This is an interview with Ben Huber from DollarSprout and Breaking The One Percent.
Hello, Ben. Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
Hey Lidiya! So a little about me. Well, I was born and raised in the colonial town of Williamsburg, Virginia here on the East Coast of the U.S. — a fairly small town of less than 10,000 people drowning in a sea of tourists (Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, Busch Gardens, and many other attractions).
Holding the same 8 friends throughout my grade school years, most of us ended up going to the same university in Blacksburg, VA when we turned 18. Needless to say, not a whole lot changed for the first 21 years of my life, but I loved every minute of it, and wouldn’t change a thing.
It was after college where things finally started to diverge, and we all started to go our own ways. I stayed local when classes ended, and began work as a registered nurse, while my friends took assorted jobs and began to migrate across the country.
(It might sound like this story has a sad ending but more on that later 🙂 ).
What was your first attempt at online business and how did it go?
Ah, our first attempt at online business. Yeah, that did not go well.
During my first few years on campus (for university) I met a guy while volunteering as an EMT at the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad. His name was Jeff and we ended up becoming pretty good friends.
We had thrown back and forth the idea of starting a business while sitting at the station (in between waiting for 9-1-1 calls), but never really got serious about actually starting anything.
Several years went by (about four or so) and it wasn’t until after school that we actually tried to come up with an idea for a business.
There was one problem: we had no marketable skills and our degrees were in biology and biochemistry respectively.
So what did we decide our first online business was going to be?
An “over the shoulder” membership site where people could watch and learn to trade stocks with professional guidance provided by yours truly (us).
Makes sense right? Two guys with science degrees teaching people how to buy and sell securities.
Its name was VTX Capital.
To be fair, while my nursing knowledge didn’t exactly translate well, Jeff did take his biochemistry talents to a wealth management firm where he worked with financial advisors for his first three years out of school.
In that time he did obtain an array of professional licenses, so we weren’t flying completely blind…
Unfortunately, knowing how to trade doesn’t mean you’re actually good at it. So, that was just one piece of the business-success puzzle we were missing.
The other missing piece? The part of the puzzle where we weren’t well equipped to compete with billion dollar banks and wealth management firms.
(It’s not exactly easy competing for a relatively small demographic of DIY traders with very limited real-life trading experience). Fail.
To make matters worse, Jeff had actually quit his full-time job at the firm (after saving 12-months expenses), racketing up the pressure to generate income as quickly as possible.
Needless to say, that didn’t go well.
10 months in he was broke.
He had to go back to work full-time while we continued to work part-time on the business.
For another 8 months we wrote about stock picks and shared general stock market commentary. Apparently the first 12 months of zero revenue wasn’t a hint that maybe we needed to rethink things.
After 18 months, virtually 0 income, and a lot of hard work down the drain, we finally made a change that led to where we are today.
When did you start blogging and why did you choose these niches?
Like I alluded to earlier, the topics of personal finance and entrepreneurship were born out of our love of them outside of our professional careers.
While I wasn’t an industry expert, I had spent years learning about basic personal finance topics like saving, earning more, and investing.
That, coupled with Jeff’s newly-acquired industry experience, made our jump into those niches kind of a no-brainer.
We enjoyed the topic matter, Jeff and I wanted to own a business, and finances were a large part of that. (The entrepreneurship niche was a later-development).
Read also: How to Start a Blog and Earn Your First $1000
How did you come up with the idea of DollarSprout and what was your first income stream?
DollarSprout was a chance for us to shift away from 18 months of failed work.
Towards the end of that time frame, we began to realize that it was hard to build an audience of people interested in DIY trading. They were going to far more authoritative sources for insight (Kiplinger, Morningstar, etc.), and we were drowning.
What we did realize, however, is that we were getting some traction with more personal finance-oriented content.
- Ways to make money from home.
- Creative ways to budget and save.
- How to invest “x” percent of your income.
They were topics that applied to millions of people, and ones that we were having a lot more success promoting.
The problem then became that the name “VTX Capital”, the most corporate, boring sounding company on planet Earth, no longer made sense.
(It made sense when it came to attracting affluent, DIY investors…but our audience was quickly becoming young millennials just trying to learn the basics of money management.)
We had to rebrand. DollarSprout was VTX Capital 2.0.
From there, we ironed out the technical side of things, and moved the content that we wanted to save over to the newly branded domain.
The rest was put to bed, forever.
And the best part? The new branding came with it a new monetization strategy.
Gone were the membership-site days. Enter the days of affiliate marketing.
Long story short, we pivoted from trying to sell our own “digital” product, in the form of a membership site, to selling the products of other companies (for which we earned a commission).
No longer were we facing the pressure of having to imagine, create, and continually update our own products. We got to test, try and review the products of other’s, and then promote the ones we thought made sense for our audience.
(A significantly easier task for two people to handle when considering many of the companies we promote have tens of thousands of employees working on R&D, product development and marketing).
Read also: How Caroline Used Pinterest and Affiliate Marketing to Build a $100K Parenting Blog
What strategies helped you get traffic in the first year?
Yikes, the first year. Hmm, I would say that nothing really got us traffic our first year. Haha.
But, what we did discover, after having tried almost every platform imaginable, is that Pinterest was sending a few dozen hits a day to, again, our personal finance-oriented content.
It wasn’t anything to write home about, but it did help us identify an area where we were having some level of success.
And since it was the only thing sending us meaningful traffic, beyond a couple clicks a day from Twitter and Facebook, we spent several hours learning more about the platform.
From free articles on the internet, to scattered YouTube videos and more, we progressively learned more and more about what was working on Pinterest.
In year two, things really started to click for us.
We had an article that went “mini-viral” around our 18th month that started sending us 1,000 views a day (and sent us 1,000/day for years after).
In January of 2017, things really started to take off. Soon it went from 1,000/day, to 3,000+/day (over 100,000 visitors/month), just from Pinterest.
We went all-in. We read every article we could find, spent hours looking at analytics and spreadsheets, learned everything we could about their algorithm…everything.
It paid off. We were driving 250,000+ visitors a month from Pinterest to our sites, for months on end.
A volume of people that helped us start to build an audience and baseline income, despite how bad our marketing and lead gen strategies were at the time.
Read also: How I Increased My Pinterest Traffic by 778% in 2 Months
What are the traffic sources you’re focusing on now that led to reaching 1 million monthly page views?
So, Pinterest is great, and we still utilize it heavily, but we knew we couldn’t have all our eggs in one basket.
We knew we needed to diversify and we still couldn’t really afford any sort of “paid” traffic acquisition model. So we gravitated towards the biggest source of traffic of all.
Again, we went all-in. We spent hundreds (maybe thousands?) of hours learning everything we could about SEO.
You see, people like to create content, epic content even. But it all falls on deaf ears if you don’t know how to market it. And that’s a mistake we didn’t learn early on with VTX Capital.
Marketing is everything. Learn, learn, learn marketing. We’re not there yet, but it’s something we try and master a little more each day.
So yeah, SEO. We committed to putting into practice something we knew we may not see results from for 6 months or more. And results we did not see. But we kept at it.
Then, in March 2018, things exploded. Google released a broad core algorithm update that clearly favored all the work we had been putting in. Our SEO traffic jumped with it.
Then again, in November and December.
We went from <1,000 searches per day to over 40,000 per day, in less than 6 months. A welcome sight after months of hard work with no visible return.
The end result?
Nearly 1,500,000 pageviews/month across all mediums. So cool!
What makes your Pinterest strategy better than others’?
To be entirely fair here, our Pinterest game isn’t as strong as it once was. This is for several reasons.
1. We don’t spend nearly as much time on the platform as we did in 2017 and 2018.
During those years, we spent hours per day researching, making new content, split testing dozens of pin variations, mastering pin distribution, and more.
We still utilize Pinterest as a large part of our marketing strategy, but as a small-team, we’ve devoted a good bit of our time resources to SEO and other means of scaling our business.
2. The algorithm has been fine-tuned and the space is slightly more saturated than it was even a few years ago.
Now, don’t take that the wrong way, Pinterest is still an excellent source of traffic. You just have to be more meticulous in your strategy to take full advantage of the platform (a level of meticulous that we still try to reach even with our reduced focus on the platform in pursuit of other sources of traffic).
We still drive upwards of 50,000 visitors/month to DollarSprout, but that pales in comparison to what we’re getting with SEO (and the quality of the user isn’t as high as what search delivers (user intent is super powerful).
Read also: 7 Silly Pinterest Mistakes I Was Making (And How I Fixed Them)
Are Tailwind Tribes becoming more effective than group boards?
So this one is hard to say purely because they’re not quite even playing fields in my opinion. I think each has its pros and cons.
There’s no doubt Pinterest has sought to mute the impact that group boards have had over the past few years. They’ve gone on record several times in saying that they feel the original intent of group boards has long been abused as a means for getting enhanced distribution. As such, they’ve taken measures to mute their impact.
That said, and from our experience, “high-quality” group boards still see great distribution (i.e. ultra-niche boards with few contributors, great engagement, good titles/meta descriptions, etc.).
We still get tens of thousands of hits each month from them, so they’re definitely not dead…yet.
We do keep a somewhat close eye on them to ensure that is still the case, but for now, they’re still in our Pinterest marketing arsenal.
On the flip side, we’ve also seen a measured increase in the engagement levels of our personal boards.
There’s likely several reasons for that:
- Increased exposure of personal content (vs. group content) on the Smart Feed.
- The ability to better optimize pin and board titles (and meta data) to include important keywords.
- Hyper-niche group of our own followers (vs. whatever the quality is of any given group board).
All of this leads to better-optimized content getting in front of niche followers who ultimately engage with it better than a general audience of Pinterest users.
Now, with Tailwind Tribes, you can take advantage of this to some degree.
By joining niche Tribes, there’s the opportunity for others in your niche to share your optimized content to their optimized boards. If their audience is niched down as well, and they pin your content to an appropriate board, there’s a good chance you’ll benefit from the exposure.
On the other hand, if they’re just pinning your content to random boards, in front of a randomized audience of people, there’s a decent chance that such activity is diluting the relevance of your pin.
This is speculation to some extent, but if you have a fashion blogger sharing personal finance content to a board named “Pin Everything” it makes sense that any sort of AI-based crawler is going to have a more difficult time determining the relevance of your content.
So what’s a blogger to do?
Both. For now anyways.
So long as we’re getting great results with group boards, we’ll continue to use them. If it becomes clear that Pinterest is going to give them the boot/they’re likely only hurting you, we’ll ditch them.
Alternatively, Tribes are a good opportunity to get your content in front of other niche followers. Make sure to only pin your best content to super-relevant Tribes and you’ll get the most out of them.
Read also: How I Grew My Blog to 78,000 Monthly Visitors Using Tailwind
For some perspective, we know that the average visitor to DollarSprout is worth approximately $0.25.
That means we need to need at least 1,440 visitors from Tribe-related pins each year to justify the cost of the unlimited power-up.
Well, we got 1,686 visits from Tribes last week alone, more than justifying our cost for the entire year.
That means we have 51 more weeks in the year that we’re effectively using Tribes for free. Not a bad deal.
That said, say you knew a visitor was worth a mere $0.01 to your site.
You would need 42,150 visitors, to break even. An amount we would eclipse in 25 weeks (or half the year), still leaving us with a half-a-year with of “free” income-generating traffic.
This is all to say that if you’re pretty sharp at making pins, and have a fair bit of free time to be active in Tribes, the unlimited upgrade will likely pay for itself if you commit to using them throughout the year.
(Disclaimer: everyone’s circumstances are different. You’ll need to have a decent library of content and dozens of unique pins to contribute to the Tribes to achieve (or exceed) the results we’re getting with Tribes. I just wanted to show it’s definitely possible to get your money’s worth!)
Tell us a bit about your other blog, Breaking The One Percent.
Haha, so BTOP is the brain-child of everything you’ve read so far.
Long story short, we had no idea what blogging even was during our first year working on VTX Capital.
After we discovered Pinterest, we stumbled upon this little community of bloggers all doing the same thing we were – writing about personal finance and marketing their content on the visual platform. We were flabbergasted.
Why in the world had we spent 18 months living in a hole? Whoops.
We wanted an outlet to vent, and tell people about all the mistakes we made for so many months.
Enter Breaking The One Percent.
(Ignore the name, that was Jeff’s brilliantly dumb idea).
We turned BTOP into a hub for teaching, whoever cared to read, about the mistakes we made in building our first online business.
It was also a cool way to network, meet other bloggers, and share in the journey we were all on (something we couldn’t really do with VTX Capital or DollarSprout).
Being “brands”, those places weren’t really the place to tell our story, and BTOP became the perfect place to do it.
Where BTOP has always been a side-project of sorts, we don’t aim to monetize it in the way we probably could.
We’ve dabbled in affiliate marketing and promoting many of brands that help bloggers get started (and have created one of our own digital products), but for the most part, we just enjoy getting to interact with others in the space.
Read also: How to Make Money Blogging: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners
How much are you currently earning from both blogs and in what ways?
Both blogs do relatively well!
DollarSprout is currently generating around $200,000/month in revenue and is where we focus about 90% of our time.
BTOP probably brings in an additional $15,000-$20,000/month but is sorely underutilized.
This is by virtue of not really being able to devote as much time to it, but we’re okay with that. We truly just like hanging out and participating there, even if theoretically our time was better spent pouring everything we have into DollarSprout.
(To be fair, a huge part of DollarSprout’s success is the networking we’ve been able to do through BTOP.)
From our Pinterest pre-launch, to countless backlinks and PR opportunities, we’ve leveraged the networking we’ve done on the back of BTOP into building DollarSprout into what it is today.
Now, as far as how we generate the revenue? To this day, almost entirely affiliate marketing (about 99% of it).
When you take a step back and look at other players in our niche, you begin to realize that the ceiling for affiliate marketing is really high.
Take a company like NerdWallet for example. You’re looking at a company with a valuation that probably comes in right around $1 billion.
Again, 99% of which also comes from affiliate marketing. They’re just really, really good at it.
They don’t need 10 revenue streams – like their own digital products, ads, or otherwise. They’re just leveraging elite-human talent into A+ marketing practices and driving targeted, educated consumers into the funnels of other elite companies (aka banks, credit card companies, insurance providers, etc.).
There’s no need to have extreme diversity of product because they’re working with some of the most stable companies in the world – if those businesses are struggling, everyone is.
At the end of the day, if we can innovate 5% as well as they do, we’ll be in good shape. 🙂
If you’re looking for ways to grow and monetize your blog, check out these courses:
- Financial Freedom Through Blogging: The Formula for Starting a Blog, Turning it Into a 5-Figure Business, and Living Life on Your Own Terms
- Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing: How to build a six-figure blog without millions of visitors or selling your soul
- Pinterest Traffic Avalanche: The Solution for Beginner Bloggers to Drive 10,000 – 100,000+ FREE Monthly Visitors to Your Blog – on Autopilot!
What’s your content strategy like for DollarSprout and BTOP?
We have a similar approach to both sites. In the end, most of it centers on helping consumers find answers to their problems.
If you can get really good at that, you’ve got yourself a business.
This most frequently comes in the form of really good keyword research (to figure out which problems people need help solving).
As such, I’d say that about 80% of our content on both sites caters to high-volume search queries on the largest search engines.
We do a fair bit of competitor research to find content that we ourselves can rank for, use Google Trends to see what topics are becoming increasingly popular, and have a fair offering of seasonal, evergreen content that becomes popular during different periods of the year.
That said, part of having a comprehensive approach to content production is mastering several different delivery mediums.
We’ve started to scale our video offerings (despite being really bad at it ☹), have doubled down on certain CRM platforms (like email and push notifications), and even have content that is focused solely on social engagement for distribution on those channels.
Lastly, we’ve tried to implement a system for getting fresh and timely content delivered to our readers on a weekly basis.
On DollarSprout, that typically manifests itself in the form of 4-5 pieces of long-form content per week (all thanks to our two full-time editors (Megan and Zina!) who bust their butts to get it all out).
On BTOP, we’re lucky to get 1 new article out each week but sometimes even that is a struggle…thing are busy!
Read also: How Kristin Larsen Made $100,000 in Her First Year of Blogging
When did you and Jeff officially become full-time bloggers?
This one’s easy.
Jeff made the jump in August of 2016, worked for 12 months, and ran out of money.
At the 24 month mark, after 12 months back at work, we were finally generating enough revenue for him to take a modest salary and still be able to invest money back into the business.
From there, it was game on. He was officially done with office life and became a full-time blogger in August 2017.
As for me, well, we played it safe. We wanted to be sure we could support both our livelihoods and still have enough to invest in the business at the same rate we had been.
I decided to stick it out at my job as a registered nurse until August of 2018 (almost at my 1 year anniversary of being self-employed!).
I thought I might miss it, but truth is, I don’t. I love what Jeff and I do.
I have a blast figuring things out as we go (that never stops, we’re still clueless) and we’re learning something new every day.
Read also: How to Get Paid to Travel and Earn a Full-Time Income as a Travel Blogger
How does a day in your life look like now?
Wake up, coffee, convene with Jeff at our shared desk (we live together), work till lunch, more coffee, work till early afternoon, snack, gym, dinner, relax for evening, bed.
Repeat. Every day.
But really, that’s a good portion of it, haha. (And for Jeff too.)
Outside of the daily grind we take time to enjoy traveling, spoil our dogs Sydney and Annie, go to the gym, and obsess over just about every sport in existence (I’m a huge, Pittsburgh-city sports fan).
In reality, the freedom of full-time blogging truly is a blessing. We could theoretically move around (a lot more than we do) and still accomplish much of the same work.
Furthermore, we have the flexibility to work for part of the day, not at all, or for 12 hours straight to make up for lost time. The flexibility is huge.
What’s the hardest part about blogging?
For newer bloggers, getting traction is toughhh.
There’s a fairly steep learning curve to marketing and competing with some of the bigger players on any medium, and it can take months to years to grow a sustainable audience.
There’s days where it feels like you’re just spinning your wheels, not making any progress, and you begin to let doubt start to creep in. It’s during those times that you have to tell yourself you’re in it for the long haul — that you’ve committed to working at things a little more each day.
For us in particular, the hardest part is the lack of publicly available knowledge catered towards bloggers trying to scale past that initial level of “success”.
Naturally, that kind of makes sense. It’s not like other bloggers/businesses are going to be enthusiastic about publically divulging the trade secrets that have allowed them to become successful.
That means there is a lot of self-learning (and trial and error) on our end. Some of that trial and error can be really, really expensive.
We’ve utilized agencies to try and outsource particular areas of our business and still haven’t found a great fit for certain tasks/projects (say hello to tens of thousands of dollars in ineffective business development). Oops.
That said, remember that part early on when I said that my childhood friends and I all separated after college? Well, it just so happens that what I left out at the time was that several of them ended up becoming experts in their fields of study.
Two of them Chartered Financial Analysts (CFAs), and another a CS major (and an absolute technology-wizard).
And despite moving across the country (to Colorado, NYC and Norfolk respectively), they’re all now home again in Virginia in some form or another.
A convenient fact when it pertains to bringing them on as independent contractors for various roles in your online business. 🙂
See? I told you there was a cool ending there.
What’s your advice for college students or graduates looking to make money blogging?
Oh, I like this one. I guess you had to save the most fun question for last.
The answer is it kind of depends.
If you’re in college:
- Don’t let blogging get in the way of your classwork. Student loan debt is real. It is crushing. It does not go away. If you signed up for higher education, commit to finishing it unless you have an incredibly good reason not to.
- Don’t let the above bullet point stop you from blogging altogether. You still have down time during school and blogging as a hobby (and even making money from it) is a great way to start learning the ins and outs of the trade.
Read also: How Becky Paid Off $80K of Debt Thanks to Her Online Side Hustle
If you’ve graduated:
- You know student loan debt is real. (Among every other bill that comes flying at your face). If you’ve started blogging but aren’t income-producing (or not at an income level that exceeds your primary income), do not make the jump to full-time blogging.
- Blogging income can be variable, so plan on having a sizeable emergency fund (6-12 months) to accommodate the swings. That isn’t to say you can’t ever make the jump, just have a realistic plan B if things were to ever go south. ☺ Entrepreneurship is nerve-wracking, and it can be tough to know exactly when to pull the trigger, but preplanning can help prevent silly mistakes that can have painfully real consequences.
Where can people find you?
There’s pretty much only one place. ☺
Our Facebook group for bloggers: BTOP Ultimate Blogging Group. Come say hi!
We appreciate you having us Lidiya!