Five Hard Truths About Starting a Business

Last year, I sold my stake in a successful, growing business and launched out on my own. It was a good decision I do not regret, but it wasn’t without risk.

It’s exciting to be your own boss and run your own business, but it’s also hard work. Anyone who tells you different is just trying to sell you something.

It’s amazing to be able to take your wife to a movie on Friday morning and set your own schedule, but the bills are still due on time and the money comes from my own bank account.

You should start your own business. Maybe it’s a full-time, jump-off-the-cliff thing. Or maybe it’s something on the side. But it’s a good thing to build your own dreams instead of working to build someone else’s.

But I want you to know what you’re getting into. I want to share five hard truths about starting your own business.

#1 – There is no “somebody.”

Church Fuel has two employees – Rob and myself. And neither of us have received a paycheck. We’re self funding all of the startup costs through early sales and hoping our ideas gain traction.

Between the two of us, we’re doing everything. And for many entrepreneurs, it’s even more lonely than that. You might be the only one working on your business.

The small workforce means that if something needs to be done, we’ve got to do it. There’s no “somebody.”

Does that term ever come up in conversations? Someone needs to put it on the website. Someone needs to make a decision on pricing. Someone needs to call those clients.

There is no somebody. Well, technically there is…it’s ME!

If it’s going to go on the website, I’m going to put it there. If a decision needs to be made, all eyes are on me. If a client needs a phone call, I better start dialing. I’m the sales department and Rob is it IT department. He’s in charge of a ridiculous amount of things and I’m doing things I have no business doing.

Starting a business means you have to do things you don’t like doing or you’re not really good at doing. For all the talk about finding your dream or working out of your passion, there’s flat out hard work that needs to be done in any startup. It won’t be glamorous and it will have little to do with your life calling.

Yes, you should get in your sweet spot. Yes, you should work from your strengths. Yes, you should delegate. But early on, there is nobody else. These books about finding your passion and living your dream often leave out the part about, you know, reality. Some people are so addicted to vision, passion and causes they don’t know how to do the things that must be done. Some of the things you do in business don’t have ultimate purpose or lead to life fulfillment. It’s just…work.

Somebody doesn’t have a business card.
Somebody doesn’t have a job description.
Somebody doesn’t have an office.

You do.

#2 – There’s always a learning curve.

We started Church Fuel to provide insanely practical resources to move the church forward. I love the church and I love business, so I started a business to help the church. That’s what I love.

Not InfusionSoft.

Not WordPress plugins.

Not payroll, merchant processors, or legal contracts.

Passion alone can’t run a business. It turns out, a lot of knowledge and know-how is required.

But here’s the good news. We live in a time where if you want to know something you can go learn it. You can read blogs and listen to podcasts. You can read a book, representing years of research and expertise. There are conferences and cohorts and online classes. These times really are amazing. Everything you need to know about any topic in the world probably has a YouTube channel.

We decided that InfusionSoft – an all in one sales and marketing solution – would power our business. And while I used it in a previous company, I didn’t understand how it worked. I could create the strategy but I couldn’t do anything with the software. That wasn’t going to be good enough this time around.

So Rob and I went to InfusionSoft University in Phoenix. It’s the software that powers our business and we needed to learn how to use it. It’s not the simplest thing in the world, but we got through enough of the learning curve to get it working. This cost us thousands of dollars and we spent it before the company generated $1 in revenue.

In the last six months, I’ve learned more than I thought I needed to know about merchant processing, project management tools, payroll taxes and dozens of other boring but important topics. The learning curve ain’t sexy.

But it’s supposed to be this way. Getting through the curve is what’s going to separate you from the other idea-filled wannabes and get you into the world of hustlers who know how to make things happen.

You may know a lot about your subject matter, but you’ve got to learn a lot about how to run a business.

# 3 – It’s probably not going to work.

After we learned how to use InfusionSoft and built a small mailing list, we created our first product – a 12-month coaching program called The Year of Healthy Systems.

We added the digital resource to our online shopping cart and set up the payment terms. But we forgot to set up the confirmation page, so when people hit submit, all they saw was a blank screen. They went back in their browser and tried again, eventually giving up.

But in reality, each of those transactions went though. They just were’t redirected to the proper confirmation page. And since those products were subscriptions, not only were they billed, they were billed again 30 days later.


And the name of the product didn’t really work either. Nobody wants to spend a year doing anything. People want instant help, so putting the word “year” in the title turned out to be a big mistake.

Rob fixed the billing issues and we changed the name of the product to The Systems Course. And we’re still finding with the pricing models.

The reality of starting a business is that what you do first often doesn’t work. You have to walk this tightrope between strong belief in your idea and the willingness to adapt. Mike Tyson says everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. That’s definitely true in the business world. Beautiful business plans often don’t survive first contact with real customers.

The reality of being an entrepreneur is that what you do often doesn’t work.

I’ve met so many people who started something that didn’t work but ended up giving up too fast. They moved on to the next idea before hustling on the last idea. It’s a vicious pattern for the impatient entrepreneur.

# 4 – There’s never enough time.

I use a task manager called Things to keep track of all my action items. I love this little program because it handles repeating tasks and syncs with all my devices.

There’s also a folder called Someday. You see, every task gets a due date. But the items are put in the Someday folder don’t. I’ll just get to them someday.

The items in the someday folder are growing.

As an entrepreneur, I’ve got way more ideas than I have time to execute them. As a company, we have products in line for production and campaigns that need work. But we don’t have enough time to do it.

And that’s the reality of business (life, really). There’s never enough time for all the projects. You have to be selective. You have to strategically say no.

More time is a myth. It’s related the the more money or more influence myth and it comes from a scarcity mindset. I’m never going to have more time. I have the same amount of time as Albert Einstein or Mother Theresa. It’s what I choose do do with the time I have that matters.

#5 – It’s not glamorous.

I recently spent two days with a client in California.

You might hear that and think I’m lucky to be able to travel to such exciting places.

But while I was there, I visited the inside of an office, the fellowship hall of a church, and the Holiday Inn. I was there working, not sightseeing. I’m sure Los Angeles is great, but I mostly saw the freeway.

That’s more or less how business travel goes. It sounds exciting to visit all these places, but I mostly see the airports and meeting rooms.

One of the guys asked me if my clients ever took me out to play golf. I told him I thought this was a great idea. Then we got back to work.

Starting a business is a lot like business travel. Because movies get made and articles get written about successful startups, everyone things they are glamorous. I’m not complaining – far from it! I’m thankful to do what I do.

But the reality is that starting something on your own is not always glamorous.

Chances are, your startup isn’t going to be acquired by Google. You’re not going to be profiled in the magazines or honored with awards. It’s far more likely you will do the work of two people until you can scrape enough money together to hire one other person.

Startup work isn’t glamorous, it’s ordinary. That’s the hard truth.

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Heroes, Finding Mentors and Getting Good

If you want to get good at something, you need to do three things.

  1. Learn.With all the books, articles, podcasts, conferences and courses to you, you’ve got plenty of opportunities.
  1. Practice.Knowledge alone won’t make you an expert – you’ve got to practice and this is hard work.
  1. Get a coach.Even with knowledge and practice, you’re missing the secret sauce.  You need a coach and a mentor.

But finding a coach or a mentor can be tough.

Maybe you’ve asked someone to mentor you but that relationship never got traction. Maybe you’ve met someone for coffee but it never grew beyond that. Maybe you’ve sent a few emails to people you respect, but they didn’t have time for a mentoring relationship.

Here are some ideas and strategies to help you find (and learn from) the right mentor.

You need mentors and heroes.

The most famous and successful person in your industry might not be the best mentor.  In my business, I work with pastors and church leaders. It’s easy to look to the pastors of successful mega-churches as mentors, but it’s more likely these are heroes.

Your mentor doesn’t have to be in the same industry.

You’re looking for someone who has broken through similar issues, not necessarily someone who works in your exact industry.  If you’re an aspiring filmmaker looking to build an agency, you could learn from the small town doctor who grew her practice to five specialists.

Look for someone two steps ahead of you.

If you’re the pastor of a 150 member church, look for a mentor who has led trough that type of growth in recent years.  If you’re running a restaurant and want to franchise, the McDonalds model might not work from you. Look locally and find someone who opened a second location.

Offer value.

I’ve been guilty of taking time, energy and resources from people ahead of me and failing to offer value to them.  Instead of thinking “what can I get” ask yourself “what can I offer.”  One quick tip…offering to buy a mentor a $3 cup of coffee is nice, but her time and expertise is worth so much more.  That’s not really the kind of value they are looking for.

Hire professionals.

I hope you have an extensive network of friends and family who love to hear your ideas.  But there’s absolutely no substitute for HIRING a coach.  You don’t need to pick their brain, you need to pay for their services.

Be a mentor.

When I was starting out in business, I hoped someone would take me under their wing and show me the ropes. But hope isn’t a good strategy for much of anything. One of the best things you can do to find mentors is start giving away your time.

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Behind the Startup – Building a Team

This is the third post in the series.  First, we talked about choosing a name.  Then, I shared the struggle of building a brand.  In this post, I’ll introduce you to the team.

You can go to Barnes and Noble and buy books on entrepreneurship. You can take an online course on how to launch business . You can listen to podcasts, read articles, and go to conferences. There’s more knowledge on this topic than any other time in human history.

But it’s still hard work. And anyone who says otherwise is wrong and should take it back.

Over the years, I’ve bought and sold Beanie Babies, co-created a Christian youth camp business, helped start a church, and helped grow a company from startup to The Inc 5000 List.  I’m a sucker for the startup.

But Church Fuel is different. This company feels more…real.  Maybe real isn’t the right word, because the other organizations were real. But it feels like there’s more at stake.

I’m 41 years old with three kids and a wife. We’ve got a mortgage and bills and college coming in just five years. Common sense (someone should rename that, by the way) says I should stick something out for a good salary and healthcare benefits. The security of a “real job” is tempting, but there’s just something in me that wants to start my own business.  Like I said, I’m a sucker for the startup.

When I was 10 years old, I started a neighborhood magazine. The main articles were hand-written, essentially copied from our local newspaper or Time magazine.  The classified section was built by be driving around the neighborhood and seeing what houses were for sale or who was having a garage sale.  The printing press was the copier at my dads office. I sold about ten subscriptions and a few stand-alone issues before shutting it down.

I went to a conference one time and the speaker was talking about discovering what you were meant to do. Ben said everyone should think back to what they enjoyed as a child, because those desires are often still there, waiting to be uncovered and refueled. He said what we loved as a child is a key to what we should do as an adult. As a kid, I loved creating content and I loved business.

So a startup it is. One that’s going to focus on providing insanely practical resources to pastors.

Good Leaders Build Great Teams

At this point in the journey, I had a name and a mission.  But before I started building a mailing list or creating products, we needed a team. Sure, I could make some products and set up a website and probably generate some revenue. That’s what I was tempted to do.  But I didn’t want this to be a one-man side project.  I want Church Fuel to be a legitimate company.  In order to do that, we needed some good people involved at the very beginning.

About this time, I read a book by Ed Catmull called Creativity, Inc.  Ed is the President of Pixar, one of the most successful companies of our time.  In this book, he says, “getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.” Pixar has incredible ideas, and those ideas turn into Incredible movies (see what I did there?). But what really makes Pixar great is their people.

Jim Collins gives similar advice. “First think who, then ask what,” he says.  Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulder of giants.” The Bible speaks to this subject, too  Solomon, the wisest person who ever lived said, “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed.  If one person falls, the other can reach out and help.  But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)

Over and over again, it turns out to be true: Failure happens alone but success comes with a team.

A Friend at Work

A 2010 survey on US job satisfaction by the Conference Board found only 45% of Americans were satisfied with their jobs.  When they drill down on stats like this and ask people what truly makes people happy at work, they hear curious responses.

People want to have a friend at work.  It’s more important than a higher salary. For many people, good relationships at work are more important than compensation.  Relationships matter more than money.  That’s why people leave good-paying jobs with bad bosses to take lesser-paying jobs with great bosses.

For Church Fuel to ultimately succeed, we need the right people on board. But selfishly, I want to work with people I like. I want to work with friends.  And I don’t want to do this alone.

Three Kinds of People Every Organization Needs

I know a guy named Les McKeown. I’ve attended his workshops, read his books and can attest to his practical brilliance.  Les is one of the few guys who will answer your question directly. One time, I heard a guy ask what he should do if he wanted to facilitate change bus his boss wouldn’t budge.  “Quit,” Les answered in front of a rather large audience.  The he put down the mic.

Les wrote a book called Predictable Success and it should be required reading for everyone that leads an organization or teams.  He tracks the lifecycle of a company and ties it into the three kinds of people every organization needs. They are worth mentioning here.

  • Visionary. Often the one with the idea, the visionary leader sets the tone for the organization. They like to come to work whenever they feel like it.  If left unchecked, visionary leaders will practice seagull management, flying high for a little while then coming down, crapping on everyone, then flying off again.
  • Operator.  Operators take the idea and run with it. They are hard workers and get stuff done. They are first ones in and the last to leave. But an operator without anyone else is a maverick, getting stuff done no matter the cost.
  • Processor.  Processors are the technicians and love rules.  The right processor brings necessary systems to the mix.  And those systems should enable vision, not strangle it. They work 8-5 and take a 1-hour lunch.  A processor without anyone else is a bureaucrat, stubbornly sticking to rules and policies even if they are no longer effective.

Visionaries think the processors are slowing things down. Operators think they are there to provide adult supervision to the visionaries. Processors think others don’t play by the rules.  There’s a dance between all these personalities, but when they are all in step, it’s a beautiful thing. You can take the Predictable Success quiz here to see if you’re a visionary, operator or processor.

Les says you need all three of these personalities to move from startup, through chaos into predicable success.  That’s the place where goals are consistently met and everything scales. For Church Fuel to be successful, we need a visionary leader, a strong operator and the least-annoying processor we could find.

Meet the Church Fuel Team

So let me introduce you to the Church Fuel founding team. Each of these people own a part of the company and we’re all committed to make it work.

YBPV9pw_400x400-150x150Rob Whitmire is the Chief Operating Officer and he runs the day-to-day operations.  He graduated from Emory University and found a lot of success in commercial real estate.  He loves helping churches move forward and recently spent time as an Executive Pastor at a young church in California. He is a pastor’s kid and loves the beach. Rob is married to Shelley and they have three boys.  On the weekends, you’ll probably find him on a surfboard. I met Rob a few years ago at Buckhead Church. He and Shelley were our small group leaders.

Screenshot-2015-02-26-09.21.14-150x150Jeremie Kubicek is the founder of the GiANT family of companies and owns and operates the global brands of Catalyst and LeaderCast. He’s the author of Making Your Leadership Come Alive and enjoys helping people become leaders worth following.  He’s a creative leader, intentional connector and big idea thinker.  Jeremie is married to Kelly and they they have three great kids. On the weekends, you’ll probably find him connecting with friends and family. Jeremie is a partner in the company. I met Jeremie through a GiANT coaching network and last year, Jennie and I spent time with him and Kelly in London.

Screenshot-2015-02-26-09.21.21-150x150Steve Cockram is the co-founder of GiANT Worldwide and travels extensively teaching and consulting with senior executives and their teams all over the world; from the likes of the British government and multi-national corporations, to small start-ups in Sheffield, UK or Atlanta, GA. Steve is a serial entrepreneur and loves starting things.  He’s married to Helen and they have three great girls.  He’s got the best accent of the group because Steve lives in England. Steve is a partner in the company. I met Steve through Jeremie and I’m really excited about his insight and network. He has so much to offer the church.

And there’s me. But these guys are superstars. They are gifted, skilled, talented guys.  They love Jesus, their family and the local church.  Our company will be better and customers will be blessed because of their involvement.

Senior Leaders are Chief Clarity Officers

Leaders of organizations have a lot on their plate.  At times, it feels like I’m doing the visionary, operator and processor jobs all at the same time.  But if you’re in charge, there’s nothing more important you can do than creating clarity for your team.  Your team NEEDS this from you.   They need you to create clarity around two words.

  • Clarify Roles.  Everyone on your team, whether it’s 1 other person or 100, needs to know what they do.  They need you to say, “This is where you add the most value” and “Of all the things you do, this is the most important thing.”  I’m not talking about a job description listing 42 things, the last one being something ridiculous like “other duties as necessary.”  Those kind of documents are ridiculous.  Take it all and boil it down to a tweet.  If you can’t tell someone what they do and why it matters in 140 characters, keep working.
  • Clarify Goals. Not only do people need to know their roles on the team, they need clear goals.  Some people are great at setting goals for themselves.  Others need help.  But everyone needs to know where they are going and this should be shared knowledge.  In a way, we all really do need to know each other’s business.

When I work personally with churches on their leadership structure or development process, we focus on creating clarity around roles and goals.  “The most important thing you can do for your team,” I say, “is create clarity about what matters most for their role and help them reach specific goals.”  Now I’ve got to practice what I preach.

Clarifying Roles on the Team

Yesterday, Rob and I had our first official staff meeting.  It was stupid and weird and totally unnecessary, because there were just two of us.  But we’re going to grow and it will get less weird. We met in order to hammer out our roles and responsibilities.

Since there are just two of us working full time on this venture, it’s easy to say things like “we should do this” or “let’s do that.”  We’re both involved in nearly every decision.  But that doesn’t mean we should both be responsible for every decision. We needed to create clarity because if two people are responsible for it, nobody is responsible for it.

Based on our strengths and the position of our company, we came up with the following list.

Michael’s Responsibilities

  • Setting and tracking company goals. Using the strategy learned in a book called Mastering the Rockefeller Habits, I’ll make sure we set great goals and stay focused on meeting them.
  • Creating a Marketing Strategy. For our startup, growing our mailing list and generating revenue is a top priority. I’m handling this for now.
  • Content Creation. There’s free content and paid content. There are emails and blog posts and webinars. And there’s a content calendar to hold everything all of this together.
  • Working with Content Providers. A big part of our model is partnering with church leaders to create courses on specific topics. I can’t wait to introduce you to our first round of experts.
  • LeadPages. We use this tool to create landing pages like this and this, and for now, this is on my plate.
  • Managing Twitter. This is my favorite social network so I’ll manage posting content and interacting with people. You can follow Church Fuel on twitter.
  • Branding and Graphics. I believe in the power of branding and want the Church Fuel brand to look professional and consistent.
  • Running the Affiliate Program and communicating with partners. I’ll handle recruiting and updating partners. You can learn more about the affiliate program here.

Rob’s Responsibilities

  • Marketing Execution. While I’m good with marketing strategy, Rob is better with details.
  • Infusionsoft management. We use this tool to manage our communication, sales and just about everything else in the company. Rob’s the point person on this powerful software.
  • Project management. Whether it’s releasing a new course or launching a new program, Rob will keep all of our projects on course. We also use Basecamp.
  • Wish List Member. This is the tool we’re using to manage our private membership and content delivery pages. It’s a WordPress plugin.
  • Legal. Hey, someone’s got to do it.
  • Facebook. I handle Twitter but Rob is on Facebook. He handles content as well as advertising. Plus, we have a private Facebook group for clients.  Like us on Facebook here.
  • Finances. This includes paying the bills, handling payroll, dealing with merchant processors and banks, plus all the HR stuff. As soon as possible, we’re going to outsource this.
  • Sending Emails and Posting Blogs. I write the content but Rob posts it. This gives him the opportunity to make changes, add tags, and make it better.
  • Customer Service. If you have a billing issue or need help, Rob will likely be the one to handle it.

Those lists are pretty ridiculous, but over the next few months, we’ll bring more people in according to their specialties. There are a lot of things on my list that won’t be there in a year. And the same goes for Rob. But for now, we’re doing what it takes to get this startup going.

In the next post, I’m going to share about the process of clarifying our mission, vision, and values. I’ll unveil our one page business plan and dive into how things (hopefully) will work.

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12 Things You Must Clarify for Your Organization

If you lead an organization of any kind, you’re the Chief Clarity Officer.  Here are 12 things you must clarify.

  1. Mission – Why do we exist? Too many organizations have no why, a weak why or a fuzzy. Clarify this first or nothing else matters.
  2. Vision – Where are we going?  While you’re always striving to accomplish your mission, your vision should be a tangible picture of what it looks like in a couple of years.  Very few organizations have a clear vision.
  3. Values – What beliefs drive our behavior?  Gino Wickman, author of traction says these are “Vital and timeless guiding principles for your company.” Values will create culture.
  4. Strategy – How will we accomplish our vision?  If mission answers the WHY question, strategy answers the HOW questions.
  5. Core Focus – Dan Sullivan calls this your “Unique Ability.”  Jim Collins says it’s your Hedgehog Concept.  Knowing what you’re really doing will allow you to say “If you’re looking for that, we’re probably not right for you…we excel at this.”
  6. Goals  – What is our target? A Harris Interactive/Frankin Covey poll of 23,000 employees found 37% of employees didn’t understand their companies priorities.  Only 1 in 5 were enthusiastic about company goals. If you know where you want to go, clarify some real goals.
  7. Calendar – When do we do it?  It’s not sexy but a tool as simple as a calendar will help you know when to work on what.
  8. Systems – What processes facilitate progress?  A lot of organizations fail not because a lack of talent or vision, but because they lack the systems and process to sustain growth.
  9. Meetings – When and why do we gather?  If you’re just meeting in response to problems, you’re not proactively creating growth and health.  Clarify what meetings are really necessary and who should be there.
  10. Team – Who will get us where we want to go?  “If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.” says Patrick Lencioni inThe Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
  11. Metrics – What numbers tell us how we are doing? Anything that is measured and watched is improved.  So clarify what numbers really matter and create a system to track them on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual basis.
  12. Target – Who are we trying to reach?  Some people call this a persona, but you’ve gotta know who your best customer is.  And it might not be as generic as you think.

If you need help clarifying any or all of these items for your organization, drop me a note.  I love helping leaders create clarity.  There’s nothing like it.

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The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Here are my notes from The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.  It’s an inspirational book that will help you focus on your work.

  • It’s not the writing part that’s hard.  What’s hard is sitting down to write.
  • Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unloved life within us.
  • If you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Teresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing…relax. Resistance will give you a free pass.
  • Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it’s the easiest to rationalize.  We don’t tell ourselves, “I’m never going to write my symphony,” Instead we say, “I am going to write my symphony; I’m going going to start tomorrow.”
  • The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit.  We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed.
  • Trouble is a faux form of fame. The working artist will not tolerate trouble in her life because she knows trouble prevents her from doing her work.
  • We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.
  • When we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived out our own.
  • The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
  • The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.  If it meant nothing, there’d be no Resistance.
  • Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance.  They’re the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.
  • Resistance knows that the more psychic energy we expend dredging and re-dredging the tired, boring injustices of our personal lives, the less juice we have to do our work.
  • The principle of priority.  You must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important and you must do what is important first.
  • The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist.
  • The professional conducts his business in the real world.  Adversity, injustice, bad hops and rotten calls, even good breaks and lucky bounces all comprise the ground over which the campaign must be waged.
  • By toiling beside the front door of technique you leave room for genius to enter by the back.
  • The professional learns to recognize envy-driven criticism and to take it for what it is: the supreme compliment.  The critic hates most that which he would have done himself if he had the guts.
  • Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.
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