photo by Armosa Studios
[smart_track_player url=”http://media.blubrry.com/creativelive/content.blubrry.com/creativelive/PPP-040-LORI_ALLEN_QPS-PROMO-ADDED.mp3″ title=”Lori Allen on Connecting With & Nurturing Customers” social=”true” social_twitter=”true” social_facebook=”true” social_pinterest=”true” ]
Tara: Hey everyone, welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit. I’m Tara Gentile, your host, and together with CreativeLive, we explore the unique strategies that creative entrepreneurs use to take control of their lives, profit from their passions, and pursue what’s truly important to them.
Today, I’m talking with Lori Allen, the director of Great Escape Publishing, which publishes nearly 30 home study programs, including the Ultimate Travel Writers program for retirees who want to pursue making money from their travels. She’s worked with over 3000 budding travel writers and photographers to help them meet that goal. Lori and I talked about her intrapreneurial journey, including helping the direct response marketing company she works for take their snail mail efforts online. We also discussed the different types of offers Great Escape creates and why they create them, her process for creating compelling ads and copy, and the surprising thing she’s learned helping retirees acquire a new set of skills. Lori Allen, welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit. Thank you so much for joining me.
Lori: Thank you for having me.
Tara: Absolutely. So I love your story, because it’s an intrapreneurial story, not a traditional entrepreneurial story. Can you tell us how Great Escape Publishing came to be?
Lori: Sure. Yeah, it is a unique, it’s a unique business. So I took a job out of college from an ad that I answered on Monster.com, and it was for a small publishing company down in south Florida, and they were looking for a marketer, and I had done some marketing in college. Nothing real world, but you know, just the average college experience, and I knew that that’s what I wanted to be. I knew that someone, one of my mentors when I was growing up, told me that if I wanted to make the most money, and at the time, money was very important to me. It’s not as important now when I look back and reflect, but at the time, I thought I’m gonna be a millionaire, right, and that … their advice was if you want to make a lot of money, you need to put yourself in a position where you’re in charge of someone else’s money, you know, where you’re bringing in sales, because if you bring in money, they have to pay you more. You know, expenses are meant to be kept down, most jobs are expenses, and if you’re in marketing, however, you’re not an expense, you’re a profit-maker, and if you make profit for others, they’ll pay you well.
And so I knew I wanted to go into marketing, but I didn’t really know how or what, and I saw this ad on Monster.com, and it was for a company in south Florida, and south Florida has great weather all year round and a beautiful beach, and so I was like yeah, count me in, that will be the job for me. But when I got there, they were a direct marketing, a direct mail company. So at the time, they were mailing what we lovingly call junk mail, and I was like, ooh, you know, maybe that’s not really what I want to do for in my life is write and create junk mail. However, I did meet one of the consultants for that company who is an amazing man and still my mentor today, and he’s very charismatic, he’s very well-known in our industry, and in the interview, I just knew that I wanted to work for that guy. I wanted to ride his coattails for the rest of my life. Like I just wanted to just, you know, follow him around with a notebook and a pen and a paper and just write down everything he knows, and I … I think we see the world similarly, so I was really just attracted to that.
So anyway, I did take the job, and one of the first things that I got to do was to bring them online. So back then, everything was in the mail. We didn’t have eBooks. We didn’t even have a website at that time. You know, we were all using AOL and CompuServe email addresses, and so you know, it was my job to create a website and to figure out how … how we could get our, what was working in the mail to work online, and I think that put me in a really good position, because no one had ever done it before. There were no classes, there were no books, there were no, you know, workshops or events that you could go to. There weren’t even that many people to talk to even in our industry about it. Everybody was starting. Everybody was testing a million different things, and that just made it, well, it made it fun. It also made it very hard, because no one knew the right way. We were just throwing stuff at the wall to see what stuck. And so after about a couple years, it was kind of like that commercial that you’ve seen on TV, you know, years and years ago where the company puts up an ad on the internet and they’re waiting around their computer for their first order and then they get it and they all high-five, and then the second order comes in and they’re like woohoo, and then the third and then the tenth and then the fiftieth and then the hundredth and then the two-hundredth, and they’re like oh my gosh, and you just see them, like, sink, and just like how are we going to handle 200 orders? You know, like, this … it just kind of took off, and that’s kind of what happened to us. You know, we … when we went forward with our first real ad, our first real web ad, I think we got more orders overnight than we had in the whole year to that date.
Tara: Oh my word.
Lori: Yeah. So while exciting, it was also very stressful. You know, I was in my early 20s, and didn’t know a thing about web marketing, didn’t know a thing about marketing, didn’t know a thing about, you know, running a business or how things were fulfilled or printed or, you know, because back then, all of our products were printed, and so we basically had to restructure the entire company for where this was headed, and we grew very, very fast, and because of that, I gained a lot of knowledge very, very fast. So after about a year or two, you know, again, I didn’t think that I … I was in my 20s, I wanted to be a 20-year-old. I didn’t want to be a business owner and a person who restructures organizations and deals with shipping and printing and, you know, all of those things. I was just kind of forced into that role with the speed at which we grew, and so I wanted out, and they just … they couldn’t really let me go, because you know, I just knew too much, and they didn’t, we just weren’t capable of continuing the speed that we were going if I left. Like I didn’t have things written down. I didn’t … it was all in my head. You know, we had relationships that we built things on, and all of those relationships belonged to me in a way. So you know, they kept saying, “What do you want?” and I kept saying, “I want to be 20 and not running a business,” and that just, that answer didn’t fly with them, and finally, you know, like, “What do you want?” And I was like, you know what, I want to do this, but I want to do it for my own thing and in my own way, and they were just so great. They were … you know, I mean, and honestly, I had three years of proving myself, so it wasn’t like they just gave me the world. No, I had, you know, I had all this experience, and they knew that I had done it for them, so they were happy to let me start my own division of their company, and so that’s how it kind of started. I started for them, I got all this great experience, they mentored me, they coached me, they helped me, they gave me all the resources that I need, and then they let me start my own division. So it’s kind of an entrepreneurship, but with the backing of … with the backing of all my best mentors and bosses and coaches, so it’s really lucky and I owe them a lot and I’m very grateful.
Tara: Awesome. So tell us a little bit more specifically about what Great Escape Publishing is. What do you guys create? Who do you market to? What is the business that you now run within this bigger company?
Lori: Sure. So now, you know, the original idea was basically any kind of resource you would need to get paid to travel. So that would be, you know, back then, these things were unheard of. This idea of becoming a travel writer was unheard of. No one … everybody had a staff writer. There were no freelance travel writers, but there was a small niche market of publications who needed articles from freelancers. They didn’t … they were too small to have a staff person, or they were too widespread. International Living is a great example. Back then, 15, 16 years ago, they were publishing articles about retiring and living overseas in Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize, Panama, Costa Rica, but Americans weren’t really going to those places 15 to 16 years ago, but there was a small pocket of retirees who were, and realized that on a very small retirement income, $600-$700 a month, they could live like a king in these places, and so they didn’t want their staff writers to go and live in these places. You know, they’d have to have a ton of staff writers to do that. So instead, they wanted to train regular retirees, just everyday people who were not writers how to write for them, and they weren’t the only one. And there was this whole niche of small publications who needed travel writers, and they didn’t want to hire a staff writer. They wanted their writers to be all over the world and to come in with stories and that were unique and that weren’t in the pages of National Geographic or Conde Nast or Travel and Leisure.
So that’s kind of where we started, and with the travel writing program, How to Be a Travel Writer, and the people that found us, you know, in my mind, when I was in my 20s, I thought this is me. I want to be a travel writer, and there are other 20-year-olds like me who want to be travel writers, and I’m going to find them. It took me a few years to realize that the audience found me, I didn’t, you know, it isn’t the 20-somethings that … I mean, they do. They want to be travel writers, but it’s this retiree group, these people who have lived long careers and now they’re looking to do something else in retirement. Several of them are very well established in their careers. You know, they were nurses or doctors or realtors or carpenters or architects, and you know, they did that for 30 to 40 years, and then they got into retirement, and they’re like, “This is it? I’m just supposed to sit on a rocking chair and drink ice tea?” You know, like that’s just not … not how they saw their life going, and they’re healthy, and they’re ready to see the world, but not on a bus tour. You know, they don’t really want to be herded like cattle through the Eiffel Tower. They want to experience a place. So our market, we have all these get paid to travel programs, and retirees are our biggest audience. Again, that’s not how I saw it when I first started this division. I thought I was going after people more like myself, but yeah, they found me, and then now, today, I’d say that’s 80-90% of our audience is 50 and older. They’re either already retired or soon-to-be retired. They’re healthy, they want to see the world, they want to see the world in a unique way, and that’s what we give them. So on the surface, we’re a publishing company of all of these products, but underneath, we’re giving people a second life, and that comes with confidence and prestige and power and all the things that they had in their first life now in retirement.
Tara: Yeah, absolutely. That’s perfect. And I want to talk all about … I want to talk more about how you niched down into seniors and how all sorts of different things from what you just said, and I’m having a hard time deciding which question I want to ask next, but I think it would probably be helpful for everyone who’s listening to actually get a rundown on the types of products and in-person experiences that you guys offer, because it’s not all information marketing. You guys do some really unique things in terms of both online and offline live workshops, actual travel excursions. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Lori: Yeah, definitely. So you know, we have the home study course. There’s two … there’s two kinds of travelers, right? There’s the armchair traveler. There are people who like to read about going to all of these places, but maybe they know or maybe they don’t know that they’re actually never going to do it. Some of them do know. Some of them know they love to read, but that they’re never going to leave home. And then others think they will one day, but they don’t. And I think the same is true in publishing. There’s, you know, the people who will buy a home study program and want to read things in a book and they want everything printed out, and they have this, you know, what they’re buying is the dream. Right? They’re not buying a travel writing course. No. They’re buying a dream to become a traveler and to go all over the world and have people roll out the red carpet for them and to see the world in a unique way and to have their stories published in glossy magazines that they can frame on their wall and share at cocktail parties, and you know, when their friend says, “Oh, what are you doing this weekend?” “Well, I’m off to Paris, you know, and then it’s to Belize.” So there’s those who want the printed course and who are buying the dream.
And then there’s this whole other side of the business where people want, you know, they just learn more hands on. So they’re the ones who are going to come to a live event or join us online for a webinar. Sometimes, we’ll hire experts to take them through their personal process, because you know, it’s just like anything else. Like when you have a cook, one chef is going to prepare meals this way and another chef will prepare them this way. And one artist is going to paint this way and another artist is going to paint this way. Travel writing and photography are exactly the same thing. No two people do it alike. So we might hire an expert to walk them through their particular process. You know, what it looks like to go from never having owned a camera to this is my full-time living, and some people are outdoorsy and some people like to shoot, you know, items that don’t move on a white background, so everybody’s different. So we’ll have … so we have things for the people who like to stay at home, and we have things for the people who like to get out. We also have this small group of our audience who just use us as a travel club. I don’t think they have any interest in taking better pictures or writing about anything, but they had that interest at one time, and then just liked to travel this way. And so they’re just like, you know, I don’t feel like planning my vacations this year, I’m just going to go wherever you guys go, and that’s fine, too, you know. I enjoy traveling with those people. We don’t really, you know, we teach those things on the ground, but we don’t make, you know, make everybody do it.
Lori: That’s not, you know, it’s just supposed to be fun and it’s nice, because you go away on a vacation, but you also come home with a skill, and I think that … for the same price that you would pay for a normal vacation. It kind of runs the gamut in terms of products. It could go from anything from a live event to a recording of a live event to a home study program for the people who want to stay at home.
Tara: Cool. Can you give us sort of just the general breakdown between, you know, like the percentage of revenue that comes from more information products, either the recordings or like the programs that you do at home versus the in-person experiences and travel excursions?
Lori: Sure. I mean, I haven’t looked at those numbers like that specifically, but I think that it would be … Well, of course, the events are going to have a high gross, right?
Lori: Because we sometimes charge anywhere from, you know, $699 for a one-day event all the way up to, you know, this one coming up in Africa, some people are paying, you know, close to $7000 to come to Africa and, you know, for 12 days or 8 days, but the expenses on Africa and the expenses on the one-day event are so high, you know, you would typically not net, you know, we would love to net 20% from those events. I don’t know that we always do, and sometimes, we don’t expect the event to break even at all.
Lori: Because what will happen is we’ll bring a whole bunch of people there. The lower we make the price, the more people we fill in the room, right?
Lori: So you know, we could run a $699 event and get 200 or 300 people if we wanted to, but then we wouldn’t make any money on that at all. There would be no way that we could do it that cheaply, fill that many people, and feed them, and pay for rooms, and you know, speaking rooms and hire experts to come and talk. Like we wouldn’t make any money on that, but we would hope that while they were there, they would sign up for Africa, or they would sign up, you know, to join one of our clubs or organizations or buy some products. So it’s always a tricky thing with events. Like they can have a high gross, but not a very high net, but maybe you don’t need them to. Maybe you have backend stuff that you can get, you know, your money’s worth that way. So it’s hard to say exactly which of our products are the most profitable. You know, always, always, if you can sell an eproduct that’s like a course or audios or videos or something that you create one time and then you can reproduce it and sell it with different promotions and different ads and different experts, the more you can reproduce what you’ve already created, that’s where the money is, right? The money is not in events.
Lori: That is not a good business model. But events are what make people like you. You know, you have face-to-face interaction. This is how you build an audience. This is how you keep in touch with them. This is how you prove that you’re real. You know, some people … there’s a lot of scammy stuff online, and even, you know, with our marketing, we have to hit people pretty hard. Like nobody wakes up in the morning, especially a retiree. No retiree wakes up in the morning and says, “I want to be a travel writer today. I’m just going to go online and Google how to be a travel writer.” That doesn’t happen.
So like what we have to do is we have to assume that they’re on Facebook or they’re looking for something else, and then we have to be like, “Hey you, you right there. Yeah, you, you know, 50 years and older, come to me. Look at this. I’ve got this course on travel writing.” They’re like, “Yeah, right.” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, you know, you can just travel around the world and people will pay you to write about the things you see and do,” and they’re like, “Whatever, you must be kidding me.” And then, you know, you have to like … and then, then they go and they look you up, and they’re like, oh, well, you know, this company, they’ve been to Africa, they’ve been to, you know, right now, they’re in Peru, and they’re in Vietnam, and look at all these other people that look just like me, and they’re out there having fun, and maybe I could do this after all.
You know, so events give you that, they give you an extra level of credibility and I think that’s super important today, because you know, us marketers have the struggle of, like, you know, how do you be not scammy? How do you be not in their face, you know, with bold promises, but at the same time, get them to react and act when they don’t, you know, they’re so bored, and they’ve seen so much, and you know, you really … you just have to … like when you’re writing, it’s a fine line between being in their face and actually reaching through the computer and grabbing them by the shirt and being like, “I’m telling you, this works. You know, you’re going to love your life after this.” And then you make them do something, and they’re so glad for it, but I do … but you have to be strong, and I know I’m kind of hitting on a bunch of different topics here, but I feel like the events for us give me that power. They give me the power to say, “Look, you know, I’m serious about this, and this can literally change your life. Look at all these thousands of people’s lives who we’ve changed. Look at this.” And they give me that power, but also, give me this, you know, to back up and say, “And I’m not kidding. These are real people. Look, you can find them on Facebook.” Like look, here are pictures of all of us, like I’m not making this up, and I think events give me that. It’s also where the majority of our success stories come from, because again, you know, coming back to the how people learn, there are some people who want things to be printed out, and they want, you know, to learn from a book, but so many people learn better on the ground.
You know, I have this little joke, I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, but maybe you’ve heard it before, but do you know the different between education and training?
Lori: Okay, well, then which one would you rather your kids have? Sex education or sex training? And you know, like that is kind of the difference between a book and coming to an event, right? Because a book is education. When you come to an event, you actually get to try it, and you get feedback, and that’s what training is, and when you get that … that ability to try and then you get feedback, it just propels you to a whole ‘nother level. But you can read a million books about how to play the guitar, but if you never pick up a guitar, you’re never going to learn how to play. And you know, everything else is just like that, too. I think people … some people do go through our home study programs and they go on to be travel writers, and that’s great, but most of them come from our live events.
Tara: Oh, I love that point so much, because I say I run a training company, not an education company.
Tara: And for that very same reason, is because our … everything that we offer is built around getting hands on with what you’re doing and getting feedback on it, whether it’s feedback in the form of, you know, you go off and do an experiment, and you see what the real feedback is, or whether you get feedback from me or one of our other trainers, you know, that’s super important to me. So I love that point. I also really love the point that, you know, that the experiences that you offer, the live events that you offer are as much about credibility as they are about either marketing or even just making revenue to begin with. Because I’m a huge fan of building products for marketing purposes, and getting people to pay for marketing, but I’ve never really thought about it as credibility building before, and I think absolutely, that’s huge.
Tara: That’s huge.
Lori: No, it’s so big. And then, you know, once people meet you face-to-face, then, you know, especially if you’re likeable, it might not work so much if you’re not so likeable, but you know, I think then you can talk to them differently.
Lori: It helps me, too, to write back. You know, the courses and the home study programs are the bread and butter, right? That’s where the biggest net comes from, that’s where, I mean, if we could just sell those all day, our job would be easy, but the events are fun, the events are where we actually get to meet people. They change the way that we market future things. You know, like, while we’re meeting people, we see that several of them all have the same problem. They all are struggling with this one thing. Well, then that gives us the next idea to build the next product or run the next event. Or several of them are all interested in this, you know, one thing that I didn’t even know they were interested. So you know, events give you that ability to just get to know your audience better. You just have to be careful, because the audience that is at the event is not necessarily the same audience that you’re writing to at home. You know, they’ve paid a lot more money, and they’ve taken a lot more action to get there. So they are a tiny bit different than the people who haven’t taken action, and who haven’t paid money, and haven’t paid that kind of money at home. So you do have to be a tiny bit careful.
Lori: But typically, they do give you a good eye into your audience.
Tara: Yeah. I want to ask you more about that in just a second, but I also want to make … I want to emphasize one other point that you made earlier, which is that in your market, as in so many markets for the people that are listening, people aren’t getting up one day and Googling how to be a travel writer, and you have to find kind of sideways paths into their attention to help them even see that this is a possibility and an opportunity.
Tara: And so for all of the, you know, all of the artists, the coaches, the wellness providers that are out there that are doing something innovative and different, you can’t rely on people coming to you for that thing. You need to, you know, find the other things that they’re interested.
Tara: That give you an in to talk about what you do.
Lori: Definitely. Definitely. And I do see this, you know, again to piggyback on that, I do see in marketing copy a lot, some people will play the other side. They’ll play the negative side. You know, “I can see why you wouldn’t want a coach.” You know, they’ll write that in their copy, but you might not want them because of this, this, this, and you know, when you do that, when you have to reach through someone’s computer and grab them and say, “Listen to me.” You know, like, “I’m the best thing for you,” you don’t have to play that negative side. They’re playing that for you already.
Lori: You don’t have to worry about that. Like, but I do see that a lot in coaching and, you know, other things, too. I do think that you have to keep in mind, you have to keep positive, and you have to keep in mind how much they’re really pulling back, and how much more you have to push if you want … because the truth is, like, nobody listening to this podcast is creating things that people don’t want, really?
Lori: You know, like, and if they did, like, eventually, they would find their way to what people do want. Like, we all want to help people. We all, if … if I showed up at one of my workshops and everybody told me that one of my programs was bad, I wouldn’t keep publishing it. Like, you know, we all want to do the best thing, and we all want to help people, so you really have to believe in that. Like you have to… and if it’s not, and you don’t believe in it, well, then you gotta stop. You just shouldn’t be pushing that thing. So anyway, I guess point is just, you know, keeping on the positive and really pulling hard. You gotta hit ’em harder than you think you would. These people are bored on the other side of your ads, and you gotta not only get them to wake up, you gotta get them to wake up, you gotta get them to listen to, and then you gotta get them to reach in their pocket and get out their wallet, and that takes … that’s a hard sell, you know?
Tara: Absolutely. So all right. I’m gonna … I’m throwing out where I thought I was going with this.
Tara: Because I want you to talk more about that, because I think this is going to be extremely helpful to people. We know people, like you said, are bored on the other side of our ads or our social media updates, or whether, you know, no matter what it is. I’d love that you said that to me the last time we talked, that you have to keep in mind that the reason people are scrolling through Facebook is not because they’re super engaged, it’s because they’re bored out of their minds.
Lori: It’s they’re bored, mmhmm.
Tara: So can you walk us through your thought process for creating an ad or a campaign to, you know, to get the attention of someone who is bored and disengaged, but potentially interested in what you have to offer?
Lori: Right. Okay. So first things first, people are not bored on Facebook because they have nothing to do. They are bored because they have too much to do, in most cases, so they are … they have so much to do, and they have so much going on in their personal life that they have to tune out all of that stuff. They don’t want to be bothered by any of it. They don’t know where to start. So they go on Facebook. So this is the person that you’re talking to, right? Like he’s too much to do, a list a mile long, doesn’t know where to start, has, you know, they want to diet, they want to exercise, they want goal setting, they want someone to show them how to minimize their list, and they’re not doing any of those things, and instead, they’re on Facebook. You know, first and foremost, whenever you are writing ads, you have to test. Like I can tell you what works for us, and then you’ll go and try it and make it work for you, and it’s not gonna.
You know, like we have … I have this wonderful marketer working for me now. Her name is Lisa, and she comes to me with these questions: Which one of these things do you like better? And you know, we have this thing in my office, like, I have opinions, I have lots of them, if you ask me, I’m going to tell you my opinion, but if you don’t want it, don’t ask, because every time I … every time you ask, I’m going to give you something, and it might not be what you want to hear. So she comes to me with all these ads: Which ones of these do you like best? And I told her which one I liked, and there was one in particular that I strongly disliked, and I was like not that one, you know, these are the ones. So what did she do? She went back and tested the ones I liked and the one I strongly disliked. I love her. You know, in her mind, she said later, like, I … I put this one in here because you had such a strong reaction to it. I just thought, “What would happen?” She’s like, “I knew you would be mad, but that ad won.” And that was the one I didn’t want up there. So you know, that just goes to show, like, you know, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. This is my 16th year testing ads. Like not on Facebook, of course, but you know, around and about for different products and different ways and different affiliates and stuff, and so I have a pretty good sense, usually, for what will work and what won’t, and you know, I’m wrong. I’m wrong sometimes. I’m wrong all the time, in fact. So you just have to, you know, first and foremost, what works is what you test, and your audience says works. That’s what works.
But the big thing for me, and this is something that I’ve known all my career, but just was rebrought up. In fact, I think it’s been brought up three or four times, and it didn’t resonate with me the way it’s resonated with me in these last two years is this idea of direct and indirect. That if the audience does not know you, if they don’t know you and they don’t know your product, you have to be pretty indirect with your ads, and by that, I mean, you can tell a story. You can quote facts and figures. You can send them to an article first, instead of your promotion, but whatever it is, like you can’t, you know, you can’t run an ad that says 50% off of a travel-writing program. They don’t know what travel writing is. They don’t know who Great Escape Publishing is. They don’t know me, they don’t know, you know, they’re not going to pay 50% off. They’re not going to pay $10. They don’t know … they don’t know any of those things. So I think that’s the biggest mistake that I see a lot of people making. I see people who have businesses like potentially life coaches or you know … you know, if you’re going to have a party planning business or a, you know, catering business, or anything like that, if people don’t know you and they don’t know your product, you know, 50% off deals or price deals, anything like that isn’t going to work, you need to be much more indirect. And on the other side, if your audience does know you, then you need to be very direct. If I ran an ad for 50% off a travel writing program to everybody on our newsletter file who’s been following me weekly or daily for years, they’re going to jump on that like white on rice, right?
Lori: Because I can be super direct, super short, super to the point. I don’t need to tell them how great travel writing is, I don’t need to tell them how many places they can go in a single year, I don’t need to tell them stories about all of our members who have had success with this. They already know that stuff. They just want a cheap, good deal, and you can be very up front about that. So indirect, you can use stories, you can use articles, you can use, what was the other thing I said? Oh, facts and figures. And if you were going to make a direct offer, you can put a big bold promise up at the top, you could put money, an offer, you know 50% off or whatever, or you could put a problem/solution is kind of like where you put the problem and then a solution. You just have to be careful with that, because again, that kind of borderlines indirect, where they might know the problem, but they might not … they might not trust you to be the solution to that problem. So anyway, yeah, first, if I was going to talk about, or I was going to guide someone into a Facebook ad, you know, the very first thing, first and foremost, you gotta test. You gotta test a bunch of things. Bright, bold colors. Videos work, you know, little snippets of video works. Just taking text and turning it into a video works. You know, beautiful pictures work. You know, we test a few things. I can’t tell you that they did gangbusters, but calling people out based on what the emotions that we think that they have on Facebook. You know, “Are you bored at work? Wouldn’t you rather be in Paris or on this beach?” You know, because we know that’s what they’re already thinking. We tried that, and it did pretty well. You know, those kinds of things work, but will they work for you? You don’t know. You don’t know until you test. So you gotta test, you gotta test a ton of things. Throw a bunch of stuff at the wall, see what sticks, but do keep in mind this direct and indirect thing. You know, you can’t go out with a big, bold promise if nobody knows you and nobody knows your product, but you’re also leaving money on the table if you’re going after an audience who does know you, and then you’re hitting them very indirectly, you know, with a story lead or facts and figures and stuff that they already know, or stuff that, you know, they’re just too bored to read. You could just hit them over the head with a money offer, and you know, they’d be in your hands.
Tara: Yeah, that’s where I’ve realized that I’ve been going very, very wrong in recent years.
Lori: Everybody, right?
Lori: I do it, too. I look back, you know, like even just from six months ago, and I’ve been talking about direct and indirect for awhile now, and this is not a … this is not my secret. You know, this is something that direct mail people have known for years and years, and it’s been in our industry for a really, really long time. And like I said, it’s been brought up several times, but you hear different things every year, right?
Lori: And even, like I said, six months ago, I’m looking back at something that we ran, I’m like, oh, well, no wonder that didn’t work. Look at this. You know, like this could have been … this was for our VIP program that we have, we sent it only to our best buyers, and we didn’t come right out and tell them what we wanted them to do. Like instead, we led them down this long story about how nice it would be to be traveling with them in all these great places. We should have just come out and said, “Look, this week, you get $1000 off. Done.” And it would have worked. You know, that’s what worked in the past. So, you know, this direct/indirect thing is something that you have to practice. It’s something you have to keep in mind all the time with everything that you do. It’s not something that … that you’re just going to get, and then it’ll be with you forever. No, it takes practice.
Tara: Absolutely. Yes. I practice it every single day. How many concepts do you guys come up with when you’re preparing a new ad or a new sales page? Is there sort of like an average number that you shoot for?
Lori: Hmm. No. I mean, different things, I think Facebook probably only lets you test three at a time, right? I think. It’s been awhile, because we have one that’s up there now that’s doing so well, we can’t really test anything else, because they won’t let you test two things to the same audience. So we would either have to take down the one that’s working really well in order to test something else, and we’re not doing that.
Lori: So we’re just letting it ride. So you know, it’s been awhile since I’ve had my hands in the Facebook stuff, and you know, Google’s just changing the way that they are doing their AdWords now, so we’re … our Google stuff is not doing … wasn’t doing well, and now, we just have to rethink all that given their … the changes that they’re making. So yeah, it just depends. When we have … when we run ads to affiliates, like if we were to buy space in budget travel or something like that, you know, you would buy one and it would run in a month, and then, you know, you need to wait for those results before you bought another one. We’re testing now, and you can test two things, like one against something else, but the audience isn’t big enough. So that’s the other thing I think that marketers don’t realize is that testing requires lots of orders, right? Like if one ad brings in 16 orders and one ad brings in 14 orders, the 16 order ad did not win. Two people do not make that a statistically valid sample. That just means that, you know, test B went into the trash can more than test A. You know?
Lori: Like it doesn’t mean anything. Two people’s not a big enough sample size. So a lot of times, and especially in these smaller niche markets where you’re looking at small magazines and online websites, you just don’t have an audience big enough to test more than two things, one thing against another. So that makes it hard. That makes it hard. So we don’t usually have, like we have different, when I say we have a lot of irons in the fire, I’m talking about we have some things over on Facebook, some things working to our affiliate ads, some things working up over on Google, maybe we have some things in the mail, maybe we’ve, you know, split our list and we are offering a VIP membership to our multi-buyers, those are people who buy more than one program, while we’re advertising our main course, our travel-writing course or our photography course, to the people who have been on our file for awhile but have never actually bought anything from us. So you know, we may have like all of those things going on at once, all while one or two members of my staff are on location, you know, in Vietnam with a photography group, or in Palm Springs with 100 photographers, and then they’re trying to sell, you know, whatever backend things we have going on there. So we have lots of things going on, but probably, individually, at each one, we’re only trying one thing. Does that make sense?
Tara: Yeah, yeah. No, that makes complete sense. Yeah, thank you.
So you’ve mentioned your team a couple of times, and that’s one of the things that I always like to ask about. So can you give us sort of just a rundown on who makes up Great Escape Publishing at this point?
Lori: Sure. So we have nine. I think there’s nine of us. We have Cayson, who lives in South Florida. She is actually in the office of my parent company, and we do that so they that they can keep a finger on our pulse and we can keep a finger on their pulse and we share information. So she’s in south Florida and she answers our phones and our tickets or all of the emails that come in. She monitors our Facebook pages, she helps our attendees get registered for events, and you know, if they have questions about what to pack or can they extend their stay, and she’ll work directly with our experts to get them that information. And then I am here in Virginia right outside of DC and in Alexandria, and I work from home, and there are three other girls, CC, Alyssa, and Christina, who live in DC, and they commute here to my house twice a week. So we work together twice a week, which is where we get all of our creative stuff done, and our brainstorming, and we work through problems, and you know, do all of that. We also, because we work from home the rest of the time, we also chitchat a lot. We get the majority of our work done when we’re working from home. We get the majority of our chitchatting and talking done when we’re all working together. Jackie used to work here. She moved to Richmond, so she’s not too far away, and she takes the train in every once in awhile to join us, but she works from home in Richmond. Marade is in Ireland, so everything that we do with her is telecommuting, and she does our marketing. So all the promotions that we mail, she’s working with our writers to get them up and make any changes that need to be made, and she also schedules some ads with some of our bigger affiliates, and then Lisa is in Hagerstown, Maryland, and she does all of our Facebook and Google marketing, and Bonnie’s in Portland, Oregon, and she does a lot of our photography stuff. So Bonnie is also a professional photographer, she edits some of our programs, she creates some of our programs, she runs this one of our business, the Breakfast.Club, and so yeah, she just, any kind of time that we want to advertise a photography program or create a new one, Bonnie is the one that we go to for all of that.
Tara: Awesome. Thank you for that. So as we start to wrap up here, there’s one thing that we haven’t talked about that I really wanted to make sure that we got to, which is, you know, you mentioned that you are primarily marketing to seniors, retirees who are either interested in making a second career or at least pursuing this interest in travel writing and travel photography at a substantial level, and you and I have talked before about just how interesting it is to see these people grow and change from whatever their career was before, whatever their role in life was before, into this new role and this new identity. Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve learned watching that transformation happen?
Lori: Hmm. Well, I’ve learned that incredibly confident people become incredibly not confident when they switch, when they come out of what … You know, I think … and this is true for everybody, right? Like nobody likes to be a beginner. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to our generation when we become retirees, because we have our hands in so many different things, and we’re trying so many different things, but their generation, you know, picked a career and then stuck with it for a really long time, and so I think they just have a hard time putting themselves out there. They have a hard time letting them be beginners, letting themselves be beginners. They don’t want to be bad at anything, which I guess is true across all generations, but I see that as something that they’re struggle with. You know, I tell them often that I read somewhere that it takes 7 hours to make a Toyota and 7 days to make a Rolls Royce. And you know, I think they want to jump ahead to the Rolls Royce. They see our experts. They see these amazing photographs. They see these travel writers who are going all over the place, and they just want to jump ahead to that, but they need to let themselves be a Toyota first. You know, like, they need to … it’s not … if you get … you know, it’s the journey, right? I mean, this is what everybody is all about.
I saw this interview with a tightrope walker once, you know, these are … or it’s called like tightlining, I think, and you start by tying a rope by two trees and you walk across it like a tightrope, but then once you get really good at this, people are tying ropes across huge rock formations, like pieces of the Grand Canyon, and they’re walking across a tight rope, across, you know, the Grand Canyon. And she said one of the biggest mistakes that you can make as a tightliner is focusing on the end, because the whole point of tightlining is the journey from the start to the end. Once you’ve gotten to the end, it’s over. And I love that, because it’s the same thing with everything. It’s the same thing with marketing, it’s the same thing with travel writing, it’s the same things with photography. Once you get to the end, it’s over. You know, enjoy this time where you’re just figuring things out and you’re learning, because you can never go back to this. Like this is your beginning. And what better, I mean, we’re very lucky. In travel writing and photography, that journey is pretty fun. We’re not like learning how to clean teeth.
Lori: Or, you know, brush toilets. Like we’re traveling and we’re taking pictures and yeah, so I’d say that’s part of their big struggle is just letting themselves be a beginner and letting themselves go down a different journey and also, pushing aside those people in their life who don’t want them to make any changes or don’t want them to try anything new. So you have a little bit of that.
Tara: Yeah, I love that, and I see that with my clients as well, is that they’re just, they want to skip ahead to the end, and of course, even with entrepreneurship, there is … there is no end. You can’t …
Lori: There is no end.
Tara: You can’t skip ahead. The whole … the journey is the thing.
Tara: And if you expect to be perfect at it from the beginning, if you expect to just get it, you’re going to be very, very, very disappointed.
Tara: Yeah, okay, last question, and this is one that I ask the vast majority of our guests. You are both an executive and a marketer and an intrapreneur, really, an entrepreneur, and you have this amazing creative side to you as well where you love writing and you love taking photographs and you love exploration. How do you balance the roles of creative and executive in your business?
Lori: Yeah, that’s hard, right? Well, it’s lucky for me, because my products are creative.
Lori: So anytime that I’m at a workshop, or you know, whatever, I … it doesn’t look unusual for me to whip out a camera. That’s what everyone else is doing, so you know, I get that there. I also have very young kids, so you know, I get to play in the mud and paint and you know, do all that kind of stuff with them. It is hard, but I do think if you love what you do, like you kind of put your own spin on it anyway. I’d say I probably have it easier than most, just because my products are creative, but yeah, I think it’s always … it’s always hard. Like, right? You know, that’s another big lesson, too, is just that what people think is your job and what is really your job are often two different things.
You know, I think people look at me and they see me riding elephants and photographing lantern festivals and riding in Jeeps in Africa and they think that’s my job. Well, that’s not really my job. My job is first and foremost a marketer. Like, I am writing ads all day long. Like I … my hands are going to fall off, I write so much. And I read so much and I edit so much and I’m constantly trying to improve and see what other people are doing, and you know, I read a ton of books, and … but also, my job is raises and reviews for employees, and it’s, you know, figuring out insurance and tax questions and, you know, can we take Australian dollars on this ad from this affiliate. You know, like it’s a lot of technical things that I don’t like, and it is a balance to do more of what I like and not what I don’t like, but I think I’ve just gotten better at hiring people to deal with the things that I don’t like.
Lori: And that’s a lesson you learn … you learn, too. But you do have to understand in this business, like, whether you’re an artist, whether you’re a photographer, whether you’re a coach, you know, you think that’s your job. You think your job is to coach people. You think your job is to take pictures. You think your job is to paint. But it’s really not. It’s to sell your painting. It’s to sell your photographs. It’s to sell your coaching. So you need to just buck up and put on your marketing hat and learn how to do that, because that … that’s the difference between those who make it and those who don’t is the marketing.
Tara: Amen. I totally agree. Lori Allen, thank you so much for joining me today.
Lori: You’re welcome. Thank you so much for having me.
Tara: You can learn more about Lori and everything Great Escape Publishing has to offer budding travel writers and photographers by going to GreatEscapePublishing.com.
Next week, I’ll sit down with Jennifer Lee, founder and author of The Right Brain Business Plan, to talk about her current plan and how it’s helping her to evolve her business, why she decided to retire her successful Right Brainers in Business Video Summit, and how she manages her time as a creative business owner.
Are you surrounded by the right people to help your business succeed? Your support network has a huge impact on your success, your satisfaction, and your ability to achieve your goals. At the Quiet Power Strategy Lab, we get you and your business, we respect your individuality, and we challenge you. The Lab is our entrepreneurial resource library and support community. It’s full of smart, experienced, and savvy business owners who want to help you succeed. Start your free 10-day, all access trial by going to Lab.QuietPowerStrategy.com/People.
That’s it for this week’s episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit. You can download other episodes of this podcast and subscribe in the iTunes store. If you enjoy what you heard, we appreciate your reviews and recommendations, because they help us reach as many emerging entrepreneurs as possible. Our theme song was written by Daniel Peterson, who also edited this episode. Our audio engineer was Jaime Blake. This episode was produced by Elizabeth Madariaga. You can catch up on older episodes in the iTunes store, where new episodes are added every week, and you can learn more by going to CreativeLive.com.
[smart_track_player url=”http://media.blubrry.com/creativelive/content.blubrry.com/creativelive/PPP-024-MICHELLEFIFIS-2016.mp3″ title=”Michelle Fifis on Membership Sites & Team-Building” social=”true” social_twitter=”true” social_facebook=”true” social_pinterest=”true” ]
Tara: Hey everyone. Welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit. I’m Tara Gentile, your host, and together with CreativeLive, we explore the unique strategies that creative entrepreneurs use to take control of their lives, profit from their passions, and pursue what’s truly important to them.
My guest today is Michelle Fifis, the creator of Pattern Observer, and the founder of the Textile Design Lab. Michelle has worked with Columbia Sportswear, Lucy Activewear, Janson Swimwear, and others to develop custom textile design collections. She’s worked with hundreds of designers to launch and grow their businesses through her courses and membership community. Her work has been featured on StyleSite.com, Elle Decor, Nordstrom’s blog, and Print and Pattern.
Michelle and I talked about how she’s grown her team over the last two years to allow her to grow her family, how she turned her blog into a full-fledged company, and how she’s been most successful growing her audience and email list.
Michelle Fifis, welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit. Thanks so much for joining me.
Michelle: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Tara: I am excited to have you here as well. I’m really, really excited to let people see kind of inside your business and just how you’ve made it grow over the last few years. So let’s start before, really, you even had this business that you have now. How did you get started with pattern design?
Michelle: So I actually came to pattern and textile design through fashion design. I was a fashion design major at Stevens College, and I did my summer internship with a fashion designer named Zondra Rhodes, and she hand-paints all of her fabrics that get sewn into garments, and so I walked in on my first day as a fashion designer with that perspective of a fashion designer, and before me, I saw a large studio filled with artists hand-painting her textile designs onto fabric that would be sewed into garments, and my mind was blown. I’ll never forget that vision of seeing people actually painting these designs onto fabric. It wasn’t something that I really knew existed. I didn’t know that was an avenue that I could take my career in, but I just fell in love at that moment with the world of pattern and textile design.
Tara: Wow. That’s a phenomenal story, and I think we all have a better perspective now of why couture garments cost so much as well.
Michelle: Right. It was just funny.
Tara: Yeah, so how do … why and how did you start the Pattern Observer blog then?
Michelle: So I started Pattern Observer in 2010, after I left my full-time, in-house, textile design job with Columbia Sportswear, and as with any freelancer, I had downtime in between my client projects, and my husband actually said, “Hey, you should start a blog.”
And I was like, “Eh, I don’t really like to write,” so, well, it didn’t appeal to me at the time, but once I started blogging, I realized how much of an impact I could have with visuals, and so Pattern Observer really became more of visual eye candy type of blog, rather than a lot of content. And so it started out in that way, and it was also a great way for myself and to prove to my clients that I was staying on top of the latest trends. So when you work as an in-house designer, you have access to all these very expensive trend resources that as a freelance designer just starting out, I couldn’t afford. And so I had to prove to my clients that even though I didn’t have access to those resources, I was basically creating those resources on my own.
Tara: Oh, so the blog really was a tool to support your freelance business, and not something that you were starting as a business in and of itself, per se, right at the beginning.
Michelle: Definitely not. I had no idea that you could make money from a blog or turn a blog into a business. It was really just something fun to do, and I had a client actually ask me how can you, he said, you know, “How can I trust that you know what you’re talking about when it comes to trends?” He said, “I know you can design, because I’ve seen your designs, but how do I know that you’re staying on top of the latest trends?” And I was so taken aback by that question, and so challenged by that question, I guess, in a good way, that I thought, huh, well, I’m just going to prove to you and to the rest of my clients who maybe have thought that but didn’t ask that, that you know, I know what I’m talking about when I direct you in terms of what trends you should be including in your product designs.
Tara: Mm. That is such a fantastic sales lesson, because you know, we talk about overcoming objections when we’re talking about selling, and so often, we just think of that in terms of like frequently asked questions, or you know, how can I tell you that this objection doesn’t really mean anything, or that you know, that it doesn’t apply here, but I love the way you approached actually showing people that their objection was unfounded or that you could easily overcome it. That’s so helpful, I think, for people.
So what did you do to grow your blog at the beginning? Or did you do anything to grow your blog at the beginning?
Michelle: I think, so once I realized, hey, I really like this, and I want people besides my mom and my best friends reading the blog, I purchased advertising on other blogs. That was my big first step into hey, I want to be noticed. I want someone to come read my blog. And it was gaining traction, it just wasn’t happening as quickly as I wanted it to grow. So that was my first step into actively trying to grow my blog.
Tara: Mm. So advertising on other blogs, that’s how we know it was back in the day, right? So what year are we talking about here?
Michelle: That was 2010.
Tara: Ah, yes. I believe I purchased some ads on blogs in 2010 as well, for a different thing. Yeah, no, that’s definitely not something that we talk about doing much anymore, but you know, it was certainly effective at the time. So what kind of metrics were you paying attention to then? Were you look … Were you building an email list? Were you look at like Feedburner stats? What were you paying attention to?
Michelle: I think I had Google Analytics installed. I’m really not sure about that. At that time, I was really focused on comments.
Michelle: And Facebook followers.
Michelle: Those were my two big concerns.
Tara: Awesome. And how has that kind of evolved over the years? What are you really paying attention to metrics wise now?
Michelle: Definitely newsletter subscribers is my number one concern and goal, I guess, for how we are connecting with our community, and I think that’s kind of how my perspective has changed as well. It’s less of how many eyeballs am I getting on everything that I’m producing and all the pieces of content that we’re putting out, and now I focus more on how much are we connecting with people.
Tara: Mm, okay. I want to come back to that, but I don’t want to, I also don’t want to jump the gun.
Tara: So let’s back up a little bit and talk about how your business has really evolved since you first started the blog. So you said that at the beginning, the blog was more of a tool for supporting your freelance business, but now, your blog and the business that’s grown out of it sort of its own thing, right? So how, kind of walk me through that process of evolution.
Michelle: Right. So after … I had been blogging for maybe six months to a year. I can’t remember exactly around what time this started happening. I started getting lots of emails from other designers asking for advice. And it got to the point where I was having to answer, or I was answering so many emails that I didn’t have time to do my freelance work, and I didn’t want to be rude and not respond, but it was just getting to be this struggle, and so I kind of naturally progressed into hey, why don’t we, or why don’t I take these issues that people are having or the questions that they have about this industry and turn them into a course. And so that was the first thought of teaching. I had never thought of myself as a teacher before, and so that’s how we kind of grew into the teaching platform that we really are today.
Tara: Mm. Do you remember where you first heard about online courses? Because I think, you know, it’s been around for a long time in sort of the marketing and online business world, but I know definitely in the creative business world, it took a little bit longer to catch on.
Michelle: So when I first started teaching, I started teaching through another website called Pikaland, and it’s an amazing blog focused on illustration, and so she put a call out for, “Hey, would you like to teach a course, or do you know a teacher who would be perfect for one of our courses?” And I volunteered myself, and she was thrilled to have a pattern and textile designer be represented in her selection of teachers, and so that’s how I, why I developed my first course, was for her site, basically.
Tara: Got ya. Fantastic. I did not realize that that’s where you started teaching. That’s great. So all right. Let’s come back to newsletter subscribers right now. What are you doing right now to grow your email database?
Michelle: So right now, I’m actually very excited about advertising. So focusing more on Facebook advertising to grow our list is something that I have been, I know I’m late to the game on that, and this is not groundbreaking, but for me, it was a little scary to invest money in Facebook. I’m not sure why I had a block against it, but it’s something I worked through, and now I’m really excited with the results that we’re getting. But up until this point, I think we’ve had a lot of success with resources that we can supply to people who are interested in patterns and textile design, and really just design in general. So offering free courses is probably the number one way that we’ve grown our newsletter subscriber list.
Tara: Okay, great. and how are people finding out about those things? Is it social media? Is it through joint ventures? Is it just kind of organically? How’s that happening?
Michelle: In the past, I think it’s just been through Social Media. We used Pinterest and Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, all the big platforms, and so I just really rely on people taking our courses, and then sharing the courses with their community. People get really excited to, you know, share the free courses with their friends and the other designers who they know, and so I think that’s how we’ve grown as quickly as we have.
Tara: Mm. It seems like people are really excited about pattern design, and I know when I first kind of got into the creative industries field, I also had no idea that pattern design was a thing. I don’t know how I thought those designs got on the journals and the fabric and you know, the this and the that, but I had no idea it was a thing. Why do you think that pattern design is kind of so sticky right now?
Michelle: Because patterns are so much fun to design.
Michelle: I mean, they are so much fun, and I think people coming from maybe a more structured design field such as graphic design, when they are given the freedom to design in patterns, I mean, you just develop so much movement and you have so much fun with the motifs that you’re designing. It’s just very freeing for people, and I see that in our membership test site, too. We have a lot of graphic designers come to our site, and I can tell after just a couple exercises, they start to open up and they start to play, and they start to have so much fun, and I think that’s what appeals to so many designers. I also think that patterns are used in so many different markets that people are able to create patterns in their unique style and find a home for them. So for example, if you have a really feminine design style, there are lots of opportunities to design feminine patterns. On the other hand, let’s say you have a more graphic, rigid design style, there’s also plenty of opportunities in that way, so I think people are able to really take how they create designs innately, and then find a home for them.
Tara: Mm. Okay, so yeah, that is fascinating. So you mentioned your membership site. Can you tell us kind of what all the different pieces of your business are right now? How are you generating revenue in different ways?
Michelle: Yes, we have our blog, Pattern Observer, which on its own doesn’t generate any revenue. We don’t sell ads or do sponsored posts or anything like that, but we do hold workshops on the Pattern Observer site, and then we also have our membership site, the Textile Design Lab, and then we … I’ve kept up with my design business throughout the growth of Pattern Observer and the teaching business, and just this year, we’re relaunching our design business and turning it into more of a teaching studio.
Tara: Mm, ooh, tell me more about that.
Michelle: So there are various ways to make money in our industry. You can freelance with clients. So clients will come to you and say, “Hey, I would love a pattern that has a feminine flare to it with daisies in it,” or something like that. And so then you work with the client to develop that custom pattern. The other side of the industry is developing prints and patterns on your own that you come up with, you develop, and then you sell or license the rights to that work, and this is something that I started doing when I first started freelancing, and when the teaching business picked up, I just didn’t have time to balance everything, and I stepped away from that just creating and selling work aspect of the business, and so this year, we really decided to relaunch the studio in a way where we have, we’re offering patterns to buyers in a membership-style aspect. So pattern buyers can join our site and get resources that they need to make better pattern-buying decisions for their products, and also purchase patterns as well. And the teaching aspect of the studio is we are helping so many amazing designers in our textile design lab that I would love to start bringing those designers into our studio, and giving them a real hands-on feel for what it means to work with the studio, work with a client, and hopefully, they’ll stick around after they get comfortable and work within our studio, but they’re also welcome to go off and start their own businesses as well.
Tara: Mm. So I know you’re just relaunching the studio now, so you don’t have firm numbers on this, but what do you see the breakdown being revenue-wise, you know, by percentages between the membership site, the one off workshops that you do, and the teaching studio?
Michelle: So I feel like this year, we’ll probably do about 50% from the Textile Design Lab, our membership site, 25% from the studio, and I’m really interested to see how the studio performs. I don’t know of another design studio membership site concept, so it might be a bust, but I’m excited to try it and see how it works out, and then the remaining percentage from our workshops and our eBooks that we sell.
Tara: Got you. So 50% from your membership site is, I mean, that’s a chunk of change when you’re talking about total revenue. So, and I know a lot of people have, I mean, I know a lot of people are interested in starting membership sites, a lot of people have a lot of bad luck with membership sites. Can you talk about what some of the ups and downs have been as you grow that aspect of your business?
Michelle: Yes. It has been, it was difficult to get off the ground, and we did it very slowly, which is something that I’m very happy that we did. It was not the robust membership site that we have now when we first started. So at first, it was really just a way for people who were taking our workshops and then graduating from the workshops. It was a way for them to stay in touch and stay connected to me. Basically, they could ask questions at any time, and we had a monthly webinar and a monthly tutorial that was released, and that was it. And then as the years went by, we decided, I was actually working with you, and I was getting really drained by the amount of products and courses that I was having to market. We had so many products at that point, and I was really overwhelmed, and so as a way to simplify that business, we took all of our basic, entry-level courses and put them into the membership site. So now when someone joins, they’re able to take those entry-level courses, and then get all the extra bonuses and more advanced content that we add in every month, and I think some of the lows have definitely been dealing with the technology. Figuring out the right platform for myself and for our users, and also figuring out what our members expect from a membership site. There was a disconnect there for a while where I thought getting back to a question or responding to a question within a day or two was a perfect amount of time. It turns out that is not what our members want. They really want that feeling of having myself or a member from our team sitting by them. And so now we implemented an internal, four-hour response time to questions. And so we have each of our team members take shifts, and we respond to the forum in that way, just because that is so important to our members, and if that’s what they need, I’m happy to deliver that for them.
Tara: Wow. Do you do anything to kind of manage expectations within the membership community?
Michelle: We have. We have worked on, this is something that I’m not very good at, is I think explaining the details of how things work. It’s something that I’m working on behind the scenes and in the front of my business, and so we’ve developed more welcome to the membership site documentation, this is how it works, this is where you need to go to access this type of information, and there’s still so much more we can do that I’m excited to add to the site to help that process, but that’s been a big way, I think, that being just really open, and almost giving them a behind the scenes look. Like hey, this is why we work in this way, because these issues will pop up. I think versus just laying out rules hasn’t worked as well for us, but when you explain why certain limitations are present or why we have certain policies, people seem really open to working within those policies as well.
Tara: Yeah, I think that’s such a great point. So it sounds like you’ve really been very intentional about creating an onboarding sequence that allows you to do your best work and allows people to get their best experience out of the game, too. Awesome.
So you’ve mentioned your team a couple of times. Let’s kind of transition into talking about that. Tell me about what your team looks like right now.
Michelle: So we have what I feel is a large team, but it’s probably not that large for a lot of businesses, but everyone who works at Pattern Observer also works as a designer in other ways. So they have their freelance job going on. So we work primarily contract, with contract workers, and so we have Chelsea, who I’ve worked with for five years, which is amazing that we’ve worked together that long. And so she works on client projects, she works in the studio, she also is the community manager for the Textile Design Lab, and she’s really my right-hand woman. We’ve worked together for so long and we think alike, so it’s really easy to communicate with her in that way. I also work with a couple other designers within the studio, and they also help with our social media. That’s something I’ve struggled with is balancing all the different social media platforms, and so I have people who help me with that. So basically, this is something new that we’ve implemented that seems to be working, where each week, I create a marketing guide for our business, because we’re a design blog, so we have lots of design blog posts. It’s not like we’re just publishing one post a week. We normally have four to five posts each week. So that’s a lot of content to share. So each week, I create a marketing guide, which kind of explains each posts and gives a visual that then our team can share across all the different social media platforms is one way that we’ve kept our message cohesive while still allowing me to have some help with all that.
And then with our team, my husband, Ken, works on all the websites and also is really just support. You know, I talk through all my issues with him, and he really helps me and guides me when making large business decisions.
And then I work with a copywriter, Michelle Hunter, who is amazing, and she’s really helped me to grow my business while being so busy with family and other things as well.
Tara: Oh, that’s fantastic. I didn’t realize you were working with Michelle. That’s great. So you mentioned family. You had a baby last year was it?
Michelle: I did. Well, we had our second daughter, Cora, in April, so last year, and then we have a three-year-old daughter, Ruth, as well.
Tara: Okay, all right, awesome. I didn’t think the timeline was making sense in my head. That makes a lot more sense. So those, having babies, obviously, are two huge life events. How has growing your family affected kind of the operations behind your business on a day-to-day basis?
Michelle: It has affected the business tremendously. I mean, having babies is a lot of work.
Tara: It is.
Michelle: And, but I think for me it’s been really, really good in a number of ways, one of which is I had to really streamline our business, and I’m pretty cutthroat now about if I should not be working on something, I find someone else to work on it. Which is why we have so many different people working in our teams. I have to really be strategic with hey, is there someone else who could do this better than I could do this, or if I’m not doing something well, then I know that’s a sign that I need to either pass this off to one of our team members, or look for someone new to add on to our team.
I also think, so right now, I only work three days a week, because our daughter Cora’s only nine months old, and so having that downtime from work, or those days that I am spending most of my time with her, give me time to think a lot about the business, which is great for me, because I’m very impulsive. And so if I have time to make lots of decisions and add on lots of projects, I’ll do that, but if I don’t have time, like I don’t know, then I can really think through my decisions and make sure that they’re in line with our larger goals, and then think about the best way to implement those decisions.
Tara: Oh, that is so good, because I am super-impulsive, as I think you know, and I, you know, I’ll come back for … We’ll come back from a weekend, and you know, Rosie and Breanne are like, “What do you mean you’ve done these six things? That was not part of the plan?” So I’m so glad you brought that up, and I think, you know, people worry so much about not having enough time to work on their businesses, but so often, you know, we have, you know, the things that we are working on expand to fill the time that we have, right? And so it sounds like what you’ve done is intentionally limited the amount of time that you have on your business, both I’m sure from a productivity standpoint and obviously from a personal values standpoint, but done so in a way that actually really supports the growth of your business. Would you say that’s true?
Michelle: Definitely. I think, you know, so working with Michelle Hunter as an example. I had to reach out to her because I just did not have time to do all the writing that I needed to do to grow the business, but you know, having that team member now has enabled us to grow the business in so many other ways. So now she really knows our business, and she even points out holes in our content, or where maybe we should focus on next, and you know, advises in that role as well, and I think if I hadn’t just been so busy, I never would have thought to, or I never would have asked for help, and I think asking for help has really helped me to grow the business this year.
Tara: Mm. So you’ve talked about kind of delegating a lot of things that you either didn’t have time for or that, you know, you just didn’t like doing or weren’t, you know, weren’t especially skilled at, but I think that you know, as your business grows and you step into much more of an executive role instead of one that you’re just doing everything, a do everything role, there comes a time when you have to start delegating stuff that’s much harder to delegate. Either delegating stuff that you like doing or delegating stuff that, you know, you can do, or delegating stuff that just seems impossible, like no one else could do this. Can you tell me about one or more things that you’ve delegated that have been kind of really difficult to hand off either mentally or operationally?
Michelle: I think handing off the copywriting was really difficult at first, because I felt I was worried that it wasn’t going to be authentic. You know, if I’m not writing every word, and then I sign my name at the bottom, is that bad? It was really scary for me to do something like that. I think that was a big leap for me in terms of working with someone who’s at, you know, a higher price point, and really brings more into your business in that way, but this is something that I still struggle with. I mean, now I’m looking to people who can consult on an even higher level, and it’s very scary for me to make that investment and to know that it’s going to pay off, and so this is something that I’ve actually been obsessing about on my days off. When I have all this time to think is how do we take it to that next level, and who’s that, who are these new team members who I need to bring on to get, take the business there.
Tara: Yeah, can you talk about that a little bit more? What are some of the … what are some of the, you know, plans that you’re working through or the, you know, checks or balances that you’re putting into place as you start thinking about investing even further into the growth of your team?
Michelle: Yes, I have been working, you recommended this, and so I hope that’s okay to say.
Tara: Of course.
Michelle: This is all coming from you, but … so I’ve really been focused on the last week even, part of what I’ve been focusing on is developing an organization chart for 2016. So obviously not right now, at the beginning of 2016, but at the end, what do I want my business to look like, and I think that’s been incredibly helpful to think, to almost give myself that space instead of oh, I need to hire these people tomorrow, because that’s how I’ve felt in the past. There was a little bit of panic there. Giving myself some space to think about what I want my business to look like at the end of the year and then what revenue do I need to create to be able to afford those people, basically. So I’ve been looking at the revenue expectations for this year. You know, where can we make some tweaks, maybe add in a new workshop so that we can afford one of these higher level team members.
Tara: Got you. Brilliant. Thank you for sharing that. So how, kind of piggy backing off of that, how do you plan to grow your community, or you know, just your whole audience base over the next twelve months?
Michelle: Again, I think advertising I’m hoping is going to be really big for us, since that’s something that we haven’t gotten into in the past. Things have been working pretty well for us that I really just want to continue what we’re doing, continue our message, continue being really active on social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, and reach out to new designers in that way. We’re also trying to; we have a new product geared towards graphic designers welcoming them into the industry. Because I think as fun as this industry is, it can be a little intimidating to designers who come to us from other design industries, and so just explaining to them how they can so easily apply what they know from their industry into our industry is kind of a way that we’re trying to welcome new people as well.
Tara: Oh, I love that. So you’re really kind of putting intention behind kind of nurturing and grooming a whole new audience for your business.
Michelle: Yeah. I love thinking about, you know, when someone comes to our site from, you know, a graphic design background, or maybe a fashion background, what are they looking for and what do they need, and where can we help them in that way. I think that’s a really interesting part of running a business is to really get inside the mind of your customer and your community, and how to reach out to other customers in the same way.
Tara: Mm. Well, you know, I love that, too, and that is just such an amazing takeaway, I don’t think, it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, if you’re looking to grow your community, grow your audience, reach new people that you haven’t reached before, you really need to be thinking about what do they need to know to be able to make the best use of what I’m offering, and so I love that that’s, you know, something that’s on your agenda for this year. Awesome.
So can you tell me about a time when you felt like the Pattern Observer business was sort of out of control or off the tracks and how did you get it back on track?
Michelle: Definitely. So one of my, one of our most difficult times was, I believe it was January of 2014, which wasn’t that long ago that we made this huge mistake, but we decided to launch a redesigned website, a membership site, and a new workshop all on the same day.
Tara: Oh my Lord.
Michelle: I don’t know what I was thinking. I think I was just so excited about the workshop, and so excited about the membership site that I said, ‘Well, I need a fancy new website, blog,” you know, “as well.” It should all be new and pretty and exactly how I want it to be in my head. I mean, it was just a disaster, because as you probably know, as prepared as we are, and as much as we test new websites and software, there are always issues. There’s just, I mean, I’ve never worked on a project where there hasn’t been some sort of issue, and so we had three new systems that were in place, and it was so difficult to pinpoint where, you know, the code was wrong within those systems and why things weren’t working, because it was all so new. So there was so many areas where the mistake could be, and so I really get, I get very upset with customer issues. When someone isn’t happy with someone or something, or when someone can’t login to the site, those things really upset me, and so we were getting lots of emails, not complaints. I mean people weren’t angry, but they just weren’t able to access the materials that they were excited to dive into, and so that was just a really hard time, and it actually took months to get all the issues ironed out, and I almost gave up the entire business and just went back to painting. That’s what I just kept saying. “I just want to go paint. I don’t want to deal with these issues.” But I’ve learned so much about running an online business since then. I mean, really need to take things slowly and release things. Don’t try to do everything all at once, and just releasing products more slowly and just taking time with the process and making sure that you’re testing for weeks and weeks before you launch something versus one weekend before.
Tara: So coming out of this kind of massive failure, for lack of a better word, where you’re launching all of these things at the same time and trying to make this giant change all at once. How has that affected the way you both kind of plane for the future and the way you handle yourself when something goes wrong? What did you learn out of that situation in terms of what you need to have in place when things go badly?
Michelle: I think taking things very slowly is first and foremost. Just understanding that okay, if we’re going to add something new to the website or if we’re going to launch something new, let’s do it in steps, test it, and see how it goes before adding something else to the website. But you know, larger picture than that, I think it’s, I’ve calmed down a lot in my business since that time, and I’ve just learned that mistakes are going to happen, and again, communicating with your community is just so important, and that we are bigger than the mistakes. Or our businesses are bigger than the mistakes. Bigger than, you know, one product that doesn’t succeed, and we can work through those, and if you’re just honest, and again, give lots of gifts, then you can really, your community will accept that, and you can just move forward.
Tara: Yeah, so communicate and give gifts and do things incrementally.
Michelle: Yes. Yes.
Tara: Yeah, I love that, and I love what you said, too, about making sure that everyone has some perspective that your business is bigger than any one mistake. I know that’s something that I coach my team on a lot is that, you know, yes, someone can be unhappy, or yes, we can have a technical problem, or yes, they cannot get the right download link for an eBook or you know, whatever it might be. As long as we address the situation promptly, it doesn’t have to be something that you get stressed out about it, and I think that the more you can kind of train yourself out of that stress response, the more you’re able to do exactly what you just said, communicate, give gifts, and do things incrementally.
Michelle: And I think it takes time. You know, that’s something that it’s really easy to just listen to and get, but it takes being so stressed out and just being so exhausted from that stress to realize that that stress isn’t that helpful, and it’s not really helping anyone, so taking that action, and listening to your community and figuring out how they would like to be compensated, you know, for those mistakes. Or maybe there doesn’t need to be compensation, but you know, how can you look to the future instead of just worrying about what’s happening is so important as well.
Tara: Yes. So tell me a little bit more about how you actually tackled the problem. How did you organize the issues? How did you approach the infrastructure? Kind of take me through that a little bit, because I think this is something that people often get really tripped up on. Either once it’s happened or the fear of it happening as well.
Michelle: So a big part was our community is awesome, and so they were, so when someone had an issue, we, my husband developed, you know, specific questions to ask them. Can they give us a screenshot of why, what was going on when an issue occurred? You know, what type of computer were they using. We really tried to get all those details, because details can make a big difference when you’re trying to analyze software issues, and I’m definitely not that knowledgeable about code or things like that, but this is kind of from my perspective what we did to solve those problems was we had a set of emails and email responses to some of the popular issues that we were having, so that he could then figure out exactly why those issues were having.
And then on my side, I think I just did, you know, again, communicating with our members, letting them know what was going on, and then giving them lots of free stuff made me feel better, so that’s what we did as well.
Tara: Nice. Communication solves a world of problems, right?
Michelle: It does. Instead of just, you know, sticking our head in the sand and just ignoring that those problems were happening, we really confronted them head on and were just very honest with what was going on and gave everyone, you know, months of free memberships and just did whatever we could to make our designers feel like we were hearing the issues that we were having and that, you know, they were almost willing to work through the issues with us, which is an amazing feeling as well.
Tara: Mm. So here’s a question that I ask almost all of our guests as we start to wrap up here. How do you balance the roles of artist and executive in your business?
Michelle: I think that’s been one of the most difficult parts of the business. They both come fairly naturally to me. I’ve always been very interested in business and entrepreneurship, and obviously the artistic side of things as well, but combining them into such a busy day has been very difficult. And I think now I’ve kind of been working on my mindset with this, and designing from more of an executive perspective. So now I guess I gave myself a promotion to creative director, and so I’m working more on developing high level trend concepts and high level collection concepts and then passing it off to my team. You know, I still have to play and experiment, or I still get to play and experiment I should say, in order to stay fresh and be able to teach these techniques to other people, but within the past year, that’s been something I’ve been working on and struggling with is how do I juggle this growing teaching business with a design business as well, and so I’m hoping that the studio answers part of that struggle as well. And so figuring out that maybe they aren’t as separate as I once thought in the past. I used to have a set design time and then a set business time, and I’ve really been trying to merge those two, actually, and come to my design time, my design work with that executive hat on as well.
Tara: That is fascinating. I think we’ve had a different answer to that question every single time I’ve asked it, and no one else has talked about combining things in that way, and I think, you know, even more than just seeing the artist and the executive as two sides of the same coin, I love how you talk about really elevating your own position so that you can have both of those hats on at the same time, even if that might look funny.
So what’s next for Pattern Observer?
Michelle: The studio is what I’m really excited to play with and see how that goes. So you know, again, I really want it to become a teaching studio, where we employ designers from the lab and give them that hands on experience, and I don’t know how it’s going to work out, but that’s part of the fun of it is just playing with that as well, and then I hope the site and the membership site are just going to continue to grow. I’m looking for more collaborative opportunities with other experts in our industry is something that I would really like to do more of within the next year or two. So I’m hoping to see more of that as well.
Tara: Fantastic. Well, Michelle Fifis, thank you so much for joining me.
Michelle: Thank you so much for having me. I loved chatting with you.
Tara: Me, too.
You can find Michelle and her free training on turning your art into patterns that sell at PatternObserver.com. You can also find her on Instagram @PatternObserver.
Next time on Profit. Power. Pursuit., I’ll sit down with author and business consultant, Pam Slim, to talk about the role martial arts has played in the development of her business, her indispensable community tour, and the shifting focus of her brand.
That’s a wrap for this week’s episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit., a CreativeLive podcast. Download more episodes of this podcast and subscribe on iTunes. If you appreciate this kind of in depth content, please leave us a review or share this podcast with a friend. It means the world to us.
Our theme song was written by Daniel Peterson, who also edited this episode. Our audio engineer was Kellen Shemezu. This episode was produced by Elizabeth Madariaga. You can catch up on older episodes in the iTunes store, where new episodes are added every week, and learn more by going to CreativeLive.com.