My Friend Built $650,000 Ecommerce Empire With $7 Product

I’m going to keep his identity confidential as my friend isn’t quite comfortable talking about his story right now.

Here are the facts of his story.

  • He built his empire over Amazon
  • His monthly revenue is approximately $100,000 USD.
  • The gross profit is roughly 27%
  • The net profit is around 22%
  • His fulfillment is done by Amazon which means he pays $2.5 to Amazon to fulfill each order and another $1.05 to Amazon for getting him a buyer.
  • His landing cost to Amazon’s warehouse including the cost of goods and the shipping cost is $1.5
  • This leaves him with $2 per sale.

If I had to start this business, I would stay a thousand miles away from it just by looking at the sale price of $7. Because to me $7 doesn’t sound like a lot, and it probably doesn’t to you either. Especially after you look into costs of good, Amazon’s fee, ranking and PPC costs, you’re left with under $2 per sale. I would have never worked for $1-2 per order. If I think this way despite being in business, I can say with confidence that most other people would think the same.

The fact however is that he not only created $22,000 per month in income for himself, he has also created $650,000 in asset if he flips his store at any point.

All by selling $7 product and by taking a loan of $10K to pay for inventory and ranking costs. After I had a look at his financials, not only was I surprised, but I was also very proud of him. Had he done the same on a higher price product, I would still be proud of him but not as much as I’m right now. The reason for that is because he proved you can start small and go big. That you can bootstrap or start on a small funding. That you don’t need access to capital as much as you need access to skills and hard-work.

While I write this, and while you read this, he’ll walk away with $650,000 generated in under 3 years. A wildfire that started off a matchstick.

Market Inefficiencies & The Fuel Of The Internet

While you have to pay for most products or services in real life, most products and services that exist on the internet have continued to stay free. Since all internet companies have to make revenue, alternative options are looked into of which a large portion has been advertising.

As advertising became the main fuel of the internet, mega players jumped into the advertising industry to have power and control over the internet’s oil. To power effective advertising, data became even more valuable asset. But the internet advertising had and continue to have many many inefficiencies and over time, all markets try to remove inefficiencies to move towards higher profitability.

A major chunk of the advertising dollar has been going into the pockets of agencies, networks, exchanges, and other layers over layers of middle-men. I look at that as market inefficiency.

With influencer marketing, we saw the markets tried to get more efficient and remove the middle-men altogether. Everyone who explored this area, including us, saw over a 1000% higher ROAS compared to traditional advertising.

A large part of internet continues to stay free because one way or another commerce happens. Advertising is only the means. Facebook and Youtube videos continue to stay free because these companies make money with advertising and data.

However, advertising and data work because commerce happens. Everything else, including the advertising and data are also middle men. They are the inefficiencies that we need today, but hopefully the market will continue to find more efficient ways for higher profitability or cut-throat competition.

All websites and blogs that relied on advertising for years have been increasingly moving towards affiliate commissions to keep their businesses alive. As Amazon cuts affiliate rates, and others might follow, these content websites will need to find smarter ways to make their businesses work. What you could do before by just selling ads can only be done today by selling a product. Today, you can make it work by making a sale happen for someone else and getting an affiliate commission. Tomorrow, that may be seen as a market inefficiency and you may have to generate a sale for yourself either by selling products, or charging for your own product or service.

Youtubers today make up-to 80% of their income not by Youtube ads but by influencer marketing and brand deals. Youtubers and brands are cutting the very platform as the middleman that they host their content on.

We started Socialoholic with content and blogs. We relied on selling advertising in order monetize our network of websites. We drove traffic from the influencers to our content so we can sell ads and pocket the difference. We became content-arbitragers. So many middle-men while the true value was only created because someone somewhere bought something.

Years later, we found ourselves driving the same influencer traffic but instead of driving that to content we drove it to products. We removed the inefficiencies.

Over time, we have pivoted from content to focus on e-commerce as our core area of business because that is the real fuel of the internet. Everything else is only relevant because it assists e-commerce and when something more efficient pops up, it is replaced.

Do We Choose Grey Hat, Or The Grey Hat Chooses Us

I met this guy in 2009. That’s 11 years ago. He always wore a hat. He loves them.

He taught me how the systems are gamed. I loved it. We were on the Digg’s front-page everyday. We worked for the top guys. I will probably not name them today. May be they don’t want to acknowledge they gamed the system too.

The system was nothing but a recommendation engine. One of the first I had seen. When Twitter and Facebook ranked posts chronologically, Kevin Rose had the recommendation engine figured out. We just knew how to make the best use of it. Reverse engineering it, I would say.

One of our clients in the sports niche got acquired for $150 million dollars. Almost all of our clients are a multi million dollar properties today.

We even made some of our own tiny sites that we drove from Digg.

Over time, struggling between gaming the system for growth, solving an actual problem or doing both at a time, 2020 came.

Today, I’m wondering, how do you build a global business from Pakistan that could one day grow large enough?

How do you hire white people or black people or asian people or anyone to cast them in your ads? Can you? Are there any in this country? If yes, are they actors? They probably aren’t and you probably can’t.

You could outsource though. For tens of thousands of dollars perhaps? Or millions of Pakistani Rupees that you can most likely save in 5 years working in a day job.

If you’re bootstrapped, which you most likely will be because there aren’t any VCs here, what would you do? Would you get that ad made? Or would you pick a hundred ads from the internet, break them apart, and stitch them enough times that they qualify for “fair use” and become DMCA-free. This would probably cost you $50.

Forget about the ads. Not all businesses advertise and advertising could be just one of the many things about building a business. You will most likely require certain kind of digital infrastructure for sure. PayPal? Ability to accept cards i-e payment gateways? But there are none that support this region. What do you do?

You could fly to US or another supported region, setup a company, and use that to setup the rest of the digital infrastructure. But most likely you’ll never get a visa and you probably also can’t afford this travel easily. If you think I’m exaggerating, I know at least 5 tech entrepreneurs from Pakistan who have built multi million dollar businesses but were declined US visit visa.

May be you could fly to one of 31 visa free countries? But they are just as good as your own country as far as the digital infrastructure and access to business tools is concerned.

You could reach out to friends or relatives in US and form a company in partnership with them. You could use that company to setup PayPal, payment gateway and other business tools that you need to begin your business.

But there’s more. You will most likely be banned at some point once you access these business tools physically from within Pakistan.

What do you do then? You could rent a server physically in US. Remote Desktop Protocol. You could access that server remotely and run your business on that. Sounds sketchy, doesn’t it?

But you could get banned for that too. Because it’s not that big of a deal for these multi billion and trillion dollar companies to understand the difference between a data-center’s IP and that of a home in US.

So may be you could buy a Raspberry Pi that you could physically place in someone’s house in US. I’m confident none of my friends or relatives would agree to this. It would seem strange to them that why would someone want to do it? They would think that there could be something malicious going on that could land them in trouble.

You could also buy a laptop and physically place that in their houses and run your businesses with remote access. I know my cousins aren’t going to like that idea. May be yours do.

By the time you would come this far, you would have exhausted 83% of your energies in setting up the the foundation to start your business.

Thousands of entrepreneurs from Pakistan actually have to go through all of this (and more) to actually start their businesses. May be you see a scammer, but I see a victim that turned around his fate and became a hero.

So what happened there? Did we choose that grey hat, or did that grey hat choose us?

Platform Strikes Again As Amazon Cuts Commissions

I wrote this blog titled “the incentive to be on a platform” a few weeks ago. Today when Amazon announced rate cuts for their affiliates, I was reminded of my thoughts regarding the platforms.

The rate cuts were announced despite the fact that Amazon is one of the few businesses right now surging through unprecedented growth. They had to hire over 100,000 employees in last few weeks to fulfil the demand of essential shopping and I can’t help but wonder how could Amazon be driven by COVID-19 to take this action. Honestly, I can’t seem to understand it. If this is a COVID-19 related event, please help me understand how.

A rate cut of as much as 70% is devastating for many content websites which generated a substantial amount of revenue from affiliate links as the ad revenues declined due to a large user base behind ad blockers.

It also means a loss of up to 70% valuation for what are known as “affiliate blogs” which are blogs designed to generate 100% of the revenue through Amazon affiliate program.

The sellers were also halted from selling anything but essential items for a few weeks. Sellers were also forced to move out any items from their warehouses that could “melt” such as edibles and make up. While the decision to remove these items was taken by Amazon in order to prioritize essentials, Amazon still charged per unit warehouse removal fee.

When you build businesses on a platform, this is the kind of counter-party risk that is involved. As I wrote in my other blog post, these platforms are the power houses and fuel growth, but no business should ever be built solely with a platform in mind.

How Crypto-Assets Will Play Out In The Long Term

Idea of the internet and the TCP/IP protocol was formally adopted in the 80s. In the 90s we started to see some of the companies reflecting some of the things that can be done on the internet. Amazon was founded in 1994 and Google was founded in 1998. But the internet bubble called the “dot com bubble” burst in 2000. It is when we saw the stock market crash, and most internet companies from the era simply failed and disappeared.

The bubble was real. A lot of companies with bad business models raised wild amount of money and created no value. A few companies survived. At the peak of bubble, Amazon’s stock was worth nearly a $100. At the bottom of the crash, it was nearly $5. Today, it stands at a whooping $1870. So in hindsight, Amazon and companies like Amazon weren’t the problem. Internet wasn’t the problem either. The internet created real value as we all can see today. The problem was excessive speculation and get-rich quick sentiments and since it wasn’t sustainable the market crashed.

I feel crypto-assets are a lot like that. The idea of decentralized crypto assets was first properly proposed in the 90s by Nick Szabo. By 2009, Bitcoin, the first crypto asset of it’s kind was released. By 2013, we had many more crypto-assets including Namecoin, Litecoin & Ethereum. But I’d say the crypto bubble burst in 2017.

I think the crypto-winter might last as late as 2027. During the crypto-winter, most crypto-assets that exist today will have disappeared forever. But there will be Amazons and eBays of crypto-assets, the ones that will survive. By 2037, they will value collectively in trillions of dollars.

2037 will be a great time for crypto-assets, just like 2019 is a great time for tech industry in general.

All of this is speculation, of course. I don’t have the crystal ball. But it is what I believe in. What I also believe in is that the history never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.

Disclaimer: The information provided is for informational purposes only. It should not be considered legal or financial advice. To the maximum extent permitted by law, I disclaim any and all liability in the event any information, commentary, analysis, opinions, advice and/or recommendations prove to be inaccurate, incomplete or unreliable, or result in any investment or other losses.

Should You Always Have a Co-Founder?

If you’ve read a few posts on this blog before, you’ve probably already heard of my co-founder multiple times. I have worked with him for about a decade now and while sometimes it has been a challenging and bumpy ride, it has been rewarding in the end.

I’ve mentioned him quite a few times here because my stories would be incomplete without mentioning him. Because he had a role to play in every one of those stories and in building each one of those businesses with me.

Startups are hard and exhausting. Sometimes you’re gonna hate yourself for even wanting to try to run one and you’re always going to need someone who can take control while you’re going through the burn-out phase.

Each individual founder also brings unique skills and vision to the company which can be great.

YC funds less than 10% companies with solo-founders. They encourage you to have co-founders and even often offer matchmaking. I believe in the power of co-founders.

That said, there are many successful companies built by solo founders. One of the largest companies in the world, Amazon, was founded by solo founder Jeff Bezos. It’s also how he became the richest man in the world by having higher equity in the business. So going solo can make you really wealthy if you’re smart like Jeff.

But to be Jeff, or any other solo founder like him, you need to have super powers, which if you believe you don’t have, I encourage you to find a co-founder.

Just make sure your co-founder has these three attributes

Intelligence, energy, and integrity. And if they don’t have the last one, don’t even bother with the first two.

Warren Buffett