How The Penny Hoarder became a $20M dollar blog

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I’m afraid people might skip this interview because the company is called The Penny Hoarder and they want to hear about a big tech company like Zapier.

But those people will be making a huge mistake. The company you’re about to hear about is doing phenomenally well and it’s simply a blog.

Kyle Taylor is the founder of The Penny Hoarder, a personal finance blog and I want to understand how he did it.

Kyle Taylor

Kyle Taylor

The Penny Hoarder

Kyle Taylor is the founder of The Penny Hoarder, a personal finance blog.

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Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hey, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com. It’s the place where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses.

And I know what’s going to happen when I post this up on iTunes. A lot of people are going to say, “The Penny Hoarder? I don’t know. Maybe Andrew is a little bit off-topic here,” and skip the interview and wait for another interview with a company like Zapier or another tech company that they’re familiar with. But I’ve got to tell you, those people are going to make a huge mistake because the company you’re about to hear is doing so much better than you can imagine, phenomenally well.

Frankly, if you went to the website, you wouldn’t get how big this business is and what’s going on to make it that big. I have to be honest. I underestimated it. Frankly, I invited Kyle Taylor, the founder of The Penny Hoarder on here and even I, when I was doing research, just couldn’t believe it. I have to keep going back and checking my facts to say, “Is this really real?” And yeah, it is. It’s real. All the numbers are there. All the content is there. It’s incredible.

So here’s what it is. It’s a business that’s essentially a blog called The Penny Hoarder. It’s a personal finance blog. When you look at it, it seems so simple. That’s why I want to understand it, why I want to have the founder, Kyle, on here to understand how he did it, how he grew it. The first question I’m going to ask him is what the revenues are so you can see how big he got it.

And this whole interview is sponsored by two great companies. The first is the company that will help you host your own website, WordPress or otherwise. It’s called HostGator. The second will help you hire incredible developers, designers and other professionals. It’s called Toptal. I’ll tell you more about them later. First, Kyle, welcome.

Kyle: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Andrew: What is the revenue–what was the revenue 2015? Let’s start with that?

Kyle: So 2015 was $7.5 million.

Andrew: Again, I wouldn’t have believed it. I researched it, 100% proven, $7.5 million for this site that is–it’s hosted on what? What’s the platform that you used to publish it?

Kyle: We are on WordPress. We host just on AWS.

Andrew: Just basic, basic, basic WordPress stuff. We’re not basically at the end of 2016. Can you say what the revenues for 2016 are?

Kyle: I can. Knock on wood that the rest of the month goes well. I think we’ll be just over $20 million this year.

Andrew: Unbelievable, $20 million?

Kyle: It doesn’t even sound real when I say it out loud sometimes.

Andrew: No. It’s unbelievable. Again, I looked at the source code. We’re just looking at a very basic WordPress site that’s elegant in its simplicity. Here are some of the headlines on the site right now–a photo of a mom holding two girls in her arms, it says, “I launched my mom blog in January and it made $6k in October. Here’s how.” There is, “Five Companies that Let You Pitch Your Dream Job,” “Got Holiday Travel Plans? JetBlue is Offering 12 Days of Deals,” “Babysitters Are Most In Demand on This Date.” Those are the headlines. Where’s the revenue coming from on this?

Kyle: We make 95% of our revenue from performance marketing, some people call it affiliate. Essentially we work directly with clients. Like Uber is a large partner of ours. Every time one of our readers signs up to be an Uber driver and gets a check, so do we. Then a smaller portion of that is display revenue.

Andrew: So you write an article about Uber, about working side jobs for Uber and you link to Uber and you get paid.

Kyle: Exactly, very simple.

Andrew: That one article about the “Babysitters Are Most in Demand on This Date,” it’s December 12th and you explain why that is in the article–oh, no, it’s December 10th, I think.

Kyle: That’s a great question. I don’t know.

Andrew: I might have read it too fast. Here’s the part that I’m most curious about. I moused over the link to Care.com’s article. It just goes directly to a blog post on Care.com. I don’t see the referral code. When I get to Care.com, I’m guessing that Care.com ends up promoting their babysitting service and people will sign up.

Kyle: Care is not a partner of ours. That’s part of the strategy is that 95% of the content on the site doesn’t have any affiliate links at all. It’s just pure organic content.

Andrew: I see. Okay. I was looking too much into it trying to figure out where the revenues were, and it’s not everywhere and that’s why I couldn’t find it in places like this article about babysitting. Got it. Okay. Uber is a partner. Who else do you guys write about and get commissions for?

Kyle: Airbnb. We partner with some of the market research companies like Swagbucks that pay people to take surveys or watch videos. We work with Credit Sesame. Some of the other financial tools like Acorns are also big partners.

Andrew: I’m looking at you now. You look more like a poli sci major than you do an entrepreneur. I guess that goes back to what you were doing before, right?

Kyle: Yes, you hit the nail on the head. I went to school for political science at the University of South Florida. About six weeks into my first semester, I got a call from the local Democratic Party. I had been doing some volunteer work, and they asked if I wanted to be a motorcade driver. And I was very shy and introverted and I thought, “That’s kind of exciting and a little scary. I should just push myself.”

So they did, of course, a huge background check. They asked me to show up at this airport hangar in the middle of the afternoon. I get there. They give me my Secret Service pin and start to tell me the rules. They’re like, “You won’t know who’s going to be in your van until it happens. You’re welcome to talk to them. Don’t stop at any red lights and speed as fast as you can.” I thought, “This is fun. I can do that.”

That, for me, led to then just a few weeks later, I got a job knocking on doors getting out the vote. By the end of the semester, I had pretty much completely forgotten about school and had dropped out shortly after.

Andrew: You would just literally knock on strangers’ doors. I’m guessing this was the job that you had working for Clean Water Action?

Kyle: Yeah. So I worked on behalf of environmental groups and labor, so the AFL-CIO, sort of going back and forth.

Andrew: And you were knocking on doors saying, “Will you be voting? How will you be voting?” that kind of thing?

Kyle: Yeah. So, during an election, we would go to the door and whatever interest group, we first would talk about whatever issue we were working on. Then we would ask them who we were voting for, encourage them to go out and then follow up with them as we get closer to election day to make sure they did so.

If it wasn’t an election time, though, we were raising money. We had a quote each night and we would have to ask people to write us a check, which I still say to this day was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, probably even harder than this, but it is the thing that taught me the most about interacting with people and learning to sell.

Andrew: What did you learn?

Kyle: Well, first of all, I learned that my humor was a really good weapon. So I still use that on sales calls now. When you show up at somebody’s door, first of all they’re a little off-put. It’s not normal for somebody to come and ask for money. It’s not something that any of us really enjoy happening. So I had to use some humor to get people to lighten up. I definitely had a round of jokes in my pocket that each door–

Andrew: Do you remember one of them?

Kyle: I would always make fun of stature. I’m a skinny guy now, and I was probably 40 pounds skinnier at the time. I’d say, “Listen, I need you to work with a check because I’m a really skinny guy out here and I’m probably going to get beat up,” anything I could do to get people to take a laugh.

Andrew: What else did you learn that worked for you for getting people to give money to a stranger?

Kyle: This is a habit that I’ve really tried to break myself of, but it did work at the door. We would phrase every question not as a question but as a statement. So we would end it with, “Right?” And we would also nod our heads. You can agree with that, right? You’re nodding with me.

Andrew: I am. I really was.

Kyle: Yeah. That’s exactly what happened. We would talk about the issue while nodding and people would psychologically start to subconsciously agree with us.

Andrew: The Exploratorium Museum is about three blocks away from my office here. I took my kid there, and they have this one exhibit where it’s just a big screen and a couch that you sit in front of it. All you see on the screen are people laughing. If you watch people staring at people laughing, they can’t help but smile.

Then on the opposite side is another big screen with this foam couch in front of that and all you see are people yawning and, of course, when you see people yawning, all you do is yawn and you see people go through these seats and laugh and yawn depending on where they are. I guess there are certain things that people do that instinctively get that repeat reaction from the other person. So you would say something like it’s really awful how we’re not unionizing enough of this country, right?

Kyle: Exactly.

Andrew: I see. Now that person has nodded and maybe said right and they’ve bought in to your point of view.

Kyle: Yes. You just touched on something that was always really important to us too. We tried to match the person’s energy. So I can be kind of loud and boisterous, but if somebody was just getting up from a nap or it was late at night, we might bring our volume down a little bit and try to match however they were feeling so it didn’t feel like as much a stranger at the door rather than like a friend or a buddy.

Andrew: I feel like I do that in my interviews and because people listen to me over and over, they see the different energy levels. I wonder if it keeps them from understanding who I really am because it’s like this guy is not the high energy person I can count on to always pick me up, but he’s also not the soothing like NPR-like person who can always take me to a cerebral place. I don’t know where Andrew is going to be on this interview. Of course, a topic like this not only perks me up in a way I can’t believe, so I’m not trying to match your energy here, I’m just suddenly too excited.

Kyle: I will probably get in trouble for sharing this story. The night that I raised the most amount of money, I was in a college apartment complex, which is typically a tough place for us to raise money. College students don’t have much. I wasn’t feeling very well and I had taken a couple of Benadryls. So my energy was so relaxed and I would go to every door and say, “Hey, man, how’s it going?” That’s how I felt at the moment. That night by far was the most I ever raised, I think over $500 in three or four hours.

Andrew: Wow. Because why do you think?

Kyle: I think because I was talking to college students like a college student.

Andrew: I see. And you were doing this for about half a decade. But really, when I look at my notes from our producer’s conversation with you, I see more of this penny-pinching hoarder than even this poli sci major. You’re a guy even as a kid you cared about coupons. In fact, you told our producer your parents were divorced and you grew up with who, with your mom, right?

Kyle: I grew up with my mom. Yeah.

Andrew: She had one salary, which now I realize my wife and I both work and I see how much everything costs. I see how a typical salary really doesn’t cover anything. So that’s why you had to keep an eye on the budget. So what did you do because of that?

Kyle: My parents were always very open about money. Even when my parents were still married, money was always a family conversation. Everybody knew exactly what my parents’ salaries were, and we all knew exactly how much money was in each category of the budget and my mom would sit us down at least once a month and show us our progress or categories we had gone over.

Andrew: Interesting.

Kyle: We turned it into a game. One of my favorite memories is we were working to get our electric and water bill down. My mom wanted to get us kids involved. She made a chart, and each day my sisters and I would take turns going out to the water and electric meters at the side of the house and record the wattage from the day before. Then we would work together to come up with strategies to beat the day prior. It was just such a fun, silly way. I never even really thought about it as a way of giving up something. It was just a fun way of challenging yourself.

Andrew: Wow. I never would have–I don’t think I would have enjoyed that as a kid growing up. Why do you think you thought it was fun?

Kyle: I have always enjoyed gamifying everything that I do.

Andrew: I see.

Kyle: I was joking yesterday that if there’s life for me after Penny Hoarder, it would be as a producer on a game show.

Andrew: What do you gamify in your typical day-to-day existence?

Kyle: I gamify even just like getting ready for work in the morning. I see if I can go a little bit faster. I’ll time myself, either showering or whatever. I’ve gotten so far as even now I’m 30 years old and still every Thursday night I have a group of friends over to play Mario Kart. That’s what I like to do, or a board game or whatever.

Andrew: But the shower thing, I get the Mario Kart and the competition there. But the shower part, do you write down how long it took you to shower today so you can beat it tomorrow, or do you just know it?

Kyle: I don’t track it in a diary, but I do have like a mental note of my . . .

Andrew: I see. I take really long showers. I can actually take a half-hour shower. One of the benefits of getting the Apple Watch is you can put the timer in the upper left corner of your watch face. So now I try to see if I can go five minutes in the shower and then I see if I can go three minutes in the shower and towel off in three minutes. It really does help, actually. It makes me feel more productive, more in control of my morning until I get to a point where it’s so crazy-making that I can’t just enjoy my morning.

Kyle: Yeah.

Andrew: I take it to the point of sickness. Do you feel ever sick doing that?

Kyle: If I do, I stop it. For me, I’m playing a game, I’m having fun. If I’m not having fun, I’m done playing the game.

Andrew: I see. Okay. That’s healthy. You also–here’s what you said. I’ve got to read this exactly as you said to our producer. You said, “Like most cool teenagers, I started looking online for coupon forums. I joined coupon trading groups.” What’s a coupon trading group?

Kyle: Yes. I’ve always been very hip. I think they’re still around. So internet forums were sort of a huge thing in the early 2000s, and there were tons of them where people would interact with each other and say, “Listen, I’ve got 10 coupons for Charmin toilet paper. What will you give me for them?” And we would trade not only coupons, but we would trade points, like Pampers points or Box Tops for Education or anything else that had sort of some monetary value in our minds.

Andrew: So how much would you pay for food in a typical week because of all this hoarding? Not hoarding. It’s penny hoarding, not hoarding.

Kyle: Yeah. My parents were–it was never a position where they were like, “You need to do the grocery shopping.” I enjoyed it so much, again, gamifying to see how low I could get the price. At one point I think for an entire year we were under $30 a week for groceries for our family of four.

Andrew: Under $30, family of four.

Kyle: Yeah.

Andrew: Impressive, what year was this, roughly?

Kyle: This was probably like 2000, 2001.

Andrew: Okay. And then you got into Black Friday deals and eBay. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Kyle: Yeah. So, especially in college, I realized I was always looking for strange ways to make extra money and pay my tuition. After I dropped out of college and worked on campaign, I eventually came back. One of the things that I found was there were a lot of products being sold that would go out of stock in the rest of the country, but I could find it in my little neck of the woods and I could make money by buying it and reselling it on eBay at a premium.

Andrew: What are some of those things you would buy and what would you make off that?

Kyle: I remember the first couple years it was like Nintendo Wiis and Tickle Me Elmo kind of things. I only stopped doing this a couple years ago as business took off. I guess business is one excuse. The other is at one point I had 1,000 Furbies in my basement.

Andrew: Literally 1,000 Furbies?

Kyle: 1,000 Furbies.

Andrew: In your basement?

Kyle: Yes.

Andrew: How much is a Furby? It was like $40. You spent $40,000 on Furbies?

Kyle: Yes. I got them at a discount. So I didn’t necessarily spend $40,000. But I learned by stacking a bunch of different coupons and credit card rebates and gift cards that I bought at a discount online that I could buy things just from retail even if they weren’t necessarily out of stock, I could buy them cheaper and then resell them on Amazon, ship them to Amazon and let Amazon do all the work.

So I had these 1,000 Furbies and I’m boxing them up to send them to Amazon. My partner turns around and is like, “I don’t think I can live like this anymore.” Our UPS man is coming five days a day with huge packages. It’s like, “That’s fair. I’ll find another way.”

Andrew: With Amazon, one of the problems is that people will buy it and then return it back and then you have to deal with it, right?

Kyle: That is a problem. More so I understand today than it was even a few years ago. But it is–people will buy something on Amazon and everyone thinks Amazon is the cheapest and so they’ll buy something and later on they’ll be on eBay and see it’s even cheaper and go, “Uh-oh,” and of course return it because Amazon has a great return policy.

Andrew: Right. So did that come back to you in your house?

Kyle: It did. I wouldn’t say it was a deal killer for us, though. If I’m taking a guess out of those 1,000 Furbies, maybe 15 or 20 of them came back to me.

Andrew: I see. Oh, wow. I assumed the percentage was much higher than that. Okay. That’s not bad at all. What kind of profit did you make off of that?

Kyle: I made about $10,000. The margins weren’t great. I wasn’t buying something at retail using coupons and maybe making $4 or $5 per toy.

Andrew: All right. Not too bad though. My understanding is that’s why you started blogging.

Kyle: Yeah. Actually, I started blogging in 2010, and one of the jobs that people always ask me about was I was a beer auditor. I got paid to go to grocery stores and gas stations and see if they would look for my ID. It’s one of those jobs where I could make my own hours, and I was making good money, like $4,000 to $5,000 a month.

I also was reimbursed for all this beer and wine I was buying. I ended up with this huge hoard of these hundreds of bottles of wine. People would always say, “What’s going on? Why so much wine, Kyle?” I started telling this story and people would look at me like I was crazy. That kind of was a little bit of motivation for me. I should share this story someplace.

Andrew: So that’s why you started blogging. And your first blog was on Blogspot.

Kyle: It was. Yes. I was ThePennyHoarder.Blogspot.com.

Andrew: Yeah, I’m trying to find–oh, there it is. 2011 roughly is what we’re talking about or at least that’s the first I can see on Archive.org. It always keeps redirecting me to ThePennyHoarder.com. So I can’t see that, unfortunately.

Kyle: This is like mid-2010 when I’m on Blogspot. I always say I’m sort of an accidental entrepreneur, CEO because this was not a business. This was a hobby. This was just something silly I wanted to do in my free time.

Andrew: Let me take a moment here and tell everyone about my sponsor. It’s a company called Toptal. One of the reasons, by the way, Kyle, that I used Toptal was that people said, “Hey, Andrew, congratulations on doing over 1,000 interviews on Mixergy, but every time you add another interview, it makes it harder for me to find what I’m looking for on the site. It just stinks.” They’re 100% right, Kyle.

The standard search in WordPress just is awful. Then we added a better search using Swiftype, which was very helpful, but people wanted more than search. They wanted categorization. They wanted tagging. It was really hard to use standard WordPress stuff. I said, “They deserve this. We’re actually starting to make money with Mixergy. Let’s just spend money on it.” But how do I hire someone? My developer doesn’t have time for it. Anyone I know can’t take on this big project.

So I went to Toptal. I just wanted to see what the process was like, and it’s kind of interesting. I expected it all the be like these cheapo freelance sites where you post what you’re looking for and a bunch of people bid and you don’t know why they are, is it an organization, is it a human being? You have to actually ask questions. I usually say something like, “If you’re a real human being, say what your favorite color is,” to see if they at least read that.

That’s not the way it worked with Toptal. I actually got on the phone with a person, scheduled it completely with their calendar and found a time that worked for me. I told the person what we were working on. I said, “Here’s the issue with search. I don’t just need a standard WordPress person. We have this other thing.” I brought on my developer to help with the conversation.

Then they introduced us to someone. That person was really good, but my developer didn’t want to work with him for some reason. I don’t know why. It was just not a good fit. Maybe the guy didn’t have any experience with search. I don’t have a memory of it. But Toptal didn’t care. They said, “Tell us why not,” and then they went out and they found someone else and this guy was fantastic. We expected it would take them a couple of weeks.

Within days, he redid our search, took everything we were looking for and actually made it work super-fast, and then Michael just added it to the demo version of the site and it was awful because the search worked, but the site looked ugly. It was just awful, awful, awful. I said, “This great development work needs better design.” So then we hired a designer to redo the whole site and it upped our game. That’s what a really good developer will do, will give you what you’re looking for only better, will solve your problem without needing handholding and that’s what we got from Toptal.

They are a network of the top three percent developers that are out there. They test people like crazy. Some of my best friends were rejected from Toptal when they asked to work for them. We’re talking about entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley companies when they were trying to make money while they were building their companies, they tried to work for Toptal and they got rejected because Toptal wants the best of the best developers, the guys who would work for Google, that kind of thing.

Anyway, if you need to get a developer or team of developers or even a project-based developer, go to Toptal.com/Mixergy. When you do, they’re going to give you an offer they’re not giving anyone else, which is 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when you pay for your first 80 hours and that’s in addition to a no risk trial period of up to two weeks. Top as in top of the mountain, tal as in talent. That’s Toptal.com/Mixergy.

Kyle, I had surgery on my–I always had a runny nose. One of the big geeky things in my life is I always had a runny nose. I got surgery on it and I’m still recovering from it. So, in a moment, I’m just going to go off camera to just wipe my nose.

Kyle: No problem.

Andrew: I have to be open about what I’m doing. But when you launched on Blogspot, was it hard to get people to come and read it? Did you actually get any readers, and how did that affect you?

Kyle: Yeah. Well, I don’t know that it was an early goal for me to get readers.

Andrew: Really?

Kyle: It was more therapeutic, in some ways. I had amassed almost $50,000 in credit card and student loan debt, which is pretty impressive since I only had three semesters of college under my belt. So I had all this debt, and I needed a way of holding myself accountable. It just also was kind of fun. It was something that I knew nothing about, but it just looked kind of cool and interesting to do. So readers weren’t an early goal. When that started to become a little bit more important to me, yeah, it was extremely difficult.

Andrew: What do you mean by holding yourself accountable? How does having a Blogspot account hold you accountable?

Kyle: I was sharing actual numbers, like, “Here’s how much I made doing this. Here’s how much debt I have.” At the time I actually blogged anonymously just as The Penny Hoarder. It was a way of putting myself out there. Even though we were really open about talking about money in my family, I wasn’t as comfortable sharing what felt like a really big failure with either my parents or friends. So this was sort of an anonymous way for me to put this out in the universe and say, “I have a problem. Here’s what I’m doing to try to fix it.”

Andrew: So how did you–I understand that student debt can pile on money fast, that cost of tuition can pile on debt fast. But what else got you to $50,000 in credit card debt?

Kyle: Well, I for sure had a spending problem. I also had an income problem. So really where things started to fall apart for me was I went back to school, I went to the University of Colorado, was paying out of state tuition and living off of student loans. I wasn’t working for a while and using student loans to pay for rent and everything else I wanted. That was mistake number one. Then mistake number two is I started buying things that I had no business buying, whether it be clothes or electronics. It took me a while to sort of figure out that some of that was because I had been trying to save for so long as a kid that I had almost built that up.

Andrew: I see. I’m looking at early versions of your site. Now I’ve found some articles.

Kyle: The Wayback Machine is so fantastic, isn’t it?

Andrew: I know. I love it. It’s one of the best resources on the internet and one of the most underappreciated resources of the internet, I think. “I Get Paid to Buy Beer,” written December 12th, 2010, we’re talking about six years ago. “How to Become an Alcohol Compliance Auditor,” and you just break it down how you got the job. There’s a picture here of someone with money in front of their face, just holding a $20, three singles and another $20 on the other side of it.

Other articles are about how to make money in creative ways, like make money recycling wine corks, make money by selling your hair. How much of this was about how to make money? How much of it was that kind of writing?

Kyle: That was a huge part of it in the beginning. I wasn’t working or I was in between campaigns. I needed all these little side gigs to get me through those three or four-week periods in between campaigns. So many of the early ideas on the site were things I was doing. I feel like writing about it in some ways encouraged me to get more creative and find even more things because not only did I need the money, but I needed a post.

Andrew: A post for the day.

Kyle: Exactly.

Andrew: How often were you writing?

Kyle: It was a hobby. I’d write every day for a few weeks, and then I would ignore it for a couple months. It wasn’t a serious business. The writing was sort of all over the place.

Andrew: I see. All right. At what point did you actually start to make some real money with it?

Kyle: So, the end of 2010, I moved to my own domain and it wasn’t until maybe spring of 2011 that I got my first check. Again, I didn’t think this was something that was going to be a full-time job. I did start to see as I was doing my homework that this could be a way for another side gig, for me to bring in some extra cash.

Andrew: I see. So do you remember what that first check was?

Kyle: It was just over $100.

Andrew: That was it?

Kyle: Yeah. It was from Google AdSense, and I had to wait like several months of building up income before I reached a minimum threshold for them to cut a check.

Andrew: Then about two and a half years later, you made a few thousand dollars?

Kyle: Yeah. It started to escalate from there. So 2011 didn’t really make much, but 2012, I made around $20,000 in revenue, which was probably more than I had made from my job that year. And then 2013, I had reached this six-figure mark and then of course now we’re where we are.

Andrew: Where was the traffic coming from at that point? Again, I’m looking at 2012, the articles were “How to Earn 17% Helping a Couple Adopt a Child,” “Make Money Playing Scrabble in Tournaments,” “Free $20 Cash for Signing up at NetSpend,” “Seven Places Where You Can Still Pan for Gold.” Where were you getting traffic for this?

Kyle: I was pretty old school when it came to traffic generation. So I was spending a lot of time interacting on forums with other personal finance bloggers, commenting on other bloggers’ sites hoping that they might click through and see who wrote it and then doing lots of guest posting as well to try to bring people back to the site.

Andrew: Was there one thing that was especially effective?

Kyle: I always say if I were to do it all over again that email was probably one of my best traffic sources. Obviously, email you’ve got to bring people to the site first. It was an early way of me building a consistent base, more so than social or SEO. I wish I had recognized that more fully back then.

Andrew: Yeah, I don’t really see much of an email strategy in the beginning, but today, you really do. You have 1.7 million subscribers to your email list?

Kyle: We do. But candidly, I know it’s a big number, but we suck at email.

Andrew: You do? Why? What do you mean?

Kyle: So we had for a long time this was the strategy and I was writing a person email every day to our readers. As things got bigger, email became–we got a little lazy there and we have been for a while now, where we just send out a newsletter every day with three or four articles we’ve written without any commentary.

Andrew: I see.

Kyle: This is a big part of our plans for 2017 is doubling back down on email and making that a priority because we’re terrible at it. I’m sorry, readers, but our email is not that great.

Andrew: Because email needs to be more of a conversation, more of a personally written, personal feeling interaction.

Kyle: I think you need to give somebody something unique that they might not get on the site. There’s got to be a reason for subscribing. I think for us that will be something that’s a little bit more personal.

Andrew: I’m looking to see how you get emails today. One thing I noticed that’s unique about you guys is if I read an article on the bottom it says, “Do you want to save these money making tips?” And if I click yes, then I’m asked for my email address so I can bookmark this and other articles.

Kyle: Yes.

Andrew: What else? What’s more effective for you?

Kyle: So that’s a partnership with Bounce Exchange. I would say that was a big part of growth for us. For a while we were showing a splash page or a light box to users. That’s really where we started to collect a lot of emails. We’ve backed away from that strategy, largely because some of the changes that Google is making to how they rank sites, but it certainly was a big part of growing our list.

Andrew: I see. So is this the biggest thing right now?

Kyle: Yeah. That and the sidebar box on desktop.

Andrew: Really? The “Want to learn tons of ways to make extra money? Sign up for our free weekly updates?”

Kyle: Yeah. That’s always been such a big place for us to get subscribers. I think that it’s because of the social proof we have right there.

Andrew: Yeah.

Kyle: It makes it feel like it’s something everyone is doing.

Andrew: Yeah. It says right underneath it, giant number, goes right down to the–here, it’s 5, 619,775 active subscribers. What it does is it counts how many subscribers are on Facebook, Twitter and email. It shows all three of those numbers very clearly–very effective. You guys work with Bounce Exchange. I interviewed the founder recently. That guy is incredible.

Kyle: They’ve had an amazing year. I think they were ranked in like the top 10 on the Inc. 5000.

Andrew: Number seven.

Kyle: Yeah.

Andrew: And you guys were ranked really highly on Inc. 5000. Was it 37?

Kyle: 32.

Andrew: 32, but number one for publishing?

Kyle: Number one for media. Yeah. Probably one of my favorite sort of achievement moments since this started.

Andrew: The other one I imagine has got to be when you were contacted by Oprah.com in the early days.

Kyle: Yes. Yeah, early. This happens more frequently to us now where other publishers reach out and ask for a quote, but this was really like the first time somebody in the media world had even found my site. For it to be Oprah.com, a show I had grown up watching was incredible to me. Now, I wasn’t on the show. I didn’t meet Oprah, but I did get to submit some quotes to an article and I got that very powerful link back to the site and for me, a real confidence booster that maybe what I was doing was more than just a hobby.

Andrew: I see. And how did they find you?

Kyle: I think just Googling. I think they were Googling for ways to make money and stumbled upon some of the things I’d written about.

Andrew: It looks like they were looking at this “Make Money Recycling Wine Corks,” is that it?

Kyle: I think that’s probably one of them. I know they mentioned a few in the interview. The wine corks thing, by the way, is something I did for a very long time, didn’t make a ton of money, but it’s just another way of making $10, $20 a month.

Andrew: Yeah. I see your eBay listing of wine corks, opening bid $5.51 for 12 empty wine bottle, wine making, arts, craft. I guess that’s the headline. I see what it is. It’s 12 empty wine bottles for $5.51 is the opening bid or there’s another one, a lot of 105 real cork wine corks for crafting etc. for $12. You were selling all that?

Kyle: Yes.

Andrew: I can’t believe there’s a market on eBay for wine corks and wine bottles, empty.

Kyle: It’s incredible the markets that are on eBay. Another thing I used to arbitrage is I would go to the drug stores on the weekend. They always have these truly huge loss leaders, like razors and that kind of thing. I would go to the 10 CVS within 50 miles of my house and buy them out of everything I could get for essentially free and then throw it on eBay.

Andrew: ABC Nightline contacted you back when they were a huge force. Actually, Nightline used to beat the pants, I think, off of Letterman. People always thought Letterman, they saw Leno and they assumed those guys were the number one and number two shows. But I think Nightline was beating both of them for a long time.

Kyle: It was incredible. I got this call. Of course I had a mini-freakout out of excitement. The producer knocks on my–I had a very tiny studio apartment. A producer knocks on my door. We had it scheduled. I said, “Come on in.” And then behind him comes a camera man and behind him comes the sound guy and I thought, “The four of us aren’t even going to fit in this space.” Seeing those kind of production values and somebody watching me on a monitor as I was talking, that was such a cool experience. For me, as I say, I don’t think the interview ever went live.

Andrew: They never published it?

Kyle: I don’t think so. I think the other half of their story backed out. They were doing a segment on, again, weird ways to make extra money. So that’s somewhere in the ABC vault. But it was a confidence booster for me that, again, maybe what I was doing was having a bigger impact.

Andrew: Again, they searched online and they found you and they said let’s talk about how people are saving money and I think the economy was kind of rough back then, so it made sense to feature someone like you.

Kyle: Absolutely.

Andrew: You said that you’re not a great writer, that you actually struggle through it. What was your process at the time?

Kyle: Well, I’m a slow writer. I’ll put it that way.

Andrew: That’s what I meant. Sorry. I shouldn’t say that you’re a bad writer.

Kyle: I think I can put out some decent paragraphs, but it would take me the better part of a day to write an article, and I don’t know if it was sort of a perfectionist in me that was struggling to put what I wanted to say into words or if it was that I was trying to be so unique and looking for things people really had never heard of that every single article was taking me not only an incredible amount of time to research, but then I had to actually do whatever idea I was talking about.

Andrew: So that was your thing. You wouldn’t just write about it and say, “Hey, you could do this wine cork thing. You would actually have to do it before you wrote it?”

Kyle: Yes. That’s still our thing today. It’s not for every post, but we think of our writers as guinea pigs. So when some new app comes along or some job comes along, we ask them to sign up for it and give it a go. In fact, in the room next to me right now, there’s a grocery store that’s selling all their wine for $2.99 or something like that. There’s a wine tasting going where they’re all trying it. We are testers.

Andrew: Wow. You have to do that. Why? Why can’t you just say, “There’s this great opportunity to work at Care.com. If you need to make extra money, go be a babysitter. You’ll make good money and here are the days that make the most sense to do this on the side.” Why do you want someone who’d go the extra mile?

Kyle: There’s a connotation with the internet and making money and it’s not a good one. We’ve always felt–and I did this in the very beginning, there needed to be a level of authenticity and a trust factor. By doing it and sharing our experiences, whether they’re good or bad, it lets the reader know whether they want to spend their time doing it.

Andrew: I find those little touches make a huge, huge impact. I recently went to The Armory in San Francisco for a tour. Do you know The Armory?

Kyle: I’ve never been there. No. I’ve only been to San Francisco for one night for a conference.

Andrew: My guess is you probably wouldn’t want to go to The Armory, but who knows. What they do is they film porn in there. So it’s like this big adventure to go in there. We went in there. It’s not a very sexual experience. They just show you where they film it, but it’s so cleansed of any porn experience that you can tell the reason they’re showing you The Armory is to endear themselves to the community and to show, “Look, this is The Armory, here’s historically how it was built. Here’s how it was destroyed and again built. Here’s how we’re part of the community helping out. Here’s how we do film shoots. Here’s how we break down our sets.”

What was interesting for me was when the showed the props, there was this one whiteboard with a lot of math written on it. They said, “This was in the set of one of our educational porn videos, and people complained because the math didn’t make sense on it.” He said, “These people are watching porn, but if they care about math, they were upset by that. So we actually had to bring in mathematicians to write on this whiteboard, and now we can’t clear it off unless we have someone else to redo it.”

I thought about it, and I said the people who really do well, who can afford to, for example, buy a giant armory in the heart of San Francisco, really expensive property and keep it up and so on or people like you who are doing so well–sweat those kind of details. They don’t say, “They’re freaks on the internet who don’t like math.” They say, “How do I get a mathematician to write on this?”

They don’t say, “If we’re going to write about all these different make money opportunities, it’s okay if we don’t do it.” They sweat it and they say, “How can we do it?” Even if most people will not know that it’s true, that it’s there, that it’s being done, it still adds authenticity. I was so moved by that and I’m moved by hearing you say this.

Kyle: Thank you. I will say it’s also a challenge, especially on the advertising side. We have to be very careful about the advertisers we’re choosing to work with because my feeling is the first time we recommend something that screws somebody over, they’re gone forever. They’re never coming back or trusting anything we say again.

Andrew: I worry about that too. Let me ask you something. I told you before we started that one of my sponsors was HostGator. Do you think somebody could reproduce what you’re doing now? Could they do it today, 2017? Is that the kind of thing that could be done?

Kyle: Yes. Absolutely. I think that–when I think about content sites, I think we are just getting started. I think there are going to be a lot more of them. But I do think it’s changing in the sense that readers are demanding some level of curation. There’s almost too many different choices. We all know that just by looking at our Facebook feed. So niches are really important. I honestly think that’s why we had so much success because we stumbled into this really tiny niche that nobody else is writing about and that for us at the beginning was weird jobs.

Andrew: So what do you think are some of the niches that somebody could say, “I’m going to open up a WordPress blog and go do?”

Kyle: I have a friend that runs a blog where he reviews different kinds of rye whiskey. It’s such a tiny market of people, but it doesn’t incredibly well, mainly from search traffic because people are Googling these different bottles of wine or bottles of whiskey. I think it can be relatively anything, but you need to find another group that’s just as passionate about it as you are.

Andrew: And how would he make money with rye reviews?

Kyle: I’m sure from sponsorships.

Andrew: There’s enough sponsorship money in those kinds of niches?

Kyle: Something like that, I don’t know if you’re going to make $100 million, but I certainly think you can make a few million dollars doing that, absolutely.

Andrew: Really? What’s his website?

Kyle: I would have to Google that.

Andrew: All right. I might ask you for that afterwards. I love rye. I’ve just discovered rye. I used to be really into scotch. Suddenly I discovered that rye’s like leathery taste, it feels very masculine. I really enjoy sitting down with a good rye. It’s got to be good because crappy rye. . .

Kyle: I haven’t yet explored it. I’m kind of a boring scotch person. I order a Macallan and I stick to my safe lane.

Andrew: That’s a good one, though. That’s a really good one. So let me tell everyone who’s listening if you want to go start one of these sites, Kyle’s got a WordPress site. It’s so easy to install WordPress on any host. But if you go to HostGator, they have one-click install, super easy to get started. Take an idea that you’ve just kind of been noodling away at, something that’s a passion you may not be expecting to make any money with and just start the blog. Start it out, build it out, spend your time on it.

The fact that you’re not looking to make money with it tomorrow actually takes a lot of the pressure off and lets you be more authentic. I started Mixergy as an invitation site. You guys know that. But on the side I said, “Let me just start doing interviews. Actually, I started out by saying, “Let me just write blog posts about connections, about people, about events,” that kind of thing. Then I started adding interviews to it because I already had the blog and it kind of connected. Then I found my passion, and I was on a roll and I killed the other thing I focused on the interviews.

You hear that kind of story from me, you hear it from Kyle, from so many other people. I’m telling you–go start it and then just allow yourself to explore, allow yourself to write about a passion without sweating making money with it overnight and you’re going to see that you’ll feel authentic about it. You’ll feel excited about it. You’ll feel passionate about it. People will eventually start to find you’ll work on finding people as you build it up. HostGator makes it super simple, really inexpensive.

A lot of people I’ve interviewed here have either started on HostGator or are publishing on HostGator right now. Go check them out, HostGator.com/Mixergy. They’ll give you a good price. They’ll give you a Google AdWords offer so you can actually get some traffic to your site. We’ll talk to Kyle about what he’s done to buy some traffic too because he’s experimented a little bit. They’ll make it really easy for you–good tech support, good company, HostGator.com/Mixergy. Think of that Gator, HostGator.com/Mixergy.

Kyle, you were saying that you did all the writing yourself, then you did what I did, which was like I went out and I started looking for writers and it wasn’t easy for me. What was your process?

Kyle: Yeah. So, because I was part of these forums, I thought, “There are other personal finance bloggers here. I’ll ask them to write for me.” That turned out to be one of my first incredible failures.

Andrew: Why do you think that didn’t work out to have them? They’re writing for their own sites?

Kyle: Right. I think two reasons. One, first of all, it’s difficult going from a single-author blog and then introducing a new voice. You have readers that have gotten used to interacting with the same person, and then all of a sudden you’re throwing someone else in the neighborhood. Two is I wasn’t writing about regular personal finance. So I would ask for these other authors to brainstorm for me and I would get an article about, “Five Ways to Fix Your Credit Score.” I didn’t want that on the site. I didn’t think that was different enough, and it wasn’t what I had been writing about.

Andrew: I see. What did you do to find the right writers?

Kyle: I went through many freelancers testing different folks out, then went back to writing on my own for a long time. Then in 2014, I was Googling–this is going to sound sad–I Googled blog management services. I knew I had really started to enjoy the sales side, and I was starting to make a little bit of money and that was taking up a lot of time. So I thought, “It would be great if somebody could run the blog and I could go sell.”

So I found this company that essentially did just that. They were called Socialexis. I cold called and they said, “We might be able to help you.” They gave me that same look everybody gives me when I say I’m with The Penny Hoarder, like, “What the heck is The Penny Hoarder.” But they wrote a test article about TaskRabbit, which is an app you can do chores and make extra money. I thought, “This is perfect. This is exactly the kind of stuff I want to write about. They get me.” Then our relationship just sort of blossomed from there.

Andrew: As you said that, because I can’t just sit still, I Googled blog management services. Top three results, actually number three is Socialexis.

Kyle: There you go.

Andrew: They’re still there. You ended up working with them. Did they actually create a TaskRabbit account the way you would have to see what it was like to actually work for TaskRabbit?

Kyle: They did.

Andrew: They did that?

Kyle: That was part of the deal. So they didn’t have any employees. So the founder, Alexis Grant, had a network of freelancers from her time as a journalist with Houston Chronicle and US News and World Report. So she had this list of freelancers and would go to them and say, “Here’s a job. We’ll give you $100 to try this application and write an article about it.”

Andrew: I see. Now I see where the company name came from, Socialexis is social and Alexis, the two words combined. Now she’s your executive editor, I see.

Kyle: She is. She came aboard full-time as employee number two last June.

Andrew: And you bought the company out. Do you still run it as an independent business?

Kyle: We don’t take any clients through it, no.

Andrew: I see. You guys are the only clients.

Kyle: Yes.,

Andrew: I see. You said you got really into the business side of things. What were the business things you were doing that got you so excited?

Kyle: Well, initially I was selling sponsored posts. So I would work with a company on a flat rate basis, and I had a lot of them starting to come to me. At this point, I was starting to build up an audience that was repetitive, but I also really enjoyed just going out and finding companies that I thought I would write about or I thought I would work for and finding them on LinkedIn or whatever network and sort of cold calling them.

Andrew: Do you remember one of your original wins?

Kyle: I think one that we still work with today and I would say is a top partner I mentioned at the top is Swagbucks.

Andrew: What is Swagbucks?

Kyle: Swagbucks is a loyalty site where they pay you small amounts of money to interact with advertisers, so watch a video or maybe sign up for a free trial. It’s been really popular with our readers. In fact, our readers have made something like $3 million on Swagbucks over the last couple of years.

Andrew: Okay.

Kyle: It was one of my first content partnerships. I can’t remember exactly what they paid me. I want to say it was maybe $150, but we wrote a post about them. Those kinds of things, I thought to myself I can just multiply this by 100, I’ll start talking real numbers.

Andrew: Which most people think, and then they realize multiplying by 100 is really hard. For you, you ended up doing way more than that. Did you always do it on a commission basis?

Kyle: No. In fact, we don’t always do it on a commission basis now, even. Whenever a client comes to us, we first assess their goals. If their goals are conversions, then we will likely put them on that type of money. But if their goal is branding, we work with them on a flat rate basis. We get to do a lot more things than just write a post. We maybe get to create a video or work with them on some interviews or podcasts or whatever. So it just depends on what the client is looking for.

Andrew: You also started messing around with different ways to get people to your site.

Kyle: Yeah.

Andrew: What are some of the experiments that you ran and then what eventually worked?

Kyle: I don’t know exactly what tipped me off to do this, but I did decide early on I was going to spend at last half the money I was making into reinvesting and growing the business. One of the ways that I did that in the beginning was with advertising. I started to realize, especially on some of these pieces that I was earning a commission on, that maybe I could treat it a little bit like I did with the Black Friday sales and make a little bit of money buying traffic to those articles and splitting the difference.

Andrew: Arbitrage, yeah.

Kyle: Yeah. Exactly. So I started experimenting with all kinds of paid models. Some of the earliest for me were Taboola and Outbrain. I lost a lot of money doing this by the way. I estimate I probably have spent $100,000 teaching myself how to make paid ads because there were a lot of failures in the beginning.

After Taboola and Outbrain, that worked for me for a little while and then I started to notice the margins were declining. I started wasting money on Facebook. This is probably 2014. So Facebook advertising, while fast-growing, was still an unknown quantity to a lot of publishers. What I was finding is I was getting really cheap traffic because there wasn’t a lot of competition and Facebook had all this traffic. Again, after wasting a ton of money, I would say after three months I started to realize there was an opening there to really pour some gasoline on what I was doing.

Andrew: And the idea is you buy an ad that brings people to an article that has a story about one of your partners. If someone clicks over and registers with your partner, you get affiliate commissions off of that. There’s also an opportunity for them to join your mailing list, right?

Kyle: Yeah. That’s exactly right. Our goal in this case would be to pay for the click first. So if you were clicking one of our ads, we want to make sure you pay for yourself and maybe even a little bit of profit. Then our secondary goal would be capture you as a permanent reader.

Andrew: I see. Essentially the email address is free if you do it right.

Kyle: Exactly.

Andrew: What did you do that worked with Facebook advertising? Was it just that you were early into Facebook, or was there something about your model that worked?

Kyle: Well, being early helped. I would say we still have a lot of success with Facebook ads and there is a lot of competition. This kind of goes back to the way we write about content. There are a lot of financial sites out there, but very few of them focus on creating shareable content. It’s often more for SEO or for direct traffic. Because we were writing about things that made people chuckle or made them think of somebody that would enjoy hearing about this job, our articles get a lot more shares, I’m comfortable saying, than other financial sites. That also means that our paid ads, we get a little bit cheaper CPCs than a lot of our competition.

Andrew: Because you don’t just get one person, you get maybe one person and their friend every time you buy a click.

Kyle: Exactly.

Andrew: I was looking on SimilarWeb to see where you got your traffic. There are sites like ConsumerWorld.org, Lifehack.org, ChasingFoxes. Do you also do–do you also write for those sites? What’s the connection with them?

Kyle: We don’t. I think those are people that have maybe mentioned an article or maybe syndicated an article.

Andrew: That was it? Okay. I also see something called PennyHoarderBlog.com, but when I went to PennyHoarderBlog.com, I only saw a homepage–what was that?

Kyle: That’s our domain that we send our emails through.

Andrew: Got it. That’s why I saw your email provider, GetResponse 360.

Kyle: Correct.

Andrew: I did find one article on there, subject, “Three Work from Home Jobs that Will Pay You to Play Video Games All Day.” I guess what it is was that one email that you sent out actually got posted on your site, on PennyHoarderBlog.

Kyle: Interesting. It was very possible.

Andrew: Okay. I keep hunting down to see how you’re doing things. What about AdSense? That was original success or one of the first ones.

Kyle: Yeah. I was making $100 to $150 for an article, but I was also making some money from AdSense. If we’re talking maybe 2012, I was making $500 to $1,000 a month now with AdSense. That to me in the early stages, I thought that was the model. I thought that’s how I was going to build this business. I just need a lot more eyeballs and was going to get them to click on a lot more ads.

Then all of a sudden one day, I log into my AdSense account and it says, “You’ve been permanently blocked from AdSense.” My heart sank, even just telling it now, it takes me back. I remember having almost $2,000 in that account, and I reached out to Google and I said, “What’s happening? What did I do wrong? How do I get this money? That’s my rent.” I got this form response back that said, “Sorry, that’s it. We don’t share why. We have the right to take away the funds.”

So, to this day, I have no idea exactly what happened. Google has had a number of problems with click fraud, and I think they’ve been very vigilant about that. I’m sure there’s some bot or something that was clicking on something. That was a tough moment for me. I wasn’t quite sure if I could keep making a business.

Andrew: And today, do you still have that risk or because you sell ads directly to clients, there’s no single point of failure?

Kyle: We definitely have I would say a single point of failure, but we definitely have risk. So display ads is not one of them. That makes up less than five percent of our revenue. We are toying around with the idea of potentially getting rid of them completely next year. There are other risks for us. Facebook is still a large traffic source for us, both on the paid and organization side. So a big part of our strategy next year is diversifying that with some new sources. We think we have some good ideas.

When I say this, you’re going to think this is an interview from 2005. For us, next year is really about SEO and email. We think we’re going to go back to the roots here for two reasons. One, our email list is huge. We think if we had some better content in it, it would take off. Two, on SEO, we started to reach that point now as a publisher that I aspired for so long, where when we publish something, it instantly does well in Google. So we think there could be a big opportunity for us to do a lot more content about things people are searching for.

Andrew: Is SimilarWeb right about your numbers–roughly 20 million monthly visitors?

Kyle: Yes, that’s correct. Last month we had nearly 17 million uniques. That was our best month ever.

Andrew: Unbelievable. They’re saying Facebook is high. Google search number two and then direct as traffic sources, does that sound right?

Kyle: Yeah, that’s correct, although that direct traffic is a little deceiving because so much dark social traffic gets counted as direct.

Andrew: What does that mean?

Kyle: Not just Facebook but Pinterest and Twitter and so forth, the referral source doesn’t always pass correctly through in Google Analytics unless you’re using a tracking tag.

Andrew: I see.

Kyle: Sometimes that gets counted as direct.

Andrew: Okay. What’s the best part of having done all this?

Kyle: When I opened this office last June, I wasn’t really sure–it took me a while to decide I wanted to go back to work. I had started making a comfortable living working in my pajamas at home. I loved that. As somebody who was a little bit introverted, it’s nice having that to myself.

The idea of doing what I did on campaigns, going back and hiring and managing people I wasn’t sure I wanted to take that on. But I’m so grateful I did because one of my favorite parts about this now is the people I get to work with today. All the campaigns I ever worked on, I’ve never worked with a team like this. I’m not just saying that. It’s incredible. We just laugh all day long. If it all goes away, at least I’ll have that. That’s my favorite part of it.

Andrew: Yeah. One of my favorite parts of your site is ThePennyHoarder.com/about. Yeah. It has all the data that I might need in your bio that would help me with this interview, but I like when I scroll down that there’s this .gif of everyone on your team just kind of going through the hallways in such a fun way that I don’t want to tell the audience what’s going on there. Even as I scroll down, images that could just be standard pictures and would look great on a page, somebody turned into a .gif so there’s a little more energy, a little more interest, a little more design in them.

As I’ve gone through the internet archives to watch your company evolve, that’s one of the most interesting parts. It went from this logo that was a penny with a smiley face that someone drew on it to now this really nice, professionally beautiful designed operation where the little details are so cared for. That’s an amazing thing to have done.

Kyle: Thank you. I appreciate that. We have a lot more work to do. The about page for us, we’re working on a site redesign. That was our first rollout of what we think the new site will look like. I’m glad you like that so much because that’s sort of the direction we hope to be going.

Andrew: Yeah, I like it a lot. Congratulations on what you’ve built here. Anyone who’s listening to me should go check out the website, see it for yourself. It’s of course ThePennyHoarder.com. I’d suggest going to ThePennyHoarder.com/About and then clicking around from there. Of course, my two sponsors, the first one is the company that will actually allow you to do something similar to what Kyle has done. Frankly, a lot of people have on Mixergy just tried out little side projects and then they turn into something much bigger than they expect.

So take that side project idea. Maybe it’s not rye. Maybe it’s bourbon. I do not like bourbon as much. Maybe you do. Turn it into a bourbon site. Maybe there’s something else you’re fascinated by. Go to HostGator.com/Mixergy and get started. And of course if you need a developer, if you need a designer, if you need one of the best of the best, people who will up your game, I urge you to do what so many people who I’ve interviewed have done, just write down the name Toptal.com/Mixergy, where you can hire the best of the best.

Thanks so much for doing this interview, Kyle.

Kyle: Thank you. I appreciate it so much.

Andrew: You bet. Thank you all for being a part of it. Bye, everyone.


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