I’m changing how I work

Today I want to talk about the way I’m changing how I work, and how this change is a direct response to the challenges many of you face, and the goals you hope to achieve.

The Two Things Standing in Your Way

The other week, I asked my email subscribers what their biggest creative fear was. While those who responded described their fear in slightly different ways, a common theme emerged. When it comes to accomplishing their creative goals in 2016, the most common fear is this:

“That life will get in the way. That I will become distracted by competing demands on my time, lose focus, won’t get to the creative work I dream of.”

Sound familiar? I hear this type of confession again and again in my work with writers and creative professionals. Challenges that always come up are:

  1. Distractions. And not insignificant distractions, but real responsibilities: family, day job, health, etc.
  2. Time. The hours, the days, the months, the years seem to slip through their fingers. Dreams seem to be forever unfulfilled because days pass by and suddenly all you have to show for it is exhaustion.

Missing Your One Shot at Success

I have worked with so many creative professionals as they work towards the moment when they are launching their work. For instance, after years of hard work, their book is finally being publishing.

But many, when they’re ready to launch, are basically freaking out because they don’t want to miss their shot at success.

It seems as though everything is on the line. It’s not just the chance they’ve waited for to create something, but the success of this thing feels so closely tied to their identity as a person.

This feeling can become overwhelming: If your thing fails, then you as a person, fail.

Of course, that’s bullshit, but many of us tend to internalize our emotions this way. Especially at a time when we have invited the world to experience our most personal work — i.e. around the publication of our book, launch of our idea, or unveiling of our art. This is when you are screaming, “Hey look at me, my book is finally here!” — and then seconds later want to say, “Um, well, don’t look too closely at me. Because if it fails, I don’t want to feel the judgment of your eyes. Or the judgment of my own eyes in the mirror.”

So how do we solve for this? This pressure that we feel when we have that one shot at success? Too often, we tend seek out two things:

  1. Shortcuts
  2. Hacks

We look for a genius idea that will save us hundreds of hours, avoid embarrassment by failing, and delivers instant success.

We take free webinar after free webinar. Go to conferences. Read books on how to launch our thing. Take courses. And while all of these things are good, I hear from a lot of people that they are overwhelmed by the sheer number of ideas presented to them. They are left with hundreds of competing ideas floating around in their head.

The result? They try too many vanilla “best practices” and set vague goals based on what others tell them they should want.

They wait for the key insight to happen — whereby the process of launching their work and finding their audience suddenly feels easy and accessible.

But the reality is that ACTION is what matters, not waiting to hear the simple hack or shortcut that will magically deliver an audience to you. Action, at the moment when you are the most terrified, lonely, and confused because this is your big moment. Action, when it seems like everything is on the line.

The other week I wrote about filmmaker Casey Neistat, and his wisdom fits in here as well: that in the creative process, the idea is the least valuable part. Execution of that idea is the only thing that matters:

“Ideas are the easiest part. But realizing [that idea] is unbelievably hard.”

That doesn’t just apply to you creating the work itself — in this example, a book — but also in how you ensure that book finds an audience. The solution is not a shortcut or a hack, but to get clear about your goals, your focus, and commit. Not to follow the hundreds of conflicting pieces of advice you hear, but craft a path that is truly your own to reach the people who will love your work.

Part of me fully understands that I don’t have to tell any of you this. Each of you is out there saying back to me, “But Dan, I have committed. Years ago. And it’s still hard. I’m still swamped. Time and distraction still trip me up.”

Which brings me to…

I’m Changing How I Work

So I’m changing how I work with private clients. I spent a few months with my friend and colleague Jennie Nash rebuilding my consulting process from the ground up. We were solving for the stuff listed above, with a simple prompt:

“How can I ensure my clients make the most of their big chance?”

So I took the foundation for what has worked over the past five years, and supercharged it. I thought about the key phases. The steps that should be completed each week. And mostly, I thought about how my team and I can take the work off of my client’s plate and onto mine.

To not just provide a great strategy, but to do the work alongside them. To remove distraction by executing the steps with them. To give them clear direction so they will feel less muddled and lonely in the process of creating and launching their dreams.

It comes down to this:  My team and I will become YOUR team. We will do the work with you. And we will ensure you don’t fail when you have your one big shot.

The new way I work is called Build a Better Audience. Below is the basic outline of my six key phases. Even if you never even consider hiring me, I think you can leverage the process for your own success:

If you want details into the process, click here.

What Success Looks Like

In developing the program, I have been digging back into the hundreds of experiences I have had with clients in the past five years. If you want to see the reality of what this process looks like, here are some case studies of how strategy meets reality:

As you approach your own work, the key thing that you get to decide is what you want your story to be. The story not just of the work you create, but how you share it with the world.

I’d love to help you in that process. Email me to let me know how I can best do that.


Why hiring a team has changed everything about how I work (and how you can consider hiring one for yourself)

My days are profoundly different now that I have a team. Five years ago, I launched WeGrowMedia, loving the efficiency of “doing it all,” working where I wanted, and when I wanted.

Last year, I decided to make a big change. I realized that I need to take the next step and turn WeGrowMedia into a team. When I interviewed artist and baker Andrea Lekberg, she framed it this way:

“If you have a business so small that you are doing everything, then you don’t have time to think about growing it. You can’t grow. You are always behind and overwhelmed.”

The WeGrowMedia team is comprised of me and two other people:

  1. Diane Krause – Project Coordinator
    Diane is basically my business therapist. She strategizes with me around a thousand details about the courses we run, partnerships, timing, and helping me work through decisions. She keeps it all on track, and also happens to be an editor and publishing expert, so she basically makes everything better than it was before.
  2. Leah Shoemaker – Graphic Designer
    Remember that kid in high school who was wildly creative, and could create something magical from a pile of random junk? Well, that’s Leah. She creates original photography, graphics, layouts, coding, and other material for our courses. Leah is basically pixie dust.

Why I Think Outsourcing is a Horrible Idea

Since I run my own company, I obsess over entrepreneurship, interviews with other company founders, and the tools that make it all work. Again and again, I hear about online marketplaces that make it easy to outsource small projects. An easy example is 99designs. You upload an idea that you need designed, a bunch of freelancers “bid” for it with ideas and price, and then you select one.

Loads of people I know and trust use 99designs. For many of them, it works. It gives them access to a talent pool that was previously difficult to find, and at prices that are super cheap.

My own very personal opinion of this type of marketplace: BLEH!

Biff TannenNow, if you use 99designs or are a designer who finds work through it, I am NOT judging you. You are awesome. I love you. Do what works for you. I will gladly shake your hand, buy you a beer, and wash your car Biff Tannen style.

But I don’t want to outsource stuff to the lowest bidder. I don’t want to turn my creative work into a bunch of component parts sourced out to day laborers. (Again, nothing wrong with day laborers, I just don’t want that to be the foundation of my daily life in the company I create.)

I want to invest in others. And by doing so, invest in my company.

I want a team, not a bunch of hired hands who are treated as replaceable at any moment. I mean, don’t we all prefer to be treated as a member of a team?

The more I work with Diane and Leah, the more I wonder: Why would you want to outsource when you can develop a team?

I can say a lot here, but I will just make two more points around this:

  1. I am learning how to become a better manager. This means I am inherently becoming a better communicator, and learning how to establish processes that include others. This is a skill set that will benefit me in 1,000 ways through the rest of my life.
  2. I am helping each of them grow professionally. I am investing in each of them. Sometimes, it is simply the nature of the work; Leah was thrown into three back-to-back course launches within the first six weeks of working for me. She learned a lot of stuff in that time that it takes some entrepreneurs years to experience. Other investment is more direct: I suggested she learn Adobe Illustrator, and am paying for it and training for it via Lynda.com. That is a skill she will have for her own work, and for anyone else she ever works for.

I Give Them as Much Freedom As Possible

I live and work in New Jersey, Diane is in Texas, and Leah is in western Canada. None of us have ever met in person.

Diane and Leah work the hours they want. That changes day to day, based on the rest of their lives. It’s not unusual for Leah to message me saying, “I won’t be able to work tomorrow, because I’m climbing a mountain with my friends.” After I think to myself, “CANADIANS!“, I message her back saying, “Thanks for the heads up!”

I love that I am able to support her creative work, while also supporting her personal interests. That combined, this creates a LIFE for her that she wants to lead. I want her to lead that life, not feel controlled by me, her “boss.”

My Hiring Process

The idea of hiring a team is kind of scary, right? For me it certainly was. As someone who runs his own small company, and one that 100% supports my family, it can be terrifying to think of also being responsible for paying others. Let’s face it, I feel so much responsibility already.

So I put limits on everything to help me mitigate risk:

  • When I hire, I call it a 3-month internship. So if things don’t work out, it is already agreed upon that there is no job after three months. BUT… with both Diane and Leah, I had conversations about extending that. Diane has now worked for me for more than a year. Leah for more than four months.
  • Because I start out hiring “interns,” I start out paying intern rates. This allows me to not worry as much about immediate value when I begin working with someone. We have a runway as they settle in and figure things out.
  • Each of them generally have an expectation on a cap for hours. It’s not a firm rule right now, but they each work between 10-20 hours per week. So it’s firmly part-time, and I gladly advise each of them on how they can get other work outside of what they do for WeGrowMedia. Both Leah and Diane do have other work they do. I have VERY ACTIVELY tried to advise them on how they can get more clients and charge more for their work outside of WeGrowMedia.

When I hire people, I create a job description and post it on my blog, then just circulate it through my network. In 2014, I made a big effort with this, and received 80 applicants. In 2015, I rushed it, and received 20.

What I tend to find is that most of the people who apply are qualified. Which makes it really difficult to choose the best candidate. In 2014, I lost sleep over this because all of the people I interviewed were so awesome. I ended up hiring three interns that summer! Two of them, Kathi Gadow and Rachel Burns, did work beyond that initial summer, but then got wrapped up in school and a new job.

While I always frame it as a 3-month internship, I’m looking for a partner. I now know what people know when they say, “you are overqualified.” When you speak to someone who you can sense is in a short-term transition, and will quickly move on when the next opportunity comes up. That they are READY for a bigger opportunity than the one I am offering.

I am also learning my own preferences along the way. On more than one occasion, when talking with my wife about someone I had interviewed and was considering, when she asked why I wouldn’t want to hire them, I would say, “Because they didn’t smile in the interview.”

It turns out, I have a strong preference for people who smile. Who are enthusiastic enough to smile without much prompting. I’m not sure what that says about me. But if I am speaking with three equally qualified candidates, I will hire the one who smiles at the drop of a hat.

When I consider why this might be, I think it may relate to a post I shared not too long ago: This Isn’t Easy. Because it isn’t. Trying to create a company from scratch — one that supports my family and helps me and my team grow creatively — it’s difficult. And if I’m going to be on this journey filled with danger, I want it to be filled with joyous people who see silver linings, who find joy in small moments, and who will look at a crazy mountain we have to climb, and take that first step with a smile.

Or maybe I’m just superficial.

How We Work Day to Day

How to Create Your teamThere’s so much more to share. I created a guide called “How to Create Your Team,” which covers the following:

  • My hiring/interview tips
  • How much to pay
  • How to create systems around communicating with your team
  • Why you should hire virtual workers
  • How to limit risk

You can grab it here (when you do, you will also be added to my weekly email newsletter list, by the way. You can unsubscribe anytime.).


This isn’t easy

So my team and I have been trying to figure out how to use Facebook ads effectively, and this past week, we gave up. But perhaps not for the reason you think.

YES, we did find it difficult to identify a campaign that met our goals. I have been studying others doing a similar thing, including Bryan Harris’ public Facebook ad strategy. Bryan is really smart, and has been working at this again and again to solve it. And he is frustrated with it. Now, I know he will keep at it, and in doing so, work through the challenge to reach his goal. But looking at the scale of his effort and how many challenges he is working through is not motivating me to try harder!

But the other big reason we are giving up on Facebook ads? It’s just not my voice. I have been studying Facebook ads, and I tend to find that they over-promise easy success, six-figure sales, and loads of free resources. The voice in which most of these ads are communicated is vastly different from the voice I try to craft with my audience.

I don’t want to show you specific examples (I have loads of screenshots), because it is not my goal to “call people out,” on sales tactics that don’t resonate with me. Those tactics work for those people, which makes me happy for them. But it’s not the tone I want to set for WeGrowMedia.

In this process, my team of Diane and Leah and I have lots of conversations around not just WHAT we want, but HOW we want to achieve it.

What is the voice of WeGrowMedia? Who do I love working with? How do I like working with them? What kinds of breakthroughs do they have when we work together? Why? These sorts of questions.

I was reminded of this while listening to a review of the movie Mad Max: Fury Road. The point that was made is how simple and linear the movie is. The “what” of it is: drive on this road. Drive back. That is the entire movie. Did I spoil it for you? NO! Because it is the experience of the movie — the HOW of the storytelling — that makes the movie as incredible as it is. By the way, the movie is incredible. (This is the review, but with a warning: it contains lots of curses and movie spoilers.)

So as you seek out ways to develop your body of work — to grow your audience — you have choices not just around WHAT you do, but HOW you do it.

Your voice directs the actions that you take.

News Flash: Creative Work is Difficult

This week I saw some photos shared by my friend, novelist Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. She is working on revisions on her next novel, and posted this status update:


When Miranda shared a photos of her revision process, fellow novelist and friend Tammy Greenwood chimed in:


It reminded me of something I have been thinking a lot about, which is success is difficult. Especially in creative fields.

Now, you may be saying, “Duh, Dan. Of course it is.” But recently, I have been surveying loads of course offerings and webinars that people are selling. The core messages I keep seeing again and again are:

  1. It’s easier than you think.
  2. I have the secret.
  3. Sign up here.

People are literally saying this, including people I respect. They promise big success, huge sales, huge earnings, a big audience, and present it as “easy.”

I can tell you, it’s not. Success as a creative professional is difficult. Perhaps more so than you think.

Let’s go back to Miranda from above. She has spent more than a year writing and editing this novel, and is still now saying, “This is difficult. Revision is difficult.” Miranda, more so than many other authors, is living the dream:

  • She is a New York Times Bestselling author, with 3 previously published books.
  • She has been a professional author for more than 10 years.
  • She writes full time, and has an incredibly supportive family who not only work hard to give her time and space to write, but are wonderful sounding boards for her works in progress. Like, her family is amazing on so many levels. (Hi, Miranda’s family.)
  • Her new book is being published by the same house (Crown) who published her last one, and they were incredibly supportive of her.
  • Her editor is, well, the woman who edited Gone Girl. Yes, that Gone Girl. Millions and millions of copies sold Gone Girl.
  • Miranda is confident, she has a system by which she writes, and is disciplined about it.

And yet, it’s difficult. I wrote about Miranda’s journey with her latest novel back in May. Why am I providing yet another update? Because this is the stuff we gloss over. Next year, when her novel June is released, you may have a vague memory of her last book having done well, and hopefully, you will be hearing about how June is doing well. But in between those two milestones was an incredible amount of hard work, frustration, confusion, and grit.

The “Easy” Sell

I share Miranda’s story because it illustrates why I bristle when I see people offering sales pitches for courses that say things such as, “Find success twice as quickly, with very little effort, and have huge sales!”

I mean, can you imagine walking up to a successful musician, artist, author, or designer, and asking them about their road to success, and them saying, “Actually Dan, it was way easier than I thought it would be. It happened really fast, even as I spent less and less time working on it.”

As someone who offers courses to creative professionals, I have found myself tempted to make it all sound so easy because that is what people want to hear.

But it isn’t. It’s difficult. It takes discipline. It forces you to confront so many aspects of your identity, your boundaries, your goals. You have to negotiate with everyone in your life, catch a bunch of lucky breaks, and even then, 1,000 things can still get in the way.

Does that mean there aren’t strategies and tactics by which to follow? Of course not. That IS what is in my courses. In a course I’m running right now, students are reporting incredible milestones that they are reaching.

So often, success seems to elude us. As we observe others and gain experience, we begin to discover what works.

And all through this process, we have to make decisions about HOW we want to achieve success. That our voice and the voice of those we want to reach is the core connecting factor.

What has your experience been in finding success with your creative work?

Is Your Creative Work Stuck in the Mud?

Treading water.

These are terms I hear often from creative professionals trying to gain momentum in their work.

Including me. I have wrestled with these challenges as much as any other creative trying to hone their craft, and make a living around it.

Too often, we ignore the problem.
We let our days be ruled by the needs of others.
Deadlines of others.
Goals of others.
Moods of others.

We say we will address it when we have the time.
Although, managing time part of the problem.

You look around, see everyone busy.
So it seems “normal,” which somehow makes it okay.

I think about the wisdom of those who came before me.
And what their advice was to those who would come after them.
You hear it as a whisper, drowned out by the news of the day, celebrity gossip and status updates.

I read The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, by Bronnie Ware, often.

The number one regret that she witnessed in caring for those in their final moments was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Her explanation is gutting:

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”

In working with creative professionals — those whose writing, creating art, crafts, a business, or supporting a cause is central to their work life — I find them trying to battle these challenges in their own ways.

They read articles and books, download apps, and try dozens of other one-off tactics to try to gain control of their creative time and energy.

I hear about this constantly. And I’m doing something about it.

I am preparing something very special that speaks to all of this — a new course that I couldn’t be more excited about. A way to take practical steps to find more momentum in one’s creative work.

I’m also preparing some free resources in the coming weeks that dig into these topics.

In the meantime, I would love to know — what is your biggest challenge in finding time and energy to do more creative work?


Are You Preparing For Success, or Merely Protecting Against Failure?

Many writers and creative professionals aren’t prepared for success.

Instead, they spend their time attempting to mitigate the risk of failure. And while I fear failure as much as any normal person, my experience in studying successful people is that focusing on failure is not enough. You need to actively prepare for success.

I believe Tina Roth Eisenberg may have said it best, in one of her tweets this week:

“Overprepare, then go with the flow.”

There are two key parts to this:

  1. Doing the research necessary to truly over prepare. Most people feel they are “over prepared” when they aren’t. They have instead come up with a single idea for Plan A. That’s it. They love their idea, they are proud of it, and they really hope it works. But an idea is not a plan. A real Plan A should be multi-faceted, and involve others. It should be a system in and of itself, and there should be a Plan B, and Plan C, in place for when Plan A — in all likelihood — fails. Want proof of this? Search Kickstarter for campaigns that failed to get funded. Seriously, go look at all of the ideas that someone believed in, but failed to truly gain traction. It’s sobering.
  2. You will have to constantly iterate from what you THOUGHT would happen. In the past few years, the tech community has framed this with the term “pivot.” To do something different that doesn’t inherently reject the research and preparation you have already done. That is the ‘go with the flow’ portion, that what you thought Plan A would look like may turn out to be very different in reality.

To me, these are key distinctions between merely protecting against failure versus actively planning for success. Let’s take this theory into reality with three examples I have experienced in the past week:

Example 1: The Book Launch

As I mentioned above, I am preparing for the next session of my 4-week online course called Get Read, which helps connect authors to readers. As I review and update the course material, I am essentially meditating on the various aspects of launching a book and establishing a readership.

Oftentimes, the reality of a successful book launch is wildly different from what an author may have envisioned. They expect it to be a busy couple weeks around publication day. In studying authors who have had successful launches, and experiencing them myself, I find they actually begin 12 months before publication day.

All facets of the marketing timeline require clarity of messaging, clarity of audience, and trust with the people who can connect you to that audience. Let’s face it, clarity and trust take time.

What I find empowering about the idea of a 12-month long book launch is that it allows the author to slowly prepare at a reasonable pace, and it gives them time to iterate as needed. This goes directly back to the quote that Tina shared above: “Overprepare, then go with the flow.”

Example 2: Getting People to Back Your Vision

A few weeks back, I shared an inside look into Kickstarter, as my friend and client Sarah Towle runs her campaign for her StoryApp Tour.

Her campaign ends on June 26, and it is amazing to see how she has raised $32,510, which is more than 80% of her goal.

But let’s face it, in so many ways, Sarah has put her neck on the line. When the campaign is successfully funded, it will be easy to gloss over the incredible risk she has navigated in the past year to get to this point. The thousands of hours, the financial investment, the little failures that are masked by the big success.

Each of the 174 people that have backed her Kickstarter so far has a story about how they became aware of Sarah’s project, and felt an affinity for it. Each of those backers holds a key to unlocking Sarah’s vision.

Example 3: Teaching Entrepreneurship

This week I ran a workshop on entrepreneurship for 5th graders at PS 123 in Harlem. Here is a look:

PS 123

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Each student had to come up with an idea for a business they were going to establish, and create a business plan for it. These kids are awesome.

As we went through the workshop, I noticed some things these young students did that I see often when adults try to establish their own businesses or creative projects:

  • Fear of judgment in even speaking your idea out loud. Early in the session, after all of the students had written down their business idea, I asked for someone to share theirs with the group. One hand went up. When I called on the student to share, their head immediately went down. They no longer wanted to share. My interpretation: They wanted the pride of being first to show they were a leader, but then thought twice when judgment from the class came.
  • It’s easier to critique someone else’s idea than it is to develop your own. There was another student who had loads of charisma, but spent most of her time making clever jokes about her friend’s business idea. After 10 minutes, her own business plan was barely filled out. She had done very little to hone her own idea, because she was too busy poking holes in the ideas of someone around her.

Now, these are fifth graders who just came in from recess, and it’s a mere week before the end of school, so I am not trying to make more of this than I should. Both of the students I describe here are very smart and capable. They did great overall in the workshop, and it was a complete joy to see their approach and help guide them along the way.

But it reminded me of what I often see with adults: that it is easier to say why an idea won’t work than it is to develop the attitude, ideas, and process to ensure that it does.

I have seen people do this with other writers or creative professionals, but I mostly see people do this to themselves. They don’t give their own ideas a fighting chance. They have an idea, begin to consider the risks, and conclude that the idea isn’t worth pursuing.

They feel smart because they protected themselves from failure. The problem? Doing so didn’t really prepare them for success either. Instead, they are just stuck in the middle.

Do you see a distinction in how you prepare for success versus merely protect against failure? What works for you?