Success Story: Brian Kidwell
How a digital nomad 10X’ed a business and gained over 100,000 new subscribers in less than a year
Brian Kidwell is a digital nomad/entrepreneur/conversion optimization rockstar. He’s also one of the marketing masterminds behind the booming travel site, Scott’s Cheap Flights. He’s helped skyrocket their revenues over 10X in less than 5 months and also grow the site’s subscriber base from about 3,000 to over 100,000 in less than 1 year. Needless to say, Brian has found his niche in online business and by no means does it follow any societal standards or stereotypes. For instance, Brian:
Most people follow a set path in life and get a job in an office somewhere. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the path I choose to follow right now.
- Has never met his business partner (see founder Scott Keyes’ article about this on Virgin.com);
- Had no formal experience in the travel industry before joining his latest venture — just an interest and a learned skill set; and
- Has no business pedigree, meaning he’s a normal person — just like you and me…
I first met Brian at San Diego State University around 2010. I was starting my MBA program and we were both on the executive board of the Entrepreneur Society. He was into wake boarding and snowboarding, and still trying to figure out what his major would be — like I said, he’s a normal guy.
Over the course of the next few years I would get to know Brian pretty well though, and one thing that stood out to me about him was his tenacious curiosity and ambition for online business. If there was anyone who had the drive to carve out a life of location-independence, it was Brian. He was also getting his hands dirty with so many entrepreneurial experiments (designed experiments, of course), that it was hard not to pay attention… and take notes.
Fast-forward 6 years, Brian is now living in Thailand running his business remotely, has traveled to 17 countries in the past two years, and is exemplifying what it means to be freed of the 9-to-5 chains. If you don’t believe me, just go ahead and check out his Instagram. Given what I know about him, it’s no surprise to me that he’s now running stronger than ever and making HUGE leaps in his online business.
How did he get there? Well, like most entrepreneurs, his journey has been filled with long, windy, bumpy roads — the kind we don’t hear enough about. The journey also comes with some value-packed lessons — lessons that anyone can leverage in their own business. So hang on tight because this one’s good…
How did you get started with online business?
As far back as I can remember I would always be hustling to make money. As a kid, I was doing everything from mowing lawns, washing cars, raking lawns, and even trying to sell lemonade at my grandparent’s garage sales. I thought it was fun and I got paid. I didn’t even use the money for anything, I just liked to see my bank account grow.
I never really liked the whole “go get a job thing” but I always liked working, so when I got into high school, I would just come up with all these business ideas. Then I went to college and I joined the Entrepreneur Society; I basically surrounded myself with other people and just brainwashed myself into believing that I could do it and hustled to get it done. I tried a bunch of different businesses throughout that time, but none of them really worked out.
In the meantime, I kind of gave in to the 9-to-5 pressure and went into commercial real estate for about six months, but I didn’t like it at all, so that’s when I sold everything, backpacked Europe, and then moved back home to try and get something off the ground.
Meanwhile, I had been reading a book by Scott Keyes which helped me land a cheap flight to Dublin, Ireland. I loved what he was doing a decided to reach out to him for an interview for my travel blog about finding cheap flights. We did the interview and kept in contact over the next month or so. He had recently launched a subscription service to send out cheap flight deals and I was sharing some marketing tips with him on how he could increase his traffic. After a few emails back and forth, he asked if I wanted to partner up with him and grow his cheap flight service. So on November 1st, 2015 we wrote up a short contract, signed it, and got to work.
Fast-forward less than 11 months to September, 2016 and we’ve grown the site to over 100,000 subscribers (up from about 3,000) and multiplied our number of paying subscribers by more than 10 times in about five months. Now we’re on track to hit 25X before the end of the calendar year and have some exciting things in the works.
How did you do it?
We don’t spend a lot on marketing so it’s all about coming up with creative ideas on how to spread awareness without spending a ton of money. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and every day is a little bit different.
As far as changes, there were a few I felt we needed to do off the bat:
Tweak #1: Conversion Optimization
The first thing I wanted to do was update our landing page. I quickly put together a new one on Instapage and switched it out with the old one. It wasn’t perfect, but it had all the components of something that would convert more people. The first of which was a pop-up to start getting email addresses, so when traffic hit the site, we’d have a much better chance of getting them into the funnel.
Honestly, people hate pop-ups but you’ve got to do pop-ups. The thing is, there are a lot of people that don’t really know what they’re doing with them. They’re like, “Here’s a pop-up, join my newsletter.” No, no, no. It’s not about you. You need to offer them something worthwhile.
I like to always keep in mind the user experience and if it irritates me, it will probably irritate other people as well. Nobody wants to sign up for another newsletter — nobody. You’ve got to figure out what the value is for your customer before you interfere with their experience. It has to be significant enough for them to go, “Yeah I do want to give you my email, so I can get ‘X’.”
Here’s what the old site looked like:
And here’s what the newest one looks like:
And here’s is the pop we use:
We immediately saw an increase in subscriptions. Now 30% – 50% of people who visit the site will sign up for deals. Not bad!
Tweak #2: Eliminate distractions
When you think about your website, each page has a purpose. First of all, figure out what that purpose is and then eliminate everything else; if it doesn’t help you accomplish the goal that you have set out, then you’re losing potential subscribers.
For instance, here was the old call to action — a free subscription and a paid subscription:
For us, most people would sign up for the free subscription and then try it out. If they liked it, they would upgrade to our premium list. We found, however, that by just having the premium subscription option available, we were scaring people away from joining. So I removed it and everything else that didn’t accomplish our goal.
I took off the share buttons, I took off the menu bar. Our home page is bare bones, 100 percent focused on getting the user to take one specific action.
Again, here’s what it looks like now:
Every CTA is about getting the user to sign up. If you go to our homepage, the first thing you see above the fold is a call to action to enter your email address. One reason we get a lot of subscribers is because people don’t have to read anything. If they came because they want cheap flights, then enter your email and you’re good to go. You don’t have to read anything else.
Now our homepage converts at around 41 percent (an increase of about 23%). Our Instapage landing page was converting at about 27% with the pop up. Before that we didn’t have tracking setup properly, but I’d bet the conversion rate was less than 10%. A 10% conversion rate is really good for most businesses so don’t focus on the overall number, just focus on improving whatever conversion rate you have.
Tweak #3: Run the Numbers
Given the time of year when I came on board, we had some great opportunities for holiday promotions. We launched a few of those that helped spread awareness and increase the number of paid subscribers. It was also a great time to start analyzing the numbers now that we had a steady flow of customers.
We found that at our $2 monthly price point, we were losing almost 20% of our revenue to our payment processing company. So effective January 1st, 2016, we changed our pricing model to reflect a more scalable structure. We had also increased the value for our customers, which justified our increase in price. Not only did we increase our margins, but the number of new customers increased as well.
If you want to read more about how our new pricing model changed our entire business, check out our article on SitePoint.
Tweak #4: Do the Grunt Work
By February, 2016 we were featured in Condé Nast Traveler, which really started our growth. The journalist mentioned one of the deals in a previous story so I wanted to reach out and say thank you. I spent an hour or so trying to find her email; I ended up finding it on her old college website from 5 – 10 years ago. I sent her an email and they ended up writing a story about the top 10 deals that Scott sent out.
It’s not always that easy though.
Sometimes I’ll spend hours looking for email addresses, email them, and then it’s crickets — nobody responds. But you have to remember that PR is a long-term game and that you’re building relationships. You reach out to 100 people and maybe 5 or 10 of them respond and then 1 or 2 of them turn into something. For the Virgin piece, I sent out a bunch of emails and several weeks went by before I got an email back from one of them. Before that point, I’d pretty much written it off like it was a waste of my time.
I have put in the time to get thousands of email addresses that didn’t amount to anything tangible, but looking back on the opportunities that did come our way, it was because of all the time that we put in. I like what we’re trying to do, so the grunt work doesn’t affect me as much. Sometimes it’s just not that instant gratification that you’re looking for.
I used to try and outsource this kind of stuff immediately. I’d have an idea and I don’t want to have to think about the grunt work. But I want to try it, so I’d outsource it. What I’ve found though, is that you should get in there yourself and start implementing these tactics. Figure out what works or figure out what doesn’t work before you tell somebody else to do it and waste their time as well. Like the whole email thing for us — yeah I can outsource that, but does the PR strategy even work? Is it worth outsourcing? You have to find that stuff out before you outsource to someone else.
It’s going to be more of an upfront investment, but much more effective in the long run. Get your hands dirty before you hire someone else to get their hands dirty.
What is the best part about having an online business?
Having the freedom to be where you want to be and be with who you want to be with — on your terms, on your hours. You might be working more hours, but you’re doing it when you want to and where you want to. It affords a lot of opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have.
For instance, I just picked up a one-year education visa here in Thailand; I’m learning hand to hand combat, which is pretty badass. I don’t want to give people the impression that it’s like 4 hours of work a week though. I work hard, but I do it all on my own terms.
How do you define success?
Right now it’s just about enjoying what I do, building something, and building my skill set at the same time. I don’t necessarily like the idea that you reach a certain level and then you just go sit on the beach and drink coconuts. Maybe ten years from now I’ll want that, but for now, I like business. I like watching something grow and knowing I’ve had an impact on that. I just think it’s fun.
For now, I just want to continue to help grow Scott’s Cheap Flights. We’ve come a long ways, but I think we’re just getting started.
Parting piece of advice?
You’re going to mess up, you might as well start now. I’ve built plenty of WordPress sites where I’ve gotten the “white screen of death” or deleted the entire thing on accident — having to rebuild it from scratch.
Again, you have to get your hands dirty and try things. A lot of people are afraid of failure, but I wouldn’t be where I’m at now if I hadn’t just tried all this different stuff and learned about business by just getting out there. I’ve had to shut down a number of projects — stuff I had worked on for months, but when you realize it isn’t going to work, you have to be like, “okay, on to the next one.”
And you have to take action. If you are taking a course online, don’t just sit there and watch the video. Have something in mind that you’re going to build and then apply the principles as you’re working on it. I could sit down and watch HMTL and CSS videos until my mind explodes, but I wouldn’t know how to build what I’ve built by just watching tutorials. You’ve got to ask, “How did they do it?” and then say “Ok, now let’s see if I can figure it out.”
Lastly, luck plays a bigger role than most of us like to admit. The trick is you have to be in the game to get lucky. If you’re not learning a skill set or you’re not trying new things, you don’t even have the opportunity of being lucky because you’re not in the game.
Whether you’re a digital nomad like Brian or just like to travel, I highly suggest checking out Scott’s Cheap Flights. I’ve been a subscriber since the beginning of 2016, and can honestly say the deals just keep getting better. Subscribe for cheap flights HERE.
Brian is also happy to answer any questions you may have. You can leave your comments below or contact him directly at brian[at]briankidwell.me.
And don’t forget to check out his Instagram.
The trick is you have to be in the game to get lucky. If you’re not learning a skill set or you’re not trying new things, you don’t even have the opportunity of being lucky because you’re not in the game.
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