Welcome to episode 309 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Shawn Blanc about the way he produces products for his audience.
Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Tomas Hoyos about hosting paid classes online with Airsubs. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.
Create with Intention
Today we’re talking to Shawn Blanc about his story of going from indie blogger to successful entrepreneur. He’ll talk about productivity, starting new things, serving your audience, and how to build a strong company without sacrificing every hour to your work.
His business ideas are very much aligned towards helping his audience get the best possible outcome, and his story will leave you feeling inspired and motivated to continue creating and serving your readers.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- How Shawn started working as an indie blogger
- How he started blogging full-time
- How he incorporated a membership into his blog
- What “thump value” means
- How he made money with his blog
- How and why he built more sites
- How his earnings changed when he hired more people
- How he decided to create an online course
- What it was like to start working with a team
- His #1 productivity tip
- Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook
- John Gruber
- Shawn’s site
- Barrett Brooks
- Think Again
- Delight is in the Details
- Shawn’s other projects
- 165: Getting Things Done with David Allen
- 305: Non-Traditional Success – Optimizing for Happiness with Jason Glaspey
- Soul Savvy
- The Focus Course
- Check out the Food Blogger Pro YouTube channel (and subscribe while you’re there!)
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].
Learn more about joining the Food Blogger Pro community at foodbloggerpro.com/membership
Transcript (click to expand):
Bjork Ostrom: You are listening to the Food Blogger Pro Podcast. Excited to talk today to my friend, Shawn Blanc from a few different things. He’s actually going to talk about his story and the places that you can find him online, but his focus is all about productivity. It’s all about digital wellbeing. How can we be creators and how can we be creative while also being healthy in regards to mind, body and spirit. He’s going to talk about his journey of starting as well as one of the things that I find most valuable is to talk to people who have transitioned from not being an entrepreneur, right?
Bjork Ostrom: They’re doing something else in a different world, at a different time, in a different place, and they have made this journey into being a successful entrepreneur. Shawn’s going to talk about his story and how he did that, and also chat about some things along the way, just in regards to what it looks like to build a strong company while also not giving your entire life up and sacrificing every living hour to just work and invest into your company. So I have a ton of respect and appreciation for Shawn and how he views work and the companies that he’s built and he’s going to talk about how we went about doing that in this interview. Super excited to share this with you. Let’s go ahead and jump in Shawn, welcome to the podcast.
Shawn Blanc: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Bjork Ostrom: We’ve had many conversations, none of which I don’t think have been recorded. I mean, we were hanging out in Colorado, which is the first time that we hung out in person, which is an awesome group of people that you get together to talk about business and life. Maybe technically some of those were recorded, but not published. So this will be our first recorded and published conversation. These are podcast interviews that I love doing because it’s talking to a friend, but it’s also talking to somebody who I respect and has a lot of business insight that can share with his audience.
Bjork Ostrom: So for those who aren’t familiar, can you rewind the tape, go back and share your business story. I think a lot of people who listen to this have a business story or they want to have their business story and in hearing other people’s stories, they can find either inspiration or potential Business Sherpa to see if they can guide themselves in a similar way. What’s your story?
Shawn Blanc: Yeah. Thank you. This is awesome. I’m so happy to be here and everyone who’s joining and listening, watching, et cetera, just an honor to spend a little bit of time here. So my story actually starts 10 years ago. Just celebrated 10 years of being an indie blogger basically. I’ve expanded since then. I started by myself back in 2011 and now I have a small team. We’ve got a few people that are full-time for us and several contracted writers and editors who are on retainer. I now went from one personal blog to now a handful of different blogs and different brands around some similar topics, some a little bit different, some overlapping.
Shawn Blanc: So I’ll share the story behind all of that. Since 2010, this is one year before I quit my job. I was the marketing director for a pretty large nonprofit. This is fine. I loved my job. I was working 70 to 80 hours a week, but I didn’t have any kids.
Bjork Ostrom: What does 70 to 80 hours look like? Because some people say that and I don’t think I’ve ever worked 70 to 80 hours and I’m like, “Wait a minute. That’s pretty extreme.” Are you doing that every day? So you’re working weekends?
Shawn Blanc: It’s basically 5:00 AM to 9:00 PM most days of the week, 5, 6, 7 days a week.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s what you’re doing. So you’re getting up going in, sitting down. It was in-person I’m guessing. So you’re at an office.
Shawn Blanc: So I would work a few hours at home before going in and then I would go in and then I would come home and then I would have dinner and then I’d finish working and then I’d go to bed. It was a nonprofit and so I like to joke with nonprofits that you have all of the red tape of a big corporation and then none of the money behind it. So I did love it. I really enjoyed that season of my life. I worked with a great team. We did some really amazing work and I probably grew more. I was in that role as the director for three years. I grew a ton as a person, as a leader, as a manager, as a creative person.
Shawn Blanc: But my wife and I ended up getting pregnant at the end of 2010 and then a couple of weeks later, miscarried that baby and that was our first pregnancy. This moment of going, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be a dad.” Then actually losing the baby and going through that with my wife. Everything slowed down for me and I felt like Neo in the Matrix. That first scene, when the bullets are flying to Aden and they’re going by slow. Suddenly, it was like all of these things in my life that had been going so fast and felt like they were so important just flying at me. I’m now able to stop and look at them and pick them up almost and analyze and go, “A lot of this stuff actually is no longer important to me.” Just values in my life almost changed overnight.
Shawn Blanc: I realized that I will be a dad eventually not right now, but I’m going to be a dad again and I don’t want to do 70 hours a week as a dad. I want to have more flexibility for my schedule. I want to be home more often. I want to have more freedom to travel, to go on adventures with my kids or whatever. So I had this little side blog that was my side hustle. At the time, I had been working on the side and was doing maybe like $1,000 a month. I did some affiliate stuff through Amazon. We were doing sponsored blog posts. I had some sidebar ads. It wasn’t a ton, but about 1,000 bucks a month and I would just spend that money on my computer gear or whatever. I’m like, “Well, if I’m spending, five, 10 hours a week on this here and there, and I can do 1,000.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, from 2:00 AM to 5:00 AM.
Shawn Blanc: Right. Exactly. Somewhere in between hours. I mean, it wasn’t always. Sometimes an average week might’ve been like 60, like low average week.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, but you’re able to om lunch or weekends, maybe you have a post that you want to write, which is very similar to how Pinch of Yum started. Early mornings, late nights, weekends and lunches.
Shawn Blanc: Exactly. Just all the in betweens. It was one of the things I was just thinking about constantly. So when I’m at work, I’ve got a downtime in between meetings or whatever, I’m writing up ideas for these articles or just doing links to other stuff. So just fun stuff. I’m like, “Well, if I’m doing this on the side and I can make a thousand bucks a month.” I was like, “I bet if I gave it 40 hours a week, I could do 4,000 a month and that would be enough. That’s all I need. I live in Kansas City. That would be great.” So I decided I’m going to quit the marketing job and I’m going to start this blog full-time unless you have it. I just announced it to my readership.
Shawn Blanc: I had about 6,000 people on RSS. I didn’t have an email newsletter at all at the time. It’s 10 years ago. So Twitter was pretty young. I had a few thousand followers on Twitter. It was just my blog and people would read my blog and so I just put up a blog post that said, “I’m quitting my job. You can support me to write this site full-time if you want. It’s three bucks a month.” I called it a good cup of coffee and there was no Patreon. So it was going to be through PayPal. I had a friend who did some stuff similar to that. He’s like, “Hey, you have them pay three months at a time, at least because then you’re minimizing the transaction fees.
Shawn Blanc: So I was like, “Okay, well, three bucks a month, but it’s nine bucks a quarter is basically what it really is. I was like, ”Well, if I get a thousand bucks a month from this, if I can get like 500 members, then I’ll be at 2,500 a month because 500 plus 1,500. 2500 a month but they’ll pay three months in advance. So I’ll have some chunk there. My wife still was working part-time for the ministry. So she had a little bit of revenue. I was like, “Between that, and this, that would be enough to get started. I could be profitable from day one, basically if I can get 500 members.” So I put up the blog post and 400 people signed up the first day. 24 hours and 400 people.
Bjork Ostrom: Wow, amazing. How long have you been publishing content at that point?
Shawn Blanc: Probably four, five years, I think. Pretty consistently.
Bjork Ostrom: Yep. You had given a lot, like there’s a Gary Vaynerchuk book that came out a long, long time ago that I looked through, but the concept was Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook. This boxing analogy for like you give, give, give, and then you ask occasionally. You had essentially been giving for like five years and then this was really the first ask that you had of your audience. Is that right?
Shawn Blanc: Yeah, pretty much. I think.
Bjork Ostrom: Do you think you could have done that earlier?
Shawn Blanc: Probably. I probably could have done it earlier. Yeah. I bet I could have done it a year earlier. But there was also, like in the transition, so this was like a four month transition from when I decided I was going to go public or go indie to when I actually did. I started reaching out to people that I knew that had been in this space. People that had been successful here before me and just asking for advice and getting input and then writing about some of these things like on the side. A lot of people that were paying attention started to sense a transition was coming and so they were looking forward to it, I think.
Shawn Blanc: When I finally did go live with the announcement, a lot of people just knew it was coming. Then a lot of these people that I had reached out to who were a step or two ahead of me and I’d ask them for advice, they then in turn shared it with their audience. So I got pretty decent promotion from I think Jason Kottke helped support it and John Gruber and some of these guys that had huge audiences. So that definitely helped to boost the signal of that. Then within a couple of days…
Bjork Ostrom: John Gruber, I don’t know your space as well, but even when I hear that name, I’m like, “Wait a minute, like the tech, John Gruber?” That’s a big deal.
Shawn Blanc: Yeah. He was so helpful. We had several conversations because he had been writing Daring Fireball for a few years before I went full-time and he was super generous with any advice and input and I really appreciated that. So, yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: You’ve referred to it a couple of times as your blog, your site. Can you talk specifically about what that was and the focus of it, the niche, the genre. So a chance to do some promotion of it, but also wind that into the story a little bit.
Shawn Blanc: So the site was just my name is shawnblanc.net and I wrote quite a bit about Apple and tech and design. So that space of I do product reviews of iPhones or new apps. I was just huge Apple nerd and so that was the space. Then the main business model, like I said, was the affiliate stuff. So I would link to some on Amazon here or there, or like at Christmas I would do a roundup and make like 300 bucks running Amazon affiliates. I was like, “Well, that’s so much.” And then the sponsorships. So people would pay for me to promote one of their products. Once a week I would do a sponsored blog post type of a thing. It was just whatever I’d want to write about.
Shawn Blanc: So sometimes I would do long form articles that were in depth reviews or just stuff I was really interested in or research I had done. Then a lot of it was links to other interesting things around the web. This was something that John Gruber pioneered with his link list on Daring Fireball and a lot of sites now do something similar, which is super cool. I just would do that links to other stuff with little commentary here or there. Then when I took it full-time, the perk of being a member was you got access to this podcast I did every day, it was called Shawn Today. It was a five minute podcast. I think it’s 700 or 800 episodes of it over the years.
Shawn Blanc: You pay three bucks a month and you got that. So that was the perk. Yeah, so that was shawnblanc.net. That was the genesis of it and I did that full-time for a while before moving on, not moving on, but adding to the site spheres and stuff.
Bjork Ostrom: Portfolio almost.
Shawn Blanc: Yeah, exactly. The portfolio.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. A couple of questions with that because I think it’s an interesting story that’s a little bit different than how most of the audience would think of how they’re building their site, which is like, “Hey, I got to get a lot of traffic and then I got to monetize with ads and sponsored content,” were just something that you did, but it’s actually asking people to support you. Do you think you could still do that today or is there some function of what you’re doing today where that still exists and what would your advice be for people who want to ask their audience to support them… I’m even thinking of the newsletter, subscription companies…
Shawn Blanc: Substack.
Bjork Ostrom: Substack. Yeah, Patreon I think there’s a version of that. I think Ghost is maybe like the open source version of Substack. It seems like it exists, maybe not in our niche in the exact same way, but how do you think of that today? Like asking people to support you in your endeavor?
Shawn Blanc: Oh man, that is a great question. I get that a lot actually. I’ve thought about it a lot too. I think a huge factor of me being able to quit my job to get 400 people to sign up that first day was also the novelty of it. At the time I could count on one hand, the people I knew that were blogging for a living and it was just very, very few people. For me to say, “Hey, I’m doing this.” Like a lot of the people that supported me.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s like cool. Interesting.
Shawn Blanc: Like, wow I’m in. Exactly. Like this is so cool or I’m so glad that…
Bjork Ostrom: Which is like I’ve seen this 100 times.
Shawn Blanc: Exactly. So there was a much less just competition, so to speak in the space of being an indie creator. In some ways now there’s quite a bit more competition, but there’s also, it’s so much easier to do it now. I had to set up the PayPal thing and I was getting these people to sign up, but I have no connection between the private quote-unquote private podcast and then the PayPal membership and then…
Bjork Ostrom: So it’s like manually copying email addresses.
Shawn Blanc: I was sending emails manually one at a time with a link to a public podcast RSS feed saying, please don’t share this with anybody. Yeah, it’s on your honor. It was all goofy, but it worked, and the tools now are so much better and so much easier and so much more refined.
Bjork Ostrom: And it’s less novel now because of that.
Shawn Blanc: Yeah, it’s also less novel.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. How much do you think in your opinion marketing is, or in the case of what you were doing, how much of it is novelty versus how much of it is having an awesome audience of excited people? I mean, in some ways it’s the exact Kevin Kelly quote of a thousand true fans. It was like 400 true fans, right? You saw that play out in a way that was life-changing for you. So how much, when you look back at it as like, “Hey, new creative, interesting thing as a form of marketing versus I’ve been serving this audience and doing a really good job of that for five years, and these are my true fans and they’re going to support me in whatever it might be.”
Shawn Blanc: Yeah. I think that’s really well said. It’s a combination of both. I think that the new interesting novel shiny thing definitely helps. A friend of ours Barrett Brooks, we’ve talked about this before. He’s the COO for ConvertKit, but he also has a lot of business consulting and he’s just got a lot of insight into this stuff. He’s talked about the difference between the thump of value and then the sticking power. I think that the give, give, give, and not only like serving your audience, connecting with them, giving to them, showing up, sweating the details, taking pride in your work, that is the sticking power. Right? So this is what forges the relationships. This is what makes your product actually awesome and what makes you want to stick around and they trust you and they’re engaged with what you do.
Shawn Blanc: And then the big launch or the new shiny thing or whatever. There’s the thump value to that. Even with my own courses, we’ve transitioned from the Patreon and the advertising model to, we’re pretty much entirely customer funded now. I’ll tell more about this later, that progression, but the very first course I ever launched, I felt like I had to have so much stuff in it and just pack it full of all these extra resources and all these extra features and all this extra content that was ancillary around the core component of the course itself then charge like one third, what I thought it was worth. That was where I was like, “Hey, you got a lot of value here, but in some way, you’re also distracting people from the core of what they’re actually signing up for.”
Shawn Blanc: So the shiny, the new shiny stuff where you’ve marketed it well, you’ve done a good job of making sure that what you’re promoting is going to resonate with your audience or at least with the right segment or cohort of your audience that you’re marketing it to. That matters quite a bit as well as have you been showing up, have you been in some ways, building in public, working in public? Have you sweat the details? Have you served your audience and built that relationship and that rapport with them so that they trust you? And then, obviously they’re excited to sign up.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s interesting. I was listening to an interview today with Adam Grant. He wrote a few different books. His most recent, I think is, I don’t remember if it’s called Rethink or Think Again.
Shawn Blanc: Just came out, I think.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, like days or weeks ago. He was talking about this idea in negotiation, how a lot of times, the more points you include in a negotiation for why you’re right, the less effective it becomes, as opposed to if you just have one really strong point. I think that the same can be true with what I hear you saying is when you think of packaging something up and offering it to somebody, one of the ways that it can be really valuable is like, “Here’s the really specific thing that you’re going to experience going through this.” As opposed to this and this and this and this and this and this. And then the idea of being like, “Oh, it’s so valuable because there’s all this stuff in it.”
Bjork Ostrom: But in actuality, if you can just have one single thing and do that really well in a course, or in some type of offering that can be more effective because of the clarity around it and also the people and being able to envision the transformation that they’ll go through, if they do it. Is that a little bit of what you’re getting at in, you called it, the thump value. Like already around that.
Shawn Blanc: Exactly. I think that the multiple bullet point list also is a symptom of having a lack of clarity yourself about the product and what does this actually do and who is this for? If you can’t answer that really simply, like if you don’t know, then your audience definitely is not going to know. I think when you can simplify it down and you can say, “This is what we do.” That’s better than anybody else does it. Like we do this one thing amazing. Then you feel like you’re… what about all the other people that want something else that’s similar to what we offer and we can add this? You’re actually like when you have the huge long list, in some ways you’re alienating people as opposed to joining them in when you can get really specific… Your drawing point.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. That’s interesting. So you had mentioned you’re now customer funded. The other version of that was donor funded. If those are reader funded, can you explain the difference between those and when did you make that shift?
Shawn Blanc: I can’t remember the exact timing, but at some point I finally started an email list and launched a product. It was called Delight is in the Details. It was just a book about sweating the details and the way that for us as creators, there is actually joy in that process of getting lost in the product itself and immersing yourself in flow as you’re creating it. So you’re sweating the details and that’s fun. There’s delight there, but then also you’re creating a product for your customers that is delightful for them to encounter with. I did a little email list and launched this ebook, and I think it was like 19 bucks for the launch price or like 29 something like that. I felt like such a fraud because in my mind I’m like, “Content should be free.”
Shawn Blanc: I had been doing ad supported content, all this time and then I had the membership model, but even in my mind, the membership model I had to keep reminding people, “You’re paying and really what you’re getting is the writing that I’m doing already anyways, but you’re just helping me to keep doing it.” So it was hard for me to create content that was quote-unquote behind a paywall. So I felt like a fraud and I ended up launching this ebook and the initial launch I think was, I can’t remember the numbers exactly, but it was something like $15,000 or somewhere in there. 10, 15 around that ballpark. I was like, “Wait, this is amazing.” This took me about a month to create and write and build and ship and put together and then I did a couple of months worth of my normal blog revenue and people will keep buying it in the future. It was this light bulb moment for me of there’s a lot of fun in creating the product because I loved it. I loved the work of doing that and then also as a business model, this could work really well.
Bjork Ostrom: So at what point… Well go ahead. Finish that thought.
Shawn Blanc: I was going to say, we began to grow on that ever since was the finish of thought.
Bjork Ostrom: At what point then, along the way, did you start to build your portfolio of sites? And can you talk what those sites are in why not just double down on what was working? You had proven success. If you could make 10,000, you could probably make 20 and 30. Why branch out into other sites? What did that decision process look like?
Shawn Blanc: Yeah, partly is I like to create new things and ship them. So that’s part of my personality. I enjoy that work and so that’s a huge component of why we’ve branched out is, that’s how I work and how I think. But also with the site, with shawnmblanc.net, the biggest month for me was always around Christmas time when I would do these gift guides and I’d make a bunch of money from Amazon affiliates. I was like, “Oh man, what if I had a whole website that was just gift guides all the time and I could make way more money from Amazon?” So that was this idea, Tools & Toys was the name of the site. Actually, that came out I think before the books.
Shawn Blanc: So Tools & Toys I think it was the next branch in the portfolio. I just built a site over the weekend one time and coded something. So it was fun to build it. Like toss in some content in there and then launched this. Here’s basically a gear guide for guys and it was find paraphernalia and stuff like that. So now I was writing two blogs simultaneously, which didn’t last, very long but…
Bjork Ostrom: At this point you were the only person writing?
Shawn Blanc: Yeah. It was just me doing everything. So that was Tools & Toys so branching out to the other site. And then eventually what I ended up doing was I was like, “Hey, if I write every day, then this site…” I can’t remember what the numbers were, but if I write every day, the site makes about like 20 bucks a day or something like that in Amazon, if I don’t write the site makes like 300 bucks a month, so $10 a day. I was like, “Well, maybe I could just find someone that could write every day for 10 bucks a post and then they can take all that I wouldn’t be making and then I would keep the rest. This was like my first venture into hiring someone to do some work for me. I’m paying them and then also getting paid myself.
Shawn Blanc: So I found a guy, a good friend of mine and I was like, “Hey, would you, one little post a day, every day, 300 bucks a month?” He’s like, “Sure.” And then he started writing in literally that first month. I ended up doing like 900 bucks. So it went to like $30 a day.
Bjork Ostrom: And then you can play the simple numbers game where like, “Wait a minute, what if I hired two people would it go to 1,800 and not that simple, but once you build a machine where you put a penny in and it and it gives you two pennies out, then the business game starts to become interesting. Where like, ”How do I do this in other ways?” So what did that look like at that point where you have this discovery of wait a minute, I can build this little machine and maybe scale it.
Shawn Blanc: Yeah, exactly. So my initial thought was like, “Now I’ve got community. So I’ve got someone that I can connect with. Like who’s working with me, which is fun. I’m no longer solo. I’m 100% extroverted so it was nice to have someone else that I could…
Bjork Ostrom: Somebody to talk to.
Shawn Blanc: Exactly. And then to say like, now here’s this other website that’s making money, not a ton, but it’s profitable and someone else is doing the work. We built the engine behind it and it’s providing a job for them. It’s growing a little bit and it’s providing revenue for me as the owner. This is cool. Can we do this again? So then I ended up working on, I can’t remember all the timeline, but I now begin wiggling between product creation and creation. So we ended up over the years launching two additional websites as well. The next one is the Sweet Setup and that came out in November of 2013. It was just after my second son was born.
Shawn Blanc: For me as an Apple nerd going to the Apple conferences and just dialoguing with other Apple nerds, a super common thing that I would hear was like, “Hey, I don’t like the default calendar app, or I don’t like the calculator app on my phone. Is there a better one?” I was like, “Yeah, there’s some really, really great ones out there.” So I had success with Tools & Toys and the affiliate model there for Amazon. I was like, “Well, let’s now go into Apple affiliates and recommend products for people for their iPhone, their iPad, or their Mac and then we can make revenue from Apple that way.”
Bjork Ostrom: And this was like Apple App Store hazard rev-share program. If you send somebody to an app and they bought it, you’d get a small percentage of that. Similar to Amazon.
Shawn Blanc: Yeah. It was like 3% basically. So a lot smaller than Amazon, but through SEO, we were able to scale pretty significantly. So people are Googling for what’s the best calculator app, the best calendar app, the best email app. We’re ranking for all of these accidentally. I actually wasn’t into SEO. We just accidentally got good at SEO by just writing these headlines.
Bjork Ostrom: Well, good content too. It’s like, if it wasn’t good, it wouldn’t have ranked.
Shawn Blanc: Right. It was super well researched. So that was going really well. We were doing some advertising there and affiliate. So same model advertising and affiliate on the Sweet Setup. And then the writing came on the wall where Apple was going to cut their affiliate commissions and they ended up just killing it all together. So here was this revenue stream for us that was basically going to go away entirely. Then advertising is also a race to the bottom. We had decent traffic. We were doing four or 500,000 page views a month, but that’s not that much anymore in the advertising space. Because you’re right in the middle actually.
Shawn Blanc: So the indie advertiser doesn’t have the budget to spend a couple thousand dollars on an ad spend for that, but then the big guys who are purchasing all this inventory for ads, they’re not interested in…
Bjork Ostrom: Not big enough.
Shawn Blanc: Yeah, not big enough. Exactly. They’re millions of pages, not a couple hundred thousand. So we’re in this interesting…
Bjork Ostrom: And this is at what point?
Shawn Blanc: So we’ve been doing that for a couple of years and then as I began to see the shift of the business model, it’s like right around 2016, 2017.
Bjork Ostrom: Okay. At that point too, that was early in the advertising world where doing actual handshake advertising deals was still more prevalent as opposed to now where it’s a lot more programmatic which is why companies like Mediavine, AdThrive, they’ll say, “Hey, if you have 100,000 page views, you can run ads against your site because they’re not doing as much of those individual deals. But especially at that point for you to be in that middle ground, there’s not going to be somebody who’s going to come and run this huge campaign for a new piece of hardware they’re doing because it’s just not enough inventory for them to fill and make it worth the time and effort to sign a deal and run ads on the site. Is that conversing?
Shawn Blanc: Exactly. So the handshake stuff is what I’ve been doing all along for years, but it was taking me 25% of my working week basically was ad sales. I was like, “My time is more valuable than that.” For me to work eight to 10 hours a week to make a $2,000 ad sale I would rather create a product that can do 10 times that and then can go on to do a continual sales after that as well in the long tail. It’s more fun for me to create products than to try to cold pitch advertisers. So yeah, we saw the writing on the wall with that and in between, so this was 2013 that I started this site and then 2017 where we made the pivot off of advertising and affiliates to product creation.
Shawn Blanc: In between that timeframe, another side that launched it was called the Focus Course. This was like my Magnum Opus in a way or our flagship course that I accidentally created. It was originally, I had this podcast Shawn Today, if you remember from the beginning. So here we are several years later still doing the show and I did this like 60 day or maybe it wasn’t even 60 days, maybe it was like a month or something where I just did a series on productivity and talks to people through my approach towards productivity. I talked through these components of how to live a focused life, how to do your best creative work. So all this stuff for my space. I’m in the tech and design space. I don’t have an outlet for all the research and all the methods and all the approaches that I developed over the years doing habits and productivity time management stuff.
Shawn Blanc: There were a lot of other people that were doing it. I was like, I don’t want to get into their space. So I was like, “Well, I’ll just do it for my podcast listeners and this will be great to be behind the scenes.” I just was getting emails after emails from my membership base going, “This is the best series you’ve ever done. I want more work. Where can I get one?” I was like, “Well, Hey, I’ll just take the podcast episodes. I’ll transcribe them and that’ll be the chapters of a book. I’ll write a book again. Hey, like Delight is in the Details. That book did pretty well. So I’ll do a book. As I’m working on that and going through the book I’m like, ”Well, hey, it’d be great to research some stuff and at least know what other people in the space think.”
Shawn Blanc: So I’m buying all these books and just going through. So I’m spending 10 time researching on productivity and time management and goal setting. Personally here I am sitting in my office for this stuff. This is my current job that I’ve given myself to research productivity and write about it. So I’m highlighting the books, I’m making notes and then just putting the books on the shelf. My day-to-day life did not change whatsoever. I’m consuming all this information and turning it into advice to teach, but none of it was actually changing how I was living. I was like, “Wait a minute, someone’s going to buy my book and they have the exact same experience.” I was like, “Well, that sucks. I don’t want that to happen. I want people to actually transform the way…”
Bjork Ostrom: Change.
Shawn Blanc: Exactly. Actually, change. I was like, “Well, what if instead of it being a book where you read all this information and at the end of the chapter it’s like, ”Hey, here’s this action item for this chapter.“ Because that was common and I would always just turn the page. I’d never do the action. I was like, ”What if the whole point was instead of it being information first and then how to take action on it second. What if it was do the action and then if you want to know more about it, then you can read the information? Learn by doing and apply by doing, instead of apply by reading. I was like, “Well, the best way to do that would be, I should do an online course and I can charge like 20 times more than I would charge for a book too. So that seemed to make sense, like not only from the best chance of success for my customers, but also for me as a business model. I’m like, ”There’s opportunity here.”
Shawn Blanc: So this is 2015. I did a big course launch and it was called the Focus Course, and I had taken some of the stuff I had learned from the way I launch my membership, the way I had launched my first book and then doing this course launch. It ended up doing like $130,000 in the first week, which was transformational. My business at that point was doing about $100,000 in a year and which is fine for me. Like, “That’s great. I’m doing six figures as a solo entrepreneur.” But now to suddenly launch this thing and do a year’s worth of revenue in seven days. I was like, this is holy money. I don’t touch it. I spent like a month looking at land rovers. Trying to talk myself off the ledge, but vicariously spending all that money on any car. But I just stuck it all in the bank.
Shawn Blanc: I was like, “I don’t know how to spend this yet or what to do with this, but this will change my business and it’ll change my life so I do the right thing with it and don’t buy a car.” Yeah. So I just sat on it for like six months. Then we got to the point where we’re now there was this growing momentum behind the Focus Course. Meanwhile, the Sweet Setup was struggling and then needed more help to get to that next level. Then I still had shawnblanc.net and my membership and my podcast. I was just exhausted. I had some contractors that were working for me, but they weren’t active in the business the way that I was. They were giving five, 10 hours a week here and there. They weren’t full time and I just felt like I either need to shut something down or I need to have someone take one of these over full-time.
Shawn Blanc: This is right around Thanksgiving of 2015. My parents were visiting for Thanksgiving and my mom’s just like, “Tell, think five years from now. Are you still working for yourself or do you have a team?” I was like, “I definitely have a team.”
Bjork Ostrom: Business consultant, mom.
Shawn Blanc: Exactly. She goes, “Okay, well, if you’re trying to decide, do you need a team now or not, but you have in five years from now you see yourself with a team.” She goes, “It seems like it’s the time to start building the team.” I was like, “All right.” So I had the money in the bank to pay a whole year of my first employee salary because I was just so nervous that I would hire this person and there would be no growth in revenue. They would bring no value to the business and I would just burn their entire salary and then I would be back where I started with no more money and I wouldn’t be able to keep paying them. Well, at least I have a year to figure that out. So I hired Isaac, I don’t know if you’ve met him or not.
Bjork Ostrom: I haven’t met him. Yeah, awesome.
Shawn Blanc: But he’s still with us and this fantastic guy. He came on and started January 2nd, like literally New Year’s day and then the next day was Monday. He just came in the office January 2 and that was fantastic. Best possible thing I could have done.
Bjork Ostrom: Because I think a lot of people, especially who are at a point where they maybe have some traction, they’ve been working on the thing for a while, they maybe have some of that budget. Maybe they don’t have a bunch of money saved up, but they know like, “Hey, I could live off of whatever amount, 5,000 and I could spend 3000 or my blog is making or my business is making $3,000. I could actually spend all of that because I’m working full-time still. I want to bring in a team member to help move this forward.” What does that actually look like to go from not working with anybody to working with somebody? What did you learn in that first year that you hadn’t done before?
Shawn Blanc: It’s really, really, I don’t know if I can give a quick answer. So first thing I learned was the power of community and two heads are better than one. Now I have someone who’s able to work with me full-time. He’s local so we were in the same office together and we’re getting lunch together pretty much every day and we’re collaborating on everything. It was so great for me. The same way that when I brought on some contractors and I had people to work with in the community there now I’ve got someone full-time to do everything with. That was just so wonderful. I loved it. Really happy. So there’s just injection of energy and ideas that happened there. And then someone to dialogue, bounce ideas off of, and just workshop the next stages of the business with.
Shawn Blanc: I just made a list of all the low leverage tasks that I was doing. Scheduling my newsletters and uploading the podcast and editing the podcast episodes. Customer support for different things. I just gave all of it to Isaac and then I had nothing left to do, but just create. Those are two really great things that I think if I had been a little bit more strategic or maybe more mature, I could have even made more use of my time. So now I have nothing left to do but to create but I didn’t have a vision for what was next or I didn’t have a strategy for how to make use of that time again. So we founded for a little bit. We tried some new stuff. It took a while to get our feet underneath us and start creating with intention and strategy, as far as this is now a business that needs to support two families.
Shawn Blanc: We got to make sure that we put that penny in and we’re getting two pennies out and really being strategic about what work can we now do that’s going to be high leverage. Because now that I have all this time back. It took me years actually to figure that out and in some ways, I’m still figuring it out.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Seems like I would imagine that a lot of people can resonate with that, the idea of, “Hey, you bring somebody in. You give them all the tasks that you’ve been doing that have previously moved things forward. Then now that you don’t have those, what do you do?” What if those were actually the highest leverage things that you could do because you don’t know what else to do. How did you discover what that is and what does that look like for you now?
Shawn Blanc: I think it looked like for us figuring out what was working. So that allowed me to step a little bit more in with the Sweet Setup and get back involved in there a little bit, and then also create some new stuff for the Focus Course. Now we have these two worlds and I was able to give a little bit more leadership there. So we created another course on time management which did really well and it was in direct response to our customers. We were able to do like customer research now and dialogue with them. We were able to get a little bit more advanced with some of our marketing and launches and stuff like that, which was fun. Then with the Sweet Setup we’re going, “Well, I think that we should start doing courses over here as well because the advertising stuff, the affiliate stuff is going downhill.”
Shawn Blanc: As we’re launching courses on these other websites and books on these other websites, that’s doing really well. So let’s bring what we’ve learned over there and bring it to this audience over here. We did our first course in on the Sweet Setup, I think it was in summer 2017. Again, it wasn’t huge. I think it did like $40,000 or something like that during the course launch. But it was a $29 course. We sold a higher volume of it and then at that point, the affiliate stuff had been slowing down so much that we were doing about 3,000 a month in affiliate revenue. We did $40,000 on this course. So now we have another, again, a whole year’s worth of revenue generated in a week. It’s just like, “Okay, this works. This can really work.”
Shawn Blanc: So we had the SEO stuff and so we were able to just double down on the courses with the Sweet Setup and over the time now, I think we have close to 14,000 customers that we’ve grown there over the years. This is now our model of finding the best ads for staff but then instead of doing SEO into affiliates, we do the SEO into a membership or a customer version of that.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s interesting. That’s the first time that I ever online connected with you is I was looking for a course on things. This was before we’d ever met. Before we’d ever connected. I didn’t know who you were. So you’re doing something right, because I came across it and I was like, “This is what I need. I want to learn how to do things better, which is based on the getting things done way of working.” We did an interview with David Allen a few years ago that we can link to in the show notes for anybody listening who wants to learn more about that. You did a course on how to use that software. I went through it and then like a year, or even like six months later, our friend Jason Glasby was like, hey, there’s this meetup which we talked about at the beginning want to connect you with Shawn, see if it might work.
Bjork Ostrom: So really grateful for that, but I’m one of those 14,000 customers, which is awesome. The model to your point works where, “Hey, we can see that we can create content around a specific genre and then we can offer that content as a premium offering, a course.” And we’re starting to see this exist in the food space as well and it looks… Simply, it’s just cooking classes. So people say, “Hey, I have this specific way that we’re going to teach you how to cook, or maybe you’re a beginner and are going to take you from not knowing how to cook, to knowing how to cook well.”
Bjork Ostrom: I think there’s a lot of opportunity here, especially if you’re not a high traffic site, but you’re a focus site to say, “This is what we do. This diet, this specific tool. Maybe it’s Instant Pot. So for any podcast listeners, it’s an important consideration as the value around courses and being able to sell a course for more than you’d get probably from affiliate or ad revenue, which sounds like in your story, you came to discover that was really true.
Shawn Blanc: Yeah. It really was and then it allowed us as well to focus in on when you’re at the site, what are we trying to sell? What’s the next step that we want you to take as a visitor, as a reader? It’s not to go to our advertisers page, go to our sponsors.
Bjork Ostrom: Right. Start to click on an affiliate link.
Shawn Blanc: Yeah, exactly. It’s, “Hey, we want to go deeper with you and so here’s these courses that really take this up to the next level. And then, to your point, Bjork as well with the cooking classes, I feel like this is even the phase of where this stuff is going is from the courses on demand to the cohort stuff, where it’s why…
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Can you talk about that? We were having a conversation and I thought about Food Blogger Pro, and what we’re doing there. It’s like, “Oh, I see this happening a lot. There’s a small investment we made in a company called Soul Savvy, which does cohort based modules for shoe enthusiasts, which is a huge industry, but I was like, ”If they can do it for shoes, we could do it for Food Blogger Pro or for productivity and Focus Courses.” So can you explain the concept behind that and how it works?
Shawn Blanc: Yeah. So what we’ve done, I’ll just share how we’re doing. We’re brand new to the space and just figuring out ourselves. I had the Focus Course is our bestselling course and our most profitable course over the years. Well, I shouldn’t say best selling. We’ve done others that have sold more copies, but this is our cornerstone stuff. So even everything that we’ve made around these other courses, all the things, one that you bought with the productivity, we’re stealing some of the ideas and principles from the Focus Course. So for me, this is our cornerstone piece. As you know, most people that buy an online course, don’t go through it. They will sign up for, and then it just collects digital dust. I’ve done this before.
Shawn Blanc: I was thinking for myself that the training that I’ve had purchase over the years as a business owner, as a creative, as a writer, as a photographer, the vast majority of the ones that I’ve been through, like 75% of the courses that I’ve actually completed, there was a live element to them where it’s like, “We’re having this workshop at this time and this is when it’s happening. This is when the course begins so to speak and this is when the office hours are, and it was a little bit inconvenient for me. I felt frustrated. I got sign up and commit a couple hours of my week to do this, but I actually went through it and completed it. And then even years later, I’m still reaping the benefits of that material and I’ve implemented it into my business.
Shawn Blanc: I was like, “For me as the course creator, obviously I cared deeply about the success of my students. I want them to actually go through the material because that’s where the greatest benefits are going to be. The greatest success is going to be realized by completing them material.” So how do we increase the likelihood of people completing the material? So we started by doing live workshops in person, and we did a couple of them in 2019. They were awesome. Then COVID hit and so we shut all that down. It’s like, well, what if we do them live online? So we did a couple Zoom a couple day long workshops, which was pretty great. You just block off a day or two, but then you’re sitting in front of Zoom for a couple of days. But with the Focus Course, there’s such a depth of material that we go through and it’s hard to get all of it ingested in a 24 or 48 hour period.
Shawn Blanc: And so we’re like, “What if instead we spread this out over the course of a month and instead of doing eight hours all at once, we did eight hours over four weeks?” So we’re actually piloting this right now like literally as we record this, we started our second pilot group yesterday. What it looks like is you have a enrollment window on the front end and people can sign up and then you have a start date. For us, we started yesterday on Monday and a workshop training that’s on Zoom. Everyone comes and shows up in person through Zoom in real time and we go through the material there and then we have some additional workshops during the week that are on Zoom. We have like these study halls for here’s a dedicated time that you can come. It’s like a Zoom co-work space set up where you can actually do the work that you need to, to figure out the answers to the stuff that you’re going through and go through the material in the training.
Shawn Blanc: And then at the end, you’re done and you’ve completed it. The first pilot group that we had, we had 70% of the pilot group complete the material, which is astronomical. It’s huge. So the value of you’re actually now seeing success in your students. You’re getting people to show up to something, and then there’s the community aspect of it. When you do that live online stuff, you’re forging really amazing relationships with these people. I think the cooking class stuff, if people do that live on Zoom at certain hours, there’s something about the community of going, “Hey, there’s 100 other couples that are all doing date night…
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and the energy around that.
Shawn Blanc: Exactly. Date night classes or whatever. There’s something that’s just fun about that and interesting about that.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. That’s a huge takeaway. Even when I think about what we do, I feel like there’s opportunity for us to even have a focused segment on like understanding Google Search console. We’re going through that with some Food Blogger Pro members now, but I could see us offering that to Food Blogger Pro members and then also opening it up to everybody and saying, “Hey, we have whatever it is, 100 spots for anybody who wants to know Google Search console better. We’re going to do this. We’re going to do it for six weeks. When you’re done, you’re going to understand it better and you’re going to be able to use it, ongoing in your business which I think is you can see the value of that, especially when we hear from people who sign up for Food Blogger Pro, and they’re like, ”There’s too much information. There’s so much here. I don’t know where to start.”
Bjork Ostrom: And with the module based learning, you can walk them through and say like, “We’re doing this this week. Here’s what you got to do this week.” And the sequential meeting rhythm of it feels like it would be really beneficial. So I can see that being a positive thing. We’re coming to the end here. For me, this is super interesting to hear. There’s massive takeaways for me specifically that point about thinking about how we structure even for Food Blogger Pro, but I can see that working for Pinch of Yum as well. This course based and also community based learning. I think, especially after coming out of a year of not having a lot of community, even if it’s digital, there’s huge benefit to that.
Bjork Ostrom: But you have a huge focus on productivity on focus. In the last few minutes here, I want to hear your thoughts on for us as distracted endless to-do list but also motivated wanting to get a lot of stuff done. How do you, as a creator stay sane? Because I think a lot of us are probably going insane with the amount of stuff that we have to do. Any advice for folks in the world of focus, productivity and not going crazy with all the considerations?
Shawn Blanc: Yeah. I mean, the struggle is real, right? We end our week in our week and our to-do list is longer than when we started. That’s no fun. So I’ll share my number one productivity tip whenever I get asked this question. I’ll share that in a second. One other thing that I’ve just been thinking about personally, just on a personal note for me as a creator and I think a lot of your audience and a lot of the Food Blogger Pro listeners are that you’ve got that entrepreneurial chip. Like you want to start something or create something or put something out there. As a creator and as a maker, someone who wants to ship stuff. I’m realizing that we have this personally, for people like there is this standard that we set for ourselves that is this high bar and we go, “This is the amount of content I want to put out there. This is the level of quality that I want that content to be.
Shawn Blanc: This is the new ideas that I’m going to generate. Like it’s this high bar of creating and shipping and doing the work and then we’re never actually hitting it. I know some people are listening on a video. So imagine that your bar is at 100 and you are operating at 90 and all you see is this dissonance between where you’re at and where you want to be. The truth is that you’ll never reach it. You’ll never actually hit your own bar for success. That dissonance from where you’re acting and where you’re doing, what you’re actually shipping versus what you imagine you should be doing creates… it’s a dissatisfaction.
Shawn Blanc: It can create an anxiety in us. It can create a creative depression, so to speak where we feel like we’re never hitting it. We’re never good enough. We’re never doing enough and it’s only by our own standards that we’re measuring ourselves. The truth is that we’re producing at 90 and the real bar for success is like 80. So we’re already past far past what is needed for us to do it. What’s actually needed is for us to sustain. So hitting 100 is not what makes us win it’s that we can sustain 80 to 90 for years and years to come.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, for five.
Shawn Blanc: Exactly. So even just that mindset shift of going easy and saying, “Hey, what’s better for me is to have the breathing room and the strength that I need to persevere, not to crush it every single day and just pass out from exhaustion and depression.”
Bjork Ostrom: Yes. It’s so important to reflect what I heard you saying. Figure out the level that you can produce at quality-wise that doesn’t lead to burnout and just be able to do that forever. It’s not the level that you’re going to want to be at because the level that you’re going to want to be at would probably result in you burning out. So how do you bring that down a little bit and sustain forever.
Shawn Blanc: Exactly.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome.
Shawn Blanc: So to tie that in with my number one piece of productivity advice, it’s this, and I’ll give it to you quick. It’s tonight, before you go to bed, I want you to set out your clothes for what you’re going to wear tomorrow. The whole outfit. Put it on the end of your bed or put on your bathroom sink, whatever. And then tomorrow when you wake up, that’s what you’re going to wear. Put that on. What you’ve now done is two things, first of all, you made a promise to yourself that said, this is what I’m going to wear and then the next day you followed through and you kept your own promise.
Shawn Blanc: This is huge. This is personal integrity where you follow through on your own promises and your commitments to yourself. Because as you plan your creative work, as you plan the stuff you’re going to do, the tendency is to get to that moment and change your mind and to actually do something different. You have this consistency of going, “I don’t trust my past self. I’m never going to deal with that person says. I only trust me right now.” You end up with just it’s fleeting and it’s draining and it drains all your energy and you’re constantly and dual focus and making decisions in real time, as opposed to just following through on your own commitments already.
Shawn Blanc: `So say you’re closing. The second thing you’ve done is you’ve made your future life a little bit easier. So now tomorrow in the morning, those morning minutes are so valuable. You’ve saved yourself some time. There’s a decision you don’t have to make, and there’s time that you don’t have to spend figuring out what you’re going to wear.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome.
Shawn Blanc: This translates to so many other areas as well. So that’s that’s my advice.
Bjork Ostrom: I saw on Twitter. We’ll see if we can pull it up. You had tweeted about a tomato garden and starting out and it’s really clean and there’s no weeds and then as it grows, it just gets more complicated and a chaotic. Somebody commented on that. They’re like, “I never know if you’re like actually talking about a tomato garden or if you’re like talking about a life analogy. Because it feels like it could fit both.” I feel like setting out your clothes is that. Like it’s an actual practical, functional tip, but it’s also analogous to how that can translate into other ways in our life, which is great and a good note to end on.
Bjork Ostrom: Shawn, if people want to follow along with you, if they want to see what you’re up to. Maybe if they want to check out some of the courses, we’ll link to all of those in the show notes. But can you talk a little bit about where people can find you?
Shawn Blanc: Yeah. Best place to go is the focuscourse.com and we have a free time management class there and then that also gets you on our mailing list and keeps you up to date with all the stuff we’re doing.
Bjork Ostrom: Cool. That’s awesome. Shawn, thanks so much for coming on the podcast.
Shawn Blanc: Yeah. Likewise. Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s a wrap for this episode. Thanks so much for coming on Shawn. As always, great to be able to chat with a friend, but also a friend who gets this space, gets this world. I always find that in these conversations, I come away with some action items and some things that I’ve learned along the way. If you have not yet, you can go ahead and subscribe to the Food Blogger Pro Podcast, wherever you listen to it, maybe it’s Spotify, maybe you listen on the Podcast app in iOS, wherever it is, go ahead and hit that subscribe button and you’ll be updated whenever we have new episodes.
Bjork Ostrom: You can also check out the Food Blogger Pro YouTube channel. We’re going to start creating little snippets of these interviews and publishing these to the YouTube channel. So we’re leveling that up as well. Even if you dig deep into the archives of the Food Blogger Pro YouTube channel, you’ll see a little gem video there of the first office we ever moved into. I highlight some of the special features of that office.
Bjork Ostrom: So maybe a motivation for you to go and check out the Food Blogger Pro YouTube channel. As a last item, we just want to say that we appreciate you for tuning in for listening to this. So one of the great joys that we have is being able to have these conversations, but then being able to share them. My hope is that it helps you get a tiny bit better every day forever. That is the purpose and the reason that we exist. All right, that’s a wrap. Make it a great week. Thanks.