Interview with Catalyst Theme creator, Eric Hamm

(Since this article was originally written, the Frugal Theme has evolved into the Catalyst Theme which is an even better incarnation of the original theme. I use the Catalyst Theme, developed by Eric Hamm, for all of my websites and recommend it highly! The information in this article is still of high value today as Eric opens up on what it’s like working online and making a successful living doing so.)
Eric Hamm In my relatively short tenure in the blogging world, I’ve been fortunate to come across some really good people.  One of them I actually met after purchasing his WordPress theme, FrugalTheme.  His name is Eric Hamm, and his story is an interesting one if you are a blogger or not.  If you’ve ever considered making a living online this interview is definitely for you.  Eric was nice enough to thoroughly answer a number of questions I posed to him.  So let’s get right to the interview.

When did you first get involved in the blogging world and why?

July 21st, 2008, I wrote my first post on my personal blog Motivate Thyself.  It was just a week or so before the publishing of that post that I started thinking about starting a blog and maybe even an online business.

I have found this to be common with new bloggers.  They either get into it for pure pleasure or with the intent of making money and even better, a living.  I was in the latter crowd and the idea of making a living online was what drove me to really get into it and see what I could do.  It was only a few months later that I realized that it wasn’t going to be easy. :-)

I recently purchased the FrugalTheme which was developed by you.  What was the motivation for developing your own WordPress theme?

My first real success in making a living online was through my WordPress Web Design Business (which later became a place to help promote frugalTheme.com).  I quickly found a great venue for advertising (I was the first to enjoy Leo’s new ad setup where he only displays a single ad a month and got TONS of traffic from it) and hit the ground running.  Within a week I had more business than I knew what to do with.

One problem I kept running into was that all the themes I had on hand were lacking in one way or another.  I wanted just one theme to house all the features and coding that allowed me the most efficient design experience.  After searching for and buying many different themes I finally decided that I just needed to create my own.  I had been playing with the idea of creating my own WordPress theme for some time so I was ready to dive in right away.

After a few weeks of long hours (trying to develop a new WordPress theme on top of tending to my current design clients) I came up with frugal.  It was very basic and super clean and perfect for what I was going for.  What I found, though, was that people became more interested in the theme itself.  They’d ask about it and where they could get it.  So I created the frugalTheme.com domain and made frugal a free download.  Within a month or so it had been downloaded thousands of times.  It was then that I realized I could actually make money off the thing.

The free version was very basic and offered few options to the user.  So I created a Premium Version that gave the user tons of design control over their WordPress website and charged for it.  Within a month I was making a living just off of theme sales and decided to close shop with the design biz and move all my attention over to the further development of frugal (I MUCH preferred the sales business model over services as I had just spent 5 years working as an independent computer consultant in my home town and had become quite sick of the “only make money while actually working” model).

Do you plan on developing more themes in the future?

At this point I don’t plan on developing anymore themes, though I am working on some other WordPress projects that aren’t quite in the ‘themes’ category.  But frugal is really meant to be a framework or blank canvas and therefore require no other themes.  In other words, the whole point of frugal is to give the user a WordPress theme that can be molded into whatever they want.  So creating another theme would kind of go against this idea.

With that being said, I think there’s still a place for pre-customized themes that give the user a nice and shiny theme right out of the box.  The problem with this kind of theme is that when you want to make it look like something else you run into a lot of trouble trying to un-customize the thing.  This is why you find that ‘WP Themes’ folder on our computer desktops filled with 500 themes, one for every possible occasion.  frugal is meant to help clean that mess up. :-)

But who knows, I may find a reason to create a different theme one day. **covering all my bases** ;-)

I blog but I also have another full-time job. Is this your situation as well or is blogging and developing themes a full-time gig for you?

I can happily say that I work full time online.  I have many streams of online income, but frugal is definitely my main one.

As I mentioned before, for 5 years I had a computer consulting business which was a full time gig, so even then I didn’t work for anyone else (I’m not a fan of J-O-B’s), but it’s now been a year since I moved fully online.

(Just because I think others may be interested in knowing, my other streams of income are (in order of significance) ebooks sales, monthly income from the sale of my computer business and affiliate sales.)

Tell us a little about your blog MotivateThyself.com.  How did it evolve?

As I mentioned earlier, Motivate Thyself is my personal blog and the first one I started.  The subject came about with my passion for living life to the fullest and doing what I want (not letting the world around me dictate this).  As I said, I’m not a fan of working for others so I’ve always had to work my butt off to steer clear of that ‘daily grind’.

The blog/website itself has been a fairly popular personal development spot, but has certainly gone through its ups and downs based on my effort.  It quickly grew from the get go as I was able to connect with some bigger bloggers and get some solid guest posts out so larger audiences could get a taste of my writing style and content.  But once I started working on web design and later frugal I had to significantly decrease my post frequency.

How did Motivate Thyself evolve?  I would say it started out as a passionate blog about making the most of your life and then became a bit more personal as time went on.  I’ve written posts about my dad who died way too young, my mom who remarried and about me, my son Tyson and my relationship with my beautiful wife Liz.  But I still stick to those core concepts of being truly successful and changing your life.

If you go to your MotivateThyself.com site and click on “The Book” it appears that you have written a book with Leo Babauta of ZenHabits.  That’s great company! How did this collaboration come about?

First, let me just say that Leo is one of the nicest, most genuine individuals I’ve found online.  The guy is freaking awesome! :-)  He’s got a huge family and still finds time to do all that he’s done online while maintaining a great attitude.

Like many other personal development bloggers who started blogging after Leo, I saw zenhabits as a super successful blog to model and find inspiration from.  So I naturally became a regular reader.  One day, Leo emailed me to see if I could help someone with a WordPress issue and if I’d like to submit a guest post for zenhabits, which I happily did.  I later helped him with a few things on zenhabits and eventually we talked about doing a book about motivation.  But during the months in between we just became friends.  Like I said, a great guy.

If you were to give some advice to a new blogger what would you tell them?

It really depends on their online goals.  If they are just blogging for pure pleasure then it’s really just a matter of having fun with it.  Don’t let yourself get sucked into trying to figure out what the ‘right’ way to do things.  There really just isn’t a model that trumps all others.  But even for pleasure purposes you can’t have fun without an audience so there are certainly things you can/should do to attract that audience.

Yet, if you’re really trying to bring home the bacon the tips and tricks are similar, but the mindset is totally different.  You’ve really got to think of your blog as a business and treat it as such.  Just like work you won’t always want to do it.  Just like work you’ll have to keep some kind of schedule and just like a business, if you want to succeed you have to work harder and smarter than the next guy.

With that being said, here are a few tips:

  • Pay for a basic web server (they’re like $80/yr, but totally worth it) and then find a WordPress theme that will give you blog the look, feel and function that you need to be successful.  Whether you purchase a Premium theme (usually the best idea) or can find a free one that can pull this off, the skin of your WordPress website is a key ingredient to blogging success as it not only provided the first impression, but is basically the window your visitors look through to ingest your content.
  • Domain name DOES matter.  Sure there are some successful blogs out there with crappy domain names, but they are this way in spite of the name, not because of.  Fairly short, easy to type and remember and keyword right is good to.
  • Guest post, guest post, guest post! There’s not better way to get a boost in traffic, subscribers and page rank than to guest post on blogs bigger (preferably MUCH bigger) than your own.  And tip about what to submit: When you’ve written something that is so good that you feel jealous about giving it to another blog, then it’s ready to submit.  If you don’t feel like you’re giving a part of yourself to that blog then it’s probably not going to translate well to their readers.
  • Keep an eye out for a blogging buddy.  Blogging is hard enough, but doing it alone is near impossible.  You may have a local friend or spouse, but they can only empathize but so much and probably won’t be much help tactically.  Sean Platt is one of mine and we’ve worked on or help each other with many online projects.  Without Sean I probably would have given up a while back.
  • Find resources that you can best connect with.  There are many different sites out there to help you become better bloggers, but each one has its own style and personality.  So don’t just read the one everyone else is reading.  Keep looking until you find that resource that specifically speaks to YOU.  ProBlogger, though, is a great place to start.
  • HAVE FUN!! OK, this is that over done, over simplified blogging tip, but hey, it’s true.  You won’t always enjoy blogging, but if you can’t find ways to enjoy this time consuming online pursuit you’re going to quit and quitting is what most people do and why most never succeed.  Here’s a picture of Sean and I having some fun.  Who knew we’d first physically meet in Vegas?! :-)

I recently interviewed Jonathan Fields, and he is a living breathing example of someone prospering in the new economy.  Can you speak a little about making a living in the electronic age and the opportunities that are out there?

Let me first say that this IS a new economy, no doubt about it.  We were headed this way already, but the recent economic woes just sped up the process and pushed people in this new direction.  What I absolutely LOVE about it is that the playing field has been effectively leveled so ANYONE can find success online.  This, though, is the problem for most.  Just about everyone is trying to find this online success so the task of standing out from the crowd is quite a feat.

That being said, there are new online opportunities arising on a daily basis so if you want the freedom of making a living online GO FOR IT!!

Now, for the practical bit.  I quickly found with the blogging idea that just creating great content and putting up some ads will rarely make you much money.  For most, it’s the behind the scenes stuff that offers the real opportunities.  It’s kind of like moving to Hollywood to become an actor.  A few find fame while most end up either waiting tables for much longer than they expected or they adapt their other skills to make a living in the background.  Editing film, lighting, props, etc…  This allows them to hang around longer while they keep an eye out for their real passions.  Then, they hopefully either become ‘discovered’ actors or they realize that some of the greatest opportunities ARE behind the scenes.

After make very little purely blogging I found that my technical skills could be adapted to help other with their own blogs.  This morphed into frugal and now I’m doing something I really enjoy.  And the cool thing is that every success you have you’ll find 5 new doors opened as a result.  As time goes on you’re choices broaden.  So don’t worry too much about what you have to do in the beginning of your online journey.  Be steadfast and you will find success, grasshopper. ;-)

The support you offer with the FrugalTheme, in my opinion, is unparalleled.  Can you tell me what your philosophy is when it comes to customer support?

Thanks Bob!  That means a lot. :-)

I’m actually a super people pleaser (yes, I even have a link for that :-) and this really plays into my support for frugal.  I enjoy helping people and seeing them succeed.  So frugal support is just an extension of this.

As far as my philosophy with frugal support, I simply base my support on whether or not I CAN help someone, not whether I SHOULD.  In other words, there are many times when the request for my assistance reaches way outside of the zone of frugal specific.  Here is where I feel I can distance myself from the competition.  I do my best to lend a hand, at this point as more of a fellow online citizen (sounds corny, I know).  But I do draw the line when I have to as I need to spend my time developing and promoting as well.

Logistically, I know people learn differently so I try to teach as adaptively as possible.  I provide video tutorials, blog posts and direct support via the frugal forum and email.

One more blogging question for you.  Could you talk a little about monetizing a blog?  For those of us who recently began blogging there appear to be so many options out there as far as monetizing is concerned. What is your take on monetizing a blog?

I’ve already mentioned some specific forms of monetization for myself, but I’d be happy to speak in more general terms.

There are a million ways to make money online and only some come from blogging.  I often find that most of the money made from bloggers is done indirectly from their blogs.  Blogs make great billboards (or email absorbers…newsletters), but not always the best store fronts.  I mean, I know technically a lot of store fronts are blogs as well (ie. frugalTheme.com), but when someone asks me what my blog is I mention Motivate Thyself.  It has way more posts, subscribers and purely blogging traffic, yet I make zero money directly from it.  Also, a successful blog (in terms of traffic and reputation) can make you money by just opening doors and creating connections that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

You can make money from Adsense, affiliate advertising, offering a product or service of your own and so on.  Just be smart about it.  If you’re promoting as an affiliate, make sure you have personal experience with that product or service.  Write posts about that experience (reviews) and never promote something you don’t fully believe in.

But when it comes to making real bill paying income you either need tons of traffic to funnel to your ads or a product or service of your own to promote which you receive full payment for.  In other words, 25% of something requires 4 times as much traffic to profit equally from when compared to something you receive 100% for.  And if you can match that tons of traffic with your own product you’re in the zone! :-)

Just know that it takes time.  I didn’t start making real money for a good 6 months and I think my situation went quite quickly when compared to most.  You’re going to need some source of income in the mean time.  If you quit your job and try to live off savings for a few months, banking on finding instant success, you’re going to be quite disappointed.  Also, you’ll be making decisions based on what’s quickest, not what’s the best way to go for the long term.

One thing I have to mention when trying to monetize.  Traffic and comments means jack squat if they’re not in some way followed by dollar signs.  It’s very easy to get caught up with how many comments you get each post, for example, but bloggers notoriously comment for links and such.  So it’s absolutely crucial that you find some way to capture a direct connection with that audience so you can promote to them more effectively.  That’s where newsletters come in.

When I started blogging I’d see free products attached to newsletter signups on so many blogs.  I thought it was gimmicky and figured people would get annoyed with it (as if it were tacky to ask for an email).  Later I realized that having a growing list of emails of individuals who are interested in the topic of your content is a powerful tool for making money online.  Just provide an enticing reason for signup and an effective plan to promote and you’re on your way.

Hey Bob, I just wanted to say thanks for inviting me to come to your blog and share my thoughts with your readers.  You’re a great guy behind the scenes and I know your online endeavors will benefit as a result. :-)

End of Interview

I want to thank Eric Hamm for his thorough and insightful answers to the questions I posed.  You can certainly do no wrong in following his advice if you are looking to make your living online.  As I said earlier in this post, I have been extremely fortunate to have met some very good people in the blogging world.  After having gotten to know Eric a little better, his story is certainly the antithesis of the quote “Nice guys finish last.”  Thanks again Eric!

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