Drawing from Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of my 2020 year-end review, here are my business and personal goals for 2021.
Grow my email newsletter list to 100k
This is an ambitious, but achievable goal based on the results I’ve seen from email-based marketing over the past 18 months. As I’ve written and talked about extensively, email is simply the name of the game when it comes to selling information products. All roads (should) lead to email, because it is the only channel I can control, take with me, and use without paying a gatekeeper.
In 2020 I averaged 86 new subscribers per day, taking into account unsubscribes, and to reach this goal in 2021 I’ll need to approximately double this to an average of 164 per day. That will be a formidable challenge, but I have a list of potential improvements and experiments that I think will give me a shot.
Maintain our focus on our two flagship courses
As much as I love creating new things, I’ve seen time and again over the last couple years how incredibly difficult it is to bootstrap a new course to profitability, and I honestly don’t want to do it again anytime soon. This was one of my motivations behind partnering with Billy Broas on the Keystone Accelerator – it gives us a way to repeatedly choose the most promising course creators and take them to the next level, while keeping the responsibility for their success firmly on their shoulders. We’ll be able to “pick the winners” and either partner with them as affiliates, or ask them to become affiliates for us, or maybe even invest in them.
Our two flagship courses, Building a Second Brain (BASB) and Write of Passage, have found course-market fit and are already successful. But they are also still in their infancy, and will require an enormous amount of attention in the coming years to fulfill their potential. Which is why this year I’m publicly committing to not creating any new programs, no matter how enticing.
Run a live cohort with 2,000 students at once
I’m really excited by the potential for cohort-based courses to scale in size, while retaining the intimacy and community of smaller groups. To me this is the best way to make education more accessible for more people. Instead of just making courses cheaper, which starves creators of a decent living and the funds to further invest in their business, we should seek to make online learning as effective and impactful as possible. If we can make the return-on-investment high enough, then premium prices will be easier to justify, making freelance teaching a sustainable career path that attracts the best teachers.
To do this, we’re going to have to reinvent many of the ways that traditional universities have scaled learning in the physical world. We’ll need teaching assistants who can cater to the individual needs of students, labs that take the theories and apply them experimentally, self-organized study groups where students take the initiative, electives and seminars that students can mix and match into their own majors and minors, etc. The key is that the quality of the student experience has to get better, not worse, as we scale. Just as Harvard is better with 30,000 students then it would be with 1,000, there are ways of using size to our advantage to give everyone more options, more flexibility, and more resources.
We have a backlog of ideas for how to do this that’s miles long, but until recently I couldn’t pursue most of it. Up until just a year ago I was running all aspects of the BASB course by myself, from teaching to customer service to technical troubleshooting. Early this year Will Mannon, our first full-time Course Director, joined the team, and we are now in the process of onboarding our first full-time Director of Course Operations. With each new hire we’re specializing toward what each of us does best, allowing us to pursue more and more interesting avenues for improvement.
Make operational excellence and customer service central pillars of our business
Until now the primary values of our business have been innovation and craftsmanship. We were pioneering a new field and had to move as quickly and decisively as possible. But now that the business is established and growing, I can sense it’s time for a new chapter – to evolve our priorities toward operational excellence and customer service.
These might seem like very distinct areas, but I see them as closely related. For a small, bootstrapped business of half a dozen people, we can’t afford to throw massive human effort at customer service problems. There’s no customer support team or phonebank ready to walk people through tech issues. To have the impact we want, we have to rely on frictionless operations to prevent trouble before it arises, to help customers solve their own problems, and to use content and education to make customer support a value-add instead of a backup plan.
I really admire companies who are world-class in these areas, and am exploring new ways of doing things that would allow us to develop a great reputation for customer service. For example, adopting a support ticketing system called Helpscout, relying more on FAQs and knowledge bases, and using our marketing communications to help get people started on the right foot.
Launch 100 cohort-based courses through the Keystone Course Accelerator
We are nearing the end of the first cohort of our new Keystone Accelerator. It’s been a fantastic experience working alongside the course instructor Billy Broas to teach 30 course creators how to build a reliable, ethical sales funnel for their education businesses.
Cohort-based courses (called CBCs) are a relatively new way to teach online courses, in which an instructor leads a group through a curriculum and provides live feedback and support on their progress. It solves a lot of the drawbacks of “self-paced” courses which are often difficult for people to complete on their own. I believe it represents the first generation of online learning that is truly made for the Internet. It is going to completely revolutionize the kinds of results that people are able to achieve.
To that end, I’m setting a goal to help launch 100 new online education businesses into the world over the next year, using the cohort model we’ve pioneered and the Keystone Funnel that Billy Broas has developed from his more than 10 years of experience in the industry.
Redesign BASB brand identity and apply it to new website
Until now I’ve managed the BASB branding myself. I’m pretty good at quickly whipping up a logo, banner, social media image, or slide, but there are limits to this “bottom-up” approach to branding.
In July I’ll begin working with an experienced designer on a completely revamped brand identity for BASB. After 4 years, I have a tremendous amount of data and anecdotes on everything that such an endeavor requires: who we’re serving, what their needs are, how we’re different from alternatives, what we believe in, what we’re not. I’m very excited to pour all this knowledge into a more holistic, more integrated, more strategic brand.
That brand will then be applied to a new website, to the course materials, and eventually, to the new book when it comes out. My goal isn’t simply to have a pretty looking website. It is to unify the customer experience across all the different platforms and formats we use to deliver our education. A reader of the Building a Second Brain book should be able to finish reading, decide they want to go deeper, and sign up for the course without any friction or confusion. Branding is really about creating a world for people to inhabit, and making it as easy as possible to move within it toward what they’re seeking.
Hire Head of Content
In just the last couple months it’s become very clear to me that I need someone to help me manage my content. Somehow, a little blog that I started on Medium in 2014 with a post on meditation has grown into a full-fledged media company: a website that receives a million visitors a year, a newsletter that goes out to more than 40,000 subscribers every week, a Twitter following in the tens of thousands, a YouTube channel with 15,000 subscribers, and community groups on Facebook and Slack with almost 10,000 members. It’s almost impossible for me to wrap my head around.
The most amazing thing about all this is that there isn’t anyone dedicated full time to managing it all. I produce most of the content of course, but do only the most minimal promotion: usually just a single mention in my weekly newsletter plus a one-time share on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Slack. My assistant Betheny helps me with some of the workflow, such as turning Google Docs drafts into WordPress posts, and I have an editor that occasionally reviews those drafts. But besides that, our online properties go largely unmanaged. We’ve not even begun to touch low-hanging fruit like following an editorial calendar, using consistent colors and branding, SEO optimization, reposting and repurposing older content, paid ads, etc.
I was really inspired by episode 215 of the Smart Passive Income Podcast from Pat Flynn, in which he interviewed his Managing Editor Janna Maron. I had never considered that successful blogs would have something like a Managing Editor, but hearing her describe what she does I could instantly see how valuable it is. She brought rigor and predictability to his content creation efforts. This included creating an editorial calendar with a monthly theme so the various channels complemented each other, scheduling posts far in advance and improving the cross-promotion around them, managing the workflow of taking a new idea all the way to a published piece of content so Pat could focus on creating, and pushing the whole team to meet deadlines, among other strategic efforts. Janna’s wisdom and experience in the publishing industry were apparent in her calm, confident approach to online publishing.
In a few months I’ll start looking for someone who has experience scaling an online media brand. It will be an extremely wide-ranging role, covering all the different kinds of content we’re creating and both operational and creative aspects. But after years of slow, organic growth based on my individual efforts and word of mouth, I believe we have all the major pieces to create a truly global, transformational media platform for teaching people how to work smarter in the 21st century.
GROW YOUTUBE FOLLOWING TO 50K
2020 was the year I discovered YouTube as a business asset. I’d been casually posting videos for years, but this year I hit some sort of critical mass and started rapidly gaining subscribers, from about 3,000 at the start of the year to 15,000 now. According to a year-end report from YouTube, my channel drew 403,568 new views, for 50,311 hours of total watch time in 2020. This is already 60% more consumption time than my blog, which drew about 31,000 hours of reading time. Despite the fact that I invested far, far more time and attention into the blog over a far longer period. The potential of YouTube for audience growth and attention is simply unparalleled in modern times.
We also saw the power of YouTube when we launched our first ever affiliate partner program, in which we worked with other online creators to promote the launch of BASB 11. A couple YouTubers had especially mind-blowing results, which made me realize that the YouTube audience is one of our most promising channels. They are already comfortable consuming content online, are curious and self-motivated, but often want something more structured and coherent than YouTube videos. As David recently put it, “The YouTube generation now has money.” And they are using it to invest in themselves.
I’m going to make a major effort in the second half of 2021 to post more videos and grow my YouTube following. This will be partly the responsibility of the Managing Editor mentioned above, because the post-production process of downloading, editing, preparing, and uploading videos is one of the main bottlenecks to my current output. A second piece of this is the home studio we’re building in our garage, which will give me a space to set up the equipment without having to constantly take it down. And third, I’m going to look for a video editor that I can outsource editing to.
I think this is actually a pretty conservative goal given what I’ve heard from successful YouTubers: that gaining the first 1,000 subscribers is the hardest part, followed by the first 10,000. I’m already past the most difficult hump and, given what I’ve seen the YouTube algorithm is capable of, going from 15,000 to 50,000 should be mostly a matter of posting videos regularly. What I’m certain of after the events of this year is that YouTube is an absolute monster of a platform, probably as big as all the others combined. Anyone serious about online content in 2021 would be foolish not to make it part of their strategy considering how easy video-making has become.
Launch second group of Praxis fellows
We are in the midst of working with the first group of Praxis Fellows, and are learning a lot about how the process works. I’m discovering that I know a lot more about how to publish effective how-to productivity writing than I realized, mostly because so much of it is implicit in the way I think.
In 2021 I’ll roll everything we’ve learned into a second group of Fellows, with the same goal: to provide a platform for the most interesting up-and-coming voices in the productivity space. I know the next generation of thought leaders are out there, and I want to be a part of accelerating their journey.
Establish Growth Board for Forte Labs
This is an idea I’ve been thinking about for some time. I first encountered it in Eric Ries’ book The Startup Way, the lesser known sequel to his best-selling book The Lean Startup. In the book Ries describes a new structure he’s developed, called a Growth Board, that does for “intrapreneurs” within organizations what a Board of Directors would typically do for a startup. Made up of senior executives, outside advisors, subject matter experts, and internal advocates, it advises teams inventing new things on how to push forward their product, holds them accountable to improving their metrics, and makes the decision to give them further funding if they show signs of product-market fit.
Although Ries developed this model to promote innovation inside large companies such as General Electric and Dropbox, I think it could apply equally well to bootstrapped online businesses. A Growth Board is essentially a group of advisors who make up a semi-formal advisory board that meets regularly, and is charged with the responsibility of holding the company’s leadership accountable to their values, priorities, and goals.
One of the downsides of running a bootstrapped business is that it’s very difficult to get good advice. We don’t have investors, which many would consider a huge blessing, but that also means we lose out on the guidance that the best investors give their portfolio companies. There’s not a lot of incentive to share knowledge between course creators, who are also potential competitors. As a small, bootstrapped business, we are seeking sustainable growth, which means most of the advice for tech startups on how to achieve “hypergrowth” doesn’t really apply to us.
My business partner David and I have our own external mentors and advisors, but since we pursue those relationships independently it’s difficult for them to get a good picture of what’s going on with our business. I’ve noticed that I can easily neglect to mention a part of the business that I know is struggling, and no one would ever know. There’s no opportunity for advisors to triangulate potential problems and opportunities from the outside, and to compare and cross-reference their perspectives.
In 2021 I’d like to form a Growth Board for Forte Labs, made up of perhaps 3-5 highly trusted advisors. We’ll meet regularly, openly share our goals and priorities, and ask them to hold us accountable to what we’ve said is important.
Hire a personal trainer and work with them 90 times in 2021
I worked with a personal trainer all of 2019, and got in the best shape of my life because of it. The gym was a 5-minute walk from our apartment in Mexico City, which helped it fit perfectly into my day just before lunch. Last year, I let my exercise routine completely fall apart as we moved to Southern California and all the gyms were closed due to the lockdown. But I can’t blame COVID for everything: mostly I just didn’t feel like working out and used the new environment as an excuse.
In 2021 I’ve started working 1-on-1 with a personal trainer again. It is an area of my life that I feel completely comfortable outsourcing, because I know the power of accountability. I’ve found a trainer who is a trained kinesiologist and will work with me on body mechanics and form, not just strength. I’m trying out framing it as “90 times” (twice a week for 45 weeks) so that every time I go I’m completing more than 1% of my goal. I think this will be more motivating than “Twice per week.”
Maintain the slower schedule I’ve established during paternity leave in 2021
I really enjoyed the more flexible, slower pace I established during paternity leave the last few months of 2020. I am dramatically happier, not to mention more productive and creative, when I have only one call per day. Earlier this year I was averaging 3-4 on many days, which is a major drag on my ability to follow my creative impulses. In 2021 I want to maintain this schedule as much as possible, scheduling no more than one call per day and finishing work around 2pm to be able to spend time with Caio and Lauren.
Record my first music album
I like learning a new skill every year. I find that it helps keep me in beginner’s mind, introduces me to new subjects, and also it’s just plain fun! The key I’ve found is to make it into a concrete project with a clear output that others can see. Last year I made my first documentary film, and this year I’m going to record my first music album.
I played piano for years as a kid, mostly pop songs using a few simple chords. Between the new digital piano I got recently, now that we have a permanent living situation, and the home studio we’re building in the garage, I’ll have no further excuses not to return to this passion. I also noticed that a lot of the equipment I acquired for podcasting and video-making, such as the Shure sm7b microphone, are perfectly suited for music recording. I experimented a lot with pre-recorded beats and loops in Apple Garageband back in the day, and I’m hoping to combine that with my piano playing to self-publish a few songs on Soundcloud.
Meditate every day in 2021 for 30 minutes
In 2020 I maintained the longest stretch of meditation of my life – 30 minutes per day for about 6 months in the middle of the year. 30 minutes was a much harder challenge than 10 or 15 minutes. You can’t just slouch your way through 30 minutes. You can’t just grin and bear it and wait for the time to pass, because then it will feel like forever.
Somehow, 30 minutes crosses some kind of internal psychological threshold where suddenly I have to push other activities aside, and make tradeoffs. I found that the best time was at about 9:30pm – not so late that I would be tired and fall asleep, and not so early that it conflicted with other plans. Once the baby arrived in October this habit was obliterated, but I want to resurrect it in 2021. The benefits I experienced after a few months were so profound – more calm and peace of mind, more moments of joy in my everyday life, clearer decision-making at work – that I know those minutes will be some of the best ones I spend.
COMPLETE “DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN” EXERCISES
I’ve wanted to learn how to draw for some time, and that goal appeared in my last couple annual reviews. I think the problem was that “Learn to draw” was too vague, and I never quite knew how to get started. I’m going to revisit this goal and make it smaller and more concrete: to complete the drawing exercises in the influential book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, a well-known drawing tutorial I first heard about in the book Creativity, Inc. I tried using the paper version last year but could never keep track of it, so this time I’m going to download the ebook version so I can complete the exercises right on the same iPad.
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