How do you scale writing?

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Joining me is someone who built a business off of writing and then realized, you know, the bigger this business gets, the less happy I am.

Nicholas Cole is the co-founder of Digital Press, a thought leadership agency for CEOs, executives, and serial entrepreneurs.

In this interview, I’ll ask him why he got rid of his entire team and tripled his profitability.

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Nicolas Cole

Nicolas Cole

Digital Press

Nicolas Cole is the co-founder of Digital Press, which turns ideas into scalable thought leadership content.

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Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy, where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses. Joining me is someone who built a business off of writing and then realized, you know, there are a lot of people who are doers, who are not writers, but who understand that today, the only way to be seen is to publish.

I hate the old phrase of publisher, perish Cole, but you know, you used to hear it a lot for academics. I feel like now it’s very true for anyone. Who’s got an online business, right? You’ve got to publish often or else people don’t know you exist and you kind of go away or. Uh, or I guess people could work with your agency.

Nicholas Cole is the co-founder of digital press. They are a thought leadership agency for CEOs, executives, and serial entrepreneurs. Basically they do ghost writing for people who understand the content marketing is important in the world today. I invited him here to talk about that, but the thing that really excites me about his story is.

He grew and grew and grew. And when you think about the top line revenue as your big goal, it’s exciting to see it grow. Um, but what he realized was that he was working just to grow revenue and puts war on along with it. And it was just becoming this, uh, this treadmill that. It felt good, but he wasn’t really building a lot of equity and he wasn’t building a lot of profit.

So I invited him to talk about that store or we can do it. Thanks to two phenomenal sponsors. The first, if you need a website hosted, I’m going to convince you later to go to hostgator.com/mixergy. And the second, if you are in the content space like Cole is, then you should be considering selling to your audience.

Not just, not just sending content to them. And if you do, I want you to try out . If you go to  dot com slash Mixergy, they’ll let you use their tool for free, but first Cole.

Nicolas: Thanks for having me, man. I’m really, I’m really looking forward to this conversation.

Andrew: Me too. Um, I love the, I love the deemphasis of revenue because they spend so much time, uh, here in the podcast talking about revenue. In fact, my first question is going to be, what is the revenue right now for digital press?

Nicolas: So at our peak, um, in probably around eight or nine months, we grew to about a million in revenue. Um, about six months after that, we hit around 2 million in revenue, uh, around 20 full-time employees. You know, we went from zero to 2 million pretty quickly. And then, uh, in the past year we scaled the business back and it’s basically just me and my co-founder now working with a very small handful of clients at our

Andrew: And you’re personally doing the writing.

Nicolas: yep.

Just us two. And we work with like eight or 10 clients and they’re, you know, CEOs of publicly traded companies, entrepreneurs have heavily funded startups. Um,

Andrew: But you’re doing it yourself.

Nicolas: Yeah. Yeah. And I, and probably right now, we’re probably doing about half a million a year. It’s a great lifestyle business, you know,

Andrew: basically quarter million each putting in your pockets. It’s basically a salary job right now.

Nicolas: that’s one way of looking at it.

I mean, it’s a salary job with, uh, I mean, you’re the boss, you have all the freedom in the world, you know, I

Andrew: Do you really have freedom. If you’ve got these customers who are eight to 10 people who are paying you a lot of money, you can’t say I’m just going to take off to Croatia. I can’t write for the next two weeks, if the right, and you have to write what they want you to do, not what you feel is important to put out in the world.

Nicolas: Well, you know, I’ve been doing this for four or five years now. So I mean, the reality is that probably on that I’m working maybe 15 hours. You know, I mean, it’s, it’s very efficient at this point, but yeah, I mean, the thing is, you know, everyone looks at ghost writing, like you just said, as you know, w while I’m selling out my soul, I don’t get to write about what I want to write about.

I have to write what someone else tells me to write. I don’t look at It that way. I look at it. Like I have the opportunity to talk to people that I would otherwise never have the opportunity to talk to. And I get paid to internalize knowledge that took them 30 years to acquire. That’s a pretty great gig.

Andrew: It is, it does feel though, like you’ve at least gotten to profitability, but the thing that you were trying to avoid, when you had all those employees, when you had all that infrastructure

Nicolas: yes and no. I mean, the thing that I think is important to point out is at our, at our peak, we were doing 2 million in revenue. But I was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Uh, I was not getting to write, which I love I was managing. right.

It was a completely different skillset and any money that the company made was being reinvested back into the company.

So I was making less than half of what I earn now. So you have a $2 million company of which you’re the co founder and you’re earning a hundred K, which I could, you know, there are account managers making. Than that. Right? So it all depends on what you’re looking at. I mean, very few people can work 15, 20 hours a week and make a quarter million bucks doing something that they enjoy.

It’s not too bad.

Andrew: Could you have sold the yes business. If you built it up to say twice as much, you know, it’s not you doing the writing, it’s you doing the deal, the, all the managing, but then you sell it to someone else who could some efficiencies and grow the business themselves versus now where it’s.

Nicolas: Yeah, that was definitely a question. I mean, two things that I, and that we ended up learning one is that most agencies and agency models, you’re not really acquirable until you cross the five, if not $10 million threshold, you know, very few people are interested in buying a one or $2 million agency. Um, second is what the hardest part in the conclusion that I came to was that the business was very dependent on it.

It was dependent on my ability to write. It was dependent on my ability to write for so many different types of people. And we were able to scale, I mean, at one point we had 80 clients around the world, you know, 20 full-time employees, teams of editors and writers. So we, we got, uh, efficiency, but it was so subjective.

Writing is so subjective that it’s very hard for me to train someone else with this skillset

Andrew: All right, let’s go back and understand how you built this business. It all started with some writing around a war of war, uh, world of Warcraft, right?

Nicolas: That was a very long time ago. Yeah. I mean, that, that was when I was a teenager, I was a pro gamer. I was one of the highest ranked world of Warcraft players in the country. Um, my parents told me I needed to get a job. And so the first thing that I did was obviously turned to the internet and I start. Looking for websites where I could write about gaming because that’s What I was passionate about. And I ended up finding the site and starting a blog, essentially. It was a very, very early version of like blogger meets the gaming world. And I started writing about gameplay strategies and things like that.

Other sites then who read my blog, started paying me 25, 50 bucks an article to write things for them. Um, and I ended up having one of the first real like E famous gaming blogs as a teenager. So that, that was the start of a passion for writing.

Andrew: How’d you get into Cora writing. Why were you writing on that question and answer site?

Nicolas: Cause. So after that I went to school for journalism. Didn’t like it, uh, I went to university of Missouri art school in Chicago called Columbia college university. And I started fiction writing. And basically my last day of class, all my teachers said, Hey, you know, I know this has been fun, but, uh, just so you all know.

You know, you’re, you’re going to basically either work at a library, a publishing company, or a coffee house for the rest of your life. And you’re going to try and write your, the great American novel. You’re going to get rejected 800 times and that’s going to be your life. And I was very dissatisfied with that answer.

So I started asking some friends like, you know, the way I asked the question was if photographers have Instagram and video makers have YouTube, where do writers, right? And at the time, Cora was a up and coming interesting platform. Medium hadn’t really gained traction yet Twitter was still finding itself.

And so I started reading on Cora and it was very interesting. People started treating the questions as creative writing prompts. And so I just thought, okay, I’m going to write a Quora answer a day for a year, worst case scenario. I practice my craft best case scenario. My life changes. A year later, I had a column with Inc and two years later I quit my job.

And next thing you know, I started this ghost writing company.

Andrew: How were you able to keep yourself going for that year when you were writing on Quora?

Nicolas: Okay. Because I loved it. It was fascinating

Andrew: But I mean, financially, did you have a side job or something?

Nicolas: Oh yeah. I mean, this was all happening at night. I would, by day I was working as a copywriter at an ad agency. So I would work for eight hours and then go write my core answer for them.

Andrew: Really and just sit there and what worked for an hour researching two hours.

Nicolas: Yeah, it wasn’t even the thing is I wasn’t even really researching. I was basically just telling stories. So for example, I remember one of the first questions I answered was my boss had taught me something That day. And I went after work. I walked down the street to Starbucks to write my answer. And all I basically said was, Hey, this is what I just learned today.

And I learned this from my boss. So I’m going to answer the question based on what I know. And it was kind of my way of crystallizing knowledge. And it taught me that you don’t have to be this expert to share what, you know, there’s people who are one step behind you who just want to learn what you just learned.

You know? So.

Andrew: That makes sense. Was it satisfying to do that at night?

Nicolas: Yeah. I mean, it was a way of training and keeping my craft alive that was writing on Quora, changed my life. Like I don’t, I don’t say that lightly Quora is what allowed me to gain credibility. As a writer allowed me to practice every single day, allowed me to master the style. I now have. Cora. I laddered up to having a column with Inc.

I wrote 400 columns for it, for them became one of their most popular columnists, laddered that up to ghost writing for executives, laddered that up to building and ghost writing agency. Like all of that was the result of writing.

Andrew: Cool. What about the feedback from the audience did, did there? Uh, it gets, it’s not thumbs up or thumbs down, but you know, the arrow up and the arrow down right on Cora and their comments back. Did that help you become a better writer?

Nicolas: Yeah, massively. I mean, today, today I call that data-driven writing. And it’s the difference between, you know, this was certainly my story in college. All my teachers were authors, but they were old school authors. So their whole mentality was based around sitting in a room by yourself. And closing your eyes and summoning the magic of the writer in you.

Right? And for me, I just took it a much more realistic approach to, I said, I’m going to write 10 things on the internet, and I’m going to look for the one that outperforms the other nine, and that one’s going to tell me something about what’s working. And every time I find a data point of what’s working, I’m going to double down on it.

And that’s, that’s How.

you ultimately figure out what’s what’s resonating. That’s how I’ve accumulated a hundred million plus.

Andrew: And by what’s working. You mean, what are people voting up? What are people reacting to in the comments? Is, am I right about

Nicolas: Yeah. What are people sharing? What’s prompting conversations. What makes someone like it or not like it, you know,

Andrew: What did you learn? What are some of the things you double down on?

Nicolas: Well, for example, you learn that people have very short attention spans, right? Like no one wants to sit there and read tons of description. So a big part of my style became that first sentence of the piece going immediately into the opinion, the action, whatever. Um, another is like formatting, you know, people really, I learned this is, it kills me to say, but like people skim first and then they decide if they want to.

Andrew: Uh, yeah.

Nicolas: So the way that you format it, if you make it easy to skim and you make it easy for the reader to figure out what this whole thing’s going to be about, you’re increasing the likelihood that they’re then going to go. You know what? This looks promising. I’m going to, I’m going to invest my time in reading this.

So all those things were crucial learning experiences.

Andrew: Yeah. And I can imagine that you’re going to get that at school. They’re not going to tell it. Well, you know, when we did take business writing, uh, at NYU, they told us a little bit about the design, the look of your writing and the importance of bullet points, not just as a way of communicating tough ideas fast, but also making it look better, but then more, more.

More readable, but that was as far as they went, I just don’t think they had enough experience designing texts to pull people into read the writing.

Nicolas: Yeah, I, if there’s, I would say that’s probably one of the bigger lessons that I’ve learned over the years is that online writing is as much visual as it is linguistic. You know, it’s not just what you’re saying. It’s how does it look as I’m.

Andrew: You know what I’m looking. I feel like also one thing that always drew me to your writing, this is like the shallows thing that I’m going to say is you had the coolest freaking photo,

Nicolas: No, that was another

Andrew: ink, right?

Nicolas: Um, well, no, I mean something that I did very differently. I’ve been doing this since I was, I mean, this was 2014 when I started It but I thought, okay. This is going to sound like wild, but I thought, okay, if I, if I was a fitness influencer, right, I would have someone come take pictures of me.

If I was a foodie or a food influencer, I would have someone come take pictures of me. Why can’t I do that. as a writer? And why can’t I associate people with, Hey, this is what you’re reading, and this is who it’s coming from. So for years I’ve invested in hiring photographers and being like, let’s create some cool pictures to go with these ones.

Andrew: Uh, photos of yourself.

Nicolas: Yeah. Or of places or wherever. Yeah.

Andrew: I’m looking to see which of your articles got the most, uh, views. It’s what are your best techniques for improving writing? That’s the one that got the most, I’m looking at the design of it. It’s got these clear sections written, uh, numbered out so that I have a sense of what’s coming up. What is it like 10 different no-no eight different ideas.

And then there’s a photo of you. That’s beautifully shot at the top and it looks kind of casual, like taken on a phone, but I imagine you put some work into it now that I see it. All right. So that’s you. And then at some point, somebody contacted you and said, I need some help with my writing. And this was a guy in the plumbing industry,

Nicolas: Yeah, he built a huge manufacturing, like all the parts you would need at apartment buildings and things like a very, like, not sexy business, but grew it to be incredibly, incredibly successful. Had a huge exit and.

Andrew: plumbing.

Nicolas: Plumbing and like everything else, like, you know, the, the things you need on toilets or like, you know, just really random things that apartment buildings need.

And, uh, and it was huge and yeah, massive exit. And he said, I want to share a bunch of my startup lessons. He had a book come out. And he reached out and said, you know, w would you help me? And he didn’t want to call me as a ghostwriter. That’s the thing. He was very adamant that you’re not my ghost writer.

You are my editor. And I was like, Okay.

cool.

Andrew: And, and what was your process with him? Was it that he, you would give him some assignment? He would write it or he would come up with an idea and you would guide him.

Nicolas: Sometimes it would be, it would, it would often start him.

coming up with an idea and then we would talk and as we would talk, I would furiously write down notes on, you know, we’d talk on the phone. And then a lot of times, because I was, you have to remember, I was 26 years old. Right. So I, I had accumulated all these views, but I was the first to admit, like I’m a 26 year old.

I don’t know that much about the world yet. So I would ask him questions out of my own intrinsic interests and he would go, oh, that’s valuable to you. And I’d say, yeah, this, I want to know this. So chances are other readers. Want to know this too?

Andrew: And that’s when you started also to see I’m now in the room with this person, what do you sell his business? I think he told our producer, sold his business to home Depot for a billion dollars. Is that

Nicolas: yeah, something massive.

Andrew: What, what’s this, what’s his name?

Nicolas: We’re not going to talk about

Andrew: Oh, you can’t say who it was for you weren’t credited. Okay.

So this is a person who sold his business and you got to talk to him and ask him the questions you were curious about. And it was like you told our producer, this was a huge opportunity, regardless of what I was doing professionally for him. I was learning from him and getting like a masterclass in entrepreneurship and he was answering my specific questions.

And that’s the beauty of writing for you? Or one of the better. Okay. All right. So now you’re doing all this. And then how does that become a business?

Nicolas: Started with him. You know, one article turned to two, he loved it. He recommended a friend, the friend recommended a friend, you know, next thing I knew I had eight or 10 clients that were. Executives, former executives, founders, investors. And I went to a, one of my closest friends. He lived in Atlanta and I went to just go visit him.

And I was like, Hey man, I quit my job, you know? And he’s like, what are you doing? And I’m like, oh, I’m writing these articles. I’m ghost writing these articles for executives. And he was like, Is there any money in that? Like how, what are you getting paid like 25 bucks an article, you know? And I was like, no, I’m getting paid 10 times that sometimes 20 times that, you know, I’m charging 300, 500, 800 bucks an article.

And he was blown away by that. Like he was, he couldn’t even wrap his head around that, but I kept saying, look, I have more work than I know what to do with. And he was really the one who kind of pointed out to me. You know, maybe we take your process. We chop it in half. You know, I’ll talk to the clients, just like you are talking to them on the phone.

You keep writing, I’ll manage everything else that you need to do. All you have to do is focus on the writing and we can start scaling this. And we did. We turned that from eight clients to 16, then hired our first writer, then hired our first editor, replaced both ourselves.

Andrew: slow down for a moment. Um, I’m curious about why, why they paid you $800. What were they doing with these articles? That was worth 800.

Nicolas: Well, this was, this is probably one of the biggest realizations I’ve had. This is true of writing, but also broadly in entrepreneurship, right? Is that your value is entirely dependent on how you frame the problem you’re solving. Right? So if I say, if I call it a blog post, It’s a $25 product, right? Because I can get a blog post anywhere, and that’s a game of racing to the bottom, but the moment I call it a thought leadership article, and this is something that represents you and everything that you know, you’re not buying 800 words, you’re buying your representation online in the written word.

That’s a completely different thing. So if you’re an executive with a massive exit, right, you don’t want a $25 blog post, you want.

Andrew: Uh, so it’s not so much that they were running ads against it and producing money. It’s just. They wanted the world to know who they were and just like they’d wear a nice suit when they were going out to a good T to a, an important party. They would spend money on a great article that represented them well, publicly.

Nicolas: Yeah, totally. And if you, yeah, and if you want a suit from gap, you know, like go to Upwork, right. But if you want an Armani suit, then come to me. that

was essentially what I was saying.

Andrew: all right? Let me take a moment to talk about my first sponsor and then we’ll continue with how you, how you grow my first sponsors member fold. Do you know that. Okay. Here’s a member full does say, look, there are a lot of people out there will have content like me with my podcasts are writers who are following your work, who are following in your footsteps.

The thing is that for most of us creators, the direction seems to be, get paid through advertising and advertising is great. But if it’s only advertising, I feel like you’ve got a business that’s kind of on shaky ground because ad prices change ad, uh, advertisers have more options outside of you. Um, Facebook could reduce their prices.

Google could offer something new. So what  does is they say, why don’t you just sell something directly to your audience? And it doesn’t have to be something so dramatic. Like you guys have a ship 30 community, right?

Nicolas: Yeah.

Andrew: Where you’re helping people publish on a regular basis every day. In fact, for 30 days,

Nicolas: Yeah, It’s a separate business.

But

Andrew: It’s separate business.

But if somebody, what you’re doing is you’re charging people who are following your work and saying, pay us money. We’ll work with you. We’ll coach you we’ll give you some, uh, educational material, right?

Nicolas: Yup.

Andrew: Yeah. All that stuff. You need software in order to run, you have a community to a chat area where people can, uh, can talk to you and talk to you.

Nicolas: Yeah. We use slack.

Andrew: Great. All right. Now I know a lot of what you do. You do manually. You’ve built yourself. You’re you’re not, you’re not automating much of it. The beauty of  is they just do it all for you. You could connect your Stripe. And I know you guys use Stripe connect your Stripe account so that you can collect payment and then decide what access you want to give people.

Do you want to give them access to a part of your site where only members can read material? Great. You decide that you want to have a chat community and you only want your members to get access to it, hook up your chat and the whole. It’s built in with memorable. So anyone out there who wants to try this wants to experience it.

All you have to do is go to  dot com slash Mixergy. You’ll get to use it for free to explore, to experiment, to experience it, to see how it would fit in with your business. If you want, they’ll even do a demo with you can just book a demo with their team and see how it works. But once you, it it’s, it’s easy.

And the beauty is you now have a new source of revenue directly coming from your audience and it’s.  which means that it’s your audience. They’re not standing in the way. They’re not collecting your email addresses and collecting your payment. And then, uh, and, and then you’re locked into them forever. In fact, a prominent customer of there just went and built his own thing.

Right? You could do that. It’s your audience. You do whatever you want. Memorable is just there to help you sell. If you want to get started with them, go to  dot com slash Mixergy. And by the way, they’re now Patrion company Patrion acquired them. So, you know, Good people. All right. Um, so Cole, you decided now the two of you are partners.

He’s getting sales, you’re doing the writing. It’s time to go and hire a writer. How’d you find your first writer?

Nicolas: Through trial and error in our first, our first three were, uh, they were, they did not work out. Um, and that was, uh, I don’t know if it was a smart decision now, or it was our first big mistake, but we tried using contractors in the beginning and. It ended up not working because people weren’t really prioritizing it.

And we realized we needed to invest a lot of time into these writers in order for them to write at the caliber that I was. So what we did is after the first three that didn’t work out, we said, we’re going to make this a full-time business. Full-time benefits the whole deal. And we found a writer, we started training him, you know, investing a lot of time into them that replaced me kind of quote unquote.

Uh, and then we did the same thing for my co-founder drew. We found an account manager full-time benefits replaced him. And that was right around the point where we probably honestly should have stopped because it was, it was a great lifestyle business. We both were out of the world. And the company was, you know, probably doing a little more than half a million in revenue.

And we were profiting, you know, 25 to 40 K a month. And that was a great position to be in.

Andrew: And it was great for the people who worked for you because they had full-time jobs, working remotely, doing work that mattered and, uh, and getting benefits. Had you offer benefits.

Nicolas: You can get smaller, like small business benefit packages, you know? Um, I think the something, the minimum is like five or six people, so, right, right around there is when we started looking for benefits and we ended up then hiring like a HR kind of, I mean, we didn’t have enough employees to really need HR, but she was more of like a executive assistant slash manage everything.

And then another writer and another editor. So all in right. We had these five employees plus me and my co-founder seven people. We all had benefits. We were all making great money. Like that was where we probably should have stopped

Andrew: And instead.

Nicolas: and said, we were like, let’s put our foot on the gas and see How far we can take this thing.

And, you know, it sends us down a kind of a dangerous path of, we stopped focusing on profitability, you know, before that. Me and my co-founder had just quit our jobs. And we were like, you know, neither one of us had made very much money. Like before this, I was as a copywriter at an ad agency, I was making like 50 K a year.

Right. Like I was, I was not living. And I was in a, a dumpster of a studio apartment in Chicago and like, I was far from having made anything. So the idea of making a hundred K a year to me was amazing. The idea of making 200 grand a year was like at 26 years old, I was like, I’ve made it like, this is the best position ever, but we decided we wanted to scale it because we thought with more scale means all of a sudden, now we can start making a lot more money. We stopped focusing on the profitability and we started just chasing how much revenue is the company doing? And it kind of sends you down this loop of, we just need to scale a little bit more and then the amount we’ll make will be so much more.

Andrew: How did you get so much business?

Nicolas: Um, there were two big things. One was my co-founder drew before this had worked at, uh, he was selling fractional shares of private jets to really wealthy individuals. So he understood how to get on the phone and talk to. Executive level people. So he created a brilliant cold outreach strategy and he would literally just send he, this is what he was doing to sell jets, but he would just send, we would scrape their emails from LinkedIn And he would send them an email, literally, just that just said, can I call.

And something like so short and radical, like that would get people his attention and he would get on the phone with them. And we just had our sales pitch down to a T and for every 10 conversations, we probably converted four of them. So we were just slamming deals down, like constantly.

Andrew: And the offer to them was what I’m going to help you write what you learn on LinkedIn.

Nicolas: Well, LinkedIn was one of them, but it wasn’t platform specific. It was, you’re an incredibly accomplished individual. You know a ton about your industry. You understand the value of people seeing you as a leader and as a thought leader, but you’re not going to sit down and write the things yourself, right.

And you’re not a writer and you don’t have the time and you don’t want to, but what if you had someone that could help you do that? And then all of a sudden it was game over.

Andrew: Okay. And they would sign up and I’m imagining an, uh, in many cases their company was paying for this.

Nicolas: Yep. Yeah.

it was all a market. It was all thought leadership, marketing coming out of the company. A few times people would pay for it out of their own pocket, but they were individuals that had huge exits, you know, so they had a bunch of money to play with, but it was all a, I understand that the more I put myself out there, the more opportunities I had.

And anytime they then were like, well, you know, why should I do this with you? What’s the value. All we really had to say was, well, how do you think we got on the phone in the first place sent you an email, you Googled my name, you saw all of the things that popped up. You thought I was credible and all of a sudden, now we’re talking and it was the easiest sales pitch in the world.

I mean, there was a point where we were, we were closing like 12 or 15 clients a month, every single month for a year straight.

Andrew: that’s killer instill, instill you were burning out. When did you realize that you were burning out?

Nicolas: Multiple times.

Andrew: How I feel, I find myself, I don’t know I’m burning out until a year later or multiple years later when I look back and say, what the hell was I doing? I didn’t realize how I would just sit there and just do nothing by going online and putting around. I must have been burned out in the moment, you know?

Nicolas: Yeah.

Every, I agree. Every three, every three months you kind of go, whoa, something’s happening. But I mean, think about how hard it is to train one person on something, you know, and we were training two or three full-time people every month, month after month. Nine months straight, you know, and then you’re onboarding 10 or 12 or 15 clients a month.

And then you’re trying to keep all your current clients happy. And then, you know, it was, it was a lot, it really showed me how challenging scaling a service company is very quickly. There’s a huge difference between a product company and a service company. And I didn’t know that at the time.

Andrew: Yeah. And so you also had to get on calls with them. You had to write for them, and then you had to, since you were representing them, you had to get, get it. Right. Meaning whatever they thought was. Right. And that’s a hard thing to understand.

Nicolas: Oh, yeah, I don’t. I mean, just to give you a sense, but I would say probably a year in, I was working so hard that I got shingles.

and. Shingles is like, it’s usually induced by stress and it’s kind of like a variation of chicken pox, I guess, but you get this little rash somewhere on your body. I got it on my abs and it makes all the muscle fibers underneath like constrict.

And so it’s a mix between like, feeling like you have flu like symptoms and being in excruciating muscle fiber pain. And it takes like three or four weeks to recover from. And I had. And went to the hospital for it. And we were, this was in the peak of our scaling and I couldn’t take three or four weeks off.

So I was sitting there like on pain meds and resting and at the same time, like rewriting pieces and doing sales calls. And like, it was, it was a ton

Andrew: Yeah. Oh, I would hate that. And you didn’t realize that this was a problem until you talked to a couple of successful entrepreneurs, I guess, in the LA startup.

Nicolas: Yeah, we had one, he was actually a client of ours and, uh, he exited his company. So we stopped working cause he was like, I’m done. I sold my company for 20 million or whatever it was. And uh, we had become friends and we hopped on a call and we were kind of like, look, we’re having issues with our company.

We’re growing like crazy. So we don’t. Why we’re not making money like our top line’s growing, but our profitability sucks and we showed them a bunch, just our whole dashboard and everything. And he was like, well, that’s the problem. You’re, you’re making decisions constantly reinvesting in the business for the next two or three employees for the next batch of clients.

You guys need to slow down. And so we did, and we started to kind of throttle it back, but by then, you know, we had. 18 full-time people, you know, and 65 clients, whatever it was. And it was very hard to put the brakes on. I mean, we were just tumbling down the hill and it was good. It was a good problem to have, we had a ton of demand that didn’t know what to do with it, but it was a challenge.

We didn’t, we didn’t have the right things.

Andrew: Well, help me understand what that means, where you couldn’t put the brakes on it. Why couldn’t you say we’re not going to train a new writers. We’re not going to go after new customers. We have enough to satisfy our writers. We’re just going to focus on our current clients.

Nicolas: It was that, but it was that it was this constant bouncing back and forth between you would hire writers, you would train them. And then within three months you would kind of get a sense of, are they really going to work out here or are we still helping them with their work? It’s very hard to find people who can go training’s very different, right?

So you’re constantly reassessing the writer and the editor, and we had to fire people, hire new people. right.

And on the other side, You have clients that. They would do it for two months and be like, ah, this, I don’t really want this anymore. And then they’d stop. Or they would go, I have too much going on.

I’m an executive I’m too busy. I want to pause for a month or two. So our billing was whip, lashing all over the place and our writers and editors, we were constantly like filtering out and rehiring. So it was, those were two very difficult problems to solve.

Andrew: You told her producer that you met with the venture capitalist, who said to you, this is a brilliant idea. I love it. But every day that you’re working on a service business, you’re giving up time that could be spent building a real tech platform. If you build this, you got to give up your service company and.

Nicolas: Yeah.

So what happened? About six, six to eight months into the company. I moved to LA, we started scaling. We went from like six people to about 10 or 12 people. And I met two angel investors who really, they were big, you know, Tech founders. They had had a massive exit, both angels, and they really liked the business, but they thought that the business could be a segway into a platform or into some sort of software company.

And I agreed and both me and drew my co-founder was. We want to take this as high as we possibly can. So we actually took on an angel investment from them was about a hundred grand and we let them buy into the business, basically with the assumption. You’re eventually going to turn this service into some sort of product because products are more scalable.

And every time we would try to do that, the service company would falter because it’s very hard to do both at the same time. Right. So finally, like a year later, I start, you know, going through the fundraising process, talking to all these VCs, we had a really interesting platform idea. And that was what they said.

I met, I met with a VC here in LA and he basically said, if you burn your service company, I will write you a check to build your product company. But that means you’ve got to fire 20 people and you got to let PD clients go and you got to go all in on that. And that was really hard to wrap my head around.

You know, you spend two years building a company and then someone else goes, just burn it and build something else.

Andrew: I I’ve actually seen several people in the LA tech community. Be told that in a few actually did do it. They had to give it up. And it’s painful. The thing that I wonder with you is what would that product company be? How could you automate the creation of content based on somebody’s voice and expression?

Nicolas: Well, at the time, there were a bunch of different ways that we were thinking about it. One was, could we basically replace. Our account managers who are having the conversations. And could we create an app where the executive just talks into their phone and records their thoughts and just kind of, we can just take in the information that way.

And then with the writers, you know, do we turn that into a marketplace instead of having full-time writers? Do we just align these audio files with writers? And like, there was a whole idea filtering there. And then we also had an idea of, we were producing all this content. Can we turn this into a publication?

You know, kids could this be in Inc magazine plus an entire ghost writing engine and both were interesting and compelling, but by the time we went to make that decision, we were so exhausted. I mean, I was two and a half years in and I was like, even if someone is willing to write us a check, I can’t take it.

Um, um,

Andrew: And the realization that you were fried came about two years into it. You had 75 clients and you took a trip to New Mexico, or were you doing in New Mexico?

Nicolas: in Mexico, not

Andrew: actual Mexico, not

Nicolas: actual Mexico. Yeah.

Andrew: of Mexico?

Nicolas: we bounced around. I mean, we went to loom for a little bit. Um, And really where the, the moment was, was we drove into the forest to visit this lagoon in Bach color. And my, my girlfriend had convinced me to take the job. She had just gotten laid off. You know, I mean, we were, the company was growing and shrinking and it was just whip, lashing all over the place.

And I did not want to take a vacation, but she had gotten laid off and said, I want to try. Come to Mexico with me work during the week and on the weekends, we’ll just hang out and take some time and enjoy it. And we drove one, like this was three weeks and we did this for a month and three weeks and we went to Boston. And we both laid in this lagoon, which by the way side note, the locals, we went and got some food. The locals had told us that this is somewhere that people travel to all over the world. And it’s known for having these healing properties. It’s supposed to be a very special place. And we both laid in the lagoon and had very weird, like out of body experience.

Like just, she, like she was, we both, I don’t even really know how to describe it, but all I know is that I was laying there and I realized I am on the wrong path. I’m very unhappy. This is not working the company’s growing, but I’m not growing. I’m not getting out of this. What I thought I was, what’s the end game here?

Where, what, what’s this all for?

Andrew: I’m looking this place up buckle our lagoon in Mexico, the reviews on Google are amazing. It’s so photogenic. It feels like it’s an Instagram, a hotspot it’s gotta be. And you’re saying, just being in that water gave you an out of body experience that helped you reevaluate your.

Nicolas: Is Like, bath water is, like white sand and warm bath water crystal clear and

Andrew: I looking at the right thing right here? Like that? This is it.

Nicolas: Yeah. That’s it.

Andrew: The people with like hammocks over this water people sitting in, in swings. All right. Okay. And you said, this is the big realization I got to change before we come back and understand what you did with the change. Let me take a moment to talk about my second sponsor.

In fact, I’m going to ask you Cole. My second sponsor is HostGator. Imagine somebody is listening to us and says, I want to get in the writing habit. Do you, do you still recommend that they use HostGator or publish on WordPress at all?

Nicolas: No.

Andrew: You don’t go ahead. I’m not here to like, have you lie to my audience?

Why would you say that?

Nicolas: Any, any social Henri online writing platform is going to be better than starting a

Andrew: And you were saying Twitter is number one, probably because of, because that’s where your attention is.

Nicolas: twit. Well, because Twitter is investing heavily in the creator economy right now, but that’s another conversation. Twitter, Quora, medium. All these

Andrew: Chorus still.

Nicolas: Yeah, totally.

Andrew: I feel like people are not spending much time on Cora and that there’s this anger about Cora, because they got so aggressive with pushing people into the app with advertising. That just doesn’t feel right.

Nicolas: Um, here’s, here’s a different way of framing it. Do you know how many users Cora has

Andrew: I don’t.

Nicolas: 300 million plus

Andrew: Is that 300 million users or is it 300 million people? Hit it from a Google search, see a little bit of something and get irritated and move on.

Nicolas: it. doesn’t matter? Cause how many people know about the brand new one? Your mom and your grandma?

Andrew: So Cora medium Twitter. All right. Is there, does the world have a place for, do writers still have a reason to have their own site?

Nicolas: My personal belief is that if you do have a purpose for it, it doesn’t come until far later, far, far later.

Andrew: Really don’t even create a home. See, I disagree with you about that, but I want you to push back on me. Okay. I think you create your site as quickly as possible. You have it be a link for things that you feel represent you. Well, you let the site age, you improve it a little bit over time. You don’t obsess about it.

If you’re a writer and I’ll tell you. People like me spend a lot of time going and Googling people like you, right. You before I sit down for an interview, if I’m going out for scotch, with somebody and, and they’re new, I go and I do some research on them. Frankly, if I even am going to have a phone call with someone, I do a quick Google to see who they are.

They have an opportunity to sculpt the, one of the first things that I see about them to actually hand curate what I notice and to see it their way. And I don’t see any better way to do that. Then your own site. I’m not saying your site is going to get you more, have more viewers and Cora or Twitter or anything else.

But I do think it’s the one place where you get to fully, fully control how you come across, but disagree with Nicole. If you want to.

Nicolas: I agree with all of that, except for the fact that there’s a step before. And all of that is based on the assumption that you already know what it is that people find interesting. About you and what you do. And so for you, right? You look up people that you’ve been connected to, or that you might, that might be a good guest for your show or whatever it is.

Well, those people are already at a certain level. Right. The vast majority of people, if you’re literally starting day one, what everyone does is they go, I assume people want to hear about X from me and it’s not until you start writing and it’s not until you start publishing and you start gathering data that you learn.

Is that true? Or is that.

not true? And 99% of the time, what your assumption was is actually not what people end up wanting from you.

Andrew: Okay, fair point. So you’re saying, figure out what people want from you and maybe that means writing online. Maybe it means that over time you’ve discovered it because you’ve been in business for a while or you’ve been public for awhile and only then does it make sense as a writer to get a site? All right.

I think that make sense. Well people, whenever you’re ready to start your own site, what I urge you to do is build it on a platform that is actually open source that you can take with you that you’re not locked into forever. And that’s what, that’s why I love WordPress. And the reason I host my WordPress site on HostGator is because it’s inexpensive.

It just freaking works. I basically signed up and I forget about it. And if there’s an issue, I called customer service. It’s their issue. It’s not mine. They’ve helped me a lot over the years, but I don’t remember the last time that I even had to contact them. All right. If you want an even lower price than they offer everyone else, go to hostgator.com/mixergy, they’ll drop their price.

They’ll give you all the benefits of hosting, including, uh, a unlimited email on meter disk space, all that stuff. And you can get started right away. hostgator.com/mixergy. All right. You came back after this experience and what did you do?

Nicolas: Told told drew and said, I’m done. He said, I’m done too. And we were both so burned out. And, Uh we did the numbers on it. You know, we did the math and said, look right now we have 70, 80 clients. And I think at that point we had had to fire some people. So we maybe 16 full-time employees and we both were making a hundred K I mean, you have a $2 million, you know, $1.6 million company, and you’re still only making a hundred K there’s something wrong with that.

So, We did the numbers on it and said, okay, look, if we bring this back to a boutique business and we get back in the work and we work with a small handful of people, we can both make, you know, 200 K a year. It’s not bad. And so we did, and we, you know, set a date and worked toward it. And a month later we let everyone go.

We fired 90% of our clients. We kept the ones that we really loved working with. We said, thanks everyone for coming on the journey. And this didn’t turn out to be as scalable as we thought it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made my entire life. And then I woke up the next day and was like, this is the beginning of my next chapter.

Like I was able to let go. I felt terrific. It felt it was excruciating. It was so challenging. And we loved the people that we were working with. And it was also hard going, I’m not a high growth startup founder anymore. You know, you get really used to that identity, but I was happier.

Andrew: I feel like that’s one of the gutsiest decisions that you can make. And one of the hardest ones in your life to be able to take this thing, that’s producing a lot of revenue and is actually profitable and say, I’m not going to do it instead of trying and trying and trying and trying until the thing falls apart somehow, or you fall apart.

Nicolas: Yeah, I learned this hard lesson. There’s a lot of ego and people validate it significantly. When you say, oh, I have 15 employees, I have 20 employees, even just an employee head count people, look at you and go, oh, you’re, you’re someone different in society. You’re not just some guy, you know, you, people are responsive.

Andrew: right. Can I say this though, Cole? I feel like even to you, to this day, that matters because I asked you in the beginning of the interview, what your revenue was now thinking that we talk about where you, where you were, and then talk about how you got there. And I remember your answer was to talk about the business.

As it started, how fast it grew, what the revenues and the employee numbers were. Right. That it’s still, it’s still a thing that matters.

Nicolas: Well, I say that in the context. It’s a very rare and challenging thing. So to frame the conversation, right? Like this is what happened, right? Not very many people at 26 years old go, I’m going to have 20 people responsible for me to pay their life. You know? I mean, that’s, that’s a hard thing. So Yeah. I acknowledge it.

But at the same time, I’m I walked away from that experience being like, I never want to scale or build a service company ever again.

Andrew: And what would you want to do next? Oh, your

Nicolas: product company. Yeah. That’s what I’m, that’s what I’m doing now with ship 30 for 30. That’s a, that’s a digital product.

information company.

Andrew: Can we talk about ship 30 for 30?

Nicolas: Sure.

Andrew: I couldn’t get in. We should talk about what that is. I kind of admire that. Admire your hard stance against me coming in. And the reason I couldn’t. I forgot to send an alert. I just figured you guys were emailing anyway. I would catch the email and then I would sign up before, before the thing that started when we talk about what it is first and then why I wasn’t allowed in,

Nicolas: It’s uh, and to be clear, it’s not that you weren’t allowed in, right. You just missed the signup window,

Andrew: I wasn’t allowed in for that cohort every month you do a different, you do another cohort, right? Yes.

Nicolas: what is it?

It’s basically a daily writing challenge with the aim and goal of helping you build your daily writing habit and learning what works and gathering data on your writing And validating your assumptions, all those things that we talked about. So.

Andrew: And the idea is, from what I saw, I saw Catherine from best self do this on Twitter. It seems like what you do is, and I signed up for the free version of it so that I could follow along and see what it is. You give people, a notion doc to begin with. And in it, there’s a place where they could write out ideas for what they might want to write about in the 30 days so that they never say, I don’t have an idea of what to write to make it easy for them.

You give them a template. A design template where they could write and publish what they’ve written as an image, I guess, on Twitter.

Nicolas: Yup. And atomic essay. Let’s all we call it. Yeah.

Andrew: And atomic 250 or 250 words. I’ve seen people do it as images because it went longer. What’s your benefit for words, not characters. Got it.

Nicolas: Yeah. Yeah. Inside the image.

Andrew: And why do you want to do it on Twitter?

Nicolas: Well, because a Twitter’s, distribution’s probably the best right now. And B, because Twitter’s investing heavily. I mean, these are side tangents, but Twitter is investing heavily in the creator economy right now. So if you’re a creator, especially if you’re a runner.

And you’re not investing in Twitter and planning on Twitter, you are disconnected from where the whole online publishing direction is going.

Andrew: isn’t it. Instagram where you can still do a screenshot of a note pad.

Nicolas: Yeah.

but the thing is, it’s an images universal, an image is native to any platform. So the whole idea why we use an image and why we created this atomic essay template is because it’s more about constraint. Most people when they sit down to write, they look at a blank page and go, how am I supposed to write an 800 word article?

We go, you’re not trying to write an 800 word article. You’re trying to clarify one idea and say it in 250 words. And that building block is then something that compounds. And so, yeah, all throughout it, it’s not just a challenge. We also give a curriculum And, basically teach all these online writing principles.

Andrew: And, you know, what, what Twitter has that Instagram doesn’t have is better discoverability that on Twitter. If I like Catherine’s writing, I could retweet it, which then gives her a bigger audience. And then she gets to see which of her writing is so good that people share it and brings in new people. Got it.

Now there’s an well, not now, but there’s been good analytics on stuff like that on Twitter. All right. And so your vision is we’re going to create this course. This is a digital product that we could then scale up with and not have to work with a lot of customers. Do you limit it to a certain number of people per month?

You do, right.

Nicolas: Well, no, to clarify what you just said, we want to work with more customers, right? The difference is that we don’t have to hire people. To do that. So whether 10 people sign up for a cohort or a thousand people sign up for a cohort, the, the ways that you manage those people doesn’t really change.

Andrew: How do you do that? I’m finding that there’s a lot more interest in creating these basically live courses now online, where people get more than videos, but they get a lot of feedback, but I don’t see that a lot of course, creators actually participate and give feedback and stay engaged. What do you do?

Nicolas: Well for one thing, both me and my co-founder for that venture is named sticky Bush. We are very engaged. So that’s a, choice, right? Some people go, I want to be

Andrew: a chat community.

Nicolas: Yeah. In slack, you know, that means engaging with people there on Twitter. Everything that we do is about practicing in public. So every assignment, every thing in the entire curriculum is don’t just share this here in slack, go execute it, go practice it on Twitter because it’s the public part.

That’s going to give you data on feedback. So that’s one. We also have to. Uh, contractors, you know, one is basically All operations focused. The other is all community focused and they are rock stars. You know, they help us tie the whole thing together.

Andrew: All right. You know what I didn’t realize until later on in my notes that you specifically told our producer, you weren’t sure you wanted to talk about this.

Nicolas: That’s fine.

Andrew: It’s fine. Do you feel comfortable talking about the revenue from it?

Nicolas: Uh, if you feel like it’s important and valuable.

Andrew: Give me like, uh, yeah, I do. I I’d like to just get a ballpark of where it is compared to say digital press.

Nicolas: Well for context, I mean we’re five and a half, six months in, and last month we just did a hundred grand in revenue.

Andrew: Got it. And now at this place, the revenue is basically all bottom line, right?

Nicolas: yeah, I mean, That’s what makes it a different business.

Andrew: That’s why it’s different. And this is the thing that scales versus services. And that’s one of the big lessons you took away from this.

Nicolas: Yeah, service company, you’re operating on 20% margin, a product company you’re operating on 95% margin.

Andrew: And the

Nicolas: We’re a digital, a digital

Andrew: product. And the digital product does not have to be software that has a recorder that then allows people to talk into the recorder and have their thing transcribed and

Nicolas: no, this is a completely different.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah, no, I, when you were talking about product, I, I, my mind went to.

Cole is writing software, hiring people to create software, but that’s not it at all. That’s this is, this is eyeopening. I feel like this is the right direction for now. Do you think this is going to be the best long-term thing for you in the next, say five years?

Nicolas: Yes, because the thing, what This does, and I didn’t realize this before I stepped into it. And before we really started building it, but it creates a flood. And the flywheel is the more people that go through it.

The more you learn what it is that those people are looking for, the more you can create more products that solve their problems, the more, the more, the more right.

It just keeps spinning faster and faster. So when in the case of digital press, every time we brought in five new clients, well, we have to go hire two more. Full-time people. And that, I mean, your overhead gets scary quick, right? Like our overhead was six figures a month very quickly. So that’s what makes it such a radically different business.

Andrew: All right. And so if people are writing, are you giving them feedback? Are you watching when they don’t publish and pushing them to publish? How engaged are you?

Nicolas: At this point, we’ve created systems where we’re not the bottleneck, so. The responsibility is on the person, right? They signed up for the writing challenge. We give people accountability partners. We have groups, we help them get the support they need, but it’s not our responsibility to babysit everyone.

So instead, our focus is how do we create such a great curriculum that empowers people and educates them and gives them everything they need so that they feel confident and comfortable taking action on them.

Andrew: All right. This has been, um, kind of disappointing because I would have wanted that services, business story to end up with with more growth, more profitability and more everything else. But frankly, Very satisfying because it didn’t turn out to be the story that when I talked to before we got started, you wanted to avoid, you said, everyone’s talking about how great everything is.

Yes. There are challenges in business and challenges suck, but they always end up with this neat solution that the covers up the pain. I feel like you didn’t cover up the pain. You exposed it, you accepted it, you dealt with it. And we talked.

Nicolas: Yeah. I mean, that’s, I think ultimately the most important thing is just because your business doesn’t go to the moon and isn’t, you know, glorified in tech crunch doesn’t mean it’s a disappointment. And I think, I think that’s a very harmful mentality because a lot of people sit down and go, I’m going to build a startup.

And the only definition of that is it’s either Uber or I failed. And the reality that that’s such a binary and unfair way of looking at it, and it usually sends you down a really disappointing path for yourself,

Andrew: All right. What’s the best place for people to find you? I’m imagining Twitter and

Nicolas: Twitter. Yeah, hit me up on Twitter, you know, uh, Quora still medium still, but Twitter is probably where I’m most engaged these days.

Andrew: Oh, and look at this again. I missed the next one cohort starting June 21st, June 21st just happened a couple of days ago. Why don’t you start at the first of the month?

Nicolas: Uh, because they, the way that it goes, we tend to take like a week or two between each cohort. So we don’t want to take four weeks between each cohort. We just need like two weeks to catch our breath. So there’s

Andrew: Uh, okay. And so then it’s third, but then people start on the 21st of the month, they go till the July 21st, and then you take another 10 days or something. And then maybe the next one will start August 1st.

Nicolas: Yep.

Andrew: All right. Ship 30 for thirty.com. Nicholas Cole. Thanks so much for.

Nicolas: Thanks for having me, man.

Andrew: All right. And I want to thank two sponsors made this interview happen.

Listen, go and at least check out, try, see, explore what you could do with your own membership site. This is the business that you’ve got cold, right? It’s available to you at  dot com slash Mixergy. If you want an easy way to set up what Cole has set up, and if you, uh, are ready to start your own website and colleges said not day one.

I don’t know if I agree with it, but I really liked that you did that. You didn’t just go along with it just because it was, didn’t go along with what I was saying called just because it was a sponsorship message. I like honesty here. So I’ll say whenever you people are ready to sign up for a website and you need a needed hosted ride, go to hostgator.com/mixergy.

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