It's nearly the end of February and I haven't completed my now annual 'What I Learned' post. That should tell you that one of the things I learned is how quickly time gets away from you.
If you're looking for a post where every problem has an answer with a pretty bright red bow on top then you should click the back button immediately. Because while 2013 was a crazy successful year, it was also messy and confusing.
Success Devours Time
I won't humble brag. It was a great year for the business. I moved many clients to retainers and wound up working with three top 50 web properties according to comScore. The work was interesting and challenging, revenue was up and I was more than comfortable financially.
Yet, success introduced new problems. If you'd like to play the smallest violin now, please go ahead. I get it. It feels strange to complain about success. Yet, here I am about to do that. Don't get me wrong, I don't want the opposite. But here is my reality.
More clients meant more client work. A lot more. The result? I'd had a choice. Dial down the time I spent learning or building the brand. When I got serious about the business back in 2010 my ratio of client work to learning and brand building was 50/50. For me, the choice was obvious.
I spent far less time building the brand. One only need look at the number of blog posts to see how my output diminished. Mind you, I made the most out of the blog posts I did manage to publish. But it was an anemic year in terms of output and that bothers me not just from a business perspective but because I enjoy writing.
Perfectionism Works (For Me)
Part of the problem is that I'm a perfectionist. I'd probably tell you I simply had "very high standards for the quality of my work" and I could even talk myself into believing that. But it probably looks a hell of a lot like perfectionism.
So at the beginning of 2013 I was hell bent on embracing the 'done is better than perfect' mantra. Jonathon Colman would be proud. But you know what? Didn't happen.
Not only that, but all the evidence seemed to indicate that spending that extra time to make my work that much better ... paid off. Even if I was late delivering the work (which happened more often than I'd like), the quality of the work was such that it carried the day. The delay was suddenly explainable given the quality and success of the recommendations.
Yes, you still have to produce results. And I did.
Having a sales funnel is important. You don't want a client or two go dark and suddenly be struggling. I had this mentality as I spun up the business. Yet, in 2013 I was actively turning away business. This sounds and feels ugly since I know others aren't in the same situation.
Most of the clients I wound up taking on were through referrals. Why did I get these referrals? Because of the quality of my work. Work that I'd taken a lot of time to get just right. That's what I've learned. Great work creates ... more work.
There are other factors involved in this sales windfall. One is the fact that I've created an sort of A-Team perception.
I don't blog on traditional platforms to gain exposure, though you might find me referenced there (and I'm very grateful to those authors for doing so.) Hopefully I continue to create content that merits these links from talented professionals.
But the clients I want are looking for the person behind the scenes. The guy who isn't on all those crazy industry blogs you can't trust. Now, that's not how I think of them but that's how a lot of the people I want to work for think about them. So instead they ask their colleagues if they know someone they can trust.
Scarcity is a powerful marketing tactic.
In addition, there's a supply and demand issue in the digital marketing industry, with way more demand than (good) supply. This was driven home to me in a conversation with Mike Ramsey at SMX Advanced last year.
He asked me whether I had ever done any traditional advertising for the business. Never, I responded. He then asked me if I could name another industry where you could build a successful business without advertising. I couldn't.
So what this all adds up to is that things fall off the plate. You can only juggle so many things. You're response time to email goes up. You deliver work late. The smaller requests for your time may go ignored.
It makes me feel fucking awful.
I still try very hard to get back to as many people as possible. To answer questions. To respond to every blog comment. Yet, there are only so many hours in the day and I'm not a workaholic. My wife might disagree with that statement since I work 7 days a week. But it's not 10 hours a day. And it's on my own schedule. If I want to binge watch House of Cards I can do that.
Right now I simply have to acknowledge that I'm going to drop the ball here and there. I'm not Superman.
Don't Think About Doing It
One of the ways I was able to become more productive was to catch myself when I began to think about doing something. I'd think about returning that email. Or I would begin to compose a blog post in my head. Or I'd ruminate about the steps I needed to take for an upcoming audit.
Thinking about these things took up a lot of time. Time I could spend actually getting work done. And in the case of blogging, once I'd written it in my head I was far less passionate about putting it down on 'paper'.
So I made a real effort to start doing what I was thinking about doing. I haven't mastered this and sometimes realize I've been thinking about doing instead of actually doing for a the last 15 minutes. But I've gotten a lot better.
I find that doing something in the physical world helps a lot. Taking something from my honey-do list, something as simple as folding and putting away my clothes, can help to put me back on the right track.
There Complacent Yet?
I'm probably not as paranoid as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs were when they were at the top of their game. But I try very hard not to get complacent. I shouldn't feel like I can get away with delivering an audit late. But the thought creeps into my mind as I juggle commitments and that's a bad place to be. Because at some point that's going to bite me in the ass. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But it will.
It already did to some degree.
At the beginning of 2012 I began writing Marketing Biz for Marketing Land. In 2013 I started to get paid for that work. By March I was spending more time than I'd like on it (getting paid for it made me want to do it better), my interest waned and there were some creative differences about the column. Nothing serious but it was mutually decided it would be best to shutter Marketing Biz.
I stayed on and helped out with the Period Table of SEO Success Factors. I was proud of and enjoyed that work. But I dropped the ball on the next project and was quickly asked if I had enough time to continue and I gratefully took the opportunity to say no.
I tried to do too much and wanted to keep that working relationship with Danny Sullivan and Matt McGee. Not because of the connections they have (screw that) but because they're just smart, good people. So leaving on those terms sucked.
Exposure vs Scarcity
The selling point for doing all of the above was, to some degree, exposure. In our industry you don't get much bigger than Search Engine Land and Marketing Land. (Though I was proud as a peacock to get one of my posts on Techmeme last year.)
I thought of Marketing Biz as a natural out-growth of my normal curation activities. Not only that but it wasn't content I would have put on my own blog. So Marketing Biz was my own little place where I might build a reputation and exposure beyond traditional SEO.
That was different than writing a guest post or even being a contributing writer. It didn't violate my thoughts on guest blogging. It helped that I wasn't after more exposure at that point, but I'd like to think if I had to do it all over again that I'd do it the same way.
The real question was did I need more exposure? I was turning away business as it stood. I wasn't eager to drive more people to my door just so I could say no or, even worse, take on additional business and juggle even more work.
Obviously I need to continue to build my reputation, but I'm not sure that's accomplished by heaping on more and more exposure. I don't want to fade away completely and I grok the mere exposure effect. You need to have some degree of mindshare. But I don't feel the need to be trending all the time.
I haven't figured out the balance yet. But I do know this. I want to continue to earn my reputation not coast on it.
Three years ago I had the opportunity to chat with Wil Reynolds. He admitted that he never really thought he'd scale SEER to its current size. But people came to him asking for his help and he wanted to say yes. The only way he could was to bring more people on board. I understand where he's coming from. Totally.
Yet, I also know I'm not cut out to run a big operation (alone). I don't enjoy managing people. Well, some people I do. (Hello Keith, Kirby and Jeremy!) But I have a really short fuse when it comes to effort and the ability to pick up new material.
Keep up with and (better yet) challenge me and I'm a great boss. Fall behind and make me explain something twice and I'll make your life a living hell.
But 2013 was the year that I was going to experiment. I didn't hire anyone. That's a huge step! But I did bring a few people on Voltron style on specific jobs. They'd do a fair chunk of the audit punch list and I'd review, edit and add to it as well as do most of the client interaction and presentation.
It worked okay but it didn't save me as much time as I had hoped. Maybe that would get better as I worked with them more and I'm still open to it to a certain degree. Admittedly, it did feel good to write and send those checks at the end of the project.
I'm just not sure scaling satisfies me. I might be able to make more money but the incremental amount doesn't seem like enough unless I loosened my grip on the work product and took on a lot more clients. I'm not really prepared to do that. I want to be involved in the client work. I want to unlock the riddles and chase down the red herrings.
This year I'll be experimenting with other ways of scaling.
Despite a lot of the negativity in the industry, and there's a lot to be negative about, I found a number of colleagues who supported, encouraged and inspired me.
Whether it was someone like Dennis Goedegebuure giving me a good reference to a massive client (which I secured), watching Joel Klettke evolve and hit his stride, chatting with Dan Shure, IMing with Zeph Snapp or plusing with Mark Traphagen, I was reminded of how lucky I am. (I'm leaving a ton of great people out here but I only have so much space. But the entire community of those who link, Tweet, comment, plus and generally support me continues to overwhelm me.)
I want to be the same person I was when I met these people. Or as close to the same person as I can be, since you're constantly evolving as a person. I recognize that getting out there, following the golden rule and staying grounded is essential.
I don't ever want to feel like I'm too cool for school.
And for someone who works at home, having these relationships is huge. Don't get me wrong, I love working at home. The days I have to drive to a client on the Peninsula or when we're driving back from my daughter's tennis class during rush hour remind me just how much I abhor commuting.
But normal interactions, both work related and off-topic, help to break things up and keep you connected. Isolation can be a real issue if you're working at home so making time for real conversation is important.
Enough of the trials and tribulations. I had to have done some things right to have gotten here, right? I sure did.
I'm super organized. I have a digital filing system so I never have to wonder where to find something. I have another filing system (very limited) for my payables and receivables. Nearly everyday I clean up my desktop and make sure nothing builds up.
I live by my Google calendar and I often block off time for client work, making it easy for me to get focused and not schedule too many meetings that require context switching and reduce productivity.
I also refined a whole bunch of business templates so that I have off-the-shelf ready templates for proposals, agreements, kick-off notes, audits, guides and invoices. For some I even have a few different flavors based on the type of engagement. Doing all of this work up front makes a big difference.
Sometimes it feels like I'm tidying up as a form of procrastination but being organized makes me feel calm and that's important.
I kept the weight off this year for the most part, got a Fitbit and stayed active. It's great going into the garage, getting onto our elliptical machine and sweating for 45 minutes as you stream an episode of Arrow on Netflix. Seriously, how cool is technology?!
I also took up tennis. I'd played here and there and my wife played in high school and a wee bit in college. But it was watching my daughter take classes from Coach Joe that really got both my wife and I back into it. Let me tell you, you can learn and pick up a lot just by watching a very talented, passionate and personable tennis pro teach others. (There's a lesson here about learning overall if you're paying attention.)
Exercise helps clear my head and helps me solve problems. It's a lubricant of sorts, allowing me to unclog a whole bunch of mental blocks.
Best Job Ever
Despite my bitching and moaning, this is the best job I've ever had and I sometimes take a step back and am amazed, a goofy smile rising to my face. I make good money working with great clients doing something I genuinely like doing from the comfort of my own home. Jackpot!
But the real treasure has been spending time with my wife and really being here for my daughter as she grows up. Yesterday when she got home she told me about a new game she and her friends made up at school called Monkey In The Middle Two Square. (The rules are quite complicated.) Late last this year I attended her geography bee and even had to cancel a phone call because who knew a geography bee would take nearly two hours!
Do I have all the answers on how my business will evolve? Nope. And that's okay. Anyone who tells you they have it all figured out is either stupid or lying (or both.)
This year I look forward to blogging more. I'm going to talk about attention hacking and argue against the filter bubble among other things. I want to attend and potentially speak at Pubcon Las Vegas.
I'll look to pivot some of the business into being a start-up marketing advisor. Because it turns out I have a pretty good track record helping start-ups secure another round of funding or positive exit.
Of course I also want to continue to help my clients to crush their business goals. But most importantly, I plan to stay healthy, happy, optimistic and connected. Something I wish for all of you reading as well.