What I Learned in 2013

// // February 26th 2014 // Career + Life

(This post is a personal post about running Blind Five Year Old, building on similar posts for 2011 and 2012.)

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 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)

Good Is The Enemy of Great

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.

Sales Avalanche

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.

The A-Team

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them….maybe you can hire The A-Team.

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.

Juggling Fail

Dropped and Cracked Egg

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

Action Jackson Action Figures

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.

Are We There Complacent Yet?

Complacency Kills Grafitti

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.

Scaling Experiments

House of Cards

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.


Friends Logo

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.


Color Organized Cars in Parking Lot

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

Best 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.)


Looking Forward

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.

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Comments About What I Learned in 2013

// 22 comments so far.

  1. Barry // February 26th 2014

    Sounds like you had an awesome year and you learnt a lot of valuable lessons. Sometimes less is more in terms of blog posts, but when I think back over your 2012 posts, I think they were equally great. Best of luck for 2014.

  2. AJ Kohn // February 26th 2014

    Thanks Barry.

    I definitely subscribe to the less is more philosophy but once a month was less than I’d like. Maybe if I didn’t have anything to say that would be okay. But instead I have a huge backlog of great stuff I want to talk about. Thanks and all the best to you in 2014 as well.

  3. Steve Webb // February 26th 2014

    This is great AJ… a lot of excellent personal and professional insights.

    Two things, in particular, really resonated with me. First, I have a similar perfectionism issue/problem/curse. I trade sleep for a higher level of quality on a daily basis, and I share your general perspective on it.

    I fully recognize the value of the “done is better than perfect” mantra. But if you’re truly a perfectionist, the idea of “good enough” or “decent” (or anything less than your best product) physically pains you. It’s that pain that will always limit my efficiency, and ultimately, I don’t care. I’d much rather have a smaller number of people championing me as the best person they’ve ever worked with (as opposed to a larger group of people that are reasonably happy with my work).

    Second, I can relate to your “thinking about doing” problem. I waste a lot of time thinking and planning as opposed to immediately taking steps to make concrete progress on various tasks. David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” is the best system I’ve seen to overcome this problem, and it works wonders… when I’m disciplined enough to stick with it 😉

    Anyway, great post… I hope 2014 is already off to a great start, and I’m looking forward to next year’s recap!

  4. AJ Kohn // February 26th 2014

    Thanks Steve and that third paragraph in your comment is spot on how I feel.

    I’m tired of fighting my instinct for doing epic work. Instead, I just needed to figure out ways to get the most out of that penchant for perfectionism.

    Thanks for the tip on ‘Getting Things Done’. I’ll take a look at it and see if it could help me continue to do instead of thinking of doing.

  5. JMagno // February 26th 2014

    The hardest thing to find in this hyper-stressful world is life-work balance. I commend you for taking time to focus on health related activities. Turning 50 this yr. has given me a different perspective.

  6. AJ Kohn // February 26th 2014

    Thanks JMango. I have always been hyper-protective of life-work balance. Even in the web 1.0 hey day I made it clear I wasn’t about long hours.

    Having a family changed that even more and I worked to be healthier and made choices to be present in my life. And if you need further excuses, eating better and exercising absolutely make me a better thinker.

  7. Ross Hudgens // February 26th 2014

    Congrats on your success in 2013, A.J. The quality of your work is impressive and it’s a great standard to chase. I look forward to more great content from you in 2014.

  8. AJ Kohn // February 26th 2014

    Thanks Ross. That means a lot coming from someone who produces great content as well. Hopefully we’ll bump into each other at once of these conferences this year.

  9. Vinny La Barbera // February 26th 2014

    As usual, this is so helpful and refreshing and so many different levels.

    Your words help me to realize that I’m not alone on some of these very same issues, which is a great sense of reassurance and direction. Battling with building a brand and doing client work is a constant struggle, but your insights make things a little more clear.

    There are very few people, on any topic I’m interested in, that I would read every single piece of content from. You’re most certainly one of those people and for good reason as you’ve shown here.

    Thank you for sharing and being so transparent, AJ.

    Here’s to a prosperous, life-balanced 2014.

  10. AJ Kohn // February 26th 2014

    Thank you Vinny. It’s really gratifying to hear that others can identify and take some sort of solace from the issues I’m facing.

    I think it’s important to show these struggles because so often we look at others and think they’ve got it figured out when, in fact, they’re just muddling through like the rest of us.

    Thank you again and all the best in 2014.

  11. Matthew Brown // February 26th 2014

    Great to hear you’re happy with 2013 and focused on balance in 2014, AJ. Once you’re clicking on all cylinders, it’s really easy to get out of whack on how much time you’ve got left for non-work life. It’s tough to run small and keep it together!

  12. AJ Kohn // February 27th 2014

    Thanks Matthew. And yes, it’s tough to run small and keep it together but that’s my goal. I should chat with Marshall when I get a chance. He’s done something similar.

  13. Baila Feig // February 26th 2014

    Hi –

    I love your photo of the organized parking lot. I found it entertaining and had a good chuckle.

    I am a Professional Organizer and I am preparing a presentation for people who need help organizing their home and life. I think showing your photo would teach my audience something important about organizing.

    May I use the picture for my presentation?

  14. AJ Kohn // February 27th 2014


    The picture is not mine and is actually from a video (I can’t locate right now). Both have been widely distributed cross the Internet. Search for ‘the new valet has OCD’ and you’ll see quite a few instances of this photo cropping up.

  15. Erica McGillivray // February 27th 2014

    I love reading these yearly wrap up posts and seeing how you’re doing and growing your business. And also seeing reflections in the many ways that I struggle too. The whole “thinking instead of doing” has been such a better for me too lately.

    Anyway, I wish you the very best for 2014 and can’t wait to see what next year’s post looks like. :)

  16. AJ Kohn // February 28th 2014

    Thanks Erica. It’s great to hear that others get stuck in that ‘thinking instead of doing’ cycle. I hope we get to chat at one of these conferences this year.

  17. Brian Dean // February 28th 2014

    Congrats AJ. You deserve all the success you had in 2013.

    As long as you keep publishing awesome content (and images from “Airplane!”) I’m sure 2014 will be even more successful and rewarding for you. Keep up the awesome work!

  18. AJ Kohn // February 28th 2014

    Thank you Brian. I appreciate the kind words and am surely glad to get feedback on the images I use. I take picking them out seriously. :)

  19. Marc // March 05th 2014

    lol, love what you said about thinking too much. I’m guilty as charged. I’ve spent entire days thinking about doing something, without actually doing it. What the heck is wrong with me?

  20. AJ Kohn // March 06th 2014

    Nothing wrong with you Marc. That’s just the way a lot of people are wired. We just have to fight the good fight to get ourselves out of dream land.

  21. Gene Maryushenko // March 18th 2014

    “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.”

    – this is one of my biggest problems. I think about the things I need to do / write / cover and when it comes to actually doing them I’m exhausted. Seems really silly, but this is a huge time waster and enabler of procrastination. Glad to see you’re overcoming it!

  22. elaine // May 19th 2014

    An inspiring read. I’m 50 next year and finally taking control of my life. I’ve worked in the govt sector a long time in 2 countries and seen the “it will do” mentality over and over. Thankfully I haven’t been influenced by it. I remain a perfectionist and a paranoid organiser striving to do the best. Time for a new chapter for me too. Thanks for a great read.

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