Producing good content isn’t enough

People say the secret to successful blogging is to “keep putting out good content”.

But that’s not totally true.

You could be writing amazing posts that nobody hears about.

My readers often send me samples of their writing: these are brilliant designers, developers, and entrepreneurs. They have great insights they could be sharing with the world. But their voice is small. They keep blogging, but nobody hears them.

There’s this fallacy that good content always gets discovered; but the truth is that good content needs distribution in order to be seen.

I remember getting my first taste of this when Derek Sivers tweeted out a link to my blog. My site had been chugging along at 10-40 views a day. Even though I was trying to promote my posts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and in the comments of other blogs, I had barely broken 100 views a day.

And then one day I decided to email Derek Sivers one of my posts. He liked it. He shared it with his followers, and I had my biggest day yet: 781 views!

That was my first glimpse at the power of networks. Derek’s one tweet had more of an impact than all of my hustling. A little bit of effort from him was worth much, much more than what I could achieve on my own. He graciously allowed me to reach the audience he’d been building since 1998.

Good content is still important. Derek obviously cares about his audience: these are the friends, customers, and colleagues he’s met over a lifetime. These are his people. A tweet may seem like a small thing, but, to Derek, everything he shares with his followers is important. He wants to be thoughtful in what he passes along.

Instead of being thoughtful, we often start with “our own great ideas”. We have a personal thought, write it down, and then blast it out to the world. Then we wonder why no one cared.

Getting traction with content is a lot like product-market fit. Focus first on what a particular community needs, and work your way backwards from there.

Once you have something people really need, then you can find distribution. And yes, finding distribution means taking your best content to key individuals and communities.

This is where you need to connect with targeted networks bigger than yourself. The “Digg effect” is still important, but you don’t want to just hook up to a firehose of traffic. Rather, it’s about connecting your message with communities that need it.

Also: don’t beg random celebrities to re-tweet your stuff. Instead: build relationships. Hang out with people in online communities. The more connected you are, the better you’ll understand the pulse of a given audience.

One last thought: it’s not just about numbers. With the aforementioned knowledge in-hand, I’ve been able to connect with much larger audiences (This is a web page hit 78,763 views in one day). But I also understand that not every post will (or needs to) hit it big. For instance, in 6 days J.F.D.I. produced about 11,000 views, but has already produced a vibrant community.

What’s important is that when you create something meaningful, you’re able to connect it with a group of people who can benefit from it.

Justin Jackson

PS: I know there’s a lot of you trying to get traction on your personal blogs, corporate sites, and landing pages. This is what Amplification is about: it’s a course I wrote to help you take your best content, and truly share it with the world. I’ve also hidden a picture of me with the best nerd mullet of all time somewhere in the Amplification course. You’ll have to order it to see it!

The principle that changed my life

On Okinawa Island there are a lot of people over the age of 100; 3x more than in the United States. Many have wondered: how do Okinawans maintain such a high standard of health?

Researchers have traced their longevity to a Confucian practice calledhara hachi bu. Roughly translated it means: “eat until you are 80% full.”

This means Okinawans eat only about 1,800 calories a day. The result? Their rates of cancer, heart disease, and dimentia are much lower than the western world. [Source 1] [Source 2]

However, this isn’t an article about restricting your calories (although, based on the evidence, that might be a good idea).

I’ve been experimenting with hara hachi bu beyond dieting. I’m far from a master, but I wanted to share what I’ve experienced so far.

As Westerners, we believe in pushing up against the limits, and going over them: we’re pedal to the metal, giving 110%, and our amps go to 11. We max ourselves out in every facet of our lives: our finances, our relationships, our health, and our careers.

I love to work. For years, I would go to the office in the morning, and spend every ounce of creative energy that I had. I gave it all until I had nothing left. If I had extra time, I would pick up a new project. Over the years I became responsible for more and more things. I was consistently promoted, until I became the youngest Regional Director in the country.

When I wasn’t at work, I filled my time with side-projects: I volunteered on committees, I founded a business with some friends, and started working on my Masters Degree.

During this time I’d also gotten married, and we’d had our first child.

I loved the busyness. I was firing on all cylinders. Spinning all these plates in the air. The world was my oyster!

And it all worked fine until…

…I cracked.

You see, I had no reserves. The problem with being maxed out is you can’t deal with anything new. I couldn’t fit anything else in. I’d squeezed my schedule, my finances, my energy, and my family to the absolute limit. And then a crisis: the business I’d invested in went bad. I had no extra room to deal with a crisis: all those plates I’d been spinning came crashing down. I experienced depression for the first time in my life.

As I began the slow process of rebuilding, I decided I would start practicing a form of mental hara hachi bu at work. I became conscious of the amount of energy I spent at the office. I would deliberately pace myself so I that I spent only 80% of my mental energy throughout the day.

There’s not really a good way of describing how I determine whether or not I’m at 80%. It’s a state of being mindful. I try not to overstimulate my brain: I pick 2-3 big things to accomplish a day. After that, I focus on little things that don’t require as much energy.

The benefits have been huge.

First, and most importantly, I have space for crisis. If something unexpected and urgent comes in, I have the mental wherewithal to deal with it.

Second, I do better work. Instead of being overstimulated, my mind is more focused. By acknowledging my limits, I spend my resources more wisely.

Third, I’m in it for the long haul. I’m no longer at constant risk of burnout.

Like I said, I’m still not a master, but I’m trying to apply the “80% full” metaphor to other areas of my life: finances, social commitments, and the amount of media I consume.

Do you think hara hachi bu could work for you? Have you tried something similar?

You can reach me on Twitter here: @mijustin or 

Photo credit: Michael Himbault

Jarrod Drysdale’s advice for starting

Go research before you do anything. Research instead of having an idea. Go out and look at different groups of people: see what they’re doing online, what they’re talking about, and what their needs are. Evaluate those audiences, and get an idea based on what those people need (rather than starting with your own idea that’s based on you). Learn what people need: that’s the most important thing when you’re starting out.

I want to keep building businesses that that help people.

Jarrod Drysdale on Thoughtbot with Ben Orenstein

Jarrod wrote an excellent book called Bootstrapping Design

He emphasizes that the above lesson was learned in Amy Hoy‘s 30×500 class.

What Amy Hoy taught me about starting a business

I first heard about Amy when I saw Twistori. Soon after, I started following her on Twitter. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Amy could teach me a lot about starting a business and building products. Since then we’ve interacted on Twitter and through email. I haven’t taken her 30×500 class (yet), but I hope to in the future (maybe once all of our kids are in school).

In the meantime, I found an interview that I think illuminates her business philosophy perfectly. In Founder’s Talk episode 6 (witih Adam Stacoviak) Amy describes her best advice for building a product [42:00]:

First: Define what you want to achieve

This involves setting goals for you and for your business. I love that she mentions the personal goal. It’s important to ask: what do you want to achieve for yourself? Amy says: “Get really concrete about it. How much do you want to earn? [Something like] ‘I want to bring in $200,000 a year,’ is a great place to start.”

When you launch into a project without first identifying what you want to achieve, how will you know if you’ve succeeded? Having a goal of earning 200k is a lot more achievable than “I want to make a lot of money”. It gives you something to shoot for but also leaves you accountable if you fail. That’s the point.

Second: Forget ideas; study a market

This is Amy’s best piece of advice. We’re all holed up in our caves, with our notebooks, trying to come up with great startup ideas. Amy says: “Forget ideas. Go actually spend lots and lots of time with people”. What are you doing while you’re spending time? You’re searching for their pain not pitching them ideas. It’s actually better to not have ideas; instead just walk yourself into a room, plunk yourself down, and just listen to what people are complaining about. What problems does this market have that you could solve?

Update: Amy recommends listening for pain online (in forums, etc…) rather than interviewing people in real life. The risk is that “in real life, people will bitch, just to have conversation”.

Third: Target people with money

Amy continues her thought: “[Spend time with people] who obviously like to pay for things.” This is our second problem as founders: we often target people with no money! We go after teachers, consumers, non-profits, students, and hobbyists. Meanwhile, there’s an office manager somewhere in Winnipeg who loses $3,000 worth of productivity to paperwork every month. That person is dying for help and would gladly pay $300/month for an app that solves her problem.

Fourth: Make sure you like your customer

So you’ve identified a market that has money, and where you can create value; time to get started, right? Not so fast. Think about this: you’re about to start a business serving this niche of people. This could become your life’s work: would you be OK interacting with these folks every single day, for the rest of your life? “[These have to be] people who you like, and can imagine doing business with”, Amy says. She also put it this way: “If you don’t like drunk frat boys, don’t open an Irish pub”.

Fifth: Identify where you’re going to provide value

Now you have a market, and you have a list of things that are causing them pain. Now it’s time to narrow it down: where can you create real value that they’ll pay for? “Be very pragmatic”, Amy cautions:

Don’t say: ‘How can I change their lives?’ Instead, say: ‘You pay me $30, and I’ll save you $60 a month or earn you $60 month’. Make it about the math.

This is why you want to target folks who can pay. A college student might want software to organize their homework, but they can’t afford to pay anything. A business owner, on the other hand, will gladly pay $30/month if you help them save money or earn more income. This is why Amy built Freckle (a time tracking app): if you can track your time, minimize waste, and invoice your clients easier, you’re going to earn more money (and waste less time).

Finally: Build it and charge for it as soon as possible

Once you’ve checked off the previous five items you’re ready to get to work. “When you find that [place where you can create value], build it and charge for it as soon as possible” Amy concludes. It’s not easy to build a product, but your chances of success are much greater if you build the the right product for the right market.

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