After 7 Years Doing this Work, I’m [Re-] Branding. Here’s how I’m making decisions.

Are you considering creating a "brand" for yourself or a project? Maybe this will help.

10 min. read

I got thrown into this. Two-fold.

I got thrown into the work I’ve been doing. And I got thrown into a situation that’s led me to question everything, rethink and restructure, and make decisions that feel like an overall “brand.”

While I’m happy I’m here, one of the strongest forces that’s guiding what I do next is precisely avoiding how I got here: no more being thrown into stuff. Seem easy? Maybe. Probably not.

I’ll get to that in a second, but first the back story.

Every project I’m doing now and have done — from comedy shows, to blogs, to creating non-profits, to delivering keynote speeches and TEDxTalks, to making tee shirts and greeting cards, to creating free online resource hubs and communities — started out roughly the same: I had free time, got an ask, and filled that time by fulfilling that ask.

Rinse. Repeat. And seven years later I have over fifty websites & projects, all plates in need of regular spinning. Each of the fifty plates has its own story, but every one of those stories follows, to some degree or another, the plot above.

So, how did I get thrown into this reworking-everything-in-my-life process? Well, that’s an entirely different story.

At the beginning of this year, my comedy/speaking/talent manager, who was also my main organization’s Chief Operations Officer, and closely involved with most of my projects (e.g., producing a planned podcast), went MIA. I wrote about that a little on IPM, and will leave it at this here: When a central cog in a lot of machines disappears, they either fall apart, or grind to a halt.

And that’s what happened. Pretty much all of my work fell apart as I knew it, halted to a grinding stop, or has been neglected because of all the fire-putting-out effort I’ve had to expend. “Has” is key here, because I’m finally taking steps forward.

Which brings us to this post.

What do you do when you’ve got a huge body of work, years invested in it, and decide (or are forced) to restructure it all from the ground up?

I don’t know what you do, but I can tell you what I did.

Step 1: Roll Call

Raise your hand if you’re present: Active projects? Finished, but unproduced projects? Works-in-progress? Shelved projects? Dormant, but in-production? Who did I leave out?

A couple months ago, as a form of triage, I listed everything I could think of that I’d been working on.

Just seeing it all at once was a huge relief for me. It transformed what felt like an overwhelmingly abstract idea (a total overhaul rebrand) into something manageable. Something doable.

Then I created three lists:

  1. Done stuff that I wanted to keep supporting, improving, hosting, etc.
  2. Things I was planning to do before, or that were in the works, that I still wanted to do.
  3. Everything else.

Sorting things into piles took another mental load off my shoulders. The third list was the greatest relief. What am I going to allow myself to forget about, at least for the foreseeable future?

To decide what ended up in the “everything else” list, I mentally KonMari’d all my projects:

  • Think about the project
  • Does it spark joy?
  • If so, it goes into the “done and keep alive” or “to do” list.
  • If not, it gets lumped into “everything else.”
  • I thank it for the joy it brought me, then move on.

With two lists of projects, I was ready to do something about it.

Step 2: What Touches What?

Where am I duplicating efforts? Where can I push one domino and see a lot of others fall? What’s all on its own, touching nothing else?

Because of how disconnected a lot of my work can see to the outsider (e.g., publishing books and performing comedy shows), and also how overlapping a lot of it is in a functional sense (e.g., both publishing books and performing comedy shows involves receiving, processing, and responding to a lot of external requests), I spent some time working through the relationships of everything I do.

With the remaining projects left from Step 1, I considered three big things, looking at all the different things side-by-side.

Where are my audiences the same?

Even if the content, or the subject, or the goals are completely different, I might be speaking to the same people.

For example, Every Shirt is Political (tee shirt company) and It’s Pronounced Metrosexual (blog, articles, resources) both speak to the same person: someone who is trying to move social justice forward in their world.

On the other hand, FacilitatingXYZ (blog, articles, resources) and It’s Pronounced Metrosexual (ditto) don’t speak to the same person.

Where are my operational functions the same?

I use contact forms on a lot of my web projects. I also use WordPress for a lot. And in most I have some sort of a mailing list. In some I sell a product, in others I sell a service, in others I don’t sell anything. What else is the same?

I looked at all the projects through this question, and what touched what was a totally different group than in the audience list.

Where is my content theme the same?

As with the previous two examples, but here focusing on what I’m making. In what ways is there overlap in the output of each initiative?

Step 3: Pareto’ing

What are the things that are taking the most effort for the least outcome? And what’s taking the least effort to produce the greatest outcome?

When in doubt, I Pareto it out. Based on overlaps I found in audience, operational backend, and content, I asked myself the questions:

“Where could I focus my efforts such that I could get at least 80% of the output with no more than 20% of the input?”

And the inverse: “Where am I currently putting in over 80% of effort to only yield less than 20% of the results?”

For example, if I noticed 5 projects that have the same potential audience, I could theoretically reach those 5 audiences with 1 communication if they were grouped together — hence, 20% effort, for over 80% of possible outcome. Right now, I’d have to communicate 5 times to do that.

On the flip side, I noticed several projects didn’t really touch any of the others — they weren’t similar in audience, operational backend, nor content. That meant that they were, in effect, incredibly “resource-intensive” for me — every effort spent there was only going to stay there.

So, unless they were disproportionately moving me toward my overall goal, they were holding me back.

Step 4: Going for the Goal

What’s the overarching purpose of everything I do? When I take steps forward, in what direction am I stepping? How do I know if I’m not moving forward, or if I’m moving backwards, or if I’m stuck?

Shit. Should I have started with this step?

Probably. But I didn’t, and I don’t think I could have, in hindsight.

Unless I was comfy with throwing my professional life’s work to the wayside and starting over fresh (not that comfy of an idea), it wouldn’t have been helpful for me to start with establishing a goal.

But when I started to notice projects that were involving a ton of effort, and that effort wasn’t able to be double-utilized or overlapping with anything else, I had to take 30,000 steps back and look at the big picture.

What is the goal of all of this? What’s the point?

Enter the “I know; I wonder” lists. Thanks to one of my aforementioned collaborations, I was able to put on my Amy Climer hat and facilitate myself, using the following prompt:

When I think about the overall goal of my work, what do _I know? _And what do I wonder?

When I thought about what “I know,” the list filled up with things like:

  • I know that if I do work that isn’t socially just my soul will suffer.
  • I know that it means the most to me when my work helps other people in meaningful, important ways.
  • I know I like to make things. And learn new things. And experiment in public.
  • I know that I’m bad at managing things that I’ve already made.
  • I know that I generally have no idea who the millions of people are who use my work.

When I thought about what “I wonder,” the list looked a little different:

  • I wonder what it would be like if I started doing more meta-work (e.g., not just _doing _social justice, but talking about how I do it)
  • I wonder what would happen if I didn’t travel 70 times a year, and limited my work travel to a couple trips per month.
  • I wonder what would happen if I was more open and transparent about my process.
  • I wonder what my projects would look like if sustainability was built into them from the start.
  • I wonder what would happen if I start to focus directly on the relationship with my readers, users, fans, etc.

Just from that, I started to have a clearer sense of a new goal I could start shaping my work toward:

I want all of my work to be socially just (to help people take steps toward a world where everyone is healthy, understood, educated, and safe), to provide a blueprint for others to follow (if they want to follow it), to be able to survive if I don’t, and to foster relationships between the people using it and the people creating it.

Step 5: Be the Wind, or Risk Becoming the Sail

I will stop being thrown into things. I will stop being thrown into things. I will stop being thrown into things.

It became clear to me as soon as I became clear about my goals. Continuing to figure out, and work toward, what I believe to be my purpose — my unique gift that I have to offer the world — is as much about what I do, as what I refuse to do.

When I titled this post with “[Re-] Branding,” what I was getting at was something I’ve realized these past few months: I never really “branded” myself to begin with.

A brand is a public statement about what you do, and an implicit statement about what you won’t. While I’ve done a good job, I think, with “branding” individual projects, I’ve never really thought about myself in that sense.

It’s been clear to me, internally, personally, what I won’t do.

It’s been easy to turn down book deals from big publishers when they won’t offer a free or pay-what-you-can version of the e-book. I’ve always said no to big for-profit corporations when they’ve asked me, in essence, to help them improve their bottom line. The list goes on.

But I haven’t been clear, publicly, about what I do, and what I don’t do. I haven’t been open about things like how the dollars side of my work works; what goes on behind-the-scenes; why and how I choose to to spend time on the things I spend time on; how I handle controversies and the horrible, anxiety-filled, stressful side of working on the internet.

And, frankly, I have had a hard time being clear with myself about these things. I suspect that’s why I keep getting thrown into things. Because when something’s not an obvious “no,” and it seems to fit within my general vibe (it’s socially just, it’s helping people, people seem to really want me to do it), it’s hard to resist.

That’s why this final step, choosing to stop being thrown into things, to stop being the sail blown in whatever direction the wind is going in, is going to be the most important part of this whole process.

It’s been a thrilling adventure being blown around the world for close to a decade by others’ winds. I’m grateful beyond words.

Now it’s time to honor the wind inside of me.