An important truth about entrepreneurship is left out of many success stories. Nobody wants to talk about the early attempts that crashed and burned.
Your first business will probably fail.
If you’re wondering what business to start, read on to learn how Justin Cooke of Empire Flippers created a successful marketplace for buying and selling internet businesses, after learning from his early experiences (and mistakes).
Here’s how Justin Cooke started.
What do you sell?
We provide a safe, secure marketplace for entrepreneurs to buy, sell, and invest in established profitable online businesses.
When did you start this business?
We started as the AdSense Flippers in late 2010 but pivoted to the marketplace known as Empire Flippers in 2012.
Where did the business idea come from?
We had started a side business for ourselves building websites and then selling them. Through selling our own websites, we built an audience of prospective buyers.
We then realized there were other entrepreneurs who wanted us to help them sell their websites and online businesses through our network.
Did you have a written business plan?
We did not have a written business plan, but we did document our journey (including our detailed processes, income reports, etc.) on our blog and our podcast.
What business structure did you start with and why?
We started with a California S-Corp we already had with a previous (failed) business.
In late 2015 we switched over to a Delaware LLC. We also created a couple of holding companies.
What would you do differently if you were starting today?
Once we realized the growth in the marketplace, we should have doubled down on that sooner. We continued to offer other products and services too long, which stunted our early growth.
I also think we could have done a better job with content marketing in our previous company.
Prior to Empire Flippers, we had an outsourcing company based in the Philippines. Knowing what I know now, I'm sure we could have had success there.
Customers and revenue
What was your financial runway when you started?
We had an outsourcing company that was paying the bills and our salaries, so this was really a side-project for us. We went in the hole about $10,000 before we started to turn a profit.
How long until you became profitable?
It took somewhere around 4-6 months to cut our monthly burn rate, and just over a year to start turning a profit.
How did you get your first customer(s)?
Our first customer came through content marketing.
We were using our blog to attract those who were disappointed that nobody would “share the goods.” All the good stuff was hidden behind paywalls.
We were transparent about our business and process, which ultimately resonated with people. That helped us to get mentions and links from popular blogs, such as Niche Pursuits.
How has your customer acquisition evolved?
We continue to use content marketing as our main driver, but we've expanded our channels.
In addition to our popular blog and podcast, we've started another podcast, regularly offer guest posts, are interviewed on other podcasts, and have more recently been ramping up our YouTube channel.
Name 2 – 3 tools you and your business can’t run without.
- Slack: Handles all of our internal team communication. With a distributed team, it would be extremely difficult without this tool.
- HubSpot: Provides our marketing automation and acts as our CRM.
- Zendesk: Acts as our customer support portal. I'm not sure if we'd start with them again, but we're too far gone now!
What one tool have you discovered that has changed your business, and why?
Slack is essential. It manages all internal communication with our team across half a dozen countries.
Growing your business
What was the first position you hired?
We were running an outsourcing company at the time, so we already had a team of VA's working in our business from the beginning.
Our first outside hire was an apprentice we brought from the US to the Philippines.
Current team size?
Our current team is 28 people. We have 6 in Management, 13 in Customer Support, 3 Apprentices, and 6 Part-Time Contractors.
Do you use coaches, mentors, or a mastermind group? If so, how did you find them?
We ran a private mastermind for nearly 3 years when we were just getting started that was really helpful. It was invite-only and we used our connections through content marketing to set it up.
We've also been a part of several different masterminds put together through an entrepreneurial organization called the Dynamite Circle.
What books would you credit with helping you start, grow or scale your business or mindset?
- The 4-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferris
- Built To Sell, by John Warrillow
- The World Is Flat, by Thomas L. Friedman
What is the best piece of business advice you ever received?
If you really want to improve your art, start charging for it. You'll be able to hire and provide infrastructure that will significantly improve everything.
— Andrew Warner, Mixergy
The all-important pivot
Like so many of us, Justin came upon the idea for his current thriving business while he was already in the game, trying things out.
Instead of seeing a failure as proof that your idea sucked, think of it as a necessary step towards knocking it out of the park on your next one.
Get behind the scenes stories directly from brilliant entrepreneurs — how they started, how they grew, and how their businesses work — by reading more How I Started.