In 2006, Brian Clark launched Copyblogger, a site that teaches bloggers how to write more compelling content.
When I started blogging, I remember immediately going to Copyblogger to learn how to write headlines and how to be more useful.
I thought that the way that Brian and his company handled that education was inspiring, as opposed to so many others at the time, who were just teaching people how to make money quickly by shoving as many affiliate programs in their site as possible.
Since then, Copyblogger has started creating software and services for content creators, including Synthesis, where they offer WordPress hosting, StudioPress for web design, and Scribe, for content marketing. Here’s how he did it.
Brian Clark, Copyblogger
Brian Clark launched Copyblogger, a site that teaches bloggers how to write more compelling content.
Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. Today’s guest is a man, who turned a simple blog into a multi-million dollar content software and education company. I want to find out in this interview, how he did it. In 2006, Brian Clark launched Copyblogger, a site that taught bloggers how to write more compelling content.
When I started blogging, I remember that I immediately went to Copyblogger because I needed to learn how to write headlines, how to be more useful, just to understand the whole process. I thought that the way that Brian and his company handled that education, was just it made me actually want to feel like I…it gave me something to aspire to, as opposed to so many others at the time, who were just teaching people how to make money quickly by scanning through, or shoving as many affiliate programs in their site as possible. I just love the quality of content on Copyblogger.
Over the years since then, Copyblogger has started creating software and services for content creators, including Synthesis, where they offer WordPress hosting, StudioPress for web design, and Scribe, for content marketing. And they also continue to do training. Brian, welcome and thanks for sharing your story.
Brian: Thank you for having me, Andrew.
Andrew: You know, I want to focus more about the transition from content to the other businesses, but something stood out when I researched you. You started your business with $1,000 and a large part of that went to design. If you focus so much on content, on copy, why was design so important to you from the beginning?
Brian: Well, like it or not, we always think that we’ll be judged by the content of our character or just our content. But first impressions matter and I’ve been fortunate to have been around some very talented designers since day one, who taught me the things I didn’t know about that. But just from a basic, my background is in psychology, so I knew psychology of color and design were important.
And frankly at that time, design was not emphasized much on blogs in particular, and certainly not a lot of the cutting edge stuff we see actually coming out of the WordPress space, which is a big change from the early days, which makes sense. So, that was just another way for an unknown, completely unknown person, to stand out.
Obviously, I wanted to build an audience based on what I had to say, but that immediate perception when you arrive at a site that was important to me. So, design was something that I invested in early, and then basically other than just keeping the site up with hosting, that’s all I spent before we were profitable.
Andrew: That’s [??] I remember a few years ago, and you said you made [??] in sales, which blew so many people’s minds. Why didn’t you stick with that, with the content, with the education? Why did you decide to move on to other things?
Brian: It’s interesting, that’s a great question because even now, I’d say that education based on last year’s 2013 revenue, is about only one tenth of our revenue. And yet, as you might imagine, it has some of the highest margins because of the way it’s produced and all that. But there was this theory I had when I started Copyblogger that the audience would tell me what they needed, because I really had no clue of what that would be, at the beginning. I was just going to listen. And the frustrations and the problems often centered around the free platform that we were all operating off of, which was WordPress, in the first place. Nothing against WordPress whatsoever; as open source, core software, it’s amazing.
That’s why it’s so popular, the most popular CMS on the internet. But it just…there were things about it that were hard for what I call “normal people,” which I am somewhere in the middle of; not highly technical proficient, but probably more than the average person, obviously. And that’s really how we got into software. It was just too difficult to do the kind of things that we wanted to do with WordPress in particular.
Andrew: For example, what was one screaming need that people in the audience early on, came to you with?
Brian: Well, just being able to do basic tweaks, whether they be design or layout or just standard stuff, and the appearance of your site required code. And even in a cut and paste situation, that makes a lot of people nervous. That was really the beginning of the idea behind the WordPress design framework, where a lot of that stuff where you did have to dig into the code.
For example, just to present an alternate title tag so that Google sees one thing and people see something much nicer for people, in the old days that mattered. Not so much anymore after Hummingbird, but to do that you had to go into the code and it’s just a pain. It’s something that normal people don’t feel comfortable with. We’re talking about, essentially, writers and content creators, not technicians. So there was a struggle between those who created much easier content publishing software and those who still had to use it.
Looking at an early version of your site, actually, I asked the Maya team to get me screenshots of your site for every year since launch. 2007, right on the margin of your site, is a link to MidPhase which is your recommended hosting. It was an ad from MidPhase. You started out recommending software and hosting that already existed, why not continue? Why not say, “If people have this issue where they can’t design their site or they can’t change their heading, I will look for the best software out there and I will do an affiliate program with them and I will promote that.” Why did you decide to start creating on your own?
You have to understand it was a very nascent space, so it didn’t exist. You point out hosting, with MidPhase. There were some good people there. That was a startup that grew very fast and then got acquired. That’s the hosting story. And they were very good to us and tried their hardest, but it was always a nightmare with hosting. Hosting is the hardest problem to solve. No knock against anyone in that business.
We never really wanted to be in the hosting business necessarily. We had our own reasons for needing to develop hosting, which will be a big discussion this year from us. But, effectively, synthesis came because we needed our own hosting. So we did it ourselves. That’s the story of the company. If we need it, or I need it, as a content publisher who’s not a technical wiz, then there’s a market need for it. It just served us well the entire time.
Speaking of advertising reminds me I forgot to say thank you to my sponsor, to Scott Edward Walker of Walker Corporate Law. If you need a lawyer, he is the man to talk to, especially if you are a tech startup. Just go to WalkerCorporateLaw.com. So, Brian, they were coming to you and saying, “We don’t know how to adjust the code, we don’t know how to deal with the design of it.” What’s the first time you said, “I’m going try addressing that, not with an educational product but with software?”
That really dates back to the first WordPress design framework and that was thesis at the time. It was a perfect home run of having an existing audience and a piece of technology that solved problems. That really just took off. The interesting thing about software, to me, was that in 2005, before I started Copyblogger, I was a 37Signals fan boy. And I was just so in awe of the fact that a design group could go into software. I literally remember the thought, “Too bad, I could never do that.” But this is what I keep trying to explain to people.
That is, when you have an audience and they have a need, the resources to get it done are going to come to you. I still can’t code, to this day. But I have some of the best coders around. That was all kind of made possible by the momentum that we established, by first doing the first training product. That was something that was based on years of experience and something that Tony Clarke, no relation, but COO now, we were able to create.
What was that first one?
That was our online education program. Back in 2007, it’s so interesting, because now online education is getting funded left and right. It’s the future of everything. But in 2007, we literally had to say, “Now, look, trust me, people will pay for content. Stop putting AdSense on your site and do something that will actually work.” And that was the launch of teaching cells. We went from zero to 100,000 in two days and then zero to seven figures by that period a year later.
So that was the beginning and I think, to this day the premise of that program is if you can create free content, you can create premium content that people will pay for and that’s the way you get into business. It’s a lot more doable even though it’s hard work than it is to get into software. You can trust me on that one.
Andrew: I’ve seen it for myself. Thesis had already existed at the time, right? Chris Pearson had put it together.
Brian: Well, Chris and I were business partners. He was my first designer. He was the guy I paid that thousand dollars to and he’ll still complain to this day that I ripped him off. But.
Brian: You know, jokingly, he was like, “That was a steal for that thousand dollar design,” and I’m like, “I know, but.” So, and then Chris and I built another site, while we were running, while I was running Copyblogger he was my designer so when I needed things done, he handled that but it was all my writing and whatnot. We created another site, now remember, this was 2006. YouTube was just coming on, had not been acquired by Google yet.
So I’m thinking, online video, that’s the thing. YouTube, someone’s going to buy YouTube, this is the huge thing. So, we started a video tutorial site and we both contributed content to that and that sold in the 6 figures, 6 months later, riding that kind of YouTube acquisition mania after Google paid so much money for it. For Chris, that was a lot of money and he went and disappeared and had fun, and for me, since I hadn’t launched anything for sale yet on Copyblogger, that’s basically bankrolled 2007 until Tony and I did launch TeachingCells.
So, even then, the audience facilitated the revenue because we launched a site that we were able to sell a short time later. So, Chris gets tired of living the great life that he was living for about 6 months there. And he said, “You know what? People need to pay for themes. They need support, this free theme thing,” which was the norm at that time, “It’s not supportable.” And he was right.
So, he went off to start building and then this concept of the framework as opposed to just the pretty picture, the functional aspect behind the scenes kind of came to life. And so, he launched it and he was, I think he was fairly well with it and I thought it was great, you know, I’m like, that’s probably a good $100,000, $120,000 a year business and that’s a lot better than giving away free themes for link-backs right? And then Chris comes to me and he goes, “This guy, Brian Gardener, is making $30,000 a month selling themes.
At the time it was revolution, before StudioPress, and then he got my attention. So, I said, okay. And he said, “Look. All I want to do is code. I want to build, I don’t want to market, I don’t want to sell, I don’t want to do anything, do you want to partner?” So, that’s what happened. We formed DIYThings the official company that was both of ours and we launched it. And then I guess less than a year later we went from $10,000 a month to $10,000 a day.
It was the right product at the right time because nothing else existed like it and people needed it. And most of all, it was something that I think at the time a lot of people didn’t catch, which was, we’re serving the business community not the WordPress community. Now, Chris was very hostile to the WordPress community, which I was not down with and I thought was a very bad idea but he had his own opinions about how things should work and a lot of times WordPress wasn’t going that way. But it never hurt the business because we’re serving a different group of people with the theme.
So, anyway, that was how I got started and then there were similar stories about how Scribe came to be, how Tony and I came up with ideas for software that we started building but by that time, 2010 had rolled around and we had a collection of companies that had been launched off Copyblogger. We had Copyblogger itself, we had UnGlued Media, which on TeachingCells and another membership program. There was DIYThemes, which Chris and I owned, and then there was Scribe, which Sean Jackson and I owned. And things did not work out with Chris.
We fundamentally had a difference of opinion on where Thesis should go. I think that became apparent in the ensuing years. You were front and center at a certain confrontation between he and Matt Mallonewag [sp] about GPL issues, which again, I tried to avoid. But long story short, that relationship ended.
Andrew: It ended right around that interview. They were battling it out publicly on Twitter and I said guys, come on together and let’s talk about this and they talked about it and soon after you seemed to separate yourself from DIY.
What happened? How do you break it off when you’re 50/50 partners with someone who doesn’t want to go in your direction?
Brian: Actually, Chris had a slightly larger percentage than me, which I thought was the way it ought to be. But it also meant that ultimately Chris would steer the ship and for a long time we agreed or we agreed to agree, even when we disagreed. But development ideals started to diverge and then the antagonism against WordPress and GPL.
Before your show, Matt and I were working out how does Thesis come out GPL. I knew it wouldn’t matter, it just does not matter to this business model because people are buying support more than they’re buying a piece of software. So if you’re stealing our software, great, have at it, you’re on your own. And again, we’re serving the business community, not the technology community.
That said, it just all came to a head but it was not oh, that happened, I must leave. It was I can’t do this anymore.
Andrew: Did you just walk away and you say I give you my part of the business and I’ll go and start something different? What do you do? What did you do? Because you didn’t have a buy sell agreement in place, right?
Brian: We did. It didn’t ultimately go down that path. This is a lot of water under the bridge, you know, but there was some antagonism there and ultimately I did sell my share to Chris for a song basically, but my thinking was Brian Gardner and I had already decided that one way or another he and I would become partners and go in the direction that I thought was smarter with what he was doing with Genesys or Studio Press would merge with all the other companies I owned an interest in and that’s ultimately what happened. Copyblogger media was formed out of 4 different companies.
But yes, ultimately I just said, “Look, Chris, pay me this amount which is basically like back revenue due to me.” It wasn’t a buy-out per se. And I’m going to go do what I want to do because ultimately I wasn’t a happy person at the time and I became a happy person shortly thereafter. I told Gardner I said you know, you got a great thing with Studio Press, it’s well respected, you’re on the right path in my opinion about how a framework should work. I will double sales in a year and I was able to do that in 6 months and now they’re at a whole other level from there.
So ultimately who cares about the money? I mean, we make lots of money, it’s great. I have a great life, I can’t complain. Did I technically leave a boatload of money on the table? At that time, yes, but things went in a different direction with DIY Themes and with us.
Andrew: Let me just separate your experience with DIY Themes from what I think our audience is going to take away from tis conversation. There is something to the way you partner with other people who were good, who are good developers, good designers and could do the things that you [??], what you had which is traffic and understanding the market and other things.
If someone were to duplicate that and leave so much of the company’s expertise in a partner’s hands, do you have any advice for what they can do to avoid problems down the road?
Brian: It’s a tough question because I have 4 other partners who came the same way to me as Chris did and, don’t get me wrong. Chris and I were great friends and great business partners for longer than a lot of people are. So it’s the only one that didn’t work out and so I certainly don’t want to discourage people from it because it’s been fantastic to me. It’s brought, you know, as opposed to go in the venture capital route, where you basically hire all your talent, I partnered from my talent and that takes equity and all that.
But the way things have worked out have left me never having to answer to an investor or board. And up to this point, that’s been very important to me. And a lot of people become millionaires, because of that strategy. So you can’t say that it doesn’t work, it certainly does. Sometimes people change over the course of time and things don’t work out and you have to work it out. I mean, Chris and I didn’t saw each other, I think we are still quadrille to one another. So in my mind, if something has got to end then it could have been much worse. So…
Andrew: Here is one thing I kept away from it, you didn’t partner up on Copyblogger. You said Copyblogger is the main source of traffic and it’s my thing, I’ll partner up run the other thing.
Andrew: I will partner on DIYThemes and when you got together with Brian, was it the same thing or did you create Copyblogger Media and then share a piece of that business with on both of your [??].
Brian: So when the four companies merged together, one of which was Copyblogger LLC, which was a holding company for the website itself. Now, that asset was, I’ve received multimillion dollar offers just for the website. As you can imagine that’s the platform the nucleus, but it didn’t generate revenue itself really it generated revenue from the satellite companies. So all of that came together into one company and I did put Copyblogger into, it’s all owned by us now.
Andrew: Okay. So that with [sp] Brian’s company that’s what created the design platform. What are the other companies that you partnered up with and what did they do?
Brian: So Scribe was a separate entity. Sean Jackson was the software architect of that and it started out as a very simple SEO copy-writing algorithm that has evolved into really more sophisticated content marketing software over the years. Then there was the education arm as it existed back then which brought in teaching sales and the other training program.
Then once we all got together, we built all the other technologies that we have including the entire hosting line of business. We did have a separate piece of WordPress software called Premise, which we just took off the market for reasons that we can go into or not…
Andrew: Steve, I bought Premise and I just went back to it the other day, because it’s so well designed. I really like your design sensibility. You understand what we need. You don’t give us [??] for example, you give us text that’s more like the kind of text that we would publish. So I went back in, I upgrade it and I noticed that it wasn’t on the market anymore, there wasn’t even a blog post saying we are stopping to promote it, right. What happened?
Brian: Oh, there were plenty of blog posts.
Andrew: Were there?
Brian: Yeah, there were several posts, several emails, I mean we explained it and there is a lot of email. I can’t say there was a lot of confusion, but there were people who are confused even though here is what I said, I said we are just not going to sell it anymore. We are going to support it; we are going to continue to improve it. It is actually a center piece not only of four own marketing and sales strategy and Copyblogger, I mean that software is what delivers $300,000 worth of business a month at StudioPress, right that is the digital sales mechanism. It…
Andrew: Forgive me, that what Premise says in actually it’s still in, it’s software and education bundles that lets you quickly and effectively create landing pages with WordPress. Many landing pages that that created are built on Premise, which plugs into WordPress and you guys use it too. So why did you stopped marketing it?
Brian: So it’s a landing page software, but it’s also a membership site software. And so, but if you sell something digital like Themes, you can use it as that kind of gave away because it’s a protected back in. And my Copyblogger concept is a whole bunch of free content, but it’s gated. So you register for it and then you have access and all that kind of thing.
Anyway, so this is like our core technology that powers not only our own sites, but the platform that’s being released this year the complete solution as supposed to here is this piece and here is this piece, and here is hosting and here are some content marketing software. It’s all one thing which we’ve, by listening, have heard that’s where the next frontier is. It’s not necessarily about WordPress anymore.
It’s about just give me something that works so I don’t have to worry about plugins that have security leaks and I don’t hear about it and all that kind of stuff. Anyway so we basically just said, ‘Look, we’re not going to sell this a la cart anymore.’ We gave everyone one more week to buy it if they wanted it and we took it off the market. So if you missed that, that’s what you missed. There’s like thirteen thousand people that own Premise and we’re taking very good care of them. We just decided that we’re killing ourselves selling it at even at $165.
Brian: Even $165 is not enough money to make it worthwhile…
Andrew: Given the ROI… So, we became our own case study with my Copyblogger and boosted our email opt-in rates by 400%. I mean that’s serious economic value. The landing page component is fairly powerful. You have people on Bounce who have that on a recurring model and are killing it. Right?
So I think we were generous with Premise and who knows if we’ll go a la carte with those kind of features in the future. But the point is that it’s very powerful as a part of an overall solution and that’s what we’ve been working towards for the last three years. We’ve never sat still. Everything that we’ve built though has been a part of this thing. And I’m not sure if that was clear to people or not.
Brian: I didn’t know it. But you did have this vision from the beginning: We’re going to create a hosted solution that does everything you need. You’re not going to have to learn how to install and fuss around with WordPress and the plugins that go along with it. Is that right?
Andrew: When we got together in Denver in 2010 all the current partners of Copyblogger Media had never been in a room together before. That’s kind of amazing. In less than… I think it was two to three hours we’d hammered out a merger agreement because everyone was so fired up about the vision for what we wanted to build and that was it.
Brian: How did you know that [??] tools include Scribe for example and that those are the right people – Sean and Brian – were the right people to partner up with?
Andrew: Well it’s interesting. Sean went through the ringer because he basically stalked me at a conference just to be able to present to me. And he basically built a piece of beta initial software that was built on my philosophies of people first when it comes to SEO. And I was like, ‘Well that’s cool.” And then I started looking at how it worked and we worked out some of the initial kinks. And we launched and we just continued to improve it relentlessly. It went through four iterations in a very short period of time.
And as Google has changed, as Panda happened, as Penguin happened, and now Hummingbird, it’s become more and more in tune with how SEO actually works. But it’s also perfectly in tune. The same process goes into: How do you succeed in social media? How do you succeed in direct content marketing which is really the goal?
So Sean went through several months of my evaluating what he had built and, more importantly, him as a person. Steve Jobs had this amazing quote that I found to be true which is, “People only see what you say ‘yes’ to, but they don’t see what you say ‘no’ to.” And I’ve said ‘yes’ to, what, five things and I’ve said no to ninety-five or more. So many opportunities come to you if you have an audience. That’s awesome.
Knowing not to take the short term buck or the wrong product or the partner who feels wrong in your gut, that is harder. But if you put the people you’re serving ahead of your own wallet, in the long run your wallet’s just fine.
Brian: Talk to me since my sponsor is Walker Cooper Law and you have a legal background. What protections can we put in place if we are to do what you’re doing? If we’re to say, ‘I’m going to partner with new people.’ I know we kind of talked about it before. But here you are really bringing a business that’s massively successful and that has an incredible reputation and you’re partnering up with Sean who’s not as far advanced as you are.
And Brian, actually, who is very far advanced and had a huge reputation online and obviously inspired many other people. What would we do to protect ourselves?
Brian: Yes, that’s where the background as an attorney has served me well in two senses. One is making sure you have the right paperwork, you know, good contracts like good fences make for good neighbors and all that kind of good thing. The other aspect of it though is that having the background in law makes me less uptight about legal issues because ultimately I found that if you have the right partner, you’re going to figure it out, you’re going to work it out. Even if things kind of go sideways, you’ll ultimately figure out how to resolve it and move on.
But every one of these partnerships was its own company with its own LLC agreement, which is a binding legal document that talks about how the owners of the company are going to deal with one another in various situations. So when you say before was there a buy sell, yes, of course there was.
Andrew: A buy sell. Was there anything else that we might need to go to our lawyer and say help me prepare by having a good fence. I have a good neighbor. I need a buy sell agreement with my potential partner. Is there anything else that we should say we’d like to have in our agreement?
Brian: Well, there’s two ways to go if you’re doing at the level I was doing, which is literally forming satellite companies around the Copyblogger mothership, if you will.
Andrew: I’m sorry. They were satellite companies? I thought you did merge them all into one and split the pieces among the founders of this new business.
Brian: In 2010, before that, they were all separate.
Andrew: I see, right. So in 2010, what else did you do? Did you have buy sell agreements so if you needed to say to Sean Jackson this isn’t working out or you needed to say if there was a way to separate, what else do you do?
Brian: Well, that’s what we had coming into the merger and then we just merged into one big sophisticated document. That’s the thing though, that was a much bigger company and yet essentially the terms that go into an agreement like that are similar even in a more simple document between two people instead of five.
So a good attorney such as your sponsor will know, I mean, this is not reinventing the wheel in most cases. Now, the place where a skilled attorney comes in most handy is when you have the weird situation, such as licensing issues, like one person has technology and you’re not just throwing it all together and say let’s go 50/50, you know. At that point, you have non-standard drafting and you need to take that into account.
But for the most part, a good LLC agreement or good joint venture agreement which is a contractual form of partnership as opposed to the entity form, getting too lawyerly for you. But essentially they do the same thing, they say this is how we’re going to divide things up, profits, losses, and if things go badly in these 15 different ways here’s how we handle it.
Andrew: Okay. The other thing that we talked about before we started is you were essentially on your own and here you suddenly today have, I forget, I’ll ask my researcher to find out how many people we could hunt down on LinkedIn who had Copyblogger as current job. I think it was 35.
How do you go from just running your own show to suddenly being a manager? Do you remember the first [??] else at the company?
Brian: So it’s interesting. So the accumulation of partners that I went through, you know, from 2007 until the merger in 2010 was my executive team, in essence, right? So when we merged together each company had its own employees to some degree. At the time, Studio Press brought over the most people. Scribe had a couple of people and then I think other than that, that was it. So then we formed with that nucleus and then just started adding head count, not to grow for growing’s sake obviously.
For example, when we added hosting, that was an entire team of people that suddenly became part of the company because that was what was necessary to do.
So Tony, again, he’s Operations and he is a consummate process guy. My startups before I started Copyblogger I was horrible at delegating, I ran everything, the business could not run, do anything without me and guess what? I was overworked and miserable. Tony was like, hey, we don’t want to do that again and, you know, started from the beginning because we’re a very support intensive organization as well. So that’s a big part of what he oversees. And with the development it all runs by Scrum. All these processes that just make things work which allows me to still focus on what’s the long term strategy.
For editorial, I have Sonia who is basically our chief content officer. She’s an extremely talented writer and content creator. But it all still kind of works according to the grand plan of how things work. Then at the nitty-gritty level I still write all the copy for every site. Every time we do a launch, I write it all which I think sounds kind of weird. But then again, going back to 37signals, I read that Jason Fried still does the exact same thing. And when it comes down to it to really owning, the buck stops with me. I’m the one who really ought to be writing those words and so far that continues to be the case.
Andrew: So if I wanted to understand why Copyblogger as an organization is run so well, I would need to talk to Tony. Right?
Brian: That’s a good place to start. Editorial runs kind of… Tony’s theory is that writers are unmanageable and it’s probably right. Editorial runs in its own weird way with my oversight but also Robert Bruce. Jared Morris is our new Director of Content. Sonia is very much a practitioner rather than a manager in a lot of way. So that’s the creative part of the company that doesn’t run according to anyone else’s rules.
Then Development and Support are very tight. So you would talk to Tony about those things. And then you’d get me to try to explain how the poet and the pink-haired hippy from Berkeley run the content creation side. [Laughs]
Andrew: So I don’t want to walk away from this conversation feeling like its magic, like you just happened to have the right group of people. I want to walk away from it, if I can Brian, with an understanding that I could take back and make my life and my business life actually more organized like yours. What’s the one thing that if you could send me and of course the audience more important away from this conversation? What’s the one thing that we can send them away with, to give them this zen-like management that you have?
Brian: Well it all kind of boils down to an intersection of your passion and what you can tie that to in order to serve the needs of others. I think where a lot of people go wrong at a very initial stage is that we love to believe, and again going back to Jobs, that he just made the iPad because he wanted to and he knew something magical. No, he was feeding an existing desire in a new way. That’s how human beings work.
So if you love the story of the person who follows their own way and creates something that everyone loves. In essence that person got lucky, okay, and there’s nothing wrong with that. On the other side of things you can figure out what people want and tie that together with what you’re truly passionate about because if you’re not passionate about it, do you really think in the long term you’re going to continue to choose to do the right thing and continue to show up and outdo yourself? I don’t think so.
So basically from the foundation level, we listen very carefully to the desires and problems that people have, not what people tell you they want. Those are two very distinct things. People don’t know what they want necessarily, but they do have problems and desires.
From there, it’s just: How do we do this without becoming miserable in the process? How do you satisfy people and hopefully turn them into fans and advocates without making yourself miserable like I was with my previous businesses? I had people that loved what we did back then when I had the virtual real estate brokerages, but I was miserable. That is not fun. [Laughs]
Andrew: Why were you miserable?
Brian: Because I didn’t know how to create processes. I didn’t know how to delegate. I didn’t know how to let others do what they’re good at to leave me doing what I’m good at. So if you really want to look at the genesis of it, it was me coming and saying, “I’m never doing that again.” So my first partner was Tony, then came Sonia, then came Sean, then Gardner. Each one was a unique set of skills that translated when you bubble. We’re pretty flat as an organization, but still everyone has their own area of expertise that makes this organization run really well. And…
Andrew: So you didn’t see that…
Brian: Well, and if we see a problem, we fix it immediately. We don’t stick our head in the ground and say oh, you know that will go away.
Andrew: You also said processes. You said good people who you could delegate to and trust. What kind of processes you also said that?
Brian: So for example, Tony was a software developer before we met and they actually built nuclear reactor software, mission critical stuff.
Brian: So it was very important to make sure that things were done correctly along with all the other client management things that had to go on with that. So he is very, you know, this was a person back in 2006, who watched the way I develop content on Copyblogger and said you are doing agile content development, you are doing lean. And I’m like I don’t know what that means. It just seems like a smart thing to do which is put something out there, see what happens and adapt essentially.
Now, you know we were essentially the Lean Startup because of Tony and he knew all of that stuff dating back to Toyota’s manufacturing processes and all that. Then later Eric Ries comes out with his great book and it’s a movement now and I think that’s great, because we have seen firsthand that that works. That’s essentially put it out there listen adapt iterate, improve keeping going, do it again.
So you may want to look at that point, some of our people in the organization, Sean in particular came from a very corporate background and our philosophy and approach drove him insane for a while. Because we will turn on a dime like that and we can pull it off because…
Andrew: Why did you turn on a dime for? What’s one thing where you thought aha, we understand what people want and then so oh, no we got to take a left turn here?
Brian: We never made a major mistake, because I spent way too much time researching, thinking, observing before we make a big decision, but once you implement there is a thousand things that a thousand decisions that you can make one way or another, you are not going to be right even maybe half of the time you are really great if you’re right half the time, but you can change if you are ready for it.
The worst thing you can do, I think this has been true for a long time, but in this environment real time if you are stuck to a particular idea of how it should be as oppose to wanting to get it how it is or needs to be then there is a good chance you are going to fail. Like I said, some people get incredibly lucky and it’s unfortunate I think that those are the stories that make it out there the most. Because they are an anomaly and then they give people the wrong idea and then they fail and hopefully they learn and then they do it right the next time. So people never learn and that is sad to see.
Andrew: I asked you at the beginning how you knew what products to create and you said I have to understand what people need and you said you are your customer and you knew what you needed in the beginning and that’s how you understand what to create. Does it always start still with what you need or can you walk me through… how about hosting? Can you walk me through hosting? How did you know that there was a need for it and then how did you develop a clear understanding of it and what did you launch? Maybe there we can see the Lean Startup methodology unfold in the way that you are?
Brian: Right, that is a great question. So I knew there was a problem with hosting, because we were a high traffic, especially high burst of traffic publisher that’s essentially what you are trying to accomplish with content marketing. Publishing something so great that your traffic goes up, your audience goes up in the long term. So it was always trouble even though, because we would say okay, you know take care of us for hosting. Take care of us well and we will put a little add in the sidebar or whatever. Ultimately, it was never satisfying to me.
We ended up hooking up with a group of guys Derek [sp] Schafer and Gerald Morris, who originally came to us through the hosting side, is now our director of content and this is why he was a publisher, he published a sports site what was hooked up with Fox Sports Net and all these high traffic sources using Google News. So these guys had a site that got as much or more traffic than Copyblogger and they had the same hosting issues. Unfortunately, they were all, I mean unfortunately unlike me, they were all Linux geeks and they are like, “We are going to fix this. We’re going to do our own. We’re going to roll our own.” So they did that for themselves.
They started taking on a few clients. Derek was a friend of Sean’s who lived in Dallas. All of that group lived in Dallas. I met them and the first thing was, “Hey, you should let me host you.” That was how the discussion started. I said, “Okay, let’s give it a shot.” Best hosting I’d ever had. Next conversation, “You know, we should sell this to other people.” And in the back of my mind, that first conversation didn’t include the fact that we were going towards a hosted platform. That was what we were building.
We knew we needed hosting and we knew it had to be exceptional. It’s funny, general Word Press hosting is harder than a controlled hosting environment that we’re about to release. Because you can’t control for this theme and that plug-in, that’s where all the problems are. That’s why I think you’ve seen the emergence of this specialty Word Press only hosting with WP Engine, Pagely, several others including Synthesis that are filling this need.
I don’t feel like we should be competing against each other. We’re competing against Go Daddy and all these people putting thousands of people on a box and calling it Word Press hosting.
Andrew: And so you knew that you had this problem.
Brian: So that’s the need, again, anyone who has more than zero traffic. You know this. You know you need good hosting. And even though I was getting what was billed as “Red Carpet Service”, it just wasn’t good enough. It really comes down to, if you really want to know what it narrows down to, is that Word Press is its own beast. The way it handles calls and data bases and all that means you can’t just install it on a basic server and have it work really well. And that’s why you have this managed Word Press hosting industry now.
So that’s probably the best example of something that was mission critical that we needed that I was unsatisfied with and that we were able to solve because the people who created the technology for Synthesis were also publishers themselves. I don’t know anyone else, and this has kind of been our story with Synthesis which is, I don’t know anyone else who started as an actual high traffic publisher and went into the hosting business. It’s usually just a technology thing.
Andrew: Even on WP Engine I saw it evolved a lot. Where I think they started out thinking about bloggers and then they moved on to realize that there are people way bigger than bloggers who are willing to pay much more than the $25.00 to $50.00 a month that a blogger would pay. And that’s their evolution that they discovered, I think, more revenue and more mission critical sites. More critical sites and sites for big enterprise customer who have all kinds of issues [??].
Brian: It’s amazing, you know, we host realtor.com, cfo.com. The enterprise customers are the ones that, you know, we don’t have an outbound sales team whatsoever or any sort of enterprise sales. But they do find us. And of course, people like WP Engine, people like Automatics, VIP Hosting. You know, think about it, the New York Times runs on Word Press. It’s just a custom version of Word Press with a lot of bandwidth and hosting requirements.
So the need is out there. Anyway, we found our part in that. The interesting thing to me is that Synthesis is our fastest growing line of business. It’s well under the seven figures and we really did it to release the thing that we’re releasing this year. So I really don’t feel like we’re in competition with anyone else in that regard because we’re trying to be a total solution provider.
Andrew: I want to ask you about what your [??] one more thing about where you were. I asked my team, I said, “How much is Copyblogger generating”? We couldn’t come up with anything of 2012 or 2013. We have 2011, about 5 million in revenue. 2012, all we have is estimates and 2013 estimates, roughly 10 to 13 million dollars. But those are just estimates based on what we were able to research. Can you announce here what your revenues were for 2013?
Brian: I like your numbers better. We’re heading in that direction, but let’s see, 2012 was 5.8 and last year was, I don’t have final numbers for last year but it’s seven something.
Andrew: Seven something. Did we get the 2011 revenue right, roughly five million?
Brian: I think it was more like three something. That was the first full year after we merged.
Andrew: Okay. That’s stuff, even if we get it wrong it’s helpful so we can go back and figure out, what did we get wrong? Where did we [inaudible]? So, you are launching something this year. What is it? What is this big process, this big holistic software?
Brian: Well, I think the easiest way to get people to understand what it is, is to compare it to something that’s already out there that we don’t necessarily see as a competing offer for a couple of reasons, but obviously Hub Spot, right? So, Hub Spot has taken an enormous amount of venture capital and built a platform that they’ve selling over time now for quite a while.
We’re the different route in that we’re boot strapped, we never took money. We built a platform for ourselves. We demonstrated for our market that it works obviously. We are a true inbound marketing company in every sense of the word and we’ve used our own tools. And so we feel like we, again, are our own best case study in that case, because I don’t think the average small to to medium is going to take 70 million in venture capital.
So, I think we serving a different market than Hub Spot to a certain degree, but at the same time, with Synthesis, we’re seeing a lot of enterprise demand already and those people are interested in, can we have what you use exactly for copy blogger? So, the platform which is called Rain Maker, we’re building a new site that will be launched very soon on the platform itself, it’ll be content driven, all that kind of good stuff. So it’s again a demonstration of what the platform does, why we teach people how to use it.
Andrew: So it’d be based on WordPress. It’ll include content generating tools it seems like include, SEO, include everything, what else?
Brian: WordPress is the core and that’s another very fundamental difference between something like Hub Spot which is 100 percent proprietary. We recognize, again, the New York Times runs on Word Press, but it is a very tricked out version of WordPress. We run on WordPress, but it is a tricked out version of WordPress. We’re selling the tricked out version. I wouldn’t have used Hub Spot back then or at all mainly because I believe in an open source core.
I don’t think any company can match the creativity and output of thousands of people in the WordPress community at the core level. That said, we are providing a complete hosted solution with our framework, with our design templates built in, in a very elegant theme switching analytics, research content optimization, outreach, everything you need to actually do the job is built in.
Brian: Email is something that we’re going to provide an option for. We are not going to force people, at not least initially, to use our email. If you want to use A Weber or you want to use Mail Chimp or you want to use Constant Contact, that’s fine with use because we’ve used different email providers over the years. We do have our own email now. You’re actually dragging more out of me than I’m ready to give, Andrew.
Andrew: [??] Are you offering it to users yet?
Brian: Not yet, no. So, beta on the platform itself starts sometime this month assuming this is published in January.
Andrew: [inaudible] Actually, I think we’ve got enough of a backlog that, that’s probably what we’re going to do unless you’d rather we rush it.
Brian: No, it’s up to you. It’s your show.
Andrew: Okay. So you will have email, but it won’t be a required part of the business. How would you rethink email? I feel like a lot of the email providers out there are still creating software that could have existed 10 years ago.
Brian: It won’t be in, in V1, but we will also end up being the first marketing automation platform for WordPress which is the stuff that’s hard and is not out there in any form yet so, you can see that we’re starting with the pieces and putting them together and then evolving with the platform over time, but to a certain degree, that’s a great question because people over think email too much.
You know why email is hard and you know why email works? It comes down to the value of your content and the skill of your copy and so many people are just not even focusing on the fundamentals. Again, that is what copy bloggers started as, right? We’re talking about great, great words that are influential, persuasive, engaging, all of this good stuff because that is fundamental.
You know the greatest technology in the world, all the automation, all the bells and whistles. If people don’t want what your words in any medium, text, video, audio, what they’re conveying, you’re wasting your time. It really comes down to that. Tim Ferriss asked me by email a question about email and he had obviously done a lot of initial research and talking about this platform versus that and automation and everything. I’m like, the answer is start with great content and great copy, and Tim’s a great copywriter. I don’t know if a lot of people know that.
We went from zero to seven million with just that. People are amazed at the lack of sophistication in our email offering other than basic suppression to make sure this list doesn’t get this message or duplicates or anything like that. So you can make a lot of money with just plain old fashioned words and I think I need to keep reminding people that.
Andrew: If we were to use plain old fashioned words as a headline for this interview, the copywriter, what would you suggest the headline be?
Brian: Wow, you’re putting me on the spot.
Andrew: Literally, aren’t I?
Brian: Let’s see, why serving others is a secret to success. I don’t know if that’s the best headline but that is a headline. [laughs]
Andrew: Okay. [??] The reasons why serving others is the secret to success.
Brian: [laughs] That’s so funny. We once again are getting the backlash against the list.
Andrew: No, I just want to include the revenue numbers at the time.
Brian: Yeah, right. [laughs] Yeah. No, it’s funny what the buzz feeds and upworthies of the world have done with the conversation. I love to point people to all the very scholarly defenses of the list format. It’s just something our brain really likes. What it comes down to is a good number in the headline thing will always work, but you better damn well back it up with the content. That’s really what people are complaining about, right? They don’t feel bad that they. . .
Andrew: [??] the headline is that when you get there [??].
Brian: Yeah. They don’t feel bad that they clicked on the headline, they feel bad when they get there. [laughs]
Andrew: Alright, also to close this out, I’ve got you here, you’ve seen the site, Mixergy, do you have any advice for how we can improve it?
Brian: Are you doing any current AB testing, heat maps, any of that kind of stuff?
Andrew: No, we should be doing that on the posts themselves?
Brian: What you start within the structure of a site, obviously you have your home page that used to be the most important page. It’s probably still. I don’t know what your analytics but it’s still our highest traffic page because they’ll come in somewhere and then they click over to see what the home page says. Landing pages that are gateway points from search and/or social, all of that stuff is what you optimize toward whatever your goal is, whether it’s selling premium content.
There’s a very different approach to what you do when you are selling page views versus what you do when you’re selling products or services, right? That’s the encouraging thing for people who use content for marketing because you don’t need to be tech current or buzz feed to make a good living because you’re not selling very, very inexpensive banter ads. What I would say to you is, that you need to start testing your actions, right?
What are you trying to get people to accomplish and what’s the pathway, the persuasion architecture of your site that kind of makes them go in that direction? Those are the things you test and you optimize.
Andrew: What is it for you? If I look at Copyblogger, I loved when you guys changed the home page from just a list of the past posts to something that explains what the whole business is, but if I look at the blog post, what are you driving people to from that post?
Brian: Generally, it’s all to MyCopyBlogger which is the register gated content concept. So, over the years, we created a ton of content, so we basically took a lot of the best cornerstone topics that we had, updated it all, packaged it in very nice e-books and put it all in this content library. It’s still free, but you have to register and that’s the mechanism by which our email opt-in rate went up 400%.
To give you an example, it took us three years to build an email newsletter list of around 100,000 people. Since May of 2013, we’re at about 88. So, you can see the acceleration of taking traffic and converting it into something where people actually want to follow you overtime.
Andrew: You mean 88,000 people are subscribed to your access site, 85,831 online marketers are part of my.copyblogger.com and that’s what you’re saying that before much of the content that’s in there like “How to Write a Magnetic Headline,” that was available just on Copyblogger and you can [??] be a part of the site. Today, that is on My Copyblogger and I do have to register and when I do register, I get all this other stuff with it?
Brian: Right, And then, of course, there’s some other interesting stuff here that we do because My Copyblogger and Authority, the paid part of the site are integrated in that back end in a way that it’s very good at giving people a glimpse of what that’s all about without any kind of hard sell. So, there was a lot of thought that went into the…
Andrew: Authority being the educational product?
Brian: Exactly, yes.
Andrew: And actually, if I look at the site right now, I do see a post right there at the heart of the site to the right I see the email box where I can join the mailing list directly. Underneath that I see register today to get and that’s the my.copyblogger. Underneath the post, there’s another place to register. Those are all obvious, is there anything non obvious that I missed.
Brian: Yeah, so, a big part of our strategy overtime was, okay, so when I started Copyblogger in 2006, I started writing it almost like a book in that I would write posts or articles in series along a certain theme. So, the first thing I did was write 10 articles, I wrote a couple of other posts in the mix to keep myself from going crazy, but ten posts on Copyrighting, called Copyrighting 101. I aggregated all those posts on a landing page, what I call a content landing page.
For all of our other main topics, content marketing, SEO copyrighting keyword research, landing pages, internet marketing, we basically did the same thing with these content landing pages. So, up until last May, those were like tables of contents with links to posts and by aggregating the content that easy, those resource pages attracted tons of links, tons of sharing and if you want to log out of Google personalized search and see how each one of them ranks, they all do very well.
So what’s not obvious is that each of those landing pages, which are the topics of the e-books are taking search traffic and instead of it being a bounce or transient traffic, it’s basically driving them into our email system as well.
Andrew: Alright, I get that. And you’re right, I hadn’t noticed that even though I was checking out those pages throughout the day. Alright, I’ve taken up a lot of your time here today and I appreciate you coming here and doing an interview. I always ask a guest before how do I make this a win for them. We’re here, do you feel like this was a win for you now that we’ve gone through the whole interview?
Brian: Yeah, no I mean I think you asked some good questions and those types of questions are the type, I think, any entrepreneur or business owner has to revisit and if you don’t have someone with an outside perspective doing the questioning, often you succumb to the , I don’t know, the old cliche boxed-in thinking. Being able to stand up and explain, number 1, but also rationally justify what you do especially when you’re in the business of selling what you do to others. I mean, doesn’t it really boil down to that? For me, that’s worth the money right there.
Andrew: Well, thank you. Thanks for doing this interview. And just to be clear, he is not paying for this interview. We do not take payments for interviews.
Brian: That was a poor choice of words. I’m actually, I’m very glad that you invited me to be on the show.
Andrew: No, I get that. There are a few people who somehow think that they can buy their way onto the show, which is weird.
Brian: No, but I’ve been a fan of the show for a long time and I’m just glad I got to come on and talk with you, Andrew.
Andrew: It’s an honor to have you on. The website is copyblogger.com and we’re going to see a whole lot more coming from Brian and his team. Thanks for doing this interview, thank you all for being a part of it. Bye-bye.
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