Chris Brogan on the Business of Being Yourself

As cliché as it sounds, some of the best business advice you can get is simply … be who you are.

It sounds impractical that in a ruthless world filled with corporations, venture capitalists, and never-ending competition, we’re encouraged to drop our personas and keep things real.

From being different, to taking risks, there’s a tremendous amount of knowledge to be had in this episode. Chris says “we often mistake busy for progress” and he’s no rookie when it comes to giving entrepreneurial advice.

Listen up and take notes, as one of the most successful marketing and social media guys on the planet takes the floor.

In this 25-minute episode Chris Brogan and I discuss:

  • What Sally Hogshead said at Authority Rainmaker that rocked my world
  • Being busy vs. being blessed
  • The best piece of advice that Brian Clark gave Chris
  • Why Chris says “yes” to most of the podcast interview requests he gets
  • How a joke landed Chris a $40,000 client experience
  • Why trying to mimic someone else’s success is a bad idea
  • What a 9-year-old teaches us about business models

The Show Notes

Chris Brogan on the Business of Being Yourself

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Brian Gardner: So instead of going through the history of Chris Brogan on social media and so on, we’re just going to jump right in.

Hey, everyone. Welcome to the No Sidebar podcast. I am your host, Brian Gardner. I’m here to discuss the struggles around being and becoming a creative entrepreneur.

Together, we’ll identify what’s standing in the way of you building and growing your online business.

No Sidebar is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, a complete website solution for writers, designers, podcasters, and other online entrepreneurs. Find out more and take a free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.

Today is going to be a fun show. Strangely enough, I reached to out Chris Brogan and asked him if he could get on a call to talk about what we experienced over at Authority Rainmaker, and he said, “How about right now?” In typical fashion, I jumped on Skype, hit record. I want to preface all of this conversation that Chris and I are going to have with a conversation that he and I had a couple of weeks back.

I called Chris a couple of weeks ago. We were supposed to go over what we would talk about on our call, and this strange thing happened. I had a bad day, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with podcasting. Chris played therapist rather than interviewee on that call. He said something to me that was very, very intelligent, and something that made a lot of sense to me and really aligns with the No Sidebar philosophy.

He said, “Typically I like to do my interviews, start them out as if they were 30 minutes in.” In other words, cutting out the traditional, “Hey, here’s my guest. Here’s where he came from and how he got to where he got to,” because the reality of it is, Google exists, right?

For somebody who doesn’t have an hour to listen to an entire show, people know, for the most part, what their story is of the person they’re listening to. If they don’t, they’re able to research it. So instead of going through the history of Chris Brogan on social media and so on, we’re just going to jump right in.

Authority Rainmaker last week in Denver, Colorado, was a conference that Copyblogger put on, our company. We had some really great guests and speakers. Chris was there. Chris spoke, and it was very good.

First of all, Chris, welcome to the show, and thank you for hopping on right away.

Chris Brogan: You know what? I’m totally thrilled. I’m thrilled to be here, Brian. Having spent a little time in your actual physical orbit was nice. I really like the idea of the project for No Sidebar. It’s funny that even just the name, there’s two obvious means to it. There’s what it means for blog design and site design, but obviously for life. I feel just honored to be a guest, so thank you.

What Sally Hogshead Said at Authority Rainmaker That Rocked My World

Brian Gardner: You’re welcome. It’s great to have you here. Let’s jump right in. Sally Hogshead was a session that I did not plan to go to. It was the keynote of the second day, the opening keynote that was. I was going to do a few other things, but something just said, “Brian, you need to go in there and listen to what she has to say because there’s probably a reason for it.”

I went in there and I was a little bit cautiously optimistic. What I can say is this, Sally Hogshead rocked my world. I went into Authority Rainmaker with a lot of questions and some confusion about what I want to do and how I want to do it.

I have to tell you, it’s like she was looking at me and speaking for an hour directly at me. One of the things she said was this, “Don’t change who you are, become more of who you are.”

I thought that was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever heard. It really spoke to me personally because I’m going through some stuff — just trying to identify what is my voice, who are the people that I want to impact, how I want to impact them, and so on.

It also made me think this is a good chance to take what she said and what I want to talk to you about and put it together because a lot of people know you as a social media guy. I know, ha ha — you wrote about that on Facebook a few weeks back. There’s obviously a lot of backstory, Chris, to who you are, but that really is the whole story. It’s who Chris is. In other words, you are no different off social media than you are on social media. I want to talk about that and just get your thoughts and reactions to what she said.

Being Busy vs. Being Blessed

Chris Brogan: Did you get that feeling in person, by the way? When you hung out with me, were you like, “Wow, it’s exactly the way it’s been all along,” or were you like, “No, he’s totally different”?

Brian Gardner: Two years ago, I think you may have been at a different point. I talked about this briefly when we spoke a few weeks back, that you seemed to have a lot going on. In other words, you were going to a lot of conferences. You were speaking a lot. Maybe you came across as busy, which isn’t a bad thing. It just meant that you had a lot of things happening in your life. The last two years, I’m telling you, it seems like it’s been a night and day difference — like you intentionally went out and said, “This is not going to sustain for very long because there’s just too much happening.”

To me, at least from the outside, it looks like you intentionally went in and cut out some stuff — some travel, some conferences, some things. You really brought it back to what you want to do, your web properties and nurturing all of that. When we had some chance this past week to talk, you seemed relaxed, happy — not that you weren’t before, you know what I mean — but it just seemed like you were at a better place.

Chris Brogan: It is true. One of the things that I can say — this is the first ‘take out your highlighter’ moment in the conversation — is we often mistake busy for progress. As you well know, motion and forward motion are two different things. When we are having a tough time or when things aren’t working out so well, we tend to go into panic and go in all-directions modes. It looks from the outside, “Wow, that guy is busy.” I’m just against the word ‘busy.’ The best I like to say is I’m blessed.

Number one is that, when you’re going after everything, you can’t really catch as many things because you’re never in a place long enough for that.

The Best Piece of Advice That Brian Clark Gave Chris

Chris Brogan: The other thing is that, with regards to the way I feel now, a bunch of years ago, I was with Brian Clark at Pubcon on an interview on some stage where the interviewer was horrendous, I seem to recall.

We just decided to ask each other questions and ignore her, which was I guess technically rude, but we just wanted to save the audience from having really dumb questions about “when did you get on Twitter?” One of the things I said to Brian was, “Brian, I’m faced with all of these opportunities, and I don’t know what to say yes to.”

This is years ago. This is typical Clark. Clark tells me something and then two or three years later, I try my best to make it my own. He said, “I really just serve the people who have given me their time and attention. I don’t say yes to anything that doesn’t follow that.” That’s actually the other reason why I don’t seem to crazy busy anymore. That’s the answer.

Brian Gardner: One of the things you said — and you can tell me if you want this cut out of this interview — was you say yes to a lot of people who ask if they can podcast interview you as long as they respect your time and keep it to 20 minutes or so, which of course, I want to do on this one for a number of reasons, but is that true?

Do you really spend that much time engaging with other people? It wouldn’t surprise me, but when I heard that, I was like, God, thousands of people would be asking you then, right?

Why Chris Says ‘Yes’ to Most of the Podcast Interview Requests He Gets

Chris Brogan: I say yes to almost all of them. I really do. I would say that the whole scenario is that, first off, by making it 20 minutes, I can usually do a bunch a day. If I could say yes to three or four or five a day, that’s only an hour and a half of my time. The other is that, this is the part — and you should definitely feel free to keep it in — this is part that’s difficult to say.

When I’m a guest on anybody’s show, no matter the size of the show, it does not move any needle. As a guest on anyone’s show, if suddenly the next day, I don’t suddenly have 300 new email subscribers or no one’s has bought anything I see, whatever, but I feel like it does two things.

It allows me to talk to a community I don’t usually get to talk with. Then the other is that I get the opportunity to talk about or think about how I want to represent what I do to the outside world — which is really useful for me — but also I try to deliver some value at the same time.

I guess what I’m really doing is just trying to share all of the behind the scenes of who I am as often as I can. That’s why I say yes to being a guest all the time. I feel like somewhere out there, someone’s going to go, “Woah, that was the piece I was missing.”

Brian Gardner: Speaking of behind the scenes, that kind of goes back to what Sally said, which is being more of you. Do you think that who you are online, for the most part, is the same person as the guy who is not online?

Chris Brogan: 100 percent . It’s so depressing for people when they go out and they meet somebody somewhere and they’re like, “Oh, that’s not quite how I pictured him.” The only weird thing is — and I don’t know how to make this any better — is people always say this about me in person. They’re like, “Man, you’re so much funnier in person.”

I swear to God, I think I’m so funny when I’m writing my newsletter and stuff like that, but I guess when I go back, it looks kind of serious. That’s the only part I feel bad about because I’m kind of a weird guy. It doesn’t come through well enough in my newsletter — I guess because I’m trying to focus on helping people.

Beyond that, I’m pretty much the same guy. When I went out onto the stage at Authority Rainmaker, I kicked a table off of the stage because it was bothering me that so many people hid behind it like some kind of weird satellite. Destroying a table would probably be within the purview of me being me, yet that doesn’t come through in my newsletter. People don’t read my newsletter and hear me say “I broke a table at your conference.”

Brian Gardner: Maybe moving forward, you can preface parts of your newsletter by talking about those types of things because they can’t see it obviously in a newsletter. Maybe next week’s newsletter you say something like, “Yeah, people thought it was really weird that I knocked a table over while I spoke.”

Chris Brogan: I like that. Good plan.

Brian Gardner: Maybe a featured image of a table being knocked over would be even more impactful.

Chris Brogan: As it would turn out, a really nice gentleman copied that. Brad Crooks got a really great action shot of me kicking it over, so maybe I’ll lead with that.

Brian Gardner: Maybe that’s a blog post. Maybe it’s part of the newsletter. Maybe it’s just, “Hey, stop the business stuff. It’s OK to kick over a table,” and really tell a story from that.

Chris Brogan: Look at that. I’m getting all kinds of advice on the No Sidebar show.

Brian Gardner: There we go. Another thing Sally said — and I resonated with a lot of these things, and for me, I think you and I are a lot alike. I’ll get to what she said here in a minute, but I think that I’m such a believer in authenticity. Last year, I created this little movement called Unfiltered. It really was about dropping the persona and really just trying to be real online.

I swear I come back to this almost every show — Ruthie Lindsey says we’re longing for a sense of significance and what we think will deter people from following us — basically what we think we should do is the opposite, and they respond the opposite of the way we think. We hide behind fear and all that kind of stuff, but you don’t strike me as the kind of guy who hides much behind fear, at least on social media. The other thing she said was, “Different is better than better.”

How a Joke Landed Chris a $40,000 Client Experience

Chris Brogan: Yes. I have to tell you that there’s a thing I say a lot. I get quoted on it every now and, again as well, which is that the weirder I am, the more money I’ve made — meaning not try to act weird. I’m not Lady Gaga. I don’t necessarily need to put steak all over my body, but when I’m much more true to 100 percent who I am and just say the random unfiltered things that come out of my mouth, that’s where business has come from.

I made a joke about poop that earned me a $40,000 client experience because it turns out that there’s a company that makes toilets, and they thought I was pretty funny talking about poop.

To me, the other thing I’ve been doing a lot is I share a lot about depression. I share a lot about the down sides of my life. I tell people, anybody who will listen, I’ll say, “Man, 2013 was really hard. 2014, I really thought I was going to have to close my business.” This is after having been in business since ’08 or ’09. People are like, “What?!” because everybody thinks success is linear. Success is the opposite of linear. Sometimes you make a lot of money. Sometimes you blow a lot of money because you’re trying to make the next big thing, and it doesn’t go your right way.

If you’re doing it right, success isn’t safe. I spend a lot of time trying to explain that when people talk to me about things. The other thing they always say, Brian, is they say, “My favorite video of yours is that one where you’re walking at 5 a.m. through the building and you go down the elevator, and you’re talking about the fact that overnight success isn’t anything like what you think it is.” It turns to the parking lot, and it’s all dark out.

I’m always so grateful because I think it’s really important to explain that things aren’t just magical all the time. Yet I guess what I’m also saying is that “If I could do it, you could do it,” because I’m not all that smart.

Why Trying to Mimic Someone Else’s Success Is a Bad Idea

Brian Gardner: That’s brilliant. The whole success deal as online entrepreneurs, is so many of us want to be like sheep and mimic the person who is being successful. Back in the day when Darren started ProBlogger, those first couple of years, it seemed like everybody said to me, “Brian, I want to design just like ProBlogger. I want to be ProBlogger.”

I don’t think Darren, or you for that matter, had anybody that you were trying to mimic. You just went into a space and created your own and worked authentic, transparent, and really just identified something that wasn’t.

Back in the day, premium WordPress themes, it was the same thing, right? No one was doing it, so I wanted to do it differently. Instead of giving something for free, I said, “Hey, anybody want to buy this?” Then hundreds of people replied in the comments and said, “Yeah, I’d spend 50 to a 100 bucks.”

Out of those types of things where you push the needle and enter worlds that haven’t been entered before, that’s really when the real type of success — we’re not talking just making a few bucks here and there — but you can really build businesses and sustainable long-term projects around being different.

Chris Brogan: Yeah. I guess it’s because you and I were just together at Authority Rainmaker, so I feel like I’m just talking all about that, but I guess it’s because I’m still processing it. When Brian Clark introduced me on stage, he said, “One of the things I really most admire about Chris is he’s always out there experimenting and trying new crap and saying, ‘Hey, maybe there’s something to this,’ and he’ll show you his failures and all that.” I really loved that because I would say that that’s really what separates me out from anybody.

To your point about we were doing it when no one was doing it, the other thing is we’re doing it in our own little way. Trying to follow someone else means you’re already doing their game. Trying to follow somebody, trying to crush it like Gary Vaynerchuk, is you’re all pretty much already doing Gary’s thing. You know what I mean? It’s definitely a crazy experience in my mind. In my mind, what really should come next is, how do you tie some new thing you’ve learned, to exactly who you are?

Sometimes the answer is you can’t, but other times, you might catch something from some other vertical that’s not even your own that you can bring back to who you are. You’ve got to try it on for a while. When we’re kids, we try on identities all the time. For some reason, when we’re grownups, we decide we have to set our identity. My favorite thing in life is to shake my identity up and try to be someone new.

Brian Gardner: Going back to the whole idea of being different, another thing Sally said — and this was the one I think that, for me, was the most challenging. The idea of it seems to be, it’s very black and white. She says, “Stand out or don’t bother” — which goes back to the mimicking and all of that. In other words, go out there and just do something crazy, not reckless. Maybe it does means sometimes something reckless.

Don’t go sell everything you own if you have a family just to try to run the lotto on some sort of business idea, but standing out, the people who are the most successful people — whether it be in our industry, whether it be in Hollywood — like you said, Lady Gaga, she’s crazy, and she’s whack. I don’t love her music, but there’s still an appeal to me that says why is she what she is?

I think that these are words for our listeners, those who are the entrepreneurial type within the No Sidebar community — the writers, the podcasters. Do something different. For me, I’m drawn to different. I’m fascinated by — and I always have been, and probably why I ended up in the creative space — those who express themselves and express themselves honestly. It’s a huge challenge for us all, but it’s good to know that we don’t walk this alone, you know?

What a 9 Year Old Teaches Us About Business Models

Chris Brogan: Absolutely. The other thing is that it used to be that we were supposed to be cookie cutter. That’s what school does. School makes us try to conform. My little guy is running into that right now. He’s nine years old and some things, he’s probably a four-year-old’s comprehension and other things he’s a 30-year-old’s comprehension. School systems don’t have the first clue what to do with that kind of stuff. He was breaking other kids’ code inside of Scratch, which is this MIT thing for kids to learn on.

He was breaking other people’s code in the school class where he was supposed to just be mouse-clicking to learn how to click a mouse. For him, having to really show his weird side is going to be how he makes all his money. I can tell you, for a lot of us, all the things that we started, let’s say in seventh grade that we thought were bad and that we were supposed to hide them because our schoolmates told us to do that, that’s where all our awesome is hiding.

Brian Gardner: That must have been a proud dad moment when your kid was breaking code?

Chris Brogan: All the time. I can tell you that he’s the reason I wrote my last book, The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth. He and my daughter are both weirdos. I just can’t even vaguely imagine them working at a cubicle or something like that.

Just this weekend, he did two things. One is he’s got some kind of weird Mario Brothers game clone that he can edit stuff. He was turning it partly into Portal where you can use the physics of a Portal gun inside a Mario game, which is kind of cool. The other is he’s playing this really stupid putt-putt game, which is some kids game.

I was like, “Why are you doing that?” He goes, “Watch this!” He figured out that the character models in the video game were accessible. You could access the code, and it said something like ‘costume equals one.’ He goes, “I just put in costume equals 10, and I turned the main character into a bull.” “What?! How did you even know that was there?” He goes, “I don’t know. I saw something and I whatever.” I just thought, “Here’s this kid who’s nine and who literally doesn’t remember to put his pants on, but can break other people’s code.”

He can’t write code from scratch. If I just sent him a Notepad file and said go, there would be an empty Notepad file. I just think that from this, there’s all new business models. There’s all new ways to make stuff happen. There’s all new ways to pave your road. Can you imagine, Brian, just 15 years ago, talking to anybody around where you lived and telling them this is what your business would be like and that you could do it anywhere?

Brian Gardner: Not at all. I was at a desk job in an architectural firm, very blue to white collar. If I would have told them I was going to be working at Starbucks or at home in my pajamas while playing on the computer and making five times the money, I think pretty much everybody would have laughed in my face.

Chris Brogan: Right. Same sort of thing, I worked in Wireless Telecom, and after I left — this sounds so like blowing my own smoke or something — but people were like, “I had no idea you were that smart. I had no idea you were going to be a New York Times bestselling author.” I was like because you didn’t even know. How did they even know how to tap into us? That’s the cool thing is that there’s all this potential out there that we can all tap into. That’s the thing I took away most from Rainmaker, the Authority event.

I had this feeling like we were all singing the same thing with different song music, which was just like you could really go far now that all these tools exist. You just have to harness it and go in a direction where you feel comfortable going.

Brian Gardner: Yeah. I want to wrap this up with one more thing that Sally said. It really is congruent with the three or four other things that I’ve mentioned. You also alluded to it a little bit here. She says, “Competition is a brutal way to make a living.”

Chris Brogan: Man, I love that. I say it a whole different way. There’s this guy David, something or other, who won a Nobel Prize. He’s the guy in China who’s in jail, so he couldn’t even get the prize because the government locked him up. His was, “I have no enemies.”

For my entire business career, people have hated me for one reason or another, usually because they just don’t think I’m worth it. They’re like man, “I’m trying so hard. I run this agency, or I write this blog. And I’m so great, and Chris Brogan isn’t. And everyone loves him, and I hate him.” I get that all the time. I get it.

I feel bad for people too that they don’t get the attention that they deserve, but I have never once looked at my competitor so to speak. I just don’t think I have them. My favorite quote about this that I made up was, “No one ever won a race looking sideways.” If I didn’t make it up, I’ve used it so much that I’ll pretend it’s mine.

It’s totally true. When you got out running, you’ve got to run your own race. That’s the first piece of advice I give to every single human that goes out for their first 5K is, “You are bound to do it stupid. You’re bound to try to stay at a pace with some other person in the race, and that’s not how you trained.”

Brian Gardner: Yeah. As a long distance runner, I really do not like to compete with anybody I’m running with. Even when I run with my friend Ryan who works for us at Copyblogger, it really is always about me and my time and trying to beat my own time. There’s just no room for that type of emotion, trying to be competitive.

I do think Sally’s right there. You can do OK trying to match a competitor, but really those success stories, the Facebook back in the day and Twitter back in the day, those were results of something that wasn’t there.

In other words, where’s there a void? Where is there a need in our space? Attack that, because that’s when you’re going to get the people who jump on quickly rather than like Ello. Ello was another one of those social media somethings that just felt like a Twitter, Facebook clone rip-off type of thing. I think we all look for that next new thing rather than the next same thing.

Chris Brogan: Yeah. I feel that way. I think that someone coming after me and saying, “I’ve got the coolest next new thing” — if it sounds like something else, then there’s just no point in it.

This is the weirdest thing to wrap on, but I was just saying to my guy Rob, who’s my right-hand man, but also the smartest part of my business, I said, “Rob, “I need a new cell phone.” I have a first generation ModoX, and it’s starting to crap the bed. I don’t know what to do about that, but I’ve got to go get one.

I said, “I don’t really know what I want.” I guess because I’m an Android guy, I said, “I’m going to get the Galaxy Edge or whatever that they’re advertising.” But to be really honest, I think it’s such a lame phone. Samsung phones are great, but the fact that the thing they’re selling the most is that one edge of it curves a little bit and that you can see shiny lights on it when it’s upside down — that’s the selling proposition?

That’s just not interesting to me. I think that a lot of us are like that phone. A lot of us try to make ‘me-too’ businesses, and we just don’t have to do that.

Brian Gardner: To follow that up, it’s not just enough to do something new, but it’s got to be practical. If it doesn’t serve a real purpose even though it’s new, it may not hold true.

Chris, thank you so very much for just dropping what you were doing and getting on Skype to record. I know you’re traveling this week, so that would have presented a challenge. I’m very thankful to have you in our community, to have you as a friend, and to have you on the show. Once again, thank you, and have safe travels.

Chris Brogan: Super. Thank you so much for having me, and I’m just so grateful for even just being in your orbit. I really like you and what you’re doing. Thanks for having me about.

Look at that. Magic man. You got it done. Did I lose you, or did you just hang up on me?

Brian Gardner: You know what? I hit mute on accident. I thought I was hitting unrecord from the recording app.

Chris Brogan: That’s really funny. I was like, “I better teach Brian better etiquette on how to finish an interview.”

Brian Gardner: Please don’t put this on Facebook. “Yeah, some schmuck just didn’t even say goodbye.” What I was saying was thank you for making me do the unthinkable — as a non-confident podcaster going unscripted and just dropping it and just getting on a call. In hindsight, this will probably boost some confidence for that that, too.

Chris Brogan: That is pretty fun. You know what makes me the happiest about that, though, is that it came out really great, Brian. Nothing bad about it.

Brian Gardner: This might take me five minutes to edit, so this is even better.

Chris Brogan: Make it. Go make it true. Make it, bacon.

Brian Gardner: I’m going to do it, my brother. Thank you so much. I’m going to let you go because we’re running over 20 minutes.

Chris Brogan: It’s all good. All right, man. I’ll talk to you really soon.

Brian Gardner: Safe travels, dude.

Chris Brogan: Take care. Bye for now.