Bell Curve Success

So yesterday I got kimura’d.


My buddy Dan and I were joking about “what if there was a website called Am I In A Kimura Dot Com”, where you could take a quick quiz and make sure you weren’t presently in a Kimura, before proceeding onto less “low-hanging-fruit” explanations for chronic shoulder and arm pain.

Just to illustrate the point, I took off my shoes, walked across the mat, and asked my friends Brandon and Carey to help me depict it.

About then is when it hit me: it’s the middle of the day, and I’m hanging out at a juijitsu gym. What’s more, I’m clearly not broke, not stressed out, and not drowning in busy work.

To restate the purpose of this blog briefly, I wanted to test “survivor bias” in the success stories I’d read in the Four Hour Work Week and heard about on podcasts as of 2012. Pat Flynn might well have been waiting for reality to thin the herd of prospective guests giving “lifestyle entrepreneurship” a go, then interviewing the one percent who didn’t wash out.

But what if one normal guy, with no special skills save a slightly twisted sense of humor and a sufficient hatred of his job to consider slightly desperate measures, started from scratch?

So the archive of this blog includes early highlights like the shoe experiment and the travel blog, and later chronicles about the genesis of my first “successful” venture, my drum info product business.

Currently I’m taking pains to publish only after real-life “chapters” have occurred, with podcast host Dan Andrews’ admonitions that “an amateur blogs about his/her personal journey, [whereas] a pro goes away and creates something, then writes about it” echoing in my ears.

So many of the chronicles in Breaking Ferriss have a similar format: “I finally did it guys. Here’s what’s different from the hype.”

I might have waited longer to publish. I just “broke through” and found proof-of-concept with a business model I’ll get into more detail about below, but the plan was to wait until I had a healthy earnings record with it.

Until I started reading and hearing about entrepreneurs who “give it a go”, then return to day jobs. Which made me empathize. Because their story is my story too. So I might be well-situated to describe what it feels like, even if we ended up making different choices.

Here’s the arc we have in common:

Tried a digital agency, selling to sophisticated online entrepreneurs, and enjoyed limited success.

Tried to “transplant” that business to older-school, larger, more “analog” U.S.-based businesses, and struggled.

Got caught in the “services catch 22”, in which customization and personal relationships create pressure to do the work ourselves, but then we can’t scale beyond a certain number of clients, so we’re only catching the “bust” side of the inevitable boom-and-bust cycle.

Let me also inject a few anecdotes that might help to capture what it feels like to be in that arc:

You get your first few clients easily, and some of them are “big names”. Right away two things happen:

First, you realize getting results for these folks in the bell curve of situations is longer and more arduous than you thought. If you didn’t manage expectations, you’re going to have some uncomfortable conversations.

Second, you realize the vast majority aren’t going to stick around for very long. The most successful ones will get the hoped-for result, thank you, then be on their way. Your “portfolio” can crater in a matter of days.

You realize referrals aren’t going to be a reliable source, so you start “hunting” for clients in “gen pop” (meaning, outside your networks.) You eventually get some:

But you don’t know how to structure an engagement or what to charge, so you’re inevitably under-charging for custom work that requires long hours.

You also don’t know how to weed out potential Nightmare Clients or set expectations very well, so you end up over-committing to people who don’t respect your time, who keep squeezing you for extra work because they’re so budget-sensitive, and who keep inventing problems and micromanaging every detail.

You’ll watch that portfolio go to zero once-or-twice, and feel a sense of relief when the problem clients quit of-their-own-accord.

You’ll probably get courted by one-or-two “whales”, who could solve your cashflow problems single-handedly. If it seems too-good-to-be-true, it usually is.

You’ll try to transplant your business model to bigger, less-cash-strapped businesses and realize you have to change your mindset top-to-bottom:

  • They use different words to describe their problems
  • The value of certain solutions – like Conversion Rate Optimization – is opaque to them, and many don’t even understand what makes their sales funnels work
  • There’s a cottage industry of mostly-low-sophistication “marketing agencies” already serving them, getting them bad results, and making them cynical to marketing pitches

And this is the problem with the podcasts: most of the “successes” aren’t going to talk about the reality. Here are two typical podcast-guest arcs:

  1. (Circa 2013)
  • I was working for BOA
  • I started quilting or scrapbooking
  • I realized my blog had 500k subscribers
  • After much hand wringing about charging them money, I launched an ebook
  • Now I’m making 30k per month in my pajamas

2. (circa 2017)

  • I was working for Deloitte
  • I started copywriting in my basement
  • Grant Cardone read my blog
  • Now I have an eight-figure agency
  • Just believe in yourself and give Massive Value and there’s no way you can possibly fail

Bell-curve successes rarely make headlines. Real life success is rarely sexy.

  • Started an adsense site in 2013, just before the google updates wiped that whole business model off the map.
  • Started an info-product/ecommerce solo venture and saw mild success, but realized it could only grow so far/so fast.
  • Started a marketing agency, and suffered the “learning curve” described above.
  • Eventually found a cash-flow serving an unsexy B2B industry, which I don’t talk about at parties lest I put the other guests to sleep, and played the “startup name” anagram of [noun your company helps people with] [propulsion metaphor/martial arts practitioner/zoo animal] to name my company.

That’s what an entrepreneur lifecycle looks like if one-in-a-thousand luck isn’t injected at any point.

And that’s the dream Business Gurus should be selling from stage. Because it’s a great one.

Everything that didn’t kill you along the way made you stronger, replacing your baby fat with cold-call sinew.

You get a lifetime’s worth of rejection and things-that-can-go-wrong-going-wrong in a few years, so you get pretty agile, and you aren’t prone to waste money.

You get to have more than one client-at-a-time, instead of just one boss/a single point-of-failure.

You get to decide exactly what you do.

And you can do jiujitsu at 11am.

But it’s also not for everybody. One thing rang true from some of the “returned to a job” chronicles I’ve read. Paraphrased…

I kept thinking “success” would be around the next corner, then I’d get there and realize there were just more problems/headaches.

In my experience that’s true of all real life success, both in jobs and entrepreneurship. How did we know Herbalife was a scam? Smelled too rosy. No downside. Reality has downsides.

There’s another quote I like:

Success just feels like Wednesday.

It’s mainly recognizable in retrospect.

As I write this, I’ve got money in the bank and calls in the calendar. For the first time in a while I’ve got a manageable amount of work on the docket.

But I’ve also got a disappointed email from a client in one inbox, and a bunch of “no”s in another.

That’s not for everybody. And I think we all secretly have “our number”: what a prospective employer would have to offer us in order to return to a job.

But maybe it’s not the weight you lifted, but the muscles you built. Instead of returning to a job thinking it’s your only option, you get to choose it as one among many good choices.

No one employer can make your life miserable, because you can always switch jobs…

And, worst-case-scenario, you don’t even fear being jobless, because you know how to go directly to the market and get paid.

That’s Bell-curve success.