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How I built a service business to $20k/month recurring and achieved the 4-hour workweek

  • Gabe Arnold

  • From Ohio, USA
  • Founder & Chief Pencil Sharpener at Copywriter Today

  • Business Model: Agency
  • $20,000monthly revenue
  • $10,000monthly profit
  • All info self-reported by interviewee
  • Published February 13, 2020
  • Reviewed and edited by Rita Epps

Who are you and how do you make money online?

Hi, my name is Gabe Arnold, and I’m unemployable.

Not “unemployed”, unemployable 😉

Today, my little project – which is now one of many subscription offerings I’ve launched – generates $20,000 a month at 50% net profit.

I realized at a very young age that I didn’t fit in with the rest of the normal world because…

… I was constantly asking the question, “Why?”

That inherent desire to question everything is what led me to create Copywriter Today, which at the time was the first subscription-based content service. 

Our team of all US-based writers creates a steady flow of high-quality content that helps businesses around the world stand out and consistently connect with their audience.

The idea for Copywriter Today came to me back in 2014, when I heard Dan Norris on The Foundation podcast.

He talked about how he created WP Curve – which has since been purchased by GoDaddy for an undisclosed amount of money. 

It was at that moment…

…that I realized that I could create the same kind of subscription-based model for content.

I ended up writing all the content for the first few months until I hired an assistant and more writers.

Doing everything myself for a short time is something that has made this service a success.

Unless you know what it takes to do each step…how can you lead a team?

What does a typical workday look like for you?

Back in 2014, when I started Copywriter Today, I launched the site in one night using WordPress and Wufoo forms. If you want to see an ugly early version, you can take a look here in the web archive

I stayed up all night to build the site and ended up sleeping late the next day before I headed into my small office I was renting from my sister.

During the day, I would build websites, and at night I would write all the orders. I’m sharing this because, in some senses, my typical workday hasn’t changed.

I still enjoy staying up late and getting up a little later. 

I’ve realized that I get my best work done when I have long periods of creativity without anyone distracting me.

There have been periods of a year or so where I was waking up at 3:45am instead of staying up late until that time. But generally, I revert back to being a night owl. 

Now that we have a team of over 50 people working here – half of which are the writers – I have more responsibility as I need to serve my managers and team members on a consistent basis.

With that being said, I don’t think that anyone who wants to become an entrepreneur should ever buy into the idea that you have to keep a regular schedule.

What matters is getting important work done.

However you accomplish that goal is fine, as long as the work gets done, and you foster effective and kind communication with your team and clients.

Personally, I work around 45 hours a week: 4-5 hours a week on Copywriter Today, and the rest goes to building other business units.

…But I get to take my son to school, take Fridays off when I want to, and also take a few weeks off a year whenever I please. 

The only reason I’m able to have such great flexibility is because of the recurring revenue model I use in Copywriter Today.

It’s also nice because…

…there is virtually nothing we can’t do remotely for our amazing clients. 

As I’ve grown this business (and launched multiple others) over the years, it’s also led me to some great consulting projects which have been very enjoyable. 

This photo is from 2018 when I took a month off (thanks to the recurring revenue we have in all our services). My wife Rachel, my son and I went to Europe!

How did you prepare to launch the business?

Fortunately for me, I was able to start Copywriter Today very easily because I have been building websites since I was 16 years old (0ver 20 years ago now). With that being said…

…the success of the business didn’t come from my skills, as I could have hired anyone to do that. 

It really came from the mental elasticity of observing a successful business model in a totally different space and finding a way to model it in a new industry.

Entrepreneurship isn’t about hard skills – like being able to do a technical skill.

It’s about identifying problems and solving them. 

I took the shortest and fastest path to launch my site, and then I spent the majority of my time promoting it on LinkedIn and via cold email.

To this day, we use cold emails, cold calls, and online networking to generate our new business.

While knowing a hard skill – like programming, or writing, or graphic design – is handy, the more important skills that entrepreneurs need to develop in my experience are: 

  • Sales
  • Networking
  • Leadership
  • Management
  • Financial intelligence

A good idea is virtually useless if you don’t have the courage and skill to sell it. 

How much money did you have to spend to get started?

I didn’t have to spend much at all to start.

I used a free WordPress theme, I already had a Wufoo account ($50 a month), and I hosted my own sites and client sites on my shared hosting server. 

Just like I teach my consulting students…

…I decided to get the minimum viable version live and then see if people were willing to buy it.

Once the idea was validated with real client dollars (their subscription fees), I knew that I could grow it from there. 

It’s also important to note that you can learn many skills along the way, rather than thinking you need to be fully prepared.

Today (over 6 years later) I am a significantly better writer, but at this point, it doesn’t really matter as I don’t write any of the content for our clients.

Since I was willing to do the early work and handle the first dozen customers…

…that I sold within the first few weeks, that gave me the cash to hire much more proficient writers. 

On top of using the model Dan Norris described, I also implemented a model I had learned from the auto repair industry: flat-rate pay.

Instead of risking my profit and business model, I decided that I would just pay a flat fee for each article the writers created. This way, as they become more proficient in writing, they could earn more. And if a new writer joined our team and it took them a little longer, I didn’t have to pay for their learning curve.

While this isn’t an option in all industries, it’s definitely something that should be explored.

More importantly than just looking at this labor model, I’ve learned that it’s key to explore all models and see how you can transfer them into your own business where appropriate.

Talk us through your first few months (or first year) in business.

While it’s common to have doubts about your new business idea, that’s not something I personally faced early on.

When I started Copywriter Today, I was only generating $1,200 a month in revenue total from all my other business activities, and my expenses were closer to $1,800 a month. 

I personally thrive in adverse situations because I find I have nothing to lose, and I can only get better.

The one thing I did have going for me when I started was the support of my business and life partner, Rachel. She encouraged me to give it a try and has supported me all along the way. 

I’ve definitely learned that it’s not necessarily what you bring to the table that makes you successful, but…

…it’s more about what table you sit down at.

For me, that has been apparent because my success has come from partnering with great people. 

Even in the early days when I was building websites all day and then writing orders until 3-4 am in the morning, I knew that this was going to be a game-changer. I charged way too little when we started (just $79 a month), but…

…waking up to payments each day was something that really motivated me. 

I used to have an app on my phone that would make the sound of cash going “cha-ching” every time I got paid 😀

It made me smile, and it kept me motivated. Fortunately, today that sound would be way too frequent, but early on, it really kept me going. 

The other big challenge that turned into something really meaningful to me was hiring writers.

At first, when I was writing all the orders myself, I was intentionally doing that to ensure that the content could be written in the flat rate time that I had allocated for it. 

Once I realized that my timing and model worked, I decided to go out and hire more writers. Instead of taking the traditional path, I created a hiring elimination funnel. This was a strategy I had also picked up from Dan Norris.

You can see the hiring funnel here – and if you want to take a peek behind the first page, just enter “testing”, so my managers don’t think it’s a real submission.

Using this approach, we are able to accept over 400 applications a year at the top of the hiring funnel and then offer less than 5% of those people jobs if they successfully and correctly complete the application.

We don’t interview at all.

We simply automate the entire application and hiring process. 

This has saved us thousands of hours over the years, and it also very quickly weeds out the folks who aren’t a good fit for us.

I’ve been both complimented and criticized for this approach, and honestly, neither perspective bothers me.

I built this because it best serves the company and the team. 

It’s amazing now because we have dozens of highly qualified, talented, and hard-working writers who can work from home, earn what they want, and also support their family by being a stay at home mom or dad, or even just being a single freelancer who wants the flexibility of working from home.

That’s the part that surprised me a little.

I truly love being part of such an amazing team and being a small part of their success.

How did you make your first $100 online?

My first customers came from LinkedIn.

I simply reached out, asked for their feedback, and asked them if they would be willing to use the service. Within a week, I had 10 customers and had surpassed my expectations of what early revenue would have looked like. 

From that point forward, we continued to use cold outreach via phone, email, and messenger across various social media platforms. 

If you were starting the same business today, from scratch, how would you do it?

Once I created Copywriter Today, I realized I could use the same subscription model approach in multiple industries and with multiple services.

I essentially use the same launch approach as I did years ago.

When I want to launch something new, I create a simple site and get feedback from those who would be potential customers.

I also look at innovative ways to recruit the right kind of team members. 

With all the hype around digital marketing (which we do in another one of our services)…

…I still haven’t found anything as effective as cold outreach.

Editor’s note: to learn more about writing effective cold emails – and grab a proven template you can use – check out our interview with Matt Rudnitsky.

It’s very hard work that few have the stomach for, but for myself and the other two sales people on our team, we get great results in this way. 

As we grow and scale, we are continuing to leverage more and more digital marketing and other marketing channels, but at the end of the day, all those lead to having a one-on-one conversation.

Our clients appreciate talking to a real human before they sign up, and this helps our overall retention and long term growth. 

What books, podcasts, courses or other resources would you recommend to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

I personally read over 50 books a year simply because I think it accelerates my learning and growth. Some of my all-time favorites books are: 

If you want to see what I’ve been reading, you can check out my Goodreads profile

The other resources I follow are: 

I’m a big fan of “just in time learning” because that allows me to learn something right when I need it, not months or years before.

📚 Editor’s note: see our ultimate list of the best books for online entrepreneurs.

What are your top business tools?

My favorite business tools are: 

  • Knack.com is an amazing visual software building tool that we use for our entire backend operations. 
  • Evernote for all my ideas.
  • G Suite for my team and all our collaboration. 
  • Workplace by Facebook which keeps our 100% remote team close and connected.

When it comes to tools, never let the tool distract you from the work.

Always ask yourself, what is the most direct path, not the easiest.

We have more software options than ever before, and sometimes I feel like less and less work is getting done. Don’t let that happen to you.

Do the work!

Where can we go to learn more?

If you’d like to see what we’re up to and even get a free sample article, you can visit our site here.

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