Warning: This post is long, and it may not be a fun post for you to read, but I think it’s an important message to share with you…
When you start out to build a business, your head is full of dreams.
Dreams about the life that you’ll create for yourself, the impact that you’ll make on the community that will assemble around you, and the difference that you’ll make in the world.
You’re intimidated to get started – it feels like you’re outmatched and outgunned by the big players in your space – how can you compete with their exposure, their reach, or their resources?
But the experts tell you that no, it’s a level playing field, and anyone’s voice can be heard. All it takes is a bit of hard work and elbow grease, and before you know it, you’ll be playing in the big leagues, too.
So you trust them, and start building your business. You work long, hard hours, but months later – and sometimes YEARS later – it feels like you’ve got nothing to show for it.
The truth is that they’re wrong, you’re right.
The deck really is stacked against you, and it isn’t fair…
I Used to Believe the “Experts”, Too…
Before we go any further, there’s something that I need to tell you: I used to believe the experts.
I used to believe that it really is a completely level playing field, and anyone’s voice can be heard. I used to believe that all it takes is hard work, elbow grease, commitment, and dedication.
And I held firm to those beliefs as I built Firepole Marketing.
We started at zero, back at the end of 2010, and over the last couple of years, we’ve grown to a multiple-six-figure business, driven by an engaged community of tens of thousands of wonderful people.
And the whole time, I really believed that I was playing with the same cards as the really big players.
It’s only now that Firepole Marketing has reached this scale that I’m seeing what it looks like from the other side.
And I was wrong. It’s totally different – once you’ve grown past a certain point, you’re playing with an entirely different set of cards…
It’s a Whole Different Set of Cards…
Let’s be totally honest, all cards on the table.
Once your business is up, running, and generating lots of revenue by creating lots of value for large numbers of people, a lot of things get much, much easier.
Here are some of the things that change once you’ve really “made it”:
- Time. The first thing that changes completely is time. If you’re just starting out, then you’re probably trying to build your business on the side, while continuing to work in the job that pays your bills. That’s tough, because it means that you don’t have all that much time to build your business, and you’re probably tired most of the time from all the other stuff that you’ve got to do. Once your business is up, running, and profitable, though, you can afford to quit your job, so you have dramatically more time to invest in your business.
- Money. Directly related to time is money – the reason why you can afford to spend more time on your business is that money isn’t the constraint that it used to be. In the beginning, you just don’t have much money (that’s often why people think about starting a business in the first place!), and there are tons of things that you need to buy… technology, training (more on that in a moment), advertising, and the list just goes on and on – not to mention repaying debt, which a lot of people need to do. And if that wasn’t unfair enough, things are also a lot more expensive when you’re starting out; you experiment with different technologies because you don’t know which is best, and you don’t know where to find the best deals. Your advertising isn’t well optimized, and costs a lot more for a much lower return than the experts are getting. And worst of all, the training that you really need costs an awful lot of money. Which brings us to…
- Training. Yup, that’s right, training is one of those things that changes completely once your business is doing well. First of all, because you can afford the training you need. But also because your success has given you first-hand experience and insight into what really works and what doesn’t, so you don’t need nearly as much training as you used to (and let’s face it, often the real lessons are the ones that the experts are applying, but not really teaching). Plus, if you really do want one of those high-priced training programs (which you can now afford), you can usually just ask, and you’ll get a copy for free, in hopes that you might promote it to your massive list. And speaking of your massive list…
- Exposure. We’ve all heard that if your content is good enough, it’ll spread virally no matter how big your audience is – but we also know that it just isn’t true. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that my least impressive stuff today gets a lot more exposure than my most impressive stuff did a year ago – which means that if you’re just starting out, your stuff has to be ten times as good just for you to stand a chance. That’s partially because of that massive list of people who are engaged and invested in what you’re doing, and also because of relationships that you will have built, and the clout associated with your name…
- Clout. Because yeah, relationships are great, and you should work hard to build them – but there will be times (at all stages of growth) when you need to reach out to a stranger for help. It’s unavoidable, and it’s just part of the game – I’ve reached out to strangers for help throughout my career, and lots of strangers have reached out to me, too. The thing is that the bigger your business has grown, the easier it is to get strangers to help you, because your name carries that much more clout. So not only do you automatically have that much more exposure than someone who’s just starting out, but if you want even *more* exposure, it’s that much easier to get it.
Now, before you start feeling too depressed, just remember that there’s a half-empty side to this glass…
Not All the Cards are Better, though…
Yes, that’s right – as great as it is to be running a successful business, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that a successful business doesn’t come with its own set of challenges.
Here are some of the things you can look forward to dealing with once you’ve made it to the big leagues:
- Scale. The things you used to take for granted when you were just starting out can become very challenging when you scale them up by a couple of orders of magnitude. Case in point: my email marketing is very high on the engagement meter, and I answer every single one of my emails. This used to be easy, but now it means that on some days – especially when there’s a lot going on – I have to answer literally hundreds of emails. It feels like my job sometimes is to answer emails from all of my subscribers. I’m not complaining, but it’s definitely a challenge, and one that I’m still figuring out.
- Management. When Peter and I started Firepole Marketing, it was a side project for both of us. Since then, I hired Megan, Peter went on to do other things, it became my full-time occupation, and some new faces have recently been added to the team. Now, don’t get me wrong – my team is amazing, and I couldn’t do half the things that I do today without them – but it’s also a lot more WORK to manage a small team than it is to work on a side project with a friend!
- Complexity. As things get bigger, they also become more complex. When we first started out, there was one site, one auto-responder series, one training program, and that’s it. Today, there are four sites, five auto-responder series, two books (with a third on the way), a manifesto, and three training programs – not to mention that we post a lot more often than we used to, run a complex content calendar that includes a lot of guest content, and feature semi-regular webinars and content from select partners. It’s all worth it, but comparatively speaking, the complexity can sometimes be dizzying.
- Scrutiny. When you’re just starting out, you can make all the mistakes in the world, and none will be the wiser. When your business gets bigger, though, that all changes – everything you do is under a microscope, and if you slip up, people will see it, email you, complain, and unsubscribe. It can be pretty scary, and it can be pretty intense – but that’s your reality when you’ve grown past a certain point.
So… what am I saying with all this?
Am I saying that you should give up, because you’re unlikely to make it? Am I saying that even if you *do* make it, it might not even be worth it?
No, not at all.
It’s absolutely worth it, and you should NOT give up! Yes, there are obstacles that you’ll face – brick walls blocking the path to your dreams.
But the brick walls aren’t there to keep you out…
What the Brick Walls Are Really For…
(This might seem a bit off-topic, but bear with me for a few paragraphs, and you’ll see where I’m going.)
There is a lecture series at Carnegie Mellon university called “The Last Lecture” – they invite great speakers to come and give their “last lecture” – basically, a talk about whatever they would like to share with the world.
One of the professors in that series was Randy Pausch, but Randy’s talk was different, because for him, it really *was* his last lecture; he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the year prior, and died just over 10 months after the event.
The lecture was amazing; I’ve watched the recording it in its entirety (all one hour and sixteen minutes of it), and I’ve read the book at least half a dozen times, and each time I’ve been struck by a different nugget of wisdom, insight, and inspiration.
I’m mentioning all of this because I want to share with you a quote from the book – the quote that kept me going when things were looking the toughest:
“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!”
I’m not saying that it won’t be hard, because it absolutely will be.
And I’m not saying that the deck isn’t stacked against you – because, let’s face it, it is.
What I am saying, though, is that if you really want it, then you have to believe in yourself, and believe you can make it happen.
The brick walls aren’t there to keep you out; they’re there to give you a chance to show you how much you want it, and to keep everyone *else* out who doesn’t want it badly enough.
Blind Optimism and Learning What Works
Is it blindly optimistic to believe that you can win when the deck is so unfairly stacked against you?
Yes, maybe it is.
But that’s fine, because what you’re after isn’t accuracy of belief – it’s success, and making a difference.
As they say: realists (which is how pessimists describe themselves) are more often right, but optimists are more often successful.
So whether it’s “realistic” or not, you should believe in your success, and keep working towards it.
But that doesn’t mean being blind – your odds of success will multiply if you go about it the smart way: watching what has (and hasn’t!) worked for others, and applying the lessons of their experience to your own business.
Do that, and work hard, and you’ll find that you keep getting further and further, even if the progress sometimes feels like it’s just one inch at a time.
And one day you’ll look back, and realize that the brick walls are all behind you.
Danny Iny (@DannyIny), a.k.a. the “Freddy Krueger of Blogging”, teaches marketing that works at Firepole Marketing. Together with Guy Kawasaki, Brian Clark and Mitch Joel, he wrote the book on building engaged audiences from scratch (available on Amazon, or as a free download).