Tell someone you sold your business and they’ll say, “Congratulations!”
Truth be told, I was embarrassed.
The last twelve years has been almost exclusively devoted to growing a business. Before that I was doing the same thing, just elsewhere. I made websites, then helped people build on and maintain those websites. And then I got tired of it. It’s been roughly the same thing every day for seventeen years now.
Buddhists have a notion of the “hungry ghost”. The hungry ghost is any creature with an insatiable appetite. There is never enough for the hungry ghost, so it’s always looking for more. In business, the hungry ghost is the quest for more growth, more money, more followers, more likes, more opens, more clicks. For me it was all those things and the constant need to know everyone was happy.
My biggest problem started when I wanted to treat websites like broader parts of a whole. To be sure: I’m convinced this is the right strategy. A website is the center of your digital universe. Everything you do should spring from that website. Everything should match, be coordinated, and function like a cohesive whole. If you hand me your business card and I look at your website, then your LinkedIn Profile, it should all match. This is why somewhere around 2017 I began equating websites with advertising. It wasn’t enough to merely have an About Us page. That page needed your team’s photos and bios and schema and all those people should have consistency across their channels and on and on.
It’s not enough anymore to write a blog post. Now that post needs an email campaign, and shared on three or more social networks all with different headlines and lead-ins and images and tests to determine the right time to send and share and garner clicks. Heaven help you if you want to pay to boost it as an ad.
I dislike this as much as every other normal person. No one wants emails from their Realtor or their barber or the paint crew who painted your garage that one time. Most businesses are fairly boring. Necessary, but boring. And they’re all fighting for their lives.
So, we throw everything we have at anyone who will listen. When I get asked by a client, “Did that email get anyone to sign up?” and I look and no one clicked, that’s a problem. “Clearly I wasn’t clever, smart, good, or right enough,” I assume. I could never assume it was because the offer just wasn’t that great to begin with, or that people who just bought a house don’t need to buy another within the week.
In Ray Dalio’s overly-long book “Principles”, he lists a five-step process for making progress on your goals:
- Identify your goals
- Encounter your problems
- Diagnose the problems to get to their root cause
- Design changes to get around the problems
- Do what is needed
My goals have shifted over time, like anyone else’s.
Originally I wanted to operate a small, boutique business that made really good sites. The whole thing, top to bottom. We’d design it, build it, host it, manage your domain, write for it, update it, add new features, and on and on.
Then I thought it should be affordable.
And then I thought it might be neat to have small offices in cities across the country. “Why isn’t there a nationwide consultancy for this sort of thing?” I wondered. Omitting the usual suspects of Wix and whatever other thing people get to type terrible page titles into and call a website.
I never advertised my business beyond just myself. The business never grew fast. Most of the time it was just me, then it was myself and Alex and maybe one or two other people. Things floated in the front door and that was fine because there was already so much to do.
But I got tired. I was lucky to have a lot of clients who stuck around for years — far far longer than average for anyone in this line of work. The average website lasts about three years before being redone, usually torn down and totally redone. Churn rates are high, too. But my average client had been around for seven years.
I wanted people to like the work. And because the business was me and I was the business for so long, I equated liking the work to liking me. And when someone didn’t like it they didn’t like me.
A few years ago enough work had floated in the door that it was too much. It required all my attention. Every day felt like having fourteen class periods in school, each forty five minutes long. I’d be in the office by 4:30 a.m. some days, never later than 5:30. I did ten or twelve hour days for years.
It turns out, you can hustle all you want but sometimes things just happen “just because”. Or luck.
My goals shifted toward scaling again. But there’s a reason 95% of the advertising agencies in this country have three or fewer people in them. And why 1-2% more have five. The last 97-100% are the Madison Avenue types like Ogilvy with hundreds. Scaling a service business, particularly a creative service business, is rough.
I being me, I also wanted everything to be affordable for people. Our average client paid about $530 a month. This was too little for the work we were doing but was the work everyone needed. I’d get emails from people that said nothing but, “Business is slow this week.” The notion being I have a button under my desk that says “increase sales” on it. Suddenly I was in the business consulting business and these broad problems became too much.
So I sold the business in late 2020.
I built the wrong business in the wrong direction. And I didn’t love anything. People that talked about “passion” and “loving what you do” made me gag. And, I was embarrassed at what felt like a failure. At best, this was a “successful failure”.
Then COVID hit and people started talking about burnout as if it was a new thing now experienced by millions of people. I went into the pandemic burned out.
My goals shifted again. Now I wanted autonomy, focus, and depth. I was tired of being pulled in a bunch of different directions. I abhorred meetings and the constant performance of, “Hey, it’s only been nine minutes but I wanted to let you know that email has a .9% higher click rate than the last time!”
I spent more time talking about work than actually doing the work. My time was dictated by everyone else. Want an hour-long meeting at 8am and 5pm? No? Too bad.
My phone’s notification count between various work-related messages was about six to eight hundred a day. Every morning at least thirty emails would be sitting there from the night before, all requiring me to do some thing.
I tried even more changes like offloading things and delegating, checklists and processes, and I tried blocking things off on my calendar. My calendar was littered with “reserved block” just so I could have a couple of hours to actually do something useful. None of it ever worked.
Customers don’t want to feel like they’re in a system, either. “I text Justin and something happens” was how everything went, how everyone liked it, and how I enabled people to think was okay. Too many people parachuted in like it was Red Dawn. One Thanksgiving I had someone call me seven times in a row despite my silencing the call. When I finally did answer, their request was only to ask I post a tweet for them.
Dalio says in step three: “Diagnose the problems to get to their root cause.” My root cause was that I had continued to build the wrong business in the wrong direction. I built a company of one, maybe two, and it worked great for that. I was lucky to have Alex around, but neither of us were striking it close to comfortable.
Trying to design changes around these problems meant things people didn’t like: raising rates or just doing away with their business. I always felt like anytime I talked to customers about money I had no chance. My experience in this process backed this up. Most people just groaned. Some would say things like, “Well, let me look at the budget.” Which was code for, “Go away and let’s never speak of this again.” And 90% of the time my ask was just an extra $200-$300 more a month, often after years and years of work.
Going from $400 to $700 a month isn’t nothing, I get that, but it’s a hard kick in the teeth when you know they’ll hire any number of other consultants for $20,000 a year to fart around on a vague “brand strategy” or whatever. And there I am asking for an extra $1,500 a year on the thing that has helped them grow their business.
I get that everyone’s business is to save money where they can. But somewhere along the way I couldn’t help but reckon with the notion I must just not be good.
I was told if the work was good people would pay for it and they’d pay more and more the better it got. This is bullshit.
Because unlike an iPhone where you pay $1,000 for $400 of metal and glass, you don’t get to haggle over it. But if people had the opportunity to, they would. All of my interactions were negotiated, often mid-contract. There’s only so far anyone can take a small auto dealer’s website on $4,000 a year.
“Yeah, that’s business!” You might be thinking. You’re not wrong. But no matter how much my business earned, I didn’t recoup much. My effective hourly earnings has been about $4/hour.
If money is a neutral indicator of value and worth, I’m worthless.
It wasn’t hard to see why: I’m a good designer, but not a great one. I can debug sites and write CSS or whatever, but I’m not great at it. I’m a good writer, but am I a great writer? I’m good at sales and making people feel comfortable and “working the room”, but am I great at it?
Many years ago my friend Tony Dewan told me, “You’re really good at blowing stuff up and starting all over.” He probably does not remember saying that, but I do. And it has been a while since I’ve really blown things up.
You have to measure your current outcomes against your desired outcomes and take action. My desired outcomes are autonomy, focus, and depth. So, it was time for me to do what was needed. I left my position and all the work I had built up.
I want the ability to focus on work again and focus on a handful of people. I want the ability to have time to do things with a level of intensity I was never been afforded before. And I want my health back. I’ve not been able to sleep, relax, feel good, or push the boundaries of anything for years.
In the last decade, copywriting became something I enjoyed doing the most for sites. “I wrote something, and look, someone read it.”
So that’s my focus now: research and writing. I’m only doing it for a handful of people, I’m protecting my time, I have a series of special projects to work on, and I know when I’ve got enough. No more Hungry Beast. Now I’m focused on maintaining resilience, autonomy, and simplicity.
If you’d like to hire me on retainer for one of a few open copywriting and research spots, contact me. You get the benefit of intense focus, depth, and my newfound pursuit of mastery. Plus, fifteen years of experience.