Wanted: House with indoor slide, climbing wall, and swing

You know what I love about being an adult? You have the power to fulfill all of your childhood dreams. I have to remind myself of this when I get busy and my brain gets full of work.

Enter, House With Slide. This is AMAZING. (Though John's first reaction was, "What is that flower thing? Is that a couch. Uggh." Seriously John....that's what you noticed?) More on Handmade Charlotte.

Transient

I have imposter syndrome (do you?)

Lately, I've been dealing with a lot of this "imposter syndrome" stuff. Granted, Life has been throwing me some nasty curve balls lately, but it seems like the longer I go at this and the more success I achieve, the less I feel I deserve it. Not only that, but the goalposts I've set for myself keep moving farther away from me...it's like playing croquet with the Queen of Hearts. I was hoping that 30 would be The Year of the Confident Woman, but it feels more The Year I Felt Like I Sucked Even Though Evidence Suggests Otherwise.

So I'm tucking this in my back pocket, friends. Maybe I'll read it once or ten times a day.

Transient

Content strategy smartness #2: Finding all the pieces to your content strategy puzzle

I love puzzles. Yet...they're also annoying. Because when you lose a piece, forget it. That puzzle will never ever fulfill you in the same special way it once did. A puzzle with a missing piece is worse than a sock that has no match. The piece is so small, so easy to lose, and so completely necessary. Gah! Now that my blood pressure is significantly elevated for no good reason (I'm good at that), let me reassure us all. While an effective content strategy has many pieces that make it work, there are multiple ways that it can fit together. So no piece is ever "missing". You don't have to have all the pieces that are on the list. And you may make up your very own magical piece that no one else has thought of – which is actually an excellent way to do things (and one of my personal favorite ways to work). But for those of you who like lists (and to start your brain churning), here's a list of potential pieces and what they're good for. (Also? There is way more meat to this post after the list, so if you're scanning, don't skip that part.)

Content-strategy: Grab a slice!

  • Blog: We started talking about this last week, since it's the most obvious content source that people think of (and most of the time, it's the only one people think of, besides the dreaded snoozeletter).

    Your blog is the swiss army knife of your content strategy. Done right, its purpose is to build trust, credibility, and bring people back to your site over and over again. It helps weed out your right people from your wrong ones and keeps you from being a commodity that people choose based on price. (Also known as "you're the cheapest, so I'll hire you" syndrome.)

  • Mailing list: Notice I said "mailing list" instead of newsletter. Newsletters are boring. Nobody wants your newsletter. You hate writing newsletters. And even if you heart the newsletter-creation process and yours is a really good, awesome newsletter, you might as well put it on your blog instead where it can be indexed by Google and cherished by all. (Note: there are exceptions to this, as there are to all things. I actually like getting newsletters from Colleen Wainwright. But I think she puts addictive substances in them, which is not generally recommended.)

    But your mailing list is super important. I mean SUPER. This is where 50% or more of my sales come from when I launch a new product or service. We'll talk in more detail about your list in the weeks to come, but in general, these are people who have already raised their hands to say, "I'm in for the Sarah-juice!" And that is such useful information, I can't even tell you. Successful launches require a mailing list made up of people who truly love what you're doing and consider everything you do as worth investing in.

  • Free downloads: I like free downloads, but only if they're really really good. I also hate having to sign up for mailing lists in order to receive them. If the mailing list is not good enough to entice me on its own, then I make a cognitive leap that the free download sucks, too.

    But free downloads can be really wonderful things; especially if they're well-done. Their purpose can be to generate leads (if you do it in a creative, not-annoying way), but they're also a great way to start building a relationship with potential clients/customers. If they love your free thing, they know that they would die to get their hands on something they actually pay you for. And if your free thing is really, really amazing, people will pass it around and link to you and give you lots of high-fives. Which helps grow your audience beyond the people you would normally reach.

  • Social media outlets: Everybody's favorite baby to kiss. Instead of people coming to you, you're going to them. Which is a great way of meeting new folks (and eventually, those people will start coming to you). Depending on who you surround yourself with, your social media outlets will serve you in different ways.

    For me, Twitter is the online equivalent of a giant biz conference. There are definitely the cool kids that I want to hang out with, no matter what they're doing. And the trying-too-hard kids that want to shove their business card in my face every five seconds. For me, Facebook acts more like a family reunion. Everybody's on Facebook, and the interactions tend to be more personal.

  • User-generated content: The content that your users contribute is often overlooked; a lot of people have it, but don't think about how they're using it. Take comments, for instance. Do you accept comments? How do you interact with them? How do people know that someone's responded to a comment? Do you use comments regularly to spawn other content? Do you feature commenters regularly? And the most useful question of all (to steal a phrase from my pastor)...how's that working for you?

    There's no right or wrong answer, but think it through. Most people want to "get more comments", but why? What business purpose would that serve? And if the purpose is significant, how can you build that growth in participation into your content strategy? And are there other ways, besides comments, to allow your audience to contribute? If so, how can you make it seamless (because people are generally lazy, and won't do something that takes multiple steps)?

  • Products: E-commerce is hard. It's not a simple matter of throwing up a store and seeing what happens. You have to sell something that's better or different than what amazon is selling, and you've got to be able to do that at a profit. Which means selling lots of units or selling at a high profit margin. Which means lots of eyeballs, and the right kind.

    It makes it a ton easier when you figure out a way to make useful content out of your products. Because then people are looking at your products, not as something that you're trying to sell, but as a service to themselves. And it gives them a feeling that they found this amazing thing, they need to share it with everyone, and aren't they lucky? Yes. They are very lucky. And so are you.

  • Sidebar content: Oh, the sidebar. We all put so much thought into what goes here. Don't we? Well, there's a reason for that. First, because it's where you can actually feature the stuff that you want people to look at. It's where you're allowed to sell things and make announcements and enhance your audience's experience with your website. So they stick around longer and (perhaps) buy your stuff.

    Sidebars definitely require frequent attention. Or else, your audience will get a dreaded case of sidebar blindness, which is what happens on most websites that have sidebars. But not yours. You will overcome.

  • Static content: These are your sales pages, your services pages, your about pages, your contact pages...all of your "let's do business" pages, and then some. Even people with successful blog content often overlook this as part of their content strategy. It's like they have this great sticky content, but then they forget to convert that traffic to actual buyers. Which is really the whole point (well, not the whole point, but a big hairy chunk of the point).

Haven't I always told you to pick up your toys?

So those are your basic pieces. They can, of course, get more elaborate than that, but for starters, there you have it. You probably knew about them all separately, but haven't put them together in your brain as part of a cohesive content strategy. Congratulations! We're on our way to a more income-producing website already!

But we've still got a long way to go. First, we've got to put all of these pieces in the same box. We've got to come up with a common thread that all of these pieces fall into, so that they make sense as a whole. To do that, I'm going to ask you to name your box.

Oh, but what's in a name?

I often call this your "magazine name". If all of your content were in a magazine that people actually want to pick up and read, what would that magazine be called? Think about your audience. What magazine would they read? For Ted (see Ted's story if you've forgotten), what would his female, suburbanite, design-minded, fancy-job-holding, eco-minded audience want to read about? Probably not the letterpress process, as we've discovered.

The trick is to find a magazine concept that closely ties into your product or service. Ted's clients may love to know insider information on all of the best local eateries in town, but that's not going to bring him business for his letterpress studio. We need more information.

I asked Ted what experiences/situations his clients are currently in. He says, "Well, most of them are hosting some sort of event. Because we sell custom-designed letterpress stationery." Ahhh...the light is coming on. So I asked Ted if these people are planning the event themselves. He says, "To a limited extent. But they like to hire people to provide the goods and carry out their plans." So. What if Ted's magazine was a resource for people who are planning an event for themselves? What if he knew all of the best event planners, caterers, florists, entertainers, etc. and featured them on a regular basis?

Not only would Ted be providing something that his clients desperately want and need, but he would be aligning himself with some of the best people in the business. His clients will think "If Ted works with X, then Ted must be as good as X. And X is really, really good." So Ted is increasing his credibility and getting better clients.

Once he figures out an actual name for that particular magazine, all of his other content can go in that box. What is his blog about? That's easy. What will his resources page have on it? Easy. What could he offer his mailing list people that will make them LOVE being on his mailing list and keep them lining up in DROVES to sign up? Again, easy. What will be in his sidebar? Ummm...easy. What could be offered as a free download? Easy-peasy.

(Shhh...don't tell Ted that he just found his niche. He doesn't know what a niche is, and big marketing words tend to scare the pants off of him.)

Do you have a magazine name? Does your content all fall into that particular box? If not, how's that working for you?

Content strategy smartness #1: Do NOT write what you know

Hey, you're back...yippee! (Or if you're not back, you probably missed last week's intro to content strategy...take a look, then come back). Today, we're going to talk about your target market.

...

Oh, sorry. I fell asleep for a second. No we're not. We're going to talk about one of the biggest mistakes companies make when they start blogging, newsletter-ing, video-ing, tweeting, facebooking, or engaging in any other kind of content production. They write what they know.

Take my friend Ted, for instance (and please don't say anything about his lack of ears...he's pretty sensitive about that). Ted is a stand-up guy. He runs an indie letterpress studio with his brother Gerald. Ted is a good writer and pretty personable, so he decides that he's going to be the face of the company and start getting into the whole social media scene.

Ted figures he'll start with a blog. What to write about? Oh, that's easy! He'll write about the letterpress printing process. Maybe he'll post some designs and resources that inspire him. He'll talk about design and illustration and what it's like to be in a small startup indie biz.

Ted starts to blog. He starts getting comments! People are subscribing! His work is getting featured on letterpress and illustration sites! But wait. Nobody's buying. Sales haven't increased. Ted bangs his head on his desk in agony and defeat (I will admit, Ted is a little dramatic. I've tried talking to him about it, but you know those artist-types).

So I ask you...what's wrong with Ted's blog?

It's interesting, witty, and definitely shows that Ted's studio has serious talent. It's the perfect content...to attract his colleagues and competitors. The thing is, if he were to run a letterpress printing workshop, he's got a bang-up start to his content-strategy. He's attracting letterpress aficionados, hobbyists, and wannabes right and left. But where, oh where, are the customers?

This is where Ted needs to go back to his Business 101 handbook and flip to the "target market" section. Oh yes, there it is. As Ted looks over his fill-in-the-blank "find your target market" worksheet, he finds his answer. (If you don't know what a target market is, or have no clue what yours is, skip over to Naomi Dunford's monster-in-her-pants post for a raunchy, yet helpful, visual.)

Ted's target market lives in the suburbs. They know and appreciate good design when they see it, but they are not designers themselves. They have day jobs as managers, executives, or something else equally high-paying. They buy beautiful objects for their home. They shop at West Elm and Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn. They also like things that are sustainable and green and handmade. Most of them are women. They would buy Ted's work if they knew about it. But the thing is, Ted's customers don't read blogs about the letterpress process. It would simply never occur to them.

Someone, please help Ted!

He has no ear to cut off, so I'm afraid he might try a finger. Except he has no hands. This could be bad.

Ted? Listen up. You have a couple of options here.

You could...think about what you know in the context of what your customers want to read, watch, see. In other words, think about your blog as a magazine. What magazine would your customers read and subscribe to?

Or you could...decide that your customers don't read blogs (gasp!) and focus less energy and time on your blog. Instead, use it as a trust-building place that's updated less often, and focus your attention on building your mailing list and bringing people in using other marketing methods. Whatever the case, when you're selling products, the heft and quality of your mailing list is super important. We'll talk more about that later.

Or you could even...choose a different target market that's easier to reach online. You need to know where these people live. And if you can't get to their house (figuratively, you stalker, you), you've either got to find a way or find another neighborhood.

There there, Ted. I'm sure your customers read blogs. Just not your blog. Yet.

We'll be fixing that over the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, let's all give Ted a big giant hug. He really will get through this, I'm sure of it.

P.S. Today's illustration brought to you by my 5 year old son, Nolan. I have no idea why we even hire David Billings.

Content-strategy, minus the snoring

I love me some good content strategy. It's a big part of what I do every day. But when I explain what it is and why it's a useful tool for generating more leads and sales, one of two things happen. Either people look at me like I'm talking with a mouthful of peanut butter (which isn't so bad...yay! People to teach! And peanut butter!). Or I get a wistful, exhausted sigh. "Yes...maybe...one day...I'll add it to the list of 147 other things I should be doing that I'm not." So we're going to take it slow. Over the next few weeks, I'm taking you through the process of creating an effective content strategy, just like we do in our content strategy sessions. And you won't have to pay 1000 bucks! Hooray!

A good content strategy is...

In the spirit of taking it slow (which is as much for me as it is for you...I'm nearly 33 weeks pregnant and walking around like a stuffed penguin), today all we're going to do is define content strategy. Which, I fear, is not going to be easy. *clears throat, grabs mic and puts on best spelling bee announcer voice*

A content strategy is a plan of action for all of the content on your website. It's what to create. Who to create it for. How to create it. Which formats to use. How to facilitate the spread of your ideas. All with the combined purpose of reaching your most important goals.

(Not exactly worthy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, but I think we'll manage.)

An effective content strategy needs to be:

  • Intentional (even if that means intentionally eclectic)
  • Directed toward the right audience (in most cases, that means the people who are going to buy your stuff)
  • Created with your available resources in mind (i.e. time, money, skill).
  • Published with some sort of consistency (which is more important if you're trying to grow your audience or getting ready to launch something new)
  • Either better or different than what's already out there (Yep, you've heard that before. Still true.)

I'm busy actually running my business. Why not just slap a blog up there and be done with it?

If that's what gets you started, do it. That's how most people start out, and it's tons better than planning out an intricate content strategy that you're never going to actually implement. But at some point, a lot of folks get frustrated with their results. They end up feeling like they're wasting a lot of resources on something that's ultimately not drumming up business.

Why do you call it content? Why not call it a blog? Isn't it the same thing?

A blog contains content just like a newsletter contains content. And there are many different types of content, not just blog entries. Read more of my take on that (especially if you don't want to blog...ever).

Why do you call it "building an audience"? That is so 2009.

Call it your tribe. Call it your band of sea monkeys. Call it your mutual admiration society, if you're feeling this is all a bit too much about you. I call it an audience because it's easier than saying "big group of people who are a fan of what you create".

Dang it! I think I hear someone snoring!

Well, you can't please everyone. If you're ready to start this year off with an actual plan for producing content that helps you reach your goals, stick around, my friends. Or better yet, sign up to receive email updates in your inbox. Then there's no sticking needed...I'll stick to you (which isn't as creepy as it sounds).

By the way, say hey to Shenee!

In case you didn't know, "way" and "hey" both rhyme with "Shenee". Which means that I'm very, very clever (I am sure no one else is quite as proficient at rhyming as I am).

Shenee is our new intern (you can find her on her blog or on twitter). She is delightful and is especially good at story-telling. And type. And whitespace. I feel that giddy "I just made a new friend...and she is all mine!" feeling. Except she's not all mine. She actually knows a lot of people. You, probably. So I'll try not to be selfish.

And another thing; if you've ever dreamed of picking my brain on the "running a web design business" side of things, now's the time to ask. I'm picking the best questions and...doing something with them. Something secret. But I've sort of mentioned it once before, if you were listening very closely.

Finding your momentum

I’ve been on a strategic planning kick for the past week and a half. Absolutely determined to “do” something to improve upon last year (because it seems I didn’t accomplish nearly enough in 2010). My head has been spinning with excitement and plans, but also in kicking myself in the shin for all of the mistakes I made over the last 365 days. Like not blogging enough. And not updating my website enough. Hiding after successful launches. Spending oodles on a video series and still not having the finished product in my hands. Intentionally not growing my audience so I wouldn’t have to say “no” so much and so that people didn’t have to wait until 2020 to work with us. Treating my email inbox like it had the plague (I was very attentive to its needs, but with a vague feeling that it was going to kill me). Hiring full-time staff too soon. Not knowing how to properly train or manage my staff. Throwing my own carefully crafted content strategy halfway to the curb out of sheer busy-ness.

So I started to look at the cold, hard truth. What exactly did we accomplish? I was prepared for the worst. But when I looked at the numbers, I discovered something shocking: holy cow, my perspective is completely upside down.

We launched 43 websites last year. 43. Websites. In twelve months. 43 glorious strategy-driven websites to replace 43 sucky ones. And not just any websites. Websites put into the hands of people and organizations who will become influencers in their world. If we did absolutely nothing else, this alone shows me that my self-flagellation is completely unwarranted.

But no, we did way more than that. We launched our first ever gold-digging excursion and filled it to capacity...and did not die from it. We HIRED people when the rest of the world was firing them. We more than doubled our gross receipts.

All of that while things were so completely imperfect. I think I rather like our prospects for 2011.

This is important. And not just for me.

Have you ever heard the phrase “It’s easier to steer a moving ship?” My dad used to say that to me. It’s the law of momentum. John Maxwell calls it “The Law of the Big Mo”. If you don’t have it, it’s hard to get anything accomplished. You’re trying to steer a parked car. If you do have it, you’re steering a car that’s in motion...which is not hard at all.

“Momentum...makes a huge difference in organizations. When you have no momentum, even the simplest tasks can seem like insurmountable problems. But when you’ve got momentum on your side, the future looks bright, obstacles look small, and trouble seems temporary.” John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

Momentum. It’s powerful. Sometimes, we think we don’t have it, but we do. Look for it. Hold onto it. Even if you have to look at the numbers to prove to yourself that it’s there.

A toast to the doer of deeds (that would be you)

"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."Theodore Roosevelt

Sometimes I feel like a lot of my job is to tell people what they're doing wrong. Subscriber rate terrible? Here's how to fix it. Can't tell your brand from the competitor down the street? Let's take a different approach. Need more sales? Let's tone the sales pitches down a notch and become an influencer instead.

But honestly, friends? I'm proud of you. I'm proud of every single one of you who sorts through all of the business advice and finds what works for you. I'm proud of you even if you haven't yet hit six figures in a year -- because you're in the ring. You're on your way there. Growing slowly is a good way to grow. I'm proud of you in those rare moments where you're able to ignore everyone around you and just keep building on your small successes.

And I'm proud of me, too. I'm learning to be a better leader. And the more I lead, the more I like leading. I'm actually considering taking on an intern, which three months ago you wouldn't have caught me dead doing. I'm enjoying the wealth of experience and abilities that having a team brings to the work we do. And I kinda like leading people who are using what they're learning on the job to start their own things. Maybe part-time (with your own budding empire on the side) is the new full-time.

Raise your glasses, friends. 2011 is for us.

Well THAT is different (and by that, I mean me)

Day 8: Beautifully Different.Think about what makes you different and what you do that lights people up. Reflect on all the things that make you different – you’ll find they’re what make you beautiful. (Author: Karen Walrond)
#Reverb10 is an exercise in meditating on 2010 and voicing intentions for 2011. It's not too late to jump in.

I will never grow up. When I am too old to care about being normal, you will probably find me building tiny tree forts in the backyard (because small spaces are more fun) and playing dress-up before lunch. For now, my kids give me an excuse to do crazy things. Like run away to Disney World for a week and pretend it’s for their sake. Attach a hundred helium balloons to the chimney (like Carl in “Up”) and pretend that the house just may take off at any moment. Cut my sandwiches into dinosaurs. Read books that have more pictures than words.

My genius friend Elissa Ashwood mused that missing our childhoods is not entirely necessary. After all, when you’re a child, you have little to no control over anything. We could never paint vines all over the house so we could pretend like we woke up to Where the Wild Things Are. But as adults, we have the power to do pretty much whatever we want.

One of my favorite books to curl up with on a cold day is actually a cookbook called “Apples for Jam” by Tessa Kiros (by the way Tessa, I really want to re-design your website. It. Would. Rock.). The first indication that this is the most fabulous cookbook in the entire world is that the recipes are arranged by color. Red, orange, pink, yellow, white, stripes, monochrome...and every recipe has a story on childhood. And pictures! It’s like a giant picture book that makes you hungry. In it, she nails one of the things that makes our childhoods something that we pine after:

It’s that living-in-the-moment-ness that comes so naturally when we’re five years old and nothing can hurt us. We were much wiser then. And I look for for more of that wisdom every day.

More interesting things about me:

  • I love green things.
  • Apple butter cooked in a giant cauldron is one of my favorite foods.
  • I will never, never have enough books.
  • I am a writer (but sometimes I have to remind myself of this).
  • I could fix nearly everyone’s money problems if they would just silently hand me their websites and listen.
  • I like to sing and perform (which reminds me of this most excellent song by Ray Stevens. Ignore the puppets...usually I would never utter the phrase "ignore the puppets", but these puppets are really...ignorable.)
  • I am an extrovert hiding in an introvert's body.
  • I wish I could say I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up, but actually I wanted to grow up to be a lawyer with mad cash.
  • The mad cash was for the conservatory that would most certainly be in my house. (I visited the Opryland Hotel for the first time when I was in the second grade, and I vowed that I would have a conservatory just like theirs, complete with waterfalls, rainforest-y plants, and dancing fountains.)
  • I once had a professor who had a couch made entirely of old books. He was, and is my hero.
  • I love plants and food and being outside. Creation is so entirely beautiful and marvelous, and it sucks that I'm always going from house to car to other-man-made-thing. Though I do like indoor plumbing and comfortably warm temperatures.
  • I get depressed if my house is messy.
  • I admire people who accomplish amazing physical things. Most of my work is done with my brain.
  • I admire real, spontaneous laughter. I think it's hard to do a real belly laugh. I wish it wasn't.
  • I like people who are interesting above all else.

Beautifully different. I hope so.

I am Don Quixote

Note to email subscribers: Gah! I re-activated the emails only to discover that sending has been disabled because Mailchimp couldn't find my unsubscribe link. Which was right there. Anyhow, they're working on fixing it, so hopefully you'll get this one. But you may have missed: my words of 2010 and '11, my secret obsession, and lessons I've learned from a burnt casserole. Carry on! Since I’ve been reading too much crap lately and not enough of the good stuff, I am reading Don Quixote again. It’s the book that made my pre-adolescent brain re-think my pessimistic attitude toward classic literature. If you haven’t read it, it’s like Monty Python before Monty Python was cool. It’s about this 50-year-old guy who reads so many books about knights that he is deluded into thinking he is one. So he goes off in search of adventures. One of my favorite passages comes in the very beginning, when he’s getting together his armor, trusty steed, et al in preparation for his sacred quest.

The first thing he did was to clean up some armour that had belonged to his great-grandfather, and had been for ages lying forgotten in a corner eaten with rust and covered with mildew. He scoured and polished it as best he could, but he perceived one great defect in it, that it had no closed helmet, nothing but a simple morion [note from Sarah’s dictionary: a morion is a helmet without a visor]. This deficiency, however, his ingenuity supplied, for he contrived a kind of half-helmet of pasteboard, which, fitted on to the morion, looked like a whole one. It is true that, in order to see if it was strong and fit to stand a cut, he drew his sword and gave it a couple of slashes, the first of which undid in an instant what had taken him a week to do. The ease with which he had knocked it to pieces disconcerted him somewhat, and to guard against that danger he set to work again, fixing bars of iron on the inside until he was satisfied with its strength; and then, not caring to try any more experiments with it, he passed it and adopted it as a helmet of the most perfect construction.” Miguel de Cervantes in “Don Quixote”

I spent quite a bit of time drawing near-genius parallels between pasteboard helmets, websites, and product launches. Sadly, as analysis often does, mine completely ruins it. So I will let you draw your own conclusions there. But you know what makes us laugh at our dear Don Quixote? Because he is us.

Lessons from a burnt casserole

If you're reading this in your email, you may have missed the last couple of posts from me. I sorta paused the email-sending and forgot to un-pause it. Here are my words for 2010 and 2011, and also a glimpse into my secret obsession.

Day 6: Make What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it? (Author: Gretchen Rubin)
#Reverb10 is an exercise in meditating on 2010 and voicing intentions for 2011. It's not too late to jump in.

The last thing I made was sweet potato casserole. And I burnt it. Actually, in the process of re-creating Thanksgiving so that we could have leftovers (I was insanely envious of your turkey sandwiches), I managed to destroy every dish that had a potato in it. Lessons learned: marshmallows cannot be trusted. Potatoes just might be evil. And multi-tasking is not one of Sarah J. Bray’s superpowers.

I’m normally quite good at cooking, but baking is more my thing. No six things cooking at once. Measure, pour, measure, pour, mix, mix, pour, bake. I like how precise the measurements have to be. And in the end, you get a treat. Like these seven-layer cookies. Or this dulce de leche apple pie. (As you can see, I have been spending way too much time bookmarking baked goods.)

Usually, I cope with the multi-task aspect of cooking by doing it with someone else. John is my go-to man for this. Not only is he an intuitively exceptional cook, but he doesn’t get stressed or easily distracted.

John, next time you’re doing the potatoes.

Making things! Is fun!

Something I want to make...that’s a tough one. A contraption that would scare my dog into NOT jumping up on the couch to lick his toes...and huge sections of the couch that happens to be in the vicinity of his toes. (I don’t even want to count the times I’ve sat down in a puddle of drool.)

I’d like to write my own fantastical adventure story. With hand-drawn illustrations. And maps! When I was a girl, I used to believe that one of my grandmother’s fence posts was a secret entrance into the bees’ treasure trove of candy (I thought that honey was just a front for their more important work of candy-making.) Any time I saw a bee hovering over that fence post, I would go over there and try to utter the secret password so they would sprinkle their magical shrinking dust on me and fly me to their lair. Unfortunately, I never figured out what the secret password was. Apparently, bees are smarter than we think.

On the business side of things, there are so many things I’d like to make. And am making. I’m working with Sparky Firepants on some illustrations for a new project that will be launching before the baby comes. Julianne and I are trying to coerce John into finishing up the video series. (He’s been working so hard at his real job that my poor little series has taken a back seat. Maybe if we all clap our hands three times and say “I believe in you, John Bray!”, something magical will happen.) I’ve also been creating the hottest book club ever in existence (because I love, love, LOVE books).

Making time for the making

Making time for stuff when the idea is fresh and brilliant and exciting isn’t hard. It’s those ideas that have had cooling-off time that are difficult. Because then I’ve had time to think about them and develop often-erroneous beliefs about them.

My client-turned-friend Elissa Ashwood (who has a legacy of expertise on motivation theory – her brilliant dad passed down all of his research and knowledge to her, and she’s taken it and done amazing things in the field) tells me that when we’re not motivated to do something, we actually believe that it won’t work, that we can’t do it, or that it’s not going to help us get what we want. And our brains are too smart to motivate us to do something that we don’t believe will help us achieve our goals.

The problem is, sometimes our beliefs are wrong. Way wrong. And sometimes they’re really, really irrational. So when I’m simply not self-motivated to do something, examining what I believe about that particular thing helps me to get past it (if I need to) or let it go (if I don’t).

For example, take social media. I’m always going through these phases of being everywhere and then hiding under a rock for months. I do the same thing with friends. And with church. And...well...anything that has a social aspect. The only people who I’m consistently always there with are my immediate family members and clients.

Those hiding-under-a-rock phases are usually spurred by my belief that I’ve let someone down. Maybe I wasn’t on Twitter for two weeks because I was super-busy. Maybe I didn’t blog because I wanted it to be perfect. Or I didn’t go to church because when I'm sleeping, I'm an entirely different person (read: sleep addict). Or I didn’t call my parents because I simply forgot. So in order to avoid letting people down again, I just disappear. I feel like if I can’t be perfect, then I just won’t be.

My brain says this is rational. Somewhere inside me, I believe that being social is not getting me what I want – to feel like a normal, functional part of society. It feels like I can’t accomplish perfection in my relationships, so I shouldn’t expend the energy to try it. And if I believe that, of course I won’t be self-motivated to do it.

But the truth? The truth is, people are mostly focused on their own lives and probably don’t even notice that I’ve “let them down”. And even if they did and were waving pitchforks in my general direction, I am still valuable as a human being outside of what I do or don’t do. My self-worth is not dependent on my performance.

The truth is powerful. And once we believe the truth, we no longer have to force ourselves to do the stuff that we need to do. We just do it...naturally and joyfully.

My secret obsession (that is probably yours, too)

Day 2: WritingWhat do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing — and can you eliminate it? (Author: Leo Babauta)
#Reverb10 is an exercise in reflection on 2010 and...reverberating on 2011 (did I say that right, Gwen?). It's not too late to join in on the fun.

Check email constantly. I get so completely paranoid that there’s stuff in there that people are expecting of me and waiting on me for. And I absolutely must have a clean inbox at the end of my email processing. That is not optional for me – I figure if I don’t clean it out every day, then every day it’s just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Snowball-turned-avalanche-turned-Sarah-has-a-stomach-ache.

What I’m doing to eliminate the obsessiveness with email – I mentioned Cal Newport's GCTD method the other day. It’s basically a way to block out your creative time so that nothing else interferes with it (keeping in mind a few guidelines based on how motivation works and how creatives reach a state of flow). It’s been helping me relax into not creating because I know that I have time for that built-in. And not only do I have time for that built-in, but I know that during that time, I am not stressing on a specific outcome. I am ordering and enjoying the process, and trusting that the outcome will take care of itself. It’s a beautiful thing.

So I thought to myself, if this method is helping me relax when I’m not creating, what can help me relax into not checking email? I’ll let you take a guess. (I’m sure you’re picking up on this faster than quick-draw McGraw here...people have been telling me how to handle email obsession for years, but I haven’t figured out how to make it work.)

The lightbulb finally went off, and now I’m blocking out my email processing time, making sure that it’s enough time to clean everything out (I spend 1-2 hours a day on email...one day, I really will delegate some of this). Also, I’m making sure I have at least one block of creative time before email. And it’s really helping.

Speaking of elimination

(Which makes me think of going to the bathroom, but you’ll forgive me. I’m pregnant.) I don’t usually quote Seth Godin, because everybody knows of his brilliance. Everybody reads it. Everybody absorbs what he says like a giant roll of Bounty paper towels.

But he said something recently that made me stand up and applaud. And it just happens to be about clutter, which our esteemed prompt-writer of the day (hey, Leo!) is big on getting rid of. It’s one of those things that I always try to tell my clients, but it’s like they’re plugging their ears. But if Seth Godin says it's true, I might actually have a fighting chance of getting them to believe it.

“Once you overload the user, you train them not to pay attention. More clutter isn't free. In fact, more clutter is a permanent shift, a desensitization to all the information, not just the last bit.”
From the lips of the G-man himself (read the full article...it's short and sweet).

Did you hear that, friends? MORE CLUTTER [on your website, in your newsletter, in your tweets] ISN’T FREE. It’s not just another ad. Another button in your sidebar. Another piece of brilliant persuasive copy. It is training people to ignore you. And that is a big deal.

Instead of having more, be laser focused. Have everything easily accessible through your navigation, but don’t bang people over the head with every single thing you offer. Focus on one thing. Then when you’ve completed your goal for that one thing, focus on another thing. If you try to accomplish too much at once, you will accomplish nothing but invisibility. (I also harp on this over here, if you want more).

Looking backwards and forwards all at once

It’s here! Reverb10...a good time for me to break my blog silence and say...hello! And how are you? And has anything exciting happened while I had my head buried in my work? How’s your family? Oh, how rude of me! You and Reverb10 have not yet been properly introduced. Reverb10, this is my Brilliant Friend. They need no other introduction. Brilliant Friend, this is Reverb10, a series of reflective writing prompts that will be carried on through the month of December and properly coddled. Read more and get involved here.

This year, I’m participating by writing and reflecting every day. Not necessarily publishing every day – the outcome of that would probably be a whole lot of drivel and me running away and hiding at the end of the month. Which would be bad. But actually writing. I’m experimenting with what study hacker Cal Newport calls the GCTD method of blocking out creative time and focusing on the process rather than the product. I love experimenting – I’ll let you know how it goes. Now, on with today’s prompt!

December 1 One Word. Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you? (Author: Gwen Bell)

2010: Growth

This was an easy one. Because:

  1. I’m growing. Literally. My stomach is turning into a giant pumpkin, and I’m feeling the little baby kicks turn into giant karate chops. Did I mention that it’s a girl? Her name is Charlotte Rose. We will call her Rosie until she is old enough to demand that we stop.
  2. Not only am I a mama again, I’m also a boss for the first time. This is thrilling, and also scary. It’s harder than I thought it would be. But thankfully, I have the best employees that God ever made.
  3. I grew into a balanced stage of life, seemingly overnight. I know people say “there’s no such thing as balance,” but there is such a thing as driving yourself through a wall for things that won’t matter when you’re dead. Guilty. I used to get so irritated at people who proclaimed working for yourself was like not working. They never tell you that to get to that stage requires MORE than working. It involves the highest levels of motivation and determination that human nature can possibly muster. Honesty, people. Embrace it.

2011: Delight

Yesterday, I got to watch Frank Chimero speak for the first time. He has long been one of my designer-heroes, and now that I’ve seen him in the flesh (sort of), I am even more in awe. At the Cusp conference this past year, he spoke about perception. All of us perceive things in various ways, but a designer’s goal is to make people perceive in a certain way. Usually it’s to motivate them to take some kind of action, whether it’s to do something, buy something, talk about something, or stop doing something.

But what if our goal in creation was simply to delight people without any other ulterior motive? Would we accomplish our other goals along the way? Listen to Frank say it much better starting at 10:45. Or give yourself a treat and watch the whole thing – I especially dig the George Eliot quote he has posted on his wall.

This year, my work’s focus has been on sheer perfection. It’s led to so much frustration and hair-tearing-out that I’m simply tired of working that way. I want my clients to know this – I am not perfect. I am too full of ideas to be perfect. (Hat tip to Brene Brown for her amazing post on protesting perfection.)

So for 2011, I am trying an experiment. I am focusing on delight instead of best practices. I’m not saying there are no rules, but we learn the rules so that we can confidently break them. I’m interested in breaking as many as possible next year.

How to avoid a devastating case of sidebar-blindness (gasp!)

Sidebar blindness - An often debilitating condition that leads tothe inability to see anything within the sidebar of a particular website.

There I was. Whistling a happy tune at my lucky lack of night blindness, color blindness, and (narrowly escaping) ad blindness. Things couldn't have been better. Then suddenly -wham!- it hit me. Sidebar blindness.

Poor sidebar. So much of a content-driven website's effectiveness hinges on it. That's quite a lot of pressure. It's no wonder that some of our sidebars end up throwing in the towel. Most of them don't even know they've given up. And neither do we. Because when a sidebar is feeling overwhelmed, distracted, or inadequate, it often throws on a protective invisibility cloak without even knowing it. Leading to sidebar-blindness in all who come near.

Content-driven website - A website that produces content (blog articles, podcasts, dancing cats, etc.) as a central, ongoing strategy for reaching its goals.

Does your website induce sidebar-blindness? Eight symptoms to watch for:

Sidebar-creep - A subtle but deadly condition, developed over time, where the sidebar gets filled with unimportant crap. Many times develops because of the often overlooked "other websites have that...it must be good!" fallacy.
  • Has your sidebar remained the exact same for the last 3 months?
  • Does your sidebar exhibit signs of "sidebar creep" ?
  • Was there a time when people clicked around in your sidebar, but now you're thinking you might have dreamed it?
  • Do you have more than 4 affiliate buttons showing at one time? (not a guarantee of sidebar-blindness, but a possible indicator)
  • Do you have 3 or more of your own offers and specials showing at one time?
  • Do you have more than 1 social media feed in your sidebar? (ex: latest tweets, latest Flickr photos, latest Facebook statuses)
  • Do you have anything in your sidebar that makes you look less cool than you really are? (ex: I have 40 Twitter followers! 12 people subscribe to this blog!)
  • Is anything in your sidebar boring, unimaginative, or physically painful to look at?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions...

Don't worry. So did I. (#1...hello!) We can never be permanently safe from sidebar-blindness, but if we're vigilant, we can make sure it doesn't happen to us (or cure it when it does).

My special blend of natural home remedies (for sidebars who hate taking medicine)

Fill in the blank: "This is here because..." for every element in your sidebar. Does it directly help you reach your most important goals? If not, axe it.

One thing to keep in mind when you're doing this exercise: effective website goals are very specific. And only one primary goal should reign supreme at any given time. Other goals can be secondary or even tertiary (big words today!), but having one laser-focused supremo goal at any given time will greatly enhance your success at reaching it.

And make sure that your goals aren't sneakily bundling themselves up with each other. This happens more than you'd think. "Expand my blog readership" might look like one goal, but break it apart: Do you want to get more unique visitors, get more RSS subscribers, or increase your mailing list? Remember: ONE goal to rule them all. All the rest are secondary. (Yes, I'm reading Lord of the Rings right now. It can't be helped.)

Make your sidebar elements focused on your audience and not yourself

Most of us put stuff in our sidebars that we want other people to click on. We use it as a place to promote our latest offers, tell people about ourselves, make money off of advertising and affiliate sales, etc. In most of our minds, whether we acknowledge it or not, "The blog content is for the people...the sidebar is for me".

But your visitors are smart. If your sidebar is clearly a promotional place with maybe a little bit of underwhelming blog navigation thrown in, then you're only reaching the 5-10% of people who are looking to actively buy stuff. And maybe not even them.

We still need to promote, of course. But instead of viewing the sidebar space as "your" space, look at it from a visitor's perspective. What would make a particular element more useful or entertaining? Are there things you can add that are for "them" and not (directly) for you? How can you make everything in your sidebar a delightful gift to all who gaze and click?

Update your sidebar elements at regular intervals

Sidenote: When I was a wee fledgling (read: barely making any money), this part was easy. Paying super-close attention to my web presence is a gigantic part of what got me here. But at this stage of my business, it's what I struggle with the most. So no "but you aren't following your own advice, you hypocrite you!" I'm already saying that enough times in my head, thankyouverymuch.

One of the easiest ways to defeat the dreaded sidebar blindness is to change things up regularly. Just like your blog would become invisible if you never updated it, your sidebar will eventually suffer the same fate.

Some ideas:

  • Dedicate one element of your sidebar to helping you reach your most important goal. Make it prominent, and change it out whenever your most important goal changes.
  • If you're not getting the response you want to one of your sidebar elements, change the order that it appears in the sidebar. For example, if it was the third thing down, make it the second thing.
  • Instead of showing 4 affiliate buttons at one time, show two at a time and rotate them. Better yet, show one at a time, along with an entertaining, informative blurb and a link to your experience/story about the product or service.

Make the uppermost items in your sidebar dynamic instead of static

Caveat: This is not a home-remedy, but it's also not a necessity of life. Just a nice, potentially strategic thing to have in place.

Content-management system (CMS): Software built into your website that makes it easy to update and organize content on your own. WordPress, Drupal, and ExpressionEngine are some of the most commonly used ones (though there is some snobbery -- and valid thought, too -- in the web development world about WordPress not being a "real" CMS, which is too boring of a conversation to have here).

This one's a bit hard to explain, but here goes. What if updating your sidebar were as simple as writing a new blog post and putting it in a certain category? Dynamic content is like that. That's why using a content-management system like WordPress is so brilliant. We've always had the power to update our websites with fresh content, but it was never easy. WordPress (or whatever CMS you use) makes it easy. And it can make updating your sidebars easy, too.

I would say 99.5% of people who use WordPress have not yet discovered this piece of brilliance when it comes to their sidebars. For most of us, updating our sidebars requires messing with the code, either in our theme's files or within our sidebar widgets. Which is fine if you know code AND are relentless about creating new sidebar content. But it's akin to the limitations we had in the old days with our static, non-CMS-based websites.

So how do you make your sidebar dynamic? Super-good question. And one involving research and code kung-fu. In other words, not something I would attempt to explain in a blog post (most of you would probably fall asleep or start throwing tomatoes). Don't shoot me -- it IS possible, but probably beyond the average layperson's technical capabilities. Keep it in mind, though, for your next site development project when you have a pro to do it for you.

I can see again!

Ahhh...isn't that better? That sidebar-blindness should be clearing up any minute now. Anyone have their own case to report? Chime in while I go grab another sandwich.

Diary of a web worker: Business is not for sissies

If you want to find out exactly what's wrong with your business, hire employees. If you want to find out what your biggest weaknesses are, hire employees. If you want to take a month-long trip to Maui in the next six months without skipping a beat in your business...I don't know what to tell you. Win the lottery or something. Most of you guys know why I decided to hire a team. I was stressed out beyond belief. Anxious. Couldn't get out of bed in the mornings. I didn't want to be alone in this business anymore. I was booked six months out, so I figured the best thing to do would be to hire people to help me. Here's a run-down of how that's going so far:

May

Giddy with pleasure at the prospect of having help, I hire Julianne part-time. She is wonderful. I do happy dances around my living room. I don't know what she does around her living room, but I'm pretty sure she's happy, too. I get inspired to launch a new website that is supremely awesome and a service to the world.

At the end of the month, I hire Leah part-time. She had done some coding work for me in the past and had proven herself to be efficient, honest, and amazing. I do more happy dances around my living room. Life is goooooood.

June

I launch said website. It is beautiful. I have magical plans to take it where no other website has gone before. It will be amazing. It will be a must-read resource for anyone who has a website and wants to build communities and have astounding conversion rates. Whee!

My days are immersed in training Julianne how to read my mind. When that doesn't work, I resort to "just ask me questions as you have them." I think Julianne's confused, but I figure it will wear off. She is awesome. Business is awesome. We're all so awesome! I decide that in August, I will move my employees to full-time. Because that would be even more awesome.

July

I haven't written much for the website, even though I have a Big Giant Plan to publish every Monday and Thursday on my pre-determined topics. Oh well. I'll do that next month.

This month, I am much too busy figuring out what my actual process is. When it was all in my head, it seemed to work just fine. Now that I have to explain it to people and delegate parts of it, I realize that my process could be accurately defined by the phrase "seat of pants flyage". It desperately needs fixing.

Also, I've started ramping up the amount of clients I am taking on in preparation for August's plans to move the employees to full-time. I'm starting to get nervous about that. Will I really need to make $15,000/mo. just to survive? Oh well. Leap and the net will appear. That's what I always say. And I do have some money saved up as a cushion.

August

Everyone's full-time now! I'm offering benefits!

As the month goes on, I start to feel a little drained. I really don't like having to make this kind of cash just to scrape by. Also, I'm working harder and longer than ever. How is this happening? I write a post about what it's like to have $8,146.57 in your bank account (surprisingly, the answer is: not very fun when you have employees). I never publish it. I convince myself that it's okay. The net will appear. The net will appear.

I'm still not writing much for the website. This sucks! One of the biggest reasons I hired people was so that I could write more and do more biz-growth type stuff. Maybe my business isn't as scalable as I thought?

At the same time, good things are happening. John takes over as CEO and finally gets all of our systems ironed out and running smoothly. How infuriating. Somehow, in three weeks he has set up all systems to the point that they run on their own. He has nothing left to do. I am convinced he needs to teach a workshop on this.

September

I start to realize that the net isn't appearing. I can't pay myself. John and I take out our 401(k) just in case we don't have enough to pay the employees. I'm working a ton. I'm crying a lot. I consider having my baby in my hand-me-down bed rather than pay all the doctor bills. Still not writing much on the blog. I'm in severe denial that I'm going to have to make hard changes. I'm in severe denial about a lot of things.

One day, I end up talking to my dad for hours on the phone. My dad is the smartest dad in the world. Really...he could beat up all your dads. He gives me tons of ideas. I realize I am not stuck. I realize I'm going to have to cut back everyone to part-time. I realize that most of my cash flow problems are originating from the fact that I have no boundaries established when it comes to client timelines. I also realize how some things are not scalable. Like me, for instance. I am not scalable.

I make the hard decisions. I decide to scale back to part-time starting October 1st. I decide to schedule clients for specific blocks of time in the calendar and feel really, really stupid that I didn't think of this three years ago. I decide to take fewer clients at a time. Sweet, sweet relief.

So that's where I'm at now. At the sweet, sweet relief part. I'm almost over the beating myself over the head part, but not quite. Like I said, business is not for sissies.

Secret things I've been doing while I've been too busy to tell you

Gwen Bell, Kelly Parkinson, and I are teaming up together. Gwen = social web superstar, Kelly = copywriting/marketing maven, and Me = the nerd who's obsessed with content-strategy.

New LiteSite-ers currently get a free half-hour session with Gwen and a half-hour session with Kelly. At least until the end of September (Hey, don't blame me if you just now heard about it. Get yourself on the sneak peeks and discounts list if you're that upset...they heard about it weeks ago. You can do that at the top right corner of the website because I'm too lazy to put a form here.) Also, I only have 3 LiteSite spots available for the entire rest of the year, so you may want to grab that train quick if you're coming.

I'm also getting ready to release the World's Hottest Book Club for completely, totally free. Because I love books, and I especially love this book. I will leave you guessing as to what the book is, but I have already given you a HUGE hint.

The video series is still in process. I am beginning to re-think my idea of having everything professionally done. Julianne (film pro that she is) will probably kill me, but this is taking forever. But man...when you see them, you will know. Me and my trusty webcam could not have accomplished this. It was definitely worth doing, but probably not for every video.

And finally, the baby! If anyone cares about such things, it is doing well. And there are rumors that it is actually a she. I will know for sure in 4 more weeks, but emergency ultrasounds do not lie. Okay, that's totally not true. They lie all the time. I'll keep you posted. Especially on Facebook if you're on there.

So what has really been going down in your business?

I know it's great to do what you love for a living. I wouldn't trade it for anything. But the truth is, it's hard sometimes. I think most of us are scared of talking about that part, because that's not marketing. That's not even unmarketing. That's like anti-marketing. (I'm excited, because I think Naomi Dunford's going to be talking about this more soon. I'm also terrified that she's going re-iterate what she said in the past--see the part under "Never let 'em see you sweat"--and that I'm doomed to the corner of the room that includes buck-toothed Linda and that guy who never stops talking about his state-of-the-art polycarbonate business cards.)

What do you think? If you can relate even in the tiniest bit to being scared out of your mind, I salute you. I'm with you. (And by the way, Confucius says "Never post on Friday evenings", but I never liked Confucius. People who know everything are quite annoying. So please prove Confucius wrong and drop me a comment or an email or something. I'm not one to beg. But I really don't like Confucius.)

Diary of a web worker: On being a solopreneur

Diary of a Web Worker is a new series where I spill my guts about the realities of running a successful small business. This month, we're all about solopreneurship. In other words, starting and running a business completely on your own. The ups, the downs, practical strategy, all of it. Hang on to your skivvies!

As I sit here fully caffeinated, running on zero hours of sleep in the Starbucks down the street, solopreneurship is heavy on my mind. I've given it up. And if this fails, I cannot, will not go back.

It's not that being on my own was that bad. In fact, for the first few years, I swore I would never hire anyone. With barely any overhead and my ability to do anything and everything to the epitome of perfection (a trait I've since discovered isn't quite as good as it sounds), I was invincible. No economy could blow my umbrella inside-out. I was too nimble for that.

But around March of this year, I started struggling with anxiety in a massive way. My Type-A self has always had a bit of a nervous streak, but until recently I've counted it as an asset. When I am faced with a problem, my ever-ready mind keeps attacking it until it's solved. My fear has given me a sort of edge. I've succeeded where others have failed because my mind just. won't. quit.

But when my general feeling of apprehensive problem-solving turned into the feeling that I'd almost been hit by a car -- 24 hours a day -- I was forced to see my anxiety as it really was. Not as a normal part of my personality, but as something that was killing me. And if I let it, the business that I worked so hard to build.

In the beginning was the girl

By day, I was an event planner at a local university, data entry clone for a yearbook publisher, and editor for a budding author.

2007 was my first year as a solopreneur -- at least, for part of the time. After I quit my full-time corporate job, I took on three part-time jobs that would allow me the flexibility of working from home. By day, I was an event planner at a local university, data entry clone for a yearbook publisher, and editor for a budding author. By night, I designed and developed websites for myself -- each one being God's gift to the internet. I had spent the few years prior to that building up a blog, which I eventually sold, giving me the impression that I had a green thumb for online business.

It took me six months to realize that building a blog with later hopes of selling it was not an effective business plan. It hit me that I needed a product or a service to sell if I wanted to be self-employed any time soon. Enter S.Joy Studios.

The solopreneur that was not

By late 2007, I was fully in business. I quit two of my part-time jobs and worked hard to be seen as a "real" business. I said "we" a lot. I used big words. I had a blog (that no one read) that talked about all of the impressive things "we" were doing. I knew I needed credibility, but I didn't believe in myself enough to make a dent in that department.

Still, people need websites, and I was a good designer. I eeked out a living over the next year and a half, and I started getting really interested in design accomplishing things. Without knowing it, I became a student of web strategy.

In late 2008, I quit my last part-time job. It was the scariest leap I had taken up to that point, but I was so stressed doing both that I knew it had to be the right decision. It was.

By that time, I had dropped the "we". I had come up with an idea for packaging my services that, at the time, no one else was doing.

Packaging your services (v.): The act of coming up with different fixed-rate packages clients can choose from. It makes it easier for people to buy from you, resulting in your calendar being full to over-flowing.

My service packages immediately tripled the number of people who wanted to work with me. I discovered Twitter and met Danielle LaPorte, who was the first person to tell me that I was a genius.

A paradigm shift

Danielle's Fire-Starter Sessions are one-hour sit-downs with Danielle LaPorte, empire-building maven and one of my personal heroes. She nailed what I needed to do to move forward. Ground was broken, epiphanies were had.

In early 2009, I decided to take another leap -- to do a fire starter session with Danielle. It doesn't sound like a big deal to me now, but at the time, I was a card-carrying Boot Strapper. Capitals. I didn't spend money on anything. To pay someone $300 to talk to me for an hour felt like having surgery without being knocked out first. (Note: The price has since gone up.)

My session with Danielle LaPorte was a turning point. Something shifted in my brain. I finally knew what I stood for and what I didn't. My tentative idea for a pre-built design solution came out fully-fledged -- LiteSites grew wings. So many intangible notions took shape that day, most of which I can't even explain. (By the way, I'm not affiliated with Danielle's Fire Starter Sessions in any way. All of this is just my experience.)

Two weeks after our work together, I became booked solid and have been booked to over-flowing ever since. I launched LiteSites last summer, which was an immediate and earth-shattering success. I started planning the gold-digging excursion, which was my tippy-toe into sharing all of my hard-won knowledge via an online multi-media classroom format. Things were very, very good, and I was working very, very hard.

The burst of my solopreneur bubble

I couldn't get on Twitter without this tidal wave of fear swallowing me up.

My flood of anxiety came at the worst possible time -- during the launch for the excursion. I plowed through anyway. I kept on persevering throughout the excursion, which I was incredibly supported by -- such an amazing group of people giving me positive feedback every single day. But by the end of April, I was done.

But I wasn't done. I still had clients. Projects that I was excited about starting. I still had (and still have) stuff from the excursion I needed to wrap up. But I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't check my email. I couldn't get on Twitter without this tidal wave of fear swallowing me up.

Surrender

I had lost all of the strength that I was so proud of. My stubborn independence and unwillingness to fail was taunting me. It felt like the whole world was watching me. I could do nothing but lay in my bed and cry buckets.

For a few weeks, the only way I could function was to pray that God would give me the motivation and desire to get out of bed. I would literally say, "I can't do this by myself. I am not getting out of bed unless I get this sudden miraculous desire to do it." Some days, it would really happen. I would lay there for 20 minutes and all of a sudden, my desire would shift, and I would find myself at a coffee shop, happily working away. Other times, that mysterious desire wouldn't come, and I'd sleep until 12 and feel like a horrible person because of it.

Somehow, I started re-gaining my strength and made the decision to hire my first employees. Leah had coded for me in the past and was a dream and a half to work with. Julianne was one of those rare creative firecrackers -- if I was going to have a team, she was going to be on it. And here we are.

What three years of solopreneurship has taught me

Life is different now. I still struggle with anxiety every single day, but I'm working through it with a counselor. My days are different now. The more people I hire, the more people I realize I need to hire.

But I don't regret going at it alone for so long. Solopreneurship was an exciting, rewarding experience. And if I had waited until I had the resources to hire people, I would never have started. Still, if I could go back in time, there are a few things I would tell the younger me.

Dear Sarah,

Don't worry if you're not the best yet. After you've put in 10,000 hours, you will be.

Savour your open calendar. Use it to make your brand and your systems great. Those are the things that are difficult to find time for when you're in high demand.

Forget 9 to 5. Figure out how you work best and use it. Take your weekends. Make them sacred.

Plan for your downtime before you plan for anything else. Take twice as many vacations as you used to.

Don't believe the lie that you are the only person who can do things well in your business. Do what you're best at, and find a way to delegate the other stuff.

Learn how much your time is worth. Knowing that is crucial, whether you sell products or services. (Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port is the best resource for figuring this out, and it needs to remain by your bed for the first six months of your business adventure.)

Always go with your gut instinct when deciding whether to take on a project. Taking on projects that are not true to you will, at best, rob you of your time. At worst, it will rob you of the opportunity to work on the projects you were born to do.

Learn to live in the present. Enjoying the place that you're at right now is one of the keys to combatting fear and discontent. I like to visit themindfulist.com for daily mindfulness prompts.

Find ways to be kind to your solopreneur self. Treat it like a child who you love dearly. Daily rewards are more effective than daily thrashings. Think treats and surprises.

Remember how small you are. The sun does not depend on you to rise. No one's life depends on your performance. And speaking of performance, remember that you are not valuable because of what you do. You are valuable because of who you are. Give yourself permission to be eccentric.

And Sarah, don't forget the little girl who reads too many books and who wants to know everything. She is still you, and she is the best part of you. Don't lose yourself in the process of trying to be great. You already are.

Fondly, Sarah

You are cordially invited to our retirement party

Have some punch! Watch Uncle Albert play pin-the-footer-on-the-website! (Yes, I realize it’s turning out to be one of my lamer attempts at party games, but it’s too late now.) So who’s retiring? Let’s see...first, there’s Pow. She’s spent one whole year partying her heart out in LiteSite-ville, and she’s ready to call it a day. I hate to lose Pow, but she assures me that she’s leaving so that bigger, better things can take her place. Her last day is officially Friday, so we still have time to say goodbye. (I’ve heard rumors that the bigger, better things will also be more expensive, so it might not hurt to get a piece of her before she leaves.)

And speaking of getting a piece, we’ve also got another retiree on the way out (apparently, LiteSites have a short career life). Pathos is a bit young to be as successful as he’s been, but he’s worked so hard that I’m not surprised. He’s ready to dump his professional attire in favor of a fishing vest and waders -- who knew?

And finally, one more retiree. No, it’s not Verbatim (that happy fella is quite determined to keep working, at least for now). It’s someone that we’ve all come to know quite dearly -- sjoystudios.com. I’ve loved this website, but it’s finally time to move on. Starting next Monday, we’re packing up camp and moving to new digs.

If you want to leave some final thoughts for either Pow, Pathos, or sjoystudios.com, I’m sure they’d appreciate it. Otherwise, drink up! (I think someone put something in the punch. Uncle Albert is getting a little rowdy on the karaoke.)

I am a love machine

Really, I am. I thrive on love in all forms. Online love. Offline love. Love for my work, love for other people's work. Love is my favorite. I think we're all little walking love machines. It would be cool if we had glowy hearts on our chests that we could push to disseminate and receive the love we need. When we're feeling low, our glowy heart would be dim. And then everyone would fill us up until we were day-glow bright again.

Gwen Bell posted this video a few weeks ago, and it's one of those that I'm finding myself going back to over and over.

If you don't have time to watch the whole thing, pay attention to 9:22 to 14:45. It talks about how technology has moved our society to a place where we're seeking trust, meaning, and quality of life over our previously-held values of privacy, constant availability, and ease of use. Our use of technology has made us feel isolated and alone (our glowy hearts are dim!), and now we're using it to foster meaningful connection.

So what does that mean for us?

I've been a pioneer in content-driven websites. Now that people are starting to get that, I'm paying attention to new practices that are solving some of the challenges we face with the content-driven model. It's not good enough to be a pioneer. You have to know where things are going.

I like to watch people who have been online for a good while to sense the direction of where things are headed. When we're new to working online, we tend to over-indulge in all of the candy. (But the candy! It might disappear! Must. eat.) But the more seasoned folks among us have over-indulged, under-indulged, and eventually come to a point of investing their time in the things that have longevity. Things I'm noticing now:

  • A general repulsion for the exploitation of relationships. We're funny and real and so transparent. We've gotten rid of the corporate lingo and have become comfortable being ourselves. Which is great. But if that becomes another marketing gimmick, we are sickened beyond belief. Which makes sense, given our society's deepest needs are for trust, security, and meaning. Bad things happen when our deepest needs are exploited.
  • Stepping up what we publish. Sick of excessive information and searching for real meaning, we are starting to take our content more seriously. Makes complete sense, and I'm glad it's happening. Sometimes first drafts are okay to publish, but what would happen if we treated our work as art? What would happen if we polished and shimmied and shined everything we put out there, even to the detriment of frequency?
  • Respecting when people disconnect. Our technology-free days are becoming intentional. We do not lose credibility when we disappear to work on our art. Rest is beginning to be respected.
  • Instantly recognizing marketing cliches. Remember your favorite English teacher's definition of cliche? Anything you've heard once. And it's becoming even truer in online marketing. It is now so important to put on our horse-blinders and create strategy that is just ours.
  • Having launch fatigue. Marissa Bracke wrote an extremely timely article on this last week. When our relationships with people online become 85% about what we're launching or what other people are launching, we're bound to get tired of all of the launching. It's starting to happen, folks. Which is another reason to put on those blinders and do something no one else is doing. Including launching like no one else is launching.
  • Appreciating the chopping block. We are tired of sifting through information. We want carefully edited direction. Instead of googling, we ask people on Twitter for their recommendations. When we visit a website, we don't want everything in the sidebars -- just a selection of what's most important and useful. Instead of an exhaustive list of books on marketing, we would rather have Ted's top five. It's not enough to be simple. We want hand-picked. If you build a reputation of hand-picking the best stuff and chopping off the rest, people will come to you as a trusted resource.
  • Going back to professionalism (a little). When we tossed out corporate crap, we tossed out a lot of...crap. But there was also a lot of good stuff that went out with the trash. Like quality. Just because it's personal, doesn't mean that we can shill crap (read Amy Hoy's excellent article on this...and don't worry. She informs me that it's Nutella.). We need quality photography. Quality writing. Quality packaging. Quality products. If we're going to continue to flourish in the online space, we can't become known for over-priced, over-hyped crap.

So that's what I've been thinking about while I've been being quiet. Love, crap, and sandwiches. Also, that LiteSites are back from vacay. And I've hired two people who I love and who you will meet very soon. And also that I need to hire a third, but I'm not a fan of being too big for my britches.

Love. To you.

She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes

Got that stuck in your head now? Good. Me too. I feel like this is one of those awkward moments where I was supposed to call but didn't, and then I run into you in the grocery store and say "So..." while shuffling my feet.

So...

I'm being quiet right now. That's the gist of it. I have a new project in the works that is going to change things up around here quite substantially, but I'm not pushing it.

I've discovered something about web strategy. First, it is so hard to be perfect at it when you're a solopreneur. Either you have no clue what to do next, or you have too much to do next. Or you have an elaborate plan that would work if only you ran on batteries. Or jet fuel.

But unfortunately, we are not robots. We get sleepy, excited, overwhelmed, inspired, jealous, triumphant, and all of these other things that interfere with a well-run machine. I think that's why 9 to 5 exists. I think that's why corporate is so...corporate. When you take out the heart, things are much more predictable.

My gold-digging excursion left me people-shy. Me, the girl who loves performing, teaching, speaking, writing, and generally sharing with masses of people. I'm overwhelmed with the attention and interaction. I can't explain it, but it's there. And it hasn't gone away yet, even though the excursion has been over for two weeks.

I generally share a lot around here. I share what's made me successful, strategies that work, things to avoid. And those things are important. But I'm learning that being perfect in business can not only make you successful; it can also drive you crazy.

I'm hiring my first helper in a few days. Not just talking about it, but actually doing it. I'm focusing on filling my well instead of producing so much. Yes, I'm launching my new thing soon, but I'm not putting a date on it. And I'm actively ignoring the voices in my head that are telling me "You're not communicating enough; you're not building enough relationships; you're not following your own freaking rules."

They're my rules. They've worked for me and countless others, but I'm not going to die if I break them for a month. Or even two. (Just keep telling yourself that, Sarah.)

Hopefully my people-block will be cleared soon. But even if it isn't, I've learned a few very important things. First, hiring people is the only way to develop any kind of consistency without killing yourself to be perfect. Second, there is time. There is always time. So even if you have to do this alone, don't dig those spurs in too deep. Your workhorse-self can only sprint for so long before you sputter to a stop.

And we’re back!

I was going to write "I missed you" or even "hello", but I walked 5 blocks picking up shells and could only manage enough to say hey. Apparently the ocean is being stingy today.

So hey! I am officially back from excursion-ing. I have so much that I want to say, but for now, I can only manage to point. So here's me, pointing at the people who put on their mining hats with me to dig for gold in the depths of their website.

Plus a few good people I couldn't find photos for:

Laura Brodniak Dee Brower Lisa Gold Alison Habermehl Paula Parker Pamela Paulien Liza Pascal Jennifer Saunders Rochelle Schieck Anne Smidt Leah Snyder

And also, a huge thanks to Leah of Leah Creates for her help in the cave dwelling! (She's lovely to work with, folks).

These are phenomenal people. Get to know them. Great things are emerging out of the work they're doing.

More to come soon. Also, I've got a huge, gargantuan surprise for you in the coming weeks. It feels good to be back!