I’ve always had mixed results when trying to make products and sell them.
Aside from a smattering of ebooks, some niche sites that have done just okay and random affiliate product sales here and there, I’ve mostly made money online by trading time for dollars. That is, freelance programming.
Freelancing has been good to me and I still recommend it as a great way to get started making money online.
If you’re a programmer or creative person, then it’s the quickest way to make extra money by far.
For a little while now though, my new focus has been products.
I’ve always known that trading time for money is limited by my time.
My freelancing rates are already pretty high and I don’t think I could really justify putting them up much higher without going full time – which I’m not ready to do.
Productizing your skills however, is a strategy that caught my attention some time during the last few years.
I’ve just been hesitant to act on creating a software product out of fear that I couldn’t pull it off.
Given that this year is now pretty much over, I figured now would be a good time to share what’s happened over the last two months that has seen me net over $600 in profit of my first product.
The how (and why) of building my first product, ThirstyAffiliates, I’ve covered a little bit in the past. But this, my final blog post for the year, will go a little deeper into that story (which starts back in April, 2011).
I hope I can give you a few tips on how to do it too if you’re interested in launching your first software product.
How to Use Your Skills to Create a Product
ThirstyAffiliates is an affiliate link management plugin for WordPress. It not a totally new concept, in fact when I started there was a very clear market leader and a bunch of copy cat plugins already on the market.
Funnily enough, ThirstyAffiliates was made mostly to satisfy my own needs.
At the time I was ramping up a website called Hardware With Byte as a bit of an experiment in SEO. HWB is a computer hardware reviews website specializing in short, succint, but still quite useful reviews of the latest computer hardware.
The plan was to link up the reviews to Amazon affiliate links and hope that I could catch people part way through the buying phase. It worked, but that’s another story altogether.
It was starting to take off and as I was approaching the 50-60 reviews mark, I found that I needed a better way of handling the large amount of affiliate links it would take to make the site a success.
The site is built in WordPress (as are most of my sites), so I went on the hunt for a plugin that would give me really good control over entering affiliate links into review posts.
I wanted to cloak them with a redirect on my own server and even more I needed a way to manage the links so that I could change the destination URL of an affiliate link without having to revisit all the places I used the link.
The plugin that was the market leader had me most of the way there, but it seemed like the focus of it was on the wrong things for my situation.
After some more searching around I found a few similar offerings that all did the same sort of thing.
I concluded that it couldn’t really be that hard and decided to make my own. After a few days a very rough beta version was ready for testing on my site. It was rough as guts, but would do the job.
Nothing else on the market really satisfied my exact need so I made my own
One of the major things that struck me was that there was this massive gap in the existing market.
A lot of the existing offerings weren’t professional tools and focused on what I thought was the wrong thing.
They were trying to sell people on the “automatically make money on autopilot” pitch that we’re all too familiar with.
The core of it was that you plugin the keywords you want linked and it would crawl through your blog making every instance of that keyword a link to your affiliate link.
To me that seems a bit lazy. It’s not really affiliate marketing.
Where my plugin could come in, I thought, was as a proper professional tool that was actually usable for serious affiliate marketers. It shouldn’t limit them in any way and it should always try to remain as invisible as possible.
Identify areas that are lacking in the existing tools on the market
The very first thing I had to do was make a list of all the things that I wanted my plugin to do for me.
It seemed that a common complaint of people who had multiple blogs with hundreds or even thousands of links was that the existing tools didn’t give them a proper interface. They also made it really hard to import existing links across to new websites.
Affiliate marketers spend a lot of time setting up new websites. They can’t afford to spend hours and hours each time setting up links. They need to write content, do SEO, negotiate rates and a 1000 other things.
I came up with a list of 2 or 3 features that my plugin should address that the others weren’t and once I had my list of features I set to work refining the plugin until it was in a sell-able condition.
Leveraging your skills
I want to pause here for a second because this is a good time to mention something really important.
If you don’t read anything else in this post, read this.
I’m a programmer. It’s in my blood.
I studied to be a computer software engineer for years and years at a university. I work as a professional in the industry and I’ve been programming since I was 13 years old.
Why am I telling you this?
Because the number one tip I can give after making money online for a few years now is that to be successful you need to leverage your existing skillset.
My problem is that I’ve wasted so much time learning things that didn’t get me towards my goals. Granted I can now design a website in photoshop to an okay standard. I understand how Adwords advertising works and can fumble my way through a campaign. I can even lecture you on email marketing techniques.
But I have a talent for programming.
It only makes sense that I should use it to create cool things that other people can’t and spend my time on doing that.
WHY OH WHY didn’t I see this before now?!
Leveraging your skills is one of the most important things you can teach yourself how to do.
If you’ve been doing something for years like I have you can seriously cut your learning curve when it comes to applying new things around that core skill.
Sure, improve your other skills incrementally, but never forget where you came from.
Back to the story. So what happened next?
Well, in short. I coded and refined ThirstyAffiliates but I was still debating internally over whether I should release it or not.
I started coding in about April and tested it on my own websites – including Hardware With Byte – for about 3 or 4 months.
Finally, I decided to take the next step. And this is where I start getting into unknown territory.
7 Things To Do Before You Start To Sell Your Product
For all my talk about leveraging your skills, it’s kind of ironic that I found the effort distribution of launching a software product is about 20% coding and 80% marketing.
Here’s a tip: Don’t try to tackle that 80% all at once!
I’m sure you’re probably feeling overwhelmed at the thought of that much marketing.
Here’s what I did to get myself through it:
I found that by putting it all aside and approaching it like any other coding project, tasking it all out, it was nowhere near as overwhelming and I could tackle things in a logical order.
This made it all much more familiar and gave me heaps more satisfaction when I could strike things off knowing I was making progress.
Here’s my pre-launch steps for launching your own product (along with what I’d do differently next time):
1. Setup a Temporary Launch Site
The first thing I did was to settle on a name (yes, I still hadn’t really named the thing yet) so I could setup a temporary site to collect emails.
The name “ThirstyAffiliates” kind of walked into my head one day and as I told Shawn Collins in an email interview a little while back it sort of described the feeling I wanted to create behind my product. Staying thirsty for success as an affiliate. My plugin should be able to travel along with you on that journey.
That, and it sounded cool so I went with it.
So, the temporary site was built and it was basically a list of a few features, a really basic product tour, and a pricing page that led to an email capture form saying the product wasn’t released yet.
This worked kind of well, but I found it really hard to drive traffic to the website without having to pay for it. I collected about 25 emails which I was relatively happy with considering I only had less than a couple of hundred people to the site over the whole prelaunch period (a few weeks).
What I would do next time is simplify this into a single landing page and try to pump as much traffic to it as possible to collect more email addresses. The more email addresses you have the better your sales will be in the beginning.
2. Make a Massive List of People to Contact
Sometimes you gotta get in people’s faces.
Some of you might think reaching out directly to people via their contact forms with a standard pitch email is a bit rude, but in reality, it works and it’s by far been the best way of making new friends online for me.
The relationships I’ve made with people that I have contacted via their websites include some pretty well known bloggers in the WordPress/make money online niche and also in the affiliate marketing space.
Once you have that conversation going with someone it’s easy to keep it going into the future. I absolutely treasure these chats that I have with people, it’s my greatest asset.
The email I used to make contact with people (and still use today):
Subject: A tool you might be interested in: ThirstyAffiliates
Hi [name if I have it],
My name is Josh Kohlbach, I’m the programmer behind the new ThirstyAffiliates affiliate link management plugin for WordPress.
I’m just writing to see if you would be interested in featuring my plugin for a review? I can hook you and your team up with free review copies.
Looking forward to hearing from you!
It’s surprising actually, I get about a 60-70% response rate with this email.
I made my way through about 10 or 20 of the people in my list to contact before launching – less than a quarter.
What I would do next time is contact at least half of them and then the other half within the first two weeks. I guess the good thing is that now I’ve made some good contacts the next time I’m launching I already have a bit of rapport built up with people that could help out.
3. Locate your Main Competitors
Knowing what you’re up against in terms of competition is really important.
I found it gave me a chance to study what their sales funnel looked like, how they handled their sales process (yes, I actually bought their products as part of my research – using a fake name of course!) and what audience they were targeting specifically.
If you know what they are doing currently, you can plan your marketing strategy around what they aren’t doing but should be.
By knowing who my competitors were I could identify features that their users were actually asking for and build them into my product, I could use their basic feature set as a check list of things that I should also do at a core level, and I could formulate my pricing strategy around what was working for them.
There is literally too many benefits to this research to list.
What I would do next time is pretty much the same thing. I think I did this phase the best, but, if I had to be critical I think I probably would have researched even more competitors in more depth to really get inside my customer’s head.
4. Start an SEO Campaign
I think one of the things I did best during this prelaunch phase was laser focusing on the keywords I wanted to target and starting my search engine optimization process early.
Find your target keywords
Because I knew who my major competitors were I could target similar keywords to them, and also add a few that they hadn’t thought of.
The first thing I did was find out what major keywords my competitors were ranking for and analyse the amount of back links they had. If they weren’t overly optimized for that keyword but they were still ranking for it, I added it to my list.
Although the number of searchers in my niche weren’t too high (most keywords were less than 1000 hits per month), I still think it was an important step to take.
Good visibility in the search engines from day 1 is good to have and amplifies your word of mouth marketing as you launch.
I made a list of 3 major keywords to try to rank for and another 2 or 3 non-major keywords as a secondary goal. About 3 or 4 months later I’m on the top half of the front page for all of them in Google and I attribute this to starting this activity early.
Back linking strategy
My backlinking strategy was pretty simple and pretty closely mirrors the backlinking strategy that works by Pat Flynn except that I ended up outsourcing the social bookmarking and article marketing to people on fiverr.
This saved me a ton of time and meant I didn’t have to learn a bunch of new SEO tools that I was unfamiliar with. I probably paid about $50 total and it was worth every cent.
What I would do next time is get more aggressive in back linking for my target keywords and maybe add one really big traffic keyword to have a really solid stream of traffic coming in from the search engines. Funnily enough, more than 50% of the searchers that are coming in these days are around my ThirstyAffiliates brand.
5. Establish Why I’m Different
In a niche that already has quite a few players (which I always decide to take as a sign of a healthy space to get into) I think what is most important is to establish why you are different.
By having a different look, a different approach to development, a different pricing strategy, a different pitch, you are setting yourself apart from the other people selling similar products and screaming out to your potential customers as an alternative to consider.
Entering a niche second (or third, or fourth, etc) means you need to tell people why they should look at you as a viable alternative to consider. And it needs to be super clear.
Getting clear on this will help you formulate your sales pitch.
What I would do next time is create a clear list of reasons why I’m the different alternative they should choose. By creating this list, I’m making sure I tick off each of them in my product development. I think I did an alright job of this with ThirstyAffiliates as the brand response has been pretty strong, but I can always do better.
6. Getting Reviewers on Board Early
Securing well known people to review your product is really important when launching. In all honestly I was a bit slow with this as I could have made contact with a lot more people.
Reviews take a while to rank in the search engines, so you while you might see a few sales early on from their direct recommendation you’ll start to see the long term effects a few months down the track (which is what I’m starting to see now).
Use your list of people in your niche to reach out and ask for them to review your new product. Try to aim for 5-10 reviews all going live within the first week of launch. This does three things:
- Drives traffic
- Creates awareness about your product very suddenly
- Gets your brand to stick in peoples minds (be everywhere, as Pat Flynn would say)
In those first crucial weeks, you really do want to be everywhere your target market is.
In my experience so far, and although it’s still early days yet, the “reviewers strategy” really seems to work for building your brand and increasing awareness around your product.
What I would do next time is create more awareness across more channels. I think I probably focused too heavily on websites doing reviews, maybe I should get onto more podcasts? Get people to do Youtube reviews? Who knows. The sky is the limit.
7. Make a Plan to Execute for Getting the Word Out
If there is one thing that I’m lacking most with ThirstyAffiliates it’s a really concise plan for getting the word out. I now understand some of the benefits of having a marketing plan (at least a rough one) sketched out.
I work well with lists and timelines (as do a lot of programmers). If I have a schedule to work against and a list of tasks to do in a day I generally get onto them.
It’s the breaking things down part that usually gets me unstuck.
Luckily I conscripted my wife for this task and after some long conversations explaining what the hell my product is (she’s not an IT person) she helped me break things down into smaller pieces.
I still get her to help me sometimes for these kinds of things if I’m feeling overwhelmed, but since that first push I’m starting to get the hang of it a bit better.
What I would do next time is push myself a bit harder. I think in the months leading up to the launch in October 2011 I achieved quite a lot – probably more than if I was setting the tasks for myself – but I could definitely get through a lot more. I originally had a plan to launch this thing in November, so the fact that I was over a month early means I could probably squeeze in more tasks.
The Zen of Managing Only a Few Affiliates
I’m sure it seemed kind of ironic that I would want to keep my affiliate program under tight wraps given that I was releasing a product to the affiliate marketing niche, but it’s a funny thing.
I found that by having an affiliates page, but password protecting it and vetting who joined the program the relationships I’ve formed with the people who have been invited to join my affiliate program are much stronger than if I just had a list of faceless email addresses of people promoting me through means that I wasn’t aware of.
I’m sure I’ll cop some flak for this strategy and maybe, at the end of the day, I’m in the wrong on this.
I plan to test it the other way around (by having it wayyy open to anyone) with my next product in planning so we’ll see what happens there.
The people I’ve let join my affiliate program so far have been the people who I’ve approached to review the product. It’s a good way to ensure a post gets written and that it’s kind of favorable. That’s not to say that I only want favorable reviews I just prefer constructive criticism – which I’ve asked for and received in the reviews that have taken place.
Tools I’ve provided
There’s a few things that I think you should provide for people if you’re asking them to sell your product:
- Your email address – you have to be contactable
- A way for them to review the product at no risk to them
- Any marketing materials they need such as colors, images and logos, ad images in standard sizes, videos etc.
I’ve had people ask me for specific sized images and answers to specific questions – being able to provide that to them strengthens the relationship and makes for a happy affiliate.
So my tips are (don’t hurt me!):
- Exclusivity – get to know the people joining your affiliate program and make them feel special
- Provide them with everything they need to do a great review of your product
How To Take Charge of Your Future
Now that I’m past the initial launch of my first product it’s time to buckle down. Writing this post has been a great recap to what has been a very exciting couple of months.
Although I know I haven’t made squillions with ThirstyAffiliates so far (and $600 profit might be pretty lame to a lot of you who make much more) it’s made me pretty happy knowing that I’ve created something that people are using and will continue to use as I improve it and iterate over it.
It’s important to keep innovating, so I’ve already started planning what I’m going to include into version 2.0 of the plugin.
For me improving my product is just as important as all the marketing work that I’ve worked my butt off doing.
I want to keep getting reviews, so I’m still contacting people I think would be good candidates.
Purchasing advertising could also be on the cards in early 2012. I’ve tried a little bit, but haven’t had much success. Truth be told I’m pretty nervous about this.
And finally, I want to just keep making genuine connections. I’m in this to make friends, sell some cool stuff and have fun, so the more people I can talk to merrier.
What Does 2012 hold?
2012 promises to be a really exciting year. I’m so happy with the direction everything is going and I’m really looking forward to sharing the experiences with you.
I’m hoping that I can share some income reports next year showing where I’m getting my online income from. It’s a really uncomfortable prospect for me, but I think would be good for my personal growth. Not to mention accountability.
Ideally, I want to build up a collection of plugins for WordPress that could be a nice little side business. Now that I’m aware of the “how” part of the equation to launching a product I have a lot of ideas to get out into the world as products.
I would be stoked if I could get a half dozen products out into the wild next year.
Why Passion is Really Important
I’ve tried a lot of whacky things to make money over the last couple of years and most of them have been pretty sporadic, with the exception of pimping myself out (freelance programming – not prostitution). What I want to do next year is get passionate about products.
I’m really excited about the prospect of releasing things and it’s the first time in ages I’ve felt this way. Knowing myself as I do, this is the zone that I work best in. Getting passionate about a goal is super important to me and it helps me climb the mountains I need to climb.
I guess I just have to keep my goals in sight, but remember to take one step at a time.
Thanks For a Fantastic Year
I’ve had a brilliant second half of this year. Learned a hell of a lot and make heaps of new friends.
I’m truly grateful to every single one of you who have supported me (especially my wife who has to put up with a lot!). Thank you, thank you, thank you.
If you want to stay in touch, subscribe to my rss to catch all my new posts next year or, even better, subscribe to my newsletter list below.
Thanks for reading and have a happy holiday season!
PS. If you want to know more about ThirstyAffiliates or are interested in purchasing it click here.
PPS. Questions are welcome as always in the comments!