The Freelancers' Show 131 - Tiny Sites and Productized Consulting with Kurt Elster

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The panelists talk to Kurt Elster about tiny sites and productized consulting.


KURT: Four kids? How do you still have hair? CHUCK: I don’t. KURT: Oh okay. [Laughter][This episode is sponsored by LessAccounting. Are you looking for a system that makes it easy to track all your expenses, income and your budget? Is QuickBooks too much of a pain for you? It was, for me, and I switched to LessAccounting and I love it. It makes things really easy to keep track of and it gives me a lot of charts and graphs to make it easy for me to look at and just know where I'm at with my expenses and everything else. One of the owners, Allan Branch, and his son have written a book for entrepreneurs’ children that talks about what entrepreneurs do and why they're important. If you're interested in that, you can go to]**[Work and learn from designers at Amazon and Quora, developers at SoundCloud and Heroku, and entrepreneurs like Patrick Ambron from BrandYourself. You can level up your design, dev and promotion skills at Level Up Con, taking place on October 8th and 9th in downtown Saratoga Springs, New York. Only two hours by train from New York City, this is the perfect place to enjoy early fall at Oktoberfest, while you mingle with industry pioneers, in a resort town in upstate New York. Get your tickets today at The space is extremely limited for this premium conference experience. Don’t delay! Check out now]**[This episode is brought to you by ProXPN. If you are out and about on public Wi-Fi, you never know who might be listening. With ProXPN, you no longer have to worry. ProXPN is a VPN solution which sends all of your traffic over a secure connection to one of their servers around the world. To sign up, go to and use the promo code tmtcs (short for teach me to code screencasts) to get 10% off for life]**CHUCK: Hey everybody and welcome to episode 131 of the Freelancers’ Show. This week on our panel we have Eric Davis. ERIC: Hello. CHUCK: Reuven Lerner. REUVEN: Hi everyone. CHUCK: I’m Charles Max Wood from, and this week we have a special guest Kurt Elster. KURT: Howdy. CHUCK: Do you want to introduce yourself, Kurt? KURT: For the last five years, I have been steeped in freelancing and internet culture with my startup Ethercycle, which started life as a Software as a Service project that failed miserably in the first year, but for the last four years has been very successful as consulting in freelancing. And right now we specialize in eCommerce and all that fun stuff. CHUCK: So are you consulting or are you doing Software as a Service? KURT: Right now we’re doing 95% consulting. CHUCK: Okay. Are you planning eventually to get away from that into Software as a Service? Or are you just seeing where things go? KURT: Well, yeah we’ve had some false starts with some Software as a Service projects, where we start, we feel out the market, we build an MVP and it doesn’t work out. But eventually one day, I hope to get to Software as a Service. I’ve got a couple on the horizon that I think will be the next big thing but for now we’re just really good at freelancing. CHUCK: Awesome. Now, when you contacted us you actually said that you had done a few other sites that got traffic and made you money. KURT: Right. The big deal is Calming Manatee. Calming Manatee is the site that probably most listeners are likely to have heard. Calming Manatee is a website – it loads just at random one of like 35 images. It’s got an inspirational message from a manatee, so it’s done in that unique style with impact and whatever. REUVEN: Manatees are well known for their inspiring messages of course. KURT:[Chuckles] Yeah, absolutely. And I have never swam with the manatees; I’ve never been within a hundred yards of a manatee. But me and my cohorts are now known as “the manatee people.” But yeah, that started at the time we were doing purely freelancing consulting, whatever you want to call it. It was a Friday afternoon, and my business partner, he was trying to see Paranormal Activity with one of his friends, and they were trying to plan it with a bunch of people. And his friend had sent him a text message that said “Let’s see a calming matinee instead.” [Chuckling] Now iOS autocorrect, in its wisdom, changed that to “manatee” and he thought that was the funniest thing ever. So he said, “Kurt go register” And I did not have the foresight, I’m like, “That’s stupid. Let’s not waste our time and $8 on that.” So we did, and eventually I gave in; I bought the domain name and we put together ten images, put it up there, and tweeted it once. I didn’t even tweet it, he did. And then two days later, Pee-wee Herman, Paul Reubens, tweets it. And after that, the thing was everywhere. It was like, the first month was a million visitors, the next month was a million visitors. So we put AdSense on it and then Huffington Post called and they were like “Hey, can we interview you?” and they’ve interviewed us twice and a bunch of other people. But after that it’s like, “Okay, if Calming Manatee is a thing where we get interviewed by the Huffington Post then no idea is too stupid for the internet.” [Laughter] But you have to limit your time investments. So really, the system is, if I could build it in an afternoon or even a day let’s not even think about whether or not it’s a good idea – I just go out there and do it.CHUCK: That’s pretty interesting. So besides the attention – I mean we’re freelancers, we run businesses – is there money to be made this way? KURT: We tried several different things. Initially, I was too good for advertising – I was allergic to it. I didn’t want to4 hurt my designer pride or something silly like that. So we tried donations, which is really easy to set up with Wepay. We tried selling branded stuff through, I think, CafePress. We tried something else. But eventually we just put AdSense on there, and you know what? AdSense has been running up there for what, years now. Not a single person has ever complained about it. And AdSense generates thousands of dollars a month – enough to cover our fixed expenses. REUVEN: Wow. KURT: And it’s really easy. Once your AdSense account is approved, they just say “Here’s your code snippet, drop that on whatever website you want.” So every time we have one of these ideas from day zero, we’re putting in the AdSense snippet in case it happens to be huge. Because my biggest regret is not doing AdSense from day one and getting those literally millions of visitors. REUVEN:Obviously the money from AdSense is dependent on the traffic. And is the traffic basically a result of that Pee-Wee Herman tweeted it, that that one or two famous people tweet it and that just sort of led to this domino effect where it became super famous? Or do you think someone without – I mean not that you guys set out to do this – but can someone with an idea just put it up there and still make money or will it just be a longer, slower slope? [Crosstalk 06:27]KURT: So we got lucky on the first one. Obviously we thought “Alright, lightning struck. Can we make lightning strike twice?” So the other big one we did was, and I used to listen to – I’d have in two browser windows – I’d have which just plays a loop of café noise, and which just plays a loop of rain noise, and I open them at the same time so they play together. One day I thought, “Wait a second, this are just MP3 loops; I could do this myself.” So in an afternoon, same deal, I edit together some loops and I made And I didn’t do the development; I’m not a developer. So I threw together Rainy Café and that same day, I sent it to Lifehacker. I said “Hey, I made this thing. It produces white noise. You could pick and choose between rain or café or both.” And that’s it. And the next day, Lifehacker sure enough posts it and again – boom. First day, so much traffic, it took down the server. CHUCK: It rained on your café, huh? KURT: Yes. So clearly at that point the formula is: Build a thing that helps you, then send it to someone it’s relevant to, and see what happens. So that could be like post it in a Reddit group or send it to a blog like Lifehacker. And if it’s a genuinely helpful thing to people, why wouldn’t they post it? REUVEN: So the publicity part seems to be the crucial part here above and beyond just the site, and that’s the part that I think many of us, including me, would say, “Well, I’ll just step aside” and maybe someone will come to it, maybe they won’t. But clearly you have to have put – if not just the development on the website effort, it’s the publicity effort, and that effort might be an hour. But that seems to be the crucial ingredient here from what you’re saying. Plus luck. KURT: Yeah. And usually you just have to look at – I’ll find sites in a similar niche, look at where they’re posted, where their traffic’s coming from. You know, just do a bit of Googling. And yeah, an hour is all it takes to figure out, “Alright, here are some people who would be interested in this.” CHUCK: So I have to wonder, I mean, there’s a certain allure to having something like this where you just put something up, you put AdSense on it, and you make some money on it. But at the same time I’m wondering does the server drive traffic back to your consulting business? KURT: Yeah. W we have other sites where it’s more relevant to web development. – that’s a website that we built again for ourselves. It’s a calculator that’ll give you DPI, so you could figure out if something is retina. DPI – we use that for figuring out media queries. And Is This Retina has been used – I saw in an article from Fortune, I’ve seen in articles from other big publications. We run a popup on it and then the popup tries to get people into a drip campaign for improving their conversions and it runs ads for my productized consulting offering Website Rescues. And there’s also Website Performance Checklist which is just, “Here’s a checklist of stuff we do to optimize websites. And then if you want, you could do this yourself for free, go ahead. Or if you don’t want to we’d love to help you do it. We have the price listed on there.” But once you have one, you could just have a link to the next one – like build your own link network. CHUCK: That’s really interesting, just this checklist here. And then I notice that you also have the popup, popover, join-our-mailing-list thing. Which of these is the most important component of what you do? KURT: It’s tough. I’m torn between the site that has the most traffic and the site that has the most warm, relevant traffic. gets way less traffic than Rainy Café, but that’s our much better audience. But Rainy Café actually gets the highest percentage of people who convert to – the highest percentage of conversions: visitors who sign up for the mailing list and then reply to that drip campaign and then start an engagement with me. CHUCK: That makes sense. KURT: Yeah, and it goes two ways. It’s sort of like if no one engages, that’s fine, because as long as the site can generate enough AdSense revenue to generate, to cover the hosting and the cost, then I’m at zero. And that happens really very easily. CHUCK: Well I guess that makes sense. I mean if you haven’t hosted on a VPS or something. KURT: Yeah, we use Linode as a VPS and it’s really great. It handles – now that they’ve updated it, you can throw millions of visitors a day at it and it doesn’t even register. CHUCK: Right. So between all of it – with your domain name and everything else – you’re talking 50, 60 bucks a year or something? Well, I guess 50, 60 bucks a month. KURT: Yeah. And then for each site figure – like the rule of thumb is an afternoon to development – so whatever you value that time at. And that’s really all any of these sites cost. CHUCK: So how do you come up with an idea like that? KURT:Well, so most of the time it’s something that would help us. Like I did and Will There Be Mail Today was literally because I was wondering will there be mail today? I just went on USPS website and they have a list. They say, “Alright for this year, here’s the days we won’t deliver mail.” So I made a website that’s got a little PHP script that just texts the date and then it spits back if there will or won’t be mail today and if not, what the holiday is. And that was funny. I’ve had a couple of people call me, where they were like, “Hey, I wondered if there was mail today, I Googled it and then this website came up with your name on it,” which is funny. This one does okay – but then when the government shutdown happened, it got tens of thousands a day during the government shutdown which was great. [Laughter] But the critical rule is though, generally instead of me trying to sell a thing to someone, it’s me solving a need for myself, s4o some simple utility or tool that solves a problem I’m having.CHUCK: Mm-hm, that makes sense. I’m trying to think of things that I could do and my brain is just coming up short. I have built stuff like this in the past though. For example, I built Yearly Scheduler or something like that.   **KURT: Right. So for us – literally all of them – if we have tried to say, “Let’s sit down, let’s have lunch, and we’ll figure out the next project” – that has literally never worked. It has to be - you have these eureka moments, where it’s like you’re sitting there and you’re like “Oh I wish there was something that did X.” Every time you say to yourself, “I wish there was a way to do X” – that’s your opportunity right there. CHUCK: Right, then you pair it down to something that you could build in an afternoon? KURT: Yeah and then you just build it down to its minimum viable form. CHUCK: Yeah, so it’s that I built and I got a spreadsheet from Chris Ducker at a conference. And I hate spreadsheets. [Chuckling] KURT: That makes two of us. CHUCK: Yeah. Nothing personal, but I hate spreadsheets. So I looked at it and I was like “Yeah I could throw something together in jQuery in like 2 or 3 hours.” And that’s really what I did. I spent a few hours throwing it together; put some authentication around it so you can actually save your calendar. And yeah, that was it. What it is is you just go in, you just put some labels on some colors and then you just click on the days to get them to be the different colors. If you have conferences, or holidays, is one of the ones that I put in there – just things that I knew that I had going on, I could actually get in and see what I had going on for the year: vacations, trainings, webinars, all kinds of stuff. So yeah, that’s the route I took with that and it was just something really dumb that I could put together that people could use. KURT: Yeah. No, that’s beautiful. That’s a perfect example of this. You really built it like you used something interesting to save time. You built it for yourself, and you even said that flat-out in the first paragraph of the description. Yeah, this is a good example of one of our lab style projects. CHUCK: Yeah. No one’s really using it but I haven’t really publicized it either. So is there a good way for me to get the word out about something like this? KURT: So this day, right away this is something that’ll be really helpful, that would grow well in a community. So I would cruise Reddit – like the freelancing sub forum. And I wouldn’t post it or promote it. You could. But sometimes people look down on that. I generally look for something that has or someone who would have this problem, where you could say, “Hey, you have this problem. I’ve built a tool for myself to solve it. Check it out, tell me what you think.” CHUCK: Yeah that makes sense. KURT: Yeah. And once you have – if you could get just one person to say, “This is great,” that goes a huge way toward getting it out there. is a one page website I made that just describes a single line email I use all the time with clients. And that has done really well on Reddit just because – not even me – someone else posted it in reddit/r/freelancing and then I followed up with it. That does well – I get a lot of traffic from Reddit. But it’s just because someone was like “Hey, how do I follow up to X email?” Sometimes, once that out there, you don’t know what’s going to happen to it. It looks like a pickup artists’ type forum on Reddit, there’s someone who asked the question – and I got a ton of traffic from this – he was like, “Hey, how do I follow up with a girl via text message?” And someone gave them [Laughter] Oh my god! That’s totally not what that’s meant for, but thank you for the traffic. REUVEN: Looking for KURT: Yeah. REUVEN: I’m curious though, these things though do convert – it’s not just fun and it’s not just ad revenue – but do they turn into leads for your consulting business? KURT : Yeah. The Magic Email has put me in touch with a lot of freelancers and that’s turned into a referral network. So people are like, “Hey, saw The Magic Email, it was really helpful.” Those people are often subscribed to my email, just because they want to hear what I have to say, and then they’ll start referring me work. That’s always very positive and referrals are hugely powerful as you know. And then a website like Website Performance Checklist - that really gets people to convert. But yeah, once you’ve got this stream of traffic, you could really do whatever you want with it. CHUCK: Just looking at something like this, what do you recommend once you’ve built this and you’re starting to drive traffic to it, how do you start making it convert to the other traffic? Do you just put your email form on there and put some AdSense on it, call it good, or what? KURT: [Chuckles] So yeah, step one, right away, throw AdSense on it. Literally no one has ever complained to me that an ad is on something, and I think that’s people’s fear. Once you’ve got that AdSense account, I would put AdSense on everything. I even had people say that putting ads on things makes it seem more professional because they expect ads to be on what “real things,” so that’s very helpful. And then the thing I’ve been doing in the last few months is just a popup form with an email signup. I use GetDrip for that. I love Drip. I used to use MailChimp; Drip is much easier.  And I run that on there, and again, same deal; I thought I’ve got this evil popup modal where people would have to escape out of it or close it – not a single complaint. People self-select – either they’re going to ignore it and keep using my thing for free or they’ll sign up for my email course and get more engaged or they’ll click the ad. But yeah, it’s only as complicated as GetDrip – it’s making that effort, seeing if you could do it. CHUCK: Mm-hm, that makes sense. I’m really just letting this sink in. Yeah, I mean there are other little issues that I would like to solve and there are things that I could solve fairly easily. I am kind of curious, what about the ideas that you get where it’s like this big idea, so it would be a multi-day multi-week or multi-month project? But you’re also reasonably sure that people would want to use it. Do you start then going through processes to figure out what people want instead of just, “Oh this would take me an afternoon. Boom. Done. Put it out there”? KURT: Well, so it sort of depends. If someone comes to me with an idea, the thing I want to do right away is validate it. Like if I know it’s going to cost someone money, cost them money, cost me money, or it’s going to take a long time to develop, which then has an opportunity cost for me – then I want to validate it. I may interview the target market and see if it works. That’s been really insightful. And even if people validate an idea, they may give you a different direction or a new idea to go in. But yeah, interviews – I’ve been interviewed by people for their as part – like web agency owners, their target market people have reached out to me. And that’s always very helpful. Otherwise, really my question is not so much “Will people use it?” but “How am I going to get people to find it?” I think the real truth of building a startup business – and I’ve built several startup and SaaS businesses that failed – the real truth is if you build it, will anyone care? I’ve got clients who come to me with, “Oh I’ve got this great idea and you have to sign my NDA” and it’s like, “No one cares buddy.” That’s the problem with these things. So the real question is “How you’re going to market it, how you’re going to get people to it and how you’re going to make money with it?” CHUCK: That makes sense. Do you want to talk for a minute about your failed startups? KURT: Sure. So originally, I was working, I was eCommerce product manager and I hated my job. I midn’t like going to work, it made me want to cry. And one day it made me – I actually did cry before I went to work. So I had said, “Okay, I’m going to quit” and I didn’t know what I was going to do. So I went in and gave my two weeks’ notice, and then that weekend in the shower I’m like “Alright. I’m going to build an eCommerce platform for bike shop owners and it automatically fills up the product inventory.” So they click the brands they carry and it will fill out the product’s inventory. It turned out it was incredibly hard to wrangle that industry and make it work. So after twelve months, we had failed at it. After twelve months, we said, “Listen this isn’t working, let’s stop developing this.” But in the meantime I had people literally knocking on the door – local small businesses – saying, “Hey can you help us with our website?” and I’d be turning them away. And it’s, “Wait a second, there’s literally people coming at my door trying to hand me money, why am I telling them no?” So that’s how I ended up initially just building brochure websites for small businesses. And then the others have really just been either like – we build an MVP or try and validate the idea and it doesn’t work out. So for those, you just sort of plan for failure; you say this is the minimum amount of effort I’m going to put into it, let’s get to there, and then see what happens. I’ve done a couple that didn’t work out. One was Approvely, was a mockup tool for designers, and that was just a really competitive space – tough to generate interest. Datebox, which was a social dating service – that one got interests but not enough. That’s really the toughest position to be in, is you have interest in a product and you’re wondering if you should build it or not. Now I’m working on a new one that hopefully will – it’s for freelancers. I probably shouldn’t talk about it. We can get it hopefully in January. I will circle back and tell you if it worked out or not. CHUCK: So when you’re validating it you talk to folks, you find out what they need. How do you figure out whether or not people really will buy it or whether or not they will have enough interest? KURT: Probably the best and simplest way is to use a service. Like if you just want the bare minimum, easiest path to figure out if an idea is worth your time or not is register a domain name, set up a service like [inaudible 20:49] – or if you’re skilled, build it yourself – where you’re just asking people to give you their email address to know when this service launches. And if people aren’t willing to give you their email address just to know when the service is going to happen, then automatically you know you’ve positioned it wrong or you’ve got the wrong traffic or it’s just not a good idea. Just trying to build a list in advance should be your MVP for any big project. CHUCK: It sounds so simple when you say it that way. KURT: Yeah well, a lot of people over-think it, or they bite off too much to start. That’s what I did with my first Software as a Service project – I had like five years planned out and tried to go and – no, just figure out if anyone will give you money for whatever your idea is. CHUCK: Well it makes sense to me in the sense that it’s – are you even remotely interested in the solution to this problem? Or are you even remotely interested in something that does X, Y and Z that will give you these results? So then it’s not “Why don’t you tell me that this is the perfect solution for you?” It’s just “Do you have a vague interest in car repair manuals for dogs?” KURT: Yeah, really. It’s “Do you have this problem? Would you be willing to solve it? Or how much would you pay to solve it?” CHUCK: Right. KURT: But first figure out if the problem you think people have, if they think they have the problem. If they haven’t figured out they have the problem then automatically you probably have an issue. CHUCK: Yeah, that makes sense. And then when you actually go to sell it to people do you usually come out with a prototype of some kind that they can go look at, or what’s the next step? KURT: Yeah. So the next step would be MVP. I mean, a real MVP. I know a lot of people say “Oh this is my Minimal Viable Product”- they have too many bells and whistles or it’s too polished. Just figure out one single function or problem that you’re solving and see if you could build the most ghetto possible version that will solve it. And if people look at that version and they still say, “Wow this is great, this would make my life so much easier” then you know you’re on the right track. CHUCK: That makes sense. So one other question I have is, do you ever start on one service or one product and then realize that there’s a tangential product that may be more lucrative or may be more interesting? KURT: Oh absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think that’s part of iteration. Everything we do down to the smallest, shortest project is still about revising and iterating. If that takes you in a separate direction, I mean if customers are telling you I want to do X, find out why. Figure out what people’s pain are. And that may reveal either a new feature or an entirely new product. CHUCK: Yeah. Do you keep focused on the original product then, or do you pivot? KURT: Oh no, I’m all about pivoting. I mean really, our origin was listening to people’s problems, hearing that people really just wanted small business websites and not this fantastic eCommerce platform solution I was trying to define, and pivoting entirely – being willing to give up on that original project, realizing it’s not a failure if you pivot, and moving on to something new. I think a lot of people will grasp and latch on to a product and keep trying to make it work because they think if they don’t make it work it’s somehow a failure – no it’s not, at all. If you’re moving on, if you’re saying, “Alright this is what we learned from that and here’s our next steps, here’s the next thing we’re going to do” then that’s hardly a failure. REUVEN: This is amazing, I’m really fascinated by it – but I’m also curious how all this fits together with your client work? Because you said that you do all sorts of client work as well – what proportion of your time do you spend on your own products and projects, and what proportion do you spend with clients? And it would seem to me – and I think it’s more of a statement than a question – but it seems to me that you’re using the products as a way of getting new clients but also to funding your time so you’re less dependent on client work. KURT: Absolutely. No, you’re right on all accounts. So what’s going on here is – and my partner would call them palate cleansers – so those short little labs projects, you do those between big client projects to cleanse your palate. It’s sort of a thing you’re doing by yourself, you're only answering to yourself and it feels great to finish it. So that’s one aspect. But the other aspect is diversifying your income sources. If you’ve got a passive income source that has enough to cover your fixed expenses, then you don’t have to take on those terrible red flag clients when you’re in a pinch because it doesn’t happen anymore. As far as time goes, it’s the 80/20 rule. I mean generally, if in an ideal world we do client work Monday through Thursday and then Friday we kick a labs projects out the door, every Friday. It doesn’t always work like that but doing the 80/20, the 20% time is how we negotiate it. CHUCK: So what is the most interesting thing that you’ve done? It could be one of these many sites, or a major project?. KURT: OK, if I had to pick the most interesting client website we did, the thing we hold up – our flagship – that really impresses clients is we did a contest website for Verizon NFL mobile that supported a campaign that aired during the NFL – or during Super Bowl – called FightFOMOF. That was just the same thing. They said, “Listen, we’re up against the deadline. We’ve got to get a website out fast. Can you do this?” and we said, “Yeah! That’s our labs project. We can get this out the door quickly. And we’re going to make it an MVP and here’s how we’re going to do it.” So in that sense that really paid off for us where we both got these two huge brand names and got to handle things as just the same way we would a site like Calming Manatee. That was the FightFOMOF Campaign – it’s no longer around; I have it . You could see it as a case study on, but otherwise they’ve been taken down. Probably for our own personal projects, the most interesting for me has been – I mean it’s a tossup between Calming Manatee and Rainy Café. Rainy Café has been interesting in how the international success it’s seen; it’s actually the most popular in Saudi Arabia. I don’t know why, but it is. It’s hugely popular there, and most of the traffic comes from StumbleUpon. And then the number two country it’s huge in is Japan. And then number three is the United States. That confounds me. I have no explanation for it. I don’t understand the culture, I don’t know why it would be successful there, but it is. CHUCK: So what’s the thing that people usually drop the ball on when they’re doing this stuff? KURT: No matter what it is, people over-think it, and when you over think it you start making excuses to save yourself from failure. Everybody’s scared of putting themselves out there and then failing – and you have to let that go. The less time you invest in something obviously, the less fearful you are about failure, the lower the risk. When clients come to freelancers and they’re asking for stuff like lower prices and all kinds of favors, really what they’re saying is “I’m scared, I want to lower my risk.” And freelancers do it to themselves too with their own projects. So each time you tag a feature onto some project or something that’s supposedly stopping you from launching a website that you’re working on, you’re just saying, “I’m scared of putting this out there and failing.” No it’s fine – put it out there, if no one visits it then revise it, reiterate. REUVEN: Now it seems to me – and maybe I’m wrong – that these small sites you’ve done have mostly been you putting stuff up, or you putting content up. I’m curious, I know that there are also participatory sites, or community blogs or “Hey everyone why don’t you come tell us your stories or give us your jokes or give us your recipes?” Have you ever done something like that? Do you think that can work as well using this model? Or is that different and more complicated? KURT: Well, okay. If you’re going to do that, you’ll have to have someone moderate it and that’s going to be a huge time sink. With Calming Manatee, we allow people to submit a new manatee and initially we made it very easy for people to do it and I was getting dozens a day. And you know what, 95% of that stuff is junk. As incredibly specific as I could get with the guidelines, people ignored it. So I’d get stuff that was wildly of- base or horribly compressed – to this day I have never gotten one that’s sized correctly. And that’s sort of the problem with those community projects. What you see on community driven websites has been moderated. So you’re really looking at the top 1%. You don’t see the bottom 99% where people just do and say the most horrific things, and that’s kind of one of the problems with the internet anonymity. I’m sure there’s ways around it, but I have never been good at community building. REUVEN: So your thing is definitely – I realize you’ve said this already but just to reiterate it: small things that would be useful to you and just get it out there, mention it to people who are interested in it and if it works, fantastic. And if not, tweak it some more. Make it such a low threshold task that it’s neither onerous to work on nor hard to tweak. KURT: Absolutely. Yeah, build a minimum viable product for yourself. And I’m going to define minimum viable product for you right now as, you can build it in 24 hours. And then after that, revise it. If it works, great, start revising it, making it better and if it doesn’t then decide, “Do I want to spend more time on this or do I want to move on to the next thing?” REUVEN: I’m curious, how many people work in your company and then how many of them were from these sorts of sites? KURT: Full-time, there are three of us including me and only the three partners work on the 20% time projects. For everything else, I’ve got – depending on the day and the projects – one to four contractors, 1099 people who work on stuff. But I would never ask them to work on it, or take on one of these labs projects. CHUCK: Alright. REUVEN: I’m still curious with eCommerce part of your business, I know it’s not exactly [inaudible 30:17]. KURT: Certainly. REUVEN: So when you say that you do eCommerce sites, does that mean you do it stem to sterns, do you go in to do improvements? what’s your take on that? I mean I know that’s not the topic we’re supposed to talk about but give us tips for eCommerce. You know, why not? KURT: [Laughter] Sure, I would love to. In our consulting business, we’ve pigeonholed ourselves for our small business clients into Shopify. And I dearly love Shopify’s supply form – if you’re in eCommerce take a look at it; l’m a big Shopify evangelist.   Probably the ideal client is someone who already has an eCommerce store and it makes money – so let’s say it makes 30 grand a month, which in the eCommerce world is decent. It’s wonderful to have those people who already have a moderately good store and just want you to make it better. You could come in – we like to come in and say “Okay, here’s a list of 5 things that’s wrong with it. Let’s try it. Let’s fix these 5 things and I promise your conversion rate will improve. And if it doesn’t, you know what I will fire myself; I will never work with you again.” That really isn’t a meaningful thing but it seemingly takes the risk out of it for the client. So we turn that into a productized offering called Website Rescues where about roughly 2500 dollars, we’ll come in, we’ll make 30-40 best practice fixes to an existing working eCommerce site, preferably with Shopify. And we promise it’s a 2-5 X or Y – and again if you talk about ROI with your clients that really takes the risk out from them then you’re much more likely to close those deals. For the most part, all I really want to do is make a website obvious and easy to use. So I’ll look at the client’s site and then just walk through buying a product. Is it obvious where I find it? How do I get there? And then walk through buying it and get to the checkout. And most of the time by the time I have gotten from the home page to the product page, there’s like 15 things I found wrong already. And just like the labs projects I’m really just looking at “Alright. How would I make this easier for myself? If I’m the customer, how do I make this easier?” REUVEN: I guess it’s like – I go to the clients and they ask me about web technologies or databases or whateve. I mean, it’s not boring to me because I enjoy interacting with them, but things that are so obvious to me are so new to them. And they’re like “Wow, where did you come up with this stuff?” So I assume it’s the same with you, when you come up with these best practices, you’ve been on the block a long time, you’ve seen it before, you can just say, “This this this this this” and they’re excited to get these ideas and for you it’s “Well obviously that.” KURT: Yeah, it’s a great way to break the ice and get the relationship started. So if I meet someone at a networking event, I’ll say, “Hey!” If they have an ecommerce website or even just a website that’s centered around some kind of conversion, I’ll say, “You know what, here’s my card. Send me your URL tomorrow morning and I will send you back five things that I promise will improve your conversion rate.” I don’t worry about it because every website – I guarantee you could come up with five things to improve it and you don’t have to be some kind of conversion rate expert. You just have to be a person who’s used the internet before [Laughter] Every website has some kind of weird idiosyncrasy where you could say, “Jeez, why are you doing that?” But because the owner, the client, is entrenched in it, they have no idea – it’s become invisible to them. So if you point out those five things where you’re like “Why is this text unbelievably tiny? Why can’t I read this?” they’re like, “Oh, good point!” CHUCK: That’s really funny and really interesting. So how do you funnel people toward that product, that upgrade product or whatever for their eCommerce site? KURT: So for Website Rescues, I’ve been using retargeting. I’ve been using Perfect Audience, and it’s really an incredible system. If someone’s already visited your website, you know they have some familiarity with you. So then with Perfect Audience, you can show them ads on Facebook, where you know everybody’s spending 10% of their time at work at least, on Facebook, and it’ll show them ads from you. And that really reduces the cost of pay-per-click advertising. You get them back into that website or back into some kind of newsletter page and then I try and funnel them into a drip campaign. A drip campaign has been hugely helpful. So by the time someone actually gets in touch with me, they’ve gotten 5-10 emails from me already through this Drip Campaign, and they’re very familiar. But you have to write it in a natural voice. I know a lot of people on their first time out – in my first time out – you write it very professionally in business prose, and that’s the wrong thing to do. Write it casual. Write it in your natural voice so that when people talk to you they’ll feel like they already know you. REUVEN:   Tell me more about this Perfect Audience thing. I just went to their website, but what it sounds like you’re saying is you put something on your site that sort of keeps track of people and then when those same people then go to Facebook, they see ads for you and they’re going to be shown ads for you because they’ve already been to your site and it’s sort of a reinforcing thing. KURT: Yeah, so retargeting. It’s just ad retargeting. Perfect Audience makes it incredibly simple. You just put a cookie in your website, it builds a list. If you want to get really fancy, you can segment that list based on what URL they visit, and then you could show ads to that list. The default standard for it is to show ads on Facebook, but it also does Twitter and web ads. And it’s hugely powerful. The problem with pay per click ads, is normally it’s a shotgun approach, you’re showing ads to a huge range of people and you don’t know if they’re qualified or not. Whereas Perfect Audience, you know these are people who have already been to your website, and that traffic, it’s warm leads that converts way better. REUVEN: That is really clever. And when you say you do a drip campaign then, what’s the drip campaign about? Is it how to work with you, or your process, or how you do marketing? KURT: With the Drip Campaign in general, a successful Drip Campaign – you want to give valuable information. Your primary focus can’t be selling them. So my Drip Campaign is “Five days to a better website – a website that converts better.” The promise we make, you want to give them some hard, quantifiable benefit. So we say, “We promise, you implement these five things and it can give you up to 2x boost on your website conversions.” So we do five days, and each day is a different lesson on just website best practices. And after that we say, “Okay, please unsubscribe if this hasn’t been valuable or you don’t want any more information. Otherwise stick around and we’ll keep sending you stuff.” After that I just send them something, a weekly newsletter, every seven days. Not unlike Eric Davis does. And that keeps them engaged. Because you don’t know what position in the buying cycle a client is, they could be ready to buy right then – which happens, if you’re lucky they’ll call you – but they could be just looking now and getting their feet wet and really looking to build their site or do whatever in 6 months from now. So that’s what’s helpful - to get them internet weekly newsletter. CHUCK: So are the things in your Drip Campaign that you’re telling them to do, are they things that they can do or are they things that you recommend be done? KURT: Well, it’s impossible to know what level of tech expertise it is the person has, but I try to keep it as simple as possible. CHUCK: So generally, somebody with a little bit of tech knowledge should be able to do what you’re talking about then? KURT: Yes. You don’t want to scare people off with jargon. CHUCK: Right. That’s really interesting. And then you just package it for a set price and go from there? KURT: Yeah, for that product, for Website Rescues, yeah. We’ve got a fixed price, a fixed turnaround and fixed deliverable. The big advantage to the client is – again, it’s mitigating risk, and it reduces their risk. So they know “here’s how long it’s going to take, here’s exactly what it’s going to cost, and here’s what I’m going to get for my money, and here’s the outcome.” And that’s really all anyone’s looking for when they buy something. CHUCK: Right. That makes sense. REUVEN: I’m curious though. If someone comes to you and they say, “I need a Website Rescue” and everything seems great, you see lots of opportunity, they like what you’re doing, they like the price, they like the turnaround. Do you have any limits on what sorts of technology you’ll do? Are there any limits on how many fixes you’ll do? I mean, obviously for a fixed price there’s not going be an unlimited number of things and you can’t possibly know every technology out there. KURT: Right. So yeah, if it’s a platform I’m not familiar with or a platform I don’t think we should do, I will flat out tell them. I’ll be like “Listen, I don’t work with this technology or this platform” – like if it was on ASP, I wouldn’t even touch it. You still want to have a good customer experience, so I’ll say “Here’s someone who could help you with this project” and make a referral. There’s a bit of cherry picking there, so you do still – even though it’s a product, it’s still a service, it’s still my time so I do want to qualify people and make sure it’s a good fit. CHUCK: Yeah, that makes sense. REUVEN: And do any of these people belong to the longer term customers or do they see it as a product and it ends as product? KURT: Well no, no, no. It’s a test of the relationship. So that first engagement is a bit like a first date. If it works okay, maybe they come back, and maybe they’re just happy and they go with what they have. But so far, literally everybody who has purchased the Website Rescue has gone on to either purchase more small items, come back for strategy advice, or in a handful of cases gone, on to doing a full website redesign down the road. REUVEN: Very neat. CHUCK: I’m going to steal this. [Laughter] REUVEN: Well okay, so my embarrassment is that I actually thought of doing something like this a few years ago and I put up a website for it and then did nothing with it – literally nothing. KURT: Oh no! REUVEN: Actually, maybe not nothing – I think I mentioned it on my website, which is as close to doing nothing as possible without actually doing nothing. [Chuckles] Granted I was busy in doing a PhD, and family and all sorts of other stuff, but it’s a fantastic idea and a smart business idea and I’m pleasantly impressed that you actually pulled it off. KURT: Oh, thank you. CHUCK: You would have been more impressed if you had pulled it off, right Reuven? REUVEN: I would have been delighted if I had pulled it off but quite frankly, I don’t know when I would have the time for it or when I would’ve had the time for it then. So I’m glad that there’s someone who actually could put the time into it and can do it. And you know there is only room for one person doing web development in the universe. CHUCK: That’s right. REUVEN: So, clearly Kurt stole the show on that one. KURT: Yes. No, I get that. It’s interesting you bring that up. So a lot of times I’ve had people bring this up – people who are new to the industry usually, or sometimes my mother, they'll be like, “You’re giving away your secrets.” What secrets? Every business needs a website or more. I believe it’s additive, so I put those things out there and it helps everybody. REUVEN: I would say it’s even more than it. I mean I give a lot of classes and teaching and everything and it never ceases to amaze me how – first of all, the things that you think are simple, that even when you’re giving away your secrets, it takes people a long time to observe them and understand them. And secondly, you’re connecting dots that they don’t even see connections between. So if you think it’s giving secret A, and secret B, and secret C, fine. But it’s that combination that really gives you your power and your expertise as a consultant. KURT: Yeah, absolutely. CHUCK: So really quickly – and this is more of a technical question – but how do you figure out what platform people are on? You just ask them when you’re qualifying them? KURT: Well you know I’ve been doing it long enough; I know the footprint that a lot of platforms have. Usually I’ll just try and guess – I’ll look at what kind of server it’s on, or who the name server is, and then I’ll just try and guess at what the login page is, or even look at what kind of URL stats it’s used. You’ll figure out pretty quickly. Yeah, step one, I hack the server. No. [Laughter] REUVEN: [Inaudible 41:27] raise your rates [chuckles] KURT: It’s been a while since I’ve actually had to ask somebody. I’ll come back, I’ll say “It looks like you’re on –” Then I’ll be like either “That’s great. We’ve done plenty of experience with that” or “It looks like you’re on this. We don’t work with that, but correct me if I’m wrong.” CHUCK: Awesome. Alright well I think we’re about at the end of our time. Are there any other things that we should have asked that we didn’t before we wrap up? KURT: No, no, this has been hugely helpful. CHUCK: Awesome. Well then we’ll go ahead and do the picks. Eric, do you want to start us off with the picks? ERIC: Sure. So about a week ago or whatever, I’ve been using a water bottle that’s plastic but it’s one of the better ones. And it has a little sippy cup mouth or whatever you want to call it, and I’ve been having problems getting it clean. I feel like I was cleaning it every week and dunking it in vinegar to sanitize it, I feel like it just wasn’t as good as it used to be. So about a week ago, I ordered - it’s called a Kleen Kanteen. It’s basically a stainless steel water bottle thing. I got one for me and then my wife got one that’s insulated. I drink a lot of water in the day but actually having this – and it’s not something you have to drink out of, it’s you tilt it up like a normal glass – I’ve been drinking probably two or three times as much water now. The nice thing is it’s just stainless steel with a sealing top, and it’s really, really easy to clean. I don’t have to worry about having mold or anything growing in it. It’s summer time right now when we’re recording this, if you are still trying to figure out how to drink a lot more water – or nice thing with this is you can even put coffee, tea or whatever else in it too. It’s a nice little container to carry and you can take it on-the-go, too. Like I said, my wife, she’s using the insulated one and she uses that for coffee in the morning and then water during the day at work, so they have that too, I think two or three hours for hot and twelve hours for cold in the insulated, so it’s pretty nice if you like ice water. CHUCK: Alright. Reuven what are your picks? REUVEN: So I have two picks, maybe two and a half picks for today. First one is, I’ve mentioned before, I mean everyone has probably heard of it - This American Life, which is a radio show and podcast. So their episode as we’re recording is now last week’s. It’s their episode number 533; it was called “It’s Not The Product. It’s The Person.” And they spent the first two thirds of it – they could argue it was the last third as well, but I found that sort of incredibly boring – but that it was all about people selling and having businesses. There was a story about this girl who’s in business for herself which was just inspiring. And then one of the reporters, who’s on This American Life and then started Planet Money, which is a great podcast about economics, Alex Blumberg - he’s now doing a podcasting startup and he had a whole twenty minute discussion of what it means to go into business for yourself. He literally has never held a job at any for-profit company in twenty or thirty years, maybe ever. And so, it was a very painful thing to listen to – to hear him talking about his business, and then to go pitch a venture capitalist on his business. Not that I’m running to pitch to VCs but it was really, really interesting to hear someone who’s outside the business world, trying to get into it and some of the obstacles they feel and they experience and what they think is and is not important. So that’s the first one. The second one is, I did a webinar yesterday on Functional Programming Pythons – so that’s like my half pick – which is I had so much fun doing it. I definitely recommend if people like presenting, if they like teaching, if they like getting out, I’m totally going to do more webinars because it was so, so, so much fun. I used GoToWebinar which was okay, but it didn’t have or did not seem to have a multi-way chat for everyone to talk. Someone on the webinar said, “Oh, why don’t we just use” I had never heard of it before. I was thoroughly impressed; it was easy to use; it was fast; it was free, for our group at least. I could definitely recommend using, which is of course T-A-L-K (dot I-O. as a quick, fast, fun, easy to use chat tool that can accompany other things such as webinars. Anyway, that’s it from me for this week. CHUCK: Awesome. I have one pick. It’s a tool I’ve been using lately, it’s called Boomerang. It’s a plug-in for Gmail. KURT: Oh I love Boomerang. I’ve been using that thing every day. CHUCK: So, I am terrible at following up, and by terrible I mean terrible. I don’t know what my deal is, I just really can’t. So with Boomerang it’s really nice because I’ll send somebody an email and it’s like “Hey well, blah blah blah, do you want to get together?” and they’re like “Well, I can’t for a few weeks.” So I say “No problem. I’ll check in with you in a few weeks.” And then I tell Boomerang to remind me in a few weeks and it just brings it right back into my inbox. And then I go and I bug him in a few weeks. And it’s so nice. If there are people that I want to keep in touch with, like say we have this guy named Kurt on the podcast, and I want to keep in touch with him and stuff, it’s the same thing, it’s “Hey how’s it going, blah blah blah” and then I set myself basically a reminder, “If I don’t hear from Kurt within the next week, he probably got busy and I should email him again.” And so I use Boomerang, just remind me in a week unless – and it has that option in there – unless he emails me back. And so it’s just super nice. I can’t say enough nice things about that. So that’s my pick. And then I also want to throw out a quick reminder that we’re going to be doing a live Q&A that we talked about last week, when we talked to Tim Paige. So if you want to get that, go to and you can get the information there. Kurt, what are your picks? KURT: Alright, my pick. The book that changed my business life for the best over the last year is a wonderful, but ridiculously titled read from 1973 called Winning Through Intimidation by Robert Ringer. This was the book that really changed my psychology and my mindset about how I approach relationships in business and it’s been hugely helpful for me. CHUCK: Add to wish list. Alright, cool. Well thanks for coming, Kurt. We really appreciate you taking the time and sharing your expertise. KURT: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for having me. It’s been great. CHUCK: Alright, well thank you all for listening. We’ll catch you all next week.[This episode is sponsored by MadGlory. You've been building software for a long time and sometimes it gets a little overwhelming. Work piles up, hiring sucks and it's hard to get projects out the door. Check out MadGlory. They're a small shop with experience shipping big products. They're smart, dedicated, will augment your team and work as hard as you do. Find them online at or on Twitter @MadGlory.]**[Hosting and bandwidth provided by the Blue Box Group. Check them out at]**[Bandwidth for this segment is provided by CacheFly, the world’s fastest CDN.  Deliver your content fast with CacheFly. Visit to learn more]**[Would you like to join a conversation with the Freelancers’ Show panelists and their guests? Wanna support the show? We have a forum that allows you to join the conversation and support the show at the same time. Sign up at]**

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