Life lessons from surprising places – notes from a year of learning

Sonja and Sharon witnessed a lot of change for Valuable Content 2015. Here are a few big lessons we take from this year into the next. Perhaps some threads that resonate with your 2015 too. What a year!

School of Valuable Content school crest

Sometimes life-changing pivotal moments are immediately clear. Others creep up on you and only come into focus in retrospect. Looking back over the year is a good time to reflect. It’s like switching on a chain of fairy lights. Suddenly you can see all the points of light, and the pattern that connects them.

We’ve witnessed a lot of change in 2015. Some of the things that changed our business were expected, other defining moments sprang from unexpected places. A lot of it has been wonderful but not everything has gone well. How has it been for you?

Here are a few big lessons we take from this year into the next. Perhaps some threads that resonate with your 2015 too. What a year!

On changing a business

Business change (sustainable change) is slow.

2015 was the year we started to move the business around. We were heading on an unsustainable path towards agencydom. Nothing wrong with agencies, some of our best friends are in agencies, it just wasn’t our destination.

We wanted to bring the business back to Bristol. Kids, families, relationships – life is complicated sometimes, but we knew it could be made easier if we could be around at home more. (A particularly terrible standing room only journey from London Paddington to Bristol after a long day of meetings helped this decision come to light.) But we also wanted to help more good businesses grow with the valuable content approach. How could we bring it home and scale it too?

We dreamt of a school – the School of Valuable Content we coined it – where brave, talented people running independent businesses could learn and get inspired to make their content valuable to help them build businesses they were proud of.

This vision became crystal clear for us early this year and we wanted to make it happen, fast – one big bang. Turns out, change doesn’t work that way. Even changing the course of a two-woman business can sometimes feel like turning around a giant cruise ship!

Sustainable change is incremental. Nudge forward in doable steps; learn, revise, move on – that seems to be the way to go. Keep the focus, drive towards the vision, relentlessly. Hold the faith.

Only when we stop and look back at the end of the year can we see how far we’ve come – we have an online course up and running via the Digital Business Academy. Our course sits proudly alongside UCL and University of Cambridge Judge Business School and is already helping hundreds of people, so that feels great. We’ve also overcome video fear too (see below), we’ve launched our first mastermind group programme. Stuff has happened; the school is coming alive.

We still have a long way to go but we’re on the way. How about you?

~ Thanks to our fabulous chairman Chris Thurling for helping us get the vision clear and keeping us on the path. Thanks to our amazing client change management consultancy Project One for teaching us about real change.

On teaching online

Teaching so people learn is not the same as writing a book.

You might assume that having written a couple of books, done lots of talks, and with an ex-teacher on our team, that putting together an online training course in something we knew well would be a breeze. Naively, that’s what we thought too. Wrong!

Far too much online ‘learning’ out there doesn’t actually teach. There’s a massive learning curve that needs to be climbed before you can turn what you know into material someone else can learn from when you’re not in the room. And it starts with understanding how people learn.

~ We’ve had a lot of help and advice from learning and development specialist Rebecca Wallace on this one. Thank you Rebecca – we have learned so much from you!

On the power of group learning

Together we learn faster and achieve more.

We kicked off our first Content Strategy Mastermind Group for business owners this year, and it’s a joy.  If you want to make something happen, do it in a group. More motivating, more fun and a surer way of making it happen. You’re held to account, supported, and the change becomes real.

We’re seeing results already, and can’t wait to see how far it takes people. Over the years we have written thousands of words on making content marketing work – the Mastermind Group really does make it happen, fast.

Especially when you hold it in Bristol’s best pub!!

Valuable Content's Pub School

Pub School

~ Thanks to Jon, Sue, Mel, Harriet, Kelly, Lauren and Nick for being the first to come with us on the journey. Thanks to The Lion, Cliftonwood for letting us hold our workshops in your gorgeous pub.

On the amazing power of a map

Never underestimate the power of a good visual.

Land of content map

Content land

It’s the best content we’ve created this year. Our map of the Land of Content is a simple visual metaphor that grabs people, and speaks more clearly than words alone. It’s formed the basis of our best talks, and has helped numerous meetings with clients.

~ Thank you Lizzie Everard!

>> Find out what content has worked best for others this year here. What’s worked best of all for you?

On producing video content

JFDI. Video is soooo powerful, and a lot of fun.

OK, we admit it. We have been very scared of the video format. We’ve had a couple of attempts at getting it right but our own confidence has let us down in the past.

This year there was no escape. We had to do it for the social media course we developed for the Digital Business Academy. And like lots of things in life that you disproportionately dread, the reality wasn’t nearly as bad as the expectation. You know what? It’s actually enjoyable.

What we learned? Find the right partners, pay to work with experts, plan a LOT, practice a LOT, get over yourselves (Sonja!). If you know video would help you tell your story online, and it’s fear that’s holding you back, we’d say – just do it.

~ Thanks to our talented video partners Doubleshot TV for making it an enjoyable experience. Delighted that you’re now based with us in Spike Island. Thanks to case study collaborators Matt and Gordon at BeerBods, Paul Hajek at Clutton Cox, Dan Waller at Wriggle.

On taking it off-line

There’s something in the air – a hankering for real connection.

For a business dedicated to helping people make the most of digital opportunities, it might feel a strange thing to say, but this year our off-line activities – the book launch, the content groups, the talks, the Mastermind Group – have felt like a more important part of the business than ever before.

Book launch fun

The internet can be a dizzying, fragmented experience. It encourages us to rush without taking anything in properly. It’s like gorging on sweets rather than eating a proper meal. There’s always so much more you could be reading, so many competing demands for your attention. It means that sometimes the online world can be stressful and unrewarding place to be.

Slowing down to real-life face-to-face people pace is a relief, especially if you’re trying to learn something new. Experiencing things together, with proper focus and time to breathe and smile, makes you feel a whole lot better.

We’ll be working on getting more people together in 2016, and finding a way to bottle that rewarding experience for our online courses.

~ Thanks to our Bristol Content Group, to John Beckley from Sands Beach Resort in Lanzarote, to Henneke Duistermaat, Doug Kesslerand to Andrea Howe for reminding us to keep it real, and all of you we’ve connected with in person this year.

On the desire for real, imperfect stories

Slick has had its day.

It’s boring and we don’t believe it. Messy reality – that’s what people really want to hear – not the polished stuff. If you really want to convince people, tell them the whole truth, warts and all.

We realised this when Sonja was asked to present a behind the scenes case study on content strategy at HOW Interactive Design conference in Chicago. The scruffy reality of projects is a tonic, and the audience clearly appreciated it.

The messy reality of content strategy

The messy reality of content strategy

We took inspiration from this for September’s Content Group. Two content-savvy ex-marketing directors from home grown UK brands presented stories from the field. Much to learn from Ernie Capbert, co-founder and marketing director of Cornish coldwater surf brand Finisterre, and Tim LeRoy, marketing director of PC and tech provider Novatech. We learned so much from their stories.

Ernie Capbert & Tim LeRoy at Bristol Content Group

Beer, bikes and stories from Ernie Capbert & Tim LeRoy

Messy, behind the scenes, less than perfect stories, showcasing where things go wrong as much as what goes right. Something to remember for events, presentation and content for the future.

~ Thanks to Chris Butler and the HOW team for the inspiration. Thanks to Ernie Capbert and Tim LeRoy for the very enlightening talks, and special thanks to David Sloly for his memorable explanation of why all good stories need to go down as well as up -> you can watch David’s TED talk on storytelling here.

On serving people you love

All good business decisions start from here.

Who do you really want to help? What do they need? This is the most basic building block of any business. Know your customers. Make stuff they want. If either of those blocks is missing, it’s really hard to make a business work. (It’s probably impossible.)

We’ve got much clearer in 2015 on the people we want to serve*, and also on how we can turn what we know into something that really helps them.

[*independently-minded, brave, determined, un-corporate, talented, hard working people running businesses they love. People who know that profit isn’t the only measure of success. People who understand that achieving a work/life balance is a myth because the edges are always blurred, so make damn sure you enjoy your business too.]

~ Thanks to our Mastermind Group for crystallising our ideas around the people we can really help. Thanks too to the people who underlined the fact that we’re not for everyone. We’re particularly thinking of a room of high-flying, unsmiling corporate lawyers somewhere in Berkshire – a couple of whom were unsmiling to the point of actually being asleep! We get it, you’re not our target audience! (It’s okay, they’re not reading this.)

How about you? How has your year been? Drop us a comment or an email – we’d really love to know.

Thanks to all of you for being with us this year. It’s been fascinating, tough, enlightening – all of those things, but throughout it all we’ve had some fantastic support and a lot of fun. Thanks to you all.

Here’s to a happy and rewarding 2016.

From Sonja and Sharon

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  1. Chris Butler

    What a lovely write-up for a year that sounds like it was quite memorable and transformational! I’m honored to have played a small role in that 🙂

  2. Sonja Jefferson

    Thank you Chris. Definitely memorable and I hope big change will follow. We’ve certainly learned a heap. So delighted to finally meet you after all these years. Thanks for my first trip to the USA and an amazing experience at HOW. Have a lovely Christmas. Sonja x

  3. Toby Duckett

    An amazing post, I’m left feeling really inspired by it. Each corner that you took presented something new and challenging, which ultimately means something was learnt. As a learning addict, my year has been spent learning new skills, but not necessarily taking different directions or turning corners. Thank you for the inspiring content, I see 2016 as the year I start steering the ship, rather than just dropping anchor and building the ship up. A corner presents the unknown and that’s exciting. I might become corner obsessed eventually, but sailing around Conrent Land requires it, and that has to be a good thing.

    Happy Christmas! x

  4. Sonja Jefferson

    Hey Toby.
    Thanks so much for the lovely comment.
    You helped us so much this year by fearlessly diving into Moodle for the DBA course we created – always up for a new challenge!
    I hope 2016 is a really exciting year for you. Definitely time to set sail.
    Thanks for being with us through this year Toby, and a very merry Christmas to you.

  5. Geoff Mason

    You’re right about the map; it’s a great piece of valuable content. In 2016 I would like to see you develop a couple of useful additions. Firstly, I’d like a VC SatNav that will guarantee me getting to Bountiful Bay as quickly as possible, with the lowest expenditure of energy. And secondly I would like a breakdown kit so when I find myself in S… Creek, I have a paddle ready in the boot to get me back on the road as quickly as possible. Not a lot to ask is it Santa?

  6. Neil Fletcher

    Damn, you two are good! You continue to lead by example by walking the walk, talking the talk and dancing the jig of valuable content. It’s a real pleasure to be one of the small satellites orbiting VC World. Long may you continue to educate, entertain and inform us all. Here’s wishing you a fabulous Christmas and an even better 2016.

  7. Sonja Jefferson

    Geoff – I love it! We take that challenge. (Sharon – let’s add these to our content calendar for 2016.) Thanks so much for the encouragement. We’ve loved watching your content confidence and creativity grow this year Geoff – so much good stuff on the cards for Project One next year. Have a brilliant break. Sonja x

  8. Sonja Jefferson

    Neil – we love having you as part of our crew! Great to catch up at the book launch party and content groups this year. You have so much to add with your ideas and your expertise – keep it coming. I look forward to learning more next year. Have a lovely rest over Christmas. 2016 is going to be fun. Sonja x

  9. Sharon Tanton

    Fantastic ideas Geoff! I will see what I can do. We’ve really loved working with you this year – Project One is such a great company full of lovely talented people.

  10. Sharon Tanton

    Thanks Neil – that’s really kind of you. Wishing you a very Happy Christmas, and hope to see you at a Content Group or two in 2016!

  11. Richard Gauder

    Great year in review. What I love about small business is that the committed ones (to business, not asylum) share the good, the bad and the ugly so that we learn together. We’ve hit our 14th year in business and we are still learning and trying to figure it out. 3 Lessons of the year for us include: 1. cost cutting excercise we did last year worked! Lean was more effective and less stressful. And it allowed us to take advantage of an opportunity to move into an office next door with big windows that looks over the lake. It’s so much better and contributed more than expected to our happiness. Lesson: sometimes you need to live in darkness to appreciate the light.
    2. Our focus for the last 6 years has been growing the web accessibility portion of the business. It just feels right making the Internet accessible to everyone including those with disabilities. We want more of it! But it has been painfully slow building it up. We still have a ways to go as the marketplace is just now developing in Canada. Lesson: Slow, steady and solid business models work well, but developing a niche where not too many are takes time.
    3. This is the year we’ve fine tuned our infrastructure and are testing it so that we can conduct business anywhere in the world. I’ve always had a goal of work and travel. In fact I’m writing this from hot sunny location! We are here for the month testing out what works, what doesn’t. I’m finding customers don’t mind email correspondence or Skype meetings. Lesson: Our business is our art. Create it the way you want.

  12. Julian Summerhayes

    WOW, what a year. Sorry not to have been in touch for such a long time. Perhaps we’ll be able to get together in 2016. In the meantime, here’s to another brilliant year for you both. Kindest Jules

  13. Sonja Jefferson

    Hi Richard.

    Great to hear what you’ve taken from this year. That is the joy and the challenge of running your own business isn’t it – you never, ever, ever stop learning, tweaking, creating! “Our business is our art.” I love that.

    Like the sound of your new lake-view office with the freedom to work from anywhere else too – hope you’re having a lot of fun.

    It takes courage to pinpoint and stick to a niche but it’s a very smart move. Glad it’s paying off for you. On the niche note, I thought you might like this story from our friends at Newfangled and Rattleback:

    Have a fabulous break and hope to catch up in 2016. Let’s do that Skype.


  14. Sonja Jefferson

    Hi Julian – lovely to hear from you and thanks very much for the comment. It’s been a big year all round – very tricky at times but always interesting and I think we’ve come out stronger and clearer as a result. It would be so good to see you. Have a great Christmas with your family and see you next year. Sonja x


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