How a Self-Publisher Created a Lean and Profitable Startup … and a Brand New Career

A few short years ago Brett Kelly was busy living the good life of an experienced and talented programmer, when he stumbled across a new software service called Evernote.

He quickly became a passionate customer, as well as one the company’s most ardent unpaid evangelists.

What happened next — a truly inspirational story from the front lines of the digital revolution — changed his life, his bank account, and the direction of his professional goals …

In this 35-minute talk, Brett Kelly and I discuss:

  • Why he decided to write an ebook about Evernote
  • How he approached the writing process
  • The surprise call from a CEO that changed his life
  • The single factor that played a major role in his publishing success
  • His setup for selling his ebook online
  • A look into the actual number of his book sales, past and present
  • His long-game — and very effective — marketing method
  • What he’d do differently if he could start over today

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The Show Notes:

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  1. Very enjoyable listen, thanks to you both.

    B. Kelly really comes off as a genuine guy. Hey, and you’re not bad yourself, Brain.



  2. Yeah, I know you have a “Brain”, but I meant “Brian”.


  3. A transcript of these conversations would be great.

  4. Norman Petersen says:

    Kelly’s biggest regret/lesson is a technical work flow issue? This is akin to Hemingway saying he wished he’d used a different brand of pencil! (BTW: has he heard of Libre Office and how it has a pdf function built right in?)

    Self published? He was employed by the #1 app company for a period of months before they blogged about his product, causing it to sell thousands and thousands of copies.

    This is like saying a coder at Microsoft is a successful bootstrapper because Win 7 has sold millions of copies.

    Take 10 years to make tons of friends in high places on line? Sure, that’s for everyone.

    I could go on and on about how janky this interview is in terms of real-world online sales, self-publishing, bootstrapping, lean startups…

    Instead, I’ll go back to work now and hope that you’ll go find some folks outside of your blogosphere elite associates who’ve had even one-tenth the success of Brett Kelly. That will be a generous interview, potentially useful to those of us who don’t have Tim Ferriss’ number on speed dial (i.e.: ALL of your readers).

    • Brian Clark says:

      All 185,000 of our readers have Tim Ferris on speed dial? Even I know better than to contact Tim on the phone.

      Everyone starts at zero. 7 years ago, I was absolutely unknown, with zero contacts in the blogging or online market world.

      It sounds to me like you want to make excuses because others have gotten to work before you have. Why not just get to work?

      • Norman’s being a bit snarky, but I get where he’s coming from (maybe).

        People who are in the online marketing teaching business make most of their money selling dreams. The stories are, naturally, success stories. Wannabes get enchanted and plop down their dollars. If the marketers were paid some % of the money their programs actually garnered their customers, they’d earn far less money.

        But this is not exclusive to online marketers.

        Gym owners could only survive financially if all members pay the monthly fee, not just those who actually show up. In fact, their facilities are of insufficient size to accommodate all members should they all actually attend.

        The difference is, though, that there’s a higher degree of probability that someone who consistently follows a good workout plan will reap the rewards than someone following a business plan, online or bricks and mortar. There’s just too many variables in business.

        And surely Norman hit on one of them — connection.

        Among many, I follow Jon Morrow. He’s impressive. Outstanding. But I hafta grin when he downplays the importance of his association with Copyblogger when it comes to his online business success.

        Sure he works hard, is tenacious, and bright, etc., but Copyblogger lifted him higher, faster than he could have ever hoped to have gone w/o it. Just like Evernote did for Mr. Kelly.

        My 2 cents.


      • Norman Petersen says:

        “Don’t” have him on speed dial, Brian. NONE of your readers have Tim or Jon or you or Kelly or anyone who can click a magic button that will expose us to millions at once, on speed dial.

        And thank you Joe for clarifying some aspects of my message.

        I have no need for excuses. I’m actually doing pretty well, but not because anyone gave me a blog-post super-blast or an awesome job at Evernote (I don’t have a backup 9-5) or because I got tight with some heavy hitters in the blogging world. But because I work consistently.

        Suggesting that all WE have to do is ‘make the right connections’ is absurd because YOU (the you with 185k followers or even 10k) don’t have time for all of us. The online professionals who get the attention of YOU are a very tiny, fortunate few.

        Or maybe they’re not so fortunate. I’m proud of my little niche and I’d love to hear about others who’ve done okay without getting to sit down with the CEO of Evernote.

        I’m not saying you didn’t work hard to get where you are.

        It just seems to me that, concerning the how-to of our industry, your group might be falling into a comfortable, nepotistic habit.

        Again, hopefully you’ll find time to interview some real-world self-publishers. I’d love to hear from people who made 80 grand last year selling ebooks (vs 400k+. Something that’s not going to happen without a connection like E-Note). I’d do it myself, but ‘how to blog’ is your forte, not mine.

        • Hi Norman,

          I don’t disagree that my success was bolstered by having some influential friends—and Evernote proper—promoting my product when it launched. I must disagree, however, with the idea that simply having such people/entities pimping a product would necessarily make the product successful in the longer term. If my product was crap, it would have fizzled very early, regardless of how many people with big Twitter followings said it wasn’t crap.

          A couple other things:

          1. Evernote blogged about my product once in July of 2010 and they haven’t since.
          2. My “reach”, as it were, is *at most* 8,000 people (including RSS, Twitter). I’m pretty bad at being popular on the Internet.
          3. I’ve met Tim Ferriss once and he was friendly, but I’m afraid I don’t have his number. Hell, I don’t even know Mr. Brian Clark 🙂

          We seem to believe (and I do mean “we”) that unassisted success is the purest kind, that people who catch a break and go on to [do whatever rare thing] cheated the system somehow because they had help getting off the ground. I’m the first one to admit that neither my success nor the surrounding circumstances are easily duplicatable by everybody, but I can’t agree that my hard work, talent and knowledge weren’t just as—if not more— important than the involvement of famous people/companies.

          • I’m gonna butt in.

            As I mentioned above, Brett, you come across as genuine and likeable. I know little about Evernote and your “Essentials” but I bet both are great, and that you deserve your success.

            I’ve been a student of the online marketing game (and, yes, there’s gamesmanship to it) for three years, and have a blog that does not at all comport to what I know is required (in part thanks to Copyblogger/B. Clark) to be a “successful” blog.

            That’s because I’m embroiled in analysis/paralysis, and the reason I mention this is that the biggest part of your success is that you put on your sneakers and entered the race, whereas people like sit on the sidelines wondering if we’re sufficiently prepared to run.

            That said, you had a wonderful start — one that the vast majority of digital purveyors will not get. So be it. Such is life. No one would have said “no thanks” to the leg up.

            Much continued success to you!


          • Brian Clark says:

            “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

  5. Brian

    What’s the best way to go through the archives on entreproducer?

    Also, when is “teaching sell” going to be open?

    Thanks for all of the amazing content!!!!

  6. Mr. Kelly
    Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

    I don’t think I implied that you haven’t worked hard, are untalented or are not knowledgeable.

    I was struck by the fact that, when asked what you would have done differently, you focused on a technical issue that could be solved by a 30 second Google search.

    This is revealing because the vast majority of marketers encounter much, much bigger problems early on that require weeks, months or longer to overcome.

    You said very clearly that you went from a few sales a day to a sustained 1200+ per month BECAUSE of the blog post by Evernote. ONE blog post (thanks for clarifying that, btw).

    I don’t begrudge your success in any way. I know that it stems, in part, from being sharp enough to write about a very useful tool at the right time, from contacting the right people…

    But I’m not an employee of (insert company with zillions of followers here) and for the purposes of this conversation, neither is anyone else.

    Again, I appreciate your response.

    Regarding Mr. Clark’s responses, which seem to be limited to calling me lazy, I won’t hold my breath waiting for him to admit that he interviewed someone who’s financial success (where the E-note product is concerned) stems as much from being an employee, as a self-publisher.

    • Brian Clark says:

      I think I see your issue with this episode, Norman. It’s that he took up an entrepreneurial endeavour and then ended up with a job, right? Never mind the fact that it was a dream job for him.

      But guess what? The reality is that most founders will end up with a job — when their startup is acquired. In fact, way too many people are fixated on the exit instead of creating a real company.

      So, essentially, Brett got “acquired” fast based on his passion and initiative. He didn’t have “connections” with the company — he contacted them through their generic company web form. The truly cool part of the story is that they let him keep the money from his book and even did a one-time promotion for it.

      So, I’m glad that Robert asked Brett for the interview and they knocked it out. It’s a great story. Not the only path, and certainly not the path I took, but I find valuable lessons everywhere, instead of placing things in conceptual boxes. The best ideas are at the intersections of things most people view as “different.”

  7. I wrote an ebook years ago about color using the Benjamin Moore system and have promoted their paint for years. Despite selling close to a thousand copies at $75 each, the corporation never promoted it. Their marketing people admitted in a conference call that they had a copy and thought it was great, appreciated that I was acting as a curator for Home Stagers etc, but there was no way they would have blogged about it or promoted it in any way on their site. Huge corporations have legal departments that worry about the corporation being seen to endorse anything beyond their direct control. Nor did they offer me a job — thank goodness because I’ve been an entrepreneur too long to ever want to be an employee.

    I am fine with all this and only mention it because of previous comments. I’ve made a great living online without being in the “inner circle” with the Copyblogger folks, Tim Ferris, or even any affiliates at all.

    My point is, that it can be done and there are also many profitable little niches. We don’t all have to “blog about blogging” to make a living.

    My question to Brett is why have such a long process to make a PDF? My ebooks are all done in Word or Pages and then converted to PDF directly. Why would HTML be involved at all?

    This interview was great, thanks you Brett and Brian for taking the time to have, record, post, and promote the conversation!

    • Hi Debra,

      It has always been important for me to make my ebook look *really* good. I’ve purchased PDFs in the past that have been simple exports from [pick your favorite word processor] and, while the aesthetics hardly changed the content, they lacked that little je ne sais quoi. I’m not picking on you, of course, but I felt like taking the extra time and effort to make it beautiful would help the buyer understand that they got their money’s worth.

      Also, having a web development background makes writing HTML as easy for me as it would be for somebody else to write using Word/Pages, but I have the luxury of far more control over how the stuff looks and behaves and I don’t have a cheeky piece of software trying to be smarter than me 🙂

  8. I have to agree with Brett to some extent. There are precious few “average grinder” success stories compared to the amount of people who try internet marketing/blogging and give up after 3/6/12 months because it’s not working for them. Those are the vast majority of stories, and the ones we never hear about.

    Getting through “the dip”, to quote Seth Godin, is hard … that’s why so few people manage it.

  9. Brett, you mentioned your affiliates helped you get your book sales off the ground. Do you have affiliate program software to manage this? I am on draft 2 of my own e-book PDF and am keen to launch an affiliate program where people can get a percentage of the sale price when they promote the book on their site. But am not sure which program to sign up to. Would be interested to hear your thoughts.

    • Hi Carole,

      I used to use to sell my ebook, but have recently started using Office Autopilot. Both platforms have their own affiliate systems baked in. If you’re looking for a good way to sell a product that has good affiliate capabilities, there are oodles of them, each with their own pros and cons. OAP is rather costly compared to most other options, but it does just about everything I want and it all lives under one roof. Your mileage may vary, of course, but it’s definitely an embarrassment of riches out there as far as ways to sell stuff.

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