How One Founder Makes Courses, Books, Podcasts, and SaaS Products

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

Oh hi! My name is Paul Jarvis.

I started as a web designer, then I worked as the creative director at an agency in the 90s. While I realized design was a job I could do forever (I still do), I also realized agency work wasn't for me. So in 1999 I went out on my own and started a tiny web design company called twothirty (lower case on purpose, because that was and might still be cool).

About six years ago I started writing part time, but as it began bringing in more and more revenue — from guest posts, courses and books — I started to pay more attention to it. I kept my writing income separate from the income I brought in from my web design clients, and once I noticed that I was making a lot more using that writing to teach I stopped doing design contract work altogether. This was actually pretty tough — I had a great group of clients that spanned Microsoft to Mercedes-Benz to Marie Forleo.

Currently I run a content and product studio called Mighty Small, which is just me making things with a couple of freelancers and a partner or two for specific projects. The majority of the business funnels through my personal site, PJRVS, and its newsletter, the Sunday Dispatches.

The bulk of my income currently comes from courses — Chimp Essentials, Creative Class and Grow Your Audience — then books (I signed a 6-figure book deal last year with a publisher, so I have more books on the way), then software — Fixtail and WPComplete. I typically make about $35k/month.

Homepage

What motivated you to get started with PJRVS?

To be honest, I lucked into most success I've seen while focused on mastering my skill set. What I mean by that is: I never intended to become a web designer, I just wanted to get really good at design. An agency noticed my work and hired me. Then, I never intended to become a writer, I just wanted to master getting my thoughts across in words. People started to enjoy it, then paid me to write more, then paid me to buy courses I had written. Same with marketing and audience building — I was just keenly interested in the mechanics of how they worked, and it ended up turning out well for me.

As a freelance designer, I started by quitting my agency job. I was actually going to find another agency job at a much smaller agency — I had no desire to become a freelancer. But then, the day I quit, all the clients from that agency started calling me up and asking where I was going to go work next. I eventually came to the conclusion that I'd rather work with those clients on my own, because I could dictate the level of customer service and quality.

I know this about myself: I'm better at working than delegating work. And I don't want to learn how to be better at the latter either.

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For writing and teaching, I wrote my first book because people kept asking me when my book was coming out. At first I laughed, because I had no plans to write a book, then I realized there was a market desire for something like that from me, so I wrote one. I tracked my income completely separate from design so that I could see how well each part of what I did was doing financially. Same with when I introduced courses — I tracked course income separately, and only scaled back other areas when they started to pay off more and more.

I've worked for myself as a hybrid freelancer-product creator for 20 years now. I've had a ton of failed software products and ideas for things, and luckily a few have paid off.

PS: I don't actually believe in motivation ;-)

What went into building the initial product?

So the first software product I created was a while ago, and it was to help car dealerships manage customer feedback. It was called R|Connection. (You can google it, and luckily you aren't going to find it.) This was way before online reviews or survey tools like Typeform/Survey Monkey existed.

I spent six months building it with two friends, and we took it to market first, then looked for customers. We didn't do any research or even understand the industry — we just had a lot of ego that could we build a cool software product because we understood the internet. It failed so hard. So hard. We had one customer, who cancelled their account a few months after signing up, so I think we made $100 or so (split three ways, haha).

This taught me that hiding away to create a product, with little to zero idea of what the market wanted, and knowing almost nothing about the audience it targeted, was a seriously awful idea. It took me two times to realize this, because my next software product, GoodSense, I followed the same failing formula with the same horrendous results.

The most successful product I've created are the online courses I sell. I started those in a completely different way than the above software, because I started by collecting feedback, doing interviews, and listening. Those launched quickly, very small to start, and immediately I began to gather feedback from paying students about what worked, what they learned, what was missing, and what could be improved in the onboarding and lessons.

Hiding away to create a product, with little to zero idea of what the market wanted, and knowing almost nothing about the audience it targeted, was a seriously awful idea.

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My goal with these courses is two-fold: first, I want them to run and be useful on their own, with little involvement from me, except to make them better. I don't want to have to do support for four hours a day. Second, I want the people who buy them to feel like they got more than their money's worth. Which means I have to make the content as good as possible, as clear and possible, and make sure they can gain the momentum of a few quick wins, right away. The "getting your money's worth" isn't just pure altruism either, it's also financially motivated: most people (+50%) that buy one of my courses end up buying more of my courses or my software. So the happier I can make new customers, the more revenue is generated from them.

I launched Creative Class, my first course, three months after I started building it, and it's gone through three major iterations since. It's been running since early 2014. My second course, Chimp Essentials, I launched 1.5 months after I started building it, and it's gone through two major iterations since.

My "stack" for courses is as follows. And note: since I'm a designer, I like to create the design for each, otherwise, I'd use an existing course platform.

  1. I create a custom WordPress theme for the sales pages and lessons backend.
  2. I use RestrictContentPro from Pippin's plugins to run the membership.
  3. I collect the one-time fee for the course through Stripe and Paypal.
  4. I connect the members from WordPress to MailChimp, using their ecommerce360 suite to track revenue.
  5. I use WPComplete (my own software I created with Zack Gilbert) so that students can track their progress.

At first, anything I needed that didn't exist I ended up writing a custom WordPress plugin for or just doing some light PHP work. Luckily, as it stands currently, I can solve all my needs with existing software.

I fund everything I work on or create myself. I've always been a huge fan of saving and investing, as well as living way below my means. So when I have an idea for something new, I'm able to use my savings to take a little time away to work on it and get something launched quickly. For anyone that works for themselves, I really think building a buffer/runway of liquid savings that can last at least a few months is important because it removes the pressure of "THIS HAS TO WORK" from everything you do.

How have you attracted users and grown PJRVS?

For the most part, the funnel of prospects to customers for me works like this. Someone hears about something I wrote, reads and (hopefully) likes it, signs up for my mailing list, gets articles from me ever Sunday for a month or two, then buys a course or a software product once they trust that I know what I'm talking about. I can luckily track this in MailChimp and see how long it takes new subscribers to become customers.

In the beginning, I focused on going to where my potential audience was, because they didn't know who I was, but they'd be interested in what I did if they knew about me. So I hung out where they did at the start, writing guest posts, being interviewed on podcasts, even spending time in online communities and engaging on social media. I landed a few big fish in terms of exposure writing for publications like Smashing Magazine and Fast Company, which got more and more folks to become aware of my writing.

Now, I mostly focus on being the best and most useful writer I can be, because my audience is large enough to support what I do, and they end up doing a better job of promoting my work and products than I could do.

For data, I mostly pay attention to two things. First, how much traffic I'm getting. I don't care about the gross number. I care about how many people sign up for my mailing list once they hit my site. Then, second, I care how many people my mailing list converts to customers for my courses and software. Since my mailing list generates more than 90% of my revenue, I pay more attention to that than any other data point.

My mailing list is also what I spend the most time on in terms of marketing/promotion. Since my mailing list is really just articles I write and share with my newsletter first (before they're published online), I pay attention to which previous articles got the most replies and shares, and what people talked about when they replied, and work on writing articles on topics I think my audience will enjoy. I've been writing my newsletter every Sunday since November 2012 — with the exception of scheduled breaks, I never miss writing an article and sending it.

Revenue

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

Like most people online, I make money from a bunch of different places. I think this is smart, not just because I'd get bored doing one thing, but because, like investments, it pays to diversify. Currently, here's what my income breakdown looks like:

  • Courses: 60%. My three courses are similar: they're each $274, open up twice a year publicly, and a few times more a year based on email sales funnels and personalization/segmentation with my list.
  • Books: 20%. Last year I moved from self-publishing to traditional publishing, and while my cut is now far less for each book sold, working with a publisher means I receive decent advances. If I'm able to sell one book per year to a publisher, for at least six-figures, I'll be super happy.
  • Software: 10%. Both are SaaS and bring in a pretty stable amount month to month (with very little churn). As time passes, it's nice to see the revenue compound, because people renew AND new people come on board.
  • Podcast sponsorships: 8%. I host three podcasts, and since they all have a decent listenership, companies get an ROI on sponsoring the shows, which is awesome. I'm always 100% honest about the numbers to companies, which turns out for the best, since the shows usually exceed the expectations.
  • Affiliate income: 2%. I spend no time promoting affiliate links, but if I remember to add one to a blog post for hosting or webinar software, I'm always surprised at the money I make each month from those recommendations. It's not a lot, but it's noticeable.

Since courses are the bulk of my revenue and they only open up publicly twice a year, I have some months that are much higher in revenue than others — even with the automations running for sales funnels.

Revenue

(This is one of my courses, and it shows only Stripe, not PayPal — but you can clearly see the spikes where registration publicly opens and closes vs. parts of the year when registration is closed except in funnels.)

If you're curious why I open each course twice a year, or assume it's totally just some marketing gimmick, it's not. First, I'm one dude running a business with lots of moving parts and products, and I hate multitasking. So I'm either 100% focused on a course and its open registration, or I'm 100% focused on something else. By doing this, I can spend months at a time just writing a new book, or months at a time just recording new videos for a course.

Second, it's partly marketing, but less a gimmick and more just human nature. People might want something, but unless you give them a reason to act now, they assume they will "later", and later means never. As soon as I implemented a closing window for my courses, I noticed I was making more in two weeks a year for each course than I was when they were open 52 weeks a year. (Creative Class started out evergreen.) And, there's never been an increase of complaints from paying customers because they only had a small window to buy it or not.

I'm basically a squirrel with money, and my margins are ridiculously great. My courses cost almost nothing to run and maintain, other than time to tweak the funnels/launches or re-record videos. Really, I pay for hosting, MailChimp, and Stripe/Paypal fees, leaving me with 93% of each course sale for profit.

Expenses for my course products:

  • Restrict Content Pro licence: $49/year (or $4.08/mo)
  • Flywheel hosting: $69/mo (as much as I think I can manage my own server on Digital Ocean, it's just easier to offload that for a price to someone else)
  • MailChimp: ~$250/mo, and since MailChimp lets you see ROI per campaign or automation, I can see I easily make that back in the first day or two of each month.
  • WPComplete: free because it's mine, but if it weren't, it's $89/year (or $7.40/month)
  • Stripe or Paypal: 2.9% + $0.3 per sale

As a small business with no intention to grow, I always pay very close attention to profit and expenses — because I want to make sure even on lean months, I'm more than covered. When I create something like a course, I try to figure out the cheapest way to achieve the best product, where my costs are easy to cover in sales. For example, if it costs me $370/month to run my courses, that's two sales a month and it's profitable. I know that I can easily sell two courses (or more) each month, so it makes sense.

What are your goals for the future?

My goal is to continue to be profitable and not grow.

I like being small and scrappy (which is good, since I'm only 5'9, ha). I don't care about scaling. When I was solely a web designer, I felt the same way. I could have grown (based on the amount of work I was offered) and hired other designers, account managers, programmers, etc., but then I'd have been responsible for them. I'd have to deal with everything that comes with having employees.

My goal is to continue to be profitable and not grow.

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I felt the same way when I started making solo products like courses, books, and WordPress themes. If they grew beyond what I could handle by myself, then they couldn't be chalked up as "wins" for me. In fact, when WordPress themes started to become more work than I could handle, I killed them off for a few years (until I realized I could sell them without support, with my own editorial style, and without typical promotion methods).

It's not that growing a company or hiring employees is evil or bad or wrong either. It's awesome and a great place to be in. For some people. But I know this about myself: I'm better at working than delegating work. And I don't want to learn how to be better at the latter either.

It's fun to see what I can do with a company of one. To see how far things can go or how far is too far. Creativity thrives on constraints and this constraint is well-suited to my personality. For you, this might also be true. Your goal might not be to create a massive company with lots of employees. Or even with a handful of employees. So if you're gearing up the work you do so it's only manageable if that happens, it may be time to re-think things. Because it's possible to stay small or singular and still do well. But you have to define what your own success is, because it's probably not what others tell you it can be.

I work for myself because I can build my business around my life. This means that, since my purpose for my work has never been about infinite growth, I don't have to bother caring about it. Instead, I can focus on maximizing the work I do in a way that works for me. I can work at a pace that suits my sanity, and not at a pace that supports overhead, expenses, or salaries.

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

I think the idea that growth is always beneficial and always required needs to be challenged for indie hackers. Or that maybe there's an upper limit to where growing bigger doesn't make your product or your business better.

For me, I always try to imagine an MVP: minimum viable profit.

So, how small can I build something so that it's profitable almost instantly? Like selling two courses a month. From there, if I factor in my living expenses ($6,000/month) and taxes ($2,000/month), then I need to sell 30 courses a month or one a day — imagining I didn't have other revenue sources. To me, that's totally possible with my business just being me, so that's what I work towards. Anything I sell beyond that goes straight into an index fund I don't touch :)

For me, I always try to imagine an MVP: minimum viable profit. How small can I build something so that it's profitable almost instantly?

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If you're just starting out, be realistic with how much you have to make to cover your bases — including things like rent, some savings, and, if you're American, health insurance. (Luckily I'm not. There's universal healthcare where I live, so I can cover my own bases by making less.) Relate that to how many new customers you need per month or per day. Is what you need reasonable to actually do? If not, your options are reducing your living expenses (not always possible), raising your prices (not always possible), or waiting to do your product or product idea full time until you can manage to support yourself.

Too often I see folks jumping head first into products full time before they've run the numbers on if it's supportable or sustainable. There's no rush, and there's no badge of honour given out to people who are full time with their products, so you're totally fine to take your time and do things right. Since I've been doing this longer than most, I try to consider long term (decades), not just months, so if I have a really crappy or a really awesome month, nothing at all changes in my lifestyle.

Where can we go to learn more?

My newsletter is really the best place to find me. I don't even have a Facebook or LinkedIn account, and I only use Twitter to auto-post articles I write. My book about questioning growth in your business is called Company of One, and it'll be available January 15, 2019 (and my mailing list will be notified of it when it's pre-order-able).

Want to talk about the benefits of not rapidly or exponentially growing your company? Leave a comment below :-)

Revenue

Paul Jarvis , Founder of PJRVS

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