The biggest lie about blogging as a business

I love baking bread. I'm no expert, but over the years I've picked up a couple of recipes that are relatively easy and the results are repeatedly good. One of my favourite recipes is for a whole wheat brown bread the original author had published under the name The Very Best Homemade Whole Wheat Bread (link at the end of the article). I've made this bread successfully over a number of years and reports from friends and family (who sometimes get a bread as a gift) are very positive. Until one day the recipe didn't work any more.

I made the bread the usual way, following the instructions to the letter (I'm not good enough to freestyle any baking so I stick to the recipe). You're supposed to let the bread rise twice during the recipe, but it just wouldn't. I tried letting it rise longer, both in the mixing bowl and in the oven, but nothing. Baking it resulted in a tasteless piece of rock-like bread.

It took me a few bakings to figure out what I was doing wrong. I use instant yeast in the recipe, and in my enthusiasm I had started using hotter and hotter water to dissolve and activate the yeast. Those of you that know about yeast will immediately know that this is a big mistake. If the water is too hot it will kill the yeast - no yeast, no rise, one rock coming up. Reducing the water temperature fixed the problem, and we're back to eating great bread.

If only it were that easy to build a business.

The lure of the professional blogger

The life of the professional blogger sounds so enticing. Especially to those of us who are introverts (I'm one) and don't necessarily want or need a lot of people around them to get fulfilment from what we do. We get appreciation from people who read our work - and sometimes all we need is to look at the statistics to know that we're doing well, or not.

So we have this picture in our minds of being able to make a living from our writing. We picture ourselves living where we want to, writing from exotic locations, watching our bank accounts grow even while we sleep and not having to interact too much with the world around us. We're the observers, the interpreters, the commentators and people love what we do so much we can make a living from it. The digital nomad lifestyle makes promises rich with adventure, freedom and having it your own way.

There are a few people who seem to have achieved this. They're held up as examples of what can be done, we're presented with their keys to making it as a blogger and courses that will help you get the same kind of life. Ah, writing on the beach - that's what I want.

Sadly, that's the biggest lie about blogging as a business.

The biggest lie about blogging as a business

There are very few people who make a living from writing. There are authors (and if you've ever tried to write a book you'll know how difficult that is) and journalists. Both professions are tough, often more a calling than a job, and not everyone is cut out for the discipline those jobs require.

We think blogging is another way to make money from writing. And that's the lie.

You can't make a living from blogging alone.

Think about any successful blogger out there - how many of them actually make money from their blogs? The answer, quite simply, is zero. None. Not one of those bloggers make money from their blogs.

Every single one of those bloggers make money from something around their blogs. Many of them sell books, some of them sell courses, some invest in other businesses. Look at Seth Godin, James Altucher or Tim Ferriss - famous names, famous blogs. But those blogs are not how they've made their fortunes - that came from other sources. Their blogs are a way to build and keep an audience.

Which leads me to this:

Blogs may be valued, but they're not valuable.

Your readers may value your writing, but they're not going to pay for it. They may learn from your blog, get insights or enjoy your writing style. But ask them to pay for it and they'll politely decline. Your blog is just not valuable enough to your readers for them to want to pay for it.

So what am I supposed to do?

If you've been writing or blogging for any period of time, and you want to continue to do that, and you need to make a living, you need to make one big switch in your mind:

  • People will pay to have a problem solved.
  • To make a decent living, there have to be enough people with the problem, and the problem has to be big enough for them to pay for it.
  • Blogging does not solve a problem.

That doesn't mean that you should stop blogging. On the contrary, if you're even a tiny bit successful with your blogging (you've built up something of a following) you're way ahead of the curve that most businesses still have to go through - you have a tribe.

In fact, your have two big advantages:

You're already an authority on something: If your blog is attracting readers it means that you're writing about something people care about. The blog itself may not be valuable enough for people to pay for it, but you've been writing about a set of topics for long enough that people recognise you as the expert, or at least someone who has a point of view on the subject. And the fact that they're coming back for more means that you're on the right track with what you're writing about - other people care about this too.

You've built an audience: One of the biggest problems every business faces is how to build a following. You need to build a big enough following so that you can make a living by solving a problem for them, and because not everyone is ready to buy when you are ready to sell you have to have quite a large one. And you're already doing it with your blog.

So you've already solved two of the problems every business has to overcome: being a recognised expert in one or more topics, and building a following. There's one more to solve before you have a viable business model.

Find a problem they need to have solved

You have "people" and you have expertise. You now need to find a problem your audience needs to have solved, and that problem needs to be something you can help them solve.

This may seem easy, but be very careful:

The most common reason startups fail is because they build something people don't want.

What you think is a problem for your audience may not be a problem for them. What you think is an expensive problem may not be worth solving for them. What you think is awesome is not what they think is exciting.

So you have to go and find the problem they have that they're willing to pay to have solved, and you have the expertise to help them solve. There's a couple of ways of doing that:

  • If you're building a following on your blog, people care about what you're writing about. That's a clue that you're onto something that needs solving and what you're writing about already contains the seeds of the thing that could make you a living.
  • You can ask them what problems they would be willing to pay for to have solved. But be careful with this one too - every person will have an opinion about what's important or valuable, so you may be better served by suggesting a few options and having them rank it.
  • Test a few ideas. If you think you understand enough about the problem you can solve for your audience, set up a sales page with a waiting list and see how many people sign up.

Finding the problem that people are willing to pay to have solved is one of the biggest problems you need to solve to have a viable business. Once you have that question answered you have to find a way to solve it that they will pay for, and then you're into the million other things that make up a successful business.

But you're already ahead of the game. People care about what you're writing about so there are already some clues about what's valuable to them. And if you're building any kind of following you already have an audience you can ask.

How to bake a perfect bread

Baking a perfect bread is a heck of a lot easier than building a successful business, but it can still go wrong in so many ways. Sometimes you make rookie mistakes like me killing my yeast, but once you've learnt the lesson you won't make that same mistake again.

Which reminds me - I haven't baked a bread in a while. Time to bake a few again (they freeze really well).

What you can do now

If you're interested in that bread recipe, you can find it here. The article was originally published in 2013, so I'm very pleased to see it still up. Oh yes, I will add about half a cup of nuts or raisins sometimes to get some variations. And I don't use the gluten the recipe calls for and it still comes out great. (The breads freeze really well too and make a perfect slice of toast.)

Finding the valuable problem you can solve for your audience with your expertise can be a difficult process. If it were easy there would be many more successful businesses out there - but don't despair. You're already ahead of the curve with your writing and your audience. Now just go find the one thing you can help them solve.

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