*Hello! Yes, there’s a really valuable, 23-minute exclusive interview with Ramit Sethi at the bottom of this post. If you came here via Entrepreneur and you want to jump right in, just scroll down. Enjoy!
If you’re interested in my biggest takeaways from interviewing Ramit, read on!
I’ve mentioned before that I don’t subscribe to many email newsletters. They have to be extremely valuable to get a chunk of my time and my inbox.
Ramit Sethi is one of the few entrepreneurs that I subscribe to and actually read every single email he sends. It’s also the only email newsletter that hits my business inbox (if you read my blog, you know I’m really protective about keeping subscriptions and non-vital emails out of my main biz mail).
And this is saying a lot because he doesn’t send short emails. He sends entrepreneurial novels.
But I hang on to every word. Why?
Because they are insanely valuable! When I open an email, I know the ROI is worth my time.
And, he’s a really good copywriter.
Let’s talk about the value first.
Ramit admits to giving away 98% of his knowledge for free.
You’d think this would be a really poor business model. But what started as a personal finance blog when he was a student at Stanford has grown into a multi-million dollar online empire called I Will Teach You to Be Rich.
I don’t even know how I discovered his website and how that title made it past my strong online sales skepticism radar, but a while back, I hit subscribe.
After watching one of his videos or reading a blog, I was never left thinking, “well, that was useless.”
The result? For Ramit, it’s a highly dedicated, active list of hundreds of thousands of readers.
For me, it’s really useful tactics that I can start incorporating into my business and my life that very day.
I’ve spent thousands of dollars investing in programs this past year to build the business and website you’re on right now. I learned more from Ramit’s free material than I did from a program I spent $2,000 on.
And when I emailed Ramit to see if an exclusive, invitation-only mastermind would be a good fit for me, his response (and lack of invitation) won me over.
Here’s how it went down:
*A few tips on writing emails to people who get hundreds of emails a day and actually getting a response: notice that I kept it short and told him exactly why I was writing him (because his previous email said I was not an ideal candidate for the program he was selling and that he had another option for people who fit the criteria).
I wrote back answering all the questions and giving him my exact revenues from each year in business along with goals on growth for the next three years. (tip: I copied his exact format and tone. He asked questions in a list, so I wrote my answer back in a list format and didn’t ramble).
I was pretty confident he’d write back with an invitation to be in this program that I later found out cost more than $12,000.
Instead, his response:
He didn’t even try to sell me on a bigger program even though he knew:
1- I could probably afford it if the ROI was clear
2- I was interested in it!
Instead, he pointed me to a waiting list for Zero to Launch, a program that costs about 1/6 of the one I was asking about.
And you know what I did? I signed up the first day it became available to me.
Ramit and I talk about this in my interview below. It’s what he calls gaining ‘students for life.’
It’s being genuine and providing value.
It’s serving people by selling them programs and services that would benefit them most, not just to make a quick sale.
But you can’t make that kind of impact if people don’t open your emails or read your blogs. That’s where the copywriting comes in.
When I had the chance to go to New York City to interview some top online business owners for Entrepreneur Online, I knew I had to talk with Ramit and find out more about how and why he operates his business the way he does.
How has he been able to cut through the noise and set himself apart in his writing and his brand?
It turns out, Entrepreneur only shares really short clips of my interviews.
But, I was fortunate enough to get a full 23-minutes of gold from Ramit. He charges upwards of $3,000/hour to work one-on-one so, let’s say just say this interview is valued at approximately $1,200. 🙂
Really though, his no-BS style and real-deal tactics inspire me in my business and I’m thrilled to share this interview with you.
*full text transcript below!
Emily: Hello, I’m Emily Richett, and we’re here with an inspiring entrepreneur. He’s a New York Times best selling author and the brains behind IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com, Ramit Sethi. Thanks for being here.
Ramit: Thanks for having me.
Emily: It’s great to meet you.
Ramit: Thank you.
Emily: Let’s dive in with a little bit of background. IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com started as a personal finance blog while you were at Stanford.
Zero dollars revenue.
Emily: Negative! You were in the hole.
Emily: It has grown to be a multi-million dollar business that helps people around the world to live rich lives. When you first started it, back in college, did you have this bigger vision? Did you know you were on to something that would really be successful one day?
Ramit: I didn’t have a grand vision. I just felt I had something that the world needed to hear.
And as a cocky 20-, 21-year-old, I tried everything to get people to listen. I had paid my way through college with scholarships, undergrad and grad school, and I had learned about personal finance because I took some of the scholarship money and invested it in the stock market and lost money.
So I learned about money and I also learned about psychology. To me, there was something really interesting there… this idea that we know we should do all these things, but we don’t really do it.
We know we should go work out more but we don’t.
We know we should save money but we don’t.
And that is the area is I love. I live there. And so I started trying to teach my friends about money in dorm rooms and dining halls, and people would say, “Yeah, that sounds awesome!” and then they would never come.
They would never come to these classes and in retrospect, who wants to go to a class on money- even if it’s free… when you just think you’re going to feel bad about yourself and you’re going to realize how little you know?
So, I did this for about a year and a half, very frustrating. Finally, I started a blog. I still felt like I had something the world needed to hear, but you know, my thinking was maybe these lazy college kids will read it from their dorm room. And that’s exactly what happened.
Emily: Well, right now, if you go to IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com, you can click on page 230 of your blog and read those initial blog posts… and they only have a few comments- and you see the progression of your blog turned business over the years.
Is there a defining moment you can think of or something you did that really pulled the switch on the revenue, that catapulted you from hobby blog to business?
Ramit: Well, I love reading those old posts. I actually cringe reading them because – it’s the way I wrote, and in fact, some of the stuff I even wrote I disagree with now, but I left it up on purpose because I want people to be able to see that you start as an entrepreneur with this grand vision.
A lot of time you just start by writing one post and even my YouTube videos, you go back and look at them… They’re not very good.
My hair’s really messed up. I have this awkward camera angle for my laptop.
But that’s what started it off, and then eventually, I learned about video crews and a great camera and this and that.
So for me, I wrote for about 6 months. No comments. Pretty much nobody was reading.
You can go back and look at those posts. There are no comments.
A couple of things happened. One, I spent a lot of time reaching out to other people and telling them about what I was doing. I reached out to the Wall Street Journal and I said,
“Look, you guys are great, but you need to understand young people. Let me write for you for free,” and they were like,
“Ah, go away,” you know?
They kind of blew me off. And I knew that that would happen, but I just wrote them again and again, just really gently saying, “Hey, loved your article on this. Thought you might find this interesting,” and then one day, about 6 months after I started my blog, I got a phone call from the Wall Street Journal, and he said, “We’re writing a post on financial bloggers. We would love to feature you.”
And I hadn’t spoken to the Wall Street Journal before. This was a new thing for me. And they wrote about IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com, among many other financial blogs, and they linked to my site.
I still remember that day. I got 9000 visitors. It’s over 11 years later… And I just felt like, “Wow!”
Emily: So once I Will Teach You To Be Rich started to bring in money… there’s a transition that happens there. Did you get those feelings of fraud that a lot of entrepreneurs get when they put themselves out there in the world as a professional?
Ramit: The scariest moment of my entire business career was the first time I launched a $4.95 e-book.
$4.95! I laugh now.
We have courses that are $12,000, just much more than that!
I’d been writing my site for free for three or four years, and back then, nobody really bought that much content online, certainly not information.
It was less common, but I just said, “You know what? I want to try selling something and see what will happen.” Just pure curiosity, and I didn’t really care about revenue. Hence, the $4.95, but to be very honest, I was also petrified because I was worried people would call me a sellout.
I was worried that I had built up this community but that I had never charged, so it would be just this kind of breaking the community, and the day I launched it was probably one of the most surprising days in my entire business career.
Emily: Because what happened?
Ramit: Well, all of my fears came true. People did call me a sellout. They said, “Screw you! I will teach Ramit to be rich! Oh, I see!” and in my head, I was so confused.
I was frankly pretty heartbroken because I’d been writing for free, putting all my heart, putting all my skills into this writing, building this community, and I was getting these comments. But then at the same time, lots of people were actually buying this e-book.
And so they weren’t the ones sending these sort of mean messages. “Well, how dare you charge!” “Maybe if it were a dollar I would buy it.” They were actually just quietly buying. And I started to notice really weird things happening.
The people who bought would open my e-mails more. They would get better results. They would respond to more e-mails. And I saw this difference in the people who just wanted free stuff and the people who were willing to invest in themselves.
And that was day where I decided I have to figure out what’s going on, and I spent the next three years really learning how to manage my own psychology as a CEO.
Because when you’re charging… when you’re going into different parts of your business, you are always going to get lots of feedback, a lot of it negative.
And to have to learn to listen to some of the feedback but also lead in a way that people want to follow. They want to learn from you. You’re influencing them. That was the hardest part of the entire business process.
Emily: What did your family and good friends think of this? Do you still have family and friends that really don’t know what you do? And they’re like, “Yeah, I’ve got this cousin, Ramit, and he sells stuff online…”
Ramit: No, they don’t even know. They wouldn’t even say “sells stuff online.”
Yes, I have friends and family who don’t quite know how to describe what I do, so the nice thing is I have a book, and they say, “Oh, he wrote a book,” or, “Oh, he was in the New York Times,” and it’s like, “Got it.”
People understand that. They wouldn’t say, “He creates courses that take years to test and he’s expanding the definition of a rich life.”
That’s very detailed for them, but it’s like, “He has a book, and he has a lot of people who read his site.”
Emily: Enough to be proud of you. They know you’re not starving. All is good.
Ramit: Yeah. Exactly.
Emily: Well, I’ve heard that book story before which is awesome. But I’m wondering… people love to celebrate success, and to me, that’s a success because it did turn out well for you.
Have you had any recent failures, professionally or personally? And how did you overcome them?
Ramit: Oh, yeah. I mean, so many.
How much time do we have on tape? I could list them off. I’ll tell you a couple.
The most common failures, I think once your business starts to scale, are often around hiring.
And I tend to get emotionally involved, meaning if somebody makes it through the hiring process, then I like them, and I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. And so sometimes I will make excuses for people, and they’re probably not the best fit, and what I’ve learned from my advisers and my mentors is you’re not doing anybody a service if they’re not in the right job.
You’re actually doing them a service to make sure they’re in the right position and the right company, and whether that’s yours or whether that’s somebody else’s, you need to be definitive and you need to be clear about that.
So, for example, when somebody comes on board, particularly if they’re reporting to me, I will set a 21-day rubric of what they should be accomplishing in 21 days.
And I found for myself that, in the past I would make excuses, “Oh, they were busy. Something came up,” but at 21 days, it’s written in stone. This is what you need to be accomplishing, and if you’re hitting it, great! We’re off to the races. And if not? Then we already agreed on it. It’s not happening. This probably isn’t the best fit for you.
Emily: I love that advice. You have a primarily virtual team? Would you say all of them are?
Ramit: They’re 100% virtual.
Emily: When did you make that first hire? Because that, for me, even if you run a business that’s not online, that is so hard to take that first leap into giving up control and realizing you’re only going to bust through your barrier with more people.
Ramit: Okay, so I have an accountant who works with two types of people. He works with Internet people, and he works with celebrities.
So I asked him one day, “What’s the difference between the two?”
He didn’t miss a beat. He said, “Internet people never want to have an office, and they hate hiring people, and celebrities make a lot of money, and they spend every last cent of it.”
And I found that to be true. I think a lot of people who are online don’t think about hiring. They might hire a few random contractors, and that’s fine. I did the same thing when I started. But eventually – this is what I learned. I had this mental model. I would tell people, “I just want a small, intimate team.”
What I realized was I actually want impact more than anything. And if that means that I need to grow my team, then so be it.
And so I eventually scaled, my team grew, learned about management processes. These are the things where you don’t read blog posts to learn about it. You go into the classics. You read management books. You have mentors and advisers, and I learned about that, so that’s been key to scaling my team.
Emily: Okay. Let’s make a bit of a shift here and get tactical. First of all, how many programs do you currently have at I Will Teach You to Be Rich?
Ramit: We have over 18.
Emily: And are a lot of your students are customers of more than one product?
Ramit: Yeah, they tend to buy more than once.
So we have a philosophy called “students for life”.
We want to be with you at every point in your life. And that’s really important to us. And we build material that we want them to engage with for a long time.
So for example, we do lifetime access for our programs.
So if you get our Dream Job course, you can use it to get this job, and the next job, and 20 years from now. We look at our data, and we find that people who buy once tend to repurchase over 2500% higher than non-buyers.
What that means is, once they join one of our programs, they love it, so they are like, “I’m in. If this is this good, I wonder what the other programs have. And that works well for us, and it also works well for them.
Emily: What would you say are the top two tactics that you use in your business to generate more revenue? A lot of people do Facebook ads or they’re hosting a lot of webinars. I know back in the day you did Creative Live or other platforms. What have you found that really works for you that you’re continuing to do?
Ramit: I think webcasts or webinars work really well as a tactic. I think that building a relationship through constant e-mails also works, and that’s a subtle one.
A lot of people, if you’re on their e-mail list, they only e-mail you when they want to sell something.
I think that’s a huge mistake. That’s like a friend who only comes knocking when he wants some money or he wants something. You don’t want to be that friend. So we send a lot of e-mails that have no sales whatsoever.
Emily: Well, that’s how this interview is happening. Because I joined your list, and in the first couple of weeks after you join I Will Teach You to Be Rich, be prepared. Because the first e-mail comes out saying, “All right. Get ready. I’m going to give you enough knowledge for a MBA in the next couple of weeks, but if you can’t carve out this amount of time, go ahead and unsubscribe.”
And I thought, “Oh, no! I’m going to carve out that time. I’m going to show him! I’m going to do this!”
At one point, I reached out to you because you asked a question in your e-mail, and I thought, “All right, I’m going to respond,” and you asked for the financials of my business because, if I had the opportunity, I could join an invite-only program. And I think I actually qualified for that, but you saw that my goal is to have more of an online business, so really, that’s kind of how you won me over.
You could have sold me on a – what was it? $12,000 program? And instead you said, “No. This isn’t what your goal is. You actually need to hold off until you can learn Zero to Launch.”
Ramit: “Students for life.”
I don’t want the additional $10,000 from you today. I have no interest in it. I don’t want that money. I don’t need that money.
I would rather have you use my free stuff or join a program, like the one you ended up doing, and get so successful with it that, all of a sudden, you’re like, “Anything else ‘I Will Teach’ puts out, I’m in!”
So we want to extend that relationship for life. Instead of trying to make that quick buck right early on, we really want to slow it down and say, “What’s right for you?” A lot of times we tell people, “Don’t buy. Just don’t buy from us.” Use my free stuff. And once you’re ready, come back. We’re still here. We’ve been here for 10+ years. We’ll be here for many more.
That is very counter intuitive to people who are used to being sold, sold, sold to. And I think it makes such a difference when you can trust someone, when someone’s not trying to make a quick buck, but they’re actually looking after your best interests.
Emily: I want to just go over a couple of things. I see some criticism when – you put yourself…
Ramit: Wait, what? People criticize? Ha!
Emily: One thing that I Will Teach You to Be Rich really talks about is that you don’t want people who have credit card debt to enter your programs.
Ramit: Our flagship programs, yeah.
Emily: And I think that sounds great! Now the criticism to that, people will say, is, “Oh, he’s just saying that to sound good. How would they really know if anyone has credit card debt?”
So can I put you on the spot a little and ask you, what would your response be?
Ramit: This is a policy that I came up with years ago, where I tell anyone who has credit card debt, “Do not join our flagship programs. We don’t want you to join it. I want you to use my book. Here’s the free chapter on paying off your debt, and come back when you’re ready, and we would love to have you.”
So why would I do this? And I’ll tell you I’m happy to respond to that. We do this because I don’t believe that it is the correct thing to do, if someone’s in credit card debt and they’re joining multi-thousand-dollar courses on self-development.
You know what they need to do? They need to pay off their debt, okay? And I have a book. It’s $10. You can get from the library. You can even get it for free. That’s what they need to do is pay their debt off. They don’t need to be joining program after program.
We do this again because “students for life.” We don’t want that money right now. We want them to focus and use the free stuff. So we came up with two approaches to this, and this is the carrot and the stick. The carrot is I tell them why. I’m not trying to make a quick buck. Nobody on our team is. And they kind of, they’re like, “Wow! This is actually pretty refreshing. Oh, he even gave me the PDF. That’s pretty cool.” The stick is, if we find out that you joined with credit card debt, we will refund your money, and we will ban you for life.
Emily: So how could you find out?
Ramit: You would be surprised. Of the people who refund, they tell us why. They’re very honest with us.
Because we’re very honest with them. We call every single person who joins our program. We have a relationship with them. And they often will tell us, “I joined with credit card debt,” and then we ban them for life.
We do exactly what we said we would do. But we also get thousands of e-mails a month with people saying, “I would’ve joined this. I know your rule on credit card debt.” We put it right at the top of our e-mails. We’re not trying to hide anything. And they say, “I’m going to pay off my debt. I will be back in November, and then I’m going to join your programs.” We find that those students who do that are actually some of the best-caliber students that we have.
Emily: I want to power through a few more questions because we have some exciting news about a new program rolling out that I want to get to.
If you could go back and change anything about how you started I Will Teach You to Be Rich, what would you change to improve it?
Ramit: Oh, I mean, I’m not sure I would name it I Will Teach You to Be Rich, honestly. It’s been a mixed bag. It’s very catch. It’s very clear about rich. Rich is not just money. It’s about a rich life, and that could be travel. That could be paying for your parents’ retirement. It could be whatever you want. But, you know, when you hear a name called I Will Teach You to Be Rich, the guard kind of goes up, and I get that.
That’s why we talk about things like “featured in the New York Times,” “Stanford graduate.” That’s not just for ego. It’s because I understand that you’re skeptical.
The other thing I would do which I didn’t really get until recently was think about brand, and for me, I’m much more of a results-oriented guy.
So I had a pretty ugly site, but I thought that my content was pretty good. What I came to learn is that brand and the feeling you get really matters, so the visuals, the way it looks, the way it feels. I think so many sites do this in a beautiful way. In fact, retail stores, if you go into Soho, you walk in. You just feel something. And it’s different in an REI versus a Chanel. That’s something I would have paid attention to much earlier on.
Emily: So what’s in store for the future of I Will Teach You to Be Rich?
Ramit: Well, we have many new programs that we’re working on years and years in advance. One of our newest ones is a new course on copywriting, and this is something that’s really exciting for us because I love to write, we love to write, and we think that one of the most influential things you can do for your business –is change the way you write and the way that consumers perceive you.
So we’re teaching exactly what we’ve learned and ways to dramatically boost your business, grow sales, grow traffic using some of our copy techniques.
Emily: How do you break through the noise? If you get a lot of e-mail newsletters, it’s hard to not just start sounding like the people you read. So how have you remained so authentic in your voice? Are we going to learn that in the course?
Emily: Maybe give us some hints now?
Ramit: Absolutely. So, I like to write the way I speak, and I tell jokes, I make fun of people, I make fun of myself, and if I have something that I think would be useful for you, I’m happy to tell you about it.
One of the things I noticed when I read a lot of e-mail newsletters is, like you said, they start to sound the same. It’s like, “Exclusive. First opportunity to skyrocket your business!” and you’re like, “Didn’t I read that in 25 other e-mails today?”
Ramit: A couple of things that I’ve done to change that: Number one is get outside your own domain.
I unsubscribed from most of the newsletters that are “me too” newsletters.
The second thing is I started looking at other areas, so fashion has amazing copy.
Magazines have some of the best copywriters.
History – if you go back and read some of the old stuff; amazing copy!
Really studying that copy and then trying it out. So what happens is a lot of people write it down, and people are great verbally, but the minute they put their pen to their paper, they become these really awkward – they’re writing words like “exclusively yours.” Nobody says that out loud!
Emily: It’s so hard!
Ramit: So say it.
Take the copy you write and say it out loud. And just ask yourself, “Does this sound real?”
If you can’t tell, record it. Play it back to yourself. It’s going to feel horrible to listen to yourself, but you can see if that copy resonates or not. I used to write a comedy column in college. I would actually take it around to people and test it, and if they laughed at the jokes, I knew I had a good one, and if they just kind of were like, “Uhh,” then I knew it wasn’t good enough.
Emily: You feel like you know you after reading your emails.
Ramit: Yeah, I mean – one of the things I used to try to hide was all these quirky weirdnesses of myself.
For example, I listen to Whitney Houston in the gym. What grown man does that?
Emily: And admits it!
Ramit: And admits it! So I used to never admit it. I would hide it. My music taste is horrible. I know that.
But finally I started becoming more comfortable with myself and talking about it, and once you lose the fear of something, you can actually make fun of yourself, and what I found – I was petrified to send that, but once I did that, I found that people were like, “Wow! This guy’s a real weirdo, but I kind of like that he admits it.”
Emily: It’s endearing.
Ramit: Yeah. And I’m not trying – it’s not a tactic to get people to like me. I genuinely like that music. I genuinely write about how I’m afraid of using a bidet. I still haven’t used one.
Ramit: But I’m not just doing shock jokes. When you’re growing your business, you don’t have to write about bidets and be all this sensationalistic. If your business is, for example, promoting a different type of business, or you’re writing to a different audience, they probably won’t resonate with that.
Writing great copy is about knowing who your audience is and also being authentic to yourself.
So your jokes – if you are funny, you’re going to use different jokes. If you’re not funny, don’t try to be funny!
Most people are not funny. That’s okay. And I would not write about, “Let’s all sing around the campfire and enjoy our sisterhood.” Not going to happen. That’s not who I am.
So when you dial it into who your audience is and then who you are, you can actually write about brutally honest stuff. James Altucher is an example of a guy who does exactly this. He does it beautifully.
Emily: When can we sign up for your program? And what is it called?
Ramit: It’s opening this year. It’s called Call to Action, and the URL is TheCallToAction.com.
Emily: Do you think you were destined to be an entrepreneur online like this? Or your life just kind of threw you some curve balls that you followed and here we are?
Ramit: I don’t think I was destined at all. I was going to work at Google. I think if I had followed my life destiny, I would probably be wearing an ill-fitting polo shirt with a Cisco logo, sitting in a cubicle somewhere.
That’s if I followed my default path. I think that we can all choose areas of our life where we want to be different. And it could be our relationships. It could be our business. It could be where we live.
Some people don’t want to have the traditional white picket fence. But that’s all from a small series of consistent decisions.
Emily: Thank you so much for joining us, and we can go checkout IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com, and TheCallToAction.com.
Ramit: Thanks for having me.