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A reader criticized how I approached a recent post, and something they said reminded me about a topic we don’t really talk about often.
How does ToolGuyd make money?
I have done freelance work for magazines and other publications in the past, but for the sake of this post, let’s talk about 2023 exclusively.
Here’s what has been keeping the lights on, in no particular order:
- Affiliate referrals/commissions
- Google advertising
- Direct advertising
Affiliate referrals/commissions – you can buy a Dewalt 10pc drill bit set at Amazon for $10, or a Dewalt 30pc screwdriver bit set at Home Depot, also at $10. And if you do click these links and make the purchase, we’ll get a small commission in about 2-1/2 months.
Affiliate links are tricky. I treat them as references, where I refrain from posting links where they don’t naturally belong. I have been doing things this way for 15 years, and I don’t think I could change my habits or practices if I wanted to.
I often refer back to my own content to check specs and refresh my memory. I know what I tend to find useful, and assume others feel the same.
The thing to remember is that one has a lot of chances to earn a reader’s trust, and it can take just one bad experience to throw all of that away?
Fred (hi!) has been commenting for 13-1/2 YEARS.
ToolGuyd can absolutely earn much more via affiliate revenue than it does. MUCH more. But it’s a lot of the everyday interactions with long-term readers that make this rewarding.
ToolGuyd cannot survive without its readers. Or rather, all the fun would be sucked right out.
Google advertising – these are some of the contextual ads you might see at the top of a post, or the right sidebar if you’re on a desktop browser.
There are some settings that I could activate to instantly boost revenue, but I don’t. I’m on this site a lot more than anyone else, and require a good user experience. Sure, I can give myself a different experience than I give you, but that brings us back to the “don’t push away the folks that make this fun” argument.
Would you trust a chef that wouldn’t eat what they cook? Me neither.
Yes, I realize it’s not modest to talk about leaving money on the table, but on occasion it helps me feel better about it.
Direct advertising – this is where a brand pays for banner ad space. I feel that direct ad buys draw the broadest line between content and advertising.
But aren’t you worried you’ll say something negative and lose an advertiser?
No – not at all. That’s a benefit of having different revenue streams – I don’t have to make compromises.
Well, with one exception. Google’s ad service AI really dislikes all knife content, and will throw out all kinds of red flags.
I decided to save all such EDC content for a separate channel, and… Instagram permanently blocked it without explanation.
Sorry, I digress.
Sometimes with temporary advertisers I’ll hold off on content until after the check is in-hand, not because I think they’ll retaliate, but for optics.
It’s one thing to say “I can say whatever I want and they won’t retaliate,” and another for me to say “they cannot retaliate.”
I can say whatever I want because, again, it’s not worth compromising my ethics, readers’ trust, or a major source of enjoyment for just a couple of dollars.
Even if I really make an active advertiser angry, there are always others. And if not, affiliate partners all have banner ads, and there are always ad networks.
Sponsorships – sponsorships are tough to describe, because each one is different. Brands usually have some priorities, I/ToolGuyd have mine, and we usually find an arrangement that works without compromising anyone’s ethics.
Sponsorships aren’t about hyping things up, they’re about exploring something new – or at least that’s my approach – and in ways that ordinarily wouldn’t be possible.
Because this isn’t our only form of revenue support, I have the ability to decline working with brands that aren’t a good fit. Last year I was essentially asked to make a brand’s product look better than another’s, and there was no way I could do this easily.
I found other angles inline with ToolGuyd’s guidelines, but there were just too many flags. So it didn’t happen.
Again – I’m not going to betray readers for a quick paycheck. You will see right through it.
There are always temptations, but that’s why there are hard rules to provide checks and balances.
There’s also transparency.
I probably learned enough over the past 15 years to double ToolGuyd’s revenue. But why? ToolGuyd was never supposed to be a job, career, or business.
Every new tool post should be fun and helpful. Every review should be fun and helpful. Every sponsored exploration should be fun.
If the point is to make money, there are plenty of other things I could do. Right?
Consulting – I am sometimes approached with unusual asks, such as to help with preparing market research materials for paid publications. I learned years ago that a lot of people asking for commercial help are slime bags.
“I’m a TV producer, we need ideas for a show.” Can I get a credit? “Sure.” Later… hey, you used my ideas. “No, we had these [really esoteric ideas] already.”
Or “can you help us with our market research report [that we sell at $5000 per copy]?” Can I get a copy of the report at least? “Oh no, we can’t do that.”
I received two messages from investment companies at around the same time last year, at the start of the holiday season, and they wanted my input about mergers and acquisitions potential of tool brands. Nope, nope, nope.
But this year, there was an interesting request, and there was no conflict of interest. The timing was tight – that was not a fun week of mostly 20 hour days. It was so much fun!
Taking that job was fun, but also added to my ability to say “no.”
If things change, there’s always the potential for more freelance work, or switches I can toggle in the ad network. Or, I can add a subscription option.
Part of the complexity in how I work with brands is that there was no rule book 15 years ago. There were no guidelines on what to do when a brand sends a tool sample and says “nah, magazines generally don’t acknowledge test samples.” But I did anyway because it felt right.
I’m not going to add more ads, because it doesn’t feel right.
I’m not going to say “WHOA – save *45%* on this Dewalt cordless drill kit at Amazon – hurry!,” because it doesn’t feel right. Well, I might use similar language on a deal I really care about, but not with $$$ as the motivating factor.
As an aside, early on – maybe 11-14 years ago, I posted about holiday tool deals so as to better resist them. You know the feeling when you get in a good deal for something you need? Sharing a good deal with someone who didn’t know it existed feels kind of like that.
Throughout the years, there’s been a prominent thought in my subconscious mind – “thank goodness I have fall-backs.” That wasn’t accidental.
I worked for magazines to learn new skills, and was a contributing editor at one for a couple of issues where I managed and edited others’ assignments.
It means taking fitting consulting jobs even though it obliterated my mind and body for a week.
And, I do have a background in physics and materials science. I always thought “that’s always going to be in demand,” whether accurate or not.
All this is to say that ToolGuyd earns revenue from multiple streams, and for each I always have the freedom to say “no.”
I want a huge workshop, which is the trend for every influencer after a few years. But that means debt and pressure that might hamper my ability to work with brands on mutually beneficial terms.
A retailer wanted to pay for banner ads, but I swore against ever promoting them again. “No.”
A super-sized affiliate retail partner demanded that I add tracking pixels to the site so they can gather details on users. “No.”
They didn’t take “no” too kindly. So in about a minute I redirected every single link to that retailer – side-wide – and switched it over to a post that instead recommended the retailer’s direct competitor.
I don’t take kindly to unfair demands.
I’m lucky – I know. Not everyone can say no. Maybe I shouldn’t always say no, but I worked seemingly endless hours to get to that point.
My wife unexpectedly lost her job due to layoffs, and that was tight and stressful. I managed costs for a while, and we made it through with my guidelines and integrity intact.
There are some compromises. I don’t know what time it is for you, but it’s in the middle of the night here. I’m up because I’m sick with a cold – this is supposed to be my holiday season wind-down period – but chances are I’d be up anyway, catching up on emails, working on tomorrow’s post, or replying to comments.
Work-life balance is something I still need to work on, but it’s really hard to when your “job” is writing about the latest cool new tools.
That’s part of the reason I have new guidelines for press/media – navigating the waters when brands prioritize paid/partnered influencers without being able or willing to maintain press/media communications and resources is extremely time consuming.
It was maybe 11 years ago when Todd Langston at Stanley Black & Decker – their marketing manager at the time – asked me if I wanted ToolGuyd to be a tabloid, or taken seriously. A year later, an incident happened that encouraged me to walk the “taken seriously” path.
The guidelines that governed my approach to press/media relations until now work very well in meeting cooperative brands halfway, but severely hamper my coverage otherwise.
One day I’ll rehash what I happened 10 years ago to result in formal censure. I wasn’t wrong, but neither was the brand. I didn’t kowtow to the brand then, but I did my part to meet them halfway.
Today, there’s one brand that really seems to reward kowtowing and punish those who refuse to be obsequious sycophants. Even when I bowed a little, as far as my guidelines allowed, just to make peace, their attitude seemed to be “bow lower.” They did this numerous times over the years. It seemed they didn’t want media partners, but servants and ShamWow type influencers.
Did you think we were just going to talk about money? It wasn’t intentional, but it nicely reinforces the point – money is not a primary motivator.
Maybe it should be – money is good, I/ToolGuyd can always use more – but I just can’t.
I’ll take more jobs, freelance more, take a 9-5 in the research or industrial sector, or find another way.
Maybe it seems to some brands that money or tools is a primary driving force, but it’s not. But what can you do?
So, I’m adapting some of ToolGuyd’s guidelines regarding cooperation, not necessarily for now, but for how things will be 5 years from now.
Some brands are truly exceptional when it comes to marketing/press efforts and resources. Others aren’t, and it’ll take used to – not sitting at a table and staring at my supposed counterpart’s empty chair. That’s what’s been happening. But it’s almost as if the moment I stand up, someone yells to me “we’re here, we’re here.” By the time I have what I need – and that can be a huge if – the story has lost all potential impact.
There are a number of huge media conglomerates that started around the time ToolGuyd did, and they grew and grew and are household names today. But their styles are different. I like working with like-minded contributors on occasion, and I’m not very interested in managing people.
So, I run a media business that I’m not actively expanding in ways I would advise others to, and money is not a primary motivator. Is that normal?
But I love what I do. I don’t need a grand workshop or more than 1 car. My doctor says I should probably cut down on steak anyway.
And NO – this doesn’t mean I want to add a subscription option. Maybe some day, but not now. Why? Because paywalls suck.
To be candid, if someone came along and offered me $10,000,000, I might change my tune. $50M? Definitely. Hey – transparency, right?
But then what would I do everyday? Sleep? lol – I’d love to have that problem, of having to figure out what to do with $50M!!!
For all you regular reader that are also commentors, why do you comment? Why do you visit every day?
That’s how all of this started – commenting on a tool blog, for fun.
If you made it this far – sorry, I like to chat. I feel like I owe you something.
A particular tool brand – and no it doesn’t start with an R or S – is coming out with a rolling tool box with DRAWERS ON THE BOTTOM. I got a
confession confirmation from them!
It is not going to be available soon, but they’re ACTIVELY working on it.
Click for the Teaser
nyah-nyah! Gotcha! I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Before you get mad – the drawers on the bottom of a rolling stack really are in active development and on the way.
That feeling of excitement you’re feeling right now, saying “FINALLY” and “I hope my brand does that too!” – that’s kind of what ToolGuyd feels like.”
That’s why the rare reader who might think “that’s a lazy post just for the money,” or a brand influencer manager might think “he just wants a cut of the money pot” couldn’t be further from the truth.
Maybe it’s unfair for me to expect press/media resources from influencer and social media marketing managers who only ever deal with transactional relationships anymore. It took me a while – I’m finally learning.
How many “influencers” are okay with just an info packet, rather than a “free tool” or paycheck? Can I expect brands to provide press/media resources just for me? What I realized is that this isn’t my problem. My focus is on ToolGuyd’s needs and its readers’.
I’m going to focus on ToolGuyd’s interests – and yours – because the site’s future pretty much depends on it.
Now – be honest – how many of you also clicked the above link to the Dewalt cordless drill that’s “45% off” right now? This one’s better – the Atomic kit at Home Depot. They’ve also had “repeat” deals of the day where you can get that drill kit plus the $10 bit set for the same $99. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s likely if you wait a little.
Oh, and then next brand to come out with a rolling-based modular tool box with drawers on the bottom is….
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