It's been a while since I last posted and it's because I've just been so focused on trying to grow my video production agency. Looking back I can't believe it's been three years since I posted this blog post about moving out of being a beginner. I don't feel like a beginner anymore these days but I also don't feel full confidence that I have what it takes to succeed as a entrepreneur.
It is quite a journey looking back at when we first started doing small business videos, we we're paid just a couple hundred bucks; now moving up the value chain, we've closed projects in the five figure range, which is exciting because it allows us more resources to put into the craft and creativity of the video. For example, one of our most recent projects involved renting out a large cross-fit gym and then setting up a 15 ft dolly track, and a fog machine. That was super fun and I really got to experiment with carrying out my directorial vision. One of the most exciting opportunities last year was the chance to pitch to Sandisk. We had always dreamt of having enterprise clients so we we're really eager for the opportunity. The pitch went really well and was accepted, but we found out that many enterprise clients don't pay deposits; Since we're too small of a company we had to turn that project down. It was sad mainly because these past two years I've been so gung-ho on my dream: Making videos for fortune 500 companies -- for Nike, Apple, and shooting television / Super Bowl commercials; and its sad because we had been so focused on growth in the form of high-value clients (which is riskier) rather than growth in client base and while that trajectory looked promising it is abruptly halted by this ceiling.
All of this sounds like I'm getting a ton of traction -- and I think I am, but from a financial standpoint it sucks. Sure, I've cut my expenses down and can survive but I'm not making much money at all. All of our profits go back into the business, and we have super low margins because we use so much budget to make the video look good. The project budget gets spent on equipment, crew, actors, and set dressing, so at the end, there's barely any profit left for the three of us. I wouldn't mind it so much if I felt I had a good grasp of marketing, but I can't seem to find consistency. Certain things have worked. I'm running Google Adwords, and that's been a good source of leads for us for far, but it's not consistent enough and the cost per click is insane.
The hardest part of marketing is knowing that the biz dev responsibility lies on my shoulders. I didn't mind it at all when I first graduated out of college, but now that it's been a few years, I can't help but question myself: Am I just playing around? Am I in the wrong market? Maybe I should do something else
With each passing year the pressure grows. The pressure of making this a sustainable source of income. Like I mentioned before, I personally don't mind a low income because I believe in the Early Retirement Extreme philosophy, but It's hard not to be envious of your friends working at tech companies making such-and-such. And it's not just my employed friends either, I have entrepreneurial friends who are also young and in their mid twenties with growing businesses, and while I'm super happy for their success I can't help but question the lack of my own. I look at my progress from when I was 23 to 24, from 24 to 25, and 25 to 26 and I wonder if this is sustainable going into my late twenties and thirties.
The worst part -- well it used to feel like the worst part but I don't necessarily feel that bad about it anymore -- is giving up my dream of being a digital nomad. I remember reading Tynan's blog in college and knowing that I'll follow the same path. I planned my mid twenties to be traveling across Southeast Asia working from my laptop with all my gear in one backpack. When I first moved back to San Francisco I still had that dream. I'll just build the business and systemize it so I can work on it while traveling, I thought, It will probably just take six months. Six months turned to three years and I'm still nowhere near that goal. I feel kinda sad about this, but I know it's the right thing to do. Adventure would be nice, I see all my friend's travel pictures on instagram, but now is the time to work. Now is the time to put my head down and do something. So long as I'm working, I'm not thinking about how my twenties should be. But If I take my head up for a second to see where I'm at, the anxiety of expectation sets in.
Expectation has a pretty big impact on your self-esteem. On an episode of Gary Vee this girl Taylor called in. She's 22 was telling Gary how she was going to be a millionaire by 25 even though she hadn't done anything. It's laughable, and obviously, Gary rebuked her... yet I relate. For some reason I had always had an expectation of myself to accomplish something of significance, in my current case: building a successful video agency, and I had always reasoned it as, oh of course I'll be able to accomplish that in the future, I have plenty of time, if I just believe in myself enough, future me will take care of it, something will happen. But when you have that expectation, and the inputs aren't aligning with the outputs, it leads to anxiety. It's odd to feel anxiety. I've never really had emotional health problems before. I hear about people having panic attacks, depression, or trouble sleeping, and because of my lack of experience, I wasn't able to really be empathetic. This past winter I had anxiety to the point where there was pressure building on my chest. It sucks. It sucks because I've always had a care-free, worry-free personality. I didn't stress even during final exams in college nor did I stress when I volunteered at a summer camp and had to work 11 hour shifts in the kitchen with the pressure to feed 500 people. But now I'm filled with this sinking looming feeling: the feeling that I only have a few years left of my twenties.
At the end of the day I have to remind myself not to dwell. To stay objective and move forward, and be thankful of what I have. I remind myself that that I've learned a lot in my pursuits and delivered a lot of value to my clients. I value the skills I've built in sales, digital marketing, copywriting, and project management. Just keep moving forward, no point dwelling. I know that businesses takes a long time to grow and scale, that it's dependent on my ability to make decisions and execute, so I hold on to why I started this agency in the first place: It's place to put into practice the information I'm consuming about business and to really test my abilities to get results in the real world. So with that I put my head down and grind.
Choosing tasks for the day is somewhat of an overwhelming process. With so many opportunities and so many things we can be doing, how do we make the most of our limited willpower? In this post I'm going to cover some familiar productivity concepts, introduce new concepts, and show you how I'm applying these concepts to make my workday easier.
The concepts: Popular concepts you've either heard to not heard of, but have already been written about:
1. Maker Schedule vs. Manager Schedule - http://paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html
2. Design vs. Marching - http://sebastianmarshall.com/staying-with-it-design-vs-marching-lead-vs-lag-process-vs-outcome-trend-upwards-vs-hohw
3. GTD vs. Deep work - http://calnewport.com/blog/2012/12/21/getting-unremarkable-things-done-the-problem-with-david-allens-universalism/
After sitting in as the audience member on many talks and listening to a lot of Q&A’s from experts both live and digitally, I’ve noticed that many people end up asking the same question. Not just the same questions, but the same type of questions, usually in the format of: what’s more important? this or that?
What’s more important passion or hardwork?
What’s more important product or marketing?
What’s more important? idea or execution?
A year and a half ago I was invited to sit at a workshop and be a guest expert at a conference. The event was Hardware Con, and because I had just been invited briefly before, and have never been a “guest expert”, I had no idea what to expect. So, because I had no idea what to expect, I didn’t think much of it until I got there. While sitting in the room 5 minutes before our workshop session started a small feeling of anxiety began to creep into me.
Thoughts popped up like: What kind of answers would I give that would even be helpful to these guys? Am I gonna tell them what camera to buy or what the difference between a grip and a gaffer? Would it benefit them for me to give feedback on the videos they’ve made?
Nothing out of the ordinary happened. They didn’t ask me questions that we’re related purely to the technical aspects of video production as I had initially worried about, but instead asked me to give feedback on some video ideas or to give feedback on their video strategy. This is all good and logical enough, but for some reason I felt like the advice I could in this domain wasn’t enough and wanted to give higher level advice, so I asked them about their overall marketing and what their funnel looked like. This was 2014, mind you, and internet marketing was still somewhat an obscure thing to learn, and because I was so interested in it at the time (still am) I felt like there was a lot I could give input on.
As so, when I transitioned the conversation to talking about internet marketing, things started to go south. People started getting uninterested and confused. One person even felt provoked by his skepticism and and asked, “Wait, what expert are you a field of again?"
Principles by Ray Dalio is basically a collection of all the wisdom Ray Dalio has ingrained. Halfway finishing the book I thought This book is amazing, but it has too many good lessons. How am I going to remember to apply these lessons when the situation arises?
The typical route for developing your own principles is to make a mistake, feel the pain of that pitfall and think, how could I have avoided that error? At which point your brain replies, You developed a wrong opinion about this person. Didn’t Ray Dalio say something about opinions in his book? At which point you flip back to the page and read:
This is nice to keep in mind for the next time a similar problem occurs, but wouldn’t life be easier if you didn’t have to go about making mistakes and learning from them — if you could see the situation and apply the right protocol?
The problem isn’t that we don’t have foresight, the problem is that when we’re going through life events, we don’t have a mental clarity to consciously remember to apply the right protocol to the right situation. If we were robots we could. If we we’re robots we could just set an IFTTT trigger event (or a Zapier) that pops up in our mind and tells us what to do. Obviously we’re not robots, but I think there’s something that clues us in on how to move toward this, and that something is If / Then statements (Conditional Statements).
I like to think a lot, and as a result of thinking a lot I come up with a lot of theories and mental models. When I was younger I was one of those “Why don’t you believe me!?” types, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that I had been wrong so many times, that just because a theory I came up with made sense to me, it could very likely be false.
But if I immediately dump my theories, then I think I could be dumping a lot of value. Because all high level work — anything conceptual or longterm lives in the realm of theory.
So how does one make sure they're not stuck in theory, and that they're actually getting results that apply to the real world?
In my opinion, the easy answer, and the answer you hear most often is: "take action”. While this is accurate advice, I think it’s one of those simplistic pieces of advice that doesn’t really get you anywhere.
I want this post to be helpful to you, but in order to do that, I need to quickly explain what I think theory is.
I remember when I first wanted to get good at basketball. Like anyone of course, I Youtubed Kobe Bryant moves and tried to learn them. I remember thinking that his advice was generic and inapplicable. His advice, however, is actually really good advice, it was just that it was inapplicable for me. That’s how many people view strategy; their inability to value it isn't because the strategy itself is bad (although sometimes it is) but because they don’t have the referential compression to understand it and see how they would apply it. With those Kobe videos, I was still new to basketball, I could barely shoot the ball let alone do a post up—fadeaway jumper...
This perception of generic advice was very similar to my early days of attending business conferences. At the end of the conference I would ask my fellow friend/audience member what he thought of the keynote and they would say something like, “Wow, it was so good. Thinking of retargeting pixels as a form of long term branding, that’s going to be amazing for my business”, and I would be thinking What? why can’t he tell me something that I can actually do today.
Only after I got better at basketball and learned fundamental movements, could I appreciate Kobe’s strategic choice of moves. Since I now know how to do a spin or finish with a reverse layup, I can string them together. I can appreciate the strategy behind that combo: your defender thinks you’re going to drive hard baseline, so instead you spin back into the paint, since you’re in the paint the big will come in to block your shot so you reverse layup using the rim as protection.
And as for my understanding of business, back then I didn’t even know what retargeting pixels were, and I still don’t really know what they are. But I’ve practiced running Google ads and Facebook ads, and I know how to use the Divi theme for Wordpress, and I’m decent at writing copy so basically I just write three ads and copy and paste the script that Google gives me near my contact form. Quick note: I haven’t actually done that yet, and I intend to implement it soon.
And the result, well, it’s not perfect, and will take refining, but the point is I can scrap something together, and when I can do that I can appreciate simplistic advice that sounds heady and do higher level work.
I walked up to the front desk and asked, “I have some questions about my account, can I speak to a manager?”. I was at the gym, and my plan was to ask about why they charged a $30 fee, and a mailing I got saying they offered a $7 membership. I wanted to see if there was leverage in negotiating a waiver of the $30 or my membership fee ($15) down.
The manager explained that the $30 fee was a yearly fee and that the $7 membership is a special membership that allowed you to only go 3 times a week. So, I didn’t get a negotiation win from that —
If you know me, I’m a big fan of Ramit Sethi and one of his main financial teachings is to have you negotiate a lot throughout the course of your life. When I first read his material I immediately agreed with his advice, but the thought of negotiating things seemed weird and out of the norm. I mean, I’m Chinese so I naturally inherited a lot of my Mom’s skills, but I didn’t know how to apply these skills outside of flea shops or Craigslist.
But since for the past year I’ve been playing the credit card signup bonus game, and incurred credit card fees and bank fees, I’ve made many attempts at applying Ramit’s negotiation techniques. His blog posts basically walk you through each step, and by following it, I’ve experienced how easy it is to win at these things. For example, I lost track of my Amex card and didn’t realize I didn’t pay the card for 3 months. This resulted in late fees of over $100. But Amex’s customer service is so good, all I had to do was call in and ask for them to be waived, and they did. When you experience wins like that, success can be addictive.
I remembered when I first got out of college. I spent half my time building my video production agency and the other half doing content marketing for Fuzed. Once I got the hang of managing the podcast, Jake, my boss, gave me the project of creating feature release landing pages with an accompanying explainer video for each new integration that came out. (Fuzed makes integrations similar to how Zapier works)
At the time, it was such a struggle to write the copy for the video, then write the copy for the landing page, then go into Wordpress and put it together. It took me days to get one done, and was painfully frustrating. This frustration lead me to think I would be much better off putting my time building my agency, why am I working for Jake? My agency work is creative and fun and these copywriting tasks are a pain. Of course, this attitude lead to a lack of initiative on my end, leaving Jake with disappointment.
When we parted ways, my initial thought was Yes now I have the free time to work on what I want to work on. But It’s been a year since that time and I regret dropping the ball and allowing Jake to be disappointed in me. It's not that I feel regret because of a loss of opportunity to work at Fuzed, but because I went from being an A player to being a C player once I was assigned set of projects that I wasn’t excited about.
If I think about completing the same project now, I could knock out a feature release landing page + video in a few hours. It seems so easy now.
I use this to take all of my ideas, no matter how irrelevant or how low it is as a priority and I write them all down into swipes. Then I just "later" those ideas far into the future so future me can be reminded. Maybe then I'll decide to actually take action on those ideas when its a better time.
In this video I: