How a Minimalist Design Made an Unexpected Impact on Book Sales

Understanding who is viewing your website, and why you should incorporate a natural flow of expected behavior that increases conversion.

Once in a while you make a decision that affects your business and 100% of your revenue stream. Such was the case with Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist, except that he had someone else to share the blame with when things fell apart — me.

Nearly a year ago, I redesigned his website, and along the way I insisted we remove his sidebar … which was where he was selling his books. In the spirit of minimalism, we felt it was necessary and the impact it had was something neither one of us expected.

In this 18-­minute episode Joshua Becker and I discuss:

  • The prequel to his website, Becoming Minimalist
  • The burden of our possessions and the things on our website
  • How Becoming Minimalist got started
  • The story of how we met and thoughts on the redesign
  • Removing the sidebar and the effect that had on his book sales
  • Leo Babauta and selling your readers’ attention
  • The Proxima Nova typeface
  • #brocation in Breckenridge and our ski run down Briar Rose

The Show Notes

How a Minimalist Design Made an Unexpected Impact on Book Sales

Brian Gardner: Hey everyone, welcome to the No Sidebar podcast. I’m your host Brian Gardner, and I’m here to help you identify the things that stand in the way of building your online business. Together we’ll learn how to eliminate the unnecessary, increase conversion, design a better business, and build a more beautiful web.

Alright, so last week I spent some time sharing my journey from my desk job to dream job, and how that process encompassed that dirty word – fear. It’s something I had to overcome to get to where I am at today, and it definitely didn’t come without challenges.

Today, I want to lighten things up a little bit, and I have a very special guest that I am excited to talk to.

Before we get there, here’s something important I would like you to know.

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Well after a conversation with his neighbor in 2008, my guest and his family decided to become minimalists and intentionally live with few possessions. They immediately cleared the clutter from their home, and their lives. As a result, they found a better way to live set on more important pursuits.

It’s been a journey of discovering that abundant life is actually found in owning less, and it still ranks as one of the best decisions they have ever made.

His story has been seen on the CBS Evening News, NPR, The Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal and countless other media interviews around the world. His book Simplify and Clutter Free with Kids made him a bestselling author.

Not do I only have the pleasure of having him on the show today, I also consider him a personal friend. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce today’s guest, Joshua Becker.

Joshua, welcome to the show, and thank you so much for making the time to be here.

Joshua Becker: Hey, it’s a pleasure to be here Brian. You are a good friend, you have been super helpful to me in life and online, so it’s a pleasure to have this conversation. I’m looking forward to it.

The Prequel to his Website, Becoming Minimalist

Brian Gardner: Now before we get into what you are doing, and where you are at now, can you give us a little history of where you have been? I know you have spent some time in Vermont and Nebraska. What’s the prequel to Becoming Minimalist?

Joshua Becker: Yeah, I’m happy to give the back story. I don’t know how far back you want to go? I grew up in the Midwest – South Dakota, North Dakota. I went to college in Nebraska. I got a degree in banking and finance, and then went to work at churches as a pastor. So that’s a natural segue from finance and into pastoring.

I started work at churches in Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Vermont. I loved what I was doing – just being involved in people’s lives. A pretty typical middle class suburban lifestyle is what I grew up in and what I’ve always lived with. The number of pay increases and job promotions, bigger churches, bigger paychecks. Each time we moved, we bought a bigger house and more stuff. I just kind of lived in this pretty typical American dream lifestyle that people would think of.

As you mentioned, it was a conversation I had with my neighbor, when I was cleaning out the garage on a Saturday morning. My son, who was 5 at the time, was alone in the backyard, and just the realization that all this stuff I was owning, was not just making me happy, but it was actually distracting me. It was actually taking me away from the things that did bring happiness in my life. And by that I mean, it was distracting my time, and energy, and focus and that began our story six years ago of deciding to own less, on purpose.

Becoming Minimalist was the website we started first just to journal our progress. And then eventually become a place where we hoped to inspire others to find the same life change that we have discovered.

The Burden of Our Possessions and the Things on Our Website

Brian Gardner: So the website is designed to inspire others, to pursue their greatest passions by owning fewer possessions, right?

Most of the stuff you write about on the site is that – owning fewer possessions. And the directive, like you think, that has on happiness.

So do you think this kind of mentality goes beyond what you own? Perhaps other areas in life are applicable to the same kind of thinking?

Joshua Becker: Yeah, I don’t think we have any realization of how much of a burden our possessions had become, until we tried to remove them. And for me it was when I was cleaning the garage, and my son had spent all morning by himself, I think we all know, or at least we would all say that we know our possessions aren’t making us happy. No one ever says they are looking for happiness in the things that they own. But for me, and for most of us, it was a deeper realization that not only are my possessions not making me happy, but they are taking me away from the very things that do bring happiness and fulfilment into my life.

And so the removal of them, and the intentional decision to just own the things that I needed to fulfil what I need to fulfil in my life, was one of the most life giving decisions that we ever made.

Brian Gardner: I love what you said about our possessions and that we don’t realize how much of a burden they become until we try to remove them.

You also talk about the deeper realization that not only do these things not make you happy, they take away from the things you want to do.

It seems like I always take ideas like this over to the world of design, and I guess that’s second nature. Honestly, this is often how I feel about websites as well. For me this was something that became so true of my own website.

As I mentioned in the first episode of the show, it became evident to me that there were things that I had on my website which didn’t belong, and I could do without.

It’s probably the same thing that you and Kim found with your possessions, and the happiness you weren’t experiencing as well.

How Becoming Minimalist Got Started

Brian Gardner: Well speaking of websites, let’s talk for a minute about yours – Becoming Minimalist.

Tell us a little bit about how that got started.

Joshua Becker: The quick story is I started the website much on a whim. It was a Saturday morning and the website maybe began that Monday evening, just I was going to start writing about what I was doing and what I was getting rid of and the things that I was learning. And there was no intentionality to it. was free to sign up and the domain was available. So I got it.

Looking back I am probably only doing what I do now because I made that decision, just on a whim obviously. We wrote for maybe about a year and a half. I wrote a post on belts. It was like 18 months we had gone through our house in six or nine months and I’m just trying to figure out, what in the heck am I going to write about?

I just remember “Belts” was the title of it. And I said, “Belts. How come I never thought of that before.” And started labelling the belts I got rid of. And I’m like, “What am I doing? I think I have written enough about myself here, and so the very next post was, “Hey, here’s some things that I have learned about becoming minimalist.” So it went from my journey, and into “Hey, how can we inspire others to find this.” And that’s when the real growth of the website took off. When it was less about me, and became more about the reader.

The Story of How We Met and Thoughts on the Redesign

Brian Gardner: So some time goes by, and you have this very successful website and things are going well for you. Traffic is increasing, your Facebook page is growing and book sales are on the rise, and then I come along.

I don’t remember the exact story, but I do know that it happened on social media and I probably overstepped my bounds at the time. What I do know is I wanted to challenge and take something that was already minimal in a sense, and make it even more minimal.

So I thought it would be fun to hit you up and see if I could redesign for you.

Now one of the things I remember insisting on doing for the site is removing the sidebar. You showed a little bit of hesitance at first because that was the only place you were selling your books. Honestly, I was a bit worried too at first, since I was pitching to you such a radical change.

Joshua Becker: I’ll tell you the exact story first, because I remember it very well. We had started interacting a little bit on Twitter, just about minimalism and some different things that I was writing. You put out a tweet one day, you said, “Hey, I got bored today so I redesigned my site.” Or something like that. And I clicked through and I was like, “I can’t believe you did that in a day. Who are you? Because that’s amazing.” And I wrote back, and I said something like, “Man, I wish I had the skills that you have.” And you tweeted back and you said, “If you ever need a redesign for Becoming Minimalist, all you have to do is ask.” I said, “Well I am asking. Let’s do it.”

You were very helpful in the process in pushing me towards even a more minimalist approach than I had before. Even some things that I wanted to include, besides the sidebar, where I remember you saying, “Hey look, at some point you are going to have to cut something out. Like you can’t include everything if you want this to look as minimalist as you do.” And so thanks for doing that.

Almost all of my income is from book sales, which I’m just fortunate to sell enough each month to live on, and that’s where all my income was coming from – the ads in the sidebar. The website would drive people to the books. We had two, I don’t know if they were 250, or 125 x 125 ads on the side about the books, and just sending people towards them. And you said, “Let’s get rid of them.” And I was scared to death because that’s where all my income was coming from.

Removing the Sidebar and the Effect That Had on His Book Sales

Joshua Becker: We moved it just to links at the bottom on the post and we did it just as a test at the beginning, not that we were going to go back to a sidebar necessarily, but a test to see if we would sell enough books to make it work, and we did. They’ve steadily rose each month from the time that we did that. I was just looking at the numbers before we headed in here. And obviously, if it hadn’t worked, we would have gone back to something, but it’s interesting how that worked out.

I was just trying to think through if I could maybe put my finger on why that worked, why removing the sidebar actually became more financially beneficial and ended up moving more books. And I think one of it is because the content becomes what the site is about. I hop on these websites and up pops this “Signup for my email newsletter” and I’m like, “I don’t even know you. Why am I going to signup for your email? I just came to read who you are and what you have. And if I read what you have and I enjoy it, and I find benefit in it and value in it, then I am going to be interested in your email, but I am never going to signup before I’ve read what you have to write.”

And when we removed the sidebar, it said, “Okay, this is what’s important. This is what I am offering you today – this writing, these thoughts, my opinions, my world view. If they resonate with you, then here’s where you can find out more.” And I think it’s the calls to action have been minimized. You know, it’s not “Hey, you can do this, or you can do this, or you can do that.” It’s, “Hey, this is what I am writing, if you want to find out more, here’s the books to help you pursue this even a little bit further.”

Brian Gardner: Rest assured my friend I am so glad that the book sales continue to go well, and I remember on a number of occasions I wanted to email you to check in about that, and I figured that no news was good news and that the sales were going along just fine.

Leo Babauta and Selling Your Reader’s Attention

Brian Gardner: Okay, so you talked about some of the email signups and things like that, and it makes me think of something I call ‘intentional design.’ This is an approach to the web where we specifically place things where we think they will naturally belong, from the eyes of a site visitors and also from the psychology behind their visit.

So moving along, Becoming Minimalist in my eyes is a great example, as it started out as more of a fun blog and has become a job for you – something that you do professionally and take seriously on a number of levels. Do you have any words of wisdom for our listeners that are starting out as a blogger? I know folks who are starting out think of things like monetization, building an audience, conversion and stuff like that, do you have any words of wisdom for those types of folks?

Joshua Becker: You know, early on when I had my site and I was just getting started, I remember thinking, “Okay, what can I do to just get more clicks on my site.” So I got popular posts listed on the side, and there’s archives by date and all these places where I was just hoping that someone would click so that I was getting more paid views on my website. And that’s all they were doing, and then additionally, I’ll come back to that, but additionally Leo Babauta I think says it very well about selling ads, and I’m okay with having ads on your site, if they align with what you are doing.

He said, “What you are basically doing is you are selling your readers attention. You are getting paid to have this ad on your site, and in exchange you are giving away your readers attention to whatever company has paid you the money to put their ad their.”

What I think happens is, we add all these things where we are trying to add more page views on our site, we’re adding these ads because there is this little trickle of money that’s coming in.

And what we are doing is, we are really just diverting our readers attention away from what we spent so much time crafting and preparing, and the writing itself that they were hoping is the one thing that has the impact on someone’s life, and you know, that’s how I think we build an audience. That’s how we build a community as we offer value into their life and we are not diverting their eyes to all these different things on our site – but we are saying, “Hey, this is what I’m about. This is what I am writing about. If you want more of this, here’s a natural next step.”

I think some people would be nervous to put the books at the end of an article. They want their books or their products above the fold, as they say. I’m like, “Well, if someone is not going to read past the fold on your article, they are not going to have much interest in anything else that you are selling. So having it down there makes perfect sense if they like what you have read, and they like it all the way through, then they are naturally going to be interested in finding more about it.

The Proxima Nova Typeface

Brian Gardner: One of the things I was pretty insistent about with the redesign was the use of a particular typeface called Proxima Nova. To be honest with you, I almost succumbed to fear about the whole deal, as I felt kind of weird asking the minimalist guy to spend money on typography. However, one thing I’ll say is, that the decision might be one of my favorite ones from a design perspective because I think it helps make the site what it is today. Would you agree with that?

Joshua Becker: Yeah, and you know what it is, it’s a classic example of the designer knowing better than the owner. And granted, I gave you permission and I said, “Hey, tell me if I need to be spending money on this” but you were bold enough, and I’m so thankful. I mean you were bold enough to say, “Hey, I think this is where you need to spend some money on your site and I hope that you will.”

And we went back and forth on different color schemes and different things where you didn’t hold to original your idea, you let me speak into it. But that’s just probably a message for the designers out there that when you need to exert your expertise, then do it. I couldn’t be more happy with the font that we chose, so thanks for sticking up for it man.

Brian Gardner: Well you bet you, that was my pleasure.

#brocation in Breckenridge and Our Ski Run Down Briar Rose

Brian Gardner: Now aside from having a professional relationship, we’ve also become really good friends, and to be honest that’s something that really means a lot to me. In fact, you and I recently spent a few days with Darrell Vesterfelt and John Shultz up in Breckenridge for our inaugural brocation, which by the way we need to start planning for this year.

Anyway, one of my favorite moments of that trip was the run we took that placed us unexpectedly at the top of a very steep mogul field.

Joshua Becker: Yeah, who names one of the hardest blues on their mountain, Briar Rose? I mean what a beautiful name. I was attracted to the run just because of the name and had to convince you guys to do it. We get half way down and there’s all of the mogul hills. I broke my shoulder on moguls when I was 18 skiing. I was nervous, I was nervous for John as it was just his second day of skiing, but he was more than good and thanks for leading us down it.

Brian Gardner: And it wouldn’t have made our vacation complete if we hadn’t spent lots of time hanging out at a specific place talking about life as an online entrepreneur and stuff like that, right?

Joshua Becker: Yeah, no matter where we ate dinner, you somehow backtracked to Starbucks afterwards, no matter how far the walk or how cold it was outside.

Brian Gardner: Well enough about. I’m sure our listeners know just how deep my addiction goes.

Anyway, Joshua thank you so much again for being here on the show, I’m so excited to see what this year holds for you.

To our listeners, if you want to check Joshua’s website, go to and you’ll find great content, and a pretty cool design by yours truly.

If you like what you are hearing here at No Sidebar, the best way to support the show is to leave a rating and/or comment over on iTunes. Want more? Check, and signup for our weekly newsletter. Each week Allison Vesterfelt and I curate the very best and most interesting articles when it comes to design a simple life – at work, at home and in the soul.

Until next week, this has been Brian Gardner.