Late last fall, I was in need of a new source of Frequent Flyer Miles. I used to earn at least 200,000 miles a year from small business spending, but as I transitioned to full-time writing, the regular addition of miles fell to a couple of thousand a month.A couple thousand miles a month adds up to a free domestic ticket every year, but most of the Awards tickets I use require redemptions of 90,000 miles or more, so that doesn't help much. I did what I always do in these situations - I broke down the problem into logical reasoning: The Problem: No longer earn hundreds of thousands of free miles each year The Stipulation: Want to avoid flying long-haul Economy class whenever possible The Concern: Can't pay $4,000 for Business Class tickets, unless it's a Round-the-World flight where I'll get excellent long-term value The Solution: Therefore, I need to replenish my mileage account some other way (This is how I usually process problems I run into, on the assumption that there is almost always an alternative way to accomplish something.) That's when I decided to conduct a personal experiment with credit cards and mileage bonuses. Over the course of a few weeks, I applied, was approved for, and received 13 new credit cards. I applied for the cards only to get the miles, but I made sure to fulfill all the requirements to ensure my eligibility. Somewhat to my own surprise, it worked - I earned just under 300,000 Frequent Flyer Miles in a few short weeks. To be fair to all of you, I decided not to keep the news to myself. I published the full story of each credit card I applied for, how I tracked the cards through a spreadsheet, and set a goal of helping at least 100 readers earn at least 50,000 Frequent Flyer Miles of their own. Recently, a few people have been asking... what's happened? How many miles are we up to? We didn't get to 5 Million Miles in 30 days, my original goal. But that's OK - we're well beyond 1 million now, and new miles keep posting every couple of days. Read More
Greetings from Georgetown, Guyana - the launch point for the second part of my trip.
For the past couple of days I've been staying in what TripAdvisor calls the worst hotel in all of Guyana. Is it really that bad? Check out the video.
Also, a note from the director (that's me): I recorded this video outside at 6:00 p.m., thinking that sunset would be half an hour later. It turns out that sunset in Guyana starts about 5:45. Who knew? Anyway, I had to rush to get this going. I did a second take afterwards, which was a bit more concise, but the sky was too dark. I know, I know - it's a work in progress.
See you next from Suriname, a 10-12 hour journey from here via ferry and a combination of buses. Thank you for the great feedback last week; I have read all the comments and wish I could be more responsive.
I'll hole up in the Dominican Republic at the end of this trip and get back up to speed. Have a great week!
Over the past week the AONC site has been featured in both the Oregonian and the New York Times. The Times‘ profile focused on my journey to every country in the world and can be found here. I didn’t write that one (despite the byline), but I’m grateful for the coverage. The coverage in the…Read More
Here I am in Haiti, a country I've been reading about for years but have never been to before. My accommodations are as basic as advertised, and that's just fine for a few days. If you ever find yourself in need of humility, come down here and spend the week with nuns and missionaries. That should do the trick.
As for me, I came in the other day after flying to New York, encountering three separate delays, attempting to sleep for three hours on the floor of JFK airport, and having my plane return to JFK 15 minutes after takeoff due to a medical emergency. International travel is rarely simple.
The morning I was slowly waking up in the airport after very little sleep, a profile of my travel adventures was published in the New York Times. I hung out before my flight in the American Airlines lounge, and enjoyed opening up the paper to page B6 and reading Joan's fun article.
An hour later two of the lounge staff came over to say they had just read about me in the paper. In addition to feeling momentarily famous, I found it quite ironic that I had just talked my way into the lounge an hour earlier, and then the staff read the article where I mentioned sneaking into airline lounges.
I do live a life of unusual experiences, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
New readers (there are a lot of you, from the Times, everyone still reading 279 Days, and elsewhere), I should explain that some of my articles are longer than others. This one, for example, will be quite long. First of all, I don't have much of an internet connection here in Port Au Prince, which isn't good for my Inbox but is good for the actual writing I'm supposed to be doing.
Second of all, since I started writing back in February 2008, a number of people have asked me to share more about my time in West Africa from 2002-2006. It's fair to say that those years served as the foundation for much of my worldview, but I haven't written about them in detail.
I'm not entirely sure why I've waited, but I suspect it's because I wanted to put some space in between then and now. I'm also wary of Glory Days - the habit of glamorizing or living in the past instead of focusing on the present and future. These days I'm very much living in the present with a view towards the future, and that's the way I like it.
It's true that our past can shape who we are, though, and it can also be helpful to go back to the beginning to make sure we're on the right track now. This article will attempt to explain more about what I learned and what happened along the way. If you don't care about this subject, of course, feel free to skip it.
For all practical purposes, the story begins in 2001. Jolie and I were living in the U.S. and going about what I consider to be a fairly typical life. It was unconventional only in the sense that I was self-employed - here's an early look at how that developed - but aside from that, life was pretty normal.
I felt a longing for something more, but didn't quite know what. Then came 9/11. Like most of you, I watched the towers fall and the world change forever. Like so many others, I was in shock. It seemed to have happened so quickly - one day those people went to work in the morning, and never came back to their families.
Along with countless other Americans, and of course people all over the world who identified with the loss, I was greatly troubled for several weeks. My spiritual leaders had no good explanation for why 9/11 had happened; they just said we should pray for the families who had lost loved ones and accept that everything would somehow be alright.
My president said that Americans who wanted to help should "go shopping" to stimulate the economy. I was already going to Target and Best Buy. I didn't see how my American Express card could make the world a better place, and buying things certainly didn't make me feel any better.
I felt an urge to do something more, to give of myself, to find a way to make a difference and live the "real life" I had dreamed of for a long time without doing much about. I talked with Jolie and she had been feeling the same way - confused, uncertain, but also eager to do something different.
One night a few weeks after 9/11 I was surfing the internet looking for volunteer opportunities. I ended up reading about Sierra Leone, the poorest country in the world according to the U.N. Human Development Index at the time, and a country just beginning the slow process of recovery after civil war.
Even then I wasn't interested in doing anything halfway, so I decided there had to be some way I could give of myself to help the Sierra Leonians who had managed to survive through a brutal, senseless conflict.
Then I read about a surgeon from California named Gary Parker. Countless physicians give up a couple of weeks to go on a humanitarian trip to the poorer parts of the world, but Gary had gone and stayed for 17 years. Along the way he met his wife Susan, another volunteer, and they raised their two children in the community of volunteers Gary was partially responsible for leading.
Reading his story again and again, I was inspired by the sacrifice Gary and Susan had made. What could I do to make some kind of sacrifice?
It turned out that more help was needed. Gary was part of an organization of 400+ volunteers, most of whom weren't medical professionals. They were just regular people of all backgrounds who served in support roles.
The only catch was you needed to pay your own way, and you had to make a commitment of at least two years. Those requirements put a lot of people off, but I was strangely motivated by them. I thought, if a surgeon can devote 17 years (and more - he's still there) to this mission, surely I can give at least two.
The application was about a six-month process. We applied in early 2002, and in the fall of that year, we flew to Germany to join a number of other volunteers before continuing on. About a month was spent in Europe (Germany, Holland, Spain) and then in November, we sailed on a hospital ship to Freetown, Sierra Leone - the country I had spent so much time reading about in the post-9/11 research, and where we would be staying for four months before going next to Togo, a few countries away but still in the same region.
When your resumé contains no real work experience of note, even an unconventional organization doesn't really know what to do with you. They wanted Jolie because she was a teacher, and I was given a job carrying boxes around every day. Let me tell you -- at that point in my life, carrying boxes around was the best work I had ever done. I loved it.
After I found my way around the job, I decided I would be the best box-carrier ever. I worked at night, in the early morning, and on weekends. When other people couldn't do their jobs, I helped out any way I could.
The way you stand out in a non-profit organization isn't that different from what you do in any group or company. You show up, give more than expected, and try to make other people look good. I hadn't thought much about the philosophy behind this way of working in those days, I just did it because it was fun. It was what I was supposed to do.
I realize now that a great deal of my belief about life and work convergence comes from this time. I don't necessarily think everyone should work 80 hours a week, but I do think if someone is clock-watching and likes to maintain a strict separation between life and work worlds, part of the problem is that they're probably doing the wrong work.
Anyway, I worked hard. I also learned a lot of difficult lessons about poverty and international development, but it's better to learn those things as early on as possible.
After I had carried boxes around for six months, a few people started noticing that I was somewhat reliable at doing other things. I was asked to join the leadership team, putting me among the twelve most senior leaders of our 400-person operation. I was 25 years old then. My boss at the time was about twice my age, had been there for 15 years... and was not part of this group. When he heard the news, he offered me congratulations but then said, "Of course, some of us were surprised you were selected, being so young and inexperienced."
I told him, "Thanks... I think." I tried to see that kind of attitude as another obstacle to overcome. If you're young and inexperienced, you just need to work harder than everyone else. That's all.
A few months later a brand new set of circumstances enabled me to become the Programs Director for the organization, the #2 most senior leader together with our Operations Director and reporting to the CEO. Just over a year after I came over to carry boxes, I was now responsible for 120 staff. I also represented our group to all the host governments in the region, which is how I ended up meeting warlords and cabinet members.
It was a learn-as-you-go process, and all very public. When you learn in public, everyone sees you succeed and everyone sees you fail. It can be hard, but it's usually good in the end if you stick with it. I stuck with it. I kept getting up whenever I fell down, learned more about leadership, public speaking, conflict resolution, and so on.
(On the side, I learned how to perform emergency dental repairs on myself while traveling alone in Nigeria, how to defuse bribe requests, how to drive a Land Rover through the mud during rainy season, and other useful skills. Those were the days, I like to say.)
High Points, Low Points
Each week, if not each day, brought a number of extremely high points and extremely low points. I call this the Hope and Despair dichotomy of development work - it's an overused comparison, but hard to get past.
The high points included helping to bring Gary and the rest of the organization over for their first visit to Liberia, overseeing the security for large medical screenings in Ghana, Liberia, and Togo, and working with a large, motivated team of remarkable people that included hundreds of expats from all over the world and hundreds of West Africans in each country we worked in.
The low points were also extreme - visiting overcrowded camps of refugees and internally displaced people, realizing that a culture of corruption holds back many countries in Africa from developing, having to say no many times a day to people who asked for help, and other things I'm not able to write about now.
As I said, it was extreme - but overall, my feelings towards the experience are positive. I used to be a fairly cynical person, and frequently saw the negative side of things before I saw any positives. After four years of working with Gary and other remarkable people, I became a reformed optimist.
When to Leave the Best Job in the World
The time to leave the best job in the world is right before you get tired of it. There are some exceptions (including Gary, the reason I left home to begin with), but most people I've known who have stayed in post-conflict and extreme poverty situations for a long time become tired and cynical about their surroundings. I don't necessarily blame them - there are a huge number of frustrations, and when you keep going back to the same countries that don't change much on a macro level, it can be discouraging - but I also knew I didn't want that to happen to me.
In the end, Jolie and I decided to leave and start a new life in a new place. I applied to an M.A. program in International Studies at the University of Washington and somehow managed to get accepted on the basis of my overseas work. (It certainly wasn't on the basis of my academic record - I had finished two four-year undergraduate degrees in a little over two years, but the transcript was quite random.)
In the summer of 2006 we came to Seattle and started over. In between school breaks I began traveling independently, two weeks at a time and all over the world. If you've been reading for a while, you know the rest. If you're new and you care, it's all in the archives.
The time in West Africa remains a huge part of my identity. But I want to use it as a channel that pushes me to keep going towards new adventures and other things. I'm not sure they are greater things, necessarily - but they are meaningful things that challenge me and seem to help others. That's what I'm after, and that's what motivates me these days.
I know this article is long and personal. Blame it on Haiti, which is eerily reminiscent of Sierra Leone, or my general sense of introspection as I begin a new trip.
As long as it is, though, there are a lot of stories I've left out. I haven't written about the small business I started by working at night in my third year, and how I ended up effectively having two jobs the last six months I was overseas. I haven't written much about how I learned to travel in challenging situations by becoming a frequent flyer on airlines like Air Ivoire, Slok, and West Coast Airways. There were also overland border crossings, U.N. helicopter rides, and crowded African ferries.
The thing is, we're well beyond 2,000 words here, I didn't sleep much last night, and I've been told I'm supposed to save some of these stories for the book that comes out next year.
If you've read this far, feel free to share any feedback. I do read everything that comes in, but keep in mind I have very little internet access this week and probably can't respond for a while.
Speaking of the trip, the rain is falling hard on the roof of my guesthouse, where I just spent my second evening talking with more aid workers who impress me with their dedication and unacknowledged sacrifice. Miraculously, the internet is also back up -- so I'll take advantage of that and write some emails after posting this for the morning.
Good night from Port Au Prince. I hope all is well in your part of the world.
Hi everyone, Greetings from Terminal 8 in JFK Airport – New York City, or so it appears to be outside the window. In about two hours I’m getting on a plane to fly down to Port au Prince, Haiti. Last night I slept (relatively speaking) on the floor outside the terminal here after arriving well…Read More
Welcome to the weekend edition of AONC – actually being written on Saturday morning this time so I can take most of Sunday off before traveling down to Haiti and parts of South America on Monday. Hopefully along the way I can keep clearing out the emails. The screenshot in this post is of my…Read More
Thanks so much to everyone who is downloading, reading, and sharing feedback about my new manifesto, 279 Days to Overnight Success. Here’s a new video update where I discuss the motivations behind the document. Why did I publish this now? Why do we do anything? In my case, I want to a) help people create…Read More
Friends and readers, here is my second manifesto, 279 Days to Overnight Success. It tells the story of this web site, but more importantly, it offers 11,000 words of free advice on how to create your own success with your own project. I offer this information freely, but please use it wisely. DOWNLOAD THE MANIFESTO…Read More
Friends and Readers, if you've been with me for a while, you may be wondering about the sequel to the World Domination manifesto.
Blame it on ADD, the book proposal that took 11 drafts, or my habit of flying around the world, but I now have good news -- it's nearly done.
The new manifesto is called 279 Days to Overnight Success, and will launch out to the world on Wednesday, April 15.
Who It's For and Why I Wrote It
279 Days is not a mass-market publication. It's free, but it won't help everyone. Instead, it's primarily for bloggers, writers, artists, and anyone interested in social media.
Why a specific readership? Because 279 Days is a case study of AONC. I wanted to explain in full detail how I started the site last year, how it grew to a full-time career, and how other people with the same aspirations of getting paid for what they love can do something similar.
There are no affiliate links and nothing for sale in the report. Also, there is no back-end or 'hidden' agenda. The agenda is simple: I want to help more people create unconventional careers, and I want to expand my network. If you like the report, then I'll ask you to help me spread the message. That's it.
By the way, I realize that not everyone wants to support themselves through online work, so the report will also help if you just want to increase your influence. In my case, I didn't begin this site to make money -- I wanted to establish a platform for my writing and encourage the spread of unconventional ideas. It was only after I had recruited an initial following that I realized I could create additional solutions in the form of products while still continuing to write for free. My thinking is that if you can do what you love and also get paid, so much the better.
The Central Questions
I frequently meet with people who want to know "how it works" -- in other words, how do I write full-time, travel the world, and give away 90% of my work for free. I always say that the basics of how it works are right here for all to see. I write for free. I help people for free. I also create products on the side for people who want additional help with specific topics.
That's really how it works; there is no secret formula. But it's true that there is a lot of process to it.
Because people want to know the specifics, I decided to write everything down. It started out as a long blog post, but when I came to 20 pages, I decided to use a different format. In the end the report comes to 11,000 words and more than 50 pages. I'll share the mistakes I made, the things I did right, how much money I make, etc.
In other words, it is highly specific and I'm going for full transparency here. Not everyone will relate, and that's OK - but I think it will help people who have similar world takeover goals.
Here are the central questions I attempt to answer in the report:
- How can you make money doing what you love while still being true to your core values?
- Why do some projects succeed and others fail?
- If you do want to establish freedom through writing, blogging, or another kind of social media, what is the best use of your time?
Breaking down the answers into a four-sentence super-condensed version, this is what 279 Days will teach you:
- If you want to, you can create your own full-time career in social media (or otherwise greatly expand your influence)
- It takes more than 30 days or 12 steps to do this, but you can probably do it in one or two years
- Unless you can regularly generate enormous levels of traffic, forget about advertising
- Instead, ask your followers what they want and find a way to give it to them
That's pretty much it... but as mentioned, there is a lot of process to it. If you don't know where to start, you'll probably make a lot of mistakes and false starts -- I know I certainly did. Some of the mistakes may be unavoidable, but I like to simplify learning processes to their most basic level. That's what I've tried to do in this report.
How Are You Doing? ("Oh... not bad")
I'm fortunate to know people from all walks of life. From a financial perspective, I know some people who are extremely successful, and others who are really struggling to make it. I'd say the range of people in my circle now goes from struggling students who make $5,000-$12,000 a year to a couple of business owners who make more than $500,000 a year.
The funny thing is that if you ask, "How are things going?" -- referring to their business or their income -- they will each give the same, non-specific answer: "Oh.... not bad." In other words, you won't know any more than before you asked.
I'm not blaming them for being vague - most of us don't like to talk openly about money, and beyond a certain point, happiness and money are not highly correlated. But even though everyone has a right to their privacy, the "It's OK" answer doesn't really help anyone else who is trying to establish a similar lifestyle or career. Making money isn't everything (far from it), but naturally any career planning resource should discuss money in an open, transparent manner. That's what I try to do in the report.
I mentioned recently that there is no competition in this business. The thousands of people who read this article today could start up thousands of new blogs tomorrow, and I would not be harmed in any way. In fact, I would probably benefit since many of them would credit me as a source of inspiration.
(In the 279 Days report, I'm going to name all my sources of inspiration and give credit where credit is due. I'll also have a follow-up post where I specifically thank more than 20 people who have been of particular help.)
The report is currently in the hands of Reese Spykerman, designer extraordinaire, who is making it look awesome. As you know, Reese always does great work, but the mockups I've seen for this project are especially nice.
On Wednesday morning (9am EST / 6am PST) we'll launch it to the world. Your FREE copy will be available here for download. Oh, and if you're on my email list, you might get a sneak preview the evening before.
How You Can Help (If You Want)
The World Domination manifesto was a success because so many cool people helped to spread the word. The last time I checked, it had been downloaded by more than
100,000 120,000 people from 120 countries.
Since the audience is more targeted for this one, I don't necessarily expect the same reaction to 279 Days. But I do want it to go out in the world and help people. If you have a blog that attracts an audience of other bloggers, entrepreneurs, or artists of any kind, I'd greatly appreciate a link and a review of the report after you've read it.
Oh, and I don't expect my word to be the last on this subject. I have some strong opinions in the report, and I'm sharing my case study so that others can use what they like and improve what they can be better. You're welcome (in fact, encouraged) to share your own perspective as well.
Next, if you're active on a social network and you appreciate what I have to say, I'd appreciate an endorsement to your followers. Twitter is now the fourth-largest source of traffic to the site, and every day people join my "6 Ways" newsletter from Facebook even though I don't even have a Facebook account. The fun thing about social networking is that YOU have more influence among your friends and followers than any so-called expert does.
(This is also why the barriers to entry in new media careers are lower than ever before... but I'm getting ahead of myself. More about that on Wednesday.)
And of course, if you don't fit into those categories or if the report isn't for you, no problem. I'll continue writing my regular articles, and I'm headed out on another big trip next week where I'll be posting more international travel essays. But for now, this is my project of the quarter... and I'm really glad it's nearly done.
Thanks, guys. Sorry this one took so long, but I think you'll like it. See you Wednesday!
Hello everyone, and Happy Easter from my corner of the world. To friends who celebrate Passover, my thoughts are with you as well. There’s no Sunday Store Update today, although the store itself is still there. I get notes every week from people who have started working for themselves or traveling the world thanks to…Read More
A number of people have asked what I take with me for long overseas trips, and how I travel with no backpack or checked baggage. I'm getting ready to head out on the road again in about 10 days, so this is a good opportunity to review how it works for me.
The biggest secret: packing light is actually easier than bringing a ton of stuff.
The overriding philosophy of my packing list is to keep it as simple as possible. That's basic, I know, but very important. At least for me, travel stress is directly proportionate to the amount of stuff I carry around. I don't own a backpack and haven't willingly checked a bag on one of my extended adventures.
Whenever I see people lugging huge bags around or waiting at the carousel hoping that their suitcase arrived intact, I always remember how glad I am to avoid that. It's not just about simplicity, although I like that too. It's also about the fact that if you carry less stuff, you worry a lot less. I mostly worry about my passport, wallet, money, and laptop bag -- things that are always with me.
When I take off to Haiti, Guyana, Suriname, and the Dominican Republic (with a couple of stopovers along the way) late next week, this is everything I'll take with me. This time I'm only going to one major region, but my gear is consistent pretty much anywhere I go. The only difference if I'm going to cold and hot climates on the same trip is to add a sweater and change the light jacket for a slightly heavier one.
By far the biggest space in my bag is taken up with running shoes and light workout clothes. I don't do as much running on a typical trip as I do at home, but whenever I have the chance to exercise, I'd be sad if I couldn't do something for lack of shoes. At some point I'll write about all the countries I've ran in-- off the top of my head, my favorites include Ghana, Macedonia, South Africa, Brunei (not my favorite country in general, but good for running), Easter Island, and Laos.
The rest of the clothes are simple and versatile. One pair of slacks, one pair of jeans, one dress shirt, two or three t-shirts, the basics for socks and underwear. I'll try to do laundry at least once along the way, preferably twice, but it doesn't always happen. If necessary, I'll just go out and buy a new shirt or whatever I need along the way.
I learned this trick in India, where I was going to a new city and the laundry place was not able to wash my clothes before leaving. I went on the street and bought a whole new outfit for about $7, which I wore for the next two days before giving to a beggar in the train station. I thought of it as "renting" an outfit for $3.50 a day.
I like to collect amenity kits from the airline and give them to people at hostels or guesthouses, who are usually thrilled to receive them. The ones pictured here are from Delta and Cathay Pacific. I've been wearing contact lenses for so long that I can wear them anywhere - long plane flights, the Persian Gulf, etc.
The only things I absolutely need are my passport, tickets (I'm still using paper tickets from the last Round-the-World trip), and money. I travel with cash - U.S. dollars, in 20s, 50s, and 100s - always new bills with no writing on them. (If you ask for them like that at the bank, they know what you need and will give you only new bills.)
I usually take about $800-1000 in cash with me on a typical two-week trip. I don't always use that much, but naturally I'd rather bring money back than get stuck without it. Of course, I also take two credit cards, but the fees for overseas transactions are so high that I prefer to use cash whenever possible.
Right after the passport(s), tickets, and cash, I always make sure I have my journal and notebook. The iPod Touch complements these items and helps me check email anywhere there is wi-fi.
I don't have a world phone yet - I just use Skype. I met a random guy in Johannesburg recently who kept trying to sell me on some telecom service that I could use "anywhere in the world with an internet connection." I was like, uh, Skype? Yes, he said, but his service was only $50 a month. Uh, Skype is free? Yes, he said, but you can also do video with his service. Uh... I finally gave up and took his business card.
I take several books, a big stack of magazines, and my Nintendo DS on every trip. Yes, I am usually the only guy in the Business Class cabin playing video games, but I don't care.
Here are a few more photos of the rest of the cargo:
Note: due to space limitations, Liberia the cat does not usually accompany me on my journeys. She likes to sleep in the bag when I'm home, though.
Other than the jacket and scarf that I wear, all of the items are packed into the one carry-on bag and one laptop bag that you see here. I also take a much smaller handbag with me (on the bottom right, next to Liberia) that gets packed into the carry-on. I bought this in Hong Kong a while back and use it to carry my notebooks and iPod when walking around during the day.
I also take 2-3 Clif Bars, a travel alarm clock from my mother-in-law, electrical adapters, and a couple of things that may vary from place to place. However, at least 90% of this packing list is consistent no matter where I am going and no matter how long I'll be away.
I'd like to say the packing process takes only about 20 minutes, but in reality it's usually longer. An additional 20 minutes or so is spent looking for stuff, checking papers, and wondering "What am I forgetting?" (This never really gets easier.)
I know that many people are more organized and efficient than I am with packing, but this way works great for me. I'm looking forward to getting back out on the road!
Any questions? Do you have a packing strategy of your own?
Packing List Image by VeruusRead More
I've joined the Mac world, and just as soon as I learn how to right-click, I'll be ready to get back to World Domination. It's amazing what a connection with Steve Jobs and $1,300 can get you at the Apple Store.
Here's the summary of the video: Not all real jobs suck, but many of them do -- so many, in fact, that I hear every day from people who are doing everything they can to escape.
As mentioned in the video, I get a LOT of email. I'll use the video updates to respond and answer questions. Remember, though: there are no experts. I'm calling it as I see it, and you should do the same.
What do you think? If you're working at a real job, do you love it or do you want out as fast as possible?
This morning I ran 14-15 miles through Mount Tabor Park here in Portland (see photo). It was my longest run of the year so far, and I was definitely helped by the fact that the weather was perfect. *** Each month I look back at what’s happened with ChrisGuillebeau.com in the previous month. If you’ve…Read More
The AONC readership has expanded quite a bit recently, and I know that not everyone here cares about business. Even though I’ve made my living as an entrepreneur for more than 10 years, I’d like to let you in on a secret:
I don’t much care for business either… at least, not in the traditional sense.
What I care about instead is business that a) doesn’t feel like work and b) is centered around building real relationships.
Here are a few unconventional business ideas that reflect this philosophy. None of these ideas are truly original (most ideas aren’t), but I’ve tried to gather them together here before writing about them in more detail for future articles.
- IDEA: Give Everything Away
From time to time I meet with business people who ask the behind-the-scenes questions about how things work over here. They enjoy using their corporate credit card to buy coffee for us, and I enjoy drinking coffee. Most of them don’t understand how I can write for free and still manage to pay the bills.
The traditional business model of sharing information is to give away 10% as a “teaser” and sell people on the 90% behind the curtain. I do the opposite – 90% (or more) is free. The 10% is for the fans and those who need specific help best suited to a more in-depth format. Products are available, in other words -- but all of the regular writing is free. Oh, and no ads either.
Another good example of giving everything away is Leo Babauta’s decision to “uncopyright” his work – everything on ZenHabits is in the public domain. This was a master stroke in building his network and establishing broad authority, even after he had become quite successful. I don't know the private details of Leo's finances, but when I look at his subscriber base, my estimate is that he's living pretty damn well by encouraging people to steal his content.
- IDEA: Don’t use people, help them.
I didn’t have business cards for the first decade of my self-employment. Since I meet a lot of people these days, I finally gave in and ordered some recently – but it took 10 years. I don’t go to Toastmasters, Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce, or any other networking events.
The problem I have with traditional networking is that it frequently involves scoping people out to see what they can do for you. I hate this. I know it isn’t all about that – but some of it is, and I just don’t like the pretentiousness.
The kind of networking I do now is extremely important. I spend about two hours a day connecting with people. I do this primarily through Twitter and 75-100 emails a day. Everyone who writes gets a real response (sometimes it takes a while, but I take it seriously).
By the way, if you feel like you don’t have time for Twitter, read this great post by Havi Brooks about why you should have time. I usually agree with most of what Havi says, and this article is no exception.
Instead of asking "What can you do for me?" this kind of networking is externally focused. It asks the questions, "How can I help you? What can I do to tell other people about you? What are your goals?" I love it.
- IDEA: There is No Competition.
Someone asked me in a radio interview recently if Tim Ferriss was my competitor. Um, no. As I see it, there is no competition in this business. Tim has helped a large number of people think differently about life and work, and that’s pretty much my goal too, albeit in a different way.
If you’re in a business where you compete with the store down the street and one of you has to lower prices to bring in customers, good luck. Instead of external competition, the competition you face every day is INERTIA. The competition comes from within to get up every day and help people change the world.
- IDEA: Avoid (Almost) All Meetings
Seth Godin is often asked how he has time to do everything, especially write back to everyone who emails him. His answer is that he doesn’t watch TV and doesn’t go to meetings, so that gives him 4-5 more hours a day than most people have.
I completely agree. I also don't watch TV and don't go to meetings. Instead I go around the world - that does take some time - and I like to go to coffee shops almost every afternoon. I also don’t take many phone calls, but we’ll come to that later.
- IDEA: Lose the hard sell, or any sell at all.
The thought of hard-selling is a complete turn-off to me. I regularly walk out of stores that use guilt or scarcity tactics to sell me. (“Are you sure you don’t want the extended warranty? Because, just between us, these products tend to break down a lot.”)
Selling that plays on fear, guilt, or greed establishes negative relationships. I’d rather build my business, and my relationships in general, on positive connections. If someone writes in and says I’m thinking of buying this, can you sell me on it? My answer is no, sorry. I can tell you about it, I can answer questions, but I can not sell you.
Also, if someone ever complains about something I sell (it's extremely rare, but some people do go around the internet downloading things and asking for refunds the same day), I give their money back IMMEDIATELY. Life is too short to worry about those people. This brings us to the next point:
- IDEA: Give people what they want.
If you don’t think this is an unconventional business idea, good for you– that means you’re somewhat isolated from internet marketing, or stores that try to sell you things you don't want.
My view is that if you have to persuade, you're in the wrong business. Meet people's needs instead. Sell what people buy. If your project meets needs and expands the pie (we're coming to that), you're on to something.
Is your product a good idea? Here’s a test. Check this list:
1) Desperate Need – People NEED (or think they need) your product or service.
2) High Value – You deliver high value. You’re proud of what you sell.
3) High Margins – You make real money from it.
If you have all three, you’re probably on to something.
One more recommendation: If you’re stuck, Clay Collins is especially good at helping people figure this out. His style is very similar to mine, but he’s smarter.
- IDEA: Don’t outsource, just stop doing stuff.
If you feel overwhelmed and are thinking about outsourcing, you can also just stop doing stuff. It works surprisingly well.
A good question to ask yourself is, “If I stop doing x, will the world come to an end?” If yes, you should probably find a way to do it. If not, it will probably be OK. True, you may not be able to build a seven-figure business this way, but is that your goal? Again, if that's what you want, then you might need to outsource. If not, you can probably just let some things go.
- IDEA: Regularly turn down money.
The first part is easy – turn down money from difficult people. Don’t hard-sell; invite customers to participate with you. Give money back and walk away from anyone who becomes difficult.
The second part, however, is more difficult to come to terms with. The second part involves turning down money not because of rude people but just because something isn't right for you. Years ago, for example, I used to feel guilty for giving up thousands of dollars in lost sales because I didn’t want to call people on the phone. I’ve matured over the years – now I don’t feel guilty about it.
- IDEA: Don't listen to anyone (listen to everyone).
I try to follow this rule not only in business but in life in general. If one person doesn’t like your work, don’t worry. Instead, listen to what everyone says. Get feedback from the entire world. Use Google Alerts for your name, search for what people are saying, (I’m @chrisguillebeau – have we connected yet?), and generally pay attention to what's going on.
And the MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL --
- IDEA: Always Expand the Pie.
In my business, I don't lose if someone else gains. When I gain, no one else loses. This is a result of some of the ideas I explained above – the fact that there is no competition, I try to give people what they want, I don’t play sales games, etc.
If your business (or your job, or whatever it is you do every day) is built on taking something from somebody else, I don't envy you. If you asked me, I’d say you're in the wrong business. You might as well go out and repossess cars or work for a collection agency.
Thankfully, businesses that “get it” are becoming more common. I’m far from alone in this. In fact, I really think that a huge subset of entrepreneurs who adopt this mindset will become more and more successful while traditional business models continue to struggle.
Speaking of social networking, the other day I saw that someone is selling an $800 guide to Twitter. I thought that was pretty funny. From a marketing standpoint I understand how it works – some clueless executives from big companies will buy it and feel like they are getting a deal. Perceived value is everything, so perhaps it's worth it to some people.
But assuming you don’t have $800 to spend, you can learn how unconventional business works for free. The hard part will be saying goodbye to some old assumptions, and no $800 guide can help you do that.
By the way, the same people who say “Welcome to the Real World” will say the same thing about some of these ideas in the business world. “That’s not how it works… that’s unrealistic…” etc.
If you’re in business, you can safely ignore this feedback. The better question to ask is, who is the judge of your success? What does success look like for you?
I’m well aware that my business is unsuccessful by some standards. I’ve foregone expansion, turned away money, and done almost everything myself. In the hands of a more skilled businessperson, I don’t doubt that they could achieve higher returns – perhaps even with less work. It’s just not who I am.
Feel free to share your own unconventional business ideas in the comments section. I don’t expect everyone to agree with all of my ideas, and I’ll be happy to post yours so that everyone else can learn from them too.