Nathan Mackenzie Brown – Modern Homesteader Profiles
This is the second in a series of profiles I’ve been writing on my way to a book about people who have successfully leveraged the internet to finance a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity. Building communities with people from around the world is something I really enjoy about blogging and working online. I’ve looked forward to meeting Nathan Mackenzie Brown in person since we first began communicating by email several years ago. Over the summer I finally got my chance.
The Most Organized Online Sales Guru in the Commune
For the past eight years Nathan Mackenzie Brown has lived at the Dancing Rabbit EcoVillage in Rutledge, Missouri, and has made his living online the entire time. Nathan works 15 hours per week for $60,000 a year and only needs a third of that to live on. His online sales consulting business pays well, which allows him to work less. His lifestyle, which involves living in a 225 Square foot “tiny house” and sharing resources with others in an intentional community, allows Nathan to live off of less than $20,000 per year comfortably. This sum includes regular contributions to his individual retirement account (IRA) and health savings account (HSA). Although he could work as little as 8-10 hours per week without sacrificing his current standard of living, Nathan chooses to work more because he likes to invest the excess in his community and donate to causes that are important to him.
I was introduced via email to Nathan through a friend back in 2010 while working at Gaiam. The connection was made because Nathan was a content broker for several websites in the green living niche. I also agreed to help him syndicate an article on my blog, titled: How Rural Ecovillages Can Have Prosperous Economies. While our business dealings lasted only a few days, he was one of the first people that came to mind when I decided to write about using the Internet to finance a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity.
Dancing Rabbit EcoVillage
If you draw a triangle around the nearest cities with Kansas City on the bottom-left, Des Moines on the top and St. Louis on the bottom-right, and place a dot pretty much in the middle of that triangle – that is, in the middle of the middle of nowhere – you will have a general idea where Dancing Rabbit Eco Village is. It is worth noting that this triangle itself is situated in the middle of the United States. Getting there from St. Louis involves several hours of off-interstate driving down rural, flat, two-lane highways labeled simply by letter: Follow Hwy V for 7.3 miles; Left onto Hwy K (4.5 miles); Right onto Hwy M (5.2 miles); straight on Hwy Y… all while passing nearly identical corn and soybean fields spanning hundreds of acres each.
In short, you don’t just “pass through” Rutledge, MO. The 280-acre Dancing Rabbit Eco Village IS the destination. Despite its location, each year hundreds of people make the drive to see a model of sustainable community who’s members, on average, have about 1/10th of the ecological footprint of the average American. Dancing Rabbit was even featured in an episode of Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days in 2005. One of the most interesting things about this particular community is that they live “off the grid” while maintaining a thriving micro-economy thanks, in large part, to the internet.
D.R.E. presents an opportunity to learn about many different types of web-based, and web-marketed local businesses at the scale and income earning potential needed to finance a life of voluntary simplicity. Several members of the community make their living online. Sam telecommutes for her job, and also works for one of Nathan’s business partners. Tony supports himself totally on proceeds from his web-based business, Skyhouse Consulting. Rachael is a non-profit fundraiser who works online. Cob has raised a family of five while telecommuting from Dancing Rabbit for the last six years. He works in “professional association management” and deals mostly with actuaries in the financial analyst/planning field. Kassandra has recently started offering parent coaching on the web (I had a sample session. It was great). Nathan is helping her learn how to market her business to potential clients online. There is also Rockin’ Rhino Web Design; the Milkweed Mercantile; a midwife business; and Nathan’s cash cow, Integration Profits.
Though I could have profiled just about the entire community, Nathan Mackenzie Brown epitomized the tech-savvy, bright, focused, organized overachiever who can balance financial success with voluntary simplicity. In one way or another, Nathan has his hands in about half of the online businesses at Dancing Rabbit. Another thing that makes him such a great profile is his total transparency regarding personal and financial details.
It was a gorgeous day in northern Missouri with nearby mulberry trees providing cool shade as we walked around Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage and talked about money, the internet, community, marketing, cars, roommates and social justice. Every few minutes Nathan would reach back and adjust his gray-streaked ponytail as he pointed to one of Dancing Rabbit’s many unique, small dwellings and explained what he did or did not like about it. Most of his running commentary involved the various flaws that kept each building from being as energy efficient as they could be. Whether it’s his business, or his community, Nathan is obsessed with optimizing for peak performance. As we approached one of the newer homes, the owner, who was working on her computer under a mulberry tree, yelled over to Nathan: “Don’t say anything bad about my house!” Her comment was said in jest, but it was apparent that Nathan had given the same critique-tour on other occasions.
We continued to stop in front of each home, sometimes chatting with the owners, as Nathan rattled off the R-values of various types of insulation, the pros and cons (mostly cons) of building with cob, and why he thinks “green” buildings are better than “natural” buildings. “Natural buildings may look cool, but an unfortunate number of ours have ended up being fairly energy inefficient. This is the case primarily for two reasons: even for an experienced builder it it can be challenging to get a natural building to be really air tight, which is important for minimizing air leaks and a number of our natural buildings were built by first-time homebuilders who were living in tents while they built their own natural home. They learned a lot in the process, but they were often in a big rush to get into their buildings before winter and this sometimes resulted in significant problems with mold, energy performance and constant upkeep…” Nathan pointed at another member of the community who was patching carpenter bee holes in his cob house to illustrate his point as we passed by.
His own $17,700 house was half-built when Nathan purchased it. He has put about $15,000 into it since then, including the building of a woodshed. Despite a relatively high cost per square foot, and the fact that this structure does not live up to Nathan’s own standards of energy efficiency, he doesn’t plan on moving any time soon. “Building a new one would have a bigger environmental impact than keeping this one, and I’m happy living here,” he says. With no children or live-in partner, this small home is everything Nathan needs at the moment. It allows him the freedom to live cheaply, but comfortably.
We continued walking around the property, eating fruits and berries from bushes and trees lining the paths as we went. Somewhere between the humanure piles and the on-site solar power plant, our conversation turned to online marketing. Just as when he was rattling off the R-values of various types of insulation used in the houses, his citing of marketing metrics was always precise. Nathan often pulls out his iPhone to calculate conversion rates, cost-per-acquisition, earnings-per-click… He’d say something like “I think the average CPA on those leads would be about $8. If they convert at 5% the course would have to be priced at $160 just to break even.” I would nod as he adjusted business models on the fly, varying the revenue streams and methods of customer acquisition until he found what he thought to be the perfect marketing mix.
Over lunch I spoke with a graduate student from Texas who was there doing an audit of the community’s waste (trash, recycling, gasoline usage…) for her Masters thesis. It is no surprise that Dancing Rabbit produces drastically less waste per household than most Americans (she estimated about 80-90% less, though she hadn’t crunched the numbers yet). Out of an entire community of 78 very eco-conscious members, she told me Nathan’s waste was consistently one of the lowest. “His trash output is so small it doesn’t even register on the scale,” she said. “There might be a broken shoe lace, baking soda, and some dental floss in a whole week’s worth of trash.” This speaks to Nathan’s frugality as much as his environmental ethics. He is adept at making do with less, an important skill for anyone wishing to jump off the work-consume-work treadmill.
Organization is another important skill he utilizes to be successful at living simply in an age when “simple living” sometimes seems like a very difficult and complicated thing to do. I say “organization” but what I mean is “obsessive organization“. I thought Anna Hess was super organized with her planting calendars and freezer maps, but Nathan takes things to a whole new level. He has a list for everything, including short-term goals, long-term goals, life vision, triggers/reminders, purpose and values, ongoing practices (first on the list, “evoke gratitude before eating anything“)… And nearly every moment of his day is annotated somewhere on his calendar. Nathan also records the details of every dollar he makes or spends in Quickbooks, and wasn’t shy about opening the books for the Finance section below.
Being out in the middle of nowhere removes the temptation to eat out or pay for entertainment, and Nathan does very little traveling. He has about everything he needs within a few minutes walk from his doorstep. Besides his laptop and the iPod he checks incessantly in order to keep on schedule, Nathan doesn’t have any expensive possessions. Needing less allows him to work less, which frees up his time to devote to the things he wants to do, such as community building, meditation, alternative currencies, philanthropy, and spending time with the people he cares about.
A Day in The Life of Nathan Mackenzie Brown:
6:45am – 7:30 – Wake Up
7:30 – Meditation
8 – 8:45 – Workout
9 – 9:30 – Breakfast
9:30 – 11:30 – Business Task Lists and meetings
12 – 1pm – Lunch
1 – 6pm – Personal Tasks, Personal Emails, Meetings
6 – 7:30 – Dinner and socializing
7:30 – 9pm – Men’s Group, Song Circle, Date Night…
9:15 – Prepare for bed
A few things are conspicuously absent from his daily routine. Nathan does not do much gardening, except to experiment with various perennial and self-seeding crops. Not everyone on a homestead works the garden full time, and in Nathan’s case the Dancing Rabbit EcoVillage has no shortage of people who love nothing more than to plant, weed and harvest for the community. Instead, Nathan spends most of his non-working hours facilitating relationships in the community. He attends or facilitates a 3.5 hour men’s group each Sunday evening, and attends a weekly Quaker meeting. He also helps other community members build their online businesses, and is very much involved with the governing of the community and its alternative currency.
“I think building and maintaining relationships with the people I care about is very important, and so I make it a priority for me by scheduling time to visit, help people out, and participate in community life,” he explained as we munched apples on a picnic table near his house. It made me wonder why the rest of us tend to schedule and “make time” for work and chores, but not for simply hanging out with a good friend, or calling up a relative to find out how they’re doing. Most of us can’t get away from the fact that we have to work, go to the doctor, pick the kids up from school… but something I have found to be a trait in people who have been successful at living “the simple life” is that they make conscious decisions about their lifestyle and stick to it. They aren’t the type of people who say “I should work out more” or “I should really call my mom more often” only to forget about the notion until they get another case of the “I shoulds”.
With an hourly billing rate of $250-$300, Nathan could easily work a 40-hour week and live in a big house in the suburbs. He could drive a new car, go on several vacations a year, and play golf on the weekends. Like everyone else I’ve profiled, however, possessions and status are of little interest to Nathan. He only works about 13 hours each week for pay, and expects to live on about $17,000 – $20,000 in 2013. In 2012 he lived on $13,000, not including modest contributions to his IRA and HSA. By the time I interviewed him in May of 2013, Nathan had already made all he needed to bring in for the year (about $20,000) and expected to earn a total of about $60,000 for the entire year. He plans to use most of the $40,000 in “excess” revenue for philanthropic projects that interest him.
In previous years he has made much less, though his expenses were about the same. Nathan explains:
“Between 2007-2012 I chose to resist war taxes by earning less than a taxable income in order to try to avoid having a damaging impact on the world by paying for war. I paid no income tax during this time, but I still paid social security related taxes… In 2013 I’ve changed my approach to making money and making a difference in the world. I’ve decided to earn more than a taxable income in order to have more money to invest in causes I believe in. This has resulted in me earning substantially more income. As of the first half of this year  I have already earned 150% of the income I earned in the entire previous year.”
Nathan also saves a considerable amount by sharing resources with other community members. For instance, over fifty people share three vehicles, leaving him with minimal transportation costs, such as the monthly car insurance bill most of us pay. Buying food in bulk and sharing meals cuts down grocery bills considerably. Facilities like kitchens and bathrooms are shared, lowering the cost of constructing a new home on the property. Nathan is adamant that communal living is the key to lowering expenses, which is itself a cornerstone of voluntary simplicity. I asked him if he had any other tips for people wanting to do what he has done, to which he replied, “If I had to give one piece of advice to anyone out there trying to save money so they can pay off their debt, quit their job and make a living online while living simply it would be: Get a roommate! The next thing they should do is to sell their car and take public transportation to work, if possible”.
Soft-spoken, but direct, Nathan is a very effective communicator. This is one of the most important skills he uses as an online sales consultant for clients with digital products. His business, Integration Profits, provides consulting services primarily to the type of online business coach who promises to teach you how to make millions a year while sailing around the world on your new yacht. Out of the plethora of “learn how to make money online” eBooks and online courses out there, Nathan’s clients deal in relatively respectable products. Nevertheless, one can’t help but to raise an eyebrow at the juxtaposition between his own idea of making a living online (the one being discussed in this book), and that of the get-rich-quick gurus who pay him $250+ an hour for consulting on how to build a better email list, or up-sell more digital products during the checkout process.
Integration Profits promises to “Skyrocket your backend sales & entice the biggest names in internet marketing to flood your sales funnel with customers.” Essentially what this means in online-marketing-speak is that Nathan is a sales consultant and professional connector for internet-based companies who deal in products (typically eBooks, DVDs and online courses) targeting the “make money online” niche. He advises self-described “make money online gurus” on how to make money online. He’s the gurus’ guru.
There is a reason people come to Nathan Mackenzie Brown when they need to boost sales. He may advise them to cross-promote their offer on the “thank you for buying” upsell page on someone else’s site, then connect the two parties to make the deal. He might design a multivariate test to figure out the most efficient way to move visitors through the conversion funnel (i.e. make more money). One of his specialties is teaching marketers how to position the product so people can promote it on an ongoing basis, as opposed to promoting one-offs like launches and sales. He also likes to discuss how to keep the scarcity elements (Buy today and save!) that keep high conversions, but putting them into evergreen sales processes. Whatever the strategy involved, his success record for clients is impressive.
Not just anyone can work with Nathan. His website lists criteria like “Your top earning affiliate must have earned at least $5k in commissions, or you must have at least ten affiliates who have earned more than $800 in commissions,” and “The average EPC for your ten affiliates that have earned the most income must be over $1.50.”
During my visit he gave me some ideas about how to market the book I was working on. I told him I was thinking about including a link to a free online course for people who wanted to use the internet to finance a simple lifestyle. “No, you should charge for access,” he stated. “People won’t think it’s worth doing if it’s free. You’ll get more people to take the course if you charge. And don’t make it too cheap.” Through this conversation I also came to see how little attention I was paying to one of the best possible channels for marketing the book and building an income – an email list. “You should put a newsletter subscription on your site. That way instead of getting the visitor once you can make contact again and again. And you can put affiliate offers in the email. If the merchant’s offer has a good EPC this could make more than the book does.” An affiliate offer is when someone (affiliate) posts a discount code (offer) for an online store (merchant).
Tools of the Trade
I asked Nathan to tell me about the software, websites and other tools he uses on a day-to-day basis when working from home. Here is how he broke it down…
Laptop, headset, Skype, iPod
He does not have a cell phone because he doesn’t want people to contact him while he’s working on something else or enjoying personal time.
“I don’t use social media for myself. It’s a waste of time. I keep up with what’s going on in social media mostly just because I need to know the stuff for work“, he explains. The social media channels he keeps up on, but does not use personally, are Linked-In, Google+, and Facebook. “Linked-In and G+ act as online business cards to demonstrate credibility. I’m not really using for lead acquisition.”
Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)
Content Experiments, Website Optimizer, Qualaroo for surveying of site visitors, and the OptimizePress plugin for WordPress. He said he learns a lot from Conversion-Rates-Experts.com, and WhichTestOne.com. Also check out ConversionIQ.
Jing for screencaptures, screencasts and recording
“I hire people mostly through networking,” he explains when I ask about sites like Rent-a-Coder, eLance and ODesk. However, he did point me to the ReplaceMyself.com webinar about outsourcing as something I might be interested in watching.
His clients pay him via Paypal. He uses QuickBooks to keep track of finances.
David Allen’s Getting Things Done
Inner Balance “It’s an app with a sensor that is a bio-feedback device that helps improve heart rate variability. It has made a huge impact on my wellbeing,” he said when listing this one.
Being an open-book about his finances, business and lifestyle is something Nathan took very seriously. He asked me to make it known that he inherited a helpful sum of money after college. In an email with 18 different spreadsheet screenshots, he made sure to remind me:
“I think it is important to note that I inherited $55k when I turned 25. You’ll notice in 2009 I had a loss that year in my business, and as a result I spent around $18k more than I brought in between my personal expenses and my business. This was only possible because of the money I inherited. You’ll also notice from 2007 onward, I don’t pay rent, this is also only possible because of money that I inherited that I used to pay for my home,” he wrote.
There is no doubt that an extra $55,000 would help most of us out a great deal (gravel for the driveway, deer fencing, greenhouse kit, lumber for cabin, metal roofing panels, micro-hydro turbine, solar panels, vacation in Puerto Rico…) but that is not why Nathan has successfully built a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity for himself. He is painstakingly frugal, insanely organized, intensely driven and very smart. He has no children, pools resources with others, and works in a very lucrative industry – for those who know what they’re doing.
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Category: Homesteader Profiles