Alison Green is the blogger at Ask A Manager, a popular site that answers questions related to work and careers. I have read Alison’s blog for a couple of years now, and am amazed not only at how she manages to be insightful day in and day out for so many people who write in with questions, but also at how she has nurtured her community — read any of the comments sections to see how much helpful advice commenters usually offer on the blog.
Alison doesn’t have a background in HR — as one comment on her blog from an employee she had managed attested, she is just an exceptionally good manager who is sharing her perspective to help others navigate tricky issues of politics and performance at work.
She talks to us about how her part-time blog turned into her full-time career! Read on.
My questions and comments are in bold.
Tell us a little about your journey from being an employee (okay, manager) to being an entrepreneur. How much did the blog have to do with it?
The blog had a ton to do with it! For the first three years of writing Ask a Manager, I was doing it on the side while working my regular full-time job. When I started seriously considering quitting my job to work for myself, the blog had given me enough visibility that it was a lot easier to do. Normally when you strike out on your own, you have to do a bunch of networking and marketing of yourself – two things that I hate doing (and am bad at). I was really lucky that Ask a Manager had already taken care of a lot of that for me – so it actually served two functions: First, it made that path a lot easier than it would have been otherwise, and two, it allowed me to do it at all, because if I’d had to do the usual networking/marketing stuff, I might have just gone in a different direction!
I was incredibly lucky in that regard, especially because I hadn’t started the blog with any intention of it paying off professionally or monetarily. When I realized that it could actually point me down a different path for my career, I was surprised – and quite happy.
You have a few different revenue streams – consulting, ads on your blog, your books… Was it a conscious decision? Was there a moment when you felt, ah, I can make money off my blog?
Oddly enough, not really. In a lot of ways, Ask a Manager has been a hobby that turned into something more when I wasn’t paying attention – which seems ridiculous in retrospect, but that was very much the way it played out.
I was curious to see what experimenting with an ad network would be like but never seriously thought it would produce significant revenue. And my e-book, which is now a not-insubstantial source of revenue, never would have happened if it weren’t for the very generous Ben Eubanks (of upstarthr.com) contacting me out the blue one day to suggest that I write one, and offering to help me through the entire process. (And he was amazing – pushed me to do it and guided me the whole way. I’m really grateful for his help.)
All of this stuff was up and running for a while before it really sunk in that this was what people mean when they talk about monetizing a blog.
What has been the biggest change you’ve had to adjust to or even loved, when you moved from having a job to being a consultant?
One thing that has sometimes been hard to adjust to has been not having anyone who’s fully steeped in my world. When you have a normal job, you have coworkers who are all part of the same team and who all (for the most part) really get each other’s day-to-day reality. You know each other’s aggravations and you have the same victories, and you all get how annoying X is or how amusing Y is. When you work for yourself, it’s just you on that ride — and as much as I love working for myself, I sometimes miss that camaraderie and that sense that other people know your world as well as you do.
That said, I wouldn’t trade working from my couch, dressed in head-to-toe fleece, for anything.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an entrepreneur?
Like a lot of people starting out on their own, I had to get over some fear in the beginning – fear that it wouldn’t work and fear that I was making a mistake by taking myself out of the more traditional labor market. And then when things did go well, for a while I felt a bit like I was getting away with something – you know, that it shouldn’t really be working as well as it should, and so that must mean that it could come crashing down at any moment. Getting over that feeling was pretty freeing.
I also had to get comfortable turning down work. In the beginning, I felt that I should say yes to everything that came my way. I pretty quickly realized that I was going to be a lot happier if I was pickier about what work I took on. Now I just say no if I don’t want to take on a particular project or client, and that’s been very freeing as well.
What’s the accomplishment you’re most proud of?
I’m really proud of the role Ask a Manager has played in people’s careers, especially when I get mail from people telling me that it’s helped them get a job or a raise or leave a toxic manager, and I’m nearly as proud that it’s part of some people’s daily reading just for entertainment. But probably more than anything, I’m incredibly proud of the comments section on the site. In my experience, most commenting sections on the Internet are best avoided – they tend to be combative and just not especially smart or insightful. But for some reason, the commenters at Ask a Manager are really fantastic – thoughtful, civil, smart, helpful, and funny. I’m not sure how that happened, but I’m incredibly proud of that aspect of the site.
How do you market yourself? I’m guessing your blog pretty much speaks for itself, but do you put in any concerted marketing effort?
I basically let Ask a Manager itself be the marketing; if people like what they read there, that’s what drives them to other types of engagement – whether it’s buying a book or a resume review or contacting me about writing or consulting for them. One thing that’s nice about that is that when someone contacts me that way, they already know a lot about what they’ll be getting – what my approach is, how I think, how I talk, and so forth, so it’s almost a pre-screening for fit.
What do you think is the most important marketing activity that you’ve done, that got you the most results?
Without question, it’s been producing content that people want to read. Everything else has stemmed from that. Without good content, nothing else would have really worked.
My e-book is probably a good example of that. I’d written Ask a Manager for more than three years before I ever attempted to sell my audience anything, so when I launched my e-book in late 2010, it was in a context of having been providing near-daily free content for years. That gave me a built-in audience for the e-book – people who already knew that they liked what I put out. That’s very different than if you walk into a bookstore and see 10 books for sale about the topic that you’re interested in and don’t know anything about any of the authors.
Do you track marketing data? What are the most important metrics you keep your eye on?
I’m pretty basic in what I look at. I look at overall traffic patterns, with the occasional glance to see where traffic is coming from. I like to know how many people are visiting, roughly what’s driving them to the site, and that’s about it. Every so often, I take a look at what posts are generating the most traffic, but I’m often able to get a general sense of that from just from how many comments come in on a particular post.
That said, I’ve had a nagging sense that there’s more that I should be doing when it comes to tracking data, and at some point I might seek outside help in telling me what I should be doing and how.
What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give a new entrepreneur?
Be really clear on what you’re offering that makes you different. In almost any field, there are a ton of people out there offering something similar, so you need to be really clear – in your own mind and in how you talk about your work – about what’s different about you. Why is someone going to be drawn to you over all the alternatives? If you can’t answer that question, you can’t expect anyone else to – so everything needs to start there. (It’s kind of like job-searching, actually, and how you have to know why a hiring manager should want to hire you over someone else with a similar job history.)
That’s exactly what we tell our clients (though I’m going to steal that job-searching analogy and start using it.)
You’re quite active on Facebook and Twitter. What social media platform do you personally like best?
Well, the dirty secret is that I use an app that auto-publishes new posts to Facebook, and I don’t post much on Twitter aside from links to new content. But I do scan both each day in case there are questions people have sent my way. I’m actually not a huge fan of either– I guess I’m a traditionalist, in that I prefer email to communicate with people and scanning the web with an RSS reader to get my news.
Which social media site do you think has been effective for you in terms of getting you leads or traffic to your blog?
I should probably know this, but … I don’t! I’d guess Twitter generates more traffic than Facebook, but that’s a guess. See, I told you I need to get outside help on this stuff.
Do you read any marketing books or sites that you would recommend?
At this point, it’ll probably be no surprise to you that I don’t! Maybe there’s one you should be recommending to me.
Ours, of course! But seriously, here’s a list of blogs other people I’ve interviewed have recommended.
What are your favorite online tools – social media, productivity, or anything else?
Starting to use an RSS reader a couple of years ago changed my life. I’m a huge consumer of online information and have a couple hundred sites that I like to stay up on regularly. RSS has made that much easier and faster. I’m continually shocked that most people don’t use it. I’ve even gone so far as to set up RSS readers for friends and pre-stock them with news feeds, to no avail.
What’s the one thing you hate doing but still force yourself to do every week?
Sorting through the spam caught by my comments filter, to ensure that there aren’t any legitimate comments that accidentally got caught up in there. There’s always one or two legitimate ones in there, so I can’t in good conscience just empty it without checking first. Occasionally I just hit “empty spam” without checking, and then I feel like I’m living on the edge.
You know, that’s the first real answer I’ve got to this question since I began asking it? Thank you – for that and for the entire interview. I recommend your blog all the time, so it’s a thrill to have you here.
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