It's been a while since I spoke to any members of the NotAnotherSlack community about their side projects in this environment - so I'm more than happy to be able to share my latest interview with SEO consultant Dan White, also known as the founder of the brilliant Digital Marketing Union (DMU).
For any of you who aren't in the DMU - it probably sounds like a bit of a cult. Even me saying that it's definitely not a cult, might in fact make it sound like even more of a cult. So maybe I should just say it is a cult? There are few decisions I think that stand out as being pivotal in my career, and I can genuinely say being a member of the DMU is one of those.
Working in a remote, 100% virtual setting can be incredibly lonely at times, especially if you're working as a solo-consultant. You have to do all of the business type stuff outside of billable client work; invoicing and admin, marketing yourself and your services, even celebrating your wins or sharing your failures, and are expected to manage this all on your own. What the DMU brings to the table is a safe place to go and ask questions and speak with other genuine, brilliantly smart people about whatever it is you want to chat about.
Yes Twitter and social media is great for this too, but for me the DMU brings a more personal and human element to everything. And Dan's done a brilliant job at creating and growing this Slack community. So in this interview read (and hear/see!) Dan chat about why he started it, problems he faced along the way, and the difficult decision to turn a free community into a paid one. I know first hand how difficult it is to create a Slack community that works (something I'm slowly working on here with NotAnotherSlack!)- so hats off to Dan for what he's managed to do.
Thanks very much Dan for finding the time to contribute! 👏
What triggered or inspired you to create the DMU Slack community - was there anything specific that led you to start it?
It happened in the best way possible - a happy accident. I was lonely freelancing and Charlie Williams (@pagesauce) who I met at BrightonSEO recommended setting up a Slack to stay in touch. It grew from there.
How long has the DMU community existed?
The DMU officially launched in February 2019 but only really got going during 2020.
What has been the most challenging aspect of running the Slack community/website?
It’s really hard to tell whether people are enjoying the community or whether they’re bored. I try to add new things in to test them but knowing what works and what doesn’t in making the community a great community is really hard to judge.
And on the flip side - what has been the most rewarding element of running it?
The feedback. It’s often phenomenally positive and pretty humbling to receive. So many people have said they didn’t know what they would have done without the DMU during the pandemic. Then there’s the real life implications it’s had.
Off the back of the folks that make up the community we’ve helped:
It’s very weird to think that what you type has real world implications.
Were there any things that you’ve done that in hindsight you might have done differently, if you were to start over, or to advise others thinking of starting a Slack community?
For anyone else thinking of starting a community I think you need to have a game plan as to how you see the community in say 6 months time, and again in a year, 2 years and so on. Whatever that looks like for you it means you can more easily define an audience of people to attract to the group, what channels you run on there and what content you end up sharing - and whether that all aligns to what you want to achieve in the first place.
For me the goal was to have a tight, small community of other marketers that we can build genuine relationships around, rather than 1000’s of anonymous faces. That’s not to say large scale groups are wrong but I heard a quote ages ago saying that a river could be wide and shallow or deep and narrow. There is a bunch of wide and shallow groups out there catering to huge audiences, or very broad topics and I wanted instead to do something that was deep and narrow to see the advantages and disadvantages something like that would bring.
During 2021 you introduced a payment model to the Slack, where before it was free for all freelancers to join. How has the reaction been to that (did many people leave?) and what led you down that path - was monetising the side project always a plan?
I’ll explain the thinking first. In the Spring of 2021 I realised how much time running the DMU was taking. I’d launched the website, was running weekly talks as well as managing the Slack channels which had around 80 members. While that’s all well and good I realised that cynically that was easily taking up the same amount of time as 1-2 SEO clients each month so if I put a price on that time I realised I couldn’t continue to do it for free.
On the other hand I was thinking about the other things I was gaining from running the group. Not everything has to be for monetary gain. There’s the reputational value - but as it was a small group the online attention it enjoyed was tiny. There’s the financial value from picking up work, but no more work than anyone else in the community. Whichever way you looked at it I was gaining as much as everyone else in the community - but putting in a ton of hours for doing so.
It caused something of an existential crisis and at one point I was thinking about shutting it down.
Separately, one of my long term goals has always been to generate part of my income ‘passively’ which I’ve never quite achieved so combining the two the decision to monetise it became pretty clear.
Monetization kicked in at the start of August 2021. Beforehand we had 80 members with about 60-70 active. From there around 12 people left bringing it down to 48 paying people, which is a pretty awesome conversion rate.
Since then that 48 has grown to around 70 paying members as we slowly add more people to the community.
There are some great Slack communities out there for SEO’s and digital marketers in general. Are there any that you’re in which you particularly rate, or any that you wish to emulate in some way?
Really awkward but I’m not a part of any other Slack communities - aside from NotAnotherSlack 😬
In terms of using Slack as the home of the community, how have you felt about using the tool itself? Any things you’d like to see them change, or improve upon?
I like Slack but I don’t love it. I like the MSN messenger vibe but hate at the lack of organisation it has when trying to collate/archive valuable content. This is why the DMU Hub exists on the website so all the best stuff can be stored elsewhere. I’m also slightly baffled why free group video chats aren’t a thing as everything gets moved off Slack to Google Hangouts for our weekly chats.
In 2021 you relaunched (or launched?) the DMU website. Do you have plans on expanding into other areas, or are you happy to just keep the Slack/website ticking over?
It launched in 2021 but there’s no other plans to launch into other channels. For the website the game plan is to:
One of my favourite parts of the DMU is the weekly chats you host with other freelancers, where you discuss a different topic each week. These videos are also shared privately for other members to watch, when convenient for them. This must take up quite a lot of time (and energy!) - but at the same time you also seem to love doing them. Have you always felt comfortable being the host of online events in this way, or has it come from years of practise?
That’s really nice of you to say! 🙂 (They weirdly don’t take that much time. Or, we were doing the talks anyway so it made sense to start recording them. There’s also zero editing so the upload process is easy.)
I’ve never felt all that comfortable presenting/talking to people, but years of being forced into situations like this when I was agency side has been good practice. Plus, the folks that join the calls are more like friends you’re hanging out with rather than formally presenting to a bunch of stakeholders which makes things easier.
You’ve done a great job at growing the membership of the community, at least from what I can tell as an active member of the group. Has a lot of thought and effort gone into your approach here, or has it happened fairly naturally (dare I say it - organically)?
Genuinely, it’s been organic and almost entirely by word of mouth. People love the community and are fiercely keen to recommend others. That means anyone that does join is already fairly primed for signing up after a trial. I’ve tried organic social posts to spread the word but the enthusiasm from people who sign up this way - and their subsequent engagement with the group is rarely as good.
If you’re happy to share, what kind of tools or software are used in the running of the DMU? Obviously Slack is a big part of it, but is there also payment software, CMS used on the website, etc?
Happy to share 🙂 Because of the small number of people involved there’s only a very small stack of things I use aside from Slack:
The website is Squarespace which links through to Stripe for payments which runs all payments/subscriptions/refunds. Then I have a paid Google Workspace account which allows for the recording of talks then YouTube to upload them on. Everything else is manual.
Have you found any perks to running the DMU (obviously apart from the massive sense of power you must feel as the boss!) - maybe in terms of additional paid work (Dan’s also a very talented SEO specialist by trade)?
As mentioned above I’ve definitely picked up some work from some other friends on there but no more than many other people (as far as I’m aware). Cheesy as it sounds the perk is getting to hang out with some really cool people, who are at the top of their game in the marketing industry. So, I get someone to ask my dumb questions to as well as feeling less lonely during the working week.
Do you have any kind of 5-10 year plans - and if so, does the DMU feature in some part? Do you have any grand plans for it?
No grand plans (seriously). I think the pandemic has proved that long term plans aren’t terribly effective, so the plan, at least for the next couple of years is to keep doing what I’m doing. (You were hoping I was going to say world domination didn’t you)?
Let’s say you're stuck in a lift with a fellow freelancer and for some unknown reason you feel forced to sell DMU membership to them. What do you say - why should a digital marketer join the DMU?
Hmmm. Depending on how much oxygen is left I’d say something like:
When I went freelance I was really lonely to start with. I didn’t have anyone to ask stupid questions to, or to hang out with who didn’t look as me blankly when I said ‘SEO’. So, I set up the DMU and brought together some of the best digital marketing freelancers. Have you heard of a guy called Matt Tutt? There’s almost 70 of us based in at least 10 different countries, so if you like to hang out with some cool people (cool as in we share Ted Lasso GIF’s) then there’s a free 2 week trial if you want to check it out?...
You’ve been open before about your mental health on Twitter (I think?) - with that in mind, do you ever feel a bit of a burden due to being the man behind the DMU? Are there ever times when you might fancy a bit of a break from it? And what do you tend to do when you do feel a bit drained by it, if you’re happy to share.
Yeah, I try to be open with my mental health which is all tied up with OCD. Ironically though work and the DMU has the opposite impact and I head towards it rather than turning away if things get bad. It’s a hugely positive distraction; and if I do feel drained by it the pause notifications function on Slack gets deployed frequently.
If Slack was to shut down, or become a paid-only option (and you didn’t want to fork out the pretty hefty fees to use it), do you have a plan B in terms of platform used?
Discord is the one that stands out for me at the moment. It’s more of picking from the best of a bad bunch though as you need something which is widely used, widely accessible on a daily basis and supports multiple activities - so there’s unlikely to be a single piece of tech which does all of this easily. And definitely not Facebook.
Outside of the DMU do you have any other side projects on the go?
Online I’m trying to grow The Way With Words, a verbal identity business that I’m a partner in. Beyond that the plan - which has yet to materialise - is to generate an affiliate/ecommerce passive income thing. Thankfully, I’ve got NotAnotherSlack to help with that 😉
How do you find managing your time as an SEO consultant and the host of the DMU? Do you find it tough, or are you fairly good with your time?
I try to be brutal with my time so things are fairly organised. The DMU takes approximately 4-5 hours a week at the moment so there’s plenty of time leftover for SEO consultancy.
Any thoughts on being part of the NotAnotherSlack community? It must be a bit weird being a guest in someone else’s Slack - does it feel weird?!
It felt a bit weird to start with as you’re second guessing why things are set up in the way they are. Is that good, is that bad? Should I be adding in this feature? Overall though NotAnotherSlack has been great. It’s nice to see another small, niche group which has clearly fostered a sense of help and community from people scattered across the world. I’m keen to see how things develop 🙂
If you wanted to find Dan White online and check out the DMU I've shared a few useful links below:
I'll be trying to interview as many members of the NotAnotherSlack group as I can, diving deep into the nitty gritty of their side projects to try and celebrate their knowledge and to encourage more people to give side projects a go.