10 min read

For the past couple of years, I’ve published an annual “year in review” looking back on accomplishments of the year and goals for the next.

To be honest, it’s a really great exercise to reflect on the past year – accomplishments, successful goals, failed goals, unforeseen opportunities…you get it. When you set goals for the year, and then 12 months later you can reflect on them, it’s a really great illustration of what you’re capable of – and personally, I’m always surprised at how well I did (even without actively thinking about the goal sheets I fill out).

I do it every year, and I recommend you do the same (here’s a template you can walk through to think through them).

But recapping my accomplishments for the year doesn’t seem especially useful for others. So instead, this year I want to recap the lessons I learned (or reinforced) in 2019 that I wish I would’ve known earlier.

Thinking long term (and making sacrifices in the short term)

I wrote about this a lot in 2019. The single biggest lesson I learned this year (which encapsulates just about all other lessons) is optimizing for the long term and not the short term.

We are wired for instant gratification. When we do something, we want to see results immediately. 

But there’s so much noise. There’s so much competition for peoples’ time, attention, and resources. It’s getting harder and harder to break through.

I’ve become friends with a lot of creators now, and the reality for most of them is that they spent years – YEARS – feeling like they were shouting into the void.

They ran YouTube channels with 50 subscribers, podcasts with 500 total downloads, 100 email subscribers…

Now they have thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of people following their work.

And they all started from the same place: zero.

Thinking long term isn’t constrained to creators either.

Thinking long term means that if someone doesn’t want to work with you for this project, you support their decision and build the relationship anyway. Thinking long term means you aren’t selling for today – you’re selling for the future.

And for me this year, thinking long term meant that I said “no” to a lot of paying work.

In 2018, I recorded four courses for LinkedIn Learning and spent six months as Entrepreneur in Residence for The Columbus Partnership.

In 2019, I recorded one course for LinkedIn Learning (last month) and took on a very small number of freelance projects.

I made that choice so that I could funnel more time into building my business. It allowed me to record three of my own courses and launch Freelancing School.

That was really tough for me to do. I didn’t know if Freelancing School would work, and I had to live pretty lean while I developed it. But I invested in a coach, created deadlines for myself, and got them out there.

Now, I expect Freelancing School to be my biggest priority and means of income in 2020.

Read: biding or buying your time

Read: thinking long term

Read: Are you willing to wait?

Plan your schedule ahead of time

While I turned down a lot of freelance work, I ran more cohorts of the Unreal Collective Accelerator this year than I ever have before. That meant 50 new clients and 36 weeks of group calls.

In the context of a year, 36 weeks in group calls is a lot. There are about 4-5 weeks of prep that go into starting group calls, so that’s getting really close to spanning the entire year if I timed everything perfectly.

Spoiler: I didn’t. I was a little bit off, and as a consequence I was wrapping up my second accelerator while kicking off the third.

It’s fine to stagger things like that – but I struggled a little bit with it simply due to the emotional and mental demands of showing up as my best self for my clients for 24 straight weeks.

If I had better planned the full cycles ahead of time (when to open applications for all three cohorts, when the kickoff weeks were, etc.) I could’ve planned for a little downtime for myself.

But this lesson applies outside of my specific situation – one of the biggest lessons I reinforced is to plan ahead. If you can’t look at your calendar and see exactly when the work is going to get done (before the deadline), then it probably won’t.

It’s not about the product, it’s about distribution

I spent something like 6 months creating the courses within Freelancing School and another 2-3 months preparing to share them publicly.

I’m not kidding when I say that I believe these courses are the best work I’ve ever produced. I poured years of firsthand experience, secondhand experience, and lessons learned from thousands of dollars of personal investment into other programs into these.

Bottom line: these courses are excellent.

Bottom bottom line: quality doesn’t matter if people don’t know they exist.

We want to believe that the world is a perfect meritocracy and the best work will rise to the top.

It’s not.

Sometimes things do hit a vein and they get the attention they deserve. But more often than not, inferior products with superior distribution will win out.

What does that mean for you? You need to plan for distribution.

Historically, products go through intermediaries for distribution – think about Wal-Mart for consumer products.

In a digital world, distribution looks differently. For me, that has been my email list. It may be your Instagram or Twitter audiences (careful though – those platforms are your distribution and they set their own rules. It’s the difference of selling on shelves at Wal-Mart vs. shipping your products directly to the consumer).

Have you created systems that create new clients for you? Or systems that encourage people to refer new clients to you?

If not, check out this free lesson from the Selling for Freelancers Course.

This leads me to my next point…

Start forming partnerships now

For the last three years, I’ve been working in relative isolation. Sure, I have a lot of communication with folks in the Unreal Collective Community Slack, but I wasn’t building my business with anyone else.

But I was missing a huge opportunity. Partnerships with others, who are building their own businesses, can be huge for both parties.

I have a few collaborators now who I recommend to others frequently. A couple of them I sent so much business that they asked me if they could pay me a referral fee when I sent them a new client.

I have a few other creator friends who have sent information about my work to their own email communities. This always leads to a bunch of new subscribers and sometimes new clients.

And from time to time, I see people share my work and I haven’t even met them yet.

You don’t need to leave these things to chance. If you start building relationships with others now, people who serve a similar client in a different way, you are bound to find a way to collaborate someday.

And that just may solve your distribution problem.

Do things that help other people

Whether you’re serving clients, building an audience, or just trying to make friends…you need to operate in the service of others.

If you don’t act in a way that helps others or make things that help others, no one will care. Why would they?

If you want people to care about what you’re doing, then it better serve others in some way.

In an interview from a few weeks ago, my friend Jason told me he changed his writing practice to start with the prompt, “I want to help you ____.”

Fill in the blank – fill it in with anything. That is a much stronger starting point than, “I want to make money by selling you ____.”

It sounds obvious…but if you look at your social media feed or your inbox, you’ll see a TON of self-serving content.

…and I’ve done the same thing!

But at the end of the day, building a business means you are providing value or a service or someone else. If you don’t, you won’t be in business.

Read: Creators make things for others

Read: We don’t care what’s behind the scenes

Let go of what is no longer serving you

Over the last three years, I’ve published almost 450 posts here. That’s a lot.

It helped me find my voice, build a small audience of readers, and taught me how to both think and communicate. I genuinely believe it’s been the biggest factor in my success over the last three years.

Moving forward into 2020, one of my biggest priorities is long form, more technical writing. I want to double down on this idea of, “I want to help you ____.”

That has led me to dig in a lot deeper to learn about the world of SEO, and specifically, how my site fares when it comes to SEO.

I contracted an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) firm to do an audit on my website. And the biggest change I can make right now to improve my site’s performance and better position myself to compete on SEO is to do an audit of my articles and remove just about all of them.

That’s because they provide almost zero search value. Historically, my writing is generally a thought, idea, or lesson I had – but it wasn’t addressing a specific question people are looking for an answer to.

And so what Google sees are a ton of pages on my website that are not “valuable.”

It feels very painful to think about editing, compiling, or deleting three years worth of work – but that’s the best thing I can do.

I’ve come to terms with it. That work served a purpose – It helped me find my voice, build a small audience of readers, and taught me how to both think and communicate. But it no longer serves me – it’s holding me back.

And when that happens, you have to let go.

Final thoughts

There are a few more things that were reinforced for me this year:

  • Investing in tooling and education is a short term sacrifice (cash) that has always paid for itself within months if not weeks. I will continue to invest heavily in my own learning as well as the tools that improve my business or quality of life.
  • Direct outreach is wildly underrated. It’s so alluring to build an “audience” of people and play the numbers game of “some percentage will become clients or customers”…but it’s mostly a fantasy. I worked with 50 clients through Unreal this year, and the majority of them I had some personal interaction with at some point, and reached out to directly when I opened applications for the Accelerator. Another client of mine applied this concept to growing his email list – he asked 200 people, individually, one-to-one, for their email address.
  • Following someone else’s playbook can save you a lot of time. But their playbook won’t work exactly for you or for anyone else – you need to make it your own. Besides, people crave your realness (and your weirdness). Use the playbook as a jumping off point, but don’t be afraid of doing things your own way.

This was a great year for me, and it set a really great foundation for me to build a true, scalable business.

In a few months, I will reach my third year in business and 1000 days into the journey. I can’t wait to share with you the results to this point.

If you want to invest in yourself and learn from my playbook, applications for Unreal Collective are open now. If you want to build a client-based business of your own (or improve the one you have) then I encourage you to enroll in the Freelancing School courses.

And if you just want to join a community of other client-based business owners, Study Hall is open to you.

Here’s to 2020.

Read: 2017 recap

Read: 2018 recap

Download: 2020 Planning Template