Business Lessons from Leo Babauta of ZenHabits
How he went from Zero to Full-Time Income — by being of true service to his audience
Leo Babauta is one of my business heroes —he is successful in the mainstream sense (financially) but more importantly, he serves as a model for integrating virtues into business.
Leo earns enough through his membership program (seachange) and books to support a family… while living in San Francisco (which has a rather high living expenses!)
An example of his courage and generosity: he has un-copyrighted his entire blog + ebooks.
Leo found a way to earn a full-time living while focusing on caring for his audience and being honest.
Based on reading various interviews with Leo Babauta — thanks to Michael Pollock’s “20 Questions” post, which gathered some of the best—here are the main lessons I learned:
- Content is king. Be as genuinely useful/helpful to your audience as you can.
- Be consistent with your content. And, based on what your audience is willing to engage with, be as frequent as you can. Leo found that 3-5 new blog posts per week was his sweet spot for his audience engagement.
- Get better at writing headlines. This takes practice, just like everything else.
- When you’re not creating your own content, do as much guesting as you can. For example: guest blogging; being interviewed on podcasts; etc.
- Whenever you are working on your business, eliminate any activities that prevent you from doing the above. It’s important to keep working on removing distractions.
- Don’t stress out about “getting traffic.” Simply be consistent about the above things, and over time, the traffic will take care of itself.
- Learn how to be more frugal, so that you can transition into your true livelihood more quickly. Another person you may want to learn from is Mr. Money Mustache.
The rest of this post contains mostly Leo Babauta’s quotes.
On Generating Traffic
What advice would you give a new business owner trying to generate traffic? Are there some “secrets” that have worked for you that you can share?
“No secrets. I built up an audience by sharing as much free, useful information as I could. I didn’t do it by hyping up my work, but by being useful, by doing it in my life and then sharing what I did. It worked — my site grew really quickly, and by the end of my first year I was able to quit my day job, I’d signed a book deal, I had 26,000 subscribers, and I had gotten completely out of debt.”
As of 2016 he now has 2 Million readers.
For any new blogger starting out, what would you recommend to them about getting subscribers?
“Start small. Don’t worry about getting thousands of subscribers — just worry about writing your next incredibly useful post. Creating great, useful, valuable content is the only way to get new readers — if your writing is great, you can attract visitors and keep them. Be genuine, write about what you know about, and be passionate in your writing.
Once you have a dozen or more really useful articles, do guest posts on other blogs, as often as possible. Again, write really useful guest posts and you’ll attract readers to your blog.”
You have been quite successful in your blogging career. What advice can you give someone who wants to have a long-term successful blog?
“Focus on one thing and one thing only: creating amazing content that helps people with their problems. Show them how to do things they want to do. That’s all. Don’t worry about branding or design or stats or MailChimp or Aweber or ads or widgets or Twitter or all that other crap. Create amazing things and people will come.”
On Having A Successful Blog
Are there any pet peeves or things that you see on other people’s blogs that could be suppressing their success?
“Too many posts about nothing that a reader really cares about. Too much clutter aside from the actual articles. Too many ads and promotional stuff instead of great content.”
Do you have a well defined niche you cater to? Can you tell us about it?
“No, I write for the general public — basically, everyone wants to improve their life in some way, whether that’s through simplifying, becoming fitter and healthier, finding happiness, becoming more effective at work, or getting out of debt. By not focusing on a niche, I have a much wider audience than most blogs — not to brag, but I have 200,000 subscribers, mostly because I try to solve problems that most people have.”
Check out a list of Leo’s most popular posts here.
(As of 2016 he now has 2 Million readers.)
What have you learned from your enormous success as a blogger?
“I learned that, as a blogger, there are lots of things I could do — read and respond to comments, answer email, check my stats, check my earnings, fiddle with the design or blog widgets, mess around with different ad systems, chat with other bloggers, and so on and so on. But there was only one thing that really mattered for my branding efforts and for the growth of my blog: writing great posts. I tried to post quality articles on Zen Habits 3-5 times a week — I was doing daily posts early on, but discovered that it overwhelmed my readers, so I learned that 4-5 was more ideal, and 3 posts in a week was the minimum.
And so that became all that I focused on: writing the best posts I could — for Zen Habits and for other blogs. These quality posts were the things that drew readers and kept them coming back for more. A great post could get popular on delicious.com, draw dozens of incoming links, and get me dozens of new readers.
I still did the other stuff, but not during writing time. Writing time was (and is) sacred, because it was the most important thing I was doing at the time. Still is. Everything else was just distraction.
Strip away everything that gets in the way of writing, and focus on the writing.”
What are the qualities that have made you a super-blogger?
“I achieved blogging success because I have a coincidental blend of a number of characteristics:
- I love writing and am fairly good at it, having done it for almost 20 years.
- I know my topic and am passionate about it, living it daily in real life.
- I love technology and have a passion for learning this medium.
- I love connecting with others and do it with enthusiasm.
- I have a background in headline writing, at a daily newspaper.
- I am a reflective person.
- I have knowledge and interest in marketing, and have really studied a lot of key principles and simplified them for my purposes.”
Note from George Kao:
Blogging (writing) is only one option.
However, if you don’t like to write, know this: you can learn to. For the past 10 years of my professional life—I always said to people “I am a bad writer” and I really disliked writing. But 6 months ago, I came to the realization of “living as if I’m dying” and became very motivated to share my best information with the world while I am able to. So, I just started to communicate as clearly as I could in writing, and now I’m fine with it.
Other options besides writing:
You can become known as a Podcaster, if you like to talk.
You can thrive in your business by creating Videos, if you don’t mind being on camera or work through that issue, as I have.
Or, if you like dialoguing with people online, work on creating your Social Network public presence (as I have also.)
You can start with just one of the above, then gradually add more as you go.
About learning technology—you will eventually need to get better at it, if you are dedicated to your online success. Here’s a video showing you how to learn technology.
About being good at writing headlines, here are the list of 15 rules/principles that Upworthy (currently the most successful headline-writers on the net) uses to write theirs. To learn more about writing headlines, here’s the direct link to a google search on this topic.
What are the top 3 tips you would offer to an aspiring blogger?
“First, as the saying goes, Content is King. All of the other stuff really helps, but it starts and ends with great content. You have to write posts that are relevant to your potential readers — teach her to do things she’s always wanted to do. You have to write posts that are extremely useful and packed with info they need — but at the same time, concise and not too wordy. You need to write posts that are accessible, scannable, and have great headlines.
That’s the key to successful blogging. Focus on that. Each day should be spent writing great posts, not on social media or networking or marketing or checking stats or working on ads or your blog design or widgets or the latest apps or email or RSS reading or anything else.
Write great posts. That should be your main occupation, and do this before any thing else. If not, you’ll fail as a blogger.
Second, once you’ve got the content, learn some cheap but effective ways to promote it. Networking, writing LOTS of guest posts, and when you get large enough, promotion through social media and ebooks. That’s pretty simple, but of course it takes a lot of hard work. Don’t forget to keep your focus on the content, however.
Third, it’s all about the reader. When you start writing about things that are only of interest to you, or putting things on your blog to make money but not benefit the reader, or linking to things because you hope it’ll help with networking efforts but forgetting to ask whether the reader cares about these links… you’ve forgotten the reader. And then the reader will soon forget you.
Everything you do should be for the reader. And you’ll be rewarded with great readers — and that’s what it’s all about. When you make a connection with your readers, it’s a magical thing. It’s something that can change your life, and theirs. It’s what blogging is all about, and it makes all the hard work more than worth it.
If you focus on these three aspects, your blog will grow for sure.”
Note from George Kao: check out my mindmap about how to make content more engaging.
On Removing Distractions
What are the most successful methods that you have found for ignoring distractions and staying focused?
“You ignore distractions by consciously clearing them. They won’t go away otherwise — you have to turn off notifications and close your email and Twitter and Facebook and news. That’s tough to do for many people because they’re addicted to them or fear what will happen if they don’t stay updated. So try a mini-test: close those things just for an hour or two and see what happens. Clear all distractions but one task and find out if anything bad happens.”
What tips do you have for people who are addicted to the Internet and its distractions?
“I learned a lot about addictions when I quit smoking and then quit other bad habits (junk food, for example). One important thing is learning what your triggers are — what events happen just before you do the addiction? Start to study this if you’re serious about ending your addiction. Then replace the addiction with a positive behavior for each trigger — drink water, for example, or go for a walk, or write. Finally, be aware of your urges to give in to the addiction, and pause instead of giving into the addiction. Instead, take some deep breaths, let the urge pass, and do the positive behavior instead.”
“It’s about living within your means, so that you don’t get saddled with the burden of debt, or so that you can get out of debt, or so that you can save or invest for your financial future. Without frugality, it’s almost impossible to do these things. Frugality is also about not working just to support a lavish lifestyle, but living a lifestyle that doesn’t require you to give away your entire life to working. It’s about spending on what you need, not a bunch of unnecessary things that don’t make you happy.”
A (Mostly) Comprehensive Guide to Leo Babauta’s Business Posts
Authenticity & Trust in Business (a talk given at Gumroad)
Open Source Blogging (radically giving away all his content)
…and many more