Harlan Landes – Monetizing and Selling a Seven-Figure Financial Website – And What’s Next

Welcome to the premier episode of Series 5 of the Plutus Awards Podcast. Our community is filled with hundreds of stories from creators and entrepreneurs just like you. And through this show we share these stories of challenges and successes from bloggers to podcasters from writers, speakers and more. I’m your host, Michelle Jackson.

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Today’s guest is Harlan Landes, founder of the Plutus Foundation. Harlan talks about creating, monetizing, and selling one of the first personal finance blogs, Consumerism Commentary. How does it feel to take a hobby that you love and realize that it has the potential to be a successful business? And what do you do after you move on from that success?

Monetizing and Selling a Seven-Figure Financial Website – And What’s Next

Notes and summary from this episode
  • Harlan Landes-Introduction Founder of the Plutus Foundation
  • 2003 actively in the personal finance community and enjoys supporting members of the community
  • I ask the awkward question-How did you get into personal finance?
  • He graduated from college with a degree in music. He wasn’t too focused on money and eventually was evicted from his home after losing his job, car and girlfriend. Commuting and speeding tickets were a disastrous combination.
  • Harlan ended up moving back home into his Dad’s basement.
  • As a result of this situation he began reading about money, budgeting and discovered The Motley Fool discussion boards and got deeper into his financial transformation. He still didn’t have a car.
  • He decided to start writing about his financial rebirth and launched Consumerism Commentary in 2003. His intent was to track where he was and find an audience that resonated with his message and story.
  • The 2008-2009 Recession had a huge impact on the growth of the financial blog community and content creation space. People were looking for content that was created by people that they connected with.
  • Financial content creators began monetizing their projects even though it felt a little weird and Harlan followed suit. Consumerism Commentary became a business as a result.
  • I remark that I had no idea what Harlan’s origin story was after knowing him for so many years.
  • Tension between doing what you love vs. the possibility of earning from it. We discussed going into our careers and how we were encouraged to do what we enjoyed vs. what made a ton of money.
  • We have a GenX conversation and I share how career conversations were different in our homes. We had the same career messaging for very different reasons.
  • Both our parents encouraged us to follow our passions. Harlan studied Music Education and was passionate about sharing the arts with future generations.
  • We note how things have changed due to the high cost for obtaining a degree and the return on investment vs. the cost.
  • I mentioned that my mom wanted me to pursue a career that made me happy because she didn’t really enjoy the work that she’d done.
  • Harlan gets the opportunity to sell his blog and I wonder why he didn’t just retire to an island instead of creating a non-profit.
  • He didn’t really trust the longevity of the business model due to the unpredictability of blogging and the external factors impacting the website such as Google Algorithm changes and demand.
  • His mother had posed the following question “What would you do if you had $1 million dollars?” Harlan’s answer “I would start a foundation.” Or, a project that would help others. He’d already created the Plutus Awards and then created the Plutus Foundation as a “Thank You” for what the community had given to him.
  • A key component of the Foundation was to give grants to creators that were educated in non-traditional ways and would need additional funding to do so. Supporting unique approaches for communities that wouldn’t have access.
  • Harlan shares what has been the most difficult challenge creating the Plutus Foundation. He’s candid with his answer.
  • Plutus Foundation Mission-It exists to serve the community of financial content creators through financial (grants) and other types of support.
Deciding to Monetize Consumerism Commentary
  • What was it like for Harlan to monetize Consumerism Commentary and what were some of the tensions around it as a content creator.
  • The internet and the access to the freedom of knowledge via the web was a huge conversation in the infancy of the internet.
  • Does money corrupt and is it distracting on websites/podcasts/etc. What are the ethics around the type of content you’re creating and why are you sharing the content that you’re sharing?
  • Harlan shares his monetization model and his thinking around the products that he shared online. His goal was to educate his community before they made a financial decision around a financial tool such as a credit card creating a barrier of information to make a more informed financial decision.
  • He also brought up creating courses and how that’s not a part of his monetization strategy.
  • We discover that we have a completely opposite monetization strategy.
  • Content creators have to be 100% comfortable with your monetization strategy and be able to defend your strategy. I bring up affiliate marketing and marketing products that other people hate.
  • Harlan points out that people can change their minds over time about their strategy based on timing, audience or just a shift in perspective.
  • He’d opened up different savings accounts and created a financial footprint that helped him run his monetization strategy.
Plutus Foundation
  • What was the biggest mistake that you made putting together the Plutus Foundation? Harlan reflects on the fact that they could have done more earlier and how he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do in the long-run.
  • Why did Harlan create the Plutus Awards and I wonder if he has been surprised by the negative and positive reactions to the awards. He’d had experience with other awards projects and felt that an awards ceremony could benefit the overall community and bring attention and appreciation for folks creating impactful content? Also, with a subtle nod towards the quality of content being created.
  • The first year that they did it was basically done via Twitter-2010
  • 2011-First year of FinCon and Plutus was asked to bring it to FinCon and incorporate the awards ceremony during the event. In a tent, Schaumberg, Ill and Jay Money won a ton of awards. Now, Harlan and his team had to really look at how the awards are granted, who wins and create legitimacy around the project. He created a committee and began working on and refining the process behind the awards.
  • The need for good representation was really brought home to him with the goal of reflecting the diversity of the entire personal finance community. Currently, there is a panel of 60+ community members who are a part of the nomination process.
  • How do people get on this panel? There’s a call each year. Follow the Plutus Awards on Social Media, sign up for the newsletter and pay attention to events both online and offline in the Plutus space. There’s a simple application that people have to fill out.
  • Plutus Voices events-Why create an in-person event and what’s the purpose around them?
  • Created prior to COVID-due to interest for live events for financial content creators “Making an impact on their audiences” The feedback has been incredibly positive.
  • There are speakers at these small events and the speakers talk about topics around making an impact in particular for underserved communities in the financial space. These events are meant to be small in order to problem solve and generate solutions.
  • Questions such as “How to communicate financial information and advice navigating around certain obstacles”
  • The feedback has been incredibly positive with feedback from creators being energized with new ways to communicate financial topics.
  • 2022-2023-What does the future look like for these events? Harlan is focused on being careful with the process and safety for the community.
  • Shout out Sarah Li Cain former host of The Plutus Foundation Podcast
Financial Conversations Throughout the Years
  • The financial conversation with his dad.
  • Criticism for the Plutus Awards and is the financial content community doing what it’s supposed to be doing from an inclusion perspective? This has been a challenge and created some uncomfortable conversations.
  • What are some of the challenges and opportunities for personal content creators?
  • There’s an opportunity to have deeper real conversations around money via independent content creation.
  • What are some of the changes that Harlan has seen in the past 3 years and the opportunities connected with those changes. Trends in money impacted by external situations leading to FIRE, investing, etc. Diversity and Inclusion content.
  • I wonder if Harlan will end up on TikTok leading to the question “Is there room for me to do this and does this light you up?”
  • Are blogs dead? No. People are still reading blogs but followers expect more. Start the blog.
  • Harlan shares his one piece of advice for someone who is in the personal finance space right now…but, it’s unsure about it.
Communities and Creators Mentioned

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About Michelle Jackson, Podcast Host

Michelle Jackson is mission-driven to help her readers and listeners empower themselves financially. Whether it is by improving their personal finances or learning how to sell what they already know — she loves having those conversations. Michelle runs the website and podcast “Michelle is Money Hungry” and is the founder of the Money on the Mountain retreat focused on empowering financially single women one conversation at a time. When she’s not geeking out about personal finance you can find her hiking in the mountains of Colorado.

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