Thirty five + years of projects

I realized the other day that most people grow up thinking in terms of professional affiliations. “I’m going to be an accountant.” “I’m going to work for General Dynamics.”

Somehow, I always thought of my career as a series of projects, not jobs. Projects… things to be invented, funded and shipped. Sometimes they take on a life of their own and last, other times, they flare and fade. But projects, one after the other, mark my career. Lucky for me, the world cooperated and our entire culture shifted from one based on long-term affilitations (you know, ‘jobs’) to projects.

I had a two-part approach to building a career about projects. The first was to find a partner who was willing to own the lion’s share of the upside in exchange for advancing resources allowing me to create the work (but always keeping equity in the project, not doing it merely for hire). Publishers are good at this, and it enabled me to bootstrap my way to scale. The second was to grow a network, technology and the confidence to be able to take on projects too big for the typical solo venture. Complicated projects, on time, is a niche that’s not very crowded…

The stages of a project—being stuck, seeing an outcome, sharing a vision, being rejected, finding a home, building it, editing it, launching it, planting the seeds for growth—I’m thrilled it’s a cycle I’ve been able to repeat hundreds of times over the years.

There’s a difference between signing on to someone else’s project and starting your own. The impresario mindset of initiation and improvisation are at the heart of the project. It’s yours, you own it. Might as well do something you’re proud of, and something that matters, because it’s your gig.

Over time, the project world has changed. Thanks to digital tools, it’s cheaper than ever to build and launch something based on content. Distribution is far faster and cheaper as well. We used to need a publishing partner or a partner with a platform (a record label, a media company…) to get the word out; now, in many cases, this adds time and hassle without creating sufficient benefit. Because it’s easier to launch, we can spend more time focusing on what the audience wants, as opposed to merely pleasing (and pitching) the middleman. On the other hand, that makes it a lot harder to dig in and create, because there isn’t that moment where someone says, “yep, I’ll publish it…”

For me, the trick is not to represent the client, or the publisher, or the merchant. The trick is to represent the project, to speak up for the project, to turn it into what it needs to be. And over the years, I’ve found that each project gets just a little more personal than the one that came before.

The lack of a gatekeeper presents a fascinating shift, now. It used to be that the gatekeeper was somewhat of a partner, a ying to your yang, a safe way to find out something might not resonate. Now, it’s so much easier to go straight to market that we need to find our own internal compass, something to replace the external one we all used to depend upon…

Here are a handful of the projects I’ve created and shipped over the last three decades–not my favorites, necessarily, or the biggest, but ones that indicate where I was when I was doing them. This is way more self-referential than I’m usually comfortable with, but the combination of timing and the specifics that come from the example made me think it was worth posting a chronology. Happy anniversary, and thanks for letting me create…

1984—Telarium, a huge project that started my path with a flourish. I was incredibly lucky to be given the resources to create something magical by David and Bill. A story for another day, but it took me a long time to again come close to an experience like this one.

1985—Tennis and golf on VCR, British video games on floppy disk and other Spinnaker projects.

1986—Business Rules of Thumb, my first book. Followed by 900 rejections in a row, 30 projects dead, including The Fortune Cookie Construction Set and How to Hypnotize Your Friends and Make Them Act Like Chickens.

1987—The Select Guide to Law Firms, an ad-supported directory of fancy law firms given to the most elite law students in the country. I learned an enormous amount about direct mail, rejection and lawyers from this project. It ran for three editions and kept me in business during several really lean years.

1988—Isaac Asimov’s Robots, a VCR mystery game. Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs up… This one was a leap in complexity, involving Doubleday, Kodak, Asimov, game designers, packaging designers, an editor, a union cast, and yes, robots. Or at least people in robot costumes.

1989—Score More Points, a series of VCR tapes that taught kids how to cheat at Nintendo games. I was certainly waiting for the web to arrive, but it hadn’t, yet.

1990—Guts, an online game for Prodigy, launched. It was one of the most popular online promotions of its time, and it contained thousands of hand-built trivia questions incorporated into several different editions of the game. This was a chance to see how much content added to technology, and how it could leverage and spread ideas.

1991—The Worlds of Power series. It took me more than three years to get all the licenses I needed to launch this series of novels, each based on a video game that was popular on Nintendo. We sold more than a million of them.

1992—One day, I saw that Cliffs Notes had published a list of their most popular notes. Using the 80/20 rule as a guide, I realized that the top 30 titles probably accounted for more than 95% of their sales. Hence: Quicklit, a book that should have been incredibly popular, but wasn’t. Betting that high school students would plan ahead was a bad idea. I also had the delightful opportunity to work with a giant, Walter Dean Myers, in creating a series of novels for overlooked young adults. Walter died last week, and his impact on millions of kids can’t possibly be overstated.

1993—In between multi-year, complex projects, we found time to do things a bit more lighthearted. The Smiley Dictionary started as a phone call with my friend and colleague Michael Cader, was sold the next week and finished a week after that. Without a doubt, my time would have been better spent building a search engine.

[During this seven-year peak period of making over 100 books, my team and I got about a dozen rejection letters a week, or 500 a year, relentlessly, year after year. They were rejections from people who reject things for a living. I wasn’t spamming people, I was submitting proposals to people who wanted to get them. This is a useful lesson for project creators…]

1994—This one stretched my philosophy of scaling up to take on bigger book projects. The original Information Please Business Almanac was almost 800 pages of densely-packed facts, advice, resources and more. Five full-time editors worked together (in my attic) and we built a desktop publishing system to collate and manage all the data we organized and presented. Too bad the web made us obsolete, because we were the easiest way to find the phone number for the Honolulu Public Library (open late!). We did this at the same time we built The Guerrilla Marketing Handbook.

1995—For more than five years, I patiently courted Stanley Kaplan (the person) about turning his iconic brand into a series of test prep books. After an arduous development process, we finally launched with five titles (the best part were the cartoons from Bizarro)…

1996—At Yoyodyne, we built an organization that excelled at inventing and launching projects. We created the first million-dollar online sweepstakes, as well as a growing series of promotions from American Express, P&G and others.

1997—The Bootstrapper’s Bible was a great idea, and after a few years, I got the rights back and decided to share an abridged edition online for free.

1998—This was a peak year for project craziness, with books and online projects coming out at a feverish pace. At one point, I did project presentations in three different states in one day. I finally (and painfully) realized that entrepreneurs were different from freelancers, sold my companies and shifted gears.

1999—Permission Marketing was, after creating and launching 120 books, seen as my first ‘real’ book, a solo effort that was marketed the way most books are. I also started writing columns for Fast Company, a monthly launch discipline that suited my need to invent and ship.

2000—Unleashing the Ideavirus was launched, no publisher, no bookstores, no revenue. I went on to quickly create and self-publish a hardcover which became a bestseller, proving to me that the world of projects was going to be different from now on.

2001—I spent ten hours a day, just about every day, researching and writing Survival is Not Enough.

2002—The CD patents were expiring, and Sony launched SACD but forgot to produce original music in that format. I launched Zoomtone records as an experiment with some passionate and talented musicians. Alas, the high-end stereo community wasn’t interested.

2003—My first TED talk, Purple Cow in a milk carton and Really Bad Powerpoint all shipped.

2004—This is the year, a decade ago, when this blog really hit its stride, and when it became clear that connecting people online was a useful and powerful platform. I launched the Bull Market ebook as well as Free Prize Inside, a book about how to make a purple cow. The book came in a cereal box, which probably gilded the lily and certainly didn’t make bookstores happy. Also! As a summer project, launched, which thrives to this day.

2005—All Marketers are Liars is published, a lousy title for a really important idea. We started Squidoo as a summer project.

2006—This is Broken, a talk I gave exactly once, took months to create. I’m glad Mark filmed it.

2007—The Dip, my shortest book, with the most impact per page by far, launches.

2008—Launched Tribes, a significant shift in my writing focus. If marketing is everything that an organization does that changes perceptions, then leadership is the most important marketing tool. Doing the right thing is at least as important as knowing what the right thing is.

2009—The six month MBA. What a project, one that continues to weave a web of friends, passion and change. We sat together in my office every day for six months, and it directly led to significant shifts in thinking for all of us. Also, unrelated, mini me went to the Minnesota State Fair.

2010—Linchpin was published. This might be my book project that has had the biggest impact. Followed it up with a self-organized event in NYC and then Chicago. Once again, the world says to the project creator… go ahead, pick yourself.

2011—Started as a summer project in 2010, 2011 was devoted to launching a dozen Domino Project books. Each was a bestseller, with special editions, letterpress and experiments in design, pricing and distribution. Publishing the master, Steve Pressfield, was one of my all-time career highlights. After a year of launches, the books remain, but new work goes elsewhere.

2012—The key project of the year was my Kickstarter project, launching four books at the same time (this is not recommended). I learned a lot in closing the circle and turning the reader into the middleman. Writing, designing, marketing and trafficking the four books required most of what I’ve learned in thirty years. If you’re considering a Kickstarter (just one book, please), I hope you’ll read this first…

2013—On time, The Icarus Deception, V is for Vulnerable, Watcha Gonna Do With that Duck and the behemoth shipped. The craft of a project is sometimes daring to write a short little book about Smileys and let someone else print it, ship it, promote it and keep it in print for a decade, and sometimes it’s about touching every element of the project by hand, hauling boxes, renting storage units and making sure the box got to New Zealand… Thanks to Bernadette Jiwa and Alex Miles Younger for being critical elements of this insane plan. Also, as a bonus, I worked with a fabulous team to build and launch Krypton Community College. (Here’s a curriculum on shipping, the heart of the project life).

2014—My Skillshare course on Entrepreneurship launched. The HugDug project launched, raising money for charity: water, Acumen, Save the Children and other worthy causes.

[Updating this as we go: Including Your Turn, a book I wrote and designed, now in its fifth printing…

2015—We launched the altMBA. And the Udemy freelancing course broke records for me and for them.

2016—The altMBA became a significant institution, with more than 1,000 alumni so far. We shipped the Titan and a new Udemy course as well.]

2017—We’re up to our third session of The Marketing Seminar. And the altMBA is now in session 15, in 49 countries and more than 650 cities so far…

2018—TMS4 happens in January, and the altMBA continues. Also: Cat Hoke’s book, A Second Chance. Akimbo, my popular new podcast launched and is now in its second season.  And then TMS5. And the Podcasting Fellowship. And a new seminar on Bootstrapping was transformative for thousands of people.

A busy year indeed. This is Marketing launched, went to #1 on the WSJ list, and lots of podcasts.

2019—TMS6 launched in early January. And then The Boostrapper’s Workshop and the Freelancer’s as well. The Podcast Fellowship with Alex DiPalma continues. Akimbo (the podcast) enters its fourth season–more than 60 episodes) and Akimbo Workshops (our education initiative) launches. The altMBA is in 72 countries and nearly 1,000 cities.

2020—More than 20,000 alumni in more than 80 countries for Akimbo and the altMBA. Groundbreaking new work with the Real Skills Conference. Two sessions of the game-changing Emerging Leaders workshop. Well over 100 episodes of the podcast.

Akimbo becomes a “B” Corp and is now owned and run by its leaders. A new book, The Practice ships. An instant bestseller about shipping creative work. Clearly, there’s a pattern here.

2021—Well, that happened.

And yet, the blog persists, nearly a hundred talks around the world, a new Udemy workshop, one for LinkedIn, Akimbo hits 200 podcasts…

2022—An all-volunteer effort to create, illustrate, edit, design, fact check and publish The Carbon Almanac. It’s clearly the most important thing I’ve ever worked on. People need to know what’s happening and make up their own minds about the systemic action that can make a difference.

2023—The Song of Significance is a new bestseller, there are more podcasts and talks on leadership, creativity and the climate as well.

Drip by drip.

What an opportunity each of us now has to create a project worth making.