Focus. Focus, and then focus some more. Especially if you are a Visionary! Oh, it is hard. Even when you think you are focused, it’s so easy to sway here and there.
As a part of our series about women entrepreneurs who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Meredith Noble.
Meredith is an entrepreneur, author, community leader, and outdoor adventurer. She is the co-founder of the Grant Writing Unicorn Collective, an online professional development program for aspiring grant writers. She is part of a new wave of pioneers building technology companies from remote, yet connected Valdez, Alaska.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
When I quit my corporate job in 2017, I had a sexy business idea in mind. I was going to learn to code and build an app! I cringe sharing that — today, it seems so cliché!
Before pursuing life as an entrepreneur, I built a grant writing team at a large global architecture and engineering firm where I won $42 million in grants for infrastructure projects throughout the United States and Canada. It was a great career, but I had burned out and wanted to be more than a one trick pony. When I left, I pledged to never touch another grant.
Never say never. Fast forward and I’m teaching grant writing to thousands of incredible community leaders throughout the world. That experience, and the experiences of other entrepreneurs, showed me that your first business idea is rarely the one you eventually scale.
Within months I was teaching live workshops. During one, I said I was interested in making my course an online training business. An hour later I had Facebook ads for an online course platform. (Creepy how that works!) I signed up for a 30-day trial on the spot and was off to the races learning how to build an online course-based business.
If you were to list the top 100 mistakes a course creator can make, I made 99 of them. The business model of an online course is so obvious that I thought success should be easy — let me tell you — it is not.
In August of 2020, I brought on Alex Lustig as a cofounder. Despite taking a 35% pay cut, Alex chose to come work with me, and it felt like one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. Her willingness to risk the security of making her mortgage payment to join me was validation that we must be onto something.
With the horsepower of two, we got to work scaling the online course. We took action on every idea we had to achieve scale and nothing was working. We got to the point where we had only six weeks of runway left (an entrepreneur term for money left in the bank.)
We knew something had to change or we would be out of business. This sense of failure was disorienting and overwhelming. I had already published a #1 bestselling book on Amazon for nonprofit fundraising and grant writing and launched a $100k course.
I learned that businesses grow in phases. Often what works for one phase of growth, will not continue to work in the future. Growth is certainly not linear!
We reassessed and thought about who we really enjoyed serving. We realized we far preferred teaching how to build a freelance grant writing business over general grant writing knowledge to anyone. We were inspired and motivated to serve those that are burnt out in their 9–5 work and looking for something else that is meaningful and flexible.
In a three week sprint during the darkest month of the year in Alaska, we dug in deep and completely overhauled our business. We relaunched on January 1 this year and nine months later, we hit $42,000 in monthly recurring revenue. Not a bad turnaround considering we almost gave up.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Absolutely. We are playing a role in disrupting the higher-education industry, work-from-home industry, and online course creator industry. Here’s how:
First, let’s talk about higher ed. I love the beauty of a college campus and all that it symbolizes for a prosperous and educated nation. That said, I’m afraid our higher education has fallen woefully behind in providing an employable, actionable and relevant education for a large percentage of our populace.
Frankly, programs like ours are a real threat to traditional college offerings. We had a young woman sign up for the Grant Writing Unicorn Collective who had done one year of college before dropping out, and she was undecided about returning or not. She had expected vibrant conversation in the classroom and inspiring educators. Instead the experience was stale, and it felt like no one wanted to be there. She didn’t feel like it was the rich learning environment that she was paying the hefty price tag to have. So, at 19, she decided to join our program instead of pursuing a traditional degree. More commonly, we are the choice between going back to graduate school or not.
We are also taking on the titans of grant writing education as a scrappy startup from Alaska. Our largest competitors have held the market for years despite having clunky, 1990’s looking websites. We are showing that getting an education can be fun and professional. One of our main competitors used to get 6,000 unique website visitors per month. One year later, they get 2,000 viewers and our viewership has grown to 6,000 unique visitors. We are proud and excited to be taking up Google search real-estate with our website.
Speaking of which, our website brings us hundreds of “free” leads per month, which is the number one struggle for course creators. We went from having 140 organic keywords last year to over 3,700 today. We are ranked #1 on Google now for nearly all the keywords we wanted. We have the Startup Kit for SaaS in Golang to thank for our powerhouse website. Plus, I fulfilled my goal to learn how to code. I love the empowering feeling I get when I write and push code changes.
Lastly, we know we are doing things differently in the online course world when it comes to branding. Most online courses use the founder’s name as their domain and throughout their branding. I knew early on that I didn’t want to do that. It seemed ironic to me that most people seek freedom when starting a business, but tethering their identity to the brand means they can never venture too far. Instead, and by accident, we developed a persona that has taken on a life of its own. It’s the Grant Writing Unicorn, a character that is aspirational, fun, and energized. Frankly, it has now become a movement of people that identify as grant writing unicorns!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I am not sure if this is really a mistake or if it was the biggest blessing of my life, but when I quit my corporate job to launch a startup, I made the mistake of letting healthcare paperwork nearly stop me in my tracks. I live an active lifestyle, so I needed health insurance. Like five surgeries in the last five years from breaking things while biking or rollerblading! 🤦♀️
After submitting my application, Healthcare.gov wanted better documentation for my income projection. As the numbers started to take shape on my spreadsheet, I panicked. My runway budget was just enough to cover a few months. I had no idea how I would support myself beyond that. I felt like I had failed before I even started.
The next day, I was backcountry skiing in Alaska. I was on top of a scary couloir, which is a narrow stretch of skiable snow between two mountains.
As I looked into the couloir, the earliest stages of panic started to creep in. My heartbeat was increasing. I wondered if I had finally met the limits of my capabilities.
Panic is bad news. It can lead to a paralysis of sorts, which is an especially big problem when you are miles from help. I knew I couldn’t let this happen, so I engaged in my favorite bad habit when stressed: eating bacon and chocolate.
As the bacon fat dissolved in my mouth, I warmed up and regained my composure. I asked for the radio and announced I was going first.
I needed to start skiing so the fear and anxiety taking hold of my psyche would not have a chance to fully control me. I ratcheted down my ski boots and gingerly made my first few turns through the chattery snowpack. As I dropped out of sight from the boys, the snow became a soft, buttery delight to ski. I was emotionally transported. I remembered why I love to ski!
That night I was journaling about the day when I realized the scary couloir was a metaphor for my life. Only a month into my new life as an entrepreneur, I was at the top of the run. Everything said, “turn around and go back to safety, you fool!” I learned that day that I just needed to make a few turns. A little further in, I had better information and confidence in my ability to deal with it all.
From my journal I wrote:
The key takeaway from the day is how proud I am for overcoming my fears in the couloir and tapping into my mental strength… I feel a renewed sense that I can do this. At no point was I thinking about anything but the act of skiing. Whether I was pep-talking myself to keep up with the boys, admiring the rugged views, or enjoying every turn, it was amazing how rewarding and effective I felt with a singular focus.
Since that memorable day skiing, I have been relying on positive self-talk and action to get me through trying moments.
While you might not be skiing tricky terrain, you and anyone reading this, is pushing themselves in some way. Whether you are in the parking lot deciding to climb the mountain, or you are already on top ready to pee your pants, you will get to the other side. We only need to make a few turns.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I cannot believe I’m quoting Tim Ferris because he is a bit too “bro” for my taste, but my dear mentor, Dave Bennett, shared this with me when I was deciding to quit my job:
“For all of the most important things, the timing always sucks. Waiting for a good time to quit your job? The stars will never align and the traffic lights of life will never all be green at the same time. The universe doesn’t conspire against you, but it doesn’t go out of its way to line up the pins either. Conditions are never perfect. “Someday” is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you. Pro and con lists are just as bad. If it’s important to you and you want to do it “eventually,” just do it and correct course along the way.” — Tim Ferris, 4-Hour Work Week.
I wasn’t “ready” to quit my corporate job when I did. I felt like I still needed more experience, more savings, more everything. That said, I also realized I was 27 with no kids or debt. If not now, when?
I now teach aspiring grant writers how to start building a new career as a side-hustle. Our flywheel takes energy and time to build momentum. It is helpful to experiment on the side to gain business acumen that you can only gain from real-world experience. Once you have traction (ideally tangible product market fit), then you can leap into the abyss feeling more prepared.
That segues into another favorite one-liner that I got from my dad, Carroll David Noble. I grew up 5th generation on a cattle ranch in Wyoming. Imagine me at 14 years old (really I don’t look any different at 31!) out in the hay fields during harvest. I was running an old 1956 tractor to put hay into windrows. My job required staying ahead of the stacking crew (the team that put the hay into the haystacks). But the crew kept catching me, and I was growing frustrated. You can only bounce around so fast in a hayfield!
My father flags me down and explains that there is a pattern in the hay if I look for it. His advice was to “make each move count.” Once I started looking for the patterns, I could see them. I became more efficient and the gap grew between me and the stacking crew.
You can do the same thing.
Our life is a series of patterns if we look for them. Patterns to healthy living. Patterns to showing up in our businesses. Patterns in our relationships. If we are intentional about making each move count, we can get quite a lot done in a day, week, year, or decade!
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Taking it back to the cattle ranch, I think we were in the last 1% of ranchers to make the technology switch from loose stack hay to round bales. Loose hay meant our hay was put up “loosely” in a cabin-like structure, piled high until it looked like a thatch roof. Every winter, we would pitch the hay off a wagon for the cattle with a pitchfork.
Sounds idyllic, right? In many ways, it was. Big work horses pulling a sleigh through sparkling snow is one of the most beautiful sights you can imagine.
You might also think, “That sounds like a lot of work!” You would be right about that, but you should have seen my six-pack abs! The physical labor was wearing my family down, so we eventually moved to storing hay in 2,000 pound round bales.
By being a late adopter (practically the last, I swear!), most kinks in baling technology had worked themselves out. We learned from other ranchers that made the switch earlier on, and we bought the best technology and equipment available.
My family’s ranching operation is an example of a business that has not changed much in over 100 years. There is something beautiful about how the routines of the seasons are on repeat from generation to generation. We care for the land deeply and will do pretty much anything to keep it from becoming a subdivision.
That said, every industry has a timeline before you change, or die. Beyond how my family gets their fabulous beef product to market, there are larger system changes happening, or needing to happen, in food production that feel imminent.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
#1 Focus. Focus, and then focus some more. Especially if you are a Visionary! Oh, it is hard. Even when you think you are focused, it’s so easy to sway here and there.
The best advice I received from Dan Martell’s SaaS Accelerator was thinking about focus like this:
- One Product
- One Market
- One Channel
- One Conversion Tool
- One Year
That means, you must focus on one ideal customer, with one product (in our case an online membership), through one main distribution channel (SEO), and one conversion tool (a webinar), for one year, or until hitting 1,000 customers.
Trust me, I know the struggle. I like to try new things as well, but often we quit an idea before it has time to get perfected. This also applies to who you serve and what you do. You should have one product for one customer. You can build a $1 million dollar business by keeping things simple and focused.
Focus. Focus with laser intensity. Doing so will be your competitive advantage.
#2 Solve for Your Customer’s Deep Desire. Our original product taught our customers the technical skills behind grant writing, but that was only a fraction of what they needed and wanted. They wanted to know how to actually pull off a career transition. After 25+ deep dive interviews and dissecting the exact words used by our ideal customer, we discovered what they really wanted: a flexible and fulfilling life.
Here is the tangible tip for you to run with: schedule 20 interviews with your ideal customer. Record the call. Use a service like Temi to transcribe the call. Aggregate all interviews into a single Google Doc and study it! Highlight the deep pains and aspirations. Then put the entire interview document into a unique word counter (lots of these are free online), and figure out which words are used most often. Build your single “what you do” sentence and who you do it for, with those words/phrases.
A template we learned from Haley Burkhead of Recurring Profit is: We help [unique identity] achieve [tangible transformation] so they can [avoid #1 pain or achieve #1 desire]. Use those words and phrases in your email copy, website, and talking points!
As I mentioned earlier, we went from a failing business model with six weeks of runway left to $42k in MRR in nine months. I attribute our turnaround to the previous two tips, plus getting our pricing right.
#3 Find the Integrator to your Visionary. Thanks to the book, Rocket Fuel by Gino Wickman, I saw why my strong visionary tendencies made it hard for me to stick with anything long enough to see if it would work or not. Around the same time as I was listening to that book while hiking a mountainous trail in Alaska, a local project manager extraordinaire was helping me part-time run the business. It became exceedingly clear that she was (is) an Integrator. A power-house with skills in operations, execution, culture-building, and beyond.
Fast forward and that special project manager has become an indispensable soul-sister in life and rock in what is now our business. When she asked me “to talk” I thought what every woman thinks, “this can’t be good.” Instead, she asked to come work with me full-time, willing to take a huge pay cut to participate in the risk of startup life.
If it were not for the influence and hard work of my cofounder, Alex, we would not have a business today that is a fraction as successful. We are thankful for the book Rocket Fuel for giving us the guideposts to structure our approach to work and divvy responsibilities.
We also have the book, Slicing Pie by Mike Moyier to thank for providing guidance on how to split up equity in an early stage company. In my opinion, if you are interested in starting or growing a startup, Slicing Pie is the only truly fair way to approach it.
Here is a quick video on the top 5 pitfalls I see fellow Visionaries make and what to do about it.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I consider myself an entrepreneur-in-training. I often think about the Grant Writing Unicorn Collective as my business on training wheels. I feel like I am almost ready to take those training wheels off and take a stab at a second business.
My co-founder Alex and I have a few ideas. First, my business did not truly take off until I found Alex, the Integrator to my Visionary. We have observed that there are an infinite number of visionary online course creators, and they struggle to scale their business. They hire virtual assistants or temporary contractors, but quickly grow frustrated, feeling like they are doing more work managing a team than doing the work themselves.
We have a hypothesis that there is an opportunity to train Integrators (who have strikingly similar characteristics to grant writers!) for Visionaries that want a complimentary business partner.
More broadly, we know there are a number of career paths beyond grant writing that fit the unicorn lifestyle we represent. The unicorn lifestyle is having flexibility and freedom over your time, traveling, having hobbies, better health, and time with family — while also having meaningful work. It might seem like a lot to ask for, but now more than ever, it is possible. As such, we are curious what other businesses we could be partnering with to help make that way of living possible for more women.
Lastly, my personal dream is to become a housing developer that provides attainable housing intentionally designed for young professionals and seniors. Most housing in communities, other than large cities, are single residential family houses. This is far too much house for a young professional so you end up finding strangers to live with for years. Young people don’t need much space, but they want something that is relaxing, modern, and connected. Seniors that don’t want a big house to maintain anymore and don’t want to live in senior housing, also have limited options. We see a number of ways these two seemingly disparate generations are complimentary in addressing loneliness, depression, housing attainability, and lack of connectivity in their lives.
I can’t wait to tackle future ventures, but for now, 100% of my attention is on the Grant Writing Unicorn Collective. I practice what I preach when it comes to focusing!
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
My partner, Lucas Brown, started and grew a startup with his twin brother from their college dorm room to 360 employees in 10 different countries. I asked him if he had ever felt imposter syndrome as a young CEO and founder in his twenties. He said he didn’t recall feeling that way. Sure, there were moments, but on the whole, he did not.
I thought, if he didn’t feel imposter syndrome, (when it seems like he should have) then why is it that every single woman I speak with feels burdened by it? Why is she constrained and holding herself back by fears of not being good enough to create or seize the opportunities before her? I still do not have an answer for this, but if I could eradicate that feeling, I know more women would achieve higher and higher levels of fulfillment and success.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
Yes! You are lucky that I am only on Chapter 3 of Breath — The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor or else this entire conversation could become a book report. Did you know that mouth breathing is the number one cause of cavities? To think all these years, I thought it was my chocolate addiction!
How about this one: nasal breathing allows you to absorb 18 percent more oxygen than breathing through the mouth. I have never exercised intensely while breathing through my nose, so on today’s bike ride to the grocery store up and down a few hills, I tried to not breath through my mouth. I felt like I was suffocating and would have to get a big gasp of air every few breaths. Within 20 minutes, however, I was able to breathe in and out of my nose continuously and feel less exhausted.
If you haven’t caught the punch line yet, it’s this: nasal breathing is unequivocally better for you than mouth breathing. Get a copy of the book and plan on reading it with a pen. I bet you have as many scribbles, underlines, and “wow’s!” in the margins as I do.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Ha! Thanks for the generous accolades. Building off my comment earlier about the difference between female disruptors and male disruptors, I would inspire a movement that wholeheartedly rejects the effects of imposter syndrome. It is holding back too many people from reaching their potential.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This may come as a shock, but I was a royal trouble making, under-age drinking bandit in High School. I lied. I snuck out. I poured vodka into my pink lemonade at lunch.
I didn’t always outsmart my exhausted parents. My father would sit me down at the dinner table and ask me to think about why I was behaving the way I was. He would push me to think critically through reflection, and most importantly to take responsibility for my actions.
Taking responsibility has since become a core value, one that lives within my company and personal ethos. What I absolutely adore about the life lesson is how liberating it is. If something doesn’t go as planned, I reflect on the situation and look for ways I can improve.
Life is so much better when not weighed down with the energy required to blame others for anything we don’t like about ourselves or our lives. The trick with taking responsibility is that it requires active mindfulness to bring that perspective to a challenging situation — especially when you really feel wronged by someone else.
Plus, it doesn’t get much simpler than this for a life lesson: Take Responsibility!
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find me on Instagram @meredith.noble where I periodically show up to share life’s adventures in Alaska and beyond. Better yet, follow us @learngrantwriting where Alex and I more consistently show up. Rather not support Zuck’s platforms? Let’s connect on LinkedIn or through our website.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!