Intro: Hey everybody and welcome to another episode of How I Built It! Continuing our series on How You Build a Business, today I get to talk to Sara Dunn about niching down. She’s been pretty public with her process, starting a YouTube channel to discuss her decision making. I loved chatting with her about this because it can be tough and scary to decide to limit your potential client pool, but I think Sara is doing it the right way. We’ll get into that in a minute, but first, a word from our sponsors…
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And now…on with the show!
Joe: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It the podcast that asks how did you build that. Today my guest is Sara Dunn. Sara, how are you?
Sara: I’m doing great, Joe. How are you today?
Joe: I am fantastic. We are recording on Star Wars Z. I am wearing an R2D2 t-shirt, and in T minus two hours, I will be seeing The Last Jedi, so I couldn’t be more excited. This is like my last work thing before I knock off for the afternoon.
Sara: That’s perfect. Sounds like a perfect day.
Joe: Thank you very much. I am very excited about it, but we’re not talking about Star Wars today. We are talking about you and your business, and your recent decision to niche down. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are, and what you do, and how you came to this conclusion.
Sara: Sure. I will try to keep it to the shorter version. My name is Sara Dunn. I operate a micro agency, which is a remote group of four coworkers. I’m located here in South West Michigan, and I have coworkers throughout the country. I’ve been doing web design and development for clients for about five years now, and we generally have worked with a very wide variety of clients. Kind of the, if you have a checkbook and want to hire us, we are your agency, which I have discovered in the last couple years, is not a very powerful or particularly interesting position to be in, in business. It was about two years ago, actually, that I first started throwing around the idea of specializing. By that, I mean becoming more well known for something more specific rather than just we’ll make you a website.
I don’t know how deep you want me to get into it now, but I have been very actively pursuing this for about eight months, and creating content around the idea of a web agency that wants to specialize. Just recently, I have finally landed on something that feels good to me as a specialty for my business. It’s a really exciting time for me, and I really appreciate the opportunity to be on your show and share a little bit more about where I am right now.
Joe: Yeah. Absolutely, and this is a great thing to talk about, I think, because I think a lot of freelancers probably fall into that same position. I certainly did when I was freelancing. If somebody said, “Hey, I need a website,” I’m like, “All right. Well, if you’re willing to pay how much I’m charging, I will make that website for you.” I carried that mentality over into the product space where I’m like, “Well, it seems like people want a course that does this, so I’ll make this course.” But this is a whole another show. That’s a terrible way to sell products, right? You don’t see Nike making like a printed pictures of whiteboards, right? They don’t specialize in whiteboards. This is, I think, a great thing to talk about. What did you decide to specialize in? You’ve made that public, I believe, right?
Sara: Yes, I have. If I could, I’d love to tell a little bit more of the story of how I arrived there. It was about eight months ago, that I think was really the height of my frustration with where I was in my agency. It wasn’t that we weren’t getting work, it was that we weren’t getting work that I really found fulfilling. I was occasionally losing prospects or projects that I really wanted to agencies that were more specialized and did a better job at conveying their value proposition, and how they were experts in a certain field. It was earlier this year that I said, “I have got to figure this out.” I knew that there were other freelancers and small agencies out there that felt the same way. I felt like there wasn’t a lot of content around the idea of niching down as a web developer.
I actually created a video, just me talking straight to camera, and I held on to it. I recorded it in mid March (2017), and I held on to it for almost a month, just kind of embarrassed that I had it. But it was my husband who really encouraged me to post it online, on YouTube, and start to share a little bit more actively about the process and the struggle of specializing and trying to find a certain area that we wanted to become an expert in. In April, I did. I actually posted it online. Shared it on Twitter, and started a blog that’s been about weekly where I do a video, and also write a blog post about where I am in my journey to specialize.
Here we are eight months later, and I have to be honest with you. I thought it would happens so much faster. Like, “Okay, I’m really focusing on this. I’m talking about it every single week. I’m totally going to figure this out in a week or two,” and it didn’t happen. Nothing that I came up with felt right. It didn’t feel good. I wanted to really have that moment where something just felt like, “Oh, I think that’s the right choice. Yes, this is a specialty of a kind of work or a kind of person that I want to work with week in and week out.” As much as I tried to analyze every piece of it, none of it came through analysis. Nothing really happened for about seven months. It was just me making videos every week, going, “This is what I’m thinking about, but I still haven’t figured it out, so sorry if you’re watching this.” Bless anybody who did watch those videos, because I didn’t get much of anywhere for a while until it was a couple months ago, I met someone at a conference who’s quickly become a good friend of mine.
She is a high end wedding and event planner based in Chicago. As soon as we met, she said, “Sara, I’ve got a question for you. Can I ask you about SEO?” I said, “Sure, that sounds great. What can I tell you?” She said, “I had my website redesigned a couple months ago, and while I used to rank right on the top of page one for Chicago wedding planner, I have fallen off the face of the earth. I am down to like page six or seven for this very important keyword, and my traffic is totally tanked because of it.” I said, “Let me look at your site. I want to know what’s happened,” and I got into it, and about five minutes of looking around, I realized that her web developer knew nothing about SEO. They had inaccurately represented themselves as someone who did, and they made so many basic mistakes. It had cost her significant leads in business. In a job that is her livelihood.
I was actually really offended by it. Because I felt like she had been so misled. I made a video about that and started helping her out. It was pretty quick, and pretty clear that I realized this was very interesting work for me, and I loved it, and I would do it for free all day long, and I wanted to do more of it. Just a couple weeks ago, I made it official, I put out a video that I am going to focus on SEO and SEO optimized websites for the wedding industry. Professionals who sell to brides and grooms like planners, florists, photographers, caterers, those types of businesses. Here I am finally.
Joe: That’s fantastic. I mean, the journey is super important, right? I always ask about research, and you can throw a dart at a wall and say, “Oh, I’m going to specialize in construction website,” which is what I did when I was … I was going to say a kid, I guess I basically was, but in my early 20’s, I was like, “I want to specialize. I want to niche down into construction sites.” I didn’t know anything about construction sites. It just seems like construction people have money, like that was the thing in my head.
Sara: Oh my gosh, I love that.
Joe: Right? But what’s super important when you choose to niche down, or niche down, I think there’s like, I always say it both ways, is you should have what’s called domain knowledge, right? Which is knowledge of the industry you’re specializing in. It seemed like working with this person in Chicago either helped you gain or helped you realize that you have that knowledge and that passion. Is that accurate?
Sara: Yeah, it is. Actually, I have found, and I was surprised by this, I was telling myself that I had to choose a specialty where I had a ton of experience, and a ton of that domain knowledge. That was actually slowing me down and holding me back, because I haven’t had a consistent pattern of past work within the same industry. When I looked at past clients, nothing really seems like the right choice, and that’s why I think I was so stuck for a while. I actually don’t have a ton of experience in the wedding industry but I know that there is such a need, and I know that my skills can make an immediate impact there, and they already have for a couple of people that I have helped out for free. That’s what I found as far as the amount of expertise required.
Joe: Awesome. Then, of course, as you do more, you’ll get more experience, more domain knowledge, which is the important thing about niching down, right? Because without specializing, you have four sites that are different, completely different, and you basically have to start from square one every time. But with specializing, you’re starting from square two or three, or depending on the client, right?
Joe: Cool. Plus, like SEO is, I write search engine optimize HTML…I don’t know if I should say publicly. I think I do. But there’s a whole industry based around that. Rebeca Gil was my second guest on this show, and she talked about her course and how she built the whole course around SEO, because it’s so important, and doing it right versus doing it wrong has severe ramifications for the client.
Sara: Yes. I think Rebeca is a genius and she’s taught me pretty much everything I know over the past couple of years, so I am super indebted to her.
Joe: Awesome. Yeah, she is fantastic. I will link her episode in the show notes if you haven’t listened to it. I strongly recommend it because she’s fantastic. Now, as you’ve decided on your niche, you’ve helped a couple of people out already, now that you know exactly kind of you know who you want to market to, what kind of research are you doing for both getting those clients and the services you’re providing those clients?
…What kind of leg work are you doing to get people in that industry, and then help people in that industry.
Sara: Sure, yeah. What I want to find out first, and one of the first things I did when I thought about this is a possibility, is I wanted to find out who are people in this industry listening to when it comes to marketing, and SEO, and anything else that brings them business. The first research I did was into who were the thought leaders for wedding professionals. One of the things that indicated to me that this might be an interesting direction to go in is that I actually found it interesting to listen to who they’re listening to. I enjoyed content that is going around in the industry, and that again, makes me feel like these are people that I want to hang out with. That is the biggest research I’m doing, is finding out where my potential client are getting their information. That’s been really fun, and it’s been easy because I can just quickly talk to people I know within the industry and say, “Who are you listening to? How do you find out about this or that?” It’s been a lot of personal directory search, and just some Googling around.
Joe: Man, that is … Before you answer the second part of this question, that is fantastic advise. Never would have dawned on me. I am very much not a marketing person, or anything like that. I’m a developer, I take a very field of dreams approach to things, like if you build it, they will come. But finding out who your clients listen to is great, because then you can, I mean not parroting back with the thought leaders are saying, but you can build on top of that. They’re being told they should do this, I can help them do that, right?
Joe: I think that’s my big takeaway from this episode, and we’re like half way through. As far as the second half of that question, what kind of research are you doing in order to help people within the wedding planning industry?
Sara: Yeah. I think my next step, and I don’t know if I’d call It research, but in order to do outreach and provide services, what I did was actually create a separate micro site all around this specialty. This was something that I debated a lot. I got some advice early on that when I specialized, I should just make a page about it on my existing agency website, because the site already has domain authority and some SEO value, and it’s been around for a while, and actually decided not to follow that advice. I love the idea of having an entirely separate domain, and a very small site that is 100% focused on this service and this vertical, so that when someone goes there who is the right client, all they see is information that’s pertinent to them. They really get that immediate feeling, “Wow, Sara is super specialized and knows exactly who I am and what I need.”
To me, this also is a slightly lower risk strategy. If this doesn’t work out, I’ve got this all on a separate site. I haven’t taken over my main agency site with this specialized information. I can just delete the thing and say, “Well, I tried. On to the next thing.” I don’t intend to do that but inside, this is a very risky decision, so I had to make some decisions for myself that lowered the perceived risk that I was feeling. That separate site does that for me. That has been my first step in pursuing this direction, is to have that separate marketing site.
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Joe: Got you. I mean, that makes sense, right? If I want to spin by bar into … If I had a bar, and I want to add a kitchen to it, I might just rent a kitchen space. I’m to going to put like a professional grade kitchen on my bar. What if nobody wants food at my bar. I mean, totally not the same thing because spinning up a website is easier than building a kitchen, but it’s the same idea. You’re not going to get rid of your entire agency site for this right off the bat, and correct me if I’m wrong here because you’re certainly the expert in this topic, but there are SEO benefits to having a domain, let’s say, one of the keywords you want to rank in it, right?
Sara: Yeah. Definitely. There is a definitely a benefit to having content that’s all focused around a certain topic area. The fact that I’m going to write about mostly SEO related topics on this site is going to help us build topical authority around SEO and around the wedding industry. It’s going to look highly specialized to Google, too, which is something that Google does like.
Joe: Awesome. Yeah, it’s like going to a department store for a suit versus going to a tailor for a suit, right? A tailor specializes in making suits. If you haven’t noticed, I’m big on analogies.
Sara: I love it.
Joe: Awesome. Research aside, I know that you mentioned that you blogged this whole journey. Did you talk to a lot of people, or do you have a core group of people that you consider your confidants, that you would bounce ideas off of?
Sara: Yeah. What was funny was when I first started thinking about specializing, before I even started the video series, I would ask anybody who would listen to me. Like, “Hey, oh, what do you think about specialized agencies? Have you ever tried to specialize your agency? Blah, blah, blah.” I’m sure I drove people crazy, which is one of the reasons that I was just like, “I’ll just make my own site around this, so I could leave people alone, and just share what I’m thinking.” I have definitely collaborated with a small group of friends that I found through the Genesis office hours community. The old slack group that Carrie Dils, and some friends that I’ve grown from there. There are a lot of people in the industry that I’ve bounced some ideas off of and who had really supported me in just being there and being like, “You got this, you’ll figure it out.”
Joe: Man, that’s fantastic. I want to phrase this the right way, because well here, I’ll tell another similar story. The wedding industry is like a billion dollar industry. Getting married, I got married in 2016, and I was astounded by just how much everything costs, or the fact that a part bus costs more if you say it’s for a wedding. I argued with the limousine company about that so hard, until somebody explained to me why. I just wanted to know, why are you charging me a premium? There’s a lot of money in it.
One of the things I thought when all of my friends were getting married, is I’ll build websites for people who are getting married. That is not a good niche to get into because people who are getting married don’t want to spend a few thousand dollars on a website, because they’re spending lots of thousand dollars on other things. Was that a consideration when you were deciding to niche down? Obviously you want to do something you love and you don’t just want to follow the money, but you have a business and employees to support so you want to make sure that the way you’re specializing, there is demand and money in that field, right?
Sara: Yes. Yeah. It has to be a concern. There, of course, are specialties you can get into where people would love for you to do services for them, but they don’t have any money to pay you. That is definitely part of the consideration. I thought about things like bakeries, and other businesses like that but I realized how many cupcakes someone would have to sell to make back the cost of my services. It was a lot. When I look at the wedding industry, however, if I am able to help a wedding professional to book one or two extra jobs, it’s likely that they have made a return on the investment that they’ve put into working with me. There is value there. I do want to caution though, I, like you, consider it specialties just because I thought there was money there. I actually did a very short stint doing Facebook ads for chiropractors, which was pretty successful in getting a lot of interest and getting people willing to hire me. But it was something that I wasn’t particularly interested in. I only chose to do it because I thought there was money there.
After working on a few of those projects, I said, “I just don’t enjoy this work and this isn’t something that I want to do day in and day out.” That was something that ultimately wasn’t successful as a permanent niche for my business. There has to be that balance of work you enjoy, and work that people are willing to pay you for.
Joe: Absolutely. Right, there probably is money and working with a chiropractor certainly isn’t a pain in the neck, but you have to … Sorry everyone. But you do have to love what you do. I love what you said about projecting value. How many cupcakes does a bakery have to sell for my services, versus there’s pretty immediate value to a wedding planner. If I get you one or two more clients, you’ve paid for me. It’s the same thing with offering a coaching program. You’re paying me $1,000 but that first job that you’re going to get is going to make you a thousand more dollars than you would have thought. That is an excellent way to look at it. I would strongly urge anybody who is considering niching down to look at it that way too. You definitely need to project your value. The title question is, how did you build it, and let’s make it talk about the website that you created for your niche. Was there anything special that you decided to do for your specialized website versus just your general agency website?
Sara: Sure. Yes, absolutely. I think the biggest consideration in how I built that micro site was to make sure that I only launched it with things that were absolutely necessary. I have a big vision, of course, for what I would love this site to grow into. I’m a web designer, I know how I would love it to look. I know how much content I’d love it to have, but I really just wanted to get something launched so that I could put out my shingle and say, “This is a market I’m looking to work with.” The most important thing I did was cut back my big list of nice-to-haves and say, “What do I need just to get this launched?” There are few things I said no to. I said no to custom design. I went to studio press and this site is almost entirely one of their themes straight out of the box. I only customized a couple fonts. It serves my purposes very well. It looks very professional and no one who is a potential client for me is going to look at that and go, “Oh, I’ve seen that theme before.”
That is something that I used, and that was a good choice. I also launched it with just three pages. It’s got an “About” page, a “Service” page, and a “Contact” page. That was my minimal content. I actually had to talk myself out of designing it with a blog section on the home page, because I said, “You know what, this doesn’t need a blog post right away. I’ll add that back in when I’ve written a few but that’s going to slow me down from launching.” Really, the only technology here is WordPress on Flywheel hosting, the Genesis Framework, and a Studio Press theme, the total build. Writing the content probably took me about three hours. Building the site probably took me three hours or less. The thing was out there and I was able to share it. I’m really happy with how that turned out.
Joe: Man, I love that. Now, you specialize in SEO, are you also a web designer? You can make your own custom themes and stuff like that?
Sara: Yes. Now, I used to do all of the design and build myself, and thankfully I’ve hired people that are better at design and better at development than I am. At this point in my web business for clients, I don’t do either of those pieces, and I am mostly lead strategy. But yes, I can do all of that if needed, and I did all of this site by myself.
Joe: Got you. I ask because I am also a developer. I’ve written books and have courses on how to make WordPress themes, and so when I created my online courses site, it was a very hard decision for me to say, “I’m not going to custom build this theme,” because I felt like a fraud, but my focus was on the content. That’s what you’re saying too. Your focus was on something very specific that had nothing to do with syncing 20 or so hours into building a custom theme.
Sara: Right. Totally, not necessary. Just to get the idea out there, to test the waters.
Joe: Cool. That’s awesome. I will link to StudioPress. I actually just this week, as we record this, started using my first one, which is Academy Pro for the relaunch of my online courses site in 2018.
Sara: Oh, that’s a great theme. I can’t wait to see what you do with it.
Joe: Thank you very much. Now I’ve got some pressure on me.
Sara: It’s gorgeous straight out of the box, so I think a win no matter what you do with it.
Joe: It’s so good. It makes just enough of the decisions for me, and I don’t have to worry about a whole lot of things. I’ll certainly link those in the show notes. Now, as we record this, this was a recent decision, we kind of talked about your journey as far as the transformation to choosing your niche goes, but what are your plans for the future? What is six, 12 months down the line look like?
Sara: Yeah. I’m trying not to put too much pressure on it, and say, “Oh, in six months, I want to have thirty clients within this specialized niche.” I have found through that process of the eight months of trying to figure out a specialty that great things don’t necessarily come to me when I force them. I really just want to continue to build content in the future around this niche. I’d like to start writing really good, weekly content and sharing it via Facebook and Instagram. I think it will be very sharable within the industry with other people sharing it out. I think that that is really going to be my main driver of outreach, is content, and I might even consider some low budget Facebook ads just to get the content into the right hands and in front of the right people.
I’m also actually starting on a couple projects that I’m doing for friends of mine within the industry that I’m doing for free. I recorded a video about this, this week, that it doesn’t sound very fun to do free work, but in this case, I think it’s really necessary.
I want to build up some really good case studies and have those on my website showing some significant ranking improvement, and also so that the friends I have, if I do a great job for them, I’d love for them to spread the word. The future to me looks like content building, authority building, and friendship building within the industry. I’m happy to report just from getting the word out there that this is the kind of work I was interested in. I actually got a referral from another person who does SEO. Said, “I have a client, I think, would be good for you, and I’d like to make an introduction.” I have already booked work within this specialized industry just by hanging my shingle here and talking about it.
Joe: Man, that’s great. That’s the due to the network that you’ve built up before this. Being so open and creating really good content about it. I love that. You mentioned that doing free work doesn’t sound great, and it’s something that a lot of freelancers might rally against, but when I want to learn a new skill as a programmer, it’s pretty easy for me to just, if I want to learn view, I’ll just write a simple view app. I actually have an app that I iterate on every time I want to learn a new skill. You can’t really do that with SEO, right? Because you’re just talking to yourself about, “Hey, what do I think a wedding planner or a photographer for weddings wants, how do I prove that it’s going to rank better?” You need to do real tangible stuff to get real tangible results.
Sara: Yes. The problem with SEO, and this might be a separate discussion, but there’s so many people that have done a bad job and made a bad name, so I really need some positive case studies behind it.
Joe: Yeah. I mean that’s absolutely true. SEO does get a bad name because everybody says they can do it. “Oh, just give me $5,000 a month and I’ll make sure you’re number one in Google.” You absolutely do need good testimonials, and you need results. “This website started here, after I was done with it, it’s now up here. After X amount of time,” and things like that. Being as open and honest as you can, especially with SEO, and in our field is very helpful, because people view us as just, “Well I’m going to tell you to do something, and then you’re going to sit in a room and do it, and then it’ll be done.” But there’s a lot of communication that needs to go on.
Sara: Yes, you’re absolutely right.
Joe: Cool. I’m going to end with my favorite question, which is do you have any trade secrets for us?
Sara: It’s funny. I don’t really have a lot of secrets given that I have been making a, what I hope is an open and honest transparent video every single week for about eight months. I will say that I hope that I will discover more secrets through the process of specializing my web agency. I had desperately hoped that I was going to come up with some sort of process that would make this easier for other people, because this decision to specialize a niche down in services is such a scary choice. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to do this, and hopefully I’m going to come up with this formula that other people can follow to find the right niche.” That totally didn’t happen. It totally just fell in my lap due to one relationship that I had, and one situation I encountered, and no amount of analysis or research got me to the right place. No trade secrets. I’m not sure there are any, but I will continue to share openly about how this goes, and anything that I determine might be a best practice in the future.
Joe: That’s great. That is different from any other trade secrets that I’ve gotten on the show, so I love that. I will say that while there are no secrets, I think the big takeaway is keep your options open and have conversations with people. Because that’s how a lot happen.
Sara: Yes. Outside of the web design industry also. If you just hang out and talk to people in WordPress and ask them what they think, they might not always have the answers. I was actually at a women’s business conference when I met this person, put this all into motion for me. If I hadn’t been having those interactions across industries, I might not be here yet. Yeah, just get out there and talk to people and make relationships as much as you can.
Joe: Man, that is … See, I don’t know who I’m looking at. That’s a great trade secret right there. Get out of the industry, out of the echo chamber. Sara, thank you so much for joining me today. Where can people find you?
Sara: Thanks for having me, Joe. I share all of this on my personal blog. That’d probably be the best place to go if you’re interested in specializing information, and that’s Sara-dunn.com. I’d love to connect with any of your listeners on Twitter, and my handle there is Sara11D. If anybody’s in Instagram, that’s my favorite place to hang out, so I’m there at SaraDunn11.
Outro: Thanks again to Sara for joining me! She’s fantastic to talk to and offers lots of great information. A transparent process can be SO helpful to new freelancers and agency owners.
And Thanks again to our sponsors – make sure to check out Liquid Web for managed WordPress hosting. I use them on all of my important sites – they are that good! They are at buildpodcast.net/liquid. They’ll give you 50% off your first 2 months just for being a listener! If you want to save your clients (or yourself) money through recovering abandoned carts, check out jilt. They are over at buildpodcast.net/jilt. And finally, if you want to build incredible websites at a fraction of the time and cost, check out Beaver Builder. I use it and I love it. They are over at buildpodcast.net/builder/
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Continuing our series next week, I’m talking to Rian Kinney about the legal side of starting a business – specifically copyright and trademark. I heard her on Office Hours speaking about contracts and really wanted to get her on the show. It’s been one of the most educational interviews for me, so be sure to tune in! And until next time, Get out there and build something!