How I Went From High School Dropout to Millionaire CEO in Two Years (And You Can, Too)
Five things you need (and five things you don't) to start a successful online business.
I’m a high school dropout—no college education, no business training. Yet, I started a steel manufacturing company from scratch in 2016, and it’s on track to gross more than $30 million this year.
When I started, I knew nothing about the intricacies of my industry. I couldn’t tell you how to laser print on steel, what paint to use, or the financial ratios of a home décor business. But now I can tell you anything. What’s my secret?
I just started.
I wasn’t an entrepreneur. I didn’t have a perfect plan. I didn’t have funding. I didn’t know the industry. But I believed in what I was doing. I was ready to learn. I learned about marketing. And most importantly, I worked hard. It wasn’t easy and still is hard work. But if I did it, anyone can.
1. You don’t need to be an entrepreneur, but you need to believe in what you’re doing.
It was never my dream to start a steel home décor business, but I saw an opportunity that excited me.
My friend bought a steel baseball sign with his son’s name on it. I wanted one for my son, but the small company was backlogged for months. With a few Google searches, I realized that steel home décor was a niche with little competition. There were “mom-and-pop businesses” but no big players advertising for the obvious keywords. It was an untapped market: a “Blue Ocean” opportunity. I could specialize in a range of verticals, from sports and military memorabilia to wedding décor. And because I’m the target audience (I wanted to be a customer), I got excited about it personally.
The lesson: Find a business idea that excites you. Your enthusiasm will get you through the tough times that all entrepreneurs experience. Look for the “Blue Ocean” idea. Sure, you can start a “Red Ocean” business in an oversaturated market, but competition quickly turns the ocean blood-red.
2. You don’t need funding but you need to start.
Financing your business shouldn’t be a barrier even in industries with big barriers to entry, like steel manufacturing. It does take money to make money, but you can approach your goal differently.
Before I invested in that expensive machinery, I wanted to confirm that large companies would be interested in steel home décor. Validation from friends and family isn’t enough; you need “purchase intent” from your target audience.
I bought several products from a competitor for a few hundred dollars. I pitched these samples and my company (which didn’t yet exist) to businesses like Grunt Style, America’s largest military memorabilia company. As a combat veteran, I knew whom I wanted to target and what products their customers would like.
You’d be surprised what a little online research can do, especially with tools like NeverBounce, which validates email addresses you’ve guessed. I found a way to contact the CEO directly and reached out to him cold. I grabbed his attention by offering to send him a care package.
I used the same direct approach to reach out to decision-makers at other companies. I garnered and fulfilled a few contracts with those samples, which funded about half my company’s startup costs.
The lesson: Think about how you can test the waters in your industry without making a huge cash outlay. If it doesn’t work, you’ve not lost much but have gained invaluable experience for your next move. Identify decision-makers and contact them directly—don’t waste your time with anyone else. Think of a no-brainer offer that will grab their attention. Putting something tangible in people’s hands is powerful.
3. You don’t need a perfect plan, but you need to be ready to learn.
I initially planned to work with a partner. He had two things I didn’t: warehouse space and manufacturing knowledge. But at the last minute, that option vanished.
I could adapt quickly because I had a steadfast vision to create a billion-dollar company. Regardless of the circumstances, my vision wasn’t going to change, and it guided me to the solution.
I invested $40,000 in manufacturing equipment when I didn’t even know how to turn on one of the machines. I’m a kinesthetic learner, so I sat down and learned how to set it up. It took three months to figure out how to use it properly. But now, I can teach anyone how to operate the machine.
The lesson: Many entrepreneurs wait for the perfect plan. They don’t feel ready until they’ve acquired more knowledge and support. While your vision won’t change, understand that a plan will—often due to factors outside your control. So, prepare to adapt quickly.
4. You don’t need to know the industry, but you need to know marketing.
Digital marketing is crucial for any online retail business. I didn’t know much about it, so I watched a lot of videos from marketers like Miles Beckler.
Most of our website traffic comes from Google and social media advertising. We use ClickFunnels to manage our ad funnels, with these components:
- Audience demographics: Target people with interests in your product areas (for us, it’s baseball or weddings).
- Offer one low-cost product per demographic: If shoppers have too many options, they get overwhelmed and may not purchase anything.
- Add a limited-time discount to inspire urgency.
- Create landing pages specific to each product.
Split-test ads with a small budget, trying different demographics, products, and content. Then put more money behind those that perform best.
We increase the average value of our orders by upselling and downselling. As customers complete a purchase, we ask whether they want to purchase the same item at the same discount for a friend. We also offer a discount on a related, cheaper item. To avoid creating a negative user experience, we limit this to two yes/no questions. The “CartHook” Shopify plugin can automate the process.
In my experience, one in four customers makes an additional purchase. It’s a simple sales concept that many online businesses don’t utilize, even though we’ve found that it can double your revenue.
The lesson: Digital ads are powerful if you know how to test and optimize them. Upselling and downselling during checkout can significantly increase revenue.
5. You don’t need anything else but you need to work hard.
I worked like crazy when starting out—and I still do. But I don’t mind working seven days a week, because I enjoy it. I didn’t become the boss to work less. Get comfortable wearing many hats as you run things day to day. Discover how you learn best and get your hands dirty.
The bottom line: All you need is a vision that excites you. It will protect you against a fear of failure and propel you to accomplish anything—if you’re willing to work hard for it.