I started my own business at a late age — by the time I made Zen Habits into a business in 2007, I was in my mid-30s and had toiled through various jobs for 17 years.
So when I started out, I didn’t know what I was doing (and still don’t, but less so now). I tried everything to make money, to make my site more popular (which I thought was important). Some of it worked, some didn’t. Some made me feel bad about myself. Some things readers reacted badly to, and others they loved.
Through this trial and error, I learned some principles that work for me. I don’t share them here to show that I’m superior to anyone, but to show an example of what might work for you. To show that doing things that feel right can make a business succeed.
Here’s how I conduct my business.
- Readers first. This is my No. 1 rule, and it has served me extremely well. When I have a question (“should I promote X or not?”) the answer is always, “What would my readers want? What would help them most?” When the choice is between making some extra money or my readers’ interest, the choice is obvious. There is no choice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve passed up being part of a mega-sale or affiliate marketing campaign that would have earned me $50K (and sometimes much more) in a day or two if I’d decided to participate. I’ve walked away from at least $1M because it would have put profits before my readers. And I think my readers trust me more because of this (see next item).
- Trust is everything. The most valuable assets I have are my readers’ trust and attention. And the attention will go really fast if they stop trusting me. Everything else in this list is based around these first two principles. When you start doing affiliate marketing, even if you think it would help the reader, if it would make them question your motives (is he trying to help me or make some money here?), it erodes their trust, a little at a time. That’s not worth the money.
- Make money by helping. I put out products and courses that I think will really help people, and that’s how I make money. This works really well for me. People are happy because their lives are better, and I’m happy because the revenue I make is entirely coming from making people’s lives better. We both win, our lives are all enriched. This is not the case from advertising (see next item).
- No ads, affiliate marketing. These are both the same, really. When you market someone else’s product as an affiliate, it’s just a hidden form of advertising. I should note that I had ads and did affiliate marketing for a couple years before giving it up. Why’d I give it up? Well, I realized (through experimentation) that the return on this kind of business model is very bad. You get very little revenue, and erode trust. That’s a bad formula for making money. When you sell an ad, what you’re really selling is your readers’ attention and trust — they trust you to put something important in front of their attention, and you capitalize on that. Of course, most readers learn not to trust the ads, and try to skip them, and put up with them because they want the good content (or service) you’re giving them. So they no longer trust you as much, but put up with your revenue tactics. This sucks. Who wants their customers to put up with anything? Why not delight them with how you make money? Why not enrich them? Now, can everyone do this? Possibly not, but I wouldn’t reject the idea without giving it a genuine shot.
- Just the text – no social media buttons, popups, dropdowns, or anything else that annoys or distracts. This goes back to trust — people come to my site to read something that will add value to their lives. Not to be pushed to share something on social media, or like something, or subscribe to my email newsletter. Yes, I have a thing at the bottom to subscribe, but it’s not pushy, and I don’t promise any gimmicky downloads. When your site has a popup or dropdown that asks people to subscribe, it’s annoying. I’m sorry to be blunt but I’m speaking as a reader now — I will never go back to a site that does that. Which means I don’t read a lot of my friends’ sites because they do this. Give the readers what they want, and nothing else, and you won’t have to ask them to subscribe or share. They’ll do it on their own, and this is the kind of share and subscriber you want.
- Uncopyright. My site has been uncopryrighted since January 2008 (there weren’t any other sites doing this at the time), and in the last 5+ years, uncopyright has not only not hurt my business, I strongly believe it’s helped tremendously. Why? Because it helps people share and spread my work much more easily. If someone wants to use an article of mine, they don’t have to go through the hassle of trying to contact me and ask permission — they just use it. This has caused people to use my work in books, magazines, blogs, newsletters, classroom materials, art, conferences and more. This is amazing. In addition, uncopyright promotes the idea of sharing, and when you share with people, they tend to trust you more. Sharing builds trust.
- No sales. I’ve seen many people do three-day sales of their products (or something similar), but I’ve never done one of these (that I can recall). Why not? Because it makes no sense to the reader (remember, readers first). Tell me the reader: why are you lowering the price of your product for three days? Why only those three days? If you can lower the price for those days, why not the other days? Is it to make more money from me (manipulate me into buying the book)? Is the price too high on the other days? What if I already bought the book at the higher price — was I ripped off? These are questions the reader has no answers to, and no matter how much you try to justify the reasons of the sale, it doesn’t make sense. Either set the price at the higher price point (because you think it’s worth it), or set it at the lower price point (because you want to get it into the hands of more people).
- Admit mistakes. It might sound like I’m pretending to be perfect at what I do, but the truth is I’m winging it. I’m making it up as a I go along, in hopes that I won’t screw it up, and constant fear that I am badly messing up. I have more trust in this process (and in my readers) now that I’ve been doing it for seven years and nothing has fallen apart, but I have made many mistakes along the way. I’ve been overly promotional, I’ve done affiliate marketing (just a couple of times), I had advertising, I asked people to share my work, I asked for votes. Those were mistakes, but I learned from them and try my best not to repeat them. Recently, in my Sea Change Program, I removed old habit modules from 2013 (I felt they were outdated), and my members were upset. I fixed the mistake and put the modules back. People don’t expect you to be perfect — they do expect you to try your best to fix mistakes when you make them. I admit my mistakes, and try to rectify them and do better. People trust me more because of it, I think.
- Don’t front. I don’t pretend I’m more than I am. I think there’s a tendency in the online world to overrepresent yourself — put yourself off as an expert or the world’s leading whateverthehell. But I’m not the world’s leading anything. I am just a guy who has a wife and six kids, who has changed his life by making small habit changes, one at a time. A guy who has simplified his life and focused on being mindful. I’ve learned a lot from these experiences, and share them as much as I can here on Zen Habits. That’s all I am, and I don’t try to be more. When you only try to be yourself, you can’t fail.
- Forget about stats, focus on helping. In the early days, I was obsessed about site statistics. I would check my stats counter several times a day, look at where all the traffic was coming from, try to get my numbers up. Here’s the thing: you can’t do anything with those stats. If you’re getting traffic from Reddit or Twitter, you can’t do anything about that. All you can do, once you’ve seen the stats, is try to create great content. Try to help people. Try to add value. That’s what you’d do even if you had zero stats. The stats don’t change what you should do — though they might motivate you to do things you shouldn’t do to get the stats up, things that aren’t trustworthy. The stats just make you obsessive. About three years ago, I removed all stats trackers from my site, and now am freed from that worry. Now I focus on what really matters: helping people as best I can.
- Do what feels right. This is vague and isn’t very helpful at first, because in the beginning, you’re never really sure what’s “right”. There are lots of choices to make and it always seems smart to just do what other people are doing, what the experts tell you to do. Unfortunately, that’s often wrong. Everyone else does what everyone else does because that seems safer, and so they act out of fear of doing the wrong thing. In fact, safer is not the right thing. Doing the right thing is going to be against the mainstream. For example, when I gave up copyright, or let go of ads or social media buttons or affiliate marketing, or comments, those were all very scary things for me. It was against what everyone else at the time was doing. But in the end, I knew they were the right thing, because it was what was best for my readers. And it made me feel good about what I was doing. This is the compass you need to develop, to build trust with your readers, and with yourself. Feel good about what you’re doing, don’t act out of fear.