Syed Balkhi created his first business when he was only 7 years old.
He is an online marketer with design and development experience.
Syed is the founder of WPBeginner a wildly popular site that provides quality tips, tricks, and hacks for WordPress users.
In 2011, Syed created a site called List25 which is an extremely popular site. Within 3 months of launch, the site was receiving 5 million pageviews per month.
Success Harbor: Hi everyone this is George Meszaros with Success Harbor and I have Syed Balkhi with me. Syed created his first business when he was 7 years old, yes, that’s 7. Syed has been doing internet stuff since he was 12. He is an online marketer with design and development experience. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Wired Magazine, Yahoo, just to mention a few. Syed is the founder of WP Beginner, a wildly popular and successful site that provides quality tips, tricks and hacks for WordPress users. Welcome.
Syed Balkhi: Thank you for having me George.
Success Harbor: Thank you for being here. I really appreciate Syed. Let’s get into your beginnings in business. I read about you that you have started at 7. Your first business was at age 7, is that correct?
Syed Balkhi: Yes, that is correct. I started a greeting cards business when I was back in Pakistan because I grew up there and we have 2 very popular holidays and [line breaks 1:07] you have and you ask people are doing–, kids are doing lemonade stands, we have like, you know, a lot of kids doing greeting cards so that was my first business.
Success Harbor: Anything after that, after 7? Because I think I read about, what was it, 12?
Syed Balkhi: Yes.
Success Harbor: You know, you’ve been doing stuff online so, I mean, it’s kind of crazy to start that young. Why, what’s the attraction to business at that early age?
Syed Balkhi: So, one of the big motivations at age 7 was I saw other people doing it and, obviously you know, kids were a little older than me but you know, it’s not really uncommon for you to see like a 9-year-old having their own greeting cards stand and that’s what the adults would buy from. I have given a long talk about this and I’ll try to keep it very short. I saw the power [inaudible 01:53], with the chips, one of the chips brand, they were giving away toys so I got into the greeting cards business and it went real well and kept on doing it for as long as I was in Pakistan and then my family moved to US when I was 12 years old and that’s when I got into all the internet stuff, buying and selling domain names, building proxy websites, arcade websites, getting really involved with the SEO industry, with the web directories and then consulting and then blogging and all that.
Success Harbor: And then later you got into buying and selling domain names right?
Syed Balkhi: Yea.
Success Harbor: What age was that and how did you get into that business?
Syed Balkhi: So that was age 12. I started high school fairly early, I was 12 years old and I didn’t have a lot of friends, you know, I was playing a lot of online games at that time. I would get up in the middle of the night and start playing games. Didn’t really have a schedule, you know, my parents weren’t really strict. So one of my cousins says, “Dude, you wake up in the middle of the night to play games and to earn fake money that the games would have right, the game point, why don’t you wake up and buy something that has actual value, like expired domain names, and he explained to me the whole concept, that expired domain names expired a certain time and if you can get it they can be worth some money and that’s how I really got into it.
Success Harbor: Do you have a number or was it just a few domain names or did you buy and sell thousands or hundreds of domains?
Syed Balkhi: No, at one point I had over 450 domain names and then after that I slowly started cutting down, selling them as part of bulk packages and now I have like, I think closer to 100 but those are the ones that I like to keep.
Success Harbor: Ok. So they’re not for flipping, they’re more of a long-term investment for a potential business?
Syed Balkhi: Yeah. Now they are yes but in the past, I would buy and sell, like flip a lot of domain names. I had 3-letter.us’, 3-letter.coms, 3-letter.net and you know, I would flip them.
Success Harbor: Wow. Do you think that’s a viable business model even today, this 2014?
Syed Balkhi: It’s riskier because a lot of the good domain names are already taken unless you come up with a new industry name that you think is going to be worth money. The one thing I always tell about domains is, it doesn’t matter what you think its worth, it’s what the buyer is willing to pay you for it. But you’ll be sitting on that domain name for a very long time because there’s no–, the value of it is completely on the user.
Success Harbor: Yeah, yeah. So you have then started, and now we’re jumping way forward but I want to get started talking about WP Beginner which you started in 2009 if that’s correct, right? 2009?
Syed Balkhi: That’s correct, yeah.
Success Harbor: So, when you started WP Beginner, what were your goals with the site? Was it for business, hobby? What was your dream about that site or what did you want with it?
Syed Balkhi: Yeah, so I started using WordPress in 2006 and I had built up quite a portfolio of clients that I was working with, you know, building their websites using either static html or like custom php framework and at one point it just came to me that I make a lot more money when I sign a new client versus keeping long-term retainer clients on like, you know, maintaining their websites practically the small businesses and I thought to myself what if I could give them WordPress? They don’t have to ask me to maintain it or ask one of my staff members to maintain it and I sent all of them an email saying, “Hey, would you be willing to pay me an upfront fee if I switch you over to WordPress and then you would never have to pay me again on a monthly retainer?”, and most of them agreed so I switched them all to WordPress, only to find that I was getting emails from them again but it was a different type of email. They were asking me how do you do this in WordPress and how do you do that in WordPress. I reached out to a bunch of my friends that were consultants and developers and asked them how they were doing it and most of them had a pdf that they would give out to their clients to learn how to use WordPress and so on. I didn’t want that and the reason for that was because I asked everybody. “What was your biggest complaint about this method?” and they said “Updating them.” So I started looking at web-based versions because you know if you have a site that’s powered by WordPress, it’s fairly easy to moderate and manage; there was none. Most of the sites about WordPress were by developers for developers. Nobody was really targeting beginners and there were some coaches that were selling the courses for, I think like $400 to learn WordPress and I said well I’m not going to send my client to somebody who’s going to charge them $400 because I just billed them a significant chunk of money. So instead I decided that there’s a huge need in the market and I started WP Beginner.
Success Harbor: So, did you have to do anything special for WP Beginner to stand out? I mean, we’ll talk about it later, your Alexa ranking which is super impressive but when you started it did you think that you had to do something special or you just kind of added some articles and then see what happens?
Syed Balkhi: So WP Beginner was not my first site so I was very familiar with how the search engines work, how social media worked. Back then, social media was a lot of Digg and a lot of stumble upon so I had fairly decent profiles on all those platforms. So I knew exactly what I had to do to grow the business right, in terms of like, getting traffic. Getting traffic wasn’t the issue for me thankfully because I’ve had so many different sites but the one thing that really helped to differentiate WP Beginner was that I actively listened to the users. I used ‘search.twitter.com’ and I just sat there like a hawk on the WordPress hashtag and I would check it several times a day to see what kind of questions people were asking about WordPress and that’s how I got all of my article ideas, because I saw exactly the questions people were looking for so I know if I gave them that, they would automatically help me stand out and build trust because somebody–, you know, most people would just rant about their problem on Twitter. Somebody actually listened and gave them a solution; that will make sure you stand out.
Success Harbor: So, I want to just understand how you did that so, you did a search and then did you respond immediately or did you develop the content and then said, “Hey, I have an answer to your question”? What was your process?
Syed Balkhi: A little bit of both. So, if it was–, I did a little bit of both when answering the Twitter questions. If the article was something really simple, like too, too simple that it didn’t really need an article, I would reply to them in a tweet but if it was a little bit more complexed, I would write about it. If it was too complexed that it wouldn’t really fit the WP Beginner type of audience, I would find a resource that the user would find helpful so I try to cater to all of them.
Success Harbor: Ok. So it was more important to be helpful than just to push people to WP Beginner?
Syed Balkhi: Exactly. That’s very important. I didn’t always, you know, get the users, there were several people who were developers that were looking for questions and I still answered their questions because I had a development background. It was just to be purely helpful. The goal wasn’t always to bring the user back to WP Beginner, it was to build trust.
Success Harbor: So, I want to talk about your Alexa ranking for WP Beginner, you have about 1400 the last time I checked, I think a couple of days ago which is amazing, I mean, some people in the audience may not be very familiar with it but Google is number 1, Facebook is 2, Twitter is 9 so to have 1400, that’s out of all websites in the world, is just a super impressive accomplishment. What are the reasons for you to reach that level of popularity for your website to get that kind of traffic? What were you doing right?
Syed Balkhi: To be quite honest, I have very strong reason to believe that Alexa’s flawed and that’s mainly because I have other websites that get a lot more traffic than WP Beginner and Alexa’s not as high as WP Beginner. So, I don’t…
Success Harbor: So it’s not very accurate but I mean, if you have like, a 10 million Alexa ranking or a 3 million or a few hundred thousand, it kind of gives you kind of an idea but it’s not an exact number right, we agree on that.
Syed Balkhi: Yeah, so it’s not very accurate at all. I have higher sites that get more traffic that should be at 1400 versus WP Beginner but to answer your question, it was just a word-of-mouth advertising. I was helping people, people were talking about it, I had a decent profile on ‘Digg.com’ so I would occasionally get my articles to hit the front page of Digg and that would instantly bring a good chunk of users, close to 60-80,000 people on the website in the matter of like, a few hours or as soon as the article would hit front page. So I wasn’t new to social media. I did use all of my skills there to get the traffic but a lot of it was building relationships, trying to be as helpful as possible and then let the organic growth begin.
Success Harbor: And so how long did it take WP Beginner to really take off from 2009? Was it within a matter of months, weeks, I mean yes you had experience to drive traffic to it but was it more of a hockey stick type of growth or more of a gradual growth?
Syed Balkhi: No, it was very much of a hockey stick growth in the beginning because every time–, imagine getting like several articles on the front page of Digg.com when it was really powerful? So you’re getting like 80,000 people in a day, 100,000 people in a day to a brand new website and that’s what caused the initial big burst of growth and then the word-of-mouth started coming in and then several influencers that started noticing it and then they started twitting about it and then ever since then, the growth has been very steady.
Success Harbor: So, help us out, for those that are starting a new blog, what do they have to do today? Let’s say it’s just a one-person business, they don’t really have people helping them or they don’t have a whole lot of time or experience, what do they need to do to set themselves apart from competitor sites and to get traffic?
Syed Balkhi: So, what I would say is find out what your audience is looking for, ok and you can do that by creating your audience profiles, [inaudible 11:46] profiles, user profiles, there’s all the different words for it and see exactly what they need. Now start offering what they’re looking for, whether they are articles, whether they are podcasts, videos. Next, find out exactly where those users are going to be. Which websites do these users go to currently and then see if you can work out a collaboration deal with them or if you can target them using either advertisements but also, you know, everybody’s on Twitter – it’s an open network; you can build relationships that way.
Success Harbor: Ok. Ok, you have also co-founded ‘List-25’ in 2011 and that site has over 1 million subscribers on YouTube which is more than BBC Worldwide so again it’s a very, very impressive number. What do you do right to become one of the top 700 YouTube channels for List 25?
Syed Balkhi: The YouTube channel was a pretty good experiment so we did an experiment and it turned out real well. To be quite honest, we didn’t really do too much special. We just tried to create videos that triggered some kind of emotion and then we just based all of our content based on some sort of emotion whether it was the ‘huh’ reaction or the sad reaction or the happy reaction and we continued to build videos that way and we would occasionally send emails to larger websites that had few tweets like the Cheese-Burger Network and the New York Time editors and there was just a lot of sending email, “Oh we have a video about this, we have a video about this…” and occasionally we would get picked up by one of the publications and that would help us captivate the audience. Our content was good, the video quality might not be the best but our content was good and it triggered the right emotion in the users and after that it was just word of mouth, people started sharing it and the type of content that List 25 has, had a lot of viral potential when it’s done right and we were able to hit the nail.
Success Harbor: How did you learn to create good content? Was it easy? Did it come to you easy or you had to really work at it?
Syed Balkhi: So, yeah, I obviously had to do a lot of work on it and creating good content is not something easy. Even now when I hire new writers I have to spend good several months training them. Yes, they’re great writers but they don’t know how to write for the people. A lot of times people write for themselves. You have to understand, you are not your own audience; you have to break it down for whoever your audience is. Imagine if I start writing an article on WP Beginner that caters to me? I would alienate 95% of my audience and that’s exactly what all the other blogs at that time that were about WordPress were doing. It was written by developers, they were writing for themselves so they were writing for developers, which is why they were only targeting 2 or 3% of WordPress users. The 97% that are do-it-yourself for businesses weren’t getting that. So 1 – Write for your audience; figure out what your audience needs and then give them that and if you can hit that then you know, it just takes time and practice and you’ll get consistently better and better.
Success Harbor: So what do you think is the proper way to do SEO in 2014? Is there still such a thing as SEO or it’s really about content creation and content promotion anymore?
Syed Balkhi: I mean, good content always trumps any dirty black-hat trick you can find. I’m sure if you start doing your research on Google and start following several black-hat forms, you can find all the black-hat tricks. However, I wouldn’t recommend you doing any of that mainly because black-hat is short-term, they’re short-lived. You are in right now and then maybe a week later you’ll be kicked out because you were manipulating something in Google. So I recommend writing good content. Make sure your on-page SEO’s optimized if you’re using a WordPress blog or WordPress site then you can use the WordPress SEO by Eos Plugin, configure that and just keep on writing good content. You can use Scribe content which is another plugin that kind of gives you an idea of what your keyword density is but you know, you don’t really need that. It’s nice to have, it’s one of those plugins that’s nice to have but you don’t absolutely must have it to create good content. But just focus on your on-page SEO and then start building relationships. If I build a relationship with you and you write a blog post about me and you naturally gave me a backlink, that’s a good backlink of course instead of me trying to force a backlink into a website that’s completely unrelated or kind of buy links, which are also inaccurate.
Success Harbor: So, let’s talk about it. You’ve been in business basically most of your life. Talk about a good learning experience that may be a big mistake that you have made that our audience could learn from that you could share with us.
Syed Balkhi: I’ve made a lot of stupid mistakes. Some of them were not as big but they were just as detrimental because a lot of stupid mistakes can add up to be a big mistake. 1 – Always keep back-up. Just because you think you’re not going to get hacked or you’re not going to need the back-up, you will. Spend the money and make back-ups for your website because I have lost months and months of content because I didn’t make a backup. Thankfully it wasn’t on WP Beginner or List 25, it was on one of my older sites so definitely, definitely make back-ups. Don’t try to think too far advanced. A lot of times, people are looking at their 5 year plan versus looking at their 6 year plan, because guess what? If you don’t execute on your 6 month plan or your 3 month plan, you’re not going to get to the 5 year plan that you spent most of your hours planning for. So start building short-term goals; short-term goals that you can easily evaluate and those short-term goals should lead to your long-term goals. And when you can do that, you’ll be pretty good.
Success Harbor: You know, the average consensus is that about 50% of businesses fail within the first 4 years in business. Why do you think so many businesses fail?
Syed Balkhi: I don’t know why every business fail or why some of the businesses fail but the general idea that I’ve seen from people who have reached out to me, you know, they started something and didn’t follow through, is because they don’t follow through, they’re not really passionate about what they’re doing. People say, “Oh, I think I can really kill it in this particular industry” but maybe you don’t know enough about that industry. Maybe you’re just not that into it, you know, like I am very passionate about WordPress so I think I can do real well on WordPress. I don’t always write on List 25 because I’m not the best suited person to write for List 25. That’s why I have my co-founder and I have other–, a group of writers who write for it so not everything can be done by you and a lot of the times, by the time most people start realizing it, it’s too late.
Success Harbor: How do you deal with the roller coaster ride of being in entrepreneurship? You have been very successful with the sites that we talked about but I’m sure there have been some downs as well so–, and you’ve been in business most of your life so I’m sure you’ve had a lot of ups and downs that you had to deal with. What advice do you have for our audience for dealing with the roller-coaster ride so to speak?
Syed Balkhi: Embrace it. I live for the ups and downs and a lot of times when people are going towards down, they start putting negative vibes out there and they start discouraging themselves. Take it one day at a time, look up and keep moving. If you’re having a bad day, tomorrow will be better and that’s the attitude that I’ve used and gone through but I really enjoy what I do and I appreciate what I have right now versus what I could have or what I could’ve had, so learn to appreciate what you have.
Success Harbor: What’s the best advice you have ever received?
Syed Balkhi: The best advice that I would ever receive is that time is the most valuable asset you have and it’s also the most expensive teacher so try to learn from other people’s mistakes rather than making the same one over and over again by yourself.
Success Harbor: Ok. What is the most important thing for an entrepreneur to do during the first 12 months of being in business? I ask this because I think the first 1 year in business is so crucial and a lot of people make a lot of mistakes or maybe they focus on the wrong thing. So based on your business experience what is your recommendation they should focus on?
Syed Balkhi: It’s really, really hard to say what you should focus on because every entrepreneur, every different business has different needs but I would say try to nail down exactly what you’re building, what you’re creating. A lot of times people say they want to create something but they kind of have an idea or sort of idea of what they want to create. Nail it down. Nail it down to exactly what you want to build and then build it versus trying to go in and then figure out as you’re going.
Success Harbor: What do you think is the biggest time-waster for entrepreneurs?
Syed Balkhi: Distraction. It could be anything, it could be social media. I think not being organized is the biggest time-waster. Start time-tracking yourself, whether you use something like a Rescue Time, I personally use Time Doctor, it takes screenshots and really hold yourself accountable and see where you’re wasting your time.
Success Harbor: So, where do you see the biggest opportunities in business today? You’ve been in business most of your life, where do you see the big opportunities now and not just something general like online or social media but do you have anything specific that you been thinking about or you think is a good opportunity now?
Syed Balkhi: Yeah. I’m always a believer that you create your own opportunities. If you’re talking about which sector is hot right now, e-commerce is fairly hot right now. Just because I was looking at one of the numbers the other day, it said only 6% of all businesses actually have an online presence like e-commerce presence, so imagine the 94% that doesn’t and so I think e-commerce is really big, or is going to be really big, if it’s not already; it’s pretty big.
Success Harbor: Ok. If someone came to you, a friend or a family member that had a job but they saw your entrepreneurial success and they said, “Syed, teach me”, what would be the first thing you would teach that person to succeed in business, to set them up for success?
Syed Balkhi: I probably wouldn’t because most of the time when somebody comes to you and say, “Oh, I see you’re successful, I want to be successful”, I tell them to go and figure out what are they trying to accomplish first. I’ve had several people who’ve come and done that but it’s not like–, what does success mean to you? Most people don’t know that, they just think that this is successful. Define for yourself what does the successful George look like? What does successful Syed look like? And whatever your name is, determine what does success look like to you and what do you need to get there and if that means ‘I need to create a business around this’, figure that part out and once you have that, then come back to me and then we can work on how you can get customers, where you should be looking at, what you can do but a lot of times when people come to you, they’re not really there yet. They’re in a very, very early stage, they haven’t figured it all out themselves and quite frankly I don’t think helping them figure out what they want to do is what I need to do.
Success Harbor: Ok. Well Syed, thank you very much for coming on Success Harbor today to share your story and your wisdom basically, I really appreciate it. How can people find out more about you or connect with you?
Syed Balkhi: You can find me by going to ‘wpbeginner.com’. You can follow me on Twitter @wpbeginner or @SyedBalkhi. Thank you for having me on the show George.
Success Harbor: So everybody go and check out WP Beginner. Syed, thank you and I wish you much luck with all your endeavors.
Syed Balkhi: Thank you.