It start out writing articles for my own massage clients, and then slowly attracted a global audience. Once I had a large audience, 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 to add value to my services. 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 so 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.
Other key features of my brand were also established early:
- “clean” design
- diligent referencing
- regular improvements to content
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.
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 very aware of the problem of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and 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.
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 north Thailand to help her. It was not clear that she would survive, and severe physical disability seemed inevitable. The new business had record-breaking sales throughout that period. The numbers weren’t all that impressive by my standards 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.
- The long version of this story is a major but back-burnered personal project. I started telling it on my personal blog a few years ago and then got hopelessly distracted (perhaps even permanently). But there’s still seven good chapters there, and chapter 7, the “chapter with some sex in it,” is quite popular.
- PS The Pricing of PainScience.com e-Books — A candid explanation of my prices and how I present them to new visitors
- PS How PainScience.com Works — A behind-the-scenes tour of the quirky, custom tech of PainScience.com (especially the “bibliography first” design principle)
- PS About Paul Ingraham — My qualifications, credentials, and professional experiences for PainScience.com readers and customers