March 2020: Compounding Takes Time

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Well, suffice to say, March 2020 took a strange and unexpected turn. Probably the strangest event of my lifetime, and I’d suspect most (all?) people reading this. Living on one of the busiest streets in the city and being able to hear dogs barking three blocks away because there’s no one outside is eerie.

But this entry in my strategy breakdown isn’t about pandemics, but about one of the main ways you can build a crisis-resilient career. You’ve no doubt heard a lot about people struggling, and all that’s true. Less so about businesses doing well. Yes, things are less than ideal. But there is money out there, and people are still buying things (especially books). And most of the people doing well at this point are simply building on the foundation they’ve laid over past months and years.

I’ve struggled before in business. A lot. That’s part of the deal for all of us. It’s challenging, and the learning curve is high. So I understand, to an extent, what business owners are going through.

The reason I’m doing okay now? Two reasons: one, part of it is luck. My business is all virtual, so it’s built for situations like this. If you have a restaurant, there’s not much that could be done. But the second reason, the one within my control, was that last year I really made a shift in strategy. Where I began thinking in years rather than hours or days (at least when it came to making big decisions; think in years, plan in months, act today). At after eight years, I realized that this a long game, and that most of the rewards come from playing a long time, rather than making some huge amount in days or weeks.

Realistically, if I do this for the rest of my life (admittedly a big if), I’m still in the first quarter. One of the great paradoxes of life is that we have way more time than we think…but we waste most of it worrying about getting results today. Which makes it short.

In March 2020, I had my best month ever. This was across the entirety of my business combined (courses, consulting, fiction). The second-best month isn’t even close. If this were a case study that you opted into, the positioning would be “the one crazy thing I did in March 2020 to thrive during a global recession.” But that would be bullshit. There was no one thing.

It was all the work that I did over the past year that compounded into the results I saw in March:

  1. Launch course in March 2019.
  2. Build course over the past year to include a massive number of videos and step-by-step breakdowns of every ad platform.
  3. Consistently revise and update videos to improve them, sometimes three or four times.
  4. Periodically open the course throughout 2019 and also introduce the Ads Workshop around July 2019.
  5. Launch the course again in March 2020. Make about 20% more on that launch than all of 2019.

Again, in a traditional piece of internet clickbait, all the focus would be on that final sentence: making 20% more on the launch. The “secret.”

What was the secret? Well, there isn’t one. But if I had to choose the most important principle at work here it’d be compound interest. Which is both powerful and deceptive.

It’s easy to do a lot of work and waste your time. It’s also easy to do a lot of valuable work that has no immediate reward.

Most of that work seemed like a waste of time, on the surface of it. Data is important, but if you go purely by data, you miss things. Because the data would’ve told me that three or four people were watching the new and revised videos I was putting up (if that. I think there are a couple that have never been watched). And that’s absolutely true: I spent hundreds of hours creating content that most people would never watch.

This seems like it breaks the 80/20 rule: focus on that core 20%.

Except for one key fact: the handful of people who loved the course, watched most of the videos – they’re the most likely to recommend it to other authors. And over the past year, that’s how the course and workshop has grown (and newsletter, as discussed last month, in Second Order Effects): from a handful of people who would recommend and rave about the course. I can probably trace 50 – 60% of the sales back to my newsletter. Then 40 – 50% back to maybe 5 – 10 people.

There are two takeaways here: one, word of mouth is powerful. Yes, we’re dealing with small numbers when it comes to the course, because I don’t need the same amount of sales volume as one does with a book. But the same principle applies: a genuine recommendation from another person carries a ton of weight. That means your sales copy and marketing don’t have to be as tight, since people come to the course page ready to buy.

This makes a huge difference. Not that your sales and marketing should be sloppy or subpar, but these are challenging skills to develop. And it’s never a bad thing to have a helping hand, because even if you’ve honed your ad or marketing chops to a razor’s edge, word of mouth is like accelerant to the proceedings. It takes a spark and turns it into a raging inferno.

Two, compounding is not linear. We’ve all become acquainted with exponential graphs in the past month. This has been in the Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing long before those charts became a cultural staple:

Had I expected linear progress, it would have looked like: post the videos. Get a reaction. Maybe have people recommend the course to their friends right then.

When framed that way, it’d be silly to expect this. That’s obviously not going to happen.

People don’t email you about every video, nor would that be the expectation (I can’t remember the last time I emailed a course provider about the content. Probably never). They learn at their own pace and apply the information on their own. That lack of instant feedback can make it seem like nothing is happening.

Enter the trough of despair. To be honest, I didn’t experience this: I just kept my head down. Part of this is because I built out the course because I wanted to. It mattered to me. That’s a big driver of action. But the other reason: I knew that if I kept putting out good content that the people who watched it and used it would get good results.

The core of compounding, whether it’s the courses or the books: keep releasing. You launch one book, get no reaction. Put up an ad, and that wastes $50. Another, another. Flickers of life. Or maybe a modest hit that doesn’t mean you can quit your day job…but it does make a difference in your life. A nice dinner or a class or a new writing computer.

Brick-by-brick, you grow. You build your backlist. Build your craft. Build your newsletter and fan base. Build your skills with ads.

Until you hit critical mass.

But a lot of times the bricks are invisible if you’re not looking closely. And that can lead to despair, where you quit before the payoff.

To be clear, there’s not always a payoff. It doesn’t always make sense to keep pushing through that stretch where it looks like nothing is happening. Sometimes nothing is ever going to happen (this is the case with many book series). Some people reading this will be acquainted with the Book Marketing Crash Course. There was a video version last year. That flopped. People weren’t particularly interested in that. The sales numbers showed that.

But things that do work a bit can often be grown into something longer. Put your effort in here and double down on these.

The crazy part about compounding and that graph above? When I started to experience it and ride the wave, I realized something else: I’m at the very, very start.

There’s tons more room to grow. But on the flip side: if I don’t keep doing the things that got me here, then it will all go away very quickly.

Lay that foundation. Then keep building.

MARCH KPIs

  • TOTAL WORDS: 0 fiction, but published Ultimate Guide to Author Productivity
  • URBAN FANTASY ORGANIC SUBSCRIBERS: 1,817 > 1,867 (+50) (+141 on year)
  • NON-FICTION ORGANIC SUBSCRIBERS: 1,804 > 1,846 (+42) (+480 on year)
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