How One Chicago Mom Turned Her $120K Debt into an Online Business Using Thrive Architect

Matt   49

Updated on January 29, 2021

Is a lack of web experience keeping you from making progress in your online business?

If so, this story is for you.

Although you may think it takes a web design background, a team of professional designers, and years of copywriting experience to make money online, that's just a tidy excuse to keep yourself from trying.


There's no reason to let a lack of technical experience keep you from learning by doing. All you need are the right non-techie tools and knowledge to help you overcome each of the sticking points you come across.

If you're skeptical, I understand. The internet is crammed full of scammy gurus shouting "Follow me!"

That's why I want to back my claim up by sharing the story of 1 gritty solopreneur — just like you — who overcame great personal and technical odds to learn how to thrive online.

Ready to Start an Online Business?

Do you want to learn more about how to build an online business step-by-step? We created 2 comprehensive guides that help you to kickstart your online career.

Meet Aja

Back in 2007, Chicago native Aja McClanahan and her husband realized they were $120,000 in debt and needed to do something about it.

Most of their debt came from a deadly combo of student loans, a car loan, and multiple credit cards.

American Consumer Debt By the Numbers:

It's not uncommon for American's to take on deep personal debt as an early 20-something to finance their education, daily transport and living expenses.

Here are some American debt statistics to show the uphill financial climb many American solopreneurs commonly face:

  • The median student loan debt for a person who has attended some college or graduated is more than $49,000.
  • The median household [high interest] credit card debt is more than $16,000.
  • The average auto loan exceeds $30,000.
  • Personal loans and other miscellaneous debts are more than $10,000 per household.

With the debt collectors breathing down their necks daily, Aja got serious and began researching blogs, books and podcasts to see if she could find a way out.

Aja resonated with Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball Method and used it to cut her family’s living expenses down to the bare minimum. That not only meant getting rid of things like paper towels and cable tv, but moving herself, her husband and 2 young daughters into Mom’s house rent free.

Kids, say goodbye to our comfy house in the Chicago ‘burbs...

As per Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball Method, that extra money Aja freed up with her deep budget cuts went to pay off the loan with the smallest total balance — regardless of interest rate.

The idea here is to build psychological momentum. When one loan disappears, you just roll that freed up monthly payment into the next loan on the list until they’re all gone.

Along with living expense cuts, Aja knew she could also eliminate her family's debts faster if she could find ways to increase her monthly income. That’s when she got resourceful and took on a number of side-hustles including:

  • A consultancy service for non-profits
  • Freelance writing
  • Public speaking

Year after year, steady progress made the dream of debt-freedom more and more of a reality.

Achieving Debt Freedom and Starting a Blog About It

After several scrappy years of belt tightening, Aja and her family emerged from their debt in 2013.

For some, that happy day might have been celebrated with the purchase of a new house or car using the shiny new credit score debt freedom came with... but not for Aja. Her hard won financial knowledge, budgeting power and savings habits endured.

When she started telling people her family was debt free, they all wanted to know how:

“We got so many questions about how we did it that I started my website to mass mentor people on the subject of wise money management.”

In that spirit, Principles of Increase was born in 2014 to help educate others on getting out of debt, increasing income and building wealth.

Aja's current Principles of Increase Upside Down Homepage design.

At first, it was just a basic WordPress blog Aja DIY-ed using free YouTube tutorial videos and the free Genesis theme. She learned that by writing useful blog articles, she could build an audience and email list. Then in order to monetize her new website, she started experimenting with ads and affiliate links.

Aja's consulting and freelance gigs were keeping her very busy at that time so her blog and subscriber list grew slowly at first:

“It would take another 2 years for me to close up my consultancy before I went full-time blogging and freelance writing in 2016.”

2016 was the year Aja got serious about building her email list.

From Simple Blog to Respectable Email List

By January 2017, the Principles of Increase blog had grown to a respectable 2700+ subscribers.

Like a lot of scrappy solopreneurs though, Aja wanted to improve that growth. She started to learn more about lead magnets and landing pages. She created her first free eBook — Get Out of Debt Now — and built a squeeze page around it to collect emails.

Aja was using Optimize Press at the time, but remembers the pages felt clunky to build, unattractive and performed poorly. Regardless, she used them anyway and the list grew.

On a friend’s recommendation, Aja became a Thrive Suite customer in September 2017 and loaded Thrive Architect onto her WordPress dashboard. Unfortunately, she found herself frustrated by the initial learning curve of the editor so she “let it sit” for 6 months.

It wasn’t until February of 2018 that Aja got some online business advice from Videofruit’s Bryan Harris that she should build an upside down homepage. In an attempt to understand what that meant, she came across the Thrive Themes Upside Down Homepage tutorial explaining exactly how to create one.

Aja dusted her Thrive Architect license off and got to work:

“It took me about 2 hours to follow the 25 minute tutorial, but I’m so glad I did. From there, it became easy and intuitive for me to build everything from my homepage to my landing pages and more.

“When I learned how to use
Thrive Architect, I could finally build landing pages I wasn’t afraid to send 5000 people to.”

After building a new lead generation funnel using Thrive Architect and Thrive Leads, Aja decided to run paid Facebook ads to try and grow her list with engaged subscribers.

I have to say that the results you’ll read about next are pretty stunning…

Facebook Ad to Lead Generation Funnel

Check this out.

Aja launched a 60 day Facebook ad campaign with the goal of supercharging her list:

Aja's Facebook Ad that she used for her 60 day campaign.

If her Facebook ads engaged, people were then sent to her new, scratch-built Thrive Architect landing page:

Aja's lead generation landing page, scratch-built with Thrive Architect.

Even though the lead generation page isn’t professionally designed, here’s an impressive feature about it:

Aja always assumed she would lose money on the Facebook Ad campaign as the price for acquiring new clients in the financial industry is staggering.

Try not to spill your coffee but, customer acquisition can range anywhere from $50 to $100 bucks in that market...ouch! It almost makes you feel sorry for massive, multi-national wealth management companies like Charles Schwab and Merrill Lynch...almost. ;-p

Regardless of those odds however, Aja set an audacious ad spend goal of no more that $0.05 to $0.20 per new lead. Daaaaaaamn, you go girl!

On top of that, she wanted to keep her ad campaign expenditure down to $0.01 per new lead. To do that, Aja created a digital download upsell on her lead gen funnel's Thank You Page — the $7.99 Financial Fix Package — just to see what would happen:

Aja used a simple upsell offer on her post signup Thank You Page as a way to help offset the costs of her Facebook ad campaign.

Here's a visual diagram to help illustrate Aja's lead generation funnel:

Simple step-by-step visualization of Aja's lead generation funnel capturing new visitors through Facebook ads and then leading them to signup and even purchase a simple digital upsell product.

And the results were pretty sweet...

Crunching the Numbers

At the end of Aja’s 60 day Facebook ad campaign, she ran her financials and discovered that, not only did she boost her email list by 2715 new subscribers...

Aja's 60 day Facebook ad campaign boosted her email list by more than 2700 new subscribers.

... she didn’t lose a dime!

In fact, Aja netted $130 once she subtracted the cost of her ad spend from the upsell earnings!

Aja's Gumroad upsell product sales analytics during her 60 day Facebook ad campaign.

Her new 2700 subscriber conversion rate clocked in at just above 19% with 14,207 total clicks from the ads:

Aja's Facebook ad spend and click stats: 14,207 clicks, 2700+ email signups and $812.88 spent vs. $944.20 in upsell revenue.

And without factoring in her upsell revenue, want to know what her final lead acquisition costs were? Just $0.25 per lead!

Step aside J.P. Morgan...there’s a new player in town.

Oh, and by the way...Aja’s current email list sits just shy of 8,000 emails and growing.

From List Building To E-Course Education

Most recently, Aja has been hard at work building and validating her latest info-product: The Profitable Genius E-Course.

But before creating that product, she decided to understand what her followers needed most from her when it came to debt elimination and financial empowerment. Aja did this by:

  • Examining her Google Analytics.
  • Analyzing her most engaging emails and subject lines.
  • Surveying her subscribers via email about what they were interested in learning.
  • Testing out product descriptions to gauge excitement levels around products — and whether or not people would pay for it.

Not only did Aja take the results of her subscriber study to build the new E-Course, but then she beta tested it amongst a 2000 person segment of her audience. The idea was to use a subscriber subset to gauge customer response and gain initial feedback to improve the course.

The beta test results? $1200 bucks of cold, hard, digital cash.

Inspiring, no?

Aja’s Next Steps

On top of her busy schedule homeschooling 2 daughters and managing freelance gigs, Aja’s still trying to learn as much as she can to move forward and grow her online business.

Because the Facebook Ad campaign was such a success and actually earned her money, she’s going to dig deeper into how she can get more easy conversion wins from Facebook ads.

And although Aja never really relied on banner ads to monetize her site in the past, she’s interested in experimenting with them now since the financial niche pays more for digital ad space than most other markets.

But Aja knows that her real income potential lies in serving her growing email list.

That means creating useful blog content and pumping more value into her info-products to spread the financial empowerment gospel. Personal finance education is where her passion lies and it seems to be resonating to the tune of paying customers.

Aja also wants to upgrade the look, feel and conversion focus of her website. That means becoming a Thrive Themes power user.

Thrive Suite offers so many powerful plugins, Aja hasn’t had the chance to learn and take advantage of them all.

Most of her recent website progress has been made by using Thrive Leads and Thrive Architect alone. Aja just launched her first Thrive Leads A/B test this week to see if she can boost her signup conversions through opt-in form design as well.

In fact, Aja’s new mantra is “When in doubt, test it out!”

That means many of her upcoming plans include learning how to use all the Thrive Themes A/B testing tools so she can “make more decisions based on data and analytics rather than emotions”.

Mastering Thrive Optimize for landing page A/B tests and Thrive Leads for opt-in form A/B tests, are both in Aja’s near future.

Final Takeaways

At the end of my interview with Aja, I asked her what advice she would give other solopreneurs starting out to help them sidestep stumbling blocks and take advantage of the wisdom she had earned.

Here’s what she told me (and I think Point # 3 is pure gold):

1. Be More Clued In To Your Numbers.

Aja now pays much closer attention to her data including conversion rates, sales numbers, affiliate revenue and ad spend.

She’s motivated to make her business data driven to eliminate emotions from her decision processes. This means keeping much closer tabs on things like Facebook ads and opt-in form A/B tests.

2. Use Basic Keyword Research to Produce Better Content and Upgrade Your Old Posts

When Aja first started her blog, she was writing articles people weren’t so interested in reading. Over time though, she realized that just a little topic and keyword research went a long way to boost engagement.

This doesn’t mean the content is all market research driven; posts should still come from a personal place. For example, Aja originally posted an article about giving Famzoo debit cards to her daughters in place of allowance cash to help them better learn how to manage money.

The post was only doing so-so at first, but when Aja updated it with researched keywords and improved graphics, it rose to Page 1 on Google for key search terms.

3. Use Your Real Life Problems to Improve Your Blog Content

I thought this was pure genius when Aja mentioned it to me.

Of course Aja does use dedicated brainstorming sessions to come up with new content for her blog, but lately, much of her ideas are spurred by problems that crop up in her own life.

For example, when Aja was trying to teach her daughters how to manage their finances outside of the typical cash allowance, she wondered if there was a "debit cards for kids" solution available. She then had the awareness and curiosity to ask:

“I wonder if anyone else needs this?”

That spurred Aja to research the idea and write a post about it to help others through her financial blog.

I find that organic content strategy super clever and refreshing, don’t you?

Now It’s Your Turn To Take Action

So now that you’ve met Aja and learned how she transformed herself from debt overwhelm to bootstrapped solopreneur with the right knowledge and tools, do you still have any excuses keeping you from taking action in your own online business?

Aja never let her lack of web experience hold her back from making profitable progress in her business and neither should you! 

In fact, Rapid action and iterative improvement are at the scrappy core of all thriving entrepreneurs.

If you're still in the early stages of your business and want to take a bold step, my suggestion is to follow Aja's example and start building a profitable email list with a Thrive Architect built lead generation funnel. 

And lucky for you, there's a free List Building Funnel course over at Thrive University that will show you exactly how to build and ship your first one fast.

Learn How To Build Your Own Lead Generation Funnel Right Now

If you want to build a profitable email list through a lead generation funnel like Aja did, check out this FREE Thrive University course:

Get instant access by clicking the link and signing up for your free Thrive University account. If you already have an account, just sign in to start learning.

P.S. Have any questions for Aja? Inspired to take action in your own online business? Leave a comment below!

by Matt  August 24, 2018


Disclosure: Our content is reader-supported. This means if you click on some of our links, then we may earn a commission. We only recommend products that we believe will add value to our readers.

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Leave a Comment

  • As usual for Thrive articles & case studies, this is soooo inspirational! I suffer constantly from talking myself out of trying something! It’s either “fear of failure” or “fear of success!”

    I’m committed anew to “just start” and will Re-read this great case study every time I’m tempted to second-guess myself!

    Thanks for re-lighting my fire and boosting my confidence!

  • Thanks for such a well documented example Matt and Aja. I really appreciate you coaxing out of Aja that the process can take a good amount of time. It seems so worth it though… especially for her subscribers/followers who are probably eliminating debt, not to mention the often self-inflicted stress one can feel being in debt.

    I also noticed from your interview that you weren’t talking about her blog business making 6 figures from the start like so many articles talk about. The two of you talked about attainable numbers. At my stage, with no followers, $1200.00 sounds fantastic. That would definitely motivate me. $1200 would also shout out to me that other people are dealing with the same issues I deal with and the solutions I’ve come up with might offer them some help too. It would be even that much more beneficial if subscriber/follower comments could add to helpful solutions and we, together, might build a movement!

    Thanks Aja and best of luck to you and your family. Thank you for your candor and your encouragement, and especially for the little hint: “When in doubt, test it out!” I know I haven’t taken advantage of the benefit of testing, but I’m going to start.

    • Thanks for your comment David!

      I’m glad you found Aja’s story so helpful and inspiring. $1,200 in sales and 8,000 subscribers are awesome examples of achievable solopreneur success benchmarks that make starting your own journey a little less intimidating. I think Aja’s ability to take action building her online business no matter what challenge she faces is a great example for us all.

    • David, thanks for the kind words. I forget that my small wins can encourage newer online digital entrepreneurs, too. I’m in circles with pretty heavy hitters, so it gets easy for me to compare myself with others who are, indeed, making six figures a month. But you know what? Everyone started somewhere, including me 🙂

  • Yes, an inspiring article; yes, as the saying goes God Helps Those Who Help Themselves……

    To a certain extend I am sought of like Aja [though not monetary trapped] but as a recent “retiree” trying to adjust to retired life; definitely finding something to do that provides “pocket money” can go a long way to make “life interesting”.

    However I am not competent in websites and computer; learning process in place…….any advise!

    • Hey Eslim,

      There’s a lot of beginner resources online for “non-techies” who want to create their own web based business with WordPress.

      I suggest starting with our free Thrive University course that will teach you how to Build a Conversion Focused Website From Scratch. Just make sure to login or create your account first and then you can access the course instantly.

  • Every time I login to my Thrive Themes membership, accessing another portion of the wonderful resources really inspires me to keep going – even with a full time job. Aja’s story puts it all together and I’d love to hear other success stories so that we can also become more of a community. I also used Dave Ramsey to get out of debt. Now, as a senior, the goal is to pay off my little house. And I’m using Thrive Themes to do just that.

    • Glad to hear your Thrive Membership is providing so much value for you Barb! All the best in your own solopreneur journey. We’ll definitely publish some additional customer case studies in the near future to help keep you inspired! 😉

  • Great piece – one of the few I’ve read start to finish lately. Mainly because it was a *real* success story and not another over-the-top ‘learn how I went from knowing absolutely nothing to 6-figures in 90 days’ vanity (and fiction?) piece. Well done to you both!

    • Thanks Karen! We definitely like to keep it real here at Thrive Themes and showcase great examples of successful solopreneur benchmarks with customers like Aja.

  • Love it! I was once severely in debt with creditors calling & unemployed. I felt so humiliated. People kept saying ‘file bankruptcy ‘ but it was my debt and I didn’t feel that was the right thing to do. My credit score was way down there, 540 or so. This was before the internet. So I stuck to my guns, worked 2 jobs, learning along the way. That was 20 years ago and now here I am in my late 40’s and I quit my job in December so I can spend the rest of my life helping others. Investing is one of my passions that allowed me to make this life change.

    So glad to see Aja helping all of these people! And her story has inspired me to get back to building my website so that I can help even more people!

    Well done!

    • Jeanie, 540 is a wonderful score. My husband had320 10 years ago and it took me a year to bring his score to 750. I worked hard but got rid of every penny he owed. I recently wrote a guest post to someone else blog on based on my personal experience. I am no financial expert but very good with numbers. Your story is amazing and you are brave to own your mistake and clear your mess.

      • Wow, 320! That’s fantastic that you were able to bring him back from the brink! Props!

  • I’m interested in the Facebook ad campaign targeting group.. did she “just” started an ad for all americans over 18 or 21 or did she target down to most in dept groups by studies?

    • Hi Tim, if you have an audience already (perhaps web visitors picked up via the Facebook pixel or an email list) it will always be cheaper to target them first. I let the Facebook algorithm do all the work here, so I rarely give it parameters around location, age, gender, etc. Additionally, Facebook has begun limited parameters you can target, so it would be hard to target any “in debt” at this point. If you are starting from scratch (i.e. no audience,) you can target similar interests with a “Video Views” objective. Video views can be less expensive than the “Traffic” objective. Once you get a good amount of video views from your cold audience, you can retarget those video views with a conversion campaign like email sign-up or sales. This process has worked well for me so far. I hope this helps!

      • Hey Aja,
        thank you – I’m always struggling by complete cold traffic in the past and didn’t start PPC either AdWords or FB..

        So you set up those parameters (age, location…) and similar interests (like groups for people who are in debt or groups how to save more from their income) or do it by videos like “how to spend less money” – track them and get them into the audience, right?

        Thanks 🙂

      • Facebook is a great place to advertise. A few years ago I used it for one month I gain 58000 followers. It was to sell something which I sold within a few days. I got so busy after that with my schooling. Now recently I have started my blog but still learning the tech side of it.

  • The case study where she ran a Facebook campaign to collect email subscribers is very practical and inspirational. It made me think what I could offer as an upsell in the blogging/marketing niche if I were to start similar campaign.

  • Great article again. Highly appreciate Aja’s success. I’d love to know which tool she used to build her E-Couse system. Thrive Apprentice? LearnDash? Something else?

  • Hi Matt and Aja this piece was well written, very real and refreshing inspirational. I was left feeling maybe I too can do this. However, I am unlike Aja, who has a superb story to tell so am scratching my head thinking I don’t have anything of value to get buy in. I am in my late 50s and from a generation that knew life before computors so find tech stuff hard to grasp. I guess you have to really love it for it to easily make sense and it’s a definate case of dragging myself into this world that I know I must do.

    Two years ago my partner and I decided to sell up in England and start a new life in France. Was always working long hours, earned good money, but as hadn’t produced the proverbial 2.2 children, wondered what it was all for, so whilst we still had some pep in us, we did it. Why France, well it was a dream of mine to live here since first visiting it on a French exchange when was 15. We found then bought a house with an attached gite last year in the beautiful north dordogne area. Initially renovated the gite first and planned to launch it last March as adult only luxury accommodation. I started to build a free website with Vacation Soup in WordPress but found it a bit hard going. Then stupidly I one night in Feb I missed a step in our gite and ended up with a broken arm and leg and spent the next 60 days in hospital. This could have been useful but i was actually recouperating in an old folks home which had no internet as everyone was over 80 and had no need for it! Once out i had to act quick not to miss the summer trade so found an off the shelf accommodation website builder called Promote my Place. Meanwhile, we actually were fortunate enough to get all our business for the summer and indeed for next summer too via accommodation booking agents who charge. However, for the last two months we have had no further bookings.

    We are now at the stage where our nest egg is dwindling, our website is not generating any interest ( probably as no-one knows we exist) and we have an email list of 7 clients who stayed this year. So, can’t sit back and wait we need to act, and trying to plan next step to get us motoring.We know we have a great product as we have been taken in by two of the top very picky accommodation agents in the UK, but we can’t rely on them we need to make things happen by our own means.

    So, having seen your example I feel this concept could be just what we are looking for. Ultimately, we need heads on beds, and a good email list. However, its a case of where do we start and more importantly what can we offer of value to a potential holiday maker in terms of a ebook/ebrochure that will make them engage. Further, do holiday makers have pain points?. By the way our customers tend to be 45 plus career couples ? But how do you even produce a brochure anyway. Would it be really expensive, thinking maybe really need to do this myself?

    I’m now slightly heading towards that maybe this is all beyond me and should i have a coffee and forget it. But no, as have spent all this time typing this, i need the determination to keep this going. However, I do feel a bit like a headless chicken so finally, thanks for reading our dilemma, sorry it was a bit long, but if you could just possibly point me in the best direction to get started I would be ever so grateful?

    • Thank you for your comments Vanessa.

      There’s a lot to unpack from your comment and of course I can’t really offer much financial or business advice to you in a single comment, but I would encourage you to keep trying and use the Rapid Implementation principle we teach at Thrive Themes to embrace an attitude of imperfectionism so you can consistently ship your ideas to learn by doing to grow your business.

      I’d recommend checking out Shane’s free Thrive University course on how to rapidly build and implement landing pages by clicking here to understand the rapid implementation principle.

  • Hi Matt, It’s such an interesting and motivational interview you posted with Aja. Very impressive. I am a new blogger who is not a tech savvy at all and just started my blog 3 months ago. I agree that the sky is the limit if you really want to do something! Thank you so much for sharing this with the blogger like myself. Nice to read about you as well and it’s very nice to meet you here. Debt could be overwhelming and can ruin your life. When I married my husband, his credit history was 320 and now is 830. I helped him to get out of the mess and debt he was in. I hate to be in debt.

  • Hi Aja, and Matt of course. A great article, and a great story as well for us all. I need help, I need it fast and I need someone with a techie brain and skills to help me. I have a product, well, treatment for all sorts of health issues actually. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years; but I need to have new angle of attack that is online and my friends call me a techie dinosaur, I can’t really disagree with that, sadly. I need help and I need someone to help me. Has anyone got any thoughts or ideas on the person I need to help me?

  • Question: How did she make $944 from 83 sales of $7.99 each? That math doesn’t work out. Am I missing something?

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