As a business, or as a “brand”, your biggest challenge is overcoming obscurity.
In his book, The 10x Rule, Grant Cardone writes that as he was trying to get his business off the ground, he was working extremely hard to gain initial traction. His problem, he writes, “wasn’t competition; it was obscurity”. No one even knew who he was.
“Since most people don’t know you or your product or service,” writes Cardone, “the only way to burst through obscurity is by taking massive action.”
Content is the price of admission for relevance.
If you want to burst through obscurity, you need to show your work.
As many of you know, it was in 2011 that I quit my job to begin writing my blog for a living. At the time my content strategy was simply this: “write stuff that didn’t suck.”
And my business goals were about the same: “be profitable.”
Which means my overall plan was to simply to write as well as I could and hope that it generated enough traffic to earn a living through sponsorships and memberships.
The “simplicity” of that whole setup is actually why I think things worked.
Long-time readers will remember that most of my writing centered around Apple, tech, and design. And while these topics are what first drew people in to my website, those who stuck around to become readers and members are those who also connected with me, Shawn, as the writer.
Don’t discount the importance of putting passion and personality into your work. Let who you are show through.
Back in 2011, in the first article I published as a “full-time blogger” I quoted Anatole France: “a tale without love is like beef without mustard: insipid.”
So too is a blog writing without personality.
If you happen to be good with words then congratulations. Dispassionate beautiful prose, however, is still dispassionate.
When you think about content strategy, think less about your skill and more about emotion, honesty, truth, and passion. These are the backbones of writing. And these are the very things that can be the hardest to put into our writing.
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In today’s article I’ve got three things I want to cover:
First of all, I want to briefly unpack what it means to have a content strategy that serves your business goals (and why that is so important).
Secondly, I’m going to share a few unordered bulletpoints about my own experience with content strategy, writing, and business.
And finally, I’ve listed out some questions you can ask yourself that will help you figure this stuff out for yourself.
First, let’s briefly unpack what it means to have a content strategy that serves your business goals…
That’s a mouthful, so let’s break it down.
As we discussed in Part 1 of this series, “Content Strategy” is not a dirty term.
Content: What you create.
Strategy: Your plan of action.
In other words: how will you use your creative work (your content) to move you toward your goals?
Answer that question and boom, you’ve got yourself a content strategy.
You want your content strategy to serve your business goals because otherwise the work you’re putting out there is just a hobby. There’s nothing wrong with a creative hobby, but if you’re trying to earn an income from it then you need to start thinking differently. You need to become a bit more intentional.
You want the work you do align with the big goals and values you have as a business. But also, each piece of content you put out there should help move people along in their customer journey (which is why email can be so powerful, by the way).
In order for that to happen, it kinda helps to know what your business goals are, what your business values are, and what your customer journey looks like.
At the end of this article I’ve listed a few simple questions that can help you consider your business goals.
A few unordered bulletpoints about my own experience with content strategy and writing
As you know, I’ve been writing full-time since early 2011. Here are a few few things that have proven to be immensly valuable to me as a writer who is also trying to grow his business.
It helps tremendously to have a customer “avatar”. If you’re a writer, this is not unlike your ideal reader. Who is it you’re trying to connect with and to help? Unless you’re Coke, you can’t make something for every single person on the planet. And even if you are Coke, there will still be folks who prefer Pepsi, or who just flat out don’t drink soda.
In addition to knowing who our ideal customer is, it helps to know what their journey is. What are the things they need to know, the mindsets they need to understand, and the actions they need to take?
Don’t give in to scarcity mindset. Don’t fear that one person having success means you now have to see failure. It’s not a zero-sum game in the market, nor is it a zero-sum game with your own work.
What’s awesome about growing a business with content marketing is that, over time, you can build the business you want to exist. You can attract the audience, customer base, and even employees who by conveying your values and goals through the content you create. How you share ideas, the way you promote products, your attitude toward your customers, etc.
Watch out for the spiderweb mess of “Content Strategy Tactical Overload”. Off the top of your head I bet you could easily list a few dozen things people say you absolutely MUST DO if you want to WIN BIG in content marketing. Ugh. I’ve been in that spot, where I try to implement multiple things all simultaneously, and it’s exhausting. There’s just no way I can focus on more than just one thing at a time. It is far more efficient and effective to do just one thing and to do it well before moving on to the next.
When people sign up for my email list, one of the first emails they get is me asking them about what’s challenging them right now. For example, when I was working on The Focus Course, as people signed up to get on the waiting list, I’d reply back and ask them about what their biggest challenge is related to focus. And I got tons and tons of replies. Those replies helped direct the content I created for the course itself. My point being: if you can pay attention to what resonates with your readership and also pay attention to what they are saying, then you can be all the more helpful and relevant to them.
For even more, see this list of 50 things I’ve learned about publishing a weblog.
Lastly, here are some questions you can ask yourself that will help you figure this stuff out for yourself
What is the biggest challenge you’re facing in your business right now?
What is your current business model? (Who do you sell to, how do you make money?)
What is your ideal business model? (Who do you want to sell to? How do you want to make money?)
In an ideal scenario, what does your business look like in 12 months from now? In 5 years?
If all other things were to remain the same, what one thing, if changed, would have the most significant impact on your business?
What are your business goals?
What values is your business based on?
Do you want to develop long-term or short-term customer relationships?
Do you have a customer journey? (Where should someone start? What are the best next steps for them to take to get from where they are now to where they want to be?)
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There is quite a lot to digest here. The reason I moved through it all so quickly is because I wanted to give you the high-level view and something to think about for the next few days.
However, I want your key takeaway to be this:
Focus on consistency and honesty.
The internet thrives on patterns and regularity; showing up every day lets people know they can rely on you to be there.
Secondly, consistently showing up to do the work will help you grow in your skills. As your talent improves, so too will your ability to turn your work from a hobby into something more.
And honesty, as I shared about at the very beginning, is the most important element for building an audience that trusts you. Being honest and sticking to your guns is how you earn the respect and long-term attention of your readership.
Let’s say you’ve created an incredible method for potty training dogs.
You know there are folks out there with dogs that are not potty trained.
And you’re trying to share your ideas and approach to doggy potty training. Because you genuinely care about animals just as much as their owners. You know that doggy potty training is one of the most frustrating aspects of new pet ownership and your methods are so great you’re hungry to share them with others.
Imagine two scenarios for telling someone about your doggy potty training ideas…
In the first scenario, you’re hanging out on a busy street corner. And you’re talking out loud to anyone and everyone who walks by, hoping that someone in the crowd happens to have a dog that needs to be trained.
In the second scenario, you’re at home a get a call from a someone. They’re a friend of a friend, and they just bought dog. They would love to meet with you and learn what you know about doggy potty training.
Which of those two scenarios are you most likely to have an impact?
The second one, of course. There are a few reasons as to why:
First off, the person reached out to you and initiated the relationship. Which means they are the ones interested in the topic and they are asking you for help.
Secondly, you have their full attention because it’s a one-on-one conversation.
If you remember from last week, the whole aim of your content strategy should be to (a) provide value at all times; (b) be relevant to your reader; and (c) support your business goals.
You are far more likely to provide value and be relevant if the person you are communicating with is paying attention.
What we love about the first scenario is that it inflates the numbers. We can say things like “3,000 heard me talking about doggy potty training today.”
Which sounds so much cooler than “I met with one person and spoke to them about doggy potty training.”
It is tempting to spend all our energy on reaching the most amount of people. To focus on mass, shotgun-style messaging. Rather than to focus on individualized, personalized, relevant messaging.
(Side note, you can read more in my article on relevancy over recency.)
But here’s what’s awesome about using email to communicate your message:
With email, you can be relevant and personalized at scale.
What does that mean? Let me explain how how I do it using an email welcome series…
The “Email Welcome Series” has become one of my favorite ways to communicate with people.
When someone signs up for your email list, or when they buy something from you, or when they register for something, that is the moment they are most paying attention…
That is when they are the most interested in you, your topic, and/or your product or service. You know this without a doubt because they have just demonstrated as much by signing up for something or purchasing.
Therefore, this is when they are the most likely to read any email(s) you send them because they are paying attention. They are interested right now.
Here is how I used to do my email welcome series:
After someone would subscribe to my newsletter list or purchases my book, I would send them a “welcome” email or a “thank you” email and that was it.
At least I was sending them something, which is a step above sending nothing at all. But there is a massive opportunity to do better.
What if your email welcome series contained 5 or 10 messages (or more) that were sent out in a series, instead of just a single, standard-issue auto-responder?
What if those 5 – 10 emails contained your most important ideas, your favorite resources, some personal stories, some “quick wins”, and more?
What an incredible opportunity you would have to help people make progress. To be extremely relevant and to have impact.
Like we talked about earlier: when someone asks you for help and is giving you their full attention, that is when you have the greatest opportunity to provide value. This is exactly what the “email welcome series” is — it’s like having a one-on-one conversation at scale.
Here is a little bit of context:
The current industry average open rate for an email newsletter is around 25%. Personally, I think that is terrible. If you’ve got an email newsletter with a 25% open rate, you may be right in line with the industry average, but it also means 3 out of 4 people aren’t interested in what you’re sending. Ouch.
(For the 3 email newsletters I run, our open rates average 55%.)
For most “confirmation” emails (the first email someone gets after they’ve signed up for a list or purchased something), the open rate is more like 75%.
That first email is the one that will be read more than any other email you send.
With that in mind, I recommend you take the chance to send an awesome email (more on that in a minute).
Secondly, did you know that you can keep up that momentum?
Yep. Instead of a single welcome email, you can have a series of welcome emails and carry the momentum through.
You do this through storytelling, quick wins, and unbridled generosity. Here’s a look at the welcome series we send folks after they buy the Time Management class:
That 8-part email series has an average open rate of 74%. (Which is 1.5x better than our standard weekly email newsletter.)
Here’s a different (4-part) email series I sent to folks after they had signed up for an email list expressing interest in a new class I had been working on last fall.
That 4-part series had an average open rate of 75%. And do you see how the open rate starts going back up after the first email? How many email sequences do you know of where the open rate goes UP as the series progresses?
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Here are a few reasons why your email welcome series is so powerful…
You have their attention now more than ever
If you’re passionate about what it is you have to say, you have an obligation to communicate it.
And the best time to communicate it is during the moment when they are the most engaged — when you have their attention.
You can provide additional value in the topic they’re most interested in
How many ebooks have you downloaded only for them to sit in a “to-read” folder within your computer? A lot, right? I have an ebook I give away to folks right here. And after you sign up to get the book, I have a series of emails I send over the next few days that are short and to the point. I know chances are good that whomever signed up for my book hasn’t read it yet, but that they are reading their email.
I do something similar with my class on Time Management. After people sign up for the class, they get a “bonus” series of emails. I give book recommendations, tell stories, and offer quick wins related to Time Management.
You can transition to the next topic and teach them more
Suppose you have two products you sell: one is a book of recipes for healthier cooking at home and the other is book teaching the practicals of meal prep and being organized in the kitchen.
After someone buys your recipe book, you could send them a handful of emails that highlight a few of your favorite recipes in the book, plus perhaps a few new ones that aren’t yet in the book. Then, a week later, you could begin to change topics from the what of cooking over to the how of cooking.
Begin sharing some tips and stories and suggestions about being organized in the kitchen, and then take the opportunity to sell your second book.
Because your email welcome series is fully automated, you can have all of this happening on in the background. Which means that the right person is getting the right email at the right time. This is known as putting relevancy over recency (which I’ll get to in just a minute).
You can build a relationship
This is the whole point right here. Use your emails to tell stories, be personal, and have fun. Because you’re playing the long game with your business, the best thing you can do is build customers for life. And one of the best ways to do that is to give, give, give, and give some more. (See this article and scroll down to the bullet point about understanding the rule of reciprocity.)
Derek Sivers, from his book, Anything You Want:
Never forget that everything you do is for your customers. Make every decision — even decisions about whether to expand the business, raise money, or promote someone — according to what’s best for your customers. […]
It’s counterintuitive, but the way to grow your business is to focus entirely on your existing customers. Just thrill them, and they’ll tell everyone.
When someone buys something from you, or signs up for your list, you have a massive opportunity to surprise and delight that new customer or subscriber.
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By valuing relevancy over recency, you can:
- Help your audience get a deeper understanding of the content
- Establish trust in the relationship
- Make them feel like they’re part of something bigger than just a one-off product or download
- Surprise,delight, and serve them
Last week I said you shouldn’t be focusing on your metrics too much. But that they were still important. Here’s why…
If your open rates, conversion rates, and sales are all doing well it means you’re actually providing value. It means you are effectively communicating with people. It means you have earned their attention and trust.
In the next article I’ll share about how this all fits into your business goals.
First things first…
“Content Strategy” is not a dirty term.
Sure, it carries with it some corporatespeak baggage, but let’s look past that. Let’s look at what the term actually means and why it’s so important for you to have some thoughts of your own on this issue.
Content: What you create.
Strategy: Your plan of action.
In other words, how will you use your creative work (your content) to move you toward your goals? Answer that question and boom, you’ve got yourself a content strategy.
Now, for many folks, they don’t want or need a content strategy. For them, there is no goal beyond just doing the work. The art in and of itself is the goal. And that’s great! I love it. That’s how I am with my photography — it’s a creative outlet and that’s the extent of it. Thus, there is no content strategy with my photography.
But with my writing, it’s different…
I write for a living.
Thus, my writing serves a goal beyond the art of prose and beyond the joy of doing the work.
I write to teach and to sell. These are my two goals.
And in order to do that, there needs to be a strategy for my content; a goal for my writing.
When thinking about your content strategy, it can be easy to get caught up in the metrics of sales, conversions, etc. Now, yes, those things matter, and I’ll explain why in a bit. But I hope they aren’t your driving force behind your creative work.
First and foremost: your content strategy should be focused on serving your audience.
Does your content strategy have only the best in mind for your audience?
Consider if your content strategy does the following…?
- Does it provide value at all times…?
- Is it relevant at the readers’ time of need…?
- Does it serve your business goals…?
Your content strategy can’t serve your business goals if you don’t know what those goals are. What type of business are you trying to build? What level of income do you need to sustain your creative pursuits? Where do you want to be in 5 years time? How is your content strategy moving you in that direction?
As you build a better content marketing strategy, it’s important to balance what works and what feels right for your brand and your voice.
For me, my goal is to build a creative business based on long-term relationship equity. So while there are many email tactics out there that may work, not all of them are things I personally want to do. I want to incorporate what feels right for my brand and my voice.
In order to do build a creative business based on long-term relational equity, it requires trust.
Trust that is built on feedback loops, delivering on my promises, serving others, pursuing generosity, and more. (See my notes here about taking your personal project full-time.)
I avoid selfishness and tricks. I don’t try to squeeze out short-term profits that end up hurting the long-term quality of my brand and voice.
Now, this doesn’t mean selling is bad. The problems only arise when we become indifferent toward our readership, stop caring about providing value, and instead just become greedy for the sale.
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Simply put, if you’re struggling to provide value at every single interaction, then (a) you’re not trying hard enough or (b) you’re over thinking it.
It’s more simple to provide value than you may think.
A valuable interaction can be a helpful tip, an interesting or entertaining story, a tutorial, an educational case study, a behind-the-scenes look at something cool, and more.
Focus on providing value at all times. If that is your goal, then you’ll come out ahead.
In the next article, I dive into the second aspect, which is being relevant to the readers. Click here to read about how I now do this using email automation in my article.
Here is a quote from Ernest Hemingway that I often refer to in my own professional life:
I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped.
I added the emphasis on the word “learned”.
You see, I’ve always taken that quote and referenced the part about how he would let things brew in his subconscious. Which is pretty common advice. People tell you all the time that when you’re stuck on a problem you should go take a walk or build a kitchen table or something.
But what I’ve always missed is how he says he had to learn not to think about anything he was writing.
Let’s break it down:
- He would not think about anything he was writing.
- He had to learn how to do that.
So often I bring my work with me wherever I go. And by “bring my work” I mean that I keep thinking about it when I leave my office, or go on an errand, or go out to eat with friends.
A few months ago I decided to stop reading business books in the evening before bed. They would get my mind too fired up to sleep. So instead I read fiction.
It is a challenge to stop thinking about the things I’m currently writing or working on. It’s a skill to be able to shut off work. To learn to give my mind a break and not to think about what I’m currently writing. But I’m working to learn it.
One of my goals with my creative business is to continue the work I’m doing now for several more decades. And a big part of that requires that I work at a sustainable, healthy pace. A marathon pace, if you will.
And to do that well, means leaving work at work. It means learning not to think about anything I am working on from the time I stop working until I start again the next day.
Not only does this lead to a higher quality of work produced, but it also leads to a less stressful lifestyle. Win-win!
Between ideas, time, and focus, which do you have the most of?
We all have more ideas than time. Myself included.
A few years ago I wrote about how I would often find myself wrestling with the tension of having more ideas than time: “There are many great things I want to do and build and ship and start, but I just don’t have the time to do them.”
And I still feel that tension. In fact, hopefully I will always feel the tension of having more ideas than time because ideas are, and should be, a commodity.
Here’s the thing: it’s not about the balance between time and ideas.
The trouble comes when we have a lack of focus. When we have more time than focus.
Or, put another way, if we have more time than focus it means there is time that we are wasting.
Does this mean you should spend all of your time being “focused” on work? Not at all. I don’t have the energy for that. And neither do you. Besides, there is so much more to living a focused life than just being productive in the office.
Having more focus than time means you’re proactive and intentional about how you spend your minutes. It means thinking ahead and establishing some awesome default behaviors to fall back on when your focus and energy run out during the day.
* * *
Florian H. says:
My biggest challenge is to be consistent in working on the different projects I’m currently involved in and want to drive forward. I have two professions, a side project, and lots of ideas. I’m also a father of two daughters. :)
My biggest struggle to move forward is to actually block the time necessary to invest into my creative endeavors. Because there’s always a ton of stuff to do relating to the business that pays my bills. Every day that I don’t reserve some time on my calendar to do it (and honor this appointment with myself!) it’ll be another day I didn’t move forward.
By far my biggest challenge is saying no to the other things that take all my time or at least figuring out ways to schedule high quality work time while still dealing with the endless minutiae of life and business.
To sum these questions up:
How can you make time (and follow through) in order to work on important projects and areas of responsibility when life is already so full?
This is a “category” of question that I get frequently. So much so, in fact, that I created an entire class that dives deep on time management.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “Do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life’s made of.”
Ultimately, managing your time is unto something. And that “something” is the living of life. How we spend our time is, quite literally, how we are living our life.
The good news is that diligence and focus are not personality types; they are skills you can learn.
In just a moment I’m going to share some ideas, perspectives, and practical suggestions that can help. But if there is one thing to take away, it’s this:
You have more control over your time than you think.
If you’re not happy with where things are at right now regarding your time and attention, then make a change.
There are some mindset changes you need (which I’ll get to in just a minute).
And there are some practical things you can do in order to improve your likelihood of success. And whereby “success” I mean “spending your time and energy the way you want to”.
Let’s dive in…
Start With Your Personal Integrity
Personal Integrity is defined as doing what you’ve said to yourself that you will do.
So many of us are good at following through with the commitments we make to others. But we are not so good at following through with the commitments we make to ourselves.
Without a deep amount of personal integrity, it will always be difficult for you to make changes in your life. Not that change is ever easy, but it is especially challenging when you have a history of not following through on your own commitments.
The best thing to do here is start small with something simple…
Such as putting your shoes away in the same spot every day when you come home. Make that the first thing you do when you arrive home, no matter what shoes you are wearing or what the weather was like outside, etc.
Do that every single day for a month, and you will begin building your personal integrity. You’ll be following through with a commitment and proving to yourself that you can see a task through to the end.
You Have to Make Time
You don’t find time. You make it.
I know it’s semantics. But it’s also a huge mindset change and it’s one worth musing on for a moment.
Sure, if we were being philosophical and direct about it we would all agree that, yes, of course, you don’t find time the way you might find a dollar bill on the sidewalk.
But how often do we truly act that way in our lives?
Many of us act as if we are trying to find the time. We are looking around, hoping there may be an hour or two just lying there not being spent.
You make time by saying no to a lot of things — other interests, hobbies, time-sucks, etc.
You also need boundaries for yourself so that you know when to say no to other people and opportunities. Your creative ideas and the side projects you’re working on are valuable.
Find Your Pockets
Something we do in The Focus Course, is take a week and track all the time we are spending. Literally we try to map out every minute of the day for a whole week and then see what our schedule actually looks like. It brings clarity about how we are truly spending our time.
And most folks (myself included) always discover there are pockets of time here and there that we didn’t realize where there.
I know it doesn’t feel as if there is any time in the day. Every minute of your day is spent on something — you’ve got something that you’re doing.
But we all do.
Every single one of us is spending every minute of our day. Right now, for example, you’re spending your time reading this article. (Thank you!)
What happens when you take a week to track your movements, you discover those pockets. And the pockets aren’t spots where you’re doing nothing at all. They’re spots where you realize you could spend less no time on a particular task.
Reduce your activation energy
Oftentimes, the real challenge is not in the making of time…
It’s getting started in the moment.
I have had so many conversations with folks who tell me how they don’t have time in their day. But when they come home from work, they watch TV for a few hours before going to bed.
If you were to take a whole week and track how you spend every minute, you would discover that you have pockets in your day that you could adjust to make time for other things. The trouble is that it’s not always easy to turn those pockets of time into creatively productive time.
Thus, the more you can do to reduce your activation energy, the better.
It’s the idea of helping your future self. And it was a revelation to me a few years ago.
Yes, you can change your schedule around. Yes, you can make some time. You can wake up earlier. You can skip your lunch break. You can dictate into a microphone while driving to work or write while on the bus. Etc…
But when you finally those precious minutes to do your creative work, the truth is you just don’t want to. You’re tired, your distracted, you’re not sure where to start.
Getting started is the hardest part.
Take heart: It’s that way for everyone. You’re not the only one.
There are some articles I’ve already written about this, that can help you, and I’ll list them out in a second.
But first, it boils down to this:
What is something you can do today that will help you make things easier to get started on your creative work tomorrow?
For further reading on reducing your activation energy, check out these additional articles:
- The Note
- Moving Targets
- Building Better Defaults
- Make doing your most important work part of your routine
- The Five Minute Rule
Change your schedule for just a short season
My friend, Sean McCabe, took the month of July to write a book. It was a sprint, and then he returned to his regular schedule.
About a month ago, I took one week and spent it getting up an hour earlier in order to write first thing in the morning. I enjoyed it so much I gave it a shot for another week. And then another. And another. And now I’ve been doing it for 4 straight weeks. But it started as a 5-day experiment.
Buy back your time
Are there things you can delegate or automate? Such as mowing the lawn or cleaning the bathrooms?
They say time is money, but time is worth infinitely more than money. You can always earn another dollar, but you never get back another minute.
If you can spend a few dollars to give yourself a few hours, and then use that time doing something you love, that’s a bargain!
If the idea seem preposterous to you, try saving up to pay for a service for just one month. And then commit to yourself that by the end of the month you will have created something you can sell.
Think Outside the Box
What about your commute? Could you negotiate with your boss to work from home one day a week, and then use the time you save on your commute to work on your side project?
Accountability & Social Support
By far and away, one of the best ways to help yourself show up every day is to be accountable to that task.
If you have a small measure of accountability in place, where you’ve got to report back to someone about your progress, you are far more likely to complete it.
As part of the Focus Club, we’ve been doing daily stand-ups in our members-only chat. Every morning at 10am people can check in with what they’re working on.
As I’ve written about before, social support is your single greatest asset when it comes to success in nearly every single area of your life.
Start with 20 minutes.
If you know how you want to spend your time, but the struggle is to make the time, start with 20 minutes. For sure you have 20 minutes somewhere in your day.
Break it down like this:
- Set a timer for 15 minutes (yes, 15). Spend those first 15 minutes working on your project.
- Then, spend the remaining 5 minutes leaving a breadcrumb trail for yourself so that tomorrow you know exactly where to pick up where you left off.
Find Your Creative Focus
If you don’t yet know how to spend your time, or what to focus your creative energy on, this workbook can guide you through that.
My Own Story
I’ve been writing and publishing regularly for over a decade. A few of the milestones along that journey include:
- Jan 2006: Started my first blog on Blogger
- Jul 2006: Bought my own domain and started publishing more regularly
- Jul 2007: Started shawnblanc.net
- Oct 2010: Started selling sponsorships
- Feb 2011: Announced the Shawn Today membership
- Apr 2011: Quit my job and to write full time
- Aug 2011: Built and launched Tools & Toys
- Feb 2012: My first son, Noah, was born
- Jul 2012: Wrote my first book, Delight is in the Details
- Sep 2013: My second son, Giovanni, was born
- Nov 2013: Launched The Sweet Setup
- Jul 2014: Updated my book with new chapters and interviews
- Feb 2015: Started my email newsletter
- Jun 2015: Launched The Focus Course
- Dec 2015: Created The Elements of Focus
- Jan 2016: Updated The Focus Course
- Jan 2016: Hired a full-time employee
- Mar 2016: Launched a Time Management class
- Jun 2016: Hosted Focus Camp
- Aug 2016: Started The Focus Club
Now, let me share a bit of behind-the-scenes backstory to those milestones…
For those first few years of writing in 2006 and 2007, I was a young married dude and was traveling. I had plenty of free time and writing for my website was perhaps my singular biggest focus. I loved it.
In early 2008 I took a new job that required roughly 70-80 hours a week. I did that job for 3 years: from 2008 – 2011. But I continued to write on the side and build an audience.
In fact, during those three years of writing on the side, I was able to build enough relational equity with my readership that I was able to quit my job and go full-time writing my website thanks primarily to the generous monthly support of readers like you.
Then, just one year after going full-time with my website, my wife and I had our first son.
After her maternity leave, she returned to do part-time work with our church. For about a year my wife’s schedule was extremely varied. Some days she would be gone in the morning, and some days in the afternoons. I was a part-time writer and a part-time stay at home dad who didn’t have any regularity to my day-to-day routine.
After our second son was born 3 years ago, my wife changed her schedule to something more regular. I now have my whole day every day to focus on the work.
And yet, even now, I write for a living, and yet I’m waking up at 6am — before the kids, before the neighbors, before I want to — so I can get a solid hour of writing in as the very first thing to I do in my day.
Sure, I will do more writing during the day, but not like I do first thing in the morning. This early morning session is for me to write what matters. This is the time I write new articles and do the work of fleshing out ideas and topics.
In all of the aforementioned seasons it was a challenge to make the time to write. It has always been a challenge to show up and do the work, and I know that it will continue to be so.
Here is More Stuff on Time Management
I’ve been writing about creative focus and time management for years. It’s one of my favorite subjects.
Here are a few of my best resources on the subject. Some are completely free and some you can buy.
- My Time Management class
- The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress
- Give Your Day Some Breathing Room
- Why Margin is Critical for Doing Your Best Creative Work
- How to Show Up Every Day
- Why You Should Show Up Every Day
Also, check out our membership community, the Focus Club. It’s brand new and it’s awesome. You can connect with like-minded folks every day, keep accountable to your most important work, join in on our live coaching calls (hosted by yours truly), and more.
As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been asking folks what their biggest challenge is right now related to doing their best creative work.
By far and away, there are two very common themes:
The first theme is along the lines of not feeling in control of the hours in your day.
And the second them is along the lines of not having the clarity you need for where to focus your energy and what priorities to set for yourself.
But there are also quite a few more specific questions I’ve been getting. And over the coming weeks, I’m going to be diving in and answering them.
Let’s get started…
* * *
Here’s a question I received from reader, Ross Kimes. He says:
“I would like to see tips for taking a personal project that you do on nights and weekends to a full-time job.”
The first thing that comes to my mind is what you all know: There is no single path to success. Even Seth Godin attributes quite a bit of his own success to chance and luck.
So my point is that you’ve got to love the process and the journey. You must love doing the work. And you’ve got to be delighted with having just a teeny-tiny amount of impact.
This is crucial for a few reasons.
For one, as you know, it’s not a sure bet that you can turn a personal project into a full-time gig. If the only reason you’re in this racket is to make it big, you might not make it. And so, then what?
Now, I know that’s not you. You wouldn’t be showing up to do the work on the nights and weekends if you didn’t love it already. Which is why there is another reason you’ve got to love the process…
The bigger reason you’ve got to love the work is because the work never gets easier. Every single day you choose to show up, it’s another choice. If you don’t love the work now, when it’s on the side, you won’t love it then when it’s something you have to do.
* * *
Going from amateur to pro is as simple as getting a sustainable business model.
In order to do that, you need customers and clients, a valuable skill-set and/or a valuable product, the right mindsets, and more.
Thus, the road from amateur to pro is jam packed with micro-adjustments as you learn and mature and adapt.
Here’s the great news: you can do it. I know you can.
There has never been a better time in the history of history to take your personal project that you do on nights and weekends and turn it into your full-time job.
You’re not too late. You haven’t missed your opportunity. It just takes a TON of hard work. It won’t happen over night.
* * *
Lastly, here are some unordered thoughts from my own experience of writing on the side for several years before going full-time, and then growing my business over the past 5 years.
Show up every day for a few years years
There are so many reasons why it’s vital for you to show up every day. The main ones are that (a) you need a creative habit; (b) you need to prove to yourself you’re in it for the long run (remember that thing about loving the work); and (c) you need to build your audience.
Showing up every day is the best thing you can do for your business, your creativity, and your platform.
Establishing a creative habit means “making stuff” becomes part of your every day routine. If you can’t make the time when you have other life responsibilities, you will struggle to make the time to do it when you go full-time, too.
Once you take your personal project full time, you’ll be surprised how difficult it is to keep showing up. You’ll find that there is a stronger pressure to show up and deliver (which, ironically, can make it more difficult to keep showing up). You will also have a hundred new things you didn’t have to do before, like bookkeeping.
Show up every day to prove to yourself that you can do it. When it comes to the creative work itself, the grass won’t be any greener on the other side. If you don’t enjoy it now, you won’t enjoy it then either.
Show up every day in order to build your audience, your reputation, and your “brand”. The internet thrives on regular cycles and people get used to looking forward to things in daily / weekly doses. So you need to make sure you’re a part of your audience’s daily / weekly routine even now while it’s still your personal project you do on the nights and weekends.
Understand the Rule of Reciprocity
In a nut, the rule of reciprocity looks like this: if you buy someone coffee, they will feel indebted to you. They will want to buy you lunch.
So, in the world of marketing / business, this idea translates into a focus on giving and then asking.
Do people take advantage of this idea? Yes, absolutely. Do they do things that are annoying or sleazy? Yes.
But you’re not other people.
You need to give, give, give. Then give some more. Be the first one to provide value, every time all the time. Make the life of your audience better than you found it, every single time you interact with them.
Be willing to give if there’s nothing else next. (That’s why you’ve got to love the work, remember?)
If you give enough, then you earn the right to ask. But, of course, that’s not the point.
The point is: are you willing to give if that’s all there was to it?
Now, of course, you have to pay the bills and feed your kids. I do, too. We all do.
So you absolutely need to ask, and that does not make you a sell out or a shady person.
Give and ask. Don’t focus on just one or the other. You need to do both to survive and to serve.
Make sure you are always out-giving your audience. Always give more; always over deliver; always surprise and delight.
You need to be seen as the most trusted advisor, and not just as a conveyor of yet another commodity. As Jay Abraham says, the competition and the consumer are both trying to commoditize you. Don’t let them. Don’t surrender.
You have to establish yourself as the only viable solution to a challenge or opportunity in your client’s life. You want to always be guiding them to make the right decision — which doesn’t mean only ever doing business with you. Because you want to make your relationship a permanent one.
Start selling something soon
You need to practice making money.
Get into a cycle of shipping so you get used to the innate fear related to putting your work out there.
You learn so much by selling. You begin to normalize price points (which price-points do you want to play in?), you learn how to serve your clients/customers better, you get familiar with doing business and developing your business plan, and so much more.
Diversify Your Income
Personally, I’m a fan of having multiple streams of income through multiple products and services.
Not only does this minimize the risk that your entire business model goes away over night (because you don’t have all your eggs in just one basket), but it also means you can serve different people in different markets and at different price points.
At Blanc Media, we have a little over 11 unique streams of income: sponsorships; display advertising; affiliate sales via iTunes, Amazon, and others; my Shawn Today membership; Delight is in the Details; Day One in Depth; The Focus Course; Time Management Class; Awareness Building Class; The Focus Club; coaching and consulting.
Have a Minimum of 3 Months Financial Runway
Three months is the minimum. I’d aim for six if you can. Six months worth of expenses saved up, and sitting in the bank as your financial margin.
How much you save can depend on how at risk you are to losing all your income at once.
When you are taking your personal project full-time, you want to be free from financial burden. Get out of debt.
It’s going to be financially stressful enough as it is as you work to get your revenue streams regular and sustainable. But also, you want to be able to take as much of your income as you can and invest it right back into your business to help you grow while staying debt-free.
In short, Change careers like Tarzan.
Get around a community
Doing the independent creative entrepreneur thing is super lonely. All the more a reason why social support is your single greatest asset.
Build your email list
It’s the only way you can own your platform. It’s the most profitable way to sell your products.
And, most of all, it’s the most direct way to serve and connect directly with your audience. It’s a fantastic way to develop open feedback loops with your readership as you serve and nurture your audience.
In short, your email list allows you to do many things. But, most of all, it allows you to focus on relevancy rather than recency.
What else is great about building your email list is that as your business grows, you can begin to automate your processes and emails.
ABL (Always Be Learning)
I have definitely learned some things from the internet, but the things that have most impacted my business mindset have come from the printed page.
Here are a few recommended books:
- Turning Pro
- The War of Art
- Do The Work
- Anything You Want
- The Personal MBA
- Accidental Creative
- Samurai Selling
- The Lean Startup
- The 4 Disciplines of Execution
More Thoughts on Creativity and Entrepreneurship
Earlier this year I wrote a 7-article series on creativity and entrepreneurship. Here are those articles.
It’s social support.
You can only go so far by yourself.
In The Focus Course, the second-to-last day is all about Community.
The micro-assignment for Day 39 is one with two parts: To give and to receive.
You have to give by encouraging, helping, supporting, or teaching someone. But you also have to receive by asking someone for advice, feedback, support, or accountability.
Both giving and receiving are acts of selflessness. They both get you out of your little bubble of self.
Because by giving you are serving others. And by receiving you are admitting that you don’t have all the answers, and you can’t figure it all out on your own.
From your personal integrity and creative energy, to your lifestyle habits and routines, to all the areas of your life — all of it is enhanced through relationship.
Your life is enhanced through relationships.
* * *
In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor writes that social support is our single greatest asset when it comes to success in “nearly every domain of our lives, including marriage, health, friendship, community involvement, creativity, and in particular, our jobs, careers, and business.”
Let’s read that again, because wow…
Social support is your single greatest asset when it comes to success in nearly every single area of your life.
Relationships and networks are critical to your career and to your ability to do (and ship, and sell) your best creative work.
There are two proverbial statements about this. These two are cliché at this point, but all the truest ones are these days:
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
To again quote Shawn Achor, he writes:
When we have a community of people we can count on — spouses, family, friends, colleagues — we multiply our emotional, intellectual, and physical resources. We bounce back from setbacks faster, accomplish more, and feel a greater sense of purpose. Furthermore, the effect on our happiness, and therefore on our ability to profit from the Happiness Advantage, is both immediate and long-lasting.
Not only is our social network helpful for success in every area of our lives, so too does it help us feel confident, happy, and motivated. Having social relationships is virtually as important as food and water.
If success was just about tactics, you would have already achieved it.
But it takes more than just knowing the tactics…
It takes changes in your mindset.
It takes a commitment to show up every day and do the work.
And it requires the help of others.
* * *
Long-time readers know me well enough to know that I’m not into hype or hyperbole.
I care deeply about getting to the root issues that hold us back from doing our best creative work every day.
And when I know something in my life is holding me back, I seek to find out what it is and then do something about it.
What about you?
Are you wanting to improve where things are at?
Then you’ve got to simplify the complex, and then get to work.
As Mark Twain said:
The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.
What is one thing you could do today that would move you forward in your goals?
For me, I realized I had a need for more community in my life.
Not personal friendships… I have a few close friends whom I meet every week for lunch, a small group of family friends that gets together once a month, and a small Bible study that meets every Tuesday evening.
For me, the area I find community lacking the most was related to the business-side of my life.
Being the calm and slow-moving person that I am, there are four things I’ve done in the past month to help expand my community:
- We have finally set up regular Blanc Media team video calls on the calendar. We went from meeting occasionally when it was necessary, to meeting regularly to stay better connected.
- I hired a business coach, to not only help with moving things forward, but also as someone to dialog with about the specifics of my business.
- I am organizing a small mastermind group with a few other peers in the industry.
- I am kicking off Focus Club.
What about you?
What’s one thing you could do today that would move you forward in your goals?
My next course is about showing up every day, doing your best creative work, building an audience, and earning an income.
Right now the working title of the course is “The Creative Life”.
Because ultimately, this course is about developing the mindset, habits, and resources you need to do your best creative work.
But more on all of that another time…
- My own experience, stories, and wisdom.
- The experiences, stories, and wisdom of others.
At best, I have only a very small glimpse and perspective. So I lean on the wisdom and perspective of others.
Here are a few of the books that have helped me show up every day, do my best creative work, build an audience, and earn an income.
The Personal MBA, by Josh Kaufman
Creativity Inc., by Ed Catmull
Show Your Work, by Austin Kleon
Deep Work, by Cal Newport
The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christensen
Die Empty, by Todd Henry
The Accidental Creative, by Todd Henry
The Customer Funded Business, by John Mullins
The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp
Anything You Want, by Derek Sivers
Ask, by Ryan Levesque
Zero to One, by Peter Thiel
People Over Profit, by Dale Partridge
This past weekend I rented a car, drove 4 hours to Tulsa, bought a new (to me) family car that I’d found on Craigslist, and drove it back.
To accompany me on the road trip, I loaded up the audiobook version of Creativity Inc..
I began reading it on Kindle about a year ago, but only made it to chapter 5. I’ve been wanting to dive back in, and this was a great opportunity.
There is so much gold in this book.
One particular tidbit that stuck out to me from the chapter on Honesty and Candor.
People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things — in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie’s writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees. The details converge to obscure the whole, and that makes it difficult to move forward substantially in any one direction. The experience can be overwhelming.
If you’ve ever begun working a new project, learning a new skill, or the like, and you get into it and feel completely overwhelmed, lost, and confused — don’t freak out.
As Ed Catmull says, it is the nature of things.
How do you press through that feeling of overwhelm?
For one you keep going. You keep showing up every day, making choices, and doing the work. With patience, you will find clarity.
Secondly, you need community. People who can give candid advice, encouragement, and feedback. People who will level with you and keep you accountable to your goals.
What you’re looking at here is some white board scribbling that represents the first module of my next course.
The white board is so messy and random, you might think this was our very first whiteboard session for Module One.
Actually, this is the fourth whiteboard session we’ve had like this in the past two weeks.
This is our process of taking things apart and putting them back together again.
I’m working on a new course that’s about doing your best creative work, moving from hobbyist to pro, building and caring for an audience, and making a few dollars from your creative work.
Right now the course outline consists of more than 90 individual sessions within 6 modules. Plus worksheets. Plus interviews. Plus easter eggs.
That is a massive amount of content. It’s too much.
Who has the time to work their way through all of that?
That’s why we’re trying to distill the outline down to what is most essential.
And it starts by taking apart each module and asking: What is the single most important takeaway here?
- What is the single most important lesson for someone who wants to do their best creative work?
- What is the single most important lesson for someone who wants to move from hobby to pro?
- What is the single most important lesson for someone who wants to define and build their audience?
- What is the single most important lesson for someone who wants to steward their audience and give provide value?
- What is the single most important lesson for someone who wants to make an income from their creative work?
- What is the single most important lesson for someone who wants to build and sell their products?
For us, we’re still in the preparation phase on all of these modules. We know all the surrounding ideas, mindsets, tactics, and tools. I’ve been writing about this stuff for years.
The aim right now is to get the outline clear so we can get to work on putting the pieces in place.
How do you edit an outline?
You take it apart and put it back together again.
You question your assumptions and hypothesis.
You try writing it out in a way that makes sense to your grandparents.
Then try writing it so it makes sense to your neighbor across the street.
Then you re-write again with your ideal customer in mind.
You make sure you’re answering all the questions and challenges your ideal customer is facing.
* * *
The above photo represents the fourth time we’ve taken apart this outline and put it back together again.
First we started with sticky notes on the whiteboard.
Then we moved the sticky notes onto posters on the wall. (We needed the whiteboard back.)
Then I re-wrote it all onto note cards.
Then we went back to white board drawings, which you see above.
We keep taking apart all the pieces, looking at them, asking why they’re there, and then putting the whole thing back together again.
Each pass we make at the outline things become a bit more clear.
Once we start taking it apart and putting it back together the same way, then it’ll be time to start writing.
If you’re interested in going behind-the-scenes at the creation of this course, and getting early access to the content, we’re looking for pilot course members.
There are some pretty great benefits, which I’ll share later.
Sign up over here to get on the list, and I’ll let you know once we open the doors.
Once you’ve committed to do your best creative work, you may find that it can get lonely.
Sometimes it’s lonely by default…
You’re in “monk mode”. You’re disappearing to your cave for hours at a time to get some serious work done.
Or it’s lonely because the project is top of mind — it’s all you’re thinking about. Except it’s still the early stages of the project, and so you’re not yet clear enough on things to have any sort of coherent conversation about it. Your words just come out as fragmented ramblings while your conversation partner stares back blankly, trying desperately to follow along.
Showing up every day is hard enough work by itself. And because of how natural it can be to do the work in isolation, community becomes all the more valuable.
Last summer, a few weeks after I launched The Focus Course, my wife and I hosted a backyard BBQ party to celebrate.
I had just spent the better part of my past year working on it, and the vast majority of that time I spent alone. But it’s not a project I could have done completely alone.
There were so many people who were involved, those who helped with the project itself and those friends who encouraged me along the way.
So we invited anyone and everyone who had been involved at all with the building of the course. We served BBQ, played games, and told them thank you.
Building something can often be isolating and lonely. Especially for the independent creative entrepreneur.
You put in hours and hours and hours of work while sitting alone in your cave. Don’t let that work stay isolated.
Don’t let yourself experience your failures and successes alone.
Share them with others, invite your friends and family into what you’re doing. They need you just as much as you need them.
As you may know, there are nearly 600 folks — including yours truly — who are going through The Focus Course right now.
We’re a few days in, and our Focus Course assignment for today entailed listing out my life values.
Two of the values I listed may not really count as “values”. But oh well, I listed them anyway. One value was Business Savvy and another was Work / Life Balance.
Then, for each value I listed, I also had to write a description of how I express that value in my life.
Now, the tricky part here is that the descriptions have to be written as if I already live it out exactly as I would want to. Which, to be honest, is a challenge. Because, at least for me, I see my faults all too well.
Nevertheless, I wrote my descriptions for what what the value of Business Savvy looks like and what the value of Work / Life Balance looks like for me.
And as I was writing my description out, it dawned on me that so often we pit work and life against one another. As if work is bad and life is good. And that is a completely wrong mindset.
That said, I wanted to share with you how I defined Work / Life Balance for my own life.
Work / Life Balance
I have a strong drive to do my best creative work and to build a business that matters. I also have a deep love for my family and friends and living a healthy and full life.
These two things are not mutually exclusive. And so I don’t feel guilty about the time I spend working, and neither do I feel anxiety when taking time off of work.
My work responsibilities and goals are very important, but I don’t let them dominate my entire day as they are wont to do. I refuse to look back on my career and feel regret about spending too much time working and not enough time with my friends and family. But I also refuse to shy away from doing my best work every single day.
I understand the time I spend away from the work is just as important as the time I spend doing the work.
And so I refuse to live a life that’s driven by an addiction to the urgent. I know what healthy boundaries are, and I know that there will always be “one more thing” to do when it comes to my work. With that in mind, I don’t let the “seemingly urgent” tasks of my work dictate my schedule.
(Or: Why The Fastest Route to Doing Your Best Creative Work is to Show Up Every Day, Ship Early, and Ship Often.)
* * *
As people who care deeply about what we do and what we create, our goal is always quality. We’re aiming to write or design or record the best work we can; always seeking to get better.
Like I said last week, as a creative person, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the end product. You have this idea — this clever, beautiful, amazing thing you see in your mind. You want to make that, and anything less is unacceptable.
But, when you’re there, in the mire of your own work, it usually feels like anything but quality. It usually feels like crap.
As a writer, I never cease to amaze myself at my inability to find the words I am looking for. And then, when I can’t find them, I have no choice but to use the less-exciting words which have come to mind rather than those perfect ones which always seem to escape me.
It is in those moments where I have to remember that quantity leads to quality. Or, put another way, I’ve become comfortable with falling short of my own lofty expectations.
Today, the goal isn’t perfection. It’s far more simple: The goal is to show up and do the best work that I can.
Don’t believe that you must chose between creating a lot of something, or creating one thing that is a masterpiece. The former leads to the latter.
Yes, I want to be a fantastic writer. Yes, I want to write engaging, clever, and quotable works. Yes, I want my articles to be insightful and memorable. But I’ll never reach it if I quit while things seem poor. I cannot allow myself to only write when it feels inspired and en route to greatness.
If we sit around and wait for quality it won’t come.
Quality must be pursued.
In an article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell cited psychologist Dean Simonton and brings up Simonton’s argument that quantity does, in fact, lead to quality:
The psychologist Dean Simonton argues that this fecundity is often at the heart of what distinguishes the truly gifted. The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ration of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, and observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great. “Quality,” Simonton writes, is “a probabilistic function of quantity.”
In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport also argues that along with the ability to focus, quality is a byproduct of quantity.
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
He then goes on to say that, “unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf those of your competition, the deep workers among them will outproduce you.”
Moreover, the idea that quantity leads to quality is the same case Geoff Colvin makes in his book, Talent is Overrated. Stating that the world’s top performers are, for the most part, people just like you and I but who have (a) put in far more hours practicing their craft and (b) made the most of their practice time by practicing with intentionality and deep focus.
“One day at a time. It sounds so simple. It actually is simple, but it isn’t easy. It requires incredible support and fastidious structuring.” — Russell Brand
* * *
Consider the fairytale of Goldilocks and the three bears.
Goldilocks happens upon the home of three bears while they’re out on a walk. She comes in and tastes their porridge, sits in their chairs, and sleeps in their beds.
The first bowl of porridge was too hot; the second, too cold; but the third was just right. And likewise for the chairs she sat in and the beds she napped in.
So it is in our pursuit of quality, excellence, and breakthrough…
At first we feel like intruders; imposters. Everything we put our hand to is not quite right. Too hot, too cold, to big, too small, hard, soft.
But then, after enough perseverance and focus, eventually, we create something that’s just right.
There are two types of creative goals.
The first type of goal is the goal a project that you’re building. Something you’re making. A goal of something that does not exist and that you are in process of creating.
The second is a goal related to your creative output. Your skill set, your talent, your ideas, inspiration, motivation.
The two go hand in hand. Each one needs the other.
Because, as we’ll dive in to next week, quantity leads to quality. The more you do the work and the more you learn by shipping — then, in turn, the more you will grow in your skills. And, the more you grow in your skills the more you’ll be able to reach your goals for the work you create.
Loving the Process
How much do you enjoy the journey of creativity?
What if there was no end result? What if it was just a process of day in and day out. Showing up and showing your work?
Are you content in the creative process?
Are you content with your creative process?
When I think back to the building and launching of The Focus Course, what I remember most is the whole story and all the work leading up to the launch.
It started with a few dozen podcast episodes for the Shawn Today members. Those episodes turned into chapters of a book that never got published because I changed my mind about the book and began creating an online course instead. I mapped the whole thing out on my floor with index cards. I then led a small pilot group through the course using an email list…
That whole process, that year-long creative journey, was so much fun. It was exhilarating.
The launch of the Focus Course was just a one-day event. One day.
Then, I went back to creating. I started working on the next version of the course.
Perhaps what’s most difficult is that feeling of overwhelm when you’re on the threshold of a new project and you see where you are right now and you compare it to where you hope to go, and it feels unsurmountable.
Ira Glass explains this so well. Take a few minutes to watch this video:
Remember this: start with the simplest step first.
You never outgrow that bit of advice.
No matter how advanced you are in your craft, how much experience you have, etc. You always have to start with the first step.
As a creative person, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the end product. You have this idea — this clever, beautiful, amazing thing you see in your mind. And you want to make that. Anything less is unacceptable.
The problem, however, is that this clever, beautiful, amazing thing you see is completely unreasonable as the first version.
The first version is the baby version…
It’s small. It’s naked. It’s crying at first contact with the real world. It needs to be nursed and continually cared for and swaddled. It poops its pants whenever you’re not looking. It won’t even let you sleep through the night.
But with proper care and feeding, your baby will grow up. It will mature. And, over time, it will learn to stand on its own.
If you’re in it for the long run, be encouraged…
Starting small isn’t something you “settle” for. Rather, it’s the proper way to get going. And when you commit your time and energy to your creative goals, you will see progress.
As we’ll talk about more next week, a commitment to quality is what gives motivation to show up every day. And showing up every day — that quantity of work — is what leads to creating with quality.
Creativity and business are both packed to the rafters with risk. If you’re trying to do your best creative work or if you’re building a business, then you’re going to have to take risks.
But they don’t have to be wild, all-in bets. And, you can have fun in the process.
* * *
Risk is part of creativity
Have you ever found yourself staring down the barrel of a project, and you say:
“This might not work.”
Hopefully that’s a common phrase for you. Because when you’re not sure if something will work, that’s when you know you’re on to something.
Perhaps the idea or the project itself won’t prove to be successful, but that’s okay. Merely trying something out that may or may not prove to be great is worth the effort.
Ernest Hemingway’s advice was to “write drunk, edit sober.”
Create without inhibition. Create without fear of failure; without mind for other people’s opinions; without fear of rejection; without feeling like an impostor.
As Derek Sivers writes in his book, Anything You Want:
Business is as creative as the fine arts. You can be as unconventional, unique, and quirky as you want. A business is a reflection of the creator. Pay close attention to what excites you and what drains you. Pay close attention to when you’re being the real you and when you’re trying to impress an invisible jury.
Risk will always be a part of the creative process. Because creativity is not a science — it’s filled with objectivity that changes from within and without based on the weather.
There’s no sure fire way to make something awesome. There’s no proven formula to go viral. There’s no such thing as literal overnight success.
Get comfortable with risk. When you know that risk is just part of the game, it helps you in your fight to stay creative.
Moreover, if you can be comfortable with risk in your creative work, you will, in turn, be more comfortable with risk in your business.
That’s important because…
Risk is Part of Business
Five years ago, when I quit my job and began working for myself, I took the “leap” to writing full time.
It’s called a “leap” for a reason.
Going full-time with my writing was a risk.
I was standing at the edge of a cliff. There was a gap, and there was another cliff across from me. I had to leap from not-full-time and hope made it across to the other side.
Standing at the edge, there was no bridge that was going to come build itself. I had gone as far as I could with the time and the resources I had available to me. I could either remain there in that spot, or I could take a leap and hope to make it to the other side.
So many people get get to that same spot. That spot where they’ve gone as far as they can with the time and resources available to them. But then, once they’re there, they stop and wait.
Who knows what they’re waiting for. More time? More resources?
It’s (probably) not time or money that’s the biggest issue holding them back. I think it’s fear.
However, that’s not to say you should throw caution to the wind. When I took the leap into my full-time writing gig, I most certainly did my due diligence and was prepared financially. (Which is a topic worthy of its own book.)
You’ve got to make sure you…
Minimize Financial Risk
When I quit my job, I had:
- No kids, no debt, an emergency fund saved up, my wife had a part-time income.
- My website was already making some money ($1,000 / month).
- I also had a plan to front-load 90-days worth of income by having the membership subscription charge people quarterly instead of monthly.
The best-case scenario was obviously that I would be able to earn enough revenue to pay all our bills and keep writing full-time. Fortunately, that’s how things have turned out so far.
But the worst-case scenario really wouldn’t have been that terrible. If, after having given the writing gig my full-time attention for 90 full days without seeing any traction, I would have gone to get a part-time job somewhere and then returned to the drawing board.
Basically, if the membership model hadn’t worked out, it would have been embarrassing but not catastrophic.
Over the years, as I’ve slowly built a business around writing and publishing, I’ve continued to minimize financial risk by doing things like staying out of debt and moving at the speed of cash and saving up a business emergency fund.
But there is more at risk than just the financials themselves. You also want to make sure what it is you’re creating is actually of value to others. You want your creative endeavors to fly.
How can you do that?
Minimize the Risk of Failure
There are so many ways you can minimize the risk of your project failing. The way I know best is through consistently writing.
Writing helps you get your thoughts out onto paper. It helps you get your ideas in order. And it gives you assets you can use for your business and creative endeavors.
It’s also what you have to do first before you publish anything. Writing an article, a podcast outline, a video outline, etc. You’ve got to write if you want to publish content.
And, quite frankly, publishing content is one of the best things you can do to minimize the risk of your next big project being a flop.
By writing and publishing, you’re doing three huge things:
- Opening a feedback loop between you and your audience (the people who will buy from you, spread the word about your work, etc.).
- Giving away value and helping others.
- Establishing yourself as someone who is credible and who cares.
And so, yes, you minimize the risk of failure by showing up every day. It’s not about numbers, it’s about connections.
As Jeffery Feldman says (quoted from Austin Kleon in in Show your work!):
What you want is to follow and be followed by human beings who care about issues you care about. This thing we make together. This thing is about hearts and minds, not eyeballs.
Showing up every day, teaching what you know, and connecting with your audience by being honest is how you actually connect with folks.
Now that you’re comfortable with risk, it’s time to…
Celebrate Your Progress
When you’ve taken a risk, give yourself a high five. 🙌
Keep track of what you create, what you ship, what you sell, what you were expecting to happen, what actually happened, what worked, what didn’t work, etc.
I do this by journaling in Day One.
Celebrating progress keeps up your intrinsic motivation. It’s also an excellent way to keep track of your growth and lessons learned.
Because in a few months time, you’ll have forgotten all about that risk you just took because you’ll be on to the next one.
Which is why next week I want to share about how to set creative goals and actually make progress.
The risk part is just one big step. But then, after you’ve taken that initial leap — the first big risky move — what comes next is all the hard work of iteration.
Setting creative goals is also critical because you’ve got 100 ideas for inspiration. You need a goal so you know what to focus your time and energy on. Without creative goals, you’re like a wave in the ocean, being tossed to and fro with the wind.
* * *
This was part five in a series of articles I’ve been writing about creativity and entrepreneurship lessons learned after five years as a full-time self-employed writer. You can find the previous four articles here:
Consider the components to a creative business (or any business, really), and here’s what you get:
Who, What, Why, How, and How Much.
- Who is your (ideal) customer or client.
- What is the product or service you’re creating or providing.
- How is a combination of your resources as well as your business plan (as in: how are you going to do the work, and how are you going to connect your product with your customer).
- How Much relates to the value you’re providing to your customer as well as the price you’re charging them.
- Why relates to the motivation, vision, and values of the work you do.
Two sidebars before we get started:
- This doesn’t just have to relate to indie entrepreneurs and start-up CEOs. It can relate to in-house designers, freelance developers, and more. Say you work for a design firm or a recording studio. Your “who” is your boss — your company. Your “How Much” is your salary.
- I used to think you had to start with why. But as I’ve been reading through Cal Newport’s book, I’m realizing that most of us start with what. In fact, Newport argues that you starting with why is actually bad advice. In short, it’s in the process of doing the work that we get much-needed experience and clarity about the sort of work we want to keep on doing, and in that process we are able to build up the relationships and resources we need in order to do the work that matters most to us.
That said, let’s break down the Who, What, Why, and How Much a bit more. I’m going to use The Focus Course as my example.
Who: My ideal customer for the Focus Course is someone who is eager to learn, do their best creative work, and has energy to move the needle forward in their life. Though I created the course so just about anyone can work through the 40 days of assignments, the person I most have in mind is someone who already has an internal drive to make changes in their life.
What: A self-guided, 40-day course that gives you insight and clarity into your values, goals, stress points, and distractions and then gives you an action plan for doing something about it all.
How: I built the course itself by writing every day, working with a pilot group to test and review the contents, and then working with a designer and developer to create the website that hosts the content.
How much: The price of the Focus Course is $249; the value, though it varies from person to person, is (I hope) much, much more than that.
Why: I’m someone who is naturally spontaneous, distracted, and seems to always have more ideas than time. In my early 20s I realized that I needed to get a grip on how I spent my time and energy or else I’d never make meaningful progress on the things that were most important to me. The ideas and tactics of The Focus Course are things that I myself have used and taught for more than a decade and I wanted to create a fun and even better way way to clearly teach these things to others.
Here’s a sketch I made (don’t laugh) to show how these elements interrelate with one another to form the components of a sustainable business.
As you can see in the chart above, when your product and your customer connect, then value is created and exchanged. It’s at this intersection that your business model exists. You have something of value to offer, and others are willing to pay for it.
Additionally, if your product or service is something that aligns with your own personal values and goals, then when you sell to your customer you’re also giving expression to your vision.
There is immense satisfaction in providing something of value to someone else in such a manner that also sustains the ongoing providing of more value. Consider the converse: when our work and actions don’t align with our vision and values, it can be a huge drain on our morale and motivation.
This is what a sustainable business model is all about: doing work you’re proud of, providing value to others, and having a means to continue doing that work. It’s what Walt Disney meant when he famously said, “We don’t make movies so we can make money; we make money so we can make more movies.”
The money serves a two-fold purpose. For one, it gives some measure of validation to our work because money is a neutral indicator of value. If nobody (as in, literally not one person) is willing to pay for what it is you’re offering, then it’s probably not valuable enough (at least not yet). When that’s the case, simply go back to the drawing board to find a different expression of your creative idea or find a different market (or maybe both).
For his book, So Good They Can’t ignore You, Cal Newport interviewed successful entrepreneur, Derek Sivers. Newport asked Sivers about what it was that led to his entrepreneurial success. Derek replied that he has a principle about money that overrides his other rules: ”Do what people are willing to pay for,” he said. “Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.”
Secondly, money allows us to buy food, pay the bills, and acquire the tools and resources we need in order to keep making art and doing work.
The whole goal of Walt Disney’s movie making business model was to sustain their creative outlet of animating and producing films. It wasn’t about the money for money’s sake — it was about doing work they loved and enriching the lives of their audience. And by selling their work they could keep on making more movies.
For most makers, it’s not about the money. It’s about the creative work. There is (most days) joy in the journey and satisfaction in being part of a creative community. And there is the dream of adding value and enriching other people’s lives.
* * *
Again, from So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport writes that “people who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.”
While there are many dynamics which contribute to the feeling of a career that matters, one of them is the realization that the work you do is valuable to others. As Sivers said, by aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.
* * *
On celebrating progress and why the recognition of making meaningful progress on a regular basis is also critical to the feeling that your career matters.
If you’re waiting for finances before moving forward with an idea, the real issue may be Fear, Not Money.
Balancing the margins between cost, price, and value is an art. How do you increase value to the customer without dramatically increasing your cost nor decreasing your price?
Scott Belsky wrote an article a while back about how to find your Work Sweet Spot.
Your Work Sweet Spot is where you will have the greatest job fulfillment and satisfaction as well where you will give the greatest contribution to the field and provide the most value.
This sweet spot is found at the intersection of (1) your natural interests and preferences, (2) your skills and expertise, and (3) your opportunity stream.
Over the years, I have met many creative leaders and entrepreneurs that have made an impact in their respective industries. No surprise, they love what they do. But when I ask probing questions about their career paths, it becomes clear that their good fortunes were not predestined. Aside from lots of hard work, great creative careers are powered by an intersection of three factors: Genuine Interest, Skills, and Opportunity.
The same thinking applies to successful creative projects. The magic happens when you find the sweet spot where your genuine interests, skills, and opportunity intersect.
Your interest and preferences are the things you are naturally drawn toward. How are you wired, what fascinates you, what do you daydream about?
Your skills are the things you’re talented at. For some it’s math, for others it’s art, or project planning, or counseling, or playing sports.
Ned Herrmann, author of The Creative Brain, and the man behind the Whole Brain model writes that: “To prefer something is to be drawn to it, to have a taste for it. Competency has to o with acquired knowledge and professional experience.”
Herrmann also writes that “true mastery in a specific domain can only be achieved in those areas that converge with our preferences.”
But mastery alone is not enough to have successful impact in that area. Now, of course, not everyone wants to have successful impact. But if you do, then you need opportunities to contribute to something bigger.
Which is why I want to unpack a bit more about what Scott Belsky calls the Opportunity Stream:
The third factor that plays into every successful career is opportunity. Unfortunately, this is often where we get stuck, discounting the potential opportunities that surround us as inadequate. There is no such thing as equal access to opportunity. Old boy networks and nepotism run rampant in all industries. And most opportunities are entirely circumstantial. As such, you must simply define “opportunity” as an action or experience that brings you a step closer to your genuine interest. Opportunity is less about leaps forward and more about the slow advance. Most folks I meet recall their greatest opportunities as chance conversations. This is why personal introductions, conferences, and other networking efforts really pay off. Just surrounding yourself with more activity will inherently increase your “opportunity stream” – the chance happenings that lead to actions and experiences relevant to your genuine interests.
What does opportunity look like?
Belsky defines opportunity as an action or experience that brings you a step closer to your genuine interest.
As Belsky also says, these opportunities are usually slow advances. They are the little things that, in the moment, may seem inconsequential, but in hindsight prove to have been kairos moments.
Benjamin Franklin said that, “Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.”
Here are a few examples of actions or experiences that can bring you a step closer to your genuine interest, and ideas for how to find and create more actions and experiences.
Build and Foster Relationships: By far and away, the best “stream” for opportunity is with the people you know. They say if you’re out of sight you’re out of mind; and the opposite is true as well.
Do you know what your most important relationships are right now? What are you doing to foster genuine relationships with people who are in the same area you are interested in?
Meet New People:Go to conferences. Go to local meet-ups. Introduce yourself to someone. Send encouraging emails to people that also offer a nugget of value to that person. And repeat. Keep fostering, maintaining, and building relationships.
As I wrote a while back when I attended my first Macworld conference:
I’m not here as a journalist with the goal of covering this Apple-centric event so much as I am here to meet the Mac nerds I am privileged to work alongside all year long.
A handshake and a “nice to meet you” is worth so much more than an @reply. A conversation over a cup of coffee is better than two dozen emails.
Encourage the People You Already Know: In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor says that social support is our single greatest asset when it comes to success in “nearly every domain of our lives, including marriage, health, friendship, community involvement, creativity, and in particular, our jobs, careers, and business,” and that random acts of kindness (such as encouraging others) are one of the most significant ways we can boost social support and, in turn, increase our own happiness.
When we have a community of people we can count on — spouses, family, friends, colleagues — we multiply our emotional, intellectual, and physical resources. We bounce back from setbacks faster, accomplish more, and feel a greater sense of purpose. Furthermore, the effect on our happiness, and therefore on our ability to profit from the Happiness Advantage, is both immediate and long-lasting.
Achor has conducted many studies and tests at different companies where employees were tasked with writing a 2-minute email to someone in their social support network (a friend or family member) as the first thing before they began their work day. They did this every day for 21 days, the result was a noticeable increase in employee happiness which, in turn, increased productivity, creativity, resiliency, confidence, learning skills, energy, and motivation.
And in an article entitled “Pay It Forward“, Karen McGrane wrote:
Not everything in our professional lives is a transaction, scrutinized and evaluated against how much it costs us, how much someone should pay. Not every teaching relationship must be formalized—a mentoring opportunity, a coach, an internship. Not every investment of time has to be “worth it.” Sometimes you just have a brief conversation with someone because—why not? You never know what will come of it.
Practice and Improving at Your Skill: They say opportunity finds you working. And while there is (obviously) a lot of value in the opportunity stream itself, you also need to be prepared. And so, yes, do something every day that will bring you a step closer to your genuine interest. But also do something every day that will help you improve your skills, competency, or knowledge in that area.
Show Up Every Day: Another way to increase your stream of opportunity is to do your best creative work every day and share it with others. If your genuine interest is technology, then what is one thing you can do every day that will increase the activity happening around that topic for you?
Create Opportunities for Others: Become awesome at word of mouth marketing for the people, products, and services you find great value in.
For example: I often get emails from readers who are wanting to build a website and are in need of a designer / developer. They ask me if I have a recommendation, and naturally I tell them about the people I know and have worked with in the past.
Don’t shy back from introducing people to one another, or from introducing your friends and social network to great products or services.
* * *
Again, as Belsky wrote, simply surrounding yourself with more activity will inherently increase your Opportunity Stream. Get around other people; go to more events; encourage people more frequently; provide value to others.
When I wrote about building better defaults, this is exactly the sort of application I had in mind.
What is one action or experience you can do today that will move you one step closer to your genuine interest?
Yesterday I wrote about how easy it is to over-think and over-edit the things I write about and link to on the site. This is also something Ben and I talked about in the latter half of last week’s episode of The B&B Podcast.
It’s a topic spanning much more than just link blogging. I think it goes so far as to encompasses leadership, creativity, and entrepreneurialism as a whole. The concept is to find the balance between think and feel. On one hand you have logic and reason, and on the other hand you have passion and zeal.
There is a way to do things where, if you find something you’re passionate about, you jump right in. And then analyze and gauge each step along the way.
But what if we flipped that approach from time to time?
When you find something you’re passionate or excited about, then think about it for a long time. Make boundaries. And then? Go for it. Let passion and zeal drive us through each step as we keep within our pre-determined boundaries.
The idea is that sometimes, instead of working with restraint inside of passion, try to put passion inside of restraint.
Last week Austin Kleon posted an article titled, “How to Steal Like an Artist (An 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)”. There are things you read where you learn something new, and there are the things you read which shed a new light on what you already know and believe in. For me Austin’s article is the latter. And it is one of the best things I have read all week.
However, keeping with the Wil Shipley analogy of farming vs. mining, a better title for Austin’s article would be something along the lines of “How to Be a Farmer.” Because Austin primarily discusses getting off your butt, ignoring your doubts and insecurities, and doing the work you love to do.
As I was reading it I was getting all sorts of little lightbulbs and connections going off in my mind. Here are a few of those items:
One of my Shawn Today episodes called “Aren’t we all just 8th graders” on the topic that many of us feel like we’re just faking it and that’s okay because we’re all just folk.
Wil Shipley’s article on Farming vs. Mining and the difficulty of plowing a plot of land and slowly developing a strong and profitable foundation rather than trying to make a quick buck and then moving on to the next thing before what you made falls apart.
Merlin Mann and John Gruber’s SXSW session: “HOWTO: 149 Surprising Ways to Turbocharge Your Blog With Credibility!”
John Gruber’s corresponding article to the above SXSW session: “Obsession Times Voice“
You see, there are those who look at a building a website (or a software program, or a business, or fill in the blank) as a way to make money. The project is simply a means to an end, and that end goal is bucketloads of money.
And then there are those who look at building something because they want to do what they love. And for them money is a tool. Instead of money being the end goal, money becomes the means to a goal — and that goal is doing things they love and creating something they’re proud of.