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?
Outdoor Office Image by Barock