The Accidental Best-Seller: Dan Norris and the Power of Content Marketing
(Originally published in writeHackr Magazine.)
From corporate drone to business owner to published author, Dan Norris redefined how to launch a startup, and how to use content to build a business. Through trial and error, and with a lot of hustle and grit, Dan figured out on his own what worked and what didn’t, and not only built the successful web service WPCurve, but also wrote two books, The 7 Day Startup and Content Machine, that have become cornerstones in the entrepreneurship community.
Here, Dan talks about how he discovered the power of content, and how he has leveraged writing to build wildly successful brands.
writeHackr: Tell us a little bit about your background, and how you started to use writing and content for your business.
Dan Norris: I used to run a web agency and it was just a small one, sort of like my own freelance agency, and I just didn’t really like any of the marketing that web agencies had to do. I looked around at my peers — people who were really good at speaking at conferences or connecting in person and selling direct face-to-face sales, or those people who were really good at hacking SEO or doing paid ads — I looked around at all those options for marketing and just never really liked any of them. I did them anyway because I didn’t know any better ways to market. Eventually I stumbled across the idea of blogging, which I now call content marketing. And I did it so much that I forced myself to figure out how to make it work, because it was the only form of marketing that I really enjoyed doing. Sitting down and writing content is something I still really enjoy doing. So that was the one I decided I was going to use to build my business, and as it turns out it ended up being a pretty good one to pick. When I started, blogging was pretty new and SEO was still more about buying links and hacking and grey hat stuff, but that’s all changed now. The skills to create content to build a business are now more in demand than almost any skill in entrepreneurship. So that was good timing for me.
wH: When did you actually start with the content marketing — blogging — and how did that evolve into the type of content marketing you’re talking about today?
DN: I think probably about 2009. I started my business in 2006, and I did weekly email updates and newsletters. I sort of started from day one putting out some sort of content. But I didn’t really decide that I’d be doing a full-time blog until 2009. I had my agency then, which I sold in 2012, and from 2012 onwards I’ve been building my businesses using only content. So that involved writing hundreds of articles, doing podcasts, interviews, videos, and who knows what else.
Oh and I wrote two books as well which sort of came out of having all that content out there and in my head and on my blog and with my audience, and just pulling those ideas together to form books.
wH: When you started this back in 2009 was it you just deciding to become a writer online and creating content to build your business versus approaching it first as a marketing tool?
DN: In many ways it was the opposite. I see the writing as something that I enjoy doing and something I could do probably all day, every day. But it can also be really misdirected. I think figuring out a way to do the writing and enjoy the writing but do it in a more targeted way — which is where the marketing comes in — is probably the reason it’s worked for me. I could be writing average blog posts that nobody cares about, or I could spend the same amount of time writing something interesting or clever that other people haven’t come across before in an industry that doesn’t get a lot of content marketing action, and get way more results from that. So being more targeted about the sort of things I write and being more focused on working on the little pieces that get traction and building them into much bigger pieces — which really is marketing because you can write a lot of stuff but there needs to be a point to it. And my intention was never to become a writer or a paid author, and never really to make money writing. My priority was always marketing businesses and I see myself as an entrepreneur not a writer. But I think you have to be both.
If you want to be good at creating content, you need to understand how to write. But if you want to be good at being an entrepreneur you need to write the right sort of content.
wH: Right, and today that goes hand in hand. It’s really hard to be an entrepreneur, and to be in business and to start a business, especially today, without having those skills.
DN: Everyone has a different path to success. I know a lot of guys who’ve created amazing businesses without writing anything and just done really well on social media. And other guys who don’t really use social media or don’t really use content and have done amazing things. I think that the writing — the content marketing and the writing — gets talked about a lot because we’re all writers and we’re bloggers and we love to talk about what we’re doing. But it’s not the only way to build a business by any means. I think the key is really to tap into what works for you and that’s the reason I chose this because it’s the only thing I’ve ever done that’s worked for me.
wH: How did the idea for “The 7 Day Startup” come about? You mentioned it came from working on the blog — is that where it started or did you have the idea before that?
DN: The idea grew out of a few things. One, I wrote a blog post about startup validation. It was about how I was really struggling to validate this idea, and when I gave up trying to validate it and I just launched WPCurve instead, everything became a lot clearer. I just started building this business. So that idea of validation being a waste of time was a little bit contrarian — it got a little bit of attention — so that blog post did really well and became known in the industry as sort of developing its own school of thought. I looked back on [the process of launching] WPCurve and thought, well, I struggled for seven years building a business that sucked, and I built one in seven days that was amazing. So what did I learn from that? So I wrote a few blog posts about it, I wrote some Medium articles, I launched another business in seven days (which ended up failing, but I went through the process on the blog in real time), and then I put all of the ideas together to put up as a free book on the site. I met a book marketing guy who convinced me to put it on Amazon and market it properly, and it kind of went nuts. I didn’t really know anything about this sort of stuff. I never intended to write a book. I’ve never really seen myself as a writer or an author. And I still don’t, really. That book took me a week or two to put together. I mean, there’s books and there’s BOOKS. You look at that book (The 7 Day Startup) and you look at a book like The Martian and you think, well, you can’t really call yourself an author unless you write something like that. At the time what I wanted was to just get it in front of as many people as possible. I never thought I’d make money on it, because I was always told you can’t make money writing books. As it turns out I’ve done pretty okay financially with it. But the idea that putting it up on Amazon would get it in front of more people than just putting on my site appealed to me, so we went down that path and it ended up becoming a best seller. I think it’s up to 30,000 copies sold now.
wH: There’s a lot of talk online these days in the expert space about using a book as a “brochure” to funnel customers into a back-end. What are your thoughts on that?
DN: If you’re doing anything as a brochure then you’re probably wasting your time. If you do anything you should do it properly, and if you set out to write a book you should only do it if you’ve got something that needs to be said. And then why not write a book that could potentially be the best book in that category, and not just a sales tool for your business? I don’t think the world needs any more crappy books. Writing something and taking the time to work on an idea that needs to be out there and creating something that’s good in it’s own right is a much better idea. I’ll never be able to measure how much direct business I’ve gotten from the book, but I’m sure if it wasn’t a good book it would’ve done absolutely nothing.
wH: I really love that you said that and I totally agree. If your intentions are to create something of value, it’ll have lasting power, as opposed to being just another “brochure” disguised as a book.
DN: Sure, and it’s also going to get you to new audiences. That’s what my book has done. Because the majority of the orders come from Amazon, it’s put me alongside these big name authors and gotten me into the hands of people that never would’ve heard about me. So it’s not just about rewarding your customers, it’s getting you into a whole new crowd of people and a whole new world. I’ve built a totally separate business just based off that one book — I’ve got an online community, I ran an online challenge that happened in January, I’ve got a Facebook group with over 6,000 people in it, and I’ve got the potential to create something really great just based on The 7 Day Startup brand, which started as a blog post!
wH: How do you turn your ideas into books?
DN: I’ve got a board in Trello which is always filled with ideas that could be bigger than blog posts. I think all of them could probably be a book at some point. When one board gets lots of ideas in it, or when it makes sense to write about one particular thing then that one becomes the one I focus on. The core idea with Content Machine was the idea of differentiation. You can create a blog and write a lot of blog posts but the name of the game with any kind of marketing is attention, and you need to get attention for what you’re doing.
If you’re just going to go out there and create content that’s the same as everyone else you’re not going to get anywhere.