In 2013 I lost $150,000 in 30 days and ended up homeless with my pregnant wife.
In 2014 I generated $1,000,000 in revenue as a writer.
Here’s how I did it >>> Homeless to $1 Million in 1-Year Writing Words
And if you’d rather read the transcribed version of the interview, here you go:
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Intro: Welcome to Self Made. Entrepreneurs who turn their ideas into dollars.
Intro: Now, here’s your host, Jason Bax.
Jason: Today on Self Made, I’m with writer, Michael Shreeve. Mike, thanks for being on the show. Thanks for being on Self Made. What the heck is your big idea?
Michael: My big idea is making a million dollars a year as a writer.
Jason: When did you start?
Michael: I started, technically, full-time writing back in January of 2014.
Jason: We’re in June 2015.
Michael: Yeah. About a year and a half now. It’s just been a lot of time at the keyboard plunking away.
Jason: So, one year? Were you making money as a writer? What were you doing before writing?
Michael: Before that, I was running offline businesses. I was an Internet marketing consultant to offline businesses. I started with a pay for performance SEO business like years ago that, obviously, if you’re paying per performance in the SEO world, then every time Google comes around and slaps the algorithm, you’re kind of screwed with your client.
Got out of that as soon as possible. That business just failed. And then after that I did a rep management company, which I ended up selling, and then I kind of just took some time off to live off of the money that I made from the sale and then I kind of got bored.
And then in 2013, the end of 2013, I started hearing a lot of stuff about writers making good money. I think it was around the time they announced that it was the year of the writer. Copyblogger had that big old thing. So I was like, “Oh, I’ll get my shot at this.”
And then at the same time that I launched one writing business, I got into the other writing business at the same time, and then I kind of had to adjust to figure out how to make it manageable. And then a year and a half later, a million bucks in the bank.
Jason: Before we get into your writing businesses, were you homeless at one time? Did I read that?
Michael: I was. Yes. I have actually been homeless twice.
Jason: Officially homeless?
Michael: Yeah, officially.
Jason: Like, “I’m living on the streets,” or just like, “I don’t have a home at the moment. I’m living in a hotel”?
Michael: The first time was we would have been in the streets except for the motels, and that was because of the pay for performance SEO business. It didn’t just fail a little bit. It failed, lost $150,000 in 30 days. I’m beyond royally screwed. We lost everything. And that was a dark, dark time.
Jason: Well, this has jumped to your darkest moment. How the hell did that happen? Tell that story. That’s an epic back-story.
Michael: Yeah. This is a part of the reason why I’ve decided to be a writer, is because as a writer you don’t need staff. I absolutely am terrible at picking the right staff. And what happened is I chose to hire my best friend, or not really my best friend but a friend, who was struggling with his own personal stuff and he hated his job, that kind of thing. I said, “Come on board and be my manager. I’ll teach you how to do it.” And he mismanaged the piss out of the company.
It was just bad news and within 30 days he had blown through like 150-something thousand dollars. We weren’t able to deliver on most of our contracts – it was ugly, ugly, ugly – and lost everything to try and keep it afloat. And then we got kicked out of our place, my wife and I, and we just went motel-hopping for a little while until we could convince our family to let us live with them. And then we went back and lived with them for a few months until I got the rep management business started again.
Jason: That’s reputation management, search engine optimization?
Michael: Yeah. Reputation management. People who have negative reviews on Yelp, we would fix that problem.
Jason: First off, I have so many questions. What did he blow 150 grand on in 30 days?
Michael: He mostly blew it on trying to change the system that I had in place. I had a system of link building in place that would have worked through pretty much any slap. It was very much just “create a piece of content, share it with as many people, get as many legit links as possible”.
But he wanted to go the route of PBNs and spam links. He was like, “Look, we’ll get better rankings.” And I sort of let him do that instead of staying firm like, “No, this is the business we’re doing.”
He blew through and basically got a lot of people in trouble by creating spam, just spamming their websites. Their rankings went down and then we had to drop in more money to fix those, but they wouldn’t recover because it was at the same time that, I want to say it was, Panda was happening. There was some really big…
Jason: One of those three big fun-looking animals that ruined people’s lives, yup.
Michael: Yeah. My life was one that got ruined by it.
Jason: Yeah. You were devastated.
Jason: Talk about the emotions around having to tell your wife that you’re royally screwed, you can’t make your rent or mortgage and you got to hit the bricks?
Michael: It’s bad, man. I think about it every single day, every time I take a client. It was the most expensive thing I’ve ever learned. And because of that, it’s been the most powerful thing that I’ve ever learned. People who think they can outsource their business and take time off and go live…
Gary Vaynerchuk put out a video yesterday and he was talking about these guys who think they can go smoke whatever on some island in Jamaica while other people do their business. It’s totally not true. You have to control your business at, at every turn.
You can’t let other people run your business for you, especially not if they’re hourly, because they just don’t care as much as you do. And so I think, now, when I make business decisions, I make business decisions with my wife and son, like, “Okay, can I go to them and say this was the decision that I made?” Because that’s how it ends up every single time.
Jason: So you’re thinking, “In the future, if I had to explain to them that I built a software link-spamming engine, and that’s why it went bad. And that’s why we’re living on the streets,” would I be comfortable with that?
Michael: Yeah, exactly.
Jason: That’s an interesting way to look at it. That would be like deciding, “Okay, if I’m going to rob this bank or these people, will I be comfortable doing a press conference or telling my family after the fact why I’m not going to be around for the next five to ten years?”
Jason: That’s a good lesson.
Michael: So many people are looking for the shortcut, the system like, “Oh, if I could just figure out the system,” and they often don’t take measure of their own code of ethics. And the problem is that when you’re doing something that you don’t, I don’t want to use the word “believe” because that may be too strong, but something that you can’t be proud of, if you’re doing something you can’t be proud of, number one, you’re not going to be able to do it very well, because you just don’t have that extra bit of hustle that you need to actually get it done.
And then the other thing is what happens if it fails? Think about how much time you wasted. I totally regret that pay for performance SEO business, especially those last few months, because it failed and it blew up in my face and there was nothing where I was like, “Oh, I’m so glad we did it anyways.” It’s like, “No.” There was nothing about that that I’m like, “Yay, we did it!” You know?
Jason: Wow. Okay. But before we go onto your writing business, I want to know, from somebody who is…I’ve done SEO for a long, long, long time, like before Google, that’s how long.
Jason: Like pre-Google. And that’s a long time. I’ve had a handful of clients because, mostly, I made more money with my own projects then, so I didn’t need to take clients, but I want to know, or I’m sure some listeners would like to know, what questions must you ask a search engine optimization professional you’re going to contract before you hire them? And then tell us what answers they should give you.
Michael: Number one, ask them how they’re getting their links. And if they tell you anything pretty much other than natural link building, which is creating really good content and then leveraging that content to get some kind of link of some kind from somewhere, “Proceed with caution,” would be my advice.
I think there is plenty of data-driven evidence to suggest that anything other than that over time will eventually be penalized. And recently, the Moz Blog just did a really cool, I can’t remember if it was a Whiteboard Friday or a blogpost where they asked a bunch of people to manipulate the algorithm by hanging out on one site for longer, and then immediately jumping off of another site, and it changed the rankings really, really quick, which suggests that Google is trying more and more and more and more to rely on content quality.
If you’re contracting an SEO firm and they basically say anything other than, “We drive links through content,” proceed with caution. Are there other ways to build links? Yes. Just realize that it’s probably a short game and not a long game and adjust your investment to match that strategy. There are short game strategies, there are long game strategies.
And then the second thing is ask them what rankings they’ve achieved. It’s crazy to me how many people just buy services without knowing the track record.
Jason: Say it again, because I totally interrupted you.
Michael: The whole idea of, ask them what rankings they’ve achieved, because, number one, you don’t want to be someone’s experiment. You don’t want to pay your hard-earned money to be an experiment for someone, especially not in SEO.
If you’re hiring for content or design, you can kind of work with newer people, because what’s going to happen if someone’s experimenting on their design? You just get a revision. But with SEO, that stuff’s permanent in a lot of cases or is at least very, very difficult to undo, like a huge pain in the ass.
Find out what they’ve done before. Ask them how they did it. And if they act shady and they’re not willing to talk about that stuff, then just skip it. Just go to the next person because the legit companies are going to be open about that stuff, they’re going to be willing to share. It’s their bread and butter, that’s how they do it. Otherwise it’s just a huge gamble.
Jason: I totally agree. I can’t believe the amount of people who don’t ask the question, “Why or what rankings have you achieved? Show me some.”
Jason: And then if they show you some ghetto like, “Well, they rank for their name.” Like, who can’t rank for their name, right?
Jason: Show me something that makes money. That’s another one.
Jason: Okay, let’s talk about your writing. But anything else come to mind before we move on? Something you should ask?
Michael: Another one would be, “What’s your turnover rate with clients?” I mean, if people are only staying like two or three months with an SEO firm, either they don’t have long-term strategies in place or they aren’t able to implement any strategy at all. People are refusing to pay over and over again.
Jason: That’s a great one. I think another one would be, “How long have those rankings been there?”
Michael: Yeah, exactly.
Jason: Right. And so if you track it back and you’ve got two or three years on a competitive keyword, that means they’ve gone through some updates without seeing any major disruption in the rankings. That means their SEO for most of them is probably pretty clean.
Jason: Another one’s going to pop to my mind. I had it, but…Okay, let’s talk about your writing business now. You, in a very short period of time, just over a year, are doing a million bucks as a writer. How are you making this money?
Michael: I’m making it two ways. The first way is that I have a copywriting service. It’s kind of like a copywriting for newbies service in that we’re not charging the ten grand per sales letter. We do pretty high volume, it’s a business partner and I, and that started in late February of 2014, and then the majority of my income and profits actually come from fiction writing across multiple pen names, which I started in January of 2014, released the first novella on January 1st. The goal was to hit January 1st. And then I’ve been publishing ever since then. And those are the two businesses. And they’re not connected in that one helps the other. They’re just connected in that I’m the one doing the writing.
Jason: To reiterate here, you’ve got a copywriting business at very, very high volume. You’re writing sales copy, is that right?
Michael: Yeah, yeah. So we do sales letters, emails, VSLs, we get a ton of people coming in who want all the copy for their funnel, front-end offer, all that kind of stuff. We don’t do content, like a blogpost or anything like that. This is just words that sell stuff, is pretty much what we do.
Jason: And you’ve worked with, I mean, how many clients are we talking about here?
Michael: In the past 15 months, we’ve done over 1,200 clients and a good 30% to 40% of those are repeat buyers on volume. They’ll buy anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 worth of sales copy over the course of the year. Either they are white labeling our service or…because copy is one of those things, it’s like, you get one good sales letter, you can live off that sales letter for three or four months. You launch one good product, you do a six-figure launch, revenues are such that you only have to do two or three of those a year. It’s not one of those things where there’s any sort of built-in recurring or high-volume per client orders unless we hook up with guys who…
We ghostwrite for a lot of copywriters that people would probably be shocked that we’re the ones actually writing it, considering how much we charge and how much they charge. And they do their rewriting process and things like that but, yeah, that’s basically the breakout for the copywriting business.
Jason: So can you give us any idea as to the kind of revenue are you doing?
Michael: The first year we did about $350,000 in revenue. And we hover around 60% to 75% profit. I guess I haven’t learned my lesson because we still cycle in and out sometimes of having writers come in and help us. Right now, we don’t have any writers helping us, because it’s a pain in the butt sometimes.
Jason: Wait, what’s a pain in the butt?
Michael: Dealing with other writers. Well, number one, our prices are so low that for us to turn a profit on outsourced writers, they have to be paid even less, right? We’re not getting great writers. A lot of times, they’re newbie writers, and I end up doing rewriting anyways because I have to be like Gordon Ramsay, right? Nothing can pass the hotplate unless my fingers are in it, right?
Jason: Do you have to yell with a British accent?
Michael: Yeah and cursing, calling all sorts of names? Nah. Mostly I just fire them really quick. If they don’t perform, it’s just like, “Okay, let’s not do this. Let’s not even waste each other’s time.”
Jason: You’re a pretty bright guy. I mean, you’re a great copywriter. You write great articles on your website, mikeshreeve.com. Why on Earth would you get into such a client-intensive, laborious, non-scalable, high volume business? Why would you do that? Are you a masochist? Are you mental?
Michael: Well, it’s kind of two-fold. First off, I wouldn’t recommend anybody do this. If you’re listening to this podcast, don’t follow what I did. It’s not worth it. But when I started, it was because I had an email list, because years ago, back when I was doing my reputation management business, I was teaching other people how to start reputation management. I had like this big email list of Internet marketers wanting to make a living. I was getting a lot of complaints of like, “Oh, this is taking me forever to quit my day job, etc, etc.” And I just wanted to prove that with some half-decent Facebook ads and a half-decent sales page and a really, really, really good offer, you could quit your job in 24 hours. You would get enough work or sell enough products in 24 hours to quit your job.
That’s how the copywriting business started and it happened, right? It’s expanded into $350,000 a year. For a lot of people, that’s more than enough to quit their job. And within those first, I think it’s like, 24 or 48 hours, we were booked out for like two or three weeks, just Facebook ads, sales page.
And then the other part was, at the time, I wanted to develop relationships with the big Internet marketing guys because I wanted to be able to get my foot in the door with them, get them on the phone, get them in email, to approach them with affiliate offers like, “Hey, promote my stuff.”
Well, fiction kind of took off and the idea of information marketing just became less and less appealing the more I approached a million dollars a year in revenue from fiction. So that also never sort of took off.
And at this point, we’re kind of just working with our same clients over and over again. We’re not really even taking any new clients right now.
So, why did I get into this? Because I am a masochist. Yes, you are exactly right.
Jason: So I nailed it right off the top.
Jason: Okay, this is a perfect time to take a minute or two for a couple quick messages.
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Several successful entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed have done personality profile tests for the reasons I just gave you, including Stu McLaren. Go back and listen to that interview. So it’s the little known first step for success in entrepreneurship.
Jason: Now, cue the interview. Talk about sort of the downside of working with clients or that many clients.
Michael: Let’s see. How do I say it nicely? The downside is two-fold. Most people, when they approach my business, their thinking is, “Whatever I give you, product-wise, whatever my traffic strategy is, whatever my funnel is, your words are going to fix everything.”
There’s this expectation, and it’s an expectation driven by the market for copywriting information products, because the promise is almost always, “Sales copy will solve all of your sales problems.” But that’s not the case.
Ed Mayer told us in the sixties that it’s the 40-40-20 rule. Your list, who’s seeing your offer, the offer itself, the design of the copy, all of these things are ten, fifteen, twenty times more important than the actual words on the page.
The downside to being a copywriter is the pressure to fix everything when you have such a tiny piece of leverage in the actual formula for success.
That’s the first part. And then the second part is trying to communicate to clients that their offer isn’t going to sell no matter what words are written, so there’s this belief that just because you make something it should sell. Or there’s this belief that good sales copy can make a bad product sell.
Well, the reality is the offer is everything. The offer is the whole game. If you are running another Facebook Ads product in a sea of Facebook Ads product, then you don’t have anything that makes that product compelling, there’s nothing, there’s no traffic strategy, there’s no copywriting strategy, there’s no funnel strategy that’s going to sell that thing. If the market doesn’t want it, it’s not going to sell. And that’s difficult but, particularly with our business, because so many of the people who come in are at the kind of newbie-ish level, right, they’re either just starting to make money for the first time or they don’t quite make enough yet to quit their day jobs. That’s a lesson they haven’t learned yet. Telling them, “Your stuff isn’t going to sell,” is like crushing their dreams.
Jason: Saying that your baby is ugly.
Michael: Yeah, exactly.
Jason: You’re really not a copywriter. You’re a lipstick salesman, and your job is to apply it to, maybe not all, but a lot of pigs.
Michael: Yeah, pretty much.
Jason: Oh, man. We’re just, just tearing people up here.
There’s tons of good lessons already. Here we ripped on some of the SEO people, now newbie information marketers. I want to know before we move on, is there anything that you learned? You’ve tried to get your foot in the door with some of these big Internet marketing information marketers. Is there anything you learned there that you could share?
Michael: Yeah, lots and lots and lots of things. I’ve got a lot of non-disclosure agreements, so I have to be very careful about who I talk about, because I don’t actually remember who I signed those with. We work with, if you’re familiar with the Internet marketing space, there are maybe two or three in that space that we either haven’t written for or aren’t currently writing for. And I think that’s important on a couple of levels to realize.
Number one, it means if you want to be a copywriter, there actually isn’t that much competition. Copywriters are in super crazy demand. If you just work really hard, you could work with some of the best people in the world. The market for copy is alive and well. There’s tons and tons of it out there. We take a lot of the market, but there’s still tons and we’re still turning away. So there’s tons of, of room there for copywriters.
The second thing is that the big guys in the market don’t know more than you know. They just do more than you do. A lot of the guys who sell these complete “this is my secret system”, it’s like the same secret system that everybody’s using. It’s the same basic sales funnel, it’s the same copywriting formula, it’s the same video sales, it’s like it’s all the same stuff. It’s just what makes theirs so special and unique and awesome is that they can attach “we use this and it generated us $10 million”, because they actually do it. They implement the things that are there. And then that’s why they can turn around and teach other people and it seems like they’re these magicians, when really they’re just really hardworking guys who take the same knowledge you have and actually do something with it. I mean, that’s really the difference.
Jason: As you said, the big guys don’t know more than you, they just do more than you do.
Jason: And then they have that proofing mechanism in their sales copy that can validate and proves that you should listen to them. That’s it.
Michael: Yeah. That is it. Period. End of sentence. If you join enough mastermind groups and enough monthly recurring, and you’ll see it’s all the same.
Jason: When you’re saying it’s all the same, what are we talking about? The funnel? What is the secret sauce that we’re talking about here? And I’m sorry I just whistle lisped into the microphone. I’m pretty sure there are dogs barking in the neighborhood now.
Michael: It’s almost like it comes in waves, right? A few years ago, SEO was the big thing. Right now, it’s long funnels with an opt-in at the front-end and then a tripwire, self-liquidating, and then a core offer, and then these big profit maximizing, they all have different names for it. And then paid traffic, particularly Facebook paid traffic, is the thing right now, right?
Michael: It’s long funnels, Facebook traffic, it’s all the same. There’s only one way to build a custom audience in Facebook. And I don’t mean one strategy. But I mean technically speaking. You can make the custom audience by putting pixels and then you can make a lookalike audience. That’s it. All of these products that you’re purchasing are simply to peek into their business to see how they implemented that piece of knowledge. So you could go to a guy like Jon Loomer.
Jason: Yeah, who I’ve interviewed. If you’re interested, then listen to that. Scroll down, I’ll give you the date of that. But, yeah, Jon Loomer’s a Facebook trainer.
Michael: Yeah, he’s awesome. Jon Loomer’s awesome, right
Jason: Great guy.
Michael: And he gives away so much free information that there are very few Facebook paid courses that can compete with his free blog. But what you buy when you buy the course is seeing somebody implement that strategy, right? So I don’t, I think I may have gotten off-topic here, but…
Jason: If you wanted to hear the Jon Loomer episode on Self Made, it’s March 10th, the one labeled “Horrible Employee to 6-Figure Facebook Trainer & Part-Time Entrepreneur”.
Michael: Yeah, Jon Loomer’s awesome.
Jason: And I think you and I talked quickly before. For those of you who wonder if I do pre-interviews, I don’t really. But Michael and I talked briefly before, and you were mentioning that Jon Loomer’s sort of secret is that his whole blog is sales copy.
Michael: Yeah. As a matter of fact, I was working on a client project this morning and I used this as an example, but so if you look at guys like Lewis Howes and James Wedmore does a product with him, and in all of his different products, the LinkedIn product, you look at his sales page, and it’s like, “Oh, he doesn’t have that many words, right?”
And so there’s this thing emerging called Web 3.0 sales copy, which is less words, less words, less words, more branding. And there’s a mistake amongst people who misunderstand that Lewis Howes and Jon Loomer, literally, their sales pages, if you were to actually count the words from initial inception to buying the product, it’s probably 30,000 to 40,000 words worth.
Jon Loomer, he uses a blogpost, which in 2015 is a long form sales letter, right? So every post that you write…
Jason: Bad news for all those long sales copy haters out there.
Michael: Exactly. A blogpost is basically just a long form sales letter. It’s just copy on a page that convinces people to trust you. That’s all sales letters are, right? And then that it may take three or four blogposts before someone says, “I trust this guy.”
Let’s say you do a thousand words each, that’s 4,000 words of “sales copy” before they hit your Web 3.0 page. Or you look at Lewis Howes and he does webinars, right? I would estimate that his hour, hour and a half long webinars are 20,000 to 30,000 words with his guest speakers and all of these sorts of things. So we’re talking, or maybe 10,000 to 20,000 words.
10,000 to 20,000 words to sell his $97 product, plus he’s got maybe like 1,500, 2,000 words on a sales letter, you’re looking at between 12,000 and 22,000 words to sell the product.
Now, what happens is a lot of newbie product creators come in and they say, “I like Lewis Howes’ sales page. Can you write me that?” And they run traffic direct to that, completely skipping the 20,000 words it took before to make that sale.
And if you look at places like Copy Hackers, they do a lot of split testing, and long copy just keeps winning. It keeps winning in split tests, A/B split tests. I’ve a copywriting friend who says that big stupid companies who have big stupid marketing budgets use Web 3.0 sales copy.
Jason: That is a really interesting insight. Because, again, as you’re saying, long sales copy sells.
Jason: Has anything dramatically changed in the world of sales copy in the last thousand years?
Michael: I don’t think so. I think people are trying, but I don’t think they’re succeeding. I think what is happening on the Internet is that we’re moving away from a direct mail type of selling experience and moving more towards an in-person, person-to-person type selling experience with webinars and video-based content, but it’s still the same sales process. It still takes the same amount of time and effort to make a sale. It’s just the delivery of the communication might be changing.
Jason: So you’re just developing a relationship? You’re doing it over a longer period of time, and sort of you’re dating versus like a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. Give me your email address and let’s have sex.
Michael: Yeah. Exactly. There’s lots of axioms. There’s, “The more you tell, the more you sell”. Gary Halbert said, “Would you rather answer a dating ad where it says, ‘Blonde woman likes to have fun’, or would you rather answer a dating ad that’s like, ‘Blonde, five foot six, 135 pound,’ and more accurately describes the person?” You’re more likely to answer the dating ad that more accurately describes the person. Well, it also happens to be the longer dating ad. Same kind of idea.
Jason: Nothing’s changed in terms of the design of the sales copy?
Michael: Design? I’m not an expert in the design of sales copy. I will say design, more often than not, in the experience of working with my clients, decreases conversions. Plain text tends to do better for my clientele than fancy design.
Jason: Well, that’s good news. It’s cheaper to produce then.
Michael: Oh, yeah. For sure.
Jason: Is it possible for you to personally write all the copy for 1,200 clients in the short period of time you have? How did you actually manage that? Do you have a system in place?
Michael: Yeah, I have a system in place. And I also have a business partner. There’s always two of us doing it at the very least. Sometimes I’ll get writers to come in and write maybe a part of the sales letter. If they’re good enough, I’ll have them write the whole sales letter, but I’ll consider that sales letter draft one. What I’ll do is I’ll then take that sales letter and basically rewrite it to be equivalent to what the client paid for, right?
The sales letters that I am writing right now are not $10,000 sales letters. I want to make sure that’s totally clear here. You get what you pay for in everything that you do, and a $10,000 sales letter, somebody will spend two weeks, three weeks, doing extensive research, etc.
Instead, what we’ve done is we’ve narrowed down our focus to a very select couple of niches so that we don’t have to do a lot of research to try and figure out what the market will respond to. It’s basically the same letter over and over and over again. And then we just kind of work with the client on the individual details, find their individual hook and then write them an individual unique sales letter. We don’t use templates. We don’t use fill-in-the-blank type of situations. They’re all original sales letters.
It’s just that people who buy Facebook products respond to the same sales pitch almost regardless of what your particular Facebook product is pitching or going to be pitching. And so that’s one way that we kind of are able to speed up the process.
And then the other is I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking. So I can write 6,000 or 7,000 an hour, and then spend another half hour, 45 minutes editing. If I already know everything there is to know about the market, and then the product, I ingest the product for like an hour or two, you can put these out pretty quickly. I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking about as fast as I’m talking to you right now. And that’s not going to win any awards here. We’re not talking about the Nobel Peace Prize or something for some literature.
Jason: Must’ve been a real learning curve. There’s a major transition to go from writing your thoughts on a piece of paper, then, some people just can’t type, they have to write on a piece of paper, and then going to just speaking your sales copy, sort of like dictating. That must’ve been a real learning curve.
Michael: I actually think it was easier because sales copy is just salesmanship in print. I literally, I have a stand-up microphone, it’s actually the one I’m using right now, and I’ll just pretend I’m pitching to someone. “Here’s a product I know everything about, and here, I know what you’ll respond to, and then I know what the structure of a good sales letter is, and I’ll just pitch it to you.” And then I’ll go back and edit it and make it “writing”, right? Yeah.
Jason: Fascinating. In a nutshell, tell us, what was your process for quitting your job and generating those leads and getting into the copy business in 24 hours? You were alluding to that a little bit earlier, that public experiment that you did.
Jason: Why don’t you just walk us through that?
Michael: It started back in 2014 in late February, back when Facebook ads were much cheaper than they are now. I think my numbers show that Facebook ads are about six times as expensive as they were a year ago.
Michael: When I used to get it a cent click, now it’s six cents per click, that kind of thing. Same market, new offer, all that kind of stuff. Basically, all I did is I set up a sales page and the key was the offer itself. So, again, it goes back to the offer.
What I wanted to do is if I was going to run ads direct to a sales page, it had to be “a no-brainer offer”. It had to be something that people were like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. This guy cannot be selling this thing for this much.” And so what I did is I was I’d marked the copy down to insanely low levels, I very specifically targeted people who actively buy sales copy, and then I slapped on a money-back guarantee that…
Jason: Did you target that target audience with Facebook targeting? Or did you just pre-qualify or disqualify people in the sales copy?
Michael: I used Facebook targeting.
Jason: Got it.
Michael: Yeah. When they showed up, they were already who I needed to pitch to.
Michael: And then I just made the offer risk-free. “If it converts, great. Let you know. Let’s hire me again, we’ll do some more. If it doesn’t, I’ll give you your money back,” which, at the time and since then, I mean there were posts going up on Reddit and in other Facebook groups of like, “This copywriter, what does he think he’s doing offering money-back guarantees? He’s going to ruin the industry,” and all this craziness, because my ads were everywhere at the time.
Jason: How much money did you spend on those ads?
Michael: At first about three grand a month. Now we don’t spend ads, hardly at all. We stopped spending ads in January, and then we just started again just to see what the market was like and summer’s a little bit slower. And we only spend a couple hundred a week, maybe $200, $300, $400 dollars a week.
Jason: And do you know how much of an impact, how much of a rift or dent you made in the copywriting market?
Michael: Not exactly. We’d cut out a 20% chunk or whatever. But we do kind of try to put depth sounders in every once in a while just to see what’s going on to probe around.
Jason: How do you do that?
Michael: I don’t look at this copywriting business as something that’s going to last forever. There’s no way that I can keep it up or that the market’s going to be able to sustain it forever.
But sometimes we’ll like throw up Elance postings to see, “Is there an increase in the number of copywriters who are looking for work?” And sometimes we’ll get people who’ll be like, “Oh, you’re that guy! You’re taking all the jobs!”
We’ll survey Facebook groups of people. And the problem with growing as fast as we did and kind of saturating the market really, really fast is that we grew much faster than we had capability to keep up with.
In October, the number of refunds that we were, I mean it was insane how many refunds we were processing, and it was because I cranked on the ads, I brought in a whole front-end staff who were terrible and we were just going way too fast. It does have its scalability limits, but yeah.
Jason: Which leads us to fiction writing.
Jason: Riddle us this. How do you go from writing sales copy to writing, I don’t know, whatever…Well, what market are you in?
Michael: I do science fiction, horror and then in the beginning of January I did romance. I haven’t done it ever since then.
Michael: But it’s still making me money.
Jason: So, again, remind the listeners when you started writing fiction and how much money you’re making.
Michael: Yup. In January, I published my first novella January 1st. It was the first piece of fiction I had ever written except for maybe when I was like eight years old writing Street Fighter II Turbo fiction books, right? And then by the end of that first year, we did $700,000 in revenue. That’s $700,000 in sales. It’s like seven-something. 720-something or 702, something like that.
Jason: How many books is that?
Michael: It was a little over 300,000 books. And that doesn’t include the books we gave away for free to generate sales and things. And then this year, the goal is to clear two and a half million in revenue for books. And the crazy thing about that is that’s great, that’s wonderful money, but you look at guys like James Patterson who are clearing almost $100 million a year in sales off their books. So there’s still room on the up and up. And that’s just from books. That’s not movie options. It’s not retail merchandise. It’s not speaking gigs, all these other sorts of things that you can make money off of.
Jason: The lesson here is that you don’t have to sell “get rich quick” or “lose weight” or “make money with Facebook” to make good money?
Michael: Oh, yeah. No, no, no.
Jason: I say that sort of tongue-in-cheek.
Michael: Yeah. There’s definitely a reason why I don’t do information products mostly. It’s just I make way more money by writing, making up stories about guys in space. You know?
Michael: And it’s way more fun.
Jason: And what was the light bulb moment? once we’re stuck in this “Let’s teach people, let’s train people, let’s help them build their businesses,” I mean, every third person’s a social media expert and every second person is a business consultant. When did the light bulb for you go off? Like, “Screw this, I’m going to write about aliens!”
Michael: I think the burnout, I mean, you lose $150,000 in 30 days, and you get jaded.
Jason: I can believe that.
Michael: I think the fact that I did sell that business, the reputation management business, and I had some income to sort of just kind of putter around and do whatever I wanted, and taking that break, it was only a couple months, but taking the break outside of it and realizing, “Oh, there’s more to life than information products.”
I was talking with my friend the other day about this. I think to make a million dollars, it’s not about choosing the right business or the right niche, what’s the niche that somehow holds my million dollars in that niche. It’s about finding the thing you can do for a million dollar effort.
What’s the thing you’re willing to put yourself into and sacrifice for that will result in a million dollars worth of value that you’ve created? And for me it was, “I love books.” The library is my place to hang. And I thought, yeah. I could stay up late nights, write fiction. I can do rewrites. I can think about this all the time.
Jason: But that sounds dangerously close to, “Do what you love and the money will follow.”
Jason: So how is it different than that?
Michael: Yes, it is dangerously close. And I think “Do what you love and the money will follow” is confusing, because of its phrasing. I think it’s, “Figure out what you can do for other people that you find satisfying, and the money will follow.”
I think a lot of business owners think either, “How can I make money?” or an even more dangerous question that they often ask themselves is, “What makes me happy?” And I recently wrote a blogpost about this actually.
Happiness and a million dollars are not necessarily compatible. And when I say happiness, what I’m really talking about is pleasure. You can’t be seeking pleasure and get a million dollars at the same time. Otherwise, everyone would have a million dollars, because everyone’s always seeking pleasure. They put themselves in front of the TV and they just zone out for hours and hours or they think about the glory they’re going to get. But to make a million dollars, you have to think, “How can I serve people? What’s the way that I can create from nothing a million dollars worth of value?”
And what you find out very, very quickly is that you have to like the thing you’re doing. Otherwise, you can’t put in that effort. I wake up at six in the morning, I’m in bed by 11 at night six to seven days a week in front of the computer writing words. 10,000 to 15,000 words a day minimum.
That’s the effort it takes to make a million dollars writing, which is what I did last year. I talk bad about clients because it’s easy to vent, but if I didn’t fundamentally believe that I was helping these new Internet marketers with the words that I was writing and giving them better than what they could get for more expensive, and if I didn’t fundamentally believe that when I was a kid and shit was going bad and raised in the house that I was raised in, that fiction basically saved my life, and being able to escape, if I didn’t believe in that, there’s no way…I would just turn on the TV, I would go hang out with my friends or I’d go do these other things. But once you understand that you have to find out how you can serve other people and then align that with the thing that you care enough about to put in the long hours, I mean, that’s, that’s the magic secret sauce right there.
Jason: So some people, I believe, just to bax you up – oh, I said bax you up. There we go. We’ve got another baxism.
Some people are just lucky enough that the thing they like to do there is a market for. If you’re going to raise, I don’t know, pygmy pigeons, pigeons or something like that, there just happens to be enough people who want to learn how to do that, then great.
Jason: But that’s why I think that whole follow your heart kind of thing is just like this real Pollyanna, a very simplistic, come on. There’s no market for underwater basket weaving. That’s why they came up with that phrase.
Michael: Yup. Yeah.
Jason: But what you’re saying is aligning, there has to be room in the market to make a million dollars first, or there has to be a million, at least a million dollars in that market for you to make a million dollars, and aligning what you like to do, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time doing it.
Michael: Yeah. And then the other part, too, is I write these sales pages. I write sales copy. There is an element of me that’s something like I kind of pimp myself out, right? I write sales pages for products that are in that market that say, “Follow your one true passion, and, and your life will be finished.” As that copywriter, I am telling you that that is a sales pitch.
Gary Vaynerchuk just released a video the other day about, “Yeah, sure. I’ll show you people who have millions of dollars on Instagram, where they go into their bank account and they pull out all the cash and they go put it back in, because that’s all the cash they had.” I can hire the models and stand there and be like, “Yeah, this is my life.” It’s all a fabrication. It’s all a sales pitch, right? What isn’t a sales pitch is that the fundamental transaction of me giving you money is an exchange of value for value.
So you have something that I want. I have money, which is the thing that you want. I trade my money for that thing of value that you have created. Now, if you can get past the, the sales pitch, which is, “You only have one thing in this life that you like that’s your ‘master passion’,” and realize that there’s lots of things you can like, then you can say, “What’s the thing that I can add the most value in?” Right? What’s the thing? And then it just goes back to what we were talking about. Then that, that value for value transaction, it happens without you really even having to try.
Jason: That is incredibly insightful. You talked about following your passion or the myth or the danger of just blindly following your passion and the transfer of value from one person to another. I think that’s pretty powerful.
What is value to you? I heard you describe, the other day, as value, people want value, but what they really want are results. They want a result. And then they will pay in, the price that relates to the result that they want to get.
Michael: Yeah. So here is, I think it was in Dan Kennedy’s recent newsletter, so I’m totally stealing this – I’ve heard it a couple of places, but this is the most recent that I’ve heard it – value is the ability for your product or service to move someone from where they are right now closer to where they want to be.
For example, if somebody wants to be more wealthy, the result is that their business needs to make them more money. If you are a marketer and you step in and say, “I can make your business more money,” you are more likely to receive money for that, because your promise is, “I’ll move you from where you are today, which is not having enough money, to where you want to be, which is having more money.”
And the further along that kind of spectrum you can move someone, the more money you will receive. Now, that even works for fiction, right? So if I write a book, the deeper I can pull someone into the experience of the book, the “better the writing”, “the better the story”, the more I can pull them through an emotional arc, so they’re crying and laughing and all of these things, the more of those copies of that book I will sell. It’s the same thing, because I’ve moved them from where they are, which is probably, “Life sucks,” to “I’m in this wonderful world that’s amazing, and all these different things are happening.” And that’s why they’ll give me a couple bucks for a book. And typically, the amount you can charge is equivalent to how far along that spectrum you can move people.
Jason: How is it that you are able to generate so much money as a fiction writer when most writers struggle financially?
Michael: I think most writers don’t treat it like a business. They treat it like an art. And I’m not saying there isn’t art in my writing, but I think the two are very different
An artist works when he feels inspired. I work to meet word count deadlines every single day. If you look at James Patterson who is currently the bestselling author of our time, might be the bestselling author of all time, he releases a book a month. Now you compare that to most writers who are coming out of New York, and they’ll write one, maybe two books a year.
Now, you have to ask yourself, “What’s James Patterson doing that the other writers aren’t?” Well, James Patterson is treating it like a business. That’s why he makes $98 million a year. A lot of writers are hesitant to put more books out because, and a man could have a whole conversation…If you want to find out more about this information, just go visit deanwesleysmith.com. The guy talks about pulp writing and all these other things that are affecting the market today, that self-publishing is kind of breaking the old ideologies that if you look at the most successful self-publishers these days, they’re very prolific. They’re publishing about 2,000 words per day, which is insane if you compare it to today’s modern traditionally published writer.
And I think that’s the difference. Number one, I have way more books, because, frankly, I work harder. I mean, it makes me sound like an arrogant asshole, but I’m putting in hours and hours and hours a day to put more and more books out, and that’s why I make more money.
Jason: So how do you draw people, as you said, deeper into your books? And you can just touch on this very, very quickly, because we are running out of time.
Michael: Yeah, so just writing craft. I mean, there’s tons of books out there on how to, to write better stories.
Jason: You must leave cliffhangers at the end of a book that leads someone to another book.
Michael: Yeah, sure. What I do, typically, is I give the first book away for free and that typically has a cliffhanger to get the next book. I just write the best story I possibly can and I give them a free taste, and then they can get the full meal by ponying up the three or four dollars or whatever it is.
Jason: It sounds like you applied what you learn at Internet marketing and copywriting to the fiction market.
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. It’s a sales funnel through and through. Freebie, tripwire, the main offer, all that kind of good stuff.
Jason: What do you have to say to writers, fiction writers or any writer for that matter who feels like they don’t want to sell their soul or sell out?
Michael: That’s a tough one, because I think the idea is that you have to write stuff you hate in order to make a living as a writer. And I think it goes back to that idea of, the big problem with most writers is they ask the wrong question. They say, “What do I want to write?” not “What do other people want to read?”
Jason: Let’s hang right there for a second.
Jason: It’s profound. Say it again.
Michael: Yeah. Basically, most writers, I think they ask themselves, “What do I want to write?” when they should be asking themselves “What do other people want to read?”
And you can look at it like, “Oh, that’s selling your soul,” or you can look at what it really is and realize that if you’re writing fiction, you’re in the entertainment business. And comedians are also in the entertainment business. And if you were a comedian and you stood up on stage and you created an act that you purposefully were like, “Oh, I’m not going to sell out and make these people laugh, because I don’t care what they think. I only care what I think,” you would be a failed comedian, right?
Jason: You’re not going to get the laughs.
Michael: Yeah, you’re just going to get booed off the stage. Writers can hide behind the screen. They don’t have to watch people read their books. But I think you approach it with, “What do people want to read?” and “What can I give them in my book?”
I like to be like, “Man, can I make someone feel better about their life by making my main character’s life even worse?” Or something like that. What can I share in my story? And I don’t think that’s selling out. I think that’s doing what fiction is supposed to do. It’s not supposed to be about what’s in your head. It’s about entertaining people.
Jason: And going back to the regular business, it’s not about what you want to sell.
Jason: It’s about, “What do people want to buy?”
Jason: And the only question in your mind should be, “What do people want to buy and can I provide that for them?”
Jason: And you came to the conclusion that people love entertainment, and then they, especially in the form of books.
Jason: So then is there any particular reason you came up with the three genres and maybe not the romance market?
Michael: I tried romance and I couldn’t put the hours in. Sometimes you just don’t know until you try. I tried to write romance because romance is like a $1.3 billion a year industry. Fantasy and science fiction combined is only $500 million. So I was like, “Oh, there’s so much more money in romance.” I tried it. I was out hanging out with friends and putting it off and procrastinating. But when I started writing science fiction, it was like every free minute I had, I was doing it.
Jason: You had a phrase that I found interesting. Trust capital. What is that?
Michael: Yeah, so trust capital is something that I was trying to build with my copywriting business and I think that there’s so much focus in information marketing, especially how to make money online. There’s so much focus on the dollar that that would be my main criticism of information marketing and online marketing as opposed to real life business.
In real life business, money is transacted through relationships. And you have to build a bank account of trust with those people in your relationship before they will exchange money with you. And there are ways to do it online.
In fiction, it’s giving away free books and entertaining people so that when they pick up your stuff, they think, “Oh, yeah. I trust this guy to write a good story.” In online marketing, it’s making connections with other people.
It’s okay if someone else’s face is on your stuff, too. That’s actually a good thing. There’s a reason that guys like Lewis Howes and Ryan Deiss and Russell Brunson partner with each other. It’s not to scam you. It’s to build relationships of trust with each other. And that’s why they have a lot of money and most people doing Internet marketing don’t.
Jason: You have answered this in a roundabout way, but I’m going to ask it again, because I think a lot of people’d like to hear this, the answer to this question. What is the common misconception about being a successful entrepreneur?
Michael: That entrepreneurship is about pleasure. I think that’s the misconception. I think that people who go into entrepreneurship thinking that the goal is to bring more pleasure to your own life fundamentally misunderstand what it is to be an entrepreneur.
Jason: Michael, how has your relationship with money changed? You are a guy who has been homeless not once, but twice. You’ve had good businesses, bad businesses, you sold businesses and you’ve been in multiple different businesses. How has your relationship with money changed?
Michael: I think it was Walt Disney who said, “We don’t make movies to make money. We make money to make movies.”
For me, money is the side effect of getting to do the thing. And the more money I can make, the more I get to do the thing. For example, when I first started out in fiction, I couldn’t hire great editors because I wasn’t making a lot of money. Well, now I make a lot of money, and I can hire New York editors. My books are selling even more. They’re getting better. We’re starting to get movie option deals. It’s getting me closer to my goals.
But money is just the tool to do the thing you want to do. That would be the change, whereas when I was doing pay for performance SEO, my goal was to see how much money I could put in my bank account, which I ended up with less than zero at the end of that experiment.
Jason: Why it’s such an, an important thing? I mean, do you, do you have a direct relationship? Could it have been something else?
Michael: There’s a lot of factors that go into failure for sure. But I think the pursuit of money, instead of the pursuit of value, the pursuit of money is never a strong enough motivator to get you through what it takes to actually make good money. You have to have the vision beyond the money. You have to have the goals beyond the money, because the money, just think about how fast money goes out of your own bank account.
Sometimes, I look at my bank and I’m like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Where did that go?”
Jason: That happens frequently…
Michael: Yeah. It snuck out in the middle of the night, right? Whereas when you look at value, I think about the relationships I’ve made in my copywriting business. They’re still there. It’s still there. And there also happens to be money on the side, but the relationships, the results that we’ve gotten for clients, the books that I’ve written, the people’s emails…
I got an email the other day from someone who’s like, “Hey, I’m dyslexic, but thanks to your books, I started reading again.” I mean, that’s going to be there forever. He paid for that book, it’s probably already gone. I probably already spent it. So I don’t remember what your original question was, but…
Jason: It was around…Well, okay. So, well, let me ask you this. What is your big vision? What motivates you?
Michael: For me, it is, having gone through that experience of losing everything and feeling how lonely that experience is when even your own people who are really, really close to you kind of are like, “Ugh, you’re a failure,” I think, now, my vision is two-fold.
One, specifically, there’s a bookstore in Portland called Powell’s. It’s like the biggest bookstore on the West Coast or something, I don’t know. It’s several storeys. It’s been around for years and years and years. My first goal is to be recognized by a fan. Be like, “Hey, that book you wrote, I love.” I’m not there yet, because I’m still operating under pen names, but late 2015 I’m going to transition to using my own name.
And then the other one is to have a network of power. People who I could rely on if the shit hits the fan again where I didn’t have that before. And that’s a big reason for the copywriting business. If emergency money is needed, I can call somebody up and be like, “Hey, how can we make some money this weekend?” or “How can we do something where we can whatever?” I think those are my two big goals right now.
Jason: And Michael, if you had any advice for somebody who may be in your situation or maybe is pivoting and perhaps the shit has hit the fan for them and they need to make some payola, what advice would you have for them?
Michael: Get back to service.
Jason: Even after all the headache and the masochism and the…
Jason: Okay, why?
Michael: Because if you are in a bad position, it’s because you lost that as part of your, I mean you lost that compass. You probably got obsessed with the money. You got obsessed with the systems. You got obsessed with growth. You got obsessed with all of these other things when you should have been obsessing over the people who are giving you the money.
Jason: Oh, so by service you mean not a service business, but by servicing your customer?
Michael: Yeah. Not a service business. Let’s say your bank account is empty. Nothing. You’ve got nothing. This is what I did and I got into reputation management because my reputation at the time was screwed and I was like, “Wow, I totally understand these people who have reputation problems.”
If your bank account is zeroed out and you’re negative and people hate your guts and you’ve got lawsuits up the yin yang and you have no money to pay the lawsuits and you’re like, “Oh my gosh. Am I going to go to jail?”. Whatever you’re thinking about, all these sorts of things, get back to, “Who can I help?” Because number one, it’s going to take your mind off whatever problem you got.
And the second thing is that’s how you get money. You help people. And that will solve the other problem, which is that you don’t have any money. And you don’t even need money to help people. Literally just go contact people who aren’t making money and say, “Can I help you?” And they’ll either shoo you away or they’ll say, “Yes. As a matter of fact, I need help with this. Can you do that?” And be like, “No, I know somebody who does.” And then build that network of people that you can help, and the money will just, it’ll come. It really will. It sounds crazy and New Age-y, and I hate that New Age crap, but that’s how it works.
Jason: And in the future, you’re building up this network of power as you called it. What would you say to somebody in your network if, again, you had to start over from scratch?
Michael: Someone in my network of power, if they had to start over from scratch…?
Jason: No, if you had to start over from scratch, how would you approach them? What would you say in order to get going again? I was just curious as to how you’d use your network of power.
Michael: Oh, okay. I’m fortunate in that I do have some skills that I’ve developed, copywriting being one of them. If I were to approach my network, I would simply say commission-based sales copy. “Let’s do some stuff. You got something? If you don’t have a product, let’s think of a product. I’ll do everything. I’ll ask these other people to promote it for us. I’ll sell it. You create it. Let’s do this thing.” And, and that would maybe be like two weeks, and I’d have money in the bank.
Jason: Michael Shreeve, any question I haven’t asked but maybe I should or anything you want to get off your chest or any advice?
Michael: No, I don’t think so. Just don’t be afraid of the grind and help people out, because that’s how you make money. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. It could be SEO or writing or whatever. Figure out how to help people and they will give you money all day long.
Jason: Michael Shreeve. You can check out his killer articles, and these are definitely long sales copy, but they just dump tons and tons of value on you. Go to mikeshreeve.com. Michael Shreeve, thanks for being on Self Made.
Michael: Thank you so much for having me.
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