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. And of course, I run a business for entrepreneurs. That’s very similar to the one that today’s guests created. I invited him here because I want to learn how he did it.
I want to see what’s worked for him. And obviously there are ways that we could improve always. And I want to find out what I could learn from him. All right. So today’s guest is Ben Aston. He is the founder of digital project manager. It’s a place where project managers can go in and learn and find out what’s going on in their industry and the way he monetizes it is he’s got advertising and I’ve got advertising.
You’ll hear my ads in a moment. He also has a. Courses that he sells one at a time and he’s got a membership. So he’s got three different revenue sources, which is a strong business model. And he also has a community, which of course creates for a strong business. I invited him here to talk about how he did that on the digital project manager and also how he’s taking that model and expanding it to other, um, areas like.
HR and he’s thinking, well, what about things that don’t happen in the virtual world? What about ideas and businesses that happen offline? Invited him here to talk about how he makes those work, what he has in store for the future. What I could learn from him and so much more, if you’re into content and education, this is going to be a great interview for you and.
You’re going to want to have your own advertisers. So watch me as I do my ads for two great sponsors, the first we’ll host your website, right? It’s called HostGator. Get them at hostgator.com/mixergy. And the second just wants you to know that if you like the way that I have conversations, they will give you a guide that I wrote to how to have great conversations.
It’s available to you based on everything I’ve learned from doing these interviews. Available to you at on bounce.com/mixer. Do you go to that URL? It’s totally free. You don’t even need to give an email address. If you go to balanced.com/mixergy, Ben, how much revenue you’re making come on thousand cents.
Ben: No, I think last year we did, we hit 3 million in revenue. Um, and about 2 million of that was profit. So that was, that was a good year. Last year. And this year, I think we’re headed more towards the full cost is about 10.
Andrew: And this is, this is for just the one business, the digital project manager, or for the collection of, of sites that comes under accompanied named called black and white zebra.
Ben: Yeah, that’s the, that’s the collection of sites. So we were running about 10 different websites. Now, uh, each of those websites monetizing through community, through training and membership. Yeah.
Andrew: What’s the biggest revenue source, where were people most willing to spend their dollars?
Ben: Yeah, well, actually it’s the B2B side of thing, which is the advertising, which I guess is the, the other components, um, advertising does provide the lion’s share of the revenue. Um, but what we’re in the, what we’re trying to do is pivot that more, to be a direct to consumer, uh, monetizing through and for the community.
And I see it as a bit of a virtuous cycle. If you can create content that’s worth paying for. Um, that’s a really strong business model. So that’s really at the heart of what we’re trying to create is content and community that’s worth paying for and worth being a part of.
Andrew: it is more satisfying to get revenue from your customers than revenue from a company that pays you to reach your customers. But I have learned from past interviews that I should keep all of those revenue options available because some random thing will knock out one piece of revenue from you. And your business could be gone.
So for advertising could be you say something wrong or advertising just takes a hate or a Google and Facebook offers something completely better. And then not if that’s what you’re, depending on, you’re in trouble. If you don’t have that, but you do have membership, you could have some random issue with the credit card processor.
You could have some random issue with the way that the, the government requires you to store credit cards. And it may not knock out all your revenue, but it takes away a big portion. And so there you’re in trouble. All right. So I like, I liked that. Collection of revenue that you have in your business.
Give me a sense of like what’s one piece of content that will give us a taste of what you’re publishing on digital project manager.
Ben: Yeah. So when we think about content, we. Um, actually our, our foundation, our foundation and where we started, it was definitely on keyword orientated content. So we look at okay, what are people actually searching for? And then we create content to meet that user need that user intent. So that might be something like project management methodologies explained.
We look to see where there’s high search volume. And we try and create a piece of content that meets that search intent really well. Um, so that’s an example of a piece of content that’s keyword orientated, but then we dovetail that with what we call passion posts, which are, which is content really that’s.
We want to write about, uh, that we think would be helpful to people who keep coming back to the website. Uh, so we’re combining keyword orientated posts with things that they might never be searching for, but hopefully when they’re on the site are relevant to them and interesting for them.
Andrew: Give me an example. What’s a killer piece of content that you’re especially proud of and your audience loves.
Ben: Um, so an example of something we just published is like how to say no to stakeholders, but not many people are not, not many people are searching for how to say no, but actually that’s a really helpful piece of content that builds the community, uh, that helps them do their job better. And that’s really what we’re trying to do.
We’re trying to help this community that we’re part of, uh, be better at what they do to be more successful.
Andrew: Okay. All right. I went to some Russians. You talked about using, uh, uh, SEO. I wanted to see what you’re doing there. They’re saying that a good example of a keyword that’s doing well for you is mind mapping software. So people might go to that, uh, and end up on your side or project initiation document. All right.
I got where you’re going with this. You started out because you were doing the work yourself, right. You were working, uh, as a digital project manager. Am I right? Or.
Ben: Yeah. So my, before I was an entrepreneur or, well, I guess I is, my career, whole career has been in the advertising marketing agency world. Um, so yeah, my background has been in the, in the field as a digital project
Andrew: me an example of something that you created back when you were doing this
Ben: Uh, so I work with clients such as a land Rover. They were one of my early clients.
Andrew: you do for them?
Ben: we would, uh, create websites, uh, we’d create the online marketing campaigns. Uh, so whether or not that’s email or banner ads. Uh, I’d be, be working hand in hand with the above the line agency who would, uh, create the TV, the ads. So it was an integrated marketing, uh, play
Andrew: And you led the team that created the website and the banners. Am I right? Or, or, or organize them?
Ben: yeah, the digital project manager, I’m the one who’s creating the estimates.
I’m the one that’s defining the timeline. I’m creating the statement of work that defines what we’ll do and for how much, and making sure that we deliver successfully.
Andrew: Okay. And so on the side in 2012, you decided that you are going to build 12 different websites. Why 12 different websites.
Ben: Because it was 2012. I thought that was just a goal for the year.
Andrew: Was it that you said, I want to learn new things. I’ve been thinking about doing something like that and just saying, I’m going to create 12 new projects or five new projects in a year, and just give myself an opportunity to learn new things by doing them. What was it for you? Was it that you were looking for a business on the side?
Ben: Well, it was actually more the fact that in 2012, it was the year that I moved from the UK to Vancouver and I thought, Hey, I’m going to move to this new city. Um, and probably not have many friends. So I need something to keep me occupied while I’m. Well I’m well, I’m being friendless and, uh, I didn’t, I never actually completed 12 websites.
Uh, but it was more of a lofty goal. I think I got about three websites in and, uh, then found some friends.
Andrew: What’s one of the sites that you’ve created.
Ben: Uh, w one of the websites was, um, one called take 60, which I think is now offline, but, um, the idea was taking 60 seconds to change the world. And we, it was basically a fundraising site for an orphanage. Um, somewhere in Africa. I can’t remember where now. I think it was Uganda. And, uh, that was just a simple website.
We were trying to. Actually it was, it was to raise money to, to build a school. That’s what it was. And, uh, it was a fundraising site to do that. So I was just looking for small, fun projects that we could actually achieve something, um, and, and make a difference.
Andrew: And one of those sites was the site that we’re talking about here today. Digital project manager, what was the original vision for it?
Ben: Yeah. When I started out, I had this idea that I’d write an ebook and I thought this was, you know, back in. Yeah, the 2012 and 2010. Oh. So, uh, eBooks and creating eBooks. I think was a, was a good idea. So I thought, I know I’m going to write a hundred tips for digital project management and I’ll sell this, I’ll sell this ebook on Amazon.
And then it occurred to me. Well, who’s actually going to buy this book. How is anyone going to discover it? And so I thought, well, why don’t I drip feed. The ebook, um, as blog posts to build an audience. And then, uh, the one, my hundred posts are done, uh, when the a hundred tips are written, then everyone will want to buy the book.
Right? Well, I never finished that ebook. It’s still a work in progress, but what did happen was that in the process of creating all this content and publishing on a fairly regular basis, uh, I begin to acquire an audience and realize, actually, there’s lots of people out there who are really interested in this stuff.
Andrew: And were you doing it because you wanted to hone your craft? Did you want to build a reputation by writing a book? Why did you do it?
Ben: I think I realized that I’d reached a point in my career where I did actually know something that was useful and. There was a bit of a, uh, well, there wasn’t really much information out there for people who were doing what I was doing. And there still isn’t to be honest, um, for people who are digital project managers working in this wild West of, uh, an environment where timelines are really too tight, budgets are too small.
Um, clients are very demanding in the advertising marketing world. How do you deliver projects successfully in that environment? And I’d felt like I’d had the full tune of. Working at some pretty good places in agencies in London. And I thought, Hey, I want to share some of this. So partly it was sharing and giving back.
Partly it was, let’s see if I can write an ebook and naturally sell something. Uh, that was kind of the impetus for at the beginning.
Andrew: The site also had what I guess we’d call means right now, where you would just have, right. It would be posts with nothing but a headline and a GIF. So here’s one, when you finish your invoicing a day early, and then there’s a bunch of people dancing. Um, And the gift it’s that type of thing. It was just kind of a fun blog in a day when blogs were really hot and people were looking for any kind of, uh, user created content, I would call it right.
That’s what you were doing. I noticed when I looked at the bottom of the site in internet archive, that it still said powered by black and white zebra. What was black and white zebra before it became a collection of sites. Like the one we’re going to be talking about today.
Ben: Back in those days. So this was when I first moved from the UK to Vancouver. I had a company called black and white zebra then, uh, and I was just a. Digital consultant. Um, and I didn’t do many projects as a digital consultant. Uh, but I, my idea was, Hey, I know how to make stuff happen in the digital world.
Um, I could just be a consultant and then I got lured back into agency life, uh, for another seven years. And, um, yeah, the, the prospect of a regular salary and, um, Yeah, just settling down a bit, kind of appealed to me while I had a few kids.
Andrew: Got it. All right. And so, meanwhile, 2012, you launched a site you’re continuing over the years to add to it, but it’s not at all a business as we know it today, right? 20. 2015. Suddenly you look that there’s a real audience there and they’re reaching out to you. And I guess it’s not until even a little bit after that, that you said maybe there’s revenue here.
Am I right?
Ben: So it was around 2015 that the company started contacting me and saying, Hey, can we be featured on your site? We’ll pay you. And I thought, Oh, that never even occurred to me. Um, so it was, it was, it was a happy accident, really. Um, people started reaching out to me and I thought, okay, let’s. Let’s do this then, but at that point I had no idea really what to charge people.
So I really undercharged them for a really long time. I didn’t know. I didn’t know the value of what I was delivering to them. And, uh, so back in 2015, I started accepting payment for featuring different products and tools.
Andrew: paid for? Who was the first company and what did you
Ben: I think the first, the first company was, um, Deltek, I think, which is a, uh, project management software company.
They reached out to me actually to go to South by Southwest, to I think, blog about their product launch or something like that. They paid me $500, I think.
Andrew: But you didn’t end up going to South by Southwest that year.
Ben: I didn’t go, no, I can’t remember. There was, I think I had a work trip or something, but I had to do my day job got in the way.
Andrew: Okay, but you
Ben: But that was the first time.
Andrew: pay me. I’ll write. I don’t have to be there. They paid you a few hundred bucks, 500 roughly. Uh, actually actually it did end up being exactly 500. From what I understand any published, did you feel a little bit creepy doing it and now maybe I’m selling my content. Will I lose the audiences of respect?
Ben: Um, I don’t think so. I think, I think I was quite clear about it. It was quite, uh, factual. It was, I was just excited that someone was willing to pay me some money to do something. Uh, so that, that felt pretty exciting.
Andrew: Meanwhile, if we fast forward a few years, 2018, I don’t know if you feel comfortable saying your revenue, but I’ve got your revenue here on my screen. Can I say it?
Ben: Sure. Go for it.
Andrew: So 2012 launched 2015 is when the audience builds up 2018. I think it is when you start to make some money. By the end of that year, did you do $700,000 in sales?
Ben: Yep. We did. So by that time, we’d so primarily this is from advertising and we’d realized that people were willing to pay us to be featured on our website and, um, By that time. It, it just began to snowball. As we began to rank higher in search, we became more of a commodity that people were interested in because they wanted it to be associated with search results at the top of search.
So it was, it was through broadening our client base, um, of tool partners worked with, but it was also a major factor in this was increasing how much we charged and. That has been really, to be honest, the story of the story of our business, which has been at the beginning, we really didn’t understand the value and I think.
We’ve still, uh, there’s a bit of a dance you do with people who start paying you, not very much money to be featured. And then you have to go back to them and say, do you know what I’m going to, I’m going to triple how much I’m going to charge you for this and how do they react? Well, they’re really upset because you’ve just become more expensive.
Um, and to be honest, that trajectory has continued at what, why I’m forecasting 10 million this year is because that same story of increasing pricing has
Andrew: increase prices. They will be upset, but what do you keep most of them, despite the increase.
Ben: Yeah, I think we lose very few. And the reason why we lose very few is because we’re delivering results. And when they look at the quality of the traffic that we send them is traffic that converts at a really good
Andrew: Because what are you offering? You’re not doing banner ads. What are you doing? What type of ad you’re writing full posts on them and right.
Ben: We do. There’s a whole bunch of different things. We’re doing some of them what we call our spotlight posts yet where we feature a specific tool. Other ones are lists of tools where we’re featuring, Hey, these are the best tools. So we’ll define the criteria for what makes a best kind of tool in that category.
And then people will
Andrew: 10 Microsoft project alternatives for creating Gantt charts. This is from 2018. Right? So that, that would be a sponsored list of, of entries. Am I right?
Ben: Yeah, so, and that would include a mix of sponsored and not sponsored, but a lot of those would be sponsored.
Andrew: Okay. All right. I get the, I get where you were. Good model. Um, by the way, one of the things that sets you apart from other people who have this model fricking design, the homepage is, looks so good. So it doesn’t feel like an info marketing site, right? I’m proud of that. I could see it in your face. I think a lot of times I’ve talked to you.
It’s like, I don’t know if I should tell Andrew this. I don’t know if this story is coming across well, but when I talked to you about your design, this is something wholeheartedly you’re proud of and you deserve to be.
Ben: Yeah, a hundred percent design. I think in a, if you look at our competitors, their design is terrible. And I think that’s kind of the story of, um, Many of the project management sites out there, for example, uh, have really poor design. Um, actually we’re investing right now in a new project to replatform again, to make our design even better to make our user experience even even more persuasive.
So the quality of design and quality of content are two things that we we think are super important. Both for like being proud of what we create. Uh, so that the user experience is good, but ultimately because Hey, if we make our content easy to consume it, easy to read, our view is going to like that. But also Google will like that too.
Andrew: I would also say this, that it seems like a lot of your. Customers. And we’re going to get into how your audience became your customers. It seems like a lot of them are going back to a boss, to someone who’s in charge of an expense report and saying, this is what I want to sign up for. This is what I did sign up for.
And they don’t want to look embarrassed. They don’t want to look like they got taken into some, like, get rich, quick scammy looking site, right. That should look like a professional business tool that a, that an employer would pay for.
Ben: Definitely. I mean, we’re selling courses for a thousand dollars or thereabouts. And so when you’re charging that amount of money, you can’t like the quality has got to look professional. And I think that, yeah, it helps people believe that we’ve got a product that’s worth paying a thousand dollars for
Andrew: Okay. We talked about advertising. The next thing that came on board, from what I understand is the courses, right? Not the membership. What’s the first course that you charged for.
Ben: Um, it’s a cool school. It’s, uh, mastering digital project management. And it’s a seven week course for people who deliver projects in a digital world, whether or not that’s for an agency in the world of marketing, or maybe we’ve had lots of nonprofits take the course as well as a big blue chips, like Siemens and Sony and Microsoft.
So people who are delivering any kind of digital projects, we help take them through. In a seven week course, how to initiate projects, well, how to kick them off. Well, and then managing and controlling projects, how to do that effectively so that we can deliver value.
Andrew: Basically Ben, that’s their job though. So you’re telling them, we’re going to show you how it is. It’s not like you’re saying here’s how to get more clients, how to get a better job. It’s here’s how to do the job that you’re paid for. Well, Why, what am I missing there? I would’ve thought that most people would think what’s one piece of the business that we need to teach them.
They’re not going to want to know the business if they already are in it. How did you, how did you realize that’s the thing to do?
Ben: Um, I think a lot of people have a challenge that they become the digital project manager in the agency or the organization that they’re in
Andrew: Oh, they don’t get trained for it from the start. This isn’t, it’s just the thing that let’s really tell, tell me what, what were they doing before bef.
Ben: People get paranoid suited into the role. Um, maybe they were, maybe they were a developer who decided, Hey, I want to start managing projects B where they were a designer or user experience architects. Um, so there’s some people who sure. You can go into a course on a degree in project management, but most people fall into it.
They’ve been in the industry for awhile and. They suddenly get saddled with being responsible for creating a budget, a timeline, a statement of work, and they kind of know what they’re doing, but they don’t know how to do it properly. Or if they do know how to do it, they’re not sure if they’re missing something.
Andrew: How did you know that this was where they were, and this is what they needed.
Ben: I think so. I mean, by this point we launched the course, I think, in 2018. So we’d been running the site now for a few years and beginning to get. People contacted me asking if there’s any training that we offer. So it really came through that insight from people reaching out to us that I realized there was an opportunity here to create something that would help people do their jobs better.
Andrew: Okay. And then had, you know, what to go, what to put into it. Was it you saying here’s my experience. I know it.
Ben: yeah, that, that was a hundred percent the most difficult part. And I think it still is the product market fit. For the course is challenging, particularly because we wanted to make it short. And originally it started out with a 10 week course that we condensed into a seven week course. Um, so people want the results, but don’t want to put in the time to learn.
So. Yeah, figuring out what to put in. It was difficult. So why just decided, Hey, here’s just at a basic level. Here’s how you get from the beginning of the project to the end of a project. And we’re going to hold your hand through that process.
Andrew: Okay. Did you do it live at first? I know that I found that by doing it live week after week, I get to see where people are lost and I know what to build it. And it’s hard to create by looking at a screen. But if you do it live, you have a bunch of people whose, who are interacting with you.
Ben: That maybe would have been a good idea instead,
Andrew: what’d, you do.
Ben: instead I scripted out the entire thing, um, and it took me. It took me nearly a year to produce this script. So, um, It’s about 80,000 words, uh, to develop this script, uh, which has me basically talking for seven hours. And, uh, so I created the entire script and the reason I did it that way was I really struggled as I was creating the course to figure out at what point you talk about what thing w with, with many, like when you’re trying to teach anything.
There are so many interconnected parts deciding where you talk about those points of intersection. And is this, you know, where does this fit in? Um, I found super challenging,
Andrew: Especially if you’re doing it by yourself. Yeah.
Ben: Yeah. So I wanted to create the whole thing. So. So I kept on moving parts around and I felt like, yeah, if I did it, if I did it live, um, yeah.
You know, in hindsight, maybe that would have been a better way to do it, but I decided to create the whole thing.
Andrew: Okay. Yeah, I would suggest it for anyone who is listening, try to do it with even one person who you’re teaching. Ideally it should be three or more so that you have people show up every week and then record that and make that into the thing that you create or. Whatever’s worked for you there. It helps inform what you create on your own.
Did you do, uh, you did slides, right? Or screenshots
Ben: We did animated slides. So, um, yeah, it’s, it’s me talking to camera, super imposed against, uh, the animated slides behind me explaining different things. Um, so there’s, there’s the, there’s the. There’s the kind of presentation part of the course. The second bit that we did do live to start with was a panel discussion.
So the idea was that we talk about the theory and then we talk about in the panel discussion, how we apply that theory, like how, how, why the theory doesn’t work. We begin to tear apart these concepts and ideas so that people get a more rounded
Andrew: You and other digital project managers. Got it. All right. I’m with you. I see it. You went back to your audience. Did you have an email list at the time?
Ben: Yeah, we did. I can’t remember how big it was, but yeah, we sent it out, launched the course. Uh, actually we made a mistake though. We launched the course thinking it was about eight weeks away and I thought that’s enough time for me to create a course. I was still working a full-time job at the time. And I had, my daughter had just been born.
I was taking some time off for paternity leave and I’m like, okay, eight weeks I can for sure. Spit out a course in that about a time. So I sold the course, got a load of people to sign up, was feeling really pleased. But then about a month away from launch, I realized there was no way that I was going to get this finished, partly because I decided to create this entire script.
So I canceled it and it wasn’t until a year later that I actually launched the course for real, uh,
Andrew: I get it. I understand it. In retrospect, and with our understanding, it’s so painful. You just want to smack yourself going back. Right. But I get it. It’s completely. Lee I’m completely relatable. And I think that a lot of people who teach course creators and content creators, how to teach and sell, they, they downplayed, or they insult the person who does it.
And in reality, it’s a, it’s a position I could totally empathize with and people who are successful, like you have gone through it. All right. How well did it do, how much did you do in sales when you finally launched.
Ben: I think we’ve typically had about 50 people sign up to each course. Uh, each, each class we’ve run. So then we, we increased the number of classes. We ran a beginning. It was about three times a year. Now it’s about five times a year that we run the course. Um, so it’s, it’s about that
Andrew: yeah. Why, why three or five? Why isn’t it an ongoing evergreen program?
Ben: There are live components to it. So what we wanted to create a course that wasn’t just watching a video, um, but that had some interactive component to it.
Andrew: Well with the interactive components.
Ben: so, what we do is, uh, there are assignments and these assignments make it. Uh, slightly more tricky. So each week there is an assignment based on that week’s course contents.
And we’re using a system called peer grade, which allows students to submit their, um, assignment and then get graded by somebody else. Um, and I think that peer review and evaluation is super powerful. Um, We create a rubric to say, Hey, this is what makes an estimate good, or an estimate bad. Here we go.
Great checklist of things to help people assess and Mark each other’s work well. But I think this process of assessment is actually super powerful because they’re not only learning how to do it, but they’re learning how to assess whether or not something is good. So in order to facilitate that peer grading, as well as the live office hours that we have every week, um, we run it at certain slots throughout the year.
Andrew: Okay. Um, cool. And how this, uh, goes. I see it. Let me ask some geeky questions. The first version of the site I saw was put on WordPress. I think you’re still on WordPress to this day, right? The core software was done on what.
Ben: Um, it was done on something called Huizhou, um, which is a coup. Yeah, it it’s a cool tool, uh, which enables you to embed a YouTube video or Vimeo in their platform and put markers in place along the timeline. YouTube and Vimeo have begun to do this, but Hazzard does it really nicely. And we wanted people to be able to jump through the content, to find the content within this video that’s relevant to them.
Um, and it has, it also enables you to embed other contents within it. So as you’re watching the video. Images come up, text comes up, like it’s quite a rich
Andrew: Under the video or within the video player
Ben: under the video
Andrew: under the video. And so was this a full learning management system?
Ben: Nope. It is not really a learning management system at all. It’s more like an interactive video player.
Andrew: Got it. Say you can embed onto your WordPress site and you used WordPress with the mem. No.
Ben: didn’t actually embed it into WordPress. It was a separate, separate platform. They needed a separate
Andrew: That you created yourself.
Ben: Yes, we didn’t create a zoo, but we created the logins. Yeah.
Andrew: the what’s the platform that you put your course on.
Ben: Uh, isn’t on a platform. So we have Slack, we had hazards. We’re now using a platform called edgy flow. Uh, which is that. Peer grade is also made by the same people as, uh, edgy flow. But we have, so we have the components are zoom for that weekly office hours, Slack for the conversations in between peer grade for people submitting assignments and now edgy flow for the people who to consume the content.
So it’s. The onboarding process is confusing, but what we wanted was the best in breed, what we thought to deliver a really rich, engaging, learning experience. So it’s slightly more complicated, but yeah, the course is not on a website.
Andrew: I see. Yeah. I, um, I think that since then new platforms have come up like teachable there’s, uh, there are different tools that you can add to WordPress to do it. Right. Uh, what is didn’t? I do an interview with the founder of lifter LMS. They work on, on WordPress. But you don’t do that. You create your own username and passwords.
That part is your own software.
Ben: Um, we set everybody up with accounts on these different platforms.
Andrew: Oh, wow. This is chaotic for, for a project management company. Don’t you think?
Ben: It is, but once you it’s. Okay. I think what we wanted is, was a really engaging learning experience. We wanted an experience where you are able to easily connect that you had, uh, the best place to consume the content.
Andrew: I totally understand that. That I, I love teachable. I love some of these other platforms. Um, But I understand how you might want to give people maybe a better chat experience than the one that comes in these platforms. I feel like that’s a solution waiting for somebody to grab, hold of to a problem.
That’s very common. What I mean by that is, you know, if you hire somebody new on your company, you have to create accounts for them on these different platforms. Rippling will allow you as a, as an employer to automatically create accounts for them on the platforms you use, like Slack, like a G suite and so on.
That’s brilliant. I feel like there’s something like that that’s necessary for communities almost so that when someone signs up for the community, you automatically create a Slack for them. If you maybe create a folder in Google docs for them and or Dropbox and so on, uh, I that’s something in that I’ve also thought about.
What, what do you think about that? Let’s refer a bit.
Ben: well, so there are some platforms that are trying to do that. So a few examples, uh, Kajabi is a, is a good example of that, where.
Andrew: other people’s platforms. Like you could create a Slack. No, you can’t create a Slack account. They’re
Ben: I’m talking, I’m talking about an LMS meets the community, um, courses, downloads templates, um, resources in a kind of hub. Uh, Kajabi I’d say is one of the most popular platforms for membership sites. Um, and podia would be another one.
Andrew: phenomenal. Yes.
Ben: And so what we found there was that yes, these sites are good, but we didn’t want to be forced into someone’s ecosystem and then stuck in it.
So we’d prefer to bind things together. If with manual work, if need be, and then have the control over email automations about how we present, how we, how we do these different things, rather than being tied to a really poor
Andrew: No, I, I get that. I just feel like I wish that there was an easier way for you to automatically create accounts on these platforms for people when they, when they buy. So it should be signup page automatically. Triggers. Once people pay automatically creates an account for them on all these different accounts automatically sets them up with just like you could for a employee, for employers who are doing it for their, for their team.
Okay. I get where you are. I don’t want to drive too far with this. Let’s continue. Then the next part of your business was to say, we’re going to add a com. We’re going to add a membership. What did, what was going to be in the membership?
Ben: So the membership started off with a bunch of resources. We knew that people were super excited to download any kind of template that we produced. Um, and we were just giving them away for free. Um, the challenge with that is that it costs us money to produce these things.
Andrew: What’s a resource I saw over the years that you guys did like spreadsheets. Here’s why project managers loved spreadsheets. Here’s why they hate it. Here’s some tools to help you create a better spreadsheet to manage. Do your work is that’s the kind of thing you’re talking about.
Ben: Yeah. So it’s like, here’s a template that you can use for a cost estimate or a statement of work or a timeline here’s. And what we’ve done is now in membership we’ve. Combined templates and downloads for nearly everything you’d want to do as a digital project manager with samples as well. So you can not just download the template and you could, you could find those on the internet anywhere.
Um, but the sample of how to fill it in correctly. So these
Andrew: template that you came up with in the beginning that you thought this is member worthy, people should pay.
Ben: I think, uh, as an example, like the ecosystem, the template ecosystem around a website redesign project. So a there’s an estimate, there’s a timeline, there’s a statement of work and all these things relate to one another. So it’s a package that if you were going to do a website redesign project within an agency, you’ve got what you need.
Andrew: Who did you hire to create that? So you sat down and you said here’s what goes into it. Did you talk to any of your members to say, how do you do it? Can I see your checklist?
Ben: I mean, I’d been working in agencies for 15 years, so I had lots of templates from different places that I’d worked. Uh, and so I was recycling and mixing up these different assets and resources that I had from different places.
Andrew: Okay. A lot of people who are in this space will say that’s hard to charge monthly for because someone will pay a monthly fee, download all of it. And runaway I’ve actually found in practice. That’s not true. And if they do, they become more loyal fans. Don’t don’t be so aggressive in fighting it. What have you found with that?
Ben: I would say, I have found that some people would come in, sign up as members download all the stuff. Yeah. And then unsubscribe, um, So what we did, um, It’s really changed the nature of the membership. We realized actually we didn’t want to become a resource-based membership. Um, we wanted the resources to be a nice add on rather than the point and the purpose of the community.
And I think where our membership over the last couple of years has transitioned to is more around the community side of the membership rather than being resource-based. So actually what’s most helpful for people delivering projects. And the community is being able to talk to other people who are also delivering projects to find out in real time what’s working for them.
What’s not. So we have pivoted our membership from being resource-based to being more community focused.
Andrew: What do you use for your community management software?
Ben: Right now we’re using circle. So we were on Slack, um, which was great at the beginning, but then it got to 4,000 members and the Nate Slack is a great conversation and communication tool is not so good to retain wisdom and a group
Andrew: Right. Right. I’ve noticed that a lot of people move to discord, which is more of the public version of Slack. Slack is for internal communication companies. Discord is for bigger. Why don’t you guys go to discord?
Ben: We, we did look at it, but I think we wanted something that we could tailor and customize. And I chatted to the guys at circle and I liked the, what they’re talking about in terms of what they were trying to do and create. And I think it just aligns better with what, uh, membership wanted. So, uh, We’re trying to create a resource base rather than just a chat, um, and a communication.
So circle allows us to do more of that creating repositories
Andrew: What do you mean? How do you do that with, so for people who don’t know, circle is like, it’s a beautiful, elegant, low, I feel like it’s low feature too. Community software, right? It’s, it’s meant to just be as simple as, as necessary. And then I’m imagining they’re going to build beyond, I think there are a couple of problems having talked to people who are building communities with circle, number one, most people don’t go to circle.
They don’t even go to your site. They’re in Facebook, they they’re in Slack. Right. And so you’re hitting them where they ordinarily go more and more they’re in discord. It’s hard to say, come back to my community.my site.com. Right.
Ben: Yeah. Yeah. It feels, it feels, yeah, it feels like something out the early two thousands, uh, in some ways where you’re saying, yeah, I have a forum come over here. It’s really useful. And a hundred percent, we had a lot of actually one of the challenges we had was early on, was running Slack in parallel with the circle community.
And people would say to us, I don’t want to go there. It’s I’m on Slack. Just keep that going. Um, So why did we do it? Well, because we believed and we still do that. The circle experience is far superior, and I think that’s also a different mindset. Um, when you go to the forum, you’re more intentional about it.
Um, it’s, uh, It’s about giving as much as it is about getting. Um, and I think, I think we’ve seen the quality of the conversation and the type of discourse that we have on circle being quite different to, um, Slack, which was much more transactional. I need this. Can someone help me with this? Uh, whereas on circle we find the nature of the conversation being slightly different, and this is something that’s taken us about six months to cultivate a nurture is taken a lot of.
Uh, example setting, but we found it, um, is beginning to it’s beginning to bear fruit and we’re getting a much better engagement now and quality of conversation than we did in Slack.
Andrew: What’s w what’s one feature that you especially like about it.
Ben: I think I wouldn’t necessarily talk about the features I S I just, I like the simplicity of it. Like you said, um, like we mentioned before, Hey, there’s Kajabi, there’s podia. There’s these all-in-one platforms that, um, try and do everything. I love the fact that circle really is just a forum that we can integrate really simply with our site and membership.
Andrew: it’s. I’m going to say this. It is just a forum in the old classic sense of the word. What is nice about it is that it doesn’t have a lot of the flare of a forum. I think that’s one of the challenges of it, right? Like in some forums, if you think about forum software for WordPress, you could give people points based on what they’ve done.
You could let people give each other points and all those gimmicks. Are helpful, but they also become a big distraction to user experience. Right? Um, I would say the one thing, I think the one thing that circles should focus on is not all of these expandability, so I’m sure they’re going to add the extents, the extensions in there, make it more extendable.
I think the one thing they should focus on is how do you bring people back in and it might need to be let’s plug into text messaging, let’s plug into Slack messaging or something other than just email that brings somebody in immediately, right.
Ben: Yeah. And I think, I think that the discourse that happens on the forum is for sure slower, it’s not a real-time communication tool, but that allows us in the newsletter that we send out every week to say, Hey, if you’ve not caught these conversations yet, go and check them out.
Andrew: and they are a real topic of conversation. Someone could see here’s a problem that I’m having. Everyone else responds to it. And then for the rest of the community that comes even a year later, they see the problem that they’ve experienced and the discussion of, of how other people have handled it. Okay.
All right. I should, I should tell you, it’s like, 51 minutes into my conversation with you, including the time before we started, I haven’t done an ad and I intentionally waited till now because my first sponsor is HostGator and HostGator allows us to do everything that you and I have talked about. We’re now at a point where I could ask you if somebody is listening to this process right now, as you’re doing it and says, you know what?
I could start off with a WordPress site. I could add a community using circle circle makes it really easy to have like a sub domain community.my site.com. Right? That looks just like the WordPress site. All these resources that we talked about could connect together with a WordPress site, hosted on HostGator or frankly, anyone else.
But since HostGator is my sponsor and they do a great job for less money, less money than most people let’s talk about them. What’s one approach that you would have to finding a way to copy your model on a HostGator hosted site.
Ben: Well, I think. As well as with many of these hosting companies, now it’s very easy with a one-click WordPress install to get started and get going. And I think for most people, one of the things that’s a massive blocker is getting started and creating content at the heart of what we do really is we create content and we’ve been able to monetize that content.
So being able to quickly. Forget every, all the bells and whistles and just focus on creating content is something that you can easily do on a self
Andrew: It is, but what’s how do you find a topic? Can I give, can I talk about the topics that you told me that you’re pursuing with your model? Okay. So you found that it works for project managers, digital project managers, you said, alright, let’s do this for HR human resources. You’re doing that right? What’s the site called for human resources.
Ben: People managing people don’t come.
Andrew: Okay. Can I talk about one of the upcoming ones? All right. Uh, you said maybe even farmers could use a site like this, right? How do you come up with farmers is a possibility and it makes a ton of sense. There’s nobody out there creating like a best practices for farmers, a community where they get to talk to each other.
I don’t even know if they need it, but it’s clever that you would do it. How are you thinking about where is the next community for you?
Ben: Yeah. So I think there’s an interesting intersection between things that are digitally orientated in some way. So. And the reason that’s interesting is where there’s, where there’s technology involved. There’s the potential for there to be SAS tools, which might want to sponsor, um, and SAS tools attract higher CPCs because the lifetime value is high of a customer.
So, if you can have any technology related subjects, uh, there’s the potential for advertisers that are willing to pay lots of money. So that’s one aspect. Okay. Where are they? Where’s the technology and tools. Another interesting part of my selection process is looking at things that people typically think are boring.
And like, one of the things that we want to do is make boring and seemingly uninteresting things fun. And. I think we do that through the content that we create through the design that we apply to it. But the good thing about things that are typically regarded as boring is it means there’s lower competition there and
Andrew: something where there’s a lot of technology, especially software as a service fighting to get those audience something that’s boring. Give me another criteria.
Ben: Something, and this is where the personal networking connection comes into it. Some, somewhere where I know somebody who can help us do this, who we can partner with. Um, and, uh, and we can partner with them to start creating content and the community.
Andrew: Yeah. Oh, okay. So you need someone who’s like an experts. If you’re going to, do you thinking really farming or did you just toss that out as an
Ben: No. I have a site that we are launching called farm innovate, and it’s about yeah. Innovation and farming. And
Andrew: And so you say with your brother, got it. So you say, look, I’m not a farmer. My brother is he’s in the space. Is your brother farmer.
Ben: Advisors. Yeah. He works for an engineer. Advising firm. Yeah.
Andrew: it. Okay. Okay. All right. I, you know what else? I like, I like aiming towards business people, ideally professionals working in organizations. Right. Because I see your eyes are doing something that you tell me. Yes. That’s the one, because they have money. It’s not their money. And if you could help them a little bit, that costs that you charge is more than paid for, with the increased productivity, increased results that they have.
All right. Really good. Okay. So let’s say they, they, they copy this. The first thing they should launch is a content also like you did. Is it a blog today in 2021? You’re nodding? Yes. Aren’t people all over frigging blogs.
Ben: Well, I don’t think so. People are searching into Google every day. Um, they want answers and the more that we can help people find answers to their problems. Um, the better, I think video is great. I think podcasts are great. We do all those things. Social media is great, but where we see the biggest volume in terms of traffic, which we can then monetize, um, Is from organic search.
So I think creating content, which you can then recycle as a video or as a podcast. I think for me, that’s the kind of basic, um, foundations.
Andrew: I’m with you. Okay. So content think search engine optimization. And then once you have content look for the first course, should we follow that model the way that you did advertising actually first, right? Since we said that there’s a lot of software coming towards the space advertising software, uh, um, of course, should that be next?
Ben: Well, I think I’m, I’m more staring towards membership now. So membership is interesting to me because I think going back to what we’re talking about, we’re helping people succeed. We’re helping people do their jobs better. We’re helping people do something better. If you can solve people’s problems, if you can help make their life easier, they’ll be willing to pay for that.
And particularly in a profess professional, kind of. Environments, they can probably get their work to pay for it as well. So I think a membership, even if you’ll be getting to only help 15, 20 people, those are people who could become your founding members.
Andrew: All right. Listen to me, people, whether it’s this specific model, which I think makes a ton of sense. And, uh, Ben and I, before we got started talking about how he thought this made sense, and he surprised by how few people are doing it or any other business that you need a website for. If you go to HostGator, you’re going to get a company with a proven track record.
They’ve been around for years and. Inexpensive price for getting started and will scale with you. Yes, they have absolute low prices on dependable service. But what I found as my businesses scale, their services will scale a scaled with me. This will work for you. All you have to do is go to hostgator.com/mixergy.
And when you throw that slash Mixergy at the end, when you use my full URL, you’re going to get the lowest possible price that they have for a great service that I use on Mixergy host, gator.com/mixergy. All right. Um, As we come to an end with this thing I want to know then is that is the future for you to just take this model and bring it to different areas.
Is that where black and white zebra is going as a business?
Ben: Yeah, we we’ve got a vision to see 10 thriving communities, um, similar to the ones that we’ve created for the digital project manager. So if in 10 years we’ve managed to create 10 communities. Um, I’ll be happy. And, but I think we really see ourselves as a. Bigger than that, we’re trying to help people succeed.
So we’d been focused for the past few years on the online world, but I want to see that in the offline world as well, particularly in a post COVID environment, um, I’m interested in building, helping, supporting local business as well and recycling some of this, uh, capital into a more local projects too.
Andrew: Buying local businesses starting local businesses.
Ben: Yep. And any, any of the, any of the above? What I, what I’d love to do is, uh, create a community center where there’s maybe a coffee shop and an art gallery that doesn’t need to make a profit, um, that kind of thing would that kind of thing excites me.
Andrew: So people didn’t come and hang out.
Ben: Yep. And people can work. And I think we’re going to see a lot of vacant office space or lots of vacant, lots of vacancies.
So I’m just interested in, yeah, not just being completely online as I have been, but I’m getting into the real world as well.
Andrew: I’m going to suggest that one of the things that I think is going to happen is. I think the creator spaces are a necessity and coffee shops are not creator spaces, even though that’s where people go when they don’t want to work at home, a creator space is something like the museum that’s in your neighborhood that nobody goes to, except for kids during the day where you might feel a little inspired.
If you sit in there in their nook, in a coffee shop and something perks you up, but that’s not enough creativity. I find. I find need an, it needs an external stimulant sometimes. And it’s not a coffee shop where someone’s sitting next to you. It’s not a WIWORK necessarily. No, it’s not a, we work. Those are components of it.
You might go to coffee shops, you might go to a WeWork. But I think if there’s a place where we can just go and say, this is where I am creative, where they organize everything for me to be inspired. I think that’s a nice, uh, that’s, that’s one of the nice things coming out of this, uh, this pause that we’re all in.
Ben: Yeah. And I think people are going to have much more flexibility around where they work and when they work. So, yeah, I’m, I’m excited about that as well as investing in and, um, investing in other businesses as well. So, uh, we, yeah, I hope as a media company, which is what we are now, we will become not just a media company, but also a.
An investment company that invests in other businesses as
Andrew: And other media companies like yours, you know what. One thing that I would think of as we were talking about, um, coffee shops or not, yeah. Coffee shops and in person, I was thinking maybe somebody just takes Ben Aston’s model and goes and applies it to coffee, shop owners, right. Coffee shop owners want to see what’s working for each other.
They want to see how they could grow. That’s interesting. I think what’s more interesting is to steal your model and apply it towards brand new spaces. Right. Maker Pat is essentially done. I think your model for the no code software movement, where they said, we’re going to. Teach people how to do this.
And then of course, once you bring people in who are into no code, you can layer other things. On top of them. I just found out they were bought by Zapier. Um, I think that anytime there’s new something, that’s an area to copy Benz model and FTS become big. If you believe in their longterm longevity, be the resource of content, build the community on top.
Advertising’s a nice addition that goes with it. And then there might be some courses that are standalone. Ideally, if you find those they’re growing, you grow with them and there’s nobody established in the space. I mean, if you find one that works with businesses or specific job titles at businesses, So much the better for getting revenue.
What do you think of that? Ben? Have I taken away the key lessons?
Ben: I think so. I think where we’ve also been successful is because we’ve, we found places where there aren’t many other people creating really good quality content. So I think that’s the kind of the missing piece of the puzzle for me would be okay. Well, You don’t want to have to compete too much, too hard.
Um, ideally you become the, the authority, the voice of coffee shop owners, um, or, yeah, NFTs. Um, but I think that’s something that NFTs is obviously a lot more, a lot, a lot more competition around. So I think choosing something that’s slightly off the beaten track or that long tail. So you choose. Rather than just, um, NFTs, we say, okay, NFTs for communities
Andrew: Oh, you’re saying. Yeah.
Ben: for galleries.
Andrew: Ah, so more niche and less sexy. Everyone has seen the art that was sold for $4 million, even though it’s digital and everyone else can copy it. There’s one person who gets to say, I actually own it. Everyone’s getting excited about it. Look for more boring, more farm, less NFTs.
Alright. Where’s a good place for people who like you, who want to follow up, uh, to go and connect with you.
Ben: Yeah. So if you’re interested in the world of content and community, which is what we’ve been talking about really today, uh, head to indie media.club, where we chart our progress. And, uh, we have a podcast there as well. Uh, if you want to find out more about me to Ben,
Andrew: I didn’t even realize you had indie media.club. All right, Ben. Thanks so much.
Ben: thanks for having me being right here.
Andrew: And I’ll, uh, sorry, I just stepped over your, your closing because I want to make sure that I get my sponsor’s message in there. Sponsorship is something right. It, when somebody pays me, I wanna make sure that they get the results and all right, I’m gonna close it up by saying thank you.
Thank you, HostGator for sponsoring this interview. If you’re out there and you want to sign up hostgator.com/mixergy. And if you like the way that I do these interviews, Interruptions at all. And you want to see how you can use my techniques for having better conversations. One-on-one I created something quick, something as a first version to get some, uh, to get some ideas out to you.
Some my techniques out to you, all you have to do is go to this page and Unbounce created it’s unbalanced.com/mixergy unbounced.com/mixergy. And I’m grateful to them for sponsoring and to you Ben, for hanging out here with me. Thanks so much, man. All right. Cheers. Bye. Bye everyone.