How my Computer Science Degree Actually Hurt my Internet Business

Most online entrepreneurs that I have met are not technical people. More often than not they are visionaries with some other specialize skill set like accounting, investment banking, or general business to name a few.

For these people the fears and difficulty they have is the technical stuff: putting up their website, search engine optimization, or compiling and submitting their mobile app to the app store.

That is why so many of the beginner guides in the Internet marketing space are geared towards non technical people.

For me, the problem was not learning how to put up a website or write code – I’ve done both pretty well for about 10 years.

My problem has been what to do before and after your product is built – things like customer validation or marketing.

Because it is relatively easy for me to build something – a website, an app, an e-commerce site, whatever, I was quick to “fail fast” as the old startup proverb goes, and even quicker to move on to the next shiny object.

While we are on the subject, the suggestion to fail fast is bad advice.  Instead of failing fast, your goal should try to “learn faster than everyone else” as Eric Ries suggests.

I was given the curse of knowledge when it came to the internet.  But to make money online you need to understand a lot more than just how to put up a WordPress blog or how to write code.  In fact, I’ve seen many people better off BECAUSE they don’t know technology.

These people instead focus on the PROBLEM before they figure out a SOLUTION.

But anyone with this “curse” finds it difficult to keep an open mind and learn new things because they already feel that know it.

Like me, I already knew how to start a software company. After all, I knew how to write software. I already knew how to do SEO. My website was in Google’s search results, right?
The problem was that although I know how to write code I didn’t know how to make software useful to people.  And yes, I do know on-page SEO that was valid in 2005 but now-a-days it is off-page SEO that matters most.  But I ignored it.

Many elderly people struggle with a severe case of the “curse of knowledge.”  That is why so many reject new technology or new norms in society. “When I was your age…[Fill in the blank here]”

My point is: don’t be blinded by what you know.

Again, don’t be blinded by what you already know.

Because I knew technology, I THOUGHT I knew how to turn that knowledge into profit. My blinders were on.

It wasnt until I stopped screaming and started listening that the ball started rolling forward.  And believe me it is a lot harder to get the ball rolling than it is to keep it rolling once you have momentum.

Ultimately that is how I got 13,000 mobile app downloads literally overnight.  And no, we weren’t featured in iTunes.

Our app solved an annoying problem and bloggers liked it.

So if you have been struggling with something lately – be it starting a business or getting customers or even becoming a better listener, I suggest that you find somebody that has done what you are trying to do, or is good at what you want to learn and absorb everything you can from them.

There is this strange thing that happens when you hang out with people enough – your traits tend to rub off on each other. The same happens when you live in a country or part of a country. I am from Maine but I live in Florida. Every once Ina while I still catch myself with a little twang in my voice.

So although one might think that knowledge of the Internet might help you with an Internet based business, you might be wrong. It can only help you if you can take off your blinders long enough to look around.

Have you ignored something in your field or trade that is stopping you from getting to the next level?

Where to Enter Google Adword Coupon Codes?

Every time I start a new website I get emails from Google with a $100 Adwords coupon code in it. Besides free traffic, at a minimum, I use that $100 to test what headlines get the most click thru rates so I can use similar ones to increase conversions.

Unfortunately I don’t enter these Adwords coupon codes often enough to remember exactly where to paste them in – but I do remember that they are hidden.

To enter a $50 or $100 Adwords coupon code first create your account at https://adwords.google.com. Next click on the Billing tab and Billing preferences.

Then go through the billing setup wizard and on the billing screen at the very bottom of the screen there is a “coupon code” link.

Enter your code and complete the wizard.

It is also important to note that you will get a message prompting you to pay them so your ads don’t end automatically. You don’t have to do that to collect the $100 credit. The way Google words it makes you initially think that you also have to deposit $10 of your money to your Adwords account, but it is not true.

Oops, I’m #1 in Google. How’d I do that?

Back in the days of 2007, before anyone knew what a “tweet” was, when Facebook was still for college kids, and before email storage space was unlimited, I needed a way to archive my funny email forwards that I got from friends and family.

Well, I thought: why don’t I just start a free blog on that blogger platform that Google acquired and just post them up there.  That way I can free up my email and others might find some funny stuff on there.  And so http://funnyforwards.blogspot.com was born.  I created the site, uploaded about 50 email forwards that were humorous, and then pretty much forgot about it.

Sometime in 2009, I had another stockpile of funny forwards so I posted about 50 more.  Then I honestly forgot about it again.

Then in 2010, happen to stumble on my Google Analytics account and noticed that I was getting tons of visits every month.  The traffic would generally be about 100 to 200 visitors a day with spikes of up to 1000.  So I did what most rookies would do and slapped some Google Ads up there.  After a few weeks and only making a couple of bucks on ads I foolishly decided to move on.

Looking to consolidate some of my web properties and focus my efforts I stumbled across this site again a couple of months ago.

Now that I know what a niche actually is in the online world and know how to identify and evaluate one, I realize that I picked a really good one and set it up properly to get traffic.

What I am still uncertain of is if I picked a niche that I can monetize easily.  For example, when selecting a website niche where the goal is to put ads on, you want ads that have high cost PPC rates.  This way you make dollars when ads are clicked, not pennies.

However, if your plan is to monetize with a different method, say an eBook, you have completely different qualifications to look for.  For instance, it might be difficult to sell an eBook to monks, as they typically don’t do a lot of purchases online, let alone Internet browsing.

To make up for my mistakes I am going to be spending some time on this site to see if I can monetize that traffic.  I’ve already changed the design, changed the ad style, and moved the ad placement a couple of times to test what works best thanks to Pat Flynn’s advice:

The changes that I’ve made with my Adsense ads that have dramatically increased (and decreased) my income.

Was I foolish to turn my back on this? Yes. But granted, I didn’t know then what I know now: that getting consistant traffic can be really difficult and that there are thousands of different ways to make money from that traffic.  In my own defense, it is hard to know what you don’t know.

So if you do have some websites already, take a look at the analytics once in a while.  What you see may shock you.  And if you do have some traffic, figure out a way to convert that traffic to sales.  Or at least start building a relationship with your audience.

I will keep you posted on my progress with this.

Oh yeah, and case and point of this post, I guess content really is king.

How to Avoid Burnout as an Entrepreneur

I used to lift weights a bit when I was in high school. I always thought that the harder I worked the more muscle I would gain. But after a certain point I noticed that it was much harder to see gains then it was when I originally started.

This only convinced me that I needed to workout harder and longer. Still no gains.

I remember one night after one of these intense arm workouts. I woke up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain. Both of my biceps we locked at about a 45 degree angle.

Luckily one was able to bend far enough for me to reach the icy hot in the cabinet. Ahhh, instant relief.

Think I over did it? Perhaps a bit.

I have a habit of doing this to myself with whatever I do.  Luckily I have discovered in the past couple of years that more is not always better, and in fact more is often worse.

Tim Ferris has a book on exercising called the 4 Hour Body that talks about doing highly targeted workouts for a short amount of time an achieving phenomenal gains with it.  I’ve even heard stories of distance runners training with sprints.

I’ve tried it myself, both with workouts and running, and I must say that I agree.  I was always able to see improved gains when my training was more focused but took up less time.

One thing that I remember about that arm workout from hell besides the pain, is that I couldn’t workout my upper body for almost 2 weeks after that – I was too sore.

That meant that any of the gains that I got in the short term were long gone before I could build on them again.

I see this same thing in my life as an Internet entrepreneur.  For so many years I was glued to my computer screen working on something really important, only to get burned out and lose momentum.  After all, my laptop is just down the hall and I DO have a mighty long list of stuff to do.

Don’t do this to yourself.

Even though running your own business is a ton of work, especially in the beginning. It is not required that you work 80 hour weeks all the time to make it happen.

In fact, I would argue that if it takes you that long then you need to take a step back and see what items are getting you the most results.  Then just do those one or two things that work. Get rid of everything causing you to spin your wheels.

That is why I have been doing inventory on all of my niche businesses and ideas. Then either bailing on them or consolidating them into niche markets.

The most important thing you can do for yourself is gain focus on one thing at a time.

Think I’m lying? I would have thought I was lying too a few years ago too.

This is why so many people like Pat Flynn, Jay and Sterling, and Patrick McKenzie are able to build businesses that require only a few hours a day to maintain.

Putting in the work upfront is very important.  But more important is staying consistant and focused with whatever you are doing – especially when it feels like you are not moving forward.

Marketing is Like Dating

In recent weeks I’ve had a difficult time explaining to my engineering buddies how I could be into internet marketing now.  They tend to equate marketing with sales, and therefore think of it as a dishonest trade.  The other day I finally thought of an analogy that helped them see things from my (newly discovered) perspective.  I thought I’d do a blog post on it.

Marketing is Like Dating

Marketing is like dating because you can be the nicest guy in the world but if you are an introvert, your crush may never know you exist.

Lets dive deeper, shall we?

Women dig confidence.  Confidence alone is why the jock, the charming guy, and the random not-so-attractive dude got the popular girl in high school.

The jock was confident and fun.

The popular guy was charming and reassuring.

And the random guy simply had social proof in his corner.

So what sells?  Honest confidence in yourself and product.  A product that is fun and risk free.  Oh, and by the way others are using it too!

You see, these are critical parts of the sales process – all of which get people to trust and like you.

The problem is that most introverts are hard-wired to not think this way.  Engineers, for example, think in terms of quantifiable metrics, not the invisible stuff that builds relationships.

But you cannot quantify building relationships and trust.  They are too infinite and abstract.

You must build trust before you can ever ask for a sale.  That is why blogs are so powerful.

They allow you to build an audience and trust.  Regular readers like your stuff and trust you and eventually some of them might buy something from you.

But it is not about the money just like it is not about the sex.  It can’t be.  Even though you both want it, if you are too direct with either you will lose the date or in this case the sale.

And it is not that the jock, popular guy, or random guy are being dishonest.  In fact, they are being themselves.  The random guy could never act like the jock and vice versa.

They do however go at dating game with their own angle.  Do this in your marketing.

If your crush likes funny guys.  Show her your funny side.  If you are not that funny and that is what she is into, move on.  She is not the right customer for you.

If she likes security, stand up straight and beat on your chest – or not.

Accounting was boring.  Freshbooks made it less boring.

“Being yourself” is not the same as “being confident,” so it is important not to integrate the two.  Everybody has a weakness just as every product has a weakness.  Forget about it and instead focus on your strengths.

Find what your good at – your angle in marketing or in dating and you will find your customer or your soul mate.

Most importantly, be confident in whatever you are doing.

-E

 

Sales and Marketing Lesson for Introverts

Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/h-k-d/3969908944/

“If you build it they will not come…”

It took me a long time to actually accept that phrase.  Coming from a software and engineering background, when someone would mention the word sales I would naturally think of a sleazy used car salesman.

“Who needs that?” as any good engineer would say.  “Why can’t these people see that the other product sucks and ours is way better?”

I always thought that I just needed to build cool product then I would have customers beating each other over to pay me money for it like on Black Friday.  After all, that is why I got into computers in the first place.  Build it and they will come.  I could hardly wait.

The truth is a product never sells itself.  Even Peter Thiel agrees.  People may get it and they may even love it, but IT WILL NEVER SELL ITSELF!

What about Google you ask?  They didn’t do any marketing in the early days.

Yes that is true.  But even though they didn’t market themselves it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any marketing going on behind the scenes.  Google’s early users were marketing for them.  Viral marketing is still marketing.

Ok, so what is a honest guy to do? Marketing is not so evil after all; but I still feel like that used car salesman while selling my products.

Don’t think of it as being deceptive because that is not the goal.  In fact, if you are going to market a great product, you must deliver on that product as well.

Instead of thinking of marketing as shameless promotion, think of it as simply a pivot.

But instead of recreating the product, you are simply displaying it in a new light so others can better resonate with it.

Flickr, the photo sharing website (now part of Yahoo), originally started off as a online multiplayer game.  If the founders hadn’t noticed how people were actually using the site, and re-marketed it as something else, Flickr probably wouldn’t have been what it is today.

Marketing is simply discovering that angle that resonates the most with your target market.  Some businesses know it immediately.  Others search aimlessly for it.

So if you are like me and look at marketing and sales as deceiving.  Look again.  Marketing can and should be honest.

Marketing is necessary.  Learn to embrace it.  Zero users equals zero dollars.

 

Writing Inspiration

I mentioned the past how I wasn’t a big fan of writing.  Getting over this is a difficult challenge because I basically am forced to re-learn all of my existing opinions and habits as they pertain to writing.  But writing on a regular basis, and in this case blogging, is more important than I ever imagined.

For one, I believe the Internet has kept its promise in allowing people to reach almost anyone else in the world.

How to blog consistently

Ever notice how sometimes you can just buckle down and accomplish a ton of stuff in a short amount of time?  Yet other times it takes you exponentially longer to do similar tasks?  It comes down to know when (time of day) you are most effective and achieving a state of flow.  In high school and college, every term paper I procrastinated on or forgot about until the night before it was due, I seemed to do better on than the ones that I dragged out for weeks. This is because I was both more efficient and effective at writing late at night and while deadlines were staring me in the face.  In other words, I had no choice but to finish.

Why is this?  It is because a task grows in scope and complexity the longer you are given to complete it.  If you are given 2 hours to go to the gym, stop at the bank, pick up dinner and get gas then you MUST get started on it right now.  Whereas, if you are given a week to complete the same 4 tasks, it is quite possible that one or more of them wouldn’t get completed.  Given short deadlines forces one to drop all the garbage and focus on the task at hand.  Tim Ferris talks about it a bit in his book Four Hour Work Week.

So if you simply SAY you are going to blog instead of sticking to a firm deadline of “2 posts this week, one on Tuesday, another on Friday,”  chances are it won’t get done.

Also, since writing by itself often requires a certain state-of-mind and clarity in order to do effectively.  Another strategy that has helped me is writing multiple posts in the same sitting, then scheduling them a few days to a week apart.  In fact, this is the second article I’ve written today, and the fourth this week.  I’ve learned that it is a lot more difficult for me to allocate time every day to write a post.  I’d rather just take care of it once or twice a week when my mind is in writing mode.

The trick is to figure out your rhythm.  For example, if I check my email first thing in the morning, my day is off.  The morning and late at night are my most productive times, but  when I check email that early I can’t help but reply to everyone and put out fires.  Subsequently, I get none of my tasks done.

Lastly, you’ll probably notice that once you start writing and achieve a state of flow, the act of writing becomes a whole lot easier.  You’ll even start thinking of more things to write about and ways to make your writing more effective.

The trick is getting started and staying consistent.  Try writing once per day for 21 days, even if you don’t actually publish what you write.  Writing will become easier during that time.

What to Blog About

If you are like me you are not keen on writing. Coming from an engineering background, I can say first hand that the importance of writing is almost de-taught in the computer science department.  In fact, it is not a major that requires a lot of term papers or essay writing.

Programming is an interesting bird, in that, productivity is measured by how much has been built, not necessarily the abstract, long term effects of building something.  In fact, when I was in school it was common to hear phrases like “write less code.” If I got 8 straight hours of coding in, that is considered productive – what a great day!  On the other hand, if I spend the day making calls and re-fostering relationships, it is considered unproductive. There is no tangible result at the end of the day.

But what if one of those contacts becomes a customer, or knows someone that becomes a customer, or knows someone that knows someone that becomes a customer.  It was not so much a waste of time now was it?

It took me a long time to realize this (in fact, too long). I wish someone would have slapped some sense into me back in high school or college.

Blogging is very much the same high-value, low immediate gratification thing.  Although you may not see the value immediately of connecting with other people or writing something of value.  It does far more for your long term karma than having 8 hours of productive “programming” ever would.

This is why I have decided to rekindle my love for blogging.  I come across problems all the time that I struggle to solve and from now on I plan on posting my solution on my blog so that I can help others out.  I challenge you to do the same.

What problems do you face each day?

How do you solve them?

Did you have a good or bad experience with a new restaurant, mobile app, shop, etc?

Blogging becomes a whole lot more fun when you stop talking about the tricks your cat can do or what you ate for breakfast and instead start telling others about your experiences and how you solved your problems.  You’ll quickly notice that you’ll never need a new idea for a blog post again!

– E

How I Got 12,963 App Downloads in 8 Hours

Today our Coupon Policy App is 9 months old and continues to bring passive income month-after-month.  What started as a problem, then into a weekend project has grown into an actual product with over 25,000 users.

Summary

  • Unique downloads to date: 25,000+
  • Emails sent: 40 (November), 12 (July)
  • Google posts on websites posted during launch week: 346,000
  • Cost of gathering and listing coupon policies: $30
  • Hours spent developing API: 10 hours
  • Hours spent developing the app (version 1): 12 hours
  • Hours spent uploading policies: 4 hours

Background

Coupon Policy (iTunes) is a mobile app that allows consumers to quickly reference coupon policies on their phone.

The idea sparked after watching an episode of Extreme Couponing on TLC with family when my sister-in-law mentioned how annoying it was that she had to print store coupon policies when she went shopping because clerks, and often managers, did not know their own store policies.

After validating the idea with a few more friends and family who also shopped with coupons, we went to work.  We already had a mobile app platform for rapid development ready to go, so other than creating the interface and modifying a few features to fit the context of the app, all we needed to do is gather the coupon policies into a central database and create an API to access with the app interface.

The Plan

With the holiday shopping season kick-off (otherwise known as Black Friday) approaching in less than a month, we quickly set a drop dead date.  Our goal was to have a soft release then a more official release the weekend before Thanksgiving – when we would reach out to to several popular coupon blogs.

The Build

I’m a big fan of utilizing open source software.  So we put up a Drupal site to use as a backend so my non-technical partner could start uploading policies in a WYSIWYG editor.  We came up with a list of about 100 stores we wanted in the app at launch, outsourced the gathering of the selected coupon policies to India for $30, and my partner started uploading them as fast we received them.  In between uploads he also started making a list of the top coupon blogs to reach out to when we were ready to rollout our marketing strategy.

While he was working on the policies, I built a custom API to pull the content from Drupal into the app, allow searching, and clean up the content – all of which were not possible in the built-in RSS feeds.

Next, I moved to creating the actual app interface and functionality.  Our goal was to make it as simple as possible so we went with two tabs (“Stores” and “Favorites”), a simple retailer search, and the ability to share the policies via email, Twitter, or Facebook.  Using Best Buy’s infamous yellow price tag logo as inspiration, we settled on a yellow color scheme…plus both our wives like the color yellow (which was the actual reason. The truth shall set you free).

The Launch

Lay-people assume that when you release a mobile app (or a website, whatever) you automatically get lots of downloads, make lots of money, quickly flip the product and retire on the beach of your choice.  This is a highly unlikely scenario.  As expected when we launched not a whole lot happened.  We got a few downloads trickling in but nothing to brag about.

It did, however, give us the ability to get the product in front of real customers, and very quickly they found a couple of bugs that we didn’t.  While I worked on ironing the bugs out, my partner started planting seeds with the coupon blogs we had prioritized.  Once I pushed the fixes out, I joined him by emailing our list of blogs.  Our message to the blogs was not a sales letter nor was it the same for each blog.  We tried to cater to each publisher and relate it with the focus of the individual website, or even an article we might have read on their blog.  That being said, we used the same call to action in each email which basically stated: “We’ve created an app for referencing coupon policies.  Do you think your users might be interested?” and “We are running a special the weekend before Thanksgiving so people can make use of it in time for the holiday shopping season.”  We also used up most of our free promo app download codes that Apple so graciously gives to their developers.

Notice how both statements above cater to the website owner and their readers?  We didn’t just say “hey look at this cool thing we did, feature it on your homepage for us!”  Likewise, while reaching out to each website, we didn’t just give them false flattery either.  Everything we said or complemented them on was true:  “We like your design” or “this article was really useful the other day.”

The (Actual) Launch

Up until then we had only received replies from a handful of blogs; maybe 5 or 6 out of 50.  Even so, most of those wanted some “cut of the action” or “exclusives”, both of which we explained that we couldn’t do because “Apple and Google already take 30%” and “that we can’t track downloads from a specific source right now.”  So we didn’t really know what to expect.  The first day of app discount came and not much happened.  I signed off, had dinner with my wife and went to bed.

When I woke in the morning I did a couple of odds and ends then opened my email as I normally do.  The first page of my inbox was full with feedback from the app.  Page 2 – full. Page 3, 4, 5, and 6 all full.  I immediately logged into my Apple iTunes Connect account to check my stats.  Dammit! I’m on the east coast and Apple doesn’t update the numbers until 10 or 11am EST.  So I called my partner and asked him if he had checked his email.  He said no but that he had to turn off his cell phone in the middle of the night because it kept beeping.  I told him what had happened and that I didn’t yet know how many downloads we got but I received close to 300 emails from app users in 8 hours.

I checked iTunes Connect a few more times that morning with little luck but when I finally saw our download metrics I must have been smiling from ear to ear.

I called my partner and told him the number.  12,963 downloads.  He said “so thirteen-HUNDRED downloads isn’t bad.”  I said “no, thirteen-THOUSAND. Add another zero.”

The Present

– Few more iterations

– Slight redesign

– Adding more coupon policies

– Updating existing polices that have changed

– meetings with a few major coupon and marketing companies

– much requested offline mode (and cached mode for faster loading)

Being a web developer by trade I have “built” lots of things.  However, it is amazing the power of building something that actually solves a problem.  So many times people get stuck on the “idea” instead of the “problem” and subsequently first build a solution, then try to find a problem that it would solve.

Lesson learned.

-E

Twitter Bootstrap Theme for Drupal 6

I decided to give Twitter Bootstrap a try for my new mobile theme and design website.  Unfortunately, I was unable to find a Bootstrap 2 theme for Drupal 6, so I ported it over myself.  Since I use so much open source software, I decided a few months back that I want to start contributing more to open source. So I thought this theme might be handy for others.  Feel free to download it below and use it for your own projects.

Oh it is important to note that this is a Zen subtheme.  Please download and install Zen Theme for Drupal along with this theme and upload both to your website before activating the Bootstrap theme.

Skip to download

The Backstory

For my latest creation I choose Drupal as my weapon (read CMS) of choice because a) of the flexibility to do 80% of what I wanted it to do long term, b) because I knew it well and c) it’s awesome.  However, I ran into a couple of problems when finding a suitable theme:

Problem 1

Bootstrap 2 Theme available for Drupal 7 not for Drupal 6 and the plug-ins I needed were all in Drupal 6.  Plus the Drupal 7 theme is still in development.

Problem 2

Bootstrap 1.4 Theme available for Drupal 6, but I needed lots of customization to get it working well.

So, that is why I ported over my own theme.

Without further adeu:

Download Bootstrap 2 Drupal Theme

(And don’t forget to download Zen Theme too!)