Thursday, March 27, 2014

Jon, If You're Out There

Late in 2010, I received a message from Jon Vacura. He had read the Cauliflower Chronicles and wanted to share some of his own story with me. That story inspired me, and recently, my wife reminded me of his story. She had never forgotten it because her birthday coincided with a key but tragic event in Jon's life.

I published a blog for Victory Belt about it. Since that blog is now gone, here is the post that I wrote in Dec. of 2010:
As a journalist, I have met a variety of people. Each person I have met has a unique story, a story much more interesting than mine will ever be. That’s why I love being a journalist; I get to hear and share these stories. Many of my favorite stories are in The Cauliflower Chronicles, but the publishing of that book has led to more.

Which is why I want to tell you about Jon and Katie.
After reading my book, Jon added me on Facebook to tell me that he enjoyed it. I clicked to his profile to make a reply post on his wall and noticed that he listed a blog just below his picture. I loaded the blog out of curiosity. What I read felt like a punch in the stomach. The title of the blog: “For My Katie.”
I am a man made of words, and suddenly I had none, which feels a bit like stepping into the cage with your arms taped behind your back. You’re defenseless. You take every shot on the chin. So I kept reading, each sentence another blow.
Katie passed away on March 27 from a cerebral aneurysm. She was 24. Jon considered her to be his soul mate, and he maintains the blog as a tribute to her brief but beautiful life. The blog is filled with essays—memories scrawled as though in the fog of a dream—and photographs—of Katie and of her letters and of her artwork. Jon is like us. He is a fighter. I suspect that his writing is therapeutic—his way of fighting through—but more than anything, I think that he writes so that he can remember. As I read, I realize that Jon is more of a fighter than I will be. He has been in that cage with his arms behind his back since March 27.
In one of his messages to me, Jon wrote, “No one and I really mean no one has been able to really reach out to me and help put what I’ve been through this year into perspective the way your book did.”
That was the greatest compliment for my work I could ever receive. I’m not sure how it did, but I am happy that reading my book softened at least one of those blows. I urge you to read Jon’s blog. Maybe you sharing Katie’s memory will make some of the future blows easier, at least a little bit.
Jon's beautiful blog has been closed. I don't know why, but I am sure he had his reasons. Unfortunately, Jon deleted his Facebook as well.

Jon, if you're out there, drop me a message. I'd love to catch up with you and hear more of your story.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Motivation to Write

A few weeks ago, I asked my followers on Twitter and Facebook to send me their questions about writing. One of these questions inspired last week's exploration of revision. This week, I wanted to address another question that I received:
Anytime I run a workshop or give a seminar or participate in a guest lecture, I know that fielding a variation of this question is inevitable. I secretly wish that it won't happen, but it always does. And when a timid freshman in Composition 101 raises her hand and asks what motivates me to write or what inspires me to write, I have to admit:

I don't get inspired to write, and I am rarely motivated to write.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sharpen the Axe: 4 Strategies for Revising Your Writing

Last week, I wrote a post about how revision should make-up the majority of your writing process because when you have a piece of writing in front of you, rather than a blank page, making improvements and changes is generally easier than drafting a piece of perfect prose on the first try.

When it comes to revision, one of the challenges is identifying what is important. What do you keep? What details matter? What do you modify, and what do you cut?

These are important questions to ask as they each aim to achieve the same goal: a piece of concise writing free of unnecessary constructions, where every sentence builds toward a powerful and effective conclusion. The following steps are what I personally do in the revision process, and they assume that you are free of constraints like length and assignment direction. That's not to say that what your editor wants is irrelevant (it is relevant). In this case, removing those variables simplifies this particular conversation.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Your Writing Process is Wrong

I don't really mean that what you do is wrong, but sometimes I have to say eye-catching things like that to get your attention. What I really mean is that some parts of your writing process could probably be improved based on my experience of working with writers and aspiring writers. When writers struggle to be productive, the culprit is usually the way they divide their time across the writing process. They put too much time into some stages and not enough in others. As a result, their project stalls or falls well-behind schedule.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Crowdfunding: Lessons Learned from a Successful Campaign

In recent years, the popularity of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter has grown rapidly. Small businesses and independent artists initially turned to crowdfunding to mitigate the initial financial risk of a new project or product. With crowdfunding, the money could be raised before the project began, eliminating the potentially catastrophe of investing in something that ultimately no one cared for.

Soon, crowdfunding spawned a new way of doing business. Not only did it help reduce the financial burden for business owners, it became a way to generate publicity and to engage fans, old and new alike. With most crowdfunding sites following the Kickstarter model where funds are only released if the goals (otherwise they are returned to donors), fans are motivated to share and talk about the project they funded. Donating makes you a stakeholder in the project. If you want to see the project realized and delivered, you are inclined to tell your network about it so that more people will contribute.

This relationship between donors and campaigners naturally leads to authentic, organic word-of-mouth marketing. Furthermore, the nature of crowdfunding encourages campaigners to put their donors first and to really think about what excites their target audience. Because of perks--the rewards that people get for donating a particular amount of money--campaigners have an opportunity to give back to their fans. This is a unique way to create hardcore, true fans, the value of which is becoming increasingly obvious to marketers.

Recently, my publishing start-up Artechoke Media ran an Indiegogo campaign to fund our first collaboration with the well-known blogger Matt "Aesopian" Kirtley (prior to this, we released two books for free). As of the publishing of this post, we have seven days left, but we've already surpassed our goal of $4,000 and are continuing to raise more money to invest in future projects with other instructors.

Whether you are a fellow jiu-jitsu enthusiast or a creative that is looking to get an idea off of the ground, I've assembled some thoughts on what I feel made our campaign a success and what I would do differently in the future. This is far from a definitive guide to crowdfunding, but I hope that it will help someone to realize their dreams.

What We Did Well:

  1. People knew us and knew that we were credible. Matt and I are far from celebrities, but we have been working in the jiu-jitsu world for some time. Matt has been blogging for over ten years and has been active in every major online jiu-jitsu community in that time. People know his content and recognize his name. For me, I have been writing about jiu-jitsu for a while as well, and have been fortunate enough to work on some big books with some big names. My name is not as recognizable as Matt's, but a good portion of the community is familiar with my work. When people know that you can deliver on your promises, they are more inclined to donate. This is one of the reasons why Red Belt, another jiu-jitsu Indiegogo campaign, was successful as well.
  2. We established a positive reputation in the community. In the time that Matt has been blogging, he has never sold a product or demanded that people pay for his content. He had a small donation button and pumped out material regardless of how much money he made or didn't make. When we announced our campaign, people remembered this and commented on it frequently. They knew that Matt had been generous with the community, so the community was generous with him. For my part, I released content for free as well, which included a two free books, one a humor book about jiu-jitsu culture and the other a free instructional that demonstrated what we wanted to do.
  3. We had a network of super friends that were willing to help. Despite our established reputations, we could not have reached our goal without the help of generous leaders within our community. Bloggers, podcasters, instructors, and business owners lent us their platforms to help us generate awareness for the campaign. With each plug that we received, we saw a direct correlation in terms of campaign traffic and contributions. Having other respected people vouch for us in this way was absolutely critical.
  4. We had a proof of concept that donors could test-drive. Releasing 3-D Jiu-Jitsu for free endeared us to fans, but perhaps more importantly it showed what we wanted to do and proved that we could, in fact, do it. With 3-D Jiu-Jitsu available for free, there was no question about what we planned to do. Had we simply described our model, our audience would be right to be skeptical and even a bit confused. Pointing to a sample boosted our credibility and helped to sell people on our project.
  5. We asked for what we needed. Our goal of $4,000 was what we needed to make Matt's book. While a bigger budget would definitely be nice, we aren't interested in taking advantage of our target audience. By setting a reasonable goal, donors are more likely to contribute, and we are more likely to get the money that we needed.
  6. We had a trove of content to share throughout the campaign. Rather than fill our social media with reminders to donate, we used the attention of the campaign as an excuse to release high quality content. Matt had seminar footage and podcasts that he shared, and I had content from previous projects that I could share as well. Again, we were giving our work away to build good will, but we are also starting conversations that people cared about.
  7. We included an awesome video with our campaign. Nothing else to say about this because it was that awesome.

What We Could Have Done Better:

  1. Our outreach was poorly scheduled. Though we had a number of community leaders promoting our Indiegogo, we didn't coordinate the coverage very well or give our friends much notice on what we had planned. We started contacting people about a week before we went live when we should have started planning coverage at least two weeks ahead of time. 
  2. The progression of our perks wasn't optimized for maximum return. After our campaign began, a few veteran crowdfunders pointed out that the donation levels for our perks had some large gaps. Our minimum perk was $5, then $30, then $35, and then $99 and up. Had we offered a perk between $35 and $99, we might have captured more donations from people that wanted to give more than $35 but not as much as $99.
  3. We offered few physical items as perks. This is primarily a result of our product being a multimedia rich e-book, a purely digital offering, but it still represents a missed opportunity. We avoided offering t-shirts or prints or posters because of fulfillment challenges. We didn't want to be on the hook for production and shipping. However, a physical perk like a t-shirt could have helped us flesh out our perk levels and also made donors feel like they were getting more out of their contributions.
  4. We didn't plan for stretch goals. We fully expected to reach our goal, but we did not expect to surpass it significantly. Now, with seven days left and $570 in donations beyond our target (as of the writing of this post), it's clear that there is a significant interest in the types of products that we plan to produce. While we had plenty of ideas for other books that we'd like to develop, we didn't have an idea polished and ready to execute, leading to some late night discussions and planning where we ultimately decided that we'd rather make less money than rush a poor product idea to market and hurt our reputation.
If I return to crowdfunding in the future, whether with Artechoke Media or another project or client, the lessons that we learned from this effort will play a critical role in my planning and execution. If you are thinking about crowdfunding your own project, please feel free to email me or message me on Facebook to talk about your plans. Even if your project is not related to jiu-jitsu, I am happy to help.

Friday, January 31, 2014

3 Organizations Using Jiu-Jitsu as a Force for Good

I love training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu because of the technical depth of the sport. It's mentally and physically challenging while also serving as a creative outlet. No session on the mat is ever the same, and improving in the art is incredibly rewarding.

But that's only part of what has kept me on the mat for upwards of 8 years now.

Beyond the technical and physical aspects of the sport is the jiu-jitsu community as a whole. The friends I've made and the places I've been because of jiu-jitsu have transformed a hobby into a lifestyle. I've been blessed in this regard, and I am thankful for the doors that jiu-jitsu has opened for me. Jiu-jitsu has helped me develop as a person; it's helped my career; and it's guided me through more than a few life challenges. And others see jiu-jitsu as a force for good, so much so that they are using it as a vehicle for not only improving themselves but also for enhancing the lives of others.

Here are three organizations that are pushing the envelope of what jiu-jitsu can do for our communities.

1. Tap Cancer Out

Jon Thomas took the energy and passion of a jiu-jitsu tournament and channeled it into raising money for cancer research. His nonprofit runs grappling tournaments specifically geared toward fundraising, which has spawned satellite fundraising efforts from merchandise sales and donations. What's most impressive, to me, about Jon's work is not the big fat $60,000 check that he presented to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society recently but the way he has mobilized the jiu-jitsu community to do good with an art that is already having a profound impact on many lives. If there is a Tap Cancer Out tournament near you, make it a point to attend.

2. Groundswell Grappling Concepts

Under the leadership of Emily Kwok, Valerie Worthington, Hannette Staack, and Lola Newsom, Groundswell has filled a void in the BJJ community by running all-women grappling camps. These camps quickly blossomed into a community within the jiu-jitsu community and spawned an important conversation about the future of jiu-jitsu culture. Because of Groundswell, more jiu-jiteiros are talking about how to make the mat a more inclusive, welcoming place. Members of my home school rave about Groundswell camps, and I've been fortunate enough to train with Valerie at one of her seminars. The work that Groundswell is doing is important, and it's really just begin.

3. The 100

The 100 is the brainchild of Tom Callos--the guy who introduced BJ Penn to jiu-jitsu and the father to Keenan Cornelius. Not strictly a jiu-jitsu endeavor (it encompasses all martial arts), the 100 provides business advice to martial arts school owners so that they can run more successful schools, but the 100 definition of success is not the traditional definition of success. Where some high profile martial arts business gurus (you know who I mean) talk only about maximizing profit, the 100 takes a more holistic approach to what it means to be successful. The 100 looks at everything from designing more friendly student contracts to incorporating life skills like anger management into what we teach on the mat. The 100 even mobilizes martial arts leaders for projects akin to Habitat for Humanity, building houses or renovating dojos. Even if you aren't a school owner, following the 100 will help to expand your perspective.

Do you know of a person or organization using jiu-jitsu as a force for good? I'd love to hear about them!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Meet One of My Biggest Fans (And Win a Free Copy of Mastering Triangle Chokes)

This is Kelly.

I met Kelly about four years ago when she started training at Steel City Martial Arts. Now a blue belt, Kelly drives over an hour one-way to the gym three to four times a week. She currently heads our women's program, she is addicted to Groundswell Grappling women's camps, and she frequently travels to compete.

Kelly has become one of my biggest supporters. She packs extra copies of The Cauliflower Chronicles in her bag so that she can hand them out to people who haven't heard of it, whether they train or not. She gives out copies to coworkers, to friends, and to complete strangers. Any time I have a new project, Kelly is the first to champion the cause and to tell as many people as she can.

And this is just one facet of her generosity. Kelly (and her husband, Tom) are relentlessly giving. They will happily help anyone, anytime, anywhere without question. In many ways, they've become role models for me, and their influence has made me rethink the way I live my life and the way I treat people around me.

In honor of Kelly, I am giving away ten free copies of my new book, Neil Melanson's Mastering Triangle Chokes. No, I'm not collecting emails for a sleazy marketing campaign full of squeeze pages, fake testimonials, and misleading fine print. I'm not demanding Facebook likes or retweets.

All I'm asking is that you head over to r/BJJ (an awesome BJJ community; if you aren't a member, you should be), and share a story about someone you met through jiu-jitsu that had a positive effect on your life. At 9am EST on Tuesday morning, the ten stories with the most upvotes will receive a free copy of Mastering Triangle Chokes. Please post your stories in this thread.

I'm looking forward to hearing your stories, and I hope that telling your story inspires you to send a thank you to the person you wrote about. Cheers.

If you'd like a free book from me without having to enter a contest, checkout 3-D Jiu-Jitsu, my newest instructional experiment.