10 Years in Online Business: Lessons I’ve Picked Up Along the Way

A collection of lessons, thoughts, and advice that I've picked up from spending over 10 years in online business.
July 19, 2020

Warning: Before you keep reading, let me assure you that this is NOT going to be a self-serving, “look-at-me” post that contains zero value. I’ve made sure it’s worth your time.

10 years. 3 businesses. 1 successful.

Today, I’m the owner of EDMProd, one of the most popular music production blogs and online education platforms. We serve over 7,000 customers and make track to make mid-to-high 6 figures/year with very good margins (and a team of 2.5 people).

I’m not a high-growth startup entrepreneur, I haven’t had any major exits, but I have built a niche business that has great numbers. I say this to add credibility to the rest of this article.

Before I get into the lessons & thoughts, here’s a quick recap of my last 10 years…

My journey into online business

Around the age of 14 (2010 – 2011) I spent most of my time skateboarding, hanging with friends, and playing video games.

My income: $5 every two weeks for mowing the lawns.

Being the filthy capitalist I am, even at age 14, I wanted more.

So I jumped on Google and typed this in..

It was the usual stuff: mow lawns (already doing), babysit (nope), sell lemonade (live rurally—good luck lol).

But then I saw something else.

Blogging.

Turns out you can write articles about what you love and get paid. Sounds like a good deal.

My first “business” was born. iSkateDaily.com (it doesn’t exist anymore but you can find it on the Wayback Machine).

I wrote 90 articles over the course of that first year and made a grant total of $20 from Amazon’s affiliate scheme. Unfortunately, they had a $100 threshold for paying out, so I didn’t receive anything.

That project was quickly abandoned. I realized I could work summer jobs and actually make money. So that’s what I did instead, while spending time skateboarding, socializing, making music (this will become important later) and other things that 16-year-olds shouldn’t be doing.

Fast-forward a year or two, I wanted to give the online biz thing another crack.

So passiveproductive.com was born after coming across Pat Flynn’s Niche Site Duel 2.0

I quickly wrote a bunch of articles and started doing basic SEO to get some traffic. I managed to build the traffic up to ~50-100 visits a day (which I was stoked with), create a mastermind group with other productivity and personal development bloggers (which later dissolved), and even get featured on ProBlogger.

End results? ~100 email subscribers, 50+ articles, ZERO money.

It was my 18th birthday. I’d finished school and had been working on this productivity blog for the last 10 months. I sat down and asked myself, “Is this really what you want to be doing for the next 5 years? Writing about productivity? Morning routines?”

At this point, I’d also been producing music for 4 years and for some unknown reason had never thought of combining my love for electronic music production and blogging/teaching.

On that same day, my birthday, I decided to end passiveproductive.com and registered the domain name edmprod.com.

I managed to launch it with over 100 email subscribers (from a Reddit post), and quickly grew the site to hundreds of visitors per day simply by being ultra-consistent with putting out content.

Long story short: it took 1 year to start making a consistent income (~1k/month). 3 years after starting, it was bringing in enough cash to sustain my minimal lifestyle. At present time, it’s doing far better than I ever could’ve dreamed.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far…

Align these three things and you will win

Passion, economic viability, and skillset.

I first heard of this concept from Jim Collins speaking at Drucker Day, the last 10 minutes have had a profound impact on the way I think.

Passion gives you the initial drive and determination to do the work (even though you’re not getting paid). It is the forcing function behind quality, consistent work.

Economic viability. Can you get paid? Some people have obscure passions that are extremely difficult to make money from (despite what your favorite guru might tell you). Others might have a certain level of economic viability (as in, they’ll always be a “side hustle”).

Skillset. Building a business around your skillsets means getting a head start. I build EDMProd around writing good articles in an industry that had few of them. That’s what I was good at. If I’d focused on video, things would have taken longer because I had the most unexciting, monotone Kiwi accent.

Focus on fundamental skills, not tactics

Visit any entrepreneur-related Facebook group and you’ll find hundreds of people asking about tactics.

“Which software do I use for this?”

“What does [insert guru here] use to do Y?”

Most of these people aren’t generating any revenue, and they are looking for someone to hold their hand and be an entrepreneur for them. That doesn’t work.

Tactics change, but skills last.

You need to find and develop skills that will move the needle in your business.

Maybe it’s writing content. Maybe it’s copywriting. Maybe it’s being engaging on video. Maybe it’s hiring people.

When you focus on skills like these, the tactics fall in place much easier. If you know nothing about copywriting and you’re asking people in a Facebook group what the best color is for buy now buttons, then you’re skipping a TON of steps.

Ideally, you should develop skills that are transferable and turn you into an options-rich person. Here are a few that I’ve developed which give me options should my business ever fail and I need to do something else:

  • Copywriting
  • Web/Graphic design
  • Teaching
  • Content writing
  • SEO
  • Email marketing
  • Paid acquisition
  • Marketing fundamentals (identifying audience, research, designing an offer)

Learn from the source. Avoid layered information unless necessary.

Today’s online world is PACKED with gurus who are repurposing timeless strategies and tactics but making them sound new.

These gurus are sometimes helpful. It’s not always necessary to know everything about a certain topic. Sometimes you just need the fast-track approach. You need a consolidated “framework” or “system”—and fast.

But you do not want to neglect the high-level thinking and mental development that comes from learning from the source.

For instance, let’s say you want to learn copywriting.

You could take that $997 course that you see ads for every day on Facebook. Or you could read Scientific Advertising, Breakthrough Advertising, The Copywriter’s Handbook, and then copy out the Gary Halbert letters by hand for 3 months.

  • The first option is the easier option because it promises a shortcut. This option might help, and it might give you a few helpful tactics and tricks.
  • The second option is the one that will help you develop deep understanding and skill.

When you learn from the source, you develop foundational depth which enables you to later on see things that other people cannot see—because they’ve only learned shallow, tactical information and can’t make the same links between things that you can.

Read and think: deep and wide

Following on from the last one…

Reading a diverse selection of books has been by far the biggest driver of progress and achievement in my life.

It’s helped me think laterally, innovate, and focus on principled action—not just what everyone else is doing.

Don’t just read business books. Read history, biographies, science, psychology, and anything else that piques your curiosity. Over time, you’ll make connections across disciplines—and this is where the magic happens.

But don't overdo it

There is such thing as over-reading and over-thinking.

I know a guy who reads a book every day, he’s part of an MLM and calls himself an entrepreneur. He’s not. He hasn’t applied much of what he’s read at all.

Your reading and thinking should ultimately result in action, because action is the only way things change.

So, take the time to slow down, think, read, and strategize. It’s important.

Once that’s done—execute with intensity. And do it before you’re ready.

There is luck involved

Your favorite guru won’t tell you this because it impacts their course sales, but it’s true: you need a bit of luck.

I was lucky that my parents enabled me to live practically for free ($50/week rent) for a whole year. That is luck. I could have been born into a different family who weren’t as supportive.

I was lucky that I built a business in a growing industry.

So what if luck is involved? What are you going to do? Nothing?

Of course not. Luck is one variable. It is not everything. Try anyway.

It helps to be emotionally balanced

Both extreme positive and negative emotions will destroy your ability to make sound decisions.

You want to temper this.

Celebrate your wins, but don’t let it puff up your ego to the point where you think you can do anything.

View your failures as problems to be solved and lessons to learn from, but don’t let them bring you down. Don’t let them stop you from taking action and moving forward confidently.

Apply the 80/20 rule wherever you can

The biggest thing that moved my business forward was focusing on what really worked and avoiding everything else.

This is important because there are a TON of shiny objects out there. Most of which will not move the needle for your business.

We focused on the 20% of work that return 80% of the results. Instead of trying to make a ton of products, leverage 12 marketing channels, and gain a following on social media, this is all we focused on:

  • Make really good products. We spent 8 months on the latest version of our Flagship course, which is a lot of time for an online course.
  • Put out SEO-focused, lead-generating content. We have great organic traffic which reduces our CPA significantly. We get leads for free.
  • Write good emails. The third pillar: good email marketing. We had great traffic and lead flow, but also made sure these people were being nurtured and given what they want.

You don't need a big team (at least in online biz)

I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a very slow hirer. I take too much time, and should hire people before I feel ready.

But what I’ve noticed is that some entrepreneurs hire to feed their egos and cure their loneliness, even if they admit it or not. I’m sure you’ve heard someone brag about their team size before.

Here’s the thing: everyone I’ve talked to who’s had a big team and transitioned to a smaller team say they prefer the latter.

Obviously if your goals are to build an empire and take over an industry, it’s different. But I firmly believe you can build a high 6-fig/low 7-fig business with less than 3 people.

Good coaches are underrated

Our revenue went up by 30% after August 2018, all because of one simple decision.

That decision was a recommendation from a business coach who spent 30 minutes looking at our business and numbers, and then basically said, “You need to do this. It’s so obvious and here’s why.”

Good business coaches can see things you can’t. You’re too involved in your business. It’s hard to take a step back and see things for how they really are.

Avoid sunk cost fallacy

We’ve spent months on products that completely flopped when they hit the market.

Hours upon hours of work on articles that never took off.

When this happens it’s tempting to try and push even harder. It’s tempting to think, “Maybe if we just make a few tweaks here and there, it will work.”

Generally it doesn’t.

Product-market-fit is not a result of time. It is a result of research and thinking. Your customer does not care how many months you put into a product if it isn’t what they want or need.

Cut your losses and move on. Take it as as a lesson.

(For the record, we have launched 3 courses at EDMProd that didn’t hit the market well. This has cost us ~1 year of our time, and about 100k in investment. It sucks, but it teaches you lessons you can’t learn from articles or books).

Don't "think" for your customer

If you’ve built a business around your passion or your ability to teach what you know, then you will get to a point where you’re leagues above your target market.

The danger here is that you think you know what your customers are dealing with, but you’re not in their world anymore. You predict, you assume, but you don’t really know.

You need to develop an empathetic knowledge of what your market struggles with. The best way to do this is talk to your customers. Ask them what their problems and desires are.

The drive & intensity may fade

There are some rare people who wake up every day with the same level of hunger they had when they first started their business. I envy these people because I’m not one of them.

If you’re like me (see: normal), then at some point you’ll wake up and realize that you’re not in the “building” phase anymore.

In other words, the hustle and drive have waned.

This is a normal part of a business and founders lifecycle, and it’s where the smart business building needs to happen.

  • You move from hustling and doing all the work yourself, to delegating and making smart decisions.
  • You learn to say “no” more than you say “yes” (where in the beginning you were saying yes to all opportunities that came your way, because that’s what you needed to do).
  • You go through a period of immense personal growth, because you have to figure out how to motivate yourself to do the work.

Most opportunities that come your way are sub-optimal

As your business grows and you become more successful, more opportunities will come your way.

90% of these opportunities are sub-optimal compared to what you should be doing with your business. Even the opportunities you would have killed for years ago.

This includes side projects, clients and customers you know you won’t enjoy working with, product development projects that excite you but you know aren’t as good as the one idea that you’ve been grinding out for a while now.

The best example I can give is from EDMProd.

We’d launched EDM Foundations in October 2016 and it did extremely well. We launched again in January, and it did even better.

And that’s where we messed up.

Instead of doubling down on EDM Foundations, making it even better, improving the marketing… we decided to launch a completely different product. This product failed.

So we launched another one. It did okay, but not great.

Then we launched another one. It also failed.

And we got to a point where we basically said, “Why are we not focusing on EDM Foundations? It works. We can make it work better. This is stupid.”

We fell for the shiny objects instead of sitting tight and doubling down on what was already working.

Most opportunities that come your way are sub-optimal

You either have a bias towards action or a bias towards thinking.

You’ll know where your bias is. If you tend to read a lot, you’re slow to make decisions, and you want to have everything in place before you make a decision—you’re a thinker.

If you make decisions fast without always considering the consequences, you’re an action-taker.

Personally, I have a bias towards thinking. I’m decisive in every day life, but not with business. If you’re like me, the best thing you can do is default to action. You’re going to do the thinking regardless.

Detach emotionally from the numbers. Focus on longer term trends.

NEVER have Stripe and Paypal notifications enabled on your phone.

It will screw up your dopamine levels, your emotional resilience, and more.

Sure, it feels great on a high sales day. But what about a day when you make zero sales? You keep waiting for that “ping.” But it never comes.

Having a low revenue day or week is not a huge issue. You shouldn’t feel stressed out.

Having multiple low revenue months is most likely an issue and you should take action and fix it.

And again, turn those notifications off. Stop checking your sales every 30 mins.

Think in terms of opportunity cost

Don’t be afraid to spend money on software and tools that save you time. $50/month might seem like a lot, but if it automates a process that takes you 3 hours/month—it’s probably worth it.

Likewise, outsource non-biz tasks that you don’t enjoy or aren’t worth your time (like housekeeping/gardening/cooking).

Calculate your hourly rate. Avoid doing work that you can delegate for less (or work that brings you joy. I will never outsource chopping wood for as long as I live, because I love it. And I don’t do enough manual labour anyway).

Finally, become a higher performer

The biggest roadblock for entrepreneurs is not that they don’t have enough ideas or knowledge. It’s that they lack an actionable strategy and/or the performance ability to make things happen.

What changed the game for me was thinking strategically, and transforming myself into a high performer.

I went from procrastinating for hours each day, to working less than 6 hours per day and getting a TON of stuff done.

A) Because I learned how to focus with intensity and reach peak productivity, and B) because I focused on the right projects and tasks that I knew would move my business forward.

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