Brian Gilham

Engineering leader, husband, and father

audience

It's All About the Work

It’s almost midnight on a Saturday night and I’m sitting in front of my laptop, writing this article. I’ve always loved writing, whether it was cringe-worthy journal entries as a kid or my short-lived career as a journalist. I respect and admire the many journalists doing the often-thankless work of keeping us informed. But, after spending time in a few newsrooms, I realized it wasn’t the profession for me. Looking at Facebook, that applies to many of my fellow journalism school graduates.

It’s almost midnight on a Saturday night and I’m sitting in front of my laptop, writing this article. I’ve always loved writing, whether it was cringe-worthy journal entries as a kid or my short-lived career as a journalist. 

I respect and admire the many journalists doing the often-thankless work of keeping us informed. But, after spending time in a few newsrooms, I realized it wasn’t the profession for me. Looking at Facebook, that applies to many of my fellow journalism school graduates. A few have stuck with it, but most are working in decidedly non-journalism jobs these days.

My favourite part of working in a newsroom was the opportunity to solicit feedback from fellow journalists, photographers, editors, and the paper’s readership. You get feedback on your writing, whether you want it or not. At best, you hear reasoned arguments and opinions. At worst, you get a valuable opportunity to develop a thicker skin.

But these days, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, anyone can publish their work and receive feedback. It wasn’t all that long ago you had to wait for someone to write a letter or call the newsroom. Now, feedback hits your inbox almost daily.

With sites like Reddit & Hacker News, it’s possible for thousands — or millions — of people to read what you write. If your post ranks highly enough, your traffic goes through the roof, newsletter signups skyrocket, and your inbox gets slammed.

I was on the receiving end of it, once, when I wrote Be Kind.

I posted it to Hacker News one Friday, on a whim. Much to my surprise, it quickly climbed to the #1 spot. For many of you, this was your introduction to the Monday Mailer.

For a few days, I felt great. I saw the number of people visiting the site, signing up for the newsletter, and emailing me and thought I’d finally “made it.” Whatever that means.

But, eventually, it all came to an end. My website traffic went back down to pre-Hacker News levels. The rate of newsletter signups dropped off. The majority of the emails stopped coming.

In the end, I had the same thing I’d started with: the work.

I’ve been lucky to meet and chat with a few people who are prominent online. Despite their Internet fame, they’re all regular folks like you and I. They’re busy working at a job, or running a business. They’re raising a family. They’re working hard to build an audience for their work. They’re putting their voices out into the world, despite their fears.

The one thing they all obsess over? How best to do their work.

They want to get better, work fucking hard, get to know their audiences, and find ways to help them. To build products that improve people’s lives or jobs. To have real conversations about doing good work.

The work never really goes away. It’s always there. You can accomplish audacious goals, becoming well-known in your community, and earn a lot of money. But, in the end, none of it matters. The work will still be there, waiting for you.

Temporary “fame” will change your brain if you let it. You create something new, it gains a following, and suddenly all you care about is numbers. And once those numbers start to decline — and they will — you’ll do anything to keep them growing. It’s why scam artists find financial success selling “50 Ways to Turbocharge Your Newsletter” courses.

You stop caring about the people consuming your work and start caring about how many unique visitors your site had last month. Or how many Twitter followers you have. Or how your podcast’s downloads are faring.

It’s the wrong path.

In the words of Charles Bukowski:

“Find something you love and let it kill you.”

You can read every blog post about marketing, shell out thousands of dollars for online courses, and tweak your social media presence until the cows come home. But, in the end, all that’s left is you, a laptop, and the work. So you’d damn well better love it.

Love the work. Love the process. Love the act of working. Protect that love and put it into everything you do. It’s all you have.

You aren’t guaranteed anything in this life, except the opportunity to work hard.

Embrace it.

Until next week,

-Brian


One Foot in Front of the Other

Many people think there’s a secret formula for attracting an audience online. I hear from developers weekly who figure there’s some hack they haven’t discovered yet; a trick for making people care about their projects, apps, or blog posts. If you fall into that camp, I have some good news. There is a simple way to grow your audience. But it’s far from easy. To build an audience for your work, you “simply” need to produce quality work and consistently share it with the world.

Many people think there’s a secret formula for attracting an audience online. I hear from developers weekly who figure there’s some hack they haven’t discovered yet; a trick for making people care about their projects, apps, or blog posts. If you fall into that camp, I have some good news. There is a simple way to grow your audience. But it’s far from easy.

To build an audience for your work, you “simply” need to produce quality work and consistently share it with the world. That’s it.

But many developers, faced with a launch that failed to garner the attention it deserved, decide to give up. Worse, some walk away without finishing anything. Their hard drives are full of half-finished apps, book drafts, or designs. They get so close to the point where, with a bit more effort, they could have created something impactful.

In both cases, developers encounter resistance and think it means they’re on the wrong path. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield says:

“Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”

Translation: The things we feel the most resistance toward doing are the very things we most need to do.

You will encounter failure, in the course of your career. Some of the greatest makers on Earth have experienced failure, many times over. Steven Spielberg was rejected from theater school on three separate occasions. Walt Disney got fired once, due to a “lack of imagination.”

People with real passion, who care deeply about their craft, refuse to be dissuaded by failure. Instead, they lick their wounds, get up out of the dirt, and try again. And again. And again. They show up, ready to do the work. Each and every day.

The only way to find your version of success is to keep producing work. Your career isn’t a single moment in time; it’s a collection of moments. Some moments bring failure; others will take you to heights you didn’t think possible. You have to go along for the ride, either way.

Lots of people like to talk a big game. They boast about the things they’re going to accomplish, the moves they’re going to make. Usually, they make these proclamations while everyone in the room rolls their eyes. It’s obvious they’re all talk and no action. You needn’t join their ranks.

The fact that most people give up so quickly is the reason you can be successful — if you’re willing to stick around longer than they do. Sharing your work with other people is scary. Trying new things is scary. Being vulnerable on a regular basis is downright frightening. But that’s how you’ll stand out — by doing the things that scare others away.

You can push through resistance to create something great. But you need to make a conscious decision to fight on a daily basis; to have the grit to keep showing up — each and every day.

Start today.

Until next time,

-Brian


How to Start Writing

Writing and publishing the Monday Mailer has been one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had online. It’s allowed me to share my work, improve my writing, and connect with people all over the world. I often hear from folks who want to start writing on a regular basis but don’t know where to begin. It’s easy to look at individuals who write and publish new articles multiple times a week, like Seth Godin, and feel intimidated.

Writing and publishing the Monday Mailer has been one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had online. It’s allowed me to share my work, improve my writing, and connect with people all over the world. I often hear from folks who want to start writing on a regular basis but don’t know where to begin.

It’s easy to look at individuals who write and publish new articles multiple times a week, like Seth Godin, and feel intimidated. But it’s important to remember that everyone, from world-class authors to niche bloggers, starts at the same place: zero.

Zero writing skills. Zero online presence. Zero audience. Zip. Zilch.

If those people can improve their skills, publish on a regular basis, and build an audience, so can you. It all comes down to consistent, daily practice. Putting your butt in the chair and doing the work. Start by setting a target; maybe 250-500 words a day. Every day. No matter what

In the beginning, write without worrying about proper spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Don’t get hung up on that stuff. It’s far more important to focus on creating a new habit; on making words happen with some regularity. What you write might suck, at first. That’s perfectly normal, and should be expected. You’ll want to throw it all away, but I encourage you to resist the urge. One day you’ll look back at those early pieces and marvel at how much you’ve improved.

Write about your life, your challenges, or something you’ve learned recently. Write about the weird thing your dog did this morning. Write about your relationships, or your career. Whatever pops into your head. Try to be vulnerable and honest. Everything under the sun has been written about before, but no one can replicate your experiences and what they’ve brought to your life. You have a unique angle on just about everything – express it!

With time and a bit of dedicated practice, you’ll be cranking words out in no time. That’s what I love about writing. You may not be the next Stephen King or have formal training, but you don’t need it. You don’t need to wait until someone else proclaims you a “Writer.”

As long as you’re writing, you’re a writer. So, get to work.

Until next time,

–Brian


Test Your Idea (And Assumptions)

Lately, I’ve been playing around with the idea of creating a Monday Mailer podcast featuring audio versions of my articles, along with occasional original content. I’ve dabbled with audio projects in the past, but never on a regular basis. It’s an exciting idea, but I’m most definitely an amateur when it comes to this sort of thing. It can be scary to try something outside your comfort zone, whether it’s a side project, added responsibilities at work, or a new hobby.

Lately, I’ve been playing around with the idea of creating a Monday Mailer podcast featuring audio versions of my articles, along with occasional original content. I’ve dabbled with audio projects in the past, but never on a regular basis. It’s an exciting idea, but I’m most definitely an amateur when it comes to this sort of thing.

It can be scary to try something outside your comfort zone, whether it’s a side project, added responsibilities at work, or a new hobby. You’re putting yourself out there, raw and vulnerable. But if you don’t push your boundaries every once in a while, you’ll never grow.

I have no idea if my podcast idea will be well-received. So, instead of jumping in with both feet, I’m reframing the concept as a simple test. There’re a few questions I’m hoping to answer:

  1. Is a podcast something my audience wants?
  2. Do I have the ability to produce a quality episode, each and every week?
  3. Can I speak in a way that’s warm and inviting, rather than annoying?

Instead of committing lots of time and resources to trying it out, I’m putting on my lab coat and testing a hypothesis: “I can produce a podcast episode that people will enjoy listening to.” You can take this approach in your work, too.

Break your idea down into the smallest possible version of itself. Ask yourself:

“What’s the least I can do to test this out in front of real people?”

Cut everything else out and share it with the world. Right now. It isn’t easy – you’ll worry it isn’t polished enough. But that’s the point. If your audience doesn’t “get it” in the rough stages, it’s unlikely a few extra hours of work will change their minds. You can always improve it later if the feedback is positive.

In my case, I recorded a quick test track – around a minute and a half long – and put it up on my website. I added a quick, anonymous survey and tweeted out the link. So far, the feedback has ranged from “This is awesome!” to “You sound like you’re copying Ira Glass.” Some of the more critical comments sting a little, at first. But I’d rather hear them now than ten episodes down the road.

It’s important that we separate ourselves from our work, sometimes. Don’t hold any idea so tight you can’t make changes or move on if needed. It might take 100 failed experiments before you find something that works. And that’s okay.

Real success isn’t hitting it out of the park with every at bat. That never happens. Real success is spending your time on what matters and making the most of it.

Until next time,

–Brian


Communicate Like a Human Being

The traditional marketing blog wisdom is that using double opt-in for your mailing list is a bad idea. It’s an unnecessary step, they say. You’ll get 20-30% more subscribers without it. Oh, and put some pop-ups on your site. Don’t you want more people on your mailing list? Ugh. I take the opposite approach. I put up as many barriers as I can. When you signed up for the Money Mailer you had to:

The traditional marketing blog wisdom is that using double opt-in for your mailing list is a bad idea. It’s an unnecessary step, they say. You’ll get 20-30% more subscribers without it. Oh, and put some pop-ups on your site. Don’t you want more people on your mailing list?

Ugh. I take the opposite approach. I put up as many barriers as I can. When you signed up for the Money Mailer you had to:

  1. Type in your email address.
  2. Get redirected to another page, asking you to click a confirmation link.
  3. Open your email client.
  4. Find the email from me, assuming it didn’t end up in your spam folder.
  5. Click on the confirmation link.
  6. Get redirected to another page, letting you know that you’ve finally reached the end.
  7. Except, you have to wait until next Monday to get the first email.

That’s seven steps, just to read what I write. 

The biggest benefit to this approach is that it’s relaxing. I’m not worried about catering to an audience whose goals don’t align with mine. You aren’t on this list because of a free giveaway or some other marketing gimmick. You aren’t here because I pounded you with pop-ups. You’re here because I promised to share my thoughts on shipping side projects and doing good work. And that’s what I try to deliver.

Sure, it means fewer subscribers. But those people are worth more – and I don’t mean financially. I’m not here to sell you anything. I want to share what I know, build connections with people, and have interesting conversations.

And I’m succeeding in that goal. The Monday Mailer gets a handful of new signups each week. When you reach that final “You Made It!” page, I ask you to email me and share some of your work. Not everyone does it – that’s fine. But every once in a while I get to hear about something cool. A new app. A blog post. An exciting project at work.

I write back, every time. We talk about motivations. Hopes and dreams. A tricky bug. Future goals. Finishing a project.

Sometimes I just let them know they aren’t alone.

I don’t care about having a massive audience. I want the Monday Mailer to grow because someone cared about what I have to say, got some value from it, then shared it with someone they like. By communicating with them like a human being.

It feels like the right approach.

Until next time,

–Brian


Focus on Your 1%

We’re obsessed with numbers these days. Likes. Favourites. Followers. Retweets. We’re trying to gobble up as much social validation as we can. Build a massive audience. Amass followers. Be popular. Be liked. It’s addictive, watching those numbers climb higher and higher. But for those trying to do their best work, it’s a distraction. I’ve heard friends lament losing followers on Twitter when they discuss things they’re passionate about. If people bail when you talk about something you love, forget ‘em.

We’re obsessed with numbers these days.

Likes. Favourites. Followers. Retweets. We’re trying to gobble up as much social validation as we can. Build a massive audience. Amass followers. Be popular. Be liked. It’s addictive, watching those numbers climb higher and higher.

But for those trying to do their best work, it’s a distraction.

I’ve heard friends lament losing followers on Twitter when they discuss things they’re passionate about. If people bail when you talk about something you love, forget ‘em. They were following the wrong person, they just didn’t know it yet.

You have to focus on your 1%. The people who are genuinely interested in your work and what you have to say. The rest don’t matter.

When you cater to everyone, you cater to no one.

Until next time,

–Brian