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Matty Bates • Published: October 27, 2022
Confucius once said “apply a winner’s mindset to every step of your journey, be the best at whatever it is you do - however lowly your craft might be - and one day, you will own a digital marketing agency worth shit loads of cheddar”
I mean, he probably said something similar. If unlike me, you can be bothered to sift through a pile of Confucius quotes looking for the most pertinent statement, you will eventually find something that fits a point I was looking to make about the subject of this article, Neil Patel.
Let's start with some interesting numbers and stats of NP Digital:
I wanted to open with a pithy quote about a winner’s attitude. About positive thinking in difficult circumstances. Something about an underdog, maybe. Because looking at Neil Patel’s early career, that seems to have been his approach. He treated every crappy job as though he was finding the cure for cancer, with unbound enthusiasm and energy.
I figured an awe-inspiring quote from an ancient pointy-beard Chinese guru would serve that purpose well. I couldn’t find one, because Confucius said thousands of notable things, and I don’t have the time or inclination to read them all. I have more important information to research online, like bear vs crocodile who would win in a fight and what’s the best way to eat a Big Mac. I am easily distracted.
Let’s assume Confucius said something similar to my opening line, because either way – it’s a very reasonable, astute point, and I am sure you will agree. Whatever it is you do, try and be the best at it, always imagine yourself doing something better, and always be working to that next step.
You might be asking yourself what point I am trying to make in this already quite rambling opening monologue. Well, obviously, I am talking about Kirby vacuum cleaners. Duh. Come on people…Try and keep up.
For the uninitiated, Kirby vacuum cleaners are pretty much like any other vacuum cleaner. Press a button, and it sucks dirt out of your carpet. There is a shampoo option on most of them. End of description, that's all you need to know.
But the difference between Kirby vacuum cleaners and others is in how they are sold; by door-to-door salespeople who very gently knock on your door, then very aggressively launch into a sales pitch.
The premise is simple. Unsolicited, you approach a home and ring the doorbell, smile warmly, and announce your presence as the best thing that has ever happened to that person in their whole life. You ask if you can demo this amazing vacuum. Then, after cleaning a small patch of carpet whilst energetically rabbiting away about features and benefits, you try and close.
And it's a tough close, because these hulking masses of plastic, metal, and tubes, cost around $1500 a pop, and remember, this is a cold pitch.
If they say no – and of course, they always do – you just keep selling, and keep selling, and keep selling, until they are on their knees begging you to leave, before losing their minds and physically pushing you out of the front door. Or launching you out of the window. Occasionally you might get murdered.
As a budding 17-year-old salesperson, I myself embarked on a career selling Kirby vacuums. After attending a conference for wannabe sales killers, I was approached by a Kirby sales manager who offered me a job. For job, read commission only sales agent.
I was utterly convinced I would make fortunes selling these things, so I invested in a suit, a loud green shirt, and an awful pink tie, presumably to match the green Lamborghini I would almost certainly purchase, very soon. I looked like a seventies pimp, but unlike most reputable pimps, I didn't own a car. I owned a BMX bike.
And so I would peddle around various neighborhoods, wearing my cheap double-breasted suit and green shirt, with a massive vacuum cleaner poking out of my small backpack.
You might imagine how insane that must have looked but to my mind, I genuinely believed I looked like a consummate professional. I stood in front of my bathroom mirror each morning, repeating a mantra over and over about being really amazing while constantly winking at myself and saying things like yeh baby, you got this, you are a winner baby, a winner.
One incident, in particular, made me feel like the exact opposite of a winner when a passing delivery driver threw an empty can of red bull at me - connecting squarely with my forehead - causing me to see stars and crash my BMX into a flowerbed. An old lady appeared instantly, almost as though she was expecting the arrival of a poorly dressed, BMX-riding vacuum salesman, and shouted at me. Something about her rhododendrons.
Already that morning I had been tricked into vacuuming both floors of someone's entire house, under the ploy of great demo, can you show me again….and again….and again, so the Red Bull incident was the straw that broke the camel's back. I had enough.
I quit and sold the vacuum to a pawnbroker for $30, buying a video game and a massive pizza with my ill-gotten gains. I was just about to crack the first level of Sonic the Hedgehog when the police turned up and ruined my enjoyment. It's funny how at 17, you have very little grasp of consequences, isn't it?
For the only time in my life, I was arrested and spent a day in jail, appearing in magistrates court to face the music. With a squeaky clean record, I was let off with a warning. The red bull/hedge story drew sympathy from the judge. The whole courtroom laughed at that bit.
After stumbling around in sales jobs for a couple of years, full of potential but unsure how to monetize it, I eventually found my way in life, and everything worked out very well. I didn't quite smash it out of the park though. My career, I mean. At least, not in the same way that my fellow Kirby salesperson, Neil Patel, has smashed it out of the park.
To say he has achieved success would be something of an understatement. For a time and at a young age, he also sold Kirbys. Now, at the ripe old age of 37, he could probably buy the company. In my opinion, he has Kirby to thank, at least partially, for his current success.
In a very long-winded way, I am coming to my point, and it is this; anyone who spends their late teens ambitiously selling Kirby vacuum cleaners, when they should be at college getting a degree, might have chosen a less favorable path in life.
The harsh dog-eat-dog world of aggressive, cold, commission-only sales roles vs the safe bet of a college degree are two very different paths.
But if you can combine both - you could be onto something.
Because these crappy sales jobs - and let's just be honest and call them what they are - sometimes act as a formative casting for greatness by providing a natural, organic, almost default lesson in the key principles of marketing and the psychology of sales.
You are not convinced, I know. Hear me out.
If you have the tenacity, audacity, and creative prose to cold pitch $1500 vacuum cleaners, door-to-door, you can sell anything. It teaches you something that no sales course can. Through gutter-level cold-pitch sales roles, you develop a sixth sense of persuasion. An ability to say the right things, at the right time, with the appropriate emotion. An intuition that is hard to explain. Through thousands of brutal rejections, you grow a thick skin and try different techniques. You learn how to read people.
It's no coincidence that after a few years of working those kinds of sales jobs, Neil Patel eventually found huge success in marketing. And it didn't take him long, either. Barely a handful of years after selling vacuum cleaners, Neil owned a marketing agency worth a few million bucks. Present day, he has a string of marketing endeavors through various companies with a net worth of $30 million. But how?
And now I think about it, do you even know who he is? The Wall Street Journal considered him as one of the world's top influencers - not in the fake Instagram way but a more earthly business sense. Forbes judged his company as one of the 100 most brilliant companies in the world. President Obama even chimed in, singing his entrepreneurial praises.
Neil is a digital marketer, entrepreneur, and blogger. And he is very good at it. One of the best, probably. If you are involved with SEO or any form of online marketing, I am certain you will know of him. But for those who don't, I will provide a synopsis.
Neil Patel was born in London UK, in 1985. At the age of two, he abandoned the UK in favor of Orange Country, USA. Not on his own, I should point out. I imagine his parents were involved in the migration in some way.
In high school, he developed a flair for SEO and began plying his services by word of mouth. I won't use the term side hustle because it was something more than that. He had a gift for SEO, the patience and studiousness to learn more about it, and became very good. As a student, he offered consultancy services and saved his pennies. Bright kid, in other words.
With an entrepreneurial itch that needed scratching, he hustled; selling CDs door to door, automotive parts through listings, TV black box sets, and various other sales-based rolls. Then came Kirby, and for a few months, he knocked on doors and pitched prospects, trying his best to convince suburbanites that they needed a $1500 vacuum cleaner in their lives.
In one of his blog posts, he reports with a defeated tone of just one solitary vacuum sale in his Kirby career, but I don't think he should be too hard on himself for that stat - because that is one more sale than I managed, in twice the time. That's correct - you will be disappointed to learn I did not purchase a Lamborghini. During this time, he also enrolled in a local college.
That period of cold sales installed something in Neil. He might not have realized it at the time, but he was now armed with a core skill that lends itself to success, in many ways.
Most businesses, in one way or another, require a reasonable understanding of sales and marketing, and through the trench warfare that is cold pitching and door-to-door sales, he was now intuitively armed. He was ready for a scrap. Time though, to move on to better things. He decided on pursuing a career in digital marketing.
At 16, he launched the job board and career platform, Advice Monkey. The website gained traction and had potential, but without the marketing know-how to take it to the next step, he hired a marketing agency, which quickly blasted through Neils's savings without delivering much in return.
A mid-sized marketing firm low in morals will sniff out an ambitious kid with a few thousand bucks a mile away, like a hunter sniffing out a deer. Or is it the other way around? You get the point, I am sure.
Frustrated by this experience, he enrolled in college courses to learn the basics of marketing. Using these new skills, he made a real go of Advice Monkey, managing 100K unique hits per month.
Logistics proved to be the downfall of the project, however. He wasn't able to set up card payments for example and remember, he was just 16. Eventually, he abandoned the project and explored various other business options.
At college, he delivered a 'Search Engine 101' type speech and impressed classmates, one of whom owned a company called Elpac, hiring Neil to run his internet marketing strategy. Through the sales skills he had developed, he managed to upsell and lock down the client on a monthly retainer. His first big win.
The thing is, he had landed a few SEO customers at high school on a small scale, but this was different. This was a contractually signed client with a monthly retainer. This, it transpires, would be the first of many because, with that one customer, a seed was planted, and he had an idea.
“I should probably do this for a living.”
So he did. Together with a business partner, he created Advantage Consulting Services, a digital marketing company. He hadn't, as yet, developed a flare for dreaming up catchy company names, it would appear.
Through word of mouth, they landed a few more clients on retainer, some of whom paid quite healthy monthly fees. The brand started to develop, with Neil closing and upselling most leads, nailing down pretty much everything that came his way.
This is a case study and not an opinion piece, but I feel strongly about this and want to drive home my point about those early formative years going door to door, and how the experience cast a particular mold. I think It is more than reasonable to assume Neil was successfully closing and upselling for his new business, owing to the skills he developed as a salesman - slogging it out in the trenches with Kirby vacuum cleaners and other projects.
The same could be said of his marketing abilities, to a degree. The technical aspects can be studied and acquired through practice. But there is an intuition one acquires through cold and fast sales at a young age.
When creating a client advert, for example, you have a particular sense of how the ad might be perceived outside of the usual parameters. The basic tenets of copy can also be studied by reading books or taking courses. But you develop a flow, an engagement, a sense, that comes from the world of cold sales; a gut feeling of how to resonate, connect and relate.
ACS made a lot of money, which Neil used to invest in other businesses, many of which failed - including $1 million into a hosting company that didn't take off. Deciding investments wasn't his game, he pushed forward with a fixed vision of becoming a big player in the internet marketing space.
Lesson learned. There is no folly in exploring opportunities but when all is said and done, you need to learn from failure and focus on what you do best.
At ACS, Neil's forte leaned towards client pitching, brand development, and campaign management. But out of all that, a vertical service blossomed - data and analytics. He developed a technique and software to analyze and explore website data to tweak campaigns and track customers. That's a common SaaS product these days, but remember - this is barely 2005 we are talking about. This kind of service wasn't saturated yet, and he exploited this new, innovative SaaS tech with immediate success.
He launched a new business offering those tracking, data, and analytics services and by now, he had thankfully figured out that whole catchy company name thing. Crazy Egg was born, to a rather large fanfare, making lots of noise. It wasn't profitable for a while, however, and the business was sustained through ACS profits, which were healthy.
One of the main features of Crazy Egg is a heat map technology that allows users to identify areas of a website that are usable, or need improving; money was wasted finding the right dev team to create the software to Neil’s expectations. It took a while, and they burned through cash in the process.
VCs showed little interest in Crazy Egg, so they did what any bootstrapping start-up must do, and worked hard. Very hard. 18-hour days of consulting, conferences, client work, and developing Crazy Egg as a brand - all while still a student at college. Remarkable.
It speaks to something. Most successful people have, somewhere in their story, a period of years where they worked unforgivingly hard. In an era of quick business successes - unicorns, I think they are referred to - the simple truth is that for the vast majority, extremely hard work and long hours are weaved into a person's background, at some stage in their journey.
There isn't much to report about the reasoning behind Crazy Eggs' success. They simply worked hard, picked up clients, and created something special. Sometimes it is as simple as that. There is not always a defining moment that sends a business into the stratosphere. Sometimes, it's simply about elbow grease, gradual steps forward, and nothing else.
A hunger to create further software companies accompanied the success of Crazy Egg, so ideas were explored, and a few companies were launched. None of them worked out, for reasons Neil himself best explains:
“We decided to create and invest in software that solved problems companies were facing. Our ideas ranged from software applications that could help manage companies’ marketing budgets to the first podcast advertising business…Eventually, we learned that Crazy Egg succeeded while our other software companies didn’t because of two reasons: not only does it solve a unique problem that enough businesses are experiencing, but it does so in a very simple way.”
In other words, we are back to that same lesson mentioned earlier in his story; focus on your strengths, exploit and develop what you do best. To use an overworked cliche - it's not rocket science. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when you are killing it with something that comes naturally to you.
Various similar companies were launched or acquired over the next ten years, all within the digital marketing SEO sphere. Ubersuggest, an SEO tool that helps generate keywords and improve rankings, and Hello Bar, a banner and pop-up tool which welcomes visitors and captures data. He has by now also nurtured a broad portfolio of other software and marketing companies, benefiting from Neil's involvement either directly, or indirectly.
In 2017, he launched NP Digital as a central hub incorporating the leading companies, agencies, consultancies, and media activities.
In no way an afterthought, there is a vital element of Neil's story that I have intentionally left until the end because it is something that warrants a dedicated section. I am referring to Neil's absolute gift to the world: his blogging.
He launched his first blog, Pro Net Advertising, in 2006, and followed it up with Quick Sprout Blog in 2007. Both blogs focused on savvy marketing content through tips, advice, case studies, and insights and gained a steady flow of visitors. He used the blogs as leverage to promote the marketing businesses around him, firing out content with every opportunity he had.
But his killer blog, neilpatel.com, came a few years later and by 2014, acquired a milestone of 100k unique visitors. The blog has grown immensely since then and now reaches over 3 million people per month. It's huge. It's also quite brilliant, full of genuinely useful SEO and marketing advice educating the masses on a huge range of subjects. How to create a viral post, or generate email traffic, the best way to make evergreen content, guest blogging ideas, to name a few examples - it's vast, and it's free.
But that's not to suggest he does not benefit from this content, generating millions each month in advertising revenue and affiliate payments. He has also used the blog to very cleverly promote various companies such as NP Digital.
Through my endeavors in writing various articles, I have researched a few well-known business personalities. But one thing that strikes me more than the others I have written about is just how incredibly happy and content he seems. I have listened to podcasts, watched YouTube videos, and googled his name more times than I care to remember, and he always seems so incredibly joyful.
I'm not sure why I include this opinion - it is completely irrelevant to the article and offers no value to you, dear reader - but I feel like it needed mentioning. In an elemental, natural way, he is blessed with unbound joy and cheer. Go ahead and google him - all photos of this chap seem to exude happiness. He has the face of a man who has just wriggled out of a headlock and now looks at you in celebratory cheer. Every photo. A huge, all-natural smile that simply beams unadulterated merriment.
After all, this is why we all slog away in our daily grind, isn't it? We are all chasing happiness, in one form or another, and this guy seems to have nailed it. That must surely speak to a passion for his craft, in some way. I am unsure what point I am making - remember to be happy? Smile more? I dont know.
Maybe just this: if you are going to work all the hours god sends, at least remember to involve yourself in something you enjoy. But that would be stating the obvious, I suppose.
One thing I will stand by is my opinion of his formative sales years before he found his way and figured out what he wanted to do. That period is such a small chapter of Neil's life but without the door-to-door experiences and general sales hustles, he wouldn't be the Neil Patel that he is today, I am sure of it.
John Paul Dejoria used to sell shampoo, door to door, making $600 per month. His product, John Paul Mitchel Systems, is now sold in 200,000 salons across the world. Mark Cuban, a personality who needs no introduction, sold garbage bags door-to-door, before becoming the gazillionaire that he is today. Nick Woodman - the GoPro guy - used to sell handmade necklaces for $2 a pop while bumming around Bali, living hand to mouth.
I wonder how successful they might have been without those early experiences. We can merely speculate.
I spent most of the nineties in direct sales, before going into marketing and advertising. People sometimes tell me I have the gift of the gab. I don't because there is no such thing. What I do have is a persuasive intuition and a flair for copy baked into my DNA, through years of experience.
Lessons can be learned and foundations can be built on through a few early-career years of direct sales. You will install something within you which might just lead to greatness, if you embrace it, and absorb its basic principles.
Or as Confucius once said many years ago, “success isn't always found through Harvard and executive fast-tracking - go get selling those overpriced vacuums, My G”
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