I cannot believe that it’s been a year already since I started my company, Digital Empires!
And what a year has it been at that. Of all the years I could have picked to start my own business, I picked the most insane year we’ve had in the last few decades.
I registered the company in mid-December but I didn’t officially launch anything until the 6th of January, 2020 to be exact since there were a gazillion legal things to do in between.
As if starting a business wasn’t crazy enough, I decided to do it in a country where I had to “prove” my viability at every step of the way in order to be allowed to be a resident and operate my business in Germany. (not fun or quick, i can tell you that!)
I remember reading the 4-hour workweek from Tim Feriss (a lifestyle entrepreneur I admire) sometime in January and making grand plans for my first year in business.
Little did I know what a year we had in store for all of us.
In this post, I’ll review some major highlights of 2020, what worked, what didn’t work, the stats and metrics of running an online business and what’s in store for next year.
My aim with this post is to be transparent and share with you the good, the bad and the ugly that goes into running a digital business.
It’s not all about sipping Pina-coladas in Bali while cash flows in magically, although how I wish it were.
Getting stuck in India for 5 months
As the only full-time member of my company, getting stuck in India, unexpectedly was a massive challenge and advantage at the same time.
I hadn’t planned to stay nearly as long as I was stuck due to the illness that shall-not-be-named. Flights weren’t going in and out and there was no way to head back to Germany even if I desperately wanted to.
On the bright side, I got to spend a lot of time catching up with my family. But I also had to deal with issues like the wifi not working for half the time of my stay. How the heck was I supposed to run an online business with no internet?
I only had my camera with me and no tripod or gear to film content. On top of which, India’s extreme state-wise lockdown made it impossible for me to get my hands on tech equipment. Online and offline stores were all shut down for months.
So I made do with what little resources I had, and just tried to make the most of my time, even though it was incredibly frustrating.
I learnt in these 5 months, that if you really want to move forward, you can find a way, despite your circumstances.
Since I wasn’t able to conduct a lot of live classes or workshops or even get on any calls, I just focused on creating content and building the foundation of my business. I used whatever I could find to create make-shift videos and actually managed to pump out the vast majority of what you see on my Youtube channel today.
Even though at the time, it felt like I was just wasting my time as I wasn’t actively trying to grow my sales or revenue, I realised in the second half of the year, that this process was actually monumental (and I’ll share with you later in the post how)
Building & Launching 3 Products
When I started Digital Empires, I knew that my focus would not be on selling services. I wanted to build a scalable business and not a 1:1 service based business simply because of the type of vision I had.
As a digital product business, I can decide when I get to work on what and my time is not constantly divided into phone calls and client issues. On top of that, I can scale as much as I want without having to have a large team to run operations. If I were to say, open a social media agency or a business that requires a large sales team, I’d inevitably have to give up time in exchange for money, a concept I didn’t like to begin with.
My aim was always to have a super lean team and a digital product-based business that was infinitely scalable and profitable from the very beginning.
I wanted freedom. A lot of it. And I wanted to be able to grow a business on my own terms, without outside interference. Especially not at the beginning.
Keeping that in mind, I worked on first launching a digital course which was a 6-week program that helps creators grow their website traffic.
I launched my first product in Jan 2020 and has followed an open-close launch model for the rest of the year. (An open-close launch is when the product is only available for a limited period of time instead of always being on sale)
In March 2020, I launched an MVP for a smaller product that was to be a membership product and tested that behind the scenes with a small group of people for about 6 months, before opening it up to the public in Q4.
In May 2020, I created a bundle of templates inspired by an experimental product that I had sold back in my hobby blogging days. The idea was for it to be an entry level product that would act as a gateway to the more premium products.
If you’re familiar with the concept of building a value-ladder, then these 3 products were essentially the value ladder in my business, with one leading to another, increasing customer LTV as they moved along.
All together, creating these 3 products single-handedly WHILE being on shitty-wifi in India, meant that I spent hours and hours on creating videos, worksheets, templates and building the right tech-stack for the business.
I’m so thankful that my family was looking after me during this time, because if I had to look after myself, I don’t think I’d have survived the first 6 months of my business.
I actually don’t think I took a single weekend off in 2020, but I’m so incredibly satisfied that I got to work closely with my customers on building three outstanding products. (that are still very much a work-in-progress and will go through many updates in the years to come)
Being Featured on Yahoo
As a new entrepreneur, getting featured in the press can be a tough sell. You don’t have the contacts, the authority or a fancy PR team to hook you up. So, when I was contacted to be featured in this article as a top 10 Pinterest expert, I was over the moon!
The press feature definitely helped solidify my personal brand in the social media space and I am super pumped to work more closely with traditional PR channels next year.
Partnering with AppSumo
I always thought that App Sumo only worked with SaaS companies, until I was told otherwise in a membership program.
I randomly decided to apply to be featured in their marketplace to see if I should continue selling one of my products or not.
The promotion with App Sumo went live in the second week of December and has made over a $1000 in just a few weeks. The best part? I had to do absolutely nothing to market it.
WHAT DID NOT WORK
Assuming you know what your audience wants
When I launched my first product in Jan 2020, I had a humbling…wait for it…
Now, the strange thing is that this type of product worked REALLY well for others in the same industry, and I figured if it worked for them, it might work for me.
I got the messaging wrong, the pricing wrong and basically the whole launch was a huge slap in the face of what NOT to do when you launch your product for the first time ever.
The biggest mistake I made here was not spending time identifying the EXACT problem my audience had that I could solve, and exactly WHO I was solving it for and jumping straight into creating something that I “thought” they wanted.
I cannot stress this enough, you are NOT your customer.
Spend time figuring out exactly what problem you are hoping to solve and more importantly that that, who are your customers that are willing PAY for this problem?
After this incident, I’ve become a huge fan of pre-sales or selling MVP’s before diving full-on into product creation. And that’s exactly what I did to create my second product that is now our signature offering.
The aim of any business is to solve a problem your ideal customer is willing to pay the right price for. If you don’t get this fundamental rule right, it doesn’t matter how beautiful your product is, how much money you invest in ads or how killer your sales pitch, it won’t sell.
Not building your organic audience first
When I launched my first product, I naively believed that you could just “acquire customers” by throwing money on ads.
Again, this MIGHT work in many other industries. But it certainly didn’t work in mine. With zero credibility, authority or testimonials, it is INCREDIBLY hard to get a cold audience to buy your product.
And after losing $5000 in FB ads on stupid experiments, I realised this truth.
But losing this money and having my first launch bomb, is the biggest reason I decided to get on Youtube.
Had my ad strategy worked, I probably wouldn’t have spent the rest of the year working on growing my organic reach and audience.
Creating more than selling
For the first six months, due to being stuck with not that many resources, I was forced to spend more time on creating things and I couldn’t spend a lot of time in actively talking to people or selling.
And even though this allowed me to create the core product suite pretty quickly, it didn’t give us enough data to know what works and what doesn’t.
And when you are a new business, you need data. You need the validation by people taking out their credit cards and paying for your product. Anything else, is just not going to pay the bills or grow your business.
If I had to go back and do it all over again, I would spend more time working on sales and customer acquisition, than I would in product creation.
WHAT WORKED WELL
Starting a Youtube channel
Any business, whether online or offline, needs an audience to actually sell to. Not only this, you need an audience that will actually pay you to solve a problem for them.
And I didn’t have the option to “buy this audience” by burning cash. I had already burnt my experiment cash and didn’t want to explore the paid audience route for the remainder of the year.
I had to find a way to organically build my audience. FAST. Or at least as fast as possible.
Having been a blogger since 2017, I knew if I wanted to grow fast and actually get some traction in a new niche, I had to do something a lot of my competitors were not doing.
GETTING ON VIDEO.
Since Digital Empires is an online training platform for creative entrepreneurs and marketers, I knew that the best way to establish trust, build credibility and grow my personal brand would be to show up on video.
The logic was that if my audience resonated with my free videos, they might want to continue working with us in one of our paid programs.
And the funny thing is if my first launch, didn’t fail so spectacularly, I don’t think I would have started a Youtube channel. This is why I think it is important not to focus too much on your failures, but instead of focus on learning from them and finding solutions.
Safe to say, starting a Youtube channel while being stuck without wifi and tech gear for half the year was pretty frustrating. I got a lot of comments on “why are you sitting in front of a bright window and we can’t really see your face!” (if you left such a comment, now you know why!)
But I didn’t let this hold me back, because well, that’s just who I am. I am a solution oriented person and I believe in progress over perfection.
I think looking for perfection is just an excuse for people who don’t want to take action. And if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to learn to take action even and especially when things are imperfect. Because that’s just how things are going to be for like 99% of your first few years on this journey.
With that mindset in my first year, I was able to publish 55 videos and have amassed over 130,000 views with over 2700 subscribers. If you take an average 10 hours to plan, script, film and edit a video, I’ve spent over 550 hours on creating free content for our community. Most of it WITHOUT an active internet connection. How’s that for grit?
If I had to pay for this level of exposure and growth, I’d be out tens of thousands of dollars if not hundreds.
Creating this channel, helped me differentiate myself, connect with my community and make it REALLY clear what our value proposition at Digital Empires was.
Validating before selling
Another thing that worked really well, is selling before creating a full-product. The membership program we now offer was sold to a small section of my audience, mostly past customers and the founding members helped me understand what was it that my audience REALLY wanted.
Once I understood this, I doubled down on providing tools, trainings and resources that our members really wanted and cut out all the fluff. It can be tempting to add more features and perks and benefits but its also wise to leave things that aren’t absolutely necessary for success.
Growing slowly and saying no to opportunities
As a side effect of not having outside funding and just taking things slow, I was able to focus more on adding value than just on chasing numbers. There were many many chances for me to just “add a service” and make some fast cash but I knew that this would take precious time away from building my business.
I am in it for the long haul, so I outright said “no” to people who wanted to pay me for my time to help them or grow their business on a 1:1 basis. It may sound counter intuitive to turn down opportunities to make money, but I’d rather work on creating long-term sustainability instead of making short-term cash.
This is because I’m not in business to sell it in a few years and retire to an island or to make the next unicorn. (although if it does happen, you won’t find me complaining!)
I’m in business to create a legacy and build a profitable foundation that allows me to live an extremely comfortable lifestyle and work on my own terms. And I have zero shame in admitting that.
I don’t imagine working full-time when I’m 40 and this is exactly why I chose to grow slowly and intentionally instead of rushing to “arrive” to the next place.
When you start your own business, people will have many opinions. You get to choose what you listen to and what you ignore.
You don’t owe it to anyone to do things a certain way. Just stay true to yourself and your vision and you won’t regret the decisions you make.
And say no. More often. Not every opportunity is right and not every decision needs to be made this very second.
STATS & METRICS
When you see these numbers, look at it from the perspective of building a boot-strapped business from zero, alone, with no decent internet for half a year in 2020.
I went into a niche, where I had no previous authority or audience in, and had no extra money besides my hard-earned savings to “throw in the fire”, so every step I took and every decision I made was incredibly intentional.
I have worked and seen far too many startups that raise funding way too early, trying to grow too fast to look “cool” and then end up broke and disbanded a few years later with a business that cannot run on its own two legs without all the extra cash input.
I knew that my first year would go into building a product suite and a business model that was sustainable and based on how this year ended I’m pretty happy that we are on the right track.
Here are the numbers you came looking for:
Revenue from Ads – $7,705
This isn’t our primary focus here at Digital Empires, but nevertheless having digital properties with a decent amount of traffic does give you the advantage of having an extra source of revenue.
In a sense, I used the money coming in from passive ad revenue to fund the development of our product suite.
This is a revenue stream we didn’t focus much on but continues to provide steady results even for a crappy ad publishing year such as 2020. I expect this to double or more in 2021 as ad-rates stabilise and budgets are pulled back to normal.
Revenue from Products – $10,047
I wouldn’t break down how much each product made, but I can happily share that we served 147 customers with a total of 954 students enrolled in our paid and free training programs.
Since the first 6 months were spent in product development and not really in sales, the majority of product revenue came in Q3 and Q4.
In Q4 we opened the doors to our membership site that grew to 50+ recurring members by end of 2020, which means that even if we add 0 new members and only retain the existing members, we’re looking at an ARR of $24,000+ just from this one product in 2021.
Revenue from consulting services – $1000
Based on the relationship I had with some clients, I did offer consulting services every now and then. However, I don’t offer this to the general public as I don’t have the time to serve 1:1 clients and don’t want to build a service-based business in the long-run.
Total Expenses -$14,394
As mentioned, as a bootstrapped company, I didn’t aggressively hire or buy things I didn’t believe we needed.
The major expenses were for purchasing tech equipment such as camera, speakers, hiring contractors (writers, social media management & graphics) along with expenses on running FB & Pinterest ads during our launches.
Our team right now comprises of me (full-time) and around 3-5 part-time contractors depending on the ongoing projects.
Besides the variable monthly expenses, the fixed monthly expenses when it comes to our core software stack were under $200 per month.
In other words, if I were to strip down to the bare minimum of what it needs to run Digital Empires and didn’t hire any contractors, the business could still run while spending $200 a month.
The whole online business world is looking tempting now, isn’t it?
2021 Plan of Action
- Double down on whats working
One of my business mentors says, that it’s better to double down on what is already working instead of chasing a new shiny object whenever you look up.
I have to admit for the first 6 months, when I had no data or experience, I was tempted to dive into trying many different things. That just exhausted the crap out of me and didn’t serve a lot of good.
So for 2021, my goal is to just focus on the product-suite I’ve already built, keep improving the customer experience, streamline processes and build on our foundation.
In addition, I want to focus only on Youtube as my primary content channel, and the website and Instagram as backup channels for traffic building.
Since I wear multiple hats in my business, I don’t have the time to be creating content for multiple places and would rather focus on whats already working and most-profitable for us.
- Grow our member base to 300
I’m incredibly excited to see how big our customer base grows in 2021. At the very least, I hope that we can 6x our growth from 2020 seeing as we only worked on customer acquisition for 2 months and managed to get 50 members onboard with practically no advertising spend. Taking into consideration our overall audience growth and improvements in conversion, I hope to scale up the membership product revenue to 5-figures a month. (Ambitious goal I know, but doable)
- Hire a customer success team member
I know, I know. I cannot do everything alone. And I’m incredibly excited to onboard at least 1 new member in 2021 besides our existing part-time team. I already know that is team member would be in community management and/or customer service space.
- Take more breaks
2020 was all about the tunnel vision. As anyone’s first year in business probably is. But after much reflection I’ve realised that I didn’t start my own business to drive myself to burnout.
I got into business so I could build my own dream lifestyle, and in 2021 I would like to focus a bit more on that.
On creating a more sustainable schedule, taking 1 mandatory day off from business every single week and getting back to a healthy workout routine.
As most of you reading this, I can’t wait to welcome in 2021 and see what life has in store for us and for Digital Empires. See you next year!