These are fantastic suggestions from Amir Salihefendić. It does take a bit more intention to maintain a good async culture, but the end-result and side benefits are worth it. My team is “partially async” in that we have an office space and have most of our meetings in person, but we treat all communication as if we were remote. (see also: Nathan Barry’s remote team tips.)
A few weeks ago I shared about how my company just celebrated its 11-year anniversary. And many of you emailed me with some fantastic questions about running a business, etc.
So I’m wanted to answer a handful of them here. Let’s go….
. . . . .
“What did you give up and what did you gain vs. a corporate job?” (From Brendon)
There were a lot of tradeoffs between my previous job (a marketing director for a large non-profit), versus my self-employed job. In the early days, my hours were still pretty crazy — it took me a few years to finally slow down, work reasonable hours, and to take vacation.
Financially, I was able to fully replace my previous salary beginning on day one. Back in 2011, my business made money from sponsorships, affiliates, and a paid membership access to my private podcast. Today we are entirely supported by our customers who buy our online courses and clients who hire us for coaching and consulting. (Though we do have something brand-new though that I’ll be introducing in June.)
Something else I gained by starting my own business is autonomy. There are pros and cons to this. It means I get to decide the direction my team and I are going. But it also means I have to define the vision for our company — who we are, what we do, etc. It’s an incredible privilege and after 11 years, I still love it and wouldn’t trade it!
. . . . .
“Do you think present-you could have convinced just-starting-up-you to adopt the 8-week work cycle?” (From JJ)
I was nearly 6 years into running my business before we began testing the 8-week work cycle. Most folks focus on the week-long sabbatical break that comes every other month. But, that is only one element to the whole cycle.
The week-long break is there to help you stay on track during your focused work cycle, to celebrate the progress you’ve made during that time, and then to allow you you reset for the next work cycle.
So, don’t start by focusing on the break. Don’t ask this: “Can I get away with taking a week off every other month?”
Instead, ask this: If I were more focused and intentional, could I get 8 weeks worth of work done in just 6 weeks?
Think of it this way: If you could sit down with yourself on Monday morning and say, “Here is exactly what I need you to get done this week. Once you’ve done these things, then you are done for the week.”
Chances are very good that you would get your projects and tasks done well before Friday at 5pm. And here’s the wild thing: It’s actually easier to compress 8 weeks worth of work into 6 weeks than it is to compress 5 days worth of work into 4. Because the time window is so much bigger, you have a better chance at hitting your goal and you have the margin to work around bumps in the road.
As founders and leaders, we tend to go find more work for ourselves. It can be easy to feel that we are being wasteful or negligent when we aren’t doing something.
All that to say, if it were Present-Day Me trying to convince Just-Getting-Started Me in the value of the 8-week work cycle, I would focus on how much you can actually get done if you are focused. And then, instead of just adding more work on top — celebrate that progress by taking a break. This makes your work far more sustainable in the long run.
. . . . .
“I am wanting to start a side business as a coach and advisor. What do you think is the best way to put myself in front of other creators?” (From Justin)
It’s simple, but not necessarily easy. There are a few ways to get started.. In no particular order, here are a few ways to begin getting traction:
- Show up consistently to an online / social space to begin establishing yourself as a trusted authority and to begin shipping your ideas. (Search YouTube for video tutorials that will teach you the basic strategies for how to grow your followers on whichever social platform you choose.)
- Get very familiar with the challenges, struggles, and pain points of your ideal clients.
- Reach out to everyone you know and ask them about their current system and approach; find out what is working for them and what is not; ask them what they are doing to solve the problems they have or where they go to get answers to their questions.
- Have a baseline product or service that you offer, that people can easily purchase and where they will know exactly what they are getting and what value / benefit you will provide.
Remember ABC: Action Brings Clarity. Get started to get started, and once there is movement you’ll get much more clarity about how to keep going.
Recommended book: The Snowball System. Mo has a fantastic framework for business development that is straightforward and works.
. . . . .
“My productivity slows down when I have to sit down and write something. From a proposal to an email. What do I do?” (From Myles)
When a task seems very daunting and I just don’t want to do it, I will often just set a 5-minute timer and commit to working on the activity for the next 5 minutes. Then, when the timer is done I am free to quit that task and move on to something else. (Oftentimes, I get momentum going and end up finishing.)
. . . . .
“How do you balance being generous with your work and making money?” (From Joschua)
Something I learned a few years ago was to stop trying to “balance” this. I used to feel that they were at odds with one another, but I now see how they go hand in hand.
The primary way I do both of these is with a dedicated checking account that gets money put into every month from the profits of the business. I use that account to fund non-profits, charity work, and giving to others. So, right off the bat, there is a baseline of generosity built-in to the way I handle my personal and business finances.
Secondly, I am very confident in the value and quality of the training that we offer. So I never feel conflicted in our pricing or in running a profitable business.
Last week my production manager, Isaac, and I went to a workshop hosted by Todd Henry. And it was absolutely incredible.
(I’ll tell you more about the workshop in just a second.)
Todd is the author of Accidental Creative and an absolute inspiration to me personally. He does so well at articulating the challenges of creative life while offering truly helpful solutions. A few years ago I was able to connect with Todd for an interview discussing how to thrive under creative pressure, how to stay creatively focused, and the “myth” of work-life balance.
Todd’s workshop here in Kansas City was from on his book most-recent, Herding Tigers, which is all about leadership. (Todd has an online course version here.)
Specifically, the workshop hit on the challenges of leading a creative team.
Since the creative process is largely opaque — with a lot of complexity and intricacies that aren’t always obvious or measurable — then there can be a natural pressure and strain within the workplace.
Needless to say, I took copious notes.
So. Many. Notes.
One thing I especially loved, which was brand new to me, was the Challenge / Stability Matrix.
As a leader, you need to ensure that your company, your team, and each person within your team has the proper balance of challenging work plus stability.
This balance is unique for each team, as well as unique for each person.
You have your own needs and definitions for work that you consider challenging. And you also have your own different needs for what helps you feel stable and supported to do that work.
As you increase a team members challenges at work, you also need to increase their stability. Otherwise people will feel as if you are expecting things from them without giving them the resources they need. They will feel angry.
With the proper balance of challenge and stability, then people will be able to thrive.
This balance of challenge and stability is variable for every organization as well as every person on your team….
If someone on your team often acts irrationally angry, then perhaps they don’t have enough stability.
Or if someone is always asking for more work, then perhaps they are not being challenged enough.
Consider yourself, your co-workers, those you lead, and ask yourself if there is the proper blend of challenging work along with the stability needed to be able to thrive.
I’m currently reading Mike Michalowicz’s latest book, Clock Work. One of the things that has really stood out to me so far is that there are two types of delegation for a business owner.
The most common type of delegation actually isn’t delegation at all. Mike calls it “Deciding”. This is what happens when you hire someone to help you with a task or a job, but you don’t ever train or empower them to make any decisions on their own.
Perhaps you do this out of fear or laziness or your perfectionist mindset… whatever the reason is, since you aren’t delegating properly you end up as the bottleneck for all work projects because at every junction in their work, people are having to come to you and ask you to make a decision about something.
And then… when they do finish the task you asked them to do, guess what? They sit and wait for you to decide what they should do next. Because you have not given them any autonomy or self-direction.
In short, you are still managing every little decision — you’re merely delegating (or assigning) the actions behind those decisions.
How does this differ from actual delegation?
Assign an Outcome
Actual delegation happens when you assign a task to someone while also empowering them to make any decisions related to completing that task.
Put another way, you are delegating the outcome.
When you can delegate the outcome, it is liberating to everyone involved. Your team member feels trusted and empowered to do their job without you micromanaging them. And you are free to focus on the things that you need to do.
Reward Ownership (Rather Than Quality)
One other thing related to delegating that stood out to me was the importance of rewarding a team-member’s ownership of a task and not the quality of the outcome of that task.
You must allow them to make mistakes, or do things differently. Because they will.
If you only ever reward them when they do things just perfectly the exact same way that you would have done it, then all you’re doing is training them to ask you for a decision at every juncture.
So, instead, celebrate their ability to think and work with autonomy while giving candid and helpful feedback to help them make better decisions in the future.
As Mike writes, it all boils down to letting go of perfectionism.
It was in February 2011 that I quit my job to blog for a living. (You can read the original announcement post here.)
For a few years I was writing here, full-time as an indie blogger and podcaster. And so, any of the choices I made about work hours, salary, time off, or projects were choices that, for the most part, only affected me.
But then, in January 2016 I hired my first employee. And last summer I hired my second employee. And that’s not to mention our amazing team of long-time contractors and contributors.
Needless to day, today, things are very different than they were back in 2011.
Now, when I make a decision about my company I have to think about how it impacts our team and our culture. (It’s not just me anymore. Thank goodness!)
When I make decisions about what projects we take on, what our company profit sharing looks like, the amount and type of time-off we allow, our team communication systems, and more, I have to think about this:
Is this a vote toward the type of work environment I want to have in 20 years?
Here’s the thing. It will never be easier to have an awesome work culture than it is right now.
Why should I be waiting for some sort of potential, future-state of my business before I can begin implementing the sorts of healthy work cultures that I want?
If I wait, then I run the risk of accidentally building a company culture that I don’t like. How awful would it be to look up 10 years from now and realize that I spent a decade building a business that is stressful and exhausting to work in?
The Two Types of Sustainability: Finances and People
Being sustainable in revenue is critical. We know that. But finances are not the only metric of sustainability.
There is also the sustainability of your team’s time and energy.
Is your company “human sustainable”?
If you were to look at the amount of work you are doing, and the pace at which you doing that work, would it be something you would still want to be doing in 20 years from now?
Anybody can talk about how they value a healthy work culture.
But culture is what you DO (not what you SAY).
Are the decisions and actions happening within your team right now in alignment with the values that are being spoken? Or are things crazy right now with the promise of change once XYZ milestone is reached?
As the folks at Basecamp would say, it doesn’t have to be crazy at work. And I agree.
Fear Brings the Craziness
In my experience, the craziness comes from fear. Fear that if things are calm then people are not being productive. Or a fear that without frenzied, emotionally-driven activity then there will be no revenue. Or a fear that without long hours the work won’t get done.
You can’t change your culture overnight (for good or for bad).
But you can make one small vote today about the sort of work environment you want to have in 20 years from now. And then, tomorrow, you can make another small vote… and another…
P.S. This goes for the culture you create other places as well. Such as your family, your personal finances, or your weekends. Are the choices you’re making in alignment with the values you profess?
Have you ever looked up the dictionary definition of “overwhelm”? It’s pretty intense, actually.
- bury or drown beneath a huge mass
- defeat completely
- give too much of a thing to someone
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, then perhaps you feel as though you have been given too much. In fact, you’ve been given so much that you’re to the point of feeling buried and drown beneath a huge mass of stuff — from urgent issues, undone tasks, incoming requests of your time and energy, and more. And as a result you feel overpowered and defeated.
When you’re overwhelmed with too many priorities, it can feel impossible to find the time you need to get everything done.
Even worse is when everything is important.
How can you possibly put aside 99% of your responsibilities for a few hours in order to focus on just one thing?
I don’t know about you, but I used to feel guilty at neglecting all the other important things I wasn’t doing, when I would try to focus on at least one thing that was important.
It’s nonsensical that you can work on everything all at the same time. But who says we humans are rational, sensical people?
How to Make Sense of Things When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed
Do this. Make a note or a list or just mentally take inventory of the following:
- What urgent issues do you have right now?
- What areas of responsibility are you managing?
- What projects are you working on?
- What things do you feel that you should be doing but you’re not?
Now, take that list and put each item into the proper box from this matrix:
- Box 1: Things you enjoy that ONLY YOU can do
- Box 2: Things you enjoy that ANYBODY could do
- Box 3: Things you dislike that ANYBODY could do
- Box 4: Things you dislike that ONLY YOU can do
Now, looking at those boxes, how does it make you feel?
For reference, here’s what my matrix looks like (for the sake of brevity I focused only on high-level areas of responsibility and the tasks that fall under those domains):
Looking back at your own matrix, consider this:
- The items in boxes 1 and 4 are things which you must choose to take personal ownership of and prioritize into your life.
What things are in Box 2? It’s awesome that these are things which you love, but make sure they’re not keeping you from the things in Box 1.
What things are in Box 3? These need to go! Delegate them to someone else. Get assistance, learn how to automate the process of that work, ask your boss if you can be relieved of those duties, etc.
Looking again at my matrix above, let me share a few insights.
You’ll see that I put writing and project management in Box 2. The truth is, my job within my company as a writer, designer, and project manager is totally replaceable. Even though those activities are critical to what we do, I could train someone else to do that work.
But what’s NOT replaceable within the company is my leadership as the owner. My taste, values, and vision for the work we do are unique.
Therefore, if the work I’m doing in Box 2 begins to interfere with my responsibilities in Box 1, then guess what? Time to make a change.
I love looking at the things in my life that ONLY I can do, and nobody else can do for me.
- Only I can be a husband to my wife.
- Only I can be a father to my kids.
- Only I can take care of my health by eating well and staying active.
- Only I can lead my business in the direction I want it to go.
- Only I can take responsibility of my personal development through reading, learning, and living a focused life.
It’s liberating to know exactly what I’m in charge of.
When you’re feeling buried under a mass of so much stuff, it can feel as if you’re responsible for everything in the whole world.
But it can be liberating when you step back and get clarity about the things that ONLY YOU can do.
How to use this to design your ideal schedule:
Get instant access to our deep-dive training on this framework, along with how we use it to develop your ideal schedule. Included free inside the Focus Accelerator.
When you think of “leading by example” what does that mean to you?
Does it mean doing more, being more, and giving more than those around you? Being the first to show up and the last to leave? Never asking someone to do more than you’re doing yourself?
There is, undoubtedly, a noble work-ethic tied to this approach to leadership. Plus, it is instantly quantifiable — if you get into a kerfuffle with those you’re leading you can just point to your time card and prove to them that you care more because you’re working more.
But something I’ve been thinking on for the past several months is this:
Are there other ways to lead by example?
At what point do you stop doing more, being more, and giving more?
At what point do you draw the line to say that you’re doing enough, being enough, and giving enough?
As a leader: What do you need in order to be around for the long run?
What are the things that ONLY YOU can do?
I believe leading by example should mean prioritizing your life without apology. It should mean you’re courageous enough to choose to do what you know to be right instead of doing what the peer pressure and/or company culture is.
Lead by example of how to work SMARTER, not harder.
What’s difficult about this type of “servant leadership” is that it’s less quantifiable. It’s not so easy for people to see you leading by example of your healthy balance between family, health, and office hours. (All they see is that you’re not working on the weekends and you clock out at a normal hour.)
But this type of leadership style plays to the long game. It takes time time to see the rewards of the choices you are making now to keep your work life from swallowing your personal life.
It’s easier to lead by the example of doing more because everyone can see you doing more. It’s not so easy to lead by example of doing “less” or “different” because those things are more internal, personal, and far less quantifiable.
What’s great about this alternative of leading by example is this…
It dignifies those around you.
When you choose to live a healthy life, to have boundaries, and to “work smarter” rather than “harder” then the byproduct is that your co-workers and your team feel trusted.
When you treat yourself with respect, you will also treat those around you the same — as the smart, valuable, and self-motivated adults that they are.
This morning I was tidying up the books on my dresser and realized I had about 8 different books related to finances that I’d recently been studying. And that got me thinking about my general approach to learning new things and taking action on them.
Thus, here are some unordered thoughts on how I keep a pattern of learning new things and then applying those to my life.
Follow Rabbit Trails
Yesterday I was in the car listening to a podcast about budgeting (because YOLO). In the podcast episode, the guy mentioned a book he likes regarding finances. And so, as soon as I got home I bought the book on Amazon.
When there is someone whose lifestyle and/or opinions you respect around a specific topic, and they mention a source of inspiration, then follow that trail. Some of the most impactful books I’ve read were discovered thanks to the casual mention of them by someone whom I respect.
Also, when you are reading a book, what are the books the author mentions?
Because I always try to follow these rabbit trails, I end up buying way more books than I read. And, most books that I buy, I don’t read cover to cover. I aim to seek out the key ideas and areas of interest. If the book pulls me in, then I gladly read it. But if not, who cares? There are many, many more books out there to dive into.
Follow the Inspiration
I’m a huge fan of just-in-time learning. When I get interested in a topic, or when I have a specific need in my business, then I dive in as much as possible. I don’t (usually) force myself to learn things I’m not interested in or motivated to learn about.
Intrinsic motivation is an excellent way to learn new things quickly. When you are hungry to learn then you are naturally seeking out the information.
Also, this means I am usually only diving into on one or two issues at a time. Thus, it allows for more immersion on a topic. And when you’re immersed in something, you’re able to pick it up quicker, connect more dots, and more quickly translate your new information into working knowledge.
Make Learning a “Habit”
This may seem contradictory to what I just said, but I also make sure that learning is a part of my regular life. My normal day-to-day routine includes time for reading, study, and note taking.
For example, my morning routine involves personal reading and study. And whenever I’m in the car I have an audiobook or podcast going.
Now, there have been times when I’m just not all that motivated to read because I’d much rather binge watch a show on Netflix. Sometimes I’ll tell myself I have to read for 15 minutes before I start a show. This way I keep the habit of reading active even when I’m not into it.
Buy Physical Books
It is far easier for me to take in new information when it’s in a physical book compared to digital. While there are a lot of conveniences about digital, for me, it’s easier to focus with a physical book. Moreover, it’s also far easier for me to take notes and refer back to my ideas, takeaways, and etc.
I also find that having a physical pile of books is more inviting compared a digital shelf or list on my iPad or Kindle. With physical books you can pick them up and hold them, thumb through the pages, scan the chapter titles, and then start reading the one that grabs your attention.
Take Notes (and Review Them)
Just taking in new material (reading it, listening to it) is not enough. I will lose most of that information if I don’t write down notes.
It’s critical for me to write down ideas, takeaways, highlights, quick wins, action items, and more. This is something I have to make myself do. Because in the moment as I’m reading a book or listening to a podcast, when I come across something exciting I always feel like I’ve got it.
But the details and takeaways will get forgotten if I don’t write them down.
Almost all of my notes I put into Ulysses. If there is a specific project I am researching for, then that project gets its own folder; if it’s just general notes on a topic then my notes go into a single document in my general, simple notes folder.
- Here are the details on how I use Ulysses for researching a writing.
- Here is more info on why I buy physical books.
- Here are a bunch of nerdy details for how I take notes in my books.
As Herbert Spencer said, the great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.
What good is all of that learning if I’m not going to use it to improve my life and the lives of those around me?
By learning about investing, saving, and budgeting then I can improve how I manage the finances of my business and my home.
Or by learning about how my CJ-7 works, I can better troubleshoot its issues and work on it in my garage with confidence.
To be candid, when it comes to taking I have two propensities that are wont to hold me back:
- I have a knack for researching something to death, and never letting myself get to the point of taking action. I’ll just keep doing a little bit more research, and a little bit more. Always wanting just a bit more information before making a decision about something and taking action.
- My other propensity is to live vicariously through my research. Basically, I will feel that by learning about something is the same as actually doing it. It’s one thing to read a lot of books on how to invest my money, but that head knowledge alone does not make me an investor. I have to actually put my money into an investment account.
Therefore, when it comes to taking action, there are two pieces of advice that have helped me to overcome my above obstacles.
- Make the best choice you can, with the information you have. There will be a point where you have done enough research and enough learning, and it’s time to take action. And so, take comfort in the fact that all you can do — all anyone can do — is to make the best decision at the time with the information you have available to you. Get over the fact that there is no such thing as a “perfect” decision. There is what seems right and best at the time.
Secondly, when it comes to taking action, use the idea of the minimum effective dose. What is the one thing you can do now that will make everything else easier? Do that one thing.
Journal About It
In addition to taking notes and taking action, I also find that it’s helpful to journal through the process of learning and applying something new. (I write all of this in Day One, of course.)
Why am I motivated to learn this information? What am I doing about it? How’s it going? What are the results I’m getting? Etc.
It can be helpful to just write down answers to some of these questions. Moreover, it’s giving advice to your future self. Seasons of life are cyclical. And during a time of learning something new and implementing it, write down your motivations and worries and lessons learned. Your why and your what will serve as guidance some day in the future as you wrestle through related issues again.
Teach What You Know
When you learn something new, share it with others. In fact, if you’ve just learned something new and applied it to your life, you have some real-world wisdom that is very fresh and relevant.
If you have a newborn at home, the best person to ask for advice is someone with a toddler or two because they are fresh at just having figured out how to raise a little baby and survive. Don’t ask someone who’s kids are out of the house — they’re too far removed from what life is like with a newborn.
When I am interested in a topic — for whatever reason — I try to immerse myself in books, podcasts, and online forums. I take notes, write down takeaways and ideas and action items. Then I make sure that all of that information is leading to something so I can take action on it.
We’re grown ups. We don’t have to go to school anymore. So learning should be exciting and exhilarating. Don’t learn something because you feel guilty and think you should — learn it because you want to.
What are some of your approaches to learning new things? Hit me up on Twitter and let me know.
We’re working on something brand new related to task management and productivity. We wanted to get some feedback from folks before we began finalizing the contents of the new course.
In about a day and a half, the survey gathered 2,000 responses. I wanted to share some of the results with you.
- Pretty much everyone has a system for keeping track of their to-do items. Only 5-percent of folks said they don’t.
- Things and OmniFocus are virtually tied as the two most-popular apps/tools for task management with 23- and 24-percent of people using them respectively. Todoist is the third-most popular with 13-percent.
- More people use a paper notebook — Bullet or other journal — than use Apple’s Reminders app as their primary task management system (9% and 7% respectively).
- 79% of people use their iPhone to regularly manage their tasks; 72% use a Mac regularly; 48% use an iPad.
- Just a little over half of respondents feel in control of their task list. Which naturally means that there is another half of folks who do not feel in control.
- And yet, 63% of folks feel as if their day is spent mostly on busywork, rather than important work.
- When it comes to being productive and doing meaningful work, the most common obstacle people face is being overwhelmed by urgent issues. Secondly is a lack of focus during the day, followed by a lack of clarity about what to do next.
If you’re curious, you can view the full results breakdown via Typeform here.
The aforementioned new course we are working on for The Sweet Setup will be coming out next month.
It will focus on using a particular task management app, but it will also have in-depth training on productivity, time management, and task management. A one-two punch if you will. Because, as the survey results show, even though more than half of people feel in control of their task list, they are still mostly dealing with busywork during the day.
If you’ve got anything in particular that you’d like to see me address in the course, let me know on Twitter.
Pre-S #2: Plan Your Year is now available. Check it out here.
Today I want to share with you a simple-yet-powerful structure for attaining your goals.
And what’s special about this little process is that it’s free from any particular productivity system, app, or methodology.
It’s as simple as this:
- Define an outcome you’d like to see happen.
- Think of one thing you can do to make progress toward that outcome.
- Do that one thing.
- Repeat steps 2 & 3.
That’s it. You’re looking at the fundamental formula for planning and accomplishing.
Here’s why this little process works so well:
You’re taking one big thing, and breaking it down into something small and simple that you can do today in incremental steps.
You’re taking a goal, and your then moving on to focus on the system that will get you there.
Contrast that against something that is more common: coming up with an idea or a goal, and then instantly thinking of all the big hurdles and “unknowns” related to that goal, and then quitting before you even get started.
How to Eat an Elephant
You’ve no doubt heard the adage: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
It’s important to focus primarily on steps 2 and 3 — identify the one thing you can do to make progress and then go do it.
But instead, many people focus mostly on step #1 — the goal itself. I’m all for having clear goals, but staring deeply into the eyes of those goals will not make them come about. You’ve got to take action.
If you remember from last week we talked about the two camps of goal setting, and why it’s so important to focus on the system that keeps you moving and taking action.
When you’ve identified one single action and one single result, then the focus is no longer on managing your tasks — the focus is now on doing them.
There’s nothing wrong with systems and methodologies. In fact, once you have the wisdom and the skills to identify the most important thing to do next, then you can use any system or methodology you want. Use whatever makes sense for your personality type and your work environment.
Once you have the wherewithal to define what meaningful productivity looks like for you, then your productivity tools become a slave to your priorities, not the other way around.
Next we’re going to talk about how to lower the barrier of entry to your goals so you can finally get started on them. It’s a little something I like to call “activation energy”.
And in the meantime, you may be interested in my brand-new workbook: Plan Your Year. It’s simple and will help you get a clear, birds eye view of your year so you can focus on what is most important.
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.
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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.
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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?
The trick to fostering collective creativity, Catmull says, is threefold: Place the creative authority for product development firmly in the hands of the project leaders (as opposed to corporate executives); build a culture and processes that encourage people to share their work-in-progress and support one another as peers; and dismantle the natural barriers that divide disciplines.
I couldn’t agree more. One of the reasons this is such an effective way to foster creativity amongst a group is that it keeps morale high. When you’ve got designers and developers who have to answer to what they see as the whim of an invisible executive, they quickly lose their will to take risks, work hard, and persevere unto breakthrough and innovation.
As Catmull says in the original article, great talent is better than great ideas. And talent will only stick around as long as they feel happy, challenged, and appreciated.
Greg McKeown writing at the HBR blog:
Apple doesn’t enjoy product and customer clarity because they’re lucky. They didn’t drift into simplicity: they selected it by design. And by ‘selected,’ I mean they wrestled with the complexity, debated the issues, threw out hundreds of possible directions, and eventually arrived on the other side of complexity with the kind of sophisticated simplicity people know and love.
His article is about CEOs and big companies, but it’s just as relevant for department heads, small companies, and even sole proprietorships.
Today, Randy Murray also wrote about saying no, or at least saying not right now:
Why say no? Because I have other great ideas in play and actively being worked on. If I say yes to something else, everything will suffer.
As a company of one, what I like about saying “not right now” to my ideas and/or opportunities is that it requires less mental energy than saying “no”. When an idea comes I let myself flesh out all the concepts, details, bunny trails, and other possibilities related to it, and then let it sit in my digital notebook until it resurfaces for whatever reason (if it ever does).
Relatedly, I learned a lot about simplicity and focus in business by reading Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great.
A fantastic lecture-turned-essay by William Deresiewicz on leadership, bureaucracy, the myth of multitasking, working, thinking, and how all of that fits together so as to give yourself the space to form your own ideas.
(Via Nick Charlton via email.)