Despite claims of “success” and “massive income,” It can be hard to decipher exactly how much some blogs are actually making. If the numbers are public, it’s often hard to tease out what the sources of income actually are. Some bloggers, like Jeremy over at Go Curry Cracker, are way more transparent than others. In my opinion, that kind of honesty builds a more loyal and enduring following in the long run… even if it takes longer to build.
Occasionally, an allegedly successful blogger will share their income numbers, but it’s part of their sales pitch to “sell the dream.” That is, their “product” is a fantasy about getting rich or being successful mimicking their public persona rather than making you a master of the subject matter. A widget blogger that becomes wealthy selling courses about how to be a widget blogger isn’t primarily a widget blogger any more. They’re a purveyor of fantasies.
Whether that’s right or wrong isn’t the topic at hand here– it’s just not me. I don’t begrudge anyone their success, I just don’t want to be in the fantasy business. Instead, I’m preparing to launch a paid service at The Earth Awaits that I hope will create a secondary income for us over time. In the longer term, I dream that it could become our primary source of income. I’d love it if we could start our slow travel journey, working on TEA from all over the world. We’d essentially be enjoying the best aspects of our Early Retirement plan months or years early!
Since it’s early January and I haven’t launched the new services yet, I want to share my successes and failures with you from the very beginning. In this series, I’ll share every dime that I spend, every dime that I make, and the traffic numbers that generate that income. I’ll tell you about every decision I make to try to drive more business my way. We’ll figure out– together– whether you can build a successful online business while still being shockingly transparent.
First thing’s first: I appreciate your advice and encourage you to share it. Throughout the year, as I experience the ups and downs of trying to build a business with integrity, please let me know if you see me making a mistake or see a way to be more successful. If this is a success– and I hope that it is– I want you to be a part of it.
The Ground Rules
A business lives and dies by its culture. I brainstormed a list of values that I want to underpin the way that The Earth Awaits operates. They are:
- Always be Truthful
- Be Wildly Transparent
- Sell Something of Value
- Gain Customers Honestly
- Provide the Best Customer Service in the World
Always be truthful means being straightforward and honest when dealing with others, even if it means sacrificing a sale. Be wildly transparent begins with this blog post. If I make money honestly, then there’s no reason for me to fear others knowing about the magnitude of my success (or failure). Sell something of value is incredibly important. As I’ve already mentioned, I can’t sell a fantasy. People need to get their money’s worth when they buy something from me. Gain customers honestly has to do with the way the product is marketed. It might be possible to rake in large amounts of money by engaging in spamming or some other shady tactic, but that kind of behavior doesn’t build loyalty. Providing the best customer service in the world does. If I make a mistake, I should admit it. If it’s within my power, I should make it right. I should always be listening.
The Business Plan
So, what is the business anyway? As you may already know, I released The Earth Awaits back in September to some pretty massive worldwide press attention and a ton of enthusiasm from visitors. It has been an insane, gratifying, humbling ride, and I wouldn’t change a bit of it.
The problem is that TEA costs a lot to run, as you’ll soon see, especially if I’m devoting any effort at all to improving it. Luckily, I am able to write all the functional code myself, or it would be even more of a money pit, but I still need to pay for servers and services of multiple types, hire out some of the data entry, and engage a designer to turn my ugly (but functional) interface designs into more beautiful ones.
Running a site like TEA that is completely free is extraordinarily difficult to do without violating the fundamental principles of always be truthful, sell something of value, and gain customers honestly. It would probably be possible to monetize the site more effectively in the following ways:
- Drastically increase the number of ads on the site, placing them in obtrusive and ugly locations.
- Push affiliate links for sketchy services– hard.
- Put the entire site behind a pay wall
I don’t want to do any of those things, so here’s the plan: later this month (January 2017) I’m releasing the most massive update to The Earth Awaits since I first made the site public. There are tons and tons of new features that users have been clamoring for from the very beginning. Some of the improvements will be completely free, and others will be a part of a low-cost premium subscription tier. The goal of the changes is to bring such massive value to users of the site that the subscription price feel like a bargain.
In short, here are the features coming as a part of the update:
- Saving and browsing favorite cities. (Free)
- Creation of custom lifestyles/monthly spending. (Free, expanded functionality for subscribers)
- Creation of a watchlist that sends email when prices (citywide or on a single item) change according to user preference. (Free, expanded functionality for subscribers)
- Travel alerts and safety notifications from the US, UK, and Canadian governments. (Subscriber only)
- Travel Hacking section that automatically calculates and shows airline points redemptions between user’s city and destination cities. 18 airline miles charts currently available. (Unknown, will be free if I can partner with a credit card affiliate program, otherwise a premium feature)
- Huge database of international schools, current tuition values, academic programs and school levels offered. Ability to see the local school options for every city on the site. (Subscriber only)
- Historical price data for every city and line item. Beautifully rendered charts for each price, including custom lifestyle calculations. Track price changes in each city to learn about trends and inflation. (Subscriber only)
Going forward, most new features are likely to be subscriber/premium features. I think that still leaves a huge proportion of the functionality available without paying for or even creating an account.
The travel hacking tool is an interesting case. To me, it is one of the huge “wow factor” features that I’m rolling out, as there’s nothing else like it on the internet. When you pull up a city, you’ll automatically see all the ways to could spend points for 18 different airline charts to get there. Since it is so cool and of such wide appeal, I’m hoping that I can make it available for free, as it also automatically determines the best credit card sign-up bonus to get you to each redemption. For example, it knows that on KLM/Air France, you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio, and thus could get four trips to Europe out of a Chase Sapphire Reserve sign-up. It’s incredibly cool to watch in action.
The problem is that to date, I haven’t been successful in getting any response from credit card affiliate programs. My emails and applications go into a dark void. Since I’m planning to release these features in the next several weeks, I’m not sure how this one is going to turn out. I’m working hard to get in touch with affiliate programs so that I can cast a wider net with this feature.
As of right now, here is the pricing I plan to use:
- Free user – $0, free features only
- Subscriber, monthly – $10/month
- Subscriber, annual – $72/year
In my opinion, this subscription charge is pretty modest. On an annual basis, the cost is only $6 per month, and grants access to these features and all of the features I have coming up. Some of the things I have planned are:
- Airline reward search – Input the points that you have for a credit card or frequent flier program, and then be presented with all the cities you can currently visit with them.
- Home buyer mode – Select “purchase” as the housing option, then be presented with the up-front cost of purchasing a home in each city, and the mortgage-free monthly cost of living.
- Salary and price comparisons – charts and tables to compare individual price items and overall budgets between cities, as well as to calculate the salary needed to sustain your home cost of living.
I’ll be processing payments through Stripe, which takes a lot of the heavy lifting off of me. I don’t need to worry about securing user payment data, as I will never have access to it. Stripe does take a small part of the payment collected in fees, so that will be a cost.
Since I started The Earth Awaits, I’ve been signing users up to my mailing list and emailing them monthly with information on new features and news about the site. I use Convertkit for my mailing list sign-up forms and management. I started with Mailchimp but was introduced to ConvertKit and it is head and shoulders better than Mailchimp. The above link is an affiliate link, so I hope you’ll use it if you want to upgrade from Mailchimp. Convertkit is a monthly cost that has so far been extremely worth it.
Being able to immediately sign users up to a series of emails that teach them a little bit about the site has been a huge advantage in keeping them engaged. The API to add people to the list when they become paid subscribers is amazing, and the user interface of the site is vastly better than what I experienced with Mailchimp. I highly recommend them, and if anyone uses my link to sign up, (in the spirit of wild transparency) I’ll report that in my income as a part of this series. Right now I have a little more than 2,000 subscribers on the list, and on a good mailing about half of them actually open what I send. I lose a little under 1% of subscribers each time I send a mail, but I’m gaining subscribers at a much greater rate than I am losing them. Of the 1,000 people who I expect will read the product announcement, I am hoping that 5-10% of them will become paying subscribers.
Sendgrid is a transactional email service that I’ll be using to send my subscribers the notifications they sign up for (price changes, scheduled emails, travel safety alerts), as well as everyday things like invoices, password change emails, and activation emails. Sendgrid’s cost for a site of my size is pretty reasonable.
I contract data entry and some of the web design polish work out through Upwork. I have a set of contractors that I’ve come to trust, so I mostly use the same individuals over and over. Depending on how much work I’m doing on the site, this can get expensive.
I may try to find someone to help me improve my marketing and SEO results going forward. This can become very expensive indeed, but I haven’t priced it out. If you’re in SEO/marketing, think you could make the site score way higher on searches, and want to be featured in this series, I’d be happy to trade services.
Before I can determine my progress towards goals, I have to determine what constitutes success. I’ll consider the site worth the time and effort if it can create $18,000 in net profit per year. I’ll consider a moderate success if the net profit is $36,000 per year, and I’ll consider it a major success if the profit is $72,000 per year. Let’s look at what that breaks down to:
|Success Metric||Ad Pageviews (@$3.00 per 1,000 views)||Credit Card Affiliate Signups (@50.00 per signup)||Monthly Subscribers||Annual Subscribers|
|Low Success ($18,000/year)||6,000,000 Pageviews||360 Affiliate Signups||150 Subscribers||250 Subscribers|
|Moderate Success ($36,000/year)||12,000,000 Pageviews||720 Affiliate Signups||300 Subscribers||500 Subscribers|
|High Success ($72,000/year)||24,000,000 Pageviews||1440 Affiliate Signups||600 Subscribers||1,000 Subscribers|
These are the numbers I would need after accounting for costs, so the real numbers are higher.
Of all of these pathways to success, some are way more likely than others. Making the site this successful on pageviews alone involves a level of traffic that I could have managed only if every day was like the best-ever day on the site. Further, driving this kind of traffic is exhausting and makes me a little bit anxious about keeping the site up and functioning well. Further, I’ve found that many users don’t bother to pull up city details (where my banner ads are), so keeping the site entirely ad-supported seems implausible at the moment.
The credit card affiliate numbers of between 360 and 1440 signups per year (1-4 per day) seem reasonable, but as I mentioned, I haven’t managed to find a credit card affiliate program willing to work with me yet. I’m hopeful that this will come to pass, as it’s such a natural and obvious fit for the site.
That leaves us with paid subscribers. Contrasted with pageviews, these numbers seem entirely reasonable. If I can sign up just over 20 new annual subscribers per month, I’ll hit my low success goal of 250 subscribers in 2017. If I can sign up 80 annual subscribers per month, I’ll hit the high numbers.
Since I haven’t launched the paid features yet, there is nothing to report on this front. Next month we’ll be looking at a partial month of signups, but also one of the periods of most intense interest as the features will be brand new.
Costs to Date
As you will see, The Earth Awaits has not been cheap to get up and running, even with me doing all of the engineering myself.
|Item||This Month Cost||Lifetime Cost|
Despite the large costs so far, I really feel optimistic about the subscriber tier and the future for the site. If you wanted to know what it costs to bring up a site like The Earth Awaits, even if you do the really expensive stuff yourself, there it is. Basically, it’ll take 100 annual subscribers right off the bat for the site to get to break-even (probably 125-130 after Stripe costs and taxes).
In October, when I saw the most media attention after the release, I had over half a million pageviews and over 110,000 sessions on the site.
December was a tiny fraction of that for a number of reasons– the biggest was that there was no media attention. I have been heads-down on the new features and had absolutely no time to contact press and try to drive big traffic numbers like I did in October. I have a few promising media leads and people who want to write pieces on the site, but I haven’t pushed them forward because I’m so close to being able to convert those visitors into subscribers.
We’ll explore income in greater detail next month, but the site made $48.49 in Google Adwords income last month, and that’s it. Nobody signed up using any of the affiliate links, and there were very few ad clicks.
That’s not awful, though! To this point, it has all been about investing in something people actually care about using. Now it gets interesting.
Am I Crazy?
What do you think? Am I nuts to share this level of detail? Do you think it will help me, or hurt me? Any ideas for how to make The Earth Awaits a wild success? Let me know in the comments!