My Biggest Personal Struggle As I Build My Public Online Business

July 21, 2014

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Please note: This post has a very strong Christian perspective, which is different from what I normally post. If you are offended by that, this isn't the post for you.

I can remember it like it was yesterday.

It was my second trip to Germany for another three months because my department sent me there to do research while I was doing my masters degree.

07_20_Struggle_PinterestIt was a pretty sweet deal. They were funding my entire degree, paying to send me to Germany to do research and giving me a stipend of around $1,000/month for the work I was doing.

Awesome arrangement right? Yes it was, until things went south.

The grant they had been using to pay me was running out quickly and they couldn’t afford to do as much as they had done the first time.

What made everything worse was that the “friend” who agreed to let me stay with her for free (since I was out of money), decided to have a change in heart and that I couldn’t stay there anymore.

So there I was in a foreign country, struggling to speak the little German I could muster, stressed out by research that was growing to be a significant pain, and out of money.

Fortunately, my major professor was there with me for the first two weeks, so I could stay in his room with him for that period of time.

Unfortunately, I had to find a place to stay that would take me in for next to nothing, since the ONLY money I had was the minimal stipend the department could scrape together (2 or 300 dollars) and the payment for designing one or two websites over that summer.

The next three months would be a serious test of faith.

The Miracles

In the process of trying to find a place for next to nothing, I stumbled onto an unbelievable deal. For 67 Euros, which at the time was worth around 80 US dollars, I stayed in a fraternity house.

Wait, did I say house? I meant to say mansion. That place was so huge that it blew my mind.

There was a full bar in the basement where we could get as many drinks as possible and pay the bill at the end of the month, and a professional chef that would come by every Tuesday to make us a restaurant-quality meal that we didn’t have to pay for.

This was great for the second half of the month, when all my money was gone and I literally couldn’t afford to buy ANY food. Unfortunately, since I don’t drink beer or any other alcoholic beverages (usually), this limited me to soda for those 2 weeks each month. BUT, I knew I could count on getting one full meal every week.

What was even more awesome was seeing the other things that happened during the second half of the month.

As I mentioned, my money was usually done by then, so I really couldn’t buy any food. However, I saw God providing for me in amazing ways.

There was usually a random birthday celebration, or some kind of get together where there was food in the building where I worked. Or I’d be invited to some kind of event where there was food. Food always miraculously appeared and I didn't starve.

Now, I did lose a significant amount of weight because I wasn’t getting as much food as I would normally eat, but it was amazing to see the random ways God would choose to provide so that I didn’t starve.

It almost became a game in my mind – I was excited to see what cool door God would open each day so that I could eat.

For the first time in my life, I felt like I really experienced God in a tangible way and he won my heart again.

From that moment on, I knew that God would really provide for my needs, and even though it may not come in the way I would want or expect (like giving me enough money to purchase what I needed), He was still in control.

Because of this (and a bunch of other events since), I made the decision to live fully for Him. My life would no longer be about me, but about me doing what He wants me to do and being where He wants me to be.

My life would not be about becoming famous, being the center of attention, or getting a bunch of followers. It would be about Him being seen through me, me focusing my attention on Him and showing people that there’s a leader worth following who’s much better than I am – one who would take care of their needs like He took care of mine in Germany.

The Crazy Journey

Since then, my life has gone in a bunch of different directions, and as I look back, I see the same kind of providence.

From my wife and I getting teaching jobs at the same boarding academy straight out of college, to starting my online business.

From becoming a university professor without a pHD to speaking at conferences throughout the U.S and ultimately leaving that job to pursue my online business full time.

In the midst of it all, I find myself somewhat afraid.

I’ve seen so many humble people rise to success, only to start believing the hype that they are the best thing since sliced bread.

I’ve seen the evolution of social media, and how it encourages us to not only focus on ourselves, but to portray ourselves as awesome, almost flawless individuals.

Online marketing “gurus” are becoming “superstars” with crowds gathering around them for autographs.

Social media marketers are encouraging us all to use the Internet to grow our fame and build a tribe of loyal fans.

Facebook is encouraging us to share as much info about ourselves to get as many likes as possible.

Youtube is encouraging us to “broadcast ourselves”, and we’re starting to look at Youtubers with tons of subscribers as idols.

We’re posting tons of pics on Instagram, giving our friends the illusion that life is much better than the emptiness we often feel inside.

Selfie was the word of the year in 2013.

All in all, what I’m seeing more today than ever before is that this online ecosystem we’ve created is one that encourages self aggrandizement (the action or process of promoting oneself as being powerful or important) at an astonishing level.

If I were to use only the pictures and videos I see of my “friends” on social media, I would come to the conclusion that most people are successful, eat the best food ever, and are having so much fun in life, experiencing mostly exciting times – but this is farther from the truth than it has probably ever been.

So What’s My Personal Struggle?

I’ve been growing my online business since January 18, 2008 and it has been an awesome journey.

As part of this journey, I’ve been able to accomplish a lot – my Biology blog sees as many as 60,000+ visitors/month and makes what I can truly consider to be passive income on a monthly basis.

I’ve been able to grow my biology email list to almost 20,000 subscribers and then pruned it down to 15,000.

Become A Blogger, by comparison, only gets between 8 and 15,000 people on a monthly basis, with an email list of around 13,000 but is my main source of income since leaving my job at the end of last month.

My business is at an interesting inflection point and to be honest, I’m a little afraid.

I’m not struggling with the possibility of financial success.

I’m not struggling with the thought of not being able to manage my business.

I’m not struggling with fear of failure.

What I’m struggling with is a bit deeper (in my opinion).

I don’t want to lose my commitment to something that is bigger than myself.

Lets be real. It’s easy for your ego to be inflated when your email inbox gets inundated with messages about how awesome you are.

When you launch a product that gets sold out in less than 90 minutes, that can easily go to your head if you let it.

When you start to reach a certain level of success, it’s easy to forget where you came from if you don’t keep reminding yourself.

I was humbled a few weeks ago after reading something I wrote when I first started, and while it seems simple (and maybe even irrelevant), it was quite profound to me.

First, some background. I get emails on a daily basis from companies and other bloggers that go something like this:

Hi, my name is XYZ and I’ve created this great website/product/service that I know your audience would love.

Please link to me because I’m awesome.

These emails annoy me so much. Why? Because they offer no value. It’s nothing but self promotion and people trying to get ahead by trying to convince me to send the traffic that I’ve worked extremely hard for to someone I don’t even know.

I’m ashamed to say that in some of these cases, I’ve responded in very negative ways.

Then, I was going through some of my past emails and saw something that shocked me – a template email I used to send out that said the exact same thing.

You see, back in the days, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t understand the value of relationships within this online environment. I didn’t understand the concept of providing value before asking for value.

And here I am judging them for doing the exact same thing I used to do.

So What Will I Do

Since I know that I’m human, and susceptible to the same temptations that we all fall for from time to time, I know that I have to be proactive to make sure that my success happens in the right way. This is why I’m committing myself to abiding by the following ten principles:

  • Instead of focusing on my success, I will focus on providing value and helping others.
  • I will not try to portray anything that isn’t an accurate reflection of who I am and what’s really going on in my life.
  • I will share my failures to show that yes – I’m human too.
  • I will constantly remind myself that I too was once a beginner and made beginner mistakes.
  • I will not view successful bloggers as more important than beginning bloggers.
  • I will connect with people as people, not just as potential customers.
  • I will constantly strive for growth as a community instead of just gaining more fans.
  • I will continue to do the best that I can with the gifts God has given me and not hold myself back because of fear.
  • I will always try to give God credit for what He has done in my life.
  • When I do make mistakes, I will remind myself that I'm human, but seek to learn from those mistakes.

That’s all. That’s the best I know how to do.

If you made it this far in this post, quite frankly, I’m impressed. I kinda just let it all out there. However, it’s what has been going through my mind.

I’ll end with this – last weekend, I went to church and heard a sermon by Rodlie Ortiz from the blog Moddern Ekklesia.

It was on the topic of social media and how we should navigate our lives as Christians in this social media dominated world.

At the end of the sermon he said that God gave us guidance on how to navigate this entire changing ecosystem, and I'll end on that. It can be found in John 3:30:

“He must increase, but I must decrease”.

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67 Comments

  • Lucrecer says:

    I am sure you are going to be outstanding in all that you do, Leslie. You are right. We have to decrease so He can increase in us. If are of service to others, He shines through us each and every time.

  • LOVE this Leslie! That is why you are so awesome! You are who you are, and I love that about you! God will continue to lead you and I wanted to share with you one thing that I’ve always heard about my online business “God has given you a platform, don’t waste it.” I’ve always felt like if I let myself get in the way, God’s platform would be wasted…..

    You are doing great things and can’t wait to see what happens next for you!

  • Cori says:

    Thank you for this post. I am a new blogger, struggling to turn my blog into a real source of income. Honestly, it stresses me out sometimes. I printed ur checklist and I’m going to keep it in my blog planner to remind me to keep my perspective

  • Minhaj says:

    Hi, Leslie,
    Congrats for having a struggling life journey!
    You are doing awesome.

    I love this principle, “I will connect with people as people, not just as potential customers”. I also try to follow this principle.

    Please keep sharing your success and failures with us so we can learn from you.

    God bless you.

  • sandy says:

    This was a good message. I think many top bloggers could feel the same. The question is how to deal with this and in what content. You could do a gratitude blog post once a week for those who want to read it, such as you’ve done with this post. However, if in every post their is reference to God then it could brand you in a different way, because not all people have the same beliefs. People can see from your behavior that you are a special person. It’s not all about words. The other alternative is to have a blog about your faith. I know: I’d read it. As always keep vigilant about prayer each day and that will help you stay humble. Thanks for this post.

    • You are right, and I don’t plan on changing the way I post here to my blog. But, from time to time, I like to give an insight into what I’m dealing with. In terms of a blog about my faith – I don’t feel lead to doing that right now. For now, I live my life the best I know how and let God do the rest 🙂

  • Don says:

    Excellent post Leslie.

    We all need to remind ourselves of those things.
    It’s amazing to see what God is doing if we will just open our minds to look for all that He is doing to help us through our challenges.

  • Rebecca Livermore says:

    Thanks for this, Leslie. I appreciated hearing more of your story and also the lessons that you’ve learned through all of it. I think this is a battle that we all face, and the good news is, recognizing it and keeping it always in front of you is what will make a difference.

  • Debbie says:

    Your post brought me to tears today Leslie – in a good way!! You are so eloquent in providing value for everyone, yet staying true to what you believe in. I, too, will be printing your list of ten reminders and keeping it where I can see it.

    Thank you for standing strong and being a great example for the rest of us to stay true to our values. I don’t even have a blog yet, and frankly it scares me to death at the thought of starting one! But someday, when I get brave, I hope to let God’s love shine as you do!

    God Bless!

    • If Christ be for you, who can be against you? Debbie, I would encourage you to just take that leap of faith.

      Glad to hear that you resonated with this post. Wishing you nothing but the best on this journey.

  • Ed says:

    The initial warning on the nature of this post for its “very strong Christian perspective” resembles that for adult content websites. America was founded on this Christian perspective but evil has done a terrible job turning this perspective into something dangerous or offensive. Please accept by best congratulations on your being a good Christian, which used to be a guarantee of righteousness and business decency… and still is.

    • LOL, I hear you. The reason for the “warning” was because the nature of this post is not the way I usually post on this blog. It is an exception rather than a norm. So I decided to include that at the top, somewhat as a joke, but also letting people know what to expect. I don’t apologize for the content, but I want people to know 🙂

  • Thank you Leslie for opening up and helping myself and others. We must be who we are and honour the God that we serve in every aspect of our life. This post was very helpful to me. Blessings to you and your family!

  • Laura Kay Greiner says:

    Your transparency and integrity are appreciated, your list of commitments is beauty-full, and although I do not call myself a Christian, I gratefully receive and embrace the gift of experiencing GO(O)D through your unique forms of self-expression, including – and not limited to – Interactive Biology and Become A Blogger.

  • Great blog today Leslie- I appreciate you and appreciate that you love your God and know that He is the one that provides for us all.. My NIV version says, “He must become greater, I must become less.” The ‘must’ part is very important and us remembering that we are less than He. My business limped along for a few years until I asked the Lord for guidance (for he picks us up when we fall, and guides us to see more clearly through Him), that I learned I had to give away part of my revenues to be blessed with an increase in my sales to the lesser fortunate ones in this world. That how He rolls and thank you for sharing that with your online world. Blessings Abundantly, Canigan Intl

  • grahame says:

    Hi Leslie
    It’s nice to hear you open up and to be so honest and humble. And to share your story. I know what you have been going through as I too have been down that road a few times. I am not a God fearing man myself but rather I call myself a humanist. I feel we should all work together for a common goal and help where we can. Wishing you all the very best

  • tanyawriter says:

    I have even more respect for you than ever after reading this! I built a whole blog around John 3:30 — won’t spam you with it here but I will leave it for you to decide.

  • Chip Dizard says:

    I respect this post. As a fellow Christian, and blogger, you can start to believe your “own” press and think you are better than others. It’s good to have a godly wife (both of us do) and friends that love you, but aren’t impressed by you. That’s not a bad thing, it’s a reality.

    Everyone wants success, but they don’t know what comes with it. Jealousy, people asking for your time, more people emailing you than you can ever answer or respond.

    Stay focused, steer clear of the noise and keep adding value. You are in my prayers Leslie and I know even if you have setbacks, they will be opportunities to give God glory.

    Personal stories show your heart and character and both of those are huge Leslie.

    God Bless,

    Chip

    • Thanks for your comment Chip,

      Yep – I hear you on having a Godly wife and friends. Such a blessing.

      I appreciate you keeping me in your prayers. I need it 😉

  • CIPA says:

    Leslie, I truly believe that God is transferring His wealth to people just like YOU. He’s looking for people He can trust. He’s looking for people who truly understand that we are “blessed to be a blessing.” This internet medium will continue to morph, and those who have authentically positioned themselves as value-based servants will prosper. PPC, banner retargetting and SEO will have matter less and less. We are in a world of hurting and lost souls/selfies. They want to be seen because DEEP down they need to be helped. Bless ya, bruh!!!

    • I agree – PPC, banner retargetting and SEO will matter less and less. I hardly focus on any of those. I figure that if we put awesome content out there to genuinely help people, we can be surprised at what happens. And if God be for us, who can be against us 🙂

  • Thank you for reading the Post it is awesome that I can listen while at the JOB.
    AND a Big Thank you for not being ashamed of the Gospel and your beliefs Brother!
    Robert

  • God is an awesome God! Humble yourself, be honest and selfless in your doings and God will open doors for you! Thanks for another enlightening lesson.

  • pjao13 says:

    This is something I struggle with too. I want to share the things that I have learned in my life moving from what I considered to be average to becoming good to great to phenomenal. That’s what I strive for each day and I believe that none of us were made to be average. We have within us the ability to do great things we were given a special talent each person and we are supposed to share that gift with the world to affect others lives in a postive way. In my sharing I sometimes begin to feel good about myself and a little pride begins to creep in here and there. I then have to remember that, that wasn’t the reason I started my blog.

    Your message resonates with me and I thank you for sharing it. It’s a nice reminder to help me stay humble.

    Success to you!

    • Thanks for your feedback Paul,

      I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with feeling good about what we do, or even taking pride in it. However, when we start to let it get to our heads – that’s when things can get a bit interesting.

      We definitely need to stay humble. All the best on your journey.

  • This is such a powerful post. It was just what I needed to hear today. You ever think of starting a spiritual motivation podcast?, lol. I will be using your 10 principles myself. Hope that’s ok 🙂

    • Haha, yep – I’ve actually thought of doing it. But decided that I needed to focus, and that by living my life the way God wants me to, that can be a powerful enough testimony to be spiritually motivating 😉

      Of course it’s ok to use my 10 principles. I’m starting to think I should create a printable version 🙂

  • Christy says:

    I am thankful for your story and your bravery to be transparent about your successes, failures, and faith. It annoys me when bloggers who are Christian compartmentalize their faith and don’t ever talk about it, because they don’t have a “Christian” blog and don’t want to offend others. It definitely shows in who you are, but I’m sure God appreciates a big “shout out” every now and then for all He does. Your testimony warmed my heart and brought tears to my eyes. Thank you!

    • Well He has done so much for me that he deserves MUCH MORE than a shout out 😉

      You are very much welcome Christy. Glad the post resonated with you!

  • marytautfest says:

    Leslie,
    I thank you so much for your integrity. You have set the standard for all of us to give
    lots of value to others and allow God to use us so He gets the glory.
    I thank you for this. You are an inspiration to me and many others. The fact that
    you are open about God and not ashamed is a testimony. I have learned so much by
    your blog, but I think this is the biggest take a way I have heard yet. As I pursue the online
    thing I will always remember this. We must be true to ourselves and the values that we have and not compromise.
    Blessings,
    Mary Tautfest

  • Janene says:

    I love that you were brave and shared this message and I understand the running out of money and how somehow the provision is there and what a wonderful blessing that is. I often struggle to know when the right time is to share my faith in a business environment. It’s all I ever want to talk about! 🙂 I guessed you were a Christian because you end a lot of your videos with God Bless. It’s too bad we sometimes feel we have to edit what we talk about, but with God’s grace He always brings the right people, circumstances, etc to us. Thanks for all the great content.

    • I don’t think that we really need to edit. We need to just live our lives the best way we know how. Everything I say won’t be directly about God, but the way I live my life is because of Him and reflects Him (I hope). I think we need to be unapologetically who we are. When I write a blog post about Podcasting (for example), it’s not necessary for me to talk about God. It’s a post about podcasting. However, when I do get an opportunity to share, I share.

  • randywilburn says:

    Leslie,

    Thanks for such a thoughtful and significant post. I really appreciate your transparency and testimony. Scripture tells us that we overcome by the Blood of the Lamb and the word of our Testimony and you are certainly doing that. You have helped me to be freer with my beliefs online and I believe that the template you are providing here is a “Game Changer!” I pray nothing but continues success for you and your endeavors and that Gods will be done in your life. You are certainly on the Ascent.

    Best Blessings,

    Randy Wilburn

    • Thanks for your words of encouragement Randy. I really appreciate it. And yes – we need to encourage each other with our testimonies. They go a long way.

  • Ruth says:

    Awesome post Leslie, being in service and living your truth no matter what is at stake takes guts and shear determination. It’s the journey that counts and not the destination.

  • Hassan says:

    I have followed you two weeks before and this is the first ever post of you i have heard and read. Trust me, You are awesome. Really like it. God Bless and Thank You.

  • Kevin says:

    I just wanted to drop you a quick note and tell you how much I enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing. God bless! -Kevin

    • Thanks Kevin,

      So I just checked out your site and man – I need it, lol. I will be checking you out more because I need to take my photography to the next level.

  • Joyce says:

    Leslie…one word…Awesome!

    Thanks for “being real”….I am also a believer yet “allowed” a very well known business coach to convince me that the “Christian undertones” were too strong on my website…(said it was “offensive” and would ”turn clients off” who weren’t Christian…that I should wait until after I get to know clients before sharing with them ”my beliefs”)….so I redid the content …took all reference to God and being a Christian away…my business really started to suffer…it took me a while “to get” what was happening …so I have done a “course correction” and am back to being “the real me”…after all my blog/website it about “Making Your Home a Haven”….how can your home possible be a “haven” if God is not part of the equation????

    Now I only work with and follow “Leaders” who openly share their faith…which is why I follow you…

    Blessings,
    Joyce

    • Wow Joyce, that’s an awesome testimony to the power of being real. That’s the way to go. Forget anyone who tells you otherwise. Make your home a haven, and he told you to take God out of it. He was obviously the wrong coach for you.

      Keep on being you, and letting God shine through you.

  • Eugene says:

    Bro, excellent post. I’ve read your blog many times before and usually don’t comment, but this was just a pleasure to read. Humility is key.

    Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: 1 Peter 5:5-6.

    The sky is truly the limit now. God Bless. Never forget He who sustains you.

  • Love the concept Leslie! Thanks for sharing your experience and your struggles. He must increase and I must decrease. Halaluyah….. Beautiful words.

  • Jacqueline says:

    I went to the same church, and heard the same sermon. It summarized almost what I think about social media, and opened new ways of thinking for me. What you described in your post it is the struggle for every christian. Let’s us be humble and put God first in whatever we do.
    God bless!

    Jacqueline

  • Hunny Yadav says:

    Hey Leslie ! Great Post Man 🙂
    As I’m starting my journey of Online business with a blog , I will be following your blog from starting !
    P.S – Looking forward to all the coming posts and thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Hannah says:

    Great post Leslie, it is very informational and helpful! Blogging and social media are an incredible way to grow your business. If these are used correctly, you will undoubtedly generate an unstoppable flow of fresh leads into your list! I have had so much luck growing my business using these free e-books at http://www.freelivingamerican.com. I try to tell everyone about these free informative guides to help send leads to your website. Good Luck! And thanks again for all the helpful info!

  • Leslie, Just heard this today and it is awesome! Thank you for being a voice we all need to hear. Thank you for being who you are – honest and open. Love the closing quote. My favorite, and one I know you live by; “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” – Phil 2:3

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