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When you're the lone person in a business, you are the product, and it's up to you to “toot your own horn.” While some entrepreneurs easily tell others about the value they provide, others find it uncomfortable to do so.

Sometimes listing achievements feels like showing off, and clients don't like doing business with a showoff. Yet promoting yourself is paramount if you are to grow your one-person shop.

Companies with PR and other sales/marketing staff can let them “talk up the person and the company.” A few businesses hire consultants to help with publicity and promotion, but not everyone has this luxury.

Even if the press releases are well written, sending them out yourself can come across as if you think you're the end-all, be-all (which you have to think of when you're a one-person band). How do make your “product” sing without hitting a wrong note?

Not musical? The SWOT Team Orchestra is ready to tune in to your problem. Write and ask us about a dilemma you face, and you will receive a free copy of our book, A Marketer's Guide to e-Newsletter Publishing.

In a previous dilemma, Dalton wanted to know if getting a degree would help his already-impressive marketing career. See below for what your peers think.

Team up and share your experiences!

This Issue's Dilemma

SWOT Category: Internal Weakness

Selling a One-woman Band

I'm a one-woman band. In other words, I'm the lone person in my business, in which I offer a service. Obviously, this means I have to sell myself as a product. I've seen others sell their services and it comes across as egotistical, self-serving, or some other negative way, whether or not it is meant to. Sending a press release or letter to a reporter or business about your own strengths or superiorities is vital to your business' success. But how do you get the needed publicity in such a way that it doesn't rub recipients the wrong way?

—Anonymous, Business Owner

Previous Dilemma

SWOT Category: Internal Weakness

Is the absence of a degree limiting my career opportunities?

I have spent the last 15 years of my career working either as the owner of my own business or working in executive roles for other companies. Although I chose not to take the academic route, I have always been very successful in my career, until now.

Over the last couple of years, it has been more of a challenge to find companies willing to pay me what I am accustomed to. I'm wondering if despite my years of experience, my degreeless CV doesn't stand up against my university-educated counterparts'. SWOT Team readers, is it time for me to head back to school?

—Dalton T., President and Interim Executive, Anonymous Company

Summary of Advice Received

Fifty years ago, the high school graduate had the option of getting a job, going to college, or entering the military—and his or her chances of success were about even, no matter the road taken. Today, the graduate is almost always expected to go to college, if he expects to succeed in the workforce.

Times have changed, however, as college graduates often finish more than four years after starting college after working, traveling, and requiring more credits to graduate. How does education impact those who are successful in their careers? We can hardly say a negative thing about education, as you can never go wrong in taking a class, but it takes time and resources to pursue a full-fledged degree. The SWOT Team put its thinking caps on to advise Dalton of his career stall concerns.

Here's what your peers had to say:

  1. Count real world experience.

  2. Review career and character. 

  3. Give value to results.

  4. Consider education an investment.

  5. Factor in other factors.

1. Count real-world experience

Going on a reality show or Real World doesn't count as real-world experience. Many job descriptions state “such and such degree or equivalent experience.” Obviously, real-world experience is worth as much as a degree.

Rob Williams, Internet ministry and marketing director for the Global Technology Office for CCCI, thinks a portfolio is more important than a degree in some careers, such as those in artistic fields. He points that most fields are run by “the educated,” and they're the ones who tend to do the hiring by looking at two things: experience and education. The more you have of each, the better off you'll be.

Michael Perla, a principal consultant, shares 15 years of experience:

It shouldn't matter whether or not you have a degree. A degree is about aptitude or what you might achieve as opposed to achievement, what you have achieved. You have a bit of the latter and should be able to demonstrate that you're a quick study/learner and can ramp up in any area to which you set your mind.

If you can demonstrate that you've built a company—and hurdled all of its attendant headaches—and were a successful executive who created specific, measurable value, then not getting a job seems to be about other aspects.

Many bios of executives don't even have their education on them. They talk about what they've achieved and the value they've created. You need to sell the value you've created, your track record and litany of achievements. I would also do a post-mortem, if you can, of firms that don't hire you. What were the reasons? You can better confirm/deny your hypotheses.

Another reader believes certification may help Dalton's dilemma, as the desired skill sets are changing at a very rapid rate in today's work environment. He also mentions that with many companies downsizing and a higher unemployment rate, companies are taking advantage of the atmosphere to deflate payroll from the ballooning of the '90s.

2. Review career and character

Many variables come to play in a person's education and career experiences. If you want to be a doctor, then you must have a medical degree… no working around that. The same goes for attorneys. As one reader says, it depends on what you do, since some disciplines require formal qualifications:

In the real world, what adds value is the ability to innovate, think outside the square and relate/communicate with others. The last I looked there is no such degree teaching these skills.

My advice is that if you feel you need to get a formal qualification, the worst you can do is get an MBA and the best you can do is go to an extremely well-respected business school that offers very flexible learning, i.e. lots of choices in curriculum.

By the way, you're not there to get a qualification, you are there to meet very clever people and build a network. After all, it's not what you know, it's who you know and who knows you.

One person who has a master's degree in marketing communication is mid-career and finding it very difficult to secure career employment, even with such academic credentials:

I continue to be told that once I reach a point in my career where executive management is obtainable, it will be easier for me to do so because of my degrees—when compared to others who do not have an academic background. I have also heard that once you are at an executive level (and degreeless) it is not worth the time or money spent to earn an MBA.

In Cairril Mills' previous creative firm, they viewed a four-year degree or other education as an indicator of the type of person with whom they were dealing. Cairril, the owner/designer of Cairril.com Design, doesn't see education as a major factor in your ability to command the pay you want, especially after having worked at the executive level for 15 years.

3. Give value to results

In every class we meet a few students who “squeak” by and graduate. Whether or not they learn anything, they get to hang the diploma on their walls like everyone else. On the flip side, there are those who don't have the opportunity to go to college, but they produce results as good as or better than the next employee's:

I am an SVP Director of Marketing. I have never found any issues with getting interviews or job offers due to lack of education. Results speak for themselves. I would ask your employer what the issue is with regard to paying you what you're worth.

If it's the education, find out if they feel you are not performing your job as well as a degreed candidate might. If the answer is no, they have no choice but to pay you what you're worth. If the answer is yes, find out if they might be willing to pay for you to go to school.

Some think a degree might be useful within a couple of years of obtaining it, but over time it loses its usefulness as the student forgets what she has learned. A reader with a “moldy” 30-year-old electric engineering degree with a major in communications electronics, a minor in computing, and some post-graduate work in operations research writes these degrees didn't qualify him for anything he ever did do:

An additional twenty years of “undergraduate/post graduate” study at IBM gave me experience in high-tech product development and general business management sufficient for me to successfully compete with my Harvard and Yale graduate peers. I learned to manage by the numbers and get results without the benefit of “B-school hubris.”

Ten years have passed since my graduation from IBM; I have seamlessly taken on a second and then a third career, all in general marketing management in differing high-tech industries. (And I admit, I secretly revel in being academically unqualified for each successive position.) Recently I found that for a mere $6-8K I could “remediate” my academic shortcomings with an online MBA.

Sounds good, but I haven't taken them up on it. I have trouble seeing the hard number ROI in this $8K investment. What's my advice? Take on the additional education only if it interests you, and if it works for getting you appropriately compensated… that's great. But I prefer someone who can deliver results rather than impress me with multiple degrees from leading schools. The only time not having a degree or an “appropriate degree” has worked against me is when I am unknown to the decision maker. After the chief sees what I can do for him, educational deficiencies are quickly forgotten.

Just like a football game on “any given Sunday,” the worst team can beat the best team; the best employee may be the one without an armload of degrees. You never know what you're going to get until you put it to the test. It's a gamble.

4. Consider education an investment

When making financial decisions, we research options and think about long-term returns before investing. Education is similar in that it requires researching to determine what a degree will do for you. If it's just something to put on your resume, it may not be the right approach.

A reader who has an MBA indicates that it didn't open doors, but it prevented them from closing:

The bigger question is what your interest is in terms of the kind of organization you want to work in. If a university degree is a requirement, then the culture of the place may not be entrepreneurial. How would you fit long term anyway?

A great example of advanced education making a difference is the winner of “The Apprentice.” In the end, the guy with the more advanced degree didn't or couldn't make the decision to get the bad apple out of the way. Think long and hard about going to school and make sure the investment is worth it.

This is not to imply a degree doesn't make a difference. It does. In fact, Bob Holand, president of Holland & Holland, Inc., says the best degree is the one in humanities:

In recent decades, the trend has been to equate education with training. Training is always best done on the job, but education is best accomplished in a university setting where the resources—teachers, libraries, student culture, and youth—are concentrated. Furthermore, large companies—companies that are trend leaders with large HR needs—are turning away from the MBA.

A recent WSJ article states that in many Fortune 500s, an MA in creative arts is highly prized. On a less rarefied level, a degree in the humanities is now and always society's answer to the need to teach its citizens how to think. You create a frame of reference that helps you integrate your career with your private life. Developing a personal ethic and a context that supports ideation and purposeful action are far more important than being trained in a relatively narrow field.

Greg Y., a sales and marketing executive at Precision Images, believes there's no substitute for work experience, but higher education may advance your career:

My question to you is, “What is wrong with learning?” I am sure your answer is something to the effect of, “nothing.” This is my point.

If you feel you're running into this roadblock and you have the time, resources and desire to go back to school, then why not? It will definitely show any employer that you are willing to do what it takes to advance your career, and you might just learn something… and what would be wrong with that?

Keep in mind that a couple of the contestants in “The Apprentice” did not have college degrees and are millionaires because of their management skills and style. Such skills are not always learned without an educational experience. But it can come naturally to some people.

5. Factor in other factors

Careers get stuck in a plateau and it's not always in our control. Other factors come to play, including the economy, the country or state's political situation and even Mother Nature, who sometimes challenges cities to recover from floods, fires and tornadoes.

One reader suggests considering whether age makes a difference in a career stalemate. He believes that the world has changed and most of the senior roles go to the 40-year-olds instead of to the 50-plus crowd. While this view is pessimistic, it's unfortunately often a reality. Patricia Cope, freelance marketing writer for RainCityWriter.com, expands on this:

Is the issue really a degree? Could it be your resume, interview skills, age discrimination, or a poor match between your skills and the jobs you seek? For example, perhaps your resume needs reworking to better present your accomplishments and strengths. Your cover letters may also need to be more tightly targeted to each company, showing that you understand the industry and company's needs. After you examine these areas, and still decide the issue is a degree, ask what benefit a degree delivers, besides a line on the resume.

Most adults returning to college or going for the first time have fears. Am I smart enough? How will I find the time? Will my job or family suffer? After the first class or two they move beyond the fears, establish a rhythm, and start to love learning. If they're in a program that emphasizes applying coursework to their work experiences, they find a wonderful synergy between the two: the learning enhances the work, and the work enhances the learning. If you go for a degree, do it for yourself. That's more rewarding than drudging through the program just to get your career ticket punched.

Several readers indicate the degree may not make a big difference except in a tiebreaker situation. When two candidates stack up, it could come to who has more education or some other factor. But how often would such a situation arise to merit the time and money spent toward earning a degree? Bryan Wheelock, principal, believes the size of a company makes a difference:

I think a degree is only important if you want to work for someone else. The larger the business, the more important having a degree becomes. It becomes a simple filtering technique to make dealing with candidates more manageable. I think this is a result of many businesses not knowing what it is that makes a person successful, and not having the time to fully evaluate each candidate.

A degree merely shows potential and discipline. Success is the result of smart thinking, persistence and working with a clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish.

Deanne Kasim, a senior partner at DPK Marketing Solutions, has struggled with Dalton's dilemma, having eventually earned an MS degree. Deanne says she originally didn't plan on pursuing the full degree, but stuck with it:

Since 1998, the world economy has drastically changed, and I have seen my own business downsize. Over the last two years, in particular, I have spoken with many managers both in and out of the academic setting. The majority of them seem to feel that in a highly competitive job market, particularly with respect to managerial and tech-related positions, it is often the academic credential that is the tiebreaker between two or more qualified candidates.

And rest assured, almost every position has an oversupply of qualified candidates. As an aside, those who work either with or for the government are almost always viewed as more qualified, or are often better compensated, with an advanced degree. That is my perspective from the Washington, DC, area.

The standard rules in a federal government human resources office provide degreed applicants extra points. The more degrees they have, the more points they earn, and it puts them ahead of other candidates.

Congratulations, SWOT Team, you receive an A+ for your thorough advice!

Education, of course, is a lifelong process. Whether or not we pursue a degree, taking a class here and there in an area in which we want to learn more can be satisfying. We have many options available to fit our busy schedules thanks to technology. Class is dismissed. Have a good day.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hank Stroll (Hank@InternetVIZ.com) is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.