Scaling a One-Man Operation into a Million-Dollar Business

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

I'm Dom Wells, hailing from the UK, but currently living in Taipei, Taiwan. I've been living in Taipei since 2008 (when I was an English teacher), but have been working full time online since around 2013. I'm currently working on Human Proof Designs, which I founded in late 2013 and bootstrapped to its current state. HPD offers training and services in the affiliate marketing world.

Our flagship products are our "Done For You" affiliate websites. Anyone from beginner affiliate marketers to more experienced people looking to scale their business use our services.

In 2017, we did $1.1 million USD in sales, which was the first time we crossed the seven-figure threshold. In 2018 we're looking to hit $1.3 million.

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What motivated you to get started with Human Proof Designs?

I founded HPD because I noticed there were dozens of people selling junk "turnkey websites" on Flippa, and people were gobbling them up, expecting to make money on autopilot.

I knew these people were going to fail because they were buying trash, but that they wouldn't understand why they were failing because they weren't familiar with the product or the business. So I wanted to offer something better, something legit, that would actually help people get started with a “Done For You” service. I then realized I would also have to create a ton of training, since most people didn't understand what to do with these sites one they were up and running.

So HPD and its blog were created. At the time, I was still teaching English part-time, and using my own affiliate site income as well. Every dollar I earned went back into helping HPD scale, so it was very much a bootstrapped business.

It was hard to validate the idea at first because I was mostly competing with scammers. I knew that a “Done For You” service must have been in demand, though, because I own bunch of my own affiliate sites and I live and breathe internet marketing. My personal connection to the business was what helped us get some traction. I blogged about what I’ve learned and the techniques I have succeeded with, so naturally people were attracted to us and our offers.

What went into building the initial product?

Since I had success with a few of my own sites, I already knew what was required to make a decent affiliate website. The tough part was figuring out exactly what to include in the initial offer. I wanted to make something affordable, so I started off offering sites for around $250, with no content included. However, I came to realize that people wanted content, and wanted researched keywords as well. They didn't want me to just pick the niche, give them a skeleton site, and let them get on with it.

So over time we increased what we included with the sites and priced accordingly. Then it was just a case of tweaking until we found the sweet spot. We basically wanted to give people the maximum possible, for the most reasonable price. This led to us creating “Done For You” sites that come with around 10,000 words of content, keyword optimization, on-page SEO, a fully built website, and a plan/blueprint to take the sites from there and grow them.

It's been an evolving process and we are due to update our offer in the next few weeks. As affiliate marketing has changed, our audience has changed, and what people want from us has inevitably changed as well. Ultimately, our decisions are based on responding to demand. If people want X and we can include it, we will.

I had originally wanted to build sites for people first, and then have them view and buy them. The problem was that I initially had basically no money (my own internet marketing efforts were paying my rent), and no audience. So I didn't want to build a bunch of sites, pay for their content, and then be stuck with them hoping someone would come along and buy them.

So instead I initially built sites on commission. This meant that customers would pay up front, and I would then go and start the project, which was a much more scalable method, and I was able to hire help as more orders came through.

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How have you attracted users and grown Human Proof Designs?

I touched on this a bit above, but essentially here's what we did, and still do:

  1. Write good content and sit back while everyone flocks to us.

Haha no, just kidding.

Good content is a huge part of what we do, though. We focus on teaching affiliate marketing, so that attracts an audience to us, and many of them end up hiring us for our services. We’ve started to sell courses, which are taking time to get traction, but content marketing is a large part of this. I had initially considered giving sites away for free and having users subscribe to training instead, but I felt that was less practical and I didn't want to hold people's sites hostage in order to turn a profit. In the end, I'm happy with the path we’ve gone down.

Initially we focused on SEO, and while we still do this, we also do content that is designed for an existing audience, so not every post we create is with the aim of ranking in Google. Sometimes your audience just need to read something, regardless of whether or not there are people searching for it.

If I were to do anything differently, I would focus more on what my audience needed and less on what I wanted to give them.

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  1. Before we had a name and a brand, I did a lot of outreach to other influencers in the space.

This of course took time, because there are so many "gurus" and people teaching affiliate marketing, that I wasn't really taken seriously initially. Fair enough, actually. After a while, people started to see that I was doing good things, and once one or two influencers started recommending me, letting me guest post for them, or having me on their podcasts, then other influencers started to do the same thing.

Many of these are now my friends (some even in real life), so networking has been a huge part of finding success in this niche. In fact, I wish I hadn't waited six months to pluck up the courage to start doing it! At one point, referral traffic was our highest converting traffic source, so it just goes to show how important networking is.

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  1. Be active in Facebook Groups and forums.

Spending time on Facebook can make you feel like you are working when in fact you are wasting time, so it is a double edged sword. That said, in my niche, this is where my audience hangs out, and it's how I've been able to build my authority and capture a user base. By answering people's questions, engaging with the community, and dropping links to my content ONLY WHERE RELEVANT (very important), I've been able to get a lot of traction on Facebook.

It's also a good place for brand evangelists. Whenever people ask for reviews on our services, or ask which services to use, there are a lot of HPD customers in those groups who are more than happy to recommend us, and the fact that I'm active in those groups as well makes the process more organic.

What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

Every month we list “Ready Made” affiliate websites that we've researched and built. Some of these are "Aged" sites, which we built six months prior to listing, so people can pick them up and skip some of the sandbox period (a period where Google doesn't like ranking brand new sites). There are others, which are cheaper because they’re brand new and listed as soon as they're built.

We have some sites that people commission us to build, so they're not ready at the time of listing, but we'll build as soon as someone pays. We are transitioning out of these sites, though, and only focusing on ones that are ready to pick up instantly.

We also do custom sites where people bring us their niche ideas, and we go and build the sites around those niches, based on our own expertise and keyword research. Outside of that, we have a few complementary services like article writing, SEO, link building, and so on. We initially didn't offer these, but people kept asking, so who were we to deny them!

Upsells, additional services, and increasing the lifetime value of our customers has been one way to grow our business. We’ve also scaled the amount of sites we list, as well as the aforementioned supplementary services. We are a huge team now — over 200 freelancers fulfilling services, and a core leadership team of around 10.

We have experimented with paid ads, but the results are never conclusive. Sometimes it looks like we made more than we spent, other times, not even close. Pay-per-click can be frustrating considering it is supposed to be clearer than SEO. One thing that has worked really well, however, is promotions. In July we recorded $115,000 USD revenue, by offering a huge two week promotion where we offered discounts on our services. In spite of the discounts, it was still our second best month ever.

Some of our services only have a 10% margin while other services have closer to 50%, so we have to be careful which products we do promotions on. In 2017 we had a few months where we did promotions on our lowest margin products, had breakthrough revenue months, and then wondered why we barely made any money. Oops!

We’ve found that many of the biggest buyers were repeat buyers. We have a lot of brand evangelists and people who buy from us time and time again. This is because we have improved our operations department over the years, and turned what was once our weakest department into our strongest.

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What are your goals for the future?

The whole time we've been scaling HPD, we've also been scaling our own portfolio of affiliate sites because it’s important to to walk the talk. We can't just teach affiliate marketing if we're not actively in the trenches ourselves. We've got efficient processes and a talented team, and it would be a waste to just build sites for other people and not ourselves.

So, a large part of our growth over the next two to three years is going to come from scaling our portfolio more aggressively. We've also partnered with some people to help grow their sites for them, and we may consider starting a fund as well.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

We struggled a lot with operations when things really started to take off. We just didn't have enough people to meet the demand, and we ended up having to refund customers. Our reputation took a hit back then because those same people who now praise us in Facebook groups would go there to complain about how slow we were.

You have to level yourself up if you want to level your business up.

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We got that all sorted out, and the hardest thing now is continuing to scale to meet the salaries of people we've hired along the way. We're still very much profitable, but as you acquire more expenses, growth eventually starts to slow down and you have to be diligent about balancing the books.

If I were to do anything differently, I would focus more on what my audience needed and less on what I wanted to give them. That's probably true for many businesses, though. I also would have started networking sooner, and would have hired my team earlier.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

The book Traction by Gino Wickman was a huge help when we were having operations issues. It truly change my life, just as advertised. Also, joining various communities like Dynamite Circle and networking with other business minded people is very important.

You have to level yourself up if you want to level your business up. Not just mindset, but everything.

What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

Don't be afraid to evolve and change your offer or service based on new information. There is going to be some diminishing return with this because you can't keep changing all the time, but you have to keep innovating and responding to new demands and client feedback.

Where can we go to learn more?

www.humanproofdesigns.com is the best place to keep up with the business.

We also have a pretty engaged audience in our free Facebook Group!

founder

Dom Wells

Want to build your own business like Human Proof Designs?

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  1. 5

    I'll be honest this makes no sense to me:

    Why would you build me a site that makes 2k/mo for less 1k. Why wouldn't you just build these sites and sell them 10-20x what your asking for to build them in 6-12mos. Unless 9 out 10 of these don't work out.

    1. 8

      Hey Bob,

      That question makes sense, but it's a simple answer.

      To make a site like this succeed, you need to work at it. If it was a case of us building them and then they would automatically rank and make money without us doing further work to them, then of course we would keep 100% of them for ourselves.

      That's what was so ironic about the scams I used to see on flippa, they were promising autopilot millions. Why not just keep the site?

      Now, my team actually do build and run and then flip many sites ourselves, we have a portfolio making five figures per month right now, and we are always actively building, buying and selling more.

      But we have a capacity for how many sites we can run at any given time. Let's say we can manage 20 sites ourselves, but we have researched hundreds of niches, and we have another part of our team which can build out sites easily (to get them to a certain point of "readiness") and then there is also a huge demand from our audience, it just makes sense that we handle the supply to meet that demand.

      In this aspect of our business, we're taking the short-term win over the long-term win of building and keeping them, but you have to do a bit of everything in order to not miss out on opportunities.

      So, your conclusion that only 9 out of 10 of them work isn't accurate here, although I should definitely stress that the success of one of our websites comes down to the new owners ability to make it work, which is why we have created so much training over the years too.

      1. 1

        But the whole process could be outsourced with your services.

        • SEO
        • Article writing
        • PR
        • Link building
        1. 2

          True but it's the management and the strategy and the focus that is not outsourceable. Each site works differently and if we just mass built out these sites and automated all of the above then we'd a.) Need a lot of capital to make it work and b.) A lot of sites wouldn't succeed. What sets successful sites apart is having someone focused on them in the driving seat. This is not something you can just set and forget.

          1. 1

            Btw, I'm not trying to give you hard time. Just trying to understand.

            1. 1

              Thanks! I didn't think you were, but appreciate the clarification. It's always good to get some of the harder questions so I can understand how people perceive the offer etc.

  2. 4

    congratulations on great business! Would you please share which tools you use to manage your very large team of freelancers?

    1. 2

      Hey Eugene,

      We've found the system to be more important than the tools themselves. We've played around with various different management tools and what works best for us right now is keeping it simple. We use a combination of Slack, Trello, and Google Docs/sheets.

      If a team is trained well and operates well, then everything works fine with those tools.

      I also have a lot of SOPs and a full time COO who keeps things running well, because personally I am not very good at that side of things.

      1. 3

        I like the simple as possible approach. I set up systems for businesses like yours and a good set of SOPs with basic systems will beat a complex sets of systems where people only use 25% of the features.

  3. 4

    Touching 1M revenue is no less feat, congrats!

    1. 1

      Thanks!

  4. 3

    One part that stuck out to me is the education piece. If you're going to hand over the keys, it's good to teach people how to drive.

    1. 2

      Yep absolutely. I think whether people prefer to buy a site or build one themselves, they will need to learn how to use the site, so we want to give them that skill regardless.

  5. 3

    This was an absolutely cracking read. Blows my mind to read about people running highly successful businesses in such niche and lucrative areas. Great story and thanks for sharing.

    1. 2

      Thanks! Happy to hear this.

  6. 2

    Great interview! Thanks for going into such detail.

    Question about Amazon affiliates: Don't you have to hit a certain website traffic threshold in order to quality for Amazon associates? How do you do this when the site is brand new?

    1. 1

      You can sign up for Amazon with a brand new site, and then you have 180 days to earn your first three sales, at which point they review your site to make sure it is compliant. So no you don't need a certain traffic threshold.

      1. 1

        Great, that makes sense. How do you think about affiliate networks or individual affiliate programs?

        1. 1

          I don't really have a preference. I mostly look at it the other way around anyway. What problems do my audience have? Is there an existing product with an affiliate program which will solve those problems? Great! I don't really worry whether it's individual or a network at this point, so long as I trust the vendor.

  7. 2

    Hey Dominic, Great interview! Congrats on your success so far. We are focusing on SEO currently to grow our business - what tools would you recommend?

    1. 2

      If I had to pick just one tool it would be Ahrefs, but there are lots of other tools too. It depends on your goal. For example, if you want to do an onpage SEO audit, I'd recommend something else.

      If you let me know more, I can recommend something more specific.

      1. 1

        I highly recommend https://seodity.com for on-page audit.

  8. 2

    Nice work Dominic!

    1. 1

      Thanks!

  9. 2

    hey @HumanProofDesigns,
    I already know something about you and Humanproofdsigns thorugh facebook groups like nichehacks and nichesiteproject with Doug.
    .
    And I am also in amazon affiliate niche business so I was wondering if you can help me in choosing the links package on your site.

    Currently i haave some medium search volume keyword which are ranking on 2nd and 3rd page.
    So which PBN link package should I buy on Humanproofdesigns in order to rank them on first page?

    Thanks!

    1. 1

      Hey Mike,

      It's really difficult to know for sure without more details about your site, so if you send an email to [email protected] we can take a look in more detail.

  10. 1

    Hello,

    first, congrats on your site.

    I decided to comment because we have built what could really be perfect in many ways for your business:

    • a SEO data science platform UnicornSEO for analysis of niches (final target is 10,000 niches), which can help you find new niches and literally create optimised affiliate sites from our analytics
    • UnicornSEO can be white labelled which could be an opportunity for you to get additional significant revenue from your clients on a recurring basis
    • AI Content Generator based on deep learning. Similar to OpenAI GPT2 which is already impressive in terms of generating content. As the quality increases, the AI will be almost zero cost and rapid way of generating high quality content for affiliate sites like yours.

    With our data science platform, you can for each niche:

    • see which keywords offer most opportunity per work required based on analysis of rankings and on-page metrics (example insight: keywords with low average domain age of ranked pages are full of opportunity)
    • all inclusive: for each niche, our platform provides analysis of 1000s domains
    • benchmark and compare whole niches in terms of opportunity based on quant metrics
    • detailed on-page automated optimizations suggestions for all domains
    • topic modelling and new content ideas
    • host of machine learning, semantic and other tools
    • ability to potentially directly create new optimised affiliate websites from our analytics of a niche (via API)

    More information is available at https://www.unicornseo.com

    Let me know if you would be interested in possibilities offered by our platform.

    Best regards

  11. 1

    Hey Dom,

    What's your view on sites listed on Flippa ? Most are crap / fake ?

    PS : I'll test one of your article packages in the coming 2 months. Curious to see about the quality - not easy to find on UpWork.

    1. 1

      Not all junk, but most of the turnkey ones are. There are definitely some good sites on there but it's very much a needle/haystack thing going through them all. I prefer just paying slightly more and getting them off EmpireFlippers or FE International

  12. 1

    Hey,

    Long term follower of your site.

    What is your overall profit %?

    What is a healthy profit % that you should target for service based business model?

    1. 1

      Our services range from 10% profit to about 50%, so there's a large difference depending which ones sell. I would say 30% is really the minimum overall so that you have plenty of of funds available for other things like advertising, management costs etc

  13. 1

    Thx for the article, its motivating and feels real/achievable :)

    1. 1

      Great, glad you enjoyed it.

  14. 1

    Dominic, this was a great interview! Hugely helpful. Myself and a fellow indiehacker are currently building out an affiliate site so this is very timely. What do you think is the biggest hurdle we should watch out for?

    1. 1

      Hmm, tough to say any one thing. I think the biggest hurdle will be when you reach a point where you feel like nothing is working and you can't figure out what you should do next. When this happens, it's usually just a case of soldiering on until your site finally pops up to page 1, but it can be a killer to get through.

  15. 1

    Dominic, this was a great interview! Hugely helpful. Myself and a fellow indiehacker are currently building out an affiliate site so this is very timely. What do you think is the biggest hurdle we should watch out for?

  16. 1

    Great interview and info!

    Sorry if may ask an off topic question but as a someone who has done alot of work in Taiwan (Taichung) and thinking of moving there permanently how hwas doing business there been? Feel free to move to PMs as not to distract from your great product.

    Thanks!

    1. 1

      Yeah you can PM me with any questions you have. Essentially though since my business is 100% online it hasn't made a difference where I am. I have a spouse visa so I can work here without an ARC.

  17. 1

    Congrats on the $1MM ARR, but I’m curious why so little growth in the year? I don’t mean that to sound insulting, but rather I’m curious as to what scaling challenges you’re currently facing. I also might be used to seeing VC funded growth numbers, because 30% annual is not bad at all.

    1. 2

      The big growth took place in 2017 when we went from around $600k in 2016 to $1.1 MM in 2017. When making our goals for 2018, we didn't want to arbitrarily raise revenue for the sake of it, so we set 30% as a realistic growth goal, and then decided to focus on profit, and type of income too. Some of our services like article creation are less profitable than website creation..and also revenue isn't a true metric of profit, since you could achieve 100% revenue growth by spending 200% more on paid ads..so it wouldn't really be a good yardstick to always use.

      There are definitely challenges to growing though. For example, maybe we reach a ceiling in terms of demand for our products, or the more sites we sell, the less profitable we become since we need to hire middle level managers to cope with the increased number of freelancers, and so on.

      Also, recurring revenue is an important target for us this year too. So it's more a case of 2017 was incredible growth, and 2018 is realigning the focus, so that in 2019 we can scale faster again.

      1. 2

        Fascinating. Thanks for the reply.