How I ‘hack’ excellence with 1 simple trick

As a solo founder I need to do a lot myself and the nature of my business means I’ll get measured against companies that are a lot bigger, have often multiple millions in funding and teams of tens if not hundreds of people.

Specifically, in my business I do everything other than coding which includes

  • Design (and I’m not a designer)
  • Produce all of our content (videos, podcasts, blog posts, auto responders, ebooks, infographics, guest posts etc etc)
  • Marketing (site, paid traffic testing, content marketing etc)
  • Product (my coders code but I tell them specifically what to code and how to do it every minute of the day to ensure we end up with a good product)
  • Website maintenance (most of what gets done on the website short of specific coding stuff that I can’t handle)

Obviously my background building websites for people helps with this but there’s one thing that I do and have always done to make sure that what I produce is at the highest quality level despite my skill or lack of it.

It’s the same thing I do when someone asks me to give them feedback on their site or their content.

And it’s the only reason I as a solo founder can have a site, product, content and everything else that is anywhere near close to on par with the best in the business (which it has to be to get noticed).

Here it is.

I benchmark off the best and I don’t stop until what I have is on par or as close as I can get to on par with what they do.

Here are some examples.


When I write a blog post, I know that people in my target audience can either spend time reading my post or they can go over to Kiss Metrics, Unbounce, Content Marketing Institute, Hubspot etc and consume something amazing.

So this is where I benchmark my content. It’s not possible for me to produce big epic content at the scale of Kiss Metrics or Hubspot (and if you are reading this it may not be possible for you either). But it is possible to produce content to their level of quality. It will take me longer than it takes them but it can be done.

So at least I know that when I do produce a blog post, it will be a worthy alternative for busy people who only want to consume the best (the type of people I want in my audience).


The Informly Practical Guides were inspired by Kiss Metrics’ marketing guides

Here are just a few things I’ve done with my content as a result of studying the best in the business:

Most of these posts took me ages to put together but I benchmark them against the best and now at least I know that when I put something like that together, people will read it because it’s on par with everything else they can get for free.

Don’t forget how much amazing content is out there for free. If you have less resources like me then just do less but make sure the quality is comparable.


I’m no conversion expert in fact I have only really started to understand conversions recently (which is a bit embarrassing to say given I ran a web agency for 6 years). Now I benchmark my site off the best in the business to ensure that when people come to my site, I capture them in the best way possible without compromising my own thoughts on how people should experience my site (I don’t interrupt them with pop ups).

  • I learnt from Peep from ConversionXL that scroll opt ins convert better than fixed opt ins (my conversions went through the roof after installing Dreamgrow scroll triggered box).
  • I benchmarked my blog design off sites like Kiss Metrics & Unbounce (notice my homepage with excerpt, pretty image, social proof / tweet boxes etc) lots of space with no unnecessary sidebar widgets
  • I noticed Hubspot gives you a different opt in depending on what content you are reading and started doing the same which has boosted my conversions.
  • I saw Jake Hower and James Schramko using landing pages and experimented with the same recently achieving a 40% opt in rate on my landing page from a guest post compared with a 1-3% standard conversion rate. How did I create the landing page? I got it for free from the Marketing Show and used it pretty much as is.

This free landing page converted at 10 times my normal guest post visitors

Sometimes it’s just a case of opening your eyes. Pick a company who are doing amazing at whatever you are trying to improve and benchmark off that.


Design is near and dear to my heart. I am what you might call a design tragic. I’m not a designer and can’t use photoshop to save myself. But I also can’t afford a good designer so this is where I really need to pay a lot of attention to what others do. I invariably fall short but I’m confident that the result is 10x what it would be if I wasn’t paying close attention.

Here are some ways I’ve improved our design by benchmarking off others.

  • I only use flat graphics. A lot of cheap designs use lots of bevels and drop shadows. If you don’t know what you are doing you’ll make your stuff look cheap very quickly.
  • I don’t have a logo. While others are stressing out about their logo running design competitions etc I’m looking at what the great design companies do – even google – no logo just their company name written in nice text. Problem solved, simple wins every time.
  • I use lots of icons. Always flat, simple. Never bevelled, shadow or gel look. They make things look professional and there are hundreds of free icon collections that can make your stuff look amazing (see links section down below for some great free resources.
  • I make sure everything is pixel perfect. Look at any well designed sites, and the details are perfect. Fireworks is excellent at working out when things are pixel perfect (Photoshop isn’t). If something is 1 pixel out I request my developers change it. I’ve had instances where I’ve taken a few hours, requested things be changed 5-10 times until it’s perfect even when things are just 1 or 2 pixels out. The difference is noticeable if you have this obsession for perfection.
  • I always either use screenshots, my own original graphics, custom illustrations or very high quality stock images (rare). Cheap stock images will kill a design. How many amazing websites do you see crappy stock photos on? answer = none. BTW here is the illustration service I use (see below).
  • I try to use lots of space – check out amazing design, lots of space.
  • Simple wins every time – if you don’t need it remove it.

I get custom illustrations cheap and they look a thousand times more professional than crappy stock photos.

Once you start looking at great design like the ones I’ve mentioned here you’ll constantly punish yourself for not being good enough. And that will drive the quality of your work up immeasurably.

Big content / ebooks etc

Writing blog posts is one thing but doing bigger content like opt in bribes like ebooks, auto responders etc is different. If someone is going to give away their email address, and then recommend the resource to others then it has to be great.

Again compare yourself with the best:

  • Bluewire media have long been an inspiration to me. Look at how beautiful their design is, download their fee downloads which are content rich and gorgeous in design. I have benchmarked my ebooks and downloads off them as far back as my first ebook I wrote 2 years ago (see here on my old blog)
  • If you are into content marketing like me then Hubspot is the gold standard. Their content is amazing, their ebooks (75 I believe) are beautiful, full of amazing graphics, lots of white space, of course extremely useful content. They are the benchmark I constantly strive to emulate. I will be releasing the first ebook for Informly soon and I will be aiming for it to be as good as their advanced blog marketing ebook. If it’s not I’ll scrap it and come back the next day and try again.
  • I’ve developed 3 different infographics (see here), looking at them now I know I can do better but I do strive to make them as good as the Kiss Metrics ones. Again I follow the design notes above and use what I already have (icons, existing infographic elements etc).
  • The main opt ins on my site at the moment are email courses (see here). The reason? That’s what Copy Blogger does with it’s Internet Marketing for Smart people course.

I know you want to be creative and blaze new trails – I get that bug too. But there are amazing companies who spend millions of dollars each year testing and refining this stuff and just opening your eyes to what they are doing will increase the quality of what you do immeasurably.

You can apply this philosophy to anything. Whatever you want to be good at in business choose your benchmark organisation and aim to do things as well as they do. It will be hard. You will be pushing shit uphill. And you will inevitably fail at replicating their quality. But you will be further forward than you would be if you didn’t try.

Free or cheap design resources

Content Marketing benchmarks







 What inspires you?

Let me know in the comments below.


Dan Norris is a co-founder at WP Curve and a passionate entrepreneur with an obsession for content marketing.

61 responses to “How I ‘hack’ excellence with 1 simple trick”

  1. Dan Norris says:

    Thanks man, you’re quick!

  2. Maurice says:

    Great stuff as always.

  3. Tim says:

    Great article, Dan.

  4. Chris Bates says:

    Great post Dan! You yourself are an inspiration, one who always strives for top quality.

  5. Zank says:

    Dan, your content has jumped in quality just over the last couple months. Way to go. Huge-value posts. Thank you!

  6. Dan Norris says:

    Thanks Maurice glad you liked it

  7. Dan Norris says:

    Thanks Tim! I just replied to your email. I’ll be updating the links above with a link to the marketing show landing page templates.

  8. Dan Norris says:

    Thank you Chris. When I look back at my stuff I’m rarely 100% happy with it. That keeps me constantly improving. I’m glad I’m helping inspire you!

  9. Dan Norris says:

    Thanks man, the more awesome stuff I discover the easier it is to improve what I do. It’s crazy to look at back at blog posts I was writing a few years ago – horrible!

  10. Shocked you are neither a designer nor use one! Your site is so sexy! Also shocked you are not a developer .. really thought you were. You have to share your secrets in hiring and managing programmers 🙂

  11. Ed Stapleton, Jr. says:

    this is great once again Dan. How long does it take you to make a post like this? How long does it take you to make a practical guide?

  12. Jason Murphy says:

    I’m working on this part of my business now too. Have an ebook offer now but it’s weak, working with a legit Editor to tighten-it-up. I have some big clients who are teaching me that this stuff actually works and is not snake oil. It’s all in the subtle tweaks. My thing is trying to NOT sound like an echo of my influencers. So I’ve been reading more Hemingway and traditional writing to gain a more “flowing, descriptive” writing style.

  13. Joanna Wiebe says:

    Great post, Dan —– awesome one-stop-shop for content marketers and digital marketers. Luv it!

  14. Dan Norris says:

    Ha thanks John. My site was originally done by a designer but I have changed pretty much every aspect of it. I’m working on a totally new version which I hope will be much better and I’m doing it myself. Designers would be offended if I called myself a designer ha. I don’t have the patience to get good at anything but being a generalist is actually very valuable in my situation.

  15. Dan Norris says:

    Hey Jason that’s a good call I think we are all a bit guilty of that. You hear something enough and you start preaching it to others without really thinking about it.

    Thanks for the comment mate and let me know when the ebook is done.

  16. Dan Norris says:

    Thanks Joanna, I appreciate the support, thanks for commenting too. I’m loving all of these comments I feel popular!

  17. Fantastic post – just oozes quality and humility. Dan your site has become a major bookmarkable resource, thanks for the inspiration!

  18. Chris says:

    I don’t know, I see way more than one secret on this page. Great info! I’m re-reading it for the third time. When you see that analytic spike for time spent on this page… That’s me.

  19. Dan Norris says:

    To be honest I did this in about 2 hours. I was 1,000 words into a totally different post when on my way home I thought hey it would be interesting to write a post about how I’m improving the stuff I’m doing and how I go about it. This post came out very naturally in around 2 hours I spent a bit longer this morning doing the screenshots and links etc.

    The practical guides take longer. I hit resistance if I know I can’t get something done in one day so I usually do them in chunks. My last post on the guide to content that converts took me a very long time. I did it over the course of about a week probably more, the idea was there for a few weeks and probably put a full day or more into it all up.

    Awesome to hear the podcast, I love to know that people are doing something based off my content not just reading it. What is the link? Good luck with it. Jake Hower is a boss.

  20. Dan Norris says:

    Wow thankyou Tony that means a lot

  21. Dan Norris says:

    haha awesome. Current average time on page over 6 minutes!

  22. An Ly says:

    Great stuff (as always), Dan!

    With the logos, companies without logos make up for it with other design elements. Mailchimp has a distinctive monkey, Google’s colourful lettering and Path has a fancy P (which can double as a logo as seem on their iOS app).

    I do agree that spending time on a logo can be a waste of time. Surely there are more important things to do.

  23. Dan Norris says:

    Thanks. It’s true in some cases re the logos but a bad logo can do more harm than good. Most of what I see on 99 designs is a waste of time. I can’t afford a designer to design an amazing brand like MailChimp so I think no logo is a far better option.

  24. Rob Hanly. says:

    Got a URL for the podcast hombre?

  25. Rob Hanly. says:

    Dan, this is awesome.

  26. Ed Stapleton, Jr. says:
    My side of the audio is a bit too raw I need to record from a better device, no intro/outro, just straight content but I wasn’t waiting any longer, i wanted to ship this puppy out.

  27. Dan Norris says:

    Thanks man 🙂

  28. Hi Dan,

    Great post. I agree. Find the people whose work you like the most, study them & borrow the best bits for yourself. Eventually you’ll refine it and you’ll get your own ‘flavour’ to it, but it starts by copying the people you aspire to be like.

    That’s exactly what I do too.

  29. Dan Norris says:

    Hey Adam thanks mate you were a big inspiration when I got started with content marketing a couple of years ago and I know you guys do the same thing with your content.

  30. This post is the exact reason I can’t see large companies with huge teams winning the content arms race that a lot of people are speaking about.

    Great job. I hope a lot of people find your posts because they are much more worthwhile than some of the IM posts going around. When I say some I mean most. 🙂

  31. Kitty Kilian says:

    Only 2 hours! Wow.

  32. Dan Norris says:

    Haha awesome man thank you I’m glad you think so

  33. Dan Norris says:

    Thanks, sometimes it comes easy sometimes not.

  34. Peter Barnett says:

    Hey Dan, another awesome post – so epic! Love the resources and love your site. I really think you have a great design so I can’t wait to see your new one. Keep up the great work and bring on more podcasts!

  35. akbrouwer4 says:

    Way to kill it in this post.. amazing stuff right here.

  36. Dan … loving this man.

    As I expand from my little base, you will be a shining light.

    This is your first post where my reaction has been ‘how do I give this guy money!’ … then I remembered your upcoming content marketing app. Should fit nicely with some stuff I might have coming up.


  37. Dan Norris says:

    Thanks Peter that’s very nice of you to say

  38. Dan Norris says:

    Haha nice man thankyou. You can help by sharing the content that’s a huge help. It’s great that so many people are sharing my stuff now. Go back 6 months and I was talking to myself.

  39. Cool yeh I think of that but I only have DCers on my Tweeter and all those guys share faster than me, bastards

  40. Jake Hower says:

    Sweet post.. I guess that’s the new standard though!

    Thanks for the inclusion, great to be associated in a small way with you and the others in this post 🙂

  41. Dan Norris says:

    Thanks man the quality of your videos in particularly are insane, people should strive for that level.

  42. Jonathan H. says:


    Amazing post. Like usual.

    On the scroll trigger box – do you integrate that with Aweber or any other email plan? Or is it just an admin email?



  43. Dan Norris says:

    Thanks man I’m glad you liked it yeah it’s integrated with MailChimp.

  44. Micky Deming says:

    Fantastic stuff Dan! Great reminder to never settle for mediocrity, but to aim high!

  45. Enjoyed this, nice post.

    I’ve also found LeadPages templates to convert quite well.

    Plus they look great and take two minutes to set up.

  46. Dan Norris says:

    Thanks Raymond. Yeah Lead pages looks solid.

  47. Barry Moore says:

    Great post Dan, lots of great info here.

  48. Dan Norris says:

    Thanks Barry, glad you liked it. Thanks for commenting too.

  49. James Banks says:

    Another top notch article Dan. One of the things that I love about your blog is how deeply linked your content is. For example, I’ll open up one of your posts with the intention of reading it and getting back to work, but before I know it, I’ve got half a dozen of your posts open just from the links in that one article – and I want to read them all! Keep it up mate.

  50. Dan Norris says:

    Haha thanks, great to hear.

  51. Kyle Musser says:

    Lots of GOLD 🙂

    Btw….love the sites clean, simple design. Great choice 🙂

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