When it comes to creating digital products, software, ebooks, and online courses are what come to mind. But have you ever considered turning how you do what you do for clients into a product?
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That’s what Annie Cushing did. And while she thought it might cannibalize her data consulting and training business, instead it saved her.
Now she’s going all in on her process templates as the main part of her business. Listen in for ideas on how you can turn what you might take for granted into a downloadable product that makes you money while you sleep.
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The Show Notes
Turning Your Process Into a Product
Annie Cushing: My name is Annie Cushing, I make data sexy and I am definitely unemployable.
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Brian Clark: Hey everyone, and welcome to Unemployable. I am your host, Brian Clark, founder and CEO of Rainmaker Digital. You know, we talk a lot about creating digital products. The things that spring immediately to mind are software, ebooks, online courses. But have you ever considered turning how you do what you do for your client into a product? What’s what Annie Cushing did.
While she thought it might cannibalize her data consulting and training business, instead it saved her. Now, she’s going all-in on her process templates as a main part of her business. You’re going to want to listen in to this episode for ideas on how you can turn what you might take for granted into a downloadable product that makes you money while you sleep.
Annie, I saw an article in Fast Company a few weeks ago about the biggest job of the 21st century. The article quoted a Harvard business review line that said, “It’s the sexiest job of the 21st century.” It’s data scientists and I immediately thought of you. You’ve got the best tagline in the world, which is: “I make data sexy.” I’m like, “Hey Harvard! What are you doing stealing Annie’s deal?”
Annie Cushing: Right? I know.
Brian Clark: You consider yourself a data scientist. What does that mean?
Annie Cushing: You know what? I think of myself that way. I think most data scientists probably have a lot more programming experience than I have. I have considered going back to school and actually getting a Master’s in data science now that more schools have offered that. Then, it’s like, “Well, but I don’t really want to be working for the man and culling data. I really like training marketers.”
Brian Clark: Exactly. Hence, the unemployable thing.
Annie Cushing: Yes. Yes, exactly. How am I going to use that? You have to decide, especially as an entrepreneur, who your audience is. My main audience is marketers who are like, “I have no idea of what to do with this data.” They’re probably not going to want to hear about log file analysis and getting deep in python code.
Brian Clark: That’s true. We’re going to talk about this a little later, but we send our people over to you to take your data course because it’s that good and it’s that important. You came out and spoke at our first event in Colorado, and that was awesome. But I don’t know your back story that much, and we do that a lot on this show. Take us back. What was your journey and how did begin to make data sexy?
Annie’s Back Story
Annie Cushing: That’s a really good question. My background is actually editorial. Without dating myself too much, I spent 20 years in editorial. I was working for a publishing company and I was managing two publications. One was an illustrator magazine. This company focused on training for the Adobe Creative Suite. It was a really fun job because I just got to play in Photoshop and Illustrator and tech-edit all these articles and learn really cool techniques.
We had someone from — it goes back to 2008, 2007 maybe — one of the illustrators from “A Scanner Darkly” wrote a tutorial for our publication. This tutorial went viral before going viral was a thing. It was all on Dig, which is now dug.
This article — very quickly, within a matter of a couple of weeks — eclipsed the traffic to the homepage. Really, the entire site. It was just spreading like wildfire.
I started going into our Google Analytics reports. I was such a novice, just such a neophyte. I was exporting to PDF, and if I really wanted to know something but one of the standard reports didn’t offer it, I thought it wasn’t possible. I was so new to it.
I was spending more and more time in analytics because this was such a curious thing. Then the C-Suite wanted to know, “What are they doing? Are they buying anything?”
Within a short period of time, maybe 6 to 8 months, they made me the Web Producer for the company and I was responsible for the analytics for all 16 of our websites, because I was just in there so much. Those answers led to more questions, which led to more questions.
The next thing I know, I was building out a campaign tagging framework for the company because they did a lot on social media. We just didn’t have any real way to measure the results. We weren’t even pulling in revenue numbers. The partners for the company weren’t sure that they wanted people to have access to those numbers. It took months just to convince them to turn on e-commerce tracking and things like that, because it was a privately owned company.
Within a period of about a year to a year-and-a-half, analytics really became the battle call of this company, and I was the go-to person for all things data and analytics. Then I really wanted to know more, and I took Avinash Kaushik’s course — his web analytic certification course. That was great.
He is much more of a business analyst. He didn’t really get too much into Google Analytics. In the first class he said, “This course will be tool agnostic.” Initially I was disappointed, because I really wanted to learn Google Analytics. Then one of the guys who co-taught the course with him, John Marshall — he was absolutely brilliant in Google Analytics — he worked with me quite a bit.
For our final project we had to build a dashboard. My skills in Excel — I can’t even use the word ‘skills.’ I could build a basic chart and that was it. Some tables and stuff. I didn’t know what conditional formatting was. I think I could build a column chart and a line chart. I used all the default settings and all that. This dashboard was really difficult because the course didn’t train you in how to build a dashboard. There wasn’t an Excel component to it or anything like that. I was really one against the wind on that project and my dashboard was pretty pathetic.
When we presented our final project, Avinash said three words that rocked my week. He said, “If you pass…” and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. I don’t know if it was PTSD or what. I was so hung up on that I don’t remember anything he said after that. I was just like, “I spent $3,500 of my own money for this course. I talked about it on Twitter. I can’t fail this course.”
I did pass the course, but afterwards for about a week to two weeks, I was really feeling sorry for myself. I just felt like Excel embarrassed me. After I brushed it off, I made it my mission to just learn everything I could about Excel and how to use Excel data visualization, and all that.
The tricky part was time. I didn’t have a whole lot of time. I had been a runner for 20 years — you’ll see how this ties in. I was like, “Where can I reclaim time?” I thought, “I know. It might work out.” Obviously, I can’t read Excel books and run down the trail by my house, so I stopped running, I bought a gym membership, and I only worked out on machines where I could read books. For about two years, I consumed just about every Excel book there was on the market.
One of the challenges was all of the Excel books are written for finance people. They’re not written for marketers. The needs of marketers are very different. After maybe six, eight months, I thought, “You know what? I bet there are probably other marketers who struggle with this same thing.” I started blogging and doing tutorials. Then that really became my passion, because when I saw how much other marketers were in the same boat I was in. It was just really rewarding. Anytime I hear a marketer say, “I just built my first dashboard after going through your course,” or whatever it is that pivots around data. No pun intended. It’s just really rewarding.
I can work with clients and have minimal impact, or I can train marketers and I just feel like my impact and my reach has expanded.
Brian Clark: To this day, if you send me an Excel spreadsheet I will have an allergic reaction.
Annie Cushing: That was me.
Brian Clark: I have very smart people who I say, “Okay. What does that mean? Because I’m not looking at that.” It’s so true though, that it’s an essential thing. And yet, it’s probably the thing that we don’t think about as we begin. Whether you write copy or whatever the case may be, eventually you have to look at the numbers, and it can be daunting.
Annie Cushing: Very daunting. Especially for people … I do tend to be more of a numbers person. I don’t know how I ended up a writer for as long as I was. That just really caught for me. I think it’s very difficult for people. Marketers love tables. They love putting a whole bunch of information — because a table, you can shoehorn so much information into but not realize that the person who’s on the receiving end of your table may want to fall on his or her sword.
It can be assaulting. You just have all of these numbers. There are times where I’ll open up an Excel sheet and my initial reaction is this anxiety spike. I know that there are probably really important things in here that I need to know, but I don’t even know where to start. Your eye darts back and forth. Which is why I started emphasizing making data sexy. Which is really making data actionable, but that doesn’t sound as scintillating and it doesn’t give me as much license for inappropriate analogies.
It’s learning that art of presenting data in such a way that people don’t have that huge anxiety spike. You’re basically spoon-feeding them and saying, “Here’s what the data is saying. Here is what you want to do.”
Brian Clark: Yeah. This is something interesting to me. I think it was you who informed our decision on analytics, especially with the Rainmaker platform and what we decided to integrate with. It was you, I believe, that convinced us that Google analytics is really all you need if you know how to use it.
Annie Cushing: Yeah. I did work very closely with your team on that project. If you’re doing a lot in social, then obviously you need some external social tools to be able to track some of those other metrics. Ultimately, especially for the C-Suite — people who really want to know that high level, “What’s the impact?” Even what you’re doing on social is ultimately going to come down to your analytics. What results are you getting? Are you set up properly to track those results?
This isn’t in any way a spin, but I know when I do analytics audits there are just so many times where I go into a client’s settings and I’m like, “Oh my gosh! Who put that in place?” I find out they’re filtering out really critical traffic or assigning it to the wrong bucket. I see even top publishers making really critical campaign tagging mistakes. We’re talking Jezebel, BuzzFeed, the list just goes on.
I can reverse engineer where their data is showing up in their reports by looking at their campaign tags. I’m like, “They have no idea that all of this traffic that they are working so hard to acquire is showing up in this little bucket called ‘other’ that nobody checks. No one even knows what it is. It’s the quintessential junk drawer for data. And for a lot of top publishers, that’s where all of their actual tagged campaign traffic is going. It would have been better if they just hadn’t tagged than to tag incorrectly.
Brian Clark: I hate ‘other,’ especially in keyword search.
Annie Cushing: Right. I know. It’s so awful.
Brian Clark: It’s like, “Oh! Oh, really? Okay. ‘Other.’ Yeah, I can work with that.”
Let’s talk a little bit about your business now, because obviously you do very high level consulting with publishers, marketers, etc. It’s interesting, because you have … I am fascinated by your digital products. You do a great Google Analytics dashboard course, which we mentioned before. I think that makes sense. People get that. But you are effectively selling your processes with your digital site audit templates. Right? Talk a little bit about that. How did you decide to do that? That’s a genius move.
Selling Your Process
Annie Cushing: That was probably the riskiest decision, or at least it felt that way at that time when I was deciding whether or not I was — like you said — going to take my entire process and distill it down. Simplify it. So that someone who’s never done a site audit or an analytics audit could take it and follow the steps. Follow the screen shots and be able to do what I do for a small fraction of the price. I know early on — it’s been an ongoing joke like at conferences — I’ve been dubbed the Pollyana of the marketing world because I have given away so much for free.
Brian Clark: Welcome to the club.
Annie Cushing: I know. Not to sound like a martyr, but it always pained me any time small sites would contact me about doing a site audit or an analytics audit for them, because it’s just out of their budget. Sometimes they would ask me, “Could you only check some of the things? Could you make a smaller checklist?” I’m like, “But how do I know which things to not check?” It might be one of those things I don’t check that you find out later from someone else was the biggest issue on your site. I always felt bad anytime I had to refer those people out.
That was part of my motivation, being able to create a product that for smaller companies — Mom and Pop shops or solopreneurs or people like that — where they might not have the resources for a full site audit or analytics audit. If they have the elbow grease, they can go in and take this template. All the boilerplate text is there. “Open up this tool. Go here, then here, then here. Grab this number, drop it here.” That kind of thing.
Also, for marketers who are looking to improve their skills, to get a better job, or students — I was just thinking in terms of how can I get these skills in the hands of more people? That’s what eventually drove my decision. Right up until the moment I did it, I was like, “Is this the craziest, dumbest thing I’ve ever done?”
Obviously, I perform site audits and analytics audits. I was like, “Well, I know I’m going to be sabotaging some sales, but maybe it will be replaced by the sales of these templates.” And it was. There are some clients who go buy it and they’ll get a portion of the way through it and say, “Screw this. I’m just going to hire her.”
Brian Clark: Absolutely. Yes. The idea of a product that actually makes someone realize they need to just go ahead and pay you the full fee. What you mentioned earlier was telling, because John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing has the same story. He’s like, “I was passionate about helping small business people, but they can’t afford me at a consulting level.” He built this entire product and coaching base network from, “Okay. Let’s deal with reality here.” What I love about your audit templates is that, effectively, you’re brave enough to say, “You could start a business like mine if you buy this.” It’s like, what, $299 or something?
Annie Cushing: Yeah, $295.
Brian Clark: It’s so smart. Yet, I can understand your trepidation. That means you’re on to something good, in my experience.
Annie Cushing: Yeah. Exactly. It has been such a positive thing. Because, one, it’s replaced my need for — I don’t mean this as a humble brag, but now I can support myself comfortably just on the templates and the dashboard course, which has freed me up to be able to focus a lot more on training.
I’ll still have clients just to stay sharp. Most of my work is mostly audits. I’ve really backed away from consulting, agreements and stuff, just because then I have less time to focus on building new marketing products. I am in the process of building out one more template and then I think that’s going to be my last template, because these things are killer. They’re like the equivalent of a dissertation. They’re just so massive and they require a ton of research and stuff.
After I finish this last one, which will be a marketing strategy template, then I’m going to focus much more on video courses and things like that. Yeah, it’s freed me up to really focus on training. Again, to be able to reach more marketers.
Brian Clark: Was that a goal of yours? To shift from client work to a product-based business? It was for me back in 2006.
Annie Cushing: Yeah, it was. Just because there was one month — I was back out on my own again and I had this one month where I had two new clients come in. No, I had one new client coming in and I already knew I had this set amount for that particular month. It was going to be enough for me to be able to pay the bills and stuff. I was pulling together the dashboard course and I really needed that month to focus on the video editing and the 80 bagillion to-do items you have when you’re pulling together a project of that magnitude. Which I’m sure you’ve very aware of.
My third daughter was starting college. I had one year where I had three kids in college. My third was starting college. Don’t try this at home kids. That month I had $10,000 worth of consulting just go up in smoke. One client cancelled and a new client who was supposed to be starting dropped out after he was supposed to pay me. I felt so panicked. “I hate this! Why do I do this to myself? Why don’t I just go and work for someone else?” Just that month-to-month. I had never had a month like that that I could remember, but it was just such a critical month for me. I lost a lot of mojo that month because I really felt tipped off my axis.
I ended up going in-house for a company. Not right after that, but I’m sure it contributed. They were a client and they offered me a position and I was like, “Okay,” just to have that set paycheck and stuff. It was while I was working for them that I built out this other template. I mean the first template. Within two months, the revenue from that template replaced my salary. It was greater than my salary, and with no sign of stopping.
Word spread and I just thought, “Wait a minute. If I actually have …” And I was working long hours for this company — 60, 70, 80-hour weeks. I thought, “If I even put half of that time toward building out more products, I could just do this.”
It gave me the confidence that I needed to know that I could sustain myself. I was able, in pretty short order, to get the analytics audit template out. At least with those I had a lot of the baseline, because I worked off of my own template. It was a more a matter of actually building it out and making it usable for other people. Whereas this third one I’m starting from scratch.
Anyway, it wasn’t as strategic as it might look. I kind of stumbled into it. Now, definitely, my focus is much more in products.
What’s Coming up in the Pipeline?
Brian Clark: Tell us a little bit about the upcoming template and anything else that you’ve got in the pipeline.
Annie Cushing: Yeah. This next template is going to be a marketing strategy template. I’ve partnered with a number of tools — I think somewhere between 8 and 10 different tools that marketers would commonly use to build out a marketing strategy, to assess your own assets, and to do competitive analysis and tie all of that together. The way it’s going to work is it’s going to be …
I definitely approach things task-oriented because I’ve been a marketer for years. I know it really comes down to, “Okay. Check this. Do this. What are our competitor’s top 20 resources?” All of these questions that you might want to ask when you’re either building a marketing strategy from scratch or looking for opportunities.
This template will break it down into intuitive categories like organic, social, display, etc., and we’ll have a list of tasks and how you can accomplish those tasks using these different tools. If you could use Moz, SimilarWeb or BuzzSumo. Then I’ll have, “Okay. Here is how you accomplish that in Moz. Here is how you accomplish it in SimilarWeb. Here is how you would accomplish it in BuzzSumo.” Knowing that most companies aren’t going to be able to afford all of these different tools.
They can then go through and prioritize. “What tools should we be using?” It’s basically taking my tools — I have hundreds of tools from marketers — and putting it in template form. Although, not really. It’s that same concept, but not as wide and thin. Definitely focusing much more on particular tools.
Brian Clark: Got you. That sounds good.
Annie Cushing: It will kill me.
Brian Clark: That’s what we always say. Every new thing. It’s like, “This is going to be one that kills me.”
Annie Cushing: I know. Exactly.
Brian Clark: All right everyone. Head over to Annielytics.com — another great play on words — which is fantastic site. You’ll be able to checkout a lot of her free resources and also these templates that we’ve talked about. What do you use to build this site Annie?
Annie Cushing: Aha! I used Rainmaker.
Brian Clark: I am completely shocked. I did not know that. I’m sorry. That is just as shameless as it gets, but I can’t help it.
Annie Cushing: I’ll tell you what. Listeners, Brian didn’t give me a heads up about this. But for my needs, Rainmaker — you guys, seriously, pulled me out of the sludge. Being a membership site and selling products, I was so tangled up in so many different plugins that wouldn’t cooperate with each other. And then, because I’m such a data-whore, I didn’t want anyone checking out off my site. I wanted all the data on my site so it’d be in my analytics. Your team — especially Jess — set me up in a major way. I am a huge fan of Rainmaker.
Brian Clark: Yup. The check is coming Annie. Thank you for that. That’s awesome. Yes, Annielytics. We’re going to link all this stuff up in the show notes so that you can easily get over there. Annie, thank you so much for your time and wisdom.
Annie Cushing: Yeah, you bet. Thanks for having me Brian.
Brian Clark: All right everyone. Thanks for tuning in this week. If you are looking to build your own online marketing and sales platform, please head over to RainmakerPlatform.com. Check it out for yourself. Take the free, 14-day trial and see if it works for you. If you don’t want to do that, at least head over to iTunes and leave a rating or review for your favorite podcast, Unemployable. I hope I’m not being too assuming there. Take care everyone and keep going.