Unreal Collective, my paid community and virtual accelerator, has been acquired by Smart Passive Income.
And beginning January 1, 2021, I’ll be stepping into a leadership role with Smart Passive Income (SPI) as Community Experience Director! 🎉
Smart Passive Income is one of the biggest, most respected brands in online business. The founder, Pat Flynn, started SPI in 2008 after he was let go from his architectural job.
He created resources to help people pass architectural exams, and they took off. He started writing about his journey as a digital creator under the name Smart Passive Income where he pioneered the transparent sharing of income reports.
Then he started the Smart Passive Income podcast, which is a top Business podcast and has been downloaded more than 65 million times.
It’s an unbelievable partnership with an incredible brand in online business.
This is a big change for me and it was a very big decision. Despite being a terrible year for a lot of obvious reasons, 2020 was actually by far the best year I’ve had in business.
As I reflected in June of this year, I’ve had a great year in terms of earnings. I haven’t broken out the spreadsheets yet, but even with rough math, I earned more through online courses and podcasting this year than I did in my first year of freelancing.
So I wasn’t looking for a job. In fact, when I left my last job, I called my parents and told them, “I quit my job and I may never have a job again!”
For most of this year, I fully planned to just keep building towards a full-time income as an independent creator.
But sometimes incredible opportunities come your way and force you to re-evaluate your plan. So before I get into the mechanics of why I made this decision, let me share a little background.
What was Unreal Collective?
In 2017, I left a great full time job in product management at a fast-growing startup (now valued at $1.5B).
I was bored and burned out. Previous to that role, I was the co-founder of a digital ticketing startup (acquired in 2015) and I missed the freedom of being my own boss.
So, without much of a plan, I went back out on my own.
I didn’t really know what I was going to do. But a few months prior, I had a very formative conversation with Kwame Christian. It was actually the first conversation I had with Kwame…but he told me that if he had my network, he’d try facilitating mastermind groups.
I had no idea what a “mastermind” was. But once he explained it, I thought, “Oh yeah I could totally do that.”
And so I gave it a shot. I pulled in five close friends who were working on their own independent projects and asked them to commit to meeting with me (as a group) once a week for 12 weeks. We would meet for an hour over Zoom, each call would be focused on a different individual, and together we’d all build towards our individual goals.
It went really well. And I took the success stories from those five individuals, packaged them up into a website, and began marketing that program as a paid service under the name “Unreal Collective.”
At the time, I didn’t love the term “mastermind” and called it a virtual accelerator instead.
On the program went! I found my first 15 paying customers and facilitated my first paid cohort of the accelerator.
From there, I hosted 2-3 cohorts per year, each cohort with 10-20 business owners taking part. All told, the Unreal Collective Accelerator hosted 24 groups and more than 100 business owners.
And the accelerator cohorts were great! But even greater was the community that formed over the years.
From day one, I used Slack as a tool to communicate with members between weekly calls. That slack started with 6 of us, grew to 21, and then 41, and then 56…
It grew slowly because growth happened alongside new accelerator programs. But that slow growth made for such a good experience for members, because new members only joined a couple of times per year. And because there were small groups of new members joining at a time, it didn’t take long for everyone to feel comfortable with everyone else again.
I eventually opened up community membership as its own paid product, but marketed it very quietly and only amongst my own email subscribers.
Since 2017, the Unreal Collective community has been my favorite corner of the internet. It’s been the place where I spend most of my time.
Between the shared experience of the accelerator, monthly virtual hangouts, and the private Slack community, members truly became close.
And without realizing it, I learned a lot about creating community online.
How did this opportunity with SPI happen?
Early on in Unreal’s existence, I got connected to Matt Gartland. Matt had a project idea that he wanted to get some group feedback and accountability with, and so he enrolled in the accelerator.
Matt was running a creative agency called Winning Edits at the time. Matt’s team worked with some incredible creators including Pat Flynn on his book Will It Fly, his courses, and more.
Shortly after Matt and I were introduced, Winning Edits was acquired by Pat. Together, SPI Media was created to grow the Smart Passive Income brand. Today, Matt is the Co-CEO of SPI Media alongside Pat.
Over the past two years, Matt was part of the Unreal Collective community. He saw how I ran the accelerator program, fostered community, and ultimately served business owners.
In April of 2020, Matt approached me about playing a consultative role in the creation of SPI’s first private membership community, SPI Pro.
The community was being built on a brand new community platform called Circle. As advisors in the company, Matt and Pat were given an early opportunity to build on the platform.
I LOVED Circle. I’m all in on it as a community tool.
After a couple months of planning and preparation, we opened applications and launched the community in July. Matt and Pat talked about it on SPI Episode 429.
We had hundreds of founding members join the community, and today SPI Pro is home to more than 500 business owners.
Membership in SPI Pro costs $49/month or $490/year. So with 500+ members, we could see that there was a big opportunity to reinvest in the community in a big way.
That investment looked like building a Community Experience (CX) function within SPI. We hired an incredible community manager named Jillian Benbow, and Matt and I began talking about bringing Unreal Collective and SPI Pro together so that I could devote even more of my time to the greater SPI community.
Why did you decide to pull the trigger?
For the last eight months, Matt and I have talked a lot about the meaning and importance of community. Truly, Matt is really looking long-term and has been a visionary behind SPI’s commitment to community.
I often think about this 2013 piece in Inc. called “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship.” Entrepreneurship can be incredibly isolating, lonely, and dangerous to your mental health.
Unfortunately, we’re seeing more and more of this in 2020, when everyone is feeling isolated. Tony Hsieh is just one of many recent victims.
“Community” is an antidote to isolation. Community can be a literal life saver.
And as I’d found out through my time running the Unreal Collective community, I really cared about working with and serving business owners.
Online community is having a moment right now. Improved tooling with platforms like Circle combined with a surge in people joining the creator economy has led to a lot of talk about community.
And this is a good thing. A really good thing.
The focus and emphasis that Matt and SPI was putting towards community was a real draw to me. Not only because I shared the same beliefs and values, but because they were putting their money where their mouth is.
And that looks like real investment into their community. Pat has long been known as a genuine creator who cares about his audience, and that has carried through the entire company.
SPI Pro is all about serving online business owners. Everything we do has the members’ best interest at heart, from the application process to regular virtual events and even our own mastermind program.
I truly feel that SPI has an opportunity to help blaze a trail for how community can be fostered online.
And, to be blunt, I wanted to be a part of that.
It’s such a natural extension to the work that I’ve been doing through Unreal Collective, but with the SPI brand I’m able to reach and help so many more people.
When Matt approached me about acquiring the Unreal Collective brand and assets while bringing members into the fold, it was an immediately compelling idea.
I hadn’t thought about exiting Unreal. It was never really the plan.
But this was a clear, obvious opportunity that made a lot of sense.
As we build a dream CX team at SPI, I know we’ll be able to invest in and create a community experience that is really remarkable.
And all of this means that we can really attack the problem of loneliness and isolation for entrepreneurs while also being a go-to educational resource for online business owners.
What happens to Unreal Collective now?
In short, Unreal Collective is joining the SPI family. Members were given full, complimentary access to SPI Pro including live events, workshops, mastermind matching, and more.
A couple weeks ago, Pat and Matt joined our end-of-year community meetup to share the news.
For an hour, we talked about our journey to this point, how Unrealers can access their new SPI Pro account, and what comes next.
I was really, really proud of (and grateful for) the community’s excitement for this next chapter. They were happy to be a part of it, and they were happy for me.
Frankly, everything about the Unreal Collective community is also true about the SPI Pro community. It is perfect alignment between the two communities – they’re both friendly, supportive, generous, and kind.
Technically, the community will be moving off of Slack and into the SPI Pro Circle community. We’ll have a special Unreal Collective area within SPI Pro, and now Unrealers have access to a lot more support.
The resources, curriculum, and systems I developed by running Unreal will be used to continue to improve the SPI community experience.
The Unreal Collective brand will otherwise be sunset and used to spread the message of SPI’s commitment to community.
How does this affect your identity?
This is one of the hardest aspects of an acquisition like this.
Entrepreneurs often become so intertwined with their business that it becomes their identity. And when that business is acquired or goes away for whatever reason, it can be psychologically dangerous for the entrepreneur.
I dealt with this in 2016 when I left the Tixers acquirer to take the job at CrossChx. I went from being a co-founder/COO of a startup company to being an employee of another company.
It was really hard.
When you’re the guy, when you have ownership and decision-making authority over something, you often find yourself around other entrepreneurs.
Because, again, entrepreneurship is lonely. Our best option for feeling understood is from other entrepreneurs.
But, unfortunately, employees often have some level of separation from founders. Founders have intimate knowledge of a company (the good and the bad) and often shield their employees from some of the risks and realities.
It’s not about control and it isn’t malicious. It’s about taking responsibility and shouldering burdens so that others don’t have to. This isn’t perfect, but it often frees a team up to perform at their best.
So when you go from founder to employee, your community changes. Your level of access changes.
Your life changes.
When I struggled with this at CrossChx, I began working with my coach, Chris McAlister. Chris taught me that I had an unhealthy relationship between my work and my identity.
In short, I am not my work. And I needed to separate who I am from what I do.
The work I’ve done on myself and my identity has endured through the years. So even though I had some hesitation of, “Do I really want to be an employee again?” I quickly looked past it.
A big part of that is a shift this year from identifying as an entrepreneur to identifying as a creator. This is a bit of a square/rectangle situation…to me, all entrepreneurs are creators, but not all creators are entrepreneurs.
I love to make things. I love writing, I love podcasting, I love solving problems.
But I’m no longer in love with being a business owner simply so that I can call myself a “business owner.” Sure, often the natural extension of being a creator is owning a business…but it doesn’t need to be.
And it doesn’t need to provide a full-time income.
Despite my financial success this year, the majority of my income was still through freelance client work.
And that’s great! But I’ve come to love creating for myself more than creating for clients.
I want to invest more time into my passion projects. But I didn’t want to put financial pressure on those projects. When you need your passion projects to support you financially, it changes your decisions (and often your relationship to those projects).
So besides loving the spirit of this role, there were some other major selling points:
- I’ll be on the leadership team (access)
- It eliminates the need for client work (financial peace of mind)
- Employee benefits are a huge plus (more peace of mind)
- It allows me to build my passion projects the way I want to build them
- PS: It makes getting a home loan a lot easier too!
Matt and the SPI team have, from the beginning, assured me that not only would they support me continuing to build my creative projects, but they encourage it.
My identity as a creator is totally intact.
But don’t you advocate for freelancing?
For the last year and a half, I’ve been building an educational platform called Freelancing School. What started as a couple courses has become a library of articles, a community, and premium training through online courses.
The content was created from my own experience. Through freelancing myself and working with dozens and dozens of freelancers through Unreal, I noticed a lot of patterns about how successful freelancers are able to earn a living.
Those patterns became 48 lessons across three courses:
- Business for Freelancers
- Selling for Freelancers
- Marketing for Freelancers
I’m having a blast building Freelancing School. It’s really, really helping people – and most of the content is available for free!
And though I’m wary of being the non-practicing teacher, I want to continue building Freelancing School.
I love supporting our community and I love working with freelancers.
This new role offers me an incredible opportunity to actually build Freelancing School WITH the community. I plan to literally invest in community members to help me create a better and better platform. That includes content creation, design assets, and more.
I can mentor freelancers by hiring them, I can stay attuned to the landscape through the community, and I can increase my impact by growing the brand.
And there may even be an opportunity to serve the SPI audience through Freelancing School too.
What will happen to your other projects?
Production continues on the majority of my existing projects. As I just shared, I’ll continue building Freelancing School, often through hiring freelancers.
I’ll continue to produce my weekly podcasts Creative Elements and upside. I absolutely love creating those shows, I’ve built processes to streamline production, and I believe my new role may even help me access more guests.
I’ll keep writing my weekly newsletter, Work In Progress. As I continue to pursue earning an income as a creator on the side, I’ll continue to share those lessons. Not only that, but now I’ll be able to share the lessons I’m learning in building community too.
I just released my newest course, Podcast Like The Pros, in December 2020. It’s getting incredible feedback, and so I feel compelled to do more to market that course through affiliates and other methods.
I don’t have another course identified that I plan to personally produce in the foreseeable future, but (of course) that may change!
In short, from the beginning stages of talking about joining SPI, the team has been incredibly supportive and encouraging of my creative projects. And, without compromising my commitment to the company, I plan to continue them.
What will your new role look like?
As Community Experience Director, I’m taking a holistic look at how SPI engages our community. First and foremost, I’ll be ensuring that our community, SPI Pro, continues to serve the needs of our members at a super high level.
Lucky for me, our Community Manager Jillian is a rockstar and makes that really easy.
A couple months ago, we rolled out a mastermind program for SPI Pro members where we took on the responsibility of matching them into small groups based upon interests, experience, and more.
That program has been really successful. And programs like that are what the CX team plans to continuously ideate, integrate, test, and iterate.
But my role will go beyond the membership community to reach the course communities too. Pat and SPI have served thousands of students through their successful courses Power-Up Podcasting, Email Marketing Magic, 1-2-3 Affiliate Marketing, and more.
We’re even exploring how we create community around live, cohort-based courses.
The future is very bright.
I’m excited about the growing community around community. SPI and I plan to be an active participant in the dialogue around community.
If I were to look into a crystal ball, I believe that we face some challenges. Because of the heightened attention and improved tools, there will be a lot of online “communities” that don’t truly focus on their community.
It’s just too easy to spin up a digital community space, try to throw an audience at it, and call it “community.”
It’s too easy to promise a private “community” as a bonus to a digital product you’re selling, and then fail to put in the effort and intention to foster true community.
We will see a rapid proliferation of communities. People will start to feel spread thin…then they’ll feel disappointed by the majority of their communities…and then they’ll revert to being an active participant in one or two communities that truly stand out and serve them.
We plan to make SPI one of those standout corners of the internet that people really come to love and appreciate. And I hope we can model what it takes to create those spaces.
That’s my goal. That’s why I’m doing this.
And if you want to follow along on the journey, enter your email below.