We're starting a new blog series on interesting website building success stories.
We will feature motivating stories from a range of different online entrepreneurs, from niche website builders and e-commerce site owners, to Saas founders and other online business people. We hope you'll be encouraged to start or keep going in your online ventures.
These are going to be text-based interviews rather than our regular podcast interviews – though you'll still find new episodes of the podcast each week as well!
To start the series, we have Dan Morris who sold his first niche site in 2020 and is now working on building up new sites – alongside doing some work for Niche Pursuits!
- Who are you and what is your background?
- How did you start making money online?
- Why or how did you choose your niche?
- How have you grown your business?
- How do you create unique content?
- What have you learned from building your niche site?
- What was your experience selling an authority site?
- What platform/tools do you use for your websites?
- What is your strategy when growing a niche site?
- What keeps you going when things are tough?
- Advice for others who are just starting out
Who are you and what is your background?
I'm Dan, an affiliate marketer based in the South Island of New Zealand.
My wife Naomi and I have been working online full time since the end of 2017. We run our sites together, each focusing on the different areas that we do best.
Our primary source of revenue has been affiliate marketing. Besides one very short failed attempt at running display ads, we've not made any money from advertising! However, we've recently been trying a bit of ecommerce on Etsy and our Homeschool niche site. We're selling educational resource downloads like this beginner French workbook.
We sold our main affiliate site, which was marketing heat press and cutting machines, through FEInternational in mid-2020. This site had done really well, netting just under $20,000 in the final month that we had it.
How did you start making money online?
After graduating from college (or University, as we call it), I started a small house painting business. I found the work reasonably enjoyable, but best of all, I could listen to podcasts all day while I was working.
I first heard about affiliate marketing in 2015 from the Tom Woods Show and was immediately interested. Tom had some guests on the show who were promoting a $2000 course teaching how to start your first affiliate site.
My wife and I went through the obligatory webinar, believed in the business model, and we were excited to make a go of it! We bought the course and started working on our site in the evenings as we had time after work.
Neither of us had any prior experience building sites or writing for the web, so everything was new. I wrote the content, and Naomi did everything else, from setting up the site to keyword research, content editing, and uploading.
It took about 4 months to make our first dollar through Amazon Associates, but the growth snowballed from there. One year after buying the course and starting the site, it was making $2000 a month, which had been our initial goal.
At around the 18-month mark, the site was making $4 -$5K per month. I closed the painting business and went full-time online!
Why or how did you choose your niche?
We literally chose our niche by using a random category generator included with our course. The tool would rummage through Amazon and find a category with at least 20 products over $200, and which had 100+ reviews.
The very first thing it pulled up for us was heat press machines. These are machines that apply decals to t-shirts and other craft projects. They are popular in moms' craft rooms.
Heat press machines seemed as good a niche as any, and so we went with it! We did some very basic keyword research to ensure there were ranking opportunities, but the niche selection process was extremely quick and simple.
There were several other competing sites dedicated to these machines, but they were all reasonably poor. The web design was terrible, the content was average, and there was nothing too special about them. It seemed like we could do something better.
From almost the start, we purchased heat press and cutting machines (a related product) to understand them better, have great photos, and stand out from our competitors.
Initially, we thought people in the t-shirt business would be the primary visitors to the site, and the original design was somewhat masculine. However, we quickly discovered all our visitors were moms that love crafting! We then started making the site something more attractive for this audience.
A considerable portion of the site's content was craft tutorials. We would use the machines we were reviewing and create how-to posts making a wide range of t-shirts and other crafty things. Doing this made the site much more authentic and trustworthy.
The funniest thing is that by the time we sold the site, we were legit heat press and cutting machine experts. This is despite never having heard of them before the random category generator brought them up!
How have you grown your business?
The number one thing that helped us to succeed with our first site was working together.
Because there were two of us (my wife and I), it was only half the work! There's no way we could have got it to the stage we did without both putting in a lot of effort. We each had the jobs that we were responsible for and focused on them.
Beyond this, I think the heat press site did well because we were focused on the one site, and we liked the niche. It was interesting and fun.
Spencer recently interviewed Travis Jamison from Investing.io on the Niche Pursuits podcast. Travis said something like:
“Those who live and breathe their niche tend to do the best… If you can focus on one thing, especially if you already know and love it, you are more likely to build a successful site.”
We only ever outsourced a small amount of content (which never performed well), but otherwise, we did it all ourselves. We were genuinely embedded in the niche and sought to publish good content.
I believe the business grew simply by posting helpful content and getting good links.
The latter, link building, was made easier due to the cool craft tutorials. Other site owners are more likely to link to these sorts of posts. We also offered these posts as guest posts, which took a lot of time but allowed us to get links from many very relevant high DR sites.
Nowadays, everyone knows a lousy niche site when they see one. I think it's important to be as genuine as possible and do what you can to create unique content.
How do you create unique content?
Really unique, good content for niche sites is difficult to outsource and difficult to scale, which is probably why we've done most of it ourselves!
For example, one of our new sites, Fire And Saw, is all about chainsaws. I actually love chainsaws, so it's easy to make authentic content.
How do I make the content more authentic?
- Instagram account with real pics of my chainsaw adventures
- Including stories from experience (e.g., this post on using chainsaws around pets)
- Using a lot of images that I have taken in the web content
- Writing most of the posts increases my knowledge on the topic
- Using a lot of quotes and insights from those with experience
It's the same with the other site, Our Kiwi Homeschool (which is not getting too much attention at the moment). We do homeschool our kids, so we speak from experience, and we don't have to pretend we're someone we're not.
These two sites are only new, so I can't say this has helped grow or make them successful – yet! However, I think it's using these principles that enabled us to grow our initial heat press affiliate site.
In another Niche Pursuits podcast, Matt Giovanisci of MoneyLab talks about a similar thing with his pool and brewing websites. He creates a lot of the content doing what he loves, which has helped him do very well!
On the flip side, we have a DR33 pet site that has done very poorly.
We've outsourced more than half of the 130 posts, but more importantly, we just don't care about the niche. In fact, I generally dread working on it.
I don't mind animals (we have a dog, chickens, rabbits, and sheep), but I wouldn't say I like working in the pet niche. And because I have little interest in the topic, I've struggled to make it happen.
What have you learned from building your niche site?
One of the significant opportunities we missed out on with the heat press site was YouTube. It would have helped drive a ton of traffic and likely been another great source of revenue.
We started a YouTube channel about 2 months before selling, and some of those videos have done well since – despite being very poorly produced! Creating a channel earlier would have been a great move, especially in this niche.
One of the best moves we made early on was moving away from the Amazon Affiliate program – well before the 2020 rate cut.
I was never comfortable having a lot of income from one source, and so I joined as many different programs as possible. Thankfully, many other retailers offered great commissions and converted well.
At the time we sold the site, it was making less than 1/4 of its income through Amazon. You can see in the earnings screenshot above that this was at 3% commission – it hurts to remember how good the 8% commission was!
Branching off into shoulder niches is another good idea. While heat press and cutting machines were primary to this site, we also did some sewing machines and embroidery machine content.
Some of these machines sell for over $10,000 with an 8 – 10% commission, and we were lucky to sell a number of them!
We decided to list with FE International after Mark and Gael at Authority Hacker got a really good result selling one of their authority sites with them.
It was right before Christmas 2019 that we contacted them, and it wasn't listed for sale until March 2020.
It took a lot longer than we expected to get the site ready for sale. I think this was in part because of the Christmas and New Year holidays, but also because vetting all the business details and putting together a professional perspective takes time. Working in different time zones with people on a fixed workday also causes delays.
Anyway, March 2020 was just as COVID-19 was starting to cause some significant issues. It definitely wasn't the best time to list an online business for sale, given that nobody was sure which direction things would go.
The site was listed for $347,000 and we waited to see what would happen!
There wasn't a lot of initial interest, but we did start having calls with interested buyers after a few weeks. Most, if not all, were anxious about COVID issues and how that was going to affect things in the short and long term. Amazon had not long cut their commission rates as well, of course.
Even though the heat press site had ever-increasing sales, I think most people were pretty pessimistic at the time.
The other issue was that we did everything on the site ourselves – not that it took too much time by this stage, as everything was in place. However, investors struggled to see how they would outsource the craft posts and that sort of thing. We didn't have a team that we could hand over to run things.
Eventually, just as our listing period was coming to an end with FEI, and we were talking with another broker, a lovely couple from the US got in touch. After a bit of back-and-forth for a couple of weeks, we agreed on a sale price.
We didn't get the $347,000, but at the time, with the whole world going crazy (still is a bit, right?), we were glad to sell the site. In hindsight, we probably should have held onto it a bit longer and waited for a higher offer and/or listed with another broker. But hindsight is 20/20!
We learned that selling a website can take longer than expected and initial price expectations/valuations may not be accurate. The staff at FEInternational were awesome – shoutout to Alon and Shayne in particular!
What platform/tools do you use for your websites?
The heat press site was built using a basic premium theme for WordPress. There was nothing overly special about it at all! Nowadays, I use GeneratePress for any new sites.
I don't use any special plugins beyond what everyone else uses (WPRocket, etc.), but the Classic Editor has got to be my favorite!
We did have some nice-looking custom tables for the heat press site. Once it was doing well, we signed up for Convertica's A/B split testing service for three months.
It probably wasn't the best service for this site because we only got about 70,000 unique visitors per month, spread across a considerable number of posts.
For quick and effective split testing, you need a ton of traffic to each post. However, we got some excellent custom HTML tables out of it, which did help with conversions!
What is your strategy when growing a niche site?
Besides frequently publishing keyword-targeted content, link building has been the way I've grown niche websites.
I don't like the shotgun skyscraper approach. I have given it a good go on several large campaigns, but I'm not a fan. I never get results that are worth the time, effort, and money.
My preferred method is personalized, targeted outreach involving:
- Guest posting
- Broken link building
- Asking for links to traditional ‘skyscraper content'
- Link swaps
Also, having connections with affiliate marketers and others with websites is good. This was one of Rich Howard's link-building recommendations in another NP podcast – make FB friends with other online marketers!
HARO has also been a fantastic source of links. In my opinion, there is no better way to get high-authority backlinks. For example, how else could you get a link like this from a DR82 news site to a brand new site?
What keeps you going when things are tough?
After selling our heat press site, we had a good long holiday and took things pretty slowly for about 6 months. After that, we turned our attention to the pet website, Petnpat.com, which we had started on the side.
It was getting decent traffic up to October 2020 – around 1200 – 1500 visitors per day but wasn't making much money. Maybe the best month was about $1500.
This was in part because I couldn't find an affiliate program outside of Amazon that works well. Not even Chewy, a popular program in the pet niche, really converted anything like Amazon. But Amazon at 3% commission isn't attractive either.
Anyway, this site was hit by an update in October 2020, and I mostly lost interest in it after that. Just for fun, I redirected a couple of totally irrelevant expired domains with good links to see if traffic might miraculously pop back up, but no such luck (and no real surprise)!
It was discouraging to not see results with this site (before the update and redirects), but I was probably expecting too much too quickly.
When things are tough, I go back to basics: create good content that I care about (at least a little bit!) and build quality links.
It's also essential to work on personal development. I've started doing some writing for Niche Pursuits which has exposed me to many new tools, services, and people in the online business world.
It's good to be absorbed in the motivational stories and tactics others have used to build their online businesses. Being part of the Niche Pursuits team for the last month has been very encouraging.
Advice for others who are just starting out
For those starting a niche site, I always recommended just keeping at it.
Even if you are working another job full-time, set a goal to publish at least one article and to send out 10 outreach emails per week.
This might only cost you one or two evenings a week, but the effort compounds. Don't give up on the site when it feels like it's not working, but keep publishing and building links.
Besides this, listen to the Niche Pursuits podcast and other good online business shows to stay motivated and inspired!