Stacking the Bricks Podcast EP29 - What are you optimizing for?
39 min

In this episode…

Nathan Johnson left a corporate gig to bootstrap an affiliate business to 100,000 users. But to get it any bigger - and profitable - he would have to give up the very thing he left his corporate gig for: freedom. Ouch.

Find out how he changed course to build a different business that DOES let him travel and spend more time with his family, while helping his growing audience of professional photographers.

Links & show notes

  • Nate's website:
  • The Film Guides that started it all:
  • Nate Johnson's Twitter:
  • Nate Johnson's Instagram:

Additional Episodes, Essays, and more

  • Stacking the Bricks:
  • Amy Hoy:
  • Alex HIllman:


Nathan Johnson: Drop everything you’re doing! I’ve got something big. This comes all the way from the top. This comes from the president of the company and I’m like, “Oh, awesome! What is this? What are we doing?” He’s like, “we’re putting QR codes on our displays”. And I’m like,” What? We’re putting QR codes on our displays?” He’s like, “Yeah. Have you heard about QR codes? These things are going to be huge! They’re going to be massive! Stop everything you’re doing”. I’m like, “Where do we even begin to explain the stupidity of QR codes?”

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What’s going on brick stackers! As always, I’m your host, Alex Hillman and I’m back today with a brand-new episode of Stacking the Bricks.

If this is your first time joining us, this is a show about the small steps, the tiny wins, and the lessons learned along the way from real people that have started businesses selling products online – creative people – just like you and me.

That voice you heard just a moment ago talking about QR codes is today’s guest – his name is Nathan Johnson.

Over the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to sit courtside and watch Nathan build a new business that at this point is supporting him and his family. It’s allowing him to take time to travel, spend time with his new daughter. And what might surprise you – and might even surprise Nathan to this day – is that if you had asked him just a year or two ago, if he’d ever thought that he would build a business selling tools and educational material to freelance and professional photographers, he would have told you that you’re crazy!

But hindsight is 2020, and it does make a surprising amount of sense when you see how everything added up over time and you see all the work that Nathan has put in through each various stage.

So, without further ado, let’s get into today’s episode and hear how Nathan got his start.

Nathan Johnson: I got my start at Johnson & Johnson. I was doing marketing there, first in Jacksonville, Florida, then moved up to Philly. I mean, as you can imagine, it was probably the most corporate environment you can possibly imagine. I was working on an old Lenovo laptop, I had zero technical background and it was just a grind, man. I mean, it was a super grind.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What did marketing in a corporate environment look like?

Nathan Johnson: Well, so with Johnson & Johnson, marketing is kind of the hub of the wheel, so there was a lot of interaction with every single other department and you own the whole P&L – the whole profit and loss statement. So, there was a lot of stress, a lot of intensity, a lot of politics. It was very, very stressful.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So I’m imagining that may have been part of what drove you to leave?

Nathan Johnson: Yeah, that was definitely part of it. I mean, it was that, but also, after working there for five years, I had touched pretty much every point of marketing and done all the actual tasks that you can do as a marketer. I looked at my bosses and my bosses bosses, and more and more, you actually did less marketing and it was more just putting out fires and dealing with the politics of people. And they were not happy. I could not imagine myself being happy in that situation. A lot of what made people successful wasn’t the ability to be a good marketer or actually have success as a marketer, it was their ability to be friends with the right people essentially. I mean, there were so many instances where we would do something from marketing and I’d be like, “This is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard in my life.”

I remember vividly one day I’m sitting in my cubicle and my boss’s boss runs into my cubicle and says, “Hey, drop everything you’re doing. I’ve got something big. This comes all the way from the top. This comes from the president of the company.” And I’m like, “Oh, awesome! What is this? What are we doing?” He’s like, “We’re putting QR codes on our displays.” And I’m like, “What? We’re putting QR codes on our displays?” And yeah. “Have you heard about QR codes? These things are going to be huge! They’re going to be massive, stop everything you’re doing.” I’m like “Where do we even begin to explain the stupidity of QR codes?”

But it didn’t matter, you had to do it, you had to get it done. The president thought this was a brilliant idea and so that’s what you’re going to be working on for the next couple of weeks. So, the train’s already left the station.

I mean, I don’t want to paint it as all bad. I definitely learned a lot and had a lot of awesome experiences and met a ton of awesome people. But it wasn’t something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And the more that I did it, the harder it would be to leave.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: When did you decide to leave and what were you planning to do when you left?

Nathan Johnson: Yeah. Great question! So, my wife and I were actually vacationing in Hawaii and literally we both, at the same time, we’re like, “Yeah, I should leave my job.” I didn’t have necessarily an idea of what I was going to do, and people at Johnson & Johnson didn’t believe that, they thought I had some evil genius plan of what I was going to do. I really did not. I knew that I couldn’t be there any longer. Kim had a stable job; she could support us. It was just the right time for us. I figured I would kind of figure it out as I went. Because I basically, I came back, quit the job and just started trying to learn as much as I could, essentially.

I felt I was so behind in everything. So, I got rid of my Lenovo, I got a Mac. I started catching up on all the things that I’d been missing out on for the past five years. I spent some time in New York city actually working with a startup there. I spent some time helping out a couple of other startups. And then I came to Indy Hall.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So you’re learning new things. Is that learning sort of like the modern world of marketing? Is that learning programming design? What were you actually studying when you were updating your skills?

Nathan Johnson: It’s a little bit of everything, and it’s honestly been ongoing for the past five or six years. Basically, everything that I’ve wanted to learn about - I’ve just gone ahead and done it. That includes learning how to program, I learned how to do iOS development. I learned HTML and CSS and then SaasS and then Hamill and then Ruby, so kind of the whole, the whole technology stack, which was something that regardless of whether or not I was going to ever use it, was was something that I felt like I had to learn to be able to be kind of in this world.

And it was something that I wanted to learn, something that I have fun actually learning. So, I learned that. On the marketing side, I realized pretty quick that a lot of the stuff I had learned marketing with J&J I hadn’t actually done. So, grade instances, search engine optimization. Sure, I had paid agencies to do search engine optimization. I had looked over the plans. I had approved plans, but I had never actually physically gone in and done it. And it was like that for a lot of the marketing stuff that I did.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What does that realization feel like?

Nathan Johnson: It feels like you’re kind of starting over in a lot of ways. It feels like maybe you didn’t understand it as well as you thought you understood it, when you actually have to do it.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So you sort of throw yourself into this voracious pattern of learning to do, learning to implement, you start implementing. Are you building something in particular or are you just sort of like practicing and throwing stuff at the wall and see what sticks?

Nathan Johnson: Yes. So, the first real big project that I did was something called Promofly and that’s what I was working on when I came into Indy Hall. I did it with a friend of mine who was rails developer down in Chattanooga that I’d grown up with. Promofly was basically, if you’ve heard of Honey, which is a popular Chrome extension now, we were basically Honey, before Honey was Honey. It was a bookmarklet and then it was a Chrome extension that let you find coupon codes as you were shopping online. I talk a lot with people who are in a similar situation as I am, where they’ve worked in the corporate environment, they come out and they have this idea and they’re gonna start this big thing.

Everyone always has this grand notion of what it looks like to be an entrepreneur, and this idea of “all I have to do is come up with an idea that nobody else has got and then just implement it and then success is the next step.” And my experience was that absolutely isn’t the case because even though we were able to grow - we grew to almost a hundred thousand users – I didn’t have any affiliate contacts. I didn’t have any affiliate relationships. I didn’t have any way of knowing how to do that sort of thing. I was trying to develop, but also learn development at the same time. So, everything was very, very slow.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Just to be clear about the business model of Promofly and Honey and things - you mentioned affiliates. So, the business development part of this is not just the getting users, because the users aren’t actually giving you money…

Nathan Johnson: That’s right.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: It’s the affiliate contacts and doing those deals. So, you’re kind of doing twice the work of selling. Once to an audience that’s not actually going to give you money, but are prerequisite to get the affiliate deal, that’s worth it in the first place. Right?

Nathan Johnson: Right, and you have to convince the retailers that what you’re doing is actually adding value to them and not just giving people more coupons that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. So, it’s actually a very, very tricky thing to do. And the way that a company like Honey has done it is they just said, “Hey, screw worrying about affiliate. We’re just going to basically perpetually raise money.” What a great business model, but, so I got to a point where I realized that in order for this to be successful, in order for Promofly to be successful, it would have to be a completely different business model and a completely different lifestyle for me than what I wanted.

And so I think that there was this huge mismatch between my dream and what I wanted my lifestyle to be, and the reason that I left J&J and then what you could actually do with Promofly.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: It makes a lot of sense.

Nathan Johnson: Yeah.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What specifically was that dream?

Nathan Johnson: So the dream was really to have freedom. Freedom of time and place and space and what I worked on. Freedom to be able to spend time with my family now. I have a one-year old daughter, to be able to spend time with Ava, to help raise Ava, to be able to go on long vacations and just enjoy my family. That’s really the dream. And also I think to, to be able to learn the things that interested me, I didn’t want to be in middle management the rest of my life, where most of the skill set that I’m working on is the skill skillset of managing up and managing down.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: It sounds like there was an end somewhere along the way with Promofly. How did that wind down?

Nathan Johnson: So we were at a point where we were just about breaking even, but it was still taking a lot of my time, a lot of my partner’s time, and we either had to kind of double down or just cut losses. We decided we would cut losses because to double down would require doing things that even if I were successful, I wouldn’t be successful.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Because you weren’t getting what you wanted?

Nathan Johnson: Yeah, exactly.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: How long between the start and when you guys decided to cut those losses?

Nathan Johnson: Oh, it was probably three years, and we shopped it around a little bit. We talked to some different companies and even in a lot of cases, there wasn’t a way that we could get what we wanted without having to make sacrifices. Like a lot of companies were like, “Hey, this looks awesome. We’d love for you to, to move out to Colorado or move out to Chicago and be with us for the next like couple of years.” And we’re like, “Yeah, that’s not really what we’re here to talk about.”

Nathan Johnson: So we ended up just saying, “Hey, you know, we’re cutting losses and each doing our own thing.”

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So what happened next?

Nathan Johnson: All during this time, I had started to pick up more consulting gigs, mainly just through word of mouth, people who knew that I worked at J&J, people who knew what I was doing with Promofly; I actually really enjoyed consulting. To be able to go in and look at a situation, make recommendations, make some implementations, not have too much bureaucracy, was actually really fun and invigorating. And to have a couple different clients just has to make you think a little bit differently with each one. I actually really enjoyed it. So, when Promofly shuttered I said, “okay. I’m just going to focus all of my time to consulting and maybe have a couple of side projects along the way as I’m, as I’m working on that, so that’s what I did.”

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: I remember a day, probably about a year and a half ago, I was sitting in the kitchen at Indy Hall. You came over with your laptop and you said to me, “something has happened.” Why don’t you describe a little bit about what was happening?

Nathan Johnson: I had started a photography blog that had to do with old film and old film emulations. I had been at night just for fun, been going through and researching films and old analog films and just putting everything in Evernote, just for my own personal benefit.

** Alex Hillman**: So this is basically how to recreate the style of old analog film using new digital techniques?

Nathan Johnson: It was even simpler than that. It was - what was the style of old film?

You would be shocked that films that were around 15 years ago, there’s almost no evidence of on the internet because a lot of these films died out right before the internet started to take off. A lot of the companies that made them stopped producing them. So, they’d have no reason to give a lot of context around it. There was a shocking little amount of information on the internet, actually, my best source for this ended up being doing Google searches of old photography magazines. Google has actually indexed millions of magazines and you can search through it.

That’s how I found a lot of this information and started to catalog it and organize it inside of Evernote.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Wow. Okay. So, you’re taking on the role of a historian, of a journalist of sorts here, but for your own fun.

Nathan Johnson: I thought maybe eventually I’ll get into analog photography. There were some paid filters that tried to emulate these is the specific looks. No one had any idea if they were doing a good job or not, because no one had shot with these films in 20 years, no one even knew what these films were supposed to look like. So that was part of the impetus of all that as well.

Eventually I was like, you know what? I’ve actually been cattling all this information. I should probably put this online because that’s kind of what I know how to do now. I know how to make WordPress sites and I know how to do search engine optimization and I’ve spent a lot of time on the Reddit photography community, so I have a little bit of reputation there. So, I started to put this information up and the response was incredible. I mean, a couple of my posts were some of the top art photography posts on Reddit. I started to get some traffic. People were writing comments and thanking me for this. And it was like, “wow, this is, this is awesome!”

At the time I had no idea or ambition of even making a product around any of this. Maybe in the back of my mind, subconsciously, I was thinking about the concept that you and Amy had kind of ingrained into me of – you start with audience and then from that audience, you build a product. And man, let me tell you that way easier because it wasn’t long before people were asking me to make products for them, which had never happened to me before. In marketing that’s an incredibly novel thing. I mean, at J&J no one was ever asking that we make, you know, a Tylenol that melts in your mouth, that’s a great flavor.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Do you have to convince people?

Nathan Johnson: You have to convince people that this is the greatest thing that’s ever existed through spending tens of millions of dollars of advertising.

So this was a breakthrough to me. And so I’m sitting in the kitchen and I think it was with Rob Epler or someone and just describing what’s going on with the site and the traffic that started to get and the search engine traffic that started to come in organically and people are emailing me and I want to start capturing some of it. I think that’s where you were sitting right next to our table and kind of overheard the conversation and you’re like, “Oh! Let’s talk about this!”

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So, if I remember right, you’re telling me about the traffic and I think you had put, like “sign up for my newsletter” type thing.

Nathan Johnson: Super generic, “Hey, if you want to get more of this”

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Basically the copy and paste out of MailChimp?

Nathan Johnson: Absolutely. The first thing we talked about was how can we get a higher conversion rate? And I was using, I think, Rapidology and my conversion rate was something pretty abysmal, like maybe 0.5%. It was really low. And we were talking about, well, what could we offer that would be really valuable to the person reading our article? Really specific to it. I basically put in a download – a free download – of a cheat sheet and that cheat sheet just basically showed all the different films that I was showing in that article. It was basically like a PowerPoint chart. Really super easy. Took me maybe an hour to do, put it on there, put it in the form. It was a little bit of work. I think I was using MailChimp at the time to have it to where it would actually send the download link and all that stuff and instantly that the conversion rate went from 0.5% to, I think somewhere around 10%.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Holy shit!

Nathan Johnson: It went up a lot! I didn’t even know this, but apparently there’s a lot of private photography communities on Facebook that are actually massive, like millions of people in private communities, people would say, “Oh yeah, I saw you were posted on such and such like private community, and that’s how I found you.”

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Interesting. Alright. So, your conversion rate goes through the roof and I’m jealous. I think everyone listening is jealous.

Nathan Johnson: Well, if you think that’s high, I got to tell you what I did next!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Tell me more!

Nathan Johnson: So the the next thing I did, I said, “Well, what if the whole point of the post was people were going there to download something? What would my conversion rate be then?”

This is when I started to get into actually making presets. Everyone is saying, “Hey, when are you actually going to start making some of these things that you’re talking about, so that I can actually use it inside of Lightroom.” And so, I made a post and it was 10 free presets and that post went absolutely through the roof1 And the conversion rate on that post is upwards of 40%.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So I’m looking at the page now and this is a pretty lengthy page. I’m seeing a lot of that though is because of the 109 comments. People saying things like, “Hey Nate, thanks so much for these.” And “I just found the exact thing I was looking for, this is incredible!”

Alright. So a 40% conversion now of these downloads, they’re getting the download, but they’re also being added to your list.

Nathan Johnson: That’s right.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Were you interacting with those people at all? Or are they just getting the download and then that’s the last they ever hear from you? What was going on there?

Nathan Johnson: People basically get an email from me maybe a week or so after just saying, “How’s it going, would love to hear what you think of it, feel free to share anything with me, hit me up on Instagram. I’d love to follow you back. Just kind of a little personal email back, and a lot of people, a surprising amount of people write back to that. Actually, I’ve stopped doing that just recently, because so many people were writing back. I was getting maybe 15 emails a day coming back from that.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Wow! So, what’s your daily subscriber ad look like in order to getting 15 replies?

Nathan Johnson: Around 300.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Cool! So. You’ve got all these people on an email list. They’re responding to you. They’re saying “Nate, we want more” …

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What do you do next?

Nathan Johnson: The next thing I did is I actually made a paid preset pack that had some things that people had been asking for in the free one. They wanted the ability to adjust the intensity of the preset, they were asking if I could have custom camera calibration profiles, they wanted an installer, so they didn’t have to manually drag stuff back and forth. So I worked on that and then had a sequence of emails and launched that last October.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: About how many people were on the list total at that point?

Nathan Johnson: Maybe 20,000.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Okay. How did you figure out which presets to make?

Nathan Johnson: A lot of it is based on what photographers are shooting and what style they want. So, the preset pack that I did first was more for portraits. It can be used for street portraiture or wedding portraiture. It can be used for cityscapes. It’s very moody. And then on the flip side, I have another preset pack that I’m revamping right now that’s vivid and bold and richly textured and it’s great for landscapes, it’s great for documentary photography and kind of that Nat-geo style of really vivid, rich photography.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So it sounds like you are able to sort of observe the landscape, see what’s popular, see what people are trying to create and struggling with. And then we’re sort of reverse engineering from there?

Nathan Johnson: Absolutely. You talk about Instagram, people all the time on Instagram will message me and say, “Hey, how do I get a look like this particular other photographer on Instagram?” Maybe I’ll say, “Hey, well, it looks like he’s doing these maybe three particular things, but thanks for the suggestion. I’ll consider having this in the pack that I’m working on, that’s going to be about landscape photography.”

Cool. That gives them a little bit of a look ahead. Things to get excited about.

Nathan Johnson: Absolutely.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Is there anything you’ve noticed about who’s buying and has that adjusted how you focus, how you communicate with them?

Nathan Johnson: Yeah. I could probably do better to know more about my list. I mean, I know that there’s a lot of people who are making the transition from iPhone photography to digital SLRs. There’s a lot of people who have never shot or experienced analog film before. So, that’s kind of a very exotic idea to them. It is surprisingly international. I’ve had probably four people ask me if they can translate all this in Chinese.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Are the professionals, are they hobbyists?

Nathan Johnson: Well, there’s that, there’s definitely a mix. There’s definitely a mix. Through asking people if I can follow them on Instagram, I’ve actually gotten to know some of these photographers on a personal level, which is awesome. Some of them have literally hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram. Some of them have no followers on Instagram and I may be one of the first, so I don’t know if you want to get into that.

But the next thing I did after launching the presets was, I’ve just recently launched a course. I think it’s been interesting to see that with the course, it’s definitely professionals that are buying the course. Or want to be professionals, there aren’t too many first time digital SLR photographers.

That may be just because of the price point. But I also think that there is maybe a little bit of a different mentality in terms of, if I’m just getting into it maybe I want just a quick fix. I just want that press one button, the preset does it. It saves me a ton of time. I don’t really care about having all that expertise right now in building these things. But if you’ve done, if you’ve been around photography for a while, you’ve tried to do these things on your own and you failed. You see that I can show you how to do it.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: A course also sort of falls into the mindset of professional development. So people can look at the price point and say, “Oh, this is going to help me sell my work in a certain way or accomplish work that I’m trying to sell, or I’ve seen other people sell successfully and I want to be able to do.”

I want to talk about that course, how you launched it, what was different between the launch of the course versus the launch of the product itself.

Before we do, you’ve mentioned Instagram twice now, and I’m curious because we don’t really talk a whole lot about social media and what role it plays in product sales, audience building, and things like that. But has it been useful for audience building for you?

Nathan Johnson: I think in some ways it has. I mean, it definitely doesn’t have the scalability of Google and search engine optimization. I mean, that’s still my bread and butter for bringing people in. But a lot of people who have purchased have been people that we both follow each other on Instagram, or people that have messaged me on Instagram. Actually, the surprising number of personal messages through Instagram, people don’t want to, I guess use email, even though I give that out all over the website or leave a comment. Instead they choose to message me on Instagram, which is pretty cool.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Is it like the other messages I saw in your comments, like “Thank you. You’re awesome.” Or are they asking you questions?

Nathan Johnson: People ask me questions. People ask me, like “Hey, based on looking at my page, which of your presets do you think would be best?” People ask me, “Hey, can you give me a deal because I’m a student” or, “Hey, if I start tagging you in some of my photos, will you give me stuff free?” A lot of times I do, if they have enough followers. They ask me all kinds of things.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: cool, so let’s get into the new course that you recently launched.

Nathan Johnson: A lot of students come into it with, they already have in mind, this is the particular look that I want. I want it to have this particular feeling or mood or emotion that’s evoked from the way that I develop inside a light room and maybe a preset can get me 60% of the way there. But then after that, I don’t know what adjustments and things I need to make inside a light room or where to make them. it’s actually pretty confusing if you don’t have a system for it. And so what I sell them is this system that’s going to show them step by step how to be able get any look that they want.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Gotcha. So, this is not just how to use the tool, but an actual approach to developing a style of your own?

Nathan Johnson: Absolutely. I mean, there’s so many courses out there that go through every tool one by one and say, Oh, this is what this tool does. This is what this tool does. That’s completely useless when you actually get into trying to achieve a certain style.

I say, forget about the tools for a minute. Let’s just talk about what it is you want to achieve. There’s really only four dimensions to that. I kind of take them through each dimension and show what they need to do inside a library to do that.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Was there anything that informed that approach to teaching it?

Nathan Johnson: I mean, honestly, it’s just the process that I used. I think that there is some value in telling people this is the same process I use because most of these students have already downloaded presets or purchased presets of mine so they know the outcome of this and they think, “Man, if I could get that same outcome with that same approach, that would be incredible.”

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Proof is in the pudding. So, what was different between launching your premium priced presets to a course?

Nathan Johnson: Yeah, launching the course was much more difficult than launching the presets. I think the reason for that is that with the presets, it’s a pretty easy step from, “Hey, you’ve gotten free presets that you like, now get some even better paid presets”. With this, it was like, “Hey, you’ve gotten some free presets that you like, now let me sell you a course!” It wasn’t quite as direct and so I learned that I had to do more to establish some credibility as a teacher, before people were willing to purchase. In my mind it didn’t seem like it was that big of a difference. Like, “Hey, you know that this works because the presets work”, but a lot of students, or potential students, they wanted to see examples and they wanted to take example lessons. And those sorts of things were really crucial. The biggest takeaway, the biggest lesson that I have from this is I really need to have more content on my website and more Onramps on my website that are bringing people in, who were interested in these materials. So, they come into the funnel with an understanding of my expertise in this area, rather than everybody coming to the funnel through the presets.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Interesting. So, it is really a different buyer in a way, someone who wants to learn versus someone who wants the one button result like you were saying.

Nathan Johnson: I had almost like a whole blog post, and an email that talked about, what are the four building blocks of style? Breaking down, what are the things that you need to be thinking about as you’re editing your images and showing examples? I had emails about what does it mean to tell your story inside of Lightroom, with your photos and giving examples of that. Educating people and giving them actually usable, helpful things, worked remarkably well, especially compared to emails that were just trying to sell. Emails that were just trying to sell did terrible. I did a couple of test launches leading up to the actual launch. I split my group into 10 different segments and just went kind of one by one until I found a launch approach that I thought would work for the rest. The first one I did was an absolute disaster. And that I would call the hard sell launch with lots of emails talking about how much this is going to help them and how unique this is and how this is their only opportunity, and this is going away soon.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: It’s like very focused on the product.

Nathan Johnson: It was very focused on the product itself. In that campaign was the first time I actually got an email back from someone who was upset. Like, actually upset that they were receiving emails from me. And that was devastating. It was devastating to hear someone complain about emails I was sending because I want to be helpful to people. I want to provide things that are valuable, and I got away from that and it required a lot of work on the reader’s part to actually get to the value. I was kind of hiding the value.

I would have the email, the email itself would have all this this crap on it. And then there’d be a video link to a video that I thought was actually pretty valuable. I learned pretty soon, no one’s clicking on the video link. Just, just in general, the conversion rate of clicking through is much, much lower. Even if I got 20% to open an email with a really great headline, Only like 3% within click on the video link after all the other crap that was around it. So only three, I worked so hard on this video, then only 3% of people are looking at it.

I thought, well, why don’t I just take all the content and that I had in that video link and just turn it into an email. I did that and still had around 20% open it, but I had a flood of emails back from people thanking me saying, “Hey, this is great. I really needed to hear this. I’ve never seen the explanations like this before. Thank you so much.”

I’m like, “aha!” We’ve got to get to the good stuff sooner, rather than later. It makes a ton of sense. I mean, I’m very glad that I decided to do a couple of test launches to determine what was going to work and what wasn’t going to work because that first test launch was a disaster.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: How big is the list that you launched the course to?

Nathan Johnson: It ended up being around 70,000 people.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Woo! Okay. How does it feel to send emails to 70,000 people by the way?

Nathan Johnson: It’s a little nerve wracking! I try not to think about it too much, but inevitably I send it and then I try to find something to distract myself because otherwise I’ll just stay on the drip page and just like hit, refresh, refresh, refresh to like, like get that data coming in and see if people are writing me back and if it’s good or if it’s not. It’s something that I’m still not used to.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: I don’t know that getting used to it a good thing!

So you launched the course to around 70,000 people. Amazing! And what was the response to the course?

Nathan Johnson: The response was really good. I mean, I don’t know if you want to get into numbers?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: That would be great, if you’re willing to share, that’d be awesome!

Nathan Johnson: So the opening week, it made like 25,000, which is not bad.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: That’s not bad! Did you do packages, tiers, or anything?

Nathan Johnson: Originally there was just one course and you had to buy the whole thing. What I ended up doing was I split the course into four different modules. You could buy each module independently for $99. Or you could get all four for $250.

I had a lot better response to that than when I just had the course listed at $250 because people are doing the math in their heads and thinking, “okay, well, I know that I want maybe at least two or three of these modules. And if I buy them all at once, I’m going to save 150 bucks.” Almost everybody purchases the whole thing, but there were a couple of people who would just purchase an individual module.

They do work independently. I mean, they work better all together and I made that very clear that it’s best to have all four. So if you’re thinking about getting the whole set, you definitely should, but someone could still just get one of them and learn exactly what was claimed to be learned in that module.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What else is planned for next? Now that you’ve got launches under your belt, what’s changed?

Nathan Johnson: I would also like to eventually start helping photographers who are interested in having their own blogs. Helping them figure out the right way to do that because I get a lot of questions about that sort of thing.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Well, you’ve got some interesting things on your site, too. I remember when you first showed it to me, part of the way you demonstrate the filter itself is you’ve got like a little scrubber. It’s hard in an audio format to describe. So, it’s worth going to your website, and finding an example of this, but was that something you created?

Nathan Johnson: That’s something that there was a WordPress plugin for. Yeah. It was one of those things where if you search for it, you don’t really know what to search for. And so, it’s incredibly difficult to find. I must have searched for 30 minutes, different phrases trying to find this particular thing – it’s called 2020, which is a terrible, terrible name for it.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: We’ll put that in the show notes too, for anyone who’s looking for it.

Nathan Johnson: Yeah. It’s great. It’s great. But there’s a lot of things related to websites that, that professional photographers just don’t know, or don’t understand like search engine optimization or should they use WordPress or Squarespace or should they hire someone do it? How do they get people to the site? How do they do social, all these different things. I get questions about a lot because it’s kind of where my worlds collide, both my past and now working on this. So, I think there could be some opportunity there, but so I see three revenue streams, presets, courses, and, and eventually affiliate by showing people how to set up websites and hosting and stuff like that.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Interesting. All right. That’s exciting. Very cool! So first year of selling products to an audience that you didn’t exactly intend to create, it sounds like it’s been a pretty cool adventure!

Nathan Johnson: Oh, it’s been amazing. It’s been incredible. It’s so much fun. I love doing it. I love working on it. It’s given me the freedom that I wanted, it’s, it’s the perfect business structure for what I want. I get to stay home with my wife and my daughter. My wife hasn’t had it go back to work. We can travel and we just spent a month in North Carolina and then we just spent a week in Colorado.

So, from a lifestyle standpoint, it’s been absolutely incredible. And that at the end of the day is what I find the most motivating factor to make sure that this keeps going and this keeps doing well. I have no ambitions to a Ferrari or to have multiple mansions or all these different things that people tell you to imagine. It’s really just being able to provide for my family and spend time with them.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What are some of the hardest parts about this over the last year?

Nathan Johnson: I think that when you’re on your own in a business, it’s amazing how much more emotional it is than you think it’s going to be. The highs are so high, and the lows are so low.

It’s very easy to become depressed when something doesn’t go exactly like you think, or even become depressed when something goes exactly like you think, and then you’re thinking, what do I do next? Even the past month, after this launch and after a lot of late nights working on the course and launching the course for the past month, I mean, I’ve had very low energy and I’m starting to feel it come back because I’m getting closer to some other launches, but post-launch, depression’s – It’s a real thing. And as stressful as a launch is, it’s also a high. You have so much energy. You could be up to two or three in the morning, every night almost, and just still have so much energy and passion. And then after that you just have this massive crashing down.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah. This has been fun. I really have enjoyed every moment where you’ve slid over the laptop or sent me a screenshot in Slack and be like, “look what just happened!”

I enjoy those moments tremendously. I hope you keep sharing them.

Nathan Johnson: Super appreciate you and Amy, the ability to be able to walk over to you in Indy Hall and show you something and get feedback, I mean is literally priceless to me. And I wouldn’t be where I am as a business or a person, if it weren’t for Indy Hall and if it weren’t for you. And I truly believe that.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: That’s awesome man, thank you.

Folks who want to follow you, check out your work. You’ve mentioned the site a couple of times, Anywhere else they can look, anything else they should check out?

Nathan Johnson: If they’re on Instagram, they can look up @firstnate

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Sounds great. Nathan Johnson, everybody!

Nathan Johnson: Thanks Alex! Cheers.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Alright my friends, that is it for this week’s episode. I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you learned a lot. And if you did, we’ll be back again in two weeks with a brand- new episode, a brand-new guest, a brand-new conversation. And if you don’t want to miss that, make sure you’re subscribed to this show in your favorite podcast listening app. You can find us just about anywhere by searching for Stacking the Bricks.

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