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Start Before You Finish: A Case Study
"Start with small steps! It doesn't have to be perfect - it just needs to be good enough!"
I say that often, whether I'm talking to client or sharing it here. But what does this process actually look like?
I'll show you today by showing you how I worked through starting my newsletter. Here goes...
I've wanted to start a newsletter for a long time, but every time I thought about it, I got stuck. It was just a bunch of Stuff and decisions that I didn't have an answer for. I didn't know what I wanted it to be about. I didn't have anything free to give away to get people to join the list. I hadn't thought about how to publish pages to guide people through the sign-up process. I didn't know how to design the web forms or the email templates. It was all just too much.
Time passed. I fretted. I wanted to have it up and ready every time I uploaded the next month's planner, but I never got started on any of the stuff above, so I was never able to do it in time.
Finally, I decided to walk the talk and just get started. Before I did that, though, I had to deal with some assumptions.
Assumption 1: I had to give away something.
The thought of creating something just to get people on the newsletter sent me on many spirals. What do I give away? Maybe a short ebook...but I didn't have a design I liked yet. Maybe some audio...but I didn't know what I wanted to say yet.
Then I thought about why I thought I had to give something away. Sure, that's a way to grow a newsletter quickly...but in my case, it was just keeping me from starting the newsletter. You can't grow a newsletter that doesn't exist.
So I mused: What if I just started it and put it up, and then when I had something free to give away, I could just send it to people on the newsletter? What if the people who read this blog just trusted that it would be worth their while and I didn't have to lure them there?
I decided to give it a shot - I'm not giving anything away free right now. People are signing up. So much for having to give something away for free.
Assumption 2: I had to know what I wanted the newsletter to be about.
What was freaking me out here was trying to figure out what type of content I would send in the newsletter that was different than the information I publish here on the blog. Wouldn't having two places to funnel content just make me more overwhelmed?
But then I thought about what I do here and what I might want to do in the newsletter. I wanted to have a place where I could share things with people who were already interested in what I was up to, rather than the Big Bad Internet. It's hard to post a new planner to a neutral audience, but knowing that I'm sharing it with friends and supporters makes it a lot easier.
And I'll be doing a few things in the upcoming months that will have a limited number of seats. I want the people who've been growing with me to know about this stuff first so that they can have first crack at those seats. Those people are the ones who joined the newsletter without having to be lured there.
Lastly, I wanted to have a way to send quick inspirational or actionable messages to help people get some meaningful action done. People respond to call to actions better via email, so instead of using the newsletter just to sell stuff to people - which most people do - I'm using it to ask people to do things for themselves.
It turns out that I knew what I wanted to write about all along. I just had to sit and think about it.
Assumption 3: I had to have my prompt pages ready to go before I started.
This one was easy. Every blog post I write is a "page" - I create new pages multiple times a week. And my prompt pages needed to be short, anyway. Lastly, instead of trying to figure out what I wanted to say on them, I just talked people through the process and told them how much I appreciate them for joining the newsletter.
I had my prompt pages in the wrong sequence the first time through. I used my email address to see just what my new subscribers would see. I had my form hidden on another page, so nobody knew it was there and thus wouldn't see my ate-up pages. I could play and correct it all day. When I thought I had it ready, I posted it.
To be honest, I "fixed" it only to realize that I'd missed something, but I was tired so I left it for the next morning. A few people signed up overnight and got the run around, but they were cool enough to work through the process. I got up early, fixed those few things, and was done.
What I didn't expect was how much fun it would actually be to do all of this page and prompt creating, but when I recognized that all of the emails and prompt pages could be part of the same conversation, it made it a lot more fun.
Yes, it was broken at first. Yes, a few people got the run around. But because I started it, I was able to finish it. See the theme here?
Assumption 4: I have to have a snazzy form or people will think I'm lame.
This was the hardest one that I just had to give up on. I worked for several hours trying to get the form to look decent, but whatever I did, the form just looked bad. I'm not sure whether this is a Wordpress, Thesis, or Aweber thing, but at a certain point, I said the hell with it and posted the form.
Do I like it? Not at all. But I can improve on it. And in the meantime, people are signing up.
The Actual Process
I started this by saying that starting the newsletter felt so daunting that I stalled on it for several months. The actual process, though, was pretty easy. It looked like this:
Sign up for Aweber
This took me all of 5 minutes to do.
Work through Aweber tutorial
I spent maybe 30 minutes tinkering around with Aweber. Most of this was just orienting myself to a new service.
Create and test confirmation emails and prompt pages
All told, I probably spent an hour monkeying around here. It could have been quicker, but I walked through the process several times before I let it go.
Design Web Form
Designing the web form in Aweber was easy - that maybe took 10 minutes. Getting it to look decent on this site...that's another story entirely.
I had it on a post, but it was too ugly to bear. I messed around with it on Aweber, and tried it again on a post. It still looked bad, so I moved it to the right sidebar, where it now resides. It still isn't pretty, but I can work on it. What I wanted to show here is that I put off starting a newsletter for about six months because of certain assumptions about how long it would take. It took four hours, tops, once I questioned those assumptions and just started.
No, Really - Most Things Are Like This
This post is not so much about starting my newsletter as it is about pointing out how many things in life are like this. It's not like the amount of work required to get this thing started changed - the only thing that changed was my willingness to start and let it be good enough.
Breaking it down into smaller pieces made it possible for me to separate the different components of Stuck that I had carried with me for so long. Being willing to try things out pushed me past thinking I had to have it all figured out up front. And testing it behind the scenes gave me the confidence to continue working through the process, improving each little step when it came up.
Could I have had everything figured out up front? Sure, in theory. But theoretical newsletters have zero actual subscribers.
Would having something to give away increase sign ups? Yes - but I'm in no hurry. This blog and my business have been growing just fine for months without one. And when I have something ready, I can send it to everyone who's already joined. In the meantime, I can focus on creating useful stuff and connecting with awesome people instead of beating myself up about not having a newsletter up and going.
Three months from now, most people will have forgotten that my house wasn't in order when I started. No one will be there mocking me, or if they're there, they'd be mocking me no matter what I did. But there will be plenty of people who I've been able to help through my newsletter that I wouldn't have otherwise been able to reach.
I've helped people launch websites, ebooks, communities, and courses; in every case, it's the same process: break it down, think about what each piece looks like, get it to good enough, and get it out there. It's simple, really, but sometimes the simplest of paths are the hardest to follow. Even - perhaps especially - for those of us who lay the path for others.
The signup form for my newsletter is in the right sidebar. Please take a second and join the newsletter. It might be the small step you need to get unstuck - now or sometime in the future.
The essence of the message: Before you can finish anything, you have to start it. Break it down, think about what each piece looks like, get it to good enough, and get it out there.