Lessons Learned 2021
9 min read

I think we can all agree that any year is a step up from the year that was 2020…but I have to say, 2021 was better than I could’ve imagined.

I won’t focus on my own results too much, but I made some big moves this year that have really paid off in a big way. First, I joined Pat Flynn and the SPI time when Unreal Collective was acquired.

That was a scary decision to make, and it wasn’t easy to make either! But it was absolutely the right call for a few reasons:

  • I had the opportunity to lead the Community Experience team.
  • It gave Unreal members the opportunity to join an even better membership (for free)
  • I worked alongside an amazing team and saw how a creator business at scale operates.
  • It allowed me to focus on the non-service-related aspects of my own content business.

As a result, my overall business income increased nearly 50% this year. And while my 2020 income was nearly 70% service-based, less than 2% of my 2021 income was service-based.

It’s been an amazing year, and I feel so fortunate. The business is in a place now where I can truly be intentional about what I create, who I partner with, where I invest my energy, and more. And YOU have had a big part in that.

But I want to highlight some of the other lessons I’ve learned this year that I think can serve you in your life as a creator too.

In no particular order…

YOU may be more discoverable than your project(s)

Podcasting can be super frustrating, especially when it comes to audience growth. In most mediums, there is a platform acting to provide organic search and discovery…and while there is technically some search and discovery through podcast listening apps, it’s not on par with YouTube, Google, etc.

So a lot of podcasters are left asking, “How do I help people find my podcast?”

My approach is to use myself as the discoverable thing that can then introduce you to my podcast.

You may discover me on Twitter, or as a guest on a podcast you listen to, through my newsletter, or an article that came up in Google search.

I don’t really care how you discover me or my work, but I care about ensuring that whatever brought you INTO my sphere, I then introduce you to the podcast in a compelling way. And since people are discovering me every day, if some number of them are directly introduced to the podcast, I now have podcast discovery.

Dividing your focus is super costly

My friend Tim once said to me, “You can have as many cats as you want. But you have to feed all of them.” Such is life for creative people – we love new projects.

The more you divide your focus, the more time you pull away from each and every project or priority you have. Not only are you losing time on Project A when you work on Project B, but you lose time when you ask yourself, “Should I work on Project A or Project B right now?”

And if your strategy to help people discover your project is by first discovering YOU, it becomes more difficult to route them to the right project.

For better or for worse, people have a really hard time associating you with multiple things. We want to put people into boxes. And when you build multiple boxes for yourself, it’s hard to convince people to take any of them seriously.

Investing in content works

In 2020, I began focusing on SEO for a couple of my web properties, but most specifically the Freelancing School website.

First I learned how to write my own articles optimized for SEO. Within a matter of weeks (not even months) those articles began ranking on page one and eventually in the top three positions. Month over month, I saw my traffic grow.

But I was the bottleneck – if I didn’t write new articles, my traffic would plateau at whatever volume Google was sending for that keyword!

So I hired an excellent copywriter who I knew and trusted to ramp up content production on that website by collaborating on Keywords and final drafts.

The results have been fantastic – continued growth in traffic, keyword volume, and more. And as a result, I’ve seen more course students, affiliate commissions, etc.

It’s pure numbers: more traffic at a constant conversion rate = more revenue.

Design really, really matters

I’m on a mission to grow my creative platform and get my work in front of more and more people. My writing, my podcasts, my workshops, etc.

And while I believe in the quality of the work and ideas that I share, I’ve become convinced (unfortunately) that people are more willing to trust A+ design with B- content than B- design with A+ content. It’s not true 100% of the time, and if someone does get past average design and digs into the content, then it may not matter.

When it comes to deciding whether or not to initially trust someone and give their work a chance, I think it comes down to design. We conflate good design with a good product. We often rule out good products with poor visual design.

So, to set yourself up to be given a chance in the eyes of the consumer, you really need to think about design.

Borrowing from social media is necessary

I’ve been a hardcore email-or-bust creator for several years; social media platforms felt too fickle and I couldn’t stand the thought of building my creative platform on top of a third-party platform only to lose it all.

That changed this year as I’ve seen just how much more willing people are to follow me initially vs. commit to subscribing.

At this point, I’m convinced that if you want to reach a large audience, social media (or YouTube) is a necessity. People want to see a passive, higher-frequency but a lower dose of you to determine how much they like your work.

And right now, I see the most opportunity on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram Reels, and YouTube Shorts. And since I don’t love doing video, you’ll see I’m focused on Twitter!

We expect more for our email address

Quick follow-up to the point above – it’s harder and harder to convince people to subscribe to an email newsletter. The traditional “lead magnets” don’t work well anymore with the exception of email courses or quizzes.

If you’re wondering what type of opt-in to create, I now tell people to imagine a product people would pay for…then make it free for subscribing to your newsletter. PDFs, ebooks, and one-off resources just aren’t doing it.

Community is REALLY hard

I have been eating, sleeping, and breathing online community this year. I love building community, and I love helping others do it too – but it is so much harder than people realize until they get into it.

This Thread I wrote covers most of the reasons why; but people imagine communities or memberships (different things) as this magical, passive, monthly recurring revenue. But community is not passive – community requires a LOT of consistent care and energy.

And even when you cultivate a space that is self-sustaining where members feel co-ownership and help govern the space themselves, it’s always at risk of a downward spiral. And just as some businesses have positive network effects (more people begets more people) communities have negative network effects (when core people leave, more people leave)!

It’s one of the most rewarding pursuits you can take on – but it’s much more difficult than simply standing up a digital community space and inviting people in. Know what you’re getting into if you’re going in this direction!

Buying a home is super rewarding

In February, Mallory and I took possession of our first home here in Columbus, Ohio. It was a big, stressful, scary decision to make, but it has easily been one of the best decisions we’ve made all year.

I’ve probably worked on my business more this year than ever before, but I’ve also picked up a LOT of practical skills from doing projects around the house. We’ve painted, laid baseboard, installed new light fixtures, swapped out all kinds of hardware, created a board and baton wall…

And every step of the way, we were happy in knowing that the hard work and money we were putting into making this house our home is actually an investment in the value of the property! It feels so great to be incentivized to not only maintain your living space, but improve it and make it your own.

Web3 is a huge opportunity

I’ve taken the red pill and I’ve gone deep into the rabbit hole of where things are going with the internet. What seemed like noisy, overhyped nonsense several months ago has now become clear to me that we’re in a paradigm-shifting time.

I’m super, super invested in studying what the developments in Web3 technology mean to creators and community builders. And spoiler, I’m going to be writing a LOT more about it next year.

If you want to follow along, subscribe for free here.

Access compounds

As part of my deep dive into the Web3 rabbit hole, I find yet another example of the magic of compounding: access.

When you have access to information or opportunity, you are often presented with even more information and opportunity. In the Web3 world, that means as you find yourself in certain community circles, they often surface new circles. And so on and so on…

It’s pretty unreasonable for most people to get so immersed in this world that you can truly keep up with it. So, again, instead of trying to spend all of your time within the Web3 world, click here to start getting my synthesis.

Having a life partner is life-changing

I wouldn’t have accomplished nearly as much as I did this year without having Mallory in my corner. There is just no way to overstate the benefit of having a loving partner to support you, share the load, challenge you, and more.

It’s been amazing watching HER grow as a Realtor and community builder this year, and she’s had an even bigger year than me in a lot of ways! I just can’t say enough about how amazing it is to be building a LIFE with someone else (and not just a business).