Interview with Silicon Valley Blogger of The Digerati Life

By Will Chen on 24 August 2008 11 comments

The Silicon Valley Blogger (SVB) from The Digerati Life recently stopped by our forums to do a great Q&A session with our readers.

SVB gave insightful advice on how to write a personal finance blog on a professional level and talked about how she made the move to become a full-time blogger.  More importantly, she revealed herself as a fan of X-Files and So You Think You Can Dance.  All this time I thought the two fandoms were mutually exclusive.

Below is a sample of some of the useful (and funny) questions and answers.  This is a great read for anyone interested in taking their personal finance blog to the next level. 

Of course, we didn't publish all the great answers.  We saved some of the best ones for the forum!  For the full transcript of the entire discussion, check out the original interview thread in the forum.

Question from Ginger -- I remember this post well, along with not even knowing what Adsense was at the time lol.... How did you increase your Adsense earnings to what it is today? I am in sort of a rut with Adsense and not really sure how to increase my monthly revenue.

SVB -- Haha! You found some of my most embarrassing posts! Early on, I wasn't quite sure what direction I was headed with my blog -- my old posts are a testament to how much of a noob I was then. Nice thing about blogs is how you see the evolution of your focus and writing and the growth / experience you build through the years.

With AdSense, I can tell you that I did not have any meaningful returns until perhaps after the first year. And I am only now just really beginning to see the returns I've always hoped for -- I took quit a bit of time talking to other AdSense experts who've experimented a lot on their blogs and tried out their suggestions.

A lot can be accomplished by experimentation. I know that some bloggers have tried this thing called an A/B test where they test different Adsense blocks on the same page/layout simultaneously. They can then compare the difference in earnings between those blocks. I haven't done this myself and don't know much about it but some have tried this to tweak their earnings.

Also, I found these features of AdSense very important: Size of block, location and color. I had tried all combos of these parameters and found one that worked. I found that by even changing the SHADE of color on my blocks made quite a difference! I have a blue scheme and even a darker blue or lighter blue shade made a difference. You can check Google's official tips on AdSense blocks and their heatmap is quite helpful. But since each site is different, you'd have to play a bit with the blocks.

Oh yeah, get "WhoSeesAds" plugin. I traded the AdSenseDeluxe plugin for Who Sees Ads and the results were highly satisfactory. I have to thank Pinyo (Moolanomy) and Sun (SunsFinancialDiary) for their great suggestions!

One last big tip about AdSense I just discovered: Less can be more! I used to have lots of Adsense blocks. Instead of 3 blocks, I now only have 2. And even so, only 1 of my ad blocks takes in the bulk of earnings. By going with less ads, I actually seemed to have increased my revenue.

The downside: some of the best performing ads can also be the ugliest. They get clicks but they're not that pretty. So it's a tradeoff. To me, it's always a struggle to balance ads with readability, and I live with the concern that my site is becoming "too spammy". So everything is a test to find that balance.

Question from  CurlyTreeFan -- I'm an avid reader of your posts and long-time subscriber to The Digerati Life. I'm working at a start-up that is focused on helping shoppers save time and money.

We don't have a blog yet. We've heard several anecdotal stories that investing in a blog may help us with customer acquisition, especially via organic traffic. I'm concerned though that it will take a lot of time and effort before we'll start to see a return on the investment. Is there a minimum time/cost per week that we should be prepared to spend before kicking off a blog?

SVB -- I think I know who you are. You are right about how much time it may possibly take to kick off a new blog, but once you've built its foundation, you may not have to update it so frequently. At least, I've seen some well-established corporate blogs update their sites once or twice a week and they still get fairly well trafficked usually due to crossover visitors from their main site.

To launch your blog, the work is usually concentrated in the first month to just get it into place with design, theme, configurations and initial promotion. If you are planning to monetize it as well, you probably won't see much until 3 months or more down the road. But you'll establish some sort of routine over time.

If you have a personal blog, it will probably take longer to pick up traffic than a corporate blog since blogs that supplement existing company web sites already have some leverage from the main site's visitors, as I've explained. I believe it can be run by someone who spends maybe half the day working on it (esp in the beginning).

Corporate blogs are great because they're easier to market virally than main sites through cross-linking with other blogs, for instance. With general web sites, you'll probably have to market those in a more traditional fashion such as through press releases, other forms of media, and a nice mention in TechCrunch.

Question from Mogden -- I notice that a lot of personal finance and product blogs are rather heavy on spammy stuff, with ads everywhere, affiliate links, etc. How do you draw the line between making money from visitors vs. annoying them? Has that changed over time? Thanks! 

SVB -- Yes, we bloggers have to make a living somehow I guess... I think it all boils down to what kind of blog you want to run and manage. Some audiences appreciate information they get on specific deals and products, while others don't. I think that a good blog will find the balance of both worlds.

Bloggers come in all shapes and sizes. Some will write entirely for their readers while others write for themselves. Others want to get their name out and build lots of traffic, while others prefer to just make money and will consider all measures that support that goal, regardless of impact on traffic. So you see, it all depends on your goals for your blog.

You'll also find that people will oftentimes experiment on their blog. One day, you'll see certain ads up, then the following month, they're gone. So blogs evolve over time based on the lessons we learn in the blogging process.

At one point, I felt I had too many ads up, so for now, I've taken down some of them and tried to declutter my site. I wish I had more time to devote to web design and cleaning up my blog a bit more, but alas, I function on a tight blogging schedule (since I have other things going on) majority of which is spent working on my content.

Question from Lazy Man --
1. Do you ever get bored writing about personal finance every day?
2. If you had to start another blog with an eye towards profitability first and foremost, what topic would you pick?

SVB --

1. Actually, I'm hardly ever bored with personal finance or with writing about it. But there have been times when I've gotten overwhelmed or burnt out by writing. I think that it's normal to "burn out" when you keep working on a particular activity for sometime or if there's not enough time in the day to do all that you want. I feel that I have many ideas I can write about, just not enough time to present them. I really love this subject matter and I find it a fun challenge to try to give a particular topic a new spin or angle.

2. Ah, interesting question! I think that if you're going to make something profitable, you should be well-versed in the subject matter. So to have a blog have a good shot at making money, you should have a good grasp on the stuff you blog about. The more you know about a topic, the greater the chance you'll stay with it for the long haul, thus increasing the possibility you'll make money with your blog.

As far as blog niches are concerned, I heard that the "make money online" blogs can do really well. Don't give me ideas now!  As for me though, I had started on a celebrity / reality tv blog 2 years ago (did I mention how much I love SYTYCD and American Idol?), but I had no time to update it. Maybe I'll get back to it again someday. I wouldn't know how profitable these celebrity / pop culture blogs are, but Perez Hilton isn't doing too badly!

Question from Frugal Dad  -- Hi SVB, I'm a huge fan of your work on The Digerati Life. In fact, it was one of the first blogs I subscribed to when I began following PF blogs, and is still a daily read. 

After you left the workforce to pursue blogging full time, how did you offset the loss of benefits such as insurance and retirement? Are there benefit options specifically available to bloggers/writers that are not available to other self-employed individuals?

SVB -- That indeed is a thorny question as that is what I found to be a great concern of most bloggers -- well, even myself! Right now, my household has COBRA from the job I left officially in February. We have 18 months from that point to keep the same medical benefits. Beyond that though, we are on our own.

For medical benefits, we are exploring some options. Since our incomes are lower now, our kids *may* qualify for very cheap insurance coverage in our county. We just discovered this program being offered by our local county, but we still need to investigate this possibility further.

Also, we see this as a temporary situation for us. At some point down the road (before the 18 months of COBRA is up) we're hoping to pick up group insurance through my husband's company at hopefully affordable rates. What I've seen to be the case for most "full-time bloggers" these days though, is that they are part of a household where one partner is employed with benefits in order to cover the entire family while the other earner is a blogger.  In my case, both my husband and I are self-employed, so we're faced with a trickier situation. Ultimately, we will get our own insurance but it's a question of how affordable it is. It'll be insurance for us "small business owners".

As for retirement, there are some fantastic plans available for small business owners: SEP-IRA and Keough Plans among them. I wrote about them a little here: I’m Self-Employed! Retirement Plans, Insurance and Tax Considerations are Afoot

I have a SEP-IRA right now, but may move to a Simple 401k later, but I'll have to study that option to see if it makes sense. I like these retirement plans because they can potentially allow you to shield more money than you would through your employer's plan, especially if you begin to make more self-employment income over time.

Question from Norbert the Librarian --

There are so many personal finance blogs out there rehashing the same topics over and over again. My favorite thing about Digerati Life is that SVB is able to put very interesting spins on old financial topics.

How do you find these new angles for old topics? Do these ideas just come natural to you? or do you look at what other bloggers have written on the topic and deliberately find a new spin on it?

SVB -- Thank you Norbert, for the compliment! I so appreciate it.

To answer your questions, when something surprising, entertaining or humorous catches my attention, I try to see if there's a financial angle to it. Then that's how I end up developing the concept of a post. When I write an article, I like to be inspired by a topic and usually, when I get excited about a topic, I know that it may turn out well. The downside is that it sometimes takes an incredibly long time to fashion such an article -- I spend a good amount of time just on research, for instance. I also like to add some color to my posts by introducing data, graphics, images, and the occasional video.

I normally have a notebook where I capture ideas I get while doing mundane things like driving my car or taking a shower. It's true that your best ideas can come to you while you are doing such activities!

On occasion, I may get ideas from other bloggers, but most of my ideas come from the news actually. Something in my newspaper will catch my eye, or my meanderings around the internet will catch my attention. And I also work from past experience -- given my age, I guess I have a few to draw from.

Sometimes, as I write, I start getting nervous about how to end a post. It starts to get rather lengthy, so I end up breaking up a post into several, where I do follow ups. My biggest challenge has been to provide more compact articles that remain in-depth and interesting. I am hoping that I get better at this with experience, but so far, I will admit that it does become time-consuming!

This is why I am not posting more frequently, although I would love to!

Question from Perchance Frugal --I recently added you to my rss feed after reading about you here and on the Money Blog Network's forum. I wasn't disappointed.

Can I ask some non-blogging questions? What are your favorite movies, books, and TV shows of all time? Does your family know you are somewhat of a celebrity among other bloggers? I have a somewhat high profile job but my kids are never impressed with what mommy is up to.

SVB -- Definitely! I welcome all questions, especially those about tv shows. I am actually a huge reality tv fan and have been following many of them since the first ever Survivor episode. My favorite tv shows have been those song and dance shows like American Idol and SYTYCD (that's short for So You Think You Can Dance, whose tix are being given away via this thread...), Amazing Race, The Apprentice, that sort of thing. But I also find crime shows like CSI, Forensic Files, 48 Hours or Cold Case Files, of particular interest. I actually will put CSI Nevada as one of my favorite shows ever. In the past, I absolutely loved Twin Peaks (by David Lynch) and X-Files.

I guess I could go on and on, but I also love British comedy -- Black Adder and Fawlty Towers are favorites of mine!

On the other hand, I have a fascination for Asian thrillers -- don't know why, but am enamored by shows like The Grudge, The Eye, and The Ring (and the Korean: A Tale of Two Sisters). I guess I like to get spooked. Any movie in the suspense/thriller genre, I'll happily watch!

As for books, I used to read a lot of novels, now I don't. I've turned into an internet denizen and spend a lot of time reading stuff on the web... A lot of current events for instance. I'm not fond of politics or sports though, so I usually settle on economic/technology/science/health/general news. I also enjoy short stories and anthologies by the horror masters like Edgar Allan Poe, Clive Barker or Peter Straub. Or Science Fiction material from Ray Bradbury or Harlan Ellison.

With regards to being a blogger: I've been really grateful to be part of a blogosphere that is very supportive and structured. I don't actually consider myself as that recognizable as a blogger (I just wrote a piece on well-known bloggers), although I do look at myself as one who takes blogging seriously. I've been very happy with the growth rate of my blog and hope it continues to keep at its steady pace. And not so secretly, I'd love to be able to keep up with some other PF folks out there!  There's so much yet to be done for improvement that I hope I find the time to get to it all before the next century!

To answer your question though, I started out keeping my blog under wraps when it came to my family, as I actually feel very self-conscious if I know that someone I know personally is reading my thoughts. In order to stay "honest" with my writings, I opted to stay anonymous. But over time, info on my blog eventually leaked to various family members and friends, so I've had to train myself to ignore those self-conscious feelings.

Finally, I'd love to know what your high profile job is -- I am sure I'll be *very* impressed! 

Question from Greg -- What are some of the most successful blogging strategies/tactics you've tried? What are some things you've tried, but it didn't work out as expected? What are the top 5-10 things a newbie blogger should do in their first year?

SVB -- Here were a few things I tried and didn't work out as well as I thought:

1. I tried to start more than one blog at the same time. After around 3 months' time, I realized I was *not* making much progress on either one (no traffic growth, for ex.) So I ditched one in favor of The Digerati Life. Good thing I did or I may still be stuck in a rut!

2. I tried to self-host and it turned out to be a very frustrating experience. Even moving my blog to Dreamhost was an improvement!

3. I started off with Blogger. I learned how to blog on Blogger and was very reluctant to move to Wordpress, which only happened because of the limited features Blogger had a couple of years ago. The migration was a pain! But believe me, Wordpress rocks (all the plugins are cool)!

4. I had some different plans for my site a long time ago, which included launching Cafepress stores and putting more personal stuff on it like photo albums, etc. I guess I was feeling pretty experimental about my site. In the end I didn't go that route due to lack of time and the decision to keep the site "pure" and focused on personal finance. But experimentation is still a good thing since it'll give you an idea what you enjoy doing and what you can potentially be successful with.

5. I should have spent more time thinking about the right domain name and blog name to use. I started out with some pretty weird names (like "curlytree") and had to change names over a few times, thereby losing some traffic in the process. Even today, my blog's name seems pretty odd. If I could do it over, I'd probably change my blog's name....

What should a newbie do in the 1st year?

1. Get to know other bloggers. I find this to be of utmost importance. Contrary to what some may think, blogging is quite a social activity and a lot of your success hinges on knowing other bloggers in your space.

2. Join carnivals and networks. You need to spend time promoting your posts as much as you spend time writing them. I used to just write posts and be done with them. I only later discovered that that was only half the work!

3. Write regularly. In order to grow your blog, you'll need to write on a regular schedule. People want to get updates all the time!

4. If you are monetizing your blog, be patient, since the money doesn't come quickly with this work. Blogging revenue can be pretty erratic so don't be discouraged when the money doesn't come right away. I remember how I wrote this funny post a long time ago, bewailing my lack of earnings.

5. Do comments and link roundups. That's the fastest way other bloggers will notice you! I'm still surprised how some bloggers don't do roundups since this is one way to easily reach out to the blogosphere.

6. If you have bandwidth to do this, then guest posting is a nice gesture.

7. Join  Again, it's one way to be part of the pf blogging community.

Question from Will -- In February you quit your day job to pursue blogging and other business ventures full time. Was there a specific point in time when you realized "wow I can make a living blogging about personal finance"?

SVB -- When I began blogging, it was really more of an experiment. My husband is involved in his own startup and had wanted to learn more about how web communities worked. I decided to pitch in and help by getting a feel for the blogging community by starting my own blog. Over time, the experiment grew into something more serious as I realized how viable blogging is as a way to earn a living. I found this out by working with other bloggers in the space who were very supportive about teaching others how to monetize their sites.

But what I didn't realize was just how much effort and time it would entail. Over time though, I realized that the growth rate of my earnings could eventually lead me to the point when I could replace my day job income with blogging. For some, it could take only a year (depending on the cost of living where they live or how much of their previous salary they'd like to replace) and for others, it could take several years. In my situation, I believe it'll take 3 to 4 years for my blog to reach that point when it fully replaces my previous corporate salary. For the record, my blog will turn two (years) by October. So I'm at the halfway point.

But what's amazing about blogging is that it also opened up other job opportunities for me. I was then able to secure some freelancing jobs and contract work through my blog, which allowed me to keep my schedule flexible.

I decided to get into this full time because of many reasons: I was burnt out from my commute to the city (it took me an hour each way), it was becoming more expensive to do that commute, and someone in my household needed to spend more time at home and with the kids. So it was a natural decision for me to begin developing a business around blogging.

Question from The Frugal Duchess -- Your answers are so thoughtful, especially about the nuts-and-bolts of blogging.  How do you schedule your blogging around family life? What kind of personal-professional balance do you try to strike? Do you hit that target?

You're one of my favorite bloggers and I enjoy your work.

(Editor's note: The Frugal Duchess is also doing an interview in our forums .)

SVB -- Great question Frugal Duchess! I had been a full-time employee commuting to a faraway location for my job for some time. When my kids came into the picture, it definitely got more challenging to juggle everything: work, kids, home life, small business. I once more reflected on this topic in this post about the "supermom myth".

As time went on, it became very clear that my family desperately needed a more flexible schedule. It got to the point that the juggling act took a toll on me and I began to develop some health issues related to stress, which would be difficult to diagnose until I gave up the one thing that I was enjoying the least (the nine-to-five).

When the health dilemmas struck (from the pressures of being a working mom), I knew things had to change, and this is where alternative income streams came to the rescue. I took the risk of leaving my job to "get better" and to see if I could trade my job successfully for self-employment. And so far, the results have been dramatic. I no longer have the symptoms of stress that were plaguing me for the last 2 and a half years. I have to credit the improvement to lifestyle and work changes! I'm truly happy I can be at home with kids while I run my online tasks.

It took me a while to develop a routine that worked for the family. I usually work in the mornings and in the evenings. Afternoons are mostly reserved for the kids, but there are times I'm able to capture a sliver of time in the afternoon as well, to do some work. I've eliminated the long commute so that helps buy me additional time.

There is some downside with blogging that I've discovered though. With time and more experience in this area, I'm noticing that the work load I've set for myself is increasing. My goals are getting loftier, and my targets are getting stretched further. So my challenge now is to try to temper some of my expectations and ambitions and pace myself better. So far, I feel my old targets have been reached, but I'm constantly generating new targets as well..... so I'll have to work on striking that balance continuously.

At any rate though, blogging as a new preoccupation has been truly fruitful. I've met so many wonderful people through this avenue. And I absolutely love how the online world can help us all be so portable and flexible.

For the full transcript of the discussion, check out the original interview thread in the forum.

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Guest's picture

to be part of your Q & A sessions. It was a blast! I am also excited about getting to know other women PF bloggers in the online community and have been regularly visiting your forums to check up on this. :) I've been keeping up with Sharon's (Frugal Duchess') thread as well!

Thanks too, for pointing out some eclectic interests of mine. I don't know why but I get a kick out of song and dance, and just love to get scared out of my wits for fun.

Guest's picture

I read this interview on the forums and thought the whole thing was great. I especially liked the answer to writing about personal finance every day. I subscribed to a lot of personal finance blogs and love them all - but there are only a limited number of ways to talk about saving money or clipping coupons.

Guest's picture

This is a great wrap up of the interview. I am a little sad that I wasn't able to participate -- there are just so much going on.

@SVB -- I really appreciate all the thoughtful candid answer you've provided. You are one of my favorite bloggers and it's great to get to know you better. Lastly, thank you for mentioning my was the least I could do after all the help you've given me.

Guest's picture

Thanks for the feedback everyone. It means a lot! And Pinyo -- wish I could take more lessons from you on web design and technical tips. I still don't know how you manage all your projects and have (by all impressions) such a demanding job!

Guest's picture

I read SVB's blog (found through this blog) but this post turned me on to a bunch of her older posts that I'd not gotten to yet. Thanks for pointing them out! Also, thanks for the great adsense help.

Guest's picture

Great job on the interview and answers to those difficult questions!

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I loved this interview. Very insightful and the first "group" interview I have seen. I think interviews are very valuable things for us bloggers to read. They inspire us, which is why I am doing an interview series on my blog.


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Thanks for this solid info... I've been trying some of the methods out and liking it.

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whoops, somehow I commented on the wrong post?