When I think of content marketing, Julia McCoy’s name is the first that pops into my mind. Listed as a thought leader on Forbes, Julia is an entrepreneur, bestselling author and among the top 30 content marketers in the world. At the age of 19, while working at McDonald’s to support herself through nursing school, she founded content agency Express Writers.
The investment? Seventy-five dollars.
The revenue Express Writers has generated so far? More than 4.5 million dollars.
How has she managed to grow such a successful business? What were her smartest moves and biggest mistakes? Also, how can content marketers fine-tune their strategies today? The launch of Julia’s new brand, Content Hacker, gave me just the perfect opportunity to ask her all these questions, and more.
I’m thrilled to invite you to be part of our conversation.
You started making money online at 12 and started your own company at 19. Who instilled and encouraged this entrepreneurial spirit in you?
I’ll never forget the sound of our first-ever dialup modem connecting to the internet for the first time. Someone had just donated a Windows ’98 PC to my dad, and we were finally getting online. The year was ’98, so the computer was “brand new.”
I was 7. I watched my mom send an email to a tech agent five states away, and saw a reply land in her inbox in 10 minutes. It was unreal, and I fell in love with the internet that day and never stopped learning how to use it.
At 10 and 11, I was researching ways to make money online, and by 12, I started doing surveys for cash and earned up to $350 in a month!
Along with that passion and excitement for the magic of the internet, was a love I had for writing that began when I read and consumed my first books at seven and eight years old. Before I was 12, I was reading and understanding at a post-college-degree level!
I grew up in a religious cult, so I had little contact with the outside world, cut off from much of normal life and modern-day society, banned from TV and all forms of modern media. So, I found my creativity, life, and imagination through books. (My life to date, including my escape from a cult, is all being revealed in my new book, a narrative non-fiction memoir coming out soon.)
I was pushed into college and nursing school early on by my parents, but halfway through college to get an R.N. degree at 19 years old, I began to fail my classes. I had zero passion for nursing.
I decided to pursue what I did in fact love doing — writing, and the internet — and see if I could make a career doing both. The day I had that idea, I discovered an entire industry called freelance writing!
Three months after plunging in, while still in college and working overnights at McDonalds, I managed to drum up an entire client base with more clients and income than I’d ever dreamed of!
What were the biggest mistakes you made as a young business owner?
I fell into my now-lifelong career at 19 years old when I dropped out of college to focus on my three-month-old freelance writing client base, and decided to plunge “all in” and begin a business in May of 2011. I simply had way more writing to do than I could do on my own, so creating a business made sense. I named it Express Writers.
One of the mistakes that hurt me the most, and almost caused me to lose my business, was trusting my hires implicitly and not holding anyone accountable, among the first managers I hired. It was a novice mistake I made in my early 20s I will never make again.
The first-ever two team managers I’d hired, I trusted with everything. I did not hold them accountable, believing they had nothing but our mutual success at heart. Turns out, three years after I hired them, in 2016, they ended up stealing from me in little amounts over eight months, to the tune of $80k!
It was a brutal discovery and a hard recovery, made even more so because I had a little daughter who was two and I was a new mom. My husband and I had to sell our second car to get through that year.
Thankfully, we pulled through despite all the odds, and today the lessons I have taken from that year have helped us build internal processes and roles that have cemented our multi-million dollar business.
Without that year and those lessons, I don’t think I would be the leader and entrepreneur I am today.
What were the most important things you did to grow Express Writers into such a profitable business?
My focus since the beginning was to use the very services I sold to clients — content writing — to build my own brand. I simply learned as I went. That turned into powerful content marketing (SEO blogging primarily, along with guest blogging and creating other content formats) that has brought in 99% of our leads to date.
Back then, I had no idea that could see our business through to 100,000 visitors/month and over $100k in revenue/month today. It was the best idea I have ever had, right next to the idea of actually starting the company back when I was 19.
What role does email marketing play in your content and marketing strategy?
Email marketing, to me, is the underestimated little marketing player that is more powerful than many marketers I talk to realize. (There are some amazing marketers out there implementing crazy good email marketing, though!)
Seriously, the power of sending one great message to your ideal audience’s personal inbox — just think about that for a second.
However, it’s harder than ever to do right, because there’s tons and tons of email being sent and you’ll be lost in the noise if you don’t send something GREAT.
Great means relevant, and immediately engaging (storytelling, original, authentic, a new idea or an old idea presented in a new way). And you can’t abuse it. Burn your bridge once, your email reader is forever gone. Give them an opportunity to opt out.
I have seen email marketing increase our inbound prospect responses in my content agency (EW) by 20-30% inside of one month.
For my online course sales, I’ve seen my email marketing play a percentage as big as 90%! Meaning 90% of my sales in a month can come from my emails, which I try to carefully strategize and write myself these days.
Email is hugely important to my content marketing strategy.
You went from having $75 to start your business to earning 4.5 million dollars so far. How has that changed you as a person? Also, in what ways is your life better?
What is often forgotten in the gross income numbers is the true net take-home of a fully self-funded entrepreneur. I’ll be real: much of that income goes right back into my company.
From producing my next YouTube video on a topic mapped out to bringing in more inbound leads, to paying my team, social media managers, designers, not to mention other necessities like software fees (sooo many!), taxes, and business formation fees (payroll taxes, healthcare, LLC employee wages), I end up taking home a very small portion of that $4.5M.
I’m happy and grateful, however, to have the opportunity to run a business that does allow my family and I a means of living — and has for eight years now. So, I would say it’s given me a perspective of gratitude — that I can work from home, pay all of our bills, live comfortably, and be mostly debt-free (cars, hubby’s student loan, all business debt is 100% paid off – the only debt is our mortgage).
My life is wonderful, because of the day-to-day freedom I have. Yes, I have to pull a 90-hour week if things suddenly go awry and I have to fire more than one person. But, I also get to take a Tuesday, a Wednesday, a Thursday off to hang out with my daughter when things are going well, or leave at noon to go to an amazing restaurant and then out hiking in Austin with my husband. Or, I can start writing my next book!
I love going after and achieving big goals, so it balances out to be totally, completely worth it, despite the many late nights and tears shed during the hard days.
You recently mentioned on your blog a study by Backlinko that revealed 94% of content doesn’t get any backlinks. Why do you think that is? Is most content not good enough?
I think it’s as simple as that. “Most content is not good enough.” I’m going to leave it at that, because that simple statement needs to hit home.
What’s the biggest mistake you see content creators make?
So many :(. Not researching their audience. Not diving in deeply enough into their topic. Also, not presenting anything original. Regurgitating old studies/old facts. Not making it interesting. Typos. Factual errors. Lack of good visuals. Run-on paragraphs. Click-baity titles not backed up by good content.
What makes great content?
More and more, great content comes down to the time and talent involved. Seriously. This makes up 90-95% of the content I see and am able to qualify as “great” – a.k.a. irresistible.
And whose content do you find irresistible?
I’m down to reading from three-four content creators these days.
Jon Morrow & the Smartblogger guest writers, Rand Fishkin (his SlideShares are content gold), Brian Dean, and Ann Handley.
I read other marketers, but those are the only four I actively watch for: open their emails and read their content the minute it hits the press.
How is your new brand, Content Hacker, different from Express Writers?
Content Hacker, launched in June 2019, is my answer to an industry void for more practical, growth-focused content marketing. It’s the result of earning a top 30 ranking as a content marketing influencer, eight years of hard work, over a thousand blog posts written, and over $4.5M in sales in my agency through my content marketing.
Content Hacker is my “house” for all my best resources, powerful guides, exclusive interviews with real-life, zero-B.S. marketing experts, and my books and training courses.
I’m also leading elite content strategy and creation for two-three clients/month that truly want to elevate their online presence with content that’s strategized for and tied to growth. (If a brand wants me to strategize and produce this kind of content, they have to come in with a $4k/month budget at a minimum, and be ready to commit for at least three months.)
Express Writers is my full-service content creation agency. I staff almost 90 people in this company to provide hundreds of businesses with high-quality, original online content to fuel their/or their clients’ marketing calendars.
This is the company I started in 2011, and dropped out of college to begin and build across the last eight years.
What determined you to start a new business when you already had a very successful one?
After eight years in content marketing, I felt like I had a “personal brand presence” — books, host of a podcast, so many blogs, contributor to top platforms, guest speaker… but no true personal brand yet!
Content Hacker felt like the perfect name for my new personal brand, and we were lucky enough to snag the domain and trademark.
Express Writers. Content Hacker. Lots of writing and business management. Plus, a husband and a small girl. Oh, and the new book you’re writing! How do you do all this while staying sane? What are your best productivity hacks?
Haha — when you put it like that, I sound crazy. I wouldn’t disagree if you call me crazy, too!
There are a lot of “basics” that help me set myself up for success day in, day out. For one, a process is key to productivity overall.
I split up my days according to my process.
Monday is Brainstorming/Ideation Day. I don’t write on that day, I ideate and research for hot ideas that could be my next top-shared or top-ranked Write Blog.
Tuesday is Editing/Writing day. I edit, proof and schedule blogs I have ready for the next week, and outline new blogs. If it’s YouTube video week, I record my video on Tuesday instead of writing, and send it off to the producer by evening.
So, every day, a major “task” in the content creation timeline is happening to ensure on-time success. I’m typically three weeks ahead in my content schedule.
My daughter goes to daycare full-time, and that helps me get all my work done. I work best solo, in my quiet home office. (My daughter is extremely social and loves people/other kids, so she actually loves her daycare. She’s also well beyond her age group in vocabulary and skills – I have the daycare teachers to thank for that!)
I wrote a guide on my home office productivity hacks that launched on my new blog at Content Hacker.
What do you most like to do when you don’t have to do anything?
It’s funny – I always come back to writing when I have a free day or weekend (which is rare). I have a second computer just for writing, with no email logins, social media, etc. I love to get on this computer and just write. I’ve got four additional books in the works that I’ll just pick up and start writing – it’s my therapy!
I also love sharing a creative space with my little one. She is creative like me, and we enjoy going to the library, craft store, or Barnes & Noble and browsing together.
And I also love to immerse myself in nature. We live in the perfect area for that — Austin, Texas — so my husband and I often take day dates to hike.
When I’m not writing, hiking, or book shopping with my little one, I love cuddling on the couch with the hubby and/or little one and watching good Netflix shows and movies together.
Julia McCoy is the founder and CEO of content agency Express Writers. Recently, she launched her content marketing brand, Content Hacker. At 25, she wrote her first book, “So You Think You Can Write?”. A year later, she wrote her second book, “Practical Content Strategy and Marketing.” Both books have sold successfully in more than 90 countries, and a third book is launching this year.