A content marketing pioneer talks about its evolution
Brian Clark is founder of the pioneering content marketing website Copyblogger, the personal growth newsletter Further, and Unemployable, a resource that provides smart strategies for freelancers and entrepreneurs.
Both the Guardian and Advertising Age have recognized Copyblogger as one of the most powerful and influential blogs in the world.
In this episode we talk about what content marketing looks like today, curation, creating software, how to prepare for a sale of your business, and why empathy has been the key to creating so much value for himself and others.
Transcript and show notes can be found here
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Brian Clark 0:00
Pre 2012 was the golden age of social media for entrepreneurs and content creators, because the organic traffic was just nuts.
Jay Clouse 0:11
Welcome to Creative Elements, a show where we talk to your favorite creators and learn what it takes to make a living from your art and creativity. I'm your host, Jay Clouse. Let's start the show.
Jay Clouse 0:38
Hello, welcome back to another episode of Creative Elements. It's always great to spend some time with you here on the show, wherever you are, whatever you're up to. Actually, I'd love to hear when you typically listen to this show. Are you on a walk? Are you out for a run? Are you doing the dishes? Whatever it is, I'd love to hear about it. Just send me a message on Twitter or Instagram @JayClouse, let me know when you typically listen to the show. Speaking of this show, a lot of the guests on the show talk about what comes down to the concept of quote unquote, content marketing. The phrase content marketing is about as boring as definition, a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience. And ultimately, to drive profitable customer action. As boring as that all sounds is really, really effective. And it seems like it's becoming the norm for the way creators think about promoting their products and services. But it hasn't always been this way. It really only began to take hold in the mid to late 2000s. Enter today's guest, Brian Clark. Brian describes himself as an entrepreneur. He's had some very successful businesses, some that he shut down. And of course, at least one that has failed. Now, in the late 90s, Brian was practicing as an independent lawyer, and to bring in new clients, he focused on writing articles that would get people's attention through search.
Brian Clark 2:00
What I call my freelance phase was really a solo attorney, all I learned was how to market myself, which was interesting, the failed business was built around email newsletters, which in '98 were a big deal. Oh, yeah, they're a big deal in 2020. Ain't that interesting.
Jay Clouse 2:20
Ryan realized that he didn't really like practicing law. So he looked for another way that he could leverage his writing skills on the internet for another type of business. He tried real estate. And lo and behold, his style of writing to build trust that the reader worked in real estate too. But then Brian realized what he really wanted to do was just make a living writing on the internet. And so we started copyblogger.com.
Brian Clark 2:42
And it took off, you know, I was basically talking about selling things with a blog or selling things with content. This was two years before content marketing had a name, but that's effectively what I was doing and teaching. So when, you know, everyone decided we were going to call it as boring but I guess there's no better name for it than content marketing. You know, that's really what Copyblogger was about from the beginning.
Jay Clouse 3:10
Since January 2006, Copyblogger has been teaching people how to create killer online content. Not bland corporate crap created a fill up a company webpage, but valuable information that attracts attention, drives traffic and build your business. Both The Guardian and Advertising Age have recognized Copyblogger as one of the most powerful and influential blogs in the world. And Copyblogger started as a simple one man blog, it was just Brian. The team never took venture capital and admitted to eight figures in annual revenue and high profit margins without advertising. The company then created software as a service, web hosting, WordPress themes and plugins, courses and conferences, all completely bootstrapped. Along the way, Brian created StudioPress, a WordPress design and hosting business, which he sold to WP Engine in 2018. And he created Rainmaker Digital Services, a hybrid services and technology company that he sold in 2019. All of that success has led to Brian being recognized as a pioneer of the now $44 billion dollar content marketing industry. He's been featured in books by Seth Godin, James Clear, Dan pink, Chris Guillebeau, Michael Hyatt and more.
Brian Clark 4:19
I think the thing I'm proudest of is all the people who you know, if you can name someone that's got a decent profile that's been around since you know, for the last 10 or 15 years, they'll probably tell you they read Copyblogger or they they probably guess posted for Copyblogger. And that I think is the thing that really kind of Jazz's me up when I look back on the whole crazy ride that has been.
Jay Clouse 4:46
So in this episode, we talk about what content marketing looks like today, curation, creating software, how to prepare for the sale of your business, and why empathy has been the key to creating so much value for himself and others. I love hear your thoughts on this episode as you listen, you can find me on Twitter or Instagram @JayClouse, if you haven't already joined our Creative Elements, listeners group on Facebook, it's never been a better time. But now, without further ado, let's hear from Brian.
Brian Clark 5:18
The first business, you know, I knew nothing man, I was a liberal arts major with a law degree. I never took a business class, I never read a marketing book. And but I just kind of figured things out back then you had to figure things out by watching other people and, you know, talking to other people who were trying things. So I basically figured out that instead of trying to sell advertising for my email, newsletters, I should sell stuff. And the only thing I could sell was legal services. So that's what I did, because I was running out of money pretty quickly. And then the .com, crash hit that killed the first business dead, which was a blessing. And it was at that point, I was like, Okay, I need to start a real business, that's not law. And because I knew I was doing well, again, if you can bring in clients, you can do well, but I knew I didn't want to be an attorney, I just don't enjoy it. So I decided to start a real estate brokerage, not because I had any kind of particular passion for real estate, it was just something that I could use my background as a credibility booster. And I could make a lot of money, you know, it was just like, clearly prove yourself as an entrepreneur type thing. And it worked. I was, again, really good at marketing, really bad at management. Meaning that I just didn't know how to delegate, I didn't know how to create systems and processes. So I worked so hard, you know, because I was conscientious enough not to let things fall through the cracks. But without systems and delegation, and all that good stuff. It just means you're working 16 hour days, and I was miserable. So long story short, I was successful, but not happy. And I did another walk away kind of thing like I did when I quit the law firm job. And said, I want to, you know, I want to operate solely online. I don't want to do these, you know, digital real world hybrids anymore. I don't care if I make a ton of money, I just want to make a living and be happy. I basically looked around it's 2005. And blogging is beginning to grow out of its more idealistic phase and start becoming commercial stuff, Darren Ross's pro blogger was trying to teach people how to make a living from blogging, there were some other sites that did the same thing. And I was like, Hey, you know, I can contribute to this conversation. Because I've been using content and email marketing, you know, and in essence, building audiences of prospects in order to build these businesses. So Copyblogger, believe it or not, was the first true blog I ever started. I dabbled in it several times, you know, just, you know, stuff that I thought was interesting, because blogging was really supposed to be journaling to a certain degree. You know, it wasn't really like what it turned into. But with Copyblogger, even though it was my first official blog, I wanted a magazine more than I wanted a blog. And that's what I did differently. At the very beginning, you know, blogging was supposed to be only about one person, and it was about your opinions and maybe what you had for lunch. And instead, I came out and started writing thousand word educational articles, started taking guest posters, as I, you know, grew an audience, you know, did everything anti blogging, but it was really just like a digital magazine. And I think that's how you see a lot of blogs are these days, but really what I was trying to do, because, you know, I never, you know, growing up or even through school, considered becoming an entrepreneur, it just never crossed my mind. But that it turns out, you know, when I, what I really wanted to do was write but that's what drew me to the internet. You know, I didn't want to write novels for New York publishers or screenplays for you know, Hollywood. The internet just kind of entranced me in the 90s. Because I'm like, I don't have to ask anyone's permission I can write and people will read it, and I'll figure out how to make money from it. Well, obviously, at first I didn't, but then I did. And again, that's, you know, what we call content marketing. Now I would give away free information, as a lawyer as a real estate broker. And then later as Copyblogger basically, I was trying to teach these would be bloggers, people who also wanted to write into entrepreneurs. And little did I know how difficult that would be?
Jay Clouse 10:11
I'm trying to put myself back in the space of 2005. Because when you're talking about, you know, personal blogs and being kind of a journal, I'm thinking of like Xanga in live journal. Can you tell me more about what the landscape was like then as you were seeing it, and if there were any other people who were kind of thinking down the same line that you were?
Brian Clark 10:32
Yeah, so there were a lot of the big bloggers back then were in tech. Mainly, you had, I don't know, if you're familiar with The Cluetrain Manifesto. It's about, you know, human conversations. And, you know, this was, again, kind of the Kumbaya phase of blogging. Robert Scoble was a big deal, Steve Rubel and TechCrunch started, at that time, Michael Arrington started as a solo blogger, just like I did, took on a more of a magazine format, just like I did. And then he sold fairly early on to Huffington Post, Huffington Post, was also an early quote unquote, blog. But again, you can see right there the difference between how Arianna and Michael Arrington approached blogging, they approached it as a media publication. And that was very much my thing as well, which rubbed some of these purist bloggers the wrong way, the only thing I can say about their initial criticism was they misread their audiences, their audiences were very interested in what I had to say. And that's why Copyblogger grew so quickly, you know, I got nice mentions from people like Darren Rouse and the late Liz Strauss, those were early friends and advocates for Copyblogger. But there were plenty of people who like to hate on me, but they all they did was send their audiences over to me. And it's so interesting, right? You know, you just show up and you try to help people. And you say, hey, look, I've been doing this for seven years, now it works. But you need to change your mindset about this and sell products and services, not advertising. And some people just didn't like that. But the market, if you will, was ready to hear that, because it's really hard to make money with advertising, you need such a mass scale. But you know, I mean, we all know now that if you five or 10,000, engaged people on an email list can make an entire business.
Jay Clouse 12:41
Yeah. Talk to me about some of the signals that you were seeing that were validating your hypothesis about where blogging was going, like, when did you start to see okay, actually, this is playing out the way I expected, or maybe I need to shift this little piece of it.
Brian Clark 12:56
The signal was that people were interested in commercial writing, if you will, in a new environment, a new context. And when when I looked back at what I had been doing for the last seven years before, that's how I made businesses I'm like, yeah, this this has got to be a match. And again, I I never envisioned it would become what it has into, say that blogging, or what have you was anti commercial, probably, you know, younger people or people who weren't paying attention back then probably just go are you kidding me? I mean, it's just so no one has any qualms anymore. You know, it's just a completely different world. But if you if you were there, you see how it evolves step by step. You know, social media didn't go mainstream until 2010. It's hard to remember the days before Facebook and Twitter being so dominant, but our version of social media back then were blogs, social bookmarking sites, like Delicious and social new sites like Digg, that was the early social media. And then it just continued to evolve. And we certainly use those new platforms. I talked about this all the time, how pre 2012 was the golden age of social media for entrepreneurs and content creators, because the organic traffic was just nuts. But as soon as Zuckerberg pulled the bait and switch and said, Oh, you got to pay now to reach the audience that you built on my platform, which we should have seen coming obviously. That's when everything changed, you know, but again, if you weren't in the game back then you have no idea what it was like when you hit the Digg homepage and had to hold your servers up from the onslaught of traffic. So it was really an inefficient audience building move, but it was, quote unquote free. What people don't realize is the amount of time we spent creating better content, you know, just one upping each other time and time again, in order to get that viral traffic. So you attract a million people to get 100,000 subscribers. Now you can, you know, do Facebook advertising. And if you understand exactly who you're trying to reach, you can just fill out that psychographic profile, and voila, low cost ads, you only get the people you want. But that's a very different dynamic that what we used to do.
Jay Clouse 15:37
When we come back, Brian, and I talk about the difficult competition that greater space today, and why empathy is still our best strategy right after this.
Jay Clouse 15:48
Welcome back. A lot of the creators I talked to on this show have referenced the 2010 to 2012 timeframe, as when they were getting started creating content, it seems like those who did get in the game around that time, did find a lot of benefit from organic traffic. So I asked Brian, what are some of the major market shifts he remembers and how content was created and discovered from the late 2000s to today?
Brian Clark 16:11
Yeah, that's a great question because before social media became truly pay to play, that's the bright line. For me. That's when everything changed. But you have to understand that those of us who were building audiences before that point, we had the audience already, you know, it's it's just like the rich get richer situation. So 2010 to 2018. When we when we sold StudioPress. You know, we we were already just audience rich, and you know, which allowed us to go from about 3 million in revenue to 12 million in revenue, totally bootstrapped. No investors, no advertising, Jay, I mean, can you? Can you even imagine that now?
Jay Clouse 16:59
No, I'm wildly jealous.
Brian Clark 17:01
Yeah, it's just, it was a different time. So that's my big thing now. My whole position when I'm trying to help people is like, Look, you got to be very careful about some of these people selling blogging courses or content marketing courses, who are teaching you what they did in a different world, right? Just create great content and put it out there on social and then SEO and I'm like, yeah, right. I mean, it's not the same environment, you got to adapt to the new reality. I will say, as much as I dislike Facebook, it's the greatest advertising platform in the history of the world. And that's the problem and the benefit, you know, I mean, that's why it gets abused by people with bad intentions. But you know, it's the ability to target exactly who you want, just makes understanding exactly the audience, you'd like to have. So much more important. And that's what I try to get people to focus on. Who do you want? Right? Do you understand it's not just the topic? It's not just wellness, or whatever it is, you're you want to talk about? It's the type of person within that topic. That is so crucial. And I found that a lot of people don't think about that.
Jay Clouse 18:22
Can you talk more about that, because you're very audience first. And that's not attack that everybody takes and coming from a place where you were able to hit the Digg homepage and get, you know, like you said, 10s of thousands, hundreds of thousands of subscribers, how did you even dial in who those subscribers were, and which ones you really wanted to cater to.
Brian Clark 18:45
So back then it was really the topic and how I communicated with them. And I'm very, very in tune with that now. From an empathetic standpoint, like you have to be able to not only put yourself in the shoes of your ideal prospect, you have to be able to walk the path in them, you know, so because essentially, what we do is guide people, we mentor people, they have a problem or a desire, and we try to take them to our solution to help them. So I at the time, now I do this deliberately, the back then, it was just that dreaded word, I guess, authenticity. So the people who connected with me, were the people who got my pop cultural references, and my kind of irreverent sense of humor, you know, and because I was just being me, while focused on them, if that makes any sense at all. Yeah, you know, so the people who stuck with me ended up being largely Gen Xers like me. They were me because they got all the prints references, and the Depeche Mode analogy. I mean, I used to, that's another thing that I guess I was early in on the whole metaphor or analogy through pop culture, which got abused so much that they started calling it critics would call it the Copyblogger effect. Like, like, look, don't blame me because people suck and making analogies. I mean, I'm good at it. So you don't blame me. But it was true, it became, it became such a thing that we kind of got the backlash for. But but it done well, with the right people, it was incredibly effective, because, you know, we talked about engagement and connection. But when you can deliver value to someone through a shared cultural lens, a time that you both shared on this planet, that is kind of putting yourself in their shoes. Just at the time, I wasn't as sophisticated as about it, you know, I, I was doing the right things. But I didn't necessarily know why.
Jay Clouse 21:10
To put kind of a bow on the content marketing part of this conversation that I want to focus on. What do you recommend to creators today who are considering content marketing, or are already creating content, who may be spinning their wheels or just aren't sure how to really get started in a good way?
Brian Clark 21:28
The toughest part about you know, content marketing is just, you know, the conveyor belt the the hamster wheel, if you will, you just create and create and create. And if it, if you connect with people, it's well worth it. But there's way more competition these days, there's too much content. That doesn't mean people aren't interested, the more information there is out there, and a lot of it is a dubious accuracy. You know, I mean, we have a real crisis in content right now, whether in the news or what have you. People don't know what's real, what's fake? What's clickbait, what's quality. So, while I would never shift away from the need for original content, a lot of what I do these days is is built around curation, which is the value proposition is I will do the work for you of finding the most relevant stuff related to problem or desire x, if you sign up with me, right. And for a person that's just beginning, think about how much more powerful that is, then, I know you don't know me, but I'm going to write something and send it to you every week. I mean, does that sound compelling to you, Jay?
Jay Clouse 22:51
Brian Clark 22:55
Right? So I think and and it's not like everyone doesn't have imposter syndrome. To begin with, we all have gone through that. So it can be very tough to try to say, I know what I'm talking about, and you should listen to me. But if you say I'll do the work, they editorial work for you to find this stuff. And then you insert your own writing within there, guess what, over time, you're not only an editorial, or industry or niche expert, they're also reading your work or listening to your podcast or watching your videos, whatever the case may be. And then guess what, over time, you've got all the credibility in the world. And that's why I tell people, you've got to find a way to get people to pay attention. It doesn't have to be about you. It has to be about them. And then over time, it'll become about you in their minds. And that's, that's the tipping point. And it's wonderful.
Jay Clouse 23:54
That's really, really great advice, because I've been looking around at some of these people who are doing curation. And the reason I haven't done more of it personally was, it just felt like, I wasn't building the same type of relationship that I wanted with these people. Because I was basically giving them a quick menu of things that I thought was interesting, and they might trust my perspective, but they weren't learning from me necessarily. They weren't thinking about the fact that they were learning from me and I thought that would change the way that that whole model would have to be monetized eventually, but what you're saying is using it as kind of a stair step approach to getting in the door, starting to build a relationship, starting to insert your own voice a little bit more and more over time. And that being where you build a deeper relationship.
Brian Clark 24:41
Yeah, well, Jay, you're already a rock star is what you're really saying.
Jay Clouse 24:46
I'm not saying at all,
Brian Clark 24:48
I'm messing with you know, um, but no, you've got a great point there because when you when you say all I'll give you all the, you know, relevant stuff on this topic each week or whatever, in one of those happens to be your article. I mean, that should I don't want to call it like a backdoor approach. But it's just again, it's the value proposition, you know, you've got for things that come from other people's content that are, and, and then you know, then you've got your article as well. And you can even lead with that. But here's another thing, though curation can be incredibly persuasive. Because you are the editor, like if you're the editor of the New Yorker or the Atlantic, right, you are a powerful person.
Jay Clouse 25:37
Brian Clark 25:38
We don't think about it that way. But that's what a curator does. Because you're making the selections which reflect your worldview and your approach to the topic. You're also adding your own commentary, you're framing things in a certain way. So it's, it's an opportunity to really build topical and or industry expertise in a way that doesn't require you to write 10 articles a week, maybe you only write one, maybe you write none. But if you if you're doing it correctly, you're interjecting your self into it regardless, right.
Jay Clouse 26:20
I think that's a good perspective. And the more I think about some of the curation plays, it really drives home the point that there's just no shortcut to doing really good, valuable work, like you can look at the curation idea and think, oh, that's easy, I just write an email, put some links in there, send it and I'm doing that I'm going through the motions, and I'm, I'm doing what looks like the work. But if you're not really going above and beyond and, and really understanding the person on the other end of that email and really giving them the best stuff. It just doesn't work.
Brian Clark 26:53
Yeah, I think, you know, this goes back to the early blogging days, where you would have linked posts, they were completely worthless, you know, I mean, they were just easy and, and, you know, the you did them because you didn't have anything to say, or you didn't have the time to put something into it. On the other hand, trituration is, its work, you know, now, I will tell you, the longer you do it, the serendipity aspect of just being plugged in to what your audience responds to an all these data feeds, you know, from RSS to other people's newsletters to Twitter, or what have you. And then you have themes that you're going to come back to time and time again, my newsletter further, this happens all the time. And then you start taking positions effectively with your original content and the content that you're curate. And then I guess it's a form of confirmation bias, but then you start seeing things that support, you know, and if you're doing it correctly, you're you're taking legitimate positions, right? You know, like you're following a real trend. And of course, that trend continues to evolve, and you're able to provide updated information that supports it, because it's a real thing. I'm not trying to say that you only look for stuff to support a tenuous position that somehow supports your business model. I'm not saying that people don't do that. They probably do. But that's not what I advocate for at all. I'm just saying, if you're curating and developing editorial expertise, what you're doing is you're identifying trends, and likely scenarios that will result from those trends. And the more those scenarios become apparently true, the more support for it is going to come out. And that's really when your audience goes, Damn, this guy is smart. And really, all you're doing is paying attention. And sharing. Sharing is the important part. Because I can pay attention all day long to what's happening in trend X or Y. But if I'm not sharing with others, I'm not building the audience. Therefore, I'm not building credibility and authority.
Jay Clouse 29:10
Yeah, I think about guys like Ben Thompson, who's been following the trends and technology for a long time, or Webb Smith, in the last few years has been following retail, like you really build a unique lens and ability to do some these predictions you're talking about when your content strategy is really being on the edge of trends. I think it's an opportunity for a lot of people that don't even realize it because they may be drawn to the next big thing. They're staying on top of trends because it's just interesting to them. They're not creating content, that's opportunity for them. Some people like me, I look at that, and I think that seems exhausting. I'm interested in doing some things that are a little bit more evergreen, because the idea of putting so much time every week into something that's at the edge that will not be at the edge two months from now and maybe irrelevant two months from now. It just hurts me.
Brian Clark 30:00
Yeah, no, I get that. And I'm obviously a big fan of evergreen Copyblogger. God, I had to say it over and over. They're like, well, when was this article published, I'm like, it doesn't matter. It could have been published in 1925. It's still the fundamental truth because people don't change, context changes.
Jay Clouse 30:20
After the break, Brian and I continue our discussion about human nature, and the things that never change. And a little bit later, Brian talks about the sale of StudioPress, and Rainmaker digital services. So stick around, and we'll be right back.
Jay Clouse 30:34
Welcome back to my conversation with Brian Clark. When we left off, Brian was talking about evergreen content. He told us that even though what you write about may be different as the context of our world changes. The truly evergreen aspects of content relate to the ways that humans and human nature don't change.
Brian Clark 30:51
And you can make an incredible business, if you can nail down the aspects of human nature that are fundamental, and then just frame it within the latest technology, the latest cultural political trend. But see, Jay, this is this is important. When we talked about trends, there are two components, right? There's a trend to say, augmented reality. But that doesn't mean anything by itself. What matters and where you contribute is, how does this affect humans? How are they going to what are they going to do with it? Right? What am I going to do with it? What can What can I help you do with it? So the evergreen aspect of all of this is people.
Jay Clouse 31:42
Brian Clark 31:42
For better or worse, they don't seem to want to change. But their context is rapidly changing all the time. And that's what's freaking out the world, basically. So if you can make sense of that for people, you're combining, effectively, I think the evergreen with the new and ever changing. And think about that you never run out of something to talk about whether you're talking about someone else's content, or you're creating your own. And to me that's refreshing, you know, because I can remember those times when I had a, I would write two long form articles a week for copy blogger. And I had to get one out the next day and had no idea what to write. I hate that feeling. Because you feel like you just have to show up to show up. But when you're driven, because you pay attention to something that's changing, and this is going to be the case going forward ever more rapidly every single year? Like 2020? What, like what's happened in the last two weeks? I can't even recount that for you. Okay, so.
Jay Clouse 32:51
Brian Clark 32:52
Yeah, it's too much. But that's an opportunity, though, you know, if you can stay calm, pick a focus, focus on value to the audience and just try to make sense of the world for them. That is how you build an audience, you build a business, you become a personal brand, if you want to think about it that way. You know, it's it's an amazing opportunity. But yeah, I think you made a good point earlier, when you're like people think curation is somehow just this easy thing that's going to lead to riches. No, you've got to be, this has got to be your thing. Right? It can't be something you do in between episodes of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, you know, you I mean, I think a lot of people dream of being an entrepreneur or freelancer or owning your own business, whatever. But they think that means that they can go screw off more and no, probably not. But if you can find purpose and meaning in your work, and share that with others, you can make just ridiculous amounts of money, and have the most fulfilling life way better than watching reality TV, you know, your reality will be better than the show.
Jay Clouse 34:09
Part of what you're saying. That is an interesting framework for me to think through. I'm not sure I believe this, but it kind of came to me as you're talking. It's almost like human nature, core human nature, as we've known it as we've experienced it through history, plus current trends or, you know, universal capabilities. That's what creates culture, the combination of the two, one half of that kind of stays understood in some ways the human nature side can stand or stead. So if you are up on what's technologically possible and interesting right now, in terms of trends, you can start to understand how culture is evolving and how culture might evolve.
Brian Clark 34:47
No, I think I think that's dead on actually. I think you should believe that because that's, that's right. Like if I you identify a trend, like I just mentioned, augmented reality, we've been on the cusp of it beyond Pokemon Go for a bit. But until Apple releases those glasses, which are rumored to be coming next year, it's not going to go mainstream. So you just have to the scenario is, is really a function of time. Is it about is it happening now? is it happening within five years? You know, one year, what have you? And and that goes back to your question about what were the signals I was seeing about blogging, blogging started, I think, '98, '99. I didn't start doing it until 2006. But that was the time. That was the time. And that was the signal, I guess, is the best way to answer your question. Now that I think about it. The time was right, for something that had been going on for long enough to where, you know, in any insider industry, people are like, well, I should have started earlier. Now you may not be late at all.
Jay Clouse 35:55
Timing is really interesting. That's something that when you talk to investors, they ask more and more like, Well, why is this the right time? I've been blown away last couple weeks, how many Instagram ads I've seen about a like credit card shaped thing that is just near field communication with your contact information. So people come up to you say, Hear hear you just tap this card, because now Apple just released like this NFC update Near Field Communication update. And that technology is now enabled. But somebody new actually multiple companies, I've seen multiple different ads, multiple companies knew that this was coming and developed full products in advance of this developed ad campaigns in advance of this because they knew when that was released, they could start marketing that heavily through ads, that type of thing blows my mind.
Jay Clouse 36:40
Sometimes it's luck, though. I mean, you you you think okay, yeah, that that's useful. But now think about it this way. I don't want your COVID business card, right. I mean, so all of a sudden, it hockey sticks, that part's luck, you know, we need to talk about luck a little bit here, you know, because I, I'm sitting here telling you all the signals were clear, Jay and I made the right decision, you know, but you know, I've been lucky a lot too. And but I am a firm believer in that. You work hard, you get lucky.
Jay Clouse 37:13
Brian has talked a lot in this interview about empathy. And while Brian was building Copyblogger, he realized that there were some big problems his audience of content creators were facing. And those problems could be solved with better software. So despite not being a technical developer himself, Brian found a way to build software products to sell to his audience. And those software products created a lot of value for Brian and his readers.
Brian Clark 37:36
And people think that's such a leap. But with software, the key is not the code. The key is, what does someone want to accomplish, that they can't do now? Or they can't easily do now. And that's how you develop software products. So being non technical is not, it's not a problem, unless you tell yourself it is. The company that's now known as base camp was called 37 signals when I started Copyblogger. And I looked up to those guys. And I said, Man, I wish I could do that. So I didn't believe I could. And what, three years later, I did. And four years later, I did it again. And then I kept, kept doing it. But software is a worldview software is a philosophy, how should things work? To get things done? I know that sounds kind of esoteric, but my first move into the WordPress space, which has, you know, brought me much of my fortune, if you will, was just me using WordPress and going, why can't I do this, that this software, this open source software, which is free, it's awesome. But it's created by developers who don't think like normal people, and I'm a normal person. And a normal person wants this, this and this. And that's how we created the first WordPress design framework in 2008. A big draw to that to business users was that when you charge money, you can provide support, which open source does not I mean, so many businesses have been built around that think of Red Hat. I mean, it's Linux is free. But you know, business users don't want to mess with free software that they can't call someone on. And that just, you know, it went from 10,000 a month to 10,000 a day it was a rocket because we saw problems for ordinary content creators, which, despite the fact that I knew more about marketing than my audience, and that's why they followed me, I was them, when it came to getting stuff done, you know, to publishing, to optimizing all of that kind of thing. So that first WordPress product was based on my frustrations, our second software product in 2009. And this is pre Copyblogger Media when we combined everything and went for the moonshot was someone else's idea. Sean Jackson approached me at a conference. And he said, I have an idea for SaaS software as a service in the SEO space that incorporates your philosophies on SEO copywriting. And I'm like, I'm listening. And that was our first SAS. You know, that was another interesting thing, the growth of the SAS industry, among the little bootstrap companies, because of things like Amazon Web Services, and, you know, I mean, that that's amazing to me. There's so much you can do. But I just I think I feel like your question comes from a place of creative people that listen to the show, think they can't make software. Sure you can, you may need a partner or higher, but you're solving a problem. That's a creative function, it's not about the code code just makes it come to life. That's a different aspect of it.
Jay Clouse 41:26
I love that framework. Because you're right. And I think this is even more possible today, or a shorter leap today than it ever was before. Because with all the technology around us, it's a lot easier for us to imagine, as a user of whatever the service is, how would I want this to function? How should this function, like it's just born out of frustration from a user's perspective, whereas if you come at it with too much of a technical software lens, you might miss the whole point, which is just how does somebody engage with us and get the outcome that they want in the most?
Brian Clark 42:00
Yeah, I think that's exactly right. And I don't want to criticize the more technical people, that developers I mean, we couldn't do what we do without them. But they don't think like normal people.And, and even you know, once you are an experienced entrepreneur, you have to bring yourself back. Again, it's empathy, Jay, it's, if you are removed from the audience, you will miss the mark. So you always have and so developers and technical people miss the mark as they are removed from normal people, they can do superpowered things. And then they start to forget that most people don't even understand what they're talking about, much less could do what they can do. So it's a real opportunity for regular creative people to go, Well, that doesn't make sense. If you see software and go, that doesn't make sense, then you just spotted an opportunity, I think, but I think it comes down to mindset, I think we say, Oh, that's been done way too often. It's been done in a particular way, not necessarily the best way, or not necessarily the best way for segment of the population x. Or, or perhaps maybe there's just an entirely different way to think about this. And what is that? Is that a function of code? No, soon AI will write the code. But it's going to rely on Creative humans who have an empathetic connection to other humans to make their lives better and to solve a problem. I think there's more opportunity coming in the coming years than we've seen in my entire career. So if anyone's out there going, Well, you know, he started in 1998. And then he took a big leap in 2006. And it's all passed me by I don't see it that way. For example, augmented and virtual reality is going to reinvent the entire web, the entire internet is going to change. You're at the cusp of a bigger change than has happened since 1994, when the Netscape browser made the internet commercial. Think about that. You haven't missed anything.
Brian Clark 44:50
Man, that's a great question. I'm not sure I'm the right person to ask because I didn't really contemplate it. So we ended up selling, essentially all the revenue generating aspects of Copyblogger. But not Copyblogger, which is so fascinating to me, because that is the platform that made it all possible, we still have the audience, we just, you know, launched a new product to effectively recreate it. But we had to sell off to different, really, we, we were two different software divisions, StudioPress and Rainmaker. And we ended up selling those two parts to two different people. Because I did not think with the end in mind, because I never, it just it just I have a different mindset. If you don't take investment capital, you don't necessarily have to ever think about selling, right? I just like to do work that makes me happy. I never was like, I'm gonna make an eight figure business, I just didn't contemplate it. But year after year, I took the next step that made that happen, because it was right there in front of me, because of the audience. So when we talk about audience first, they tell you what products and services to create, instead of the usual way, which is, oh, I've got a great idea for a product now you got to find someone to sell it to. That's why so many startups fail. It's really not all that smart. When you think about it. I mean, you don't really know that anyone wants this. It's just an idea. I'm not saying innovation doesn't happen. It's interesting. The first three products we created, I create, I guess, I created, were very innovative. And then as we moved on, we started basically, you know, doing things more that were more commodified, like hosting, because our audience would buy from us, because they trusted us. And that's a very powerful thing.
Jay Clouse 47:10
And it's so interesting that, like, to me, it's it's very obvious that the Copyblogger, brand business link profile audience, like that's the engine and the input that created so much of the value that was sold. It's interesting that it wasn't viewed that way, or at least not to the degree that you think it should be.
Brian Clark 47:31
I just, again, going back to your original question, I think, if I were, in fact, I think very differently about my new startups. Because you know, I'm 53, you know, it's not the same dynamic. Someone wants to buy what I built in 10 years, it's going to be a nice, neat little package with a story. And that's what you need. Right? That's what investors it's so funny, because they're very sophisticated people. But they buy stories, and they buy packages, and they buy uncomplicated. And I know that now having gone through the process, so the only reason things went in different chunks is because they're one to them a coherent story to me, there was, but that's only because it all came out of my head, right? You ever, you know, came up with a story that made perfect sense to you. But everyone's like, what.
Jay Clouse 47:43
You got all the draft pages that you didn't show?
Jay Clouse 42:50
Before I let Brian go, I wanted to talk to him briefly about the sale of both StudioPress and Rainmaker Digital Services. A lot of listeners of this show are building services, companies and agencies. And I think we all have an opportunity to think more intentionally about what the end game of our businesses is. You may have never thought about what it might look like to sell your business someday, but it's an important topic to think about. So I asked Brian what he thinks business owners should consider when building their businesses in case they want to sell them one day.
Brian Clark 48:34
Exactly right? Yeah, you can't show them how you got from point A to point B, necessarily. So that's my advice. If you're if you're looking for an exit, imagine the end point and work back to where you're starting. I never did that. I just and I think a lot of people are like this, they just want to make stuff and make hat make some money from it, you know, in our ours just became wildly successful. And again, that was a lot of hard work and been there, there was luck. There was you know, starting at the right time and whatnot. So I feel like I'm more seasoned. I'm probably even though I'm still not fond of the raise VC grow grow grow cell, you know, I it's so it seems so vapid to me. I like to do interesting work. I like to make a living, support my family, take care of my kids. I've been able to do that really well, fortunately, but it came I think from an honest place more than playing the game. But but but just all saying that now I think about it all the time. Because when I'm 65 if I decide I'm just done, I want a nice neat package to sell because I know that's what it takes.
Jay Clouse 49:58
Could you expand on what you mean? By someone's looking for a story?
Brian Clark 50:03
Well, you know, stories are everything and it doesn't matter if you're, if you got a private equity fund of 100 million, you're still a human being, and you want someone to make you feel confident that you're making the right decision stories are how we do that, you know, we put a slide deck to it, we, you know, we give them financials, we do all that, but they have to have a coherent narrative of how this goes in the direction they wanted to. And there was no doubt that both StudioPress and Rainmaker had stories that were just different stories in the eyes of the acquiring parties. So it's not a fatal flaw. It was just me not thinking that way, about telling an in game story that made someone buy the whole thing. So that's, that's what I mean by it. I mean, you know, you we think everyone is different, people are so much more sophisticated because their corporate or their private equity or their VC. No, these are just people and money, people are often a little, I don't know, stunted emotionally. So you, you really, you really gotta kind of make it easy for them.
Jay Clouse 51:26
The same is true. I talked to freelancers about this all the time. The same is true for someone thinking about hiring you for a service, like ultimately, they they're telling themselves a story as to why they're making this investment. And the more that you can validate their story, the better off you're going to be and getting that project.
Brian Clark 51:41
Such a good point. I mean, all the freelancers and consultants out there. I mean, think about that. They're buying a narrative. It's all narrative. And this does not mean lies, it should be the truth. But it has to be their truth. It has to be their benefit. It has to be, you know, what are they really looking for? Are they looking for, you know, a freelance writer? No, they're looking for someone who's going to market the business, grow the bottom line, so they can go home, and not fight with their wife. I mean, I know that sounds crazy, but you have to think about it that way. Because that's how people make decisions. They're not necessarily rational and objective when they walk in the office door. So play to that, you know, understand empathy, record coming back to this, we have an unofficial theme,
Jay Clouse 52:38
Or they're making the hire that they think will make them look good to their boss, you know, I get the same,
Brian Clark 52:44
It's the same thing. You look good to your boss, you get the promotion, your wife doesn't yell at you. I mean, it's, it is and this is what always kills me when people are like, Well, you know, b2b people don't make decisions based on emotion. And I'm like, do you know the old phrase, you know, no one ever got fired for hiring IBM. I mean, people make safe choices, because they're afraid of negative consequences. So you have to present yourself in a way, you know, that that says, You're safe with me, you're okay, I'm going to take care of you. And that doesn't necessarily enter in too many proposals. And it should.
Jay Clouse 53:29
There was a lot of wisdom shared in this conversation with Brian. And I didn't expect anything else from one of the fathers of content marketing, whether you're creating original content for your audience, or curating the best resources available, there are two things to remember. First, you need to know who your audience is, on a personal level, who are these people? And what do they want? What are their problems? And second, you can't have asked the things you're making for them. There's just too much competition to do. Okay, work. If you think back to my conversation with James Clear, you need to do a plus work to truly stand out and build an audience. Ryan, and I only barely scratched the surface on what you should consider when building your company to be something someone may want to buy one day. But if I could highlight one piece of insight, it would be this build with the end in mind. If this goes really well, what is the outcome? What unique value are you creating that someone may want to buy one day, it can't all be tied to you or it'll be hard to sell your company without you being part of the deal. So what is the asset you're creating that someone may want to buy? It could be a customer list, software, technology, and so on. If you want to learn more about Copyblogger visit copyblogger.com. You can find Brian on twitter @BrianClark or his website unemployable.com. Links to all of that are in the show notes. Thanks to Brian for being on the show. Thank you to Emily Clouse for making the artwork for this episode. Thanks to Nathan Todhunter for mixing the show and Brian Skeel for creating our music. If you'd like this episode, you can tweet at me @JayClouse and let me know if you really want to say thank you. Please leave a review on Apple podcasts. Thanks for listening. I'll talk to you next week.