How to actually build a barn, or a business, or whatever

I’ve realized something.

Even though I pitch the whole “unmarketing” thing — wherein I blog about stuff that has nothing to do with anything I sell, and tell clients that I don’t care if they work with me — the truth is that there is a core of marketing beneath everything I do. Anyone who wants to follow my school of thought will need to learn how to do this balancing act.

On one hand, you’ll need to ignore a lot of marketing convention, and you’ll need to get used to underhyping rather than overhyping. You’ll learn to break rules. You’ll emphasize flaws and you’ll admit ugly truths.

But on the other hand, the truth is that you have good stuff and good services, and you want to make sure people know about them. So, while people are busy admiring your unmarketing, you really want them to keep the fact that you’re a solid and reputable person in the back of their heads, and you want them thinking that they should maybe buy from you eventually.

So, you need to do enough marketing to let them know about your cool stuff, but you need to do it without looking like a douchebag.

For me as a consultant and as a creator of almost-consulting (you’re a member of the Jam Sessions, aren’t you? If not, what’s wrong with you?) my best business credential is my own experience: Within nine months of making my first cent online, I was making five figures monthly in this little endeavor of mine. Accordingly, I’m sure to put that factoid up on my sales pages, as a bit of proof in the pudding.

But the problem is that if you dangle that kind of nugget out there, it unsurprisingly draws people who want to have five-figure monthly businesses… like, immediately.

But I tell them, “Dude… you have to put an asterisk next to my name: ‘Results not typical.’ I’m going to tell you right here and right now that I cannot and will not promise that you’ll be able to do that if you work with me, or if you buy anything I have to sell.”

So we get this tug of war. I did well, and I know I can show other people how to do well. I can help, and my clients’ testimonials seem to agree with me on that. But there are no guarantees, and especially no guarantees of doing it as fast as I did.

So this is my fundamental issue. Everyone in online marketing is selling solutions. Everyone is selling answers, selling ways to make your first and second millions. Many of those people promise that if you’ll follow these steps, 1-2-3, you’re guaranteed to make some huge amount of dollars in no time and retire to the Bahamas.

The question that I have for myself is this: How can I give my best advice, in a way that is as easy to replicate and follow as possible, without being one of those assholes who make hollow promises? People expect and deserve the best I have to offer. Is there anything I can teach that is a sure thing, or as close to a sure thing as possible?

Because, see, I’m not against money-making “systems” per se. What I’m against is false hope. If I could give you 1-2-3 that would always work, I’d happily sell it and hype the shit out of it and promise money-back guarantees and tell you to spend your mortgage payment on it because without question, you’d make it back pronto.

I just don’t think that’s how it works.

But fortunately, I realized there’s another way.


Maybe there is a system. But maybe it’s not really a “system,” at least in the way we normally think of “systems,” if you know what I mean. Does that make sense? No? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

When Lee Stranahan and I started talking about doing a project together (that story is in this pretty awesome post), one of the things that probably annoyed the piss out of Lee is that I was immediately dead-set against overpromising anything, and killed several ideas before they had a chance to even be born.

I didn’t want a blueprint.

I didn’t want a plan with a timeline, the end of which culminated in leaving a day job or making a certain amount of money or moving to Hawaii with five naked supermodels.

I didn’t want a guarantee. Or at least, I didn’t want a traditional guarantee based on results achieved, given that we all know that results in life are never guaranteed.

But then I realized that I was looking at it the wrong way… which brings me to a metaphor, because I like metaphors. Especially convoluted ones that are barely apt and just confuse the fuck out of people.


My stupid metaphor — or at least an entertaining story.

I have a barn in my backyard. It’s pretty damn big, and holds my wife’s horses and the tractor that I enjoy stalling out (often) and setting fire to (once). I built that barn. Or rather, my father-in-law Frank and I built it, with a few days of help from my brother-in-law Dale, my wife Robin, and my friend Scott. But mostly, it was just me and Frank. 95% of the boards, beams, nails, screws, wires, siding, and shingles are there because one of us put them there with our own two hands.

Now, I don’t know how to build a barn. When I started, I barely knew how to use a framing hammer, which is a huge motherfucker that you swing like a broadsword. You have to drive these pole barn nails that are as big around as nightcrawlers, and believe me, there is an art to it.

I didn’t know how to install asphalt shingles on the roof. You have to put them down with a certain amount of overlap and staggered a certain amount off of the row below. You work from the bottom and you have to know to put the nails not just anywhere, but in the tar strip.

I didn’t know how to wire the lights. And if pressed, I wouldn’t probably have realized that you need a circuit breaker out there, and I wouldn’t have known how to wire it if I had known.

Now: Frank was in fact telling me exactly what to do and what to put where so that at the end, we ended up with a barn instead of a humidor. But let’s pretend he hadn’t told me exactly what to put where. Let’s pretend that he’d taught me only the skills: How to set the poles. How to do the framing. How to do the wiring. How to raise the roof trusses, and how to tack down the shingles.

Wouldn’t you agree that I have a better chance of figuring out how to build a barn if I know the skills required to do it than if I started cold? Maybe I could have stumbled through it. Or maybe I could have read a bunch of books or hired an architect or gotten the building inspector to come out more often than necessary to give me tips (or reprimands)… but I could do it, eventually.

And wouldn’t you agree that if I knew these skills well enough — and was persistent enough, and took enough action — that I could create any number of pole buildings in time, to suit whatever need I may have? Maybe a small shed. Maybe a bigger barn with a huge loft. Maybe a detached garage.


Forget teaching results

I’ve decided that building a business is a creative endeavor. I don’t agree that you can map out a blueprint for a business, because so much depends on the strengths, weaknesses, quirks, habits, needs, and desires of the owner.

The business that would work perfectly for me may not work at all for you, so I can’t teach you the exact layout of my business for you to replicate. What I can do is to teach you the skills I used — the metaphorical hammering, shingling, wiring, and so on — and let you build your own unique business. Same skills, applied to your best purpose.

What has always bothered me is that if I told people stepwise where each nail and screw for their business should go, it wouldn’t work because they’re different than I am. And what’s worse is that even if it did work, what they’d build might not be the business they want.

Going back to the barn metaphor, I might give them a 2-stall design, but they’d own four horses. Or I’d instruct them on building a barn, and they’d say, “This is great, but I want to store cars in it, not horses. It should really have a concrete floor.”

So when Lee and I started mapping out our new course (tentatively planned for a March 23rd launch, because that’s my birthday), we decided that instead of trying to give you a blueprint, we’d instead teach you our best tools, and show you how we and others used those tools with great success. We’d show you the means we used to form beneficial partnerships, to make a movie, to write regularly for Copyblogger and Problogger or the Huffington Post, to accumulate 70 active job leads at a time and to create that five-figure monthly income, to interview Kevin Smith at his house or have Neil Gaiman retweet us on Twitter.

We decided not to give you the outline for our ideal lives, but to teach you how to determine what that ideal life truly is for you. And then, rather than teaching you how to do every detail of every task you’ll ever need, we figured it made more sense to show you how to find the best people to help you with those tasks. We figured that while you may not have the connections we have now, you almost certainly have the kinds of connections we had a few years ago — even though you probably don’t realize it.

I can’t and won’t give you instructions on how to build a whole barn, and expect that barn to fit your unique needs perfectly. And I don’t expect you to be able to build it all by yourself, from A to Z, the first time through, without making mistakes.

But I know I can teach you how to swing a hammer. To do the wiring and put up the shingles. I can show you how to enlist the help of someone like Frank to fill the gaps in your knowledge, and how to make sure that you’re building that barn to your own best specifications — even if it takes a long time, and even if your first few barns fall over.

That I can promise, with a clear conscience. That I can do.

We’re not really about giving you what you want. We’re more about giving you the tools you need to go out and get it for yourself.

“Teach a man to fish,” and all of that.


Want to see what this post turned into? It’s our new course Question the Rules: The nonconformist’s punk rock, DIY, nuts-and-bolts guide to creating the business and life you really want, starting with what you already have, and it launches on Wednesday, April 28.

It’s ridiculously jam-packed: 5 course modules on how to rock your business and life as an entrepreneur who colors outside the lines, and over a dozen interviews with successful rule-breakers whose names you’ll recognize.

If you’re a punk rock entrepreneur (and I know you are), you’ll want to check it out here because we’re offering an immediate free bonus prior to launch day.


  1. Jess says:

    I’ve found a giant misconception among those who do not yet work for themselves is the amount of work required to simply stay afloat. Once you start adding dreams and all the other foofy stuff, an 80-hour week is a big probability.

    One thing that solidified you as the perfect coach for me was that you told me right off the bat you weren’t going to do anything FOR me. If you did everything for me (hammer every nail, level every truss, etc), I wouldn’t know what to do with the finished product. It’s all part of the process. The sometimes painful, often uncomfortable process…

    While I probably would have preferred to have a five-figure-per-month business by now, I have no idea what the total fucking meltdowns you helped me through will be for me in the future. If there’s one golden piece of advice you’ve given me, it’s to stop trying to plan for everything that can’t possibly be planned…

    I don’t know who will be my great connection (but I’m guessing you’ll be one) or what the great big future holds for me, but I know I’m glad you kept your hands out of my plans and let me do my own dirty work. How would I ever know what’s right unless you let me do it wrong???

    Rock on, JBT… And thanks, as always, for doing what you do.

  2. Dan says:

    Kudos for not holding people’s hands. Too many people that want to be successful think there’s some magic checklist out there.

    Most of learning comes from actually doing. I can hypothesize about getting punched in the face as many times as I like, but I’ll know a helluva lot more if it actually happens.

    Keep being awesome!

  3. Hi JBT,
    Bang on target. Starting our own businesses is like learning to paint. If you get one of those paint by numbers kits then when you have finished all you have is a copy of someone else’s creation. Your business needs to be your own and, as such, I’m pleased that your approach is about tools and not templates.


  4. Levi Muller says:

    I just started reading your posts last week. I love the style and content. It’s making me rethink the way I write and what I write about.

    Also, congrats on the speedy success. Results may not be typical, but I bet there are a lot of people who will try to emulate, cross fingers, and wish upon stars to get 5 figures per month.

  5. Great caption.

  6. Liane says:

    Johnny, now the only thing missing is for people to wake up and realize that some savior is will not hand them hundred dollar bills just because they paid for the service in the first place 😉

  7. Mary Warner says:

    “… as big around as nightcrawlers …”

    Squinched up nightcrawlers, or stretched out nightcrawlers?

  8. Archan Mehta says:


    Thanks for the post. You are an awesome writer. Love your blog too.

    You make it clear you don’t believe in spoon-feeding your clients like babies.

    If you wanna get anything done, you’ve got to learn how to do it your own self.

    However, we live in an age of instant gratification. And some people think that earning a five figure income per month is like ordering a pizza at Pizza Hut.

    It does not work that way. Otherwise, all of us would be wealthy, but only a few of us make it. You need to roll up your sleeves and be prepared to get your hands dirty. And if you can’t take the heat, get the hell out of the kitchen, as they say.

    It is a timely reminder. Building a business from scratch ain’t no joke. Cheers.

  9. Eric Doggett says:

    The barn metaphor works great, no matter what your products/services are.

    I just don’t want to shoot myself with a nail gun.

  10. Great point Johnny B,

    Something that’s come to my mind in the past week or so is that the newer bloggers are most likely going to have a completely different path to success than the current crop of people out there enjoying success.

    There is no blueprint that will take into account new ideas, new technology, new trends that’ll come about in the next year.

    Everyone has to take their own journey. But there *is* value in listening to people who have made it – pull the best from their ideas and avoid repeating their mistakes.

    Should be a fun ride…


  11. Lorrie says:

    I am so glad you’re coming out with something like this. There are so many people in the blogging ‘biz’ that I admire and trust that their information would be valuable but I have yet to see anything that will allow me to do it my way and it gets me thinking that there is no way to do it my way, which is one of the (many lame) excuses I give myself for not starting it.
    Off to sign up for the notice. Pre: Happy Birthday!

  12. Brian Garbisch says:


    Just wanted to drop you a note saying thanks. I really related to this post and am excited to sign up. First heard you on 3rd Tribe and now with this post you just gained a fan.

  13. Heather says:

    I’ve been lurking around your site for a while, but this is my first time commenting.

    Just wanted to say “thanks” and also let you know that even though I am super impatient and generally a blog skimmer, somehow I can’t help but read every word of your blog posts. I don’t know how you do it.

    All the best!


  14. Dave Doolin says:

    I’m getting a pretty good grip on the tool chain myself now. Feels good.

    Now to learn how to put the tools to use.

  15. Johnny says:

    @Jess – Yes, the concept of how much work is involved is always way underappreciated… it’s amazing the time I spent now, and what I spend now is a fraction of what I was spending a year ago.

    @Levi – I think that with enough intelligent persistence, most things are possible for most people, but yeah, “wish” doesn’t seem to come into play as much as “believe” does. Same spectrum of thought, but with different intention.

    @Mike – That may well be. Things change so incredibly quick that you’re right; it seems like the “best” approach changes regularly. All the more reason to know skills instead of a system… because those can adjust and have some acuity.

    @Brian and Heather and everyone else I didn’t reply to specifically – Thanks!

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