Colin Gray is an international speaker, podcaster, SAAS founder, and teacher. He is the Founder of The Podcast Host and Alitu: The Podcast Maker. Gray is an experienced speaker in both the business and the academic worlds, delivering anything from a short introduction to podcasting to an in-depth workshop on sustainable content marketing.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in a few different places – Southern Ireland when I was really small, then the west coast of Scotland up to my mid-teenage years. Then, we moved to the South West of Scotland when I was 16, and I did my final two years of school there. I didn’t enjoy moving around much when I was little, but when I look back, it had a really big positive effect on me. I think it built a lot of resilience in me. I’m not afraid of change, and I relish going into the unknown, trying new things, almost far enough that it turns into a negative. I have to remind myself, sometimes, that just because there are 100 items on the menu of my favourite Thai restaurant, as long as I know I love the Green Curry, maybe it’s alright just to go with that instead of something new ? The final move, to the SW, also ingrained a big hunk of entrepreneurship in me. We made that move because my Mum and Dad took a huge risk, dumped their lifelong jobs, and decided to build their own business. My Dad was a greenkeeper and always dreamed of running his own course. So he and my Mum did! And back in the days when “self-employed” or “entrepreneur” were much less fashionable words than they are now. That still inspires me.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
Big words and fancy sentences don’t prove you’re smart. The smartest people sound entirely normal because they don’t feel the need to prove themselves. Instead, you spot them when you realise you’ve just had a very complex idea explained to you in a really simple way. You never realise until afterward, because truly confident, intelligent people WANT to help you understand everything because they’re curious about anything. Complex language only gets in the way of that.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
My answer to this is probably a little strange because, in podcasting, the worst advice is probably anything that professes to be the one right answer. The most amazing thing about podcasting is that there is NO one right answer, and it’s a medium in which individuality and quirkiness is one of the biggest secret ingredients to success. The folks that start a podcast and follow the ‘standard rules’ are often destined to spend 10 or 20 episodes getting frustrated, and then bored, before they give up on that just do what feels good to them. Then, they find their own voice, their own rhythm, their own approach, and that’s what starts to grow them an audience.
Of course, I’m not saying there is a tonne of advice that podcasters can benefit from right through their journey. There are technical setup questions – like hosting, microphones, recording, producing, etc. That’s the stuff we help with most. And then there are later stage questions, like how do I start to be a better presenter, how do I grow my audience or make money from this thing?? Some coaches or agencies profess to have their own one killer strategy, but I think that’s terrible advice. We use our experience to help podcasters find their own path. We show them the answers to the technical questions, and then give them guidance around the other parts, related to what’s worked for others.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
There was a point around 10 years ago where I was really struggling to find my direction. I was in a full-time job, but it bored me stupid, so I was starting all sorts of crazy things on the side. I remember spending 2 months, at one point, starting around 30 tiny little websites – all about 5 pages – targetting stupidly specific keywords. All on the advice on an ‘online guru’ that I followed at the time. Suffice to say, that was a big fat waste of time (see the ‘no one right answer’ advice above ?).
One of my ideas was to find people who had a different skill, or access to an industry, and partner with them to start an online version of their business. I did this with a few different people, building eCommerce stores to sell their wares or their services, and it culminated in joining the fashionable world of subscription boxes. My brother’s in beer, so I created the site and the subscription platform, while he curated, packed, and posted the beer. We spent about 6 months running it, growing to a few hundred subscribers. In the end, though, we shut it down.
Why? Because in reality, that business wasn’t at all what I expected. Instead of being an exciting job in the exciting beer industry, it really was just a job in logistics, customer support, and supplier management. My days were spent getting emails from customers who’d not gotten their box, or something had turned up broken. So, I’d talk to the couriers who’d claim it turned up on the doorstep in one piece. Then, I’d talk to the customers who claimed it was broken. Then, we’d end up paying for a few one out of our own pocket. And, really, no one ended up happy, because it was still late for the customer, and zero profit for us. Maybe the courier was happy…
What I learned, and really keep in mind today, is that when you start something – either an entirely new venture or just a new feature in our existing product – you have to think about, really, what’s involved in running that thing? Don’t get sucked in by fashion, or shiny new things. Really think, what will the day to day look like? That either helps you avoid it altogether, or to plan ahead for the staff you’d need to manage those things for you, and enjoy doing it.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Help. Support. Generous people. I’ve put the work in, but I’ve learned what works to do from so many people over the years. And then, once there was too much to do by myself, I found Matthew, my first team member, to help. And he worked just as hard.
I’ve been a member of a bunch of groups over the years, too, and one in particular started by a friend of mine, Chris, introduced me to a small but so powerful network of people who have been sounding boards, teachers, and shoulders to lean on over the years. I hope I’ve helped them in turn, of course, but I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am without the people around me, both inside our team and outside.
And, do you know, a huge part of that are the podcasts I listen to. I dread to think how many hours I’ve listened to – but it’s all boring driving or walking time that has been transformed into learning or inspiration time by the podcasts I listen to. They’re my mentors too.
What is your morning routine?
Alright, this is one thing I don’t really subscribe to – I’ll tell you, I’ve been sucked into the miracle morning stuff in the past, for sure, and I’ve tried a lot of stuff. But, every time, it just stressed me out more. “Argh, I missed the 3.5 minutes of gratitude, because my kid woke up early – my day’s ruined!” Fair enough, maybe it’s easier to do when you’re going solo – no kids, maybe even no partner – but even then, I’m not sure.
The best start I can have to my day is waking up – around 7.15 – and then having a relaxed hour where I actually remember all of the dozens of things I need to put in my kid’s bags, before school. Then if I can get out of the house at the right time, drop them off on time with no drama, and get to the office a little after that, then I’m good.
Even if I don’t manage that, though, in the more common case where I forget _something_ or there’s an argument because I brought the hat my 6-year-old decided she doesn’t like that day, even though it was her favourite the day before. Even in that case, you know what, I can still have the best day of my week at work. I think the best thing you can do is try to slow down, do what works for you, and remember that there’s no perfect formula for your day. Just because you have a shitty morning doesn’t mean you can’t have a spectacular afternoon.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
There are a couple of things.
First, letting go. As I mentioned above, in the past, I’ve been bad for hanging on to negative feelings. An argument with my kids in the morning, getting to school, could put me in a bad mood all morning. But, I’ve learned to feel that. To spot how it feels inside me, observe it, and let it go. I have done a bit of work around stoicism and meditation, and I don’t think they’re panaceas but they both tie into this, for me, and have certainly helped with it.
Second, a silly thing, but cold showers. I love it. How to shower in the morning to get clean and feel good. Then 1 minute of cold water at the end of that. There’s something it does to my mood in a really positive way. I think there’s genuinely a chemical thing – endorphin hit, or something, from the discomfort – but there’s also a mental boost because you feel like you’ve done something just very slightly difficult, that most people wouldn’t do. You make the choice, knowing it’s going to sting and do it anyway. And that sets you up for your day and puts you in the mood of making harder decisions or doing the harder thing. Plus, afterward, when you get out, you feel amazing – it just tingles like crazy for minutes afterward when you use proper cold water.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
Systems. At every level.
I have a set of annual goals that I make every January. These are perhaps 8 to 12 in number, big but well defined.
As a part of that planning, I create themes for the year, mostly related to those goals. So I might have 5 to 8 themes, such as “Building our Team” or “Audience Engagement”.
Then, every month I make plans for myself based on those goals. I have the themes listed out and I make sure to put a few tasks inside each theme. The themes make sure I’m working towards all of my goals through the year. The month plan contains specific tasks, but they’re quite high-level things that would take from a few days up to a week or two to complete.
Finally, every Monday, I look at that month’s plan and pick out a few parts of it to complete this week. That leads to a list of far more specific tasks, perhaps breaking down the bigger monthly ones, a little. I actually schedule these tasks into a spreadsheet for the week – eg. I’ll do this on Tues AM, this on Thurs PM. And that’s my boss for the week. It tells me what to do, after just a couple of hours of planning at the start of the week. It removes all the faffing about every day, reduces my stress, and helps me get a lot more done!
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber – I’ve read this probably 5 or 6 times now, and every time I get something new from it, just because each time I’m at a different stage in my business. One of the core messages is around the importance of working ON and not IN your business, at least for part of your time. It’s almost a cliche now, but it wasn’t when I read this 10 years ago. The later parts of the book sketch out a structure to plan your business 5 or 10 years from now, all of which help you make a better plan for the coming month or the coming year. And of the most useful parts of it for me, even now, is the exercise around building your org chart right at the start. Even when it’s just you, write out all of the roles you play as if they were all separate jobs or separate people. Because eventually, they will be. And with the help of that org chart, you can start to see what you can delegate at the earliest stages possible, and eventually make your first hire based on it.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“Through discipline comes freedom.” (Aristotle)
This quote helps to cut through my melodramatic creative nonsense. When I get all antsy because I tell myself I don’t want plans, or structure, or process, because what I value is flexibility. But, in reality, ultimate flexibility just turns into the world’s most scary blank page. When you have no guide, no constraints… no discipline…. you just don’t get anything done. To me, constraints make us more creative. Structure frees the mind up to be more creative. And process means that your stress and decision making is relieved so that you can do your best work.