30 Lessons From 7 Years of Building an Online Business

May 2020 marks 7 years since I started smartistU. If you’ve been around for a while you know that I started it back in 2013 as a blog for the purpose of sharing what I was learning as a new manager. I shared what I learned as I experienced it, I had other writers share what they were learning, and I shared interviews with music industry experts. All of which we still do today.

In the beginning, I wanted to name the blog something “Internet friendly” (aka searchable) so I came up with Smart Band Management. It was a toss up between that, or Smart Artist Management, but the prior was a little less of a tongue twister so it won. Where did the “smart” part come from? If you’re up on your Internet biz celebs, you likely know of a guy named Pat Flynn and his blog, Smart Passive Income. That’s where. 😉

Interestingly enough, that ‘smart’ part of the name became the basis for our entire brand several years later. You see, over the years, it became increasingly obvious that we needed a recognizable brand name. My own family couldn’t even remember the name of the blog even though I talked about it daily. So in 2017 when I created and released my first course, I released it under my new “school-like” brand name, Smartist University (SmartistU for short).

Smart + Artist + a twist on Smartest + University to make it clear it was for educational purposes. Because… another issue aside from SBM being challenging to remember, was that we were all-too-often mistaken for a management company, and received an overwhelming amount of “will you manage me” requests. Nonetheless, we kept both websites (SBM + SU) for a couple years, until just two months ago when we merged them together and did a total re-brand to smartistU (yes, with a lower case, ‘s’). You can read much more on that here if you are so inclined.

Now, over the the last decade of my music industry career my day job went from planning album releases and tours and booking song writing and studio sessions, to planning webinars and writing curriculum and sales pages. I went from working full-time in the music industry to… well… working full-time in the online business industry. You know the saying, “work ON the business, not IN the business”?

Well, me working ON the business meant becoming an online business expert. I went from being a music business expert, teaching what I knew about artist management through a blog, to being an online business expert. So, today, in honour of 7 years of smartistU, (though applicable to any industry you are working in), I’m sharing what I know about building a global online business.

An online business that started as a blog with 363 visitors from 23 countries and $0.20 (cents) revenue in it’s first year, and grew into a global media and education platform with 200,000 annual visitors from every single country, with over 25,000 platform users/email subscribers (a lot for a tiny little niche such is artist management), and a few thousand customers/students/ members.

So here we go, 30 lessons from 7 years of building an online education business (about the music business).

1. Mindset is everything

Your business grows and changes as you grow and change as a person. The more you believe in yourself, the more you work on yourself, the more you believe in what you’re doing and don’t look to outside sources for validation, the more you have an abundance mindset, the more successful you become. You have everything inside of you to get to where you want to go, you just need to start with mindset.

2. People only take you as seriously as you take yourself

Stop treating your business as a hobby. Get a real business bank account. Create real packages and real, high-value offerings. Act like a CEO. Don’t act like a freelancer novice. Don’t let other people decide on your pricing for you. You decide on your pricing. Your metrics help you adjust. Not people’s individual opinions.

3. Allocate your money like the professional businessperson that you are

Put aside 15% of every single dollar for taxes. Put aside 5% for profit savings/shares. Choose a percentage for your personal (owners) compensation and stick to it. Choose a percentage for your operations and expenses and stick to it. Have actual pay days and stick to them. When you hit $250k annual revenue, adjust those percentages.

4. Learn to work ON the business not IN the business

You got into business because you’re an expert at something. But your job quickly becomes about operations, finances, marketing, technology, budgets, and sales. Learn how to do all of it and track everything you learn so you can delegate it faster.

5. Diversify your revenue streams

Cheap subscription-like products are so tempting because you want to help your audience for less, but they are not worth it unless you have 5000 recurring members at the least. The less buyers you have, the higher priced your offering needs to be (and higher value it needs to be). Consider how you can offer all of it. For easy math: 1 buyer for $10k/mo or 10 buyers for $1000/mo, or 1000 buyers for $10/mo? It’s much easier to find one high paying client/customer, but it’s also smarter to offer different products at all of the above to diversify your revenue streams.

6. Always focus on providing value & results to the customer/client

Do everything you can to offer the greatest value to the other side and help them see some sort of transformation that is very important to them. And then find more people who will value you. The higher the value you provide, the higher you can charge for your services. The cheaper your products and offerings, the less your customers value you, and the more maintenance they are. Think about the t-shirt you buy for $20 vs the t-shirt you buy for $200. You’re going to treat that $200 shirt like gold because you value it more.

7. Great design makes a difference in ROI

No matter what they tell you, great design and great imagery make a difference in your ROI. “Marketing over Mastery”. Especially in today’s day and age where we have so many tools that make design so easy for the non-designer. We expect high quality.

8. Create a real brand

Create a name people remember. A hub for your niche. Differentiate yourself from your competitors. Be the place everyone wants to go. Again, design is a large part of this. But so is the culture and feeling and perceived value surrounding the brand.

9. Getting notable experts involved has a big ROI

Having a digital magazine with experts and celebrities on the cover makes a huge impact in credibility and trust, and therefore customers. Having notable guest expert speakers as well. Any way to involve experts from your industry in your free and paid offerings.

10. It’s going to be a mess

As you grow and figure out new systems and ways of offering things digitally, it’s going to be an administrative and technological mess. Embrace it.

11. Metrics are key

Measuring metrics are incredibly important. You must keep track of every little change you make in order to know what exactly is working. Example: you build a landing page. You send people to it. Track how many people convert vs. traffic (on whatever your call to action is). Try changing ONE THING on that page, like the headline. Track conversions vs traffic. Change the tagline. Track conversions. Change the button colour. Track conversions. Do this for every single thing you do not just landing pages.

12. Focus on one thing

Don’t scatter yourself all over the place. Focus on one thing that you do very well and go hard. Then consider adding in other things when you’ve mastered that. Let go of what isn’t working. Focus on what is working and constantly adapt.

13. Get closer to your customers

Know your customers deeply. Everything about them. Especially in online education because there’s a big disconnect. Go out of your way to have 1:1 conversation with your customers/members/fans, it makes a huge difference.

14. Copywriting is key

Since you’re not speaking verbally to humans about their problems and desires and how your offerings can help them solve their problems (or not!), you have to study the crap out of your customers and portray these problems and desires and solutions in writing. Become amazing at that or hire an expert copywriter.

15. Video adds trust

And therefore, also increases sales. Video letters on the sales pages, as well as free video trainings like YouTube or Facebook or IGTV’s, etc. give your potential customers a better understanding of you, your expertise, your teaching style, and makes the decision easier for them to invest with you.

16. Facts tell, stories sell

Tell your story. Tell your customers stories. Where were you before? Where did you go? Where are you now? Where were your customers before? Where did they go (to you)? Where are they now? You need to tell the story first, then introduce the facts (of your offerings). Customer transformation is key. Transform your customers lives, get them to share about it, and use that to transform more lives.

17. It takes a long time, have patience

Things take way longer than expected 90% of the time, in 90% of cases. People who pop up overnight are the exception, or they had major capital to launch with, or they spent a decade behind the scenes building their business. They say it takes 7-10 years to build a business of true significance and worth, and as we enter year 8, I’m finally just starting to feel we have built a significant business.

18. You’re going to have doubters

And it feels so good to prove them wrong, but it’s not about you, it’s about them. If everyone listened to their doubters, there’d be no such thing as innovation.

19. Profit over revenue

Online courses are a great way to keep profit margins high. Just don’t spend it all on advertising.

20. Stay grateful

Every. Single. Customer. Is something to be grateful for.

21. Stop and smell the roses

As often as you can possibly remember, stop and appreciate the journey you are on. There is no destination. You’re not going to be happier when you get to some non-existent destination. Be happy now. The journey IS the destination. Look back and see how far you’ve come.

22. MRR

Monthly. Recurring. Revenue. Find ways to earn monthly recurring revenue from as many sources as possible.

23. Email lists

Get your people on your email list!! It’s the only way to knock on everyone’s door in mass form. It’s the most efficient marketing strategy, with the highest conversion rates.

24. Don’t buy on rented land

Skill Share, Facebook, Instagram, etc. are all marketing means to an end. They should all be used to expand your reach, with the goal of getting them back on your own land. Aka. Your email list, and/or your own user platform on your own website. Any of those social/rented land platforms could change or go away at any time. An email list does not go away, your own platform does not go away, your own brand does not go away.

25. Create systems

Do you think MacDonald’s just wings it from memory every time they open a new store, purchase equipment, train staff, and make their food? No. There is a very very very specific system in place so that every single time there are no questions asked and no time wasted.

Track every single thing you do either by writing it down or filming it or screen recording it. Create training manuals so that your processes are handed to the next person much more efficiently.

26. Existing customers are the most important

Always treat your existing customers with a little extra than your non-customers. Either give them first access, or give them exclusive offerings, always give them a higher level of service and treat them like gold.

Plus, find different ways to solve existing customers problems further and offer them more ways to work with you/buy from you. Not only are you continuing to offer value to your existing customers, it’s also much easier to earn sales from them, from a business perspective. Cold leads convert at a much lower rate than warm leads (aka a true fan wants everything you offer, a potential fan that hasn’t heard about you yet takes more effort).

27. The 80/20 rule is real

20% of your customers are creating 80% of your revenue. 20% of your offerings are creating 80% of the results. Find out who and what those are, and focus there.

28. Delegating is crucial

Start off doing everything yourself but delegating slowly over time is so crucial to your success. As the CEO of your business, your time is the most valuable in higher level tasks. In online business, customer service should likely be the first administrative thing you delegate. Start off doing it yourself so you understand your customers’ frequently asked questions and issues, but over time it will weigh you down mentally and emotionally and your energy is needed elsewhere.

29. Never give up

You have what it takes. Everyone else you see at the top of your industry aren’t necessarily smarter than you or more privileged than you, they likely just had the mindset or started sooner than you. Refer back to point 1.

30. Find your genius and delegate the rest

Figure out what your absolute top-level genius is and do everything you can to work your way up to ONLY working on that genius. You are on this planet to live up to your full potential, and the longer you spend operating in your zone of crap or competence, the longer you’re delaying your true potential and the life of your dreams.

Sign up here to get my GENIUS ZONE TASK AUDIT to own your genius, stop operating in your zone of crap, and start living up to your true potential.

And that’s all for today folks. Thank you very much for reading, I hope you enjoyed, and feel free to comment your (nice only) thoughts down below!

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