Interview: Shawn Blanc

According to Wikipedia, April 4, 2011 was an eventful day. Some may remember it for the record number of American storm reports in a 24-hour period, others may remember the day for the 6.7 magnitude earthquake which struck off the coast of Java in Indonesia. I remember April 4, 2011 differently - the day Shawn Blanc started writing full-time.

Shawn Blanc is a writer that I've grown to have immense respect for. In quitting his job and becoming a full-time, self-employed writer he's displayed courage in doing something that many will dream about doing. Becoming their own boss, creating their own path.

I've watched Shawn's writing improve tremendously since he started publishing his weblog on June 28, 2007. He's now among some top names including John Gruber, Marco Arment, Benjamin Brooks, and Jason Kottke who I instantly click through to when a new article appears in Reeder.

Shawn took some time over the past few weeks between writing for his weblog, producing his daily members-only podcast 'Shawn Today', and looking after his son Noah to answer some questions covering all aspects of his freelance lifestyle.

Glenn Wolsey: At what point did you believe you could take your writing full time?

Shawn Blanc: There wasn't so much a moment or a metric where I looked at my website and said, "now is the time". Rather, it started as an internal dialog about if writing for shawnblanc.net was something I truly wanted to do as my full-time gig.

When I decided that yes, I did want to write full time, I brought it up with my wife, Anna, one evening. She was extremely encouraging and supportive of it. So I then went to work on projecting some numbers and spitballing ideas to see if it would actually be possible and how I'd go about making enough money to keep on writing.

At the time, my website was already earning a little bit of advertising revenue. It was great for the part-time endeavour that it was, but the income was nowhere near what I'd need for a full-time gig. But my gut told me that if I could put the time in, I'd be able to turn it into a sustainable, respectable job.

I figured if I could spend 6 months as a full-time writer on the site, giving my best hours of the day to my writing, then the site would raise to the level of energy I was putting into it.

And so, with the support of my wife, and the hunch that my leap into full-time writing could pan out, I decided to go for it.

Glenn: Was there a decisive factor involved in the decision to quit your day-job and start publishing your weblog full time?

Shawn: A big factor had to do with my wife and I wanting to have children. It was important to me that I be home and around my kids as much as possible. Also, I want to be a father who leads by example. If I want my kids to feel empowered to take risks and pursue their dreams, then I figured I'd better be willing to do the same. So that's a big factor for what prompted me to.

Glenn: I'd imagine you would have been anxious taking a seat in your home office that first morning. What have been the biggest challenges you've faced over the course of the previous two and a half years?

Shawn: Oh man, I was extremely anxious.

My first "official" day of writing the site full time was on the tail end of a month-long membership drive, but I'd still been working full-time with my old job up until that point. There was all this anticipation and excitement leading up to the day I would be quitting my job and writing full time. And so here it was, my first day at the keyboard, and I was there just staring at the blank page.

Since then, my biggest challenges have been staying focused on the big picture. It's extremely easy to get caught up in the little, seemingly urgent matters, and then lose momentum on the bigger projects.

Glenn: Some would view your work situation as almost perfect. No boss to answer to, no mandatory wake up call, and no long commute.

Shawn: Yes, I love my job. There are a lot of wonderful perks that come with the territory of working for yourself. For one, I can work from anywhere in the world that has an Internet connection of some sort. Of course, the downside is that I can work from anywhere - going home for the holidays means I usually take work with me.

Working for myself is incredibly fun, but it's also quite challenging. For one, I can be a horrible boss to myself. I'm demanding, overbearing, and unforgiving. I also miss the community aspect of working with a group and leading a team. I thrive on community and group discussions and brainstorming and teamwork, etc. I've been sure to set some things in place so that I have as much community as possible - I meet with some peers every week for lunch, I work from my local coffee shop once or twice a week, I connect with folks on Twitter and app.net, and I have a small group of trusted advisors whom I send my biggest ideas and projects to -- but it's not a complete replacement for working with friends in the same office space day in and day out, and pulling long weekends together and spitballing ideas over coffee every morning.

Glenn: Your wife Anna recently gave birth to your first child - Noah. How has he positively impacted your working routine?

Shawn: Well, Noah's impact on my work life has been a mixed bag. It's been challenging because Anna and I share responsibilities, and so just about every day I'm in charge of Noah for at least 3-4 hours, and that's usually in the mornings. Also, with a one-year-old upstairs, working from home can be quite far from a "distraction free" work environment. And so there are some days where I never quite get in a "groove" and knock out tons of awesome work.

On the other side of the coin, however, is that I've learned to work when I can. I value the ability to get little things done here and there and know that I'm making progress towards a bigger goal. I consider it a great asset to be able to not underestimate even the small amount of work I can do in a short amount of time.

Glenn: What's your biggest source of inspiration to continue publishing content on a regular and consistent basis?

Shawn: The relationship with my readers. By far and away the most engaging and inspiring thing behind the work I do day in and day out is getting feedback from the people who read the site. Whether that be as simple as a quick shout out on Twitter saying thanks for a link or an article that I posted, to someone writing me a long email explaining why they disagree with something I said.

That feedback is so helpful, because, I mean, I write these words so they'll be read. And it's great to hear back from people who did read them.

Glenn: Tell me about some of your favourite things to read to keep this inspiration flowing?

Shawn: I get a lot of inspiration from The Great Discontent and I read pretty much everything Seth Godin writes. I also check in on Minimal Mac, The Brooks Review, Kottke.org, Daring Fireball, and Marco.org just about every day.

Right now I'm reading this book from 99u called, Manage Your Day-to-Day. And I enjoy the Offscreen magazines which come out about once a quarter.

Glenn: Shawn, I can't conduct an interview with you without delving into the geekier side of things. What setup are you working with right now, and how does it work for you?

Shawn: My one and only computer is a 13-inch MacBook Air, circa summer 2011. It's the specced out model: 1.8 GHz Core i7, 4GB memory, 256 SSD, Mountain Lion.

Since my iPad has become my "laptop", these days I mostly use the MacBook Air in clamshell mode. I've got it hooked up to a 27-inch Korean grey market IPS display I bought off eBay; I type on a Filco Ninja Mechanical keyboard with Cherry MX Blue switches; and I use an Apple Magic Trackpad.

Speaking of the iPad, I have the 3rd-generation (Retina, 30-pin) with Verizon LTE. I often leave the house without my laptop and just my iPad and bluetooth keyboard. It's a great combo and I can do pretty much all my day's work of reading, writing, and posting.

For audio, I've got a pair of Audyssey speakers which I love (they look great and sound fantastic). And then a Blue Yeti USB mic for recording my daily podcast, Shawn Today.

Glenn: I know you've always been a great fan of the old-style Apple Cinema Display - especially the 23-inch variant. What made you decide on the Korean grey market 27-inch display over say, the more aesthetically pleasing Apple Thunderbolt Display?

Shawn: Ironically, it's my affinity for the nice Apple hardware that led me to get the grey market Korean IPS display.

You see, about a year ago, my aluminium 23-inch ACD went on the fritz and stopped working regularly. It needed to be replaced and my gut told me that new Thunderbolt Displays were probably just around the corner and so I decided I'd wait for the new ones before buying.

But I knew it would probably be a few months at least. Since I work at my desk for hours a day, I didn't want to just wait it out and work from my 13-inch Air's display only during that time.

So I had heard about these displays from Jeff Atwood's site, and I figured that spending a few hundred dollars on a high quality IPS display that didn't come in a pretty hardware casing was a great stop gap.

Well, it's now been over a year now and the cheap IPS display is still kicking and Apple's Thunderbolt displays still haven't been updated.

Glenn: I know you're a great advocate of Byword, what other apps are involved in your writing and publishing workflow?

Shawn: All my notes, ideas, and rough-drafts of links and articles usually start out in Simplenote / nvALT. I love having these documents synced between my Mac, iPad, and iPhone.

I do almost all long-form writing in Byword on my Mac. Or, if writing long-form on my iPad I use Writing Kit. From my Mac, all links get posted using MarsEdit. From my iPad or iPhone, all links get posted using an app called Poster which, alas, is now no longer available because it was bought by the guys at WordPress.

Glenn: You've developed a particular writing style on a wide range of topics. What do you most enjoy writing about, i.e. reviews, interviews etc?

Shawn: The long-form reviews are the hardest to write but they are also the most rewarding. In that regard, looking back at all the things I've written for the site over the years, I suppose the reviews are my favourite. But I don't know that I enjoy them more than other pieces. Really, there's no one particular type of article or post or link that I enjoy writing more than another beyond when I'm writing about whatever I'm most energised and excited about.

When my head is down and I'm in the zone working on a project or article, then that is when the joy of writing comes out the most. Some days I get to experience that, and some days it feels like trudging through the mud.

Glenn: When inspiration strikes and you're out and about, what's your go to tool to capture that idea/thought/paragraph?

Shawn: My iPhone. Most quick capturing is done with Scratch because it opens in about one second to a blank text field ready to go. And then I'll leave it there for the moment or else send it to Simplenote where it then is synced to my iPad and Mac.

Glenn: Obviously a number of apps on your iOS devices are work related. In one of the rare times you're using your the iPhone/iPad for pleasure rather than work, what are your favourite go-to apps?

Shawn: I don't play any games on my iPhone, which means there's a lot of crossover between my personal "fun" apps and my "work" apps. Instapaper, Twitter, Riposte (for App.net), and Instagram are all, in a way, work-relevant apps. But also they are the ones I go to when I have down time.

I guess Rdio is the most entertainment-centric app on my iPhone that doesn't have a direct connection to my day-to-day work. (Though I do now listen to music quite often when I'm writing.)

Truth be told, however, over the past year or so I've been intentional about leaving my phone in my pocket as often as possible. If I have down time at the auto shop or the barber, I like to just sit there and let my mind think and wonder and be bored for a while. I even wear a wrist watch in part just so I have one less excuse to pull out my iPhone.

Glenn: Along with writing your weblog, you've been heavily involved in podcasting. First through the B&B Podcast with Benjamin Brooks, and also through a number of guest appearances. Are there any other projects you'd like to pursue in the future. Say for example, and eBook?

Shawn: Absolutely. Two big ones in fact. One of which is an Audio / eBook that I'm working on right now and will be for people who build and design things.

A Little More About Shawn Blanc

Shawn resides in Kansas City, Missouri with his wife Anna and son Noah.

Shawn started publishing in June, 2007, before focusing his efforts on the weblog full time in April, 2011. Since its inception, he's published over 520 full-length articles to his weblog, along with recording and publishing over 400 episodes of his (almost) daily podcast, Shawn Today.

His writing style has evolved over the years, while remaining witty, fun, personal and educative with his content. Some of my all-time favourite pieces of Shawn's writing include his mammoth MarsEdit and NetNewsWire reviews, his rare interview with the extremely talented John Gruber, and more recently, his thoughts on user interaction on Flickr and Instagram.

Shawn's income is garnered by the way of three main streams. By advertising networks Fusion & The Syndicate, and by the support of Members. His site can be joined for just $4 per month.

Shawn can also be found on Twitter, or App.net.