[Guest Post] Ramit Sethi: How I Built a 7-Figure Business by Breaking All the Rules

Ramit Sethi: How I Built a 7-Figure Business by Breaking All the Rules

Editor’s Note: We’re excited to introduce this guest post from bestselling author and entrepreneur Ramit Sethi. Best known for his book and website I Will Teach You to Be Rich, Ramit is also the force behind GrowthLab. In this post, he’ll shed some light on his own rule-breaking approach to business growth.

 

* * *

 

Before 2013, everyone knew how to promote new music from a popular artist:

  • Announce the album a year in advance
  • Release multiple singles and videos
  • Do as many interviews as possible

So how did Beyonce sell 80,000 copies of an album nobody knew she was making—3 hours after announcing it on Instagram?

The simple answer is “She’s Beyonce. Her music would sell no matter what.”

But I urge you to consider a deeper explanation: one that might hold the key to more fun, a bigger impact, and stronger sales in your business.

What Beyonce really did was throw the standard playbook in the trash. After many years in the music business, she knew the rules—including which ones she could be more successful by breaking.

I’m Ramit Sethi, New York Times bestselling author and founder of I Will Teach You to Be Rich.

And I want to ask you something.

How many “online marketing best practices” do you follow in your business?

  • Do you only send short emails—because you’ve been told nobody has an attention span anymore?
  • Are you afraid of emailing too often—because you’ve been warned against “burning out” your list?
  • Have you been cranking out content day and night—because you think it’s the only path to growing your traffic?

I’ve actually found each of those rules to be untrue … sometimes. In fact, when you study our business, you actually see more exceptions to the rules than examples!

Almost every day, I get notes from people saying, “You should send shorter emails. Nobody has the time to read all of this.” (Many of my emails are 5+ pages long.)

Yet when you connect with someone, they’ll read anything—even 70-page sales pages.

We’ve built a business with over a million readers (including student success stories like this, this, and this) because we break these rules.

You can too.

1

Today, I’m going to lift the curtain on 3 rules we break at IWT. You’ll discover why these rules are passed around without much evidence, how we break them, and the results we get.

By the way, this isn’t just about increasing revenue. It’s also fun to test the rules … and find out which really matter.

You’ll find that working on your business is naturally motivating when you get to be yourself instead of imitating some formula.

Nonsense Marketing Rule #1: “Don’t send long emails or write long posts. No one has time. Be quick and to the point.”

 

This is the first paragraph of an email marketing article from the first page of Google:

Don’t be too wordy. Today, nobody wants to read a long email—especially not a long marketing email—that goes on and on about the service or event that you’re trying to sell them. Just give them some enticing details and send them over to your website using some very clear calls to action (links) to the page on your website where they can learn more.”

This has been repeated so often that it’s practically an article of faith among online business owners. You might find it hard to imagine there being any other way.

Curiously, I’ve found that most people offering this advice don’t run successful online businesses themselves.

Those who do tend to have a very different perspective.

For instance, there’s an entrepreneur I know who sends 20+ page emails to his readers. Someone once asked him, “Who has the time to actually read these emails?”

He laughed. “Only the buyers.”

Look at what’s going on here.

This entrepreneur wasn’t randomly sending these insanely long emails. He knew something about human psychology that most marketers don’t.

If someone is motivated to solve a problem, and you offer a compelling solution, they’ll read every word.

For the right people, long emails aren’t a nuisance. You aren’t wasting their time—you’re actually doing them a service.

The idea that you should only send short emails is condescending. It treats your readers like children.

At IWT, we’ve found that you can demand more of people. And they won’t just tolerate it, they’ll revere you for it!

(If you need proof, you’re reading a 3,000+ word blog post right now.)

My favorite example of this in our business is the 4,355-word email I sent out 5 years ago.

Most marketers would have gasped in horror:

  • “You’ll get so many spam complaints!”
  • “Everyone will unsubscribe!”
  • “You’ll train people to ignore your emails!”

Instead, that email performed incredibly well.

Of course, the fact that long emails can work doesn’t mean just any random diatribe will be a hit.

If we’re real with each other, most emails are nothing but low-value junk pieces and thinly disguised sales pitches. If they disappeared tomorrow, you wouldn’t even notice.

That’s good news: if you can make your emails even just 10% more valuable than what’s already out there, you can reap disproportionate rewards simply because everything else is so bad!

Effective emailing isn’t about being the best writer in the world, or sometimes even having the best ideas. It’s about being valuable to your readers.

Below, I’ve provided 7 techniques IWT uses to consistently write engaging emails.

These are my secret weapons to transforming “pretty good” emails into high-value material that gets read, liked, and shared.

As a bonus, these techniques work equally well for blog posts, too.

Secret Weapon #1: Providing Actionable Tactics & Techniques

 

What made IWT stand out from all the other personal finance blogs in the early days?

Besides the dirty jokes, it was the fact that while everyone else was giving generic advice (“Save more! Come on, just do it!”), I shared real, tactical action steps—all the way down to the exact phone numbers to call and the exact words to use.

If you’re going to give advice, go one step further and give your readers something they can use TODAY. It’s one of the easiest ways to stand out and create loyal fans.

Classic example: I Will Teach You to Be Rich

2

By the way, notice how simple it is to include phone numbers, but how few people do it. Sometimes actionable material can simply be going the extra step.

On the IWT team, when someone is referencing a document or agenda, I show them how going that extra step—adding the link right in the text—might take them 20 seconds longer, but it can save hours for the other people reading and hunting around for it. That’s value.

Honorable mentions: Lifehacker, Tim Ferriss

Secret Weapon #2: Citing Scientific or Historical Data

 

There’s a ton of advice on the internet, and most of it comes from non-credible sources. If you’re the type of person who enjoys real research (and you and I both know that most people are way too lazy for that), you can instantly boost the value and credibility of your emails by wrapping your content around real data.

Classic example: Barking Up the Wrong Tree

3

This article could’ve been stated as mere opinion. Instead the author supported it with facts, which lends it credibility and signals to readers that he cares enough not to waste their time.

Honorable mentions: Mark’s Daily Apple, Precision Nutrition

Secret Weapon #3: Weaving in a Relevant Personal Story

 

The power of telling personal stories is that nobody else can replicate them—your stories are 100% your own. Dramatic or funny life stories can be the difference between a boring email or blog post and one that’s downright addicting. Just make sure that you’re also providing value, not merely writing a tell-all.

Classic example: Penelope Trunk

4

Penelope is a master at giving just enough personal detail to hook your interest—but not so much that she buries the topic.

Honorable mentions: James Altucher, Tucker Max

Secret Weapon #4: Shooting a Video

 

The power of video is that (1) it’s often faster to produce than writing and (2) it has huge perceived value. Every time I’m in studio, I try to shoot a few quick Q&A videos that I can easily weave into a future blog post.

You may not have a fancy studio yet, and that’s OK. Many successful bloggers create videos using screencasting software like Camtasia, or even their webcams and mobile phones.

Classic example: Elliott Hulse

5

By wrapping his already-good content inside a video, Elliott opened it up to a whole universe of people who prefer watching to reading.

Honorable mention: Chase Jarvis, VideoFruit

Secret Weapon #5: Adding Beautiful or Unique Visuals

 

People are drawn to images much more than text. As a standard practice, I recommend adding at least one image or photo to the top of every email you create.

However, if you happen to have an eye for design, infographics, or any sort of visual work (even drawings on an index card), consider using that talent to help your material stand out from the crowd.

Classic example: Oliver Emberton

6

“One picture is worth a thousand words” became a cliche for a reason. Think about how you can compress interesting points into fun graphics that people naturally want to share.

Honorable mentions: Hugh MacLeod, Wait But Why

Secret Weapon #6: Creating a Comprehensive, Step-by-Step Guide

 

If you can produce a complete, end-to-end guide for something your readers want, that’s incredibly powerful (and something most marketers don’t want to take the time to do). It does take more work, but the results are well worth it.

Classic example: Neil Patel

7

At IWT, some of our most widely-shared pieces of content have been our Ultimate Guides, like this one on creating remarkable content.

Honorable mentions: LeadPages, Shopify

Secret Weapon #7: Injecting Humor & Personality

 

Personality might not seem like a “technique”—after all, you either have it or you don’t, right?

But I’m here to tell you that it absolutely is something you can add in after the fact. Case in point: I love telling jokes when I write. But what most people don’t know is I only add them in AFTER I finish constructing my emails!

I know that my material needs to stand on its own two legs. Only after that do I go back and add all the humor and “sizzle” that makes my writing unique.

Looking for inspiration? Nobody does personality better than Cracked.com.

Classic example: Cracked.com

Screenshot lightly edited to remove profanity. –Ed.
Screenshot lightly edited to remove profanity. –Ed.

Whether you love this post or you hate it, chances are, you’ll talk about it after you finish reading. That’s the point of using personality: to write in a way that commands reaction.

Honorable mentions: The Middle Finger Project, Scott Adams

 

***

 

These 7 techniques are just a starting point. The next time you read a great email or post, see if you can identify any other ways people add value to their material that you can incorporate into your own.

The great thing about this is that you don’t have to write like everyone else! I couldn’t write like Seth Godin or James Altucher, and that’s totally OK. I have my style, and you’ll develop yours. That’s the key to making blogging sustainable and fun—not copying others, but communicating your ideas in your own way.

Nonsense Marketing Rule #2: “Don’t email too often. You’ll burn out your list and people will get tired of hearing from you.”

 

Many experts, soon after telling you not to write long emails, will caution you against emailing too often.

Why?

The classic answer is “you’ll burn out your list.”

In other words, your readers will get tired of hearing from you, unsubscribe, and move on.

Now, there IS a grain of truth to this. If all you do is assault your readers day after day with empty sales pitches, of course they’ll leave.

And you obviously shouldn’t be sending random emails with no purpose.

But more often, “burning out the list” is code for “my emails don’t connect with my readers, and I don’t know how to write emails that do.”

FACT: If you inform and entertain your readers, they’ll always want to hear from you.

The challenge is: how do you write about the same old stuff in new and interesting ways?

I get it: it’s easy to stop writing about topics your readers care about when you get bored with them.

A few years after starting IWT, I felt like I had nothing new to say about finances, budgets, and money.

But instead of emailing less often, I developed something called The Prism Strategy.

This is how we send 3 or more emails per week without excessive spam complaints, unsubscribes or sales burnout.

The Prism Strategy applies to sales funnels too, not just your day-to-day engagement emails.

For instance, here’s the actual sequence of emails we used to launch one of our premium courses.

What do you notice?

9

Here are 3 things to pay attention to:

1. We sent 3–5 emails per week during this funnel.

2. Each email had a specific purpose (not just “we planned to send an email today”).

3. There was a logical and emotional progression from week to week.

The majority of marketers simply don’t know how to structure email funnels for engagement or conversion.

So, instead of figuring it out, they resort to mindless rules like “don’t burn out your list.”

Meanwhile, we generated several million dollars from that launch.

I’m saying this not to brag, but to prove that emailing more often can be one of the best decisions you ever make in your business.

Nonsense Marketing Rule #3: “You need to write hundreds of guest posts before you get a stream of passive buying traffic to your site.”

 

In my guide to guest posting for A-list bloggers, I said that one guest post can change the entire trajectory of your business.

It’s true—but there’s more to the story.

Check out this comment from one of my students after she began guest posting to drive opt-ins:

“I wrote this amazing post. It took me 10 hours to write. But I only got 50 opt-ins. How am I supposed to grow my business if it takes me 10 hours to get 50 opt-ins? It’s just not worth it.”

The problem wasn’t the quality of her content. It was her indiscriminate approach. Like a lot of bloggers, she didn’t have any system or strategy for guest posting.

When I was growing IWT from my dorm, I developed something called The Portfolio Strategy.

This is how I went from spray-and-pray guest posting to generating traffic much faster:

As I followed The Portfolio Strategy, I began to notice patterns in posts that succeeded and posts that fell flat.

Sometimes, a post I couldn’t wait to publish absolutely bombed. Meanwhile, other posts became huge winners: driving likes, shares, and traffic literally years later.

If you’re not sure what kinds of posts to write, check out the video below.

These are the 3 most successful posts in the history of I Will Teach You To Be Rich. In this video, I don’t just tell you what the posts were. You’ll also discover why they worked, and how to apply the core ideas to your own posts.

When it comes to running your business, rules were meant to be broken.

 

If you take nothing else away from this post, let it be this.

No one gets to decide how you run your business but you.

It’s yours!

Why follow stupid marketing rules when you can inject your own authentic personality and succeed even more?

NEXT STEP: In the comments, write one “online marketing rule” you’ve heard and how you could break it to have more fun, make more money, and make a bigger impact in your business.

Related Reading

5 Landing Page Best Practices (and When You Should Ignore Them)
These 5 landing page best practices have served many marketers well over the years. They might work well for you, too, but you may want to do your own research. Because for each rule, we’ve discovered at least one major exception.

Are Our Marketing Truisms True? We Asked the Data
When we reach for the data to back up conventional marketing wisdom, it’s not always where we thought it would be. Do these truisms stand up to close scrutiny?