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INTERVIEW WITH VIRGINIA LAWRENCE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF SPAWN
(Interview Conducted in 2003)
Patricia Fry: You are Executive Director of SPAWN and you also operate at least one full-time business. Would you tell us about your business(es)?
Virginia Lawrence: My main business, CogniText, is helping people to publish both online and in print. My focus is on the clear presentation of information, both online and in print. We build Web sites to inform the visitor and/or to sell something to the visitor. We create easy to follow navigation, along with marketing copy, and readable descriptions of products and services. We have found that many companies desperately need our services, because their initial marketing materials were written by someone who is too familiar with the product/services. Particularly in the high-tech arena, the engineer whodevelops the product is not capable of writing about the product in a way that the average potential buyers can understand. After building the sites, we market them online so that the search engines will send visitors. We added this service to protect our clients from the unscrupulous "marketers" who sell worthless services. We find that a well-marketed site validates our good design and definitely pleases the client.
I specialize in writing, editing, and publishing highly technical books and manuals on statistical analysis. These projects require knowledge of statistical analysis and the many statistical procedures; they also require a skill in simplifying the technical language. Although the readers are somewhat knowledgeable in the area of statistical analysis, they are not necessarily familiar with every topic. They appreciate having good examplesand straightforward explanations.
After seeing our Web clients selling well online, I decided that I should build an online store for myself. I made arrangements with two manufacturers to drop ship their products to my customers, and I built SilverSweetheart at http://www.silversweetheart.com. We sell only products I love, and the biggest seller is the Lucy Ann line of personalized sterling silver charms. Mommies and grammies love them. In addition to the expected revenues, there have been surprise benefits to operating my own online store.
With my own income directly affected by the online marketing I carry out for SilverSweetheart, I have become fascinated with optimizing online marketing. This has become a great advantage for both SilverSweetheart and for my clients. Now SilverSweetheart and our marketing clients are on the first page of the search engines due to my efforts. It is easy to test minor page changes to see the effect on sales in SilverSweetheart. For example, our product category pages had thumbnail pictures of the products. That's helpful, but not enticing. When I added one larger picture on each category page, sales doubled. This is the type of important knowledge which I can carry with me in client discussions and in planning client sites.
PF: What is your educational background? And what did you envision as your career niche early on?
VL: Hah, my educational background is a bit varied, and it went on forever! B.S. in physics, followed by some graduate study in physics. When I finally realized that physics was not for me, I was living in Vienna, Austria. I studied psychology (in German) full time at Austria's University of Vienna for two years, and their best course was statistical analysis. Then I spent one year in Windsor, Ontario where I completed a B.A. in psychology with an emphasis on experimental psychology and statistical analysis. Finally I ended up in southern California at USC where I finished an M.A. and Ph.D. in experimental psychology with an emphasis on statistical analysis. After all that, I realized that I did not want to be a professor, so I started a statistical analysis software company called Human Systems Dynamics. We created and published statistical analysis software for researchers in every discipline. This involved developing and testing the software, plus writing, editing, and publishing the software manuals, then marketing the software, and giving technical support to customers. We quickly found that customer support calls decreased when we crafted our software manuals carefully. Our statistics software ran on the Apple II computers which were brand new at the time. We flourished for ten years, then the statistical software companies that earlier published software only for huge mainframe computers jumped into our market. We couldn't fight their big bucks and big names, so we closed and I joined one of our biggest competitors as Manager of Documentation. That involved managing the documentation staff as well as writing, editing, and publishing all of their books and manuals. Our most important publication was a three-volume set totaling 1,400 pages, published by the University of California Press.
Did I envision my career niche? Part of it; it was obvious that I'd be involved in statistical analysis. The rest has developed organically. Statistical software comes with Help systems and with Demos. After creating Help systems and Demos, it was one simple step to start developing Web sites. Also, I'm a capabilities junkie: I love to develop new capabilities.
PF: What led up to your decision to start your own business?
VL: I much prefer to report only to myself. I truly dislike office politics, and I don't like working for a company when it's obvious that the business plan is going in the wrong direction. Now I have no one to blame but myself.
PF: Tell us about your typical workday.
VL: Checking the e-mail. At this point, I can take care of new SPAWN situations, process the orders from SilverSweetheart, and deal with any new client emergencies. This can take from 1 to 4 hours. I prefer to take care of small tasks immediately, so that they don't take up mental space when I'm ready to focus on the main project.
I prefer to spend a good batch of time on one project, ignoring e-mail for several hours. Like writing/editing, the Web design and online marketing require stretches of total concentration. If there are too many interruptions, I start to get frantic, so I drink another 16 ounces of water and turn off the phone. When I'm ready for a break, I'll check the e-mail again for SPAWN, SilverSweetheart, and client communications. Then back to the main project or to a new project. I'm writing every day, whether it is a report on a search engine conference or an article for SPAWNews or an article for the Chamber of Commerce newspaper or marketing text for a Web site.
I also do a great deal of reading on Web techniques and the ever-changing online marketing. I usually work 10-12 hours per day on weekdays and another 4-6 hours each weekend day. It's a bit too much, but I'm enjoying most of what I'm doing!
PF: What comprises your perfect or ideal workday—all writing? Designing a Web site?
VL: My ideal day would be similar to my typical day with no client crises. I really enjoy everything I'm doing, and I thrive on variety. It's only when a crisis derails my plans for the day that I'm disappointed in my productivity. And yes, my ideal day would be only 8 hours long.
PF: Not only are you the Executive Director of SPAWN, you are the Webmaster. Would you talk about your long relationship with SPAWN?
VL: Way back when you and Mary Embree were starting SPAWN, Mary and I met to discuss the organization. It was clear that SPAWN would need a good Web site, and I was excited that creating such a site let me apply my knowledge of Web design, online marketing, and publishing. Along with creating the overall site, I wrote and included a batch of articles on how we should prepare books for the printer; that information was not available anywhere else at the time. Those articles have been updated once since their inception in 1996, and it's time to update them again!
PF: What's it like balancing a full-time business with a full-time volunteer position?
VL: Some days it feels like a bit too much. Most of the time, I feel completely fulfilled.
PF: Speaking of balance, what do you do away from work and SPAWN to replenish your spirit? Any hobbies?
VL: Most important, I have a good marriage. John is a kind, interesting man who is a lot of fun. We can talk about business problems or just laugh and hang out together. Then I have Charlie, a Senegal parrot, here in the office with me. Around about 4:00 PM, he starts tempting me to take a break. That's a good time to give him a snack and walk around the house with Charlie on my shoulder, focusing only on him. He's pleased with the 10 minutes of attention, and it's certainly good for me. Charlie gets another couple of hours of attention while we watch TV in the evening, and Frank the cat gets attention every time I walk into the kitchen.
I enjoy kayaking and walking with my husband, John, or with friends. I love gemstones and jewelry. I make my own necklaces with pearls and semi-precious stones, and I always go to the International Gem Show when it comes to Santa Monica. I devour mysteries, and I read lots of alternative health newsletters and books. I'm very interested in being in charge of my own health, but I don't exercise enough!
PF: Do you have any future plans that involve SPAWN? Your business(es)?
VL: I'd like to see SPAWN and my businesses expand. In particular, I'd like to see SPAWN offering more and more value to members.
PF: I always like asking people what they would advise anyone who is interested in running a nonprofit organization such as SPAWN and/or operating a business like yours.
VL: It is absolutely necessary to be a self-starter. If it's all up to you, then you must be ready to make decisions and act on those decisions. It's much harder to organize your time when there is no boss demanding that you have project X completed by tomorrow. Yes, you can take a day off when you really need it, but you must remember that you are the boss. You set the schedule. For many people, the number of alternative possibilities can cause paralysis by analysis. Yes, it's a good idea to analyze and determine the best way to go, but sometimes the second-best way is the optimal way if you can start on it immediately. Nike is right: Just Do It!
For more information, visit http://www.cognitext.com
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