Passion Projects, Clarity, and the Evolution of No Sidebar

As an online entrepreneur, I am learning just how crucial being agile is to running a successful business.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being involved in a personal project — especially when you’re passionate about it — but continually keeping your audience in mind is always a good thing.

Over the last couple months of running No Sidebar, I’ve identified three types of people that I want to specifically cater to.

In this 24-minute episode Robert Bruce and I discuss:

  • Who has control over whether something is great
  • Focusing on the fundamentals of your craft
  • Bono, being 16 and taking over the world
  • Why passion projects are tough in the context of business
  • George Costanza doing “The Opposite”
  • The early stages of No Sidebar and how it got started
  • My focus on writers, designers and podcasters
  • The Dip by Seth Godin

The Show Notes

Passion Projects, Clarity, and the Evolution of No Sidebar

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.

Brian Gardner: So are you in your closet with just you and clothes and a chair or desk or whatever?

Robert Bruce: Yeah. I’m thinking it might be too small of a space. I don’t know. I run a podcast network, but I don’t know this stuff.

Voiceover: One, two, three.

Brian Gardner: No Sidebar is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform. A complete website solution perfect for creative entrepreneurs. Find out more and take a free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.

Alright, Robert, last week you and I discussed our obsession with greatness and how it gets in the way of being good. I have to say that, easily, it has been the most well-received show. The Nielsen ratings have shown a skyrocket.

Robert Bruce: Wait a minute. Is that because I’m on the show, or you’re saying because this show has taken another leap forward?

Brian Gardner: I think it is a combination of both you being on the show and the naturalness of the show that folks responded to. Unfortunately for me, what that means is I’ve set precedence here to go unscripted. As I discussed last week, the idea of writing a script and then trying to follow a script is often really difficult and time consuming, so I’m actually OK with this process now.

Robert Bruce: Good. Good. You should be. I think it was a great show. This works really, really well for you.

Who Has Control Over Whether Something Is Great

Brian Gardner: Last week, I kind of cut us off right in the middle of the episode, sort of on purpose, sort of to draw a little mystery around it, and to bring you back on the show as a guest again. One of things that you said towards the end of last week’s episode really struck me. I wanted to quote this back on the show today. “We don’t have control over whether something is great. Other people have that control.” In other words, that’s the job of our audience.

Sonia from our company recently wrote a great piece on Copyblogger called The Cure for Imposter Syndrome, where she says, “Your authority comes from your audience.” I think it’s interesting how so many parts of our company, so many people within our company, we’re talking about the same things congruently. It’s really relevant to a lot of our audience. It’s relevant to me as a podcaster, to you as the person in charge of the network, and just all of the content that’s going around. I love the synergy here.

You also say, “What we need to do is to show up, train ceaselessly, educate ourselves, and get better to do our job.” I think that’s great advice.

Robert Bruce: You going to hold me to that? I guess you quoted me, so we have to. I do think that, the idea of, can you call yourself great or claim greatness yourself or whatever. Certainly you can if you’re delusional, but this comes from the literary world — and probably well before that as well — your job is to, in that context, write the book. You can’t write an immortal work of fiction, for instance. It’s only, in many cases, generations after the people reading that book and whatever critical faculty is around in 100 years. Who knows what it’ll be? It used to be the New York Times Book Review.

It’s those people that bestow ‘greatness’ on your work. Certainly, you can claim whatever you want about whatever it is that you do, but I think that’s a bad road to go down. The best thing to do is just focus on the fundamentals of your craft and to practice it day in and day out. As Mr. Godin says often, “Ship it. Put it out there in the world, and let the world decide.”

Brian Gardner: It’s funny. Let’s talk about Pablo Picasso. His work back in the day, his daily efforts, it was generations down the road that really deemed it great and valuable. Other artists back in that day, their work is worth millions now. If it was worth millions then, I guarantee most of them wouldn’t have been as depressed as they may have been.

Robert Bruce: Yeah. Picasso is great. I could talk about Picasso all day long. That is a good example because he is one of those few that did actually enjoy great success during his lifetime, but he also went the other way with what we’re discussing here and called himself ‘great’ from an early age. However, there are examples of where it does work. He was striving for something beyond what I think most people strive for. Those cases are so rare. Very, very few could ever get away with what he got away with.

Brian Gardner: So one of the problems I think we have is that we focus too much on the audience and the user. It really taints and distorts why we do what we do. If it’s not a passion project and it becomes an audience project, then it becomes work. For me, I don’t like to design and do things creatively where I feel like the heat to do something successful or the heat to do something that might sell. If I do, those are the ones that usually fall flat anyhow.

Focusing on the Fundamentals of Your Craft

Brian Gardner: I love the idea of creating to create. I even tweeted a couple nights ago, just saying, “I just want to create to create.” Those are the types of works that typically are the ones that end up more successful.

Pamela, from our company, also said something to me the other day in a call that we had which made a ton of sense. “We focus too much on pushing ourselves on others and should focus more on pulling them in.”

Robert Bruce: That is interesting. You are an example, though. We talked about this a few days ago. Take the WordPress premium theme market, which you pioneered. I don’t know, because I wasn’t there. I didn’t know you at the time. You were in a position where I bet there was a lot of fun and a lot of freedom in that, at least in the beginning stages. But you also had an idea that there would be, or likely was, a market for premium themes. It was kind of a perfect combination of the two things.

Then it went crazy and gets out of hand. It becomes more work than maybe you anticipated, of course, later on. In the beginning, I would bet that you had the audience in mind for that. Would you agree with that or disagree?

Brian Gardner: Yeah. It was a supply and demand situation. Clearly, I realized there was a huge demand for something, so I had to supply it. Back then, I was working a day job. At the very beginning of the premium WordPress theme deal, it was still a passion for me. I didn’t need to put food on the table with it. It just turned out that I was so passionate about it that it obviously transpired over to the users.

Bono, Being 16 and Taking Over the World

Brian Gardner: When things are new — ‘shiny new toy’ syndrome — it was all about creating and doing whatever anybody wanted. I was learning so much back then. I overanalyzed the market, and I tried to find holes where they’re not. It’s a different situation. I was young and dumb. I didn’t know what I was doing back then.

Robert Bruce: Bono had a great quote. This was years ago. He said, “When you’re 16, you think you can take over the world, and sometimes you’re right.” Sometimes in that ignorance, you can create amazing things that set the world on fire, or set a market on fire in the context of what we’re talking about here.

Brian Gardner: That reminds me a lot of Chrissie Wellington. I’m an endurance person. I run a lot. Chrissie Wellington is a triathlete. A few years ago, she was interviewed during her first Ironman World Championship down in Kona, Hawaii. She was asked, “Chrissie, how do you think you’re going to do?” She’s like, “I have no idea. I’ve not done this before.”

Why Passion Projects Are Tough in the Context of Business

Robert Bruce: Let me say this. Back to the idea of creating for an audience. Last week we touched on it. You can create and build things without thinking about an audience or thinking about a market all you want. That’s a good thing to do. Projects for yourself, ‘passion projects’ as you put it.

Again, in the context of business, that is tough. If you want to go that route, very few, a tiny percentage of those who are doing ‘passion projects’ can make a business out of it. What we go back to over and over, though, is don’t count on it. If you want to make something into a potential business, you have to consider the market and the audience there and move towards them as much, and serve them, as much as possible with what you’re doing.

The magic happens, though, in an overlap where something like you using your design skills back in the day. You were able to be a designer. You were able to be this theme developer, but it also overlapped with, like you said, there was a ravenous market for these premium themes at the time that you largely created.

Brian Gardner: Alright. This week on No Sidebar the Newsletter, Allison wrote something that really just goes along everything we’ve been talking about. She says, “What’s stopping incredibly smart, creative people from becoming as successful as they hope to be and can be is their own mindset.”

Again, Ruthie Lindsey says this — and I’ve quoted her before many times — “All of us are longing for connection and authenticity, and what we believe will repel people does the exact opposite.”

George Costanza Doing ‘The Opposite’

Brian Gardner: The response I got last week from the show was so incredibly encouraging. It made me realize George Costanza got it right. Remember that Seinfeld episode where he said he was going to just go and do the opposite of everything he wanted to do.

Robert Bruce: Right.

Brian Gardner: Sometimes I think I should do that. If I want to create something that’s simple, go create something that’s complex. If I want to succeed and do it with a script, maybe I should drop it and go scriptless. It’s so counterintuitive to think some of the things that we do will be successful when it comes to results, or our audience will receive it the way we don’t expect them to.

It makes me think about something Ally and I talked about a couple weeks ago about our online personas and just how we want others to perceive us. We spend so much time and energy trying to present ourselves a certain way. Like I said last week, I think sometimes people look at us and they say, “Dude, you’re wearing a toupee. I can clearly see that. Just go natural. Do the Bruce Willis thing.”

Robert Bruce: Yeah. I need to make a correction, a follow-up with that by the way. That anecdote, the Bruce Willis hair restoration anecdote, was John Gruber talking about comparing it to design. And actually to fit even better into this No Sidebar podcast of yours, he was talking about — he’s a very minimalist aesthetic himself, doing Fireball — when a designer is hired and the price is agreed upon, the client will many times say, “I’m going to get a lot of design for this price, right? I’m paying you, I want that much design.” That’s really not always, and rarely the best choice. You let the designer do their job based on what the client’s needs are, of course. It really is the Bruce Willis school of web design. Forgive my misquote of that last week. But you’re right.

I actually would love to ask you a couple of questions about No Sidebar specifically — full disclosure, you and I had a conversation a couple days ago that was really interesting — if it’s OK with you, but before that, what was your idea? We talked about this early on — I think it was in the first episode — of the why, but as a little bit of a primer for what we be moving into possibly in the next couple of months.

The Early Stages of No Sidebar and How It Got Started

Brian Gardner: For me, as I’ve discussed a couple of times, the whole No Sidebar thing came about as I was designing. Naturally, for me, I was incorporating a more minimalist and simplistic approach to design. You and Brian had done a podcast about content curation, which I was learning a lot from at the time. He was talking about his landing page, and he was talking about how he wasn’t going to have a sidebar on there. Then it stuck. I’d be like, “OK.” So ‘no sidebar’ as a whole was a good ideology. In other words, to me, it’s sort of similar to the whole Chicken Soup for the Soul. It was a way of doing life.

I knew it was going to be something that was more than just a podcast or more than just a website. It made sense for me to make No Sidebar into a conglomeration of effort, which was the podcast, the site, the Facebook page, things like that. I really wanted to make it a movement and have it be a personal project, but one that made sense for the company.

Robert Bruce: Yeah. This is really interesting because you are in a position where you really need to align with the goals, the larger goals of the company and the larger goals, in terms of the podcast anyway, of the network. Like we talked a few days ago offline, you’re really starting to think about that and think about the next evolution of No Sidebar as a whole.

What are some of those things that have come to you in terms of what may be coming shortly for No Sidebar?

Brian Gardner: I really wish we could’ve recorded that call because there was a lot of epiphanies that came for me. I came to you because I wasn’t sure of the direction of the current No Sidebar movement. It felt like it was off track a little bit. As you just alluded to, I really wanted to make it line up in sync with the long-term goals of the company, but also have it be applicable and make sense for me to do. It would just feel more natural for me to reconsider, not so much the movement, but one thing we talked about was the show description and how I felt like it was a little bit off of where I want to take this.

My Focus on Writers, Designers, and Podcasters

Brian Gardner: As I talked a little bit earlier, there’s three things that I really do right now within the company. I write, I design, and I podcast. As a creative person, I think those three are the mediums in which 95 percent of online anything is going down. I want to speak to my audience, which is those three types of people. As we move forward, I’m going to do a little bit of a shift with the branding of No Sidebar, with the direction of the podcast. It’s not going to be far from where we’re at now. It’s just going to be a lot more focused and intentional.

Robert Bruce: Will part of this be maybe allowing me to drop an episode of Allegorical into your RSS feed every once in a while?

Brian Gardner: Yes. I still need that creative inspiration.

Robert Bruce: I don’t think your listeners do, though. This is cool. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of a radical shift. I’m looking forward to the branding aspect, seeing the branding aspect of it change. It’s a bit of a radical shift from what you’ve been doing, but the larger picture is the same, as you said. What kinds of things are you thinking in terms of timing?

Brian Gardner: Next week, I have a call with my friends at Focus Lab. We’re going to be working together on their rebranding. We’re not talking about something completely radically different, but I want to do, though — I continue to use the word ‘mainstream’ for whatever reason in my mind, that visual of what I get. 99U is a perfect example of the type I want to move towards.

What I’d love to do, and I told you this the other day, that I have this passion to even develop community in the sense of content. What that may look like is that, what it is now, which is just the weekly newsletter, I might add more content to that. Maybe daily content. Very specific, shorter articles that aren’t ‘the feature’ but will address specifically to podcasters and writers and designers. Really just try to grow the audience with more content.

It’s a big strategy thing that I have going on in my head, but it was really great to have that call with you, because what that does is it allows me to go into the branding and the design call next week with Focus Lab and say, “This is what I’m all about and where I want to go.”

Robert Bruce: I think I’ve got my own ideas about what the lesson, the takeaway, for listeners would be. One interesting aspect of this — I’ll ask you what your take is — not only should you not be afraid of evolving whatever it is you’re doing in this whole media content landscape, because you learn things as you go. You get feedback from your audience. Your audience grows and shifts and changes. Because of that, your goals shift and change over time.

You really can’t be afraid to make, and in some cases like this, big changes. What do you think would be a really great takeaway for your listeners in relation to all of this that you’re thinking and planning and executing?

Brian Gardner: What it comes down to is the new school or the new age line of thinking as an entrepreneur. So many of us I think have this tendency to stay safe, to stay conservative, to stick to the plan. We live in such an agile era right now where things shift and change all the time. If you don’t follow those, you get left behind. You’re the one that’s stuck in the old way of doing things.

Podcasting is a perfect example. I talked last week or the week before about how much it’s evolving, the online space, the entrepreneurial space, and how everyone’s going to have one. Now is the time to jump on. What’s really great about that is that we have a course coming up called Showrunner for podcasters. Teaching them how to get started and things to think about. To just identify opportunities, to try new stuff, and to do something that your audience may not expect.

Robert Bruce: Anybody interested in that, you can go to Showrunner.FM and sign up for the email list, no charge with that, FYI.

Brian Gardner: We had discussed, talking about No Sidebar, the podcast, and changing the description. I still owe you an email to where I’m going to rewrite that so that you can rewrite it for me. The gist of it is that I want to discuss the struggles of a creative entrepreneur. We are both creative people, and the three folks that I’m going to be addressing and being very specific about are writers, designers, and podcasters.

That should come naturally for me because I have experience. I’m learning and growing in all three of them. I still intend on bringing that authentic unfilteredness to all of this, so don’t think that we’re going to go back to college university level information. This is all still coming straight from the heart. It’s just a shift a little bit in where it’s been and where I want it to go.

I still believe in authenticity. That’s something I really want to embrace as a creative person, but also as a person who really wants to touch the audience.

Robert Bruce: Sounds good to me, man. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

Brian Gardner: In all seriousness, Robert, it’s been really great to have you on the show. You really have helped shape the podcast and somewhat of the No Sidebar movement just by all of the feedback you’ve given to me. We spent 57 minutes the other day on the phone, just me coming to you talking about concerns and asking for ideas and suggestions. I’m very excited, and I’m really glad that I got to that point where I was like, “Here is a clear vision of where I want to take this.”

I’m very excited about talking to Focus Lab next week and really taking No Sidebar to the next level. It’s something I’m very passionate about. It’s something that I’m really looking forward to just doing and growing so that it can reach more people.

Robert Bruce: I’m really looking forward to what’s coming. For folks listening, really watch what’s going on here over the next few weeks and months. This is similarly, it happened with New Rainmaker as well. This evolution over time based on listening, based on finding out what it is you really want to do. It’s happening in real time in public.

Anyway, I hope listeners get something out of that as well. I am looking forward to this design. You owe me a new description for the show.

Brian Gardner: I do.

Robert Bruce: I’m looking forward to seeing that. As always, man, thanks for having me on.

Brian Gardner: It was definitely my pleasure. That’s the end of today’s show. Thank you so much for listening. If you like what you’re hearing on the No Sidebar podcast, the best way to support the show is to leave a rating and/or a comment over on iTunes.

Want more? Check out and sign up for our newsletter. Each week we curate the very best and most interesting articles when it comes to designing a simple life at work, at home, and in the soul.

Now, I’ve got a very special treat for those of you who stuck around to hear what’s next. Normally, you hear the outro bumper music for the show, but I wanted to do something different. There was a lot more to the call that Robert and I recorded. It wasn’t supposed to be part of the show, but it was very interesting. He and I just talking about and debriefing the call we had and the things that we go through in life.

I’m cutting back into our conversation for you to hear. Consider this the secret extended version of the show, like a pirated copy that you can only obtain illegally.

Robert Bruce: The power of focus and the power of focusing on one thing, even if it gets boring and old and dumb in your own mind, I wish I could’ve gone back to 20 years old and told myself that or could tell my 20-year-old self that, as opposed to bouncing around. I guess there’s some wisdom in trying things out, especially when you’re younger.

It’s hard to beat that boredom. It’s hard to beat the idea of coming back to the same thing day after day, but I think that’s the way to do it.

The Dip by Seth Godin

Brian Gardner: Didn’t Seth Godin have a post, or a comment, or a session about the ‘creative dip,’ where we get to that point where it’s no longer fun. The ‘shiny new toy’ syndrome is off. You get bored. It’s also what I call the ‘runner’s wall,’ where you need to break through, or the ‘blogger’s wall’ when I was asked back in the day, how do bloggers become successful. It’s always if they persevere through that time where it’s not fun.

I’ve had a few — none of them have been profoundly deep already here with No Sidebar, especially the podcast — I’ve had a few moments like that where I’ve been like, “This isn’t working. I’m done.” Each time I had one of those or was heading down that direction is when I would call you and say, “Hey look, I need to get on track or this train’s derailing.”

Robert Bruce: Yeah. It’s, in my opinion, his best book. It’s called The Dip. It’s tiny, but I would recommend anybody who asked to go read that book. That’s exactly the premise. You’re excited. You start a new project. Everything’s moving forward. It’s cool. It’s new. It’s interesting. Then you get to that point where — and it’s in different places for different projects — but you get to that point where it’s not so new anymore. The growth has plateaued. Now you have to get down to the real work of not only the craft and the marketing of it, but just the daily grind.

Not many of us, I don’t know if naturally we’re built for that daily grind. We’re always looking, especially in this age, for the new thing. Again, the older I get, the more convinced I am that consistency and focus are pretty much the key to getting anything done that you want to do.

Brian Gardner: I agree, and I want to really pay attention to that. I’m in a position with those who follow me, too. I have a responsibility to demonstrate that. The demonstration of working through ‘the dip’ or the wall. I think sometimes I influence others as I go back and forth and start new sites and projects. I honestly think there are some people out there who imitate that behavior because maybe they don’t know any better or because that’s just how they think it should be done.

I really want to embrace that. That’s a lot of what No Sidebar, this new movement is, is the non-abandonment of the project, but just the shift as we’ve just discussed. The importance of being agile and identifying where things need to change. I really want people to know and believe that I’m in it for the long haul.

Robert Bruce: Nice. I like it.

Brian Gardner: This is No Sidebar after dark, after hours.

Robert Bruce: Yeah. Right. Right.

Brian Gardner: Maybe that’ll be a new thing at the end of the show. Like, “OK, we’re done,” and be like, “No we’re really not done. We’ve got a little bit more for you.”

Robert Bruce: That’s right. Come back after the bumper.

Brian Gardner: Yes. The Easter egg. You know those songs that, you listen to albums, and it’s like 30 seconds of nothing and then they come back.

Robert Bruce: That’s right.

Brian Gardner: I don’t know what that’s called in music, but I should start doing that for this show.

Robert Bruce: Totally. Just a little extra something.

Brian Gardner: No Sidebar After Dark.

Robert Bruce: Hey, if you’re still listening, this is Robert Bruce. Brian did not let me talk about my show this time. I just wanted to let you know that you can find my show at Allegorical.FM. See you.