Gael’s Notes: If you have been following us for a while, you may have noticed Perrin has been authoring most of the blog posts for a few months but hasn’t had a proper introduction.
He has been helping on the blog side while I have been focusing on growing the Business and member area side of Authority Hacker and growing our other authority sites.
I am far from giving up on blogging though and hope to have more time for it next year (I am still on the podcast though)
If you followed Niche Pursuits in the past, you’ve probably heard of Perrin, but if you have not, here is a quick introduction of how he went from someone just “dreaming” of making money online to making some, to losing everything and to rebuilding it all the right way.
Perrin’s one of those people who constantly innovates on ‘classic’ marketing tactics, which has made it really fun to work with him–and in many cases to coach him–as we grow our sites alongside each other, swapping strategies and creating new techniques along the way.
I’m happy to say his authority site is doing well and he is writing for us by choice and not because he needs the money anymore (not that we don’t pay him!).
He now makes around $8,000/month from a site he started just 20 months ago.
Sit back and enjoy his story!
$97… that’s all I got for it.
It was basically my only form of entertainment: my Xbox 360.
But I needed a job. Bad. The problem was that my wardrobe was 100% t-shirts and jeans. I needed a job, but before I could even book interviews, I need something to wear.
And I was dead broke…
So I did the only thing I could: I sold my Xbox to a goofy 10-year-old kid on craigslist. It was my only option. I had $35 in my bank account, there was no way to pay rent next month, and I absolutely needed to buy a suit for job interviews.
I sold my baby for $97, took the bus downtown, walked two more miles to H&M, and bought the cheapest suit I could find.
Hi. I’m Perrin. It’s 2012, and I’ve just finished a graduate degree in perhaps the single most useless academic field: poetry.
I’ve been tossed into the real world, and I have no idea what I’m doing. I have a bit of writing experience, but that’s pretty much it.
And I’m embarrassed by how naive I’ve been, realizing now companies aren’t exactly rushing to hire poets.
Money’s getting tight.
I sell my Xbox 360 to buy a crappy suit for job interviews.
And then I start pounding pavement–sending out resumes by the dozen, applying to jobs for which I’m not even remotely qualified.
One of the few places to even call me back is a big, global consulting firm.
One interview. Two interviews. Five interviews and one massive writing test later…
…and I miraculously have a job. And not just any job.
A “good” job: something other than a barista. I’m a communications and change management consultant. I’ve got a salary. I’ve got benefits. I get to go on business trips. My clients are Fortune 500 companies.
Everyone is proud of me. My mom, meaning well but eternally tactless said, “I never thought you’d land such a good job!”
I even remember getting stoked about staying in a fancy hotel on my first business trip.
I really should have been happy.
But I wasn’t.
It took about three months of trying to convince myself my job was awesome to realize that I needed to get out of there. Pronto.
I just… hated it.
I hated the “game” of corporate culture. I hated kissing ass. I hated pointless meetings. I hated crazy, out-of-touch, super-rich executive clients. I hated trying to figure out who was throwing me under the bus.
And it certainly didn’t help that most of the time the person throwing me under the bus was my boss.
If you’ve seen the devil wears Prada, she’s that kind of person.
We had this one client (I can’t share the company, but you’ve heard of them; they’re a Fortune 500 company and a major brand in the states). I spent months creating a presentation for their employees. I absolutely perfected it. It was simple, clear, elegant, professional. And it did exactly what they wanted.
I handed it in to my boss, and she transformed it into the biggest, most convoluted, typo-riddled, grammatically incorrect turd of a PowerPoint I’d ever seen go out the door.
I had a brief, shining moment of satisfaction when the clients edits came back: they took out everything she’d done and asked for the version I’d created.
That lasted about 30 seconds…
…before I was accidentally copied on an email from my boss to the client that said, “Sorry about that. Perrin wrote the parts you didn’t like, and he’s new here.”
In that moment, I realized why corporate culture was so toxic: people didn’t own their jobs, so to keep their jobs, folks who might have otherwise been nice behaved like complete sociopaths. I hated it.
Most of all, though, I hated having no stake in what I was creating.
So three months in, I started planning my escape.
I used my lunch breaks and commutes to pound through business books. I devoured everything I could on entrepreneurship. I was reading multiple books a week.
When I ran out of books (at some point, you realize lots of the business books out there say pretty much the same stuff), I turned to blogs. And podcasts. And YouTube channels.
Somewhere along the way, I came across this funny little acronym: SEO.
Seeing the Power of SEO…
Up until then, I’d been thinking about entrepreneurship like a job. A better job–one that would give me the freedom to more or less do what I wanted instead of busting my ass to make faceless corporate executives even richer–but a job nonetheless.
The people who were winning at SEO, however, had something I’d honestly thought was a mirage: passive income.
And, really, when you stumble across the likes of, say, Pat Flynn’s (mostly passive) income reports when you’re grinding through 12 soul-sucking hours in a cubicle every day, it’s hard not to be intoxicated.
I was hooked.
So I narrowed my obsession for entrepreneurship into an obsession for SEO. I wanted to chase the unicorn of passive income.
Of course, I had no idea what I was doing.
So I failed pretty spectacularly.
Falling in Love with Failure…
I think I created four different websites over the course of about a year: a gaming website, a poetry website, a one-page dating website, and a nursing certification website.
I had no real direction. My sites were just a hodgepodge of different tactics I was reading about.
The dating website actually made $18.50 from two eBook sales, but everything else? Zero.
A year’s worth of work for a big fat donut.
In traditional terms, that’s a fairly significant negative ROI. I’d essentially put in hundreds (maybe even thousands) of hours of work for no compensation.
…without tooting my own horn, here’s what I think sets me apart from a lot of people, and I’ve seen this quality in the best entrepreneurs I’ve come to call friends over the years: I just… love failing.
I have friends who hate it. Some of the most talented people I know hold themselves back because they can’t stand not succeeding.
For whatever reason, my brain operates differently.
In my head, if I know there are 100 possible ways to reach some goal, every failure represents a step closer to the finish line. In other words, if I try something and it doesn’t work, I now have only 99 steps to go instead of 100.
It’s not a strike against my character. It’s an investment.
So there I was, slave to my cubicle, happily throwing all kinds of sh*t at the proverbial wall, checking off the stuff that didn’t work, inch-by-inch digging my way toward something that would stick.
And I probably would have done that for another 5 years if I hadn’t met Spencer Haws.
The Multiplying Power of a Mentor…
Back in 2013, I was reading a bunch of blogs, but one of my favorites was Niche Pursuits, which was run by Spencer Haws, and one of the things that really drew me to Niche Pursuits was that Spencer was doing 100% transparent case studies.
He was starting sites from scratch, building them until they were profitable, and showing exactly what he was doing along the way.
So you can imagine my excitement when I saw this…
I was so stoked. I applied immediately.
And through a combination of sheer luck and the will of the masses, I was chosen as the student for Spencer’s Niche Site Project #2.
Over the next couple of months, Spencer helped me build a site and corrected a lot of the little stuff I was doing wrong. The difference in learning speed between trial-and-error and having an actual mentor look over your shoulder and guide you through the process was… insane.
I ended up creating apennyshaved.com, a site that reviewed shaving gear.
I wrote most of the content myself, and we used something that was all the rage back then: Private Blog Networks (PBNs).
PBNs, if you don’t know, are a way to trick Google. Instead of going out and actually marketing your site to other bloggers, you buy expired domains (sites that used to be alive and active), set up fake sites, and link back to your “money” site. It simulates popularity. It simulates marketing. And in the eyes of Google, it’s a gigantic no-no.
Of course, at that point, I was just learning, so I didn’t really understand the risk.
But honestly, it was easy. The site only had about 30 articles on it, and I didn’t do any link building. I just ordered links from a service that owned a massive PBN.
Learning SEO is pretty difficult, but with the basics under my belt, building the site really did seem rather… easy (…if this reminds you of some heavy-handed foreshadowing in a horror novel, you’re not imagining it).
Not too long after that, I earned what I consider to be my first real dollar online.
I really can’t explain the absolute emotional rollercoaster of owning a site that was finally making money after over a year and hundreds of hours of failing.
Traffic just kept going up…
I literally screamed and did a Tiger Woods-esque fist pump when I made my first dollar.
The next month, I broke $100. Then $600. Then I made something like $1,300 around Christmas time. Before I knew it, my dinky little shaving site was making $4,000+ per month.
Little did I know… it wouldn’t last for long…
How Grey Hat Techniques Cost Me My Business…
When I was building aPennyShaved, I really didn’t know how much I didn’t know.
I don’t really even think I knew I was a “grey hat.” All the “SEOs” I knew back then–and I mean everyone--were using PBNs. Of course, there was a whole community out there doing amazing white hat SEO (these guys have been around as long as the black hats and the grey hats).
But I wasn’t rubbing elbows with those folks and their tactics seemed to only work for big brands with large budgets and a household name.
Everyone in my circles was using PBNs. They were easy. They were links on demand. Google will never find them if you just hide them properly, bro. White hat is hard anyway. It’s not worth the time.
If you poke around the blog posts from Niche Site Project 2, you can even see me defending PBNs in a couple of places.
But when I woke up on the morning of September 18, 2014, I had to eat my words…
And mine wasn’t the only site that went down. Spencer and I had been building and buying a bunch of sites. I was managing a portfolio of web properties that was approaching the 5-figure/mo mark.
They were all using PBNs, so all of them tanked. Not just one, but two businesses destroyed overnight. Here’s Spencer’s epic rage-post about it.
I was devastated.
I couldn’t eat. Couldn’t sleep.
If making progress feels incredible, losing what you built feels 10x worst than that.
The next few months are a bit of a blur. I tried to get the penalty removed. Didn’t work. I tried to buy a site in the beauty niche for $500 because the thought of rebuilding was just… painful. I figured if I bought an aged domain and added onto it, I could skip the whole building links thing.
But that didn’t work either. I honestly don’t know why it didn’t work. I bought an established site with what looked like a “clean” link profile and started adding great content targeting easy keywords. And… nada. That’s what was so frustrating. You just never know what’s been done to a site and/or what Google thinks of it.
I was in limbo…
It was around that time I started really becoming friends with Gael, who, in no uncertain terms (you know what I mean if you know him), encouraged me to grow a pair and start a new site. And by that, I mean he saw how frustrated I was and just started listing off niches.
Hey that didn’t sound half bad. In fact, I’d just gotten my very first dog. I could get into that.
Eventually, around the end of the year, I decided it was time to build something new. Only this time, I was going to do it the right way.
Because here’s the thing…
No matter how successful you are in the short-term, restarting from scratch sucks. I realized that if i hadn’t have had to waste all this time restarting, I’d be about $24,000 richer ($4,000/mo x 6 months).
I was ready to go.
Gael’s Notes: I don’t want to add too many notes in this post because it’s Perrin’s story.
BUT I’d like to take the opportunity of the last sentence to explain why even IF grey hat sites may grow a bit faster than white hat sites (although I challenge you to build 5 PBN sites daily, the rate at which we acquire links these days with minimal outreach)
It’s still a bad financial operation in most cases to ever have to start from scratch if you are considering doing this as your main income source and in the long run.
Let’s take a hypothetical example of a small grey hat site growing over time, hypothesise a traffic drop due to a penguin update, PBN deindex or any other reason for a drop and look at the total earnings over 21 months.
Of course that site may drop at month 15 or 20 or 35 but usually, grey hat sites experience a drop at “some” point.
Now let’s imagine a white hat authority site growing at almost half the speed but experiencing no dropout.
Here is what the numbers look like after 21 months:
The site is up $9,000 in earnings despite the much slower growth and the difference will grow exponentially if the growth curve is the same and the reset rate also stays the same on the grey hat side (and that’s not counting the MUCH higher costs of running grey hat, profit is probably double on the white hat site).
So if you want to get rich, don’t cut corners, even if the monthly numbers take a while to ramp up, you will be much better off 24 months in This what happened to Perrin.
Now, back to the story!
Destroying My Limiting Beliefs & Accumulating Small Wins
I met Gael because we had him on the Niche Pursuits podcast.
And believe me, we would get dozens of people asking to be on that podcast every week. We turned almost everyone down–first, because Spencer just didn’t like podcasting, and second, because most people are just pseudo-experts peddling crappy products.
It was obvious to me even then that Gael and Mark were an entirely different breed of marketer.
They were among the few SEOs I’d ever met who were both independent site builders and doing white hat SEO at scale.
Up until that first conversation, I’d assumed this was impossible. Everyone said it was. White hat SEO was supposed to be something that required resources so immense only major brands could afford it.
Prospecting. Pitching guest posts. Skyscraper technique. It might as well have been in Russian.
Gael and Mark were the first people to show me–through their public case study, HealthAmbition.com–that you could be a highly successful white hat independent site builder.
And it was kind of a kick in the butt. Seeing these two guys actually doing it made me want to dedicate myself to completely mastering independent site building and all the skills that went along with it.
I wanted to become a true expert in my field. I wanted a new site. And I wanted something big.
Of course, I started with what I knew. And what I knew was building Amazon affiliate sites.
I researched markets that were:
- Big and had high revenue ceilings
- Had obvious “pockets” of low-competition keywords
- Had plenty products to recommend
- Would be fun for me
I found one I thought was big, fun, and in which I could reasonably compete.
In the following two months (January – February of 2015), I wrote articles for my new site basically every night and every weekend. It consumed almost 100% of my free time. In total, I wrote about 60,000 words before I finally decided I’d go insane if I didn’t outsource at least some of the writing.
Most of the articles were the standard “Best X…” articles, very similar to the kind of thing we now publish on Health Ambition (we publish lots of stuff, but this is one small article type).
Who am I kidding.
All of the articles were in exactly that format (I’m going to tell you why this was bad and short-sighted in a second, but in the beginning of this site, I was extremely profit-driven).
At the end of two months, I had 76 articles on my site, and basically all of them were affiliate articles.
I figured it was finally time to do what I’d been putting off for the last two years: build some damn links.
A Small Win: Building My First White Hat Link
My primary limiting belief at that point was that white hat SEO was too much work.
And remember, I was essentially starting from zero, so before I worried about scaling or building systems or any of the other stuff the “big guys” were doing, I needed to prove to myself that white hat link building was possible.
And believe me: I needed that win. I needed to know that white hat link building was possible for my site.
I also had no idea where to start.
So, I essentially threw a dart at the map. I just picked a tactic and gave it a try.
For me, it was infographic marketing. I really chose this tactic because I personally like infographics, and I’ve personally accepted infographic pitches for my own sites. I felt like if I was saying yes to people, other folks would probably say yes to me.
So, first, I had a great infographic designed by my friend Suzy, and I wrote a killer 4,000-word blog post to go along with it (which, in hindsight, wasn’t strictly necessary, but I think it helped).
After that, I started “prospecting.”
I put that in quotes because it’s light years away from how I prospect now; it was essentially just Googling “[niche] blogs” and taking the first 50 sites I could find.
I found them all by hand, and I researched the contact information manually. I even took the time to follow a few of them on Twitter (not sure if that helped much).
Then, I just reached out to them, letting them know I had an infographic I thought they would like and to ping me if they wanted to see it.
To my utter amazement, about 15 of them said they’d like to see it. And of those 15, eight people agreed to post it on their blog with a link to the original blog post.
I’d built a link. And not just one. Eight.
I had my win. A small win, but a win. Even though my process was really far from efficient, it was still only a couple days of work for eight fantastic–and truly white hat–links.
I still hadn’t tried any other tactics. And I did it all by hand. But it worked.
A Slightly Bigger Win: Turning My New Skill Into a System
So I’d built a link using infographic promotion.
Naturally, I wanted to replicate the process, so I made a few more infographics and launched a few more outreach campaigns. Some worked better than others, but I was slowly nailing down–and tweaking–my process for building white hat links.
For example, I picked up tips like these:
- Short, impersonal emails tended to convert better (people are busy).
- There are enterprise-level outreach tools available for $19 (BuzzStream) that could reduce my outreach time by 10 fold.
- I could prospect twice as fast using advanced Google queries.
If you want more outreach tips I suggest you read this post.
I was picking up steam.
I tried that a few more campaigns with a few more tactics, like guest posting. And when I was confident I understood the processes for several good link building tactics, I started building systems that included a lot of the stuff we now teach in Authority Hacker Pro:
- Creating and identifying link opportunities
- Prospecting at scale
- Outreaching at scale
- Adding content at scale
And most importantly… outsourcing everything.
Of course, there was some failure. Hell, there was a lot of failure.
But this is where being friends with Gael and Mark really paid off.
Because one of the skills that makes Gael and Mark some of the best marketers out there is their ridiculous ability to build systems for literally everything.
And not just systems that work. They build insanely efficient systems that really, truly maximize ROIs. That is essentially what we do inside Authority Hacker PRO: build replicable systems and framework we call Blueprints and give them to the members to copy/paste into their business.
So with Gael’s help, I slowly started scaling up my little operation both in terms of links and content.
Pretty soon, my site was growing, the links were rolling in, and my traffic was picking up momentum.
The best part, though, was that I was getting more links and spending less money than I ever had for any site I’d ever touched, yes, even compared to using PBN’s.
It was incredible.
I was used to buying expired domains for $500 and spending hours setting them up (for one link!). Now, my system was generating multiple links every single day just by turning my system “on” and sending out a few emails.
No expired domains to buy and renew yearly, no hosting accounts to maintain and pay for, no sites to “rebuild” and monitor for up time. Just emailing strategically.
This golden nugget may be the most important lesson of all: the systems I’d learned, tweaked and created cost less AND worked better AND were safer than the “easy” grey hat techniques I’d been using.
I was waking up to what people like Gael and Mark had known for years: white hat SEO is the most powerful version of SEO if you do it strategically and polish your skills.
It wasn’t long before my site looked like this (first 4 months after learning to build links and plugging those tactics into a working system).
I finally had the beginnings of a link building system. I had a content system. And I was seeing growth.
But I was still… just an Amazon niche site.
Aside from being scary (all my revenue was completely dependent on one company), it really highlighted the difference between what I was doing and what real authority sites like Health Ambition were doing.
My Ongoing Win: Growing into an Authority Site
My site was doing well.
I sailed past the $1,000/mo barrier and was gaining momentum. Links were coming easily, and it didn’t take long before I had more traffic than I’d ever had before.
But my site was still just doing one thing: targeting low-competition keywords with strong buying intent so I could rank in Google and make money with Amazon.
It was the one thing I knew how to do. And as awesome as that is, it’s also severely limiting.
I started looking at true authority sites all over, but because we were becoming good friends and I could chat with them any time, I took a serious look at what Gael and Mark were doing with Health Ambition.
The difference was pretty extraordinary.
Whereas I was doing one thing, their business model had tons of strategic, moving parts.
They were getting traffic from:
And they were making money with:
In addition to organic traffic, they owned their social audiences and had an ever-growing email list that also made good money.
If one part of their machine broke, the whole ship didn’t sink. Health Ambition was a diversified, sustainable business and even if Google traffic vanished (unlikely), they could still generate thousands of hits/day to their website with their owned audiences.
My site… wasn’t. And this was a very important realization for me. I wasn’t an authority site.
I was a small, one-dimensional niche site.
Even worse, I realized I could reasonably be included in the ocean of crappy Amazon sites that have flooded the Web in the last few years.
And that lit a fire in my pants.
I didn’t–and still don’t–want to be a niche site builder. I want(ed) to be an entrepreneur.
So I put together a short- and long-term plan to start transitioning my site into a true authority.
Here’s what my short-term plan looked like:
- Stop producing affiliate content
- Write tons of informational content
- Develop at least one other source of traffic
- Add at least one other source of revenue.
And that’s exactly what I did.
I stopped affiliate content completely. Not because I’m against affiliate content or anything; obviously, I’m not. I love it. It makes good money.
But… I wanted to create content that
- Went after higher traffic numbers so I could test monetization tactics and build an email list.
- Actually helped people, and
- Established me as an authority.
So I turned my focus from affiliate content to 100% informational content.
This shift actually produced a lot of interesting experiments, including the discovery of the ROI of short content (read my findings here), and it’s helped my site generate some pretty impressive traffic numbers (more in a bit).
I also started monetizing with display ads by learning from people I met through Authority Hacker–namely, the amazingly skilled Jon Dykstra, who makes $30,000/mo with display ads alone (this was one of the coolest parts of joining the AH Pro community, by the way: it really is full highly, highly successful people).
At first, I was using Adsense, and I was tirelessly optimizing the crap out of everything. It was pretty un-rewarding. I think at its peak, AdSense was making me roughly $450 per month.
As I started talking to other successful webmasters in my market, I learned that most people had dumped AdSense in favor of Media.net.
So I slapped it on my site, started optimizing (with the help of my account manager), and… BOOM. More or less overnight, my Media.net revenue eclipsed my AdSense revenue by five fold.
Finally, I started dabbling in social media traffic.
It’s an experiment that’s not yet done, and I’ll report my findings soon, but suffice it to say that I tested almost 1,000 ads, spent $2,000 and built a Facebook page with 50,000 engaged fans.
WIll it make money? Who knows!
But that’s the fun part: experimenting as I diversify.
And that brings us to today…
It’s pretty humbling to look at those numbers.
I see so much sweat equity in there. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d have a site that would break a million visitors. Definitely makes me feel warm and fuzzy.
Plus it’s already VERY profitable. I spent just short of $20,000 to get to almost $8,000 of monthly earnings in just 20 months so far.
Of course, I reinvest a decent part of that money back into the business but the profit margins are huge.
But I’m not even close to being done.
I’ve got a growing site with some good, established authority and multiple revenue streams. More importantly, I’ve got systems than can drive growth almost–almost–autonomously.
But I certainly haven’t even approached the site’s potential.
I’m a massive market, and there are lots of lots of opportunities–for both traffic and revenue. From here on out, it’s about (1) investing and (2) personal and professional growth.
Personal growth? You bet.
Because the only way for my site to diversify is for me to develop new skills. Maybe it’s eCommerce. Maybe it’s a course. Maybe it’s paid traffic. Maybe it’s Pinterest. Who knows!
I don’t know what’s ahead.
The one thing that’s clear, however, is that the white hat authority model isn’t good because it’s easy. It’s not.
And it’s not good because anyone can do it. Not everyone can.
The white hat authority model is amazing because it’s gives real marketers a good framework to build a set of skills that can–with enough elbow grease, talent, guidance and a little bit of money–create big, sustainable, defensible, real online businesses.
In other words, the journey’s just beginning.