How I Left Work Behind and Built a Profitable Fitness Blog
Tom: the following is a guest post by Henry Croft, the founder of a website you’re going to learn a lot about in this post. I’m seriously impressed with what Henry has managed to achieve in one short year – it just goes to show that blogging is far from dead as a means of making money online. Take it away Henry!
On March 17th, 2014 my fitness blog GymTalk celebrated its first birthday.
Over the last year I have managed to grow the website from something which started out life as a bit of a laugh into a profitable online business which can now support me financially – just about!
In its first year GymTalk achieved:
- 420,996 page views
- 2 Fitness Blogging Awards
- £9,300 (~$15,000) turnover
- 10,000+ followers on social media
Quitting my 9-5 job to earn a living online has been a tough journey full of missteps, sleepless nights and anxiety, but I do not regret a single day of it.
Although I still have a long way to go, the whole process has been a labour of love and doing something that I’m passionate about seven days a week has been a revelation.
The following is my story so far.
I left university in 2011 having studied English Literature as an undergraduate and postgraduate.
After a brief stint as a journalist at my local newspaper, I ended up at a small online marketing agency in south London. As I worked my way up from lowly copywriter to operations manager, I fell in love with the world of online marketing.
Although I enjoyed my job, I quickly realised that I wasn’t content working for someone else’s company and someone else’s dream all my life.
This gnawing desire to do something on my own was largely fuelled by some of the internet marketers that I was following at the time, namely Tom Ewer and Matthew Woodward. These guys were proving that making money online by doing something that you love was a viable option and I wanted a piece of the pie.
So, I asked myself, ‘What did I love? What did I want to make a living out of?’
Well that was easy – I have always loved fitness, be it swimming, running, weightlifting, whatever. Combine this with a love of writing and online marketing and the answer was staring me in the face.
And so, in March 2013, I purchased the domain name gym-talk.com, set up an embarrassingly basic WordPress blog, and a few days later published my first post.
Leaving My Job
I can trace the rather spontaneous decision to quit my job back to one YouTube video, which I was watching one morning in April (instead of doing work).
“Do what you love – no excuses” ~ Gary Vaynerchuk
This message really hit home, and being ever the impulsive fool, I immediately typed up my notice and handed it in to my boss there and then.
During my two month notice period I began to map out a plan for the next 12 months. I was going to take on freelance SEO work for a handful of clients to support myself financially while I took the plunge and attempted to build GymTalk into a viable business from scratch.
My girlfriend thought I was a fool for leaving a secure job, my parents had no clue what it was I doing (they still don’t), and I had countless “oh shit” moments during those first few weeks.
But I kept the faith.
Although I was taking a huge cut in earnings, I was confident of the medium to long term pay off of building brand equity.
I had seen others do it and I knew that I could do it too.
And after all, the risk wasn’t really that high; it’s not like I had a mortgage or a family to support.
Just an appetite for peri-peri chicken, protein shakes and Guinness – which is much cheaper fortunately.
By the time I left my job in early June I had managed to sign up five clients for SEO work.
Although this didn’t represent a huge amount of money, it was enough to support my basic needs while I started working on my website and my new life.
Establishing A Brand
During April and May – whilst still working at my old job – I had already put in a lot of work to establish the GymTalk brand.
For me, this would make or break the site. Before I even considered how to monetise the website, I wanted to first create something which people would genuinely enjoy and find useful.
I did this by:
Creating a Brand Personality
The gym/bodybuilding/fitness niche is very competitive and awash with lots of great content. To stand out, I needed to create something which was distinctive and had a unique voice.
I settled on creating a website which would be like the Top Gear of bodybuilding websites.
In other words, I wanted the tone to reflect having a chat with your mate down the pub.
So, although the content would be high quality, helpful and well-written, it would also be carpeted with knob gags, occasional f-bombs, pop culture, and irreverent commentary.
This tone would be reflected in design and ‘feel’ of the blog in addition to the content.
Creating a Content Strategy
Having thoroughly researched my niche via keyword research, competitor research and monitoring chatter on forums and social media, I discovered that the most popular kinds of blog content, in terms of traffic and interaction, were tips on training and nutrition, supplement reviews, and humour pieces.
In addition, I began to contact supplement companies to secure prizes for competition giveaways and I reached out to authority figures in my niche to see if they would be interested in working with me.
Although I loved writing, I knew that in order to regularly produce high-quality content I would need some help, otherwise I would burn out.
Having other people contribute content would allow me – in addition to fulfilling my client obligations – to spend more time managing and direction of the blog, networking, and improving my online marketing skill set.
When I started GymTalk I was lucky to have a couple of close friends – including a personal trainer, ex-national swimmer and pharmacist – who were just as much into fitness as I was.
Fortunately these guys were happy to write content and help me promote it. At first they wrote articles for free, but as soon as I was in a position to pay them, I did so.
Monetising The Brand
Once I was confident in the direction the brand was heading in, my next step was figuring out how to make money from the website.
Having devoured income reports from other bloggers over the last few months, I was fairly well versed in how to go about monetising websites, although I had no actual experience in it.
I decided I would accomplish this predominately with affiliate links to other companies in the fitness niche.
Over the last few years the supplement industry has really exploded, so this seemed like a sensible place to start.
I would use affiliate links to these supplement companies which would appear on supplement and product reviews and on the various deals and discounts that I would promote via the blog and social media.
Getting these affiliate links was a simple case of creating an account on Affiliate Window and signing up to the relevant advertiser programmes.
Building An Audience
So, now I had all this great content and the potential to make money, my next job was to get the website in front of people.
Unfortunately, despite what Matt Cutts and Google might tell us, the internet is not like Field of Dreams – “build it and they will come.”
From, working for an online marketing agency and following other bloggers, I knew that building an audience would be the toughest part of the gig.
So this is how I managed to drive a quarter of a million unique visitors to my website during its first year.
One of the first things I did on GymTalk was to create a mailing list using AWeber, as I knew that building up a list of loyal readers would be a solid long-term investment when it came to maintaining traffic levels.
To extract as many sign-ups as possible, I placed a prominent sign-up form in the sidebar and included further forms at the bottom of each post and in-line with the content.
I created profiles on all the main social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Tumblr.
In addition to promoting my blog posts, I also engaged with my audience as much as possible on these platforms.
To boost reach, I also advertised on Facebook, automated posts on Twitter and posted content to multiple Google Plus communities in my niche.
I posted in a handful of bodybuilding forums where, in addition to occasionally promoting the blog via forum posts, I also included a link to GymTalk in my forum avatar.
This is a department I have been slacking in recently and something I need to work on in the coming year, as even from a few forum posts I have seen huge traffic surges.
Another tactic I use to promote the blog, which I learned from this fantastic post over at Backlinko, is email outreach.
After producing content, I email websites in the fitness niche telling them about my new blog post.
By just telling other bloggers about your content and being polite, you’d be surprised at how many people are willing to link to you!
This is an example of a mention (and a link) I recently secured after a few minutes of friendly email outreach.
Using email and Twitter, I began building relationships with authorities in the bodybuilding and fitness niche, many of which I ended up interviewing for the site.
These guys would then go on to promote GymTalk and the interviews on their blogs and social media platforms, which resulted in huge traffic spikes and a ton of backlinks!
See this post, for example.
Another bonus of networking is that people are very receptive to you guest posting on their blogs further on down the line.
I’m not talking about crappy guest posting solely for backlinks here.
I write super high-quality content – as if it were intended for my own website – which has the added benefit of me being able to share it on the GymTalk blog and social media platforms.
This is an example of something I recently wrote.
Over its first year of existence, the vast majority of GymTalk’s earnings have come from affiliate marketing.
The first affiliate sales began to trickle in during June and July.
As more content was published and GymTalk’s presence on social media and Google became more prominent, these sales gradually increased month by month.
Earnings peaked in January 2014, when the blog turned over £2,400 (~$4,000).
As far as costs go, they are (in addition to general hosting fees) largely twofold:
- Writers’ fees
- Facebook advertising
This amounts to generally a few hundred pounds per month.
Where I Am Now
Recently I have been working to monetise the website in ways other than affiliate marketing.
Throughout February I worked on creating the GymTalk Shop to sell a range of gym clothing, which launched in early March.
I have started small and kept overheads low by only creating a select range of men’s bodybuilding t-shirts.
The feedback so far has been great and while sales haven’t yet set the world alight, the result has been encouraging enough for me to start working on expanding the shop into women’s clothing and more designs.
I’m still not where I want to be in terms of earnings (I still do freelance SEO work so I can pay the bills), but I’m proud of how far I’ve come so far.
Moreover, I get a bigger kick out of people telling me how much they enjoy the website and the two awards the blog has won (Activate Nutrition’s ‘Best Fitness Blogs 2013’ and Supplement Centre’s ‘Winning Fitness Blogs’) than how much money I can make with it.
This alone gives me confidence in what I am doing.
Over the next 12 months, I have a good idea of which direction I want GymTalk to take.
In addition to developing other income streams such as the shop and more permanent advertising relationships, I’d like to work on drawing out the ‘community’ aspect of the website by introducing a forum and more user generated content.
Content-wise, my goal is to develop our YouTube channel with more video content (such as this) and launch a new series of gym reviews, which is a topic that has been suggested by many of our readers as there a deficit of such information online.
By growing the blog in these areas, my goal is more than double the turnover I have achieved in the first year, which will enable me to leave all client work behind and focus exclusively on GymTalk.
Wrapping It Up
Ultimately, I hope this post will inspire some of you guys – who are no doubt procrastinating at your dreary desk jobs while reading this (like I was) – to take the plunge and leave work behind.
However, it’s certainly not for everyone.
It’s tough not having a guaranteed pay packet at the end of the month, it’s hard work, stressful, and it does get lonely from time to time.
But for me, the rewards far outweigh the drawbacks.
Working on your own terms, having the freedom to travel when you want, doing what you love and building your own legacy is what it’s all about.
And as Stephen Kellogg said (I’m disappointed it wasn’t actually Tim from The Office), “It’s better to be at the bottom of the ladder you want to climb than half way up one you don’t.”
So go on, dream, take a risk, and have fun.
What have you got to lose?