Pat Flynn talks about his successful career as an online entrepreneur. You can find Pat at www.smartpassivincome.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview. [editor's note: this interview was done over the phone and transcribed to text].
What do you do for a living?
I do a lot of things for a living I guess you can say, but to can sum it all up I am an online entrepreneur.
How would you describe what you do?
I have a number of businesses that I run online. A lot of them are built in a way that allows me to fulfill transactions or provide information to people without me having to be there in real time. It’s very much inspired by The 4-Hour Workweek, a book by Tim Ferriss.
He gives many examples of how he has automated his businesses and I kind of took that and I’ve run with that. One example is www.greenexamacademy.com which is a business I run where I sell study guides and process exams in the architecture industry. People can come to my site and buy a study guide or buy a practice exam and then it gets automatically delivered to them via email and I get money in my bank account as a result.
Now, it wasn’t a business that happened overnight. It took a very long time for it to get to this point, but I’m very happy with what I do for a living because all I have to do is just provide information to people and then ‘set it and forget it’ if you will. It’s not 100% automated. I have to keep coming back to those businesses every once in a while to optimize them, to test, or to make sure things are running smoothly or answer people’s questions. But I’m not trading my hours. I’m investing my time now so I can earn more dollars later. And that’s just one example.
I have several other examples. I have a website at www.securityguardtraininghq.com which is the number one security guard training site in the world, at least on Google, and it provides information for people as far as how to start a career in the security guard industry. I make money off of advertisements on that site as opposed to selling products. I also have an iPhone application business.
We have 27 applications live in iTunes in the app store right now. I spent time to build those or hired someone to build those for me, put them in the app store and now every month I get a check from Apple between $5,000 and $10,000 for those applications. Then most people know me from www.smartpassiveincome.com because that is where I talk about all these other businesses that I do, the strategies that work, strategies that don’t work, and just try to help other people do the same thing. And now that site has taken off and has become a great asset in my overall business portfolio.
What would you say your work entails?
It includes a lot of aspects of online work. For example building websites, writing content, publishing content, and I’m also a host of a podcast. I’m also doing a lot of video. Basically what it all comes down to is writing and delivering value through all different types of mediums, blogs, video, or podcasts to try and help people achieve something in their lives, whether it’s becoming a security guard or to help them pass an exam or learn how to do business online. Really what it comes down to, the more people I can help, the more rewards come back to me in one way or another.
It might not be a direct monetary payback from the specific person that I helped, but that person might tell their friends about me who may purchase a product or they might share something on Twitter which will tell their followers about me and my site which will get them to share with their friends. The universe somehow likes paying you back the more you can help people.
What’s a typical workweek like?
Well, I guess I can start with a typical workday and that is waking up at 7:30 in the morning to the alarm of my two-year old son. And then we basically just play all day. We play from 7:30 to around lunchtime. My wife wakes up maybe around 10:00 and then we all hang out together, we watch some Nick Junior and really it’s about family. That’s the most important thing for me and that’s what I really love about the business I do. It allows me to stay at home with my wife and my son. We have another baby on the way too. So I’m really fortunate to have this opportunity to be at home with them.
We basically play till lunch and then he goes down for a nap, then I do maybe one or two hours of work. For example, right now this current time is my work time when I get to do interviews and other things. I do most of my work at night after everyone goes to sleep. I get maybe one or two hours of work done until he wakes up. I don’t try to do major projects during that time, just little things. Then when he wakes up, we go somewhere.
We might go to Sea World or we might go to the grocery store. We play as a family together and when my son goes down I spend maybe an hour or two alone with my wife watching TV or just talking. Then I go and do my work in the evening which is usually around 10:00 pm.
I’ll do most of my work between 10:00 pm and 2:00 am in the morning and that, at least for me – I know that sounds way too late for some people but that’s when I’m the most focused. I have the most energy at that time. It’s kind of random but that’s when I work best. So that happens every day. Thursday is date night with my wife. We bring our son to grandma’s house. Grandma and grandpa take care of him while my wife and I go out. And I think that’s important as well because when you have a kid you have less one on one time and it’s really important to both of us to have that alone time together.
That’s basically it. The working is not very much work at all, but when I am working I’m working really hard. I’m really focused. I take away all the distractions and I know what I’m going to do before I get into it so that I can maximize the amount of things that I get done during that time.
How did you get started in this career?
This is a story that I love to tell because every time I tell it I’m pretty amazed at how it happened and it’s still unbelievable to me sometimes. Basically when I was working in the architecture field in 2008 after I graduated college I ended up getting laid off because the economy was really bad. Nobody was building anything so nobody needed any design or architects. Luckily, I was studying for this exam that I eventually created a site for. I was studying for this exam and what I did was I set all my notes online to help me study.
I did this while I was still working to help me study and to also share those notes with my coworkers. I never had any intention of sharing this with anybody else in the world. I passed the test, didn’t do anything with the site for about a year. I didn’t do anything with it until I got laid off and I started to learn about online business and started to educate myself about it. I looked at the site, and after some quick analysis on it I learned that already thousands of people around the world were viewing the site every single day to help them pass exams too. I didn’t know how it happened or why, but now I do.
Basically Google found me because I was writing all this relative content for terms that people were searching for and the content was good enough to help people pass the exam and they would share it with their friends and it spread virally through word of mouth. I eventually turned that site which was just notes into a business. I published an e-book study guide and then came out with an audio guide to go along with it. I then became an affiliate for people who have practice exams in this niche as well and it just took off from there. At one point I was making up to $30,000 a month with just this one site which is far more than I ever made in my architecture career. When I look back at it, my layoff was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.
What do you like about what you do?
I love that I can spend time with my family. That’s the most important thing for me and I also like that being online I can reach many, many people all at one time. It’s not like a brick and mortar business where my clientele and customers are just in that one area. The entire world can access my site if they wanted to. My businesses are open 24/7, 365 days a year, even on holidays. So people can come and purchase something at any time. And what I really, really love about it is that I can change people’s lives, help people achieve things, and make people’s lives better by what I publish online. That’s really what it’s all about for me. That’s what I love about it the most.
What do you dislike about what you do?
There are a few things I actually do dislike about what I do. The number one thing I think is comparing this to my work in the architecture industry, I have no coworkers. I’m in my home office and I’m all alone. And as much as I enjoy spending time with my family I can’t talk about business with them like I would talk about it with a coworker. I can’t have water cooler talk with them talking about the Monday night football game or a work issue and I just miss that camaraderie and the people who I can look over the cubicle next to me and just chat with.
Another part I dislike, or it’s very tough to deal with at least, is the fact that it’s hard to differentiate when work is over and when work starts because I run my own business. I can at any time just walk into my office and continue working. I can always do more. So I have to really be disciplined and walk away from the office, walk away from the computer when it is family time, and not blur those lines.
That’s probably the toughest part and talking to other people who do business online as well that’s one of the toughest things. You have to just stop working when it’s time to have fun or enjoy life because more work can always be done.
How do you make money or how are you compensated in this?
I’ll talk about the bits and pieces of my business. First I have www.Greenexamacademy.com, which is that LEED exam architecture test study guide website. People come to my site, they purchase a product, whether it’s my e-book or an audio guide or the entire package, the money goes into my PayPal account and then they get that product in an email that they can download that product from. I’m using a service call E-Junkie to basically house my books and my audio files and they take care of all the automation.
You just have to set it up once and the transaction is fulfilled automatically through them. I really enjoy working with them. Also on the site I make money through affiliate marketing. Basically I’m selling other people’s products and I get a commission every time I sell through my site as well. Affiliate marketing is very powerful because you don’t have to spend time creating the product. If a product is good you can just send people through a special link or a special phone number and then you get compensated for it. You don’t have to deal with customer service because that’s all on their end.
That’s really the neat part of that and that’s primarily how I make money through smartpassiveincome.com. I recommend different products or services. For example if I say “hey, it’s great to start an LLC. Here is an affiliate link for legalzoom.com” and if someone goes to that special link which has a cookie connected to my name on it and makes a purchase then I get a little commission from Legal Zoom. There’s a number of products I recommend on smartpassiveincome.com that work in just the same way.
I also have an iPhone app business. Anytime anyone makes a purchase on any of our paid applications I get 70% of the cost. So if an app is $10 I get $7 and Apple takes 30%, so $3. Now, I don’t sell any apps for $10. The highest priced app I sell is $2.99 and really to be honest it’s the 80-20 rule. 20% of our apps are making 80% of our income. It’s a tough market but it was more of an experiment to see how possible it was to make a passive income with apps. We got in early so that helps too. But we found it is possible. Now more than ever though you have to have a great idea and great design in order to stand out and even then you kind of have to get lucky.
I also have securityyguardtraininghq.com which, like I said earlier, makes money through advertisements. I have Google Adsense up on the site which is some code you can put on any site that you have and it will automatically generate ads relevant for the content you post on that page. So if you go to securityguardtraininghq.com you see ads for security guard training companies or other related things in that industry and any time someone clicks on those ads I get a few cents up to a couple of dollars depending on the ad.
How much money do you make as an online entrepreneur?
I’m currently generating, and it’s been growing quite nicely every single month, in total through all my businesses about $50,000 a month. And that’s not typical. I will tell you that it took me a very long time and a lot of hard work to get there. I’m very fortunate to be in a position where I am making this kind of money and I’m always trying to give back because like I said earlier, the more I give back the more I get back in return. And that’s always been my business model.
Now, I will break it down for you a little bit. When Greenexamacademy.com was first monetized back in 2008 I was making $10,000 to $30,000 a month. Since then the industry has kind of gone down a little bit. There’s been more competitors and I kind of focus a little bit less on that site. That site is now currently making between $4,000 and $8,000/month which is still a good income actually considering I only spend about a couple of hours a month on it. With iPhone apps, I make maybe $5,000 to $10,000 a month as well. Again, most of it comes from just about 20% of our applications. There are a lot of misses there.
Our best paid application was the $2.99 application called Baby Maker, and again these apps don’t really add value to people’s lives, just add entertainment value. But with this one you take pictures of two people and it kind of splices them together to create a really ugly, funny looking baby.
Then we have a free application that came out in 2009 which was another kind of gag type of application called Traffic Light Changer. This is a free app and the idea behind it is there’s a button on it that you press and it changes the light in the app from red to green. The idea is you point this at a stoplight when you’re sitting there and it will turn the light from red to green.
Now, it doesn’t work. It’s impossible for iPhones to do that. But half the time it actually does work just based off coincidence and that’s the joke. You can kind of trick your friends by telling them that you have an app that does that. This app at one point was getting about 20,000 downloads a day and it was making money through advertisements up to about $300 a day at one point. So, the free app model is good as well but the entire market in general is becoming much more competitive.
How much money did you make starting out in this career?
When I think back to when I actually started this site and I started putting notes on greenexamacademy.com just to share with my coworkers I was making nothing. And most people when they start an online business they’re going to make nothing. That’s tough for a lot of people. They expect it to happen right away and when it doesn’t they give up.
That’s why a lot of people who try online businesses don’t succeed. I wouldn’t be afraid to say that 90% of people who really try to make a career out of online business will fail and again that’s because people want to see results fast.
It took me a really long time. Relatively speaking I’m not waiting until I’m 65 to see this kind of income, which is great. So I guess in that sense it came fast, but it still took a couple of years to get to the point where I could begin to monetize.
It takes a lot of hard work and a really long time. There’s no such thing as getting rich quick or overnight.
What education schooling or skills are needed to do this?
The most important thing is you need to know how to write. You don’t need a degree of any kind. All you really need to do is to be able to get a message out there through written text. Google doesn’t listen to podcasts and they don’t watch videos. They understand what content is about based on the text.
So it’s really important to know how to write not only so Google can find you but also to write for people. Everybody is online now and learning things and searching for things in Google. So it’s really important to understand how to write and how to get people to take action. Whether that’s getting them to learn about whatever it is you have to teach or getting them to purchase a product that you want to sell.
You can go even further and talk about relationship building. I think that’s a really important skill that you need to have. You can’t do online business alone. There’s nothing more important than the relationships you build with other people in your niche who can then help you or the relationships you build with your audience who will be happy to share your stuff, consume your content, or buy a product from you. You absolutely need to know how to build relationships and foster those relationships online in order to really make things happen.
There are courses available to learn specific parts of online business. For example, courses about how to start a blog or how to get more traffic to your site and those are helpful. They will streamline the process. But to be honest most of that information can be found for free online. That being said, if you find someone who you really connect with who offers a course that you believe would help you stay motivated and help you throughout that process as you’re trying to build the website or start your online business then I think it’s a good investment.
What would you say is the most challenging about what you do?
The most challenging thing is trying to push the boundaries because that is really what is going to help you find success faster and help you grow faster. It’s really easy to just blend in with the crowd and do what everyone else is doing. But if you want to find rapid growth you really have to push the boundaries and produce unique content.
So trying to come up with new ideas and trying to step out of my comfort zone to achieve new goals is probably the most challenging
What would you say is most rewarding about what you do?
The most rewarding thing is seeing how much of an impact I’m having on other people. The idea that the classes I produce, the blog posts that I write, the podcasts that I put out, and the videos that I shoot are actually helping people is very rewarding. Getting an email from someone that just says ‘Pat, thank you so much for doing the tutorial. You’ve helped me in this way’ and a lot of times people will email me and say ‘Pat, thank you so much, I made my first dollar online and it’s all because of you.’ That means a lot to me.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
My advice to you if you want to start an online business is to try and understand what you have to offer people. And that can be very difficult. The first thing I would suggest is to kind of step back and see and notice if people are coming to you for advice for anything. Do they always come to you for advice on how to fix your car or how to deal with kids or something?
That’s how you can kind of generate ideas as far as what kind of business you can possibly start online. Because what it’s all about is offering value to people, changing people’s lives, and what you have to offer that can help them achieve that.
Now, if that becomes difficult I would really just keep an eye open for opportunities in markets and see what other people are doing and maybe even just search the web and see what interests you and where you might be able to fit in. If there are competitors for things that interest you that’s actually a good sign. I wouldn’t let that hold you back because that means there’s a market for that particular niche and all you have to do is get in that market and bring something new to the table.
You just have to put in the hard work and be prepared to spend some time. I wouldn’t expect anything to happen fast. I know that’s tough in this day and age when we do a Google search and it tells us that our search results come in 0.0012 seconds then when you look up a video on our phone and it takes longer than 30 seconds we get angry.
Everybody wants things to happen fast, but if you’re going to do a successful long term online business you have to take things one day at a time and expect it to be a long road. But also, and this is really critical here, expect to fail because failing is good.
As long as you learn from your failures and you fall forward, you get up, try again, and use what you learned from your previous experiences to help make this time better then failing is a good thing.
How much time off do you get or take?
I don’t really necessarily have time off, but I have a very, very flexible schedule. So I can take a two week vacation and not even worry about any of my online businesses, since they would still be working for me.
So I don’t have paid time off or vacation hours, but I have the ability to walk away from the business at any time and know that business is still running and can come back to it when it’s convenient.
What’s a common misconception people have about what you do?
This is funny. When I tell people that I do online business they think I’m doing something illegal. They think I’m in the porn industry or they think that I’m scamming people. And that’s hard for me, especially when you consider my sites are helping people and providing real value.
So, yeah it’s just funny that some people, and it’s mostly the older or people who aren’t really online too much, they are the ones that suspect that I’m doing something fishy.
What are your goals and dreams for the future in this career?
My goal is to be a top example of someone who is making money online by doing something good. A lot of times people associate internet business with people who are scamming people and that’s not what I want to be. I want to be a good example for this industry. The internet marketing industry has kind of had a bad name because of people like that, but I’m trying to change that one day at a time.
Another one of my goals is to get to the point where I have enough income to start a non-profit organization with my wife to help kids in one way or another. We haven’t really talked about the details, but we want to get to the point where businesses are up and running and are generating an income and we both can do exactly what we want to do and help as many people as possible.
What else would you like people to know about your career and what you do for a living?
I guess I would say it’s been a bumpy road. There’s been a lot of times that I have wanted to give up, a lot of times. But it was because I’m doing something that I enjoy doing that I was able to surpass those, to jump over those hurdles, to get through those tough times. It’s really the passion that you have for your projects and the business that you’re doing that’s going to get you through all those tough times. That’s what people who will become your customers or your loyal fans will see. They’re going to see that passion. They’re going to hang onto it and they’re going to become passionate followers and customers who can then help the business take off.