I remember growing up as a kid and hanging out on the weekends with my cowboy grandfather, Charles Kimbell. Well, he wasn’t really a cowboy. But as long as I knew him he worked on his ranch, herding several hundred head of cattle on horseback with the help of his cattle dogs.
He sure seemed like a cowboy to my 12 year old self. But the truth is, most of his life was spent as an entrepreneur. After fighting in WWII, he built and sold several successful businesses. His idea of retirement was buying a ranch and becoming a cowboy. So that’s what he did.
I didn’t really catch on to the whole cowboy thing, but I did catch on to his entrepreneurial spirit. I remember asking him how to start a business. We were sitting at his blue ranch house kitchen, which was built on a hill overlooking hundreds of acres of ranch land in central Texas.
“The best piece of advice I can give you,” my grandfather explained, “is go work for someone else in a business you are interested in, figure out how it works, then go start your own.” Basically, he was saying I could learn what I needed to build a business and get paid doing it.
His advice might not be as nuanced as today’s successful solopreneurs would give (i.e. find a niche, build and audience, sell them a product, etc) but the method certainly works.
Ask Steph Smith.
Steph has created six-figures in revenue with 3,000 customers by NOT quitting her job (she actually crossed the 6-figure mark during our interview). While this isn’t exactly what my grandfather taught, the same lessons can apply: Work for someone who can teach you the ropes of the trade (in her case writing), build your reputation (using the company’s audience, The Hustle in her case), get a sense of what they want, and BAM make and sell them the product.
In Steph’s case she didn’t quit her job. And in today’s atmosphere, you don’t need to. She also had been growing her audience through her personal blog for years leading up to the release of her first product. But as Steph told me when researching this piece, “when you have a job, you have to show up every day. And if you can find a job that you are learning from other people in that process, that's such a win-win.”
Steph told me (and is highlighted in this viral blog post) "getting paid to learn is so underrated." She went on to say, "getting your experience in a job, being able to learn from other people, having the experience and also the pressure to some extent to show up every day for a job is really underrated. You don't need to quit your job to make."
I poured over dozens of interviews, blog posts, and interviewed Steph myself for this piece. I took all the knowledge and did my best to distill Steph’s most prescient techniques, frameworks, and mindsets for you to learn from.
I hope this saves you time and provides value to you. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions…
- On pre-selling an idea: Before creating her first paid product, she went to her audience with an outline and asked them if "anyone thinks this would be valuable, would you pay $10 for it?" Many people in her audience told her they would actually pay much more than $10. The point here is she didn't create a product first and ask if people wanted it. Instead she asked her audience what they want, created it, and sold it to them. The bonus to this strategy is the people in her audience who gave her feedback were her first customers (i.e. building in public 👇).
- Why you should build in public: When Steph released her first product on Product Hunt several years ago, she noticed that people were not super excited about her actual project, but rather the journey she took to learn how to code. The audience wanted to walk down the same path as her and realized it's possible. "People don't care about the product itself, they want to know about the story" behind the product. "The idea [to building in public] is you are bringing people in on the journey with you. They begin to invest in your story."
- On 'how to be great? Do good repeatedly': "I don't think you need to be consistent in such a way where you wake up every single day at morning at 9am, it's that you stick things out longer than the average person. You continue to do things when people are not paying attention. There are going to be ups and downs all the time but you just continue. Even if you have to take breaks, that you always get back on that wagon and keep going. Most of the time the only thing that differentiates people who are successful is that they kept going when other people quit."
- On the most common mistakes people make starting a newsletter: "The most common mistake that anyone makes when starting a newsletter is investing in writing, but not distribution. People often spend 90% of their time writing and a fraction of their time in distributing their content. No matter how good content is, if you don’t invest in getting it in front of people, no one will see it."
- On starting a newsletter: "The best way to stand out, whether you’re a paid or free publication is to “trade” on quality. For that very reason, more people are willing to pay for content, if they truly solve a problem for them."
- On slow but steady growth: Don't miss the power of SEO with your publication. It's the most missed tool that can be used in your favor.
- On Personal Monopoly: "Between 2011 and 2016 the number of Wordpress sites increased 5x. But if everyone is writing on the internet, how do you stand out? Find something that you know super well. Are you funnier, are you more deeply researched, are you more contrarian? Things like that are the reason why we actually read stuff online. Have a good reason for people to read and tell others to read, like "I read this newsletter becuase it only takes 5 minutes to read instead of 20". Many people read The Hustle because it has a specific voice that is funny. They are not saying I love the Hustle because it gives me the daily news. People don't talk about what you're creating, they talk about how you're different."
- On selling a vitamin versus selling a painkiller
- On 'getting paid to learn': "Working my day job allows me to continuously learn from people who are smarter than me, and get paid for it," Steph said. "I’m also faced with challenges that I simply wouldn’t encounter with my side projects and I often need to learn how to solve these challenges alongside others."
- On admiring others: Why do you admire them? Ask yourself if you are really emulating the people you say you admire. Steph says in most cases people don't actually do this, but they should. Steph admires people who are genuinely trying to improve.
- On how she avoided the scammy side of online marketing: How did she prove to herself she had the authority to write her book? Her goal was "to provide value" rather than "how do I make money". Steph knew her product could be viewed as a scammy product so she took great efforts to show everyone hers was legit.
- On doing things that don't scale: At the beginning you don't know what's going to work and this is a mistake people make at the beginning. You've got to test certain things out and switch them out if you need to. When you are at 30 subscribers, focus on how you will get your 31st. Morning Brew started out and went to busienss school lectures and got people to write down their emails on the clipboard. This doesn't scale but it worked. Find niche communites who are likely to be your true fans. Physically talk with fans in person. Then you can figure out what resonates with these small number of fans and you can refine your work to solve problems for them.
- On I don't have enough time: "What if we stopped imagining “me time” as relaxation time, but instead exactly as it is titled — time to focus on yourself and align with your goals." “Me time” shouldn’t just be non-tiring activity, but anything that helps an individual get to the future state that they wish to be in. With approximately 16 hours of the day allocated to work and sleep, every individual has approximately 8 hours to allocate to “me time” and if used appropriately, a lot can be achieved in that nearly 3000 hours each year.
- On the myth of overnight success: "there is no such thing as overnight success. This misconception is derived from the way the media operates," Steph said. "TechCrunch will never write about how X person spent Y years bootstrapping a sustainable non-unicorn that abides by its values and respects people’s privacy....Outliers are flashy, but they are still outliers."
I hope you enjoyed this issue of Solo Capitalist. If you liked it, would you mind sharing?