As I build Ungated, there are a handful of atypical principles underlying every move I make.
In no particular order, those principles are:
- Play the long game
- Simplify or die
- Don’t be a commodity
- Default to generosity
- Make friends, have fun
- Create happy customers
- Experiment and iterate
- Embrace the messy middle
If you’ve been in the marketing or business world for any length of time, you might look at these and think to yourself “These principles seem a bit… fluffy and idealistic. Wtf is Rob smoking?” And you’d be right. Many of these are diametrically opposed to how businesses are traditionally run.
But here’s the deal. I’ve been at this online business/creator thing for damn near seven years. And frankly, it’s been a rough ride, both financially and emotionally. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and bought into all sorts of “best practices” that don’t align with my values, or reflect how I want to show up in the world. “Business as usual” doesn’t vibe with me, or the people I seek to serve.
So these principles are my attempt to codify a more delightful philosophy of creative business. This is my chance to lay out how I want to operate, and who I’m striving to become, in my business. It’s a chance to chart a healthier path forward in the next ten years and beyond.
Over the next few articles, I’ll flesh out each principle in more detail, share where it came from, and how I’m applying it to Ungated and Citizen Within.
But today, let’s talk about why indie creator businesses like mine (and probably yours) need unconventional principles in the first place.
Business utopia, in theory and practice
In his book Anything You Want, Derek Sivers drops this lovely little nugget:
"When you make a business, you get to make a little universe where you control all the laws. This is your utopia."
I don’t know about you, but these two simple sentences light me up. The idea of a business utopia fills me with a sense of possibility and wonder. It’s a vital reminder that I’m painting on a blank canvas here, and that I can shape this little corner of the internet into whatever I damn well want.
As delightful as I find that idea, it’s also terrifying.
For starters, building a utopian business universe sounds freakin’ overwhelming. Like, where do you even start? Should you build from first principles? And how do you know if your utopian vision will work in the real world? What if you follow your intuition, then fail miserably?
Much uncertainty. Very anxiety. Wow.
I suspect this is why there are an unrelenting number of experts and gurus in the online business space. We humans don’t like uncertainty, so when someone comes along promising we’ll get everything we’ve ever wanted when we follow their “simple bulletproof system,” our ears perk up. That promise is viscerally appealing to our monkey brains. It relieves the tension.
And so, many of us (including past Rob) put our faith in templates and blueprints and paint-by-numbers systems. We seek out and adhere to every “best practice” we can find—even though deep down, they all seem to rub us the wrong way.
But hey, at least it feels safer than the alternative, right? At least you can sleep at night, knowing you’re doing something proven to work, right?
The hidden danger of “best practices”
Sure, it’s comforting to walk a nicely paved path instead of hacking your way through the jungle and building your own.
But it’s a false comfort. Because in the end, all of that work results in a creative business that looks and feels the same as everyone else’s. When ten thousand people are following the same playbook, the market learns to spot the plays and defend against them. Your work become noise instead of signal.
And that, my friends, is why so many creators have a hard time breaking through, and earning lifelong fans. We chase certainty, and end up creating commodified work in a world drowning in commodities.
To make matters worse, if the best practices you’re following are rooted in antagonism and manipulation (as many of them are), you might win in the short term. But you won’t end up with happy customers and a healthy long-term business. Used and abused, your customers will leave, they'll spread the word, and the market will dry up.
You will have channeled so much of your time and energy into something that’s not only incongruent with your values, but doesn’t even give you the financial freedom you initially set out for. It’s lose-lose.
I’m not pointing fingers here. That’s how the first 3-4 years of my entrepreneurial life played out. I followed the herd and played by the rules. I used all the best practices. And it damn near killed my soul and drained my bank account.
The promised land on the horizon of that path is so seductive, but it's a mirage. By prioritizing certainty above all else, the only thing we make certain is mediocrity and uniformity.
My vision for Ungated
There are approximately eleventy bazillion websites teaching marketing online.
And there are just as many twitter accounts, courses, memberships, and podcasts in the “creators teaching other creators how to create good” space.
I don’t want Ungated to resemble any of it.
I’d rather **get a real job** (even the thought of it makes me shudder) than build some cookie cutter marketing website that mindlessly repeats the same empty fortune cookie slogans and manipulative advice. Fuck that noise.
Instead, I want Ungated to feel substantially different. I want it to be an oasis in the middle of a hostile, sketchy ecosystem. A place where intermediate and advanced creators can come to find the others, grow in meaningful ways, and have their values not only reinforced, but celebrated.
I don’t have any grand allusions of scale. I’m not trying to 10x anything. I don’t want to “dominate” the market. And I’m certainly not building this thing just to sell it off to the highest bidder.
I’m trying to build a delightful corner of the internet that generously serves other creators who see the world as I do. Creators who feel repelled by traditional business and marketing advice. Creators who want to do work that matters for an audience that actually gives a damn. Creators who want to make 1,000 True Fans their reality.
That’s the utopia I have in my head. My north star. I want to build something that, had young Rob stumbled into it early in his journey, would have saved him from years of unnecessary turmoil and cognitive dissonance and pain.
In order to get to that place, however, I can’t just rely on a cool design and slick copywriting. It can’t be the same old, same old business advice, just with a fresh coat of paint.
For Ungated to become what I envision, it needs to be rooted in an entirely different set of ideas. It needs a new operating system.
Why principles matter
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about business these last seven years, it’s that the whole endeavor is a never-ending barrage of decisions.
You have to decide who to serve, what problems to solve, what products and services to create, how to spread the word, what tools to use, how to treat your customers, and so on. And within each of those big categories, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of smaller decisions that must be made.
None of them come with easy answers, either. No matter what direction you choose, there are always tradeoffs. You’re always sacrificing something. Frankly, it can feel debilitating trying to properly think through it all as a solo creator.
That’s where principles come in.
By clarifying what you stand for, and how you want to operate in the world, the process of making decisions becomes a hell of a lot easier.
Your principles provide a simple set of lenses to view each new decision and opportunity that comes across your desk.
Some new company pops into your inbox with a lucrative affiliate deal? If they don’t align with your values and principles, it’s an easy decision to say no.
Some guru says the best way to profit is to barrage your list with spammy, aggressive emails? If the principles say no, so should you.
And by defining these principles early on, you reduce the mental strain and uncomfortable ambiguity that “future you” will have had to deal with. It’s a major point of leverage in your business—a way to kill thousands of birds with one stone.
Protection from unprincipled environments
There’s another delightful side effect of laying out your principles and committing to them. You become less susceptible to the environment around you.
I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time in the marketing space. And it’s so, so easy to get pulled into short-term thinking. It’s easy to start treating prospects and customers like abstract data points instead of people. It’s easy to get lured in by promises of overnight success, passive income, and “this one simple trick that will double your conversion rate.”
This is the water we swim in as marketers and creators. “Business as usual” has a gravitational force to it. Like a moth pulled towards the electric lamp, we’re magnetically drawn in.
To put it bluntly, if you’re not grounded by a set of principles that make it easy to say no, it’s difficult not to. We’re all human, and we’re all products of our environment to a certain degree. And our brains are wired to respond to these things.
In order to give ourselves a fighting chance in an ecosystem bursting at the seems with sexy but empty promises, we need clear boundaries and rules. We need a constant reminder of how we want to show up in the world, and how we want to be.
And that’s what principles do. They dramatically simplify every decision that comes across your desk. And they act as guardrails, protecting you from a culture that’s often at odds with your best, most generous self.
“This might not work”
For years, there’s been a nagging voice in the back of my head.
“All of these principles sound really nice, Rob. But we both know what’s proven to work. Direct response. Scarcity, urgency, emotional manipulation. Surely if you care about building an effective business, you should focus on what you know works.”
It’s a compelling argument. Because I do, in fact, want to build an amazing business here. I do want to create something that gets me to a point where I never have to think about money again. The voice in my head knows this, and uses it against me.
And for many years, my better self argued with that voice, going back and forth like a furious tennis match. “Stick to your values” vs. “do what’s proven to work” was the perennial battle in my head—with the easy, comfortable path usually coming out on top.
But in recent months, I’ve finally come around to an idea that Seth Godin has been spreading for years. (It’s kinda funny how often I come around to Seth’s way of viewing the world.)
The idea, quite simply, is learning to love the fact that “this might not work.”
Again and again, throughout his many books, Seth points to the fact that any creative work worth doing, any work that’s potentially transformative and delightful, comes with no instruction manual, and no guarantee. To make a real difference and matter to people, you can’t stick to the script. No risk, no reward.
I don’t know why, but that lesson finally sunk in for me over the last few months. It finally clicked.
To fully serve my people—to create something new and generous and vital—I have to accept that my efforts might be in vain. I have to be comfortable with the fact that these principles might be dead wrong. And then, I have to move forward anyway.
I think it finally clicked for me because I realized the alternative is unacceptable. I detest the idea of spending my life implementing best practices I don’t believe in, and making the internet louder and dumber with cookie cutter content. I detest the idea of treating my fans and customers like abstractions that only exist to pad a bank account.
If I project myself forward to my deathbed after living the “best practices” life, there’s nothing there but regret and shame. Seeing that I had the opportunity to take the uncertain but generous path, but wasn’t courageous enough, fills me with sorrow.
Luckily, I’m not at by deathbed yet. There are still two roads diverging in front of me.
And when I frame things this way—with the macabre but profound “deathbed test”—the certainty-loving voice in my head quiets down. It realizes it has no sway anymore, and backs off. Regardless of what that voice says, I’m going to live and operate by these new principles. I’m going to embrace the messy, uncertain, vulnerable nature of doing something that might not work. And I’m going to put everything I have into building the business utopia I've always wanted.
Because even if I fail, it’s a far better way to live than the alternative.