This is part VI of the Success Interview Series
My next guest is fellow Canadian, entrepreneur and excellent writer Michael Alexis.
Michael blogs at michaelalexis.com where he interviewed successful bloggers in the online world.
Plus you can find out more about him on his website
Michael has interviewed some of the top bloggers, including:
Ramit Sethi, who’s personal finance blog, I Will Teach You To Be Rich, shows readers how to earn more money, change their habits, and find your dream job. (full disclosure: Michael works w/ Ramit)
Neil Patel, who’s internet marketing blog, Quicksprout, is a top source for social media marketing, SEO, and business advice.
Derek Halpern, who’s marketing psychology blog, social triggers, is the best place to learn sales techniques, how to generate media attention, and grow your blog.
In this interview, Michael shares his insights on success, time management and his experience living in China and studying Chinese :):
He wrote an excellent article on Unbounce on how to write a $1 million dollar landing page in comic style! : check it out
Jennifer: Thanks so much for being here on my show. My name is Jennifer Zhang. I am very happy to introduce a very interesting guest here on my blog; his name is Michael Alexis.
So, thank you Michael for coming here. Can you talk a bit about your background and what you’ve been doing before you started your blog, Writer Views?
Michael: Yeah, thanks for having me; I’d be happy to.
First of all, the information that you have about me is a couple years old. What I have on the Writer Views about page, I wrote in 2011 so things have changed. I’m sure that will come out during the interview.
In the past, around the time that I wrote that, I started my own company called SaveRally. It’s like Groupon but just for students at my college; I also do freelancing work.
The blog was actually, I guess for you second question, up.
Jennifer: Oh, okay. You basically decide that you wanted to transition into something else, right? Instead of being in the corporate world you wanted to be a blogger?
Michael: Yes. I knew I wanted to transition into something else.
What I didn’t know was that it was blogging for sure.
So, when I finished university about a year ago, I looked back at all the other things that I could do; what I was interested in, what I thought I could do well at, where I thought I could earn money.
I developed a system for figuring out what I actually wanted.
As you know, I spent a large part of last year in China.
This is something that I think the viewers could apply to online.
Maybe if they’re unsure of what they want to do in the future, that there’s option open to them.
And that is, instead of just thinking and thinking, instead of just assuming I knew what I wanted to do; I actually went and tested it.
Three things that I did while I was in China were Writer Views, I worked in my friend’s restaurant, and I worked with an app company.
I thought by doing each of those things, I could figure out if with Writer Views, interviewing very successful writers ; whether or not that was the lifestyle that I wanted.
Similarly, working with my friends; a couple of very, very successful restaurants in Beijing whether or not I wanted to be in the food service/business industry in China.
The third one, with the app, obviously belonged to technology; I continued my entrepreneurship along that path.
Jennifer: Okay, I see. But, you also went to China, right?
Michael: I did, yeah.
Jennifer: Yeah and you were writing Chinese. I read it but I was so shocked like Oh, my god, your Chinese is so good.
Michael: [Speaking Chinese]
Jennifer: How long did it take you to learn to start writing it and actually start speaking Chinese?
Michael: It kind of happened in two steps.
When I was an undergrad at the University of Guelph, I studied Mandarin for about 8 months.
That was really valuable because I had a professor who was just a really good teacher.
She taught us some of the basic vocabulary, pronunciation, how to read and write.
All in all, in those 8 months, I probably learned about 500 words; enough to kind of get it but not enough to communicate.
Not enough to have a proper conversation.
On a side note, when I went over to China the first time in 2008, I thought I was really cool.
I know a little bit Chinese, I get to go to a restaurant, I could order myself lunch.
But what actually happened was I sat down and went to the menu and realized the only food words I knew were banana and rice; so I wasn’t going to get very far.
Because I had that foundation from university and learn all the food words, all the vegetables, all the meat, all the noodles, whatever.
That goes a long, long way to be able to eat there.
I spent the summer there teaching English and stuff.
Then, I went back, after university, and spending the year there is when I really improved a lot.
So, I guess did two things: One is I have an app on my phone, it’s from ?? and I just connect with Chinese people and we typed all day.
If there was a word that I didn’t know, I’d look it up in the dictionary.
Over time, you accumulate more words as well as writing it.
Also, as far as speaking and conversing goes, just meeting friends for lunch every day for coffee or go to the park, whatever, just forcing yourself into immersion.
Jennifer: So, you really enjoyed that whole experience living there in China?
Michael: I don’t know if I enjoyed the whole experience but most of it was pretty good.
Jennifer: Have you traveled to all the cities around? Like for example, Beijing, Shanghai?
Michael: Yeah, I’ve been to a lot more than that.
Beijing and Shanghai, of course, some of the mid cities on the east coast that are easy tourist destinations but aside from that, everywhere from Cheng Du to Zhuhai to Fuzhou to Guangzhou to ??, to Sanya to Chian to Mongolia to Bunyan ?? to everywhere in the country.
Jennifer: Wow. Like, I’m actually from China; I was born in China but I left when I was very young. So, I actually never really had the chance to travel to many cities in the country that I was born.
So, I’m thinking in the future, I want to explore more of what China has to offer in terms of different kinds of food. Are you going back again in the future?
Michael: I will, yeah. When I finish up the role that I’m in now at a firm is called “Articlean”.
It actually means that you have finished up university, you’ve written the bar exam, etc…, and it’s a work experience portion before you actually become a practicing professional.
So, I’ll finish that up at the end of May and June and after that I’ll go back to China and study business.
Jennifer: Ok. So are you excited or looking forward to going back again?
Michael: Yeah, very much so. I’ve actually been counting down for the last 300 days.
Jennifer: Well, I’m really surprised. Can you speak also Cantonese or…?
Jennifer: Interesting. I have a need because my blog is more about writing about success and interesting topic…. I’m very curious to know, in your opinion, what is the definition of success? You have interviewed so many successful bloggers and writers and you probably have great insight in what the concept of success is. What is your opinion about that?
Michael: I think that it really breaks down into two questions.
I think the way you sent it to me in an email was really interestingly worded: what is the definition of success; what’s your definition of success?
This question is unique to each of us. For me, success is sort of a place with freedom.
If I had freedom in my life, then I’m very, very, very successful.
The way that I intend to sort of achieve or measure that is through more common and tangible things.
I have a personal goal of earning enough money by the time that I’m 40, to not have to work for money anymore.
So that after that I can dedicate my life to helping people and then I’d measure it by how much influence I have there.
Jennifer: Oh, I see. I know you have interviewed Ramit Sethi and Neil Patel and a lot of very well-known bloggers, right? So, I’m curious, what is your experience interviewing successful people… to have a lot of influence in this respective industry? What are the key characteristic that make them successful, in your own opinion?
Michael: It’s probably…it’s countless things.
I can make a list 100 things long or more but there’s three that I really think stand out.
The first and the most important one is their ability to systemize what they do.
They’re able to take large complicated tasks, try it once for the first time, learn from it and then the next time they do it, apply what they’ve learned in such a way that it takes less time and money and other resources – whatever that happens to be.
Building systems so that you know what you’re doing is actually valuable to your resources.
A small example of that is when I did interview Ramit, he talked about when he writes he actually has a system for writing better articles.
It’s odd, I’m just going to set the keyboard up and whatever inspiration comes to mind, I’m going to type away.
He actually keeps track of articles that he’s read online over time and bookmarks them a certain way or list or whatever. He tags them all. When he does sit down to write an article, he goes Okay, I need to write an article about , I don’t know what it would be, behavioral change for whatever.
Then, he’ll just type those tags into Delicious until he gets what he needs.
Then, he goes and writes his article. So, that’s a very, very simple system, right?
The more complicated ones are where you’re outsourcing work that you would otherwise do for yourself to other people because you built a system.
They can follow it; they can create the same quality of work you can or something like a sales page – the very systematic testing of that so you know that it works.
So, first step to success, definitely systemization.
Then, the second thing is just plain old working very, very, very, very hard.
Michael: I mean, you have to right? You can’t just put in a couple hours a day or minimal effort and hope that things are going to work out.
Jennifer: That’s right.
Michael: Neil and Ramit both, you brought up, just work all the time and they absolutely love it; they’re passionate about what they do.
Michael: I remember one thing that stuck out in an interview with Neil was he said, the way I have time to run multiple companies and be a consultant and have my blog is…..
When I’m on an airplane and everybody else is sleeping, I’m writing blog articles because I can write it during the 4/5 hour flight, whatever.
So, definitely being busy, being productive.
The third thing is just being really generous.
I think that when you’re generous with your time and you try to help other people out, it comes back to you 10 times.
Jennifer: Well, in my own experience, you’re very generous, too. I remember when I asked you a question, you replied really, really fast. I was really impressed by that.
Now that we’re talking about the topic of time management, what is your own insight on how to manage your time properly? That is a very popular topic and a lot of people are interested in that.
Michael: Yes. Honestly, it’s not something that I think I’m really good at.
I certainly try to improve over time and get better, but I do think there are sort of tools and mindsets that your viewers could adopt that would help them out.
One of the things I’ve done is I started using Google calendar just to keep track of things that I have to do.
Michael: The actual tool doesn’t matter; they can use some other calendar or they could use reminders on their phones or they can just write it down in a notebook.
Jennifer: There’s no preference, right?
Michael: Exactly. But what that allows you to do is….. You know, I know that on, maybe it’ll be, June 14th, I have to write an article about X because it’s going to due on June 20th or something.
Fine, I can put that on a calendar and I can just forget about.
It’s not on my plate, now, anymore.
I think what a lot of people do and certainly what I’ve done in the past and continue to do now, is you just carry around the big to-do list of 2 million things.
It becomes overwhelming and instead of taking care of those things one by one, you just look at it and you go, oh, god, I have so many things to do and you just put it away.
Then you go watch Netflix or you go for a walk or go do whatever you do that’s easier than dealing with that.
So, that’s one really important thing; getting it out of your mind and getting in on a calendar so that you can deal with it at the appropriate time.
Another thing, which is actually a tool, too and has been really helpful for me, is an app (maybe it’s just on the iPhone) . It’s called mailbox.
Michael: It has a really interesting feature, which is that you can just switch the messages so you can archive them, you can delete them, you can put them far to the left and schedule it to come back that night or this weekend or a couple months later.
That’s an interesting thing.
So, what I do is instead of keeping a to-do list, I just email myself and the subject line is you have to do X.
then, when it comes up on the app, I can just say, Oh, I don’t want to do that right now; I’ll do it tonight; I’ll do it next week; I’ll do it in a month; I’ll do it next year, or whenever it happens to be.
And again, it gets it off my mind so I can focus on what I have to do now.
If at a time you have 10 of those and you get rid of 9 of them, you only have one thing left to do and you can actually sit down and do it.
Jennifer: So, it could be more organized this way?
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. That’s something that I need help with.
I’m not naturally very organized.
I need like a really easy to use tool to make it happen for me.
Jennifer: I would expect you to be very organized because you’re an entrepreneur and a blogger. You have so many things on your plate so I would have thought everything would be under control [laughs]
Michael: I will, don’t give me too much credit.
You should go tour a company some time. So of the offices, yeah, meticulous very, very, organized. Others, a little bit more messier; everyone’s got their own preference.
Everyone’s got their own way to work, right?
Some people swear by the messy office; they say they’re more productive.
Jennifer: Yeah, that’s true. I know it’s a huge transition from being an employee and being in this online role and writing about, in terms of, writing well. What kind of obstacles did you face when you first started out?
I mean, do you have any experience writing blogs in the past?
Michael: I did have a little bit.
When I first started writing was just when I would travel.
When I was a kid, I went to Europe, Japan, Korea, etc… and I just had, I think it was, Windows Live MySpace blog or whatever it happened to be.
Jennifer: Long time ago.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. It was just an instant thing.
You could still put up photos and write your thing.
Was anybody reading it?
Probably a few of my friends were but it was journaling for me, right?
Keeping track of my childhood. I did other writing.
When I went back to China, this time, I didn’t do a blog but I kept an email list of all my friends and I’d send a huge ass email every few weeks.
But when it actually came down to the blog, no, I was learning it the same as anybody else starting from the bottom up.
I think I did have an advantage which was, of course, I was interviewing all of these really successful bloggers and figuring out what they did.
Then, I’d do my best to actually apply those lessons to emulate it.
This is aside from the writing but I interviewed a lady named Pamela Wilson, she has a blog called Big Brand System.
That’s what I wanted to learn about. I didn’t want to learn about branding.
Even though I’ve read it in the past, I did an undergrad business and stuff, but I didn’t know branding as it applies to blogs and an online presence.
So, in that interview she talked about some of the most important things.
Like for the design of the blog, the colors really, really matter.
The fonts you use, really, really matters.
It’s distinctive, readable, then its good.
She had a couple of great tips that I took from that interview.
That exact same night, I went on and I redesigned my blog and it pretty much looked how it looks now.
Just much, much better than it did in the past. It was all learning…
Jennifer: It looks very professional.
Michael: It was all learning step by step and same for the writing.
In the past, I would have done what any blogger does when they first start.
You sit down, you just kind of write what’s on your mind for 15 minutes and then you press publish; well, actually nobody reads it.
So, what I learned over time was that by writing really, really long, extraordinarily detailed articles, you can actually do a lot better.
So, putting 10, 12, 20 hours into one piece of work is a much, much better payoff than spending that same amount of time writing 30 or 40 small articles.
Jennifer: Yeah, it kind of shows you have in-depth knowledge and insight, right, when you write a long article or detailed article instead of short posts? It’s more general.
Jennifer: So, it kind of shows how much effort you put into it.
Michael: Yeah, I think people appreciate that effort, especially online, it’s so easy to create content, right?
Now with that being said, you also, you kind of phrased the question of some difficulties I had getting started. There were a couple.
One of them was just the technical setup of doing video interviews.
I mean, Skype interviews, okay, no problem. But, as you know, I was in China at the time.
And the challenge there was China blogs, YouTube, and Facebook, and twitter and a site called blip.tv which is actually where I would upload and post my videos.
So because I couldn’t access blip, I’d have to record the interviews, send them to Canada .
Somebody in Canada would upload them for me, send me the code, I put it on my site, I hit publish.
Even once it was published I couldn’t watch the videos on my own blog.
Jennifer: I know. It’s kind of frustrating.
Michael: Yeah, it’s a little bit frustrating.
Then the other thing is as I was coming back from Mongolia back to Beijing, it’s like an 18, 20 hour train ride or something like that.
I was keeping myself to a schedule because I don’t think you have to post every day. I don’t think you have to post every week.
But you do have to be consistent.
So I said I’m going to post every Monday and that happened to be Monday and I was on the train in the middle of nowhere.
I just had my iPhone and I was going onto WordPress, their mobile system at the time wasn’t particularly good.
Trying to type the codes that the person had given me and copy it to the little phone thing and write a little introduction and then hit publish.
It didn’t go live but it was ridiculous, the technical setup.
Jennifer I’m sure your readers will understand you tried to give the effort.
Michael: I guess so; I hope so.
Jennifer I know they have a sort of a microblog.
Michael: They have what? Sorry.
Jennifer: Weibo, have you heard of that?
Michael: Weibo, yeah.
Jennifer: The Chinese blogging…
Michael: Absolutely. And then there was actually one other thing which was different which was the time scheduling because you know 12 or 13 hours’ time difference, depending on the time of year.
And connecting with bloggers that are in Canada and the US was challenging.
It was actually a couple of people that I wanted to interview that I didn’t get to end up doing.
One was Steve Cam of merry fitness, he had actually scheduled an interview and it didn’t fell through because my landlord in China hadn’t paid his power bill and I didn’t have electricity or internet, so I wasn’t able to interview Steve.
Another one was Corbet Barr from, what’s the site? Think traffic.
Jennifer: Think traffic?
Michael: Think traffic, yeah. So emailed back a couple of times.
He said you know I’d love to do an interview but we never actually were able to figure out a good time to work.
Actually those challenges were unique to me.
Anybody who starts trying to have an online presence is going to have something.
Jennifer: Yeah, that’s true. Especially when you’re in different countries, especially like a big time zone difference like you said in China and the US. Everybody has to make sure that the time fits perfectly because that’s pretty challenging.
Michael: Yeah. What are some of the challenges you’ve had getting started?
Well, because I actually have a business background here. I studied commerce and I was applying to be an accountant but then somehow when I was working I didn’t feel happy in what I was doing. I started thinking why don’t I do the things interesting things I like to do? I think I came up with is I like personal development so I wrote a book on productivity and motivation and success; all those different topics. And that’s how I wanted to write about a blog on this topics because it’s also a way for me to express my point of view on these different topics. That’s why when I interviewed you I wanted to know what was your own definition of success and you own personal experience dealing from the transition in career.
Michael: Especially from a very “safe, professional” career, right?
Jennifer Yeah, yeah.
Michael: It’s a big deal but I don’t think that’s something that you need to take a tour bus, it’s actually quite a few people who I’ve spoken with and I’m sure many, many more there are doing the same thing.
Jennifer:Are you ever going, thinking of writing something related to what you study in university or something related to like what you’ve been doing in the past or just feel like I want to write on this topic. Entrepreneurship writing?
Michael: At some point in the future, I’ll come back to writing, it’s not a priority to me right now.
Like I said, I’m going back to China and into the food service business there because that’s what inspires me right now.
But I do love to write and I do love to connect with other people online.
Maybe 10 years in the future, 20 years in the future, I’ll come back.
I’ll make that a full time effort.
Jennifer: Oh, I see. So, what your blogging be more intact with what you’re going to do like at your business. So it won’t be like full fulltime but more in line with this is what I’m going to do in the future?
Michael: Even now, I’m not actively blogging.
Writers views has been my whole fro, it seems like almost a year now, the same interviews up there nothing new.
I’ve done a couple of articles online, either for freelancing or because I’d written them before and I just wanted to get them posted otherwise it’s not what the effort is used for.
Jennifer: Yeah. I see. So basically you want to focus more on the business side right now right?
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. The goal for me right now is to earn and save as much money as I can because…
Michael: Starting a business is expensive, right?
Blogging can eventually lead to an income, a very very substantial one.
Some of the people that I’ve interviewed have earned millions of dollars with blogs.
That’s 5, 6 7 8 10 year effort, not I’m just going to it for a year and hopefully I make a lot of money.
Where I am as far time management, the way I’m prioritizing my time is the things that I can do now that are in need, a definite amount of money so that I can save that and apply that to the business.
Jennifer Yeah. That makes sense. If that’s how you want to ensure that your finances are okay. Even though blogging, people are blogging for the passion, could they also want to make sure that they can have money to pay the bills? It makes sense that you’d want to either monetize your blog or blog and you have another business going at the same time. How does it work in your case?
Michael: When I was in China, I was doing writers views.
I had income from two other sources.
One was the business that I had run previously, the one that was like your blog, I actually sold that and stuck all the money in the bank and I use that to travel and support myself.
But I also had that little freelancing work.
Especially while you’re oversees, money goes a long, long way. You write one article once a week or every couple weeks and you make a few hundred bucks, that enough to pay for your living, your food, etc…
Jennifer: I do believe that some of the things in China is a bit lower (cost of living) compared to Canada?
Michael: I don’t know that it’s a bit lower but it is certainly different.
Jennifer Yes, when I went back I found that they changed a lot compared to when I grew up in the village that I was. Every time I go back there’s always something new happening.
Jennifer: The change is very rapid there.
Michael: The village where you were born is probably now a mega city of like 10 million people with skyscrapers, a major tourist destination.
It changes pretty quickly. Even from when I went the first time in 2008 and I went again in 2011; completely different.
Jennifer: That’s only like 2 or 3 years difference and you can already see the changes starting to happen. So, any projects you’re going to work on the side besides you’re business for 2013?
Michael: Nope, that’s my only priority. I do believe that for me and for most people, you’re better off focusing on one major thing.
That’s where your time, money, and your attention goes because if you distract yourself, if you spread yourself too thin, everything falls downward.
Everything fails. I tried that in the past. I talked about testing and previewing last year.
Trying to operate 3 businesses, trying to operate 3 major projects is really, really demanding on your time. You just wear yourself out.
Jennifer:Event though you don’t have a family to take care of, it still is very demanding.
Michael: Oh, yeah, if you had a family you would be demanding times 2, I don’t know how some people do it but for me it was just the one major focus.
Then I’ll probably continue with some freelance work to make sure I have income until the business…
Jennifer I understand, yeah.
Michael: …gets going but that’s that.
Jennifer So just one last question for my interview. Let’s say someone comes to you, right? and they say Michael, I want to have some advice on, I want to be doing something similar to you like traveling around the world. How you traveled to China.
What kind of advice do you want to give someone in order to learn lessons not mistakes? Like you traveled and did different things, what kind of advice do you give if someone is interested in being multipassionate or do different projects?
Michael: Yeah I think this is going to be a long list of stuff, too.
The first one is straight up financial, right? that’s one of the things that you hear, an excuse that you hear from people all the time which was I don’t have enough money to travel.
I don’t have time to travel.
I have….. well, that’s only because you choose to prioritize your money over other things.
If you spend all of your money on eating out, on clothing, or going to a movie every week, whatever it happens to be, that stuff adds up.
You don’t have money to go to China for 3 or 4 months or Europe, Japan, wherever you want to go.
The first thing is you have to get your finances in order. I’ll do a little punt here which is safety, very very smart guy and very very good at business and the blogging world. But he actually made his start in personal finance and I buried my track and he gave yours to be looked at.
Make it his book or even just his blog articles to get the finances or if they wanted to travel in the future. I can add a disclaimer here which is that you may have seen that I have worked with Ramit company, complete disclosure. Its someone I’ve worked with but it’s also very good information.
Michael: that will be valuable to them. Once you have that then I think the next step is just mental, right? Convincing yourself to go do it. buying the ticket, going to a destination and continuing to imagine the way.
Don’t just go to some resort and sit on the beach for a couple of weeks. Go to a country that inspires you.
Go to… for me that means climbing mountains. Trek through little villages and all this other stuff.
So, those are the biggest ones and otherwise, you had also asked about certain multi projects and having all these things going on.
Again, I recommend you instead just do one thing.
It’s better but if you are going to do multiple things, the key is to just do the best job you can on all of them.
Even though I was doing so many things I was still, if you looked at them individually, I was still putting in a lot of effort.
I was working very hard to make them work.
Jennifer: I see. Yeah, that’s true. So, thank you so much Michael for this amazing interview and sharing your insights. Thank you so much.