I’ve been in the online content business for a ridiculously long time. I was on the Internet at age 15 (1992) and on local BBS systems before that. Always writing, always debating big concepts.
Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I took it for granted. Maybe I failed to see the Internet for what it was, and the opportunities it held. It was a habit, a way to explore the world outside my small town, a place to play games and chat with people from far away. It was not, as I looked at it then, place where I could build something.
My shortsightedness cost me. I had a lot of pieces of the puzzle in place, but I didn’t see the picture. Still, as the years went on, I built the skills I’d need, even if I wasn’t using them. I know how to write, I’m conversant in most social media platforms, I’ve done a decent job building audiences, and I understand the fundamentals of shareable content.
In a way, I sort of lucked out in gaining these experiences. It wasn’t my plan, I just gravitated toward what I was best at. I took jobs because I needed the money, but I always tried to find things that would utilize some portion of my natural creative gifts. I did a lot of writing. A lot of graphic design. A lot of social media.
I think it first dawned on me what I was capable of when I wrote a piece in 2013. It was a topical piece – something that was going on in the news – but I saw the opportunity in the story and I went for it. It wasn’t my first high-traffic piece for the website I was writing for at the time, but it was the biggest. The post picked up over 300,000 views in 24 hours, and was shared…everywhere. Links to the story wound up in other news outlets, including pickup on the Drudge Report. It was, at the time, the single biggest post in that website’s history.
Holy crap. I thought. I can do this. I can create content that draws a significant audience.
That thought sat brewing in the back of my mind for months. I wasn’t sure yet what to do with it, though. Then, in 2014, something clicked. I realized I had done so many jobs in the online content business that I could essentially do the work of a team of people. I could do all the work necessary to launch a full-fledged publication that looked just as professional as the established ones.
They always tell fiction writers, write the book you want to read. Well, I decided to start the website I wanted to read. I combined all of my disparate knowledge and experience and started OnePeterFive on a wing and a prayer. 18 months later, that website — a tax-exempt organization that subsists primarily on reader donations — is on track to exceed $100,000 in total revenue by the end of its first 24 months online.
That may sound like a lot of money, but it isn’t. It’s paid about half the bills it needs to pay, considering the amount of time I’ve put in. Still, it’s a good start. It’s proof of concept. I took a vision, an idea, and made it into something that people believed in enough to invest in. I was floored by that. I’d never done something like that before. I had always worked for someone else, always let another person assign my value as a worker. We received a donation from a foundation just a few months after we launched. It was a check for $10,000. I was blown away. It was the seed capital that kept me believing we could do it. If those people hadn’t had faith in what we were doing, we might not have lasted the winter. But they did, and now we’ve come so far.
Which brings me back to my epiphany: I’m a terrible planner and administrator. My website is dedicated to the ultra-niche topic areas that interest the small portion of Catholics who identify themselves as traditional, and who see a crisis in the Church. If I can do what we’ve done so far with these limitations, what could I do if I got smart and shored up my weaknesses?
What could you do?
Enter James Altucher. He’s a man who has had it all and lost it all, several times. And I’m talking tens of millions of dollars. Most recently, he’s built a content business around his personal brand. James is an unlikely hero. He looks like the consummate nerd. He has bad hair. He has a nerd voice. He can be uncomfortable and awkward and his stock in trade is “TMI.” He tells some absolutely awful stories I never wanted to hear.
You see, James is a guy who has had his ass kicked by life, and then life took his lunch money. Several times. But he survived it. He learned from it. And so, his website is a collection of painfully personal stories of love, loss, hard lessons, and how he survived all of it. He also podcasts, interviewing the most successful people he can get in touch with, and always asking them about how they got there. About the bad moments. About the times they wanted to give up.
James’ entire mission, in my opinion, is his own survival. But he’s realized that everyone else is trying to survive, too. So he’s turned the things he’s learned, the things he’s curious about, the little tricks he’s picked up along the way, into a business. A business that’s about helping people to make the kind of decisions that allow them to live the lives they want to live. He’s also written a couple of books on the same topics — large amounts of which he has given away for free. His whole emphasis is on “choosing yourself,” a phrase that has less to do with selfishness and more to do with prioritizing your own path to success in a world that sees you as dispensable. Some of the concepts Altucher promotes seem like the only sensible way to survive in an unstable economy and contracting workforce.
I’ve been reading James for years, but in 2015, he re-focused. He created something new on the audience he had already built. And in his first 9 months online, his business generated $10 million in revenue, and $1 million in profit.
In a podcast with the online tech wizards and content consultants at Contently, he explains how he did it:
I’m going to have to listen to this a couple times to catch everything. The biggest thing for me that stood out about what James did? He built something that brought in enough money to hire the people he needs to do the things he’s not good at — something I desperately need.
You see, as a man of faith, I believe I have to work on perfecting myself and overcoming my sins. But in business, trying to force yourself to be someone you’re not and do things you’re not good at is a recipe for failure. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but I think it’s absolutely vital. You can spend your life beating yourself up for what you suck at, or you can pay someone who doesn’t suck at those things to do them so you can shine in the areas where your talents are strongest.
Build on your strengths. Delegate everything else.
If you’re trying to figure out how to freelance or make money on the side through an online business, or you just want to do better at building the brand you already have, I think this podcast may be of value to you. I get no kickbacks or referral fees for sharing it. I have no association with Altucher or Contently. I just think it’s good info, and deserves to be shared.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it in the comments.