Building a Successful Design Blog and Earning Passive Income

vandelay-design-blog

Interview with Steven Snell of Vandelay Design Blog

Steven Snell is an inspiration to me and many other blogging designers who run businesses. Vandelay Design Blog, which he started with little design experience about 7 years ago, is now one of the best known design blogs and has an Alexa Rank of 6,000. The six thousandth most popular site in the world!

He was born in Pennsylvania and worked full time as an auditor for several years before doing part-time web design work.

Steven has also started another successful design blog DesignM.ag as well as a social media and traffic blog Traffikd, both of which he has now sold. He has also started and subsequently sold five successful niche gallery sites for web designers CartFrenzy, FolioFocus, Minimal Exhibit, TypeInspire and Blog Design Heroes.

He earns passive income on Vandelay Design Blog from advertising and sells e-books, icon sets, and other design products through Vandelay Premier which is also a membership site.

Steven now lives in the Philadelphia suburbs in New Jersey and divides his working day between managing the blog, designing resources for Vandelay Premier, coordinating with other designers who are creating resources for Vandelay Premier and the occasional client project.

Hello Steven, thank you for agreeing to be my first ever interviewee :)

You’re welcome Rob. Thanks for the opportunity.

What initial success did you have that persuaded you to continue blogging as a means to get freelance design work?

The site was up for about 6 months to a year before I started the blog, and then it was about another 3 or 4 months until I really started blogging seriously. At the time I started Vandelay Design I had done a lot of experimenting on my own and had completed a few client projects here and there over the span of a year or two. I had been reading a lot of books and online tutorials and every now and then I would get a client by word of mouth, so I decided to officially start the business on a part-time basis and put together a portfolio website to hopefully attract more clients.

That would have been in 2006 (I think) and I really didn’t even know what a blog was back then. I started reading and learning more about marketing a website (especially social media marketing) and quickly started learning more about blogging. I tried a few different blogging platforms and WordPress seemed to be the easiest and most powerful, so that’s what I used for my own blog. Before I launched the blog I had some articles on static pages on the site with the hope of attracting some search engine traffic, and ultimately clients. I moved those articles over to the blog since it was easier to manage, and that was really my start with blogging.

I would publish new articles here and there over the next couple of months but I still had almost zero traffic. I started experimenting with the things I was learning about social media marketing and it all clicked one day. I think the site literally went from 10 visitors one day to 2,000 the next day (Rob: that took me 6 years :( ). One of the posts that I had created to target social media users took off on a few sites like Dzone and Delicious. Back then social media was a lot different than it is now.

That traffic of course died down over a few days, but I was really inspired and I had a plan that I could duplicate with future posts, so I was able to grow the traffic pretty quickly. I had some success over the next few months with sites like StumbleUpon and Digg. Although that traffic was shortlived it did bring links and over time with consistent work I had some pretty significant traffic numbers and I got requests from potential clients on a regular basis. Actually, it was more than I could handle part-time. For probably about a year before I quit my full-time job I was working 30 – 40 hours per week on the blog, client projects, and I was also doing a lot of writing for other blogs (some was paid and some was done just for some extra promotion).

old-vandelay

The design blogging scene may be more competitive now than it was then. What advice would you give someone wanting to be an independent web designer now?

Yeah, it’s totally different than when I started. Back then Smashing Magazine was still new and it was just Vitaly and Sven. Other design blogs like Blog.Spoongraphics, CSS-Tricks, Six Revisions, and Noupe were started right around that same time. The success of the blogs just mentioned had a lot to do with increasing number of design and development blogs over the next few years, in my opinion.

My advice to someone who is looking to work on their own as a designer is to get started by making money in a few different ways. Client work is obviously the most common method for freelancers to make money, but a lot of designers who are just getting started have a really difficult time finding enough clients.

Some of the other ways to make money using your design skills would include blogging (whether it is your own blog or freelance writing for other design blogs), selling products (PSD files, icons, templates, WordPress themes, etc.), starting some type of personal project website, selling resources at stock marketplaces, and more.

If you’re not able to make enough money to support yourself from client work, or if you want to rely less on clients, there are plenty of options out there. For most designers who are just getting started on their own, diversifying the income streams and making money in a few different ways is a more realistic way to go about it.

I’ve actually written a brief e-book that covers the topic of multiple sources of income for designers, and that e-book is free to anyone who subscribes to the Vandelay Design email newsletter you can unsubscribe at any time. (Rob: download this e-book now!)

vandelay-design-recent

How soon after starting your blog did you start to make passive income from it rather than just using it as a tool to get clients? What started off well for you at first, advertising or selling products?

After about 6 months of active blogging I decided that I enjoyed the blogging more than the actual client work, so I decided to make some changes. Up until that point I had never placed any ads on the site or monetized the blog in any way other than using it to attract some clients. I wanted to continue to dedicate time to the blog, but I wanted to reduce the client work that I was doing, so I needed a way to make up for that lose in income.

At that time I had over 100,000 visitors per month, so I was able to start making some money from selling banner ads. As the blog grew I continued to shift the focus away from client work and more towards the blog and making money with ads. It was probably about 2-3 years after I started selling ads that Vandelay Premier was launched, and that was the first move towards selling products and resources through the site.

I would say the advertising took off faster than product sales, but I already had the traffic to justify the prices to advertisers. It’s much different if you’re trying to sell ads on a new blog that doesn’t have the established traffic. Creating products took a lot of work and months of time before anything was even launched, so it wasn’t a quick process.

The question “how many of you are there?” doesn’t seem appropriate! What do you do to ensure you get everything done and still find time for relaxation? And, maybe tell us about what and how you outsource/delegate some of the work?

There’s only one of me, but I haven’t written for other websites/blogs in quite some time, and client work has been getting more and more limited over the years. I’ve also increased the amount of work that I outsource. For client projects I have always done the design work myself, but on some projects I’ve outsourced coding if time was limited. Over the 2 years of Vandelay Premier‘s existence the amount of resources that have been designed by other people has also increased. I’ve always outsourced some of that work, but as the revenue has continued to grow it has allowed me to outsource more. That helps to free up my time and it also helps our members and customers because they get a better variety of resources. For example, I’m not an icon designer, but Vandelay Premier has a ton of icon sets designed by others.

My biggest keys for efficiency are a daily and a weekly to-do list. It helps me to stay on task and always moving forward. I also like to look a few months into the future, especially with Vandelay Premier. That way I can work on whatever resources I want to release, or I can contact another designer about outsourcing the work to them. Even with managing the blog or deciding whether or not to pursue new projects, looking a few months ahead helps me to prioritize. There are several things I have been wanting to find the time to do for quite a while, in some cases a few years, but they’re just not a priority. I have to fight against spreading myself too thin and my way of doing that is by prioritizing and sticking to only those things that are a priority.

vandelay-premier

You sell lots of products at VanderlayPremier.com (icon sets, e-books, textures, brushes, etc.) Which products are most successful and why do you think that is? Also, you sell the products as individual products and all-in with a six-month membership fee. Do these two methods of selling work well together?

I don’t know that there is any one type of resource or product that is more successful than others at Vandelay Premier. Some texture packs generate more interest, downloads and sales than other texture packs. The same thing is true with brush sets, icon sets, vector sets, etc. But all of the different categories of resources tend to generate a similar amount of interest overall.

Our bundles have done really well, probably because they offer a greater value than the individual products. The Freelance Starter Kit is our most popular product/bundle and I think the reason is that it is pretty unique and it provides a lot of resources that can be invaluable to freelancers. Our other bundles, especially the Premier Texture Bundle, have also done pretty well.

When Vandelay Premier was first launched we only offered the membership model. Just a few months after launching we made the change to also offer products individually and in bundles. I think the different options do compliment each other pretty well. Some people simply don’t want to sign up for a recurring membership payment (even though it can be cancelled at any time). For those people there is no way to buy the products if they are only offered through the membership. By selling them individually the customer has an option. Membership is still by far the best deal, especially now that we have been constantly adding new resources for over two years, but if people just want one resource or if they don’t want to sign up for a recurring membership they aren’t forced into it to get what they want or need. I don’t think it would necessarily work well for every membership website, but in this case I think it was the right move. I’d like to think that membership is the best option for everyone, but it’s better to let customers decide for themselves. One downside is that more options can sometimes cause confusion, so there has to be a focus to try to explain the  options as clearly as possible.

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A lot of the articles you write include many examples of design inspiration (for example, Showcase of Case Studies in Design Portfolios (what a great title!) and Beautiful Hand Drawn Typography both for Smashing Mag). How do you manage to put together these blog posts? To me it seems that it would be incredibly time consuming.

It is very time consuming. A few things helped to make it possible. First, I always keep resources bookmarked and I have a lot of running lists that I keep as I happened to come across interesting websites and resources. In some cases I may have half of the resources I need for a particular blog post already bookmarked before I even start working on the post.

Second, at the time I was working on these posts for Smashing Magazine I was not quite as busy with my own projects, so I had more time for freelance blogging. After my own blog grew and after Vandelay Premier was launched that time was no longer available.

Third, while these posts were time consuming to create, Smashing Magazine always took good care of me and compensated me pretty well for my time. Since freelance blogging accounted for a significant part of my income for six months or a year it was not that difficult to set aside plenty of time for it.

vandelay-design

And, lastly, say someone has been blogging for a few years and has seen some success in terms of getting clients and running a business, what advice would you give them going forward?

If they’ve already had some success I’m not sure that they would really need my advice, but if they want it, I would advise them to think about the future and what they want out of their career as a designer. Blogging can be a great way to get potential clients to notice you, it can be great for networking with other designers and developers, it can even allow you to make some money in other ways than working for clients, but it’s not for everyone. And likewise, client work isn’t ideal for everyone. I know plenty of talented designers who have chosen to spend more time on their own projects and less on client projects.

So my advice is to think about what type of work you enjoy doing, and think about how you can use the blog to help you in that way. If client work is what you want and the blog is helping to do that, just keep going with what you are doing. If you’d rather work on writing an e-book or a training course for other designers, maybe you should use your blog to start collecting email address through a newsletter. You could then use that mailing list to help sell your product or course when it is ready. If you’d like to start designing resources to sell to other designers, use a simple e-commerce system like E-Junkie or DPD to allow you to start selling those products right from your blog. 

A blog can help you to make money in so many different ways, you just need to know what you want to do and then adjust your blog to help get you there.

Thank you very much, Steven, for all your time. I hugely appreciate it.

Thanks Rob.

What you can do!

After that marathon interview, what can we do? If my interaction with Steven Snell taught me anything, it taught me two things.

  1. Organisation. He is extremely organised and does everything properly. I sent him these questions one day, he wrote back to say it may take him a while to do and then I received them within a couple of days. I was extremely grateful and impressed! The other thing I think is really pertinent about Steven is that he has daily and weekly to do lists. I’m going to follow suit.
  2. Persistence. You never get anywhere without some hard graft. I think he glossed over his work with the social media channels in the early days. I was doing this too. But apart from a few StumbleUpon big hits I found the traffic didn’t really stick so I gave up on those channels. Steven must have kept at it until he learned what works with the large social sharing sites.

So, if this interview has inspired you as much as it inspired me, the best thing you can do is to download his e-book as it is one of the best free resources out there that’ll help you find new and profitable income streams.

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Comments

  1. says

    Many thanks Rob That was a really easy read. Steven is succinct and you can tell an organised thinker. I just wonder how much room there is for new web designer bloggers today . Persistence is essential, but the realist/statistician in me asks how high are the odds against now?

    That said, only today I was searching on eCommerce solutions for WordPress and realised there is a blog waiting to be written there.

    • says

      Hello, David. I agree that Steven seems succinct and switched on. However, I think it is possible to start something from scratch now – I’m just about to find out, actually!

      Yes, eCommerce solutions for WP is a great topic but it would take you a good long time to try them all out properly!

      • says

        Sounds interesting Rob, are you able to expand on this yet? In my youthier youth I was one of those musicians of post punk generation. Anyone could form a band and they surely did. It was an innovative time for music as it now is for design. Also a time of endless copy and broken dreams. Quite a challenge for new web-designing blogger now, but I’d say plenty of room for new ideas.

        Yeah, I’m not up for that, but I will probably be doing an eCommerce rebuild with a rapidly growing WP plugin and there is a serious lack of resources. Might even be tempted to start publicly blogging if I have to create my own additional solutions along the way.

        Hanging out with the big guys now. Might have to start calling you Mr. Cubbon.

        • says

          Ever since starting this site in 2005/6 I’ve tried numerous other sites and pretty much all have been failures. So starting a new one is probably a bad idea. I’ll tell you about it as soon as I have something interesting to say but at the moment I’m keeping it secret. OMG, now I sound like an internet marketer! But really, I’ve made the mistake of announcing new projects too early in the past, especially when they’re nothing to do with this niche – as this one is.

          I’m certainly not a big boy nor hanging out with them! :)

          Anything you can add about e-commerce solutions with WordPress would be gratefully received by the community.

          • says

            That made me laugh! Very wise, I’m too much of a blabber mouth – surprised I get anything done.

            Failures are brilliant – you can’t have proper success without them.

    • says

      Hi David,
      It’s definitely much more difficult to stand out as a design blogger now than it was five years ago. Not just the fact that there are thousands more design blogs now than there were back then, but also the social media sites that were popular back then made it easier to grow traffic quickly, in my opinion (sites like Digg and Delicious).

      I think there are still plenty of opportunities, but a one-author general design blog will have a lot of obstacles to overcome if the goal is to make a full-time income. Finding a unique angle or specializing rather than just being a general design blog can help.

      I think your idea of a WordPress e-commerce blog is a good idea for that reason, but I would be concerned about a few things with that topic. First, although there are a lot of plugins, themes, and potential topics, I would be concerned about running out of enough good topics and also the motivation to keep posting on the topic. If it’s not a blog that you plan to post on very frequently that would be a different story and probably not as big of a concern.

      Second, I would also be concerned about being able to retain readers. I would think most readers would visit once when they are looking for some guidance with setting up an e-commerce site on WordPress, but after they find what they are looking for, will they come back? There are obviously a lot of WordPress designers/developers, so that would probably be the target audience instead of end users, but I’m not sure if most of those designers/developers would be interested in constantly following a blog on the topic, or if they would prefer to just visit occasionally whenever they need some information.

  2. says

    Thanks Steve, I really appreciate your points and agree. I only dabble in web design and after making a few sites I stumbled into making a small business eCommerce one 18 months ago.

    Magento probably has great resources for SME’s who manage their eCommerce sites, but WordPress lacked a user friendly, open source plug-in that does not mess with WP’s admin. In only months the (controversial) Woo eCommerce plug-in looks to be creating a successful spin off market of add-ons and recently the Genesis framework accommodated it. It could be the “Emperors new clothes” as I’ve waited for a eCommerce framework for WordPress that will be what WordPress has been for bloggers/CMS users. Has it arrived?

    My thoughts are with other SME’s coming in to eCommerce who can’t afford the ongoing support of a web designer. Certainly if my experience is typical I would say the real design issues appear long after the site is live:

    1. Products and their positioning end up needing to be adjusted to seasons and changing successes and failures of SEO efforts.

    2. Cart abandonment issues seem largely academic until the site is live. Additionally the market place for payment processing is developing.

    3 Panda appears and hits eCommerce for too much thin and duplicate content

    4. That much linked to product goes out of stock. You don’t want to 404 it and need a design solution.

    There seems plenty of ongoing and interesting issues to blog about, but not a shared platform to join together a community of small eCommerce businesses facing the same issues. I think being up against the big companies who measure and tweak every element of their site, SME’s might stay loyal to a blog that showed how to implement similar on a budget.

    Anyway, that let the cat out of the bag! Rob, I’ll cross internet marketer of my list of possible career options. And Geez, that went from a flippant remark to me convicting myself to be a serious blogger (maybe)

    Belated thanks also Steve for the many times I headed over to your site and just took what I needed without a comment and of course for the inspiration.

    • says

      Well, David, you seem to know a lot more about the e-commerce options on WordPress than I do. All I know that the regular discussions on them in the WordPress LinkedIn group invariably end up in arguments. There never seems to be a clear winner but then all e-commerce sites are different. I’m waiting for the standout option – is it WooCommerce?

      Anyway, if you want to write a blog about it go for it. I initially agreed with Steven, it seemed like a bit of a tall order. Or, you could write about it on http://artcove.co.uk ?

      Let the cat out of the bag? That would be telling! It’s going to be in the personal development niche. That’s all I’m saying for now!

      • says

        No, I let my cat out of the bag. Actually I’m very sorry for putting it there in the first place – you seem very fond of them, but nice to extract more info from you.

        Yes, you are right WooCommerce. I’ve been waiting like you and still have to put it through it’s paces. One compromise already seems to be with how it writes “product” in to URL’s. It is a folk of Jigoshop (the controversy is in that).

        Really, I’m just catching up out of necessity. I may be doing another eCommerce site so I really need to get the platform right and we have hit blocks with the present one.

  3. says

    Hi David,
    Initially I thought you were talking about only covering topics related to e-commerce specifically with WordPress, but from you latest comment it sounds like you would also cover topics relevant to e-commerce in general, and not necessarily specific to WordPress. In that case, I’m sure that you would have more than enough topics to cover.

    • says

      Thanks for popping by and commenting Steven. I initially agreed with you that a blog about WP e-commerce solutions would be tall order.

      It’s a shame you think that it’s more difficult to stand out as a design blogger now than it was five years ago. I’d hoped that great content, great support from the community, social, links, etc. would eventually create a successful blog.

      It depends how you define “successful” and you, of course, need to work hard over a period of time. I guess there is more competition now and Google tends to put more stock in authority these days which doesn’t favor new blogs.

      It’s an interesting debate.

      • says

        Interesting too what hooks folks into supporting. I’m a bit pessimistic on the chances for a new general design blog, but will say I think personality plays just as much a role as the content.

        Funny, I’ve just become conscious that I tend to come back more to blogs by fellow Brits. Tip for anyone wanting to pull in the Brits – have a bitch about the dreadful weather. A guaranteed bookmark right there!

        • says

          It’s funny I’m completely different. I’ve always been struck at how few blogs I like written by Brits (there are a few notable exceptions) and how many I like from, not only the US (that’s to be expected) but from Australia (amazing, considering their low population).

          I’ve also tried to make this an international blog. I use US English (badly) and sometimes the visitors from the UK are overtaken by visitors from India (they can’t all be you!) USA sends the most visitors.

  4. says

    Hi Steve,

    Sort of! In my fantasy blog I’m writing and screen-casting the rebuilding of an eCommerce site using WordPress and some plugins. An on-going blog exposing a real small business competing using WordPress.

    Right now I’m questioning whether WordPress is up to the job long term. For example the WP community must have written thousand posts on how to speed up WordPress with caching, but try finding an easy solution for a shopping cart. Can WordPress be made to handle lots of products, with a blog and also give good business reporting? I hope so.