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.

I’ve been interviewed quite a few times on a variety of podcasts and websites, and when asked about my workflow, my rough answer:

I work 4 days a week. Each of those days I: work 2 hours, 1 hour break, work 1 hour, break/nap 30 minutes, 1 hour work, done for the day. I get more done in those 16 hours a week than I would in 30 hours.

It seems counter-intuitive that working less is more productive (this is where I tangentially note the counter-intuitive nature of raising prices and earning more while driving down support requests and headaches), but this is the basis of Parkinson’s Law:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

What a beautiful quote.

I’m sure you remember the days in high school or university where you would procrastinate writing an essay or studying for an exam until the last moment, and then become highly focused and just crush it (or alternatively, crash and fail spectacularly).

The same situation is in play here – when I know that my time is limited, I work tirelessly. When I know that I have an hour coming up to read sports news, dick around on Facebook, go sit on my sofa and read a book, or go for a casual walk with my dog, I make the most of my work time.

I am also not beholden to specifics – if I end up working into my break-time, or my break-time extends into my work-time, I don’t stress over it.

The best part of this hyper-focus is the balance it brings to my life. I’m constantly learning and doing things that have nothing to do with work, which further fuels my creativity, ability to focus, and stay motivated. I open up my inbox on Mondays and absolutely crush it, leaving inboxzero in its wake.

Most importantly, when I do have to put in the hours (for a launch or something similar), it’s still done at a high level. Every 6-9 months I can turn my afterburners on and just annihilate what’s in front of me for a week or two of 16 hour days.

Next time you find yourself wasting time, remember Parkinson’s Law. Work to live, not live to work.

But we all already know that right?

I just finished reading Ryan Holiday‘s book – Trust me, I’m Lying. In some ways, it reminded me of the things I used to do in the early 2000s when it came to MMOs, but that’s for another day.

The book was basically two books in one – Book 1 covering how to manipulate the media, and then Book 2 covering what a shit show the media is.

The entire thing is depressing. But it’s also a great read because it doesn’t mince words. It doesn’t pretend that online media is a noble cause out there to get the truth out to the masses. That it’s about responsibility. That it self-corrects. Because let’s be honest: it isn’t.

I’ve said for a decade that the media is neither good, nor bad. It is neither Left nor Right. It answers to one god: Sensationalism. Which leads to traffic. Which leads to revenue. There’s a reason why crazies who say stuff like “if you were on a ketogenic diet you would never get cancer” – because it follows the equation: Sensationalism -> Traffic -> Revenue.

Rinse and repeat.

I remember how 8 years ago a story hit the Internet – “Muslim community offended by Apple NYC Cube’s similarity to Holy Kaaba.” It spread like wildfire across the tech community and the Right Wing blogosphere. It was originally unsourced, until it was revealed that the “source” was some random post on a forum. The “one unverified idiot on forum” morphed into “Muslim community” in 60s flat. And when we reached out to some of the bloggers who had breathlessly reported on this story, we were met with outright hostility. I remember one even said “well the Muslim community should reach out to me then.” Why the hell is the “reporter” not double-checking his own work (an issue Ryan constantly harps in his book)?!?!

I won’t even get into the comments (another thing Ryan touches on) and how it just fanned anti-Muslim hysteria. And how not a single blogger bothered to update it. Well, one did change the headline from “Muslim community offended by Apple’s Fifth Avenue NYC Cube” to “Muslim community offended by Apple’s Fifth Avenue NYC Cube?” – that’s some quality investigative journalism.

Get the book – it’s a great read. I even told my friend Lou Schuler (tangent: Lou is such a big deal he has his own Wikipedia page) to get it. And Ryan doesn’t talk in abstracts – he calls out specific people. His call outs on Arrington of TechCrunch made me laugh because I remember thinking the same things back in the day (I wonder if Ryan knew that Arrington originally made it big via domains – he was CEO of Pool.com – which made his raging hypocrisy against domainers even more laughable).

But you don’t have to be (full of shit)

The book spoke to me. I’ve turned down a dozen plus VCs because I have no interest in chasing (or trying to become) the next big thing. I have no desire for the endless cycle of exposure. After my experience 8 years ago with the bogus Apple store, I basically stopped trying to do anything “news” worthy.

Ryan captures my views:

Meanwhile, smaller sites that have built core audiences on trust and loyalty sell out their ad space months in advance. They have less total inventory, but they sell all of theirs at higher prices and are more profitable, sustainable businesses.

Examine.com will never be as big, say, LiveStrong.com. Our team will never be as famous as Dr. Oz. BUT – we will be profitable and sustainable.

Which is all I care about anyway (that, and long relaxed walks with my doggy).

Revenue in Examine.com’s first 2.5 years of existence: ~$10,000

Revenue in the past year: $700,000

I’ll likely write more about this later, but the basic steps were (this post was inspired by Adam Bornstein’s post on top 5 ways you’ve known you made it):

  • I harnessed my career capital (knowledge in building up websites).
  • Conversely, I did not try to do things I had no domain of knowledge in (research). I know more than the average person, which is important so we can discuss issues and come to better understandings, but at the end of the day, the business decisions were mine, and the research findings were not.
  • I built up an awesome team – both directly involved in the company and people who I could turn to advice for.
  • We took the long long road. Seriously – it’s amazing how much money supplement companies offered us. Hell, we’ve been told we could be iHerb’s #1 affiliate, which would net us ~$50k/month
  • We didn’t spend on useless things. Relevant to the point above, Kurtis was pretty fantastic about keeping his costs to a bare minimum as we built up our reputation.
  • In fact, I’d say our #1 focus was quality and reputation. We were in no rush to release a product. We were in no rush to sell to our audience. We showed them we were about value.
  • We focused on something we could sell every day, not just during a hyped-up launch period. Having experienced a dozen+ fitness product launches in the past few years, I can tell you that most products make 75-90% of their revenue in the first 10 days they launch. For us, that # is lower than 20% (and affiliates generated maybe ~25% of the launch sales).
  • We acted big. We tried to be professional from day one. Now that we are big, it feels like a comfortable suit! At the same time, I’ve tried to be as accessible as possible (and now so is Kamal).

Slowly but surely we carved out our own niche, and eventually became so good they couldn’t ignore us.

One of my favorite stories goes like so:

A company was struggling to fix one of their machines. They had wasted quite a lot of time before bringing in an expert.

The expert looked around for a few minutes, took out a screw from his toolkit, screwed it in, and voila – the machine started to work flawlessly.

When the company received the bill a few days later, they were astounded – $50000! Asking for an itemized breakdown, they received:

$3 for screw, $49,997 for knowing where to put the screw

This is one of my favorite stories to tell. Too many people put value in the hours that are put in, totally discounting the amount of experience that lays as the foundation of those hours.

Way back in the day, I used to do SEO for HostGator.com (fun fact: I actually provided Brett with his initial seed funding for HG when I bought a website of his back in Dec 2002). He paid me a large amount, and in return I got him results (he was top 5 for “web hosting” “reseller hosting” and “dedicated server(s)”). The results ended up speaking for themselves, but he wasn’t paying me because he knew I was putting in 35.6 hours per month or because I gave him a fancy report that had colorful graphics.

He paid me because of my heavy experience in the marketplace. He paid me because he knew that I knew what I was doing.

In return, my (expensive) experience turned out really well for him… he made far more while he focused on the business itself.

Stop focusing on things you have no experience in. Find someone who does and empower that person to help you.

Keeping this short and sweet – if you run a professional organization, you need to measure and track. And not only that, you need to know why you are tracking and how it helps you.

This past weekend, (Dr) Spencer Nadolsky was up here in Canada (fact: Canada >>> USA), and we were hanging out with some other people at a pub. The conversations ran the gamut of life, and at one time someone was telling me how his post got 3x the likes as another post did. I had to interrupt him almost immediately:

Who cares?

Now I wasn’t being an ass, but when it comes to tracking useful information, “LIKEs” are about as low on the totem pole as you can get.

Exhibit A: Do you need to eat 6 meals a day? – 121 likes, 51 shares.
Exhibit B: Hardgainers: a myth – 68 likes, 27 shares.

Look at just likes/shares, the simple conclusion is: Exhibit A was 2x more popular than Exhibit. But how many clicks did each link actually generate?

Exhibit A: 697
Exhibit B: 1297

So even though A got 2x the “social love” as B, it got 0.5x the actual clicks from B.

And even then, clicks are a mediocre metric. Did the visitors come back? Did the visitor sign up? Did the visitor buy something? Did the visitor turn around and spread the word on your site? Did the visitor search for something on your site (studies show that a visitor who searches on your site is far more valuable than one who doesn’t).

And so forth and so forth. If you are not factoring in metrics (and then using them to optimize for conversion, whatever you define as conversion, you’re literally swimming in the dark).

Beep beep.

4 Feb
2014

I recently learned that Google has an account activity summary, which neatly summarizes your usage of their various products (email, youtube, etc etc).

This is what came up for my email:

I tend not to work on Fridays (they are my reading days), and I really try to skip Saturdays and Sundays. If we equate the 3 of them as one day, 1190 emails over 4 weeks equals 59.5 emails/day outgoing and 72.85 emails/day incoming.

I write 60 emails a day (and these are all for my @examine email, not my other stuff)

This isn’t a humblebrag, but it’s some real life numbers that success does not happen overnight. My friends have long nicknamed me “Relentless Sol,” and my email frequency shows why. I’m not chasing one big success, I’m chasing 25 little-wins.

Still, I’m not suggesting you try to chew off more than you can handle. I’m simply saying that people get so infatuated with getting a big break (be it getting mentioned in a mainstream magazine, getting tweeted by a quasi-celebrity, getting a link from a popular blog) that they lose sight of the big picture: success is incremental, not an overnight explosion.

I know it’s cool to “prioritize” your email these days, to talk about how using the phone is superior, to disconnect. I’ve taken the opposite tack – I answer any and all emails promptly, I keep my inbox zero, and in the hours I do work (roughly 5 hours a day), I go full throttle.

I also invest heavily in courses and specific coaching, but that’s for another day.

Your mileage may vary.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted an update on Examine.com (four months or so), and quite a lot has happened since then.

To say we’ve aggressively expanded would be a slight understatement. The Supplement-Goals Reference Guide has (and continues to) sell like gangbusters, which has given us a pool for funding continued aggressive expansion.

From the start, I’ve espoused the view that you have to become so good that they can’t ignore you. Based on that, when the spigot of cash flow opened up, our only consideration was – how can we bolster our research team?

We hired more researchers. And not just anyone – we made sure they came from multiple disciplines. It was important to not only hire smart people, but smart people who came from different modals of knowledge, who had experience in different facets of research involving health and nutrition.

That’s our base. That’s what makes us so good. But I’m also pragmatic – I realize that to ensure the smart guys can focus on what they do best, they need support.

So for the past few months I’ve been working on laying the groundwork. My activity level on extraneous stuff like Facebook has plummeted while I’ve been painting a coherent picture. A fuzzy image is finally being brought into focus.

As of right now, we’re receiving roughly 15,000 visitors every day. We are constantly referenced by fitness professionals, enthusiasts, and laypeople alike. As far as I know, every single major fitness magazine is well aware of what we’re trying to do. People are sticking around – we get over 2.5 page views per visit, over 150 seconds on average are spent on our site, and the #1 keyword people use to find us through search engines is “examine.com” (with “examine” right behind it). Our Facebook page has almost 17,500 fans, and our Twitter has over 4,000 followers. All of this due to the small images in our menu bar.

That’s where we are today. In 2014, I have two major goals:

1. Assemble a team. We have our researchers, now it’s time to get everyone else in place – be it a CTO (to work on our upcoming version 6), a copyeditor (to help standardize our writing and create a style guide, to look over our English, etc.), or all the other little holes that need to be filled.

2. Systematize and re-retire. Anyone who has ever talked to me or listened to any of the interviews I’ve

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done knows I’m a fan of finding smart people, empowering them, and letting them focus on what they do best. Once the team is assembled, the rest of 2014 is about getting all the niggling details out of the way. I firmly believe that most inefficiencies can be removed through intelligent programming. The codebase should eliminate the annoying and the redundant, and let the person focus on what they’re best at.

Once that is all in place, it’s time to remove myself from the system. I’ll likely stay involved in business development and strategy because the direction we go is extremely near and dear to my heart, but everything else will be taken care of by people better than me. One of the hardest parts about seeing your baby grow is trusting that they can not only survive without you, but thrive without you.

And I am going to give it that trust. Within 12 months, my day-to-day involvement should be minimized.

Examine.com has become much bigger than Kurtis or I. We couldn’t have done it without your support, and I hope everyone who reads this continues to do so – it is very appreciated.

So we’ve had a fun 3 weeks. Our S-G Reference keeps selling, our traffic keeps growing, and things look good. My biggest fear is that we forget that while we know stuff, there is a lot more we don’t know.

A nice problem to have.

But not why I’m posting. I’m posting here to expand on the Why I do what I do post.

The story is simple. I’m an immigrant. I worked my ass off in high school and university (went to university on full scholarship; lost it within the first semester), continued to work my ass off a few years after, and then opted to retire. By no means was I rich, but I was well-off, the sites ran themselves, and I wanted to have adventures now instead of 20 years down the road.

And that stuck. For a while. I guess the drive that made me work so hard came back. And so while I had my mid-life crisis around my mid-20s, my “I’m going to die and what is my legacy going to be?” crisis seems to have hit me in my late 20s.

I’ll admit, Examine.com started off as something cool to do, but it has morphed into something more. I keep harping to the team that we now have a legitimate responsibility – when 10000+ people are visiting your site every day, you need to make sure you aren’t like so many other hucksters and charlatans, all focused on separating money from their respective visitors. We’re building something cool, and we can’t fuck it up.

We get contacted by supplement companies all the time. The standard response is: “We are independent, neutral, and un-biased. The moment we work with you on that, we lose our direction.” But the other day, I did talk to a guy who ran one (he works with a good friend of mine). And you could hear the incredulity in his voice when I talked about how our interest is not in making a buck, how we are making enough every day (30+ sales per day of our S-G Reference, the math is easy!), and how we’re more focused on being useful than anything else (and thus why our first hire will be another researcher). He was left stammering.

I don’t want eFame (though I will admit being on Ahhnold’s site tickled me plenty). I’m not after money (my share from the S-G Reference? Low low low 4 digits). I just want to build something cool.

Kamal Patel told me the the following a few days ago: “Also…got back from a doctors appointment where we were talking about sleep supplements. I mentioned examinecom, and he goes “oh yeah, i’ve been there before”

Most people in fitness build their own brands (and I fully appreciate why they do that). I want to build up Examine.com. I want it to be much bigger than Kurtis or me or anyone else.

Over on Dr. Oz’s blog, a post went up late last week titled: You Wanted to Know: Sweeteners. For those that follow Examine.com, you know that our viewpoint is that sweeteners are fine for you (note: just because something is not “bad” does not mean it’s good – it simply is neutral).

I’m used to reading sensationalism when it comes to stuff like this, but for once, Dr. Oz linked to a study as his proof that sweeteners cause cancer: Artificial sweeteners and cancer risk in a network of case–control studies.

What makes this blog-worthy is that the actual conclusion from the paper:

In conclusion, therefore, this study provides no evidence that saccharin or other sweeteners (mainly aspartame) increase the risk of cancer at several common sites in humans.

How is that not hilarious? “Sweeteners cause cancer; here is my proof, which by the way, says the exact opposite”

I commented on the blog post on how the study directly contradicted what he claimed. It was at 20+ likes by the time it was removed.

Talk about willfully sticking your head into the sand.

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