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2011 Annual Review: Business Lessons

2011 Annual Review: Business Lessons

Business Lessons: 2011

As I look back on the year during my Annual Review, I think about what went well and what didn’t in several parts of life.

This post refers specifically to the business side of AONC, especially UnconventionalGuides.com and related projects. The business grew substantially this year, despite having only one big launch, and despite my working from around the world at a frantic pace.

Here are a few lessons learned while making a living in 2011.

Monthly Pricing: A Good Thing

Much of the business growth came from one important decision: to create a membership site with monthly subscription payments. In the past, the business was humming along well, but depended a great deal on how popular the various operations were on any given day. If affiliates were working hard, or if we had a big product launch, overall revenue would substantially increase. But otherwise, it was hit-or-miss, with income coming in on a fluctuating cycle.

Launching the Travel Hacking Cartel in the beginning of the year, then continuing to draw in new members throughout the year, has brought a lot of sustainability into the business.

Tiered pricing, or offering products at a range of price points, created the most significant improvement last year. My first recommendation to anyone creating digital assets would be: offer your products or services in a (limited) range of prices. Your customers will like this, and you’ll like it too—because people will spend more. But now I have a strong second recommendation: find a way to ensure that at least some part of your income arrives every month, regardless of how popular everything else is.

In fact, this shift helped so much that I now plan to switch most of my business projects to this model in the future. I’ll continue to operate Unconventional Guides under the single-purchase model, but my next big projects will follow the pricing structure I used for the Travel Hacking Cartel.

LESSON: Whenever possible, get paid more than once.

***

Webinars: Quick, Easy, Profitable

A few months ago, I had planned to launch something, but it just didn’t come together in time. Then, another project was also delayed—leaving me with a calendar of more than twelve weeks with no product development or promotion. I’ve always operated AONC on a very low-key, no-pressure sales model (the majority of our readers never buy anything at all, and that’s fine with me) but I also like building and launching things on a somewhat regular basis.

That’s when I had the thought: instead of building a huge program, why not find a way to launch something quickly? Every day, people ask me the same questions over and over. Two very common ones are “How can I get started with traveling?” and “How can I work from the road?” Of course, we answer those questions in considerable detail with the Unconventional Guides products, but not everyone wants a whole product.

Therefore, I decided to offer two one-hour classes, one of them a “Beginner’s Guide to Travel Hacking” and the other on “Working from the Road.” I made them simple and cheap: just $29 for each one-hour class, with a free recording and resources page delivered afterward.

It actually took me a fair amount of work to prepare the materials, since I wanted to make sure they were jam-packed with helpful info instead of me just talking about general ideas. Still, it wasn’t a huge effort compared to the thrill of launching something quickly. We filled up both classes within a few days of launching, and it ended up being a lot of fun.

LESSON: If you can easily do something, do it.

***

Working from Anywhere – An Observation

Speaking of working from the road, I’ve recently noticed a key point in my own work. This year I visited 26 new countries—many of them fairly difficult ones to get to and work from, such as Somalia, Mauritania, Palau, and others. (The next post will be a full travel roundup of the year.)

Wherever I go, I’m always pounding away, making sure my commitments are kept reasonably up to date, answering lots of emails, and performing various administrative tasks.

What I’ve realized in more than a decade of doing this in one fashion or another is that I can maintain things from anywhere, but I wouldn’t want to develop and launch things from anywhere. The distinction is important: for long-term creative purposes, I need a certain amount of stability and reliable infrastructure.

The biggest challenge is not that I want to take it easy; it’s just that my creative energy is greatly reduced while on the road. I still work at least 4-5 hours a day wherever I am, but much of this work relates strictly to existing commitments. I have a lot less “creative space” on the road to build detailed projects, so I’ve learned to be more clear on scheduling extended periods of writing and building things when I’m not always jetting off.

LESSON: Travel the world, but set aside time to “make stuff.”

***

Future Planning: What’s Coming Next

I remain consistent in the core beliefs that have brought AONC this far, many of them originally articulated in 279 Days to Overnight Success: readers are extremely important, so maintaining relationships with them is also important. Don’t outsource your email or use autoresponders to keep people at a distance. Never pretend to be too important to communicate with those who care about what you have to say.

More than anything else, this perspective—and the ongoing commitment to publish and build things—are what sustains the ongoing work. I don’t always get things right, of course, but I try to keep these two principles in mind.

Business-wise, I hope to continue refining processes, moving everything over to our own server, our own shopping cart and processing service—basically our own system from start to finish. This has been a dream of mine for a long time, since every other solution inevitably has shortcomings, and we may even be able to license this solution for other small merchants as well. My small team and I also have other ideas, most of them working in conjunction with THE $100 STARTUP book launch in the spring.

Here are two projects in the works at the moment.

PUBLISHING GUIDE. I’ve been working with my master literary agent / Jedi knight, David Fugate, to create our first Unconventional Guide in 16 months. Yes, it’s been a long time, but this one is worth the wait.

Studies show that more than 80% of people want to write a book, but very few actually do so. Of course, you don’t need a publisher to write a book, but part of what holds people back is that they have no idea how the publishing industry works. The Unconventional Guide to Publishing will demystify the whole process, telling you everything you need to know about how to get a book deal from a traditional publisher, or how to take advantage of the many options now available for self-publishing.

I’ll have more to say about this project very soon—since we’re planning to launch on January 10th. Yikes! I’d better get to work.

EMPIRE BUILDING 2.0. After getting the publishing guide on the market, I expect my most significant business project of 2012 will be the sequel to the Empire Building Kit, our most popular seller in the shop. I’ll be carving out time to work on this soon… preferably not while I’m traveling in Central Africa!

***

I enjoy writing and most of the things that come along with being an author, such as planning tours, doing interviews, and connecting with foreign publishers putting out different versions of my book around the world. But I also enjoy my self-published business work. I feel fulfilled and motivated by the feedback I hear from customers, and I wouldn’t want to choose between the two different “jobs.” Instead, I want to create convergence (my theme of 2009) with everything I do.

How about you… what did you learn in your work during 2011?

Feel free to share a few highlights or lessons of your own.

###

Reminder: we’re compiling a list of other blogs doing their own Annual Reviews. If you’d like to share yours, include a link to one of this year’s AONC posts, and we’ll share a few highlights at the end of the series.

34 Comments

  • Thanks for another great review Chris. I agree fully about the distinction between working from the road on ‘maintenance’ and working from the road on ‘creation’. I find that to create and launch I need to be stationed in one spot for at least 3-4 weeks. And if that place doesn’t have internet then the whole thing breaks down!

    However, I also find a change of scenery produces different ideas and often more creative products than staying in one place. Does anyone else get their best ideas when away from their main base?

  • Kent says:

    Totally agree with what you are saying about creative energy being greatly reduced on the road. That’s something we struggle with, as we are away from home base about half the year. It’s a key topic as we do our own review and map out what 2012 will look like.

  • Renea Hanna says:

    I am working on my first end of year review and noting some of the strengths of my past year and some of my opportunity points. One thing I was very pleased to discover was that I was well on my way to making some “pare-down” changes in my life in order to better prepare myself for a transition into productivity and radical goal setting. I’ve downloaded the workbook by Paul Meyers and am so excited about the results. After telling a very dear friend about what I’ve been learning and doing, she, already being an inspiring volunteer and earth shaker, revealed a desire to work with me on building a platform for a local community program that has been on my mind for the better part of the last year. I know I JUST wrote you a thank you note, but this all took place last night and I had to share.
    AND I am super excited about the Unconventional Guide to Publishing! I will be eagerly awaiting its release.
    I have never felt so empowered and capabe in my life than I do now. I am excited to be transitioning into 2012 on the right foot. Thanks and keep it up!

  • Nate says:

    In a full year of working on Love Drop, I learned that people get “used to” things very quickly. When we first started the project, each new month that we showed up on someone’s doorstep with gifts and help from around the world, people went crazy sharing it with others, especially via social media.

    But then something interesting happened. After the first few months, excitement started going down. The fact that we were literally changing people’s lives every month, one after the other, telling a different story each time, should have been more impressive as time went on, not less. But I think people got used to the fact that “that’s what those guys do,” and stopped getting excited about it.

    A lesson I took away is that no matter how amazing your project is, you still have to work hard at presenting and marketing it in the right way . . . or at least in a way that keeps things new and fresh. Having a great product will get you much of the way, but not all the way.

    Thanks for always sharing your learning, Chris. I was just telling someone the other day that you’re pretty much the best in the online business, and someone I really respect. Hopefully I’ll catch you later this year!

  • michael says:

    I look forward to – and learn from – your annual review every year. Thanks for 1. doing it and 2. sharing it.

    My key business lesson has been around the theme of “ship shape”. It connects to what you mentioned in a previous post about the challenges of scaling a business. We’re trying to do that now with our various programs, and we’ve found we have to be much more rigorous about systems and structures. It’s been a bit up and down during the year, but I know we’re in a stronger place now than we were 12 months ago.

    Michael

  • Amy C says:

    Thank you for articulating so well something I’d struggled with this past year. My husband and I took to the road in last 2010, living out of a van and working part time, climbing, trail running and biking, while seeing the country through just last month. I had decided that launching and developing my life coaching business during that year would be a good idea, but found it pretty challenging to grow. I was able to successfully maintain it, but the growing part and developing part was much more difficult.

    I kept telling myself it’d be easier if I was in one place. Then I’d counter myself with, “no, you can figure it out… people work and travel all the time, you’re just making excuses.” But now that we’ve settled back into a home-in-one-place for awhile, it is, in fact, much easier to channel my creative energy and gain momentum. 2011 was an amazing learning (and life) experience and 2012 is set to take all of those experiences to build my business and create something sustainable for me and meaningful for my clients and hopefully the world.

  • Sarah says:

    Never done one of these before, just done it for the first time following this example and feel really good. With so much happening next year, I felt quite overwhelmed and daunted by the prospect of keeping all juggling balls in the air at the same time, but condensing it into 3 pages has made it much easier to feel like I’m in control. And I even managed to reach one of my 2012 (minor) goals before I’d finished the review! Let’s hope I can keep on like that!

  • Melissa says:

    I learned that I didn’t have to work in a job I hated, with people that only wanted more, better, faster. I took a half year break in a forty year work life to ponder the questions: what do you want do to? and at 56? What I decided is age is a number, I want to work for myself, and I want to do something that does not involve the corporate world at whatever size it exists ie: an office. I am studying to become a massage therapist. What the hell, it’s as different from insurance work as possible, I can make some money, I can do it my way. The journey is just beginning, but I feel new life flowing in at the possibilities. In other words: I don’t feel dead. I’m not doing middle age. I want to remain the student

  • iktomi says:

    I enjoy the many enjoyable features of your website and that people are happy, looking foreward to future projects, enjoying travel, meeting people in other places, meeting obstacles in the best possible way..backtracking if necessary but looking at accomplishments, not disasters. If I can travel to Newport, Oregon…stay in a motel a few days and enjoy the ocean, the “world’s smallest harbor”, and the seaside stores…it will be a great accomplishment for me in 2012 when I turn 78 years old..Thanks Chris for an upbeat website.

  • This year I launched my first product – a membership site actually. I’d debated launching a single product (an ebook). I built the website/landing home page. Then, created an outline. Next thing you know, that turned into a membership site. What I love about it is the recurring revenue aspect like you noted. Though my biggest hurdle was figuring out pricing – folks have said I should charge more.

    I’ve experimented with a few things in the pricing arena, so far, so good. I look forward to finding ways to promote the program moving into the new year!

  • These are great lessons and I appreciate you sharing them with us! What you’ve created is so inspiring and I’m so grateful for all that you share. :) For me, I learned that I really can make money following the work that I love vs. doing the work I know how to make money at. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE design for the right clients, but I am truly passionate about personal responsibility and creating a business around it. After working with a metaphysician/manifestation consultant, I was able to shift my belief and two hours later was offered my first PAID writing opportunity… writing about what I LOVE. I’ve learned that planning everything is truly important, but more so, following those plans and schedules to make sure things happen on time. I’ve learned the value of having a mastermind group, people to bounce ideas off of and give you feedback. And on more the one occasion, I was reminded of how important it is to listent to your gut. xoxo

  • Cristi Mercedes says:

    I’ve learned (yet again) to trust myself and I’ve become much more skillful at ignoring the naysayers. I’ve also learned that what seems like a relatively straightforward idea is taking more time to launch than I had originally thought. In part b/c I’m having to learn more details than I thought I would. I had tried to hire people to help me and everyone had their own ideas and / or just kept flaking out or insisted I answer waaaay too many questions. They didn’t trust my instincts, which I know are right – I’ve tested the waters. So my number one lesson is to trust myself and just keep on the path regardless of how many extra steps have shown up. As long as I keep making progress and learning along this path, I’m alright with the time lag and having patience.

  • Sharkman says:

    Great insight Chris on some key things: as serial adventurers, my wife and I were on the road 330+ days/yr for many years and we wondered why we were having so much trouble building new things or creating significant growth with our existing business. Marianne makes a good point that new scenery opens up space to create new ideas and Jonathan Fields has blogged a lot about this. I”m a huge believer bc I know I do my best thinking underwater or up on the side of a mountain somewhere. But when I’m on an adventure, a huge amount of my bandwidth is right where it should be – on that adventure – so that doesn’t leave enough bandwidth to seriously work on something else. At some point, you’ve got to settle down enough to bring enough resources to bear on a project if you want it to get built. As for annual reviews; that’s one of my big lessons for the year. Happy adventures!

  • Don Maier says:

    I just took over another similar website for studio artists to add to my plein air artists site and will begin paid access in January. A big step to turn this into a retirement job for us instead of simply a hobby. Until today, I had not had the time to read your emails, but having taken the time today, will not miss another. Good stuff. At age 64, glomming on to new things does not come that easily. I just did a posting last night asking the question “how has the internet changed your life”. Since beginning to use it in 2006, I have found my soul mate, eliminated leaving the house to do Christmas shopping and shipping, connected with new friends who we traveled as far as Ireland to visit, and pay all my bills in seconds. I am sure I am forgetting a bunch of things, after all I am 64.

  • Casey Friday says:

    This post couldn’t be any more timely. I’m about to launch a huge new business, and my goals align with what you’ve learned running yours – I want the work to be upkeep oriented, not creative oriented. My wife and I travel a lot, and I want us to be able to focus on the enjoyment of travel, rather than the task of earning an income.

    Thanks for being so blunt with your advice. Many people beat around the bush when it comes to business advice, as they’d rather have me pay them a consulting fee to hear what they have to say. I really appreciate the candor of your brand.

  • Brianna says:

    The biggest thing I learned was to not undersell myself. My time and talent are worth something and if I sell myself short, than people are less likely to believe in me and my brand.

  • Karl Staib says:

    I learned that interviews are a great way to build relationships. I enjoyed doing them in the past, but never thought to make it a big part of my content strategy until this summer.

    After my interview with you my enjoyment really hit home then you complimented me after the interview was over. It was so nice to hear that I’ve improved because when I first started I was awkward. Now I realize how much I’ve grown as a blogger and business person.

  • Hamid says:

    The biggest things I learned was change, think small, design, empathy.

  • Audrey says:

    I agree with @sharkman For me, the creativity-home link is the stillness of being in one place. I adore the vibe of new and different, but things slow down at home (and at the beach) and the experiences from the road come out differently.

  • In my personal life, 2011 has been a remarkable from many angles.
    The one relevant here is: I have been able to declare my first innings requiring me to work for my earning on the basis of what I thought I was capable of.
    Now that I am indeed ‘free’ to plan and do what I ‘like’, i have been able to visit many blogs and websites to look for options and tools available to me to enable me document my thoughts on my one of the most preferred hobby of Reading.
    I have been able to commence blogging
    and
    I have been able to regularly some very good blogs, like this one.

  • Maria says:

    This year I launched “Fitness Reloaded”, where I teach people how to exercise from anywhere without equipment.

    I absolutely love helping people making the switch from non-exercisers, to exercisers. This is something I realize more and more as I run the site. Being fit does not have to be hard.

    I also completed my first survey where I investigated how people exercise, why they don’t exercise- if they are non exercisers, and what their success secrets are – if they are consistent exercisers. I am very excited to share the results in the weeks to come!

    Happy holidays!

  • Erin says:

    Great advice here. I totally agree that it’s difficult to create something new and launch it while travelling around. We are permanent digital nomads so we don’t return home when we need to focus on projects, but we rent an apartment somewhere to get into a good routine and not have to worry about the stresses of travel. We are in Chiang Mai, Thailand for four months right now and our productivity has gone way up.

  • Aaron says:

    Two years in a row now your annual review post has helped me focus in on my own review. This year though, Iuhad an actual business to review! The Everyday Language Learner has been a great platform from which to help folks get started learning other languages and I am excited by the growth and engagement. Looking forward to 1. Working to get the guides and site into more languages this year to give away for free, and 2. Work to improve conversions so that I can keep doing this. Lots went well. Lots didn’t go well. And that leaves a lot of room for improvement. I like to think that I need to approach projects with ruthless evaluation and approach myself with grace. It seems a good formula for all around growth. Thanks for all you do to inspire and help others.

  • I’m developing a membership training site, which is taking much longer than I had naively thought! But I’ve done much more research (both surveys and one-on-one interviews with potential customers) than I originally planned, and that’s a very good thing. It confirmed my business model, led me to 3-tiered pricing and tweaked a number of my deliverables for the site. I’m excited to launch it next month! Thanks for your comments and insight throughout the year.

  • Ame' Karoly says:

    As a fresh college graduate with a shiny degree in PR Mass Communications taking on a brand new job in China, I had a lot of things to learn. I think the most important thing I’ve learned, however, is to always keep my camera on me. You never know when you may come across something that you want to photograph artistically or for promotions. Some of the most random moments have turned news worthy for the school I work at just because it had pictures to go with it.

    I also learned to have the coffee made before the boss arrives, but that is a different story.

  • I am quickly coming upon my first anniversary of working for myself, and this past year I have seen many business ideas come and go. My challenge is to find one idea (or even two!) to work on lest I become too overwhelmed from all the ideas I would live to pursue. I am working on paring down what projects to focus on the most (such as e-books, subscriptions, etc). My overarching goal is to have (mostly) all my income be generated through my website selling my photography and other digital products. Most of my income through photography is selling my fine art prints at a local artist market every weekend, which requires me to be there…while I am thankful to have the opportunity, I want to free myself from having to be anywhere for my income on a regular basis.

    Thanks Chris for all you do, truly inspiring.

  • Fly Brother says:

    As usual, another set of insightful, inspiring annual reviews. Couldn’t creak out anything as thematically-organized this year, but some self-reflection is better than none.

    Thanks again for doing you, my man.
    -E

    http://fly-brother.com/2011/12/21/consolidation-and-realization-annual-review-2011/

  • Thats interesting about webinars, I always got the impression they were pretty tough to fill. Depends what will be covered i guess! I can see how long term travel could impact on practical productivity, but i find long term ‘home office’ time acts like an anchor after a while, in terms of inspiration, passion, creativity. I have to go away to get fired up again, but it does help to have made sure the business is in order before going, and not leaving it too many months before coming back.

  • barbara says:

    I”m an RN and actually love my job. Most days are great. But I learned this year that RN’s can pick up just a week or 2 of work here and there all over the country. I’d love to travel this way. It would be great to take my kids from the midwest to california for a week or 2 while on vacation and have the entire trip paid for.

    This will be my focus next year. To take one of these work trips within the US, and (I’m a single mom) to give my kids a richer life experience.

    Thanks for your blog. I’m a faithful reader. It is so encouraging and inspiring.

  • Uttoran Sen says:

    Yes, you do respond to emails, and i can tell you, i never expected to receive a reply and was totally thrilled to get one. Good to have the communication going with the people that follow you. I do.

    I will be looking foreword to your publishing guide, if possible, mention how to get advance payments for the book we want to publish, if that is possible? Does the – “getting a book deal from a traditional publisher” includes advance payments?

    Personally, i learnt a lot in 2011. During 2011 i have made a lot of connections with the top bloggers and have finally started to get some exposure to my own blogs. My focus throughout 2012 will be to increase the viewership of my blogs and start a writing service that am currently working hard to get started.

  • Noch Noch says:

    I look forward to the publishing guide – I’m working on a book proposal myself and then to find an agent and publisher :)
    Can use more advice from people who have done it before
    Thanks in advnace
    noch Noch

  • kare Anderson says:

    Have you thought of selling a version of your books as interactive eBooks? It would seem that your topic and approach lend themselves to this format. I have been researching the firms that seem most adept at this tech and have gathered a “Digital Books Go Social” list at my twitter. Am eager to hear of others experience in having an interactive eBook made

  • Tim Leffel says:

    You’ve hit it on the problem with working on the road. It’s hard to do momentous things when you’re in motion. It’s good for thinking of ideas and you can keep to a schedule of tasks, but not so good for executing on new projects. I’ve found that one aspect of this is that when you’re in a new place, you want to explore and experience it. Holing yourself up in a hotel room for 12 hours straight seems like a travesty. At home though, you’d do that without thinking twice about it because there’s no cut-off when you have to head out. You won’t miss anything.

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