Janelle Allen had worked as an instructional designer before, in 2016, she founded her own business, where she helps course creators sell online. Her recipe for success: discipline and structure. How these two ingredients helped her beat procrastination years ago, and which other strategies and tools she applies to be productive, find out in our interview.
Please tell us something about yourself and your professional background.
My name is Janelle Allen. I’m an instructional designer. I’ve designed online courses for colleges, universities, and corporations. In 2016, I started helping small businesses create courses to sell online. In 2019, I decided that I missed writing and building systems, so I pivoted to creating marketing systems for course creators.
What are the typical challenges makers of online courses are facing, and how can you help them with these?
It depends on where they’re at in their journey for course creation. Beginners typically struggle with what I call validation, which is being able to validate that their audience will buy their course. There’s a series of steps that I take them through to do that. The only true validation is when people pay you money; I tell people all the time. Many times, people starting out fall in love with their idea, and they haven’t actually talked to their audience. Also, people struggle with just how to do it, how to outline and design their course. They don’t know what content to include, what content to leave out. That’s where my instructional design background comes in, and I help them figure that part out. There’s a struggle with marketing as well; they just don’t know it. They think that they are struggling with design but tend to have beliefs that they need to tackle with regard to putting themselves out there in their marketing.
People who have an existing course are people that I tend to work with on a client basis.
They are typically struggling with just optimizing their marketing systems. So, it could be, they want to get more customers, or their funnel isn’t converting. What I do for them is look behind the scenes at their marketing system and their overall funnel and identify the places that need attention. I help them to set up the systems and optimize them so that they can improve their conversions.
What is your job for you: a profession to earn your livelihood or a calling?
It’s a really good question, and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I think it was a profession, but I’m starting to realize that one thing I’ve always been called to do is to teach. In every job I’ve had since I was a teenager, I’ve always been tasked with training and teaching new employees. When I had my very first job in college, my manager asked me to be a learning coach. So, I think that I do have a calling to teach others and to help others achieve goals.
I think that I do have a calling to teach others and to help others achieve goals.
Which role does writing play in your work and in your life?
I have an undergraduate degree in creative writing. I used to write poetry and a little bit of fiction. It’s something that I’ve always run from. About two and a half years ago, I had a business coach, and I expressed to him that I wanted to figure out how to write more in my day-to-day. It’s part of my long journey to embracing my creative writing again, which I still struggle with. But one goal was to be able to write in my daily work. So, now I can say I do that. A large part of my work is writing. Whether I’m writing scripts for my YouTube channel or email marketing copy for clients or sales pages, I’m writing pretty much every day. So, that is how writing plays a role in my work. In my life, as I said, I’m still running from the creative writing part of it. I hope to get there, get back to the fiction and the poetry.
What are the pros and cons of having your own business?
This is a big question. I don’t know if it’s one I can really answer. The pro is control, being able to create your own day to decide what you work on, to decide who you work with. So that’s definitely a pro — there are just so many.
I guess the con is that business is challenging. You have to figure everything out. When you have a job, you just focus on your job, and there’s someone else who does a bunch of different things. When you start a business initially, unless you just have a lot of funding and you start with a team right away, if you’re bootstrapping a business, you are every department. You have to figure out how to do your bookkeeping, how to market, how to sell.
There’s a lot that you have to take on as a business owner.
On top of that, you need to make money. There’s a lot that you have to take on as a business owner. It’s not all fun and games or sitting on the beach and watching sales notifications come in. It requires a lot of discipline. It can be lonely, and you have to figure out how to overcome that. You have to figure out how to make the right decisions. You have to find people to surround yourself with so that you don’t just feel like you’re alone trying to build this thing.
Could you describe the way you’re using Ulysses, your typical workflow?
I use Ulysses for writing. I’ve always journaled, so I use Ulysses for that. I also use it if I’m mapping out a new funnel or writing email copy. I love using Ulysses for any copywriting, especially emails, because I can put them all in a sequence. I love it because it’s distraction-free: I shut down my browser, go into Ulysses and set up my structure. I have just the Markdown; it’s so simple and clean.
What do you like best about Ulysses? Do you have a favorite feature?
I consider simplicity a feature, and that’s what I love about it. I was able to use it right away. It wasn’t hard to figure out, it’s distraction-free, there are not a lot of bells and whistles — but there are enough features if that makes sense. Some apps that I’ve used have been too minimal. Ulysses just has the perfect balance of everything that I need and nothing that I don’t.
Ulysses just has the perfect balance of everything that I need and nothing that I don’t.
As a writer, I love being able to go in and just write using Markdown. I can still pop an image in there if I want to. Then I can export it or take that Markdown and put it into another app, and it automatically will be formatted the way I need it to be. It’s an amazing app, and I love using it. I use it on my desktop, I use it on my phone, and I’m always telling people about it.
What is a typical day in your life like?
It depends on the day. I have specific days for specific aspects of my work life. For example, my weekend is Friday and Saturday. Sundays, I am typically doing my planning and any high-level thinking or strategy I need to do. I check in with my goals and objectives for the quarter. Now that’s kind of a half-day, so I end up having a two-and-a-half-day weekend.
Mondays are marketing and admin. I have a YouTube channel where we put out a video every Tuesday. Monday, I’m making sure that everything is set up for that. I’m writing any emails that I need to go out. I’m supposed to be doing social media stuff. I haven’t been very good about that, but that’s going to be changing next month. Monday’s also a catch-all day if there’s any pressing client stuff or admin. Tuesdays and Thursdays are my client days. Those are the days I’m working on client projects and reviewing things for the students in my group program. Wednesdays are my internal “CEO” day, where I am recording videos for my YouTube channel and working on any internal projects. For example, if I need to update my own email funnel, I would do that on Wednesdays. If I need to plan out a launch, I’m going to do that on Wednesdays.
That’s generally how things flow. There’s flexibility — sometimes things don’t go according to plan.
Do you struggle with procrastination, the menace of the independently working creative professional? If so, how do you beat it?
No, I don’t. I used to years ago, so what happened?
I’m a very strategic, logical, and results-oriented person. I could see the result of procrastination, and I didn’t like the stress it was putting me under. Now, if I want to do something, I think about what the end result will be and what I’ll feel like after. It’s quite like if you don’t like exercising. One of the mindset shifts I did with exercising was not thinking about the physical discomfort but how great I will feel after my workout.
When I beat procrastination years ago, I realized that I didn’t feel good when I procrastinated. It put me behind. Sometimes I couldn’t deliver what I had promised, while integrity is a very big value of mine. I wanted to feel differently, so I started doing it differently. I started structuring my life so that I had time to plan and time to execute. I truly believe that discipline and structure create freedom. People think it’s the opposite; especially, many creative people think that structure and discipline are the enemies of freedom. That’s not true at all because when you procrastinate, or you just do things whenever you want to, you end up behind and feeling guilty about things.
Many creative people think that structure and discipline are the enemies of freedom. That’s not true because when you procrastinate, you end up behind and feeling guilty about things.
The other part was evaluating the emotional reasons why I was procrastinating. If it was attached to something that I actually didn’t want to do, then I decided I wasn’t going to agree to do things that I really didn’t want to do anymore. If it was attached to fear, something that I did want to do, but I was afraid of how it would work out, I had to learn to take imperfect action and stop putting so much pressure on myself.
I also learned that when I planned ahead with enough time for the project, was disciplined and committed, I felt better and delivered better results. So, that’s how I stopped procrastinating.
What else is essential to keep you productive?
Every day in the morning, I jot down my morning thoughts and three things I’m grateful for. Lastly, I will jot down three to four things that I need to get done for the day. I typically already know because I map out my week on Sundays, as I said, but it’s helpful for me to focus.
That helps me stay productive. I learned that the hard way. I used to have long to-do lists so that I would either end up working on a bunch of small meaningless tasks and not getting the big things done or working all the time. I realized that I realistically can only get about three things done in a day.
Which other tools and productivity apps are you using, and how do they help you?
I use Notion every day. That’s what I use for my client projects, for planning, for tasks. I love Notion; it’s become the brain of my business. Because it’s a relational database, it allows me to see connections.
Also, it’s just great to hop on a video to show something instead of holding meetings. I’m very much anti-meeting unless we have to have a meeting. So, Loom is a great replacement for that. It’s also a great training tool. I’m currently onboarding a new virtual assistant, and being able to show her how to do something has been super helpful.
I also use Airtable, not as much as the other two tools, but it’s been a great replacement for Google Sheets because it is more of a database as opposed to just a spreadsheet. So those are three key tools that I use daily in my life and business.