Start Small and Personal: How To Approach Any New Project

So many writers I work with are apprehensive about certain aspects of platform development. So when we approach something like creating a newsletter, they come back to me with these grand plans for a newsletter with 8 sections, and a really “professional” tone.

My advice to them is often this: start small and personal. I take you through the reasoning why in the video above.

Thanks!
-Dan

Is the Momentum of Your Writing Career Too Much to Manage?

Today I want to talk about the “problem of success.” That point when all of your efforts to develop a platform starts setting things in motion. When you finally get that sense of momentum, when people engage with you, when people start asking things of you. How do you balance the needs of your writing, the needs of your own platform (blogging, social media, etc), marketing opportunities, and community engagement? And how do you do so while still honoring the other needs in your life: family, friends, personal wellness, your day job if you have one, mowing the lawn, etc?

With some of the successful authors I am working with, I find that momentum is both an INCREDIBLE opportunity, and a challenge as well. That a lot is asked of their time, and they are forced to make decisions on a daily basis as to who to say yes to, and what opportunities cannot be addressed at this moment.

This is a topic that is very important to me, and one that I am doing a lot of behind the scenes work on with a new project. Stay tuned…

The video above explains this all in greater detail.
Thanks!
-Dan

Instead of “Doing More,” Do Only What Matters, And Do It Really Well

Sometimes when I work with a new client or student, I hear this question early on: “what else?” The context is often that they are looking to grow their audience, and want to know yet another tactic to try. They may say something such as “I know about social media, know about blogging, know about speaking and conferences – what else should I be doing?”

Now, I have plenty of tactics to share, but often feel that “what else?” is exactly the wrong question.

It is easy to get lost in trying to do a hundred unrelated tactics. Just trying one more thing, then one more thing, then one more thing. There is an addictive nature to it – a sense of progress. But often, it is the sign of a stagnated strategy.

Instead of asking “what else?” focus on optimizing the basics, on increasing yield. What that means is doing what you may be doing already, but better – with a higher return on investment and impressive results. That you are increasing efficiency, not looking to master some whole other set of skills.

You have limited resources. Instead of constantly trying out new things, why not focus on mastering just one skill? That going from 70% efficiency to 80% efficiency on just one strategy can be wildly more powerful than just asking “what else?” and going down 20 roads at once.

What Bruce Springsteen Can Teach Us About Doing One Thing Really Well

Last week I went to see a Bruce Springsteen show. Here’s a photo I snapped in a typical moment at the show where Bruce engages closely with his fans:
Bruce Springsteen

Every aspect of the show is lockstep – it drives forward for more than 2.5 hours with zero breaks. Bruce has worked very hard to optimize his show down to the tiniest element, ensuring it is as good as it can be. More than 15 people are on stage, and they all take their lead from Bruce, he directs everyone. When the camera shows the drummer, you see his eyes intently focused on Bruce, who is all over not just the stage, but the arena. Bruce will give the tiniest cue that will change the course of the entire song or set. The band has been trained to not just do what they do well, but to be ready to change on a moment’s notice.

There is an active online forum where people track and dissect every show on Bruce’s tours. What you see is how he is constantly optimizing his shows. But when you are at the show, you see so much more than that. That within the structure he has created, there is freedom.

Bruce plays for 2-3 hours a night at 62 years old, with most of the other musicians around the same age. While his set is “optimized,” it is not rote. There is tons of energy with no breaks – the band never leaves the stage. Bruce spends the entire evening running, jumping, sliding, crowd surfing, dancing and interacting with the crowd. The band gets into the act too, moving around. At one point midway through the show, Bruce ventures out to a platform far from the stage, and chugs a beer.

At 39, I can’t do any of this without needing immediate medical attention. At 62, Bruce does this night after night.

With so much interaction, Bruce and the band are constantly in danger of doing something that takes them ‘off script.’ Anyone can slip up musically or physically. In a show built around audience engagement, that means thousands of people could potentially cause Bruce to drop a microphone, grab him the wrong way, or do something unexpected. But the entire operation is so well optimized, this group is ready for anything.

As a writer or publisher – does this describe your operation? So lockstep that you have a reputation for being the best in your strategy to engage an audience? That maybe you have done little to “innovate,” and yet you are more successful by doing the basics REALLY well?

Become More Efficient

In his book “Let My People Go Surfing,” outdoor company Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard described his brand’s focus on efficiency in their operation, with the goal of having the least negative impact on the environoment. I forget the exact number, but he said something like their operation is 92% efficient. The obvious question is: “why not be 100% efficient,” to which he replied there are diminishing returns. That it would take the same level of resources and effort to go from 92% efficient to 93% efficient as it did to go from 10% efficient to 93% efficient. That at that level, it is REALLY hard to get a single greater percentage of efficiency.

My gut is that many writers are not at 93% efficiency for their efforts to develop their audience with the most basic of tactics. Sure, some are, but many are likely 20% efficient or 60% efficient. EG: there is so much potential benefit simply by doing existing strategies & tactics better, not in seeking out the new and shiny.

When you become more efficient, the various threads of your life work TOGETHER, instead of feeling as though they are all working to pull you apart. One of the most common challenges writers tell me they have is finding the time to do it all: write, develop their audience, attend to their career and personal life. When you are more efficient, you have a tighter focus, and a structure from which everything flows. And as Bruce showed, it should not give a sense of constraint, but a sense of freedom.

“No Technique Works If It Isn’t Used”

My favorite site on the internet is Mixergy.com where Andrew Warner conducts long-form interviews with entrepreneurs with the goal of extracting the tactics and stories of their success to help others. Andrew himself is an internet entrepreneur, having done VERY well for himself back in the early 2000s. Over the past several years, Andrew didn’t experiment with one social media platform after another, he did ONE thing again and again, always optimizing.

So far, Andrew has interviewed more than 700 people, all available on his website. When you listen to the interviews over the year (I have listened to most of them), you can see the many ways he keeps making them better and better. You see him try new things, some of which work, some of which don’t. He has installed a system of interview prep that involves employees he hires, he now created “cheat sheets” that help viewers get even more out of each interview, he frames some of his chats as “courses” instead of “interviews.”

So instead of jumping into Pinterest, Andrew spends his time ensuring his interviews get better and better – that he serves his audience better and better. Andrew is going from 91% efficiency to 92% efficiency, always increasing return on investment.

A recent blog post shared a list of advice from Larry Niven, one of which is highly applicable here:

“No technique works if it isn’t used. If that sounds simplistic, look at some specifics: Telling friends about your diet won’t make you thin. Buying a diet cookbook won’t either. Even reading the recipes won’t do it. Knowing about Alcoholics Anonymous, looking up the phone number, even jotting it on real paper, won’t make you sober. Buying weights doesn’t give you muscles. Signing a piece of paper won’t make missiles disappear, even if you make lots of copies and tell every anchorperson on earth. Endlessly studying designs for spacecraft won’t put anything into orbit. And so forth. But you surely know someone who tried it that way, and maybe you’re one yourself.”

If you are a writer or publisher looking for growth in your career – don’t always focus on “doing more.” Focus on doing only what matters, and doing it REALLY well.

If you think I can help you do that, please feel free to reach out.
-Dan

973-981-8882
dan@danblank.com

Perfection vs Progress

Today I want to talk about perfection, and how it does or doesn’t relate to progress. Each of us are juggling a million things each week, and seeking perfection can often stand in the way of getting things done.

But I often find myself considering the value of focus, or seeking perfection, and of the downsides of what we sometimes call “progress.” If you are a writer or a publisher, I imagine this might relate to how you find your role changing as digital media evolves our behaviors and capabilities. That we all feel pressure to do more, to leverage more, to focus more on spreading ourselves thinner and thinner, and less on taking the time to produce a single work of exceptional quality.

tea ceremony

The above image is a scene from The Last Samurai featuring the ritual of a tea ceremony. It’s image that I try to keep in my mind often. The character here has devoted his life to this ritual, to perfecting the craft of tea. I always consider it in terms of how I approach my daily life – how I can become more focused on delivering exceptional value in my business. How can I focus on fewer activities, and do them exceptionally well?

My friend Catherine Carr shared an interesting Tweet this week:

A good meditation for today. RT @simonsinek: Progress is more important than perfection.

I understand this idea – that sometimes the search for perfection can ensure that we never get anything done. That oftentimes “good enough” is enough to get an important project started, and can lead to very important accomplishments.

But…

What if sometimes accomplishment is not really progress at all; that we must judge quality, not just quantity.

For instance: the toaster you bought 40 years ago was heavy duty metal, big, one function, easily repairable and lasted forever. New toasters are cheap plastic, have millions of options, and when they break, you throw them away. Is this progress? Oh, there still is a nice heavy duty single function toaster on the market:

Dualit Toaster

This Dualit toaster costs $340 from Amazon, marked down from its retail price of $380. I picked up one of these at a yard sale a few years back for $45. It’s the centerpiece of our kitchen counter. I can’t see doing the same with a “Back to Basics” Egg-and-Muffin 2-Slice Toaster and Egg Poacher:

Toaster

I love how the “back to basics” brand name tries to ride the simplicity trend, but designs a product that is akin to Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons.

Is there something wrong with doing just one thing very well? In not following 100 paths, even if they are all fun and worthwhile. Having the discipline to do one thing exceptionally well. Not rushing around doing more and more, always “unlocking value” – finding ways to shove more into our day, and eek out every last bit of “value” from everything we do or own?

That focus and limits can help us become better at what we do, and accomplish greater things over the long term.

Let’s look at some examples…

Greatness Sometimes Has Nothing to Do With Progress
Many of the people I admire were not innovators. They simply did one thing very very well. An easy example is Michael Jordan, in this classic commercial:

His goal was not to reinvent sneakers, create new ways to play the game, make a fortune off merchandising, realign pay structures, enable new leagues or anything like that. Sure, some of those things happened because of him, but he just focused on getting the ball in the hoop.

A great counterpoint to this is my band. What? You haven’t heard of my band? Maybe that’s because in the years we played together during and after college, we spent more time shopping for cool gear and fiddling with it all, than we did really learning our instruments and writing songs. Somewhere I have hundreds of hours of recordings of cool sounds, none of them arranged into any kind of coherent songs.

Is perfection possible? Car maker McLaren tried to find out with their F1 super car in the 1990’s. Jay Leno, an avid car buff, calls it “the greatest car of the 20th century.”

It opts for basics, with no power steering or traction control – Leno mentions how it’s like driving a go kart. Every single part in the car is designed and manufactured by McLaren. That’s incredible in this age where we outsource everything.

Here’s a video where Jay takes a tour of the McLaren factory:

Sometimes We Justify Compromises
Not compromising can be VERY expensive. That is why a McLaren costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, if you can even get one of the few they produce.

Oftentimes, compromise is something that is necessary in order to live our lives. We balance family, work, hobbies, social life, and mowing that lawn.

Yet, removing obligations allows us to focus our energy. This is one reason that my wife and I rent instead of own our home. I don’t have to mow the lawn, trim the hedges, repair the boiler, or shovel the walk. Instead – I spend more time rolling around on the floor with my son.

Compromise is often about resources and value. In another video, Jay Leno showed us a car that was given to him – an odd car from the 1950’s that was interesting, but ugly. He took it up as a cause, and will restore it at the cost of $25,000. When he’s done, the car will be WORTH $5,000 on the open market because it is not a collectible car.

Silly, right?

But maybe this is why an estimated 50% of early Hollywood films were lost – no one bothered to preserve or restore them. Those who focus their energies in this way can accomplish things that can’t be measured in traditional ways – money and power.

Perfection is hard. In the rush to accomplish things, we leverage a range of platforms and tools created by others. We can’t focus 100% of our energies on every small thing. It’s unlikely that you proofread every single email you send 10 times to ensure each word is perfect. But it is a choice we have – where to focus our efforts, what is worth doing exceptionally well, and what merely needs to get done.

But accomplishment alone is not a key indicator of happiness or success. The happiest people you meet are often those who have very little financial means. Some of the most unhappy people have lots of financial resources – but with it comes a personal expectation to do more, to live up to the external expectations put upon them.

How Focusing Can Be a Means for Differentiation

Something I find myself considering is how do I build quality into what I offer in my business. There are LOTS of people who do what do, and many of them are quite good. How do I differentiate myself? I suppose I try to offer something unique, and something VERY high quality.

One foundation of my business is teaching. I spent nearly an entire year developing my first online course: Build Your Author Platform. The first session just ended, and now I am taking a month to revamp it and improve it for when I offer the next session in June.

From what I have seen, this is the wrong way to build a business. If I wanted to scale immediately, if I wanted to maximize revenue, then I should be offering dozens of classes, different levels (bronze, silver and gold), be upselling ebooks and webcasts along with them. I should be “unlocking value.”

Instead I am obsessed with doing this one thing very very well. Will it be perfection? Nope.

But I am pushing myself again and again. I am asking for honest feedback – getting it – and apply it to help improve what I offer. I’m resisting the urge to be satisfied by survey responses that say my students feel the course has exceeded expectations. I want to raise their expectations even further, and exceed those.

Quality is often a process, not a destination, something you constantly strive for. And it’s a decision that each of us make every day, across the hundreds of things that we do. Inherently, focusing on quality is as much about what you DON’T do in your life, as what you do focus on. That your energy is finite, and creating something of unique value requires sacrifice.

Anyhow – let me know if I can help you build something uniquely valuable to you and your community.

-Dan

Ideas vs Execution (An Idea Alone is Not Enough)

This week, I watched a documentary about ordinary people who did an extraordinary thing. They didn’t have much money, they didn’t have great connections, they didn’t have a particular expertise above anyone else in their field, but they had passion. And with that, they amassed an important collection of modern art, and became celebrities in the art world.

Dan Blank

“Anybody can have these ideas, but to actually do it is quite a miracle.”
– Dorothy Vogel

The documentary was “Herb & Dorothy,” and it told the story of Herb & Dorothy Vogel, who spent the past 50 years collecting artwork in New York City. The crux of the story is that they ended up with a multimillion dollar collection on the salary of a postal worker and librarian – that these two unassuming people infiltrated the art world. But there is so much more to it than that.

Herb and Dorothy lived in a small, 1-bedroom rent stabilized apartment, and for half a century, they devoted their lives to the art world. Not to gaming it, not to studying it, but to EXPERIENCING it. Primarily, they became friends with artists – they collected people as much as they collected artwork, evidently. They didn’t have children, they didn’t have much of anything, except for art.

Herb & Dorothy Vogel

But it wasn’t about just the work itself, they were participants in the art culture. They met everyone, saw everything, and tracked an artist’s work as it evolved. They became a part of the process. They never sold any of the nearly 5,000 pieces they collected, and eventually gave most of it away to museums. When the National Gallery of Art gave them a small stipend to live on – pay medical bills, the rent, etc – they instead used it to buy more art.

As I watched their story, I took away a few lessons that I thought were critical for building something of value:

  • Sometimes, doing something extraordinary is an act of simple dedication and stamina, not sweeping and dramatic moments.
  • There is opportunity outside of trends. Herb & Dorothy never participated in financial art booms, they focused on what they loved and took a long term view of it all.
  • Traditional limits (finance, connections) can be overcome in the most simple of ways. Herb & Dorothy negotiated their way to not just possess objects, but to create powerful connections and friendships, which somehow lead to the creation of their collection.
  • Many who learn of Herb & Dorothy’s story will think: “I can do that.” And yet, 99.9% of the world will never do anything remotely close to what they did. Herb & Dorothy are an incredible example of how you don’t always need a brilliant idea to succeed, just uncompromising execution.

Let me know if I can help you in building your business & career: @DanBlank, 973-981-8882 or dan@danblank.com.

Thanks!

-Dan