I first saw Arik Hanson speak at the MSP Social Media Breakfast a year ago, discussing social media “trends du jour” alongside actual trends that can be useful for brands. It’s still one of my favorite presentations I’ve seen.
As a Twin Cities-area public relations whiz and solopreneur, Arik has made a career by cutting out the nonsense and simplifying the meaningful for some big and well-known brands. He’s got terrific instincts, a great sense of humor and the drive to fail fast and learn.
He took time to chat with me over coffee about the ups and downs of being your own boss, working life as a solopreneur, and how he learned to not hate networking.
Nels: Tell me about what you do as a solopreneur.
Arik: I’ve been a solopreneur for about eight years now and my work revolves around four key areas: social/digital strategy, content, influencer marketing and the fourth area is kind of a grab bag. It could be PR/media relations, training and even social research.
I tend to work with large companies so right now I’m working with Sleep Number, Cargill and Patterson Dental.
I started in PR originally, which has been a really big benefit in the work I do now. At these big companies, the people who are really in charge of social media (like on the director level) are usually PR people. So I can really identify with them because that’s where I started, too.
N: What is a typical work week for you, if there is such a thing?
A: Right now, the only constant in my work week is that I pick my kids up from school at 3 every day. Other than that, there’s no real typical work week. It’s kind of a mix.
Sometimes I’m working from my home office. Sometimes I’m working here at a coffee shop. Sometimes I’m meeting at client sites. Sometimes I’m working on my monthly podcast or meeting people out for some new business stuff.
So I’m out and about a lot. And I really like that part of my job. I’ve always liked working that way. It’s all about what I need to do to get the work done. Sometimes that means I’m working four hours a day total, sometimes that means I’m working eight hours a day just on one account.
N: Did you always know you wanted to be a solopreneur?
A: Yes. I worked at a small agency called the Concept Group and, when I was there, I was a project coordinator and proofreader. It wasn’t the most glamorous job, but I knew I wanted to be in an agency and knew I needed that experience. But then I started thinking and realized I could try a solo thing. I saw other people doing it and thought I could make it happen, too.
Originally I wanted to be a solo copywriter, but didn’t have any experience. In about 2008, I found myself in another job I wasn’t crazy about, but saw this social media stuff really starting to take off. I had been an early blogger, an early Twitter user, and thought, “OK, now I have a skill to sell.” There had been a couple of instances in my life where I had the opportunity to jump, but didn’t. So this time, the timing was right and I was going to do it.
I also realized that if it didn’t work out, I could just get another job. Failing was not the worst thing that could have happened to me.
N: What are the best and worst things about being your own boss?
A: I’d say the biggest perk for me has been autonomy and the freedom to try whatever I want to try. I’ve always had a “fail fast” mentality and as soon as I realized not everyone shares that, I realized it was something I could leverage as a consultant. For example, I started a speaker series with the University of Minnesota about a year ago. The idea was to talk about things some of the major marketing organizations weren’t talking about in a really intimate setting. I thought the concept was good but it just didn’t work out like we had expected. And that would probably be considered a failure.
But I don’t think anyone really noticed. And I don’t care that I failed because I got the opportunity to kind of reimagine it. If I was working at an agency, I could share ideas and MAYBE get to try them. But not like this.
I think the biggest downside of working for yourself is the isolating nature of the work. You’re by yourself a lot. I think when you start out, you think “Oh, this is going to be great. I’m on my own, I’ve got all this autonomy, all this flexibility.” And all that is true. But when you’ve been doing it for eight years, you start talking to yourself in the car because there’s no one else to talk to. Today, for instance, I’m meeting with Sleep Number and with you. That’s it. My Sleep Number client has six meetings today so she’s seeing lots of people all day. I’m seeing two people that aren’t my family.
That’s why networking and getting to drive around a little bit during the day is so important.
N: As an independent consultant, how do you prioritize your own content creation?
A: I think about it a little differently than I think some solos do. I think about my own content efforts as if it were another client. For me, the new business bucket is pretty big. I try to blog two to three times a week (at least, that’s my goal), I do The Talking Points monthly podcast with Kevin [Hunt], I have a speaker series, I have the Sparked social media training series.
So there’s a lot going on, and if I didn’t treat it like a client, it would probably fall down. That’s what I see a lot of people do. They say the client comes first and, in my opinion, that work I do to further my business is a client. The content I produce is a big referral engine for me, so if that stops, how long until the business dries up because of it?
I don’t necessarily want to talk about myself all the time, but I want to show up in a lot of places. If someone tells me, “Man, you’re everywhere!” that’s what I want.
N: What are the most common marketing struggles of the organizations you work with?
A: I see a lot of struggles with alignment between teams and how they collaborate. Take social media, for instance. A lot of those lines are still being drawn within big companies. Sometimes social falls on the PR team, sometimes it’s on the marketing team. Sometimes social media has its own separate teams. Social touches customer services and it touches HR, too. And all these teams don’t always communicate well with each other.
Education is another big struggle. And not just educating the executives, but even the level right below that. Because, while the executives don’t need to know everything, they need to have some understanding of what we’re trying to do and why, especially since they’re usually in charge of budget. The young people in social are really savvy and know their stuff in a lot of ways. But they don’t necessarily have the kind of seasonality that someone in a director role will have. And that’s a challenge because that’s a key gatekeeper against other companies who don’t know what they’re talking about or a tool that you’re not going to be able to use in the right way.
N: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about content marketing?
A: Number one, I think there’s over-pressure to deliver leads. It CAN do that and we hope it will. But it’s best designed to do other things. That’s a big challenge, though. You see a lot of companies pouring money into content marketing and the first question they usually have is, “Well, how much money am I going to make from this?” And we certainly hope it does drive leads and business for your company. But let’s also be realistic about it and understand content marketing is designed to increase the softer metrics like awareness and engagement, not necessarily a firm dollar amount.
The other misconception is that companies can’t talk about themselves in their content. The message the content marketing pundits and gurus have pushed for so long is: “Don’t talk about yourself! You have to talk about industry trends and stuff like that!” And to a certain extent, that’s true. But it’s not black or white. You want to cover industry trends but it’s OK to talk about yourself every once in a while.
Kevin, my podcast partner, is a huge champion of that with General Mills. He’ll say they talk about themselves constantly and it’s been really successful for them. Sometimes, we’ll comment on the industry and discuss what’s going on in the world of food. But a lot of the time, they’re talking about what General Mills is up to, how they’re helping the world and what they’re doing in sustainability and in the workplace.
So I think we’ve overcorrected a little bit in terms of not talking about ourselves. Now I’m not saying put your sales messaging out there all the time, but you can talk about yourself in different ways and make it interesting. And that’s what content marketing is all about. It’s not about advertising, it’s about storytelling. And storytelling can be just as powerful when you’re talking about things going on in your company.
N: What’s a marketing tactic you think is overrated?
A: Companies celebrating holidays. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but companies saying Happy Thanksgiving and stuff like that should have been a thing for about six months and that’s it.
N: What about companies commenting on notable people like Prince passing away and changing their profile pictures and colors and things like that?
A: That’s another dangerous one. My opinion is to stay out of it because there have been a lot of companies that have gotten into some hot water. I just don’t see the upside to that. Why would you want to inject yourself into that conversation?
Prince’s passing was a prime example. He’s a public figure and a lot of people get really passionate and have a very emotional tie to his music. Brands have no place in that conversation. Even brands that can do it cleverly are running a risk for blowback. People are already looking for a chance to rail against the brands.
N: What about the flip side? What’s a tactic people are scared of that they shouldn’t be?
A: Long-form content. There’s been a lot of conversation about short-form versus long-form and I hear a lot of brands talk about “snackable” content and creating things people can read quickly. And I just don’t think it matters.
Look at all of Dan Rather’s Facebook posts. Those things are like 4 million words long and people read them!
I know he’s a person, but I think it’s indicative of the fallacy that it has to be short to be good. Twitter allows you to write 280 characters now instead of 140. So that shift is already taking place.
Do what works for you. Best practices are a guide, not an edict.
N: What do you like better? Consulting or speaking?
A: Well, consulting pays the bills, so I’d have to say consulting. For me, speaking is something I do for fun. Jay Baer gets paid to speak. Lee Odden gets paid to speak. I do not get paid to speak.
But speaking is really fun because I love doing it and it gives me a chance to dive in and research a topic. Usually what I end up with is a ton of content. If I’m putting together a presentation on social media trends, I’ll turn the presentation into a blog post and each individual trend into its own blog post. So I’m investing time and research into one presentation, and I’ll end up with like 10 pieces of content.
N: What’s your favorite book?
A: I don’t read a lot of marketing books. But there is one business book I love called Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. I read it for the first time about eight years ago when I was first starting as a solopreneur. He not only talks about the power of networking in a different way, but also talks about how he does things a little bit differently. He’s a master networker, almost to the point of being a little bit smarmy. But he gave me so many great ideas on how to turn networking into something that’s fun.
A great example is that, when people in his network celebrated a birthday, he would call and sing “Happy Birthday” to them. Some people would cry, some would thank him profusely and say he made their day. His argument was that no one did that anymore. And it’s probably even worse now. These days, you get a call from your family and significant other (if you’re lucky) and a bunch of Facebook posts. That’s it. You don’t even get a card anymore.
And I actually tried that for a while and got a similar response. I’m not a singer so I have to be willing to embarrass myself a little bit.
So, he offers a lot of great ideas on how to make networking more fun and interesting and helped me look at networking in a really positive way.
N: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: Don’t work harder. Work smarter. As a solopreneur, you can’t really work harder all the time because you’ll go crazy. In the evenings, for instance, I don’t have a choice. My kids are home and I’ve got basketball practice and choir concerts to get to. You have to find different ways to solve problems that don’t just mean longer hours.