Change Catalyst with Shanna Mann: Strategy & Support for Sane Self-Employment

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This Is How I Keep Going in an Uncertain Industry

Margaret Pinard, globe-trotter, author, and irrepressible foodie, has generously shared a case study of the behind-the-scenes aspects of an indie author business. Imagine that you built only one thing to sell each year, that your failure or success depended almost solely on your ability to self-promote, and that you had no way of knowing who your customers are. Margaret shows us how a business with maximal uncertainty is run– Check out her website, connect with her on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram, and if inspired, buy from her Amazon shop!

I have left my commentary in grey boxes throughout.

What you have before you is a case study.

A case, to study.

The case is my solopreneur author business, est. 2013. I’ve published 3 books, adding to the launch sequence each time, and experimenting with different marketing efforts.

I’ve recently compiled numbers, adding them crosswise and vertically, in an attempt to tally the impact of this Twitter promotion or that guest post. But what shakes out of the data is not a business move that worked, a marketing tactic that didn’t. What shakes out are the attitudes and habits and resources that enable me to keep going, in a crowded market on a constantly-shifting landscape. Here’s the case for you to study. Tell me what you think, and whether I’ve kept and discarded the right things.

Much as I was hoping to hear that a certain tactic or technique was the key to a boost in sales, it was actually reassuring to hear, first hand, that there was no magic bullet. Even if there was, as soon as the magic bullet is known, everyone does it, so it loses its effectiveness. What Margaret has compiled is something much more useful — a way to discover magic bullets on your own, or succeed in spite of them.

How I Keep Going in an Uncertain Industry

Attitude

In conventional entrepreneurial circles, the attitude encouraged by gurus is usually competition-based or insecurity-fueled, e.g. secure more seed funding than the other people in your niche to prove your business chops, or pay for an expensive course or conference because of the ‘in’ it will get you, since you’ll never succeed on just your own. Because that’s impossible!

Well, I hate competition. Hate it because of the bad feelings that usually ensue, either on my side of someone else’s, no matter who wins or loses. And I am done with insecurity fueling my decisions. So when people ask me how life is as someone who “opted out,” I’m ready with my answer. I’ve reflected on it a lot, with all that time I’m not running around impressing people, this is what I’m doing.

I’m creating a Thing because it’s fun. I like the research, I like the bringing up of the subconscious, the discovery of heart-breaking stories, the teasing-out of the truths, the ACT of writing!

I commit to practicing this craft and soliciting feedback from worthy judges so that I improve my skill. I will approach the rest of the business: editing, formatting, design, publicity, reviews, handselling, sales tracking, relationships-building, accounting–with the goal of experimentation. See what works; see who doesn’t. Since Y (the rest of the business) enables X (the ACT of writing), I don’t shirk it. Every experience is a learning one, just like broken hearts.

I really love this. It kills me a little every time I see someone earnestly question whether they’re in the right business because every aspect of it isn’t FUN. It is utterly bizarre to me that anyone would expect it to be 100% fun. It should be (ideally) satisfying, and it can often be meaningful, if you do as Margaret did here, and view these activities as things that enable the fun, valuable parts of what you do.

Habits

I started out this business with not much more than a wish and a prayer. I had most of my first manuscript done, but the effort it took to wrench myself from an unhappy cubicle-dwelling lifestyle and vault myself into a different world left my comfort level at about nil. All I had at the beginning was a system modified from Anna Johnson’s book, Three Black Skirts. I started it in my cubicle life, and it ultimately helped me realize I was unhappy.

  • Make a category for every major area of your life, e.g. family, friends, work, finances, health, significant other, creativity, spirituality.
  • Make a weekly chart.
  • Check a category every time you do something for that category, e.g. reviewing your IRA investments→ finances. Talking to boss about promotion → work.

This worked well to show me what I was avoiding/forgetting/ tending for a couple years. Until it didn’t, because my brain got bored with the system, I fell off tracking, and had to graduate to more nuanced systems. (Gotta keep that monkey mind occupied.)

Four years later, I’ve been indoctrinated by Shanna: I have systems upon systems (see this post and this one for a taste). Social media, letter-writing, clothes-folding, dish-drying, car use. These set routines help keep important but non-urgent tasks low anxiety as well. No more the constant nagging feeling of forgetting/avoiding/denying. This way, the high-energy focus needed for creative writing is better able to flow. The Muse feels safe coming to alight on my shoulder (as Liz Gilbert might say) and whisper to me, since the shoulder is not crowded with the weight of the world.

One of these ‘systems’ deserves special notice, because it serves so many functions, and that is Exercise.

I belong to an awesome training gym, and I try to make it to 4 classes/ week. The yoga-barre-strength-conditioning sufficiently clear my brain so that I can get a break from that inner voice (which self-employed people know ALL too well).

The mental break is combined with physical exertion, which strengthens me, in different ways. Feeling that I have muscles, that I can balance, that walking a hill doesn’t wind me, these things fill a confidence bucket that can easily be emptied by jealousy, insecurity, and loneliness. That confidence comes from a feeling of control, over oneself, over one’s body, and it’s awesome.

Finally, the exercise habit relieves/placates my worries about health. As a nonsmoking, rarely-drinking, regularly-exercising person, I know I am doing my best to keep my instrument healthy, so that I can continue to sing with it. That feeling of always being able to do MORE (another familiar for the self-employed) is neatly side-stepped, at least in terms of health.

I am always surprised by what an effect exercise has. Everyone says it; *I* experience it, and yet it’s still hard to prioritize. But the key take-away here isn’t that it makes you taut and lean and healthier– it’s that it soothes the monkey mind, which allows you to be more creative and to operate in the flow more frequently.

Resources

A regular accountability group is essential. Talking openly with others in a similar situation helps dispel the insecurity. You would think a writer would look for a writing group first, but the right group has not yet been found, and besides, my GSD group (for ‘Gettin’ Shit Done’, a twist on David Allen’s Getting Things Done) has provided most of the same functions: community feeling, social contact, a safe place to try out ideas, encouragement. Shanna uses the Mastermind Group model which is similar… but GSD ends in dance parties and sometimes even kombucha shots, so I like it better.

Reading widely is also huge–blogs/podcasts/ books–to get to know the trends and the big players in your field. I got a slow start on this one, and so am not as solid as I’d like to be because I waffled at the beginning, hanging out with the nonprofit/ service/ entrepreneurials at first, instead of the fiction writers. [also, the former group is much easier to engage than us introverted writers!]

But I know it’s important! In a field like writing, which is so oversaturated with dreamers and dabblers, you need to know people who will help you get your name out there. To make those contacts in your field, you need to network. And in order to network, you need to know your field, be able to drop those celebrity references. Do it online by commenting and sharing; do it in real life by joining a membership organization. Just do it.

Notice how Margaret connects ‘reading’ with ‘networking’. Most people are producing something, whether that’s text-based or not, and you can connect with them much more authentically if you’re at least passingly familiar with their work. Reading (or consuming) widely also orients you within your field or industry so that you know who people are, can spot the up-and-comers as well as the movers-and-shakers. You’re not going to succeed in isolationist splendour. Get out there, champ.

The Other Category, or: Things I have Discarded:

Sometimes it’s just as important to get rid of attitudes or habits that aren’t working. Here are some that I’ve thrown out because they increased my drag coefficient:

  • Being a runner
  • Enabling flaky people
  • Trying to organize/ manage too many groups
  • Waiting to do taxes until April 1
  • Saying yes when I want to say no
  • Asking for reviews from book bloggers
  • Paying for Twitter promotions
  • Trying to meet other people’s expectations

So there I’ll rest my case, for now. I didn’t get a straight answer about the direct impact of my marketing activities on sales, but I did get a better sense of all that I am doing, and how I am managing to keep the whole machinery going in the right direction: the right attitude, after much soul-searching, some good habits, after flailing and experimenting, and some core resources, which could still use some polishing.

If I keep going with these three, and don’t hesitate to discard those practices I discover aren’t working, I’m pretty sure something good will come of it.

So what can you discard? What attitude, habit or resource do you want to sustain?

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