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Trent Hamm’s 5 Strategies for Building The Simple Dollar

This guest post is by Michael Alexis, producer of WriterViews.com.

Trent Hamm’s personal finance blog, The Simple Dollar attracts over 1.2 million page views every month. When I interviewed Trent earlier this year, he shared the top strategies he used to build his audience. This post includes five of the strategies Trent used to take his blog from zero to one million, and his best practices now that he is achieving his dreams. How does that feel? Trent describes when it first started happening: “it was a little scary, to know that I was reaching so many people,” he says, but adds that now it feels good since he has become comfortable with it.

1. Get lucky by thinking strategically

Trent

Trent

Within a month or two of launch, The Simple Dollar had a few hundred thousand views every month. Trent says, “I was very lucky to get a few popular sites to link to me early on, and I didn’t expect that.” However, when pressed, Trent admits there was strategy involved. Trent started by looking “at a few very popular blogs at the time— Lifehacker and a few others” and then “tried to think a little bit about what kind of posts would be useful to their readers.” Trent then intentionally wrote a few early posts with that in mind.

Action Points: 1) Find a popular blog in your niche, 2) Study their style, 3) Write for their audience.

2. Quit your job and commit to your dreams

Trent’s impetus for starting his blog was a major financial meltdown. Married and with a newborn, Trent realized, “I was digging a debt hole and following a career path that would get me nowhere near writing.” So, he committed to change. Trent started by sitting down for two to three hours a day to focus on writing. A few years later The Simple Dollar generated enough income that he could quit his job.

Trent remembers “it was very scary” to quit, but needed to be done because it was a “gigantic time sink.”

How can you do what Trent did? He says it will not be instant, but it isn’t impossible either – the reality is somewhere in between. First, he says, “I didn’t leave my job until I knew that the day I walked out the door my income would be enough to cover expenses.” Once that is the case, Trent says you gain time freedom, and you can work on projects of your liking. In order to reach that point, Trent says, “I devoted a lot of my free time to getting a platform ready, so that I could jump.” He spent over two years writing every day, and putting his goals before doing things like watching TV.

Action Points: 1) Build your platform, 2) Earn enough to cover expenses, 3) Take the leap.

3. Set the rules

Some bloggers use a “start here” widget to welcome new readers to their blog. With The Simple Dollar, Trent gives an overview of content with his 14 Money Rules. “These,” says Trent, “are an essential set of things that people visiting the site can read and get the basics of.” Trent thinks hard about his rules, and says, “they’ve evolved over time.” Even though some of these rules had been highlighted in earlier posts, Trent says, “I kind of sat down and solidified the things I had written about over the years.”

You need to believe in your rules, and it is okay to rank them. Trent’s favorite is rule #6—Stop Trying to Impress Other People, which developed after he realized that his after work “social events” weren’t really important to him, and were a major expense as well. By making sure your rules reflect your values, you give people an honest introduction to your writing.

Action Points: 1. Think about what matters to you, 2. Write about it, 3. Solidify your rules in a list.

4. Be your own ethical filter

Trent believes “when I read other peoples sites, it’s a relationship of trust; I’m letting their advice come in the door of my life.” So, if that writer is advertising something Trent doesn’t feel right about, he doesn’t trust that person as much anymore. When writing for The Simple Dollar, Trent will “look at decisions” by viewing them “from the perspective of the reader.” That means Trent doesn’t sell information to his readers, and isn’t serving up posts that are paid for by someone else. “Basically,” says Trent, “if it’s something I don’t want to see from someone I read, I’m not going to do it to my readers.”

By applying a strict ethical filter you will build a stronger relationship with your readers, and keep them coming back. “People may not agree with everything I say,” says Trent, “but at least they know I’m coming from a genuine background.”

Action Points: 1. Consider your writing from a reader’s perspective, 2. Be true to yourself, 3. Build trust with your readers.

5. Collect ideas

Trent’s blogging started off by chronicling tips from the changes he was making in his financial life. Trent remembers that these were just “two, three, four paragraphs” and that he would “write several a day, jotting those out in 15 minutes, then boom—they were ready to go.” Now, Trent posts twice a day with longer, more thoughtful posts, and he attributes this, in part, to his philosophy background.

Throughout his journey, Trent has kept track of his thoughts in an Idea Book. He says that by doing this, once you have all your ideas in once place, you can go ahead and start acting on them.

Action Points: 1. Generate ideas, 2. Track them in your own version of an Idea Book, 3. Use them.

Those are just five of the many strategies Trent used to launch his writing career. Do you use any of these strategies in your writing?

Michael Alexis is the co-founder and producer of WriterViews, a daily video series where accomplished writers share their tips, strategies and stories. Learn more about him here and follow him on Twitter at @writerviews.

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Comments

  1. First point is an absolute killer..loved it!!! It is indeed a great idea to write posts for “their audience”.
    Will start working on it right away..
    Thanks for the tip.

  2. My little black notebook is key. I take it everywhere with me. If I have an idea, I write it down. You never know when your next great idea will pop into your head.

    • Thanks, Tim. I’ve got one too – and from my conversation with Trent it sounds like ideas incubate in his notebook for months or even years before he hashes them out in his writing!


      Michael

    • Lori Meyer says:

      Every blogger should have one! I also use a digital recorder so I can catch creative thoughts and ideas that hit me when I least expect it. Most cell phones also have a recording feature and everyone should take advantage of.

      • Lori, what an interesting point you make– I’ve used my iphone recorder for goofy things (like proving to my husband that he snores) but never thought to use it to help my writing.

        Thanks for the tip!

      • Good points, Lori!

        I didn’t think of using my cell phone… though I see it does have that feature.

        I remember traveling in China a few years ago and having a sudden flash of inspiration. With no pen/paper handy I used my camera’s video feature to record the thoughts :- )

    • Good idea, Tim! I can’t count the number of times a writer has shared that point with me, that you need to capture an idea the moment it occurs to you, or it could be lost forever.

      I used to carry a notebook, but there were inevitably days when I forgot to grab it on my way out the door. But I’m never without my phone, so recently I began using Evernote, where I can type and view notes that are synced to my iphone and computer.

    • I don’t really like to take a notebook everywhere I go. So I tried some apps and thought that Evernote would be the one to do the job. But I’m still sending Emails to myself from my phone. Can’t help it..

  3. Kathryn says:

    I just have to say Yay! for Trent. His blog is the first blog I ever subscribed to. He clearly gives the best of himself and he has a ton information as well as really personable posts that make you want to hang out no matter what mood your in.

    • Thanks, Kathryn. I enjoyed the conversation with Trent and learned a lot. One thing that really shines through (in conversation, and on his blog) is his values. I think by expressing those values in a clear way, it becomes easier to relate to him.


      Michael

  4. Traveler Tim says:

    “A few years later The Simple Dollar generated enough income that he could quit his job.”

    I’m so SO glad he got this line in there. I hope people don’t skip it. He didn’t get to this level in a month, or even a year. Almost anyone with a dedicated audience and a sizable income stream has spent a lot of time working to get to that level. This is not an endeavor for the impatient or lazy. Thanks for sharing!

    • My pleasure, Tim. Thanks for reading!

      Trent was incredibly humble with so many of his accomplishments, saying “it just kind of happened” – but it really was years of dedication (and skillful growth like guest posts).

      One part of our conversation that resonated really well with me was when he said, “there are people that think their blogging success will come instantly, and others that think its impossible – really it’s somewhere in between” (I shortened that in this post).

    • “This is not an endeavor for the impatient or lazy.”

      You couldn’t be more right. Building an audience takes time and commitment to the project.

      It calls to mind a point that a few of this week’s interviewees have brought up on WriterViews: if you’re going to make something your career, you’d better be doing it because it’s what you love to do, because it’s probably going to take more time and effort than you realize.

  5. Brad says:

    Dig the way Trent built his “Platform” before quitting his job. That’s the stage I’m at right now.

    Nice write up Michael.

    • Thanks, Brad.

      One of the biggest learning points for me during the convo with Trent was how he a) sets a goal, b) develops a plan to make it happen, then c) acts on it.

      i.e, one of his upcoming goals is to a) write a full-length non fiction novel, so he is going to b) spend two hours per day working at it, and c) well, he’s a busy guy, but I bet he will get started soon.

      That’s a simple format that we can all follow!


      Michael

    • Christine says:

      I agree with Brad’s comment. Trent solidifies his ‘platform’ by showing it took dedication and time to build his empire.

      “He spent over two years writing every day, and putting his goals before doing things like watching TV.”

      You have to believe that you are going to make it via persistence and pressing thru the obstacles. Also, it helps to have something important like a family to push you in the right direction.

      • Thanks for reinforcing that point, Christine!

        Trent is good at sharing his values, and how he prioritizes things. When he makes it an A/B decision (i.e: writing or T.V), it becomes easy to relate to – and easier to incorporate into our own work.


        Michael

    • Agreed. This all goes back to the point of knowing why you do what you do.

      I think it’s important that Trent shares that information with us, because it’s easy to get swept up in the instant-gratification that the internet offers most of the time, and people forget that when you’re building a business– online or physically– it takes time.

  6. clea says:

    I have to admit, it is a little scary, Im seeing a flurry of people coming at me from twitter, and my site really isn’t as rich as I would like, but I’ve decided to go with it, but thanks for the tips Trent, I will take them to heart. I question, I’ve been spending way too much time trying to figure out adsense, should I skip that and focus on following/traffic and posting ? Im not seeing any return for my effort. Ugh…
    Thanks, Babyboulder.com

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Clea.

      Since interviewing Trent, I’ve chatted with Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

      Ramit says, “there’s no magic number, but when you have an email list of 5000 people start thinking about monetization, until then you are just in a hyper growth phase”. So for now, enjoy the Twitter influx – and spend your time doing things like guest posts/relationship building instead of worrying about making a few bucks on adsense.


      Michael

  7. Hi,
    I truly believe the fact that Trent had a smart ‘hidden’ strategy to promote his work early on made a huge difference. In blogging and in life in general many of us don’t have any real plans to get where we are going and we can end up spinning our wheels forever!

    David

    • Agreed. Creating plans (and sticking to them), is something we can all learn from.

      What I like best about Trent’s initial growth is that it was strategic – he intentionally wrote posts that were the style/focus that bigger blogs would link to.

      Thanks, David!

    • If you have the passion for what you are doing, I am sure you will figure out eventually how to be better and successful.

  8. Dudge OH says:

    Excellent article.

    I should have done #2 the moment I was laid off, instead of arseing around for 18 months and looking to take blogging seriously when it all seems too late…

    • Thanks, Dudge.

      #2 gave me plenty of clarity with my own goals, i.e, I can’t just keep tinkering around with different sites and blogs, and hope that one of them takes off. By sticking to one thing, improving at it, and building a following – we can all reach our goals.


      Michael

  9. Graham Lutz says:

    I think the real nugget here is to write some high quality posts with the idea of attracting links from some of the big guys. This could be worth putting some real time and energy into. If you get those links, everything changes.

    • Totally – write a great post and then tell them about it.

      Having a traffic spike seems to have countless advantages: i.e: people see that others are on the site commenting, tweeting, etc. – and want to become part of that community. It is also a good opportunity to do some testing and see what works best for retention.


      Michael

  10. Trent,
    Great ideas that you mentioned here. It is awesome that you were able to quit your day job and blog for a living. It’s the goal that 10 million new bloggers hope to achieve.

  11. Daniel says:

    Nice post, Michael.

    The fact that it took Trent 2 years plus( of hard work ) to be able to replace his day job, with his earnings from his blog(Website) sounds about right.
    There are no overnight sensations, there are only “Over many nights” sensations.
    The greatest distraction for new and often intermediate bloggers, is that there are countless ” How I became a full time Blogger in a Month”! or “How I became a 6 figure blogger in 6 Months”! stories on the web.

    Considering somewhere between 95 and 99% of get rich quick schemes(Or how I became an online success) are scams(Hype), you are going to get a similar amount(%) of bogus claims in the realm of Blogging

    The fact is, even in regards to moderate earnings through ad-sense, many people are falsifying their results to attract people to their site.
    Not just their earnings, but also their number of visitors etc.

    • Thanks, Daniel.

      One thing I found really interesting about chatting with Trent was that he did have a lot of traffic early on (re: lifehacker posts). In that way he was a bit of an “over weeks/months” sensation.

      I think that would be a point where people to start to have a look at it, and say “oh, this is going well, I should just focus on this now” – but it shows something about Trent’s patience and cautiousness that he waited until he had a level of income he was satisfied with.

      I know what you mean about hype – but you know what – I just don’t think it is worth it. If you aren’t going to be honest with your readers, then what is the point? If you make $20 per month off adsense, then either a) don’t mention it, or b) find an interesting way to talk about. i.e: “this month I doubled my adsense revenue with this little tweak”.


      Michael

  12. TV Rockstars says:

    It’s crazy how he built up the blog so fast. Takes real dedication.

    • It was a great tactic he used – writing in a style and for topics that would appeal to the audience of big blogs. By providing them with great content, he was really helping them out!


      Michael

  13. Doug says:

    Hi there,

    Great post, I also carry around a note book to write my ideas of blogs down. Still working on what to do. I guess the planning is the most important part of the process.

    Its also nice to see that it takes time and work to make a blog work and not a instant money making idea.

    • Thanks, Doug.

      Agreed – planning is key – and both keep tracking of ideas and working away for a period of time seem to be key to success here!


      Michael

  14. James Greg says:

    Great tactics, indeed all ideas should be kept in one place so the outcome will be worth the effect. All the points are very useful many writers ignore if not all but many points and most of the writers are just trying to achieve traffic without being honest even to themselves. I’d love to be like Trent having all he leisure time and enjoying earning from my work. Thanks for all the advices Trent.

    • Thanks, James.

      I like what you said about “most of the writers are just trying to achieve traffic without being honest even to themselves”. Sure, it is frustrating when you first start a blog and NOBODY is around to read it. Trent aligned is values and his goals, and the result was that a ton of people were able to relate with him. That’s something to aspire too!


      Michael

  15. Smart phones are super handy and now, I have another thing I can use it for. Never thought of it. Problem is, I get a lot of my best ideas in the shower!

  16. Tom says:

    Hi Michael – I noticed that in Trent Hamm’s book, he stated that his blog gets over 1 million page views per month and you pinned it at 1.2 million.

    Interestingly, looking at his public Sitemeter profile (you can access it via the button at the very bottom of every page on his blog), he hasn’t hit 1.2 million pageviews per month during the whole past year, and hasn’t even broken 1 million pageviews per month in the last 8 months.

    Just curious about where the statistic came from. I’m sure his awStats is more generous with the pageviews than Sitemeter.

    Thanks for any insight you can offer.