Way Back in 2011. . .Where Our How To FIRE Story Begins

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John and Sam in SJ Digital Swag

Service: SEO, Content Marketing, Lead Generation, Email Marketing, Social Media Marketing

If you had told us 10 years ago as young teenagers where we’d be today, I don’t think anyone would have believed you. . .including us! 

It shows you that anything is possible, especially when you get your finances in order and start betting on yourself.

Hey, John and Sam here.
Buckle up, here's our story!

You know us from SJ Digital Solutions, but did you also know that we’re full-time content creators and content marketers on our blog How To FIRE?

Yep, we’ve been blogging since July 2018. And our blog is where it all began!

Through How To FIRE, we perfected the content and SEO strategies we use for our clients at SJ Digital Solutions.

How To FIRE presently has 75,000 page views per MONTH with over 20,000 social media followers and email subscribers

We’ve seen a lot of success over the years– including over 100 million pageviews

And none of this success was by accident. . .

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. So let me take you allllll the way back to the beginning. 

This is our story, as shared by me, a.k.a. John.

Once upon a time, it was a hot Summer’s day when I was born. . .

Hold up. That’s a little too far. Haha! Let’s try this again—

The year is 2011.

Tik Tok is all the rage then too– but not in the short-form video kinda way. More like it’s the top song of the year by Ke$ha. 

“Crunk” was the coolest of all the cool words, and Prince William had just popped the question to Kate Middleton. And everybody is trying their best to figure out who is “A” on “Pretty Little Liars. . .”

Justin Bieber, a baby himself, had just released his mega-hit “Baby.”

It was simpler times then, haha.

John and Sam Dating

But the best thing about 2011 for me is that this is the year I met Sam.

We were in high school and met through mutual friends. It wasn’t long before we were pretty inseparable. 

After being friends and then “talking” for a while, we became “Facebook official.” 

Well, I mean, there was no Facebook official back then. But you catch my drift. 

Pssst. . .Gen Z— “Talking” is what we older, wiser Millennials called it when you were starting to consider dating somebody.

So yeah, Sam and I were high school sweethearts, turned college sweethearts, turned life partners. We celebrated 11 years together in December, and we’ve been married for 6.5 years.

Our love story is rare, and I don’t take that for granted. I may not talk much about it to other people, but Sam is the most amazing woman. She’s brilliant and kind. I’m thankful for her every day, and I’m so lucky I found a spouse that’s on the same page financially with me. There’s nobody else I’d rather do life, or go camping, with.

Sam and John Blue Rocks

Okay, okay, let’s dry it up. Enough of all that sappy, mushy-gushy love stuff.

Back to my usual dry humor with a side of snark, hahaha!

**You’ve probably already noticed, but this is going to have a very
  “How I Met Your Mother” narrator kinda vibe.**

that's my jam


So, to jump back into our story, it’s 2012 now. Sam and I are in college, and we decide it’s time to get our lives together. 

Specifically, we want to get our finances in order.

Thankfully since we were so young, nothing was entirely out of control for us. But we knew we wanted to create a life of freedom for ourselves and our future family, even if we weren’t sure what that would look like.

Initially, we started our finance journey with Dave Ramsey. Then, we started listening to podcasts, reading other blogs, and networking with people interested in personal finance. Specifically, Mr. Money Mustache’s blog post got us hooked on FIRE.

(If you’re unfamiliar with the FIRE movement, check out our blog post here about How to Unlock Freedom and Flexibility.)

Sam and I got married in July 2016, and that’s when we got into the FIRE movement with a new level of focus. 

We started listening to the Choose FI Podcast, and they established local connection groups all across the country. 

Sam and I got involved, and I became an Admin of the Philly group. We connected monthly. Plus, every quarter, we’d have a meet-up to talk about all things FIRE– like comparing insurance policies, discussing how to save on your cost of living, creative money plays to make or stretch your money, etc.

We were making progress but didn’t have a lot of direction or momentum.

We knew that auto loans, student loans, and credit card debt weren't the stress that we wanted on our shoulders. . .

Yet it seemed like it was the "normal" way of life for many of our friends.

But we knew we wanted to create a life of freedom for ourselves and our future family, even if we weren’t sure what that would look like.

Feeling Stuck:

We continued our journey quietly until July 22, 2018, when everything changed.

At the time, we were feeling stuck in the rat race. We knew that auto loans, student loans, and credit card debt weren’t the stress that we wanted on our shoulders. . .

Yet it seemed like it was the “normal” way of life.

And we felt really lonely too. 

We struggled to find people we could relate to. Sure, we did a lot of the typical things like get married, buy a house, and start “real jobs,” but nobody knew we were secretly “crushing it” financially.

We didn’t know anyone in our personal life with the same goals as us. 

Most of our friends at the time just wanted a new car or truck and didn’t care about the $1k/month payment that goes with it.

We wanted to build connections with others like us while helping others learn about the FIRE path. 

We needed to find our “tribe” of people. 

Like-minded people who wanted to better their finances and their lives. People who wouldn’t think it was weird to have a date night in, people who didn’t normalize carrying a credit card balance, etc.

Plus, Sam hated her full-time job. We wanted to see a significant shift for her there.

What could we do to change our lives and connect with others on the same page? How could we go from feeling stagnant and stuck to passionate and purposeful? 

Big picture: Financial independence would bring more freedom and flexibility. 

And I always knew that I wanted to retire early. We want to savor any time that we have in life.

But other than that, we felt stuck.

Betting on Ourselves:

As luck would have it, in July 2018, we’d finally get some answers. 

We went to a meetup in Philly with a bunch of big-name podcasters and well-known bloggers hosted by ChooseFI and Stacking Benjamins.

I spoke with dozens of leaders in the FIRE movement who all said the same thing to me, “Dude, you’re killing it! You need a blog,” and “Why don’t you have a blog already??”

So on the hour drive home, I got myself hyped up over the idea. I literally called out of work the next day (oops! lol), bought a domain name, got hosting set up, and officially “launched” How to FIRE.

To be clear: We had NO idea what the heck we were doing. . .

For example, with SEO– we’d heard of it but didn’t understand it. Blogging, we knew about it by reading other blogs and eventually meeting and talking to those blog writers at the Philly meet-up. . .however, we didn’t know how to be bloggers– much less how to rank on Google, grow an audience, or monetize.

But we jumped in and bet on ourselves anyway.

We had this “Field of Dreams” (fantastic old-school sports fantasy movie, by the way!) mindset of “If you build it, they will come.”

We also had a “We’ll figure it out” attitude, which is still a valuable asset to us because this outlook doesn’t allow you to stay stuck for too long.

Our next logical step was to figure out how to get our names, words, and experiences out there for other people to read and learn from.

Because we wanted to make an impact by sharing our story and knowledge.

Betting on Yourself Means Banking on Yourself:

After a few months, we only had a few hundred visitors– mostly from sharing posts on social media and in Facebook groups. That’s when we started asking ourselves, “How on earth are people getting so much traffic from Google?” and down the rabbit hole we went!! 

We began figuring out content marketing and SEO through investing in courses, mastermind groups, trainings, webinars; you name it– we bought it all.

It seems like we tried EVERYTHING

As I mentioned before, we purchased thousands of dollars worth of courses.

We implemented everything we learned– but there was a lot of noise and semi-conflicting information.

How do you get around conflicting information?

John and Sam Prom

Try. Literally. Everything. Until you figure out what works.

You test, figure out what’s starting to work, and then do more of that. 

And that’s precisely what we did over and over again. Continuing to hone our craft into understanding “THIS is what Google is looking for.” 

Plus, blending that with “How do I make sure this boring, dry finance content is readable to a human being who can take actionable steps after reading this?”

It was a learning curve, but we were DETERMINED to see the success we now knew was possible. 

Because we knew that success meant we’d get to change the trajectory of our lives and impact the lives of others for good.

And within a year of diving in, our site was getting over 10K visitors per month. The following year we grew to over 50K per month– and it kept growing from there.

So after doing this for a year on our site and FINALLY seeing success – we started to offer these services to others. 

This allowed Sam to quit her job with no clear exit strategy. We had no clients lined up and no “other business” established. We just did it on the fly.

At the same time, this was still a strategic decision because we stuck with our theme of betting on ourselves. We knew we had to make a run at it to see if we could translate this success to other businesses.

Sam and John College Years

Suddenly, SJ Digital Solutions was born.

In less than 6 months, Sam went from having nothing lined up when she left her W2 job to making 6-figures per year, which snowballed from there.

It can all sound very streamlined, but the journey was sometimes challenging.

All these wins and successes started as endless work hours– we worked nights and weekends. 

We invested time and money into a business without guarantees, which wasn’t making any income. We didn’t know for a long time if these were worthwhile investments.

But we felt confident enough to keep going and growing.

And speaking of confidence, it helped that we knew what we were talking about, so we could quickly build credibility.

We got

burnt out, exhausted, and frustrated at times

We desperately wanted to see progress and ensure our efforts weren't for nothing.

Don’t get me wrong– It was frustrating spending hundreds, even thousands of hours, and 5 figures of $ on something that wasn’t bringing in readers because this meant we weren’t meeting our goal of creating an impact. 

And it meant we weren’t generating any income to help cover the costs we were accumulating trying to get this thing off the ground.

But something funny happened– 

The more we poured ourselves into this, our message became our mission.It turned into something that Sam and I got really passionate about.

We built free guides and developed resources that we felt had the potential to change lives.

Almost every night, weekend, and free hour we had was spent working on the blog. I even took a semester off during my master’s degree to double down on the amount of time I had to work on the site.

It wasn’t drudgery anymore, for the most part. 

It was our focus and calling.

And I would say we became obsessed with it.

Lessons Learned and Lives Changed:

Looking back, we definitely could’ve spent more time seeing friends and family rather than writing some blog posts, haha.

I don’t look back on it negatively because it didn’t hurt our long-term relationships, but it took a mental toll on us.

So why did we do it? 

Because of the sheer JOY it would bring when we knew we were impacting somebody.

The lone email or blog comment we would get early on would keep us going. 

And OH MY GOD. . .when someone tells you that you’ve changed their life, helped them significantly improve their financial situation, taught them how to become financially secure, etc.– it’s literally what we were striving for

Because the more lives touched meant more family trees and generational legacies we could impact– at least financially.

We were reaching our goal of creating positive change through our work, which felt so good!

Building a Tribe and a Brand New Life:

John and Sam Engaged

Now, we have a very different life than we did just 4 years ago.

We have thousands of people on our email list and in our FB group who can relate to our story. They’re on their own FIRE journey, and we’re all learning along the way to be (less) normal or average so that we can build a life that’s even bigger and better than our dreams.

We’ve met some of our best friends, amazing colleagues, and incredible clients– all because we didn’t stick to the status quo and took some big steps to bet on ourselves.

These people are fellow finance enthusiasts, podcasters, bloggers, and those trying to better themselves financially– I feel like I can connect with them on a WHOLE other level!

We have 2 profitable businesses. How To FIRE led to us starting SJ Digital Solutions because we took everything we learned with our blog and applied it to client content and websites. 

We live and breathe content marketing and SEO.

We genuinely enjoy what we do so much that it regularly comes up in everyday conversations. 

While most people are talking about their kids or the weather, Sam and I are over here chatting about “I wonder how much search volume that term gets?!” (Oh, and we also talk about our dog a lot, haha!)

Sam isn’t stuck in her W2 job anymore, we travel + go camping a lot, and we have a house we love.

John and Sam Wedding

Most of all, we have a life of freedom, flexibility, passion for work, excitement, and no income caps.

It's Time to Bet on Yourself:

You deserve to know there’s nothing special about Sam and me. 

Sure, we’re good, caring people who love each other and do our best to help others. 

But nothing exceptional sets us apart from you– 

Except that we chose to take a risk, invest in ourselves, and go for it.

One day we decided to do things differently, and in the long run, it paid off. . .one small action step at a time.

And Sam and I believe there’s plenty of room for you to see success too!

Yes, there are a million blogs, podcasts, and YouTube channels. But there’s only ONE of you. And the world deserves to hear from you, your story, and your expertise!

So what are you waiting for? What would it look like for you to FINALLY bet on yourself?

I encourage you to pay attention to your passions and ask yourself these questions:

  • What lights that entrepreneurial spark inside of you?
  • What are you professionally trained in or an expert at?
  • What skills could you learn and develop that you DESIRE to learn and develop? 
  • Who do you admire?
  • What are they doing to make the world a better place?

Because when you can combine your passion with your professional background, magic happens!

Consider focusing your extra time away from hobbies and funneling it into building your side hustle or business.

We’ve had millions of people on our website in the last 4 years, and now we’re making money and sharing knowledge on things we love.

But it all began with 1 blog post

If you had told us 11 years ago as young teenagers where we’d be today, I don’t think anyone would have believed you. . .including us! 

The fact that we’re running 2 profitable businesses, managing a team, working for ourselves, and planning a future for our family is a life that’s BETTER than our biggest dreams as teenagers. 

We’ve seen our clients get over 100 million pageviews combined through SJ Digital Solutions. And through How to FIRE, we’ve helped hundreds of thousands of people experience financial freedom and go all in with the FIRE movement.

It shows you that anything is possible, especially when you get your finances in order and start betting on yourself.

John and Sam FinCon

The Before & After

From 2.19 million impressions per month to
over 9.3 million

This growth has allowed us to generate over $1,000 per month in display ads through Mediavine in addition to affiliate conversions and course and printable sales. It’s also added over 20,000 people to our email list and social media following.

Financial Blog SEO Results
Blog Growth
John and Sam Maine

Your Next Steps:

If you’re feeling inspired but unsure where to start, check out some of these resources and blog posts:

A note from

SJ Digital Founders, John and Sam

If you’re a real estate or financial professional ready to generate more revenue through organic traffic with personalized content marketing and search engine optimization (SEO), then click here to contact us about how we can help you get started.

Because if you’re looking to work with people as passionate about your industry, product, and service as you are, then you’re in the right place because SJ Digital Solutions has your best interests and success at heart.

We understand what it takes to build something from nothing and can’t wait to give you a head start. We’re experts who are continually improving their processes, and we know how to scale your business.

We specialize in getting results for financial and real estate professionals like you, and we can’t wait to work with you!!

Thanks for letting us share our story!

John and Sam Fall