Pat Flynn and Smart Passive Income is a passive income whiz. Although he says he’s not an expert in the Smart Passive Income subject, he’s earned $3 million in the last six years by creating authoritative and helpful websites in areas as disparate as passing a green building exam, becoming a security guard, and establishing and growing a successful food truck business.
But what he’s most well-known for is being the mastermind behind the SmartPassiveIncome blog and podcast, the latter of which just reached its 10 millionth download yesterday. Last month he shared his tips on how to make passive income. Below, he tells us about his personal journey. (He also says you can say hi to him on Twitter and he’ll say hi back.)
How did you get started?
I was laid off from my architecture position in 2008 and created a website to help me pass an exam in the architecture industry called the LEED exam. Little did I know it but this little website I created was generating thousands of visits a day.
As I was doing all that LEED stuff, I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur. I didn’t understand what the signs were for me to start a business. I’ve always had a desire to be an entrepreneur and do my own thing, but I was so into architecture, I didn’t think that would happen until another 30 or 40 years into my life.
That opportunity was always there, but I didn’t realize it until after four or five people said, “Pat, your stuff is so good, I would pay you for it.” That’s when I finally took action. I began reading as much as I could about doing business online and listening to podcasts and reaching out to people doing it already. I connected with them and created an ebook study guide, a digital book that could help my visitors pass the LEED exam.
I launched that in October of 2008, and that very first month I sold that book for $19.99. I sold it in a way where people could come to the site, purchase it and, immediately after, the book, which was simply a pdf file I had written, was directly digitally delivered through an email to them. And as a result of that payment, it was just money into my Paypal account. That first month, I made $7,008.55. That was just life-changing for me.
Checkout the book at Amazon
I was so excited I wanted to share how it all happened and what I had learned, so I created SmartPassiveIncome.com that same month. Then, as sales grew on the LEED stuff, I had more and more to talk about and I kept sharing how much I was earning and what I was leaning — things that went right, and stuff that didn’t go right. A year and a half later, I started to accumulate a large following and be known as a transparent leader in the space of online business education. I then started a YouTube Channel and my podcast. Then I wanted to experiment. I created new businesses outside of anything I was already doing, and sharing that along the way — that’s how SecurityGuardTrainingHQ.com, CreateaClickableMap.com, FoodTruckr.com and other sites came about. Recently, I started getting involved with public speaking. All the sites have kept growing and people have shared their success stories based off of my own experiments with me, and here I am today.
How did you decide to make passive income an area of expertise?
I still don’t consider it an area of expertise. When I started Smart Passive Income, that was the month I launched my ebook for the architecture site. I didn’t consider myself an expert. It was just something no one had taught me about. People were talking about online business but not about how to automate the process, so I just wanted to create a platform to give it all away. I still don’t know everything about it, but through trial and error, I’ve learned about the process and recorded it.
People consider me an expert now, but I still have to get up and keep going in order to succeed and to provide value. You don’t actually have to be an expert, you just have to know more than the people who are looking for that information. That was the case with Green Exam Academy. I wasn’t a person who got a perfect score on the exam, yet I was seen as an expert because I was the one talking about it online and I had done the test myself and passed it.
How did it feel to start making so much money?
I was obviously very excited and thankful. It’s very humbling because not only am I earning so much money but I can also see the effect my work has on people in terms of their own success. I put up a space in my office that has thank you notes and clippings that people have sent me.
To know I’m in a space where I’m financially secure in terms of providing for my family is important, but it’s also scary because in my past, I’ve had friends who had a sudden surge of income, and they changed and they’re not my friends anymore because money changes people. I didn’t want that to happen to me.
I have a system in place to make sure it doesn’t happen. I have my wife who is helping us stay grounded and making sure my head doesn’t grow too big. But I also say to my audience, Hey, If you see me becoming somebody different from who you know I am or who I’m supposed to be, then catch me before I get off track. I’m not about buying a huge mansion, or really fancy cars. I’m more about the family and making it comfortable at home and going on family trips and creating memories.
Once people find success, what commonly happens is they don’t believe that they deserve it or they believe it was accidental, and that’s crept into my head a few times. It’s a very debilitating thing. You start to doubt and you stop working and you stop believing in yourself and you stop putting as much effort in. But I also have a great group of friends who help me with those feelings, and just realizing how many people’s lives I’ve touched and all the notes I get help. That’s why I have that large 5’x5’ space on my wall with notes on it saying “Thanks, Pat,” “Thanks, Pat.” I have a folder in my inbox just for testimonials of what I’ve done — it helps me remember that I’m actually making a difference, and it’s not accidental, this success.
What are you doing with your money?
Now that I have this money coming in, I’m able to explore new options with investing and buying a house a bit sooner in my career. I’m also very happy to be in a place now where I can give back, so I’ve been doing a lot of donating and helping other people get their start. I’m going to be building some schools in poor areas of the world through a company called Pencils of Promise. It’s a personal thing, but I’m also interested in having people come along with me as I document those experiences. My goal is to show people that it isn’t just about the material stuff but about giving: I try to build more to make more money to give more and be an example to other people in the world but also to my kids. When they’re 30 and talking about how their parents raised them, I want them to think we’ve set a good example. I want them to know that there’s joy in giving.
What does a typical day or week look like? How many hours do you work total per week on average?
I don’t typically work eight hours a day. It’s not a constant schedule. Generally, all day is spent with the family. I play with the kids and we make breakfast and read. The most important thing in my life is my kids, so I want to catch those moments before they grow up and they don’t want to spend time with us anymore.
I do most of my work at night after they go to bed. Sometimes I can work during the day and I get a few hours to answer emails or do non-heavy brain activity, but it’s harder to do creative stuff like writing where I need large blocks of time, so I do that after they go to bed, from 8pm till about midnight or 1am. I do all my work when I can completely focus on work, and then I can completely focus on family when I need to focus on family.
That wasn’t always the case. Even before my wife and I had kids, we’d be having a conversation and in the back of my head, I would be thinking about the next email I wanted to send and that next product I wanted to create. It was unfair, because the lines between my personal life and my work life were crossing over each other.
After some long chats, I learned I need a schedule. So now I know when to work, and everyone else knows when it’s my time to work: It’s after the kids go to bed. Things will change everyone once in a while — if I have a big project coming up, for example, like during the recent launch of my podcast player, I was asking my wife, can you watch the kids longer?
Does your wife work?
Not a corporate job, but she has the hardest job in the world as a stay-at-home mom.
Have you ever come close to quitting?
Dozens of times, especially in the beginning before I started making money with my book. I doubted whether people were going to buy it or not. I kept saying, What am I doing wasting my time here? The hard thing about building a business online and passive income is that you have to put the work in upfront, and while you’re putting in that work, you’re not getting paid for it. It’s not like traditional work where you put in X hours and you get paid for X hours. You might put in days, month, even years of work before you start to get paid. It does not happen overnight, and it takes a lot of hard work and dedication. Even after the book was sold, I had doubts.
One specific moment came when I was approached by the United States Green Building Council, the company that administers the exam that I was writing the guide for. I got a cease and desist letter saying, “Stop what you’re doing!” and I freaked out. I was like, This business thing — I can’t do it. I’m in way over my head. And then I went to a lawyer, and they were like, you just can’t use their trademark in your domain name. Everything else you’re doing is fine. But there was a good week or two where I didn’t know what was going on and I was truly ready to give it all up.
Even with Smart Passive Income as successful as it is now, the first six months were really tough because I didn’t have an audience. There were a few people reading and a few people leaving comments and the same people leaving comments. There was no growth. Because I just enjoyed writing so much, I kept doing it and then a year and a half later, it got to the point where it exploded.
What are some of the more surprising things that have happened in your journey?
An interesting story going back to my LEED book — when I sold that book the first month, about 20%-25% of the customers were people who had already passed the exam. They emailed me and said Pat, I wanted to buy this book from you because I needed a way to pay you back for all the information you shared for free with me to help me pass the exam before.
Also, in 2009, I was making $20,000-$30,000 a month from that ebook, audiobook and practice exams — and then all of a sudden the USGBC came out with their own study guide. I don’t know if they saw mine or what.
I thought I was done, but my sales went up actually, because I think people saw there were guides there and looked to see what else was there, and I was able to price lower because I’m just Pat and they’re a company with overhead. So my guide, which was $29.99 at that time, was outselling their other guide because their guide was in the $100 range, and I think people resonated with me and my story: Hey, I’m Pat, I’m just like you. I created the guide that I wished was available when I took the exam.
What has been your favorite story of your followers who are themselves making passive income?
Shane and Jocelyn Sams, who were teachers before. Shane listened to my podcast, and he was like, check out this guy Pat, and his wife was like, No, that sounds kind of scammy to me. But then they decided to give creating digital products a try, so Jocelyn created a website called Elementary Librarian where she was selling packages and worksheets to librarians to help them and that site is doing really well. And Shane is a football coach, so he created coachxo.com to sell defensive plays to coaches. Both of those are doing well over six figures a month now, and they’re doing it through pdf files, worksheets and tools that their audience can use to help them in a more convenient way.
There’s also a bunch of kids who listen to my podcast, like a 10-year-old named Enya Hixson who has started her own business. My good friend Ken Kelly who is a magician is doing well with his MagicTricksforKids.org.
Is there anything else about your personal story you’d like people to know?
Every stage of my progress has been met with a lot of doubt and fear but every time I’ve conquered that fear, amazing things have happened on the other end. That’s been from the beginning with Green Exam Academy, to now where I’m getting paid to do keynote speeches. I just got back from Australia and was able to go there with my family but also do the keynote for the ProBlogger conference. If you’d asked me to do that five years ago, I would have immediately said no because I was definitely afraid of speaking. But now that I’ve crushed that fear, it’s been one of the best and most fulfilling things I’ve been able to do, so if you have fear, it’s a sign that there’s something amazing on the other end.