Staying Sharp: Identifying the Brown M&Ms in Your Business

M&MsWhy do we do the things we do? Companies are continually forced to ask that question, as no one wants to be left in the wake of a paradigm shift or forced off the field by the next game-changer. As freelancers we have the monumental advantage of being able to do whatever we want without having to deal with supervisors, managers, committees, boards or focus groups. Just writing that sentence made me stop and take a moment to savor my meeting-free existence. But are we using our freedom to good effect?

It’s healthy to sit back every now and then and take a good, hard look at our own business practices. Some things aren’t too hard to figure out. If you’re wondering, for example, whether you should get a separate business account, look into invoicing software, sign up for continued education courses or get a website going, the answer is generally “Yes you should”. Other things are not so obvious. Some of the things we do that may seem downright odd to others actually have a vital function. Other things might have made sense at one time but have outlived their usefulness.

An example of an odd but useful practice is Van Halen’s famed and much-maligned demand for a bowl of M&Ms backstage with all the brown ones removed. In his memoir “Crazy from the Heat”, David Lee Roth explains that this request actually had a very specific purpose. Their shows were so huge that the venues had to be set up according to very detailed specifications to avoid equipment-related accidents and injuries. So the M&M request was tucked away somewhere in the huge specifications document as a test. “When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl,” he wrote, “well, we’d line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error… Guaranteed you’d run into a problem.” The odd demand actually served an important purpose.

A “brown M&M” in my own life is my business name, Marie Brotnov. My legal name is Marie Jannette, but I’ve gone by Mariëtte my entire life as this is what my parents called me since I was born. Not a problem, until I started my business and it just became too complicated to have to explain to every new agency and client to call me one thing but put something else on the checks and tax forms. I also figured Marie is easier to pronounce and remember, which is a benefit when dealing with people from all over the world. Some people who only know me as Mariëtte think this is all pretty weird and have told me so, but to me the benefits outweigh the perceived oddness.

Then there are those practices that are no longer based on reasons that are relevant today. Like the “Qwerty” keyboard we all use. This particular configuration of letters is actually designed to slow down the speed of typing, because back in the day of manual typewriters the keys would get stuck if the typists went too fast, so they had to come up with a way to slow people down. There is no reason for us to use Qwerty anymore, yet we do.

A Qwerty issue I really need to deal with in my own business is my email address. When I started translating I simply used our family’s private email,, which contains an intentional misspelling of our last name. The reason for that was that my husband had a job in which he did not want to make it easy for people to find his personal contact info simply by searching for his last name. As a business email address its effectiveness is obviously zero, but I didn’t think of that until much later when my business started to grow. I did recently get a professional e-mail address to go along with my website so I’m all set for new clients, but I’m not sure how to go about changing my contact info retroactively for all my existing agencies, or whether I should even try.

Colleagues, how do you stay sharp? Do you have any M&M or Qwerty practices you’d like to share, suggestions for my Qwerty quandary or any other comments? I’d love to hear from you!

2 thoughts on “Staying Sharp: Identifying the Brown M&Ms in Your Business

  1. Love the concept Marie or should I say Mariëtte? My name, Gwenydd Jones, is also a brown M&M. From a very early age, I have been known by all as Gwen, based on a general consensus that Gwenydd is just too difficult to pronounce and spell correctly. However, when the time came to work on my professional online presence, I decided to revive my full name, to take advantage of the fact that there didn’t seem to be anyone else on Google with it. It still gets spelled incorrectly on a fairly regular basis, but at least I can use Van Halen’s technique, since failure to copy it correctly in e-mails is a sure sign of lack of attention to detail!

    • Hi Gwenydd, I love your name and I think it’s a great move to use it as an SEO/quality control tool! My last name has been misspelled every possible way over the years too, but the weirdest one was probably “Brotmouse” — and yes, I also decided to steer away from that company 🙂

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