My Year Of Being A Loser
I've been a loser for the past year or so.
I don't mean this in a terribly derogatory sense. David Maister, in a talk he gave once, offered this charitable definition:
I talk about meeting three kinds of partners—dynamos, cruisers and losers.
Losers—this, by the way, is not about different people—this is all of us at different stages in our lives. My theory is that you don’t get through life without being a loser sometime. If you were American, it would be the usual reasons: divorce, alcoholism, cocaine, manic depression, the kids have been arrested again. You know that things happen, and at some stage in your life you’re probably a loser. If you’re lucky you deal with it and get back; if you’re unlucky you get stuck.
That's a definition of loser that I can both agree with and cop to, although my past year of losing wasn't caused by any of Maister's listed reasons. Instead, my service offerings started creating less value for my audience, that led to some deeper questioning, and my wife's anxiety disorder flared up in direct proportion to the wildfires we had here in New Mexico this past Spring.
Heading into the Fall of 2021, I thought I could build a pretty decent business offering books, courses, live online workshops, and a 9-month experiential learning program called The Expertise Incubator (TEI). These offerings all orbited around the idea that I could monetize a unique way of supporting indie consultants who see deep expertise as their main value creator and differentiator.
The warning lights on the dashboard of this business model started flashing red in October 2021 when I failed to sell a single seat in a workshop on point of view. Around that time I started a 4-person cohort of TEI, and half of that cohort quit or soft-quit (kept paying but went dark/stopped participating) in month 2 of the 9-month program. Since then I've started 2 more TEI cohorts that have ended up with the same 50% dropout rate, often with participants suddenly quitting with no explanation as to why.
It was earlier in 2021 when I published "The Positioning Manual for Indie Consultants" but it was later in 2021/2022 when it became apparent that the book was not going to be a big seller. The $300 course companion, "The Positioning Course", which I put a large amount of effort into producing, has sold a grand total of 4 copies.
I've heard some amazing stories from my colleagues in the "online business" world; stories that make my woes seem trivial by comparison. Business partners stealing money, employees stealing IP, customers stealing stuff, etc. There are some real jerks out there, and I've been fortunate to have asymptotically close to zero of them as clients or customers. And yet, people quitting TEI with no explanation hurt more than it should, and the dismal sales of my course and mediocre sales of my book were more discouraging than they should have been.
And then around April/May of 2022, my wife Cheryl's anxiety disorder became a 5-alarm fire.
I did not grow up in a culture that understood or properly recognized the awful power of a condition like panic disorder. In the culture I grew up in, prayer or divine intervention was supposed to fix these kinds of things, and if it didn't, then of course there was something wrong with you and you deserved the suffering. I don't believe one bit of that now, but when I had my first panic attack in a car in my late 20's, I was at an information disadvantage and had no idea what was happening to me.
Cheryl has had it much worse, with months of multiple panic attacks per day, triggered by all manner of seemingly ordinary things. During this time, leaving the house was nearly impossible for her; being home alone was excruciating. If human tears were as valuable per liter as inkjet ink, we'd own a private island somewhere now.
If you've ever had a grand mal panic attack (the big one, as Fred Sanford used to say), you know how exhausted you feel after your body is done metabolizing the 7 gallons or whatever of adrenaline that gets dumped into your bloodstream during the panic attack. Panic attacks can be simultaneously intensely physical and nearly invisible to the sufferer. If you've just run a half-marathon, you're under no illusion about what's physically happened to your body. With panic, you can be 15 minutes into an extreme panic attack before you even realize what's happening. It's hard to overstate how disorienting this is to the sufferer.
Obvs I'm exaggerating with the 7 gallons of adrenaline figure, but I don't think I'm exaggerating at all with this attempt to quantify the peak of Cheryl's suffering: 4 serious panic attacks/day * 30 days * 4 months = a streak of 480 panic attacks, give or take. That's a hell that would leave most people exhausted and prone to depression. And it's been hell on Cheryl.
The confluence of these accumulating service offering failures and my wife's anxiety disorder flareup created psychic space to think about how I'm doing things and whether I should/could be doing them differently. As they say, never let a crisis go to waste. :) It's been a phenomenally stressful year, and it's disrupted much of my life and dramatically changed how I allocate my time and energy. So the "psychic space" I just mentioned isn't the kind you get when you take an intentional week-long business retreat of the kind that Rob Walling advocates for. Rather, it's more like the way the world goes quiet during a gunfight or other life-threatening situation. In movies they depict this by lowering and muffling background sound or other actor's voices, leaving only the main character's breathing or heartbeat clearly audible in the soundtrack. I'd rate the weeklong business retreat's psychic space as the higher-quality one, but there's value in the world-goes-quiet-during-a-disaster psychic space too. It has a very focusing effect.
The first effect of all this: I became unsure of my approach. I became unsure that indie consultants investing in their own self-made expertise was the best opportunity they had.
I entertained those doubts. I let them fester and grow and worm their way into the black matter of my brain.
While this was happening, I started executing a small-scale research project that I'd had simmering on the back burner of my mind for a while now. (I'll go into more detail on this over on my research notes email list.) Using a short survey with free-text-field questions, I started asked people who have been involved in hiring a digital agency or indie developer how they found the company they ended up hiring.
The research is ongoing, and my results are tentative and still-biased by an un-representative sample, but at exactly the time I was entertaining doubts about the value of investing in expertise and turning that into authority marketing, my research produced data showing me that buyers of custom software development services make far-heavier-than-I-thought use of their social network when it comes to finding a company to work with.
When you combine "what if X isn't the best approach for most people in my market?" with "X hasn't been working super-great for me or my clients" and "maybe Y would match reality better", then if you're intellectually honest you get a crisis, an unsustainable situation.
My reaction to the crisis: I did not rush to ship more offers to the market to replace the declining revenue. I just sort of gave into it, hunkered down, and kept my focus on being physically and emotionally available to support my wife through her personal hell and my existing clients through the term of our relationship.
In the summer of 2022, I read a book that I'd failed to get any value from the first time I read it, but this time I was in a much different headspace. This time I had lost confidence in my approach to offer design and as a result I was open to hearing alternate approaches. I am literally embarrassed to tell you the name of the book because it has so many "Brian Fantana pulling out the bottle of Sex Panther cologne" vibes in it, but there's an actual insight in the book that I've never picked up anywhere else, and it's probably the biggest insight I've grasped in the last 2 years, so I'll admit to perhaps having my life changed by reading "$100M Offers: How To Make Offers So Good People Feel Stupid Saying No" by Alex Hormozi, whose name I like to privately mis-pronounce as Alex Hormoni because to me he looks (and talks) like someone who uses a large amount of steroids.
I want to write more about the insight in this book, but in brief: I originally learned about marketing from copywriters. That caused me to have a foundational belief that marketing is persuasion applied to an already-existing product or offer. Hormozi so clearly demonstrates in his book what it looks like if you believe that marketing is instead designing from scratch an offer that delivers a super-premium amount of value and charges a premium price for it. Maybe you're like "duh, Philip, it took you this long to understand that?!?!?" Yeah, it did.
A past client of mine has been sending daily emails for a while, and a recent one had this absolutely perfect subject line:
Winners get to win, losers get to learn
It's a great email, you should read it: https://knighterrant.co/winners-get-to-win-losers-get-to-learn/
I hope I have not been squandering my opportunity to learn. Learning is great, but there's still a pervasive and I think unavoidable bitterness that comes hand in hand with being a loser.
I freaked out with delight when I saw that Jacob Givens had some shirts made up for my favorite of his "what it was like hearing X for the first time in the 90's" TikTok shorts, and now I have and regularly wear two of them:
Nobody around here gets it when they see me wearing it, and my wife gets tired of hearing me say "I'm angry....... but I'm learning!" Nevertheless, it sooths me.
It sweetens, just a bit, the bitterness of being a loser for a while.
So!!! Series of business offer failures plus the person I love most in the world going through hell plus doubting how I was doing things plus data that suggests that my doubt is reasonable plus actually-insightful Sex Panther-vibes book equals...
...my year of being a loser.
Could it have been worse? Oh yeah, and I'm grateful it wasn't.
Could I have responded better to it? Maybe, but I'm not interested in beating myself up about that.
Is it over?
I think Cheryl's condition started getting better about a month ago. She pared down her treatment portfolio to a few effective medical and cognitive interventions, which reduced the number of discouraging and disorienting setbacks she experienced, which helped her start making small but consistent forward progress. She suffers less now and smiles more, and each week has visible improvement and quantifiable reductions in anxiety, panic, and depression. She's not out of the woods yet but his time has brought us closer together, and (I hope permanently) broken my workaholic tendencies.
I'm trying to turn my research findings and the relevant parts of Alex Hormozi's thinking into an offer that will be a better fit for my market's needs (I talk about that more in this article).
I hope, as Maister says, I'm dealing with it and getting back.