Sol Orwell, Co-founder, Examine.com
Sol Orwell: Authority Figure
As a teenager, Sol Orwell immigrated with his family from Saudi Arabia to the West. Dealing with a case of serious culture shock, Orwell found refuge in online gaming. The gaming community was open and inviting, which led him to build community sites for his favorite games.
Soon a seller of virtual currency offered him $300 a month to place ads on his site. “I thought that was amazing!” Orwell says. This first business deal turned into Orwell’s first business lesson when a 15 percent commission offer netted him another $500 in revenue in a single month.
While not a huge site, clearly Orwell had tapped into an engaged and relevant audience, and was able to turn that interest into a healthy profit. Not bad for a kid playing games on the internet. He quickly learned that the key to making money is to tap into a highly targeted audience and offer them a specific solution.
That approach to business has paid off many times over in Orwell’s career, culminating in Examine.com, a leading authority on health and nutrition that XXXXXXXXX. Orwell is living proof that finding your niche and drilling down until you own can lead to huge success, even with a relatively tiny product line.
Building a Business Model
The foundation of Orwell’s success is segmentation, and the best place to start that segmenting is immediately after the opt-in. “So many people blow it with their welcome email and thank you pages,” but that is when your audience is most willing to learn more about what you have to offer. Provide them with an opportunity to segment themselves.
At Examine.com, Orwell’s nutrition and supplements education site, every welcome email asks the reader to self-identify as someone who is either generally interested in health, serious about health and supplements, or a professional. Based on that information, the team at Examine.com knows precisely which of their three products to offer and how to move the contact through their sales funnel.
Evergreen Over Viral, Every Time
Orwell is not about using social media impact as a marketing tool. He’ll pick high-ranking content bringing in organic traffic any day of the week.
“Facebook is trendy and cool, but it never stops, so you always have to create something new or recycle old stuff. But relative to Google, Facebook does’t send any traffic to the world,” Orwell says.
Instead of focusing efforts on building viral content, Orwell believes in generating long-lasting authority through distribution of epic content. “We are focused on amazing content that takes a month to create, but once it is created, no one else can touch it.” Examine.com goes after Google and large partners that have massive audiences.
To develop consistent traffic, Examine.com writes for large organizations and looks for mentions that will strengthen their brand with Google. “Just do well with Google and sit back,” Orwell says. “They will send you traffic for a very, very long time.”
This strategy has paid-off. While keywords for many popular sites are only getting 5,000 to 20,000 impressions, all of the top keywords at Examine.com are logging more than 50,000 impressions, proof that focusing on content and authority is more valuable than focusing on social media or SEO.
Create a Culture of Partners, Not Competitors
Even though he operates in the coder-eat-coder world of digital startups, Orwell is very serious about partnering with those in his niche, instead of competing against them.
As an authority on health and nutrition supplements, Examine.com could easily offer coaching or link to Amazon to gain a few extra bucks as an affiliate. But Orwell is clear, “We are in the education niche.”
This makes them complementary to coaches, personal trainers, and consultants. They stay focused on their own niche and don’t horn in on neighboring markets, which means those working in related spaces will frequently link to content on Examine.com—they know that the company is not going to steal their clients.
In fact, after five years, Examine.com still only sells three core products: a comprehensive reference guide targeted at professionals and serious health enthusiasts, a stack guide to help individuals and newbies understand how supplements interact with one another, and a subscription to a high-quality research digest that sells based on the authority of the brand. This limited product offering keeps the focus on quality not quantity.
Continuous Iteration, Not Continuous Creation
The Examine.com site is the foundation of the company brand. It has established authority and was built by slowly dominating at a specific level before moving to the next.
In 2011, when Orwell started Examine.com, the focus was on bodybuilding supplements. When the brand’s authority in that niche was clearly established, it moved to fitness supplements, then health supplements, then general supplements, then nutrition, and finally, to nutrition research.
The development of the brand to its current state took three years, and even now, the site only has between 500 and 600 unique pages of content. “We update our content instead of always creating new pages … every time we update a page we get more links which builds the power of that single page,” Orwell says. “We are obsessed with authority.”
Staying Behind the Scenes
Orwell’s style as a founder is to keep the money in house, and the management hands off. His “bootstrapped is best” philosophy allows him to maintain complete control over his companies and his free time. Meanwhile, instead of grinding it out every day, he prefers to hire the best and leave them to run his companies.
Orwell’s goal is always to “make the people who work for me famous.” He finds people who are brilliant in their niches and puts them in charge to create a mutually beneficial relationship. “By paying him (Kamal Patel, director of Examine.com) more than I pay myself, I know that he is going to kick ass,” he says.
Orwell also advocates for creating a brand and not relying on your own name. “It’s harder to start up a brand that is generic, but as you grow, the brand becomes bigger than your name will ever be.”
Because Examine.com is not inherently tied to Orwell’s name, he can take a hands-off approach while the brand continues to gain authority through mentions in the mainstream media. “A brand is more trustworthy, it is not just one person, it is an entire organization.”
Orwell is happy to sit back and let his awesome team and brand take the lead. “I don’t even care if my employees outsource their work as long as it’s done well.” He’s truly embracing the free lifestyle that comes from building your own thing, doing it your own way, and doing it better than anyone else.
Words of Wisdom from a Millionaire Entrepreneur
Just build It. Examine.com did not have a logo when Orwell first started. Stop focusing on the small stuff and get going!
Focus on one niche. “Build up a very targeted audience, figure out what their problem is, develop a solution, and iterate over and over again.”
Talk to your customer. Not the generic email or survey, get on the phone for an actual conversation. “The amount of information they will give you over the phone is 10 times what it would be from an email or survey.”
It’s not as hard as you think. It is super easy to start. Don’t overthink it, just make it happen. “People forget how huge the internet is—you don’t need to be huge. I know plenty of entrepreneurs that are making seven figures and no one knows who they are.”
- How to find your niche in the online world
- The importance of putting the business first before your ego
- Why building evergreen content will always work better than anything viral
- Orwell’s no-nonsense guide to building a self-sustaining online business
- The wonders of building a segmented audience and why you need to do it right now
Full Transcript of Podcast with Sol Orwell
Nathan: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Foundr Podcast. My name is Nathan Chan and I am your host coming to you live from Melbourne, Australia. First of all, I just wanted to say happy New Year, guys. Really, really pumped about 2017. Let’s make this the best year yet. I’ve done a lot of planning, and we’re just starting to execute things, and it’s really, really exciting. We’ve got some big goals for Foundr. We’re gonna be scaling up content, we’re gonna be scaling up products, we’re gonna be optimizing funnels. We’re gonna be doing so much cool stuff. I’m really, really excited. Hopefully, if I can hit my goals, we can also set up an office in L.A. as well, which is gonna be pretty exciting.
So that’s what’s happening in my world. Now let’s talk about today’s guest, Sol Orwell. Now, Sol’s a super-smart dude. I was very, very impressed with, more than anything, his strategy and the way he approaches building businesses. And the more and more I speak to people, the more and more I feel really privileged to just understand and hone in on my strategy, because that’s what it’s all about. If you wanna build a super-successful business, it’s all about strategy. Like, yeah, there’s all these other elements like people, hustle, hiring, marketing. You’ve got all those other things, you know, funding, cash flow, all these other things. But strategy is something that people can’t take away from you.
You know, the strategy and execution piece is killer. It’s so key. And Sol has got some killer strategies around business growth that I think you guys are gonna love, particularly around, you know, he’s built multiple seven-figure businesses, and he really shares about how the riches are in the niches. And I know you guys might have heard of that phrase before from our friends in Australia. It’s pronounced “niche,” I know. But in America, you guys call it “niches.” So yeah, the riches are in the niches. Let’s let Sol tell us if they really are. All right, guys, now let’s jump into the show.
So the first question I ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
Sol: How did I get my job? I am honestly not 100% sure. I think the reality of it was I immigrated to the West when I was 14, and I’d been living in Saudi Arabia, and the amount of culture shock was massive for me. And online was my refuge, right? It was my place where I could get away from everyone else, where I could be me without feeling a little bit shy and awkward. And it was through that online experience that I realized, you know, there’s a lot of opportunity here. I was still a young kid at the time, you know, I was 14. But pretty much off the bat, anyone knew when they really spent some time online that everyone was gonna eventually move online. And that’s kind of how I accidentally stumbled upon it was actually through online games. Online games was my refuge, like I said, from the real world, and that’s when I learned…and this sounds crazy, this is how I originally made my money, was off virtual currency and online games in the late 1990s. So that’s kind of how I stumbled upon my first job.
Nathan: Interesting. So you’re 14, how exactly were you making money? Like, how does this work, like, with the virtual currency?
Sol: Well, right. Yeah, every time I tell it, people think it’s crazy. So I came to Houston in 1997 before I moved to Canada, and I started playing online games. And as I started playing these online games, I realized, “You know what? Like, people are so friendly online, we should build a community kind of like on a website.” And so we started building these community websites, and it was a few years later that this guy came to me and he said, you know, “Hey listen, I sell virtual currency. You know, will you let us buy ads on your site?” And originally, I was really excited. I still remember this, right? He gave me, like, 300 bucks or something for the month, and I thought that was amazing. And I was at 16, now, at this age, right? Three hundred bucks, that was huge. And then he said, “You know what? I’ll give you, like, a commission, 15% on anything you sell.” And in my mind, I thought, “Damn. This is it,” right? “The golden goose is cooked.” I thought that he’d realize that nothing’s gonna sell. He’ll only buy ads for a month or two, and then we’re done.
But that 15% generated us another, like, $300 to $500 in that month alone. And that’s kinda how I got my start, where I realized, “You know what? If you have targeted traffic that’s specifically looking for “x” subject, and if you can find a way to monetize from specifically that “x” subject, you know, your conversions will be pretty well. And so to kinda give a quick explanation, these games like “World of Warcraft,” I’m sure most people have heard of that, “EverQuest,” stuff like that, basically have an online character, right? They’re called a role-playing game. And in that character, you can spend 50 hours to get The Sword of Doom, or you could pay someone like me 500 bucks and I would just sell you The Sword of Doom.
On the flipside, we would go to kids who were playing these games who have been playing it for, like, 60 hours a week, and we say, “Hey listen, you’ve got five Swords of Dooms, we’ll pay you 20 bucks for it.” And in their mind…because the game itself was, like, 10 to 20 bucks a month, in their mind, it was amazing. Right? They basically got to play for free. And professionals like yourself, for example, who’s too busy to be able to spend time, all this time to get The Sword of Doom, you got The Sword of Doom, and we profited in the middle between all that. So that was the…my initial foray was through virtual currency.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. Interesting. So what happened next? Because you’ve been doing stuff online for a while, man.
Sol: Yeah, it’s been a while. So I mean, honestly, man, you know, we talk about, like, entrepreneurship and we talk about business, people forget at times how huge the internet is. And you don’t need to be a superstar, you don’t need to be famous, you don’t need to be big. I know all these entrepreneurs who are making seven figures, even eight figures and no one knows who they are. And so what that context is here is, you know, there’s all this opportunity out there, you just need to figure out whatever niche you can do well in. So in my case, right, I figured out virtual currency did well for me. And the next one that I got really deep into was local search. So this is before Google Local even existed at the time. This was before Yelp, before I think, like, 2003 now.
And I moved to a new neighborhood in Toronto and I had no idea what was in the neighborhood. So my now ex-wife and I, we went out and we indexed all the businesses on foot, and I think it was about 70 businesses. And we just popped it online, we took pictures. This is all before iPhone or anything, so we had to drag around our giant digital camera. And we put it online, and people loved it. And then we expanded to Toronto and then Canada and the States, but again, it was that opportunity of something we were trying to solve for ourselves.
Afterwards, I was in domain names. I was basically a retired bum for, like, five years. I lived in the States and in South America. And a little, just under six years ago, I was in Colombia hanging out with some friends. I’d lost a lot of weight, and I was talking about how supplement companies are ripping us off. And that’s kinda where it hit me again where, like, “Listen, I have this opportunity where, okay, there’s no one that you can trust about supplementation, because everyone’s trying to sell you something.” And at this time, education was getting hot. This was when, like, Lynda was blowing up. So why don’t we get into the education space? And that’s what we did, right? So in March 2011, we started up a company called Examine.com. We now get about a couple million visitors a month. It’s been covered by everyone from “Forbes” to “Inc.,” “Entrepreneur,” whatever. Even “Fast Company” said we’re a top 10 innovative company in health and fitness.
So kinda looping it all back, it’s all about there’s all this opportunity out there. Everyone thinks you need to be this huge megastar or dominate your niche, your industry or whatever. But you just need to find this one little niche that you can really focus on, just excel at that, and you’ll make more than enough money to keep yourself happy.
Nathan: Awesome. You said you retired for five years.
Nathan: Tell me about that, man. So did you have a big exit?
Sol: No, no. Honestly, so I’ve never taken any VC money. I’ve always bootstrapped my companies. My original virtual currency online gaming one, and then my local search, and now Examine.com, they all became businesses. But my MO has always been I’m gonna make the people who work for me famous. And so easy example, Examine.com, most people think that Kamal Patel owns the company. He is the one who runs it. And basically what I do is I find people who are brilliant in that niche, I put them in charge, and I make them famous. And the benefits of that is they know that they will never get as big of an audience as they would on their own than if they work with us. And at the same time, I know that I’m putting someone in charge who really understands it, who really gets it. And so I don’t need to be the one who needs to worry about the day-to-day operations all the time. And that’s kind of how it’s all been set up.
So when I retired, basically I had my Number 2, he took over everything, and I basically became a bum. And, like, you know, I’d still stay in touch and I’d still have to deal with some banking stuff there and accounting here, but by paying him more than I even paid myself, I knew that he was gonna be kicking ass, he was gonna be taking care of it while I got to, you know, gallivant around in, like, Argentina and whatnot. So that’s always been my approach. Most entrepreneurs make it more about themselves because they wanna become famous on their own, whereas for 16 years, no one had any clue who I was. And that’s been a big reason for my success.
Nathan: Yeah. I like that. I like that, because I think it’s really important, because there’s a lot of things that, you know…there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors and stuff, and I think it’s really important to not try and be…because I’m the same, dude. Like, I don’t wanna be the big man. I don’t wanna be some big superstar. I just care about Foundr, man. I just wanna build and asset-based business. So no, I can really relate to that. I’m curious, though, do you still run this domains business or search business?
Sol: No, I don’t run it myself. Virtual currency and local search, all of that is basically automated in the context of other people are busy running it. Examine.com, I’m now mostly hands-off. Kamal is mostly in charge. My co-founder is still in charge of the research. Like, I’m still involved in the context that we do a monthly meeting and whatnot, but in general, they run it. And kind of looping back to what you were saying, right, I mean, you built the brand Foundr, and I built the brand Examine. And it’s harder to start up a brand that’s more generic that doesn’t have your name on it. But I’m sure, as you can empathize, as you grow, the name becomes far bigger than you will ever be yourself, right?
Even Conversion Excel just posted something last week or this week where they surveyed people, and they said, “Does this website look more professional with the founder’s image or without the founder’s image?” And in general, without the founder’s image was more professional. And so I think you will really understand this, you know, it’s a little bit more of a slog, because people need to connect with a brand, which is harder than connecting with an individual like you or I. But in the long term, it makes a lot more business sense, because then that business is much more than just you. And so you can bring in smarter people to help run it or to run it directly themselves. And kind of in the long term, right, if you wanna build up a business, I think that’s the right way to do it.
Nathan: Yeah, I agree. So I’m curious, like, your other companies still exist today. You don’t run them, but they still exist and you own them.
Sol: Yeah. So, I mean, okay, to simplify it basically, if you take any website that’s high content…and so we’ll use again a recent one, Examine.com, right? So we get about two million visitors a month. We are basically top five for stuff like fish oil, vitamin D, creatine, and those other ones. And If I was to hypothetically fire everybody today from Examine.com and do nothing with it and just sell our guides and whatever, I’m very confident that over the next few years, we would still be getting one or two million visitors a month. And so what I’ve always done with my company is instead of trying to make them trendy or viral as everyone wants, right…they wanna be cool on Facebook, they wanna be cool on YouTube, they wanna be cool on Instagram. I don’t even have an Instagram. Like, it’s just a company, it doesn’t have an Instagram.
My focus has always been, “Okay, how do you generate revenue? You need to have distribution. Okay, how do you build up distribution?” And there’s usually two platforms that are most reliable, and those two are either Google or other partners who have massive audiences. And so what I’ve always done and I always encourage entrepreneurs to do the same thing is, you know what? Facebook is trendy and cool, but it never quits, right? It never stops. You always have to generate new content. You always have to generate something new or you have to recycle old content. But relative to Google, Facebook doesn’t send any traffic out to the world. Relative, right? And all Google is, in the big scheme of things, is you need to get links and you need to build up your authority. And all building authority really is, is you need to get mentions by mainstream media, ideally or by other large organizations. That’s it. And so I’ve always put my energy into stuff like that, right?
I mean, we talk about Examine.com. We’ve been in BBC, we’ve been in “The Guardian,” we’ve been in “Mother Jones,” not just us being quoted, also having written for them. “Men’s Health,” “Men’s Fitness,” all of these, right? So over the long term, Google comes across and they keep saying the name Examine.com, Examine.com, Examine.com. They’re like, “Okay, we can trust this brand.” And we actually analyze our top…like, we have, like, 300 supplements, and we actually analyze the top 10 results on Google for each supplement. The only two that beat us are Wikipedia and WebMD. And WebMD gets, like, 50 million or whatever, right, a month. So my approach has always been, “Okay, how can I make sure that the traffic we get is consistent?”
Now, is Facebook “traffic delicious”? Sure. I was just looking it up earlier, the most business we ever got in one day was 95,000 and probably was because something went viral on Reddit. Great, but what happened the next day, right, that Reddit traffic died out. So my approach with all this has always been how can I make it long-term? So it goes same thing to that local search and virtual currency, right? It wasn’t really virtual currency. The actual companies was basing it around online gaming content, and then we work with other companies to sell virtual currency, right?
But again, online gaming content is the same thing, right? You hire some guy who wants to play the video game. You let him play the video game 10, 12 hours a day. You make him famous inside the video game, which is huge for them, right? And then we’ll run with it. And so I don’t need to look over their shoulder and be like, “Hey JC, are you playing…” No, of course he’s playing the game. He loves the game, right? And if he gets tired and wants to go to another game, we’re like, “Okay, we’ve got the infrastructure to be able to expand into another game.” And so that’s always been my approach, where most people nowadays are just obsessed with Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Pinterest. Pinterest, by the way, is very underrated for traffic…or Snapchat or YouTube, those are channels that need you to constantly be creating new content or even repurposing it. But if you can do well with Google, you can just sit back and they will send you traffic for a very, very long time.
Nathan: So you like predictability.
Sol: Yeah. And the other thing is it’s also scale, right? So we’re at about, like, what is it, 60,000, 65,000, 70,000 visitors a day, right? And when we look at our Google search console, right, if you look at your search traffic, people will see, like, impressions and clicks from what the keywords are. And you look at most sites, even on Moz or Backlinko, and you look at the impressions that the keywords get, and you get, like, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, right? All of our top 50 are all over 100,000 impressions, right? These are the kind of keywords that take time to build up, but also, that’s what we were talking about earlier, is that’s why you wanna build a brand and not your own name. Because that brand is more trustworthy overall, and that’s why, you know, Examine will be mentioned by BBC or New York Times or whoever else in between, because hey, it’s not just one person, it’s this entire organization.
And so that’s always been my long-term plan is, “Okay, how can I make sure that we get this constant spigot of traffic without having to worry about, “Aw man, what’s something cool or funny or something viral that can go tomorrow. It’s too exhausting to think that way.
Nathan: Yeah, gotcha. So you’re all about ever-growing content.
Sol: One-hundred percent, right? And I’m a big fan of repurposing content and putting it through and email list and regenerating it as an image and you can throw it on social media and all that jazz, for sure. But at the end of the day, if you look at our pages, like our creatine pages, over 700 references, it’s a huge page, and no one can touch it, right? And so instead of trying to build, again, 100,000 fans on Facebook and maybe getting 2% organic reach, instead, we’re like, “We’re gonna dominate the keyword ‘creatine’ and no one else will even come close to us.” And that’s what we’ve done, right? Everyone gives lip service to making unique content, but how many people actually make content that you read and you go, “Wow, I really need to show this to my friend ‘X’ who’s interested in it or ‘Y’ who’s interested in it.”
Our word of mouth is absolutely crazy. It’s amazing. And that’s what we’ve always focused on, amazing, amazing content. Not great content, not good content. Amazing content that takes, like, a month to create but that no one else can touch once we’ve created it.
Nathan: Yeah, I love this strategy, man. This is on point. And then you let the technology do the work and you’ve got the longevity.
Sol: One-hundred percent, right? Like, who’s gonna come in and be like, “Oh, I’m gonna write another creatine page. Oh, here’s another one that’s got 700 references, I’m gonna beat them”? No one. And so what the other part of it has happened is we’ve made sure that we’re very complementary. We don’t do any coaching, we don’t do any consulting. So personal trainers and registered dietitians, when they talk about creatine or fish oil or vitamin D, they don’t even write about it anymore. They just go, “This is what Examine.com says,” and then they link to us. But they also link to us because they know we’re not gonna steal their clients.
So we’ve been very specific, again, when I was talking about niches earlier, we’ve been very specific about we are only in the education niche. We are not in the coaching niche. My friends at Precision Nutrition, right, those guys are at almost $50 million a year off coaching. We could be making eight figures off coaching if we wanted to, but in terms, again, our longevity structure about making sure that we don’t have to keep churning out content, it just made more sense for us to be a partner more than someone else who could take their customers or clients.
Nathan: Gotcha. So I’m curious, you’ve been working on Examine.com since 2011, correct?
Nathan: Since about five years.
Nathan: How many articles do you have on the site? How many…
Nathan: Yeah, how many pages? How many blog posts? How much content do you produce per day?
Sol: Oh, per day, like, zero. I think in total, we have maybe, like, 300 supplements, 100 nutrition pages, and maybe, like, 100 blog posts. Maybe 100 even sounds high. That’s it. I would say we’ve got maybe 500, 600 total pages of unique content, that’s it.
Sol: Yeah, in over five and a half years, that’s basically nothing, right? But what we do is we update our content, right? Instead of always picking up a new page, as most people do, we update our content. So our creatine page, right, I mentioned…I’ll use that as an easy example, right? It’s over 700 references. When we first created it, it was, like, maybe 30 references, then 50, then 100, blah, blah, blah. Kept going, kept going. And so every time we updated it, you know, new links would come in, but it would all come in again at the same page. And so the power of that page grew and grew and grew and grew. Instead of trying to answer 50,000, target 50,000 different keywords and everyone than their mother does anymore, we’re like, “We’re gonna target fish oil. We’re gonna target vitamin D.” And just because of how many links we get and how massive our site has become, the amount of traffic that gets generated on permutations of those key phrases, it’s almost limitless now.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. So you are very, very strong, from the sounds of it, on SEO.
Sol: I mean, yeah, SEO, but we actually get a lot of referral traffic, because again, our approach has been make that…
Sol: Yeah, authority, right? That’s literally the keyword that we are obsessed with, is, “How do we make sure we have the authority at we do?” Right? So you can look at it today and you go, “Oh man, these guys are huge in supplements and nutrition and all this stuff.” But when we started, we were just body-building supplements. Then we got into fitness supplements, then we got into health supplements, then we got into general supplements, then we got into nutrition. Then we got into selling nutrition research. You know, that took us three and a half years. So it’s easy to see it in hindsight and be like, “Oh yeah, these guys grew up. Of course they did. Look how much energy they put into it.”
But going back to what I said originally, man, we focused on our niche, we dominated creatine and whey protein and beta alanine. Then we expanded into, like, fish oil, vitamin D. Then we expanded into, like, garcinia cambogia, which is a garbage fat burner that Dr. Oz recommends. Then we got into, you know, “Is diet soda bad for you?” Or “Are eggs aren’t healthy for you?” And then we got into, “All right, we’re gonna analyze nutrition research.” We just were the authority at every single stage, and there was no doubt about it. When we launched our “Research Digest,” which is our nutrition research analysis, we had a Lifetime auction for a thousand bucks. And 100 people bought it within the first couple of hours without ever looking at the product itself, because authority and trust were so high that they were like, ” We’re gonna buy it. The worst case, we’ll ask for a refund.” And I think one person asked for a refund, if even, just because we built up that authority so much.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. That’s amazing. So I’m curious, I read an article about Examine and yourself a while ago, this is before we connected, and it was really interesting. It was around your business model. And I think people would find this interesting, because you…and please correct me if I’m wrong, from the article, you definitely had a clear view of what the business model would look like, but you didn’t know how you would make money 100%. You built and audience first, and you did a series of tests, correct?
Sol: Yeah, 100%. So my viewpoint always…I’m not big on, like, the impressions or ad-based stuff. I think that’s a little bit chasing your own tail. But going back to what I originally said, if you can build up an audience around one very specific topic and then you can figure out what their problem is and what they want from you, you can sell that solution to them. So my original frustration that a lot of other people also had was, “Who can I go to and read their information on supplementation and know they’re not trying to sell us anything?” So off the bat, we could never sell supplements, right? I’ve had a lot of friends, even VCs, who come to us and said, “Listen, you should analyze supplements or you should just link to Amazon’s page or whatever.” But if we do that, we lose our credibility, right? So our focus was always, “We are going to dominate this niche.” And so we dominated supplementation.
And so when we asked our users, we said, “Hey listen, what do you need help with, or what do you wish that we had solved that we haven’t solved yet?” The number one thing we heard was, “Listen, I wish there was just one little, like, document or page that I could look at and be like, “Okay, this is what all the research for vitamin D says.” I’m like, “All right, we can do that.” So when we launched it, this supplement goals reference, it was like 900 pages long. And all it was was tables and tables of information. So for example, it would say “Vitamin D.” And it said, “There’s a lot of research that says it decreases the risk of falls,” which actually sounds crazy, but it’s actually true, right? There’s a lot of evidence for it. And, “Oh, vitamin D. There’s no evidence, for example, that vitamin D is great for your libido,” for example, right? It was just this kinda stuff. And I think in the first day alone, we sold 1000. I mean, since we launched it in 2013, we’ve sold over 50,000 copies of this, and it’s all been 100% virtual.
So always, it’s been about build up the audience, a very targeted audience, figure out what their problem is, sell them the solution, and then just iterate over and over and over again. That’s it.
Nathan: Gotcha. How many products do you have now?
Sol: So we only three products. We just have this one table thing that I mentioned, the reference. We have Stack Guide. So what happened after we released the reference is people came to us and they said, “Listen, this is great, but I don’t know what to do. How much vitamin D should I take? When should I take it?” Right? “What should I take it with? What should I not take it with?” Because, you know, you can have supplements that cancel each other out, right? Something that’s fat phobic, which means it doesn’t like fat, and if you take it with something that is fatty, then you know, boom, they’re canceling each other out. So we’re like, “All right,” so we made these guides which basically were, like, step-by-step directions on saying, “Take this, don’t take that.” And so we started selling that about two and a half years ago, I’m gonna say. I think that was, like, summer of 2014.
And then just over two years ago, the next thing that people kept saying to us was…professionals came to us and they said, “Hey listen, you know, we see all these studies in the media,” or, “My friend said he read this study that says fish oil causes prostate cancer,” or, “Hey, protein is bad for you. Can you guys make sense of this research?” And we said, “All right, we can solve this problem.” So every month, we analyze six nutrition studies and we break it down, and it’s this beautiful thing. We spend a lot of money at it. Like, you look at a lot of these online products that people sell that are produced very unprofessionally or they have no copywriter or they are thrown together…we have two copywriters alone that just go through everything we write just to make sure everything is clean, beyond the editors and reviewers and all that stuff, right? We’ve got, like, 25, 30 people that contribute to each issue of this “Research Digest” I mentioned. And that’s why we can charge 30 bucks a month and we have, like, 2500 customers, purely for just a PDF. Because our authority is so good, because we put so much effort into it, because our products are so high quality.
So yeah, we haven’t released a new product in two years. Instead, we just keep focusing on what we have, keep focusing on making sure our audience grows and grows and grows. Google Analytics has a thing where it shows how many returning visitors you’re getting, and we’re at over a half a million visitors returning every month from previous sessions, which is actually really, really high for most sites. So that’s kind of our goal, right, is just that we have products, we’ve solved the needs of our customers, we’re always asking them, “What else can we help you with?” But we’ve solved the primary needs of our customers, and now we’re just like, “All right, we have to make sure that they understand we’re solving it.” That’s the bigger problem, right?
A lot of entrepreneurs, they don’t understand how to message their product, because they’re so…and you’ll understand this, right? And I know you’ve talked about this before, you’re so deep into your own product, your own life, your own business, you don’t realize that if some stranger comes by, he or she is like, “I don’t understand what you’re selling.” Right? “I don’t understand what you’re offering.” Even HubSpot just redid their homepage in the last week, right? And their page before, you were like, “I have no idea what you guys are offering.” Right?
Nathan: That’s so true. Right, yeah. I struggled to work it out when I first heard of them.
Sol: Exactly, right? And then Joel and team, and they came in and then they fixed it up, and now you go in and you’re like, “Okay, I understand what you guys are doing.” So I think a lot of that is just we are constantly focusing on, “How can we make our message more clear? How can we make the message of what we’re doing more precise?” Right? And so we have a new design, for example, that we’re rolling out, same thing. How can we make it easy for someone to get into what we’re saying? Like, our bounce rate is relatively ridiculously low. Our time spent on the site is incredibly high because people love reading all of our content. We have, like, literally tens and thousands of users that are over 25 page views per session, which is incredibly high, right? But again, at the end of the day, it’s all about, “How can we make sure our message is concise and clear to the end user?” That’s kinda what we obsess over now.
Nathan: Gotcha. I’m curious around…you said you had a recurring product.
Nathan: I’m surprised. Like, I wouldn’t think that people would pay for that.
Sol: So what happens, so the recurring product is the “Research Digest” that I mentioned where we analyze six recent nutrition studies every month. And most of our subscribers are either registered dietitians or personal trainers. And it’s incredibly useful to them because as a professional, right, your clients will hear some random story on TV or read about it on some crazy website, and they’ll come running to you and they’ll say, “Hey, what about this?” Right? So just yesterday, there was a study that was released and the headline says, “Kids who drank whole milk are skinnier than kids who drank skim milk.” Right? And if you’re a registered dietitian or a personal trainer, you are guaranteed to have one client come running to you and say, “Does this mean I should drink whole milk?”
And so the personal trainer or registered dietitian, he or she is equipped to read scientific research. Right? You can kinda read it and kinda figure it out, but that’s what we do. We go, “All right, we’re gonna take this heavy research, we’re gonna analyze it, we’re gonna make sense of it. And then we’re gonna explain to you what it was actually trying to say.”
Nathan: Gotcha. And this content, is it behind some sort of payroll?
Sol: Yeah, so the content is actually just a PDF or an audio or an e-pub. That’s it. So we have, like, 2500, 2600, 2700 people paying us 30 bucks a month or…well, sometimes there’s a sale price, right? That are, yeah, paying for access to this information. The other thing we’ve done to make it sweeter, let’s say, is if you are a professional in the health industry, you need something called CEUs, continuing education units. And for example, if you’re a registered dietitian in the states, you need 75 hours of credits every 5 years. And so our “Research Digest” is approved with almost every training organization and registered dietitian organization to go towards their professional development. So there’s an extra reason or impetus for them to stay with it, because not only are they being educated, they also know it’s a source of credits that they can then redeem as a health professional themselves.
Nathan: That’s really, really smart. That’s impressive, dude.
Sol: Thank you.
Nathan: So tell me about the sales process when you’re selling any of the three products, because people will find that interesting.
Sol: Right. So the number one thing always is you wanna segment your audience, right? I mean, I’m gonna figure out your audience already knows how important email lists are and sequences and then all that kinda stuff. So the number one important thing that I find that people miss is segmentation. And one of the best places to segment is after someone opts in. It blows my mind how many people waste their welcome…or sorry, their thank-you page and their welcome email. How many people blow it? The moment someone opts into your email list, that is when they’re most prime to learn more about what you’re gonna do. So at that time, you’re gonna sell them something. You hook them into something deeper.
I know someone who does really well with a webinar opt-in after someone opts in. Or you ask them to segment themselves. You go, “Hey listen, what kind of…” in our case, we go, “Hey, are you just interested in health? Are you really serious about health? Or are you a professional?” So if you and I were having a conversation, you might be just someone who’s interested in health and I might be someone who’s serious in health. And let’s say, you know, we have a registered dietitian friend, and he’d be like, “I am a health professional.” So that segmentation is the key, I feel, to everything we do. And the same thing, when we send out our welcome email after you opt in, we go, “Hey,” we explain why we’re awesome again, you know, “We’ve been this big and we do this and this and this. By the way, you know, why is it you’re interested in health so we can make sure that the subsequent emails or information we send you are pertinent to your interests. And so the moment they segment themselves, we know, “Oh, this person’s a professional. We should sell him the ‘Research Digest.'”
And if someone else and she comes and she says, “You know what, I’m just generally interested in health.” We’re like, “We’re never gonna sell her the ‘Research Digest,’ because she’s gonna think, ‘Why the hell would I spend $30 a month for this nutritional research?'” So I think that’s the biggest thing in terms of the sales process is just if you can segment them, then all really the sales process is then is how do you make something sound like they need it, right? That’s what you’re doing, right? You’re solving their problem. And so that’s just like with one of those…it’s almost like an art, but really, we’re trying to sell our “Research Digest,” right? Our subscription. We talk about, you know, the media, how it abuses information. We talk about how clients come to us and they wanna know more and they’re scared. We can talk about how supplement companies misrepresent research. And then we’re like, “We are your solution.” Right? And we talk about how hard it is to read research.
We actually have published a study guide, and a lot of people after reading that study guide, they buy our products, because they go, like, they literally think, “Holy shit, I don’t have the brain power or I don’t have the time to do all this research,” right? Who’s got the time to do all of that? So that’s really all the sales process is, is segment them into what they’re interests are relative to what you’re selling, offer them the solution to that problem that they have as that specific segment. And then voila, sell your product to them.
The other thing I would add is people are too afraid to sell, but I find that ridiculous, because listen, if you’re working hard and you’re stuff is amazing, you should be happy to sell. You should feel confident in selling your stuff. So we are not shy about selling it. You know, we’ll mention it in a few emails and originally how it’s a solution, then we’ll hit them over the head and say, “This is the actual solution.” Then we may throw them into a webinar or we may do, like, you know…we do a student discount. We offer 50% off to students too. So we do eventually, like, try other things, let’s say, to sell them. But I think the biggest key to all of this is segment them so you can sell them something.
Nathan: And you know what they want and what their problem is.
Nathan: Yeah, like if you segment someone as a professional, you know that their problem is relative professional, right? You know that the Stack Guides, which are a step-by-step, like, instructions for beginners, won’t really apply to them. Will we mention it? Sure. Will we push it hard on them? Not really. Right? Our lifetime value of someone who signs up for the “Research Digest” I think is, like, $600, $700, right? So it’s a lot more profitable for us to say, “Hey listen, this is the thing that you need to solve your problem.” At the same time, we love sending people to our site because when they see the content on our site, when they see how deeply we’ve investigated and how, like, serious we are and how, let’s say, unbiased we are, they’re much more likely to buy.
Like, our website is basically our brochure, and a brochure with an insane amount of information. I think we’re, like, two million words written now, maybe two and a half by now. So it is our best way of selling something, as being like, “Look at our research. This is why you can trust us.”
Nathan: Gotcha. And I’m really curious now, what does your team look like?
Sol: In terms of where they are or how I hired, or everything?
Nathan: Yeah. I know we need to work towards wrapping up, so maybe if you could just share who’s your team, what are their roles. Just kinda operation side, out of curiosity of how you’re running this, because it sounds like a pretty well-run machine, essentially.
Sol: So my viewpoint on teams and employees is as long as everyone does their job, that’s awesome. So, for example, Kamal, who runs Examine.com, he had been running it for twos years before I actually met him. I met him in San Francisco just earlier this year, and even more funny was we actually spoke twice at the same conference. Once, he left before I arrived, and one, I left before he arrived. So we had never actually met until just six months ago. Yeah, I don’t even care if my employees outsource their work to someone else as long as the work is good.
So in terms of operations, basically, it’s worked out really well. My co-founder, he is this huge nerd who just loves research. Like, as long as we leave him alone from everything else but research, he is incredibly happy. So we’ve got him and we basically just keep him for research purposes. We have Kamal who runs it, who has extensive education in both the business and research side of it. So he’s kind of why he’s in charge. And then we have a director of operations who’s kind of, she’s in charge of making sure everything runs smoothly. And then we have our guy in charge of tech. That’s kind of how our overall structure is. And then, of course, we’ve got researchers and all that that interact with different people.
But I would say those four people are the core team. We have our head of research, my co-founder, we have Kamal who heads the company, who runs it, we have director of operations who makes sure everything runs smoothly, and then have our, you know, director of technology who makes sure the web development and all the bugs and all those headaches are all taken care of. Everything we’ve done, everything we do is custom developed. It’s not built on WordPress, it’s not built on Shopify, or anything like that. It’s all been custom-coded from day one.
Nathan: Interesting. And you have a big content team, or mainly contractors?
Sol: So we essentially have a lot of contractors. And the reason it so is, research is very, very specialty-focused, right? So we may have someone who’s a specialist in cardiovascular disease. It doesn’t make sense to have him or her on our team the entire time, right? For example, we have a doctor in pharmacy who specializes in psychiatric medicine. And every time we’re worried about a drug-drug interaction in the brain, we need to use him. So would it make sense for having him work 40 hours a week for us? Not at all. But do we need him for maybe 30 hours one week and then 2 hours the next week? Absolutely. So we have a team of, like, 30, 40, 50 contractors we can turn to any time we want. But we do have, like, a core team of, like, I think five researchers from different disciplines. This is very important, right? Like, if you want to have amazing content, you can’t have one voice to it. You need to have multiple people contributing to it so that the overall piece is incredibly well-rounded.
So yeah, I’d say we have, like, 5, 6 researchers who are general purpose and then, like, 30 to 50 contractors that we use on demand.
Nathan: Gotcha. Awesome. All right. Well, dude, I’m loving this conversation. We could talk all day.
Sol: Oh, my pleasure. No kidding.
Nathan: You’re a very, very savvy guy. You’ve shared a lot of gold with our audience. I was going to say, last question, you’ve been doing this online stuff for a very long time. You’ve been an entrepreneur/founder for a very long time. Three, you know, action items, and then finish off with the best places people can find you.
Sol: All right. Three action items to get going. Number one, just build it. When I started Examine.com, we didn’t even have a logo. So just get started. Number two, focus on one niche. Like, the more you’re focused, the better you’ll do, because your audience will be very, very specific to what they’re looking for. And three, talk to your customers. And I don’t mean in the cliché sense of do a survey or email them. Pick up the phone and have a conversation with them. Your customers, when they’re actually on the phone, the amount of information they’ll give you is literally 10x what you’ll get off of any email or any survey. So those are the top three things I always tell any entrepreneurs. And really, at the end of the day, if you sum it up, it’s really just kind of a “Just do it” situation. It’s super easy to start. There’s no reason to over-think it. Just make it happen.
In terms of contacting me, I talk about entrepreneurship over on sjo.com. Or I’m a bit active on Facebook. Just search for me, Sol Orwell. I am not on Instagram and I am occasionally on Twitter. But I think Facebook is the best place to say, “Hi.” I’m actually quite ridiculously active on it. I’m ashamed to admit, but such is life. We must admit to it.
Nathan: Awesome. Well look, man, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, dude. It was an absolute pleasure.
Sol: Absolutely my pleasure, my man. Thank you.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Sol Orwell
- Follow Sol Orwell on Twitter
- Connect with Sol Orwell on Linkedin
- Learn more about Sol Orwell
- Checkout Examine.com