“After the rain, the earth hardens.” — Japanese Proverb
The rain of 2020 felt endless and overwhelming.
If 2021 was anything, it truly was the year that I hardened myself against this world.
The highlight of my 2020 (which I can’t, or maybe won’t, ever do an annual review for) was joining a company that ended up being a culturally toxic nightmare.
I mean, I knew it was going to be rough when I joined (for many reasons). But I knew what I wanted to get out of it (experience) and I got that.
I just paid a higher price than I thought I would.
Truly, I’d never seen how stress could manifest itself physically.
The body keeps the score.
At the time my son was born in October 2020, I was having multi-day migraines and double-vision that lasted for weeks.
I couldn’t walk.
I couldn’t drive.
I couldn’t see my new baby with both of my eyes open.
LOTS of doctors.
And so, everything changed.
It had to.
*I* had to.
And so I did.
Why write annual reviews?
2021 marks my fifth annual review.
I wrote in 2018 these reviews exist because “The version of you that you’ll come to know in the next year, depends on it.”
Brendan of 2022 depends on this review process.
And if I’ve learned one thing this year (and last), it’s that “The days are long, but the years are short.”
It rings in my ears, a reminder of how precious my time is with my wife and boys.
It’s true, you know.
Some days, the hours of 5 to 8pm can seem like an eternity, but this last year flew by.
My greatest fear is that I don’t learn the lessons.
This is second only to allowing my gratitude to fade and all of this become my new normal.
My current projects
- Growth Sprints – SaaS marketing consulting
- Blueprint Training – Training to grow and scale your SEO agency
- SEO for the Rest of Us – courses, blog and podcast
- ALL IN – A career-focused community for in-house marketers
- ActiveCampaign – Growth content marketer (day job)
It’s… a lot.
Part 1: What went well in 2021
I like to break down this section into two parts:
- Hustle – what I’ve accomplished in business and career over the past year
- Heart – what I’ve accomplished in family and health
Before you start reading these wins, please commit to reading the sections on what didn’t go well and what I learned. Otherwis
First, the hustle (Business & Career):
1. Digital courses… finally.
Six years since launching my first digital course, I made a full-time living from my digital products.
Everybody wants to make digital courses and audience-building look like an overnight process.
But I work harder than most anybody I know and it took me six years.
If you’re on this path, have a bit of grace for yourself. If I could talk to Brendan from 2015, I’d tell him to be a bit gentler with himself about the speed of success.
You don’t have to hate yourself to win. Self-loathing is an effective but toxic fuel source.
Coincidentally, 2021 was our best year financially (2017-today below).
2. Revenue growth
My total revenue outside of my day job grew 180% compared to last year.
This might be because of the number of projects that I work on, but 2 of my current projects account for 90%+ of the revenue.
You’ll also notice that my day-job salary went down from 2020 to 2021. This was strategic on my part.
Twice in my life, I’ve taken one step back professionally to take two (or three) steps forward.
- Assistant principal → teacher → full-time marketer
- SEO Director → ActiveCampaign individual contributor → ???
Based on the outcomes I’ve found in terms of revenue, happiness, and freedom, it’s absolutely worth it and highly recommended.
3. SEO for the Rest of Us becomes a team of two
I have a hard time asking for help.
Like, a really hard time.
So when I say that this year I had the privilege of working with another marketer on some of my personal and consulting work… that’s significant.
Maybe it’s because I’m an only child or because I’m highly self-reliant, but even creating SOPs and getting onboarding information required me dragging myself kicking and screaming to the laptop.
Hiring and training a team will be one of the hardest things I do in my own business, but this year was a massive step forward.
4. Celebrated 1 year at ActiveCampaign
Joining AC was exactly what I needed coming off my last job.
A chance to create things again and just… relax. I had the privilege of working with an incredible manager who I still (and will likely always) consider to be a mentor. You should subscribe to his newsletter.
When he left to take a position at Podia (which I couldn’t be happier about), I was able to work with another great manager.
I saw some outsized impact:
- Traffic to “decayed” content rose +29% YOY and +39% over the previous period.
- Traffic to “top” content rose +245% YoY and +29% over the previous period.
- After updates, marketing glossary pages saw a 308% increase from 2020 to 2021.
We also launched a new website, 70+ free marketing tools and are about to make the biggest SEO push in the history of the company.
It’s exciting but… sane.
Until it wasn’t.
But that’s a story for another time.
Second, the heart (Family & Health)
Despite not being in the midst of the pandemic, it was time to move.
I lived in the same 100 square feet for an entire year in 2020 and almost lost my mind (and health) because of it.
So in 2021, we traveled as a family:
- South Dakota
- We stayed in a treehouse in Kentucky
Nothing too groundbreaking, but damn was it cathartic.
Probably my favorite memory of the year was sitting on the back porch of this beautiful Airbnb in the countryside of Custer, South Dakota…
All of a sudden, there was this loud noise that was getting closer and closer every second.
I was Paul Atreides hearing the approach of Shai-Hulud on Arrakis.
It wasn’t until it was upon us that I realized what it was…
It was the wind.
Akin to how you can see the stars more clearly in remote areas due to lack of light pollution, I’d never realized the level of sound pollution I’ve become accustomed to.
As the wind pushed through the dense forest around us it created a rumble turned roar that I’ve simply never heard before.
It was, in a word: magical.
Additionally in 2021, some family wins were:
- We were vaccinated, lifting some of the weight of imminent death
- I set boundaries with others as to what I will, and won’t, accept for myself and my family
- The kids went back to school
- I started going to CrossFit regularly
God willing, I’ll live a long life.
While pushing for 6 years of progress in 6 months got me here, it’s entirely unsustainable.
The more I can start taking positive steps forward and losing the rocket-ship mindset, the more I’ll see the things I care about move from what didn’t go well (part two, below) up here into part one.
Part 2: What didn’t go well in 2021
I always falter in this section.
I share a lot, but I still don’t know what to share or how deep to go.
Do I share the real brutal shit of my close family relationships?
Do I share the crying-in-the-car-at-5am-for-no-reason shit?
I don’t know. If that day comes, it’s not today.
First, the Hustle (Business & Career)
Truth #1: I had no singularity of purpose.
People ask how I do *all the things* that I do.
I feel like I try to tell people that if you don’t have this, you don’t want it.
And I don’t think they get it.
I can’t help but start new projects constantly.
Busier than ever but never any progress.
But then a bit of light shone through the clouds…
My friend Jay Clouse gave me words for this in his recent conversation with Nathan Barry. Barry notes a large differentiation between two types of creators:
- Strip mall owners → Ones that build an audience and keep adding on various products to meet the needs of that audience.
- Skyscraper owners → Singularly focused on one product/outcome with everything mapping to that.
Here’s what that looks like for me:
“Strip Mall Brendan”
- Pagespeed challenge
- Content challenge
- Link building course
- SEO course
- Productized service
- Private podcast
- Public podcast
- Saas Consulting
What about “Skyscraper Brendan?”
Everything pushes into my SaaS consulting:
- Podcast (to attract clients)
- Live events (to attract clients)
- Newsletter (to attract clients)
- A job board (only for clients)
- A marketing academy (only for clients)
- Advisory services (only for clients)
- Consulting services (only for clients)
Seeing a trend here?
The only way you get any of the things I make are to become a client (everything else is free).
And at the time of writing this, that means a $3,500/mo advisory engagement or a $27k+ consulting engagement.
Last year, I became obsessed with offer design and I’m taking everything I’ve learned marketing and selling (a lot of) infoproducts into creating an incredible offer for my clients.
Truth #2: I’m bad at communication
I think I’m ready to admit that I can be a really poor communicator.
I hear your pause, here.
“You, Brendan, a bad communicator?”
I can communicate well 1-to-many, but keeping up with client comms, DMs, and emails is something I haven’t learned to be good at yet.
Like most things, it’s a skill I can learn, and I’ll likely need systems in place to solve for this.
Second, the heart (Family & Health)
A lot of the time, I just want to be left the fuck alone.
The few hours that I’ve given myself to write this in low-lights and a lo-fi playlist have been… wonderful.
I need to protect my energy more than every and it wasn’t until I described my rampant anxiety and procrastination to my friend Bridget she told me…
You’re burned out.
When a red Slack notification makes your brain go into fight-or-flight mode: You’re burned out.
When it takes you 6 months to write an annual review (this one), you’re burned out.
True burnout takes a long time to come back from.
And I’m just now realizing that.
3 lessons I’ve learned this year
- You’re a lot closer than you think
“You’re a lot closer to becoming the person you want to be than you think…” said Brendan, alone, to himself, looking in the bathroom mirror at 4:47am.
It was a fucking revelation.
I looked at my tattoos, my hair and (kinda) at my soul and realized just how far I’ve come.
Having that moment of realization that you’ve nearly become the person you’ve already known and dreamed you could be is really wild.
- You don’t have to hate yourself
I tried something new this year.
So much of my progress has come from self-loating.
I’m still 16 year old Brendan wishing I was cool, wishing adults gave me the attention I wanted, wishing… a lot of things.
And hating myself for it.
So this year I considered something radically different: what if my growth in business and life came from a place of self-love instead of self-loating?
I’m literally out here googling, “How do I love myself?”
If you’re with me on this one, start with Brene Brown. She’s the best.
- Problems vs. tensions
Problems are things that can be solved.
Tensions, on the other hand, can never be solved. They just have to be managed.
This year, I finally admitted that fitness and health is a tension to manage.
In every annual review prior, I’ve talked about letting my health “go” and not attaining a level of fitness I’m proud of.
I think it’s time to admit that fitness, for me, is a tension that I have to manage every single day.
I will never truly “solve” it, whatever that means.
And within that, it’s the fitness journey that matters, so much more than lifting a certain poundage, or a bodyfat percentage, or even what the damn scale says.
And so what’s happening next?
Honestly I hate this part of my annual reviews.
I read through the old ones and know exactly what vague-ass things I’m teasing and wishing I could have said at the time.
And it’s just like… say it, Brendan.
But I don’t because sometimes announcing things early does two things:
- It gives you enough sense of satisfaction that you don’t ultimately go through with the thing.
- It causes harm to the thing you’re working on by making it public (like when I was selling jiu jitsu gis and a competitor stole my ideas)
So here’s what happened next…
I quit my job at ActiveCampaign.
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