Where are they now? Alan Seiden

| 28-min read

Here's the next episode in my “Where are they now?” series, in which I looked back with Alan Seiden, who explains how he used an advanced content marketing strategy to go from reluctant solopreneur to now sought-after speaker and founder of The Seiden Group, an influential technical firm.

I’ve known Alan for many years, and although we’ve never officially worked together on his business, he has absorbed and internalized so many of the marketing lessons I’m passing along – to the point where, after several years, his business is in Phase 3 with a smidgen of 2, he says. (That's from this blog post and companion video. Watch it to find out which phase you're in.)

There’s so much here to learn from Alan about relationship building and patience and not getting in your own way or forcing things before their time.

So listen here (or below) and learn. (And scroll down to read the transcript.)

 

if you like what you hear from Alan, you'll love our first podcast episode #324, "Awkward techie to tech celebrity" about how he left an unsatisfying job to start his own consulting business. Now he manages big projects, charges big money and does marketing with a flare. He’s even garnered a bit of celebrity status in his focused niche!

Of course, we’d love it if you write a review, subscribe on Apple Podcasts and sign up for Quick Tips from Marketing Mentor. 

Transcript for Episode #451, Where are they now? With Alan Seiden

ilise benun

Hi there. This is ilise benun, your Marketing Mentor. And this is the podcast for you, if, and only if, you are ready to leave the feast or famine syndrome behind, and I mean for good.

Here's the next in my series, “Where Are They Now?” I talked to Alan Seiden, founder of the Seiden Group, whom I've known for many years, but we've never worked together on his business. 

Nonetheless, Alan has absorbed and internalized so many of the marketing lessons that I'm passing along, to the point where, after several years, his business is "in Phase 3, with a smidgen of 2," he says. There's so much here to learn from Alan about relationship-building and patience, and not getting in your own way or forcing things before their time. So, listen and learn.

ilise benun

Hello Alan. Welcome back to the podcast.

Alan Seiden

Hello, ilise. Thank you for having me.

ilise benun

Of course, please introduce yourself.

Alan Seiden

I'm Alan Seiden, and these days, the founder and principal of Seiden Group, software consulting company, specializing in the IBM i platform that evolved from the old AS400. It's a very interesting job. And I like to say, "Everything I need to know, I learned from Ilise benun, back in the past." I keep quoting ‘Benunisms’ all the time. I don't realize I did it till the next day.

ilise benun

That's pretty funny. So I've seeped in over the years.

Alan Seiden

I practice what you preach. [Laughter]

ilise benun

And that's what this podcast is about, right? If anyone listens to the intro, it says, “I'm interviewing not all those book writers who keep pitching me to be a guest on my podcast—I totally ignore those. And I only, these days, invite people who are literally practicing what I preach, whether I've worked directly with them one-on-one or something else, which is the case for you, right? So …

Alan Seiden

Mm-hmm.

ilise benun

... I mean, this is part of a “Where Are They Now” series that I just started. And it's also a sequel to an episode we did more than four years ago, number 324, it was called “From Awkward Techie to Tech ‘Celebrity’,”  in August of 2017. But maybe give a little history of your exposure to me, because you haven't been a client, if I remember correctly, right?

Alan Seiden

No, I was just kind of your friend and kind of under your hypnotic influence for a while. In the professional group and as friends too, like, we're part of the Usability Professionals. Neither of us was a usability professional, but somehow that was the place to kind of meet all different kinds of people with different blended kind of careers. So that was very interesting to see that.

I met you and you were kind of an interesting go-getter, I thought, and you didn't have a regular type of job that I'd experienced out here in the suburbs. Like, you kind of created your own field, almost, before everybody was doing it. 

It was like you were early there, and you found a niche and you kept changing it. And so I sort of, “oh, I could create something.” I didn't really think of that. I just wanted a better job at that time. But eventually I thought, “Well, there's nothing there.” 

But meanwhile, I'd started to write articles, not exactly knowing where I was going, but something built up and people discovered me, and I became important in our kind of technical community in a way. And then I started speaking, and did a lot of other things, and eventually, it just evolved. It's like, even without an exact plan, but just some kind of vague dreams of greatness, and it came out from there.

ilise benun

And all right, so there's so much to ‘unpack,’ as they say, in what you've just said. And I think the things I want to focus on, here, on the cusp of 2022, or actually we're in 2022 by the time people will hear this, but it is almost the first of the year when we're recording. 

And I think the first thing I want to highlight, which I was trying to get at, is that through my own content, practicing what I preach, I'm putting out a lot of content from this content machine. You have been reading my Quick Tips for years, and I guess listening to my podcast. I mean, I don't really know what you're doing, but you're getting it. It's seeping in. You're using it. And you're growing. You've grown from someone who had what I thought, at the time, was a really bad job that you needed to leave, even though I would never have said that to you. I don't think I did, right? 

[Laughter]

Alan Seiden

Okay. I was ready to leave.

ilise benun

But then you went out on your own and started creating content. And I do want to focus a little bit on that, shortly, but now you have a team of how many people? What is the Seiden Group at this point in 2022?

Alan Seiden

It's approximately eight. Some are full-time and some float as needed, kind of part-time. But the administrative staff, technical people, marketing … actually some of the great content comes from our team, not just from me, because I'm too busy to sort of write everything. But I tend to edit it and think of who the audience is, and come up with some ideas for it, as well as giving talks. So, yeah, content's important. Plus, in my field, it just doesn't exist. Some of the information is actually original research that no one else has done, so it's important. Other times, it's just a point of view.

ilise benun

Okay, so let's talk about the content, because there's a content strategy, what I consider to be an advanced content strategy, which doesn't mean you have to be advanced to do it.  

[Laughter]

Right? Some people can do it in Phase 1 of their business—which we will talk about, which phase you're in. But this advanced content strategy is advanced because it's very labor intensive and it requires a lot of initiative. And most people, frankly, are just too lazy to do it. And you did it from the very beginning. And I don't even know what to call it yet, that's why I'm not naming it. I'm hoping, actually, by the end of this episode, we can come up with a really good name for it, because I know you're excellent with words, in addition to being an excellent coder. But the idea behind this advanced content strategy is that you do research, right? 

You talk to people, you interview people, you write content, you disseminate that content. And through that process, you develop relationships—that's the strategic networking. You reach out to these people cold, who never would have probably given you the time of day if you hadn't been approaching it from a content point of view, if you'd been trying to sell them something—so that's kind of a targeted outreach element to it. And then the content itself that results. So just talk a little bit about how that strategy—and, again, if you have a name for it, I'm open—has laid the foundation for the Seiden Group.

Alan Seiden

Right. Really this technical platform we're on is a very traditional one. It's not exactly a mainframe, but it was traditionally kind of conservative, by larger companies using it. But so, when I came into this field, newer technology was being added to it. So I was at that intersection of old and the new, you might say. And there wasn't a lot of information on how to do everything. In fact, sometimes I wrote to satisfy my own curiosity. I don't know the answer, and so I'll find out and write about it, or I may interview people who might know and find out and write about it.

ilise benun

Okay. So, let me just stop you there for a second, because a lot of people ... that's a beautiful, brilliant strategy, right? I want to know the answer to this question. Let me reach out to people and see if I can find out the answer and then disseminate it as content. A lot of people might say, "Oh, I'm not the expert. So how am I going to write about it?" What would you say?

Alan Seiden

Probably no one knows, and you're going to be the first one. You'll be the first. You'll be the first, and you explore it. And this is something I definitely got from ilise, watching how she worked. She didn't always have to position herself as the expert, and sometimes she wasn't. She could make it a conversation, that we're learning this together, say in a presentation that she was doing, if she wasn't an expert. Sometimes she was, and [sometimes] she wasn't. But she was willing to do it in either case. 

And I took that approach too, that I wanted to find out how to do this. Here, I did it. And this is important, not just for myself, but for the whole community to get this information out. I'm sort of trying to help the whole enterprise kind of improve, show there's hope, and be inspirational.

So that's that. Other times people asked a question, again, I don't know, I say, "We need an answer. There has to be an answer." And it doesn't just help my potential clients, but you're talking about networking and relationships, ilise. 

Also, even IBM itself that creates this platform I'm on, they can't get all the information out themselves. They don't even have all the answers sometimes. So they rely on someone like me to do that. And then they see how important it was. And then they trust us and are willing to sort of give us some kind of support in the future, as well, and relationship building.

ilise benun

And so let's just extrapolate a little bit that idea, because I liked what you said about being at the intersection of the old and the new, because, certainly, you don't have to be a programmer to find that intersection. In fact, so many industries are being disrupted right now, in the process of being disrupted. So how can anyone—a copywriter, a designer, a marketer—find themselves at the intersection, or see, reveal to themselves, the opportunity that's right there in front of them at the intersection of the old and the new? What would you add to that as a tip?

Alan Seiden

People are motivated. We may think business is motivated by business and money, and maybe it is; maybe at a certain scale it is. But it's also motivated by individual people's needs, emotional needs, too. So, the old-time people like, "What am I going to do to survive in this industry?" 

The young people don't know what the old people know and they don't communicate. And so sometimes we can help them do that, to speak. And to relieve people's anxiety, I'm sure you could ... any professional, you want to relieve the anxiety of your clients in some way. So in my field, part of it is being a bridge between the different kinds of cultures as well as technology.

ilise benun

And I love that analogy of the bridge. It actually comes up a lot, but I haven't really underscored it nearly enough, because anyone offering a service can be the bridge between this and that, and create the space for yourself, if you can see those two waters that need to be bridged.

Alan Seiden

Um hmm. Yeah, definitely. So I do see us as a bridge. It's like a little bit about my personality—you got to make everything harmonious or everything work together. But somehow it works, here. Because in these companies, they hire young people, and they know a lot, but they don't speak. In other words, people aren't speaking together. Bring us in, and we can help everybody get along. Don't throw away what you have. Don't throw away what you have. You can still use it along with the newer things. Anyway, that's probably part of our mission here.

ilise benun

And is that actual language from your marketing or any of your content, or is it implied?

Alan Seiden

We say it, too. We definitely say it. There's so much I could talk about, but I'm sort of taking your lead, where you want to go with all this.

ilise benun

Yeah. I appreciate that. 

Let's talk a little bit about the phase of business that you're in, and then I want to connect it to pricing, because I know you've tried a lot of different pricing strategies and I'd love for you to articulate a little bit how you've evolved those pricing strategies.

So, I'll link to it, but the three phases of a business that I started talking about in 2021, and we'll continue to build on, are Phase 1 is “guessing with your fingers crossed.” Phase 2 is “settling in.” And then I do call Phase 3 ‘guessing—but more strategically,” but you're still guessing, because we just don't know where things are going. We never know where things are going. 

So, you said that you're "mostly 3 with a smidgen of 2." So just talk a little bit about that, how you see it, and feel free to elaborate on the phases, too, since I've just given a very brief overview.

Alan Seiden

Well, I feel like I'm mostly Phase 3, that we know what our market is, but it keeps changing; it's always changing. And I sort of see where things might be going, and then a few years later it might happen. 

But we are moving into different phases of pricing, too. So, if I started out being value-based pricing, or saying I was going to do that, especially as an individual, I didn't want to get into all the programming directly, I'd be more value-based and have some kind of leverage. Then I got employees and we moved more into, probably, hourly pricing. But now we are offering support contracts, which means …

ilise benun

… so that's like subscriptions and retainers.

Alan Seiden

It's like a subscription, yes. Pay a certain amount per quarter, per year, and then we'll be there for you, and we'll also provide some service along the way, and also be there in an emergency. And also, it helps to fund our continued improvement of the product, too, that we can make your life better. 

But there, like the pricing, if you're asking about pricing, it depends on number of factors. That's why I'm still kind of learning, but I have some ideas about it. 

One is, what level of person are you talking to? How much authority do they have in the company? How much do they directly impact it? Are they allowed to authorize $3,000? 5,000? 10,000? One client says, "Could you just bring it a little lower, make it $25,000. Then I could approve it." So it depends on that.

It depends on the relationship with them, because everyone's afraid. I mean, I'm very hesitant to sign a contract for something and pay for something, if I don't know. I can put myself in their position. Depends on how well they've known us; have we helped them before? 

Depends on how much value. It may not exactly be value-based, how much value—does their website make them millions of dollars and is mission critical? Then it's worth paying for a support contract. And also, it means more responsibility from my side. I might say, "We're going to charge you this amount, because it's a lot of responsibility, if your site went down."

ilise benun

Well, that's interesting—the degree of responsibility determines the value. And I just want to also highlight the idea, because value-based pricing, I think most people don't really understand what it means. Sometimes I don't even understand, because everyone uses it differently. But what you just said speaks about value-based pricing, not as the value of the person—you—that you're bringing necessarily to the table or to the project, but the value of their website—the thing you're working on. And, what was that last thing you said … and the degree of responsibility to them, right?

Alan Seiden

Exactly. Exactly. We take it so seriously. Exactly. It's a degree of responsibility. 

So, say ... I don't know what to say about that, but that's how I put it to them because that's how I feel. 

So, like some companies will charge for each server you have, we're going to charge you a flat amount per server, and then it can multiply to be very expensive. With me, I don't feel that way. We can be more flexible. But if I feel like, this is a server that's being used very heavily and it's mission critical, I'm going to feel very responsible for that, so I'll kind of base the price partly on that. And they can understand, too. They're smart, if I explain it that way, it's how I actually feel about pricing. We have to have the staff to be ready, and we have to have regular calls with them just to actually prevent problems. So, it's a more intense relationship; a more involved relationship. So that's how I feel about it.

ilise benun

I'm glad you emphasize the relationship also, because that's what it's all about, no matter what you're selling, truthfully. And there's no relationship at the beginning, so that's something you have to develop over time. 

But one thing you wrote to me that I wanted to ask you to elaborate on a little bit is this idea that: “Our best clients want to pay us, so that we can continue our work and make their jobs easier." And I think sometimes people, especially at the beginning of their business, don't believe that the client wants to pay them, and pay them well, pay them what they deserve. It's just figuring out what exactly that is. So elaborate on that for me.

Alan Seiden

There is the idea of reciprocation, which you know, you probably talk about that. It’s that people don't just want to take, they want to give. In fact, we have a client now who used to ask questions on the forums and get a lot of free advice from us. 

I was getting quite irritated, actually. This guy is terrible. He's always asking questions, and then asking my employees questions on these private things and stuff. And I had a call with him and I explained the situation. 

"Look, we're not just here to answer questions all the time. We're a business, and we have to have enough funds to have our staff be available and everything." 

"Okay. Okay." 

And eventually, somehow, he came around to get to know me and he loved the idea of paying for support because he feels like he actually wanted to give something back, actually. He wanted to give something back for the years that we've put into this. It was very nice.

And then, once we started, he realized he did have a lot of questions. He thought he didn't need that much help. Once the relationship opens like that and people actually give the money, in this case, they actually feel more free to seek help, to actually ask questions, and not hold back—because now they're doing it in a more legitimate way. It opens things up to a much more open and comfortable relationship.

ilise benun

And this is actually connecting in my mind to something I've been thinking a lot about, and talking a little bit about, because it's still kind of raw, but I'm reading this book called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, which I highly recommend. And one of the ideas in there is called ‘eigenzeit,’ German word, which I'm translating, not that I speak German, but I'm translating as ‘letting things take the time they take.’ 

And a lot of people I work with ‘complain.’ I use that word hesitantly, but kind of complain to me that they're too slow at what they do. And I always want to say, "No, you just have to find the clients who want the quality that your slowness results in and are willing to pay for it." 

And so I feel like that's connecting to what you're saying, whether it's this guy or someone else. What do you think?

Alan Seiden

Things take time and relationships take time and situations take time to arise, sometimes. I'm impatient with myself, not in the speed of work specifically, but I have so many ideas, things I want to do, places I want to be. "I should be calling these people and doing all this, but then ... “or, "Oh, I should have done this. I did this wrong, and the client ...”. 

But then, sometimes things come around later, too. They come around later, when the time is right. So, I don't know. It’s not exactly what you said. It's about more about this quality of the work I think you were referring to.

ilise benun

Yeah, well. Actually, I find sometimes questions answer themselves or problems resolve themselves, if you don't rush in to fix it, because that's what you think you're supposed to do or that's what you think they want you to do. 

Sometimes I'll just hang back and wait, and see what happens. Because if I don't have to spend my time, I don't want to. And if I wait a little bit and tolerate the discomfort of knowing that someone is waiting for me, I can tolerate that. And often, the thing will either recede and not be quite as urgent as it seemed a couple of days ago, or something else takes its place. I mean, so many things can happen. I don't know. Have you ever had that experience?

Alan Seiden

Other people are busy, too. Your clients are busy, too. And, sure, priorities change. Sometimes it's just helpful to make contact and say, "I'm working on this, but this ..." just explain things to people. I guilt trip myself all the time. They're expecting this, but it's okay, sometimes it's all right. I don't know if that's exactly what you're referring to, but everyone's in the same situation. 

Everyone is really kind of too busy, and it's also important not to try to do too much. You're doing what you can do. But then, things happen. Sometimes you're just like, “it will happen.” I kind of realized it will happen at the right time and I can't kind of force things to happen sometimes before their time.

ilise benun

No, we can't.

Alan Seiden

Just keep your mind open. It's like a perspective of keeping your mind open for the thing to happen. Be kind of ready.

ilise benun

Exactly. All right, we just have a few more minutes and I do want to kind of step back and ask you the question I actually meant to ask you at the beginning.

Alan Seiden

[Laughter]

Finding its time ... It was too soon before, that's why.

ilise benun

That's right. But now it's time to say: ‘How have you evolved since the last time we talked in 2017? And maybe even more specifically, how has this pandemic, this dang pandemic, impacted your business for better or worse?”

Alan Seiden

I've evolved. The team's gotten bigger. We have a great, great project manager now. Like, there were things I was missing. The kind of business has changed, just because the market changed. There was an opportunity, sort of, there was a big gap in our market. Another company was handling, producing, this language we use, and we ended up doing it ourselves; partially, through relationships, we found the right people. So we had to take on an even bigger role in the industry than we had. It had to happen, it had to happen. And it's really interesting.

And I sort of wondered if that would happen, but then conditions changed that sort of forced it, and I was ready, in a sense. So that's change; it's very, very interesting. 

And, oh, a pandemic. Well, conferences got canceled. I was so busy running around to all the conferences and speaking there. Of course, some people are really hurt economically and some have benefited from the pandemic. We were already working remotely, a lot. We knew how to do that. We already were doing Zoom calls and Slack and everything. So it didn't really change our day-to-day work that much. Except, I wasn't speaking at conferences in person.

ilise benun

And did that affect your marketing? Or did you replace the speaking with something else?

Alan Seiden

Yep. Replaced the speaking with, well, actually virtual conferences. There were virtual conferences, which I actually enjoyed. It was really easy. I just create the content, which is a lot of work, but then I can do a lot more. Didn't have to think about travel and getting on a plane. 

Now, in a way, I was reaping the benefits of many years of speaking at conferences, so people knew me. They go, "Oh yeah. I saw you 10 years ago. I learned a lot." 

So, part of it was just kind of the leverage from all that, those relationships from the past. 

So, where it's going now, I'm not sure. We can get a lot done remotely, too, on the phone and Zoom calls, and actually, we get a lot more content out there. Again, with our role expanded, a lot of this is actually just making our product better and getting a lot of information out, which we can do online.

ilise benun

Awesome. So that was the, “Where Are You Now?”as part of this “Where Are They Now,” or as you said, “Where is Their Hair Now?” 

[Laughter]

Alan Seiden

[Laughter]

I was thinking of myself.

ilise benun

I know. And my final question for you, I'm going to put you on the spot, but I did warn you—do you have any ideas for what I should call this advanced content strategy that would help people understand it?

Alan Seiden

“Solve it.”

ilise benun

Solve it?

Alan Seiden

I don't know. You put me on the spot here, ilise.

ilise benun

Yes.

Alan Seiden

That's the best I can do in the spur of the moment. But it's like satisfying your own curiosity. That's what I tell people actually, because I sort of think of myself as a little itty bitty, itty bitty, one percent of ilise somewhere, where I like to kind of help people with their own development. And, I don't know, I don't know. Yes, there's something you know some of, and you could find out the rest and write about it. People need you. People need you to write about this.

ilise benun

That's interesting. I like the idea of curiosity. Maybe we should call it “The Curiosity Strategy,” because it is kind of like being a journalist, right? And copywriters …

Alan Seiden

Oh yeah.

ilise benun

... especially are ready to do this. They've got the skill. It's more difficult for designers and programmers, although y'all can do it. But I do like the element of curiosity. Let me think about that.

Alan Seiden

And anybody will talk to you. If you're writing an article or something, experts will talk to you.

ilise benun

Why?

Alan Seiden

Because it promotes them. First of all, they like to share. They like to get their name in print. And they'd like someone else to do the work of writing the article, for a change. So I think people are very ... I used to do that quite a bit. I wanted to write an article about your eyes getting tired looking at the computer. I interviewed the dean of the optometry department at a college. Anybody will talk to you.

ilise benun

Would you send me the link to that? I want to read that.

Alan Seiden

Oh, sure. Happy to.

ilise benun

And I'll include it in the companion blog post that goes along with this, because I'm sure I'm not alone.

Alan Seiden

No, you're not alone.

ilise benun

[Laughter] 

All right. Alan, any last words you want to say before I tell you or ask you to tell people where they can find you?

Alan Seiden

No. Other than, we all have a lasting impact on other people, more than we will know, by putting ourselves out there. And you certainly have with me. I've told you Ilise, every other week I say something to somebody, and I say, "Shoot, I quoted Ilise benun again, 15 years ago. Darn, I thought it was my idea."

ilise benun

[Laughter]

And you know I'm just channeling my teachers.

Alan Seiden

We all do. So we're all so important. We're all very important to others.

ilise benun

And not at all important, right? 

Alan Seiden

At the same time. Yes. I know. I know. But people can find me at seidengroup.com, S-E-I-D-E-N-G-R-O-U-P.com.

ilise benun

Beautiful. Thank you so much, Alan. And best of luck to you in 2022, and maybe in five more years, we'll do another, “Where Is His Hair?”

Alan Seiden

[Laughter]

Awesome. I'd love to.

ilise benun

All right, bye.

Alan Seiden

Bye-bye.

ilise benun

Did you learn a little something? I hope so, because that's how this works, one baby step at a time. Before you know it, you will have better clients with bigger budgets. Speaking of better clients, they're probably not going to fall in your lap. If you want to build a thriving business on your own terms, you need my Simplest Marketing Plan. The new 4.0 version is packed with all new content, including six new case studies, and six new lessons. You also get three different planners, plus access to the free monthly Office Hours group coaching session, where you'll meet other creative pros who are practicing what I preach and taking control over their business and their life. Find it all in the Marketing Mentor shop at Marketing-Mentor.com. I'll be back soon with more conversations with creative professionals who are doing what it takes to ditch the feast or famine syndrome. Until then, see you next time.

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