Note: Ken Courtright was arrested in February 2020 on criminal fraud charges after the FBI launched an investigation in 2019 into The Income Store. At the time of his arrest, The Income Store had taken in $144 million from investors from January 2017 until it was shut down by federal authorities in December 2019. They have allegedly paid approximately $40 million to investors, leaving them out about $100 million.
Source: Chicago Tribune
If you run an online business, you know that it can be tough to keep the revenue flowing. There’s so much competition out there these days, you’ve got to stay ahead of the curve. That’s exactly what our guest, serial entrepreneur, Ken Courtright, does so well. His company, Income Store, operates about 1,000 revenue generating websites and the portfolio expands every year. The company has been in the Inc. 5000 list for the past four years consecutively, which is no small feat. Ken has not only achieved success, but he also systematized it. Stay tuned to learn his secret formula for massive growth and scaling online success. This episode is absolutely a must-listen for anyone interested in online marketing or entrepreneurship. Get ready for some truly game-changing insights.
Ken, it’s so great to have you on the show.
Thanks for having me.
Let’s start off by talking a bit about your business model because it’s so interesting and so different. You didn’t just start off with this. There was a journey to get to this kind of a business model. Maybe you could share both of those things with our audience.
To give the real story, we have to go to March of ‘92. I got out of college after five years of working for my dad part-time through school. We have a number of restaurants still in the family now. The only thing I knew graduating college with a graphic design degree was I would never get a job because I was brainwashed and conditioned by my father who was brainwashed and conditioned by his father and his father and his father going back 135 years. There’s never been a male with the last name Courtright that’s had a job. We own our own business. There’s also never been a Courtright get a divorce in 135 years, which I maybe someday will write a book on that. The only thing I knew was there was a lot of pressure to make it on my own. If I get a house, it’s paid down very quickly. If I get a car, I write a check for it. We live below our means. We’re a freaky old-fashioned family.
Getting out of college, I went and applied for a graphic design job because it was an independent contractor, 1099. It was sold to me that I would be my own business owner, trying to attempt to sell somebody a sign. I would design the sign right in front of them and I could start my own business with it, and I did. I began knocking on doors, walking into business saying what I was so comfortable saying, “If you give me some time, I can absolutely help you grow your business.” I knew within one week, I needed to do more than just try to sell these people a sign. Some of these people didn’t need a sign, they needed radio or a banner or some type of direct mail coaching. They needed help and I was only 22, but I was smart enough to know you need walk-in traffic in mass if you want to grow a business back pre-internet.
That was when you started your business, you were 22 at the time. That’s amazing. I just turned 24 when I started my business. I dropped out of a PhD in biochemistry to start an agency.
Identical to what you did, I’m 22 years old. The first eleven people that I knocked on their door said emphatically, “No, thank you. Who are you to tell me how I can grow my business? You don’t even own a business.” Finally, the twelfth door was Mitch and Mike Miner from Miner’s Pizza. I don’t know why this came out of me but I said, “Here’s the deal. I am having a tough time convincing people that I can help them grow their business. Is there any chance I could almost give away my service and you could pay me in a percentage of your growth? The way you’ll pay me is to write me a testimonial letter that my techniques helped grow your business.” I still have that one-page handwritten letter from Mitch and Mike Miner. They were twins with red hair and I helped them grow Miner’s Pizza. It went well.
That’s such a genius strategy to do work for free to get a testimonial that then launches your business. I did a similar thing. In fact, I got a testimonial from Target.com for SEO. Specifically, we were launching an SEO auditing offering. We were known as a web design and development company that built good SEO eCommerce sites at the time. This was a pretty significant pivot and we got a yes from Target. We got the most amazing testimonial. We got to use the logo and we did the entire audit for free. It was the best free audit you could ever imagine as far as the business value.
You’ve got social proof from them.
Yes, serious social proof.
I learned at a very young age that I was going nowhere without testimonials. I parlayed Mitch and Mike. I went right down Jefferson Avenue. I lived in Joliet and I can’t even remember how many people I helped physically on Jefferson Street because of that. Fast forward a couple of years, at this point I was 25 years old. I had 35 salespeople. We had signs, banners, radio recommendations in 35 states at that time. We had 400 signs in Alaska in under three years. It was crazy. We were flying. I realized we are not in the sign business. That was the tip of the spear. We were growth consultants. At this point, fast forward two more years, we had helped McDonald’s, Harrah’s Casino, First National Bank, MCI WorldCom. I got letters from most of them, except McDonald’s. It would not write me a letter. I don’t understand. We were pretty aggressive with the testimonials because anytime you go into a new town, they don’t know us. We would fight and give away a lot of cost on the first one to get the testimonial. We never went away from that.
The long and short of it is by ‘99, I had diversified into a chain of video stores, a different type of consulting. The video stores almost killed us. To a degree, you could say it was the worst-best time of my life. We had gone from netting $10,000 a month per store in a seven-month period of time to losing $3,000 a month per store because Family Video, Hollywood Video and Blockbuster moved next door to each of my locations all within a seven-month period of time. Prior to that, I had gotten a letter from Hollywood Video saying, “I’d love to buy your video store chain,” and I never showed it to my wife or anybody. That was not a good day for me when my family found out later I had that letter because it was a very large offer.
What ended up happening, we started losing so much money quickly. We went nineteen months averaging between the three companies, a negative $3,000 balance in the accounts. I would rob Peter to pay Paul. It was so bad. My wife had a miscarriage. I had a sales rep die of a heart attack in my arms on a Saturday emergency sales meeting because we had to get things turned on. It was ugly as it could be, but I said to myself, “This is never going to happen again. I will never allow my family to be susceptible to one major revenue stream.” I didn’t know how I was going to fix it. Ironically now years later, we have 1,100 different revenue streams all independent of the others. We’re not bulletproof per se, but we certainly learned from the early days of our consulting business that you better be diversified because the world is not nice.
That was ‘99. We limped along at almost identical decent revenues, but always the same for almost a decade. In 2009, I felt completely pulled in a different direction. At this point, we were listing businesses for sale. I was doing very personal consulting. I went into Mix Match Popcorn. They were only in half of the Walgreens and I took it very personal. I’m going to get them in all the Walgreens. I’m going to expand their building facility three times and I did it all. I was a one-man show and it was quite lonely. My friends were my clients. We still had a decent staff.
Dan Sullivan calls us the rugged individualists when you just take on everything, you wear all the hats. You can’t keep doing that. You can’t grow that way and it will kill you eventually.
It wasn’t fun. I went a decade of almost no fun. Just business and delayed gratification. At one point, we lived with four kids in a one-bathroom, three-bedroom bungalow, tiny little home. Everybody knew how much we made and they’re like, “Why are you still living here?” I’m like, “Because I know exactly what I’m saving for.” Now I live in a monster three-floor home on a lake and it was worth it. At that time, people thought I was a freak. They didn’t know the family I was raised under of delayed gratification and doing things conservative and slow, which is a great lesson. It pays off in big dividends. The point of explaining what we do now has to be, you have to know the genesis story of it was so painful in ‘99 because I had one major huge source of revenue in this video store chain. We did well in the sign business and in the consulting business. We did amazing in the video store business. When you’re used to that type of cashflow in your twenties and all of a sudden, not only does that evaporate, it sucks half your other company down. It’s very personal.
You think you can beat the animal but as we all know, there’s nobody in the VHS business now. It doesn’t exist. I was not going to beat entropy head-on nor will anybody. The point is I went a decade and I had written two books that never got published. One was 450 pages in 2001. Ironically, the title of that was called Today’s Growth: Bridging Yesterday’s Principles with Today’s Technology for Growing a Business. It was based on 600 testimonial letters of growth that we did but 44 publishers said, “This is maybe single-handedly the most boring book we’ve ever read. It could be a Harvard business case study, but it’s not a book. It is just a case study after case study. There is no narrative. There’s not even a character. It was awful.” I cried my tears. In 2005, I cut it in half. I made a storyline in the book. I rewrote it. I sent it to twelve publishers and all twelve said, “This is terrible,” again. Then in 2008, I had twice as many testimonials now and I said, “I’m not going to go the traditional route. I’m going to write this Today’s Growth book because the world needs to know these growth techniques. They’re foundational. They’re principle-based. They’re fundamental. They will grow any business in any industry.”You better be diversified because the world is not nice. Click To Tweet
I rewrote it to about 170 pages and then I called a guy named Todd Krause who had done a couple of websites for us five years before, just faceplate websites for our businesses. I said, “I need a website built because I want to self-publish a book and previously all the publishers said I shouldn’t publish this. They say it’s not a good book.” He goes, “No problem. $3,500, I’ll build you that website but you probably should meet me for coffee. If you hear what I have to say and what I have to show you, you probably won’t want to publish that book.” I said, “Are you telling me, a web guy, you’re going to try to talk me out of publishing this book?” I hung up on him and he calls me right back. He was like, “You don’t understand. I’m going to do it. I need the money. I need the job, but you still got to let me show you something.” He shows me on a Saturday at [7:00] in the morning something that for six hours made my leg shake under the table. What he showed me was a spine surgeon’s website that battled for four years to try to compete with WebMD. He spent $100,000 a year in SEO and could not crack it for any reason whatsoever.
Todd and his two consultants said, “You’re trying to sprinkle pixie dust on the same 50 pieces of content. You haven’t added anything to your site in two and a half years. You need to start writing on what’s called the keyword silo and you need to write consistently with expertise.” Each of the doctors needs to write, not just the first guy. They put these guys on a rotation of multiple doctors writing nice long pieces once every Saturday. A year later, they had almost 200 fresh pieces. When they did a scan of WebMD versus this spine website, WebMD was one-sixty-fourth of 1% in spine surgery and spine therapy. This site had the same amount of posts now as WebMD. 100% were spine surgery, spine therapy and immediately flipped and they were number one above WebMD in everything. They now make millions a year in passive ads from that. They also now have a directory of 2,000 spine surgeons worldwide that pay $1,000 a month. It’s obnoxious.
I saw this model and Todd said, “Ken, what you should do is take a page of your book and write in every day or every other day, title it something fancy. I launched TodaysGrowthConsultant.com in 2009. I built it on Drupal by myself with no help from Todd. He helped me with one little nugget at [2:00] in the morning to get the DNS to point to something. Magically, with no backlinks, no nothing, seventeen weeks after I turned it on, I didn’t know if anybody had ever opened the website. I just did what Todd said I should do and I was writing every other day. All of a sudden, my cell phone ring and an attorney from Elgin, Illinois called me screaming. I immediately thought something happened to my kids. Her name was Evelyn and she says, “Is this Ken?” I said, “Yeah, this is Ken.” I didn’t want to say, “This is my personal cell phone. How did you even have my number?” I was definitely wondering. She goes, “We’re getting nervous over here.” I’m thinking, “This is an attorney. Did I miss something?” She says, “When are you going to post again?” I said, “What are you talking about?” She goes, “Isn’t this Ken from Today’s Growth website?” I said, “Yes.” She goes, “We do training on Monday, Wednesday, Friday off of all your new posts. I have ten attorneys here. We’re growing our practices through what you’re teaching us on your website.” I go, “As a matter of fact, I was away for a few days. I have the draft right here. I just haven’t hit publish.” She goes, “Could you please hit publish?”
I hit publish and then I called Todd. I’m like, “How do I see how many people go to this website?” He goes, “You look at the analytics.” I’m like, “What’s analytics?” He’s like, “Give me a minute.” He puts it on analytics. We look at it about two weeks later. I am ranking above Frost & Sullivan, Accenture Consulting and I don’t know how many other major firms for certain growth consulting techniques, how to grow your business, a lot of long tails. I did it with no backlinks. I don’t know how they were ranking me, but I was getting great rankings on certain terms and poor rankings on some others. I knew right there that if this worked for me and I was an authority in growing businesses, if I approached maybe an authoritative plumber or a roofer or a landscaper, I could talk them into writing me a check and my team of SEO experts, which I didn’t have any at the time, it was just me. We had nobody working for us that ever built a website, but I knew I could ramp up a team quickly. Within six weeks, I had fifteen website partners that had written a check, ready to rock and roll to be an authority in something and away we went.
We had accumulated somewhere above 100 authority figures that were going to write content. We thought we could coach these folks. Only six of the hundred ended up consistently writing and all six of those sites are number ones, number one in the world, one of them is number five in the world. The model worked but getting an authority figure to write content consistently was like pulling teeth. We switched the model to what is called Income Store, which now we take investors’ money. We buy revenue generating websites for them. We put the deed of the property in their name and then we manage them in perpetuity and share the revenue on those. Getting our staff of 54 writers to write 9,000 pieces of content a month is easy because they’re an employee and that’s what their job is to do. Getting an authority figure to write content because it’s the right thing to do for them is not an easy thing to do. We switched the model to buying revenue generating websites. We now have a portfolio of 900-plus that generates some form of revenue. Some make pennies, some make hundreds of thousands a month, but that’s the model we have now.
You’re constantly buying new sites.
I got a call from one of our guys that we bought 21 sites in a day.
You’re definitely on a trajectory. That’s very exciting.
We’re getting there, baby steps.
This idea of getting this massive portfolio of testimonials, that’s innovative. Even now, most companies are not focused on getting a lot of testimonials or a lot of case studies. They’ll maybe get a handful and rotate four or five of them on their homepage somewhere or have a testimonials page with maybe a dozen on them. How many do you think you have at this point?
Way over 1,000. The greatest piece of what I would call evidentiary information on what is known now as social proof is a 2012 or 2013 episode of Brain Games, which is a National Geographic show which studies the brain. They did the most incredible episode proving social proof which is defined as, if you say something, one individual for example the business owner, the world is simply not going to believe you. However, if a group of people says it’s so, it must be so. It’s a brain thing and here’s the quick exercise they did. I urge all of your audience as a great teaching point to their companies, their people, their employees, their friends even, you got to find the Brain Game episode. It’s titled Social Proof, but I’ll just tease you with it. I won’t give away the episode. National Geographic sets up in old downtown Las Vegas. They cleared the street and if you know the ropes that when you go through security at the airport, there are these ropes on each side of you.
They put these ropes in the middle of the street leading to nowhere, starting from nowhere and ending nowhere. They put up a sign at the beginning that says, “Line starts here.” It’s not in front of any casino per se. It’s just in the middle of nowhere. For hours, they filmed people walking by and nobody gets in the line to nowhere. They put one individual in line, which is an actor. People start walking up to him and they go, “What is this line for?” He goes, “I’m not sure but it’s Vegas. I don’t want to miss it.” Most of the people like some 90% walked right by. All of a sudden, this one couple walks up and they go, “What’s going on here? What are you in line for?” He goes, “I’m not sure, but it’s Vegas. I don’t want to miss it.” They look at each other, “What do you think?” They get in line. Immediately because it’s three people instead of 99% walking by, 75% of the people because it’s a mini group, get in line. The more people that get in line to nowhere, the higher the percentage of people that get in line to nowhere.
A guy walks up from one of the casinos and there’s a rope there and he removes the rope. The guy in front who’s an actor walks out of line, turns right around and goes backwards and everybody starts following. He then jumps over a piece of masking tape and everybody behind him jumped over. Then there was a thing of hopscotch on the ground. He started doing hopscotch, so did everybody behind him. Then they did the Limbo and the Cha-cha. It physically proved that if you, the business owner, say your product is amazing or you are the face on your website and you’re saying, “My stuff is all that in a bag of chips,” the world isn’t going to believe you or buy that. They’re going to go right past your website, right past your page. However, if your face is right here and you’re not even speaking about your business, but right underneath you is client after client, rotating through like in a carousel wheel of how amazing your product or your service is. When a group of people says it’s so, it must be so. If one person says it’s so, it’s probably not so.Doing things conservative and slow is a great lesson. It pays off in big dividends. Click To Tweet
For some reason I stumbled on that in the early ‘90s and then now, we practice it at the highest level. As a matter of fact, you go to IncomeStore.com, you don’t even know what we do, you have no idea. There are so many people under pressroom of either Kerri and me with pictures, with big celebrities and this and that. There’s just so much social proof and so many clients saying, “I retired through these guys, I did this because of these guys. Because of one thing Ken said from the stage, we saved over $1 million in our business.” That’s one of our videos. You don’t hear me saying hardly anything on our website because who’s going to believe me anyway?
That is such a powerful strategy. You also do things that are related to that and very innovative beyond just getting lots of testimonials like you’ll prop up other people and make them superstars or ride on their coattails. You’ve got this great strategy that I ended up emulating. I’ve never seen this before where an advertisement, like a full-page magazine ad, would tout the amazing stories and strategies of other people as a way to generate business for you. All the advertising you see in magazines and billboards and everything is all about the company that’s doing the advertising. I emulated that. I took a full-page ad out in the June issue of the Internet Retailer Magazine. I actually looked it over before I sent it in and thanks for the feedback on that.
I picked some nonprofit clients, many of which I donated my services to completely. Some were at a reduced rate but these were thought leaders in various areas like for example, President Jimmy Carter. He’s done so much for the world since his presidency through the Carter Center and so forth. I picked him as somebody to feature. I also included how he became the first ex-president blogger and how that got him a ton of media coverage and a lot of links and that helped his SEO. That strategy came from me. I have a great testimonial from it on my website. That was one. Christine Peterson, the lady who coined the term open source. Her ex-husband and her founded Foresight Institute. Her ex-husband, Eric Drexler actually coined the term nanotechnology. That was quite a power couple. I’ve featured her and stuff that we were doing and had done for the Foresight Institute and so forth. It was all about them and the amazing things they were doing and not all about me. That was genius. I have you to credit for that. Where did that come from?
I can’t take any credit for that. There is a PR company out of Florida, Nick Nanton heads it up. I remember doing a book with Brian Tracy. I tried to get Brian Tracy to do one of the blurbs on my book where they endorsed the book and I got no feedback. Six weeks later Brian Tracy’s assistant called me and said, “Would you do a book with us?” I’m like, “That worked. They remembered me.” What was the most interesting is you’ve got me and Brian Tracy on the cover of this book. Six weeks later I get this tube to my house and Nick Nanton with Nanton’s PR agency’s money took out a full-page ad in the USA Today just saying, “Congratulations to Ken and Brian for co-authoring a book.”
The bottom line is I remember getting a poster in the mail and I framed it. It’s me and Brian Tracy. I was thinking, “Why would Nick have taken his own money, I was a client of his at the time, to take out an ad saying, ‘Congratulations,’ in the USA Today to Ken and Brian?” We were both clients of his at the time, but he was the matchmaker. I remember about a year or two later on Nick Nanton’s website under the press room or the media room, he did a little post, not bragging about the connection, but showing off some of his client’s successes as a PR agency. I said to myself, “I’ve got hundreds of clients worldwide that have done amazing things. I could show them off as well.”
Neither Brian nor I were claiming Nick Nanton’s agency was even amazing. The point is he could clearly say, “I did a little matchmaking and these guys ended up writing a book together.” It was social proof for Nick Nanton. For years now, if we hold an event like Digital Footprint, we have never done an event where we didn’t highlight at least twenty people from the audience, half our clients and half are not. We know they are people doing amazing things that somebody needs to do a good thing for them so they can have a shot. We record it and give them a copy of it. Even if they’re not our client, we give them a couple of minutes on stage because somebody did it for me. It’s the right thing to do. I do believe in pay it forward. I’ll never stop doing that.
You continue to work with Nick. You did a documentary through him.
I have funded four 501(c)(3) organizations that Nick pays for part of it. He gets all the equipment, he pays most of it. I have funded a very substantial amount of four films that will basically tell the story. I did another one without Nick called Wishman, which is the story of the Make-A-Wish Founder, Frank Shankwitz. I’m in that movie with Chris Pines’ father, the guy from Chips. There are five major actors in this movie. I’m smoking a fake cigarette in the back. It’s awesome. Kerri and I have funded five philanthropic movies that tell the story of 501(c)(3) that people need to know about. I’m pretty passionate about that, but Nick turned me onto that too.
Nick did a documentary about Joe Polish. It was screened at the Genius Network Annual Event.
I funded that. I’m the Executive Producer of that one.
You have one of those videos from Nick like the documentary style videos featured on the Income Store homepage.
The actual documentary of our company, which played on the Biography Channel and the two-minute trailer of that documentary is on the homepage of IncomeStore.com. The feedback we have gotten on that is because it’s so well-done. It is a phenomenal movie. He’s awesome. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
I met him at an event a few years ago called Next Level Experience that was run by Raul Villacis. He was on my other show on Get Yourself Optimized talking about morning rituals. All the interconnections that we all have here, different subject matter experts and thought leaders. Let’s talk about one of the strategies that define your approach because you have so many of these strategies and you, as you said, tried to publish a book with a ton of them and change strategies there about that. It’s the first episode of your podcast, Today’s Growth podcast is all about Stacking S-Curves, which is a phrase I had never heard before. It makes sense once you describe it, but could you describe that concept for our audience?
To me, there’s no such thing as original thoughts. This is not my idea or thought. I stole this from Jack Welch, the CEO of GE. To set the stage, he went into GE, they had four revenue streams, $4 billion market cap. Twelve years later, he left. They had fourteen revenue streams, $44 billion market cap. Studying GE, studying a few other companies, especially Corning Cookware, I realized there are a lot of companies that almost go out of business and they make a magic move by asking what’s called the legacy question, which goes like this, “What else can we make or do on nights or weekends with our existing resources,” meaning people and money, “to bring in another revenue stream?” To say it differently, “Our main source of revenue, which is going to fail 100% of the time.”When a group of people says it is so, it must be so. If one person says it is so, it's probably not so. Click To Tweet
If you’re an individual sole proprietor, you’re going to die. Your main source of income is going to fail. If you own a business of any size, your main source of income is going to fail. Accepting that, I started studying how do these companies that have a main source of income? How do they shift, pivot and change? I could go on and on this one. This is, out of 370 of my most downloaded single podcast, episode number one, S-Curves. It goes like this, Corning Cookware, the fifth largest company in the world at the time, 33 years in a row had a month over month growth in the company. Every single gross revenue sheet that was reported was growing. All of a sudden, the executives went ballistic because they found out there are three major competitors worldwide. All launched at the same time and all the same stores selling the exact same product the half price. They could do the math and they could quickly tell they’re going to be without payroll money in seven months. They were the biggest, baddest company in the world, the fifth largest, billions and they weren’t going to be out of business in seven months.
The CEO held a big meeting in the warehouse. He went on some scaffolds and said, “We basically have 30 days to figure out what else can this equipment make nights and weekends so we can still do 9 to 5 and make cookware. What can we do on nights and weekends with the same equipment? What else can we make?” Thirty days later, ten ideas were brought forth, one was this little six-inch thing that looked like a hair. A guy held it up and he said, “What is this?” He goes, “That’s a fiber optic cable. The equipment that makes our glass cookware also can make fiber optic cable.” Nineteen months later, they were the number one manufacturer of fiber optic cable in the world. They saved their company. The CEO got very smart. Two years later, they had the exact same meeting. They said, “Let’s pretend fiber optic is going to cause us to go broke. What else can this equipment make nights and weekend?” As I say, worldwide from the stage, “Everybody, hold up your smartphone. Everybody at home has a laptop. The glass on your phone and that laptop is probably gorilla glass made by Corning.” What they kept doing in S-curve is defined by the early adoption, the rapid growth and the death cycle. It’s a letter S.
What Jack Welch says from GE, “The best time to stack another S on top of your current main source of revenue is not when you’re about to die. It’s when you’re growing and your breathing and you have not only air to breathe, but cash to breathe.” The cash gives you the ability to think and breathe. You’ve got to ask yourself the legacy question. What’s interesting at Income Store, we’ve hit the Inc. 5000 list five times in six years. That means over a four-year growth rate out of eighteen million US companies, we’d beat all but a thousand in growth. Interestingly enough, we’ve done it. I missed one year because I didn’t fill out the paperwork in 2014, which was our biggest growth, so six years in a row. The interesting thing is I’ve done it with three completely different products. Same company, same people doing the work but we completely changed the product, which shifted the audience completely. When the fundamentals are sound and you’re stacking S-Curves appropriately, you can’t lose. The goal is I made a commitment back in the day, I’m going to teach the S-Curve principle until I hit the grave because it’s going to save a lot of families, a lot of companies and it’s the right thing to do.
That’s a powerful strategy and way to run your business. You embodied that principle. If you look at how you positioned your company a few years ago, it was all about SEO. It’s getting free traffic from Google was the gravy train. You had so many websites in your portfolio that you had purchased on behalf of various investors. You had a thousand websites or whatever. Now you’re focusing on Shopify and other strategies and not just putting your eggs in the Google basket. That’s very wise because it’s all moving towards machine learning and full-blown AI. The only way I know of how to beat an AI is to have another more powerful AI. That’s a tall order for the typical SEO practitioner. Tell us more about how you ended up with Shopify as an area of focus and maybe share some of the other strategies that you’re working on to stack on this S-Curve?
From ’09 to ’11, we did the authoritative sites where we would count on a gentleman named Sean Kavanaugh, who’s a pretty popular plumber. He ran a plumbing company, Kavanaugh Plumbing in Illinois. His father was a big a person in the unions in Illinois, Lipton Plumbing. I had done business with Lipton Plumbing since 1996. I called on Art Kavanaugh. I ended up getting Sean Kavanaugh, his son to write the content. For two years, we dominated the SEO search bar. In ’11 we shifted to buying websites. I had the honor of having hundreds of websites in a portfolio when Google decided to come out with the Panda and Penguin updates, which was a very fun time if you were doing everything right, writing appropriately. After pulling my hair out and going gray during the two years of the Panda-Penguin updates, we started to cook again. All of a sudden on August 5th, after accumulating 22 massive Facebook driven sites, some generating hundreds of thousands of dollars of net profit a month. They began a four-part algorithm change.
Months ago, after some severe soul searching, I decided to follow the advice of one David Corbin. David said, “Ken, you’ve been the driver for nine to ten years. Why don’t you humble yourself once?” This is exactly how he said it to me in a men’s group meeting. We were in Phoenix, Arizona at the time. He said, “Why don’t you humble yourself and get out of your own way and bring in the greatest experts in certain divisions, certain departments that you can find.” Lo and behold, I thought about it because I wouldn’t commit immediately. This is how disturbed I was at the time. For nine years, I built a portfolio of close to a thousand revenue generating websites. I did very well for ourselves and site partners. I’m constantly hitting my head against a wall. If I pause long enough and think like the book, Think and Grow Rich, I’ve always been able to think my way out of things. David sat me down and he said, “If you’re a pretty good thinker, don’t you think there are other amazing thinkers that could join your team?”
About a week later I called him back and said, “Where do you recommend I start?” He goes, “Why don’t you put a list together of the ten best SEOs in the world?” I did. I put a gentleman named Link Moses, who as we know has passed away. I made a list of some serious studies. They have qualifications. They had to write a book that not only was well-received but had to come out with another revision that people are still buying. They had to be a public speaker on the main stage that I have heard or my team has gone to multiple times. Of the ten that I put, only six qualified with the book and a public speaker. One of them was a cat named Stephan Spencer. After we interviewed a few of these people in person, there was only one guy we brought out for the live interview. It was a gentleman named Stephan. We decided to bring you on. It’s been amazing as you know that.
For your readers, some of the things that Stephan has done for us is first and foremost, I thought we built some pretty decent websites and I knew before you came in, 40% of our websites are physically broken. I used to brag about that because they would grow in rankings while physically broken. We were writing 9,000 pieces of content at the time. In your very first meeting with our company you said, “You guys have a choice. You guys can continue to write thousands of pieces of content or you could switch and write good content that people would want to read.” You paused for dramatic effect because you do. Everybody in the room would understand what you’re saying.
We did because we’ve had so many conversations of, “Should we slow down the pace of content and write bad to the bone content that would go viral or have a chance?” The first thing you did for us is you came in, you got us to rethink everything. We started writing much less but longer and far better content. You got us talking about keywords silos in a way that I never wanted to go down because it’s too detailed, too all-encompassing. I have to hire more people, but we did. We hired nine more people because of you. Thank you very much.
The current MO for your audience in case there’s anybody out there that might want to bug you. The last 90 days, Stephan has got into the heads of our main people and said, “You guys are buying a lot of websites and I’m not going to say you’re buying willy-nilly, but I see every possible type of website coming into your portfolio, half of which make no sense to me.” Some of them have toxic links, which you can’t avoid that sometimes. Some of them are on a tiny PBN. You can avoid that if they don’t tell you up front. We find that out later. The reality is the link and the domain equity don’t match the authoritativeness of the site if there’s an actual real person behind the site.
You have spent 90 days crafting a formula. You can’t say a perfect site to buy because every site has its own life and has its own personality. You’ve created a pro forma SOP for us that says, “These are the types of sites that probably relate to how you manage and would match your portfolio.” You’re now in the middle of taking that pro forma to go into an existing site. We have to make it better.” Step one for me was to get out of my own way, bring in some worldwide experts. We brought in David Corbin. He’s the guy that was a turnaround guy for Domino’s Pizza. We brought in yourself. We brought in a pretty great CFO. We landed Patrick Thean from Rhythm Systems. He consults to Unicorns, which is a privately held billion-dollar company. Both of those Unicorns came to him when they were at $100 million and $200 million. He’s now coached them over three to seven years to a billion. We have four pretty great leaders of gray matter on our call it quasi-board.Your master skill set is your area of genius. It grows exponentially because it's a gift of yours. Click To Tweet
When you guys came in, I was allowed to think differently and go back into my S-Curve ways. I said to myself, this is called the Brian Tracy question, “If I had to redo this again, would I hire the same people? Yes or no? Would I sell the same exact product to my site partner and clients?” The answer was unequivocally, “No way.” What I would do is I would only go after something I’m in total control of because of my experience with Amazon, Facebook, Shopify and Google Search. I began buying Shopify-driven websites, which are totally different than Amazon product-based websites. You have 100% control. Facebook could drive it. Google Pay-Per-Click could drive it. Google Search could drive it. Pinterest could drive it. Instagram can drive it. Anything can drive one of these Shopify sites. The backdrop is that you can still build email lists. You can still cross-market with other sites. You can still have affiliates and influencers drive to it. When I looked at a cross-section of our portfolio after four years of inching our way from $1.48 RPM, which is revenue per mil for your readers, revenue per thousand-page openings, $1.60-ish, which was up from $1.40. That’s abysmal because the last eighteen Shopify sites are averaging $61 RPM, not $1.60.
I had to get out of my own way and say, “I could fight this. We have a thousand-plus revenue generating websites, making $1.60 RPM. I now have eighteen from prior. We bought 21 the other day. We’re going to go to 100 very quickly within a couple of weeks.” It’s a humility thing. We’re known as a company for one thing, but to do an S-Curve, you’ve got to do it right and rip the Band-Aid off sometimes. We’re stacking an S-Curve of massive cashflow machines that have far less traffic and far more employees running them. We have a dream team of fifteen people out of Orlando now that matches our team we’re building here in Pennsylvania, plus our other team in Romania. We’ll keep ramping up as long as we need to.
That “Get out of your own way” mantra, the way I think of it is if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.
You better believe it.
You mentioned that I was flown in to talk to your management team. That’s a very rare situation where I fly out without having them as the client secured yet. I don’t do that. That was the first time I’ve done that in probably five years.
That was a fun day. Let me tell you for your audience. I wrote a book in 2013 that I’ve never promoted anywhere, but it sells every single day on Amazon. It’s like paper thin, Online Income: Navigating the Internet Minefield. It’s this tiny little paperback. I’m proud of it. It’s the story of our first couple of hundred websites. I pulled out my book. I sat it on the table and I’m like, “You guys know this is my book. I’m proud of it. It’s my baby.” I pulled out your book, which is bigger than a phone book. I dropped it on the table and made a 50-pound thud. I said, “This is a book. Let me introduce you to Stephan Spencer.”
I remember that. That was entertaining for sure. In fact, I’ve incorporated some of that into some of my speaking gigs. Depending on the environment and the audience, I might have my book there and then drop it on the stage and make a huge thud with it. That’s pretty fun. Other times I’ll pretend I’m going to throw it out into the audience. It’s a weapon. You mentioned Panda and Penguin and all the chaos that created, not just for you guys but for so many webmasters. Did you hire an expert to help you with Panda and Penguin recovery? For example, that was something that I was able to achieve for some clients, get them out of Panda penalties, Penguin penalties, manual actions. Not that was something I was seeking to specialize in getting penalized websites to work with me. It was pretty cool to figure out the black box. I love reverse engineering how Google works. You didn’t bring in anybody to help you?
I didn’t. We read every blog and I sent the team to every conference known to man. When I saw the chart that in one day an algorithm took 72% of ESPN’s traffic, it has never recovered since. They had to go to a paid model within 60 days to recover some cashflow from ad revenue.
I’m thinking that’s happening right now with a lot of these health websites like Dr. Axe, if you look at the graphs on SEMrush or Ahrefs, they fell off a cliff. It’s quality content and good a respected brand. They are decimated by that Google medic update.
Our MO is you can either fight or navigate. I learned early on you can fight an algorithm, you’re going to lose. You’ve got to navigate around it, find out if they’re lowering rankings over here, they may be higher in ranking somewhere else. We got pretty good at spotting what Google still appreciates. I can assure you my team somehow went into another direction or they’re in the middle of pursuing that.
Who are some of your coaches and mentors and some of the masterminds that you are part of or have been part of that help you to stay at the cutting edge?
I would say that my mentors are the four of you that I mentioned who are on our mini board. Outside of that, I am constantly either speaking in an event or flat out attending an event. If I’m speaking, and the only person who can verify this is with my wife, Kerri. Kerri and I make sure we go right to the front row and hear the other speakers because we believe everybody is a master in one area. We’re not and we can learn one thing from everybody. When I get into a personal jam, if I’m struggling with something, I dig right back into old Brian Tracy books or Bill Hybels. Bill Hybels runs Willow Creek Church up in Barrington, Illinois. It’s the fastest growing church, but it’s also a business and ministry that’s worldwide. His leadership principles, they’re ubiquitous to any type of business. For some reason, he drops nuggets that I’ve never heard anywhere, not even John Maxwell’s leadership books. John Maxwell has more shelf space in Barnes & Noble than any author in history in any category. All of his books are on leadership. My go-tos are Brian Tracy, John Maxwell and Bill Hybels for sure.
Have you gotten any coaching or training from Brian Tracy?
Brian and I connected many times. I was the Executive Producer of Maximum Achievement and his biography also. I was on a show but no direct coaching. Honestly, I can regurgitate everything he says. I don’t need to call him.
It’s just like I can regurgitate anything that Tony Robbins has said. He said a lot because I’ve gone to so many of his seminars.
Early on in the ‘90s, what motivated me and kickstarted me was I was in a car one day driving somewhere and a lady popped in the white tape. I couldn’t remember what am I listening to, but it was that baritone Tony Robbins voice from Unlimited Power. I immediately ran to the bookstore and bought the tape series. I got Awaken the Giant Within book. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that. I’m a book junkie. My 370 podcasts are because I’m either overhearing a growth nugget that I can clearly see as impacting somebody, so I’ll make a mental note of that or I’m reading a book and I double ear it at the top and bottom, which means, “I have to podcast on this topic,” because it impacted me and grew a business. I’m a book nut.
I love Brian Tracy as well. I’ve been listening to his awesome voice for decades since the days of cassette tapes as well. I have a blurb from him inside of The Art of SEO third edition. It’s a long a testimonial quote for the book. I’m big into seminars and conferences as well and learning from the other speakers. Oftentimes, you learned more in the hallways speaking with those speakers than when you listen to them from the stage. It’s a different conversation. A lot of speakers will hold back because they know that their competitors are in the audience. Whereas if you’re having a private conversation in the hallway or in a networking reception or at the bar, it’s a different thing entirely. What would be some of the big innovations that have happened in the last months from our working together and from the rest of that brain trust that you brought on the other three guys?
There are a couple. The first thing is, we brought in this guy, Patrick Thean from Rhythm Systems because I was speaking at Capitalism.com in Austin. I remember as I’m talking to people one-on-one and the crowds dissipating, there was this young man that never left. He waited to be last. I couldn’t understand why but he thrusts this book, Rhythm, in my face. He goes, “Yes, I’m a sales rep for this company, but I’ve never met a company that needed this software like your company.” I’m like, “What are you talking?” I have no idea what he’s talking about. There are so many other people trying to still talk to me and shake hands. I said, “If you wait, I’ll buy you a drink at the bar tonight. Wait for me. I don’t know how long I’m going to have to shake hands and all this stuff.” He did.Find out what you're supposed to do with your life; do only what you can do and delegate the rest. Click To Tweet
I ended up meeting this kid. He goes, “Here’s the deal, do you have about a thousand money-making websites?” I said, “We’ve got about 3,000. We own a couple of thousands of them ourselves.” You have a lot of moving parts. He goes, “Do you have more than 50 employees?” I said, “Yes, about 120.” He goes, “How do you do your meetings? How do you keep your people accountable?” I said, “We’ve got all this and all that.” He goes, “No. You need green lights, yellow lights and red lights.” As soon as he said this, this is a Jack Welch Six Sigma Technique that I’ve known about for years and I’ve been trying to get our team to implement it for at least six years. I said, “Any drink you want? What can I buy you?” Because I knew right now this kid is onto something. Rhythm, it’s taken up for months, but I’m going to log into a Rhythm software. Each of our main department heads partially for what you’ve asked them to do has an agenda of what they’ve given to me that they have to accomplish in the next 90 days.
I’ll give you an example with Sean The Content Guy. Sean is at 17,000 words in one division. I said to Sean, based on your model with Jonathan Hostetler of the keyword silos and the depth of posts. I said, “Sean, in 90 days based on the transition of content, what do you think is a reasonable goal that the content team can get to in 90 days?” He goes, “The goal would be 21 million words. We set the goal.” I said, “That is now green.” I said, ” What would be incredible if you hit the number, it would be amazing. Maybe you should even get a bonus financially if you hit it.” He goes, “I don’t know, 24 million words would be tough in a month.” I said, “That’s hunter green. What would be a failure if 21 million is the goal? You’re doing seventeen million now. What would be a failure to you?” He goes, “Honestly, anything under 21 million.” I said, “Let’s call it twenty million.”
Here’s the cool part of the software. I now log in and every single week, it breaks the goal into a weekly number. As Sean and his team update how many words are written, I can tell seven days in if that light is red, he’s on pace to fail. If the light is yellow, it’s between twenty million and 21 million. It’s not so bad. If it’s green, he is on track. If it’s hunter green, he’s ahead of schedule and he undershot himself. For the first time, I’m going to walk into a dashboard where all thousand websites, all 130 employees, everything going through this company, I’m going to look at twelve boxes. If anyone of the boxes is yellow or red, that’s what I click on. It then blows up and it breaks it into smaller department so I can see exactly what’s either on track, broken or misstated, misquoted.
To me, the way my brain is wired, I’m seven of the eleven OCD, ADD, ADHD dysfunctionalities. I’m not on Facebook. I haven’t opened it in five years because I can’t. I’ll get sucked in and never come back out. The point is with all of the moving parts of what we have going on, I’ll have twelve boxes that I can preset, turn the knobs and I’ll feel like Jack Welch at GE because that’s exactly what he had. He had fourteen boxes that were either red, yellow or green. That would by far to me personally be the biggest shift in the last six months. Once I see what you guys are working on in the last 90 days, I could speak to it, but I can’t. Sean even says it’s somewhat of a secret. I don’t know what the trick you guys have cooking. I’ve been out of the country and out of town for six of the last eight weeks. I’m not up to speed at all. That’s why I’m going to see the green lights.
You’re going to be wowed by what we’ve been up to.
I’m pretty excited. I know everybody else is.
We’ve had some bumps in the road. We had a surprise loss of a critical team member in your company that I was able to help to replace. We did a Vulcan mind meld where I spent seven days for at least an hour a day with the guy distracting all of his awesome knowledge and experience. I wrote up a big document from that. I also managed to replace him with someone fantastic. He used to work for me. We co-presented onstage not even a month later after you hired him. He worked for me when I had Netconcepts, when I had that agency. We co-presented at the NEMOA Conference, which you were supposed to be at but then you had to go to the White House. It was a good excuse. If you could share one last tip or takeaway for our audience, what would it be?
Probably the hottest thing I’m on right now personally and about to embark on a three-part training series for our people. I’m going to do a podcast series on it. It’s a takeoff something John Maxwell said years ago. There are countless studies on this. If you look at yourself as an individual and even your company, let’s talk about you’re an individual, you have certain skill sets that you’re very poor at and you have certain skill sets that you would call like Danny Sullivan calls your genius. This is your area of expertise, your God-given gift, whatever you want to call it. John Maxwell’s homework proves. Let’s take me for an example. I can’t sing. I am so bad. I sing so low, so low you can’t hear me or I’d sing tenor, ten or twelve miles away. I’m that bad, it’s embarrassing. You could give me the greatest coach in the world, and John Maxwell, his phrase is going to come true, which means, “Your poorest skill sets can only grow two points or 20%.” If I’m a three out of a ten for a singer, I’m probably only at one.
With the best coaching in the world, I can get my one to a three or my three to a five. However, where your poor skill sets grow additionally, your master skill sets or your area of genius, it doesn’t grow two percentage points or twenty percentage points. It grows exponentially because it’s a gift of yours. My gift is the area of a little bit of seeing around the corner, a little visionary stuff, a little bit of teaching. That’s my area of expertise. I can take something complex, distill it down into bite-size chunks so people are going to go, “I can do that. I understand that.” That’s my gift. The more I read about teaching, the more I read about conveying a message or seeking to understand people before I’m understood, the better I get. I’m about to go do a series that says, “Breakdown your personal skill sets right now. Quite frankly, what do you suck at? What are you awful at? Delegate that. Get it out of here right now. What are you amazing at?”
Physically look at your calendar, in the next five working days, when can you grow that area of expertise? If you think you’re an expert, set 25 Google Alerts to that area of expertise and let Google send you emails of every new piece of content written in that area of expertise. You’ll see how much you are not the most expert in the world of that space. You’ll grow so fast and what will happen, what happens to me every quarter is that expertise is exciting. I wake up early, I don’t need to sleep because I can’t wait to go do that because that’s what I’m supposed to do. All of a sudden, your calendar explodes with opportunities because you’re living in your area of expertise. The greatest thing I could leave this podcast with is to find out what are you supposed to do with your life and do only what you can do and delegate the rest.
You even delegate your phone. You handed your cell phone over to your team. You handed over your email.
I take it very seriously. The reality is some people don’t believe Tim Ferriss when he wrote The 4-Hour Workweek checked email Mondays at [2:00] PM, that’s all he does. He checks email Mondays at [2:00]. I take it very seriously. There is no digital electronic leash running my life. I run my calendar. Most people don’t do that. They email pings, text pings and they jump. They are very reactal and I’m very causal. It’s easy to be causal.
You mentioned Tim Ferriss. I love his book, The 4-Hour Workweek. He’s got other great books too. I interviewed Tim on my other show on Get Yourself Optimized and we talked about those sorts of concepts of being smart about delegating, the low information diet, which you’re subscribing to by not going on Facebook. I deleted Facebook from my phone. I’m very strategic about my use of Facebook and other social media. I don’t post myself for the most part. I don’t even know what I’m saying on Twitter because it’s my team that’s posting as me. I don’t log in there. It’s very important to stay focused and in deep work like Cal Newport with his book Deep Work, which is another great episode on my other show. I’m a big fan of Cal Newport. To my audience, take some action from this amazing material, all these insights that you got from Ken. We’ll catch you on the next episode.
Your Checklist of Actions to Take
☑ Be diversified. Strive to create different revenue streams that are able to scale independently.
☑ Learn to delegate. Focus on my core tasks and delegate the rest.
☑ Create a portfolio of testimonials on my website. Having social proof helps establish authority and credibility.
☑ Watch Brain Game’s episode called Social Proof and understand the power of influence. It’s a National Geographic show that focuses on the study of the brain.
☑ Constantly seek to learn. Surround myself with experts where I’ll have the opportunity to grow. Ken believes that everybody is a master in one area.
☑ Step out of my comfort zone and make the most of the events and seminars that I attend to by talking directly to the speakers.
☑ Listen to Today’s Growth podcast episode called Stacking S-Curves and gain powerful insights on how to apply this principle in my business.
☑ Grab a copy of Ken’s book Online Income: Navigating the Internet Minefield and transform my mindset on how to generate income on the internet.
☑ Identify my greatest skill set and work towards strengthening it.
☑ Visit TodaysGrowthConsultant.com and learn more tips on how to create a revenue generating website.
About Ken Courtright
Ken Courtright is the founder of Today’s Growth Consultant, a two-time Inc. 5000 designee with revenues that have doubled in each of the last 5 years. Started in 1992, the company is now an international, multimillion-dollar enterprise. TGC has worked with over 3,300 companies in 49 states.
Ken is the author of the upcoming book Guerilla Marketing Today, part of the best-selling Guerilla Marketing series, and best-selling author of Online Income: Navigating the Internet Minefield and co-author with Brian Tracy of Against The Grain. He is currently working on his next book Trust Trumps Everything: Why Your Digital Footprint Determines Your Income.