By now, I’ve burned through just about every stock photo of a laptop/coffee cup that exists on the internet, so I wanted to mix it up a bit for this month’s blog income report. When I saw this pic of a clueless baby messing around on a laptop, I knew it was perfect.
That baby is me. Metaphorically.
Even though we just had our best month ever, I almost feel just as lost as I did on Day 1 of blogging. There are so many things to learn, and so many new challenges as you try to hit the next level of scaling. I guess that’s one of the things I really like about this sort of work.
Like that baby, Ben and I are pretty much learning new stuff every day and trying to not make too much of a mess. And, like babies, some days are better than others.
Anyway, the last income report we posted was October 2018 (2 months ago), where we generated just under $62k in revenue.
For reference, here are the last few reports we’ve done (we only do a few each year):
- How We Made $28,785 Blogging this Month (August 2018)
- How We Made $17,640 Blogging this Month (April 2018)
- How We Made $12,372 Blogging this Month (January 2018)
Fast forward to this month, and we generated $104,097 in total revenue. It was our first 6 figure month, which is really neat. That brings 2018’s total accrued revenue at $441,860.
Here’s a visual of the last two years of revenue:
But, here is a more accurate depiction of how we got here:
I’m more proud of the left half of this graph than I am of the right. It’s easy to keep going when things are going well, but it’s another thing to keep going when literally nothing is working.
The left side of this graph involved:
- Burning through my (meager) life savings in 9 months
- Seeing friends advance in their careers while I moved straight backward
- Probably some minor depression due to everything sucking for a prolonged period of time
- Getting a job at a psych ward for $11.36 an hour that involved:
- Serving meal trays
- Giving people baths
- Doing “safety checks” on each patient every 15 minutes. For 12 hours.
All this to say, our success did not happen overnight. And it probably won’t happen overnight for you, either. We all have our own unique set of hurdles that we have to get past before we reach some level of success.
Anyway, that’s my disclaimer before you write this off as “just another one of those six-figure income reports I can’t relate to.”
A Brief Background of our Business
Our main blog is DollarSprout.com, a personal finance blog geared towards 25-35-year-olds. Between our two blogs, I would estimate that approximately 95% of our time is spent on DollarSprout and about 5% on BTOP.
Affiliate Marketing: $102,354
Course Sales and Coaching: $740 (net earnings, after affiliate payouts)
Sponsored Posts: $0
In my last income report, I did a video showing proof of earnings. We’ve added more affiliates since then and things are more spread out, so I’m skipping a video this time. I don’t think it really adds much value to this report. And if you don’t believe our numbers, a video probably won’t help change your mind 🙂
This includes freelance writers, virtual assistants, content editors, etc.
Facebook ads: $4,054
Hosting-related services (billed annually): ~$99/month
Email marketing: $250/mo
Premium services (billed annually): ~$200-$300/month
These are typically plugin related. Think backups, theme support, security, social sharing, etc.
Web design project (category pages): $1,571
Random expenses: $1,061
Total expenses: $19,025
Net Profit: $85,072
Note: Yes, I know I’m using accrual accounting for revenue and cash accounting for expenses. And I know this isn’t the right way to do it. For now, it hasn’t caused any problems because Ben and I take very modest salaries, so we haven’t run into any cash flow issues (knock on wood). Starting in 2019, we will be working more closely with our accountant to keep better tabs on things.
This was our best traffic month so far. The bulk of each site’s traffic is coming from Google, which we are quite thankful for.
What Our Team Looks Like Now
Ben and I are trying to grow our business as fast as possible without being reckless. Sometimes that is easier said than done, but I think we are doing a decent job at least for now.
Here’s a rough look at how we have everything set up:
There are times when I wish I had some idea how big publishers do it. I’d love to be an intern at GoBankingRates or Forbes or something for a summer, just to see how the heck these guys publish so much good stuff all the time. For now, though, we will keep flying blind 🙂
New Developments and Things We’ve Learned
When you read this section, keep in mind that this is just what’s going on with us — and it might not apply to your particular business model or stage in blogging.
DollarSprout is Ad-Free as of 12/29
Yep. You won’t find a single display ad on our site now (we still use Mediavine on BTOP, though). We had quite a few reasons for deciding to ditch ads, and it’s something that’s been in the works for months.
Affiliate marketing is what we happen to be good at. Display ads can clutter that user experience and slow down a website, so, for us, they didn’t align with our long term goals for DollarSprout.
Since we’ve been tapering the ads off for a while now, finally killing them off thankfully won’t be a huge shock to our income. If we kept them at our original density and on all of our articles, Ben and I estimate we would probably be earning $10-20k per month from them. When I look at it that way, it definitely stings. However, the pros outweigh the cons for us:
- Better user experience
- Which leads to better branding
- Focus can now 100% be on our content and affiliates
- Everything is so much cleaner
- We join some of our role models in being 100% display ad-free (Nerdwallet, Penny Hoarder, Student Loan Hero, The Simple Dollar, etc). We want to one day be on the same level as them, and this is one thing we all now have in common.
Extra note: I have nothing but good things to say about Mediavine, and I highly recommend them! Working with them has been a very positive experience. They offer a really, really valuable service to content creators. Absolutely no ill will!
We Started Using Asana
Ben and I have been notoriously bad about keeping any sort of editorial calendar, but I swear that will change! Starting in 2019, we are using Asana to create and manage our editorial calendar. Check it out:
With major help from Megan (aka, Megan 100% is responsible for all of this), we are now scheduled to post 28 posts in January on DollarSprout. We paid $25 for this course and it was awesome. I would have tried to become an affiliate for it, but then I realized the guy who made it actually used to work for (own?) a competitor website. I’d rather spare the potential awkwardness and just have him keep 100% of any sales this shoutout may drive 🙂
I’m still getting the hang of Asana, but I think this will give us a pretty good infrastructure to build off of as we attempt to scale to 50-75+ articles a month by the end of 2019. I can’t manage everything with whiteboards and a notebook like I’ve been doing up until now.
We’re Going to Hire a “Virtual CFO”
Going back to the image of the baby on the laptop, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Ben and I need all the help we can get when it comes to managing our business finances.
Things are quickly becoming more complex, and I know it’s only going to get more involved as we keep growing. As I said in an earlier note, we’ve been able to “get away with it” for a while now because Ben and I are pretty conservative when it comes to taking money out of the business.
We’ve been working with a coach/CPA for the past few months and it’s been very helpful, so we are probably going to bring in on in a more involved capacity.
Some issues we’ve been dealing with:
- Tax filing status (S-Corp vs LLC, etc)
- Human Resources stuff
- Hiring employees
- Managing invoices
- Risk Management
- How much to reinvest each month
- Planning for different scenarios. What are the first things we cut, where do we double down, etc. Scenarios like:
- Income drops to $50k/mo
- Income drops to $25k/mo
- Income doubles to $200k/mo
- Managing Cashflow – As our spending and payroll expenses increase, this will become extremely important.
- We are switching to 100% accrual-based accounting in 2019 (not my tapestry of cash and accrual)
- Receivables management
- So far we are almost always paid on time, but I know it won’t always be like that
- We have 17+ platforms that earn income, some of which contain a dozen or more advertisers. It’s a lot to track.
I think this will cost us somewhere around $500 a month, but in return, I will get my sanity back. I think it’s a fair deal.
To give some context to the next few items, here is what I wrote in our October 2o18 income report:
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it’s going to take for us to reach the “next level” of blogging success.
Luckily for us, there are a LOT of sites in our niche that I can look up to for inspiration, both in terms of tactics and overall strategy.
What I found is this:
- The players getting millions of monthly page views in our niche aren’t selling courses or products. Everything is free.
- They are not simply a repository of content. The pros guide their readers through a transformation or a decision.
That last one was huge wake up call for me.
As I look at our site right now, DollarSprout is just a big conglomerate of blog posts on a bunch of different financial topics. It’s basically up to the reader to navigate their way through our site and hopefully find something that is helpful to them.
It’s not that our current strategy can’t get us results (it definitely can, and is), but I’m sensing that there is going to be a ceiling for our growth if we continue on this path.
Fast forward to now, and I think we have a better idea of what this whole “guide your readers on a journey” thing is going to look like for us.
Here are some new things we are working on. Pretty much everything here is a work in progress with no results yet, so don’t assume any of this stuff is a good idea (remember, our Shopify store was a total bust).
Redesigning Category Pages
Most category pages on blogs suck. They are essentially just a massive blog roll of every post in that category, with no real structure at all. DollarSprout was no different up until recently.
Here’s what we have now:
I know this picture makes it kind of hard to see, but our pages are built much more intentionally now. We have cornerstone content at the top, and then more specific sections until you get to the “latest articles” feed at the bottom. There is still a bunch of tweaking I want to do to each of these pages, but I think this is a million times better than what we used to have.
Once we get the kinks worked out on these pages and add a new page for our Banking category, a home page redesign will be next.
Creating Quizzes for Product Recommendations
Now, I just started working on this last night, so it’s in the VERY early stages. I’m sure I will look back on this in a month or two and cringe, but that’s how blogging goes.
As we expand our affiliate offerings, I want to make sure we are guiding readers to the right products for them. I think we as publishers have a responsibility to do that, but it’s not always easy to do. It’s much more practical to say “hey, this is what I like and use, and you should do the same.”
While that’s the route we’ve taken for a long time, I want to move away from the “endorsement model” and more towards the “best for you” model. I mean, I don’t personally use 30 different banking and investment apps. But that doesn’t mean DollarSprout can’t be a legitimately helpful and ethical affiliate for dozens of competing products.
I’ll give you an example:
Let’s say we are affiliates for two banks. Bank A and Bank B.
Bank A offers a very high-interest rate but has an account minimum.
Bank B has a slightly lower interest rate, but zero account minimums.
Which bank do you tell your readers to join?
(And no, it’s not the bank with the higher affiliate payout)
It’s the bank that best fits the reader!
It depends on your reader’s personal situation. Now, it might be easy to explain that to a reader when you are comparing two products, but the job gets harder when there are several competing products.
So, I’m experimenting with making “quizzes” to help guide readers/consumers to making smarter choices.
Again, this is very early stages and was more of an experiment than anything else. But I think I can make this a bit more robust and helpful. After I made this particular quiz, I learned about “branching logic“, so now I need to go back and incorporate that in.
Another application I am excited for with this is for our content on making money. A common complaint pretty much all personal finance bloggers who promote paid online surveys get is “I barely made any money doing this and it was a waste of time”… no matter how clearly you disclose that “hey, this is a mindless task that will make you a few extra bucks each month. It won’t make you rich.”
By using this sort of system, I think we can more effectively funnel people into the right opportunities for them. If someone wants to build a business, we don’t want them to sign up to drive for Lyft or take some surveys for $20 a month. We want them to learn about blogging, e-commerce, virtual assisting, etc.
This is a mammoth project because it involves not only building the quizzes themselves, it also means going back through all of our old content and adding them in, removing endorsement-esque verbiage, etc.
Research Studies and Personal Stories
I made this post a couple of weeks ago in our Facebook group:
So yeah, I want to share more personal stories on our site to inspire people. We’ve got a decent platform to help a lot of people….way, way beyond what we are doing now.
We’ve also come up with a few “research studies” that we are going to work on in conjunction with the content marketing agency we just hired, which I think will be really neat. Those will hopefully have some SEO benefits down the road, but for now, I’m just excited to get some more totally non-monetized content on our site.
Now that our business is at a point where I’m not worried about covering rent and basic needs each month, I want to allocate some of our earnings towards more “cool” stuff like this. Not just for brand building, but just because it would be cool.
A Quick Word on Competition Research
Gotta get this one off my chest, so bear with me.
So, I’ve always been a big fan of drawing inspiration from your competitors. Studying them, seeing what they do right, where they are weak, etc. I do it basically every day, probably way more than people realize.
I can tell you the latest projects of many of the big (and small) names in our space, I can tell you who’s getting crushed by Google, who’s quietly dominating under the radar, who’s FB ad arbitrage is not working like it used to, I can tell you what’s sparked layoffs at certain publishers in the past 2 years, who’s spending WAY more than they are disclosing in their income reports, who is suddenly no longer even publishing income reports, etc. Not to sound full of myself, but I think I do a pretty good job of keeping tabs on our competitive landscape.
Whenever I tell people to “study their competition”, way too often I see people take that as “copy your competition.”
That is not what I mean.
Please don’t throw quizzes up on your website or shut off ads because you saw us do it. Most of the time when I see people copy us (or anyone, for that matter), I see them using a tactic without understanding the underlying strategy. And one without the other is a waste of time.
Someone may see that we rank #1 for the keyword “HealthyWage Review”. They see that it’s New Years, lots of people are trying to lose weight, and this is the perfect affiliate for that. So, they create a strikingly similar article to ours. Same headings, structure, etc. Not blatant plagiarism, but definitely a gray area of “copying”.
They’ve copied the one visible tactic they see (write an SEO optimized review with affiliate links), but they have ignored the strategy.
- They see the article was updated in December 2018, but they don’t see that the original post was written in 2017 and it’s been aging on Google for a year.
- They don’t see how we’ve driven internal link equity to that article
- They don’t understand that those social shares matter
What you have is a blogger who has deviated from their own game plan because they’ve seen another blogger do something that is working. They allocate time (their most precious resource) towards a task with incomplete information, and it doesn’t bring them any closer to their goals. And it doesn’t hurt me as a competitor, because I know the imitator doesn’t know the entire strategy.
This happens all the time with copying (no one actually copied our HealthyWage article as far as I know; that was just an example).
To be fair, I’ve been on the other side of this before. Maybe not quite to the level of direct copying, but my decisions were definitely influenced by someone else’s success.
Example: Sarah Titus releases a $400k+ income report, and within two weeks I have a Shopify shop up on DollarSprout. I copied the tactic that I thought was connected to success, but I didn’t appreciate the complexity of the strategy involved. It turns out that it’s a heck of a lot more involved than just making a bunch of printables and throwing up some links on your blog (btw, Sarah just released a course teaching her entire process). I was in way over my head right from the start but was blinded by the shiny object syndrome.
Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that. Don’t copy people. And if you do, make sure you at least create something better than they did 🙂
Goals for 2019
Alright, here’s what we have on the docket for this year:
- Readers: 20,000,000
- Revenue: $2,000,000
- Profit: $1,000,000
- Jobs Created: 2 full-time, 10 part-time/freelance (on top of what we have)
- Publish 75 Articles in December 2019
- Move to fully functional 1st party affiliate link management system
Let’s do it!