What I Learned in 2016

// // January 02nd 2017 // Career + Life

(This is a personal post so if that isn’t your thing then you should move on.) 

2016 was the year where things went back to normal. My cancer was in remission, family life was great and business was booming. But that ‘normal’ created issues that are rarely discussed. Managing success is harder than I expected.


Success Graph

I made it. Blind Five Year Old is a success. Even through my chemotherapy, I kept the business going without any dip in revenue. Looking at the numbers, I’ve had the same revenue four years in a row. That’s a good thing. It’s a revenue figure that makes life pretty darn comfortable.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in 2010 I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even as I put together back-to-back years of great business revenue I still had that paranoia. What if things dried up? But in 2016, cancer in the rear view, I felt bulletproof. The result? I was restless and, at times, unmotivated.


Image of Guilt

You don’t hear a lot about this topic because you feel guilty talking about it. You’ve got to figure you’re going to come off like a douchebag complaining about success when so many others are struggling.

I’ve been dealing with that not just in writing about it but in living it too. While I’ve never been poor, I’ve often lived paycheck to paycheck. At one point I was out of work and $25,000 in debt.

My wife and I lived in an apartment for 10 years, saving like crazy so we could buy a house in the Bay Area. And once bought, we were anxious about making it all work. I had nightmares about being foreclosed on.

But we made it. I worked hard to build my business and we made smart moves financially, refinancing our mortgage twice until we had an amazing rate and very manageable mortgage payment. My wife was the backbone of the household, keeping everything going and making it easy for me to concentrate on the business.

For a long time it was all about getting there – about the struggle. Even as the business soared we then had to tackle cancer. Now, well now things are … easy.

Easy Street

Is Success a Dead End?

It’s strange to think how easy it is to just … buy what you want. Now, I’m not saying I can run out and buy my own private island. I’m not super-rich. But I’m not concerned about paying the bills. I’m not thinking whether I can afford to give my daughter tennis lessons or get my wife a leather jacket or buy a new phone. I just do those things.

And that feels strange … and wrong in some ways. Because I know that life isn’t like this for the vast majority.

Of course, I can rationalize some of this by pointing to my work ethic, attention to detail and willingness to take risks. No doubt I benefited from some friendships. I didn’t get here alone. But that too was something I cultivated. I try not to be a dick and generally try to be helpful.

But it’s still unsettling to be so comfortable. Not just because I keenly feel my privilege but also because it saps ambition.

Is That All?

Is That All?

When you’re comfortable, and feeling guilty about that, you often start to look for the next mountain to climb. I think that’s human nature. If you’ve made it then you look around and ask, is that all? Am I just going to keep doing this for the next twenty years?

For me, this presents a bit of a problem. I’m not keen on building an agency. I know a bunch of folks who are doing this but I don’t think it’s for me. I don’t enjoy managing people and I’m too much of a perfectionist to be as hands off as I’d need to be.

I took a few advisor positions (one of which had a positive exit last year) and will continue to seek those out. Perhaps that’s the ‘next thing’ for me, but I’m not so sure. Even if it is, it seems like an extension of what I’m doing now anyway.

Enjoy The Groove

Curry in the Groove

In the last few months I’ve come to terms with where I am. There doesn’t necessarily need to be a ‘second act’. I like what I do and I like the life I’ve carved out for myself and my family. If this is it … that’s amazing.

I remember keenly the ‘where do you see yourself in five years’ question I’d get when interviewing. Working in the start-up community, I never understood why people asked that question. Things change so fast. Two years at a job here is a long time. Opportunities abound. Calamity can upset the applecart. Any answer you give is wrong.

I’m not saying I’m letting the random nature of life direct me. What I’m saying is more like an analogy from basketball. I’m no longer going to force my shot. I’m going to let the game come to me. But when it does I’ll be ready to sink that three.

Staying Motivated

So how do you stay ready? That to me is the real issue when you reach a certain level of success. How do you keep going? How do you stay motivated so you’re ready when the next opportunity comes up?

There’s a real practical reason to keep things going right? The money is good. I’m putting money away towards my daughter’s college education and retirement. Every year when I can put chunks of money away like that I’m winning.

But when you’re comfortable and you feel like you’re on top of the world it’s hard to get motivated by money. At least that’s how it is for me. To be honest, I haven’t figured this one out completely. But here’s what I know has been helping.

Believe In Your Value

Believe In Your Value

Over the last few years there’s been a surge in folks talking about imposter syndrome. While I certainly don’t think I’m a fraud, there’s an important aspect in imposter syndrome revolving around value.

I’m not a huge self-promoter. Don’t get my wrong, I’ll often humble brag in person or via IM and am enormously proud of my clients and the success I’ve had over the last decade. But I don’t Tweet the nice things others say about me or post something on Facebook about the interactions I have with ‘fans’. I even have issues promoting speaking gigs at conferences and interviews. I’m sure it drives people crazy.

What I realized is that I was internalizing this distaste for self-promotion and that was toxic.

That doesn’t mean you’ll see me patting myself on the back via social media in 2017. What it means is that I’m no longer doubting the value of my time and expertise. Sounds egotistical. Maybe it is. But maybe that’s what it takes.

Give Me A Break

Kit Kat Wrapper

Going hand in hand with believing in your own value is giving yourself a break. I often beat myself up when I don’t return email quickly. Even as the volume of email increased, and it still does, I felt like a failure when I let emails go unanswered. The longer they went unanswered, the more epic the reply I thought I’d need to send, which meant I didn’t respond … again. #viciouscycle

A year or so ago I mentioned in an email to Jen Lopez how in awe I was at the timely responses I’d get from Rand. She sort of chided me and stated that this was Rand’s primary job but not mine. It was like comparing apples and oranges. The exchange stuck with me. I’m not Superman. Hell, I’m not even Batman.

I do the very best I can but that doesn’t mean that I don’t make mistakes or drop the ball. And that’s okay. Wake up the next day and do the very best you can again. Seems like that’s worked out well so far.

Rev The Engine

Liquid Draino

All of my work is online. That’s just the nature of my business. But I find that taking care of some offline tasks can help to rev the engine and get me going online. Folding my laundry is like Liquid Draino to work procrastination.

I don’t know if it’s just getting away from the computer or the ability to finish a task and feel good about it that makes it so effective. I just know it works.

In 2017 I’ve also committed to getting back into shape. I’ve been inspired by my friend Chris Eppstein who transformed his body and outlook in 2016. It’s important to keep moving so I’ll be on my elliptical and out on the tennis court a lot more often this year.


I’m grateful for where I am in my life. I know I didn’t get here alone. My wife is simply … amazing. And I’m consistently stunned at what my daughter says and does as she grows up. And it’s great to have my parents nearby.

There have also been numerous people throughout my life who have helped me in so many ways. There was Terry ‘Moonman’ Moon who I played video games with at the local pizza place growing up. “You’re not going down the same road,” he told me referring to drugs. There was Jordan Prusack, who shielded me from a bunch of high school clique crap by simply saying I was cool. (He probably doesn’t even remember it.)

In business, I’ve had so many people who have gone out of their way to help me. Someone always seemed there with a lifeline. Just the other day I connected with someone and we had a mutual friend in common – Tristan Money – the guy who gave me my second chance in the dot com industry. I remember him opening a beer bottle with a very large knife too.

Kindness comes in many sizes. Sometimes it’s something big and sometimes it’s just an offhand comment that makes the difference. My life is littered with the kindness of others. I like to remember that so that I make it habit to do the same. And that’s as good a place to stop as any.

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Comments About What I Learned in 2016

// 13 comments so far.

  1. Rishi // January 02nd 2017

    Hello AJ,

    I’ve known you a few years, but this post revealed a new side. A side I like quite a bit. Thank you for your candor.

    And thank you for the connections you’ve made for me over the years.

    Hope you have an enlightening 2017.


  2. AJ Kohn // January 02nd 2017

    Thanks for the kind words Rishi. The connections have been easy to make. It’s not often I find someone like you who has a strong, unique voice and the ability to back it up with results.

  3. aaron // January 02nd 2017

    Dude this is great — i had no idea you battled cancer. Congrats and to you and your family…

    For exponential growth without building an agency (I started and exited an agency after Caring.com and am not a fan of this model) – have you considered mentoring? You most certainly have a wealth of knowledge and frameworks that could help a larger audience. In a 1:many model this could provide a great deal of income and leverage…

    Let’s catch up!


  4. AJ Kohn // January 02nd 2017

    Thanks Aaron. Yeah, the agency model is just … I like my life simple and an agency is the opposite of that from what I can tell.

    Mentoring huh? It’s odd. I do a bit of that now just as a colleague and I’ve been approached a number of times for something like this. In the past, I’ve felt a bit awkward about this because … well, because I didn’t value my time and experience as much as I should. But I’d be up for that now in the right context.

    I’d love to catch up. Ping me via email and we’ll put something on the calendar.

  5. Triple Lootz // January 02nd 2017

    Great post AJ.

  6. Gideon // January 03rd 2017

    Thank you.

    Wishing you and yours a happy and healthy ’17.

  7. Andrew // January 03rd 2017

    As a fan of your SEO writing over the years, sorry to hear about your battle with cancer. It affects so many people these days. Glad that it’s in remission.

    The mentoring idea makes sense. Whether it’s video tutorials or downloadable guides from the likes of Annie Cushing, there’s folk like me who still want to keep learning from the best and are happy to invest in knowledge.

    The wordpress custom steup ‘Rainmaker’ is excellent for providing ready made solutions to webinars and other ways to provide value and build a community, while allowing you to charge for it. Experts are the people I’d pay to hear what they have to say, and we need more of the great ones becoming more vocal in 2017. Far too much contradiction around.

    Clickbait used to be about ‘dispelling SEO myths’. I think it’s time we got real about the volume of contradiction that’s out there because as long as the barrier to entry in search marketing remains as low as it is, we need people like you and Aaron Wall to weed the garden. Because it should be a thing of beauty.

  8. AJ Kohn // January 03rd 2017

    Thanks for the kind words and feedback on the mentoring idea Andrew.

    I’m interested in your comments about the industry and the fact that there’s too much contradiction around. I’m never sure if I’m just ‘old guard’ or jaded, but I do find that the level of discourse has declined in the last few years.

    That’s not to say that there are great folks out there but the amount of knowledge being passed in private seems to have increased and is more reminiscent of the earlier days of the SEO industry. So perhaps it’s just an ebb and flow and we’ll start moving back to a more public discourse again.

    Either way, thank you! Another vote for this type of activity certainly helps when choosing which projects to pursue this year.

  9. JimM // January 03rd 2017

    Nice post dude. You made it because you’re good at what you do and you pave your own path. Done right, there can be great flexibility and life-work balance being a high value consultant. Glad to have been there with you in the beginning.

  10. AJ Kohn // January 04th 2017

    Thanks Jim. And you were there from the beginning and helped to ensure this story had a happy ending.

  11. Jeremy // January 09th 2017

    I love how you summed it up with gratitude. Without gratitude really you would not have learned anything at all. You would not have been in the right mindset to identify the things you learned. Hope you have an awesome 2017! Keep in touch.

  12. Jerome // February 14th 2017

    This is my first time actually commenting from a blog.

    I’m new to SEO and for some reason I’ve stumbled upon your blog I can’t even remember the source. I’m Going to go through your previous blogs that would help me on my SEO venture. Would want to be like you in the next few years.
    You got yourself a new fan.

    Have a great 2017!

  13. Jon Openshaw // February 15th 2017

    This is perhaps your best piece to date, AJ. Personal and intimate with sharp, direct prose that flatly states its purpose. Thanks for a peek into your internal life – I count myself lucky as someone who gets to work with you on a regular basis.

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