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Annual Review: 2009 Business Lessons

Annual Review: 2009 Business Lessons

business-lessons

As part of my Annual Review series, I’m looking back at the development of AONC and the related business during 2009. I hope you’re having a great December, wherever you are.

***

The business side of AONC happened quite organically in the beginning. The only real business goal I had when starting the site was to get a book contract. As the readership quickly grew, however, I realized I could also create products to serve specific sub-sets of readers.

Thus was born the Unconventional Guide business, which you can read more about here if you haven’t already seen it. The business vision, in short, is to help people live unconventional lives by creating opportunities through self-employment and travel, while providing me with a sustainable income so I can focus most of my work time on the writing I do for free.

Starting from the ground up in 2008, it took about nine months to put together a model that generated the average annual income for my part of the world ($47,500) while continuing to focus primarily on my writing career. It probably could have been faster, but in the first few months I didn’t even think about the monetization aspect, and then I continued to take the business development side very slowly for the next few months to make sure I was on the right track.

The business grew quite a bit this year from last year’s projections, but it also happened in a very natural way. Since the launch of the first guide (Summer 2008) until now, I’ve consistently spent an average of less than ten hours a week on the business.

This is by design: I enjoy the work, but I also don’t want to become a slave to it. To be fair, much of the other work I do for my writing career (40+ hours a week) influences the success of the business by bringing in new readers, some of whom become customers – but in the categories of business development, content creation, customer support, and other traditional business tasks, I average less than ten hours a week.

Like everything I do, it’s been a work in progress, and I continue to learn as I go along. Speaking of learning, here are a few business lessons learned from 2009.

You don’t have to hire anyone, even as your business grows. After things picked up earlier this year, I felt an internal pressure to hire some kind of virtual assistant, mostly because that’s what everyone in the internet world seems to advise these days. “Get someone to do the things you don’t want to do,” is how the idea is usually sold.

I felt the internal pressure until I realized that another answer to dealing with “the things you don’t want to do” is to just not worry about doing them at all. If I have to supervise someone else doing boring work, it’s not that different from doing it to begin with. The things are still on my mind one way or another.

Instead of expanding the business to the point where I need some form of employees, therefore, I try to keep things very simple. As a reference point, I like this article about Jim Collins, the business author and speaker. Jim has a couple of employees, but the Good to Great empire is deliberately small — so I figure if he can do that at the multi-million dollar level where clients are paying $80,000 a day, I can do just fine at a lower level on my own.

Technically, I’m not entirely on my own. I’m fortunate to work with superstar designer Reese, whom I talk with almost every day. I also have other partners for specific projects, and from time to time someone will help out with a task I couldn’t easily complete by myself. But otherwise, it’s a one-man shop, and I like it that way. If it’s working out OK, why change?

Don’t launch a product the day before leaving the country. Sounds simple, right? But for me it’s hard because I have so many trips planned. I did this with the Social Web launch and it was stressful, even for someone like me who likes to do a lot of things at once. Something always goes wrong with product launches – always – so having at least a day or two of leeway in case of emergency is helpful.

I hope I’ll be able to maintain a good launch + travel calendar in 2010, but with everything going on I’m honestly not sure it will always work out to be at home every time I do something new. Perhaps I should put this on a “Lessons I Should Learn” list.

With coaching and consulting, I like helping people for free more than being paid for it. I know a few other people who are very good at paid coaching – I think of Pam Slim or Charlie Gilkey to start with – and I do understand the psychology behind the fact that you tend to appreciate something more when you pay for it.

But that’s not the way that works best for me. I launched a brief consulting service late last year and had plenty of customer interest, but I felt that the dynamic of the relationship changed when someone was paying me for my time. I shut it down after a few months and no longer accept offers to pay for access.

Never promote anything that isn’t a perfect fit for the community. Thankfully, I didn’t learn this lesson by screwing up somewhere; I just learned to say no more and more often. Every single day I hear from multiple people who all have a new project they’ve worked hard on. In fact, over the course of an average month I’ll hear about 150+ projects that people want me to endorse or promote. “It’s so great!” they tell me. “Your readers will love it!”

And of course, they may be right — but it’s definitely not in the interest of my community to promote 150 things in a month, no matter how great they are. Especially when it comes to paid products, I’m very careful. As I continually remind myself, trust is hard to acquire but easy to lose.

Also, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with promoting things as an affiliate (I have my own affiliate program for the guides), but I’ve learned in my case that it’s usually better to endorse something without receiving anything but goodwill. I’ve done that with Mondo Beyondo, Tribal Author, Escape from Cubicle Nation, and a few books from authors I know.

I’d much rather hear good feedback and strengthen relationships than receive a commission. For me, endorsing stuff is like consulting – being paid just changes the whole dynamic for me, so I prefer to do it without the payoff most of the time.

Make sure each product is accessible and gets potential buyers excited. Commercially speaking, the least successful new product I put out this year was Travel Ninja. In retrospect I realized that some people felt intimidated by it – they could relate to taking a couple of trips or maybe planning for one big adventure, but the idea of traveling as much as I do is certainly not for everyone.

The most successful, on the other hand, was Art and Money (from May-August) and then Frequent Flyer Master (November-December). With FFM, I wanted to make sure I created something that was accessible to people who don’t fly that often. The night before the launch, I still wasn’t sure if I had make the connection strong enough in the landing page and earlier messages.

Thankfully, my confidence grew by mid-morning as we sold out of all 150 introductory copies right away, and then kept going. Lesson learned: make it accessible. Oh, and making it fun helps too.

***

2010 Business Plans

In the first half of next year, I’ll be launching two online communities and one major information product that should ramp up the business profile quite a bit without infringing on everything else we do at AONC.

I’m really excited about all three of these projects. The online communities will provide the chance for a core group of readers/customers to focus on two areas (life planning and entrepreneurship) that are difficult to do in a participatory manner on the blog. Each community will run as a 28-day class where a partner and I do about half of the teaching, and the rest of the input comes from the participants. I’ll be promoting the first one right after New Year’s, and the second one in early March.

The other project will be called Empire Building Kit, and the theme is “How to Build a Business in 1 Year by Doing 1 Thing Every Day.” It’s kind of like the Working for Yourself guide on steroids — or at least, that’s how I’m thinking of it as I’m outlining the content off and on this month.

In the second half of the year, I don’t expect to do much business expansion at all. Instead, the majority of my focus will be on promoting the AONC book and traveling to meet readers throughout the U.S. and Canada. I’ll say more about that in the final Annual Review update, coming next week.

That’s My Story — How About You?

Fellow entrepreneurs – how was your 2009? Any big plans for next year?

And for all of you aspiring entrepreneurs out there – what are you planning to do in 2010 to get closer to your goals?

###

You can follow me on Twitter here
You can join AONC on Facebook here

Outdoor Office Image by Barock

34 Comments

  • Alan says:

    “To be fair, much of the other work I do for my writing career (40+ hours a week) influences the success of the business by bringing in new readers, some of whom become customers – but in the categories of business development, content creation, customer support, and other traditional business tasks, I average less than ten hours a week.”

    Amazing, Chris. It looks like 2009 was the year that your passion officially became your business. Congrats on everything you’ve worked up to, and I look forward to the year ahead!

  • Henri says:

    My plan for 2010 involves helping and connecting with as many people as possible. I’ve already started a blog and joined Chris Garrett’s course which has helped a lot. 2010 will be an awesome year!

  • Oleg Mokhov says:

    Selective expansion lets you build your business while keeping it a 1-person show.

    Very interesting concept, Chris. I always knew about keeping things simple, but I assumed that the more you expand your biz, the more help you’ll naturally need. The keeping it simple is in your products, tasks VAs would need to do, etc.

    I never thought that you can selectively expand – only say ‘yes’ to things that will let you continue to be a 1-person business.

    It’s the Power of No on steroids.

    My goal for 2010 is to start building the no-hype, no-compromise biz side of my site as I continue to create (hopefully) remarkable free content and gain more readers. And also to start releasing my electronic dance music, which I’m excited to incorporate with my writing.

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring biz achievements and goals Chris,
    Oleg

  • Baker says:

    I’m giddy like a schoolboy in anticipation for your 2010 products.

    I’m serious.

    I can’t freakin’ wait. :-)

  • Just wanted to say that I am very much looking forward to your two new products for 2010. The Unconventional Guide to Working for Yourself is what opened my eyes to the possibilities of digital entrepreneurship and location independence. I quickly devoured 279 Days to Overnight Success and A Brief Guide To World Domination too. (I even sold my mom on your Art and Money guide!)

    Keep us up-to-date on the progress of the community/class and the Empire Building Kit, okay?

  • Russell says:

    It sounds like you are running your business instead of letting your business run you. I like that you focus on being a writer instead of using every opportunity to market. That’s why I read your blog. It’s inspiring to see someone make a living doing what they enjoy without compromising their values.

  • More great lessons Chris! Like & agree with your next quote … “For me, endorsing stuff is like consulting – being paid just changes the whole dynamic for me, so I prefer to do it without the payoff most of the time.”

    You really walk your talk and talk your walk.

    Will you have a Boston Meet-up this year?

    Thx. Giulietta, always singing at karaoke nights.

  • Jason Ford says:

    Ditto to what Mr. Adam Baker said! I’m especially excited to see how your community based products play out.

  • All the best to you Chris and 3 cheers for being inspirational, unconventional and free.

  • You certainly have my interest in anticipation of your 2010 projects!! I just hope I’ll be able to participate, I have no doubt they’ll be spectacular. :) I may have realized that I will go ahead and do my stint in the corporate world, but I definitely don’t want to do that for any longer than absolutely necessary. (I can’t see myself liking it that much, honestly. I have other passions I want to pursue.) 2010 could always be the good kick in the pants I need to figure out how to make a living doing what I love. The move to a better location should help me with that, too.

  • Amy says:

    I gotta say you’ve piqued my interest with your Build your Empire project! Looking forward to hearing more about that.

  • Jill says:

    Chris Thank you so much for sharing your feellings on the Affiliate market. I had a few affilate links that I really liked that helped me alot and had them posted on my site and would sometimes send out emails to my list but even though I truly found them helpful and wanted to share the benefits with others it just didn’t feel right to me so I removed them from my site and stopped sending out the info. Now I can just give my peeps useful info with no strings attatched and it feels much better :)

    Good to know I’m not alone with that!

  • One of my successes for 2009 was starting my blog – and I was able to lose the fear of blogging after reading your blog. So thanks for the inspiration – please keep it up! I may have to steal your idea of posting a year end review . . .

  • Dean Dwyer says:

    I liked the logic behind keeping your staff at zero. I do feel bad however for Jim Collins. How can anyone survive on $80,000/day?

  • Eugenia says:

    Interesting, it’s the first time I hear anyone saying it’s OK not to hire anyone. I feel relieved, I enjoy running my own show and I remember I hated it when I had to supervise my 7 employees.

  • Money Funk says:

    I enjoy your web content and your values. I don’t see a problem with growing to what fits you and not to exceed that. Some people just don’t want the daily dealings of having employees – I agree. I enjoyed reading your goals for 2010.

    If I could make up my entrepreneurial mind, I would be able to tell you my 2010 goals. I still argue with myself: do I want to expand my blog or keep it as hobby? I did start expanding and saw an incredible gain after following Karen Knowler’s branding your business program (yes, she is a raw food coach but her professional aspects are astounding). I think part of my problem is my belief that I could make something happen. Internal self conflict can get the best of us. ;)

  • Dean Sherwin says:

    Can’t wait for AONC in 2010

    Hopefully all of your plans go to… plan!
    I’m still working on defining my own business!

    - Dean

  • Nate Bunger says:

    Hi Chris, we seem to be doing very similar things. Although you have definately developed your end of it much more than me. This post was quite helpful because I feel so overwhelmed with all the little things that I need to do still in preparation for my around the world trip. I think like you, I am taking the initial launch of my site very slowly to make sure I am communicating my message clearly. This past month has been basically a daily ritual of brain vomiting my thoughts and then clarifying them as I revisit them a few days later. Was this a similar process for you? I would like to connect one of these days when you get moment to chat. In the meantime, have a great week.

    Kind Regards,

    Nate

  • Charlie says:

    Before I forget – as I often do – I wanted to say thanks for the kind words and link about my coaching.

    I really like your point about VAs, and it’s something I’ll be touching on soon at Ittybiz (I think). Too many people buy into that pressure and end up building unsustainable businesses and paying people to do things that don’t need to get done. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

    And the launch thing? Don’t sweat that too much. I’ve learned to advise clients about launches and what not to do – and leaving the country the week of a launch leads to a lot of frustrations and missteps and paying for a trip that you end up getting such little joy out of.

    Being a paid coach does change things, but it works well for me and my clients. That said, what I do depends on consistency, thoroughness, and a lot of paying attention, and that’s something I don’t do that well for free.

    I’m excited about your lineup for next year. Keep rockin’ it, Chris!

  • You know,

    while I spent the year having wonderful progress as an artist, and even pulling in some amazing awards that I had no idea could really happen although I had smilingly put them on my goals list for 2009 -
    and while my gallery sold two of my paintings in 2009 for over a thousand dollars each -
    and while I had bought your Art and Money book -
    and while I have done my bookkeeping and paid (or not paid) taxes as an artist for well over a decade now,

    it finally dawned on me two weeks ago to make a clear decision that art is not just something I love and by the way make some money from, it is in fact my business.

    As such, it becomes supremely clear how to proceed in 2010.

    I love your thinking outside the box, Chris, and I appreciate that you are holding a space for freedom for all of us by debunking so many overwhelming myths and living your truth.

    By the way, I was hoping you were going to say you were starting a community for artists. :)

  • Johnn says:

    Awesome stuff Chris. Looking forward to the Empire product.

  • You know what I kept thinking as I read the email update? This is HELLA long. Unconventional, see? All the marketing gurus out there will tell you to keep it short and sweet. Attention-spans, etc. But you could care less. You write until you’re done. We read until we’ve had our fill–which is generally until the end. I don’t remember how I stumbled on this blog, but I am mightily glad that I did. I continue to watch your progress as I struggle to find a place of my own. Looking forward to big things in 2010. Best of luck.

    -bloom

  • Ladyexpat says:

    You’ve had an awesome year, and 2010 sounds like it will be as well.

    I’m doing some refocusing right now. I haven’t quit my day job which allows me to travel 5 months out of the year.

    I am making changes to the freelancing side of my business. Freelancing for others can be stressful. Usually it is the stress of getting paid. Right now I have some major invoices outstanding. I am told they will be paid, but when seems to be the issue.

    This has pushed me to start a travel blog, which has been an idea for a long time. Eventually I want to earn a living from it. The plan is to move towards that goal in 2010.

    Merry Christmas!

  • Patrenia says:

    Hi Chris,

    I am loving these annual review posts. They are really showing how “nonconformed” you really are. You march by the beat of your own drum and I REALLY admire that!

    Because of these posts, I have been prompted to do my own personal annual review. I won’t post it on my blog (this year), but at least it’ll help to give me a sense of direction and be accountable. Thanks :-)

  • Sandy says:

    Your posts always inspire me and push me to be more focused on doing what I do best. Thank you so much for being a pioneer in many ways. I look forward to learning more from you in 2010.

  • Michelle says:

    Congratulations on having such a good year, Chris! I’m very much looking forward to your new projects – they sound fabulous & definitely like something I’d like to participate in.

    2009 was kind of a rough year in our household, but I’m planning out 2010 and hoping/thinking it’ll be much better.

  • Mark Lynch says:

    Hey Chris,

    I just wanted to say I appreciate your straight forward honesty about everything you do. I think that is so rare in the world today, it’s very refreshing. Keep up the good work! See you on the road somewhere…

    Cheers,
    Mark
    *with the five kids in LA

  • I have really appreciated your work and it has made a big difference for me, I have found that using your wisdom has been really useful, so I am eager for more. I concur with your ideas about sticking to what feels right to you. This concept reminds me of a an idea from Tony Buzan’s Lessons from the Art of Juggling. He believes that when people are trying to learn to juggle, they often slow down their learning by focusing on catching every throw, which means that they are reinforcing bad throwing, making staying in balance difficult. Rather than this, he suggests that people let the bad throws fall and only catch those throws which come right to their hand, meaning they are not chasing balls, so that the next throws are not compensating and the juggling can get to the rhythm that is needed for the right flow. The lesson for this to me is similar to your conclusion of keeping to what feels right, catching rather chasing.

  • I really enjoy all your posts. I have been following you for a while now.

    I have a successful business started with my sister, 24 years ago. Bunnies By The Bay. I am trying to pursue my own artistic expression now. With your great advice, I have a blog and I am dabbling in social networking. I feel as if I am starting over, which is exciting and rewarding in itself. I do know, things happen when they are meant to happen. Keep up the great work.

  • Robert says:

    Chris, so glad to read your recap and about the business efforts, it gave me a background I didn’t have with you before. I want to thank you for the responses you’ve given me in the past 6 months, glad to hear you are growing…yet staying purposely agile and small. In 2009 I decided to relentlessly pursue creating my lifestyle and financial freedom on my own terms.

    I changed how I do things in my life rather dramatically, downsized a lot of material belongings (today just so happens to be one of my monthly minimizing days), and have taken on more than just being an opportunistic wheeler and dealer…I’ve taken on a business mindset. I created a community to chart my lifestyle design experience at thelifedesignproject.com and am building out a homebase at itarsenal.com to speak my IT mind, be a resource, and build products and services.

    2010 is going to be about getting my hands dirty with a business purpose, seeing reality in income and planning some big learning adventures. Thanks

  • Chris

    Just in case you’re wondering, this is totally useful.

    Partly for the content of what you’ve been doing, and partly just as a continuing example of someone doing it his own way.

    Just remembering my path to you (Seth), which lead me to your e-book, which lead me to Havi, which lead me to Naomi, then to Charlie, and Pam and …

    Oh, and my new blog, which I’m *loving*!

    Looking forward to your stuff in 2010.

  • First time posting and love the site Chris! I have some big goals set up for 2010. I am just about complete with the design of my blog and currently have 14 goals set for 2010. Some of them are deadlined during June and some of them are deadlined for the 31st of December. I am really excited and have been putting in about 16 hours a day designing, researching, reading, getting set to start publishing my content.

    I do look forward to your online communities!

  • Skip says:

    This is a great series of articles and really neat to read about.

    One thing that I really valued last year was the writing contest you held. By participating in that it helped me more clearly define what I did and want to do. So, thanks and please do another or some other sort of contest.

    In general keep it up dude and I ditto the “manvsdebt” or Baker comment about being excited for your new line of guides.

    Lastly, let me/us know if you do a New England/Boston meet up.

  • Brian says:

    2010 is the year I dress up as a cockroach and hit US college campuses in all 50 states to promote my line of literary t-shirts (it makes sense). Finding those 1,000 True Fans one at a time. I’m in the middle of setting my goals for the year and your articles are (and were 6 months ago) a great resource. Thanks!

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