Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Wes O’Donnell and I am the founder of Warrior Lodge Media, an all-in-one informational website for military and veterans, a film and TV production studio, and an eCommerce store.
I started Warrior Lodge as an informational website, supported by Google Adsense, in 2013. I wanted to create a single place where anyone could get free military information for people thinking about joining, active-duty service members, and veterans.
Today, the vast majority of our traffic is organic and the site currently earns between $18,000-$22,000 per month from a combination of Adsense ads, t-shirt sales, and Amazon affiliate links. We have also started selling our military stock footage to production companies that need authentic military videos and photos.
The best part is that Warrior Lodge is almost completely “hands-off”, even the eCommerce vertical, and generates true passive income.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I left the military after ten years of service and after a short stint in corporate America, I started an eCommerce company called Modern Workspace. It was around this time in the early 2010s that I became frustrated with the lack of simple military information online; for instance, “where is the closest Veteran’s hospital?” or “how much money does a Staff Sergeant make in the Air Force?”
Because of this frustration, I set out to make a website that compiled every piece of unclassified U.S. military information in existence; not just helpful information for military members, but also fun stuff like a complete U.S. military weapons system database and a detailed military analysis of every foreign country on the planet.
Using lessons learned from my office furniture eCommerce store Modern Workspace, I knew that I needed high-quality original content posted regularly to maximize organic traffic and SEO. Because of this, I reached out to my network of military and veterans and recruited writers who would write for free, simply to build their credibility and expertise.
At the time, I was living off of my income from Modern Workspace. This gave me the freedom to take my time building Warrior Lodge slowly and organically, without too much investment upfront.
The biggest boost to traffic came in 2015 when a single article that I had written went “viral”. This lucky event increased my traffic overnight 10,000% and put Warrior Lodge on the radar of celebrities, journalists, and other media companies. Other media sites made offers to license the Warrior Lodge brand and logo and that event fast-tracked Warrior Lodge to where it is today.
Before that article, Warrior Lodge was earning approximately $20 per day in ad revenue. After the viral article, the site was earning between $700-$1000 per day.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The beauty of Warrior Lodge as a business is the fact that it is almost completely hands-off. Other than dynamic auto-ads by Google Adsense, we sell t-shirts through the Printful app on Shopify.
When a customer places an order for a shirt, it goes directly to Printful where they print the design onto the shirt and ship directly to my customer with a Warrior Lodge label. This means zero overhead and minimal time commitment.
I design all of my shirts and upload the designs to Printful. Everything else is automated!
I will need to be involved when a customer receives the wrong size or there is any other customer service issue.
We also add Amazon affiliate links on Warrior Lodge’s recommended products to our 100,000 social media followers.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I became frustrated with the lack of simple military information online; for instance, “where is the closest Veteran’s hospital?” or “how much money does a Staff Sergeant make in the Air Force?”
I would go to Barnes and Noble and read books on the graphic user interface for hours in-store.
It was taking too long. I wasn’t learning fast enough. I was frustrated and ready to call it quits when I realized that I could build the Warrior Lodge site on the same platform that I was already using for my eCommerce store Modern Workspace: Shopify.
But could Shopify, a platform designed for eCommerce, support the terabytes of information that I planned to load onto Warrior Lodge?
It could and it did. By working closely with some awesome Shopify tech support people, we launched Warrior Lodge V1 in August of 2013.
In the months leading up to launch, I started a Facebook business page for Warrior Lodge and began an advertising campaign for “Page Likes” that targeted military and veterans, and promoted an upcoming new site designed specifically for them.
Simultaneously, I created a LinkedIn group called “Warrior Lodge Contributors” and began inviting military and veteran writers who would write for free, simply to expand their portfolio. This gave me an instant roster of about 40 writers to provide original blog content for the site.
After the viral article mentioned above, I was approached by a media company called Scout who offered a large sum of money to license the Warrior Lodge name and content for a contract length of one year. I agreed, and Warrior Lodge found a new temporary home on a new server with a completely new look. This was Warrior Lodge V2.
After my contract was up for renewal with Scout, I decided to take back independent control of the site as I felt that I could earn more passive income on my own. Warrior Lodge V3 is the result of that split with Scout and is still the most current version visible to the public now.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The military and veteran community was and is very active on social media. In the early days of the site, we leaned hard on Facebook business pages and Facebook advertising to drive much of our paid traffic.
Spending even $5 per day ($150 per month) was enough for us to build 10,000 Facebook followers in less than 6 months. After that, we turned off the “Page Likes” campaign and began building the rest of our followers organically. But I feel like you need to have at least 5,000 to give organic Facebook users the “social proof” that this page is worth following.
Also, there is something to be said for “closed” Facebook groups. A closed group implies exclusivity. No matter what your business is, a closed group will attract even more customers if you are offering something of value that’s different for group members over page fans.
Instagram is also another great tool that I didn’t have available to me in the early days. The key with IG is daily posting. This too can be automated. According to Hootsuite, 60% of Instagram users find new products on IG and 75% of those take action after visiting a post. Also, Instagram users are 70% more likely to make mobile purchases so make sure your website theme is mobile-friendly. This snapshot from my Google Analytics report shows just how many visitors are visiting on mobile devices right now:
Once you have built a successful customer base, treat those customers like gold. It is much easier to retain a returning customer than it is to attract new customers. This means an email newsletter with discounts exclusively for returning customers. Over the past five years, we have been able to build an email subscriber list of 500,000 subscribers. These are people that we want to keep happy!
And finally, research YouTube and Instagram influencers who are in the same industry as you. Find something that you have of value and offer it to them. You would be amazed at how many people are afraid to simply ask other people for things. Maybe it’s ego or maybe they’re shy. Perhaps they are afraid of rejection.
But I have received so much press and media attention simply from an email and a value proposition that it would be criminal if I didn’t mention it here.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
For traffic, Warrior Lodge is in the top 1% of traffic for Shopify sites that were started the same week.
This may be surprising, but 90% of our traffic goes to static, evergreen pages that haven’t changed in years. People want a reliable resource for encyclopedic information. If you can become the authority site for your niche, Google will index you as such. Of course, you still need fresh, organic content (preferable daily) but I admit that sometimes weeks go by without me posting anything new and our rankings still seem to go up.
Aside from shirts, we plan to expand our offerings on the eCommerce side to include camping and outdoor gear. Also, we have been shooting military-themed TV and film programming under the Warrior Lodge brand.
Our short film, Memorial Day, recently won the best drama at the Oregon Cinema Arts Festival and Special Mention at the One-Reeler Short Film Festival in LA. Our next series is made for Netflix and is titled “Military Underground” (still under the original name “Travel Warriors” in this promo trailer):
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
As I mentioned in my interview about Modern Workspace, I changed the color of my "Add to Cart" buttons to green. Psychologically, green means go. For some reason, the native Shopify theme had the default color set to red!
My other big takeaway is that starting a business takes time. Success does not happen overnight. This single reason is why the world is not filled with successful entrepreneurs: Most people assume that their business is not working and move on prematurely. In this world, patience and a stomach for risk are rewarded.
Once you have built a successful customer base, treat those customers like gold. Over the past five years, we have been able to build an email subscriber list of 500,000 subscribers. These are people that we want to keep happy!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
On Shopify I use the following apps: Beetailer Social Widget, Military Discount App, Rating Widget, SEO Manager, Order Lookup, Printful, Shogun Page Builder, Superchargify - AMP, and Fraud Filter for fraud detection, however I should note that Shopify’s fraud detection is quite good these days without the need for 3rd party apps.
The theme that I use was developed by a Shopify theme developer named Out of the Sandbox. Their themes are stunning and their customer support is peerless.
Of course, Google Analytics is essential. Shopify makes it very easy to drop in your GA ID and start tracking visitors.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I have to admit that I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts. Books, on the other hand, are invaluable to me.
Get Rich Click was the book that started me down the path of eCommerce years ago.
Six Billion Shoppers is a great guide for how to break into emerging eCommerce markets like India or Russia.
Some people don’t like Robert T. Kiyosaki, but his Rich Dad series changed the way I think about money.
Mastery by Robert Greene is essential reading and a book that I recommended to the cadets when I gave a speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
For the record, my favorite book of all time is Cosmos by Carl Sagan.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Face it, Amazon is the dominant eCommerce player. You have two ways of getting around Amazon in the realm of eCommerce:
First, you can partner with them and sell your products both on your site and on Amazon through Amazon Seller Central. But beware - The very successful sellers have found themselves competing with Amazon when Amazon comes out with their “AmazonBasics” line of your successful product. It’s happened to hundreds of sellers.
Second, you can become so unique and niche down so much that the only place people can buy your product is through you.
Amazon has another problem brewing: A flood of counterfeit products and fake reviews. Until they get on top of their problem, you can be establishing your product as authentic and valuable with your highly-polished eCommerce site.
And finally, you MUST be an eternal optimist. Staying positive will allow you to recognize opportunities that other people won’t notice. You may see an opportunity to pivot into something else that ends up being 10x more profitable than your original endeavor.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Unfortunately, I am not currently hiring. Warrior Lodge is on cruise control at the moment which has freed me up to focus on law school and film projects. My goal was always passive income and on that count, we have succeeded.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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