3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Shake Things up
I’ve said before many times that the key to job satisfaction is moving away from your Drudgery and Disinterest Zones and toward the Passion and Proficiency of your Desire Zone.
Some readers have raised a good question about this shift. It’s easy to tell what I’m passionate about, they tell me, but how do I determine if I am proficient at something?
It’s easy to assume that just sitting down and thinking through your professional strengths is all it takes to get clear on your proficiency. However, I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, I’d suggest that proficiency is something you cannot determine on your own, because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is a lot of overlap between aptitude and proficiency but they are not the same.
Aptitude is an ability or knack for doing something. But we’re not necessarily going to be proficient at all those things we have an aptitude for, and the difference really matters.
In business, proficiency is externally validated. The attributes of proficiency knowledge, skills, and experience generate results that other people can measure and reward.
You’re not truly proficient unless you’re able to deliver results in the role you were hired for, or that you’ve convinced your organization to shift you into.
You’re not truly proficient unless you’re able to deliver results in your role.
This can be frustrating to workers who are tired of the job they have now but haven’t yet convinced their employer to move them into a different role.
In such cases, you may be tempted to throw in the towel and strike out on your own. That move could be either a great idea or a huge mistake. How can you tell the difference?
Don’t Quit Your Day Job
We’ll get to that in a second. First, let me suggest what you might do with an aptitude that does not clearly rise to the level of a proficiency.
Let’s say you’re good at hitting a baseball. That’s great, but it doesn’t mean you ought to quit your job and chase a career in the game. Instead you might join an adult team and play on weeknights and in weekend tournaments.
Or say you are good at playing the guitar. That doesn’t mean you ought to put together a band and tour the country. Maybe you can join the worship team at church or play with friends or come out to open mic nights and just enjoy it.
There shouldn’t be anything unsatisfying about this approach. Most of us have more aptitudes than we can realistically pursue in our professional life. It’s not a bad idea to use those aptitudes to help us figure out what to do to find fulfillment in our personal lives.
Ask Before You Leap
Now back to the question of when a career transition may be in order. Before you decide to change positions within your company or strike out on your own, I suggest that you ask yourself these 3 questions:
What do I feel passionate about doing instead of my current work?
Am I proficient at it?
How do I know that?
The last question is key. I just know is not a good answer. Again, it all comes back to external validation.
To take the two examples above, let’s say that while you are pursuing your aptitudes as hobbies, people see your talent and constantly encourage you to take it to the next level. Let’s further foresee that you get serious interest from a talent scout or a record executive.
These would be examples of external validation of your proficiency at these disciplines. When this happens, pay attention and at least consider moving your life into a whole new and more satisfying zone.
Because when you have both passion and proficiency, you can often get a third p into the equation that makes all of this possible: profits.
Question: In what areas do your passions and proficiencies overlap? What external validation have you received in these areas? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
It’s one of the toughest questions in business: Who should you be working with? Several years ago, when I was CEO of Thomas Nelson, I had one of those moments of clarity that has broad application for organizations.
The aha! moment came when I was thinking about our professional relationships with authors and agents. Some relationships were highly profitable and enjoyable. Others were also quite profitable but a constant drain on our staff and resources.
Still others were enjoyable but not very rewarding financially. And of course there were the worst kind of relationships from our perspective: unprofitable and annoying.
Drawing the Matrix
To sort them out, I imagined a two-by-two matrix, similar to the Boston Consulting Matrix. The horizontal axis represented maintenance and the vertical axis represented profit. Then I drew that matrix out. Click here to download the pdf.
When I stepped back to look at it, I realized that it describes just about every kind of professional relationship you can have. That’s because every business relationship falls somewhere on the continuum of profitability: highly profitable, marginally profitable, or completely unprofitable. Every professional relationship also requires a certain amount of maintenance that we can plot on the other axis.
Setting Relationship Priorities
This idea became practical for me when I realized I could use this matrix to figure out how to prioritize my clients. It can provide that same clarity for you, too.
These are the high-profit/low-maintenance relationships. They don’t require a lot of energy to service, and they yield big profits.
Client relationships that fall into this category are delightful. Everyone is happy. The secret to success in business is to develop more of these relationships. They are the cash cows.
These are the low-profit/low-maintenance relationships. The reason these relationships are second in priority is because they have at least half of the equation right: they are low maintenance.
Your hope is that with a little work, you can also make them highly profitable. They are the bright and shining stars with lots of unreached potential. In terms of how you allocate resources, these should be your second priority.
These are the high-profit/high-maintenance relationships. These are probably the most frustrating. They seem too profitable to exit. But they require so much maintenance, you are often left wondering whether it is worth the effort. As a result, they are a perpetual question mark.
The key is to try and move these relationships into the Priority 1 quadrant. If you can’t do this, then it’s best to bite the bullet and exit the relationship. These difficult partnerships drain time you could otherwise invest in finding more Priority 1 relationships or in making your Priority 2 relationships more profitable.
These are the low-profit/high-maintenance relationships. They are dogs at least in terms of the value to your organization. They are a huge waste of resources. They wear out your staff. They have little or no potential. It can be tough to face, but the sooner you come to grips with this reality, the better.
Getting rid of relationships that fall into this category will allow you to reclaim resources you can invest in finding or serving Priority 1 clients. Typically, once you exit this kind of relationship, you wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.
Plot Your Relationships, Plot Your Course
I suggest that you take some time and plot your current business relationships on this matrix. Once you’ve done that, here are some practical strategies for how to proceed by region.
Priority 1 Action: Schedule time to prospect for more of these clients and make time to super-serve the ones you have. They may be low-maintenance but a little extra attention might pay big dividends.
Priority 2 Action: Schedule time to brainstorm with your team how to make these more profitable. You like working with these people. If you can make it more rewarding to do so, everybody wins.
Priority 3 Action: Schedule time to have the hard conversation about why this relationship might not be a good fit.
Be frank with these folks. Tell them that you value their contribution but you also value your team’s time and effort. Help them better understand the costs of what they’re demandingand the impact of those demands on your working relationship.
Sometimes having that difficult discussion is all it takes to create a change in their behavior and move them closer to the low-maintenance category.
Priority 4 Action: Schedule a time to have the hard conversation with the client about why your relationship is not a good fit.
Be professional, though they may have been rude to you and your team. Tell them that you’ve done some hard thinking and it just isn’t worth doing this anymore, wish them the best, and call it a day.
Put Yourself on the Matrix
Incidentally, this Matrix also works in reverse. To determine where you might fall on someone else’s grid, just write a quick list of what would define a profitable, low-maintenance relationship in your space. Here’s an example of a list I made while I was at Thomas Nelson to gauge how we were doing.
Profile of the Ideal Publisher
1. Demonstrates a win-win financial paradigm.
1. Demonstrates a win-lose financial paradigm.
2. Offers competitive advances and royalty rates.
2. Does not offer competitive advances or royalty rates.
3. Makes advance and royalty payments on a timely basis.
3. Takes forever to pay advances or is slow in paying royalties.
4. Maximizes product sales through every market channel.
4. Focuses on only two or three market channels.
5. Proactively manages client’s backlist and, as a result, maximizes royalty income.
5. Allows backlist titles to languish or slip out of print, costing the author royalty income.
6. Refers prospective author clients to us (i.e., the agent).
6. Wouldn’t think of referring a prospective author client to us, let alone do it.
7. Sees the agent as a partner (i.e., a customer), welcomes his involvement, and reinforces his role with the author.
7. Sees the agent as an adversary (i.e., the enemy), resents his involvement, and tries to undermine his role with the author.
8. Has a standard contract for the agency so that contracts can be negotiated quickly.
8. Everything must be negotiated from scratch every time, adding cost and frustration.
10. Responds promptly to inquiries, proposals, and completed manuscripts.
10. Is slow or negligent in responding to inquires, proposals, and completed manuscripts.
11. Takes the initiative to prepare a written marketing plan and follows up on it.
11. Only prepares a marketing plan when the agent demands it and then, once created, hopes the agent and the author forget about it.
12. Proactively provides information-including sales information-to the agent on a regular basis.
12. Reactively provides information to the agent-if at all.
13. Under-promises and over-delivers, thereby making the agent look good with his or her clients.
13. Over-promises and under-delivers, thereby making the agent look bad with his or her clients.
14. Includes the agent in all communication with the author.
14. Circumvents the agent either intentionally or unintentionally.
15. Responds quickly to rights reversion requests.
15. Drags feet in responding to rights reversion requests.
Looking it over, I realized that we had some improvements to make so that we could land in more authors’ and agents’ Priority 1 zone. After all, isn’t that where we’d all like to be?
You Decide the Quality of Your Relationships
Here’s why it matters: In business, it’s easy to slip into a limiting mentality that the quality of your relationships is beyond your control. That’s especially true when you have a difficult client whose business is paying your bills. But that’s the beauty of this Matrix. It provides you the clarity you need to take informed action.
Now that you have a tool to measure the quality of your relationships, you have the agency you need to improve them. Perhaps for you that’s scouting for new Priority 1 clients, or setting up systems to make a Priority 3 client lower-maintenance, or working to better your own business practices to become the kind of partner everyone wants.
The secret to success in business is to develop high-profit, low-maintenance relationships.
Whatever it looks like for you, choose a next step and get busy improving the quality of your business relationships. A more enjoyable work life (and perhaps an increase in revenue) are waiting for you on the other side of those efforts.
Question: What is your next step to increase the quality of your business relationships? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
When I wrote recently about firing monster clients who eat up disproportionate time and resources, one reader replied, Great idea. Do you have a guide for how exactly we should do that?
It was a good question. A guide like that would have been useful to me earlier in my career. I have had to let many clients go over the years, and it hasn’t always ended well.
First Warning Signs
For instance, when I was CEO of Thomas Nelson I had an author I’ll call Mary. She was really full of herself. She wanted her book fast-tracked, so we were pushing it through production and pushing the contract through legal at the same time. That’s almost never a good idea, by the way.
When Mary got the initial mock-up of the cover from the designer, she didn’t like it. That was fine. We could’ve done something else. But she said to the designer, This is unacceptable. My guess is you’re only pushing this particular concept because you’re fat.
The designer came to my office in tears, told me what happened, and asked what we could do about the cover.
Now, I can take a certain amount of abuse myself, but when you mess with my team that’s a different story. I called up Mary and asked if she had said that to the designer. She admitted it.
What were you thinking? I asked, and not rhetorically.
These are the people that are here to help you succeed, I said. This doesn’t help you. This doesn’t help me. I have your contract on my desk. I’m not going to sign unless you send the designer flowers to arrive tomorrow with an apology.
Mary apologized and did what I asked but made it clear in the next few months that she had learned nothing from being called on the carpet.
If at First You Don’t Fail
About six months later, the publicist assigned to Mary’s book told me she was extremely difficult to work with. She was rude and refused to cooperate with simple requests. In fact, she had called the publicist an idiot.
So I picked up the phone and called Mary again. She admitted she called the publicist an idiot and didn’t stop there. She spewed nothing but complaints against a person who had been working very hard to promote her book.
I let her go on for a minute and then cut her off. I told her that she didn’t know what she was talking about, that this publicist was one of the most respected in the industry, and that I was cancelling the next two books of her three-book contract.
This is the last conversation you’re going to have with me, I said and angrily hung up.
After I got off the phone with her, I started feeling remorseful. I called her agent, told him what had gone down and invited his feedback. He had had similar experiences with her, it turned out, and he decided this was the final straw for him as well.
So how did I do? As we will see from looking at the steps below, I did some things right and some things wrong in firing Mary. Here’s how I would fire a monster client today:
Step 1: Identify the Problem
Before you fire a client who has done something that you don’t like, do some evaluation. Ask yourself: Is this a pattern of behavior or is this a one-off? All of us can have monster moments. Next question: Does it square with your values? If it’s a character issue, I know I’ll ultimately have to let them go, but it’s also important not to make snap or ill-informed judgments.
That’s why I called Mary up, asked for her side of the story, and gave her a chance to make things right. I went ahead and allowed the first book to be published because at least she was honest about it and did what I asked. Had that been the end of it, she might not have been a monster client.
Step 2: Evaluate the Problem Client
As you work with clients, patterns of behavior start to emerge. Some relationships will be great. Others will be decent with occasional rough patches. And others will represent an ongoing drain on you, your team, and your resources.
In the second phone conversation with Mary, I determined she was a drain. Like the previous infraction, she treated one of my team members badly. But this time her response was even worse. This time she doubled down by badmouthing my publicist to me.
Enough was enough. She was obviously never going to improve, so I knew what I had to do.
Step 3: Initiate the Break
Firing Mary was the right call, but probably not the way I did it. If you experience remorse after you do something, it’s a good indicator some part of what you did was not kosher.
When firing monster clients, you are going to have to initiate the break, but you should be in control and not let your anger get the best of you. Yes, this person might have been pushy, insulting, and demeaning. But your job is to end the business relationship, not tell her off.
Don’t spend all your creative time maintaining horrible clients. Fire them and move on.
There are two ways you can initiate the break:
Either have a hard conversation and be done with it, or
Change the relationship in such a way that they want to move on.
You can raise your rates significantly, for instance, and monster clients will usually move along.
Step 4: Move On
You’ve got to take the high road with monster clients. Learn your lessons, but don’t badmouth former clients. (And, yes, many biographical details of Mary have been changed to protect her identity.) Instead, move on and make new plans. It’s healthy for you and can be even better for your business.
I’ve never regretted firing a monster client. But too often people put up with monster clients because they wonder, How will I replace him and the revenue he brings in?
The problem is you’re spending all your creative time to maintain a horrible relationship. Imagine what would be possible in your business if you had all that capacity and energy back. My guess is that you could quickly and easily replace your monster client in a way that’s more profitable and won’t keep you up at night.
Question: Have you ever fired a monster client? How did you handle it? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
If you fall short of the average for your industry, you’ll want to do better. (Heck, even if you exceed it, you’ll still want to drive up that open rate!)
How do you do it? You know the well-worn, proven answers compelling subject lines, benefit-focused body copy, irresistible CTAs.
How about something you don’t know? Something simpler yet really effective
Re-Send Emails to Those Who Trash Them!
Give everyone a reasonable chance to open your original email. The consensus from experts is that it takes 3 days for at least 90% of a mailout to be opened.
So be patient!
2) Identify Your Targets
After 3-4 days, go to your email manager and identify the people who didn’t open the email. Each email platform (AWeber, MailChimp, etc.) has a way to do this.
We can’t cover all the platforms here, so you’ll need to root around (or ask support). To give you the idea of what you’re looking for
In MailChimp, go to Reports > Subscriber activity > Didn’t open
3) Re-send to the Didn’t Opens
Before you do, write a different subject line.
Many of your didn’t reads will have trashed your mail because the subject didn’t grab them. So make the new subject line compelling in a different way (try another benefit, or a better way of delivering the same one).
A second sending also finds some folks who were in too much of a hurry the first time around. So send this at a different time of day.
This is a BIG, SIMPLE hack that works every time!
Bottom Line Takeaway?
Re-sending emails to folks who didn’t read them, using a different subject line, at a different time of day, takes moments.
The payoff? If your open rate is , you could get of the remaining in the evening mailout 3 days later. That amounts to 55% instead of 33%, which is a 40% increase!
A nice boost for less than one minute’s work!
Have another minute? Download a free checklist with more ways to help boost improve your newsletter open rate
Cath is a member of SiteSell’s Content Team, where she writes great stuff for new and experienced solopreneurs. She lives between her homes in Italy and Scotland, and in her spare time writes prolifically for her SBI! website about one of her passions in life – backyard chicken keeping!
One way you can reach a larger audience quickly is to piggyback on established email lists from bloggers and businesses with similar interests.
Third party email marketing, whether for Business to Business (B2B) or Business to Consumer (B2C) is a great way of finding new customers and can be an awesome resource for new, fresh leads, Andrew Paul explains in a post for Email Answers.
He’s right, but there’s a catch. Social media experts often describe email lists in terms of size and freshness-in other words, How many people opted in to this email list and how recently? But there’s a third factor at work as well: influence.
Looking to make an impact online? Grow an engaged following with Platform University, the all-in-one solution for building a successful blog, website, or social media page. Don’t struggle any longer to share your important message with the world. Get access to all the expert resources you need for just $1.22 a day. Public registration ends on June 16 at 11:59 p.m. Pacific, so enroll now!
Back when we were launching 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever the first time, I noticed something peculiar. A few affiliates who had the biggest lists did not get the greatest results. Several affiliates with smaller lists produced far more sales than we expected. The same thing has happened in subsequent launches.
I had seen something similar in book publishing when I was CEO of Thomas Nelson. An author might have a significant platform on paper-big social media numbers, a large email list, and so on.
But those numbers didn’t always add up to action. Sometimes an author’s new book would release, and people on their lists didn’t seem to care.
I wondered, Why the disconnect? After some digging, I decided It comes down to three factors: investment, trust, and expectation. Miss these and you’re not going to get the results you want.
1. Is Your Audience Invested in Your Message?
Wired magazine cofounder Kevin Kelly introduced the idea of 1,000 True Fans in a classic article. He argued that most creators won’t ever see blockbuster success. But they can have enough success to sustain a profitable business if they cultivate 1,000 true fans.
A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce, says Kelly. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. In other words, they are invested in you, and your message.
This is critical when building a list because subscribers who aren’t invested won’t move the needle. The affiliates with smaller lists drove more sales because their audiences cared enough to respond when they spoke.
2. Does Your Audience Trust You?
What the smaller affiliates in the launch lacked in size, they made up for in trust. When they said a product was worth buying, their audiences believed it and acted on it.
Trust comes down to one question: Can I count on you? If audiences can rely on you for high-quality content and recommendations that interest them, then even a small list can churn big numbers. The affiliates with smaller lists drove more sales because their audiences counted on their recommendation.
3. Does Your Audience Expect to Buy?
Some of the affiliates that were okay in the first two departments still had trouble making the sale because their audience did not expect the product pitch, the price, or maybe both.
True Fans are happy to buy when the offering fits their needs. Not everybody on a list is a True Fan. So when they see a pitch they ignore it or even scoff at it.
That’s why the size of the list almost didn’t matter. A person with a small list of people who expect to buy from time to time will see far better results than a person with a massive list of people who expect everything for free.
You’ve got to train followers to expect the pitches. The goal is to turn lesser fans into True Fans. It takes time and practice, but eventually you can find and cultivate relationships with people who love to buy what you curate and create.
Looking to make an impact online? Grow an engaged following with Platform University, the all-in-one solution for building a successful blog, website, or social media page. Don’t struggle any longer to share your important message with the world. Get access to all the expert resources you need for just $1.22 a day. Public registration ends on June 16 at 11:59 p.m. Pacific, so enroll now!
In business as in life, the quality of relationships matters much more than the quantity. That’s why hustling to build a big list is not as important as laboring to create greater investment, deeper trust, and eager expectation with your True Fans. They’ll keep coming back for more.
In business, the quality of relationships matters much more than the quantity.
Question: Have you been more focused on the size of your list-or the quality of your connection with your audience? What do you need to do differently? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
If you don’t enjoy and believe in your work, no amount of money can make you happy.
It took Dan Peterson more than a decade of bouncing from one business attempt or get-rich-quick scheme to another until this simple truth dawned on him.
Dan knew early in his adolescence that he wanted to become an entrepreneur. He had the drive and perseverance to make it happen. But despite working 40 to 80 hour weeks (as a restaurant owner, one of his business endeavors), he didn’t achieve financial success, let alone happiness.
Eventually, he stopped and asked himself why. He realized that for all those years, he’d been chasing money with his various startups instead of pursuing a career aligned with his values and skills.
After a lot of experimentation and soul searching he discovered that what he enjoyed most was – believe it or not – building Excel spreadsheets.
So how do you turn a love for building Excel spreadsheets into a thriving online business? Let’s find out!
1. Dan, you tried lots of different jobs and business opportunities before settling on your SBI! online business. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?
Interest in owning my own business began when I started delivering newspapers at the age of 10. As an independent newspaper carrier I discovered I could basically set my own salary based on how many people I could get to sign up for a newspaper subscription. Of course, few could say no to a freckle-faced 10-year-old, so the selling part was easy.
As I grew into adulthood I discovered a couple of personal traits that seemed to steer me toward entrepreneurship:
I couldn’t stand being told what to do.
I didn’t need a boss cracking a whip for me to get my work done.
Unfortunately my primary motivator for becoming an entrepreneur was to make a lot of money. So I spent most of my 20’s doing what I had to do to support my family, all the while bouncing from one business attempt or get-rich-quick scheme to another.
Eventually my quest for wealth led to a restaurant purchase. After six years of working 80-hour weeks, a casino with a loss-leader restaurant moved into our neighborhood. A year later we were out of business and into bankruptcy. It was that financial crash and burn that jolted me into questioning everything I had let myself be taught.
After more than a year of soul-searching and reflecting on my past, it finally dawned on me that if you don’t enjoy and believe in your work, no amount of money can make you happy. After all, if you’re miserable 40-80 hours a week, it’s going to be extremely difficult to find anything outside of work that can offset that much unhappiness.
I eventually realized that my happiness was not dependent on how much money I made. Instead my happiness was dependent on the amount of freedom I had:
Freedom to work at something I enjoy and believe in – regardless of what that work might pay.
Freedom to give my family the time they deserve.
From there I knew there were two things I had to do to create the life I wanted:
Get out of debt once and for all (reducing the need to make a ton of money).
Start a business that was well suited to my talents, abilities, genuine interests, values, and personality traits.
TAKEAWAY #1: We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life. All that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about. Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
It took Dan about a decade to realize that making money wasn’t the right motivator for his entrepreneurial spirit. Chasing after money didn’t make him happy. It didn’t even bring him financial success. He only became successful when he started to align his work with his skills, values and genuine interests.
That’s why the SBI! Action Guide places so much emphasis on finding a business niche that you’re passionate about. Ask yourself Why do I want to start an online business about vintage cars, raising rabbits, vegan cooking, or ? If your honest answer is because I could talk about it for hours and hours and I want to share my knowledge with the world, then you’re on the right path.
But if the first answer that pops into your head is because I want to make a lot of money out of it, then you may want to reconsider.
Of course you should also choose a topic that has good business potential (SBI! helps you do this, step-by-step). But if making money is your main motivation for becoming a solopreneur, you are more likely to give up when the going gets tough.
We particularly advise people to stay away from make money and internet marketing niches. These are highly competitive and cynical niches. Often their main purpose is to suck more people into a vicious make money online cycle rather than to produce a business with value and equity – a business you can be proud of.
All was going well until 2007. That was the year when my web host suddenly, and without warning, stopped supporting the .php3 file extension. Unfortunately I had built my website pages with the .php3 extension. This meant that all of the inbound links to my site suddenly started generating errors. Traffic to my site plummeted overnight.
Then, a year or so later, after rebuilding the site and finally starting to make a full recovery from the 2007 traffic losses, the housing market collapsed. Considering my main calculator clients were mortgage brokers and real estate agents, it was no surprise when calculator sales dropped by 60%.
By the end of 2009 my annual calculator sales had fallen from a high of $80,000 to a mere $6,000. Luckily, during the good years we managed to pay off all of our debts, including our house, and set aside a sizable rainy day fund. This gave me time to carefully plan my next move.
TAKEAWAY #2: Wow! Talk about perseverance! A person with less BAM (Brain Attitude Motivation) than Dan would have given up by now. Not so Dan. He kept searching for a better way to build a sustainable long-term business based on his passions and interests.
His search finally led him to discovering SBI!. And that’s where the true solopreneur success story began. Back over to Dan
After 4 months of searching for new online business ideas, in April of 2010 I stumbled across a website promoting an online business-building tool called Site Build It! (now rebranded to Solo Build It! or simply SBI!). With the promise of teaching me how to find a profitable niche, and how to build a successful business around that niche, I signed up and began making my way through the Action Guide.
It took 4 months to learn the ropes and build a site blueprint that held high promise for success, so it wasn’t until September of 2010 that I actually started building free-online-calculator-use.com.
2. How did you decide about your niche, online calculators? How did you know it was the right topic for you and had great business potential?
When I first signed up with SBI! my intention was to create a website geared toward helping others to do what I did – to go from being trapped by debt in work I hated, to being free to work at what I love.
Unfortunately, no matter how deep I dug, I could not find any winnable keywords to build the site around. Either no one was searching for my keywords, or if they were, the competition was too stiff to expect to win for them on a small budget.
After a lot of research, I finally decided to try to build a winnable site blueprint around what I had already been doing, and loved doing, for the previous 13 years online calculators. Except, instead of building the calculators for other online businesses, I would now build the calculators for consumer use and publish them to my own website.
To my pleasant surprise, I was easily able to create a site blueprint teeming with high demand, low supply keywords. This all but assured my success. All I had to do was to create top notch calculators based on the winnable keywords. Two years later, my free-online-calculator-use.com’s traffic was among the top .05% of all websites in the world (~170 million).
And the best part is, instead of creating calculators based on client specifications (like forcing an artist to paint-by-numbers), I’ve been free to create the calculators based on my own creative self-expression.
TAKEAWAY #3: Identifying the right business niche is challenging. You may have a certain idea in your head, but how do you know whether the topic is too broad or too narrow? How do you figure out its income potential?
That’s where Solo Build It!’s Action Guide comes into play. The first five DAYs (or chapters) guide you step-by-step in identifying your Goldilocks just-right niche.
In some cases, your initial idea is confirmed, but in other cases you may have to discard your original business idea because it’s not profitable enough or because the competition is too steep (as it was in Dan’s case).
SBI!’s Brainstorm It! tool. Although I had operated an online business for 13 years, I had never been exposed to, nor understood the immense power of, keyword research. Had I not had access to this tool, I most certainly would have started a website that was destined to fail.
A saying often used by golf instructors when teaching the golf swing is, Feel and real are two different things. That saying also applies to the online business world. What we think people will be interested in, and what they are actually interested in, are often two different things. The Brainstorm It! tool helped me to create a site around what people are actually interested in.
TAKEAWAY #4: Dan points out the immense power of keyword research. Without it, he says that he most certainly would have started a website that was destined to fail.
Some misinterpret keyword research as being mechanical or a manipulative type of search engine optimization (SEO), not understanding its true value. Keywords are the words that people use to search at Google and other engines. Brainstorm It! tells you
which keywords (that are related to your niche) people search for
how often they search for each one
how many other pages there are about that topic, and
what the commercial value of those terms is.
You are in the business of delivering content that people want (not what you think they want – a big difference). SBI! not only finds way more search terms that you could ever think up, it applies classic supply-and-demand to point out what topics you should write about.
SBI’s constant reminder to create unique content that’s better than my competitors. Instead of just throwing a bunch of keywords on a page and calling it good, SBI! teaches you to study your competition and then make sure your content is different and better than theirs.
So before creating each calculator on my site, I studied every similar calculator I could find, made note of what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what I felt was missing. I then created the calculator based on those notes.
So when Google came out with the Panda algorithm, penalizing sites for thin and copied content, their traffic losses were my traffic gains.
TAKEAWAY #5: In-demand content that wows your visitors is the first pillar in the C T P motor to online business success.
Content: Get in front of your potential clients or customers by providing standout content. Good enough is not good enough! When you overdeliver on the information that people seek, wonderful things happen
Traffic: Web surfers find you, generating targeted Traffic.
PRESell: Now you win them over by giving them what they want quality solutions, answers, information!
What’s the most common mistake online business owners make? They start at the end, at the Monetization part. They build sites about their businesses and their products and then are all set to Monetize (i.e., collect the money). There is little or no Content, at least not the type of information that people seek. So what?
So no Traffic builds. And PREselling never gets a chance to build your Brand of One. Monetization is the final result of doing everything else (C T P M) correctly. M comes last.
Dan understood and applied this concept perfectly.
SBI!’s Keep It Real Mantra. Unlike so many other website owners, I did not follow the crowd when it came to link exchanges and unnatural backlink-building. Instead I focused on creating calculators that people would love, so my traffic would build naturally.
When Google came out with the Penguin algorithm, penalizing sites for questionable link-building tactics, once again, their traffic losses were my traffic gains.
TAKEAWAY #6: Google has made major changes in recent years to the way it ranks websites. In particular, the two algorithms mentioned by Dan (Panda and Penguin) make it more important than ever before to keep it real and add value.
What does that mean exactly? You must
1) Publish content that’s original and delivers high-quality information, the answer to what the visitor seeks. In other words, provide a solution to a visitor’s problem, or help fulfill a visitor’s desire or need.
2) Encourage people to link to you by creating high-value content and promoting it through your social media platform(s) of choice. Think in terms of link-earning, not link-building. Deliberately setting out to build links used to work, but nowadays it’s more likely to result in Google penalties.
4. Your online calculators are free to use. How do you make an income from your online business? Which monetization methods work best for you?
While I’ve tried many different monetization methods (affiliates, native apps, downloadable products, membership site, etc.), the only method that has generated significant income is contextual advertising. I believe the reasons for that are two-fold:
When most people visit my site they are in the middle of solving a problem or making a decision. So when they use a calculator to find an answer central to the problem they are trying to solve, they instantly go back to what they were doing when the question arose.
Because my calculators cover 17 different subject areas (from pregnancy to compound interest to hypotenuse), there is no single product offering that can target such a wide audience. And even when I try to segment the offerings based on the subject of the calculator, reason #1 still overrides the offer.
With contextual advertising, visitors end up seeing ads that are of interest to them – which appears to be the only way to draw their attention away from the problem they were trying to solve when they arrived at the site.
Recently I enlisted the services of an ad testing company called Ezoic to take over the ad optimizations on my site. Their product uses machine learning to discover the best ad sizes and placements for each individual visitor.
That partnership has turned my once falling ad revenues (mainly due to rise of mobile and ad blockers) into doubling my ad revenues from a year ago.
TAKEAWAY #7: We were surprised to hear that contextual advertising is the most efficient monetization model for Dan’s mature site. Google AdSense (the biggest player in the contextual advertising arena) is used by most solopreneurs as a beginner monetization model as it’s easy to implement and requires little maintenance.
To achieve a higher profit margin, many online business owners move on to selling their own products or services. But, every niche is different.
That’s why SBI! teaches a wide variety of monetization models, from AdSense to affiliate marketing to sponsorships to referrer’s fees to selling your own digital and even hard goods.
5. How long did it take to start earning income from your e-business? Is it a full-time or a part-time income?
For the first 9 months I focused only on building out my site, starting with the most winnable keywords and working toward the hardest-to-win keywords. By June of 2011 my site was averaging 1,000 visitors per day. It was then that I first signed up for AdSense and started placing contextual ads on my site’s pages.
The first month with contextual ads I earned $333. It took another year (June of 2012) before ad revenues grew to the point I no longer had to worry about possibly having to re-enter the job market. But again, we had no debts, so I didn’t need to earn a lot of money to pay the bills.
As of this writing, my income is 4 times what it was in 2012. But you’d never know it by what I drive, what I wear, where I play golf, etc. That’s because most of what I earn is being set aside to ensure I can continue to work at what I love during the next income downturn (nothing lasts forever).
TAKEAWAY #8: To quadruple your income in just 5 years – that’s quite the achievement. Do you know of a traditional job where your salary grows so fast?
Did it happen overnight? No. In fact, Dan worked diligently on building his website’s content for a full 9 months before he even began to monetize. We typically advise SBIers to start monetizing when they have at least 30 pages of high value content and a steady stream of about 100 visitors per day.
Dan took an even more conservative approach. He waited until he was averaging 1,000 visitors per day before adding Google AdSense ads. That he earned $333 in the very first month shows that his patience paid off.
I’ve been happily working from my home office full-time, usually dressed in a ball cap and comfy sweatpants, since 1997. I still can’t wait to get out of bed each morning to get back to working on my business. And at age 57 (58 in June), instead of looking forward to retirement, I’m hoping I never have to retire.
I typically work from 6:00am to 1:30pm, 7 days a week (not because I have to, but because those are the hours I enjoy working). The rest of the time I’m free to focus on my family and my other passions.
I even used some of that free time, along with a lot of sweat equity, to carve my own golf driving range out of the woods next to the house. This gives me a place to work on another passion of mine, without having to drive to the course or pay for range balls.
In the fall the driving range is also where the boys and I site-in the rifles prior to our annual deer hunt – which also takes place behind the house.
6. You have experience in building websites outside of Solo Build It!. What are the benefits that you, as a tech-savvy person, get from using SBI!?
The main benefit I get from SBI! is the business-building and marketing insights and strategies. SBI! stays on top of what’s important in the online business world, and then reports back to its members on those things that matter.
In other words, SBI! scans the web and wades through all of the hype and junk to find the gems, so I don’t have to. That frees me up to just focus on building my business.
TAKEAWAY #9: Dan pinpoints the most important thing that SBI! helps with. It is
Every solopreneur is, by definition, time-limited. Solo Build It! enables solopreneurs to focus their limited time in the most efficient and effective way possible. Even the person with all the BAM in the world will fail if she does not focus her time onto the business-building task that matters most at any given point of the process.
7. You use social media to promote your online business. Which platform(s) work best for you and why?
While I do have Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and Pinterest accounts, I just haven’t had time to devote to growing my audiences. This is partly due to my calculators covering 17 different subject areas, making it difficult to target a specific audience.
This past March I enlisted the help of one of our sons, Doug, to see if he could grow Pinterest traffic to the site in his spare time. He works on creating, curating, and promoting pins for about an hour a day. In just three months he’s been able to increase the average monthly Pinterest views from 15,000 to 180,000.
The plan is that once Doug gets a good handle on generating Pinterest traffic, he’ll then start working on learning how to use Facebook to drive traffic. Then on to Twitter, and later Instagram. If it turns out he truly enjoys the work, we’ll work toward a day when he can go full-time in the business, or start his own online business if he prefers.
TAKEAWAY #10: There it is again – the limiting factor of time. Your business’s social media presence needs to overdeliver and stand out just like the content on your website. And this, of course, takes time.
That’s why we typically advise that you pick just two, or at the most three, social platforms and do those well rather than trying to be everywhere.
Which channel should you pick? That depends entirely on your niche and the demographics of your audience.
DAY 4 of the SBI! Action Guide walks you through the process of building a picture of your ideal site visitor. It will leave you with detailed information about your customer persona, which you can use to match up with social platform target groups.
Dan’s case is rather unique as his target audience varies widely in interests and demographics. A visitor interested in his retirement planning calculator will have a very different persona from someone looking for a pregnancy countdown calculator. Dan has to use different platforms to reach his different target audiences.
8. What has been your biggest challenge so far as a solopreneur?
My two biggest challenges have been making my calculators mobile friendly, and trying to come up with a way to offset ad blockers. These two challenges have combined to create over two years of work. It took me over a year to build the separate mobile version of my site, and 15 months to build the ad-free subscription version of the site.
Unlike most text- and/or image-based content sites, my calculators and their results are tabular in nature. This makes fitting them into a 320-pixel viewport, while maintaining user experience, no easy task.
My calculator offering would be twice what it is now if I could have just remained focused on creating and improving calculators instead of having to create three separate versions of the 241 calculators. But it’s these ever blooming challenges that keep my work fun and engaging.
I am now currently spending several more months attempting to combine all three sites into a single responsive design. Hopefully then I can finally get back to just building and improving calculators for my visitors.
TAKEAWAY #11: The rise of ad blockers is an issue that every online business owner with advertising on his or her site has to deal with. Dan found a solution by using a specialist service to help him optimize ad positioning and delivery on his site.
Another solution would be to develop alternative income streams (which Dan tried as well, but – for the reasons he explained above – didn’t work out for him). Other solopreneurs, however, are very successful in finding alternative monetization methods. Jill Loeffler, for example, a solopreneur with a business in the travel niche, increased her earnings when she completely removed AdSense and replaced it with high quality, relevant affiliate program offers.
Dan’s second big challenge, to make his content mobile friendly, is unique to his type of content. His calculators and their results are tabular in nature. It’s much harder to have them display nicely on smaller screens than just text and images.
99% of SBI! members don’t have to worry about making their websites mobile friendly. SBI! provides fully responsive templates and a module called Mobilize It! to ensure that your content looks good and works well on all types of devices.
9. And finally What do you enjoy most about being an online business owner? How has it changed you, your life, your family?
I love the fact that I can work from anywhere as long as there’s an internet connection. One of my favorite places to work from is the balcony outside of our room at the Playa Azul Hotel in Cozumel, Mexico.
Both my wife and I love to play golf, so each winter we travel to a warm climate to play golf for a week or two (we’ve been to Cozumel 11 times!). This past winter we chose to take our golf vacation in Southern Alabama so we could spend time with son James and his family.
And because I can stay caught up on my work while we’re gone, I never have to worry about scrambling to catch up when we get back home.
But my favorite part about being an online business owner is the freedom to live my life by my own design – based on what’s important to me.
While I have the occasional frustrating work day, most days I feel like the luckiest human being on the planet! Being debt-free to serve others from home through work that I love is about as good as it gets.
I’m 100% free to decide exactly how I will spend my life’s most precious and limited resource my time. With my wife’s permission, of course.
Thanks to owning an online business, and to SBI!’s online business-building guidance, I haven’t had to miss a single important family activity or function in 20 years.
In fact, my main source of unhappiness over that time period has been watching my family and friends be enslaved by the rat race they’ve been taught to join. Or seeing other children look up into the bleachers or auditorium and not see their parents there cheering them on.
But no matter how hard I try to convince friends, family, and even my site visitors, that they are being misled into being enslaved by money lenders, my tiny voice gets drowned out by the daily onslaught of expertly designed sales presentations, all selling the underlying belief that the more money you have to spend, the happier you will be.
Often people attempt to live their lives backwards, they try to have more things or more money in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are then do what you need to do in order to have what you want.Margaret Young
I still hope to eventually build a website for the sole purpose of teaching others how to stop living their lives for money lenders, and instead live life on their own terms and by their own design. But I will do so knowing that niche is not winnable (too saturated with self-serving lenders who have deep pockets), and therefore likely won’t be profitable.
In the meantime I will continue to create and improve calculators that people are searching for, all the while trying to alert them to the hidden opportunity costs of chasing after money and material possessions ahead of chasing after emotional profits.
TAKEAWAY #12: Dan summarized the biggest benefit of being an online business owner in just one sentence: I’m 100% free to decide exactly how I will spend my life’s most precious and limited resource my time.
Not only is he doing what he loves to do, when and from where he wants to be, but he’s also helping tens of thousands of people across the globe with his free online calculators. We agree with Dan that kind of life is about as good as it gets.
Dan Peterson is the creator and author of free-online-calculator-use.com, as well as the Ad-Free Member version at ahacalcs.com. The site boasts 241 different calculators, covering 17 different categories. He is a self-taught web calculator programmer with a passion for creating calculators and interactive tools that help his visitors to instantly find solutions to their problems. He also strives to alert his visitors to the hidden opportunity costs that sellers leave out of their sales presentations. As his site’s tagline states, “You provide the numbers, I provide the “Aha!” moments.” Dan and his wife Theresa live in northern Minnesota, and enjoy golfing, travel, and spending time with their 8 children and 10 grandchildren. They also enjoy cheering for the Minnesota Wild and the Minnesota Vikings.