An Interview with Johns Wu

Jun 21st

Internet success stories rarely get any sexier than the story of Johns Wu. 

In 2006, while still an undergraduate research student in neuroscience, Johns started a Wordpress blog he named Bankaholic.com. A one-man-show, Johns used an SEO/SEM-focused approach to build traffic and revenue. Just over 3 years later, he sold Bankaholic to BankRate for a reported $14.9 Million.

He was 22 years old.

Recently, we caught-up with Johns. This proved to be a bit of a challenge, as he is currently enjoying the ability to travel all over the world. He graciously stopped just long enough to answer some questions about his success and what it takes to create a multi-million dollar website these days.

So what leads a guy like you from studying neuroscience into SEO?

My original inspiration was the story of Anand Lal Shimpi and Anandtech.com. When I was in middle school, I saw a news report about how he became a media-tycoon when he was only in high school. Since then, I have always been fascinated by online media. In college, I was originally on track go to medical school, but the deeper I got into science, the more I realized that I hated it! I explored some computer and business classes on the side, and in 2005, I started a stock blog called thebulltrader.com. I had a good time blogging and running the site, and a year later, in 2006, I started Bankaholic. After getting my first AdSense check of $50+, I became interested in getting more traffic, and the rest is history! ;)

Online affiliates tend to do really well in areas that are either directly or closely tied to finance. Do you evaluate the proximity to finance when considering an area or niche where you'd like to build?

Not at all. The Internet is huge and there are tons great niches out there.

Is topical expertise required to compete in a valuable market?

It definitely helps, but it isn't 100% required.

What are specific things you feel might substitute for topical expertise?

Being Internet savvy definitely helps. More specifically, understanding how SEO and SEM works will grow your business and give you a shot even if competitors have more topical expertise.

Do you like to operate in markets where there is passionate competition, or markets where people tend to approach it with less passion?

I always steer clear of competitive niches. Always. There is so much money out there that you shouldn't be wasting your time chasing over-saturated/impossible niches like ringtones and online poker.

Let's talk a bit about how you grew Bankaholic. What was your original vision for the site?

In 2006, it was the peak of the financial bubble. Banks were very aggressive with marketing so they were paying easy sign-up bonuses to new customers. Any average Joe with a social security number could make a couple hundred bucks a month by taking advantage of these deals.

My goal was to aggregate the best deals and create a SlickDeals/Fatwallet kind of site that was exclusively about banking. My vision was to create an online cult of "bankaholics" that would come to my site every day for the latest deals.

Great domain name, BTW. What led you to create a uniquely brand-focused name opposed to using a direct-match or keyword-rich domain within the finance sector?

Picking a domain name was incredibly frustrating because (as you can imagine) all the good names were taken. I remember the day I thought of the word "Bankaholic" very clearly. I was in the neuroscience lab waiting for one of my lab experiments to finish, so I went on the computer and used NameBoy.com to brainstorm some names. I saw the word "Bankaholic" and I thought hey, this sounds alright...so then I quickly registered it on GoDaddy.

Given the size of the sale {$14.9 Million}, it would seem you were quite ambitious and narrowly focused to build that much market leverage so quickly. Were you always focused on reaching that level of success?

Yes, after I graduated college, Bankaholic became my life. I knew that I was sitting on a goldmine and that it was my one shot in life to make it big, so I took it very seriously and spent every free moment obsessing over how to grow and improve my business.

Did you employ any offline strategies to help drive your success?

The only offline strategy I ever attempted was printing Bankaholic t-shirts and giving them out. Since the ROI was so dismal, I never did this again!!

Did you have any specific priorities that you feel contributed in a meaningful way to your success?

Measure and optimize. You can't optimize what you don't measure.

Are you still writing regularly on the site? (One of the current authors in particular seems to share your love affair with culinary treats).

LOL! I continued writing for a few months after the sale, but after the transition, Bankrate has totally taken over.

The social media scene was emerging as Bankaholic grew, but is a much stronger presence today. Has this changed the way you are approaching new ideas or projects?

I'll be honest. I HATE social media. I admit, it can be powerful, but it is so unpredictable and uncontrollable that it is more of an afterthought for my online strategy. I personally would much rather spend my time on SEO since it is predictable, measurable, and (most importantly) 100% profitable.

However, Twitter and Facebook are valuable tools because they allow you to reach a fresh demographic that hasn't yet descended into the 'conversion funnel'... So in that respect, yes it is important to have a level of fluency in SMM depending on your niche and business model.

If new to a niche with limited resources, how does someone tackle bigger, more challenging markets?

Experience is everything. Learn from your mistakes, and don't be afraid to fail your way to the top.

Do you feel a success story like yours is something that anyone can do, or what makes the difference?

Not just anyone can do it, but there are many who can. To be a successful affiliate marketer, you need to be a jack of all trades. You gotta be able juggle and excel at many disciplines: creativity, design, business, project management.

You can only pick one: which is the most valuable asset for a young webmaster starting a competitive website (with all things being magically equal):

  • capital to invest,
  • passion for the subject matter,
  • expertise on the subject matter,
  • SEO savvy,
  • technical/graphic/content development skills

Definitely expertise. If you are a true authority in your niche and you create remarkable content, your website will naturally attract links, advertisers, and business development opportunities.

How has the money affected the way you're approaching new business interests?

I'm very active in domaining because it is a great place to put my money. I think premium domain names are great for my situation. Since I understand the Internet better than anything else, I know what valuations are attractive. Buying domains also leaves me the option to get into more web development in the future.

You've created an amazing "Rags to Riches" story with this entire effort. How does this affect the way you're viewing future challenges?

Unfortunately, I have a lot less motivation these days. I am a lot less 'hungry' for success but it's okay... eventually I will get back into my Internet marketing groove.

So what's next for Johns Wu?

These days, I've just been traveling and relaxing. Once I get the travel bug out of my system, there is no doubt that I will continue chugging away at domain acquisitions and development.

Thanks for taking a moment to talk, Johns - safe travels, and here's to your continued success!

Marty Lamers owns a Freelance SEO Copywriting company you can visit at Articulayers.Com. Since 2001, Articulayers has been fixing the world, one word at a time.

Published: June 21, 2010

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Comments

June 22, 2010 - 6:50am

interview, Aaron. I recall you talking about Bankaholic on an interview sometime back. Wow! I can't believe someone sold a blog for $15 million. Great questions as well--and great answers too! Thanks for this.

This also brings to mind an article I was reading about the guy that started Treehugger.com. It basically started as a blog about all things eco-friendly and was sold like 3 years later for some similarly ridiculous amount of money. I think it was in the last Inc. Magazine.

June 22, 2010 - 8:14am

"I always steer clear of competitive niches. Always."

Huh? Is it the bankaholic.com founder who speaks so??

June 22, 2010 - 1:31pm

CD rates is not the same thing as mortgage rates is not the same thing as credit cards, online casino, etc.

June 22, 2010 - 1:56pm

Aaron...I wanted to quickly plug the interview you did over on www.mo.com, very insightful...the one thing that always impresses me is your grasp on vocabulary, I imagine you spend quite a bit of time reading...appreciate your straightforward open interview style

June 23, 2010 - 6:37am

Thanks for taking the time to do this (both interviewer and interviewee) I really enjoyed reading this. I recently mentioned Johns Wu and the Bankaholic.com sale in a post on Domain Superstar and I was very happy to see this post pop up in my reader. Also, good to see someone else that is very web savvy that understands the value in premium domains given current market conditions. Thanks!

June 24, 2010 - 3:24pm

Marty, this is incredible, great job! I love to wake up and read something that inspires me. Nice way to start my Thursday morning.

June 28, 2010 - 3:53pm

Aaron-

Great interview. Really enjoyed the story about how bankaholic came about, good write up on the sale here as well: http://palatnikfactor.com/2008/10/02/breaking-down-the-bankrate-purchase...

This is a great motivator for people to see that there really is a big value in just a blog...wow.

Great job by WU.

-Paul
http://www.fortune3.com

July 16, 2010 - 2:42am

Whoaaa, blast from the past!! I haven't seen that version of Bankaholic for years...

Even now, it's surreal for me to comprehend the idea that today's Bankaholic started from such a simple WP template ;)

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