In Nov 2020, I left my CEO role at a funded startup and I didn’t know what I wanted to do next.
I only knew:
- Because of COVID, lots of people were getting online
- I wasn’t interested in getting a job to build a resume
At that point, I had absolutely nothing online too. No social media presence. No personal brand. No email list.
But I was previously a top executive at 2 different startups, so I have tasted failures and know what it takes to navigate a new journey.
“Why don’t I give this a try?” I told myself.
What I achieved in 2021
From Jan 1, 2021 to Dec 31, 2021:
🤗 Happiness & fulfilment from 5 to 9
👶 Baby from 0 to 1
🙌 Twitter followers from ~460 to 7.6k
📩 Email subscribers from 27 to 1.4k
🔧 Iterated 4 times on my BIP course
💸 Online revenue from $0 to $10k
My plan for 2021 was to make $20k for the entire year and reach $5k per month by Dec.
I failed the 1st goal by making only $10k but I was close to my 2nd goal as I made $4.1k in Nov 2021. You can see more on my Open Dashboard.
My feeling? The initial stage of being an online entrepreneur is difficult. Not only it is not an overnight success, but it is also impossible to achieve good enough success in the first year.
This is especially true for a creator who needs the personal brand, credibility, and system in place in order to generate revenue.
But looking back, I’m absolutely proud of what I achieved in 2021.
What makes this journey extra challenging
Lots of people ask me: you went all in to become a full-time creator and had a newborn at the same time? How did you do it?
Ahh! I know. It wasn’t easy at all.
There were lots of moving parts. But what’s most important was designing a system ahead of time. For example: my wife left her full-time job, my parents-in-law have been extremely helpful, I had some savings from my previous startup jobs, etc.
This system allowed me to stay focused on my entrepreneurial journey, meaning a good 6-7 hours on weekdays and 2 hours on weekend days. That’s a total of 34-39 hours a week!
I was mindful about balancing the two and taking a slow approach to my business. I didn’t experience any burnout and I was enjoying everything. On a Zoom catch-up call with a university old friend, he even said “Kevon, you look really happy now!” That’s true.
Becoming known for something
The turning point of my early journey was 100% finding the opportunities to become known for specific topics like “Building in Public” and “Making Twitter Friends”.
Most creators fail because they aren’t able to stand out from the crowd.
I started writing blog posts and sharing them on Twitter and forums. And soon I realized, I needed to create something so good that people would cheer and reshare to their friends.
So when I discovered “Build in Public”, not only did I feel connected to the topic, I also spotted an opportunity - lots of people wanted to do it but a quick Google search told me no one was there to help (I talked about this journey in video here).
I jumped in.
In the graph below, you can see launching a free comprehensive 9-chapter Build in Public guide brought me 731 new followers in Feb 2021, doubling the number from 700 to 1.4k!
Of course, I didn’t just write the guide. I also made myself available to help anyone who wanted to get started. I blocked out time every day to reply on Twitter, forums, and emails.
And this act connected me to so many people who later tagged me as the “Build in Public champion”, mentioned my name to anyone wanting to get started, and advocated whatever I’m building. It is crazy!
In hindsight, this is exactly what growing a superfan base takes.
The battle with self-confidence and doubts
For my first Build in Public course, I wasn’t very confident about the way I taught.
“How do I know people are learning?” “How can they become another Kevon?” These thoughts were hovering over my head.
And then it got worse.
On one of the live sessions, one student stayed behind. She said she wanted to chat more. She is one of the nicest people I’ve met online. At one point, she asked “Kevon, do you want critical feedback from me?”
I said, “YES! I love critical feedback.”
And she told me how she loved my written content and that I showed a ton of authority. But on the live sessions, because I was hesitant and always worried about how students were learning, she thought my authority dropped significantly.
That wasn’t surprising feedback to me.
After all, I’m a startup person, so I move fast and break things. I love to take action and get feedback.
But, of course, it still hurt a little. And that’s when I made up my mind to level up my live facilitation skills which brought me to Maven Course Accelerator in Sep 2021.
With in-depth knowledge about “Build in Public” after sharing for an entire year plus my improved facilitation skills, now I run my live sessions at Build in Public Mastery with much more confidence.
I honestly don’t see any shortcut to this - everyone has to figure out their way to boost confidence and get rid of the self-doubts.
Understanding how online businesses work
I ran a B2B SaaS startup before as a first-time founder, so I knew a bit about how that business works. But to make a living as an online creator? I had zero knowledge.
One of my biggest takeaways in 2021 was having a better grasp of the ingredients to have a successful online creator business.
- Personal brand. This is all accumulated credibility and trust over a long period of time. I cannot engineer it. It can only be done by being helpful to one person a day.
- Email list. It doesn’t matter how many Twitter followers I have. This number will only go up even if all my followers are inactive. The truth is Twitter itself is an overwhelming platform and most people don’t get on regularly. So the most reliable way to reach people who want to hear about my work is by email. The goal of Twitter becomes - how can I get people who love my work to talk to me over email?
- Ongoing free content that WOW people. This is more so to keep people in my loop. Once they unsubscribe (which I’m totally okay with), they’ll not hear from me again.
- Bring up the offerings. I wanted to be that pizza shop owner who makes amazing pizzas. And without ever talking about it, people just line up every single day! It doesn’t work this way. If you don’t mention it, people don’t know. I’ll talk about this more below.
Ultimately, in a simplified way, I think it comes down to these 4 things to run a successful online business.
Alright, my cycling gear is now set up, so in 2022, it is about increasing the cadence to go faster.
We have to filter out the noise
As a digital entrepreneur or creator, I get noises everywhere.
Whenever a tweet or email goes out, I can almost expect people to give advice, feedback, or encouragement. Of course, they do so out of kindness and I’m super grateful.
The hard part is to know what to do with these “data points”. How do I know which one to listen to? How do I know the encouragement shows me the right direction?
I, again, don’t have an answer here.
I believe this is what every entrepreneur has to figure out themselves. And for now, my only tip here is to not blindly follow what people say, no matter how experienced they are.
Audience building is messing up what we know about business & marketing
You can see my revenue chart above that I didn’t make a single dollar in my first 6 months.
It was intentional because I knew my initial focus had to be on building up my name and credibility.
Over time, I became accustomed to the creator mindset where I was present, generous, and helpful to everyone I met. I liked it because that’s how I live my life.
The challenge came when I started to monetize and build a business around my work. I had a difficult time balancing my approach. The creator’s audience-building mindset was contradicting to what was needed to grow the business: lead generation tactics, sales funnel, marketing campaigns, etc.
Honestly, I’m still navigating how to strike a balance between the two. I still want to be present, generous, and helpful, but I also have a business to grow to make this worthwhile.
Don’t ever copy & paste
I believe in “steal like an artist”.
If I like what someone else is doing, I can reference the approach and inject elements into my own work. What’s not okay is to copy the entire idea.
But still, I was taking inspiration without truly understanding its relations to myself and my audience.
When I started monetizing, I looked to create a learning experience for my Build in Public audience. I saw that many people were creating 30-day challenges and I jumped in. And I eventually pivoted it to become the Build in Public Mastery course.
What I didn’t understand was:
- Running a challenge and teaching a course are designing two very different experiences
- Does running a challenge fit into my own lifestyle? Not really.
Going forward, I’d want to be more audience- and me-centric in my work. Anyway, I’m still grateful about learning this because I would have never known if I hadn’t given it a shot.
No one can find their niche
The term “find your niche” implies an active motion like anyone can go out there to identify it.
I like to call it “let your niche find you” because that’s how I experienced it.
I was first writing about various topics around entrepreneurship. And when I set out to focus on Build in Public, it was 50% instinct and 50% research. At that point, I wasn’t sure it was my niche. I just knew that it felt right and I should give it a try.
It was only months later when I still felt excited that I knew I’d stumbled upon my niche.
Also, a big part of knowing it is your niche is about getting traction and recognition from other people. When people start respecting or looking up to you for a topic, you feel good and that brings passion!
If my Build in Public guide hadn’t taken off so people started calling me the “Build in Public” guy, I’m pretty sure I would have moved on to the next topic.
What does this tell me? “Finding your niche” is insanely hard because it is a combination of knowing yourself, sniffing people’s needs, and getting recognized. Luck plays a big part.
And to increase luck, we can only keep making moves and reflecting.
Didn’t work: paid community & recurring revenue
Back in Sep 2021, I wrote a blog post about how I got my monthly revenue to $2k only to scrape it later.
I jumped in to run a paid community because it was hot and it was a natural next step when I had a group of Build in Public audience. I was charging people $5/mo and I had about 60 members.
It didn’t work out for me because of 2 things:
- A $5/mo membership was not enough to make the product itself sustainable. To do all the work like facilitating connections and running events, the membership fee had to be higher. But at the same time, I didn’t think the community offering for Build in Public was strong enough to justify a higher price. After all, a lot of it has already happened on Twitter.
- To get recurring revenue means I had to do recurring work. Every day I woke up, I had this urge to provide more value to my members. The thing is - community value is super vague. Everyone wants different things and it is very hard to know whether you deliver them.
And that’s why I sent a video to all my members, went into the membership software, and removed everyone’s credit card information. I was ready to move on and offer value in a different way.
Didn’t work: being a noble entrepreneur
I mentioned my noble thinking of being this pizza shop owner who doesn’t need to do much promotion and people just show up at my door.
But clearly, this doesn’t work.
Even the most popular creators on the Internet have to push out their offerings all the time. This is just how things work.
People don’t take action until they’re reminded they have to.
It is all about showing the right message at the right time.
So near the end of 2021, I shifted my mindset. I became more okay to talk about my offerings and write content that leads to sales.
I tried it out by creating a sales sequence for anyone interested in Build in Public Mastery. I shared a ton about my stories, the course design, and why they should sign up.
Not to my surprise, some people opted out.
To my surprise, a lot of people stayed.
I’m still not entirely sure why they stayed. My guess is that my course is valuable to them but it isn’t the right time for them to enroll. They wanted to stay updated in case I launch a new cohort later.
Biggest growth factor of 2021
I'd say is 365 days of
- Refining my knowledge about one topic
- Tweaking my business to fit my life
- Building up my confidence so I can charge more without feeling like a fraud
It is not a particular growth hack or marketing play that drives results in my 1st year (maybe later, yes).
It is more my internal growth as an entrepreneur and a dad.
Goals for 2022
My goal for the new year is rather simple: I want to get to $100k annual revenue because that’s roughly my breakeven number for my life with a young family.
It is a 10x moonshot goal. Crazy I know.
But doing so allows me to see the picture as of Dec 31, 2022, and work backward to figure out what’s needed to get there:
- Double down on Build in Public Mastery. Teach more than 105 students in 2022.
- Finish my book/course Showing Up Right. It’ll be my biggest self-paced offering.
- Triple down on getting emails. Grow from 1.5k to 5k.
- Stop doing everything myself because I won’t achieve my goals alone. Start working with freelancers.
- Continue to kiss and love my family. They’re my biggest support on this journey.
Even if I hit 70% of my goal, I’ll still be happy.
Thank you for reading my review
I’ve enjoyed writing these retrospectives and income reports, so I’m going to keep publishing them in 2022.
On one hand, writing these keeps my feet on the ground. On the other hand, my journey is still early stage so I want to help other creators who are just getting started.
If you want to leave me a quick question or note after reading my 2021 review, I'd love to hear it: