How I turned $5k into $97,034 with a website I built

Posted by in Business

Some quick notes before we get into this:

  • I can’t mention the website URL due to the sale agreement 
  • I started this website in late 2015 and sold it in May of 2019

This is my first website sale and was a decently passive source of income for the last 2 years of owning it. The last time I did major work on the site was March 2016. We’ll get more into those details below, but this could be considered passive, or my preferred phrase, low maintenance income.

If you have any questions or thoughts, please let me know in the comments! I’m happy to clarify or share more details (if allowed). 

My Quick Background Going Into This

A quick background on my skillset, for a better understanding of how this website and sale came about.

I tried to build a website around soccer nutrition during my first year out of college. While financially, that never worked out, I learned enough about building websites and marketing to get hired for an apprenticeship by Chris Guthrie to build him an affiliate site. And now I can brag that I’m arguably the #1 most read person on soccer nutrition after solid SEO rankings over the course of 6ish years.

Chris helped me learn SEO along the way and I ended up building him a solid affiliate site and moved on to help him with other projects. An “affiliate site” is a site that typically reviews and recommends things. They will often send you off to another website to purchase something. When you buy, the review website gets an affiliate commission.

It can be as simple as clicking this link, which goes to Amazon. Now, anything you buy on Amazon I’ll get an affiliate commission for it.

But in all that, that’s where I learned the ins and outs of building a successful affiliate website.

Starting The Affiliate Site

After working with Chris for about 2 years, I felt confident to go out on my own. I started my main company, Harkla, at the same time I started this affiliate site, as well as invested time and money into my original site from back in the day, Optimal Soccer.

To say the least, investing in 3 projects at once was a bad idea. Sure, things worked out, but they could have worked out a lot better if I had more focus. One of my double-edged character traits is I’m overly optimistic about my probabilities. Sometimes this gets me in over my head, but it does allow me to start projects that a more pessimistic person would talk themselves out of. 

For starting the affiliate site, I looked for a niche that would make for a successful website rather than focusing on a topic I was personally interested in. The niche was a decently popular sport around the world, and in some countries, the most popular sport. 

I picked a sport where there was a lot of gear to purchase, the gear can be expensive, and the difficulty of ranking the website well on Google seemed relatively easy. 

Note: If you ever think something like, “Casey mentioned X (SEO, apprenticeships,), I’d like to learn more about that!” let me know in the comments, email, or Twitter. I’m always looking to write helpful content or maybe there’s some resource I could point you towards. All questions are welcomed!

The first thing I did was bought an expired domain. This helps you get going with a backlink profile, although it’s questionable how much Google respects a website after it’s been sitting expired for a while.

If I were to do this again, I’d buy a website that is live but ranks on page 2 or 3 for the keywords I’m looking at. They are probably making $0 and would be super happy to make any money selling a website.

With the new domain in hand, I created a list of articles that needed to be written, which was pretty easy. I basically created a long list of gear used in the sport, then used Ahrefs to figure out what specific keywords to focus on in the article.  

I had a long list of articles that were all pretty much titled:

“Top 10 [Gear Keyword] – [This Years] Review” 

Once I had the list of articles, I went out and wasted a few thousand dollars on crappy content! 

I’m not kidding. I could look back at my PayPal account, but I paid a couple of grand upfront for articles that ended up being bad. 

I made a couple of mistakes here. First, I was spread too thin attention-wise. I really skipped over vetting the writers and editing their work. I hired someone to edit and vet the content who didn’t know anything about the sport. 

We did start to move in the rankings for the keywords because Google couldn’t tell the quality of the content at that point. However, once you get on page one and start getting some traffic, Google will quickly be able to tell from visitor behavior that your content sucks. When a visitor comes to your site and then leaves it quickly, this tells Google they weren’t happy with what they saw. 

As a site that was supposed to make money reviewing gear, the reviews needed to be good and mine were not.

The Great Content Revamp

Eventually, I started re-doing the articles on my own. I figured out how to create a solid top 10 list, then in a few instances writing the articles on my own. 

This was what I call The Giant Content Revamp, which happened in March 2016. 

My wife and her family went to Yosemite and I stayed back to work the entire weekend on fixing the content. I put in 20+ hours over the weekend with House of Cards on in the background. I think I finished 3 seasons of it, but literally have no idea what happened. 

With this work, I made more solid SOPs on how to create the top 10 lists, get them written, and publish them according to our SEO standards.

At this point, I knew the most efficient way to grow the site by outsourcing the writing and link building. What I lacked were the funds to pay for all of it. Fortunately for me, I had a friend who was making decent money and wanted small projects to invest in. 

He had offered me investment money beforehand which I turned down. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go that route. However, at this point in time, I knew exactly what I’d do with the money and had an idea of how much it would help increase the revenue of the website. 

So, for a small investment, he got 10% of the company and eventually got a 129% ROI with no work.

After some hard lessons learned, I implemented and executed a system for growing the site. I found:

  • Multiple ways to build white hat links with money instead of work. 
  • A writer who could write solid review articles for cheap. 
  • A virtual assistant who could upload to WordPress and add affiliates links.

So going into late  2016, we were actually moving pretty well and money started to trickle in.

Growing the Website

Over 2017 and 2018, the website started to make some money. In 2017 we did about $10k in revenue. In 2018, we did about $27k. Then 2019 was off to a good start with 33% growth compared to the same months the year prior. 

Although the website was growing, everything wasn’t smooth.  

The one thing I couldn’t get off my plate was making sure the top 10 lists were legit. I was still outlining them myself.  

They needed to be updated about once a year, and I was the one who did it in 2016 and 2017. Finally, in 2018 I was able to hire someone here in Boise who actually knew and played the sport to do the updates. 

To find him, I actually started looking for a remote person to fill the role. I posted on all remote job boards, but he was a top candidate and happened to be located in Boise. 

I had a weekly meeting with him and it was all pretty straight forward. Or at least that’s what I thought. 

The issue that ended up happening with this was again, a lack of focus. With Harkla growing into a real company with employees, a global supply chain, etc. I was half-ass managing him. We had goals, but no deadlines.

On top of that, the site was in a weird revenue zone, where it couldn’t afford someone full-time, but needed more attention than what myself and part-time workers could give it to grow to the next level. 

Eventually, in this weird zone, I knew I had to make some sort of long term decision for the website. Here were some of my thoughts on the site:

  • Did I want to invest outside cash into growing the site into a legit business? 
  • Did I want to cut all expenses and cashflow it?
  • How much time did I personally want to spend on this?
  • Did this even have the potential to be something bigger? And if so, did I want that? 

With these questions and uncertainty for the site in mind, I decided to end the work with this part-time employee in Boise.  

Unfortunately, it came as a shock to him. But, with the questioning, the idea of selling had started to percolate in my mind. And if I was going to sell, I needed to cut overhead to increase profits, thus maximizing the valuation of the company. 

Why I Decided to Sell a Growing Website

The main question I’ve been asked is why did I decided to sell? 

There were a few reasons. 

One, I think we’re gonna hit a recession or correction sometime soon. It could be 12 months. Could be 36 months. But we’re on a long bull run and it’s gotta end sometime. 

When the market drops, I want to be ready to buy a 3 or 4 plex here in Boise. The sale of the affiliate site would put us in the range, along with our savings, to purchase a 3 or 4 plex. 

When it comes to timing a recession, I’d rather be early than late. If I didn’t have the cash on hand when a recession hit, I’d be forced to wait it out. 

Another reason to sell is that I wanted to remove anything that isn’t Harkla from my focus. Sure, buying real estate could be seen as adding distractions, but it’s a part of our long term retirement plans. We’re looking to buy and never sell. I feel like our real estate can be pretty passive once a place is ready to rent and knowing who to call for what. 

But with so much going on with Harkla, I needed more focus. Any time spent on the affiliate site, which yearly revenue was lower 5-figures, was dwarfed in ROI by Harkla’s revenue which is in the lower 7-figure range. A minute spent on either is not an equal minute. 

So I decided to go ahead and try and sell the affiliate site. I was still on the fence about it but was curious as to what I could get for it. 

Attempting to Sell on My Own

Before I considered using Empire Flippers, I reached out to a few people who had contacted me over the years interested in the site. 

When you visit the site, if you understand content websites, you knew exactly what the site was and how it was making money. If you had any tools to check SEO rankings, you’d quickly see our site dominated our niche. 

That obviously got the attention of a few people.

However, when I reached out to them, they weren’t interested in the price I was hoping for, so it didn’t work out. 

Then I reached out to the eCommerce sites we were affiliates for and sending thousands of dollars of sales to a month. Surprisingly, after checking out the site, they weren’t interested in purchasing! 

By purchasing the site and no longer paying affiliate commissions, they would have had a positive ROI within a couple of years on the site and it would have been a great marketing channel. Oh well. 

Moving on to Professional Brokers

As a member of the Dynamite Circle, I’m very familiar with the Empire Flippers as website brokers. I know they move affiliate sites like mine quickly. 

The only downside is a 15% sale commission that they take out of the sale price.

So I decided to do a phone call with them and see what they come back with. They needed some information from me, which was easy enough to gather (always keep your books clean and up-to-date!). 

After some back and forth, I was actually blown away when they came back with a 36x multiple on my monthly profit, including add-backs (expenses that the future owner doesn’t need to keep to maintain revenue).

As far as the Empire Flippers go that’s a great multiple. But my site was dominant in the niche, still growing, and had a white hat backlink profile. 

For reference, the average affiliate site on EF gets around a 23x multiple, which is a huge difference. 

With me being on the fence about selling the site, getting back a 36x multiple and a healthy evaluation put my take-home amount above what I was expecting, so I decided to move ahead! 

The Sale Process with Empire Flippers

Overall, exchanging a website for a high five-figure payout was relatively painless with the Empire Flippers. 

On day one, a ton of people put down a deposit to check out our Google Analytics and Income Statment. From that, we booked two calls, with only taking one of them. 

While that call was interesting, those guys came back with a low offer. 

While I was mulling over that offer for a couple of days, I checked my email and saw a very short, straight-forward, rather short message:

I was stunned. There was no phone call. No additional information. No meeting. It almost seemed like a joke how casually it was emailed to me. 

I quickly got a follow-up email out, as it was Friday afternoon, saying “wuuuuut???”

It turns out one of the salesmen was on a call with a guy who ran a successful eCommerce business and actually participated in the sport my site was covered. After a quick overview of my site, the guy agreed to buy it at full price without even meeting me. 

Huzzah!

So, then the transferring of the website happened. This was the only frustrating part of working with Empire Flippers, and it might have also been the buyer, but I felt like the communication could have been a bit faster and more clear. 

It takes about 2 weeks after you transfer the site for the buyer to check everything out, verify stuff, then have the Empire Flippers release the money. There was some delay in this simply because of slow communication. Kind of frustrating, but I’m also not the most patient person, so in hindsight, it wasn’t that bad. 

But for my first website sale, I would have liked a bit more communication and clarity on where we were with everything. 

Either way, with the listing going for the highest multiple in 5 days after listing, I couldn’t be too upset.

What Was The Full ROI of the Site?

So, when all said and done, after adding up my distributions and walk-away-sale amount, I turned my original $5k (which was mostly wasted anyways) into $97,034, with about ⅔ of that coming with the sale of the website and the other third being from distributions.

That was a total ROI of 1,841%, or an annualized 566%. 

Take that stock market!

That ROI is the power of sweat equity.

I picked a marketable skill, honed it under an apprenticeship while learning new skills, and then took them into the real world to build an asset. 

That skillset came by spending evenings and weekends learning and working. That was a mixture of enjoying the work while also having a future in mind that I want to work towards. 

Do I Think I Could Do This Again?

I’ve been asked by friends with inside knowledge of how I systematically built this site why I don’t just replicate it on multiple sites and grow a mini-empire. 

To be honest, I think I could do that. I’m good at SEO, good at SOPs, and good at spotting business opportunities. 

However, certain niches are getting more competitive. There were certainly competitors popping up while I was working on this site. Some niches are probably out of reach. 

But the internet is a vast place. And if you’re really good at SEO, you’re probably better than 90% of websites in any given niche. It would just take more patience. 

Would I, or will I do this again?

Maybe. But there are no real plans to do so. And if I did, it would be in a niche that I am interested in and would enjoy nerding out over the products.

I’m using the same SEO skills for Harkla, which has a large ROI compared to smaller affiliate sites.

I would like to create affiliate content for caseyames.com. I have no shame in putting affiliate links on the site simply because I wouldn’t recommend anything I don’t actually use and like.

If I could review the products and services of things I actually enjoy using, why shouldn’t I get paid? It adds an element of fun to it, as well as motivation. Building businesses is fun. I like tweaking things and seeing the results come about in money. 

Money doesn’t really motivate me all that much internally, but it is a decent signal that you’re providing value to the world (obviously depending on how you’re making it). 

Conclusion

So there you have it. The story of how I built an affiliate site, wasted $5k but ended up walking away with almost 6-figures. 

Do you have any questions? I’m happy to answer them in the comments and/or update the article if it turns out I briefed over a section people find interesting.