How did Copyblogger go from nothing to generating eight figures in less than a decade?
Join Chris Garrett and Tony Clark as they go over the simple secret behind Copyblogger’s 9 straight years of growth. They reveal the strategy that has meant this could all be achieved without any outside investment, without sales people, and with close to zero advertising.
In this 25-minute episode Chris and Tony discuss:
- The simple secret to success (and why it is not easy)
- What you need before you create your product
- The truth about real Minimum Viable Products, and the fatal trap too many people fall into
- How you can use this process to build your organization
- Why doing what is indicated will save you time, make you money, and keep your customers happy
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The “Simple” Secret Behind Copyblogger’s 8 Figure Business
Tony Clark: The Mainframe is brought to you by Authority Rainmaker. A carefully designed, live educational experience that presents a complete and effective online marketing strategy to help you immediately accelerate your business.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see Dan Pink, Sally Hogshead, punk legend Henry Rollins and many other incredible speakers, live. Not to mention the secret sauce of it all, building real-world relationships with other attendees. Get all the details right now at rainmaker.fm/event and we look forward to seeing you in Denver, Colorado this May. That’s rainmaker.fm/event.
Chris Garrett: Welcome everybody. I’m Chris Garrett. I’m the Chief Digital Officer of Copyblogger Media and I’m here today with my co-host Tony Clark, who is the COO of Copyblogger Media. And this is The Mainframe.
Today we are going to talk about the simple secret behind Copyblogger’s eight figure business.
Hi Tony, how are you doing?
Tony Clark: I’m doing good. How are you doing, Chris?
Chris Garrett: Now we’ve got through that introduction, I think we are going to be doing really good. It was a bit of a struggle reading from a script, but it’s all good.
The Simple Secret to Success (and Why it is Not Easy)
Chris Garrett: Today we are going to be talking about the simple secret behind Copyblogger’s eight figure business and I do have to emphasize that simple is in “air quotes”. You can’t see these air quotes but I am holding up my fingers right now because when we say simple, we don’t mean easy eight figure business, we mean there is a simple secret behind it.
So with all that intrigue and curiosity built up, what is the secret behind Copyblogger’s eight figure business?
Tony Clark: It’s like a lot of things. There’s a formula you can follow and the key is understanding that although the formula is simple, it does require work.
The basic formula is figuring out what your customers want, and then delivering that in a way that delights them. And a lot of times you can see that through following what it is that your customers are asking for, what they are saying, and how they are communicating with you. It’s a process what we call “just doing what’s indicated.” It’s just following through on things that you are seeing coming up in the marketplace, surrounding your community, and your audience.
What You Need Before You Create Your Product
Chris Garrett: You packed a lot of information to that, as a strategy, as an approach, so let’s go back to the early days of Copyblogger and use that as a case study to explain what you mean.
So how did that come about? How did the Copyblogger we know today start out and how did it get to be this eight figure business? Eight figures on its own sounds like quite a wild claim. How did we get there?
Tony Clark: Slowly building over time and it still is a lot of hard work.
It started out with Brian building an audience through the Copyblogger blog with the intent that he was going to build this audience to present them with something, a product to sell. And by starting out with an audience, you get a clear picture of what it is you need to develop. One of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to develop a product, before they have an audience or a customer segment to sell that product to.
You see it all the time in the tech world and the software world. A group of software guys will get together, come up with this great idea, “This is the next whatever, the next Twitter, the next Uber,” without really understanding what it is the market is looking for, but they know this will be a cool product, so they build the product first and then try and take it to a customer, to an audience. Whereas our approach has always been to build the audience first.
Chris Garrett: Yeah, so they are talking about “build it and they will come” and we are talking about building an audience, finding out what they want and need, and trying to solve their problems.
Tony Clark: Exactly. It’s the approach we call “Minimum Viable Audience” and then to create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
Why Doing What is Indicated Will Save You Time, Make You Money, and Keep Your Customers Happy
Chris Garrett: So earlier when you were talking about doing what’s indicated, we’ve built the audience, how do you know what they are indicating? How do you work out where to go with that?
Tony Clark: They’ll tell you. If you know your audience. That’s another benefit of building an audience first. It’s more than just an audience. It’s a community. It’s a group of people, who may not all be alike, but they have needs that need to fulfilled. They have missing elements in their business, in their marketing or in their approach to how they approach their industry and their marketplace, that needs something to help them accelerate that.
And a lot of times you can find that out just by listening to your audience because they will tell you very clearly what it is they need, what’s missing and often times they will even present ideas on, “I wish I had this” or “I wish I understood this” or “If I only had this piece of information or this tool I would really be able to take things to the next level.” And that by instead of forcing something on an audience of “This is what you need,” you listen first.
You sit back and through that kind of communication you will see patterns emerge. It will become very clear what is being indicated that this particular audience that you’ve created needs and what’s missing from what they have right now.
Chris Garrett: And we are seeing that a lot with the Rainmaker Platform. Every time we put new things out, we get a flood of people saying, “That’s great. Now can you make it do this?”
Tony Clark: Exactly. Yeah.
The Truth About Real Minimum Viable Products, and the Fatal Trap Too Many People Fall Into
Chris Garrett: And that leads us nicely to the concept of the Minimum Viable Product.
So you talked about the Minimum Viable Audience. That’s gathering an audience that’s big enough that they tell you what they want, but the whole concept of the Minimum Viable Product seems to have been skewed in the marketplace. People seem to have taken it and run in the wrong direction. Do you see the same thing?
Tony Clark: Oh yeah and it’s terrible because a lot of what I did previously, when I was in the consulting world and doing enterprize software, and then later on when I started working on Teaching Sells with Brian, was doing this approach of iterative development and sort of Agile, before Agile was cool and Lean, before Lean was cool and this whole Minimum Viable Product, before it even became a thing, an MVP.
And the problem is, over time, each of those things that I talked about, Agile, Lean Development and MVPs, have been skewed to be more about “what is the quickest and easiest piece of crap that we can get out the door, just so we can start making money?” And that’s not the intent of it at all. But you are right, that’s how it has become in the marketplace for a lot of people that are using those terms, and using it as an excuse to put together a low quality product, in a sense of trying to get something out.
Chris Garrett: Yeah, you even see apps and tools that are pretty much shells of product. It’s practically just a UI with nothing behind it but they are still selling it as a product to get people to register. They are still promoting the heck out of it and then doing “growth hacking”, all those things, and that’s not the philosophy you and Brian had at the start, and it’s certainly not what we do right now. So how did you see the MVP when you were developing those first products?
Tony Clark: It’s about delivering small bits of quality and then building on those small bits of quality. So you have to start out with something of value. A lot of people focus on the “Minimum” of Minimum Viable Product, versus the “Viable.” And the Viable is actually the most important part of the Minimum Viable Product, because it has got to be something that’s usable.
So one of the things that we focused on was, what was the smallest amount of information that we could deliver in Teaching Sells? And there was two reasons for it. One, because there was just the two of us. And Brian was doing the marketing, the writing and working on a lot of the information. I was doing everything else. I was doing all the coding. I was doing all the operational stuff, plus also putting together content. So because there was only the two of us, we needed to find a way to do the minimum we could do, that was still a high level of value and quality that people when they bought it, they wouldn’t say, “Wow, this was a rip off.”
But the other side of it is also because you don’t want to do too much before you understand how the market is going to react.
So there’s two key pieces of a Minimum Viable Product from a standpoint of actually building a successful business. One is, what is the minimum quality level you can get in there, so that you can deliver something that is actually of value? And two, what can you put in there that’s not too much, so that you can iterate and evolve the product in a way that better meets the customers needs? And if you do too much up front, you are basically having to dump a product on them, versus, “This is a starter that we can grow on and work on together.”
Chris Garrett: Yeah, and I think the key part that I’ve been exposed to over the years, talking to you and talking to Brian is, that it is to validate your ideas and validate the marketplace, and to learn and absorb from the customers. Not as a quick way to make cash.
Now obviously, it is a really good way of bootstrapping, making some money. It’s a really good launch process and Copyblogger has grown because of it, but it’s not with the goal of making money directly. It’s more “We have this idea for a product. Let’s see if the market accepts that and runs with it and really wants it.”
Tony Clark: Right. And you will make money if you provide quality. And one of the things that we did with our very first product, Teaching Sells was, we knew that if we were to build this entire vision of what we wanted this to be and then put it to the audience, it would be, not only overwhelming but it would be wrong. It would be skewed. It would be too much of the kind of information we thought that they needed, versus the type of information that they would request.
So we use a lot of pilot releases and charter releases because none of the products that we release to the public are ever beta, unless we do a public beta, which is rare. A lot of times we will do a small private beta and then we’ll do a pilot release.
The difference is that the release of the product is a production level, quality product. It just doesn’t have all the features yet. And the intent is that our pilot group, or our charter group, helps to get to evolve that product into something that they really need, by providing feedback. And providing, “Well this is the feature we need” or “This is the information we need. We need this simpler. We need this a little bit more in-depth” and by helping us evolve that product, they are getting it at a lower price, they are getting in on the ground floor, but they are still getting a quality product. It’s not a “Here’s a beta piece of junk. We want you to find the bugs in it” kind of thing.
Chris Garrett: Yeah, exactly.
How You Can Use This Process to Build Your Business
Chris Garrett: Let’s drill into this a little bit before we go too far with the conceptual side. Let’s drill down into what you did with the first Teaching Sells launch. How did that come about, and how did the process go?
Tony Clark: It started out by developing the core pieces that were going to be in it. So think of it from a point of an information product. You are outlining “these are the items that we need to include in there.” So we broke it out into modules. We knew this was the information we wanted to deliver to the customer. When all was said and done, this is what we need to teach them.
And the software side is similar. You have a list of features and then you pick which features they absolutely have to be in there at that first release and then the other ones will evolve over time.
So the first step was identifying what those were, and that actually came a lot to helping the marketing side of it, because by outlining what the product was going to be, we were able to clearly outline what the benefits of that product were.
One thing we do, is a lot of our development of the product, whether it be a software product, an information product, or a design product, like a theme, is that a lot of the development of that product itself, is also helping to develop the marketing material, so that we can clearly communicate what it is that we are going to deliver in two different ways. One from a marketing perspective and one from the actual product development perspective. And that was the very first step along the process of developing Teaching Sells.
Chris Garrett: And it’s a really good way of crystallizing for you and your market, what the benefit and outcome and transformation is going to be of the products. So if it’s an educational product, you are trying to get people from where they are, to where they want to be. If it’s a tool or software product, or a physical product, they actually want to solve a problem or they want to achieve something. So if you focus on those outcomes, then the features are actually going to follow and support that and you are then talking about creating something valuable, rather than just “I’ve got this idea for something to sell,” right?
Tony Clark: Exactly. That’s how you build a business. That’s how you build an organization. There’s a very big difference between building a product and building a business, and a lot of people don’t realize that. There are a lot of companies out there who have built a product, and whether it’s great, mediocre, or terrible, they don’t really understand that that’s just one part of building an overall business.
The way Copyblogger has developed to an eight figure business is by following these steps, but iteratively over and over again and looking at what is that we have built, what the marketplace reaction to that is, what the customers are saying, and then what the customer’s needs are, as we grow on that.
So the real kind of secret, the easy process, or the simple process that is not easy, is identifying what it is your audience needs and then delivering that in a way that you can now say, “Okay, here is a small piece of what you have asked for, that will solve A, B and C. Now tell us what you want D through Z to do” and then you slowly evolve that. It allows you to truly grow a business around the product, a true, real organization, a real business. First it’s just a product that you just keep adding features to.
Chris Garrett: In the early days it was just you and Brian. And then was it you, Brian and Sonia? When did you add Kim with the support side?
Tony Clark: She came before Sonia.
Chris Garrett: So basically you had a CEO, COO, and VP of support, even though there were only three of you. And then after that, you brought in the content-focused Sonia.
So there was an organization of three, and then four, but really the organization grew around the roles that you were all sharing between you, right?
Tony Clark: Exactly, and the key is identifying what you’re missing, to grow your business to the next level and by having the kind of foresight to see that.
Brian and I were terrible at customer service, and Kim realized that we were going to drive all of our customers away if we kept doing it, so we were good at getting the customers and we were good at pleasing the customers with the product, but when they had problems, we were not good with helping them on the support side.
So by identifying that with Kim’s help, that we needed somebody who would be good in that role, we started to realize how to grow our MVB (Minimum Viable Business) to the next piece.
Every single thing that we do in Copyblogger follows that same model of starting out with identifying, through listening very clearly, to what is happening in your community, in your audience, in your industry, in the marketplace. So listen. Then put something together that meets the needs of what those people are asking for. That’s the “Do what’s indicated approach.”
Then the next step is you iterate. You add on to that by listening again. We do that with our products, we do that with our marketing and we do it with building our actual organization. We know what we need to add next, as far as support staff, development staff and what we need to grow to the next level as an organization, by following that same basic blueprint that we have used for everything, from marketing to product development.
Achieving Scale Through Iteration
Chris Garrett: It’s interesting that that iterative process and that minimum viable process works internally in the organization, works in terms of delivering product, but it also works in terms of our content. So it’s interesting that the philosophy is kind of in the DNA of the company and, obviously, because the founders really believed in that, I think that’s where it has come through.
But as a lesson and a strategy for everybody listening, we try to do too much, too soon. We try to get big too soon. We try to compete at scale against our competitors, who we are seeing in a highlight reel. We don’t actually see the dark days that got them there. You know, the ten years to become an overnight success.
But if you do things iteratively, if you do things on a smaller scale and if you grow organically, then you can actually be more agile. It’s not just a marketing buzzword, you can actually change as the market changes. You can almost get ahead of some of the changes. But you’ll see if you place close attention to Copyblogger’s marketing and content, we actually do validate some of these ideas just with content and see what the response is going to be like.
A good example of that is if you have seen on the Copyblogger blog about adaptive content, that’s something we have been putting out there and seeing how people respond, because if we are going to build whole features around this, then we really want to know that people are on board.
Tony Clark: Exactly. And the other side of that is, you can see where, not only your audience is starting to understand these concepts clear, so that when you deliver this stuff, that goes back to listening and the feedback, so that starts at the content.
So if it is causing a level of confusion, you can adjust that as you start adding features into the product. You know that you are adding features that will really meet the needs of the audience because you’ve listened, and then you have gotten feedback, and you are building to that feedback.
Chris Garrett: Yeah, and the same thing with the internal audience, as the external audience, with our teams and with our support structures and our organization, it’s that element of co-creation again. It’s not a top down “We think this, therefore go and do that” with the customers or even with our colleagues. We co-create with our colleagues and we co-create with our customers. We take on board feedback and we say, “What do you think? Should we do this? Would this be valuable?”
So that’s the MVP process internally and externally again, isn’t it?
Tony Clark: It is. As we scale this organization, I think we are close to 50 people now.
Chris Garrett: Scary.
Tony Clark: Yeah, I know. But we are still able to turn on a dime and that’s a very important thing to be able to do, especially in the software industry and in the content industry, which is where we are.
We are a media company that produces software. So we are in several different worlds and we have to be able to identify what it is the audience, our customers and our communities need, and be able to deliver that effectively. And by staying agile, even as we’ve scaled, it has allowed us to be successful. And if you follow these same principles, whether you are building a product, whether you are building content, whether you are doing marketing or whether you are building an organization, it allows you to scale in a way that keeps everything stable and allows you to adjust, and truly be agile, in the true sense of the word, not in the new buzzword sense of the word.
Chris Garrett: Yeah. And I think that agility, a lot of people focus on getting to market fast, but once you are in a market, you need that lifetime value, you need that customer loyalty. You need to keep delighting people and that agility is how you keep them.
Tony Clark: It is and you see it in the successful companies, versus the ones that we either don’t hear about anymore, or the ones that have clearly died.
In our industry we have seen several companies that are going to remain nameless, that we have seen them scale up really fast and you see them hiring every other day and they are building this and doing that, and then over a course of a year, they are no longer around.
Then you see other companies in the marketplace like, 37 Signals, now Basecamp, who have taken the same type of approach. Building everything in a very lean, agile approach, adding people in at the right time. It’s just in time development, just in time content and just in time organization growth. You don’t add people until you really need them. And then by doing that, you add the right people, at the right time, and it allows you to scale everything and it’s a simple blueprint but it’s not easy to do. It’s something that requires work, it requires discipline and it requires the ability to listen and trust. Trust your understanding and your instincts, versus listening to your ego all the time that wants to be a big business with lots of people or, “I need this. I need that,” as this will be the quickest way to tank your company.
Chris Garrett: We are going to drill down in future episodes into a lot of these ideas, but what are those steps that you talked about earlier, so that people can take those away and start implementing them today?
Tony Clark: The first step is to build your audience. A Minimum Viable Audience is an audience that’s going to be different depending on you, and your industry. But the minimum audience that will give you the right kind of feedback and the right information that you can listen to, to develop your Minimum Viable Product, which is the next step. And that may be an information product, software, whatever it is you build for your industry. Or if you are in the service industry, it allows you to tailor your service offerings in a way that actually meets that audience, versus putting together a menu of items and then hoping that somebody will pick one.
And then the final step is basically going back to step one, but you get that feedback, and then from that feedback you adjust your product, offering, or your information, and then go back to the beginning. Listen again. And it’s just this continuous cycle of start off by listening to your audience, then take what your audience has said, and deliver to them this that delights them. Then listen to the feedback you get back from them, so you can add the next step and grow on it.
Chris Garrett: Excellent. Thank you Tony.
We will drill down in future episodes. Keep listening to The Mainframe. This is Chris Garrett and Tony Clark, and this is The Mainframe.