In this first entry into our new Team of One series, which details the ins and outs of running a solo media business or independent content team at a larger organization, our managing editor Wyatt Coday takes inspiration from the restaurant world and funnels it into content creation.
Months after quitting my job to pursue full-time self-employment, I'm dreaming of working less. I'm a skeptic when it comes to productivity culture, especially when we're talking about meaningless scaling and infinite apps promising to squeeze gold out of immaterial time.
But as a business owner who pays for premium health insurance out of pocket, has a professional practice that requires some powerful but expensive equipment, and desperately needs more vacationing, I'm always toying with efficiency hacks. Recently, I've found that getting things done in a timely manner might be simpler than I thought.
My solopreneur art and media business involves attracting new audiences via my newsletter, but my content production workflow usually bottlenecks whenever I try to add a large, lucrative, and meaningful project to the mix. Since these expansive projects provide a sizable amount of my income, I end up having to balance my regular content production with the demanding research and community-driven programming I'm developing on the fly. My clients are primarily artists who are similarly working alone and trying to stabilize their creative business.
Enter large-batch cooking.
Yes, we love food, cooking, and restaurant metaphors at The Content Technologist. We also know and love many restaurant workers who routinely confront the logistical challenges associated with cooking for hundreds if not thousands of people on a given day. I grew up working in a restaurant with my best friend Ben, who has worked in some of Chicago's most venerated kitchens. When it comes to surviving the dinner rush, Ben's production strategy hasn't changed a wink since he started as a prep cook when we were in high school.
Imagine clocking into your restaurant job around 9am and seeing that the 17-year-old kid — the one you taught to handle a knife just a year ago — had already finished 90 percent of the prep work necessary to keep the kitchen running throughout the day. Ben was something of an anomaly, but the cooks in charge loved him because he cut their workload in half.
But it wasn't just them, everyone at the restaurant loved him. He even made our bosses' jobs easier. With Ben around, they had more time to experiment with specials and optimize how perishables were stored in the deep freeze. His prep strategy — lump similar tasks and get it as much done at the outset — was a real game changer.
From prep cook to executive chef
Ben sometimes calls me after he closes the kitchen. Last year, he left his executive chef job to take on a more managerial role at a new restaurant. When I first heard about this transition, I was excited to hear that he would be spending less time in front of the burners. Then reality set in.
More than work, Ben is addicted to cooking. Specifically, he is addicted to the logistics of cooking. Having immersed himself in restaurants since he was a teenager, he can now rattle off the price of local vegetables and meats, calculating the difference between them in his head down to the cent. As a result, he's saved nearly every restaurant he has worked at thousands — and recently millions — of dollars a year in food costs. And he does this by staying close to the production process, meaning he cooks in his new job even though he doesn't have to.
Busy as he may sound, Ben takes more vacations than I do (none). Gets to see his friends and family more often than I do, and he is especially savvy at building his savings account. Obviously, I look up to him. He is family to me, and much of what I've learned about managing logistics comes from talking to him and watching how he works. We are both type-A, action-oriented people, but he is somehow always faster and more efficient than I am.
But I digress. Let's talk about newsletters.
Newsletter as experimental kitchen
At the beginning of my self-employment journey, my newsletter was the engine of my business. It shaped my plans, helped me establish a small but engaged audience, and helped convince me that my lean solo startup was financially viable.
But a month ago, when I began the first session of the two-week digital strategy course I planned, I realized that I was running on fumes. The course brought in more money, and I knew that it was an opportunity to bring on additional clients, so I put my energy and focus there after letting my subscribers know that I would be on hiatus for a few weeks.
That hiatus lasted a month longer than planned, which isn't the longest stretch of time. But I noticed, and worried about, how difficult it was to resume. In the weeks that followed the course, I made several attempts to sketch out ideas for posts, but ultimately nothing felt like it would resonate or provide useful information. I squirreled that content away in my slush folder and gave up.
Ben called me around this time. We had discussed a podcast project during COVID, and now that the restaurant industry was more stable, his ideas about the podcast were percolating again. I walked him through the process of structuring and scoping intellectual property proposals and outlined how I would navigate selling his idea, something I do regularly with my clients.
Then it dawned on me that I had actually learned my scoping process from Ben. He had already given me a solution to my newsletter production problem.
The trick is to distill before you produce
When you have to feed thousands of people everyday, you quickly learn to distill common ingredients and create a pipeline that helps you track inventory, conduct quality control, and keep an eye on sales figures.
Ben is an inventory master, and I have seen him help make several restaurants considerably more profitable by keeping tabs on what comes in and out of the kitchen. During this process, he not only reduces food waste, but develops a data-backed idea of what most people coming to his kitchens want to order and why.
Any time there are quality ingredients that might go to waste, he offers a special that, once he's done all the prep work, can be made to order by any of the chefs working the line. Investing time and energy at the beginning means that execution usually only takes a few minutes. The extra prep transforms materials that were about to become valueless into enticing dishes.
A masterplan for master-sized problems
I've been conducting a similar experiment with my newsletter. Instead of writing a fresh piece every week, I now make a master document every month, sketch out my ideas in long form, then break them into smaller, denser pieces so that they’re ready on Wednesday morning, when I usually hit the publish button.
To execute on the master plan idea, I had to pick a specific topic that I could use to explicate larger concepts and investigate for at least a few months. I chose a research project that addressed needs my clients had mentioned, who all mentioned growing aspects of their professional practices that they had previously considered secondary.
I mapped out how I could take some of the content that would otherwise go into my newsletter and repurpose it in various ways.
For example, some could be sold to other publications or translated into video content on social, which usually translates to new subscribers as well.
The experiment is still live, meaning that I haven't yet drawn full conclusions, but the most significant improvement I've noticed is that I no longer have weekly writer's block. I'm also considerably more interested in the research I’m conducting because it's feeding back into the content I'll create in the months ahead.
Savor the good ideas
In the restaurant industry, you would never offer a dish without tasting it first. If you're a savvy restaurateur, you may even choose to time your newest offerings to coincide with events, holidays, or consistently busy periods to optimize your sales as well as the data you collect.
In terms of solo newslettering, whether you're a team of one at a brand or going it alone, consider taking your product to a larger pool that gets more attention. Strategically bottling your ideas and placing them with larger, more resourced publications should definitely have its own page in your playbook. I also realized that the social aspect of reporting and interviewing the stakeholders for my research project not only provided an outside perspective, it would also develop a new side of my professional network and cultivate a bit of a fan club.
Conversation is social networking the old way, the type that happens around a table at a meal, with people you know and respect. It's also great fodder for content creation because conversations are stories that tell themselves.
Like food, writing is even more enjoyable when it's a social activity. Treating your writing as an excuse to grow your network is an almost bullet-proof way to better understand your business and the market it serves. When you actually hit the pavement and find other voices to populate your stories, you've also created an inbound audience — who doesn't love to see their work and accomplishments recognized or celebrated?
The world has plenty of bad news, which we can't ignore but also can't do much to change. But, sprinkling some deserved attention on colleagues and collaborators shows that you know how to conduct the conversation and highlight the less visited corners.
And like Ben at the restaurant, going through the process of planning and preparation ensures that our best ideas, the most expensive ingredients, are used efficiently and meaningfully. In that state, we're not racking our brains for content ideas every day. Instead, we're creating a workflow, an order of operations that can be packed with more flavor, more predictability, and an accurate sense of scale.
Wyatt Coday is the managing editor of The Content Technologist, as well as an artist, writer, and researcher who lives in Los Angeles. She directs NOR Research Studio, a research design firm that develops intellectual property for artists, nonprofits, and media companies. She also contributes to DISPASSION, a newsletter about art, media, and detachment.