Brian Clark, Founder of Copyblogger
Bring Your Audience on Stage
How Copyblogger’s Brian Clark created a content marketing giant by focusing on people.
“The truth is I didn’t like working for somebody else.”
Whether in real estate, law, blogging, or sales, Brian Clark has had as many companies, brands, and products as some people have pairs of pants.
He is constantly iterating, launching, and redesigning. But at the end of the day, there’s one thing Clark does really well that’s led to his massive success in digital marketing and beyond—he’s a master at building, understanding, and listening to his audience. And he’s still nailing it today.
Clark is the founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Rainmaker Digital. Based in Boulder, Colorado, Clark likes to say he doesn’t have a job. Instead, since 1998, he’s created a series of jobs known as companies.
Once he hit the entrepreneurial road, Clark never looked back. “I was an attorney, and my main motivation was, let’s be honest, that I didn’t like working for someone else,” Clark laughs. “My biggest fear now is that, if things really went sideways…Could I even do it? That’s why my podcast is called Unemployable.”
Thankfully, Clark hasn’t had to look back, except to gather and apply the incredible lessons he’s learned as a founder and digital marketer. Through his variety of experiences, Clark has become an expert at building audiences. His ability to tune into the needs and desires of his audience and customer base has fueled the success and agility of Copyblogger and its partner brands.
The Early Years
Clark started three businesses before Copyblogger, four if you’re counting one that failed. Copyblogger was born, not as a typical business idea, but as an extension of writing about those experiences.
“I generally talk about the three that succeeded,” Clark says. “That was really when I understood the connection between content and audience, selling things as opposed to trying to make money from advertising.”
Clark’s first business was built around the digital magazine trend in the late 1990s, where magazine content was delivered via email. Clark knew he was delivering content correctly, but he wasn’t exactly sure how to make money. With no books, blogs, courses, or conferences, he wasn’t sure how to go about learning more. That was, until he read Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing and discovered that his business was a form a direct marketing. “I kept going until the dotcom crash,” Clark says, “which was kind of a mercy killing. At that point, the nascent advertising industry online was dead. Even today, you know how hard it is to make money with ads. You make money by actually selling your product, and that’s a great insight for people.”
Clark’s second business (his first successful one) was a small law firm. “That was the only thing I had to sell,” Clark says. “I had four years’ legal experience and a law degree.”
Most young attorneys have difficulty developing clients, but Clark wasn’t one of them. With his previous digital marketing experience, he developed a long client list using an email newsletter. At that moment, an entrepreneur was born. Also, because law wasn’t his main passion, Clark didn’t hesitate to be choosy with his clients.
“I took only the clients that would pay me best, had interesting projects, or would put me on retainer,” Clark says. “And that was another smart move, because I didn’t really want to practice law, so I had the guts to turn things away. I only had so much time, so I’d take enough business in order to make good money and also have time to work on other business.”
The third and fourth businesses on Clark’s resume were both in the real estate industry. Like law, Clark wasn’t particularly passionate about real estate, but he recognized the income potential and saw a chance to fill a void in the marketplace. Where other realtors and brokers had tried and failed, Clark was able to open two brokerage firms completely online.
“I had already learned so much just by doing it, that I knew it was going to be like shooting fish in a barrel,” Clark says. “Honestly, it was.” Within the first six months, Clark was making over $10,000 per month, and after a couple years, he was making over $50,000 per month. His businesses circulated around two niche offerings.
“That was another important thing,” Clark says. “Some people are afraid to specialize, and yet that’s the way that you can really own enough business to really do well.”
The Copyblogger Era
It all came to a crashing halt in 2005, literally. Following a serious snowboarding accident, Clark had a subdural hematoma that led to an emergency brain surgery. The procedure and recovery went swimmingly, but he was subjected to three months recovery, and his businesses had to take a backseat.
Upon waking up from surgery, in fact, Clark realized his perspective on life and work had shifted. He found he no longer cared about making money, and had some realizations about his past ventures. “I was doing the real estate businesses because I had a chip on my shoulder,” Clark says. “I had something to prove, that I could succeed outside of law in a completely new field, thanks to my understanding of online marketing. I did prove that, but I also proved that I’m a terrible manager. At that point, I was not good at working on the business. I was trying to do everything!”
After 2005, Clark desired to move completely online and only rely on his strengths to build businesses from then on. “ I would partner or, if I had to, hire, but I would never do it by myself again,” he says. “And that really led us to the Copyblogger era.”
The first couple of years, starting in 2006, Clark actually did go it alone. “It was just me doing what I’m good at, which is writing, creating content, and building an audience,” Clark says. “And Copyblogger really took off.”
At it’s core, Copyblogger was reminiscent of Darren Rowse’s wildly popular ProBlogger. They weren’t competitive, but Clark managed to similarly build an audience by providing authentic advice on how to apply copywriting techniques to content, and how to sell stuff.
“At that time, I got a lot of pushback from established bloggers. It was a very different time. There were a lot of debates about putting advertising on a blog. Can you imagine that now, in 2017?” he says. “Blogging grew out of a very idealistic space and eventually became, I think, a great form of ethical business building. … Using the word ‘sell’ was just offensive to some people.”
In 2007, Clark launched his first product with partner Tony Clark, with whom he still works to this very day. He welcomed Tony Clark on board to help with operations, as this was a self-proclaimed weak spot for him. The pair, along with Tony Clark’s wife Kim, talked often about the Copyblogger audience and what they needed.
“ they needed something to sell. We had convinced them that it’s better to sell a product or service instead of advertising, but that didn’t mean they had anything to sell,” Clark says. “We kicked around a lot of ideas around the idea of online courses. In 2007, I literally had to convince people that the online education market would become what it is today.”
Making the case for quality online education paid off for the Copyblogger team. Their online course, Teaching Sells, made six figures in a week and jumped to seven in a year. And this was just the beginning for Clark and his partners.
“We’ve been doing eight figures over the last three years,” Clark says. “I’m very proud of that. I honestly could not have predicted that at the beginning, but it’s just one of those cases where year by year, you just keep adding on new lines of business, expanding what you’ve got, and then you get there. And it’s amazing.”
After creating Teaching Sells, the team entered a period of rapid growth.
In 2008, Clark teamed up with developer Chris Pearson to launch Thesis, the first design framework for WordPress. It was a hit, and immediately started making $10,000 per month and eventually ended up doing $10,000 per day.
The following year, he worked with Sean Jackson to launch Scribe, an SEO copywriting program. It was Clark’s first SaaS project and is now a successful, patented content marketing software. “Which is pretty cool,” he says. “My name’s on a patent somewhere.” In 2010, Clark split from Pearson and transitioned to working on StudioPress, a WordPress hosting service that also offers themes.
That same year, now with five brands under their belt, the team decided to merge them all under one roof with the name Rainmaker Digital. The overarching goal was to create a complete digital marketing platform, and the team continued to build it out piece by piece, from hosting to landing pages. By 2014, they publicly launched Rainmaker, which has now evolved into an agency concept.
“A lot has happened in the last decade. But it keeps me from getting bored … I’ll put it that way.”
Adaptation and Audience Building
Clark’s experience with Copyblogger and its many brands has taught him many lessons on adaptation and audience-building.
“When I started Copyblogger, I swore that I would never have employees, and apparently I was lying,” Clark says. “But, you go with the flow, and I think that’s the best way to describe what we’ve done. We just kept identifying needs of the audience and satisfying those needs, and revenue and profits kept increasing.”
In essence, the Rainmaker Platform is an all-in-one website, marketing automation and email solution. A multimillion-dollar SaaS with plenty of recurring revenue, Clark had no reason to redesign the product. Except for one important reason—his audience needed more help.
“Here’s the thing with self-service Saas: You spend so much time on onboarding and knowledge base and education, that it almost detracts from adding new features,” Clark says. “But you have to do , because if is not intuitive, if people can’t get started, they will stop and cancel.”
Clark realized that even with the best SaaS platform, people still needed design and content help, especially as the world shifts into the realm of specialization, automation, and artificial intelligence.
Although he’d never considered an agency model in the past, Clark saw an opportunity, listened to and recognized what his audience needed, and thus knew it was the right move. “If you’re listening carefully, you can’t make the wrong move.” Clark and his team are in the process of merging with a small digital marketing agency, and once that’s complete, he has plans to “grow like crazy.”
“It’s amazing, the evolution,” Clark says. “It’s also a lesson in being flexible, in being adaptable, in reading the signs that are right there in front of you. And there’s no better way to get that kind of intelligence than from serving an audience.”
As an entrepreneur, Clark is especially passionate about building and connecting with an audience. “I don’t go a day without giving credit to the people,” Clark says. “Without them, there’s nothing.”
And to him, the methodology of the lean startup movement is a little backwards. “Minimum viable means that if you’re wrong, you can fail fast and you can test it, but I’m more of a fan of the minimum viable audience. You get enough of an audience, until you’re getting enough feedback to where you have a clear path ahead.”
Clarks concedes, though, that it’s never been easy to build an audience—not in 2006, and definitely not today.
“You have to hit the right chords with people and give them the value they’re looking for, and do it in a way that doesn’t bore them to tears,” he says. But in his opinion, building the right product is even more of a challenge. He encourages entrepreneurs to focus on creating and fostering an audience and then deriving product or service ideas from given feedback.
When asked about his basic strategies, Clark noted three key factors you must nail when building an audience:
Aspiration: “Who do they want to become? What do they aspire to be? What’s the problem they want to solve or the desire that they’re trying to fulfill? That’s really what it begins with. Why do we search on Google or follow blogs or people on Twitter or Facebook? It’s because we think they can help us do what we want.”
Building an audience involves providing not only motivation, but also intelligence and education to people looking for that missing piece.
Empowerment: “Your job is not to build your personal brand,” Clark says. “It’s about empowering them. To build an audience, to be entrepreneur, it’s really about serving.” Reiterating a Pat Flynn quote he’d seen days prior, Clark said, “It’s not sleazy selling when it’s serving.” If you can empower an audience and urge them to become the hero in their own story, you can become a hero to them by helping.
Unity: This is incredibly important in today’s world. “You’ve got to find your people, reflect back to them their own worldview, and they’ll love you,” Clark says. “You’re going to piss off like 80 percent of the rest of the world. Who cares? And that’s the hardest thing.”
In the same way he encourages picking a niche, Clark encourages entrepreneurs to choose their people, serve them, and ignore everyone else.
It’s a hard and intimidating lesson, but with the internet today, you don’t even have to be controversial to offend others. “Speak truth and be you in a way that also builds your business and audience,” Clark says. “Authenticity means helping people, empowering them to reach their aspirations in your unique way that lines up with how they also see the world.”
Serving an audience also means doing something of a balancing act. For one, Clark finds himself very cognizant that in order to grow to the next level they must build more awareness, and every entrepreneur has to consider how to do that without compromising brand integrity, he says.
In addition, between his three main brands, Copyblogger, Rainmaker, and StudioPress, Clark has been fighting to maintain a sense of balance. With StudioPress being a cash cow for the team, they focused on building that cash flow up for a while. “People felt the only thing we cared about was Rainmaker, and not StudioPress. This year, we came back full force with StudioPress, to the point where people were like ‘You don’t care about Rainmaker anymore!’”
From his team’s perspective, Rainmaker is a standalone with its own target audience. The same goes for both StudioPress and Copyblogger. “So, a lot of people do think that we have a bunch of companies, but no, it’s one company,” Clark says. “But, counterintuitively, we’re almost starting to treat them as separate companies again.”
The original idea was to bring them all together, and it makes sense and would be following the conventional wisdom. But we don’t do anything that’s conventional if it doesn’t work, Clark says. “We’re finding that, if you’ve got three strong brands, then treat them that way.”
“It’s not that we’re so smart,” Clark laughs. “The only smart thing about us is that we listen.”
The Future of Copyblogger
If you already think Copyblogger’s agility and flexibility are impressive, consider this: Clark and his team of 60 are completely remote. In fact, Clark didn’t meet his first partner Tony until after three years of working together. They were already generating seven figures when they finally met face to face.
“The company itself has always been virtual. We’ve always hired the best person for the job, no matter where they are,” Clark says. “We just are internet people. Even before Trello and Slack, we knew how to collaborate efficiently online. And maybe that takes a special breed of person, but I think as time goes on, more people are adept at doing this kind of work.”
But even working from such a distance, they’ve always had a tight, shared vision for wanting to build something much bigger than any one of them could alone. “It certainly has been an adventure. Every new year was just another step down the path. There’s no way I would’ve kept going with if we weren’t constantly trying to innovate, to create new things, and make what we have better.”
For all of the iterations and evolutions they’ve been through, they’re undergoing even more changes this year, including the launch of StudioPress Sites. All that change has made Clark step back and evaluate his motivation.
“A year ago, I would’ve said, ‘We’re done making new things,’” Clark says. “You have to make sure, you have to ask yourself, ‘Am I doing this just so I’m not going to be bored, or is this really the right thing for our customers and prospects?’ That’s the gut check. So far, I think we’ve stuck with that. Sometimes, the entrepreneurial spirit can have you doing something new when you should really be doubling down on the thing you have.”
If you find yourself one of those entrepreneurs tempted by new ideas and opportunities, Clark encourages you to take some time to check yourself. “You don’t want to screw up a good thing just because you’re antsy.”
Thankfully, Clark is as in-tune with his audience as he is with himself. When asked about plans to sell, he acknowledged the income potential, but found that it was more important to know that his customers were being treated right.
“We’ve had acquisition interest, we’ve had a ton of private equity interest, and in the last year, we’ve had two offers on the table,” Clark says. “But we said no. We just didn’t trust any of it, in the sense that we didn’t know what it’d be like to work with someone outside.”
Clark acknowledges that if he were to sell Copyblogger, he would be set for life. But, he has to ask: What do you give up? Clark said he would consider a sale given the right buyer, but right now, it’s more important to him to protect his audience and customer base.
Putting his audience first has helped Clark build a strong personal brand along the way, even if he was never focused on that.
“The best personal brands are built out of building something bigger than yourself,” Clark says. “Do the work! It’ll happen, whether you want it to or not. And that’s more legitimate than setting out to do it.”
To learn more about Clark and Copyblogger, check out http://copyblogger.com. Clark also has a podcast for founders called Unemployable and a personal growth newsletter called Further, available at http://further.net.
- The chicken or the egg? Settling the startup debate between which comes first: building the perfect product or building your audience
- What are you good at? How Clark finds co-founders who complement his strengths and weaknesses
- The unique business model of combining content, SaaS, digital and physical products for maximum profit
- Clark’s step-by-step instructions on how to build the perfect product
- Why people aren’t paying attention to your brand and what you can do about it
Full Transcript of the Podcast with Brian Clark
Nathan: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Foundr podcast, my name is Nathan Chan and I’m coming to you live from HOMETOWN Melbourne Australia. I hope you have a fantastic day wherever you are around the world and whaterking out, going for a walk, or even if you’re just working away, have it running in the background. But I just wanna say thank you so much for taking the time to listen to this podcast, and as always we’ve got someone that’s super smart, an established founder, someone knows what they’re doing, and he’s the one and only Brian Clark from Copyblogger.
Now this guy’s a bit of a hero of mine because what he’s done with his media company copyblogger.com is extremely impressive. He’s built an eight-figure business all round really just building an audience first and then asking his audience what they want and really putting his ears to the floor, really trying to listen and hear, and understand, and speak to his audience and find out how they can further serve. And he shares a lot of stuff with us around how he’s done that, and how he’s used content marketing in particular. He’s been doing this for a long time. He’s like…I know content marketing is a bit of a buzz word. I would consider Brian one of the old G’s at this kind of stuff. And he shares what a lot about his SAS company and his partners, and how he set all that up, and it’s super impressive. Like I said he’s a little bit of a hero of mine what he’s done with his media company that I aspire for us to do at Foundr.
So before we jump in I just wanna let you know what’s happening in my world. Just hiring and training people up, working a lot of products at the moment, lot of sales funnels, which has been very very interesting to grow the brand and just producing tons more content. And it’s been very very interesting what it takes to get to the next level of scaling your business. And it’s been interesting guys I can tell you that much. I would definitely sacrifice profit for growth at the moment. But no, it’s all good fun and it’s just really amazing to see how far we’ve come in the past few years.
So that’s it from me, I hope you are enjoying these episodes. If you are please do take the time to leave us a review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud, wherever you are. It helps more than you can imagine. Please do let any of your friends know. Okay, now let’s come to the show.
So the first question that I ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
Brian: Well, I like to say I don’t have a job. But I think I understand what you’re getting at., you know, I guess since 1998 I’ve created a series of jobs for myself known as companies and I’ve never looked back. I think the main motivation… I was an attorney and I always, you know, kind of just say I didn’t like practicing law, but let’s be honest. The truth is I didn’t like working for someone else. And I slowly figured that out over time, and my biggest fear now is, “Gosh, if things really went sideways, could I even do it?” And that’s why my podcast is called “Unemployable.”
Nathan: Awesome. So 1998, is that when you set up Copyblogger or what did you do?
Brian: No, I started three businesses before I ever started Copyblogger. Copyblogger was really talking about what I had learned as a complete newbie to the world of marketing and entrepreneurship. So I had three businesses under my belt, actually four but the first one failed. So I generally talk about the three that succeeded and that was really when I understood the connection between content and audience but selling things as opposed to trying to make money from advertising. That was what I figured out that actually made the second business work.
Nathan: So can you tell us about those four businesses just briefly?
Brian: Yeah, the first one was really built off of what people were doing in the late ’90s with email. They were publishing Ezines. This was before blogs. So basically, the content was all in the body of an email, or at least delivered by email. And there were people like Chris Pirillo who is a very prominent person to this day and others that were doing this kind of thing. So I was just kind of observing and trying to figure things out because it was a very different world. No blogs about how to make money online. No conferences, no courses, no books, no nothing. But it actually was a ground-breaking book in 1999 that put me on the right path. And that was “Permission Marketing” from Seth Godin.
On one hand I was doing a lot of it right. I was getting permission-based subscriptions. I was producing great content that people wanted. I just didn’t know how to make money. And Godin basically said, “Look, this is direct marketing. It’s just a different form of it. You have to have something to sell.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” So the first successful business was actually a small law firm because that was the only thing I had to sell. I had, you know, four years of legal experience, and a law degree, and what most young attorneys can’t do is develop clients. And I figured out how to do that, and at that moment an entrepreneur was born because I was just so amazed that I could develop business myself just with an email newsletter.
And, you know, no one understood what I was doing at that time, they thought I was crazy. But it worked and that’s how I basically supported myself for a couple of years. But I still didn’t wanna practice law. I knew that it wasn’t what I liked to do, even if I was doing it for myself. So the next two businesses were in real estate, and I can’t really say that I had a burning passion for real estate either. But it was non-legal, you could make a lot of money in real estate and that’s kind of what attracted me to it which was I saw what other brokers and realtors were trying to do online and I had already learned so much at that time just by doing it. Then I was like, “This is gonna be like shooting fish in a barrel,” and honestly it was.
Within six months of starting the first of the two real estate brokerages which were all made just out of websites… There was no office, there was no benches with glamorous shots on them like a lot of normal real estate marketing you see. It was all online, and within 6 months I’m doing 10 grand a month and within I’d say a year and a half, it was up to 30 grand a month. And then, you know, a couple of years into it up to 50 and I had a real business, and I started, you know. Then I had two niche real estate offerings and that was another important thing. Some people are afraid to specialize and yet that’s the way that you can really own enough business to really do well as opposed to saying, “Well, I’ll just say I’ll do anything for anyone.” And no one hires you whatsoever.
Nathan: Interesting. And what was the business that failed?
Brian: That was the easy one. So I kept that going until the .com crash which was kind of a mercy killing. you know. At that point the nascent advertising industry online was just basically dead for a little bit. And even today you know how hard it is to make money with ads. I mean, you make money by actually selling your product and that’s a great insight for people I think. Everyone thinks that advertising is such an easy way to make money. It’s one of the hardest business models out there. And it’s getting worse instead of better because we tend to ignore ads, you know, you know the whole story.
So that business stayed going while I was concurrently doing the law firm, and again I took only the clients that would pay me the best, had interesting projects, or would put me on retainer. And that was another smart move because I didn’t really wanna practice law, so I had the guts to just turn things away because I knew I didn’t wanna… I only had so much time. So I would take enough business in order to make good money but also to have time to work on the other business. But it wasn’t enough. It didn’t make it. And I guess it was 2001 that I just shut that down, and that’s when I started the first real estate business.
Nathan: Gotcha. So what happened next? When did you finish up on the real estates and law side?
Brian: So they all came to a crashing halt in 2005. I had a snowboarding accident where I ended up with a fairly serious head injury even though I didn’t know it for a couple of months. I had a subdural hematoma, which resulted in an emergency craniotomy because I let it go too far. Craniotomy’s kind of gross but it’s when they basically peel back half of your skull to get all the blood that had accumulated. If you don’t let it go too far they can do a drain, but like an idiot I had these headaches forever and I thought… You know, my second child was being born at the time, I was working really hard. So I’m just like, “Okay, I usually don’t get headaches but it’s probably nothing.”
That was stupid. If you have headaches continually go to the doctor, please. I’m a big proponent of head injury awareness and safety now obviously. So when my kids get a knock on the head I’m all freaked out about it, you know. And usually it turns out to be okay, but concussions for example, not something you wanna mess with. Anyway, that’s my PSA on that topic. So I had a three-month recovery period from surgery. Everything turned out fine, I mean amazingly but something changed. When I woke up from surgery I was like I’m never doing anything just for money anymore. And let’s face it. I was doing the real estate businesses because I had a chip on my shoulder. I had something to prove that I could succeed outside of law in a completely new field thanks to my understanding of online marketing.
And I did prove that, but I also proved that I’m a terrible manager. I’m not the greatest, at least at that point, I was not good at the whole working on the business, you know. I was trying to do everything. I couldn’t delegate. We’ve heard the story over and over again. And so after 2005, number one I was like, “I don’t wanna do this kind of business. I’m gonna go completely online.” And number two, “I’m going to only do what I’m good at so I will partner or if I have to hire but I will never try to do it all myself again.” And that really led us to the Copyblogger era.
Nathan: Gotcha. So who did you partner with for Copyblogger? Like what are you good at and what aren’t you good at?
Brian: Well, for the first year and a half of Copyblogger it was just me, and it was me doing what I’m good at which is writing, creating content, and building an audience and Copyblogger really took off because it was a very complimentary approach to what Darren Rowse was doing with ProBlogger and some of the other commercial blogging efforts at that time. So it wasn’t really competitive. It was, yes, good advice, but also…and it was really two things: apply copywriting techniques to content, and sell stuff which is what we call content marketing. And believe it or not, at that time I got a lot of push back from established bloggers. It was a very, you know, different time. It was very…you know, you would have debates about putting advertising on a blog. I mean think about that now in 2017, it seems ridiculous right? But that’s…blogging grew out of a very idealistic space and eventually became, you know, I think a great form of ethical business building. And then of course there’s always bad apples that come along.
The interesting thing about that was I wasn’t a bad apple at all. I mean I’ve been preaching ethics continuously for 11 years. It was just the time and using the word “sell” was just offensive to some people which again it makes me laugh now.
Nathan: Interesting. So you worked on Copyblogger for a year and a half. So it ran 2007, 2008 it sounds like it. So you’ve been doing that for 10, 11 years?
Brian: So Copyblogger started in January of 2006, and we launched our first product in October of 2007. And that was with my first partner Tony Clark who is still with me to this day as our Chief Operating Officer. So there you have it, what was I not good at? Operations. His wife Kim came in to handle support once we succeeded and that was really the core nucleus of what became the company we have now that has, you know, 60 plus people working for it. It was…those three components, marketing, operations, and support.
Nathan: Wow, that’s crazy. So Tony that’s worked with you, what was the first product? It was a course? E-book?
Brian: Yeah, it was…so we spent a lot of time talking and then trying to figure out from the audience we’ve built with Copyblogger what they need. They need something to sell. We have convinced them about how to create this kind of content. We’ve convinced them that it’s better to sell a product through service instead of advertising. But that didn’t mean they had anything to sell. So we really kicked around a lot of different ideas around the idea of online courses which again is very well established now.
But in 2007, I literally had to convince people that the online education market would become what it is today because again at that time you had bloggers like Robert Scoble saying, “People will never pay for information.” Again I’m like, “Don’t be crazy, okay? That’s ridiculous.” But people believe that stuff, right? And again it sounds ridiculous 10 years later but that was the environment that we had to deal with. So I really put a lot of effort into making the case, “Well, yeah, actually people will pay for quality education and often it’s more desirable than free blah, blah, blah.” Long story short, we went from zero to six figures in a week, and seven figures within the year.
Nathan: Okay, wow. And then what happened next, because 60 staff is a lot of people, man. I think you said…I think you’ve mentioned you’re doing eight figures now with the Copyblogger entity, right, across all the companies right?
Brian: It’s only one company. But, yeah, we’ve been doing eight figures for the last three years. And that’s kind of amazing. I’m very proud of that. I honestly could not have predicted that at the beginning. But it’s just one of those cases and you and I have talked about the same content with Foundr where it’s year by year you keep adding on and adding on, new lines of business, expanding what you’ve got. And then you get there, you know, it’s amazing.
But it’s not necessarily what I was aiming for. In fact, when I started Copyblogger I kinda swore that I would never have employees again and I was lying apparently because…but, you know, you go with the flow and I think that’s the best way to describe what we’ve done year after year. We just kept identifying needs of the audience and satisfying those needs. And, you know, revenue just keeps increasing and profits keep increasing but with that you need more people in order to support what you got.
Nathan: Now we’re getting to the juicy stuff that I’m really curious about. So where are you based?
Brian: I’m in Boulder, Colorado. But the company itself has always been virtual. We’ve always hired the best person for the job no matter where they are. Interestingly, Tony Clark, again he was my first partner, we didn’t meet for almost three years and we were already generating seven figures in revenue, right? So we just are Internet people, you know, and so we’ve always… Even before Trello and Slack we knew how to collaborate efficiently online. And maybe that takes a special breed of person, but I think as time goes on, more and more people are adept at doing this kind of work ad hoc with teams, or even consistently because of the mainstreaming of social media and the technology that’s kind of gone with it. But back in 2006, 2007 it was pretty weird to have people collaborating without having ever met in person, you know.
Nathan: That’s crazy. That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment, Brian, that you’ve got 60 people all remote. So Tony must do an awesome job at the operations because I couldn’t do that. Like for us we’re going all in Melbourne now.
Brian: It’s all process, you know. From the day I met him, he told me everything that I should have known for the last three businesses but, you know, that’s the beauty of it. And I’m a big proponent of, if you try… I mean everyone has to do…wear a lot of different hats when you’re just starting up. But I really built a company on partnering. So at first there was Tony Clark, then Sonia Simmon joined that group. She’s now our chief content officer. Shawn Jackson brought me the idea for Scribe, which was our first SAS. That was…
Nathan: We need to stop that. Tell me about that because that’s one thing I’m really really curious about when you started producing software.
Brian: Okay, so let me back this up because there is an interesting step by step timeline here. So 2007 was teaching cellular course, 2008 was Thesis which was the first designed framework for WordPress. Now that…people forget because it’s so WordPress, you know, the paid market is just so common now that in 2007 that didn’t even exist until Brian Gardner, who is a member of Brain Record Digital today and the Founder of Studio Press, he was the first one to sell themes and support, provide support.
So in 2008 me and a guy named Chris Pierson heard how much Gardner was making and so we’re like, “We gotta get in on this.” So Chris created Thesis. We launched it. It started out doing about 10 grand a month and ended up doing 10 grand a day. I mean it was a phenomenal success. So that was 2008.
Nathan: So it’s a WordPress theme?
Brian: It’s a design framework so that theme is basically worked with it, right. Genesis by Studio Press which is part of our company now is a similar thing. In 2009 I partnered with Shawn Jackson to launch Scribe which was the SAS. It was basically SEO copywriting software, kind of very simple at the beginning and then it evolved to what it is now which is it’s actually patented content marketing software which is pretty cool. So my name’s on a patent somewhere.
Brian: And then 2010 this is where the flux really happened and became who we are now. So I had a falling out with Chris Pierson. I exited that company. Studio Press took the place of that. We merged four, five companies together and that became what is now known as Rainmaker Digital. And our goal starting in 2010 was to create the Rainmaker platform. But we did step by step. We created membership and landing page plugin for WordPress called Primus. We launched Synthesis which is managed WordPress webpage hosting. That was really to really nail our hosting infrastructure to get it right. And then in 2014 we launched the Rainmaker platform which is now evolved to an agency concept that’s going to be re-launching in September.
So a lot has happened in the last decade. But it keeps me from getting bored. I’ll put it that way.
Nathan: Wow, so when you said agency, does that mean you guys will be doing services?
Brian: Yeah, that’s what we found. So Rainmaker platform is basically an all in one website, marketing automation, and email solution. And it’s a multimillion dollar SAS recurring revenue. It’s fantastic. But we kind of hit a wall and it was because people needed more help than we could provide. And here’s the thing, I know you’re interested in getting into SAS, but you have to spend an incredible amount…self-service SAS. You spend so much time on onboarding and knowledge base and education that it almost detracts from adding new features. But you have to do that because if it’s not intuitive, if people can’t get started they will stop and they will cancel and you’re done.
But with a service model we found that people needed design help. They need content and copywriting help. They need especially as we’re moving into this realm of automation, personalization, artificial intelligence, it’s just getting more complicated than ever. So we saw an opportunity based on just… Nathan, just like it’s always been: the audience,the customers, they tell us and if you’re listening carefully it’s almost like you can’t make the wrong move. So we shifted to this model by…we’re in the process of finalizing a merger with an existing small digital marketing agency. And from there we’re gonna just grow like crazy because I think us doing services is something that our audience has wanted for a long time, and we were always dead set against it. And between you and I, you will not see me doing any services.
Nathan: I know. I’m thinking the same thing. Like, “God, no. I couldn’t do services.”
Brian: No, I didn’t work this hard to get away from clients to go back to it. You know, as an evangelist, and as a trainer, and a teacher, you know, that’s my job. And after doing it for the last 10 years I think I’m getting better and better at it. So that’s where we’re at and it’s amazing the evolution because again for someone who swore never to take clients again and never to have an employee, that’s not exactly how it worked out, you know. So it’s also a lesson in being flexible, in being adaptive, in reading the signs that are right there in front of you. And there’s no better way to get that kind of intelligence than from serving an audience.
Nathan: So talk to me about that. Because with Copyblogger you guys have built a massive audience and that’s kind of the premise for how all these SAS products, software products, hosting courses, that’s how it’s all spun out. right?
Brian: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t go a day without giving credit to the people, you know. I mean it’s…without them there’s nothing. But I just think that the normal…even the lean startup movement methodology is a little backwards in the sense that, you’re still starting with a product. Now minimum viable means, you know, if you’re wrong you can fail fast and you can test it and all that. But I’m more of a fan of the minimum viable audience. And you get enough of an audience much like you did with Foundr until you’re getting enough feedback to where you have a path ahead.
For example, how would you have known that the demand for your Instagram course was there except for the fact that people were going, “Yeah, I need to know how to do that,” right?
Nathan: Yeah. A hundred percent. So can you give us some basic premises that you have around audience building because…that our audience can take away now in today’s age? Because, man, it does feel quite intimidating that it’s something that a lot of people do struggle with when they build out a product. Generally, that’s what they do first. You know, they build out a product or build out a service or have this idea. Building the audience is the hard part.
Brian: That’s interesting because I think creating the right product is the hard part but it gets a lot easier when you have an audience. Now, yes. It can still be a challenge. It always has been. You know, I know there are people and perhaps young people listening who are like, “Well, it used to be easy in 2006.” No, it’s never been easy. You have to hit the right chords with people and give them the value they’re looking for, and do it in a way that doesn’t bore them to tears. But even that’s not enough, so I would say there’s three key things that you have to nail if you’re going to build an audience.
First one is aspiration. Who do they want to become? What do they aspire to be? What’s the problem they’re trying to solve or the desire that they’re trying to fulfill? I mean that’s really what it begins with. Why do we search on Google? Why do we follow blogs or people on Twitter or Facebook? It’s because we think they can help us do what we want. And that’s aspiration. That’s who are we gonna be next? And who’s gonna help us? Who’s gonna be the mentor for us? And that’s really what, you know, Copybloggers strives to be, what Foundr strives to be. You’re trying to give people not just motivation but intelligence, education, something that says, “That’s the missing piece I was looking for,” right? And if you can do that then you can build an audience.
The next aspect of that which I think goes hand in hand is empowerment which is your job is not to build your personal brand or, you know, mouth off about whatever it is you’re thinking today. It’s about empowering them. And, you know, to build an audience, to be an entrepreneur, it’s really about serving, right? I saw something just the other day, I think it was said something about, you know, “It’s not sleazy selling when it’s serving.” That’s exactly right. That’s great way to sum it up, right? So empower your people. Take them on the journey they need to go. Don’t make yourself, you know, the center of attention all the time. They’re the hero of their own story. You become a hero to them by helping them, right?
And then the third thing and it’s always been true but it’s never been more true than in our divisive climate of today, unity. You gotta find your people. You gotta reflect back to them their own world view, and they’ll love you. And you know what that means? You’re gonna piss off like 80% of the rest of the world. Who cares? And that’s the hardest thing. People are like, “Well, I don’t wanna run anyone off. They could be a subscriber or…” No. Choose your people and serve them and ignore everyone else, right? And that’s a hard lesson. It’s intimidating I think because you don’t…in this day and age, online, and you know this, you don’t have to be controversial to make people mad. You can say anything and make people mad. So don’t worry about it, right? Speak your truth. Be you in a way that also builds your business.
So this is authenticity in the way Seth Godin defines it which is you’re telling a story other people want to hear. Now that’s either your story for real or I suppose you could fake it. But, man, it’s hard to lead your life faking it because people will find you out. And besides, that’s no fun anyway. So I don’t think authenticity means being egocentric or sharing what you had for lunch. It means helping people, empowering them to reach their aspirations in your unique way that just lines up with how they also see the world. And that’s really what it takes, you know. I mean when I started Copyblogger and started making analogies to ’80s pop culture, do you think I was really reaching the millennials at that point, you know? I just wasn’t, right? But that’s okay because… And it’s funny because if you look at the Copyblogger audience it skews to generation X, a little bit older, right? Ain’t that funny? But that’s because that’s basically who I was and I wasn’t afraid that someone wasn’t going to get it if they didn’t know who Depeche Mode was.
That was a great post I did where some people on the comments were like, “I don’t know who Depeche Mode is.” I’m like, “What?” you know. So just one of those things.
Nathan: Interesting. And what I find really really awesome is I think how you guys have built a lot of software smart, like in terms of longevity of your business, a lot of recurring revenue. This is where it’s at. What I’m really curious around is how you’re gonna bring it all together because you guys have…you are bringing it together with the Rainmaker platform. But I still feel like, and this is…please don’t take this the wrong way. I mean it’s just kindly. I still feel a little bit confusing at times like when I have…I have always had at Copyblogger first but it took me a while to delve into the Rainmaker platform and digital and the things you guys have going on there. What is your plan of attack and do you feel where I’m coming from?
Brian: No, and it’s totally justified. To the casual observer we’ve heard that all the time throughout the years because so much goes on, you know, by email. And that’s not necessarily…like we’re not writing blog posts that are pimping our products all that often. Sometimes definitely. But to the people who pay really close attention, those are our core and there’s a lot of them. That’s why, you know, when on this run where everything we released was a seven-figure line of business within less than a year. And no failures, right? And yet some people were like, “Oh okay, I know Copyblogger and I read the articles but how do you guys make money because it’s not obvious?” So in some ways I think that’s a remarkable feature of content marketing and audience building. On the other hand you’re right, and it can be a challenge for…with that type of model which is incredibly effective at getting traction. I think our challenge is that we might not be able to take things to the next level without more awareness to that degree.
So that is something I’m cognizant of and I’m not trying to change the brand or disappoint people about the way we’ve maybe become more aggressive about, you know, making people aware of what we do. But at the same time it’s a valid thing and I think from a growth perspective it’s something that every entrepreneur, you know, needs to be aware of. So that’s actually a very astute observation because that’s top of mind for me. How do you preserve brand integrity while taking awareness and revenue to the next level?
Nathan: Because to be honest this is something that we face a little bit too as a we start to build our product. Like, we’re building a lot of courses with influences, eventually to build a course platform which will essentially be like Foundr Premium. And a struggle…and it’s not so much a struggle but something we’re starting to identify already same as you. Like, you know, people are like, “How do you guys make money? Etc. Etc.” A lot of people don’t know that we do courses or any other things. That’s why we found the magazine does quite well still and this book that we launched does quite well. And I’m really curious because I think for us to take it to the next level we should be known like, for premium content or for courses or for, you know, one day, you know, we’re at least three years away from building a SAS product. But we wanna be kind of known for that kind of…I believe that we should be known just being more than content.
Now you guys, I’m really curious. Like do you plan to change? I’m interested around the strategy, like do you plan to maybe change, like to make it all one name or…
Brian: Well, what we’re actually doing and it’s been successful is making the lines of business more self-sufficient instead of tethered to Copyblogger. Like Studio Press we kind of…you know, it made us so much money, we’re just like an ATM machine for years and it wasn’t even recurring until recently, you know. I mean it just really made a lot of cash and because we never took BC or any outside investment, we build out of cashflow. And so we rode that for a while to the point where we felt that perhaps we weren’t properly, you know…like I don’t think the brand was diminished but people were starting to worry that only thing we cared about was Rainmaker and not Studio Press.
Well, this year we came back like full force with Studio Press to the point where people are like, “You don’t care about Rainmaker anymore.” I’m like, “Oh, god. Will you give me a break here, right? I’m trying to restore the balance here.” But here’s our current thinking and this may be…or you may wanna take this approach. We have three strong brands one of which is Copyblogger but Copyblogger launched and fed everything for a long time and that’s why people don’t get it. You cannot overestimate the attention of a big portion of your audience. Like a quarter of your audience is like they notice everything you do, right? Those are your most faithful. Everyone else is very superficial about it so they don’t really…they’re not catching your nuance, your, “Oh, I hinted at this here that we’ve got a new course coming, or I mentioned here that we’re gonna eventually do SAS.”
What I found is you have to lead up to every new thing, you know. And you could be subtle at first. But then you have to be more direct and you just…and you’re still not gonna catch everyone. Your top people will notice everything you do, but at some point with the big mass of people, for example your Instagram audience, if they’re not on an email list, they only have a superficial understanding of what you’re doing. They see the content, you know, they’re checking it out from time to time. But they’re not really invested in you. And your goal as the leader is to make that 25% grow to more. So from our standpoint Rainmaker is almost a standalone thing. It’s gonna have its own content. It’s got its own target audience which is really easy because it’s different I think than most of the Copyblogger audience and that will play out in the fall. We’ll learn quite a bit about that. Studio Press and the Copyblogger audience I think are more aligned and yet Studio Press is its own brand and we’re really treating it like that for the first time.
So when a lot of people do think we have a bunch of companies, no, it’s one company. But counter intuitively we’re almost starting to treat them as separate companies again.
Nathan: Okay, that’s interesting. So thinking is not to them so much bringing them together anymore?
Brian: I think that was our original idea and it made sense and it’s, you know, conventional wisdom. But we don’t do anything that’s conventional if it doesn’t work. And we’re finding that if you’ve got three strong brands, then treat them that way, right? And Copyblogger is still always going to be the mothership where you find out…the ability to announce something new to people is the function of Copyblogger. But you also have to remember that we have over 200,000 customers at Studio Press, right? At some point your customer base becomes almost more valuable because they have bought from you and they will give you legitimate product level feedback. Copyblogger feedback is more general market level and it’s important, but the more granular you can get and that’s why the idea to make the move with Rainmaker to become a service and technology hybrid. Again, the market told us what to do. It’s not that we’re so smart. The only smart thing about us is we listen.
Nathan: I like that. So let’s switch gears. Talk to me about your partners’ pace. I find that very very interesting. So do you have many different partners within each company or each brand?
Brian: No, and so there are four partners besides myself. I’m the largest owner. And each one came their own way. Brian Gardner came by contributing to Studio Press. Shawn Jackson came by Scribe. Tony was there from the beginning, Sonia also came in through teaching Cells. So when we got together in 2010 in Denver, I mean we literally put this company together in less than two hours. There was no, you know, hardcore haggling. Everyone had a shared vision and, you know, we just set all the equity portions. All the other partners have the same percentage ownership and I have a higher one.
The idea was to build something bigger than we could build alone. And that was the idea in 2010, and I know we’ve accomplished that. It certainly has been an adventure, you know. Every new year was just another step down the path. But I wouldn’t…there’s no way I would have kept going with this company if we weren’t constantly trying to innovate, constantly trying to create new things and make what we have better. I will say that we launched Studio Press site at the beginning of this year which is the hosted version of Studio Press that we wanted to do for a long time. And now of course we’re changing the nature of Rainmaker. And so those are two major things this year. In a year where a year ago, I would have said we’re done making new things. I mean, how do you feel about that? I mean are you driven by change or just growing what you have?
Nathan: No, I think that’s the entrepreneur in all of us. We wanna shake things up. We wanna do new and exciting things. I’m driven…no, I’m driven by both those things. Both growing what we already have but at the same time creating new fun stuff. That’s the fun part for me.
Brian: And you have to make sure. You have to really have to ask yourself, “Am I doing this just so I’m not going to be bored? Or is this really the right thing for our customers and prospects?” That’s the gut check, and so far I think we’ve stuck to that. But you’re right, the entrepreneurial spirit, because sometimes have you doing something new when you should really be doubling down on the thing you have. And that’s up to everyone to figure out for themselves, but please take some time to check yourself because you don’t wanna screw up a good thing just because you’re kind of antsy.
Nathan: That’s true. So I’m curious, do you have plans to sell the whole company? Like the whole entity? Copyblogger…like the Rainmaker, Copyblogger, all of it? Has that ever crossed your mind, many opportunities there?
Brian: Man, we dance with the devil so many times. We’ve had acquisition interest. We’ve had a ton of private equity interest. We have…in the last year we’ve had two offers on the table to sell, you know, more than half of the company to private equity people in which I’d be set for life. But we said no because we just didn’t trust any of it in a sense that we didn’t know what it would be like to work with someone outside. The expectations for growth we thought were unrealistic and would cause us to compromise ourselves. And I do this for the creative freedom to do what I want more than money. Now we make a good living, there is no doubt about it and we can make a lot of money and put it in the bank if we were to sell any portion of the company. But what do you give up? Now I mean, if…I suppose if they were the right strategic acquirer who, you know…they’re gonna make me work for them for two years. That’s another thing. I just told you, I can’t work for anyone.
But if the amount is right I could live with that. But it’s more important that I’m not giving the company to someone who’s not gonna treat our people right, you know. And it sucks that you have to worry about that, but you do, you know?
Nathan: A hundred percent because they want a return.
Brian: Right, right.
Nathan: Awesome. Well, look last question and then we’ll work towards wrapping up. Personal brand versus business brand. I like what you said there because I know a lot of people big on building the personal brand piece. Me personally, I don’t really care building my personal brand. I just wanna grow the business brand because I wanna build something that’s bigger than myself and continue to do that and I think… I think it’s a bad word to say egotistical to wanna build your personal brand. But, I don’t know, I just…I don’t really have that much care for it. And I think you’re maybe in the same camp as me, maybe I’m wrong. But I don’t see you really that focused or it doesn’t seem like a focus. You just kind of just do it. You know what I mean?
Brian: Well, the best personal brands are built out of building something bigger than you. You built Foundr. Everyone knows who Nathan Chan is now. And I wanted no personal attention and 11 years later I am so synonymously tied to Copyblogger that…right? You know, I mean despite all the talented people that work for us and they have their own personal brands as well but it’s me, right, even though I didn’t want it. So that leads me to believe that don’t worry about it. If you do good work and you created something useful, people are gonna go, “Yeah, Brian Clark did that.” “Nathan Chan did that.” There you go, right? And I don’t think it’s egotistical necessarily to want to build a personal brand but I’m suspicious of people that are more concerned about, you know, their own level of thought leadership or, you know… I mean it’s just…it’s like do the work. It’ll happen. Whether you want it to or not, it’ll happen.
And that’s more legitimate than setting out to do it. So I guess that’s where I come down on thought leadership. I mean Richard Branson, what a great personal brand. Started a record store, right? I mean that’s what he was passionate about. Not saying I’m Richard Branson.
Nathan: A hundred percent.
Brian: And he did it time and time again. And yet he is the most…like he will draw attention to himself with stunts and daring escapades and all those kind of stuff because he knows it’s good for Virgin. I don’t necessarily believe that Richard Branson is driven to promote Richard Branson. He knows that if he makes Virgin succeed then Richard Branson is pretty much set. So that…and I am a big fan of that guy so I think that’s the way to go about it.
Nathan: I like that. Awesome. Well, we will work towards wrapping up. Where’s the best place people can find out more about yourself, Brian, and your work and all the awesome things that you’re up to?
Brian: I got a ton of stuff that I’m up to. Of course, mainly copyblogger.com, free content marketing education if you sign up for my Copyblogger library. There’s just like an entire beautiful library of eBooks that kind of enmass everything we’ve talked about for 10 years, you know, landing pages, email marketing, SEO, copywriting content, all of that. My podcast for people who are…they found their nature unemployable, your episode is just about to be released and it’s awesome.
Nathan: Wow, thanks.
Brian: So come check that out for sure. Nathan gave some great tips especially the Instagram stuff. I mean…and also I was just so impressed with how tenacious you are. It’s a solid episode. And then I call it my own form of personal therapy but I have a personal growth newsletter called [email protected] I really do it just to better understand the books I’m reading and the things I’m learning. I’ve been successful as an entrepreneur for a long time. I’m not always successful at other aspects of my life and I’m trying to fix that. So if that sounds like you, you can follow along with me over there at “Further.”
Nathan: Awesome, well, thank you so much for your time, Brian. I really appreciate it. It was an awesome chat.
Brian: I love it. Thank you for having, man.
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