3 Lessons that Helped Me Start a Profitable Digital Business in 2021

Toni Koraza

Licensed © IreneKras via Adobe Stock

Tension can be your biggest stepping stone in life and business.

The last year has witnessed unprecedented digitalization. As the world plunges into another round of uncertainty, we’re becoming increasingly receptive to new ideas, solutions, and businesses. Old money has a chance to tweak its business models to continue delivering value in the new decade, and young entrepreneurs have a decent shot at starting a profitable business online. And everyone seems to be getting the same memo.

My accountant dubbed it “the rise of lockdown-preneur.” Almost half a million businesses were registered in the UK in the past year alone, mostly led by Gen Z and Millenials. The US has recorded the largest number of newly registered entrepreneurial businesses to date in 2020. And a similar trend is consolidating in other countries too.

I guess I fall in this demographics. I’ve quit my job, started a digital agency, a short-form publication, an Etsy shop, an NFT gallery, and a few other ventures this year.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Accountancy Partnership

1. Serve the Desperate

Andy Rachleff singlehandedly overhauled my whole business strategy with one phrase — “Serve the desperate.”

For those unfamiliar with Andy Rachleff’s work, he is a lecturer in Strategic Management at Stanford with two massively successful businesses on the record. He enjoys teaching new entrepreneurs about the ropes of the business.

Andy talks about how being right in non-consensus is essential for starting a scalable business. This discussion with Mike Maples of Floodgate is an interesting start to getting a better idea of who Andy is.

“Serve the desperate,” is the Socratic notion that uncovers and connects the matrix of digital business for young entrepreneurs.

How Google served those who needed help at first

Yahoo! was a web discovery powerhouse when Larry Page and Sergey Brin first misspelled googol on domain registration services. Two students met at Standford and developed the PageRank algorithm. The technology was inferior to Yahoo!’s at the time. Google could barely run text content. And the original name was supposed to be BackRub, which, thank God, never came to be.

Unlike Yahoo!, Google was a garage project run by two students in Menlo Park. Yahoo! had it all; the video, the audio, the newsworthy homepage, and the expensive marketing professionals. Yahoo’s content was falling through the screen into the minds of millions around the globe. Yahoo! was the most visited website in the world. It ranked 1st in engagement and visits in the early 2000s.

What happened?

The desperate people happened.

Google launched Adwords in October of 2000, offering 6-word text ads. Yahoo! had video, audio, and all kinds of advertising content that Google just couldn’t match. So, Google did something else. Companies had to spend over $10,000 to get the advertising deal with Yahoo! It was not a bad job. Professional editors and copywriting teams would help you launch your campaigns. Yahoo!’s service was worth the pretty penny, no doubt. However, startups and individuals usually don’t have an extra $10k for online ads laying around.

Adwords was a much cheaper alternative to everything Yahoo! had to offer.

Startups and young companies started buying Google Adwords. Some companies eventually grew. Google continued delivering exemplary service, and startups continued buying more expensive deals. Yahoo! soon signed an exclusive deal to use Google’s search engine to power yahoo.com. Individual keywords reached a price per click (PPC) of $100, and Google became the new king of the internet. Youtube comes straight after Google as the second most visited website on the internet. Alphabet Inc owns both platforms.

I don’t pretend to be Google, and I’m not scaling my business to change the world. My most lucrative work comes from young startups and early-stage podcasts. I can understand their needs, as I share many of them myself.

Sure, a Fortune 50 company and a large political party also made their way into my client list, but they were both wildcards nobody could predict. Start small, and think long-term. Serve the desperate if you want to make a difference.

2. Climb the walls

When the financial crisis of 2008 almost blasted the global economy back into the Dark Ages, the Obama Administration responded with the Dodd-Frank Act.

The new bill was supposed to protect customers and reform the large banks. JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and other larger-than-market institutions couldn’t count on the government to support any more. Financial gambling and orgies stopped being cool. However, the deal affected up-and-coming financial startups. More regulation meant less room for growth. Dodd-Frank slammed the doors on the little guys.

What happened next?

Fintech and retail trading happened. Robinhood. Stripe. Bitcoin. Coinbase. New players have entered the scene in creative new ways. When the legislation closed the door for new financial companies, founders found a way to climb the walls, windows, and rooftops. Robinhood has brought trading services to everyday Americans. Stripe has made it possible for everyone to start a digital company and integrate state-of-the-art payment processing systems with only a few clicks. Coinbase has announced an IPO for this April.

I’m certainly not a financial institution worth billions of dollars. However, when Coronavius swept the globe and created massive friction on travel. I found a way to move to London and start my company here. International travel and work were my walls. But I saw an opening. Flights from Bejing to London were still on, and ex-pats could register a limited company in the UK on the same day.

Legislation is not the only wall out there. Think geography, time, language, finances, and find a place that has massive potential for your future.

3. Pivot and restart as your life depends on it

Study hard. Earn a diploma from a good university. Find an entry job. Work for a few decades in the same profession. Buy a house on credit and start a family. Raise beautiful kids. Live happily ever after.

Yeah. That doesn’t work for everyone.

I restarted my career 3 times and pivoted in various directions. I never set out to become a full-time writer, entrepreneur, or an art collector — the three titles I happily wear today. After years in the nightlife business, teaching, and diplomacy, I’ve found a new calling in the digital world. My income has been progressively rising year to year despite the brutal circumstances washing over the world of business and economic downturns.

What’s the difference between a Pivot and a Restart?

  • Pivot: keeping one heel on the ground and changing direction. Pivot means that you’re still running the same business, but slightly shifting your focus. Netflix pivoted to a subscription, gym-like payment model, but kept the film business at its core.
  • Restart: Completly change your business plan. I’ve gone from a corporate job to writing online for a living. Kodak did a full restart with going into generic drug production, instead of analog camera equipment.

Pivot and restart mentality is all about survival. When governments enforced national lockdowns, some companies took the opportunity. GymShark became a HomeShark business. The company changed imagery across the website and started featuring models working out at home. Gymshark embraced the new normal and adjusted accordingly.

Coronavirus could have destroyed Gymshark’s business, but instead, it has made it stronger than ever. Turnover and profit soared in 2020. You can apply these lessons to your life and business. Gymshark is a perfect example of a pivot to accustom the new market reality. You can do the same. Turn the next challenge into your stepping stone.

Pivot, restart, and do what you have to do to make it work. The faster you adjust, the faster you can continue with your business.

Think like a company

What does a business do? Companies exchange products, services, and assets for revenue and profits.

Your skills are lucrative assets in the labor market. Your skills are also services and products that you can leverage to make more money, create fallback cashflows, diversify income, and build businesses.

If you’re good at writing internal memos at your office? Apply for an account on Upwork. You can find businesses looking to outsource technical writing. Are you good at baking cookies? Launch a pastry delivery business in your free time. The options are endless.

Win and help win.

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