Jon Myers is an international man of mystery, the Keyser Söze of remote entrepreneurship. He calls himself a “wandering designer,” and is an internationally sought-after product developer and UI authority.
After our last interview (in which Jon disclosed the nitty-gritty of his personal design model), I wanted to find out how he got to his position in the first place. Was it a slow and calculated rise to power, or a snatching up of successive opportunities?
Through an extensive undercover investigation, I was able to track him down once again.
In this interview, we delve into the truth behind his mythical origins, how poker strategy applies to business, and the sacrifices you should be willing to make to get a seat at the right tables.
Jon, it’s great to have another opportunity to hear from the legend himself. Tell us about where you are now and how you’ve been getting on.
I’ve been consistently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (known as Saigon) for the past couple of years, actually. I first visited on a visa run from Thailand knowing very little about the place except for the war.
When I arrived, I couldn’t believe how incredible it was.
It’s got a tight urban footprint. It’s crazy and chaotic. You can buzz around the city on your motorbike, it’s got a cafe culture that’s better than Paris, there’s fast, free wifi everywhere, and it’s all pretty inexpensive.
I couldn’t believe more people weren’t talking about this place. I went back to Thailand, packed up, and moved straight back to Saigon.
And how do you handle your consulting work living there? Does it ever bother your clients that you’re not Stateside?
I’d done a lot of heavy lifting to build my consulting career before I left the US. I’d spent years in Columbus, OH, and New York City on my grind – making connections, building my reputation, doing events and speaking gigs – so that I could eventually take the leap to handle all my clients from abroad.
If I had just hit the road and tried to make it work, I don’t think anyone would have taken me seriously. But because I earned that reputation, I was then able to position myself as an expert that people really wanted to work with. It was all about directing how people perceived me so that they would pay the fees I wanted and wouldn’t be phased by my location.
It’s a big deal to achieve status in your field the way you have. How do you craft that kind of perception and demand?
I’ve found the most optimal approach is to be authentically helpful.
When a prospect approaches me, I instantly start getting into their head and their business, sharing all the information I can, as if I’m already working with them. I ask them about the business case they want to design for, not about design itself.
In fact, I rarely talk about design with my customers. If you’re so consumed with your craft that you’re blabbing about it all the time, you’re focusing on the wrong thing.
You need to get into the head of your customer, and figure out how and why your work is going to create revenue for them. That’s when you can start charging significantly more, because you start to have an impact on the revenue that’s coming into their business.
Let’s go back to beginnings. How did you first approach table selection to find the ones you wanted to sit at?
So, for anyone who’s unfamiliar with this idea, table selection is an analogy from poker.
If you’re playing poker, you want to choose the table of opponents and collaborators that will maximize your winnings. The same thing is true for business.
To generate real profits, you have to engineer serendipitous situations that work in your favor. The best way to choose the right table is to be around the right people. So for me, the way to do that was by creating events so I could connect with those people.
For example, when I was in Columbus, a buddy and I organized an unconventional networking event to connect the city’s isolated communities of business people, artists, students, government officials, and whoever else we could draw.
We promoted it anonymously to create a bit of curiosity and mystery. We called it Taco Plus Beer and gave all the food and drinks away for free. The first event was completely driven by word-of-mouth, and attracted over 200 people from all these different industries.
Since I was one of the creators of the event, the attention I got just snowballed. I ended up being able to raise funding for a start-up in Columbus, and became friends with the mayor, which in turn led to a position on a board of economic development.
It all happened from facilitating a conversation among people who would never have talked otherwise, and started being recognized for that.
It sounds like you actually built your own table, more than pulling up a chair at an existing one. You invited other people to come and play.
I think that’s the key. If you can create the energy, others will want to come to the table you’re building. It doesn’t matter if you have a placard out there if you’re offering people opportunities to get to know you and your thinking.
I have a punk rocker background, so I’ve never been much into conformity. I’ve held onto that a bit, and I’d really rather create my own thing rather than go join in with someone else.
Since you’ve created this table of your own, how do you choose what to work on now?
I’m in the business of taste. I have to make sure that the customer has good taste, and that our tastes align. I select clients through an initial discovery conversation – usually the outgrowth of a spontaneous informal one.
I evaluate their online brand, look through their existing assets, and determine if this business can be multiplied with better UX and visual design.
Then I get a really firm agreement from them up front about what we’re designing and who we’re designing it for. Everything has to be case driven, not based on people’s feelings.
If the company is open to suggestions and isn’t going to dominate the design process, it’s a good fit. Then there’s the proposal process I discussed, displayed as if the client and I are already working together. Once the project is approved, I send the client a link to the contract.
How long does that process of evaluating clients usually take?
My “sweet spot” customers are usually early stage companies making $500,000 to $5 million, that will see a huge impact by implementing better design. We usually just get to know each other and work through my own contracts, so it’s pretty quick to get the ball rolling.
I also do a lot of work with government contracts and bigger companies, and with those guys, it takes much longer.
If you want to land big clients with huge budgets, you’ve got to be patient, and willing for the whole process to take a year. You might even think the whole thing is dead, and then six months later they pick it up and getting moving again.
But having patience with these clients is worth it. Once you’re in, you can do a few high-profile projects and suddenly everyone wants to work with you. It’s easier to get started with them, too, because you’re already vetted from working with the first client. Be patient and get in the door, because once you’re in, the opportunity is endless.
How has networking played a role in your success?
I actually don’t like the term “networking.” It just feels contrived. I don’t like the idea of “working a room” either. Jumping around between conversations for an entire night because your five minutes is up and you’ve got to move on to the next person just isn’t my style.
Quality is way more important than quantity when it comes to building relationships. I think it’s been by ability to form quality relationships that has broadened and deepened my network, and has helped me to get lots of great leads for business as a result.
How do you get a seat at the table when it’s out of your budget or you don’t know the right people to talk to?
Those are definitely common problems to start with.
I’ve met a number of people who have told me about making financial sacrifices just to get a seat at the table they want to play at. The connections they made by attending a paid conference or going out for drinks at an expensive place ended up paying huge dividends for all of them.
When the event offers a real focus on business relationships and discussions, the financial sacrifice is very much worth it. It’s pay to play – putting down money to get in front of the right people means that you take the opportunity seriously, and people take you seriously as a result.
Finding the right people can be tough, especially if you’re attending an event blind.
You may have to mingle for a little while and return to someone you met earlier for further connections to other people in the room. Ideally, you would go to an event with someone who already knows other people and is willing to give you some introductions.
Even better is having a hype person, like a business partner or a client, who introduces you as “someone you’ve got to talk to.” That’s the strongest form of social proof and shortcuts the whole process for you.
What would you tell people who are trying to select a good table, or select a new table?
Be sociable. Put yourself into situations where you can connect with the kind of people you want to be around and do business with. Start out by going to other people’s events, work out who you want to attract into your world, and then put on your own events to make it happen.
Be confident about the things you like talking about, and the right people will come together. Don’t try and sell stuff to anyone, don’t get all self-promotional, just be cool. Help people out and do it with some grace and confidence.
You want to become a magnet for others by creating your own events and tables. Consider who you want to draw and why, then focus on getting them to join you at your table.
Any final thoughts on table selection and building great relationships in business?
Table selection can require real sacrifice when you’re starting out. Don’t just take what you can get. The right relationships are worth it, so set aside a budget, show up, and put in the work to bring serendipity into your life.