Personal Growth

Disruptive DNA: Marketing Hit Man

December 2016

Digital marketing guru Neil Patel shares his secret for success

After making a fortune online, digital marketing guru Neil Patel realised that money can't buy family or friends. He still works around the clock - but has sold his home, ditched his possessions, and is trying to live a lighter life.

Neil Patel totally owns being a geek. The slight-framed US entrepreneur cracks jokes about his Indian heritage and peppers his conversation with anecdotes about the money-making strategies of IT gurus like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and tech companies like Dropbox.

A self-described analytics junkie, Patel has co-founded three companies (Kissmetrics, Crazy Egg and Hello Bar) based on products that track and report on website visitors, to help companies improve their online pull.

Despite his immersion in the full-throttle world of online marketing, Patel is disarmingly low-key, his laid-back demeanour belying his constant biz-talk.

He's always worked long hours: “I work every, single day," he says, happily. But these days, he says, his focus has switched away from just making money, to finding meaning beyond accumulating 'stuff.'

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And this year, Patel made a very big life change: he sold his apartment and all of his furniture, got rid of most of his possessions, and now travels very, very light, with nearly everything he owns contained in one small suitcase.

“I'm kind-of homeless right now," he says, with a smile.

Patel, often top-billed at online marketing conferences around the world, last month made his second-ever visit to Australia at the behest of his old friend, Aaron Agius who heads digital marketing agency Louder Online.

At a Sydney “thought leadership" lunch, Patel discussed the next big trends in the digital ecosphere with over a dozen attendees.

He doesn't see a big change in the major players: Facebook and Google are still hot, hot, hot.

“Facebook's business model now, is getting people to pay for Facebook ads, to drive traffic back to Facebook; it's genius," he says.

Neil Patel with girlfriend Marie

Personalised content is a growing trend, too; but Patel says that the key to success online is still analytics. “You need to know what works and what converts."

Patel's brand of homeless doesn't seem to involve great hardships. Between attending meetings and speaking engagements over his week-long jaunt to Australia recently, Patel took in the sights, girlfriend Marie in tow; one day, cruising Sydney Harbour aboard a private yacht, another day touring the Blue Mountains by helicopter.

But he recently went public with a personal epiphany: like many multi-millionaires, he's realised that money - and the lavish lifestyle it facilitates - wasn't making him happy.

“I realized that my entire life goal - rising from my middle class environment and making millions of dollars - didn't satisfy me at all," he wrote.

Selling up

A few years back, Patel bought a new home: a multi-million dollar luxury condominium overlooking the Las Vegas strip, complete with glamorous furniture.

But he was rarely home and maintaining his luxury pad made it more hassle than haven.

This year, Patel had a revelation: all this high-end stuff wasn't making him happy, and took him away from his real passions: working, helping others and spending time with friends and family. Following the advice of a mentor, serial entrepreneur Mukund Mohan, Patel decided to sell his home, jettison most possessions, and live in hotels full-time, rather than part time.

He does have a home base, of sorts; “Every couple of months, I stay with my parents in California for a while," he says.

“You help people outright, or you can see people grow with your advice. It's rewarding."

Patel admits that he took a very long time moving out of his parents' home anyway, and – as he wrote in a Forbes column recently - until the age of 23, “I was that guy: the twenty-something nerd without a real job, living in his parents' house, and spending all his time on the internet."

But by 23, he had also graduated from college, started seven (and crashed five) separate businesses, earned (and lost) a million dollars – and thanks to his parents' support, learned to 'hustle' and work hard to regain the fortune he'd lost in an earlier start-up.

“I worked insane hours, made risky decisions, and hustled like my life depended on it," he reflects.

'Hustle' is the title of Patel's new business book, co-written with two entrepreneurs, which exhorts readers to tap into their ambition and take steps to become successful.

“As an immigrant family, my parents never had the mentality of 'do what you love,'" he reflects. “They believed that you do whatever it takes to put food on the table and a roof over your head."

Fortune chaser

From a young age, Patel says, he yearned to make his fortune. He saw business as the key to financial success, creating his first website at 16.

Despite some big setbacks, his work ethic and commercial nous helped him make a lot of money early on, and by the time he was thirty, he'd achieved the financial security he craved, and a solid customer base that included Amazon, NBC, GM, HP, Viacom, Outbrain and 99 Designs.

Patel's various awards include one from the UN (as a Top 100 entrepreneur under age 35) and President Obama (as a Top 100 entrepreneur under age 30).

His Quicksprout blog attracts millions of readers each year who are keen to learn about internet marketing.

But Patel's ambitions have changed. His fortune secured, now he's writing about the excitement and joy that comes from donating money to charity or helping someone out.

“My most joyful spending experiences were when I spent money on other people," he writes.

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Growing to discover his passions

Patel was born in England but his family relocated to California when he was just two, and he grew up in a modest household. His father worked for his uncle's business and his mother ran a daycare centre – but Neil's own dreams were bigger.

In high school, Neil began buy cable boxes and then automotive parts in bulk on eBay, and reselling them to his classmates for a profit.

The profits weren't reliable though – so at 15, Neil found himself a “real job" after school hours, working as a janitor at Knott's Berry Farm.

His next job - selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door on commission – taught him a lot but wasn't a great earner. Eventually, intrigued by the success of the Monster.com job site, Patel decided to set up his own online job board, investing $5,000 in web design.

Attracting customers was his next challenge; so Patel engaged a marketing firm, only to discover it made zero difference to his sales, so he decided to learn internet marketing to improve his own site. His efforts worked – a bit – but his job board was never very successful.

However, a speech Patel gave later about internet marketing, to meet a homework requirement, led to a gig helping a classmate's company improve their online sales.

He founded an Internet marketing company with his sister's then-boyfriend, Hiten Shah, while still studying marketing at California State University Fullerton.

Since then, while analytics have generated more profits, it's blogging that has captured his heart.

“Out of everything I do, I enjoy blogging the most," he admits. "You write smart, get some traffic and then figure out how to monetise. It's the least successful business that I have, but it generates a good enough income."

The real attraction that work holds for him now, though, is not the money. “You help people outright, or you can see people grow with your advice. It's rewarding."