Michael Martin On Running A Successful Web Business

Michael Martin is the founder of a popular web design and WordPress blog Pro Blog Design. He works as a web designer and developer. Michael also built and sold a successful theme shop, Pliable Press.

At the moment, he’s focusing on his new project: building a project management app that would allow teams work together online.

In this interview, Michael:

  • Shares the story of Pro Blog Design.
  • Explains how he successfully monetized his blog.
  • Tell us why did he sell a successful theme shop and barely updates his blog.

Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Hi, I’m Michael Martin. I run ProBlogDesign.com and specialize in WordPress development.

You have a popular web design blog. What role did this play in your career as a web designer?

I originally started the blog purely to share what I was learning (Especially because back then, there wasn’t a huge amount of WordPress developer resources available). Not long after that, I started getting client requests through it, and since then, every one of our clients has either come through the blog or from word of mouth. I’ve never done any other advertising.

Would you recommend other web designers to start their own blogs? Why or why not?

Absolutely. It can be a great source of leads, but more so than that, you will learn so much by doing it. It’s one thing to put together a solution to a client’s request, but it’s far more difficult to be able to coherently explain how you built it to an audience on the web. The work to write that tutorial really solidifies your knowledge and you’ll be a stronger developer for it.

It also rocks for your writing skills, and online, good writing can be the difference between landing a client or not.

Why did you decide to start Pro Blog Design in the first place?

Honestly, I just wanted to have a blog. I was young at the time (17 or so I think), and I just enjoyed running websites (Simple fansites before then!). I’d been enjoying working with WordPress, so I wanted to start sharing what I was learning. Growing the site and interacting with people really was the only goal at the start (e.g. I replied to every single comment left on the site for years. I couldn’t do that if I wasn’t enjoying it!).

Obviously the reasons for having the blog now aren’t so simple, but it’s a good example that you don’t need to have the whole plan mapped out at the start. To steal the Joker’s line, sometimes you just… do… things.

You started Pro Blog Design as a single author blog, but then it evolved over time into multiple authors blog. Why did you decide to bring other writers on board?

I started that when I first struggled with posting articles and doing client work (And getting my degree, busy times!). It had its ups and downs. I met a few awesome writers who regularly wrote for the site, but I also wasted so much time on people whose work just wasn’t up to scratch.

The biggest issue is that its too easy to let the site’s quality drop when you get pitched an article that is just “good enough”. After a while, I got fed up getting pitched so many beginner level or list posts, and then having to edit them loads, so now I rarely take on guest posts unless the author rocks. :)

Once you decided to leave “one man’s show” approach behind, how did you go about building a reliable team of writers (did you approach them, did they approach you, etc.)?

I was lucky to have a good audience by this point, so I just put up links and information about it on the site and talked to the people who wrote in. I got a lot of applications this way, so I never went searching.

The main thing I learnt is that one good regular writer is worth 10 one-off posters. When you find someone who wants to write for you and has the knowledge to do it well, then that is when multi-author blogging really pays off. I would almost consider everything else to be a hiring process for that. Even if you publish a post from someone, look back on it like an interview. Were they easy to deal with? Suitably proficient? Respond to comments?

How do you make sure that the quality of content that you publish on ProBlogDesign remains high? Do you have some sort of criteria for articles? What makes an article good enough to be published on your blog?

Absolutely. Over time I started spotting similar trends and rule out posts like these:

– Beginner level posts.

– Generic list posts.

– Short posts. In the technical world: if it’s worth writing about, it usually takes more than 400 words. Mine tend to be around 1000.

And for either of the following, I just ruled out the applicant altogether:

– Anything that is WordPress, but not WordPress development, e.g. loads of people pitched me “How to Gain Readers” etc. type posts. My site is specifically about development. If they didn’t make that distinction, it was a bad sign for their attention to detail.

– Anything where the person emailing wasn’t going to be the writer, e.g. a lot of companies get in touch saying “we have a team of skilled writers” etc.

WordPress development and web design are two very rapidly changing fields. What do you do in order to stay up to date with shifting interests of your audience? How do you know what people want to read about?

I think my writing has really changed as I’ve become a stronger developer. I started out writing what I would now consider to be quite basic, but at the time, it was what I needed to learn. Now, I write a mix of that and more complex things I’ve learnt from my client work.

Continuous client work has always been my main source of ideas, but that ties back to my reasons for having the site (Personal learning). If I was purely after pageviews, then I’d likely look at what is popular elsewhere and write posts in that vein (e.g. big lists!).

Pro Blog Design hasn’t been updated in a while (the last blog postwas published May 14th). Also, the publishing schedule over the last six months seemed to be very irregular, with a few months gap from January to March. What are the resons for that (are you focusing on client work and don’t see much point in blogging anymore, are you working on some other big projects, etc.)? What are the future plans for Pro Blog Design?

Yeah, that has gotten ridiculous. I need to get blogging again. We’ve been making some very big changes at Pro Blog Design, but for me personally, the biggest time-sinks recently have been finishing up my Computer Science degree, and working on a major new project.

Pro Blog Design itself will definitely continue (I like it way too much to let it fall apart :) ), but things will start to change. The biggest one being that we will no longer off client services, and just work on personal projects instead. Very excited about the chance to do this, it gives us far more time to do things right!

How do you monetize Pro Blog Design?

Until now, the vast majority of our income has been through client services. I’ve also put ads on the site, but never too many. The reason was simply to prioritize; did I want to promote ads more, or our services more? The services make far more money, so it made total sense to have fewer ads and focus on selling our services.

For a while, I also ran a WordPress theme shop. Selling a related product went down great, but a number of things about running a theme shop just weren’t for me.

You offer web design services on your blog. How useful having a high-traffic blog is in terms of attracting paying web design clients? How can people optimize their own websites and blogs in order to get more clients?

All of our leads come through the blog, so it can be massively rewarding. The best thing you can do to optimize your site is to prioritize. Some sites try to go in all directions at once, e.g. selling products, promoting affiliate links, selling services, add podcasts etc.

You need to have priorities. If clients are your top priority, then design your site that way. The top of our homepage is a good example of this; the very first thing on the site is a giant banner saying what we do and linking you to our services page. No confusion there.

You also offer SEO services for your web design clients, which is not something many small web design companies do. Why did you decide to throw in Search Engine Optimization in your services package?

We only offer on-page SEO, and its something I build into all of our projects (Rather than charging extra for it). It means that we cover the essentials; proper titles, semantic use of heading tags, alt tags on images, no hidden links etc.

I didn’t originally mention this in our services pitch, but it was something that most potential clients asked about upfront. Everyone wants their site to rank higher, so it’s well worth emphasising how you can help them with this.

It’s also vital to be clear on what you don’t do. We don’t do any kind of link building or other marketing. That would be a totally different skillset to development, which would hurt our proposition that we rock at WordPress development because we focus entirely on it.

You also have advertisements on your website. How effective advertisements are in terms of generating revenue? Do you think that putting up some ads is a good way to make money on the side for someone who has a relatively popular web design blog?

I would never rely solely on adverts as your main revenue stream. There are too many vulnerabilities there; pageviews can fluctuate massively from month to month, middle-men usually take a huge cut, you’re totally vulnerable to changes in the industry etc.

I think that’s something we’re seeing a lot of recently. How many of the popular blogs that you know have either started selling products (Even ebooks), or else sold out to a big company that monetizes in other ways too?

On the other hand, advertising can still bring in a respectable extra revenue stream. All I have on my site is 4 little 125×125 banners on inner pages (Not even on the homepage) and it gives me just under $300 a month. Why not take that?

You also ran a WordPress theme shop, Pliable Press, which you decided to close down on February 2012 and which was eventually acquired by Max Foundry on March 2012. Pliable Press seemed to be a successful project, why did you decide to close it down? And how did this deal with Max Foundry came along? How does being acquired by a larger company works? How profitable it is to sell your small business to a larger company?

I closed it down so that I could focus on other things. PliablePress was doing well and it fitted Pro Blog Design’s audience perfectly. I just wasn’t enjoying it any more though.

To me, it was strange to develop generic templates where you had no idea what the site’s goals and audience were. Instead, you had to put together an imaginary client and come up with needs for them. I’m sure a lot of people love the freedom, but I missed having real-life goals and challenges.

That has been one of the big lessons for me over the past year. It’s crucial to keep your focus on the things you enjoy most. It will be its own reward in the end.

A lot of big web design blogs sell their own products (Smashing Magazine sells their books, 1st Web Designer has a couple of e-books, etc.). Are you planning to develop and sell your own products sometime in the future? What kind of products would that be? Would you say that developing and selling their own products is something that web designers in general could benefit a lot from?

Absolutely. It’s great to see! The ebook trend has surprised me to be honest, because most of them are usually just packaging up articles already available on their sites.

I think that’s indicative of a bigger problem with blogs though. Most blogs have huge amounts of value in their archives, but as a new reader, it’s so hard to access that. The ebooks are one solution to that, but I think it will be interesting to see what other solutions people come up with.

There is always money to be made where you can save readers time and convenience, so there is a lot of opportunity out there for bloggers.

Web designers have even more options because they create re-usable products, e.g. any designer can sell graphics, and any developer can sell scripts and plugins. No reason not to try it, it’s so easy to get started with these days!

We’ve discussed quite a few methods of monetization. Which is one of them is your favorite way for earning money from your blog? What turns out to be most effective and most profitable when it comes to generating some side income as a web designer? What would you recommend for other web designers who want to diversify their income as well?

The most tempting is definitely client work. As an example of this, when I started off PliablePress, we made a lot of money in the first month or two. About that time, we also experienced a large jump in our client work, and were able to start charging a lot more there.

So I was in a situation where I could go down 2 paths, and both were very promising looking. I chose the client work because it paid off immediately, e.g. 1 client project could be the equivalent of selling 40 themes.

The problem is that the immediate pay-off doesn’t contribute hugely to your future success. If you spend that time on something like a product, it may not pay as much right away, but in the long run, you could build up something far larger.

I think that web designers need to walk a balancing act here. You need enough money to keep you getting in the short-term, but it’s crucial to always be building for the future as well. That could mean products, or growing your blog further, or redesigning your site etc.

You need to set aside time to work on the things that will let you bring in more money in 6 or 12 months time.

How does the fact that you update your blog very rarely nowadays influences the monthly income from your blog? How related is posting frequency and profitability of the blog?

Honestly, it hasn’t made any difference yet. That’s directly a result of how I monetize the site and how vulnerable I think relying on adverts is. If it was purely about ads, then my revenues would have sunk by now.

Instead, the blog is about showing that I really know my stuff, and so you should hire me for your site. If I didn’t post again for a year, then I’m sure it would start to look stale, but if you don’t post for a few weeks, it’s no big deal (2 months is pushing it though, I do need to get writing again!).

I’ve had no loss of leads from the site, and even the ads are still fully sold out.

I believe that the only thing that would really damage my site is if I put out poor quality posts. Not publishing anything doesn’t help me grow, but publishing something poor would actively hurt the site and cost me readers.

To be honest with you, you seem to be a bit mysterious for the last six months, because you closed down Pliable Press, but you’re not very active on your blog either. What are you up to at the moment? What are your future plans, and what role will Pro Blog Design play in it? Why?

Haha, that’s a good question!

I’ve been working on a totally new project; a web app for teams to work together (And with clients). It’s been a huge amount of work, but I’m really pleased with how its going.

At PBD, I’ve tried out pretty much every project management app out there, so I know what I’m up against and what I can do better.

It’s not likely to be ready until around October, but if anyone would be interested in a free account at that time, just email me at michael@problogdesign.com and I’ll get back in touch with you! :)

Last, but not the least, what is your advice to web designers who want to use the power of blogging in order to enhance their careers, get more clients and maybe even set up some passive income streams, but are at the very beginning of this path?

The best advice is just to get stuck in. A lot of people get stuck in a paralysis of thinking about what to do and reading more and more advice. There is a time and a place for planning, and for researching, but you have to draw the line eventually. Just pick a niche that you enjoy, and start writing.

If I had to give one tip; then I’d say to have a razor sharp focus. You don’t get a big audience by appealing to everyone. Instead, you pick one area and rock at it.

Thank you so much, Michael!

Key takeaways:

  • A popular blog is a great asset for a web designer because it’s a good way to attract paying customers and make them come to you (as opposed to you chasing them).
  • You also become a better developer/web designer when you write tutorials for other people, because explaining things to other people helps you to deepen and solidify your own knowledge.
  • Hiring other people to write for your blog can help you a lot, especially when you need or want to focus on other things, but you have to be careful and not let the quality of writing drop because of that.
  • One regular writer who is planning to stick around for a while is much more valuable than a bunch of random one time guest posters.
  • You can’t rely on ads too much when you’re monetizing your blog, because income generated from ads is too tied to ups and downs of traffic (which can be affected by a lot of things, like Google’s change of their policy).
  • As a web designer, you have to balance short term and long term activities, because if you only pay attention to the short term, you won’t get ahead, but if you only pay attention to the long term, you won’t survive long enough to see the pay off for your hard work.
  • Planning and research are definitely important, but at some point, you have to just do it and learn as you go along.

What did you guys learn?

Share in the comments!

About the author: Agota Bialobzeskyte is a writer and online entrepreneur who firmly believes that web designers and web developers all over the world could greatly benefit from learning more about online marketing.

This article was originally written for Foundertips.com, a blog started by Dainis Graveris, founder of 1stWebDesiger.com. But then Foundertips was merged with BloggerJet, so the article is here now. If you want more from Dainis - go check his blog or his course to becoming a successful freelance web designer.

4 Comments

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  1. Tom Hanks

    Thanks for key tips to make a successful web-business. This tips will surely help to chimeswebdesign to become a successful company in web bussiness. Thanks for such a nice post.

  2. Todd

    bookmarked!!, I like your web site!

  3. menj

    worth it to read and very informative. :) TY

  4. Chetena

    Thank You!
    I was thinking to start my blog from soo long..
    I am gonna do it now right away ;)

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