Joanna Wiebe is a conversion copywriter and founder at Copy Hackers. As one of the internet's preeminent copywriters, Joanna has authored multiple ebooks, built profitable online courses, and optimized copy for multiple websites we'd actually want to read from.
Leading one of the most popular copywriting sites for startup marketers, Joanna has collected a slew of stories, tips and tricks over the past 12 years and lucky for us, she's down to share them.
There's a reason why I refer to Joanna as THE Copy Hacker in this interview. Here's what she has to say...
Click to jump to individual questions or read the full interview.
Ashley: Joanna, for those of you who don't know you, how would you describe what you do?
Joanna: Oh, gee, for those of you who DO know me, I still wouldn't know how. I am very lucky to be able to teach startups - and in turn copywriters and marketers that work at startups - how to make more sales using just their words, how to get people to say yes using just your words -- so that's what I do. I get to do it on our blog, in our courses, on other people's blogs, and things like this, so that's my life. That's what I do.
Ashley: Tell me how did you get to where you are now? When did you leave that desk job? How did you fall into this? What's your story? I know it's a big question.
Joanna: No, it's a good question. For me, I accidentally quit my day job, so it wasn't on purpose, but it was necessary. I had done the thing where, well I was working for a long time at a really great company, and then in my last year there, I got a really bad boss, like super bad boss. I had done the thing a couple of times, where you write the "I quit" e-mail. I just, like, "You suck. I'm never going to talk to you again, and I hope everything bad happens to you." But I'd got actually pretty good at refining this "I quit" e-mail, because I'd written it so many times.
Ashley: Ah - the rage quit.
Joanna: Right. So anyway, I was sitting there. It was a Friday afternoon, and I worked from home, and my partner, Lance, also worked from home. We were both with the same company at that time. We use Outlook there. Outlook, the mail system, and Outlook lets you write e-mails in multiple windows, so I had a bunch of different e-mails open. I was sitting there. It's Friday afternoon. It was 5:00. I was really like, "Time for some wine." My office was just off the kitchen. Lance poured me wine, brought it up. We were taking, and I had already written the "I quit" e-mail. I'm just like, "Obviously, I'm not going to send it."
Then I was responding to another e-mail that came in that was urgent. It was like, "Quick, get this. Where do I put this?" And so I had jotted that off, and I hit "send." And then I looked over at Lance, and I had some wine, and I looked back, and, "Oh, it hadn't sent yet." I hit "send" again, but I obviously hit "send" on the wrong one the second time.
Ashley: Oh my gosh.
Joanna: It was later that night when I was like, "Ahhhhhh."
Ashley: I just quit my job.
Joanna: Thankfully, I had written it really smart. I had written it so that I wouldn't quit until after I got my bonus. I'd written it like this six-week period, which they then honored, thankfully. But I didn't mean to do that.
It's like I really needed to do this, right? When you write the e-mail that many times, sometimes I think God, or whatever you want to call that force, comes in, and it's like, "I'm just going to distract you for a second, and I'm going to make you hit this button." That's what happened, and it really worked out.
Ashley: What next? When did you wake up and think, "Oh my gosh, I did that. I have to start generating income"? What came next out of that probably moment of panic?
Joanna: At the end of August was when I was getting my bonus, and I was done September 1. I had little bonus which acted as a little like nest egg. I already had savings and things, because I was in my 30s, so it would be crazy, kind of crazy, not always crazy, not to have that, but I wasn't in a massive panic. I do think that's one good tip for leaving a job it's always good to be hungry when you leave, so you don't just bum around and then take the next step.
I do think that's one good tip for leaving a job it's always good to be hungry when you leave, so you don't just bum around and then take the next step.
But I did have a little bit of a buffer, so I didn't have to rush to find a new job. I had already been writing some e-books, because I was involved in the community called Hacker News, where a lot of startups hang out, especially like developer-founded startups. I'd been involved in that. For about a year prior, I had done this thing where I helped a guy named Shariff Bishai, who is a startup founder. He had posted on Hacker News he'd done this show at HN, and Hacker News is HN, and then he was like, "Here is my new product. Here's the website for it. I'd love your feedback on the copy." I was like, "Well, I do this, so I could respond."
I did. I wrote back to him, and I gave him a few notes in the chat area in the comments, and then we connected, and I sent by e-mail. And I put together a bigger deck, because I was actually really bored at work all the time, so I was like, "Okay." This is a year before I quit. I work from home. I got a lot of my work done really fast, and so I would sit there and want to do other things. I did. I put together a slide deck going through all of his stuff and breaking down his value proposition, talking through his like jargon. It was heavy-on jargon, all of this stuff. I sent him this deck, and then he posted on Hacker News a couple of weeks later.
He did. It was a big post he did about how awesome the Hacker News community is, how giving it is. He used my deck as an example of what we give each other there. I got flooded with e-mails, flooded. It was my birthday, and I was out for dinner, and I was home. It was like 10:00, and my inbox is like packed. I was like, "What is happening?" My personal inbox, what could possibly could have just happened? We figured it out.
We had all these people saying, "Hey, can you help me, too?" I was like, "Sure." I go through the top ones. "Sure, I can. Sure, I can." Then by the time I'm number 10, I'm like, "Holy crap. There's still like 50 more. I can't help everyone." I had to respond and say, "I'm really sorry. I can't. I got a lot of stuff." So people kept saying, "Well, if you can't help me, can you write an e-book on this? Just write and teach us how you do what you do" I was like, "Okay." I did that work with those other startups, and I said yes to turn those into case studies, built the Copy Hackers books around those.
By the time I was leaving Intuit, which was the company I worked for, by the time I was leaving that around September 1, I had these e-books sitting there. I was like, "Well, maybe I'll do something with that."
Ashley: It's an amazing pile of e-books, so probably - yeah.
Joanna: Maybe don't let those to sit there in Dropbox, right? I sent it out to some beta readers, and they gave me some feedback. I broke it down into these little micro e-books. Two months later, we launched Copy Hackers on Hacker News, and that was it. It took off from there.
Ashley: Now, in Copy Hackers, there's e-books; there's a blog; you have services; you have courses; what was kind of organization of that? How did you go from e-books to more of this? What came first?
Joanna: Copy Hackers started like I think a lot of businesses do, especially after the lean startup methodology came out. It started as just an experiment. I was like, "Can we make money doing this? What if I don't have to rush off and find a job? What if I just like sell e-books and see what happens?"
That was how it started, but that doesn't...it was the right strategy forever. It got me to a place where I could fund my own blogging and now get to be a little choosy with some clients that I would take on as a freelancer at the time. As our audience grew, and we got a lot of people and that we're like, "I did the e-books. I read them, but now, when I'm actually putting the page together, like how do I do that? How do I do it?"
Ashley: Right, wondering about the nitty-gritty, the tools....
Joanna: AsWe have pieces, but when they come together, they don't fit all right. I was like, "Well, I'll do a course on it." We launched our first course and a lot of what we do is based on case studies so we actually optimize someone's homepage, let's say, and then we take that and turn it into a course.
Ashley: You got this business. You're now predominantly courses. What's the best part of it? What's the best part of owning your own business
Joanna: There are lots of good parts of it. There's lots of hard parts. I won't lie. There's lots of hard parts working in-house, too. So when you're in-house, you have to...even the idea of going in-house now, I'm like, "It might be interesting for a second." But you have to answer to all of these other people who might not care as much as you do, who definitely don't know as much as you do about the subject you're trying to work on in-house. In most cases, they don't.
When you're on your own, it's all on you, which is pressure, but it's also all on you, which is like it's you. You get to come through. If you are somebody who likes to do a really good job, like if you are somebody who is pretty often told that you're strong or an outstanding performer, you know like there's...this is working for yourself let's you do all of that.
I always felt like I was filtered by - especially when you're in a large organization - I found... well, this is going to sound bad and I don't mean it to. But larger larger organizations reward mediocrity a lot of the time, sadly, right? Where you're like...
Ashley: They totally do. I've seen it. I've been there.
Joanna: I was always accused of rocking the boat like that, and I'm like, "I'm not rocking the boat. I'm pointing out that the boat is rocking. That's all." I'm saying, "Hey, guys. Look, we have to fix this, because there's a problem here." "Oh, Joanna blows things up." Yeah, I do, because I want to fix things. I want them to be better, and now, I can do that.
Now, if I see a problem, it's on me to fix it, which means I have to take a lot of time, and it's not quite the lifestyle business everyone says it is, but it's super rewarding, because you get to really just make it all your own and figure things out, and when you figure them out, you get rewarded for it. It's always yours. It's your growing business. It's money in your account, things like that. It's not just about the money or about that, but there are just countless things that are incredible about working for yourself. I couldn't, I couldn't go back to working for someone else. I'm just unemployable now, completely unemployable.
Ashley: Well, I mean, you pay yourself, so that's better.
Joanna: Exactly right, exactly.
Ashley: So I was going to ask you for some copywriting advice, because you run Copy Hackers. But now I kind of want to ask you about course advice since you've been talking about it. If you had one piece of advice to give, on courses, for a reader, what would it be?
Joanna: What I've learned is not to overthink the problem you're solving. For me, I think, "Oh, a course has to look a certain way. It has to have certain modules." I don't know, right? We start really working on things that don't matter as much as the content, and then we...so for me I've now switched a bit. I've done a couple of courses that are kind of polished-looking, because when I did my first course, I felt afraid when I was writing the sales page, so that's just a good tip for one, it's start working on your sales page before you even create your course, so you know what you're selling, what the value is.
Anyway, so I put together this course, my first one. I did it myself. I was sitting here at my computer, looking into the web cam, and then I edited it all myself. I added in screens. So next to me like right here, there would be a caption, little notes, and bullets. I got some feedback that, oh, the audio isn't that clear, and it probably wasn't. I really internalized that. I really took that and went like, "Oh, crap. I have to hire somebody who's going to do all my audio for me, and I have to hire a videography team." That can be good. That can be really great. That can turn out some really good videos.
But when it comes down to it, from my actual audience, what they really want is to get down, see how I write a homepage, and then see how they can do that homepage. That means me sitting in front of a camera, talking pleasantly with wonderful audio in the point as much as me sitting there with a screen that's like my little picture down to the bottom walking them through my screen going through it and understanding all of the steps, so they can redo it.
I think that my big takeaway after a couple of years of doing this is that just focus on the problem that your audience really needs you to solve. The other stuff can optimize later, but make sure you're starting with the real problem that your course is there to solve, and then build it out accordingly. That might sound obvious, but it's amazing how we let ourselves clatter our heads with, "Oh, it has to have this. Oh, it has to do that."
Ashley: We hear that all the time. E-mail's like, "Oh, should I use a red background or a blue background?" I'm like, "Focus on your content and use that time focusing on your students and building out resources. All these things are important, but at the end its about meeting that demand and giving what people are having issues with - their pain point.
Joanna: Do that. You might get people who are still like, "Oh, the audio wasn't that clear on that one." You can go back and hire somebody to go over your audio and fix that, but getting it out there to be...you'll also get a ton of people who are on the flip side saying, "That was really great. I actually..." Like in my case, "I actually wrote a new homepage, and I actually tested it against the control, and it actually performed better." That's the problem people want me to solve for them with this course, so far better to put all of my energy into that and then later on optimize the stuff that didn't quite work.
Ashley: That's so awesome to hear, very interesting. And while I've got you, I definitely want to ask you about copy. Because you're THE Copy Hacker if there is one.
Ashley: A lot of times I hear people, they think of writing as a skill they already have or you don't, "I'm not a writer. I'm not good at this. I can't do this." What would you tell that person, and where would you direct them?
Joanna: I think it depends. I think a lot of people are hard on themselves, and they say, "I'm not a writer." My sister has said her entire life, "I'm not creative. I'm not a creative person." She went into the sciences and into healthcare and wasn't satisfied, because she kept telling herself she was not a creative person. When, in fact, deep inside, there was a lot of creativity in her, and now, she's nearing 40, and now, she's exploring that. I think we tell ourselves crap, because we think that must be true. Maybe somebody got a bad mark on a high school paper, and they're like, "Oh, forget it. I'm not a writer. I do science. I don't do that," just to kind of protect yourself.
For me, when I hear somebody say, "I'm not a writer," one, I don't think you have to have some sort of innate writing talent, and that's writing copy. So officially, you have to overcome. Is this like what you were doing when you were an English major or something? None of that matters now when you're writing copies.
I think that for people who say, "I'm a great writer," and then become copywriters, I'd have a hard time hiring that person, because I'm pretty sure they have a lot of crap going on in their head, that I might have to break a lot of stuff for them. Someone who says, "I'm not a writer," might actually be closer to being the person who should write their own copy. You can scrap all those old ideas that are problematic when you're writing copy, and it shows that you care, and you're not in it for your own voice necessarily. So you might say, "I'm not a good writer, so I guess I'll go swipe messages for my customers instead of trying to write it myself." Great. Good, you're a copywriter now, fantastic.
Don't worry about being a great writer. Don't worry about hiring people who say they're great writers to write a copy for you instead of you. I wanted that, and this is why I've been teaching startups since I started Copy Hackers. If you care, if you really care about your product and about your audience, you are the best person to write your copy. All you need to do is do the little things that make copy good, but you can't fake it. People who don't know about your product, who don't care about your audience will write shit, sorry, crap copy for you no matter what. Like no matter what, they will. I say if you say you can't write, talk to me. I'm sure you can write your copy then.
Ashley: All right, so that’s what you would tell your people who don't think they're writers. But I'm interested, for those of us who are writing copy every day, what is your one big pet peeve that you're seeing with copywriters now, or like, you're forgetting this one thing like you should be doing more of this?
Joanna: Copywriters definitely continue to, no matter what I say, no matter how many times I say it, they...I have two rules, two rules for writing copy, bare minimum. One, stop writing. Go listen to your customers and just...the best copywriters are strong listeners and good copy editors, so it's not about writing. Stop writing. That's rule number one.
Number two is when you do actually put words on the page when it comes time that you listen, you've pulled in, you understand the messages, people need to hear the ordinates, hear the words they want to see on the page that reflect how they feel and who they are, once you do that, use formulas. Now, a lot of people are like, "Ew, formulas. There's no creativity there." And even those who don't say that are like, "Oh, yeah, formulas. Of course, I always use formulas." Then you read their copy, and you're like, "You did not use a formula. This headline came from your own head. This headline did not come from a formula. It wasn't in any way informed by a formula."
I look at copywriters. One, I love copywriters. I love when people become copywriters. It feels like, "It's fun. Come do this, too. It's so fun."
Ashley: Absolutely. Well, I don't want to take up too much of your time, so I guess my last question will just be: if you were talking to someone right now who is in that position you were, whether that's sitting in their office and thinking, "I've got to get out of here," they've written the “I quit” e-mail; they've envisioned their rage quit and walking out of the office, what would be your one piece of advice to them?
Joanna: Quit. Quit. I know that's bad for them. Again, with the caveat that you should have a little money for the first month or so to live on, so that you don't have to go find another job. But there comes a point when you know you have to go, and so you could sit there and wait. It's like the rule around hire somebody before you need them, so that by the time you need them, they are there, and you're not like, "Holy crap, I've waited way too long for this." It's the same kind of thing, I think.
Quit before you absolutely have to, before it's like, "If I don't quit today, I don't think I can go on with life. Like I was absolutely at the end of my rope here. I should have quit a year earlier." I quit, and it delayed me in starting Copy Hackers a year, which might have been for the best. Who knows what it would have looked like if I'd quit earlier? But I knew for a very long time that I should quit that, but I was scared until I had to just be like shoved out, like, "Get out of this job right now."
Do it. Just believe in yourself. Hire yourself. You are your best ambassador. You are going to make it work, and if it doesn't work immediately, you can always...I don't want to say you should even consider finding a job, but you can. That's an option. That always open.