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The PainScience.com origin story

PainScience.com is an unusual business success and many readers are curious to know how it started

Paul Ingraham, updated

I make my living from this website. But wringing an income out of the internet seems like an increasingly improbable achievement for an individual to unlock if you’re not a YouTube star or some other weird gen Z thing.

I started out writing articles for my massage therapy clients, which slowly started to attracted a global audience. Once that was established, it wasn’t hard to sell enough ebooks to keep it going. That’s it in a nutshell. Here’s the whole short-version of the story…

While I was practicing massage therapy in Vancouver, starting in 2000, I was busily writing self-help articles for my own patients. It was a popular perk, and almost automatic for me: I had been a writer and a web developer long before I was a massage therapist, so it was a natural project for me to take on.

The articles attracted more traffic than expected, pulling in readers from around the world, and I started to wonder if it could be worth something. I built up some of my content to the point where I felt it was good enough to put behind a paywall — and my standards were quite a bit lower then, which made it much easier. The big idea from the beginning was to invest heavily in high quality free content to attract lots of readers, some of whom would pay for access to the best content (see loss leader).

Other key features of my brand were also established early, three things that other information and health sites often seemed deficient in:

The “regular improvements” thing proved to be a particularly major differentiating feature from typical blog content. Rather than publishing and then abandoning “posts” like most bloggers, I treated every article like an evolving resource page that should be constantly and indefinitely updated. I think that had a lot to do with how my content got highly ranked — and, to my amazement, it remains a surprisingly rare publishing model to this day.

This was all more or less fully-formed by about 2005, and I remember telling my wife and mother-in-law about it during a drive on Vancouver Island around that time. I said something like, “I can probably turn this into a career.” I was right.

The leap of faith

In 2006, I put my first price tag on a book, the back pain book. It wasn’t really ready, and I should apologize to my early customers — which wouldn’t take long, because there weren’t many of them, only a few dozen that first year. But I was acutely aware of the danger of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and so I wanted to get the business ball rolling and then work hard to steadily improve the content quality. Which I certainly did.

At the same time, I was also investing heavily in a customized content management system to help me deliver really good quality footnoting and referencing (something that remains tricky for web publishers to this day). I spent thousands of dollars hiring a programmer to do this for me long before I knew it would pay off. It was a strange and brave leap of faith. To this day, the audacity of that expense kind of amazes me.

2007 was exciting!

In 2007, I rapidly rolled out a couple new books, and tried advertising them using Google AdWords, which was still a fairly new service at the time. The results were explosive, a classic “ka-ching,” dollar-signs-in-the-eyes experience. I advertised my new books, and they sold. It was extremely exciting! It was a big damn deal. Even though I had been writing and planning for years, this was the true beginning of the business.

After that first promising surge of sales, I had a key conversation with a good friend about the power of duplication: if one book could earn something, then I “just” had to write several more to earn a decent living. But I already had several that were close to ready, so I rapidly rolled those out, “the original seven.”

After the advertising excitement and that conversation, I was officially chasing the holy grail: paying the rent without leaving the house. I’d had a strong start, but even in that “exciting” first year I earned only… about $6000 USD. A really nice bonus, but not a living.

Winning

Getting to the finish line took about another five years of feverish workaholism. In 2009, I wasn’t there yet, but I was confident enough that I left the massage profession (not without some drama). The business was growing steadily, an entrepreneurial dream come true.

In early 2010, the business passed a critical test, running on automatic and supporting me and my wife when we had an extreme family emergency: she had a terrible accident while travelling alone in Asia, and I had to drop everything and rush to northern Thailand to help her. It was not clear that she would survive. Throughout that gruelling experience, the new business had record-breaking sales. The numbers weren’t all that impressive compared to what I earn now, but they were a revelation back then, and I have probably never been so grateful for anything. (And then my wife recovered surprisingly well!)

That test made it clear that the business was already profitable enough to be sustainable, but it wasn’t until 2012 that I was finally earning enough to think it was producing as truly good income: enough for some long-term savings. That was about eight years after my earliest glimpses of the potential. And for most of that time I thought I'd probably lost my damn mind and all my effort was going to be largely wasted.

But it worked out, and continues to work out despite some major setbacks.

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