I’ve known James for a while. I have had the joy of watching him grow from basically an “adsense” guy to an full fledged affiliate marketer to finally releasing books. I wanted to do an interview with him to discuss the changes he has made over the past few years and the evolution process that led to him being able to hang out with his kids and have lots of dates with his wife. He currently blogs at the average genius.
In many ways, James is what many marketers want to have in their life; autonomy and a lifestyle that allows them to make the rules themselves.
1. Tell us a little about yourself; your life, what you do, and what is important to you….
Well, let’s see…I could bore your readers to death by saying I want more free-time and money, I think we all could use a little of both…so I’ll skip to what makes me stand out from the most people your readers may know.
To start with, I have a big family. There are 7 kids that have resulted from me marrying my high school sweetheart, and yes they’re all ours, no step-kids or kidnappings.Sometimes I mention I have 8 kids, the first of them was with my high school not-sweetheart, if I can say that without making myself look too much like a schmuck. Everyone plays the schmuck sometimes, though – and if my daughter’s reading this: yes I do love you dearly.
My oldest child was adopted by her maternal grandparents when I was 19, subject for another story all in itself (I bring it up because I confuse people with my oddly inconsistent census: sometimes I mention 7 kids, other times 8).
We’re also a quirky homeschooling family (aren’t all homeschooling families quirky?), and I’ve not had a job since July of 2010. People often wonder how a family of 9 makes it without a job, and in my case it’s online entrepreneurship.
I’m fortunate to be a stay-at-home daddy and husband to a stay-at-home wife, who doesn’t bring home the bacon, she just cooks it for us (and no I’m not a sexist pig, I don’t think I am anyway, but I do love bacon).
That tips my hand at what’s important to me: family, making memories with them and passing what little wisdom I’ve gained into my kids through spending good amounts of time together.
Some people wince when I say all that, thinking I’m in some sort of daycare hell, but it’s entirely a different story when you love the kids in the daycare, and they’re all your kin folk.
Yes, I just said, “kin folk” like I lived 50 years ago. I may also use words like “thither” and “yon” just for kicks.
I’m not living what you’d call the “internet lifestyle,” no fancy yachts or golden golf clubs here – but staying at home is a dream come true that hasn’t always been possible for us.
As a writer-turned-affiliate marketer, I can spend more time with my family and get paid all the same.
Another thing that’s important to me is people – and I bring that up because most entrepreneurs I’ve run across in real life could give a rip about other people. I think it’s also what makes people like Seth Godin, Chris Brogan and Pat Flynn stand head and shoulders above many other business leaders.
They seem to take an actual interest in people and lead in such a way they’re not viewing people as commodities as such. It strikes a stark contrast to most in the marketing world, especially in the scammy internet marketing world.
So put me on record as saying I actually do care about people, more than I see the top IM “gurus” seem to.
To summarize what I’m about, you could call me a family man who does all he can to support the stay-at-home lifestyle 7 kids and a wife demands. I’m a writer by trade and choice, it’s a dream come true, but what I’m about primarily is financing the time I’d love to spend with my family.
2. What got you involved into marketing on the internet in the first place? What methods were you using to market and how successful were you initially?
This question is a bit of a doozy since I have a story behind the madness, found at my blog:
Essentially I “wound up in a ditch” after a failed business venture moved me 3,000 miles from my native California to a sleepy town in North Carolina just south of Charlotte, and from that ditch and near bankruptcy I was offered a quasi-partnership with my brother-in-law in Idaho.
He has a knack for business and began yet another startup for his family, and wanted some help growing and managing the business. It ended up that I became 90% of the labor for the company, from marketing to daily operations, and the business grew.
What also grew was a slow realization that I was being given an increasingly shorter and shorter end of the stick. Money was getting worse and culminated in a $12,000/year paycut based on a fiction concocted to boost “the family’s” business bottom line at my expense…
Anyhow, it’s all water under the bridge at this point, but integral to the story all the same: I had an incredible defecit, and one more child (our 7th) was on the way, so my brother-in-law introduced me to my solutions.
This included working Elance gigs to bolster my lost income, as well as marketing the business he owned to such an extent that I’d often wind up at home at 10 pm on many occasions trying to squeeze in winning just one more customer.
During that time, I really didn’t need to think too much about it. Reality hit like a ton of bricks: I was going to burn out trying to carry on that way.
I’d come home late, work Elance gigs and build sites targeting AdSense as an income model, and leave early for my day job. Little time was left for what I value most: family time, but it was sink or swim and it was working financially.
What I came to realize in short order was that I was sick of being taken advantage of in the job market. My thinking being that if my own kin would stoop to using me like a machine, nothing but the law was stopping others from doing the same.
Only problem was, if I didn’t work late, I wouldn’t make the money needed to survive, and my fledgling online enterprise didn’t leave me much time to myself. I was constantly publishing, marketing my own business by winning Elance gigs and winning my brother business by knocking on doors in the Boise and Eagle area of Idaho.
So time wasn’t on my side, but I slowly saw my AdSense account growing…trouble was, I was depending on Google and SEO to keep afloat and keep growing. If SEO stopped working, I was up the creek further than paddle-range…
The other trouble about my situation was that AdSense grew, but the business model stank to the ozone layer: I was supposed to build 100′s of mini-sites and make a pittance from each a month. The money grew too slowly, and as many have discovered, Google doesn’t owe anybody a pay check.
See, for example, this piece from a well-known AdSense publisher:
But at that time, all I knew was that this mythic “passive income” was very real to me, even if it was a slow go. I knew I just needed to increase the passive income and I’d be Scott-free of the rat race, full of greedy rats willing to treat people like the Civil War never happened.
3. Are there any things that you did when you first started that you still do in relation to your business?
Over-analyze my competition, now more than usual and that’s a chronic habit…
I also try to keep my nose and ear to the ground. I’m willing to learn new things, especially now after Panda and Penguin sent clear messages that Google’s a lot smarter than affiliates have given them credit for in times past.
So yes, I do still look to SEO for traffic, at least I’m experimenting, but right now I’ve made more changes than kept things the same from when I started out. I’ve had to adapt, but that’s a good thing.
4. We all have turning points in our businesses. At what point did you get that ‘a-ha’ moment where things started to gel and you could see that this may work for you? Have you had more than one ‘aha’ moment?
Good question – I’ve had a lot of turning points. I think the first was when the Elance money and AdSense money were adding up, but my time in the day was running out. The “a-ha” moment there was realizing that client work (for me) wasn’t in my future.
Of course that may change, but I have a passive income addiction that parallels my addiction to independence. I still have this knack to associate client-based work with what began to feel like oppression of my life and time, but I simply tried to burn the candle at both ends and in the middle…left a bad taste in my mouth.
Things really started to gel when I had began seeing my sites rank at the top of Google. Then I knew it was just a matter of getting a better income opportunity afoot – something other than AdSense…
On a lark (or a bluejay?) I decided to try affiliate marketing. I didn’t do info-products or anything, I just wanted to sell physical products from my number one AdSense site.
That thing was ugly as a dog’s breakfast, I mean after the dog’s contracted the stomach flu – but then I made sales.
I figured out that ranking a site plus affiliate marketing (in my case on Commission Junction) was a goldmine…wasn’t until later that I realized Google had my business in a potential choke-hold with Panda in 2011. I lost rankings and a few thousand dollars.
So the “a-ha” moment came crystal clear for me with Penguin: Google totally decimated that site’s traffic. I was nearly 100% dependent on SEO traffic from Google, organic traffic or whatever you want to term it.
This is a recent “a-ha” moment that was theoretical in the beginning of this year, but it’s a ton of bricks of reality that I’ve simply got a traffic problem. Google-dependence has become for me a cancer and I’m at stage 4.
The good news is that they don’t own traffic – just SEO-dependent affiliates like myself who needed a wakeup call like this to take action. So my latest “a-ha” moment is more like, “mwa-ha-ha-ha!” only it’s not me laughing.
It doesn’t sting too much, though, since this time of year my best sites are in niches that don’t fare well in summer – but it is a wakeup call.
Depending on Google for traffic is like depending on a tyrant of a boss for your economic freedom. Sure, you can have it for a while, but they own you and you won’t like the shackles.
5. Your books. I loved your first book, Duct Tape SEO. You certainly have a way with words. I know that you consider yourself a writer (and probably a writer first, marketer second). Could you tell me some of the things that you learned writing your first book? What would you do differently today, if you could go back in time?
Thanks, Leo – you should love it, you inspired the thing in many ways.
And you’re right about my being a writer first and marketer second – if I had my way, I’d be the next J.K. Rowling or Harper Lee (or Stephen King or Jane Austen, whatev’s). But I’ve always been a marketer, always trying to “convince and convert” so to speak.
When I was writing Duct Tape SEO, I was writing for a couple of reasons: to get paid (obviously) and to build my brand.
Having a book under my belt meant a lot to me, it afforded a place where I could point at what I’d done and in essence prove I had a voice as an internet marketer and SEO. That was important for me, but I didn’t really think too hard on the follow-up.
There was no “master plan” so to speak, but a need to publish was always in me.
I waffled back and forth with where to publish, and I was going to go with Amazon and do a Kindle book but scrapped it at the last moment with some other advice from potential affiliates. Honestly I wish I’d gone with the Amazon route instead.
The book made me money, don’t get me wrong – but the big lesson for me has been the importance of brand equity. Having a foothold in the information market, I think that going for the short-term win of getting money versus the long-term goal of building a brand and extending my reach beyond the Warrior Forum and places like it was short-sighted.
Being an “actual author” with a real Kindle book, ISBN and all that – that holds credibility, gives you weight in a niche. Honestly I think I missed out on that, but all it means is that I have a future project when I update the book.
Another thing I’d change is to include video demonstrations and actual test websites to show my readers what I was talking about – but at the time I didn’t have the software to do video, nor the skillset needed, so I published the PDF instead.
That again is another line on my to-do list.
A big lesson I learned is that I have a sudden love for editors, the sort you pay and not the sort where you ask 100 friends to get back to you on all your typos. That was fun!
6. How did you market the book? What did you learn from this?
I marketed the book dismally, I’m afraid. I depended on the high hopes of some people plugging the book that didn’t wind up plugging it – but they were longshots at best. They weren’t people I had prior contact with on any real scale.
So I prepared myself for rejection, which a lot of marketers already know is a huge obstacle but nobody wants to admit exists – and I went down my list of people I knew who had a presence online.
With Duct Tape SEO, I already knew my own network wasn’t huge. I’m not part of “the Syndicate” or any guru-tribes of marketers (not that I want to be part of the Syndicate: I read too much Salty Droid), so I figured this would be a hit-or-miss venture.
Knowing the size of my network and email list was small, I didn’t expect the book to do as well as it did – it was met with modest success, but success all the same. After exhausting people I knew in the internet marketing or SEO space, I emailed my own list and blogged about the book’s release.
I opened up a website dedicated to the book’s sales at http://DuctTapeSEO.net and opened up a WSO (Warrior Special Offer) on the WarriorForum.com, knowing a lot of my target audience would be there.
Problems arose, predictably: the pricing of the guide was too high for that venue – they expect something less than $10 for a PDF, at least to start with. My price was $67 normally but $47 as a WSO – and I sold enough to make a few thousand at that price.
All in all, the book didn’t take off like wildfire, but it was nominated for best small business book of 2011 in some circles and made it into the hands of people who’ve thanked me for it. I’m happy with the result, but know it could’ve been marketed better.
The big lesson for me was how important networking really is, but I made other mistakes like:
- I didn’t network with people with the intention of doing business together.
- Leveraging friends in the business isn’t the same as doing joint ventures, so if I wanted to make money, I needed to have some network established. Still working on that.
- I didn’t have a big list (still don’t, really). Building a list has been perpetually on my to-do list, but it’s a goal of mine in the internet marketing space to have one.
- The inner perfectionist in me won out and I was more than meticulous with the book…as a result, it took about 2.5 months to get it to market and considering that, I’m not entirely impressed with the money it’s made. I’m happy with the resulting product, but not happy with how long it took and the decent, not great earnings it’s made.
Having said all that, looking back I can’t say I really was ready to publish. I should’ve waited a bit longer and made the bold move of marketing on Amazon primarily for the “street cred” more than the bottom line dollar amount.
And since money was a big goal of the project, I should’ve read my target audience better. Since I wound up on the Warrior Forum, my price was too high – but I justified it with the amount of content and bonus material I manually put together (none of it was fluff)…
Still, on my second book, I managed to sell outrageously more due to the network of people involved and the price was right: started off at $7 and went up from there. That book, CJ Tactics (http://cjtactics.com), held its own lessons – but I definitely learned a bit about marketing strategy.
Knowing the target market and their hot-button price points makes all the difference. So did having a network to deal in…With Duct Tape SEO, I relied a bit too heavily on my own name and small brand equity.
It paid off decently, as I’ve said, but CJ Tactics showed me the real earnings potential of my work. You live and learn.
7. How was your second book different from the first in terms of marketing?
I touched on this above a bit. There was an established network in place – I JV’d (joint ventured) with a well-known “Warrior” at WarriorForum.com named Sam England. Basically I got lazy, and let him run the WSO entirely – later that proved to be a huge mistake on my part, but what went right was this:
Sam had connections. He had a brand (has) on the forum, and a network of people who sell their WSO’s and later barter them around for “bonuses” to sell each other’s products.
There are some colorful nouns and adjectives people may use at this point – like “good ol’ boys” and whatnot – call it what you will, but Sam has a community of people that have big email lists.
They all have reach, their own customers, and a certain level of trust from the forum members. Personally, I don’t hang out in any forum too often other than reading the occasional thread or buying products I’m interested in: I’m in and out of the Warrior Forum, mostly as a consumer…
But that’s where Sam and other successful Warriors differ from me.
They’ve done the time to build a community, a network of connections – and if you can connect with the right people, who know people, who know people…well then you can kick some doors down and make some real cheddar so to speak.
I teamed up with Sam primarily out of laziness, and because I knew he was connected – but my mistake was not getting our agreement in writing (that was a newbie mistake and I take full responsibility for the results). We agreed over Skype conversations – and that’s pretty stupid considering I only just “met” Sam right before the WSO, hoping we could do business together.
I let my laziness at that point get the better of me, and didn’t ask the right questions or dig too deeply, but went on thinking we’d reached an agreement of 50/50, splitting the profits, or 25/25/50 in the case of affiliates.
Instead (and I haven’t made this public yet, it’s embarrassing but important for others to learn from my silly mistake), Sam thought I just wanted to get the email opt-ins to build a list with, and that was my cut from the book.
End result for me: I worked on CJ Tactics for about 2 months and made around $200 total. That’s enough to make me want to jump into some lava after taking a gasoline bath. I didn’t actually get the email list, either – but those parts of the story are between me and Sam, and I don’t want to trash-talk the guy.
Honestly, the mistakes were glaring and they were sophomoric, all on my part – but the lessons were these:
- Get it in writing. This ain’t Mayberry and Andy ain’t the sheriff no more…DOH!
- Having it “in” with someone that has an established network works – but it’s best to keep full control of your own products (facepalm moment, anyone?).
- Just in case you missed it: networking with the right people works like Nutella on bananas…I was surprised to find the WSO sold over $20,000. I couldn’t believe it.Now if my math is correct, I should really be whining about missing out on that money – but again, I didn’t totally miss out.People now know my books convert, my credibility is established, so it’s not an entire loss – just a whallop of a wakeup call.
8. I am new to internet marketing and am looking to you for advice. What one piece of advice would you give me?
Start with your areas of actual expertise before you want people to buy from you. The whole Google Penguin and Panda chaos wouldn’t be such an issue if people were marketing where they were an actual authority – gaming authority through link manipulation or relying on Google for traffic isn’t a viable business…
Personally I think it stems from people trying to fake something that isn’t there: some feigned expertise (therefore they can’t get genuine links or traffic apart from gaming Google, for example).
People who are really successful are that way because they’re really experts in their field. Even if they’re selling books on fitness, or some fad diet – take the Paleo community, for example.
There’s a blog called NomNomPaleo.com that we go to for a lot of recipes (and they rock). My wife has had 7 kids and she doesn’t look like she’s had one child…my point being that the Paleo community of blogs are established by authorities in their field.
NomNomPaleo is ran by a woman who has the physique to prove she’s legit. She has recipes to knock your tastebuds out of the park. She’s not faking her expertise, she’s the real deal.
Same with a local pair of ladies here in the Boise area that run “Fabulessly Frugal” – a coupon-oriented site. They’ve recently been featured on the Today Show and I want to say the New York Times ran a piece on their success, or some other well-known news rag…
Anyhow, they’re not faking their expertise in couponing and budgeting, they hold seminars that cost $5 for people to learn their uncanny budget magic…point is: they made a business out of something they were expert in.
Google can’t take away their success, and it’s because they’re real experts for something that’s in demand.
Start with who you are as a person, your skills and your passions – and trail blaze your own business.
9. What would you, personally, do different if you knew everything that you know now and had to start over from scratch?
Honestly I think I’m about to get myself into a pickle by being honest, but I wouldn’t do SEO the way I was.
I don’t mean what I wrote about in Duct Tape SEO, for the record – what I mean is spinning articles, submitting automated links via blog networks like ArticleRanks and such…I’d start off and stick to manual methods of link building and brand building.
In reality, coloring outside the lines of what Google espouses is something I think every online business needs to experiment with, but only in test cases – not your main money-making websites. Google says one thing, but what works is often another – and I won’t be done testing their thresholds in SEO now or ever to be honest.
But what I wish I’d done is relied on mostly “whitehat” methods of linking. I espouse that in Duct Tape SEO, but in CJ Tactics I mention using blog networks (I need to update my books to reflect the major Penguin update)…and about a month or so after making the majority of the sales, Google penalized all the major blog networks like BuildMyRank and others.
To be perfectly honest, I wish I hadn’t relied so heavily on SEO traffic in the first place, whitehat or otherwise. Giving Google, a billions-of-dollars-strong Goliath, the reigns of my traffic was plainly suicidal.
What I’d do differently if I had a genie in a bottle or a time machine is to rely on Google for less than 20% of my traffic. Sadly, they made it much too easy to game the system and I can’t complain my sites have been hammered.
What’s weird, though, is the sites where I didn’t even begin major link-building (outside of manual links) took a nosedive as well.
What I’ve learned since 2009 is that Google is as fickle a giant as you can imagine, and I’m not going to be worrying about them much moving forward.
It’s sort of like giving Stalin your farm and complaining he burned the barn down – not too smart on my part.
10. What are you doing these days? What’s next?
Well it’s nearly June and I’m sadly just now starting to work. It’s a good thing and a bad thing – good because I could afford to spend lots of time with my family and pursuing the life of a video gaming addict (a life I’m familiar with in years gone by)…and bad because I didn’t make any progress business-wise.
It’s been relaxing, but a rude wakeup call from Google Penguin made me realize I can’t hibernate forever and expect business to grow magically on its own.
(When I figure that out, though, I’ll let you all know.)
So I’m working on my next project: a course on Google-independent traffic that doesn’t involve breaking the bank. This is in direct response to the Google Penguin update – but it’s not a “How to beat Penguin” or “How to game Google by staying under the radar” type of thing.
I want free from the Google tyranny on traffic, and in large part my inspiration that this is even feasible stems from my successful (but quirky) launch of CJ Tactics. That’s just one part of my course, but it’s what I’m working on now.
The tentative title is “Traffic Tactics,” and will feature an actual interview with a live penguin. (OK, scratch that last part.)
11. Aliens have sent you to a remote island and will only let you take one personal possession. What’s it going to be?
I don’t own any personal possessions that are that important to me, to be honest. I’d want to take my wife – but then she’s not my property per se, and I wouldn’t want her to blame me for sending her away from the kids to be with me on some remote island…wouldn’t be right for her anyway, much less the kids…
So let’s see…I suppose my bottle of Glenfiddich single malt Scotch, the 40-year stuff…that would be on the list of top priorities (but I don’t want people thinking I sit around and drink all day: I don’t, so I’ll pick something else with a bit less of a Hemmingway feel).
I’d want to take along my copy of Lord of the Flies, so I knew what to expect as time dragged on. One of the best books on being marooned on an island if you ask me.
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