AutoGrow’s 2017 Year-End Review: Revenue, Successes, Lessons Learned and the Future

2017 was AutoGrow’s best year of revenue to date.

We experienced a lot of successes, tasted a few failures and learned a lot along the way.

That’s why I’m proud to introduce our first Year-End Review.

In this post, I will delve into the projects that brought in revenue in 2017, review areas where we succeeded, recount lessons learned and reveal what we have up our sleeves for this year.

Maybe some of these successes and failures will add some insight into how you run your business, and the plans you have for the coming year.

Or maybe you can implement some of the strategies that helped us to help your business grow and become more profitable.

Either way, thanks for joining us in 2017. I look forward to bringing you more high-value content and info products to help you grow your list, drive traffic and become more profitable in the new year.

Now, let’s take a look back at the year, and what we’re planning for 2018.

(Complementary video interview below)

The Journey to Now (Key Growth Metrics)

We began the year selling info products. This lasted until March. I pivoted the company away from this because after two months we weren’t growing fast enough.

From there, we re-launched our productized funnel service, which really took off in the spring. We more than doubled prices to $1799 per month, and then $2799 per month for an upgraded version of the service, and were bringing in about $20,000 per month.

The result from doing this wasn’t what you might expect…

Part of the reason I made this decision was because people were requesting that we bring the done-for-you service back. The market wanted it.

In addition, having had some mental space to examine what wasn’t working with version 1 of the productized funnel service, I concluded that the market thought it wanted a “done with you” service when in reality they ultimately wanted to pay a fee and save as much time thinking about it and executing it as possible.

With the relaunch, I templated out a plan that could be adapted to most markets and businesses.

Within 65 days we grew from $1,500 per month to just a few hundred shy of $20,000 MRR (monthly run rate).

The growth was exciting, but…just as quickly as we grew, I started to see the cracks in the model. This ultimately lead me to put the brakes on growth, as you’ll see.

It simply could not scale for three main reasons:

  1. It was difficult finding a funnel strategist who could replace me without destroying our profit margins.
  2. This meant I had to work on each account to get results for clients, which worked to an extent. However, it left no time or energy to put back into growing the business.
  3. There was too much customization needed for each type of business and market. While the basic sales funnel principles did work, clients needed more hand-holding than I could provide.

Like any startup business, we were building the bike while riding it. And despite the challenges, there were a number of wins for clients that I’m proud of.

Take Black Business School, for example. Prior to working with us, they were only selling a handful of their “side hustle” business product. And in the end, they were earning about 7X for every one dollar invested in ads.

BBS was also acquiring new email subscribers under 50 cents a piece.

In the summer, after months of hard work, I achieved a mini-milestone. Having launched the service, growing it quickly, and systemizing the operations, especially around recruiting and training, I was able to take a vacation.

A simultaneous milestone was reached when, just prior to leaving, I pulled several all-nighters and successfully launched our 6-figure funnel online training program (with thanks to my team members who helped me accomplish that, it almost didn’t happen!).

Taking a trip while working and growing the business was a challenging goal I’d set for myself at the beginning of 2017.

Looking back, it all seems surreal.

Here’s a quick sampling. It was a 3-month trip that started in the Dominican Republic for the first month, then the next two spent in Costa Rica.

I worked almost the whole time, except for the first week when I just chilled on the beach with my girlfriend.

The benefit to not working at all, even for just a short period of time, is that it gives you mental clarity to reflect.

During this time, I toyed with the idea of specializing in one market, like coaching or consulting.

But I found it wasn’t exciting enough. I get excited by the idea of doing something that I believe can have a massive impact for a large group of people (you!).

I kept mulling it over, taking note of the days when I woke up excited, versus those things that drained me or my team.

Enjoyment truly is a core value of mine, I decided. For me, I believe it’s impossible to do truly great work if we’re not deeply invested in it.

You really have to love the process, otherwise, what’s the point?

You can make money doing so many things, and life is short.

So, by late October I came to the conclusion that we would phase out client work and stop selling our sales funnel service. We’re almost done doing that now.

And for 2018, we’re going to focus 100% on selling products and putting out amazing content for your benefit.

More on that coming up…

For now, here’s a snapshot of some of the key revenue and growth metrics from 2017.

Our sales

Overall, for 2017, we netted $130,900 in revenue at about a 50% gross profit margin. Our net profit was about 33% on that.

Our page views

In terms of traffic, we cracked 26,000 visitors per month.

That dropped towards the end of the year with the holiday season.

Our email list

Our email list grew by almost 50%, from 18,000 to just over 26,000 subscribers (all acquired through organic, inbound channels).

However, I only count the ones who are active (~12,000), since we frequently clean the list and proactively remove subscribers who are either fake or not engaged.

After subtracting for the number of people who unsubscribe, we netted 22 new subscribers per day on average, as you can see above.

Growing this average new subscriber number is a goal of mine going into 2018.

Successes

It’s been a great year full of successes. Here are a few of the top wins:

  • I feel like we mastered lead generation funnels in 2017. We were able to deliver better results for clients and we really honed our process with each new account.
  • We dramatically grew the number of inbound leads coming through our website. This has saved me a lot of time and stress since as a company, we never have to go out and network to drum up business.
  • We took info products more seriously in 2017. Our previous best launch was a small webinar, where we generated $1,200. Once we really started focusing on info products with our four-part video training series, we did 6X better than our other launches, grossing $6,800. Considering I did this as a side project on nights, weekends, whenever I had a spare moment, I’m proud of that. I think we can do 5-10X better with our next big launch based on what I’ve learned.
  • We’ve introduced a tripwire into our funnel this year, which is already converting well. I look forward to sharing more with you on that coming up
  • Our team learned how to code apps in PHP CodeIgniter, as well as AWS, which will be useful down the road.
  • We made some really solid hires to the positions of editor, content writer and copywriter this year. These are people I respect and feel I can truly depend on to deliver.
  • Lastly, we discovered Udemy as an amazing and cheap learning resource.

Failures

Failures happen, and we weren’t immune to a few ourselves.

For instance, we failed to retain a funnel strategist throughout the year. This was a factor in my decision to discontinue the service in favor of focusing on products in 2018.

I ended up taking over the role in the interim. I enjoyed doing so, so it was no big deal. That said, suddenly not having someone in the role was stressful on the team, especially with a growing client load.

Here’s a failure and a lesson learned in one: earlier this year, we had a client. We’d generated leads for her and she seemed pleased with our services. One day, a competitor gave her a report that stated we were not doing certain important duties for her, even though we were.

The report was blatantly misleading.

The client believed it though, and threatened to smear us online. Although I dislike conflict, I knew this was a moment to defend our reputation, so that’s what I did. I wouldn’t let us be bullied by someone who wasn’t being objective.

I laid out the case explaining how the competitor had misled her in his report. I also defended the work we’d done. At that point, I also immediately ended our working relationship. I told her if she chose to follow through on her threat, I’d aggressively defend our brand.

I’m sure anyone who’s worked in a service business can relate to this anecdote.

In addition, it reminded me of the concept of “social distance.” Studies have shown that as people, we naturally have a tendency to be more direct or have less of a filter when talking to someone through online chat versus on the phone or in person.

So if you ever face a similar situation, remember to keep your cool and reply in a direct but professional manner.

Lessons Learned

2017 was a year of learning at AutoGrow. Here are some of our most valuable lessons learned.

  • When launching a new product, do as much research as possible up-front with your audience. Some gurus say this is easy to do, and propose their own systems for it. At this point, I don’t buy it. Honestly, our product launch was the research, in a way. And now, we have the most actionable data one could possibly hope for on our next launch. Bottom-line: You can survey people all day long, but until you offer a product, you’ll never know if it’ll work.
  • Being profitable as a bootstrapped startup is very important. Looking ahead to this year, I’m excited to focus on info products. We wouldn’t be able to take this calculated risk if we didn’t have the profits in the bank from this past year, though.

In 2014, for instance, I tried to launch and grow a bootstrapped SaaS product and went almost $25k in debt. It was stressful because I “didn’t know what I didn’t know” at that point. New accounts were signing up paying $20 a month, traffic was growing, but it was a slow grind.

We tried it again at the beginning of 2017, but revenue wasn’t growing fast enough. Now that we have more of a cash cushion, we have more leeway. Not to mention much more knowledge and experience.

  • Here’s a small, but important lesson: keep the survey funnel turned on for higher engagement. When we turned it off, engagement sank to 4%. Turned it back on? Went right back up to average 28%.
  • Monthly automated email list cleaning improves conversion numbers.
  • Having a fully-staffed team is so helpful for getting stuff done. We developed the recruiting process in 2017, but we can still do more. Recruiting was a challenge, especially if someone from the team left with little warning. We’d then have to find a replacement last-minute or I’d have to do the job myself for a while. Having a solid team and filtering others out faster in the interview process is another great, small lesson learned.
  • It’s crucial to have a detailed, updated Wiki page that documents how your business operates. Keep it simple: we document how different duties are performed, expectations of team members. It’s critical whether you’re hiring an assistant, a team, or scaling your business in general. Huge timesaver!
  • Keep the content marketing process sharp. Today, our posts are written ahead of time. We also have a template we follow (roundups, skyscraper articles) that takes some of the guesswork out of it week-to-week. This way we’re not starting from scratch with each post.

Our content marketing system

  • Making the process fun makes the work easier. Our content marketing process has this built into it.
  • It’s important to stay focused on the task at hand, even when your to-do list is full. “One foot in front of the other.”
  • On a personal note, I finished the draft of my first novel this year. This helped to reinforce the importance of focused work = more enjoyment and faster progress. I also learned that lesson from the mid-summer launch experience of the 6-Figure Sales Funnel. In both cases, I put everything to the side for the period of time I was working on each project. I turned off my phone and all distractions. At one point I hit a record of 16,000 words written in one day. That’s the power of focus.
  • Listen to your heart and know yourself. “Grinding” is for people who want only money. I want to live for more and I want my company to stand for more. So, optimize steadily for money and meaning and enjoyment. Grinding is for losers, loving life and work is what winning feels like.
  • Don’t fight your own nature. That doesn’t mean you can be a lazy person, even if you know you can be sometimes (I know I definitely want to stay home and binge Netflix and play video games some days).

I’ve learned to use that to my advantage. I’m naturally a highly-creative person, and my weaknesses are being consistent (in other words, I don’t do well with structure, since I’m naturally a night owl).

Just the other week, our copywriter mentioned a timezone issue with the daily sync-up where we chat about growth priorities and tasks on Skype. I saw this as an opportunity to give myself and the rest of the team more freedom to make our own schedules with less structure. We’re all excited to see how it goes. I’m hopeful it will make us happier and more productive in the end.

  • Care less and “just keep moving forward,” like Don Draper of Mad Men says. I’ve lost a couple of close friends this year, but I’ve gained or kept several other closer relationships.
  • It’s better to declare results than goals. More satisfying too.
  • You seriously don’t need much to be happy. Since I’ve been traveling, I’ve realized how the less I have, the more freedom I feel to move and explore. The only material possessions I need to be happy and productive are comfy gym clothes for working out or hanging out, a laptop, a notebook for journaling and planning…and maybe a Nintendo Switch on which to enjoy Mario… oh, and maybe this new strategy game I’m obsessed with called Rummikub. What is that, like five things? You don’t need much. Though I might add my phone in there too, which is mostly for audiobooks and to keep in touch with friends and family.
  • The value and peace of mind of a “high-integrity” team is priceless. People who complement you (I’m not terribly consistent as I mentioned, I like to tinker, experiment, and move from one thing to the next), and who have great ideas are the right people to surround yourself with. Knowing I can rely on them to deliver, to keep their word and even to over-deliver is incredible. That’s what an exceptional team looks like.
  • Defend your reputation, fire non-contributors fast and never shrink from such an important decision.

Want to follow along as we apply our 4-step funnel framework this year? Each week we focus on something new (traffic, email opt-ins, sales and upsells). Click here to stay updated on what we’re learning and how you can apply it.

The Future

Looking ahead, my top goals are as follows for 2018

  • Doubling revenue to $250K (without grinding or burning myself out)
  • More than doubling our email list to 30,000 active subscribers (remember we auto-clean our list so this makes growth even more challenging, but still doable)
  • And quadrupling monthly traffic to over 100,000 visitors a month (primary goal)

I believe traffic growth is going to have the most influence on our success in the other two areas, so that’s our primary goal to hit this year.

I’m so excited to use and monetize the knowledge I’ve learned over the last decade (what?! ::sigh:: getting older… but better looking? B-)) in the areas of startups and digital marketing in 2018.

To focus my skill set with the help of my team on a single point and expand out from there—while sharing the journey—will be quite an adventure, so I hope you’ll follow along.

Finally, it’s important to say I see our new focus as a means to an end. What I mean by that is, the profit from sales will be used to fund the bigger mission of the company: to accelerate creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit.

The plan with this new model is that the profits will afford us more time to create high-value resources and tools so we can keep creating cool stuff for the broader community of entrepreneurs, marketers and creatives like you.

Onward!

What did you learn in 2017?

Did any of my lessons resonate personally with you? Thanks for reading, and happy 2018!

Keep Hustlin’, Stay Focused,

—Matt

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