My 2017 Annual Review That Every Other Business Blogger Does in January Too
Last year, I wrote a year-in-review post because EVERYONE else does. At first, I didn’t want to, but Jason Zook convinced me and I’m glad he did.
I can now see all my annual mistakes and failures on a single web page 😉
Here are updates on Money Lab Challenges and Experiments I did this year. I like to ask myself these questions:
- Are past challenges and experiments still making money?
- What worked and what didn’t?
- How many gray hairs do you have now?
The answer to the last question is about two on my beard. This is shocking considering how stressed I was this past year.
But before we answer the first two questions, let’s break down what I’m currently working on like what EVERYONE does on those “Now” pages from Derek Sivers.
My Current Brands
If you’re new to Money Lab, here’s an outline all my current projects. If you’re already familiar, skip ahead.
- SwimUniversity.com is a website with articles and videos about swimming pool and hot tub care. I started it in 2006 and it’s been my bread and butter ever since. It makes money with affiliate links, sponsorships (read: selling advertising), and digital product sales.
- RoastyCoffee.com is a website about finding and brewing coffee at home. I started it in 2015 and it’s my secondary source of income. It makes money with affiliate links.
- BrewCabin.com is this website about homebrewing beer. I started it in January of 2017. After about two months of working on it, I put it on hold and started it back up again in September 2017 with my friend JP.
- GetEarnist.com is this WordPress plugin for managing affiliate links. It started as a custom plugin I built for myself three years ago, but in October of 2017, I teamed up with JP again to launch it to the public.
- MoneyLab.co (no need for a hyperlink) is this website and I consider it my personal blog. I started it in March of 2016. It doesn’t make any money itself, but I do make money from some the challenges and experiments.
2017 Challenges and Experiments
The following is all of the projects I started, accomplished, launched, and shut down on Money Lab this year.
- The Homebrewing Website Experiment – I wanted to build another brand in the homebrewing space similar to Roasty and SwimU. Meaning, creating content, gaining traffic with SEO, and making money by selling digital products, advertising, and affiliate links. I chose homebrewing because I’m a homebrewer and always wanted to do this. The experiment only lasted two months before I stopped when Amazon fucked me. I picked it back up again in another challenge.
- The Subscription Business Training Library Experiment – This was a short-lived experiment where I tried to build a subscription-based course platform to train pool and spa professionals how to market themselves better on the internet. I teamed up with a friend from the pool industry and we launched with zero sales and quickly shut down the project. A huge fucking failure and a massive waste of money.
- Create a Membership Site in 14 Days – My friend Doug is a primitive skills expert and I wanted to help him create an online business. So we created “the Netflix for survival and primitive skills” called The Pack. We successfully built it in 14 days, but it didn’t perform well due to lack of marketing and a sizable audience. It’s still up and running though!
- The Content Audit Experiment – Roasty had a lot of bloated content, so I deleted and consolidated a lot of articles hoping to increase traffic to better pages. It worked! And this is a huge annual practice on all my sites.
- The Ultimate Upsell Experiment – This is still ongoing. In June of 2017, I flew home to New Jersey to film a video course for Swim University that would be an upsell to my already popular pool care e-book. There was a lot of holdups with hiring help on this project, but the plan is to have it finished before April 2018. I’m working with my friend and video editor from back home on this project.
- Build a Profitable Brand in One Year – This is a reimagined version of The Homebrewing Website Experiment. I teamed up with my friend JP to build Brew Cabin from the ground up again. The site was completely redesigned and now includes a section for homebrew recipes, beer styles, and ingredients that JP built on Rails/Ruby. The content side is built on WordPress. This is a challenge to make the site profitable in less than a year focusing on content marketing alone.
- Create and Sell a Premium WordPress Plugin in 40 Days – While we were giving Brew Cabin a chance to grow, JP and I took a custom plugin I built for myself and turned it into a full-blown premium plugin for affiliate marketers that’s for sale to the public. At first, this was just an experiment, but I turned it into a challenge because of how fast we were making progress. This plugin was successful and has a bright future.
I don’t write a lot of articles, but when I do, they’re big and filled with hairy details about my business. I’m proud of these bad boys:
- Making The Home Barista Video Course – I saved up the profits from Roasty for almost a year and rented a mansion in Breckenridge, Colorado to film a premium coffee video course while I spent the mornings snowboarding with my friends. The ultimate tax write-off!
- The Definitive Guide to Podcast Marketing – This is an article I wrote in 2015 that I’ve been moving around from site to site. It finally ended up on Money Lab this year and I continue to improve it annually. It’s a monster.
- The Digital Media Company Mission – In March 2017, Amazon changed the commission structure to their affiliate program and a lot of website owners saw a huge decrease in their income, including me. So I took March off to reflect on my business and decide how I wanted to run it in the future. This is my new business manifesto. In a nutshell, I’m producing high-quality articles and videos, creating and selling my own products and advertising, and using affiliate commissions as bonus investment money.
- Amazon Fucked Me, So I Changed My Entire Business Model – This was the story of what made me write The Digital Media Company Mission. This has all the details that led me to write that manifesto for my business.
- I Demoted Myself So My Business Could Grow – In August 2017, I started an aggressive hiring process to push my digital media model into high gear. I hired an advertising sales manager, a video graphics animator, and a operations manager all in one month. Spoiler alert: I failed at this one.
- Want to Build a Software Startup? Don’t Do These 4 Things – This was my last ditch effort to get people to buy my first software product. It’s the entire story of how I tried to build a software startup without any experience in coding a SAAS product and failed in spectacular fashion. While it ends on a positive note, soon after publishing it, I decided to walk away from the project.
2017 Promotional Projects
These are mini-projects that I published on Money Lab to help promote the site. In hindsight, I wish I would have done more in this category.
- 2-Hour Live Behind-The-Scenes Webinar – After the launch of Earnist (the WordPress plugin), I held a live webinar on YouTube giving about 30 viewers a complete behind-the-scenes look at my business operations. It’s now available to watch anytime for free, but here’s a lot of foul language. So if you have kids around while you’re watching, turn it up so they can hear too.
- Driven: A Podcast I Once Hosted – I hosted a short-lived podcast in June of 2015 where I conducted in-depth interviews with my fellow online entrepreneur friends. I gave up on it because I got bored of interviewing my fellow online entrepreneur friends.
- Matt Makes Music – This is a secret little page I made that chronicles my entire musical hobby/career. I don’t think I ever shared this page before. Weird.
That sums it up. When I first started writing this, I had a feeling that I didn’t do as much as I did in 2016. I was wrong. I did more in 2017. Holy shit!
Now let’s talk about the bad things that happened first.
The Bad Things in 2017
Here’s a rundown of what I thought went terribly this year on Money Lab and my other projects. First, let’s start with the biggest flop.
I Walked Away From Spruce
I started Spruce with Jason Zook as a 60-Day challenge to build a website metrics SAAS product without any prior knowledge of coding in Rails/Ruby. After about 30 days, I was in over my head and we had to bring on a third partner and developer.
This is what I looked like right before launch…
When that didn’t work out, we got another third partner and developer. After months of extremely slow progress and frustration, I finally decided to walk away after spending a year on it.
It was not an easy decision, but in hindsight, I should have stopped a long time ago. When I look back through my journal, it was pretty clear it was my main stressor for all of 2017.
However, Jason and Conrad are still working on it though and I hope to see some progress from them soon.
We Stopped Working on Get Sponsorships
This was the very first challenge that I did on Money Lab, and it was the first project I worked on with Jason Zook. We both decided not to work on the project anymore, but Jason will continue to offer the course as part of his Buy of Future program.
Sales were tapering off and we were getting a lot of refund requests because of unqualified traffic to the site.
I believe our failure on this project came from outsourcing. We hired writers to create articles, but a lot of them were subpar. Had we created the content ourselves, I think we would have seen more success.
Amazon Fucked Me and Roasty Saw a Decrease in Profits
In December of 2016, RoastyCoffee.com peaked in profits. That month the site made $7,454.67 from Amazon Associates alone!
Then, the decline started. We were losing traffic and Amazon changed their commission rates which lead to over a 50% decrease in profits for Roasty. I talk about it in more detail here.
Take a look at February vs. March:
Since then, Roasty has been steadily bringing in about $1,400 a month with traffic hovering around 70,000 visitors.
I’m not giving up on Roasty. In fact, we’re taking a break on the weekly newsletter to focus on refreshing the existing content to better target well-performing keywords.
The goal in 2018 is to turn Roasty into a super high-quality resource that makes money through affiliate sales and advertising.
I Launched and Closed a Project That I Barely Mentioned
In early January 2017, I started a project with my friend Monique to build a course platform for pool and hot tub professionals called Swim University Pro. The goal was to teach these pros how to market their pool and spa service and building businesses on the internet.
I built the site, we had some courses available, and then we launched to zero sales. Everyone we talked to wasn’t interested. I spent and lost $5,924 on this project! I paid for writers to help me write course content and for a plugin by Restrict Content Pro.
Then, Monique and I decided to abandon the project and I took the experiment off Money Lab. Usually, I would leave things up like that to showcase my failures, but it just wasn’t an interesting project. And it came and went so fast that I almost completely forgot that we had tried it. I regret deleting that post and have since re-published it.
Working From Home Felt Unsafe
Last year, we moved into a nice single-family home/condo/townhouse in Downtown Boulder.
It was 5:00 am on a Tuesday morning in June when we heard the faint sound of police sirens from our open bedroom window. It turns out our neighbor’s house was being raided by a S.W.A.T team and the A.T.F. It was scary and no one was arrested. Like, WTF!?
Since then, the cops have shown up at our neighbor’s house at least once a month because of either noise, mental issues, and fighting.
One of those times was on a Tuesday in October at 4:00 PM, the cops surrounded the house with semi-automatic guns drawn. I was trapped in my place and told to stay away from the windows. Thankfully, Steph was at yoga during that time.
Still, no fucking arrests have been made and my neighbor continues to live there while I live in fear.
That was the most stressful moment of my life. I lost it!
We decided, in 2018 when our lease is up, we’ll be moving again. This time, we’re getting out of downtown Boulder, away from the college-town commotion, and setting up shop in a real single-family home with enough yard space for a puppy.
I Hired 12 People and Let Go of Six
This was the year I was trying to build my digital media company and I hired a bunch of people to help get things moving. I filled positions including, Editor-In-Chief, writing, sales, operations, and video production.
As a business owner, you have the stressful job of trying to find the right person for your company. And if that doesn’t work out, you have the more stressful job of letting them go.
- The operations position didn’t work out. It wasn’t the wrong person, it was the wrong position. I didn’t need an operations manager yet. It was a premature decision on my part.
- I found a salesperson based on a bad application process I invented. I was looking for someone with personality when I should have looked for someone with sales experience.
- We hired four writers that just weren’t fit for the position, either by missing deadlines or not getting the tone right. But that got us to double-down on the writers who really fit the role.
- I hired for video production and delivery was slow. This forced me to question whether I really needed this role to be filled in the first place. It was another premature decision.
The good news is, when you find the right people to fill the right roles, it changes everything for the better. So even though I had to let six people go this year, I’ve also hired some of the best. And I’ll talk about that next.
The Good Things in 2017
Now that I’m finished being a sad sack, let’s talk about the fun stuff that actually worked this year! A lot of the bad moments actually turned into good ones.
Hiring An Editor-in-Chief
One of the best hires I’ve ever made was my Editor-in-Chief.
In March, I sent out a Google Forms application to the people on my Money Lab list looking for an editor to run all my sites. I got a bunch of applicants, but one really stood out. She was the only person I interviewed and then hired immediately.
She was referred by a former co-worker who was on the Money Lab list.
She’s now running an editorial team of three writers and a graphic designer on SwimU, Roasty, and Brew Cabin.
I Walked Away From Spruce
I mentioned this in the Bad Things section because it was bittersweet. Leaving the project as a tough decision, but it was the right one.
The weight of the project was lifted off my shoulders. The stress disappeared since I no longer had this looming entity to think and worry about.
Again, I feel bad about my friends who invested in Spruce because of me, only to see me walk away. But I plan to create content and build new products to make up for it over time.
Amazon Fucked Me and I Found Clarity in My Business
I wrote two articles about this (here and here). This moment was also bittersweet because while I lost money, it forced me to take a month-long break to research a better business model to follow for my company.
I spent the month of March reading about digital media companies and watching interviews from CEOs. One, in particular, was this video from the CEO of Vox Media. This interview really inspired me and is now a business role model that I follow.
This also led to me meeting my new business partner and being introduced to a business framework that is changing the way I look at the future.
I did an exercise from the book, Traction to come up with my company’s core values and focus. The core values help us to find the right people and the core focus helps us to decide which projects to take on or pass up.
Our core values are:
Our core focus is:
- Purpose: Uncomplicate everything.
- Niche: Digital publishing.
Meeting JP and Launching Both Brew Cabin and Earnist
I met JP because of this very website. A friend of his sent him my email marketing parody page and he reached out to me knowing I was in Colorado.
We met for coffee and talked business. Soon after, we decided to work on building Brew Cabin together. I would be in charge of content, marketing, and operations. He would be the CTO, working on building a free homebrew recipe database and online brewing software.
While we were working on that, we decided to start another project (Earnist). We launched it on November 27th to 30 sales and will continue to help it grow.
He also invited Steph and me to be a part of a group ski condo that he rents and manages every year near Breckenridge (Frisco, Colorado).
BONUS: The condo has a hot tub and I plan to film a course with it for Swim University. WRITE OFF!
JP and I are very similar when it comes to working habits and drive. We both enjoy the work we do and are quick to get shit done. It’s been refreshing to work with someone who fills in my skill gaps and cranks stuff out mind-blowingly fast.
I Made More Money This Year
My business will have grossed around $270,000 this year. I don’t have an exact amount because I’m writing this before the year is over. This is about $70,000 more than I made last year.
I was hoping to get to $300k, but I’m happy with where I am considering the big dip in revenue from the Amazon debacle.
However, I personally didn’t make more money; I made less. I used most of the money to hire people and experiment with different projects. A lot of the income went right back into the business.
Last-Minute Fun Facts About 2017
There’s a couple of things I wanted to mention that don’t have to do with Money Lab or money in general, just things I think are fun to mention that happened this year.
I Started Brewing Beer Again
In April, I went nuts and just purchased all of the homebrewing shit I needed to start making beer again. I used to homebrew when I lived in New Jersey but had either sold or left my equipment there.
I not only bought all the stuff to make beer, but I also bought a kegerator and beer fridge to serve beer to my friends. This made our home a popular place to host lots of parties.
We Had Lots of House Parties and Potlucks
I love to entertain, and we did a lot of it this year. We started a monthly potluck and hosted random parties with the excuse to get rid of my homebrew so I could make more batches.
We either hosted or attended at least two parties a month. Every one of them brought us closer to our new friend group in Colorado (or added new friends) and we continue to host as much as we can. Our last party of the year will be on Christmas Eve. Maybe even New Year’s Eve, too.
Thank you, kegerator!
The Coffee Course That Led to The Snowboarding Trip
I wrote about making the Home Barista Course for Roasty earlier this year. I used the course as an excuse to fly my best friends to visit me in Colorado for a snowboarding trip in Breckenridge.
I wouldn’t have been able to do this had it not been for my own business. Also, when you build brands around the things you love, it tends to have a positive effect on your personal life.
I Didn’t Attend Any Conferences
For the last three years, I’ve attended both VidCon and FinCon, but I didn’t this year.
I didn’t go to VidCon because I’m not really a YouTuber. But I did miss not going, so I plan on going in 2018 again with Thomas and Caleb.
I didn’t go to FinCon because I flew my mom and her sister to visit me Boulder that week for her 60th birthday.
However, I did go to Portland, Oregon during WDS, but I never attend the actual conference. I just like Portland and hanging out with my online friends who all happen to be in the same town that week.
In 2018, I plan to attend more conferences than ever before.
I Only Read 4 Books This Year
I made a conscious choice not to read as many books as I did last year, which was 38. Mainly because I didn’t want to be influenced and derail myself from my business trajectory. Not sure if that was a good or bad idea.
That said, the 4 I read were:
Shoe Dog: A Memoir By The Creator of Nike
by Phil Knight
Really interesting business/autobiography from the creator of Nike. Very cool story and fun to read.
- George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones
From the author of my favorite book about Jim Henson comes a story about a guy I didn’t really care much about. But I’m glad I read it because it was insightful. I learned that you should surround yourself with talented people, which forces you to be more creative and produce your best work.
- The Daily Show: An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests by Chris Smith and Jon Stewart
It was OK. Just some behind-the-scenes stuff about a show I love.
Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business
by Gino Wickman
JP recommended this book and it helped me to organize my business and find clarity on our core values and mission.
I plan to read more books in 2018. Maybe even hit that 50-books-a-year goal!
I’ve Gone Full-Boulder
I bought a Subaru Outback, a Patagonia vest, and plenty of beard oil.
What’s The Plan For 2018?
I’m not going to start any new major brands in 2018; this is my hard-and-fast rule. My focus will be on growing my existing ones by creating new products and increasing my marketing efforts.
My goal is to hit $500,000 annual revenue in 2018. And I want to diversify my revenue streams more so that affiliate commissions don’t make up 75% of my income.
Money Lab is still exactly what I want it to be. And I want to deliver even more! That’s why I’m also going to focus on building courses to sell.
Here’s a quick list of things I’m thinking about doing in 2018:
- Moving to a new house and building a small home brewery 🍺
- Launching the second edition of my first digital product The Hot Tub Handbook on SwimUniversity.com. The content is done, I just have to design the e-book.
- Launching the Art of Pool Care Video Course as an up-sell to The Art of Pool Care e-book on SwimUniversity.com. The filming is done, I just have to edit them.
- Launching The Hot Tub Handbook Video Course as an up-sell to The Hot Tub Handbook. Because our ski condo has a hot tub. Jackpot!
- Updating my Asana For Bloggers course and moving it to MoneyLab.co instead of selling it on Gumroad.
- Creating more Asana-For-Bloggers-like courses to sell on Money Lab.
- Hiring for marketing and promotion across all brands.
- Creating course products and software to sell on Brew Cabin.
- Selling advertising packages across all brands.
- Starting a podcast (I keep going back and forth on this).
And finally, I’d like to thank you for reading and supporting Money Lab. I want this to be a place you can escape the other shitty make-money-online sites. I want this site to be something you would actually want to bookmark and revisit.
The best part of running Money Lab is sending emails and answering the responses. So thank you for reaching out and keep it coming!
If you have any ideas on how I can make this site better, please email me.
This is the second full year of Money Lab and it continues to be my favorite project. In fact, I want to double-down on it next year because I enjoy spending time on it.
I want it to start making money too. I’ve said in the past that I just want Money Lab to be my escape, but now I want it to be a business. I want to offer more to the people who enjoy it as much as I do. That means more courses like Asana for Bloggers.
I can’t wait to see what 2018 has to offer. Hopefully, we’ll all still be here 🙂
Peach out! 🍑
I had comments for a while because it was a "best practice." However, fuck that! I prefer to have personal conversations via email or Twitter. So, let’s do that instead.