Megan Telpner is a successful small business owner. She is an author, speaker, nutritionist and director of the Academy of Culinary Nutrition and, “head cheerleader of your life!” But she wasn’t always the head of a successful company. She was an educated and certified nutritionist who found a way to turn her education, skills and passion into a very profitable business.
In this article, I’d like to look at a few very successful, small business owners and the things they are doing to fuel their business and scale their expertise.
I’ve spent this last year studying successful entrepreneurs and reading hundreds of blogs and books. If there is one piece of advice they all give it’s this - FOCUS. Find your one true thing and focus on it like you’ve never focused on it before. Go deep and become the expert on that one thing. Without that focus, there’s little chance you will be able to spend the time needed on scaling your brand and business.
Companies survive when they focus. If you’re looking for proof, check out The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout. It’s a reminder that the rules never change, and Focus is the way businesses thrive and survive. Ford, IBM, HP, and Atari are just shells of what they once were because they tried to be everything to everyone. Microsoft almost went off the rails when they decided to get into the phone business. How many GREAT products does Microsoft make? Not a lot, right? But they make a sh*tload of mediocre ones. And you can see them coming back alive now that they’ve started focusing again on personal computers.
I’ve experience death by diversification first hand. The sunglass company I worked for was the best on the planet. They couldn’t keep their sunglasses on the shelves. What did they do? They started making shitty clothing. At the end of every season, they’d have to give the stuff away just to get it off the racks. Most things didn’t fit and everything else fell apart. Instead of cutting bait, they took all of their great employees on the eyewear side of the business and asked them to save the apparel line. Both sides of the company suffered and the place was packaged and sold. Guess what the new owners did? They ditched the clothing line and asked everyone to go back to work on the eyewear. I’m happy to say they’ve rebounded and are now making great eyewear again.
Entrepreneurs constantly fall into the same trap. We lie awake at night thinking about ways to find new customers and scale our business. Many of my friends are solopreneurs looking for ways to scale their business and make more money. Once a week they share with me their new ideas for growing their business. No matter how much I try to get them to slow down and focus on the thing they do best, they want to talk about moving into different areas - areas they have no business playing in. I’ll be honest… it’s hard to watch.
One day a company is tightly focused on a single product that is highly profitable. The next day they same company is spread thin over many products and is losing money. ~ The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing
I was doing the same thing until I took a great class taught by Tara Gentile, a self-made solopreneur turned entrepreneur.
Tara, like others who have successfully scaled their business, sums it up this way. Find the one thing you can build and build the best one possible. Invest everything you have into that one thing before moving onto anything else. “If you’re going to build an ax,” she said. “Don’t think about branching out into screwdrivers. Make the best ax you can and keep making them until you’ve sold them all.”
Finding a focus is a tough business. Staying focused is harder. Tara said something that helped me a lot. She said, “Find the thing that differentiates you in some way and focus on that one thing.” She led us through an exercise to find things that differentiate us from all of the other axes in the world. Here’s my list of the things I feel differentiate me from most course builders.
It was hard finding my ax until I nailed down these differentiators. Once I did, describing my niche was pretty simple. Here it is…
I show people how to build learning experiences that put the learner first. My customers want to build an effective course and something that works. Yes, they want to sell and make money, and they want to do it with integrity and offer a high-quality and memorable experience. Their reputation means more to them than a few sales. They believe in playing the long game rather than using the discounting tactics of the mega learning sites. Creative, skilled professionals are perfect customers for my business.
Looking back at my differentiators allowed me to hone in on my niche, and clarify my market. Take a look at my original business goal before I was focused.
Gregg’s 2016 Business Goal: Help people build great online courses that actually work.
Now, look at my new-and-improved business goal once I identified my differentiators.
Gregg’s 2017 Business Goal: Help solopreneurs build effective courses they can use to scale their business and brand. Give them with easy-to-use tools and resources that have been tested and proven to work. Present a high-quality experience, and show my customers (creatives) how to put their learner (customer) first.
This is what I do and the service I offer. Now every dollar and hour I spend is focused on bringing this statement alive. I work really hard not to drift outside of my niche, and I take my lead from some of the greats. Every time I second-guess myself I remember that Michael Jordan was the best basketball player, not the best athlete. Buddy Rich was the best jazz drummer, not the best musician. Ansel Adams was the best black and white, big format, film photographer. Not the best photographer. Each of those icons was intensely focused. I’d be a fool not to follow their lead.
I first found Peter McKinnon on YouTube. Peter said he grew his VLOG from just a few followers to over 1.4 Million in less than a year. I like those numbers. Analysts have pegged his earnings at somewhere around $13K per month on ad and affiliate revenue alone. That’s a pretty nice gig for a solopreneur.
Here’s the question… is Peter a better videographer than most? Maybe. But it doesn’t matter because more than 1.4 Million people think he’s good enough to follow. I’ve watched a lot of Peter’s videos and looked at a lot of his work - the guy is really good. I don’t think his following would be so large if he was a hack. He’s not. But the real reason he’s got 1.4 Million followers is simple - HE’S OUT THERE.
People know Peter McKinnon because he puts himself out there where 1.4 Million people can find him. Every successful online business owner I follow pulls back the curtains just like Peter. Chase Jarvis, Joel Grimes, Mike Johnston, and Aaron Draplin are all successful solo-turn-entrepreneurs I discovered because they turned the camera on their work. It’s that transparency that is the difference between McKinnon and millions of other videographers hustling for their next gig. Peter’s high up on a platform where we can see him rather than hiding behind his email and computer.
It’s no longer enough to tell people you are good at something. You have to show them you’re good. That’s why I think resumes are one of the worst tools to use when looking for work. They say so little about the way we work. Let me give you an example.
Years ago I watched a self-made documentary filmed by a young graphic designer working on his final project. He wanted to capture his ideas, interactions, and workflow in real time instead of relying on his thin portfolio.
He started by introducing us to his client - a local theatre company eager to rebrand themselves. He filmed his meetings, idea sessions, and presentations. He took us into his studio late at night and told us how he came up with his concepts and found his inspiration. We watched him use the tools of his trade to bring his concepts to life.
Finally, we saw him present his work to his client, go through his review sessions, and deliver the final product. Oh… and what was the last scene? It was him starting a new job with one of the biggest design firms in NYC a few months later. No portfolio. No resume. No website. Just a link to the video showing people the way he works.
Derek Duval was the best recruiter in our company. Some of us had been at it longer than Derek, but he was hands-down the best we’d ever seen. Every month he landed commission checks too large for a long-haired, 26-year old hippie straight out of college. What was his secret? Derek had a system.
Derek broke down his work and treated every day, phone call, and meeting the same way. He spent his mornings connecting with his most important clients and candidates. He spent his afternoon taking care of his busy work and noting everything about everyone he talked to that morning. He spent his evenings reconnecting with people winding down their days or commuting home from work.
Eventually, Derek taught the rest of us his system. The pieces themselves were pretty simple. But very few of us stuck to the system. It was too rigid and we wanted more freedom to be clever and creative. Here’s the punchline: Derek had more freedom in his life than all of us combined. His system was the thing that freed up his time. He worked on the right things when it was time to work. And shut it all down when it was time to play.
I’m not a business expert (yet), but I know one way to dominate a market is to be the first one in it. Many of the sites above were first to market. They saw a business opportunity (hungry, global learners) and jumped in with all of their marketing might and muscle. I’ve taken courses from the big sites and savvy entrepreneurs alike. Most of their courses are crap, but their marketing and sales funnels are truly awesome.
What worked for them won’t work for me - or you. I can’t compete with well-funded machines like Udemy. But, I can look back on what’s worked for people like Derek and other successful entrepreneurs. I can build a system.
The day I saw my work and output improve was the day I formed new habits. Charles Duhigg wrote a powerful book that had a big impact on me. Again, not a new idea, but a reminder that habits, not wanting or wishing, lead to results.
Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a perennial best seller. Tim Ferriss asks every one of his noteworthy, successful guests about their morning habits and routines. Steph Curry shoots 100, 3-point shots every day he practices. Habits make people great.
The first habit I mastered was time management. We all have a time of day when we are most creative and do our most focused work. Mine is in the early morning right after the kids go to school. Now I have every day from 7 - 10 blocked out for my most important work. Things move around a bit, but not much. That one habit gave me the time to write multiple articles, build a website, create a business plan, connect with hundreds of creatives, and coach multiple course builders and entrepreneurs. And I did it all while holding down a fulltime job and raising a family.
The next habit I picked up from Derek was creating a calendar filled with my most important tasks. First, I figured out the 20% of my work that would give me the biggest return. I put those things on my calendar and protected that time like a pit bull. I put on my headphones and focused on the one thing on my calendar. I declined meetings and said no to things that weren’t scheduled. I ignored administrative tasks and emails. Projects that lingered for days now took a couple of hours. My new habits led to the best work and review of my life.
I know which 3-5 things will help my business grow, and I focus on those things during their allotted time. I still spend every morning doing my most focused and important work. I spend my afternoons handling emails and admin stuff. And I wind down my days researching or making new connections. I clock out for my family at 6. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
I send articles out to my subscribers using MailChimp. Each day the Chimp sends me data on who’s opening, reading and ditching my articles. I haven’t looked at the data once. Not once. I’m afraid of finding out how many people are unsubscribing to my newsletter. I spent a long time adding the 237 people to my newsletter. A single drop in the digits feels like a poke in the eye. Somewhere along the line my fragile ego got the best of me. It’s enough to make me want to go find a nice, safe gig with an insurance company.
Small businesses don’t have the luxury of building things that don’t work. I recently sat down with a friend running a small business. He said, “I have a new idea to get more business.” Great. “I want to offer this new service because I think people want it.” Great. “Will you help me build it?” No. But, I’ll help you figure out what to build.
When I asked people if they wanted to learn how to build an online course, they politely said, “Yes.”. When I asked them to give me money for it… crickets… They didn’t want a course. They wanted an easy and effective way to build their business, scale their brand, get more clients, make more money, find more free time, do things that work, etc… So I took a different route.
I asked some small business owners to help me build something that they wanted to use. I offered up my ideas and assumptions for free, and they showed me exactly what and when they needed things most. I designed the tools they wanted and explained why things worked and didn’t. I tried a few different approaches and mediums, and it was clear what was working for each person. Soon, they told showed me how to take my original 10-step process and whittle it down to 5 simple and critical steps. My users helped me test (and build) the product they want.
I guess people really do know what they want. Go figure…
This is not a complete list of things it takes to run a great business, but it’s a good start. Hell, it’s the only way I managed to finish this article.
Gregg Eiler is a Master Course Builder helping creatives take over the world one course at a time. Thanks for reading and please forward this to a friend.
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This is a disclaimer (you’ll need one too if you are promoting things in your articles). I link to sites or services I use or want to recommend because of their bad-assedness. Some of these sites will pay me a small fee if you purchase their product.