Biggest fuck up
As a starry-eyed 24-year-old who had been trained in the ways of social work in Nottingham, much of those formative university years were spent listening to people’s problems and learning how to address them.
But it wasn’t until one afternoon, as I sat listening to a client share her worries about her eye surgery, that I kept thinking to myself, I don’t care.
I really don’t care.
That’s when I knew I had to leave social work or risk causing more harm than good.
Not knowing what else to do, I returned to the only other thing that paid me previously. Writing.
It was at Nottingham University that I was paid £20 per 1000-word article and realised I could actually earn money from writing. It was supposed to be a short-term gig. But 150 job applications and 31 failed interviews later, I realised this might just have to pay the bills.
Let’s cue the screw-up.
Being all warm and cuddly, I wanted to use my writing skills for good. My business partner and I decided to sell mental health kits because they looked different from what the market had. Our initial model essentially involved us being ‘grant-trepreneurs’ rather than entrepreneurs. We were pitching for government grants to do good.
But these grants would only pay 80% of the costs. We ended up having to pay to do good. Can you imagine?
There I was, so desperate for money that I was longingly looking at leftover Starbucks cake and wanting to eat it, but I couldn’t seem to realise that I was digging for money in a place that had little money.
But I didn’t learn from my lesson, and we couldn’t find much commercial work to keep ourselves going, so I thought of what seemed like a genius idea. Rather than going for grants, why not pitch charities?
Cue screw-up number two. I pitched for charity work, and charged charity prices.
One advertising campaign to run a monthly $10k AdGrant budget paid me a grand total of $150 a month. Yup. That’s right. I didn’t miss any zeroes.
But there was a much bigger zero in my bank account. Having to pay for subscription tools like Ahrefs, Thrive Themes, and hosting, I was essentially paying to do the work.
It resulted in us losing two partners because we weren’t earning enough money. Perhaps the biggest lesson for me was to earn money first before thinking about impact.
Earning money can be pretty meaningful. Vilifying the idea of making a ton of money is often like the Chinese saying of 吃不到葡萄说葡萄酸, which loosely translates as, if you can’t reach the grapes, you give up and say it’s sour.
Rich grapes are pretty sweet.
I hate people who tell me about how I need to get onto LinkedIn, create a podcast, and post more on TikTok.
These are simply vanity metrics. Tell me how much of those likes convert into money.
When you’re running a marketing agency or any B2B service business, you’re judged on how reliable you are, on delivering what you promise, and on how great the outcomes are on that promise.
Say you’re a marketing agency. Sure, you could post all over social media, but that first client you get isn’t going to get you repeat business if your service isn’t good. And that client is definitely not going to refer you to any of their contacts.
Confirm plus chop, as they say in Singapore.
The only way to get more clients and more ‘stageside referrals’ (a term shared by Michael Port in his book “The Referable Speaker”) depends on one element: how good is your service, really?
Spending time to post dribs and drabs on social media is great, and we like it because we have immediate validation. Likes and comments that honestly do little to advance your business.
But work on something really, really tough that positions you as a thought leader in your field, like publishing a book, working on a conference keynote or writing op-ed articles, and we immediately squirm away.
As you can see from the above diagram, we often get stuck in telling clients how-to. What we don’t realise is that in the world of Google, the client can easily find this out. What you’re saying is nothing different. And when we play in crowded ‘Expertville,’ where there are tons of YouTube experts, we will inevitably lose.
To dramatically raise the perception of the value you provide, your service needs to not just tell the client to do something but to encourage the client to think differently.
For example, in 2022, despite looking all 26 years of age and having had no corporate clients, I successfully closed a content partnership with a big bank by simply sending them a copy of a book I wrote.
Don’t just focus on the channels, focus on the product.
We were asked to read many big books on philosophy in our undergraduate days (some of which I used as reading material to get to sleep at night and most of which I drooled on – sorry, students at Hallward Library), but there was one I remembered.
Isaiah Berlin, in his classic essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, writes,
There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ Some are built as foxes, whilst others are nurtured into hedgehogs.
The key is to know which one you are. A specialist or a generalist? Are you better at connecting disparate ideas or better at working on one big idea?
I don’t think there’s one which is better than the other, but I think there’s a big benefit in knowing which you belong to.
Growing up, we are often shoehorned into specialisations as quickly as possible. We often think that specialising early is seemingly better.
But is this true? Northwestern University economist Ofer Malamud wanted to understand what determined ‘match fit,’ in other words, the degree of fit between one’s work and their abilities.
He had a good comparison. On one hand, there were English and Welsh students who had to specialize before college so that they could apply to specific, narrow programs. But in Scotland, students were required to study different fields for their first two years of college and could keep sampling different topics beyond that.
He analysed data from thousands of students and found that college graduates in England and Wales were consistently more likely to leap entirely out of their career fields than their later-specializing Scottish peers. And despite starting out behind in income because they had fewer specific skills, the Scots quickly caught up. Their counterparts in England and Wales were more often switching fields after college.
This study offers two surprising insights. One is that exploring different topics before specialising seems to help. Two, that a range of skills is a skill in itself.
Even if you feel that you’re a generalist who’s involved in many different jobs, it’s important to see that as a skill and not just the ‘odd jobs person’ that plugs gaps.
What does matter is systematically improving one’s skill through deliberate practice. As angel investor Naval Ravikant says, “Become the best in the world at what you do. Keep refining what you do until this is true.”
I just want to close with this story.
Two years ago, when I left my job, I thought I was going to have to eat grass. And sure, there were times when things did get hairy for me when I had no clients, and I wondered about where the money was going to come from. But whatever it was, I just kept coming down to the computer and banging out 1500 words, whether I liked it or not. Some days, those words were trash. I’d still publish it, nevertheless. Somehow, work came, even though I had no business sense. For example, I would go to networking events, sit by myself, and read my book. Can you imagine?
But I’m not dead yet.
I think it’s proof that if you’re willing to work, you will grow. And that ultimately, in an economy such as ours today, it’s not how much you do. It’s about knowing the one thing you’re great at and hammering at it day after day.