December 17, 2017

Start a Content Business

How To Start a Content Business

What do you need to start a content business? Well, three things: 

A problem.

An audience.

An income. 

You see, building a business around content is kind of like a three act play:

Act OneYou show people how to solve a problem.

Act TwoYou build an audience around that solution.

Act Three:You generate income from the efforts.

And that’s more or less the sum of it.


Erm, no. Wait. Obviously we need more details.

OK. But as we proceed, don’t get distracted from the three act model. Because after 20 years of turning ideas into businesses I can tell you that those are the disciplines you have to master.

And although there are endless variations in how you could put the three acts together, the model remains.

Problem.  Audience.  Income. (Or content, community, commerce, if you prefer.)

Examples you say? Fine.  Let’s see how some seriously successful content entrepreneurs did it.

[In the meantime you can also contact me now, today and ask your questions directly.]


How Seth Godin Built a

Content Business

Seth Godin - content entrepreneur

Act One: The Problem

In the 1990s, Seth Godin began solving the problems of marketing.

The practice of marketing has undergone a radical change in recent years. To the point where we no longer have any clear definitions of the thing.

People are lost, confused. They want to hear from someone who can bring clarity to this conversation. Seth’s voice and point of view have met that need. He has played an awesome role in helping to solve that hard problem.

 Act Two: Building An Audience

Seth followed up Act One with a brilliant second act. Because he did such a consistent job of putting out ideas, insights, and solutions, Seth was able to build a up gigantic following.

His content appears almost exclusively on his blog. (He links on other platforms but does not engage there.) And his audience is loose and casual - he doesn't push for sign-ups, membership sites, or the like.

In fact, he does very little of the traditional self-promotion we associate with building brands.

What he does do, however, is to keep his audience engaged and active through daily, and always excellent, blog posts.

So, note that Seth has built his audience primarily by getting high quality content into the public sphere. And as time goes on his decision to avoid the social media platforms looks better and better.

 Act Three: Generating Income

Seth has constructed a unique business model that captures the value of his content and his particular approach. He has never attempted to monetize the blog directly, and there's good reason for that: Keeping it free and open is the most effective way he can possibly reach a wide audience.

Which takes us to another lesson learned: With an audience comes all manner of other income-generating possibilities. And in this case, Seth earns the better part of his income through speaking engagements but balances that with other forms of income - such as books, courses, and so on.

Seth Godin offers an outstanding example of how to build a content business. He illustrates the three competencies of the content entrepreneur: Problem-solving, audience-building, and business-models.

But, as we'll see, there's quite  a variation in the details between how content entrepreneurs balance the three competencies.

 So, let’s have another example.


How I Built a Multi-Million Dollar Content Business: ChinesePod

Act One: The ProblemChinesePod collage

In 2005 I co-founded a company called ChinesePod in Shanghai, China.

We set out to solve the problem of helping people learn the Chinese language.

Chinese is a notoriously difficult language for westerners to learn, particularly as it has no alphabet, no verb tenses, and displays other weird and wonderful features

But I'd been in language instruction for many years and China was opening up to the world at that time. And it was clear also that there was a underserved market: People around the world who wanted to do business in China and who had to learn at least a smattering of the language.

So, we found ways to deliver short - circa 8 minute – podcast lessons based on real life situations rather than on grammar.

Act Two: Building an Audience

We launched on iTunes in September 2005 with a handful of lessons and immediately saw a reaction: No-one had ever seen the language taught in this informal way. The response was incredibly enthusiastic.

We built out the lessons and the site structure quickly and in response to audience needs. We engaged obsessively on the platform, encouraging learners, answering every question, trying to learn from every piece of feedback.

The audience grew and grew, particularly as the audio lessons were free and widely distributed and especially as there was nothing else like it. None of the growth required formal marketing or an advertising spend. Yet the audience grew exponentially.

 Act Three: Generating Income

The income from ChinesePod came from subscriptions. (Unlike Seth, we monetized directly.) In the early stages, anyone could get access to all the audio – and there was lesson every day - for free. From there, they could pay for extras on the platform – including grammar exercises, flashcards, and so on.

The combination of stand-out content and audience-friendly setup made for a very successful business. ChinesePod became a huge hit and grew within 3 years into a multi-million dollar company.

And as with Seth, the lessons learned take us back to the three competencies:

1. Start with awesome content - preferably a solution to a hard problem.

2. Build an audience around the solution - by answering essentially one question. (How to solve the marketing problem, or how to learn Chinese, etc.)

3. Understand how audiences create markets - find ways to monetize the effort by elaborating on the basic solution.

How To Start Your Own

Content Business

So, let’s turn to you now and see how this applies to how you will start your own content business.

The three act model is a framework, a picture of the challenge ahead of you. It’s also a starting point that will help begin immediately. In addition, it will keep you on course throughout the journey.

So, let's push on.

Act One: Finding Your Problem

Scene 1: The hard problem

Scene 2: Digging into your experience

Scene 3: Attacking the problem

Scene 4: Nailing the category

Scene 1:

The Hard Problem

We’ve seen that, to get started, you need to solve a problem. But not just any old problem. You need a hard problem.

What do we mean by hard problem?

Well, don’t choose something that can be solved in one go. That wouldn’t be a hard problem.

Instead, go with a discipline, a skill, a practice that takes time to learn. That way you can guide the reader and add value over time. You can think of solving the hard problem as a kind of journey or a dramatic quest that you make with your audience.

 There’s no shortage of hard problems out there. Everywhere you look you’ll find people struggling with hard problems. These people want skills, answers, solutions, ideas.

They want to know how to do stuff, understand stuff, change something in their lives.

So, help them to do that. Because their lack of know-how is holding them back, making them miserable.

It could be that they’re stuck in the wrong job.

Or that they lack the skills to manage their own finances.

It could be a fitness problem or an emotional issue, almost anything.

Never underestimate the power of that kind of misery. Relieve it and it’s like taking a thorn out of the lion’s paw. Help them live their dreams and you’re a big hero. You'll also most likely get paid.

 So, there’s a very wide range of options, but the basic idea is simple: Make yourself useful, indispensable even, to your target reader. To the point where you become part of their daily lives for a time. Jay Baer calls this becoming a Youtility.

So, show people how to do something and build your business around that something, that hard problem.

Business, work, lifestyle, health, personal development, or relationships. You need to narrow it down of course, but there's lots of hard problems in there that need solving.

In the personal development space, there are two kinds of solutions:

  • The specific solutions to specific issues - like marketing or language learning.
  • The human solutions - getting people mentally or physically to solve problems.

Which means you could go with something concrete, specific, or technical – like showing people how to design apps, for example. Or you could go with more people-oriented solutions - like performance enhancement, and so on.

 So, you have a very wide range to choose from - from childcare, to entrepreneurship, to personal growth, and so on. I don’t know what it is you can do. But you have to find where you can help people and build from there.

Scene 2:

Digging Into Your Experience

Your hard problem should be something that you really know about - an area of expertise. (Expertise is a key ingredient of great content.)

Ideally you’ve spent years in that field. Which means you don’t just Google the hard problem and call it expertise.

To build a content business you really need to know what you’re talking about. It’s unlikely that you will Google your way to something magnificent or build influence on your topic by doing that.

Why? Because people don’t want to know what you learned from reading. They want to know what you learned from harsh experience – the real-life good and bad, the stuff that failed as well as the stuff that worked.

In fact, it’s this direct experience more than anything else that qualifies you to start your own content business. And it's also why we call it a hard problem.

Nor do people want textbook formats - fact after fact in a detached style. Instead, they want to know your secrets. And they want them in a format that sounds like you’re a human being. In a normal voice.

Which means getting personal, opinionated even. With a point of view. Because, when it comes to connecting with an audience, your attitude towards your subject has as much impact as the information you share with it.

So, if you really know your subject and the editorial attitude you will take towards it - then you can get started.

 (Now I know that some people start their content business with limited expertise of their hard problem - they build the expertise as they go. This can work but it’s risky. So, I recommend that you start with what you know. And if you don’t have any expertise then start learning as intensively as you possibly can.)

Scene 3:

Attacking The Problem

So, let's say you’re going to solve a hard problem. And it's based on direct experience.

Well, it's time to attack the problem.

I suggest that you to attack it with more determination than anyone else.

Be ferocious towards that problem. Research it more than anyone else. Ask more questions about it than anyone else. (I mean this literally - write hundreds of questions and answers on the topic and note every single reader response.)

In other words specialize in it. Leo Babruta has built a gigantic following by writing about one thing and one thing only - simplicity. You cannot overstate the power of specialization.

Scene  4:

Nailing the Category

Which takes us to maybe the most important thing of: The need to create a category.

Creating the category is the biggest strategic move you will make as a content entrepreneur. It's what separates the girls from the sheep.

Now, you have to create the category in Act 1 - it has to be based on your hard problem.

Pat Flynn, for example, created the category of "passive income". Then he dominated it.

Jeff Goins created and crushed the category of becoming a writer. He dominated that space.

Chris Guillebeau created the category of unconventional living.

Derek Halpern created the category of the psychology of online marketing.

So, like those guys, your brand has to stand for something.

This is classic marketing. Long before the internet ever came along, smart marketers knew that you create serious value when you nail a category, attack a problem like crazy, and do it so well that no-one else can move in and usurp it.

Examples: Volvo stands for safety, but BMW stands for the driving experience. And these companies work incredibly hard to defend those categories.

But this is relevant to your blog as it is to a car company. See here for how food blogs differentiate themselves within that crowded space. They do it through creating categories.

You must stand for something and capture it in a category.

Me too. I attack the problems of "starting your own content business".

Since I have 20 years of experience in content, I went after that category. I dedicated my brand, my story, and my site to it. I went after the related keywords, and generally specialized in it.

Now my job is to dominate and defend the start your own content business category.

This kind of focus is essential. You'll also get better than everyone else at solving any hard problem by narrowing the focus and going at it furiously. You become a kind of specialist, pre-eminent, the go-to resource for that thing.

As with any company, your content business needs a beat, a niche, and a recipe for success in a certain defined place. And that's where your hard problem should be at.

So, maybe you taught or studied languages for years and you have unique insights into how language learning works. But now you worry that it's a crowded space.

Don’t worry. It’s not as if all the problems have been taken. There’s no way we could solve all the problems that need to be solved in our changing times. And now way we could exhaust all the possible categories. Nor will there ever be a shortage of people looking for help and advice. In simple terms, if a category has been taken you create a new one. If you need to know more about this, contact me.



 Act Two: Build Your Audience

 Why do people invest gigantic sums to launch magazines, radio/TV channels, web platforms, and so on?

Why do move studios spend billions to create movie sets?

What is it that every media creation in history – every book, every newspaper, every blog, every podcast, every movie, and every event, set out to do?

And why did Red Bull sponsor Felix Baumgartner to jump from 120,000 feet out of a helium balloon in 2012?

Well, here’s why: To build audiences.

 Guess what, content entrepreneur? You need an audience - the people for whom you’ll solve your hard problem.

You can never build a content business without an audience. But with an audience everything changes. Trust me when I tell you that it will transform your life.

Every media company in history was successful only insofar as they built audiences. But we’re all media companies now. You're a media company now. And this is why you face such an amazing opportunity.

 You see, old media has always known how to build audiences. And yet, the entire media industry, has been getting it’s ass kicked for years. Why is this?

 Well, because they’ve always had to work with an appalling business model: Mass advertising.

 In a world of fragmented audiences it’s very hard to do mass advertising for mass audiences in a profitable way. But the old media were built around mass everything and now they're struggling hard.

 The future belongs to the fragments. And to the people who build their own audiences – the people that Brian Clark calls "rainmakers". So, you, my friend, are about to become a rainmaker. Because now it’s time for your second act in starting your content business. It’s time to build your own audience.

And unlike the old media you're not going to rely on advertising to make your living. Instead you're going to go direct.

Think about the inefficiencies of the advertising model: You go to all that trouble to build a huge audience and what do you do? You sell your audience. Or you sell access to your audience to some outside advertiser. You allow that advertiser to interrupt your audience and sell  stuff to them.

No. Instead, you're going direct now. You’re going to go straight to your readers and sell your products and services directly to them. Nothing and no-on in the middle. Direct is so much more efficient than advertising that it ain’t even funny.

So, how do we start the process of audience building?


How To Get Lift Off

 The big issue in starting a content business is reaching a critical mass of enthusiastic readers/viewers who will lift your brand out of obscurity and take it into the bigger conversation.

Well, there are hundreds of tactics you can use. But I want to frame them under a single core strategy now.

So here’s how you get lift-off and start to build your audience:

You get people to share your idea.

It may sound cheeky but the point is to get others to do the marketing and promotion for you.

So, let’s see how that works.

First, go back to the category. You will never build an audience or develop public awareness until you nail a category for your brand. (Look back at the examples above.) It’s that simple. Why?

Because people have to associate you with something. They have to put you in a mental category. So, that when they refer you to others, they can describe you as “the minimalist guy”, “the writing guru”, “the Facebook marketing expert”, “the one who does passive income”, or whatever it is you do.

You’re not looking for one-offs here – random people doing random acts of sharing. You’re trying to carve out a space where you are the go-to for that category, a shiny, standout, one of a kind solution.

Which is why I'm working hard here (phew!) to get it into your mind that I can help you start a content business. And if you remember me or refer  me to others, it’ll be as the guy who helps people start their own content business.

So, the simpler you can make your category, the better. People don’t remember complex things. They remember simple things, immediate benefits, solutions to real problems.

Which is why you cannot get people to spread your ideas, plural. That’s too complex and the wrong way to think about it.

So, here’s what you do: You create content that underscores your category. Whatever blog posts, guest posts, e-books whatever you publish – all of it should promote the category, even more than it promotes the brand.

In essence yiulre trying to get people to promote te cateogey that just happen to dominate.


But What Makes People Share Stuff?

Sometimes I think the question should be what stops people from sharing. We live in a culture of sharing information. People do it all day long. There’s an astonishing demand for ideas, help and advice. Great.

But you need to understand what drives people to do all that sharing and seek out all that information.

Well, there are countless psychological and emotional triggers behind those behaviors.

But most of all, I would say that sharing content is about value. People seek out and share the content that has value to them.

The key to getting people to share your content and your idea is to present them with clear, simple, and compelling value.

Now different groups value different things, of course. But again we’re talking strategically here, so this:

People share the content that:

  • Makes their lives better in some way.
  • Helps them think or act in new and profitable ways
  • Entertains or amuses them.
  • Moves them emotionally.
  • Is clear, simple, minimalist.
  • Targets exactly the problem they’re trying to resolve.
  • Empathizes with them and takes their perspective.
  • Has voice, opinion, world view, personality, attitude.

If you can produce that type of content, not only will your content get picked up but you will be able to reach out to influencers with it. You’ll also be in the position to guest post on bigger sites and in related forums, and so on.


Act Three: Generate an Income

Before you start a content business you'll need to know how you're going to get income from the thing. So, how?

Well, I can’t tell you in the abstract how you should monetize your content. Because it depends on your focus and your goals. But know that content serves two purposes for you:

You'll use content to create products or services. From e-books, to paid courses, you have an endless range of information-product options.

You'll use content to market those products or services. This is the famed content marketing.


The quickest option: Services

The easiest way to start a content business is by offering a service. Assuming you have the expertise, you can consult, tutor, coach, support, guide and so on, over Skype, or face-to-face. This is a way to turn your knowledge and experience into immediate income.

You could do this with relatively little content on your site – you’d have to have just enough information on your blog to establish the essentials. You need to demonstrate that you can solve a hard problem for  your first customers. (Hourly rates can go from $25 per hour to hundreds of dollars per hour.)

So, that may be a way to launch. In the longer term, however, the problem with consulting is scale: You can only manage so many customers. Burnout is a problem and spreading the consulting throughout the day is often tricky.

This is why products may be the long-term answer.

Selling Information Products

Information products open up a world of income possibilities. If you can format courses you can sell them for much higher rates than for e-books. Meanwhile, create enough of information products and you may be able to start a membership site with recurring monthly revenue. And so on.

Information products can be truly lucrative for the content entrepreneur: They create what’s known as passive income, for example. This is income that continues to roll in long after you finished actually working on the product. So, up a series of information products can be extremely attractive.

Another advantage of information products is scale: You produce the content one time and you can scale up regardless of how many people want to buy.

And as if that were not enough advantage, information products can sell at very high profit-margins, since the costs of producing them – other than your time – are remarkably low.

But note: Creating information products requires serious time commitments. Putting together a course or an e-book are major undertakings. If you have real knowledge and you know in advance precisely what you want to say in these products then you may decide to produce them before launch – just note that they always take longer than you imagine.

I’ve been producing information products since 1989 and I can tell you that it’s probably a much better option to launch with a consulting service. Over time then, you can build up a deeper knowledge of what your customers want before committing to complicated products. It takes skill to create great information products – and the quality of these products will become ever more important over time.

The Role of Marketing

I’ve suggested some ways to get start a content business quickly here, but don’t get you with the wrong impression: You should not be thinking quick-fix or overnight riches. Absolutely not.

You may be lucky enough to launch a consulting business with just enough content to bring in a trickle of customers. But I can assure you that if you want to build from there you’ll need lots of the stuff.

As with any sustainable business, to start content business, you’ll need to lay the right foundations. This involves a great deal of excellent content – a resource library on your platform that can include blog posts, e-books, slide decks, videos, podcasts, and so on.

These resources establish who you are and what you do. They define your category and demonstrate your expertise. They provide the content for Google to index your site and send traffic to you.

In other words, those resources are your content marketing. They are the content you distribute and share with the public to build your brand and reputation.

But probably most important of all, your resource library allows you to build relationships with the people who are interested in what you have to say – your list of subscribers.

I can't overstate the importance of the list. It's the single most valuable asset you you will build. And it’s only through that list that any real income possibilities will emerge.

Anyhow, let’s see some examples.

The Content Business -

Business Models 

Mars Dorian

In recent years Mars Dorian has created a powerful category for himself: "I help you stand out online". This has proved a clear and concrete way to differentiate himself. Mars dominates this category through striking and unique visuals that underscore the claim. But he strengthens the category and the differentiation through his attitude and through a remarkable, and outstanding, writing style.

Mars drives most of his income from services - in particular his freelance artwork and cover design. He also offers consulting on how to stand out online.  And recently he has released a short novel. And most of that income comes from the community of fans and followers he has built with his content.


Fizzle is a three-man operation that offers "Honest online business training - and a community of entrepreneurs who won't let you quit". Personally I find the double-headed category is a little loose but it's clear that they want to establish two things:

  • They're unlike so many of the fly-by-nights that offer online business content
  • They want to emphasize their membership site.

Fizzle are an excellent example of the membership model. They illustrate the three Cs very clearly: Content, community, commerce. (This is our problem, audience, income model again.)

Fizzle work hard to build the community - and their business model and income are built around membership. (Mars has a looser relationship with his community.) Everything on Fizzle's home page is designed to guide you into that community. They offer the first month access for $1, and $35 per month after that. Inside you'll find courses on almost every relevant challenge for the small business. Note, however, that it takes a good deal of content to launch a membership site. And as with Mars, they use blogging to do the content marketing heavy lifting.

Garr  Reynolds

Garr Reynolds is an author, speaker, and content entrepreneur who has built a unique content business around his core competences.  Garr not only helped popularize the category of presentation skills but he managed to narrow it further by defining a key aspect of the craft - the zenlike simplicity of great presentations.

Garr's business model is a mix. He combines speaking engagements (it makes sense that he would present on presenting) together with a high quality series of books and other publications that you can buy on Amazon.

I find the presentation category a particularly smart one because it's perennial - I first bought his best-selling book in 2008 and updated versions still sell extremely well.

Pat Flynn

Pat Flynn is an outstanding content entrepreneur who has created and dominated - almost unchallenged - a highly attractive category: Passive income.

For a one-man operation, Pat produces vast amounts of meticulously prepared content. Every podcast and every post is loaded with actionable value on making passive income. He offers recommendations and insights that work becaused he tests them out himself. And in a very smart move he charges for none of it - no paid books, no paid information products, and no membership site. Instead he uses an affiliate model where he recommends products from other vendors and simply takes a cut.

Flynn has built an intensely loyal following and a community of die-hard fans who buy the products he recommends in real quantities. He's done this through an intense willingness to serve. Listen to a single podcast and it'll become clear how dedicated he is to helping his listeners.

Simon Sinek

Simon Sinek has is a thought leader in the fields of leadership and success. His Ted talk on Start With Why has garnered over 20 million views and he has built a brand around that positioning.

Sinek's business model is an interesting combination of speaking, books, and information products.

Srinivas Rao

If Pat Flynn deals with process and business tactics, then Srinivas Rao deal with the people issues - with themes like meaning, truth, and adventure.

Rao's Unmistakable Creative podcast created a category of media and content for "misfits, disruptors, and creatives", the people who don't fit in but who seek creativity and self-expression through work that goes beyond the financial gain.

His business model is based on paid sponsorship spots on his podcasts. He runs offline events - The Instigator Experience.  Rao has also released e-books.

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