When I started my first business in 1998, it turns out I did a lot of things right. It wasn’t until May of 1999 when I read a book called Permission Marketing that I realized what I was missing, which led to my first successful business.
Since that time, Seth Godin has written several other marketing classics. In a wonderful twist of fate (given his influence on me), he’s even mentioned me in a couple of them.
In short, when Seth has something to say, I’m listening. Earlier this year, he created a course for unemployable types, specifically freelancers. So, it seems like a natural thing to bring Mr. Godin on the show as our second special guest.
In this episode Seth Godin and I discuss:
- Why doing meaningful work is imperative to success
- How continual learning provides a competitive advantage
- When it’s time to fire a client
- What “selling” actually means
- When to raise your rates
The Show Notes
Seth Godin’s Top Tips for Freelancers
Seth Godin: Hey, I'm Seth Godin. I make a ruckus, I challenge the status quo, I ask difficult questions. And, of course, I'm unemployable.
Voiceover: Welcome to Unemployable, the show for people who can get a job, they’re just not inclined to take one — and that’s putting it gently. If you’re a freelancer or solopreneur, Unemployable is the place to get actionable advice for growing your business, improving your processes, and enjoying greater freedom day to day. To get the full experience, register at no charge at Unemployable.com. You’ll get access to upcoming webinars and more. That’s Unemployable.com.
Brian Clark: Hey there, Everyone, welcome to yet another episode of Unemployable. I’m your host, Brian Clark. And I have a feeling you might know who today's very special guest is. That would be Seth Godin.
How are you, sir?
Seth Godin: I am doing great, but getting better. How about you?
Brian Clark: Not too bad. How was your summer? You take it easy? You working hard?
Seth Godin: I haven't been on a plane in seven weeks. It's fascinating to feel that way.
Brian Clark: I know you appreciate that. Less travel, more time to make your ruckus there at home, I guess.
Seth Godin: Yes, the only part of my job I don't like is getting on airplanes.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I can relate to that. For personal travel, it's exciting. For business, I dread it. I just don't know.
Seth Godin: So, I'm sure you have an agenda, but I want to start with something you just said, which is “yet another.”
I don't think this is “yet another” episode and I don't think anybody who's Unemployable is “yet another.” The very nature of cog-like replaceable interchangeable parts, “yet another” widget coming down the line, is the opposite of who you are, what you stand for, what you produce, and hopefully what I do.
Brian Clark: Taken to task. Okay, I think you're right and I'm going to accept that.
By the way, I have to thank you yet again for something you did 15, 16 years ago. I've been doing a lot of podcast interviews for other people as well, and I keep getting the question, “What's your favorite business book?” And I said the one that pretty much changed my life, the first marketing book I'd ever read – just imagine how off course I might have gone, Seth, if Permission Marketing weren't the very first marketing book I ever read in my life.
Seth Godin: Yeah, you might've read Fox in Socks or even Cat in the Hat and then what the hell…
Brian Clark: That actually would have been better than some of the more traditional marketing books when it came to the Internet. But, yeah, thank you again for that and every book you’ve written since then.
Seth Godin: You’re welcome.
Why a Course for Freelancers?
Brian Clark: So, I came up with the idea for this show about the time we spoke last, which was end of last year. And then as we got into the New Year, I saw you launch a course for freelancers. And I said, “I'm unwittingly still following in his footsteps,” but I could think of worse things.
What was the attraction to you? Why did you decide “I want to talk to this type of person at this time”?
Seth Godin: When I think back to what I've been doing for 40 years, the one word that I keep having to land on is teacher. I teach way more than I make, and I love to teach. And books were a fabulous way to be a teacher because of 500 elements that I could tell you about, but you know them all. But more and more, the people who want to learn are refusing to pick up a book.
That noise is me, not you. That's the fire department in my town, which hasn't discovered the beeper, the cell phone or the telephone, but they are volunteers. So, I'm happy that they're doing their job, even if it interrupts podcasts now and then.
Anyway, so people don't, not all people, but too many people don't want to read a book, but I still want to teach. And so, when the Udemy folks showed up and said, “We have this platform and it's working for a certain kind of student. What would you like to teach?” It occurred to me that a large source of needless pain is the pain that's felt by the traditional freelancer who is treated as “yet another” freelancer, who is struggling to do better than minimum wage, who questions herself every day, because she is rejected or passed over so often. And I felt like I had something to teach those people.
So, 15 years after I started thinking about it, I sat down and recorded four hours of classes. It took about a day. And then we divided the classes into sections and added some exercises. It's been an astonishing lever. The feedback I have gotten from the people who have taken the course is as much as I have gotten from just about any book I've ever written, which is that this medium gets straight to the heart of what people want to learn. It's visceral and it changes them.
So, I'm glad I did it. And if it still resonates with people, that's even better.
Brian Clark: Yeah, it's amazing. Again, people still ask me why I haven’t written a book. But those type of environments you really can make an impact. And yet, I'm still a voracious reader, but there are different types of learning styles. And I think you can connect with people at a deeper level with that more audio-visual approach.
I want to talk about some of that feedback you got, because you probably found out a lot of amazing things about your student body in that case.
How to Be Remarkable
Brian Clark: But one thing that comes to mind to me at the forefront of what's happening in the freelance world and the projections for how many people are going to become freelancers, as we go into the near future with the disruption of the traditional company concept, automation, robotics, all of these things, is the individual freelancer has to be remarkable in an almost new sense of the word. And of course, that is a big term that you use. Purple Cow, obviously, was another one of your amazing books.
Did you address in the course how a freelancer can stand out to be remarkable in the literal sense of the word?
Seth Godin: The entire thesis comes down to this: the vast majority of human beings do not want to make a choice. And the choice they have to make, if they don't make it, will be made by default for them. Either they will wait for instructions, do what they are told, answer the RFP, fill out the form, get in line, use the app and be a cog in the machine. I would argue this is the Uber driver. Or they will choose to do something better, different, unique to be the one and only.
If you are the one and only, if people say, “Get me Brian Clark” as opposed to, say, “Get me someone who can do a voiceover,” then you win. Because when you are the one and only, you will be paid fairly, you will be respected, you will get to decide what happens next.
On the other hand, if you fall for the false bargain and say, “What do you want me to do?” You will inevitably be ground up by a machine that doesn't care at all about you and merely wants the cheapest to get the job done.
So, if you go to Fiverr and you say, “I need this spreadsheet to turn from this to this using a combination of VLOOKUPs and filters.” Do you actually care who does the work? Probably not. That's why it's called Fiverr. Not 500-er, because it's worth five bucks. And there are people, particularly people in countries where the standard of living is very low, for whom Fiverr is a godsend.
But, if all you know how to do is VLOOKUPs and filters, Fiverr is your mortal enemy, because you've gone from having a corner on the market, being the only smart person in town, to being one of 10,000 smart cogs who are interchangeable. And I think that being an interchangeable “yet another” is going to be the biggest source of pain for working professionals going forward.
Brian Clark: I agree, I agree. And I know that we're all talking about the importance of difference. Sally Hogshead says, “Different is better than better.” And yet people struggle here. I think mainly because being remarkable scares the hell out of people often, because it puts them on the spot.
Seth Godin: Yes, it does. The spot is an interesting place, isn't it? Because, on one hand, we want to be on the spot. We want the spotlight, we want the things that come with being on the spot. We want the fancy snacks and the groupies and the recognition and the ability to be seen.
But, on the other hand, we don't want to be on the spot, because if we're on the spot, it's our fault. If we're on the spot, we're responsible. If we’re on the spot, people can point to us and say, “She, she's the one who's on the spot.”
That tension — on the spot, not on the spot — is really endemic. And a lot of people avoided that tension for such a long time, because you could just get a “good job.” You go to a famous college, go to the placement office, wait to see who showed up. They would pick you. And then for years to come, you'd only be on this spot one day a year at your annual review and the rest of the time, you had a place to hide.
Be Willing to Do the Hard Stuff
Brian Clark: Yeah, that's not this world. Did you get a sense through the process of teaching the course and seeing feedback, and perhaps seeing where people are getting stuck, where people hit a wall with this? And how did you get them past it?
Seth Godin: I'll give you some of the fascinating stats about what happens inside online learning, which is part of the reason that we built the altMBA course that I'm running now.
My course lasts 240 minutes. It is one of the most popular courses in the history of Udemy. It is one of the highest rated courses they've ever had, and people take my course for longer than almost any other course. With all that said, the average student doesn't even make it a full hour. The average student of a typical Udemy course just barely makes it half an hour.
So, what's going on here? Well, what's going on here is that actual education, actual learning occurs when we get to the hard part. And it's at the hard part that the fact that it's going to be on the test, pushes us to study harder. It’s at the hard part that the fact that this person sitting next to us is noting that we're coming to class that gets us to go to class again.
So, traditional educational institutions deal with this by using huge amounts of social pressure to get students to push their way through the hard part. And the problem with online education is that when the hard part comes, almost everyone stops. That the famous artificial intelligence course that had 100,000 students when it started, only 1000 students finished the course. 99% dropped out.
That's what happens on Udemy and there's nothing I can do about it. That I get to the hard part, I'm honest about where the hard part is. I look people in the eye and explain that this is the hard part. And the people who want to go back to believing that they can make it without being on the spot just hit the stop button and go away. And I can't do anything about it.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I've been teaching people instructional design effectively to make online courses since 2007, and I stress that to the people who were creating. These are adults. It's not the same pressure, it's not the same environment that we subject kids to. And, in fact, we shouldn't probably subject kids to. I know you and I have talked about what's broken about traditional education.
But with adults, your attempt at engagement has to be so high, because they don't have to be there, and yet, you'll still lose them if they're not self-directed enough. It's a tough problem, but we all realize that we all have to be lifelong learners. I mean, what's the answer here other than a Darwinian kind of shaking out?
Seth Godin: Well, I guess because I come from the book world, authors for 500 years have known that we can't reach out of the book and grab people by the neck. And so, you can write a thriller, a book like The Martian, that every sentient being who gets passed page five will finish, but it's not going to change people very much, because it's designed to be a thriller. All the way at the other end of the extreme, you can write a Joan Didion book that almost no one will finish, but the people who do get what they deserve, which is a life transforming experience.
I'm taking the position that we call it work for a reason. The part of work that's hard right now is not digging ditches or being outside in my town today where it's 90 degrees. The hard part is not getting some horrible black lung disease because you're a miner. The hard part is not stopping the course. The hard part is looking your boss in the eye and saying, “No.” The hard part is saying to a customer who's stranded, “I care,” and meaning it. And I can't help people who aren't willing to do the hard part.
So, if you want to call that Darwinian, that's fine, but I just don't think it's okay to whine if you were the person who wasn't willing to do the hard part.
How to Get Clients
Brian Clark: Amen to that. Let's talk a little bit about getting clients. Now, when we talk about being remarkable, we're talking to a certain degree about the work we do, but also marketing. But marketing does not necessarily just equal getting clients. It's the caliber of client. It's maybe even the volume of attraction so that you pick and choose. What's your advice in this area?
Seth Godin: I would start by saying the first thing to consider is: your clients define you. If you are going to do the work that makes your clients happy and you're going to be judged by the work you do, then it makes an awful lot of sense to choose clients who will require work that you can brag about later.
My blog post today about the things we do in the short run, thinking that later we’ll be the person who we're proud of, cuts right to this point, which is you must begin your freelance career by doing work you're proud of. And that work will lead to more work that you are proud of.
Which means that for a lot of freelancers, you probably want to start by doing work for nonprofits, for up and comers, for organizations where you have more power than they do. Where you can go to them and say, “I will make this for you and I will not charge you. But I get to decide if it's good enough.” And you can even do it for fictional clients and just post it.
The point being, we can tell when you're proud of your work and if you point to work that's mediocre and say, “Well, it made my client happy,” that's no way to get the clients you want.
When and How to Fire a Client
Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. I know that you're a strong proponent of bringing an artistic sense to all work. And I agree with that within the realm of the pragmatic needs of the client.
Let me ask you this. The hardest thing I remember when I was a solo was turning away business when you needed it, even though you had that feeling in the pit of your stomach that this is going to be bad. And then it turns out bad. When do you fire a client and how do you handle that?
Seth Godin: Well, like you, I struggled for a really long time. For about seven years, I was one to two weeks away from bankruptcy. It was a very long slog. And we finally started to gain traction. I had a group of freelancers, we were book packagers. That doesn't mean we made packaging, it means we made up and invented and produced books.
Well, one client we had been working with was pretty lucrative, was about to become much more lucrative. And this client decided that they wanted to be gone. They didn't want to honor the contract we had with them. So, they started sending lawyers to all our meetings. They started harassing the people we were working with. They started to become ever more difficult.
I realized that we were becoming good at dealing with a difficult client. And it occurred to me that once we became good at that, we would live with it and become the kind of people who dealt with difficult clients. I met with my team and we took a deep breath and we fired them. We gave them back all the rights. And the books have gone on to sell millions and millions and millions of copies for which we've never been paid. And we said, “You know what? We don't want to be the kind of people who are good at dealing with difficult clients. Good luck to you.”
The amazing thing to me is that within 90 days our recharged, energized group more than made up for the lost business, even though it was almost half of our business, because we were so thrilled that we could go back to doing the work we wanted to do with people we wanted to do it with.
That's not the right answer for everybody. But I think the wrong thing to do is not even ask yourself the question.
Brian Clark: Yeah, that's excellent. It's courageous in a sense, and yet, it's the right decision, just a tough one.
Processes and Systems to Handle Workload
Brian Clark: Let me ask you this, because when I was on my own and built a couple of small businesses before the Copyblogger days, I never had a marketing problem. Again, thanks to you, I figured out the Permission Marketing approach and there was no way I was going to cold call anyone, knock on a door. They call it copywriting salesmanship in print, but I still don't consider myself a salesperson. Because if you put me in person, there's just no way. I couldn't do it.
That's a blessing, again, that I wasn't versed in those traditional methods, but I did understand how to attract clients online. But when they got to me, that's when my problem began, because my management processes were not all that great. So, you get a flood of business, which people call a good problem until you're working night and day and burn yourself out.
Do you have advice for people on setting up processes, systems, whatever the case may be, to handle the good problem of having remarkable marketing?
Seth Godin: Well, I need to disagree with you, again. I have a feeling you're a fabulous salesperson and the reason is A, you have a great reputation and B, you believe in the work that you are doing. When we encounter someone who has those two things, we are drawn to that person and want to do business with them.
So, selling has nothing to do with Glengarry Glen Ross and everything to do with presenting an authentic, consistent human being that other human beings want to trust to do business with. So, congratulations on being a great salesman, I'm sorry to tell you.
Brian Clark: Thank you. Yeah, I think a lot of people do have Glengarry Glen Ross in their head when they think of sales. And I think we're in a completely different world now. So, I guess I agree with you, and I thank you very much for the compliment.
Seth Godin: Here's the answer to your question. When you get more business than you can handle, you should raise your prices. And when you have more business than you can handle after that, you should only focus on the clients that push you to do ever better work. And if you think that you’re done improving your marketing, you should improve your marketing and raise your prices.
The way true freelancers do better is not by working more hours. The way true freelancers do better is by charging by the project, not by the hour, and by raising their prices. And you can keep doing that and keep doing that until you get to the point where someone calls you up and says, “I will pay you $20,000 to do a book cover that takes you 45 minutes to do.” There's nothing wrong with that. You're creating $50,000 worth of value. By all means, you should earn what you get paid. You should get paid what you're creating value with.
I think the mistake a lot of freelancers make is they think that what they have is a job with no boss. And, in fact, freelancers do have a boss. Their boss is just lousy at it, and their boss is them. And if you're not getting paid enough, you should go to your boss and ask for a raise and then your boss – you — should figure out how to get paid what you're worth.
More About the altMBA
Brian Clark: Love it. I love it. Seth, tell us in general a little bit about this course. Is it still available for people to take? And, Everyone, actually complete the course please. Where can they find it?
Seth Godin: It is available and it's on Udemy, which is spelled — I don't even know how to pronounce Udemy. I'm looking it up right now. U-D-E-M-Y. If you type “Udemy Seth Godin” into your favorite search engine, it will be the top match. And when you go there, if you type in “Brian” – how much discount should we give everybody if they type in the word “Brian”?
Brian Clark: Hm, well, how much does it cost to begin with?
Seth Godin: Let me see, I think it costs like, hold on, I've got to go over here. I haven't been there in a little while. If I say “manage course” — oh, there we go. I'm sorry, this is dead air. We don't like dead air on a podcast.
Brian Clark: It’s all right, it's authentic.
Seth Godin: The cost is $57, and I will negotiate with you right now on behalf of the people who are listening. How much of a discount do you want to give them?
Brian Clark: Could you go as low as 37?
Seth Godin: $20 off?
Brian Clark: Yeah.
Seth Godin: Okay, done.
Brian Clark: Nice. I should've gone lower. Sorry, people.
Seth Godin: You should have. I'm making the discount code now. It's Brian, with a capital B-R-I-A-N. Price after discount, $36. See that? I threw in an extra dollar, because I'm a nice guy. And there are going to be only 800 of these coupons available. Done.
Brian Clark: Sweet. All right, we're going to link this up in the show notes and we're going to give you that information again so that it's easy to find just one click over. Enter the code, Brian, and this is the most value you're probably going to get all day.
Seth, that's very generous of you and I appreciate that. Do you have one of your amazing parting shots for us to close out the episode?
Seth Godin: You don't need more time, you just need to decide.
Brian Clark: Love it. All right, Everyone, thanks for joining us. I hope you've enjoyed this as much as I have. Thank you, Seth, for generosity in sharing your time, as always. And we will see you next time.
Seth Godin: Thanks a lot. Keep making a ruckus, sir.