Looking at 2020 through a crystal ball

So, how are things in your world after 2020?

Wow. It’s hard to believe I’ve been radio silent on my blog approaching 4 years. Such is life with family, employment, business, and all the other endeavors planned and otherwise that fill up one’s days. This is a quick post to update all five of my readers. Thanks for checking in!

How are you doing these days?

Are you as busy as I am? Are you as jumbled, stressed, blessed, distracted, productive, anxious, and hopeful as I am? I hope you are. No, that’s not right…I hope you’re managing better than I am. Today is just as good a day as any to evaluate where you are and how you’re managing things. The one consistent factor running through all of the days of your life is not always obvious — it’s you. No matter how powerless we feel or how untamed the path that life has taken, each individual is the one carving that path. It’s a good idea to take an honest inventory of that person you see in the mirror.

Hindsight is 20/20.

AJ Design was one of the best things to occur in my life, certainly in a professional context. I shied away from following my dad’s footsteps in medicine (even though the joke in my childhood was that I was a chip off the ole’ block or a clone of my dad). Maybe I was lazy, or maybe I just lacked ambition. One of the conscious ideas I held as a teenager and young adult was that I didn’t want to work all the time. I reasoned that I would rather have 40 working hours in a week with an income of $30,000 versus a 60 hour work week and $60,000 (those were late 1990s dollars, mind you). Among the things I didn’t account for are:

  • How tough it is to raise a family on a humble to modest income.
  • How tough it is to unplug from work when you enjoy what you do.
  • How difficult it is to say “no” when there are plenty of rewards dangled in front of you just on the other side of “yes.”

My spotty career path prior to AJ Design was the perfect preparation for a successful self-employment venture. The lack of income and stability equipped me with a solid work ethic that helped my business thrive.

What I’ve been up to lately.

Anyone whose been a client of mine probably already knows this, but let me just state for the benefit of anyone else. I networked into a job opportunity with Savannah Lakes Village in McCormick, SC in the fourth quarter of 2017. I wasn’t really interested in a job. I decided to send in an application and thought I would just take a look. To my surprise, I was called for an interview. It was a series of green lights from there, and the rest is history. I’m marking 4 years of service at Savannah Lakes this week.

Website hosting? Yes. New projects? Maybe.

I’m able to continue offering website hosting and management for my clients. I also have a limited amount of availability for small-scope work. My default posture is that I’m not able to take on anything urgent or large in scope, but I might be able to assist if things line up just right. No matter the changes in my career, one thing hasn’t changed: I’m always up for a chat to learn about what someone needs and point them in the right direction.

The future is bright.

Can you believe it? I didn’t mention ©0?|D to this point (except in the indirect, glancing way found in the second paragraph, and I think that’s about right. The details of our circumstances occasionally have great importance for our lives. More important than the direction the wind blows or the way the circumstances unfold, our lives are guided by our principles and the shape of our character. I am far from confident in my own abilities as “general manager” of the universe, my home, or my individual life. But I know who holds me firmly in his grasp.

Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!

~ Moses in Psalm 90

continuous improvement cycle

Continuous Improvement: Not an Option

We all like to think that we’re doing the best we can. At the same time, almost all of us can look at work we did 5 years ago and think, “Wow, I am doing things much better now!”

The example that comes to mind is the way I’ve handled contact forms on websites. I was thrilled that my primary website theme developer incorporated a contact form into the theme. That meant I didn’t have to fiddle with third-party contact form plugins. Fewer plugins, less to maintain…it was a win all around. What I found out eventually (as in 5 years later…) is that Gmail and other email providers have evolved and become more secure. Messages fired off using PHP Mail from a web server now have a lot less chance of being successfully delivered. The status quo for email has been, “Email is inherently insecure. Don’t trust it.” But innovators like Google have refused to accept that status quo. Messages that are sent the same way lazy spammers send them are now likely to be considered spam, even if they are legitimate.

This was a fairly complicated problem that I had to solve for a few clients and projects. It was a huge headache, and I was thrilled to arrive at a solution that met their needs. One thing I failed to do, however, was take that knowledge and apply it to my own site and other clients’ sites who likely had the same trouble.

The Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle is not new. Business thought leaders from Seth Godin to Peter Drucker to Kanban Master Josette Russell have written volumes on the subject. In my business, it’s been a lot easier to Do, Check and Act than to Plan. And it’s a whole lot easier to go through Plan, Do, Check, Act one time rather than on a continuous basis.

Here’s to remembering that business is an infinite game. The best solutions a couple of years ago might still be the best. But there might be a better approach available today.


Why Photographers Shoot Way More Than They Need

Click. Click. Click click click click…ENOUGH ALREADY!

Surely my wife isn’t the only one who has wondered, “Why do you need so many shots?!” Granted, I’m usually shooting moss or a leaf or something like that. But what about portrait photography? Have you ever wondered why a photographer will shoot, shoot, shoot the same thing multiple times? Here’s one reason they might.

Some friends asked if I could help with family portraits. I was thrilled to have the opportunity! I love taking photos of my family, and I’ve been able to use those skills to help more and more clients in recent days. We met at a beautiful old barn on their family land. Here is one of the shots I captured of the mother and daughter:


A couple of days after the shoot, I culled everything and prepared some edited images for the client to review. They were thrilled with the images! However, a few days after I sent the link, she asked, “Do you have a tall version of these images?” She had purchased a frame that was designed to contain portrait-oriented tall 5×7 prints. Many of the shots I had done were wide since they are a family of five.

I didn’t have a tall-oriented shot of this exact pose in-camera, but I did have several images of this shot with multiple variations. I had to composite three different images together to get the desired result:


Here’s a look at the three images that were used. The image in the middle of the stack on the left is the main image they liked, and I used the other two images to extend the top and bottom of that image:

Composite of Three Images

So there you have it. Photographers aren’t completely crazy! There are many reasons photographers may want to take multiple images of the same pose. But one reason is that having multiple images of a similar pose enables editing after the fact that is otherwise difficult or impossible.

In honor of bad fathers.

In Honor of Bad Fathers

It’s Father’s Day. All across the world, kids with dads at home are waking up early to prepare crayon-and-paste expressions of heartfelt adoration for their dad.

They are in cahoots with moms and other siblings, working feverishly to get their project done so they can surprise their dad. In addition to homespun “greatest dad ever” gifts, some dads will receive power tools. Some will receive gift cards. Some will even receive a neck tie. These aren’t perfect dads, but they are good dads. They are a part of their kids’ lives. They do their best to provide and bless their family, and they are an important stabilizing factor in their household and the rearing of their kids.

I’m not writing about them today.

I’m writing about the deadbeats. The down-and-outers. The dads who have failed so miserably that their kids haven’t even spoken to them in years. I’m writing about the men that have lived up to the fears of our feminism-embracing progressive society. I’m talking about the guys who lose their temper and drink too much sometimes. I’m thinking of the men who have been dealt an extraordinarily raw deal in their work life, their health, or their family situation. There are men who are technically fathers but are unlikely to receive any sort of sincere or even perfunctory recognition on a day like Father’s Day.

This is for the bad fathers.

Am I referring to abusive fathers? No. Abusers need both consequences and repentance. I’m referring to the fathers who just have made a mess of their homes. Is everything they’ve done right? Heck no. In fact, their kids and wives (exes/girlfriends/whatever) might strain to think of anything they’ve done right. Many haven’t even done the simplest aspects of fathering right. Their kids weren’t thoughtfully and lovingly conceived into a stable home where they would be able to grow and thrive. They may not have even known a child would eventually result from that one night stand.

No matter their failures, they are still fathers.

Father have gotten a bad rap. Much of it has been earned. Fathers aren’t exactly superhumans. The are humans though. And humans are hopelessly flawed. Don’t believe me? Turn on any news or news feed. Despite the fact that fathers are far from perfect, and in some cases downright broken, there is still an incalculable power in their possession. Fathers have the ability to create life. This we know…high school biology makes it pretty clear. But in addition to that, and of far more significance, fathers have the ability to speak things to life in their children.

A quick stroll through the Focus on the Family website yields lots of content showing the things that can happen when fathers abdicate their role. I think bad fathers may see things like the correlation between fatherless and violence or poverty and feel condemned. They see the black-and-white statistics borne out in living color in the lives of their kids, and the pain is likely too much to bear. Instead of seeing a kid succeed in school or sports (and feel the pride swelling in their chest), a bad father probably has a tremendous amount of guilt to sort through. With every bump in the road their kids experience, they will wonder, “Did I cause that? Could I have done better and prevented that?” And here’s a hint: There are lots of bumps in the road for everyone.

What should you do for a bad father on Father’s Day?

The bad dads, especially those who aren’t in the home with their kids, probably aren’t too fired up about Father’s Day. It’s less than “just another day.” It’s an unescapable reminder of their abject failure. I would like to offer the kids of bad fathers a piece of advice:

“‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.'”

Ephesians 6:2–3 ESV

The Bible? *gasp* Yep, the Bible. Take a minute and look at what the Apostle Paul says in this passage of Ephesians. Note there is no qualification limiting the giving of honor to good fathers only. There are no barbed clauses such as, “…if he hasn’t messed things up and hurt you.” And note the sort of existential blessing that accompanies the honoring of fathers: “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” The opposite of that is pretty serious: if you don’t honor your father, things won’t go well with you, and you won’t live long in the land. What if our national stability and peace is less a function of national foreign and domestic policy and is more of an aggregate of our heeding this scripture? Is it possible that things would be different nationally, even globally, if more people chose to honor their fathers?

Honor your father. Even if he’s not a good one.

I don’t really know what it’s like to have a bad father. I have a fully human dad, but he’s a good one. So I know my advice might seem a little thin. However, considering the benefits connected with honoring one’s father, isn’t it worth a try? Doesn’t it make sense to try to follow good advice even if your emotions are telling you, “DANGER! TURN AROUND!!!” I dare say most of us have experienced being utterly lied to by our emotions in the past. What if the emotional barriers to honoring your father are cut from the same cloth?

If I were trying to honor a bad father, I would start out with honesty. There are few things worse to express or receive than obligatory honor. After that, I would try to look on the bright side and find something genuinely honorable. Find one thing you can say, “I’m glad you did that, Dad.” Then say it. Start where you can. Maybe that’s all you can do. But who knows? You might find that a singular expression of honor starts to draw out more honorable behavior from your father. And know that as you honor your father, you are setting things in motion for a wealth of blessing from your Heavenly Father.

Price vs. Value

Low Price Leader?

In my opinion, one of the worst habits I hear some new business owners express has to do with pricing. When a business owners aspires to lead with low prices, here’s what I hear:

  • I don’t understand what I’m worth.
  • I don’t value my time.
  • I haven’t researched what my service or product actually costs to provide.
  • I don’t expect to be a long-term player in the market.
  • I prefer to be really busy and I don’t really care whether that busyness is productive or profitable.

To be fair, there are circumstances and industries where an established leader has become monopolistic and they are making an excessive profit. It can be a legitimate strategic aim to enter the market at a lower price point when the cost and capital structure allows you to do so while still generating a profit.

Low Pricing Usually Isn’t a Strategic Advantage

The overwhelming majority of small businesses and startups should NOT aspire to lead with deep discounts or enter the market with a lower price point than the competition. You may be inclined to do some sort of grand opening event or have a giveaway. But please don’t succumb to the self-defeating instinct to drop prices drastically to grab attention!

If you don’t want to lead with a lower price, what should you do?

There is more than one way to arrive at a sustainable, profitable price structure. Here are some ideas:

  • Study your competitors’ pricing. If you have a concrete reason why your cost structure or value offering is fundamentally different from theirs, then adjust the pricing accordingly. If not, and especially if your competition has been in business for more than two or three years, consider just mirroring their pricing.
  • Explore data from the Small Business Development Center. The SBDC in Greenwood, SC has a wealth of local industry data. It may not be relevant to all businesses and all industries (this is especially true for emerging industries or specific niche businesses). But industry data from your market can be a clue as to what you should charge.
  • Take advantage of trade association resources. The Graphic Artist Guild publishes their Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines each year. It includes price ranges based on national survey data. It also has guidelines for calculating hourly rates and other price mechanisms. Perhaps there is a similar resource in your industry?

There you go. The next time you feel the itch to drop the price to get the sale, remember this post. Do NOT fall prey to the lure of lower prices! Instead, work to establish fair pricing and fair value for the price.

Dutch Oven catering promo card

Take It and Run With It: What I Want Clients to Do with the Work I Create for Them

My family and I enjoyed a Saturday out at the Abbeville Spring Festival last week. The weather in the morning and afternoon was positively perfect! It was almost nippy when we arrived, and it was comfortable even in the afternoon sun. As the sun dipped into the horizon, a front blew through. We saw a few raindrops as we were trying to decide where to eat. As the weather rolled in, we quickly shifted our preferences from festival fare to any place with a roof. Thankfully, we were a short walk from The Dutch Oven.

We were seated at a table in the back room, and I was thrilled to see that Ivan was still getting use out of the menu layout I did for him. That project was early in my business (it was invoice #4, dated 11/25/2011). The owner has barely even asked for help with his menu since 2011. I think he needed a hand updating prices once, but there has been zero revenue from The Dutch Oven’s menu since I created it. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Major Point #1: I don’t begrudge the fact that my client is fully using what I provided for him. I intended for him to be able to use the design once I was finished with it.

<sales-pitch>The meal was everything we expected. If you haven’t eaten at The Dutch Oven in Abbeville, SC, give it a try sometime soon. Really, make plans soon.</sales-pitch>

During the meal, I noticed a small table-top display next to the napkin dispenser. It was a well-crafted postcard in an acrylic holder:Dutch Oven catering promo card

I noticed the images right away. They were from a shoot I did for Ivan about a year ago in efforts to create some content for his new website. And yes, I ate most of what I shot! Mmmmmm.

So Ivan hired me for some photos and his website. I agreed to provide rights to the photos, and he paid for them. I was happy with the way the website turned out, but I was thrilled to see that Ivan had used the images I captured in a card to promote his catering service.

Major Point #2: When you purchase the rights to use images, use them. That’s why you paid money for them. Put them on your website (if you secured permission for that). Use them in print ads (with permission). Use them on social media (if that’s what your license allows). Use them.

So there you have it. I’m happy when my clients need me. I’m just as happy when they don’t need me and they are extending the life of the things we’ve worked to create for them. Take it and run with it, Ivan.

Of course this “take it and run with it” admonition only applies when you have paid for the taking and the running. If it’s rights-managed photography or some type of single-license software or website, please do NOT take it and run with it outside the bounds of your agreement.

The Renaissance, Abbeville Chamber's Business of the Year

The Renaissance: Abbeville Chamber’s Business of the Year!

The Renaissance, Abbeville Chamber's Business of the Year

The Renaissance, LLC staff members Sheryl Fleming, Paul Bell, Susan Jackson and Jacqueline Owens received the Business of the Year award from the Abbeville Chamber of Commerce annual banquet on May 12, 2017.

ChooseRenaissance.com Screenshot - May 12, 2017

Click to visit ChooseRenaissance.com.

The Renaissance is an active lifestyle retirement community located in Due West, South Carolina. AJ Design worked with The Renaissance toward the end of 2016 and in early 2017 to provide a completely redesigned and expanded website.

On May 11, 2017, The Renaissance was named “Business of the Year” at The Greater Abbeville Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet. This honor is well deserved from my perspective! The staff at The Renaissance are doing a phenomenal job caring for residents and creating a genuine community.

Congratulations to The Renaissance for being recognized as Business of the Year by The Greater Abbeville Chamber of Commerce!

Another Reason I’m In It to #ENDIT

You may have noticed the big red X in the footer of my website. I’m a supporter of the END IT Movement. It breaks my heart that there are tens of millions of people trapped in slavery, and I’m resolved to do what I can to help support their mission and bring awareness to the problems they are working to solve.

The END IT Facebook Page is a mixture of tragedy and hope. It’s tragic to explore the problem of slavery and human trafficking, but there are often moments of hope. Today was one of the later as they shared a story of a 13-year-old girl rescued in the Dominican Republic.

That’s news worth sharing. Would you consider supporting the END IT Movement today?

Color Theory Infographic

Infographic: Your Guide to Color Theory for Design

I’m a big fan of good content.

Specifically, I am a fan of having good content on my own website so that the robots employed by Google make sure you see said good content in your never-ending quest for wisdom. Okay, that was stated with a bit much dramatic flair, but you get the point. Sure, I like to write good content. But often times, it’s just as valuable to simply curate and share good content. In fact, that’s just about the reason anything ever goes viral.

So with all my motivations laid bare and all my cards on the table, feast your eyes on this infographic from Silkcards. Design and color theory are topics that seem intuitive and self-evident. However, I’ve been in far too many conversations with clients where I had to take them back to a very granular understanding of typography, color theory, or even the English language itself. The following resource on color theory is a helpful reference for when those artful impulses need to be reined in for the sake of the message.

Scroll and enjoy!

Theory of Color
Infographic provided by SILKCARDS

Good Web Hosting Matters

I never aspired to be a web hosting reseller.

It’s true. In fact, I never aimed to design websites for clients. My first commercial WordPress site was something my client had to twist my arm to have me do. It worked out because I had to twist her arm to let me design a logo for her.

This is what the website part of my business felt like then:

That was five years ago this summer. I have learned so much since then. It’s hard to believe how much time has passed and how quickly it has gone by. The world has changed since then. My business has changed. And believe it or not, my clients’ businesses and organizations have changed.

This is what the website part of my business feels like now:

While I didn’t really aspire to be a web designer or a hosting reseller, I have always aspired to do good work. I want the things I do for clients to provide clear value. I even want to provide long-term value. So instead of rolling on with the status quo, I’m starting to rethink the way I’m managing websites to better serve my clients.

Here are a few things I’ve learned in the last few months as the realities of being more or less responsible for 45+ client websites settle in:

  • Websites can be fleeting. As permanent and stable as we wish them to be, they are still temporary. And even when they are static, they are dynamic. WordPress updates are released. There are updates to themes and plugins. It takes a decent amount of work, over time, for a website to remain available — even if the owner of the site never wishes to change it. In addition to that, in fewer than five years, I’ve already seen the business cycle and organizational consolidation result in shutting down websites.
  • Websites can be fragile. This is true because website are, by nature, held out to the public Internet. And the Internet can be a very harsh environment. If the sites of giants like Amazon and Facebook stumble through occasional downtime and problems, be assured that your identity website with a desired reach no bigger than your ZIP code will take a beating. How much more sites with national aspirations? It’s not so much that sites are delicate; the hazards are just relentless.
  • Websites can be frustrating. It’s a challenge to cling the search ranking mountain. It’s hard when you need x amount of traffic and you need to convert y% of those visitors in order to keep the lights on. It’s mind-numbing to find spammy links pop up out of nowhere on your site. It’s a hassle to forget where things are and get locked out of your own site. Yes, it happens!

Websites are still worth the headache.

Despite the challenges, most businesses and organizations find their website to be a critical part of communicating their identity to the world. A site with even a modest amount of traffic can result in thousands of impressions every year. For small businesses in a local market, there usually isn’t a more efficient marketing option.

Since websites are so important to my clients, they have become important to me. Instead of slapping together one or two sites once in a while, website development has grown into a substantial percentage of my business. While it made sense at one time to have a hands-off approach to domain name and hosting, I’m now re-evaluating how I’m doing everything concerning website hosting and management. I expect I’ll be providing clients significantly more value in the area of hosting. Will it cost more? Probably. But it will be worth it.

My clients have been so good to me over the years. They are worth my best efforts and the best solutions I can offer.

I’ll post again as I solidify my plans for a better hosting configuration.