A Deeper Look at How I Discovered My Online Business Model and How You Can Too

by Marcus Sheridan

This past month, The Sales Lion turned three years old. And as I sit back and contemplate how this blog and business have changed over this time , I feel prompted to share maybe the most important lesson I’ve learned during this period. In conjunction with this, I want to answer a question today that many readers have asked about , but I’ve never taken the time to fully explain– What is the business model of The Sales Lion and how do you make money?

You know,  we hear a lot of talk about how to create successful business models. And although understanding the concept of business models is certainly important, I think sometimes we might put too much stock into knowing exactly what we are and exactly what we need to be before our identity is allowed to appear.

Many readers likely do not realize this, but when I started The Sales Lion, I thought this was going to be a blog about retail and in-home sales. Believe it or not, the main focus was not going to be inbound and content marketing. But this is exactly why listening is so very important. If we really want to be successful as bloggers and business owners, far and away listening is the most important key.

My very first post on TSL, and it had nothing to do with Inbound and Content Marketing.

Listening to Yourself, Your Readers, and Your Clients

After the first couple of months of writing this blog, I realized the passion I have for retail sales and in-home selling wasn’t nearly as much as my passion for inbound and content marketing. So I did an about-face (I listened to my gut) and started to change the theme of what this blog was all about. But not only was I listening to myself, but I was also listening to my readers, who always seemed to be more responsive to my thoughts on inbound and content marketing . They wanted to see exactly how I was able to elevate my swimming pool company from near bankruptcy to the top of its industry. In other words, the readers showed me where the business needed to go, and all I had to do was listen.

Once I made this important decision, I continued to listen to the reader and tried my best to understand what they were looking for. As I did this, I could see that many wanted help with HubSpot. They wanted help in using the tool and they needed someone to guide them. So once again, I listen, and I followed. It was during this time I became a partner with HS and before long I was signing people up to use their software and was getting paid to teach them how to be successful inbound marketers utilizing the tool.

This was the first time I have ever made any money with The Sales Lion, and it occurred well over a year after starting the blog. Today, with respect to number of clients, I’m one of HubSpot’s largest VARs in the world.

Another Business Appears 

Speaking at Block Imaging, my first full-day content marketing workshop, and one of many that would follow.

About a year and a half ago, I started getting calls from people who wanted to get their staff involved in inbound marketing. They wanted help producing content, blogging, and teaching. This request came more than once, and finally, when my friend Krista asked me to come to Michigan and teach Block Imaging and their entire organization how they could all embrace a culture of inbound and content marketing, I decided it was time to listen. Since that time, Block Imaging has become a major thought-leader in their industry, their brand has grown, and sales have benefited. Furthermore, they’ve been the subject of quite a few social media case studies, including one on Social Media Examiner.

Further Listening Equates to a Better Business Model

After meeting with Block as well as a few other companies to give this workshop, I knew it was time to promote this service more openly to my blog audience. The demand was there. I was listening. And even though I never dreamed of giving these types of workshops when I started The Sales Lion, the business had presented itself. The model had taken shape.

Today, I give inbound and content marketing workshops all over North America. In fact, these workshops now make up a huge portion of the income generated through TSL. After giving a few of these workshops, though, I realized, upon listening to my clients, that many wanted more. They needed someone to guide them through the initial process of creating a successful content marketing campaign that was built to last, and built upon a company culture. Once again, because I was listening to the needs of the clients, a business model presented itself. Currently, I have multiple clients set up on six-month consulting retainers, where the whole purpose is that of making sure they’re able to establish this very important culture.

The Birth of EasyBizBlogging

Recently, you may have heard me announce the new service provided here at TSL—EasyBizBlogging. This service came as a direct result of listening to the many e-mails and conversations I’ve had with readers and clients over these last few years. Because so many said they simply did not have the time, skills, or understanding to make blogging a priority for their business — I decided to provide a way for these same businesses to use the intellectual property and industry wisdom that was in their heads and distill it in a digital manner by using an interview-based blogging format. This way we are able to overcome the problem of time and skill with professional ghost writers, but the clients still are using their information in their voice. This would also allow them to develop stronger relationships with their potential clients, because the content is real and genuine. After just a few short weeks since the launch, I can see that EBB is going to be very successful. There is a huge demand for it. It makes sense to businesses.

Would the model of EBB have made sense to me a few years ago? No, of course not. But today it does. And it does only because I have listened again and again to the needs of my readers and potential clients, which has enabled the business model to appear.

EBB never was on my radar until the constant need kept popping up from readers and clients.

I don’t mention any of these business victories to brag in any way. I’m not smarter than anyone that reads this blog or any other blog for that matter. But I think sometimes we tend to make this whole process of marketing and blogging and business development much harder than what it has to be.

What is most important in all of this? The answer is simple, and one you already know — we need to listen. Sometimes, we’ve got to stop talking. We’ve got to stop writing. We’ve simply got to turn on our ears.

By so doing, the answers we’ve been looking for will often appear—and so will the business success we so desperately seek.

Your Turn

I’d love to know about a business decision you’ve made over the last couple of years that stemmed directly from listening to your readers/customers. What were the results?

Also, if you have any questions about the TSL business model, I’d be happy to openly answer them here.

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Loomer December 1, 2012 at

Love this, Marcus. The misperception is that people like you had it figured out from the start. It’s awesome getting an inside look at your evolution — or numerous evolutions — to get to where you are.

It makes it easier for the rest of us to experiment, fail and adjust based on reader and customer feedback as opposed to feeling like we have to concoct some fool-proof master plan in our brilliant minds.

Thanks for yet another peek behind the curtain, Marcus. Much appreciated.

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Marcus Sheridan December 2, 2012 at

To tell you the truth Jon, I can’t wait to hear all about your evolution over the next year, as it’s going to be fantastic, and I honestly see big, big things for you because you’ve done such a phenominal job carving out your niche this past year.

Crush it in NYC my friend,

Marcus

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Michael A. Taylor December 1, 2012 at

Marcus, I love the addition of the Easy Biz Blogging service to your business model. I have been toying with the idea of starting an inbound and content marketing service focusing in the area of independent audiologist practices. Somewhat of a niche I suppose. Just curious, have you ever worked with audiologists or medical related clients? Keep up the good work Marcus!

Thanks,
Michael Taylor

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Marcus Sheridan December 2, 2012 at

Michael, thanks for the kind words, I do very much appreciate it.

I’ve not yet worked (in terms of having a client) in the medical fields, but trust me, I’m chomping at the bit because I know it would work well. And I think starting within a niche, and then branching out, is a great idea.

Let me know how it goes man,

Marcus

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Martina Iring December 1, 2012 at

Great to read about your personal experience Marcus. Very insightful. I also wasn’t entirely sure when I started blogging what my focus would be and I’ve made some adjustments over time to focus in on what’s really important to me, as well as what my audience wants. Congrats on a successful 3 years!

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Marcus Sheridan December 2, 2012 at

Thanks so much for the kind words Martina, and congrats to you for sticking w your blog!!!!!

Smiles,

Marcus

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Tom Treanor December 1, 2012 at

Marcus,

Thanks for sharing your journey. It’s really helpful to see how others have evolved their businesses. It personally helps me make better decisions with my own business. I too see the strong demand out there for help with content and inbound marketing and I expect this to increase as people “get religion”. Thanks again for the post!

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Marcus Sheridan December 2, 2012 at

Thats exactly it Tom. This industry is on the verge of exploding, and so the need for true coaches, consultants, etc. is huge. Especially for the listeners ;-)

Thanks for stopping by and all your support man.

Marcus

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Christina Schaefer December 1, 2012 at

If necessity is the mother of invention, content is the mother of re-invention.

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Marcus Sheridan December 2, 2012 at

That’s a pretty darn good quote there ;-)

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Christina Schaefer December 2, 2012 at

Thank you. You may recycle it!

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Rajka Milanovic December 1, 2012 at

Wow, Marcus congrats on all accounts. It has been awhile since I have been here but sorry I was away for so long. You always add value to my day.

My blog isn’t really set up as a business it is more of a hobby. However, having said that, I am turning two frequently asked question: one from readers and one from physicians into simple e-books which I will sell on the site. I had been reluctant to invest time in a book until I was certain what the readers wanted.

One question for you on the company model. Are you employing writers or are you a one man show in regard to your Easy Biz Blogging. Just curious as I could see you getting very busy very quickly if it were just you.
Best,
Rajka

PS Loved Block Imaging’s case study on Social Media Examiner

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Marcus Sheridan December 2, 2012 at

Hey Rajka! So great to hear from you!

I love how you listened to readers regarding your ebook, and I’m sure it will be a success because of that.

With respect to EBB, I have a team of writers. My role is that of making sure we nail the blog titles.

Thanks again Rajka and good luck w the ebook!!!

Marcus

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Billy Delaney December 1, 2012 at

This I found interesting, because it starts with the customer, is all about the customer, and continues with the customer.
That is the only business model: find out what customers want and give them it!
Billy Delaney

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Marcus Sheridan December 2, 2012 at

Billy, so great seeing you man and I’m glad you liked the article. Hope you’re doing well my friend!

Marcus

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Billy Delaney December 2, 2012 at

Hello my friend. Thanks for your consideration. I am well, I trust you are too!
Best to you and I hope to see you around and about next year at some of the places…

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Rajkumar Jonnala December 2, 2012 at

Great article thankyou for sharing your personal experience, learned a lot from your past. Thanks again.

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Lana December 2, 2012 at

Wow Marcus, this looks great. I have been so busy taking classes in Facebook, wordpress, seo etc… that my blog is really lacking and I know how important it is to be posting regular content. It is just really hard for 1 person to do it all. I am going to discuss this option as it really looks great to me. I have read most of your Inbound and Content Marketing. My problem is trying to find the time to do everything and to do it well. I need to start working smarter and not harder, there are only so many hours in a day. We have not yet answered any major questions in our market as we just switched to wordpress for our website in Sept this year. I think getting some great quality blog posts out there can really help us. I am sure I will be in touch soon.

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Marcus Sheridan December 2, 2012 at

Lana, I feel your pain and absolutely understand what you’re going through. Look forward to chatting soon to help :-)

Marcus

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Lana December 3, 2012 at

Hi Marcus,
I signed up yesterday afternoon. The more I thought about it the more I thought how foolish it would be to not take this great opportunity to have you guys create some of our most important blog posts for us. You know way more about this than I do as I am just learning all this stuff. I am working on my list of most important questions our clients ask as well as figuring out some vs type posts. Can’t wait to get this in action. To me you are the master of inbound marketing and blogging about your own business. My goal it to beat out all our local competition in our market place.

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Owen Blevins December 2, 2012 at

Marcus, an outstanding example of how to make money from blogging… by listening! You want a story? Here goes… As you know, I’ve been in the concrete plant and equipment industry for years using HS, videos, blogging, SEO and other inbound marketing tactics. I did all this in an industry that is not exactly one to be known for progressive marketing tactics and strategies. As of this writing, I’m delighted to inform you that I’m striking out on my own to help others develop and maintain their own online presence. As you also know, I’ve been a huge fan and follower of yours since we first met 3 years ago at HUGS 2010. Your passion for helping others like myself has been a big influence in my decision. I’ve been asked by several connections to help them with different aspects of their inbound marketing efforts over the last couple of years and am finally listening to them, you and MYSELF! You once mentioned to me that I needed to listen to that voice that was calling me to do this. I believe you said that to ignore that voice that was calling me on a repeated basis would cause that voice to be muted eventually. I took that to heart. I’ve got a lot of work to do, no doubt about it but I’m up to the task! Appreciate all of your guidance, help and support through this journey more than you know my friend. As always Marcus, Rock on!

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Marcus Sheridan December 2, 2012 at

Love, love, love this Owen!!!

So excited for you man and just know you’re on the right path!!!

Marcus

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Jens P. Berget December 2, 2012 at

This is really interesting Marcus. I am still “struggling” to discover my online and offline business model. And like you, I have discovered so many really interesting things from my clients and from my readers. And like you, one of the things I am trying hard to figure out is how I can help my clients create content. I thought that my main focus would be strategies, and help businesses in Norway to find the right path and use the right kind of marketing. But it seems that all of my clients need help to create content. And it doesn’t matter if they are big companies or small companies.

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Marcus Sheridan December 2, 2012 at

That’s very interesting Jens, and it sounds like you may want to really look hard at a business model around that. But just keep pushing man, the best model will appear.

Great seeing you buddy, hope the fam is well :-)

Marcus

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Don Stanley December 2, 2012 at

Couldn’t agree more my brutha. As the Greek philosopher Zeno said a long time ago, “The reason we have two ears and only one mouth, is that we may hear more and speak less.” And this still holds true. We should listen twice as much as you talk. And if you’re smart, you listen to your customer AND your own passions and find a match to live your purpose in the service of others. And you my friend are a perfect example of this.

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Marcus Sheridan December 2, 2012 at

Yep, them Greeks were smart peeps Stanley ;-)

Btw, got your other email, let’s chat via phone this week.

Marcus

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Don Stanley December 2, 2012 at

Amen … I’m particularly a fan of some Spartan leaders quotes. They have some great/hilarious ones.

And great. Really appreciate it! Let me know what works for you. Can’t wait to connect.

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Jason Hull December 3, 2012 at

The company I sold had a somewhat similar major shift. We started out as being a software development jack of all trades company. You need smart geeks? We got ‘em. We kind of lucked into a major seven figure contract, but eventually it was not renewed because our prime contractor lost their contract with the Department of Defense. We managed to keep going at a similar rate, but our revenues slowly ticked downwards. It was because we were all things to all people, and it was easily commoditized. Need great geeks? Go to IBM. Need cheap geeks? Go to India. We were stuck in the middle.

During this time, my partner got asked to co-author a book on one of the latest up-and-coming open source technologies out there (which wound up getting enormous adoption). Even after they finished the book, we stuck to our knitting. It wasn’t until he went to a conference to speak–like your model, Marcus–that he realized that, in that community, he was a rock star. At that point, we decided to make a full-on shift from being a general software company to specializing in that one technology and going all-in on it. We started turning down work for anything that didn’t have to do with the specific problem that this technology solved. Our revenues dropped while we changed focus, but it was for strategic reasons and we had the reserves to weather the storm.

Once we completed the shift, including branding and identity, it took off. We now had a specific focus and a specific niche. Furthermore, we were arguably one of the top five companies in the world at what we did. It’s quite a defensible USP to say “we wrote *THE* book on this – here’s the link to the publisher” when talking up your credentials.

It’s scary to move away from what was working reasonably well to take a plunge into a feast-or-famine approach, but it paid off in spades for us.

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Craig McBreen December 3, 2012 at

Hey Marcus,

Love this post and appreciate the explanation of how your model has evolved over the past three years. Hey man, you know I’m still in love with this whole blogging venture, and the process is almost like a series of experiments … one iteration after another, after another … It just keep going ;) a continual evolution that comes from all the bouncing in this interactive hive of ours. It’s beautiful how that works, huh?

Once I started to receive feedback via emails, then had some great conversations with people such as yourself (that conversation as BWNY was a huge help), it started to become clear where the heck I was going to take this thing.

Anyway, always appreciate the helpful advice your offer up and just glad to know ya. Here’s to an amazing 2013!

Congratulations on the launch of Easy Biz Blogging too. That’s a great model and I imagine more than a few might just follow your lead.

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Marcus Sheridan December 4, 2012 at

You’re a good man Craig, and it’s an absolute pleasure watching you on your journey my friend.

Smiles,

Marcus

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Krista Kotrla December 4, 2012 at

What a great inside look at your journey, Marcus! Thanks so much for letting us be part of it.

It is so comforting to hear that you didn’t have it all figured out from the get-go. Sounds familiar.

I also love your points about the importance of listening and how that continues to help you evolve your business model. Sometimes the trick is knowing who to listen to!

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James Corn December 7, 2012 at

That’s so much great.

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Kumar Gauraw December 14, 2012 at

Marcus,
Congratulations on finishing strong third year! I’ve just got introduced to your blog today. However, I am thrilled to read about your personal experience and how you slowly discovered your purpose.
It indeed is a very insightful article through your personal story. I wasn’t entirely sure when I started blogging what my focus would be and I’m still making adjustments in my theme and approach as I move forward. However, I think my goal is to create my platform, publish my own book and inspire others by my example. Let’s see how that goes in a year or so.

Regards,
Kumar

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Alissa Paul Smith December 18, 2012 at

I love how you document all your failures since started in first business. Dusting yourself often getting back up running is the only way you become successful, and if you think about each failure being a lesson you be more willing to accept failure and keep on moving in a positive direction.

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John Hughell April 12, 2013 at

Congratulations to you on finding a kind of business model that works for the kind of business that you have. I am pretty sure that what you’ve shared will really help a lot of those struggling type of business.

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