I'm Feeling '22: Wins, Fails, and Staying Small
Here's what I learned in 2021 and my plans for '22
I just completed a 5-day annual review courtesy of CommitAction.com. Not only did it lead to surprising insights, but a brand new definition of “progress” for the year to come.
That’s a sign of a great program - when the results surprise you.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written for other people under my own name. It will take a little bit to get used to it again. But here goes.
2021 in one word: Fearless.
This year I ran head first into many brick walls and smashed through some. I closed down my content marketing business and started a publishing business, wrote a book in public, grew my Twitter audience, and took serious challenges head on. I succeeded where it counted. I was persistent and fearless.
My biggest wins of 2021:
Here is where the surprises started. Yes, I published Damn Gravity’s first book, which was a huge win. Every time I look at Stop Asking Questions on my book shelf—the black Damn Gravity logo shining on the yellow book spine like the bat signal—my heart swells with pride. And yes, I finished the first draft of my book (which is technically a “win” but won’t feel like it until I publish.)
But my biggest win in 2021 was the people I surrounded myself with. This sounds cliche, I’m aware, but this it’s the thing that makes me smile the widest.
I’ve always longed for a community of ambitious creators and entrepreneurs around me. I made a huge leap into a new circle this year. I became friends (and sometimes partners) with multiple people whom I’ve looked up to for YEARS. The quality of people in my life continues to rise. Even more importantly, I’ve remained close with several old friends who continue to age like fine wine. I’m so proud of my people and honored to be a part of their lives.
My biggest fails of 2021:
I like to tell people that I’m so used to failure that it doesn’t hurt anymore. This isn’t entirely true—it still hurts like hell—but the pain fades more quickly now. This year I made bigger mistakes because I was reaching further than ever.
Specifically, I broke the trust of someone I admired and ruined the relationship. I probably won’t ever get that relationship back but I learned my lesson: Be upfront with people if you have reservations.
Another failure: I didn’t publish Great Founders Write. Instead I switched my focus to book publishing. The most detrimental thing I did was stop writing this newsletter and Twitter content regularly. Now I have to work double-time to regain the momentum I had last spring.
Finally, I almost ruined my first book launch with shoddy work. I took my eye off the ball, prioritizing speed and growth over quality. The worst part is that I’ve done this before: Back in 2018, I almost destroyed my content marketing business because I tried growing too fast and didn’t properly train the people helping me. I made the same mistake twice. I’m not going to do it again.
In 2021, I finally learned that talent is expensive. If I can’t hire the best, I need to do it myself until I can afford them and have time to train them properly. I failed someone this year, someone who trusted me to lead them to success. I did not lead them to success.
Onward to 2022…
My theme for 2022: Stay small and get healthy
Growth is the default goal for virtually every business in America. “If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” They say.
In my own pursuit of growth, I’ve built just about nothing and have ruined a lot more. My weakness is trying to grow too quickly, to skip the growing pains and find an easy solution, like hiring someone or taking out a business loan. I’ve never run a profitable business, not when you take credit card debt and business loans into account. In 2022 I want that to change.
My original goal for 2022 was to contract 10 books. Now my goal is to publish 3. In October I tried hiring a Chief Storyteller. Now I plan to stay small and hire no one except ghostwriters, editors, and designers. Why? To get out of debt and to build a healthy business from the ground up.
The most influential book I read in 2021 was Small Giants by Bo Burlingham. It’s about “small” businesses that chose to be great instead of big. Examples included Clif Bar, Anchor Steam Brewing, Righteous Babe Records, Zingerman’s Deli, and many more. These businesses focused on quality, community, and profits; not growth at all costs. They still earned tens of millions of dollars, but they didn’t sacrifice their souls for revenue.
This book was a revelation for me. There are very few “role models” in business that didn’t grow at all costs. Before this book I saw two examples: Solo entrepreneurs or startup founders growing as quickly as possible. I never wanted to remain a solopreneur, so I thought I had to grow fast.
Small Giants showed me another path: Intentional growth, and only when you can assure quality. This is the model I’ve been looking for. It fits my vision for Damn Gravity to a tee: Community-driven, profitable growth, where quality is priority number one.
Several years ago, when Mary and I first started dating, she asked me, “How do you want to be remembered?”
“I want to be remembered for my art.” I’ve always had the sense that creation is the only way to be immortal. Writing is my art. Business is also an art to me. Growth-driven business does not interest me; impact-driven business does.
That will be my focus in 2022.
My Big Hair Audacious Goal: Stay Small and Get Healthy
Over the year I’ve racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
Why? Because that’s what I thought entrepreneurs did.
The founders of Airbnb maxed out their credit cards, so I did that too. Instead of doing the hard work of managing expenses and getting profitable, I took out business loans. As a result, my monthly expenses have ballooned to nearly unsustainable levels.
My approach to this problem in the past was to grow faster. But you can’t solve a problem with the same strategy that created the problem in the first place.
Instead of growth as a goal, my BHAG for 2022 is to pay off my business loans and back taxes: Roughly $45,000.
Why is this a good goal?
Peter Shallard, founder of CommitAction, says that a proper goal should increase your choices, not limit them. By paying down my debts, I’ll cut my monthly expenses nearly in half, giving me freedom to do many things, including hiring people to grow Damn Gravity.
Another indication that this is a good goal: If I don’t hit it—say I only pay off 50% of my debt—I will still be in better shape than I am today. Having slightly more freedom is a good concession if I come up short.
“Ben, this is a good goal,” you might think, “But growth sounds like a legitimate way out of debt, too. Why are you choosing to stay small?”
Great question (I asked myself the same thing.) From a purely practical standpoint, staying small will keep my expenses down. Instead of hiring a lead book editor for $1,200/month/book, I will do that work myself and keep the income.
Another practical matter: I believe I can make more money focusing on a few big projects than spreading myself thin across 10 projects. As a book publisher, I’m still very green. I’m in the explore phase. And as an entrepreneur, I’m good in this environment, but it requires my full attention. I believe that by focusing on 3 big projects to start, I will dig myself out of debt more quickly.
Finally, staying small will allow me to double down on my biggest win of 2021: Meeting and developing relationships with incredible people. I’m absolutely honored to work with my authors and others who are considering becoming authors. I want to prioritize these relationships over growth. If I can do this while also improving the health of my business, even better.
This leads to an important question for me to answer (I’m writing this down as a note to myself): If I’m not trying to sign as many books as possible, under what pretenses will I start conversations with people I admire? A podcast? Blog interviews? Hmmm…
My Top 3 Projects for 2022
My favorite habit from working with CommitAction is the focus on 3 big milestones. For 2022, I’ve identified 3 projects that offer the highest upside and chances for success:
1. Publish Great Founders Write in May 2022
I started 2021 by announcing my first book, Great Founders Write, and writing it in public. My focused waned in the summer as I turned my attention to publishing Andrew Warner’s book. Now I’m excited to pick my work back up. Like before, I’ll be sharing my journey in public on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Substack.
I put together a 20-week plan to publish Great Founders Write by May 25, 2022. The timeline is longer than I wanted, but it gives me plenty of time to do it right. I think this project as a ton of upside.
2. Growth marketing work for Holloway
I met the Holloway team through Andrew Warner’s book, Stop Asking Questions. We created a premium edition on the Holloway digital book platform and it was a huge hit. Now I’m working with Holloway to market some of their other titles, particularly the Startup Foundations Bundle - 5 essential guides for early founders. Not only did they give me upside in this venture, but I really believe in the work. I’m honored to work with Josh Levy and the Holloway team.
3. Damn Gravity’s next book (announcing in January)
I’ve been working with Damn Gravity’s newest author since November. We’re announcing his book in January and I’m so excited. This is an opportunity for me to refine and implement everything I learned from launching Andrew’s book.
By focusing my energy on these projects, I believe I can get 75% of my way to my BHAG. It will require a lot of work, and more focus than I’ve ever mustered, but I’m feeling ready and motivated to do it.
What will success in 2022 feel like?
The traditional view of success is big and loud and public. Success for me in 2022 will be the opposite. It will be quiet focus. It will feel like flow. It will be measured not by numbers going up, but numbers going down. Zero is my goal.
I’ve already recorded a big win for 2022. This annual planning process has changed the way I think about growth and success. It’s more important to be healthy than to go fast. There’s virtue in staying small until you’re ready to grow the right way.
If I accomplish nothing else in 2022, this will be enough. Cheers to staying small and getting healthy.
I’d love to hear from you on 2022. What is something you want to accomplish this year?