How to Make $2.5MM as a Solo Founder by Teaching What You Love with Adam Wathan

Episode #098

Although Adam Wathan (@adamwathan) dropped out of college (twice!), he's one of the most voracious learners to ever appear on the podcast, and he's built a wildly successful business for himself by teaching others what he's learned. We cover Adam's journey from college dropout to software engineer, the lessons he learned from his first "failed" business, how he creates free content to build an audience, and the techniques he's used repeatedly to drive millions of dollars worth of demand for his books and courses.

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    Big thanks to Courtland for having me on the show! Happy to answer any questions or anything here if you have them 👍🏻

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      Adam - any tips for how you get started building your audience from scratch? You gave the example of Steven jumping for 800 < 30k, and I think many of us wish we had 800 as a starting point.

      Seems like we're all waiting for "break" to get noticed if we're trying to organically build a network through content (blogs, tweets, whatever).

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        Hey! Steve's following was essentially zero even though the number was 800 — he hadn't done anything to really build an audience at all, he'd just been on Twitter for years accumulating a bunch of crufty followers from tweeting the usual social update junk.

        The key is really just "be helpful on the internet", and not even necessarily in a way that scales. If someone posts a question and you know the answer, help them out. Over time you will earn yourself a bit of an audience and those people are the ones who will help share/spread your stuff when you do have ideas to share that aren't just one-on-one help.

        The other thing to focus on is just creating things that people want to share, stuff that is just really good. When you don't have an audience, quality is your best chance at getting the few people who do see what you're doing to share it so you can get the ball rolling.

        It can also help to find communities like IH where you can build relationships with other people sympathetic to what you're trying to do who are happy to do what they can to spread the word about the good stuff you're doing. For me it really helped to earn the friendship of people with bigger audiences who were happy to share my stuff — you just have to make sure you care more about actually building a relationship than you do about just leveraging that person's reach for your own benefit. For example it has been hugely helpful for me to have Taylor Otwell (the creator of Laravel) share my work and support what I'm doing, but he does it because 1. he thinks my stuff is great, and 2. he's legitimately my best friend these days after getting to know each other and working on things together online for a few years.

        TLDR; help people on the internet, even in one-on-one non-scalable ways, and make friends.

        Hope that helps!

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      You, Steve, Wes, etc. have been such an inspiration for my own design course! The idea of building a landing page last and just listening first really stood out to me. Similar to your experience, the things I've worked least on 'optimizing' have been the most successful.

      Could you expand on the sales analytics and accounting tools you mentioned? ...and how are you currently making financial decisions for your businesses vs. how were you doing it in the pre-'Refactoring to Collections' days?

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        Hey thanks!

        Could you expand on the sales analytics and accounting tools you mentioned?

        The tools are nothing special, I just built myself a little dashboard that pulls from the Gumroad API and calculates a few numbers I care about, like total sales in the last 7 days and 30 days, and the daily average. I don't check this that much anymore though to be honest, it was more important to me when I was early in my entrepreneurial career and wanted some reassurance that things were doing well enough to justify continuing to work for myself.

        Accounting-wise the main pain points I have dealt with were sales tax related stuff for Canadian customers. When using Stripe directly for selling my TDD course, it created a lot of administrative burden trying to filter out Canadian sales every 3 months when my sales tax returns were due, and calculating how much sales tax I needed to remit. I've since switched to doing everything entirely through Gumroad to avoid sales tax stuff completely, because they act as a "Merchant of Record", meaning they are the ones actually selling my product and are essentially paying me a royalty, so the sales tax burden is on them, not on me. I also use Bench for bookkeeping now and they handle all the administrative stuff that was a pain for me.

        how are you currently making financial decisions for your businesses vs. how were you doing it in the pre-'Refactoring to Collections' days?

        I'm not totally sure I understand this question since I didn't have a business to make financial decisions about in the pre-"Refactoring to Collections" days. If you don't mind clarifying with some more details about what you're interested in knowing I'm happy to answer!

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          Completely unrelated side note... I'm reading through the launch article and using 5/3/1 as my training in the gym, so I really appreciate the spreadsheet!

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          Thanks so much Adam! Sales tax in the US is getting more complicated by the minute too. I've been looking at Bench, so good to know it seems to be working out.

          For the second question, I guess I'm asking how you decide when/where to reinvest into the business (like using Bench for bookkeeping) and if that approach has changed at all? Do you pay yourself a set salary?

          RE: the pre-Refactoring days, I'm referring more to the decision to go full-time on products... was it as easy as "Refactoring to Collections is doing well. I'm going to make a go at this entrepreneurial thing"?

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            how you decide when/where to reinvest into the business (like using Bench for bookkeeping) and if that approach has changed at all?

            It's mostly based on just how much something annoys me, I pay Bench like $400/month or something which feels expensive but man is it ever nice to not stress about that stuff at all. I don't really spend money on much else, just tools that help me get my work done and services that help me focus on my work instead of administrative stuff. I used to do more myself when I first started working on my own but now I try to outsource things when I can. For example something I still do myself that I'd like to outsource soon is the editing of my podcasts/screencasts.

            Do you pay yourself a set salary?

            I probably should but I don't, I just take money out of the business when we need more money. This is probably bad :)

            Was it as easy as "Refactoring to Collections is doing well, I'm going to make a go at this entrepreneurial thing"?

            Refactoring to Collections was meant to be my "getting my toes wet" project and I knew the Test-Driven Laravel course idea had way more potential, so when the book did really well I knew I needed to use that opportunity to do the course. Things have been going really well since then and I haven't looked back.

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              Thanks again!

              I know @pjrvs has good things to say about https://www.podcastedition.com/ for podcast editing.

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      Thanks for doing the interview and for creating Tailwind CSS, @adamwathan!

      How much do you think creating open source has helped your business?

      Also, did you ever consider a subscription model more like Jeffrey Way's?

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        How much do you think creating open source has helped your business?

        Hard to say, I don't think it was any more/less important than other community contributions (hosting a podcast, writing blog posts, sharing tips on Twitter, etc.) but instead just another piece of that bigger picture. Until Tailwind CSS I didn't have any really big/popular open source projects, but having a few little things definitely helped I'm sure.

        Also, did you ever consider a subscription model more like Jeffrey Way's?

        I did at one point but having to come up with new content every single week is not something I really want to commit to, it's simpler for me to just create one packaged product and sell it for a fixed price, knowing I can move on to other projects.

        The other benefit is that you can charge a lot more, often more than the life-time value you might get from someone with a subscription training product. Instead of charging $20/mo and having people stick around for 4-5 months ($80-$100 LTV), I can sell something for $150 and get it all up front.

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          Thanks, Adam. My current LTV is well over $150 due to retention > than a year (based on churn), but Elixir is niche and I have under 100 paying members.

          I'm definitely going to tweet more and consider some one-off offerings.

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      Very cool offer of you Adam, stoked to check the episode out.

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    Incredible interview. I love the common thread I keep hearing of just starting something, starting small, learning from that, and finding the sweet spot. The stories of Tailwind CSS and Refactor UI book were especially intriguing. Thanks @adamwathan for sharing so much wisdom with all of us.

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    My Main Takeaways:

    • Be a voracious learner: Adam loves learning.
    • If you go to college/university, immerse yourself into the environment: One of the reasons that caused Adam to drop out of college was because he never fully got immersed in the campus life, since he lived 40 minutes away and he had no friends at college.
    • Supplement your Computer Science course with your own side-projects to learn real development skills: College/University doesn’t really teach you to become a programmer, it teaches you to become a computer scientist. So work on side projects.
    • Work on things that you’re passionate about, put them out there, you never know where they may take you: Adam never intended for his book to be so successful, he wrote it out of a passion for making things, and now it has made millions of dollars.
    • College prepares you to work for somebody else: Adam says he feels annoyed that in college he wasn’t taught that he could actually make a living by working for himself.
    • Don’t just build and launch, market it too: Adam built and launched his first SaaS product, it made a few sales, but not many. He realises that he should have marketed it too.
    • Leverage external pressure to keep yourself committed to deadlines.
    • [Major Key] Build an audience by being helpful: Adam built an audience, not intentionally, but because he liked being helpful and sharing his learnings on Twitter. This audience ended up being very valuable when he launched his first product.
    • Adam’s tip for learning everyone: Whenever you find a new interesting person online (e.g. Nathan Berry), go and find every resource that that person is featured on (podcasts, blog posts, videos), and consume all their information.
    • Learn from more experienced people, and take the necessary action: Adam absorbed all of Nathan Berry’s content on launching a book. And to his surprise, when he launched his (first ever) book, he did $25k on the first day. And over $60k in the first week. This was meant to be a simple “trip-wire product” so he could practice launching a product, collect emails, and then make some real money on another product, but it ended up exceeding expectations. He quit his job and started making things full-time.
    • Start a small and simple project that you know you can finish.
    • Consistently do something that provides value to people that you’d happily do everyday: If you consistently do something that you hate, you’ll burn out, so do something you enjoy and you’ll find it easier to be consistent.
    • Leverage and help your network: Adam helped and worked with Steve Schoger on the book “Refactoring UI” and on growing a Twitter. Adam helped Steve go from 800 to over 30k Twitter followers in 1 year. Also, the book exploded, doing $400k sales in the first day.
    • Build a reputation before selling info-products: You’ll need an audience of people who believe in you and your knowledge.
    • Pick a juicy niche: For “Refactoring UI”, Steve Schoger picked a good niche, “Developers who want to learn design”, there are many such types of people, hence why his book has done so well.
    • Book recommendation: Authority by Nathan Berry.
    • As a developer you can build an audience by creating great open-source projects: If you don’t like writing blog posts or making videos, you can write software.
    • When starting, don’t invest time in funnels, AB Testing, conversion rates, etc. Focus on providing value directly to customers.
    • Advice for coming up with an idea: (1) Don’t waste time brainstorming ideas, just make something, finish it and do a good job on it. (2) Work in public, share your idea and what you’re learning while building it because people will give you even better ideas and suggestions.
    • Recommended blog post: “The 63-Hour book launch” by Adam himself, detailing how he launched his book first book and generated over $60k sales in 3 days.
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    The interview looks very promising but before listening to it, I would like to know which business this guy made millions on. Can somebody tell me?

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      Hey! These are the books/courses I've released, in order of release date, with current sales numbers:

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        I only read Refactoring UI. I very much enjoyed it. Nice work man!

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      Adam's the guy behind the popular CSS utility called 'Tailwinds CSS'. He also has his own courses.

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      Refactoring UI made over $1M, but he also speaks about other things he's made which make quite a bit of revenue too.

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      It has been like this for a while. Very annoying...

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    What tools are you using for email automation, landing page creation and email capturing?

    Btw thx for this insightful Interview!

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      Hey! I use ConvertKit (my referral link: http://mbsy.co/convertkit/20592464 👀) for email capturing and automation, and landing pages I just design and build by hand.

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    This interview is great! Thanks guys, it's really helpful and gave a lot of insights!
    I have a question for Adam, though.
    You mentioned you released your first book and did a discount on it, and then, as soon as the discounted period ended the sales dropped down. Can you tell us, how much was the book and how much was the discount? Also, which book it was, are you still selling it?

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    Big fan of what @adamwathan makes. Thanks for sharing your story. It's always fun to hear these stories.

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    Great interview. I really like your style of answering questions Adam -- you talk fluently, and very thoroughly. Thanks for doing this!

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    Thanks for being so transparent and open about everything Adam.

    Can someone please mention the name of the author of the book Adam mentioned in the talk. I remember him saying Authority but a Google search reveals a novel by Vendermeer. Is it the same book Adam? Or could you please post the correct information? Thanks

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      It's Authority by Nathan Barry, in case someone else stumbles upon this. 👍

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    I really liked Adam's advice at the end about focusing on creating value for others instead of getting lost in 2nd order optimizations!

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    Hi Adam! Thanks for the interview! I'm also a competitive powerlifter and performer. I've been a technical trainer for 5 years, but have taught for over 15, and I'm starting out on my own by creating screencasts and tools to help my existing learners. Thanks for the boost I'm headed in the right direction!

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    Truly inspirational!

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