Welcome to Sidepreneur Magazine! Please give us a brief overview of who you are and how you got started as a sidepreneur.
My name is Ryan Cote. I live in New Jersey, where my wife and I are raising three kids. I’ve lived here my whole life. My family owns a marketing agency, and I’ve always worked there on my breaks from high school and college. But I’ve always had this entrepreneurial drive, and I’ve always had side businesses. When I was about 16 years old I began selling baseball cards on eBay. Since then, I’ve built e-commerce websites and done affiliate marketing among other things.
My Grandfather’s brother started the family company in the mid-sixties. Then my grandfather joined followed by my father, my uncle, and my two brothers. Obviously we all have this entrepreneurial bug. But I’m the only one that’s started a business on the side and has maintained it for so long. Why do I do it? I don’t know. It started as a project to make some extra money, and because I enjoy it, I haven’t stopped. It has morphed into different things as the years have gone on, but I still enjoy it, and that’s good.
What’s different about your thinking from others who are content with a job? What allowed you to create a way to work for yourself and not just work for someone else?
Well, part of it is that I just don’t want to sit around and just watch TV. I also have a desire for financial freedom. I could probably do it with my family business, but I created WPAmplify because I wanted two income streams.
Regarding my thinking, I have a strong desire for financial freedom. I also have the confidence to believe that I can do it despite setbacks along the way. My ambition and motivation never dry up, and I work on it every day. If I make it with my full-time job with my family that’s great, but I’m enjoying the journey with the side business too. I think it’s just fun.
As you were getting started with this business, did you feel fear in the process? Did you feel that fear was good or bad—what’s your relationship with fear?
If I had plunged into this without a steady paycheck, I think the fear would be a lot different. I have fears from other things. My wife and I own some investment properties as well, and they’ve given us some headaches lately. There’s been a lot of fear there because it’s uncharted territory. But with my side business I never really had too much fear because I wasn’t relying on it for my full-time income.
The income I make now is nice, and we have come to rely on it. Before it was more of a hobby, but now it’s something that we really depend on. But it wasn’t fear, it was more like uncertainty. I have had various side businesses throughout the years—affiliate marketing, e-commerce, eBay, and MLM. But when I did the service-based business, WPamplify for SEO and blogging, there was no fear. There was uncertainty. Could I actually get clients? Could I keep up a level of service with my full-time job so the clients would stay with me? So there was more uncertainty than fear. I feel fear in other areas, just not specifically with my side business.
Do you feel fear, in general, is a healthy thing?
I think it is. Actually, one thing I fear is for my side business to completely dry up. That would be really bad for my family, and that keeps me going every day. Plus the motivation to try to build something nice and big. I don’t think fear is necessarily bad—assuming it doesn’t cripple you. I think fear, channeled correctly, just keeps you moving forward.
My fear around WPamplify makes me second-guess everything I’m doing for my clients. Perhaps it does sound kind of neurotic and obsessive, but it forces me to continually improve things. In that way, fear is good because it keeps you fresh, and getting complacent is a horrible thing.
You’re still running your business while employed at another business. So is there tension between your day job and your side business?
No, not at all. My family business is a marketing agency, and our core is direct mail—the stuff you get in your mailbox. I started WPamplify in 2010. Around 2011, at Ballantine we started thinking about offering digital services because print is not dead, but it’s changing. With my experience at WPamplify, I said I thought we could offer digital marketing to bigger clients. Yes, I’m doing similar things at my full-time job, but the companies serve two different audiences.
I never really talk about my side business, but I’m not hiding anything because we serve two different audiences. On the side, I serve small businesses, and at my full-time job we go after medium to large companies. The work I take on wouldn’t make sense financially for them. I wonder if there will be a way to roll my side business into the company some day, but I have no idea what’s going to happen there. If I wasn’t working for my family, it would probably be different.
So do you think owning your own thing on the side allows you to affect more people for good than if you were only working at Ballantine?
I have some freelancers that work with me. They handle link building and blogging. For one of them, I’m her sole source of income, and I brought her into Ballantine to help out as well. With what she gets from me, and what she gets from Ballantine, she makes a full-time income.
I don’t have a huge company that’s changing the world with hundreds of employees. But, I did change the life of one woman in Staten Island, New York. She’s been working with me since the beginning. So if you have a side business that can create job opportunities, it’s a great thing.
What habits have you created that help you succeed in your side business?
I make a habit of making daily progress. These last few days, my wife has had to work nights. After caring for the kids in the evening, I’m really exhausted in the morning. I haven’t felt like getting up early to do stuff in my side business. But I just get up, and I get through it.
That commitment to daily progress, whether it’s morning or night keeps me going. I try not to burn the candle at both ends, but I try to make daily progress. Whether it’s just cleaning up my inbox, responding to clients or reaching out to new clients, daily progress is definitely high up on my list.
I’m also constantly learning. I just joined Mixergy, which is a paid community for education. I’ve joined some masterminds. I listen to podcasts every single day on my commute to and from work. I think my habits are daily progress and continuously trying to educate myself.
How do you balance the work on the side, your job, and other commitments while staying sane and productive?
Well, it’s not easy actually. I’m probably on the computer more than I should be. Fortunately, my kids go to bed at an earlier time now, so I can engage with them while they are awake and work after they are in bed. Balance is something I struggle with because I can never really turn off. I can’t just watch TV, except for shows like Shark Tank and The Profit. I can’t just sit there and watch TV or I feel very antsy. I’m working on it, and I’m conscious of it. Turning off is definitely something I struggle with.
I think being conscious of it is the first step. On the weekends, I try to turn off the computer after a certain amount of time. At dinner-time, I like to focus on my family. Tonight, I made quesadillas and we hung out for that hour. It’s not easy though—it really isn’t.
I’m assuming you didn’t need a lot of money to start your business but did you borrow money in the beginning?
No, I bootstrapped my business from the beginning. I have used Paypal’s working capital product. It allows you to borrow money and to pay back the loan with a percentage of every payment you receive from clients. I’ve done that to give me some cushion in the account. Their interest rates are very low and it’s very easy because the payments come out automatically.
When I started, I was working part-time at a wine shop for extra income. I had just sold an e-commerce store, and I was looking for my next project. I thought, “Well, I know SEO, and I can offer it to small businesses.” I built a website, and I started networking with people I know and looking through Craigslist. I actually got a client from Craigslist when I started, and they’re still a client today.
Getting new clients is still a constant grind.
Well yeah. Marketing is always the hard thing it seems. Well I mean everything can be hard, but marketing is the first hard thing.
Do you recommend others use debt as a tool or do you recommend they avoid it and why?
I’m not sure I’m a financial wizard who is qualified to give advice. But, I think debt is a bad thing. I guess there are certain applications where it’s a good thing, but do it without debt if you can. I guess debt can help you get a major mentor like on Shark Tank. That mentor can get you through the obstacles or help you avoid mistakes. But I think taking out a bank loan early on just adds a lot of pressure that probably isn’t necessary.
Without debt, things may need more time and more of a grind—like social media and content and networking. But you can get results and not have to borrow money where from the start you’re behind the eight-ball.
I know you said you don’t feel like you’re a financial wizard, and that’s not expected. I’m just looking for advice from average people—well, above average because you’re starting things on the side. What is the best advice you can give on money management?
Cash flow is king. Monitor your cash flow—what you’re spending your money on, and what’s coming in. If you run a service business, be sure to collect payments from your clients promptly, and be careful what you spend money on. Because when cash flow gets tight, it creates an enormous amount of stress. When you’re short on cash it affects your service to your clients because it’s all you think about.
I use bookkeeping software called Outright. It’s owned by GoDaddy now. It’s cheap, but it shows me where I’m at in the month—what’s coming in and what’s going out. I set my clients up with Paypal subscription payments. About 90% of them do that. I try to make it as easy as possible for my clients to pay me. With automatic payments, I know money is coming in, and I don’t have to worry about it. That way cash flow stays strong, and I can just concentrate on providing a really good service.
How important are strong relationships to your success? I’m thinking about this in two areas: your own personal development (staying encouraged and motivated), and with your suppliers, customers, clients, and your full-time job.
I think relationships are important, and they’re one place I have to do a better job. I used to be part of a mastermind where we would meet once a week. That was really helpful. I’m still in touch with the guys. I’m going to feature one in an interview on my blog at Sidepreneurial. Life just gets in the way of relationships. We used to meet on Monday nights, and my kids were not in bed so there would be interruptions.
I would love to focus more the relationships—like having a set group where we exchange ideas. It’s just hard to find the time. I’m really trying to work it out—even if it’s a Facebook group or something like that. There are plenty of groups out there. Do you know Nick Loper? I was part of his mastermind for a while. He’s got a Facebook group.
I have a lot of strategic partnerships. I create relationships with web designers and pay-per-click specialists. These people are complementary to my service but not competitive to each other. I get referrals other ways, but with strategic partnerships the clients just come to you. You have to pay a commission, but the client has handed to you like, “Here we go. I’m ready to buy.” It’s great, and I do that with my full-time job too.
In my relationships to vendors I try to be fair and be conscious that they’re depending on my business. We just hired a new person at Ballantine to work on my team. It’s the first time I’ve ever had someone on my team at Ballentine. I’m conscious of how I treat her, and how we interact. I think relationships are huge.
How do you recommend we deal with criticism? Often, you’re part of a group of friends who accept a certain status quo, and then you decide to make a change. You decide just working a nine-to-five is not enough and start something on the side. Inevitably, someone will say, “Well, you’re nuts!” How do you recommend people handle that kind of criticism?
I think understanding where they’re coming from. If you’re not an entrepreneur, and you don’t have that burning desire to create, it’s hard to relate. They’re thinking you’re an overachiever, you can’t relax, or you’re too serious. But if they’re not in that mindset, if they don’t have that drive in them they just can’t relate. I have a bunch of friends like that. They each have their nine-to-five, and then they go home and they just veg out for six hours, and wake up to do the same thing over again. People like that have their opinion, but they don’t fully understand.
If a successful entrepreneur was to tell me I’m crazy, I would listen to them and try to understand what their points were. But if it’s just a nine-to-five-er who doesn’t have that drive, their criticism doesn’t carry much weight.
I think we also have to be careful with dissenters even if they’re successful. I interviewed a guy who has a tree service in Portland. I think he’s making more than a million dollars a year now. When he started, a friend who was very wealthy and entrepreneurial told him he was nuts and it would never succeed. He is just contrarian enough that this friend’s criticism motivated him. He said, “This guy is wrong, and I know it so I’ll prove him wrong.” He’s gone on to do just that!
Yes, you have to be careful. I guess if your gut is screaming that it’s going to work, even if the advice is from someone successful, you may need to move forward anyway. Just make sure you’ve really done your research.
Yeah, it’s a personal thing. I do think you’re right. We need to listen. We’ve got to take advice seriously. None of us has a corner on wisdom. Where do you recommend aspiring sidepreneurs and entrepreneurs look for people who will get behind their dreams? We all need someone to say, “Yeah go for it!”
Finding a local Meetup is good. Find some relevant Meetups that will attract the right kind of people. People who go to Meetups are a certain kind of person. They’re probably entrepreneurial, part of the network, so you’re going to find the right kind of person. Also find Facebook and LinkedIn groups. I mentioned before that I like that a lot for education—you learn from other entrepreneurs. Get in a mastermind. I’m not part of Nick’s mastermind anymore, but I still keep in touch with all those guys, and I see what they’re up to. If my situation was a bit different, I would still be part of it. So I recommend masterminds, Meetup groups, online groups, video courses, and good books to help you stay motivated.
I’m also interested in how you cope with uncertainty. Have you ever had to make a business decision where you did your research, and you didn’t have a high level of confidence either way, but you had to move forward anyway? And do you think faith is an important component of how to deal with uncertainty?
SEO has gone through many changes over the last few years. In 2012 Google started to come out with their algorithm updates (Penguin and Panda). There was a moment when I thought those updates might kill my business. I thought it might no longer be possible to provide an SEO service at a reasonable rate for small businesses. I waited for all the updates to happen and monitored rankings and traffic levels. I knew I didn’t want to give up so I looked closely at my service to each of my clients and identified areas where I could improve.
At the time, I was just doing link building, but with all these updates and the fear of losing the business, I said, “OK. I’m going to start blogging for clients.” I started looking for content sources and found Shawn’s The Content Authority which I use which I still use sometimes. I looked for someone to help me with the blogging. So the Google updates pushed me to take my service to the next level without charging more. I’m still always trying to figure how I can improve. Despite the struggle, I’ve maintained most of my clients and added some. It has worked out. It was uncertainty because I didn’t know how the updates were going to happen. I just knew that if I didn’t try to improve the service and get Google’s good side that it wasn’t going to be a good thing.
So what I hear you saying is that when you were faced with uncertainty, instead of being paralyzed, you looked at the things you knew to do. You were aware, from earlier SEO updates, that content was becoming more important. So, you focused on creating content—something you could control.
And better link building.
I’m hearing a general principle. When faced with uncertainty, rather than focusing on the uncertainty, you focus on things you can control. You move the levers you can move, and you move them.
Exactly. I definitely felt the fear and the uncertainty, but what good does it do to be paralyzed by it. I just looked at things I could control, and that was the quality and the level of service I was providing. I looked for ways to improve it. I looked for different services that could help me out. I looked for different people who could help me and I just kept trying to tweak it. It worked out, but it was a rough period.
The same thing happened this past December. I lost a handful of clients, which never happened before. I might lose one here and there, but then I’ll pick up some. I lost three or four clients in one month, and that was pretty paralyzing. I felt like I was losing control of the business. I don’t have a huge amount of clients. That was 25% of them. I felt afraid and I felt hopeless, but I just I just started hustling—looking for new clients more than I normally would. I started networking with strategic partners. I improved my website and added more content, and then I started getting more clients. It wasn’t overnight, but over a few months it happened. It’s all about action—taking action.
When did do you most want to give up on your business, and how did you keep going against that discouragement?
Running a service based business when your full-time job is also a service based business can be draining. Sometimes I feel like I get burned out—especially when clients doubt me, have unrealistic expectations, or forget to pay their bill (those not on auto pay). During those times, I persist because I need the income and because I do enjoy the work. I can’t see myself not doing it. I stopped doing this side business I would do something else. I always think, “Why would I start over with something else unless I really hated this, which I don’t. So I just try to build this up bigger. When feel burnt out, I just take a break for a day or two and unplug and that seems to help.
In 2012, when I was feeling uncertainty I didn’t want to quit, but I thought I was going lose the business. This past December when I was losing all those clients, I felt like maybe this isn’t worth it. I was stressing out, and I thought maybe I should focus all my time on Ballantine and increase my income there. Those are the only times I felt like I wanted to quit. Like I said, I will always have a side business. If it’s not this business, it’s going to be something else. So why not try to make WPamplify better and not give up.
Do you think there’s ever a good time to quit?
I think if it’s affecting your life. Kevin O’Leary from Shark Tank says if your business is not making money after three years you should quit—that it’s not a business, it’s a hobby. He’s massively successful, so I guess that’s good advice. But if your heart’s not in it anymore, if you’re not making money, if it’s causing problems in your family, and if you don’t have a true burning passion that it’s going to work, it’s probably time to quit. Look at all these startups like Airbnb. If you listen to their stories, they went a long time not making any money and facing obstacles. Clearly they felt a passion for their business that they couldn’t turn off, and they stuck with it. Now, they’re massively successful.
If you’re not making any money after three years, if it’s affecting your life, if you’re losing passion for it, there’s probably something else you could be doing. Give it some time, and really think about. You’ll probably think of something more successful to do.
Have you noticed a mistake that new business owners typically make, and how could they avoid that mistake?
When I was in the mastermind, I noticed the guys who were the most successful showed up each week with a list of the things they’d done and with their plan for the next week. They were just taking action. Then there were a few other guys every week, who said, “Oh, yeah. I didn’t get a chance to do what I said I was going to do because I had to work late.” But if you’re really passionate about it, you’re going to make the time for it. I’ve got three kids. I have a full-time job. If your business is something you’re really passionate about, you’re going to take action and make time for it. So I think a big thing is taking action—be passionate, and take action.
These people just don’t have confidence in themselves. I’m not the most confident person the world, but I know enough to make a big difference in a small business. No one’s going to be super confident all the time, but you’ve got to believe in yourself—and maybe fake it till you do believe it. Because if you don’t have confidence, it’s going to poison everything.
What book have you read that will help a prospective business owner—somebody just getting started.
I think The E-Myth is a big one—the principle of working on your business and not in your business. For example, my business tasks are to find clients, optimize their website, build links, and blog for them. For a while, I was doing the link building, and I was doing the blogging. It severely limited my ability to grow—to find clients. I was too busy working on the clients all the time. I found someone to link build. I eventually outsourced the blogging and even figured out a way to outsource reporting to the clients.
Now I’ve got someone who builds the links for me, sends me reports, and sends reports to the clients through my CRM. Now I have created systems to automate the process, and now my job is to make sure the clients are happy. I work on finding new clients, and manage the link building and blogging process. Without systems, work feels like torture.
We’ve come to the end of the interview. Thank you, Ryan! Do you have any special offers you want to share with the Sidepreneur Magazine community?
Yes sure. I’d love for everyone to visit my new website, Sidepreneurial.com. While they’re there, they can sign up for my newsletter so we can keep in touch.
Do you have any final words of wisdom?
Have a passion for your work. Persist. Make daily progress. Believe in yourself in the rough times. Remember to enjoy it too. Once it becomes annoying or a burden, it’s not going to last very long.