"It doesn't necessarily feel that real at times." Dominic Wells (@human_proof) didn't initially set out to create a million-dollar business. However, he was so determined to find a way out of his job teaching English that he would write blog posts on his iPad in between classes. In this episode we dive into Dominic's winding path into building and scaling a profitable Internet business, why affiliate marketing is a great way to break into entrepreneurship for engineers and non-technical founders alike, and why the best advice is to just get started.
What's up everyone? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and you're listening to the Indie Hackers Podcast. On this show I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it's like to be in their shoes. How did they get to where they are today?
How do they make decisions both at their companies and in their personal lives, and what exactly makes their businesses tick? And the goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from their experiences and go on to build our own successful online businesses. In this episode I'm excited to be talking to Dominic Wells, the creator of a company called Human Proof Designs.
Dominic came onto the Indie Hackers website last August and shared the story of how he scaled his one-man operation into $1 million business with almost a dozen employees. So, I'm super excited to have him on the podcast to tell a story. Dominic, welcome to the show.
Hi. Thanks for having me.
Courtland Allen [ 00:00:52] Thanks for coming on. So, I have to ask, what does it feel like to have come on this journey where you're the head of a $1 million business? I think you said you're projecting to do 1.3 million in 2018. What does that feel like?
I don't know. It doesn't necessarily feel that real at times. When you first start out, you think, "Wow, I'd love to hit that range, or even half that range, maybe even a quarter of that range."
But when you're actually there, you just think, "Oh, that's not how I was expecting it to feel." And it just feels like a large number. Don't get me wrong. It's definitely a good feeling, though.
So you're not quite Scrooge McDuck diving headfirst into a pool full of money every day.
That would be interesting.
Your business is making over a million dollars a year and you said you would have been satisfied making just a quarter of that. So what were your goals in the beginning when you were first starting out?
It was more about the freedom than the money, as such. Although, obviously, the money was the tool to getting the freedom. So I didn't have particularly lofty goals. I just wanted to be able to do this full time and make more money than I was making at the time. And I think at the time I was only making about 1500 to 2000 US dollars a month.
So I would have been satisfied with around, say, $3,000 US a month. I remember saying to myself, if I get past that, say $5,000 a month, then I would just hire someone to run the business for me and then I'll just go off and do whatever I want. So it was more just to have some comfortable amount of money and then the freedom to just be location independent and financially stable.
So now you are in this position where you're clearly making a lot more than $5,000 a month. You have the freedom, at least financially, to do whatever you want. To train someone to replace you. But you haven't done that? Why not?
Well, I have to some extent. If I wanted to, say, take one to two weeks off work without the business and without the wheels falling off, I think that is very doable. The reason I don't is because, well, I'm not sure what else I would do with my time. But I think you get used to working and you get used to the income levels.
So even though I'm doing more than those goals back then, I've leveled up my lifestyle. So I guess my expenses are higher as well. So that keeps me working because I've got to keep making sure that everything is working and managing all of those expenses. But also, it's – you enjoy the work you do and you kind of get addicted to growing the business.
And you get addicted to, maybe in my case, launching new services or just achieving new goals. For example, being on more podcasts or speaking at conferences. Or hitting financial goals. And so, it just drives you to keep going. And when you get there, you think well, actually, I don't really want to just take time off and go and play golf every day because I would get bored doing that.
Yeah, it's funny before you've really built the thing that you want to work on, it's easy to look at it in almost a disconnected way. You just look at it as a means to an end or I'm going to build this company and it's going to allow me to be free and then I'll go do something else.
But once you actually put years of time into building the company, it becomes the end and you actually enjoy building the company and working on it. So that's something that's pretty common for me to hear. And I don't think I've met very many people who've just exited themselves from their business and truly enjoy just not doing anything.
I think if I was going to exit, it would be to do something else. I'm only 33 so what am I going to do with myself?
So we spent some time talking about your motivations and how you feel about the level of success that you've reached. We haven't even talked about what your business does yet. What is Human Proof Designs?
So we do some services for affiliate marketers. Basically, “done for you” services is probably a more accurate description. That includes “done for you” website building, article creation, some SEO stuff, as well as the services.
We have a training element. We have a course, we have the blog with a lot of content. We have our own podcast and then people who buy our sites get access to all our training as well.
I think you're the first person that I've had on The Indie Hackers Podcast who's working in the affiliate marketing space. So can you explain to the audience what affiliate marketing is, exactly?
It's basically, I think, the easiest way to understand it is to think of Amazon.com and they have an affiliate program where they will basically pay you a commission if you send them a customer. So what affiliate marketers do, a common strategy, is to build a website around a certain topic and rank it at the top of Google and then review and recommend products.
So one of my first websites that I succeeded with was about shaving. I ranked a website at the top of Google for various search terms like best straight razor or what's the difference between a straight razor and a safety razor? And then those keywords, I would have articles that answered people's questions and recommended various different razors which were available on Amazon.
And then people would search for those terms, they would read my article, they would click over to Amazon to check out the products I recommended, and some of them would buy those products. Then Amazon would send me money.
Yeah, I think affiliate marketing is fascinating because if you think about all the different aspects of running a business, building a product, researching what people are going to like, and how the product should evolve with what people's needs are. Marketing that product, selling that product, distributing it through various channels, etc.
Affiliate marketing takes that list and crosses out half of it. You don't have to build a product anymore. You don't have to really figure out what should go into the features, the details of that product. Because you're just selling somebody else's product, you're selling somebody else's razors, in your particular case.
And I don't think this is really talked about enough in circles of people who have the skills to build something. If you're a programmer, for example, you just take it for granted that you should build your own product. But a lot of times you end up focusing on building to the detriment of marketing and sales.
I think getting into affiliate marketing is a good way to learn a lot of those other skills because really you have nothing else to do with your time besides focus on those things.
Yeah, definitely. And I think it's also a good way of researching more about opportunities because in various niches that I'm involved in I can tell what gaps there are in the market because maybe I look for products to recommend and there isn't anything, or I review something and realize maybe it's not the best solution.
So, if I had the skills to then create that solution, then I would stop promoting somebody else's product in that particular niche and promote mine instead.
One thing that's worth discussing about affiliate marketing is that it gets kind of a bad rap in some circles. I'm sure some people listening in right now are thinking to themselves, "Oh God, not affiliate marketing. Isn't that just full of scammers and spammers and lazy get rich quick schemers?" What do you say to that?
No. (Laughs.) For sure there are those people out there. I guess the affiliate marketing although, the kind of wider internet marketing industry has probably a higher percentage of them than other areas. But to do affiliate marketing correctly, to actually make money and not just try to make money and then fail miserably, you have to be honest.
You have to recommend products that are actually good. You can't just make stuff up. And Google's getting a lot better at detecting sites that are scammy and Amazon kicks people out of that program if they don't write authentic reviews and so on and so on.
So 10 years ago I would have said it's a much higher percentage, but I think that percentage gets smaller every year. So there's nothing wrong with just writing an article that helps someone make a purchase decision if you're being honest about it.
Yeah, exactly. There's nothing wrong with that at all. And I wonder what effect the fact that being an affiliate marketer means that you don't necessarily need to create your own product.
You don't need to know how to code, just sort of lowers the barrier to entry. And if you lower the barrier to entry, then, of course, you're going to get more people of all sorts and types, including some of the people who don't care at all about being good actors.
Yeah, for sure. And I think how the internet and internet marketing evolved over the last 20 years in terms of people selling info products. I think, info products became this thing where people realized, "Oh, it's quite easy to make money selling info products.”
And I think a lot of them didn't really know what to sell info products about. So they sold info products about internet marketing. There's a lot of gurus out there who basically just spun up these junk products promoting affiliate marketing.
And so that attracted a lot of these get rich quick people who didn't really know the difference between doing it correctly and doing it incorrectly. But I think we're coming out the other side of that and seeing more and more emphasis on quality and the proper business building skills that you need.
So for you to have a successful business teaching people how to be successful affiliate marketers, I assume that you yourself had a background in doing the same. How did you first get started as an entrepreneur and how did that segue and to becoming an affiliate marketer?
I read various books in my early to mid-twenties. One of those books was the “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” books, which awakened the idea that I could actually become an entrepreneur. It didn't give me much of a blueprint, but it kind of made me realize, "Oh, this is something I could do if I learn it."
And then, through there I kind of journeyed my way to the 4-Hour Work Week book and that sort of pointed me to online as a place to make money. And then, I discovered a few blogs that just talked about internet marketing and I had no idea how any of that works. I didn't understand about getting commissions or email autoresponders or anything.
So I just sort of started learning from various -- I joined a few membership sites that taught internet marketing. I read lots of blogs and I basically started out by building a few of my own sites. One was about kettlebells, I remember it was one of the first ones. There was the shaving one I mentioned. And I just kept building sites that ultimately failed until I built sites that didn't. I just learned trial by error.
So give me the story of some of these sites that failed and maybe dive into some of the lessons that you learned that helped you start building sites that succeeded.
I think every site that I started and failed, I learned a lot and I started iterating quite quickly. So, I think I went through quite a few different sites in the first six months. One of the first ones I started was a quit smoking website. And that was because I had basically just quit smoking. So I thought, "Oh, okay, yeah, that makes sense."
And that failed because it's a very competitive niche and I didn't really know enough about what I was doing back then. I didn't really know how to compete with the biggest sites. I didn't know how to promote specific products. And I had this mindset that I had to promote one specific solution and had to say everything else wasn't really that good.
And I had quit smoking by reading a book. And so I basically was just saying, "Yeah, you just need to read this book. It worked for me so it can work for you. And things like e-cigarettes are not a good idea because this book's better." When really, I should've said, "Well e-cigarettes could be good for you, and if they are, these are the best ones. Or you could try this book, or you could try this method, because lots of different things work for different people.”
So I learned two main things there. One was don't go after a really competitive niche. Two was you have to be more open-minded about what things you can recommend. The next site I started was about kettlebells and that one did okay. I recommended various kettlebell DVDs for people that wanted to follow a DVD. I recommended different kettlebells themselves, and various different exercises.
That was the first website where I learned about to build an email list and trying to improve your conversions and things like that. Then when I started the shaving site, it was the first site that made me over a thousand dollars a month. I didn't really think I had any real breakthroughs with that one. I was just getting better and better every time I started a new site. So it all came together.
So you're putting together site after site, you're learning from your successes. You're learning from your failures. You're getting better over time. How else are you learning during this time period? Are you reading any books? Are you listening to podcasts? Are you reading blog posts or stuff like that?
All of the above. You know, I was devouring content wherever I could. I was commuting to work on the bus, so I would always listen to podcasts on the bus. This was 2012 so I don't think I had mobile Internet back then. So I was downloading podcasts before I got on the bus and then listening to them, and getting to work, and on my break reading blogs.
And then yeah, I was always trying what I read. Because you don't really know whether what someone says is true or not. Or if it is true, is it going to work for you? So the best way to do it is just try it. And then that's also the worst thing because it can be very frustrating, because you often have to wait a few months to see the results.
Because maybe you try something for ranking higher in Google, but Google's not going to tell you – it's not going to rank you straight away. So you might have to wait three to six months to know if that even is the right way of doing things. It's the best way to do it. But it also takes time.
I want to dive into what your life was like at the time and really just talk about the logistics. You mentioned that you were listening to podcasts and audio books on the way to work on the bus.
I think a lot of people who are trying to start companies are trying to balance starting companies in their free time with having an actual, full-time job, which is no easy task. So what did it look like for you in terms of juggling, getting these affiliate sites off the ground, making money online and learning how to get better and also, having a full-time job at the same time?
I don't think I could do it again. I think I became relatively, I wouldn't say antisocial, but I definitely started turning down invitations to go to a bar with friends and stuff a lot more. I actually started living with my then girlfriend at the time. So that made things a lot easier as well because I found if I lived with her – this might sound like I did it on purpose, but because I was living with her, I didn't have to go out on dates with her as often.
Because we saw each other all the time. So we still went out, I'm gonna try and work this in the right way. I didn't have to go and travel an hour across the city to go and see her, because we would just hang out. But that was one thing. Like I say, I was always trying to maximum, utilize any free time I had to think about the business or work on the business. So for example, I had an iPad and a lot of what I did early on was writing blog posts. So I took my iPad to work with me and if I had, say – just to give some context, I was teaching English in Taiwan, so I might have two hours of class and then I might have a 30-minute break before my next class.
So that 30 minutes would be, I would plan my next class as fast as I could. And then the rest of the free time would be writing an article on my iPad. And then maybe by the time I got home, I had written, say, three articles. And then I'd get home and transfer the articles through Dropbox from my iPad to my WordPress website. And I could then quickly format and publish those posts.
And I basically spent pretty much all of my free time working on the internet, on my business. And luckily my girlfriend was very supportive as well, so she wasn't competing for my time as much. It's something you said very early on in this podcast actually. You said, once you found something that you want to do, it becomes easy to do it.
And I remember she said to me that I was lucky because I found something I wanted to do, so I didn't mind not going out with friends because I wanted to stay at home and work on my business. So I didn't completely stop socializing because I would've probably had a breakdown.
Any waking moment I had, I guess, I was either working on the business or thinking about it, especially when I was in the middle of an English class and I had some naughty 10-year-olds going crazy. That's why I did a lot of fantasizing back then.
So what half of the equation is you sort of fitting your work into every little crack in your life that you possibly could working on the bus, working in between classes, but the other half of the equation was you biting off reasonable sized chunks of work. How long would it take you to take one of these new sites from start to finish?
Once I'd been doing it for a little while it didn't take very long at all. I do remember how confusing WordPress was to me the first time I used it. And you know, I imagine, a lot of people in the Indie Hacker audience, WordPress is quite a basic thing that's really simple to use.
But for me, I didn't even know any CSS or HTML, but I learned quite quickly, and I think within, say, three months I could get a brand-new website set up in a couple of hours. But the way to succeed with a website is to have a lot of content on it. So it was the content creation which would take time.
So I used to try to write – I think at one point I was trying to write three articles per week for each website I had, and I think I was working on three websites. So I was basically trying to write nine articles a week. And I remember I actually had a big whiteboard in my bedroom and I just had the article titles.
Like Monday, I'm going to write this article for this site and this article for that site and Tuesday I'm going to do this. So yeah, the actual setting up a website doesn't take long at all, but it's creating the content, which is what leads to people visiting your website and getting the actual success.
That's pretty fascinating because if you compare that to somebody building a SaaS product or a mobile app from scratch, I've never heard of anybody just sitting down and doing that in two hours and then moving straight into growth stuff, like content marketing.
But that sounds like pretty much what you were able to do because you are doing affiliate marketing. So you didn't really have the temptation or the risk of spending too much time on the product. You got to go straight into growth.
There's a lot of research that goes into it beforehand. Like is this a good niche? What articles am I going to actually create? I guess you can iterate quite quickly because you could create a website, put a few articles up and then if later you think, "Oh actually this isn't a good niche." You haven't lost too much time. So it's easy for you to just start a second site pivot to a slightly different topic or something along those lines.
It's hard to overstate how much of a shot in the arm it can be to be doing all this pivoting. To have such a quick feedback loop between you doing work and you actually releasing that work into the world, seeing what happened, and then going back to the drawing board and trying again. It's like a little hit of dopamine every single time you release.
And a lot of people end up quitting early because they take the opposite approach. They build one monolithic project for six months and they quit before it ever gets launched because it's just a slog and you lose all motivation if you're not getting any real feedback. How did all this iterating and pivoting on your websites lead to you starting Human Proof Designs?
So I think it was probably not quite a year since I had started. At the time I was making somewhere between $500 and a $1,000 a month online, which I thought was pretty good. One of the websites I had, I ended up selling on flippa.com. And that kind of opened the door to me to browsing Flippa a lot because there's a lot of websites available for sale there.
And one thing I noticed on Flippa was there was a lot of junk on there – they've actually improved a lot since 2012, 2013.But back then it wasn't really – it was kind of like the wild west. Like there was nothing really stopping someone from just uploading a website that was garbage really and making these false claims, like, I can't think of a specific example.
There were all sorts of websites where someone would say, "Hey, this website is going to make you thousands of dollars every month on autopilot because it's targeting this keyword that gets millions of searches a month and you don't have to do anything and it will just bring in money." And they'd be selling these websites for $300. It was always something nine seven. One nine seven, three nine seven, four nine seven.
And people will believe these claims and just buy these websites.
To me it was pretty obvious that the websites were not going to do anything because I had learned the difference, but I was kind of flabbergasted that people were actually just buying them. I guess for some people they thought, "Wow, it's only $300. It's not a big risk."
And I was talking to a friend about it who also knew internet marketing and I was just saying I could do a better job than that. I've only got less than a year's experience, so I don't know why these people are selling this junk.
And, long story short, my friend said, "Well, why don't you just start selling legitimate ones when you start building sites around niches that are going to succeed if the person puts in the effort and the work?"
Because obviously I could research hundreds of good niche ideas, but I couldn't put the time in to make every single one of those sites successful myself. So there was kind of this gap where I was like, "Well, I could give other people the ideas that I'm unable to use." So I just thought, "Yeah, why not? I'll try that. I'll start researching a few niches, build a beginner/starter site and put it on Flippa."
Very soon I realized I was competing with these scammers, basically. So I'm there saying like, "Hey, if you buy this site and work hard and follow my training, maybe you'll be making a few hundred dollars a month in a few months and you can scale that up." And then all the people around me were saying, "Hey, buy this site. You'll do no work and you'll be a millionaire."
So I didn't really get as many sales as I expected. It was weird. So that's when I realized, "Okay, I'm going to have to do a bit of product education and making customers aware of where the value is in my sites." So I started -- I stopped selling them on Flippa and started selling them on Human Proof Designs.
And I started doing content marketing and sharing case studies. I started basically just teaching internet marketing and it was like, "Hey, here's what I'm doing with my sites. Here's what's working for me. Here's how you can do it, too. Or if you want you can pay me, and I'll set up the site for you and then you can get a head start."
So that was how we started and now we have all these additional services because I'm responding to demand, really. Like people would say, "Hey, okay you've built this starter site for me. Can you also do more content for me?" And at first the answer was no because I was just a one-man band. Now the answer is like, "Yeah sure we can do that for you because we have the team."
There's a lot there that I want to dive into because I think these early stages of your business, these early decisions you make have an outsized impact on your long-term trajectory and ultimately how far your business can go. The first thing I want to highlight is that you chose to browse Flippa and that's how you came up with your idea, which I think is brilliant.
A lot of people have trouble coming up with an early stage idea because they're not sure what they can build of value that customers will actually want to pay for. But if you go to a website where a lot of money is changing hands, if you go to a marketplace like Flippa, where buyers are connecting with sellers, it's very obvious what people find valuable and what they're willing to pay money for, and then you can look at what the sellers are selling.
In this case, junk websites and false promises of making millions of dollars. You can see exactly how you can improve upon that and iterate upon that and build your own better product. How did you, after deciding to build these websites, iterate on your early idea? How did it change and become the Human Proof Designs that we know of today?
A fair amount changed, yeah, because when I first wanted to put the websites up, I didn't want to include content on them. So I was going to obviously charge a lot less money, but I felt like I can't do content at scale.
So I was basically just going to research the niche, pick all of the keywords that people were going to build content around, and then design the website, which isn't particularly hard in WordPress. And then give people the strategy and just sell it for say like $100.
So your plan is to do this one at a time, you're going to pick a new niche, design a new website, write new content for every single customer that comes in.
Yeah. And we still do that. We never – we don't just sell different copies of the same site to people. But yeah, the idea was, I thought I can't just write all the content myself. I can't do that at scale. I could build five websites a day if I'm just doing the website, but I can't put like 20 articles on a site five times a day.
But I kind of realized if people, I learned more about my audience because I guess I thought, "Well, if people want to pay for a website it's because they want to take a shortcut,” in a positive way. They're not being lazy, they just think, "Okay, I'd rather pay someone to set it up for me". So if I'm, if I'm to saying, “Okay, I'm going to set it up for you, but you still have to do all the content.”
A lot of people were like, "What's the point? Essentially I'm just paying you to install a WordPress theme." And obviously my argument was, "No, I'm kind of validating a niche for you." But anyway, I realized, "Well what if I just put the prices up and then invest the extra money in paying writers to write the content?"
Obviously, it cost me money then to build the sites because I had to pay writers. So I started just building, say, five sites a month and I'd pre-build them and then I'd advertise them on my website like, "Hey, these five sites are available, but if you want you can have a custom site."
And this was something that really helped in the beginning because a custom site was essentially where someone says, "I don't really want to have a website around any of the ones you've put for sale around those topics, but could you build me one around this topic or do you have any other topics like, that you're going to do next month?"
And that was really quite helpful back then because if someone wanted a custom site, they would pay me up front and then I would build the site. So it meant I wasn't forking out the money to build the site in the hope that someone bought it, it was like, "Okay, I've got the money, now I'm going to pay the writers to do the content."
So in the early days, I put a lot of emphasis on the custom sites. It was the only real way that I could scale. And then as the blog grew, I realized people were buying the pre-made ones a lot faster. If I built five, they would sell out a lot quicker. And I thought, "Well, how can I scale this?"
And then I thought, "Well, if people don't mind paying me for a custom site and waiting for it to be built, maybe when I do these pre-made ones, I still don't have to make the site in advance. I can just list the niche and list all of the statistics about it, like why it's a good niche. Then someone can commission me to build it, which meant that I could scale a lot faster because I could list 25 different niches all at once, but I would only build them once someone paid me."
And once someone bought a site, I would take that one off, so two people didn't try and buy the same site. And that was a huge game changer because it just suddenly meant I could scale because if I sold 20 sites, I would then just go and hire some writers to write for them and hire someone to help me build those sites. But I already had the money.
Like I already knew a sale was going to be there. Because I had this massive fear of building out sites in advance and not selling them and having to wait weeks or months to get the money back. And this just happened over the course of about a year and a half, actually.
I'm not exactly sure how I came up with the idea, but a lot of the success I had in growing the business was kind of having ideas and thinking, "Oh, that might work." And then trying it, and sometimes it did work and sometimes it didn't.
Once again, a lot of great stuff that I want to dive into and extract some lessons from. The first is that you kept coming up with these new ideas that all sounded pretty plausible. People are scamming each other on Flippa. Why don't I sell them something that's gonna work? Sounds like a plausible idea.
Turns out it's hard to out-market the scammers, they just make better promises. And you are back to the drawing board. You said, "I need to educate people and teach them how to make good websites themselves." Turns out that when you try to sell that your customers don't really want to be educated.
They just really wanted to make money online without having to do any work or learn anything. So back to the drawing board again, etc., etc. I think it really illustrates how as entrepreneurs, our ideas are just hypotheses. They may or may not work. They're not guaranteed to work, so the best thing you can do is release as fast as you possibly can.
Try to sell customers, gather their feedback if they don't buy, figure out what they find valuable and then go and build that. The other thing I want to talk about is the fact that it was literally your business to come up with ideas and sell these ideas to your customers.
A lot of people listening in, I think would agree, that the main thing stopping them from starting a business is they don't have any idea that they can get behind, that they think is going to work and be profitable. Dominic, can you share some insights on your process for coming up with so many ideas and help the audience figure out how they can do the same?
Well, with affiliate marketing where most people start, is just picking a good niche. They'll use keyword tools. So a keyword tool is essentially a tool that tells you how many searches certain search terms get per month. Some of the better tools also help you figure out how competitive they are.
Because if you want to rank number one in Google, you need to make sure that the sites that are already ranking number one are not impossible to outrank. If you've got really strong websites like Forbes and Entrepreneur.com ranking number one, then it might be hard for you to beat them. And then there's other things you can do.
Like for example, on Amazon.com you can go to that best seller lists and just get a bunch of ideas about what things are selling well in what categories. And then you can think, "Well, okay, this product sells well. How's the competition look? Is there a gap there? Can I market it? Is there a space for me to rank a website in Google?"
So that's kind of how I do ideation with affiliate marketing. But then in the broader business sense, if I was trying to come up with the idea for a good SaaS or something like that, it's more about just being familiar with your particular niche or with multiple niches, because when you're familiar with them you can see where the gaps are because you might have experienced these pain points yourself.
So I'm not going to go as far as saying you should try and build a niche around your passion because I think that's a good starting point, but it can be problematic. But I will say the more familiar you are with particular niches or industries, the easier it is to spot opportunities. It's an ongoing practice as well. The more you think about it or train yourself, the more you can spot these opportunities.
The consistent thing in your approach is that you're always starting with your customers. If you're looking at your customers, you're looking at the market, you're trying to find the gaps in the market. Where can you provide value that isn't being provided? And only then do you think of what kind of solution you can build.
And it's much easier said than done to do it in that order because so many of us have our pet projects, our favorite ideas for things we just really want to create and then we'll figure out who will buy it and why. And I think that's the wrong order to do things in. Another thing you do that is very hard for people to do, is find early customers for your websites.
You had a lot of people on Flippa, again, competing with you basically telling customers lies and exaggerating the benefits of buying their products. How did you cut through that noise and get your first customers to your website?
I mean competing with people, making wild claims is fairly easy. You just have to be honest and have integrity and the people that you want to be your customers can spot the difference. But how I got in front of those people in the first place, it was actually pretty slow going.
Like particularly in the make money online niche or the affiliate marketing niche, it was way more competitive than my shaving niche or my kettlebell niche. And it took way longer than I expected to get traction. Fortunately, because I had these other sites making me money, it was okay.
There wasn't a time limit where I needed to make money in three months, or I had to get a job. So that really helped. But in the beginning, it was pretty slow going. I didn't get that many customers.
What I did was, because this was a kind of – I was living and breathing affiliate marketing, I knew where my audience hung out. So I guess I did two or three different things. Like I tried some things that failed miserably. I went to Warrior Forum and did a Warrior special offer selling my sites and I didn't get a single sale.
Not everything was a success. But where I found the most success was, I joined Facebook groups that were just relevant, like people learning affiliate marketing. I was active in those and this was kind of at the dawn of Facebook groups, I guess.
So a lot of the groups were smaller, but that meant it was also easier to get your name recognized for – you answer a few people's questions helpfully and suddenly people know who you are.
And when I was in those groups, I would just share my blog posts. Like I would say, "Hey, here's a case study I did about how I improved the conversions on one of my websites." And people would read it kind of similar to the way people share stuff on Indie Hackers. And then I also was reading a lot of blogs from other people in the niche.
They were also sharing case studies about internet marketing. And fortunately, I had an offering where I didn't really compete with them. You know, like some of them had other services, some of them had training that they sold. Some of them just wanted to make money from affiliate commissions themselves, like recommending software.
So I would read their blogs, I would comment, I would subscribe to their emails and I would reply to the emails and a lot of them were so busy they get thousands of people replying. So I wasn't exactly able to build a connection with them. But some of the smaller ones, we were able to sort of strike up a relationship just because I would say like, "Hey, good article, I've got a question about it."
And it was just a natural process of building relationships. Then I might say to them, “Can I guest post for you?" Or "Hey, this is what I offer. Do you think your audience would be interested in checking that out?" And again, for every person who was receptive to me, probably five weren't.
But once enough people have been receptive to you, then more people start noticing you and more people are receptive to your ideas. And maybe they rejected your guest post request three weeks ago, but now they're like, "Oh, I know who you are now I've seen you on this other guy's blog."
So it just slowly starts to get traction and you know, the first six to twelve months were really difficult, but then after that, it got a lot easier. It was a slog. If you can get past the point where you're too new for people to care, then suddenly you can get traction quite quickly.
It sounds like a slog. You're emailing influencers, trying to get guest posts, you're running your business, coming up with ideas for people and building websites for them. You are still running your earlier affiliate businesses that you set up and you're teaching English at the same time.
How did you manage the transition from this full-time job teaching English to finally working full time on your own business?
I was in a kind of fortunate position where I was able to reduce my teaching hours. Partly it was because I was at a language school that wasn't doing that well. So if I said to my boss, "Oh, I don't really need to teach 30 hours a week now, like 20 hours is fine," she might say, "Well that's great because you've only got 20 hours."
And then she ended up retiring and no one wanted to take over the school. And so I was given a few job offers at similar schools because it was a chain. So one of the other branches offered me the job, but I didn't really want to suddenly have to take on more hours. So I was able to basically, long story short – some of my students at the school that was closing, they didn't want to go to a new school either.
So a lot of them just said, "Well, can we just pay you to come to our house and teach? Which was – it was a good deal because they got to pay less money for the class, but I got to earn more because we weren't – the money wasn't going to my boss who was then giving me a certain amount. I think I ended up with something like 10 to 15 hours a week teaching.
So that meant, "Okay great. I've got way more time now to work on my business." And then maybe one of my students after a few months would say, they would just not need me anymore. The kid was going to secondary school, like high school or something. It got to the point where I just – if I lost a student, I wouldn't replace a student.
Because there was a lot of word of mouth referrals and instead of saying, "Yes I can, I can teach you," I just started saying, "No, sorry, I can't." And one thing I did with the private students was I made sure I didn't take any classes on a Friday. So I had one day every week where I could just have a solid work on the business day.
And I started hiring more team members for my online businesses as well. So that increased the productivity. So not only was I creating more hours for myself, but I was also hiring, like I was buying other people's hours as well.
It's so funny, your full-time job teaching these kids English was almost like its own business, really. And so you're running that business on the side of the business you actually wanted to start, Human Proof Designs, but you just let it slowly dwindle down to nothing.
And there's a common thread here, which is that in your full-time job, you're teaching people, you're teaching kids, but with Human Proof Designs, you're also teaching people, you're teaching them how to build successful websites. What are some things you've learned about how to teach people and how helpful do you think it's been to retain this common thread of education in everything that you've done?
Yeah, it's kind of ironic that I wanted to get out of teaching. My way to do that was just move into teaching. Teaching people effectively is – it's an ongoing practice for me. I think I get better at teaching every year. It depends on the person. I love just being able to write someone an email answering their questions, but not everyone wants to send me an email with their questions.
Some people you can write a blog post, they'll just read it and be like, "Okay, I'm going to figure this out from here." Other people need a lot more back and forth, a lot more interaction. Some people prefer podcasts, some people prefer videos. Some people hate videos. Some people just want to send you messages on Facebook all day.
Others you won't hear from them for a month and they'll just come back with a question every now and then. So that means that it's kind of difficult to create a one size fits all form of education. So you either have to just do one form of education that is going to be effective for all those people who sign up.
Like "Okay, I'm just going to do a video course," and if people don't like videos then they're not my customer. Or you have to kind of have a lot of different teaching methods. You also have to constantly evolve the content of your lessons. Whatever the format is, you're always going to miss something.
Or there's the curse of knowledge where you don't know what – you forget stuff that is simple to you but could be a huge question for the person you're teaching. Like for example, yesterday I was, I was on a coaching call with someone. I'm working on a course teaching people how to buy and sell established websites and one of the people I was on a call with doing some research for the content of this course.
She mentioned she had a big, not fear, but a big sticking point about selling her website once she's bought one and grown one. And I asked her what that particular fear or concern was, and she said just basic logistics, like how do I pass the website onto the new owner? And for me, I completely forgotten that.
For me it was very simple just transferring hosting or something like that, transferring a website from hosting A to hosting B. I can do it in an hour. For this person that was like a huge question mark. So I would not have really been able to teach that effectively if I hadn't spoken to her and taken that on board.
So the best way to teach effectively is to be actually interacting with your students. You can't just create some information and say, "Here it is, go through that and you'll be fine." I mean, you can do that, but maybe you can't charge as much for it because it's not going to get as big a result for as many people.
The title of the interview on the Indie Hacker's website that you did last August was "Scaling a One-Man Operation Into a $1 Million Business." Obviously, you're no longer just one person. You started by yourself, but now you have almost a dozen full time employees working for you. What's been the biggest challenge in scaling up and what did that process look like?
Well, the challenges have changed over the years. I think probably operations. So with a service business, there's the marketing aspect where you have to convince people that you are going to do a good job. But then as the actual fulfillment side of things where they say, "Okay, I believe you do this thing for me," and then you think, "Oh no, I've actually got to do it."
And that's fine when you get one customer a week, but when you get, say, ten a day, there's only so much you can do. And hiring people was something that was very unnatural to me at the beginning, especially as I was enjoying just being like a one-man band in my affiliate sites.
Had you ever hired anybody or managed a team before that?
No, not at all.
Must've been pretty scary then.
Yeah, hiring writers was okay because there's a lot of freelance writers out there so they're kind of used to being hired and you just say, "Hey, here's the topics, here's how I want the article to look," and they're like, "Okay, I got it." And they just go off with it.
Whereas hiring customer support people or supervisors or people whose job it is to – like project managers whose job it is to just move a website down the production line from content creation to website creation and so on. That was really hard. And obviously, now it's something that's actually fairly natural to me because I've been doing it for two or three years.
But at the time it was a bigger psychological hurdle than actual hurdle. I didn't take action probably for six months because I just didn't know how to go about it. And once I did, and I started hiring people, then I hired supervisors and they started hiring people, I was like, "Oh, I should have done this ages ago." But yeah, it just took me a long time to pull the trigger.
I think that's something that a lot of people can identify with. It's somewhat counterintuitive. You might think that people who want to start companies are people who are eager to hire and manage other people, but when your primary goal is freedom, you want financial freedom or creative freedom, you generally don't like being encumbered to other people, and tied to other people.
And hiring is, in a sense, just that. What was it that first got you over that hurdle and convinced you to make your first hire, aside from the freelance writers?
I was in a mastermind, it was like an online mastermind with a few others and we met, I think we met weekly. One of them, he was very hire friendly. He worked for Microsoft and I don't know if that influenced it or if he just was good at hiring, but he was like, "Oh, you've never hired anyone, aside from writers? Oh man, what are you doing?"
And so he was like, "Just do it," and gave me some tips. So he helped me take the baby steps towards setting up a job posting that was going to get good people versus bad people. He held my hand through the first hires.
And he also made me – I think honestly just his question, "You've never hired anyone?" It –embarrassed me and I was like, "Okay, yeah, I should really do it."
What were some of those tips that he gave you and what are some things you've learned about hiring that perhaps other people listening in who are in the same position that you were, might be able to learn from?
So he told me to hire per project. So, for example, if I wanted a writer to write ten articles for me, he said, "Just quote a price for ten articles, don't hire someone at an hourly rate." Because I knew, for example, let's say someone paid me $100 to create ten articles. I would be like, "Okay, if I can get a writer to do it for say $50 then I'm all good."
Whereas, if I charge hourly, I don't know necessarily how much it's going to cost. And I would say, “Yeah, but I don't know if I can get anyone for that price.” And he would say, "Well, post the job for that price and see if anyone applies." So I was surprised. I was like, "Oh, people applied."
What other tips? He gave me tips on filtering applicants, which is people like Chris Daca (ph) have a lot of good content about that. But essentially, one tip was telling people when they apply – we do this no matter what job we're advertising for. We might say something like, "Oh, when you apply, tell me what your favorite color is."
And anyone who doesn't answer that question doesn't get – we don't follow up with them, because they either don't follow instructions, or they don't have a good attention to detail. So, you know, maybe there are some good candidates who we ignored because they didn't fill that in and maybe we missed out on a good hire. But you have to do something to filter people.
So that's what we do. And create good systems for plugging people into. Like with writers, we hire quite quickly, and some writers go MIA fairly often. So we have a relatively, I wouldn't say a high churn rate, but almost every month we're hiring a new writer. So we needed a system to train them quickly. So we made sure we had good documents, good examples, good videos.
When we zoom out, you went from being an English teacher, running an affiliate marketing side business that was just making a few thousand dollars a month, to now running this very well-oiled machine where you're hiring people, and the people you're hiring are hiring people and you're making over $1 million a year. What were some of the biggest milestones in going from point A to point B?
I think the first milestone for me was something I mentioned earlier. When I figured out that I could list sites in advance and have people pay me in advance, and then build them, because that really helped me scale. So I figured out people weren't going to order custom sites a lot of the time because they didn't really know what was a good niche.
So if I presented them with say, 10 options, it was a lot easier. The next big milestone was in terms of like marketing the brand, there were lots of mini-milestones. Like for example, we got featured in an Entrepreneur.com article which sent a lot of credibility and a lot of traffic our way. I got featured on lots of websites from my peers. So those were the culmination of a lot of mini- milestones.
I think hiring my COO was a huge thing for me as well. That was in early 2016. He came on-board full time May 2016. And he was really strong in the areas where I was weak. So he's not particularly strong in marketing, but he's really strong in operations and hiring and training. So having someone just take care of operations and fulfillment was, and still is, huge.
I haven't touched one of our services for about two years. Because it's just not what I do. I do marketing and I talk to customers and stuff. So that was huge because that meant that, not only were we good at our current services, but we were good at rolling out new services. So if customers were saying, "Hey, can you do link building as well?"
The, "No, sorry, we don't have bandwidth," answer. Suddenly it became, "Oh yeah, we could probably roll out a service in a few weeks," and we know how to train people. Let's start saying yes to people who ask that. So that really helps with scaling. And that's why, instead of just having one product, we now have about 12. I think those were the most significant milestones.
How do you hire a good COO? I imagine it's different and more challenging than hiring writers or other contractors that you work with.
So I get this question a lot. And the unfortunate answer is, he was one of my customers. So I can't tell people how to go out and find one, because he found me. The key for me was that he – I wasn't trying to hire another me, I was hiring someone who had business skills and then I taught him like the nuances of our particular niche.
So instead of being like, "Hey, I want to hire someone who's good at internet marketing and then I kind of hope that that person can learn operational skills." Instead I hired someone with strong business skills like project management, operations skills. And then I taught him, because he started out as one of my customers.
So he understood a bit about internet marketing, but he was a beginner. I taught him how to do keyword research. And I taught him how I give article topics to writers. Then he built the systems to make all of that a lot smoother. So my recommendation would be look for someone that is already – they already have the skills necessary to be a good COO and then you can teach them about the smaller details of your service or your software.
That's a great insight. There are certain things that you want people to come to the job already being proficient at and there's certain things that you should be totally okay with people learning on the job. And that might be different for every role. So now you guys are at a point where your revenue is growing, your business is healthy, but your expenses are also growing.
You've got lots of people working for you. And I wonder how you think about that. Does your revenue growth outstrip the growth of your expenses? Do you worry about reinvesting your profit into the business and hiring more people? What are your thoughts?
Yes and no. So there's quite a lot there in that question. I wouldn't say it keeps me up at night, but certainly it's a burden because now we have salaried staff, so, whatever our sales are, we still have to pay them. So it certainly keeps a fire lit under you and it means that you have to figure out your systems and change things so that your revenue can be more reliable.
Does revenue growth out strip expenses? Sometimes, yeah. I mean, sometimes it's the other way around. So if I doubled my revenue next year, I don't think I would double my profits. I think my profits would definitely go up. Otherwise, what's the point in doubling the revenue? But I don't know to what extent, if you doubled your revenue, maybe your profit goes up 30%.
That might be a good number. And that's just because if you're going to sell with more customers, you need to hire more people to serve those customers. You need to do more marketing. So maybe you have things like Facebook ads to pay for or just other expenses like that. Maybe you need to move up to a higher tier of your software email plan and stuff like that.
So it does affect your decisions because it moves you more towards reliable income. You might think, oh, I want to invest say $10,000 in this thing or $20,000, or just 5,000. But let's wait until the end of the year because I want to make sure there's enough money for bonuses and stuff like that. So yeah, it certainly affects things. I don't think it's necessarily something to be afraid of.
If you want to have a team in place that is robust and can handle things for you so that you are not just a one-man band forever, it's the necessary way to do things. Maybe sometimes I wonder if there's a sweet spot, where I have fewer people but a nice profit, or do I want more profit? But is that more profit worth the extra headaches of having extra people?
Is it better to scale back a little bit so maybe you have a little bit less profit, but you have a lot less burden or time constraints? But I don't really think business lets you have this perfect world like that. So it's best to just figure out, how can we serve more people, and can we make a profit doing that. And if you do that, I think you can be okay.
What's great is that the customers you have for Human Proof Designs, people buying these websites that you're selling are entrepreneurs themselves. They are people who will want to go out and start their own business. They're learning from you how to do that.
And I assume you've gotten to see some of how that turned out. And so we have an audience right now listening to us full of hopeful entrepreneurs who'd like to start their own companies. Based on what you've seen from your own customers, what advice would you give people listening in who want to get started with their first business?
My advice is usually just start and don't be afraid to fail. So that's why bootstrapping is a good way to do it because the financial risk isn't there. There's opportunity cost with spending six months working on something that ultimately doesn't pan out. But there's also opportunity costs with spending six months doing nothing.
And at least if you spend six months doing something that doesn't pan out, you probably learn a ton. We put too much emphasis, as well, on trying to come up with the perfect idea. Whereas the idea doesn't have to be perfect. You just have to have good execution. There's a book, I think it's by MJ DeMarco and it's called “The Millionaire Fastlane.”
He talks about the execution of an idea is worth a lot more than the idea itself. So, it's like a multiplier. So if you have a great idea with poor execution, you might end up with a mediocre business. But if you have an okay idea with great execution, you'll have a fantastic business.
So the lesson here is not just create it, it's not to come up with poor ideas, but it's to just get started and learn by doing and develop your ability to execute on an idea, because then when you actually do have that great idea, you're able to actually bring it into the world. So my advice is to just start something because then you get better at everything that's required to succeed.
Okay. I'm gonna hit you up with a rare follow up here. What about the people who have already taken the first steps? The people who are super motivated to do this, they've launched a product, they've read the books, but they're having a little bit of trouble along the way and aren't quite finding success. What's your advice for people in that situation, Dominic?
That's a tough question. Because for some people the answer might be just keep going and you'll find success with the thing you're working on. And for other people it might be, you should stop that. Because it was a bad idea. I don't really know without any context.
So I would say, what worked for me was because I kept starting multiple niche sites, I got better at identifying whether something was a good idea or not. So I was able to look at some of the stuff I had already started and say, "Yeah, this does have potential. I just need to keep going." Or "No, this is terrible. I should stop".
So I don't really want to say to people just start something else as well because not everyone has the bandwidth to start multiple things. And if you do start something on the side, it takes away from the core thing you're working on.
But I do think kind of stepping back and working on something else or looking at something else, it does help you develop a better sense of what you should do. So I do think that is good advice for people.
That's really interesting advice. It reminds me of this phenomenon where oftentimes I will find myself giving better or at least more objective advice to other founders and helping them with their business problems than I do to myself.
I'm looking at the problems that I encounter with Indie Hackers and other things that I'm working on. So it's something to think about, being able to step away and look at what you're doing from an outsider's perspective.
Yeah, that's a really good point.
Anyway, Dominic, thanks so much for coming on the show and sharing your story. I think it's fascinating and I'm really glad to get a case study of affiliate marketing done right on the podcast.
Can you tell listeners where they can go to find out more about what you're up to with Human Proof Designs and also what you're up to personally, if you share that kind of thing online as well?
Yeah, sure. So people can find me, obviously humanproofdesigns.com is the business we've spoken a lot about. I also have a Facebook group which is Niche Sites Entrepreneurs and I'm active in this and people can find me in there as well.
Probably those two places. Obviously, I also am active on Indie Hackers. I have a profile and stuff so if someone wants to reach out to me there, they can.
Dominic, thanks so much. If you enjoyed listening to this conversation and you want a really easy way to support the podcast, why don't you head over to iTunes and leave us a quick rating or even a review. If you're looking for an easy way to get there, just go to indiehackers.com/review and that should open up iTunes on your computer.
I read pretty much all the reviews you guys leave over there and it really helps other people to discover the show. Your support is very much appreciated. In addition, if you are running your own internet business or if that's something you hope to do someday, you should join me and a whole bunch of other founders on the IndieHackers.com website.
It's a great place to get feedback on pretty much any problem or question that you might have while running your business. If you listen to the show, you know that I am a huge proponent of getting help from other founders rather than trying to build your business all by yourself.
So you'll see me on the forum for sure, as well as more than a handful of some of the guests that I've had on the podcast. If you're looking for inspiration, we've also got a huge directory full of hundreds of products built by other Indie Hackers, every one of which includes revenue numbers and some of the behind the scenes strategies for how they grew their products from nothing. As always, thanks so much for listening and I'll see you next time.
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