05 May May 5, 2020 – Simple Dollar Trent Hamm and ROI Swift Carolyn Lowe
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Trent Hamm’s personal journey to financial freedom after finding himself drowned in customer debts inspired him to share the strategies that worked for him, leading to the birth of The Simple Dollar in 2006, a website dedicated to helping people through real-world personal finance challenges in a friendly approachable manner that receives a million visitors per month. His company has been featured in the Top Ten Personal Finance Blogs on Kiplinger and in the Technorati Top Twenty for business and finance blogs. Trent is also the author several books including his latest one, The Simple Dollar: How One Man Wiped Out His Debts and Achieved the Life of His Dreams, a book that shows you how to rewrite the rules, creating healthier relationships with money.
Carolyn Byron Lowe, CEO of ROI Swift, won $10,000 on the radio as a 14-year old and wished she had saved it to invest in Google or Amazon two decades later. After leaving Dell, she founded ROI Swift in 2015 to help emerging consumer brands grow by getting expert help in Amazon, Paid Ads for Facebook and Instagram, and Paid Search. Carolyn’s goal is to help 1000 brands grow profitably, and so far, they have helped 102. The leadership of ROI Swift has collectively spent over $30M on Facebook advertising alone with profitable results. Her team grew an apparel and footwear company from $0-12M in 18 months through paid Facebook and Instagram ads.
Highlights from Trent’s Interview
Let’s begin with what led to all of this. My wife and I were typical 20 somethings, fresh out of college. We both got a reasonably good job coming out of college. But just over time, we found ourselves spending more and more money, as a lot of people do in their 20s. As we got a little bit older and we had our first child, we began to realize that our spending was not really sustainable and it reached a point where finally it was difficult paying our bills. An important part, of course, was we had the additional cost of a child. But we reached a point where we were like, “This is not working out. We are not making any progress, we’re actually getting behind. What do we do?” So I started hitting a lot of books to figure out what we needed to do to fix things and making some reasonable changes to our life. My father started noticing us and a couple of friends asked me, “What are you guys doing to get yourself in better situation? Let’s talk about it a little bit.” So I wrote up this long email newsletter and sent it out to them, just listing all the stuff we had been doing. They liked it and they forwarded it to a bunch of their friends, and then people were asking me for more stuff. So the next one I sent out was sent to maybe 100 email addresses.
At that point, someone said that you should turn this on your website. I didn’t really know what I was doing at that point, so I went and signed up for one of the free online website tools that you could get at the time, and just started sharing information there; the stuff we were actually practically doing in our life. This was late 2006. Eventually, I turned it into simpledollar.com. For the first year, it didn’t get much traffic, but then it just started picking up through the word of mouth. Honestly, I think it was because the financial advice was really approachable and people were getting value out of it. So eventually, it reached the point where the ad money revenue I was making was enough for me to work on it full-time on my own. Up to that point, it was a side gig. Then after that, it reached the point where I was needing to hire people to help me do it because I was doing lots of things that weren’t involving the writing and things I didn’t really want to be doing. Over time, it just grew and grew into an actual business from a side gig. I started from writing an email newsletter, is really how the whole thing developed.
I tend to lean towards things that you do immediately, not necessarily as much the long-term thing. So I focus more on like saving money, because that’s something most of us can practically do at any given moment. That’s the kind of material I write about that gets the best traction from readers, because they’re often looking for an immediate answer. They want something that can start fixing their problems right away. So it’s simple money-saving things. It’s really stuff that’s obvious, but either you don’t think about it, your mind tends to turn towards cutting back on things that are really important to you, rather than cutting back on the things that aren’t important.
So if I say it’s time to cut back on your spending, almost everyone’s minds are going to jump to the things they spend money on that they care about a lot. The real useful thing is to cut back on the things that you don’t think about. If you cut back on things you’re thinking about, that you care about a lot, it’s going to miserable. To cut back on things you don’t care about, it’s going to be a lot easier. So I tend to focus on those types of things like, “Alright, you can’t pay your bills this week. What do we do?” A lot of my articles start from there. They’re usually about very practical things like, how to save money at the grocery store, how to save money on your insurance packages, how to save money on the services you have; things like that are the right things to focus on. I also mix in other things like longer-term career planning and things like that, but the main focus is getting yourself in a more stable financial situation and doing things that are sustainable going forward.
The biggest mistake that I see people making again and again is, they get in the habit of doing something with their money that they initially really enjoy, but then it becomes an ordinary thing and they keep throwing money into it. Let me give you an example; this is a common one that people like to use and I think it’s a really good one. People often get in the habit of going to a coffee shop each day on the way to work and picking up a nice $5 cup of coffee. First several times, it’s really an enjoyable experience. But if you keep doing it every day, it becomes really routine and feels very ordinary. You don’t even think about it, it’s just your routine and your habit and you spend $5 a day. Over the course of a month, that’s $100. Over the course of a year, that’s $1,000 which is gone. It works a lot better if you backed it off and maybe have one nice cup of coffee a week, and then sometimes, maybe even get an expensive one [Unclear]. Not only will it save you a lot of money, you’ll actually appreciate that really good cup of coffee again. That tends to work with all kinds of items. When you get to the point where you’re spending money on something that you don’t appreciate each time you’re doing it, that’s a good example of something to cut.
Another good thing to cut is stuff you really don’t think about. Like, using store brand laundry soap, that’s a great one. No one cares about what kind of laundry soap they have, they just want their clothes to be clean. When you’re in the laundry aisles in the store, almost all of them are the main brand laundry detergent because that’s what people buy. But the store brand ones are usually literally identical to the main brand one, and they cost about 60-70% of the price. So that’s just an automatic saving from things you don’t have to think about, and probably you don’t really even care about. Lots of store brands are like that; you generally don’t care that much about the product, you just want the result. So if you buy store brand in most of the products you don’t really think about and care about, that’s just pure saving from your grocery bill. There’s lots things that may seem really obvious when you say them, but yet people don’t do them, and a lot of the things I write about are along those lines.
One of my books is 1,001 Ways to Make Money If you Dare. It was written very tongue-in-cheek, it has a good sense of humor to it. So a lot of them are meant to be a little bit of funny, but a lot of them are just basically simple entrepreneurial ideas like: go through your closet and take out everything that you haven’t used it last year and sell it. That’s as a good way to turn stuff you’re never going to use again into something that’s money in your pocket. Then I got into the more silly ones, some of them are obviously done with tongue-in-cheek. There was one that goes, get a bunch of coins from the bank, go through them, identify the rare ones and sell those. It’s something you can do sitting on your couch or watching a show, if you’d have a list of coins in your head that you know are rare. You can do it. All you have to do is just take your money to bank and get it in coins, sort through all those, keep the ones that are valuable, sell them at a profit, take all the remaining coins back to the bank and get the other ones. You can keep doing that forever. The point is that one out of every 100 or 200 will be something more valuable. But the thing is, that’s something you can do sitting on the couch while you’re watching The Office reruns on Netflix. You’re going to have a penny in your hand and see what the date on it is, that’s worth a throw in the draw. You can just do that forever, and you’ll find enough coins eventually that you’ll actually make some money doing that, and it’s better than just sitting there literally doing nothing. That’s the point. The book mixes some practical things with some more silly things. Out of 1,001 ideas, everyone’s not going to draw all of them, they’re going to out pick 10 or 15 that make sense to them and they’re going to do those. So the book is somewhat entertaining and somewhat practical.
Well, a lot of my advice is focused right now on what you can do without leaving the walls of your home. That’s really what I’ve been writing for last couple weeks. So I don’t focus on things where you got to go to a store and buy supplies for this, instead I’m focusing on things you could do at home. Like, this is a great time to go through all of your subscriptions that you have, determine which ones are actually useful and cancel the ones that aren’t. If it’s something that you’re not using right now, at least put it on pause, if not cancel it, because it’s not helping you if you can’t even use it right now. If it’s some of the things that you haven’t been using in a while, there’s no better time than right now to cancel them. That’s the way to save money going forward. I’ve been writing a lot of stuff about how to migrate quickly from working in an office environment to work at home, which I know a lot of people are doing right now. There’s a lot of people that were working in an office two months ago, that are now working at home and are trying to figure out how to make that work for themselves. I’m also trying to address the sudden unemployment that a lot of people are facing. What are the first steps you do if you find yourself suddenly unemployed, what do you do next? That’s been interesting in that a lot of that information is changing almost by the day. So there’s been a lot of, I write an article and then a week later, it needs some updating because things have already changed a little bit. Those are the issues I’ve really been focusing on right now.
Now, I want to talk about the business side of running a website and transitioning from a newsletter to website to a massive business. When I first started hiring people, there were so many things that needed to be done to keep the website running and I was no longer able to do it in my spare time. That was when I started hiring people who have still spare time. I mostly hired and have always hired virtual assistants remotely. Everything is remote, there’s no really need to ever have a central location with Simple Dollar. Everything that needs to be done in terms of communicating with team members can be done online, which is great. For right now, that’s spectacular because everyone is doing work from home. The big initial thing I needed was someone that could organize ad deals for me. Because giving an ad deal on a website, particularly in that time, involved a lot of back and forth with people. There was a lot of discussion and negotiation, how are you going to get paid, invoices and so on. So I hired someone that literally just took care of that; again, someone remote. Then later on, I hired someone to manage a lot of the feedback we were getting. That person just focused on managing feedback and only redirect the things that really needed my voice or my input. I also gave them a lot of leeway just to handle all of that. Then there was a person that handled making sure that we had lots of images to use and making sure we had the rights for those and they were all attributed to. I had a person who was just basically my image person. I mean, I just kept finding tasks that I was doing that were taking up a lot of time that weren’t really what I wanted to be doing.
It did come to a point eventually where I had several of these individuals and I found myself spending a lot of time managing them rather than writing, and it was the writing that I always enjoyed. So at that point, I went around and found partners; other websites that were doing similar things that I was doing, and entered into agreements with them. So basically, we’re effectively a network owned by one larger business structure. Now, The Simple Dollar is currently managed by Red Ventures, which is a company in Charlotte. Essentially, what they are is a conglomeration of some more site tools of Simple Dollar that shares a lot of those resources. What that did is that freed me up even more so to go back to what I enjoyed the most of all those, which was writing and helping people. That’s what’s really got me going in this, is that I enjoyed that. I enjoyed writing about people’s rational financial problems and connecting with people. That enabled me to get back more than focusing online.
Back then, finding virtual assistants was little tricky. This was about the time when Tim Ferriss’ book, The 4-Hour Workweek, came out, and that really nudged me down the path of finding these. I wouldn’t know where to find them now, honestly. Back then, I was mostly going on some freelancing marketplaces, I don’t even believe exist anymore. I used to go to places like Upwork, whatever the 2007 versions of those were, I don’t even really remember. Elance I know was one of the sites that I used when looking for people. I think I actually used more mainstream job sites a little bit as well. Back then, sites like Monster would have people on there that were interested in doing this, and I found people through that.
The next part then is transitioning from a website to this huge organization. Essentially, among one of the big things Red Ventures does is they have a large number of personal finance-related websites in a group and they share a lot of resources amongst them. So what happened was, I eventually reached a point where I realized that I was getting sucked into more management than I ever had desired to have in my life. I’m not a person that naturally wants to be a manager of people. I like the idea of leading people and setting a direction and let them take the time, that’s me. Figuring out the big picture, I’m great at that. What I get more frustrated with, and this is about me personally, is the nitty gritty of managing people and making sure they’re on task and doing the right thing. That’s not something I know as part of my natural good skill set, it’s not something I am good at. I’m much better at, “Here’s your general direction, go this way. If you need anything, come talk to me, we’ll solve that problem. But I’m trusting you to do your thing.” That’s how I lead, and that doesn’t always necessarily work really well, especially with virtual workers like I had.
So initially, I started looking for other websites where we could just start sharing these resources. Then actually, I came into an arrangement with a group called Soda Media. It was essentially a small group of personal finance site where we were just sharing these resources. What I ended up doing is I sold my interest in The Simple Dollar to them as a group, and the arrangement was that basically I had a very long-term writing gig in terms of writing for the site. The author was good enough and financially interesting enough that this was something I was really excited to do. Eventually, Soda became part of Red Ventures, and that’s now the company that manages several sites together. It was the right news for me in terms of my own management style. I still have people that I work with, people that are part of my team. In terms of setting direction and talking about things, that’s still very much me, but I don’t have to worry about the nitty gritty of management that I was not good at. Essentially, it was an opportunity for me to lean into what I’m good at, which is the general vision; I really enjoy the writing, and lean away from the things I’m bad at, which is sales and nitty gritty management, which I’m very bad at.
You probably have had people before on here that referred Red Ventures. I know another site that they may have had is Bankrate.com, that’s one of our more popular other sites in our group. Red Ventures is part of managing several different personal finance website, so I’m sure you may have had someone on there from Red Ventures before.
To find out more, go to Simpledollar.com, that’s really where most of my writing is. You can find information like all my latest articles are right there. On the front page, just scroll down and you’ll find a whole bunch of articles from me and from a few other writers on the site. They have information on pretty much any avenue of personal finance. I mostly focus on like I said, the practical things, but we have other writers on staff that focus more specifically on other areas like careers and things like that. Just go to the Simpledollar.com and you’ll find all kinds of information.
Highlights from Alex’s Interview
Let’s start with my story and what I doing and why did I quit all that stuff. Back in the day, I was a personal trainer in Dallas, Texas. I was running around, waking up at 5am, teaching people how to work out; people who didn’t want to work out, and try and convince them to stop eating things, and really not enjoying my life and what I was doing. So at the time, me and my business partner decided to start a website, essentially a blog. After a few months of working at that website, one failed, but then we started another one and started to get some traction, we started to get some visitors online. So we came to this crossroad decision of “Well, what if we quit our jobs, sold all our things and just try to go all-in with our business and with making money online?” That’s what we did. We made this crazy decision after this hike in Seattle, moved into my dad’s house, and we started working. Once we burned all the bridges and we started working at it, we started slow, we made our first $100 per month. We weren’t making any money when we quit, by the way. We made our $100 in a month right afterwards, and then the second month, we made $200 and then it just kept doubling. So we did $400, then $800, $1,600, $3,200, $9,000, then $18,000, then $40,000 in a single month. That’s how it all got started. For us, it was just an absolute just frustration with what we were doing, was what led to us moving towards blogging and our success.
So the first blog was just a health and wellness website and it was called Avocadu. It is called Avocadu.com, we still run it today. What we sold on there is primarily a few fitness programs; so one for yoga and one for losing weight. We also run ads on the website as well with a company called AdDrive. The health programs we have are very cheap, they are $47 and $27. We sold a lot of those back in the day. In terms of driving all of the sales, we tried to sell through Pinterest. So we are a very popular blog on the Pinterest platform. For those of you that aren’t familiar with blogging, Pinterest can be a very dynamic place to drive organic traffic to your website. So we drive most of our traffic from Pinterest. We drive them to specific articles, teaching them about certain topics they want to learn about. So let’s say you want to learn a new yoga exercise, we’ll teach them that on the blog. While they’re on the blog or on the webpage, we lead them to an email opt-in. When they opt-in to the email, they are then sold and pitched on our programs. So in that case, they’d be pitched for Yoga Fat Loss Bible.
Right now, Avocadu is just doing one per week. There was a time when we were growing at the beginning, where we were at three per week. But now, we’ve throttled that down a lot and realized that there’s not as much benefit to posting more, but to posting higher quality content. So we just do once per week, and about 1,200 words long is where we ended up, that’s two and a half or three pages typed. Quantity is almost as important as quality, which is the word count in terms of the Google algorithm. So it’s more like a sliding scale. If you’re under 500, you can forget about any Google traffic. But there’s also too much that you can do. Google is starting to recognize that people can try to fake it and write a 10,000 word topic about some healthy brownie recipes or something like that and Google recognizes that that is not going to best serve the viewer. But right in the 1,200 to 3,000 word range is where you want your articles.
Pinterest is a visual platform, so primarily what we do is we go on shutterstock.com and we will use images of either the ideal target markets and results or where they are at currently. So one way to do it is you find a woman doing some yoga and you create a pin for a yoga article, and you do write a little text on the Pinterest pin as well so people know what the article is about. In that circumstance, you are marketing the ideal image that somebody is trying to achieve, they see that somebody’s professional is doing yoga, so they recognize that this is about yoga. The other way to do it and another effective marketing technique that we have found is also to post about where someone is at currently. So if they are overweight and they’re on the couch right now and are feeling a little bit lazy, posting a pin like that and then writing something about how to get motivated to exercise is also an effective marketing tactic. That’s kind of the image focuses for us.
In terms of producing the articles, me and my partner are not doing it anymore. At the beginning, we were absolutely doing it. I would wake up at 4am before my personal training clients, and I would wander my way to Starbucks, and write articles. Then I’d write in the middle of the day, then afterwards. That was how we began. So I wrote all the articles at the beginning because I had a lot of health and wellness knowledge at the time. I had played college football for a brief time and I had been personal training for a while at that point, so I was pretty familiar with the science of everything, as well as how to make a marketable article. So that was a big key. I would say that creation ends up being about 30% of the time while promotion is the lion’s share.
That’s the big mistake that a lot of people think, “Now I’ve written the blog, I’m done.” But you’re not even close. You need to email it out to your audience, you need to post it on Pinterest, and you need to spread the word about it. I believe Derek Halpern was one of the first marketers to recognize this, and this goes back to the quality over quantity approach, is that when you’re posting something very high quality, you then can focus more on promotion. Then when people find that piece of content, they go, “Oh, wow, this is really high quality. This is really great!” But if you were just pumping out quantity, the promotion wouldn’t matter as much. So that’s kind of our focus right now.
We have other blogs as well, I own four of them now. So we have a health and wellness blog, we have a coffee blog, we have a blog that teaches other people how to make an income blogging, which was started after our health and wellness blog, and then I also have a web development website, just teaching people how to build your own website from scratch and monetize it. So a lot of different things but they’re all very different in nature. The web development company primarily hinges on a very strong YouTube presence, because that’s where a lot of people look for web development information. While, the coffee blog hinges a lot on what I just talked about, where it’s all about the article development, structuring, creating great posts, and SEO marketing them. But even that website is a little bit different from Avocadu as it’s not focused on Pinterest, it’s more focused on Google SEO. So each website needs a different marketing channel, if you will, because that is a little bit more effective.
The vast majority of customers we get from Pinterest are females. That’s again another reason. We tried our web development company, we tried creating articles and doing Pinterest, but people were much less interested than the health and wellness topics. So it’s about 80% female audience on Pinterest. To get the men, YouTube and Google are two good places. Google users are female as well, but YouTube is primarily a male user base. Obviously, it does have a large female audience but significantly less than men.
The blogging industry is always changing, it’s always moving, but it’s not moving as quick as people think. So there’s not some sort of rapid change happening, it’s just slowly evolving. Google will come out with an algorithm update that will change a lot. But really the core principles and concepts that it takes to make any successful business remain true if you have the highest quality articles and the best content on the subject. Google algorithms really won’t affect you as much typically. So there is some change, it’s always evolving, always a moving target, but it’s not like a Pokémon evolving, from one to a completely new one. It’s just a slow evolution.
If someone is doing it right, they can take their blog to a good modest degree in about three months to six months to a year and a half for full-time, and two years or three years to get to extraordinary income. It would take a good amount of time per week to get to the first level, but it would only take you working nights and weekends, so it would take like 20 hours a week, somewhere in there. Again, 70% of that is promotion.
So if you are interested in blogging, “CreateandGo.com” is the spot to learn. I’m doing a lot of projects right now, but I’m also building a media company. If you want to follow along for that journey, “AlexNerney.com”, my YouTube channel, Instagram are all personal branded on my name. We’re going to build something big out here in Austin, Texas. Just signed for a space, signing it today. I’m really pumped about that. If you want to follow along for the journey, we’d love to have you.