Harsh Agrawal shares his journey of building ’ShoutMeLoud’
PayPal launches PayPal for Business app helping freelancers conduct business on the go
The webinar was part of the ongoing series—The Rising Freelance Economy
Freelancing helps in monetising one’s skill sets and also gives the individual the freedom to work at their convenience. Recognising the opportunity for freelancers in India, Inc42 & PayPal have launched a series of webinars titled —The Rising Freelance Economy. The objective of this series is to educate budding freelancers and share learnings on how to maximise the opportunity. In the past, the webinars have touched upon diverse topics such as women freelancers in India, Building a successful freelancing career, and more.
In the recent webinar themed—Carving A Successful Freelancing Career: Tips, Tricks & Best Practices with Harsh Agrawal—Inc42 spoke to Harsh founder of ShoutMeLoud, one of the leading blogging and internet marketing platforms in the world.
Harsh started out as an engineer and went on to set up a blogging platform that offers an opportunity to over a million users to put out their creative best. The platform also covers the entire gamut of internet marketing tools that can help bloggers, or ‘shouters’ as the platform calls them, to popularise their blog. Harsh shared his journey of building ShoutMeLoud and insights on the best practices that can help in crafting a successful freelancing career.
Payments continue to be a challenge for freelancers but platforms like PayPal help resolve this hurdle. PayPal continues to innovate to ease the life of freelancers and has recently launched their merchant app- PayPal for Business. The app offers freelancers an opportunity to conduct business on the go in a safe and secure manner. Narsi Subramanian, Director-Growth, PayPal India, spoke on the launch of the app and its role in growing the freelancer ecosystem.
Excerpts from the webinar:
Inc42: In a post you stated, ‘‘In 2006, I got to know about blogs and it took me about two years from then to start my first blog.’’ Why the plunge after two years? Please take us through your journey of building ShoutMeLoud.
Harsh Agrawal: I feel writing is the best way to express oneself and that’s what I started doing when I was a child. In college, I got to know about blogging and found the idea interesting as it gives a platform to the individual to express oneself and be heard. In 2008 I graduated and started working with Accenture. At that time I could not imagine myself going to office every day and doing the same thing for the rest of my life. But as a 22-year old, I had no idea what my life was going to look like. Like any other engineer, I was waiting for the joining date and I was later placed in Accenture’s call centre. That was the time I started blogging. Blogging for me was what people do after their jobs like playing cricket or basketball, etc. I was working for about eight hours and after that blogging for around six hours, and it was going great. This was really the beginning of the journey for me.
Inc42: Tell us about the story of your friend giving you his credit card for you to buy a domain name. How did you build that trust and how did it all come about?
Harsh: It was November end and I was on the Blogspot platform. I heard everyone talking about WordPress. So, I looked it up and found it very interesting. The biggest challenge getting started with WordPress was that I needed to buy web hosting and a domain name. Having a credit card at the age of 22 was a dream back then. I was figuring out how to go about it and remembered that a friend had one which he offered to lend me. The bigger question was what would be the domain name. I wanted a name that would have its own personality. I went to the call centre and saw something on a board– ‘Shout’ and I thought that would be a nice word for a blogging platform. And that was when I came with the name – ShoutMeLoud. On 1 December, I put it up on WordPress and the site was launched. That’s how ShoutMeLoud came into existence.
Inc42: And that’s how Shouters, as you call them popularly, came about?
Harsh: Yes. I started ShoutMeLoud as a technology blog. After moving to WordPress, I figured that there was something called Adsense affiliate marketing, which could help me monetise my blog and while bloggers outside of India were aware of it no one was talking openly about it. This made me realise that you could follow your passion and also receive income for it in the range of $500-600 which was a significant amount in India. So from technology, we moved to WordPress and SEO and this helped me grow ShoutMeLoud.
Inc42: If you have to give three tips to aspiring freelancers and people looking to build an independent career, what would those be?
Harsh Agrawal: Things that worked for me
- Be authentic: Do what you want to do and follow your heart,
- Define what success is for you: Define it in a way that it makes you keep moving ahead. For example, for me, it is solving a problem every day.
- Set realistic goals
- Invest in yourself: Learning should never stop. Be it exercise, yoga, basketball, etc.; all these should be a part of your journey throughout.
And finally, one thing that is the crux of all this is to be part of a community and contribute especially as a freelancer or blogger, because we don’t get to meet a lot of people and it a choice we have made. So the onus is on us how we want to communicate with like-minded people. For bloggers and freelancers, I would especially say it is important to look for communities like events, sessions, meetups and tell them what you are working on and spend time hearing other people as to what they are working on. Build real connections because that would be really helpful in the long run.
Inc42: Talking about your own journey, were there any mistakes that you made in the early days? If yes, what did you learn from them?
Harsh Agrawal: I don’t think I have stopped making mistakes and it is that what defines me today. The idea is to learn from them and move on:
- Be professional: Since you are working as a freelancer or anybody who is working online for that matter, people see and interact with you as per your image; it’s the image that you create, how you send emails, your website and freelancing profile. Look at yourself as a brand. Focus on becoming like an agency and talking like an agency, because prefer working with a brand.
- Use the right tools: From day one, use the right tools, and that pertains to time tracking, payment, and personal management
Inc42: In your opinion, which are the other sunrise segments for freelancing?
Harsh: Right now we are in the age of specialisation. If someone wants to become a web designer, they need to position themselves as specialising in one particular segment, for instance in logo designing, designing personal branding websites, etc.
Inc42: You mention SEO and Internet marketing, and that on ShoutMeLoud, 90% of the traffic is organic. How have you managed to really do that?
Harsh Agrawal: First and foremost define the purpose of your website. For me, it is quite simple–give something that people want. There is a need to be authentic. Second, learn the basics about SEO – onpage and onsite– and remain focussed on your end goal.
Inc42: Do you think the global opportunity for people looking to work on their own is more lucrative than that in India
Harsh Agrawal: There is a lot of ongoing debate over what is the future of working in India or working outside. It all boils down to what your skill sets are. The Indian market is definitely growing, but if you talk from an economic perspective, hypothetically, if someone is a web designer and if they work with a client from the United States, Australia or the United Kingdom, then, of course, compared to India, the monetary opportunity as well as the demand is higher. Demand in India is also slowly growing. This is probably the growing age of the Indian digital marketing space and local language expertise is of particular interest.
Inc42: In this age of digitisation, do you think freelancers or people working on their own are still facing the problem of timely payments?
Harsh: Yes, somebody from a country where PayPal isn’t there or they don’t have any form of systems to receive payments from. And this reminds me of a story:
In 2008, when I started blogging and I had zero idea that one can make money online, I was on a forum called Digital Point Forum that was very popular back then. There was a 42-year-old man from Australia who wanted help with the Google Webmaster tool. I offered to help him for free and he decided to pay me $15. That was the time I got to know about PayPal, and that I could receive international payments in India. Interestingly, I didn’t need to have a company for that. Receiving timely payment is the biggest challenge. A lot of people who are not aware of that can’t do business overseas, because the only challenge in doing business online is receiving payments. Partnering with platforms like PayPal helps resolve this issue and then the sky’s the limit.
Inc42: PayPal is constantly innovating on a lot of products and tools for freelancers, and recently you launched ‘PayPal for Business’. Could you take our audience through some of the features of the tool?
Narsi Subramanian: First of all, we have been having these webinars and also talking about the different factors of what PayPal does for freelancers. To a great extent, Harsh summarised it nicely. Somebody across the globe is reaching out to him for getting some job done and so what is the payment option they are comfortable with. This is something we have been pioneering globally and has enabled a lot of freelancers to receive money in a very timely manner as well as given them the opportunity to access a global client base.
We have been constantly bringing in new products and features for this particular segment. What we wanted to do for India was that since the country is a very mobile-centric market and freelancers have a day job, we realised that they need to interact with their customers in terms of payments on the go and that is where our business app comes in.
The business app helps freelancers send invoices on the go in a seamless and convenient manner. It is a lot more professional and we have seen that our invoices lead to a better conversion of payments. We have eventually seen freelancers becoming more professional by using these tools. A couple of things that the app does really well, except invoicing, are:
- It gives a good summary of all the invoices that one has
- It reminds a client on invoicing, and
- It helps issue refunds
We are happy about the new features for the app and we are finding the right opportunity for us to bring it into the market. We are developing some of these over time globally as well.
Inc42: As someone who is an enabler of payments, what would be the top three tips you would give to budding freelancers?
- Feel good that you are part of this industry
- Don’t stand still. For successful freelancers, it is about moving from Nar to Narayan
- You start off doing one thing and you end up doing multiple things, and so the things that you do in that journey are:
- Think about expanding your horizon
- Make yourself discoverable
- Play to your strengths
- Specialise in a particular area and see how you can build on it
- Then slowly expand your skill sets
- Build relationships
Audience: Harsh, since you are an affiliate marketer and a reviewer with a team of writers, how do you make sure to remain updated. If a blogger wants to start now, what niches do you think will get better ROI apart from just the things that interest you?
Harsh Agrawal: I work with very selected writers and we do a lot of content planning, and then we use Trello and Monday.com to manage the team and the workflow. Talking about the niche that you want to get into, one thing that I believe in is that if you are looking at a long-term freelancing career, you should definitely get into a niche you are really passionate about. Of course, you should also look at the facts as to how much money is there in that particular market. For example, if you get into fintech, technology, crypto, financials, etc, then those industries have a lot of money. The second thing that you should look at is the longevity of the niche that you are getting into. Let’s say if you get into fashion or tech, then the challenge with them is that after a year, whatever you write about them becomes irrelevant. But if you get into a niche like health, then that stays relevant even after five years and whatever you have worked till now will keep generating money after five years also. Based on these parameters, you should decide the niche that is best for you.
Inc42: What are the top three things that a professional needs to know before starting freelancing, especially in the content sector.
Harsh Agrawal: You should go to a place where people are more likely to hire you.
- The first place where you should be looking at is all the freelancing websites where people will actually look for a freelancer to work for them.
- Build your portfolio, even if it requires you to work for free initially, but get those three or four extra reviews
Narsi Subramanian: See how you want to slowly build your brand and as you go through, people will recognise you as an individual whether it is on LinkedIn or any other platform. Those are some of the things that you can do, but most importantly, look for things that you love to do because this is something you will be doing over and above your daytime. That way you will get something out of it.
Audience: What do you think is the future of blogging and will it end or disappear in the next five-10 years?
Harsh Agrawal: I think blogging is going to stay, but what is changing is probably the way people consume content. For example, video content is becoming more popular and there are multiple reasons; such as the Internet is becoming available to everyone and smartphones are increasing as well.
So it depends on the kind of niche you are getting into. If you are getting into food, then it becomes easy to learn while watching videos. It’s actually better to learn by reading the content or having the combination of both and so blogging is going to stay. It is going to become more challenging because since Google, which is supposed to be a search engine company, is becoming more like an ad company. This is the time when you should level up your blog or brand to a level that Google also sees as a brand, and if you focus on building a brand, getting into a niche and focussing on all the mediums of blogging like text, video and podcasts will take make you stand on a solid position in five to 10 years.
Audience: How can one protect the content on their blog? What stops someone from copying a content and setting up their own outfit?
Harsh Agrawal: You can’t do anything about it. Anybody can actually copy content from your blog. One thing that can help when someone copies your content is that you can report those blog pages to Google by going to google.com/dmca.html. Since you are the copyright owner, you can file a DMCA complaint, saying that a particular page has copied your content and Google will remove the page from its website. If someone has copied the entire content, then you can contact the web hosting platform where the website is hosted. All web hosting platforms, as well as platforms like WordPress.com and LinkedIn, have DMCA policies. So once you report those kinds of pages, they will remove it from their platform. That is the only way.
Audience: As a bidder of projects, what can be the unique proposition a freelancer can have as an edge over others
Narsi Subramanian: I think it is a competitive space for sure. And it is a big market. There are different areas of specialisation, and we have seen areas like software development, web design, online twittering, SEO and internet marketing, As you go through these, some of the things that you could do to be successful are:
- Deliver your projects on time
- Communicate effectively
- Look at building complementary skill sets, in some cases.
Harsh Agrawal: Once I posted about a requirement for a logo and there was a freelancer who made a bid and replied with two logos right away. That bidder stood out from everyone else because he was creative, the work was different and he actually showed the work instead of bidding blindly. This is something you can always work upon when you are starting off.
(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)