The tiniest possible action

Something is not right!
Something is quite wrong!
Something is not right!
That’s why I sing this song.

Apologies to Madeline fans everywhere, who now have that song firmly implanted in their heads.

If something is wrong in your biz at this moment – and something undoubtedly is – then it’s easy to get wrapped up in the enormity of the problem and all its implications and oh fuck nothing is ever gonna fix this and I’m gonna go re-watch season one of Sons of Anarchy and eat a half tub of ice cream.

This is not useful!

What is, both in terms of possibly solving the problem and not demolishing the Neapolitan, is this:

Think of the tiniest possible action you could take that might improve this situation. And take it.

If you’re woe-ifying about Not Enough Cash, what’s the tiniest possible action you could take?

  • Mentioning one of your services on Twitter.
  • Emailing one of your regular clients to see how they’re doing.
  • Following up with an outstanding debtor.
  • Checking the sofa cushions for loose change.
  • Make one safe ask.

If you’re woe-ifying about Not Enough Joy, what’s the tiniest possible action you could take?

  • Watch a funny video.
  • Ask your Facebook followers to tell you the most valuable thing you have given them.
  • Re-read your testimonial emails.
  • Help someone.
  • Write a list of “I get to”s.

This way, you get your brain away from thinking about problems, and toward thinking about action. And if not one other thing happens, you at least made one tiny step toward improving the situation.

A challenge!

Next time the panicweasels get into your brain, try the Tiniest Possible Action. Report in the comments.

photo by: V&A Steamworks

How to structure retainer packages

Retainer packages are one of those Best Idea Ever/Worst Idea Ever deals.

When they work, they provide predictable, recurring income (Hallelujah!) and a strengthening relationship with someone you adore and respect.

When they don’t work, they fail to deliver on the confidently predicted income (But I was counting on that! Noooooo…) and a deteriorating relationship full of stress and mistrust and hurt feelings.

There are two vital factors that most affect which way it’ll go. One is client selection – a story for another time – and the other is how you structure your retainer packages.

I have Thoughts about this.

1. Make all retainer packages equally attractive.

When you’re creating other offerings with multiple price points, it’s encouraged to have the Most Attractive Option – usually the middle one. Some people go so far as to make the most expensive option entirely vestigial, one that no-one would choose.

You really don’t want to do this with retainer packages. This is a buying decision your clients are going to have to live with for some time, and you want them to feel they made the right choice. If there is a clear “best option” and they don’t go for it, then they’re likely to feel they ended up with a consolation prize. That discomfort will sour their satisfaction with the retainer package they did choose, and make it less likely they’ll stay signed up for a long, happy time.

2. Differentiate the levels by need, not price.

There needs to be a clear reason why I would choose the lower-level retainer package, and it can’t be “because I can’t afford the other ones”. (Again, that is not going to make me feel good.)

For each level, ask yourself: If money wasn’t an issue, why would someone choose this level?

This always comes down to their needs. A client training for an ultra-marathon needs more time than one who is easing back into regular exercise after a torn ligament. This doesn’t make either of them wrong; they just have different needs, and hence would buy different retainer packages.

3. Structure retainer packages by outcome, not time.

We have no innate feeling for the difference between ten hours a month and fifteen hours a month. It’s completely abstract to us, and we don’t buy abstracts.

At each level, match the outcome to the needs. A business during the off-season may only require regular newsletter writing and the occasional tweaking of their website copy. A business in a period of mad growth might need sales pages, brochures, newsletters, speeches and press releases.

For your own sanity – more on that in a smidgen – you need to know how much time these tasks would take so you can price the offering accordingly. But you are not obliged to make this part of the offering. It’s fine to say, “You’ll receive a monthly newsletter sent to your clients, and review and update of two pages of copy each month.” without mentioning time.

In fact, you need to be focused on the outcome even when you are quite explicitly selling your time, like with coaching. You’re not selling a weekly one-hour meeting; you’re selling a weekly one-hour meeting where your client will set goals, be held accountable for them, and work to dismantle the blocks that have stopped then from achieving their goals previously.

4. Don’t offer anything you wouldn’t want to deliver as promised.

It’s quite common, especially with higher-end packages, to offer much more than you expect your clients to actually use. It’s used to increase the perceived value while keeping the amount of work you have to deliver comparatively low.

But this can backfire. Spectacularly. Ask yourself:

If a client bought your retainer package and used it precisely the way it was advertised, would you resent them?

If the answer is yes, then you need to restructure.

It’s okay to expect that the average client won’t use all of an offering, and to price it according to the amount of work you expect to do. But that should never be low enough that you would feel cheated or taken advantage of if they actually DID use it.

Remember, the key to successful retainer packages is that they keep both of you happy over time.

Have you seen retainer packages done well, or badly? What makes a successful one? Tell us in the comments!

photo by: tedeytan

Grow up! (Or, y’know. Don’t.)

So I’m wandering around the back paddock in my sister’s biggest gumboots, strategisin’ with myself about growth. I don’t remember exactly what I’m saying, but it’s probably something along the lines of, “Now that I’m bringing Ash on board, we’ll need to grow. How are we gonna get more readers, more offerings, more clients? We’ll have to grow bigger to support this bigger team.”

And then a nearby gumtree says, “Dumbass.” It’s quite unmistakeable.

Well, what can you do? I look up at the gumtree and say, “Umm.. did you just call me a dumbass?”

“You’re damn right I did,” it replies. “Humans and growth. You’re all dumbasses.”

You know me, I like to learn. So I swallow the insult and say, “We are… uh… dumbasses about growth, is that what you’re saying?”

“I hear you talking. Every time you talk about growing you talk about growing taller. Growing bigger. As if that was the only way to grow. As if it was even the best way to grow. And it’s a dumbass thing to say.”

It’s hard to disagree with someone twenty times your height. I do manage, “But growth is important. You have to grow. Or you die.”

“Did I say growth wasn’t important? No I did not. What I said was, growing bigger isn’t the only way to grow. And it isn’t the most important, either.”

“Oh. Are you talking about roots?”

The gumtree snorts.

“Well done, I can see who did well in high-school biology. Of course roots are vital! Without them you have no nourishment, and also you fall over when the soil erodes or the big winds come. Surely your business has roots.”

I hmm. “Lessee… if my biz was a tree the roots would be… the processes for meeting shiny new readers, and building a relationship with potential clients. And looking after existing clients, getting referrals. Our affiliate system. Better ways of monitoring cashflow. I guess those are all root-growth kinda activities.”

“So why don’t you talk about them, huh? How come you keep moaning about how you should probably start guest posting again?”

“There’s nothing wrong with turning up the tap, whatever your name is.”

“I’m Gerald.”

“Oh. Hi. Nice to meet you, I’m Catherine.”

We both pause awkwardly for a moment. I’m realising that I’m arguing with a complete stranger who also happens to be a tree. Gerald seems to be thinking the same.

He apologises for getting a bit fired up, he was pretty rude there, he guesses. I tell him it’s okay. We chat about innocuous topics for awhile – kookaburras and the horses and the cold snap that’s on it’s way.

Eventually I admit, “You’re right about the root growth thing. We do have a culture that cheers on the big and the visible. No-one really advertises their wonderful new email system the same way they advertise their subscriber numbers. Even the people who sell advice to businesses don’t talk about it as much.”

Gerald says, “Well, I don’t entirely blame you there. It’s not easy to say, “Whoo boy, look at how big my root system is!” It’s all underground. But you know that without growing down, you can’t grow any other way, right?”

I confess that I do know that, but I often forget. “I have a terrible desire for gold stars and applause. And growing the roots never gets those. At least, not in the short term. It’s a thing I’m working on.”

Gerald says, “Anyway, there are more ways to grow than up, or down. You know that too, right?”

“Sure. You can… ah… branch out. (Hee.) Or put out rhizomes and grow a whole extra tree trunk. And you can grow flowers, and fruit.”

“Yeah, and trees do all them things at the same time. But they never focus on growing taller.”

I eager-student jump. “That’s not true! If you get a bunch of trees in a thicket competing for sunlight they all grow as tall and as fast as they can. It’s like a verdant arms race where the slow ones die off and the others put all their resources into getting so tall that they sometimes fall over oh my God.”

Gerald says, “What?”

“It’s just like businesses!”

I say, “We can get stuck in that same situation where you spend all your resources competing with other businesses, and you leave nothing. Nothing to nourish yourself or protect yourself. No fruits or flowers. No roots. And all you can say is, “Hey, look how tall I am! This is success.” But it isn’t! You’re just a tall stick with some leaves on top.”

“Uh, okay.”

“And the worst part is that no-one at all benefits when that happens. The business is weak, and vulnerable. So the owner suffers. And the business is resource-poor, so you can’t support anyone else on it – contractors or employees. And it’s so damn lofty and look-at-me that the clients suffer too – there’s not a lot of fruit, and it’s very high up. Oh God, and these are the businesses where the face of the business is setting themselves up to be worshipped from on high.”

Gerald says, “I think you’re getting muddled here.”

“I kinda am! But I’m also thinking about growth like I’m a tree. My business needs to grow in every direction! Taller, wider, branching out, deeper into the ground, more fruitfully – and the underground growth is often the most important, even if it’s the least shiny.”

“Yeah. Exactly. Hey, I’m sorry I called you a dumbass.”

“It’s okay. I was being one. Thanks for the talk.”

And I walk back to the house. I sit down and write an index card:

Don’t be a dumbass. Grow like a tree.

Are you growing like a tree, or a dumbass?

This is, I think, a spiral truth: one that you have to reacquaint yourself with over and again.

We want to grow like trees: lush and solid and abundant, with resources to weather a drought or a flood.

But I don’t see many resources that help us grow our businesses like that. Most of the resources are about setting up a better sprinkler system, or trying to outgrow the competition, instead of growing better roots.

That’s why I created The Pilot Light.

I want to help amazing businesses grow deeper, more abundant, and less like dumbasses.

The Pilot Light is a 12-week intensive dedicated to growing your best business from your best self: developing business and marketing strategy that rocks your business socks.

The next cohort will be starting soon. If you’re ready to join us, or even just thinking about it, fill in the application. It’s free, but you do have to tell me a joke.

Ready to grow?

A lot?


Rock on,

photo by: CazzJj

Progress is a spiral, not a line.

[158/365] Knightseeing
Good Queen Elisandra summoned forth her boldest knight and said, “Brave Christina, there is a nameless evil that lurks in the Cave of Seven Rivers. I bid you, ride forth and slay it that the land might be free of its stain.”

Christina was a most valiant knight, in joust or tourney or battle. She was feared and flattered and fawned upon in court, and her life was full… except for one small thing: Christina had never been sent on a quest. So it was with great excitement that she gathered her lance and sharpened her bec-de-corbin and rode forth.

The road was not uneventful.

When Christina stopped to fill her waterskin a warlock, struck by Christina’s noble face, cast a malevolent spell to ensnare her affections. But Christina bore a piece of the winding-shroud of St Jerome, and could not be harmed by such diabolical sorceries. She feigned enchantment and then struck the warlock’s head from his shoulders with her broadsword.

Then Christina met a great raven who told her of the Helm of Incendrius, which renders its owner invulnerable to flame. Christina followed the directions of the raven, and dug at the feet of a lightning-blasted oak tree. There indeed lay the Helm of Incendrius. Christina tied it to her pommel and went on.

There were more tales than I have time to tell – of giantesses, impossible rainstorms, mer-men, wingéd steeds, and other tests. Christina: scarred, dripping wet, footsore, but pure of heart, surpassed all trials and came at last to the Cave of Seven Rivers. After praying to Our Lady of Lourdes, she strode inside.

The dread beast was a dragon – cunning with the passage of ages, armoured with plates of adamant, with talon and tooth and deadly flame. But Christina bore the Helm of Incendrius and the flames did not touch her. Her valour was steel, and the great roars of the monster did not make her quail. Her breastplate was forged by the great dwarven queen Galasax and no claw could rend it. Her lance burned with white light… and she slew the fell beast.

Christina returned to the court with the head of the dragon and there was great rejoicing. Good Queen Elisandra celebrated her most valiant knight, and the dragon’s head was fixed to the castle gate, where forevermore it would give warning when enemies approached.

The end.

But then, next Tuesday…

Good Queen Elisandra summoned forth her boldest knight and said, “Brave Christina, there is reports of a new evil: a demon infests the Cotswolds. I bid you, ride forth and slay it that the land might be free of its stain.”

Christina said proudly, “Your Majesty, this I shall do.”  In her heart she felt a great surety – she was the slayer of the dragon. This would surely be no challenge to such as mighty knight as she! So once more she gathered her lance and sharpened her bec-de-corbin, tied the Helm of Incendrius to her pommel and rode forth.

The road was much more eventful than Christina expected.

Firstly she was accosted by a pair of witches who desired to avenge their brother, the warlock. They ambushed Christina with curse and imprecation, and Christina had to fight more valiantly then ever before to finally slay the two and bury their hag-ridden bodies at a crossroad.

Then the great raven appeared again and told Christina of the Sword of Adamant – a sword quenched in the blood of a fallen archangel, and the only weapon that could harm the demon-queen of the Cotswolds. Accordingly, Christina dug to the heart of a mountain and found the sword, tied it to her baldric and rode on.

There were more tales than could fill half a lifetime: ghasts, drowned youths, curative plants, great curses, maddening songs, old men, cunning thieves, sad maidens, evil plots and a faithful hound, to name but a few. Christina cried out, “Why do you continue to challenge me? Am I not the slayer of the dragon? I have quested, I have been victorious! Why then am I still thwarted?”

A wise and ancient alchemist heard Christina’s words on the south wind and strode forth from her tent to meet the knight. She found Christina sharpening the ever-sharp Sword of Adamant, just for something to do. The alchemist sat down and made a pot of tea.

“Brave Christina, have you heard of the Spiral?”

“Yes, wise one, it is a line that circles ever outward, never meeting itself.”

“Beautifully said, bold knight. You’re in one.”

“I’m in a spiral? But I’m treading the most direct path to the Cotswolds.”

“I do not mean physically. The quest to slay the dragon was the first round of the spiral. Now you walk the second round, where the same challenges reoccur, but at a higher level. And when you have slain the demon queen, you will be ready to walk the third circle, which will be more challenging again.”

“But… I…”

“You thought that this path was linear. Having slain the dragon, the challenges in your path were left far behind and would never come again.”

“Yes, wise one.”

“But know this: all things circle around – each time they are harder, but your might is greater each time and thus you will continue to triumph. Does that calm you?”

“Yes, wise one, it does. I thank you.”

And Christina, fortified by sage words and very good tea, rode forth once more to glory.

The moral of the story

Your progress as an entrepreneur is a spiral, not a linear path. If you accept that premise, it has important implications to your business.

Calm the fuck down

Since your progress follows a spiral, it doesn’t mean you’re doing something terribly wrong when an old long-solved problem reoccurs, probably much bigger than last time. Example: you clarify Who your bestest people are, which leads to lots of new visitors, which allows you to do more work and dig deeper into what you do, which leads to you not knowing Who your bestest people are anymore.

If you think of this as a linear process you’ll beat yourself up at this stage: “But I figured this out! Why doesn’t it work any more? I suck!” If you accept that this is a spiral, then you say, “Ah, here we are again. Sooner than I thought, actually.”

Of course, when you’re at the beginning of a spiral, the changes happen much faster. It can feel vertiginous to be reworking a strategy that seemed perfectly solid three weeks ago, but you now realise is totally inadequate. Again, that’s normal.

You can relax into this certainty: this has happened before, and it will happen again.

The expert on a pedestal

If you think of progress as linear, you tend to put people into two categories: People Who Have Gotten This Sorted (experts), and People Who Haven’t Gotten This Sorted (clueless). If you’re an expert you know everything you need to know, and if you’re clueless you know nothing.

There are so many ways that this is a dangerous dynamic.

Firstly, the experts have no room to learn in. When major change comes, as it always does, the expert suddenly looks… clueless. But they’re an expert! They’ve already Gotten This Sorted, right? The only possible explanation is that they’re a fraud! Boooooooo

Secondly, they have no room to admit that things are hard. Because clearly the Land of Experts, which the clueless can only see as a glimmer on the horizon, is much more perfect than over here. If anyone in that glimmering Land of Experts isn’t gliding through it, then there’s something wrong with them.

Thirdly, experts are distant, alienated from the clueless. And that leads to worship instead of relationship. That’s a lonely and isolating place for the expert, and a desperate and unsatisfying one for the clueless.

Fourthly, worship is always followed by the inevitable tearing down of idols. Sometimes they haven’t even made a mistake and been too-harshly punished for it – sometimes we just want to see the statues come down.

There are more, this list just got too depressing.

In a spiral, everyone is close.

The experts are “people who are walking the spiral a few levels up from me”, and your clients are often “people who are walking the spiral a few levels down from me”. They might be close enough to hold hands, or further away – but still close enough to see and be seen, to build real relationships.

Since we’re all facing the same challenges at different levels, there’s no worship or contempt. There’s no desire to attack someone more successful when they stumble – hey, they’ve got more resources to use, but they’re facing bigger challenges! They might fail, or take a while to overcome that challenge.


When you’re designing your experiences with your clients, you can bring so much more honesty and vulnerability to it if you accept that we all experience and re-experience challenges. If you’re undergoing one right now  – and you are, we both know it – it does not in any way invalidate the value you bring to other people.

You can talk about making money when you’re not making quite as much as you want to.

You can talk about relationships although you’re arguing with your kids again.

Because there are lesser challenges you’ve already overcome to get to these ones – you’re not making as much money as you want, but you are making some. You’re fighting with the kids, but within a framework of respect that doesn’t leave you shaking with rage afterward.

There are so many other benefits from spirals.

But since I’m already at 1600 words I should probably leave it here. Add your own thoughts in the comments on this idea: what does it make possible for you and your business?

Sick of being the lone hero on the rutted road? Then you need to have a look at The Provocateurs. It’s easier to travel the road with other adventurers, you know.

Creative Commons License photo credit: pasukaru76