Year in Review 2014: What I learned about building an audience, selling products, and productized consulting

This year, I learned a few lessons about creating and selling products, as well as about how to start productizing my services. I’m happy that I accomplished my (relatively modest) goals stated in last year’s Year in Review, and that I had such an awesome time with my family during my 7-week paternity leave. If you’re consulting or building and selling products, I hope you learn from both my successes and my failures as you grow your business in 2015.

If you’re interested, you can read my previous Year in Review posts:

And now, for 2014…

What went well

Consulting & Subcontracting

It was a very good year for the consulting side of my business, thanks largely to my clients, who have been great to work with. And thanks to Brennan Dunn for teaching me how to run a consulting business (his articles and courses are excellent). My subcontractors also did an amazing job this year, taking good care of our clients even while I took…

7 weeks off

In November, my wife and I had our third child, and I felt totally comfortable taking the last 7 weeks of the year off from clients to spend with my family. This was possible thanks largely to my clients who were very understanding, and to my subcontractors who are excellent at what they do. For most of November & December, four people were serving our clients under the Roadfire name, all of them doing an excellent job, and none of them me. By the end of the year, I felt much closer to my family, and I was refreshed and ready to jump back in to work.

Building an Audience

In order to focus more on products this year (one of my goals from last year), I’ve started writing articles more regularly, which has helped me to build an audience. My mailing list started the year with just 22 faithful readers and grew to 346. And I have none other to thank for this explosive growth than Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman, who taught me all about how to build an audience and sell products in 30×500. I took the 30×500 Boot Camp in January, and it helped me not only to grow my list by more than 10x, but also to sell more products (which I’ll discuss later).

The free Beginning Swift workshop I taught in August brought me 75+ new subscribers who wanted to learn Swift. I could hardly believe it, and I got pretty nervous about doing a workshop for such a large crowd. I hosted it on Google Hangouts, and as it turned out, about 20 people came, and everything was fine. And the lesson I learned is this: teaching a free workshop is a great way to build an audience. I got a lot of great questions and positive feedback afterwards, so I’m planning to host more free workshops in 2015 to continue building my audience.

Teaching Workshops

I love teaching. I love to see other people learn, grow, and succeed. I enjoy helping them learn something new – giving them new ideas, tricks, and skills to help them in their career (or life in general). I’ve been blessed beyond what I ever could have imagined in my career (see 7 weeks off, above), and I want to help other people to have awesome careers, too.

I taught four live workshops this year (including the iOS Boot Camp and the aforementioned Beginning Swift workshop), and I learned that it’s important to give people time to try things on their own so they can practice the concepts and stay engaged. For most of them, I didn’t give people time – I just led them through exactly what to do – and I think my students missed out on an important part of the learning process. Luckily for those who took the Exercise Program, there was plenty of time during the 4 weeks after the Boot Camp to practice building an app on their own. But in future workshops, I’ll make sure to give attendees time to work on challenges and let them try to solve problems on their own before I present a solution.

Moving Towards Productized Consulting with Coaching

This was my year for teaching. As I mentioned before, I love it and was happy to be able to do it one-on-one with a few clients this year to varying degrees. I did several very short-term (one-hour or less) sessions where I helped someone get unstuck, solve a problem, learn Swift, or make a decision about what controls, frameworks, or tools to use. I also helped people in coaching relationships where we focused on getting their app to the App Store and giving them the skills they need to get a job as an iOS developer.

One of my month-long coaching relationships started in October when Vinny, an iOS Boot Camp student, asked me if I’d help him get his app to the App Store. He had a web app he wanted to turn into a native iOS app to put on the App Store. The JSON API was in place already, and he just needed to build an app that made the requests, parsed the JSON, and displayed it. Over the month of October, he worked on small pieces of the app, and we had weekly meetings to pair program on tricky problems and talk through his questions. By the end of the month, his app was finished and he shipped it to the App Store.

I consider these month-long (or more) engagements to be a form of productized consulting, where I offer a package that consists of weekly meetings and priority email support. I’m not selling hours or weeks – I’m selling my attention, pair programming, and coaching services for an entire month or more at a time. If you’re looking to get into productized consulting, you might consider coaching as an option.

Creating the Beginning Swift Course

In early December, I read about two 24-Hour Product Challenges and was inspired to do one of my own. During my challenge, I was able to refactor my free Swift workshop (described in Building an Audience above) and package it into the Beginning Swift video course I’m now selling. In three business days, I planned, marketed, recorded, and edited the course, which was based on the material I presented in my free Swift workshop back in August. I added two extra lessons and a course guide to help people get more value from it, and the feedback I’ve gotten has been excellent. Since I made a few sales before it was finished, during my 24-hour challenge, I decided to invest more time in it the following week. I was pleasantly surprised that people were willing to buy the course while it was in beta when there was only one lesson, and I was even happier when people continued buying it as the discount period came to an end.

As I was marketing the course, I learned that discounts lead to sales. While it was in beta, I sold it at a 40% discount, promising that anyone who bought it would get the final version once it was complete. I emailed my list and tweeted several times: first, about the 24-hour product challenge, then a few more times about how the prerelease discount was ending soon – and found that for nearly every email and tweet, I made at least another sale. The fact that the discount was ending gave people a sense of urgency and encouraged them to buy.

What could’ve gone better

I did a few things this year that certainly could’ve gone better. I’m still learning how to build and sell products, so I certainly made my share of mistakes.

Selling the iOS Boot Camp Screencast

When I taught the iOS Boot Camp in June, I recorded it and offered the recording to my mailing list for just $99. It was a great deal, considering the live Boot Camp cost $499. However, I didn’t put a lot of effort into marketing it, and consequently didn’t make many sales. I only sent one email – and the subject line was as weak as the offer inside. I’d guess that most of the people on my mailing list don’t even know or remember that the screencast exists since they only got a single email about it. And that was the only way to buy it – there’s no page on my website, no tweet, no way to buy unless you stumble across it on Gumroad.

I failed to market it because I was afraid it would cannibalize sales of my live $499 workshop. I very much believed in the live iOS Boot Camp, and that it was a great way for developers to build a foundation in iOS and Objective-C. And I wanted people to take the live Boot Camp because they’d actually show up and learn iOS – whereas if they bought the screencast, they might not actually watch it, and therefore wouldn’t learn anything. I’m not sure I can help that, and I’m not sure cannibalization is really an issue any more (if it ever was) since I’m teaching new iOS Boot Camps in Swift. I probably could start marketing and selling the iOS Boot Camp: Objective-C screencast again, but I’ll have to think about whether it even makes sense.

The Beginning Swift Community

After I released the Beginning Swift course, I thought people would get more from it if they had a place to ask their questions and get help from me. I created a community and invited my early customers, and many of them never joined the community. To date, none of those who did join has posted a single question. I still need to figure out why that is – maybe they haven’t started the course yet or they just don’t have any questions, or maybe I didn’t communicate the value well enough – so that’s on my list for next year.

A Few Specific Mentoring Sessions

Some of the mentoring sessions I had were just a waste of time for both myself and the person I was trying to help. I’ve learned that I need to be more careful about who I take on as clients so I can be confident that I’ll be able to help them solve their immediate problem or reach their long-term goals.

Looking Ahead to 2015

I’m going to focus even more on coaching and selling products in 2015. I love the freedom of selling products – especially off-the-shelf ones, where I build something that someone else can buy and use without needing me to be there. Books, video courses, screencasts, and similar products allow me to offer my customers something they can buy and use any time it’s convenient for them, so I hope to create another product in this category next year.

On the other hand, products that require me to be present are generally more valuable and therefore more profitable. I can sell tickets to a one-day workshop for $499, whereas I doubt I could ever sell a book for that price. And I can offer an Exercise Program on top of my workshop with live office hours once a week + email support for $150. So I think I’ll continue to do a mix of off-the-self type products as well as products that require me to be present. I’ll continue offering the iOS Boot Camp for beginners – and possibly create another, more advanced workshop for iOS developers who are past that stage.

I really enjoyed the coaching I did with Vinny and it was a huge success, so I hope to help more people like that in 2015. I’ve actually just started another, similar coaching relationship that I hope will go as well as the one I did with Vinny. I plan to spend some time refining what I can offer in the way of coaching and start telling more people about it next year.

I’m so blessed to have had such a great 2014, and I can’t wait to see how things turn out in 2015. I hope you and your business have a great 2015, too.

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