Well, it’s uphill from here.
Over the last few months, I’ve been digging into the reasons why people start up blogs – the stories that motivate them and drive them onwards (or, in 95% of cases, lead to them giving up). I’ve been doing this because I’m writing a small book on it, but also because I’m genuinely, bug-eyed, pants-off fascinated about all this. Blogging is a compulsion, an addiction and an emotional crutch, and those things can either mess you up or help you be that last man standing who collects the prize because everyone else, motivated with the rock-solid certainty that it’s unwinnable, has dropped out.
Blogging is an odd thing.
I’m drawn to odd things.
I’m writing this next to a sunlit window in a Costa coffee house in Birmingham (see top photo). A regular Chai latte is to the right of my laptop, and I’m fascinated by the lazy snow of cinnamon drifting to the bottom of the glass. A week ago I was in Rotterdam, pimping my love of storytelling to travel bloggers at the TBU Rotterdam conference. I’m just back from a wedding and a long-overdue catchup with good friends, and I’ve just spent the night in a gorgeous cottage deep in the woods just outside Bewdley. Tonight I’m back to Hull and then Hornsea, working frantically to get work cleared before I leap on yet another bus to London and fly out to Toronto on Wednesday morning, ready to speak to hundreds more travel bloggers about the joy of being evil.
It’ll be fantastic fun.
I’m really exhausted.
My friends know this, and they also know what I actually do for a living. They know about the private editing & copywriting, they know about the travel articles I write (for CNN, for Gadling), they know about the contracted blogging and they know a little about the mentoring I’ve started doing. Their question – and it’s a good one – is this:
“Why bother trying to run a blog on top of all of this work, Mike?”
A year ago, when I was really struggling to put it all together and was living in a sweaty, buttock-clenching world of vocational self-doubt, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate exactly why. I’d have mumbled something about having got this far so I might as well continue, or something equally vague, open-ended and faintly unconvincing. My plan for it was worryingly similar to those of the 95% of bloggers that give up – ie. I had no firm plan.
At the end of my storytelling workshop at TBU, I hastily scrawled something on the flip-chart I was using in place of Powerpoint slides. Here it is, lovingly (okay, blearily) reproduced on a Costa napkin:
Here’s what it means for anyone who has a blog and wants to somehow, in some way, turn it into a digital business that sustains and excites the creative bejayzus out of them when they wake up every morning. Obviously, your circumstances may vary. Tim Ferriss, I’m pretty sure you don’t need to read the next bit (but thanks for popping by).
The following suggested business model applies to digital products and services. Feel free to adapt/ignore it wildly.
1) You – the anonymous, all-encompassing You – are at the bottom. You’re starting with limited resources: pretty much the default state of anyone with a blog and a yearning to ditch their existing lifestyle. You’re a small dot because you don’t have a lot of resources – read: money.
2) Sponsors hover in the middle reaches of napkin-space. These are people you should definitely make every attempt to engage with. They’re veterans. They have a wealth of experience you’d be smart to make withdrawals from. You should explore ways that you can be useful to each other. This is a smart step forward for your blog-related business ideas. However – you will notice that the amount of money they have is fairly limited. When you work for them, you will produce a certain amount of work for which you will be paid once. This is the traditional freelancing model. It’s what most writers do at some point. It’s what I’m doing right now, to a certain extent. It’s pragmatic and it works.
It’s also not going to make you wealthy, or perhaps even comfortable. You’re going to continue to work at a blistering pace.
And it has a hard ceiling.
3) Let’s soar into the upper napkinsphere. You see that straight line under “The Rest of The World?” It’s not a straight line – it’s a curve. It’s the edge of a circle – but you’d have to back away for a while, maybe a couple of miles, to see it. The amount of people in this space is colossal. It’s everyone who isn’t you and who isn’t a sponsor (in the company-oriented sense). It’s 99.9% of everyone on the Internet. It’s the ideal audience of your blog: anyone with a brain and a pulse.
The folk are like you in the respect that they have limited money – but there are a staggering amount of people in this circle, which is why it’s such an epic size. This circle is also filled with people who aren’t naturally inclined to invest in you in any way whatsoever. Don’t fool yourself on this. By default, these people are far less investment-inclined than sponsors.
This is what the fold in the napkin is all about, just under that line/curve. It’s a mountain you have to climb. A mountain made of enormous amounts of hard work, business planning, Art, applied psychology, smart, non-spammy marketing and all sorts of heart-on-sleeve public-facing transparency and vulnerability. It’s a process of learning how to make something those people will genuinely find meaningful. In business, this is the hardest thing in the world. It’s a mountain littered with the remains of failed expeditions, and it’ll probably end up littered with some of your own.
However, get over that mountain, and you have reached the 99% – your audience and everyone they know and everyone they know – in a way that will get them to hand over the princely sum of one dollar.
That’s it. Just one dollar.
Well, it doesn’t have to be a dollar. But it does have to be something that represents stunningly good value. You have worked incredibly hard to identify something a lot of people want, and you’re now delivering it to them in a way that they can afford – because it’s a bargain. You’ve worked really hard to demonstrate what a bargain it is – not by spinning a web of shameless untruths, but by explaining exactly what it is and how it can be used. You’ve told a story that demonstrates its potential. You’ve used marketing the way it’s meant to be used – to communicate, not obfuscate.
(Oh, and don’t use words like “obfuscate”. Hire an editor if you find yourself using words like that.)
4) Work with everyone. Work for people you believe in or will pay you, or, ideally, both at the same time. But explore the lower slopes of that wrinkle in the napkin, that mountain of hard business reality. It’s what every wildly successful business in the history of the world has successfully scaled. You’ll find all their HQs over that fold-mountain. It’s where you should go if you want to be supported by your readers. It’s where you will end up if you truly listen and truly give back.
And the great news is that you only have to creep over the circle’s edge to get enough success to sustain you. There are just so damn many people in that circle that you can be as niche as you like and still have a huge, engaged, supportive audience that really, truly, demonstrably cares.
All on a Costa napkin*. Amazing, right?
At TBU Rotterdam, Gary Bembridge talked about the importance of gathering feedback from your readers, to find out what they really want as opposed to what you think they want. This is the greater part of that mountain to climb, and it’s really, really hard. Social media feedback is incredibly fickle. A Like is not always a rock-solid endorsement of support (although it can hint at it). A Retweet can mean “I’m IN!” or “it’s a slow day and I need something to tweet”. Everyone is suspicious of the lasting value of something delivered digitally, and frankly they should be. It’s all very new, and there’s a lot of snake oil out there. There’s also the thorny issue of the changing perception of what should be paid for and what shouldn’t. It’s messy. There aren’t many paths up this mountain. Your best bet is to assume you’ll spend most of your time hacking out your own. You have to learn how to listen and interact, instead of just flat-out broadcasting in all directions.
A little more than a year after quitting my job and after nudging this blog into the realm of storytelling (the telling of & the teaching of), I’ve gathered a fair amount of feedback – nowhere near enough, but a good start. I’m currently making storytelling-related things that I believe will be super-useful to a lot of people who call by, and I’m also opening myself up to mentoring a small number of people on a one-to-one basis to help them develop their writing & business skills. These things are running alongside my bill-paying copywriting work. I’m also writing fiction, and like anyone else writing fiction (like fellow TBU Rotterdam speaker Frankie Thompson) I hope it’ll also prove to be great value.
So here’s what this blog is.
It’s Base Camp 1.
I really believe in the Napkin Model Of Online Business. It’s not impossible. I’ve seen so many people succeed with it, not because they tricked their way into getting people to give them money, but because they worked their asses off until they found a way to make something that people really wanted, and then they worked their asses off again to communicate the value of it, and then found a way for the fans of that Special Something to pay them directly.
So, I’m climbing that mountain too. I’m attempting to do it with a certain amount of Art, a certain amount of business consultancy, and a whole lot of stuff in between, including for-the-hell-of-it enthusiasm. Knowing my talent for misadventure, I’ll fall into a few crevasses along the way. I may even fall right off the side of the mountain, like this guy did with the non-metaphorical variety. But my “dream job”? It’s mainly being paid, directly or indirectly, by The Rest Of The World. That’s it. It’s that simple, and it’s that challenging.
And I’m going to climb that mountain until I’ve found a way over it.
Fancy coming along?
*This post is not sponsored by Costa. They serve good Chai coffee, but this table has a wobbly leg, so I’m not going to glowingly recommend them. Sorry.
Images: Mike Sowden (Instagram & otherwise).