This past summer, super-affiliate Colin McDougall traveled around British Columbia with his family in his newly purchased travel trailer. From mid-July through Labor Day weekend McDougall worked a grand total of about 10 hours from the road. The rest of the time he spent paddling his kids around in an inflatable kayak, feeding the ducks, building sandcastles on the beach and simply enjoying his free time.
Filling up his free time by enjoying hiking and camping is something that McDougall does a lot of these days. Recently he moved with his wife and two young daughters, ages 3 and 6, to a house on a mountain in Chilliwack, British Columbia, where their backyard is literally the vast expanse of Western Canada about 80 miles outside Vancouver.
McDougall loves the natural beauty of British Columbia’s mountains, rivers and lakes. He moved there to attend college after growing up more than 3,000 miles away on the St. Lawrence River in Brockville, Ontario, which is dubbed the City of the 1000 Islands.
In many ways, McDougall lives up to some Canadian stereotypes – he is remarkably polite and friendly. He’s a skier, climber and fisherman. He loves to drink Sleeman beer with friends and is a huge fan of the Canadian rock band Rush; such a fan that in 2004 he bought expensive second-row tickets on eBay to Rush’s 30th anniversary tour concert in Toronto, Ontario, and treated the friend who first turned him on to the band.
And McDougall has been engaging in his country’s national sports pastime – hockey – since he was 7 years old and still plays in a weekly league so he can get together with his pals.
For someone who is so affable, it’s surprising that McDougall doesn’t mind the often-solitary life of an affiliate marketer, which usually means working all day alone at the computer. He claims that when he needs to focus, he takes the new trailer that is typically parked in his yard, tows it to a nearby recreation area and spends hours working alone with no distractions.
McDougall admits being an affiliate can be a bit lonely, and combats this by getting together for coffee with other self-employed workers, primarily affiliate managers from the Vancouver area that he’s met at industry shows, which he enjoys attending.
Now that his business is going well, he works when he wants to and when he is most effective. For many years, however, McDougall did not have the freedom of working when and where he wanted and it was his frustrations about lack of free time and working at inconvenient times that motivated him into the affiliate game back in 2001.
Previously for 10 years, McDougall worked as a systems administrator – first for seven years at Nortel Networks, and then for three years at BC Hydro. Although he liked his job, he didn’t like the time that he was expected to work. As the computer guy, he was expected to be first guy in the office and last guy out. Often he would be paged at 2 a.m. and would then have to go into work. The grueling hours, in addition to more than two hours of commuting time from the suburbs of Vancouver into the city each day, put an incredible strain on him.
In March 2001, McDougall was playing hockey with a friend, Chuck Anderson, who is the ex-business partner of James Martell, author of the Affiliate Marketers Handbook. Anderson offered McDougall work writing code and building tools to manage the publishing of content for a handful of websites within Martell’s business in return for some “measly checks.”
One day Anderson approached McDougall with an idea: instead of receiving a check for his coding work, Anderson would teach him the business of affiliate marketing as payment. Because McDougall had an idea about how much money Anderson was making through his website, he agreed immediately to the deal.
Just months later, when the time came for McDougall to put his knowledge into practice and build his own affiliate site, he wasn’t sure how to determine which industry would be profitable, so he opted for credit cards because that was what Anderson was doing.
By late August 2001, McDougall was hard at work building a website for credit card merchants such as American Express and Chase. He was garnering high rankings on Google with all kinds of credit card-related terms, and his business was based entirely upon natural search. He was making lots of money, and by November 2001, just nine months after he started learning the affiliate marketing ropes, his affiliate income was about 2.5 times more than his full-time job at BC Hydro.
In February 2003, he took the nine-month parental job leave allowed to men in Canada and tacked on an extra six weeks of vacation from BC Hydro. He used that time to focus completely on his affiliate business. However, due to ranking fluctuations in Google, McDougall experienced some setbacks. His training with Martell and Anderson had focused primarily on how to make money directly from affiliate commissions by ranking high in Google. McDougall was quickly finding out – the hard way – that producing sites that were built solely to rank in the search engines with little thought to visitor experience was not a long-term business strategy.
Then a major shift occurred at Google’s that caused every one of McDougall’s sites to lose their ranking. The search giant began basing its coveted rankings on visitor experience factors such as visitor duration, quality of the site and depth of the site as opposed to easily manipulated factors such as inbound links from highly page-ranked sites. McDougall realized he was headed for trouble.
He experienced a severe drop in income over the span of a few months. For August of 2003 he earned $60,000. In September 2003 his commissions were down to $20,000. By October 2003 he’d dropped to $12,000 and when November rolled around, McDougall’s income from commissions had plummeted to around $6,000.
This substantial decrease was particularly alarming because McDougall had bought lots of expensive items based on his higher income, such as vehicles, a new house and lots of toys.
The diminishing income forced him to make a tough decision – either return from his extended parental leave at BC Hydro or quit and revamp his affiliate business. McDougall and his wife had started a family during his full-time transition to affiliate marketing and he was feeling the pressure of additional responsibility as well as hearing doubting comments from his friends. Still, he says it was an easy decision for him to leave his job because he felt it was no longer an option. Although his wife was worried about him leaving a position with excellent benefits and vacation time, she supported his decision.
But McDougall knew that in order to make this business really work he needed to turn to others for some new direction and decided to go directly to the horse’s mouth – Google.
So, in January 2004, he flew to the Search Engine Strategies conference in New York City.
While at the event he timed it so that he would “accidentally bump into” a high-profile senior Google engineer who was presenting (Matt Cutts).
During the encounter McDougall went through every step of the process that he was using to rank high in Google, and with every point, Cutts indicated when McDougall was on the right or wrong track and he took copious notes.
Right then McDougall decided that relying on Google as a primary source of income was a fool’s game. So he came up with a new business plan to focus only on a smaller number of sites and build multiple streams of traffic to them and work hard to establish their brand. His goal: a long-term sustainable business.
Part of his current business is The Visitor Enhanced Optimization Report, or the VEO Report. It’s an e-book McDougall sells through his website that began as pages and pages of a Word document that explained how to achieve rankings in Google. He sent these notes to a few friends who were also affiliates in an effort to save them from having to go back to real jobs. One friend suggested that these notes could be turned into an e-book and McDougall started writing the book when he wasn’t working on his affiliate sites. By late 2005 he sent it off to editors and currently it’s in its third revision.
To date, McDougall has done no traditional marketing for his e-book; its sales have largely been the result of word of mouth and mentions from influencers. He was eventually asked to write a blog for Revenews.com, do an SEO radio show and speak at some conferences.
At the July 2006 Affiliate Summit in Orlando, several people asked McDougall if they could pay him $3,000 a month to mentor them, which would entail his talking on the phone with them for two hours each week. He claims he could only ignore these types of requests for advice and information for so long. That’s when he decided to create some training programs such as the VEO Mentorship Program, which he plans to launch by January 2007.
It’s not only the lucrative benefits that drive McDougall to create training programs. He wants to share his knowledge with others. By training affiliates on how to effectively promote products, how to get traffic and how to build a business, he’s teaching them how to “build on rock rather than quicksand.”
He greatly benefited from receiving advice from top people in the field, such as Williams and Campbell, along with Rosalind Gardner (a fellow Canadian superaffiliate and author) and he wants to return the favor. “I didn’t learn this business all by myself. My philosophy is that 1+1=11.”
McDougall says that people often tell him that being an affiliate sounds like hard work. “There have been too many quick solutions where affiliates think they could make potentially thousands a month by slamming up some content with auto-generation site tools, then just sit back and push buttons, scrape content and provide results.”
McDougall claims if you care about your brand, you’re not going to risk that by spamming Google. He believes that behavior is giving affiliates a bad name. He warns there’s a real problem for affiliates who aren’t willing to provide quality content, which adds value for the visitors to the sites.
Quality content that serves McDougall’s visitors well in turn does well in Google. “I think the future of affiliate marketing is affiliates who provide quality content and work on branding themselves. If you’re not focusing on doing those types of activities, it’s going to be tougher to make a run at affiliate marketing.”
McDougall admits to having a lofty goal of creating some kind of advisory committee that puts together a code of ethics to which affiliates must adhere – similar to the licensing system for realtors because, “quite frankly, marketing is sales, and sales is cutthroat.”
That sort of regulation is just a dream, but McDougall says that following his dreams and keeping a positive attitude have enabled him to reach his goals. “When I saw that my friend Chuck was making three times as much as me and working a third as hard, I became very motivated to change my life.”
But the biggest motivator for McDougall has been the freedom that being your own boss provides; something he has wanted to do since he was 10 years old. When he was in his late teens, he tried to start a window-washing business because he wanted to be able to set his own hours. These entrepreneurial feelings never left him during jobs at Burger King, Godfather’s Pizza and Save-on- Foods grocery store in his school days. He also credits his college karate teacher, who inspired him to follow his dream.
He feels so strongly about working for yourself that in 2005 he wrote another e-book on the topic called The Positive Mind, which outlines everything a person needs to know to become their own boss.
Today McDougall has five sites, with 90 percent of his efforts going into two of them – VEOReport.com and Crediteria.com. He’d prefer not to reveal the other three sites because they are very niche and he does not want to create competition.
Based on his hard-won experience, McDougall has managed to carve out a very full life comprised of success and lots of free time. In early November, McDougall was in the process of buying another house so he could relocate his family to Langley, BC, to be closer to friends and relatives. The town of Chilliwack is so wary of outsiders that they are often unfriendly to newcomers and that included McDougall’s family. But thanks to affiliate marketing and some good timing, he can prioritize his family’s happiness over concerns about carrying two mortgages. That, for him, is the best example of money offering the kind of freedom that he cherishes.