Welcome to the latest edition of Creator Collab House. I’m your host, Simon Owens. For those who don’t know me, I write a media industry newsletter you should definitely check out.
Today’s featured creator is Ben Collins, who runs a Google Sheets-focused blog that receives over 400k views per month. I’ll start by asking him a few basic questions, but my main goal is for you, the audience, to ask him questions of your own. Ben is an expert on everything from building a successful blog to generating revenue through online courses.
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Ok, let’s turn it over to Ben…
What's the origin story of the blog?
I worked as a forensic accountant for eight years and spent a lot of time working with Microsoft Excel. I frequently referenced Excel blogs for advice and tips on how to work better with data in Excel, so I was familiar with the cottage industry built around Excel. These bloggers did consulting, speaking and sold courses.
In 2014, there was no equivalent for Google Sheets.
When I left my accounting job building a Google Sheets business was not my goal. It really happened as a byproduct of my efforts to get a toe into the tech world as a developer.
Early on in my freelance career, people strongly advised me to create a website as a place to showcase my work. The idea was to build a portfolio of projects and share the behind the scenes so I could point potential employers to my site as a demonstration of my skills.
In that first year of blogging (2014/15) the posts about Google Sheets caught on in search and I started to see growth in my site visits. Over the course of the next 18 months, I gradually narrowed the focus of my blog from a broad software development focus to data analysis, and eventually to data analysis with Google Sheets. My traffic and reputation grew as I narrowed the niche I operated in.
What have you found to be some of the most effective growth strategies for getting new readers?
In January 2016, when the blog was about 16 months old, I spent a couple of weeks creating an ebook about tips and tricks for Excel and Google Sheets. I gave this away for free on my website in exchange for signing up to my mailing list (this is known as a lead magnet).
That was the first deliberate attempt to grow my email list. Prior to that I wasn’t getting many signups because readers had no incentive to sign up. I didn’t send a regular newsletter or offer anything to subscribers.
Once I had the ebook available for download via a sign up on my site, I saw an increase in subscribers that built steadily over time.
In late 2017 I created and launched a free online course called Advanced Formulas in 30 Days, which teaches you how to use many of the advanced formulas in Google Sheets. It’s 5 hours of video content and every lesson includes a solution template. It was a lot of work to put together (it took me as long as my other paid online courses).
I decided to give it away for free as a lead magnet, so students can enroll and take the lessons for free. I collect email addresses in the system and most also opt-in to my weekly newsletter. As of March 2021, this course has 25,000 sign ups so it’s been a huge success to grow my newsletter list.
It worked so well that I created a second free course in December 2018, called Introduction To Apps Script, which teaches people the basics of coding with Apps Script and Google Sheets. That course has nearly 20,000 sign ups since launch, so it’s also helped tremendously to grow my email list.
I publicize both of these courses on my site homepage and in tutorials, and also ask students to share with their friends (via an automated email series after sign up). Other creators, bloggers, and influencers in the space have also shared the courses with their audiences. These all contributed to the steady growth of traffic.
In 2020, I created and ran an online conference for Google Sheets users called SheetsCon that had 6,700 registrations. It was a huge success, but also a lot of work to put together! It also grew my email list by several thousand.
Can you walk us through your workflow each week for creating new content?
I’ve always been better at creating content than promoting it. I probably could have grown more quickly if I’d spent more time on the marketing efforts.
I have three principal creative outlets: my weekly newsletter, long-form technical blog posts, and video courses.
Courses take around two to six months each to complete, at around 50 - 75% capacity. I’ve just finished updating every course as well, which was a huge project that took most of my work time during this 2020/21 pandemic year.
I spend approximately two to three hours each week writing my weekly newsletter, called Google Sheets Tips. Each week features a new tip or technique for Google Sheets. I keep a master list of tips and each week I pick something to write about from that list. I also have a few written in advance to use in case of sickness (or anything else) preventing me writing a new one. Since April 2018, I’ve sent a newsletter out every Monday except Christmas week and two sick weeks early on. It’s been a huge boon for my business to publish on a regular schedule and has allowed me to build a deeper relationship with my readers.
I always have a blog post on the go too. I have a list of 50 - 100 ideas that keeps on growing. As soon as I hit publish on a post I pick the next one and start working on it. Since they’re mostly long-form technical tutorials they take quite a bit of work to create. It can take up to two or three weeks from doing my research in a Google Sheet to hitting publish, depending on how much time I can dedicate to writing.
Can you walk us through the business model?
My business model has shifted over the years. When I began six years ago, my revenue came from client work, either consulting or corporate training. In 2017, I sold my first online course and the percentage of revenue from the courses has increased every year since. I’ve flipped from 90% clients / 10% courses revenue split in 2017, to 10% clients / 90% courses today.
The customer journey typically begins when they land on my website after a Google search “how to do X in Google Sheets” (the website gets over 400k pageviews per month). Then they might sign up for my newsletter (and get the free tips book) or take one of my free courses.
Some folks buy a course directly, but usually they’ll spend time on my newsletter list. I generate approximately 60% of my annual course revenue when I run promotions or launch a new course to my newsletter list, and the other 40% from regular sales throughout the year.
Perhaps my biggest takeaway was realizing that saying yes to something means saying no to something else. Once I framed decisions this way, it was easier to move forward. For example, if I took on client consulting project X it meant pushing back the new course by a few months. Then I can ask “do I want to push the course back?” It’s helpful to think about the positive (I get to make money doing this client project) and the negative (I don’t get to make money from my course because it’s delayed) implications when making the decisions.
In 2017 and 2018, I juggled client projects and course creation. Ultimately, I found it frustrating and not very efficient to do both. I had to let go of a lot of mental baggage before I felt comfortable turning down client requests to focus on the online courses. It felt like a risk but with hindsight it’s actually a better long-term play because I’m building something sustainable with the courses.
What are some of your recent articles that you're particularly proud of?
When I write articles I’m always thinking of the reader. I avoid making assumptions about their skill level and make sure I explain the steps along the way as well as just the solution. I also have a guiding principle to “leave no stone unturned,” so I dive really deep into subjects before I write the posts.
Some recent examples of these comprehensive tutorials include:
I recently wrote the story of my journey from accountant to educational entrepreneur, which covers some of the same ground as this interview!
Who are some other indie writers/creators that you absolutely love?
More recently, I’ve enjoyed podcasts from David Perell, Courland Allen of Indie Hackers, and Patrick O’Shaughnessy of Colossus. Their conversations are all intellectually stimulating and thought provoking.
Daneil Vassallo has interesting ideas on deliberately designing your lifestyle. He mostly writes on Twitter but also writes essays (e.g. only intrinsic motivation lasts) and appears on podcasts (e.g. lifestyle-first approach).
Want to ask Ben questions of your own?
Go ahead and leave your questions in the comments section and he’ll dive in and answer them.
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