Episode #164 – Kurt Elster On How A Reformed Designer Raised His Client Standards…And His Fees!

by John McIntyre

Kurt Elster is a recovering designer.

He thought he’d quit his job and start his own ecommerce platform…

until he realized the likelihood of making that happen.

Instead, he started building custom websites and charging $700.

He thought it was downright criminal when he was able to finally raise his fees to $2500.

With clients like Hilton Hotels and Verizon…

the projects and money became even greater.

Like Biggie Smalls predicted though, so did the problems.

So he distanced himself from wishy-washy agency work.

Instead, he helped a friend with a site for his recumbent bike business.

He niched down to becoming A Shopify expert and the lessons he learned along the way have all come to bear.

Freelancers should be able to apply the many gems Kurt shared today.

In this episode, you’ll discover:

  • The one book that finally made it all click and started bringing in leads in droves.
  • Positioning secrets of a “dog lawyer”. How do you express what it is you do?
  • The simple and easy math to a 6-figure consulting business.
  • The “onion skin” method of deep-diving to find your customers.
  • If Kurt had a time machine, these are the two things he’d go back and tell his younger self.

Email Marketing Podcast Episode 164


Intro and outro backing music: Forever More by CREO

David Allan: Hey everybody we’re back with another edition of the podcast and I’m David Allan and we have a very special guest today which I think will be fun. Now I want to say something about this just before we start because Kurt Elster is on the show today and this guy if you want to get your sh together to come on a podcast I’m going to link this in the show. Most you go and take a look at his page he lays out all the information – possible questions, background information, head shots – almost everything I would say everything I thought in almost everything everything you need as someone who’s about to interview another person would require so that they don’t have to spend hours and hours compiling their own information and wandering through the interweb to find it. And I just want to say Kurt thanks a lot for doing that.

Kurt Elster: Yeah it certainly was a selfish act because it makes it so easy for you to say yes to having me on your show.

David Allan: And that’s what we want. You know you will make everyone’s job easier. And as a copywriter who does research you know on a regular basis it can be laborious. And this was so much easier you know if I had clients that had everything laid out as neatly as that specifically as you did my job would be so much easier.

Kurt Elster: Most days I know it’s easier when you’re talking about yourself. Let me tell you about me.

David Allan: Exactly when you get to say I look like you are really are two instead of my perspective.

So let’s start. You are a conversion optimization expert.

Yeah I’m a shopping expert exclusively worked on Shopify. But you know these lessons apply to all of e-commerce and usability so don’t just tune out if you’re not on trial. That’s OK with Shopify. You know the thing that I most enjoy doing is a conversion rate optimization. Just seeing those those metrics go up and being able to give people a higher or a y out of their marketing efforts is exciting.

Yeah it is exciting because it turns real things on the dial it makes you know the money flow elements and it helps people in a real sense.

Yeah. You know I used to consider myself a designer and design is so squishy and subjective and everyone has an opinion and like you know I want to build Facebook for poodle’s. Versus you know conversion rate optimization like I want to and you know I want to make the Web site play horse noises and know I can think of conversion bridge and go down but we can try and test it. Now I like it because it’s a data driven design it’s informed design right. That’s what feels good about it.

And as you know a guy that specializes in direct response. Myself these little things you know those things about designing cars that come in contact with a lot of designers who want to find things a lot and make it look nice and usually often destroys the conservative base. So I could really appreciate people who use testing stuff too.

And I’m I’m a recovering designer every day hype it occurred to. You that battle. Yeah. And like it’s it’s easy to go to feed your own ego as a designer and go subtle is sophisticated and this is beautiful and it follows the latest trends and when I screenshot this for dribble everyone’s going to be so impressed. And it’s not going to make money. Ultimately that’s what it is. I mean a web site that someone owns your like your work your design has an impact on their ultimately on their life on the people they employ on their family like it is huge far reaching effects. And so give up on your ego and start doing cool design to effective design. And that’s what’s so wonderful our conversion rate

optimization or approaching things as you know data driven design.

No I think that’s a beautiful thing. So let’s take let’s take us through where you came from your superhero origin story. How did you get into this. What were you doing before and sort of bringing us up to speed.

Salumi in 2009 I was working as a product manager for a autoparts e-commerce store that was quite successful and I enjoyed it I work there. But you know I wasn’t my own boss. I don’t have the personality for it. And it was getting a go worktime Converse All-Stars and I just broke down in tears and I knew like items quit my job. Of course I have a family so it was easier to do then right. Like I just want to work. I gave my one week notice like I have to do. And it was it was me it was a man that was in their fault. And then I said because I didn’t know what I was getting into when I shoot for the moon and I said let’s just build my own e-commerce platform. July. Just seem like well that’s not that hard. It’s

just nuts. And at the same time I had a good friend a good childhood friend who had lost his job as a talented interaction developer at a local agency back in 2009 or was getting laid off. So he had it he had unemployment so he was like no risk to him to go yeah or work on this thing with you. And after a year we quickly like we kind of you know pulled the fret on the sweater and discovered oh my gosh you can’t you know building an e-commerce platform with two guys who’ve never done such a thing. It just wasn’t realistic. Maybe two other dudes could have done it but we couldn’t. So to keep the lights on. You know we had local businesses knocking on my door going hey can they misunderstood what we do when they go I can do for website like us not us.

Get out of here. Pediatric.

5 year I’m like well I’m you know Romand doesn’t taste so great anymore. I still like a custom. I did a solo website and charged like 700 bucks. I thought that’s good you know. And it was like completely custom design and development. And when my wife and I held their hand through it. And then like by the time I saw them for twenty five hundred bucks. Like oh my gosh this is criminal.

It’s funny it’s funny though I don’t stop you there but it’s funny. Your perspective your perception how it changes from what I’ve gone through this myself. You change your life. OK so this is for you you know because you have a gives you a real perspective of what it actually takes to do it. And of course no perspicuous because it could be that he was special. And then you know charged 21:00 always you feel like you’re like you almost feel fraudulent and you’re like is this legal.

Like a money issue.

I got my recap. You’ve discovered the dark truth is like oh you just entered revision hell because someone is taking design cues from 40 people. I think we’ve gotten you know we went to our family gathering and I submitted your design to all 40 members of my family and here all of them notes half on know. You know that’s the kind of thing that happens early on. So we started we got lucky and you know we got her big break. We started doing it like we did some work for Crain’s the big business newspaper like they had a special editorial feature. And then from there we like using that as a portfolio piece we were able to start doing work for agencies you know the whole time I used direct response marketing I literally

like to get my initial local clients. I wrote hand I wrote a letter and addressed it slipped under the doors and then four agencies I know they like email. I wrote a nice sales letter must I care about two things. Building great Web sites and pressing the help of your clients. You know that kind of thing. And that got me phone meetings and I found myself with like three to four agency clients and were doing work for big Web sites. You know we did suffer for NFL hit hotels the golden Hilton Hotel site we were pressed about the amount of still up hotel. Wow is this cool an NFL team in the NFL. If you remember that Verizon’s fight foam off campaign actually was a breeze. There was a website with a

contest that went along with that. I did that. Oh wow. And I was even managing it too like we had just used it. We had such a short timeline we just use foofoo it like a forum builder for this huge conference that people thought passed and survived. Sounds like it’s and if you keep it keep your tools simple. Use what you’re comfortable with. And it worked with zero problems. But you know it isn’t like huge enterprise thing that people would expect. So you know we did that but we weren’t happy with it. And at the same time I had a friend like it’s just hard. It’s like these big $50000 projects. But the effective hourly rate is not amazing because it’s her work that goes into it and agencies are their boiler makers were

like every time I turned around my project manager quit or got fired. You know like that and you’re working with someone else who now wants to get you out to hire their friend like that happened three times. It’s just like it’s really stressful or like a project would be going you know like we’re not going to do this so we’ll just pay you know we paid you up through a third of it. You know Cea and work never sees the light of day and night you’re scrambling you know for your next thing. It was hard. And at the same time I had a friend who owns a popular recumbent only bike shop very nerdy kind of bike there locally and we sign a Web site and I said Let’s check out Yuasa online. Yeah like there’s this thing called Shop find her. Maybe we’ll play with it. And again we’ll shoot for the moon. So our very first Shopify project

having never used it ever was a completely custom theme. I designed my current business partner developed and they took notice and I said we’ve got this thing called the expert program. It’s going to be like an app store but for hiring experts and so they pitched this you can join it’s in beta. You know you made a custom theme so you’re cool. So I got in. And then I got a couple of leads from it and one day I read this amazing book on sales letters called Sean DSO’s is the brain on it.

I don’t know if you know I’m actually shot was going to be on the show here in a few weeks.

Oh ok we’ll tell. He doesn’t know me. But tell him I love him. I will. It’s a great book and very early like that was a watershed moment for me really. I had read a bunch of copywriting sales books. That was the one where I was like oh I get it now it clearly and it’s it’s not long it’s just slunk to the point and loved it read it in a Starbucks like I remember reading it like oh da I wrote a letter like that for Shopify for my shop I expert page and I start getting way more leads and way better leads from there. You know after a while we just said you know we were done getting beat up by the agencies like let’s just only do e-commerce and then from like within a month of that I was like wait wait let it only do Shopify

and. You know it’s it’s counter-intuitive but when you niched down like within 60 days of doing that it was getting referrals from people I didn’t know to people I didn’t know going oh well you’re the shop guys time when they had like 100000 stores maybe 400000 stores. So it was you know hitching your cart to one horse like that to one platform and just make it very clear this is what I do. This is what you do it for was hugely important and it’s been you know it’s been three years since then. And I I wish I had done it sooner.

Yeah. No I think this is a very important lesson for people wisdom of a lot of freelance copywriters. You know business owners is over. Listen to the show.

But for the freelance copywriters out of wind that back about 30 seconds to sing again because this can happen I swear you’re getting started and got the right. This is so important. This can make it so much easier.

And as you just listen to how much a change it made immediately and in the way your business got off the ground.

Yeah probably like if I could go back and tell myself two things. It would be you know hate number one. Figure out a positioning statement so a positioning statement would just it tells someone in one sentence what you do you do it for and why. So I go curdles to help chump firestorm uncover hidden profits in their stores. And then if I want to add something to it. Unlike other designers she cares solely about return on investment advice. There’s a hook there see that or there something like I’m a dog lawyer or then like I’m immediately compelled to ask for help might as well. Did you do it. I’m a doctor but think about this if it takes you more than a sentence to explain what you do. No one’s going to remember it. So they’re not

going to be able to for anyone to you. And you’re not going to be connected to anything in their head when they then need that pain and that’s the the amazing part about not choosing a niche choosing positioning. Originally I know early on everybody thinks this all came as to why now get more of the more profit we’ll get more leads whatever. No it doesn’t work. You’re a generalist. And no one is interested in you. Like I’m not who makes more you know a family physician who is essentially a generalist or you know a plastic surgeon who only does like mommy makeovers like some one that’s like a double vertical. Oh my gosh.

You know it’s funny you mentioned that I was I was in MASH. I find this a lot when you’re getting a mommy make over it. OK I admit it. I coming clean. You got your tummy tuck.

I was in Nashville here a year ago maybe and sit next to a guy in a cafe and he was a personal trainer and he was talking to a friend as we set the table and he was trying to come up the east side like are getting more clients. I just overheard the conversation and I said I don’t mean interjected what what are you doing. He like on a personal trainer do this. What would you do it for. And he couldn’t really tell me so you know blah blah. I said well he goes. But then he said I do like doing people getting right where I like brides getting ready for their wedding. And I said oh God that’s what you should do. Boom right there. Yes. How did you know.

And I just it to him a little bit you know and you’re right people are afraid to ask. Like too small like the all the people of the opposite usually less or less your thing is so small that nobody there’s nobody in that. You know which is so. Which is rare you know people then you know that’s the way to go at least a start for sure that’s the way to go.

I mean if you had a hundred people that means it’s probably close knit 100 people know each other and let’s say you get you know they refer you you talk to 20 people you walk sale you book $10000 project’s lifetime value with 10 of them. You are now a six figure consultant. Yeah just like that. It’s not crazy. It’s not crazy at all when you start thinking about it like that.

No when you look at the math this is pretty is pretty straightforward and simple and I think people just don’t really sit down and figure out what they need what they want and what the goal was and stuff and all that sort of simple stuff and sometimes I get I get pushback on it and I’ve heard this you know I thought this too is going to well if I only do one thing I’m to get bored.

So you really love learning all of your tools at the start of every project that might be a masochist.

You know you look you look at it and it’s true you might be months if you look at the top look at people were up here you look at the top people who are in copywriting the sort of the what they call the A-list all stars people ready direct mail.

They specialize in a couple of these shows and that’s it you know because there’s a number of reasons for that. One of the reasons as you get so good at knowing that it makes it so much easier. Yes. Right. Because you don’t have to go and then become an expert about some new. That takes a lot of takes a lot of time to do.

It becomes like pulling a thread on a sweater where you use F word twice I’m and no word it’s OK we’ll say an onion where once you dive into a particular niche and you only work in one space you discover it is way more nuanced than you. New and new problems and new things and then you even break it down into further niches. Well you know you know I know who my ideal clients are in Shopify and I know who the bad fits are so I can qualify those people right away. I know who I love working with but really I mean you’re kind of it and you don’t do it based on the market do it for you know who’s my favorite client. What’s my favorite project. Can I just only work with people like that like. Or what’s my

unfair advantage. Like oh I’ve got experience in MySpace and other people don’t. OK. That too that. Make it easy Don you know I’m lazy. I don’t want to do work but I have to write. So that’s you know leeching down positioning it’s scary. Don’t get me wrong it’s scary. It’s all right to be scared but it’s not forever. You can revise it. It’s just words on a Web site.

Yeah I would say there’s a there’s a book that I’ve never read but I always enjoyed referencing the title which is to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Oh I like that. Yeah. You’ve got to like if you’re not one of the tenants I discovered when I joined a mastermind group or challenging me to do things. And every time I did them one of two things happened. Either it made more money for me or it just didn’t like nothing happen. Never did anything bad happen right. I was afraid or stressed about trying something. And as that continues you quickly discover like oh if you’re not regularly challenging yourself you’re not doing enough to grow your business.

You push them push the boundaries. That makes it exciting. Absolutely it could be thing but that’s partially because it’s exciting anyway. So that’s what you’re decided to sit down inside to find out who you’re who you want to work with.

Kurt Kurt decided to find these people instead that caused her business to take off and you learned a little bit about you know what makes people buy through Sean D’Souza. Keep going. What does that lead up to.

So once I’ve got you know I mean I’m getting these two shot fired experts I’m building. We’re doing only work on Shopify is like OK it’s cool. But the thing I don’t like is sales. I don’t want to be a salesman. No one likes being sold too. I just wanna have conversations with people I like who might become my friends. And like we I add value to their business and they give me little money because I don’t want to my proposals and I don’t do it. So simple system around that.

Do you have CarMax in your car. I believe I don’t personally use it but I believe you probably do.

So it’s it’s a used car lot. It’s a national franchise but it’s in more regions than others. There you go. Or you just go on their website you find a car you want and it’s like all kinds of cars you could buy like $100000 Mercedes if you wanted to. You won’t go on the lot and B you’re not allowed to haggle. There is zero haggling in the sales people are not allowed to try to sell you because they don’t work on commission. They just there if you want to take a test drive and that’s it. So you show up. Hey here’s the car. This is what we know about it. Buyer don’t buy it. And here’s the. You’ve got to you’ve got seven days to bring it back and the price is the price is the price. There’s nothing. After I bought I bought a Mustang I bought my a Mustang is gorgeous.

Now I’ve sold the Mustang bought a Jaguar but whatever I bought I bought a Mustang. And I looked at him like it was easy. I know I’m paying a little more because I can’t haggle. But it really just made life easy. And I thought wait I could just do this in our own business. So I ended up taking like the common sense of trying to do huge projects. We took just like the simple things that people needed. So I mean for my store set my store set up a Facebook sales funnel for me set up email marketing those like simple product simple projects and I turned those into service offerings what I call I lovingly call the Chinese menu. So my agency site unicycle dot com is linked right up there says

pricing. That is the most clicked on thing on that website. I circled our pricing and it’s just a menu of my current service offerings. Here’s what we offer you if you get one you can learn more. Let’s. Some copywriting action or it’s like pain dream fix. Just a fixed price so it’s fixed price fix. You can read before you ever talk to me. Here’s what Curt offers. Here’s what he could do for me. Here’s what it will cost. Are you interested in more. Well by the time they get on the phone with it you know they get to apply. But by the time they get the phone with me they know what I do I do it for what it costs et cetera. So it’s really a conversation to see like you know are we a good fit. Do these services make sense for your business. Do I like you. Do I think I can generate a positive

or a wife for you. If yes then hey I will send you a link. You could pay for this 100 percent up front and it will do the work. And if I am in any way unprofessional unethical don’t deliver I will refund your money. Like if you won’t give that risk reversal guarantee. Reconsider what you’re doing. Like you’re confident enough in your services that you can promise someone you’ll be ethical and professional.

Come on you’re in the wrong business. So that’s great. So that’s where basically stands now. Go to. And it’s got it’s pronounced Ethar cycles and it’s either cycle.

Is this really when we’re building the e-commerce business it was supposed to be for bike shops. It was a poor man to have either that bicycle because even in 2009 like all the good domain names were taken. So making up a name I get totally made up name made it very easy like I can always register that everywhere which is nice right now that’s great.

That’s great. So that’s where it stands now. We have it all laid out. You’re having some hoops people jump through by looking around your site and know exactly what they’re going to get maybe you are what the deal is. That’s creating those good clients making it into the funnel and the other ones.

And the final You touched on it. The final piece that I left out and we have not discussed is how do I get those people into the funnel. Right. I’m not doing outbound marketing anymore. Right. Email people. Do grassroots efforts Kontum marketing. So I host a podcast. No official shellfire podcast. We’re going to hit a quarter million downloads it is amazing. Nice. And we’ve never really promoted it. It was just everything we do is stacking the bricks. Yeah just like show up. Be consistent if you’re going to try something just do it consistently and you’ll get better at it and you’ll get better. Like the first episode you know I’ve got a few hundred downloads which even surprised me. And then like it just grew and grew until now we’ve got sponsors and I’ve got you know we’re in as of today. Two hundred

twenty five thousand downloads. It’s just wild where people tune into. That’s probably our biggest drivers. You know people share the podcast. I can if someone’s interesting. I don’t have to be like hey want to talk to you pick your brain over coffee you like. I honestly think I can give them value. Hey do you want to share your story. It’s really interesting share your story with my listeners on my show. And then I can talk to them for 30 minutes. That turns into value for them turns into value for my listeners and I get this one on one time with them so it has all these benefits. So I just freely and basically I work in public.

You know Miss saying goes but interviewing people which I sucked at at first but you don’t know it.

And now I’m experimenting with YouTube videos. I get like 100 views a week on a new video. Go me. But I know if I just keep at it I keep doing it. It’s going to get. You know it’s going to be a little girl subscribers. And what’s cool about all those mediums is they’re they’re intimate. Like I got to have Kurt in my ear for 22 minutes while driving to work. Why don’t you listen to the podcast. So when the time someone gets on the phone with me they’re comfortable with me. They know what I’m about. I’m the same person right now. You know maybe it’s a little bit of shtick. It’s like I’m 10 percent more mate will say. And then when they get on the phone with me they go oh you know I feel like I already know you don’t. You do because like that was me.

I think that’s a very important point. It’s like are you still I still encounter this a lot when I hear people come to me saying you know I’m copying my strategy and you want to figure out what’s going on with the business. And they’re still in this sort of like professional you know maybe maybe maybe they’re a little what I would call their a little older and they’re kind of like so. So professional speaking and sounding on all their materials and stuff that it’s just so clinical and born sterile. So the word doesn’t stand out. It doesn’t sound and it doesn’t seem so bad.

No not really. So they’re just every time I have when I talk about like a child yourself be comfortable. One of the hardest things for me was just putting myself out there like now you know my newsletter I’ll be like Oh here you know my Like here’s my wife you know here’s my kids like all right. When I when we were when we just we got pregnant we’ve got a three month old now. While my wife got pregnant rather I was not prepared for. It was a team effort though. I mean I feared I shared it with my list before I posted on Facebook. Just being open being personal. People can relate to you. People want to interact with people sell each to each human to human.

Yeah. These mistakes all the time. So people want to get in touch with you. Kurt how do they go about that.

I two things for it. Number one go to Chris dot com. Sign up for my newsletter. When you get the first one just hit reply to it. It is my actual email address. It reply you can ask me anything about this. I am as long as you send me a thoughtful question. I will send you a thoughtful answer in reply. Nice. And then most of my stuff is around e-commerce. But I did write a book that would be useful for you called email templates for freelancers. Normally $47 I will get a coupon code for 20 percent off we’ll call it. Will do. What would be a good coupon code. Call it magic. There will be magic and I will I will share that link with you.

You show notes. Yeah it is amazing. To do that for our audience Kurt. That’s very generous of you. My pleasure. Awesome. It’s been great. It’s interesting Allergist’s almost fool by because you’re entertaining to talk to and so forth. And I really want to thank you for coming on the show and it made it really easy for me in my honor and pleasure for everybody else will be back next week with another exciting guest hopefully is entertaining and as informative as Kurt possible. Yeah. Well Tucker I’ve talked to everybody that

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