The astroturf is always greener
Personal growth online seems a lot like simply going all in on anything trendy:
Working for yourself is better than someone else!
No, info products are better than client services!
No, mailing lists are better than info products!
No, webinars are better than mailing lists!
No, SaaS apps are better than webinars!
No, PaaS will destroy all SaaS and salt the earth in its path!
(Pardon me while I proceed to mix too many metaphors.)
The trend here is that we all succumb to the idea that the problem we’ve got is our delivery method. As in, the “how” of using our skills in business.
As someone who’s tried all the things (except the last one – I had to Google what comes after SaaS apps – no idea what a PaaS is), I’ve fallen into the same trap to some degree. And not the lure of easy money, but rather, the lure of something new. Obviously this has led to my product tribble problem.
Think about this. Whether it’s selling software or a service like web design, it’s essentially the same: someone’s giving you money because they want what you’ve got. Sure, volume changes, scale can change, what’s delivered changes, and payment structures change, but it’s still a trade. Your ideas, information and technology for someone else’s money. And money can be made doing pretty much anything.
And yet, we continue to leapfrog from one method to the next, thinking… hoping… that the new thing we’ve just jumped to will be much better than what we were jumping from.
Someone shouts, “ONLINE COURSES!” and we all drop what we’re doing and run headlong towards those (paying oodles for online course platforms, even courses about making online courses!).
Another person screams “WEBINARS!” and we push our online courses aside like they’re instantly total garbage and embrace everything webinar (buying fancy mics and webcams in the process).
I’m not saying any of those methods are wrong or bad either. But, not a single one of them are a guaranteed way to deliver our skills to a paying audience.
We’re smarter than this, and yet it still trips us up. We think, “maybe the reason X isn’t selling is because it’s not on trend!” And then we summarily abandon our work again and again for the shot at the next internet Gold Rush.
Maybe if we change our delivery method, we’ll be more on trend, or make more money or reach more people or be able to shoot rainbow lasers out of our finger tips that turn everything they touch into delicious jelly beans! (Maybe that last one only happens in my own mind…)
But it’s never the delivery method that takes someone over the top. Seth Godin’s mailing list runs on Feedblitz. The top podcast lives on iTunes with every single other podcast in existence. Some of the best books I’ve read have been turned into some of the worst webinars I’ve watched.
I also don’t think that what’s gone from on-trend to off-trend necessarily becomes a horrible option. I know loads of folks who work for a company and are much better off than if they worked for themselves. I also know loads of people who still do client services like web design, writing and coding. Or folks that still actually write books! They don’t want courses or software companies. They’re happy where they’re at and I’m truly stoked for them.
While we might think jumping ship to something new is better or easier, I actually think it’s much more difficult to do. First, you have to learn the delivery method and probably build something (like a course or sometimes even software). Second, you’ve now got to compete with everyone else who just dropped what they were doing to try this new trendy thing. Third, if what you were trying to sell with one delivery method wasn’t working, chances are without making it fundamentally better, it’s still not going to sell well in a different format.
I’m not saying we should all stay in our lanes either.
Personal growth happens when we take chances or try new things or see what happens when we turn everything on its head. I just think it’s worth examining why, before making a leap across a lane of traffic to the next thing. Are we jumping to a new trend of delivering what we do simply because it’s popular or new or has potential to make us easy money?
There is no legal, easy money (and even most illegal things aren’t that easy if you consider jail time or being shot or something gangster-related). There’s also no easy one thing you can change and instantly be better off. Whether it’s client work or courses or software or anything else, if what you do is done with quality, needed by the people who’ll gladly give you money for it and helpful—then you’re good. So good. Experiment, play and get uncomfortable, for sure, but sometimes the shiniest new toy in the toy store isn’t what you’d like to spend your time playing with.
Absolutism can absolutely ruin your business
There are certain things in life that one can consider absolute. Like knowing you need air to breath. Or, that if you step off a 41st storey of a building, you’re going to fall, really, really quickly. Or, that platypodes are not only super fucking weird creatures, but the pluralization of their species name is also pretty badass (and is apparently interchangeable with the word platypi). But are there really business absolutes?
Most business mistakes happen because we assume something is a fact, when really, most things aren’t (they’re just ideas enough people feel are true).
But business advice holds no absolute truths, just a bunch of “probably”s, “maybe”s and “one time this worked for me”s. Maybe this idea you have will work out. If you do the work, follow what the experts say will help, then things might work out in your favour.
If you type words into the internet, money will absolutely come out!
Except it doesn’t work that way. Or at least, rarely. And not because some absolute business truth was followed—more than likely that sort of success happens specifically because no absolutes were followed at all.
Business is an experiment. If it wasn’t, everyone’s businesses would be profitable all the time. And experimenting implies an outcome is unknown. Even when it comes to how you “feel” about something in business. It’s hard to absolutely say “Well, I would never do that” or “that’s not how I run my business” since things change. Minds change. Your stance on what’s good or bad changes. Not because you’re a wishy-washy rubber band of a human being, but because as a business owner, you evolve, learn, adapt, grow and play with ideas.
I’ve said pretty publicly that I’ve never had a Facebook account. And now I have a business one (oops, I deleted it a few days after I published this). I quit Medium so publicly that it was written about, and then I started publishing a few pieces on my Medium account again a few weeks ago. I even assumed I couldn’t be a writer because I wasn’t a writer (but then I wrote 5 books). I also assumed that I was an awful speaker, and now I host a couple podcasts that people actually listen to (which I still find freaky).
All because I challenged what I assumed to be true.
But those were just assumptions that were true at one particular moment. And they were only true until they weren’t true anymore. And for no reason other than I wanted to see, “So what will happen if I try X” or, “What will happen if I play with X again…” or, “What if I ignore all thought leader advice on this subject and try X…”
If I hadn’t realized that nothing in business (or life) is absolute, I’d have never written any books, created products, become a designer or started a newsletter. We collectively assume that most things are absolutes in our work because we simply haven’t questioned them enough. We often take what others say as absolute. When really, it may have just been something they tried one time, and it worked, and we’re assuming a data-set of one is valid (hint: it’s not).
Science would laugh (if science could laugh) at any findings if we only tested a theory one time or believed a theory to be true because someone said it on Twitter. And further, even science doesn’t hold absolute truths for very long, otherwise the world would still be flat and Pluto would still be a planet (poor little Pluto).
So it’s not a matter of there being absolutes in your business that shouldn’t ever be questioned. It’s more a matter of remembering that everything about your business is an experiment, and all that matters is which experiments you’d like to try to prove/disprove today.
The advice gold rush
We’re currently experiencing an advice gold rush. Everyone is buying up digital land and staking a claim on some expertise they’ve got that will quadruple your audience, monetize your passions and help you receive 104,355,974 visitors to your blog, all while riding a horse and eating a 7-course meal (the fifth course will truly shock you!).
The problem with this situation is much like the real Gold Rush: it’s mostly hype and bullshit, while a few people get rich off the misconceptions of the general public. You buy your own slice of land, pan for gold, and end up with a bunch of rocks, dirt as well as a hefty mortgage.
Advice isn’t inherently bad or evil. What I dislike is everyone’s rush to move away from doing things or making things and into peddling advice instead.
Advice is actually harder to sell than simply doing creative work anyway. Advice requires a critical mass of belief (otherwise known as domain expertise or authority). Yet we rush headlong towards it, hoping we’ll strike gold at any minute.
My friend Sean Blanda wrote a great piece about the Bullshit Industrial Complex and how too many people are pushing their opinions on topics, not because they know and understand the topics, but because they’ve read about them, from someone else, who was quoting someone else.
Sure, we can blame content marketing and a global push to create more and more content at any price for causing people to run out of topics they fully understand and move into topics they think are popular and write about those in a series of pseudo-motivational quotes and tired business parables.
Build your audience!
Grow your revenue!
Decrease bounce rates!
Double your mailing list!
Use Pinterest to drive Facebook to your Twitter account that’s full of SnapChats!!
Which could all be renamed as: I don’t know how to do these things, but I read about them one time in a Medium article with a quote from Richard Branson!
It’s a snake, made out of 💩 eating its own shitty tail, in the shape of an infinity sign. And collectively, we’re buying into the hype and clicking, reading, sharing.
I wonder how many people take into account the end person consuming their advice? Or if it’s just a game to build themselves up on the back of more clicks, follows and subscribes. How much advice is simply warped by time, opinions or quirks?
There’s no harm in fully immersing yourself in your craft – not just to further your knowledge, skills and experience, but to truly figure out your own personal take on what you do or the industry you’re a part of.
The worst part is sometimes we inadvertently end up in the Bullshit Industrial Complex ourselves. It’s a slow but slippery slope that typically starts with “If I could just reach more people, I’d be set” and ends up with teaching a webinar about The 10 vaguest ways to become successful with passive income and hoping it converts like hell. (Note: I’d sign up to watch that.) And then we start believing our own bullshit.
There is such a fine line between knowing enough to be ready to dole out advice en masse and doubting yourself as a person who’s worthy of sharing. (I’d actually rather continue to doubt myself and my authority than believe my own bullshit.)
I’m not nearly immune either—I’ve been on both sides of the line and had to reel myself back and reconsider why I really do what I do several times in my career.
Before taking or following any sort of advice, it’s important to consider a few things:
- Why is someone giving you advice? Is it to further their own industry standing, to prime you into buying something, or to actually help you with some first-hand experience?
- Are they taking complex or uncontrollable outcomes (like “success” or “profits” or “marketing”) and boiling them down into a simple list?
- Are they giving advice for the sake of advice, based on other advice they’ve read? E.g. does their article simply quote other articles?
- Is the purpose of what they’re doing for them to look better, or is it to help you?
- Do they take into account what their advice can do for someone else, both in it working or in it not working?
- Are they speaking their own truth? Or are they regurgitating tired industry advice?
To be clear, this isn’t an attempt to vanquish BuzzFeed-style listicles forever or put business coaches out of business. I actually think that everyone has a voice worthy of sharing and that everyone has something they can teach another person. What I’m speaking about here is people moving away from their own voice, their own thoughts, their own expertise and into spewing words to get an “AS SEEN ON” logo for their homepage or make a quick buck or add “best-selling author” to their Twitter bio.
Write, speak, share. But think about why you’re doing those things. Is it because you want more authority for the sake of authority (or for the sake of higher speaking fees)? Or is it to help others with what you’ve actually learned? The former may net short-term gains, but I don’t see it working out over the span of a career. Not in terms of sustaining your business and definitely not in terms of being able to look at yourself in the mirror and not wanting to vomit a little.
So before you go out and buy up all the land you can’t afford, in the hopes that gold will be tucked away in a stream, consider working the land you’ve already got, even if it’s small and without gold, and perhaps grow something you can be proud of (like squash or celery).
I found your passion
I’m pretty sure I found my passion/true calling too.
It was hiding at the back of my fridge the whole time, behind a jar of pickles. The reason I hadn’t been able to follow my passion sooner is because a jar of pickles was keeping it from me. You see, I’m not very passionate about eating pickles, so I left them there, covering up my true passion from view.
Once I found it though (and threw out the jar of pickles, I’m pretty sure they expired), I was all set. No more boring work, stress, unhappiness… it was just pure contentment, 100% of the time.
If only it worked that way. If only we could magically find our passion one day, follow it and achieve pure, unending bliss.
Trying to find your passion is a recipe for disaster – or at best, a recipe for horrible disappointment (note: the recipe includes pickles). What if you can’t find it? What if you find it and then a few days later you realize that wasn’t it at all?
I don’t think we have one true calling. Or two. Or a pickle jar full of them (according to Google, the average pickle jar has 15 pickles).
I also don’t think there’s a single passionate calling that we can find one day, as if it was hidden until that exact moment, that will turn our lives into the best ever.
Instead, I think what’s better is that we just find a place where we can make a difference. And, making a difference is fairly easy. First, you just have to leave things better than you found them. Second, you have to leave yourself better than when you started.
Making a difference can be anything from collecting garbage, to serving coffee, to coaching billionaires, to raising children. That’s it. No big “quit your job and move to Bali to make six figures of passive income a day while surfing”. Just you, doing something that holds your attention and serves others.
Passion is a fickle flame that burns brightly in one moment and is snuffed out the next.
We tend to see only the best in others and the worst in ourselves. So we see others doing something we think we want to do as well and assume their lives are peaches and rainbows (fact: those two things are the opposite of pickles). When in reality, their lives are probably full of the same shit as our own… sometimes stress, occasionally unhappiness, mostly hard work and unknown outcomes.
I’m passionate about what I do, but not always. Sometimes I want to punch my life in the gut. Sometimes I dance around my kitchen because I’m so stoked that my life is the way it is (my wife always wants to film me doing this because she says it’ll make me famous on the internet). Sometimes I get so stressed out I have to walk away and keep walking until I get a little perspective (walking is surprisingly good for that).
I’ve never simply done something because I want to “do what I love”. I just like being helpful. And I really like making money being helpful. Sometimes the work is difficult, boring, monotonous or stressful. But when I think I can make an impact, based on my skills and experience, that’s more than likely what I’m going to do.
As Seth Godin says, it’s not so much the where, it’s the how.
Truly passionate people find a place where they can make an impact, regardless of their life circumstances. Regardless of finding one true calling. Regardless of waiting until the stars align in their favour. Regardless of whether or not they finally look behind that jar of pickles in their fridge.
I’m mostly motivated by anger.
This makes me sound like a bit of a Jerky McBoatFace, or at least like someone who’s rarely happy. But I assure you, that’s not the case at all.
My favourite gif in the whole, wide world is this:
(Even though I don’t know a word of German, I think Martina Hill is the most brilliant comedian ever.)
Anger is extremely motivating.
Sometimes it gets me out of bed in the morning. Sometimes it gets me from idea to launch. Sometimes it drives me to do better, to create more, to BE better.
To back up for a second, let’s clarify something: there’s a difference between HULK SMASH, off the rails, screaming violent rages and a burning in the gut that makes every fibre of your being ache to change whatever it is you’re mad about.
I get angry at others since I know they can do better (because people are smarter than they sometimes act) and I get angry at myself for the same reason.
I did well in school because I was mad at the other kids that picked on me and wanted to do something better than them. I came up with Creative Class because I was angry that all of zero schools taught people the business of freelancing and loads of talented creative folks didn’t know enough about running a business. I poke at internet marketing and most personal growth articles because I get pissed off that smart people think lazy solutions will fix complicated problems.
Anger is energy.
It’s most often thought of as aggressive and awful, but really, that’s not always the case. Anger != aggression. In fact, most of the time, anger isn’t expressed as aggression at all.
Bad anger leads to violence, aggression and sometimes worst of all, inaction. It goes against my personal belief in ahimsa, and is not ever a road I want to go down. Good anger, on the other hand, works to your benefit because action is attached. It’s not violent or aggressive at all. No one is hurt (not even you).
Consider this scenario: you’re pissed off because you don’t have any clients for your business. Nothing changes because you aren’t actually doing anything to change the situation that made you mad in the first place. You do nothing about it, other get more pissed off.
Now consider the same scenario: you’re pissed off because you don’t have any clients for your business. Yet instead of just making you pissed, it lights a fire under your ass and you start hustling by cold-emailing 10 potential leads every morning, refining your pitch and positioning every afternoon and evaluating what worked or didn’t every evening. You’re no longer angry because you’re hard at work moving towards a positive outcome. And more than likely, all that action leads to positive results which you can’t be mad about.
So bad anger, or destructive anger doesn’t get you anywhere. Sometimes it feels safer to stay mad because that means you don’t have to do anything about it. I’ve totally been there.
Anger needs to be acknowledged and acted on, in order for it to be released. This is good anger or constructive anger. We just have to figure out what action best suits us and the situation at hand – and then act.
Anger is a tool.
Or it can be. If we use it properly, actually own it and then act on it to affect positive change in our own lives and in the lives of others.
In the end, it’s not about trying to train ourselves to never get mad. That sounds like a recipe for disaster resulting in ripped shirts and green skin (please don’t get angry at me Stan Lee).
It’s more about what we do once we get angry and if we take action towards a positive outcome.
There is a war going on for your mind
An old, often-told story goes something like this:
A boy said to his grandfather, “It feels as though there’s a fight between two vicious wolves raging inside of me.”
“The first wolf is full of anger, self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness. The second is full of hope, empathy and courage.”
The grandfather said, “That same fight is going on inside all of us.”
The boy thought about it for a minute and then asked, “Well grandfather, which wolf will win?”
The old man simply replied, “The one you feed.”
The point is that we can’t ever banish or remove the first wolf, since we can’t exist in pure bliss (except maybe through ingesting a whole lot of drugs). That wolf is always there, always ready, always watching us. The fight, and the wolves, are eternal.
We can’t simply will bad feelings to stop existing. They can’t be excised from our being. Nor should we even want that (personally, I like being a well-rounded person with a gamut of emotions, not some fluffy PMA hippie).
What we can do is act in spite of these negative feelings. We can take those fears, those worries, those doubts and move forward anyway.
Is it scary? Hell yes. But consider what happens if we let the first wolf paralyze us. We do nothing, we accomplish nothing, we launch nothing. There’s no momentum or forward movement because all our time is spent feeling (and feeding) the big, bad wolf.
Besides, what do you accomplish by telling yourself you’re not worthy? What do you achieve by stopping yourself from trying something new before you even start?
Now, imagine that what the first wolf tells you isn’t true – that in fact you are worthy, ready and good enough. Instead of doubting yourself, you can try and learn new things, expand who and what you know, take risks and chances where some might actually pan out. Sounds pretty dang awesome if you ask me.
A lot of which wolf you feed comes down to ease. The first wolf is much, much easier to feed – he lives on cheap and quick fast food, whereas the second wolf only eats expensive whole, plant-based foods and has gluten and nightshade allergies.
It’s so much easier to do things like complain, begrudge, procrastinate, dismiss, put down or ignore. That’s the first wolf’s plan: to encourage the easier and seemingly better option. Those things take almost no energy because they don’t require real action of any kind.
It’s much harder, scarier and more time-consuming to do things like learn, teach, inspire, trust, listen or launch. The second wolf starts out with a huge deficit because of it. Those things take so much energy because they take effort, work, guts and momentum.
Either way, we end up believing the narratives we tell ourselves, based on which wolf we feed. Yes, feeding the second wolf is more difficult and requires action. But, it’s also how we get to enjoying our life and feeling proud of things we’ve done. We feed that wolf by trusting our guts, proceeding in spite of our fears and sharing what we create with the world.
PS: The wolf story came from either the Cherokee Nation or from Billy Graham’s The Holy Spirit: Activating God’s Power in Your Life. Source conflict aside, it’s still a great story to ponder deeply on a Sunday morning.
I think I’ve lost my mind
If you find it, let me know.
If it’s in a ditch somewhere, unable to get up by itself, give it a hand please. I’d appreciate it.
If it’s off learning how to become a ninja, just make sure it’s becoming the benevolent kind (not the kind that will karate chop good people 57 times before they hit the ground).
If it’s saving elephants from poachers, leave it be. It knows I’ve always wanted to do that and that’s pretty badass. I can live vicariously through it.
If it’s at a bar, remind it that I’m allergic to alcohol and to take it easy.
If you run into it at your favourite coffee shop early one Tuesday morning in November and you’re both feeling awkward that you’re meeting so far out of the usual context of my articles or podcast, then say hello politely, make one or two small-talk references about the weather and go about ordering your chai latte.
If you find it teaching rats new and exciting ways to eat and gather food in the subway system of your city, while being filmed, leave it alone—because that’s fucking awesome.
If you think you see my mind, call the number on the back of most (almond) milk cartons. There’s a small cash reward.
I’d like my mind back please.
• • •
Do you ever get a sense of dread or feel overwhelmed when you think about your list of what you need to do within a certain amount of time?
Here’s what happened. Last year, since most of my income came from products and not client work, I decided to take a break from freelancing—you know, a break from guaranteed and great money. In doing so, my brain went like this:
Finish up any/all client work.
Freak out about money and make as many products as possible.
Realize how much work is involved in making many products where the standards for quality are super high.
You’ll see, being on this mailing list, that Q1 of 2016 has a lot of products coming from me. I’ve been busy. Too busy. Stupidly busy, if I’m being honest.
I worry about overwhelming you with new things I’ve made (even though, really, there’s no pressure from me to buy anything that you don’t really want/need). I worry about the quality of the work, since I set sometimes-impossibly high standards for what I produce.
When I get stressed, I forget why I’m making these products in the first place: because I want to help folks and make a living. One of the things I value the most from being alive is being helpful and making things that help other people. And I lose sight of that when I’m in the weeds of my mind (or, when it runs away).
So, I let myself freak out for a few days. I lost my mind a little (and hopefully it was off doing something spectacular in it’s absence from me).
Once my mind found it’s way back to me, I was like, “GET IT TOGETHER MAN”. Because stress and overwhelm is not at all productive.
(Note: my mind has the voice of Ben Fong-Torres from Almost Famous.)
Then I made a list of what needs doing. From emails that need writing and scheduling to videos that need recording, I wrote out every single thing I need to do for every single launch. It was a big list too, since every launch is more than a single email, and comes with automation sequences, reminders and free samples.
Even though the list was scary, I felt a tiny bit better. Then I turned that list into a spreadsheet with dates and colour-coded what was already done and what needed doing by when. I listed out every task I need to complete between now and the end of March. It’s a long list, but I felt better knowing it was written down somewhere.
I transferred my stress and overwhelm from my mind (which isn’t a good place for it) to a digital document (which doesn’t give a shit if it’s holding my stress and overwhelm). Now those feels live there. And now I can get to work.
Most of the time we stress out about things because we haven’t started them yet or haven’t broken them down into smaller, accomplishable tasks that are planned out. And instead of working, we freak out.
Having something big that you need to do coming up in the future is less scary when there’s a plan in place. When you spreadsheet the shit out of something, you can stop worrying and thinking about it, because the entire plan doesn’t have to live just in your brain anymore. You don’t have to walk slowly and deftly with a cup of work that’s full to the brim.
If my mind decides to leave again, I’ll make sure it’s got a GPS tracking device attached to its ankle. Or, even better, I’ll make sure it deals with stress and overwhelm first, before they take over and force my mind into hiding again.
The 1% of a long-lasting career
Wanting a successful career is kind of myopic. Any career will have its highs and lows, times when you feel on top of the world and times when you feel like giving up.
Successful seems to imply there are no downs to the ups. Successful seems to imply that you actually figure shit out and it stays figured out.
Anyone who says they’ve figured it out is lying or has completely given up. Neither seems “successful”.
I care more about longevity than success. Longevity implies that at least some things are working, at least some of the time, with enough momentum for the good bits to outlast the bad bits. Longevity means not that what I’ve figured out will stay figured out but that I won’t ever stop trying to figure shit out.
“The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.”Rainer Maria Rilke
The reason I choose the career I have isn’t because it’s easy or simple. It’d be easier to work for someone else. It’d be simpler to do only one thing instead of many.
I do what I do because I crave the fight of challenging the unknown. Sometimes it kicks my ass. Sometimes I land a couple of good blows. Yet neither of us ever steps out of the ring.
A long-lasting career, at its absolute essence, comes down to three things:
1. What you can do
Obviously, how you apply the skills you’ve got (innate or learned) to the problems you solve for others is important. But it’s not enough to have skills. It’s how you use them and how you communicate the value of them to the people you want to get paid by. It’s not enough to be good at something you do for a living, you’ve got to make sure the people you want to get hired by understand both what you do and why they need it.
Never stop refining the skills you have and learning new ones. Ever.
2. Who you know
Business at any level is all about relationships. The more people you know and that know you, the wider your reach will be. Word of mouth and referrals account for much of the new business that happens in the world we live in. Even if you’re introverted like me, it’s important to get to know other people.
3. What sets you apart
(This is my favourite bit. It’s the hardest too.)
Regardless of your skillset or who you know, 99% of what you do is the same as your competition. Web designers are all skilled at web design. Writers all know how to write. The remaining 1% is unique to you. That’s what sets you apart.
The last 1% is how you stand out, differentiate, build an audience, establish a massive client roster, and become known. This is the most difficult to figure out and most scary to work on. Because it’s you — the real, honest, vulnerable you.
The more you work at your long career, the more you’ll realize that is why your career exists — people hire you because you’re you, and not just because of what you know how to do.
Longevity comes from working at those three things.
So never stop learning, exploring or building upon them.
Whose playground are you playing in?
The internet is basically a loosely associated group of playgrounds.
Every playground has its own rules, an owner, and a set of things you’re allowed to do.
Twitter let’s you share content, but no more than 140 characters at a time. Medium allows you to write long-form articles, but you have to abide by their formatting and they’re posted in their ecosystem.
In order to play in someone’s playground you have to give them some of your power and energy. A bit of you now exists in a place where you don’t have full control. Maybe it’s agreeing that they can use anything you post in their own advertising (like Facebook). Maybe it’s that your content can only exist in their system (like Instagram). Maybe in order to add something, you need to follow a strict set of rules (like Kickstarter).
Sometimes the playground’s owner takes their bouncy ball in the middle of a game and goes home forever (like Del.ico.us, Ping, Digg, Friendster, MySpace – they all closed shop and you can’t play there anymore).
There are pro’s to playing in other people’s playgrounds. Sometimes you can get more traction for what you create, sometimes they’ll do a bit of promotion for you, and sometimes you can even become the star of the playground (like when folks get famous on YouTube).
But the problem, or downside, is always the same: it’s not your playground and not your rules. They could always take their bouncy ball and go home in the middle of a game. You (and your revenue stream) could be banned from the jungle gym or monkey bars quickly, with anything from a terms and conditions update to a change in their revenue model (which excludes you making money).
Yet many people think the benefits of being on someone else’s playground are greater than they are.
I’ve heard 100’s of times that folks believe simply starting a Kickstarter campaign will somehow awaken a massive marketing machine to catapult their campaign to stretch goals (when a campaign passes its initial goal). Or that simply writing on Medium.com will bring them 1,000’s of new and adoring fans. When in reality, you only get out of a playground what you bring to it. And, like Facebook, they could start charging you to interact with the audience you’ve built and fostered.
Even writing guest articles (and yes, there are massive benefits) comes with limitations—the CTA at the bottom of each is probably to hook up with their social media accounts or sign up for their newsletter or buy their product.
I’m not saying we should keep our own bouncy balls and focus solely on building our own playgrounds. But I am saying there are inherent dangers in solely existing and building traction in someone else’s.
Existing in or building your audience in someone else’s playground should never be your primary strategy.
The internet lets you easily (and cheaply) make your own playgrounds. Mailing lists cost nothing to start (and scale as your audience scales) – MailChimp’s free for the first 2,000 subscribers. And a website costs next nothing to start – and allows you to use your own domain and hosting.
This way, you get to make your own rules. You get to decide who plays with your bouncy ball (your audience, your rat people) and who doesn’t (trolls and people that aren’t a good fit). This way, you get to keep your power and energy for yourself. This way, no one is the gatekeeper to your ideas or, more importantly, your audience.
Sure, you can play in other playgrounds. But always make sure you give clear directions with how to get to your own by linking to your newsletter and website when you guest post or add articles to content sites and that sort of thing.
The allure of other playgrounds, that already have lots of people using their jungle gym and interacting, is great. It’s hard (and far less fun) to play with your bouncy ball all by yourself. But if you want to ensure you’ve always got access to a bouncy ball and some killer monkey bars, you’ve got to be the one who owns them.
So, build your own playground. Make the best jungle gym ever. Fill the whole thing with the bounciest of balls. You have the ability to do so. Ensure that others will want to play by providing them with a ton of what they are eager for.
Does anyone remember laughter?
I get a lot of flack for my humour. Not for how bad it is, but because I use it at all. I’m supposed to be a professional!
One time Buzzfeed featured my site’s pop-up message because it was so “passive aggressive”. Which I thought was the coolest thing ever and went on to feature their quote about me on my own website—because Buzzfeed talked about me, and it had nothing to do with pizza rat!
Every week, there are folks who unsubscribe from my newsletter who think my advice and message are inappropriate because I use words like fart or unicorn in funny ways. Just last week someone told me, “Your advice is too silly and I’m looking for a leader.”
I get ALL CAPS emails from people who sign up for my mailing list for business tactics and are upset when they get my welcome message about robotic carrier pigeons and tattoos.
And I get it—humour can be easily misconstrued or misunderstood, especially when it’s dry or sarcastic. There are even language barriers that require more than just a little colloquial comprehension of the nuances of English to completely understand (just imagine how much I wouldn’t get a joke in Russian or Spanish). Even English-to-English doesn’t always translate right, look at Brits telling jokes about lorries or lifts to Americans.
But here’s the thing—dry, sarcastic humour is what makes me, me. In real life I joke around a lot more. And since I am my brand, my brand involves a bit of silliness. I would have to work harder and filter more to not include jokes in my writing and un-seriousness in my designs. So humour becomes both a differentiator for my brand and a line by which others can judge if they’re a fit to be part of my tribe.
When money’s involved we tend to think we have to be super professional and serious all the time. It seems like the safer bet. And sometimes it can be. But what I’ve found is that if you’re honestly yourself, even if money’s involved, and your honest self is silly, then it won’t hurt your business or sales.
I don’t want to take myself seriously all the time. The reason I work for myself and not someone else who could make rules is that I love the work I do. And I love it because I can be my weird and silly self and still be thought of as someone who knows what they’re doing/talking about.
That’s the paradox: the more we worry about seeming professional, the less professional we often seem. We can be professional and be silly. We can be professional and swear occasionally. We can be professional and be ourselves.
My friend Meg uses a topless ghost on the homepage of her agency website, and massive companies hire her design firm. She’s also one of the most awesome designers I know, which definitely helps.
When I asked her if she was worried about what potential clients would think of her ghost with boobs mascot, she told me her target audience is “happy companies” (meaning any company that is fighting to make the world a fun, friendlier, happier, healthier place). Meg realized early on that if she wanted to work with that type of company, that she had to put her own company out there in the same happy, friendly, fun way. Her agency isn’t interested in working with folks who’d be offended by something as fun as a topless ghost.
At the end of the day, there are a lot of similarities between what we do and what our competition does. Our products, sales tactics and ideas can be easily copied. But what can’t be simply swiped from a website are our personalities and our purpose behind doing what we do.
The long and short of it is that we can be professional and still be true to who we are and what we stand for. That doesn’t mean we should be 100% unfiltered, crazy-pants, wild in our businesses, but we can be smart about how we let our personalities shine through.
That’s really what makes us stand out. That’s what draws the right people towards us and sends the not right people screaming in the other direction.