My wife woke in the middle of the night with severe cramping. Within thirty minutes I was awake, timing her contractions. Three minutes apart. It was go time.
We have an older child who was two at the time, so we had a plan, a backup plan, and a backup backup plan to take care of him. We called Plan A. No answer. We called Plan B. No answer. We called Plan A’s husband. No answer. We called our doula. No answer. We needed to leave for the hospital. Now.
Luckily, our Plan A called us back within a few minutes and lives a block away. We left for the hospital and made it to our room. We were holding our son 30 minutes later.
When we made it back home I had an email from Erik, the CEO of chess.com. I applied for a job there months ago but had forgotten about it. He was wondering if I was still interested. We worked things out and I accepted a part-time contracting job as an Android Engineer.
Chess.com is a fully remote company and there is no corporate office. When they added me to the organization I checked the company directory to see if there was anybody from my home state, Minnesota. To my surprise, there was! And he even lived in my own city, Rochester. And I recognized his username: Smarterchess.
I’d been an avid fan of chess.com’s twitch channel for quite some time and knew that Smarterchess ran all the live stats for the SCC (Speed Chess Championship). He made suspiciously accurate predictions and gave live stats for who was likely to win each match. And he lived in my own city?!
I e-mailed him and introduced myself. Smarterchess, AKA Matt, told me he was organizing the Rochester Open Chess Tournament and encouraged me to play. I encouraged him to rename it to the Rochesstournament. He didn’t.
We met at a coffee shop in town. The more we talked the more we realized how similar we are. We had the same hobbies– chess, fitness, personal finance, memes, working remotely. We lived just a mile away from each other. We stayed longer than either of us had planned and played blitz chess on my laptop.
At some point, he explained to me a statistics problem he was working on. With the help of chess.com, he was able to map chess.com ratings to their USCF equivalent. He got hundreds of chess.com players to submit their online rating and OTB (over the board) rating and mapped it. He combined his findings into a website he called ChessGoals and wanted to know what I thought. It was cool! It answered questions that many chess players ask: how good is my online rating, really? What section should I play in my next tournament? Why is my lichess rating higher than my chess.com rating?
Months passed and we kept talking about chess– chess events, the latest John Bartholomew video, who the puzzle rush phenom spicycaterpillar is. He asked for help on growing ChessGoals. He was getting about 20 views per day. He began publishing articles on how people improved in chess. These got some traction and doubled his traffic over the next few months.
By May of 2020, he was getting about 70 views per day. Over drinks, Matt asked if I would like to play a bigger role at ChessGoals. I agreed though I didn’t see the direction of the project. The site existed solely of the rating comparison and learner series articles. What else could there be to it?
I went through Matt’s articles and made them more SEO-friendly. We came up with strategies to grow the site and articles to write. The first thing we focused on was to re-do the home page to focus on Matt’s free study plans.
As part of Matt’s research for the rating comparison, he asked over 200 chess players about their study habits. For the first time that either of us are aware, Matt was able to use data to show how to improve at chess. He discovered some takeaways that you may expect: opening study doesn’t help you too much, nobody likes studying endgames.
He also came away with somewhat counterintuitive insights. Playing was the best thing for your chess, for instance. Even playing blitz chess is helpful for improvement.
Matt took these insights and turned them into a series of posts that he called study plans. Each plan gave recommendations on how to allocate your chess study time. Plans are different based on your rating.
We ended up doubling traffic from April to May. Could this hobby chess site really turn into something? 175 daily views are certainly not nothing! Businesses are built on less. But we were far from a business. We had nothing to sell, and no idea what we could sell. We had no idea how to even how to set something up to sell. We had no customers or any idea how to get customers. What product could we possibly come up with that people would want to buy?
We were coming off an unreal May where we doubled and nearly tripled our month’s previous traffic. We both thought this was surely a fluke. Neither of us thought we could replicate our last month. In June we published four articles and I published my first. To our surprise and delight, our site traffic had once again gone up, this time to 250 views per day.
How we Get Traffic
Matt is a great writer, as you all know, and is a top blogger on chess.com. His blog posts regularly get 10k views on chess.com and every once in a while, when appropriate, he would link to ChessGoals. He is careful not to do this too much. It would come off as spammy if his chess.com blog existed to funnel people to our own site. Of our 3100 visitors in June, roughly 800 came from search engines, 500 from Reddit, 175 from Twitter. The rest (roughly 1500) came from Matt linking us on his chess.com blog.
We had seen, what seemed to us, unfathomable growth in my first few months on the project. In April we had 2,000 page views on the site and two months later, we totaled over 7,500. Nearly quadrupling in 60 days. We were shocked at this progress and we knew this level of growth was not sustainable.. right? We realized that, while all this traffic was cool, so what?
What good is a bunch of traffic and eyeballs if we have no way to capitalize on it? We had nothing to sell, nor did we have any idea of what we could sell. Would we write a book? That seemed like a lot of effort, and the chess book space is already crowded. Could we make an opening repertoire? Could we make money off ads?
Instead of coming up with a product, we focused on building an e-mail list. On July 1st we had 65 e-mails that Matt had collected over the years from his rating comparison project. We set a goal to get to 75 by the end of the year. I read a marketing book aimed at people with no marketing ability (us). We obediently added a pop-up on our website. We obediently created what the marketing book called a “lead-gen.”
We continued writing and publishing articles in July– six in total. To this day, these posts generate a small amount of traffic each day. Our articles did well. Our lead-gen did well. We finished July with 11,000 views for the month and, impossibly, 363 emails on our list. 363! We set a goal of 75 by the end of the year.
Most of these came from the rating survey Matt did a few months back when this project was in its infancy. Over 200 people filled out our survey and gave their e-mail addresses, so we imported them to our mailing list with steps to unsubscribe. Many people did unsubscribe, but most didn’t. Subtracting these e-mails still gave us about 100 that signed up for our e-mail list in July.
What a month! Each time I saw the data from the previous month I thought to myself “surely we can’t go up from here.” But then there was August.
The Turning Point
August 2020 was a turning point for the ChessGoals project. Our blog output was very strong– we published 7 articles in total, some of our best. Two of these articles are still top performers today.
Matt wrote a comprehensive comparison between the biggest two chess websites, chess.com and lichess.org. It was a detailed, 1600 word write-up that compared everything between the two sites. It is one of his best articles and he put a ton of time into researching, getting good images, and making clear arguments. He submitted the article late Sunday night, hardly the best time to submit an article, and shared it on Reddit.
Our First Big Break
I woke up and checked the traffic, 1000 hits on his post! Amazing. Thank you, Reddit. I went to check the comments on the post but there were just a handful of upvotes and no comments. I figured it was a nice little boost that had come and gone.
An hour later the post was at 1500 hits. Then 2000. Then 3000.
I cannot begin to explain how amped we were. I can speak for both of us in that we got no work done that day. We just watched the numbers. But one thing was funny- how was Reddit giving us so much traffic if there was hardly a response from the post? Well, Reddit wasn’t actually giving us any traffic. Google was.
Turns out, Google was surfacing our article to tons of people on their phones. You know when you get a recommended article when you open a new tab? Or when you are in the Android search app? ChessGoals was front and center! We ended the day with 5,500 views and 20 e-mails on our list.
A week passed with back-to-normal levels of traffic. Matt had written another comprehensive article. This one compared the rating systems for chess.com, lichess, USCF. We followed the same formula as last week; publish the article Sunday night and share to Reddit. This time we woke up to 1,500 views. We finished the day with 7,500. 2,000 more than our previous whopper. More views than we’d had in 2019.
A week passed and we followed the same formula. Another comprehensive article (How to Solve Any Chess Tactics Puzzle), published Sunday night, shared to Reddit. I went to bed and woke up to….50 views. Our lottery ticket had expired.
We finished August with a dizzying 30,000 views. How in the world was this possible? We could not continue growing, could we?
And yet, the traffic boom in August was only the 2nd most important thing that happened that month.
August was also the month we transformed ChessGoals from a fun hobby to a fun hobby that is also a business business. The free study plans Matt wrote up a few months ago gave good advice for how to study chess for efficient chess improvement. Based on your rating, he gives allocations for how much time to spend on what. 5% of your time on openings, 70% playing games, book recommendations for your level, etc.
Matt had an idea to upgrade these to premium study plans, available for purchase. The premium study plans would give you 12 full weeks of actions to take to improve. One week may have you looking at openings and playing slow chess. The next week you may do tactics, go over annotated games and try out a new endgame. Matt did all the work on this over the course of a weekend.
When Matt completed the study plans (six, in total, based on rating) we called an all-company meeting. I grabbed burgers and we went over the plans. When we met we were still running on the high of Google boosting our posts to over 12,000 people over the past couple of weeks. We were confident that we were on the right track, and that ChessGoals was something. But would these study plans sell? There was nothing else like this in the chess world.
Our First Product
We (well, Matt) released our study plans and we e-mailed our list of 500 subscribers. Over the next week, we made 6 sales! I was shocked that we made any sales, let alone 6. I knew it was a valuable product, and I knew that Matt put a ton of effort into it. I knew this was the only product on the market that gave data-based insights to chess improvement. And yet I couldn’t quite come to let myself believe that it would really sell.
Each time we got a sale Matt and I high-fived via text. Each sale made me feel like I was somehow “getting away with something.” It seemed too good to be true. On many occasions, I would wake up and see we got sales overnight. Is this what passive income is? I’ve never experienced making money without working an hour.
We finished August with over $400 in profit. I cannot describe to you how unreal this was to Matt and me. I want to emphasize that ChessGoals is and was 100% not about the money. Matt and I both work cushy full-time jobs and make a good living. The $400 we made would sit in our “Corporate Account” for a year.
Even reflecting on August now, it’s hard to believe how much happened in such a short time. Months ago we had 2000 page views per month. No product, no e-mail list, nothing! Just a few chess articles. We finished August with a real, functioning business. We had a product that people liked. We had 30,000 page views. We had 500+ e-mail subscribers. Strangers were linking us on Reddit and Twitter.
Matt and I began to catch our breath and think about what happened in August. Out of nowhere, the site exploded. We (Matt) developed a product and it actually sold. Not only that– people liked it! We had no returns or negative feedback. Each sale seemed to be a wild one-off happenstance. I thought that each sale would be our last.
After the big Google boost traffic levels came back to normalcy. We ended September where we ended July– about 350 page views per day. We published four articles and marketed the hell out of our study plans. We made 22 sales, had some affiliate income, and ended the month with over $600 in profit. Matt and I were thrilled to the point of confusion that we were able to double our income.
We continued to work on our articles. We wanted to write the best article on the internet on each topic that we took on. We continued publishing at a rate of more than one article per week. Our growth had halted, our sales slowed down.
ChessGoals had a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end 2020.
Chess.com Speed Chess Championship
I met Matt because I recognized his Smarterchess moniker from running the SCC tournament statistics. His predictions, as I’ve mentioned, were unsettlingly accurate. Robert Hess loved to tell viewers (in a playful manner, of course) how awful the predictions were and how Smarterchess couldn’t possibly be correct. He usually was.
It was time for the 2020 SCC, a much-anticipated event. Hikaru Nakamura was a huge favorite until Magnus Carlsen joined the event. They were in opposite brackets and would likely meet for an online chess event like never before.
Matt worked out a deal to not take a salary for this event in exchange for ChessGoals being an official SCC sponsor.
Matches took place in November and December and we got a nice plug for ChessGoals each show. Each match would bring in 500 or so views and a sale or two. The blog was taking off as we continued to publish at a rate of nearly two articles per week. With the chess boom in full effect thanks to The Queen’s Gambit, many more people we searching for our rating comparisons and finding us.
Magnus lost to MVL in the quarterfinals of the SCC. The much-anticipated Hikaru/Magnus match was no more. More tragically, chess.com found a real sponsor to cover the last few matches. We didn’t get our names in front of their massive, 80k person audiences for those events. But something else was brewing.
The Caro-Kann and Discord
Matt had started development on a new product: A Caro-Kann opening repertoire. I must admit to, once again, being a skeptic. Shouldn’t we focus on the blog? And growing the site? Does the world need another opening course? Matt did a truly amazing job with this repertoire. The lines he recommends are so fun and all but guarantee you’ll come out with a better understanding of the position. I now play the Caro exclusively and study the repertoire to this day.
Matt had another idea that I resisted: Discord. I, again, asked him why we would want to spend time on this, why we should take on another project, why this, why that? I softened to the idea in time and we launched our discord. Only paying customers were invited, and it would be a good way to get feedback and hold ourselves accountable for the quality of our products.
Of anything we’ve ever done at ChessGoals, the Discord was the best decision.
We could now talk to users. We could bounce ideas off them. They could ask questions about study plan alternatives. They beta-tested our new content. They read and shared our articles. They double-checked our Caro-Kann recommendations. Most importantly- we had a community. We had inside jokes, private chess tournaments, Q&A sessions. It is so fun getting to know our members.
The timing of our discord coincided nicely with our Caro-Kann opening course, which, after months of work, was now available for sale. We e-mailed our list of roughly 1,000 and got 7 sales in the first week. Pretty good! We’ve not once been asked for a return on this course and it continues to be a pored over by our discord members. I love this repertoire- it completely changed my chess game.
We wanted to diversify our traffic sources. A friend of Matt’s has a YouTube channel that had recently taken off and was providing a ton of growth for their business. We saw the value in having a YouTube following and both agreed on a slight change in our priorities. Matt would focus more on the YouTube channel and less on the blog and writing articles. He would post one video every day for the next 2 months.
We begged our discord and e-mail list to subscribe to our YouTube channel and had built ourselves up to 50 subscribers. Each video upload would get 5 views, probably just Matt and I. But Matt stuck with it and grew our audience.
A Thrilling March
My two boys had just woken up from their afternoon nap. I got a text from Matt saying we had a huge boost in traffic. It had been a slower day of traffic and, sure enough, we had a surge of 500 views in an hour. But from where? We launched an investigation but came up empty. Each person coming to our website seemed to be going to chessgoals.com directly. We couldn’t figure out why.
Matt went on Twitter and stumbled upon a video from Hikaru Nakamura. He read our rating comparisons page to his 900k subscribers. How was this possible? Hikaru even had good things to say! He thought our ratings were accurate and he was complimentary! I watched with my jaw in my lap as he read our words aloud. Luckily, we knew Hikaru’s YouTube manager and got them to link us in the description of the video.
Hikaru’s video got us a good amount of traffic, I’d guess 5,000 views in total. We got to see the value of having a dedicated YouTube audience, validating our decision to focus there.
We would finish March with 40,000 views on ChessGoals.
But that was only the 2nd most exciting thing that happened in March. My wife also gave birth to our 3rd son. I am typing this with him sleeping on my chest.
We had so many big breaks in the past year. Hikaru reviewing our site. A massive traffic boost from Google. Sponsoring the SCC. All these put together gave us a huge boost in traffic.
That said, these combined did not build a business. The slow grind of publishing articles, reaching out to paying customers, building a YouTube audience– that’s where the magic is. The rewards of these big breaks have come and gone, but the fruits of our daily work continue to grow our company.
The past couple of months of ChessGoals has been at a slower pace. I’ve been on paternity leave taking care of the baby so Matt has had all the responsibility. He’s written a few articles, published a ton of YouTube videos, and even started a Patreon. Again I was– you guessed it– leary of starting something new. And again– you guessed it– Matt was right. Our Patreon allows people to join our discord who don’t want to go through a study plan.
Matt now does weekly hour+ long seminars with Patreon members that our VIPs rave about. It allows us to get to know our customers, now friends, on such a deeper level. Before Discord and Patreon we knew nothing about who bought a plan.
A year ago we had nothing. No e-mail list, no products, no product ideas, certainly no income. We had no fans, no viewership, no YouTube channel. No Patreon. No discord. We had no idea how to write quality content, sell anything online, grow a community.
In one year we have grown more than what Matt and I ever thought was even remotely possible. Just last night we went over all this, both of us in awe, not believing what has happened over the past year.
We set a goal to have an e-mail list of 75 at the end of 2020, we finished with over 1,000.
We went from 5,300 views in a month to 40,000.
Went went from nothing on YouTube to over 360 subscribers and about 100 views a day.
We went from no products to 7 study plans, a Caro-Kann course, and a d4 repertoire in progress.
We went from no Discord to a vibrant community of over 100 wonderful members.
And we’re just getting started.