What I Learned in 2019
(This is a personal post so if that isn’t your thing then you should move on.)
This is the eighth year that I’ve done a year in review piece. If this is your first time reading one you may need the context of prior years. I’ve dealt with a variety of issues leading up to this point. Here are easy links to 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
2019 was a successful year in one way but not in many others. As I closed out the year I realized that I’d taken the wrong learnings from 2018. I’d let the business come to me, devalued my expertise and lost confidence.
The business grew another 38% in 2019. I remain a bit stunned at the numbers.
I moved all legacy clients to expertise retainers and these new arrangements allowed me to carry more clients than I had in the past.
I was concerned that the relatively new expertise retainers might not translate into the same sort of success for clients, which would likely mean more client churn. But that didn’t happen. Not at all.
The problem was not with the expertise retainers but my own fear that they weren’t delivering enough value.
I have often been accused of being cocky. I get it. From the outside I argue pretty passionately and am very willing to take a stand for what I believe to be true. I hope I do so in as civil a way as possible but that might not always be the case.
When I think about myself I’d certainly say I’m confident. It’s not something I lack. But for some reason there were areas last year where confidence seemed lacking. It was, frankly, a bit of a shock to make this discovery.
I was not confident that my expertise was enough to support my retainers. Yet that went against all logic when I looked at the results I was driving for these clients.
I was not confident that I could add enough value to outside projects or build new projects on my own. Yet the one outside project I worked on is driving nearly 30,000 visits a day on my strategy and my content.
So where was this drain in confidence coming from?
I believe strongly in my expertise about certain topics but did not believe strongly enough in the value of all that expertise combined. It’s a subtle thing but incredibly important.
The analogy I’d make is a tennis player who is confident in their serve, in their footwork, in their forehand and backhand, in their net play but, oddly, not confident in their game.
Confidence is such an important part of any endeavor. Because at some point something is going to go sideways. In tennis your first serve might break down. Or you just have a few games where your backhand isn’t working.
If you only have confidence in the components you’re unlikely to find lasting success. Instead, you have to have confidence in yourself. You’ll find a way to fix that backhand. You’ll figure out a way to win.
I’m reminded of something Jon Henshaw said to me a number of years ago. “If the Internet went away tomorrow you’d find another way to be successful.” It was damn flattering and the words stick with me to this day.
That lack of confidence led to being less aggressive about opportunities. I wasn’t taking as much initiative as I had been previously.
Part of this was taking the wrong learnings from 2018. I’d ended that year with a bit of schmaltz around needing other people to succeed. There’s a popular quote about this floating around.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
I’m actually not arguing against this philosophy. I think it’s true. But here’s the thing. There are a whole bunch of people who don’t go anywhere. When I look back at where I’ve been most successful in life over the last few years it’s because I’ve been the instigator.
I may start out alone but I find people along the way.
The point is, I don’t think a lot of things would have come to fruition if I had not been the instigator. I lost that to a large degree in 2019. I was waiting for others to help get things started. Or I thought that partnership was critical to success.
In last year’s piece, I’d asked if anyone wanted to help launch a new politically slanted site. Nobody raised their hand to help and as a result nothing ever happened. That won’t happen this year.
I’ll fumble around and figure out how to get it done.
One of the reasons I didn’t do more was a fear of failure. When you’re comfortable and accustomed to success in one area I think it becomes more difficult to think of failing in another.
There’s a strange dark synergy with confidence here. If you don’t believe in you but just the things you do then having some of those things fail becomes pretty crippling.
Strangely, this isn’t about how others perceive me. I haven’t defined myself by how others view me since … high school. I’m the critic holding myself back, which is strange because I’m so good at framing suboptimal situations.
I won’t hold myself back in 2020.
This is a lot easier for me now. The reason why? Money. It sounds crass but it’s not a big deal if I lose $5,000 on a new project. Even turning away paying clients to focus on something I think will pay off down the line is okay.
That voice in my head can’t scare me with visions of missed mortgage payments and an inability to feed my family. So it’s a lot easier to take risks and drown out that inner voice by shouting ‘cowabunga!’ as I dive in head first.
I wrote four blog posts in 2019 and one of those was the year in review piece. That’s not a lot. Certainly less than I had planned.
Part of this was clearly about time management and simply not putting as much value on sharing my expertise. But the other part was because I felt disconnected from the industry.
I don’t see a lot of what I do or how I think about search showing up in industry pieces. That’s okay. There are a number of ways to achieve search success and plenty of demand for all of us.
Yet, the gulf has widened to such a degree that it becomes hard to understand how I’d fit into the landscape.
Many of my views are contrary to mainstream thought. I never talk about E-A-T. I advocate for less A/B testing. I find third-party tools often obscure real insight. I think many are far too obsessed with site speed.
I don’t mind publishing contrarian views if I believe enough people are listening. I’m just not sure that’s the case these days.
In the past I could spend a fair amount of time to defend and debate my views. I still could but I find it hard to come up with a good reason why I should.
The problem I have right now is audience. My primary target market are executives at large scale business-to-consumer start-ups. Thing is, they don’t trust the talking heads in search. Not in the slightest.
Instead, they ask other executives and friends. They reach out to see if their venture capital backers have leads on skilled search professionals that have helped other portfolio companies.
A few posts to maintain a certain degree of visibility are necessary but referrals based on working relationships are how I secure all new work. I think this is true for a handful of other folks in the industry as well.
I admit this is really only true if you’re a solo consultant or very small shop. Agency and tool representatives still need to be out there because the margins on those businesses are thinner.
So I’m not showing up at conferences or lobbing grenades into mainstream SEO thought because it doesn’t really help me anymore. I miss it. But I’m finding it hard in the cold light of logic to defend the time and energy it takes.
It makes me wonder if the direction of the industry has changed because of a mix shift issue with contributors.
Remember last year when I said that I was going to accomplish some important personal goals by adhering to certain habits. Yeah … that didn’t happen.
I’ve never been heavier and I read a total of three books all year.
I simply lost focus. I was handicapping failure. I took on more than I should have because I lacked confidence in my new expertise retainer strategy. I spent way too much time on the business and less on myself. I decided other things were more important than my physical and mental health.
It wasn’t all about work. The one thing that hasn’t wavered throughout has been a dedication to family. I have only missed one of my daughter’s events … ever. And that was because I was in the hospital. I regularly cancel or move meetings to be there for her activities. Lacrosse season is just around the corner!
Last year I also became the Northgate Girls Tennis Team Booster Representative, which turns out to be a fairly large commitment. So I have to cut myself some slack there. I did stuff.
And after talking about it for a decade I made sure my wife was able to follow-through on a family reunion. While I’m not eager to go back to Florida (no offense folks) I’m very thankful we were able to pull it off and create a bunch of memories.
Taking a note from prior year’s learnings I can acknowledge that I wasn’t a total slacker this year.
I continued to contribute to Bay Area Search and was able to coordinate and conduct and interview with Gary Illyes. Unfortunately, the video still isn’t available. I’m going to work on that but until then you can read this great write-up from Kevin Indig.
I was also a vocal advocate for Genius as they went public with their allegations of theft by Google and their proxies.
The details of the lyrics controversy haven’t been discussed enough in my view. There’s been a lot of press but little analysis and investigation. There’s nuance that needs to be teased out. I hope you find this thread informative.
— AJ Kohn (@ajkohn) June 23, 2019
While not my intention, that probably did more for my personal brand than any of my other activities in 2019, particularly when you think about my target market.
That’s not why I did it. I was, and still am, pissed. But that doesn’t make me a Google hater. Far from it. I simply call them as I see them.
I don’t know what comes next. I don’t have a formula that will help me better balance work and life. But that’s okay. I don’t need to figure that out here in this post. Or even tomorrow. (And while well intentioned, please don’t send life hacks and productivity book suggestions.)
What I need to do is remain confident that I will.
Will I fail again? Maybe. Or maybe I’ll catch fire like Will Scott. (I mean, talk about a lasting transformation and true inspiration.)
Here’s what I am doing. I’m being an instigator again.
I reached out to a potential partner and in the span of a week was able to have a dialog that let me cross that idea off the list of side projects.
I parted ways with one client where I no longer felt like I was able to deliver value. To me, their roadmap was geared toward a version of Google that last existed two years ago.
I did a quick thread on the new Popular products unit Google launched. Danny wound up replying and was helpful later when I pinged him on another issue. I appreciate this because I was pretty hard on Danny last year.
I contacted comScore about getting historical qSearch data so I can fill in and update my US desktop search volume graph. They didn’t get back to me other than to add my email to their marketing list (not cool). That won’t stop me from getting some sort of data to inform a theory I have regarding search trends.
I hopped down the street to get the slow leak in my tire fixed and thoroughly cleaned the ice maker. Now I no longer worry about getting a flat and we again have crushed ice. These small things sound stupid but let me tell you dealing with them brings such relief and satisfaction.
In all, I’m taking what I learned in the last few years and am doing those things more often and faster. It’s up to me to get things started.