How I’m Leveling-Up My Business in 2021

Spoiler: Education, diversification, & support

Licensed from Adobe Stock // Jacob Lund

ve spent this year in crippling fear and self-doubt and it’s only recently that I’ve finally woken up. Before the continued trash fire that is the Bubonic Orange and the virus that makes people flee when I have an allergy sneeze in the streets, I had two months of bliss. From launching a three-day brand development workshop to booking out projects for months, I felt the last few years of financial unrest were behind me.

If only I could’ve seen the car crash that lie ahead of me when I slid the keys into the ignition. Instead, I rose from the wreck like a zombie mannequin statue. Mourning the first two months of what was supposed to be a magical year.

But who could’ve predicted this? The upheaval, the discord, the tragic comedy that is our political system. It’s only in the past few months did I realize every experience is a teacher, and I can either choose to learn or maw at pillows like the living dead in a waking life. Truth be told, I did a bit of both (and sometimes still do), but as the days pressed on I wore my soft pants and and heeded the instruction.

Because there’s no movement if you don’t move.

At first, I spent weeks in exploration and introspection. Trying to figure out how to cope and plan for what was on the other side of this tsunami of shit. I mapped out every job since 1997, and after I wallowed in self-pity over the mistakes and detours, I got to work. I made three columns in an excel document and analyzed each job in minute detail, hoping to find behavioral patterns and trends.

  • Company: I listed every job I’ve ever had. Yes, every job. For each role, I asked myself: What bolted me out of bed? What made me scream into pillows? What did I learn, and what did I leave wanting to learn? What were my biggest achievements and missed opportunities? How did each role make me feel when I left?
  • Customer: For each of those jobs, I defined the characteristics of the people that lit me up. Who were they? What did they do? What about them was memorable and inspired me to be better at what I do? Then, I sketched out a profile embodying all the traits and characteristics I admire.
  • Competition: For each of those jobs, what was the one thing (major or minor) that differentiated me from other people who did what I did? Was it my process, how I connected with people, or a certain knowledge or edge they didn’t have? What are some of the adjectives used to describe me in performance reviews and during client work?

When I was done, one word practically shouted and leaped off the page and it was teacher. Once I become good at something, my inclination is to share that knowledge with others in a way that feels accessible and easy. Teaching forces me to reduce complexity to simplicity. It sets my go aside because the questions people ask and how they implement what I had taught, teaches me. I am forever oscillating between teacher and student because just when we think we’ve mastered something there’s more work to be done. And our work isn’t brain surgery, it merely requires study and practice.

And I want my students, the people with whom I work, to be hungry and curious. It’s a partnership where we hold hands and leap into the unknown, and there’s something thrilling about that, the learning, the symbiotic exchange of ideas and experiences.

Finally, the work I always returned to was storytelling. Whether I was teaching people how to write books while I was writing them to using data to cultivate real, meaningful relationships with customers, my whole career has been about acquiring tools that help me tell great stories.

After the self-discovery process, I made a staged plan because I’ve learned I get overwhelmed by the largeness of my ambition. So, if I break down each goal into tiny parts and conquer those parts, I will invariably find my way to the whole. Since I’ve always juggled multiple gigs, I know diversification and varying sources of income will give me more stability so I don’t have to worry about subsisting on ramen and oatmeal for months at a time.

My Grand 2021 Plan

1. 25% brand and storytelling workshops

Last year, I created a three-day brand and storytelling workshop. After piloting with several startups, I trimmed down the three days to two and increased my price. I also changed the flow of the day and the worksheets I delivered before and during the workshop because the biggest lesson I learned is that I don’t need to teach people everything I know — I need to teach them only what they need to know.

This is HUGE because I had a habit of overwhelming people with information. Now, I only give them exactly what they need to know and focus more on practical application and case studies for context.

2. 25% 1:1 coaching to develop storytelling brands // build freelance businesses

I’ve been quietly taking on 1:1 engagements over the past few years, and while I have no wish to be a formal coach with all the fancy certifications, I do like hashing out problems with people one-on-one to find solutions. But what I’ve learned is that not all people are right for these engagements. They have to be self-motivated and bring 110% to the engagement.

While you think that’s a Captain Obvious insight, you’d be surprised how many people show up and expect me to do the work for them.

3. 25% 1:1 client engagements focused on brand development, customer segmentation, and content strategy

It took me three years as a consultant to figure out the right service mix. Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you need to be doing that something. For years, I was doing work that was exhausting, didn’t light me up, and didn’t use the best of me. I worked with people who wanted 100,000 Instagram followers but couldn’t articulate why they wanted that number. I worked with people who were trend-chasers, addicted to shiny objects and didn’t understand that customer connection, conversion, and loyalty take time and work.

I chucked those chumps in favor of people who wanted to be in it for the long haul. I redesigned and trimmed down my offering to three things:

  1. I’ll build your brand platform and verbal identity.
  2. I’ll tell you all about your customer — using data and secondary/observed research — and what marketing & messaging works for that customer.
  3. I’ll help you tell stories that cut through the clutter and show you where to distribute those stories.

When it comes to marketing, I thrive at the beginning of things, which is why most of my clients now tend to be startups or brands that going through a merger or turnaround.

Or, maybe they’ve played the performance game for a while and have realized the algorithms have turned against them. It now costs a fuckton to target their ideal customer and they have zero idea who that customer is. That’s when I come in to help maximize their spend and minimize waste. Good times.

I’ve also widened my lead net by partnering with two agencies who will white-label my services. This way, I only deliver the work with none of the weight of managing the admin.

4. 25% writing online as a means of marketing my work and free education for my peers and others coming up in the game

Since 2019, this platform has generated nearly 90–95% of my non-referral client engagements. My prospects are on this platform, and while others are obsessed with gaming the system and making $10,000 a month on cringe-inducing self-help, I care more about connecting with a small group of people. I use this platform to showcase my expertise and experience so clients are not only warm leads, but they also understand my vibe and point-of-view.

I also tell stories online as a service to my peers and others coming up in the marketing game. I believe in giving it all away for free. Education democratized. Peers access a different route to the same destination while newbies gain knowledge they often can’t afford since online courses and higher education may not be an option.

While I write privately for me, my online writing is predominately a service for those who may want to hire me or those who want to learn from a real practitioner. In 2021, I have big plans in the works for free online tutorials and courses.

Support Strategy

Over the past seven years, my operating expenses have been lean. I’ve either bartered skills or found cheaper ways of doing things. However, I’ve realized I’m at the stage where scrappy no longer aligns with these bigger goals. And there’s also an element of time to consider. Do I want to spend my time creating branded decks even though I’m garbage at any form of visual design? Do I want to spend time filing trademark applications and feeling lost and confused along the way?

Hell to the no, my kittens.

In 2021, I’m finally going to stop Scrooging and start investing.

1. I’m retaining an attorney that specializes in online businesses

I plan on filing trademarks and protections for my brand-building methods and frameworks. As this becomes core to my business, it makes sense to ensure rat fucks on the internet don’t steal and profit off my model. I also need someone to overhaul my contracts since I’m no longer doing straight LOAs (letter of agreement) for client projects, I’ll also need engagements for workshops and courses that provide bulletproof IP (intellectual property) protection.

I also want to crack down on scummy people who keep stealing my work and send them cease-and-desist letters. You thought I was an asshole in 2020 when I issued DMCA takedowns? Wait until 2021. Thieves will need Neosporin for all the burns.

2. I’m hiring a graphic designer to rebrand my…everything.

Squarespace.com and Creative Market can only get me so far. My website is appalling. My decks are passable. Now, I want someone to create a complete visual identity for my brand and redo my website and all of my collateral down to my training materials. I’ll preach cohesion and consistency from the casket, so it makes sense that I practice my sermons on myself.

3. I’m hiring a VA in Q2 2021

One of my biggest problems (and trust me, I have many) is that I don’t know when to let go. I think I can do everything from building the brand to managing my P&L and filing my invoices. This year, I used a time-tracking app to track all my projects from the new business phase to final invoice and it’s appalling that I spend more time on admin and set-up than the actual work I love and am known for.

It boggles my mind that I pay a data scientist and analyst to cluster and segment customer data but I haven’t hired someone to help me with invoices.

Forget that chump change. I plan on finding that magical VA who can handle all of my admin, help with social media and communication, copy edit my online writing, and perform the cursory research work for my projects.

Notice the trend here? I’m hiring experts to help me do the things I’m rotten at. I’m using the funds I’m securing for 2021 engagements to finally invest in my business to elevate it to the standard in which I believe it can operate. I also know this shift will require a lot of my time, so I’m being strategic about how I use it and making sure I allocate time for my life and, you know, the third book I keep talking about. And the podcast I can’t stop thinking about. And the move outside of the U.S. I’m only now starting to conceive and plan.

While you may not be at this place (or perhaps you’ve surpassed it), the lesson here is that every front-office shift needs back-office support in the form of people, process, and technology.

When I tally all of my wants, it’s downright frightening. I start in with the internal monologue of self-doubt. I crawl under covers. But before the crawl, I took out a notebook and wrote the three small things I can do next week to get me closer to this superfine place. Because I can do three things. I can finally show up for myself in the way I deserve.

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Felicia C. Sullivan

Written by

Marketing Exec/Author. Work in Human Parts, OneZero, Forge, Index & Marker. Hire me: t.ly/bEnd7 Brand & Content eBooks: t.ly/ZP5v List: https://cutt.ly/9j7Ngvz

Falling Into Freelancing

All the tips, tools, and resources you need to thrive after your 9 to 5.

Felicia C. Sullivan

Written by

Marketing Exec/Author. Work in Human Parts, OneZero, Forge, Index & Marker. Hire me: t.ly/bEnd7 Brand & Content eBooks: t.ly/ZP5v List: https://cutt.ly/9j7Ngvz

Falling Into Freelancing

All the tips, tools, and resources you need to thrive after your 9 to 5.

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