If you’ve been following along, you know that I left running a million dollar consulting firm to try my hand in building and selling my own products.
In 2012, I started a number of new projects: I launched a SaaS, wrote my first book, taught my first online workshop, and hosted my first podcast.
It was a year of firsts for me. But truthfully, the most sweeping change was that — for the first time ever — someone I didn’t know paid me without me sending an invoice first.
But enough of last year. This post is about this year, 2013, and what I learned and the takeaways I want to share with you.
I resisted the urge to expand my audience.
Early in the year, I toyed with the idea of another SaaS product. I needed better automation around my marketing, but most of the existing players like Intercom and Customer.io were meant for users in a web app’s database, and not people who could be in a lot of different databases.
I wanted to know: Who are my customers, how much have they spent, and what have they bought or done? (This question is surprisingly hard to answer when you’re selling a lot of things through many different platforms.)
I thought, “Hell, I’m just going to build something that does this.” But fortunately, I had my accountability group — which we’ll talk about in a second — shoot this idea down before it took flight. I have too much going on, and running two SaaS businesses (plus everything else I did) would be overkill. But on top of that, I’d now need to learn how to find a new type of customer. I know how to find freelancers and consultants. I’ve been doing it for two years now. And there’s relatively little friction when I have something new to offer my existing audience — if they’ve already paid you and derived some sort of ROI, there’s a good chance they’ll do it again.
Had I gone down this route, I would have had to find out how to reach information marketers and others. And while there are slight overlaps between that space and the space I work in now, the overlap wasn’t enough to justify going down this path. So I threw in the towel, shelved the project, and went back to focusing on the audience I already had.
I love, love, love customer support.
When most of us think of customer support, we think something bad happened. The app broke or I can’t figure something out. But I think supporting customers is much more than just helping them overcome roadblocks. Supporting means helping their business succeed as a result of you being in the picture. This can mean offering your customers helpful resources that don’t describe the how’s, but the why’s. HelpScout does a great job of this with their resources page (which, incidentally, is great for new lead generation.)
What I’ve been doing this year, which I credit much of Planscope’s success to (even though there was no full-time developer, designer, marketer, or really anyone around to add stuff all the time), was the time I spent doing a lot of one-on-one interactions with people, often entirely unprovoked by them. In the Bootstrapping world, we’re starting to call this “concierge onboarding”. But I wouldn’t exclude concierge (or good ol’ fashioned high touch interaction) to onboarding.
As an example, today my admin dashboard popped up with a notice that Fred had closed an estimate for about $30k. I tabbed over to GMail and wrote Fred a quick congratulatory note and asked him if there was anything I could do to help him close future estimates faster and with less resistance.
He wrote back an awesome email, and even threw some suggestions my way. He now realizes that my job isn’t just to tend over software that pushes data back and forth from a database to a web browser; it’s to help him build a better consulting company.
I know as engineers we often desire to make everything automated and not require any human input whatsoever (*cough* next section), but I think that human touch is something that is unexpected and greatly appreciated, and that most of my bigger competitors aren’t able to do. If you’re small, take advantage of your size!
I setup really solid marketing automation.
As you’ll see below, I have a lot of products, and they’re all more or less targeting the same audience (the difference is really in intensity.)
The entry point for most of my customers is my free weekly newsletter. From there, my goal is that of a matchmaker — if someone is struggling with pricing, they could piece a lot together by reading over the last year and half of blog posts of mine, or they could dive deep into the subject by buying my book on it. Or if they’re looking for better ways to estimate consulting projects, they could use Planscope.
But matchmaking thousands of people isn’t exactly easy, and the right answer isn’t to keep hammering my global list with product references each week.
But I was quickly hitting the limits of Mailchimp. I needed a customer, who was interested in various things, and not just a bunch of lists.
I also needed a way to promote at the right time and to the right people, which isn’t very easy with normal autoresponders. InfusionSoft has let me make it so I can promote my products to people who are highly engaged with my content and who have, or have not, bought or done specific things.
For instance, if you buy my book “The Blueprint” and you haven’t bought “Double Your Freelancing Rate”, eventually (after my accountability emails go out) you’ll be pointed toward “Double Your Freelancing Rate”. But if you have bought both books already, you’ll be promoted my Masterclass.
InfusionSoft is very heavy, and definitely not for everyone (or rather, for most people), but it’s by far the smartest buy I’ve made this year.
I’ve kept myself accountable to others.
When you’re bootstrapping, things can get a bit lonely. Especially when, like me, you live in a pretty agrarian part of the world.
I spent a lot of time building and strengthening relationships with fellow product people this year. It’s helped me for partnerships, cross-promotional opportunities, and get advice and feedback on initiatives I was experimenting with. But most importantly, it helped me keep myself accountable to others, while helping others stay accountable to themselves.
I’m involved in two Masterminds, one meets weekly and the other (which I just joined) meets every two weeks. I also hang out in two group chat rooms for bootstrappers. Being able to show up and see familiar faces who know what you’re up to and can provide on-the-spot advice or feedback.
It took way too long to seek outside help.
As you’ll see below, I’m juggling a lot of projects at once. A lot of what I used to do were things that I provided literally zero value to — whether I was issuing invoices for Europeans who needed funky VAT formatting, helping people track down ebook downloads that went to spam, extending trials, and other things that can be easily delegated out.
I’m not sure if it was just me not wanting to have outside help (I came from running a company with 11 employees and a very sizable bi-weekly payroll), or if I just didn’t think that it made sense to get someone else to help out with menial tasks, but I delayed for longer than I should have.
I hired my first assistant only two weeks ago, and so far I’m kicking myself for not doing this sooner. I’m able to focus on things (like writing this report, which has taken most of the day) without needing to break my flow to respond to small requests. By next year, I hope to have basically everything that doesn’t require my creative input outsourced.
Stopped going to the gym this summer
I got a bit too excited about what I was doing, and the amount of opportunity in front of me (do I write a new blog post? work on Planscope’s onboarding? or should I create a new variation for a marketing site?)
Because I’m faced with near limitless options, it’s easy for me to get overwhelmed and feel like I need to overwork myself. Now, I realize my use of “overwork” is a bit misleading — I can’t remember the last time I worked more than 30 or so hours in a given week. But by the time I take the kids to school and have breakfast with the wife, and then start to prep for making dinner and playing with the kids, my “work window” has closed.
A few people have questioned why I include revenue figures online (including my mother with much chagrin.) I like to look at my business as a win-win. I’m able to help people be more successful, and in turn I’m able to label my work as a success. (BTW, this is an underlying advantage of being in the B2B space; I’m not sure what I’d think of myself if I knew I was making money by upselling credits or whatever through iOS in-app purchases.)
Anyway, below you’ll find sales figures across all of my products. I wish I could give you as much expense detail as Pat Flynn publishes in his reports, but let’s just say the profit is not far below than the listed revenue. And as a first for me, I’ve also included some customer revenue figures.
- Launched: February, 2012
- 2013 Revenue:
- 2012 Revenue: $29,904
- Monthly time commitment: 10-40 hours (depending on feature development)
This year was particularly good for Planscope, even with me dedicating just a fraction of my attention to it each week (~1-2 hours of support a week as a baseline; feature development in chunks depending on what I wanted to get done.)
What was important was all the time I spent on behind-the-scenes coding. For instance, Planscope lets consultants put together estimates. But rather than just giving them the tools to put together an estimate, I also have a series of automated emails that go out with the sole intention of helping them win the estimate.
I’m really happy that I decided to write books and provide more informational content that helps consultants better their entire business, and not just their business as it intersects with project management. It’s help me cross pollinate much of what I’ve done elsewhere and incorporate that into the day-to-day workflows of Planscope, which benefits the customer and benefits my LTV figures.
If you run a software business, how can you step away from the role your software plays in the customer’s business, and focus instead on treating their organization as a whole? One simple way to do this would be to include in your “from the founder” lifecycle email: “What one problem of $DOMAIN_YOUR_PRODUCT_SERVES bugs you the most? Reply to this email and lets talk about ways that you can fix it.”
- Launched: September, 2012
- 2013 Revenue:
- 2012 Revenue: $33,024
- Monthly time commitment: Nothing
There really isn’t much to report regarding DYFR, which I launched last year, except that it keeps generating sales — about $2k a month — with literally 0 input on my end.
However, it’s served as a fantastic “gateway drug” into the other products and services I offer. When someone buys DYFR, they get a series of autoresponders that are inline with where I expect someone to be after making their way through my book. It’s something that can’t be paralleled in the traditional world of print: me, the author, can help people stay accountable over time, and I make it very clear that I’m always a reply away should they get stuck.
If you sell anything online that comes with a lot of friction… Maybe you have a 4-figure class you teach, or a software product that has a high barrier of entry (like, requiring your entire team to adopt a new workflow)… think about ways that you can establish cash flow early on through an impulse buy like an ebook. I credit this book to the success of my Masterclass, coaching services, and even Planscope.
- Launched: March, 2013
- 2013 Revenue:
- 2012 Revenue: $2,512
- Monthly time commitment: Nothing
“The Blueprint” was probably the biggest point of stress for me this year. I opened up pre-sales late last year and I was on track to hitting my March completion date… and then my wife was hospitalized for a month. And we had two kids under the age of 5.
Needless to say, the hospitalization made me really happy that I didn’t have a full-time job. There’s no way I could have taken on the responsibility and disappeared for a month with one. But conversely, this came at literally the worst time possible for me and my customers who were waiting for product to be delivered.
In retrospect, while pre-sales are fantastic and work very well, I probably would have waited a bit longer before turning on the order form. Life is unpredictable, and one way to spike your cortisol levels is to be on the hook for something that you’re unable to provide as promised.
Ultimately, I did finish the book, and while there were a few angry emails there were just a handful of refunds. And while the volume of emails and refunds were low compared to the overall sales health, the toll it took on my emotions compounded with the absence of my wife really was rough.
- Launched: July, 2013
- 2013 Revenue: $4,574
- Monthly time commitment: Nothing
I had no intention on doing a video course for a marketplace like Skillshare, but their biz dev people hounded me and I eventually caved
I’m not a fan of their $20 pricing model, especially against the prices of my other products, but I tried it out as a form of lead generation.
I’ve had a few hundred sales, many of which at a discount I’d provide, but it’s hard to say whether or not it was worth it. I do know at least two people who have attended my Masterclass (my highest value product) who found me through this course, so as a way to siphon off the audience of developers and designers Skillshare has, it does seem like that it made sense for the few days I invested in getting this off the ground.
- Launched: October, 2013
- 2013 Revenue:
- Monthly time commitment: 20-30 hours (creating lessons, community engagement, hosting live events. Note: I have someone helping me support the Guild)
The Freelancers Guild sort of came about by accident. A side benefit of the Consultancy Masterclass I teach is that you get lifelong access to this little community of people like you (I wholeheartedly stole this from Amy Hoy and 30×500.)
However, the people who I think need the most accountability are those just starting out. By now you know that having a group of people who have your back and work in your industry — whether that be in a Mastermind, a chat room, or peers who meet once a week for coffee — is the single best way to stay motivated and pushing forward. The ROI my business has experienced as a result of chatting with Amy, Patrick, Nathan, Ruben and others everyday about business is staggering.
After I decided to create a community for freelancers — those who might just be starting out or struggling to get work or define their message — I knew I had to go beyond the Google Groups (or now, Groupbuzz) we use for the Consultancy Masterclass community.
I investigated a lot of turnkey WordPress membership sites, but decided that just about all the integrated forum software out there looks like it’s at least 10 years old. And Discourse is really, really sexy.
By default, Discourse authenticates against Twitter, Facebook, or itself, and has no concept of billing. I ended up talking with my friend Ben Orenstein over at Thoughtbot, and swapped the code they use for Prime in exchange for some pro bono business consulting. I also put together a very simple Rails app (using the rails-saas-kit) that registers new Guild members and provides an oAuth infrastructure for Discourse to authenticate against.
I’m the last person in the world to ever recommend “roll your own” as the fastest path to some outcome (e.g. online community), but in this case I think it was warranted. The Guild is going strong, and I recently brought on Stephen Doyle to help me manage it. Right now we have a little over 80 members, and I hope to that within 6 months.
- Launched: October, 2012
- 2013 Revenue:
- 2012 Revenue: $40,993
- Monthly time commitment: 0-15 hours (class doesn’t run each month)
I LOVE hosting my Masterclass. As you’ll see below, it’s yielded by far the highest known ROI of any of my products for attendees, and it’s a way for me to hang out with, teach, and coach my best customers.
When I first started the Consultancy Masterclass, it was done as a traditional online webinar with me presenting slides over the span of two days, with marginal time dedicated to discussion. This was OK — people got a lot of value out of it — but I always knew something was missing. I was drained at the end of each day, and felt as if I were talking into a vacuum. Additionally, I knew I could provide more value to the attendees without adding more time or content.
This summer, I switched up the format of the class. Instead of 25 students watching a GotoWebinar presentation, it’s 14 in a Google Hangout with me. I’ve ditched the slides in favor of discussion (which is still guided by all the material that was on the slides.) And instead of dedicating time for Q&A (which used to be at the end of the day), we regularly break into discussions and figure out how each attendee can apply what we’re covering to their business starting next week. The focus is now on the application of content, and not the instruction of content.
I also raised the price, from $1,199 to $1,799. However, 25 x $1,199 is still more than 14 x $1,799, so revenue has dropped a bit, but the results are better and I’m much happier with the product.
- Launched: July, 2013
- 2013 Revenue: $44,200
- Monthly time commitment: n/a (currently don’t have future bootcamps planned; may convert it with Patrick into a downloadable product, which will make the monthly engagement nothing on our part.)
This product was born through a Twitter conversation with @patio11. We were participating in a conversation about how, for a lot of consultants, recurring revenue is such an easy win. And while we chatted, a few of our mutual followers joined in — “How?”, “What do you mean?”
Well, a few minutes later I got a DM from Patrick: “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
And yes, that’s how the workshop was born. We hashed out the curriculum over the next few weeks, and then put together the marketing site.
We took a page from Nathan Barry’s playbook, and added tiers: The baseline tier came with just the live workshop, the middle tier had the workshop, an accountability group (there it is again!), and retainer templates. The highest tier was everything, but you could include 4 members of your team to join you and you’d get a followup Skype consult with Patrick and I.
A few months back, we hosted another, but instead of 60 attendees we had 11. We totally dropped the ball when it came to marketing and promotion, but none of us minded. It was still worth taking a day off to host the bootcamp.
Building Profitable Audiences
- Launched: September, 2013
- 2013 (Personal) Revenue: $3,867 (London) and $1,000 (Boston)
- Monthly time commitment: n/a
When you write a lot of pieces like this and make them publicly available, you’re going to get people emailing you for specifics about how you marketed, how you sold, what you wrote, why you wrote it that way, and so on.
That’s awesome, and I feel honored to be on the receiving end of such inquiries, but time is the one non-renewable resource that I never seem to have enough of.
So when MicroConf Europe was announced, my friend Nathan Barry and I thought it would be fun to merge our audiences and come together for a one day workshop that lays out exactly what we pulled off in a little over a year.
We reasoned: 1) It’s a great way to put a physical face on top of a name and 2) It could cover our expenses to get to Europe for the conference. Our friend Charlie Irish hooked us up with a swank old-fashioned London club and we had a great time meeting new people and outlining our strategies.
A few months later, we hosted another workshop, this one in Boston right before Business of Software. Thoughtbot traded their conference room for two seats at the table, and we had a great time talking to a group from this side of the pond.
Nathan and I are on the fence about whether we’ll do another run of the workshop, this one online. Drop me an email if you’d be up for attending and I’ll add you to the interest list.
- Launched: February, 2013
- 2013 Revenue: $18,500
- Monthly time commitment: 5 hours per client
I was debating whether or not to include my coaching revenue, as it’s more akin to consulting than what most would consider a product.
However, the “top tier” of my product line is definitely the coaching I provide. You can buy one of my books at a relatively low cost, but it’s like hearing me through a megaphone. There’s not really a natural path to getting your questions answered or having the author cast the information against your specific situation. On the higher end, you have my workshops, which are a mixture of curriculum and group coaching. But on the highest end, my coaching clients get direct access to me. I come onboard as a silent partner, and weigh in on their current bizdev strategy, their active leads, personnel issues, and so on.
I really enjoy it, if only because it reminds me of both what I wish I had when running my consultancy (I was a single founder.) I’m not sure how much longer I’ll continue offering coaching, though, as it requires me to step into another company — heart, soul, and mind — which causes me to lose focus on my other products.
The net total revenue this year clocks in at
$308,345 $324,073, with expenses at about $50k (most of which are for conferences and travel, and not need-to-have infrastructure costs.)
UPDATE: Since this post was published a few weeks before the end of the year, some of the revenue that’s been added since is missing. Since publishing the first version, another $15,728 of revenue has been added — not too shabby for taking most of the month of December off! Also, I ran a 1-day sale on my books the week before Christmas which netted about $6,000 in added revenue. I’ll be updating this post with the final numbers on January 1.
A few weeks ago, I polled a few of my customers and asked them what sort of ROI they can directly trace to something of mine.
54 people filled out the survey, and based on their feedback it looks like I can confirm I helped my customers bring in at least $1,240,520 in new revenue this year.
The money is obviously nice, and affords me a more-than-comfortable lifestyle, but what’s most important is that I’m helping people learn what I’ve either figured out through trial and error, or researched on their behalf. And even if someone has everything they need to be more successful, a good kick in the ass (as some of my Masterclass students have put it) might be just what they need
I asked my customers to not only tell me what kind of added revenue I helped them add to their bottom lines, but also how. Much of this feedback will serve as glowing testimonials on future iterations of my sales websites, but I’ve decided not to include them in this post.
What’s important, and why I wanted to close with this section, is that making people better off and making a great income don’t need to be mutually exclusive. If I wasn’t positive that I was doing something beneficial and something worthwhile, I don’t think I could wake up each day and get to work doing what I do best — build products to solve people’s problems.
There are some people who think selling books, courses, and even B2B tools is unflattering. That there are opportunities to “change the world” or “disrupt”. They often reference Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and other luminaries who launch big projects to big audiences.
I just have a few thousand customers. My income is in the six-figures, but it won’t be in the seven (or eight) figures for a while. I’m not looking to “disrupt consulting”.
All I care about is making people better than they were before they met me. This can be done through software, through books, through classes, or through blog posts like this. If the $10,000 I added to Martin Clarke’s bottom line can help him go on that much needed vacation with his significant other, then I’ve changed the world. Or if the $40k that Brent Weber’s added so far to his business can help him and his family have fewer cash flow concerns or save faster, then I’ve changed the world once again.
Want more products advice like this?
Here's something I wrote that I think you'll like, "The Business of Freelancing, Episode 12: Transitioning From Consulting To Products With Rob Walling"