Building a Space and a Voice on the Internet: Is It Time For You to Join In?

To Be A Person Is To Have A Story To Tell
Where are you telling your stories?


This past Monday we kicked off the first Writer’s Workshop with a group of 22 participants from more than a dozen states and countries around the world. I’m so impressed and inspired by the talent and hard work coming from the group already—and we’re just in week one! Writing is a journey into yourself, your ideas, and your memories—and taking the time to create something in words is a beautiful (albeit intensely personal) exercise. Several people have emailed me to ask if I’ll be teaching the course again and the answer right now is more than likely yes! I’ll be teaching the class as a summer session in mid-July, with details for signing up coming in mid-June. Sign up to get notified via weekly blog updates or send me an email if you’d like to join. Speaking of creating… is this something you're dreaming of doing more of? Keep reading...


Building your voice on the internet: is it time for you to join in?

Have you been thinking about joining the online conversation? Have you been dreaming of starting a blog, website, or writing more?

By far, the most frequent thing I hear in my coaching and teaching is a remark that seems on everyone’s mind:

“I want to start a blog, but I’m not sure where to start."

"I have an idea, but I’m not sure anyone wants to read it.”

“I have too many ideas, so I end up never writing them down!”

The internet can be an intimidating place—we see people who seem to write effortlessly, and publish often; they have crowds of people gathering and listening, and it seems like that’s something you’ll never get to—so why bother? Should you join in at all?

These are my arguments for why YOU should speak up.

The goal isn’t to have the loudest voice on the internet. It’s to have a voice. Your voice. The internet is a gold-rush right now, as people create content and the connections and communities born are exploding and multiplying faster than Google’s Spiders can crawl them. Should you join the conversation? There’s already enough noise and buzz anyway. What would you have to offer?

The point of writing isn’t that it’s for anyone else, at least not at first. (If your goal is to attract fame and fortune immediately, examine that desire and assumption. What is the deeper root? What are you hoping for?)

Writing and storytelling are about developing a relationship with your voice and ideas; it's about finding (and practicing) ways of expressing them to yourself and others.

Carve out a home on the internet.

If and when you DO want to connect with others, however, it’s important to carve out your own “home” on the internet. In the world of Google-ability, we are quickly researching each other in order to learn about their skills and talents.

What do people find when they put your name into the Google machine?

The good news is that you can own this answer pretty quickly. If you want to craft three articles on a particular topic that’s interesting or a hobby to you (ideally something you’d like to be known for), you can start a Tumblr, Weebly or a WordPress domain for free or almost free (less than $50, max, if you want to own a domain name and buy a theme) and post three articles under a header with your name and contact information on it. This can be done in as little as four weeks. All of a sudden, when someone types in your name, or better yet—the topics you’ve written about—you can now be found. Your ideas can be known.

Resumes are static, and we’re searching for ideas through our web-maze of online information. Make yourself "findable." Put your information onto the web so that search engines--and people, and serendipity--can stumble across it. Without putting yourself out there, it's a lot harder to be found.

I get so many emails from people that say, “I was looking for an article about how to improve my writing, or how to write a thank you note, and I started reading your blog and sat down with you for an hour lastnight. It was so fun to read your thinking. Thank You." 

By putting my words and ideas into a space where other people can find them--I've let myself be found. I can become known for my ideas. If you have an idea and it's stuck in your head, there isn't an easy way for anyone to know that you have it. Serendipity comes through connection and collision, and when people can find you and your ideas, possibility sparks.

Now – these interactions didn't happen right away – I definitely blogged for at least six months with only my mother commenting, gently correcting most of my typos and spelling or grammar errors. My sister discovered Grammar Girl and gleefully pointed out my mistakes as well, which, as a younger sister, I'm sure delighted her. (I then hired her as my editor for my print projects, which probably made her happy as a clam--she got paid to point out all of my mistakes. Oh, life).

Starting small: creating a project, not a life (for now).

The other thing to remember is that some of my favorite websites aren’t by people who show up every week. You might not have the stamina (or the resources) to enter into a writing relationship that’s indefinite in its time frame or scope. In fact, I think that's a terrible way to start. For people starting a blog, I recommend thinking of it as a “Project” and not a “Indefinite Relationship.” When you commit to a blog and say to yourself that you’re going to write every week for the next two years, the minute you mess up or miss a week, you’ve essentially failed the project. Who wants to be disappointed that they tried something?

The alternative is to create a project that you can do well at, by changing the parameters. Instead of promising an indefinite relationship, drastically reduce it in scope and start with a reasonable project that has a defined ending from the beginning. When you can close a project successfully and complete it, you’re much more likely to continue on to a phase two or phase three of a project, rather than let it taper off into the land of incomplete projects. You also change the feeling relationship you have with yourself—instead of creating an inevitable failure-situation, with resulting disappointments and twangs, putting pressure to show up in a way that might not be reasonable for you because of all of your various commitments--you’re creating a success situation, where you can end the project within a concrete time frame and still be very happy that you did it at all.

I recommend creating a project that says, “I’d like to talk about _[topic]_ in 4 posts, within the next two months.” Give yourself a start time, and end time, and a quantity. Specify a topic. Perhaps you want to blog about four fabulous meals that you cooked and created. Maybe you want to chronicle your science journey behind the lens of a microscope. Maybe you want to document your notes on a new class you're taking. You could start a Tumblr with your favorite photos of doorways in your quirky city. The possibilities are endless, but you must pick one small one (and only one).

Don’t believe me? Blake Master’s compilations of Peter Thiel's lectures is one of my favorite sites to read and there’s a fixed (static) amount of content – 13 lectures – accessible indefinitely for those that want to self-teach and read the series. He's not adding more content. He's creating great content and sticking it up in a place for people to find it.

What I find with myself--and others--is that if we start too big, we actually fail to start at all. When we dream the big dream of master projects and hundreds of photographs and best-selling books, many people fail to start because the dream is too big. I'm all for big dreams and goals--and relish in them, dance in them, and visualize them--but when it comes to the implementation, start with something small enough to do in a day or a week. Want to write a best-selling book or post? Start by researching your ideas, one at a time, in short posts. You can collect them later. In fact, the short pieces will serve as your building blocks for the bigger pieces.

Almost everyone I know that's created something big started one, small, tiny step at at time.

Bottom line recommendation? Create a fixed, small project that’s do-able within a time frame of less than 3 months.

What about creating a community? How do you get people to read your stuff?

What is a community, anyways? Traffic is a collection of people “listening” or knowing how to find you and your new internet home. Traffic is built by pointing people, one by one, to the content you’ve created. Without arrows pointing in your direction (and that comes from giving people a way to find you in the form of an email, tweet, verbal share, facebook post, or link from another site as some examples), you won't have very many people who accidentally stumble across your site. If the content is good, each person that sees it might share it with a few more people, and the site will grow slowly over time.

While I believe you should begin by sharing directly with your immediate colleagues and friends--emailing them to tell them you've written something; the absolute best way to grow traffic to a website is to write a guest post or article for a website that already has a built-in community or audience. It’s far easier than trying to coax one person at a time to your site. Scavenge the web for places that accept guest posts in your topic or area of interest, and spend time writing 2-3 posts that could be submitted at these places.

How big should your desired community be? Does it need to be a big community?

Before you jump into needing more traffic, however, I have many thoughts on how big a community needs to be.

The simple truth is that your story is important even if only one person hears it. Even if you're the one who needed to write the story in the first place. We tell stories and share information to connect with other people, and your experience may mean the world to someone else, even if there are only a handful of people reading the site. Maybe the one person who reads your story desperately needs to hear that there's someone else in the world like them, and you're that person. Never underestimate the power of a small audience.

The best way to share your stuff is to think honestly and authentically about the work you’re creating and who you’d like to read it. Then, select a couple of friends and colleagues and send them an email that says, “I just wrote an essay about my experience with ____, and I thought you might find it useful or enjoy reading the story. I’m building my writing craft, and I’d love it if you would take the time to tell me what you think or if you thought the story resonated with you.”

Why traffic is not the same as community.

There’s a bit of pressure to garner a lot of attention and traffic to a website, and I think that only looking at the raw numbers misses the bigger picture. A lot of people get frustrated when their traffic count doesn't seem as high as they'd like to be. While more can sometimes be better, it's not (to me at least) about creating a site or a post that millions of people see. It's about creating a post that resonates with a group of people that want to see what you're writing about.

When you think about traffic, I believe that you first need to start by understanding your own personal goals. What do you want to achieve? Why is traffic important? What are your aims?

Why are you building your site, and your community? Is it documentation, analysis, understanding, connection? Who do you want to connect with? What are you hoping to achieve?

Does it matter if 20,000 people visit your site or that 2 people "convert"? Conversion is a term that indicates when someone has behaved in a way that you want them to--often measured in sign-ups or purchases. In the case of Landscape Architecture, where I work on projects that have 10-, 20-, or 30-year time frames, many developers and architects are clients that work with us on projects over many years. What this means is that we don't need hundreds of thousands of people visiting our site (although that's fine that they do)--our desired conversion (our want, our outcome), is getting the people who visit the site to connect with us and hire us to do incredible urban design projects around the world. If only ten people visited our website--but ten of our right people, developers or architects who want to hire us for multi-million dollar city-design projects or urban landscapes, that would be 100% a win.

For me, on this website, I am intentionally creating a space where first and foremost I get to learn and practice the craft of writing out loud. I simply LOVE storytelling and describing things to people. I enjoy it immensely when people enjoy what I have to say and engage in conversation about ideas or questions that I've presented.

I have grown this site by developing relationships with people one by one, and I’ve tried to take the time to answer almost every email that comes my way via this blog. Sometimes it takes me a week or two, and some weeks I have to shutter down and I miss a few – but for the most part, I cherish the interactions that have come from two years of blogging and getting to know people around the world who are interested in similar ideas. I believe strongly (and think we should all remember) that everyone on the other end of these fiber-optic cables is a human person and should be treated as such. Even in my writing, it’s not “my readers,” but lots of individual people forming a relationship with me (or my writing). A relationship involves two people! The more you can connect on a human level, the more you resonate—as a friend, as an author, as a creator, as a business person, as a marketer.

What does success mean for this blog? I started it as a space where I could think (through writing) about particular ideas I love--philosophy, psychology, motivation, storytelling, entrepreneurship and innovation, strategy. It became a place where I could connect (via ideas) to souls around the world who found resonance in what I was saying (and vice versa). I've met thousands of people through this blog, taught workshops across the country, found homes to stay in while traveling abroad, and had morning after morning of delightful coffee conversations with hundreds of people who reached out just to say hello.

I've built a small side business around this internet home, specifically by teaching writing courses both online and in person, coaching and consulting with people looking for someone to reflect and analyze their ideas or projects, and doing high-intensity work with folks who sign up for the Start Something Project that I built last year. One of the things people ask me for the most is to be their buddy while they build a project, and coach them along the way as they build their first project--I get it. It's helpful to have someone there who can show you some of the ropes while you figure out what you're doing. (Don't worry--I take the training wheels off pretty quickly after one or two calls). But to be fair: I think you can do this all on your own.

Knowing your “right size.”

Interacting one on one, for me, also gives me huge value: I learn what people are working on, I develop new ideas for posts, I have “ah-ha!” moments where I understand how to describe something, and I get better at crafting things that are actually helpful. This post, in fact, is largely born out of a long conversation I had with a recent client developing her own blog and writing practice (thank you, for inspiring this post!).

One of the reasons I’ve been trying to “grow slowly” on the internet is because I want to develop real relationships with people, give myself space to breathe, learn and mess up, and also because it’s not about mass quantity. Do I want to be on the New York Times within the next few years? You bet. Would I like to write stories for the New Yorker? Absolutely. I also know that the best way to get there is not through a magic wand or sudden change, but through showing up, practicing, and moving forward on a consistent basis.

The other fallacy is that you need to have an audience of tens of thousands to make a viable business work. The reality is that the business you’re running might only need a handful of clients or customers. In fact, I might argue that having 10,000 people look at your stuff and only 10 people “convert” is poor efficiency.

To make a business work, you need to offer something of value to people who are interested, want, or need what you’re selling. I believe in business relationships that are highly satisfying to all parties involved—you learn, you grow, you get attention, mentoring, ideas, strategy, advice, review—and I also learn, grow, and cherish the working relationship and enjoy the service that I’m giving. To do my client work, I only work with two or three people a month as my “side hustle,” that is second to my full-time day job. In my recent writing course that I built, I'm not looking for 500 people; I'm looking for a small community of 20-30 writers interested in learning and writing in community.

How many people do you need to reach to make this business work? You don’t need 10,000 readers, you need the right amount of the right people--the ones who find high value in what you're offering. To develop a community, you need to build the right audience for the product or service that you’re creating.

Perhaps there’s something to developing medium-sized communities or “tribes,” as other people call them. I love and cherish the people that I’m getting to know—and I’m constantly in awe of the talent, ideas, and personalities that cross my radar just because I happen to write stuff on the internet. I thank you.

As You Grow

Things change. As you build a space for yourself on the internet, everything will change, as things tend to do. I’ve always said that the first 1000 people will get a response, and as the community and shape of my work changes, I’ll shift my strategy to create a strategy that’s satisfying and pleasing in service of my best work for the most people that I can reach.

But before “growth” in the numbers or traffic sense comes growth as a person, and growth in your skill sets. Just as I’m trying as a novice in dance class each week, a tall gangly female of all legs who keeps moving in the wrong direction, building a writing practice and a craft takes practice. It’s okay to start small, and it’s okay to have just one essay at a time. Start with the right sized audience and a single essay, and go from there.

Resources I love:

There's a whole world of amazing people and products on the internet, and you don't have to start from scratch if you don't want to. For an investment of $100 to $2000, you can find someone (or a couple of great lessons) to show you what steps to take and how to move forward. $2000 may feel like a lot, but most people who went to college spent about $5000 per class, as a point of reference. I've taken probably thirty-odd classes from $25 to several hundred dollars in order to learn more about all of these. (You get to keep the skills you learn, by the way.) Here are some of my favorites:

Enjoy:

  • Jenny Blake's May Mastermind For Side Hustlers and Solopreneurs–If you're curious what a mastermind is or how it works, her May "sampler" is a month-long mastermind group that focuses on creating optimized schedules, financial roadmaps, finding your ideal client, and building an action plan for your business. Priced at the ridiculously low $75, she said she's offering this alternative class as a way for more people to access her programs (and to make it "impossible not to sign up"). Speaking of amazing content, Jenny's Behind-The-Business blog updates are one of my FAVORITE things to read. She shares her process for building, creating, and all of the nitty details you wish someone would talk about, but rarely do. Not publicized as a blog, it's probably better than most blog posts.
  • Think Traffic, by Corbett Barr, a website with tricks and tips and ways to build a blog (with traffic--if that's your goal!). His product, Start A Blog That Matters, has been well-received and I've heard rave reviews.
  • Fizzle, another product by Corbett Barr, Caleb Wojcik, and Chase Reeves is an online community of business training and video training for $35 a month ($315 for the year).
  • Anything Danielle LaPorte, but mostly her latest, The Desire Map, as a way to discover your true desired feelings and help create a new way to think about goals and desires.
  • Tara Gentile's MasterMind Group, 10 Thousand Feet--a coaching and mastermind group to "pull you out of the trenches and give you the big-picture view on your business." Creator of the 'New/You Economy' movement, Tara gives wonderful no-nonsense business advice and I've treasured her speaking events and engagements. This one clocks in at her early-bird $1800 price, and it's a 3-month intensive for people with new/early businesses who want a summer of focused, personalized work to build their work to the next level. Most small-group masterminds are at least $2000 or more, so this one's a great value for those initiating businesses or in the earlier years.
  • The Live Well Space, by Suzannah Scully--I met Suzannah via Twitter (after a very public swim) and we realized that we were walking down the same street(s) in San Francisco. We both had heard of each other and wanted to know more. After a long and lovely morning laughing with tears streaming down our cheeks, we convened a fast and cherished friendship. Her blog channels yoga + philosophy + movement + strategic wisdom, and the focus of her work is on livingworking, and loving well. Her coaching work builds 3-month relationships with clients to unpack and restructure your life's focus towards greater clarity and happiness.
  • New Minimalism by Cary Fortin--another soul sister whose creation rocks my socks off -- Cary's work looks at how less clutter and fewer things can bring more freedom and happiness to our lives, but takes the edge off of the extreme nature of many minimalist movements that trends towards absolute nothing. Believing that enjoyment and luxury can also be a part of simplicity and specificity, her new blog is a delicious discovery.
  • Hannah Marcotti’s Community Grace--I'm a few days late in sharing this, but Hannah's lovely, raw, real community for women has periodic 30-day group sessions for a $49 registration fee to join in learning about blogging, growth, and community-building. I love and admire her work, and think you'll love her blog if you haven't seen it already.

My takeaways for you? Build yourself an "internet home," even if it's only to enjoy making something by yourself.

I'm biased--I think we should all participate in this new form of community space, this digital world where we can place our creations. If you're wavering about creating something, let me be clear: I think it's time for you to join in.

To make it easy on yourself, start small. Pick one topic or project that you're interested in, and make a small commitment to create a collection of pieces--drawings, ideas, words, notes, stories, essays, paintings, photos, or other--around this topic.

Give yourself a deadline of 3 months or less (ideally one month). And finish it.

What happens? It gives you something to point to. It's a reference point for the future. It's a means towards executing your projects. It's a way to start a conversation. And it's a way to do the things you've been talking (or thinking) about doing.

And best-case scenario? You get to meet a few people along the way who like talking about what you're doing.

It's an incredible place. I hope you'll join in.sarah signature

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