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J.D. Roth started his blog as a hobby in 2001. Now, his blog has almost a million monthly visitors—and continues to attract more. J.D. has become a bit of a renaissance man, going from working in a box factory, to now being recognized by Time Magazine as one of the Time’s top 25 bloggers.
So how did he do it? How J.D. grow his site—without even intending to? What psychological tricks did he use to build a business out of a personal web journal?
I sat down with J.D. to ask the tough questions, and his insights provided a ton of information. I’m sure you’re going to love this interview.
J.D. has been a huge inspiration for me, and you’re going to learn a ton of info from him. Below, you’ll see a list of things to listen out for–and a full transcript of the conversation.
Transcript of the Podcast Episode
JD: Sure. Well, hey, I’m JD Roth. And, as Maneesh says, I write at GetRichSlowly.org, not .com, .org. We can talk about whether you should get a .org or a .com for your blog. And, I’m a lifelong resident of the Portland area. And, yeah it’s great to have visitors from down south.Maneesh: So, JD is actually was one of TIME Magazine’s top 25 most influential bloggers last year. And, it’s amazing to see like somebody I’ve been following us since many years ago, get up to that rank. And, so anyway, I wanted to ask JD a few questions. And I know that a lot of you guys had a lot of questions about personal finance and about building a successful blog. So JD, tell me a little bit about like your blogging method. Like how many posts do you write a day? What kind of posts do you try to write?
JD: Okay. Well, my method has changed over the years. First of all, I’ve been blogging for a long time. I’ve been blogging since before blog was even a word. I started keeping a web journal in 1997 to chronicle my weight lost, my attempted weight lost. And, I started a personal blog in 2001 and that eventually morphed into a personal finance blog. So, along the way I’ve had a lot of different ways of blogging. And, it used to be that I would just, I would write when I felt like writing and I would post and that was it. And so sometimes I would post 8, 9-10 times a week. Sometimes I would post once a week. When I started Get Rich Slowly, I continued that pattern. I just posted rather irregularly. But it grew really quickly and I had an audience and I felt this obligation to the audience. And I felt like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to produce content, people are reading. I’ve got to put content out there.” And so I got into this habit where for a long time I thought I had to post twice a day and then once a day on weekends. So, I had to do twelve posts a week. And, it’s a lot of pressure to do twelve posts a week.Maneesh: How long were each of this posts?
JD: Well, it depended, I mean, when I was doing twelve posts a week, I gave myself permission to have shorter posts, so some of them would be maybe 200-250 words. But most of them were, like now where I’m doing about a thousand words a post. And, but what I found is, you know, I would aim for the twelve posts a week and then I would, I felt really bad like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve only put up 10 this week. I’m a failure.” And, so I decided to change my perspective. This was in 2008 I think, I said, “Okay.” I actually sat down and I thought about this because I was feeling bad about blogging and I thought “What can I do to feel better?” And I said, “Alright, I’m going to aim for one post a day and maybe do weekends.” So that gave me, I was giving myself permission to do just five or seven posts. And, the reality of the situation was I kept producing the same amount as I was producing before which is about 10 posts a week. But instead of feeling like a failure because I didn’t get twelve, I felt good because I was getting five or seven. I mean it was, I was aiming for five or seven but getting 10.Maneesh: So, you were setting your standards lower to achieve better.
JD: Yeah, I know.
Maneesh: But it worked.
JD: Yeah. It’s a psychological trick. It works.
Maneesh: At the end of the day twelve posts is a lot of posts for a week.
JD: Yes. And so now, I mean, we’re further on than I was in 2008. You know, 3 or 4 years later, Get Rich Slowly has become some sort of a business. It is a business. There’s no question that it is a business and I feel like I’ve said a lot of what I’ve had to say for the Get Rich Slowly audience. And then there are other audiences I want to explore. So I’m writing in other venues. And so, a lot of my writing energy is going there. But I still want to provide content for the people who read Get Rich Slowly. So, I brought in additional writers with their staff writers at Get Rich Slowly to produce content. So we still aim, we want to have a post every weekday sometimes two posts and one post on Sunday. But there are staff writers, I’m writing, I’m only aiming for one post a week now and sometimes I do two or three. And then, I’ve also, what’s been really valuable for me is to go towards reader generated content and by that I mean, every Friday, most Fridays, I try to have a reader questions. Somebody’s sending a question about how to handle their finances, should they pay off their mortgage for example. And so, I’ll respond with my feelings on it, my opinions and then opened it up for reader discussion. The readers love it and then every Sunday I post a reader’s story, a story that a reader has sent in about how they’ve handle their finances, how they’ve been successful, how they failed and to me, from what I can tell, this is the feature the readers actually like the most, just reading what other readers are doing, not what I, I mean, they’ve had enough of what I’ve done with my money. They want to hear what other people are doing with. And this is actually I think going to be the launching point for my next book is what other people do with their money.
Maneesh: That’s really interesting. We’ll talk a lot about your other venues and your other books soon. But I’m wondering, like from, for a new blogger, somebody who has just started, you told me that, when you first launched your blog, you basically had, most of your readers were friends and family who were coming from the other blogs. I’m interested in knowing exactly how you got from 2002 to 2006. How did you go from barely any readers on your blog to suddenly having over 500,000 uniques? That is really interesting to me. So, what kind of organic growth and what kind of marketing methods did you use to get up there?
JD: Well, first of all, as we talked about last night, I’m the world’s worst marketer. Your brother Ramit might be the world’s best marketer. I’m the polar opposite. I’m not very good marketer. I’m not good at self promotion. So for me, the way I have gone about growth. First of all, I’m very much a person who believes that content is king. I mean, that’s kind of old school I know to say content is king and a lot of people say, “No. No. You got to do the SEO.” And this, that the other thing. But for me, content is king. I’ve always been about the content. I want to produce content. And, it’s not just producing information that will help people but I like to tell stories. I think it’s very important to tell stories because people relate to stories. And, it gives them some sort of reference point to understand, “Oh, this is how I could implement something in my own life or whatever.” So as far as the actual growth goes, when I started Get Rich Slowly in 2006, it was April 15th, 2006, most of my readers were family and friends. But I was fortunate that, because I’ve been on the internet for a while, I had some motherly influential readers and friends, people who ran other sites and who are familiar with my writing and they started reading the blog and they’d mention it. And then I was an active member of other communities, certain other communities, for example, I was a very active member on a site called “metafilter.com.” And, there was a mechanism on MetaFilter to share in a non-spamming way what projects you’re working on. So I shared, “Oh, I’m starting a site about personal finance.” And, the members of that community came and they helped, at the very beginning, they helped spread the word. And by doing this, by leveraging my existing online relationships and not, again in a non-spamming way, just in a natural way, the site was able to grow. And, because people like, I still don’t know why people like what I write. But because they like what I was writing then, especially about money, they spread the word and people came and they stayed and it just grew from there.
Maneesh: So, I think it’s really cool the way that you started off with the community readers that followed you and you sort of helped provide value to this community, offers things that they wanted to see and they sort off organically helped you grow. Can you tell me a little bit about the like, how was the speed of growth? That’s interesting to me because the way that I’ve seen it happen is that people will put in two, three, four years of work and then suddenly something happens and they explode. Did you have any explosive point or was it kind of linear growth?
JD: No. There were, it kind of grew in fits in starts and it still grows in fits in starts. Within a couple of months, it started on April 15th, I guess it was by the end of June, I had a couple of thousand readers, a couple of thousand subscribers which having started some blogs since then, I would love at those blogs to get to a couple of thousands subscribers. I tend to get about 500-600 install. But then Digg was very big back then. Digg was huge. And I didn’t know about Digg until one day at the end of June, I posted some article about something inconsequential, I don’t remember what it was and I was out mowing the lawn. And, like many bloggers, I’m obsessed with stats tracker. I used to track my stats all the time. And, I’ve been getting a few hundred hits a day and I came in from mowing the lawn and I’d had a few thousand in the past hour, I was like, “Holy Cat! What is going on? Where did thousands come from? I don’t get thousands.” And, from that point on, that brought other readers that were influential and from that point on, it would grow on fits and starts, every time that the site got on Digg, the readership would grow by a few hundred or a thousand subscribers. And then, very soon I got my first media mention in the New York Times and that brought some subscribers. Although, media mentions, a lot of bloggers they really want to get into outside media, they want to get in television or radio or newspaper. And from my experience, it’s not really a great way for growth because you want to get mentioned on the big internet sites because internet readers are reading on the internet. If people are listening on the radio, they’re not going to go to your site.
Maneesh: They’re not going to take the time to type it in?
JD: No. You might get one or two readers from my experience.
Maneesh: But did you start using, for example, you see on a lot of blogger’s pages they’ll add like on the top right section, a list of all the media that they’ve been in, so let’s say, featured in the New York Times, featured in NBC, did you do anything like that with after your New York Times post?
JD: No. I didn’t. It took me a long, long time to create a media page and even now, I think now I do have something up there. Well, the Time Magazine thing is up there for sure. But, no, it took forever.
Maneesh: Okay. So that’s an interesting point.
JD: But I think it’s good to do it though. Just because I didn’t do it, I mean, again, I’m the world’s worst marketer.
Maneesh: I mean it’s interesting that you say the world’s worst marketer when you told me last night you have something like hundreds of thousands of uniques a month. So, you can’t be that bad of a marketer. But it sounds to me like you want to do marketing so much. It’s just trying to provide value that your reader’s actually wanted.
Maneesh: And so even when you were getting on Digg, when you were getting on, I’m assuming you’re on Reddit a few times. It sounds like that.
Maneesh: Did you ever actively write articles you thought would get to those sites?
JD: Yes. I mean, for a time, I think everyone was getting sucked into the idea and I think many bloggers still do, they’re sucked into the idea that, “Oh, I need to write to try to get picked up by a big site, a Digg or a Reddit or whatever” and to be honest that was never ever successful. I think there was one time that I wrote an article that was specifically aimed at Digg. It was called “Lifestyles of the Rich and Stupid.” It was an April 1st article about people who had earned a lot of money and then squandered it away. And, that one went big on Digg. And, it was specifically aimed at Digg. But that was the only one that I ever tried to do that actually worked.
Maneesh: Okay. But did you ever try to do any that failed?
JD: Yeah, I did many. I spent all this time crafting this big list of whatever, 20 ways to make ten thousand dollars in a year or whatever.
Maneesh: 25 ways that Digg is better than Reddit.
JD: And, those never worked. I mean, it just failed and then I’d come in and from a day at the office and I’d have some mundane article. I can’t think of an example right now like how I drive a thirteen year old car and it saves me all this money or whatever. And, it would have gone big on Digg and I’m like, tsk. So eventually I just gave up I thought, you know, it’s silly to put all my energy into trying to create these articles that didn’t go big on Digg. When they don’t, and even if they were too, they’re the kind of articles that they’re not going to bring readers back to the site whereas something about driving a thirteen year old car that might bring somebody back to the site because it provides actual value and it’s a story again that people can relate to.
Maneesh: I had a similar experience with my blog. I launched it – I launched a few articles a few weeks ago and I wrote a bunch of articles that I felt would be amazing posts.
Maneesh: And then I wrote one just like quick article. Seven reasons why should move to Berlin. I just wrote it one night, just took me 15, maybe 25 minutes or something. That article hit huge on Hacker News. I was super happy about that. I had like ten thousand uniques on the first post I’ve put on the site. And then I also had put an email subscribed for them. And, it turned out that I got ten email addresses from the ten thousand uniques and only four of the people actually confirmed on the click. So, I was like, this is interesting traffic because really, I’m not actually capturing these people. They’re just coming in, seeing and then disappearing. And so, do you ever have a method for like capturing any viewers that come to your site or is it mostly through RSS and people passively clicking the button that you put on the site.
JD: It’s passive. Again, this is an example of me not doing a good enough job. I feel like and I’ve had many people tell me this that I, Get Rich Slowly underperforms because I don’t do certain things and I realize that. And, it’s been very successful regardless of that and I’m very thankful for that. But, I feel like, it could, we could have more subscribers, we could have more visitors, we could make more money if we did some of these other things. And, why don’t I do them? I don’t know because it just doesn’t fit who I am or what I do. But there are certain things like, I think now there’s a subscription fraud at the end of every post and I think that’s good.
Maneesh: And that’s via RSS.
JD: I think this is actually via email.
Maneesh: Okay, you have email.
JD: You’d think I wouldn’t know this, wouldn’t you? No. No. No. My technical elves, from my side I was talking about the advertising elves and the technical elves and the social media elves.
Maneesh: Elves. Okay. [Laughing]
JD: Yeah. Yeah. These are the people behind these things that take care of these things. And, I focus on the content because really that’s what I’m about. I’m a writer. At my heart, inside, I’m a writer, I want to tell stories, I want to help people, and this other stuff, the business stuff. I can do it but it’s not what I want to do.
Maneesh: I’ve been finding the same issue with my blog and that like I thought that blogging would be spending most of my time writing. And then, at the end of the day I spend maybe 20% of the time writing and most of the time I spent formatting the post, dealing with social media mentions, responding to comments. How do you figure out a way to, how did you find a way to like focus on what you really love to do with your blog?
JD: I haven’t. I mean, okay that’s a cough out. It’s a process. It’s an ongoing process because if I want to write, and that’s what I want to do is write and the other things that we talked about like learning Spanish, I mean, there are other things outside the blog that I want to do. If I want to focus on the writing, I’ve got to find ways to delegate these other tasks and it’s been a hard process because Get Rich Slowly was just me for so long that it was hard for me to remove myself from it and it was hard for the readers to accept the fact that it become more of a community blog with multiple authors and other people doing things behind the scenes. It was a difficult process. And, it’s an ongoing process. So for me, finding ways like bringing on staff writers, bringing on an assistant editor, bringing on who’s going to take care of the social media to take, finding people who can do these things so that I don’t have to has been very key, so that I can focus my attention on the writing which is what I love to do.
Maneesh: That’s awesome. This reminds me of like a sort of blog post I’m brainstorming which is about building a system instead of trying to fight against the things that you don’t want to do…
Maneesh: …you build a system that allows you to just focus on what you do and just let somebody else handle the rest.
JD: And that’s tough because I think that so many times we’re taught in this culture, in the American culture that you got to buckle down and do the stuff that you don’t want to do. And it’s true, you do have to do that sometimes. But if you’re in the position where you are able to delegate or able to take the responsibilities that don’t appeal to you that don’t bring you happiness that you don’t enjoy, that you don’t want to do. Absolutely, do what you can, just focus on your strengths. Actually, I think it was, we talked about Tim Ferriss a little bit, and I think in the Four Hour Work Week, it’s where he talks about how he had decided to focus only on his strengths instead of doing all these things that he’s not particularly good at. To focus specifically on his strength and ignore the rest and he had amazing results. And so, that’s what I did or what I’m trying to do and I found the same thing. When you focus on your strengths you get outstanding results, instead of spending all this time trying to build up your weaknesses.
Maneesh: Instead of spending a thousand hours on ten different tasks, spend ten thousand hours on what you want to do and become an expert at it.
JD: Yeah. Yeah.
Maneesh: I believe that that is true. The way to focus on any sort of task you want to get good at and people tend, a lot of times in American society, you’re exactly right, people think that they have to push through and do exactly what they don’t want to do. And people don’t realize there’s other ways around it these days.
JD: And you just brought up, I’m going to go on a tangent here, you brought up something just tangentially there. You didn’t actually mention it but one important thing people want to know all the time how to get rich so they get successful, what’s the key to success. And, I will admit that I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had some people read the site who are influential. I’ve got some people who noticed that, we mentioned the media, that’s great but I’ve also put in a lot of work. I’ve put a hell of a lot of work in to the site and I still do. There are times where I’ve put in 80 hours a week into the site and do that for months at a time sacrificing other things in my life. And, that’s a huge contributing factor. If you put in the work, you’re going to have much greater odds of being success. Putting in a lot of work isn’t a guarantee of success. There are a lot of great bloggers out there who put in 80 hours a week and nobody ever notices. But I think you maximize the possibility that you will achieve success if you do the work.
Maneesh: Necessary but not sufficient sort of thing. You got to do the work but not enough. But what do you think is the sufficient factor? So like, there’s no factor that was going to make anybody successful. There’s a lot of parts to it. There’s probably the niche you choose, the amount of work you put in, the type of people you network with but I’m wondering what sort of like, from your, for your individual blog post and for your site as a whole. Let’s start with your individual blog posts. What kind of stories or what kind of topic or what kind of framework do the most successful stories from your blog, most successful blog post on your blog have?
JD: That’s an interesting question. I think, again, most of the most successful stories or blog posts, I Get Rich Slowly and at my other blogs, have been the ones that do tell stories. And, I’m a huge proponent of story. I spoke recently at FinCon, the first financial bloggers conference, and my speech was specifically about how we need to tell stories. We need to provide services for the readers and one of the best ways to do that is to tell stories because that’s what helps people understand and relate to their own lives. So, for me, the most successful post, from my experience, are the ones that come from the heart where I’m passionate. If I’m scared about publishing a post because I think it’s too personal, that’s usually a good sign, it’s a sign that’s going to be well received and that is going to get a lot of traffic, not just traffic but it’s going to help a lot of people. I’m going to give an example here. Was it two years ago or three? I can’t, it’s almost three years now. In January of 2009, my best friend who I’ve known for many years since high school, he committed suicide. And, I didn’t know, do I mention this on the blog? How do I handle this? Because it was very, I mean, it was devastating. It changed a lot of who I am and what I’ve been doing over the past three years, this one thing. And, so I took a week off and then I came back and I wrote about it. It was that very raw post. And I was nervous about putting it up there but it was very well received. Now, suicide is an extreme example but there are all sorts of other posts where I write them and I put them up and I’m like, “Oh my gosh. Is that too personal? Are people going to rip me apart? I think that I’m sharing too much.” And, almost every time, those are the articles that achieve the most success.
Maneesh: Interesting. How do you frame this story article? So for example, I today was reading the New Yorker, and the way that the New Yorker frames a story is just out of this world amazing. Like, Malcolm Gladwell or any of the writers from the New Yorker, they start, I read an article today about occupy Wall Street and it’s start off with this computer programmer who lives in Seattle, starts losing his clients, loses another client then one of his main client dies, he has no more jobs, he has to sell his final pro studios, he has to sell his laptop and then he notices, he starts hearing about the Wall Street Journal, so he decides to get on a greyhound bus and just make it there and just join the occupy Wall Street movement and then they use that to frame the whole occupy Wall Street format and it’s like probably almost a third or a quarter of the article, it’s the story leading up to the actual point which is about occupy Wall Street.
JD: But the story is what makes you relate to it, right? It’s what drives you in.
Maneesh: And there’s no way I would have gotten to paragraph ten if I hadn’t read the first nine.
Maneesh: And another example is this American life which does…
Maneesh: … the best stories I’ve ever heard in radio. How do you go about framing a story in this sort of situations?
JD: That’s a good question. I don’t have one way that I approach it. To me, each story and each article is different. So, if I’m writing about travel for example, I like to travel and we’ll probably get to that here, or how to budget for travel, I might start by saying, “Okay. I’ve recently been to Peru. These are the things I did to save for the trip. This is how I spent the money.” But if I’m talking about my mortgage for example, I might start the story instead I might lead with the, okay, different people say different things about mortgages, some people say you should pay them off early some say you should carry low interest rate for a long time, on and on, and then go in and talk about the details of what I do. So each story is going to be different and there’s no one right way to do it.
Maneesh: Okay. That makes sense. What about like, do you ever think about hooks or like ways to intro, outro do you think will bring in the most viewers or is it sort of just the way that you feel writing?
JD: For me, we talked about this last night, I’m not a very good planner. A lot of what I do is just spontaneous. And so, that goes for the writing too. When I’m done with an article, I will go back and I will spend time trying to figure out, is there a better way to intro it? Is there a better way to hit people in? Because those first few sentences, the first couple of paragraphs, those are key. You want to get the people hooked in reading the article. But I’ve also found that if I try to spend too much time in my instance or for my case, if I spend too much time trying to do this, I actually over think it and I kill the article and it deadens it. Again, each person is different. At Get Rich Slowly my motto is “Do what works for you.” By which I mean, everyone is different, everyone has different strengths, everyone has different weaknesses and you’ve got to figure out methods that are effective in your own life. And so, the same is true with the writing or anything.
Maneesh: With writing specially, yeah. Tell me if this resonates with you because I’ve had this same situation happen to me a lot. I’ll spend hours and hours trying to plan my intro to the writing and eventually I’m like, “This is dumb. I mean, just use this intro and then I’ll start paragraph three” paragraph three flows out of my mind easily, paragraph four, five, six, seven, everything’s good. And then I’m like, “The intro is lame. Let me go back and fix that” and I completely delete the first two paragraphs and just redo it. I’ve notice that sometimes just jumping into things gets the most success.
JD: Yes. This is a great point Maneesh. Absolutely, when, so I’ve taken many creative classes and one of the things we were thought is instead of sitting down and trying to write whatever it is you think you want to write, you just start writing and you just pre-write because sometimes you don’t know where you’re going to go. You just start, it doesn’t have to be in the beginning and eventually, this is almost always the case, eventually you’ll reach a point where you’ll realize, “Oh, I’ve got an actual article here or I’ve got a story here and I can lap out these five paragraphs I wrote which are related to nothing and start it here.” Now, I’ll use another example from Get Rich Slowly, I publish a lot from staff writers now and from readers, guest posts, reader’s stories, that kind of thing. And, so I’ve done a lot of editing. Most of my work now in Get Rich Slowly is editing rather than writing. And, so often, I would say, 30, 40, 50 percent of the time, I just lap off the first paragraph of whatever anybody gave me because their first paragraph is junk. And, people don’t realize it’s junk but so many times you can throw away the first paragraph or maybe the first couple of sentences whatever it is and the story is stronger because of it. I just published, the story I published on Sunday was a story from a woman whose father had recently died and she was talking about estate planning and so on and she had an intro paragraph but it didn’t have any information in it. So, I just yank it out. Started where I started made the story much more powerful.
Maneesh: That makes sense. It’s trunk in a white, sort of like write only what’s necessary and nothing more.
Maneesh: That’s kind of metaphorical for any kind of situation you’re doing. It’s like, just start doing it and figure it out and fix it later, right?
JD: Yes. This is actually another thing I’ve learned. Yes, you just got to do it. Action, I say, what is, I have this 15, 16 tenants of Get Rich Slowly that my personal finance philosophy and it’s actually my life philosophy just apply to money. And, one of them is the tried all actions are more important than words because so many people talk about doing things. They talk that they want to do, they want to start a blog, they want to write a book, they want to lose weight, whatever, but talking doesn’t accomplish anything. You’ve actually got to do it.
Maneesh: I get this situation with all of my students from my online marketing master class. Like, they basically will sign up, they’ll pay a ton of money and they’ll take this class that I really, it really provides a lot of value but the thing is they just want to keep absorbing all the information. I’m like, don’t even go to module two yet, just read, watch module one, watch the first video and then do something, anything.
Maneesh: I’ve actually been thinking, maybe I should just not allow them to get access to the rest of it until they do something, you know.
JD: So, you and I have been talking about the Spanish because I’m learning Spanish and I’ve been learning Spanish for five months now. And, I just took a trip to Peru. When I went to Peru at the start of the trip, I’ve only been taking Spanish for three months. And, I went down there. I was with a group of 14, 15, 16 other people, most of them from Australia. Some of them knew Spanish better than I did but they wouldn’t talk Spanish. They were scared to go out and use their Spanish. And here, I don’t know Spanish very well but I was going out and talking with the people in the markets and in the restaurants and actually trying to use my Spanish because of what I’ve learned from Get Rich Slowly about actions being so much more important than words. And, I know I look like a fool of going out in the market but that’s okay. The people liked it. They liked selling me the bracelets and they… it was fun. It was fun to use my Spanish and to actually act. It’s true in all aspects of life. Actually taking those first steps and doing something is so much more important than just talking about it.
Maneesh: Very true. Extremely true. I want to get back to how you grew your blog as well as, so you told me a little bit about how you were building each post up to growing into like the kind of hooks you use and the kind of paragraphs you use. From your blog perspective, what do you think were like the big changes, like what were the big, what were like, for me and for most people I’ve met, like there’s like those individual posts the time they got in the Wall Street Journal or the time they were on TV or whatever happened that really affected the growth. Was there anything that you remember that was a huge jump in the way, in both your understanding of blog world and also in the growth of your blog?
JD: I’m trying to think. I know there are absolutely some key moments financially in the financial growth of the blog. I’m trying to think as far as readership…
Maneesh: Financial growth is great. Let’s start with that.
JD: Okay. So, not only am I the world’s worst marketer but I was also very poor at monetization with Get Rich Slowly. I didn’t understand the power that monetization could have to generate income. And so, when the blog started and the growth began to occur, I had AdSense up and I had some Amazon links and that was about it. And I didn’t realize that there were other affiliate programs. And I don’t just mean affiliates where somebody selling their eBook and you signed up to be a partner with that. But, I mean things like LinkShare or Commission Junction where you can go and there’s a marketplace for big national companies that want to partner with bloggers or other websites to market their products. I didn’t realize that these things existed. And so, I had some articles that I’d written that generated a lot of traffic. They could have had affiliate links in them and I didn’t know the affiliate links existed. I wouldn’t have known how to use them. And, another blogger came to me and said, “JD, why don’t you put some affiliate links in these things, in these articles” and so I did. And, it was a revelation. My income it quintupled, maybe it went up by ten times just overnight
Maneesh: Just overnight.
JD: Yes, because the most highly traffic articles on the site all of a sudden had a way to generate revenue whereas they didn’t before. And, so that was a huge revelation. Also, figuring out how to, I’m not very good at testing ad placement. I have never really done much with it. But one day I decided, you know, my AdSense ads, they’re not doing as well as I think they ought to based on how many people I have. And so I started just messing around, moving them around and I’d leave them for a week. And, it just kind of informal test, nothing fancy like your brother Ramit does. But just kind of an informal test and I found that, “Oh, I can double the performance of an AdSense ad by moving it around from one place to another” and I’d talk to other bloggers and they’re like, “Yeah, that’s we have our ads on the left side instead of the right side.” And, some blogger said, “I use to have this one vertical line that separated the ad from the main body of the content and I removed that line in my, it went up 30 or 40 percent.” I’m like, “Really? One line affects it?” Yeah. So testing is important. Understanding what kind of monetization is appropriate for your site. For my site, for a long time, I would not have credit card ads because I was vehemently anti-credit cards and so are most of my readers. And so, they have credit cards ads which just would have been wrong. The side has evolved and it’s change. So now, credit cards are okay. I mean, they’re okay for me. I understand that for a long time I didn’t have a credit card because I was bad with them and I was deep in debt. Now though, I had a credit card again for four years and I always paid it off. It’s not an issue. So, anyway, you got to understand your readership and you got to understand what works for you and what kind of products are good to market.
Maneesh: Credit card is an interesting topic. Let’s tangent on to that for, because you know that my view on credit card is I love them. I’m one of the Chris Guillebeau aficionados where basically is just buy, get as many credit cards as you can. Get the miles and always pay it off. Do you find that, I found that, I would give this advice to a lot of people and people are afraid to apply for new credit cards or what not because of, granted if you don’t pay off, it’s a very bad thing, have you found that a lot of your readers, when you started switching to a credit card, do you ever talk about how you use credit cards on your site?
JD: Yeah. Yeah.
Maneesh: And do your readers often apply for the new cards that you recommend or anything like that?
JD: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t do it often. I’m still hesitant to write articles about specific credit cards. I have done it and Chris Guillebeau’s a good example at a planning meeting for his conference, the World Domination Summit last April, he was mentioning this British Airways credit card that had this offer and if you signed up for it you got 50,000 air miles and if you charge a certain amount within a certain period of time, you got another 50,000 miles. I’ve never paid attention to air miles. But I thought, I said, “A hundred thousand miles, what does that get you?” He told me and he sell like something two round trip ticket in the U.S. or something like that. I was like, “Wow, free. Wow!” So, I signed up for the card and I would jump to the hoops and now I have like 125,000 air miles. But, so I wrote about that card. And, I think I’ve written about one other card since. The readers don’t really, really like that in Get Rich Slowly. Some other blogs, it’s fine. It’s fine for them to do it. But Get Rich Slowly is a little bit hesitant. But they don’t seem to mind ads in the sidebar for credit cards or there’s a credit card finder page in Get Rich Slowly some people use.
Maneesh: So, when you have these blog posts which readers don’t tend to like as much. Do you tend to get more comments or do you get more views on the ones that actually promote a little bit of like little fight between your readers?
JD: No. The only one who ever notices there is a fight going on are the regular readers. And so, if there’s a post that’s got some sort of discussion or debate, the regular readers will notice it. Anybody outside is not going to really understand that there’s, that’s going on. I get email from readers who will say, “Why did you post this credit card offer” or I’ll get the comments themselves, people will complain. The commenter’s at Get Rich Slowly, the community at Get Rich Slowly is amazing, it’s just outstanding. Instead of having snippy comments, it’s almost all just interested people, educated people having discussions and trying to help each other. And so, when it descends into this is stupid type thing, I kind of tend to listen because it’s out of character.
Maneesh: Okay. Yeah. It’s interesting because sometimes I see a lot bloggers try to promote a kind of a debate. They try to talk about, they try to build like a debate going on in the comments so that they get people who are like, “Let me check out the site more. I got to read through it.”
JD: You know, I think that if there were often debates, if there was often controversy. Yeah, maybe that would draw some people to come back and look for the controversy. But then, what’s the purpose of your site? Is it the core people who are looking for controversy or is it to actually help people and provide information. And for me, I want to help people and provide information. So, I don’t need the arguments in the comments. They make me tense.
Maneesh: It sounds to me that you’re like, you were mentioning last night that you see two different spheres of bloggers and that you see yourself in the middle. I think that’s an interesting point. Can you talk about that a little bit?
JD: Yeah. There are actually, there’s all sorts of different ways to classify bloggers. And, in this case, I’m saying that there are certain bloggers who are, I call them “Old School.” And, they’re more about providing content, telling stories, sharing links and they all do almost no advertising. I won’t say they won’t, they don’t avoid advertising completely but they might have AdSense or just one small ad. And they’re never going to do marketing. They’re never going to have affiliate links. They just don’t do this stuff. In fact, many of them are oppose to it because they think it’s wrong. They think it’s violating ethics. And then there are other people who think, “No way men! You should do whatever you can to get the most money you can out of your site.” That means affiliate links, banner ads, pop-up ads, whatever, do that. And, obviously those are extremes of the scale. I mean, the extreme over here would be, we’re not going to have ads at all and all ads are bad. And I used to be like that, I used to think that. Now I fall some place in the middle. I can understand what the old school people are thinking where the marketing or the affiliate links are scammy or whatever. I get that but I also see the other side where you know, you got to make a living and if you’re making a living, if you’re spending all your time writing this content, you’ve got to find a way to generate revenue from it. And, I think there’s a balance to be had and the balance is different for each person. Some people, they’re okay with the marketing and the affiliate links, some people aren’t. You just got to find what works for you.
Maneesh: Definitely. You were mentioning before that your blog Monetization Strategy exploded when you got affiliate links or when you removed the vertical bar. And you say it was base depending on the type of audience that you have and I think that’s really interesting. Some people have been seeing for example the product launch formula product by, there’s an information product called the product launch formula by Jeff Walker. That’s one of the most famous information products but the funny thing is if you saw on this email list. It’s like you’re getting hit over the head with a sledge hammer all the time about sales for this product. And the reason why is because this guy is getting, all of his traffic is being funnelled in through other affiliates. So he doesn’t care if you stay on the list or not. All he’s trying to do is just get a sale immediately. So he’s allowed to go ahead and just, no he’s not spamming. He just continuously sending out, tomorrow it’s going to be for sale because he doesn’t mind, whereas for you, you want to build a base of followers who continue to stay there.
JD: Correct. I’m trying to build long-term relationships is what I’m trying to do.
Maneesh: So, from your perspective, you’ve seen affiliate links that you recommend and actually recommend have been effective.
Maneesh: And you said that a little bit of AdSense or credit card recommendations have been okay. Have seen any other great blog monetization strategies that would be effective for people with your situation?
JD: For my situation, I still think that any information product would work for me if I were to sit down and craft an eBook and publish an eBook. I think that could be a very lucrative way to generate revenue. I haven’t done that but it’s something that I’m looking out for the future. I think there are so many different ways to monetize that each person’s got to look at their own individual strengths, what they like to do. And also, base it on their audience. We’ve mentioned Chris Guillebeau a couple of times. He’s a good friend. He’s here in Portland also. And, for him, all he does is information products. He doesn’t sell anything else. He doesn’t do affiliate links. He doesn’t do any of this other stuff. All he does is information products and it works great for him. And, he’s able to make a living off it. And, he’s able to travel the world because of this. And, but I could get by with just of your information products standpoint. And, I don’t know many people who could.
Maneesh: Okay. Cool. So let’s talk a little bit about money since you’re the money expert.
Maneesh: How do you…
JD: The accidental money expert. I’ll point out.
Maneesh: That’s kind of how it happens, right?
Maneesh: Every sentence has a word rich in it, ends up bringing about money, right? So, what would you, what do you say for people who are in credit card debt or people who are just out of credit card debt or especially for people who are in their 20’s and just leaving college and are maybe have student loans but don’t have too much debt outside of student loans. How would you say that they should be setting up their finances? Let’s talk about this more from a strategic perspective.
JD: Well, I have to tell you that your brother Ramit and I actually agree on a lot of things and you know he’s huge on automation. And I think automation is absolutely essential when you’re starting out because it puts you into a position where you can’t short circuit yourself, you can’t cheat yourself and put yourself back in the hole. So when I say automation is key, what I mean by that is how your pay checks automatically deposit to your bank account. Find an online savings account like ING direct or where. Have your pay check automatically deposited there. Have your bills automatically routed or paid from that savings account. And setup automatic investing. I’m a huge fan of automatic investing. Using things like Share Builder or I think Schwab even lets you do some automatic investing. So that you’re not spending the money on other things but it’s getting invested automatically for you before you have a chance to decide, “Oh, I want to go out and go skiing this weekend or whatever.” You take care of the important things first. And then, after you’ve setup all these automation systems then, I said to put everything automatically onto your savings account then it’s okay to have it like an automatic payment that comes to your checking account. And once it comes to your checking account, that’s your money to spend. So it’s almost as if your bill, your fun stuff is a bill that has to be paid every month too. You’re paying yourself into your checking account for whatever it is you want to do. Now, I know a lot of people are going to be like, “Wow, I can’t do that.” But I think that this is the ideal situation. If I had a kid, if I had a son or a daughter who has just graduated from college, I’d encourage them to do this, to setup the automatic thing going into the savings account and then from the savings account going to everywhere else including your checking account.
Maneesh: This is one of those things that I, when I hear people aren’t doing this I’m like, “Really? There are people who don’t have automatic investing?” because I’ve been doing it for so long and it’s the most effective thing I’ve ever done. You know, just still a hundred bucks a month that automatically transfers in to my camera fund for example.
JD: Yeah. That’s targeted savings. Yeah. I’m all over that.
Maneesh: I do that through ING Direct which is, do you use ING for automatic…?
Maneesh: INGDirect.com is a great bank that I recommend and my brother does too. And it’s like, just every month, you know, I have a hundred bucks going into camera, a hundred bucks going to DJ gear or whatever. And suddenly after a year, I have 1500 bucks or 1200 bucks just sitting in the couch waiting for a camera. And it’s a great situation.
JD: For me, that’s what I do for my travel. I have a travel fund. I have a used car. I bought a used Mini Cooper. I would like a new Mini Cooper or maybe a less used. So I have money that goes in the Mini Cooper fund. It keeps getting routed to travel. I mean, you can do that. Because certain things are more of a priority and for me travel is more important than a car. These automatic targeted accounts, some people say, “Why would you do that? Why don’t you just use a spreadsheet?” Well, if you can do it with a spreadsheet, do it with a spreadsheet. My wife she uses a spreadsheet. She’s listed all the different things she wants to do and she knows how much she has in her savings account and she knows what’s targeted for what. But the more you can make so you don’t have to think about it, I think the easier it is to do. You take yourself out of the equation. And I don’t know about you, but I’m the weakest link in my financial system, and so, if I’m able to make it automated, yeah.
Maneesh: Every decision you make like requires will power.
Maneesh: And every decision you make is more difficult. We were talking yesterday about this experiment I read where they tested your glucose levels and I have to make one decision that requires will power. It’s difficult to make the next one. If you can just remove yourself from the situation, it’s often a much better situation. I like to use also my ING records to look at what I care about in the past. So I look at my old self accounts from 2005 or 2006 and I’m like, “Oh, I really, really care about travelling to Norway at this time. Where did that go?”
JD: Yeah. See, I haven’t had my accounts long enough to be able to do that and plus they pretty much all in the same thing, Mini Cooper, travel, before I bought the used Mini Cooper I had to save for it too. So I’ve had my Mini Copper account for a while.
Maneesh: Definitely. So let’s talk a little bit about travel because that seems to be really on your mind these days. How did that happen?
JD: You know I don’t know how that started really. I guess in 2007, my wife and I went with her sister and her parents. We went to England and Ireland. Her parents paid for the trip. And, I loved it. It was the first time I had been outside the U.S. and Canada. It was my first time outside North America basically. And, it’s fantastic. So I thought, “Alright, I’d like to do some more of this.” And, so I’d thought about it for a while. When I finished my book, I got an advance in the book. Not a huge amount but enough. Finished the book and I said, “You know, maybe I can use some of this money to travel.” So, my wife and I we decided, as soon as the book is turned in to the editor, we’ll go into Belize which is in Central America. We went to Central America. Belize is great because they use the dollar for their currency. They speak English, that’s their language. And, it’s a former British colony. We had a great time and it just planted this seed. And so, now I’ve been to Italy and France and Southern Africa, just got back from five weeks in Peru, Bolivia. It was fantastic. And, every time I travel, I just want to travel more. I love seeing how other people live. I love meeting other people. And, I just love experiencing the cultures. Travel isn’t for everyone, not everyone enjoys it but I do.
Maneesh: There’s this feeling that when you go to another place and you’re like, “Oh my God there’s so much more.” Like, there’s people who speak different languages and there’s different lifestyles that people have.
JD: And to me, I was aware, people always say, “Oh yeah, travel changes you and you realize there’s more than just your little part of the world.” And I knew that going into it. I’m a pretty open minded guy. I read a lot and still you’re right, to actually experience it is a very different thing to understand how people live and how people can be happy in different situations. And, it’s just something we don’t get in the United States. We’re so isolated. We only think about ourselves and our history is so short. And our memory is so short. We don’t, as a nation our collective memory only goes back 10 or 20 years. It hardly goes back further than that except for the big events that we talk about like JFK’s assassination or whatever. But other countries have memories that go back hundreds of years. They have histories that are just rich and vibrant and everything is all around you. And, people are so different. They do different things and they’re happy and they don’t think about the United States. They don’t care about the United States and it’s, I don’t think Americans get it. A lot of times we’re so wrapped up in our own country, in our own lives, we just think we’re awesome and it’s…
Maneesh: It’s true. We do think we’re awesome.
JD: I know.
Maneesh: You hear it a lot. But how do you travel? Do you travel more on like a backpacker lifestyle or do you travel more with like luxury hotels or which do you prefer?
JD: How have I travelled or how do I want to travel?
JD: Alright, so in the past, a lot of what we’ve done has been or a lot of what I’ve done has been almost luxury travel. It’s not high end luxury travel but it’s tourism and it’s isolated. It’s staying in nice hotels. It’s taking bus tours. It’s not getting out and being with the people. And, that’s what I needed to start. That’s what I needed to start because I was a little bit timid and scared. Now though, this last trip to Peru, I was with a tour group but it was with a tour group that specifically was getting in and hiking and being with the people. I spend a few days on my own and then I did a few more tours in Lima where we were, they were actually on the ground and it’s not removed and I like that. What I would like to do now and what I’m hoping to do in the next couple of years is actually maybe spend some extended time. Like, take three months, go back to Peru, go back to Cuzco Peru which I love and rent an apartment and just spend some time learning Spanish and living there and actually being a part of the culture and seeing what that is like. That’s what I would love to do.
Maneesh: The difference between a three week trip and a three to four month trip is enormous. Especially like when you get that apartment and when you get like those people who, the café, the waiters who recognize you and remember your order. And there’s just this feeling of having made a difference in a culture. Like, actually having affect on a town. It’s amazing. I hope I can convince you at some point to go to Buenos Aires or go to Medellin, Columbia because after Cuzco, you got to check out those places.
JD: I’ll do it. I’ll do it.
Maneesh: Great. I think that’s, before we stop, let’s talk a little bit about language learning. Since it seems like you’re jumping into Spanish. “Mi Muy Bien”
Maneesh: I was pretty impress yesterday we went out to Starbucks and we chat a little bit in Spanish and for most, your Spanish is very good for most Americans. How did you, you’ve only done it 5 months without really spending that much time in another country of course practicing the language, how did you get to that point?
JD: Well, we talked earlier about how hard work is important. I’ve done a lot of hard work. So for me, you know, I tried to learn the language when I was younger but I wasn’t very motivated and I never got anywhere with it. I spent 4 years on German in high school and college and basically don’t remember any of it. I think a lot of people are like that. They take it because it’s required. But for some reason, something just lit a fire in me this last June and I decided, “Okay, I’m going to learn Spanish.” I’ve talked about it, getting back to the action and word, I’ve talked about it for so long that instead of just talking about it, I want to do it. And so I was talking with Benny Lewis from Fluent in 3 months and he, I asked him, “Okay Benny, I could afford to throw money at the problem, what’s the best way to learn the language?” He says, “Well, the best way is to go live in another country.” I said, “Okay, what’s the second best way?” He said, “Hire a tutor.” And so I hired a tutor. I went on Craigslist and I just answered a random ad and I sat down. I went to a coffee shop and met the woman, sat down at the table and I knew with, in seconds that I wanted to work with her because I could tell that we were going to relate very well and she was very patient with me. And so, what I’ve done is I’ve spent, for the past 5 months, three days a week, 90 minutes a time, I meet with my tutor and we don’t talk completely in Spanish because I’m the weak link there. But we talk about Spanish. We’re reading books together. We work on the grammar. And so we just make this gradual progress and it’s been awesome.
Maneesh: Cool. I think that buying a tutor, like renting, renting a tutor, hiring a tutor is a great way to learning a language. Whenever I’ve learned, when I studied all of my languages, getting a tutor was a huge, huge jump because it’s more about building that system. You build a system where you have to go show up because you’re paying for it, to actually force yourself to talk in a language. Whereas when you have a book or a workbook that you are writing in, you can always put it off for later, you might not see it. I think that that is really, really useful advice for any sort of situation that you’re really doing.
JD: Well, I think it depends on the person too and you’re learning styles. For me, I was just talking with a friend this morning before I came up here. We’re talking about the ways that I learn and the ways that I do things. So, last night I mentioned that I’ve lost 50 pounds and that is through Crossfit and that’s because with Crossfit, I’m working one on one with the trainer.
Maneesh: Who’s your private training with?
JD: Well, it’s not private. It’s a small class. My trainer, Cody, he’s very aware of where I am or what my strengths or weaknesses are and he works with me. And so, the same with the Spanish tutor, she knows what my strengths and weaknesses are and she works with me. And, I discovered about myself that I need this one on one attention. So, I would like to learn any musical instrument and so I’m probably going to take piano lessons and go pay somebody to sit with me one on one. I guess that’s probably the only way you can do it but it’s another example of how I learn. And there are other people who learn great from books. I was talking with my friend this morning and he’s like, “Oh yeah, your wife she tends to just, she wants to sit down and read the information and that’s how she’s going to learn. She’s taught herself French by sitting down and doing recital stone. She doesn’t need a tutor.” Yeah, that’s true.
Maneesh: There’s different ways for different people.
JD: Yeah. You’ve got it, it’s so important to know yourself about your writing style, about how you blog, about how you learn, I think knowing yourself and being honest with yourself about what is effective. Not what you wish was effective. I think so much my life has been wasted because I do things that I or I make decisions based on how I wish I was or how I want to be instead of how I really am.
Maneesh: Learn who you are and then use that information to solve your problems.
JD: And that sounds like pat advice but, and it can be tough to figure out. But I think that if you can figure out who you are and what you need, yeah.
Maneesh: Definitely. Well JD, well thank you so much for joining us. This was really fun. Guys, I hope you enjoyed the interview and we’ll catch you soon.
Maneesh: Thank you very much.
JD: Thank you.
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A Summary Of This Episode
1:30 – J.D. discusses his blogging methods—how many posts per day he writes
2:30 – Beating the feeling of an ‘obligation to continuously blog’
4:15 – focusing on what you want to do by bringing in a staff (and his schedule for posting)
4:40 – moving towards reader generated content
5:48 – how J.D. got his blog from his first few hundred visitors to having almost a million monthly visitors
8:23 – the ebbs and flows of blog growth
10:00 – why being mentioned in the New York Times isn’t as valuable as online mentions
11:10 – writing in an attempt to get on the front page of digg or reedit
13:45 – J.D’s methods of capturing viewers who come to his page
15:20 – how does j.d. find the time to focus on what he loves to do with his blog, rather than the other non-important parts?
18:20 – Getting a successful blog requires effort
19:25 – what are the patterns in the most successful articles on your blog
21:40 – How do you frame a story inside an article
24:40 – How to beat writers block
26:00 – Why you should quit absorbing and start doing
28:40 – What were the BIG changes that affected GetRichSlowly’s popularity
29:40 – A few big changes that QUINTUPLED revenue OVERNIGHT
32:33 – J.D.’s views on credit cards
34:15 – Do blog posts with controversy get more views?
35:50 – The two different spheres of bloggers–for profit vs non-profit bloggers
37:45 – Choosing your monetization method based on the type of traffic you have.
38:45 – Blog monetization strategies
39:55 – Money talk—how to automate and set up your finances
44:35 – Travel
48:00 – Luxury travel vs regular travel
49:30 – Language learning — how to actually learn spanish