Scott Keller
Blogger

Why an insurance agent became a secret bird blogger

Bird blogging may not have seemed like the “safe” choice, but Scott Keller loved it and put in hard work to create a community and new way of earning a living.

“It's pretty cold here in Ohio,” Scott says, “so let me get my jacket.” He’s about to walk me outside (via the Zoom app on his phone) to see his bird feeders and live cams.

From the front of the white house, you feel like you’re in a typical suburban neighborhood, but when you walk toward the backyard it becomes something else. The open, unfenced yard sprawls over more than an acre. It’s winter, but the yard still glistens with the green of its past and future…or maybe it’s just Scott’s happy energy that makes it feel that way. 

He shows me the playground he built for his kids, and to the right of that is the playground, or rather, feeding ground, he built for the blue jays, cardinals, raccoons, squirrels, skunks, and bunnies. There are feeders on the ground and suspended above ground, filled with sunflower seeds, peanuts, safflower seeds, corn, and suet. And in front of each feeder is a live camera set up to capture it all, 24/7, rain or shine (or snow). 

And beyond it all is a big open swamp. 

Which is where this all started for Scott. 

As a kid, he loved being outside, and spent a lot of his time catching frogs in a similar swamp near his childhood home in Ohio. While other kids were selling cups of cool lemonade on suburban streets, he was selling frogs in jars from his own frog stand. “I don’t think anyone ever bought one frog,” he laughs. 

Once, he and his friend found a nest of baby garter snakes and started the “Snake Olympics,” creating obstacle courses for the snakes, even dropping them from the window with plastic bag parachutes to see which snake skydiver would land closest to the target they made on the ground (no snakes were harmed in the Snake Olympics, Scott assures me. They took great care of their athletes).

So when it came time for college, it made sense that Scott majored in biology and got an internship at a zoo. Then the zoo offered him a full-time job in California, a dream come true for a nature and animal-lover. 

Except…everyone Scott loved was in Ohio. And though he did love animals and nature, being a zookeeper just didn’t seem like the thing you were “supposed” to do after getting a bachelor’s degree. 

The zoo job also didn’t pay a lot, and Scott had a lot of student loans. He took a job in insurance instead.

I just went with the safe route.

But deep down he thought it would be a short-term thing.  

That short-term thing turned into 15 years. 

“You realize you've climbed a ladder you never really wanted to climb.”

Scott appreciated his insurance job – it paid well, he loved the people he worked with, and there was a clear path for advancement. Once he got married and had his first child, the stability was even more ideal. 

It was all so good on paper. 

So he kept going, kept climbing. 

But suddenly you realize you've climbed a ladder you never really wanted to climb in the first place. The ladder I wanted was the ladder across the room. 

He just knew insurance wasn’t for him. Except, everytime he would think about leaving, he’d get a really good bonus. 

And it’s not like he thought his love of nature could help him support a family. Beyond that, he didn’t know what else he’d like to do. 

So he kept going on the path he knew would support the people he loved, and eventually opened up his own insurance agency. 

But after two years of owning the agency, he thought, “30 more years of this?” He didn't know what else he could do, but he decided to start exploring other options. 

That’s when he found blogs about how to become financially independent and quit your job. The advice was all about lowering expenses and starting something on the side to bring in additional income.

The selling-frogs part of Scott was hooked. He started scouring the internet for how to make passive income online, reading every book and listening to every podcast he could find.

He started his first blog. But it wasn’t about birds. It was about finance. 

“It didn't really capture my attention.”

Creating that personal finance blog taught Scott how to run a WordPress site, but it did not help him make any passive income, especially since he only stuck with it for three months: “It didn't really capture my attention.” He chose finance because he knew a lot about it from his insurance expertise, and could see it was a popular topic online. But after a few months of trying he realized that for him, a finance blog was just another pathway to boredom.

The dream faded away. 

He tried real estate for a little while, but soon learned that wasn’t for him either. Maybe he wasn’t ready to give up on blogging. A few years after his finance blog, he decided to start a new blog on birding, which, he explains, “is when people actively go out and look for rare birds.” Though, Scott shares, this was not something he did. 

While still doing keyword research in his free time, he’d noticed “birding” was popular and thought it sounded a lot more interesting than finance.

Plus, among his friends, he was known as the guy who loved to listen to the sounds outside and try to identify birds by ear. He decided to give blogging another try, this time writing posts about things like binocular reviews.

But once again, he lacked real interest or personal connection. He wasn’t that passionate about binoculars, and he didn’t want to leave his family to go birding every weekend. 

So when one day, while doing keyword research for more article ideas, he found out that people were actually even more interested in learning how to attract birds to their own backyard, a lightbulb went off.

He wasn’t the only one who loved birds but didn’t want to go birding. People were clearly interested in learning how to bring the birds to them; one of the most popular search terms he discovered was “how to attract hummingbirds.”

This sounded perfect to Scott, who loved being home with his wife and kids, and remembered the joy he got from the animals around his house growing up. Why not bring more nature into his own backyard? Bring the birds to him? And share what he learns online?

He bought his first bird feeder.

“I need to finally do something different than what I've been doing.”

Scott didn’t think this bird feeding blog would be the answer to his early retirement dreams, but he loved the way it changed how he felt when he woke up each morning: excited.

He loved working on the blog before work: “It was just fun.” 

One early morning, he saw a very small Amazon affiliate commission.

He was so excited he woke up his wife to tell her, “I finally made a dollar. It's something.”

But he didn’t tell anyone else. 

Not his parents. No one at work. He only used his first name on the blog. 

Deep down, he hoped this blog could be a step in the direction of finally quitting insurance and doing something else, even though he still didn’t even know how. And the idea of quitting your job to run a bird blog felt kind of silly; would anyone understand?

He also wasn’t sure it was worth telling anyone anyway. Where would this all go, really? How long could he keep it up?

It was hard to produce enough content to get the traffic he needed while also running his agency and helping raise his kids.

But two things changed all that: 

  1. Finding time (waking up at 5am).
  2. Asking for help (hiring freelancers).

He made those changes after realizing:

If I'm going to do this, I need to finally do something different than what I've been doing.

Scott found freelancers on Upwork who helped do some of the initial research for articles like “20 fun facts about cardinals,” and then he would go in and make it his own. He also started waking up early and writing before work. That helped him consistently produce three to four articles a month.

In the fall of 2018, he decided to put live cameras in his backyard, facing the feeders, as inspired by the live bird cams he loved watching from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website

He could have easily put up a cheap camera and hooked it up to his wifi, but he wanted his bird cam to be really high quality so people could see and enjoy the birds as he did. 

He found the best network security camera he could and hired an IT guy to hook it up in his backyard and run ethernet cords underground. 

When the IT guy got the request for the job, he thought it was odd, but figured he’d be helping some elderly man watch birds.

When he arrived to the white house with black shutters, he was surprised to see 30-something Scott.

The neighbors were also perplexed by the tech setup happening in Scott’s backyard. But Scott’s idea worked, and he and the IT guy became good friends.

Scott put his new live bird feeder cam on his blog’s header menu and embedded it in certain blog posts. The cameras changed things: 

People could see I wasn’t just producing content to make money. I'm actually doing this myself.

There's a lot of people who write about something but don't actually do the thing, or they're not really into that hobby. They're just trying to get something ranked on Google for money.

Scott knew all about that from his finance blog days. But this was different. 

The traffic to the blog grew – but Scott knew traffic wouldn’t mean much if he wasn’t able to build a deeper relationship with those visitors; he did everything he could to get the people visiting his site to subscribe to either his YouTube channel or his email list. 

But it was easier said than done.

“I remember being shocked…”

Scott started with a simple “sign up for my email list” form on his site. 

I remember being shocked by how hard it is to get somebody on an email list. I'm like, “Oh, I'm just going to put up a little signup form and everybody is not going to be able to wait to be on my email list.” 

He knew of course everyone wouldn’t sign up, but at least half would, right? 50%? 

He was deflated when he checked his first stats and realized only 0.1% of people were signing up to his email list. 

But he reminded himself that .1% was still three people who wanted to learn from him, who wanted to hear from him every week. That was something. He would keep trying.

Though none of the email signup incentives he tried got him over a 1% conversion rate, he still built up 1,000 subscribers over a year. 

The only problem was, he wasn’t emailing them. 

Because at the time, his only goal for his email list was to remind people to visit the blog. If he sent an email to 1,000 people, it would usually yield about 100-200 extra clicks that day. It just didn’t seem worth all the effort of writing an email. 

And, most of all, he was afraid.

My mindset was like “I'm bothering these people. They don't really want to be on it, and if I step over that line a little by emailing too much, everyone's going to unsubscribe.” 

However, his email list still kept growing, albeit slowly. People clearly wanted to hear from him. And he knew having a direct relationship to his audience was important. It was important  for connection, in case anything happened to his site, and as a way to sell digital products if he ever wanted to go that route instead of only relying on affiliate income or ads.

So after three years, he decided it was time to invest more in marketing, and moved his email list to a creator marketing platform, ConvertKit.

When I first came to ConvertKit, it was easier. The software was easier. I did send some emails out, and I started taking email more seriously. 

It also inspired him to keep trying new opt-ins. He finally landed on a bird identification quiz he developed from tryinteract.com and then integrated into ConvertKit. His conversion rate went up to 3%.

That quiz got me a couple hundred people a day instead of three people a day. It started growing my list very fast. I still have the same quiz and it still works really, really well.

One of his close friends Paul, inspired by Scott, also started a blog (on gardening) and joined ConvertKit. He took one of our free courses on growing your email list and was so excited that he told Scott all about it on one of their weekly hikes:

“Dude, we got to start taking emails seriously. People are killing it on their email lists.”

The course that inspired Scott's friend.

Scott was encouraged by Paul, and how his own list kept growing, and finally started to break through his “I don’t want to bother people” mindset. He realized thinking about it that way was all wrong:

If the people on your email list are bothered, they need to get off your email list. You are looking for the people who want to hear from you every day, every week. They want your stuff. They may even need it. That's what my friend learned through this course. 

The biggest mindset shift with unsubscribes was: I'm trying to filter people who want this – the people who love learning about birds and butterflies and seeds, and want to get into the nitty gritty. If you're not part of that, then we're not the right place.

That mindset changed his business, and by December 2017, he made $1,000 in one month. He couldn’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, this could be the answer to quitting his job…one day.

“How is my decision going to affect everybody else?”

He kept going, working with his freelancers, putting 20-30 hours into each blog post, and using SEO strategies to get top Google rankings and keep his email list growing. 

In 2018, the blog made over $30,000. In 2019, it made over $70,000. Then, in 2020, when everyone was suddenly stuck at home, his traffic exploded. He was making more than enough money to quit his job. 

But it was easier said than done. He was still afraid. Could he really quit such a good and stable job to run a…bird blog?

And it was still a secret bird blog. No one but his wife and Paul knew. How would people react? Every time he imagined telling them the reason he was quitting he felt sick. 

A lot of people have that problem. You're just thinking, “How is my decision going to affect everybody else,” versus sometimes you just have to go, “Alright. This is what I want to do.”

He went on a boat ride with his dad and told him everything, breaking down all the numbers: what he was making on the blog, how many email subscribers he had (30,000), all the debt he’d paid off, and how much he had in savings. 

Part of Scott wanted his dad’s approval, but another part wanted his dad to agree with his fears: “I wanted him to tell me if I was wrong.”

Scott’s dad listened as they moved through the Portage Lakes in Akron, Ohio and then said:

“Scott, you could have done this a year ago. You want to do this. I know you want to do this. You got to do it.” 

Scott was still the college senior who wanted to make the smart, safe choice, now even more so with kids. His blog wouldn’t be as “safe” as insurance, but he’d built it up in a way where it also wasn’t not safe. His dad gave him the last bit of courage he needed. 

Now he just had to tell the agency he’d built for 10 years he’d be leaving.

“I'd rather go all in.”

People were surprised, especially because Scott was considered so successful for his age. And the kind of agency he’d started could also be run somewhat passively for his entire life if he wanted. Most people were shocked he was going to walk away from so much money, from such a sure thing. 

He could have continued to run the agency passively while running the blog, but he was firm that when he walked away, he wanted to walk away for good. 

I just didn't want to have that hanging on me. I never would've stopped worrying about it. And at the age of 35, I don't want to run something passively. I'd rather go all in.

People were a little confused about how a blog about feeding birds made enough money to quit such a lucrative career, but their reactions showed Scott that most of his fears were unwarranted. 

Because people’s confusion wasn’t that painful. And once he answered their questions, many thought what he was doing was pretty cool. Some were even inspired. 

Scott left the insurance industry after 15 years, in June 2021.

“You never got thank you stuff.”

Years ago, when Scott first had the inkling he wanted to leave insurance one day, he had a thought, a kind of wish: 

The first day I don't have to go to work I'm going to do the two-and-a-half-hour trail at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Seven years after that dream, he went on that hike on his first day as a full-time creator.

And five years after starting the blog, he’s still just as passionate about helping people connect to nature. 

He’s gotten comments from people from all over the world. Just yesterday someone from Sri Lanka emailed him about how much they loved the cardinals, something they don’t see where they’re from. 

Those email replies mean a lot to him. 

When you work in an insurance office, pretty much all of the emails you get are people that are pissed off or mad at you over something you can't control.

I get it. It's a stressful time, but you never got thank you stuff.

What's cool about this is daily I get the nicest, sincere thank you emails.

Teachers email him to say how they use the live bird cam to illustrate lessons, or how leaving the live feed on all day calms and delights the kids. 

There are also emails that Scott didn’t see coming: 

I've had quite a few people, say a son or daughter, send a nice thank you email and write, “Just so you know, my mom or dad was watching this as they passed away.

They loved the cardinals. It helped them. It gave them a lot of peace while they're going to the other side.”

“Every problem I had didn't get solved just by leaving my insurance job.”

Those emails give Scott a lot of peace and have helped him worry less. He’s always thinking about how to keep going, how to grow, of course, but he thinks about success a little differently now: 

It's definitely not money anymore. I want to be time wealthy: to be able to do what I want when I want to do it. 

And he feels like he’s finally found that. 

After we get off the phone, my son and I are going to the store to look for a Spiderman Lego, then we're going to the zoo. 

He’s also hoping to learn how to finally ski and play the guitar. But he’s quick to share:

Every problem I had didn't get solved just by leaving my insurance job to do this full-time.

On one hand, when you're home all the time you can work all the time. You're always kind of thinking about it as well. So there's definitely challenges.

He also misses the camaraderie of his old office, and is thinking about volunteering at the zoo soon. 

But he loves the community that has come from his blog, like the people who watch the live bird feeder almost every day. He’s become friends with some of them, including the ones who’ve volunteered to moderate the live chats each day and night. 

Some of the group who follow each night sometimes name the animals. I scroll through the chat one evening and note some of my favorite comments:

mr squirrel likes his peanuts

Cardinal has to wait his turn

16 bird species today: American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Blue Jay, Brown-headed Cowbird, Dark-eyed Junco, Downy Woodpecker, European Starling, House Finch, House Sparrow, Mourning Dove, ​Northern Cardinal, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-winged Blackbird, Song Sparrow, Tufted Titmouse, White-throated Sparrow. Let me know if I missed any. 

I’m going down to the ground cam see ya later

​6:35pm: rabbit leaves

Before I let Scott go off to hunt for a Spiderman Lego I ask him what advice he has for anyone hoping to turn their creative project into something that could make a full-time living while also still working their full-time job, especially because not only did he inspire Paul to start a blog – but also his wife Deena, who was able to quit her job to run her blog full-time too:

You’ve got to find the time every day to work on it. It’s a cliche, but it's not going to be quick and easy. 

Every day I woke up early. I had to take something else away to work on this; I couldn't sleep in. I couldn't watch as much TV.

You really have to ask yourself: Do you really want it, or does it sound nice? Because you have to commit and be willing to work for a year or two without getting a single dollar.

You have to have a strong “Why”. My why was I wanted to have the time wealth.

I wanted to have time to myself and do something I really was passionate about and not do insurance.

Some people give up if it doesn't work after a week. 

But if you're in the weeds every day, you're going to learn whatever you're trying to do.

I can almost guarantee you're going to be successful if you put in the time. The first article I ever wrote was the worst article. It was just terrible, looking back. But it led me to the next.

You can connect with Scott on Facebook, subscribe to his email list, or learn more at birdwatchinghq.com

 

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Isa Adney

Isa is an author and writer and has profiled incredible creators and artists, including Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony winners. When she’s not writing or interviewing creators, she’s probably walking her dog Stanley, working on her next book, or listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for the 300th time.

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