Four years ago, I launched a business to try to monetize my passion for airline points and miles.
Most of my core assumptions were wrong, my business model was fatally flawed from day one, my brand name was so terrible that in the course Zero to Launch, GrowthLab founder Ramit Sethi called out my terrible name, and my first product launch went so poorly that I tried to quit.
And as much as all of that sucked, the worst part was the effect all of this had on my confidence as an entrepreneur. I had failed very publicly and on a large scale (like, national TV large) and had to deal with everything that came with it.
I didn’t want to go to any social gatherings for fear of being asked, “How are things going with that?” I started to lose interest in a hobby that I once loved, and the thought of launching another venture absolutely terrified me.
Today that same business generates more than $25,000 a month in revenue and is managed by a team of six people working part-time.
Well, technically it’s the same business. But it certainly doesn’t look like it did four years ago. And most importantly, I only got to where I am today by going through the tough part.
So, this is a story for all of you going through your own “tough part.” Here’s how it all went down.
The beginning: A young entrepreneur’s “plan”
Toward the end of college and in the years following, I became somewhat of an expert on all things related to credit card rewards and frequent flyer miles. The entire system seemed like an exciting puzzle to me that I was determined to master. It also didn’t hurt that solving this puzzle allowed me to travel the world for next to nothing.
So I decided to do what many young, blindly ambitious would-be online entrepreneurs do. I was going to launch a website to turn this niche skill into an endless stream of passive income.
It took me all of three hours to decide on the name, business model, and launch strategy.
I was going to call my business “GetFreeFlights.com.” Why? Because the name was self-explanatory (duh, we teach you how to get free flights), easy to remember, and (most importantly) the domain was available for $9.99 on GoDaddy.
To hell with customer immersion or what anyone else thought, I was absolutely sure that GetFreeFlights was a winner.
My business model was just as simple. I was going to write an e-book that contained every bit of knowledge I had about the world of points/miles. It was going to be longer, more detailed, and contain less “fluff” than any other e-book ever written on the subject, therefore garnering me vast profits.
(Maybe you can see where this is going?)
Over the course of about six months, I put my plan into action. I opted to go with an authoritative, to-the-point approach in my writing rather than wasting time trying to lighten the topic and make my explanations entertaining. After all, this was a facts-and-numbers game and people didn’t want to be bothered with antidotes or humor. (Of course, I knew this from my “extensive research.”)
I decided to stake my reputation on my product with a “Free Flight Guarantee.” Anyone who bought the book and was unable to earn a free flight from the groundbreaking knowledge it contained would be given a free flight by me. No questions asked.
Next, I was going to take that e-book and put it on a simple yet effective sales page. I had never written direct response sales copy before but figured it wouldn’t be too hard to sell this product. After all, who in their right mind wouldn’t pay $49.99 for the promise of either earning or being given a free flight?
(You may be noticing a trend … )
So I did a few google searches, learned the basics, and put together a sales page filled with brightly colored text and copy gems like “Airline tickets are really expensive” and “Airlines hate him!”
As an added bonus, I was approached completely out of the blue by ABC to appear on “Nightline” and “Good Morning America” to discuss my “travel hacks.” This was it! The stars were aligning, fate was smiling upon me and I was fully convinced that my upcoming e-book launch was going to make me rich overnight.
The middle: What really happened
The launch finally happened and the results were … disappointing. Millions of people saw me on TV and organic traffic was around 10,000 monthly uniques (thanks to a ton of Google searches for “free flights”), yet somehow I managed to sell less than 50 copies of my book. The conversion rate on my sales page was an abysmal < 0.1%. For context, that’s … really bad. Most successful sites have conversion rates of 1-3%. More than 10x what my site was doing.
I started getting feedback from my first customers that stated my book “read like a science textbook.” Many of them never even finished it. I knew my love of rewards points was a little over the top, but this one really hurt.
I was ready to throw in the towel on the entire thing when I was contacted by a company who wanted to talk about advertising credit card offers on my site. Apparently they had seen me on TV and wanted to know if I was interested in signing up to become a credit card affiliate.
I had to run a quick Google search to see what a credit card affiliate was before deciding to give it a shot. If I’m being honest, I probably would have quit had it not been for this opportunity popping up out of the blue.
This is also about the time that I decided to buy Zero to Launch. I had been following Ramit’s material for years but always assumed I didn’t need help in launching a business. After all, I had spent four years in college and earned a degree in business. But my recent failure taught me otherwise, and I was determined to do it right the next time.
If I had learned anything from my first attempt at launching a business it was this: I had no idea what I was doing.
My misguided confidence had been completely wiped out and I was ready to start over with the help and guidance of an expert.
It sounds a bit counterintuitive, but I actually felt relieved after failing once and essentially starting over. Almost as if the pressure (both internal and external) of finding instant success had been lifted and I had nothing to lose. It was a second chance of sorts.
This mental reset helped me to pour 100% of my focus and effort in to Zero to Launch.
In Zero to Launch, Ramit talks about how to choose a name for your business and specifically uses “Get Free Flights” as an example of a terrible name. I’m sure you can picture me, sitting there at my computer, notes in hand, and my jaw hitting the floor. (No matter where you are in your business, you’ve probably never been so bad that an expert calls out your exact business name without knowing you.)
So I decided it was time to start anew. I sent surveys to my readers, asked close friends for ideas, and studied other successful companies in my industry.
I then narrowed down the ideas to five finalists and asked friends and readers to select their favorite.
Their selection? “10xTravel.”
I was not a huge fan of the name, but it won by wide margin. Personally, I was really excited by my idea to name the site “The Opposite of Frugal,” branding the site as helping people travel luxuriously with very little money. Of course this name finished dead last.
So I trusted the process and went with 10xTravel. It was humbling to realize that it wasn’t my opinion that mattered, but instead that of my customers.
The experience taught me the importance of connecting with my audience on a regular basis. So I ditched my dream of a get-rich-quick e-book and decided to start blogging regularly. I committed to writing one post per week and worked up from there to our current editorial calendar of three to four posts a week.
I created an email list and gave a free copy of my newly revised e-book to anyone who signed up, I added a five-day email course to help people get started, and started to email every new subscriber to personally offer my help in planning their next vacation.
The end: Finding my groove
These changes resulted from a small but important change in mindset: I went from viewing readers as a possibility for a one-time sale to viewing them as lifelong clients of my business.
The new brand + new business model + lessons from Zero to Launch helped my business grow from <$500 a month in revenue to more than $15,000 a month in less than one year. Website traffic also grew steadily as I continued to blog and engage with my audience.
This gave me the ability to hire more writers to help with creating content, which led to even more traffic, which led to more revenue, which allowed me to hire more writers, and on and on.
The rapid growth also freed me up to focus on creating new revenue streams that I never would have considered even six months earlier. I created another info product (e-book + templates) on how to repair bad credit (a skill I picked up after working around credit cards for years), secured additional affiliate relationships, and have launched partnerships with a number of other companies in the travel and finance world such as NextVacay (another Zero to Launch success story), BNB Financials, Credit Sesame, and Personal Capital.
Today the business generates more than $25,000 each month and continues to grow and expand in ways I never would have thought possible. But as I mentioned earlier, there is no way my business would be where it is today had I not pursued (and failed) at my first idea.
This entire experience has dramatically changed the way I look at starting an online business. My philosophy has gone from “find ways to use your skills to profit” to “find ways to use your skills to create value for others and the profit will follow.”
I see so many aspiring online entrepreneurs talk themselves out of launching a business because they can’t see the immediate path to generating a profit. It may seem counterintuitive but I’m thankful every day that I was too naïve and arrogant to fall into that trap.
If you find yourself in this position, I have just one piece of advice for you: get started. Don’t worry about the shortest path to generating revenue or what your business will look like five years from now.
Start moving forward and you’ll start to see opportunities you never could have imagined.