This is me, journaling my “Journey of Discovery” with developing an online business on the side, while working full-time. A business I’ve called, for better or worse, Working Together, and which is currently nothing more than a blog (and therefore just a hobby).
Yes, for the few Working Together regulars (whoever you may be) there is more to Working Together than just the writing! For one, there are bigger plans for an eCourse on design thinking tools and methodologies, as well as plans for a podcast and YouTube channel to share content faster and more “off-the-cuff” than the writing allows (I love to write and edit, but oh… is it ever so painfully slow). Hopefully there will be some honest insights in here that will help others in a similar situation. What follows was also posted to medium in two parts: here and here. Also, what follows is really long, but I promise there are some gems in here.
Let’s begin with a bit of background colour: I am trying to establish Working Together while also working a full-time, professional job and being a loving husband and father who is committed to quality family time. As a result, Working Together is pushed to the margins of my day. Basically, I have early mornings if I manage to go to bed early, or evenings if I manage to resist the exhaustion that washes over me while I rock snuggly babies to sleep next to our white noise machine. Sometimes, I also have lunch hour, but it’s not a guarantee. And that’s it!
It feels like everyone in the world has an unfair advantage over me, but I follow my intuition which tells me to channel my inner tortoise: slow and steady wins the race.
Because of my limited time, from the start, I’ve believed that my business model for Working Together should be simple and effective. My tendency is to gravitate towards the opposite… and then to overthink things… into oblivion. So, as soon as I started to turn my mind towards business, I knew I would have to constrain myself with a few founding principles. Here are a few that this post has forced me to articulate:
Simple and effective, as opposed to complicated and clunky.
Small, yet scalable online, as opposed to ornate and overly dependent on a bricks and mortar space.
Oriented towards creating value for a defined customer, as opposed to working in generalities.
Geared towards the intuitive and spontaneous, the messy and the experimental, AKA the authentic… as opposed to the intentional and planned, the overwrought and strategized, AKA the perfect.
Some of these come from having an idea about who I am, what my strengths and weaknesses are, etc. When things are simple, I find that I act. When things are complicated, I find that I theorize.
So, I’ve made a commitment to spend at least one hour per day on Working Together, and so far, I’ve done pretty good since I started in earnest five months ago. On my worst days I put in less than an hour. On my best days I get a few uninterrupted chunks of time to do the work, and I come out the other end with some real progress. But since I’ve started, I never spend no time on Working Together. Everyday there’s always something small that can be done, and there’s always lots of thinking and planning to do while in transit.
So, what have I been doing (aside from writing blog posts)? Well, over the past two months, I’ve been:
…interviewing potential customers and drafting some early value proposition designs;
…working to create a loose team of friends and family around me to act as a bit of a sounding board, to give my ideas the oxygen they need to survive and become actions;
…pivoting the online course concept to other audiences;
…slowly building and practicing a media production strategy that is appropriate to my needs: one that allows both flexibility and creativity.
On top of all this, I’ve also been: purchasing the necessary supplies for my podcasting rig and lining up the first five interviews; drafting some early concepts for an eCourse and an eBook; exploring cheap lighting options for video; taking online courses on personal branding and eCourse creation; researching and reading-up on all manner of business development literature, plus all sorts of other logistical things. I am endlessly surprised by how exciting business can be, and am fascinated by how the internet has changed the game.
“…interviewing potential customers and drafting some early value proposition designs.”
I had started the Working Together blog with a broad and expansive notion of what I was interested in: social innovation and how groups of people can be brought together to make some magic happen. Knowing my tendency to gravitate towards generality, I niched down into a group that I had a little bit of experience working with through my wife’s business Connect-The-Dots: home learning families. This was a group of folks that I would one day join (since our plan has always been to “road school” our children). They were inspiring to me, and I wanted to learn more from them. Most importantly, they were a group of people I wanted to serve: I wanted to build awesome online learning experiences for home learning families. In particular, I wanted to work with teens in those communities.
So, pushing myself in the direction of action as opposed to theory, I had a few meetings with home learning families I had worked with in the past to ask them some questions. Before the meetings, I did my homework and read the first few chapters of Value Proposition Design, by Alex Osterwalder and others, and came armed with some good questions to ask. After three meetings, I organized my interview notes into a Value Proposition Canvas, and started thinking about ways that I could offer something of value to these families.
I couldn’t believe how productive the Value Proposition Design (VPD) process was! From three short meetings I had a fountain of ideas about potential products and services that I could provide this group of folks. However, a lot of these weren’t online courses… I wasn’t getting validation for my original idea of creating an online learning experience for my target audience.
I also learned of a few significant difficulties that I needed to consider. For one, my potential market was motivated towards a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach to education. They were also committed to providing immersive, face-to-face experiences for their children. This was what attracted Heather and I to home learning too: creating a learning atmosphere more akin to a field trip than a classroom. Providing an online course to these families would be a challenge, as it seemed that many home learners were being actively directed away from screens and towards face-to-face interactions with fellow learners and teachers.
In addition, because of the fact that these families were usually single income (with one parent staying at home to facilitate DIY learning experiences), my ability to charge premium rates would be limited… unless I wanted to pivot to kids enrolled in private school, and present the course as an extra-curricular prep-school that would give kids a competitive edge…but I felt that this group of kids didn’t need what I could offer. And besides, this wasn’t my original intent.
Finally, I realized I would be marketing on two fronts: on one, the parents; on the other, the teens. Two entirely different conversations, two entirely different social media marketing strategies. I needed to be competent with one group, and cool with another. Trust would be tough to build. A classic “war on two fronts” quagmire. Cue sweat.
“…working to create a loose team of friends and family around me to act as a bit of a sounding board to give my ideas the oxygen they need to survive and become actions.”
Another thing that I’ve been up to is creating coaching and accountability networks around me — something that I get a lot of value from in my day-job (for more on that see here). So, along with my friends Matthew Lehner and Chris Naismith, we started a small mastermind group with a really simple structure: meet every two weeks for one hour, each give a ten-minute update on what we’ve accomplished and what are challenges are, then for the last thirty minutes, one of us gets to benefit from group coaching on one of our key challenges. Matthew and I have met a number of times already, and Chris will join us when he returns from his stay in Greece. We will be running full barrel by September, and possibly also have a fourth member by then too.
My wife, Heather, has also been a sounding board for ideas, learnings, frustrations, and so on. When we get the opportunity to talk one-on-one (usually when the kids are asleep or being babysat), I manage to squeeze some Working Together into the conversation, and benefit from her incredibly sage advice. She knows my strengths and weaknesses best, and helps me see the ways in which I might be hiding something from myself. Alas, the advice of a spouse is never disinterested! The history of our relationship gets woven into the history of Working Together. Things become loaded. Things have to be talked through. Ongoing conversation is a requirement.
To take a quote from a Metropolis screenshot:
I think that this quote captures a big part of the business development narrative that is often missed: the relationships that you have when you start, and the relationships that you build as you go. Not to mention the role the heart plays in the film: bridging the gap between the thinkers (the head) and the workers (the hand) as if class struggle could be so easily subsumed!!
Starting something new that you are passionate about, that you were put on this earth to do — whether it’s a business, or a non-profit, or a creative endeavour, etc. — does not occur in a social and emotional vacuum… especially if you are in a loving relationship(s)! And thinking that it does, feeds this masculine fantasy of a single male, striking out on his own to create his vision, a la Howard Roark of The Fountainhead. So much of the media around entrepreneurship tends to be about head, hands and the visionary singular genius.
This is not to say that vision is always compromised. It is to say that vision is always emotionally loaded. As it should be. This is, after all, what you were put on this earth to do. What could be more emotionally loaded than balancing your commitment to your creative work with your commitment to your friendships and your loves?
“…pivoting the online course concept to other audiences.”
As I mentioned above, while talking with potential customers around the first product idea, I learned a ton. I validated some ideas I had, but I also didn’t validate others. This is to be expected.
I also started to consider the fact that the market I was focusing on was actually two: the parents (who also teach and facilitate learning experiences for their teens) and the teens. I had started with the notion that working with teens would be fun, and so I would get a break from the seriousness that permeates the work I do in my day job. But as I interviewed, and thought on the matter further, I realized that I would have to keep two totally different audiences happy and engaged! And as for any social media strategy, I would likely need to have an active presence on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram (for the parents, largely) and on emerging platforms like Musical.ly, Snapchat, Peach, etc. (for the teens). Not that engaging in social media isn’t fun — it is a part of my media production strategy (more on that below). But, engaging two different audiences, with two different conceptions of what a good product or service might be, seemed like a lot of work. However “fun” it might be, I had to think back to my starting principle — simple and effective — and ask myself: “Do I really have the time and energy to keep two target audiences engaged on multiple platforms?”
So, during one of our Mastermind sessions, I spoke to my VPD work and to some of my learnings and newfound apprehensions. Matthew dug further, asked some powerful questions, and held me accountable to come back with an answer at the next meeting. He understood the problem of a “war on two fronts” and agreed that the approach didn’t jive well with my principle of simple and effective. I also pulled a reference from episode three of Seth Godin’s short Startup School podcast, which I will quote here in full:
“The point right now isn’t to answer the question, “what problem is my customer waking up with?” The point now is to know the question is essential. That’s what I want you to be thinking about. You can change [your business] to anything you want and if you want to, you can open a kayaking school. That’s how early in the deal it is. What do you want to change it into so that you’re not always climbing uphill, so there’s something in it that the wind is at your back?”
Since I was just starting, and since the principle of simple and effective was guiding my work, what could I change my business idea into to ensure that the wind was at my back? I didn’t have the time, or the energy to start with a difficult scenario. So, Matthew and I agreed that I would come back next time with an answer to the question: who did I want to work with?
Basically, since I would be designing a valuable solution for a group of people, WHO did I want to be working with through that process of design? WHO did I want to work with after the product was designed, when it would need to be marketed? WHO would be buying my product? WHO would I be serving with my product? Indeed, the business’ namesake ‘Working Together’ takes on a whole new meaning in this light: the process of creating value for the world is very much a process of working together with others, especially those ‘others’ who will eventually pay you money for what you’ve created.
As I had learned from my VPD work with home learners, an essential starting point for your business is a WHO. Nothing is for everybody. You need a niche. Once you have a WHO, you have a way to find out an answer to the question “what problem is my customer waking up with?” The VPD work reveals all sorts of problems that can be solved through products and services, and you can organize the severity of these problems and align your offering with them. Having a WHO also allows you to identify where to focus your marketing efforts, both online and offline. A WHO is as essential as a WHAT, and a WHY.
So I went away and struggled with pivoting the concept. I felt lost and set adrift for a few weeks, I went back and looked through old notes, read a few old books that were impactful to me, reflected on the work that Heather and I did through The Wayward School, and selectively dipped into my small collection of business books to find some guidance. I also posted some epiphanies on Snapchat:
But, I’ll be honest, when I came back to Matthew with an answer it wasn’t quite what he was looking for (and now follows a dramatization, with limited bearing on the actual words spoken, and hands wrung):
Me (excitedly): “I realized that who I want to work with, is people like me: professionals who are interested in innovating through their work and solving problems creatively, whatever that work might be!”
Matthew: “Yea, but that’s pretty broad. Is there a group of people within ‘professionals’ who you want to work with?”
Me (anxiously): “Hmm. Yes, I see what you mean… I know that I want to work with people who are trying to learn new ways to solve problems… new ways to work in teams to design solutions… This is pretty broad… hmm…”
Matthew: “OK, you need to niche it down further… I want you to come back next time and tell me what niche you want to focus on within your new target of “professionals”, and I also want you to tell me what these folks will get when they are done taking your course.”
So, back to the drawing board, up to the present moment and toe to toe with a fancy new word: “psychographics” (aka the “new demographics” I mention in my snaps above). Psychographics, sez Wikipedia, is “the study and classification of people according to their attitudes, aspirations, and other psychological criteria, especially in market research.”
I had been stuck in an old paradigm about who my WHO should be: teens in home learning families (and indirectly, their parents). I was limiting myself to certain age groups within a broader psychographic of home learners. By being home learners, they shared the emotional commitment and belief in the idea that the whole family should actively learn together. Perhaps, for instance, it could be said that these families were united in their mutual distrust of the education system — there’s another shared feeling.
By pivoting to “professionals” I was getting caught up in generality. I needed to zero-in on what people within this group might share in terms of wants, values, beliefs, attitudes, etc. But how to do this? After a few more days of feeling lost and cast adrift, enter Heather (during a conversation one evening that happened to gravitate towards Working Together) (a dramatization, again with no bearing on the actual words spoken):
Me (anxiously): “I’m just so confused by this pivot that I’ve made… Basically, I want to work with folks like me… but I don’t know what to do with that… Matthew is right, it’s too general… what is it about this course that will align with this broader group of folks?”
Heather (matter-of-factly): “Well, that might not be the best question to ask. What is it that you have struggled with in relation to everything that you’re interested in? Surely there’s a reason why you feel the need to focus Working Together on social innovation and design thinking tools, facilitation stuff, and so on. Why are you pursuing this stuff in your free time? What’s driving you? Why are you fixated on it? Most importantly, what do you see missing or inadequate in the online courses and other facilitation tools you have learned about? Why would you need to make more of, or different?”
Me (with slowly dawning epiphany): “Well, my struggle with using those tools is never feeling like I’m practiced enough to whip them out in a project or a meeting, or whatever. I love to learn about design thinking and other new approaches to problem solving in groups, and it’s exciting to hear about people trying new things in innovative organizations, but it’s hard to put this stuff into action… The challenge that I have is that it feels like so much is at stake in any given meeting, or any given project… trying something new is the last thing that anyone wants to do… everything is so serious… and yet every meeting I am in is in some way part of an extended problem solving and solution designing exercise…”
Heather: “so, you need practice.”
Me (with conclusive epiphany): “Yes! There is also so little time to practice, let alone experiment with a new approach… What I feel I need is the ability to practice with like-minded folks, who are also interested in these tools, and feel more competent and comfortable using them. I also feel like I need strategies and tricks that would help me integrate these new approaches into the work that I do… and strategies for getting buy-in from colleagues and bosses on new approaches.”
Heather (with searching glare): “do you think other people you’ve worked with feel the same way? Or is it just you?”
Me (feeling validated): “I think that a lot of other folks, no matter their professional background, probably feel the same way… at once interested and wanting to learn more, but feeling like they aren’t practiced enough to integrate it into their work… or feeling like they need strategies for integrating this work into more conservative environments…”
Heather: “You have your target audience.”
So without further ado, my WHO (as of July 2016): working professionals, interested in innovative new approaches to management, team building, and general awesomeness delivery, who are keen to learn design thinking and other Social Innovation methods like that, but feel as if they have no opportunity to practice these new approaches and skills. They also feel that they don’t have the permission to try it out in their workplaces and would really like some strategies for integrating these tools into work.
What will the WHO get from taking my course? They would leave the course having learned new approaches to their work (design thinking tools, etc.), practiced and been coached with a community of fellow students, and been given strategies for incorporating these tools into their everyday work worlds. Basically, they would come out feeling like confident practitioners, able to utilize new approaches to their work without fear leading them towards the same old business-as-usual practices for chairing meetings, building teams, managing projects, leading, delivering deliverables, etc. They would learn to be creative within the constraints of work.
The best part about this pivot? I get to “stack the functions” while at work. Let me explain: to stack functions is to get two or more functions from a single element within a system. It’s a concept that comes from permaculture design (specifically from the principle to “integrate rather than segregate”) and “permies” use it to design gardens and farms so that different elements within a food production system can be stacked together to create multipliers of mutual benefit. For more on its application to check out this great little piece.
So, how does this apply here? Well, because my target audience is fellow professionals, whenever a colleague asks what Working Together is about, I get a chance to test and refine my copy about the course I’m building. On top of that, any insight I get from folks inside and outside of work feeds into the VPD I’m building in the background. It’s like market research on the fly, and all of this feeds into building the course.
And so… work on the course has begun again in earnest!
…slowly building and practicing a media production strategy that is appropriate to my needs: one that allows both flexibility and creativity.
This is perhaps the hardest part, as it requires daily engagement. It requires me to be an active consumer and producer of information and ideas, with regularity, on social media channels where my target audience is directing its attention. It requires me to show up, even on days when I don’t feel like it.
Sure, there are elements to producing media online that can be automated and scheduled, but I’m with Gary Vaynerchuck on the matter: this stuff should be as authentic as possible. Using tools like Meet Edgar and over-scheduling your posts doesn’t seem genuine to me. Not that I won’t turn to Hootsuite and focus some of my social media making into chunks of time every week, but I don’t think this should be the only approach.
I’m also with Gary on the question of quality or quantity. It’s not a choice between producing a lot of lesser quality content, or small amounts of high-quality content, it’s about hitting both quantity and quality. There is no choice between the two, because choosing either leads you down the wrong path, and away from authenticity. To wit…
If we focus on quality, we slow creative production down, and with that slowdown, we create an entry point into our work for our fears, anxieties, uncertainties, etc., to pour into our creative process. We might spend too long developing something, missing the deadline we made for ourselves, or deciding to abandon our creation after “careful” consideration of its merits to the rest of the world.
Quality is guarded and overly concerned with being perfect… and guarded and perfect isn’t honest, vulnerable and real.
On the other hand, if we focus on quantity, the reverse happens, we find ourselves trying to flood our social media channels with “content”, whatever it may be, and the best part about the job of pursuing your passions and interests online becomes work.
Quantity is spammy and overly concerned with being loud… and spammy and loud leave no invitation to conversation and being social.
I believe that the phrase “putting yourself out there” captures the essence of creative work using online social media platforms. And in this setting, “media” is a better term to use than “content” (though I will tend to be messy and use both in conversation). This is because whatever we are on social media is an unreal representation of ourselves. You can’t physically put yourself out there, after all. Whether a curated log of your tastes in opinion and interest a la Twitter, or your aesthetic tastes a la Instagram and Tumblr; whether a rolling “story” of the high-points, epiphanies, and interesting tidbits of the last 24 hours a la Snapchat, or the random “sharesies” of politics, feelings, debate, pets, cuteness, etc. a la Facebook. Whoever we actually are in real life is ultimately mediated by the different social media channels and their unique conventions and vernacular. Every time we hit record, type a thought, post an article, and so on, we are “putting” the media of ourselves out there and onto a platform… but it is not us. We are mediated by the media we create.
I know, this is major “captain obvious” stuff, but I think it’s necessary to go here to defamiliarize the experience of using social media, and recognize how radical these playgrounds are.
Social media transforms the space you inhabit into a studio, a stage, a newsreel, a community board. If we understand what kind of space we are producing for, we’ve done half the battle. The other half then becomes: are you being real in what you are putting out there? After these two halves, anything more than the act of swiftly producing and “putting” can easily become overwrought.
So, two basic questions are at the foundation of media production online:
What platform is it?
Am I being real?
The first will tell you what your creative studio and toolkit will consist of, and how to interject into the conversation. The second will — literally — keep you honest… and honest is fast.
So the “media production strategy”, in a nutshell, is this: produce on the fly as much as possible and be real.
Fully elaborated, it is this:
Being real is being conversant… you know, like if you were really talking to somebody…
…social media is a social space, and depending on which platform you are in, you will have to practice and test what is and isn’t a conversation starter.
Be playful, but don’t forget about your core message…
…show motion and diversity in what you create, mix it up with your family and friends (if you’re cool with that), but don’t forget that you need lively content that connects to what your business is all about… if your business is bricks and mortar, and you’re bringing it online, then you have a huge advantage… if you have no bricks and mortar, think about creative ways that you can stage what your business is about, in-person. (Please-oh-please don’t let your social media channels just be quotes over stock photography! Do stuff. In-person. Record it. Then share it on social media. Why? Because it shows you and your business “in motion”. Motion and play need to be built off of some real, demonstrated work.)
Be messy, uncut, unpracticed, etc…
…don’t worry about messy, messy is real, and real is fast… you can’t figure out the conventions and vernacular in these spaces from the outside, you have to practice your engagement to see what lands and how… then adjust accordingly.
Practice the three R’s when creating media: reduce, reuse, recycle…
…be proud of what you’ve made and share it again, remixed and renewed, on different channels, or on the same again… producing media doesn’t always have to mean producing new media. Reduce the amount of time you spend on new things, reuse old things that are still relevant to your audience and your business, recycle what you’ve made into new mixes.
The long-form is not social media, it’s loner media… and that’s not a bad thing, it’s a great thing…
…the “long-form” (the blog, the long Facebook post, the Medium post, etc.) is a sandbox and a place to really think something through, ruminate, meditate — if you feel you need to consistently produce media at this level, be prepared to lean heavily on the three R’s above to be able to produce on a weekly schedule.
…stack everything onto your most important works… whether a long-form post, an e-book, an e-course, podcast interviews, and so on… the big things that you create are the nursery logs for your forest: they are the substrate that the little things can grow on and be nourished by.
So, to conclude? No! To continue the conversation and the experimenting!
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