Make Your Fantasy Business Your Inspiration for Simple Strategy

I’m convinced that every entrepreneur has a fantasy business that they daydream about.

It’s free from all of the baggage and assumptions that we’ve built up around our existing businesses.

And I’m also convinced that that fantasy business—as pie-in-the-sky as it may be—has something to teach us about our existing businesses.

They can show us how we’d market differently, set policies differently, and protect our time differently. They show us the kinds of relationships we’d prefer to have with clients or the type of work we’d rather be doing.

And, maybe more than anything, they show us just how simple a business can be.

With a few exceptions, I don’t think most of us daydream about convoluted, complicated businesses. We dream up simple businesses—ones that thrive with minimal BS.

Today, I’m sharing 3 ways that I built my fantasy business—the one I’d been dreaming about for years—and how it’s different from What Works.

In this episode, you’ll hear:

  • Why making changes to an existing business is less like steering a big ship and more like dragging the anchor behind you
  • How focusing on process & systems helped us create a simple business model
  • What we did to create an offer that was an obvious “yes” for the right people and an obvious “no” for the wrong people
  • And how we’ve gotten away with almost zero marketing since we got started almost 2 years ago

Read the full transcript below:

If you were to start a new business—something that has nothing to do with what you’re doing now…

…what would it be?

Maybe you daydream about starting a copywriting business specializing in beekeepers, or you fantasize about becoming a tarot reader for financial professionals. Perhaps you’ve thought about how you’d do web design differently or create a curated subscription box in a whole new way.

I’m convinced that we all have a business—or several—that we daydream about.

And I believe that there’s a lot we could learn from these fantasy businesses.

This month, we’ve been talking about simplifying.

I don’t think any of us dreams up overly complicated businesses. These businesses strike an elegant balance between your needs and wants as a founder and the market’s needs and wants.

None of my fantasy business ideas are complicated.

A few years ago, I wanted to launch a brand of bralettes for bigger busts. Just one or two styles sized appropriately for people with a D-cup larger. And mind you, this was before everyone started selling bralettes for bigger busts.

I’ve dreamed up a personal training business for high-performing women—part coaching, part fitness, all monthly retainer.

I’ve talked about how I’d love to open a simple, high-quality coffee shop in my town. And I’ve dreamed of opening a yoga studio on Main Street, too. While coffee shops & yoga studios might not be high-margin businesses, they’re undoubtedly simple models.

I’ve also joked that one of these days, I’m just going to quit everything and set myself up as a professional Canva designer. I also imagine this business to be pretty straightforward.

Our fantasy businesses can teach us what we’d do differently if we were starting from scratch.

They don’t have all of the baggage that we carry with us when we strategize or craft a vision for our current businesses’ future.

When we think about the customers we’d serve or the prices we’d charge or the messages we’d craft, or even the systems we’d build, we’re not constrained by our existing customer relationships, prices, messages, or systems. And because of that…

All of the daydreaming we do about our fantasy businesses is probably some of the best strategic work we do!

I’ve often described how making changes in a business evolves as a business grows. Early on, you’re navigating the water in a lightweight, maneuverable kayak. As the business grows, making changes can feel more like steering the Titanic.

But today, I think that metaphor might be off.

It’s not so much the growth of the ship that makes it hard to steer. It’s that it’s dragging its anchor and a pile of debris behind it. All of the old choices, investments, relationships—they’re slowing down the ship, making it harder to cruise.

It’s not that these things are bad. They’re neutral. But that anchor just seems to get heavier and heavier.

When we dream up a fantasy business, there is no anchor. There is no debris. You can imagine a stately ocean liner moving through the water unencumbered by past decisions.

That business that you imagine cruising along without friction, in calm seas? That’s where you put everything you’ve learned about how to build a strong business. That business is also where you get to freely exercise your personal boundaries, set your ideal schedule, build satisfying relationships, and create the work that really lights you up.

Okay, I’m am not saying that you should quit everything and start your fantasy business.

Real-life fantasy businesses have growing pains, stress, and client emergencies, too.

But… what if you did?

Just about 2 years ago now, I started building a business that I’d been fantasizing about for a while.

I’d seen friends and clients build wildly successful productized service businesses, and I’d been daydreaming about what I would do if I were to start building a productized service business, too.

I imagined the internal systems I’d build, the client onboarding I’d create, and the revenue model I’d use. You may or may not nerd out this hard on your own fantasy business…

If only, I thought.

And then the opportunity to build a podcast production agency presented itself. With Sean’s help, I could make this fantasy a reality.

I’ll spare you the details I’ve shared on the podcast about how and why this YellowHouse.Media came into existence. If you’re curious, check out episodes 329, 232, and the bonus episode from August 13, 2020.

Today, I’d like to focus on what I decided to do differently—unencumbered by all of the past decisions I’ve made and baggage I carry with me at What Works.

Now, this is not to say that What Works is an overly complicated business—today, it’s incredibly simple. But I’m acutely aware that my vision and decision-making are often constrained by 12 years of previous visions and decision-making. And that’s something that I just don’t deal with when I’m planning for YellowHouse.

I’m going to share a few of the specific systems and choices we’ve made to maintain simplicity while producing highly individualized outcomes.

Basically, I want to invite you into my fantasy business and hope you see how you could make your fantasy a reality, too.

The first fantasy I wanted to make a reality had to do with process and systems.

And… I’d venture to guess that “process” doesn’t factor high on your list of fantasies. Or, maybe it does. In which case, welcome, my friend.

Anyhow, I dreamed of creating a process that would allow anyone to step into the company with a little training and act as an adept content strategist for podcasters.

We are not starting easy here!

If I’m honest, my real fantasy was that I could build a business that did not require me to do much of anything. It’s not that I didn’t want to work; it’s that I didn’t want to be required for the business to function.

Not in like a building-online-courses, passive income kind of way. But being truly expendable.

So I started building the content strategy process and tested my hypothesis by training Sean.

Sean had been helping me produce What Works for over a year, and he knew the ins & outs of how the show happened and what I thought about when planning content. But he hadn’t ever really needed to think about someone else’s content before.

We worked up the outline of the content planning process together. And then I wrote a script & a set of instructions.

It was essentially a guide to running a content strategy session to produce a 6-month content calendar.

We talked through it, and he practiced with some test clients. Then we started offering it as an introductory offer at a super low price.

Sure enough, the process worked. And in no time, Sean was taking the lead as the go-to content strategist & planner for our clients!

This process led to other processes, including an epic road map for launching a podcast and the onboarding materials that would eventually pave the way for the Standout Podcast Club.

One of the things I love about this aspect of my fantasy business is that internal processes can become external training, and external training can become internal training.

The content strategy process I used to train Sean is essentially a course and a template. We essentially guide our production clients through that course and use that template to build out their podcast content strategy.

That course and template later became the backbone of the Standout Podcast Club, which we offer to podcasters for a monthly subscription. So podcasters can work the process on their own.

And last week, I onboarded a new production assistant, invited her to the Standout Podcast Club, and had her start digging into the training there while she was waiting for her first day of “live” training with Sean and Lou.

When I sent off the email with all of her instructions, I felt an immense sense of pride. This key part of my dream had come true.

Another aspect of my fantasy was selling an offer that was obviously perfect for the right people and obviously not right for the wrong people.

To be clear, when I say “right” and “wrong” people, that’s not a judgment. Our service makes sense as an investment for some podcasters & aspiring podcasters—and it absolutely doesn’t make sense for others.

I didn’t want to have to convince anyone that our service was worth their money or that podcasting really was the best thing they could be doing for their businesses.

I really didn’t want to alter our process and package to meet the needs of podcasters who weren’t a perfect fit for what we were offering.

Sean and I put together a single package, with the only option being whether a podcaster was releasing every week or every other week. I wrote up our proposal template and priced it out.

After just a couple of prospect calls, I made a few adjustments to make things clearer, and then I was able to just start changing details like the podcaster’s goals and timeline when I sent out a proposal.

If we talked to someone who was really just looking for editing and help with show notes, we explained that we weren’t their agency. If we talked to someone who wanted additional support, maybe interview research or social media posting, we explained that we weren’t their agency.

The vast majority of podcasters we talked to were absolutely thrilled with our package. They just needed to weigh whether it made business sense for them.

Again, a dream come true.

It wasn’t long, in fact, until we started getting on prospect calls with people who didn’t want to know more about us or our process but, instead, wanted to prove themselves to us.

That was, perhaps, even better than I had dreamed up!

Once we booked out most of this year, I decided to take things a step further. Since I wasn’t really altering the proposals beyond some details, I decided to turn our proposal into a nicely designed service guide.

Today, when you go to our services page, you can click a button that essentially has our quote-unquote proposal ready for you to view. It explains our service and our pricing. But it does more than that, too!

I added 2 components that I’m really proud of.

First, I added an assessment to determine whether a podcast is the best fit for your business goals. It’s super simple, but it visually lays out 4 of the needs that make podcasting a good fit in a marketing strategy.

Next, I added a checklist that I had originally developed as an opt-in incentive that demonstrates the different podcast launch components. It’s a… long checklist. In the services guide, though, I checked off all of the boxes that show what we take off of a podcaster’s plate as they’re launching. It’s a visual way of demonstrating just how much we do—and how valuable our service is.

Okay, I added one more component to this guide! I realized that many people might look at this guide who really have no intention of hiring us, but they’re looking for more information. Maybe they’re curious about podcasting and what it entails because they’re thinking about launching a show. So I wanted to approach the services guide as marketing, too.

The last page of the services guide is an ad for our training hub, The Standout Podcast Club. It explicitly states: if full-service production isn’t a fit for you right now, we’d love to support you inside the Standout Podcast Club.

For me, the services guide represents the culmination of the work we’ve done to this point creating an offer that’s perfect for the right people. Could we do even more in this regard? Sure, probably. I have some ideas.

But to be able to clearly & confidently state what we’re offering, who it’s for, and what it costs publicly—no email address, sales call, or application necessary—feels like a dream come true.

I’ve always been a pretty transparent salesperson. I like having prices on my site, I know how to talk to the right customers, and I know what my offers are about—but none have ever been this clear and simple. There’s always been a gray area. And our production package has no gray area.

There’s one more simple component of this fantasy business that I want to share. And that’s our marketing strategy.

At What Works, our marketing strategy is based on regularly reaching new folks with compelling content. That happens via advertising, social media, and through the articles I write. It happens less with this podcast—where I’m speaking to those of you who are already aware of what we share.

It’s a lot of work. And I really, really love that work. I spend 20 hours a week or more creating or repurposing content.

However, I didn’t have another 20 hours a week to spend on content for YellowHouse.Media. I didn’t even have 5. There was no way I would be able to build up a separate social media account or create a second podcast or even write a regular newsletter—although I still hold out some hope on eventually being able to do that.

And goodness knows that Sean didn’t have any interest in executing a marketing plan!

So basically, if Sean and I were going to get this fantasy business off the ground, we had to do it with next-to-no marketing.

Now, I know that the last decade-plus I’ve spent building my own reputation and audience in the small business space is a solid foundation to build a no-marketing business on. Some of the podcasters we work with today were familiar with me in one way or another.

But, increasingly, we’re talking to people who don’t know me. They don’t know I have a podcast that’s been downloaded millions of times. They don’t know I’ve taught tens of thousands of entrepreneurs on CreativeLive. They don’t know I’ve been creating content about small business for the last 12 years.

They just know that a friend recommended us, or a Google search brought them to our website, or they got forwarded one of our articles (yes, I do have time to create some free content).

And they know that we’ve got exactly what they need.

Many of you dream of giving up social media or spending quality time writing just 1 quality article per month or focusing on coffee chats and old-fashioned networking. But you’ve been introduced to this competing dream of building a following, effortlessly attracting clients through pretty pictures or webinar funnels, and becoming an all-around big deal on the internet.

So few people talk about how many incredible businesses are built through referrals, highly targeted search engine optimization, or networking. Yes, even in the year of our lord 2021. Yes, even completely online.

And that building a business that way isn’t the slow growth way. It’s actually much, much faster. YellowHouse.Media did well over 6-figures in revenue in its very first year with minimal expenses.

Again, yes, some of that can be attributed to the fact that I already have an existing audience. But I’m not kidding you when I say our first clients (paying us $15-20k per year) reached out after a friend told them what we were doing or heard me mention it in passing on this show. Yes, I have the ear of a solid number of people, but there was never a concerted effort to get clients.

This story is not a fluke. I also think of my friend Rita Barry whose digital marketing agency was responsible for over $60 million in sales for her clients last year. She does no marketing for her own marketing agency. I think of Andréa Jones and her social media marketing agency. Sure, Andrea is on social media and produces quite a bit of content but less for marketing purposes and more to test her own ideas. She brings in clients via networking & partnerships.

I think of Kate Strathmann, who has a thriving bookkeeping & consulting agency that allows her time & space for the creative, subversive work she loves. Kate’s business has largely grown through referrals and community engagement—ya know, like engaging with the community she actually lives in.

I think of Anna Wolf, who you heard from last month in Episode 326. Anna runs a content marketing agency for financial pros and generates an incredible amount of revenue with no marketing that resembles what the online marketing experts are selling you.

Does social media and loads of content make sense for some businesses? Yes, absolutely. What Works wouldn’t be around without it.

But is it the only way to attract clients and generate revenue? Nope, not at all.

Except for Andréa, these women have been multiple-6 and 7-figure businesses without 4-figure audiences. Andréa’s business is that size—she just also has a nice-sized audience to go along with it!

We’ll be talking more about how finding clients without social media—or not predominantly through social media—works next month. In fact, you’re going to hear why Andréa talks people out of working with her agency!

But I digress.

The bottom line is that we’ve built a thriving business with almost no attention to marketing. Just dropping some mentions here and there, writing some blog posts to demonstrate our positioning & credibility, and offering a service people want to tell their friends about.

No matter how much I enjoy marketing and love creating content, that’s a dream come true.

I feel like I’ve spent this whole episode bragging. That’s not at all my intent, of course.

Many “success” stories that feel impossible to replicate require all of the privilege and special circumstances of the founder to have happened in the first place.

I hope this story is a model of possibility for you—because, after all, isn’t that exactly what a fantasy business is?

I have privilege—and a decade of experience behind my belt—but this story can be reproduced. This is what success can look like: simple and straightforward as opposed to shiny and Instagrammable.

Last thing, if you have a fantasy business idea that you’re dying to tell someone about, I’d love to know what it is! You can hit me up on Instagram—@tara_mcmullin—and tell me all about it. Bonus points if you tell me what that fantasy business can teach you about the business you run today.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

Read More

What Worked in 2022: 4 Insights From A Rebuilding Year

What Worked in 2022: 4 Insights From A Rebuilding Year

I typically don’t do a big “year in review” routine—only because review and reflection are a big part of my work in practice. But last week, when Sean and I sat down to record a “quick” rundown of our favorite things from the year for the podcast, he preempted me with...

Hustle Culture: How did we get here? And what do we do about it?

Hustle Culture: How did we get here? And what do we do about it?

American culture is hustle culture. We place extraordinary value on productivity, efficiency, and the willingness to suck it up and squeeze more in. Our heroes are entrepreneurs and artists who put in the work. We are educated in hustle culture from the time we start...

What Works offers in-depth, well-researched content that strips away the hype of the 21st-century economy. Whether you love the podcast, the articles, or the Instagram content, we’d love your support