Emily McDermott was burnt out at her insurance job, so she decided to take a leap of faith and quit so she could start her own business.
She started out with a budgeting blog, Pretty Arrow, but when she realized how difficult it was to drive traffic and monetize it, she pivoted to Etsy.
Although she knew very little about spreadsheets when she began, she was able to turn her beginner knowledge into a thriving business. Emily currently earns 6 figures per year selling her spreadsheet templates.
Keep reading to find out:
How she got started
How she started to earn money
How much she’s making
How much time she works on her business
Her main marketing strategies
Her thoughts on SEO and keyword research
Her tips for Etsy
Her approach to her email list
The resources and tools she uses
Her biggest challenge
Her most important accomplishment
Her main mistake
Her advice for other entrepreneurs
Meet Emily McDermott
My name is Emily and I’ve earned a full-time income selling spreadsheets for 2.5 years now.
I live in Canada with my partner and our two cats, Snow and Coco. Even though I have a degree in business, I didn’t start a business of my own until recently.
I was working 9-to-5 in insurance before I decided to take a leap of faith and start a digital products business—a change I’m very glad I made!
When I’m not daydreaming about a new digital product I want to sell (digital product strategy is my obsession!), you’ll find me reading a good book, getting out in nature, or out home decor shopping, my other passion in life.
How She Got Started Online
I actually started out with a personal finance blog in 2020 called Pretty Arrow about paying off debt, and I thought I would just be a blogger. As an introvert and a bit of a nerd, writing blog posts seemed like a great fit for me.
But it didn’t take long for me to realize 2 things: I needed to get traffic to my blog and I needed to monetize that traffic.
I had just quit my job in insurance due to burnout, and I had given myself a few months to start an income stream online. If it didn’t work, I was going to have to find another job. So I was really driven to make my little blog work and I started to research all of the ways to monetize a blog.
After a few Google searches, I saw that people were selling budget templates on Etsy. I designed a printable budget planner, but I found the process of designing 50+ pages rather tedious for the results I was getting. Sales were trickling in at best.
Next, I used eRank to find out what kind of budgeting tools people were searching for the most on Etsy, and which of these had the lowest degree of competition from other sellers. eRank is the keyword research tool that I recommend everyone use before starting on Etsy. Budget spreadsheets seemed to be the winner!
Although I’d never been a spreadsheet expert (my skills were beginner at best), the thought of making a fun budget spreadsheet made me really excited. I also thought that this would be a great way to get more people to discover my blog online.
I remember making my first $5 sale on the first day. Within 3 months, I was making $5k a month. In 6 months, I was making $15k a month!
Once I realized that my first spreadsheet had a conversion rate of more than 2%, I used the same overall branding and design in all future spreadsheets. Essentially, once I knew what I was doing was working, I didn’t make this complicated, I just kept doing what worked.
I really believe it is essential to test out different designs until you find what converts to sales. Once you see what converts to sales, make more of it and keep the progress going.
The best part was that I was having a lot of fun creating the spreadsheets, and I loved them so much I was using them for my own budget.
I’m turning 30 this year and decided to combine my business education and real-world experience as an online entrepreneur to help others start their own spreadsheet businesses, too.
So far, I’ve helped over 200 students start selling spreadsheets online. I am absolutely in love with talking digital product strategy with others. I love the freedom that digital products have given me in my own life.
How Much She’s Making
I make $100k a year from my Etsy shop. I earned this in my first year of running the shop, as well).
I have a Shopify store, but it only accounts for 10% of total sales, though I’m working on growing this via Facebook ads this year. The other 90% come from my Etsy store, Pretty Arrow Budget. At the moment I’m not actively blogging and am focused on Etsy.
January is a huge month in the budgeting niche—I like to call it New Year resolution season—and is typically much busier than the rest of the year. I also run more Etsy ads during this month to make sure we’re getting maximum exposure to people searching for budget spreadsheets on Etsy.
People often buy annual budget spreadsheets in January, which is our highest-priced spreadsheet, so I run most ads to this product in January. We can’t control the cost-per-click on Etsy, so I usually only make a significant profit on ads on higher-priced spreadsheets.
Right now, I work about 5 hours per week on my business. In the beginning, I was working full-time hours to build my products and the systems needed to sell them on autopilot.
Today, I work 3 or 4 days a week answering emails and customer questions, as well as brainstorming new business ideas.
Emily’s Top Marketing Strategy
My top marketing strategy is to be very specific about your target audience and to target them unapologetically.
To use my shop as an example, I’m targeting women in their 20s who want to pay off their debt and are overwhelmed. I make my spreadsheets very simple and not cluttered, and I make them super girly and fun! I want my target audience—women in their 20s—to be instantly attracted to my spreadsheets when they see them in the search results.
Her Thoughts on SEO
SEO is hugely important for my business! It’s the backbone of how I do my product research. I never blindly make a spreadsheet to sell, I always do market research first.
For Etsy, I like to use eRank to find product keywords that are high in demand and low in competition. This is called a long-tail keyword. These keywords are typically very specific (e.g. “monthly budget spreadsheet in Google Sheets”) and are being searched by people who are serious about buying something now. They know what they want.
A short-tail keyword gets more searches but is less specific (e.g. “budget planner”). People who are searching for them usually aren’t ready to buy. They will type this keyword in to see what comes up and eventually will narrow it down to what they really want (e.g. “yearly budget planner in Excel”).
So even though the term “budget planner” has a lot of demand, it’s likely that most of these searches aren’t by people who are ready to buy yet.
For this reason, I like to use a long tail keyword at the very beginning of my listing title. I also make sure that the first few words of my listing title describe my product really accurately, so Etsy knows exactly what it is.
Etsy also allows us to use 13 product “tags” per listing. Always use all 13 tags and try to use a variety of terms. I like to use eRank to find low-competition keywords to add here, too.
I also prefer to only repeat 2 keywords in my titles and tags. I really try to go for as much variety as possible.
In addition to keywords, it’s important to know that Etsy shows the listings with the highest conversion rates first in search results.
This is why it’s so important to really identify who is searching for this term and how you can entice them to click on your listing and buy it! Really focus on creating a product that will be exactly what they need at that moment.
Emily’s Tips for Etsy Success
My biggest tip for succeeding on Etsy is to start with keyword research with eRank. You should understand what is selling right now and how much competition there is for that product.
This is just a ballpark, but as a beginner, if you see a keyword on eRank with a competition of less than 2,000, this is typically a great keyword to target.
My next tip would be to focus most of your marketing energy on your listing images. The main listing image for your product is what drives clicks on your product and makes customers excited to buy it!
Make sure your main listing image is on brand (i.e. it matches the rest of your shop), is super clear (the image of your product should be large and easy to see), and not too cluttered with text. People will be scanning over it, so try to have just 2 to 3 areas of text, if you can.
My final tip is to actually view your Etsy shop as part of a bigger business model you are building for yourself. Show people that you have an email list you would like them to sign up for, or put a link to your website everywhere you can.
This will help you to build your business and sell more products to the same people (i.e. more spreadsheets, digital planners, a mini course, an ebook, 1:1 coaching services, etc.)
Emily’s Email List
I have been growing my email list since day 1.
I grow my email list through a free resource library and a free budget starter kit. I have had the most success by offering freebies that are generous (people are excited to sign up for them!) and specific to the beginning of my target audience’s journey.
My free resource library is just a password-protected page on my blog. When someone signs up for my email list, they will get an email with the password. It includes things that beginners would want at the start of their budgeting journeys, like printables and spreadsheets.
I offer simple spreadsheets that show just how easy and fun using a spreadsheet is to increase the chances of them becoming a buying customer. For example, only my paid spreadsheets have an expense tracker, so there is still an incentive for them to buy.
I tell people about my freebies all over my Etsy shop (in my product descriptions, on my shop banner, etc.). This is great because it costs nothing to get these sign-ups.
I also have Pinterest pins telling people about my freebies.
Right now, I run Facebook and Instagram ads to my freebies. This has been a great way to grow my list quickly.
My favorite strategy for growing my list is actually by writing SEO-optimized blog posts and having people organically find me through Google search. Although it takes some time to build this strategy (and it’s one I need to dedicate some more time to), I still get sign-ups from my blog posts from 2 years ago.
Emily’s Favorite Resource
I highly recommend Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen, by Donald Miller.
If you want to sell spreadsheets or any digital product, this book is incredibly detailed and will help you to build your shop with confidence, instead of guessing what products you should make or what your free lead magnet to build your email list will be. I really wish I would have read this on day 1.
Her Top Tools
ConvertKit is one of my most-used tools, as it helps me to build my email list on autopilot and to sell digital products to my list.
Facebook ads are incredibly helpful in scaling my business quickly by growing the number of email sign-ups I get. This is a new tool I’m using in 2023 for just my Shopify store. I run ads for my free budget starter kit to get my target audience signed up for my email list.
Canva is also one of those tools that I use all of the time to make product images and free printables. It’s so easy to use and really makes things look professional.
I use Google Sheets and Excel to make spreadsheets. Google Sheets is my preference as it is free for my customers to get access to and it is very beginner friendly.
Her Biggest Challenge
The biggest challenge I’ve faced is my own self-doubt. When I doubt my own abilities to make a spreadsheet or how to market it to my audience, my messaging ends up being confusing and not very inspiring.
I really try to focus on the numbers, e.g. the conversion rate a product gets, and doing more of what’s proven to work. Don’t make things any more confusing than they need to be… and make sure you are having fun in your business!
Her Most Important Accomplishment
My most important accomplishment as an entrepreneur has been getting countless hours back to myself every week. The fact that I can focus more time on things that matter to me, like my mental health and flying to another province to visit my family whenever I like, is truly priceless.
What She Wishes She Knew When She Started
Many digital product sellers do not build brands that target a specific audience who is facing a specific problem. So if you see 100 other spreadsheet sellers, it’s important to view them from the lens of your target audience instead.
How many of them are targeting your target customer as effectively as you are?
This is where you will find an opportunity to become a no-brainer purchase for your audience.
For example, let’s say your target audience is stay-at-home moms. Although there are many different spreadsheets on Etsy, there aren’t many (if any) that speak directly to moms.
So even though you see many budget spreadsheets, perhaps you don’t see any that are really targeting moms. This would be an opportunity for you to be a no-brainer purchase for them on Etsy.
Her Main Mistake
The biggest mistake I made was trying to sell to everyone. When I first started selling printables on Etsy, I remember being afraid to target young women with spreadsheets that were fun, girly, and pink.
So I was mixing all kinds of colors that didn’t make sense and I wasn’t creating something with a clear message to my customer, like: using this spreadsheet will be fun and unlike anything you’ve seen before!
This ended up being what made me stand out amongst the competition. And it’s when I really started having fun creating spreadsheets!
Her Advice for Other Entrepreneurs
Don’t let imposter syndrome get in your way of starting a business. I was not experienced with spreadsheets at all when I first started. I was even Googling how to make a simple graph, and now I’ve had nearly 3 years of freedom in my life.
Remember that your target audience wants a simple solution that saves them time, and spreadsheets are a fantastic tool for that.
By keeping them in mind every step of the way, you’ll be able to create a sustainable business that you love working on.
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It’s now two years since Facebook changed its name to Meta, ushering in a brief but blazing enthusiasm over “the Metaverse”, a concept from science fiction that suddenly seemed to be the next inevitable leap in technology. For most people in tech, however, the term has since lost its luster, seemingly supplanted by any product with “artificial intelligence” attached to its description.
But the true story of the Metaverse’s rise and fall in public awareness is much more complicated and interesting than simply being the short life cycle of a buzzword — it also reflects a collective failure of both imagination and understanding.
The forgotten novel
Ironically, many tech reporters discounted or even ignored the profound influence of Snow Crash on actual working technologists. The founders of Roblox and Epic (creator of Fortnite) among many other developers were directly inspired by the novel. Despite that, Neal Stephenson’s classic cyberpunk tale has often been depicted as if it were an obscure dystopian tome which merely coined the term. As opposed to what it actually did: describe the concept with a biblical specificity that thousands of developers have referenced in their virtual world projects — many of which have already become extremely popular.
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You can see this lack of clarity in many of the mass tech headlines attempting to describe the Metaverse in the wake of Facebook’s name change:
In a widely shared “obituary” to the Metaverse, Business Insider’s Ed Zitron even compounded the confusion still further by inexplicably misattributing the concept to TRON, the original Disney movie from the 80s.
Had the media referenced Snow Crash far more accurately when the buzz began, they’d come away with a much better understanding of why so many technologists are excited by the Metaverse concept — and realize its early incarnation is already gaining strong user traction.
Because in the book, the Metaverse is a vast, immersive virtual world that’s simultaneously accessible by millions of people through highly customizable avatars and powerful experience creation tools that are integrated with the offline world through its virtual economy and external technology. In other words, it’s more or less like Roblox and Fortnite — platforms with many tens of millions of active users.
But then again, the tech media can’t be fully blamed for following Mark Zuckerberg’s lead.
Rather than create a vision for its Metaverse iterating on already successful platforms — Roblox’s 2020 IPO filing even describes itself as the metaverse — Meta’s executive leadership cobbled together a mishmash of disparate products. Most of which, such as remotely working in VR headsets, remain far from proven. According to an internal Blind survey, a majority of Zuckerberg’s own employees say he has not adequately explained what he means by the Metaverse even to them.
Grievous of all, Zuckerberg and his CTO Andrew Bosworth promoted a conception of the Metaverse in which the Quest headset was central. To do so, they had to overlook compelling evidence — raised by senior Microsoft researcher danah boyd at the time of the company acquiring Oculus in 2014 — that females have a high propensity to get nauseous using VR.
Contacted in late 2022 while writing Making a Metaverse That Matters, danah told me no one at Oculus or Meta followed up with her about the research questions she raised. Over the years, I have asked several senior Meta staffers (past and present) about this and have yet to receive an adequate reply. Unsurprisingly, Meta’s Quest 2 VR headset has an estimated install base of only about 20 million units, significantly smaller than the customer count of leading video game consoles. A product that tends to make half the population puke is not exactly destined for the mass market — let alone a reliable base for building the Metaverse.
Ironically, Neal Stephenson himself has frequently insisted that virtual reality is absolutely not a prerequisite for the Metaverse, since flat screens display immersive virtual worlds just fine. But here again, the tech media instead ratified Meta’s flawed VR-centric vision by constantly illustrating articles about the Metaverse with photos of people happily donning headsets to access it — inadvertently setting up a straw man destined to soon go ablaze.
Duct-taped to yet another buzzword
Further sealing the Metaverse hype wave’s fate, it crested around the same time that Web3 and crypto were still enjoying their own euphoria period. This inevitably spawned the “cryptoverse” with platforms like Decentraland and The Sandbox. When the crypto crash came, it was easy to assume the Metaverse was also part of that fall.
But the cryptoverse platforms failed in the same way that other crypto schemes have gone awry: By offering a virtual world as a speculative opportunity, it primarily attracted crypto speculators, not virtual world enthusiasts. By October of 2022, Decentraland was only tracking 7,000 daily active users, game industry analyst Lars Doucet informed me.
“Everybody who is still playing is basically just playing poker,” as Lars put it. “This seems to be a kind of recurring trend in dead-end crypto projects. Kind of an eerie rhyme with left-behind American cities where drugs come in and anyone who is left is strung out at a slot machine parlor or liquor store.”
All this occurred as the rise of generative AI birthed another, shinier buzzword — one that people not well-versed in immersive virtual worlds could better understand.
But as “the Metaverse” receded as a hype totem, a hilarious thing happened: Actual metaverse platforms continued growing. Roblox now counts over 300 million monthly active users, making its population nearly the size of the entire United States; Fortnite had its best usage day in 6 years. Meta continues plodding along but seems to finally be learning from its mistakes — for instance, launching a mobile version of its metaverse platform Horizon Worlds.
At some point, everyone in tech who co-signed the “death” of the Metaverse may notice this sustained growth. By then however, the term may no longer require much usage, just as the term “information superhighway” fell away as broadband Internet went mainstream.
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Once praised as the defining feature of the internet, the ability to connect with physically distant people is something that governments have recently been seemingly intent on restricting. Authorities have been increasingly pulling the plug, putting over 4 billion people in the shadows in the first half of 2023 alone.
Social media platforms are often the first means of communication to be restricted. Surfshark, one of the most popular VPN services, counted at least 50 countries guilty of having curbed these websites and apps during periods of political turmoil such as protests, elections, or military activity.
The company has recently released some new statistics on the matter, so I spoke with one of the researchers to understand more about this worrying trend and what’s at stake.
As mentioned, 50 nations have reportedly pulled the plug on popular social media services like Facebook, Instagram, X, and TikTok in the past eight years. However, there are some governments that went the extra mile in repressing their citizens’ digital life.
“Five countries have experienced the longest restrictions (lasting more than five years). Although that may not sound like many countries, it translates to 1.55 billion people,” Lina Survila, Surfshark spokeswoman, told me while commenting on the findings.
People living in China, Iran, and Turkmenistan have not been able to access Facebook, YouTube, or X for 14 years now. In Eritrea, YouTube went dark 13 years ago and never recovered. North Korean nationals could never access Western social media platforms, and Instagram went dark for visitors as well eight years ago, followed by all other major platforms at a later date.
“The fact that so many people have been deprived of social media access by their governments for such a long period is what shocked me the most,” Survila told me.
Elsewhere, around 2.3 billion people have experienced restricted access to social media for an average of 4126 hours (about half a year). In Russia, for example, people have been facing restrictions on Facebook, Instagram, and X since the invasion of Ukraine began, while other countries enforced short-term information blackouts during times of political turmoil.
In 2023, Turkey blocked Twitter for just two days, but it was when people needed it the most: in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that killed over 15,000 people in both Turkey and Syria.
Ethiopia has not had access to popular social media sites since February 2023 amid protests over the split of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, while people in Senegal turned to secure VPN services in June to cut through the thick blanket of censorship.
In Western countries, social media platforms are often seen in a negative light. These platforms are thought to distort users’ views on important political topics, endanger children in different ways, and promote a rather superficial lifestyle.
The truth is that these platforms are far more powerful when used in the right way. They enable people to access news in real-time, exchange opinions, and keep the information flow going. All this is especially crucial during times of crisis. Authorities know this very well, and that’s precisely why they might decide to block their access, curbing citizens’ freedom of speech in the process.
Survila told me: “Restricting these platforms isn’t simply a limitation on social connections—it’s a suppression of an essential avenue for transparency, potentially allowing government propaganda to dominate without opposition.”
Asked how the trend has developed over the years, she said to have not noticed any clear increase in the number of restrictions imposed. At the same time, there was not a decrease either. According to Survila, this means that social media blackouts still remain a common tool among autocratic leaders to silence the public and hinder the spread of information.
She said: “It’s unlikely that the countries imposing decade-long restrictions will retract them anytime soon. It also doesn’t look like the number and frequency of new restrictions will slow down in the near future.”
Even worse, perhaps, this worrying censorship wave might not even remain an exclusive prerogative of certain despotic governments for long. Also some so-called Western democracies have been showing a will to gain greater control of how people communicate online.
The US took a strong stance against TikTok at the start of the year, which led to the state of Montana to issue an outright TikTok ban for all citizens. This was supposed to be enforced starting from January 1, 2024, but it was blocked by the federal district court on November 30.
On this point, Survila said: “Harmful and abusive content should undeniably be eliminated from online platforms, and it’s important that social media companies and governments implement strong measures to identify and remove such material. But it’s also crucial that we preserve individuals’ access to social media. Banning entire platforms is certainly not the right solution.”
How a VPN can help
Short for virtual private network, a VPN is security software that both encrypts internet connections and spoofs your real IP address location. The latter ability is exactly what you need to bypass social media restrictions. It tricks your ISP to think you’re browsing from a completely different country entirely, granting you access to Facebook, Instagram, or any other platforms despite this being blocked.
While citizens living under such a digital suppression learned how to navigate restrictions, also governments are getting savvy enough to prevent them from evading these blocks. VPN censorship is on the rise as well, in fact, with China and Iran gaining the crown as the biggest offenders worldwide in 2023.
That’s why I suggest downloading several apps to hop from one to another in case these get blocked. I recommend checking TechRadar’s best free VPNs page to choose the safer freebies on the market. Additional tools like the Tor browser can also help here, as well as less-known software like Snowstorm and Lantern.
On its side, Surfshark developers have equipped the software with some censorship-resistant features like its Camouflage mode to escape VPN blocks and No Borders which automatically connect you to the servers performing the best under network restrictions. At the same time, its researchers are committed to keep shed light on this dangerous practices to put some pressure on countries’ leaders.
Survila said: “By releasing our studies and raising awareness of social media restrictions, we hope to encourage people to talk about them. In this way, we hope to gradually build public pressure against the authoritarian regimes responsible for imposing these restrictions, leading them to reconsider and potentially cease such actions.”