What it really takes to succeed with your blog: candid interview with Ben Huber
This post is an interview with a multi-seven figure blogger and business owner, Ben Huber. Ben Humber and his friend and business partner, Jeff Proctor, together founded and run Dollar Sprout and Breaking The One Percent.
This interview is full of golden nuggets because Ben does not hold back and he truly shares everything about his journey to success. This interview will highlight moments of fear, determination, and success. My conversation with Ben is truly an eye-opener for many bloggers out there who want to find success, who want to make blogging their source of income.
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If you want to learn from one of the best in the field who went through the same doubts and struggles as you did or still do, then read this post. Make sure to share it with others to benefit from Ben’s honest and open responses.
Affiliate Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links to products and services. This means that if you click on my link to make a purchase, then I will get a small commission at no extra expense to you. I only align myself with products and services that I use and love. You can read my full disclosure for more details.
Tell me about you. How did you start this blogging journey?
Whoo boy, well, my journey probably started a fair bit differently than most people who get into blogging. I think for most, blogging started as a passion project to write about a topic they enjoy, or as a means for making a little extra money on the side. For Jeff and I, we kind of stumbled upon blogging by total accident. In fact, we had been blogging for the better part of 16 months or so before we even really figured out what we were doing was blogging.
Long story short, Jeff and I developed the entrepreneurial itch during our time in college together but found it difficult to translate our skills into any sort of revenue-generating business (we were biochemistry and biology majors respectively). Jeff made a career jump straight out of school and landed a job with a wealth management firm brokering trades for clients. I went back to nursing school for two years to help land a job that could realistically pay off the $100,000+ in student loan debt I had acquired. Fast forward 2 years and Jeff had started to get a feel for the financial industry, and I began to realize the weight of what $100,000 in debt feels like on a $36,000/year salary. It was then that we got serious about making the jump into entrepreneurship (as a secondary source of income to our 9 to 5s).
You two have a different story from most bloggers out there because there are two of you. Can you tell me how you came to work together?
I am very fortunate in that I happened to be personal friends with someone from the get-go that had a very similar mindset when it came to launching a business. Jeff and I hit things off during our 4 years together on the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad and eventually connected over our shared interest in business and online entrepreneurship.
We had kicked the can back and forth for years over starting something but it always fell to the back burner when we realized we just didn’t have any “good ideas” for getting started. (Hindsight: you don’t need a great idea to actually get started, just get started). After our initial foray into the traditional career scene, we became quickly jaded with working for someone other than ourselves. We don’t have anything against traditional jobs and the stability they provide, I actually liked my career path and I think Jeff too would have carved out a space he enjoyed in his area, but we both craved the flexibility and scalability that perceivedly came with being a business owner.
It was from there that Jeff and I decided we were going to finally start a stock-analysis membership site where we charged a readership-fee for access to insight on specific stocks we were following (much like Morningstar or Seeking Alpha). Jeff brought his familiarity with the industry [to the table] and I brought the technical mindset that I had gained from past side hustles (selling computer memory wholesale, building and maintaining websites, and the experience I had with a primitive hosting company I helped with in college).
Do you divide the work to be done? Assign specific tasks to one of you and some to the other?
We have a rather odd relationship when it comes to delineating tasks. The “great” thing about online business, in a sense, is that there’s literally a never-ending list of tasks to be done (because of the ever-changing landscape that is the Internet). Perhaps a little surprising to some, Jeff and I have almost no system as to whom works on what. That said, after over a decade of living and working together, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses extremely well.
If and when a task falls onto our lap, about 99% of the time it becomes self-evident who will undertake it. Usually, we won’t even have to talk about it because it’s just assumed the other is going to take it on. In the 1% gray area, we’ll typically just communicate with one another, see who’s schedule looks full, and then just assign it to the other. It’s a very give and take a relationship that has worked out well in that we’re very careful to take into consideration each other’s workload.
What inspired you to start a blog?
Nothing and no one. Haha. Like I had previously alluded to, Jeff and I had been “blogging” for about 18 months before we ever really knew what blogging was. We were coming home from our traditional jobs each day and creating content on our GoDaddy hosted, page-builder themed, “blog” that most closely resembled a daily summary of what had transpired in the stock markets that day, along with the custom stock analysis we were putting out for the specific companies we were following.
Now, to be fair, I had advised Jeff to not really worry about monetization for the first 12 months as we built out a library of content. I think we realized at the time that there was going to be a long period of time where we put in a ton of work with very little to no return, but what we didn’t fully realize is that you needed to have a plan in place to actually market the content you were creating (so that the payday did eventually come). Well, when that 12 months came and went, we “had built it, but they did not come.”
In a somewhat scary realization, we had spent 12 months working, but we were not really any better off than the day we started (other than we had a lot of content that no one was reading). It was then that we sort of realized that we needed to allocate a lot more time to content marketing vs. just creation. That epiphany led us to growing our presence of more social platforms/starting to learn about SEO and eventually that resulted in us stumbling upon this bizarre (or bizarre to us) platform named Pinterest.
After spending a few weeks in early 2017 learning about this weird image search engine, we began to realize there was this whole little ecosystem of people called “bloggers” doing similar stuff to us, and better yet, that you could meet and network with them in little Facebook communities. You can imagine our shock when we realized (after 18 months of operating in a hole) that there were hundreds (really thousands) of other bloggers doing the same thing we were in various niches all around the world. It was then we realized that we were, in fact, bloggers.
What was your goal when you first started?
Our goal when we first started was, by far, the most stable thing about this entire process. We wanted to be business owners. Not necessarily bloggers, but that ended up becoming the path of least resistance to us (as we lacked the funding and knowledge required to truly start a brick and mortar business).
Now, nearly 5 years later, it still doesn’t really feel right referring to ourselves as business owners (the abstract web has a funny way of doing that), but with 5 FTEs and nearly a dozen other contractors helping us out, I suppose it’s finally safe to use the term [business owners] to generalize what it is we’re doing.
How soon after starting your blog did you start to monetize?
Oh, this hurts. Let’s not talk about that. Haha. But in all seriousness, we didn’t start to really try and monetize till about a year in. This was by design because it was a part of our initial plan and we knew none the better. We were going to build a library of impressive stock market analysis for a year, highlight the transparency of our trading process, and shock people with our amazing results — or at least, that was the plan.
The truth was that even if we had accomplished all of that, the internet is a noisy place and we probably still would have had a hard time sticking out in the absence of a great marketing strategy. By the 18th-month mark, we had made a grand total of $29 selling a hodgepodge of Ebooks and membership packages. In the 19th month, we found affiliate marketing, incorporated it into our content, had a piece of content that got a few thousand visitors from Pinterest and we made a tad over $700. This was a large pivot moment for us because we had finally stumbled upon something that was working and made the conscious decision to incorporate more, similar content into our content marketing strategy. After 5 months of doing that, we had our first $5,000 (in revenue) month and began to realize that our personal finance content was far out-performing our individual stock analysis. We made a decision to refocus our entire website on that sort of content and never looked back.
What’s your biggest source of income when monetizing your blog?
Our biggest source of income was, and always has been, affiliate marketing. When we first got started trying to monetize our website(s), we realized creating and marketing a digital product was quite the hurdle. For starters, you needed the expertise/knowledge to create something — neither of which we really had — and email marketing/paid advertising were still totally foreign concepts to us, making it harder to get excited about spending a fair amount of time creating and launching a product (only to watch it flop). That’s obviously an overgeneralized summary of creating products and product launches (be them physical or digital), but it was definitely how we felt at the time.
I highly recommend Product Perfection online course (affiliate) for helping you come up with product ideas, creation, pricing, selling and much more. This course is a must-have for anyone to wants to create and sell their own digital products.
On the other hand, affiliate marketing came super easy. We were able to quickly and easily capitalize on others’ creativity by leveraging other companies’ products; sales then became a much more solvable puzzle because all we needed to do was show people why certain products were the legitimate answer to their problem. We realized that refining your messaging and creating helpful content led to this natural progression of identifying a problem and then helping a reader find the solution that was best for them. If you pull off the synergy correctly, you get to truly help solve your reader’s problems while simultaneously helping the advertisers you are promoting.
If you want to learn how to do affiliate marketing or improve on what you already know, then check out the Affiliate Marketing Roadmap course here (affiliate).
At what point did you feel that you created a real business that could provide you with financial security over working for someone else?
This is an interesting one mostly because I still rhetorically ask myself this question each and every day. Most mornings it still does not feel like my own boss — nor does it feel like I’ve created a real business. I think that stems from the fact that many of my responsibilities, per se, haven’t changed much since I first got started blogging. I still create and market content in the same way that nearly all blogger entrepreneurs do. The biggest difference is the added work/responsibility of taking on employees. In that sense, there’s the added component of effective delineation of labor, a list of administrative-oriented tasks, and the creation of systems that allows a fully remote team to operate independently (and effectively). All of that is super challenging when you throw it on top of the normal content creation process.
As far as financial security is concerned, I would say the biggest threshold that Jeff and I set and passed was generating enough income from our blog that we could replace our 9 to 5 income (and still have some leftover cash on hand to scale the business). We had set a loosely defined goal of $15,000 in monthly revenue for 2 consecutive quarters to make the jump. Ultimately, there’s a ton of risk associated with making the jump from steady employment to the variability of a fully online business so we tried to make an educated guess as to what point we could “safely” do it.
caught a break created our own breaks and hurdled the revenue goal we had set. It made leaving my safe career (as a fairly high-earning RN by the end of it) a lot easier to stomach and allowed for a substantially increased allocation of time to work on our side (and now primary) hustle.
Why did you decide to file for an LLC for your business?
This was actually the easiest part of the process for us. Virginia, the state we both live in, makes it really easy to file articles of incorporation. It’s also pretty affordable at just $100 to formally file the LLC. We actually filed for ours the day we started our business venture. We thought we were being savvy trying to do things the right way from the get-go (which isn’t a bad attitude to have), we were just a little naive.
The biggest hurdle for us was knowing what actually belongs in an operating agreement since there were 2 people involved in the business. For better or worse, we started with a (poorly) written template contract we probably found on the web somewhere and modified it to fit our presumed needs. The danger in this is the fact that our templated contract was woefully insufficient in actually determining how an LLC should be dissolved or sold in the case of something happening.
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A more robust template or customized solution probably should have been used, but we were facing the plight that many entrepreneurs did when they first start out: you’re bootstrapped, have very little cash to work with, and the paid options for creating a fully custom solution can be pricey. Going the Google route for finding legitimate legal protection for your business was/and remains perhaps not the best route for fully protecting your IP and safeguarding your share of an online business.
To what do you attribute your success in a relatively short period of time?
Persistence, 100%. I think one of the pieces of truth that often gets left out of blogging advice is that there needs to be an understanding that you’re going to do hundreds if not thousands of hours of work at well below whatever your market rate is worth. If you’re a professional writer, you’ll make $0 for hundreds of hours worth of work to start. If you’re an RN like myself, you’re going to make $0 for hundreds of hours worth of work to start.
The premise here is that you’re laying the foundation for a snowball’s impact down the road. We worked diligently for almost 24 months before there was really any financial reward. It was a labor of love in the sense that we truly enjoyed what we were doing, but of course, we were frustrated in the lack of traction we were getting from a traffic and revenue perspective (especially since we started out with a pure business mindset).
More practically speaking, a lot of our success can easily be attributed to honing our craft in 1-2 areas instead of being in half a dozen or more at once. I constantly suggest to bloggers that are having a hard time getting any traction to spend the vast majority of their time doubling down on the one thing that is moving their blog forward at the moment. YouTube? Pinterest? Paid acquisition? SEO? Figure out what is working for you and become a literal self-taught expert in it.
Debbie Gartner gets over half a million page-views a month and most is due to organic traffic from Google. She explains SEO in a simple and easy to understand terms. Get her SEO Books bundle (affiliate) and you’ll be on your way understanding Google and getting traffic from it.
Your waking moments outside of life responsibilities and actual content creation should go into mastering a marketing platform. It’s so easy to suffer from shiny object syndrome when you see what is working for other content creators. Figure out where your strengths are — where you’re currently getting success/reaching your audience easiest — and go all-in on learning how to market that platform. You’ll reach your ideal reader in larger numbers than ever before, and it makes remarketing to them/similar audience members on other platforms/channels a 100x easier.
We mastered Pinterest and spent the better part of 12 months leveraging the visual search engine to strategically accelerate our organic search gains. We’d take one piece of content at a time, focus on full social immersion, and indirectly, that engagement led to substantially accelerated organic gains (social shares aren’t necessarily a search ranking factor, but flooding a page with organic social traffic allows Google and other search entities to see how users are interacting with a particular URL (and collect all sorts of juicy behavior KPIs)).
Have you experienced burnout as bloggers and how did you deal with it?
Yes, 1000% yes. We’re no more immune to blogger burnout than any other content creator. If anything, I would say Jeff and I are more susceptible to it just because of the sheer amount of time we spent frontloading our blog work. Jeff and I started our blog from a uniquely advantageous position — we were both single, literally lived together, and could spend virtually unlimited time on the site outside of our 9 to 5s. This was an immense help because we were able to throw almost full-time hours at our side project on top of our traditional jobs; a stark difference when compared to the many people that only have a few hours to spare each week on a blogging side hustle.
We deal with it in the best way we know how (and how we’ve been taught from other workaholic entrepreneurs): frequent breaks during the day, a (more) strict schedule, and taking needed time off — fully away from electronic devices.
To be honest, I still haven’t fully adopted those above practices, but I have gotten infinitely better at setting limits than I was before. Generally speaking, I’ll actually take weekends off (which never happened before), I tend to greatly reduce work output starting around 5 pm (to spend more time with my wife), and I try to restrict work-related activities to only ultra-important things that occur outside of those loosely defined hours.
Fortunately, I have a super supportive partner who understands that sometimes things just “pop up” outside of traditional working hours (especially when you have several full-time employees with various needs/questions that arise).
What’s your top productivity tip?
This one might be pretty unpopular but my top productivity tip is to tune out outside distractions. I think this is something that my generation (millennials) is particularly bad about. We work in a culture where it has become commonplace to interact with several tech-related devices while simultaneously trying to accomplish work. Music streaming, texting, the guilty pleasure of having 26 random browser tabs open, you name it — we’ve gotten really bad about turning everything else off and putting in good work. (This isn’t a blanket indictment of everyone my age, but then again it kind of is, haha.)
I find I am absolutely the most productive when I have a quiet environment to just hammer things out. For some, that may require frequent breaks to adjust, but I would highly suggest giving it a try. Obviously, there’s no guarantee it will work for everyone but I do think that some personalities can thrive under those conditions (I’m super introverted for what it’s worth). If you’re looking for at least some noise to get the creative juices flowing, throw on some lyricless classical music. (I am not even a fan of classical music, but the research that shows that your inner-Beethoven jamming out can stimulate the production of neurotransmitters (like Dopamine), which can increase mood and help with focus, and that really helps me).
Where do you think new and intermediary bloggers should concentrate their efforts for growth?
Ah, this is a great question. I alluded to this earlier but I think there are two viable paths for bloggers to really find their way forward from a noisy landscape.
- Highlight the most unique thing about you. If you’re extroverted, this may come easily, but even as an introvert it’s becoming increasingly necessary, in my opinion, to tie in your personal experiences into the content creation process. Visual content (video, YouTube, Snapchat, Tik Tok, whatever) — find a way to get your personal story out there.
- If you don’t necessarily feel comfortable exposing yourself, again, focus on doubling down on the component of your blogging biz that is producing results. If you want a 30% revenue increase, find a way to pour 30% more time into the marketing strategy that is working best for you. This, of course, assumes you have a rock-solid content strategy in place (there’s no wasted time in terms of creating content that falls on deaf ears). If you don’t have a defined purpose for each piece of content you’re creating yet, go back to the drawing board and start there first. Learn about the “types” of content, and once you’ve planned out what you’re going to write about, it allows you to focus your time on marketing content that you know already has a high ceiling in terms of audience-building and/or revenue generation.
- What advice do you have for new bloggers to increase their traffic?
I think that growth and traffic are pretty intimately tied together, so addressing growth issues generally has a super positive impact on traffic plateaus. That said, there are certain platforms that allow for audience building faster than others. Despite algorithmic updates that have made acquiring traffic more difficult, Pinterest still remains one of the more favorable environments for getting rather large amounts of traffic in both short and long time frames. Be it the virality associated with a fresh piece of content, or a pin ranking well for a high-volume search query, both avenues can lead to very large amounts of traffic relative to just about any other social (or search-based) platform.
There are numerous low-cost, quality Pinterest courses available to bloggers (think <$100) that provide an amazing roadmap to getting started with the platform.
For manual pinning and excellent interest strategies I highly recommend checking out Carly Campbell’s Pinteresting Strategies course (affiliate). This is an excellent course at a super affordable price.
Leveraging organic social is by far the lowest difficulty item for increasing traffic, but SEO is also fairly intuitive and you don’t need super secret or intimate knowledge of it to get very good traffic. You do, however, need to put in 8-12 months of pretty solid work to start seeing dividends (unless you already have a really established blog).
A paid acquisition can also be super lucrative (and there’s a limitless audience for growing your audience that way), but it’s an advanced skill and something I’d hold off on until you’re well-versed in media buying.
One closing tip I do have from a traffic acquisition standpoint is to not miss out on opportunities to create similar content to what you have that is already successful. There are probably dozens of opportunities for spin-off content in areas that you already know are primed for success so definitely don’t miss an opportunity to write on something you know is likely to perform well.
Easy SEO Revamp (affiliate) by Debbie Gartner teaches you how to capitalize on traffic and rankings based on your Google Search Console results (free tool). This course teaches a similar method to what Ben is suggesting above.
I hope many of you took advantage of this interview and took some notes from Ben and his experiences. As you see, he did not try to cut corners or hide essential information. A log of blogging success is in trial and error. However, knowing where to start, how to do things right from the beginning will save you time, energy and effort. Why learn from your own mistakes when you can learn from others’ mistakes?
Building a successful and profitable blog is not an overnight task. Don’t be fooled by the many “success” stories out there who try to portray the process as fast and simple. It’s anything but. From reliable and trustworthy sources like Ben here, as well as previous interviews with Tracie Fobes and Debbie Gartner, you know that you can make great money from your blog, but it requires patience, strategy, and commitment.
I hope you loved this incredible interview as much as I did, and found it valuable.
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Mariam, Ben, and Jeff,
What a great article! I found it refreshing that you had good luck with affiliate marketing, too. I am doing that, but seem to have a disconnect between what people resonate with and what I’m offering (that appears to be aligned with my niche.)
Ben and Jeff – Go Hokies! I was at VT, WUVT, Highty Tighties, etc and glad to see alums making a splash in the world.
Mariam – keep up the great content!
Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I wish you good luck with your business and efforts to grow it. Affiliate marketing doesn’t come easy for me either, and it’s a constant testing process to see what works and what doesn’t for my audience.