Andrew: Hey there freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I am the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart, when I do this the sleeve on my jacket just comes up really high. Actually the sleeve of the jacket goes down, the shirt goes up, but the important thing is that the people see the fist coming here with a lot of energy. Here’s with the energy is going.
I’ve got a story for you today about a guy who got into a car accident that led him to finally do what excited him in life. His name is Brian DeChesare. He is the founder of Breaking into Wall Street and another site called Mergers and Inquisitions. Those two sites help people who want to get into investment banking, get jobs there and get into the business or grow into the business. Brian’s sites help them with blog posts, tutorials, courses, interview templates and so much more. I invited him here to talk about he did it. What kind of revenue he’s making with it and what we can learn from him if we want to build a similar site.
This whole thing is sponsored by Andrewswelcomegate.com. Andrews Welcome Gate is a product that if you have a website will allow you to start capturing more email addresses from people who visit your site. It allows you to show them what your site is about. Be very clear. Give them the opportunity to give you their email address and it’s build on a page that we created at Mixergy that took us a couple of years to perfect. Lots of little changes over and over tinkering, AB tests, etc., now the result is something you’ve seen on Mixergy and now you can add to your site if you go to Andrewswelcomegate.com. Brian, welcome.
Brian: Welcome. Thank you. Thanks for the wonderful introduction. I’m really happy to be here.
Andrew: I’m glad to have you here too. Before we get into this business that you built and I start asking you prying questions about the revenue you produce with it. Talk to me about what you were doing just before the accident. Where were you and what were you up to?
Brian: I had gone to Stanford and actually did a computer science degree there. I had done some work in the tech industry working at big companies like IBM and I also worked at a few start ups as well. This was the mid 2000’s and going into finance was a very popular destination for people like me that had some technical background and went to well known schools. I actually went into investment banking and made a bit of a career change right after that. After I had been working for a year or two that’s actually when I got into a car accident that changed everything.
Andrew: That very day, just before the accident, what were you doing? What was the job?
Brian: I don’t remember all the specifics but I was working on some kind of M and A deal, merger and acquisition deal between a software company and someone else and it was going to be a late night. I’m sure your audience is familiar with the hours in investment banking but as a junior person there you’re working 80, 90 hours a week. Sometimes more than that. Sometimes a little bit less. I was going to be there probably until 4 or 5 a.m.
Right before one of the most senior people, one of the management directors was about to leave he said, “Brian, finish as much as you can. Get home safely, but try not to get hit by a bus.” Then of course, about 5 or 6 hours after that when I’m driving home at 4 or 5 a.m.
Andrew: 4 or 5 a.m., after a full day of work?
Brian: Yep. To be honest it’s gotten a little bit better in the past year or so as banks have started realizing that they need to be more competitive with other industries as far as workplace conditions and everything but back in 2007 that was not the case at all. It was very common to be doing this same thing. I was driving back home after a full day of work and I didn’t hit a bus but I did manage to crash into a tree because, of course, I fell asleep driving on the road and it was not a great outcome to the day but I was pretty amazed at how good the senior banker was at predicting the future here.
Andrew: Did you like your job before that?
Brian: I liked some aspects of it, I guess I would say. For me, it was something new. I had really had more of a technical background. I had never done that much in the way of business or business related internships or jobs. I liked that aspect, getting to learn something. I liked working with clients and getting to see these jobs come into fruition. What I didn’t like is that whole expectation in the workplace that you’re going to be there really late just because. You’re going to do work for the sake of doing work. You’re going to do 77 revisions of a presentation just to change punctuation or to change the font size or whatever. So parts of it I liked. Parts of it, not so much.
Andrew: Am I right in my understanding that that helped you decide that you were going to do something different with your life and led to the two sites that we’re talking about today?
Brian: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Right around that time I got in the car accident. Also right around that time one of my female friends, who was trying to become an actress at the time, told me about this book “The 4-Hour Workweek” which had just come out right around that time. Obviously, when I heard it I thought okay, this is a scam, how could someone write such a stupid book, this is ridiculous.
In those desperate times I kind of said okay, maybe I’ll check this out and see if there’s anything useful I can extract from it. I had experience doing a lot of work on the Internet before. I had set up a lot of websites in the 1990s. I hadn’t sold anything directly online, but I read through it and I thought actually this doesn’t sound that outrageous to me. The hardest part in my mind was finding the right market to go after, which definitely proved to be the case.
After reading the book at no point did I say this sounds completely ridiculous, I can’t do it. I thought it seemed possible. Then, of course, it took me about six to seven months to take action and do something. I would say that event, the car crash, plus finding out about this whole alternate world were really the things that pushed me in that direction.
Andrew: You know what? I hear a lot of people say I want to be an entrepreneur because I want to have my own free time, I want to have weekends available, and so on. I was working this weekend. I was up last night. I was up the night before.
Andrew: Do you find yourself really working four hours, or are there times when, yes, you do get to work only four hour weeks but more often than not you’re doing 40 hours or more?
Brian: Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever worked a four hour workweek since I started this business, not even close. Typically, I’d say more like 60 to 70 hours a week on average. Sometimes more if I’m really busy, sometimes a bit less if I’m ramping it down a bit.
I think for me when I read that book and I started getting into this whole business I said okay, yeah, I can have lifestyle, freedom. I can go to Thailand and get my own beach, whatever. But, over the years my thinking on that definitely evolved, and I think now I view that as one of the benefits. For example, if I really want to ramp down hours, sure, I can do a 20 hour week, 30 hour week, something like that. It’s not really the main reason I do it.
I do it because I find satisfaction from actually creating the content, from teaching, from doing the video tutorials, for example. I kind of started out in that mindset, but then I very quickly in the first year or two changed my mind about it and didn’t really focus on that side of it quite so much.
Andrew: I know. I’ve been looking at your site. You put in a lot of work on this site. The details are so thought out. You’re good at collecting email addresses. You’re good at creating content that makes sense. Your comments don’t have dates or times on them because it’s irrelevant, and it makes your content look like it’s older if people see older comments. Those little touches don’t go unnoticed. That takes effort, it takes attention, and you clearly put it in.
I don’t mean to put down ‘The 4-Hour Workweek.’ I mean to put down those people who endlessly say I’m going to show you how to start a company because if you do you’re going to have this beautiful lifestyle of never having to work ever, traveling the world, and making a lot of money in your sleep.
Andrew: That is not you. That is me making that point against those people.
Andrew: Back to you, then. Now you had this idea. It took you months to finally take action. You finally launch the website, Mergers and Inquisitions, right?
Andrew: What was on the website? Sorry?
Brian: It was awful, to be honest. If you want to really have a laugh, go to the way back machine and take a look at the site from November, December…
Andrew: I don’t know why I didn’t do that before. I’m going to go do that right now.
Brian: Okay. Yeah, if you go back to, say, November or December 2007 was when it first launched, it was pretty bad. I literally got a free WordPress theme from somewhere and paid a web designer I think $50 to design a horrible logo for the site. I basically just started writing. I started writing blog posts, usually once or twice a week for it. I had a really detailed, I think 3000 word guide on how to get an investment banking job or investment banking internship. But, other than that it was very, very much bare bones.
I started that site. I actually started a couple of other sites at around the same time, just random niche sites for things like hunting knives and all sorts of other random topics. None of those really worked out that well, because I didn’t know what I was talking about. I didn’t really know the topics. I was just looking for opportunities, but I didn’t know what I was talking about.
Andrew: But you knew that you wanted to get into content creation. You must’ve seen some sites out there that were doing this well and got inspired by them. What are some of those sites?
Brian: Yeah. Around that time I would say the main one was probably Copyblogger, which I’d started reading back then already. I know you’ve had Brian Clark on here I think, what, multiple times probably. I was definitely inspired by their example. I joined their membership site, Teaching Sells, which was all about teaching people how to create membership sites. I was definitely most inspired by those two.
Yeah, I saw what they were doing and said, okay, well, I’m in a completely different market doing something very different, but, at the same time it’s still content creation, still building audiences, it’s still ultimately figuring out how to create a product that people want to buy, and then selling it to them. So…
Andrew: I’m looking at the site from November 26th, 2007…
Andrew: …I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself about it. The actual theme didn’t come through because archive.org doesn’t always capture things, but, the message is clear: Welcome to Mergers and Inquisitions. You want to get into the Finance industry? You’ve come to the right place. Curious about what it is investment bankers actually do, besides making a lot of money? Well, you’ve come to the right place. That is exactly what your site focus was, and you were started to write about it.
Andrew: …you wanted to start making a little bit of money. The first thing you sold…
Andrew: …was consulting. Why consulting services?
Brian: Mostly because I just had no time at that point to create a product. Because, keep in mind, at this stage, I was still working full time at an investment bank. So, they kind of ramped down my hours after the car accident, but, it was still at least 50-60, sometimes more hours per week, so I just felt I had no time to go and create my own product. So I just started with consulting, and I said, because you know what? All these people are sending me their resumes because they want me to look at them for free and make edits.
What would happen if I just charged for that? Because A) I’m getting really tired of looking at people’s resumes for free, and B) I want to test the market, see what people are willing to pay for. And this is not going to be a long term thing, but at least in the short term, I can probably figure out a lot about what people actually want, what their willing to pay for, what their chief concerns are. So that was really all it was to the logic.
Andrew: You know, I used to look down on the decision to do consulting with a website, because I thought, that’s going backwards. You’re going from creating products and content that lives on forever to suddenly trading your hours for money, and that’s a step backwards. But now I’m understanding that, that’s a good way to start to learn what people are willing to pay for. Because…
Andrew: …consulting is so flexible, that once they get on the phone with you, they can ask and work with you on anything. It’s also…
Andrew: …a good way to see issues, to see how people respond to what you’re talking to them about, and what you plan to teach on a bigger scale. What are some of the things that you learned by doing this?
Brian: Sure. So first off, I learned a lot about who my target market actually was.
Brian: I didn’t really have a good sense of that, because, going to a well known university, you kind of see a lot of people going for these types of positions, but, there are also a lot of people outside the university system trying to get into the industry. People at business schools, people already working full time, and so I got a much better sense of that. In terms of specifics, you just learn a lot about what countries people are from, what they’re looking for. So in my market, for example, a very high percentage of people are from Asia, specifically China, Korea, to some extent the Southeast Asian countries, and what happens is they are born and raised part of their lives there, their parents send them to the U.S., or UK, or other western countries for school. Their parents want them to get these high paying and prestigious internships and jobs. And I had some exposure to that at school, but I didn’t really see the full extent of it. And when I started doing this, and I started getting customers, I started seeing these types of patterns over and over again. And I saw that they had the same types of concerns. They were very concerned, for example, over the technical questions they could get in interviews about accounting, or finance, numerical or quantitative type questions.
At the same time, they were also very concerned about how to present themselves. Because for many of them, they were not native speakers of English, so they had to factor in language difficulties, they had to take into account the fact that they were more quantitatively oriented, so, how do they present themselves effectively and get banker’s attention, for example. So those are the types of things that I started learning from doing this consulting exercise.
Andrew: I see the page on your site from 2008. The cool thing about it is that you just had a PayPal button.
Brian: Oh, yeah..
Andrew: If you go to your PayPal account, and dig around, anyone out there will see that Paypal has the ability to create a button for you to put on your site and instantly start charging. That’s what you used. It was two different services: Advanced resume review for a hundred bucks, Basic resume review for fifty bucks, 100% money back guarantee, turn around guaranteed either in five days or three days, depending on which option you picked. Do you remember the first sale that you got when you put this PayPal button up?
Brian: I do. And, I have kind of a scary memory about the [??] thing. I keep a detailed journal, but it was February 8th of 2008, and it was completely random, actually. I think one of the articles we had was featured on Deal Breaker, or some kind of other major finance site, we got a flood of traffic, thousands of people going to the site, which was a lot back then, and someone just randomly saw the [resume] service and signed up for it and it was fairly easy and straightforward. He had all the typical problems with his resume that we always find, but I still remember looking at that and saying “wow, I could actually make money doing this”.
And the funny thing is I remember right around that time one of my friends from university emailed me because he was kind of following the site and what I was doing and the first thing he says is “Oh Brian, I saw you put up these PayPal buttons, has anyone actually paid you for this yet”? Kind of with that sarcastic, skeptical tone.
Andrew: Yes, has anyone actually paid you for this?
Brian: Yes, Yes. So of course, I actually wrote back to him and said our first sale just came through and he didn’t reply after that, so I still remember that pretty well.
Andrew: What a great feeling. You know one thing I image, or based on my research, it seems you learned from getting to talk to real customers and getting to do some work for them is, you said earlier you had a different sense of who your customer was based on where they were in the world but, I remember, I can’t find it right now but in one of the earlier versions of your site, your blog roll included venture capitalists, the kinds of people of if you went to Stanford, you admired, like Fred Wilson, Brad [Feld], etc. Around the time you started charging, your blog roll, first of all, you had a blog roll at the time which is kind of fun, but your blog roll started moving towards people in the finance base, financial realms, iBanking frequently asked questions. Investment banking resumes. No more Brad [Feld], no more of the guys that you admire, more of the people who your customers care about.
Brian: Yes, that is a great observation. I had actually completely forgotten about that one. But yes, when I started it, it was kind of like, oh well, I think these sites are cool so I am going to list them because I read a lot about this stuff because I work in tech investment banking, so we deal with venture capitalists all the time, but yes, you are right, especially bank then venture capital and start-ups in general weren’t really the “in” area and people going into my market were much more interested in more traditional finance sites, so yes, that’s definitely true.
Andrew: You also wrote a ton, it seems to me like you did, am I right? Because I see here, just weeks in, you suddenly have investment banking internships, 9 posts about that, investment banking lifestyle, 29 posts; the law, 3 posts; layoffs, 4 posts; and we are talking about just months into the business.
Brian: I think the [deets] are there. The [deets] are always tricky because, I think back then, we actually showed [deets] on the site. Now we don’t, but it wasn’t really that much. I would say at most it was maybe twice times a week, maybe three times a week we were posting so not really that much content.
Andrew: We, meaning still you?
Brian: Yes, yes, sorry, still just me at the time. This was before any guest authors or any other contributors came on and it was literally, it would be, for example, oh, you know I was at work until 2:00 a.m. but I only need to go to sleep at 3:00 a.m. so I am going to take a spare hour and go home and write something really quickly and post it to the site. And it was literally trying to get in that type of work whenever I could, if I had a spare half hour or hour or something like that.
Andrew: Alright, maybe not daily but it does seem to me like it is consistent, it’s ongoing and it kept beefing up the site. Every time I move forward in the internet archive, I see more and more posts on the site. Actually, the first product was resume help where someone would send you a resume and you would look it over and give them some help so it wasn’t so much consulting as in you getting on the phone with them for an hour and talking to them, right?
Brian: Yes, we did get requests for that and I ended up doing some of that so throughout most of 2008, it was actually limited to those $50 and $100 resume editing services. But we did get some people who wanted mock interviews or who wanted to just talk for an hour about whatever it is they were interested in and I did some of that but it shifted more toward the consulting and mock interview side in September of 2008 because then we introduced a new site design and highlighted those a lot more prominently. We effectively introduced the services. We had more formal sales pages for both the resume editing and mock interviews around that time so it shifted a little bit, but yes, in the beginning it was all mostly email correspondence and resume editing.
Andrew: The problem with offering someone a service like resume editing is, especially when they get to know you through their site and trust you is, they send you a resume, you send them feedback, they come back and say “what about this” then you feel like, alright, they are [??]. Was that an issue?
Brian: Oh, it was a huge issue. To give you an idea, the most I ever generated from these services was in August of this year, of 2008, and it was around $3,000 a month at that point. That sounds really good because you started a business about six months ago and you are already up to generating that much revenue from it without any outside funding or key members or anything. It was actually horrible because of exactly the problems you just mentioned. We didn’t define clearly what the terms of the service were. So people would come back and say “oh, well, I want to do 17 revisions; I want to change this, change that”.
And, you know, really it was my fault, because I wasn’t specific enough. I just said “I want someone to pay me. I don’t care who it is or what they want, or anything. I want to prove that this idea works”. Over time we ended up changing it, and if you go on the page now it’s almost like we discourage people from signing up. It’s almost like we’re saying “you know what, you probably shouldn’t sign up and here’s 15 reasons why”. So, it’s a lot more prequalification, but it was a huge issue back then which is why I ended up raising the prices and changing the terms and doing all sorts of other things like that
Andrew: And then you created a product, an actual product. What was the first product you created?
Brian: It was an interview guide. This was released in December of 2008. And, basically the motivation was that, first off I was still going somewhat crazy from doing consulting and only making money from that. Well, that and resume I think. Second, in parallel with this, I left my old job in the summer of 2008 which is actually perfect timing because it was right before all the banks collapsed in 2008. I kind of got out while things were bad but hadn’t quite collapsed into a catastrophe yet. I was working on this huge membership site, sort of in the style of teaching sales, and I came to this realization that I was just never going to finish it in a reasonable time frame.
It was a classic example of building a product and hoping it fits the market as opposed to validating it with something really small first. So, classic mistake, but I made that too. And I just said “you know what, I’m not going to finish this any time soon. I’m just going to release something much smaller. I’ll take a little portion from this course, release it as a 30,000 word interview guide, sell it for $47.” and that’s all there was to it. It took maybe 2 or 3 weeks to put together. I created a very simple sales page for it. I think I actually ripped off one of the copy blogger’s sales pages. I took their format, and style, and headlines and I just kind of adapted them a little bit. But I did that, and we sold around 50 copies on the first day I think.
Andrew: Fifty on the first day?
Andrew: That’s decent.
Brian: Yah. I mean, compared to where the business is at now it’s nothing to write home about. But, at the time it was more money than I think we had ever made in any day previous or maybe any week previously. So, it proved that the idea worked, and more importantly people actually liked it. To my eyes it was kind of like a really crappy product, it’s not really that detailed, and it’s put together in a few weeks. I think I was really over complicating it and in my own mind I had this much higher standard, but I was just being silly about it, and it was exactly the right approach to read something small and simple at first.
Andrew: Just to be clear for my audience when Brian’s talking about an interview guide he means a job interview guide for people who are going to do interviews that will lead to jobs. What was it published on? Was it just a PDF? Was there any design in it? How did you know that that was the guide to create and not a guide on how to write the right resume which is what you were selling anyway?
Brian: Yeah, good question. So the reason the guide came about was actually his customers wanted it. That was other factors mentioned.
Andrew: How did you know they wanted it?
Brian: Because in September, 2008, when we launched the consulting and mock interview services, several people actually wrote in and said, “Hey, Brian, you know what? I don’t want to sign up for a mock interview, but I’m willing to pay you for a list of questions and answers.
Andrew: I see.
Brian: Another time I was being so silly. I looked at that, “Well, I don’t want to just sell that. It devalues the brand. I’m not going to sell a short little guide for a little amount.” So I decided to ignore that and people kept writing in. Finally, one day in November I said, “You know what? I’m being dumb because people are asking for this. I should give them what they want. If they don’t like it, whatever, we’ll refund them, but it turned out pretty much everyone who signed up for or 99% of the people who signed up for it did like it quite a bit.
So it’s really directly hearing it from potential customers and also actual customers. They were all asking for this as well and saying, “It’s great to do this mock interview, but do you have a written reference?” Or “Do you have a written summary of our mock . . .
Andrew: I think you’re still selling it today. It’s an updated version, but aren’t you still selling it? Yeah.
Brian: Yeah, it’s still selling. It’s completely different. It’s more of a multi-media/course, but there is still a PDF component. It’s a lot longer, but it still looks like it was typed out in Word because it was. There’s more to it, but we’re still selling an updated version of it today, and it’s still the number two or number three product that we actually sell in terms of sales.
Andrew: Then you took that course and you still wanted to use what you learned in the course teaching cells, and you finally created your own product. It was a membership site?
Brian: Yeah, again, if you go to the wayback machine and look at the BreakingIntoWallStreet site from maybe April or May of 2009, you could see what it looked like, and it’s pretty bad. Once again, the reason I did that was because I had this huge membership site that I was working on, and I started sharing it with a few mock interview and resume customers, just to get their feedback on it.
And there are all these sections on how to write your resume or how to network effectively. And then there was this really short section, just a videos on accounting. Specifically, if such and such line item on the balance sheet or the income statement changes what happens on the rest of the lineup? Or what happens to the company’s cash or something like that. Very, very common job interviews on the answer sheet, so I created a few short videos on that.
And a lot of the coaching and resume customers just honed in on those few short videos and said, “Wow, these are awesome. We really like this. We want more of these.” And they didn’t even care about the rest of it. So at that point I said, “Okay, you know what? Paying customers don’t really care about this. They should like my stuff more than normal people. They don’t care about it, so I just should really focus on the parts that they care about because chances are other people out there in the world care more about it as well.
So I kind of stripped down everything that they didn’t care about, and then I just building out more of those videos on topics that were actually going to come up in interviews, and it was very, very simple. I would say the whole thing expanding it took maybe two months or so. Then I spent another month reading up on product launches, going through Jeff Walker’s product launch formula.
Andrew: Let me understand what the product was. It was a membership site that would drip out content or have it all at once?
Brian: It was all there at once.
Andrew: All there at once, and you were creating it all at once. And it was just you looking at a camera with PowerPoint slides on the screen.
Brian: It was all Excel based, so I just got Camtasia Studio and people never saw my face. It was all in Excel and just first person, and we went through Excel files. I said, “Here’s how you do this formula. Here’s how you do this formula. If you’re trying to value a company, figure out what a company should be worth. Here’s what you should look at. Here’s the steps you follow, and it was very, very simple.
We didn’t even use real companies because I didn’t have time. It would have made it more complicated. It makes it harder to teach. So I really just made up examples of fake companies in the software industry or something like that, went through a bunch of examples. All the Excel files were there. It was fine for interview prep.
And then, yeah, like I said, it took maybe about two months of work to put together the whole thing. Then another month to kind of plan out the product launch and things that have to do with everything like that itself. It was based on WordPress and we used AMember at the time for membership software which for a very simple site it was okay, but I ended up changing that because there were some issues with that.
Andrew: AMember was so tough to use.
Brian: Yeah, exactly. It was really the definition of a minimum buyable product in my opinion.
Andrew: How much money did it make on launch? Or actually, you didn’t just launch it on your own. That’s when you took Jeff Walker’s product launch formula course and used that to launch this product. Right?
Brian: Yup. Yup. Exactly. Yeah, so.
Brian: Go ahead.
Andrew: Sorry. No, what were you going to say?
Brian: I spent the month of March just basically studying that course, doing some more set up on the site, figuring out what message I was going to have. I came up with this whole story based launch sequence and basically the story, pretty much was reality, I said here’s the story of how my trip to Asia didn’t go as planned. At the time, I actually told readers, I was visiting a bunch of countries in Asia in December and January. I went there and I realized from meeting a lot of the customers and readers in person what they were looking for. I got a lot of feedback on the course I was developing. I said even though I’m on vacation, I’m going to actually take a lot of time and get started with some serious efforts on this.
The vacation, the so called vacation I had didn’t really work out like that. I told the story about how all that happened in the launch sequence. It was very simple. We put an opt in on the site. I wrote a blog post about it. I created an initial video. Then basically said you can sign up here if you want to learn more about our upcoming course and get more free tutorials. It was a three part tutorial series on how to create some sort of financial model in Excel.
Andrew: A three part tutorial on how to build your first merger model.
Brian: It was something like that. It was a different variation. Much simpler back then but still the same idea that we used for the opt in and break into Wall Street site now. Same idea.
Andrew: The idea was you went to your mergers and inquisition audience and you said through a blog post, here’s this new product I’m creating. You sent people to a squeeze page where they enter their email address in order to learn a little bit about the topic and then after they learned it that’s when you told them that you were opening the doors up for sale of a membership that will teach this in more depth. You sold it. In the first week do you remember how much money you made?
Brian: Yep. We made about 50,000 dollars in the first week and we were selling it for 147 dollars. I think I’m getting into math now but we sold a few hundred copies whatever the exact number comes out to. It was the best number I had had on the site at that point. I think out of all of 2009 it was still the best month or close to it, something like that. That whole thing convinced me. It made me say, “Okay. People like this kind of stuff. Video based content for learning Excel, formulas and things like that so I need to do more of that and keep expanding this in the future.” That kind of kicked off everything. After doing that I made the controversial decision to stop doing resume and coaching and consulting all together.
Andrew: Yeah. If you’re bringing in 50,000 from this one product you want to focus on that and no more of the coaching stuff that takes forever.
Brian: Yeah. It was kind of risky because after doing a launch it didn’t stay at that level. It kind of dropped back down because we weren’t promoting it as heavily. It was just on the side.
Andrew: Didn’t Jeff Walker say to not sell after the launch and close it out.
Brian: He does say that but I think from most people I would actually disagree with that. Now basically everything we have is Evergreen so it’s always available, always on sale. What I did with the launch, though, is I said basically you can sign for 147 dollars this week. Next week it goes up to 247 dollars and then if you wait a year it’s going to go up to 347 dollars or 497 dollars, something like that. I had a multi step price rise planned in. That worked really well to get people to take action. We did the whole launch process where we have bonuses and we have other time pressure things.
Andrew: What other bonuses did you offer? Do you remember?
Brian: We offered basically a series of networking tutorials, email templates, and things like that. That one, that was directly inspired actually by product launch formula. In one of his tutorials Jeff Walker says, “Take a look at your hard drives. Take a look at what’s on there right now that you’re not using and figure out a way to use it. That’s the number one thing you can do to get bonus material.” I said, “Oh, well you know what. I was creating this whole other course. I sort of threw it out, but it’s still on my hard drive. Might as well go back to it.”
I took a bunch of stuff from that and said anyone who signs up this week gets this bonus and that actually pushed a lot of people over the fence to sign up for it. It’s true that they don’t care as much about the quality of material and networking and so on but it is a nice bonus. Some people told me directly, they said, “You know what, I already know this technical material but I really want this email template. I’m going to sign up for that.”
Andrew: I’ve seen people do that. Just the, one email template will become so valuable in their minds that they sign up just for that.
Brian: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So, even now, we offer bonuses on the courses and various things and a lot of people sign up because they say, you know what, I know this material but I really want to get this bonus based on the leverage [??] of Dow or some other company or some other deal that took place. It still works really well today and it certainly worked well back then.
Andrew: I remember the first years of running [??] doing so much of it myself. I would find a guest like you, myself, but in this case, the team found you. I would do research on you, myself, but in this case if I scroll up to the top, Andrea did research on you for me. I would do pre-interview with you. In this case, Jeremy Weisz pre-interviewed you. At the end of the interview, I would edit, today Joe edits. At the end of the editing process, I’d have to post on my site. Today Ari posts on the site. And after that, I would have to email you and let you know that it was up. Today, Andrea will be emailing you as soon as it goes up because she is faster than me. All that stuff now, there are other people who do. Do you remember the early days when you were in a similar situation where you had to do it all yourself?
Brian: Oh yeah. Throughout most of that year, 2009, it was exactly like that. Quite frankly, I didn’t have enough money to hire other people. The one team/outside firm I did hire was a
web design and development company because I desperately needed a new version of the site. There were a bunch of limitations. I wasn’t happy with it and I knew that if the business needed to expand, I needed to have something. I was not qualified to do any of that so I did hire them but that was kind of a fixed contract in the beginning, it wasn’t a month to month type of thing. But, yeah, in the beginning there were so many incidents.
I remember one time, in I think in June 2009, I was about to go hiking one day with friends and then the site crashed. It went down. I didn’t have a very high priced hosting plan at the time. I had people’s email addresses so I could send out announcements like that but people just signed up for this course. They are really annoyed that it has gone down. I actually started monitoring message boards and their forums and places like that and people were actually complaining about it online. They were saying oh, where did these guys go. This guy Brian just disappeared and took my money and saying stuff like that. I kept calling the hosting company, I’m like, what you are guys doing, what are you doing? I called them probably 20 times in that single day and eventually they got it working again, but things like that would just happen all the time, that’s just one example.
Andrew: It drove me nuts when the site is down you feel completely helpless. I remember it often turned out that I was on a shared hosting plan with someone else who did something wrong and the site went down. Or one little plugin being misconfigured can screw it all up. one of my favorite plugins is the redirection plug and it allows me to take a URL that is really long and ugly and shorten it to, like Mixergy.com-short. The problem with that was it was keeping track of every single redirect and every single 404 page and then it ballooned up all the data it was keeping track of and slowed down my site. Stuff like that can drive you mad.
Andrew: That is what most people will give up on. I remember just wanting to just give up. I said, you know if I can’t even manage my own site and all these people are making millions of dollars and site hosting is a breeze because they are just using [WordPress] maybe I shouldn’t be in this business. Really painful to see that. I see today that you have lots of courses. What was the next one you created?
Brian: So the next one I created was actually an Excel course. It is a little bit confusing but to explain briefly. The first course I released was just focused on, for example, how do you value companies. Or if one company buys another company, what are the effect? Or if a private equity firm buys a company or invests in a company, what happens? So that was great for learning the concept but the problem is people signed up and said you know what, I really like your courses but I don’t know how to use Excel. I don’t know the shortcuts. I am really slow at doing this. That was the number one request that came in. People just kept complaining about their lack of Excel skills.
So that was exactly the second course created in May and June of 2009. Back then it was much simpler to create these courses quickly because there was less that went into them. There weren’t written notes, there weren’t guides, there weren’t transcripts, all this other stuff. So I quit that in about a month or two, then after that, the next request that came in is people starting saying, well I like your course but it seems like it is too basic because you are not covering more advanced material.
It is too focused on what you do for interviews but I am about to start working at Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley and I need to know more complex technical skills so I decided to take this case study of Microsoft and Yahoo and back in 2008, probably everyone recalls, but Microsoft was essentially trying to acquire Yahoo so I decided to make a case study around that whole scenario. So it was, for the first time, based on real companies using real data, actually showing them what was happening in the markets at that time. That turned out to be kind of an epic saga because I was just completely unprepared for how complicated it was going to be. Eventually, I got use to it.
Andrew: What do you mean? What became so tough about it?
Brian: A part of it was I didn’t really know how to effectively teach he concepts. So, for example when I looked at Yahoo’s financial statements I would say I know what this item means, I know what this term means but in a lot of the early video what I would tried to actually do was tell people that. What I tried to do is actually tell people that. I said okay here’s this line here’s what it means, here’s what this means and it was very boring to watch as you can imagine.
Andrew: How do you make that interesting then? How do you take a line item that you know people need to understand what it means and make it interesting when you explain it.
Brian: What I ended up doing was basically separating out a lot of the explanations into separate written notes and written documents and saying, “Here’s the explanation of what’s on Yahoo’s balance sheet. If you need to understand these terms, if you don’t understand them, go take a look at this. I’m going to go through how you project these items or how you make these calculations or do something else like that.” I tried to kind of drop in mentions of what they were, how you used them and everything. This is such a niche field, it’s not like you can take a college course on how to teach people how to use Excel with video based tutorials.
So I had to learn a lot of this myself. The course ended up coming together much better. If you look at the later lessons in it, they’re much better than the earlier lessons. I ended up revising parts of it later on but essentially it was really difficult to take more complex material and make it as engaging as the basic material. So, it was quite a struggle but throughout the rest of the year I managed to finish it. By the end of 2009, early 2010, I had a finished version of that course. So, those were really courses one, two and three.
Andrew: What about this course that you told Jeremy in the pre-interview was a stupid idea? The one that taught soft skills.
Brian: Okay. That was my original idea for the membership site. I thought I was being all clever. I took a look around at the market and I said ok there’s all these companies that are selling these financial modeling course like the first one I released in April for like hundreds of dollars. And everything thinks, I need all these technical skills. I need to master advanced nuances of how to used Excel and things like that. I said that’s actually not true. That stuff helps a little bit if you don’t know hot to pitch yourself. You don’t know how to network, for example. You’re not going to get anywhere. So all that stuff is irrelevant if you don’t master these skills first.
I made the key mistake of thinking just because those skills are more important people are actually willing to pay for them or pay more for them. Like I said, they are willing to pay something but overall they definitely value the technical skills a lot more. So, that whole product that was a part of the course I ended up not releasing, the membership site that was never released. Basically what I did is I started incorporating it into other products. So, I took a lot of it and put it in a new version of the interview guide. I took a lot of it and added to that networking bonus I just told you about that we gave away just as a bonus with the initial launch. So, I took a lot of that content and put it in there. I redistributed it a little bit. I gave some of it away as free blog posts just to drive traffic to the site. It found its uses just not in the way that I expected.
Andrew: How did you know that people didn’t value it that much even though you know that they need to learn it?
Brian: Sure. Some of it just came from direct asking people. I said, “What would you pay for?” I think I actually did a survey somewhere in the middle of 2008 which of course I ignored because I was being silly. But I said, “What would you be willing to pay for? A course on these skills? A course on these skills? Mock interviews or live preparation?” And I gave all of these different choices and no one ever expressed interest in buying a set of resume templates for example, which makes sense. When you talk about resumes, people want their resumes done for them. They don’t want a template. A template may help, but they’re not going to pay that much for it.
Then I started asking other friends in the industry at that time, so people working in hedge funds, people working in private equity, etc. I started going through these ideas with them and they said, “You know resume editing, it makes sense but no ones going to pay for a lot of qualitative advice because it seems like it not is valuable. It’s seems like it’s not as complicated.” I just kept getting that feedback repeatedly. Then with my customers, like I said, I showed them early versions of the course and no one care about any of the qualitative stuff. They said, “Oh okay. That’s nice. That’s interesting but these two videos you have that take up 1% of the content that’s really awesome.”
Andrew: You just gave that free to your customers? You went back to someone who bought the guide and you said “here’s a user name and password to give you access to my site. What do you think of this membership site?”
Brian: It wasn’t-, it wasn’t exactly like that. It was more like people could sign up for multiple rounds of resume editing or multiple mock interviews. So one customer I had, she had gone to another really well-known university for finance recruiting. And she actually signed up for resume editing, the guide, and then I think five or six mock interviews. Or something like that. So I got to know her pretty well. And I, you know, with someone like that, I had no problem sharing it because, you know, she had already paid quite a lot. Had already invested a lot in the services so I said “hey, you know I could really use your feedback on this. Is this helpful for interviews? Are you learning something from this?” And that’s, you know. I shared it with my best customers at the time but certainly not with everyone who just signed up for the smaller interview guide.
Andrew: Today when I look at your site, the funnel just seems so, so worked on. You asked me for an email address using a lightbox.
Andrew: You ask me for an email address before I get to watch a Wistia video using Wistia’s built-in email request. Underneath your post and above your comments I believe there’s a video that’s professional looking that explains what your mission is and invites people to sign up to get a guide. And in return while doing that they give you their email address. Top of your funnel is that people come to your site. The next step is that they give you their email address. How many email addresses do you have?
Brian: So the main newsletter for Mergers Inquisitions has around 6000 email addresses right now.
Brian: And that’s been kind of culled down over the years. We remove inactive ones, bounces, people who aren’t opening anything anymore. So you know for-, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a huge list. But for something as specific as this market, it’s actually a really nice size.
Andrew: I think its a good list.
Brian: Yeah. It’s a pretty nice sized list. That’s the main list. Then there are a bunch of other ones. So, you know, people who have signed up for financial modeling tutorials or more advanced tutorials or things like that. But that, you’re right. That’s really the top of the funnel, so.
Andrew: Who do you use to handle your email?
Brian: We use Infusion soft for shopping cart and email and yeah. [inaudible]
Andrew: So when you say what’s in your list you just mean one list with different tags.
Brian: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Andrew: That’s what I thought.
Brian: So yeah. Initially, I started out using AWeber, which worked for a while. I was using A Webber on one shopping cart but you know, once you go beyond two or three different products, I found at least for me it didn’t work quite as well. And with Infusion Soft, I mean if you put in the time and the effort you can get amazing results with it. Because as you probably-, as you just alluded to, yeah, we do have really complex funnels and sequences going on.
Andrew: Tell me about that. What happens in your fun-,. By the way, for anyone out there who is really into it, we’ve got Jermaine Griggs who’s obsessed with this stuff teaching a course on Mixergy Premium. Just go to Mixergy Premium.com and you’ll see all the different things that he does. He makes sure that he gets people’s date of birth so that he can send them a text message, for example, from him on their birthday. And that kind of stuff happens all auto-magically because he uses Infusion Soft and his system is rally well designed. We learned so much from him. But what’s yours like?
Brian: That’s actually a good tip. I’m going to have to start collecting birthdays from now on. So our-.
Andrew: You know how [inaudible] to ask people to use their date of birth as a password for a site because he has no secret information in there. And because they do that he has their date of birth and he can then use that in the system. Sorry. But what do you do?
Brian: Okay. So ours basically is that when people sign up for the main email list they start-, they get a bunch of information messages and then they start hearing about the products and the courses. And we don’t want-, we don’t really directly sell them. We just kind of say, you know, I , here’s a story about how my trip to Egypt a few years ago didn’t really go as planned. And you can get some free financial modeling tutorials. Just click this link. They click the link and then now they are added to the-, now they are basically tagged and another campaign in Infusion soft starts where they start getting a bunch of free emails about how to create their first merger model as you saw in the main opt-in area. So they get that. And then, in that.
Then we actually do, we actually start selling more. Once they have gotten a few messages we kind of say, you know, here are some results that other clients have achieved with our courses. Or, you know, here’s a story about one customer who did really well by applying this strategy, things like that. And, you know, its still informational although we definitely start switching to the sales side after a few messages. One of the things I would emphasize is that its not just selling the specific product that they indicated interest in.
So, for example, if someone signed up for the financial modeling tutorials, we don’t necessarily just sell them that course. That’s the focus but if they’ve gotten a certain number of emails and they haven’t signed up, then we say you know what? You don’t need the whole thing. Maybe you just need a smaller version of this. Maybe you just need one portion of it, or maybe you just need the interview guide because you’re preparing for job interviews. So it’s a lot of that, and sometimes we go more advanced. We say, “Hey, you know, maybe it’s too basic for you. Maybe you should check these more advanced courses instead.”
So it’s a lot of giving people different options past a point. Once they sign up for a course, then we have a post purchase sequence of about 20 to 25 emails over the course of a year or so doing all sorts of different things. Some of them are consumption emails. So we’ll say, “Hey, you know, check out lesson 507 in the course because it tells you how to answer this case study question or look up this document because we walk you through how to list these courses on your resume, for example.
And then some of it sells well so we’ll just say, “Hey, you signed up for the basic modeling course. You can upgrade to the advanced course and get these additional cases or these additional practice exercises. And then sometimes it’s just completely random stuff too. For example, I’m borderline obsessed with serialized TV shows and cable dramas and things like that. So I actually, one of my emails is about that. I say, “Hey, this is kind of random, but I’m kind of obsessed with watching TV shows. Here are a few of my favorites.
One time I wrote, “[??] when I was rooting in the U.S. election. I wrote in a candidate. This is actually true.
Andrew: Why? Why do you do that? Why break the flow of business and start telling people what TV shows you watch at the risk of them saying, “This guy is wasting my time, and he watches way too much TV.”
Brian: And so it’s a good question. So what I find is a lot of time with these emails people get into automated reading mode, and they’re not really paying attention anymore. They’re kind of looking at it, but they’re kind of zoning out. They’re just clicking links because they expect me to sell them something, or they expect me to offer another free set of tutorials. So it’s sort of like a pattern interrupt.
We come along with just something random and say, “Hey, this is kind of random, but here’s a funny story that happened to me at work a few years ago.” And it’s not directly selling anything, just building a relationship. It’s saying, “Hey, you know, I’m a real person. I’m not just some guy or I’m not just some automated robot sending you these emails. I’m a real person, and here are my real interests.
And the TV show, for example, there’s another ulterior motive which is that we created a web series based on how a private equity deal comes together. And so at the end I say, “Hey, I’m so obsessed with TV shows that I actually decided to create my own. Maybe you can check it out right here.”
Brian: Again, it’s not selling anything, it’s just trying to get their attention saying, “Here’s another way that you can explore both sites and learn something new or entertain yourself in the process.”
Andrew: I want to ask you in a moment about how you are obsessed with time management and the thing that you do to stay on time.
Brian: Yeah, okay.
Andrew: But first I have to follow up with what I said earlier at the top of the interview, and that is if you are into collecting email addresses and doing it right and making sure you explain to people what your product is about and frankly increasing your conversion rate. I have a page that I’ve worked on for two years that now is available for a limited time for anyone out there who wants to try it out on their site.
If you want to try it, go to AndrewsWelcomeGate.com. What you will get is a page that you can put on your site that tells people what your site is about, explains to them why they should give you their email address and makes them feel reassured that you’re not going to do anything weird with it. All that’s available for you if you go to AndrewsWelcomeGate.com. When you grab it right now, it’ll be available to you to put on your site. You don’t have to have any technical skills to use.
In fact, you don’t even have to have a website to use it. The reason for that is my friend, Clay Collins, of LeadPages.net is powering it. His company, LeadPages.net, is powering it. You know LeadPages is the company that obsessed with increasing conversions, so that’s why I’m working with it to power this page. It’s available to you at . . . What’s the URL? AndrewsWelcomeGate.com. Go check it out, AndrewsWelcomeGate.com.
You’re obsessed with time. Why are you so obsessed with it?
Brian: Yeah, I think for me time is very, very important because most of what I do is still content creation or content editing, sampling content from other people, for example. And so the more time I spent on that, the better, and the less time I spent on that, the more time I spend answering emails or doing administrative stuff, the worse I am.
What I found is that when I actually started tracking my time in detail, maybe they’re not amazing insights, but I came to a few insights about what I actually do with my average day, how much time I actually spend on things, how long it takes to create a course. So I’m somewhat obsessed over . . . People kind of make fun of me for tracking it in such precise detail, but it works for me. And it’s actually been really helpful for business purposes as well.
Andrew: You use Toggl.com T-O-G-G-L.com. What does Toggl do?
Brian: Yeah, it’s really good and easy to use software for tracking what you’re doing and then categorizing it. So, for example, I’ll have a question for . . . I’ll have a category for customer support or a category for reviewing work from web designers or a category for recording video or editing video, something like that. Then when you enter it, in my opinion, the best feature is at the end of each week they send you a weekly summary. They say you spend 27.8 hours on this, you spent 13.2 hours on this and it really tells you in precise detail exactly where your time went.
The only downside for using it is that you have to be disciplined. You can’t go back after 2 days and say, “Oh, I forgot to enter all my entries for this day.” You have to get in the habit of actually using it and updating it frequently but I use it and I couldn’t imagine going a day without using it unless I’m on vacation.
Andrew: Toggl.com, great idea to use it. I used to be obsessed with it. I find myself tracking my time obsessively for a while and then stopping it and then coming back into it from time to time. I’ve never checked out Toggle. Thanks for the recommendation. The web– oh, you know what? Actually, here’s another thing. You create content that I believe college students can really use. I’ve worked with, not worked with but I interviewed Ryan Carson of Teen Treehouse, his stuff is available at schools, libraries, etc. where if you have a membership there you get access to all of this stuff so you can learn coding from him.
I’m wondering what it would take to get you into schools. Maybe we can put a call out there, you and I talked about this before the program started, to the audience if someone who has done this before, known someone who’s done it that we could introduce Brian to. I would love to do that. You’re into that, right? Having your stuff available to University students?
Brian: Yeah, definitely. We have set up a number of deals. If you go to the Breaking Into Wall Street site individuals at schools and schools that have signed up for group licenses are listed there but definitely expanding to more of them is a major point of interest over the next few years. I think, basically my goal, it may sound ridiculous, I want the courses to be used in every single accounting and finance glass world wide in universities. Maybe it’s ridiculous or maybe you can’t do it, but I think it’s actually achievable.
Andrew: I like goals like that.
Brian: We’ve gotten a lot of inbound interest. We’ve had the heads of accounting departments at pretty well known schools contact us about setting up deals or getting their students to use it, so the interest and the potential is both there. It’s really a matter of building the relationships and reaching out to the right people.
Andrew: What’s a good way for people to contact you.
Brian: Let’s see. You could go through website. I would say actually just add me on linked in. If you do a Google search for my name LinkedIn will be the first result. If you just add me there, I’ll look at that.
Andrew: You respond to LinkedIn messages?
Brian: Yup, yup. Definitely.
Andrew: What I actually just realized as I’m looking at my notes here there’s one thing, at least one thing that I mentioned that I need to make sure to come back to. Revenue. We now understand what the business does. We understand how you built it. How big did it get?
Brian: Yeah. It’s in the seven figure range now. It crossed that threshold in 2012 and since then it’s basically been growing ever since.
Andrew: Since 2012 it’s been making a million a year, at least, in revenue.
Andrew: Are your…is the profit more than half that?
Brian: I would say it’s close. It depends a little bit on the year. This year it’ll be more than that. The past two years it was about that range, maybe a little bit less. So, yeah.
Andrew: Where does your money go? What are the expenses in the business? It seems so far like a lot of it is you creating this great content, you answering your own email. Where are the expenses?
Brian: A couple of things. First of all there are a lot of marketing and advertising expenses. I actually have a team in Australia, it’s a separate company but it’s the type of thing where you hire them. They have an account executive or an account representative for your account. The work with you and they put your resources on your account. They do a lot of things with split testing, writing sales pages, ad words, optimizing ad words and linked in. That’s one of the major expenses.
Paying for all of that advertising is another major expense. In terms of other things, customer support is actually pretty big. I made it sound like I answer a lot of emails. I answer a fair number still, but we have 3 or 4 customer support people now and they spend a good amount of time with it. We go overboard with it. If someone leaves their phone number when they order a product for us, we actually call them. It’s not a robot calling them, it’s an actual real live person calling them. Not trying to sell them anything, just saying, “Hi. Thanks for signing up. Welcome to the site. We just wanted to see if you had any questions.” Customers are amazed by this. I mean, sometimes they literally cannot believe that a real, live human being is calling them after they’ve signed up for a product online. So I go overboard with the customer support and probably spend way more on it than other businesses of this size would. So that’s a major expense.
Then, in terms of content, it’s actually not. I actually don’t do everything anymore. So we have quite a few guest writers for the site. That’s not that high an expense but the mean expense is actually having other people help with [??] cell work and research now. So that adds to a fair amount. There are two people doing that. So you know, there are a good number of expenses. [??].
Andrew: Taxes must be huge for you.
Brian: Yeah. Taxes too assuming I don’t want to get arrested or deported or something.
Andrew: Have you done more than…do…are you a millionaire? Cash in the bank millionaire.
Brian: I will say cash and liquid assets. Yes.
Andrew: Wow. Congratulations. This is a phenomenal success story. How do you feel about this interview?
Brian: Thank you. I think it was a great interview and I hope your audience really enjoys it.
Andrew: Yeah. This is phenomenal. You know what? I especially like companies like yours because it really was just all hand made. You just start out with nothing.
Andrew: It was from…
Andrew: …zero. You bought the domain name for like $9.95. You’ve built it piece by piece. You’ve struggled with early technology like using the right theme and then you’ve starting hiring people. You used day member like many other people and then you upgraded to what? To wish list?
Andrew: Yeah. You’ve started.
Brian: Yeah. Oh I was going to say yeah, your right, it’s in that sense I could see how a lot of people think that is impressive. I mean the one point that I’ll bring up is that it’s definitely not for everyone. A lot of people look at this and say “this is crazy. I can’t sit in my room and for 14 hours a day create content or do research or create videos.” You have to really like content creation to do this type of business for both marketing and sales purposes and also for product and product delivery purposes. So…it’s, you know, if you don’t have much money to get started and you have a good audience, or your building an audience, and you really like content creation, yes. Inquisition products, online courses are a great way to go. But…if you’re the type of person, you know, basically what I’m trying to say is going back to what we were talking about at the beginning.
A lot of people are after the outcome. They want the lifestyle and they say “oh, you know, I want to have freedom. I want to have time freedom. I want to fly around and get a beach in Thailand. Well if your after that…you know, don’t do this type of business just because you’re trying to do that. You know, do this because you actually like content creation. You really like teaching. You like interacting with your students. Because otherwise, I mean no amount of money, and this took years and years to get to this level, no amount of money is going to be enough to motivate you. You have to really like what you’re doing or else you’re not going to stick with it. So.
Andrew: That’s good advice and a good way to end it. I don’t like to sell people on the dream and then neglect to say “you know what? That dream is a dream. It doesn’t exist”. It took you seven years to get to this point. But if you enjoy it and I know you do and I do. It’s a fun way to work and it’s a meaningful way to work. When you see people use what they’ve learned on your site, and change their lives because of it, boy the feeling is just unmatched. The website is.
Andrew: Mergersandinquisitions.com. Mergersandinquisitions.com. Brian, thank you for doing this interview. Everyone out there, thank you so much for being part of my world. Thank you for being on Mixergy. Bye guys.