Brandon's Year in Review 2020
January 4, 2021 Brandon Waselnuk 16 min read
Jan 1st, 2020 I quit drinking, kicked off the first year of my company Dignified with 2 wonderful partners (Saumil and Karl), and entered this decade with generally high hopes. We closed a $300,000 deal on Jan 12th and had a pipeline of ~$1.5 Million by the end of Feb. However, it wasn’t long before the black swan event of COVID-19 arrived and put all the best laid plans in the trash along with our entire pipeline.
I’m not special, never have been, but I’m pretty lucky. Lucky my career is in the Technology sector, lucky I have great friends, partners, and colleagues, and extremely lucky to have built resilience and grit during the last decade (2010s) with a failed VC backed startup, failed product launches, and personally failing myself time and again. The trick, it seems, is to stay in the game and keep getting up - no matter how hard the world knocks you down.
The ability to learn and improve is as miraculous to me as anything else humans are capable of. The rate at which we experience pain and then turn it into an outcome is inspiring. 2020 was a masterclass for everyone, I hope that in some small way my personal review will help you all to see some of the good that comes with struggle and strife.
As this is my year in review I’ve sectioned things so you can skip to what interests you most. The early parts have more focus on my experiences and personal life. Skip to down to Outcomes if my personal stories don’t interest you as much.
Truth and Transparency
If you’re in a job where you have a customer service component you know that often a “little white lie” can be effective for keeping your customer happy in that exact moment. This is a trap, don’t fall for it.
Long term success with partners, employees, vendors, and clients comes from trust. Our choice to be as open, honest, and transparent as possible lead to 100% customer satisfaction ratings this year and better partnerships.
Yes, it’s hard. You have a lot of hard conversations, things can feel awkward when you’re explaining a mistake you made, and clients even get more upset if a problem did indeed stem from something your company did. However, clients are people too and they understand when you go through a retrospective and show how all choices were made with the best intentions together. If anything, these moments of strife, problem solving, and solution implementation alongside your client build deeper relationships and have been very successful for our company. Everyone makes mistakes, if your company isn’t you’re either lying or not pushing hard enough.
The Path to Mastery
I worked 2249 recorded hours (via Everhour) in 2020, so about 25% of what it takes to reach mastery according to Malcom Gladwell in Outliers. Whether you dispute the rule or not, I was humbled to think of all those moments I felt inadequate or unprepared where my inner voice yelled at me for not being enough. Turns out I’m barely even starting to climb the mountain to mastery of running an agency.
Having patience for yourself is a requirement for mastery, otherwise how will you endure the hardships?
I have loved listening to podcasts for a long time, this year I finally got into being a creator in the podcast space. First with our work Podcast, Null to Zero - building a company from literal nothingness. Then kicking off Wbb.fm (Wazel Brother’s Build) with my brother, Adam, where we literally record our weekly meetings and discuss everything about building our companies - 100% transparent, raw, and honest.
I learned that I love this medium for sharing information and will be increasing my attention in 2021 on producing more.
Finding your Communities
I ran a small experiment late in the year that was simple - “if I get ~10 agency owners together for a mastermind chat after work we can learn a ton together in a short time”. It proved true. The value of finding the communities you’re a part of and speaking with peers is like having a cheat code to mastery. Also, it’s just plain fun to have a group who deeply understand the struggles and problems you're trying to solve.
We called it Open Agencies and plan to grow the community sometime in 2021 once we figure out exactly how to help others run their own in a simple, efficient, and template style way.
When the COVID-19 lockdown started in Canada officially on March 17th (in my province) one of our clients was in the business of helping other Small businesses. My company, along with our client, rallied to create an online ordering system that would allow for Click and Collecting and deployed it within a month. I was really proud to see what committed people can accomplish when the world is reeling from such a significant event.
Getting a Fortune 200 Client
On April 2nd I was introduced via referral to our now great client, Anheuser-Busch InBev. It took 4 months of prospecting and working on procurement, budgets, and negotiation. Our average close time is ~30 days, so a 4x was worrying for me. I’m proud of our team for managing through this process and closing such a high value client. To think we even had a shot as a 3 month young business is crazy enough to me and the work we got to complete with their team was engaging and I can’t wait for it to launch.
The only lesson here is some things are worth the effort and risk, I didn’t think we’d win but stayed in the game and it really worked out this time. So stick it out, you might surprise yourself. Also, remind yourself that you are capable enough to handle anything - they way you’d speak to a friend too not that mean inner voice we all seem to have for ourselves.
Building a company
There’s so much more to this bullet point but I’m just taking the excuse to celebrate in public.
We did it. Dignified is here to stay and we did it during a pandemic. I’m proud of myself, our team, our partners, and freelancers who worked with us.
I spent 260 Hours and 11 Minutes networking in 2020 that drove ~$750,000 in revenue, that’s almost a month and a half of full time networking. This was a critical component to getting through this year with some connection to my network and other humans as well as a key driver for our businesses success this year. This is an area I’m going to double down on and increase my time spent in in 2021, the results are undeniable:
- 100% of our contracts were referral based (Either people we knew directly or 1 degree away)
- Meaning each hour spent networking was worth $2,884.62 in revenue in 2020
- Note: This networking is compounding as well:
- it created ~3 Million in pipeline
- Grew my access to great people and great companies
- Some of that pipeline will close in 2021 for networking done in 2020
Grief and Loss
On January 12th a close family member passed away suddenly at age 42. Two days later I was in another city hosting a kickoff for our only client at the time. I thought my time spent with philosophy, specifically Stoic literature, had prepared me better for handling loss. I was wrong. Grief is something you must go through and experience in order to properly process, only then do you start to ‘feel better’. I started processing this loss in Mid-February and realized how strongly it had affected my work and life by not addressing it sooner and delaying because “I had so much work that had to get done.” Grief and loss is something to lean into and discover for yourself the lessons it can teach you about how you’re living your life.
The Years are Short
Possibly the most unnerving part of sitting down to write this review was the feeling that “it can’t have been an entire year yet?” How was it possible that every day felt so long but 2020 was gone suddenly?
I’ve chosen to take this as a lesson for 2021, no matter where I’m at I intend to live more fully in the present moment. I spent far too much of 2020 focused on the future and what was to come rather than working with what I had at that moment. I believe this is what leads to the mental fatigue I experienced so often of over planning.
Losing is a Wonderful Teacher
We lost a lot of potential deals in 2020. The amount I learned from every lost contract is staggering, enough that I’d bet a book could be written on deals not done by every agency out there. The themes are pretty simple though and I hope you’ll learn from my failings instead of making them yourself:
- Communicate even more clearly, no one can see what’s in your mind’s eye
- It takes 18 Touch points before you close a deal on average. Most salespeople stop at 2.
- Sometimes people will use you for free work, try not to let them but also remember to take risks.
- Our agency builds bespoke software - sadly some clients say they have budget and want to build something just to get your high quality proposal as it generally has a plan, timeline, budget, staff allocation, and some of your expertise in it. This in itself is of great value. Just try to remember that.
- Learn from why you lost the deal
- More than a few of the deals we did not close went to large and well established Agencies - studying those companies and how they operate taught us a lot about how to improve
- Cut bad relationships quickly, they just fester and cause you personal stress and business stress
Trust the Process (and Make a Process)
Early in the year I focused on closing a client and then spent every moment on that contract trying to build our client’s business. This meant almost 0 time spent on building our business and process.
When COVID came and abolished our Pipeline you really see the stark mistake of not continuing to work on your own companies processes, in this case Marketing and Sales mainly.
You need to grow your company and spend time on it just as much as client work. If you’re a member of a team, make sure your team’s systems are working and being used. It will save you from our mistake of suddenly having nothing and having to restart our entire sales process over again.
If you don’t have processes today, make one. The ritual of even sending 5 emails a day for the purpose of business development will pay dividends to you time and again.
Some of the best deals we closed, best product ideas we worked on, and best partnerships came from simply having enough space in my week to be able to lean into opportunity when I felt it knocking. I think all business leaders should strive to keep space on their calendar in order to be capable of leaning in when you get favourable winds blowing your direction. This means a few things in my opinion:
- Not filling your day with every action item, just the big items that must be accomplished.
- Reading about your market and business regularly in order to see market dynamics changing ahead of time
- Being open to serendipity - one of our most exciting potential contracts (COVID stopped it from becoming real sadly) came from me sitting on a late night research call for a post-secondary institution. While going through this company's plans we uncovered a technology challenge they had and it turns out Dignified was perfectly positioned to solve the challenge. We never would’ve been invited to bid if I hadn’t said yes to helping out.
- Think in bets and test in weeks - moving faster and resizing the size of your bet to return data within a week will help you be nimble enough to be ready when opportunity comes your way
Back to Therapy
A note: My high school experience wasn’t great and ending with me dropping out and going into therapy for an 8 year long depression I was in. Therapy saved my life, please consider it if you feel like you’re having a hard time with strong emotions.
In Oct. 2020 I sought out a new therapist who specializes in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in order to combat my declining mental state into depression. After years of being ‘recovered’ from my depression in 2006 I thought I had ‘beat it’. Unfortunately that’s not always the case.
Happily, being back in therapy and working with a professional has done wonders, yet again, for my overall health and my relationship with my partner.
Therapy is an incredible tool that I wish had less stigma around it. So here’s my part, I’m in Therapy and I’m also a productive member of society. Please consider it if you’re feeling awry.
Intentions for 2021
When my days get too full I always seem to drop these items in this exact order:
- Stop working out
- Stop cooking meals (start ordering them)
- Stop long (>1 hour) dog walks
- Stop social activity like video games with friends
The list does indeed go on, but the trend is clear, I always drop my rituals in favour of “getting all this work done”. It’s not helpful, my rituals and focus on my Mind, Body, and Energy is what lets me do my best work. I know this. This year I’ll make a habit of it. I hope you will too.
There will be far more Podcasting, Writing, and consumption of Art for both my personal enjoyment and work. I find the act of creation to be one of the best ways to feel like I’m producing more value into the world than taking out of it. Also, being able to convey meaning and my thoughts is one of the best skill sets I can hone for my career - improving this from Art and making things is a high leverage activity in my humble opinion.
No More Favours
Good, my click-bait title captured you! Seriously though, depending on your disposition you might be like me - curious and helpful. I really enjoy learning about new problem spaces and I love solving problems. In regards to your work and professional talent however, make sure you gain from these transactions. Too many times we were burned after doing a big lift for a potential client who said “Thanks for all the data, research, and plan. We’re not going to buy, but really thanks for this!”
They didn’t refer us to new clients. They didn’t give us a quote to use. They definitely didn’t send a holiday card.
When it comes to your professional value, be careful about handing out too many favours. I spent 84 hours and 44 minutes of tracked time during the work day on favours for potential clients, acquaintances, and business partners that I can relate to $0 in revenue.
Nuance: I did many favours for active clients, employees, and value producing partnerships as well and it was very valuable for our business. So please don’t over index on not doing favours, just really think about the reality and potential outcomes.
Do More Actions
I have a terrible tendency to overthink everything. In 2020 I would often say aloud to myself “just test it” and the simple act of doing the work to get real information back was 10x better than thinking through 1,000 possible futures.
2021 is the year of doing more things rather than thinking more thoughts at my desk.
We’re all a Work in Progress
Even though, like most of the world, I’m stuck inside at home I somehow managed to stop my fitness and healthy eating habits. That’s ok. I look forward to continuing to strive to be the best version of myself and with 2021 I’ll stop the inner dialogue that puts me down for not doing a workout with one that, with compassion, encourages me.
We’re all not yet the best version of ourselves, think of that optimistically - at no point are you perfect therefore continue to grow, adventure, and learn.
There’s a Haiku, written I believe by Matsuo Bashō - legendary Edo Era Japan poet, it goes:
"When I think of it as my snow
How light it is
On my bamboo hat."
It suggests that changing your frame of mind can easily change your experience of a situation.
This year I am choosing to experience the world through the lens of an optimistic adventurer. Something as simple as changing my view of taking my dog on a walk from a chore to an adventure has helped create more positive and enjoyable days for me.
I truly look forward to even more adventures, exploration of unknown things, and an optimistic outlook.
No more Swearing
I enjoy swearing and don’t find it offensive at all when used casually in conversation. But this year I’ve decided to ditch the foul language and try to grow my vocabulary so I can accurately explain why “this F***ing sucks” instead :)
I really have no other reason than the urge to test dropping one of my most ingrained habits.
The more I move to living in the present moment the more calm and in control I feel. This year was tumultuous for everyone and only by being present in each moment did I personally find salvation from dread, anxiety, and insomnia.
I went from an average weekly mobile phone screen time of 3 hours and 30 minutes per day down to 1 hour per day. I feel so much better.
Back to Nature
I live in the downtown core of Toronto, it’s concrete and glass. A pandemic is a great way to remind you of the basics, for me that’s how much I value walking among trees.
This year I’ll be finding a lot more time to be in nature and likely changing my entire environment to provide more time in the woods of the world.
The continual work to reach the next plateau can become all consuming for me. This year I plan to celebrate more often and look how far we’ve come.
The journey itself of building and improving is part of the adventure and I’ve spent too many years chiding myself on not doing enough rather than appreciating what I have accomplished. Everyone should take more time to think about the good, the great, and the down-right inspiring things they’ve done for themselves.
Remember - it’s a life and you have one, you’d be best served having fun along the way too. Life isn’t meant to be taken too seriously.