Pedro Sostre: Follow Your Passion

Pedro Sostre is all about art and good design. And he’s not afraid to voice his opinions on either subject.

“Most websites suck in terms of design,” he says, though he also admits there are many design-oriented sites that are extremely well-done and that he’d be hard-pressed to single out just a handful of them.

When it comes to art, he’s fond of the impressionist style of painting. He loves art with bold colors. He leans more toward more modern work and loves Piet Mondrian and his counterparts, but he’s not very fond of pop artists like Andy Warhol.

A passion for art and design seems to permeate everything he does – especially his work.

Sostre, principal and creative director of Sostre & Associates, is a Miami-based affiliate who also does Web development and consulting.

He’s one of Commission Junction’s top performers – with a network earnings ratio of five bars. He’s been a publisher with Commission Junction since 2003 and runs a number of sites, from book clubs to cosmetics to equestrian vacations, including AudioBookDeals.com, BestCreditSolutions.com, EquestrianMag.com, iTravelMag.com, Look-Your-Best.com and Tax-Stuff.com.

Sostre started his professional design career in 1998 doing identity and brand consulting along with designing logos and business cards. Around 1999, when the Internet was gaining in popularity, Sostre started to get more involved in designing websites. “I really just wanted to see what it was all about,” he says. “Then I realized there was money to be made.”

Like most who wanted to ride the Internet gravy train, Sostre had no formal training with computers or the Web. He came from a graphics design and visual communications background at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

“In school we didn’t have very many computers. I think I took one programming class, but there was nothing related to the Internet,” he laughs.

However, after working on the design portion of several clients’ websites, Sostre would often see sales jump from $5,000 to $50,000 a month. Suddenly he wondered why he wasn’t doing this for himself. So in 1999 he started working on his first affiliate website and launched it in 2000. Not surprisingly, SiteDesignMagazine.com was aimed at site designers.

“I still have that site today, but now it’s like a stepchild that doesn’t get much attention,” he says.

Sostre concedes that at the time he launched his first site, he “had no idea what was going to work” and he just “put up a bunch of stuff.” The good news was that certain elements showed lots of promise.

“Affiliate marketing was not mature back then,” he notes. “I just kind of did it myself and kept trying new stuff.”

He didn’t have anyone to look to for advice or tips when he started. BeFree was the network Sostre signed up with when he first started out. “It’s not like Commission Junction is now, where they provide advice and help for publishers. It was like ‘Here are the merchants’ links, just grab them and go,’ ” he says.

And if he did come across someone willing to share online marketing war stories, they weren’t really making any money anyway.

“Most affiliates were in their own little sheltered environments,” he says. “The people that were doing well didn’t have the time to be out and talking. They were hard at work on their sites.”

Sostre took note of that. He kept his head down and mostly just figured things out for himself. He says he simply used basic principles of salesmanship and marketing. “I applied what I knew from traditional business.”

During college and high school he had a variety of sales jobs – Godiva and Structure (now Men’s Express) – that taught him a lot, and he says much of his early retail sales training came in handy. He’s also not afraid to take risks and make mistakes.

“I spent a lot of money that I didn’t need to spend, but every cent taught me something,” he says.

Currently Sostre has about 20 sites that are close to done and approximately seven that are completely up and running. He also owns another 100 domains and is trying to figure out how best to use them.

“I can be very fickle and get bored easily. That’s when I move on to different stuff,” he says. If I’m losing on one site and then realize that there’s another area where no one has done very well, then I might consider creating a site to fill that need.”

Typically, like with his equestrian site, EquestrianMag.com, Sostre identifies a market or industry, looks at the existing sites and evaluates them. If there are a lot of bad sites, but he still thinks there are enough people interested in the topic, he will buy a domain name and launch a new site.

The three sites Sostre considers to be his best-performing are FreeBookClubs.com, AudioBookDeals.com and iTravelMag.com.

He does pay per click on his own websites. He doesn’t do bulk email or PPC arbitrage. Because many of his sites are online magazines, he also has to refresh content frequently. He hires freelance writers and updates the site with new articles once a month and uses free press releases. However, he refuses to use keyword articles and search engine spam.

“I know there are people out there that capitalize on that to get the traffic,” he says. “I won’t do that.” But there are several things he has done that have helped him achieve success. “I’m doing something I love. I love designing websites and trying to find new ways to increase business using the Internet, and that’s what I get to do all day long. I’m constantly trying new things. You have to try everything and don’t be afraid to fail. And I’m always learning. Whether it’s a new programming language or a new sales principle, I try to be in a constant state of learning.”

And no matter how successful he becomes, he’s never afraid to seek help or learn from someone else. Recently he considered one of his sites nearly dead. It had only a couple of sales in the last year. But he resuscitated the site by working with an affiliate manager friend. Sostre takes extra care not to take any of the credit for his friend’s hard work and the improvement in performance.

“My affiliate manager friend took it over and improved the program. It was huge challenge, but she knew the program could be good,” he says. “She got the program to a good point where sales went from two per year to 100 sales per month. It showed me what a good affiliate manager can really do.”

In order for Sostre to consider one of his properties successful it has to meet specific criteria: it fills a specific need and he starts to get inquiries on how to advertise on it. “The money comes after that,” he adds.

Professional success has helped Sostre gain personal success as well, which he defines as being able to work from home and spend as much time as possible with his family. His wife is a stay-at-home mom, so she deals with the busy schedules of his four kids.

Sostre really likes to help out, but working from home means having strict boundaries. When he’s working, his office is off limits to the kids, “when they feel like listening,” he says. If Sostre is in the middle of big project or on a tight deadline, his wife is great about occupying the kids in the pool or taking them to visit grandma.

And like most affiliates that work from home, this self-described workaholic can set his own schedule. He says it changes every now and again. On rare occasions he wakes up at 6 a.m., but most of his workdays start around 9 or 10 a.m. – unless he gets “dragged out of bed earlier for a phone call.”

“I’m not an early person,” Sostre says. “I usually stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. or sometimes later. That’s when my brain is turned on.”

By working from home he also avoids a nasty commute to downtown Miami, which can take up to 90 minutes each way in heavy traffic, which is almost always, he claims.

The disadvantage of his job is that few people outside the affiliate community understand what Sostre does for a living.

“I don’t talk to enough people that even know what affiliate marketing is. My mom is convinced that I’m doing something illegal,” he jokes. “I’ve resorted to saying ‘Internet stuff’ when explaining what I do to friends and family.”

Commission Junction certainly knows what Sostre does. As one of CJ’s top performers, he’s often asked by the affiliate network to give tips to new publishers and advertisers on how to run strong programs. Although he’s eager to help others, he seems almost embarrassed to talk about his success. He seems hesitant to admit he’s got a big bag full of great tips and tricks.

It’s not that he’s concerned about someone borrowing his recipe for success. “I’ve talked very openly with a lot of people about how I did it, but everything is not easily duplicated, so it’s not like I’m worried that someone else is going to steal my business,” he says.

Mostly, it’s just that he’d rather not seem preachy or like a know-it-all. Instead, he prefers to talk about his personal experience and let people take what they want or need from his story.

Sostre says he likes to keep a low profile, but in the last year or so he’s been encouraged by a well-connected friend in the industry to be more visible in the affiliate community.

“My friend is remarkable. She’s trying to get me to talk to people. After asking me a couple hundred times, I gave in and let her introduce me to some people.”

That’s led to some interesting opportunities. Over the last several months, Sostre was on a panel at the Affiliate Summit 2005 in Las Vegas in June; he was a speaker at eComXpo, a virtual tradeshow for online marketers; and he’s done some writing for industry trade publications.

“I haven’t done a whole lot of publicly before now,” he says. “I’ve stayed out of the industry. I’m used to doing things on my own. I was not one that visited the newsletter sites and message boards – especially once the experts and gurus came out. I’m just not that keen on listening to them.”

Maybe that’s why he seems so reticent to give out advice. Ironically, about 25 percent of his business is consulting services related to advising others on website design.

One piece of advice he doesn’t hesitate to give out: “People who are innovators try new things. Now people are just trying to duplicate success. Free iPods are huge, and these are not from the original company that made it a success. I hate that. Experiment. Do something new.”

New technologies such as blogging and podcasting offer opportunities, says Sostre. While he’s long been interested in blogging but hasn’t had much time to spend on it, he notes that podcasting is likely not for him. But that doesn’t mean it won’t work well for others.

“People should be open to try new stuff. I thought online marketing was interesting. I tried it and it worked for me as well as a whole lot of other people, even though many marketing experts were sure that it was never going to go anywhere. The more you try the more you can succeed.”

He also can’t emphasize enough the importance of design.

“Most websites really need design improvement and help,” he says. “Mostly it’s someone just attempting to make a few bucks. You know, people want to make an extra $100 per month. Then they realize they can make $500 per month, then $1,000. These are not people that are going to spend time to learn design. I believe that’s why many fail.

“I would like to see the Internet mature in terms of design as other marketing media has. Why do you think Target and Apple do so well? Good design and marketing. Some marketers understand how design impacts them, so they’ll pay a professional,” he says.

According to Sostre, the next step for affiliates is to grow beyond affiliate marketing.

“I’d love to see the affiliate community do something good,” he says. “We need to seek to do something more than just making money.”

However, he explains that he means “do good” from a business standpoint.

“Well, I’m not Mother Teresa or a member of Greenpeace, so when I say do good I mean from a business sense. I would like to see more affiliate sites grow to become top resources in their respective industries. I see a lot of affiliate sites that are just directories or they have content that is not that useful. It’s just there to attract people to the site. I’d like to see affiliates creating real websites that serve as leading resources.”

As for Sostre’s future, he wants to continue to grow his business. Over the next two years he’d like to double his revenue and hire a couple more employees.

“I really love what I’m doing right now and I would hope to be doing the same thing in two years,” he says. “As the president of Sostre & Associates, I get to determine what industries we move into and what websites we develop. This keeps me from getting bored with a particular industry or website. As creative director I get to meet with our clients, learn about their businesses and discover ways to increase it, which is a challenge that I really enjoy.”