Podcast

Episode: 151 |
Nick Sonnenberg:
Off-the-Shelf Tools:
Episode
151

HOW TO THRIVE AS AN
INDEPENDENT PROFESSIONAL

Nick Sonnenberg

Off-the-Shelf Tools

Show Notes

That is Nick Sonnenberg, a serial entrepreneur, author, speaker, and consultant.

Nick and a partner, Ari Meisel, founded Leverage, a high-end freelancer market place, and they built the business by using off-the-shelf tools such as Slack, Trello, and Zapier. Nick and Ari wrote a book about the experience titled Idea to Execution: How to Optimize, Automate, Outsource Everything in your Business.

Nick now regularly consults with clients on team productivity and how to get the most out of team productivity tools.

You can learn more about Nick’s freelancer staffing firm at his website Leverage.

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will: Hello Nick. Welcome to the show.
Nick: Thanks for having me.
Will: Nick, tell me about some of the tools that you most frequently are recommending to professionals to help make them more efficient.
Nick: Well, I guess that matter is … Are you talking about professionals that work within a team or run teams or run companies? Or are you just talking about professionals that are working for themselves by themselves?
Will: Let’s talk about both. But, why don’t we start with, maybe tools that would be more just for an individual and then we can get into team, team tools as a sort of a second topic.
Nick: Sure. Well, I guess like the number one tool for an individual is, is email since it’s the number one thing that you’re going to be using the most. So, having an understanding of best practices, how to use email, get to inbox zero, and the best way to get to inbox zero is to get to email zero.
Nick: So, understanding really how to, how to leverage email so that it’s your, that your control of it, rather than it controlling you, is probably the number one thing as an individual. Obviously, too, if you’re working within a team, you’re still [inaudible 00:01:10] with a company, you’re still having to manage a lot of email.
Nick: Then, there’s some other tools like Slack and some others that start popping up as being core tools in that context.
Will: Great. What are some of the tips around email that you’re recommended, to help people be more efficient in their use of email?
Nick: I’m not like one of these people that say, ‘Okay. Well, don’t look at email for the first two hours of everyday. That’s the trick.’ Or having out of office [inaudible 00:01:38]. I think that all of those are recommendations because it’s, it’s kind of like treating the symptom.
Nick: If you don’t have good control over your email and don’t know how to manage email properly, then those are good suggestions. But, if you know how to manage email, then I don’t recommend a lot of those common suggestion.
Nick: The thing with email, the best suggestion with email is try not to email in the first place. There’s a boomerang effect with emails. The more you email, the more you get back in. A lot of times people misuse email and they use email and it should be another tool that they’re using. Email is just a to-do list that other people can add to.
Nick: That’s the way to think about email. A lot of times you might be sending someone an email but they’re on your team and you should be using [inaudible 00:02:34] for internal communication. So, that takes care of quite a lot of email.
Nick: If you have a weekly meeting with people and you have ideas to share with them, don’t email them every idea. Add it to the weekly agenda. If you are on a team and you have tasks and projects to manage amongst your team, don’t email those tasks to people, add it to a project management software.
Nick: So, the best trick is to only use email in the context that it should be used in, which is for external communication. Then beyond that, I like Gmail. You could use any, any email really. But, I like Gmail for a few reasons. It has a few bells and whistles that you don’t get in Apple Mail or Outlook. It automatically categorizes things and forums, updates, and promotion.
Nick: That automatically gets rid of quite a lot of stuff. So, you can really just be focusing in the primary email folder.
Nick: Another thing to do, to be thinking about with email is, there’s literally three things every piece of email that comes in you can do with. It’s either you deal with it. David Allen has the, this thing called the two minute rule. So, anything that takes less than two minutes just deal with now.
Nick: Or you can defer it. In Gmail it has built-in snoozing. So, that’s useful for things like, if you’ve seen your days and you only deal with admin type of stuff on Mondays and anything that comes in that’s non urgent, you can just snooze to a Monday. Or if you have directions to a party you’re going to three months from now, who can snooze that email to the morning of that event.
Nick: It’s not just sitting in your, in your inbox for three months, but it leaves your inbox and comes back in, in three months. You could use the same, the same strategy with writing an email to someone and you want to be reminded if they don’t reply to you.
Nick: So, a lot of the times, if I want to be notified if I don’t get a reply, I’ll send an email and then I’ll snooze it for a week or something. If it, if that person responds in three days, it automatically kicks it out of the snooze. If they don’t, then at the very least, I know I’ll be reminded in a week.
Nick: Then, the last thing to think about with email is, in all these email providers, there’s the concept of an archive and I don’t believe in deleting email. I really just archive everything. So, having your inbox be your to-do list and then as you deal with things, you archive them so that your inbox is really just like less than 10 or 20 line items at any point in time.
Nick: You can always go and see the all mail, which is everything inbox plus archive. But, creating a separation between things that need to get done and not, is really important. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that they’re at inbox zero because they’re keeping track of what has been read versus unread.
Nick: So, if it’s bold or not bold, and that’s really just not at all the same because your eye … Even if you’ve read it and it’s now no longer bold, you still can’t help but get cognitive overload when your eyes are looking at your inbox and you have thousands of things in it.
Nick: Does that make sense?
Will: It does. It does.
Will: I think that you’d probably not approve of my email management system.
Nick: Well, the good thing … The good thing with email stuff, and I do this with my consulting clients, within one to two hours you can pretty much get everyone. I’ve found some people with hundreds of thousands of emails in their inbox.
Nick: Within a couple hours, and it’s really just really limited by Google or Apple servers because when you start archiving that much, you can hang up the servers. But, but within a couple hours you could really get someone from 100,000 down to 20 without deleting things, without things getting missed or over, overlooked, and it changes people’s lives.
Nick: I mean, the quickest way to save a couple of hours a week is getting a grip on your email.
Will: Okay. Great.
Will: What are some of the other tools, for the individuals, that people should be thinking about?
Nick: On an individual basis, I use CloudApp a lot, which is, it’s a screenshotting tool on my computer ’cause I do a lot of annotated screenshots and stuff that I, that I share with people. I use Calendly. I was using Calendly, now Mixmax. But, I use that for scheduling. So, any of these scheduling tools. There’s ScheduleOnce, Calendly, Mixmax. That’s a really good individual app because it integrates with your calendar.
Nick: So, instead of you going back and forth with people, which I think on average, it’s like seven and a half emails back and forth for two people to make the time to meet. Having one of these softwares, like Calendly [inaudible 00:07:36] and integrates with your availability on your calendar. You just share a URL with someone and then they can pick based on your availability, without seeing the details of your calendar.
Nick: Then, it just automatically goes into your calendar is a really good, a really good time, timesaver ’cause just after email, scheduling is another big time suck.
Will: Yeah.
Nick: A trick with that is, you should buy URLs that are easy to remember. So, like speaktowill.com and have that 0.2 domain name forwarding to your Calendly or ScheduleOnce URL. Then you, if you’re meeting people, you could just say … They want to meet with you. Just say, “Go to speakwithwill.com.” Easy for them to remember and they can do it from their phone. It points to your booking page.
Will: That is genius. I have a Calendly. I’ve been using it for a year and a half and I love it. I even did an episode on it a few months ago, but I didn’t think of that, about getting a URL that would just point to it. So …
Nick: I have URLs for everything. I’ve got it for my Zoom, for my Calendlys, for job applications at, at my company, Leverage. We give URLs for everything. If you want to apply for a job at Leverage, you go to workforleverage.com and that points to a type form.
Will: Oh, that’s genius. Okay. Well, what a great idea.
Will: Then you just point it to it that, that’s, that’s great. I love it.
Will: So, the Cloud app. Now, in terms of annotated screenshots, that’s not something I’ve done a lot of. How, how do you find that helpful? Tell me about that.
Nick: This is less helpful for an individual as it is for people on times, but I’m really big into process documentation. Annotated screenshots is really helpful when you’re trying to document a process. The goal with documenting a process is you want to make it so straight forward and easy for someone to follow. An annotative screenshot really helps with that.
Nick: Other places I use it a lot to is, we’ve built our own project management software at, at my company Leverage, to handle all the tasks and projects that we do for our clients. If there’s a bug or some weird functionality, it’s really helpful to be able to just quickly take a screenshot and point to what the problem is.
Will: Great. What are some tools that you recommend for teams?
Nick: Yeah, so, Slack is, it’s a for sure tool, that’s a team communication tool. For project management software, I’ve both used Trello and Asana and they’re both great. Right now we’re using a Asana. I basically built my company off of Zapier, which is an automation tool that glues together. You could think of two third party tools, so they can start communicating and speaking to each other.
Nick: So, it’s like, if this happens on this tool, then trigger this action on another tool. If someone signs up on your website, automatically post a message in a Slack channel. If you click a check mark in Process Street, which is a process documentation tool, automatically send a contract or agreement via HelloSign to the applicant.
Nick: So, Zapier is another real core one. Then, Process Street is the other kind of core tool that we’re using for process documentation.
Will: I’m not familiar with one, that. What’s that called again?
Nick: Process Street.
Will: Oh.
Nick: I think we have, if you type in like a coupon thing for Leverage, I think we have some discount with them. Maybe helpful for your listeners.
Nick: But, it’s a process documentation tool. So, most companies that I’ve consulted with, no one’s thinking about documenting processes or very rarely. Most companies are sitting on massive risk that only one person knows how to do payroll or higher, which are all processes.
Nick: Two, using a tool like Process Street, it allows you to one, start automating certain steps of processes since it integrates with that, that Zapier tool. Also, it allows for people to start rotating positions, which is something we do it at Leverage. The rotating of positions is a really interesting exercise to do with the team and it, ’cause it forces fresh eyes to start looking at all the different areas of the company.
Will: That’s cool. Yeah. I’m a big believer in process documentation after five years in the nuclear navy.
Will: Having a checklist is, I feel very uncomfortable without a checklist in hand.
Will: Now, tell me a little bit about your, one of your business lines or one of the things that you do, I think is, is serve as a consultant to help other people learn how to use all these tools. Right? Could you talk a little bit about that practice of yours?
Nick: My consulting? Yeah.
Nick: What I found was … Without really promoting the consulting people to start reaching out to me because they either read my book ‘Idea to Execution’ or they heard about kind of how we built Leverage, my outsourcing platform, leveraging, no pun intended, all these tools in clever ways.
Nick: We’re, we’re a fully remote company with a hundred people and we never raised money because we were able to use systems in clever ways. So, I’ve worked with small two person companies all the way up to 1200 person companies and the founder of, co-founder of Ethereum and Jay Abraham and some other big names.
Nick: Yeah. What I found is no matter what size company, everyone kind of has similar type of issues in terms of their systems and, and really what it boils down to is team productivity, which is something that a lot of people weren’t really looking at. People like the Tim Ferriss’s or David Allen’s are talking about individual productivity.
Nick: But, I realized, in this last couple years, that there’s kind of a big need for companies to hire a consultant, kind of like a hybrid COO CTO to go in and not, not consult them on pricing strategy or where the market’s going to be in five years and how they should position themselves for global expansion and all that.
Nick: But, just more simply, how do you make your teams more efficient? What kind of technology and system should you put in place? So, that you could automate certain things that people shouldn’t be doing and you make sure that you minimize all the waste of time that, that, that happens inside of the team. You know?
Nick: When you don’t have good systems and processes, what ends up happening is your team, people on your team, they’re looking in 10 different places to find information ’cause nothing is streamlined. That causes overwhelm. People start saying things like, ‘I’m underwater’ or ‘my plates full’. I mean, I haven’t really worked with anyone where they’re not saying things like that.
Nick: Yeah. So, I go in and I realized over the, over this time period, that I was kind of doing the same thing with every client. They were all having the same issue and it kind of broke down to helping them clean up how they’re communicating both internally and externally.
Nick: So, that’s like email for external, Slack for internal. The other big category was a lot of people didn’t have any concept of project management software or agendas or re-, like any structure to their weekly meetings. That’s kind of the next component.
Nick: Then, the last thing was, no one was documenting anything. Internal, internal knowledge was just nowhere to be found. So, then I helped them get set up with internal wikis and process documentation.
Nick: Those are kind of like the three major buckets that I work with companies on. I’m really good at looking at processes and helping figure out clever ways of how to save time or optimize or automate various processes. This framework, it boiled down to those three buckets and I called it communication planning and resource.
Nick: So, it’s CPRs, the acronym of that framework. It’s what I’m writing my next book about, which is called ‘Come Up for Air’ because that, that name comes from basically every single person I’ve ever worked with saying that they’re underwater.
Will: Yeah. Makes sense.
Will: What’s an engagement with you look like? Is it sort of a one day workshop? Or do you come one day every week for a while? What are the phases? How do, how do you engage with clients?
Nick: It’s flexible. It’s however they want to do things. So, a lot of times I’ll come in for one day a quarter. I mean, I’m, I’m pretty efficient when I come in, so usually one day you get quite a lot. I find that after a day, most teams are saving anywhere from one to three hours each person on the team for the, on a weekly basis.
Nick: I have some clients that I’m doing a weekly Zoom, one hour call with. I have other clients where I’ll fly out or they’ll come to see me for full day sessions. I’m just in talks right now to potentially work with my friend, Keith Ferrazzi. He wrote a book called ‘Never Eat Alone’. We might be watching like a, a small group mastermind kind of thing ’cause he’s really an expert at team efficiency.
Nick: But, from a leadership and culture and softer skills point of view, and I’m much more still about team efficiency, but from more technical and systems point of view and automation. So, we might co-brand and we’re gonna do an experiment and do a two day workshop together and see how that, see how that goes. Where you would come with two people from your company, most likely the CEO and CLO, and it’d be a two day workshop.
Nick: So, that’s another kind of new thing that’s coming in the next, in the next few months that we’re gonna be experimenting with.
Will: That’s amazing.
Will: Tell us a little bit about your, your company Leverage.
Nick: Yeah. Leverage, it’s an outsourcing platform. If people that are listening are familiar with like Upwork or Fiverr, one of those marketplaces where you can hire people for design or marketing or copywriting or development or even just virtual assistant work.
Nick: Leverage is similar, but we’re higher end. So, we have vetted freelancers and instead of you having to sort through 100,000 people on one of those other platforms, we just have already done the vetting. You post whatever you need and we give you a team of around a hundred people with all different skill sets that can execute any task or project pretty much that you would need.
Nick: I mean, the main categories that we specialize in are admin marketing and operations. But it, we, I like to think of it kind of like Uber, but for tasks in the sense that, when you click a button in Uber, it pings a bunch of drivers that will come to pick, pick you up.
Nick: As a client, you would post a task or project and we categorize it and it, it enters our marketplace of vetted freelancers. Then … So, someone with a matching skill set, will pick it up and you’re, you’re always paying the same rate. It’s $40 an hour for admin work and $80 an hour for the other categories, unless you need something really specialized and then we would send you to one of our partners.
Nick: But, we keep track of time to the second and there’s no annual commitment. You can go month to month. Yeah. We have three different tier plans and the bigger the plan, the more discount that you’re getting. But we’re, we make people commit to at least $300 a month of service usage per month and it goes up from there.
Will: From running that business, what have you observed of … Any, any lessons learned on how to thrive as a freelancer, as an independent professional? What do you think distinguishes those who are really successful at it over the longer term and, and keep getting business and, and are successful at it?
Nick: They’re self starters. They don’t need their hand being held. They’re hungry. They’re in the marketplace. They’re actively seeing the stuff that gets posted and they’re picking it up.
Nick: We have plenty of freelancers that are making six figures. We’ve had a lot of people that will making well over $100,000 a year in a corporate job they’re making the same amount of money at Leverage. But, they have the flexibility of working remotely. Whatever hours they want, they can pick up whatever work interests them.
Nick: They could be, instead of in Toronto and the freezing cold, they could be in South America with their family, enjoying the weather and working from their laptop near a beach. So, our freelancers that are most successful kind of jumped all in and can be autonomous.
Will: Are there any sort of habits or productivity routines that you’ve recently adopted that you found exciting or that are really working for you?
Nick: For myself, my own productivity. I’m constantly trying new things. I mean, I’ve been playing around on the phone with accessibility modes to take off the color from the phone, so it’s less distracting. So, you can [inaudible 00:21:13] the home screen to remove color.
Nick: I’ve been time blocking my calendar. So, one, I see my day’s, so different days have different kinds of themes. I block off time to work on different types of work. There’s some time for data science ’cause that’s my background is in data science. There’s time for working on my books. There’s time for internal meetings, for external meetings.
Nick: So yeah. Those are kind of the newer, newer things I’m experimenting with.
Will: I’m interested in that idea of having themes for your days. Could you give us some examples of what, what are the different themes that you go through?
Nick: Yeah. Mondays are just like my crap day. I do all my [inaudible 00:21:57] for the week. Any admin type of stuff that I don’t really enjoy doing, I just put it on a Monday. So, Mondays like a day that I don’t, myself, do actual work. It’s really more facilitating and checking in on people and doing some clean-up.
Nick: Fridays I try to leave open as a buffer day and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday it changes quarter to quarter. Some quarters I might leave Wednesdays as a consulting day. Tuesdays could be a day for educational stuff where I’ll spend more of a, more of a percentage of my day on just educational stuff. Either reading or podcast listening or watching videos that are relevant to, to watch.
Nick: It all just depends. But, whatever it is, like you could have … I know some people that have two buffer days a week where they, Tuesdays and Thursdays they do no work. So, that’s a themed day and they might be running multiple companies.
Nick: So, maybe company A is on a Monday and company B is on a Wednesday. It all just depends, but I find that the theming days is, it’s useful and I wrote an Inc. article about this, but I, I also try to make my calendar look like an arrow kind of.
Nick: What I mean is, I try to stack more meetings earlier in the week and less towards the end of the week. So kind of like points, if you look at it on the side, because things come up earlier on in the week and it’s, it’s useful, I find, to have that flexibility later on in the week.
Nick: If I’m scheduling things out, I’ll try as hard as possible, all things being equal, to try to get in on a Monday through Wednesday. So I’m leaving some buffer time on Thursday and Friday for the fires or emergencies that will inevitably come up.
Will: I love it. I love the idea of buffer days. I’m gonna try that out.
Will: Nick, it’s been great having you on the show. Thanks so much for carving out some time. Your book ‘Idea to Execution: How to Optimize, Automate and Outsource Everything in your Business’. You gave us some of, some of the tips from there. People want to learn more, that’s a book to check out.
Will: What’s the best place to find out more about you or maybe reach out to you online? You want to give some, some URLs?
Nick: Yeah. Getleverage.com is the outsourcing company and all information on me, you can just find on the website.
Will: Fantastic. Nick, thank you so much for joining.
Nick: Thanks for having me.

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