Never Become Someone's Product

I went on a Twitter rant last week. Something I don’t do all that often.

It started with Instagram announcing they were changing their algorithm away from a linear view of your stream. This lead to days of brands and people with independent businesses begging you to turn on notifications. It was not pretty. 

Then came the news that Medium was wooing publishers to make it their online home. What the these moves actually mean remains to be seen. You can read the article about Medium but I’ll warn you. This email is not about what either platform is doing. So don’t be writing me to say that my analysis of Medium or Instagram is wrong.  

It’s not about them.

It’s about you.

It’s about owning your work. Most people who go out on their own want independence. But, it isn’t just about not having to be at your desk at 9 am on-the-dot, having to ask for vacation days or getting to wear your pajamas to work.

Think about those scared business owners on Instagram. Their blatant messages made their over reliance on Instagram clear. Relying on one platform for distribution or revenue isn’t going to give you the independence you desired when you left a comfortable nest to take a risk.

You should never build your entire business model on someone else’s platform. It doesn’t matter:

how pretty they make your work look...

the incentives they offer...

the astronomical page views they promise.

You’re still building on their home.

Medium, Instagram and the rest are using your product to make a name for themselves, to build their identity —not yours. Remember, if you aren't paying for the service, you are not using them, they are using you. You're an ingredient. In other words, you are their product.

Why make your own creations just to become someone else's product?

When you put your writing in Medium—you become theirs, not yours. Using them to help your work get discovered is smart. It can dramatically amplify your reach. But, making your work discoverable and placing your business in the hands of someone else are entirely different things. 

Consider these networks simply vehicles for your people to find you. For example, sometimes I repost my articles on Medium but is my home. This is where me — and my work live on the internet. Twitter, Instagram and all the rest are simply methods to get the word out. I’d be freaked out too if I had put all my digital eggs in someone else’s basket. 

Here’s the thing.

With those other platforms, it’s an unequal relationship. They make the rules. You have to agree to the rules or you can’t use them. There’s little negotiation. The bigger problem? They can change the rules at any time — leaving you without a revenue stream or having to start all over again somewhere else. Remember a few years ago when Facebook was becoming the place to be? Many businesses invested heavily in their marketing for this channel, relegating their own websites as an afterthought. And what did Facebook do? Change their algorithm. I know several businesses that were severely impacted — a couple even went out of business. 

Here’s another reason.

When you rely on these platforms, you’re one of many. If you're lucky, you can standout but it will never replace having a place where you set the rules. You need a place where your online identity lives. So too, a place like or the newer are nice additions, but shouldn’t be the main home of your online identity — or "your address on the web."

Why we lean on these platforms

We over rely on other platforms so that we don’t have to do the hard work of articulating our identity.

I know.

It’s not easy to build a place that represents our values, shows us as the unique people we are and depicts our work well. It takes deep introspection, an understanding of ourselves, and clarity on the purpose for our work. Let’s not kid ourselves. Introspection is not always the easiest work. Looking at yourself with a fine tooth comb in a bright glaring mirror is challenging.

Anyone can set up shop these days. Getting the right tax structure, figuring out accounting and all the rest of the practical stuff just aren’t that difficult. Plunking your work on another platform with a pithy description of yourself feels easier. But be careful not to get lured in by the practical.

It's a trap.

If you really want the independence you seek, you must put effort into the hard(est) work. Don't become the product of someone else. Don't take shortcuts. Dive into the deep. It's scary. It's also the most essential work you do.

Don't Get Lured in by the What

There’s a starting point when you want to work for yourself. Everyone starts with the What. It’s often easier to answer than Why. You’d think it would be the other way around. But it’s not.

The What lures us in. We like things we can, see, touch, and control.

In short, we like tangible things.

The What is a very tangible thing. A What is a book, an app, or a trip around the world. We can dream up whole long lists of What, but barely even one Why.

Why feels far more intangible, hard to articulate. Why inhabits the in-between spaces of our brain; the Why often fleeting to our subconscious brain. Why, at its foundation, is  intangible, it’s hard to shape. A Why can scare us far more than any What can.

Why is about our values. Why makes us examine ourselves. It’s about our deepest desires. Why scares us. It’s also what propels us forward.




“Why?” is a constant refrain of little kids. They’re trying to understand the world — and their relation to it. Asking Why begins to wane in our teenage years until it trickles off in our early twenties when we stop asking Why. Our focus is on What.

What are you going to do with your life?

What kind of job are you going to get?

What are you going to do to pay the bills?

We get so caught up in answering the What we completely forget Why we’re doing something. Why we’re working so hard. Why we’re even here on this earth. Life becomes drudgery. Life lacks meaning.




Starting with What is far more likely to lead you to traditional freelancing. When you’re a freelancer you’re at the whim of the market and of employers. Yes, employers, because the freelancer mindset is actually more akin to having an employer rather than being your own. You treat your clients like they’re the boss. You drop everything when an emergency happens. The relationship is unequal.

When you start with Why, you set your own direction. You steer your work, not your clients. You’re more likely to ask for what you want. You make decisions that are best for you, even while you keep the client in mind. You value yourself more highly. There’s meaning to your work and in your life.

It’s tempting to go for the tangible. It feels easier, far less scary. Resist that urge.

Start with Why. The What will follow.


Though it's been years since I've watched it, the Start With Why Ted Talk goes into a similar concept more depth. You should watch it. 

The Problem With Ideas

If you've thought of working for yourself, you've probably entertained a whole bunch of ideas. Have you spent a lot of time imagining what it will be like when you create your first product? All the adulation you’ll receive when you write your first book? Have you finished those projects?

When your day job is serving clients, the ideas for products can come faster than you do them. Instead, you dream about bringing your own idea to fruition rather than actually making progress on them. Daydreaming becomes a favorite pastime. You can fall prey to this when you work for someone else — and when you have your own business. You may think that if you just worked for yourself you’d have plenty of time to create more products.

Working for someone else isn’t the real culprit.

I spent years dreaming of what it would be like to create. I spent more time dreaming of creating than actually creating. I had an evernote folder overflowing with ideas. Piles of scraps of paper full of beautiful sentences. A discarded half-complete app. I was busy with clients. I put their work first.

But there was a hidden cause at work.

Too many ideas. 

Last year it came to a head. A sampling of the ideas I entertained:

  • Love on a Tweet: a place where couples who met on Twitter could share their story
  • A Bellissima Life: a site for Gen X women
  • Digital magic 8 ball with quotes from the matrix, rappers and Shakespeare
  • Short story about a game show where you could change lives 
  • Essay about the color white
  • Books for people who want to take control of their career 

I’m not actually joking.

I began 2015 fantasizing about all those ideas. I made halting progress on some. But these half-finished dreams laid strewn around my digital work space, haunting me. I went to bed every night feeling like a failure, the ideas climbing the walls of my dreams.   

The idea overload hangover was awful. 

An idea hoarder by nature, I carried them with me for years. I recently learned the term for it: idea debt. The term was coined by Kazu Kibuishi, a graphic novel author and illustrator, and spread by Jessica Abel. In a nutshell, idea debt is:

Too many ideas, not enough doing.

Being paralyzed into inaction isn't the only side effect of idea debt. Aside from not accomplishing, working on too many diverse tasks taxes the brain. The problem is context switching, which is akin to that of multitasking. Research shows multitasking can reduce your productivity by as much as 40%.

Multitasking isn't just about trying to do two things at once. Performing two or more tasks in rapid succession without finishing the first one also forces you to context switch. So even if you’re doing the same sort task, say writing or creating code, you’re still interrupted as you switch between ideas.

For instance in my case, writing an experimental essay about the color white requires assembling disparate concepts together. Even the language I used was different from that of my business guides. My brain stuttered every time. Ultimately, I found context switching between my ideas to be too much, even in my writing.

Last May, I declared idea bankruptcy. I stopped pursuing all those daydreams. I broke up with all my ideas except the last one, which became Bet On Yourself. I cashed in all my other idea chips and went all in. My theme of year, gave me the boost I needed.

The difference has been remarkable. 

In 8 months I wrote a guide, have outlines for three more guides and published a piece on a well-respected creative business publication. I’m writing articles weekly and at work on my next guide to be published soon.

Last night, and every night this week, I slept soundly. 

Letting go of my idea debt was the best decision I made last year. 

My guess is that at least some of you are held back by too many ideas and not enough action. Some of you are probably waiting to start until you’re working for yourself. This is not good. There’s never really a good day to start a business, increasing the likelihood that your idea will gather several inches of dust before you’re forced to begin. And, building an app, writing a book or making a library of tools takes time — far more than you think. We haven’t even talked about building an audience, the oft-forgotten step in product creation. Does this sound familiar?

Stop waiting.

Stop taxing your brain with too many ideas. Just because you have an idea doesn't mean you have to pursue it. Get comfortable knowing you're going to have far more ideas than you can pursue. Write them down. Get them out of your head. Stop carrying them around with you like an overloaded pack mule. Reduce your idea debt.

Pick just one to pursue.

(yes, just one)

Start with the one that never seems to let go of you. Or maybe you pick the easy one. Perhaps it's your most original idea. The idea doesn't matter. Really, it doesn't. Just start. Drop the rest and make progress on that one idea so this time next year you don’t look back with regret.

You don'thave to go at a blistering pace. Consistent focus and progress is your aim. You may not become the next unicorn or even make a bunch of money. What you gain is far more important. You'll learn more by doing, creating a more permanent shift in the way you think, which is useful for future projects. Focusing on creating rather than on the idea of creating also brings confidence. Starting — and finishing a project breeds a sense of accomplishment, persuading you to make more things. It's the best kind of feedback loop.

I get it. If you carry idea debt, asking you to declare idea bankruptcy is tough. It’s anxiety producing to put all your digital eggs in one basket, letting the rest roll around in the brain of someone else.

It’s scary.

It’s risky.

It’s worth it.