Stacking the Bricks Podcast
EP26 - Don't wait 18 months
In this episode…
Donovan picked up JFS in December. Read it over Christmas. By the end of February, he'd grown his mailing list to 1,500 people. He created a landing page and JFS'd an email course on CSS animation, with a price tag of $49. In the first 7 days, he made 50 sales — for a total of over $2,000.
To learn more about how Donovan did it — including specific techniques for getting traffic to his blog posts — listen in right now…
- Donovan's blog - http://hop.ie/
- CSS Animation Rocks Course - http://cssanimation.rocks/
- Amy's Book, JFS - http://justfuckingship.com/
Save 10% off JFS during the month of October using the code STACKER.
Alex Hillman: What’s going on brick stackers! I’m Alex Hillman and this is a brand-new episode of Stacking the Bricks.
For those of you joining us for the first time, welcome! We’re super stoked you’re here and I’m excited to bring an episode to you that is from our archives. An episode that we have not previously released, an interview with one of the customers, one of the readers of Amy’s book, Just Fucking Ship. If you’re unfamiliar with Just Fucking Ship, it’s a book that Amy wrote in 24 hours using the principles in the book itself. 21 principles for building and shipping things, shipping them on time, getting those creative ideas out of your head and into the real world.
Nearly 3000 people have actually picked up a copy of Just Fucking Ship and today I’m excited to introduce you to one of them.
Today’s guest story may sound familiar to you. He had built and created some things in the past – maybe made a little bit of money here and there, but not had huge success and by following some of the rules in Just Fucking Ship, as well as cobbling together some of the things on our site that we published for free, he’s been able to build an audience in the thousands and at the time of this recording, which was nearly a year and a half ago, he had only just released his very first product to that audience. So, he’s going to share some early numbers with you and then at the end of this podcast, I’ll be back with some updates including a code that you can use to get your own copy of Just Fucking Ship for a couple of bucks off the sticker price.
So enjoy this episode with Donovan and I’ll see you at the end for some updates.
Donovan: I am Donovan and I’m a front-end developer. At the moment I’m working full time for a company here in Dublin that helps athletes avoid injury and in my spare time, when I’m not chasing around my two kids, I also create side projects. One of those is one called CSSanimation.rocks.
Alex Hillman: So you’ve done other side projects before CSS Animation Rocks. What other kinds of side projects had you done before this?
Donovan: I’ve been making a few different projects for the past 10 years or so. I guess the biggest one was about 10 years ago when I started off in doing the side project stuff, I created a site called Shop Ireland and that was a kind of basic affiliate site. It just worked like Amazon, but it showed the prices in Europe and had a bit of Irish branding and a bit of support as well. So, the people in Ireland could actually contact somebody that would be in the same country and see things from the same perspective as them.
Alex Hillman: How did you figure out to make something like that?
Donovan: I’ll admit, it was kind of an accident in a sense in that I was interested in the technology and how to build it. I was learning about PHP, learning about SEO and how the APIs work. Amazon has an excellent API for products. So, I thought, well, that’s a massive amount of information I can see what I can do with that.
Alex Hillman: The thing that I’m actually most interested in, first of all, what was it that drew you to wanting to read Just Fucking Ship in the first place? You sound like someone who knows how to make stuff happen.
Donovan: I’ve been following the tweets and the emails mostly from Amy over the past, I think year, maybe year and a half or so. I like the way she talks about the branding and launching things. It really cuts through the bullshit in her approach. That’s something has resonated with me for a while, I guess at the same time, I’ve been working full time for the past four years. Prior to that, I was self-employed for about six years and I felt maybe a bit of an urge to get back into that kind of living.
That’s still maybe with me, that feeling that I wanted to control my own time a bit more.
Alex Hillman: So having read the book, which mind you is, this is actually one of the first conversations that I’m having with someone in our audience, specifically talking about Just Fucking Ship.
Folks have heard a lot from people who have taken 30x500 and it sounds like you’ve been following along the unicorn free playbook in a lot of ways and figuring out how to build and launch. So, before we even get into that, I’m curious what it was about Just Fucking Ship that got you going in that direction?
Donovan: I think it was that kind of, “fuck it” moment that you talk about sometimes where I’d been seeing what other people do for quite a while. There was a great course that was run online by, Relly Annett-Baker last year called Write Up. I just saw it on Twitter, it captured my imagination as something you can do through email, it was an email long course on writing. It had never occurred to me that you could leverage email in that way before. So that was something also in my mind, whenever that book came across, I had been looking for a way to do it, just to kick it off.
For me writing the book in 24 hours was quite inspiring. I guess it just triggered something in me at that point, when I read that, I thought, right, that’s it. I’m going to do it. First thing is, I’ll actually read how to do it, so I’ll buy this book. I set out some rules and something to follow, and it did give me a structure. It talked about maybe creating the mise en place before getting into actually launching products, doing it in small chunks. I’ve taken that approach that I learned from the book in terms of actually building the site bit by bit, small atomic chunks.
I started off just literally a blog post. The homepage didn’t even have any mechanism for showing listings of what was on the site. I just manually put the link into the page and then gradually over the month or two, I’ve been adding in more features, making it work across RSS and building out the site, adding better design and more blog posts.
Alex Hillman: So, over the first month or two, I guess we’re talking January, February or so, take me through some of the steps. You said you started with just one blog post on what sounds like a super-duper Flintstone website?
Donovan: In terms of context here, I’ve been in blogging for a couple of years, in different ways. I started blogging on my own personal site at hop.ie and through that, I guess I kind of did a Safari-ish kind of thing in that I tried ideas and saw what worked, what didn’t. That encouraged me to write certain types of posts that I knew people would like. So, that was the background to starting this project.
Technically then with this site, I set up a, a Jekyll based website, which is like static pages that generates normal HTML and CSS, threw it up on GitHub, attached the URL to it. To go from that to actually getting momentum and actually getting traffic. There’s a few steps involved. First thing was to pick a topic and I have been thinking about CSS in general, but it’s such a big topic that I couldn’t possibly take it on and write anything useful about such a big topic in itself. But within that, I’ve been doing a lot of writing about creating, examples of CSS that are animated. So, it seemed more interesting to boil it down to more specific topic like that.
I had a list going of thoughts of different things I could cover. I just picked one of them, which happened to be Twitter animation. I put together a post for that, explained how to make the animation and the post, and then to get it out there I firstly put it online and then contacted some mailing lists that I know.
There are all sorts of mailing lists around, but for my kind of posts, I would talk to sites like CSS Weekly or Web Design Weekly. They’re always looking for good stuff to feature. So, the first step was to get in touch with them and say, “Hey, look, I’ve written the post. Do you want us to talk about it to your next newsletter?” And that’s for me a great way to just start to reach a quick audience.
Alex Hillman: That’s awesome! I want to go back to one thing you said that was really interesting and see if you can dig into it a little bit more for me. You said that when you’ve been blogging for a while, before you started this project, you were sort of, trying things out and writing about different things and seeing what got the most response, seeing what people actually seemed to like, did you notice any patterns in what worked well and what was it? How did you know?
Donovan: The kinds of things people liked were things that had a very clear visual goal; creating an essay, a demonstration or example, ideally something that was a bit of wow factor.
There are two types of posts I do really there’s there are types of posts that have something that’s a bit out there. I made a 3D Mac Plus using just CSS and HTML. It can turn and animate, and people would look at that and say, “well, how on earth is that done?” And so, the blog post talks about it. It breaks it down into steps. Then the second type of post is more practical. It’s something like if you want to show items in a list on a webpage. What is the process to actually build that and to do it well, and to animate it as well, if you want. That’s something people will use. I don’t think people are going to use 3D CSS Mac Plus’s on their pages, but everybody here has lists of things to show. So, they’re two different types of posts.
Alex Hillman: What I love about this, and you sort of happened upon something that we teach very discreetly and specifically within 30x500. I mean, you’re creating, ebombs, whether you knew it or not at the time. The thing that defines an ebomb is delivering a fix that it actually solves a problem. One of the cool things that I like about what you just described is even in this sort of conceptual, how does this work? How does this impressive sort of crazy thing work? You set up question that either they didn’t know they had, or you connected to, you know, “I do have a question.
I have a list and I want to be able to animate the way it flies in and things like that.”
The job of that blog post is to get them that that answer so that they can do it on their own. If it doesn’t have a fix, it’s not an ebomb. The reason that those fixes are so valuable is that’s where you start getting – not just traction where people are gonna read it and maybe apply it, but then they say, “wow, Donovan can actually help. He showed me how to do something. I understand it now, I could go do that. I wonder what else he’s got for me.”
You very intuitively pulled that out of what seemed to be working best, but you hit the nail on the head in terms of something that we teach our students every day. So, well done!
Donovan: Thank you. That’s great to hear!
Alex Hillman: Yeah, it’s incredibly interesting how hard it can be to get people to narrow and focus and get specific. Another thing you did very intuitively saying CSS is too broad, let me zero in on animation. And it sounds like even within that, it’s very practical animation, which is really great and you shipped, I mean, how many blog posts over a month or two?
Donovan: I aimed for once every week. I didn’t quite hit every week, but I got up seven or eight posts before I launched the product.
Alex Hillman: Great. And were you collecting email addresses for a mailing list as well?
Donovan: Right from the start, yeah. The first thing I did was to put a sign- up form and then I was putting out an update every week.
Alex Hillman: So when you dropped a new blog post, it was another email to say, “Hey, I’ve got another new thing for you.” And that starts to build and build and build. So, the people that got that first taste of your Mac Pro how-to. The following week, maybe it’s a little more practical and you can come back in and tell them that?
Donovan: That’s right, yeah. And each week then they get an update for what I’m working on at the moment and at the same time, I could put in a subtle hint that I’m working on a different products and that kind of things to build interest before launching it.
Alex Hillman: At this point, where are we in time? You read just Fucking Ship in December. It sounds like we’re in February or so? And you started this more or less from – you had been blogging for a while, but did you have a mailing list before you started this CSS animation series or was this built from the ground up?
Donovan: Pretty much from the ground up. I had tried before with a site called Learnsome, and again, the problem of starting too vague was this site was meant to be a site about online, sort of CSS type topics, things that might be interesting, but it never really focused on any one specific topic. In a year, I think I had maybe 200 subscribers on the mailing list.
Alex Hillman: Versus this more narrow, specific version. What did you see this time?
Donovan: I imported those to start off and then after eight posts, it’s up to about 1800.
Alex Hillman: Wow! And in just six weeks or so, so a consistent posting schedule and you were also being strategic. You weren’t just hitting, publish, and then sitting back?
Donovan: That was the biggest thing. Yeah. Every time a new post comes out, I would make sure that I scheduled an email for the next morning. That would then start off a process where it would launch the email. I would tweet about it. I would maybe contact a few people that have had a back and forth with, on Twitter in the past and say, “by the way, did you see this?” That got momentum up. I noticed that helped.
** Alex Hillman**: I think a lot of people will have an anxiety about doing that, where if I’m sending that basically that machine happens every week. Did anybody get sort of annoyed and say, “Hey, stop sending me this stuff”?
Donovan: No, of maybe a hundred thousand people that have visited the site, I have seen two negative comments and both of them were on Reddit. Sometimes they don’t really matter anyway!
Alex Hillman: Ah, that’s great! This all been, I mean, you’ve been out there, you’ve been helpful and generally speaking Reddit, notwithstanding. When you’re helping people you’re met with, with warm reception.
Donovan: Absolutely. And even the less more positive ones, have actually turned out to be quite helpful in some ways. People have offered solutions to problems they’ve seen, or maybe thought something wasn’t done in the right way and offered an alternative, which is very constructive.
Alex Hillman: That’s great to hear! So, I think you said 1800 or so subscribers up on your list and then you start putting together a product. Take me through what sort of led you from this collection of blog posts to an actual product that you thought you could sell?
Donovan: Well, I’d imagined back in Christmas that I was going to write a book and that was the initial goal that I’d get together my previous posts and put together a book that would talk about the entire topic of CSS animation.
Pretty quickly into it though, I realized that it was quite even just even a narrow niche like that is quite a big topic to cover in a book. I wasn’t really ready to commit to that yet, which is what brought up in mind the example I mentioned earlier from Relly, who published an email course over the course of one month. I thought I could do more with that and try out on a basic level how to teach people the introductory concepts about what are transitions and what are animations and where might you want to use them?
So that started me off thinking about making an email course. St that point it was really question of making a landing page and working out a strategy for launching that landing page with a blog post at the same time that I could then direct people to the page and see how they respond.
Alex Hillman: And this is really interesting that the thought was a book, which has a bunch of connotations to it in terms of scale and formatting, and even design and typesetting and all these things, but you have this bit of inspiration to say,
“wait a second, there’s potentially a simpler version of this. If I’m just focusing on getting people started with some really important basics.”
How many parts were in this email course that you were putting together?
Donovan: This is made up of four main topics spread over four weeks and the way I’m thinking I’ll have one email each day, five emails then per week. Within that time, just cover it in a gradual way to cover the entire topic from zero to basically a solid understanding of what transitions are.
Alex Hillman: So in total about twenty emails?
Donovan: Twenty emails.
Alex Hillman: Twenty emails, twenty little units, but compare that to a book which could easily swell. I mean, even if those were a few pages, a piece you’re already thinking about, okay, now I’m thinking, yeah, about like a hundred, 120, maybe 150 pages. It starts adding up really fast, but the thing I love about email courses, both as a medium and a way to actually reach people, also a style of writing – we write emails all day long, and some of us – I hope write emails, where we’re trying to be helpful. So, you can write I think in a different style, there’s a different way of writing an email than you would a book. Did you see something similar to that when you were sitting down to actually write the course?
Donovan: Definitely. Yeah, it’s easier, I felt to connect. While I was writing I imagined I was writing to someone I know and telling them what they need to know to understand the topic. So there’s more of a direct, or felt like it had more of a direct connection in terms of writing a conversational tone.
Alex Hillman: Cool. So you put together sort of a landing page for this. How did the landing page actually describe – and people can go and see this, now I presume it’s at CSSanimation.rocks.
Donovan: That’s right. Yep.
Alex Hillman: Why don’t you take me through some of the components? How did you decide and what did you actually put on that landing page?
Donovan: A big part of it, one of the other books I read over Christmas was Authority by Nathan Barry. He sets out very clearly the goals, for the landing page in terms of describing the pain, describing the problem, offering a solution to that and then call to action and then some sort of social proof in terms of maybe quotes from somebody or links to validate my expertise in the area and then a call to action again. I followed that basic structure.
Alex Hillman: It sounds like it worked. So how did your launch actually go?
Donovan: It was great. I was quite surprised actually. My initial goal going out was that if I could get 10 people to sign up in the first month and in the first week, it went quite a lot past that it was closer to, I think, 55 signups in the first week.
Alex Hillman: That’s awesome! Congratulations!
Donovan: Thank you. And it’s carried on, it dipped in the middle of the month, but I’ve been continually putting out the ebombs each week and talking to more people and just getting word out about the course. I’m coming up to the end of the month now. I think it’s just checking the stats here, It’s about 121 signups.
Alex Hillman: That’s awesome! That’s so great! I have two questions for you. One is going to be about what you were saying you keep putting out ebombs, and I want to come back to that. But before I do, did you do anything leading up to the launch? Did people know that this was coming or was it just “poof! one day, hey, I’ve got something for you.” How did you actually do that?
Donovan: I’m maybe a bit shyer around this launch than it could have been. I did mention it in passing in a couple of emails. I had a, ‘by the way’ section at the end of each email that went out and I used that to kind of test the water, to see where people interested in this.
I don’t know, maybe there are better ways to do it, but I just hinted for a week or two beforehand and then on the day itself, I worked the day on Twitter, really getting word out and making sure that as many people heard about it as I could.
Alex Hillman: Well, and the nice thing about a launch is, well, there’s two really nice things. One is even if you don’t, there’s no points for perfection. The only way to not really succeed is to not pull the trigger and launch it all. So, you know, technique wise, there’s always things you can improve. Every launch has got things you can make better for the next time. The fact that we even see some things that you can improve for the next time is awesome.
I’d like to hear a little bit more about any correlation you see between the continuing publishing of blog posts and new sales.
Donovan: Definitely. I think it’s momentum. That’s the biggest thing I’ve seen in this, rather than maybe one big blog post that goes out once every month or two, which is closer to what I used to do. But this time, having weekly blog posts, initially it was a bit more work to get the rhythm up, but I find it has had a much more profound effect on the number of visitors and people are expecting an update regularly and they’re looking forward to it. Then coming into the site, checking, I think that works.
Alex Hillman: Did you have any hesitations or reservations going into this?
Donovan: Absolutely! I was very nervous that it might work!
What would happen next?
Alex Hillman: Well, tell me about that though. You were nervous, is that like, the what if I succeed? Now what?
Donovan: Yeah, I guess, I mean, it’s almost easier to think that maybe if it didn’t work, then no big deal, but I guess it was the fear. Like what if this really takes off, then I just never been in that situation before, so I didn’t know how I’d react.
I have to say though, it’s been fantastic. I’m learning as I go though so I’ll keep monitoring really how things go and trying new ideas, but so far I’m quite pleased with the way it’s going.
Alex Hillman: That’s so great. I’m curious if there’s been any surprises along the way. It sounds like you’ve been trying things out and you’ve been getting generally positive response, but was there anything that really caught you off guard or went differently than you expected it to?
Donovan: I think when you have a big initial week that - in my case was surprising - I didn’t expect quite so many signups initially. The following couple of weeks were a bit tougher because the momentum wasn’t quite there yet and the initial rush. Any early adopters had already jumped in. So it was relatively quiet for a couple of weeks.
Alex Hillman: How do you push through that?
Donovan: In my case, I looked at the first week and knew that that in my mind was a success. If I’d had no more sales for the rest of the month, it was fine because it was launched, it was live. People were paying me money on the internet and expecting a great course at the end. So, as far as I was concerned, there was nothing else to think about except, get the course done. That helped me focus on getting to the end of the month and then starting the course.
Alex Hillman: Where are you headed now? So you’ve got a product in the portfolio that’s still making sales. You’ve got people going through the course now, right?
Donovan: Not yet. The course will start on Monday, a couple of days, time.
Alex Hillman: Oh, that’s very exciting! So what’s next maybe is you start hearing from people as they’re actually going through, you start getting some dialogue from the folks who you’re actually helping?
Donovan: Yeah. That’s the biggest thing for me, I’m really looking forward to hearing how people get on – a big part of why I’m doing this is the feeling of connecting with people and helping them understand a topic I find interesting. That’s going to be a big deal over the next month as I work with people through the course and maybe who knows, that might influence the next course, or new ideas or improvements for this one, but I’ll look forward to hearing from them.
Alex Hillman: What’s something that you would say to someone who has not shipped a product like this before? If you could give one piece of advice, and it could be something you learned in Just Fucking Ship, it could be something that you learned along the way. What’s the one thing you would tell someone who hasn’t done this yet, maybe is on the fence, they’re like, “Oh, I’m not really sure, I want this but I don’t think I’m ready for this.” What would you tell them?
Donovan: I think rather than jump in and try to make something really big and try to charge money necessarily for it, or just jump to the chase. If you want to do something and get some momentum around it and get started, in my experience anyway, the best thing for me was just writing a blog post. It’s very low commitment, easy to do. You can stick it up on medium or create your own blog and put it there. For me, the biggest part was when people started talking about it and sharing it, and I saw the visitor numbers go up.
A big part, also, with the writing is learning for me. I just like learning new stuff and learning about CSS, learning how to make cool things with CSS. A big part of why I do that is because I want to learn how to do it and there’s no better way to learn in my mind than by teaching or at least writing about what it is you’re learning.
Alex Hillman: I totally agree. I get better understanding of the things that I do when I put myself in a position to explain it to somebody else. So, it makes me better. It makes them better. Everybody wins.
Donovan, this has been so great. I want to thank you again for taking what you learned, putting it into action.
You get all the benefits; we get to listen and watch and enjoy your success. I hope you keep us posted as you move forward. I want to hear when you’re nearing the end of this course, how it went, what new things you learned, where you want to go forward from there.
In the meantime, how can people that are listening to Stacking the Bricks follow you, follow your work, where can they find you?
Donovan: You can find me on Twitter. I’m DonovanH on Twitter and you can find out about the course on CSSanimation.rocks.
Alex Hillman: That’s super. All right, man. I’m going to let you get back to your day and I’m going to head along with mine. This has been awesome. And thank you again so, so much.
Donovan: Thanks Alex. Thanks for your time.
Alex Hillman: Take care. Bye bye.
Donovan: Bye now.
Alex Hillman: All right. I hope you learned a lot from Donovan’s story. I was super inspired by it. And if you’re inspired too and want to take some of your own work to the next level, to ship products that people actually want to buy, you can take lessons from this podcast, mix it up with the things you’ll learn in Amy’s book, Just Fucking Ship, and until the end of October we’re offering 10% off, but just till the end of the month, there’s new stuff on the way.
If you buy now, not only do you get 10% off but you do get updates in the next version, you can go to Justfuckingship.com and use the code ‘stacker’. They’ll take 10% off either package - either the book itself at $19 or our premium package which includes some extra templates and videos and things like that for you to use and enjoy - that’s $39.
Both of those options, 10% off those prices with the code ‘stacker’.
So, head over to Justfuckingship.com. Grab your own copy, when you do ship something, let us know what it is, let us know how it went. Maybe we can get you on the show in a future episode.
I hope you enjoyed, and I hope you have an awesome week ahead!
Keep on shipping and I’ll see you next time!
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