Episode 125: Founder Origin Stories: Brian Clark

July 07, 2017
Episode 125: Founder Origin Stories: Brian Clark
Episode 125: Founder Origin Stories: Brian Clark

Jul 07 2017 |


Show Notes

Today we bring you another in the Founder Origin Stories. Sherry interviews Brian Clark, of Copyblogger and Rainmaker Digital, about adoption, abandonment, being a misfit, and walking away from law. He also talks as his motivations for creating successful businesses and the power of being early (alone) in a new space.

Love this episode and want more? Check out Brian’s interview with Sherry on Unemployable.

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Episode Transcript

Rob Walling: This week on ZenFounder, we continue our founder origin series with Brian Clark. Sherry interviews Brian from Copyblogger and Rainmaker Media. Brian was an early blogger. I remember him coming to prominence in the maybe 2005 to 2007 range. Has always had a unique voice, but also, a voice that kind of straddled two communities; the startup community and the Internet marketing community.
  Brian and his crew kind of came up with this idea of the third tribe, and it was a tribe that wanted to do startups, but actually wanted to make money. It was much more in line with the type of bootstrapping ethic, and I’ve always respected Brian and thought of him as someone with a bootstrapper’s ethic; an ethic of launching a company in order to make money, not just going out and building slide decks and trying to raise funds. So I hope you enjoy this interview as it delves into Brian Clark’s origin story.
  I’d also encourage you to head over to ZenFounder.com and get on our mailing list. We are planning an in-person event in the fall. It’s going to be very small. It’s going to be exclusive. If you’re at all interested, head over to ZenFounder.com.
Sherry Walling: So for anybody who’s been living under a rock and doesn’t know about Copyblogger or the tremendous work that you’ve done to really push forward the content marketing space, before that was even a thing; what are you most proud of, in terms of your professional accomplishments?
Brian Clark: That’s a good question. I’m obviously proud to have kind of been at the forefront of what’s such a big thing now. Of course, I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, there are some people who are much more determined. Joe Pelusi was very key from an early stage at … He came up with the term content marketing and really advocated for it, even to me, to get to adopt it.
  But I was doing in the late 90s; I just didn’t know what to call it. That eventually led to starting Copyblogger, which was the first blog to talk about what we now call content marketing. It’s still the largest. So, yeah, I’m very proud of that. Like anyone else, I think some days I get tired of talking about it and just enjoy doing it, and yet that’s kind of like looking a gift horse in the mouth. You know, you take the territory that you’ve kind of charted in that regard.
Sherry Walling: Well, it’s particularly interesting to be someone who is, inadvertently, but also with some intention in mind, really at the beginning of this whole new space in the world. You know, this whole new way of thinking about and approaching marketing and really thinking about and approaching how information is disseminated to a community. I think that’s a really curious accomplishment, and I’m interested to talk to you about what led up to that and kind of who you were as you were growing up.
Brian Clark: Yeah. It became intentional, but you have to look back at who I was in ’97, ’98, when I … I was a liberal arts major who went to law school, did really well, got a great job as an attorney in a big law firm and absolutely hated it. I graduated law school in ’94. Every night I’d go home to my boxy Compaq computer and stare at this new thing called the internet and think, “Wow, you can reach all these people all over the world. There’s got to be a way to make a living.” Now, I wasn’t really thinking, “Start a business. I’m an entrepreneur.” Those thoughts never entered my mind. Because I didn’t define myself that way; I didn’t think of myself as a business person. I never took a business class. Ironically, I was practicing business law.
Sherry Walling: That is ironic.
Brian Clark: Yeah, and that was my exposure to business people. It was interesting to me, because a lot of our stereotypes about the ruthless, cutthroat world of business, didn’t turn out to be my experience at all. The lawyers were brought in to be the bad guy sometimes, but the business people were always trying to the provide more value to the other side to get the deal done. And that was very illuminating to me. That’s what it’s about in partnerships with customers, with clients. You’re always trying to give them as much as possible, so that what you get in return is appreciated and justified.
Sherry Walling: Did you think of yourself as a lawyer? I mean, obviously that was your job. But did you identify with that as a life calling or as something that you really felt defined you?
Brian Clark: No. When you’re a psychology major with minors in sociology and philosophy and you do really well on the LSAT, you figure you’re supposed to go to law school, because what else are you going to do? But, no, that was kind of that young person trying to figure out things. I think a lot of people who go to law school and end up practicing law are in that boat, which is why the dissatisfaction with that career is so high. And yet, if you’re good at it, it’s so economically rewarding. Despite the lawyer jokes, it’s still a prestigious job. A lot of people just kind of get stuck and that’s where they are. But I was so dissatisfied with it and didn’t identify with it. I wanted to be a writer, like a lot of lawyers do. The difference is, I quit and then rather than trying to go to New York or L.A. with traditional centers of writing economics, I went to the internet.
Sherry Walling: Were there things that had happened earlier in your life that prepared you to have the balls, for lack of a better term, to step off such a lucrative, well-trodden path? That’s a big move.
Brian Clark: It is, and maybe. I had an interesting childhood and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, because I think a lot of my strength and a lot of my weaknesses come … as would be the case, I’m sure you know, with a lot of people. Not everyone spends time examining it, I think, and I’m not sure I have all the answers from it, but definitely had an impact on me, but not in any clear-cut way.
  I was adopted at birth. I was put up for adoption by my parents, who were not married and could not support me. I was adopted at birth by my mother and her first husband. He split right away, so I had no awareness that there was a father figure; not my biological father, obviously, there at all. So basically, until I was seven years old, it was just me and my mom. I had this single mom upbringing during my early formative years, and without any a clue of the concept that I was adopted. When kids asked about my father, I said, “I don’t have one, I don’t need one.” And then one day, my mom, when I’m six, actually springs on me that, “Well there is this guy that’s your father and you have to go fly to California and spend the summer with him.”
Sherry Walling: And was this your … This was the first husband, not your biological father.
Brian Clark: Yeah, right.
Sherry Walling: Okay.
Brian Clark: So I’m six years old. I’m put on a plane by myself to go see a stranger and live with him. It’s probably the most traumatic thing, if I’m being honest, that happened to me. It was awful. He hated me; I hated him. But I just remember being told this out of nowhere; “I’m not your mom, and this guy’s not your dad, but you have to go hang out with him.”
Sherry Walling: I mean, part of me is kind of like, “What the hell? What was going on with your mom?” Do you have some insight into that now, or …
Brian Clark: We’ve talked about it. I actually went to counseling when I was about … Let’s see, 2010, so I was 40, early 40s, and talked through these issues. Identified that I had abandonment issues and this, I think, ties in. I think on one hand, when you have abandonment issues, you become a people pleaser and I definitely am, in a perverse way, even though I have a very individualistic and kind of “screw you” attitude when it comes down to anything that I don’t want to do … Which is also a defense mechanism to abandonment, right?
Sherry Walling: Right. It ensures that you have the power to not be hurt if someone leaves you.
Brian Clark: I’m going to ditch you before you ditch me.
Sherry Walling: Yeah.
Brian Clark: And I think it was easy for me to walk away from law because I genuinely didn’t like it, but I thought I was going to get rejected somehow anyway. Which is weird now, because I look back and I was a really good lawyer. My wife, who is an attorney or a former attorney as well, we met while practicing, and she’ll always say I was one of the best attorneys she had ever met. And yet I hated it so much that that meant nothing to me. So I had the mind for it, but not the …
Sherry Walling: Not the heart.
Brian Clark: Yeah, no heart.
Sherry Walling: You didn’t love it. So, how long were you with your dad at age six? Or your mom’s first husband. Do you even get to be identified as father at that point?
Brian Clark: We lived in Texas at the time. He lived in California. So I basically had to go spend the summer. When I turned seven, my mom met the guy who I call dad, Mr. Clark. And so my original adopted father had to relinquish rights in order for Mr. Clark to adopt me at age seven. And that’s what he did, because again, we didn’t really hit it off. He wasn’t a good guy.
  So that’s my dad. He came into my life at age seven. He drove a truck for his entire career as an independent contractor. I never thought of him as a business person or an entrepreneur but, technically, that’s what he was. He didn’t have a job; he had his own equipment and leased the trailer. It’s really kind of like a franchise operation, if you look at it that way. That’s how the moving industry works.
Sherry Walling: At that point, had you changed your tune about, “I don’t have a father, I don’t need a father”? Was it easy for you to let him into your life?
Brian Clark: I was a very passive kid. I just kind of went with whatever. But yeah, I think reflecting back, that we just kind of settled into that. By the time I’m in junior high and high school, it’s just that’s our family. You know?
Sherry Walling: You describe yourself as passive. Maybe explain a little more, what kind of kid were you? What was your personality like in those early years?
Brian Clark: I just didn’t put up any resistance, really, to anything. Again, I think that might have subconsciously been, “Gee, I hope this guy doesn’t reject me too.”
Sherry Walling: So making it easy, not rocking the boat. Not creating any trouble.
Brian Clark: Right, and he’s a wonderful person. He was amazing. Is amazing, and always treated me as my own son. I was the first person to go to college on any side of my adopted family, and I think part of that had to do with … When I was in fifth, grade I guess they did aptitude testing, which included an IQ test. My parents get called to the school, thinking I’d probably done something wrong, and they’re like, “No, your kid is gifted and talented and needs to go into these advanced classes.” And my parents were like, “Oh, that’s great.” But they had no frame of reference that perhaps my children are also very bright, but I have a frame of reference to help them accelerate or-
Sherry Walling: Navigate the world of smart kids. Yeah.
Brian Clark: Yeah. And my parents, they didn’t have that, and you can’t blame them for that. So they just basically said, “So your homework, study hard.” Right?
Sherry Walling: What did it mean to you to be identified as gifted and talented at fifth grade? Nine or ten.
Brian Clark: I don’t know that it made … Yeah I was 12, 11 or 12, something like that. I don’t remember it making an impression at all. It just meant that I was in different classes. And then it started to be … I always did really well in school, but as I got closer and closer to the end of high school, as it does, social was overtaking academic. All the smart kids that I was in classes with were not the people I wanted to hang out with, until by the time I was a senior in high school and I realized I hated all the popular people, too.
  You’re starting to see this attitude developing, where anything that is irrational … and social status, to me, is irrational. Then I reject it. The main thing for me, which was interesting in high school was I was a very late bloomer. When I’m a sophomore, I’m 5’3. This little kid. And hadn’t gone through puberty, and everyone’s towering over me. By the time I’m a senior, I’m 6’1. My braces come off, and all of a sudden, I’m getting all the attention from the cheerleaders and this and that, and I thought they were the biggest hypocrites. Because I’m the same person, right? I kind of rejected them as well. It set me up for a very tumultuous college career, because I really kind of went off the rails at that point.
Sherry Walling: It’s almost like you hadn’t quite calibrated social relationships.
Brian Clark: Exactly. I think that’s a good way to put it.
Sherry Walling: You wanted them, you didn’t want them, they were irrational to you and therefore pretty irritating. But you also had this part of you that wanted to be … didn’t want to be abandoned. Wanted to be accepted, wanted to be sought after and desired.
Brian Clark: Yeah. I think it was at that moment, though, that I knew that one way or another, my life was going to be on my terms. And that’s didn’t neccessarily mean it would turn out well. I have a podcast called Unemployable, and that’s a common joke among entrepreneurs. You’ve been on it, obviously, but I think it’s literal in my case. Because when I really look back at practicing law, I don’t like practicing law. But I didn’t like having a job. I didn’t like doing what other people told me to do. That’s really the genesis or the kernel inside of me that forced me into entrepreneurship. That’s how I feel at this, looking back.
Sherry Walling: Did you have any early life entrepreneurial endeavors?
Brian Clark: That’s the interesting thing, because again, even when I was 30-whatever, early 30s when I went out and started businesses, I never thought of myself as that type of person. And yet when I was young, I would … Me and another guy in the neighborhood would go out and collect bottles that people had thrown, littered, whatever, and collect them all up and return them for the deposit cash. Right? We would also go around trying to get lawn mowing gigs.
Sherry Walling: So you were working on schemes for money. You know, looking for cash.
Brian Clark: Yeah, but very, very different from me now. Because I never say, “I’m going to do this so I can buy that.” I’m very not interested in buying things. I mean, I do, but I never do anything in my business because I want to acquire something. Back then, it was comic books and video games. My parents didn’t have a lot of money. I had a very meager allowance, so if I wanted comic books and video games, then I had to go out and earn it. I don’t remember if my parents encouraged me to do that or if it was the other guy that got me to along with it. It just doesn’t feel like it was originally my idea. Somehow, I just started doing it, which is interesting. I wish I could remember that.
Sherry Walling: That sort of circles back to this idea that you’ve talked about, as you being quite passive in your early life.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I definitely was and it is so polar opposite of how I turned out that I wonder if I was holding that inside of me, or I finally got to the point where I just discovered myself. I remember in junior high and early high school thinking, “I don’t have a personality.” I vividly remember that. “There’s nothing to me.” I don’t think anyone would say that now.
Sherry Walling: No. Yeah. But that’s a really interesting self-observation to have. To be that self-reflective at that age is very interesting.
Brian Clark: I’ve always been that way, for better or worse. I am painfully self-aware. And now I see just how incredibly valuable that is. I was talking to a fellow entrepreneur the other day, and I brought up some data that didn’t bode well for the current path that this person was going on. And thy just rejected it. They questioned the expertise of the source, all of this kind of stuff, and I just looked at … just flat-out saw, this conflicts with your beliefs, so you’re going to ignore it.
  Thankfully, I am not that way. We will adapt on a dime if we have credible information that suggests that we were a little off or a lot off. And that’s really, I think, the key to success as an entrepreneur. Yes, you have to have the great idea and the passion to fight for it, but you also have to know when you need to adapt. It’s shocking to me when I see people that don’t have the self-awareness to know they’re rejecting good information because it conflicts with what they want to do.
Sherry Walling: I read this study recently that was using neurological imaging to examine what brain centers light up when entrepreneurs think about their companies or respond to stimulus that trigger images of their company. The neurological activation was very, very similar, almost mirrored, what happens in parents when they think of their children. What happens is that this pleasure sensor, basically love, happens. But also this active sort of shutting down of critical assessment or of being able to be self-critical or critical of this thing that’s so close to you. It was a super interesting finding, but kind of speaks to this point that it’s very difficult for some entrepreneurs to be able to step aside, away from their business enough to be very evaluative.
Brian Clark: I love my children more than anything, but I see them for what they are, and I see their strengths and I see their weaknesses. I’m not going to go yell at the teacher if they get a bad grade. I’m going to go, “What happened here?” Right? But that’s so odd that you say that, because a lot of parents have become these just relentless advocates, which is detrimental to the kid because they actually aren’t that good at this, and you’re going to attack the teacher or something like that. That’s not surprising at all, yeah.
Sherry Walling: Oh yeah. It’s all kinds of bad news. How do you think you went from passive to someone who essentially is pretty defiant toward a lot of societal expectations?
Brian Clark: Anger. I mean, honestly.
Sherry Walling: What are you angry at, Brian?
Brian Clark: Well, you know, not so much today. But genetically, I’m almost all Irish. That helps.
Sherry Walling: You’re just born pissed off.
Brian Clark: I’m just born mad. But no, I don’t remember experiencing rage, if you will, until that senior moment, senior in high school moment, where I rejected the hypocritical people around me. I carried that through college and law school, and I was just mad. I suspect that that’s, again, something coming out about how I felt as a child. Maybe the passive period of my life, I felt imprisoned by my own fear of being abandoned or whatever. I don’t know. I suspect. And then I just kind of carried this profound anger at the way the world was, at society, as people.
  I’ve worked really hard on that over the years, especially in the last 10 years. But I think it also helps to just … You can just spot the artificial nature of institutions and social mores and customs; all these things that entrepreneurs break, essentially. It was so easy for me to break anything like that. Also, when my friends and family think I’m crazy because I quit practicing law, and then they think I’m crazy because I’m doing something on the internet, you know? I was able to say, “I don’t care.” Most people can’t do that.
Sherry Walling: I am guarded against your disappointment in me. I don’t know, do you have curiosities about your birth parents?
Brian Clark: I recently only found out … I knew that my birth parents were of Irish descent. I think I knew some of the names. One was Donovan, which is a very Irish name. But I just did a DNA test this year to see what the actual breakdown is. I’m entirely west coast of Europe, and I was born in California, which is ironic. But yeah, I’m all Irish in western Europe. So to a little … This is the first time I’ve had some curiosity. People have always asked me this and I’m like, “No. My parents are Carol and Bill Clark. They live in Houston in the same house that I grew up in. Those are my parents.” And they are. Have you seen the new Guardians of the Galaxy?
Sherry Walling: I haven’t yet, no.
Brian Clark: No? Okay, I won’t tell you the spoiler. But it’s really … Part of the plot of that movie is figuring out that the person who raised you is your … that’s your dad, in that case. Not the person who gave birth to you. And I’ve always felt that way. So I’m a little curious, but not enough to go along and disrupt some probably 70 year old person and say, “Hey, surprise!” You know? You got to think about how it would affect them, right?
Sherry Walling: Yeah, I’m thinking again about this anger that you’ve carried within you that was really sparked by that pretty normal adolescent experience of trying to navigate popular, not popular, who do I belong to? Who will accept me? Who do I have the power to reject? And this insight that you’ve already connected with this sensitivity or awareness of abandonment. It does strike me as curios that you aren’t more curios about these folks who essentially were the first abandonment.
Brian Clark: Yeah, but I don’t blame them. You know? They were teenagers. Thank god they were Catholic, because no birth control, no abortion. I lucked out in that. They were in California in 1967, so that’s bad humor, but still. I appreciate the fact that they did what they did. Again, that’s logic. That’s rational mind. Who knows what’s going on? I’m the rider on the elephant. The elephant’s what runs me. I just try all the time now, acutely, whether it be through meditation or just self-awareness, to see what bubbles up and try to figure out, okay, I don’t know why that happened, but you don’t have to react to it. And that’s basic anger management type stuff.
Sherry Walling: Sure. Anger no longer fuels you, at least not in the way that you used to experience anger. What’s in the elephant now? What’s that elephant composed of?
Brian Clark: Yeah, that’s, I think, the part that you arrive at and realize that I guess reflected all the way back to when I took the LSAT, I have just a rigorous logical mind. And I live in an illogical world, where I have to both deal with my own emotions and take into account as a marketer, as an entrepreneur, the emotional drives of others. On one hand, understanding that as I do, as you do, makes me view people as ridiculous sometimes. And on the other hand, I’m completely empathetic because I know that I’m an emotional mess or at least someone who has to contend with my irrational emotions. It’s an interesting thing. I made the leap from law, which wasn’t to me as brave as other people think it is, because I was just that … just destitute. Just-
Sherry Walling: It was that necessary.
Brian Clark: Yeah. I had to go. If I ended up a bartender in Austin, then that would have been fine. That was always my attitude. Then I started and ran three businesses successfully. I was a terrible manager, great marketer. Couldn’t delegate. Worked myself to death. In 2005, I had a snowboarding accident that resulted in this slow drip subdural hematoma, so instead of dying instantly, I’m just … got a time bomb of blood pooling in my head. So I ended up … and, you know, God. Have these headaches. This was right at the time my second child was born, so I kind of attributed the headaches to stress. Didn’t go to the doctor. Until I did, and then I had to go have emergency surgery, basically. They couldn’t just use a tube to drain the blood; they had to cut my head open. Fun stuff.
  But then I woke up from that and had … People who say that they’ve experienced enlightenment describe it this way, so I probably had to have my head cut open for that to happen, while others do it in less intrusive ways. But that was a big pivot, because I had a lot of “should” in my life, even as an entrepreneur. The business I was running, I didn’t like. I knew I could do it, and I think in my entrepreneurial journey, I needed a success like that. Right? Because that’s what you look for. You want to prove that you can succeed. And then later, you want to succeed on your own terms. That’s really what happened. That was the shift away from the more traditional businesses that were run in non-traditional ways, i.e. online or with only online marketing.
  And then that’s eventually what led to Copyblogger, which was … I wanted a different type of life. I didn’t want to do the things that I wasn’t good at. But it was interesting, that experience of I saw all this stuff in my head that I thought was real, that was, “You have to do this. This is the responsible thing. You have a family. It doesn’t matter if you’re happy or not.” All of that garbage that’s not real. And you just wake up and you’re like, “Oh, that’s not real. I can do whatever I want.” That was a big pivot.
  Even though I made the leap and had started three businesses, I had a bunch of garbage in my head that really comes from the conditioning of your upbringing. My father was a very, very responsible man. Always did the right thing. All the good qualities about myself, I owe to him, and none of the bad qualities.
Sherry Walling: Wow. That’s quite an endorsement of his parenting.
Brian Clark: Those are all mine. Yeah, right. But that was another big moment. I don’t know if you want to couch that in just psychological terms, or some people would couch it in spiritual terms. But it didn’t matter to me. It just was truth, you know? Seeing things for what they are. And you already have this kind of attitude where you reject societal norms to some degree, and what you’re supposed to do. That was a quantum leap forward for me. I think that’s where a lot of the anger was allowed to start letting go, because I think I carried around anger that I had to operate in someone else’s world.
Sherry Walling: Right; resentment about the rules and the expectations that you were, up to that point at least, kowtowing too. What drives you now? If you’re not operating according to the rule book, so to speak, the societal expectations, do you follow what you love? Do you follow what is meaningful? Do you just follow what feels good in the moment? I guess I’m sort of asking a philosophical question. Are we in hedonism? Are we in existentialism? How do you organize your days when they come just from within you?
Brian Clark: It’s interesting because once I became an entrepreneur and understood that money can be made any way; essentially, you don’t need a job. You just have to spot a need and find a way to satisfy it. So then you start seeing opportunities everywhere, and then it became the … I would actually run through the business model and strategy in my head because I saw an opportunity. Ultimately, I would come to, “I don’t want to do that.” You know? I got very good at … The one thing I swore in 2005 was that I would never do anything for money again. Now, money has to be part of it. But I wouldn’t say, “Oh, that’s a good way to make money,” and then follow that opportunity. It had to be also, “I actually want to do this. I find this interesting.”
  Now, mix with that an incredible pragmatic side that, again, I’m sure was developed through my parents. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. But if you would have told me when I started Copyblogger that I’d still be doing this 11 years later, I would’ve laughed at you. Because I’ve never done … But here’s the interesting thing. Every single year, we’ve changed. We’ve launched a new line of business. Between 2007 and 2010, I launched Copyblogger in 2006. We launched our first product in 2007, another one in 2008, another one in 2009. Those were actually separate companies.
Sherry Walling: It’s never been the same thing. It’s always been different.
Brian Clark: Yeah. Those were all actually companies I launched off of Copyblogger, not a company called Copyblogger. So it was different every year. 2010, we merged several companies together to form Rainmaker Digital, the current. Then we launched a new product line, then a new product line, then a new product line … Right?
Sherry Walling: So you’re motivated by interest, really. What are you curious about? What are you interested in? Those are the kinds of things that drive you at this point.
Brian Clark: Yeah. There’s Unemployable, but my other side project is called Further. That’s what makes me excited, the next thing. As we sit here today, I’ve finally gotten to the point where I think it’s been a while now that I didn’t have anything to prove, and usually that means to myself. I mean, yes, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t motivated by external validation. Certainly was during the early days, because all those people thought I was crazy, right? So even though I didn’t let that stop me, I still had that, “I’ll show you,” a little bit. I don’t think it was at the forefront.
  But a lot of it is what I have to prove to myself. I’m really at this point where I’m too well-adjusted. I almost worry that my run is over, because I’ve become a reasonable person. I don’t think most entrepreneurs are reasonable people. I think they are driven, whether it be by abandonment issues, just whatever.
Sherry Walling: Anger.
Brian Clark: Everything. We’re crazy people. My wife is convinced that … You know, she reads the biography of Steve Jobs and then she looks at me and she’s like, “Everyone has something to prove. That’s why you guys do this stuff.” And I’m like, “Well, maybe.” But it’s more than that, to me. Because if Rainmaker Digital were to be sold or gone somehow today, I would start another thing.
Sherry Walling: Sure.
Brian Clark: But I would be coming from a different place, and I think I’d be very, very careful about … even more careful than ever about what I’m going to commit to doing that intensely for however many years. And that just may be I’m going to be 50 this fall. Maybe it’s just what happens as you get older, but then again, I know a lot of crazy 60 year olds who still have something to prove to the world, themselves. I don’t know.
Sherry Walling: There’s different iterations of crazy over the course of our lives.
Brian Clark: That’s a good point.
Sherry Walling: You get to be a whole new brand of crazy when you’re 50. Just see what it is.
Brian Clark: Yeah, but you feel more sane, maybe, and realize that people still think you’re crazy.
Sherry Walling: I think really also, your body just calms down. You know? Your body is less adrenaline fueled. It calms down, it feels a little more comfortable, maybe.
Brian Clark: And that’s why you can’t work at hard.
Sherry Walling: Do you still love to write?
Brian Clark: You know, I do. Like I said, I have the side project Further. It’s really like my own form of therapy.
Sherry Walling: I actually … I’m on your list, and I like it. It’s a great resource.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I started it because I was always … And you may be familiar with this. I was very anti personal growth. I mean, I was just, “Come on. Just man up and do the work.” You know? I couldn’t understand why people needed this motivational stuff to get them, in my case, to start a business or whatever. I was driven by … they’re crazy things, so I didn’t need I guess your typical motivational stuff. I wonder if that even truly works.
  Again, I have this theory that entrepreneurs are driven by something and it’s not a five ways to start your business today article. That’s not it. But I came to realize that my whole life was focused on excelling as an entrepreneur, as a business person. But I wasn’t doing so great with my health. I wasn’t doing so great with my relationships. And I don’t know if people believe me when I say that I started Further for myself, because it’s got 10,000 people on it now and I’ve got an audience. You know how I think about audience, which is you owe your audience.
  But these people signed up to go on this with me, right? And that’s very liberating. So when I get a chance to write something meaningful for that, which isn’t as often as I’d like, and hopefully I’ll be able to do more in the future, that is so much fun for me. Because I’m not trying to be Tony Robbins. I am the farthest thing from Tony Robbins you’ll ever meet, and I think people at least kind of connect with, “Okay, this guy’s good at one thing, but he admits he sucks at other stuff, and he’s trying to get better. That’s like me! I’m good at this, but I’m not good at that.”
Sherry Walling: I think you have such a … a really unique and welcome voice for the entrepreneurs of the world because you are both radically rational, but also very self-reflective and have a sense of what feeling are, and how they are motivations for behavior and the kinds of things we do on the outside. I think that’s a combination that a lot of entrepreneurs are … You struggle to find the balance between what to do with complicated feelings, and an intensely rational mind.
Brian Clark: Well, thank you. That makes something that often feels very messy seem very nice. But-
Sherry Walling: It is messy, but you articulate it, and that’s the thing.
Brian Clark: Mainly, I accept it.
Sherry Walling: Yes.
Brian Clark: Again, I’ve learned by making mistakes throughout, that you have to focus on your strength and accept that you’re not super-person. You know? You may be a super-person at one thing, and then you get recognition for that, and then people start to attribute positive values or positive attributes that really aren’t you. So I’ve always just tried to be honest and on Unemployable, when I talk about the old days, I’m like, “Man, I really sucked as a manager.”
  But that resonates with people, because there’ll be someone out there who’s a freelancer who won’t delegate and is working themselves to death, and they hear that, and they’re like, “Oh, you mean it’s okay that I’m not perfect?” Well, yeah, I hope so. You know? And then that pushes you out of your comfort zone, because if I’m not the right person for this job, how do I find the person who is? That’s growth. That’s personal growth and that’s business growth married together.
Sherry Walling: Absolutely. I feel like they’re almost always married. I know that’s a big statement, but even though the willingness to learn a new technology or something requires your tolerance for frustration, you rarely can expand in one area of your life without expanding in the other area.
Brian Clark: Yeah, and the other thing I’ll add to that, and this has been important for me, is that just because you need to get out of your comfort zone … You have to get out of your comfort zone to grow as an entrepreneur and as a person. I’ve always, though, found that when I try to play the game … We kind of talked about that I’ve rejected the normal way to do things. That’s why my first three businesses succeeded. No one thought that you could build a real estate brokerage only out of websites. But I did it out of necessity and because I said, “Why can’t I? You can’t stop me.” That’s a lot of what I did early on is, “No one can stop me from doing this.”
  But in the last few years, we’re completely bootstrapped. We meet with investors all the time because they can’t believe that a company without ever taking investment, without salespeople, could make it to eighth figures in revenue. And then of course, they want to give us money. And then we start thinking about it, and it always turns out badly. This is kind of timely, Chris Cornell. One of my musical heroes passed on, and there’s a Soundgarden song called The Day I Tried to Live, and that song is actually about I tried to go along with how things are supposed to be, and I should have stayed in bed. Right? That’s what that song’s about, and that’s one of my favorite songs because every time I try to play the game, I do something that’s not me, it’s always wrong. But I often find a way around that path that is me, and it turns out to work fantastically.
  But I think you always have that … When we got to eight figures in revenue, I’m like, “Okay, now we’re a real company. I guess I got to play by the rules.” Wrong. No. Don’t think that way. But everyone does. Don’t be afraid to reject that. You feel like, “I ought to do this. Why don’t I want to?” Pay attention to that.
Sherry Walling: And I think you only can make decisions that way if you really have done the work to figure out who you are; to listen to yourself. To listen to your life. And even to do some of the self-examination you’ve done by going to therapy and figuring out what it was like being six and dropped off at this stranger’s house to spend the summer, and what that did to you and how that changed you and shaped you. You get to decide how to live in a way that’s consistent with who you are, and you’re good at that partially because you know who you are and who you aren’t.
Brian Clark: Well, I don’t know all the answers about what being six meant. I know it happened and I know it had an effect, and I know that who I am today is not like everyone else, but that it’s okay. And it took a surprisingly long time to just get okay with myself. Again, that may be why I feel like I’ve got nothing really left to prove, other than whatever I go … The path forward will be driven by creativity and challenge, and not … I don’t know. Adolescent psychological baggage? I mean, you know, at some point, you got to get past that. Even if you don’t know exactly-
Sherry Walling: Exactly what you’re getting past.
Brian Clark: Yeah, what happened and … You don’t have to know every little thing. I think some people think they’re going to go spend some time talking … talk therapy or whatever, and they’re just going to find the exact answer. Now, you’re going to find a lot of roots and you’re going to find a lot of maybe this and maybe that, but the goal is not to discover the past in Polaroid fashion. It’s to say, “Oh. Well, there were things that affected me, and I’m still here, and I’m okay.”
Sherry Walling: People are always art and science, right? There’s science to our bodies. There’s science to our motivations. We can observe it; we can track it. There’s some rationality that’s predictive. But then there’s a whole lot of art that’s just like, hm, I don’t know. What do you think? What do you see? You know? It’s untamable, and that’s what makes us interesting, I think. And Unemployable, in your case.
Brian Clark: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. That’s how I view the practice of entrepreneurism, too, which is an interesting parallel now that you put it that way. Because you can’t be a true … just a pure intuitive, I think, in this day and age there’s just too much information that you would be ignoring. But people don’t realize that data is not perfect, either. It still takes extrapolation and if you want to call it intuition. I mean, I think people would be surprised if they knew how much of the last … Okay, so it’s been 11 years and some change since I started Copyblogger. I think people would be surprised that about eight of those years were truly driven by mostly my intuition on the marketing product side. Almost more than you … But it’s not in the sense that … I’ve always argued that when you serve an audience, you’re mainlined into not market research, but interaction with an actual group of people. And you get to know them very well. So it’s not pure intuition. But it’s not looking at a spreadsheet, earlier.
Sherry Walling: Well, yeah, there’s all kinds of data. And most of it’s not numbers.
Brian Clark: Right, absolutely.
Sherry Walling: Well, hey, I want to thank you for your time. It’s been really … always cool to talk to you, and hear how you’re thinking about the world and thinking about work and entrepreneurship. And really interesting to hear about some of your earlier experiences and how they’ve shaped you. And I can’t wait to see what happens in the next 10 years of your life.
Brian Clark: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know that I’ve ever talked about this stuff before. That was interesting. But it’s interesting, I’m fairly comfortable with it. I think Brian 10 years ago wouldn’t have told anyone this, much less on a … Well, I would tell people individually, but I certainly wouldn’t go on a podcast and talk about it. But yeah, thank you for having me, and I love the work that you do all over the place. I think it’s incredibly helpful, useful. You probably rescued a lot more people than you’re even aware of. And I’m also glad that it looks like my voice has held up the entire episode. I apologize to everyone. Not trying to sound sexy; I’m just getting over a cold.
Sherry Walling: Just can’t help it.


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