I’d rather be a blogger
I started blogging in 1997.
The point, back then, at least for myself and the bloggers I enjoyed, was to write for an existing audience. The sole metric was simple: did the piece resonate with the people already reading? If it did, then things are were good: we were making the people already paying attention happy and they’d sometimes tell others, increasing the number of people paying attention. Thoughtfulness, insight and empathy were rewarded. Growth as a byproduct, not a focus.
Today, the state of blogging is that it’s no longer blogging, it’s “contentting”. Content marketing, A/B testing, search engine optimization, getting more posts published as quickly as possible, sensational clickbait titles and what can be viral asap. Rewards come from vapid metrics like clicks or advertising views or trickery to get someone onto a page, because YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT MEGHAN MARKLE WORE LAST NIGHT AT THE POLO CLUB.
None of those things are necessarily wrong or bad either (well, articles that bash someone for wearing something are probably bad… that just seems superficial). And this isn’t a stroll down memory lane or a raised fist shaking at “the good old days” of the internet either. I just think one of the main reasons that the internet took off like it did from the late–90s onward was that people could finally have a voice, regardless of whether or not that voice drove clicks and views. No need to go through gatekeepers like print publications, book publishers, etc… we could just write something and hit publish. Now our voices are collectively passed through the values of content marketing and growth-hacking.
While doing research last year I got to talk to one of my favourite early bloggers, Alex the Girl (Alex Beauchamp). She now consults and works with the biggest companies in the world, helping them tell their stories through content. When we talked, “going viral” came up, and what she said really resonated: she’d never want anything she did to go viral. First, she’d be on the hook to make “viral” happen (which is hard to do, even for someone as smart as Alex), but second, it’d mean she didn’t actually know her audience very well, because viral-ness means you want everyone to see something. And creating for everyone means you aren’t creating for anyone specifically. And this the state of content online currently: for it to matter or be valued, it has be seen by as many people as possible and creators will do almost anything to make that happen.
Content on the internet currently is designed for scale, for sharing, for the masses. This runs counter to blogging, which is for a specific niche, a specific group, a specific interest a few people might have.
By chasing the current state of content we can lose what made the internet awesome in the first place: unique voices, sharing specific ideas, for a tiny subset of folks interested in them, clicks and viral-ness be damned. Writing for everyone really means writing for no one. It means using shock and outrage, changing every few minutes, to create share-worthy rage but nothing else. It means clicking through 19 slides to realize the information presented was designed more to get you to see an advertisement than to share something useful with you.
Content is rewarded now through the act of getting someone to a website. Who cares if they read something, who cares if something was written well, who cares if there’s even content. Content now needs likes, shares, outrage, promotion, and to rank high in Google. Content online has gone from acting like an e-zine to being what it started out counter to, and that’s mass, mainstream media.
I’m the first to admit that I lost my way in all of this too. A few years back I realized that that was exactly how I was operating. I started out many years ago sharing personal stories (i.e. mostly rants, I’m angry like that) and working to connect with the folks who were paying attention. Then I started learning about marketing and how content worked, and getting guest columns in bigger publications, and beta access to write on new platforms, and I realized how easy it was to game the system if you understood the system. I learned how to write to get clicks and how to write to see audience growth. I was no longer blogging, I was creating content as a Content Marketer (title case, for importance!).
Once I realized what was happening, I made a conscious decision to stop. There’s nothing wrong with content marketing either, it’s super useful if you’re a business or if you require growth and acquisition to reach enough. That just didn’t align with how I wanted to show up in the world and online (same thing, I guess). I also wasn’t getting paid to be a content marketer as a job either.
So I went back to being a blogger (lowercase – which Tom Critchlow talks about here). I went back to focusing entirely on what is best for my small audience. I went back to sharing my personal and unique take on ideas, instead of what would get the most clicks from Twitter. I stopped writing for major publications and I even nuked my Medium account with 22k followers and millions of page views. I adopted a new mental model for content creation that focused entirely on what is best for my audience (if you’re reading this, that’s you!) and sharing with them.
I now deliberately think about and write for a small network of loosely connected people who are paying attention. They aren’t even “my” audience, because they’re just interesting people who pay attention to a lot more than just myself. I share what matters, not what brings in the traffic. I rarely remember to publish my newsletter articles to my website, because the reason I write these articles is for my newsletter. I couldn’t care less about being at the top of Reddit or Hacker News (I’d rather not be at the top of those two sites, I have been and the amount of trolling is supremely detrimental to my own mental health). I don’t have any social media accounts to amplify my content, other than Twitter (which I rarely use, and even then, mostly just to tweet sarcasm and snark). I’d rather that my blogging exist in a small and focused network.
Content marketing and blogging may be diametrically opposed to each other, but one isn’t bad and the other good. There’s just what’s right for how you want to operate and what you need your content to do for you or your audience. It’s just something to consider – does the intent of how you want to exist as a content creator online actually line up with how you’re operating? If it doesn’t, perhaps it’s time to change.
How do you get people to notice your business?
A question I’ve been asked a lot is how to get others to notice your work.
Whether it’s getting interviewed on podcasts, getting articles published by industry publications or just increasing awareness about who you are and what you do—it’s a fairly common want for folks who run their own business.
The problem is the way most folks attempt to go about it is wrong. I hate being as black and white as that, but it’s true. Here’s why…
Cold pitching, unless you’re ridiculously great at it, is an effort in futility. It’s hard work, but not smart work. Especially if you’re cold pitching publications or huge podcasts, all you’re doing is getting your email (that you probably spent a great deal of time on) into some intern’s inbox, which already has 1,000s of unread pitches from people exactly like you in it.
Now I’m not trying to turn you off promoting yourself or getting your name out there, nor am I trying to be downer. I’m just trying to lay the groundwork for working smarter to accomplish what you’re after.
For the same amount of time and effort, I want to offer you a different way to accomplish the task of getting your name out there. It’s a four-step process, and it’s simple (but not easy).
Step one: get good
You ever notice how everyone’s an expert at everything on the internet? Everyone’s got 2 months of experience learning about something, which they then turn into an info-product?
Don’t do that.
You don’t have to perfect your craft (note: this is impossible), you don’t have to hole up in solitude for decades working on something, but you do have to have a bit of real world experience with doing, trying, failing, fixing, adjusting to pass the sniff test for people with bullshit detectors (i.e. everyone on the internet).
You can’t get good at your craft by reading articles about it on Medium. You can’t get good at your craft by buying a course on the subject, which you turn around and copy the course your just bought to sell as your own.
You can’t just jump ahead of learning into teaching or sharing. Plus, the learning part is the funnest part—it’s where you get to really know and understand just how many moving parts are involved. It’s where you can start to understand the impact and ramifications of choices you make about what you do ripple outward.
It’s why it’s easier and more enjoyable to learn to dance when no one’s watching (except for that ridiculous show—but that doesn’t really build experts, it builds on the idea that we like to laugh at famous people acting like fools). You don’t want to be known as someone who’s hilarious to watch fail at latin ballroom, you want to be the one who kills at dancing latin ballroom.
Honing your craft is how you build a point of view about it (teaser alert: more on this in the final step).
Step two: increase your network
Do you know how many times I’ve struck out at cold-pitches to publications or huge podcasts? Every single time I’ve tried.
Do you know how many times I’ve got a chance to write for or be interviewed when I got a warm intro to someone? I bat 1000 with that, because if I’m one degree of separation away from that person, someone I know will speak kindly about me on my behalf. And more importantly, they’ll skip the intern’s unread inbox pile and go directly to the decision maker.
If you’re paying attention to others, you’ll notice that the folks who seem to have the most success, or at least are the ones who are showing up in all the places you spend your time online are the folks who seem to know everyone. That’s not a coincidence or just because they’re super extroverted. It’s a very specific and smart strategy. First, getting to know other people who are in, related to, or connected to what you do is interesting because you probably care about what you do and love to learn more about it from others. Second, there’s no downside to connecting to other people (we’re hardwired to crave this).
I can already hear some of you sighing about this. “But I’m an introvert, I can’t do those things!” or “But I’m socially awkward, I suck at those things!”
Here’s the difference between being good at your craft and being good at business. You can be a great designer or writer or whatever and totally rock at step one. But then if you don’t also do step two, it’s hard to run a business, because running a business means networking, since that’s how deals happen at every level. I’m completely introverted and painfully awkward, and I still work at learning about new people, reaching out to them, and staying in touch.
Whether you’re a freelancer, a tiny business or work at a massive corporation, you’ve got to network a little. Liking tweets isn’t networking. Handing out business cards, rapid fire, at conferences isn’t networking. Networking is being a human and getting to know other humans who are doing similar things. Trust me, they’re super interesting and they’ll think you’re super interesting too.
Step three: look inward
I know zilch about publicity and getting it. There are pro’s who do that, but most freelancers or tiny businesses won’t want to or even won’t be able to afford the great ones.
This is totally fine. You don’t need to use a PR professional to get notice for your business. Sure, they can help, most of us don’t need that level of notice to succeed. That’s probably why most web designers or conversion copywriters aren’t on Good Morning America or on the front page of the Washington Post.
I’ve never cared much about getting my name out there or being featured in publications. Sure, it’s awesome when it happens, but I’ve never put any energy into getting it. Instead, I put my energy into building and fostering my own audience, i.e. the people who are already listening and paying attention.
There’s brilliance in building your own audience first (which I only realized after the fact, but pretend I had a plan, because it makes me sound smarter). Think about what people pay attention to? They pay attention to things others have proven they’re already paying attention to. It’s like credibility—a huge podcast isn’t going to want to have you on a guest if you have no audience or social proof that other people care. Which is actually totally fine, because those one-off instances of press, even if they’re huge, are short-lived. Whereas if you work at building and fostering a connection to your own audience, on your own platform, then that relationship can last for as long as you put energy and effort into it.
The main reason people pay attention to anyone is because they first make sure others are paying attention to that person. People get book deals if they prove their audience cares about their writing. People get interviewed if they prove their audience cares about their opinion (more on this in a second).
So start with your audience and your own platform. You can be brilliant about this from the start (instead of only in hindsight, like me).
Step four: have a point of view
I put a lot of people off. There are a ton of folks who hate me and what I have to say (I know this because they tell me about it all the time).
Why? Because I don’t mince my words or ideas. I’m intentionally clear about my point of view in what I talk about because I want people to be clear on me.
The consequence of being like this is a few things. First, it makes your ideas far less boring. (Note: as a person, I’m super boring, but since my ideas are opinionated, they aren’t). When was the last time you saw a news piece about someone who didn’t have an opinion about something? That’d be too boring to air or print. Second, this helps put people off quickly if they aren’t right for the group of folks you want to reach. Seriously, I’ve noticed that if a person is super offended that I used “fuck” in an article, they’ll be the type of person that won’t get a whole lot out of what I sell, for example. Third, and most importantly, by being honestly who you are and sharing honestly what you think about things, it draws the right people closer to you. The people who get what you have to say and why you’re saying it. It makes you memorable to them and gives them a rally point for what they think and feel that’s similar.
If you’re wondering what your opinion is about the work you do, or can’t figure out what polarizing thing you believe about your work, then refer back to step one. The more you learn about your craft, the more you’re going to know what works, what doesn’t, and why. That forms a point of view, and leads to being able to honestly share that insight.
Finally, know that like everything else, this is my own opinion, shaped by my own experiences and warped by my own tremendous yet fragile ego. I’m blunt and seemingly harsh above because I want you to do well. You’re also free to do the opposite or half, and prove me completely wrong. But if you are going to learn how to do latin ballroom in public, make sure to send me the Youtube video.
Capitalism is a snowball rolling down a steep hill
Capitalism isn’t an immutable law, but simply something we collectively believe in. We collectively go to work, make money, and assume the more money generated, the better off we are—in both our businesses and our lives.
This a narrative we can opt out of.
Our belief in a capitalist market creates two classes: the small minority of people who own massive businesses that are ever-growing, and the larger group of people who trade their work for money from the prior group. This difference in classes is essential to the operation of capitalism, because there has to be workers, and those workers have to be governed by someone who’s fiduciary duty is not to the workers but to growth in all directions for their own self-serving means and shareholders.
The workers become convinced that consumerism is the only path forward. But they’re convinced of this by that same small minority of people who directly benefit from their consumerism. It has to happen to keep the wheels spinning, the factories humming, the profits increasing. Under this hype of buy more stuff, is empty promises, when sometimes all we need is what we’ve already got. With more stuff comes more responsibilities, and more problems. In all honestly, most of the time we’d be better off and happier with less. Which on the other end would mean less work, less profits for the small ruling group of people and more free time (because we don’t need to make as much to cover our essentials).
The system has built an economy that seems to have reached a logical conclusion: consumers have grown tired of companies increasing their reach with average goods in huge quantities. Employees have grown tired of working for companies that are more focused on pleasing shareholders with quarterly earnings than creating stable jobs for their workers. En masse people are turning to working for themselves and the freelancer economy and employee-less businesses are booming and eating more and more of the jobs available. According to a study by Intuit, 40% of the workforce in the US (60 million people) will be freelancing by 2020.
What would happen if we changed things, even just a little bit? What if we all became our own small businesses (in mindset or in practice) where our duties were to enrich and optimize our lives and work, not just for revenue but for enjoyment? For time spent with family, or out surfing, or simply doing the tasks we enjoyed doing?
Money and profit aren’t fundamentally evil or wrong, they’re just impartial tools. Where they become evil is when our focus turns to solely getting more of them, leaving aside things we actually value and make our lives and businesses unique and empathetic. What if instead of optimizing for maximum profit, we optimized for life satisfaction and enjoyment?
Growth creates more growth, like a snowball.
The bigger you get, the more you need people and infrastructure to manage the business, which requires more customers, which requires more levels of management, which requires more decision makers, and so on. The snowball grows larger and larger as it descends, until it’s the size of a small country, rolling down a hill at breakneck speed.
I’ve fairly heavily bashed growth-hacking, and I’ve never been a fan of venture capital. It’s not black and white, both avenues require thinking about some key ideas: Is taking investment actually required to be successful in this business? What are the long-term ramifications of obsessing over growth? How does taking investors change the relationship between your business and your consumers? Does it also benefit them?
Long-term stability is often not possible when investors get involved because they want to make money off of your business. Their job is to take more money out of a business than they put in. That’s their metric for success, and no one can fault them for it. Taking more out than they put in doesn’t require a business to be profitable or successful either, since most of the time getting more out is an unending cycle of simply finding more investors to put more money in. But does accepting investment in the first place, line up with how you want to run your business? Are you looking for an exit strategy or a long-term strategy to have a business that thrives? And if it’s an exit strategy, please know that it’s much harder to find a buyer for a business that won’t pay liquidation prices for it. It’s actually much easier to find customers than whole business buyers. Having customers gives you indefinite time—since as long as enough of them are paying, they’re creating profit for you, and you can go on indefinitely when you’re making money, even if it’s not a lot of it. It just has to be enough of it.
Throughout the interviews I conducted in the last year, the general sentiment from folks with larger companies was that they pined for the days when they were smaller. When they had less employees and managing to do, they were better able to make decisions and more closely connect to their customers. Not a single person said they loved being much larger.
So why do we assume success only happens through growth? Because we can’t easily go back from growth. Not without downsizing, layoffs or things that hurt our ego, morale and even public perception.
We all wish we could do more. Every company wants to make more, serve more customers or have a more recognizable brand. The problem is, that never goes away. If you triple your size, your reach could still be bigger. If you’re a behemoth, you could still technically own more of a market’s share. The wanting of more exists at any size of a business. Instead, companies of one should use that feeling as motivation to see what more they can do with what they’ve currently got. Not through growth, but through ingenuity.
Capitalism requires bigger everything (numbers of employees, amount of gross revenue, etc.) and means you can conquer and dominate more of your competition. If you grow larger, you can acquire them or destroy them. None of this, however, benefits the end customer. None of this helps build long-term success.
What if we considered an alternative? What if growth wasn’t our North Star in business? I contend that we can create a company and run it in our own way, focused on what we want to focus on.
After all, if we are running a company and we aren’t happy with how it’s going, isn’t it our own fault? There is no playbook to follow, no letter of the law that’s immutable, just a continual questioning of: Is this working? Is this making money? Is this best serving my customers?
I don’t wanna grow up to be a growth hacker
Every single day I get growth hacker type emails from people telling me how much they love my work, my writing, my newsletter, my podcast, etc. While, in theory, this should be something awesome (or at least something that strokes my ego a bit), I actually hate it.
I hate these types of compliments because I can see through them. Not because my spidey-sense for bullshit has been carefully honed through years of training, but because it doesn’t take a spandex-clad superhero to see through crude growth-hacking tactics.
The formula (because that’s what it is) is easy to spot:
I’m a huge fan of your work, I’ve been following/subscribing for quite a while. Your posts about marketing always hit home. Is there anything I can promote for you?
Also, I’d love to talk about writing a high-quality piece for your newsletter or being a guest on your podcast. It’d be a win-win!
- Start with a shallow, all-encompassing general compliment. Note: you do tend to lose points when you mention something, like being a subscriber, that’s easy to verify as false though. Same goes for saying you’ve listened to every episode of a podcast (if you did, you’d know I don’t have guests on it).
- Mention something specific. Hey, this isn’t an automated message, I added one specific piece of “marketing” to it! Look at me, I’m a researcher!
- Pretend you give a shit by vaguely offering to promote something of mine.
- Get to the real point of your email quickly—you want something, and you want it from me, a person you don’t know. 99% of the time, what you want doesn’t even make sense: I don’t have guest articles for this newsletter, I don’t have guests on any of my podcasts, and I don’t write about tech companies in business publications–the other request I get on a daily basis–since I’m not a journalist.
While it’s great that people think I’m important enough to bother with these messages, they’re just so disingenuous. If this is how growth or promotion works on the internet, I almost want to quit. It makes me want to start a new internet, a better internet, one with zero growth-hackers on it. It wouldn’t “10x itself” (whatever that means) every month, and that’d be the point.
Part of what I dislike about these shallow tactics is that it’s exactly what knowledge without wisdom looks like.
The internet is full of information—we can basically find the answer to anything, literally, online, within seconds (and now, from our watches! While surfing!). Where the problem starts is that just because we’re given an answer doesn’t mean we have enough wisdom to effectively put it into practice or use it adequately. So people google, “how do I grow my business/get more publicity/increase my reach”, they find some shitty article about growth-hacking (because as much as I’m slamming them here, growth-hackers are really freakin’ good at SEO), get a template for putting their own growth-hacking into place, and then the spamming begins.
Knowledge without wisdom is dangerous
Miles Kington, a British journalist, reported that “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” In our case, knowledge is learning tactics to grow a business, and wisdom is not spamming the shit out of everyone, all the time.
What also rubs me the wrong way (luckily spandex doesn’t rub at all) is that I value the relationships I make online. I like being able to work with people I actually like as friends, and most of my friendships have started through email or social media. So when people pretend to want a friendship, and then take it from 0-100 instantly, it feels… gross. When I ask someone for something via email, it’s only because I’ve known them for ages, we’ve actually connected several times, and only after careful consideration as to whether it’s both relevant to them and it’s something I should be asking for (and even then, not without worrying heavily that I’m asking for too much).
So I never want to be a growth hacker
We should just call growth-hacking what it really is: being a self-centred, self-serving and fake-ass person on the internet.
I don’t want to hack anything in my business or with my mailing list. I want to build and create sustainable and long term assets. I want them to grow not because I spammed the most people, but because people actually enjoy something I’ve made so much that they tell others. Growth-hacking puts short-term gains above long-term plans, because no business, no matter how many “smart” growth-hackers it hires, can sustain their tactics for long without generating ill-will. It’s why we also need to consider an alternative to capitalism.
Luckily, I’ve spent the last year researching this subject matter for my next book, and the data backs me up. Growth-hacking is for businesses that don’t care if they’re around next month. Making real and genuine connections is how businesses can thrive next month, next year, next decade.
I’m not saying that all marketing is wrong either. Hell, I consider myself a marketer and actually love doing it (and I teach a course on it). I do think there’s a difference though in the mindset of attempts at exponential growth at all costs, versus working to genuinely help and connect others to what you’re selling. One’s like a pop and fizzle, while the other is more of a slow, sustained burn.
If growth-hacking is about finding morally-ambivalent-at-best methods for furthering yourself or your business, then I’d rather not grow my business at all. I like being a tiny company, with zero employees and just enough customers to support what I do. Zero growth-hacking required.
A guide to running a minimalist business
Minimalism isn’t just for people who want to live out of a backpack or cram their life into a tiny house. So what is a minimalist business, and why should we have one?
The ideas of being minimal can also easily apply to business – and I should know because I’ve been using them for nearly twenty years.
Minimalism is a mindset rather than a blind purge. If something is useful or pleasurable, you keep it. If it’s not, then you consider scrapping it.
Personally, I see running a minimalist business as more of a pursuit of enjoyment with revenue attached (because, hey, what’s not to love about hedonism and making money at the same time?!) If you only keep what is useful or what makes you happy in your business then what you’re left with you should leave you better off—in terms of revenue AND quality of life. Removing what doesn’t serve your business or make you happy just seems like a good idea (even if you think minimalism is bonkers). Through this removal, minimalism creates certain freedoms:
- Freedom from excess financial worry (you’re spending less, so you can make less and be more profitable).
- Freedom from the stress of “busy” (you’re only doing what is useful or makes you happy).
- Freedom from the fear of loss (you’re living below your means, so you can weather greater storms and hardships).
- Freedom from weighty responsibility (the bigger your business gets, the more work it requires, and it may not be work you enjoy).
Working for yourself is freedom—if you do it right—so achieving greater freedom in your business by implementing ideas borrowed from minimalism seems like a win-win. (Or maybe it’s just one win since the second win isn’t necessary and therefore purged. #minimalismjokes)
Is more actually better?
One of the smartest things I’ve done in my business is question if “more” is actually better. Which is the complete opposite approach taken by startups and corporations.
Such businesses tend to see growth as the chief indicator of success. More customers is a win! Higher revenue is a win! Greater exposure is a win! And sure, they can be, but not always. And definitely not always when blindly obtained.
Sometimes more customers mean much more customer support. Sometimes more revenue comes at the price of higher investments and expenses (netting less profit in spite of more revenue). Sometimes more exposure means more of the wrong people see you and more of the right people for your business are put off because they think your business is actually for someone else.
More ≠ Better (Hi math, I love you!)
Sometimes “enough” is better. For instance, if I make enough money to support my life and save a little, “more” likely only brings more stress, more work, more responsibility. If I already have enough customers that I can personally support, why would I want more if that would mean I had to hire and then manage employees? Remember my note about freedom? Enough means I can optimize for freedom, not blind growth.
Are you willing to experiment?
Running a lean business that’s focused on creating value for yourself and your customers requires you to be relentless about the opportunities you say yes to – or you’ll be stretched too thin. You’ll end up like a circus act that sees how many plates you can spin at the same time, hoping they don’t all come crashing down.
You also have to be willing to experiment. A few years ago I decided to see if I could go 6 months without buying anything but food and gas (I did it too). Another time I tried living without furniture (this failed, mostly because my back hurt without a comfy couch). Experimenting to see what you actually value and testing your assumptions can lead to breakthroughs in life and in work. Maybe you can say no to every opportunity but the one you truly want to focus on. Maybe your business would do better with one product instead of 3. Maybe you can generate more profit by spending less on marketing, software, computers or fax machines (just kidding, who buys fax machines?)
You won’t find out unless you experiment. Sure, your experiments could go wrong and your business could be left with a bit of a sore back, but some might go right and you’ll be left with more money for less work.
Can you work with what you’ve got?
Minimalists, like MacGyver, work with the tools they’ve got. They don’t spend a ton of time or money on acquiring or building new tools. So if all your business has is a ball of twine, a stick of gum, and a paperclip, you figure out a way to make those things work (and save the world or something, I can’t remember the premise of the show).
Using the tools available for the job means that you rely more on your own ingenuity than anything else. Which is good, since tools can sometimes take the place of critical thinking. For example, a programmer isn’t a great programmer because she uses the latest frameworks. She’s a great programmer because she understands how to use code to accomplish tasks. She could change computers or frameworks and still be a great coder.
Spending time focused on finding the best newsletter software or design program or CRM nets diminishing returns, since most work pretty much the same as the rest. And it definitely nets diminishing returns when we start to think that each tool we use has to be custom-created just for us.
Minimalist businesses aren’t great businesses because of the tools, they’re great businesses because their owners know how to use the tools they’ve got. The best tool for your work is the one you’re using right now, to make your art. If it’s not working, find another. Tools don’t matter. Building skill matters more.
How quickly can you move?
Those running minimalist businesses are experts at getting straight to the point. Quickly. Especially when it comes to making money.
The typical way to run a business is that you start by getting an investment (from the bank, from a rich relative, from a VC) then work hard and in secret for a long time to create a perfect product.
This way of working has a lot of drawbacks though. It requires one to make a ton of assumptions about the market, positioning and customers and then wait until a lot of money is spent before launching.
Whereas taking the opposite approach can work just as well, if not more effectively. I launch without any investment (other than a tiny bit of my own time) so I don’t have to make as many assumptions. I launch by boiling my business idea down to the smallest idea possible, then launching quickly. For example, Creative Class (my first course) started out as an idea for 30 lessons, which would have taken me 4–6 months to create at least. I also wanted to develop course software to run it (another 4–6 months). I resisted the urge and started with 7 lessons and existing software, launching in a month instead of a year. That meant I could see what worked and what didn’t with an actual audience, and then adjust, iterate and improve.
By starting small, and moving quickly, you can adapt to the market. Whereas starting big, and moving slowly means you’re running on guesses and throwing a lot of time and work at something that may or may not work out in the end.
To summary having a minimalist business
As I said, minimalism is a mindset, not a blind purge. So running a minimalist business doesn’t mean staying small for the sake of being small. It means staying small when it makes sense to be small and only growing in areas where growth provides value to you and your customers. Growth isn’t inherently evil, but it comes at a price. And running a minimalist business is more about creating freedom than profits. Sometimes the price makes sense to pay, and sometimes you’re better off sticking with what you’ve got.
PS: This piece covers most of the main topics in my upcoming book, Company of One. Basically, blind growth in all areas isn’t always the best idea.
Four rules for business
I have four business rules for my business.
- Be useful
- Give freely
- Stay simple
- Keep track
These aren’t platitudes or a mission statement or a business plan. I don’t care about any of that.
While I love business and love running my own business even more, I hate the way that business is “supposed to work”.
So I made my own rules.
My rules are specific enough to give actionable direction, but loose enough to adapt to the fact that everything changes all the time. They’re also easy to remember (try as I might, I can’t memorize a 32-page rule book or even a 288-page book about simple business rules (I really did try and read it, and while the subject matter is great, it’s almost hilariously ironic how un-simple this book is).
Luckily, as I’ve seen two major, non-sequential focuses in my career — first web design, then products — the business rules have continued to apply. The beauty of them is that they aren’t prescriptive, meaning they don’t remove thinking from my business (I don’t think anything can do that until the robot overlords take over).
These business rules are simply tools for deciding. People don’t spend much time deciding to focus on decision making (sorry, that was a bad joke), but decision making is one of the most important things in a business. For every second you haven’t decided, you aren’t taking action. If you are stuck on a problem that requires you to pick yes or no, or do or don’t do, then you aren’t moving forward until you decide. So being able to quickly make the best decision for your business is critical. (Note that I didn’t say the “right” decision, you never know that until later).
Onto the business rules.
Business rule one / Be useful
At the core of who I am and what I do is a need to help others solve problems. And it’s not entirely altruistic either. Being useful makes me feel good. Being useful pays money, when I solve important problems for people.
Being useful means using my brain in creative ways to solve problems. Typically, first for myself, then for others.
That’s the first test of any product idea I have: how useful would this be? Not to everyone, not to most people, but just to the small group of people it’s for. Would it change their life? Their business? Their mental or financial situation? If it’s a “hell yes” then it passes the first business rule and I can quickly move on.
Business rule two / Give freely
I spend more time on free things than I do on paid offerings. My weekly newsletter, my weekly podcast, hours answering emails — I love that stuff. I love that even if someone never buys a single thing from me for whatever reason (can’t afford it, doesn’t want it, thinks I’m an asshat, etc) I can still give them something.
With every paid product I create, I come up with a free portion of it. Something that can be had without a monetary transaction. It can take the form of a workshop video, a free email series, or even part of the actual product that doesn’t require a credit card.
First, I like to do this because it’s the best way I know to build a relationship with the sort of folks I’d like to pay attention to what I do. Second, I don’t want to take or make money from someone that’s not going to find what I create useful. So I give them a taste first. If they don’t like it, then no harm, no foul, money wasn’t exchanged. If they like it, then maybe they’ll buy it and I’ll make money.
Business rule three / Stay simple
I’m not smart enough to have a complicated business. The more moving parts there are, the more stressed out I get, and the more time I spend looking at fuzzy rat photos on Instagram instead of working (shut up, it’s my happy place).
I run a company of one because it’s the simplest approach for me. I’m not responsible for other people (nor their pay cheques). I don’t have to manage anyone. If I want to pivot completely, I totally can.
For every product I think up, I make sure it’s simple. Both in terms of what’s required to build it and then what’s required to launch and operate it. I’ve killed off products because they became too complex. I beta test the shit out of my products to make sure they’re simple before launching them publicly.
Simple products mean that they’re easy to support (since I do support and don’t have a team of customer service rep’s standing by). Simple products mean they’re easy to build quickly — because if they took me years to build, that’s years I wouldn’t be making money from them. Simple products mean they’re easy to understand — if I can’t explain to you (someone who’d buy it) why you need it and what it does in a sentence or two, then I’ve failed.
Business rule four / Keep track
This is the least sexy rule (if business rules are sexy?). In business, you have to keep track of everything. Seriously, everything. Off the top of my head, here are a few of the main items that must be tracked:
- All money in, all money out. I don’t want the government knocking on my door asking for my books from 5 years ago, and me being like, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I also like to know if someone owes me money. So anything I buy, anything I sell, anything that’s owed in either direction, I keep note of. Not in a complicated way (accounting software makes my head spin) but in a simple spreadsheet.
- Marketing efforts. If you don’t track how well everything you do to get the word out about what you’ve created, how the hell will you know what’s working or not?
- Learning. I consider this keeping track of my industry, community (most people call it “competition”), and new subject matter and tools I’m interested in learning. I spend hours a day learning because that’s how important I think it is.
Lots of time we get in the weeds with work and focus entirely on doing business and not keeping track of our business. That might be good short-term (since doing business = money!) but long-term it’s hard to adjust and learn what’s working or not working if you’re not keeping track.
That’s it – those are the business rules
My whole business strategy summed up in eight words made into four business rules.
As long as I’m following them, I know I’m on track. They don’t guarantee wins, but they definitely guarantee that I’m making the best decisions for myself and my work.
Growth without growth
If you don’t want to have employees, assistants, scale up or grow a company that’s bigger than you – you can still grow a company organically. It’s just a different kind of growth.
Which got me to thinking, if growth via scale isn’t an option for whatever valid reason we’ve got, how else can growth happen?
Here’s a list of the ways I think organic growth can happen without growth:
- Working for yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you have to work alone. Even if you aren’t interested in scaling your business, there are still great reasons to hire freelancers for specific projects. For example: an editor to help with your book, a research assistant to help gather content for your course, a programmer to code your website.
- Project partnerships are another great way to scale your reach and skillset without growing your business, since it’s just partnering up for one specific project with an end goal in mind. Think: co-creating a course that combines what you both do and pitched to both your audiences, or creating a small software company with partners.
- You can grow revenue without doing more work or working for longer hours if you get efficient with systems and processes. The more you create a standard process for doing repetitive tasks, the faster you can get them done. Or, if you can, automate them completely. For example: creating a series of onboarding emails for new buyers or using a scheduler app like Calendly or Acuity to book meetings/calls in significantly less steps.
- Say “no” to most opportunities. No matter how efficient you get, there is only so much time in the day. You’ve got to be vigilant about your priorities, because everything can’t be a priority. Opportunities, however seemingly great, come at a cost of time, attention and energy. Very rarely does a business succeed because you said “yes” to a single thing. You can safely turn down a speaking gig or summit invitation because you need to focus on your work.
- Heads down, work mode if your best friend. Read Cal Newport’s Deep Work. In order to create or do the specific work you do, you’ve got to tune out everything else for long stretches of time. That means turning off social media notifications or not working with your email program open. I recommend that you do your best to have at least a day or two a week without calls, meetings or interruptions.
- You can define your own measure of success, since your company is just you. Maybe that means more time in your garden or hiking. Or longer vacations with your family. It may have little to do with revenue or quarterly earnings reports. You can also decide what “enough” is. For example: if you know you only need a certain amount of revenue to cover your costs and savings for a year, once you hit that, you can take very long breaks from your work (and come back refreshed/energized).
- Repurpose as much as you can. Being one person means the more you can reuse things, the faster you can get work done. For instance, you could turn a blog post you wrote into several pull-quotes for social media, then syndicate the same content across the web (guest posts or Medium), then turn that content into a podcast episode, then use that content and go deeper with it as a chapter in a book. Same content, used many times.
- Create products that relate to each other and appeal to the same audience. It’s far easier to sell something new to to someone who’s already bought something from you (if they loved it). The more you can continue to hit the same audience, the more trust you’ll have built with them and the easier it’ll be to sell them something new. That said, if you’re starting from scratch, start with services, not products.
- Related to the last bullet: don’t give up on products too early. Relaunch everything you create multiple times, because there’s always probably a) people who don’t know about it, b) people who know about it but didn’t buy it yet and c) people who are just waiting for it launch again with a new discount, promotion, bonus or some other form of urgency.
These are just a few of the ideas off the top of my head to grow your business without growing your business.
The good thing, if it’s your work, you get to call the shots and figure out what actually matters to you. It may not be what matters to other businesses or business owners.
The difference between tactics and strategy in marketing
The internet is full of tips, tricks and tactics for how to get ahead with your online business. But there’s a difference between strategy and tactics. For example, these would be tactics:
- “Have you tried a welcome mat? Those can 10x your subscribers!”
- “Did you add social media buttons before and after your content? Those can double your shares!”
- “Are you using embedded tweets for your social proof? Those can skyrocket trust!”
The problem with these tips is that they’re surface level. And this is why most people think marketing doesn’t work. Because if you just focus on surface level shit, you’ll, at-best, only see surface level results.
Having a mishmash of try-and-fail tactics isn’t doing what you’re marketing any justice at all. In fact, it’s probably doing more harm than good.
Yet most people lack a strategy for their marketing efforts – the “why” of what they’re doing, as it relates to a bigger plan. Those tactics listed above aren’t necessarily wrong or evil or ineffective, but they should be the final action that results from both a greater plan and a reason for them happening in the first place.
Instead of chasing the latest and greatest tactics, consider first creating a strategy for your marketing. As in, what’s the ultimate purpose and objective for what you’re doing? Who do you want to reach?And how will what you’re doing actually and honestly help them?
A strategy is the vision, or guiding light, for every action you take to get word out about what you do. A tactic on the other hand, is one single action you take. Tactics can come and go, based on trends or algorithms, whereas a strategy tends to stay the same.
Strategy is why you do something, tactics are how you accomplish each step you want to take. The two definitely have to work in tandem, but things tend to fall completely apart if you’re only trying single, isolated tactics. Just like they would if you had a strategic plan but didn’t do a damn thing to implement any part of it.
- Become a known industry leader in teaching web designers how to charge more money for their services.
- Build a targeted mailing list of designers, organized by where they currently are in their journey and what they’ve purchased.
- Drive designers to specific landing pages through outreach and interviews.
- Use a welcome mat for first-time visitors only (i.e. don’t keep showing it over and over again to returning visitors) with a great offer to join the mailing list.
- Create content that’s easily shared on social media and on platforms like Designer News, Hacker News, graphic design subreddits, etc.
See the difference? A strategy is the broad strokes of what you want to accomplish, and tactics are the specific things you try to get there. Without a strategy all those tactics are ok, but there’s nothing guiding them.
Strategies are often sequential too, and work backwards:
- I want to sell more of my product.
- To sell more, I need a bigger mailing list of the specific type of people that would want to buy it.
- To build a bigger list, I need to drive more targeted traffic to my site.
- To drive more targeted traffic and audience growth, I need to show up in places those people are currently spending their time.
- To show up in those places, I need to do outreach so I can be interviewed or create guest content.
And so on, down the line. You start with your objectives and then work backwards through the steps. And then each step can have a tactic associated with it. And of course, if that tactic doesn’t work, which happens with tactics sometimes, the strategy doesn’t change, just the tactic does. This is where marketing can be fun, and it’s why you don’t hate marketing, you hate what you think marketing is (it’s a process, not a sleaze-ball tactic).
The other benefit of having an actual strategic reason for the tactics you employ is that you can focus on one at a time. If you’re trying to do everything at the same time, you’ll run into several problems.
First, it’s hard to measure specifics when you’re trying everything. Which of the tactics are producing the results you’re seeing? If you aren’t able to tell, then how will you ever learn what works best for your business?
Second, it’s hard to do anything well when you’re trying to do everything. A good plan implies simplicity, and simplicity requires focus. Do one thing at a time as it makes sense for where you’re at in your strategic process.
Thankfully, doing one thing at a time, in a specific order, means you can create a process from it. That process can then be reused over and over—with both new products and relaunches of existing products. The process itself becomes a product asset, which you can then automate parts of.
So before you start trying (or keep trying) random marketing tactics you read on industry blogs, think about why you’re doing them. Are they a part of your overall strategic plan? If you don’t have an answer for that, start thinking about your strategy first.
You don’t hate marketing, you hate what you think marketing is
What is marketing? I want to talk to you about that, because a lot of folks wrongly assume they understand it (and then dismiss it because they think it isn’t important or isn’t for them).
For a while, I wrongly assumed I knew what it was as well.
When I started my business, I was like, “Meh, marketing is for people that lack talent, because if they had any talent, they wouldn’t need to promote what they did.”
But then I started noticing a trend with the people I worked with.
For nearly 20 years I helped businesses create websites to sell something (from services to products to a punk record label). This gave me really rad insights into how businesses of all sizes and successes worked.
Some of my clients had marketing plans that were some variation of this:
- Hire an expensive web designer (me!) to create a website that looked really great.
- Setup a newsletter and social media accounts.
- Add products they had spent years creating in secret (because they didn’t want anyone to steal their ideas).
- Launch the site, and then go looking for an audience to sell those existing products to. (Square peg in a round hole anyone?)
- Ask me to change the colours and fonts every few months because their products weren’t selling, and they figured it was colours and fonts that were the problem.
- Create a new product in private, because the first didn’t sell well, and then try to find an audience for it.
- Growth-hack (they don’t know what it means but they’ve heard people use the term).
I stopped working with these clients because they’d eventually run out of money. And then, once I noticed the glaring trend in doing business like this, I didn’t even let those types of clients hire me ever again because I didn’t want them to waste their money (I’ve only ever enjoyed making money from folks who get a real benefit from what I do). Their list of “wants to have” overlapped with what was actually needed (this is bad).
On the other hand, some of my clients had marketing plans that were some variation of this:
- Prior to hiring me, they spent a year or more talking to their audience, learning what made them tick, and helping them as often as possible through content, paid one-on-one services, consulting or coaching, etc.
- They listened to what their audience was gladly paying them for and begging them to create.
- Then they’d hire me to design them a website for that specific group of people and with a very specific purpose and goal in mind (not just to look great).
- They’d launch their product (and new site) after months of getting their audience pumped up about it.
- They’d make a bunch of money, then hire me again when they had a new product or new audience that they’d created – only after a long period of talking to and listening to the people who were begging them to create it.
These clients were the ones that never went away, in the best possible way. I ended up working with these clients for 5 years, 10 years, even 18 years!
Once I started to notice this pattern, it made me only want to work with clients like that. It also helped me realize that if I was going to make my own products (I was strictly a freelancer at this point), that I’d have to create a similar process.
I learned so much from these clients that it shaped how I went about creating products. But, since I’m both stubborn and egotistical, it wasn’t until I tried creating products in my own way – with some variation of the first type of clients (that’s a story for another time though) – that I realized how smart their plan was (the latter one).
From there, I started to develop my own process, then tested and refined it with each new project and each new launch until I had a process that worked.
So, here’s where a lot folks go wrong with how they think marketing works. And let me remind you before we dive in, the way you think something works is typically correct.
If you think marketing is stupid or unnecessary or something you tried once by attempting a single tip you read on some thought-leader website, then you’ll be 100% correct. However, if you assume that maybe the reason marketing isn’t working for you is because you’ve been thinking about it completely wrong, well then my friend, read on.
Marketing is a process
Marketing isn’t the same as telling people to “buy” or pitching what you’ve made. That’s only a singular portion of what marketing is, because: marketing is a damn process.
The final step of that process is asking people to buy what you’ve made. But unless you’ve done the other work to lead up to that step, it won’t be that productive of a step.
Marketing is simple(ish)
Understanding what marketing is, is simple. Applying what marketing is, is only complex in that it can require a lot of steps to do correctly.
But really, marketing is listening to what people want from you and then creating it. Step one: find an audience, step two: make them what they’re asking you to create.
It’s only made out to be complicated if someone is trying to sell you a marketing product. Even my own marketing course – it’s not complex or hard to understand at all – is just a series of stackable steps. I purposely made it and market it as simple.
Marketing requires trust and consistency
Being smart about marketing is simply using trust and empathy with a specific group of people by consistently communicating with them.
It’s no coincidence that I send out a weekly newsletter and my products sell well. Nor is it a coincidence that the Being Boss ladies have released over 100 full-length podcast episodes (and many more “mini”sodes) and make 6-figures in sponsorships per year.
In both cases we regularly communicate with and listen to our audience. We read the emails people send us, we do surveys for product ideas and spend our time completely immersed in the groups we serve.
Trust, like in any other aspect of life, comes from honesty and is built over time. It’s not built with a single sales pitch email or one carefully written landing page that a person sees once. It’s an ongoing relationship.
Yes, it takes work. But the result is being both mentally and financially sustained by what we create.
The smartest marketers spend time communicating with their audience even when they don’t have something to sell. Especially when they don’t have something to sell, staying top of mind with their audience only makes it easier to sell once they do.
Don’t just scratch marketings surface
A lot of people have a hard time with marketing because they only scratch the surface of it without an overall game plan or strategy.
Adding a popup to your site isn’t marketing, no more than adding share icons to your blog posts are a social media strategy.
Single tips on websites don’t do shit unless they fall into a bigger plan or process.
You can’t encourage signups by interrupting someone’s reading on your site unless you’ve got a good reason to. And regardless of how big or how many share icons you put with your content, if the content isn’t worth sharing by the specific people you wrote it for, no one’s going to click those buttons.
Marketing isn’t one thing that you try one time. It’s an entire process that needs to start when you have an idea for an audience you want to serve and doesn’t ever end unless you close shop.
Marketing needs to be measured
There’s no way to know if part of your process is doing well or failing unless you’ve got data to measure and then act on.
Just seeing a “sale” doesn’t paint the whole picture. Where did the sale come from? Social? Your newsletter? A direct link from another website? It’s hard to know where to put your time and efforts when you aren’t sure what’s currently paying off. Who on your email list already owns what you’re selling? You probably don’t want to pitch your product to previous buyers, especially if you’re offering a deep discount (like a black friday sale). Just last week I was sent an email from a really smart dude who reaches a list of 200,000 people with an offer to buy a $150 product on sale for $50 – the problem was I had bought it for $150 the day before. If I hadn’t gotten that email I wouldn’t have even known about the sale. If he had just segmented out previous buyers, there’d have been zero complaints.
Tracking who on my own list bought or didn’t buy something is the main part of my marketing launch strategy. It’s how I figure out what my best sales channels are. Same with knowing what calls to action produce the best results by A/B testing them.
For me, the way I created and sold products absolutely changed for the better when I started to measure everything. I was then able to figure out which of those measurements were important and which were useless or vanity metrics.
For example: having 100,000 on your mailing list might sound great, but if your open rate is 1% and your click rate is 0.00001%, then your list is pretty much useless (for non-mathys, that’s 1 person clicking per email). Or, you may have 50,000 followers on Instagram, but none of them buy anything you create. If it doesn’t help sell anything, then it’s just a number that looks good on (digital) paper.
Those are great vanity metrics that seem important but accomplish nothing. Unless you can take what you’ve measured and act on it in some meaningful way, all it will do is make you feel good (or badly).
Marketing isn’t pushing circles through square holes
Most people try really hard to push people towards buying what they make (like my first group of clients). I’m sure there are ways to do that, but it can be really hard and even feel defeating because you’ve assumed so many things and created a product based on those assumptions.
It’s easier to let people pull themselves towards what you create because they’ve been asking you for it for a while. Then you assume far less because people are telling you exactly what to make.
It’s so much easier to build a product or even a business around demand than build a product and then try to create demand for it.
To accomplish the former, it requires what I said earlier: trust and empathy. Trust in that people trust you enough to ask for your expertise/help – which happens when you talk to them often (typically through content you create). Then, because you’ve been talking to, listening and noticing what you audience has been saying, you’re empathetic towards their struggles and know exactly how to help.
Marketing is a rallying flag
Think of your own marketing plan as a proclamation.
You’re the ruler of your business, the king or queen if you will, so you get to make the rules. You get to set what’s acceptable or not-acceptable. You get to choose how far you go with creating urgency or using tactics.
Your business, your rules for marketing. You get to set the tone, style and methods for going through and creating your marketing plan with your audience.
What is marketing? Hopefully the above summed it up
That’s it. That’s why you may be wrong in how you’re thinking about marketing, and how it might be hurting your business. I was wrong when I started out too.
I assumed marketing wasn’t important because I had no idea what it really meant to market something.
Oh, and if you’re keen to learn more, check out my course called Grow Your Audience. If you’re a freelancer who’s thinking about products or a product-maker who’s struggling with products, then I can help. The course will walk you through a process you can use in your own business, in your own way/words, to learn how to use marketing correctly.
No shortcuts, no gimmicks, no bullshit. Just lessons, expertise and examples of how to grow your audience and make great products they’re begging you for.
Not everything needs to be paid back in full
One time, some thought leader somewhere wrote an article that logicked things out like this (and called it influencer marketing):
- Business is all about relationships.
- Relationships are give and take.
- Therefore, give X and expect X back in return, paid in full. Keep doing X for others, and they owe you X in return!
- Your business grows because everyone that owes you a favour pays you back in full and you benefit greatly from those relationships!
Which, in theory, makes sense, or at least can make sense… sometimes. Both sides want to feel fulfilled by the relationship and feel like things are equal. And if every relationship you’re a part of is you giving 100% and the other sides giving 0%, then you should probably consider the type of people you’re working with. No one should be a sucker or always on the giving end.
The problem is when people go into these business relationships, thinking solely how they can give X at the start, simply because they need X in return from that person right after.
Some bro that I’ve never spoken to emails me, vaguely thanks me for the work I do online, and tells me that he wrote an article about me that links to my site. I reply and say that I’m honoured and thanks for doing that. One week later, the same bro emails me and asks me to write about him and his work.
Or, someone tweets about an article of mine, I thank them, and they ask me to tweet one of theirs.
Or, someone mentions me in a sentence in their blog post and emails me to share said blog post with my list or followers.
Or, and this was the worst one of the year, someone invites me onto their podcast and we have a great chat. Then, when the episode airs, the host emails me to tell me how much work and money he spent on the episode, so I should really share it with everyone that listens to me because he put so much work and money into my interview. I’m getting so much exposure from him now (apparently), my own audience should be eager to hear this conversation too, so I need to share it with them. 4 follow up email ensue about me sharing the show with my peeps. Then I want to invent a time machine, go back and not do the interview…
Yup, this makes me sound like an ungrateful asshat. But if this is how business works now, I’m opting out – ungrateful asshat or not.
Not because I’m somehow above helping others or that I’m above returning favours – but because I didn’t opt into these tit-for-tat relationships in the first place. I’m happy, honoured and overwhelmed sometimes that people are sharing my work. But when that sharing feels like I’m now obligated to share back? Ew. EW.
I always assume (to my own detriment) that people do things for me because they want to. And if they didn’t want to, they wouldn’t do them. I don’t like owing people favours. I’m actually very careful in my life to rarely allow that to happen. I hate obligation, it feels like the type of work I don’t enjoy doing. Whereas giving and serving others? That’s the type of work that I love to do.
If I do something for someone, I’d rather just do it for them because I felt they earned it, or needed it, or because what I want in return is simply to feel like I helped in some small way. All without them asking for anything. I get my karmic payment back for giving or doing things for others because it makes me feel good to do things for others without telling them that they owe me. I don’t need the favour returned because I’ve already been paid in full by feeling good.
“Someday – and that day may never come – I’ll call upon you to do a service for me.” – Don Corleone (the original growth-hacker?)
Genuine business relationships aren’t a fucking growth hack.
And if that’s how you see them, you’re missing out on actual, real connections with other people. Not everything in business needs to be a two-sided deal or an equal transaction.
I hate being in business relationship with people where it feels like we’ve got to keep score. That’s too much work, too much obligation and too much stress. I’d rather just help people who need helping without concern to whether I’m ever paid back in kind.
The less we expect of others because we feel like we’re entitled to something back from them, the lighter our lives will be. Because then we can be fully in service to others, solely for the sake being good fucking people.