Is Success Down To The Quality Of Your Work?

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Paul is a leader in conversion rate optimisation and user experience design thinking. He has over 25 years experience working with clients such as Doctors … More about Paul ↬

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One of the biggest fallacies of our industry is that good work speaks for itself. It is a self-delusional lie that those with a good reputation tell themselves to explain their success. I will let you in on a secret; I am not that amazing at my job. Don’t get me wrong; I am good. But I am not a leading mind in our industry or anything. But, people often talk as if I am.

Success means many things to many people. Some think it is getting to work on projects they love; others believe it is earning a lot of money, still others consider it is getting to spend more time with the family.

However you choose to define success, it will require other people’s cooperation. It will involve landing the right job, winning the right kind of work and being able to charge enough money for your services.

It would be great if that were all defined by the quality of your work, but it’s not. There is another factor at play here; your reputation.

I will let you in on a secret; I am not that amazing at my job. Don’t get me wrong; I am good. But I am not a leading mind in our industry or anything. But, people often talk as if I am.

I get invited to speak at conferences, I write for leading publications like Smashing Magazine and have a sizeable following on social media. All this, despite the fact that there are thousands of people who know what I know and can do what I do.

My terrifying secret is that despite speaking at conferences and writing regularly for big name publications like Smashing Magazine, I am just not that talented. (Large preview)

I would love to claim this was down to talent. But in truth, it is because I shamelessly self-promote. Hell, I am doing it right now, and I am even being paid to write this post!

I will be honest, doing so makes me feel uncomfortable. It might be because I am British. We hate talking about ourselves and despise people who are full of self-importance. But from a career perspective, it was the best thing I ever did.

It has helped me to win work to the point where I can now pick and choose the work I do. But it also had another unexpected benefit; my projects tend to run much more smoothly. That is because my clients respect me more. They know I have a reputation and so listen to what I have got to say.

Think of reputation as a currency. A currency that you can spend to advance your career, win new clients or ensure projects run that little bit easier. It a currency that you can spend to achieve your version of success.

Of course, none of this is fair. People should respect ability, not reputation. But most clients don’t know what good looks like and so have to fall back on how other people talk about you. That means that reputation is about a lot more than the quality of your work.

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Your Reputation Is About More Than Your Work

For a start, producing great work won’t build your reputation if people aren’t aware of it. Sure, word of mouth from satisfied clients is important, but that will only take you so far.

If you don’t get out there and talk about your work, then nobody will ever know about it. That is why most of us haven’t heard of Duncan Haldane despite having won the Nobel Prize in Physics, but you have heard of Stephen Hawking who hasn’t.

Stephen Hawking has a much higher profile than Duncan Haldane despite the fact he has never won a Nobel Prize. (Large preview)

Then you also need to ensure people remember you. People have short memories and reputations can quickly fade if not constantly reinforced.

Finally, they have to like you. You can produce the best work in the world, but if you are obnoxious, then you will end up with entirely the wrong sort of reputation.

So if the quality of your work isn’t enough to build a solid reputation, then what is?

The Secrets To Building A Better Reputation

Look, I am no Gary Vaynerchuk. I am not a Times bestseller who has built a business empire based on his ‘personal brand’. But in my little way, I have done okay.

Gary Vaynerchuk has built a phenomenal business empire largely based on his personal brand. (Large preview)

I would like to say that what success I have had in self-promotion has been down to careful planning, but that would be a lie. A good degree of it was blind luck and timing. For example, when I started a web design podcast there was nothing else on the subject. I had a monopoly. That gives you a good head start!

You could argue that my success came from grasping the opportunity. But again that was more luck than judgement, and anyway, that is not something you can replicate in your situation.

But among all the blind luck, I have done a few things right. I could drone on about writing great posts, or why my podcast has been a success. But much of my success has boiled down to two things.

The first is my pigheadedness.

Never give up, never surrender

When it comes to reputation building, people give up too quickly. They start a blog and then get demoralised when nobody reads it. They submit talks to a conference but give up after a few rejections. So it goes on, a string of half arsed attempts.

Reputation building takes time, not weeks, not months, but years. Years of nobody paying you a blind bit of attention. It took me years before the number of people subscribed to my podcast got above 600. Years more before I was asked to speak at a conference or invited to write a book.

When it comes to reputation building, you need to think long term. That means that you need a reason to do what you do beyond reputation. I blogged because I wanted to get down in writing all the things I was learning. I recorded my podcast every week because I enjoyed chatting with people. Without those extra motivations, I would have given up, too.

But stubbornness plays a big part as well. It would have been easy to skip the occasional podcast episode or conclude client work was more important than posting an article nobody would read. However, you can’t think like that. If you do, self-promotion will always be at the bottom of your task list and will never happen.

To this day, I will without fail, post an article every Tuesday and a podcast every Thursday. My newsletter will go out every other Friday because I know how important it is to stay in the front of people’s minds. The only time I take a break is when I am on vacation. Because if I start slacking off, people will quickly forget me like that 80’s boy band you loved so much.

But putting out regular content is not enough. It has to be the right type of content too.

Know who you are targeting

While my pigheadedness proved a benefit, my ego did not, especially when it came to building a reputation. If I’m truthful, my motivation in the early days was to win the approval of the “cool kids” of the web design world. I wanted to be a star of the web design community, and that is what drove my writing and podcasting.

Not only did this mean I found myself frustrated when nothing happened, but it also led to me writing for entirely the wrong audience. Instead of writing for people who might potentially hire me, I spent my time writing articles aimed at impressing other web designers.

Don’t misunderstand me; there is nothing wrong with sharing your knowledge with your peers. In fact, it is something we should all be doing. But, we need to remember why exactly we want to build our reputation. Ultimately it is to progress our careers and win work. That means we need to think long and hard about where we invest our time. Do we speak at a jQuery conference that we have always respected and admired, or at some soulless business event full of potential clients? Personally, I would pick the latter every time.

We also need to be focused in who we target. The larger the number of people you are trying to build a reputation with the harder it is going to be. Becoming a global superstar in web design is extremely challenging. But becoming the go-to web designer within a particular sector or niche is much easier. With limited resources at our disposal, it makes much more sense to focus on a specific area in which to build our reputation.

When it comes to reputation building, it is better to be a big fish in a small pond. (Large preview)

Although the above advice will help, it is not enough on its own. Even if you became an expert in every aspect of reputation building you may still not succeed. That is because our attitude becomes our worst enemy.

Overcoming Your Excuses

I’m sick of people making excuses about why they can never build the reputation I have been talking about in this article. They have failed even before they have begun because of their mindset.

So let’s take a moment to address some of the defeatist attitudes that may be rattling around in your brain.

People keep rejecting me

Maybe you’ve been dismissed as a speaker or submitted a post to Smashing Magazine that got turned down. Maybe you want to write a book but can’t find a publisher. Whatever the case, get over it. You don’t need any of those things to build a reputation.

If you get turned down as a speaker, start offering webinars. If you can’t get a book deal, self-publish. If people don’t accept your articles, start a blog. You don’t need a gatekeeper to reach an audience.

We don't need gatekeepers to approve our content. If you want to write a book, self publish. (Large preview)

Sure, you will reach fewer people initially, but it gives you time to hone your craft. Given enough time you will become good enough to attract the attention of those with larger audiences. Eventually, they will be banging down your door.

I don’t have enough time

I want to let you in on a shocking truth; we all have the same number of hours in a day. My life is just as busy as yours, but I find time to post an article and podcast episode every week.

Partly this is because I manage my time well. But mainly, it is because I prioritise it.

You may feel that you do not have the time because you are barely making ends meet by working weekends and evenings already. Well, you have bigger problems and should read my article on pricing your time.

I don’t know enough

Many people are afraid to share their thoughts online for fear of criticism. They don’t think they know enough and don’t want to look like an idiot. Trust me, I get this, and everybody struggles with the same thing.

But please do not let that hold you back. In truth, there is always somebody out there who knows less than you. Admittedly, there will be people who know more, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing of value to add.

I recommend starting with sharing your personal experiences of projects that you have run. By talking about your own experience, you are on safe ground. Nobody can tell you you are wrong because you are only sharing what happened to you. Also, nobody else had that experience, and so there is nobody who is better placed to share it. Do that for a while, and you will find your confidence grows.

Note: Denise Jacobs excellent book is a great starting point to build confidence in putting yourself out there.

I hate writing and speaking

Finally, I hear a lot of people say that they find public speaking or writing incredibly hard. Believe it or not, this is something that I found hard at the start. As a child, I used to have a stutter and found it incredibly hard to speak in a group. I’ve also always struggled with spelling and grammar which put me off of writing for years.

But speaking and writing are just like any other skill. You eventually become good at it. That is why I don’t regret the fact that I had such a small audience for so long. It gave me time to get better and growing confidence.

Ultimately that is what building a reputation is all about. It is about growing in confidence and being willing to step out from the shadows. It is not easy especially if you are a more introverted character such as myself, but it is worthwhile. You do have something of value to share and those people you look up to are no different to you.

Smashing Editorial (il)