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7 business lessons from an entrepreneur who went from living on $500/month to earning $5M/year

The doctors told me if I’d waited another 24 hours, I could’ve died. Lying in a hospital bed in the ICU, being pumped full of drugs and 20 pounds of fluid, I knew that I’d come close. And I was terrified.

My wife’s insistence that we get life insurance literally saved my life. A routine blood test during the insurance process revealed that I was a Type I diabetic.

My numbers were off-the-charts dangerous.

Based on what they were seeing, I should’ve been in a coma.

That was my wake-up call. I was trying to build an online business and had seen some success. But this near-death experience pushed me to ask myself:

“Okay, you survived this. Now what are you going to do with your life? What do you want to do? What kind of impact are you going to make?”

I immediately changed what I was doing to grow my business.

And, by using the lessons that I’m about to share with you, I grew my business from $500 a month to $5 million a year.

Along the way, I experienced some growing pains and learned some hard lessons. With my eyes focused on my goals and the memory of that hospital bed haunting me, I pushed forward, using what I learned to constantly improve.

My efforts paid off. Today, my business earns more than $5 million a year and we’re experiencing exponential growth.

When I look back on the journey from the past few years, these are the lessons that made the difference for me.

I’d like to share them with you in the hope that you find them as useful as I have.

Ready? Here we go:

Define your category of one

It’s one thing to try to fight your way to the top in a crowded niche. It’s another thing entirely to define yourself as being #1 at one specific thing.

In that hospital bed, I had a lot of time to think. I asked myself some hard questions about the different niche businesses I had going at the time. After a lot of thought, I came to a decision: focus on just ONE thing.

But what was that one thing going to be?

Figuring out what people want and giving it to them.

HOW was I going to do that? By applying the formula I’d developed through a long process of trial and error: the Ask Method.

I go into detail about the formula in my #1 best-selling book, Ask, but what it boils down to is this: How to use the right kinds of surveys, at the right times, with the right questions, in your sales process.

The process that I describe for doing this is called a Survey Funnel. It has the same elements of a “regular” sales funnel (which is just a fancy way of describing the path your prospect takes to becoming a customer). Typically, this involves a landing page, sales letter or video sales letter, upsells, and email followups. What makes a survey funnel different is that it starts with a survey or a quiz. More about that in a minute.

Once I focused on being #1 at a specific thing — for me it was survey funnels — my income quickly began to rise.

Now, you might be thinking, “How do I figure out what my focus should be in my business?”

Which brings me to the next lesson:

Keep it simple

The simpler you make your business model, your offer, your call to action, the better your results will be. The simplest solutions usually work the best.

The best technique I’ve found is condensing your message with this formula:

  • solve [URGENT PROBLEM]
  • and achieve [CONCRETE RESULT]
  • through [UNIQUE MECHANISM]

The first time I did this exercise, it looked like this: “I help online business owners who are feeling stuck grow their business by improving their conversions.”

This is pretty general, right? It’s nice, but it’s not compelling…and it’s certainly not very specific.

After realizing I had to get specific about my survey funnels, my message became this: “I help business owners whose businesses solve urgent problems (as opposed to just selling products) generate consistent, predictable income from cold paid traffic by introducing surveys and quizzes into their marketing.”

When you get your message down to one sentence, it will resonate louder with your target audience.

And when you simplify, you also become more focused on what really matters: delivering value.

Don’t focus on fancy wrapping paper

Dressing up a product with fancy design and snazzy branding won’t necessarily attract more customers or make more money. The most important thing is the quality of what you’re offering.

For example, our original membership site for the Survey Funnel Formula isn’t pretty.

It looks like this:

But the content is gold. And that’s what matters.

You can always add a nicer design later on. In fact, we recently upgraded to a full-blown membership site with much higher functionality, in response to feedback that we got from our members.

They wanted higher quality videos, convenience, and more organization. And sure, the new site is visually nicer. But at no point did we get feedback asking us to, “please make it prettier.”

So the lesson is to make sure, first and foremost, that you deliver value.

Double down on what’s working

Once you know the one thing your business should be doing, double down on what’s working. Find ways to grow what you are already doing well and make sure it’s centered around your “category of one.”

I learned this lesson launching my book. Since it was my first book launch, I didn’t know which traffic sources would be most likely to buy my book.

Our original plan was to try several different things: Facebook ads, affiliate partners, TV and radio interviews, print media articles, and podcast interviews.

And as we saw the results coming in from all the different channels, it became clear that only two of these channels were making a big impact: podcast interviews and Facebook ads.

Once we discovered this, we hit the pause button on everything else and made it our goal to get on as many podcasts as possible.

In fact, here are some of the podcasts:

On Facebook, we funneled our whole advertising budget into Facebook.

This strategy paid off, big time. The book launched at #1 on Amazon and hit several bestseller lists, selling over 25,000 copies.

How did we know when to double down? By using a rule that you may have heard of called “The 80/20 Rule.”

80/20 rules everything

I have this rule in mind for every decision I make in my business. I look for the 20% of the time, money and effort that will generate 80% of the results. When you start training yourself to think this way, you gravitate towards the most profitable decisions.

A big 80/20 decision I made recently was to scale back on our agency “done for you” model.

With the release of the book, we had demand from larger businesses looking for us to implement the Ask Method in a “done-for-you” format, as well as skyrocketing demand from our Next Level Mastermind community to learn more so that they could implement the formula themselves.

And when there’s a line of people banging down your door, it’s hard to turn away business.

But we took a close look at the numbers, and saw that fulfilling the “done for you” agency model took 80% of the team’s resources, for 20% of the overall profit.

The paid membership community, on the other hand, took only 20% of the resources, and was a much more scalable option than the done-for-you model.

80/20 thinking clearly showed where we should be putting our efforts, and that’s exactly what we’ve done, even if it means turning down some business.

So how can you start thinking 80/20 in your business? The first step is to recognize that the 80/20 exists and look for it in your business. My team is driven by the 80/20, and for everything we do, we ask ourselves:

  • “How can I generate 80% of the results with 20% of the time and energy?”
  • “What are the 1-2 things I could do (the 20%) that could drive the majority of my success (the 80%)”
  • “Am I getting bogged down in minutiae (the 20%) at the expense of the big picture (the 80%)?”

With the 80/20 way of thinking, you can better use your time, energy, and resources to their fullest.

Once we’ve made our decisions based on the 80/20, then it’s time for the next step:

Have a big, hairy audacious goal and break it down

As part of the 80/20 decision to focus on our Next Level Group Mastermind membership community, I set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (or BHAG) to grow to 1500 members by September 2015.

Setting a BHAG (pronounced BE-hag) means getting your entire team extremely focused on ONE big goal. Once you set this goal, the way to make it happen is to break it up into smaller chunks. That means daily objectives with action steps for each team member involved, and plenty of team communication.

We decided on the BHAG in March 2015. At that time the group had grown to about 500 members. We ran 2 major promotions, one in March-April and one in May, and our goal for each was to retain 250 new members in the group.

And then we ran our first-ever Refer-a-Friend Contest in August, which was a huge success and added another 500+ members in just 7 days, allowing us to meet and surpass our goal.

We knew we had to keep our heads above water (i.e. bring in more new members than we lost), and we knew more or less what our retention rate would be based on previous campaigns.

At every single weekly meeting, we kept track of where we were in reaching the goal, our projections for the next week, and every team member’s action items, mostly focused around running these two big promotions and keeping retention high.

What we learned from this whole process was that, as much as we’d like it to be, growth isn’t a straight line. It’s periodic bursts of growth with longer periods of equilibrium in between.

This is actually a good thing. As we learned, doing two concerted pushes and growing quickly also led to a feeling of instability within the group. We ended up needing that time of slower growth to adjust to the new dynamic, reach an equilibrium, and prepare for a new burst of growth.

So our daily objective wasn’t to put 3 new members in the group every single day. Some days the objectives were bigger, some days they were smaller, but we were constantly focused on how those objectives would help us reach our BHAG.

We knew it would be a stretch to meet this goal. We doubled our membership in about 4 months. Yet because the whole team was so focused, we were able to achieve this BHAG.

Here you can see our growth over a year:

Anyone can use the concept of a BHAG to accomplish big goals. The important thing is to set your goal as something challenging but reachable. From there, break down the actions needed to get to the goal, keeping in mind that growth won’t always happen at the steady pace you might want it to.

And sometimes, you’ll have to use my favorite motto. All the lessons that I’ve laid out for you here can be traced back to these 5 words:

Screw it. Just DO it.

These have been the 5 most profitable words for me personally and for my business.

Everything good that’s happened in my life, every success that I’ve had, was because I took the first step before I was ready.

The first internet marketing product I ever bought, a $17 product from Glenn Livingston, that set me on the path from a corporate wage slave to becoming an entrepreneur, was because I said to myself, “Screw it, just do it” and pushed the buy button.

When I was in that hospital bed, I asked myself, “what am I going to do next, what’s my legacy going to be?” And the idea of writing a book popped into my head. I knew that I wasn’t ready. But I knew it would never happen unless I said “Screw it, just do it, this book needs to be out there.”

Whenever I find myself overthinking something, this is my mantra.

When we have an encounter with death, whether it’s an illness, or the loss of a loved one, a normal reaction (other than fear or sadness) is a feeling that time is short.

When I left that hospital bed, I felt it down to my soul.

And it pushed me to take action.

So if you’re asking yourself, “where do I go from here,” ask yourself what’s the next step you’re not ready to take.

And whatever that step is, whatever’s holding you back, the answer is simple.

In fact, there’s just one answer: Screw it. Just do it.

Want to learn more about the Ask Method?

Get the Ask Method flowchart and read a 26-page excerpt from the book here.

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