Interview with Jay Clouse | Unreal Collective

It was kismet that I connected with Jay from Unreal Collective about 2 years ago. He joined another community I was part of, Wandering Aimfully. I liked his vibe and was intrigued by his new idea: Unreal Collective. We became what they call “internet friends” and I’m lucky to have met him and become “real life” friends.

So, what is Unreal Collective?

It is a community for founders and freelancers. Their flagship program is a 12-week, online accelerator. In just 12 weeks, they help you take massive action and achieve a major goal for your project or business. This includes a weekly call with 4 other individuals plus Jay as the facilitator. During the week, you can keep in touch via Slack along with others that are part of the community. Before the program begins, you’ll work with Jay to set your goals for the 12 weeks, and on the calls you declare your weekly goals in a group spreadsheet. This type of accountability helps you narrow down the most important tasks.

I’ve done the accelerator twice - once when I was working full time and freelancing on the side, and just recently we wrapped up my second round with an amazing group of business owners and freelancers.

Somewhere along the way, Jay became a client and it was great to work with someone with a unique business. He helped me refine my branding process and it’s pretty cool when your client becomes a coach. View the case study to learn more about our process of working together.

I wanted to interview Jay because because this program and community has helped me immensely get my own business off of the ground. I believe in the power of community, and I believe it can help you too.

View the Unreal Case Study by Anytime Creative (Me!)

Can you give me a little background about yourself?

I grew up in a farm town and my entire extended family are high school teachers for the most part. I went to Ohio State because I didn't know what I wanted to do. It was a big college. I figured I’d figure it out there.

I spent some time in the journalism college really liked writing but didn't see a future in journalism. At the same time, I discovered entrepreneurship and startups because they were starting to gain visibility in the culture and I thought that looked really awesome.

After college, I started a company with a guy in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was a ticketing company -  we went through an accelerator and raised a seed round of funding. In 2015, we sold that company. Then I went to a venture backed healthcare company, CrossChx, here in Columbus. I worked there for a year as a product manager. I knew I didn't really like having a boss and I'd want to move back out on my own sometime soon. So about a year in, I jumped out and started doing Unreal.

Unreal was a couple of things. It was me saying, I think I can help people and start a business and it was also me really embracing my creativity, which is something I hadn't really done up to that point. I think a lot of the reason that I gravitated towards product management and building software was because I could take ideas that I had and see them made real. The problem was, other people were the ones that were making them real. I had to work with product designers and engineers to actually see them exist in the world. I realized over the year that I was at CrossChx that there was there were ways that I could make things myself. That's why I started teaching myself WordPress, and I started freelancing and building websites at the same time that I was starting Unreal, the accelerator.

How did you get the confidence to start working and coaching people?

In the earliest days of Unreal, I basically had the thesis that people could accomplish more when they were empowered by community around them. For years, I had been organizing events and gatherings of people. So I knew I could create community, and I'd create a lot of community for myself. At the beginning it was just me saying, I think I could make community for people.

It wasn't even confidence about coaching or anything, it was just confidence in facilitating. Then, after I had five people come in and test that assumption, I said, okay, I think I can make this work. I know it works for people who put in the time, and I just started improving the program. On top of that, I had people asking me if they could have one-on-one time with me outside of the groups. It was less about me saying like, I'm going to do this and more of me saying, “Sure, I can do that.”

I think confidence is kind of built in trying something and then seeing it be successful, seeing it work, and seeing transformation happen. Early on when I was starting the coaching side of things, I was not totally confident and wanted to see what would happen. But the feedback that I got both explicitly when people told me that they were benefiting from the work we're doing together, and the results that I could see happening, showed me, "Okay, this, this works, and I can I can do this."

Where did the name come from?

Oh, great question. I don't actually remember I remember thinking that up. Anytime I was trying anything, everything I was doing was very on the nose. I would use very specific, clear words to describe things that didn't feel like they were that interesting. I had something that was called, Boosted Brands, where I was building Squarespace websites. Before that I had Market OSU which was just a marketplace for Ohio State.

I wanted something cooler. I wanted something that sounded fun. I started playing with words. I wanted to have some aspect of it that felt like community and felt like people. And I don't remember where Unreal came from. I do think that back when I was doing the ticket marketplace with Alex, the founder, he used the word unreal a lot, because there was just so much bullshit and bad circumstances that happened in the ticketing industry that we were just like, shake our heads be like, "unreal."

It probably stuck in my head somewhere and helped a little bit. Collective felt like a good community term that I kind of paired up. There's probably an old document I have of stuff that I was looking at. I don't know. just happened.

Why does the five to one model work for your program?

In the beginning, it was totally arbitrary. I picked 12 weeks as the length of time because I had worked with a coach one-on-one and his program was 12 weeks. I thought 12 weeks is a good length. Then I wanted to do a test group, and I think just by chance, I picked five people felt like five was a good number. We tried it and it worked out really well that five people would each get two hot seats in a 12 week format, plus a couple of flex weeks.

Over time, I've had a couple things happen where I've tried groups of less. I've had a group of four before, and it wasn't as good, it was fine, but it wasn't as good. A group of six is just really hard to get everybody's voice involved. So it just kind of seemed to work the best with five, and if somebody can't make it that week, we can get by with a group of four and it's still really productive.

What makes a good candidate to join the accelerator?

A good candidate for Unreal is somebody who has a specific goal they want to work towards whether it's for a project or a business. They are someone who works well in public - they want to involve other people's viewpoints but ultimately, they know they are responsible and capable of doing the work. They also need to be open minded, generous, and kind people because every week is a conversation. It needs to be a very flat conversation where everybody has equal insight and equal time. It takes someone who's passionate about some goal for their project or business, and a willingness to put the time in.

What has been the biggest takeaway from you working with people like this?

People respond differently to different types of accountability.

Some people just need the structure itself, like having the accountability spreadsheet, and declaring, "I'm going to do this thing” and knowing that other people are going to hear from them next week and ask, "Did you do that thing that you said you're going to do?" That's enough for most people.

Some people need more than that. I've had periods of times where some members I'm literally sending a message to every morning saying, "Hey, progress check, how did this thing go." Everybody works differently and I think that's important to realize in any program that you're putting people into. There is no one size fits all for anything. I've had to evolve the format a little bit in small ways to accommodate to make sure that everyone's having a good experience. Regarding the hot seats -  most people are very comfortable speaking out and sharing their opinion. Other people want to be prompted or asked for their opinion. That can be a tricky balance sometimes, because I don't want to put people on the spot if they're quiet because they don't have a thought. But at the same time, I want to make sure that everybody feels comfortable expressing their own ideas. So it's been a tricky balance to figure out too. I think generally as long as you create a safe space, everybody's comfortable sharing.

I've noticed that, at first, I'm literally with strangers. And as the weeks go by we become more and more comfortable. We learn each other's quirks, issues and challenges. So honestly, there's nothing you can do to force that you just have to let it flow. You do your best by choosing the groups.

Diversity is important to me in just about all forms the word. I do try to group people who are going to have similar learnings or similar struggles, or at similar stages of their business. But otherwise, I like to be really diverse in terms of the types of projects people are working on, their experience before the accelerator, gender, etc. So I do try to be intentional with that.

Unreal collective is not just an accelerator, can you explain a little about the other parts of the business you're working on?

We do have a community membership and most members of Unreal have gone through the accelerator, and you get access to the community membership by going through the accelerator. If you feel like you aren't ready for an intense 12 week process, and you hold yourself accountable, but you want to have access to other people who are working really hard towards something, you can join the community. The community has a resource center, a directory of other members, monthly community calls, and a monthly newsletter that goes out to give general updates. So that's one of the ways to get involved. What I've been working on most recently is a set of what I call guides, which are essentially online courses for freelancers.

I saw a need for an educational component because after a couple of years of working with a lot of freelancers, there are a lot of commonalities and things that people struggle with. I thought if I could codify that and put that in a format that people could access without having to go through the program, or that people are in the program can use that would be beneficial.

What are some things that people could do today to start achieving their life or business goals?

I think accountability is powerful in all kinds of forms. Sometimes accountability is just co-working with somebody and saying, "Hey, today, my biggest action item is this" and sitting with that person working until you get there. Sometimes it's a weekly call with somebody, sometimes it's a monthly call with somebody. I think one of the biggest things you can do is understand your own goals and then share that goal and a timeline with somebody else. Say, "Hey, this is my plan, can you help hold me accountable to this." And it can be high touch or low touch, but understanding your own goals and then sharing it with somebody else.

Is there something you're currently struggling with, in your business or life?

Really it’s just competing priorities. My business is driven from meeting, talking to and helping people. And that time directly takes away from my creative time. So the more creative time that I carve out, the more disconnected I feel from people. Ultimately, that's what drives my business. That balance is something that I struggle with all the time.

What is your creative time?

My creative time for the guides that I'm building requires hours to complete. It takes time writing, and then translating that writing into PowerPoint decks, and then ultimately, translating the PowerPoint decks into screen captures. It's just very time intensive, a lot of the content is written. I also write every week, so there's some time I need to carve out for that. And podcasting, but we're really far ahead on our production right now. It's just time where I'm producing.

I would definitely categorize myself as a professional creative. I'm gonna make it if it has to be made. It's all aligned with with my interests. But it's not all like some sort of Muse that is moving me. I'm like, “Oh, I I gotta make this thing right now.” A lot of it is very intentional.

How has having branding helped you and your business?

Branding does a couple things. It gives us sense of cohesion and identity to the things that I do and that makes me more confident in running and marketing my business. Also, it carries this weight of legitimacy that also helps in marketing the business. It's this virtuous cycle of the more legitimate it feels to me, the more confident I am and the more confident that I am, the more legitimate it feels to other people. So, branding is a core piece of that, it just feels like a real thing that is made with intention and stands for something.

How could someone else who's in your position justify that expense?

Well, I would start the conversation of, why do you want a new brand? I probably would have answered with close what I just said of feeling legitimate and cohesive. And you would say, "Why do you want that?" and I would say because I want it be a real thing. Being real helps me sell the the program the product, ultimately. And that's worth something.  Branding makes it easier for me to sell one or two clients, and that's a pretty easy investment to see a return on.

Do you have any people that you look up to that you would want to share their names so people could research?

Check out these links:

Learn More about Unreal and join the June Accelerator

Nominate A Friend to Join The Community

Listen to Jay’s Podcast, upside.fm - A podcast about startup investing outside of silicon valley

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Jenni Kowal - Owner of Anytime Creative