Building a Business Around Who You Are: An Interview with Patrick Rhone


I've been a big fan of Patrick Rhone's writing for several years now. His work on Minimal Mac and in his books has always been thoughtful, enlightening, and a breath of fresh air in a world otherwise polluted by crazed tech news cycles and rumor mills. He takes a rather Zen-like, minimalist approach to technology, with a writing style perfectly complemented by a nice cup of coffee.

When I decided to do this interview series, Patrick was the very first person I asked to participate, and thus, he is the first person I've ever interviewed. He's been gracious enough to put up with me as I learn my way around this sort of thing, and not only did I learn a lot along the way, but I had a lot of fun with it too.

Here's the conversation we had:

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Tell me a little about yourself. Who are you, where are you from, and what are you most known for?

I'm Patrick Rhone. I'm a writer and commentator. I live in Saint Paul, MN and call this home (though I have lived in quite a few other places). I'm likely best known for my websites and, my three books enough, Keeping It Straight, my Apple Consulting Guide, and my podcast.

I've been a fan of your writing work for a while, particularly Minimal Mac and 'Keeping It Straight'. Can you describe the path that led you to where you are as a writer?

Well, I've been a writer ever since I was a kid. I self published a book of poetry at age 16. My Grandmother wrote three books. My Brother is a Playwright. It's in my genes.

It has not always been my occupation but it has always been my passion. I held many jobs along the way and have had my own technical consulting practice for almost 20 years. That said, I've never really stopped writing.

“The reason I work for myself is that I'm both a bad boss and a bad employee.”

That said, my writing today is far different (and, I would hope, better) than it was then. As with all things, practice makes perfect. And, the Internet has allowed me to build an audience for my work far easier than it ever was in the past. Now, over two-thirds of my income comes from my writing and things related to it. It is my "main" job.

Speaking of the consulting gig, you've been getting a lot of attention for your recent ebook, "Apple Consulting - A Minimal Guide". Although becoming a consultant is an interesting avenue I hadn't considered before, I do have aspirations to work for myself someday. Can you talk a little about your thoughts on being your own boss, the pros and cons of doing so, and what people should know before heading down that path?

Well, I often half-joke that the reason I work for myself is that I'm both a bad boss and a bad employee.

The truth is that working for oneself is the only way one can truly ensure that they will have their dream job. The only person that can give you your dream job is you and I believe that this is a great time to do it. In fact, that is the thing about my Apple Consulting Guide. While geared to technology consulting, 90% of it can apply to any freelancing job. In many ways, this is part of a larger, more specific book on the subject of work that I'm currently writing.

“A real dream job can't ever be taken from you. Because no one can take your dreams.”

The difficulty is that it takes a tremendous amount of commitment, passion, and courage. Our current American society is not structured with independents in mind. In fact, in too many ways it is built to work against this idea. So many of the things we take for granted in a lot of jobs – paid time off, group health insurance, retirement fund matching, etc. – you wont get as a freelancer. Yet, all of this is a false sense of security and a small trade from the company for the labor you provide to help them build their goals and dreams (not to mention profits and disproportionate compensation for those at the top).

But, the benefit is that once you realize that none of those things are guaranteed to you anyway – that you do not own them and that they, and the job they come with, can be taken away from you at any time – then you will start to see the truth. The truth that a real dream job can't ever be taken from you. Because no one can take your dreams. In fact, you should be less scared of what someone can take from you and more scared of what opportunities to be free from wage slavery you fail to take action on.

Just know that it does not come without a lot of hard work and sacrifice. It also may take years of planning and building before it can fully sustain you and yours. But, anything that is worth it – and this really, really, is – should take the sort of hard work and commitment that only passion and dreams can drive.

Beautifully said, and the 'bad boss/employee' thing actually resonates with me a lot. I feel that you and I are kindred spirits, neither of us being very good at taking orders but also not too keen on being the one giving the orders. We yearn for independence and autonomy, and nothing less will suffice. Would you agree with that description of yourself? Could you ever see yourself going back to a job working for someone else, or are you too accustomed to the dream job you've built for yourself?

I think I'm too accustomed to it now. Believe it or not, there are days when I daydream about just pitching it all in and getting some no-thinking-required job pulling espresso shots at some hipster café. Working for yourself is not the walk in the park that so many who don't do so think it is.

That said, what drives me is a passion for my work. Both the technical consulting and the writing. And, even pulling shots I would likely still be doing both of those things because I can't help myself. It's who I am. I've just found a way to build a business around who I am. Freelancing ultimately boils down to this simple plan.

“Believe it or not, there are days when I daydream about just pitching it all in and getting some no-thinking-required job pulling espresso shots at some hipster café”

So, reading over your 'Mac Consultant' guide, I notice that the book is very geared toward people who already have some idea of what a Mac consultant is. As of yet, there is no section that covers the nitty-gritty details of the work involved. As someone who works in tech support myself, I have a few questions in that regard:

What kinds of things are you, as a consultant, being called in to help with? What sorts of issues do you have to tackle, from the simplest to the most complex? Are there calls that you must decline or defer to someone else because your clients call you about something that exists outside the scope of your profession?

Well, one of the reasons I don't go into the nitty gritty, as you say, is that it is so broad. It could be, and has been, almost anything.

Sure, there are the fairly common issues (email not sending/receiving, diagnosing hardware issues, new computer data migrations). Also, lots of new iDevice sorts of things (training, syncing, iCloud being stupid, etc.). And, of course, the dreaded my-hard-drive-crashed-and-I-have-no-backup calls (This is where your psychotherapy license comes in... You do have one, right?).

There are also the fairly complex — I recently spent about 30 hours over several days in a mass software/hardware upgrade of 8 systems, each step having multiple dependencies, and all the other details that goes along with those. One of those things you have to map out and double-check the double-checking before you even start. And, even with all that checking, there is the printer that simply won't print despite all software indications telling you it did. And, because it is some leased piece of junk, there is no error message or any other indicator of what could be wrong. So, you spend three hours chasing it down and googling every possibility and digging through the menus on the darn thing until you find one little yes/no item that seemingly has nothing to do with the problem but you try it anyway and... Boom! fixed.

As for the stuff I don't do? Well, I make a point of knowing lots of other consultants in town, one of which is likely great at that thing I don't know how to do or just plain don't really want to do. And, if I don't know the right person directly, one of them probably does.

Seriously, it really does pay to be friendly and not competitive in this business. You would be amazed at how many clients other consultants who like to focus on larger-sized businesses have sent my way (as someone who focuses on quite the opposite). And, I have sent folks their way. Ultimately, it is about getting people the solution they need and the relationship that is right for them.

You're not kidding about those dreaded hard drive crashes, I've dealt with many an end-user who lost all their data, and with no good backup. It's not pretty.

Apologies for the upcoming barrage of questions, but I'd love to have an overview of your setup and workflows: What are some of the tools and apps you use in your consulting? The book already covers some financial tools you use, but what about those notes you keep for each job? Are they just stored in text files somewhere, or do you use a fancy ticketing system like Zendesk? How do you keep everything organized? Do you have any scripts/macros/TextExpander snippets that make your life easier?

I use all manner of things depending on the work to be done. I guess the important and consistent things are that I keep client notes as Markdown formatted plain text files in nvALT and use Blinksale for invoicing. My wife (who is also my business partner) manages the finance details in Quickbooks.

“I'm more apt to tell people the actions they need to take, not the apps they should use”

I do have some TextExpander snippets for the kinds of regular client communications I do. That said, my personal rule anyway for everything is that if I have to type the same sort of thing more than twice I create a snippet for it instead. For instance, clients (and potential clients) regularly ask me for buying advice, where to find the best price on a Mac, etc. Here is that one:

Let's address the computer recommendation first. Keep your eye out here:

This is the Refurbished section of Apple's online store. I recommend buying any of Apple's refurbished products. Not only will you get a decent discount (often a couple of hundred dollars or more) but they come with the same 1-year warranty as new Macs. They are also eligible for the Applecare extended warranty. Not only that, but they are more rigorously tested than new Macs because, well, they don't want them coming back. Oh, and they are just as spotless as brand new. Stock changes daily, so check often and act fast.

Speaking of Applecare, I highly recommend getting it with any new Mac. It will protect any component failure for up to three years from the date of purchase. The cost of Applecare is less than the cost of out-of-pocket replacement of any component that will die on your Mac so it is well worth it.

As you can imagine, I use this one a lot.

But, the truth is that this business is all about relationships. The tools you use to make managing those relationships and meeting your clients needs are of little importance as long as they meet that primary goal. Therefore, I'm more apt to tell people the actions they need to take (keep good notes, send invoices/receipts, keep record of your income and expenses, etc.) and not the apps they should use to do these.

I think that's a valid point, although the reason I ask about those sorts of things is that you never know when someone has come up with something clever in their workflow that I (or my readers) haven't thought of yet. For example, I feel that I have personally only touched the surface of what TextExpander is capable of :)

Switching gears for a minute, I'd like to ask you something not necessarily related to technology.

All the work you do on the web, at least from what I've seen, seems to revolve around a few Zen-like tenets: minimalism, mindfulness, peace, compassion, that sort of thing. In a piece you published a few months ago, you described your beliefs as being "lowercase-b Buddhist" (which I think would be a terrific blog/podcast name, by the way). In that piece, you gave a brief account of how you came to these beliefs, but could you expand on that history a little? I'm curious to know what specifically took you down that path.

The main thing was that I'm a curious learner. I'm insatiably curious about the things I'm really interested in. For a time in my life that thing was religion. The more I studied, the more I came to find that many of the beliefs that I held at the time were adopted and not self-directed.

What I learned is that the core of our basic human beliefs are mostly shared. Those of kindness, compassion, love, and mindfulness. That these threads run through almost all spiritual belief systems and practices. I simply decided that buddhism, for me, was the most practical and actionable path for me to take.

Fair enough. So where do you see things going for yourself in the next 5-10 years? I assume writing will always be a part of your life, but do you have any plans to try something new? Any large-scale projects on the horizon?

I try not to think too far ahead. Because, being rooted in the present allows me to be prepared for any opportunity that presents itself unplanned (like my consulting book). In fact, all of my most successful projects have started off with a flash of idea and no real planning at all.

Minimal Mac was born as I was drifting off to sleep one night and was thinking about how the Mac is one computer that has everything most people need out of the box. Keeping It Straight (my first book) was born out of me wondering if I was ever going to write a book and then looking at my blog and realizing I already had. And, my latest book on becoming an Apple Consultant started as a blog post and was published and released in under week. Heck, even the talks I give (like this one at Ignite) I run through only once, the night before, and then run with it. I'm one of those people who do far worse when I plan or practice too much.

That said, I'd like to think I would have another couple of books out in that time at least. Perhaps I will have finally gained the courage to reduce myself to only one website (my personal one). I would love to get around to my idea of putting together the perfect conference (and by perfect I mean perfect for me and, I hope, others as well). I also have had an idea I'd love to execute that is me traveling around and having dinner with some of my distant tech/creative/life friends and recording the conversation and releasing it as a podcast. So, yes, a lot of ideas on paper that I'd love to see become more than that sometime.

Ooh, that podcast idea sounds pretty interesting — sort of a take on Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" series, but perhaps geekier (in a good way).

Well Patrick, this has been a lovely interview, and I've had a lot of fun with it. Before we wrap up though, I've got one final, big question for you to chew on (I know you said you don't like to think too far ahead, but please bear with me): what do you think you'd most like to be remembered for? What kind of legacy do you hope to leave for future generations?

I just hope they like my writing.

Haha, that's a great answer. All right, thanks for chatting with me! This has truly been an honor and a fun learning experience.

It has been great participating. Call me back anytime.

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You can find Patrick at @patrickrhone on Twitter and Also, be sure to buy his excellent books!