When I met Jen Waak at a group dinner for women bloggers during the South by Southwest conference, I was impressed with her warm, engaging personality.
Then she stood up from the table and (with Sonia Simone’s help) demonstrated what a good kettlebell swing technique looked like — and I noticed what an amazing athlete she is, as well!
Jen is a smart entrepreneur with a much-needed message. What she teaches is simple, yet powerful — that just because we sit behind desks all day doesn’t mean we can’t also take good care of our bodies, and do everything we can do stay healthy and pain-free.
Let’s dig into Jen’s entrepreneurial story, and find out how agile content creation helped her discover her calling, built her audience, and turned her niche blog into a thriving business …
Beth Hayden: What’s your site and what do you write about?
Jen Waak: Keyboard Athletes is for people who spend way too much time in front of their computers. They’re looking for some simple ways improve their productivity and energy levels by taking care of their bodies — but don’t necessarily have a lot of time to put into it.
As a recovering management consultant turned entrepreneur, I’m all-too-familiar with this phenomenon, at both the corporate and individual level. I write about health and fitness from the perspective that it doesn’t have to be nearly as complex or time-consuming as people make it out to be. Minutes a day can make a huge difference.
I’m also from the camp that there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all. I work within a pragmatic and non-dogmatic framework that I call the Energy Bank, that everyone can thrive in. Rule #1 is: there are no rules.
Beth: Who is your audience and how do you serve them? Was there a pressing problem you were trying to solve?
Jen: My readers all share the common goal of seeking practical and efficient ways to better manage their personal energy stores, but that is really where the commonalities end.
My primary readers are individuals in corporate settings, as well as entrepreneurs and solopreneurs. I also write for HR and health and safety managers within large companies, and other like-minded practitioners that are looking for ideas and inspiration for themselves, as well as their clients.
The idea for Keyboard Athletes came out of a need to solve my own problem — I broke my back in a car accident when I was 16, so had been suffering for low back pain for almost two decades. That, combined with the 3″ heels I insisted on wearing to work every day and the 10-12 hours days trapped at a computer, meant that by the time I was in my mid-30s I was in constant pain. And, I knew, just knew, that I was far too young to be feeling this way — and so were my friends, family, and colleagues.
A mission was born. I simply knew there had to be a way to rehab my body. I have this undying belief that the human body is capable of healing itself if you can give it the right inputs.
I serve this audience at both the corporate and individual level by teaching people the little things they can do in minutes a day, often at their desks, that will directly impact their energy and productivity levels.
My blog, newsletter, free online courses, free and paid books and ebooks, and workshops are all designed towards that common goal.
One example is the vision drills I share in this infographic. It’s 20 seconds of vision drills every 20 minutes, and the drills help keep your eyes healthy and well-rested.
Beth: What kinds of content are most important to your business? Blog? Email list? Podcast?
Jen: I’ve been blogging on this topic since 2007, and my blog was key in helping me develop some of my early true fans.
I’m happiest when I’m digging around PubMed and figuring out how to translate some complex topic into something that is relevant and easy-to-understand for the office athlete, so I want to spend my content creation hours on meaty pieces that allow me to do that.
Right now I spend most of my time making sure my email lists are well taken care of, and creating new eBooks, both free and paid, as well as managing the free online courses I already have.
I’ve also just started diving into infographics, and as a speaker and in-person educator I’m starting to turn my attention to YouTube.
Beth: What resources or tools did you find most helpful when you were getting started?
Jen: I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Sonia’s Remarkable Marketing Blueprint (now a part of Teaching Sells).
I had done enough reading and studying to know all of the pieces, but she put it together in way I finally understood. Plus, I can’t say enough good things about the Remarkables community we created there — it is still an incredibly important part of my life, and it is key to my business’ success.
Also, the LiftOff Retreat by Charlie Gilkey and Pam Slim helped propel me to play a bigger game and really go for it. I considered it a sign when I came home from LiftOff and Seth Godin’s blog post the day after the retreat read:
Dig yourself a hole.
Make big promises.
Burn your boats.
Set yourself up in a place where you have few options and the stakes are high.
Focused energy and serious intent will push you to do your best work. You have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. (Better than the alternative).
That same week I came home, quit my day job, and have never looked back.
Beth: What was your situation before you started blogging? Were you always a business owner, or did you have a more traditional career?
Jen: Before I began blogging, I worked in corporate America for almost two decades as a programmer, project manager, and program manager. It was those long hours in the cubicle and seeing what that sedentary lifestyle was doing to me, my friends, and my colleagues that made me so passionate about doing what I do.
Beth: How do you use social networking in your business?
Jen: My use of social networking sites has certainly evolved over time. I find myself using them less and less to share content, although I certainly do that, and more and more for building and maintaining relationships. For me, it’s about taking things into two-way conversations using vehicles like LinkedIn and Facebook groups.
I also rely on social networks to help me find those must-attend, in-person events. My business has a large offline component, so I am regularly checking out different groups and events to find future collaborators, clients, or referral sources. I can accomplish so much more in 5 minutes of in-person conversation than I can in months of back-and-forth emails.
Beth: What were some of the main tipping points or “a-ha!” moments of your business? How did they come about?
Jen: My biggest a-ha’s are all centered around understanding my customer.
My first a-ah is courtesy of the amazing Pam Slim. She sat down with me one day over Skype and essentially beat me over the head with the idea that no matter who I WANT to serve, unless I can do that profitably, it’s irrelevant. It was extremely hard for me to hear at the time, even though I already knew she was right, but making that pivot in my business to refocus who I was serving was absolutely the right thing to do. I still get to serve who I want to serve, but it’s no longer my primary revenue stream — and that’s made all the difference.
My second huge a-ha was fairly recently regarding my corporate clients. I had developed that customer profile based upon a guess and some initial client contacts, and then one evening I took a close look at my list and who my current clients actually were, and realized that my corporate clients were coming from a completely different set of industries than I had previously imagined. After the initial sense of despair passed, I realized that discovering it was a blessing and by refocusing, I quickly developed some new opportunities.
My third a-ha was about the second customer. Through my training, I have a large network of fellow practitioners around the globe — and we are a pretty tight community. As most of them are not content marketers, what I find is that they are absolutely wonderful at sharing my content and driving people to my list. Most importantly, because I have the reputation in the community as “the Keyboard Athletes person,” they refer corporate clients to me.
Beth: What were your biggest mistakes, or biggest wastes of time/money?
Jen: Historically, the biggest mistake I’ve made is trying to emulate what someone else does. I fell into the trap of thinking, “if it’s working for them, it will work for me.”
I should know better, because in my business I preach individuality and personalized solutions based upon the individual’s goals. But numerous times, I’ve lost sight of that and tried things like launching programs when I didn’t have a big enough list to make it work, or marketing on the wrong social media platform for my audience because someone said “this is where you need to be.”
Now, finally, I feel like I’ve experimented with enough that I can see what someone else is doing and adapt it to my business and my customers. And, if I am unsure of how to adapt it, I have an amazing community of uber-smart business owners that I can always ask for advice.
Beth: Why do you think you became an independent business owner, when most people just stick with the career they have, even if it’s unsatisfying? What’s different about you?
Jen: Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I was going to have my own business. I never knew what it was, but it was always a given. My grandmother started her own pet supply company in the 1950s that started at the dining room table and grew into a very successful business. Growing up and seeing that business thriving was a huge source of inspiration for me.
What’s different about me is that I have to love what I’m doing. If I don’t love it, or it doesn’t facilitate me doing what I love, I won’t do it — plain and simple.
Living in Seattle, I like to joke that for me helping people feel better, move better, and have more energy is a whole lot more fun than making money for Bill Gates. I enjoyed consulting and was good at it, but I never woke up with a sense of excitement each day like I do now.
Beth: What does your business look like today?
Jen: My business has two sides to it: a B2B corporate side that targets mid-sized to large businesses, and a B2C side where I work with individuals from both the corporate and entrepreneurial worlds.
When it comes to my corporate audience it’s a familiar tale: an audience filled with people who sit too much or deal with too much repetitive motion and whose bodies are paying the price.
I deal with a range of companies and job descriptions from the call center at a large west coast utility, to the Seattle Times mailroom and warehouse, to the office staff at GenRe, the reinsurance division of Berkshire Hathaway.
In each case the solution is the same. I help the attendees find their individualized drills and identify the precise changes they can make in order increase energy levels and alleviate the symptoms of repetitive strain.
The B2C business is a mix of online and offline, with my pride and joy being my online coaching and accountability program, the Posse. Whether it’s a FitBit competition, cheering each another up mountains, or long-running Dr. Who threads, this is a group that really wants to take care of themselves — and have fun doing it.
In addition to the Posse, I also work with individuals in my studio in Seattle, as well as remotely via Skype.
My first book, Keyboard Athletes Guide to Pain Relief & Prevention, was published in December 2011 and continues to sell well to individuals and businesses.
Beth: What’s next for you? What are your next goals?
Jen: I just finished co-authoring a book on fall prevention for seniors, The Tai Chi Way to Better Balance, which should be out in the next few weeks. It’s written for the adult children of seniors, and I think our combination of this-is-how-they-got-there and this-is-what-you-can-do-about-it will really give the adult children the tools they need to improve the lives of their parents.
This year I’m working toward expanding my corporate work nationally on an ongoing basis. I already teach a number of in-person workshops on topics ranging from “Be a Healthy Road Warrior” to “Why Ergonomics isn’t a Total Solution.” I also offer a popular “At-Your-Desk Exercises” class.
I’m beginning work with a few organizations to turn these types of workshops into complete programs that combine in-person workshops with video training and movement programs — which I can augment with local people who I train to be my boots on the ground.
Beth: What advice would you give to bloggers and content creators who are trying to build an audience online?
Jen: Given that all of my mis-steps were around knowing my customer, to me rule #1 is “Know Thy Customer” with the important corollary of “Your Customer May Change, So Regularly Re-Assess.”
For example, none of my corporate buyers and very few of my former corporate colleagues use Twitter. So I don’t spend a lot of time talking about those services on Twitter. Instead, I go to LinkedIn groups, and that is where I find those people having rich conversations on topics relevant to my business and what I offer.
Knowing exactly who your customer is will also tell you about their buying cycle, and help you figure out what information they need to move along to the next stage and helps you build out your content strategy.
And finally, I think it’s about patience and planning. Rome wasn’t built in a day, we don’t create the body we want overnight, and an audience — particularly one that will buy from you — doesn’t appear overnight.
Create the roadmap, regularly re-evaluate, expect detours, and enjoy the ride.