My Sister, the BadAss [Ichthyosis Awareness Month]

1014679_10101303122144689_581346574_o This post isn’t about me, because this isn’t about me. I’ve deleted sentences where I dip too deeply into my own psyche, because this is her story. I am just an observer, or a character in it.

My sister has lamellar ichthyosis. Chances are, you’ve never heard of it, and since she’s one in 600,000 you’ve probably never met anyone with it.

She’s a f*cking badass.

10177422_10102305763263758_3734868671271599824_nShe runs marathons. She works 10-hour days. She takes care of our grandfather and buys him groceries, takes him to doctor’s appointments, and makes sure he’s OK. She’s the first to visit a coworker or acquaintance in the hospital, to bring something she baked (probably after a marathon and on her way to work), and to call you and ask you how you’re doing when she hears you had a rough day at work.

She never complains. She never talks about being hot, or feeling tight in her skin, or dry, or sore.

I’ve been with her shopping somewhere and we’ll notice a few IMG_8406 2young kids looking at her, noticing she’s different, avoiding staring like they’ve been taught to do. My sister beams warmly at them, walks up to them and chirps (genuinely): “Is there anything you’d like to ask me?”

She greets stares with smiles, and doesn’t get offended. She uses it as an opportunity to inform, to educate. She is an ambassador for rare diseases—whether or not she intends to be.

I’ve heard stories of people saying horrible things to her. The man in the parking deck that felt compelled to shout “Time to lay off the tanning bed!” The well-intentioned older women who cooed at her, pitying, and asked how she got burned. And the ones that think we can’t hear them. Newsflash: we effin’ hear you. The gall of these people—to feel it’s appropriate to comment on a person’s appearance, whether or not you’re 100% convinced it is a sunburn—even if you’re sure, why do you need to step up and say something?

1979579_10101924827966148_4937035184748556901_nAre these the same people that question overweight women on their due dates, or ask androgynous dressers what their true gender is?

My anger at these situations must be nothing compared to what Darin feels inside. And yet she handles these situations with grace, never becoming threatening or argumentative. The strength that must require is unfathomable to me.

Rudeness breeds rudeness. I should try to follow Darin’s example and respond to rudeness with patience. Maybe the jerk in the checkout line at Whole Foods had a bad day. Maybe the lady that cut me off on the road is distracted by personal tragedy. You just don’t know, so why perpetuate the negativity?

10830781_10102267317459549_3854054993268780552_oThis is Ichthyosis Awareness Month, and I thought it would be helpful to contribute some additional awareness. I can’t tell you what it’s like outside of a second-hand perspective—I know what it’s like to walk next to someone in summer heat, offering ice or water or shade (and being aggressively shot down!!!! She’s independent, dammit!) but I have no idea what it feels like to be unable to cool oneself by sweating.

The closest I’ll have to that first hand experience is a piece Darin wrote last year for Carly’s blog (Carly also has Ichthyosis). It’s about the importance of touch, when most people might see you and think they shouldn’t touch you. It’s beautiful, and I recommend (insist) you read it.

And consider that sometimes, the strongest of those among us are often the ones fighting battles that we’ll never know are waging deep within. The strength required to respond with grace and kindness when most of us would respond with bitterness or aggression is more powerful than anything most of us face on a daily basis. You never know what someone else is dealing with—so be kind to each other.

Brand Yourself!

BrandYourself.001

Had the awesome opportunity last week to speak to a group of early stage entrepreneurs and freelancers on the topic of self-promotion.

Presented by Biscuitville Week (and originally intended just for college-enrolled entrepreneurs from UNCG, A&T, and Guilford) the crash course was intended to alleviate some of the fears of self promotion (see post below, on Justification) as well as inspire previously underutilized promotional platforms.

brand-your-biscuit-logo-222x200Though the audience was only about 50% students, it was exciting for me to see how much of the information I’d originally planned to share was still relevant to the general public. I very much enjoyed the opportunity to share my knowledge and experience—and to speak in front of a large group of people! I wasn’t even nervous…until I was informed (just moments before starting) that the executive marketing team from Biscuitville was in my audience. GULP

I’ve had some follow-up emails from some of the class attendees and the feedback has been great—people are already seeing results from taking my advice! I’m definitely not a teacher (I lack both the patience and discipline education requires) but I can see why people enjoy it. There’s something a bit exhilarating about passing on morsels of knowledge to a captive audience, and seeing them put it to use. Maybe it’s narcissistic, but explaining a complicated concept and watching it finally resonate—light a spark of understanding, a “click”—within someone is quite lovely to experience.

Just Stop (Justifying)

What’s the one word that can instantly destroy your credibility?

How often have you been asked about your startup, or your job, or your current progress, only to respond with: “I’m just a freelancer” / “I’m just a startup right now” / “I’m just in the ideas phase”

Unless we’re terribly conceited, we aren’t comfortable touting our accomplishments unprompted. So when we are asked (with captive audience) to self-define or praise, we tend to do so a bit meekly. Even more so, when we are working in an area potentially new to us, or outside of our degree or professional experience: “I’m just a cinefile, but I thought it would be neat to design a new type of [insert film equipment].”

It’s not that we’re not proud, or that we’re afraid of being ridiculed, though there are times when those hold us back. But there’s a feeling that if we smile, chest out, and proudly proclaim “I AM xxx and I HAVE DONE xxx” we risk sounding like a pompous egomaniacal ass. Or a superhero.

Confidence is sexy, and we are drawn to those who are confident. Even at our most confident, however, it’s still difficult to self-describe without justification. And that justification could be hurting you more than you think.

If you were at the acupuncturist, and as he hovered over you, needles-in-hand, he whispered in your ear “I’m just an apprentice,” would you relax and allow him to prick you? If your Über driver whipped around and chirped “I just got my license!” would you direct her to your home?

“Just” implies a lack of experience and of self-worth. I’m “just” a startup communicates that there’s something wrong with being a startup. It’s like saying “I’m just a bartender” or “I’m just a nanny”—positions some have chosen with much pride. You as an entrepreneur have one of the coolest, most-envied careers in the world! Look at you, you don’t answer to a boss!

Sure, this path comes with a host of unique stresses and challenges, but so what? You can take a midday walk if you’re feeling down. You can make it to yoga in the morning. You can take a two-hour lunch (with beer!). Most importantly, you have made the incredibly brave decision to take responsibility for your own income and livelihood, and that is something to be admired.

You are not just an entrepreneur. You’re a proud startup, dammit! You’re amazing, and even when you’re losing, you’re still winning.

Now get back to work.

– See more at: http://foundry336.com/2015/03/just-stop-justifying/#sthash.MYUpiz6F.dpuf

Better Content Marketing, Part II: Your New Content Strategy

strategy
A content strategy brainstorming session for Maslo.

(You can find Part I of this article here.)

Now that we know what bad content is, we can start to fix it. Let’s talk about what you’re going to do differently from here on out.

YOUR NEW CONTENT STRATEGY: FEWER FOLLOWS, MORE ENGAGMENT.

While there isn’t a way to directly correlate or track engagement on social media into sales, there’s significant research to prove that a good brand rapport goes a long way in attracting (and maintaining) customers. So stop focusing so much on the numbers!

If you only have 5K followers, and your post is so great and clever that you get about 500 retweets, that’s a 10% engagement ratio. And that’s fantastic! That also means those 500 folks were so compelled by your message that they chose to share it with their followers, so if each of them has an audience of 1K, that’s a viral reach of 500,000. Which means approximately 500,000 new potential consumers just saw your great content (for free. Without paying to promote it.)

SO HOW DO WE CREATE GOOD CONTENT?

And how do we get people to share it? It’s not easy (if it were, every brand would be doing it). And I’m sorry to tell you, it’s not created by an unpaid intern with no real marketing experience or writing skills. Or Deb from accounting. Or your niece who’s really, really good at all this social media stuff.

This should not be your Media department.
This should not be your Media department.

It’s also not created on the fly. Like bad content, good content also needs a strategy. Think about it like this: if you go out in your sweats and a toboggan (as in, no planning, no effort) it’s unlikely you’ll be noticed. But if you shower, shave, wear clean clothes and present yourself well (as in, taking your time, making an effort) it’s likely you could be spotted and even hit on. Organic, well-done content is created in the same way.

WHO CREATES THIS CONTENT?

Your company should have a dedicated department (at least two people—solid writers, both and knowledge of marketing) solely dedicated to your media strategy. And this department should have at least two weeks of content planned out in advance.

They also need to care. Look for someone passionate about your product or service. If they’re Facebooking on your behalf, they should believe in what they’re saying; they should care about the growth, and about the interactions. Customers will pick up on that. Creating a corporate culture (more on that later) that inspires and motivates will translate to better engagement with your customers (and ultimately, a better public opinion of your brand).

Look at these happy Warby Parker employees (all wearing WP product, btw)
Look at these happy Warby Parker employees (all wearing WP product, btw). WP is widely known for having a great corporate culture.

With an in-depth understanding of how promotions and marketing works, and a passion for what they’re marketing, your team is more likely to create dual-purpose content: content that is interesting, yet subtly geared toward driving future sales.

While I can’t tell you what that content should be in a broad blog post like this, I’d genuinely love to help you figure out what good content specifically means for your brand. If you’d like to discuss this further, please don’t hesitate to reach out!

 

Better Content Marketing: Toss Your Current Strategy in the Trash

full garbage can
Go ahead, just stuff it right in there.

What is Content Marketing? Simply put, it’s creating content and broadcasting it in hopes of connecting with customers and driving sales. Any brand with a social media presence is utilizing content marketing. Content is anything you put out there: from text-only posts to images, videos, graphics, contests, etc.

What is BAD Content Marketing? You don’t need a marketing degree to spot this one. Anyone who has ever clicked “unsubscribe” or “unfollow” knows what bad content is. Any post you’ve ever read that elicited an eye-roll or a groan—anytime you felt obviously (and perhaps pitifully) marketed to—that was bad content. We all know what it is, and yet often we’re charged by our employers (or our CEOs) to create it.

Just really, really bad.
Just really, really bad.

But I need big numbers/metrics/ratios! Somewhere along the way, some media experts came up with a few sure-fire techniques to grow followers. Formulas and strategies proven to result in big! impressive! numbers. But what’s the real value in that?

If your brand gained 30K new followers on Twitter last month, did that result in 30K new lifelong customers? Or $1M in new sales? Probably not. Is there a dollar amount or value you can place on each follower? Not likely. In fact, there is little correlation between social media metrics and direct sales.

Let me clarify that a little bit: while 30K followers doesn’t necessarily mean each of those 30K people (or bots) are your customers, it is possible that you now have an audience of 30K to which your brand can be promoted. At least 30K (give or take) people now know what you are. Now your new content marketing strategy comes into play.

[read part two of Your New Content Marketing Strategy here.]

 

This Is Not What Kills Me.

Me, a few days post-breakup, with an accidental eye injury.
Me, a few days post-breakup, with an accidental eye injury.

I’m going to get personal for a minute. I’m going to show a bit of weakness, but I hope in my weakness you will see strength.

I have been challenged. I have faced dark days. I have lost hope and I have struggled. And I have survived, even when I shouldn’t have. My mantra in tough situations is “This is not what kills me.” This is not how I die. It’s a lot easier to take than “don’t cry over spilt milk.” It pays respect to the problems (yes, that sucks) while also helping to scale them (you’re not gonna die).

I remember the day I declared my rock bottom: the self-proclaimed, worst day of my life:

I had a broken ankle and I was on crutches on a second story apartment. My cat was gone, I couldn’t drive, my roommate was in the hospital, and I was broke. I ordered a pizza thinking I could make it last a week if I had to and wiped out my checking account to buy it.

When it arrived, I fell down the stairs and broke my hip.

As I lay there, I decided to make this the worst moment of my life; by doing so, I felt things could never be that bad again. Five years later, they haven’t been.

Dana Dillehunt
Me, back at work (as a wedding photographer), about 2 weeks after The Worst Day Of My Life.

Let me back up a sec: things have been bad. In the same month this year I lost two best friends, poked my eye out, and found out I had to move out of my house. With the dual loss, I realized my support network was gone (a new one has since emerged). The future I thought I was headed towards vanished. Everything I thought to be permanent and guaranteed disappeared.

In that, I actually found strength. Opportunity. It’s like my skyline was leveled and rather than stare at the rubble, I made plans for a bigger, better city. I’ve got a new company—and it’s already bring in work! I’m finding a new place to live. I’m finding closeness with people I’d previously considered acquaintances. But most importantly, I’m making plans, and I’m surviving.

Like I always do.

Survival, in spite of.

Though my genealogy indicates a Jewish heritage, this is all very new to me. The last ten years have been full of questioning, learning, studying and exploring, but only in the last two years have I been seriously studying and contemplating an open embrace of this heritage, and only in the last 6 months have I been attending services and actually being a part of things.

The most heartbreaking aspect of “coming out” as a Jew to those who have known me as agnostic, or even atheist, has been genuine concern. “Aren’t you afraid of being discriminated against?”

Rather, I see it as joining a side that could use my strength. I have never taken the easy road. I have always done what I believed to be right, even when I was outnumbered. In this way, the strength of my heritage courses through my veins—blood of so many strong people before me. With this strength comes a burden, one I readily accept: to perpetuate and preserve a culture that, though growing, is still not what it was pre-WWII. A culture that has been challenged and tested and nearly wiped out so many times.

A group of strong Jewish women…maybe I am descended from one of them?

Survival, in spite of. 

I was speaking with the Rabbi about this notion of survival, and his response:

“We were meant to be a footnote in the history books, and miraculously, time and time again, even with the odds against us, we have somehow survived.”

I still find it difficult to believe in a Man in the Sky. I believe in connection, and energy, and an energy that flows through us all and connects our biology—the explanation for why the pH of the vagina is the same as the ocean (both, by definition, what creates life [if you believe in evolution]), or fibonacci’s sequence, or the capillaries which so closely resemble life found on coral reefs.

And so I don’t see prayer as a verbal letter to the Man in the Sky, but rather a focused, channelled meditation. Mindfulness is something I’ve been lacking and needing; now I am being mindful and thankful for what good has come, and expressing worry and thought over the bad (both here and in the world).

I wasn’t raised in a Christian household; we were generically protestant and attended services on the rare Christmas/Easter, but never really practiced beyond that. I don’t have years of Christine doctrine or education to unlearn or erase. I do, however, truly love my Christmas tree. To me, it is a connection to my past. A symbol of my childhood; a celebration of the end of the year, of having been a “good girl” all year and wondering what surprises lay beneath for me. And now it represents fleeting time with aging loved ones, showing my love through meals and gifts and cards. Though it has never symbolically represented Jesus or anything Christian to me, I do understand that to so many others, it does. This will be something I struggle with.

Finding religion later in life is something I’m incredibly curious about, and would love to hear your thoughts, or maybe your own journey. Feel free to email me at any time! danadillehunt [at] gmail [dot] com.

Are You A Good Person? (Or just not an a*hole)

A few months back, the light-hearted do-gooders crowd cheered at the fact that nearly 400 Starbucks customers “Paid it Forward” by purchasing the next guests’ drinks. But the evil bastard that put an end to the chain is what stays in everyone’s mind. How dare he break that streak!

When I heard about this, I remember thinking I might have done the same thing. Or at least, considered it (in the moment, it’s always difficult to be that person). I don’t think I’m an asshole, and I don’t think he is, either.

Here’s the thing: when you do a good deed out of the kindness of your heart, you’re stepping out of your daily routine to contribute to the greater good. But when it becomes mandatory, it’s no longer a good deed. By doing what is expected and required of you (without a personal choice or commitment), you’re not being a good person. You’re just being not an asshole.

Charity, or it’s non-christian derived counterparts (tzedakah, Dāna, what have ya) has its roots in religious obligation. Obligation to take care of others less fortunate, which is a pretty decent concept to have built into faiths. But doing good things, the acts that give us the feels all over, the contributions that really, truly help others, is never an obligation (and shouldn’t be).

Doing true good comes from the heart. It comes from seeing something that affects you emotionally (homelessness, starving children, abused animals, you name it) and doing something about it.

Think of the ways you can contribute. It’s not always money. Do you build websites? Do you make awesome bulk meals? Can you teach english as a second language or educate for literacy? Do you have a hole in your heart that a senior dog could fill (they are the hardest to adopt out)? Do you take decent photos and know of an organization that doesn’t have the budget for them? Or do you have time: the most valuable resource a non-profit could use?

arcbarks
Volunteering to take photos for ArcBarks was one of my favorite shoots to date, and it didn’t cost anything but time.

My challenge to you is to go out there and do good things, not because you’re supposed to, but because you want to. And if you don’t want to, don’t. If things are hard for you right now, you sit tight and maybe someone will do something good for you.

I also don’t consider paying for wealthy white people’s drinks at a Starbucks in a good neighborhood an act of kindness, but that’s a story for a different post. Peter, I’m with ya, buddy.

Love, No Matter How It’s Packaged

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Had the absolute pleasure (and honor!) of coming out of wedding photography retirement to capture the wedding of dear friends, Jason and Marshall!

The ban on same-sex marriage in North Carolina was overturned on my birthday this year, and I was so thrilled to witness the outpouring of love and support for NC’s LGBTQ residents—even from unexpected places, like churches! We’ve heard the awful remarks, the ignorant banter, the resignations of local officials—good riddance!—but it seems overall, love (no matter how it’s packaged) is at home in NC. And so, for the moment, are we all.

As we stood in the chilly drizzle last Friday afternoon (though the armed policewoman loomed sharp in our periphery), it was overwhelming to witness a union so many had fought for. A right that should be basic and human, denied and held as privilege.

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This wasn’t my first same-sex wedding. And I hope it won’t be my last. I am a solid supporter of love—no matter how it’s packaged.

600,000 Floating Scarves

floating scarf

When you are traditionally employed, you do your job, and the company functions on pleasantly behind a curtain.

But as worker and owner, it’s a bit of a balancing act. Entrepreneurship is a 24-hour job demanding constant focus. And then you do your job on top of that. Pair those roles with those as a partner, a woman, a daughter, a friend, a human, a pet-parent and a community member—you find yourself pulled in so many directions, with so many responsibilities constantly demanding your attention, but all you really want to do is focus on hermes3your business.

Every minute I’m not focused on my company feels like a wasted (or selfish) moment.

It’s a lot like juggling silk scarves; nothing is immediately crashing down, and it’s not like a fumbling, grasping fast-paced reach for balls. Everything is delicately floating down at once, sneakily, slowly, but if you’re not paying attention it can become a mad frenzy to toss them all up again. I am a woman with 600,000 scarves in the air, and each day at least a third of those touch the floor.

But, as with anything else, practice improves performance. Two years in and I’m dropping fewer scarves (some of them, consciously allowing to fall!). The scarves are getting nicer (I think I even spotted an Hermés among them!) and the tosses becoming more graceful.

I hope you catch all of your scarves today, but even if you don’t, I hope you pick them up off the floor tomorrow and toss them back into the air and try again. And don’t be afraid to ask for an extra hand when you need it.