Paul Jarvis How to Market Your Work & Grow Your Audience

Writer, designer, educator, Paul Jarvis breaks down and demystifies marketing. He gives a step-by-step formula on how to approach marketing to grow your audience and creative career.
Interview by Cesar Contreras

Cesar:  I don’t know if you remember, but I start with a silly question. Pencil or pixel?

Paul:  Yep I remember. And it’s still pixel. I’m pretty sure.

Cesar:  It hasn’t changed.

Paul:  I don’t think my answer was pencil back then, and I’m 100% sure it’s not pencil now.

Cesar:  Now you do use pencils occasionally, right?

Paul:  I was actually using the pencil that you sent me for awhile, for the woodworking stuff that I was doing. Then I couldn’t find it and then I was using a pen for marking wood to cut which is apparently bad. It makes me less of a woodworker which is fine.

Cesar:  Paul, I know I asked this before as well, but for the folks that aren’t familiar with your work, can you give us a little bit of what you do and just a little backstory. Who’s Paul Jarvis?

Paul:  I was a web designer since the 90s which makes me old. But that’s fine. I’m not, well I was going to say I’m not angry about it, but I’m angry about everything. It’s fine.

Cesar:  For the record, Paul, you don’t look old. Guys he really does not look old.

Paul:  It’s my vegan diet. Like I got carded at the liquor store the other day. The drinking age here is 19 and I’m double that.

Cesar:  Oh my God.

Paul:  I’ve been a web designer for a really long time. And then I started to branch out into writing and books. I wrote I think 4 or 5 books and then I started to do courses. I think I have 4 or 5 courses. I’ve got a couple software products.

Cesar:  So many books and courses that you’ve lost count.

Paul:  I don’t even know. Yeah and then I have a couple software products and then I also have 2 podcasts, and the newsletter that you mentioned. So I do a couple things. I do like 1 or 2 things every day.

Cesar:  Yeah just a few little things. One thing that I wanted to ask you, it’s about marketing. It’s one of those kind of, I don’t know, icky things that artists and creative people tend not to attract to.

First of all, what is marketing? Because it has a bad reputation. Marketing is like this car salesman. That’s kind of what I used to picture for the longest time.

Paul: Yeah.

Cesar:  If you can school us on what marketing really is, how it affects you as an artist and essentially if you decide to sell your art, decide to get into anything like products – especially if you’re a designer – I mean the options are endless, how it could affect your business?

Paul: Let’s start with what marketing is. I think that the type of people that we are, like the type of people that designers are tend to not be loud, pushy people with selling or pitching. That’s just not who we are. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t be designers, right? What I think the problem is, is that I don’t think people hate marketing. I think people hate what they think marketing is.

Cesar:  Right.

Paul: And what I think marketing is, is really just trust and empathy with a specific group of people by talking to them. And like that doesn’t sound so bad. The talking part, yeah okay that sounds a little bad because it sucks to talk to people sometimes. I’d rather just be sitting and sketch or Photoshop or whatever. But yeah, it’s building trust and empathy. You do that by talking to people. And you do that with marketing by talking to a specific group of people. Because even if you’re like Tim Ferris or Oprah, which I don’t think anybody’s ever used in the same sentence before, but I’m going to right now.

Cesar:  I love it, yeah.

Paul: Even if you’re Tim Ferris or Oprah, you can’t reach everybody. It’s impossible, like I hear people like oh I have this product. It’s for people that breathe. It’s like how do you target that? It’s impossible. Especially with the internet. It’s like oh I want to target people that use the internet. It’s like cool. I don’t know how that would even work.

Marketing becomes much smarter when you kind of narrow it down, when you niche it down. It’s just like when you’re doing, when you’re a web designer and you’re like, “Okay I just want to do any type of client work.” And that’s good sometimes. But it’s really hard to just find any type of client. Whereas when you’re doing like, “Oh I’m a web designer for pro athletes.” Well I know how, I know the agents that hire pro athletes, and if I worked with a couple, then I can contact them. I can probably find more.

When you’re niching down, it becomes a lot more easier to market your services or your products. Same with products, the things that I do like courses and all of that. It has to be a specific group of people. The more specific you are, the easier it is to reach them because they’re going to be similar people that do similar things on the internet. Like they’re going to go to the same subreddit or if they’re designers, they’re going to go like Designer News, or that sort of thing.

When you narrow down who the target of it is with marketing, it becomes a lot more easy to go out and find those people. Because those people could probably be part of your audience. They just don’t know how are yet. So you just have to start immersing yourself in their world and becoming a trustworthy individual, and really trust is built through just being a person. Like we all know how to do that, right? That’s why I write a newsletter every week. Yeah it’s fun, but every single Sunday I’m sharing something that I hope is valuable with my audience. And in turn their ad 52 times a year, they’re getting something from me, they’re hearing my name, they’re hearing my brand, they’re seeing what’s going on. And if that resonates with them, then when I have something to sell them, I don’t even need to sell it.

My sales emails are ridiculously bad, but they still do really well because I built this trust. I figured out how to empathize with them because I talk to them all the time. I understand who they are and what they’re about. When it comes time to selling, I don’t even need to sell. My sales emails are really just like, “Hey that thing I was talking to you about, it’s available.” Or like my best sales email ever ended with, I talked about what the product was, and then it ended with like a picture of my pet rats. And it’s like, “If you want this product, click on this picture of my pet rats.” It’s like it doesn’t matter at that point, because they build trust over time by talking to them consistently.

Cesar:  You mentioned consistency. How else could someone build that trust with their people? And actually before we get to that, how can we find our people? I know with you, you emphasize on this, you’re rat people. And I totally get it. How can someone get to that point?

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Paul: First I think you have to figure out like why you want to reach a certain group and not another group. Like for example for me, like when I started doing web design I was working primarily with pro athletes. Which sounds really cool, but I fucking hate sports. It’s like the worst pairing ever. Right? You have to find something that’s obviously interesting because you’re going to be part of it. And I’ve actually abandoned products because the audience that I was reaching with those products, weren’t an audience that I wanted to reach and be part of, and have to communicate with all the time.

It has to be somebody that you like to interact with. Like a type of people or a group of people that you like to interact with. But the other side of that is they need to be able to find some value in the skill set that you’re offering them. And what I found is that a lot of times; so there’s two types… So products and marketing is solving like pain, right?

Cesar:  Yeah.

Paul: You don’t like this thing about you or your business, here is my product or my service. Like you don’t like your website, because it looks like shit. Here’s my design services. It will alleviate your pain and give you a kick ass website. Or with like my latest marketing courses. Like you don’t know how to market, I’m going to teach you how to build an audience of people who want to be marketed to. So it’s solving pain. A lot of people kind of confuse; there’s different kinds of pain. A lot of people think like, “Oh somebody’s complaining about something. That’s a pain I can solve.” When in reality there’s like, so there’s a couple types of complaints. Like there’s a gripe which is like, “I hate Twitter.” That’s a gripe. You can’t monetize me hating Twitter, right?

Cesar:  Yeah.

Paul: But an actionable complaint is something like, “Well I know that I could be using Twitter to grow my audience for my business. I just don’t how to do it.” So that’s an actionable complaint because then you can, if you are an expert at Twitter you can build a product that helps somebody fix that pain. Whereas it’s just like, “I hate Twitter. I’m not going to buy a product on Twitter. I hate Twitter. Why would I do that?”

You have to kind of start to think about like okay what; if you’re looking at an audience that you want to have, what kind of things do they need and does that overlap with the skill set that you have? Because you need to find that nice, it’s like a Venn diagram and it’s like your skills are in one circle and like the needs of an audience are in the other circle. It’s that little squishy bit in the middle where the two circles overlap where people make money basically, with their creativity.

Cesar: Yeah, building that trust, building interest, ultimately helps build an audience. But let’s say someone has an audience of zero. No one. What does he or she have to do?

Paul: When you’re starting out with nothing. You have to go to where your audience is spending time. And that’s why it’s important to niche down. Because if it’s everybody you can’t just log onto the Internet and listen to that little dial-up sound if that still exists. You’re like, “People, hey how’s it going? I’m on the Internet.” You have to find out where your audience is spending their time. Then you have to go there. If it’s website that they read start leaving comments. Ask if maybe you can write a guest post for it. If it’s like a community, join the community, join the subreddit or the Facebook group or the Slack channel or whatever. Start talking to people. And as people ask questions if you know the answer to that based on your skill set, then give them the answer. And then over time you’re going to become that helpful person that people know in that community. And that’s the first, that’s a start of trust.

And then people are going to be like, “Oh do you have a website or a Twitter account or a Facebook or something, or a newsletter, something like that?” And then it kind of grows from there. But in the beginning you have to go to where your audience is, where your potential audience is, and start talking to them and start getting to know them, start getting to know what they need, what they want, what they’re after, what they’re working on. And then it can just kind of grow from there. And I think a lot of times it’s funny because I’ve been part of the Internet for 2 decades and when I was doing primarily client work, people were like Field of Dreams website all the time. Like if I build it people will come. How are people going to come? And they’re like, “I don’t know. I made a website, you designed it. The website looks great.” And it’s like that’s not how it works. What’s your plan to draw people to your website? And that’s what I was talking about before is like you have to go to where your potential people are first and then draw them towards you. You can’t just like throw something up and be like wait for baseball players to walk out of a field of corn on your website. That’s not how it works.

Cesar: Yeah it just doesn’t work that way.

Paul: Yeah.

Cesar:  Yeah. You were talking about actionable complaints. Can you talk more about what an actionable complaint or an example of an actionable complaint can be?

Paul: Yeah I mean there’s tons. Every product that I’ve ever made is based on an actionable complaint from my audience. If people say that, “Oh I hate marketing.” That’s just a gripe. I can’t sell a marketing course to somebody that hates marketing. Which is why a few minutes ago, you’re talking about that article I wrote about how you don’t hate…

I was turning a gripe into an actionable complaint with that. And the article was, “You don’t hate marketing. You hate the way you think marketing works.” Because I wanted to show people how marketing could benefit their business. Like how something can benefit somebody’s bottom line that isn’t working for them is basically solving an actionable complaint. Like if marketing worked, I hate that marketing doesn’t work well for me. So that’s an actionable complaint that I can build something to help solve. And when I asked my audience, when I polled my audience about the next thing to build, because I don’t even know what I’m going to make next. I base it mostly on the actionable complaints of my audience.

When I last polled my audience, the biggest thing that people wanted to do was learn how to grow an audience. And guess what? The course that I just launched is actually called, “Grow Your Audience.” I used the exact words that people told me in a survey. And there’s over 1,000 survey results. I took all of that data and I was like holy shit, there’s like 200 times that people have said, “I want to grow my audience.” And I was like, okay. Well working backwards from that, if you want to grow your audience, you need marketing. If you want marketing you need to understand what trust is. And I kind of worked backwards down the line to build a course based on an actionable complaint that my audience had. And then when I released it like last Sunday, which doesn’t mean anything because I don’t even know when this airs, when I released it in the past …

Cesar: You always release on Sundays though.

Paul: Exactly. It sold really well right from the beginning because I listened to exactly what my audience was asking me for and then I built that. There’s no guess work.

Cesar:  Absolutely.

Paul: It’s just they were complaining, they had an actionable complaint that they were telling me, and hundreds and hundreds of them told me this, and then I just built something that fixes that actionable complaint; which is teaching somebody how to turn marketing into a process basically. Instead of just like add a pop-up to your website. That’s not marketing, that’s just stupid. But when you do — and I don’t even care who has pop-ups on their website — like that can be part of a strategy, but just trying a whole bunch of tactics you read on Life Hacker, that’s not going to do anything. That’s not marketing.

Cesar:  Yeah.

Paul: That’s just throwing a bunch of shit at a wall and hoping some of it sticks. Unless there’s a plan or a strategy there, that’s really what the course is. And I made that because that’s what people were asking me for. Like they were literally telling me, “Paul I want you to show me how to grow my audience.” So I made a course called, “Grow Your Audience.”

Cesar:  For people who are wondering why would I want to grow an audience? Which is, I think, might be a very low number of people, why is it important?

Paul: It varies there, right? Because when I was just doing web design, I only needed like 12 clients a year. That was enough. My projects were long enough that if I took on more than that, I couldn’t do all the work and I didn’t want to grow my company. And then now that I sell books and courses, I need to sell a lot more. Like there has to be more volume to compensate for the fact that their priced a lot lower than my web design services used to be.

When I was just doing web design I needed to grow an audience. Because I wanted to always be booked out months and months in advance. My goal at any given time when I was doing web design was to have at least three months of work, like contract signed, down payments given to me, like money in the bank from these people. These projects are going to start in one month or three months or sometimes it was like six months booked out. And in order to do that I had a newsletter for myself that was just basically talking about, okay if I want people to hire me as a web designer, I started to write articles about what to look for when you’re hiring a web designer.

I started to create content around what people hiring a web designer would want to know. And then on my mailing list every couple months I’d be like okay, well I’m booking now for February. I have one spot open. And my list was probably only like 200 or 300 people at the time. But of those 200 or 300 people it’s like the ultimate scare services are like the ultimate scarcity, but designers typically don’t play it that way.

Cesar:  How long ago was this again?

Paul: This is probably like 2010.

Cesar: Oh wow. Okay.

Paul: Yeah. And I would just be like, “Hey I got a spot open.” Because I literally only had time to take on one client in that month. So it would be like, “Hey it’s December. I have one spot open in February. If you want that, then let’s talk; see if we’re a good fit. And then you get booked in when you give me a down payment that’s on the contract.” And I could do like in the same month. I could be like, “Oh I’ve got a spot in March.” Or like it didn’t even matter what month. It would be like, there’s only one. Because there’s literally, I only had time to do one project at that time.

Cesar:  Yeah.

Paul: I could fill my calendar like 12 months into the future. I just didn’t want to because that’s way too far to think in the future.

Cesar:  One whole year.

Paul: Exactly. And by then I probably would’ve wanted to raise my rates as well.

Cesar:  Yeah, yeah definitely man.

We’ve been talking about your newsletter (also a podcast) and I think the topics you write about are effective. I look forward to getting them because you share tons of valuable things. What motivates you to share your ideas and what you know? And what would you advise to someone who wants to share but is afraid and wants to hold all of their ideas, all of their knowledge close to their chest?

Paul: I actually think ideas are worthless, like absolutely worthless. Ideas are worth nothing. And because of that, I think that I’m happy to share every idea that I have like I’m happy to share. Every piece of knowledge I have in the entire world is an open book and I happily share it with anybody that wants to listen. The reason I think that, and actually the reason why I don’t care if I share everything that I know, is because one in a teacher-student relationship, there’s trust. Like the student trusts the teacher to teach them.

If I’m in that position of being a teacher, then there’s trust built. I can use that trust to make products that, if people want to buy them, they can buy them. If not that’s fine too. And what I found when I was doing web design, when I was writing books, anything like that, knowledge is free. You can Google anything and find out anything. If I show somebody how to make a course or how to design a website, like you can Google that anywhere. It doesn’t matter. But where money is made and I’ve seen this through data because I ask my audience too, like “Why do you buy things from me?” Just because I like to know as much as I can. And most of the time, actually almost all of the time it’s not what I’m teaching, but how I’m teaching.

Most people I think it was like 80 or 90%. I don’t have the number in front of me. But like 80 or 90% of people that bought something from me and this is like, I probably have close to 11,000 students who have gone through my courses. The main reason is because of the way that I teach — like the personality that I bring to it, the Paul Jarvis in it. And that can’t be, you can know exactly how I make a course, but you can’t copy that. Just like if you released a course that your personality in that course I couldn’t copy, because that’s you. So I never care. Like it’s just like if I was writing a business book, and I have written business books, it’s like I wouldn’t be like “Oh well I really don’t want to write a business book because there’s tons of other business books. There’s like a gazillion business books.” But that’s not really even competition, right? It’s just that I haven’t written about business.

If people are interested in hearing what I have to say, they’re going to buy whatever from me. And that’s why, like when I look at it, like even with this latest course, more than half the people that bought it have bought other courses from me. There’s a group of people that just keep buying everything that I release, which I think is awesome. But they buy those things because they know my teaching style, they understand it, that’s how they … they can learn really well and take action on that really well. And the other thing, the other reason why I think ideas are worthless and I think that it’s okay to share everything with everybody is because most people are too lazy to execute.

I’m not the best designer. But I would always execute and I would always, if I told a client “You’re going to get the mockups on Tuesday” 100% of the time, they would get the mockups on Tuesday. Most other designers and I heard this from clients all the time …

Cesar:  There’s that trust.

Paul: Yeah, and I heard this from clients all the time, it was like “I like working with you because you just do what you say you’re going to do.” And that’s kind of how I stood out as a web designer. Like I’m not even close to the best designer, but I just always did what I said I was going to do. If somebody could copy every single skill that I have, but unless they copy my work ethic and my personality …

Cesar:  Which basically means cloning you.

Paul: Exactly.

Cesar:  Multiple times.

Paul: Exactly. That’s why I’m not worried about that, because people don’t execute. Like if I look at the article that I wrote about how to create a course that made like six figures or whatever the click bait link title that I gave it, it’s like if that was a template for making like 300K on a course and probably like half a million people have read it. Like half a million people didn’t launch courses after that. I’m just not worried because, or people ask me how to do things all the time. And then I’ll follow-up with them and they’re like, “Yeah I didn’t do it.” Like, “All right.”

People, it’s such an undervalued skill, work ethic and just doing what you say you’re going to do. People are always like they want some like hack or something like; they want the real answer from me. It’s like, “Just do the things you say you’re going to do.” If your word is a contract that you don’t break, then you’re basically gold whatever you do in your life — you’re basically gold.

Cesar:  Yeah, people just, some folks may want to just cut corners to get to the same end goal. But it just doesn’t work that way.

I’m curious to know what your process is with writing and how long does it take from idea to completion on a piece that you might write.

Paul: Anywhere between 15 minutes and 15 days. It just like, there’s no …

Cesar:  Really good times.

Paul: Sometimes I can just write and the article’s done and I look up and it was like, “Oh it took me 15 minutes.” And then I send it to my copy editor and they send it to a couple other people to kind of go through and call me out on any bullshit in it. But like for the actual writing of it, there’s no, I don’t just sit down with a blank page. I just, I have like an idea digital notebook because I don’t write with a pencil. It’s only pixels forever.

Cesar:  Oh my God. [Laughs]

Paul: I have a list of ideas based on, my inbox is how I get ideas. Because like if I send out a newsletter every Sunday I typically get 200, 300, 400 replies — there’s a lot of questions in there.

Cesar:  Yeah it’s a lot. I’m one of those 400.

Paul: That’s fine but so here’s the thing though. I like that. I like getting those emails because those emails drive new product ideas; they drive article ideas, and like my newsletter generates pretty much all of my income right now. So replying to people on my newsletter is like the best thing I can do for my business, right? That’s why I like doing it, that’s why I take half a day to reply to everybody that replied to me from my newsletter. Because that’s part of my business; it’s actually one of my favorite parts of business.

The writing thing, I grab an idea that I feel like writing about, I’ll maybe do a bit of … like sometimes it depends. If it’s a personal story, then I’ve got that in my head, I don’t need to do any research. If I want to find a scientific study to back up some crazy idea that I have, maybe I spend a bunch of time looking at research documents. And those can take, it takes so long to read some heady research document and just turn it into simple language that everybody other than that scientist understands.

Cesar:  Oh man. Well thank you for doing the work then.

Paul: That’s the thing. I have no skill with doing research, right? But all I can do is I can read stuff and I can make that super complicated stuff just sound like easy stuff that even I can understand. And that’s basically how the writing works.

Cesar: What about the tools that you use to gather the research to, I mean obviously a computer, but software. Any other tools? Any external tools that you might use?

Paul: I typically write in markdown so I’m not fiddling around with the font size and the spacing. I just want to write in basically a code editor.

Cesar:  Okay.

Paul: Sometimes I use Bear, sometimes I use IA Write, sometimes I use, like if I have CODA open, that’s what’s going to work.

Cesar:  Using for that.

Paul: Anything that just shows monospace type that I can’t fiddle with, then I’m happy.

Cesar:  Oh very cool, man. I’m going to ask a few little fun questions here. Who are your top 3 favorite artists at the moment? Now it could be any genre, it could be writers, visual artists, even music, what the hell.

Paul: Right now, let me just open iTunes.

Cesar:  Ah all right.

Paul: Let’s see what I’m listening to. Oh there’s a new Japandroids album which I’ve been listening to.

Cesar:  Japandroids, oh my God I haven’t heard them in a while.

Paul: Yeah they’re Canadian as well. They’re from Vancouver but also hate Vancouver as much as I do. So I feel a kinship.

Cesar: Nice.

Paul: Derek Sivers is probably my favorite writer.

Cesar:  Cool.

Paul: If I’m okay at taking really complicated ideas and turning them into simple language, he is like the master at taking … like everything he writes is so simple, and I mean that in the biggest compliment. Because as designers it’s really hard to take this complicated stuff and boil it down into something that’s very, very simple.

I think in turning things into easy, easily digestible ideas, is a crazy good skill. I think Derek Sivers does that probably the best. And he’s funny; like he’s hilarious. Like I don’t like the Tim Ferris podcast, but I listen to it when Derek Sivers is on it. It’s hilarious.

Cesar:  He is a musician, right?

Paul: Yeah.

Paul: Yeah he’s the guy that started CD Baby and then sold CD Baby.

Cesar: That’s right, that’s right. I’m curious to know what books do you recommend, to stay on topic here with marketing?

Paul: Derek Sivers, Anything You Want is a really great book. Rework the 37 Signals book is pretty good. I also think Cal Newport’s Deep Work is pretty much essential for creative people. Because it’s like you need to be able to do Deep Work if you’re a designer I think.

Cesar:  Is it just focusing and concentrating?

Paul: It’s the opposite of social media. It’s the ability to just hone in on work without distractions. And I’m completely oversimplifying it. And Deep Work is a book that I read at least once a year, but that’s basically it; is being able to turn off distractions and like hone in. It’s like when you’re sitting in Photoshop and you look up and like three hours have gone by. And all you’ve been doing is looking at a mockup, then that’s definitely some deep work.

And it’s a skill that has kind of fallen by the wayside with notifications and social media, and like bings and boops and whizzes on computer screens. I have every notification turned off on my phone and my computer other than phone calls, and I guess text messages.

Cesar:  Yeah.

Paul: But other than that…

Cesar:  Very smart.

Paul: If somebody tweets me, I don’t know. If somebody emails me, I don’t know. Like I have to actually go to those programs, open them and use them in order to see those things. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to design or write or do any of the things I do.

Cesar:  Yep I totally agree with that, man. I’ve adopted that same method over a year ago and it makes a big difference.

Paul: Nice.

Cesar:  We’ve mentioned your course, Grow Your Audience. What will students learn and how can people find it?

Paul: It’s just turning marketing into a process. So figuring out that like growing an audience and getting people to want to buy things from you and getting people to ask to give you money, which is always a good thing, is a process that you can kind of employ with like little baby steps.

We’ve talked about almost all of those steps. It’s like finding an audience, getting them to come to you, giving them a reason to sign up for your mailing list, giving them consistent content, delivering value to them as often as possible. And then listening to them, which is a novel idea – listening to other people. Such a cool thing that we have the ability to do that; and then making things that people want.

The reason my products sell aren’t because they’re the best products in the world, it’s because I listen to what my audience wants and I build specifically those things. And that’s the reason why that I have a product business basically. And it was the same when I was a web designer. I figured out the audience that I wanted to reach, I figured out how to give them the most value and then I could basically charge whatever I want and have a waiting list for months at a time.

Cesar: As simple as 1-2-3. Thank you for your time to be on the show!

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