Interview with Ben Hardy
All right. Our guest is Ben Hardy. I mentioned him earlier in the class today. And Ben is somebody who has gone from zero to 100,000 readers in the course of about 12 months. He just signed a multi six figure book deal with one of the biggest publishers in the world. And he is what I would call a thought leader, and he's done all of this very quickly. He's the number one writer on Medium.com. He has, he'll talk about this, he has followed each of those steps that we talk about, but he's also adapted them to his purposes in some unique ways. And I think one of the things that he does best is he invests in himself. And so let's welcome Ben and I'll ask him to share a little bit of his story.
How's it going, guys?
Hey, Ben. I think it would be really cool, what I didn't tell them about is the failure stuff that happened at the beginning, how you tried to launch a book without a platform. So I wonder if you could start there.
Yeah, just launching like an ebook for example?
Okay. Okay, yeah. So this is, there's an article I wrote, it's called How to Train Your Brain to Get Exactly What you Want, which goes further into this. But basically, I first wrote an ebook, didn't have a platform, and the first people I reached out to were literary agents because I felt like those would be the people who could work me through the process of traditional publishing. So this was at the beginning of 2015. I wrote my ebook, wanted to get it traditionally published. Called like five literary agents who had coaching programs, and they all just said, "You're crazy, man. You don't even have a website. And so that's when I really start to study people like Jeff, started to study people like Michael Hyatt, Seth Godin, and just built my website, really simple WordPress theme. Started blogging. I took Jon Morrow's course. He has a course on guest posting. And so I started pitching my articles, I write self improvement for the most part, onto websites where pretty much anyone can get published. And it taught me how to write headlines. And then I learned about Medium.com, and I started posting there about May or June of 2015. And I just, within the space of about three months, I wrote about 40 or 50 articles, just pumping out a ton of quantity, whether they were 500 words or they were 2,000 words, mostly listicles, and just was writing a ton, and then one of them went viral. So that's how it initially started. But it was about six months from when I finished the ebook to when I had written about 40 articles and had learned that I needed to build a platform, started publishing on lots of places where pretty much anyone can get published and started copy pasting my stuff into Medium.com.
So Ben, I know that Medium as huge for you. I think to this day you're one of the top if not the number one writer--
I think I'm still number one there.
Still number one, baby. Do you have like one of those stadium foam fingers? (laughs) Yeah, number one writer on Medium. It's been huge for you. Gotten over 100,000 readers from that. But early on, you were guest posting everywhere. And then at one point, you made a decision to just write on Medium. One of the things we've been talking about is, try certain strategies that may work really well for some people that don't necessarily work well for you. How did that work for you? 'Cause I know you wrote for the Observer and these different places, some of them were paying you, and then you found something that worked for you and you went all in on that. Describe that process for us.
Yeah. So this is what happened. So I was, well, first off, I noticed that a lot of the writers that I wanted to be like, they had publications on Forbes, Fast Company. They had written for all these companies, and so I thought that that was required for success. But initially, I didn't have access to those publications, and so I just started publishing wherever I could, mostly on my own blog. And I started copy pasting my stuff into Medium.com. And after about 20 or 30 articles, one of them went very viral. And then that's when I got asked by New York Observer if I would just write exclusively for them. And so I wrote for New York Observer for four months and got zero subscribers. And so that's when I shifted back to Medium.com in the fall of 2015, and I copy pasted all of my stuff from the Observer. There was about 20 articles that I had written over four months. And then at the end of 2015, republishing a lot of articles and publishing new stuff, that's where it just started to really take off. And that's when I found, like at LinkedIn, Medium, it takes time to build momentum. And so it was really after like 20, 30 articles that all of a sudden there's just like (imitates explosion) and then you just build on that.
So by the end of 2015, how many subscribers did you have on your email list?
That's about when I talked to you for the first time.
Okay. So let's talk about from end of 2015 to end of 2016, 10,000 is great. It's amazing. But you had a vision, a dream. You wanted to become an author. And we had a conversation. So talk about that, 'cause you went from 10,000 to basically 100,000 in about a year.
Walk us through that process.
Yep. So the first thing I did was really I talked to you I think it was around January or February, and I was asking you if I should get a traditional book deal and you said, "Nope, wait, just wait. "Give it a year or two. "Get to 100,000." And so what I did was, until the summer of 2016, I was sending people to my website, and at the front of my website was a place where people could give me their email address and get my free ebook. And so basically from January 'till June just publishing lots of articles. I went from 10,000 to about 40,000 subscribers, so it took about four months, or sorry, six months, got about 30,000. So I was averaging about 5,000 a month. It was at that point that I read Russell Brunson's book DotCom Secrets. And so then I learned about click funnels and I learned how to build really clean landing pages. And so I stopped sending people to my website. I kept my free ebook as the giveaway. So at the end of all of my articles on Medium.com, there's a call to action and I say, "If you liked this article, get my free ebook at this link." And for a long time, I sent to my website. But in June of 2016, I started sending them just to a landing page. And it had a little picture of my book and it had like one paragraph that just said, "This book will teach you how to do boom, boom, boom." And then, "Here's where your name and," actually, it was just email address. And the page was such that you couldn't even really scroll. It was just boom. It was just a picture of my book and a place to give your email address. And just with that one change, no change in the amount of traffic I got, over the next three months, I got 30,000, so I started averaging 10,000 a month. And then the biggest change that I made was that I stopped sending people to an ebook and made the offer a lot simpler and more focused. And so it was a seven page checklist with the best activities that I do as a morning routine. And same traffic, but when I switched to that checklist, all of a sudden, I had 15,000 subscribers per month. Sometimes I had months where I've had 20,000 subscribers a month. I've even had a month where I've gotten 30 in a month, 30,000. And the traffic didn't change, but it was focusing the giveaway on the right thing and sending people to really clean landing pages that made huge differences.
So when did you cross that 100,000 subscriber mark? What point was that?
I hit 100,000, I think it was December of 2016.
Okay. And then what did you do?
I'm staying the same. I mean, are you talking about the book deal? Like I'm--
Yeah. So you and I had a conversation. You said, "I got 100,000 people. "What should I do now?"
Yeah, and I said, "Go get that book deal." Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so talk about that process.
Well, I think that this is one cool part about Medium, and really some of the new platforms like Quora and LinkedIn, is that there are lots of editors that are scanning a lot of the authors on these channels. And so I think, for example, like Jeff, you've written articles there, and people from, I don't know. What are some of the platforms that have reached out to you? There was a platform that reached out to you and asked to republish one of your articles.
Upworthy did it--
Yeah, and that got a lot of attention.
Yeah. So I've had lots of, like I've had CNBC, that's where the Observer found me. So anyways, there was an editor from Hachette who had read a lot of my articles on Medium. And then on my website, I have a Now page which was inspired by Derek Sivers, and basically, it just says what I'm doing right now. And so during the fall of 2016, my Now page said that I was writing a book proposal. And so this editor from Hachette had read a few of my articles on Medium, loved them, checked out my website, and noticed that I was writing a book proposal. And so she asked me, she asked me if she could see the book proposal. At the time, I didn't have an agent, and so I just sent it to her. This was like in December of 2016. Didn't hear back from her. And then I reached out to you, and you said, "You should get a deal." And kind of just in that meantime, an editor from Portfolio also reached out to me because he had read my free ebook, which is a free giveaway on Amazon. So I think some of the core lessons are I was publishing a lot of stuff. I had lots of free stuff everywhere, and some of it just started spreading and it got in front of the right people. So once I had two editors reaching out to me, then a friend of mine, Ryan, helped me get a agent, and then I could figure out how to deal with it from there.
So I see this in December, and then how long did it take to get the actual book deal?
I think I had it finalized by the end of January, maybe early February.
That was in '17.
And what was, can you share the numbers and stuff for the book deal?
Oh yeah, definitely. So there ended up being three publishers who were competing for the book. There was Portfolio, which is an imprint of Penguin, there was Hachette, and then there was Harper Business. And it just kind of was an auction, and eventually Portfolio offered me 225,000, and then I just decided to go with Hachette. They were a little lower. They were 220, so 220,000 for the book deal, which is cool. And I actually just got a check for 17, from a Korean publisher just today.
Wow, another big deal.
It's just awesome.
You're huge in Korea.
Yeah. Well, the book isn't even done yet.
Yeah. (laughs) It's awesome. It's incredible. I love this story, especially 'cause I hear so many people say "You can't make any money writing today," or, "You can't make any money off of books," and you're totally doing that. I wanna sort of set aside the book stuff, which is cool. We've been talking about the different kinds of writers. I know you're interested not just in writing books. We've been talking about this idea of signature products, courses and that sort of thing. You've got a course. You've done some of that stuff, too. What was that process like in terms of creating a course? Once you got this audience, you knew that you could start selling them stuff even before you got the book deal. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, definitely. So I actually, I heard some of the questions that came out before. I initially tried to launch an online course when I had maybe 10,000 subscribers, and the launch was so bad that literally no one bought it. (Jeff laughs) It was awkward. I had no confidence. I didn't even have a real sales page. But near the end of 2016, I decided I wanted to do a morning routine course, and I decided ultimately to change that. I decided to make it into just a holistic course where I send a new module every week for all of 2017. And it's got embedded accountability systems, so if people don't do the homework, late, they literally don't get the next module. But I made that course available at the beginning of so it was available just for the first week. And I spent maybe two months planning out the launch, building the sales pages, learning how to send some decent emails. And at the end of December, I just was prepping my audience, telling them about what the course was. I actually have the sales page still on my website. It's on the Now page of my website if anyone wants to see it. But yeah, 400 people are in the course right now. It was 200 bucks. And I'm just still making modules every week for it, like five, 10 minutes modules.
I know how that goes. So 400 students, 200 bucks, $80,000 course launch. And you're gonna launch that like once a year? Is that the deal?
I'll do it at least for one more year, yeah. I have a lot of strategy with the book that I'm writing as it relates to this course, so I'm gonna try to get people to buy this course for 10 books rather than for 200 bucks.
Yeah. One more question, and if you guys have any questions for Ben, you can do that. So, Ben, Medium, let's talk about that. You're the number one writer on Medium. We've been talking about guest posting. My default advice is, if you wanna start guest posting like tomorrow, just go write something on Medium 'cause there's a built in audience there, and find other sites and stuff. One thing that we should mention about Medium is when you link to your website from Medium, that's called a no follow link, and so you don't get a lot of good search engine juice from that. You can get a lot of traffic, but Google is not tracking those links as basically signs of authority to your website. So that's one downside to sometimes guest posting on sites like this where anybody can post. But an upside is there's millions of readers on Medium. Ben found a way to grab a lot of that traffic and capture it as email leads. And he's somebody that I go to now and I go, "Dude, I wanna get better at Medium. "I wanna do what you've done." 'Cause I had a couple of articles that have gone semi-viral on Medium and I've seen some cool stuff happen as a result of it, so I wanna do more of it. What's working on Medium right now and what can those of us who are just trying to start building our email list, what can we learn and glean from your process that we can apply to our own writing journeys as it pertains to Medium?
Yeah, absolutely. So emotional writing is very powerful on Medium. People like raw. They like emotional. Obviously, short sentences, short paragraphs, just because Medium is all into aesthetics and it wants to feel like a quick read. Obviously, you have to be very strategic about titles. I republish all of my articles every six months, and I sometimes tweak the title. And like there was an article I wrote, I've published it three times, and it usually averaged about 20,000 views, but I tweaked the article recently, or just the headline, and it got like 200,000 views. And so you wanna learn headlines. And as much as people on Medium say that they hate list articles, those are still the ones that go viral. And so if you have lists, lots of points. I mean, this is kinda like Buzzfeed honestly, but the bigger the list, the better. Short, snappy paragraphs. People want just really useful information. Less theoretical, more just here's what you can use to improve your life. And it really doesn't have to be self improvement. It could be related to tech. Tech does really well. Self improvement does really well. Just general life lessons do really well. Health, fitness, there's lots of big topics, parenting. Really a lot of the main topics are doing well on Medium. It's just how it's written on Medium. And so I think making sure it's useful, strong headlines, and really structured simply.
Didn't you have some sort of series or course or something on how to write for Medium at some point?
I'm actually coming out with that next month.
Okay, cool. Yeah, great, awesome. So you said something to me one time I'd love you to elaborate on, as well. You said most writers don't like doing what works. And I wonder if you could elaborate on that, particularly your personal experience with that. You went from going, you didn't share this (mumbles) but I remember you telling me you did not want to build a website and be a blogger.
I didn't, dude.
Yeah, you wanted to write a book. And so you've sort of, we talked about this idea of how to be stubborn about the vision of, "I wanna be a writer," but how to be flexible on the details it takes to get there. What has been your experience of, I don't know, wrestling with ideals versus reality, particularly as it relates to figuring out what works? How do you sort that out in a way where you don't lose sight of your values, I know values are very important to you, but you also latch onto the things that are working that help you get to where you wanna go?
Yeah. So when I first, so again, a couple examples as well, because there's a lot of people who are getting lots of traffic on Medium and are not converting to subscribers. And I'll explain why in a second. But when I first started writing, I noticed that when I took blogging courses and stuff that for example list articles just really work. And so there's this viewpoint that list articles are really just click bait and that they're just surface level information. They're not really dense and deep and can provide a lot of value. But I thought, "Well, if list articles work, "I wanna write list articles, "but I wanna write them in a powerful way "so that when people read it they're like, "'Wow, this is powerful,' or, 'This is useful.'" And so that's one of those examples of what works. And then just switching over to landing pages, like actually using a landing page, actually getting a really nice copywriter to help me make it persuasive and powerful. And so my call to action at the end of my articles is really simple and straightforward, and it's very marketing. I'm not trying to just sugarcoat it. It's I'm marketing to these people and trying to get more email subscribers. Whereas most people on Medium, I mean people who have studied my stuff, who have watched what I've done and they write similar topics as me, their call to actions don't lead people to subscribe. They're just, they're not clear. They're not powerful. And then they lead people to just their website or they lead people to a landing page where there's a lot of buttons you can push. It's not just the only option you can do is just write your email. If you go there, you can check their social media. You can scroll down and see the rest of their blog posts. And so I don't know. The second biggest writer on the platform, I think he's been writing for about five years. And he's got 20,000 subscribers and he's getting tons of traffic. And I know that if he just made a few tweaks to his call to action, to his landing page, and maybe to his offer, to his freebie, he could be getting nearly as much a month as he has altogether. I think he has like 20,000 subscribers right now. And he's been doing this forever. And he just writes a lot. And so another example of what works, I learned this from Tim Ferriss and from Jon Morrow, is that long form content generally goes more viral. So 1,500 words to like 500, or sorry, to 5,000 words, with the sweet spot being between 2,500 to 4,000 words. And so I started extending my articles to be a little bit longer, and they go more viral. And so just stuff like that.
Do you think I could just write one 500,000 word article and just be done, like game over, get like a million readers a day?
I don't know. (Jeff laughs)
I'm kidding. How do you respond to the question, "You got lucky, you're special, that won't work for me?" Does it still work today? Does it still work for us? You did this not too long ago, but are there too many writers on Medium? Has that changed? What are your thoughts on that?
I definitely did get lucky, but I was in a position where I was writing a lot. I was guest posting. I was kind of throwing a lot of darts at the door. And the perspective I had when I started writing was that eventually I'm gonna get to this level. I was studying your stuff. I was studying Michael Hyatt. So when I started, I was aggressive. I wanted to figure out what would work, and eventually one thing did work. I will say that Medium has changed. Their algorithms are different. They don't have an organic top stories page. They're regulating a lot of stuff. But there's still a lot of writers who have popped up in the last six months who are growing big audiences, and some of those are using good strategies I know for a fact that some people have started and in the last eight to 10 months, have grown from zero to 10, some 10,000 subscribers. Some of them have grown zero to 20,000 subscribers. And then there's one kid I know who's very smart at implementing stuff. He's gone from zero to 200,000 email subscribers in the last year and a half. People are doing it through Medium. It's working. And for people who are aggressive who are implementing, one thing that's interesting that I think is that I'll sometimes help some of my friends on Medium who have zero platform on Medium. And I'll just apply the same strategies, change their titles, change some of the formatting of their articles, and then you'll get a couple influential people to recommend the article. Their articles will go viral on Medium, relatively viral, 10,000 plus views. And it just shows that you don't necessarily need an audience there right now to get your stuff noticed.
Yeah, I love that. Do you guys have any questions for Ben? Okay, Caroline, go.
Okay, so two questions. The first is, I'm sorry Ben. I have not seen you on Medium yet, but I'm gonna go check you out. The first question is, do you use photos, or it's just straight text? The second is, you've just been talking about the long form content, and I've heard this too, and yet you also mentioned, well, you mentioned Michael Hyatt who says 500 words. You're talking about the 2500 to 4,000 going, those are the ones that are most likely to go viral. Are you suggesting that that's a better route--
I don't take everything that Michael says as truth. And I know that he writes short articles and he writes more articles than me, so everyone has their own strategy. I learned about the long form content from Tim Ferriss and Jon Morrow, and that works for me. I sometimes write short articles, and some of my short articles have gone viral, but as a rule, the longer articles have done better. And one thing that I do is I republish my articles every six months. And so I do it on Medium, and sometimes I don't even change the title, sometimes I don't even change the picture. So to answer your question, yes, I do use pictures. I generally just go on Unsplash.com. Free photos. But if I go on Google and look for something, I'll just link to the picture. But I definitely use pictures. You kinda have to do that. But yeah, I view my articles as a long term investment, so it's not just, a lot of people view their articles that they have a two day lifespan. And that's generally what happens. You get a little traffic, and then it's just dead. But for me, I write an article and I think, "I'm gonna be republishing this article every six months "for the next five years." And so when I write an article, I'm like, "This article is going to "at least get me 10,000 subscribers." And so I'm willing to put more work into it. I'm willing to make it more viral worthy. I'm willing to make it a better value article because I view it as a long term asset investment, not just something that I'm gonna just burn through and then write the next one. So I would rather have a backlog of 50 really good articles that I can keep publishing every six months and then try to syndicate them everywhere than to write a new article every day.
Yeah, I love that. Maya, did you have a question?
Yeah. Hey, Ben. Good to talk to you. Two questions. One is, to connect the dots to what Jeff shared earlier, is it true that even though you speak to emotive writing working better on Medium, it sounds like a how type article would probably work better than a why type article. Does that ring true for you, or no?
I think it might depend on the topic. People do like how articles on Medium, they really do, but there's a lot of why articles that go viral. I think there was an article that was at the top of Medium for the last two weeks, and it was all about breaking down why the Google person is an idiot recently. And that article probably got one to two million views, maybe more. And it was just a breakdown of why. And so you can do that as long as it feels like, it's gotta have a progression of thought. And on Medium, I've found that if you just have a lot of long paragraphs and you don't break it up with subheadings, so that it's kind of like small chapters of a book, you want the reader to feel like it's a fast read, even if it takes them 15 minutes to read it. You want them to feel like they're flying through it.
Okay. And my other question was, did you always know you were going to build and sell courses, or were you always more gunning for the thought leader, I'm gonna get the book deal kind of thing? Did they play together or did one come after the other?
My initial plan was just to write books. But in learning the online platform building process, the online entrepreneurship stuff, it was just another way to add value. It's another way to build income. It's another way to provide value to this specific core audience that I have. So now I'm doing multiple online courses on different topics, and I think it's just a lot of fun. But still, the core of my goal is just to write books. But those kind of things add a lot of income. They add a lot of value. And it's a really good learning model to learn how to launch products, sell products, market. I think it's a good education, so I've really enjoyed it.
Thanks so much. This was great.
I'm glad to be here, Jeff. You're the man.
Where people can find you? Thanks for being here. I really appreciate it. And be sure to check out Ben's book when it comes out. Do you have a title of the book?
Yeah. The book is called The Proximity Effect. I know that a lot of important people think that's a bad title. (laughs) That's for another subject, but I just wanna give a plug for Jeff that he's given me some of the best advice in the last two years that have changed the trajectory of my career, so just thanks for letting me be here, man. I really appreciate it.
Yeah. Thank you, man.
Have a good day.