Some get into creating products in order to build a digital empire. Others are just looking to add a little cash to the coffers to supplement existing income.
In Brett Kelly’s case, his first ebook was definitely a side hustle for some extra income. He had no idea at the time that his Evernote Essentials guide would sell over 60,000 copies and land him a job with the popular software startup.
Eventually though, it was time to move beyond the world of employment. Brett used the income from his book to take some time off and regroup a bit before launching his next digital product … which completely tanked.
But the story doesn’t end there. Listen in on how Brett learned to embrace the fundamentals of his expertise to rebound with another successful digital product.
The Show Notes
The Ups and Downs of Digital Product Creation
Brett Kelly: My name is Brett Kelly. I'm a writer and independent content producer. And because I have tattoos all over my hands, I'm unemployable.
Voiceover: Welcome to Unemployable, the show for people who can get a job, they’re just not inclined to take one — and that’s putting it gently. If you’re a freelancer or a solopreneur, Unemployable is the place to get actionable advice for growing your business, improving your processes, and enjoying greater freedom day-to-day. To get the full experience, register at no charge at Unemployable.com. You’ll get access to upcoming webinars and more. That’s Unemployable.com.
Brian Clark: Hey, Everyone, Brian Clark here. Welcome to this episode of Unemployable in which we explore all of the good stuff needed for the freelance and creative entrepreneur lifestyle.
I'm here today with Brett Kelly, a tattooed gentlemen, as he has revealed already. He is in some sort of competition with Paul Jarvis who said he was unemployable, because he had knuckle tattoos. I hear you've got even better knuckle tattoos, Brett.
Brett Kelly: I would say that's true. I don't know that Paul would agree. We're supposed to have a boxing match over it at some point, whenever one of us gets to the other one's house. I’m not sure when.
Brian Clark: He is kind of the ornery type, so I can’t see him agreeing with you.
Brett Kelly: No.
What Is Your Background?
Brian Clark: All right, Brett, how about a little background on you? We know you're tattooed, but there's got to be more to the story than that. Give us the brief history of Brett Kelly.
Brett Kelly: For about 10 years, I was a software developer, starting in 2003, untrained, just a autodidact sort of guy. And over the course of that time, I started writing things. I had a personal blog that was crappy and I started another blog in 2006 that was about productivity and such like. Gained a modest following there. And over the course of that time, kind of moved around from job to job a little bit.
In 2010, I was working for a creative agency near here, making webpages and stuff. And I decided to write a book about an up and coming Silicon Valley darling called Evernote that I released in July of that year, 2010, that ended up doing phenomenally well. The book is still selling to this day.
I took a job with Evernote right before the book launched in May of that year. And I worked there up until May of last year, 2014. At which point, I cut the corporate, whatever, umbilical cord and decided to go out on my own and do my own stuff.
Since then, I've released a handful of things, some successful, some not. But yeah, that's the long and short of it.
Brian Clark: Yeah, the Evernote book I think is your primary calling card that we all kind of know you by. I was just looking around and saw that it sold over 50,000 copies. That's amazing.
Brett Kelly: Yeah. That's actually probably more like 60,000 at this point.
Brian Clark: And that was self-published, right? So you didn't have to share that with anyone. Good move.
Why Did You Write the Book?
Brian Clark: Again, you are kind of the consummate early adopter or early informer, if you will. Were you one of these early adopters with Evernote and you're like, “This is fantastic and I see an opportunity here. I'm ahead of the curve”? Or did you see like, “There's demand for this right now,” when you decided to write it?
Brett Kelly: Well, it was the first product I had ever made and sold on my own. When I decided to write it, I’m a little embarrassed to say, I didn't have some sort of grand vision of it becoming this massive thing. I was really just trying to get out of some credit card debt, and more popular Internet friends of mine had written their own books and stuff and published them themselves and made some dough.
I was like, “All right, I can probably give this a shot. I have a small audience, but people read my stuff. And I'm pretty well-known for writing about software and productivity and that kind of thing.” So, it seemed like a good fit.
But in writing it, I was just… I didn't have low expectations, but they were modest for sure.
Brian Clark: Yeah, so it was kind of like a side hustle to pay some bills that turned into a big deal.
Brett Kelly: Exactly.
Brian Clark: That's what everyone dreams of. You say that, but in the back of your mind, you're like, “What if this is huge?”
Brett Kelly: Well, I lay there the night before I launched it, I was lying in bed going, “Man, what if this thing really blows up? Like bigger than I expect?” And at the time, my “blows up” number was really way, way smaller than it actually ended up doing. But just letting myself kind of run around in that imagination for a little while was fun and exciting for sure.
Brian Clark: And you're constantly updating the book as Evernote evolves. Is that true?
Brett Kelly: “Constantly” may not be the right word to use. I was on a more or less annual update schedule up until 2013, and kind of had some personal crap happen. So, it's currently about two years old, which I'm embarrassed to say. But I am going to be updating it in the next couple of months.
Brian Clark: I think that's when I got it was the 2013 update, because I know it was the newest revised edition guide. It's been two years. Funny how time flies.
What Are Your Thoughts on Evernote?
Brian Clark: What are your thoughts on Evernote? You’re hearing some rumblings that the CEO wasn't really steering the ship. They're no longer a unicorn darling in Silicon Valley. I don't know how much of this matters in reality. Do you have a feel for it?
Brett Kelly: I think, in my time there I was involved to varying degrees with a handful of different initiatives they had like the Market, which was the physical product store they have, and a handful of other things.
I think now, the best way I can put it is: I'm really glad to see them getting back to focusing on the core product, because I do think Evernote is an amazing piece of software still. I still use it every day. And I feel like it kind of got left a little bit lying fallow for a while, while they explored other things.
And everything, from what I hear from friends who still work there and just reading in the news and stuff, it seems like they're going to be returning to making Evernote proper really great, which I'm excited to see.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I'm not a big software tool user. I'm very kind of minimalist and old school, but I cannot live without Evernote now. I mean, I curate with it, I to-do list with it. I don't think I would be able to remember anything. It's funny how that happens though. It just becomes ingrained in your routine to the point where you're like, “What if something happened to this company? That would be very bad.”
Brett Kelly: Yeah. Oh dude, I would have to reassign command control option on my keyboard, something new that just let me type whatever I was thinking. It's that reflexive for me. So, I share your affection for Evernote for sure.
How Did You Get a Job with Evernote Before the Book Release?
Brian Clark: So, you're writing the book, you don't release it yet and then you got a job with Evernote. How did that happen?
Brett Kelly: I actually emailed the general purpose email@example.com email address I found on their website. Basically because I wanted to make sure I wasn't going to get sued by writing a book that had Evernote in the name. I explained briefly what I was doing and I got an email back from Andrew, who is now the VP of marketing. He was like, “Dude, this is awesome. We're really excited you’re doing this. Would you mind keeping us apprised of your progress?” That kind of thing. I was like, “Oh, crap. Okay. Totally.”
So, I would email them revisions over the next couple of months. And as I was getting closer, I was like, “All right, well, here's the final product minus a few mechanical edits if I have to make them. But this is more or less what I'm going to ship.”
And they were like, “Okay, well, the CEO would like to talk to you.” I'm like, “Oh, okay.”
Brian Clark: Called into the principal’s office.
Brett Kelly: So, I take this phone call with Phil Libin, and he's asking about the book and we talked about a few things. And he's like, “So what do you do for a living?” I was like, “Well, I'm a Web developer” — at the moment, I was. He’s like, “Do you want to work for Evernote?” And I'm thinking, “Dude, yeah, I’d love to.”
So, we talked about what I would do. He’s like, “We need someone who can do Web stuff, but we also really like the writing that you do. We think that you could help out a lot with user documentation, that kind of thing.”
Basically, he offered me a job informally and then I got a formal offer a week later. So, yeah.
Brian Clark: Did they ever help promote the book?
Brett Kelly: Yeah, they promoted the living crap out of the book when it first came out, which was really helpful in getting it to the critical mass.
Brian Clark: This is just one of those stories that doesn't even seem like reality.
Brett Kelly: I'm sort of hesitant to talk about stuff like this, insofar as I’m asked to give advice about how to be an entrepreneur or whatever. My story is so crazy, and so many things fell into place at just the right time that I don't want to be like, “You can do this too. All you’ve got to do is blah.” Mine is not a reproducible formula really.
How Long Were You with Evernote?
Brian Clark: And often, that's the case. But the interesting thing is, on one hand, this could have been viewed as your dream job, and yet, you ended up going off on your own. So, how long did you stick around at Evernote?
Brett Kelly: I was there for a little over four years.
Brian Clark: Wow, that was longer than I thought. I didn't realize it was that long.
Brett Kelly: Yeah, I really enjoyed my time there. I mean, they were super accommodating. Because I don't live in the Bay Area, which is where everyone is based, when I got hired, I'm like, “I don't want to work up there. I can't move. I have a family. I can't just pick everybody up.” And they're like, “No, you can work at home.” “Oh, okay, cool.”
So I worked from home for four years and I would visit every now and again. But everyone's super cool and the company's great. Like not a bad word to say about any of them. But I didn't leave, because I didn't like Evernote.
Brian Clark: Yeah, no, I get that feeling. Like you're one of these people that, “I've got a good thing here. I'm going to split.” It's not like it was a miserable work environment.
That's what we try to do for our people too. They all work from home or wherever and we're not hovering over them. And generally, people find a great deal of satisfaction in that. In fact, I always say that we have a company of 60 unemployable people who just happen to put up with the minimal structure that we have.
What Was It That Led to Your Own Thing?
Brian Clark: So, really what was it? What was the calling where you were like, “Ah, this is cool, but I need to go do my own thing?”
Brett Kelly: I guess it was a combination of things. Because I have two kids and I'm in the middle of a divorce, not to make it awkward. But that kind of area and time of life was really rough and needing to –“Okay, what can I do to minimize my external commitments at this point? I want to be around my kids more.” Because running this book business, it's not a Tim Ferriss kind of deal. It takes a lot of time to sell things and do support and that kind of stuff.
Working a 40-hour week job and spending a lot of time working on the book business and just maintaining it, I was just strained and stretched really thin. So, it was more of a, “Look, I'm willing to accept whatever financial hit I'll take in the name of making a simpler life for me and mine.”
And I did have a lot of stuff that I wanted to make. Some of it is starting to come out now, and some of it will be coming out in the future. But I mostly just want a slower paced deal where I'm not constantly working and feeling like if I'm not working, I'm falling behind. And that was really my life for a couple of years.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I get it. So, it's more of a freedom thing and you were willing. As opposed to, “I'm going to go get rich,” it was, “I'm going to accept the consequences financially in exchange for more freedom.”
Brett Kelly: Exactly.
Brian Clark: Which surprisingly is exactly what I did in 2005 before I started Copyblogger, which is odd for people to hear, because they're like, “Wait a minute, you became exponentially more successful.” But that's because I was willing to let go of what was making me unhappy. It sounds like a no-brainer, but that's the hardest thing for people to do.
Brett Kelly: Well, it's such a risk. That's the thing. It’s like there's this guaranteed paycheck. Even if you have a job that you don't like, it's still like, “Well, every Friday or every other Friday I'm going to get this much money in my bank account more or less guaranteed.”
The ability to walk away from that, it's a little goofy to call it “courageous.” I mean, because it's a little stupid in a way, because it's like, “Well, I'm going to put maybe someone else at risk,” like your kids or whatever, “to try to pursue this fancy pants dream that I've got.”
I think you should be smart about it. I think it's a cool thing to do, but it's also super scary, but it's also exhilarating. And I think there's something to be said for, not to get all Carpe Diem, but Carpe Diem a little bit.
Brian Clark: Yeah, exactly. Like I always say, “It's not a dress rehearsal.”
Where Did You Focus Your Energy First?
Brian Clark: So, you make the leap, you've got the book rolling. Do you initially double down on focusing on increasing book sales or do you immediately go into development of the next thing?
Brett Kelly: Given the time of life that it was, I kind of went into hibernation for a little while. Did a lot of stuff with my family, did the bare minimum to keep the business going. I wrote a little bit, but I really kind of let the thing roll as it was and gave myself time to focus on the core stuff and then what I wanted to do next. I didn't run out and do the next thing.
The next thing I put out was not for several months and I think we're going to get to it, but it ended up tanking, which was funny.
But now I've kind of taken a little while and I’ve got a clear head and I'm looking at what's coming up next. And I thankfully was able to weather that storm financially and now, it's like, “All right, now I can think what I want my company, my nascent little one man company to look like in the next coming months and years.”
Brian Clark: We all know that even selling an ebook is not true passive income, as you've already alluded to, but compared to having a job or doing consulting where you’ve got to show up, you don't get to hibernate.
Having the option to step away, whether it be a day, a week, a month, whatever, that's not something to take lightly, the benefit of being able to do that. And you may sweat it a little bit thinking, “Is this going to dry up while I'm not paying attention?” But generally, it doesn't if you can make a good assessment of it.
What Was Your Next Product and Why Didn’t It Work Out?
Brian Clark: So, you did come up with your next product. Tell us a little bit about that and why you think it didn't work out.
Brett Kelly: Backstory is I was a cigarette smoker for about 15 years leading up until a year and a half ago or so. Before that, I met a friend of mine, Brett Terpstra (Internet people will probably know who this guy is, Mac guy). He exposed me to electronic cigarettes for the first time back in like 2012 or something. And I was immediately enamored, because I'm like, “Wait a minute, I can do the smoking thing without actually smoking anything and it's not really terrible for you.” And I got really excited about it.
So, that became a hobby of mine as a smoking replacement thing, but also just as a tinkerer kind of guy that I am. I thought, “Man, this is a thing that I've learned a lot about that whenever I encounter people they're like, ‘What the hell are you holding? Is that a lightsaber?’ They don't know how this stuff works at all, and it's really kind of you go into stores…” Anyway, the information was not accessible to a new customer or a new adopter.
So, I thought, “All right, well, I'm going to bang out a quick and dirty (I thought) guide to just understanding how electronic cigarettes work.” Because I'm watching this industry kind of explode around me. I'm seeing retail stores pop up. I'm seeing celebrity mentions of people who have gone to vaping from smoking, that kind of thing. So, I thought, “All right, this is worth at least a try.”
And I had a decent enough sized audience and list that I thought, “All right, well, maybe I can promote this thing and maybe it will do well or maybe it won't, I don’t know.” So, I wrote it, it'd been about, I don't know, four or five months writing it casually. I didn't hurry through it and I launched it. And it fell off the end of the aircraft carrier right into the deep.
I looked back on why that was, the reasons I think that happened. I had no presence in the market where I was trying to sell something. That was probably the biggest one, because I'm known as a technology productivity dork. I'm not a scientist.
Brian Clark: This was a big departure for you.
Brett Kelly: Huge, and the other thing that I didn't realize at the time was smoking is seen as a really kind of dirty habit by a lot of people. And I realized that, having thought about it for five seconds. But they're like, “Dude, why would you associate yourself with this industry? I mean, I realize it's supposedly better than smoking, but still people think it’s smoking. They think it’s gross.”
A lot of people were put off by that. I mean, it’s still on Amazon, you can go and buy it if you want to, but I think I'm working on two dozen sales at this point almost a year after I published it.
So, I learned lessons about researching a market before I try to enter it and I should have spent three or six months at least writing stuff about that topic and seeing how it resonated with the people that read my stuff, and trying to find other people who write about it, that kind of thing. So, trying to break into that market a little bit before I just drop a product in the middle of it as a stranger.
Brian Clark: What were you charging for it?
Brett Kelly: It was like seven bucks.
Brian Clark: I wonder if that's not the kind of thing that you give away for free and put affiliate links to Amazon.
Brett Kelly: The problem is Amazon doesn't really sell vaping-related equipment.
Brian Clark: Oh, they don't. I wouldn’t know. I don't smoke. Everyone faces these things and like, “Hey, what a great idea!” Okay, maybe not.
What is Your Newest Course?
Brian Clark: Okay, so carry on. We don't give up, we don't get discouraged. Tell me a little bit about your newest course, which sounds really interesting to me.
Brett Kelly: It's called Master Your Mac. It's a thing that I cooked up. I originally had the idea, maybe three years ago, I looked it up at OmniFocus where I keep all my tasks and stuff. The original date added for this thing was in August of 2012. So, it was just a quick makeup newsletter about how to do better at Mac stuff.
I came to the point a couple of months ago, I was like, “All right, it's time to make something new, something different, and I need to make something relatively quickly, because I need to make some money.” So, I thought, “All right, this Mac newsletter thing has legs, I think.”
I talked to some people including our friend Robert and refined the idea to not just be “How to use a Mac” for just anybody, because there's plenty of information about that, and Apple's actually really good at making the obvious stuff obvious.
But Master Your Mac is focused on the 201 level, the stuff you already know how to do, but faster and better and more efficiently. Focused on things like hidden features of the OS, keyboard shortcuts, automation, the kind of stuff that if you want to become more power user-like, this is the kind of stuff that I'm sending.
It's real simple, real easy. I send an email every week. It's five bucks a month and actually it's an autoresponder. If you sign up right now, you're going to get the first email. If you sign up a year from now, you'll still get the first email, and it'll just run you through this weekly course until it's over. And when it's done, you'll automatically not be billed anymore, you'll be unsubscribed from the list or whatever. I’m not making a gym membership here, where I’m going to bill you for the next 10 years until you notice you're getting billed.
Brian Clark: This gets you squarely back into your sweet spot, which is technology and productivity. So, people listening to this episode might be interested in becoming a Mac ninja as opposed to my mom who has no need for that. Right?
Brett Kelly: Right, right.
How Did You Decide on Pricing?
Brian Clark: How did you come up with your pricing? Five bucks a month seems pretty low.
Brett Kelly: Because the market I'm attacking, or the market I’m trying to sell to, is people who already use MACs. So, there had to be enough room, the price had to withstand some of the… I'm calling them lessons, the weekly emails.
Some lessons will be not applicable to some people. So, if I send you the “How to use command tab and command shift tab,” it's a pretty common keyboard shortcut in OS X, and you read that and you're like, “I know how to do that already. How much am I paying for this?”
If it was 20 bucks a month, then each lesson would need to justify the product's existence to the customer. At five bucks a month, it's cheap enough to where if two out of the four lessons you get in a month are kind of remedial or you already know how to do it, you're not going to be super bummed about it. Now, if you've gone through two months and you know everything I'm telling you, then you're probably not the right customer for this product.
So, I wanted the price to be low enough where people could sign up for it and the sticker shock wouldn't be super high. It would be well within everyone's impulse threshold to sign up and deliver enough value over the course of a month or several months that they feel like they got their money's worth.
What’s Your Best Advice for Shifting from Client Work to Products?
Brian Clark: Yeah, makes sense. I know a lot of people listening are maybe doing freelance work now or consulting or some other form of client work. And there's a lot of obvious interest in shifting maybe to start with an ebook or maybe develop an online course as the next step in the evolution. What's your best advice for those people?
Brett Kelly: Well, same thing you've been saying for years – start a list, start collecting emails. Write about the thing. If you want to sell something, write about the thing you want to sell. So, I write about technology and productivity, a lot and the things I sell are related to technology and productivity.
And if you have a list of people who — I feel like I'm just reading off a Copyblogger website right now — know, like and trust you and believe what you say is valid and you've shown that you offer value for free, they'll be a lot more willing to pay for it.
I would say, the other piece of advice would be: find the thing that you know that nobody else knows or that almost nobody else knows.
What do I mean by that? If you go into Boeing or whatever, and go and pick out some middle accounts receivable person, that person knows more about Excel than probably anybody but Jessica. You know what I mean? More than me, for sure. I don't know crap about Excel and I would love to know more.
If someone said, “All right, I am really, really good with Excel and I will show you how to use it, and I'll charge you, whatever, 50 bucks for it.” Okay, that means I don't have to go buy a goofy Dummies book or something. I can just be taught by an expert practitioner.
Find that thing, whether it's making your own bacon or you're making your own beer or Excel or flying remote control airplanes or whatever. There's something you know that almost no one else knows. And try to figure out what that thing is and if people will pay for it, then make a product out of that. Be different.
Brian Clark: You have a development background. Do you think software's your next step or are you pretty much happy in the information realm now?
Brett Kelly: It's funny, the grass is always greener. When I was doing more writing at Evernote, I wanted to do more programming. When I was programming, I wanted to do more writing. Like the two, I really love both.
I haven't programmed in earnest in probably, I don't know, a year and a half, two years now. And I do miss it. I've got a couple of things that I've thought about building. The only reason I haven't is mostly because I want to keep my operation very lean. And when you start selling software, that is going to throw a really big spike in your support queue and cost.
At this point, it's not just about how clearly I can write, it's about how smart I can make the software that I write and that's a whole different ballgame.
So, I don’t know, eventually maybe. I've got a couple of things that I think would do really well actually if I had the time. But I don't want to get to the point where I need to pay a person or two full-time to support the thing that I make.
I don’t know, put me down for a “maybe” in the software stuff. But for right now, I'm happy dumping out English and having people like it, hopefully.
Brian Clark: Excellent. All right, Brett, I appreciate your time. Best of luck with the Mac course. We'll link that up in the show notes. Also, of course, the classic Evernote book, which I can personally recommend. Taught me more about Evernote than I actually remember. But it's a really great resource.
All right, Brett, take care. Everyone out there, we will talk again soon. Keep going.