I’m a big fan of playing to your strengths. For me – that’s finding something interesting, iterating, building it, and moving on. For others, it’s really diving deep into a singular topic. For others, its programming solutions. We all have our skills (which you do have to nurture, but that’s for another day).

One common (and intelligent) approach is to utilize your existing network to figure out a problem they’re having – and solve it for them. Right there you have an existing pool of customers that you can utilize to build out your product/solution – giving you a quick proof of concept that you can expand to others.

On that note, when one is deeply entrenched in an industry, you will come across your fair share of hucksters (who seem to be doing financially well), and your fair share of brilliant individuals (who seem to be doing financially poor). Putting two and two together, a common solution is to build some kind of “master directory” that will serve as a way of weeding out the inferior/illegitimate, and highlighting the best.

Stemming from this realization, people often come up a grander plan, and we end up with a form of (local) search directory – a centralized location that a user can trust to find the best (and weed out the rest). Connecting professionals with customers.

Having a ton of hands-on experience with both local search and directories: You have no idea what you’re in for.

In the past month, I’ve actually had five people suggest a form of (local) directory in various niches of fitness/health, and ask me my take on implementing something like this.

And I can see the appeal – 3 years ago (after a 3 year hiatus from local directories), I was about to purchase a premium “trainer” domain to build a directory. Last year, I kicked around the idea of buying Dietitians.com for the same purpose. Thankfully, both times I realized the folly of my ways and gave up on it.

In no particular order, a few of the issues you face:

Chicken and the Egg

More than anything else, you will suffer from the chicken and egg problem. Your professionals won’t bother putting effort into your directory without visitors… and visitors won’t bother with your directory without professionals to sift through.

From a marketing perspective, you have two channels to target. One does not lead to another – you could have an amazing directory of personal trainers, but if consumers don’t know about it, no one will ever see it. You could be getting 50,000 visitors a day to your directory website, but if it’s not being promoted to professionals (remember, most of them operate offline), they won’t even know to add themselves to it.

This is it not conjecture – I speak from experience. I actually have a directory website that gets 50,000 visitors/day … and the amount of professionals that add themselves is a pithy number.

And when you add local, the headaches increase 100x. A strong foothold in one city (even a major one like New York) literally means nothing to a visitor from Chicago, or LA, or any other city. You literally have to win one city at a time.

Listings / Data

The Internet is like not like Rome at all – if you build it, no one cares. So how do you originally seed your directory? Do you input that data manually? Good luck – are you really going to cover an entire industry? Are you going to buy the data? Good luck – inevitably up to 20% of it will have significant errors… and fixing those can be an immense headache.

Plus you have to scale your data – unless you reach some modicum of compleatness (that’s a real word!), your directory will appear half-assed. And half-assed is worse than zero-assed.

Who remembers?

Google has been de-emphasizing directories for years now, and only continues to do so. So let’s say you need a lawyer – are you going to search google, or are you going to go ahead and visit Avvo.com? (a beautiful example of a local directory).

So even if you acquire a “customer” (defined as a visitor who comes to your site), are they ever going to come back? Are they going to tell their friends?

Even if you are some expertly curated directory, how will the customer know to trust you? Why would they trust you?

Who is going to pay?

And here’s the most important paradox – how are you going to generate revenue?

Whenever I asked this, the person responds “well the business owners will.”

Why would they? I mean, look at Yelp – well established, millions of visitors, millions of reviews. But if you’re a business – you literally have zero incentive to pay them. If you’re ratings are good, you’re already getting exposure, so why bother paying? If your ratings are bad, paying for more exposure is akin to shooting yourself in the foot.

Premium listings? Well, if you make professionals pay to fill in their profile, then why would they bother? And if they don’t bother, and handicap the “free” listing, why would customers use the website in the first place?

Are you going to try to charge users? Are they expected to pay to access your list of professionals? Other than AngiesList (which itself has financial difficulties), this is a model that has never worked.

So who exactly is going to generate your revenue? There are definitely potential synergistic ways of generating revenue, but you need some size before you can pull that off. In the meantime, good luck with marketing to two unique channels while you’re battling Google

Arbitrage is likely the only answer

About the only way to make money is to realize that most professionals do not understand the Internet. Someone like Travis Jones does really well in fitness because he understands how to utilize targeted internet marketing to generate revenue. So you can convince a business owner to pay you $10 per lead while you find them at $5 each.

But now you’re no longer running a directory. You’re a marketing company. And there goes your original idea of being a high class directory.

Something that has always baffled me is how big people’s egos get. And this is true in every industry I’ve ever been in – from online gaming to domains to local search to daily deals to fitness/health now.

Somehow there are people in this world who think making $10,000 a month or having 50,000 FB likes makes them a big deal.

I’ve met a lot of successful people, and I’ve found that the ones that do the best realize that they have an audience (I always perceive it as a serious audience), but that they (and their company) are not that big of a deal.

To use fitness/health as an example – Examine.com gets a decent chunk of traffic. ~30,000 visitors/day, so a million people a month. Impressive!

But then you look at Precision Nutrition. I don’t know their exact traffic count, but I do know their fantastic infographic on the cost of being lean got millions and millions of visitors over the span of a few days. Even more impressive.

But then you look at MyFitnessPal. Their 20 million visitors fetched them $475,000,000 from Under Armour.

Now that’s impressive.

And until you can pull something like that off, check your ego. You’re not as big as you think you are.

Next month, it will have been four years since I helped co-found Examine.com. A pretty simple idea (“Lets look at the actual evidence behind supplements and nutrition), it’s evolved into something a lot bigger – 30,000+ visitors a day, a monthly research digest, and generating over a million dollars a year. Over 1500 professionals rely on that research digest as a big source of nutrition education, and over 30 people contribute to the organization.

A legitimate success story. I was even recognized as a game changer. Who knew nerding out could be cool?

Yet my entire goal for 2014 was to extricate myself from the organization. Re-retire, so to speak. The logic itself was pretty sound: find people who are better than you at things you do, and empower them to do it. Both Kamal, Andre (our lead developer), and Carolyn (our new Director of Ops) have done a great job pushing me to the sideline and rendering me redundant.

So why did I want to get out? And why do I say no thanks to investments and making more money? Because it’s exhausting. Running an organization beyond a few people is a serious responsibility It’s a sobering thought to realize that 20+ people depend on you for their livelyhood … and that’s before you factor in any significant others and kids.

Everyone sees the upsides – more money, more notoriety, access to cool events. But what about the downsides? More pressure. More focus on the bottom line. Legal, HR, etc. Paperwork. Employee turnover. Less one-on-one connections with everyone. Less time for yourself!

I live a simple life. I live downtown in a major city in North America. I have no car, and I have a dog I love taking on walks. My only expensive hobby is traveling, which I already do a fair amount of (8-12 weeks a year).

Maybe it’s my immigrant mindset, but I just want to live a simple life. And running a larg(er) organization is the antithesis of that. And taking investments and targeting to make more money … just seems to feed into a beast I don’t want part of. If I already have the life I want, what benefits do I get from making more money?

So the money, the fame (hah), and everything else – if that’s what you want, cool. Seriously – we all have different motivations and goals. External investments and more money just don’t help me with mine. I think sometimes people forget that old adage of “work to live, not live to work.”

I recently finished reading The Art of Learning, and greatly enjoyed it. While I’ve always been pretty strong on the technical aspects of learning (eg precision practice, codifying routines, etc), my mental prowess when it comes to learning new things is one of my weaker points.

As I’ve also backed off more and more from Examine.com, I’ve been spending more and more time thinking about how one achieves success. Success itself is of course relative – a combination of desire, talent, time, and actual results. I’ve also been thinking a lot more about the mental aspects of it – motivation, enthusiasm, passion, and what not.

This background sets up something I’ve come to appreciate more – the quantified self movement may actually be helping you wimp out.

As someone with an analytical mindset (I did graduate as a computer engineer), I tend to love numbers and metrics. My initial move in losing weight was walking 10,000 steps a day. I have logs from the past ~5 years that cover my weight, the activities I did that day, and any other pertinent information.

So I was originally a huge fan of the idea of “tracking” my life – how well I was sleeping, how well I was recovering (HRV), and all that jazz.

The problem is we get caught up in these #s too much. For example, my highest HRV was 92 (on a scale from 1 to 100). Any time I had an HRV under 90, I had my built-in excuse – “I didn’t fully recover.” My lowest HR was 49. Any time was HR over 55, I had another built-in excuse – “I was still fatigued.”

Now I know that is not how HRV works. And I know that there are a billion factors that can affect my heart rate. But we are not rational beings. We do dumb things all the time, knowing full well that they aren’t good for us. And even though I knew better, my inferior HRV, HR, amount-of-slepe, or whatever, was still in the back of my mind.

“How you feel is a lie” is a common phrase thrown around by people in fitness, and I’m starting to believe it more and more. Greg Nuckols had a great write-up on the effects of perceived steroid usage. Basically people went to their coaches for some ‘roids, and were given placebos. Everyone got stronger. Then half of the people were told they were given a placebo. They proceeded to immediately lose their strength gains, while the other half remained as strong as ever.

The people who suddenly lost their strength gains – it’s not as if their muscle mass just disappeared! So if the physical was all the same, the mental game must have had a significant impact. And at the end of the day, there is an opportunity cost to how things impact you. What’s more important – spending 5 minutes a day figuring out your optimum omega-3 dosage, or spending those 5 minutes sharpening your mind?

The problem we have today is we are overloaded with information. We should be working on increasing our mental acuity, focus, concentration, and more. To me, the quantified self movement seems to be more problem than solution – the data may actually be shackling you.


John Meadows posted on Facebook how fitness model Jaco de Bruyn ripped off his workout program.

Jaco de Bruyn then posted admitting he ripped it off, and came to a business agreement with John.

Some time after that, Jaco backed out.

How the story unfolds, I don’t know. I can vouch that John Meadows is a class act. But what really grinds me gears is how he angles it as a “bad decision.” In the comments section, his fan boys go on about how it was a simple mistake, how he must be an outstanding person to fess up, etc etc.

What the hell? What kind of mental gymnastics are at play here?!

A mistake is when you accidentally write 79 instead of 97. A mistake is when you say “yes baby you do look fat in those jeans.” But copy pasting someone else’s work, passing it off as your own, and profiting isn’t a mistake. It’s malicious.

That’s not a bad decision – it’s a planned decision.

Not to mention, would Jaco De Bruyn have ever admitted to it if he hadn’t been caught first?

Plagiarism isn’t a mistake. It’s a deliberate deleterious act only done by lazy hacks.

Three months ago, Examine.com was sitting at above $700,000 in revenue.

With the recent launch of the Examine.com Research Digest (ERD), Examine.com is now a million dollar business. And cash-flow positive to boot.

I already covered the basics steps of what made us stand out. But you know what ERD was? It was us doubling down on what we do best – take nutrition research and make it accessible.

That’s the core of our mission. It just so happens that our focus has been on supplementation and nutrition, but if someone was to ask – “What is the problem you solve?” – the answer: “We break the ivory tower of academia”

It should be noted that by focusing on what we do best has done wonders for our traffic. We’re now at roughly 25,000 visitors per day – and we rely on no single source. We get a ton of traffic from Google. From Facebook/social media. From other websites. By making ourselves useful, we’ve gone a long way in shielding ourselves from relying on one source.

And speaking of relying on a source – I had previously posted how roughly 25% of our revenue for our Supplement-Goals Reference came from our affiliates. For ERD? Less than 10%.

It should be noted that none of this would have been possible without a fantastic team. I make talent/outlook my #1 concern – salary we can always figure out (part-time, equity, public speaking, whatever). This has then directly contributed to the quality of what we present, which has in-turn directly contributed to the amazing support we’ve had. That then generates more revenue, and it’s a nice cycle that continues on.

There are other lessons to be shared here. For now, we’re all happy that we’re making a dent in the cesspool of misinformation that is nutrition online.

To-Doned list

16 Sep

Tasks and todo lists – everyone talks about them. The satisfaction of crossing something off. Their never-ending nature.

I love todo lists. And not because they keep me organized or because of the satisfaction of crossing them out. Nope. I love todo lists because I save everything I did get done and keep it on record. It’s a shrine to all the tasks I have defeated in the past.

It’s pretty simple. I have a file called “To-Doned List.” Every day, first thing I do before I look at my email or Facebook or anything is I add an entry for the current date. Then, as I get shit done, I add them to my To-Doned List.

At the end of the day (3pm for me), I can almost always look back and say “I got a lot of things done today. Now it’s time to turn off work.”

On the few days when I don’t get much done… I come back the next day with a vengeance. And I obliterate everything in front of me.

Hell, aren’t we taught that positive reinforcement is the best? You know how they say death by a thousand cuts? This is like success by a thousand (tiny) steps.

Well this was convenient happenstance.

Men’s Fitness released their list on The Game Changers of 2014. Amongst that varied list, which included juggernauts such as Stephen Colbert (I love that guy), Pharrell, Stephen Curry (I love the NBA), was … me! Sol Orwell, “The Educator”.

First off – what an honor. I had originally thought it was a list of game changers in fitness, so I was thinking – yeah sure, Examine.com belongs in that list. Only when this went live did I realize that it was a bit more encompassing than that. And I’ll admit, it felt awesome.

After my last post (in which I called out people like the Food Babe and Tania Browne about their narcissism), I had about a dozen people ask me – is building your own brand bad?

Of course not

Everyone builds a brand. The question to ask – is the brand about your self or about your work?

As an example, lets consider my friend Eric Cressey. He’s a “brand.” He has his own fan page. BUT – when you think of him, what comes to mind? Rehabilitation. Baseball/pitching. Teaching. All based around his work, not around him.

When you think of magazine writers like Lou Schuler and Adam Bornstein (I’d include Sean but that’s just cheating hah), their brand is not about themselves, but about their nuanced writing. Their fans are fans because of their work.

I’d like to believe the same applies for me. Sure, you may like me, and you may admire my beard (seriously – the #1 compliment I get is about my beard from guys), but what you really like is what Examine.com is doing.

On the other hand, when you think of people like FoodBabe, what do you think of? Their constant screeching. Their self-congratulations. It’s as if they love to hear themselves talk. Mememe all the time.

Just look at Tania Brown on twitter – how exactly did she find time to tweet 45,400 times?!?! Across 5 years, that’s ~760 tweets per month, or 25 tweets a day!

I’m tired just thinking about tweeting 25 times a day, much less every day for 5 years.

At the end of the day, we all build our own brands, and we even have different brands of ourselves. Our family likely knows us differently than our friends who know us differently than our significant others. But – is your professional brand about you or what you can do?

This image actually made me laugh:

It’s been making circles around the Internet as a way of mocking the FoodBabe and her crusade against big-words-she-cant-pronounce (or comprehend).

And people like her are an easy target. She has no domain of knowledge, she shrieks at everything that seems intimidating, and she brings in a crowd. Then again, with a name like “FoodBabe” (how can you call yourself that and be taken seriously??), we don’t expect much.

At the end of the day, she’s building up what I call the “cult of mememe.” It is doubtful she really cares. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, she shrugs and keeps shrieking. Her only goal is to build up her Facebook and twitter followers (‘social capital’) in order to leverage both eFame and reallifeFame.

While a lot of people are fooled, the more cynical and educated tend to easily dismiss her antics.

My concern is with “educated” advocates who are also obsessive about the “cult of mememe.” These are people who, under the guise of being educated in the sciences, are still obsessed with their social capital and eFame.

I’ll use an example that hits close to home: Tania Browne.

Her bio states that she is studying in health sciences and statistics, and is interested in becoming an epidemiologist. From the face of it, you would think she would appreciate an evidence-based approach (like us!)

And yet when our article on The Guardian appeared, she jumped on it faster than the FoodBabe attacks BigCo, all under the guise of “I study science and blog at The Guardian and SciLogs.” She clearly did not know what she was talking about, but that did not stop her from using big words and making grandiose statements. She was so grossly uninformed that we even wrote a point-by-point rebuttal on how she could not even get the most basic of facts right.

My personal favorite? “I don’t read the full text of papers because that is why we have abstracts.”

Similar to the FoodBabe, she twisted logic and made noise without understanding basic science.

Similar to the FoodBabe, she didn’t care when evidence was produced that clearly contradicted her statements … instead, both seemed more concerned about getting attention and building up her social capital. Evidence was secondary to untrue comments that were getting precious retweets.

Unlike the FoodBabe, Tania Browne presented herself as an educated expert with a relevant academic background.

And to me, that is far more nefarious.

The Internet is devolving. And it’s more than just the media. It’s people’s obsession with social influence and being eFamous. With having followers who retweet and fans who comment and say how right you are (regardless of the truth).

It’s not the uneducated like the FoodBabe that are the problem. It’s the “educated” like Tania Browne who care more about being famous than about the truth.

Relevant: I’ve always abhorred the self-branding. And self-branding is particularly strong in fitness and health. It’s a big reason why Examine.com has always been about the actual research, not the individual behind it. None of our products ever have our names directly on it. You can look it up and find us (we don’t hide that), and we’re accessible… but we’re all part of something much bigger.

Over the past month or so, I’ve read The Console Wars (about Nintendo vs Sega) and Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (how Marvel got started).

A common thread between them is that the best thing to focus on was the product itself. For the consoles, it was “the name of the game is the game” … provided your game is good, everything else will be taken care of. A similar phrase applied to comic books (on a side note: reading the book on Marvel made me realize how unplanned comic book stories are. And how exhausting it all seemed).

Now, I may not necessarily agree with that (the Internet is not like Rome … if you build it, they will not come), but the overall premise is 100% true. Far too many people focus on fluff and ancillary stuff that doesn’t matter – web design, exact email verbiage, etc etc. Provided your core product is solid, people are willing to overlook your mistakes.

Do the small details matter? Yes. But far too often they are dealt with while leaving the core to rot.

About 3 times a week I have people I know email me suggesting that Examine.com should do this, or do that, and so forth. I love these emails – it gets new ideas percolating in my noggin and it also lets me see how others perceive Examine.com as. And yet always, at the end of the day, I come back with “our focus is on our research now.” Even our two products came by organically – the Supplement-Goals Reference from user demand to make it accessible in a large reference manner, and then the Stack Guides from users who said they just wanted step-by-step directions. Our upcoming third product is the same – fixing a problem we’ve had our users ask of us.

Don’t lose focus or get distracted by quick but not long-term dollars.