This post is part three of our four-part series reviewing 2013 and looking ahead to 2014. We started the series looking at the statistics from LivingforMonday.com, including the blog, podcast, audience (you), and more. Then, we continued the series with our accomplishments from 2013. In this post, we’ll take a look at what didn’t go quite so well in 2013.
We do this publicly for two reasons:
- Some of you are interested in the behind the scenes action at Living for Monday, and we want to be transparent and authentic in the way we share what we’re up to.
- We hope that our year in review process will inspire you to do the same thing for your own personal and professional life.
Even if we didn’t publish this review pubclicly, we would still continue to review and plan in a similar way internally. I believe that taking a look back at the facts (objective stats), what we accomplished (subjective), and what we didn’t do as well (subjective) helps us make better decisions about what projects, content, and events will serve you best in the year ahead.
So, let’s dig in on our shortcomings, areas for improvement, failures, or whatever else you want to call them from 2013.
We’re sometimes too quick to pull the trigger and too light on the follow through for new projects
In other words, sometimes we bite off more work than we can chew at a given time. I tend to get excited about new ideas and want to pursue them ASAP. Josh does a good job of keeping me grounded in the operational reality, but we need to do a better job of keeping all of our projects in perspective and prioritizing against each other.
I believe fast decision-making is a positive quality in entrepreneurs. It’s fine to be fast on pulling the trigger, but we need to follow through to completion to get the most out of our efforts. A big part of that follow through is the research process, which can slow things down. In fact, sometimes doing the necessary research can feel like the antithesis of progress.
There’s a delicate balance between procrastination by preparation and having enough raw materials/data/information to successfully execute on an idea. We need to set a goal for the research phase of every project, follow through on that and then execute. As Seth Godin likes to say, we need to thrash early to get all of the information out on the table. Then, when we know what we’re trying to accomplish, our job is simply to execute on that plan and not screw it up.
- We need to be more realistic with our timelines and start planning 2-3 months in advance rather than 1-2 weeks. If we do have last minute inspiration, we need to follow through completely, but only if the project takes higher priority for reaching our goals as compared to what we’re already working on.
- I’ll be taking the advice of Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene in creating a research system this year that will greatly help us in growing our knowledge database, which will help with articles, books, courses, consulting, coaching, and pretty much anything else we do.
- As we create new projects, I’ll also be looking for case studies during the research process. We want real life proof that what we’re teaching works because we know it will build your confidence in what we’re up to. Taking the time to provide this will help us and help you.
Before we start a project we need to make sure that:
- We’re clear on the outcome. Will the project help solve one of your problems (aka does our audience care)?
- We’re capable of delivering the solution. If not, we should give the idea away to someone who is.
- If this is a project you’ll have to pay for, does it solve a big enough problem that you’re able and willing to pay to solve that problem?
- And to reiterate: always take Seth’s advice on thrashing early. When in doubt, use the ShipIt journal to make sure we’re clear on the project.
We built an audience, but not a targeted audience
By all accounts, we absolutely crushed it this year on building an audience. We went from 100ish email subscribers to over 1300. We went from 500 to 1000 email subscribers within a 30 day period. If you just looked at the numbers, we were rolling.
The problem was our lack of focus in our audience building. We weren’t working to build a targeted audience, which makes it much harder to serve that audience. For example, compare these two:
- An audience from 100+ countries, vastly different career stages, and interested in everything from travel hacking to finding a job to starting a business
- An audience of 20-32 year old young professionals (working for somebody else) in the Metro Atlanta area who look want to become great at what they do, find work that matters, and make an impact in the world while becoming a better person along the way.
Guess which audience is easier to serve? The second one, by far. My friend Nathan Barry knows this, which is why he talks about building an audience with a product in mind. If you have a product in mind, then you’re working to serve an audience with a specific goal or challenge.
- Numbers only matter if they serve some part of our vision. 1,000 subscribers is an awesome size for an email list, but it doesn’t matter unless it’s made up of a targeted audience that we can serve on an ongoing basis.
- If we’re going to have a global audience, we need to have products and services to serve those people. If we’re going to build a local audience, then that changes things in a big way – we can do live training, weekend retreats, and more. Or, if we have a mix of audiences, then we can do some combination of the above. Either way, we need to be sure we’re building a sustainable business model and not just a blog. Without revenue we can’t continue to serve that audience.
- While students can be enthusiastic, it’s not actually the primary audience we want to serve. Students aren’t always able or willing to pay for what we do, and not at the same level as young professionals (This makes sense. If you can buy drinks for every one of your friends for an entire weekend in your college town for $500 and we’re asking you to pay $500 for coaching, it just doesn’t add up. Your priorities are not the same as that of a young professional when you’re in college.)
- We can continue to serve students through our content, especially to the extent that you’re interested in the same topics as our young professional audience. However, we will likely not target students with our paid products and services. That doesn’t mean you can’t participate, but it does mean you’ll need to seek those opportunities out because we won’t be marketing to you.
- We have no business trying to build a national or international audience if we can’t build a local audience first. There are a TON of awesome young professionals in our hometown of Atlanta. The point is not that we don’t want audience an outside of Atlanta and the US, but rather that the hometown audience is a perfect sample size to test our ideas and get direct feedback before we grow bigger.
Our core audience that we make content for should be very specific:
- Under 32-year old Millennial professionals
- Living and working in Atlanta
- Believe that work is a way to make an impact
- Want to be great at what they do everyday (perhaps the best)
- Want to build a lifestyle that aligns with a long-term vision
We didn’t make money before we spent money
In college I heard the CEO of Waffle House speak. In his talk, he was very enthusiastic about being debt free as a corporation. At the time I didn’t have a full appreciation for how important this is.
We spent much of 2013 chasing our tails on the financial end at Living for Monday. We knew what money we needed to spend, and we tried to make money to fuel that spending. The better approach is to do the opposite – look at the best way to build a sustainable business model, start bringing money in, and then allocate those funds to fuel our business priorities.
- Make money before we spend money. When we spend first, we’re disrespecting ourselves and the other who have to deal with the resulting stress (family, friends, business partners, etc).
- Focus on a sustainable business model. Use the business model to fuel strategic investments in our business priorities.
- Without a financial engine, it’s difficult to grow and get better at what we do on a consistent basis. When money is a concern, it clouds good decision-making.
Keeping Me as a Bottleneck is Inefficient
Back to Seth one more time. He published a short podcast series called Startup School based on a seminar he did for entrepreneurs in the Summer of 2012. In Episodes 1-2, he talks about the difference between a freelancer and an entrepreneur.
A freelancer has to do work in order to make money. In other words, if you stop doing the work, you stop making money. An entrepreneur makes money even when she’s not working. In other words, entrepreneurs build assets that make them money.
The cheapest person for a freelancer to hire is herself. So, it’s always cheaper for me to hire me to do the coaching, consulting, etc because it doesn’t “cost” me anything. At least not on the surface. The problem is that when I’m doing the coaching (or whatever else), the strategy, content, business development, and everything else I should be doing as a business owner are not getting done. So when I finish a project making money, there’s no new business, the audience at Livingformonday.com has gone stale, etc.
Seth’s conclusion: “If Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to be successful, he needs to stop writing code as soon as possible.”
- It’s easy to sell me because I can adapt to most business situations. What we need to do instead is build assets that we can sell so that if I stop doing the work, we keep making money.
- A consultancy is an alliance of freelancers. It’s not scalable, and there’s no asset involved.
- If we’re going to do freelance work, the faster way to make an impact + the amount of money we want to make is to go get a well-paying job. Being the director of talent development for TED would allow me to get my hands dirty and really transform their organization from the inside. Being a consultant means we have to produce BS case studies for the impact we made while knowing that its highly unlikely that impact will be sustained because of a lack of internal ownership. (Yes, I realize this can be mitigated, but it’s much easier to make a lasting impact from the inside.)
- Removing me as a bottleneck throughout much of the business will allow us to grow faster. We should look for as many ways as possible to create systems that allow us to make more impact and experience less bottlenecks.
- Let’s build an asset-based business. We set out to be entrepreneurs, not freelancers.
The way we planned to do content works. The way we did content does not work.
We planned to publish at least one article and one podcast per week. When we stuck to this schedule, we saw a large increase in site traffic, new subscribers, email engagement (Clicks, etc), and more.
More often than not, we did not stick to our publishing schedule. This resulted in cyclical traffic and engagement. It caused our email list to go stale, it made us feel like progress was stunted, and the reality that we weren’t sticking to our plan was underlying everything else we did.
- The more we publish, the more traffic and subscribers we’ll attract. Publishing an article a week is the minimum for success.
- That said, quality is more important than quantity. Well-researched, well-structured, well-edited, long-form content helped us grow our list by 500+ people in four weeks.
- Consistent, high quality content is the intersection we want to hit.
- It can be harder than it seems because we did not always stay on schedule this year. Content does not work as well when we are not reliable with our publishing schedule. It is much easier to get off schedule than stay on schedule. There is great, great value in staying on schedule.
- Our content was always better when we wrote, edited, and then published with engaging photos. When we were up against a deadline that prevented us from being thoughtful about editing and photos was when we tended to write less polished posts that did not resonate as deeply.
- Career search as a topic on the blog was not nearly as popular as some of our more popular topics that target the young professional crowd. This is especially true for softer topics like values, strengths, purpose, and vision. Even though these are the foundations for finding a career that matters, most people want more tactical information like how to accept and decline job offers.
We did not do a good job of managing our intern program
In Spring of 2013, we created an internship program and hired 6 interns from the University of Georgia. It seemed like a great way to give a group of students experience in a startup while also leveraging their energy to produce more + better work.
It turns out that we weren’t ready for a team of interns. While they were all talented and energetic people, we did not do a good job of giving them meaningful projects with clear outcomes and tasks.
- Without a plan and systems to manage a group of interns, not much work gets done.
- College students have been trained to come up with a right answer, while in a startup there are not right answers. Informed opinions shape decisions. To help interns be successful, we need to retrain them to think outside of the right answer mentality that our schooling system continues to propagate.
- If we ever hire interns again, they will be full-time, paid, and on location. They will have clear roles, responsibilities, and projects with outcomes we can measure.
- Internships are as much about gaining experience and leadership development as they are about outcomes. Recognize this going into the process as the employer.
Trying to do our own video and audio editing is a bottleneck
Josh and I are not talented with video and audio editing. These are both learnable skills, but we learned that when trying to execute on a project with deadlines, having to pick up new skills is a major distraction and demotivator.
- The more Josh and I focus on the things we are truly good at, the better we become at our work.
- Look for partners that fill in the gaps on the things we aren’t good at, especially when we’re on a deadline.
- If we want to learn skills, create projects specifically to help us learn those skills. Don’t make the success of the business dependent on these projects.
- We could definitely use a great audio/video partner, especially as we look forward to this year with many of our plans. We should make an effort to grow this network in Atlanta.
*If you are interested in A) being a freelance A/V partner or B) potentially joining our team as a third member and A/V specialist, let Josh or I know. (Please take time to be thoughtful and tell us why you’re interested, show us your portfolio, tell us why you’re aligned with what we’re up to, etc)*
We are not designers
Designers are almost universally underrated. Design is so inherent in EVERYTHING we do. Interning on the Krypton team this summer really hammered home just how important design is. It’s made me see things that are broken in their design everywhere. Most car seats: broken (they are shaped the opposite of how our bodies are built to sit). Most websites: broken (they don’t design for a delightful experience).
We could have done a much better job of designing everything we did this year. Just like we’re not great with A/V, we’re not great at design. Josh is great with at least MVP execution of ideas, especially within the WordPress framework. I’m capable of producing low-level wireframes. But overall, design is not one of our strong suits.
- Great design can improve almost any project.
- Great designers are hard to come by.
- Having a basic understanding of design is perhaps one of the greatest skills in a startup, especially one that depends on the web.
- We need a real design partner that can carry our vision out on the web for the foreseeable future. If we aren’t going to seek out a design partner, then one of us needs to deep-dive on design, including the tools/software to execute on our design ideas.
*If you are interested in A) being a freelance design partner or B) potentially joining our team as a third member and designer, let Josh or I know. (Please take time to be thoughtful and tell us why you’re interested, show us your portfolio, tell us why you’re aligned with what we’re up to, etc)*
Overall, it was a great year at Living for Monday, but there are always ways to get better. We saw opportunities to improve our project follow through, audience building, business model, money management, content schedule , bottlenecks, internships, audio and video editing, and design.
This might seem overwhelming, but taken at a high level, it will inform many of our planning and execution decisions for 2014. We know what the stats looked like in 2013, which tell us what you enjoyed, how you found us, how you engaged, and who you are. We know about our major accomplishments in 2013, which tells us what we were able to get done across the year, as well as where our strengths lie.
With this post, we know what didn’t go well, which tells us how to build on our strengths and find partners to compliment those strengths. We’re ready to plan for 2014 accordingly, will is the topic of our next post.
In the mean time, how could you apply this same process to look back at your 2013? What are the facts, what went well, and what didn’t go well? Hop on Twitter and share something about your 2013 with @Livingformonday and/or @BarrettABrooks.