It was the middle of the night, and Austin shot up out of bed – someone was banging on the door in the nearby apartment breezeway. His wife Rachel bolted upright and asked, “Did you hear that?”
They listened closely. Someone was shouting.
“Get out! Get out now!”
The banging was getting louder and louder.
They were scared and confused. What is going on?
Then Rachel saw smoke: “There’s a fire,” she breathed.
Austin opened the front door and saw “a wall of flames” just 10 feet from their door. He called out to Rachel, quickly. “We’re leaving now. Get the dog.”
They grabbed their French Bulldog Mr. Willoughby, two suitcases (already packed for a trip they were supposed to leave for the next day), and left, but not before waking up their nearby neighbors to make sure they got out safely too.
They lost everything else.
“The whole thing just burnt down to a crisp,” Austin remembers.
It was a long time before Austin could sleep through the night again, traumatized that at any moment he and his family would have to leave – or worse – wouldn’t wake up in time to escape.
“I could be dead,” Austin remembers realizing later.
There were still so many dreams he wanted to pursue. Instead of sleeping in fear, waiting for the next bad thing to happen, he wanted to take back the reins, try to make good things happen.
He wanted to be less passive. “I'd rather be working really intentionally toward the life that I want rather than just hoping it happens one day.”
To start, he quit his graphic design job to pursue the next phase of his dream – animating and creating motion graphics. He planned to freelance just until he could find that next-step dream job at a studio that focused on motion graphics. He didn’t believe he was good enough at animation to go out on his own yet, so he wanted to get more professional animation experience through a job.
But that job would never come.
Austin found his love for motion graphics later in his career. By the time he quit his job, Austin finished four intensive online courses on the subject, like Animation Bootcamp from School of Motion and Mograph Mentor classes.
He’d also been blogging about what he was learning in the animation world and sharing those learnings with his email list. Somewhere in the back of his mind he hoped to have his own business one day – but that felt like a very long way off. He started an email list without much of a plan.
I just knew I needed to have a list. I was getting one new subscriber a week for the first year, but I wasn't worried about numbers because I didn't even know what I was doing. I just wanted to build the practice of writing, publishing, writing, publishing, getting my thoughts out, and finding my voice through using it.
He did find his voice, and a byproduct of finding that voice was that he also found a community – both via his email list and the groups he was a part of through those online courses.
After he quit his job he let everyone in those communities know that he’d be freelancing, just until he found the kind of job he was looking for.
People started referring Austin for freelance work right away. He’d built up so much trust by being a contributor for years, never asking for anything in return.
He was shocked by all the work he was getting, especially since he considered himself such a beginner in the field. But what he realized was that “the pool of freelancer’s is small and not everybody’s available all of the time. A lot of people get too much work, and they would pass stuff to me.” (He even started doing motion graphics work for ConvertKit.)
He started an email list without much of a plan.
The freelance work kept coming.
Before he knew it, he was making a full-time living doing motion graphics as a freelancer.
But this wasn’t his plan.
His big goal was to get a few years of professional experience at a studio and then strike out on his own.
But with the apartment fire in the back of his mind, he thought, Why wait?
He stopped applying for studio jobs and decided to invest everything he had into his freelance business. “If things fall apart,” he reasoned, “I can always go get a job if I need to.”
The ups and downs of freelance life
Things didn’t fall apart.
But there were a lot of ups and downs, especially when it came to steady income.
Austin decided to create his own digital product.
I didn't want to just trade time for money, because that's not scalable. I wanted to do something that was potentially scalable, to even the ups and downs of freelance.
He knew what people would be most interested in would be an online course for lettering animation, something he was doing a lot of and people were asking about. But there was one big problem.
Austin didn’t think he was good enough, especially at teaching.
In fact, he always said that he’d never be a teacher.
Austin tells me that he also always said he’d never own a Ford Taurus. Or work at a software company. Or sit behind a computer.
And yet – after college he drove a Ford Taurus every day to his job at a software company where he sat behind a computer.
That was a formative time in his life. It’s where he fell in love with motion graphics. And it’s where he learned to keep an open mind.
Turns out I didn't hate the Ford Taurus, and I didn't hate working at a software company. The things that I feared and said I’d never do, I didn't hate and actually ended up getting a lot out of.
What if teaching would be the same?
He built his first online course.
He fell in love with teaching. “It's like my favorite thing to do,” he tells me.
It seems like everything he declares he’ll never do he ends up doing, and loving. He then says, not so much to me as to the universe: “I would like to declare that I never want to be wealthy or terribly successful.”
We both laugh.
Putting fear in the backseat
Austin was glad he’d been growing an email list for two years; he had 1,000 people who would potentially be interested in his course. All he had to do now was write the emails and hit send.
But for Austin, that’s when imposter syndrome interferes.
He doesn’t want to hit send.
Then he remembers what Elizabeth Gilbert said about fear in Big Magic, paraphrasing:
Fear's always going to be with you. Invite it on the car ride. Say, come on, we're taking a trip. Come on fear you're allowed in the car, but you have to sit in the back. And under no circumstances can you give directions, touch the radio, say anything. You can come along for the ride, but you have to shut up.
However, sometimes the second you even have just an idea for a new creative “trip”, fear races to the driver’s seat too. What happens when fear gets there first?
For Austin, it’s all about recognizing the specific road signs that appear when fear drives his creative car.
When fear starts creeping in, I almost never hear a voice that says ‘Stop.’ It always comes in the form of feeling nauseous and the tug of, ‘The dishes are dirty.’ I can feel myself slowly getting pulled away from the thing I know is important, until it almost becomes like I've forgotten about it. I think stalling is fear's better tactic for me. Because I fall for it. It's recognizing that the distractions are what fear is making me do.
Once he realizes fear is driving – because he sees through the tricks – he calls fear out in a way that kicks it to the backseat: “Okay, that was fear doing that,” he’ll say to himself. “No more. I'm going to stay focused – you get in the backseat and shut up.”
It’s something he’s had to do over and over again.
He used to be scared of emailing 100 people. And as his list grew, so did the fear.
But eventually, he became thankful for the constant battle, always having to tell fear to get behind him.
Fear will always be there. It's not going to magically go away. But I think if I never feel imposter syndrome again, that means I'm not trying to push myself and grow.
What embarrassment means
Austin also struggles with perfectionism.
He kept putting off launching his course.
He wanted things to be “perfect.”
He, or rather fear, kept giving him a million boxes to check before he could move forward: he couldn’t launch until his email list was bigger, he couldn’t launch until he was more comfortable with teaching – until, until, until.
Fear again. He knew how to beat it this time.
He created a landing page.
It said: “In two months, I'm launching a lettering animation course. Sign up to get notified when it's available.”
People started signing up.
Only problem was, two months later, the course wasn’t ready.
Austin felt embarrassed.
Now he had to tell everyone it wasn’t ready.
But before he could fall into a shame spiral and regret ever telling anyone his goals, he stopped himself and appreciated the moment, appreciated the embarrassment. He thought about what feeling embarrassed really meant.
Embarrassment meant he’d beaten procrastination and perfectionism.
Embarrassment was a sign that he was still on the right track – “It was good to feel embarrassed because it also showed me that I wanted to actually do it.”
His motivation grew, and not long after his original two-month deadline, he launched the course to his email list of about 1,300 people.
He sent the first email.
Thirty minutes went by.
Fear started to grab the wheel.
But then – that first sale came through. And with it another, and another. Each one speaking for Austin this time, telling fear to get back with every email notification.
I'm glad that I didn't listen to people that said, email is dead. Because I don't know where I'd be.
As social media algorithms changed over the years Austin watched his Twitter and Instagram growth slow, “but my email list still goes up and up and up. And I can own that.”
A total of 3% of Austin’s email list purchased his $400 course. He made $16,500. “It just blew my mind. I'd never made that much on any project. It gave me the confidence that this can work.”
He couldn’t wait to launch it again.
But the second time, only 2% of his list bought the course.
He was crushed.
We need stories
Fear rubbed its hands in delight and started whispering doubt into Austin’s head, backseat driving:
Oh, I screwed up. What's going wrong? That's a bad trend. Things are only going to get worse now.
Sometimes, we cannot shut fear up alone. Sometimes, we need our friends.
We need stories.
Austin’s friends told him stories of their own second launches, and helped him put the numbers into context.
If you have had a list for a long time (like I had), you're going to have a bigger percentage of people buy because no one's had an opportunity to buy anything from you. The wealth of potential buyers is building and building and building. The first time you launch, it releases the pressure and a lot of people buy. But the second time there’s not quite as much of a buildup of people.
I realized that continuously building the list is very important. I can't just rest on the same list of people, right? Because not everybody's going to buy, not even eventually. I have to get new fresh people in there. That was one of the big things that I learned after the first two launches, building a list needs to be a continual thing.
Then Austin and I laugh when he tells me how much he made in his second launch – $18,000.
His numbers actually were going up. We laugh because of how ridiculously easy it is for fear to blind us sometimes, to make us think the sky is falling when really we’re doing great.
Like how one silly email reply can send us spiraling, confirming all our worst fears.
During one launch, Austin remembers getting an email about how many emails he was sending. It said:
Stop doing this. You're going to go out of business if you keep doing this.
But before he could let that take him down, he remembered the dozens of replies he was getting like this:
Thank you so much for sending all these emails, I've wanted to do this. And it took me reading all of these emails to make the decision to go for it.
When Austin writes launch emails now, he thinks:
I'm doing this for the people that need that push, that want to make a change in their life by learning a new skill. I'm not going to stop emailing a bunch; anybody's free to unsubscribe at any time. I'm here to help the people who want to be helped.
Sounds like a driver telling fear who’s boss.
Even his parents are shocked at the transformation.
My mom and dad have both said, ‘I cannot believe that you love going to conferences, love meeting people, love getting on video calls and teaching people in a live capacity. That is not you.’ I was the shy person that didn't like to talk to anybody as a kid. And just totally not confident in myself.
While selling his course definitely helped him grow his confidence – “Money is an indicator that something's working and helping people” – he credits the two-year “slow build” of growing his email list and writing to his audience weekly for the real confidence change. Every time he hit “send” was a tally for him and a zero for fear. And as the tally marks grew, so did his sense of what he could do.
To stay inspired and keep fear buckled in the back seat, Austin consumes “a constant stream of inspiration”.
I need inspiration so so much. I watch YouTube videos, I read blog posts, I watch Instagram stories from people who inspire me. Without inspiration externally, I have a difficult time staying motivated.
I notice a very full bookshelf behind him, color-coded, with titles like Creativity Inc., The Hate U Give, Harry Potter, Big Magic.
There is also inspirational art on every wall, including a lettering piece by Dan Lee, phrases drawn close together, an army of sorts to help Austin every day:
“Take a positive step today.”
“Buy a sketchbook and a pen.”
“Do not be critical.”
“Just turn the page and start another.”
“No one else in the universe would have drawn it quite like you.”
Austin looks at this piece every time he feels like he’s not good enough. It reminds him that every morning he wakes up is another chance.