It's always fun to learn how someone got started with their business.
I've been asked to share my story before and summed it up in several webinars, presentations, and emails. But I thought a few people might be interested in hearing the full story.
I've attempted to get it all down here complete with how much I was earning during different stages. That way you can see how long the process took.
9 to 5 Career
Like a lot of people, I went to college. I even went right back after graduating to get a Master's Degree. Both my degrees were in Biology. And when I was done I got a job in my field as a research scientist.
I actually had 2 jobs that weren't quite for me at first. I stayed at both for under a year. I guess the third time was the charm because I ended up staying at the third job for about 5 years and really liked it. The only reason I quit was for my so-called ‘retirement from work'.
We studied antioxidants and genes related to cancer. Talking about diseases is depressing stuff (even if you're trying to find the cure), but I am very grateful I had the opportunity to contribute to that line of work. I'm coauthor on a few research papers and worked with some truly wonderful people.
At any rate, I was feeling a little unfulfilled. I knew I didn't want to be a research scientist forever.
I also realized I was never going to be able to buy a house of any shape or size on my salary.
That was upsetting.
I thought about going back to school, taking a part-time job, or starting some kind of business.
I thought about this stuff all the time and was pretty stressed out about what to do. Although I had a great job I could barely pay my monthly bills and it caused me a lot of anxiety.
I researched all of my options.
A Different Path
I eventually discovered a great career opportunity that didn't require me to go back to school. All I had to do was take a test and I could open up a whole new career field for myself using my background in science.
It paid a lot better than research and I thought maybe it would be a nice change sometime in the future or at least open new doors for me. So I learned as much about it as I could and prepared to take the exam.
The thing was, that exam was crazy hard.
I realized I was going to need some help so I looked around for test prep materials and found a couple of seminars. They cost over $2000 plus I needed air-fair AND about a week's worth of hotel accommodations. It would have cost me over $4000 to go to a test prep seminar and learn what I needed to pass that exam!
Even with a Master's degree, research scientists don't make a whole lot of money. So that was out.
There was one home study course, but the website was incredibly unprofessional looking and I didn't see any good reviews of it. Plus it was still pretty expensive.
I just wished someone had an outline I could buy for $100 to $200 that would help me out. And there was nothing like that.
Getting a Plan Together
Somehow all this came together…
- I liked my job, but couldn't see myself doing it for the long-term.
- I needed to make more money, but didn't want a part-time job that I'd be stuck working forever.
- I was willing to start a side-business.
- Here was something people could use and there was nothing like it being offered.
So that's when I decided I'd definitely take this test and create an outline (like the one I wished I could buy) while preparing for it.
When I passed the exam and the outline was already to go, I'd sell it.
That was my plan so I set out to make it happen.
I prepared for a long time as I put this outline together. It took me about a year to pass the test (it was only offered every 6 months back then which really held things up for me).
It was also very difficult, I knew nothing about the subject matter, and I had to prepare in my spare time.
I'd go to work and during any breaks I'd study for the test.
At least a couple days a week after I got home from work (I worked 40 hours a week + had a commute) I'd get right back to studying and creating this outline.
Honestly, I'm not sure I could have worked that hard on passing the test if it weren't for the idea that I was also creating an outline for others that I could one day sell.
That really kept me going and put me on track for knowing what to do.
What Happened Next
My test date came during the middle of October, 2001 and I passed!
I was super relieved and even more excited to try to sell my outline. Of course, this was a pretty long time ago and I had zero experience selling anything. I knew I was going to sell it online, but I did not have a website or any idea of how to create one.
I found a cheap web hosting program with a website builder that was supposedly easy to use. So I signed up and got a domain name.
That was near the end of October. I spent $26.95 for the domain name and the hosting account with a site builder. After the first month my costs were to be $11.95 a month.
I played around with the site builder until I had a VERY ugly 5 page website. There was hardly any content on it (because I had no idea what to even write) and again, it was very ugly.
Next I had to figure out how to accept payment. This was a long time ago and there were not very many options for taking money online.
In order to get things going faster I decided to forget about accepting money online and I went with something called cash on demand (COD). I had seen many late night commercials selling steak knives where they said ‘send in your money COD' so I investigated how all that worked.
I went to the post office and they explained it to me there.
I decided I'd sell my outline for $200. I thought it was worth that and would have paid $200 for an outline like mine (again, this took me a very long time to create and was based on thousands of pages of material + some free practice exams).
It seemed worth it to me.
So that was it. Here was the complete strategy I pieced together …
- People were supposed to land on my website (of course I thought they'd magically find it).
- Then they would see I had a $200 outline that would help them study for the exam.
- If they wanted to buy it they'd send me an email with their address and I'd send out a physical copy of the outline all packaged up in a box with a COD slip.
- When the package arrived they'd write a check for $200, sign for it and get the package.
- I'd get the check along with a carbon copy of the COD slip later on in the mail.
Not the most streamlined shopping experience, but it was the best I could do.
The other part of all this was that the outline was going to be printed out. Not many people bought ebooks at that time and I had no idea what that even was.
To handle the printing I went to the copy store down the street. I printed out the first copy of my outline for $50 (which was shocking to me). I bought a notebook, punched holes in the papers and stuck it in there with a titled black and white sheet of paper as the cover sheet.
That was my product.
I think I only had one on hand because it was so expensive to make, but I figured I'd still come out about $140 (minus shipping) ahead.
The Plan was Complete
I sat back and checked my email several times every day for an email from someone who wanted to buy the outline.
Days, weeks, even a month went by and nothing happened.
I realized there must be a hole in my theory. Were people going to my website? Did they think it sucked? Did no one want my outline?
I figured out how to check the traffic stats and found that next to no one was visiting my site. And yes, I was that naive that it took me well over a month to even figure that out.
So I started learning about how to get traffic. I read some things online here and there. I also thought about where those interested in my product would go online and tried to let the people who ran those sites know about my new product, hoping they'd help me promote it.
I also spent some money on a Yahoo Directory Listing. It was $299.00, which was a lot for me. But back then you actually got a little traffic from being in the Yahoo directory. At least that's what I read.
2001 ended without a sale.
I dug up some of my old tax records and in 2001 I had a business loss. I was able to deduct everything I spent for my business and I believe part of my apartment rent as well as my computer. So that's one benefit of having a business (even one that isn't profitable). You can save on some taxes.
Sometime in January of the next year, a competitor came across my site and actually got in touch with me.
He knew I was trying to sell my outline and suggested I put a listing up on eBay. So I tried it and to my excitement, I got a sale before the auction ended.
My first sale … February 3, 2002
That was huge for me!
I still remember the name of the guy who bought it.
I was incredibly happy to get that first sale. It really helped my confidence that this was all going to work out.
But again, I put my site online in October and it took until Februray for me to get a sale. That's about 4 months! Plus the first sale did not even come through my website.
On the bright side, by that time I did have a product ready, a website, a way to take money, and a tiny stream of traffic mostly from eBay listings.
I sold a few more outlines on eBay, but really didn't like that whole process. I wanted people to go to my website like they did to a regular business so I set out to figure out how to get visitors to it.
That's when I got serious about search engine optimization. Back then that was THE way to get traffic. Social media and a lot of the paid options did not exist at that time.
Between the tiny trickle of traffic that might have come from my Yahoo directory listing, links from sites I told about my outline, and a little search engine optimization, my site started ranking in the search engines.
It was just ranking for a few main keyphrases, but I started getting sales here and there.
I also decided to sell more than the outline by adding in a workbook. It was very easy to create.
I figured it would help people pass the test. They didn't just have to read the outline, they could fill in the workbook and that would make studying easier. I thought I would have liked that so it made sense to me.
At that point I was making weekly sales and didn't want to have to go to the copy store several times a week.
So I started getting several full sets printed up at a time.
I spent several hours at the copy store after work a couple days a month and copied off all the outlines and workbooks that I could afford. Then I'd go to the office store and get my supplies; shipping boxes, spiral binding (I now I had spiral binding machine as well as an industrial strength hole puncher), packing tape, notebooks. All that stuff.
I'm not making this up.
I'd actually sit at home with the TV on or call someone on speaker phone and put all the papers together, stuff them in the notebooks and spiral bind the rest. I'd make up the boxes.
I'd get a bunch of complete sets made up. At one point I had about 20 full boxes lining the hallway of my small apartment.
I'd put a few in my car so when an order came in I could go to the post office on my way home to work and that saved me a step.
I also invested in a merchant account so I didn't have to do the COD thing. I searched around online and found one that seemed reasonable. I still have that merchant account as I'm writing this so it's worked out pretty well.
I also got a UPS account so I could ship the packages through UPS. That way I didn't have to wait in the line at the post office (because that's the last thing I wanted to do after working all day).
There was a store that shipped through UPS across the street from my work. I could also print out the shipping labels myself and get the box completely ready to go. So all I really had to do was drop it off.
With the traffic coming to my site I was selling several courses a week.
They got to know me pretty well there.
I also learned about pay-per-click marketing and started up a Google Adwords account in October of 2002. That helped me sell some courses (I decided that's what it was since it became bigger than just an outline).
$12,000 were my total revenues for 2002 and I'm pretty sure I owed over $4,000 in taxes which I thought was crazy.
Again, I started this just to make extra money so even after paying the expenses and my taxes I still had several thousand dollars leftover. At the time, that was a lot of extra money for me. I also didn't have to do a whole lot of work since the product was already created. So it was just shipping it out and keeping an inventory.
The Next Phase … 2003
The next year I incorporated my little company. It cost a little, but I was earning enough to pay for it as well as get a regular accountant (who I hoped could save me on taxes).
I remember thinking how I had already done the hard part which was creating a product that was selling. So I should learn how to promote it properly.
I also started thinking for the first time that I wanted to see how far I could go with this little side-business. Everyone else thought I was pretty crazy to spend so much time on all this stuff.
But I started seeing that I could potentially quit my job if it was earning more (and I believed it could).
So I learned as much as I could about marketing information products (somewhere I learned what I was doing had a name). Dan Kennedy was and still is the master at infoproduct marketing so I bought a few training courses from him.
The internet really seemed full of opportunities and a lot more training geared toward online marketing was coming out (exploding really).
I learned about giving away something free in exchange for getting my prospect's email address. I learned a lot about search engine optimization along with pay-per-click marketing and got pretty good at both.
How much did I make in 2003? I sold around $40,000 worth of my product that year. Of course there were costs, but by the end of that year I could have replaced my monthly salary at my job with what I was earning monthly from my side business.
Although I started thinking about taking the business to a much bigger place that year, I still had the 'employee mindset'. It didn't seem all that realistic for me to quit my job. I really think that held me back, but at the same time I had a job that I liked.
Moving Forward … 2004
I kept learning more and more about marketing online that year. I moved from studying marketing with Dan Kennedy's products to Jay Abraham and even John Reese. 2004 was the year John launched his Traffic Secrets course and I sat pretty glued to my computer, practically in disbelief at what he was able to achieve.
That really had an impact on me. The way he went about his million dollar day by over-delivering to his customers and even his prospects really made me think.
Each of these guys really helped me shift my mentality about what it meant to run a business. That I could still have a positive impact in the world even if I gave up my job as a research scientist.
I sold about $80,000 of my course that year. I definitely had expenses so I didn't get to keep all that. My costs were for the product, shipping it, web hosting, an ecommerce system, and marketing materials. I may have spent some money on graphics. There really wasn't too much else.
Even if I kept half of that amount (and I'm sure it was more than that) that was about $40,000 extra dollars for me. That was more than what I earned at my job.
And I was thinking regularly about quitting my job. I just wasn't sure when or even if it was a good idea.
Near the end of that year I started earning about $10,000 a month very regularly with the sales from my product. Again that was total revenue, but after paying all my business expenses, there was still a lot of money left over.
I could have more than replaced my salary (even doubled it), but I still kept my job. I was a little scared. I wasn't sure my income was stable. I wasn't sure I wanted to give up my job yet.
2005 … The Year I Retired
The year started with me doing a lot to improve my product and creating some pretty darn good sales copy. I got most of my sales copy tips from Michel Fortin. He had a great site (and still does) with a ton of free articles. I also studied his letters as well as those of a few other top marketers.
That really did a lot to keep my sales numbers increasing.
Eventually I got tired of dealing with the packages and especially copying off all the materials. And I had a family member who was interested in taking that over for me.
So I showed her how to do it; creating all the manuals, boxing them up, storing them, and shipping them out through UPS. It worked out well. She could earn some extra money and I didn't have to do it (because after all that time of doing it myself I was really tired of it).
Plus it enabled me to do more with my product and market it better (because I had a limited amount of time to spend on my side business).
A few months into the year I decided I was willing to take the plunge and quit my job. There were a lot of things swirling around in my head on that.
The main one was that by then I was married and we were thinking about starting a family. I thought having my freedom would allow me to spend more time with any kids I might have in the future (which it has). Plus I was really earning a lot and thought I could increase it even more.
It was a difficult decision, but I was so excited about my business and where I was at in life I really just went for it.
That was about April 2005.
Could I have quit sooner? Definitely, but again, I started the business just to earn some extra money. I would have never imagined that I would be making that much extra money.
It was a long process for me to even get out of my job mentality, but I got there. The business grew further after I ‘retired' from my job. I eventually had my product professionally created, with high-end graphics, testing software, products in warehouse and an automatic fulfillment system.
I was able to use the knowledge and money I earned from it to start several other business endeavors as well.
It was a pretty exciting time.
Aside from just the story itself, I'd like to give you some ideas of what the keys were to my success and point out a few things.
First, I had a job.
It was a full-time job.
It's not like I was bored and had all this extra time and needed something to fill it with.
I just want to point this out because so many people that I talk to who want to start a business immediately rattle off all these things they've got going on. “Lisa, I work full-time and take a class, and have a commute, and so on”. And you know, I'm sure they are busy, but if starting a business is important to them they'll figure out a way to get things done.
I know I did.
And everyone else I know who's started a business also had a real job at first too along with many other commitments. It sucks but you've got to do extra work at first. The thing is even with a little bit of time as long as you keep going with it, you'll get what you need done.
Second, I started this business with very little money.
After I paid all my bills, I had almost no extra money.
I'm pretty sure at that point in my life I was not able to save anything (which really stressed me out and was a big reason I wanted a side-business in the first place). So there was no way for me to invest much of anything in my business.
I bring this up so you know you can start a business without a whole lot of upfront money. My costs to start this business were under $500 (most of this was the Yahoo Directory listing which I could have skipped as it didn't really help me out all that much).
Those were the total up-front costs.
I grew it by taking the profits and re-investing them. I did everything myself. And yes it took me a lot longer to do, but I eventually got things done.
Also, if you notice I did not buy training materials at first.
There weren't as many training materials around when I got started, but you don't need to buy anything right away.
After you've got something going then buying a course on traffic generation (like SEO or PPC), or whatever you think will make a difference makes sense. A lot of people seem to put the cart before the horse and buy all kinds of marketing stuff first. Even if they learn something really cool, they can't apply it because they don't have anything going on the first place.
Keys Contributing to My Success …
I believe the most important thing contributing to my success is that I found a difference in the market-place. My product (my outline) filled a hole or gap.
I want to stress here that I'm not talking about finding a market where there were no competitors or coming up with a whole new product idea, I mean I found a special quality that could set my product apart.
It was going to be the perfect fit for some people and not so much for others. But I knew there would be sales. I just knew it.
There were businesses that were already successful in this marketplace. And most of them were selling training seminars. So it was already a proven product. People needed study materials to pass this test (and most any other test so it's a market they spend money in, like so many others).
The market was already competitive. And these were very large companies, earning several million dollars a year.
I think that would have scared a lot of people off.
But the competition didn't really bother me because my course was in a completely different price point and geared toward those like myself who couldn't afford a week long seminar. People who just wanted a good outline they could read when they had time.
So the main thing is I positioned my product differently and due to that I did not have any real competition.
This is a huge advantage.
Again, I didn't have any business knowledge. I just thought it made sense. If you're trying to start a business right now I'm sure there are things like this you can come up with too. You just have to trust yourself.
The other thing is I created a good product. I knew it was good because I used it to pass the exam. The first person who bought my outline passed and had good things to say about it. I put together something of value and really thought about how I could help people pass that exam. I wanted them to feel like they got their money's worth.
I followed that principle when I built my site and later on for all my marketing materials.
I added value.
I really thought about what would help people pass this exam.
I had a PDF report written up on the exam with some study tips.
They could get all this for free and then decide if they wanted to buy my stuff. So I didn't need a hard-sell. It would have really turned me off if that's how I had to go about things because I can't stand that.
Luckily I found good marketers like Jay Abraham first. If you've never read anything by him, go seek his stuff out. He's got a real special way about him.
His stuff really helped me see that starting a business and marketing it was more about helping people than anything else. And it really resonated with me. So I did my best to follow his model (and still try to).
Because I put a lot of effort into my marketing materials, people could see how valuable my free stuff was first. As a result a lot of people bought the paid course. Again, there was no hard sell and I still do this and have always done pretty well making sales.
Those are a few things to take away from this.
Although there are many people who walk away from a job and into starting a company that makes millions of dollars a year, I still think my story is worth sharing. It was fun to put together and I hope my sharing this with you inspires you in some way!