I write this as the first full calendar year of Career Gappers draws to a close. In many ways it’s been a brilliant 12 months for our startup blogging business. If I’m honest, when we started this journey, I thought we would have achieved more by now. But by aiming high from the very beginning and committing to our vision, we’ve been able to establish a firm foundation at a time when blogging is becoming ever-more competitive.
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The end of the year comes at a significant time for this blog. For much of this final quarter, we’ve been working behind the scenes on a major site restructure and redesign. It’s all set for launch in January, and this will give us a new platform to propel the business to greater heights in 2020. More on this below, but first – as always – let’s take a look at the highlights of the last three months:
- From October to December we made $1,245 in affiliate commission, a 12.4% increase on the previous quarter
- We completed and published our ultimate guide to taking a travel career break – the culmination of 18 months of content creation
- We have been accepted onto the Ezoic advertising network
- Our website traffic has bounced back after we were hit by Google’s big algorithm updates
- We are in discussions with several potential 2020 brand partners after making connections at WTM London
- Our domain authority has maintained steadily, fluctuating between 32 and 34
Unfortunately, though, there isn’t an Antarctica trip to tell you about. At the end of our last report I mentioned I was applying to AirBNB’s sabbatical programme. Sadly, but quite predictably, I wasn’t one of the lucky five people to be selected from a field of 140,000 applicants.
Ah well, you can’t win ’em all, and there’s plenty of good news to talk about. But before we get stuck into the details of what we’ve been doing recently, I’d like to take a quick step back…
Reflecting on our progress in 2019
The year’s end is the perfect chance to look back on our overall journey and evaluate. Blogging is hectic, challenging, fast-paced, fun, and no two days are the same. It’s easy to get lost in the moment for days and weeks on end, and forget the bigger picture.
If we take a snapshot of where we were at the beginning of 2019 and where we are now, we can see how far we’ve come. There’s so much I could say about what’s happened during the year, so to keep it simple I’ll distill it into what I believe are our three biggest achievements:
1. We are now making a steady, growing income
Monetising this blog has been our single biggest challenge of 2019. We were always confident about creating good content and growing our audience – that’s what Lisa and I have both done professionally for years. But neither of us are experienced in business development.
It was little surprise, then, that come the end of June 2019 – nearly a year after we had launched the site – we found ourselves with a blog that was comfortably cracking over 10,000 monthly page views, but struggling to make any money.
Back in November 2018’s report I discussed the early challenges we were facing with monetisation, in particular affiliate marketing. It has taken us a long time to crack this nut. We still haven’t mastered it, not by a long way – but we’re finally getting on top of it.
In those first six months of 2019, we made just $135.62 in affiliate commission. In the second half of the year, we’ve made $2,352.84 in affiliate commission. More than fifteen times higher!
This puts us in a position where the blog is now performing consistently better than break-even on a monthly basis, which isn’t bad for an 18-month-old business. We’re on course to post a profit for the tax year April 2019 – March 2020. Not quite what we dreamed about when we started the business, but we’ll take it. And it’s exciting to think where we’ll be in another year’s time if we can repeat this growth.
Later in this report I talk about our affiliate growth in a bit more detail. But I believe the foundation of this success is learning. I’ve dedicated a lot of time to developing my understanding of affiliate marketing, mainly through Adventure In You’s Blogging Fast Lane course, which has been invaluable. So a big thank you to Tom and Anna for helping us in our journey.
2. We’ve established a presence in a growing niche
Our oldest followers may remember that when we started this business journey, the blog was called Story Every Day. It was the legacy of a hobby blog that I created to document our travel career break in 2017/18.
But after making the decision to turn it into a profession, we dedicated time to creating a business plan and reimagining the blog’s brand and purpose. Looking back, this was an absolutely vital step and I am so glad we did it.
There are three factors that have made the travel career break niche work for us. First, it’s a growing trend. A whole host of evidence suggests that travel sabbaticals are on the rise, especially among the millennial generation. Heck, even Ed Sheeran is doing it.
Second, it’s not as saturated as most travel niches. There is a fairly limited pool of resources out there to help people take travel career breaks – so there’s plenty of room for a startup like ours.
Thirdly – and most importantly – it’s something we are intensely passionate about. Taking a travel career break transformed our lives. We believe in the power of time out – we want to spread a positive message about it and help more people do it. And no business can be truly successful without passion.
Throughout 2019 we worked hard to establish ourselves as an authority on travel career breaks. We’ve been featured on the likes of BBC Radio, MSN, BootsnAll, Inspirato Magazine and the Matador Network, among others. It took just eight months from launch for our website’s domain authority to reach 30, which is great going. From January to October our website traffic nearly trebled. At the WTM London 2019 conference in November, people seemed enthused to talk to us about it, much more so than the previous year.
All of this gives us a fantastic platform to grow our business and prosper in 2020.
3. We’ve developed a much more positive lifestyle
Building a blogging business is much more about lifestyle than money for us. It will be hard (but not impossible!) for us to make more from it than we were in our corporate communications jobs in London. Eventually, though, we hope it will give us the freedom to work completely for ourselves, and to explore the world as much or as little as we like.
Looking back to the beginning of 2019, our situation wasn’t great. We were living in a cramped shared flat in East London. Our living costs were becoming difficult to manage on only one full-time income. We didn’t have our own space, nor did we have much financial freedom to enjoy the benefits of being in a great city.
Added into this mix, we were both working far too many hours. I was typically blogging from early morning well into the evening on a daily basis, mostly working in our bedroom. It’s not healthy to work and sleep in the same space! Lisa was doing a full-time job and then chipping in on the blog most mornings and at weekends. This was not sustainable.
We decided to take a major leap and move to Lincoln, where Lisa grew up and where her family still lives. This has been an absolute breath of fresh air for us. Sure, we miss some things about living in a big city. But in Lincoln we have our own flat for half the cost of sharing one in London. We’re close to family and old friends. And Lincoln’s a pretty cool little city.
The 90 minute rule
Since moving, we’ve also taken measures to address our work–life balance. Lisa is focusing more on her new job, and working on the blog at more strategic intervals. Meanwhile, I’ve found a great routine that has helped me to be more productive while working fewer hours.
Back in June, our friends Greg and Bernie came to stay with us and chat business (they are also starting one). They have a fascination for the science of productivity, and they told us about the ’90 minute rule’. Apparently, 90 minutes is the optimal amount of time to work in a single session before your concentration, and thus your productivity, starts to drop. On this basis, they suggested I try organising my working day into four slots of 90 minutes, with long breaks in between.
My first thought was “that’s only six hours of work a day!”. But I tried it – and it worked. Instantly and spectacularly. I’ve been doing it ever since. The 90 minute rule has enabled me to cut down my working hours from about 10–12 hours a day to just six. In doing so, I am actually more productive than I was before, and I have more time to spend on other things. Lisa and I have far more time for each other now, and our relationship and lives are much healthier as a result.
Reflecting on our progress in 2019, developing a more positive lifestyle feels like the most important achievement of all.
So… what have we been up to in the last three months?
A new website in the making
As I indicated at the beginning of this report, big changes are coming soon for Career Gappers. For the last few weeks, we have been working hard on preparations to migrate the blog to a self-hosted platform, and implement a new design and structure.
On Black Friday weekend, at the end of November, we splurged on some deals to prepare us for the move. After careful consideration, we signed up for three years of hosting on Siteground and bought a new WordPress theme. We also bought Make Traffic Happen’s new e-book on speed optimisation having had great results from their other resources.
Alongside this work, we also tried out a different email marketing platform with a view to saving on some costs, but eventually decided to stick with ConvertKit. We are planning to make email marketing a core part of the business in 2020, and so we figured it wouldn’t be wise to compromise on key features just to save a few pennies.
Moving and redesigning a website is a daunting undertaking. When I worked in communications management for a big organisation, there were always people I could ask for help with anything tech- or design-related. That isn’t so easy when you’re running a small, independent business with limited funds.
We thought long and hard about whether to bring in some external help for the move. We explored options for outsourcing, and spoke with some developers who could take on the job. Ultimately, though, we have decided to have a crack at it ourselves. So in January, Lisa has booked time off her day job, and we will attempt to customise the new design theme ourselves.
This will no doubt be another big learning curve. But hopefully, we will come out with a great new website and another new set of skills. We will also have much better knowledge of our own setup and won’t need to rely on costly external support. And if it doesn’t work out, we can always revert to outsourcing.
If everything goes smoothly, you will see a new-look Career Gappers by the end of the month.
Our ultimate career break guide is complete!
For the last few months, as I detailed in our previous two business reports, we have focused our writing on three major pieces of ‘cornerstone’ content. In summer, we built up our portfolio on two focus destinations: Peru and Patagonia. Towards the end of the year, we switched our attention to our core raison d’être: taking a travel career break.
Over the course of several weeks, we made significant improvements to old articles and wrote new ones that filled in the gaps of a typical career break journey. This culminated in launching our ultimate guide to taking a travel career break just a few days before Christmas.
We are now working this content into a refreshed email marketing setup, and we expect it to form the basis for our business growth in 2020.
Website traffic challenges
Just as we managed to finally get the ball rolling with income generation, we’ve encountered some difficulties with something that had been our rock: website traffic. After achieving continuous growth for so long, it was inevitable that we would hit a bump eventually.
The biggest challenge has come from Google algorithm updates. Big changes in September and November hit bloggers across the spectrum, and we were caught up in an industry-wide downturn:
This has meant we have fallen well short of our final quarter target of 15,000 monthly sessions. We did climb above 13,000 in October, but with the combination of Google updates and seasonality, November was tough.
In December, things started to pick up again. We began to see the fruits of our summer content development, with our updated articles on Patagonia and Peru performing well. A flourish after Christmas – as people start planning next year’s travels – has given us a real boost, and we head into 2020 back on a growth curve.
Our takeaway from this is that there will always be external factors out of our control, and we shouldn’t panic when they impact us in a negative way. It’s the nature of business that when you overcome a barrier, another one comes along.
I read some wise words by a blogger who has been doing this professionally for nearly a decade. She explained that traffic dips are common and unavoidable. The trick is to stay focused, evaluate the problem and do whatever you can to address it. Thankfully there is an ocean of resources out there to help us do that.
In the final quarter of 2019 we consolidated the progress we made with income generation in the third quarter, and continued to make steady affiliate commission, despite lower website traffic.
We didn’t make our target of $2,000 for the quarter, which was based on continued traffic growth. But we’re happy with the situation and we are well positioned to grow in the new year. Meanwhile, we’ve made progress with opening up revenue streams in other areas. Let’s take a look…
Finding our footing with affiliates
Earlier this year, we focused our affiliate marketing efforts on partners with high earning potential, most notably G Adventures for experience packages and World Nomads for travel insurance. These have become the backbone of our affiliate income, with a regular and growing trickle of sales.
Furthermore, in the last three months we have reached payout thresholds on several other platforms, including GetYourGuide, Booking.com, Hostelworld and Amazon. We finished the year on a high, with December nearly breaking our record for monthly affiliate income:
As we move forward, we are continuously evaluating what’s working and what’s not working with affiliates, which is helping to drive up our conversion rates. For example, we have found that deep links are much more effective than banners and widgets. We’re also trying out various new affiliate programmes that are relevant to our brand, such as visa services, travel money cards and long-term travel storage.
This quarter we also tried some specific affiliate promotion around Black Friday deals. This generated about $200 in commission from a single marketing email.
Perhaps the most heartening statistic from this quarter is that although we had lower traffic in December than October, we made nearly twice as much affiliate income. This bodes well for the new year as our traffic grows once again.
Adverts are coming
One of our long-term money goals from the very beginning of this venture has been to generate income from advertising. The first milestone for this, as I have outlined in previous reports, was to qualify for an advertising network. In October we were accepted onto Ezoic after meeting their traffic requirements.
However, eager to press ahead and get some adverts up and running, we hit a problem. We discovered that on WordPress.com’s managed hosting platform, we would have no ability to control the advert placements. This has hastened our efforts to migrate the blog onto a self-hosted platform.
Once we have successfully migrated, we can start making income from Ezoic. We will then monitor progress and decide whether to move to Mediavine once we meet its higher qualification requirements.
Making new connections at WTM London
Brand partnerships have also been a key component of our business plan from the beginning. This has been the toughest income source to get off the ground, but we had some breakthroughs at WTM London in November.
Unlike last year, we arrived at the conference fully prepared, with several meetings arranged and promotional materials in hand. Knowing that our numbers were still not good enough to compete with the industry’s top influencers, we decided to focus our event flyer on our selling point: access to an audience of affluent, long-term travellers. You can see the flyer here.
It was a huge help to be accompanied at the event by my friend and former colleague Greg Tracz as part of our business skill swap. He helped to mentor me through the meetings from a business development perspective, and bring new collaboration ideas to the table.
We felt a genuine wave of interest in what we’re doing with Career Gappers. Several meetings resulted in discussions about paid collaborations and 2020 press trips, and we are in continued dialogue to secure some arrangements.
After one meeting with the Nicaragua tourist board, I was invited to a private opening of the new embassy building in London a few days later. This led to new connections with other tourist boards in Central America, and we’re now planning further meetings to discuss possible 2020 campaigns.
This not only gives us some positive leads with a potential for paid partnerships, but also a great deal of confidence as we prepare for the TBEX Europe conference in Sicily in March.
Income/expenditure in October–December
The income we have generated in these last few months of the year is being mostly reinvested back into the business. We figure that’s the right approach to grow in the long term.
Affiliate sales provided our only source of income in the final quarter of 2019, with $1,245.13 commission in total during the period. In the next quarter, we aim to bolster this with advertising income and some brand partnerships.
November was a particularly expensive month. The combination of WTM London and Black Friday investments made it one of our highest months of outgoings to date. This is how our expenditure for the full quarter breaks down:
- Regular monthly costs:
- Photoshop monthly subscriptions: £29.94
- ConvertKit monthly subscriptions: £67.65
- Phone bills: £119.91
- Gadget insurance payments: £41.97
- Non-sterling transaction fees: £2.83
- Long-term subscriptions:
- Siteground hosting for three years: £287.86
- Marketing and events:
- Promotional materials for WTM London: £29.99
- Expenses during WTM London (food, transport, accommodation, sundries): £82.87
- Transport and luggage storage for Nicaragua Embassy event: £58
- Additional investment/costs:
- Make Traffic Happen book on website speed optimisation: £41.93
- New design theme for website: £38.21
- TOTAL: £801.16 / $1,055.23
This leaves us slightly in profit for the period. Furthermore, the longer-term investments such as three-year hosting and tools to manage our own speed optimisation will keep our costs lower in future.
Priorities and targets for January–March 2020
We embark on the new year with new hopes and ambitions. The first big hurdle is to complete our site migration and redesign, and launch it in January. Following this, we are setting the following targets for the first quarter of the year:
- $2,500 total income
- 20,000 monthly sessions
- 1,000 email subscribers (double our current amount)
Our relaunched site will place a much bigger emphasis on email marketing and building a community of career break travellers. Meanwhile, we are going to have a shot at ConvertKit’s landing page challenge (which is very timely for us!) for some extra motivation.
Looking further ahead
Once the new site is up and running, and we’re happy with our email set-up, we plan to focus more intensively on growing a community. This may take the form of a Facebook or LinkedIn group – we are still assessing our options.
As for content, what next in 2020 now that we’ve completed our initial setup for Peru, Patagonia and travel career breaks?
For one, with our site authority growing, we will begin targeting keywords with much higher traffic potential within these niches. Furthermore, we aim to expand our portfolio and introduce 2–3 more focus destinations, perhaps as the result of some press trip collaborations.
Later in the year we may also look at selling content in e-book format, but that’s a lower priority for now. We’ve got plenty else to keep us focused in the mean time.
It feels like the beginning of a very big year. Let’s hope so.
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