I am SO excited to bring you today’s interview with Robert Farrington. Robert runs a few blogs, most notably The College Investor, an award-winning personal finance blog.
He’s been able to accomplish a lot, all while working a 9 to 5 job. In this interview, Robert talks about how he’s finding success in such a competitive niche (personal finance), and about the ways he’s monetizing his sites.
There are so many little golden nuggets of wisdom in this interview – you’ll have to read it for yourself.
Enjoy (and don’t forget to leave a comment when you’re done!)
(As always, questions from The Daily Interview are in bold.)
Robert, I’m a big fan of The College Investor, and I love how you’ve taken your education (MBA) and passion for personal finance, and turned it into such a great resource. Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey.
How did you get into blogging? Is this a “side project” for you (i.e. do you still work a “9 to 5”), or was there a point of transition between a regular job and your career as an internet entrepreneur?
Thanks for inviting me. I’m glad you’re liking The College Investor. I actually started The College Investor as I was finishing up school – I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and I was bored. I stumbled across several blogs about making money online, and I thought it was cool.
But more than that, I really enjoyed investing and personal finance, and wanted to share my advice to younger people. I saw so many friends and college students just being dumb with their money, and being afraid to invest (or if they did invest, they did stupid things like penny stocks), and I thought my site could deliver a good bit of common sense.
Over time, it just evolved into it’s own thing. I didn’t really make any money for about 2 years, and even when I started making money, it was like $20 per month. I had no idea what I was doing, and started getting pretty disappointed with it.
I then found the Yakezie Network, which is a network of other personal finance bloggers, and that really helped me a lot. Just getting ideas, making connections, and having a support network really allowed me to take my site to the next level.
Right now, blogging is still a side project for me. I actually run several sites now, all while working my 9 to 5 job. My goal is to be able to support myself and my family here in the next two years from my online endeavors, and I’m currently chronicling that journey at my latest site Beat the Nine to Five.
The big goal for me to actually make the leap is income – I’m a believer that you don’t have to scrape and I’m working to build up my side business into an income stream that fully replaces my 9 to 5 job – including benefits and all that jazz. So we’ll see…
It’s incredible what you’ve been able to accomplish while working a 9-to-5 job. Because I know SO many people are in this same position (trying to succeed with a side business while working a normal job), I’m wondering:
What do you consider to be your “trick” for balancing the two (and still find time for your family)? Also, to give us a little perspective, can you share what it is you do “for a living”?
For perspective, I’m a retail manager. I have a variable schedule where I do work one night a week, and every other weekend. What that means for me is that I get a weekday off and basically another day off. This is a great time to work on stuff.
For example, on my day off I can write a bunch of posts, schedule them, and plan out the social media. However, realize that I do have a 5 month old I take care of, so even then it’s not perfectly uninterrupted time – in fact, it’s the opposite. It takes a long time to get things done because there is never any uninterrupted time.
As for the trick, it’s just hustle. It’s all about how bad you want it.
For example, a normal day for me consists of getting up at 4:45am during the weekdays to check my business before I go to work (making sure the scheduled posts went live, maybe try to take advantage of any news, etc). I also stay up until 1 or 2 am if I’m not working the next day and on the weekends, and my wife and baby go to bed around 9.
It’s the trade off – watch TV or a movie, or work on my business. I choose work on my business.
Finally, I outsource as much as I can. I have a Virtual Assistant Guide which walks through what I outsource, but even outsourcing requires work.
At the end of the day though, it requires good communication with your spouse, and give and take. I always try to separate work/side hustle/family time. For example, when I get home from work, I make a conscious effort to leave the phone in the study and just hang out with my family until they go to sleep.
Be present. Family first. Everything else will fall into place. The old saying goes “work will expand to fill the time” is true. If you have less time, you can still get it done.
What has been your greatest success so far in your career and/or with your various blogs?
All I can say is that 2013 was a great year. There were two moments that really stand out: first was being invited to talk about my “success” on Nick Loper’s Side Hustle Show. I never considered anything I did a success. I read site’s like Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income, where he is regularly making over $50,000 per month, and my pittance compared to that doesn’t really feel successful.
However, for 2013, I averaged about $4,000 per month in income, which is a huge improvement from my first $20 I earned after blogging for two years – so that felt good. (If you’re curious, you can find all of my income reports here: Income Reports)
The second moment, which has never happened to me in my life, was being recognized at The Financial Blogger Conference. This year The College Investor won the award for Best Investing-Focused Blog of 2013, which was huge. It’s great to be recognized by your peers for what you do, and that felt great.
As of 2013, I’ve been running The College Investor for 4 years, so it has taken a lot of time to build up the site, and getting recognized is a huge accomplishment.
I’m sure that, across your different blogs, you’ve tested and optimized various forms of monetization – what has worked the best for you? Is there something you thought would work well that ultimately fell flat?
For starting a blog, monetization is tough. On several of my sites, direct advertising has been key. This is sponsored posts, advertorials, direct sidebar placements, in-post placements, and more. A lot of people have questions about this, but basically you setup your site for advertisers to contact you and you negotiate a deal. One of my key resources is 6 Easy Ways to Get Advertisers For Your Site.
However, over the last year, with all the changes in Google, I’ve really fallen in love with both affiliate advertising and selling my own products. For affiliate advertising, I only believe in selling what you truly believe in. Plus, so many of my readers ask what tools I use – it just makes logical sense. I failed at affiliate advertising for the first three years of blogging because I just didn’t figure this out. Now, I share exactly how I’m developing my affiliate advertising income.
2013 was also my first year creating my own products, and it has been fun. I created an Investing 101 Course, which had a huge initial sign up and now regularly gets a few sign-ups each month. The amazing thing about creating your own product is it’s just like putting together an epic blog post – it takes time, but pays dividends into the future.
The only difference is, with your own product, you get paid directly, instead of relying on advertising or other people.
Right now I’m working on a paid forum – and it’s harder than I thought it would be. The trouble I’m finding is that nobody likes a dead forum, and it’s tough to get people to participate. I have about 45 members signed up, but most want to read the insights and not share or comment.
That’s fine – but it’s a learning process to continue to figure out how to build sustainable revenue and value.
Let’s take a step back and look more generally at personal finance and investing (for the average person), since this is something you know a lot about. If you had to take your best advice and put it into one sentence or phrase, what would that be?
Oh man, that’s a tough one because there is just so much out there. However, my best advice would be this (and it applies as much to personal finance as it does to entrepreneurship or anything else):
“Stop being paralyzed by fear and just take a baby step towards your goals.” [Click here to tweet this]
Too many people don’t take action – they just wallow in fear and inaction. Just take a baby step towards your goal and build momentum.
I think that momentum is the key to success in anything – like a snowball (no pun intended). Just take a look at my thoughts on Building Momentum in Personal Finance.
You can use a free tool like Mint or Personal Capital today to get your finances organized in one place. If you want to start investing, you can take my course and literally be investing immediately. Baby steps.
But baby steps compounded will make you extremely wealthy. Just investing $50 per month over 30 years at a 5% return will make you $40,000. Anyone working can put $50 away – I guarantee it.
Finally, I want to remind everyone the secrets of your millionaire neighbor. Most millionaires started young – 25 or so. A little bit over a long time goes a long way!
What are your favorite online resources?
You just opened a can of worms with this one. I’ll break it down in two chunks: personal finance and blogging (since I know your readers may be interested in both).
I’m a huge fan of Personal Capital. I used to use Quicken, then I started moving all my finances to the cloud. I worked on my laptop and my phone as much as my desktop, and so it was nice to see everything online.
But Mint sucks at investments (and I do a lot of investing). That’s why I switched to Personal Capital. It’s like Mint, but more focused on investing – and the best part is that it’s free! You can find my review here: Forget Mint for Money Management, Check Out Personal Capital.
I use Scottrade for my accounts. I’ve been a fan of Scottrade for a long time, because their prices are so cheap and they have a lot of good tools. Plus, they have branch offices near my house, which make it convenient for those rare times you actually have to do paperwork or other “in-person” stuff.
For great financial reading, check out The Yakezie Network. This is a group of 100+ personal finance bloggers, and their content is top notch.
I use a lot of key tools for blogging, and this is an area that is constantly changing.
Gmail – I actually use Google Apps, and have everything go into one Gmail account. The reason is that I own multiple sites, but I want everything in one place. So, I have email addresses at all of my sites “email@example.com” and it will go into my one Gmail account.
Plus, when I reply, it replies from the right account. Google is great for that. Plus, Google Apps let you assign email addresses to team members, so my VA also has an @thecollegeinvestor.com email address – makes things look professional.
Quickbooks Online – Once again, I’m a huge fan of the cloud. I like to have everything online since I work remote so much of the time. You should realize that at my 9 to 5 job, I can’t work on my business at all – all outside internet is blocked on the computers, and I’m mobile a lot.
So, the only option is to do everything on my phone. That’s why I love Gmail and Quickbooks Online let’s me look at everything from an app. I used to use Wave Accounting (which I also highly recommend), but I needed the robustness of QuickBooks after a while. If you’re interested in cloud accounting software (free and paid), check out my reviews here: The Best Online Cloud Accounting Software.
Google Docs – I keep track of a lot in Google Docs, and use this to share stuff with my VA or other bloggers as needed. Sometimes, nothing beats a simple spreadsheet!
Ontraport – This year I made the switch from Aweber to Ontraport. I can’t really say much more about it since I just made the chance, but I loved Aweber, I just needed more.
As I have different funnels for different products now (and different sites), I just needed something more robust to manage the emails. Ontraport has an amazing rule system that let’s me really put together a robust auto responder sequence.
For example, it know if someone does or doesn’t open an email (or click a link and download my giveaway), and I can send a follow up email appropriately. I’m also in the process of setting it up to handle the membership aspect of my site, which will make it even stronger in Customer Management.
CoSchedule – I’ve been using CoSchedule as my editorial calendar for about 3 months now, and I love it! It combines a basic WordPress editorial calendar with social media scheduling, similar to HootSuite’s calendar – but you can do it all from WordPress. I love it and highly recommend it for productivity when handling social media scheduling. Here’s my review that highlights why I love CoSchedule.
HootSuite – Finally, I still do use HootSuite for my social media interaction. I respond and read all comments on Facebook and Twitter, and I think it’s essential that you interact with your followers and fans.
For someone who is just starting out creating a blog (especially in a niche as competitive as personal finance), what advice would you offer? What do you wish someone told you about when you first started?
Network, network, network… I sat alone in space on The College Investor for 2 years before I started gaining any traction at all. And the only reason I started gaining traction is because I networked with other bloggers.
If you’re just starting out, you need to find other bloggers to interact with. The basics of this is commenting on other sites and responding on social media. Trust me, no matter how popular the blog/blogger is, they still read their comments and social media chatter.
Now, just tweeting or commenting once isn’t going to get their attention, but doing it regularly will. I promise.
Second, find a network of like-minded bloggers. In the personal finance space, I’m a member of the Yakezie Network, which is 100+ personal finance bloggers who help others. Stop by the forums and just say hi, ask a question, and interact. There is also the Financial Blogger Conference Forums, where you can interact with others in the finance community.
Not in the finance space? There’s BlogHer and others for mom and family blogs, and I’m sure there are many, many more. You just have to find them – it’s market research.
The one thing that I think holds people back from doing this is the fear of it. Take baby steps. Don’t reach out to an A list blogger right away, start with your peers. It’s good to know new bloggers, as well as experienced bloggers. Simply reaching out goes a long way!
How big of an impact does this make? Well, it took me 2 years of no traffic on The College Investor until I figured this out. Then, I quickly started gaining traction towards my first 1,000 visitors – at the 2 year mark.
Fast forward to today. When I launched Beat the Nine to Five last year (it’s about 10 months old now), my first post on my first “live” day got over 1,000 visitors – The Impact of Regret on 8 Successful Entrepreneurs. How did I find the bloggers to interview for that post? Networking.
I find it especially difficult to figure out what to read when it comes to personal finance. There’s so much out there. What book do you most like to recommend to people?
Agreed. There is a lot to read on the subject of personal finance, which just goes to show how important the subject is for everyone’s lives, as well as the variety of different styles when it comes to it.
For a book, I like Andrew Hallam’s Millionaire Teacher. Andrew Hallam is an amazing guy who became a millionaire on a teacher’s salary by being smart about money. He takes some stuff to the extreme, but the book is based on very solid principles. Plus, I interviewed Andrew on my site.
However, I’m reading more and more online now. As I said, there are two real schools of thought in personal finance: save more (live frugally) or earn more (hustle). I fall into the earn more camp. If you like to save more, check out Retire By 40 and Mr. Money Mustache. If you like to earn more, check out Financial Samurai and I Will Teach You To Be Rich.
Finally, where can people find you online?
Thanks for the interview. I love the idea with the new site.
You can find my investing and personal finance ideas at The College Investor, where we have our Investing 101 Course to help you get started, as well as our Premier Investing Forums for advanced investors looking for trading ideas.
If you want my more personal site, chronicling my journey to escape my day job, find me at Beat the Nine to Five. I’m also on Twitter @beatthe9to5.
Thanks so much, Robert, this was an epic interview! I love all the hard work you put in, and it’s clearly paying off.
Leave a comment below and let me know what you thought about the interview – thanks!