We’re Not One Hack Away From Being Superman: 99U’s Maestro on How to Rock the Freelance Arena

By Dillon Baker October 23rd, 2014

Need some advice? The Internet has plenty. With all of the life hacks and listicles offering the “inside scoop” on how to improve productivity, freelancers have a deep, deep pool of tips and tricks that are supposed to help us find that creative edge.

But what if you want good advice—and not just vague inspiration—to help make your ideas come to reality? Well, that’s what 99U is for.

99U is an award-winning blog by Behance that’s focused on providing “the missing curriculum” our education system lacks: The practical skills and knowledge required to execute your creative ideas. We recently had a chat with Sean Blanda, the publication’s managing editor, about the future of online publishing, what an editor looks for in freelancers, and some honest advice on how to improve your productivity without any “secret sauce.”

For anyone who has never heard of 99U, how would you describe what you guys do?

99U is first and foremost the website The name comes from a quotation by Thomas Edison that says, “Genius is one percent inspiration, and 99 percent perspiration.” All the advice and articles on there are about actual advice for executing your ideas.

The website publishes three features a week and 10 what we call “workbooks” a week, which are kind of blurby, Tumblry posts. We have a yearly conference every May that’s sold out. We have several e-mail newsletters, podcasts, a quarterly magazine, and a soon-to-be-launched community event program. We also have three books on Amazon.

99U has a large social media following and even won a couple of Webbie Awards. Would you consider it a success, and if so, why do you think it’s been successful?

I think you get currents, but you never really get any of the success, because you’re never done. I never just put up my feet at the end of the day and go, “Welp, shut it down.” But hearing the individual stories of the readers about how the conference or how the books somehow changed their life for the positive is really rewarding.

I think page reads can often be someone coming from Google, reading, and leaving and not impacting them. Impact is the thing that anyone who writes wants to optimize for. So, it’s always very encouraging when people tell us face-to-face at the conference how it’s affected them or people who drop us an email.

As an editor, what specific qualities do you look for in potential freelance writers and illustrators for 99U?

It’s actually easier to find an illustrator who can draw or produce a work of art… that’s not the hard part. The hart part is getting illustrators who can read a piece and come up with some kind of abstraction of what happens in the piece. So, you have to have a lot of reading comprehension and have a little bit of a sense of humor. And the thing about our articles is they’re not very visual; they’re for if you’re having mental roadblocks or creative blocks or you’re having trouble in your career path. These things aren’t inherently visual, so you have to dream up an abstraction to present the thing being written about, which is tough.

For writers, you need a voice. You need a point of view, and you need to be able to back it up. That sounds totally obvious, but I think a lot of freelancers write for a bunch of different publications, so they’ll come in and say things like, “Hey, what do you want me to write, I’ll write it.” But for a publication like 99U, the things that make the most impact are intelligently written pieces that the writer holds very dear. The reaction I’m looking for when someone reads a 99U post is: “Oh, I never thought of it that way.” You have to bring a perspective to an issue they wouldn’t normally think of, and then convince them to think your way. You’re almost more of a lawyer than you are a writer.

When you think of the future of online publishing, what kind of formats do you see? Do you think it will be listicles with clickbait headlines, traditional longform articles, some kind of combination, or something else entirely?

I think we’re going to start to see, and we’re already seeing it, every site doing a little bit of everything. I don’t think anyone is going to just be a listicle site; I don’t think anyone is going to be a just a longform site. I think we’re seeing smart sites having content like in Robin Sloan’s essay, “Stock and Flow.”

There’s two types of content: There’s the stock, the stuff that lasts forever, the evergreens, your bedrock. And then there’s the flow: They’re the social; they’re the listicles; they’re the things that can be shared fast. So, you have your long-tail and your short-tail stuff. We adopt that model, and I think a lot of other people adopt that model. To act like people are only consuming your content at work or on their phone or through e-mail… it’s always a hodgepodge of all of these.

A lot of the content on your website is about finding creativity and increasing productivity. What kind of advice would you give freelancers, struggling or otherwise?

When I was a freelance writer, I learned that while I think it does matter to some degree how fast you write and how fast you can turn emails around, you’re only as good as your network. So, I think the most important thing you can do is try to build that network, and we have a lot of pieces about that, but it really comes down to cold-calling people you don’t know and having a specific ask of them.—people you want to write for or writers you admire and not saying things like “Hey, I’m a writer, can you help my writing career.”

Instead, [say] very specific things like, “Hey, I’m a freelance writer who writes exclusively about creativity, and I’d love to talk to you about that” or “Hey, I’m just getting started, and I’m really into writing about sports.” Because what you do when you reach out to people, even if they can’t help you, is you just planted a flag in their mind that says “I’m a sportswriter.” When they have any sports stories that come across their desk they’ll say, “Oh, I know a young sportswriter,” and maybe they’ll give it to you. I think building your network in that way, and also being open to uncertainty, is much better than just saying, “I’m the kind of person who writes X,” or, “I’m not the kind of person who networks.” You’re just going to shoot yourself in the foot.

How do you see the freelance industry evolving in the next few decades?

I think it’s becoming less and less appealing to work for a large company. There’s not as many pensions, and job security isn’t always there. I think there’s never been a better time to be a freelance writer. There’s so much money and so many smart people are starting publications, and the one quantity that is in very limited supply is smart writers. Most of my best writers have no desire to be a staff writer. I like it that way, and they like it that way.

If you’re smart and you can build a certain niche of content, I think you’re in fantastic shape. It would behoove you to build your own platform. It will build more slowly, but once you get the gains, they’ll never be taken away from you. If you build a platform on top of another company, and they get rid of you or the company closes, you lose of a lot of your audience.

So, I think we’re going to see more people waving both hands and asking, “Should I work for a company, or should I work for myself?” We’re not quite there, but I think working for yourself is become a lot more of an appealing option for a lot of people.

Articles about productivity hacks seem to do really well online. Readers want to try to find tips that give them an advantage over others, but do you think these secret tips even exist or are valuable?

It’s funny, because for the past two of three months I’ve put a “no productivity” ban on my writers. Of course, if it’s really good I would take it, but at a certain point, the answer is: Shut up and get to work. You have to know how to do it, and you have to want to do it. I’m trying to push that idea for my writers to talk about that stuff. So many people are writing about productivity, and you know a lot of the advice is really bad. Or it’s very clickbaity, and it acts like there’s some sort of secret sauce that you put on your work, and all of a sudden you’re super-productive. I think we need to get over the notion that we’re a hack away from being superman.

Really, you just have to shut up and do it. It’s hard, and it’s not an exciting thing to write, and you sound like a jerk when you say that to someone, but at the end of the day, that’s what’s going to seal the deal. That’s what we’re focused on, and I think that’s going to be the future.

I think anyone who is just now starting to write about “productivity advice” is way behind because it seems like the Internet and the blogosphere have six or seven years of productivity posts. I feel like we’ve covered 95 percent of everything we’re ever going to cover. The tools might change, but I think the mindset will stay the same.

Image by Tony Dejak
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