How One Man’s Passion Created 500,000 Profitable Fans

Last time, we talked about the benefits of building a minimum viable audience as an initial basis of a startup business.

That means:

  1. You’re receiving enough feedback from comments, emails, social networks, and social media news sites in order to adapt and evolve your content to better serve the audience.
  2. You’re growing your audience organically thanks to social media sharing by existing audience members and earned media; and
  3. You’re gaining enough insight into what the audience needs to solve their problems or satisfy their desires beyond the free education you’re providing.

One thing that might not have been clear is that an MVA is not a stopping point. It’s actually the point that your audience starts to grow faster, while also providing valuable insight into potential product development.

If the audience gets big enough, you can make baseline revenue from online advertising. But this is only the beginning of the profit potential that an engaged audience brings.

Case Study: Digital Photography School

People in the blogging and online marketing world know Darren Rowse from Problogger. Many, however, don’t realize that Problogger is an industry sideline where Darren shares what he learns from his primary business, which is the multimillion dollar web venture Digital Photography School.

DPS has 500,000 subscribers, and 5,000,000 monthly site visitors. But Darren started many years ago at the same place we all do — zero (Problogger, which is still a much smaller site, came after, not before).

As a concrete introduction to the agile content marketing process that is at the foundation of the Entreproducer approach, we’re starting with an audio case study of DPS. Making his Entreproducer debut, Copyblogger’s Robert Bruce interviews Darren about the start, evolution, and future of this amazing content-based business that started with a simple passion for photography.

In this concise 26:49 minute case study, you’ll discover:

  • How Darren built a massive, responsive audience from scratch
  • How to start producing content when you don’t have all the answers
  • A short lesson on the value of great headlines
  • Why creating content acts as a powerful product development lab
  • How he adapted his content plan to grow his audience even more
  • How Darren’s early revenue model looked
  • How his revenue model has evolved into a product model
  • Why traditional book deals are a distraction to his business goals
  • How to build and sell your first product online

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Download the mp3 here or listen on the player below.

Click here for the interview transcript.

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Brian Clark is Editor-in-Chief of Entreproducer, a multimedia email publication exploring the business of independent digital media. Get more related content on Twitter.

Here’s what Entreproducer covers:

  • The business, revenue, staffing, and legal models that move you from content start-up to success.
  • Audio and video profiles of the entrepreneurs and companies that are pushing digital content innovation.
  • Tips, tools, and tactics for getting online content to work for you, no matter how you make money.

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  1. Awesome, Darren’s dPS has always been a huge influence to myself (and I’m sure many others), maybe more so than Problogger itself.

  2. Darren is great. I’ve taken his course on blogging, which he co-created with Chris Garrett, and that’s where he partly talked about DPS and how he started.

    This is a good interview, great tips from Darren on how to build profitable fan base.

    Thanks Brian!

  3. Wow, I didn’t know DPS was that deep… awesome.

    Darren was a good case study for agile content marketing for sure.

    Question: When is this book due out Brian?

  4. Fantastic post, Brian. I’m a big fan of Darren’s work, his photography blog has always been a influence to myself.

  5. An awesome story of evolution! Thanks for this Brian, Robert, Darren (and teams :D)

    I skimmed DPS in my amateur photography days, and I remember being shocked when I found out it was Darren behind it.

    It’s really cool to hear Darren’s agile-content journey, and it gives a lot of insight and helps pave a path for others.

    I especially liked how he’s “kept the books as PDF” and focused on what works, but always ready to evolve and adapt.

  6. Hi Brian,
    The minimum viable audience strategy makes great sense, however I’m stumped on how to apply it to what I’m creating, and I wonder if it’s suitable for all types of business. What would a company like FourSquare, Gigwalk, or even Twitter talk about to build their minimum viable audience? If any of the founders of these companies had talked with you prior to developing and funding their idea, would you have recommended this strategy? If so, logically it would seem they should be talking about the problem their product solves, no? But sometimes, as I feel is the case in the examples I’ve provided, people don’t have that desire or problem until the product/service exists. And sometimes the nature of the product or service doesn’t easily (or at all) lend to blog content. And, of course, building a successful blog is a feat unto itself.
    It seems that this strategy works great for educational based businesses such as copyblogger or digital photography school. There are countless examples of people blogging about their passion for a certain subject, learning what those who share their passion want, and building a business around that.
    I actually am a professional writer and generally don’t have a challenge generating content, however it’s difficult for the type of business I’m creating. I feel like good market research may make more sense than building a MVA in my case.
    I know that I haven’t shared any specifics, but any insight you could share on how to know whether I should be taking the MVA approach, and how to determine the content strategy (speak to the problem my product solves?), would be greatly appreciated.

    • I agree with a lot of the points that you’ve made here, I’m interested in seeing Brian’s response to this.

    • Hi James and Gregory,

      I posed a similar question to Brian and he offered a great answer I think would prove insightful.

      Check it out in where I pose a similar question and Brian offers an answer that ties into another article here regarding Hyper Local Sites.

      I think you’ll be able to mine a great approach from his response to my comment/question.

    • I can’t speak for Foursquare or Gigwalk, however, Twitter actually developed from a MVA situation as did Facebook and Post-It Notes. Facebook was initially created for connecting people at elite Ivy League schools, but demand drove it to expand to other schools and eventually public. Post-Its is a business school legend of how a group of R & D people at 3M had a low-tack glue rejected by from production because “there isn’t a market.” They created a bunch of pads of notepaper with a strip of the low-tack glue on the back and distributed around the company. When secretaries (yes, they were secretaries in those days) started asking for more, the R & D folks explained why there weren’t any more. The Marketing Dept. quickly changed it’s mind on the viability of the product and the rest, as they say, is history. Twitter came out of the observation that it would be nice if people could send a text to one number and have it broadcast to all of your friends. And again, it took one or two passionate people in a position to build support that made Twitter happen.

      And then there was this little concept called the “personal computer” (not to mention Arpanet which evolved into a little something known today as the Internet). 🙂

  7. another fantastic article. It wasn’t very specific as Darren seems to follow his intuition, but I have hope that some of us can develop that intuition to a degree! 🙂

  8. My slap-the-forehead moment was Darren’s remark that in the beginning he wrote for an audience whose knowledge was only about a year behind where he was, at the time.

    Great target reader. It assumes an audience all heading in the same general direction in search of a leader among near-equals. Fertile ground for building a community and for an opportunity to be that leader among equals.

    Oh, how my increasingly large forehead stings.

  9. Great stuff – lots of good info and a big fan of Darren and DPS.

  10. Darren is one of the smartest working bloggers out there. It’s great that you got him on your show, Brian.

    In fact, he is what all bloggers should/could be; community builders.

    I still keep wondering, why doesn’t CB has forums or a more ‘community’ feel to it. A more apt way of saying it would be, “do you think CB is not the type of ‘topic’ to have a ‘forum’ around”?

    I ask because I am grappling with the decision here, for my own blog/community, and I’ve been thinking of doing what Darren has done. But why haven’t you/CBMedia done that? Hmm…

    • Copyblogger has at least a couple of really active communities: Third Tribe and Teaching Sells, plus others tangentially, such as Jon Morrow’s Guestblogging forum. And the CB blog itself is an active community in the comments, social media, etc. even though it doesn’t run on forum software.

      • Thanks Jack. Quite a few social media guys have suggested I tag along a forum. Forum, of course, has its benefits (user-gen content being the number one in my list). It also is intensive in terms of moderation.

        I’d consider the communities you’ve mentioned to be spinoffs. In fact, I’d go far enough to suggest that the reason those communities are ‘away’ from the CB blog is because they are ‘well defined’ in themselves. In other words, they are not a CB community, they were overlaps as identified by Brian (and of course, rightly so). That’s all good (very, very, veryy good in fact) at many levels.

        Of course, as you rightly point out, Jack, that SM and comments are all part of the CB community. Running a forum software (or a ‘social media platform’ software, something like buddypress for example) has more community feel to it, I think. It does bring the community together faster, but I guess it doesn’t ‘feel right’ for something like CB, given the kind of topics they write about. Brian’s comment below does help; base ‘forum based’ communities on customers instead of readers. Hmm…

    • Brian Clark says:

      Not to mention our 71,000 member StudioPress customer forum. We tend to focus on communities of customers (beyond the active comment section at Copyblogger). That approach allows us to provide higher value than freely open forums generally allow for, especially without a CPM advertising model.

      • I know – because I think I’ve heard you say it 🙂 – that CB is your channel to bring in the audience. And to identify your own Minimum Viable Audience for different businesses., products etc.

        Will I be correct in saying that to build a community in the typical sense of ‘forums/profiles’ etc, you’d need customers instead of just readers?

        Darren’s DPS is of course doing it differently.

        This means that I’d have to figure it out – test it, see how it goes, get feedback – on my own, doesn’t it? Akkhh 🙂

        And thank you Brian for putting out these concept for ‘students’ like me to learn from.

  11. Great story on Darren and DPS. His work on both DPS and problogger have been a great influence on the way I think and work!

  12. raghavendra says:

    This is inspiring. I think he is the one who started earning from adsense and other online income strategies very early, even when people do not know what was all about.
    And about digital photography school there is a new post on every two days and in weekly photography challenge we could see the number of likes and comments blows our mind.

  13. Great to see an Australian dominating with an agile content marketing. Keep it up Darren! Thanks Brian for sharing more inspired content for the rest of us!

  14. Great story. Content, Community and Finding readers. Darren has a great story. He gives new hard working bloggers something to look forward to.

  15. Thanks for the great interview. I love how Darren is kicking butt online AND is such a down-to-earth, cool guy. Inspiring.

  16. Brian…
    Please keep up with this format. Like so many others here I’m a really busy person so listening on-the-go at the gym, in the car… it’s SO convenient. Thank you for all you continue to do!

  17. Brian,
    Your actually WRONG. Darren did not start Digital Photography School AFTER. He started a network of adsense blogs before Problogger. But DPS came much later.

    Your facts need fact checking bro. I’ve known Darren since 2001ish when he was a pastor still. And his original problogging blog was an offshoot of his church website. It’s AGED.

  18. He was blogging about blogging because of his niche adsense blogs. Like so many of us webmasters were doing back in the day.

  19. Great post. Your content is always top notch and this was a great interview with Darren. Thanks for sharing!

  20. Great interview, Brian. Darren has been one of the most open and kind online entrepreneurs around for years now. Not only is he approachable, but he never shies away from sharing from his experiences.

    Like Darren, we’ve also focused on a community-first approach to content, and it has paid off in spades, particularly with a seriously loyal usership.

    I encourage any listeners to really think about how they can put this into use with their websites, as your community truly can become your core.


  21. I want to to thank you for this fantastic read!! I definitely enjoyed every bit of it.
    I have got you saved as a favorite to check out new stuff
    you post…

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