from doing their actual jobs … then it bleeds into their personal life and can cause burnout. There has to be a time you don’t check your email. Everyone has to shut it down at some point – it’s just not that important in the grand scheme of things.

Not surprisingly, there is a market now for technology that claims to solve this problem. The problem with that? If you don’t watch it, you’ll get even more inundated with distractions.

Here’s how you do it (hint, you don’t need an app for it):

Read the rest of this post on LinkedIn

Blogged on LinkedIn: How to Survive a Conference

For those fortunate enough to have the chance to attend industry conferences on their company’s dime, it can be an interesting experience: On the one hand, you want to take advantage of the fact that you have time away from the office in a (hopefully) fun locale where you can take in the sights and take a mini-break. On the other hand, you are going for work, after all. So how can you make sure that even though you’re out of your routine you can ensure there are no flaming fires in the office you have to try to put out from hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away AND get something out of the conference you’re getting paid to attend?

Read the rest of this post on LinkedIn

An Open Letter to Banks from a Millennial

The Street published an article yesterday that didn’t mince words: “Banks Have No Idea How to Handle Millennials”. The article basically highlights key points of a study that show which facets of banking my generation loathes the most – lack of mobile features, fees, not understanding our situation, and so on. It’s an interesting read for those who either are Millennials themselves (also deemed Generation Y) or otherwise.

Since I’m on the earlier edge of the Millennial age group, I can speak to issues my generation has with banks today. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of the points in the study – I think it largely depends on the bank itself – it did get me wondering what I would tell a CEO of a major bank if I had the chance to speak with him (or her).

Dear Banking Industry,

I’m sure you’ve thrown millions of dollars at the problem of determining what it is, in fact, that my generation wants from you. What we ultimately want is for you not to try to take advantage of us. To think that we’re stupid. Sure, there’s plenty we need to learn about personal finance since we never learned it in schools, but trying to hide it behind having to speak with one of your “banking specialists” who are really only specialists of the products you are trying to shove down my throat makes me never want to walk into a bank. Ever. I will do everything in my power to use my bank’s mobile app, ATM machines, and website to not have to set foot inside. In fact, in the last year I’ve only gone in there to get a bank check for a car and exchange $10 bills for quarters to do laundry.

In an age where I can YouTube how to fix or do virtually anything, you have got to make finance simple again. Leave your egos and your products at the door, and show us the basics. Then let us connect the dots. Let’s be honest – this isn’t just a problem with my generation. This is a problem every generation has right now. No one understands the finance industry. One person thinks it’s just fine, the other thinks it’s a house of cards ready to fall down (again), and a third probably keeps all of her money hidden throughout her apartment because she doesn’t want to pay fees. Stop trying so hard to make a buck and think about the long-term potential we have as customers. We’re in our 20s and early 30s now – you could have us for at least four more decades if you do it right. There’s a lot of things that we may be naïve about, but one thing we know for sure is that you’re in the business of making money – not just protecting mine.

Speaking of four decades from now – I am tired of seeing how much money I should save in order to have a “good” retirement. Do you know what I want for retirement? Do I even know what I think retirement will look like for me? Not really. I’m busy trying to either start my career or pay my bills. Stop trying to shove a magic number down my throat when, quite honestly, I don’t know what it is I want to do four decades from now yet. Do I know I should be saving money? Sure. So show me the best way to spread what little money I have to save across investments that will help my money grow faster than the pitiful .119% savings account rate for accounts with $2,500 and even worse CD rate average of  .113% (for a three-month CD). When you try to tell me how I should live my retirement, it makes me think about what that would actually be. And when I don’t have the answer to it, it makes me not want to save for retirement. Paralysis by analysis. What ultimately happens is that I don’t start saving for that because it’s something way off in the future I don’t have a plan for. Now I’m missing out on compounding interest.

Most likely, I’m probably not setting aside money for an emergency fund either because I think that nothing bad will ever happen to me. We all think that we’re invincible. We all think that we’re too big to fail. We also have a lot of money in student loans to pay off – and with that amidst a world that tells us we need to buy a house and a car, have a family, have babies, so on and so forth, again … paralysis by analysis. Show me how I can start to ease the pain right now, then the building blocks for what I could do in the future. Does it really make sense to plow money into something that gains less than two-tenths of a percent of interest when I can pay off loans that are charging me 6% of interest, if not more? Riddle me that, and maybe I’ll trust you enough to help me in the future.

There are too many variables in life, but that’s what makes it life. We’re not one-dimensional, and neither is the world we live in. We don’t expect you to know our situation intimately unless we tell you, so don’t pretend you know brass tacks what’s best for us. Give us clear information we can easily digest, don’t pressure us into making a decision, and stop assuming we’re derelicts. Every generation has thought the one ahead of theirs was going to ruin the world. You didn’t, despite your best efforts, and we won’t either. Get over it. Realize that you will want our business for the next 40 years, if not longer. Start to nurture that now, so that when we do have more money to diversify into different products, we’ll come to you first instead of sticking it under a mattress, keeping it in safes, or spending it to “keep our economy alive”.

Best regards,
Chris

 

Data Breaches Loom in the Executive Suite

In a move that probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise, Reuters just reported that Target Chief Executive Officer and Chairman Gregg Steinhafel is leaving the company in the wake of the retail giant’s tremendous breach of customer data in 2013.

For those living under a rock who missed the news, Target announced in December 2013 that it was the victim of a cyber-attack resulting in the loss 40 million payment card numbers and 70 million other pieces of customer data.

This gross breach of customer information led to Target promising free credit reports as well as credit and debit card providers issuing tons of new cards – complete with new account numbers – to virtually all of those impacted by the breach.

Considering that the theft of data came during one of the most important times of the year for retailers – Black Friday – the impact spanned far beyond simply issuing new cards. It led to a loss of consumer trust that Target could safeguard their information, and while I haven’t seen any specific data, possibly a decline in sales in Q1 2014. Given a Ponemon Institute report estimating the average amount of a data breach at $5.4 million, this was surely more than a blip on Target’s balance sheet given the sheer number of records impacted. Think about a decline in sales, the amount of money spent on litigation on behalf of Target, and for having to shore up its cyber defenses. $5.4 million is probably just the beginning.

The Reuters article has comments from analysts stating that this isn’t a surprising move given the scope of the attack, though it did come later than many thought. Personally, I had used my credit card several times in Target stores during the theft which resulted in being issued a new credit card months after the attack. While I didn’t experience any fraudulent charges or identity theft as a result of the attack, there are many who did.

With this attack, amongst the blatant disclosure of highly sensitive information accumulated by the National Security Agency by Edward Snowden in 2013, it’s no surprise that “privacy” was Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year. This has led to a lot of hard conversations companies have had to have with their customers to assure them their data is safe.

We live in an increasingly digital world, one in which not all payments are made with cash – which while seemingly prehistoric, does have the added benefit that it won’t disclose your most personal information.

While it’s unfortunate that it likely means the end or at least a huge detour for Mr. Steinhafel’s 35-year career as a retail executive, it should be another marker to begin to reassure you and I that companies do take data security seriously.

There’s not a lot that we can do to control how companies protect our data, but we can take safeguards to protect our own information in several ways. No, I’m not going to tell you to cut up all of your credit cards. I don’t know about you, but I like getting my cash rewards for using my Capital One card. Here are a few ways, though I’m sure there are many more:

  1. Take advantage of free annual credit reports offered by the big credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. An article from the Federal Trade Commission explains succinctly how you can go about doing this.
  2. Many sites are traps to get you to pay later, but using a site like Credit Karma can provide you with a truly free credit score you can monitor, especially if you’re thinking about making a big purchase that would require a loan (like a vehicle or home).
  3. Many credit card companies are great about sending you a notification if they feel someone has made a fraudulent charge with your card, but on a monthly basis make sure you review your credit card and debit card purchases to make sure there are no outliers. If you see one, call your bank or credit card company immediately to file a report. You can do this at the same time you’re looking at your monthly bill or reconciling your bank statement so that it isn’t any extra time taken.
  4. Keep all of your passwords, account numbers, and other sensitive information in a secure location (whether it’s photocopies you keep in a safe or a highly encrypted online document) for safekeeping. Make sure you also include the phone numbers for each of the companies with whom you have these accounts so that if you do lose your cards or feel as though your privacy has been compromised, you can quickly call to start to rectify the issue. Time is of the essence.