At the start of 2016, I had a very specific view of where I wanted to go professionally, and a huge sense of possibility. Standing here at the end of 2016, I have a very different view of where I want to go, and what I regard as possible. The months between were a time of difficult choices, strong transitions, and value adjustments, all while maintaining a busy consulting schedule.
2016 was also a big year in terms of producing and shipping projects. Here’s a list of what I shipped in 2016:
- The final 7 episodes of my Chasing Product podcast
- 1 email course
- 1 book
- 4 blog posts (which is far fewer than I wanted to)
- 1 coaching program for freelancers (still in beta)
- 1 guest post for Unmatchedstyle.com
- 3 freelancer-themed one-act plays
- Contributed to 3 articles on NCR Silver
- 7 Digital and Tech Skills Every Small Business Owner Should Learn by Deborah Nurmi
- Best Business Books: 50 Small Business Owners Share Their Picks by Marianne Wait
- Create a Customer Survey to Generate Results You Can Use by Deborah Nurmi
- 10 podcast episodes as a guest
That’s on top of shipping a boatload of client projects for my consulting firm, Cogeian Systems, which included multiples of:
- New WordPress website builds
- WordPress website redesigns
- WordPress SEO Audits
- WordPress Security Audits
- New web app builds
- Web app refactoring
- Discovery engagements
- SQL Server optimizations
Whew! Whatever criticisms one might be able to level at me, being lazy isn’t one of them. But the crazy thing is, I think I could have done even more!
Now that we see the enumerated list of what I shipped, let’s drill down into what I decided and what actions I took, that led me through the year, quarter-by quarter.
Q1: Starting a new product-release cycle
At the start of the year, I had finished promoting my first book, and decided that the financial performance of the book didn’t warrant further investment of time or energy. That said, I had learned a lot during the process of creating, launching, promoting and selling Record and Release, and although the sales fell short of my goals, I was sure I could do better with a new product.
I decided that I still had value to give to my audience, and committed to writing another book, one that directly addressed my core market of freelancers. Here’s my reasoning and my follow-up actions:
- Consulting revenue dropping low
- Marketing lessons learned
- Opportunity in my “home” market
- Promoting via my podcast
- Wrote & launched my first e-mail course
- Cracked the 1k subscriber barrier
Q2: Pausing product
After spending Q1 steadily promoting my new course, building my audience, and working on a new book, I opened up pre-orders of my book to my mailing list of almost 2,000 people – who had opted-in to the e-mail course at a rate of 20% – and got 2 paid pre-orders. Two. From a list of nearly 2,000.
I was confused. The pain point addressed in my book had been thoroughly-researched, the course that led in to the book had been well-received, and my one-on-one conversations with freelancers in my audience indicated that I was on to a legitimate need. And yet, I just couldn’t sell the thing. Clearly something had gone off the rails, and I wasn’t sure what it was. Continuing to invest time in product while forgoing numerous consulting revenue opportunities just didn’t seem to be working out.
I decided it was time to shut down my product-focused line of business and re-focus on consulting, where the ROI was clear and the sales opportunities were more obvious and available. Here’s my reasoning and my follow-up actions:
- Consulting revenue still dropping
- Weak pre-orders of new book
- No clear path forward
- Shut down podcast
- Stopped promoting email course
- Cancelled book launch
Q3: Full-focus consulting
After spending Q2 shutting down my product efforts and re-breathing life into my consulting business, I was pretty happy. Revenue – profitable revenue, even! – started rolling in the door almost from the very first day I spent 100% focused on consulting again. Best of all, I was no longer dealing with the uncertainty inherent in the unit economics of trying to make 1 product sale at a time. I decided to double-down on my new/old focus. Here’s my reasoning and my follow-up actions:
- High ROI
- Clear path forward
- Uncertainty Fatigue
- SEO rehab
- Productized offerings
- Phone sales
Q4: Consulting cruise control
Having spent Q2 and Q3 rehabbing my consulting business, I was pretty happy. Things were going well. At the same time, I even began to second-guess my decision to discontinue my product work. The things I had learned during my “product years” had changed me. My personal life had changed me. My health issues had changed me. And time had changed me.
Re-building my consulting business in 2016, I was a very different man than I was when I was first building my consulting business in 2003. I decided that I’d level my efforts off, rather than continue to go “pedal to the metal” with continuing to re-grow my company. To make this easier, I made a few changes to the way I structured projects and took payment. Here’s my reasoning and my follow-up actions:
- Different values
- Smaller team & no desire to grow
- More confidence
- Longer lead times
- Increased rates
Looking forward: goals for 2017
So here I am, standing on the cusp of 2017. My consulting business is back to full health (if not full size), I’ve had almost 9 months to digest my experiences trying to profitably market my own products, I’ve learned a number of new tricks for operating my business smoothly, and I’ve recovered the confidence to try something different again.
To figure out what I should focus on in 2017, I weighed 2 big variables: what has worked well for me in the past, and what I really want (as opposed to what I think I want, or what I should want).
What worked well for me:
- Obviously, consulting works for me. This isn’t going anywhere in 2017. It may change shape or scope, but it’s not going away.
- Podcasting worked well for me. It was by far the most effective way I provided value and built an audience, plus it played well to my strengths.
- Offering an email course worked well as an audience-builder, was helpful, and was satisfying to write
What I really want:
- To not be so desk-bound in my work
- To write more books (I’ve discovered that I simply enjoy writing books; it’s the “worrying about profit” part that makes me miserable)
- To talk to – and help – more freelancers, either one-on-one or at scale
So, with all that in mind, here are my very modest professional goals for 2017:
- Earn the same amount of consulting income as 2016, but with 20% less office-time and no decrease in quality-to-client (Q1 – Q4)
- Write 1 article per month, with any eye toward aggregating them into a book or course at some later date (Q1 – Q4)
- Start a new podcast, focused on helping freelancers (Q2)
- Hold at least 1 live webinar for freelancers (Q3)
Like I said…modest goals. I know it’s in fashion to parrot sayings like “if your goals don’t scare you, they’re not big enough“, but my experience has been that incremental change is the only truly sustainable kind of change for me. To use a sports analogy, I’ll gladly accept the results of a career spent consistently hitting singles and doubles, rather than adopt a stressful and unrealistic focus on hitting home runs. I’ve already been there, and have discovered it’s not for me.
I can share my experience, strength and hope with you, but I can’t make it relevant to you if it’s not. As much as I hope this post is useful, the real test comes when you ask yourself some questions about your own freelancing career: what’s your path for 2017? Where are you coming from? Where do you want to go? And does anything in this post help you understand how to do that?
Wherever you hope to go this coming year, I wish you success, and I hope we can get there together.