Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Way We Work: Nicole Ouellette

By: Melanie Brooks

Each month in Maine Ahead magazine we feature a working Mainer. Nicole Ouellette, owner of Breaking Even Communications in Bar Harbor, is our featured Mainer for our August issue. Space constraints kept us from publishing all of her fabulous answers, so I'm going to publish them here. If you're interested in learning more about social media networking from a smart, young whippersnapper...read on. For more on social media networking, pick up a copy of our August issue.

What is it that you do...exactly?
I provide internet marketing services to small businesses and non-profits including social media, email newsletters, and blogging.

I maintain business Facebook pages and Twitter accounts; write content for websites and blogs; create email newsletters; produce internet marketing plans for businesses to follow (or have me do for them); and teach workshops about technology topics.

How best to do this, including how I communicate with business owners about it, is something I'm always working to improve.

How can small businesses benefit from your services?
There's this great (often free or low cost) technology out there that can help business owners do more with the Internet. The frequent use of social media websites, the ease of software to create and share content, and the low cost of online advertising have all helped to level the playing friend for small businesses online, which is great.

These technologies can be used to address business challenges specifically in the state of Maine that has a largely spread-out population and a seasonal economy. These two issues don’t allow business owners the luxury of hoards of foot traffic on a continual basis. The Internet allows your business to get in front of more people who don't necessarily walk or drive by and to stay in touch with farther flung but still enthusiastic customers as well as locals.

I do a lot of reading, experimenting with my own site, and talking with other people in my field about what works well. If I can share this knowledge with a small business or non-profit and help them be a bit more successful, help them make more money so they can create one job or stay open two months longer than their normal season, that's not only great for that business but for the community and overall economy of Maine.

How did you learn how to do this?
It all started when I was working at Vinalhaven School several years ago. A partnership with the Island Institute and CO-SEED created my position, which was to help teachers create place-based education projects at the school. I found myself learning more about the Internet and technology and helping kids and teachers use both on cool projects.

When I moved to Ellsworth a few years ago, I got a job at the Ellsworth American. "I don't know much about websites," I told Chris Crockett, the IT Manager. "We can teach you," he said. The next two years were a crash course in Joomla, Photoshop, HTML coding, Sony Vegas, blogging, and, most importantly, customer relations. On the side, I had started my own blog and when a local business owner asked me to help with her blog, I got the green light since the EA didn't provide those services. I filled in with my services with what I thought business owners needed in terms of help online. I started a side business writing web content and consulting on blogs. I started using social media to promote my blog and soon, that was part of my services too. I started slowly and, over the course of a year and a half, found that I had the client base, experience, knowledge, business sense, and people skills to at least try going out on my own.

How do you stay motivated working from home?
Two things keep me motivated to get up and do what I need to do every day: 1) bills (the immediate need to pay them) and 2) goals (looking at where I'll be in the next 3-5 years). I keep telling myself I'm working hard now so I have a stable income doing something I love the rest of my working life, and eventually I can create good jobs in Maine for other people like me who want to stay.

My office is visible from most every part of my small house, continuously reminding me that I actually could work more. This translates for me into working more than I would if I had a separate office space. So the better question might be how do I delineate between working and non-working time and even over a year later, that's still hard.

I try to take one full day a week away from the computer. I make plans with friends and get out of the house nights and weekends. Maintain office hours but take a break most days to walk my dog. I try to live a full life away from the computer so that when I am working, I'm focused and refreshed.

What does a typical day look like for you?
I wake up at 7 and put on a pot of coffee and check my email. Baring some kind of crisis needing immediate attention, I listen to MPBN for news while I get household chores done. I get down to business by 9 am at the latest.

Most days, I'm in my home office, working typical office hours 8 am to 5 pm on the weekdays. About 2-4 times a week, I have an in person meeting with a client, meaning I'm on the road for half a day with my cell phone and laptop in tow to get business done before and after. I try to schedule a few meetings back to back in the same town if I can to save on travel and maximize my work time. Meals are breaks and I usually put in an hour or two of work after dinner, either blogging or catching up on email. Also usually one afternoon a weekend is spent tying up loose ends and planning for the coming week. As you'd guess, most of my working life takes place in front of a computer.

You also offer your services in French—when did you learn to parlez-vous Français?
I grew up in Fort Kent and my father, who ran the local hardware store until he passed away a few years ago, conducted business in both English and French. I asked him once what the breakdown was like and he said about 50-50. Speaking French for me is beyond a personal connection to my history and family; I always have believed that knowing another language allows you to talk to more people; gives you better perspective on the world; makes your brain smarter; and your heart more compassionate.

Je pense que c'est important de prendre conscience de l'historie francophone au Maine. Et je ne parle pas seulement du passé mais maintenant. Aussi, en offerant des services en français, comme enterprise, j'espére que je semble plus ouverte envers les individus et les entreprises en Noveau Brunswick, en Québec, et dans les autres régions francophones. Peut-être ceux qui parlent français seront plus à l'aise s'ils peuvent travailler avec quelqu'un qui parle leur langue et comprendre comment développer un site Web bilingue. (Note: Melanie has no idea what this means.)

It will become more important, as we all get more connected, to offer services to people who communicate in different languages or, at the very least, live in different cultures. I'm working on my first bilingual website right now which is a lot of fun and a great challenge for me. I need to get better about marketing my bilingual services.

What have been some of your favorite projects?
The redesign of the bilingual site I mentioned is one (Franco-American Oral History Archives) that is currently in process. It's going to be a compiling of historic photographs, video, audio, etc. but offering the material in an accessible way in two languages is an interesting challenge. Also organizing that much content can be overwhelming. I just watched an interview the other day with one of my mentors, Marie-Anne Gauvin, who passed away a few years ago. It'll be rewarding to get this media online and accessible to everyone.

Another project that has been a favorite is my work the Herring Alliance. It's easy for people to care about dolphins and whales (the cute creatures of the ocean) but trying to reach out to the average person about the little fish the cute creatures eat is a tougher sell. The Herring Alliance has some great people working there and they were my first ever 'big' client. I get to do a lot of different things with them and they really seem to value my contributions, which always makes me want to work harder on something. To have an organization of that scale take a chance on me in those early days really means a lot and is something I won't forget whether I can continue to work with them in 2011 or not.

Probably the most interesting project though is this series of workshops I've started with a friend. It seems there is an underserved group of small business owners and non-profit administrators who wanted to learn about internet and technology topics, yet I couldn't get anyone to sign up for my adult education classes about them. My friend Annie suggested having the professional development opportunities happen over the course of one day. People didn't want to commit to four classes but they would commit to an afternoon or evening, and that made the light bulb go off.

Now I have people skills and some of the technical knowledge to pull this off but I knew I needed more technical knowledge. Enter Matt Baya, co-owner of Svaha LLC (a web design and hosting company) and a super nice guy. We're in month four of Downeast Learning: Claws-on Technology Workshops in Downeast Maine. We partnered with the Maine Grind, which is a great space in terms of technology capacity, having a pleasing environment with food options, and being centrally located in Ellsworth. As people get used to Downeast Learning Workshops being regular events at the Maine Grind, Matt and I help more people and generate a regular source of revenue for our respective businesses.

How do you stay on top of ever-changing technology?
I remind clients that I don't know it all. I do know enough to help business owners in terms of reaching their target market and saving them time and money, but even I don't do everything, marketing-wise. For example, I have no interest in Foursquare, not because I don't think it's cool to have location-based technology or that it has no application in business but because, as someone who lives/works alone, it becomes possibly a safety issue for me.

I would say I spend 25% of my work hours reading articles, talking with people, and otherwise trying to stay ahead of the curve. People hire me because I'm supposed to stay on top of internet marketing, social media, search engine optimization, and other internet topics of concern and the least I can do is know what I'm talking about.

Should every business have a blog, Facebook page, and/or a Twitter account?
I think every business can use the Internet somehow, but if there was one guaranteed solution I think all of us business owners, myself included, would be doing it.

It's all about taking what a business has and what a business owner likes (and doesn't like) to do and starting with that. For example, I've worked with real estate people who have been in the business for years and have thousands of email contacts. Let's use that! Or people who say 'Look, Nicole, I don't have time to blog but I do like reading and sharing articles." Horray for Twitter! If everyone did all the possible things they could do, they wouldn't have time to actually run their business.

I say pick one or two marketing strategies and be excellent at those. And I think everyone should keep on top of what people are saying about you online with something like Google Alerts so you are in the position to react when something positive or negative being said about you. There is no need to do it all, just do something!

Can you teach old dogs new tricks?
You know, I adopted this old beagle mix four years ago named Sadie. When I first got her, she was naughty. She got in the trash, ate things she wasn't supposed to, and otherwise drove me crazy initially. But over time, she learned new tricks, but I also adjusted my expectations. She stopped going in the trash but I conceded that maybe, she'd never learn the command 'stay'.

I think a combination of learning new trick and adjusting expectations needs to happen for everyone to be happy, in business and other relationships. Personally, I hope I'm never done learning... but I guess you can call me up when I'm 90 and see how I'm doing on that.

What do you like most about your job?
Finding the right job can feel like trying to find that right person you want to live your life with. It's difficult, and trial and error doesn't necessarily work in terms of a strategy.

Until this past year, I wasn't sure if I could find a job that I was good at and also enjoyed. The things I like tend to be challenging for me. But I like that with my business, I get to help small businesses and non-profits, learn new things, analyze data, network with people, and be creative everyday. I have found 'the one', the job I've always wanted to exist for me. Apparently, I just had to create it.