F*ck Overnight Success: 3 Ways to Patiently Grow a Profitable Side Project

In the fast-paced world of internet business, the hope of overnight success is rampant. The reality is, it takes time. A lot of it. My guest today is Tommy Griffith, the Founder of ClickMinded, which is an SEO training course that teaches you exactly how to increase traffic to any website, as quickly as possible.

Tommy shared how he patiently built ClickMinded over the year while working full-time at Paypal, and later Airbnb, the failures he encountered, and some decisions he made along the way that defies popular opinions.

Listen to this episode:

We covered:

  • How Tommy got into debt on his first venture towards entrepreneurship
  • How Tommy started out his side project while having a full-time job
  • Finding the first customers from an underrated acquisition channel
  • How living the “Instagram businessman” lifestyle brought Tommy to his career’s lowest point
  • How striking a strategic partnership accelerated ClickMinded’s growth
  • Why Tommy thinks email is still the most important channel
  • What Tommy thinks marketers should learn today that would help them in years to come
  • How talking to customers helped Tommy realized surprising use cases of his product

Resources:

Full Transcript:

Louis: Bonjour, bonjour and welcome to another episode of EveryoneHatesMarketers.com the no-fluff actionable marketing podcast for marketers, marketing consultants, founders and techies who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host Louis Grenier.

In today’s episode you’ll learn how to develop a side project while working full-time and generate some serious cash out of it. But it’s just going to take you a few years to do so. So my guest today has been running a side project for five years before quitting his full time job. And when he left, the revenue of his side project was higher than his actual salary.

So he went from $11,000 the first year to $490,000 this year, if I’m not mistaken. So my guest today has been doing search engine optimization, SEO for more than 10 years. He was previously managed SEO at PayPal and Airbnb. He now runs ClickMinded, which is a digital marketing training platform for marketers and entrepreneurs. Super happy to have you, Tommy Griffith on board, welcome.

Tommy: Louis, bonjour, bonjour. Thanks for having me man. I appreciate it.

Louis: So I think I’ve teased enough of the story in the intro for people to know straight away what the fuck have you managed to do this? So maybe we can take a step back and perhaps you can tell a bit of the story from when you were in San Francisco working for Airbnb, why did you start this SEO course, and where did it lead you to?

Tommy: Yeah, sure. I think the early, early beginnings was everything is sort of rooted in the fact that my first business failed. I was one of these guys who graduated university in 2008 and picked up a copy of 4-Hour Workweek. Was this sort of the beginning of your journey as well?

Louis: Yes I did pick this up as well.

Tommy: Right, so I think this was the book that was a catalyst for a lot of people, a lot of internet marketers, and yeah, read the book, read it in a hammock. My first idea was an ebook. I wrote this really dorky ebook, I started selling it for $10, no one bought it. I dropped the price to $5, no one bought it, and then I increased the price to $47 and 250 people bought it. Which is just one of these fascinating marketing tests around how people value things, right?

And it was just the catalyst for how do I get this to no rank number one in Google? That got me into search engine optimization, I really liked it, and I started a business with a friend of mine that failed miserably. We went into a market that I didn’t know anything about, I spent a year on it. I borrowed money from family and friends, and it just all failed. It all just completely failed. I was traveling at the time, and I ended up coming back to the US with a bunch of debt. I was one of these people that graduated university with no debt. I was blessed enough for my parents to cover university, and I put myself into debt afterwards trying to start this business.

So came back home a loser, having a bunch of debt, was trying to find a job, but I had failed in a way, where I’d suddenly taught myself SEO and paid ads for a year, and ended up getting a job at PayPal. So I moved to San Francisco, got this job managing search engine optimization at PayPal. And while I was there it was like, okay, I’m still in all this debt from family and friends, I have to figure out a way to pay it back.

Louis: How much debt are we talking about?

Tommy: It’s all relative, right? And so for me, it was a lot, for a lot of people it would be child’s play, but it was about 25,000.

Louis: That’s a lot of money.

Tommy: Which is when you’re young and 20 and you had no debt a year before, all of a sudden you seem pretty stupid, right? So I was like, okay, even though I have a salary now and I can pay rent, it wasn’t a lot, and San Francisco is expensive. So I needed to make it happen. And so the whole concept started because I had to teach a class, a bunch of my colleagues at PayPal on search engine optimization, in a physical class, like a two-hour class.

Got a lot of really good feedback on it that it was interesting, it was helpful, it made a boring topic interesting, and I decided to start teaching startups that on the weekends. So I rented out co-working space and on Saturday mornings from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM I would, it’s kind of All You Can SEO, so show up, I would prepare a bunch for the users before they would come in, and we would just nerd out on search engine optimization all day, kind of in-person from nine to five.

Louis: Yeah, and thanks for stopping by the way, because I was expecting you to say more of the story. But again, let’s take a step back on what you’ve done already. So you’ve launched your first business, which was an ebook, you’ve launched another one with the co-founder, right? That failed as well?

Tommy: That’s right, yep.

Louis: You came back with $25,000 back to the US in debt, and you didn’t have debt before. So yes, you went from zero to 25,000 which is the definition of exponential, which is the definition of infinite debt compared to what you had before really. So you started the PayPal job and you learned on the go, right? You graduated, sorry, from college. What was your degree actually?

Tommy: Yeah I studied finance.

Louis: So nothing to do with SEO, so you learned on the spot, you learned from experiences, you learned online and all of that, and then you were able to teach it in PayPal. And that’s when you started to realize that actually, you were quite good at teaching stuff, people seemed to enjoy the way you were explaining SEO, and that made you think, okay shit, I can actually make money out of it, right?

Tommy: Yeah. It was really more that I enjoyed it at first, and while this was all happening, it wasn’t like this aha moment and I finally found it. While I was teaching search engine optimization, I probably had four other ideas going as well. The way I talk to friends about this all the time, you know you’re kind of a serial idea guy or wantrepreneur based on how many dead domains you have in your web hosting account. And I’m sure a lot of your listeners can relate to this. My DreamHost hosting account is just a graveyard of bad ideas. So I wasn’t sure yet what it was going to be, I had an iPhone app developer, lead generation site I was working on, all kinds of stuff.

Some of them were okay ideas, some of them were terrible ideas, but it was more desperation driving all of it. But yeah, the teaching was one of these things where it was just this weird combination of okay, I taught myself SEO over the last few years, I was now managing SEO at one of the biggest websites in the world. And I was suddenly able to teach it in a way where people finally got it, are finally not bored by it. And then it just sort of started to take off from there.

Louis: So take me to the next step of the journey up until today. I know it’s a long story to tell in a few sentences, but you turned that into meetups, as you said, you started to generate some momentum this way, you’re starting to teach it and doing weekends for startups, and then what happened?

Tommy: Yeah, so the first hundred users, and actually one of my favorite tactics for when you’re just getting started, and you have no idea how to get rolling is meetup.com. I think this is one of the most underrated acquisition channels for first users because they do so much of the work for you. So you can sign up for Meetup as an organizer, I think it’s $15 for three months and you pick your topic, you pick your city. And what they’ll do is they’ll email everyone in that city that they think has an interest in that topic.

And so I started the San Francisco SEO Meetup in 2011 or 2012. Meetup spams everyone on the list, and I suddenly had a hundred-something people interested in SEO in San Francisco within like three days. I’d send out an email saying, hey, I’m going to teach a free class, feel free to come by. People give feedback, they become the first users. I’d hold one or two happy hours at a bar, and people end up showing up. This ends up being an interesting tactic because especially a lot of internet marketers, they don’t want to leave their basement. They don’t want to go out into the real world.

And a lot of people, they want to write the automated solution for it first. So they want to spam a bunch of people for it first. But that little, I know the word moat is so cliché, but that little moat around I have to go out into the real world and shake hands with people, it’s just enough that nobody does it. So I was in this situation where it didn’t happen on purpose, but I started offline and it only happened because online courses just weren’t as easy, and as amazing as they are today.

We really are in an online learning renaissance right now, it’s just way easier to get an online course up now than it was in 2012, but I started offline. I started doing meetups and physically teaching in-person and I’ll probably talk more about it later, but yeah, all of the courses that I was competing with on Udemy, which was the first platform I started on in 2012, they were all guys talking into their laptops from their basement. And when I was teaching the course in person, and you teach something that doesn’t connect, or kind of sucks or that joke wasn’t funny, or something that’s really good, you see that feedback on people’s faces right away.

So I’d actually recommend this, even if you’re a totally digital product, is doing stuff that’s offline first, doing something like Meetup. Because Meetup was, I mean $15 to get your first hundred email addresses, is like a dream come true. So yeah, started with Meetup, started with physical classes, and it got to the point where the revenue just made absolutely no sense. I was doing revenue share with these co-working spaces, and when people would sign up, just one individual person would sign up for a Saturday, it made absolutely no sense.

And there was this horrible moment where I was physically teaching a class in person with someone who asked if they could come in on my birthday. So it was like my 26th or 25th birthday, this guy came in, he asked to do a class, it was just me and him, I spent all this time preparing for it, and after the revenue share, the Eventbrite fees, the PayPal fees, the printed material fees, I would buy the guy lunch. I did out all the calculation, and I was making $12 an hour, and San Francisco minimum wage was $13 an hour.

So ClickMinded was like the most miserable company you could possibly work for in San Francisco, and I had to change. It ended up being just kind of right place, right time with this online learning renaissance, Udemy had just started, and I ended up taking this class I had been teaching for a few months in-person, doing my first version of Udemy, and then everything took off from there.

Louis: And at this stage, you managed to find the time to work full-time for Airbnb, so you moved from PayPal to Airbnb, you were still working on it on the side, and this is when you started to make serious money. But I want to take a step back and I don’t want to dive into too much, because we’re going to go into deeper details in a few minutes. I know it’s surprising to say, because as you said, in the internet marketing world people are almost scared of meeting their neighbors, but it’s just the basics of human relationship, what you’ve just described, right? You just meet people, you share stuff, you teach stuff, you see how they react, you get feedback, you move on, you do it better instead of the other way, which is as you said, you are in your basement, you hide yourself from people, you don’t want to get any feedback, you just try to automate everything.

But at the end of the day, people are people, people like to meet others, to shake hands, to share drinks together. That’s how you get the best feedback at the start. So you had solid, solid foundations to work from, and then you knew you could scale that better by moving from a channel that was offline, to being online. So when did you decide to move from, I have a full-time job in a good company because I suppose Airbnb is quite good, to I want to work full-time on this now. When did you decide what was the trigger?

Tommy: Yeah, and that’s a really good point around the human relationship stuff because you’re right, I think a lot of it at least, even if it is possible to do in your basement, I think I accelerated the whole process way faster because of what you just said. At the end of the day, we’re all humans, we all want that, right? Yeah, so the decision matrix on when to leave was tough. So yeah, I was at PayPal, was working on it, ended up switching over to Airbnb, and the entire time I was at Airbnb, I was still sort of working on it, working on it. And my decision calculus for leaving was a little weird because, it’s going to sound like I’ve totally drunk in the Kool-Aid on Airbnb’s propaganda, which I have, but Airbnb really was an awesome place to be.

It was the best job I’d ever had, I was working with the best colleagues I’d ever had. The first week I joined, we were subpoenaed by the state of New York, and the last week I joined, I worked on a Superbowl commercial and Beyonce was staying in one. It was just a crazy time to be at the company, and so I just felt like I wasn’t really done yet. But I was also scared. I also had fresh wounds from the old company. I put myself into debt with a friend, I’d done something dumb, I’d worked on something that was dumb. And so I had a really good job I liked that I didn’t feel like I was done yet.

And I know a lot of people, maybe people that are listening and they’re at their job and they’re thinking about trying to leave, and it’s like they’re in cubicle jail. And that’s sort of what a lot of people think, like, “How do I get out immediately?” But for me it was a little different because I liked my job, but also the job was really helpful to the side project. There’s this term, I have it here and I wrote it in the post we were talking about earlier called exit velocity. This guy, Dan Andrews from Tropical MBA, he coined this term for people that are starting side projects, I really like. I have the definition here, I’ll just read it quickly, “Exit velocity is the amount of professional and entrepreneurial momentum you have when quitting your job and starting a new venture. Momentum can come from a variety of sources, investment capital, experience, anchor clients, industry knowledge and connections, aka unfair advantage.”

So the thing was like, okay, we were using ClickMinded to train up new members of the growth team at Airbnb, data scientists, engineers and designers that were using SEO. I was making the product better, but also I was the SEO guy from Airbnb, and so all of that was compounding into making it better. And I actually really highly recommend that if you’re thinking about this and you’re making this decision, a lot of people, it’s not impossible, but you see a lot of people like they’re a lawyer, and then their side project is like selling crossfit jump ropes, right? Or it’s something just totally unrelated. And what I found is if you’re working for someone else and you love what you do and you’re getting paid to do something every day, and you can compound any of that into what you do next, you hit the ground running.

I like to think about it like a cannon. You can either shoot out of the cannon horizontally, or everything you can do at work, you can tilt it up a little bit more and get more of that. And Dan calls it exit velocity. So that was part of it, I was sort of making the product way, way, way better while getting paid at an awesome company that had all the things you think about when you think about these obnoxious, all-inclusive resort silicon valley companies, right? The breakfast, lunch and dinner, the beanbags and the Macbooks, and all that kind of stuff. But I really did, I wanted to leave, I felt like I had failed at the beginning as an entrepreneur, and I wanted to give it a shot again.

I was also personally just so over the city of San Francisco. I loved my job, but I just was so annoyed with the city, I was so ready to leave, and I love to travel. And so I was eventually ready to go and yeah, did the four years at Airbnb, and then once I’d left I ended up really doing myself a disservice because I sort of over-romanticized how it would go. I thought my life as an entrepreneur would be amazing. I was big on this, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this, digital nomad kind of movement where people are on the beach in Bali with coconuts and the MacBook. And I’d consumed too much of that. I’d given myself way too long of a runway to think about that. And so surprise, surprise once I left, and everything didn’t go perfectly, my expectations were just way too high, and I was suddenly miserable.

Louis: You moved to Bali, right? So you’ve really followed the cliché of the digital nomadism with those Instagram picture on the beach like this is what you picture for you? You said I could run this digital training business from Bali, leaving the city of San Francisco, make a good living out of it, and I’ll be happy, right?

Tommy: I was every stereotype you’re imagining and I was exactly as obnoxious as you think.

Louis: I appreciate you sharing that very transparently and admitting all of that because not a lot of people will do that, so thanks for doing this. Because I’m pretty sure if you’re listening to this right now and thinking of it, it might actually put you off of doing it because yes, there are some mistakes to avoid. But I want to just repeat something that you said, which I think deserves to be where we need to pause and just reflect on this, from the first iteration of the product of the first iteration of your side project to the time where you actually left, it took you five years, right? So it’s 260 weeks. It’s like 260 Mondays, 260 Tuesdays, I mean you’ve got the picture right.

In the world where we’re living right now, where people expect quick buck and to launch something, and next week to be successful, this is a testament to what it really fucking takes, right? To build something. It took you five years, some people it takes 15, 20 fucking years, because it takes time to build credibility, takes time to get a good product, to get feedback, to improve it, just takes fucking time, right? Everything takes time. So I think this is a very good lesson for people listening and feeling that it’s not good enough yet, or they’re being impatient. That’s what it takes, sometimes it can take five, sometimes it can take ten, just crazy out there. So take your time, right.

Okay, you left and you at the time had already generated, so the revenue you were making from the side project was a bit higher than your salary when you decided to leave, which is fucking huge, right? So where were most of the money coming from? Was it coming internally from Airbnb? People paying you from inside? Or where was the money coming from?

Tommy: Yeah, that’s a really good point. So in terms of revenue, no, I never charged Airbnb, never charged PayPal. That was always free. I was already forcing my new colleagues to watch a six-hour course with me, that was enough pain and misery, right? But no, yeah, of course, the majority of our revenue comes from SEO, right I’m teaching SEO, better be good at it. But other things as well, was partnerships, and I think this is something that a lot of people mess up in the early days which is, I was very liberal with giving away a lot of revenue in the beginning, so co-working spaces that took a big revenue share, we did partnerships with AppSumo which is email, kind of a daily deals list, Groupon for nerds, Groupon for digital products kind of thing, they take a big revenue share.

And this continually happened in the early days was opportunities would come up, it would be really high revenue share for the other partner, but I had a very low user base and I’d just say yes to everything, and the feedback a lot I had, especially just to be frank, the entrepreneur crowd are people that haven’t built a big email list or user base, they get really tied up and caught up on the revenue share numbers, and they would say how much are you giving away? And then you tell them and they say, “That’s too much. That’s a bad idea. Why are you doing that co-working space? I have a friend who has a basement, or I have a friend who has an email list.” And they don’t understand.

I didn’t know this at the time, I thought maybe at the beginning I was just being humble, but the reality was, one of the things I did well, which is I understood that everything is just leveraged to the next level. Look especially when you have a digital product that scales to infinity, right? And so that kept happening. I kept doing these partnership deals that ended up adding more, and more, and more users, and I kept giving away a lot of the revenue, and everyone said that’s a bad deal. That’s a bad deal. That’s a bad deal. And then all of a sudden I had 1,000 paid users. And so that becomes a ton of leverage later on. So a lot at the beginning, what you alluded to earlier, which was taking the time to do it, and it’s also super important to enjoy this, because I hate to say this, you probably ought to buckle up, it’s probably going to be a long road.

A lot of that, you can take those bad deals in succession over, and over, and over again if your time horizon is really long. And so I made a bunch of quote-unquote bad deals where I gave away too much revenue, and then all of a sudden, we had 1,000 users and then 5,000 users, and then 10,000 users, and then you have real leverage. So yeah, those were the early users. And eventually did make that decision to leave, did all the clichés around wanting to leave, and then once I ended up ultimately leaving, it was just miserable. My reality did not meet the Instagram feed to say the least. And I ended up just in this bizarre situation. I moved to Bali, I’d given away everything I owned, I got rid of my apartment.

My first week in Bali, I was robbed by the police the first day, I had food poisoning the third day, I’d filmed the new course, invested $15,000 to film every new version of the course. Yeah, sorry, I left that part out. We were just an SEO course and decided to expand to seven new courses. That was the whole impetus for leaving. Go head to head with digital marketing courses, and bootcamps, and universities that are teaching this stuff, and expand to seven new ones. Invested $15,000 in that. I’m sitting in Bali, just gotten robbed, just had food poisoning. So yeah, the rain’s hitting the roof on this warehouse I’d rented to film all the new content and it ruined all the audio. So I’m sitting in Bali, I’d just been robbed by the police. I had food poisoning, I’m throwing up everywhere. I’m clutching this external hard drive with $15,000 worth of garbage footage that I’d just paid for. And I’m thinking about my past life at Airbnb where I had unlimited breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the beanbags, and the MacBooks, and these cool people and this cool company. And I’m just sitting up there looking at the sky, just thinking, “What am I doing? Why am I here? Why did I take the bait on this Instagram life?” It was just really kind of a miserable start, and I think a lot of the big problem, like I said before, was I had set my expectations so insanely high that they could have just never been met.

Louis: Thanks again for sharing all of this. So yeah, you probably felt quite shitty there in Bali, but I think you bounced back pretty well after that. So you had 15 gig worth of almost useless video. What did you decide to do? Like you didn’t obviously give up and just send an email to the hr@airbnb.com saying, “Take me back.”

Tommy: Yeah. I think that’s also part of the … it depends on how you’re wired, right? But some people they need to be very comfortable and set in their ways in order to try something a little crazy. For me it ends up just being … I seem to perform the best when my back is against the wall and when I don’t really have any other options, and that’s a whole kind of burning the boats cliche, right? Like you have to give yourself no other choice but to try and win.

I did something that’s very controversial, which is I brought on, later on that year and throughout this, I brought on a co-founder, year four, year five into a lifestyle business. This is just like all the other partnership things back in the day, everyone told me I’m dumb and that I shouldn’t be doing this and it doesn’t make any sense in it. They’re right, it doesn’t make any sense on paper. It doesn’t make any sense. I had got the business to a point of about 160,000 a year and I brought on a cofounder where I just wasn’t able to take it to the next level. I wasn’t good enough. I was a teacher at a university in San Francisco for four years as a … taught in a summer elective on digital marketing.

I’d always taken on an apprentice every year, and one of the apprentices I had was amazing. He’s really, really good at what he did at, Eduardo, and I ended up emailing him out of complete desperation. He had moved from San Francisco to New York and I just said, “Hey dude, I have $15,000 worth of footage. This is the plan. This is what I want to do. I suck. I can’t get this to the next level. What do you think? Are you interested in working on this?” We ended up sizing it out where he was working full-time at a job and he started working on ClickMinded as a side project again for kind of the second time. First he did it as an apprenticeship and then he did it as more of we’re sort of working together kind of thing.

We said, “Here’s a plan. If we can launch this and get to this certain revenue level, I’ll leave. I’ll quit my job and I’m in.” The way I sized it up with him, actually some people were interested in this, and a lot of people worry, again, everyone worries about the percentage and how much you’re going to give away. But for me it was so comically obvious that we needed to get to the next level and I couldn’t get there alone. So once everything worked and we were sort of negotiating, I just said, “Okay man. I’ll give you three options. Do you want like high salary, little to no equity, medium salary with medium equity, or no salary at all and all equity?” He just, without even hesitating, was like, “All equity. I’m in, let’s do this.” It’s just exactly what you want to hear when you’re going to war with someone. You know what I mean?

Louis: How much equity did you give him?

Tommy: I probably can’t talk about that without talking to him. So I’ll probably hold off on that one.

Louis: Give me a bracket.

Tommy: It’s a little more complicated than that. I’ll probably hold off on that if that’s cool. But the point was, and it sort of succeeded, the business succeeded to a certain degree, and most people’s advice is like, “Bring on hourly contractors, hold on to it for dear life,” but it’s really hard to find someone who’s willing to work on a really tough problem for multiple years. It’s not like bringing on a consultant for five hours and have them fix your funnel. It’s like, “Quit your job, leave the country, and work on this for 40 hours a week with someone.” So that ended up being the catalyst. We turned it all around from there, we ended up doing a sort of Kickstarter style presale where we … the content wasn’t quite ready yet and we presold to the list and we ended up doing this massive sort of launch for this presale and made $113,000 in seven days. 

Louis: How much of an email list did you have then?

Tommy: At the time, it was probably 20 to 25K, somewhere around there.

Louis: Nice. So 20,000 to 25,000 email subscribers.

Tommy: Email subscribers, correct.

Louis: From then, you basically did … Yeah, I like the way you described it via Kickstarter, you presold the course, you didn’t have it even done. You presold it, you send around 18 emails, you set up two webinars making sure that people were constantly in the know about what was about to happen, and from those 18 emails, you generated 113,000. But again, and we’ll dive into how to do it or how you would do it differently next time in the next few minutes, what I want to emphasize here is yes, if you’re listening to this right now and you think, “Okay, shit. 18 emails, 110,000, it’s fucking amazing. I want to do the same.” Again, how long did it take you to build this trust and credibility for these 25,000 people? Like five or six fucking years at this stage, right?

Tommy: It was five years to build that email list, yes.

Louis: So five years of building 25,000, 5,000 a year. That’s like less than 20 a day for five fucking years, right? The one thing that is difficult to measure here, and that I’m always struggling with, but I know it always works, favor is the trust that you had, right? When you sign up to an email list and you’ve been emailed and you stay on this email list for three, four, five years, guess what? You’re way, way, way more likely to trust the other person on the other side, you know that they are sticking around. You are way more likely to buy anything instead of just signing up and tomorrow you’re being pitched something. So, it just takes time again, and your story is testament to that. So now in 2019, you’re going to reach almost $500,000 in revenue, something like that? How many people work with you nowadays on this course? On the ClickMinded?

Tommy: Yeah, and that’s a really good point around the trust stuff. You’re 100% right. We care about this a lot with our list and we are very cognizant of the fact that people will bail if you just pitch them right away. Right now that’s what we’re on pace for. We’re on pace for about 490,000 this year. We have five staff, only two are full-time, me and my co-founder, and then three are sort of contracting out between, it sort of ranges, between five and 40 hours a week. Depends on what’s going on.

Louis: Nice. Okay. So I’ve been dying to ask you this question from the start, but I really wanted everyone to understand the full context. So imagine, now that you know all of the stuff that you know, you’ve created three businesses at this stage if I’m following properly, one that succeeded, two that didn’t. You have good experience in big companies like PayPal, Airbnb. You’ve made your fair share of mistakes. You’ve shared a few lessons already, but if I give you, let’s say $1,000 tomorrow, and you have to launch something new, like a new business from scratch, and you have to make 10 grand, 20 grand out of it within three to six months, right? You can’t use your name, you can’t use your network. You can’t use this email list that you’ve built so far. How would you do it from the start? Like what lessons have you learned that would help you to do this again?

Tommy: This is a great question, because you can’t run the simulation twice, right? So yeah, trying to do it again, knowing what you know, but not using any credibility you’ve built up is a great question. And it does, it gets the truth of what works or not. Tactically, we can talk about like individual tactics, but I don’t know how interesting that is. I really like this idea and I think it’s incredibly underrated of partnerships, and it can come in a lot of different ways, right? So I was just constantly, and a lot of SEO is this as well, but I was just constantly barnacling onto other platforms and ecosystems and sucking the life out of them. The SEO example is like, in a good way, is like, SEO as an example, it’s a platform you sort of optimize for it to get to. But even within SEO, there’s something called Barnacle SEO. That’s when you get a Quora answer at the top of Quora, when Quora is already ranking number one, and you have that content. Or Yahoo answers answer and you already have that conduit, right?

But it’s in other things as well, like email lists partnerships, meetup.com’s partnerships, all of these other like ecosystems exist. What a lot of people do is they move into an ecosystem and they start to try and generate revenue right away. My move was always to move into an ecosystem, try and deliver a bunch of value, and then catapult into the next ecosystem. So like the first ecosystem after I’d failed was would just work, like just working at PayPal, and that catapulted into having brand for the course. Then that catapulted into like the Meetup group, and then the AppSumo partnership, and the coworking partnership.

I had $1,000, I had to start over, I couldn’t use my name again, and I had to create $10,000 in three to six months, I would define the product and then spend most of that money barnacling myself onto other people’s platforms and ecosystems and giving them the vast majority of the revenue and sort of acquiring the users along the way. The reason why I like it is because people get so caught up in the revenue share, and they’re so caught up about giving a little bit away, that they don’t do it, and it ends up being an advantage I guess. So

Louis: I like your answer because you didn’t want to go into the tactics, which is usually what people do. I think it was the right answer for this because strategically speaking, what you’re mentioning here is again, relationship building 101. It’s just like talk to people who have bigger networks who are being trusted by their audience. If you don’t have an audience, you can’t build it from scratch. Just talking a small example, my podcast, right? I’ve started from day one interviewing people who are way smarter than me who have bigger bigger audiences than me. I knew it would be a mistake to launch a podcast on my own and just fucking share shit about marketing. Who knows about me? Who would trust me? No one. Right? So I knew that it would be way more interesting to connect with others, and this is why podcasts works really well, nowadays even more than before. This is why so-called online summits work really well. This is why conferences work really well. This is why sharing your email list with someone works really well. So I’m glad you mentioned that.

I don’t want to go too much into how you would pick a product, because I think we’ve talked about it a few times in the podcast before, and I’m not sure this is the most interesting part of what you know. But the partnership path, let’s dive into that a bit more. So, let’s say you have nothing. Let’s say you have a course to sell that is pretty good. Let’s say you have some pedigree behind you, not a massive credibility, but let’s say you have something to share. How do you go about finding let’s say a partner and do a 20/80 revenue share deal with them? Like how do you go about finding this next partner, still in the same scenario where you’re not really well known and you don’t have a lot of money?

Tommy: It’s a really good question and I would actually back up a little bit and give a little bit of … So, when people are setting these side projects, a big mistake I see is somewhat related to the exit velocity stuff we were talking about earlier, but a lot of people go into a category that they’re completely clueless about. One of the massive advantages that you have when you are going into a sort of network or industry where you’ve been doing it for a while, is it should feel more like a hobby than work. I mean, I think your podcast is a good example of this. You enjoy doing this, you like this stuff. It’s very clear even in your copy on your page that you hate shitty marketing. Right?

I guess I could give tactical specifics like how to use advanced search operators to find things or look at people’s link profiles. But a way better idea is if you’re working in an industry you love, all of these sites that you should be on should already be in your bookmarks, and they should already be stuff that you’re visiting every day. They should already be natural connections that you have. So, yeah, there are tactics that, you know, find that podcast, find that Meetup group, whatever. But the reality is, it should be so intuitive to you that these should be the sites you’re visiting every day. I guess it’s kind of a BS answer of copping up, but it should be very obvious of who your partnerships should be if you’re doing something that you have actual pedigree in.

Louis: Yeah, and I very much like that because you can see a lot of people entering a space they don’t have no fucking clue about, they don’t necessarily like it. It’s just you’re going to bail out after six, nine, 12 months, right? So following what naturally drives you, what naturally energizes you, is a tough thing to do for certain people. They don’t necessarily know themselves that well. A book that I’ve mentioned a few times in these podcasts that I think is really helpful is called The Unique Ability, which enables you to basically discover what you’re good at from the perspective of other people, not your own self. So, you’ve sent an email and you ask, “What do you think is my unique ability?” People come back to you and overwhelmingly people come back with the same type of answer, and that helps you to guide you to say, “Shit, I’m actually that good at marketing. Fuck, I need to stop fucking around this gardening side project I have and just maybe double down on it.”

So unique ability would be things that energize you and things you are very good at. You can be very good at something and it doesn’t energize you. In this case, it’s a strength, not necessarily unique ability. So again, I think it covers what you mentioned there, and I every much like the fact that you mentioned it. So, in the scenario where you actually have a side gig or something that you’ve developed on the side that is related to your work or what you’re good at, your expertise, you don’t have to create a huge network, in the scenario that you have a few sites that you know your readers will enjoy, all the people who take your course will enjoy, because you’ve been reading it for years, you’ve said that you would give most of the review to them. What do you mean by that? Like what’s the percentage? I know it’s not a finite answer, but what do you usually like to do from the start? What’s the percentage there?

Tommy: Well, I mean it’s not that I preferred it, it’s that they come back to me and say, “Here’s what’s happening.” They’re the big-

Louis: They’re the big boys. Big boy friends.

Tommy: They’re the big beasts and I’m the little guy. Right, exactly. But yeah, they give you a ballpark, it usually ends up being between 50% to 75%. You’re giving away 50% to 75%, and for most people that’s treason, right? They refuse to do that because it’s they don’t put a value on the lifetime of the user. People say this all the time, we are on AppSumo deal. We’ve done seven deals with AppSumo. We’re going to do another one later this year, the eighth or ninth deal. AppSumo is famously relentless about this. They take a 50% to 80% revenue cut. It’s different every year. One third of our users have come from AppSumo, and we have cross-sold, upsold, added the email list. We get credibility from that in a ton of different ways, and every single year people say, “You’re getting ripped off,” and every single year I just keep laughing because they’re really good at what they do.

They have a million active, engaged, interested entrepreneurs and digital marketers. Unfortunately, basically whatever they say we accept and it ends up still being worth it for both of us. So, they’re great at what they do. We love partnering with them. They’re absolutely relentless in the numbers, but it makes sense and we’re still continuing to work with them today.

Louis: I thought email marketing was dead in 2019, huh? So, again, coming back to first principles on the things that always will work, at least in the next 20, 50 years, building trust with an audience where you own the channel. So instead of relying on a third party, like fucking Twitter or Facebook where you don’t own those people, email is still the only thing that you fucking own. You own their email address, they’ve opted in, they’ve said, “Yes, I do want to hear from these people.” So you own this email list, no one can take it away from you, and this is an asset that … this is why so many people mention the same thing over and over and over again, because it just basis it works. What you mentioned makes a lot of sense as well.

So, ranting, basically you talked about lifetime value and this is a concept that is important here, right? It’s not about the first deal you get out of those people. It’s about the other deals, the new products that you will launch. It’s about them joining the email list, talking to their friends about it. It’s about them buying your second, your third, your fourth, your fifth product, because if your first product is really good, then you should be able to sell the next one at a much higher margin. This has been your strategy, right?

Tommy: Exactly. And just the nature of how you optimize and grow your business from 10,000 paid users to 100,000 paid users to a million paid users, it’s just so different from how you get your first one to 100, or one to 1000. You just need fundamentally different tactics, and in my opinion, it’s much more advantageous to focus on the users, the value, the reputation, and the longterm prospects and not worry as much about the revenue. This is really hard for people to do, especially after you just created a great product, you have a product market fit.People don’t want to give it away. They want to get the early traction and I 100% understand it, but I found a lot of value in doing that, in working that way.

You’re 100% right with the email list. I’m an SEO guy, I’m very biased towards SEO, but our business is entirely run on our email list now. I mean, 100%. It’s everything goes through our email list and it’s the difference between, a lot of people don’t understand this, it’s the difference between web applications and web protocols, right? Like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, these are platforms and these are applications. These are companies with privacy policies and shareholders and things like that. But email is a web protocol, right? It’s not an application, it’s the SMTP protocol. So email doesn’t go away. You don’t get voided by terms of service unless people fundamentally stop using email. So the only way that someone can take away your email list is if everyone stops using email.

You can see the moment in time, a lot of companies, demand media, you can look at their stock price and you can see when the Google Algorithm update hit in that platform, messed them up. Zynga, you can see in their public stock price the day that Facebook changed their newsfeed algorithm, so you couldn’t get Farmville spam invites anymore, and you can see the stock price chop, right? But you’re not going to be able to see that with email. So right now, it is the great equalizer, and it’s super cliche, build the list, the money’s in the list, all those cliches around the email list, but it’s worked for me.

Louis: Yeah, and it’s worked for you, worked for others, and it’s just a thing that for the last two years, yes, I’ve been saying that it just makes sense. I like the fact that you’re making the difference between a platform like Facebook and a protocol like email. Thanks for saying that because I wouldn’t have said it better myself. This is why email is important, and email relies on, as you said, the fact that many, many, I mean, billions of people are using it. To this day, there’s not a protocol that are being used that much, apart from maybe SMS, even though you can argue that now it’s on platform like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.

So, apart from this partnership stuff, again, going back to the initial question of the $1,000, would you say this is the most important thing just to partner up with other audiences, people that have bigger subscribers, or a bigger audience? Or would you say there is something else that you would also use to your advantage?

Tommy: In terms of user acquisition or in terms of creating the product?

Louis: In terms of getting the revenue that you need within six months? Like in terms of making some wave?

Tommy: Yeah, I mean in terms of that tight of a timeline, my first … I think it’s easy to argue that I wouldn’t be able to make that kind of money in that timeline. I’m the example of the tortoise. I am not the hare. I did this the slowest way possible, man. I mean, I think you could set up a lemonade stand and make revenue faster than the way I did it. There’s a lot of other things going on and I’m not going to sit here and say that this is the right way to do it. I’m just saying that it’s the way I did it. There’s probably faster ways to do it. There’s probably 17-year-olds now that know how to spin up a Facebook ad campaign targeted specifically at Serbia that’ll blow up or something like that.

I don’t know, but I just … the way I went about it was incredibly slow through partnerships, really honing in on my product by taking it offline first, and also being personally super motivated by it. That’s I think the only reason why it lasted, was even if it didn’t work, I probably would have still kept working on it, because I enjoyed it. I liked teaching, I liked search engine optimization. I really liked it and so I ended up stumbling into the right model eventually, I just don’t know if it was the fastest way to get there.

Louis: I appreciate your transparency and your honesty, man. It’s quite refreshing in this world as you know. A lot of marketers wanting to make themselves look better than they actually are, while a story like yours is much more believable and I think much more attentive and that people listening to this right now would want to do the same as soon as this episode is over. But before that, I have three questions to ask you before I let you go. So, the first one being, what do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next 10 years, 20 years, 50 years?

Tommy: My cofounder, Eduardo, made us do this. He was a content marketer at Teachable before kind of making the jump and they did a lot of this that was really helpful and I hated it at the beginning, but it was kind of over emphasizing your customer avatar and customer interviews. Actually Airbnb was really good about this as well. I played a lot of video games as a kid. Did you play video games at all in the ’90s?

Louis: I did.

Tommy: Computer games, anything like that?

Louis: A lot, yes.

Tommy: Yeah, me as well. So I think part of why I got into search engine optimization was it felt like a video game. It felt like an RPG, right? Like looking at analytics, looking at rankings, looking at all these stats, it felt like I was playing a video game, and for a lot of the time, I always looked at it like numbers on the screen, and I sort of level up my character and things like that. What Eduardo made me do that I absolutely hated, but ended up being really valuable, was, and this is going to sound dorky and cliche, but we really humanized a lot of what we did. Customer interviews, calling people up, asking them what their problems were, talking to them like, “Why did you sign up? How are you using the product? What sucks, what’s good?” Airbnb, again, was really good about this as well. They have physical places in the building where people come in, they do the eye tracking stuff, interviews, “Why are you planning your family vacation? What is your thought process while you’re going to propose to your girlfriend in this villa?” Right? Things like that.

It makes it so much more real, so much more than numbers on the screen. So by humanizing it and getting on the phone with your customer, again, something 99% of people won’t do, getting on the phone with your customer, talking about their problems, ask them why they paid their hard earned money to you and what you’re solving, and then it just becomes a little bit more real like you are actually solving their problem. There’s just fascinating examples.

Someone signed up because they run a small agency, they don’t want to train their new hires and they want to spend more time with their kid. We’re like, in a weird way, we’re-

Louis: Babysitter.

Tommy: … helping someone’s fit. We’re the babysitter. I’m thinking we’re a search engine optimization training course. No, we’re giving this guy more time with this kid. So, it just becomes more real. So yeah, long answer to your question, overemphasizing developing your customer avatars, and it kind of comes back to the human component, which is getting face to face or at least on the phone with them and figuring out their problems and putting a little bit more emotion into the data.

Louis: I’m so glad you mentioned this. I’m kind of surprised you’re mentioning this because coming from someone who says that his business is almost fully automated, your email list, and doing deals and stuff, it’s good to hear that you don’t forget what marketing foundations truly are. So turning numbers in an Excel spreadsheet or from HREF or Google Analytics into full life stories of people. Like the way you just mentioned this person running a digital agency who needed more time to spend with their kids, therefore they bought the course, it’s already a headline in the making. You can already use that. You can use a picture of it.

It’s so much easier than looking at fucking conversion rate all over like everyday on Google Analytics. So, we actually didn’t talk about this before the interview and you came up with something that I say every single fucking interview when I can, which is talk to your fucking customers. They hold the answers. So thank you for that. What are the top three resources you’d recommend our listeners today? So it could be podcasts, could be conferences, events, books, whatever you want.

Tommy: Just some of the tools we’re using. We love HREFs, is a great one. We’re using a lot of the automations in Drip, although Drip has had some fumbles the last couple of months. So I don’t know if I want to fully recommend them right now. Unfortunately, I’ve really hoped they turn that around. We really like RightMessage. RightMessage is a great tool. A lot of the copy on our side is all around RightMessage and we customize it for the customer avatar. Those are specific ones that I really like. Hotjar, we use Hotjar, which is great. I’m trying to think of some other ones that might be really good for your audience. Some other ones are a little bit more boring. They probably know keyword research tools. We really like kwfinder.com if you’re just getting started to do really in depth keyword mapping and figuring out what your whole content strategy is.

Just in general as a tactic, we’ve actually kind of become like a media, video, and Webinar company. We do a lot of live webinars, a lot of partnership webinars as well. This has been a great tactic for us. Along the exact same lines, we’ve been emailing big companies and saying, “Hey, we want to do a ton of value for your users,” just for the visibility and to get their email lists and sometimes the offer. We did one for example with ConvertKit where we come on, do an hour worth of value, and then the offer at the end is to enroll in ConvertKit. There’s no enrolling in our product or anything like that, but it pushes us into an entire new audience, and we’re doing this with a lot of other email service providers now as well.

Louis: Thanks for that. Again, Tommy, you’ve been great. I appreciate how transparent you were, how honest you were, how authentic you were. I think a lot of people learned a lot from you. Keep doing it, keep sharing stuff. I know as you get busier, the business will be more successful. Keep sharing your failures and mistakes with people because I think it’s true … like that’s what leaders do. So thanks for inspiring people to do what you’re doing as well. Where can listeners connect with you and learn more from you?

Tommy: Yeah, Louis, thanks a lot, man. Yeah, clickminded.com is our site. On Twitter I’m @TommyGriffith, and we just launched these new very dorky, you said you played video games back in the day, we launched these very dorky digital marketing and SEO strategy guides. They’re like these eight bit retro strategy guides. Those are free. You can check those out on the site as well.

Louis: Yeah, and you’ve written a lot about your experience. If folks search for ClickMinded blog, you’d see a few of the posts you’ve posted and that inspires this interview today. So, Tommy, once again, thank you very much.

Tommy: Thanks a lot. Really appreciate it.

 

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