For the first five years of my business, I poured most of my energy into activities that gave me the illusion of control.
I did extensive market research. I learned the ins and outs of sales psychology and copywriting. I built meticulous funnels and email systems. And I consumed information ravenously, hoping to find the keys that would give me the business I wanted. Looking back, it’s clear I was treating my business as a puzzle to be solved in my head instead of the real world. And I was doing it out of a place of self-doubt and insecurity.
As you might expect, this strategy turned out… badly. My complex systems never performed half as well as I’d hoped. Things I was certain about never quite mapped onto reality. The sense of control I’d so carefully cultivated turned out to be a mirage. And every time I failed, I habitually jumped back into the arms of books and courses to find newer, better answers to make myself feel better. It was frustrating chapter of my life, and on a few occasions I seriously considered giving up and getting a real job.
But for the past year, I’ve been trying something different. I’ve stopped looking for answers in the outside world, and started searching within myself. I’ve let go of the need for certainty, and just started exploring and experimenting. As I surrender my need for control, and just show up in the world from a place of curiosity and play, my business and life keep getting better. It’s uncanny.
That, my friends, is the top-down vs. bottom-up paradox.
There are a few ways to define ‘’top-down” and “bottom-up,” mostly from the realm of management and economics. But here’s how I’m defining them in our context of building an indie business.
- Top-down is about attempting to exercise control over outcomes in a complex system. It's about having a clear, rigid definition of what success looks like, planning extensively to get it, then executing on said plan, with the expectation that if you work hard enough and stick to the plan, you will eventually get where you want to go.
- Bottom-up is about setting off in a meaningful direction, but letting go of the need to know and control the exact steps ahead. It's about following your intuition and curiosity, and being experimental, iterative, and open to serendipity. It’s about taking lots of small, low-stakes steps, then letting results, learnings, and new possibilities emerge from your many interactions with the world.
As with most models, this isn’t a binary, but a spectrum. Goal setting and planning are useful tools, just as experimentation and iteration are. You can get the best of both worlds. But the issue comes from the extreme defaults that get drilled into our collective psyche from the culture around us.
Almost all life, career, and business advice is top-down. Having a clear vision, and setting and achieving goals are practically religious doctrine in Western culture. This way of being is baked into us by our parents, our schools, our jobs, and by seemingly every book or course we consume. It’s the water we swim in, and it’s an unquestioned assumption we take into any endeavor we’re trying to succeed in.
Not only is top-down ideology omnipresent, but it truly is seductive. Ambiguity and uncertainty are uncomfortable, while we absolutely love feeling smart and in control. We crave it. It soothes our noisy psyches and makes us feel powerful and confident. And many of us, myself included, end up addicted to that feeling, and we chase it.
But after a bunch of experimentation, here’s something I can no longer deny. Operating from the bottom-up just seems to work better. It’s scarier, because it comes without the illusion of certainty. But it results in more tangible progress, more wins, more learning, more opportunities, and more fun. It results in spending more time in the world, and less stuck up in our heads. And for me, it’s resulted in a better business, and a higher quality of life.
Having seen this dynamic play out not only in myself, but in everyone I’ve coached over the past year, I’m convinced that shifting from top-down to bottom-up is one of the most impactful transformations we can make as creators.
Here's an uncomfortable truth. Many of us have no clue what will make us happy and fulfilled over the long term. Sure, we have elaborate ideas for what we should pursue—usually tied to money, accomplishment, status, security, etc. Yet many of those goals and desires don’t originate within us. We pick them up from the people and cultures around us, and call them our own.
And the thing about mimetic goals is they rarely lead you to fulfillment. It’s a cliche at this point to share stories of people climbing to the top of the corporate ladder—the path they’ve trusted all their life—only to realize they still feel empty, and that that the ladder they climbed was propped up against the wrong building all along. And it’s not just the corporate world. This happens all the time in the entrepreneurship world and creative industries.
That’s the problem with taking a top-down approach to building a good life. We’re complex emotional beings with competing and often contradictory needs, and we’re wired for mimicry. It takes time to disentangle that mess and figure out the activities that will reliably make us feel how we want to feel.
That's why bottom-up business is so magical. Because it gives us a constant stream of real data about how things feel in the real world. When you’re in the world and experiencing something for yourself, it doesn’t matter if your experience contradicts what you’ve read in some business book. What's real for you, is real for you.
Throughout my journey, there have been all sorts of things I thought I’d love in theory, but in practice, they sucked ass. For instance, my foray into the Gift Economy came with a drastic difference between expectations and reality.
But for a more relatable example, in the online course ecosystem, launches are all the rage. They can generate huge sums of publicity and revenue all at once, which is sexy. So they get talked about a lot, and become a mimetic goal for a lot of new creators. That’s why I spent the first four years of my business mostly operating from a launch model. Because I had a sense of “that’s just how things are done.”
But truth is, I’ve never enjoyed launches. They’re an insane amount of work and stress, coupled with heightened (often unrealistic) expectations. Unless they’re balanced out by other revenue models, they lead to constant cycles of feast and famine. I’m already prone to burnout, and to feeling a sense of scarcity and financial insecurity. Building my business based on this model only exacerbated those problems and degraded my quality of life.
It doesn’t matter if launches are the right answer for other creators. They’re not the right answer for me. And that’s why most of Ungated’s revenue comes from coaching and membership, and it’s why I’m taking the slow and steady approach to growing everything. Because it makes my everyday life a heck of a lot more enjoyable. And the more I enjoy myself, the easier it is to play and win the long game.