Welcome to the Content Champion Podcast, in this episode I’m talking with Pat Walls, the entrepreneur behind Starter Story, the highly successful blog that interviews top business owners on how they started and grew their companies.
The secret to Pat’s own success is publishing and monetising a high volume of interviews – that other people write – all underpinned by a system that puts the whole thing on rails.
As a former journalist I’m fascinated by this ‘reporter model’, so I can’t wait to dive in…
Listen To Pat's Show On The Reporter Model
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- Discover Pat's own backstory
- The lowdown on Starter Story & how Pat monetises his interviews
- Pat's interview workflow process explained
- Introducing Pigeon, the software Pat developed to automate his workflow with Gmail
- More detail on how Pigeon works and what you can achieve with it
- The roadmap for Pigeon's feature development
- Where we can find Pat online (and information on signing up for Pigeon)
- The PS Question – Pat shares a great interview marketing tactic you can use right after the show!
Watch The Video Podcast
Loz James: Thanks for coming on, Pat.
Pat Walls: Yeah, thanks for having me, man. It's great to be here.
Loz James: Let's kick off with your starter story. What's your background, please?
Pat Walls: Oh man, my background goes kind of far to finance and accounting, and to lots of different stuff. I learned to code … I did a coding bootcamp about two … Actually no, it's probably three or four years ago now. Then, I was open to the world of software engineering, and building products. I worked for, as a software engineer for a couple years. I had a kind of failed business, wanted to get into YCombinator and start a big startup, which failed. After that failure, I kind of still wanted to start something new, but I wanted something that I could work on while I had a full time job.
Pat Walls: I started basically a content business, a blog, called StarterStory.com. I was interested in learning more about affiliate, because I could … with a blog, I could work on it on nights and weekends, and I wouldn't have critical production bugs I need to fix while I have my full time job. I started looking into affiliate, and doing research on that. I started an affiliate website for something totally unrelated, and started building out the content, hiring writers, and doing that kind of thing, and realised that I wasn't … I followed the traditional logic to pick some sort of niche so you can market affiliate products to. The niche that I picked was pets. I was like, ‘Oh wait, that's probably a good niche. You can make money on that.'
Pat Walls: I started the website, and then maybe like two weeks later, I was just not motivated at all to work on it, because I didn't have any passion for the industry, or the topics, or anything like that. I took a step back, and I was like, okay, I still want to do this content business, but I want to do it for something that I'm more passionate about. At that moment, I realised that I could do it about entrepreneurship, starting businesses, something that I've really always loved, whether that's podcasts, or just entrepreneur stories.
Pat Walls: So I started that, and I just started by interviewing my friends, and friends of friends, and got a few interviews on the website. This is about, I think a year and a half ago. I still had a full time job at the time. Yeah, November 2017, so getting … Yeah, a little bit more than a year and a half ago. So I started that, and then … Yeah, just kind of started taking off from there.
Pat Walls: About five months in, I monetized the website with … I guess a little bit of affiliate links, and then I mostly followed the sponsor model. Most of my website has been monetized by sponsorships. Since then, about a year after starting it, I quit my full time job to work on it as the income was kind of enough to do that. Now I'm just focused on growing that, and then also working on this product that helped me grow the blog to where it is today. So hopefully that's … Sorry for the ramble.
Loz James: No, that's great. We're going to go and talk about Pigeon, which is the software you developed that came out of your process later on in the call. I guess it's because of that coding side of things, what fascinates me as a content marker is how you sort of morphed your content model around that systematisation of process; so go into that a bit more. What is the process of how you build out your Starter Story interviews?
Pat Walls: Yeah, no, it's funny, I think about a lot. I've always been focused on … Well, when I first started out, I was getting on the phone with people, interviewing them, taking the audio, transcribing it to text, which is like this crazy, annoying, really hard process. By the time you turn it into text, it doesn't even read that well because when you say something, it's a lot different than when you write something.
Pat Walls: It's definitely been a process of learning what works. Throughout since starting, I've always been focused on automating and turning things into process, as much as I can because I'm a solo founder. I never hired anyone. I didn't really have so much time on my hands, but the content itself was pretty repeatable, I guess pretty scalable to do.
Pat Walls: I've always been … I guess yeah, really appreciative of the fact that I could code because I've taken a lot of things I've learned. I decided not to build a website on Word Press. I built it on my own Ruby on Rails platform. I've always been really passionate about the process and the automation, and publishing as many interviews as I can. Obviously quality is really important to me, and I think if you see the site, you'd notice that the interviews are high quality. It's always really fun to me to optimise that process of doing more interviews with less time, does that make sense?
Loz James: So originally, within Gmail, you were reaching out to people cold. They got back to you and said, ‘Yeah, I might be interested,' or ‘No, I'm not going to be interested.' Then you would cut and paste them, or send them another email saying, ‘Okay, here are the questions,' and each time you'd be doing that sort of anew, as it were. Then, they'd come back to you, and you'd go through a series of iterations, making changes, perhaps. Then, they'd give you a final draught, and you'd say, ‘Thank you very much,' and then you'd publish that. Then, you realised pretty quickly, ‘Okay, that is a process that I can systemize.
Pat Walls: Yeah. Yeah, no, that's exactly it. I mean that's the beauty of this kind of model is that it's all over email. There's no phone calls. There's no meeting. One thing that is off the topic of this podcast, is that a lot of people ask me to start a podcast, but I just never really had the motivation to do the meetings, and the scheduling, and that whole thing. That's just me. I don't think that's right or wrong. I love that aspect of how it's all over email. Yeah, like you're saying, it's really just email back and forth. Most of the interviews that I've gotten are just some cold emails, researching businesses, and reaching out to them, and explaining the benefits.
Pat Walls: One thing that I think is really great about this kind of model is it just, it really does benefit everyone. It benefits the businesses. They get exposure. They get SEO benefits. It benefits me. I make money and monetize, and it even also benefits other people like the companies, like Shopify, and other businesses like that. It's like a lot of … I guess it's just all … It's good on all sides, so it just feels like it's something that can be scaled even more. Yeah, I'm passionate about that, and also helping other people build similar businesses because you'd be surprised that people … how much people are not doing interviews, where I really see the interviews as one of the best … I think it's one of the best types of content. It's really easy to scale.
Loz James: Well, that's it. That's it, totally. I mean, as a former broadcast journalist, I love this model. That it's really fascinating for me to meet people like you, and learn about what you're doing, and the skills that you've gotten, and the different ideas. It's easily the best part of my job. To be able to turn that into a business model that's monetizable, and that benefits everyone, is fantastic. People looking at this from the outside in might be thinking, ‘Well, you're not actually writing any of that content. How do you get people to write the content?'
Pat Walls: Yeah.
Loz James: There's so much in it for them. If the platform you build is successful, respected, like Starter Story, and it gains that trust and authority in search as well, just having a back link from a site like that is great. But having that almost PR-like feature, high quality feature on there, is a win-win, as you say.
Pat Walls: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I mean I'm not going to say that it's easy to get people to write for you. That's certainly one of the hardest things that I do. Maybe we'll get into more of this, but most people say ‘no' to me. It's not just as simple as sending someone an email and they say, ‘Yes.' It's certainly like a sales kind of numbers game when it comes to that. I think that when people actually do write it, and like you're saying, the PR piece. I do try my best to make the website look really. It gives you the nice social sharing assets. That's all stuff that I've automated as well.
Pat Walls: That type of content performs really well for the interviewees. It also performs well for me in Google search and all that, too. But for the interviewees, it's great for them. I see them post it on their Facebook, and their Twitter. They're sharing their very personal details, such as their revenue, and their start-up story, which is not always … I try to make the content not so PR-y, or … what's the word? Like glamour-y. It's really in-depth, and really goes into detail, and try to be as transparent as possible.
Pat Walls: When people really do write something great, and they share it, it sometimes performs so well. I've had some interviews that have went totally viral, and got like thousands and thousands of views. That's my favourite part, personally, about being able to provide someone with that opportunity.
Loz James: Okay, so how does the process that underpins it all facilitate people saying, ‘Yes.' Is it just a numbers game, would you say?
Pat Walls: Yeah. It's gotten better now that I have numbers that are better. When I first starting out, I didn't really have anything. I luckily got some friends to help me with some of this, original interviews. Then, yeah … Nowadays, I can say, ‘Oh, I have this kind of traffic, and I have this email list, so it's better,' but still, I require everyone to share their revenue numbers, which is also a big objection that people will have.
Pat Walls: One thing that the SEO benefit is really good. That's one thing that I always try to harp on is, especially with eCommerce businesses. They're always looking for SEO boosts, so SEO is a great thing. Then, a lot of this stuff like sales, it can lead to sales. Again, the transparency is awesome for these businesses. Just telling people your story is … can really lead to new … I've heard of people … Unfortunately, I don't get to hear of all the great things that happen. Every day, I feel like I hear something new; like this person got an acquisition offer, or an investment opportunity, or this partnership happened, or they had 10, 20 people apply to their company because of the interview, because at the end, they say that they're hiring, something like that.
Pat Walls: There's lots of little things. I do try to … push on that when I'm doing the emails. I'll say that the other really big thing that I do is other than trying to explain the benefits of that's what's possible is … Sorry, it's just persistence. Another thing is once we get their interest on it, and that's one of the reasons why I built Pigeon, and we'll get into that later. I do a lot of work inside email to make sure that they get it done, because getting someone to write something is not the easiest thing in the world. Even if they want to do it, it's hard to get, first of all, content done, and then also have it delivered in a timely manner, and have it also be high quality.
Pat Walls: There's just a lot of little things that I do to make it as easy possible for them to get it done. Whether that's just through a lot of persistence and follow-ups, or giving them a nice, easy template to work with, and also the revisions process. One of the things I really try to harp on is once I get that first draught from them, I always go through it and give a really, really detailed review, leaving comments and trying to bring out those extra 500 to 1,000 words, and really get detailed about some specific growth tactic, or something like that. So really helping them make a really great piece, rather than just a simple Q&A is really what I focus on.
Pat Walls: Yeah, I don't know if that makes sense, but-
Loz James: Yeah, totally. Just to looking at this from a helicopter view, the reporter model, as I like to call it, it is hitting upon two fundamentals of great marketing, storytelling, and persistence. Everyone wants to hear engrossing, engaging stories about success within their own sector or other people's businesses; and also staying persistent in what you do, whether that's content marketing, marketing in general. It seems you've hit upon two fundamentals, though, which is why this works so well. I guess the extension of that is how you're monetizing Starter Story. Just go through that again, because you've got sponsorships and affiliates on there.
Pat Walls: Yeah, yeah. The main sponsorship … I have a few different revenue models, but the one that I had the most success with is the sponsorship. I don't write any of my own content. First of all, I don't really make off affiliate, because I don't write specific articles that help push affiliate links. I use some affiliate links, but it's all natural. Remember, all the people that are writing their own content is their own interviews, their own content. I have really no say in the final product.
Pat Walls: I kind of focused on the sponsor model. When I first started out, I just walked it out to like 10,000 visitors a month. I just reached out to eCommerce companies that would be interested in having their software in front of my audience. I just asked them to … if they wanted to sponsor the newsletter, and then also have native ads on the website; so not like your typical Google ads, but like an actual just an ad that wouldn't be blocked by an ad blocker, or like an ad that's at the end of the article that promotes them.
Pat Walls: I would just started out, and getting like a $200 a month sponsor, then that turned into a $600 a month. Then now, my website is monetized at $4,000 a month. Most of that comes from the Klaviyo sponsor that I have, which is like a one year deal where they … It's an exclusive sponsorship. They're a eCommerce marketing company, so they want to get in front of my audience. They sponsor the newsletter, the website, and a bunch of other little things on the site. I like that model because I can focus on … I'm very focused on the growth, interviews, being published. With the one year deal, you don't really have to think about chasing down sponsors, or anything like that. Just focus on growth.
Pat Walls: That's what's worked for me. I know that people have a lot of different business models, but yeah.
Loz James: It occurs to me, you can focus on quality as well if you aren't kind of tied into those, ‘Oh, I got to write this specific review piece, or piece of content that is affiliate based.' You can just focus on that quality. Okay, let's dig into the software Pigeon, which I'm subscribed to. I'm loving it already. I'm bubbling with ideas on what I can do with it with my process here at Content Champion. You've developed a piece of software that automates that work flow that we're talking about within Gmail, so tell us about it.
Pat Walls: Yeah, yeah. So when I first … I built my product on Ruby on Rails, which is like a web framework where I have like … It's similar to what you see in WordPress. There's an admin, and I just have … Over time, I build so many different little automations, like for example, I love using Google Docs for all the revising and editing because of the comments features. I would never go off of that.
Pat Walls: I built an integration that exports … or, sorry. It generates Google Docs with one click, rather than having to make a copy, and set it to open access, edit access, or whatever. Just one click, boom, and that saved to my database. Then, I built another integration for, let's say exporting the markdown from the Google Doc. I just built everything so it could be as one click as possible for my process.
Pat Walls: It got to a point where before Pigeon, this product that I built, it got to a point where all I was doing is just doing emails back and forth, when needed, when there was something specific, some questions coming up, and revising interviews, and pressing the ‘publish' button. I had automated everything. I started talking to bloggers and other people, and I wrote a blog post about it, about like six months ago, about my process, and how all these content is basically leads in a funnel in different stages. So content is in its cold stage, or in progress, needs revisions, whatever.
Pat Walls: The one thing that was great that was never going to be enough for my back end automation is that it lives outside of Gmail. Almost all the work that I do is inside Gmail. There's no way that I'm going to convince my interviewees to use some sort of third party software, because they're doing me a favour, right? They're writing me an interview. I want to make it as simple as possible for them, and keep in their one email thread, and help them use Google Docs, something that they're super familiar with. They're not going to use my backend system.
Pat Walls: I was using basically like this kind of hocked together, duck taped solution of Boomerang and Streak, and a few other products to do my email work flows. I could never really automate the actual email work flows because although I could write a tonne of automation in my backend system, I really, really just wanted that to be inside Gmail, because it's so much work inside Gmail, just the back and forth. That's most of the work it was.
Pat Walls: I basically took all that automation and organisation, almost. It's really just like a CRM. It's like having a Google sheets inside your Gmail, where you can track all your interviews, and then also do like some really cool stuff with automation. You can send scheduled emails. When the post goes live, it sends them a scheduled email to ask them to share it. It asks them to add it to their resources page, or whatever. Or, it sends like three different follow-ups like you set the deadline inside Pigeon for when you want the draught done. That's another thing, by the way, is setting deadlines is really, really huge for just in general, but for these type of interviews, it's really good as well.
Pat Walls: Then Pigeon, what Pigeon can do is it can … I set my deadline for two weeks out, and then with the sequences feature, it sends them a reminder two weeks from now; ‘Hey, did you get the draught done?' Then it schedules another reminder seven days later to follow-up again, another reminder seven days later to keep following up, which is not something that I could find any product that would do that.
Speaker 1: You're listening to the Content Champion podcast, showcasing the training and tools you need to become a content marketing champion in your online business.
Loz James: It just occurs to me that there are so many content processes that you can automate using Pigeon.
Pat Walls: Yeah.
Loz James: I think it's going to grow … much, much bigger than even you think it is, because I know when I signed up, I said Google will probably buy this off you one day because it's that good. It just enables you to think of any … almost like content calendar, content systemization process, and then think of, ‘Okay, well what am I using all the time within that process, and I can automate it in here, and stay within my Gmail, and use that as my CRM.' Genius.
Pat Walls: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that's another thing. The calendar as well. Yeah, and like I was saying, I want to build something that's not just for content. It's really just like a database, right? It's just a Google sheet, or a air table, or whatever, but inside Gmail and tightly integrated with the actual email thread; which is something that is saving me time, so much more time now that it's live.
Loz James: It shows you how important email is, though, because everyone, their main workflow, really, is still email. People say email marketing is dead, et cetera, but it isn't. The biggest connections, apart from face to face, and actually meeting people, are all still email, which is a relatively old in digital marketing terms, medium. To have everything within Gmail, and then you can access it wherever you open your laptop next, and carry on, is great.
Pat Walls: Yeah.
Loz James: Yeah, I'm going to be using it for the podcast. I'm going to using it for written interviews. I may even use Pigeon for services based delivery, if I can get my head around that; but in that order. That's what I'm sort of rolling out at the moment. What have you got on the roadmap in future? I know you're constantly designing new features for it, aren't you?
Pat Walls: Yeah. Yeah, well what's great about it is I can build it for my own use case. That is … I don't know if I could have built the same products without really needing it, because as I was building it, I was like, ‘Oh, well, it should work this way, and it should work this way.' Yeah, but my goal is to just build … Well, the next big feature is the sequences, like the one I said where it's sending four different follow-up emails in a row. You never have to touch that email until they respond. That's a big feature. At least for me, it is. Then, I don't know if you're familiar with Air Table, but I want to … I really, really respect that product. I got some inspiration for their forms feature, so I want to be able to …
Pat Walls: Pigeon lives inside Gmail, but not everyone can be inside your Gmail. I want a way to be able to create a form that lives in its own website, or it's own link. That form you can send over email. For example, let's say you want to collect data about your blog post. You want to get their revenue per month, their name, their email, whatever. You can generate a link, and then that link, you can send in the email. Then, they fill out the information, and they're just updating your Pigeon database for you. You really have your source of truth or data living inside your email … Whatever they update in their form, it's almost … It would be like if you sent them a Google form, and then that updated automatically in your spreadsheet, or in your Pigeon database.
Loz James: Yeah, and how about a copywriting kind, the onboarding you normally do a content briefing?
Pat Walls: Yeah.
Loz James: You could send them that form to fill in, and that's stored in your CRM within Gmail.
Pat Walls: Yeah, just like you send me for the podcast, like the little intro paragraph. Yeah, same kind of deal.
Loz James: There's tonnes of things. I'm also thinking of those round-up posts you do as well. You could send out … You could, if you want to do large collated blog posts, where there are multiple people answering. You could send them each a little thing to fill out.
Pat Walls: Yup. Yeah, that's another thing I'm doing, because I'm trying to get more … I'm focused on some different type of content for Starter Story. I want to get some … Like for example, let's say a business doesn't want to do an interview, but they still … I still want to get some data from them, maybe a description about their business, or … and some data. I want to be able to inside Pigeon, click one link that will at least get something from them. Maybe it's not a story, but maybe a short post or a blog post, something like that. That would be something you could do with Pigeon as well for people that don't want to share their revenue, or write up the whole thing.
Loz James: The great thing is, just to finish up, I'm going to remind everyone where we can find all this great stuff in a minute. I started out as a copywriter after I was a journalist and used to be able to charge 200 pounds a page. Then it flipped, and now people come to me, because I'm more authoritative platform offering to write content for me every day in the form of guest posts, and everything.
Pat Walls: Yeah.
Loz James: It's flipped around, so there's guest posting, and everything. Content is a commodity, and being able to handle in that way, in that systemized way through something like Pigeon, I think is gold dust. So yeah, guest posts as well.
Pat Walls: Yeah. I get so many of those emails, too. I just want to be able to send them a form with the Google Doc, because you generate the Google Doc as well. Then, even have like a stripe payout at the end of the form, so they just … so before they can even send it, they have to pay you 20 bucks or something like that.
Loz James: Yeah, I was drafting my email for that one this morning, actually, thinking about exactly that. I sent another one, and what I do at the moment, is go and cut and paste it in. Yes, we do accept guest posts, but you have to do this, this, this, this and this.
Pat Walls: Yeah.
Loz James: Okay, that one's going to be one click now. Brilliant.
Pat Walls: Yeah.
Loz James: Okay, so remind us where we can find you online, and also where we can find Pigeon as well. I think it's, … is it still in … It's in a beta release, or alpha release?
Pat Walls: Yeah. TryPigeon.co, Try P-I-G-E-O-N dot co. It's still at … So you can sign up and get your email, at least get on my list. If you're really interested in trying out, I can … I'll take on some new users, but it's in the alpha state right now. There's some things with the Google API that I need to get approved. It's going to be in the alpha state for a little bit, but if you think you have a use case that would really work for this, I'd love to have you on board, and be a part of that. You can also find me on Twitter at ThePatWalls, T-H-E Pat Walls, P-A-T-W-A-L-L-S, or just search ‘Pat Walls' on Google. You'll find it. Then StarterStory.com, search ‘Starter Story' on Google. You'll find it.
Speaker 1: Wait for it, listeners. Here comes the PS question.
Loz James: Could you please share one advanced interview marketing tactic we can use right after the show?
Pat Walls: Yeah, for written interviews?
Loz James: It could be anything, really. Anything that you-
Pat Walls: Okay. Okay, one thing that really, really … Well, I'll give you a couple. The deadline thing is huge. Setting deadlines, and being firm, not being afraid to be firm and persistent is really great. Another one that I do is so my interviews are like … I don't know what the average is, but I would say the average is like 2500 to 3,000 words. One way that I … Even though there's only like, I think seven or eight questions, what I do is when you go to the website, you'll see the main question, which is like, ‘Hey, what's your name and what did you start?' But then you'll see three paragraphs or four paragraphs of writing under it. That's because in the template that I have, I have the main question, and then I have four, or five, or six sub-questions below it that say, ‘Hey, you should talk about this. You should include this image. You should link to this and that, and this and that,' which is like super great. Then, I also suggest, like ‘Hey, this should be four to six paragraphs.'
Pat Walls: So by doing that, I save so much time because when I go back for revisions, the expectation is already set that, that is what they should have talked about. It should be that long. Once I started doing that, I was able to save so much more time. Then when I get a first draught from them, let's say it's 1500 words, which is good, not great. I like it to be a little bit more in-depth than that. Then I can go back and get an even better interview. So by setting the expectation and also, it's nice for them because it helps them … A lot of times, entrepreneurs aren't that great of writers. People that write blog posts are usually bloggers, and people that are starting businesses are entrepreneurs, not writers.
Pat Walls: It's also a great way to help them through the writing process, and tell them what they should talk about, and put it in more of like a bullet pointed … format. Then, I feel like those bullet points, when it goes in published, and it looks like just a really nice long interview.
Loz James: With Pigeon of course, as well that's great tips, by the way. Great answer to the PS question. With Pigeon, you could just download everything, and cut and paste it into WordPress, can't you?
Pat Walls: Yup. Yeah, there's a button you can click, ‘export markdown.' It pulls out the data of the Google Doc and turns it into a markdown format, which you can just paste right into WordPress, and get the images and everything.
Loz James: One thing that's come out of that, just before we wrap up the show, is what I'm going to do, I think, for people that don't want to do either a Podcast, or they don't want to do a long form interview answer, I might have a sort of bites thing where I pull together those shorter excerpts where people have said how they're using content marketing in the cast of my model, and some quick wins that they've got from different tactics they're using. Then, put them together in tactics, so so-and-so from this company has had great success with Facebook ads, and they achieved this, then another Facebook post, and another Facebook post. I put that into one overall blog post of curated tips. That's something else I could use Pigeon for.
Pat Walls: Yeah.
Loz James: Okay, right. Well, I'm excited about this. It's a great piece of software. That was a great interview. Yeah, all that remains to say is thank you very much for coming on, Pat. I wish you every success with all your ventures in future.
Pat Walls: Thank you. You, too.
Speaker 1: You've been listening to the Content Champion podcast, available at ContentChampion.com and on iTunes. Until next time, thanks for listening.
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