It’s been three years since I founded Black & White Zebra, and while I’ve got more than my fair share of things wrong, I thought I’d also celebrate three things I might have got right.

We’re a work in progress; more wobbly toddler than an Olympic skater. But something keeps going right. We’re 60% profitable, and have tripled our revenue each year for the past three years.

So how’s that happened? I think these three things have contributed most to our success.

It’s doing something I’d do, even if I wasn’t paid to do it

The truth is I wasn’t paid to do it for 25 years.

I’m not sure if that makes me tenacious or stupid, or somewhere in-between. But it means the work has never really felt like work to me. It still feels more like a fun game than a hard slog.

 I know that ‘my work’ appeared like a complete waste of time to most people for a couple of decades. They couldn’t understand why I would waste so much time creating content and publishing websites which hardly anyone ever read.

But tenacity and consistency can get you a long way. What’s more, from the beginning, the numbers weren’t that important to me. I didn’t really care that no one read what I wrote. Writing was intrinsically energizing and life giving. It was creating something out of nothing, and connecting with people all over the world. And very slowly, it turned into something much bigger.

 There has never been a moment that we made it. It’s just that when you look back, you can see something has worked. At the core of Black & White Zebra business is creating content. It’s really as simple as what I’m doing now. Sitting in front of a computer and typing something. I did it then for fun, and I still do it for fun now.

 With any business, in order to be successful, it needs a lot of time and effort put in. You can try the 4 hour work week, or work life balance, but why not just do work you enjoy instead? Either the time and effort you invest will wear you down, because you don’t really enjoy it, or it will fuel you up, because you love it. When you love what you do it means that hard work never really feels like hard work. It’s more like hard playing, and it’s still fun. It also means you can create a ton of impact, simply because you invest so much of your life into it.

So work harder. But make sure you love it.

 Our high-margin, low-touch, scale-able, digital business model

That might sound like I just spewed a McKinsey deck over your screen, but beneath the jargon, it’s true.

After 15 years exchanging time for money in agencies, I knew that when I started a business, I wanted something different. In an agency you get to learn a lot about lots of different businesses, and you can apply that knowledge to your next project or client, but you never really end up building anything. You’re just building everyone else’s businesses. The work is an interesting but infinite expanse of hamster wheels.

High margins matter. We’re creating content that enables us to sell media in the B2B SaaS space. That’s very deliberate, and affords us some high margins. It’s where you find a ton of venture backed funding and big marketing budgets. 

We’ve tried to create something that doesn’t spin without moving forward. It’s low touch because in essence, our product is content. We’ve focussed on evergreen (rather than ephemeral) content that might need refreshing, but never expires. And with each day that passes, everything we create builds our house just a little bit bigger. The only blocker to scale is more high quality content. It means we are infinitely scalable.

Being digital means our customers could be from anywhere in the world, at any time of day. if the server is up, the business is on, regardless of whether or not anyone on our team is actually doing anything. It gives us global reach and access. It means we can provide our services around the world even while we sleep. And it means we can go on holiday whenever we want.

So try and make use of the internets, and create value through things that you can sell not just once, but lots of times.

 Our business model is weirdly awesome

Honestly though, do you understand what we do?

I’m guessing probably not. That’s ok. What we do is kind of like a layer cake. That’s both good and bad.

In essence, our product is content so good it’s worth paying for. In our layer cake, that could be someone buying training, membership, coaching, access to an event, a job posting, or media space.

What’s good about the business model is that the layers of our cake work together to amplify the effectiveness of the other lays. This though, is hard. The bad is that there are a lot of things to make and maintain. I’ve received the advice many times to just focus on one thing. And we could, but I think it would reduce our overall effectiveness. Our multifaceted product lineup allows us to differentiate and diversify against our competitors.

When someone asks – ‘Who are your main competitors?’ I struggle to answer. It’s not that we haven’t got competitors – it’s just that we’ve got so many, it’s hard to pick the main one. They’re all competitors, but for lots of different reasons.

But in three years of being in business, I’m not sure there’s really anyone doing quite what we’re doing. We’ve got an interesting symbiosis between the content we publish, the community we create that content for and with, and the media partners who value access to that community.

Maybe if we became more focused on one aspect of the business we could have made more money. But I think our strength lies in the unique and complimentary way the different revenue streams work together. Each is stronger because the other exists. And it makes it very hard to replicate.

So don’t be afraid to buck conventional wisdom and do something a bit weird. It might just work. 

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