Planning for the Year Ahead and a Thoughtful Review of 2014

January 12, 2015 · 13 comments

This is one of my favorite times of year, and not just because of the traditions, food and family. I love the turning of the New Year because it represents new beginnings, an opportunity to scheme and plan for the coming year.

I plan throughout the year, of course; my husband and I have three white boards between us in our home office. But part of running a business, especially a small and agile online business, is knowing that today’s plans will likely go out the window next week or month or quarter because things change so quickly.

Some people say that makes planning futile. I believe it makes planning even more important, because having a solid road map helps me recalibrate strategically and stick to my true priorities when unexpected opportunities come along.

We always have choices on our direction.

We always have choices on our direction. (La Gomera)

How I plan for the coming year

Last year my New Year’s post included tips for career planning. But I received a note from a reader recently saying she’s overwhelmed with you-should-do-this advice and finds it refreshing when I simply share what I’m doing. So that’s what I’m aiming for with this post: laying out my own thoughts and goals for 2015, with some reflection on the last year mixed in.

My planning this year involved a method I learned from coach Charlie Gilkey, a quarter-by-quarter framework that helps me step back to see the full picture before digging into the details.

I started by sketching out what I plan to accomplish each quarter. This includes initiatives for each of the three main parts of my business: the client arm (Socialexis), The Write Life and this site, AlexisGrant.com.

I then broke each quarter into thirds to plan what I’d accomplish each month. For example, we’ve got a major launch for The Write Life in March, and my next AlexisGrant.com ebook is slated to release (tentatively) in June. While I tend to think in month-long chunks, I like having the quarter-by-quarter visuals too, because it helps me see the bigger picture. I know I’ll only have the brainpower to work on one or two big projects per quarter, so I’m able to spread those out over the year.

Writing out my big-picture plans for each quarter, and then for each month, gives me my deliverables. In most cases, they’re actually our deliverables, since my team executes the bulk of these projects, but laying them out in this way helps me with my own energy management.

(If this method of planning makes sense to you, Charlie offers a planner that’s laid out in a similar fashion. While I use Google Calendar and Flow to keep track of daily tasks and meetings, I’m trying Charlie’s hold-in-your-hands planner this year to make progress on high-level projects.)

Determining our deliverables also allows me to see an important accompanying metric: revenue.

Developing revenue projections

By planning our deliverables for each month and quarter, then determining how much revenue we’ll earn for each of those projects, I can effectively project our revenue for 2015.

This is revenue planning, not goal-setting; it’s what I expect my company to earn. While things are bound to change throughout the year, I’m usually able to project revenue fairly accurately in part because the client arm of our business is based on recurring revenue, which means I know how much we’ll earn each month. Sure, we might decide to drop or add a client here or there, and when that happens, we’ll have to adjust. But because I’ve been doing this for a while now — four years and counting — and the business is fairly steady, I have a good sense of how much we’ll earn from clients.

I can also estimate, for example, how much we’ll bring in from The Writer’s Bundle 2015, an offer we’ll launch in March, based on how much we earned last year, how much our email list has grown since then, and how well our email list typically converts. I can make similar estimates for new ebook releases on AlexisGrant.com. When I combine those three estimates — client work, The Write Life and AlexisGrant.com — our revenue projections come into focus.

Speaking of projections, writing this post made me curious about how well I’d estimated revenue for 2014, so I went back and looked at my projections from a year ago. Turns out we beat not only our projections, but also our reach goals. Company revenue in 2014 increased by 64 percent compared with 2013!

That’s something to celebrate. Yet when I broke down where that revenue came from, I noticed room for improvement. As you’ll see in this chart, about 80 percent of company revenue in 2014 came from serving clients, from running blogs and social channels for other businesses. The other 20 percent came from The Write Life and AlexisGrant.com.

Socialexis revenue: pie chart

A visual breakdown of Socialexis revenue in 2014

I’m proud of that 20 percent, for it represents serious growth of The Write Life, a brand we started from scratch just 18 months ago. But I’ve said for the last two years that I want our own brands and digital products to become a larger piece of the revenue pie (these two posts explain why), and we’re not quite there yet. As you’ll see below when I dig into priorities for the coming year, that’s a shift we’ll continue to make over time.

Two other interesting notes when looking at revenue numbers from 2014:

  • Revenue from ebooks and courses at AlexisGrant.com fell slightly this year compared to 2013. There’s an obvious reason for that: I didn’t release any new products. I’m still happy to see my ebooks, especially my guides on social media, continue to bring in revenue each month, mostly through search. But I’ve got to ship one or possibly even two new resources this year if I expect to continue earning there.
  • As revenue from client services increased, so did our expenses. I paid my team more than twice as much in 2014 as last year. That’s because client work is often tied to manpower: when you land more work, you need more people, and often more hours, to do that work. This is yet another reason why I’m looking to grow the product side of the business instead, because digital products have a much higher profit margin than client services (at least in our case for content marketing).

Where my personal life fits in

Of course, business planning isn’t just about deliverables and revenue, especially when you run a lifestyle business. When looking at the coming year, I also make sure to give myself plenty of breathing space for personal adventures.

In 2014, for example, I didn’t schedule any major business initiatives during the months of August and September because I was getting married. The company continued to chug along under the steam of my team and our systems, so we still earned even when I worked less. But those are the times when I wouldn’t expect to complete additional energy- and time-sucking projects, like releasing a new ebook or onboarding a new client.

While my husband and I only have one big trip planned this year, I want to spend more time on non-work activities that have fallen off the radar a bit during the last few years as I’ve grown my business: creative pursuits like crafting and cooking, and perhaps a return to my genealogy research. This is part of my goal to Practice Slowness, which you’ll read more about in the next section.

Why choosing priorities is crucial

Lastly, after nailing down my timeline of deliverables and downtime, I took a whole bunch of steps back and boiled down my plans to identify priorities for the coming year.

It’s easy to lose sight of big-picture goals once you get into the weeds of running a business — once you’re busy hiring new team members, serving clients, and checking off all the smaller-but-still-essential tasks that didn’t even make it onto the planning chart. Having a short list of priorities to refer to throughout the year helps me remember what’s truly important.

It’s also worth writing these down so you can evaluate at year’s end how well you stuck to them — because compared to quarterly plans, your true priorities are less likely to change throughout the year. You might even boil down your priorities into a single word you want to focus on for 2015. (Or, as Jessica Lawlor did this year, choose three words.)

Here’s my word for 2015: SIMPLIFY.

I want to simplify not only my business, but also my personal life. As I wrote about in my last blog post, 2014 was too busy. Too rushed. Too crowded.

I know I’m not the only person who feels this way; I’ve heard a number of bloggers and friends say they want to slow down and be more present in 2015.

Like many of you, I am determined to get out of the habit of being busy. Busyness often feels like an obligation, but in truth it’s a choice. And just saying I want to be less busy won’t make it happen; I need to make changes in my mindset and my actions to see real results.

For the coming year, I’m simplifying in two ways:

1. Continue to build systems. An effective way to spend less time working while seeing similar or better results is putting systems in place. Most of my systems revolve around teaching my team members to do tasks I don’t need to do myself, and using technology to make certain tasks happen automatically. The act of building systems also helps me cut out tasks or steps that simply aren’t necessary.

While I’ve spent a lot of time building systems for my business over the last couple of years, there’s always work to be done here; there’s always an opportunity to streamline. I’m also looking to build more systems for my personal life — outsourcing chores, better organizing our bill pay, and leaning more heavily on services like Blue Apron (for meals) and Stitch Fix (for outfits) and Task Rabbit (for tasks and chores). More on that in a future post.

2. Say no more often. Saying no sounds easy, but it becomes more difficult once you realize it requires declining opportunities you enjoy doing. It also sometimes means saying goodbye to revenue to free up bandwidth for priority projects.

This year, for example, we’re ending a contract with a client who pays us good money because the work is no longer in line with our goals. I struggled with this; who wants to say no to a paycheck? But the move supports our overall goal of shifting more energy toward our own brands, so I feel confident it’s the right choice.

My priorities for 2015

With those two strategies in mind, here are my top priorities for the coming year:

1. Batch email

I am absolutely terrible at this, so I hesitate to even proclaim it’s my top priority for fear I’ll fall flat on my face. But I’ve identified email as the most stressful part of my work, so it’s time to take action here.

I’ve already made small progress toward taking control of email by removing work email from my smartphone and turning email notifications off on my phone. But it’s not enough, and batching email — or checking it just a few times a day at predetermined times — is the next logical step.

I owe it to myself to not let email control my days, so I can make progress on things that matter.

2. Focus on The Write Life

I want this website to become an increasingly large slice of my company’s income pie, yet I sometimes let it slide down my to-do list, putting energy into our own brand after client work.

The Write Life needs to be my top priority, which means a renewed focus on blowing this year’s bundle out of the water, growing our email list (it’s now 20,000+ strong), and continuing to provide awesome content. That content and the value it delivers to writers is the core of our work on this site.

3. Release an ebook on AlexisGrant.com

I’m usually pretty good at following through on projects, but I failed big-time on this in 2014. I could give you a million reasons why — we brought on new clients, we were focused on growing The Write Life — but the truth is I simply need to finish my next ebook on finances for freelancers, and push it live.

Thanks to those of you who have reminded me that you want this guide; I’m always motivated by your feedback!

4. Continue to kick butt on the blogs we manage for clients

This comes last not because it’s least important, but because it’s already pretty well systemized, and it won’t require an extreme amount of focus on my part to make it happen. My team and I simply need to continue to do great work, continue to overdeliver.

Going into 2015, we have the bandwidth for one additional client. We receive requests each week from potential clients, but I owe it to my team and myself to be picky; we are in a good place with the client arm of Socialexis, so any client we sign with needs to be the right fit.

Who’s the right fit for us? A company or individual who wants us to take the lead on their blog. We specialize in running what’s essentially an outsourced newsroom, creating and editing and optimizing original content that’s relevant and interesting to our client’s target audience. When combined with the right promotional channels (typically social media and email marketing), we can significantly increase traffic to the blogs we manage and push those brands up in search results.

We especially enjoy working with brands and blogs that are already somewhat established, overseeing content creation so the owner can focus on other parts of the business. We manage blogs from beginning to end: developing strategic content, recruiting writers (we work with dozens of contributors each month), editing, optimizing for search and pressing publish.

If you or someone you know might be a good fit for our blog management services, get in touch!

Staying focused this year

Taking advantage of opportunities and following learning-filled detours is part of the appeal of running your own business, so I never force myself to follow a straight line throughout the year. But identifying priorities and keeping them in focus in the coming months will help me make better choices.

Choices that make sense not just for my business, but for my life. Choices that will allow me to continue to build this one-of-a-kind business, and earn enough money to support my preferred lifestyle. Choices that will help me feel less busy and enjoy each day as it comes.

Practicing slowness. SIMPLIFY. Here’s to a fulfilling 2015.

I’d love to hear your goals and plans for the coming year! I hope you’ll share in the comments.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Corina January 12, 2015 at 5:46 pm

Hi Alexis,
I absolutely enjoyed your post. Thank you for sharing your plans with us. I also like reading how you did one thing or another rather than general “rules”. It makes it more personal and more reachable and inspiring.
I´ve seen you went to La Gomera last year. Next time, if pass through Madrid, I´d love to meet.
As for my plans and goals for 2015:
I recently launched in full-time freelancing (writing, blogging and social media management) – almost 2 months – so my plan is to increase my clients´number and work on projects I really enjoy doing.
Having “checked-out” of a day job I didn´t like anymore, I am very determined to work on projects I identify with and love doing.
Another objective for this year is getting in shape by exercising daily and eating healthy, no excuses. Last year taught me a tough lesson, a lesson I plan to remember from now on.
And like you said: being present in everything we do. In the end present is all we have!

Reply

Alexis Grant January 14, 2015 at 11:21 am

Thanks for sharing, Corina! I love how your health is at the top of your list =)

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Gargi January 13, 2015 at 6:38 am

Hi Alexis,
I enjoyed reading your plans for 2015 and your observations of the past year. Its something we should all be doing with our writing ““ what went well, what went wrong, and what can we plan to do this year.
I’ve posted my wrap-up of last year on my blog. For this year my goal is to write more regularly and continue to submit my work to better matching markets than I did last year.
Gargi recently posted…New Beginnings and 2014 Wrap-upMy Profile

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Alexis Grant January 14, 2015 at 11:23 am

Writing regularly is a good one, Gargi!

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Marc Howard January 13, 2015 at 8:30 am

Happy New Year Alexis–looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you! I recently posted a “goals of 2015” on my blog but totally neglected mentioning what worked and more importantly what didn’t work in 2014. I really liked you approach on this post and in particular the fact that you highlighted the *systems* that you use to help you to either optimize, automate, and/or outsource stuff.

Those three talents are what it really aspire to learn better this year now that I’ve walked out on my day job but still need to earn money to pay the bills. I truly believe 2015 will be a very trying yet rewarding year. So excited and thanks again for sharing!

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Alexis Grant January 13, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Thanks for pointing out what resonated with you, Marc! I’m going to hop over to your blog at some point today and check out your goals post =)

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Emily Wenstrom January 14, 2015 at 10:13 am

Thanks for sharing! This kind of planning breakdown assessment is incredibly helpful to me as I do the same for my own sites, and even gets my brain juices flowing on some new ideas to pursue. You’ve got me even more excited for 2015.
Emily Wenstrom recently posted…Ideas are DisposableMy Profile

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Alexis Grant January 14, 2015 at 10:29 am

Great to hear it, Emily! Thanks for reading.

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Daryl January 16, 2015 at 6:05 am

Hey Alexis,

My primary goal is simple enough – seek out clients who appreciate quality content and satisfy them.

Secondary goals include raising my monthly income to replace that from my day job and making more effective use of my time.
Daryl recently posted…No Gigs, No Problem – How to Make Money From Your Freelance Blog Without Freelance Writing ClientsMy Profile

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Alexis Grant January 21, 2015 at 8:07 am

Good ones, Daryl! Being more efficient seems to be on a lot of our lists this year =)

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J.P. Choquette January 20, 2015 at 1:22 pm

Love,love, love your lists! Thanks for posting not only what you’re looking forward to this year but a re-cap of last year’s efforts. Very inspiring. I love seeing how entrepreneurs work things out as far as what’s working/needs adjusting/needs removing. Thanks for the great post (as always!).

Be well~
J.P. Choquette recently posted…Creatives: From Fear to FlourishingMy Profile

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Kathy January 24, 2015 at 11:41 am

Found your site a month ago and have to say, every post is even better than the last. Really, really great information. (Somewhat overwhelming to a newbie like me, but great!)
Thanks for the outstanding content you and your team share.

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Alexis Grant January 26, 2015 at 10:03 am

Thanks, Kathy!

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