I remember years ago when starting out wondering when the heck affiliate commissions would start rolling in. It was frustrating to work for so long with nothing but pages and pages of non-earning content to show for it.
For some reason I didn’t quit. Things worked out okay. I’m not Zuck, Elon, Sergey or other tech gazillionaires, but I earn a nice living doing something I like.
Now that I’ve written this article (I often write intros after the main content), I’m surprised I didn’t write this post sooner. In fact, I can’t take credit for coming up with this. A Fatstacks reader asked if I would write this… at least I hope what follows is what he wanted to read.
Here’s his email:
The kind of stuff we really need to know is how you got to this level. Like how you started. What did it take to finally build momentum where you made enough monthly to sustain yourself. How much time on average per week. The sacrifices you made. How many articles published were written vs bought. Stuff like that would be really helpful!
Maybe you already have something like that published?
Thanks for all your valuable content!
My initial reaction was that it’s a great suggestion.
But then I had to figure out how best to present that info.
After mulling it over while banging out my niche site bread and butter work, I decided a timeline would be the best approach.
Let’s dive into my stroll through memory lane.
Table of Contents
It was the best of times it was the worst of times…
False start. Lame. Actually, not lame. It’s one of the most famous novel starts of all times (Charles Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities”). However, copying it is lame.
I’ll try again.
2008 to 2012: The Early Years
I wrote all the content for all sites during this time. I wrote a LOT. Here’s the short version:
- Brick and mortar business blog: Worked like crazy on this to land new clients until 2012.
- First niche site: crashed and burned
- Second niche site: Decent success but took a long time. It’s still churning out profits (Site #2 in income reports). It has about 120 articles which are all pretty decent. It includes an automated email sequence that does much of the earning.
- Third site: Affiliate site – Content was very good. Earned $4k to $6K per month but ended up getting whacked by Google Penguin. It had about 200 posts.
- Fourth site: Affiliate site – Content was mediocre at best. Earned around $5K per month and also got whacked by Google Penguin. It had about 150 posts.
- Other sites: I started a few others that never went anywhere.
- Quit job in early 2012.
- Google Penguin slaughtered 2 niche sites in April 2012.
The long version:
It was the Summer of 2008. This was before kids. My wife and I were doing a whirlwind tour of Europe. My reading pick while traveling was Tim Ferriss’ “4 Hour Work Week”. Yeah, I know, it’s already sounding like a cliche, but it’s true. Scout’s honor.
I remember reading in Tim’s book that he reported to be earning $40K per month selling supplements on the internet. That was a staggering amount of money to me at the time. It still is actually.
I was practicing law and was in the process of getting a website and blog launched for the law firm. What little marketing funds we had, we decided the internet was the future of marketing. That was the first good decision of many (along with many bad decisions).
Lawyers were slow to embrace the internet for marketing.
Long story short. I started blogging on the law firm blog for SEO. I built links. Within months we were opening files faster than than anything.
That was when I realized there really was unlimited potential for business online.
While reading up on SEO, I discovered how niche sites could be big earners. I liked writing so figured that could be fun side project. It was still before kids so I had time on my hands.
My first blog was a bust.
But my second was a success but it took time. I still run it to this day. It’s Site #2 in my income reports. It runs on almost autopilot. It’s earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from 100 articles and an automated email sequence.
Sites 3 and 4 which I launched shortly after site 2, started earning well after 18 to 20 months. These were purely affiliate sites.
It took about 12 months to earn my first commission. It took me about 2 years to hit $10K per month.
I was still practicing law full time and running a growing online publishing business. I also launched 3 more law firm websites with a blog – each targeting practice areas. This strategy worked well. We were slammed.
Eventually, I had to choose one or the other. I was working hard in law and in my limited spare time, worked on niche sites (about 15 hours per week).
I liked practicing law, but I liked online publishing more. I jumped ship. This was early 2012.
For those of you who were doing this back then, you know what came next.
In April 2012 Google unleashed the Penguin update. My two highest earning sites were pummelled and rightfully so because I built links like crazy. That second site survived and thrived because I never built links to it. It was a slow-grow so I never poured on the crap link building gas.
That site 2 saved my bacon because it started earning well at that time.
However, I knew site 2 would never be a monster so I needed to get something new underway. I had to learn SEO all over cause all I knew was how to publish okay content and slam it with links.
2013 to 2014: The Great Transition
Short version. Actually, there’s not much to say here. The short version will suffice.
- The second niche site was still chugging and growing. I continued adding content and revenue started growing nicely.
- Started a weightlifting niche site (I’ve lifted for years). Started experimenting with Facebook traffic (organic reach and paid). I published short clickbait type posts and monetized with AdSense and affiliate offers. Built up a sizeable email list too which I ultimately sold.
- Provided online marketing services to law firms: As I transitioned from practicing law to online publisher I ended up with some law firms as clients. I did lead gen for them which is where they paid me for new clients. It was essentially local affiliate marketing.
- This was the glory years for publishers on Facebook. I focused my efforts on this for these two years. Having been spurned by Google, I was done with SEO. It was refreshing to not worry about SEO. Facebook traffic was insanely easy and fast.
2014 to Present: The Road to Authority
I launched my current biggest niche site in early 2014. It’s Site #1 in the income reports. Here are the highlights:
- Display ads: While I had dabbled with display ads on other sites, this is the site that started earning a lot with AdSense. I started this site with the intention to earn mostly from affiliate offers. That didn’t work. I put on AdSense ads and revenue was awesome. I haven’t looked back.
- Ad arb: Facebook traffic was so ridiculously cheap and display ads paid well that I was able to buy FB traffic and profit from it. I did this for 2.5 to 3 years. This turned this site into a huge earner overnight. I couldn’t spend enough on the Amex. Profits were high instantly. Unfortunately, after 2.5 years the arb gap closed for me. Fortunately I had published a lot of long form content so that by the time the arb game was over I had quite a bit of traffic.
- Content: I wrote everything for 6 months. Then I hired a fairly costly outsourcing service that handled everything. I invested ad arb profits into long form content. I had a hunch ad arb wouldn’t last forever. That’s the very nature of ad arb. Eventually market forces close the gap. I spent a fortune with the outsourcing service (included writers, social media, etc.) but the results were quite good. After a couple of years, the service was sold and the new owner increased my rates 25%. I left. I still scratch my head about that. I was their biggest client so I can’t for the life of me figure out why a new owner would do something that forces the largest customer to leave. Since then I’ve outsourced most content trying many, many writing services and sources.
- SEO growth: Since arb ended, I’ve focused on Google search traffic. While the site has had its ups and downs, overall, it’s been a good success for me.
2015: Launched fatstacksblog.com
With the success of my new site, I decided to launch fatstacksblog.com. I wrote about ad arb, Facebook AdSense and in due course, SEO. Fatstacks hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s still primarily me at the helm.
2016: Purchased my first site / leased an office
With my content service handling things I had some spare time and cash so I bought a site for $10K. It had $0 profits. This sucker had 200K monthly visitors or so and made just enough money to cover the server costs.
I thought I could improve the ad RPM overnight and make bank. I was wrong. The niche was terrible. However, the site was very good quality with thousands of natural inbound links, plenty of good content, etc. Surely it could be a success. My gut told me to buy it. I’m glad I did.
The problem I had was what to do with it. I let it sit.
In 2018 I started growing it as a “everything and the kitchen sink” site. I published on all kinds of topics. I don’t really recommend this approach, but it kinda worked. I’ve grown the revenue to an easy $2,500 per month. It’s now worth $80K to $100K so it was a great investment. For now I collect the profits and wait until I have a good niche for it.
Leased an office
Also in 2016 it was time to get out of the house and get an office. It had been 4 years working at home which is great, but with two young boys, it could be distracting. I remember the day I found my current office. I headed out on a Friday afternoon with our oldest son (4 at the time) and toured several shared office arrangements. As often is the case, I ended up leasing the first office I saw. I’ve been there ever since.
While paying for something I don’t need might seem to be a waste, it’s a luxury I still enjoy. I prefer separating work from home. I don’t mind a 20 to 40 minute commute. I enjoy lunches out. All-in-all I prefer getting out of the house daily.
2017: Authority site got deindexed by Google
This was bad. My main site was infested with malware. Google deindexed it. It was deindexed for 4 weeks or so. I scrambled to get it fixed. Once fixed, Google reindexed it very quickly. At first I thought it was game-over.
In the meantime, I launched a new affiliate site which I still own and have kicked along since. I do plan to grow it but it’s just a matter of time and money.
2018: Launched a few more sites
As I continued to outsource pretty much everything, I had time on my hands so I launched a couple more sites. They have’t gone far but are primed to grown now. I no sooner start a new project and then my time gets consumed with my larger sites.
2019: Launched my first ecommerce product
I’ve been silent about my ecommerce launch because I have no idea how it’s going to go. Also, I didn’t really do much except bring my site and promotion machine to the party.
4 months ago a successful Amazon ecommerce guy contacted me to discuss launching an ecommerce company. I was mildly interested. He showed me his earnings which were very good so he clearly knew what he was doing. I got more interested.
He was super cool. Not pushy. He said “listen, let me come up with some ideas and you decide.”
He came back with some great ideas that appeared to be a good opportunity and fairly easy to launch. Given his ecommerce success on Amazon, I’d be a fool to say no since I bear no risk.
His reason for wanting to partner with me is he wanted to leverage my site’s traffic to gain an advantage on Amazon. It made sense to me (not that I know anything about selling on Amazon).
Fast forward a few months, today we launched our first white label product. I spent all morning setting up the traffic blitz.
I’m not big on partnerships, but in this case, even if only mildly successful, it’s a win/win. He handles the ecommerce stuff (inventory, graphics, sales) and I handle off-site promotion via a site with plenty of traffic. My time required is minimal. He gets to focus on the selling.
In theory it sounds like winner. Time will tell. I’ve been working online to know things take time. I don’t expect instant riches, but I do hope it succeeds. In fact, I’m both optimistic and excited about this. It’s the type of diversification I could use.
Overarching strategy since 2017
My main strategy since 2017 has been focused on low competition keywords, publish decent content and rank naturally. I monetize mostly via display ads. That’s my main MO and continues to be. It’s worked well.
Hours worked per week
While also working a full time job during the early years, I put in 15 hours per week on my niche sites.
When I went online full time, I put in 40 to 55 hours per week.
These days it’s 40 hours per week on average. I still put in quite a bit of time because I want to grow the business and I enjoy the work. About 15 to 20 of those hours is on Fatstacks.
Could I run things on 20 hours per week?
Yeah, I could but I’d do a lot less on Fatstacks. Since Fatstacks is all me, it’s time-consuming. I do it because I like it.
While I put in several hours every day on my other niche sites, I could probably get by most weeks with one to three hours per day oversight.
I’m fortunate. I didn’t sacrifice anything to build this business. I put in a lot of time before and after a job when I had a full-time job, but I didn’t have kids then so it was easy. I was full time online by the time kids entered the picture. I also never worked more than 50 hours per week… so not much sacrifice.
Also, I almost always made more money online than when working, so there wasn’t a financial sacrifice. That said, because I was fairly new in my career when I quit it, I didn’t make gobs of money at it.
During the last year at my job, I earned a salary plus quite a bit online so the money was good. When I quit the job, I was able to put way more time online, but I had quite a bit less money coming in than when I worked and had online revenue. Nevertheless, the bills got paid. We lived frugally then getting by month to month.
If starting over, what would I change?
- Know when to sell ’em: I’d have sold my two early-on high-earning sites just before Google Penguin. I actually had a broker talk to me about selling three months before Penguin. I said “I’m not interested in selling”. Big mistake. Of course hindsight is 20/20.
- Quality: I’d focus from day one on high quality content in a niche with huge growth potential.
- No link-building: It goes without saying that I would not do any lousy link building. Google Penguin set me back quite a bit.
- Users: I also would have focused less on affiliate content and more on content for users and monetize with display ads much earlier.
- Max out Facebook: I would have milked the easy Facebook traffic far more than I did. That was a goldmine that I didn’t fully capitalize on.
Other than that, overall, I have no complaints.
- This is hard work that takes time: It took me over a year to earn my first commission, and that was after learning quite a bit blogging and doing SEO for my brick and mortar business. I was bound and determined to make a go of niche sites so stuck with it.
- Sometimes you get lucky: I have to admit I’ve had some luck. Ad arb was a gift. Facebook traffic was a gift.
- Setbacks are inevitable: No matter how well things go and how hard you try, you will suffer setbacks. Just recently, I lost 15% of my traffic to my biggest niche site. It’s kinda dejecting when I’ve plowed so much money into content over the last year to lose traffic like that. However, that’s par for the course. In fact, if you’re frustrated because of traffic plateaus or lost traffic, plug in some top-tier sites into Ahrefs “Site Explorer” and check out their traffic patterns. Most have periods of plateaus and traffic reductions. Few, if any sites enjoy a continuous upward trajectory for years and years.
- Quality is paramount: I admit that not every article I publish is the best it could be. However, overall my content is decent and that’s served me well. If starting over, I’d focus more on quality over all else.
I suspect this nostalgic tromp down memory lane was more fun for me than you. I can’t believe I’ve been at this a tad over ten years. I have about 30 more years in me. Should be fun.
Jon runs the place around here. He pontificates about launching and growing online publishing businesses, aka blogs that make a few bucks. His pride and joy is the email newsletter he publishes that’s “the best blogging email newsletter around.”
Hyperbole? Maybe, but go check it out to see what some readers say.
In all seriousness, Jon is the founder and owner of a digital media company that publishes a variety of web properties visited and beloved by millions of readers monthly. Fatstacks is where he shares a glimpse into his digital publishing business.