Tom: The following is a guest post written by Tom Hunt – the Founder of Virtual Valley, a platform that connects entrepreneurs and rockstar virtual assistants, with the mission of giving entrepreneurs back one million hours of their time by 2018. Subscribe for his weekly bootstrapped marketing tips here.
Did you ever think that you could simply throw up a landing page describing your product or service and that people would immediately flock to you? Or that you could tweet your link to an influencer with 1.7m followers and he/she would retweet it to an eager audience?
And as I sat there refreshing my Google Analytics stats on my first online business, I was both confused and disappointed. Out of the billion websites out there, why are people not spending time on mine?
Then, slowly, I started to learn…from mentors, friends, websites, blogs, books, seminars – and most importantly, from experience.
With the above in mind, in this post I will share my five greatest lessons from five of my online business ventures that ultimately “failed” (though more on that later).
1. Self Help Book Blog
Let’s rewind three years…
For the previous six months I had been a voracious reader. As writing was the most effective method for me to learn and retain information, I kept notes of much of what I read.
After amassing a lot of notes, it occurred to me to create a blog that collated and shared my book summaries with the world.
I eagerly headed over to a freelancer marketplace and hired a developer to bring my vision to life…
Now, bearing in mind I have zero design experience, do you think I went for the safe (i.e. WordPress) route, or a completely custom design that I thought was “elegant”?
I’m sure you can guess.
We built the site, uploaded a number of book reviews and placed Amazon affiliate links at the end of each review.
As you can see from the image above, the traffic hasn’t exactly been “flowing” over the three years (the ~2% conversion didn’t result in any payments, as this was me purchasing books.)
People will come to your website if you give them what they want. On this project I had focused mainly on making the site look “good”, rather than giving people what they wanted.
Lesson learned: Focus on helping people first and foremost. Everything else comes later.
As traffic to my Self Help Book Blog was dying down and my drive to leave my corporate role was increasing, I thought: Why not just buy an existing online business?
So I did…two in fact.
Flippa is a great place if you know how to use it. I didn’t.
One of the businesses I purchased cost me around $1,000. It still makes around that each month now (completely outsourced). The other was Supralinks – an article writing service that had extremely attractive traffic and sales statistics on its Flippa listing. Maybe too attractive for the age of the domain or the Alexa ranking.
However, I happily handed over $3,200 to a man somewhere in the world only to discover that the traffic and sales stopped abruptly. In fact, it seemed like they never really existed at all.
After a couple of months of hapless marketing I decided to put the project to rest.
In summary, I could have potentially saved a significant amount of time and money by verifying the data claimed by the Flippa seller.
Lesson learned: Trust, but verify.
3. Outsource Your Tinder
About a year on from the previous lesson, I had started to use Tinder a lot.
I was inspired by the ease in which an attractive, well-designed landing page using Strikingly could be set up, and also that a couple of friends were starting a Tinder profile optimization service. I thought: Why not just provide a fully outsourced Tinder service for a monthly recurring fee that guarantees a certain number of dates per week?
I bought the domain, created the page and integrated a PayPal link for $49 per month guaranteeing one date per week. I then created a Twitter account and shared the link with a couple of friends.
A week later I actually started to investigate into how it would be possible to deliver the product. At the time Tinder did not allow you to swipe in other locations, and the solution would require some tricky VPN stuff I knew little about if my outsourced team in the Philippines were to deliver the service (under my instruction of course).
In response to my findings, I refunded our first customer and increased the monthly fee to $149…
Maybe I was started to get the hang of this online business thing?
I had learned from the first lesson learned above to give people what they actually wanted and had found people looking for my product. I even managed to rank in the number one position in Google for “outsource tinder” within a couple of weeks and had a reliable, proven design.
However, I had not completed enough research on how the service would be delivered and had a number of other projects on at the time, so decided to refund our second customer and leave the site as it was.
Lesson learned: Ensure that you can and want to deliver the service you (plan to) offer.
4. The Girlfriend Funnel
Remaining in the same niche, I started to develop my knowledge more broadly in the dating world.
At this point I had quit my job and was running a small outsourcing company in Europe from my laptop. I was aware that I learn best from writing notes and teaching, so why not try again?
I installed and customized a WordPress template on a domain and planned to target the keyword “how to get a girlfriend”. My plan was to build an email list over three months before launching my first product (which would teach guys how to get a girlfriend).
I started pumping out content every day and was getting a little bit of traffic and building a small list. Here is my weekly subscriber list:
The problem here was that I had no audience.
I was providing value and had a good, proven design, but the email list growth was too slow for my product launch goals (it required a 1,000 person list but only reached around 200 by the time of launch).
I have since discovered where I went wrong: I didn’t know enough about the industry and did not know enough people in the industry.
If I was to try this again I would spend 1–2 months commenting on blogs, guest posting (I did manage two posts here and here, under the pseudonym of Dave Smith) and building relationships with influencers in the niche.
This would enable me to build my skills, awareness and relationships to a place that would facilitate faster growth when I did start producing content.
Lesson learned: Don’t try to build an audience in a niche that you don’t know.
Building on lessons from all of the above, two good friends and I decided to provide accommodation, co-working space and transport for digital nomads looking for an exotic place to live, work and play in Venezuela.
We set up a WordPress theme, a Typeform application and social media profiles, and started reaching out to people we knew and people we didn’t.
We even received some unconventional PR on Twitter when our site was called out for being a “brotastic colonialist adventure program”:
I had recently learnt from a master copywriter that if people are not slightly annoyed or offended by your website copy, you are too bland.
We received a number of applications (both fake and real), but are yet to close our first sale. Furthermore, we are unsure if we will be in Venezuela to deliver the program, so will most likely have to refund our customers regardless.
Key lesson: Again – be willing to deliver!
There we have it: Five of my greatest “fails” in five previous online businesses.
However, before I leave you in the glow of satisfaction that you haven’t made so many or such stupid mistakes, there is one more point we need to address.
You will note in each of the businesses above that there were some real positive takeaways:
- Receiving and email from Seth Godin with the Self Help Book Blog
- Making $1,000 per month on a website investment
- Ranking on page one of Google for “outsource tinder” in a couple of weeks
- Building a list of 200 double opt in subscribers for The Girlfriend Funnel
- Getting free PR for Highlife: Caracas
Which leads us to the question: were these really “failures”?
I suppose that would depend on your definition of the term:
Failure is the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective, and may be viewed as the opposite of success.
If the definition of the “failure” of a business would be to not meet an objective within a certain time frame then yes, we have five “failures”. But if we were to expand that timeframe over a greater number of years, or even a whole life…we may come to a different conclusion.
As now, I am rolling up all of the experience listed above and beyond into a new project that is about to launch. Will that be a “failure”? We’ll see.
Do you have any tales of failure or lessons learned? Let us know in the comments section below!