I’m in Breckenridge, Colorado this weekend, high in the Rocky Mountains. I’m presenting at the Savvy Blogging Summit, which is a gathering of ~65 amazing women bloggers (and Alex, the token man). I’m honored to have been asked to present on Building Community and Effective Monetization. I also gave the keynote talk last night, and though such a thing is far outside my comfort zone, I had fun. Here’s the written version of the talk (which is a bit different than the version I gave).
I started my first blog on 16 August 1997. I didn’t call it a blog — that word hadn’t been invented yet — I called it a web journal. I’d been reading other web journals for about a year, and I’d had a personal web page since 1994. Because I was a young man who wanted to be a writer, and because I was a young man who loved computers, starting a web journal seemed to make perfect sense.
The Olden Days
For two years, I participated in what is now a sort of blogging joke: I wrote about what I ate for lunch. And for dinner. And for breakfast. I used my web journal to track my fitness. Then, as now, I struggled with my weight, and I figured a web journal might provide some accountability. It worked. Even though my web journal only had a handful of readers, they’d e-mail me to comment on my progress. Using this web journal, I lost 40 pounds.
I kept a web journal on and off for the next couple of years. Gradually, I wrote less and less about diet and exercise, and more and more about my daily life. I found that I enjoyed writing for the web, and other people seemed to like what I wrote.
It was tough going, though. In the olden days, we didn’t have blogging tools like WordPress and Moveable Type. If we wanted to keep a web journal, we had to update it by hand. Today, we just type in our text, press “publish”, and we’re golden. But back then, we had to write the HTML to format every page. We had to build our archives by hand, and update them every day. It was a lot of work, and it was a colossal pain in the butt! How many of you would like to hand-update your blogs every time you upload a post?
Fortunately, some folks in San Francisco saw a business opportunity. A company called Pyra came along and created a tool called Blogger, which people could use to automatically update their weblogs. And what were weblogs? Nothing more than web journals!
Blogger was clunky and prone to crashes, but it sure beat updating a web journal by hand. So, on 16 March 2001, I made my first Blogger account and I used the software to start my first weblog.
Foldedspace was your average everyday personal blog. I wrote about my cats. I wrote about comic books. I wrote about computer games. I wrote about whatever I wanted, and I loved it. So did most of my friends. Foldedspace became a place where my friends and family could come make fun of me for being a big ol’ nerd. But it also became a place where we could chat about the world around us. We had all sorts of lively debates.
The Arguments Against Blogs
Not everyone was keen on blogs though. Some of my friends thought I’d turned into an exhibitionist, sharing all of my secrets in public. My friend Aimee said that she could never keep a blog because she’d end up writing about candles. This was her way of saying that she thought bloggers wrote about the stupid trivialities of day-to-day life.
My friend Pam was especially opposed to weblogs. She and I had some lengthy discussions, in which she argued that:
- Weblogs are narcissistic.
- Weblogs make a mess of Google’s search results.
- Bloggers present a biased view of their world.
- And so on.
Pam didn’t even like to be mentioned in weblogs because she felt she was always mentioned in a negative light. When I wrote about Pam, I had to give her an alias. I called her “Pete”.
But I didn’t think weblogs were bad; I thought they were great. I thought weblogs were a fantastic medium for self-expression and information distribution. In other words, I thought they were a fun new way to communicate.
I especially liked that blogs allowed readers to have small glimpses into the writers’ lives. Aimee and Pam said that some lives are too mundane, some details of life too personal to share with strangers. They argued that few people lead lives of interest, lives that are worthy of web sites. I disagreed. I argued that with few exceptions, every life is interesting, not just to the person living it, but to other people as well. Every life is instructive, is entertaining, is meaningful — though perhaps not to every person who might glimpse it.
So, for the next five years, I wrote almost daily at Foldedspace. I wrote about my life and my interests. Blogging was a fun hobby, a great way to express myself, but that was it. It never occurred to me that blogging could be a career, that I could make a living at this.
The Cash Machine
I was sitting in the bathtub reading — I often read while soaking the tub — I was in the bathtub and I was reading The Millionaire Maker by Loral Langemeier. Now, The Millionaire Maker isn’t a very good book, and I don’t recommend it, but something in it inspired me. The author was writing about creating what she calls “Cash Machines” — I told you it wasn’t a very good book — and suddenly I had a flash of insight: Maybe I could use a blog to create a Cash Machine.
I was so excited about the idea of a Cash Machine that I got out of the bathtub, toweled off, and went immediately to my laptop computer at the kitchen table. Naked. I opened my iBook and started reading about Google Adsense. Naked. I spent an hour figuring out how to put Adsense on my blog. After that hour, the ads were up. And the whole time I sat there naked.
At this point, my wife walked into the room, saw me sitting naked in front of the computer. “What on Earth are you doing?” she asked. I tried to explain that I was building a Cash Machine by putting ads on my blog, but she just shook her head. She made me march upstairs to put some clothes on.
That night, we went out for sushi and sake to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I told the group that I’d just put ads on my blog. They didn’t think it was a good idea. My friend Jennifer told me that I was selling out, and I worried that maybe she was right. But I forgot about “selling out” when we got home that night. I checked my Adsense account; I’d made one dollar and eighty-eight cents.
My first web income made me giddy. I showed Kris, but she was unimpressed. “It’s $1.88,” she said. “What’s the big deal?” But that $1.88 felt like a million bucks! And the following Monday, I made $4.67! So that day — 04 March 2006 — was the day that changed everything.
Get Rich Slowly
But April 15, 2006 was also the day that changed everything. Six weeks after putting Adsense on my personal site, I launched a new blog, a blog about personal finance, a blog called Get Rich Slowly.
A year earlier, I’d written an article for Foldedspace that I called “Get Rich Slowly”. It summarized all of the books I’d been reading about personal finance, and tried to explain what sorts of themes they had in common. But whereas most of my articles maybe got 50 or 100 or 200 readers, this one was different. It got linked from Boing Boing and Lifehacker, two blogs I’d never heard of before. Turns out these were big blogs, and they sent thousands of readers my way. For the next several weeks, my little article on getting rich slowly attracted a lot of attention from around the web.
So a year later, when I was looking for ways to build a Cash Machine out of a blog, I remembered that article. I decided that maybe I could write an entire blog called Get Rich Slowly, a blog that passed on what I was learning about getting out of debt and getting my finances under control. I thought I had a story to tell, could possibly help some other folks who were in debt, and that maybe — just maybe — I could make a few bucks.
I thought it’d be the first personal-finance blog on the internet. I didn’t realize at the time that there were already dozens of blogs about money, which was probably a good thing. If I had known, I might never have started.
On 15 April 15 2006, Get Rich Slowly went live. At first, traffic was slow. So were revenues.
I made $1.01 in the first week and $3.62 in the second. It took almost a year for me to bring my weekly average over $100, but after that the income increased rapidly. I found ways to boost my revenue by putting ads in better places. I started working directly with advertisers. By the start of 2008, I was earning as much with Get Rich Slowly as I was at my day job, where I sold custom boxes. And since I hated my job selling boxes, I decided to make a leap of faith: I quit my job at the box factory to become a full-time professional blogger.
All my life, I’d wanted to be a writer, and now I was one. I guess I’d always thought I’d make my name writing poetry or science fiction or the Great American Novel, but here I was writing about personal finance every day. It wasn’t what I had dreamed of, but in some ways it was just as good.
The Fruits of My Labor
Over the past four years, Get Rich Slowly has grown beyond my wildest dreams. The site gets well over a million pageviews per month. More than 75,000 people subscribe by RSS or by e-mail. And the site has produced enough money that I’ve not only been able to pay off over $35,000 in debt, but I’ve also been able to save a $20,000 emergency fund, start a 401(k), keep myself in fancy up-to-date computer equipment, begin traveling the world, and live a comfortable lifestyle. All from blogging.
Most of all, Get Rich Slowly has helped me connect with a huge range of new friends. Back in the olden days — back in 1995, when the web was still young — I was afraid to connect with the people I met online. I thought maybe they were all “psycho killers”.
But a few years ago, I decided to take a chance. My wife and I had dinner with a couple of readers, and it turned out to be a great time. We had fun. Since then, I’ve made an effort to meet my readers and blogging colleagues whenever possible. I also chat with folks by phone and Skype. It’s great to get to know these people and to hear their stories. By doing this, I’ve made new friends, established business contacts, and ultimately have a richer life because of it.
Blogging has been good to me. It’s allowed me to work at something I love. I get up every morning glad to go to work. And yes, blogging is work — especially if you want to build and audience and make money. But this is work I feel called to do. I get a kick out of it.
I also get a kick out of the fact that I’ve published a book. A book! I’m just J.D. Roth, your average middle-aged geek. I’m nobody special. I’m not a financial expert. And yet an actual publisher paid me to write a book about money, a book that is selling well and getting awesome reviews. Sometimes I can hardly believe this is my life.
How to Blog
But although I can rightly claim that I’m a book author, that’s not how I think of myself. I’m a blogger. And I’m proud to be a blogger. As you might expect, after thirteen years of keeping blogs and web journals, I’ve learned a few things.
Quickly, here are some of the most important lessons:
- Be yourself. Don’t try to mimic your favorite bloggers. Don’t try to be somebody you’re not. Write about what interests you, and write in your own style.
- Tell stories. Readers like story. They like narrative. Tell individual stories about your life, and (if possible) make your entire blog one big narrative. When you tell stories, readers can relate to you.
- Engage your readers. Your goal is to engage your readers, to make them feel as if they’re a part of your life. This makes them feel ownership in the blog and the community. Interact with readers: ask questions, listen to their stories, give them stuff to do.
- Assume nobody is reading your blog. Don’t assume your blog has a large readership, no matter what the stats say. Write and act as if nobody were reading your blog.
- Assume everybody is reading your blog. At the same time, do the opposite. By this I mean that you shouldn’t say anything on your blog that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face. Even anonymous blogs have a way of being less anonymous than you think.
- Have fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right. Take a break. Come back to blogging later. When blogging is fun, your readers can tell, and it creates an environment others want to be a part of.
But there’s one thing I’ve learned more than any other. At Get Rich Slowly, I have a set of fifteen mantras about money. One of these mantras is the theme to the entire site. In fact, it’s the theme to my entire life, and it’s the number one thing I want you to know about blogging. That is: Do what works for you.
Everyone Has Something to Say
Sometimes I wish my blog were more like The Simple Dollar or I Will Teach You to Be Rich. But then I realize: Trent and Ramit are not me, and their blogs don’t reflect who I am. I like their sites precisely because they’re not like mine. In truth, I’m pleased with Get Rich Slowly (and all of my many other blogs). GRS is, in some small way, a reflection of me.
And here’s the thing: There’s room out there for all sorts of blogs. No single method of blogging is the One True Way. There’s a place for coupon blogs and deal blogs and personal finance blogs. There’s a place for blogs that write about getting rich quickly, and a place for blogs that write about getting rich slowly. There’s a place for the political nuts, for the technology geeks, and for mothers and fathers.
Now, because I’m serious about writing and always looking to improve, I take a lot of writing classes. I also read a lot of books about writing. One of my favorite writing manuals is If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. I love her thesis:
Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.
Let me repeat that because it’s important: Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say. I believe this with all my heart. It’s the reason I’m so passionate about blogging. Blogs give a voice to everyone, they give everyone a chance to express themselves to a wider world. For some of us, they can even open doors to a new career, to the life we’ve always dreamed of.
Joining the Dark Side
And you know what? Even folks who at one time thought blogs were biased and narcissistic, that they messed with Google’s search results — even these folks may find that blogs give them a valuable way to express themselves.
Take my friend Aimee, for example. Aimee once said that she couldn’t keep a blog because she’d end up writing about unimportant stuff, like candles. But Aimee’s had a blog for six years now, and that hasn’t been a problem. She doesn’t write about candles. Aimee’s blog keeps her connected with family and friends.
The web is a big place; there’s room for everyone. Your blog can be whatever you want it to be. It doesn’t matter if you have one reader or ten readers or ten thousand: Your voice is important. Write about a subject that makes you feel good. Write with passion and connect with readers. Write as if you were writing to your closest friends. Thumb your nose at all of the critics, haters, and doubters.
Remember: This isn’t a competition. By sharing ideas and learning from each other, we can all build better blogs, grow our audiences, and maybe turn our blogs into Cash Machines in the process.