The difference between writing lyrics and listening to songs
Years ago, I wrote songs and played a lot of live shows around North America in a band (it may sound exciting, but mostly it was 22hrs driving and sleeping in a vehicle, with 2 hours of impassioned music per night).
After shows, we’d stick around and chat with the folks who spent their money to see us live, which was both fun and interesting. Fun because it’s a trip as a creative to get paid to do something creative. Interesting, because people would always talk about the songs we had written, how they had made some difference in their lives, and their interpretations of our lyrics.
Now music is pretty open to interpretation because it’s mostly poorly-enunciated, aural poetry. Typically lyrics have very few words, each a huge punch of feeling. So misinterpretation can be fairly common, especially if your lyrics aren’t very literal.
What I realized, after the first few times talking to people—who were all eager to tell me what they thought the music meant—was that they were always right. Even if we had written a song about something specific and a listener thought it meant something entirely different, they were still right. They were right because the second the music went beyond the band, it was out of our control. And what we actually meant by the words now didn’t matter to anyone but ourselves.
Although my writing now is (hopefully) far less obtuse than the lyrics to songs, it’s still completely open to interpretation. The second it leaves my computer and shows up in your inbox or my website, it’s no longer mine. I’ve interpreted something and shared it as best, as honestly, and as clearly as I can. Past that, it’s not up to me to explain further, even if someone is angered by my point of view. They have every right to feel those things because the work of mine they’ve just consumed is now theirs. People are going to read between the lines, or read only some of the lines, or assume I was feeling a certain way when writing it, all while possibly being in an awesome or terrible mood when they consume it—which isn’t up to me, the creator, to integrate into my writing. I try to be clear, sure, but not to the point where a piece is unwieldy or so full of apologies or clarifications that it’s hard to read.
If something I write offends or disappoints or hurts someone, I am sorry (I may lack humility, but I’m brimful of empathy), and a lot of times, I learn why if I can and adjust—especially if it’s lots of people who interpreted something completely off from what I meant. It’s how people grow as writers and more so, grow as humans.
As a person who creates things and shares them (which is what a lot of us do), I’m responsible for what I put out into the world. But where our responsibility ends is when a consumer of that creation takes interpretation beyond the work through a series of assumptions. I’ve written songs that started out as noticing my furniture was so old it was fraying and someone telling me they found solace in a song they thought was about suicide which helped them get through a difficult time. Their derived meaning, in this case, was far more powerful than my intent with the words.
My friend Sean D’Souza put it well: “It’s easy to pick and choose [what you believe] when you’re unsure… and even when you’re sure.”
Case in point, when I wrote what I dislike about thought leadership, a handful of folks thought it meant that they shouldn’t ever start a business. First, I should never have the authority, as random angry nerd on the internet, to wield influence like that over others. I have no credentials beyond the fact that I know how to put words onto your computer screen. Second, that was the opposite of the point I was trying to make: which was that we should work at creating real and measurable value for the people that trade their hard earned bucks for what we’re selling. Marketing ourselves isn’t the problem, trading BS for money is.
Even huge publications (with smart people working for them) mess up headlines in the news from time to time, like relating exercise to being addicted to cocaine (turns out those two things are slightly different, who knew). But as a vegan and animal lover reading that article, my only thought, which is reading between the lines on the original post, is that regardless of headline is that science needs to move on from animal testing—not only is it cruel, it’s also bad science. The author probably didn’t even consider the one take-away I had from her article would be that.
Most creatives aren’t here to tell you what you should do or think or feel. I’m sure some other “experts” are that, but not me. My writing, my work, my products, my business as a whole exists to notice things, point them out, and offer ideas (which aren’t facts) in hopes of being helpful. I think most writers fall far more into the “notice things” camp than “here are my directives, LIVE BY THEM”. And as consumers of creativity, be it the written word or lyrics, we have to be mindful of the fact that our interpretations of what we consume are always legitimate, but they may veer from what the original creator intended. And if there is a difference in understanding between writing lyrics and listening to music, the two points can exist validly and simultaneously.
State of the Union, 2018
(Not that I think I’m a president of this mailing list, or even slightly presidential—I just enjoy the routine of summarizing the year and looking forward to the next.)
What went well in 2017
Book: a tiny note in the 2017 state of the union mentioned that I was looking for an agent for a new book idea I had. This started a series of events which ultimately landed me a book deal, and I’m pleased to say my publisher accepted the final manuscript in the fall! I’ve enjoyed the process so much that I’m already working on the very beginnings of another book. Who knew that some weirdo on the internet who’s scared of people, has too many tattoos and pet rats would be able to publish a business book (PS: I sure didn’t until it was happening)?!
Writing: outside of writing the book, I was able to stay consistent with my other writing—namely, this newsletter. Once again, outside of scheduled breaks, I didn’t miss a single Sunday. I’ve got a streak going that’s lasted years, and I definitely don’t want to break it in 2018. So I hope you’ll enjoy these dispatches in your inbox every week for the year to come.
Audience: once again, my audience didn’t grow much in 2017. The newsletter seems to be holding steady around 30,000 subscribers and signups for my courses seem stable as well. In most businesses, this would be considered problematic since it’s not growing—but in my case, I’m actually quite happy. I have enough of an audience where I can make a great living and still have the bandwidth to actually talk to the folks in it who get in touch, reply, ask questions, or send notes my way. So I’m pleased it’s not growing, because it’s enough for me, for right now.
Products: I spent 2017 paring down product offerings to just 3 courses (Grow Your Audience, Chimp Essentials and Creative Class) and one software product (WPComplete) instead of lots of courses, products or offerings.
This approach really helped me spend a lot of time on a few things instead of a little bit of time on a whole whack of products and ideas. I can’t be sure, but I do think that this is why revenue from them was up a considerable amount for 2017.
Revenue/Money: I don’t personally think sharing revenue numbers or income reports make sense, and I’m still not rich like me, but 2017 was my best year to date. Which means even though the audience I serve isn’t growing, more folks in it are buying what I create. I kind of absolutely love that.
Because of the revenue increase, I was able to invest a whole lot more (index funds with super low fees, always cheap index funds… I’m the most boring investor ever). The way I work things out is that the amount of money I need to live and be comfortable doesn’t need to increase if my revenue increases. Neither do my expenses. So if I make more than I figured I would, I pay the taxes on it, and then invest. If my cost of living kept increasing when my revenue did, I’d end in a scary place where I always have to make at least as much or more to get by—which sounds stressful. I’d rather live as far below my means as possible, keep no or very little debt, and have the runway to still get by even if everything went to shit for awhile.
The only thing I did differently with money this year was to buy a bit of cryptocurrency. And by “a bit” I mean less than 1% of my savings worth of it. Because I bought it early in the year, it’s seen astronomical growth, but I’m not even close to being convinced it’ll net long term payoffs for sure. That’s why I like index funds, they grow slowly, fairly consistently, and as long as they’re averaging more than inflation, I’ll hopefully see decent results from compound interest in a few decades.
What didn’t go well last year
Overworking: I realized something in 2017: a lot of times I sit down to work because it’s routine, not because I have to. What I mean by that is that my business runs fairly well without a whole lot of time spent on my part—it’s become super efficient because I’ve been doing this for a while, and I’ve got things like automations for email dialled in quite well. Nevertheless I keep finding myself working for so other reason than it’s a weekday. I want to learn how to stop doing that, and stop working simply because it feels like I should be or because my routine is to work X hours a day, every day. I’d like to get better at enjoying non-work things, offline. If I can get by working 4 days a week or working 5 hours a day 6 days a week, I’ll be better off doing that.
The “what’s next” question: I struggled a lot with a mental block of “what’s next” for my work. I have a slew of ideas and interests I want to pursue, but I’ve been completely stuck what I want to pursue next. More books? Software products? More courses? Workshops? Consulting? Client work? A membership/community? It’s not like me to waffle on decisions, but I’ve completely waffled here. I’m still struggling with this question for 2018, if I’m being honest.
Focus: so many times my focus wasn’t where I’d like it to be. I’d sit down to write and end up on social media for an hour, watching videos of squirrels. Or I’d have tasks (like a list of updates to a course) on my todo list for weeks, and would never seem to get to them until they had to be done (i.e. the course was needing to relaunch). At the end of the year I found stride, resisted the FOMO devil and got back into working, but it was for sure a huge struggle for most of 2017.
Oliver: we treat our animal friends like family because that’s exactly what they are. So when Ollie the rat passed away very suddenly and without warning in December it was pretty rough—especially since I’ve never lost an animal suddenly before, they’ve previously always got sick and slowly faded. We don’t always get to say goodbye, and that’s been hard to accept.
What’s ahead for 2018
A focus on focus. I really enjoy having a theme for the year, where I can dig into it and come back to it when I feel lost. 2016 was a focus on the technical, which completely helped because I was able to launch a semi-technical course, Chimp Essentials, which is now my highest grossing course to date. In 2017 I chose service, which helped because even if I felt scattered, I could always log into my email, and work through support requests or questions from students and customers.
This year, my focus (however meta this may be) is focus. I need to get my singular, laser-pointy focus back—especially once I figure what’s next. The projects I’ve taken on in the last while are massive: books, courses and software. These aren’t short sprints but long marathons—for example Company of One will be a project in the two year range, plus perpetual promotion. Extended projects sometimes make it hard to feel like progress is being made. Day to day the needle barely moves. Such discouragement leads to spending more time on MotorTrends YouTube channel than working (I miss you so much Jason Cammisa, please come back!), some days. So I’d like to really pay attention to my focus, or lack of, and get better at either being present in the work or being present enough to stop working and take a break… instead of half-working for hours on end.
What’s to come?
This newsletter, the Sunday Dispatches, coming to you each and every Sunday morning (or Monday if you’re an Aussie).
All three of my courses will open twice this year, in the spring and fall. Details to come for specific dates. As of right now, the prices for each ($274) aren’t going up.
Laying the groundwork for the release of Company of One in early 2019.
Writing another book (which probably won’t be out until 2020 or 2021). Writing is what I love the most because it’s so challenging and stressful but oddly rewarding at the same time.
The bottom line
Although I hate resolutions and goals, each new year I endeavour to learn and adapt as best I can. The internet and making money on it continues to evolve and change—and I’m happy to learn, explore and experiment with it.
It was sad to see a lot of folks lose hope in 2017 due to shit going wrong in the world. And yeah, there’s definitely been some sucky things that have happened (I’m not diminishing that at all). But I think when we start to lose hope, we make worse decisions—for ourselves, for others, even for our work. I’m not some hippie-dippie PMA Instagrammer by any means (you’re never going to see me post motivational quotes). I’m even pretty pessimistic most of the time. But I do believe that hope is an absolute necessity, no exceptions.
I have no idea what’s to come in 2018 beyond a rough and simple plan, but I’m excited. Even though my style, outlook and writings are mostly “angry man shouts at the computer screen”, I’m actually hopeful. I hope you are too.
The double-standard with creativity and commerce
“Your list used to be great before you started selling shit at me.” Or, “You post on HuffPo? Way to wreck your indie cred bro.” Or (the pseudo-compliment, my favourite), “I barely read your articles anymore, but this one was ok I guess.” Or, in other words, “I spent minutes of my day consuming what you created, so the way I see it, you now owe me.” This is how most people view creativity and commerce: thinking they should never intersect.
Except, I never force these people onto my list. Or add them without asking. Or spam them. Or even do much in the way of selling (other than the odd PRE-S/PS).
And that’s the problem with creativity. If you have the gall to make a full-time living off of it, you’re seen as a baseless, sellout, wank of a human being, sullying everything good and pure about art for your own personal, selfish gain. It feels kind of dramatic to write that last line too, except I get precisely that type of flack on a daily basis. As do a lot of other folks I know.
Why is there such a double standard with creativity and commerce?
Society doesn’t get mad at doctors, lawyers or engineers who make money and sometimes gasp make even more money after a lot of hard work. Society doesn’t assume they’ve thrown out their values and ethics for their paycheques. They’re applauded for doing well and doing better than most. They worked hard and it paid off. Parties are often thrown.
However, when it comes to writers, podcasters, musicians, and other creative-types, then hard work paying off monetarily means you’ve become a corporate shill, greedily after as many dollars as you can stuff into your dirty creative pockets. We even become own worst enemies about it.
It’s hard as absolute hell to make a living doing anything. Seriously. And the level of difficulty only increases when you work for yourself. Even more so if you work for yourself in a creative field. Hard work doesn’t always pay off, and just because you have talent or experience or training or schooling, it still feels like a big lottery sometimes for who gets to make a living and who doesn’t. Add to that the criticism of wanting to make a living doing creative work.
Essentially: creative work can be enjoyable, jobs shouldn’t be enjoyable, therefore creative work shouldn’t be a job and fuck you if you want to get paid for that. Or, creativity and commerce should never meet.
Which is why many of us do a lot of work for free—like writing articles, publishing podcasts, workshops, etc. Imagine a lawyer working with someone every single week for years, in the hopes that they get hired for money? Or if only 1–2% of their free work turns into paid work (see: most mailing lists convert at 1–2% from subscribers to buyers). But that’s how it works for you and me. I’m not even mad about that part. I love writing articles and don’t care if I have readers or readers that read every week but never buy a thing from me. I enjoy doing it and will continue. Luckily it pays off for me as well. People buy my creative work and the audience I’ve built is super awesome (outside of a few bad apples). The problem is when I come against this bad apple entitlement from someone who consumes my free work (which obviously takes a lot of time and even a lot of money to provide) and assumes that I now owe them. And screw me if my intent was that the free content helps that person in even a tiny way because now it’s their right to complain, probably publicly, that I’m a hack or a scam-artist out for a quick buck at any cost.
Don’t get me wrong either, I freaking love what I do. A little daily negativity isn’t going to stop me or even get me down (past writing ranty articles like this one, which I find super enjoyable to write). And even with the negativity, I still make a decent living (see: I’m a total corporate shill). In fact, I wake up every morning and count myself lottery-ticket-winning lucky that I can do the type of work I do and get paid for it and use my art as a tool for change. (Sometimes I do a little dance too, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Some folks in society seem to have always viewed creatives who want to make money as sellouts, shills, souls auctioned off to the highest corporate bidder. I think it’s time things change. Even if it’s mentally or actually acknowledging or applauding creatives who are anywhere between making a living off their work and doing awesomely well off their work. We need to step back and re-evaluate this view.
What matters more than who’s a sellout or who’s a soulless, greedy wank is who is doing good work. Whether someone’s a doctor or a musician, if their work is true to them and benefits someone else (in any way whatsoever) then kudos to them. It’s too easy to put someone down simply because they want to make a living. Criticism requires little effort or skill. Harder, much harder, in fact, is to be open, empathetic and understanding. That requires real work (but thankfully, not as much as work as is required to work for yourself, full-time, as a creative).
Art is a powerful tool for change
I’m not sure if anyone else noticed, but the world has been a lot less than awesome lately.
Evil and hate are circling back around to mainstream, and it’s not just in one place or one country either. It’s everywhere.
While this feels new, it’s not. It’s just come round again.
There’s lots of talk about what we can do, or how we can fix it as well. Smarter (much smarter) people than I understand politics and social change better than I do. So I’ll leave that to them and give what I can to their efforts.
What I do understand though is taking action through creativity – since it’s consumed my whole life. Here are the rules that I’ve noticed:
Rule one / Art is a tool
But what does creativity have to do with fixing things, you might be thinking. Fuck drawing pictures, Paul. Let’s make the world a better place!
Art and creativity – they’re easily dismissed as just “something pretty”. But art is a powerful tool. It has a knack for humanizing emotions and vocalizing injustice in powerful ways.
Music, photography, writing, painting and other art shine light on the bad shit that’s happening. They also create a feeling that’s absolutely needed to fuel the fight against evil, and that’s: “I am not alone in feeling that this is wrong because someone else expressed what I feel in their art”.
Evil wants you to undervalue art and creativity because it’s so powerful.
Rule two / If you make money from your art or creativity, you can let your moral compass dictate the way you do business and with whom
“I was just doing the job I was paid to do” is the crappiest fucking excuse in the world for doing something that’s not right. If you want to make the world a better place, say no to the type of work that does the opposite.
People who attack others because of their origin, who they love or what chromosomes they’ve got, are always proven wrong. Always. We don’t need to work with or support those companies, people, groups, or governments.
Remember the Nuremberg trials? Those started by punishing the people in charge, then moved swiftly onto punishing those who were just doing their jobs when they helped the nazis.
Choose which companies you work with carefully. Choose which companies you want to empower with your expertise and talent.
The more good companies and good people that have the best creative talent on their side, the more they’ll thrive. And then we all thrive.
“Voting with your wallet” also includes how you fill yours up.
The only caveat here is that you have to do what’s “right” for you. Meaning, I have the total middle class, white-guy privilege of being able to choose who I work with and don’t work with, whereas some people do work they need to to feed their families, pay their medical bills and survive. I would never judge (nor would I want to) people who are making a choice for the greater good of their lives and loved ones. (My only authority on right or wrong is with myself and my own actions.)
Rule three / Choose where your money goes
That means not buying products that don’t align with your values (even if they look great or are convenient or… tasty).
I stopped buying my favourite vegan buttery spread because it uses palm oil. They’re scorching the earth to grow it – destroying forests, forcefully removing indigenous people from their land and threatening the Sumatran orangutan with extinction. Yes, that shit’s delicious, but not when I consider that its production involves the opposite of everything I believe to be right.
The world runs on money, so if we all start funnelling what we have into places that do good, things should get better, because those doing good will have more of it and those doing shitty things will have less. (This idea is a little simplistic, but it’s a step in the right direction.)
Rule four / Don’t wait for the government to make things better
They won’t do shit unless the majority of their constituents demand it.
Politicians are “yes-people” and have to follow what the majority of their citizens want from them. Make them say yes to better things.
Call them and bug them often if you don’t like what they’re doing. Get other people who care about what’s right to do the same. Flood their switchboards (if those even still exist?).
The movie V for Vendetta has a great quote (because it’s true), “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
We can prevent elected officials from being elected again if they aren’t helping us fight the good fight.
Rule five / Actually take action
Retweeting something you agree with isn’t action. Hashtags for your cause aren’t action. Those are what the people spewing evil and hate want you to do, because they know that those things make you feel like you’re doing something but in reality amount to jack fucking shit.
If you want the world to change, you have to actually do something. You don’t have to be a fighter or take to the streets, but you have to do something tangible.
There are two ways to act: with money or with time.
If you’ve got some money to spare (even if it means a little sacrifice), then donate it to organizations that are making a difference. As time is in high demand for me, I mostly take this route. First, it’ll help them fight the good fight. Second, you’ll feel like a fucking super hero when you do it, because you’re actually doing something that makes a difference.
If you’ve got more time than money to spare, that’s great too. Volunteer at organizations who are doing good. Offer your services, for free, to help their cause with art and creativity.
The only wrong way to help is to do nothing. Whatever you can do makes a difference. Taking action can give you hope. It can give others hope too.
“I marched here in NYC and I would like to believe the marches here and worldwide were a kind of commitment ceremony – a collective agreement to reinstate the responsibility of being citizen activists.” Darla Villani
Rule six / Don’t be silent
The other side hopes you’ll shut your mouth and keep your head down for fear of being called out.
If you own/run your own business, you’re allowed to make business decisions based on what you believe in (see point 2). You’re also allowed to express why you’re making those decisions, publicly.
Yes, it’s a harder road. Yes, you may leave money on the table. But consider this: if someone doesn’t want to work with you because of something you value so strongly that you’re speaking out about it, then why the fuck would you want to work for them in the first place? You wouldn’t. Your job as a creative person is to make the world better through your creativity. Remember, you’re responsible for the work you put out into the world. Don’t work with people who don’t make the world better. Sometimes we just need to say fuck it to logic and just make our art.
Rule seven / You can’t fight evil with evil
Using hate against hate or violence against violence only makes things worse.
We have to fight with better tools, non-violent ones, not because of righteousness, but because as political scientist Erica Chenoweth figured out with data: non-violence works better to right wrongs (she has a whole TEDx talk and charts to show why).
Fascism can’t be taken down with violence. It’s tactically and logically counter-productive.
To sum things up / Our world is a reflection of the choices we’ve made
So instead of complaining about how shitty it is or retweeting some hashtag on social media, there are two simple(ish) fixes: taking action and voting with our dollars (be it Canadian or otherwise!).
We need more light in the world when things suck, not more darkness. So if you’re feeling alone or pissed off or without hope, find an artist/creative who’s doing good work, reach out and thank them for their contributions to the world. I guarantee you’ll both feel better for it.
Positive action is a good remedy for despair.
State of the Union, 2017
To start, 2016 was probably the most rollercoaster year for me ever. So many highs, so many lows. Oddly, all the highs were business-related and all the lows were personal-related. But I suppose it balanced out. Let’s recap first, then move onto what’s ahead:
What went well last year
Consistency. The thing I’m most proud of, year over year, is that I always make sure my newsletter and podcast go out every single week, no exceptions.
Whether I was travelling (which I did for October) or dealing with a loss (which I did in July, Sept and Nov… guh), I made sure I kept consistent with my publishing schedule. This only happened because I was always 4-6 weeks ahead of schedule: so if I had to take a break from work and life for a week or four, I was still covered.
Products. I spent all of 2016 making income only from digital product sales. (Remember when I was a web designer full-time? That seems like a lifetime ago.)
I continued to sell Creative Class, which now has over 2,300 students, but honestly didn’t put enough time into marketing it in 2016. I still love it as a course, and I still continue to see success from students who take it. I just haven’t had the bandwidth to get it out there to new audiences.
I also created and sold my new MailChimp course, Chimp Essentials, to over 1,200 students. I didn’t think I’d love teaching a technical course, but it quickly became the most enjoyable product I’ve ever made – mostly because I continue to watch so many students using the material and seeing massive gains with their lists.
Notoriety. I completely stopped trying to grow my audience by getting out there and doing interviews, talks, joint-venture stuff and guest writing. All those things have helped me in the past, but I realized that the people I reach are enough.
My audience now grows slowly, and only when people in it feel they want to share what I’ve written, said or created with their own audiences. I love this form of slow growth.
I’m grateful and honoured that so many folks pay attention to what I do, and I’d rather spend my time making them happy and helping them succeed than going after more, more, more of everything. Currently, I’m supported and I dig that I’m in a position to focus on those who currently pay attention (like you!).
I never want to be a “big deal” or someone who’s known across massive groups. I like staying small and being relatively available to my rat peeps.
Revenue. Although technically I made less this year, it was still enough to support my family and it was only about 2% less than last year. So I consider it a win.
As usual, I try to keep my expenses low and my cost of living to just the essentials. My business expenses were 20% of my gross revenue and I only paid myself 30% of my gross—keeping as much money as I can in my business to save and invest.
I don’t think it’s beneficial to share income report numbers, and I’m by no means rich like me, but I’m comfortable with the money I make from the products I sell.
What didn’t go well last year
Personal life. As I alluded to earlier, the latter half of the year was one of loss. My little rat friends, Luna and Osha, both passed away, as well as another close human family member (which is happening more frequently). I guess I’m at an age where the previous generation is starting to get to their “expiration date” (my family has a tradition of dark humour, dating back centuries, I’m sure).
All the productivity hacks on LifeHacker can’t fix things when life shits on your face, so there were weeks at a time when I basically did nothing but stare at my computer screen and wish work would do itself. What saved my ass was automation and working ahead of my content schedule.
Being a month or so ahead of articles and podcast episodes helped me schedule things when I wasn’t able to create. And then automation helped because I was able to “set and forget” a launch months before and just let it run while I dealt with life.
Luckily I have a partner who’s the exact opposite of me in the best possible way. We’re able to support each other and be strong for each other when we need it, and be the one who’s being supported when that’s needed too. Plus, we can both make fun of life with reckless abandon.
Tribbles. I’m a broken record, but I took on too many projects and created too many products. As a company of one, I stretched myself too thin and was only able to focus on a few products, letting others slide.
I was a web designer for about a decade before I figured enough of it out to really get efficient with my time. I’ve only been a product person for 5 years, and the learning curve still kicks my ass from time to time.
Data from the year end survey
Every year I send a survey to subscribers as my last email. This year over 1,400 of you responded! Every year I learn so much from it, so I figured that I’d share some of what I noticed:
- This list is most interested in marketing and writing. They’re least interested in programming and making software. Which makes sense, and even though I love the latter two topics, I rarely write about them anyway.
- Most of this list also loves: the Minimalists, Danielle LaPorte, Amy Porterfield, Marie Forleo, Being Boss, Alexandra Franzen and Seth Godin. Which is rad, since I love those people too.
- The online tools this list uses the most are: MailChimp (which is good, since I teach a course on it and have a free MailChimp tutorial here), WordPress (good, since I sell WP themes and plugins), and Instagram (I wouldn’t ever make a course about IG – I use it mainly to post rat photos and look at tattoo ideas).
- 66% of subscribers sell professional services (i.e. freelancing), while 33% sell products. 1% are smart-asses who chose “selling seashells by the seashore” (which is my own fault for making that an option, ha).
- 33% of this list have bought one or more products from me. Which is awesome. And when I look through the reasons people bought, it was what I expected, but maybe not what you’d expect: trust in me, my reputation, because they got to know me through this mailing list, and because of my personality. Those were the main reasons that kept coming up over and over again (which is great, because I’ve been preaching how important those things are for years).
The state of things to come
Now, I’m not one to have goals. I’d rather just work the processes I have, create what my audience is asking of me, and enjoy whatever happens in the moment it happens. That said, I’m definitely going to attempt to take on less and really focus on a few key things:
- Grow Your Audience. My new course that will teach folks how to work marketing as a process based on trust and communication. Basically, the opposite of every slimy “make money online!” product out there. Launching publicly in February and to the people who pre-ordered it in late-January.
- Chimp Essentials. I plan on launching it a few times in 2017 (every launch requires me to re-record lessons based on new features and designs in MailChimp – so it takes time). It does well financially, I see so much student success from it, and I just plain love teaching it.
- Free, weekly content. I have no plans to stop writing weekly articles and recording weekly podcasts. Both of those things keep a great line of communication with my audience and I enjoy sharing almost everything I know for free, with no strings attached.
- Looking for a literary agent. (Yes, you read that right.) Even though I’ve loved and done well with self-publishing, I figured for my next book it’d be fun to try going the traditional publishing route. So if you know a good agent or are a good agent, let me know.
What’s changing with the weekly content really comes down to nomenclature:
- I’m changing the name of my podcast from The Freelancer to the Sunday Dispatches.
- I’m merging my podcast list with this list.
- I’m releasing podcast episodes on Sunday, and including them in this newsletter.
The reason is the show and newsletter are the same content, so it makes sense to give them the same name and release them at the same time.
Last year my focus was on the technical, and I really enjoyed having a “theme” for the year. This year, my focus is on service.
It sounds like hippie-dippie altruism, but really my business exists because I thoroughly enjoy serving you, my audience. Yeah, I make money doing it sometimes, but only when the trade for that money creates a total win-win (a win for you because you learn something that benefits your life and/or biz, and a win for me because it makes me money and makes me feel good).
The bottom line
All I know is that, for the most part, I enjoyed what life taught me in 2016 and I’m excited to see what’s to come in 2017.
And of course, this will continue to share everything I know about combining creativity and commerce, while staying true to my unique style of “angry man shouts at the internet each weekend.”
State of the Union, 2016
So, I googled it (since I’m not American)—a State of the Union address is delivered annually, outlines an annual agenda and speaks to the condition of the nation.
It sounded like a good idea, so I wrote my own. Not that I consider myself the president of anything, I just want to give my “rat people nation” an idea of what’s up, where things are heading and what my focus for this new year will be.
I’ve spent the last few months quietly reflecting on both 2015 and what lies ahead for 2016. (I also spent a lot of time making and eating lasagne—it helps with quiet reflection, or something…)
What went well in 2015
Consistent writing. I wrote one newsletter a week from January 4, 2015 to Nov 29, 2015 (when my planned writing break started). I didn’t miss a single week. Of my work accomplishments, this is what I’m most proud of.
Partly because of this consistency, my list grew from 10k to almost 20k, without a drop in open rates or click-through rates. My site received 445k visitors this year (where I post my writing every week too).
Products. 2015 was a landmark year for me and products. Creative Class turned a year old in October and has become where I make the bulk of my income. The class has over 1,700 students now (which is staggering) and 11k subscribers.
I also launched a solo podcast, an audio course on creativity, a personal branding workshop and even a handful of other collaborations. When I looked at my income split (since I track revenue by source), 80% of my income for 2015 was from products. In 2014 it was less than 20%.
Money. I did well financially in 2015. Granted, I worked harder and more than most years, and it showed in the books. The exchange rate was also on my side (a high USD and low CAD, and since all my revenue is in USD… hello bonus money!). I remember having a conversation with my financial advisor in January 2015 about how I was going to try to make a lot of money over the next 12 months because I now had a mortgage again for the first time in 7 years. And I did (granted, most of that revenue went to paying down my mortgage as quickly as possible since I hate debt).
What didn’t go well in 2015
Overworking. Yes, I made more money than usual last year, but it took a toll on every other aspect of my life. I worked way too many hours, way too many evenings and weekends and didn’t focus enough on other parts of my life. I don’t want to repeat that for 2016, so I’d rather work less and say “yes” to less even if that means I make less money.
Opportunities. Since most of my revenue came from products, which is newer to me than client work, I ended up saying “yes” to too many things that were presented as “great opportunities” on the chance that they would lead to increased product sales.
What I found out was that pretty much every single “amazing opportunity” that was put in front of me amounted to very little other than taking up a ton of my time. Moving forward, I’d rather focus on work, say no to anything that doesn’t serve my audience or myself, and do things my own way, regardless of the opportunity.
Client work. It embarrasses me to say this (since I teach a course on freelancing), but the hardest part of 2015 was client work. Sure, I had lots of amazing clients, but I also had some projects that took longer than expected, cost me far more than I made on them and stressed me out beyond belief. I should have rewatched the lessons on Creative Class (on repeat).
I’m not blaming those clients either—it’s my own fault for not communicating things more clearly, not standing my ground more, and not walking away when I should have.
Health. Related to overworking is that my health and fitness level tanked in 2015. Several times. Sitting at a computer more than anything else isn’t smart for me. Luckily, in November, with the help of my wife Lisa, this started to change. I’m exercising daily again, letting my Fitbit figuratively and literally run my active life (in a good way) and getting back on track. Not so oddly enough, my body rewards me when I take care of it. I’m more able to focus and work efficiently when my body is running optimally.
Notoriety. I struggle to even write this, because I’m by no means a known person, but I had problems dealing with what comes as the result of lots of people seeing what I do for a living. From trolls to threats to just feeling the weight of responsibility from people listening to me en masse—there were times in 2015 I wanted to walk away from everything and go back to quiet work instead.
What I figured out is that I just need to be more intentional with the ways that I show up. For example, writing for this mailing list is a perfect example of how I love to show up. My podcast as well. Where I didn’t as much like to show up was some interviews, collabs and online events that I only said “yes” to because I thought I’d see some gains.
I also really need to stop reading what other people are saying about me.
I’d rather be less known and less visible, only showing up for the folks who I want to show up for. Rat people and all that.
What’s ahead for 2016
A focus on the technical. If I had to pick a mission statement for this year, it’d be that. Super sexy, right?! Actually, I can’t think of a less motivational-sounding anchor word than “technical”, but still, bear with me.
What I mean by technical is that I’m not a motivational speaker, a guru or thought-leader… I’m a nerd. I get super excited about the specifics of how technology works. It’s what I love to share and teach the most.
To that end, all the products I’m making this year relate to using technical skills to get where you want to go.
Here are a few of the products I’m working on for you currently:
Chimp Essentials. No-bullshit video walk-throughs that teach you how to use MailChimp’s feature set to grow your business. So basically, walk-throughs where I show you how to use things like automation, segments, reports and conditionals to help you use your mailing list to drive business growth. I’m hoping to launch this in a few months (but pre-registration for free lessons is open now).
WordPress themes. This isn’t my first foray into selling themes, but previously I tried to sell themes (and it failed—not financially, but in terms of me being super unhappy doing it). So I decided to make the themes I wanted to make (based on what I’ve learned about online business over the last 20 years) and sell them how I wanted to sell them. They’re available now: Contents, Nadaand Photos. There’s a free one too, Ponder.
“Still a secret SaaS” with Jason Zook. No name and vague details on this one for now, but Jason and I are working on a piece of software that we think every online course could benefit from. You’ll have to listen to our podcast to learn more, since season 4 will focus entirely on the behind the scenes of building a piece of software from scratch. This starts in February and is sponsored by our friends at Acuity Scheduling.
Connecting with my community. I could give a cute rat’s ass about “everyone on the internet”. 99% of those people aren’t my target audience, aren’t a good fit for my community (or list) and shouldn’t buy the things I create.
In 2016, I want to better focus on attracting the right audience for what I do. That means a stronger line in the sand, bigger opinions and being honest about who I am (and who I’m not).
Less online work, more tactile work. Sure, I’m working hard this year to release some products that deserve the attention they’ll get. But I also plan on being on the computer a lot less.
This relates to the first point for 2016 too, a focus on the technical. I want to get more technical with my offline life as well. Like getting further into the science of growing food, tending to and stewarding my land and hopefully building a greenhouse. I love working with my hands and my incurable creative virus that drives me to “make things” doesn’t just apply to digital products.
A continued push for consistency. Just like 2015, I want to stay strict to my publishing and podcasting schedule. Consistency isn’t easy, it’s hard work. But it’s necessary work, and that feeling of accomplishment when you stick to your plans is like nothing else. 2016 will be a win if I can write again that I’m most proud of how I showed up every week with content for you.
The bottom line
I hate new year’s resolutions which is why this isn’t one. I don’t resolve to do anything but relentlessly question the value of what I’m doing and creating, in order to try my best and stay on course with what matters to both of us.
As I’ve said over and over, I don’t know what I’m doing. I only learn by taking action. I create, write and share because I’ve figured a few things out (not all of the things). The reason I’m consistent with my writing is that it requires me to continue learning about new topics, which I then share with you.
I’m excited for this year. I hope you are too. It’s a privilege and honour to share with you every week. The reason I do it is because you’re awesome.
The incurable creative virus
So far in my life I’ve been: a writer for business publications, a web designer to Valley Startups and Fortune 500s, a nature photographer, a teacher of freelancers, a touring musician (and co-owner of an indie label), a failed startup founder (twice), a podcast host, a self-published author of five bestselling books, and, for a few weeks in the early 2000s, a stock icon creator and seller (they were very pixelly–it was a trend back then).
All of these things I’ve started on my own and continue to do independently.
But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. I went to university in Toronto to get a great sounding degree with the hopes of finding a steady job with regular income. Nearly twenty years after I dropped out I’ve found myself working independently and supporting my family through creativity. Somehow it has all worked out and I’ve built a life that is equal parts unknown/wild/scary while being supportive and steady.
I had no intention of following this life. At first, I figured school would give me a shot at the adult life I’d envisioned. After dropping out, I thought working for someone else would accomplish the same thing. Once I quit my one and only job as a creative director at an agency I came to realize that all my dreams up until that very second had been someone else’s and not my own.
I was supporting their work–their vision.
The day I quit that job was the day I realized only I was responsible for what I put out into the world. So that work had better be damn good—work that I can stand behind (or in front of) with confidence.
Since then, so many ‘jobs’ have come and gone that I don’t even know what to call myself anymore. There are too many passions, too many projects, too many tangents.
The only descriptor that comes even close is ‘independent creative’.
When you’re a creative there’s no separation between life and work. Everything blends together in a beautiful (and often stressful) way. Your life isn’t separated into neat little compartments like a plate of food from the army canteen. It’s more like a single serving of delicious vegan stew. Everything melts together into something bigger and better than the sum of the individual ingredients. Even the people that I talk to on a regular basis blur the line between work and life. Most clients I consider friends and most friends I’ve either collaborated with or been hired by (or I’ve hired them).
Creative drive is like a virus. It takes hold slowly at first, and sometimes you don’t even realize you’ve got it or where it came from (probably via public transit…). In time you start to see the signs and symptoms. But by then it’s too late: you’re driven to create. You daydream about making things larger than yourself and feel wholly unsatisfied unless you’re being challenged with new and scary ideas.
The day I dropped out of university, my dean asked to see me to discuss my ‘options’. What he really meant, since I had already committed to leaving, was that he wanted to give me one last lecture on why it was a bad idea to quit the program I had worked so hard to get into.
He wagged his finger and told me that two things were going to happen. The first was that I was going to regret leaving school to pursue creativity: ‘There’s no money to be made—at least not real money—in being creative for a living,’ he said.
The second was that I’d be back, just as soon as as I realized his first point, and that I would regret having wasted all that time. The funny thing about that talk is that I don’t remember ever saying anything in my defence. But I do remember getting up and leaving, very quickly.
That meeting rattled me at the time because I was young and unsure of myself and my future.
Luckily, I realized that my fears and taking action could co-exist. I could be scared shitless and still move forward with my creative work. Twenty years later, I can say with confidence that ‘the fear’ of being a creative never truly goes away. It’s always there, sometimes as a tiny voice whispering from off in the distance, while other times it’s so loud that it’s all you can hear pounding in your eardrums, relentlessly driving you forward. Every creative has a different way of dealing with the voice. But what’s universal is that we all hear it and we all find some way of making our work speak louder than it.
Being an independent creative isn’t just a job. It’s not even all the jobs combined. It’s a responsibility to yourself to make—to take what you see out in the world and turn it into something different and unique.
We take shapes and ingredients and all things beautiful (or not) and repurpose them into designs and photos and books and meals. Our brains don’t stop working when we punch out—which is why we keep notebooks or camera rolls that are constantly filling up. And most importantly, we don’t do any of this because we’re after specific outcomes, goals, or financial rewards.
The journey, the process, the step into the question of “what if I try…?” is all that we’re after.
It’s a constant mental tight-rope that comes from acknowledging your past accomplishments (if even in some small way) while relentlessly pursuing your next idea. There are no laurels to rest on, no awards to display on your mantle so you can then sit back and say, “I’ve accomplished this, so therefore I’m done”.
You create because you have to create. It’s an unending movement.
There’s no option to sit on the sidelines, to simply consume other people’s art and visions or wait until you’re ‘more ready’ (which never, ever happens—trust me). Your mind is constantly taking ideas and turning them into tangible expressions of you and your vision: books, photographs, courses, articles, paintings, all of the above, at all time, without end.
To this day I still think about sitting in the office of my dean. I think about the life I’ve made for myself being creative as a job and realize that I’ve proved him wrong. Not in a going back to the university now, wagging my finger at him, and saying that I proved him wrong sort of way. But more in a holy crap, I’m actually doing this sort of way.
What it is I’m doing, I’m still not sure of, but I’m definitely enjoying the ride.
As creatives, the work we do is both rewarding and challenging. What drives each and every one of us is unique and different but there is one absolute truth to this life: none of us create simply because it’s easy. But when you get to the end and can look back, you know it was worth it.
Are you ready for the virus to take hold?
I am my own worst enemy
There’s nothing any troll has said about me, my work or what I put out into the world that I haven’t thought to myself at least once or twice.
As creative folks, we tend to talk ourselves out of things we really want to do, or make or put out into the world. And then we begin to believe the stories we tell ourselves — there’s no time, we’re not as good as so-and-so, we’re not skilled enough, we could fail, people won’t like what we create and so on.
I held myself back from being a writer for 15 years. 15 years. Ridiculous, right? Because all you need to do to be a writer is to write. And I talked myself out of it for a decade and a half. My “logic” wasn’t based in fact, data or even actual logic. It was just my brain saying that I shouldn’t try because I could potentially fail.
The only reason I finally got over myself and started to share my writing was because I realized that even the greatest failure that could come of me writing wasn’t that bad. If people disliked it or hated me for selling it? So what. People dislike me regardless of whether I write down words or not.
The funny thing with being afraid of potential future things happening is that they’re almost always super exaggerated. My fear of criticism was huge until I started writing and getting criticized. Now that I write and do get criticized for it, it’s not that big of a deal. I know those folks aren’t my rat people. I know they are just projecting their own issues at me (which mostly has nothing to do with me).
I’ve learned that my doubts and fears can be overcome with action. And that they can exist in tandem with action. So if I’m scared to do something and I do it any way, I’ll live. And more importantly, that fear will disappear a little (or a lot) in the process of me doing what I’m scared of. Sometimes, in spite of fear, the best to create something is right now.
“Give up on yourself. Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator, or unhealthy, or lazy, or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die.” Shoma Morita
Most of the time, we need to get out of our own way to start creating things we really want to make. It’s never a matter of banishing the fears and doubts we have, because those never go away. It’s more a matter of moving forward in spite of them.
The Step Back
As makers, creators, doers, builders, freelancers, we focus almost entirely on those things we produce. Especially in the beginning, because that’s how we’re wired.
What I’ve learned, though — through launching companies, books, albums, courses, products, podcasts, etc. (holy shit do I launch a lot of different things) — is that the most important part of taking an idea and turning it into something that launches is the “step back.”
The step back should happen right after your next biggest and greatest idea to build something. If you wait too long, you’ll already be too invested (mentally, financially, timewise).
What is the step back?
It’s what happens when you remove yourself from the idea for a while, to see if it makes sense. The step back puts yourself in the shoes of the folks you’re making this thing for. The step back raises questions. Not to kill ideas or shut things down, but rather to be the devil’s advocate for a second to see if the idea is worth going all in.
The CTO of Amazon, Werner Vogels, calls the step back “Working Backwards” at his company. Anyone at Amazon who wants to build a new product or service has to start by writing a press release (a physical manifestation of a step back, if you will). Before any prototypes, they have to think of how to sell it. This process places the customer at the centre of developing the idea. What does the customer care about, what pains do they have that the product/service can solve, and what motivates them to spend money on something?
When thinking about your own next great idea, some of the bigger step back questions might be:
- What’s the headline here? Beyond what it is you want to build and launch, think about how it would be pitched. The angle. The story. The juicy bits.
- What would anyone else talk about? You’ll talk about it because it’s your baby and you’ve put a ton of work into it. Figure out if others would talk about it as well, and what the reason would be. Why would the press talk about it? Why would early adopters talk about it? Why would it be the subject at a dinner party, networking event, or online forum?
- What’s the strategy to take it to your audience? You can’t just build it and they will come (unless you’re Kevin Costner, and even then…). How are you going to define your audience? How can you show them that it exists beyond telling them to buy your stuff? How are you going to continue to remind them it exists without annoying or pestering them?
Getting more granular with stepping back, you can start to think about:
- Who will be your early adopters? Why will they adopt it?
- How will they find out about it?
- What makes what you’re going to build particularly enticing to them right now?
- Why is what you’re going to make indispensable to them?
- Once they decide to buy, what about what you’re going to create will make them enjoy it so much that they want to share the experience with others? What will encourage them to tell or invite others?
- How willing will you be to change what you’re doing based on feedback and behaviour patterns in early adopters?
- What kind of crazy, interesting, totally unique thing are you prepared to do to get the attention of your audience?
- How will you be tracking success or failure?
- What will be the markers of success or failure?
You can’t leave those things to chance or have a marketing strategy of, “I’ll tweet about it a few times.” There has to be a reason that an initial volley of people (your core audience) are going to want to give you money and moreover, be so happy with the transaction that they tell others to do the same (their audience).
Marketing and launch can’t be thought of right at the end, once what you’ve created is ready. Making something your audience will like and want has to be baked in, right from the start. This is done by stepping back to consider your audience.
And most of all, don’t worry if launch doesn’t go as planned. Because no launch ever does. The good thing with launches is that there doesn’t have to be just one. You can launch, test, refine, improve, and try again. Starting small with your core audience, your biggest fans, your early adopters — and making sure they’re happy — will do wonders once your work is released to a larger group.
When an idea strikes it’s hard not to get swept away in the excitement of making something new. But take time to step back and consider things from the perspective of your intended audience — you’ll be rewarded by them greatly if your considerations are correct.
The motivating and scary allure of expressing yourself in your work
The thing with lines in the sand is that they create division.
What if you draw one and your audience/customers/people you care about are on the other side of it? What if you offend or turn off the people you’re trying to serve? What if people see the real you and your true expression, and simply aren’t interested?
Most lines in the sand come from opinions on self-expression—which isn’t a necessity. I don’t have to swear in books. I don’t have to talk about feminism if it’s not my job. I don’t have to be public about my passions, pet rats, or vegan ramblings.
So why bother?
For me, it comes down to who I want to surround me. So if someone is offended that I think gay/women’s rights are really just human rights (and just as necessary), then I’m happy to offend someone like that. I would not enjoy being hired by them any more than, as a vegan, I’d enjoy being hired by a butcher. If someone thinks I’m an uncreative writer with invalid opinions due to my occasional use of profanity, that’s on them to find someone else to read, not on me to change. Dissent and critical thought are important, even if it’s of my own work (it’s encouraged even). But there must be openness to discussion and learning, and not closed-minded thinking and hate.
I’m often asked if being open about what I care about hurts or helps my business. To be honest, I don’t know. Maybe I’d get more clients or sell more books if I shut up about certain topics or didn’t express my personality as much. Or, as I’m often told, if I just wrote without cuss words because it’s possible to write without swearing. And mostly I do actually write without swearing. So why not always do that?
While I don’t know if being open and expressive helps the bottom line of my business, I do know—for 100% certain—that it attracts the type of people I enjoy working with and interacting with. There is no doubt that I attract these sorts of people, because it’s easy for them to see what I stand for. And more importantly, they see themselves standing on my side of the line.
To (unfortunately) mix oceanfront metaphors, the line in the sand is a like a lighthouse beacon. Standing for something puts out into the world a set of beliefs that others can be drawn to. Yes, sometimes it can attract the pirates, pillagers, trolls, haters. Because that spotlight makes for easier target practice. But it also lets others who are like you, or relate to you, draw closer.
I always come back to the line in the sand. The line is what defines me—as a person, as a creative, as someone who puts work out into the world. Without that line there’s no difference between myself and any other designer, any other writer, or any other creative. The line is how and why I’m different. The line is how any of us are different. The expression we have, while not a necessity, speaks to who we are. Why not amplify that?
As someone who “makes stuff” for a living, I know that I’m responsible for what I put out into the world. So why not let it be a true reflection of me? I’m flawed, sometimes crass, opinionated as all get out, and I don’t back down (to a fault).
I’m also often told that it’s all well and good for me to be opinionated because I’ve already established myself in what I do. [Insert already having an audience, already having books that sell, already having web design clients, etc.] I would posit, however, that that’s precisely what established me in the first place.
Not being able to compete with better writers, better designers, better programmers, better role models, I instead focused on just being myself, publicly.
Like most other creatives, I struggle with self-sabotage, self-doubt, and feeling like an imposter more often than not. I struggle with expressing myself, because it does sometimes feel easier or “safer” not to.
There’s obviously a time and place for everything, though. I’m not going to go to an elementary school to talk about working in a creative field and drop f-bombs left and right (as funny as that might be to imagine for a minute). Or launch into a two-hour diatribe about pet rats on a sales call. But I’m also not going to hide who I am when the occasion calls for it.
What makes any of us us isn’t our set of skills, experience or accolades—it’s how we use our personalities and self-expression in our work. Otherwise, we’d all be the same, with the same pitches for the work we do, the same books on the same topics, and the same everything else.
I’d rather succeed or fail as myself than do it pretending to be someone else, or worse, do it without infusing any of myself into my work.
So I’m going to keep expressing myself and drawing those lines in the sand. The alternative would both bore the heck out of me and be so un-motivating that I wouldn’t want to continue creating.