As I look back on the year during my Annual Review, I think about what went well and what didn’t in my business work.
I’ve been self-employed for most of my life and have never had a real job, but the learning process over more than a decade now has been entirely through trial and error (lots of trial, lots of error—but I just keep trying things).
This post focuses entirely on the business side of AONC. In the original 279 Days to Overnight Success, I outlined how I created a writing career in less than a year (also through much trial and error). It’s been nearly two years since I published that manifesto, and the business has grown quite a bit since then.
It’s still a deliberately small business. Aside from design and branding, where Reese does a fantastic job, I do almost everything myself. But with a carefully-expanded product line and a much larger reach through the blog, it’s also grown to a more sustainable level. This year our products served more than 5,000 customers from 22 countries. More than 500 affiliates market the guides on their websites, and many of them report that our guides convert much better than other offers.
Even though it’s still intentionally small, it’s also now a fairly sustainable business. I don’t trade time for money, I’m not looking to be hired by anyone, and I pretty much do what I want with most of my time. (I choose to spend a lot of time working, writing, and creating, but that’s because I like the work I do.)
The AONC Business Model and the Lesson of Leverage
By far, the biggest lesson from the careful, deliberate growth has come through the establishment of a strong platform. Because of the hybrid model of the business and blog, I can effectively work for free and get paid indirectly. This is critical. At the 53 meetups I just wrapped up in every U.S. state, I never talked about the business side of AONC unless someone asked about it during the Q&A. I do at least 80% of my work for free (this blog, 200 emails a day, group and individual meetups everywhere I go, etc.) and only launch a few commercial products a year.
It’s a beautiful model that relies on a key mindset: if you structure your business around something more than just making money, having someone pay you is just one of many ways they can help you. In my case, it usually helps me more when people tell their friends about AONC.
A number of people have tried to emulate this model with varying degrees of success. Often what happens with those who are unsuccessful is that they copy the tactics without understanding the broader strategy. The strategy can not be short-circuited! The key part (what some people miss) is that you have to have a REAL MESSAGE. You have to actually do something meaningful that’s worth talking about—it can’t be a hook designed to capture people’s wallets by means of their attention. The difference is subtle but essential.
Here are a few other business lessons I learned or was especially reminded of this year, in no particular order.
Ignore Google. I don’t mean Google the company—but for the most part, I ignore Google the search engine. I’ve never done search engine optimization for AONC, and I don’t think about keywords when I write. This is because the greatest traffic source for AONC is other blogs who write about what’s happening here. Because the business isn’t dependent on Google (less than 15% of AONC or Unconventional Guides site traffic comes through search results), I’m grateful for the readers they send me, but I don’t try to target certain phrases or manipulate the search results.
Speak for fun, not for money. Last year I wrote about how the coaching/consulting model wasn’t a good fit for my business. (I know lots of great people who do it well; it’s just not for me.) This year I am beginning to come to the same belief about speaking opportunities. I get offers to speak at various conferences several times a month, so if I wanted to create a business model out of it, it would be fairly easy. But I also don’t think it would be a good fit for me—in addition to the fact that I travel enough as it is, I’d rather create resources that can sell anytime.
I did a few paid talks this year, but I also did 53 free talks on the book tour, not counting all the extra meetups everywhere, lots of coffee or lunch meetings with individuals and small groups, etc. Speaking is fun and it can be a good challenge for me personally, but I don’t think it will ever become a core business model; I’ll continue to do it only when the gig is a good fit or serves to achieve another goal.
Create a winning formula for affiliates. I’m proud of the fact that many of our affiliates report that the guides convert better than any other offers. You shouldn’t ask affiliates to endorse something that doesn’t convert well; in the long-run you will burn bridges with people if an offer doesn’t clearly benefit them. (Affiliates have to build the audience first, though—without an audience, no affiliate program will be successful.) I brought on Sean Ogle to serve as our Affiliate Wrangler this year. His work is limited only by my inattention to creating a strategy for future growth… but more on that in a moment.
Always tell stories. The Empire Building Kit launch earlier this year was so successful first because we had a great product. When you take the case studies of “regular people” who have built successful businesses by following a passion, ask them to be very specific about how much money they make and how, then combine that with a series of 365 daily emails with additional specific lessons delivered over a year, you know you have a good offer that will attract a lot of interested prospects.
But telling a good story to go along with the launch was also important, which is why I ended up going on a big adventure to West Africa that then took me back to the East Coast and finally to Chicago, where I boarded the Empire Builder train to Portland. During the launch I got fan mail from people who wrote in to say they weren’t interested in the EBK itself, but they really enjoyed following along with the story. (I consider that to be a success of its own—the goal of my work isn’t to convert most readers to customers, but rather to help readers live unconventional lives in whatever way makes sense for them.)
That’s All Great… But What’s Missing?
Lessons learned should always be about continuous improvement. We have a good thing going, but how could it be made better? As I see it, there are two key issues I want to work on:
a) No recurring revenue model
b) Limited growth due to busy author syndrome
To ensure the business remains sustainable, I need to create a recurring revenue model, and that’s what I’m doing with the upcoming Travel Hacking Cartel. We’ll be launching this in a special “preboarding” phase right after the holidays in early January, and then it will be available on a referral program from existing members after that.
I need to do a better job managing small teams, or at least setting up a structure that allows the other amazing people who are a part of this project to thrive better. Reese and Sean (and also Nicky, our genius developer) have been very patient with me while I’ve been trekking around America on the epic book tour, but I don’t want to take them for granted or keep them waiting on things as much as I’ve done recently.
I’m glad the year has been so successful. I’m excited about 2011, and it will be fun to see what happens next. Looking forward, I still think I’ll spend more time on my free writing and other non-commercial work, but since I love my business work too, I hope to improve it by addressing these two issues in the coming year.
What about you… how was your business or work year of 2010?
Feel free to share a few highlights or lessons of your own.