- From Snyder, Texas, USA
Google Ads Expert at Clifton Consulting LLC
- Business Model: Freelance
- $6,000monthly revenue
- $5,950monthly profit
- All info self-reported by interviewee
- Published October 30, 2019
- Reviewed and edited by Rita Epps
Who are you and how do you make money online?
My name is Justin Clifton, and I run a Google Ads and web analytics business.
I help businesses drive quality traffic to their site and track important website actions like sales and lead generation events (form submissions, phone calls, etc.). In particular, many of my clients are owners of big Shopify stores that want to leverage Google Ads and Google Analytics to grow their stores.
As I’m helping other companies generate sales and business, my clients are happy to pay me very well for the work that I do.
Most of my clients pay me on an hourly basis: $75 to $100+ per hour depending on the complexity and timeframe of the work. Some of my clients have me on negotiated monthly retainers for their specific situations.
I’d say my business is unique because I’m a 24-year-old guy from a small Texan town in the middle of nowhere. When you think of people working in tech or digital marketing, you probably think of guys from big cities like San Francisco or New York City.
Since I’m freelancing, my revenue can vary a lot. Some weeks are fantastic and others are slow. I’ve gotten into a good grove this year, so I can consistently make around $1,500 a week on average.
I’ve had a few $2k+ weeks this year and that has felt really good.
That’s 6-figure territory without even working full time. The beauty of this business model is I have almost zero operating expenses. My revenue is basically my profit.
My main expenses are:
- $15/month for an Upwork freelancer plus membership.
- $30/year for Skype subscription to call US phone numbers.
- $33/year for a VPN subscription.
- ~$250/year for annual LLC fees.
These expenses are just drops in the bucket compared to my revenue. I would be paying for other expenses like internet and cell data plans regardless of me running this business. Sometimes I’ll need to use a premium service like SEMrush or DataFeedWatch to do work for certain clients, but my clients are typically willing to front the bill for any premium services I need to do work for them.
I’ve also run websites in the past which have domain/hosting expenses, but since almost all of my leads come from sites like Upwork and LinkedIn, I’ve decided to let my current domains and hosting expire. Besides, I’m currently too busy managing other sites to keep any of my own up to date.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
On a typical workday, I’ll wake up whenever I want to as long as I don’t have an early morning meeting scheduled.
I’m not a morning person, so I try to avoid those early morning meetings as much as possible 😆
I’ll wake up, eat something light for breakfast, and go through the backlog of messages I received while I was sleeping. This is simply unavoidable when you’re traveling through many different time zones and have clients in the US, Europe, and Australia.
After addressing the most important messages, I’ll go out for some lunch. After lunch, I’ll either go home, go to a coffee shop, or go to a coworking space to work throughout the afternoon.
Typical work includes building out extensive campaigns of all types in Google Ads, optimizing existing campaigns, setting up conversion tracking, tagging sites for remarketing, doing in-depth data analysis, and generating insightful reports related to website traffic.
Then I’ll take a break for dinner. Depending on the workload for the day and how I’m feeling, I might do some more work after dinner.
Biggest difference between my online work lifestyle and a 9-to-5 is that my work days have no set start or end time.
This is nice in the sense that I can work whenever, but bad in the sense that it can be hard for me to pull myself away from work. There’s almost always one more message I could respond to or one more thing I could do. My job doesn’t end for the day at 5pm.
In terms of my hobbies and lifestyle, working online has allowed me to travel a lot. Maybe even too much 😆
Last year, I traveled around the world for over 11 months and visited 28 countries.
That was exhausting, so this year I have spent almost all of my time in a few select cities. For recreation, I like to just get away from the computer screen and go explore whatever city I’m currently living in.
I work between 20-30 hours per week on average.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time I sink into my business isn’t paid time. I’ve done business with over 40 clients this year alone. Upwork says I’ve received 100 job interview invitations over the last 90 days, more than 1 per day.
I have to spend a lot of time talking to leads that don’t always convert.
Sometimes it’s just a few quick messages back and forth before we realize we’re not a good fit for working together. Sometimes it’s an hour-long call, and then they decide to hire somebody else.
It’s frustrating but that’s just part of being a freelancer.
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea for your business?
So I was a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin.
I was studying civil engineering. UT Austin’s program for that major was ranked in the top 10 of the US at that time. During my downtime – which I didn’t have much of – I would browse YouTube.
One day I stumbled across a video about how much it costs to live in Hong Kong. That video was created by Niall Doherty, the guy who runs this site.
I went down the rabbit hole of Niall’s channel. I saw that he was working online as a web developer and funding his trip around the world. That seemed really cool to me. I ended up subscribing to his channel and following his blog. I would check in from time to time, but otherwise I just went about my daily university life.
During my third semester at university, I began to hate my life.
I didn’t like the courses I was taking. I lost all motivation. I didn’t want to be spending the prime years of my life doing integrals and reading a physics textbook.
I wanted to be traveling the world.
My grades slowly but surely went downhill. I dropped a class. I didn’t even go to the final exam of my differential equations course because I knew I would fail. I had stopped studying for that course about halfway through the semester. I received the first F of my life.
It was a quarter-life crisis.
I knew that if I continued to attend my current university, I would go into serious debt. All things considered, the total bill to go to school there was about $20k per year. Fortunately, my first 2 years were more or less paid for by scholarships.
By the end of my 2nd year, I had to assess my options. Transfer to a different major at the same school, transfer to a different university, take a gap year, or get a job.
I even thought about applying to schools in Germany since it’s cheaper to go to university there.
I didn’t know what to do.
One day I remembered Niall. I wondered what he was doing. I checked his blog, and he had recently launched a course on starting your own online business called 3M1K [editor’s note: the course is no longer available].
This gave me the epiphany that I only needed to have an online business that could generate a minimum of $1,000 per month to live a great lifestyle in many countries around the world.
I immediately called my mom and said I’m not enrolling for any courses at any university for the next semester.
My mom was shocked 😱
I said let me move back home and try to start my own online business. I promised her I would go straight back to college if things didn’t work out.
I just wanted about half a year to give it a shot. I enrolled in Niall’s course and began to study web development online.
I had a timeline:
- 1st month: learning as much web development as possible
- 2nd month: putting that new knowledge to practical use and building a website from scratch
- 3rd month: building out a freelancer profile and trying to find clients.
Towards the end of my 3rd month, I acquired my first client on Upwork.
Shortly thereafter, the second.
Getting an engineering degree and starting an online business from scratch are both difficult things to do. The big difference is I was inspired and motivated to build the online business, not to get the engineering degree. The end game of the engineering degree was a well-paid but boring corporate 9-to-5 job where I would be stuck in a big US city for 50 weeks out of the year.
That did not inspire me at all.
The end game of a successful online business is the freedom to travel whenever to wherever. And if I’m not in the travel mood… no worries, I’ll just settle down in one of my favorite affordable cities in the world and take it easy.
I had extreme motivation to achieve that goal.
Back when I was starting my online business, I moved back in with my mom and grandparents for low overhead. I had almost no savings at the time due to the aforementioned expensive university.
By living at home, I didn’t have to worry about paying my own bills, so I could sink almost all of my time into building up my business. I also didn’t care so much about the pay for my first online jobs. I just wanted the experience. I didn’t need a high wage to pay bills.
The first hourly job I got online was for only $9/hr.
Related article: Working Online For €9/hour – Is This A Joke??
One thing that’s interesting is that I’ve never had a traditional job. I’ve been freelancing online for my entire professional career.
How did you prepare to launch the business?
When I decided to build an online business, I knew absolutely nothing about building websites or digital marketing.
I began building my business back in the summer of 2016. I learned all of the skills I use to make money online since then. I learned these skills with a lot of hard work and research. I took Niall’s course and many online courses on Udemy to get a pretty solid foundation.
After that, it literally just boils down to putting myself into new situations where I don’t know how to do something and using Google to figure things out.
I just became absolutely plugged into my industry. Trying to keep up with the latest trends and always keeping my skills sharp in a rapidly evolving industry.
How much money did you have to spend to get started?
I already had a good laptop which I had been using for university. In terms of startup costs, I really just had to pay for some courses.
And even that could have been optional as there are many free resources online for learning most (if not all) of what those courses teach.
It would just be a bit harder to find that information without a course that lays it all out. Since I was living at home with low overhead, I didn’t really have any major expenses in general, let alone for the business itself.
Even today, my business has very low expenses. And I spend around 11 months of the year outside the US in developing countries to keep my personal expenses very low as well.
Talk us through your first few months (or first year) in business.
I had a ton of doubts.
I was coming off of what felt like a huge failure in engineering school. My self-confidence was low, and I was afraid I was just going to fail at starting an online business as well.
My family was very supportive in the sense that they allowed me to come back home and live rent-free after I had already moved out. It would have been immensely more difficult to get my business off the ground without a free place to stay at the beginning.
Beyond that, most of my friends and family members thought I was crazy.
I had just dropped out of a top 10 engineering program to do internet stuff and eventually go live in a cheap developing country. Naturally, news of my plans spread amongst family and friends. People who had heard my plans from someone other than me were especially skeptical.
I distinctly remember chatting with one of my friends from high school that I hadn’t seen in a long time. I explained my plans to him. He said, “I really thought you had just gone off the deep end, but when you explain it like that it sounds cool.”
During the first few months, I was dedicating almost every moment of the day towards learning web development.
One of my big initial challenges was that I got hired for $9/hr by a client, and that client really took advantage of me.
I only bid that low because I was desperate for any experience. It was my first hourly job.
The problem is that the initial job description was for one simple task, but she kept adding on more and more increasingly complex tasks. The job ended up dragging on for months.
It took me way too long to say: “I’m worth more than this”, and ask to raise my rate.
At least I learned a valuable lesson: clients that don’t pay you well don’t value you or your work.
After a few months of doing basic web development work and dealing with some race-to-the-bottom clients, I just had this strong urge to go into a different but related field.
At this point, I had a pretty good understanding of how sites work and how to build them, but I knew almost nothing about the other side of the coin: driving traffic to websites.
Eventually, I heard about something called Google AdWords (now Google Ads). In terms of paying for traffic to sites, there are two big players: Google and Facebook.
Google is fundamentally an advertising company. All of these “free” Google services like search, maps, Android, YouTube (Google owns YouTube), etc. aren’t actually free. You’re paying Google with your data which they leverage with their marketing platform called Google Ads. Google makes roughly 85% of its revenue from advertisements that are built with the Google Ads platform.
It just seemed really interesting to me, so I started learning as much about it as I could.
As I was transitioning from a web development business to a Google Ads business, there was a pretty long period of inactivity with my freelancing career. I made some decisions that put me in a precarious situation.
At this point in time, I was tired of living back home in my small Texan town and wanted to go exploring. I also had a bit of savings from a few months of web dev work.
Next thing I know, I’m on a Greyhound bus traveling from San Antonio, Texas to Monterrey, Mexico.
For the next few months, I had no clients and was just traveling full time. I spent almost 2 months backpacking across Mexico. My mom had planned a family vacation in central Europe for spring break. I took the cheapest flight route I could find from Mexico City to Frankfurt, Germany, one way.
After the 10-day European tour, I decided to head to Morocco. Why? I found a cheap flight and Morocco is way cheaper than Germany.
At this point, my savings were almost exhausted, and I was unemployed on a continent I had never been to before.
Great combination, right?
I woke up and on my first day in Marrakech, Morocco I immediately started applying for Google Ads jobs on Upwork.
I lucked out.
Within a few days a guy in Austin, Texas (my university city), hired me at $25/hour to build some Google Ads campaigns after chatting with me online for about 30 mins. He had no idea I was in Morocco and had never built a Google Ads campaign before.
There were just a few big problems. My internet sucked in Marrakech, and I didn’t enjoy being there at all. I was on a flight back to Europe after 2 weeks. At this point, I have less than $1,000 in savings to my name. My $25/hr job was barely keeping me afloat.
I found myself crashing at the cheapest hostel in Prague after a cheap red-eye flight from Casablanca.
I knew I had to get back home soon because my savings wouldn’t last long in Europe. The problem is all flights to Texas from Europe were expensive at that time.
I woke up the next day to two guys speaking Spanish in my room.
Turns out they were from Mexico.
We immediately connected due to my previous travels in Mexico. They had just spent a month in France, and were also going broke. That’s why they were sleeping in the $5/night hostel.
They told me they were going back to Mexico to spend the last month of their vacation. They informed me of a super cheap flight from Brussels to Cancun. They had plans to rent a place in Merida, Mexico for a month. They were kind enough to invite me to tag along.
After one overnight FlixBus, one transatlantic flight, and one cheap Mexican bus (the kind with holes in the ceiling instead of proper air vents), I found myself living on a ranch outside Merida with my two new friends.
My rent was $125 for that month with everything included. I landed a few more good Google Ads clients while living at the ranch.
That was the first month I made more than $1,000 online.
After that month, I returned to Texas with many stories to tell.
Clearly, it wasn’t smart for me to travel so much before my business was well established. I almost went broke in foreign countries. Regardless, I made some of my best travel friends during that time.
How did you make your first $100 online?
I found my first clients via Upwork. A few small fixed-price jobs and an hourly job at $9/hr allowed me to earn my first $100 online.
I didn’t really start to see a steady influx of clients until late 2017, a year and a half after I started my business. My business really started to take off at the beginning of summer this year.
I’ve been doing very well on a consistent basis since then.
How does the business make money today?
I’ve been working on Upwork for over 3 years now, and I’ve managed to build up a stellar reputation on that site.
A pretty large portion of my leads come from Upwork because my profile is very well optimized for the Upwork search engine. My Upwork profile receives around 60 views on average every week. Good weeks are even close to 100.
Related article: 8 Keys To A Killer Upwork Profile
I typically get at least one well-qualified lead every week which is enough to keep me busy.
Since there’s a steady pipeline of free organic leads coming from Upwork, I actually don’t do any advertising for my own business which is ironic since my industry is marketing.
One thing that’s really great is many of my current clients own marketing agencies, so they’re doing their own client outreach. Whenever they need help with a client, they’ll just outsource that account to me.
There’s essentially an unlimited flow of work from clients of these agencies. Oftentimes, I’ll work as a ghost account manager for them. It is a little sad to think about the hundreds of campaigns I’ve built for people that don’t even know my name 😕
Other sources of leads include LinkedIn and in-person networking. I also generated a few leads from my now-defunct Google Ads course. I’ll probably create my own digital marketing blog (with online courses) at some point to generate more leads.
I know it’s not good to have most of my eggs in the Upwork basket, but it has been the most effective way for me to generate leads by far. But even in the worst-case scenario of Upwork ceasing to be an option for me, I could coast off of my existing client relationships for quite some time.
Most people have only one employer. I have many.
If times are ever slow, I’ll just reach out to some of my previous clients and ask if they have anything else lined up that I could help with.
There’s almost always one previous client that needs help with something. Or I’ll just take advantage of the downtime by traveling or picking up new skills.
What are some of the challenges particular to this kind of online business?
One of the biggest challenges is just dealing with people that have no idea how the industry works.
Some people expect me to turn garbage into gold with a very limited budget. Some people have horrendous websites or landing pages that absolutely won’t convert, but they still insist on paying to drive traffic to it.
Some people are trying to sell sketchy services/products that go against Google’s policies, and they’ll get frustrated when I tell them their ads will get disapproved or I can’t magically get their rejected ads approved.
I have to clean up a lot of very messy and/or outdated accounts. Sometimes the people that were previously managing accounts had no clue what they were doing. Reverse engineering their messes can be challenging sometimes.
I’ve never outsourced any of my work. It’s very challenging to find quality talent in this field.
That’s why my current clients pay me so well.
I know of a few other people in the industry that I would trust to help me out with my accounts.
The issue is their rates are similar to mine which defeats the purpose of outsourcing.
Maybe I’ll get an apprentice one of these days, and I can train him/her from the ground up.
If you were starting the same business today, from scratch, how would you do it?
You could learn the basics of what I do in a few months.
The tricky part is mastering this stuff which only comes from a lot of experience and experimentation.
If I could go back in time, I would absolutely go into this industry again. It’s a great fit for me as I love the balance between language with copywriting and math with data analysis. I also enjoy how there’s a bit of overlap with web development and programming.
This industry has given me financial and location independence.
And this industry will only grow bigger as more businesses go online around the world.
Automation is a huge concern, but that applies to almost every industry.
So if you want to follow in my footsteps, then study the following things, and you’ll be off to a great start:
- How to use common website platforms like WordPress and Shopify
- Google Ads – YouTube videos, online courses, and/or go through the Google Skillshop modules
- Google Analytics – YT videos, online courses, and/or go through the Google Skillshop modules
- Google Tag Manager – YT videos and online courses
- Google Data Studio – YT videos and online courses
- Website conversion rate optimization (CRO)
What books, podcasts, courses or other resources would you recommend to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
- Google Skillshop
- Isaac Rudansky has great Udemy courses for learning Google Ads and other things related to digital marketing
What are your top 5 business tools?
- Google Ads Editor – Software to build out campaigns and make bulk changes in Google Ads accounts. Works offline as well which is a plus.
- Google Analytics – Regularly assessing data from Google Analytics is crucial for growing a website.
- Google Data Studio – Great for building client-facing and internal reports. Allows you to visualize data from Google Ads, Analytics, and many other data sources.
- Google Tag Manager – All of your website tags in one place. Great for setting up web analytics.
- DataFeedWatch – product feed management software for shopping campaigns
Where can we go to learn more?
If you want to learn more about me, feel free to check out my social media: