Editor’s note: James Altucher is an investor, programmer, author, and several-times entrepreneur. His latest books are I Was Blind But Now I See and 40 Alternatives to College. Please follow him on Twitter @jaltucher.
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how this was the year you had to quit your job. I gave the reasons why. It wasn’t a gung-ho “you have to be an entrepreneur” article. It was more: bad shit is happening in the corporate world and bit by bit you’re going to feel the urge to quit.
Correctly, many people asked, “Well, what’s next? What should I do?”
I’ve begun asking people who did it. What did they do? How do you quit your job and basically, make a million dollars?
Not everyone is Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page. Not everyone is going to drop out of college and create an iPhone or a time machine or a toilet that resizes itself automatically depending on who is sitting on it (although that would be pretty cool).
Some people would simply like to quit their jobs and make a good living. Some people would simply like to quit their jobs and make a million dollars. In that movie (the Justin Timberlake vehicle), JT says, “A million’s not cool. A BILLION is cool.”
Well, actually, very often a million is pretty cool. Not everyone is going to be a VC-funded $100 million hotshot. Sometimes it’s nice to make a million dollars, be your own boss, and use that financial freedom to catapult to success.
So I called Bryan Johnson, who started a company called Braintree. You might not have heard of Braintree but you’ve heard of their customers. They provide credit card transactions or payment services for companies like OpenTable, Uber, Airbnb, etc.
Completely ripped from the OpenTable blog. Apparently they were using OpenTable.
I’ve never spoken with Bryan before. I am not an investor in Braintree. As far as I know I’m not even an investor (unfortunately) in any of the clients of Braintree. I like to call people who I think have interesting stories and hear what they have to say. That’s the way I build my network of not only financial contacts but potential friends. I’m shy and ugly and don’t have many friends.
But I knew Bryan had an interesting story of how he set up Braintree and I figured it would fit this category of “what do I do next?”
In 2007, Bryan was a manager at Sears. He quit his job and within two years was making over a million a year. Eventually Braintree grew much bigger and raised $70 million from Accel and others, but that wasn’t what was interesting to me.
“How did you do it?” I asked him. “What are the initial steps.” And he told me. So I will tell you.
“I really disliked my job,” he said, “and I never believed in the idea of getting a fixed wage. I had been a salesman before in the credit card processing business where I would go out and get merchants like restaurants and retailers to switch their business to the company I was selling for. So I figured I could do this but work for myself instead of another company.”
Rule No. 1: Take out the middleman. Instead of Bryan going back to the company he used to sell for, he cut out the middleman and went straight to a credit card processor, worked out his own reselling agreement with them, and did all of this BEFORE leaving his job at Sears.
Many people ask me, “I”m at a job, should I raise VC money yet?” NO, of course not! First you have to hustle. VCs want to back someone who shows a little oomph!
Rule No. 2: Pick a boring business. Everyone is always on the lookout for “the next big thing.” The next big thing is finding rare earth minerals on Mars. That’s HARD WORK. Don’t do it! Bryan picked a business that every merchant in the world needs and he also knew that it was an exploding business because of all the online stores that were opening up. You don’t have to come up with the new, new thing. Just do the old, old thing slightly better than everyone else. And when you are nimble and smaller than the behemoths that are stuck with bureaucracy, you can often offer better sales and better service, and higher touch to your customers. Customers will switch to you.
Rule No. 3: Get a customer! This is probably the most important rule for any entrepreneur. I’ve written about this before (“The Easiest Way To Succeed As An Entrepreneur”). People want to go the “magical path” – i.e. get VC money, quit their jobs, build a product, and then suddenly have millions of customers. It NEVER works like that.
Bryan found 10 customers (out of the first 12 he approached) who would switch their credit card processing to him. He figured he needed to make $2,100 a month to quit his job. With his first 10 customers he was making $6,200 a month, so he had margin of safety. He quit his job and suddenly he was in business.
Rule No. 4: Build Trust While You Sleep. This rule is often “Make Money While You Sleep.” But Bryan already was making money while he slept. He was making money on every credit card purchase with his first 10 customers.
“I didn’t want to be going up and down the street looking for customers,” Bryan said. “I needed to find a way to get online businesses as customers. Someone suggested that I needed to blog. And to blog well you need to be totally transparent or it won’t work. So I started blogging about what was really happening in the credit card industry, including all the unscrupulous practices and how merchants were being taken advantage of. Then I’d put my posts on the top social sites at the time: Digg, Reddit, and StumbleUpon, and sometimes the posts would get to the top of these sites and my website would get so much traffic that it would crash.
“But I became a trusted source about credit card processing. So before long all these online sites that had previously had a hard time navigating this industry would start contacting me to switch their payment services.”
So a couple of things there.
Rule No. 5: Blogging is not about money. Blogging is about trust. You don’t sell ads on your blog (rarely), you don’t get the big book deal (rarely), but you do build trust and this leads to opportunities. In Bryan’s case it led to more inflow, rather than him going door to door, and it also led to his biggest early opportunity. My own blog has made me a total of zero cents but has created millions in opportunities for me.
“Basically, OpenTable called me and they wanted a software solution to handle storing credit cards, handing the data to restaurants, and being compliant from a regulatory standpoint. I signed a three year deal with them that allowed me to build a team of developers and we built them a solution. We now had more services to sell to customers.”
Rule No. 6: Say YES! He started out just connecting merchants with a credit card processor. Then OpenTable asked him to do software development when he’s never developed software before. He said YES! He got software developers, built a great product, and quadrupled his income or more. And then it put his business in a whole new stratosphere of services he offered customers. Suddenly, word of mouth was spreading and other online companies started using Braintree’s services: Airbnb, Uber, etc. And the VCs started calling because all of their clients were saying Braintree was providing all of their payment services. It’s not that easy for startup online companies to get payment services.
“When I first started, for each new customer we’d put together an entire package for our credit card processor on why we thought the customer could be trusted and would be a legitimate merchant.” Which leads to…
Rule No. 7: Customer Service. You can treat each customer, new and old, like a real human being. “We intuitively sort of knew what we didn’t like in customer service everywhere else: automated calling trees, slow response times, poor problem solving, etc., so we made sure there was as little friction as possible between the customer contacting us and actually getting their problem solved.” When you are a small business, there’s no excuse for having poor customer service. Your best new customers are your old customers, and the best way to touch your old customers is to provide quick help when they need it. Customer service is the most reliable touch point to keep selling your service to them.
By year 2 two, Bryan was making over a million a year and was doubling every year. They couldn’t hire fast enough.
In 2011, after four years in business, Braintree took in its first dime of money – $34 million in a Series A round. And right now, according to CrunchBase, they process over $8 billion worth of credit card transactions annually.
Not bad for someone who quit his job and just wanted to figure out a way to get his bills paid.