This is a bit of a long story – three times longer than I normally post, but I’ve been hearing a lot lately from struggling freelancers and entrepreneurs. So I think it’s time to share WTF Marketing’s origin story with you. Stick with me, please, especially if you’ve been struggling with your business.

Eliminate Hunger in Fort Collins by 2015. 

That was my goal. It was December 2010 when I wrote it on my whiteboard.

Back in April 2010, I had shunned all my other clients to take on a single client; a client whose project I thought would change everything. In taking on that client, I’d bet against myself and decided I didn’t have the knowledge I needed to solve my problems. It didn’t work. I ended up working insane hours with constant stress (I have perma-gray hair now – and a lot less hair in general, too), tasked with things I absolutely hated doing, and had all the fun bits of my position taken away piece by piece by an overly-ambitious coworker. I had just fired myself from that client’s work, and it was time to re-focus on WTF Marketing.

What was I hoping would change? I’ll tell you. But first, we have to go back to the beginning

In 2009, I started WTF Marketing. It wasn’t one of those, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to start my own business – I’ll just do it on the side” kind of things.

WTF Marketing was born from necessity and desperation, the two ingredients that make up “cajones of steel”.

About two months prior to starting WTF Marketing, I was a JavaScript web developer and I was on my 12th “real” job since graduating college in 2007. By the way, in case you ever wondered, you cannot program while high on Vicodin. I tried, it didn’t work.

Before you go all D.A.R.E. on me, I was on Vicodin because of a recent “shark-bite”-style appendectomy, necessary because I very nearly died thinking a “tummy ache” didn’t require a visit to the doctor. About the time my boss asked when I’d be wearing pants again (sweatpants don’t irritate appendectomy scars), I knew unemployment was around the corner. I was fired about a week later. For what it’s worth, it was only the the third time I’d been fired. The other nine jobs, I’d opted-out myself.

I was $10,000 in medical debt, had just been fired from a posh job, and pulled my meager 401K to pay for one month of rent and one month of groceries. That was all the money I had in the world. I was scared, alone, and broke. I had one month and then I’d be out on the street, scared, alone, broke, and hungry.

I knew how to build websites. It was something I’d been doing for 15 years, so I built a website for myself, created a portfolio from what I’d built so far, and began selling my services. I contacted a few web design companies around town and introduced myself, asking if they needed an extra hand.

Hello, I’m Nick Armstrong – Professional Web Whore

I started doing $350 website designs (for comparison: I charge about 20x that now). I was working for $15-25/hr (for comparison: my hourly rate is 12x that now) to do copy editing and web design work. I landed enough business to secure my freedom from medical bills and keep myself fed and housed, I had some great clients – but it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

I was screwed out of 10% of a $350 contract because a designer said I only got 90% of the way there when I was a few pixels off from their original design. I learned how to manage client expectations. I learned how to build my contracts to protect myself and my clients. I got burnt a lot and I learned how to take smarter risks.

Sometimes those risks paid off, like the time I landed Budweiser as a client. Sometimes the risks didn’t, like the time I got hosed refunding a client’s project after realizing we couldn’t meet their expectations.

I had to pay my dues, and I think that is the hardest and most repetitive part of building a business.

You have to pay your dues for a while, and any time you try something new. You have to give it away for free sometimes, or less than you know it’s worth, before it really takes off. And all the while, you’re hustling to make it all work, introduce your idea to new markets, make new connections, and keep your head above water.

Here’s the problem: when you’re an entrepreneur, you tend to have a lot of great ideas. It’s not always apparent that you’re setting yourself up for failure in chasing more ideas than you can handle at once.

For a while in early 2010, I had absolutely no activation in my network. Networking didn’t work, people weren’t referring me, and if they were – the contacts weren’t working out. I was even uninvited from a few speaking engagements because of WTF Marketing’s name. Seriously; it was so bad that I even considered changing the name of my business to Creative Renegade so I’d be “taken more seriously”, whatever the fuck that means.

Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of people helping and offering to help, but it didn’t matter. Here’s why: I wasn’t experienced enough to know I needed to build for the long-haul, not just the short-term. More than that: I didn’t know how. In fishing terminology, I had so many nets out that I forgot where I’d put ’em. In my mind, I was just looking for viable businesses. In actuality, I’d confused the hell out of my network.

While I was slowly going broke in both the wallet and my spirit, I was jumping from project to project without building up the clout necessary to do long-haul work and encourage long-haul customers to jump on board.

Nobody could refer me effectively because they didn’t know what I did.

I had too many titles, too many projects, too many ideas I was chasing. I was burnt out because I was constantly, repeatedly paying my dues in dozens of new ventures at the same freaking time.

I hit the end of my contracts and hadn’t done the sales work to build up future income. So, faced with what I perceived as insurmountable personal failure, no forward movement, a mountain of doubt from my network, and no foreseeable future income, I bailed for a bit. I would take on that solo client project we talked about earlier.

What resulted was the most grueling personal challenge I’ve faced in my life. Despite having stable income for the first time since my 9-to-5-style jobs, I got so down that I had to go on anti-depressants to balance myself out. I gained about 50 pounds. I hated the work I was doing and there was seemingly no end to it. I had to escape, so I set Christmas Day, 2010 as the exit date that I would fire myself from that client work.

The first goal I set that day was to Eliminate Hunger in Fort Collins by 2015.

I don’t know if I’ll hit that one – in fact, it’s taken a back seat to other ways to do good in Fort Collins. But that’s OK, because more important than my first goal was my second goal: get focused on exactly who I am, what I do, and why I do it. You can’t get focused if you’re constantly chasing new ideas.

It took about three months, but I cut out about 90% of my project ideas. It was painful – I went from 15 different business ideas (each of which I was building websites for) down to three: WTF Marketing, Digital Gunslingers, and Psychotic Resumes.

I recently, carefully added two more – one as an off-shoot of Digital Gunslingers (which is still in the works) and one as a joint-venture so I’m not doing the work alone: Help My Awful Website.

Entrepreneurs are a rare breed.

We’re not satisfied with the typical 9-5. We don’t want to be just another face in the corporate crowd. And moments of clarity that illuminate exactly who we are and what we want to do and why – they’re few and far between.

Business, like life, doesn’t get any clearer than in brief instances when it’s threatened. When you’re challenged – your lifestyle is threatened or your business or your loved ones, it makes things really clear in that moment.

Entrepreneurs feel threatened by mediocrity and stagnation. It’s so easy to feel threatened when you don’t see the kind of numbers you’re expecting – whether that’s in referrals, subscribers, or dollars in your bank account. The money doesn’t come overnight, and it certainly doesn’t come when you’re planning. It almost always pays to have some sort of rider income so you can get by in slow times – but that isn’t possible when you endlessly chase new projects.

There’s two things you can do when you’re threatened: adapt or evolve. Adaption is change that happens to things that are living. That is – they haven’t died, they’re changing to fit the new environment. This is a project adding features or getting a revision to cover the latest trends. Evolution is change that happens to things generation after generation. That is – something died out that was undesirable so that more desirable traits could live on. This is killing one project that mostly didn’t work, taking what worked from it – and building a new project.

Did I know the difference back in 2010? Hell no. I bet against myself, evolved endlessly, and it was awful. I was given the chance to bet against myself again this year, but this time I turned it down. But the choice between adapting and evolving… that’s one of my biggest struggles – and one I’m guessing that’s shared among many newbie entrepreneurs.

So, what – if anything – can you walk away from this post with?

Of all the things I’ve learned in the last three and a half years, I think these three lessons might be the most useful for you:

  • Always bet on yourself
  • Let your projects ride – opt to adapt rather than evolve
  • Get really clear on who you are, what you do, and why – the projects that are “OMFG I GOTTA DO THAT” rather than just “cool” will become apparent.

This post is part of the November Word Carnival. The topic is Letting go: How and What to Trim to Keep Your Business Lean and Focused. This month’s carnival will make the juggler want to go stand out in the cold; multitaskers – you’re on report! Check out the other posts from fantastic business folks here.