Building a Business out of My Own Self-Improvement Project

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

Hello! My name is Daniel Scocco, and I am a developer and digital entrepreneur from Brazil (though I’ve traveled around quite a bit). I built my first website back in 2005 and simply fell in love with all the possibilities that the internet had to offer. The fact that I could publish an HTML page and make it accessible to the whole world in a matter of seconds was mind-blowing to me.

Initially, it was just a hobby but one day I discovered Google AdSense and decided to give it a try. In the first month, I made $100 or so. It wasn't much, but definitely enough to get me excited. A couple of months later I decided to quit my full-time job to focus on my websites and online projects, and I haven't looked back. I spend around half of my working day managing my websites and half building SaaS applications (none of which has taken off yet).

Over the years I’ve built, bought and/or sold over 30 websites. DailyWritingTips.com is the largest one. It receives around 1.5 million visitors per month and makes around $9,000 in revenues (with very low expenses).

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What motivated you to get started with DailyWritingTips.com?

Despite being Brazilian and living in Italy at the time, I decided to create my first websites in English because I figured it would give me a larger potential audience. I then realized that improving my English skills was essential to my professional success, and creating a website with English tips would help with this purpose and possibly help other people along the way. That's when I got the idea for DailyWritingTips.com, which I launched in May 2007.

My original plan was to write all the posts myself, as this would force me to master the concepts I was writing about. However, I soon realized that if I wanted the website to have high-quality content it would need to be written by native English speakers, preferably with English degrees. I posted an ad for the position, and within a few days I hired someone with an English Ph.D. who was very passionate about the topic and had complete mastery over the English language.

The website didn't make any money for the first six months, so I had to use the earnings from other websites to pay for the writer (which was relatively expensive for me at the time) and cover the other website expenses. I knew we were on to something, however, because we had great engagement with our readers and a very high conversion rate into our email list.

Over the following years, our articles were mentioned or recommended by over 30 U.S. universities, as well as on publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Forbes and so on.

What went into building the initial product?

From the moment I had the idea until the moment the website went live was probably a matter of three or four days. I simply registered the domain name (it was available, but if I could go back I would invest a couple hundred dollars to purchase a shorter, more brandable one), installed WordPress and loaded a free theme to get started. My plan was to publish five to 10 articles as soon as possible and then promote it on my other websites to see how the visitors would react. That is, I wanted to see how many people would actually visit the website, how many would go beyond the first post, how many would subscribe to receive our content via email, and so on.

Once I had some indicators that other people found the content valuable, I gradually started to invest more on the website. After three months or so, I hired a designer to create a custom theme, and after six months I upgraded the hosting plan.

Perhaps the most important decision I made was to hire a writer who was an expert in the subject matter so as not to compromise on the quality of the content. I could have hired a good-enough writer for half the cost, but I'm sure the website wouldn't have grown at the same pace over the years.

How have you attracted users and grown DailyWritingTips.com?

I'm a big fan of white-hat SEO. That is, focusing almost exclusively on creating great content and then doing some promotion to attract natural and high-quality backlinks. That's pretty much how I grew DailyWritingTips.com and how I grow most of my websites.

The site went from zero to over 2 million visitors per month, but the growth was slow and gradual. It took around five years to reach the figure of 2 million monthly visitors. The current numbers are a bit lower, mainly due to high-profile competitors (e.g., Grammarly has a very elaborate blog which has been gaining a lot of space on search engines lately).

I believe it is essential to make room for serendipity.

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Obviously, over the years I did quite a bit of keyword research to direct the content creation of the writers. That being said, I believe it is essential to make room for serendipity. For example, on a given month only one third of the articles would be assigned directly from me to the writers. For the remaining two thirds they had complete freedom to write about the topics they felt interesting and useful to our audience. Out of that second group of articles emerged some that attracted millions of visitors from Google to our website, from keywords that you would never imagine would be that popular. Other websites were missing them because they were too focused on doing keyword research using the same tools as everyone else.

You also need to consider that today's SEO landscape is much more competitive than it was five to ten years ago. I still believe it is one of the most efficient and cost-effective online marketing strategies, but gone are the days where you just had to do some keyword research, write a simple article, grab a couple of backlinks, and watch the traffic come in. If you want to attract a significant number of visitors from Google you will inevitably need to put a lot of effort into creating not good, but great content that completely satisfies the information need of your target audience. Think about long, comprehensive, and well-structured articles that include images, videos, interactive explanations, comments and reviews, and so on.

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What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

The business model changed a lot over the years. Initially, it was just advertising, mainly using Google AdSense and selling banner space directly to interested companies.

After a couple of years, I decided to experiment with selling digital products. This included an e-book titled "100 Writing Mistakes You Should Avoid" and an online course about freelance writing. Both products did really well initially, but over the years sales started to decline and I knew I had to find a revenue source that was as stable as advertising but possibly more profitable.

Experimenting and testing several ideas is essential.

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At that point, we had around 90,000 email subscribers who received our content daily. Whenever there was a technical glitch and the email of that day was not sent, I would receive dozens of complaints, to the tune of, “Where is my writing tip? I didn't receive one today and I always start my days that way!"

That's when I realized that our subscription was very valuable to some people. So I decided to launch a premium version, which includes interactive exercises (which I coded myself) that complement the writing tips. Today the premium subscription revenue makes 75% of the total. Around six months ago I migrated from PayPal to Stripe as a payment processor, and I did see a good increase in my conversion rate.

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What are your goals for the future?

As far as DailyWritingTips.com goes, my goal is to keep growing it and hopefully reach the peak traffic levels it had a couple of years ago. As I said above, competition got fierce lately, but I am working on improving our content and user experience to fight back!

On a broader perspective, I also have the goal to build a profitable SaaS business, reaching $1 million in ARR. I love to use technology to solve real problems, and I believe the SaaS model is one of the best. As Theodore Levitt once said, "People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole."

What were your biggest mistakes?

By far the biggest one was to lose focus. When the website reached its peak of around 2 million visitors per month, I mistakenly assumed my work there was done and that I could move on to other projects while the money would keep flowing on this one. That's when my competitors kept working hard and started to take part of my business. And here's the crucial factor: Regaining a lost market position is much harder than keeping one. In other words, you need to work hard to get there, but once you arrive you need to keep working hard to stay there.

Regaining a lost market position is much harder than keeping one.

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Another mistake I made was to not care enough about my churn rate. If you use a subscription model for your service or product, churn rate is probably the most important factor you need to track and optimize. If you have a very low churn rate, even if you grow slowly, eventually it will add up. If you have a high churn rate, however, you don't have a sustainable business, period. You might try to mask it with advertising or growth marketing, but eventually the huge number of people leaving your service will make things unsustainable.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I try to read as much as possible (around three books per month these days) and that helps a lot. As people say, knowledge is indeed power. If you don't have time, try using audio books. I do most of my "reading" while driving or exercising.

If you want some recommendations, here are some books that, in my opinion, every entrepreneur should read:

What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

  1. Read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries and learn how to test ideas and hypotheses in a fast and cost-efficient manner. Sometimes you don't even need to build an MVP. You could start your test with a simple landing page, tracking what percentage of visitors click on your "Join" or "Buy" button. You will probably have to test dozens of ideas before you find one that really has potential.
  2. Using the tests described above will also force you to evaluate if you have a channel to reach your potential customers. Sometimes you have a great idea which indeed has potential and holds value for your target customer, but you don't have any way to reach those potential customers in a cost-efficient manner. If this is the case you will either need to develop this channel or move on to the next idea.
  3. Experimenting and testing several ideas is positive and perhaps even essential. Once you find one where the data is giving you positive signs, however, focus your efforts and have some persistence. Many of my failures in the past could be attributed to spreading myself too thin, working on many projects at the same time, and giving up on projects too soon.

Where can we go to learn more?

You can visit my personal blog DanielScocco.com. I am always looking to expand my network, so feel free to send me an email at danielscocco@gmail.com (I will be glad to help with anything I can).

If you have any question or suggestion just leave a comment below and I will reply to it as soon as possible.

Daniel Scocco , Founder of DailyWritingTips.com

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