Interviews Newsletter

‘I believe a one-person business model is the answer to finding your entrepreneurial calling and doing the work you were meant to do.’

Ellen Donnelly is the founder of The Ask. Her shift to solopreneurship? Training as a career coach, building her dream role, newsletters, and a north star bracelet guiding every step.

Ellen has built a six-figure coaching & content business, changed career paths (twice), travelled and worked remotely living on four continents, and advises VC-backed startups on talent strategy. 

I went to her Talent to Money virtual summit for founders in 2022 – an excellent event.

Great to catch up again last week and chat about newsletters & branding. She likes ‘The Shift’ as a name; I’m happy to hear. I’m sticking with it as it’s about inner transformation and fulfilling our potential. Enough angst!

These are her best tips on building a profitable business around yourself…

Tell us about yourself and why you started The Ask

After supporting entrepreneurial professionals with their startup careers as a headhunter and Head of Talent, I observed a generation of people confused about navigating professional decisions.

We live in a world of infinite options, changes, emerging innovation and starting a business has never been easier. The most ambitious people are keen to succeed, but the confusion often gets in the way of their success.

I saw how coaching and education could guide people to make better career decisions, and myself wanted to find a better path. Three years on, running The Ask has been my most fulfilling career experience yet!

Who are you serving? Target audience and niche?

My niche is now tightly focused on those who want the next chapter of their professional lives to be working for themselves. They are working out how to piece the self-employment puzzle together in a fulfilling way that also brings in a sustainable income. 

This is achieved through a coaching approach I’ve designed that helps clients to tap into their existing skills and expertise (I call this their ‘Unique Contribution’) and then take the action that builds a business around doing what they love. 

I believe a one-person business model is the answer to finding your own entrepreneurial calling and doing the work you were meant to do. Here’s the process and how it all comes together! 

Your newsletter powers your six-figure coaching business – how did you get your first 1K subscribers? 

Early on, I recognised the importance of email in online business building (I thank the book Content Inc for that!) and was fortunate enough to discover Substack in March 2020, just as the world shut down and poured my creative energy into my newsletter as a channel. 

The more I wrote, the more I loved it. Growing the list became secondary to simply putting ideas out there, but the more coaching clients came in, the more I decided to double down on newsletter growth. This then became about trying lots of things and some shameless self-promotion! 

Today there’s 3,700 readers, which mostly organically grows by its own accord. I shared these tactics to reach the first 1K in a year in this post.

Your business has an educational, content-rich angle – you do the creative work and the strategy. How do you manage your time & avoid burnout? 

Part of this is mindset, as I never see marketing or content as separate from running the business. It’s also an avenue towards clear thinking, as long-form writing has helped me consolidate my thinking and observations gained through coaching. 

Then there are the practical decisions, such as focusing on quality over quantity and keeping two days free of calls weekly. These days, it’s about content creation and admin, and this boundary has been essential for me to maintain balance (no one wants to work with a burned-out and stressed coach!).

Marianne Lehnis said that successful entrepreneurs have an 80/20% focus on sales compared to everything else. Do you agree? 

That’s interesting. My perspective is that if the content is doing its job, it’s creating sales, so these are one and the same thing. 

The importance of selling can’t be underestimated, as it’s the lifeblood of any business. 

In coaching, many new entrepreneurs avoid sales like the plague, afraid of seeming ‘pushy’ or feeling unclear about HOW to sell. I love supporting people’s confidence in selling as it’s a huge self-growth journey, as it’s very often all about having a supportive mindset and self-belief. 

I can say this, having sold hundreds of thousands of pounds of work now, but at the start, finding the entire process a minefield and source of angst! We aren’t taught to sell unless we join the sales department when it should be a life skill!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten on creativity and entrepreneurship? 

There is a huge overlap between entrepreneurship and art – a lot of ego and vulnerability is tied up in each. This became clear early in my entrepreneurial journey when I read two formative books about creativity: The Artist’s Way and The War of Art

The advice in both books taught me the importance of putting the PROCESS above the outcome, aka creating without any expectation of what will happen. And removing the fear and resistance we face to control how our work is perceived. 

We can’t predict outcomes, virality, or other people’s tastes, but we can control showing up consistently and putting the work in. That’s been my philosophy. 

Tools & Resources for one-person businesses…

Not exactly an unknown tool, but I couldn’t live without Notion for powering almost every aspect of my business!

I am also a fan of communities where you can meet like-minded people who share your same goals and frustrations but where you might ALSO meet your clients and supporters. These have always been worth the £10/month or whatever they charge in the business and enjoyment created in return. 

The Business of Expertise by David Baker is great for anyone running a client-led, expertise-based business.

What’s your top tip for personal branding on LinkedIn? 

Try and enjoy it! I previously got too caught up in having the perfect post format, style, or strategy and then gave up. 

Now, I am back on it, and I post what feels true and authentic in that given moment, provided I can relate it back to my services in some way. That’s taken a lot of the heaviness out of it. 

Not everyone can create on demand, so I suggest finding 2-3 talking points and content pillars with my clients and experimenting with different ways of writing about them! 

Keep adding to your own ideas bank. Then you can compound your ideas and posts and be memorable in the process due to the repetition.

You spoke at YATM Creator Day 23 – any takeaways to share? What are some of the challenges the creator economy is facing?

I talked about doubling down on your uniqueness regarding your one-person business model and doing the work you were meant to do in this world – letting the noise and distractions fade away in the process!

The entire day had a similar theme around authenticity and honing into your core beliefs. 

For creators, there is no alternative to knowing yourself and your skills well and focusing on doing exactly that, becoming the go-to person for your thing. 

The creator/one-person business model world is crowded and will only become more so, but no one can be more ‘you’ than you can or take this away from you. Own it!  

New YouTube channel! ‘To say this has been a steep learning curve is an understatement.’ How’s it going? 

YouTube was a learning curve for sure, and whilst I am proud of the quality of videos created, I have decided to pause it for the time being. It’s a LOT of work (10-15 hours per video), and with a full coaching practice, I couldn’t maintain it and justify the time investment. 

The lesson has been to be more realistic with my time in the week and consider my target clients’ needs – many aren’t looking to YouTube for the things I support.

What are your plans for The Ask in 23? Where would you like to be this time next year? 

In one year, the goal is to have a more widely established authority as a coach for one-person business owners who want to build a profitable business around themselves (without investors, a big team, or overheads). 

That will include different services and IP to meet people where they are on that journey: exploring, starting out, or pivoting. 

To read Ellen’s writing and learn more about her work, head to The Ask.

Book a coaching consultation and get a bonus ‘Personal Brand Audit’ session if you sign up for a coaching programme (mention The Shift).

Connect with Ellen on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Life’s Work – An Interview With Tina Turner 

Tina! Long live the queen of rock & roll. A solo powerhouse, a symbol of courage and resilience, and a strong personal brand.

Her book Happiness Becomes You is about her spiritual journey and ‘like reading sunlight.’

The Classifieds 

Word of mouth not cutting it, and not sure where to turn? Drum up new clients in one afternoon with this rapid course from Lex Roman. Use code THE SHIFT for 5% off.

Missed CEX? Get access to ALL the recordings, on demand, with a Digital Pass. Over 40 hours of keynotes and breakout sessions to help you build and grow your content business. Use code [nikanikatalbotio] and save $100 here.

The Artisan’s Way writing course – a five-week journey for writers ready to break free from average. Connect more deeply to yourself and your craft and ship the best writing of your life.

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Interviews Newsletter

The top 5 creator economy takeaways from CEX, from AI for Good to a Fans First movement

PLUS: Meet the Founder: Marianne Lehnis

“Jesse Cole’s presentation, linked to his book Fans First, was the best talk I have ever seen.” A takeaway from last week’s Creator Economy Expo in Cleveland, US, from Mark Masters, one of the most pioneering (and nicest) men in marketing I’ve ever encountered.

Mark is the founder of You Are The Media, a thriving and inspiring global community. He delivered a session on ‘Working Together’ based on YATM’s 2023 Creator Day. Read on for his top takeaways from CEX…

Here is more advice from the keynote stage and the latest content entrepreneur research. Exciting times!

YATM ‘Working Together’ Session at CEX

1. Four words from Ann Handley have stayed with me since returning, “homemade commands a premium.” With the acceptance of AI as part of our lives, it’s who we are, and the curiosity and figuring out in front of everyone is magnified. Our quirks and beliefs represent who we are and what we stand for, not the ability to find an answer quickly.

2. We don’t need to pursue BIG. Joe Pulizzi highlighted that success isn’t attributed to large audiences. From the new Creator Economy research, the average creator audience is 4K people across four channels. It makes us realise that the goal is never to achieve mass acceptance from strangers but to be relevant to the right people.

3. The goal for relevance and meaning is so important. This became a common thread – to create the work that matters. More content is not the answer. It’s knowing who is around us, finding ways to engage on a deeper level, and building spaces people feel a part of (Daphne Gomez and Jay Clouse highlighted what it means to nurture a space for the right audience).

4. Jesse Cole’s presentation, linked to his book Fans First, was the best talk I have ever seen. Engaging from the heart and sharing the proof (he even stayed afterwards to talk to people). His message was about valuing the people who step forward. We can’t treat the world as a transaction. The memorable moments mean something; this is why people stay. The ability to experiment and recognise that we don’t have the answers when we start is important. Experimentation lets us evaluate and become better at our work.

5. The work we create will always be replicated. Robert Rose’s message struck home when he shared that content provides zero competitive advantage. It’s the expression of our ideas that truly matters and why other people should care. The journey we accept matters, not the words on a page or the video we publish. 

Thank you, Mark – hope your luggage has turned up!

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Meet the Creator: Marianne Lehnis 👩🏻‍💻

Interview with Marianne Lehnis, Founder of The Green Techpreneur
Remote working in beautiful Madeira

Marianne Lehnis, Founder and CEO of The Green Techpreneur, is one of The Tilt’s 2023 Content Entrepreneur Awards finalists *trophy winging its way to the UK*

Tell us about yourself and why you started The Green Techpreneur

A little about me! I’m English/German but was born in India and lived in Ukraine for a while as a child… I have a multicultural background. 

As a student, I remember someone asking me what I wanted to do, saying I’d like to work for Positive News and that I wanted to freelance. The seeds were there for being self-employed and building The GT, but I had no idea I would go on to create my own positive news platform or of the meandering journey leading up to it. 

I started my career as a journalist but became disillusioned with the prospects in the industry after a couple of years and burnt out. So, in early 2018, I did something crazy – quit my job and moved to London with just £4K in savings. Through an unexpected series of events, I became self-employed. 

But again, I had a niggling feeling of dissatisfaction. I was working on short-term projects and didn’t feel I was progressing or building for the long term. I wanted a scalable business that I loved, which made a positive impact.

When the pandemic broke out, life changed dramatically again. I launched The GT to combine my passion for sustainability and fascination for entrepreneurship and innovation while illuminating the leaders making extraordinary contributions to society. 

Who are you serving? Target audience and niche?

Climate tech entrepreneurs and investors are my niche. My platform has evolved to help entrepreneurs with pain points, such as finding investors via a partnership with a marketplace platform. I’ll also offer several additional services, such as consulting for getting investment-ready via partners.

How did you get your first 1K followers? 

In the beginning, I worked and put in time for every single subscription I had. When I first launched, I would commit time daily to DM people on LinkedIn with a friendly message and offer to sign up. That helped me test the idea, get early adopters, and confirm I had a product people were interested in – if I could get it in front of them. 

Over time more subscriptions came in from cross-promotions on Substack and constant promotion on LinkedIn – sharing in relevant groups and including an ad to sign up in the comment section of most of my posts.

You’re doing all the creative work – research, interviews, writing, podcast, and social media. How do you manage your time and avoid burnout? 

This is a great question. It’s been and still is a continual growth journey. I keep things as simple as possible. There are a thousand things I could and should be doing to promote the podcast, but for now, I focus on the basics and keep things lean. 

I’ve learnt that establishing partnerships with companies serving the same niche but offering a different product is a fantastic approach instead of going alone or trying to create too many products/services. 

We can’t succeed and bootstrap on our own. Actively look for collaborators. Build a tribe that cross-refers clients and cross-promotes.

Creation Vs distribution… how do you distribute your content? 

I distribute my content primarily via LinkedIn because I’m B2B. Substack and cross-referrals bring consistent growth.

If someone could only read one of your interviews, which would it be and why? 

I love so many of my interviews; this is tough to answer. Interviewing climate tech entrepreneurs has been wonderful as I meet many incredible mission-driven leaders with great mindsets and values. 

Here is one of many that I love for its honesty and authenticity about the entrepreneurial path.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten on creativity and entrepreneurship? 

Successful entrepreneurs have an 80/20% focus on sales compared to everything else.

Unsuccessful entrepreneurs have a 20/80% focus on sales/other work. 

The focus on sales brings in the cash, which enables the business to lift off and extra work to be outsourced. If you spend all your time tinkering yourself instead of selling, you won’t make the lift-off. 

But here’s the catch-22… you need to create an attractive product/service and establish credibility before selling. This can take time and experimentation. You need social proof and testimonials, but as soon as you’ve got a product you know the market needs… stop tinkering and sell, sell, sell. 

Be an entrepreneur, not a tinkerer. 

Any top recommendations for creators?

Listen to Brendon Burchard’s Daily Fire on the Growth Day app if you want to start your day with a bit of fire! 🔥

Exciting news. You were recently announced as one of The Tilt’s Content Entrepreneur Awards finalists. How do you feel? 

I’m overjoyed! I have been a fighter for a long time, persevering in what has often felt like an against-all-odds odyssey. It’s lovely to feel like people have noticed and appreciated the result of my blood, sweat and tears and love the positive impact my business is bringing into the world. 

It comes after winning an Innovation & Excellence Award for Environmental News Platform of the Year by Corporate Live Wire. It is a double confirmation that I’m on the right path, and it’s time to fly!

What are your plans for The GT in ’23? Where would you like to be this time next year? 

I would love to have several more mutually beneficial partnerships with companies that are GT platform sponsors (if you or anyone you know would like to get your brand in front of climate tech entrepreneurs, get in touch!). 

I’d love to have quadrupled my audience and have loads of inbound sales leads while outsourcing some tasks. 

Coming up: Ellen Donnelly, Founder + Chief Coach at The Ask will share entrepreneurial career guidance and insight from YATM Creator Day 2023. Got a burning question about solopreneurship? Send it in!

Need creator advice? Send me a note

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Interview: Thousand Faces Club

I was interviewed recently by Thousand Faces Club for their newsletter: Morning Rush.

“A bi-weekly newsletter to discover new creators & our analysis on creator economy and internet trends. Read by 1,800+ creators.”

A deep dive into my content entrepreneurship journey and building The Shift newsletter for indie creators. Read online.



The ’23 Unsung Content Entrepreneurs

An estimated 50 million people are operating in the creator economy as of 2023, but most attention goes to the 1% who make big bucks and have audiences totalling over 1M.

So called ‘middle-class creators’ – those earning money from a content business – get ignored.

So, The Tilt has launched the Content Entrepreneur Awards with its first class of Unsung Content Entrepreneurs. They did a callout in their newsletter and socials, asking their readers for nominations. Meet the shortlist.

It features creators of all ages from around the world covering diverse topics. Some great people here to connect with and learn from.

The top Unsung Content Entrepreneurs will be announced and celebrated at Creator Economy Expo, May 1-3 in Cleveland, Ohio.  

I nominated Marianne Lehnis, founder of The Green Techpreneur, and am delighted she made the shortlist!

It would be fun to turn this into a #CreatorChallenge and follow the journey of a small cohort, over the next 12 months.

Team up with a couple of other newsletters in the space, interview them all and share on our platforms for wider reach.

Where are they now, and where do they want to be this time next year? Set some goals and accountability. Check-in regularly and share any asks/offers…

Then interview them all again next year to see how far they’ve come…

…and turn the interviews into an ebook: The Creator Business Book to share ahead of next year’s CEX. A book is a brilliant business card and goody bag merch!

Most awards are a one-off event, which is a missed opportunity, IMO. Why not share a creator’s journey, problems, solutions, and learnings over a year or more?  

Others can come on board and join the challenge… keeps us all motivated, working towards shared goals, and builds a deeper connection.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

So, let’s get this challenge started!

Interview #1 with The Green Techpreneur coming up in the next issue.

Let me know if you have any questions for Marianne or the other nominees, and if you’d like to join the challenge.

Good to put yourself out there and enter as many awards as possible. IPSE has just launched its Freelancer Awards 2023 – few new categories. And the Publisher Newsletter Awards has been extended till 5 May.

Get entering! If it’s free, you’ve got nothing to lose.

Teens and chatbots…

Julieta and her mates have been playing around with Snapchat’s new AI chatbot.

‘My AI’ is pinned to the app’s chat tab above conversations with friends.

It’s powered by the latest version of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, but some key differences exist. You can name it, design a custom Bitmoji avatar, and bring it into conversations with friends.

So far, mixed reactions, and it’s raised some privacy concerns.

You don’t have to interact with it, but you can’t remove it unless you pay for Snapchat+, their premium service. It says it doesn’t know where you are, but if you ask where the nearest pizza place is, it tells you exactly where you are.

It’s less formal, a bit chattier than ChatGPT (we had both tabs open to compare responses), and has an attitude… didn’t like it’s new name: “KittenWhiskers”. Named her “Curious” because she asks so many questions.

We asked Kitty to name the 50 states of the US, and it refused, saying, “I don’t think that’s a good use of your time.” Had to ask three times and eventually got an answer.

Teen verdict: “Everyone is playing with it now cos it’s new, and it helps with homework, but we might not be bothered in a week….”

Well, it’s teaching them prompt engineering, which is a valuable skill. They will be using these tools in the future, so why not learn about AI together, talk about it, and help shape it.  

The Shift Hot 5 🔥

Introduction to content design course is back on FutureLearn. Next iteration – a free 4-week course. Learn how to apply user-centred design methods to enhance your digital content and comms. Register here.

Creator Economy Summit takeaways. 400+ people in LA last week at The Information’s annual event. Search #creatorsummit on LinkedIn to see some insightful recaps and thoughts on the state of the creator economy.

The “magic no 39” – if your podcast episode is downloaded 39+ times in the first week of going live, it qualifies as among the top 50% of all podcasts worldwide! Top tips from Chris Phin on how to make money from podcasting (article + replay).

Passionfroot Guides for Creators – how to price newsletter ads, podcasting checklist and more to come. Really like their #TechForGood ethos and service – doing a demo of their backend OS that helps creators manage their financing and workflows in one place. More of this to come…

Great piece by Simon Owens on why the Creator Economy “middle class” does exist. I don’t like the framing of a “creator middle class” either – good to query the definition. Creators aren’t employees, they’re small businesses/entrepreneurs.

And businesses take time to build, which is why these studies should have minimum requirements for inclusion and take a long-term view. A creator career is definitely feasible, though. Send him your thoughts.

Enjoy the Kingy Thingy! 👑


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