How I Built an Online
Business of My Dreams
(this is a working post, I add and edit often and part of the book I’m writing with the working title.
“This Way. Living, Loving and Finding Your ‘insert your first name’ -ness.”
My entrepreneur start
I started my career as an entrepreneur twenty years ago.
Being a fanatical fisherman, I looked for quality regional fishing magazine with in depth information and could not find one anywhere.
I thought it was crazy because I lived in one of the best fishing locations on earth, the DeMarVa peninsula. On one side sat the Atlantic Ocean and on the other the Chesapeake Bay. Any type of fishing you wanted was within a few hour drive and yet no quality fishing magazine.
The best magazine on the market was a black and white paper, with a few color pics and covering old school fishing methods.
After surveying fishing friends, they confirmed that no magazine existed that I described. After talking with enough Fisherman who indicated they would buy a magazine like I talked about, I decided I was going to solve the problem and build it myself.
I had the square root of zero experience
I had no real training on how to build a business, much less publish a magazine.
The extent of my training was setting up a lemonade stand when I was a kid in a captive, but small market. It was captive because we offered the only beverage store within ten miles.
It was small because we only had one or two people who worked on our farm, sometimes they never had to come to the part of the farm where our house was and our road probably had twenty cars a day go by.
Either way, it was a good lesson in supply chain, how to keep your product fresh running back and forth to the freezer in our house for fresh ice. And it taught us what patience meant because my brother and I sat for long hours waiting for customers.
I’ll come back to the idea of picking markets later in the story.
My undergraduate degree was in psychology with a minor in sociology.
Far from any business training, but in my mind, there was a gap in the market with people who said they wished a good fishing magazine existed and said they would buy it if it did.
Lost after college
At the time I decided I was going to build a fishing magazine business I was working on my master’s in psychology.
I found my way back to school by way of a strong suggestion from my Mom, who in retrospect rightly saw me drifting at that time in my life and redirected me to a place that had much more potential to lead to something better.
Thanks Mom if you are reading this bio.
I thought I was going to go to law school after college and practice law.
Looking back, I am not sure that was what I wanted to do because I didn’t really do anything to set myself up for law school and the sound of having to take the LSTATs to get into law school made me anxious just at the mention of them.
But it sounded good and people bought the story
My answer kept the challenging question about what I was going to do with my life after college satisfied for those that asked, so I kept giving it.
After college I worked at a tree nursery that had a landscaping division. I had worked at it during the summers to help pay my way through school.
It does not sound glamorous, but when I originally landed the job, I saw it as a step up having come from working at the local Exxon as a cashier and before that as a full serve gas attendant.
Being raised by a single Mom before there were as many business opportunities as the internet and online businesses now offer and, in a time when women earned nothing compared to men, it wasn’t financial easy street for us.
If I wanted to go to college, I had to take out student loans and pay my way. Working at the tree nursery during summer breaks allowed me to earn the money I needed.
I tried the law school path. Well…
I have a learning disability or super ability, depending on your point of view.
Diagnosed with it early in elementary school, it was later described to me as a form of dyslexia.
To this day I am a terrible speller. I cannot sound out a word to save my life, I memorize the spelling of words. Thank goodness for the invention of the spellchecker!
I used to read slower than most. And I say this with one hundred percent certainty, I am a terrible standardized test taker.
To make up for the learning disability I learned to memorize things. My reading comprehension consists of me taking notes and memorizing the pages. Then for recall reading it to myself or remembering where on the page the information is located, which sparks my memory of it to recall it.
When I had tests in school, I would memorize the page, then remember where on the page the text was located which sparked the memory of the information.
For me this it’s been how I survived for my whole life.
Turns out over my life I’ve come to love to read and write and do both to this day as much as possible.
It wasn’t that I hated reading and writing for any other reason than it was really really hard and incredibly frustrating. I avoided both at all costs.
Once I figured out the formula for success, I couldn’t get enough and
have gotten pretty darn good at both.
All is not lost either, when it comes to logic, seeing the big picture, seeing how things can play out, how they work together, strategy, math, and understanding the numbers, etc… well that just makes sense to me. Outcomes appear to me in a play by play vision.
I digress, back to the standardized test taking…
It killed me that I was bad at it and the analytical part of myself could not figure out how I could be in the National Honor Society and get a C, at best, on these tests.
It always weighed on me as if I was in some way not quite as good as others. When you have to leave class in elementary school to get some “extra tutoring” while the rest of your class stays there and does other things, well those memories stick with you a long time, probably your whole life.
Later in life I learned that’s not a bad thing.
We’ll come back to this idea later.
The poor test taker thing with law school was a recurring theme, I had terrible SAT’s to get into college. My saving grace was that I was a four-year, two varsity sport, letterman, National Honor Society Student and received the Governor’s award for graduating at the top of my class.
Top law schools at the time, and may still, weighed standardized tests more than anything. Everyone had top academics and sports did not matter that much.
You might be asking yourself at this point how I even managed to be a National Honor Society student.
It was easy, I worked really freaking hard and applied the formula for success that I had figured out for myself.
Hard work can beat talent.
It wasn’t until two decades later that I stopped beating myself up about my learning disability when I read Malcom Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath.
Gladwell explains that an extraordinarily high number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic/have a learning disability:
- Richard Branson – Founder of Virgin everything
- Charles Schwab – Father of financial services
- David Neeleman Founder of JetBlue
- John Chambers former CEO of Cisco
- Paul Prfalea, the founder of Kinko’s
- Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA
The list goes on, you get the idea.
My learning disability went from being a negative in my life to being proud of it.
Being proud to be a member of an amazing group of entrepreneurs and as importantly knowing this perceived negative all my life can be a positive, and actually an asset.
If you have a learning disability and didn’t know the above information, welcome to the club, you have great potential and a great future awaits you!
If you do not have a learning disability and are thinking to yourself you are screwed because you don’t, crazy how that even sounds to write, fear not.
Based on the studies, two thirds of successful entrepreneurs don’t have a learning disability, you have great potential and a great future awaits you as well!
Pivotal moments. One piece of new information can change your life.
It’s amazing how you can go through life thinking you’re in some way inadequate, not quite as good as others, not good enough in some area, for whatever reason, thinking that you can’t be good at something.
Then one day you’re presented with new information that forever transforms your way of thinking and gives you confidence in who you are and that you have more potential then you ever thought.
I call these events in life, “Pivotal Moments”.
They change the course of your life forever.
It wasn’t all that bad
I don’t want you to get the picture that I have walked around with my head down my whole life feeling sorry for myself about this learning disability stuff. It’s part of me and I accepted that a long time ago.
I didn’t like it, but I learned how to overcome it. It’s made me a stronger person because of it.
Anyone that knows me well will tell you how driven I am. If anything, the whole situation fueled a fire in me to always be the best.
Hard work was something I’ve done my whole life to do the basic things like reading and writing.
I realized that when I face a challenge, my “talent” is working smart, hard and understanding what is in my control and what’s not.
Hard work doesn’t scare me, it shouldn’t scare anyone because it’s doable, it’s a skill everyone actually has.
The key is working smart and the key to doing that is following formulas that have been proven to lead to success.
Pursuing the fishing magazine business idea
I decided I was going to publish a real fishing magazine.
There were a few challenges I had to conquer, I had no:
- money. Well, not totally true I had some savings from the last eighteen months of working, but not enough to publish the magazine and support myself while I worked on it.
- training how to build a business or a business plan.
- idea about printing magazines.
- background or connections to get writers for the magazine nor knowledge about publishing rights, the different rates, etc…
- idea about print publication layout programs.
- mentor or coach to help guide me.
- clue. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
This last point scared the living daylights out of me. It scares everyone, right?
Not knowing what you don’t know and not having a mentor or a path, system or some formula to follow can lead you to losing a ton of time and money.
I am going to take a minute to emphasize a big mistake I made…
In retrospect I should have sought out a coach, mentor or someone to help me along the path.
I learned how valuable he/she can be, as you’ll find out later in the story.
To this day, before I dive into anything which I am unfamiliar, I seek out someone who has forged before me and can help.
It’s saved me time, money and mistakes.
Anyhow, if your take away from the above summary of challenges is that I really had no idea what I was doing.
Meeting with the local printer
There was a printer in the town where I was going to school and I scheduled a meeting with the sales guy.
After the meeting it was clear that I was going to need, among many other things, more money than I had to publish a first edition.
Not to mention, he asked me a hundred questions such as who my designer was, my editor, where was I going to get photos, and a list of other things.
It was overwhelming.
I pursued the magazine idea with ambition for about six months. Working late into the night I was doing “things”, but felt like I wasn’t really making any real progress. Have you felt like this before?
I finally got to a place where I realized it wasn’t going to be possible without some sort of expert help and a capital infusion of some size.
It’s hard to know where to look for help, I didn’t have any experience raising money, and as I mentioned already, no idea about printing a magazine.
I kill the magazine idea
The idea I had wasn’t going to work at this point in time. A reality I had to face.
It was disappointing, but there are times in life you have to be realistic.
I wasn’t giving up, I simply stopped pursuing something where I was beating my head against the wall. It was time to change direction.
Some people were sympathetic when they heard I was abandoning the idea, some were happy for me that I had tired, others gave me the old negative Nancy, “I told you it wouldn’t work”.
The magazine business idea didn’t work. But the idea had merit
There was a need in the market.
After all, I had some confirmation from surveying potential customers who were fisherman that if a magazine as I had described existed, they would buy it.
People call me a nerd
Since I was a kid, I loved computers and what a few lines of code could create on my Commodore Vic 20. It came with a spiral lesson book that I remember to this day.
It was amazing that you could type in some code and a box with a bunch of electronics would spit out something cool on the screen. I didn’t completely understand how it did what it did, but I knew the product it created was pretty darn cool.
The first lesson in the spiral instruction book taught how to write code that would make the computer count. Seems trivial now, but back in the 1980’s in the consumer space that was cool.
I can feel my finger hitting the return key right now and watching it count down the screen. I remember the room and even the smell of the room. That’s what an impact it had on me.
I’m sure you can recall pivotal moments in your life like this too.
Discovering the internet
It was 1995-96 and we were in the advent of the internet. I’d been playing around with it in college.
The first day I discovered it’s potential I was a freshmen, using a tool called Fetch to find things on the “web of servers” and I decided to search for the lyrics of songs. I hit a server with the motherload.
For over an hour I scrolled through the list and read lyrics. Not because I was so excited about the lyrics themselves, but that there was a resource out there that had all this in one place and in such detail.
I continued to explore all the resources on the Internet all through college and participated in bulletin boards where you could, hold your breath, talk to other people in a thread. It was cool.
In the eighteen months between college and going back to work on my Masters, I had not been on the internet too much other than to use email.
I had America Online (AOL) and surfed around from time to time, but for the most part I worked at the tree nursey, worked-out and fished.
One door closes. Another door opens…
With more time on my hands having given up on the print magazine (thank goodness because of the things that follow) I started hanging out in the computer lab and playing around with the web.
I could see more people coming online.
One day while surfing around it dawned on me that I could create a magazine online.
I had no idea how big the internet was going to be, but I knew there was a lot of buzz in the tech community about its potential and people were doing more and more online.
AOL was an acronym that people were becoming familiar. And “AOL keyword” was a phrase you started to hear.
I also knew there were other fishermen like me online. I’d interacted with them.
The more and more time I spent online, the more I believed the Internet was going to change everything as we knew it.
Heck, you could even interact with people on bulletin boards.
I decided to take a risk and go all in with the online magazine concept.
Learning to build a website
We coded everything in flat HTML files.
For non-geeks, think about writing a book in cursive with pencil and paper, spell checking with the dictionary and using an eraser or white out to make corrections today.
I taught myself to code and built a homepage.
The minute I finally finished it and sat back in my chair, you know how you learn back after accomplishing something challenging, and say to myself,
“A magazine on the internet. This is going to work!.”
It looked like a magazine, simply a magazine on a computer screen.
What I really liked was that if you found an error on your site, you could log in, make the correction and boom, it was live.
This was even better then I thought compared to a paper magazine that was static and potentially outdated the day it came off the press. At least when it came to the idea of delvering fresh up to the minute fishing information.
It quickly became clear to me that while I could do a lot of the work myself to get started, I wasn’t going to be able to:
- go to school full time
- teach myself to code
- hire and manage writers
- write articles myself
I needed someone else. I needed a partner who was smarter than I was in the technology area.
Recruiting a team
I started to pay attention to the students who were working in the computer lab and observing who was who.
If you spend enough time anywhere you can see who are the experts.
Finally, one day I approached a guy who was clearly one of the best and gave him my pitch to be my partner.
He liked fishing but wasn’t sold on the idea. He explained he really didn’t have time between school and working in the computer lab, which was helping pay his way through college.
I went from feeling pumped about having a partner and my business idea, to leaving that day feeling down.
I thought about it that night. This guy was good; I could tell, and I really wanted his help.
When I broke it down, I realized that what he really told me was that he needed to make extra cash to pay his bills.
If I could solve that for him, I had a shot of getting his help with my business idea.
I didn’t have enough to pay him so I decided I would get a job myself and use that money to pay him.
I would offer to pay him a little more than working in the computer lab and give him just as many hours.
Yes, it would cut into my school work time, but net-net I would still be ahead having another person to help and focus on the coding while I did the other business stuff.
They give me a closet as my office
Next hurdle I faced was to find a part-time job that paid decent.
Not quite as easy as I thought. After a few tries I responded to an ad and managed to land a job on a spinach farm, one of the largest producers of spinach in the country at the time.
I was essentially a cross between a chief of staff and executive assistant. I did everything under the sun, from picking up lunch at the local sub shop (amazing cheese-steaks), doing accounting, reviewing and building financial documents, to taking notes in Board meetings.
And whatever else needed doing. This was my ticket to propelling my business idea forward.
My boss gave me an office. It literally was a closet in his office.
Most people probably would have felt insulted to be put in there. I was thrilled about it and saw it as another upgrade from my tree nursery work.
Heck, in the summer it had air conditioning and in the winter heat. The simple things in life.
With a few weeks of pay under my belt I went back to the computer lab guy (Eric) and made another pitch.
I said that I would pay him more than the computer lab was paying and match his hours.
He was a little skeptical and asked how I was going to be able to afford to pay him.
I explained I got a job and was going to use the money to pay him.
I believe that is what put him over the edge to a yes. In his mind if I was willing to go to that extent to get him onboard, I must be pretty committed.
He kept his job at the computer lab, but cut way back on the hours.
He pitched me that it as a good idea to keep the job with limited hours because it would give us the best access to the computer lab resources.
I liked the way he was thinking and the idea of free resources because money was tight.
Nix that last sentence, money was almost non-existent.
Now I had a partner and he was brining something else to the table.
Things were beginning to shape up.
My first business plan
I wrote my first business plan, shortly after getting Eric onboard.
I wrote it on a lunch break, eating my homemade Wonder bread tuna fish sandwich, in my closet office at the spinach farm. You can’t make this stuff up.
I’ve saved it to this day as a reminder:
- Problems I have, other people probably have as well.
- If the problem is big enough, people are willing to pay to fix it
That can turn into a business.
- You can turn your idea into a dream business even if it starts in a closet.
Financing the company with a credit card
While I had some extra cash left over after paying Eric, it wasn’t much.
At first, we hosted the website on the college servers while we built it.
When the time came to launch it to the public, we needed commercial webspace.
I did the research and found that Erols Internet was offering 500mgs of website space for $800/year.
I definitely did not have an extra $800. So I did what anyone would do, I put on my credit card.
My theory was that putting it on the card would buy me another thirty days to pay it.
When the payment came due I planned on paying what I could and paying the balance with another credit card I had which sent me checks to move a balance. It offered no interest for the first six months.
That gave me seven months of interest free money.
I figured by that time I could pay off the balance one way or the other. If the business did not have some cash by then that might something I should be more concerned about than paying off the balance.
Worse case I would get another credit card and do a balance transfer again.
We launch the website
Within about a week we had a website called Chesapeake Angler up and running on commercial webspace thanks to Erols.
I say website lovingly because it had about five pages at this point. It was small, but it was launched and gave us something to work from.
I did all the writing myself, using my personal experience and I started reading fishing books to come up with article ideas.
Every time I went fishing I wrote a fishing report, which I took often, even if I went for a few hours.
The reports included how I did it, what rods, reels, fishing lures I used, the tides, etc…
Everything someone could use to go out and catch fish reading that information.
The reports took some time to put together, but I thought it was worth putting out a product that people would find useful. Something they could actually use to help them catch more fish.
A magazine where people create content
I wanted more content and to get it I either had to:
- Recruit other writers to help. It sounded good, but I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to pay them.
And frankly the content I was producing was enough to attract people to the site because it was “how to” information where the results were visible.
You could apply what I wrote and get results. And I backed up what I wrote with pictures.
- Somehow get a two-way conversation going with people who visited the site.
The visitors would be contributing which would create an even more powerful resource which would attract even more fishermen.
This sounds easy using todays internet, but back then it was hard.
Not knowing what would work I pursued both avenues.
At this time in the internet’s evolution there were bulletin boards or what we call them today, message boards, or comment streams. Implementing live chat was pretty hard and took a lot of bandwidth, translated, a lot of money.
We figured out how to hack some code to get a forum to work for the site. Having a private forum on a site wasn’t easy back then. But, I was adamant that we needed to have it on our site.
After some time and frustration, we pulled it off.
We put a link to the forum on our homepage and launched with high hopes and great expectations. After all, if you build it, they will come.
One day goes by… crickets.
Two days go by…more crickets.
Three days. …crickets.
A week…all we heard was crickets…not a single stinking post!
I felt defeated
Defeated or not, at this point I was committed and I saw the possibilities.
I stepped back and said why aren’t people posting in our forum?
People were talking fishing in the AOL chat rooms so I knew fishermen were out there.
We didn’t have very sophisticated statistics capabilities; Google Analytics was a long way off. However, we could pull our server records and could tell if people were looking at the site.
People were looking at the site and going to the forum, but they were leaving without posting.
It dawned on me, people were looking at the forum and there wasn’thing in there.
They didn’t think anyone else was there because there wasn’t way to tell but the zero post count.
It clicked, it’s like walking into restaurant at dinner time and no one is in there. You quickly ask yourself, “What’s wrong with the place?”
If there’s a line out the door you assume that the place has good food and you should eat there. It’s crowd confirmation.
The question was, how was I going to fill my restaurant with people so when others came by, they saw it as a popular place they should come in and join the conversation?
Terrified of failure, I try something crazy
I felt under the gun to make something happen, fearing failure and fearing the discussion I would have with people if this idea didn’t work.
Not to mention Eric losing faith and, regardless of the money I was paying him, going back to the computer lab.
I would be back to square one.
After some brainstorming in a slight state of panic I decided to do two things:
- Talk to myself. I did it as a kid, so what the heck
I created a bunch of different names on the forum.
One handle would ask a question and I would log into another handle and answer the question
I loaded up the forum with conversations.
Actually, I learned a lot in the process because I would ask a question under one handle that I didn’t know, research the answer in one of my fishing books, and write up a good answer.
- I started collecting email addresses with the idea of creating a weekly newsletter where we could alert people to new articles and conversations happening on the forums where they could join in.
Sticking with it
I talked with myself on the message board in every spare moment I had for weeks.
Sure enough, people started to slowly post in the threads.
As soon as they posted I would reply or answer if I could.
Additionally, I would send them a personal email thanking them for joining.
It was time consuming, but it was working so I stayed with it.
People would write back thanking me for thanking them.
They loved the personal touch knowing there was someone real behind the site.
A fanbase started to emerge.
They would also give me feedback and suggestions for the site, effectively telling us how to create the product they wanted.
All we had to do was engage and listen.
The people we talked people told other people that there was good information on the site and guys behind it that were real.
This started to get the word of mouth engine going.
A few years later we raised our first round of funding to the tune of $1 million and our Chairman of our Board, who was an early investor in AOL, revealed to us that AOL did the same sort of thing in their chat rooms to get them going.
They would have several people acting under several handles and when people would come into the chat and saw the conversation going they would jump in.
Before you know it the chat room was full and bustling with activity.
Big companies were at one time small, you have to start somewhere.
Getting Savvier and Iterating on the Technique
In order to throw some fuel on the fire I would post fishing reports and leave a few key things out of the post on purpose to spark a question from someone, such as what fishing lure I caught my biggest fish on.
If no one took the bait and asked a question, I would log in under another handle and ask the question under that handle, then log back in as myself and answer.
As time went on I also started to learn what types of posts got more responses. I learned:
- Posts with pictures always got more opens and responses
- Titles of posts greatly affected people reading them
- In depth information posts had the highest engagement
- Controversial statements got huge engagement and could go off the rails fast. They were quick to get engagement, but that engagement could be a double-edged sword because it could offend some visitors.
I’ve been asked if I thought it was OK to act as different handles to get the boards going. My short answer, “Yes”.
A few points:
- As an Entrepreneur I believe I have to sometimes create some of my own luck.
- Doing things different elicits a feeling of being uncomfortable. It’s not normal
You can’t do normal things to make progress. It’s outside the box thinking.
- I believe if you are doing whatever it is to get your product going with the best intentions to fulfill on what you are promoting, then it’s fine.
If you are doing it to rip people off or be evil, that’s 100% not OK.
These sorts of tactics are used to this day for crowdsourcing campaigns on Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and other “viral” things that happen on the internet.
We’ll talk about that later in the story.
Stop Talking to Myself as Much
After about twelve months I did not have to ask myself questions anymore and could use my own handle. There were enough people checking the forum regularly to chime in and add value daily.
I never had to use the tactic again in the forums.
My job went from talking to myself, to talking with the people that came to the site. a.k.a our customers.
I took the time that freed up and put it to work building the member base.
I emailed every single new person that joined a thank you.
Then I made sure to post in every thread someone started with something insightful, more than just an “awesome”, to show that I appreciated them taking part in the community.
I posted real authentic comments. I cared and was really interested in this stuff.
What I later learned is that just as there is a skill to getting conversations going there are skills around managing an online community of people talking.
I Want Even More Traffic to the Website so I Build an Email List
To get people to the site I would hang out in chat rooms on the internet, get people’s emails and send them a personal note letting them know about the site.
These were personalized emails to people in our target market.
I found that when I sent out emails in a personalized way, to someone who I knew was interested in fishing in the region the site covered, I’d get thank you replies for letting them know about the site and replies saying they would check it out.
Some of those people I still am in contact with today, almost twenty years later.
My girlfriend, now wife, and I would copy emails on yellow legal pads, enter them into excel spreadsheets. Then we would import them into our email to send small groups of personalized email messages referencing the chat rooms where I had talked with the them.
It’s wasn’t spam, it was a legit email.
This amounted to highly personalized emails and super high open and response rates.
I then put together a weekly email newsletter alerting people to new articles and highlighting some recent posts on the message boards.
This kept the site front and center in people’s minds.
People would respond to the group email messages and I always replied.
The weekly newsletter not only allowed me to start reaching more people at once, but by responding to their responses keep it personal.
On the Job (OTJ) Salesperson Training
Within a short period of time we were making a name for ourselves online as the place to come if you wanted Chesapeake Bay/Mid-Atlantic fishing information.
I had no idea how to get advertisers nor was there any real standardization to follow about ads sizes or formats on the internet. That did’t matter, I made it up as I went along.
I figured if fishing related companies were advertising in magazines they would advertise in an electronic magazine. Why not?
I asked myself if I were considering buying advertising on the site, what would I want to know.
With those answers I together a one pager about the site. I included the purpose, what we provided, and statistics. I printed off my home printer. It wasn’t fancy, but it worked.
In the evenings and weekends my girlfriend and I would get in the car and drive from tackle shop to tackle shop around the region.
Research to Resource
I’d do a bunch of research during the week on tackle shops or fishing related stores and we’d use that as our guide.
What I realized while I was doing all the research was that there wasn’t one place on the internet to find a list of tackle shops. I had created it as a result of our prospective customer list.
So I published it to help people locate tackle shops. I include some pictures that I’d snap when I was at the shops.
I’d also wrote a short blurb about the shop since I had been there in person.
The tackle shop resource page took off. People wanted and needed the information.
Crazy enough, the page ranked high in the search engines for years and drove hundreds of thousands of visitors.
The reason was simple, it was a highly valuable resource that saved people time and energy researching themselves.
Once the page started getting a lot of traffic businesses started to ask to advertise on it.
We copied the newspaper classifieds model. Newspapers sold featured ads and bold ads, and ads with pictures. We did the same thing and people start paying us.
Eventually we added banners which gave advertisers the highest exposure and allowed us to charge a higher price.
Sales Calls Can Be Scary
Doing sales calls was scary, but at the same time pretty exciting.
I’d simply go into the tackle shop, strike up a conversation with the person at the counter, tell him/her what we was doing and ask if they wanted to advertise. That was it.
Getting out and talking with potential customers allows allowed me to learn a ton about the fishing market, the problems they faced and how their businesses worked.
One thing I learned was that tackle shops all published fishing reports and eventually I turned those fishing reports into a vehicle to show potential customers the power the site had.
Even when a potential customer said they were not interested in advertising; I would ask if I could call them weekly and include a fishing report from them in exchange for a mention of their business.
Almost everyone said yes.
This gave me a chance to talk to them weekly and eventually as we grew, their customers would tell them they read their report on the site.
This turned some of these businesses into paying customers.
And ultimately it was a win-win. We got content and they got exposure.
As I did more and more sales calls, I didn’t even see it as sales. I saw it as I was educating potential customers about the Internet and putting them in front of their potential customers that they didn’t even realize were fishing for information online.
In the early days I got more no’s then yes’s. But, the yes’s kept us going and the no’s taught us a ton.
Frankly, the internet was so new people really were not sure what to think of it, much less the idea of putting a magazine online. Some people thought AOL was the internet and in the early years it really was true because of all the content they had.
We Land Paid Advertisers. We’re a Legitimate Business
I kept at it nights and weekends and we managed to land a few advertisers.
When people start paying, it turns your hobby into a business.
Almost all the shops lacked webpages and they started to want one. They’d ask me if I knew anyone that could build it for them.
I jumped on the opportunity to solve their problem and I’d sell them webpages. That expanded our offerings and revenue.
We weren’t making a ton of money, but regardless of the amount they paid, they paid and that made us legitimate.
Someone valued what we were doing and the audience we had enough to pay to get exposure to that audience.
When someone pays you for what you have, that’s when you know you have something real, or the start of something real. It has potential.
How much potential is driven by the market size. We got lucky, which I’ll talk about later, but it could have been a really bad situation.
Turning Amateur Writers into the Pro’s
Next on my list was getting a writing staff to help create weekly content to add to the fishing reports that I did and the threads/posts on the forums.
I contacted a few writers I saw in the local magazines and asked their rates. They were way too expensive. Heck, at the time they could get $800 for a picture in some of the larger fishing magazines.
I barely could afford our webspace, much less $800 for one picture.
I thought to myself, how else can I get writers?
One night while reading some other people’s fishing reports it dawned on me, why don’t I take what would be considered amateur writers and publish their work.
Sure, maybe these fishermen were not the best writers in the world. But they had the information on how to catch fish, a lot of fish.
And that was the problem we were solving for people.…
I could publish posts in the forums and turn them into “articles” that were featured on the front of our site. I’d become an Editor.
Seemed reasonable since that is exactly what I did myself. I was an amateur writer in the eyes of the pro’s, I wasn’t even published in a hard copy magazine.
Yet, I was writing, and visitors to the site saw me as an expert and valued what I offered.
And that’s what I did.
I started contacting guys who posted really good fishing reports and how to posts.
More said no then yes, but I landed a few of them by convincing them that I would do the editing, all they had to do was get the technical stuff down on paper.
I’d Make Them Look Good
- they got attention and elevated status in the Chesapeake Angler community.
- a Chesapeake Angler writing staff t-shirt. I had these specially printed. They were only for writers. It made then feel appreciated.
- a blub at the end of the article where they could promote a business or side hustle.
This also worked for fishing guides, at least the smart ones, that realized that writing really was advertising.
When you write you establish yourself as an “expert” and people look up to experts.
Even if you give away all the information, people still want to learn first-hand and will pay for that real-world instruction.
I could read every how-to fishing article, every fishing report a fishing guide posted and it still never replace the experience of going out with the guide first hand.
The reading helped set the foundation, then fishing with the guide in person made it all come together. There is no substitute for in person instruction.
I took amateurs and gave them an outlet and audience to become experts.
An expert is a person that knows more than the audience they are addressing. That’s all you have to achieve to become an expert, instructor or a teacher.
The idea worked with a few guys to start which gave me success stories to point to recruit others.
People saw these guys getting attention and they wanted it too.
Sometimes this is referred to as fear of missing out (FOMO). I found it casts an almost magical spell on humans.
To expand my recruiting efforts I would go to fishing seminars, approach the presenters afterwards and give my pitch.
I got more no’s then yes’s, but I kept at it. One “no” was one closer to a yes. And one yes was worth some highly valuable content.
I Learn What Type of Content Really Matters to People Online…
I landed writers for us and we had our front-page content. We were a real online magazine and it made us feel good.
I missed something though.
Only ten years later through denial, even in the face of the traffic numbers, did I acknowledge we never needed as much front page content as we thought we did.
Or at least the variety of what I thought.
I got lost in my own product.
The only two types of articles that really mattered in our market as evidenced by engagement metrics were:
- Timely information such as fishing reports
- How-to articles. How a reader could catch more fish.
These were the articles that our fishermen audience wanted.
Anything outside of these two types was pretty much a total waste of time and money.
Sure, there was a segment of our viewers that liked reading well written stories, but it was the minority and not a big enough segment to pay the bills.
No is Really Not No. It’s…
I think I’ve heard “no” over my twenty years as an entrepreneur at least ten-thousand times. Too many times to count.
I’ve come to realize that a “no” is not really a “no”.
No is not absolute, it appears black and white when you are on the receiving end, but it’s not.
No is a temporary opinion that someone has based on the data they have and their belief system at that moment in time.
One piece of data can change that “no” to a “yes”.
No different than Malcom Gladwell informing me in David and Goliath that people with learning disabilities are in good company with other rock star entrepreneurs.
In an instant your belief system can change with new information, sometimes it can take some time to sink in, but a no can transform into a yes.
To Fund the Company We Decide to Trade Stocks with Our Revenue
After a few months we managed to get a mention in a regional boating, fishing and sailing magazine as the place on the Web for fishing information. That really put us on the map, and I’ll be eternally grateful John Page Williams and the break he gave us.
Eric and I were feeling good, we were not making oodles of money, but I was offsetting some of Eric’s costs with revenue and we were gaining an audience.
We were gaining visitors, our post daily post count on the forums was increasing, our email list was growing, and our revenue was growing monthly.
All this kept our spirits high.
Besides liking coding and fishing, Eric loved the stock market and trading.
I had been studying the stock market since I was in high school and learned how you can make money investing in other company’s stock and other money principles that would allow you to make a lot of money by doing just a few small things consistently.
It was the late 1990’s and there were some early entrants into the discount online trading sites such as Waterhouse and Ameritrade.
It allowed the average person like us the ability to trade their own stocks, no stock broker required.
Not only did these online discount brokers allow trading your own money, but they offered margin trading and margin trading options with little vetting of your personal finances.
At the suggestion of Eric I signed up for an account so we could trade together.
If those brokerage houses only knew there were two guys, one in college, one working on his masters, sitting in their spare bedrooms, using internet connections from their college computer lab, with desks they built themselves because they could not afford to buy real ones, eating tuna-fish sandwiches trading money on margin they in theory did not have…well….
But hey, they approved our accounts.
In my mind we needed to take some risks.
We rolled with it.
We started trading. I suggested we take the revenue we had and trade that to make more money to help fund the company.
By this time Eric was becoming a believer in what we were doing and asked about owning some of the company.
I offered him a percent of the company in exchange for a discounted rate on his hourly fee. It only seemed fair, I was still paying him something, paying all the other bills so I felt he should contribute as well.
At the same time, I also realized that if he had a stake in the company our relationship would change. So would his relationship with the company, what we did, what we spent, etc…
He was an owner and that changes people’s attitudes.
I ran the idea of trading the company revenue by Eric and he agreed we should give it a try.
We did it and…
In one window we would be working on the site. In another we would have the online brokerage with CNBC on the TV in the background.
I’d be lying that we traded on pure fundamentals, not that we didn’t know them, but what we learned was that there was a correlation between what was airing on CNBC and prices.
We traded on news, on gut, and rolled with it. From time to time we lost money, but net-net we were winning.
We turned a really small amount of money, less than ten thousand, into a lot, multiple tens of thousands, in about a year’s time. Of course we had some help in the way of margin leverage.
It wasn’t our end game, but we continued to do it. It was fun. Honestly addicting. I learned a ton in the process about the market and how to mentally weather the downs.
I learned whatever feeling you have with money, no matter how bad or how good, will pass. And, you can always make more money.
I am NOT recommending that that you take up trading on margin with your company revenue to help fund it.
It’s HIGHLY risky and you could lose all your money.
The take away from me telling this part of the story is that in the early stages of any company YOU HAVE TO TAKE RISKS.
Affiliate Marketing Lessons
We continued to catch a few breaks with mentions in hard copy magazines and newspapers. Word of mouth continued to happen and we were paddling into the internet wave.
About this time Amazon was gaining some steam in the book selling business and opened a program called Amazon Associates, their name for their affiliate marketing program.
We were one of the first Associates to join the program. In fact, the program was so small a community that they sent us t-shirts if you can believe it?!
We Build a Bookstore with No Inventory
We saw the Amazon Associates program as a great chance to build a book store with no inventory. Whether it would be a success or not we were not sure, but we picked the best fishing books and wrote a short review about each book.
Heck, I’d read about every fishing book under the sun anyway so why not give it a go.
Imagine how we felt being able to build a store in our spare bedrooms where all we had to do was put together a list of products (books in this case), do no fulfillment, have no inventory, just make it available to our audience. Man!
Buying on the internet was just getting started in the late 1990’s and by no means had it hit mainstream, but to our delight within a few months we were getting a check from Amazon from our visitors buying fishing books from our site.
It was our first real experience selling actual products and it showed us that if we added some extra value to an existing product, e.g. reviews, that people valued that resource and it could drive sales.
All we needed was traffic, the more traffic the more revenue.
The beauty of it was that our book store was open 24/7 and we did not have to do a thing once it was built other than update it with new books as we discovered them.
We put a link to the Fishing Bookstore on our homepage, mentioned it in our newsletters and that’s all we had to do. People came to the site, checked the review of the books, followed the link and bought.
Our fishing bookstore got so popular that publishers were sending me books before they released them to review and potentially list in our store when they became available on Amazon.
I went from being a regular fishermen to being recognized as a valuable member of the group of outdoor writers, publishers and editors.
Affiliate Marketing Makes Passive Income. Or Gravy Money as we called it.
Once Eric and I saw what selling fishing books could do, we looked for other affiliate programs that were starting to emerge as a result of Amazon making the affiliate concept popular.
A travel site affiliate program popped up and we did the same thing with travel as we did with the bookstore.
We built a travel site with a fishing trip theme. Frankly, I was hopeful it would work, but wasn’t sure anyone would buy airplane tickets, book car rental or hotel reservations off our site.
Turns out people did. It didn’t make total sense to me then, but years into it, I got it.
We were building a brand that people trusted. We provided quality content, people who visited the site knew who we were personally, what we were trying to do, that we would listen to feedback, implement it when we could and that we were not a flash in the pan.
Every time a person came back to the site something changed, there was something new to check out.
If they emailed us, we answered back personally. It took effort, but it was worth it. We were real humans.
We added all sorts of affiliate links over the years that added up to thousands a month in revenue for us at almost pure profit.
There was some up-front work, but then it was on auto pilot producing passive income for us. It was gravy.
Years later, after I eventually bought the site back from investors, we’ll get to that part of the story later, I took it to a whole new level building really focused niche sites which attracted targeted traffic and made thousands a month in passive income from affiliate programs.
I bought domain names, built the sites. Some of the sites I kept, some of them I sold.
This added a whole new dimension to understanding how to make money on the internet and how to turn traffic into income and passive income at that.
Long and short of it, affiliate programs worked, still does, for us and were a great source of income, essentially pure profit.
We Start Selling Products that We Produce
I had some hats and a few t-shirts made for Eric and I to wear as our company uniform so to speak.
When we went fishing, we would of course wear our uniform. The visitors saw the pictures and started asking where they could buy the hats and shirts.
We found a local print shop and printed off a small run of t-shirts and offered them on the site. At first all we had was the option to send us an order form with a check because setting up credit card processing back then was a pretty big deal.
Sure enough a few hours after we posted on the forums and a link to our “store” on the homepage, people started to post that they were sending in their orders.
A few days later envelopes started to arrive in my mailbox.
We were in the e-commerce business.
We were pretty excited. My living room was a mess from all the boxes and everything, but it was exciting to be packing orders.
We were in the e-commerce business. And the beauty of it was, because these were our branded products, the gross margins were great. Not quite on the level of affiliate programs, but in the 60-70% range.
Once we got our first few batches of orders out the door, we ran a contest on the forum.
Anyone who posted a picture of themselves wearing our t-shirt or hat with a fish would was put into drawing to win their choice of sweatshirt, which wasn’t available for sale yet.
Sure enough, people started posting and that increased awareness to other visitors that we had merchandise for sale. It also was advertising for us when the people were out and about.
People wanted that sweatshirt that couldn’t be bought.
As more orders came in, we bit the bullet and set up credit card processing on our site.
It wasn’t as easy nor as seamless as it is today, but it worked fine.
It also increased our sales once we offered the ability to pay online. This made Eric and I pretty happy.
Adding the credit card processing was our lesson in how to increase sales, make it easier for someone to buy your products and more people will do it.
Motivation is a good lever to use, but when motivation falls so does the activity or behavior you are aiming for.
On the other hand, if you make something easy, you don’t have drive too much motivation.
Easy, coupled with a trigger, results in a behavior every time.
Another thing that I realized was that we now had a real-world channel to communicate with our customers. We had sticker printed. And in each order would include a few along with a letter that was hand signed by us thanking them.
Customers were surprised to get something they did not order, a gift from us. They would post on the message boards about what they got in their order. That drove more awareness.
It stuck us that sometimes customers would talk more about the stickers then the actual item they ordered.
We tried something.
On the order page for the products we would promote a free Chesapeake Angler sticker with every order. This increased sales.
It was our first experience with premiums. They work and we continued to use this approach for the life of the company.
Oh yea, not to mention the stickers found their way to cars, truck, and boats which helped drive awareness.
We Hold Live Events
One day on a whim I posted in our forum if anyone was interested in getting together in person.
The post quickly turned into a long thread of yes’s.
I picked a restaurant that had a bar and told people we’d meet Friday night at 7pm.
We made the meetings monthly and eventually held them at our office as pot luck dinners….it was great to meet people in person and put us front and center with our customers to get feedback and hear suggestions they had for features.
Out of those meetings eventually us holding fishing tournaments that became a source of income for us and was a vehicle to get everyone out to meet one another in person.
Some spectacular goodness for the human race things came out of those meetings…
A small group of guys formed a non-profit called Wish a Fish that takes special needs kids fishing. All the guys from the site volunteer their boats and time. It’s a spectacular cause and you’ve never seen so many smiles.
Another great cause was born to take our veterans fishing, followed by cookout for everyone. Just like the Wish-A-Fish, you’ve never seen so many smiles.
Creek clean-ups were organized where people would spend a day picking up trash, clearing brush etc…
Sometimes I would show up to these events and be in awe that our interactive site could facilitate people getting together, having fun and doing good things for one another.
When I was on the water you could get on the radio and ask if there was anyone from the site around and sure enough, you’d get an answer.
If you needed help, there almost always was someone from the site who would answer and help.
As if by chance, something amazing happened for our business…
I met one of our viewers who lived close to me one day to go fishing. He was using the site for fishing reports and somehow we exchanged messages with one another and he invited me fishing with him.
Turns out he is a very very successful businessman. As in he build two companies, sold the first for a bunch of money. Then…
build another company, took it public and sold it to Warrent Buffet where he servered on the Board with him.
Luck? You make your own luck 🙂
As we are fishing we get to talking about the business. He asked some questions, listened while he outfished me and would chime in with some feedback beween landing fish.
We became friends and fished almost every Friday together. He laid out for me what he called a “busienss road map” how to build a business.
He was able to break things down into simple terms. Saying what I spent five minutes expa=laining abck to me in less then a minute.
What he did It, as I realized later, was help me form our business plan. Not a formal document per say, I’ll get to how I did that later in the story…
but how to think about our busienss and logically lay out what we needed to think about.
He’s given me feedback and business advice for over twenty years now.
Never underestimate how your customers can help you beyond just buying your product!
We Found Product/Market Fit
By this time, we had found product/market fit for our business. People wanted the product we were producing and wanted more and more of it.
Visitors were telling other people about the site without use having to push them.
That isn’t to say that we stopped with promotion, but there was a viral movement going on that was taking on a life of its own.
We were starting to make money, people paying us for what we offered. Proof that we were producing something of value.
And we were getting requests for other features and products.
The beauty of it was that we had a community of people where we interacted in near real time either through our forums or email list and we were able to get feedback on ideas we had.
We could test ideas without having to invest a ton of time and energy.
At this point in time our business model had us making money a few ways:
- Advertising: Selling advertising to businesses what wanted access to our highly targeted audience. We offered advertising as a) text links and b) banners of different sizes.
- Affiliate sales. We had our fishing bookstore through the Amazon Associates program and a travel affiliate program through
- Branded products. T-shirts and hats
Advertising and affiliate sales provided gross margins over 90% and the merchandise over 60%. Events were not always huge money makers, but they drove our brand.
Eventually, we figured out to sell our products at the events which allowed us to make some money.
All and all on a gross margin basis we had a good business start.
Now we needed to scale the model.
We Expand Too Fast and Learn Painful Lessons
By this time, I was starting of my second year of my master’s in psychology, the site was growing, and we were getting traction.
I thought was a template we could duplicate in other areas of the county. Why limit us to just the Chesapeake Bay Mid-Atlantic region?
The model was regional:
- weekly fishing reports
- articles covering regional fishing approaches
- resources such as tackle shop listings
- tide information
- message board with local fishermen
- book store (Amazon affiliate program)
I felt like this was a template we could stamp out and cover more regions. And
after many late-night debates with Eric, and going back and forth for a few months we decided to for it and we re-named the site Worldwide Angler.
The idea was that we would take the template and expand to the Northeast where I had made a few contacts, the south east and Florida to start.
We built out the templates and I worked to fill out everything.
It was hard and the workload was getting really tough, but we kept going.
Raising Money from Investors
I went to the library every day. I would read a paper or two a day, mostly the business sections, business magazines and studies in academic journals around human behavior in some fashion or another.
One day I was reading Time magazine and in the front of Time they had a section that would talk about cool people or companies doing cool things.
There was as small article dedicated to two guys, Jerry Jang and David Filo building this thing on the internet called Yahoo which I used to find other sites.
The author of the article described it as the phonebook for the internet.
It was really the first search engine.
Made sense to me, and the article went on to describe how they had raised money from Sequoia Capital in Silicon Valley and were going to shoot for an IPO soon.
I read the article and thought to myself,
“If they can do it so can we!”
We need more help. Let’s raise some money for this fishing site”.
On my nightly stop over at Eric’s house I said to him, “Let’s raise some money for our business.”
I described that article in Time about these two guys building a company called Yahoo and how they had raised several million dollars for a “phone book for the internet” which we were familiar and used on a pretty regular basis.
He was skeptical about the idea of raising money and rightly so. He pointed out that he nor I had any idea:
- how to raise money
- write a business plan
- build a financial plan
- build a pitch deck for investors
- find investors
- build and grow a “real” business
- we did not know what we did not know. A very dangerous situation to be in.
I acknowledged that all his points were one hundred percent right. But…
he was forgetting one important piece of information:
We set out having no idea how to put the concept of a magazine online. In fact, there were really not even examples for us to follow. On top of that we had no idea how to build an interactive site that could also sell merchandise.
Yet, we were doing it and it was working. It was a small scale, but we had done it.
If we were figuring out how to build a business online, why couldn’t we figure out this business stuff?
That caused a pretty long pause on his part and mine.
I sat there thinking, we had been figuring this stuff out, but could we really figure out the business stuff:
- writing a business plan
- building the financials
- find investors
- pitch investors
- do the deal, deal documents and whatever else that meant
- grow a business
We both thought about it a while longer and we finally agreed to give it a go.
What did we have to lose anyway.
If nothing else, we will learn a heck of a lot. It was hard to argue with that reasoning and he liked the idea of the adventure and possibilities it could bring.
I said I would take point if he could support me on the back side.
We agreed and I went home and told my girlfriend who in a matter of fact way said, “sounds good”.
How to Write a Business Plan???
That night I sat down at my desk I built, working on my girlfriends Apple LC 475 computer that I had taken over from her to build the site (and what was shaping up to be a company) logged on to the internet, dialing in through the computer lab, to find information on how to write a business plan.
There was some information out there, mostly bits and pieces. I read all that I could find.
I continued at it between working and school work for about two months. The information was overwhelming and frankly at moments, completely confusing.
One article suggested this approach, another article something different. One article said a good business plan should be fifty pages, another said twenty pages, one said the marketing section should be written this way, another article said something slightly different.
There was information out there, but I had little to no idea what approach I should follow. I was so overwhelmed that I almost threw in the towel and was talking to my girlfriend about it at dinner.
She said, “Why don’t you go buy a book on how to build a business plan and follow that.”
That weekend we jumped in my girlfriends red Acura and drove to Boarders Books in Annapolis. I thought I would walk in, go to the business section, grab a business plan book, easy.
Two hours later I am going through all the business plan books feeling the same way I felt reading all the things on the internet, overwhelmed.
I had my choices down to three and asked my girlfriend what she thought. She suggested the one titled, “How to Write a Winning Business Plan”.
A woman’s instinct is good. I bought it, read it non-stop until I finished it and got started writing a business plan.
Writing a Business Plan Can Be Hard
The business plan book was pretty good, I had nothing to compare it to, but it seemed to spell out how to write an old school (no one writes long business plans anymore), business plan.
One of the challenges was figuring out answers to the questions in each of the sections.
I hadn’t gone to business school yet, so when it said to describe your business model, I didn’t even know all the options, nor what the right way to describe it was.
It was challenging, but I figured things out the best I could.
The only thing I knew about sales was what I learned on the road selling door to door. I used that experience in the sales section and described how I saw that expanding in the future.
I knew there were a lot of striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay and there seemed to be a lot of boats out there fishing for them.
Turns out market sizing is a lot more than that and if you get it wrong you can find yourself wasting time and potentially losing a lot of money.
While the internet was getting more and more information, a lot of the resources we have today were not available, and companies were not putting all the research reports and like literature online.
I figured a fishing magazine would know the size of the market. After all they were in the fishing business selling ads and their circulation would give some indication of the market size.
Posing as a potential advertiser I inquired with a fishing magazine to get their advertisers kit. It had some great information, talked about the fishing market, their circulation and the segments they served.
I went to the Department of Natural Resources and asked them for license information. That gave me a lot great state by state information.
I found out there was an association called the American Sport Fishing Association and inquired if they had industry information. I hit the mother-load of information. They published an annual report which had everything about the market.
Turns out the fishing market is really big, over $32 billion big in the US alone. Saltwater fishing commands the most spend per person. I can rattle off the stats as easy as slicing warm butter, but will spare you the fishing talk.
I knew how to use excel, but wasn’t a wizard.
I taught myself and Eric was pretty good himself. We managed to come up with a solid financial model. In it we included all the expenses we thought we would incur.
Ultimately, a lot of our assumptions where wrong in the financials, but it at least demonstrated that we were thinking things through.
We learned a lot of hard lessons about financial projects when we grew. More on that later in the story…
It took several months involving a lot of late nights, frustration and re-writes, but Eric and I managed to pull together an old school business plan.
I say, old school business plan because it was approximately forty pages minus the financials.
I would never recommend someone write this sort of plan today, but that was the norm back then and what was required.
Whether our business plan was right or not, we weren’t exactly sure, but it captured all the things the How to Write a Winning Business Plan book said was required.
Finding and Pitching Investors. Where to start?
The only way I knew how to test if we had a good business plan or not was to send it out to potential investors.
The one slight problem was that I had no investors lined up for us nor did I know how to find investors.
It’s not an everyday topic, right!?
I knew there was a venture capital firm called Sequoia who had funded that company I read about in Time magazine called Yahoo. It mentioned the partner’s name who did the deal, Mike Mortiz, but we did not know him from Adam.
I did what any newbie person raising money would naturally do, I printed off a really nice copy of the plan with a cover letter, looked up Sequoia’s address on Yahoo, went to the FedEx store and sent it overnight mail.
We were excited, how could Mike not read that plan and get excited, we had momentum, heck we even had a few people paying us, and we had a big market.
Our business was worthy of an investment. We couldn’t wait for his call…
In the meantime, I kept searching.
As we were building the site, I kept one of the owners of the spinach farm up to speed on things. He was interested because he was a fisherman and knew a few guys that owned tackle shops.
When I told him we were going to raise money, he said he would be interested in investing, but we had to get some other investors.
The chicken or egg dilemma.
Everyone You Know Could Be a Potential Investor
One night I am reading the Washington College quarterly alumni magazine and it had an article about a recent graduate, we’ll call him Chris, who was becoming a venture capitalist with some money he had come into.
The article explained that he liked tech and was out looking for deals.
I didn’t know him really well, but did know of him because he was a senior when I was a freshman. It was a small college, so everyone was at some level familiar with one another, at least could recognize each other’s face.
I said what the heck and wrote him a letter telling what we were doing and asked if he was interested.
It was a cold note, but we had something in common since we went to the same school and knew of one another.
Sure enough, he wrote back and we set up a meeting
A few days later we met in person.
I showed up with a power point presentation and a bound copy of our full business plan.
He liked what we were doing and asked for a copy of the deck and plan to review. He also asked for the full financials (we had included screen shots of the excel sheets).
Luckily Eric and I had full financial projections and notes that explained our logic behind the numbers. I shot them over to him via email after the meeting.
After we sent everything to him, he reviewed it and a day later calls and says he liked our business.
Chris agreed to invest $100,000 with a caveat…
He wanted to have other investors in the deal because we were going to need more money. Our first round might not be our last. Also, we were going to need business help which other investors would contribute beyond just cash.
Chris explained we would need to find some investors ourselves, but he also said he knew some potential investors and would investigate.
I told him I had good news; we already had some others interested. My boss from the spinach farm. That got him excited.
After I hung up the phone with Chris, I called my boss and told him we had another investor. He was excited.
We were building some momentum.
I kept looking for investors. One day I was reading Forbes magazine while sitting in Eric’s office.
It had an article about a guy who had sold his company and talked about how he grew it by buying other companies. I thought to myself, we could do that.
The story had a picture of him on his dock holding a fly-fishing rod with a caption explaining that he loved fishing.
I turned to Eric and told him this guy is someone who can really help us with business advice and might even be an investor.
He looked back at me like I was really crazy. A guy in Forbes is going to help us and might even invest? Yea, right.
He was sitting at his computer and I said, “Type in his name and let’s see if we can find his home address.”
After a little work we found what we believed was his address.
I drafted a letter explaining that I really liked the article about him and how he built, grew and sold his company.
Continuing, I said that the picture of him on the dock holding his fly rod caught my eye and it was clear he loved fishing as much as I did. I gave him our elevator pitch and asked if he would be willing to give us some advice.
In the package I included an executive summary with the letter.
A week later I am going to the door to let the dogs out and the phone rings.
I pick up, “Hi, Brandon, this is Henry, you sent me a letter about a week ago. What you are up to.”
I explained what Eric and I had built and our vision. We talked for about an hour and he said, “How about you come down to my house in Florida. We can fish, talk more about your business. I’m willing to help you.
I called Eric and explained that the guy in the magazine called. I think Eric was in a little shock, but he was excited.
After the initial rush wore off I started thinking.
A business trip to Florida sounded expensive. Was I really going to spend the little money we had and take a trip to meet this guy?
But, that was really not the right question.
The right question Eric and I eventually came up with was: How could I not take this opportunity to meet a guy with this level of experience.
Little money or not. This wasn’t an expense.
This was an investment in our business. In our future.
I booked the ticket and called Henry to let him know I was coming.
Investors Know Other Investors
A few days later I get a call from Chris. He said he had lunch with a guy who had just retired from a well know venture capital firm on the west coast and moved to the east coast.
Over lunch they talked about the hobbies, both of who loved fishing.
Chris mentions that he is looking at two guys who have a fishing site and going to invest.
The guy askes what was the name if the site, Chris says, “Worldwide Angler”.
The guy, we’ll call him John, says,” I know that site, I’ve been using it for a while now. I’d like to meet them.”
Chris out of respect says, “let me ask them if they are interested in talking”. He calls me from outside and I respond with a resounding, “Yes!”.
Two hours later I get an email from John explaining that he just retired as a partner from Sequoia Capital in Silicon Valley, moved east, loves fishing, had used our site and would like to meet.
I immediately write back that I would love to meet. You could have guessed that answer, right!?
After some back and forth he decides to come to our office the next day. I say office lovingly since Eric and I were working out of our spare bedrooms.
The next day around 11am I get a knock at the door. Sure enough, it’s John.
I open the door and welcome him in.
We talk a minute and I invite him to come upstairs to our “office.”.
He follows me upstairs to the spare bedroom I had setup as an office, quietly takes a look around and asks,
“Is this it? Is this where you run the business from?”
I get a feeling in the bottom of my stomach, feel a little hot (you know that feeling?), and respond,
“Yes and my partner has an ‘office’ in his spare bedroom down the road as well.”
We can go visit it if you want”
I continued apologetically, “This is really all we have, if you were looking to come to a real office and see something more mature, I am really sorry, this is it.”
There is silence for a minute while he looks around again and I am thinking to myself,
“This is not going to end well.”
He looks at me and says,
“Calm down man, this is how we found Cisco. They were making routers in their living room.”
“I’m just surprised because your site has a lot of people on it, you put out a lot of content. It’s easy to think you operate it with a larger staff out of a bigger office.”
I explained how we had phone numbers forwarding to an answering machine, multiple emails which all went to Eric and I and how we figured out how to automate a lot of things.
We had to figure this stuff out to look legit. We did not have a lot of cash.
The Pitch at Lunch
John said, “Let’s go to lunch and let’s talk about your business plan and where you want to take this business.”
We went to a joint in town and he asked me to lay out the business plan.
I started to pull out our forty-page business plan and deck and he stopped me, he said,
“Just explain it to me.”
The elevator pitch.
I start talking and he flips over the paper placemat and starts taking notes while I am giving the pitch and answering his questions.
At the end he shows me an outline with some headings and a diagram.
Next to each of the following he had notes and the diagram showed how the business worked as I described it.
He then asked if we had others interested in investing.
I explained we had Chris, my boss, the guy I was going to visit in Florida and that we had sent his partner, Mike Mortiz, our business plan, but had not heard back.
John looks at me and says,” You sent my partner your plan?”.
I responded, “Yes”.
He cracked a smile and gently explained that the next time I sent a plan into any investment firm that I get a warm lead.
He explained that a firm like his can see a hundred plans a week.
In the coming years I learned all the do’s and don’ts when it comes to raising money from angels, venture capital firms, banks and even law firms.
I’ve got the scars ton my back to prove it
Deals Happen in Unexpected Places
Things seemed to be going well so I asked John if he wanted to go fishing after lunch.
He responded, “Yes, let’s do it.”
He folded up the placemat, put it his pocket. We paid the bill and headed back to my house to pick up the boat.
Within thirty minutes we were on the water.
It was a bit of a run to the fishing grounds, but we managed to have a tight line (aka a fish on the line) within an hour of being on the water.
Getting out on water, out of my “office” and sitting across from one another at lunch, was a lot more relaxing.
We had a good conversation while fishing for a few hours.
Most of the conversation wasn’t even about the business, but more about fishing, my background, what motivated me to do start the site, how I managed to finance it etc…
We had a good day catching fish and while neither of us wanted to leave the fishing spot it was going to get chilly when the sun went down. So after a few last casts we headed back to the ramp.
While we were driving back to my house John looks and at me and says,
“How much money do you want to raise?”
Our financials showed that we were going to need at least a few hundred thousand dollars to hire people etc… and I knew we were probably wrong so I just casually replied while my heart starts pounding,
John didn’t flinch.
He asked how much we had in our bank account today?
I explained that we traded stocks with our money, so it fluctuated, but said we had somewhere between $7,000 and $10,000.
He looked at me a little funny and asked what I meant by trading stocks with our company money?
I explained and he thought that was pretty innovative. I explained it had worked so far, we knew it was risky, but we needed to take some chances.
Things got quiet for a few minutes and I kept my eye on the road while I am thinking, “well maybe I should not have told him about trading our company money. I blew it…”
The silence breaks and he says,
“We can’t build this company on $7,000.”
The Unexpected Happens
He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a checkbook with no cover, sort of bent and starts writing.
While I am driving, he hands me a check and says, “Let’s go build this kid.”
I look down and it’s a check for $50,000.
Sounds like this is right out of the movies, right? I felt like I was in a movie.
”We’ll work out the details of the valuation etc.. when we get more investors. Let’s agree we’ll agree to a fair deal.”
I said, “Sure”, as I am trying to get my head around what is happening.
He said, “One other thing. No more trading company money.”
We both laughed and I agreed.
After my heart slows down a little, I ask him if he will help with the company and even be on the Board of Directors. He responded, “I’m open to it. Let’s go raise some more money and we will figure it out.”
Leading Creates Momentum with Your Team
Needless to say, when John left the first thing I did was get into my car and drive to Eric’s house with the news.
Eric almost couldn’t believe it. He was trying not to be too excited, but I could tell he was pumped.
From that day forward things changed between Eric and I.
Up until this point we were both working hard and trying to believe we were on to something. Although Eric never really said it out loud, I think he always had some question if I was going to be able to pull all this off.
Getting sales helped.
Getting a guy to write back from Forbes and the upcoming trip helped.
But showing him that check for $50,000 changed everything.
Truth is I was as in awe as he was. Were we in a movie?
I had believed in myself, but it was pretty scary going down a path like this that I had never been down.
I believed I could do it while at the same time not being sure I could do it. Does that make sense?
To this day when I am speaking at conferences, doing group or one on one coaching, I tell entrepreneurs,
“You have to believe you can do something you are not sure you can do.”
It sounds a little odd, but you have to have that mindset as an entrepreneur.
The Florida Trip
A few days later I got on the plane and headed to Florida to meet Henry.
I got off the plane, got a rental car and follow the directions to his place.
The address takes me to a dead end where there is a large gate with a guard house. I pull up and say, “Hi, I’m Brandon and I’m here to see Henry.” He checks the list and the two big gates open.
I park the car and head into the lobby. It’s a huge high-rise and pretty fancy inside.
Arriving at the lobby desk I say, “Hi, I’m Brandon. I am here to see Henry.”
The guy responds, “What’s your name again?”, as he is flipping through some papers.
My heart starts to race a little.
Did the guy change his mind?
Was this a joke?
Did I just blow our money that we didn’t have?
The guy looks back up, “Oh, Brandon, yes Mr. Henry is expecting you.
Let me key you into the elevator. He swipes a card, presses the number and I’m on my way.
The Top Floor
I don’t remember the floor number, but it was the top floor, the penthouse.
As the elevator starts going up, I am thinking to myself,
“Holy cow I have no business meeting this guy. I’m not a business pro. A guy who lives in a place like this is going to expect a lot more.”
You know the feeling of reality setting in when you get to actually doing something and it becomes more real then you ever imagined?
The elevator door opens basically right into his place. Henry is standing there in shorts and a casual shirt, he looks like he did in the picture.
He smiles and welcomes me in.
HOLY COW, this place is huge. As I walk in I see the entire length of the place is glass overlooking the ocean.
We sat down, talked for a few hours. He asked all sorts of questions ranging from why I was doing the business, to where we wanted to take it, if we had investors interested, to how we would spend money if we got it.
We had dinner that night talking more about the business which eventually changed to fishing.
As we are walking out of the restaurant he says,
“Do you have a term sheet with the other investors that you can share details?”
I had no idea what a term sheet was much less what terms would be in it.
I responded, “No, don’t have one of those yet.”
“We need you to get one together. I have some people I will introduce you to help you with everything.
And, given the terms are fair and I can talk to your other interested investors, you can count me in for $100,000”
$100,000. Are you kidding me? This is a lot of money!
I get back to the hotel room, I call my girlfriend and tell her we just got a $100,000 commitment. She’s a little in shock, but calmly responds, “I guess the business plan book was a good idea.”
I email Eric and let him know we have another investor.
I email John and tell him and ask for some help with a term sheet. He responds that when I get back, he will take me to a law firm that will help and specializes in start-ups.
I Keep Raising Money
My Grandfather knew what we were up to and was keeping an eye on our progress. When I explained to him some of the momentum, we were getting he said he had something he was going to set up a meeting.
Turns out his best friend (my Godfather), partner’s son was in tech and an early guy at America Online. He had just left to be CEO of an internet company what had just raised $15 million dollars.
The meeting was set. It was winter and a snow storm was in the forecast for the same day of our meeting.
I anxiously am watching the weather as the meeting date gets closer.
Sure enough, the day of meeting the snow storm hits and I get a call.
“Brandon, I am going into the office today, but I understand if you can’t make it.”
There was no way I was going to miss this meeting.
I responded, “I might be a little late, but I will be there.”
“Don’t worry, all my meetings are canceled, you’re my only one.”
I drove seventy miles in a strong east coast snow storm, but I made it and I am glad I made the effort.
That extra effort allowed for a relaxed meeting. The one hour, turned into two and a half because he had the time.
I gave him the full download.
He got what we were doing, liked it and was up on the white board drawing as I talked.
Long story short I left that meeting with a commitment for another $100,000.
AND an introduction to a “friend of his in the media business”.
That guy turned into another investor, mentor and was a big wig in the media business.
But that’s a story for another time.
A Million Dollars. Yes, $1,000,000
There are several other good stories about how we met investors.
They are as just as good as the ones I’ve told so far and if we ever meet, I am happy to share them over a beer.
It really was like being in a movie, a dream. The take away from the whole experience is…
that we went from not having one single investor and not even knowing how to raise money, to having a group of investors in our Series A round of funding.
We had people put anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000.
Investors know other investors. Investors trust one another, so when you get recommended you gain credibility.
The process takes on a life of its own.
Investors also know lawyers, accountants, PR firms, consultants and other resources that they can introduce you to grow your business.
We were very lucky to have a group of investors who not only put in money but mentored us along the way.
Note: The Fund-Raising Process wasn’t all Rosy.
If I made it sound like there were not any hiccups, that’s not true and I don’t want you to walk away from reading this thinking it was all smooth sailing.
We had a few investors say no, not right now.
I learned all sorts of hard fund-raising lessons.
Such as just because an investor says they are committed does not mean the deal is done.
An investor is “committed” when the final deal documents are signed, and wire hits your account.
A signed term sheet is not a closed deal.
Until the money wire hits your bank account, you have a potential investor.
I had an investor negotiating with us literally up until ten minutes before we signed the final deal documents.
This can wreak havoc on the deal, not to mention your nerves.
Then there is this thing called “due diligence”. The process that comes after a signed term sheet.
A process that has a million moving parts and can be really intense.
Then there is the whole situation of negotiating with your partners about roles, who gets what etc…
Something that wasn’t super hard for Eric and me, but there were some tense moments.
Money Changes Things
Money changes the game and the clock starts ticking for you to make investors a return on investment.
That’s not a bad thing necessarily, all I am saying is that things change.
Oh yea and this one little thing called life…
In the middle of raising money my Grandfather got shingles. If you know anything about shingles in older people, they can be very dangerous, and cause depression which can lead to a downturn in mental health.
On the way out the door to meet an investor one day I got a call from my Aunt alerting me that my Grandfather had just killed my Grandmother and then killed himself.
You read that right. Crazy huh!?
Talk about pivotal moments in life.
I called Eric and said he has to cover for us. Having a partner you can count on is priceless when building a business.
Life does not stop because you’re working on building your business.
You have to find the strength to roll with the punches.
It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it!
Driving Over the Bay Bridge
The day of the deal closing I drove over the Bay Bridge that crosses the Chesapeake Bay joining the eastern shore to the western shore to Washington DC with about $55,000 in the bank.
I drove back west that afternoon after closing with over $1,000,000 in our bank account.
A number wasn’t even in our conversations a year ago.
It was an accomplishment and we celebrated that evening.
Guess What Happens the Next Day After You Close a Round of Funding?
The real work begins.
The work of building your team, scaling your operations and as importantly increasing your sales in the shape of a hocky stick,
I had pitched an angel investor who ultimately did not invest, but explained to me his philosophy with any of his investments.
He said, ‘Brandon, the only reason I investor is for a an ROI.”
That’s your job running any business. You are always looking for a return on your investment.
Once you have investors, it’s not just about your own return, it’s about making them a return as well.
They are not looking for a 2x or 3x, they are looking for a 10 or even 100x return.
And We Thought Raising Money was Hard. Ha!
A whole new set of challenges emerged.
We had to recruit and hire people.
Figure out employee benefits.
Get an office which involves negotiating a lease.
Figure out insurance.
Set up an IT infrastructure.
And the list goes on.
Oh, yea and then how were we going to grow the site and most importantly revenue.?
We were lucky enough to have been mentored and built a great Board of Directors and Advisors.
We had help and I got my own independent personal Mentor.
It cost me money, but it was worth every penny to have someone I could email or call when I had a question. The ROI was exponential.
We Rebuild the Site
The internet was starting to take shape and more flexible platforms and programming languages were emerging.
Running a site off a database was becoming something that was reasonably possible from a management and cost perspective. We were
lucky to have hired some really talented people. They were innovative and creative.
In a few month’s time we were able to transform the site to a database driven site.
From our early interactions with customers we knew they wanted local information. So we build a custom experience.
In fact, this sounds a little crazy, but we were one of the first commercial sites to customize a user’s experience around their zip code.
We landed a mention in PC magazine because of that accomplishment.
That press actually helped us attract some talent.
We then built one of the first weather sites. At the time the US government released flat file updates from all the weather stations they had around the country four times a day.
We stood up a server in our office, wrote code and built a zip code-based weather app.
Crazy to think how far the internet has come since those days right?
That fishing tackle shop database that I had built from making sales calls became a resource we leveraged to show local shops and reports.
Fishermen were able to get a fully customizable site.
We Combine Media with E-Commerce
Our traffic was growing by the week and by this time we had an email list with tens of thousands of people allowing us to continually drive traffic to the site.
We came up with the idea to expand our e-commerce site, that only had t-shirts and hats, and build a full tackle store.
When we ran the numbers, it was clear that we did not have enough money to buy inventory and open the type of tackle store we envisioned.
But was there another way?
I thought so.
Why not approach the traditional tackle distributors and have them drop ship our orders.
Drop shipping is a normal thing on the internet today, but back then it was almost unheard of.
I called up several tackle distributors and pitched them the idea.
Some out right dismissed me. They said, “We sell tackle to physical tackle stores not on the internet. We don’t see that happening.”
After visiting about seven distributors, two agreed to try it.
One Slight Problem
We were excited, but there was a slight issue. No e-commerce software existed. We had to build it from scratch and that’s what we did.
And we took the customization approach. We theorized that because we knew the regions that visitors were fishing, we could categorize tackle and create a customized shopping experience.
It was a ton of work to build, but it worked, and we were getting orders.
It looked pretty on the front end, but it was pretty ugly on the back end.
We would receive orders online and then literally fax them to the distributors. They would pack and ship and then fax us back confirmation. Then we would send a note back to the customers.
Returns were even messier.
Pretty labor intensive huh?
I then had a crazy idea to create the world’s authority database of tackle, boats, motors and engines so people could compare products.
I took the idea from a site called MySimon which at the time had the ability to compare electronics and then they applied the affiliate model and linked to the products where they earned a portion of the revenue.
How did we build this database you might ask?
We hand jammed it.
All of us, at the time there were probably twelve of us, hand hammed data into excel sheets for what felt like three years, but really about six weeks straight.
We all worked on populating it every day for a few hours. It was painful to create, but it turned out to be an evergreen resource that attracted a ton of visitors.
Also it was something that was hard to create and built a moat around our business as competitors considered doing similar things.
It gave us an added revenue stream and insight into what anglers would buy.
It also gave us an invaluable lesson in understanding product margins. Fishing reels margins were tight, but lures were high. We made sure to always recommend lures to go along with the fishing reel to even out the margin.
Things were rolling along.
Our Lesson in Running Promotions Online
I am not sure who had the idea, but one of us had the idea to run a free give away of koozies, the drink wraps to keep them cold, to help drive traffic.
Driving traffic at this point was our highest priority.
The promotion gave a free koozie to anyone that would recommend five of their friends by inviting them via email. We had a form online, a visitor had to be registered on our site and then would give five friends emails who we would send a personalized message.
It worked almost too well. We had thousands of people sign up and sharing.
At first that sounds like great news…
But it meant snail mailing out koozies to all these people. A painful process.
Luckily, we had a summer intern and his job for a few weeks was sending out koozies. It was insane.
It cost us some money, but from a customer acquisition cost standpoint it was pretty low. At least that is what we thought at first.
As we studied the data, what we realized was that giving someone away for free on the internet can create a mass movement that can attract tons of visitors and traffic.
Free can cause a frenzy. Think of what happens when you are at an event and they throw out free t-shirts. People go crazy even if they don’t wear t-shirts. It’s almost an automatic human reaction.
Here is the challenge, the visitors that come might not be the audience you are looking. In our case, people were coming for the free koozie. But, not all were anglers and did not return to the site. They just wanted the free koozie.
At the end of the day we wanted repeat visitors to the site. People who liked what we had and could drive revenue for us.
Luckily, we figured this out before it got out of complete control and put some parameters around it and ultimately changed the promotion to a giveaway where a set amount of people would be chosen at random e.g. 100 people chosen at random on X date.
What Type of Fish are You? A Better Promotion.
With the lessons learned from the free give away we applied them to a questionnaire to determine what type of fish people were.
The type of questionnaire you see go around Facebook every now and then such as what type of Star Wars character you are or what type of dog you are.
People registered to take the questionnaire, went through some questions, which we build some logic around, and out came the type of fish a person was.
This proved to be very successful as well and we picked a group of people at random for a monthly prize. People thought it was cool and shared the it via email with their fellow angler friends.
We believed that email was our strongest connection with our visitors and whenever possible we were collecting them.
I had some experience hiring people from when I worked on the tree nursery after college, but never hired a whole team like we were faced hiring at Worldwide Angler.
Lessons I learned along the way of growing to a team of fifteen in a few months time:
- Hiring consumes a ton of your time. You have to find people, review resumes, coordinate calls, in person meetings, check their references, have other people from your team interview them, get feedback from your team interviews, sometimes talk with family members and ultimately hire the person.
- Don’t sit people in a room and interview them across a table. Go for a walk with them, a hike, something outside a formal setting. That’s when you really get to know someone.
- Call all references and ask for at least three. Three is enough that you can get some good honest feedback.
- Hire the most talented people you can afford, even if you have to stretch to afford them. There is no replacement for the very best talent.
- Once you get above three people the dynamics of your company team starts to change. Get above ten and it changes even more, get above fifteen and it happens again. At our peak we had twenty-one people and it really changed.What I mean by change is that you need to have more and more processes and policies in place in order to be able to manage the team, benefits, etc…
All and all we got really lucky with the people we hired. They were talented, passionate and worked really.
Lessons From Expanding Too Fast
By this point we had hired about fifteen people and were expanding as fast as we could opening other regions using the blueprint we had built from the Chesapeake.
Each region we opened we looked for a Regional Editor to be the anchor. They were responsible for upkeeping regional content and building a community around the regional site leveraging the forums and local get togethers.
Because we were moving so fast, we would explain what we wanted them to do, give them the technology to do it, and some support from our headquarters.
While the Regional Editors knew how to write fishing articles and create resources, they did not know how to create a community or build out a brand following.
It really was not their fault; these skills are not inherently something a person is born.
When we realized things were not working as planned, we figured out we needed to come up with a formal training program. Without that scaling fast was a failing effort.
We built a training program.
But it put tremendous stain on our content division.
Balancing keeping up the relationships on a regular basis and fixing things with duck tape, while building out a training program.
Building out systems is not something that just happens overnight. And when we did get a training system built we then had to do the training.
It was chaotic and we lost some Regional Editors along the way because they got frustrated. It set us back.
We managed to survive in the end thanks to the hard work of everyone.
Lessons learned from this experience:
- Truly own your target market before expanding. We thought we had a good grip, but truth is we had plenty of room to grow in the Mid-Atlantic region.
- If you want to expand make sure you build a system to do it. What we had was an outline of the things that a region had to have: local fishing reports, local articles etc… what we did not have was a system to train a person how to actually build out a region and build a community around the brand.
In other words, we had the what, but not the how.
N.R.O.O.M. – The Most Important Thing When Growing a Company Fast
When we raised our first million in funding John introduced us to a lawyer. An energetic, funny Partner named Harry from GT Law.
When we first met, he asked me if this was my first start up and when I replied with a “yes” he said:
“Here is the most important advice I am going to give you along this ride, never run out of money!”
We were just starting out and I said to myself, “Of course, that seems obvious.”
It was only a year or so later that the advice really hit me.
While we had revenue, we were investing ahead of our revenue to keep the growth trajectory high. As growth increased so did our burn rate.
Second Round of Funding
As the burn rate was increasing it was clear that we were going to need another round of funding
I hit the fundraising trail again.
I could easily write another five thousand words on the funding raising experience this time around. I’ll leave that for a talk over a beer and cut the chase.
We raised another million dollars and hit the floor running to keep up our revenue and user growth.
Our Momentum Continues
I had just parked my car and was walking into Hair Cuttery to get a haircut when the phone rings. I answer and the guy on the other line says, ‘Is this Brandon at Worldwide Angler?”
“Yes it is. How can I help you?” I replied.
I’m thinking it’s one of our customers wanting to talk. I always made myself available because I realized that staying in touch with our customer firsthand was how we got to where we were with the business and I never wanted to lose that connection.
The guys says, “Hi, this is David from Lycos. We would like to talk with you about providing all the content on our search engine for fishing. Is that something you’d be interested in discussing?”
At the time Lycos was one of the top three search engines besides Yahoo and Excite.
I’m a little shocked, grateful, but shocked at this valuable opportunity and replied calmly as I’m jumping up and down with my hands above my head (you know that feeling!),
” Yes, we’d love to talk about the opportunity to work together.”
Within in three weeks we had a deal signed, sealed and delivered. We would
syndicate our content and provide some original content (think of this in today’s modern age of the internet as guest blog posting on a really big site) and share in the advertising revenue.
The revenue split was a big deal because of the amount of traffic that Lycos received and
how much they were driving to their sports section where our content was located.
What was also great about the deal is that we were allowed to put a byline at the end of every article. In that byline we would always include a link back to Worldwide Angler. This gave us traffic and more importantly SEO juice because all the search engines were taking site linking into account heavily on rankings.
It worked out to be a great partnership.
We Buy A Company
The Lycos deal put us ahead of any of our competitors who were trying to replicate what we were doing and gave us a lot of positive press.
One of the largest regional fishing markets was Florida. We’d been trying to expand our coverage using our regional editor model and while we were growing the market we were not growing fast enough to be the leader.
We knew from our experience from buying one company right after changing our name to Worldwide Angler that had helped us and thought it was time to buy another.
We had been watching a few sites in Florida and one in particular called Anglers Info seemed to be pulling away from the pack and had what appeared to be some strong founders.
I wrote to their CEO/President and asked if they were interested in becoming part of our team.
There was a lot of back and forth, help from our Board in talking with them and ultimately after two in person trips and two months of negotiations we came to a deal.
The deal put us on the map in Florida and combined with that we had already build in Florida made us the leader in the market.
Integrating Another Team
I’ll briefly mention that buying a company and integrating two teams that work in two different offices is not the easiest thing.
We managed to have success by having people from that office spend time at our headquarters for some long stretches in the beginning so everyone got to know one another. That allowed everyone to put a name with a face.
Then we made sure to have regular weekly meetings so the Florida office felt in the flow. It wasn’t perfect, but it generally worked.
The key was being very deliberate and disciplined to keep the Florida office in the loop, airing on the site of over-communicating.
It wasn’t always easy, nor were we perfect in execution, but through efforts from all around we make it work successfully.
Dot Com Bubble Bursts
We were coming into 2001 with a lot of growth, positive momentum and looking ahead to a third round of funding.
And then the dot com bubble popped, the stock market crashed, investors evaporated, and people became skeptical about business models on the internet.
Our existing investors did not believe our business would work in the long term and all of them declined to fund another round. We tried to raise more money from new investors, but it was impossible.
It quickly became clear we were going to need to take some drastic measures to save the business.
Drastic measures translated into a round of layoffs to reduce our burn rate. Up until that point in my life one of the top hardest things I’ve had to do. So hard that I delayed doing the layoffs for three days straight.
Finally, I built up the courage and we did them. It was terrible having to let members of the team go. We had become a family of sorts.
That lowered our burn and we continued a few more months trying to raise money to no avail. It became clear that we were most likely going to have to shut down.
Eric and I sat down to discuss things and neither of us wanted to give up.
While we may have been running out of money, we believed that we still had a business that would work, and we believed that the internet was going to be even bigger. This was just a bump in the road.
We weren’t sure how we were going to keep it alive, but we were determined. We took our message to the Board and said we were not going to give up.
Eventually, the Board voted that we needed to close the company with no funding in sight. There was not much Eric, nor I could do because as the business stood the truth was there was not enough money to keep it going. That was reality.
The doors closed and that night Eric and I got together and decided we were going to buy some of the assets and restart it. We weren’t going to give up that easy after all these years.
We had learned a ton and it’s not as if he and I had not been here before. There were just two of us in the beginning, we could do it again.
Back to our Spare Bedroom Offices. We’re Not Giving up!
Within twenty-four hours of Worldwide Angler closing, Eric and I had a site up and running called Tidal Fish.
We decided we would fund it ourselves and run it as a side gig until a point where we could ramp it up to pay us both salaries.
We agreed that we would each get full time jobs and committed to working on the site on nights and weekends. This was not new territory to us since this was how we started.
We knew it wasn’t easy, but it was completely doable
On launch we decided to apply one of the many lessons we learned: own your target market first before expanding. Our target market was the Chesapeake Bay and Mid Atlantic.
We committed to staying focused on this region. There was plenty of fishermen that would allow us to generate revenue in multiple ways.
We Add Membership to the Site
One of the first things we did was design membership packages for people to becomes a Tidal Fish Member.
Members would get added benefits on the site such as:
- elevated status in the forums with the designation of “Tidal Fish Subscriber – I Support the Site”
- a signature block with their picture in the bottom of all posts on the forums
- a Tidal Fish sticker
- access to Members Only Forums
- discounts on products that we negotiated
- expanded storage to host their fishing pictures
- discounts on Tidal Fish merchandise
We were very lucky to have a community that valued the service we were providing and wanted to support the site. Because of that we had a successful launch of our membership/subscriber model.
We priced memberships from $12/year to $399/year. All offering different levels of benefits.
I could write a book on why our membership program was successful, what dynamics of our market allowed us to have such a strong community and techniques to encourage people becoming members, but given where we are in the story already, we’ll have to save that for another time.
The bottom line is memberships were a great recurring revenue source for us and allowed us to identify our super fans.
The super fan concept is also one I could write a book on, but again a story for another day.
Launching a Podcast
It was 2004 and podcasting had just come on the scene. I decided to give it a try as another avenue to reach our audience.
We were not sure if podcasting was going to take off or not, but we knew if we could put together interesting interviews for anglers, they would tune in and it would allow us to strengthen our brand with current customers and potentially reach people who didn’t know about us yet.
There were no online classes on how to start a podcast back then, it was a new frontier.
Podcasting equipment: I bought a portable mini voice recorder, a mic, and I was in business.
Podcasting software: For editing I used a really basic music editing program and later when Garage Band was released (2004), starting using it as my goto software. Both programs allow for easy editing and mp3 export which I uploaded into Apple Podcasts.
The Lateral Line Podcast was born. And it worked, people really liked it and tuned in on a regular basis.
I linked to the podcasts from our site, always promoted them in our newsletters and posted them on other sites around the internet that allowed for podcasting posts.
People Grow Apart…
Eric and I had been through a lot over the seven plus years we had been working together. It was a true adventure; it had its ups and downs and some parts so surreal we thought we were in a movie.
For the most part we always got along. We didn’t always agree with one another, but we had a mutual respect which was the key to our success. That respect for one another in the heat of debate led to good decisions over the years.
A few years after we re-started the site Eric decided he was going to move back to Pennsylvania to peruse some job opportunities and to be closer to his family.
We were close so we didn’t see working together remotely as any problem.
And in the end, it wasn’t. We’d communicate online, talk via phone and occasionally visit one another to collaborate on bigger initiatives we took on to grow the site.
As time went on Eric and I started to disagree about the direction to take the site mostly around growing revenue.
Eric wanted to be more aggressive with advertising, putting more ads on the site to drive more revenue.
I on the other hand, believed that revenue was hugely important, but I didn’t want advertising to degrade the user experience.
It all really came down to time. Eric was starting to evaluate, and rightly so, his return on investment of time he was putting into the site outside of his day job.
We were making money with the site, not enough to pay ourselves full time, but very good extra spending money. That was enough for me and I was willing to wait for the revenue to grow slowly over time.
I also started to like the idea of having passive income in addition to the money I was making in my day job.
Eric wanted things to move faster. And in all fairness, while Eric loved fishing, he was not into as much as I was. This gave each of us having a different relationship with the business.
Ultimately, the disagreement led to us parting ways. We paid out some money to Eric and I took over the site.
It was the end of an era.
I was back to where I started, a solopreneur. I had come full circle.
Everything happens for a reason, so I stayed focused on the opportunity that it presented.
I was exponentially smarter than when I first started as a solopreneur and now had mentors who I could lean on.
I took some time after Eric and I parted ways to think of how to move ahead.
Did I want another partner? It was nice having someone to bounce ideas off, have them bring ideas to the table, make each other’s ideas better and forge the up and downs together.
At the same time, I thought it might be nice to make a decision and not have to run it by someone. Whether that as good or bad I wasn’t sure, but it sounded a lot easier. Plus I thought I had my Mentor network to lean on for any big decisions.
Where did I want to take the business? Did I want to make it a goal to be full time?
Did I want to run it as a side hustle? Could I automate it enough to run it as a side hustle?
There were lots of questions going through my head.
I decided that I was going to go it alone, be a solopreneur, run it as a side hustle, learn how to automate things and outsource all the functions I couldn’t.
I built a three-year business plan that included expanding our Tidal Fish product line beyond Tidal Fish hats, t-shirts and sweatshirts, building out real world events, and figuring out how to expand advertising revenue without cluttering the site with advertisements.
Focusing on the Most Important Parts of the Site
Since I was now running the site myself, I made it a point to only focus on the parts of the site that people used the most and the parts of the business that offered the most potential.
The essential parts of the site/business were:
- weekly fishing reports (written, podcast and/or video)
- moderating the forums (an art unto itself that is worthy of a short how to book)
- membership and benefits
- merchandise sales
- email newsletters
- search engine optimization (SEO)
- advertising/sponsorships of the site
- mobile app
- site hosting/servers, and software that ran the site
My next goal was to outsource and automate as much as possible.
To assure the fishing reports made it out on time I hired a writer on an hourly basis to make sure they got put together and published weekly.
Beause the forums received a high volume of posts and traffic across all the different regional and different topic forums, I recruited several Moderators to help keep up with things.
When you get over a thousand posts a day, a thread can easily get out of hand over just a few hours. Having several Moderators helped me keep the harmony.
Not to mention because we had a strong community, if we had spam or someone got out of line they reported things quickly which alerted us to a potential problem.
The members themselves took ownership of things upon themselves which was great.
Membership and Benefits
I programmed the site so almost everything was self-service. A person could log in, read about all the different membership levels, what each one offered and buy online.
I also created several videos that walked people through a demo of what membership gave them.
Registering for the Site
In order to cut down on any spam that would occasionally show up in the forums, classifieds, and other areas where people could comment, I required a business email to join for immediate approval.
If someone wanted to use a free email account like Gmail, Yahoo Mail, etc… they could sign up and as part of the process had to write a short explanation why they were using a free email account.
This did a few things:
- cut down on spam that had to be moderated
- created a feeling of exclusivity
- traded quality for quantity.
The last point was a shift I felt was worth the tradeoff. I wanted to grow the business and made the bet that with better quality on the forums and other interactive parts of the site, we would get more engagement and loyality to the site.
In the end it worked.
People stayed on the site over eleven (11) minutes per session, came back on average two times a day and approximately 68% came back at least once a month.
We sold all our merchandise through our own e-commerce part of the site. As I’ve mentioned the margins and on the clothing was really good.
I expanded the t-shirt line with original designs (I sketched them and hired artists on a per design basis) and to cut down on inventory overhead went to an on-demand printing process leveraging high quality heat transfers.
This eliminated the need to maintain a ton of inventory. And within a year I had this outsourced to a company who would fulfill the orders.
I decided to leverage our brand recognition and go into the fishing lure business. It was quite a journey learning the whole production process and supply chain management to get a quality product.
While I wanted to sell the lures on the site, I also wanted to get in a big box retailer to help with distribution. I was able to get them into a national chain called Boaters World.
While the lures were good quality and provided good margins, the kicker that got the deal over the line was that we had the promotion vehicle to get people into the stores to buy the lures.
It was a two-way street. We would promote that the lures were available at Boaters World. By having the lures in the stores it was an additional sales channel and provided us exposure.
I’ll give you the cliff notes on how the lure business turned out:
- We got some big orders which was good revenue
- Boaters World went out of business
- Demand for the lures continued to be high online, but the shipping cost killed us. The shipping was almost as much as the lure itself.
- I ultimately took them off the site and only sold them at in person events.
- I learned trucking around heavy products is HARD to do.
- Eventually once I had sold off most of our inventory, I shut the lure business down.
- Many lessons learned.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
I relied on SEO almost exclusively for all our online marketing. I never bought any paid ads online to drive traffic.
At first the SEO of the site was something that I wanted to outsource. As I thought about it more, I decided do myself because of how important it was for our traffic.
I had gotten really good at it over the many years and I enjoyed the challenge. Appearing in the top three results on page one is rewarding!
When I sold the site traffic estimating tools said I had created over $500,000/month worth of organic SEO traffic. That means that someone would have had to pay $500,000 in paid keyword search ads to receive the same traffic.
I was getting it all for free by implementing SEO strategies I developed.
Through all the years I never spent more than $50/month on paid advertising.
You can see above it says no paid ads. The tool marks that as bad. However, it’s actually a really good thing.
Today it makes sense to use a few paid ads because of what it does in the search engines.
Most importantly, in my businesses today I still receive the majority of my traffic organically. You can pull it off if you know the right techniques to implement.
Anyway, ranking in the top three results pages across thousands of keywords created a strong moat. This keep competitors out and fresh stream of new visitors coming to the site.
Doing weekly email newsletters was probably one of the most important parts of the business. It allowed me regular contact with our visitors and customers.
I always felt it was important to write the intro in the newsletters myself and I continued to do that.
I outsourced all the editing and formatting which is the time-consuming part of putting together an email newsletter.
The newsletters allowed me to stay in touch with people on a one-to-one basis. It was a channel for them to hear directly from me, And it reminded them of what was happening on Tidal Fish. It created a feedback loop that allowed me to receive regular feedback on how we were doing.
The key to using this method of communication as the personalization. When people would write back, I always responded.
Responding got challenging at times with well over 100,000 email subscribers. In order to make sure I responded to everyone I learned how to batch process responses effectively.
In order to streamline things I did two things:
- I moved to working with one banner ad agency. I was able to negotiate a high CPM because of the highly targeted audience. And I gave them exclusivity on handling our site. We re-negociated on an annual basis.
- I sold site sponsorships that gave an advertiser a more integrated advertising product. They received exposure in different parts of the site and not the typical banner product. This kept the number of banners on the site to a minium.As I have mentioned I didn’t want the site packed with ads all over the place.Sponsorships were high price advertising products, so I could work with a handful of advertisers, vs potentially hundreds of smaller ones, and net-net make more revenue.
The smaller advertisers I serviced through offering a commercial level subscription that was fully self-service.
Classifieds were something that we always had on the site and they were a good source of revenue.
They were completely automated and only required any support.
Apps were getting hot and I had the hypothesis that if we provided a mobile experience, we could extent the real-time nature of fishing reports and increased content.
It was some work and took some work to maintain, but it was worth it. Anglers used the mobile app when fishing to post pictures as well as it made it easier for them to participate in the site.
Site Hosting and Software Maintenance
Undoubtably the most important part of the business. If the site is not up, there is no business.
I was lucky enough to reach out to a guy I knew from college who did tech support as a side hustle and I hired him as a contractor to handle all the site hosting and software maintenance work.
For some of the minor stuff I would handle, but 90% of it he handled.
My Four-Year Business Plan
It was 2012 and the site continued to grow, and I continued to run it as a side hustle while I worked my day jobs.
I’d been running an online magazine with a community and e-commerce component, online community, interactive media site, social networking site, or whatever the buzz word at the time was for a site that had content, an interactive community and e-commerce for over sixteen years. I was lucky I started
my entrepreneur journey at a young age and feel grateful it coincided with the growth of the Internet.
I was making net over six figures a year with the site. It was great side hustle that provided passive income. In fact, it was making as much as I was making with my day job.
If I wanted I could stop my day job working as a business consultant…
I wasn’t going to jump ship on my day job without a solid business and life plan. One of my wife’s and I goals was to move to California, specifically in the San Francisco Bay area. My wife is originally from California and wanted to move back at some point to escape east coast winters.
I wanted to be closer to Silicon Valley that I always saw as the capital of entrepreneurship.
One of the challenges to moving to Northern California is housing prices. We had savings, but homes in the bay area from our research were all at least a million dollars.
That’s a heck of a lot of money, right?!
My business plan spelled out the specific milestones to grow the business over the next four years. These milestones would position the company for an exit.
And selling the business I hoped would allow us to have enough to buy a home in California.
The Next Four Years
I took the leap and quit the consulting business I was working for and went all in…
I worked really hard the next four years driving user and revenue grow and staying focused on owning my market.
It wasn’t always easy working as a solopreneur, but I had hired a business coach and had Mentors. Additionally, I had hired really strong contractors and kept my eye on my business and personal goals.
I Get the Call
Two months shy of the four-year mark when I had quit my consulting job and implemented by business plan, I received an email. It was from a guy working for a large media company in Canada called Vertical Scope. He inquired if I was interested in selling the company.
I wrote back and asked why they wanted to buy the site. He explained that they were doing a roll up of regional sites to create one larger site that would cover North America.
I had a slight grin on my face. The “stay focused and own my target market” strategy seemed to have worked. And it was not easy, I always had new ideas I wanted to implement.
I explained that I was open to the discussion for the right price. And also to the right buyer who would take care of the community that relied on the resource. I made a lot of friendships from the site and it felt like a family.
After back and forth for six weeks we had an agreement. We finalized the paperwork within a week and set a close date for the following Thursday.
That Thursday I was in California. I had been going back and forth for several months because I had software product idea that I had been working on.
It was my side hustle to the side hustle that had turned into a full-time job. A story that brought me back to raw entrepreneurship. I’lll write about that start-up adventure in the future.
I remember reloading my bank account page and one minute there were a few figures and the next seven. Just like that!
Well not really just like that, but that’s the part of the story that gets the press.
I have a non-disclosure that does not allow me to talk about the exact amount. This makes sense in you are in their shoes. They don’t want how much they will pay for sites being made public. Any budding Entreprenuer would take the information and use it against them in future negociations.
I am able to tell you why I was able to get a premium/high multiple for the site. Three key attributes of the business:
- Consistent growth organically. The SEO asset we had along with the viral growth was very attractive. The business growth didn’t rely on pouring money into marketing. If they did do marketing, it would be icing on the cake.
- Brand. Tidal Fish was a brand. Brands can command a premium because they inherently have value from the time it takes to establish them.
- Recurring revenue. The business had memberships that renewed on an annual basis. And we had very low churn because of the personal connections and value we delivered.
Believing You Can Do What You Don’t Think You Can Do
Seeing the money in my account was extremely satisfying to know I had accomplished my goal. Can you imagine that feeling?!
There were several times along the journey that it could have ended because of one thing or the other. I credit persistence, consistency and adaptability to making it over the finish line.
Two days after the money hit my bank account, I bought a house for us at the ocean in Northern California.
The next things I did was paid off all our school loan debt (over $120,000). Then paid off all our car loans, bought a sports car, a RV and launched another company. A different type of business and another wild business ride learning many more business lessons!
What I did for my Day Job [updated August 2019]
People asked I was doing for my day job after Eric and I restarted Tidal Fish as a side hustle. Well I:
- was hired by a venture capital firm founded by Bill Melton called GIV Ventures. Bill was founder of Verifone, the credit card swiping machine. He also founded TNS, one of the first software companies that run on the credit card swiping devices. We provided growth capital to rapidly growing companies in the technology and healthcare markets.
- worked at America Online (AOL) in the first internet big data division called Marketing Analysis/Premium Services. I was a Sr. Manager and the highlight of my stint was being part of the Anti-Virus team. We grew the service from 0-$90million run rate in one year.
- was recruited out of AOL to another venture capital firm called Updata Partners. At the time we managed over $300 million. We invested in enterprise software and internet companies ranging from the start-up phase to growth stage.
Back to school
- left venture capital to go to business school at UNC Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School.
I studied internationally at five other business schools:
* Erasmus, Rotterdam School of Management, Netherlands
* Gdansk Foundation for Management Development, Poland
* EGADE, Monterrey, Mexico
* FGV-EAESP, Sao Paulo, Brazil
* Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), Hong Kong, China
**While in business school I also took the final course to finish my Masters in Psychology.
- worked for a boutique consulting firm called Carbon Prime after graduating from my MBA. My work spanned from:
- writing business plans
- helping companies spin out software they had developed internally into a new company
- acting as an outsourced CFO for start-ups
- developing full interactive marketing strategy plans for medium sized companies.
I left the consulting firm to work on my side hustle turned full-time job.
Not too bad?!
If you are reading this, thank you! We’ve covered my story spanning over 24,100 words together.
I hope it was entertaining.
And as importantly, it provides you an idea how you too can turn your side hustle into a full-time business of your dreams.
I am rooting for your success!
PS. Full disclosure, I changed some people’s names in the story.
Build the Business of Your Dreams. I’ll help you! Here’s how:
I took all the lessons I learned from:
- starting an online business
- all the mistakes I made
- growing an online business
- raising money for an online business
- selling it
- learning about successful interactive media tricks and techniques including search engine optimization
- business school
- working in venture capital funding companies
- being an angel investor
- reading, hearing and giving more pitches then I can count
- and all the lessons I’ve learned on the businesses I started since selling Tidal Fish
and created a formula for success.
The success formula shows you how to build a business plan so you can build the business of your dreams.
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I look forward to helping you build the business of your dreams!
MBA, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School
* Internationally studied at:
- Erasmus, Rotterdam School of Management (Netherlands)
- Gdansk Foundation for Management Development (Poland)
- EGADE (Monterrey, Mexico)
- FGV-EAESP (San Paulo, Brazil)
- Chinese University of Hong Kong (Hong Kong, China)
Masters, Psychology, Washington College
Psi Chi National Honor Society
BA, Psychology, Washington College
Psi Chi National Honor Society (President)
Tiny Habits Certified Coach, by Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab’s Dr. BJ Fogg
Persuasive Technology Boot Camp, by Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab’s Dr. BJ Fogg
Public Speaking, Stanford
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