Every year I urge freelance copywriters to invest a day evaluating the prior year’s numbers — and explore what would make them happiest in the new year.
The goal is to avoid drift by making purposeful choices. You want to grow your career in the right direction (if you’re going to fail, you might as well fail up).
Typically, I focus on numbers. Were your revenues an improvement over your prior year? Did you make progress in the right areas? Were some clients using more time than they were paying for?
Then there were the bigger questions:
(I outlined the process in last year’s post)
This year, the numbers weren’t my focus. I was looking at my life.
In 2014, my oldest daughter entered kindergarten. And my youngest is now old enough to take gymnastics/dance/skating/skiing lessons.
In other words, we’re entering the Taxi Years.
As the freelancer in the family, I have more flexibility, so I absorb much of the taxi work. Which, it seems, just tripled.
It’s not a complaint; it’s a reality. Done properly, kids take time.
With less time to work, I needed to prioritize my writing.
Since 2005, I’ve written The Trout Underground fly fishing blog. For many years, it was the most heavily trafficked blog in fly fishing, but life intrudes, and for the last four years, I haven’t sunk much time in it.
So this year, I killed it.
The numbers were still surprisingly healthy and I loved writing the blog, but after writing more than a million words about fly fishing, I decided the next million might be better invested elsewhere.
My wife and I also agreed it was OK to downplay my marketing work. We’ve worked hard, so a little less money won’t kill us. Instead, I’m focusing on our kids — and on writing more meaningful editorial work.
With two daughters in the mix, the future has become more than an abstract concept. They’re going to live the future we create today.
So I’ll be pitching and writing about the issues that will shape our future (erosion of privacy, income inequality, environmental degradation… sadly, there’s no shortage of worthwhile topics).
My first queries go out next week.
So that’s my 2015. Less marketing. Less money. More daughters. And more journalism.
What’s your plan for 2015?
Keep writing, Tom Chandler.
A 100 year-old, money-losing publication is bought by a Silicon Valley billionaire (Chris Hughes, whose main achievement may have been his stint as Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate).
The zillionaire wants to transform the magazine into a “vertically integrated digital media company,” yet — aside from a lot of Silicon Valley disrupto-jargon — doesn’t seem to know how to do that.
Astonishingly (in an age notable for its massive oversupply of writers), 2/3 of the magazine’s editorial staff ultimately resign in a huff, and the new owner even has an angry, self-righteous video “moment” after the editorial staff tells him to stuff it.
In a New Yorker article, Ryan Lizza narrates the unfolding disaster, including this description of the first meeting between the staff and Guy Vidra (Hughes’ change agent), which reads like a scene from The Office:
He offered a series of statements intended to describe a transformation that could make the magazine profitable, but it came across to the editors as a jumble of clichés and tech jargon. “We’re going to be a hundred-year-old startup,” he said. The magazine needed “to align ourselves from the metabolism perspective” and create “magical experiences for both the content and the product design” and be “fearless in innovation and experimentation” and “change some of the DNA of the organization.” He said that he wanted to institute “a process for annual reviews” and effect a “cultural change where we need to just embrace innovation, experimentation, and cross-functional collaboration,” and said that the editors, writers, and business side would need to “speak to each other much more effectively and efficiently in our gatherings” in order “to take us to the next stage.”
Vidra didn’t mention the magazine’s journalism. “Never did he once allude to the history of the magazine,” a former staffer said. “It was just terrifying rhetoric about change without any substance to back it up.”
At least two of the Silicon Valley’s tech wunderkinder are learning that aggregating the content of others while shearing away some of the value may be a profitable technology achievement, but getting people to pay for your content is another ballgame.
The New Republic is on hiatus until February. When it emerges again, will it be a vertically integrated media company? Or simply a zillionaire’s toy?
Keep writing, Tom Chandler.
Despite the fact I have deadlines and work and stress, last night my oldest and I came down with what appears to be a stomach flu. It’s bad enough that I was hoping it was just some kind of food poisoning, but no dice.
Because I had a lot of time to sit and think about it, I told my wife I’d calculated a 94% probability I had Ebola. Displaying what I’d suggest was a callous indifference to the suffering of others, she told me:
1) I was a hypochondriac
2) I didn’t have Ebola (nobody in the USA has Ebola), it was just a stomach bug
3) If I saw a bright light, she wanted me to walk towards it
As she got ready to leave, I said “Honey, I’m hovering in the twilight zone between life and death, and I’d hate for those to be your last words to me. Is that really what you want to say?”
She said “I’m 94% sure, yup.”
Keep writing (even in unsupported, gastro-intestinal distress), Tom Chandler
Podcasts, it seems, are where it’s at.
Apparently, he’s not alone.
Fast Company’s App Economy blog outlines the rapid growth of podcast networks, and suggests profitability (digital media’s holy grail) is not far behind:
The StartUp guys aren’t alone in thinking there’s “massive” money to be made in podcasting of this ilk. In the last six months, three podcast networks have popped up, from established public radio players: Infinite Guest from American Public Media, SoundWorks from PRI, and Radiotopia from PRX. Meanwhile WNYC has added more podcasts to its roster of shows, which includes the beloved, and very popular, Radiolab. This American Life, the radio show, is now spawning a podcast called Serial. Online print media has also gotten the message: Slate has doubled its podcast output in the last two years.
And podcasts of all types have been on the up and up: According to the Washington Post, podcast downloads passed 1 billion mark last year and monthly podcast listeners number 75 million per month.
Driving all this interest — at least according to every article I’ve read — is the notion that radio is going away, and something is going to replace it. Might as well be podcasts.
I’m not sure I wholly buy that.
I think Podcasts are on the rise not because of radio’s demise, but because they represent the ressurection of long-form reportage — the kind of journalism whose death has been forecast repeatedly.
I love print, but there is something deeply intimate about a good audio recording.
Keep in mind these aren’t your garden-variety, two-guys talking podcasts. They’re deeply investigated, beautifully reported, and sometimes eerily edited.
The real thing.
We’re also seeing a resurgence (I think) in the written long-form journalism, but I wonder if the future of the form won’t be found in streaming audio.
Although I recently hit a patch of video work, I haven’t done much in the audio world (OK, a few radio spots decades ago). But it interests me.
It’s not as if I need another learning experience piled atop my already chaotic, two-tiny-daughters life. But then, you know the rule: Stop learning, start dying.
Keep writing, Tom Chandler.
The StartUp podcast series entertainingly delves into Alex Blumberg’s attempt to launch a podcast network. The podcasts are entertaining and authentic, but podcast #5 offers something special; the founders try to name their company.
The narrator originally said the process sounded “like fun.” Like any copywriter who’s actually named a product or company, I laughed when he said it.
Naming isn’t fun. Naming is hard.
It’s a process burdened by the mistaken belief you gather a few people in a conference room to brainstorm, lubricate with beer, and 39 minutes later you’ve found the correct (and inspirational) answer.
No muss, no fuss.
I’ve got three whole notebooks — filled with good and bad ideas — that suggest otherwise.
The podcast — amusingly — tracks pretty much as predicted. For the founders, enthusiasm quickly gives way to puzzlement. Eventually anxiety takes over, which further gums up the creative wheels.
In the end, the founders seek professional help.
And yes, this is my surprised look.
In the early 90s, I was tapped by an agency to name a networking products company (back then, networking was complicated stuff involving engineers, black magic and sunspots).
Like our podcaster, I thought naming a company would be fun. And I was excited by the scale of the thing; this company had backers.
Because I’d never done it before, I figured it would be easy. I’d need a day to absorb the facts. Then a couple days to swirl the information around in my head.
At that time, a list of killer names would simply emerge from my subconscious.
Less than a week, tops.
Needless to say, I was dead wrong.
Eventually (the kind of “eventually” that implies a great span of time), I crafted a solid list of names. I thought one was a winner.
The art director liked it so much she created a killer logo on spec for the pitch meeting — a kind of stylized Greek God of Networking.
Groundbreaking. Classic. Yet still modern.
We both swooned.
So did the clients. They loved it. Loved it. Astonishingly, it cleared the trademark review.
I was excited. I figured Articulus would become a household name on a par with Apple. For decades to come, it would serve as a bright, shiny totem of my creative brilliance.
Megalomania was already setting in.
Weeks went by. Then months. We eagerly awaited the launch. I readied my awards acceptance speech.
But the company never launched (funding issues and problems with the offshore manufacturer). And even if it had launched, word filtered back that the wife of an executive thought Articulus was… well… too gay (this was the early 90s).
Once again, a shot at marketing immortality eluded me. (Once again, this is my surprised look.)
The podcaster behind the story — Alex Blumberg — originally thought his partners would hang out, drink a couple beers and knock out a new name.
After that predictably failed, they turned to friends and spouses for ideas.
After that failed, they went to Lexicon (a well-known branding company), and begged for free help.
So much for the power of beer.
Lexicon returned with a long list of names, from which Blumberg picked Gimlet. It was far from my favorite choice, but it nicely illustrated that part of the naming process where everyone gets tired and cranky, so they urge the decision maker to simply pick something and move on.
Like crafting a perfect tagline, naming a product or company is one of those endeavors that seems easy to everyone who’s never done it.
But it almost never is. Speaking as a card-carrying member of the professional class, professional help is not a bad investment.
If you haven’t tuned into the StartUp podcast series, you’re missing out. Creator Alex Blumberg worked at This American Life and Planet Money (two of the biggest podcasts on the planet), but left his job (and salary) to launch a new podcast network.
He delves into his difficulties attracting partners, finding venture capital, naming his company — and all the other problems that pop up when you launch a startup.
He’s up to podcast #7 (podcast #1 is titled “How Not to Pitch a Billionaire”), and the series is worth a few minutes of your time.
Keep writing (and naming, though skip the beer), Tom Chandler.
For almost 30 years I've worked as a writer (most of it freelance). I'm also the father of two perfect little girls.
Despite these things, I remain mostly sane.
The Underground reflects my interest in all kinds of writing and all kinds of writers (if you're looking for SEO advice, you're probably in the wrong place).