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On building a $48k/month online business with no money, skills or experience

  • Victor Thomas

  • From Tiburon, California
  • Owner at Thomas Digital

  • Business Model: Agency
  • $48,000monthly revenue
  • $20,000monthly profit
  • All info self-reported by interviewee
  • Published January 2, 2020
  • Reviewed and edited by Rita Epps

Who are you and how do you make money online?

Hi there, my name is Victor Thomas and I own a website design business based out of San Francisco, California.

We specialize in designing and developing custom WordPress websites for small and medium-sized businesses, typically in the service industry. Our pricing ranges from $5k-$35k per website project, with the average website project being about $7.5k.

As of writing this in December 2019, I have 11 full-time employees. They all work virtually, with most of the team being in the Philippines.

So far this year we made just over $540,000 in revenue for the business.

It wasn’t always this way.

I started my business broke, desperate and clueless.

In my first year in business, I think I made something like $35,000 in total. This was about 9 years ago.

Since then the business has steadily grown each year.

Profit and loss so far this year (mid-December 2019)

What does a typical workday look like for you?

What I love most about my business is that I get to live life on my own terms. 

I have the flexibility to make my own schedule and work when and where I want.

My typical day starts at around 5:30am.

I usually spend the first couple of hours working at a coffee shop a couple of blocks from my home which I walk to.

I use this time to work on the important but not urgent tasks for my business, which for me is usually content writing or general strategy.

$100k/month in FREE Google traffic

Then I usually go for a run, come back home and check my email.

If it’s Monday I’ll do a team meeting with my team. We meet once a week via Google Hangouts. 

Most of my team is in the Philippines. Even though they work remotely they are my full-time employees. I’m lucky to have a very loyal and dedicated team, with my oldest team members dating back 7 years now.

I don’t really like doing meetings, so we only do one per week just to make sure we don’t forget what everyone looks like.

Working hard at my home office

I like to run my business out of Asana and block off my calendar each day for times to talk to new leads and existing clients.

I block off Tuesdays and Thursdays for no calls so I can focus and work on developing my business and catching up on project work for existing clients.

I have two small kids, so sometimes my day ends as early as 2pm when I have to pick them up. But mostly I’m working till around 5pm.

I don’t work weekends and spend quite a bit of time with my family, at least 3-4 hours a day, which is pretty good given my workload.

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea for your business?

So, one of the main reasons I wanted to write this article was to tell you my story because it might give you hope if you are thinking of starting a new business or are currently struggling with one.

Mine is more of a riches to rags story.

I grew up to wealthy parents who spoiled me rotten. I spent my 20’s idle, pursuing dreams of being an actor and a singer.

I had big dreams but no work ethic or backbone.

I bought every infomercial and get rich quick scheme I saw on TV and never did anything with any of them.

I read self-help books, listened to Tony Robbins, practiced the Secret and lied on my couch all day watching TV and playing video games.

Then one day the party stopped.

My father died when I was 16 and my mother coped with the loss by doubling down on my extravaganza of pampering and amusement. She wasn’t actually wealthy, she just made a lot of money and spent every last dime on me.

Unfortunately, she got sick with cancer and over a period of two years lost all of her health and money at the same time.

So there I was: 32 years of age and still a child.

I had never supported myself financially before. 

I had no employment history, a useless theater degree and almost no skills to speak of.

My “job” was selling Real Estate, but I sucked at selling Real Estate and more than that, I hated it.

It didn’t suit my temperament at all. I hate sales. I hate schmoozing. And frankly, I’m too much of an introvert to be a good Real Estate agent.

Editor’s note: if you hate your job, check out our article on 5 things you can do about it.

At a time, I had just finished reading Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek for the second time.

My mother had passed away.

I had almost no money.

I had no idea what I was going to do.

I felt desperate…but I also felt that life was short and it’s not worth spending it doing something you hate.

Also, this was 2009 and the great recession was in full swing. So no one was buying Real Estate anyway.

I was basically about to be fired anyway, so I quit.

My plan was to start an info product business as Tim Ferriss suggested in his book.

I ended up starting an affiliate business instead.

It was a simple idea and actually not a bad place to start if I had more time and money.

Basically my friend told me about a guy he knew who was making over $100k/year with an affiliate website reviewing diets.

He told me I should just exactly model this guy’s site and he would put up the money for ads and we would split the profit.

So that’s what I did. I spent about 2 months putting this site together. Not working. Not making money.

And whittling down the last bit of cash I had to my name.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend at the time, now wife, was panicking about me not working and was begging me to look for a job.

I used to tell her “jobs are for suckers”. And that life was too short to be stuck in some slave-like job. 

But the truth is, with a theater degree and no job experience during the middle of a recession, I had no idea what kind of work I would be able to get anyway. So I didn’t bother trying.

It’s two months later, and my affiliate site is up. My original plan was to drive traffic via SEO.

The only problem was, I had no idea about SEO at the time.

I remember I met this woman at a party who ran an SEO agency, and I did a call with her asking how much it would cost to rank my website, and she quoted me $50k.

Which was absolutely insane. I’ve come to realize what a bunch of rip off artists work in the SEO business but that’s another story.

Like I said, my friend was backing me for paid advertising. At first, I blew through close to $3k of his money on Google AdWords but not making a profit.

We were making revenue which was exciting.

Another thing that was very interesting was the power of modeling someone who was already successful.

This was a Diet Review website and it had a pretty simple premise.

It basically just gave a summary along with the pros and cons of pretty much every diet out there.

Then at the bottom of the article, it had a little box that said, “Our recommended diet is the Jillian Michaels Diet” and it was an affiliate link to her website.

I would never have believed that the link would have a 20% Click Through Rate, but it did.

Editor’s note: you might also enjoy our curated list of affiliate marketing websites and how much money they make.

So just by modeling this website, I was way ahead of the game.

About another month in, we turned off all of the losing keywords and were finally making a profit.

We were still in the hole about $2k from my partner’s initial investment but at least we were headed in the right direction.

Then, unfortunately, we got slapped by Google.

They refused to display our ads because it was an affiliate website. I tried all kinds of desperate actions like changing accounts and even cloning the site under another name. But nothing worked.

And about 4-5 months after I started it was game over. I was screwed.

At this point, the money was almost all gone.

I was living in San Francisco, which is not a cheap place to live and I was down to my last $10k. 

$10k might sound like a lot of money but if you have no job and monthly expenses of $3k then it’s just enough to give you a panic attack.

Traveling the world

It was around that time that I read a book by a hypnotist named Paul McKenna called “I Can Make You Rich”.

In it, he posed a question to many self-made Billionaires and Millionaires.

The question was:

If you were in a strange city where you didn’t know anyone and had only $500 in your pocket…what would you do?

That was the situation I found myself in at that time, so I asked myself that same question.

The answer I came up with was that I could help someone create a new WordPress website.

At the time WordPress was almost strictly a blogging platform. But they had just come out with these premium themes that looked like “real” websites, which were pretty easy to install. 

I am not a tech person but I had enough knowledge to install WordPress, set up a theme and tweak the CSS enough to match the colors of a company’s logo.

I decided that I could do this for $500…

… and if I was able to get 6 clients a month, that would be enough to cover my $3k/month living expenses.

That same week, I was walking down my neighborhood and ran into a friend, who was sitting next to her friend who was talking about how she needed a website. I told her that I could help her with her project for $500.

It turns out this was one of the most insane and complex projects I ever did.

It was a several hundred-page shopping cart website and she wanted a custom design which I didn’t know how to do.

But I was so desperate at the time, I said yes and decided to figure it out.

Within a week I had my own website up, which was just a template, and I was posting my services on Craigslist.

At the time, you need a phone verified account to post an ad on Craigslist, so I used my phone, my girlfriend’s phone and my friend’s phone to constantly spam Craigslist with my ads for website design services.

Since my pricing was so low, I got clients.

I call this my manure method.

Basically you have to eat a bunch of shit to turn it into manure to fertilize your business for future growth.

Because I was providing so much value for such low prices, everyone was happy to give me rave reviews on Yelp, which was pretty new at the time.

Visiting my team in the Philippines

When I got about 8 reviews on Yelp I started getting some leads from there as well. So, I was able to get 5-6 new clients a month.

But here was the problem.

Craigslist clients are the worst. I mean here were these people paying $500, to someone living in San Francisco, and they wanted a custom site, with a million revisions and they were never happy.

I had no idea how to deal with clients and I was desperate for money, so I just said yes to everything and everyone. Not anymore.

I say no to $10,000+ projects these days on almost a weekly basis.

Why? Because the project is just not a fit for what we do.

I like doing simple websites for nice clients who aren’t going to be pushy or a pain in the ass.

It’s WAY easier to do three $5k website projects for simple sane clients, then it is to do one $15k website for some type of project where the client doesn’t know what they really want, and it’s super complex and outside of your wheelhouse.

But when you’re broke and desperate, it’s hard to turn down cash.

My first year in business I made about $35k.

My three main sources of leads were Craigslist/Yelp, my girlfriend’s professional network and a charity group I had joined.

In many ways, that charity group kind of saved my life. Up until then, I was not really a do-gooder type and I had never been to a charity before. But my neighbor at the time convinced me to join.

It was actually a huge commitment and we had to volunteer 80 hours just for the months of November and December.

But somehow getting outside of myself and not focusing on my own problems helped.

I also got some great contacts and leads for my business. Not to mention some great friends.

Getting Barry Bonds to MC our charity event

So there I was, busting my ass working 80 hours a week.

I remember having so many clients that my eyelid started twitching involuntarily.

Meanwhile, I don’t know anything about design or coding.

It’s just not my strong suit.

To this day I couldn’t even turn on Photoshop, let alone use it. And my coding skills don’t go beyond minor CSS and HTML tweaks.

I felt like a fraud selling my services since I didn’t know what I was doing and couldn’t justify in my head charging more money since I was delivering such a bad product.

Don’t get me wrong, I tried my best and my clients were getting a great value relative to the money they paid me.

But in an absolute sense, my work was shit and I was not proud of it.

Coupled with that, I just felt like a loser.

I had failed at everything I tried before that.

I tried to be an actor, a singer, a Real Estate agent, a poker player, an author, and God knows whatever other stupid schemes I’m forgetting now.

The only consistent thread through all of these endeavors was my utter failure in all of these.

And the truth is…I never thought of this website design thing as anything but a desperate move to avoid me having to turn myself into a gigolo turning tricks in the Tenderloin (just kidding).

That whole time, I was always thinking about what my “real” business was going to be. And that this website thing was just for now.

But I had another thought…

…and it was one of the best thoughts I had.

It was: “Listen, dumbass (me talking to myself). This website thing is the only thing in your life you’ve ever made money on. Keep working on that!”

So I was smart enough to not lose focus and work on growing this business that was actually making money.

Like I said, I wasn’t much of a web designer.

But I did like a few things. I love marketing and I love learning.

I’m pretty much an information junkie and I’m always watching courses on direct response marketing, personal development and business.

Wife and son on our deck in SF apartment

One course in particular really got my attention.

It was John Reese’s Outsource Force, where he talks about how you can create a virtual business hiring people in the Philippines.

Up to that time I had never heard of the Philippines as a place to hire people.

But John Reese said it was the best. English is their National language. They are kind, humble, hard-working people. And they’re not really entrepreneurial, so they won’t steal your idea and rip off your business.

So, for about a year or two I lived with this dream of hiring someone in the Philippines.

The problem was I was broke, so I couldn’t afford to pay anyone anything.

Even someone in the Philippines.

Yes, I was making money but not enough to cover all of my expenses. I was living off credit cards and at this time I had about $5k cash in the bank and $10k in credit card debt.

I was still feeling desperate about money.

At this point, I was still getting business from Craigslist, Yelp and a little bit from Google.

Because of that Diet Review site, I started learning everything I could about SEO…

…and I came up with a brilliant plan.

At the bottom of every site I developed, I would add the phrase “San Francisco Web Design by Thomas Digital”. And the clever part was, I would make the link “San Francisco Web Design” so that Google would give me credit for that keyword.

It took me a couple of years but I eventually got to page 1 of Google for that term.

I remember being frustrated about being on page 3 and thinking about quitting my SEO efforts, but my friend, the one who backed me with the affiliate site, told me, look you’re only 20 spots away from being on page 1.

Now, I’m the number 1 result on Google for keywords such as: “San Francisco Web Design”, “Hire a Web Designer”, “Website Redesign” and many more…

So, my next inflection point came when I got brutally slammed in a Jiu-Jitsu class. I was laid up in bed, unable to work and dealing with this client who was driving me insane.

I decided to get on oDesk (now UpWork) and look for a designer. I found this guy and I really liked his smile and his work. He had an amazing portfolio.

I hired this guy, for I think $50 and the next day I got back the most awesome website mockup I had ever seen. This was amazing!

Right then and there I promised myself I would never do another website myself again.

Lunch with my design team

I still didn’t have the money to pay other people, but I quickly decided if I was able to produce the quality of design this guy was making I could raise my prices.

At this time I think I was charging $1,500 for a website and I quickly raised my prices to $2,500.

The charity I belonged to needed to redo their website, and I offered to do it at cost.

I wouldn’t take any money but I would reimburse the designer and developer for the project, which all in was about $750. I was able to get a link from this site to mine, which was great for SEO and I was able to add it to my portfolio.

After doing that site, I remember getting a website project for $7,000!!!! Holy shit!

I was so uncomfortable and nervous.

I had never worked on a project that big before.

Looking back, they got a super great deal, as I wouldn’t do a project of their scope for less than $15k now. But at the time I thought it was a chance of a lifetime.

I really want to go back to my “manure theory”, that you have to eat a lot of shit in the beginning.

So far, the “secret” to my success was simply my willingness to work more for less money, or to do a free website for my charity – with the purpose of building goodwill and creating more value for my business in the future.

The SEO trick helped too but it was mostly the goodwill building.

The last piece of the puzzle with my business is my “Mafia Offer”.

Like I said, I love marketing.

In fact, there is a great podcast called “I Love Marketing” with Dean Jackson and Joe Polish where they talk about having a Mafia Offer.

Mafia Offer: “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse”.

So, for about a year straight I was racking my brain about what my Mafia Offer should be.

Then one Christmas morning it hit me.

What if I designed a FREE mockup of someone’s website before they signed or paid for anything. If they liked it, we work together. If not, no hard feelings.

Since my designer was in the Philippines, my downside was around $50 and my upside was getting a project for over $5k!

I was both terrified and thrilled by the idea.

Terrified because it seemed super scary to change an existing business process that was working for me and thrilled because I knew instantly in my bones that this was going to work and be a big deal.

With that being said, it took me 6 months before I built up the courage to try it out.

By this time I was making around $100-150k per year in gross revenue.

I had a pretty good thing going. I had my designer in the Philippines, who by this time was my full-time employee.

He had been working at this sweatshop of a web design business before, run by a couple of scummy Americans living in the Philippines. These guys treated their employees like dirt and paid them peanuts.

I ended up hiring all of his friends…

…and former coworkers and have 10 full-time team members, mostly people who worked at that scummy company.

Anyway, I finally pulled the trigger on my Mafia Offer and my business doubled overnight.

I made $300k the next year.

Which was pretty insane and well-timed since my wife and I were having our first kid.

I kept at it with my SEO. I had written this power article called “The 6 Dumbest Mistakes Smart People Make When Hiring a Web Designer” and that post alone was bringing in a ton of traffic and still ranks #1 for “Hire a web designer” to this day.

I started saying no to leads that weren’t a fit…

…and really focusing on the ideal, easy to work with clients that brought in good money but weren’t a nightmare to work with.

I started charging more money for projects.

I remember my first $25k project. I felt so out of my depth that I was going to cancel my appointment because I knew they would never work with me.

I decided to go just for the experience of it with the knowledge that it would never work out.

They ended up hiring me and they ended up being one of my best clients both in terms of joy working with them and money made. And they are still a client to this day.

I started offering Hosting and Maintenance as a service for $50/month…

… and we now generate $7,750/month in passive revenue from that service alone.

My eyelid was still twitching because even though I wasn’t designing and developing the sites, I was still the project manager.

Finally, I hired my first US-based project manager, which was a huge risk for me.

Paying someone in the US is a huge jump in expense from someone in the Philippines. It’s also terrifying handing over your business to someone else and having to deal with unhappy clients when things don’t work out.

But that’s business. You have to let go a little and embrace the imperfection of it all.

So that’s it. That’s the long story of my business up until now.

The main ingredients are: eating a lot of shit early on, driving traffic through SEO and using marketing techniques to convert visitors into leads.

I still get almost all of my traffic from SEO.

My team is entirely virtual.

I definitely work more than 4 hours per week but I do thank Tim Ferriss for the inspiration for starting me on my journey.

If you told the desperate person 9 years ago selling $500 websites that he was going to make ~$600,000 a year with the same business, I’m not sure he would have believed you.

I just want to communicate to you that I started this business with almost no money, no skills, and very little confidence or previous successful experiences in life.

This all happened over time and if you don’t give up and keep at it, it can work for you.

It’s been fun reliving those early days and I realize that I need to call some of those people who helped me early on and give them another sincere thank you.

Wishing you all the best in your journey.

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

Podcast:

Books:

Other resources:

What are your top business tools?

Where can we go to learn more?

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