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The art of estimation

If you’re a freelancer or a contractor of any kind, it’s typical to be asked for an estimate or a quote.

And if you’ve been doing business for a while, it’s likely that you’ve heard about price more than just about any other factor in losing an opportunity.

So the pressure is on to sharpen your pencil, find the lowest price and do the best work you can under the circumstances.

This leads to a grind and an endless race to the bottom.

The glitch lies in how we interpret the objection about price. What the client is actually saying is, “All things being equal, the other alternative is cheaper, so we went with them.”

But all things don’t have to be equal.

There are plenty of clients who don’t actually want the cheapest choice. They want the best one, and a powerful estimate is the clue they use to choose.

If your estimate:

  • is clear and easy to understand by the sort of people you’d like to have as clients
  • if it demonstrates full understanding of the work to be done
  • if it highlights alternatives
  • If it includes examples of proven satisfaction when you’ve done this work for others
  • and if it’s delivered ahead of schedule

…then you’ve restated the problem. You’ve brought the client along on the journey with you, and established that they’re not spending more for the same thing, they’re spending more for a better, safer, higher status, more reliable thing.

What’s the best proposal/estimate you’ve ever seen? In your industry or any other? Do you have a standard for this that’s as high as the standard for the craft you do?

Of course, you don’t have the time to do this sort of estimate for every prospect. Which is the second half of the art. Politely declining to do estimates for people who are simply seeking the lowest price. Eagerly and happily send them to the people who used to be your competition.

PS Ava Morris is running the Significance Workshop this Friday. Use the code Matter to save 15%.

Study groups

If I had to choose one metric that would determine how well someone would do in law school, it wouldn’t be the LSAT or another test. It would be whether or not they formed a study group, and who else was in it.

Of course, the same is true for your project, or any sort of adult learning.

It’s easier than ever to organize a group like this… in fact, we almost have to work hard to avoid it.

The speed of our forward motion is directly related to the velocity of the people around us.

The hard part first

If you’re trying to reduce risk, do the hard part first. That way, if it fails, you’ll have minimized your time and effort.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for buy-in and commitment so you can get through the hard part, do it last. People are terrible at ignoring sunk costs, and the early wins and identity shifts that come from the easy successes at the beginning will give you momentum as you go.

The long-range forecast keeps shifting


That’s why it’s a forecast, not an accurate account of what’s going to happen in the future.

This seems axiomatic, but our desire for certainty keeps letting us down.

The shifting of forecasts is evidence that they’re merely forecasts.

After the meteorite

When it slams into your house and destroys it, we’re likely to pursue one of two lines of thinking:

–How did I cause this? What choices did I make, what mistakes did I permit, why did I deserve to have this damage, or who can I blame?

–Well, that happened, now what should I do?

Looking for reasons, blaming others, or worse, blaming ourselves is a waste. It’s self-defeating. It creates shame and second-guessing, separates us from our community and distracts us from the work at hand.

Sometimes there’s a lesson to be learned, but when actual bad luck leads to a significant bolt of lightning and all the pain it causes, there is no lesson.

There’s simply what happened.

Now what?

The network scam

Lana Swartz coined this term in her breakthrough paper on crypto.

A scam always involves a transaction. In the traditional fraud, the scammer tells a lie and the buyer, either with or without diligence, believes it and loses everything. You buy the magic beans, but they don’t grow.

But modern scams have a network component to them. Either there are conditions present where the scams are far more likely to occur (because of the magnification media and other forces can offer to the scammer) or, in this case, because the gullible buyer has a hunch it’s a Ponzi scheme, but plays along because he believes he can then pass the buck to the next sucker and come out ahead.

If someone bought an NFT in the belief it was going to go up, without regard for its actual utility, they are participating in a network scam. Without a society of others sharing the same belief, it wouldn’t work.

Perhaps climate denial is also a kind of network scam. If you can pump oil or sell cheap disposable fashion or benefit from subsidized cheap beef, it’s only because other people are joining you in sharing a short-term outlook on the world. Sooner or later (probably sooner), the delusion fades, and people (all of us) are left holding the bag.

In a well-lit and rational world, we could see network scams for what they are, and do something about them before they spiral out of control.

Alas, the alternative is something Swartz quotes a hustler as saying: “If it’s a Ponzi, get in early.”

PS Black Friday is a network scam.

Generosity and gratitude

A gift doesn’t diminish the giver. Sharing creates connection, possibility and energy.

And the magic of gratitude is that it improves everything it touches, especially the person who offered it in the first place.

So, what holds us back?

Fear. Fear of connection, of change, of seeing what is possible. It might feel safer to focus on scarcity.

Generosity and gratitude often go together. They light a path on the way to better.

Long form AI

The new version of Claude can read a document of up to 400 pages in about three minutes.

You can then ask it for criticism, summaries or other insights.

I wouldn’t use it on a piece of literature, but if you’re reading for work (aren’t we all), it will dramatically increase how much you can survey before diving deep.

And it’s very talented at reading something you wrote and telling you where you might have gone astray. Simply say, “please summarize and critique this, looking for strategic errors and inconsistencies: ” and then paste your document. If it doesn’t understand what you meant to say, there’s a good chance the reader won’t as well.

Three sheet metaphors

Here’s a large blue bedsheet, queen sized.

If we’re going to pull it taut, it will take the coordinated effort of eight people, each pulling just the right amount, from each corner and edge.

If we’re going to billow it up and down, like a parachute, we’re going to need those people to work in sync, pulling and pushing in just the right rhythm, or it will merely flutter.

And if we want it to stay clean, we have to all work to avoid even a single drop of dye from landing on its surface. Because it only takes a drop to divert all attention from its original state to the defect.

Nice bike

A well-designed bicycle is efficient, inexpensive and delightful.

If you use your bike on the right paths, with appropriate goals, it can deliver exactly what you need, while also allowing you to go at your own pace, see what’s going on around you and feel grounded.

Until, of course, you get jealous.

If you start trying to ride your bike on the freeway, or insist on adding extra seats, electric drivetrains and bright lights, sooner or later, you’re going to end up with a vehicle that’s not good at being a bike or a car.

Better, of course, to simply get rid of the bike and get the kind of car you need.

Until, of course, you get jealous.

A car is not a rocket. It can’t do rocket things. It can’t even do bus things or tractor things. It’s simply good at being a car.

Read any business news, and you’ll find stories of unicorns, venture funding and IPOs. Stories of powerful CEOs who are out to change the world.

They rarely got there on a bicycle.

That’s okay.

The challenge arises when we take our eyes off of what we set out to build in the first place.