How I Slowly Grew My Blog My Own Way

Originally published on October 11, 2017.

It’s not hard to find posts/entire websites that can help you launch a blog; and launch a blog that gets a lot of attention and success early on; and then use that success to turn it into a blog that not only helps people see you as an expert but also makes you a lot of money. I can’t write a blog post like that. Some of my friends can! I have friends who are really smart and know everything it takes to build a successful blog with a huge mailing list that proves you are an expert and can make you a lot of money. But I can’t.

Instead, I can write a blog post that tells you I launched an anonymous blog on October 1, 2010 to document my debt repayment journey. I can tell you I deleted the first version of that blog in early 2011, then restarted it when I was completely maxed out. I can tell you I connected with a few people and companies I loved on Twitter, and ultimately got my first two freelance writing jobs from doing so. I can tell you I wrote my blog anonymously for close to two years before I grew tired of lying to my family and friends about my “double life”. And I can tell you that, shortly after that, I got a full-time job offer from a company in Toronto.

Of course, a lot has changed since then. I moved to Toronto in 2012, then moved back to BC in 2013 and continued to work remotely for that same company. I built more relationships and got more freelance writing work, and then I quit my job in 2015 and have been self-employed ever since. Working for myself was never part of the plan. I always thought I was going to climb a corporate ladder, then maybe jump off one ladder and onto another. I never thought I would be my own boss, and I especially never thought that this blog would make being my own boss a possibility. It wasn’t part of the plan.

For the past seven years, I’ve shared all of this + the ups and downs of my life here with you. I didn’t start this blog to get attention from the press or reach any level of success, or to grow a huge audience or make a lot of money. I started it to document my debt repayment journey. The success that has come from it has been a result of consistent writing, plus a lot of careful considerations, and the intentional decision to forego all the usual advice and do things my way. It’s also a result of putting people (YOU) over profit. It’s been slow and steady, but I’ve stuck to my gut and built something that feels GOOD.

That’s the best blogging advice I can give: do what feels good.

But for those of you who have asked for more of a step-by-step solution for growing a blog, here is the list of rules I’ve created for myself.

1. Reply to Comments

Those of you who have been reading (and commenting) for a while know this to be true. It’s the first blogging rule I made for myself: if someone takes the time to comment, I will take the time to reply. It’s not only a sign of respect, it also helps us have actual conversations (vs. one-sided responses) and has, in turn, created a real community here. As the years have gone on, I’ve changed it slightly so I usually only reply to comments that come in within the first 2-3 days of a post going live. But this same rule applies to email, too. Depending on how flooded my inbox gets, it might take a couple days or even a couple weeks to reply to them all (and it took even longer after the girls died). But I read everything and I do reply.

1b. To go along with the first rule, I’ve also always monitored comments and sent trolls to spam. It’s fine if someone has a different opinion from me or disagrees with something I say, and I’ll publish anything that’s constructive, or challenges me to think or even change my mind. But I won’t let trolls come in and dominate the conversation, and I especially won’t let people be mean to other people. If you don’t like me, save yourself the energy and just don’t read what I write, because I won’t publish your comment. This is a safe space for people to open up and have conversations, and I won’t let anyone come in and take that from us.

1c. I’ve also always been the one who responds to comments and emails personally. I know bloggers and business owners who hire virtual assistants to do this work, but that has always felt disingenuous to me and is something I can’t do. People write to you because they want you to read their words and they think you will be the one who replies. Even if it means there is a delay, it has to come from me.

2. Support Other Bloggers

A couple weeks ago, Stephanie asked if I could recommend ways for writers to “get their blogs out there”. My first response to this question is always the same: support other bloggers. And don’t just visit their sites and write short comments like “this was a great post” or “I do the same thing”. Write a comment because you care about this blogger and you want to see them succeed. Write a comment because you read someone else’s comment and you want to help them succeed. Write a comment because you want to be part of a community. And then share the post with everyone who follows you online, because you want to help this person’s message be heard.

When I first started blogging, I engaged with a lot of bloggers who were also documenting their own debt repayment stories. We cheered each other on, celebrated our successes, and helped each other with any challenges we had. It was not a strategy to get more readers or rack up pageviews. We were a community within the personal finance community, and I don’t know what they thought of me but I needed them. No one in my real life knew what my financial situation was, except for my blogging friends. I was more honest with them than I was with my own family. So, I always treated them like friends because that’s exactly what they were (and are).

When I finished paying off my debt, I gave a huge amount of credit to my fellow bloggers because I truly felt that I couldn’t have done it so quickly without their support—and I’ve always wanted to give that same support back to others. For years, that support took shape in the form of comments I would leave on people’s posts. I would comment because I read a post and thought OMG I NEEDED TO READ THIS and it felt really good to connect with like-minded people. And I would comment to thank someone for sharing their story, or for being honest and vulnerable, or for writing something that made me feel a little less alone in this world.

Again, as the years have gone on, I’ve had less time to comment on posts but I’ve found other ways to support bloggers. For starters, I help curate all the personal finance content you read on Rockstar Finance, which means I skim hundreds of blog posts each week and share my favourites with Jay. I used to share a lot of posts on Twitter, but now I compile a list of the ones I love and put them into my newsletter. And when something really touches me, I email the blogger personally. So no, I don’t comment as much anymore, but I still find ways to say OMG I NEEDED TO READ THIS and THANK YOU and then share it with my readers.

3. Write What Feels Natural (Not What Will “Perform” Well)

One thing I see over and over again in emails from people who are considering starting blogs is that they get overwhelmed by all the steps it will take to build something “the right way”. They think they need to have the perfect name and the perfect look and a bunch of perfect blog posts, before they can go live. Trust me when I say that it doesn’t need to be perfect. For over a year, the majority of my posts were just weekly spending reports!

On top of feeling like things need to be perfect, there are also a lot of formulas out there for what could make a blog post rank high in Google or get more shares or even go viral. Here’s the only personal lesson I can share about that. Whenever I have tried to write a post that was more formulaic, I hated the process and hated what I was writing and usually deleted it. Whenever I write something that’s on my mind, the writing flows naturally and it gets a great response. These posts are honest and personal, and typically only take a couple hours to write. The result: they get more comments and emails, and support from friends around the world. Who the heck cares about ranking high in Google? I could never ask for more than that. <3

Oh, and my advice for anyone who is thinking of starting a blog: write a handful of blog posts first. Write them on your computer or in a Google doc or by hand or whatever you like. Just write the first few posts that come to mind and see if you actually enjoy the process. At the end of the day, if you want to maintain a blog, you just have to enjoy writing stuff and putting it out into the world. If you like those first few posts, come up with some ideas for your next ones and then start getting the technical stuff setup. But always start with the writing. Everything else will come together, after that.

4. Don’t Worry About the Numbers

There are a lot of numbers you could consider, as a blogger: your pageviews, your unique visitors, the number of comments you get on posts, the number of times your posts get shared, the number of people on your mailing list, all the followers you have on social media, and so on. And there are a lot of ways you can boost each of those numbers. But, to go along with the idea that you don’t need to force yourself to write content that will “perform” well, you also don’t need to do other things strictly so it will boost your numbers. You can, if you want to. But you don’t need to—and here’s why I don’t.

I didn’t start my blog with the intention that I would ever make money from it. And, unless you’re trying to make a lot of money from ads or affiliate links on your site, these numbers are just a vanity metric. Nobody cares if you have 1,000 followers on Twitter or 10,000, except for you. It doesn’t mean anything. And for that reason, I won’t play games online that do things to dramatically increase the number of readers or followers I have. Continuing with the example of Twitter and even Instagram, some bloggers follow tons of accounts in the hopes that many of those accounts will follow them back. I’m not kidding. This is a thing. It is a vanity metric, and it is also a false way of determining someone’s potential “reach”. (That’s a note to companies who pay “influencers”.)

Instead of worrying about increasing your numbers, focus on engaging with the readers and followers you have right now. This goes back to my first rule: reply to comments and emails. Also reply to people on social media. There are people right here and now who are interested in what you are saying. Say hi to them! Answer their questions. Help them in any way you can. They are human beings, not numbers. And if you become focused on getting the next 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 followers, you will look past the ones you already have—and those are the ones who matter most. So don’t worry about the numbers, and instead put your energy into fostering relationships with the people who are here and now.

For bloggers who are curious how this rule affects your numbers, I opened up my Google Analytics, mailing list, social media accounts, etc. and looked at how it affects mine. As far as blog traffic goes, I’m on track to have the same number of pageviews I’ve had for the past two years (so now three years in a row). I finished 2016 with about 20,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and currently have about 25,000 (+5,000 in 9.5 months). And I went from having 6,300 people on my mailing list at the end of 2016 to 9,600 right now (+3,300 in 9.5 months). With so many people out there writing about how you can grow a blog quickly, these aren’t exactly numbers to write home about.

You know what two numbers I find interesting, though? My bounce rate was just 7.09% in 2016, and the open rate on my mailing list is 50.92% so far in 2017. People are engaged. And the community we’ve built together here means more than any number could.

5. Put People Over Profit*

I’m adding an asterisk to this point because I need to start by saying that this all depends on the reason you are launching your blog in the first place. If your goal is to make money, great! You probably don’t need to read this point. But if money isn’t your goal, that’s ok too. That also doesn’t mean you’ll never make a dime from your blog; it just gives you more control over how you want to earn that money one day. Here’s my story.

At some point, every blogger starts receiving emails from random companies all over the world who ask if you accept sponsored content (they will pay you to write a post about their product) or paid links (they will pay you to add links to random words in old blog posts). There is a lot of money to be made in this world. I have friends who make anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000/month in sponsored content alone. Add banner ads or sidebar ads to that and they are laughing—at me. I say “at me” because I have turned every single one of these offers down and earned exactly $0 from advertising on my blog. In fact, I even have a line on my contact form that tells people I don’t reply to these offers. I delete the emails.

There are so many reasons I don’t advertise on my blog, and they all come back to putting myself in the shoes of a reader. I hate going to sites and being bombarded with ads, so I don’t want anyone to have that experience when visiting mine. That’s also the same reason I’ve never added (and will never add) a pop-up to my site. Seeing those on other sites almost always makes me click “X” in my browser and then never visit them again. I don’t care about having a bigger mailing list. I care about my readers and the experience they have on my site—the experience that helps us build and foster a community. And let’s also remember that I am in the space of telling people to STOP BUYING THINGS THEY DON’T NEED. Can you imagine if I placed a banner ad at the top of that message?

At the end of the day, I won’t advertise on my blog because it just doesn’t feel good to me. I know this rule has probably cost me tens of thousands of dollars. My old boss once told me I could earn a minimum of $3,000/month from banner ads alone based on my traffic. But I don’t care and I won’t change my stance on this. It doesn’t feel good to me, and I’ve always told myself I could earn extra money in other ways—ways that do feel good to me. For years, that took shape in the form of freelance writing and even a few public speaking events. Yes, that means I actually had to work for the money (vs. earn passive income from my blog) but those opportunities came from having my blog and they felt good. Looking back, I can see they also helped me get my name out there in ways that posting sponsored content never could.

That’s not to say I’ve never made money from my blog. Going back to the first paragraph in this point, it just gave me more control over how I wanted to earn the money. In 2015, I decided the one way I would be comfortable making money from my blog would be by creating a useful tool and selling it. Since April 2015, I have profited exactly $26,807.34 from something I made for you: Mindful Budgeting. The print templates that I originally charged $20 for but are now free, and the physical 2016 and 2017 planners. I made those for you, and built a community around it for you, and have earned an average of $893.58/month for doing so (minus the 5% of sales I give to charity). It’s a tool that I know has helped people, and I made it myself vs. had a company pay me to tell you about it. That feels good to me. It’s not a product everyone needs and I’ll likely never earn a full-time income from it, but that’s ok. It feels good to me.

6. Always Be Gracious + Grateful

This last rule is one that is mixed into all the others. The kind way of saying it is: you should always be gracious with people + grateful for the opportunities that come your way. The simple but more brash way of saying it is: don’t be a jerk. One of the most interesting things I have observed as some blogs have grown is that egos grow right alongside them. I will never understand this. Of course, I think we are allowed to be proud of our work, and be proud of the blogs and businesses we’ve built. But at the end of the day, we aren’t saving lives. We are just people—humans who are trying to make it in this world, just like everyone else. And if we aren’t kind to the people around us, why would anyone want to read what we have to say or even work with us?

It starts by being gracious with your readers. If no one read your blog, you wouldn’t be where you are. Then, be grateful for every opportunity that comes your way—even the ones you don’t take. Whenever someone in the media contacts me for an interview, I genuinely still think to myself: really? Me? That’s so cool!!! The same goes for freelance writing and public speaking opportunities. And you can’t even imagine how literally every step of the book publishing process has made me feel. I’m constantly pinching myself asking if this is real life.

This all goes back to the golden rule you’re taught as a kid: treat others how you want to be treated. I don’t think the world owes me anything. And I don’t do things because I’m looking for something in return. In fact, I think blogging with zero expectations of what kind of response you’ll get from others is what helps you stay humble and so appreciative of whatever does come your way. As for me, I’m just over here documenting my life and all the experiments I’ve done in the past seven years, and feeling extremely grateful for everyone who has been interested enough to read, say hi and share it with others.

Before I wrap up this post, I want to add that I didn’t write this list of rules before I started my blog. It is something that has slowly developed over time, as every new interaction, opportunity and period of growth has occurred. And it took this shape because I always had my readers in mind. Some of these rules were made only after playing around with certain things the “experts” say we should do and quickly realizing it didn’t feel good to me. So yes, I have experimented with their ideas, and I think it’s perfectly ok for people to follow all of the advice and/or do things in whatever way feels good to them. It just doesn’t feel good to me.

I always knew there had to be another way, and there is—it’s called “your way” and you make all the rules. Mine will result in slower growth and will probably make you less money. But it puts people first and helps you stay humble and grateful for whatever comes from it. And in my experience, looking back now, I know that some really amazing things can come from it.