Ramit Sethi and I both blew our college money on stocks, and neither of us know what sports season we are in. Here’s one way we are different: Ramit’s personal finance blog, I Will Teach You To Be Rich, gets hundreds of thousands of visitors while Lauren and I are still carving out our small corner of the internet. I invited Ramit to WriterViews to find out the specific strategies he used (and still uses) to grow, manage and monetize his blog – which, as you’ll find out, he was incredibly open about.

After this interview, you’ll be able to:

  • write guest posts that bring you tons of traffic [9:53];
  • write higher quality and quantity of posts in less time [26:40];
  • connect with the people you admire [35:35];
  • monetize in ways that pay more than your rent [43:10];
  • run a top blog and become a New York Times Best Selling Author [59:30].

Here’s the interview:

Interview Resources:

Tweetables:

Q: Who said “keep your blog traffic high with a catcher’s mitt”? A: http://bit.ly/l7ZQBx | >> TWEET <<

Q: Who said “emails are my laboratory where I test different writing techniques”? A: http://bit.ly/l7ZQBx | >> TWEET <<

Q: Who said “never make a busy person do any work”? A: http://bit.ly/l7ZQBx | >> TWEET <<

Q: Who said “people try to monetize too fast… give people 100x before you even ask them for anything”? A: http://bit.ly/l7ZQBx | >> TWEET <<

Q: Who said “people are willing to pay for value despite those few idiots complaining not everything is free”? A: http://bit.ly/l7ZQBx | >> TWEET <<

Interview Transcription:

Michael: Hello everybody, this is Michael Alexis, producer of WriterViews.com. With me today is Ramit Sethi, who is the writer behind the incredibly popular personal finance blog, I Will Teach You To Be Rich (http://www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/), and the best selling author of the book by the same name. Ramit, thanks so much for joining us today!

Ramit: Thanks for having me.

Michael: Now, Ramit, my first question to you is: what is the first writing you did with the intention that somebody else would read it?

Ramit: When I was in junior high or high school, my parents always had this funny phrase. They would say, “Why don’t you just write that up?” We would be talking about something, and I’d have some idea, and they would say, “Why don’t you just write that up?”, and then they would encourage me to submit it to the newspaper. At that time, my local paper was the Sacramento Bee, so I did, and a couple of times I ended up getting published in the Teen section in the back of the Scene section. I still remember the little thrill from seeing my name in the newspaper, and I think that has kind of carried over from there.

Michael: Right, that sounds like that would be very exciting, and it’s nice that you have that encouragement from your parents. Now, how did that evolve into blogging?

Ramit: Well, what happened was my parents said, “If you want to go to college, you need to get scholarships”, because they didn’t have that much money to pay for four kids to go to college. And so I build this system to apply to about 70 scholarships. The first scholarship cheque I got was for about $2000. I took that money and I invested it in the stock market, because that’s what everyone does, right? They invest their college money in the stock market. And I lost half that money immediately. So I said, “OK, I better learn how this money thing works before I loose all the rest of my money.” I spent the next few years learning about money, while I was also studying about persuasion, bargaining, negotiation, social influence, magic, deception, cults, all about human behavior. I finally one day came up with a course, it was a 1 hour course, called “I Will Teach You To Be Rich”, because I was this cocky college kid. Well, my friends would be sitting around the dining hall complaining about their 10th overdraft fee this year, I would say, “Hey, you should come take my class. It’s free, it’s 1 hour. I’ll tell you the basics of what you need to know.” Everybody would say, “Oh, that sounds awesome!” But then they would never show up. It took me years to understand that people will say one thing and do another. So after about 1 1/2 years of really emotionally draining having no one come to these things, I finally started a blog. I just felt that I had material that the world needed to hear, and that’s why I started iwillteachyoutoberich.com.

Michael: That’s funny that you mention the stock market thing, because I’ve recently graduated and I had the same experience. Now, a couple of questions come out of what you’ve just told me. The first one actually – before we started this interview, I chatted with Andrew Warner of Mixergy.com, and he said that you are somebody that gets a lot done because you are really good at systematizing your work. As you just said, you systematized, you created some sort of system for when you were applying for scholarships. Can you tell us a little bit about how you do that?

Ramit: Yes, this is the first time I’ve actually revealed it than just hinting at it on my site. This is probably the system that I’m most proud of; not my book, not this or that, but it’s actually my scholarship system from high school. I’ll tell you what I did. The #1 thing I realized was that there’s so much money sitting out there for scholarships, and they actually want to give it away, and people don’t apply to it. People will create a variety of reasons for why not to apply to it – they will say, “Oh, I could never get that, my parents have too much money. My grades aren’t high enough. Blah, blah, blah.” They literally discount themselves before they ever put pen to page. So I said, alright, I’m just going to apply to a ton of these. What I did was, I went to the career center in my high school library. I dug out all the different scholarships, photocopied them, came up with the dates, etc… Back then, I think I was a pretty decent writer. So, what would happen is, the essay prompt would say, “Tell us about someone you would have dinner with, dead or alive.” I would write the answer to that, I would write a really good answer. I would test it, showing it to people, and say, “what do you think? How can I strengthen this?” And then, after I had this final, you know, beautiful piece of prose, I would send it away, but I would keep that essay. After doing this about 5 or 10 times, I actually had basically 5 or 10 essays on totally different topics, so after that, essentially every other scholarship that I had, I could just cut and paste from modular parts of those essays. So it got to the point, where each scholarship was taking less than an hour to fill out and that’s basically how I paid my way through undergrad and grad school at Stanford.

Michael: Right, so you put in this enormous, or large amount of work up front to create these 5 or 6 different drafts, you proved that they worked, and then you combine them in different ways so you could turn 1 hour of work into several thousand dollars in scholarships.

Ramit: Yes, but you have to understand that probably the most important part of that is the psychology. It’s not the tools I used. That’s why these days, people are always like, “Oh, should I use Twitter? What about my email software? What about Facebook fan pages?” That’s like asking me what type of filing folder did I use for my scholarship organization. That has nothing to do with it. What has to most to do with it is the psychology, and that is saying to myself, you know what, I’m actually going to apply to everything, I’m not going to discount myself at all. If there is a Burger King scholarship, I’m going to apply to that. If there is a [] scholarship, I’m going to apply to that. Just saying to myself, I’m going to give myself the opportunity to win, rather than creating a list of reasons why I can’t get it. I say that with a lot of people, and I continue to see it. In fact, I started a scholarship, a modest scholarship: it was $1000 to give away to people from my own high school. It is free money, and exactly 0 people applied to it. So the psychology is far more important than the tactics I used.

Michael: Right, now that actually leads into your assumption testing, which is something I want to talk about later on. Let’s see if we can draw this back from personal finance and into writing, and say during your initial years during your undergrad, you realized you could set up these processes. You got the psychology behind it. How do you apply that then to your writing today? How does that go into I Will Teach You To Be Rich?

Ramit: Well, I think I spend a lot more time being curious about what do people want, what do they say they want, and what do they actually want? So, back then, just like any young person, you have so many ideas and you think the world needs to hear it. Well, that’s good, that’s really good. Unfortunately, there’s like 10 million people like you who think their ideas are the best in the world. I think I’ve tried to forced myself to be a better listener, and I’ll give you some specific examples. In money, it’s so easy to simply tell people what they should do. In my opinion, when you start using the word “should”, you’ve already lost. So for example, “you should keep a budget”, “you should stop spending money on lattes”, “you should not buy those expensive shoes”. Well, all of those are things that sound perfectly rational. Unfortunately, they just don’t work. They are things that “Personal Finance Experts” have been saying for the last 30 years, and you simply look at any financial literacy statistics and you will see that they don’t work. Instead, what I try to do is use extensive different types of surveys, qualitative, quantitative methods to actually listen to people and hear what is holding them back. Let me give you an example. People will say, “Yeah, I just got hit with another fee, I don’t know what to do”. It would be really easy for me to say, to write a blog post saying, “Just call up your banks and just negotiate, you can get those fees removed.” Well, when I listen to people, they were like, “Yeah, I really should do that…”, but basically it didn’t sound like they were going to do it. So I dug in more: “How come you’re not going to do it? What’s holding you back?” What I discovered was, Americans suck at negotiating. We don’t know anything about it. We’re intimidated by it, we think it has to be antagonistic. If we have all these bad connotations of it, so one of the thing I did in my book and on my blog, was I wrote the word-for-word scripts that I’ve used to successfully negotiate with banks, credit cards, gyms, everything. Going from telling people what they should do, to actually showing them precisely how to do it, literally including the words and the phone numbers. It bridges that gap, and it’s a huge difference in changing behavior. By the way, ultimately I Will Teach You To Be Rich is not about money, it is really about behavioral change. It’s just disguised as a personal finance blog.

Michael: I’ve actually noticed that in some ways. I’ve recently signed up for your pre-1K mailing list and you don’t say “what are 3 things you can do about your personal finance today”, you say “what are 3 assumptions that you want to test today – are they about health, are they about school, money, etc…” I really like that. Let’s keep trying to nail down the systems and processes. Somebody’s listening to this, and they’re thinking, that’s great Ramit’s figured out the psychology thing, he’s able to apply it in a way that’s very effective. How can they start doing the same thing? What’s the first step that they can do to start implementing systems and processes on their own?

Ramit: Well, I think you actually just start by brute forcing it a lot of the times. I know it’s popular to say “I had this grandiose strategy when I started and everything has gone to plan”, and it’s very Machiavellian. But that’s really not the case for me – and you can see this for yourself: go back and look at the first blog posts on the blog. You will see that there were a few systems. There was part 1 of 5, part 2 of 5, part 3 of 5… because people love sets – but one day I would write about taxes, and the next day about tipping a restaurants – so it’s not that I came up with a particularly sophisticated, cohesive strategy. At first, you brute force it. The magic is in learning what works and what doesn’t. What I would suggest is spending a lot of time doing research. What I did was I studied the other blogs extensively when I wanted to grow my site. This is right when I started in 2004. There were about 12 big personal finance blogs in 2004, and basically studied them carefully, I learned what each of them stood for, I contributed to them and I made friends with the owners. That kind of level of research is something I think a lot of people might benefit from. For example, I got an email the other day from some guy trying to guest post on my site, and his guest post topic was like the importance of small steps like cutting back on lattes. Well, anyone who has ever read my site knows that I ridicule people who cut back on lattes because it’s a totally pointless task. So this guy clearly just had a blanket email that he was just sending out, and it obviously just went no where. So spending that time to do the research is step 1, and brute forcing it, trying out a couple of different ideas and learning whether those resonate with the audience or not, is step 2, before you build any systems.

Michael: So let’s talk about that a little bit more. You talked about guest posts in there, I remember reading somewhere on your blog, or maybe it was in an interview that you’ve done previously, that you started out getting a lot of traffic by guest posting on the blogs of these other people, of these other bloggers that you connected with and researched, etc… How do you go about building those strong relationships? How do you write blog posts that not only are going to be featured on other blogs but are also really going to bring you traffic?

Ramit: OK, guest posts have been one of my best strategies for growing my blog. Clearly out of all the things I’ve done, one of the best strategies. And I continue to do guest posts today. So, they are an extremely powerful strategy if done correctly. Let me give you some tips. First of all, I’ve written up a really extensive guideline on my site, if you go to iwillteachyoutoberich.com, click on “About” and then “Guest Posts”, you will see how much work went into writing this page alone. It probably took me 15 to 20 hours just to write this page with examples, links, techniques, etc. But let me share with you some of them here. The first is always to read their site, comment on their site, build a relationship. I remember someone asking my friend, Tim Ferriss, we were at an event together and someone said hey, I’d love to get in touch with you about this or that and he said honestly the best way to get in touch with me is to leave a comment on my blog. I read every one of those. I thought that was very telling. The second thing is to make sure that you are going after the right audience. You don’t want to just post on any blog because their audience might be totally different than yours. I’ve actually made this mistake myself. I’ve done a couple of quest posts that were on a site that seemed like it was similar. It was a personal finance site, but their audience was totally different, they could not have been more different. It ended up being pretty much a waste of time. You don’t want to be putting yourself in front of, even a million people, who are just not like you. That’s 2. Number 3 is put together, once you’ve got that relationship, once you’ve commented on their blog, maybe you’ve emailed them a couple of times – here’s a quick little email that works really well, you can email a blogger and say: I really loved that article on weight lifting or what ever it is, you did a great job. I especially liked, blah, blah, blah. I think there was one thing that you might have overlooked. Have you seen the new research from XYZ? Take a look, it might actually inform some of your future blog posts. So, what have you done there? You have actually acknowledged that they’re great – flattery works – you’ve shown that you’ve taken the time to read their stuff, and then you’ve also added value to them. You’ve given them something that they probably haven’t seen before, and you told them why it was important. So, these kinds of email really get you a good relationship because everyone’s really looking for someone who is looking out for them. After you do that, you might send them a note saying: curious if I might be able to send some guest posts your way. Would you be open to that? And if they say yes – I actually have a draft email on that side on my site, which is the preferred technique for how people should actually reach out to me. It’s actually the email I’ve used word-for-word to send to popular bloggers. It goes something equivalent to: I wanted to see if you would be interested in posting a guest post. I’ve written for XYZ, and my posts are highly detailed, and they include graphics, and they’re very rich content. Here are 3 ideas I thought might be really interesting. And you just put 3 simple, bullet pointed ideas. Of course I’d be open to doing any other ideas if you have them. If this is cool, I will send over the entire post, fully written and ready to be dropped into WordPress, so you don’t have to do any work. Alright? What’s going on in that email? In that email, you’re not just pitching one idea – a lot of people come to me with one idea, they’re married to this idea, and the idea either it’s just not good, or it’s not good for my audience. I would much rather they come with 3 ideas, and I would certainly rather they come before they write the guest post. Just like publishers don’t want you to write a book before you go to them, they want you to have a book proposal. The same is true of guest posts. Spend a ton of time on these guest posts when you actually get on selected. I spend 12 to 15 hours writing each guest post. They are long, they are more comprehensive than even most of the posts you will find on the host’s site. I have a couple of other suggestions for those guest posts. One is for your first guest post, make self promotion a secondary goal. Your number 1 goal is to make it absolutely incredible. Make it so good that the site owner is like “I love it. You can guest post here any time you want.” I’ve got a couple of people who have guest posted on my site a couple of times. They have an open invitation to post whenever they want. The second thing is – here’s a little tip – here would be something someone would do if they are really paying attention: If they really wanted to write a guest post that was stellar, when they link to a book they would actually do the research to include my Amazon affiliate code. What does that do? Number 1, it shows me that they are thinking of me, not themselves, and number 2, it’s just that level of detail. That shows me that this person is probably going to be terrific to work with. So, again, I’ve written all of this stuff up on my site, but those are some of the ways I use to grow my blog.