I’ve never been a fan of motivational advice. Platitudes and generic pep-rallies will only take you so far. I understand that sometimes all people need is a little kick in the butt to get moving, a little inspiration maybe, but sometimes people need the meaty details.
If you perceive someone to be a leader in a genre, an industry, or a “space,” it wasn’t just motivation that earned that person their success. It wasn’t just working hard — it wasn’t even just working harder than anyone else. When you ask someone how he has come to be successful and their only answer is that they worked really hard, he is probably blowing you off and ignoring your question.
Maybe it’s more commonplace now, but I still think there’s something noteworthy about one of my achievements:
I started with a hobby with no expenses but my time and effort, and I turned that hobby into a business and cash-flow-producing asset that I sold in 2011 for an amount somewhere in the middle of seven figures.
My living needs are still relatively modest, so I can consider myself financially independent — but I haven’t retired. Maybe because I don’t call my situation “early retirement” and I don’t write stories about this particular success I don’t really receive a lot of questions about it. I don’t make myself a “brand” I try to sell, because I don’t need to sell anything right now.
So here’s how I earned money, made a living, quit my day job, and became financially independent, all from operating a financial blog. I’m not holding anything back. I’m not keeping any trade secrets.
Keep in mind that even though these particular tactics worked for me, they (a) might not work for you or (b) may not be necessary for you.
I started really early.
I’ve been building online communities since 1990, the year I entered high school, several years before the World Wide Web. I ran a 1200-baud dial-up bulletin board system (BBS), and friends and strangers used their computers and modems to call my computer to leave messages for each other, publicly and privately, to chat with each other in real time, and to share digital media.
When the World Wide Web became more mainstream by 1994, I began designing and running websites, including a personal website that was basically the form of a blog. This long-term experience set me up well for the day earning money from building blogs and online communities would become a reality.
I started Consumerism Commentary in 2003. Nobody else, to the best of my knowledge, was writing about personal finance from a personal perspective in blog form. I hit a combination early on that later proved to be a winner.
It’s not too late to start early in something no one else is doing. Stay focused on technology that is new and notable. Be the first one on your virtual block to explore new forms of media or find a way to make something old new again. The crazier other people think you are for wasting time on something no one else is doing, the better.
I followed a passion.
I started Consumerism Commentary after a small string of other blogs — all focused on topics about which I was passionate. I didn’t start websites just to chase trending topics or advertising dollars. There wasn’t much of the latter to go around at the turn of the 21st century. There weren’t any other independent blogs covering personal finance, and I became an early leader in a budding community.
If I hadn’t been passionate about the topic, I wouldn’t have been able to stay focused. And that leads directly to the next point about working hard.
Not all passions line up with a market need. But if you can find a true passion that does, working will never feel like work; it’s like you’re getting paid to have fun, even though it certainly is still work. And if you’re not earning money, at least you’re enjoying yourself and spending time and effort on something worthwhile.
I worked incredibly hard.
This is as close as I’m going to get to motivational advice. I spent most of my waking time outside of my day job on Consumerism Commentary in the early days, particularly from 2004 through 2011. For much of that time, I aimed to write three high-quality articles a day.
Of course, the concept of “high-quality” changed over time, and the effort required to write articles that readers expected from informational blogs increased. I worked an eight-hour day at a financial company, went home, ate dinner (usually), and worked anywhere from six to eight hours with a plan that included:
- Writing articles that I would publish the next day.
- Responding to comments and emails from readers.
- Working with other bloggers on group projects.
- Helping other bloggers get started.
Somehow in the midst of this, I also earned a master’s degree in business administration.
I might have been getting four hours of sleep a night during the week, and I’d work on weekends, too. Had I been more savvy, my list would have included promoting myself; for those years, social media wasn’t as important as it is today.
I made Consumerism Commentary my priority — even though it wasn’t earning much money in the early years. But that was OK. It was fun, and I enjoyed it, and I would have done it even if it wasn’t earning any money. They say that if you love what you do, you’ll never actually “work.” It was certainly fun, but it was definitely work.
If you’re not making your site your top priority, you’re leaving a portion of success on the table. Yes, you may be interested in things like quality of life and spending time with your family, but success comes to those who make personal sacrifices, not those who want to have it all at the same time. Business owners who want to succeed in a competitive industry can’t be concerned with finding work/life balance.
I paid close attention to trends and made educated guesses about the future.
A good business needs to be aware of what is the state of the art. One example from the past for bloggers is the ability for readers to participate in discussions through commenting.
You may not believe it now, but there was a time that blogging software didn’t consistently offer ways for readers to participate in discussions. When this innovation became mainstream, blogging software developers needed to quickly implement a solution. The ability to participate became a baseline requirement for most people who regularly read blogs. There were and are exceptions, but for the most part, blogs that don’t encourage reader participation are less likely to build a strong community and eventually succeed financially.
Innovation — offering something interesting that isn’t found elsewhere — is one part of predicting trends. The other part is anticipating what the world will be talking about in the future, and while there’s some luck involved with this, you can usually get some good ideas by reading something new in your field every day. Getting ahead of the curve positions yourself well for receiving solid attention when the rest of the world catches up to you.
When you read every day, you are more likely to become a subject matter expert. When you make connections from one idea to others that people haven’t considered, and write, and publicize, you will be able to draw some attention to yourself. Make sure you’re giving readers what they expect (state of the art) as well as things they never knew they needed (innovation). What’s innovative today will become state of the art — baseline expectations — tomorrow, so be ahead of that curve.
I adopted a business-based approach at the right time.
If you start thinking like a business owner too early, you can lose your passion, alienate your audience, and drive yourself to early failure. If you wait until it’s too late to think like a business owner, you miss opportunities and never reach your full potential.
I couldn’t add advertising when I launched Consumerism Commentary because there weren’t many options besides going out to advertisers directly and soliciting sales. When Google released AdSense and later when it became socially acceptable to run advertising on a personal blog, I dipped my feet in the water. But I still wasn’t taking a very business-like approach.
It wasn’t until I saw a significant potential — probably the time I was contacted by a representative of the bank formerly known as ING Direct to be part a long-term CPM advertising campaign — that I started getting serious about looking for ways to earn money outside of “passive” AdSense.
Don’t be too greedy. Don’t over monetize. Take your time a build your growth slowly, doing it right, cultivating your audience and making revenue decisions with them in mind.
I held out for the best opportunities.
There are a lot of ways to make quick money once you have a website with a relatively small presence among search engines. Strong long-term growth comes from long-term consistent content. Short cuts eventually get in you trouble or cut your future short.
For me, my potential mistake was offering text-based ads for some questionable businesses leading up to the time that Google cracked down on this advertising. I stopped when it became relatively clear that Google could rationalize penalizing those who didn’t play by their rules.
Sponsored posts never fit into my guidelines, but affiliate-related posts could in some circumstances. But there’s a fine line. While I hardly ever took a flat payment to write a product review, I did rely on complimentary demos or software, while using my best effort to stay detached and impartial.
Once you do have a presence, advertisers will come to you with requests — but the proposals will be lopsided. They will want a lot from you without offering much in return. And because so many bloggers take these deals, they will continue to push, asking for publicity, links, and exposure without adequate compensation.
The acceptance of small payouts by bloggers who aren’t really interested in long-term growth will ensure the continued prevalence of start-ups and low-quality advertisers (payday loan outfits, for example) who expect (and sometimes rudely demand) bloggers to work or run advertising for free or nearly free.
Stay classy and hold yourself and your business to high standards when it comes to advertising. Don’t do business with bad people or bad companies, including good brands that attempt to take advantage of you. Ask a few colleagues if you’re not sure if a deal is priced well. Sharing information is good for everybody.
I used natural search engine optimization.
Search engine optimization (SEO) became a significant industry in the early to mid 2000s. At first, many self-proclaimed “SEO experts” seemed to be guessing about how search engines worked. But the research improved somewhat, and website owners began believing some people better than others understood the magic formula to ranking towards the top on search engine result pages. And when SEO wasn’t built into blogging software or plugins, fast fixes could have nearly immediate results. SEO experts became gurus mostly because any SEO was better than no SEO.
Here’s what worked for Consumerism Commentary, which at a critical time ranked first on search engine results pages for a number of very lucrative keywords and key phrases. Leading up to that time, I had been writing for years about the topic surrounding those keywords. For almost all of those years, there were no revenue components in those articles beyond AdSense, or very little.
The search engines considered this website a top authority on credit cards, for example. Eventually, as credit card issuers during the recession redirected cash into their marketing efforts, these companies began offering great advertising deals to websites that could produce highly-qualified leads.
One question advertisers and potential buyers asked me is why the leads generated by Consumerism Commentary were so much better (more financially qualified with higher income, lower debt, and better credit ratings) than leads from other financial blogs.
Here’s why, from what I could tell, and this is what I told the website’s potential buyers.
I had been writing for years to cultivate an audience of smart and savvy financial consumers, assuming my audience was well-educated with good jobs and relatively high income. That’s not the same as focusing on basic “evergreen” articles, often written to be simple and less scholarly with titles matching popular search terms verbatim. I tried, though I didn’t always succeed, to write articles that someone with a college education would enjoy — and this goes against most advice for writers.
That doesn’t mean that writing evergreen articles for a more basic audience is a bad idea. You’re just competing with a lot of others.
I knew that Google used open-source technology from WordNet to determine how to show advertising to visitors or how to rank the quality of websites. I was familiar with how WordNet worked and had some guesses about how Google used semantic webs to rank websites. I expected that writing for an educated audience would bring educated readers, inspire a smart set of loyal fans, and attract intelligent search engine visitors. Because this “traffic quality” was so desired by advertisers, one specific advertiser would pay a six-figure sum every month to ensure premium placement in addition to higher CPA affiliate relationship rates.
Search terms didn’t dictate my topics. I wrote articles that I would want to read and that I thought would hold readers’ interest over the course of the next few months to the next few years. And I wrote in a way that would attract the readers I wanted to be part of the conversation. I’ve had a few people suggest topics to me based on their own keyword research, but I rarely followed the suggestions and never relied on it. I did, however, incorporate word structures that I felt could help, but that was usually just a part of trying to write for an intelligent audience.
As SEO metadata best practices developed, I did my best to follow the rules, like using informational titles, short but helpful summaries, URLs that focused on important keywords, and obviously nothing designed to trick the search engines.
Late in the game, I did accept some SEO help, but the bulk of the work that provided positive results was done through relentless writing for a good number of years and a collection of high-quality inbound links that came just through writing well-liked (and well-linked) articles.
The biggest success stories come from a focus on creating a great experience and cultivating a community rather than on tailoring “content” for search engines. There’s a balance you must be aware of, but chasing yesterday’s hot keywords instead of looking forward to what people will be thinking about (and thus searching for) in the future is a recipe for playing catch-up.
Natural SEO is the best SEO. If you know your industry well, are passionate, keep your eyes trained on the future, and write for a smart audience, you will ensure future readers will find you, as long as you are following some best practices. Don’t put search engines before readers. Because “sharability” is a newer factor for success building traffic (if not a sustainable audience), write well, connect with readers, and give them a reason to share your articles.
I gave as much of myself to the community and to other bloggers as possible.
I’m not just passionate about personal finance, I’m passionate about the idea of independent publishing as a medium separate but equal to big media. I’ve come up with many ways over the years to promote other personal finance blogs and the industry overall, from participation in the Money Blog Network, to developing an ad-free aggregator of current personal finance blog articles, to founding the Carnival of Personal Finance, to creating the Plutus Awards.
When many bloggers were using BlogSpot, a web hosting system I considered to be inferior, I offered free WordPress and Blogger hosting to a number of other financial bloggers. I wanted more people to have the opportunity to easily publish their thoughts on personal finance and have the potential to earn some money if that was among their goals.
I gave free financial support, technical support, moral support, and advice as often as I could. Don’t let “your time is worth $X” convince you you have to charge colleagues for your help. Never once did I feel that a colleague was trying to take advantage of me until I experimented with charging for coaching services.
And I have yet another community project in the works that is going to make a lot of noise in the industry and will have the potential to positively effect millions of people — not just blog readers. I can’t wait to share some of these details publicly, so stay tuned.
Giving back to the community is about much more about hoping that karma will give back to you in return. Promote others who do good work because everyone benefits. Yes, good deeds do come back to you and help position yourself strongly within the community, but helping others is also the right thing to do.
I started from a privileged position.
Today, there is about a 4.4% chance of being born in the United States. Having been born in Brooklyn, New York in 1976 to two white, middle-class parents with college degrees is like having won the lottery, even if at the time my parents were earning very little money.
And my parents had debt — at least a mortgage, maybe more — for most of my childhood. Yet I was never dissuaded from following my passions. Education was a priority. My parents, both present and influential in my life, encouraged me to make good choices and to try new things, and in a kind of hippie way they made me believe that I had enormous potential. Maybe they fooled me into thinking that potential was greater than average.
I didn’t have to work as a teenager to support my family, but I worked at times to get a taste of the real world (and to save money for college or car expenses). I wasn’t worried every night about whether I’d have enough food the next day. I wasn’t tossed around from house to house with an unstable family or abruptly-changing living situations.
If you’re not born with privilege it doesn’t usually come later. Yes, you can still work hard and overcome some obstacles. Many people have. But most people won’t. What you can do is try to break the cycle. Be a good example for the younger generation within your household or community. Or, like others, make your troubled past part of your branding strategy.
I was the beneficiary of some luck.
Ask a CEO the reasons for her company’s success, and the answer usually includes excellent management, strong leadership, great employees, and good decisions. Ask the same person the reasons for her company’s failure, and the reasons start and end with unfair competition, nasty market conditions, and aggressive government interference. The pattern is always the same: good results are due to our awesomeness while bad results are someone else’s fault.
The truth, whether about good results or bad results, is almost always a mix of internal and external forces. Before you finish reading this article and determine that I think I’m super-smart and made all the right decisions all the time, and that led me directly to success, I will freely and happily acknowledge that I had some help from the world around me.
Here’s an example.
As bad as it sounds, the recession, while devastating to millions of families, created a great opportunity for publishers like me. Suddenly, more people were interested in learning about managing their household finances. While I could still argue that writing about personal finance before 2007 was still good foresight about future trends, there was no telling when the bubbles would burst until the recession was upon us.
I was also the beneficiary of kindness. Just like I made myself available to other bloggers for advice, I also took advantage of reciprocity, those who were happy to help me be successful, in the form of their advice and support. Being part of a network (or “mastermind group” as they are called today) was essential for creating and executing great plans.
Don’t be afraid to admit that there are forces beyond your control that contribute to your success, while your efforts that fail also probably involve decisions you’ve made as well. When you’re honest to yourself about the causes and effects, you’ll be able to make better choices for your business.
I knew when it was time to exit.
For a while, the writing was on the wall. Search engines made changes to their algorithms that made it clear that small, independent blogs could be at a disadvantage, and that disadvantage tended to be random (despite the claims by “SEO experts”).
Google, for example, introduced inline widgets into results pages that competed directly with some of the websites that earned revenue from certain search terms. Sometimes these experiments wouldn’t last, but one thing was clear: big companies will always make it more difficult for individual publishers to succeed.
There was an identifiable risk. And for Consumerism Commentary, I saw a peak approaching. The risk that was always there was becoming more apparent to me at the same time revenue was increasing at a strong pace. Thankfully, I had already been in discussions with potential buyers, and I massaged the timeline a little bit and managed to “exit” — sell my business — at a really good time.
And from what I’ve seen since then, I made a really good decision. Possibly the best financial decision of my life.
Many independent websites in the financial space that were revenue-maximized by 2010 and 2011, especially the smaller websites, are still struggling to generate the same revenue they were earning then.
It’s the well-funded, larger websites which, for the most part, are taking a larger share of advertising revenue (admittedly, a pool that does increase from time to time). That’s one reason many independent bloggers have been turning to other forms of revenue like creating courses and selling coaching services. This approach can result in a great revenue stream, and can add diversification to a business plan, and had I remained the owner of Consumerism Commentary, this is surely a direction I would have had to consider.
I saw other things coming — the rise of mobile devices, for instance. Consumerism Commentary and blogs in general work really well for someone sitting at a computer looking for a good article to read, but more and more online activity — particularly consumer activity like choosing financial products — will take place on mobile devices, and the blog format is just not set up well for mobile. Yes, “responsive design” is helpful for reading blogs and visiting other websites on mobile devices, but it’s not a native, intuitive use for mobile.
I knew that in order to compete in a changing environment I’d need to invest in where the future was heading, and that just wasn’t my interest at the time.
The rise of BuzzFeed and similar sites that simply reuse other writers’ content in a more “shareable” format has bothered me as well, and changes like these turn me away from wanting to publish great content online.
For me, the main impetus was a matter of risk. I saw the risk inherent in how the site was generating and maintaining revenue, and I made a deal that offloaded that risk onto someone with, theoretically, the resources and the diversification to handle it. I couldn’t have accomplished the sale at a good price without the help of a recommended investment banking firm that acted as a broker to the sale — well worth the fee.
Keep an eye on the future, and recognize when you’ve made the most of what you can do. Timing a small market is difficult, but there are some strong signals. Don’t think that you can do everything. If you’ve optimized your approach and see risk ahead, and you can make a deal with someone else who feels they’re better prepared to handle that risk, you’re poised to make a good deal.
I should share some additional specific actions I took to build Consumerism Commentary.
I was highly selective in accepting advertising dollars. Not at first, but rather quickly I realized that it was better to align Consumerism Commentary with the highest quality brands, as I mentioned above. But it wasn’t just brand quality. I analyzed each opportunity, and if an offer didn’t move the cash flow needle by 2%, it wasn’t worth the effort.
By that I mean the following: Assuming the website was earning $50,000 a month, if an offer wasn’t expected to bring in an additional $1,000 a month, I didn’t spend any time pursuing it.
I experimented with staff writers, but I knew pretty quickly the experiment wasn’t going to work. It was clear the strength of Consumerism Commentary was in my own writing. I was rarely happy with submissions from other writers, and regular readers expressed their displeasure. I did see success with two staff writers over the years, but they were friends I had known since I was a teenager, not freelance writers or other financial bloggers.
I looked for other kinds of help behind the scenes. As the website and business grew, it was clear I needed to outsource something. Outsourcing the writing obviously was damaging, but getting some help behind the scenes helped me to focus on content while someone else handled some of the basic business needs.
I would love to be able to say that because I was able to build a seven-figure business from nothing, you can, too. But it’s just not going to happen this way for most people, especially not in the ways that worked leading into 2011. There are other paths to take. For instance, soon we’ll hear from Ramit Sethi who also founded a seven-figure blog-based business. As you’ll see, he took a vastly different approach than I did.
If I were to start something new today with a business-oriented approach, I’d take an entirely different path. For example, the form of my business might have more in common with a financial tech start-up than with a blog.
What I like about the approach I took is that I never had to sell anything to my audience. My readers weren’t my customers. That’s really important to me, as I have no interest in being a salesperson to friends and fans. By a vast majority, my customers were random visitors from search engines who had one goal in mind. I facilitated their goal in what I felt was an ethically responsible way, and kept most of the monetization efforts away from regular readers who were generally too smart to buy from me.
You may find another way to build a seven-figure business out of a blog. If you have, or if you’re on your way, feel free to share your thoughts!