How to turn blogging into a business

Yesterday Tim Rettig opened his heart and wrote an article on Medium titled Iā€˜m trying to make a living writing. But it just doesn't work. In the article, Tim explains how he has been blogging for about 5 years and how his studies took him far away from his family, until his father unexpectedly passed away. He's realised that he is not willing to be that far away from his family all the time, but he's in a bind - he needs to support himself and his partner, but he doesn't know how to do that as a writer. He has some ideas of turning his articles into a book, but not much more than that.

This is my response to Tim. I did not ask his permission to write this article (but I will email him). It is a direct response to his predicament, and I am sure he is not alone. So here is my advice, written specifically for Tim, and I hope you will be able to benefit from this.

Thanks for being so open

Dear Tim,

Thanks for your article, and thank you for being so open and honest about your position. You are certainly not alone, and by opening up you're giving a lot of other people perspective on what works and what doesn't work. You've already had a number of responses and some of them have some very good advice, and perhaps these will help you.

I have an additional perspective. A lot of my work is helping entrepreneurs like yourself design business models and businesses that meet their personal criteria, so I have enough experience to know that there is another way. I hope that what I am writing here will help you, but just as importantly that it will help other people.

So here we go.

Your constraints

All of us have constraints that determine what we can do and what we're willing to do. Some constraints are external - they come from the outside and there is not a lot we can do to change them. In your case, the death of your father made you realise that you do not want to live your life away from your family; you've accepted that and made the decision to move back to Germany. The constraint is external, how you chose to deal with it was your decision. And that is fine.

Other constraints are self-imposed. In your case, you've decided that you ideally want to make a living from writing. You already know this is a tough road to travel so you are under no disillusion about what this means. This is a constraint you placed on yourself.

The constraint that limits most of us is our financial position. When we're running out of money we have no choice - we have to do whatever it takes to survive. The alternatives are not acceptable. This is obviously not a unique constraint.

So, there we have the primary constraints that you are working under. You want to make a living within those constraints, and you don't have a lot of time to make it work.

Blogging is not the answer - sort of

You've discovered and written about the fact that blogging is not the answer. And you're quite right; blogging in itself does not make you money (very few people make a living just by blogging for themselves).

But blogging does have advantages. Regular blogging, especially on a subject that you're familiar with, does the following things:

  • it establishes your credibility as an expert in the subject;
  • it builds a body of work that you can use in future (as you've already suggested);
  • it helps you get more exposure to other ways of getting people to know about you; and
  • most importantly, it builds a mailing list.

So blogging is a form of marketing, and done well it will eventually pay off. You've built a respectable list of followers on Medium in a very short period of time and you're getting a decent number of reads.

So while blogging is not the answer, it is a form of marketing that you seem to enjoy and have no problem maintaining. So for now it is something you should continue doing.

List your strengths

Now that we know what your constraints are, and what role blogging has to play, you need to list your strengths. We've never spoken, but from the article alone I know that:

  • you're a decent writer (and perhaps more);
  • you are an expert on intercultural communication (your goal was to become the world's best writer in this field); and
  • you have no problem producing a lot of output.

I am sure you have many other strengths; these are just the ones that I picked from the article that I hope will help in the next part.

Finding a need

The idea that you proposed in your article was to compile your past articles into a book, add more content, and then publish an ever-evolving book to paid subscribers.

I am not too excited about the idea, but before I tell you why I need to say the following: I've worked with enough startups to know that my opinion about whether something will succeed or not is just that - an opinion. Most of the time I am right, but I have been proven wrong enough times to keep me humble.

So here's why I am not excited about the idea:

To get people to pay for something, you have to provide something of value. That value has to fulfil a need; it must help someone solve a problem or get something done or feel better about themselves. I don't see what value your book will bring; and more importantly I would not pay to see how someone's life develops. That does not mean it is not interesting or meaningful - just that there is not enough value for me personally to pay for the book and updates. And if I can't see the value I suspect you may find it difficult to find a big enough market for your idea.

There are other reasons this will be a tough one to pull off (you're committing yourself to maintaining a body of work for a long time), but the main point is I don't see the need that you're addressing. I may be wrong.

So, how do you find a need that people will be willing to pay for within the constraints you have and in your field of expertise?

Here's a suggestion.

Like you, I have travelled and lived in many countries (I've relocated internationally 7 times in the last 25 years). I've worked in South Africa, the UK, most of Western Europe and in North America. I understand what it's like to go to a foreign country as a tourist, businessman and immigrant.

Every time I moved I had to adapt to the new culture. I've never moved to radically different cultures so my "culture shock" was relatively small, but it was still big. On only one of those moves did I have support - from the company that relocated me - and that support was incredibly useful to help us get settled in and used to the new way of life. The other times we were on our own and we had to learn the hard way.

I would have loved to have a resource that told me more about the culture I was moving into, what to do and not do, and most importantly how to integrate into the new culture.

The best example I know of is a book called The UnDutchables which was an incredible resource when I moved to the Netherlands (and ended up living there for 8 years). The information in the book was invaluable but the style made it an absolute winner.

So here's the idea: produce a series of books of that will help people cope better in foreign countries. I know of at least 3 groups of people that have a need for something like this:

  • travellers who want more than just being a tourist;
  • business people; and
  • immigrants.

Of these groups, the easiest to write for will be the travellers - people who love to go to foreign places and want to experience a little more of the local culture and the local people. You are already an intercultural communications expert, so you should be able to easily create something travellers can use. And you can create one book per country; and using the same structure will make it easier to produce a series of books.

I know there are many travel guides out there. You don't want to compete with them, but you can fill a niche that they are not filling: how to enjoy [country] like a local. Or something along those lines.

I think you get the idea. Similar books would be useful for business people and immigrants; the last may be a lot more work. But the point is you have the opportunity to leverage your expertise and experience to fill what I believe is a need in the market.

Reality check

Even if the idea I suggested here is attractive, there's a caveat: no one ever made a lot of money from a book within a couple of months. I don't think it will take you that long to write any one of the books (you should be able to produce 4 to 6 per year); and as you already know building up a "library" of books will be required to build decent revenue streams.

But even then it will take time to build up the marketing momentum you will need to make a living from this. And from experience I know that nothing in marketing works quickly; think months instead of days or weeks.

So depending on how things work out for you, you may need to supplement your income for at least a while. But if the idea is attractive you will have something to aim for.

I hope this helps

I wrote this article to you specifically because I wanted to help, but also because I hope to help other people out there that may be in a similar situation to what you are. The process that I used to come up with the idea roughly works as follows:

  • list your constraints;
  • list your expertise and strengths;
  • find a need you can fill with your expertise within the constraints you have; and
  • go test the idea.

I've not talked about the last point in this article - I suspect you already know how to do this.

If you're a blogger and you hope to make money from your writing, I hope that this article helped. Not all of it is good news, but it is reality. Hopefully with a silver lining.

Your blogging is still important

If you do adopt this idea, or something along those lines, you should remember that your blogging is still important. It will build credibility, attract new readers and lead people to new books. And you can add value to the books that you've published by writing supplemental articles for each book. There's your "continuous evolution" idea in a slightly different context.

I blog as well, but I've never regarded the blogging as an end in itself. It's always been in support of the work that I do, and I've built up a small but highly engaged list of subscribers. But it's a long-term game - people are not ready to buy when you're ready to sell. Just continue to provide value and the sales will come.

Viel gluck.

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