2010 Annual Review: Business Lessons


As I look back on the year during my Annual Review, I think about what went well and what didn’t in my business work.

I’ve been self-employed for most of my life and have never had a real job, but the learning process over more than a decade now has been entirely through trial and error (lots of trial, lots of error—but I just keep trying things).

This post focuses entirely on the business side of AONC. In the original 279 Days to Overnight Success, I outlined how I created a writing career in less than a year (also through much trial and error). It’s been nearly two years since I published that manifesto, and the business has grown quite a bit since then.

It’s still a deliberately small business. Aside from design and branding, where Reese does a fantastic job, I do almost everything myself. But with a carefully-expanded product line and a much larger reach through the blog, it’s also grown to a more sustainable level. This year our products served more than 5,000 customers from 22 countries. More than 500 affiliates market the guides on their websites, and many of them report that our guides convert much better than other offers.

Even though it’s still intentionally small, it’s also now a fairly sustainable business. I don’t trade time for money, I’m not looking to be hired by anyone, and I pretty much do what I want with most of my time. (I choose to spend a lot of time working, writing, and creating, but that’s because I like the work I do.)

The AONC Business Model and the Lesson of Leverage

By far, the biggest lesson from the careful, deliberate growth has come through the establishment of a strong platform. Because of the hybrid model of the business and blog, I can effectively work for free and get paid indirectly. This is critical. At the 53 meetups I just wrapped up in every U.S. state, I never talked about the business side of AONC unless someone asked about it during the Q&A. I do at least 80% of my work for free (this blog, 200 emails a day, group and individual meetups everywhere I go, etc.) and only launch a few commercial products a year.

It’s a beautiful model that relies on a key mindset: if you structure your business around something more than just making money, having someone pay you is just one of many ways they can help you. In my case, it usually helps me more when people tell their friends about AONC.

A number of people have tried to emulate this model with varying degrees of success. Often what happens with those who are unsuccessful is that they copy the tactics without understanding the broader strategy. The strategy can not be short-circuited! The key part (what some people miss) is that you have to have a REAL MESSAGE. You have to actually do something meaningful that’s worth talking about—it can’t be a hook designed to capture people’s wallets by means of their attention. The difference is subtle but essential.


Other Lessons

Here are a few other business lessons I learned or was especially reminded of this year, in no particular order.

Ignore Google. I don’t mean Google the company—but for the most part, I ignore Google the search engine. I’ve never done search engine optimization for AONC, and I don’t think about keywords when I write. This is because the greatest traffic source for AONC is other blogs who write about what’s happening here. Because the business isn’t dependent on Google (less than 15% of AONC or Unconventional Guides site traffic comes through search results), I’m grateful for the readers they send me, but I don’t try to target certain phrases or manipulate the search results.

Speak for fun, not for money. Last year I wrote about how the coaching/consulting model wasn’t a good fit for my business. (I know lots of great people who do it well; it’s just not for me.) This year I am beginning to come to the same belief about speaking opportunities. I get offers to speak at various conferences several times a month, so if I wanted to create a business model out of it, it would be fairly easy. But I also don’t think it would be a good fit for me—in addition to the fact that I travel enough as it is, I’d rather create resources that can sell anytime.

I did a few paid talks this year, but I also did 53 free talks on the book tour, not counting all the extra meetups everywhere, lots of coffee or lunch meetings with individuals and small groups, etc. Speaking is fun and it can be a good challenge for me personally, but I don’t think it will ever become a core business model; I’ll continue to do it only when the gig is a good fit or serves to achieve another goal.

Create a winning formula for affiliates. I’m proud of the fact that many of our affiliates report that the guides convert better than any other offers. You shouldn’t ask affiliates to endorse something that doesn’t convert well; in the long-run you will burn bridges with people if an offer doesn’t clearly benefit them. (Affiliates have to build the audience first, though—without an audience, no affiliate program will be successful.) I brought on Sean Ogle to serve as our Affiliate Wrangler this year. His work is limited only by my inattention to creating a strategy for future growth… but more on that in a moment.

Always tell stories. The Empire Building Kit launch earlier this year was so successful first because we had a great product. When you take the case studies of “regular people” who have built successful businesses by following a passion, ask them to be very specific about how much money they make and how, then combine that with a series of 365 daily emails with additional specific lessons delivered over a year, you know you have a good offer that will attract a lot of interested prospects.

But telling a good story to go along with the launch was also important, which is why I ended up going on a big adventure to West Africa that then took me back to the East Coast and finally to Chicago, where I boarded the Empire Builder train to Portland. During the launch I got fan mail from people who wrote in to say they weren’t interested in the EBK itself, but they really enjoyed following along with the story. (I consider that to be a success of its own—the goal of my work isn’t to convert most readers to customers, but rather to help readers live unconventional lives in whatever way makes sense for them.)

That’s All Great… But What’s Missing?

Lessons learned should always be about continuous improvement. We have a good thing going, but how could it be made better? As I see it, there are two key issues I want to work on:

a) No recurring revenue model

b) Limited growth due to busy author syndrome

To ensure the business remains sustainable, I need to create a recurring revenue model, and that’s what I’m doing with the upcoming Travel Hacking Cartel. We’ll be launching this in a special “preboarding” phase right after the holidays in early January, and then it will be available on a referral program from existing members after that.

I need to do a better job managing small teams, or at least setting up a structure that allows the other amazing people who are a part of this project to thrive better. Reese and Sean (and also Nicky, our genius developer) have been very patient with me while I’ve been trekking around America on the epic book tour, but I don’t want to take them for granted or keep them waiting on things as much as I’ve done recently.


I’m glad the year has been so successful. I’m excited about 2011, and it will be fun to see what happens next. Looking forward, I still think I’ll spend more time on my free writing and other non-commercial work, but since I love my business work too, I hope to improve it by addressing these two issues in the coming year.

What about you… how was your business or work year of 2010?

Feel free to share a few highlights or lessons of your own.


Image: KMonkey

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  • Joel says:

    Working on my own review right now Chris.

    Couple big highlights of 2010
    –Starting a blog [largely thanks to the Chicago stop of the EBK tour] & gaining an audience.
    –Running my first triathlon, getting addicted and finishing an Olympic triathlon
    –Realizing this is only the start.

    I love these series :).

  • Ireti Paul says:

    Good report Chris. For such a progress to have happened, it means you’re a hard worker. And on top of that again, you’re more or else the only person running the affairs of this site. At the rate this blog is growing, don’t you think you need an assistant to help you out with administrative duties? At least this will free you up a bit so that you can concentrate on what really matters.

    So much have been said in the past about concentrating on google and writing keyword rich content to bring in more traffic but from your report above, you ignored google by concentrating on viral marketing as a sure means of growing your blog. Word of mouth is still a sure way of getting traffic and people to talk about what you do.

    Having different passive streams of income sure helps keep the mind at peace. Work once and keep earning recursive income is the way to go. For me, this year has been a lauching pad. I started two new projects and learning everything i can about passion and writing.

  • Ryan Renfrew @LifestyleDesign says:

    Business highlights of 2010

    -Brought my personal training business into its second year and started bootcamp.
    -Studied and learnt a lot about Internet marketing and social media
    -Met some really cool people on line and offline
    -Started my blog

    I have learnt that everything in business is not as easy as it sounds.
    That discipline is more important than knowledge.
    You have to go out and take things, oppertunitiews just dont fall out of the sky.

    Excited about bLAZING mY tRAIL IN 2011

  • rob white says:

    Hi Chris,
    I love that you do 80% of your work for free. There is a Law of Multiple Returns that is omnipresent and always in action. When it comes to money matters, it is important that I see myself as the farmer, planting seed-money and expecting a large harvest. Otherwise, I am the helpless victim that is simply trying to pay the bills and get by. We must be willing to put our money & service out there with confidence that it will come back tenfold. I

  • Chris says:

    This has been an interesting year for me for sure! Overall for me the biggest lesson has been that it is okay to have a lot of projects, but I need to focus in on just a few things at a time. When I do this then I will begin to have a a greater ability to get things going and have success in my projects, rather than throwing a small amount of time at things all the time and just spinning my wheels!

    Highlights have been realizing specifically what I really want to do and actually have it come rather naturally when I buckle down and work on it!

    The last highlight is realizing I have a serious plan that is starting to actually produce results, and that following that plan will only produce more and more results!

    I look forward to this series all year as well!

  • Scott McMurrofen says:

    Hi Chris–Great end-o’-year wrap. This year, I enjoyed meeting you at two events: the Seattle travel bloggers’ meet-up and here in Anchorage on your book tour. CANNOT overstate the impact of the face-to-face meet-up. Our nature as non-conformists means we need to counteract the other information being dished up all the time…whether it’s from our friends/family/media. Honestly, while so many of the AONC touchstones ring true, they are COMPLETELY different than the traditional paths to fame-n-fortune…and all that jazz. So, please continue to beat the drum while I figure out how to get to PDX this summer for your SUMMIT!

  • Kevin says:

    Thanks for sharing this process. I’m new to your blog but love what I’ve read so far!
    Highlights of 2010:
    -I am 4 months in to my first post-school job, it’s been a great learning experiencing but a challenging adjustment.
    -I started a blog (I need to get better at creating content, I’m going to try to create deadlines like you do for 2011).
    -Buying my first digital camera!!

    Cheers. KC

  • Jennifer Blair says:

    Chris, – Interesting post, as always!
    I fall in to your “help readers live unconventional lives in whatever way makes sense for them” category. I’ve been a freelance technical trainer for the last 16 years. Had some cool trips to Europe financed by the companies that hire me, but not in the last year.
    Highlights / lessons learned from 2010:
    – Never regret taking a risk. When a friend invited me to France for a workshop, I wasn’t working & my savings were low. I cashed in 10 years of hotel & airline miles, flew over & was SO glad I went.
    – Don’t assume that something is boring if you don’t really know. I learned a whole bunch of new stuff on the job this year & was surprised at how wrong my previous assumptions were.
    – Give freely of what you know. I was happy to share knowledge with others & they really appreciated it. Made some great new friends that way, too.
    – Allow others to help. Not something I do easily, but the rewards were great all around.
    All-in-all, a great year!

  • Matt Coffman says:

    I’m a huge fan of this series as well.

    What you’re doing takes goal-setting and personal development and makes it real, simple and inspiring.

    It’d be cool, for next year, to have a reverb10-style Annual Review community. It’s such a great conversation to be having with other folks out there.

  • Wyman says:

    Hi Chris and fellow followers,

    I am not a fast typist so am going to set my new blog up as an audio blog.

    I go walking several times a week and take a notebook to write ideas as I rest on my walker. I will speak about my notes when I return home and post it to my blog. I am studying Skype as a way to record the mp3.

    Thank you so much
    Chris for sharing your review. I also love the tips in the EBK every day. That could be one of your continuity programs. I think $5 or $10 per month programs would have a much smaller drop out rate. Just a thought.

    See everyone in Portland in June. Look for the fat old man with the red walker.

  • Linda says:

    I really enjoyed your book signing in Los Angeles, Chris.

    Just wanted to thank you for inspiration and the constant Monday reminders for social responsibility. Even social workers need prompts…

    Last December I read the 279 Days Manifesto (while subsequently finding Naomi Dunford of and was inspired to start my psychotherapy blog. I have two income streams, so it doesn’t make money yet, but I agree that it’s about creating something of value, and having a real message which solves a real problem. In my case:We All Have Issues…

    Lessons learned-
    ~There is no ‘everyone’
    ~People in your industry will respect you only if you bring professional credence
    ~You can’t listen if you’re talking
    ~A sense of humor helps any situation

    Look forward to Portaland in June 🙂

  • Jesse says:

    I think the biggest highlight for 2010 was realizing that I had create the life that I want to lead. That meant, finally realizing that working for someone else was not going to bring me the joy and freedom I desire. For 2011, my plan is focus on one project at a time, giving it my full attention and commitment, then branching out into other areas. Thank you Chris for the inspiration and motivation, you rock. Keep up the great work.

  • Contrarian says:

    Chris –

    Here’s a radical and revolutionary idea, one that I’m sure you’ve never thought of, and possible a remedy for your “busy author syndrome”: Outsource some of your article-writing to those who’s mission (contrarianism) is in sync with yours and your readerships. 😉

    On a (more) serious note: One of the things that I really admire about you is your admonishment about “ignoring Google”.

    There is so damn much noise on the web (and other blogs) about SEO and web-marketing optimization gimmickry – and so little said about just focusing on serving others through producing worthwhile content, it is very refreshing to hear that you’ve achieved your great success by delivering quality for it’s own sake.

    Keep up the great work!

  • Sage Russell says:

    Thanks Chris for creating such specific ideas. So often this type of post is nebulous and random. Your thoughts are always tack-sharp and really get one thinking.

    Everyone loves things they can act on!

  • James Schipper says:

    Thanks for doing this series. One (on many) areas I need to focus on with my site and life is really taking stock of things regularly, and not getting myself too wrapped up in the “BUT I’M BUSY!!!” aspects to get the important things done. It’s very helpful to see your process this way.

  • Grant Webster says:

    Great post! I appreciate your willingness to share the lessons you are learning.

    Your diligence and consistency in focusing on creating value for others (even without a form of direct compensation) is remarkable and inspiring.

    One thing I have found is that while trading my time for money is not my ideal lifestyle, doing a small amount of consulting work does help get more creative juices flowing and can provide insight into other peoples needs and businesses.

    Is getting caught in your own echo chamber a concern if you are not doing direct work for others? Or – does having a vibrant online community to interact with help fill that void?

    Thanks again for the great post!

  • mike e says:

    this was a great post chris.
    i really enjoyed your report and your insight to the business side of things. i also love that you do so much for free, or in better terms you are doing it because it is what you are passionate about and not just driven by the almighty dollar.
    i am a big fan of 279 days to overnight success. it seems very informative, and to this point has been a good guide for me.
    i really like how you are trying to help people to live “unconventional lives”. i like this and believe it should be everyones goal to search and live their own lives (not just what society deems conventioanl) this coming year of 2011.
    again thank you for the insight to what is working for you and what has help you to this point.

  • Eric Tsai says:

    You’ve got a great talent for stories and I love reading them! You’re right, everything we’ve learned should be about continuous improvements, that’s just facts of life. One thing I’ve learned is to live at the moment and enjoy the moment as well.

    When you’re chasing success or a lifestyle that you want, it’s about the journey not the destination, happy holidays!

  • krys says:

    Having been in business for 25 years….I have to say it is never dull and always challenging. We just keep moving forward. Seven years ago we moved from the collectable market to a baby gift market. But one thing we stayed true to, is our story. We are moving our efforts to Asia…in that we are in Japanese department stores and opening stores in China. And, even though it is hard…we love what we do.

  • Thea Westra says:

    Focus and concentration, on specific intentions and pre-determined outcomes are what I am training myself in at this time. Great habits and knowing what to include & exclude in daily activities, what to leave in and what to leave out, or where to spend greatest energy and time, are my lessons of the year.

    “He who is involved in numerous details without the regulating and synthesizing element of principles is like one lost in a forest, with no direct path along which to walk amid the mass of objects. He is swelled up by the details, while the man of principles contains all details within himself; he stands outside them, as it were, and grasps them in their entirety, while the other man can only see the few that are nearest to him at the time.” – James Allen

    I can completely see why certain goals were achieved by me this year, and not other goals that I said I wanted to accomplish for 2010. It’s about where to focus and, to focus!

  • Christine says:

    This is a great post! I think we all have learned some good lessons this year

  • Aliona says:

    Chris you’re my hero. Thank you for outlining the business model I have struggled to articulate to others. “…a beautiful model that relies on a key mindset: if you structure your business around something more than just making money…something meaningful that’s worth talking about.” Now if only my nearest and dearest would read my Twitter…

  • Alex Gauthier says:

    The year was rough. Lost my home and worse, lost my mother. Still, I have high hopes for 2011. This has been a transformative year and I think I might finally have what I need to do what I’ve always wanted. Here’s to new beginnings.

  • Tim Green says:

    Hi Chris,

    2010 was honestly a disappointment for me.

    My goals were:

    1) license a product
    2) increase my fitness further
    3) reach a conversational level of Japanese

    Sadly I achieved #2

    What I learned:
    1) goals don’t always work out
    2) take responsibility and adjust
    3) acknowledge progress and KEEP GOING UNTIL you reach your goals no matter how long it takes


  • Pascal says:

    Interesting post Chris as always.

    Highlights of 2010:
    – Left everything behind and moved to Australia
    – Travelled in 3 countries for over 2 months
    – I started a blog
    – I finished reading your book (Excellent)!
    – Got back in good shape and competed for a Dragon Boat Championship in Quebec


    Chris,something just sank in as i read through this piece and it says

    “Lessons learned should always be about continuous improvement. We have a good thing going, but how could it be made better”-what better way of driving home the C.A.E.I.P(Continuous and ever improving performance) principle.
    Your inspirational writeup for excellent living and superior performance is a plus any day.Thanks and keep this fire burning.

  • Maxim says:

    Just finished reading your book. Thank you for a great work and good luck in the future!

  • Gene Jennings says:

    Good stuff as usual, Chris. Thanks for the insight on Google and SEO. Interesting.

    I am one of thousands who met you this year on the tour (South Carolina). I have benefited greatly from your blog and book. I look forward to improving my blog and writing career using your wisdom and insight.

    Can’t wait to meet up again in June in Portland.

  • Ashley Logsdon says:

    I completely agree with your SEO appraisal. We haven’t done anything major either. The best marketing comes from personal referral. You have created an incredible group of like-minded individuals-now that you have a “club”, it would be easy to transition to a special membership site.

    This is a goal of ours on our community website–we’ve spent the last year building a community of 7,827 members (and counting)…now ning (our web platform) is launching a new branch–a “members only” section. We’ve created relationships with these people, and as it’s grown larger, it gets harder to maintain that personal level. It’s an easy transition to now add a VIP section – for a small monthly membership, they get access to exclusive downloads, weekly podcasts, once a month open calls with Dan, etc. We create a funnel that not only generates revenue, but allows us to invest more time in the ones that are truly serious about making changes.

    It was an honor to meet you in Franklin, TN!

  • Jennifer Blair says:

    I just finished your book (and bought several to give away as Christmas gifts) and have read several of your ebooks. Here are the lessons that I have learned (so far):

    1. Listen to yourself and be true to who you are..
    2. Speak from your heart and people will listen.
    3. Free is not always bad.
    4. Help others.
    5. Work hard.

    I look forward to applying those lessons to 2011.

    Jennifer Blair

  • Matthew Bailey says:

    It’s great to look back on past accomplishes before looking ahead.
    In 2010:
    -Started A World of Inspiration
    -Sold one of my properties finally
    -travelled to Mexico, Japan, and Vancouver
    -Finished another semester of university
    -Acted in a movie as a lead actor
    -Acted in my first play and even stripped
    -Quit my boring job and am focused online
    -and more haha

    Look forward to meeting you at the world domination summit!!!

  • Chris Wakefield says:

    Nice article here Chris!

    My business achievements are very broad this year as I started my first ever online business. It is still very much in its infancy but it is getting there. Not something I can do full time but it’s still fun and liberating to be able to earn on the side from seomthing I enjoy!

    Thanks for inspiring as always!

  • Justin Lukasavige says:

    Thanks for the review, Chris. I’m glad you mentioned stories. I just interviewed Dave Munson from Saddleback Leather. Telling stories is a key part of his business and it’s amazing to see how people rally around them.

  • Penny B says:

    Great wrap up for the year Chris! Thanks to your written words of adventure and motivation I took the leap in 2010 and opened my own business.
    After the fear and excitement cleared, I have discovered that becoming a part of something bigger in my community has been more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. The monetary part is important as well, but I am so stoked by the unexpected. Thanks and I am looking forward to more adventure in 2011.

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