Matt Frazier has worked hard to build a loyal community of vegetarian and vegan athletes. His blog, No Meat Athlete, gives his readers fun and accessible information on their favorite topics — training and food!
These days, Matt’s site gets about 600,000 page views a month, and he has more than 20,000 people on his email mailing list.
Matt has now created a successful business around his community, which includes digital training programs, a membership site, and a line of No Meat Athlete clothing.
Matt’s business has also allowed his family to become location independent, enabling them to move to Asheville, North Carolina. His next move? A traditionally published book, which will be published soon.
Let’s catch up with Matt, and find out how he built this successful and satisfying niche business.
What’s your site and what do you write about?
My site is called No Meat Athlete, and I provide ideas and tools to simplify what most people consider to be a pretty extreme lifestyle – that of doing endurance sports on a plant-based diet. I really try hard to keep it light and fun and totally non-preachy, so that people who are just curious feel welcome.
Who are your readers and how do you serve them? Was there a pressing problem you were trying to solve?
They’re active, healthy people who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet or at least have some interest in lessening the amount of animal products they eat, usually for their health, even if they aren’t ready to go 100 percent plant-based.
When I started the blog, I was a serious marathoner who was feeling an “inconvenient” urge to become a vegetarian, and I had no idea if it was possible to be both. (“Am I going to collapse at mile 20 when I run out of protein?”) It turns out that a lot of athletes choose a plant-based diet precisely because of what it does for their performance, but when I started No Meat Athlete, the little information about it that I could find online wasn’t presented well – it was either too wrapped up with the ethical issues or just not reader-friendly … and a lot of it was on webpages that looked like they were built in 1997. So I thought there was room for a fun, friendly, trustworthy alternative.
What kinds of content are most important to your business? Blog? Email list? Podcast?
I use an email autoresponder sequence and recently started a podcast too, but the blog is really the hub of it all. I learned (from Brian Clark, in a Third Tribe seminar) to think of any other types of content, including social media, as satellites that surround the blog and ultimately lead people back to it.
What resources or tools did you find most helpful when you were getting started?
Seth Godin’s book Tribes provided me with an initial vision for what No Meat Athlete could one day be, and that vision still dictates most of the decisions I make about the site. No Meat Athlete shirts, of which we’ve sold something like 10,000 now, are a fun, visible example – they’ve become a sort of cool, not-so-secret handshake among No Meat Athlete fans when they see each other at races.
As far as putting the pieces together, though, just about everything I learned came from the Third Tribe — I joined when it first launched, and I’m still a member! Those early seminars that Brian and Sonia did were so foundational for me when I was learning how to write content, grow an audience, and run an online business for the first time. I would burn the seminars onto CD’s and listen to them over and over while I was driving to and from grad school classes … I had this big stack of them that I listened to so often they eventually got all scratched up and I had to burn them all again! (Then I heard about this newfangled thing called MP3’s that the kids are into these days.)
Jon Morrow’s Guest Blogging course was also a big one for me. I had actually already done some pretty big guest posts, including one for Zen Habits, when Jon launched his course, but I learned so much about blogging in general from that course and some coaching calls I did with Jon that really helped me with choosing post topics and engineering posts to get traffic.
What was your situation before you started blogging? Were you always a business owner, or did you have a more traditional career?
I was in grad school, studying Applied Math. I enjoyed math and I still do, but I remember sitting in a mandatory seminar about how to position yourself for a job after graduation, and thinking, “There’s just no way I’m going to go through this competitive, stressful job-application process in hopes of sitting at a desk working for somebody else for 50 hours a week.” So I was always trying to think of business ideas and ways to spend my time doing something I cared about, and eventually one worked out. (It helped that the cost of getting started was essentially zero, because that’s about all I could afford!)
How do you use social networking in your business?
I got on Twitter as soon as I started the blog back in 2009, and it really helped me to shorten that phase when nobody is reading what you write. But pretty quickly, I made an important distinction — that even though the people I was interested in learning from about blogging and business were on Twitter, the typical No Meat Athlete reader was not. Instead, she was on Facebook, and that’s since become our main social media channel.
I still use Twitter for fun and to connect with other bloggers and authors, but I’m slowly moving to Google+ for that because I think eventually it will be the place to connect with these bloggers and with readers. And since Google owns search, it seems like a bad idea to ignore it.
One thing I learned from Sonia is to focus on doing a few social media channels well instead of trying to do all of them and doing a poor job of it. So I set up accounts on other sites, like StumbleUpon, LinkedIn, and Pinterest, but I really don’t use them much.
What were some of the main tipping points or “a-ha!” moments (if any)? How did they come about?
Without a doubt, the biggest shift came right after I found Copyblogger and learned about the importance of headlines, nine months after I started blogging.
But it wasn’t just the added sharing and traffic that having a good headline brings – it was more fundamental than that. When you force yourself to come up with a strong headline before you start writing a post, you’re performing a litmus test with your topic. If you can’t come up with a compelling headline for the post – like I never could when I was getting ready to blog about what I ate for breakfast – that’s a pretty good sign that the post is too much about you, or just plain boring. The converse, of course, is that headline brainstorms like the Cosmo technique lead to ideas for your best post topics.
Another “a-ha” was something I learned from Jon Morrow, and I think about it every time I sit down to write: If you don’t think a post isn’t going to get tons of comments, links, and traffic, then writing it is a waste of time. A lot of bloggers have the notion that it’s better to publish something boring than nothing at all, and I did too, but that’s a sure way to train readers to ignore you.
What were your biggest mistakes, or biggest wastes of time or money?
I wasted a lot of time in the early days fooling around with coding and design. I’d try to make my own header, and end up spending 8 hours on something that looked way worse than a real designer could have done in 15 minutes. And several times when I tried to mess with HTML and CSS to tweak my blog theme, I screwed something up and the whole site wouldn’t load — I’d panic and think No Meat Athlete was gone forever. It’s just not worth the stress, so now I have a StudioPress theme and leave the design stuff to pros (like my designer, Charfish Design).
I’ve also wasted money on one of those the big, expensive internet marketing courses – it made me realize that the techniques those guys teach, while perhaps effective for some niches and types of businesses, need some serious tweaking (and humanizing) if you’re going to use them with an audience of people that you genuinely respect.
Why do you think you became an independent business owner and blogger, when most people just stick with the career they have, even if it’s unsatisfying? What’s different about you?
Change — especially starting something and calling it yours — feels risky and scary. We’re wired to avoid it. Seth Godin teaches us now that what’s really risky is choosing not to start your own gig, or making the choice not to become essential in your job. But I think for most people, that’s hard to accept on a gut level, even if you believe it intellectually.
The difference for me is that the thought of spending the better part of my life doing work that doesn’t matter to me and for somebody else truly does terrify me at a deep level — way more than the choice to work for myself does (which has its moments). I spent two years after college doing the normal 9-to-5 thing, and I was so miserable. Something just felt very wrong and unsettling about it, like I was on the wrong path. I’d wake up in the middle night with this horrible, “What are doing with your life?” feeling, and my old roommates like to joke about this one night where I was just lying on the floor groaning about how much I hated what I was doing — but it wasn’t funny at all back then, at least not to me.
What does your business look like today?
Things are going really well. I decided to leave grad school with my Master’s degree instead of finishing the PhD, in order to work on No Meat Athlete full-time, and it was the right decision.
The site’s revenue is split between digital training programs — including a membership site side-project that I run with Jason Fitzgerald from Strength Running — and No Meat Athlete gear, like our shirts.
As far as other numbers go, the blog has 16,000 subscribers and the email newsletter another 21,000. And we get around 600,000 pageviews a month now; about 280,000 of those are uniques.
While our family car is still not a Lamborghini filled with bikini models, we have fulfilled another online business dream: location independence. Last year my wife, son, and I moved from the suburban town where I grew up, to Asheville, North Carolina, a funky, vegan-friendly town in the mountains, with lots of art and music and outdoorsy stuff. It’s like we’re no longer the weird vegans — here we’re the boring, normal people, and we love it that way.
What’s next for you? What are your next goals?
The big news for me is that last month I finished writing my first book with a publisher. It’s called – what else? — No Meat Athlete, and it’ll be in stores this fall. Writing it was an entirely different (harder) process than self-publishing, but I’m so excited about the chance to spread this message to a much wider audience of people who can benefit from it than I can reach with my blog.
Beyond that, I really want to give No Meat Athlete a presence at the local level. To me, having No Meat Athlete groups around the country (and world) that meet up to train together or grab some vegetarian food and hang out would be the completion of the loop that Tribes opened in my mind. I’ve got a community part of the site in the works, with forums and fun ways to connect people, and I’m hoping that will be the first step.
What advice would you give to bloggers and content creators who are trying to build an online audience?
Learn everything you possibly can about writing and blogging and making connections online. Really study it. And then expect six months of sucking at it before you get good.
Get comfortable with (and truly enthusiastic about) giving away your best content for free.
And finally, an approach to blogging that Jon Morrow taught me, which I’ve found leads to a pretty fulfilling life outside of blogging, too:
Figure out something everyone has always wanted to do but they believe is impossible.
And then do it.
And then write about it.
Editor’s Note: We’ve absolutely loved watching Matt’s progress inside the Third Tribe. While Third Tribe is closed to new members, we do have a new resource coming for you that will help you build your authoritative, business-building online presence the same way that Matt did. Keep reading the blog, because we’ll be letting you know about that very shortly.