When Alex Miller moved to the U.S. from England in 2012, the passionate world traveler noticed something many Americans take for granted: the large number of credit cards offering rewards points that can be traded for cash-back or gifts.
“Travel points are discussed everywhere in America,” says Miller. “In England, there are very few credit cards that can help you win points. There are very small signup bonuses. It’s wonderful, the competition over here. It creates an incredible environment for the consumer. The credit card companies are always battling each other and competing.”
That realization sparked the creation of Upgraded Points, a site that looks at how to maximize credit card points, based in Austin, Texas. Miller, 35, has grown it to seven-figure revenue since he started working on it in 2015. The site generates revenue from commissions the site gets when its visitors apply successfully for credit cards listed on the site. It has grown to more than 2 million visitors a month, he says. Traffic, most of which is organic, has grown 260% in the last 12 months, according to Miller. It hasn’t hurt that in his earlier career, the graduate of University of Exeter worked in the search engine optimization field.
Miller is part of a fast-accelerating trend: the growth of the million-dollar, nonemployer business. Nonemployer firms are those where the owners are the only employees.
The U.S. Census Bureau found that there were 36,984 firms bringing in $1 million to $2.49 million a year in revenue in 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That is a 38% increase from 2011, when there were 26,744. The businesses were not confined to any one industry. Among the major categories were professional services, construction, real estate, retail, healthcare and social services and finance.
What’s driving the trend are a variety of factors. Low-cost technology is making it easier and less costly for the average person to start a business than ever before. Many people, seeking more flexibility than traditional jobs can offer, are gravitating to self-employment and find it is easier than ever to extend what one person can do by using automation and to find outside vendors and contractors on fast-growing freelance platforms. And the rise of social media has made it possible to spread the word about a small business without a giant advertising budget.
So how did Miller break seven figures? Here are his strategies.
Find a way to stand out. There are many blogs and websites on making the most of credit card points, so Miller needed a way to distinguish himself. He decided to do that by providing more in-depth information than he found on existing hubs. “I saw there was a need for a resource online that would give consumers a whole lot more information than was being given by other blogs,” says Miller. “Other blogs would cover a huge array of topics. They tended to be rather brief and tended to miss out on a lot of details. As I was researching how to earn points and maximize points, I noticed when I read a post on these blogs they gave me 60% of what I needed. In the end I would find my answer by reading three, four or five more articles.”
He focused on publishing 3,000-word articles one to three times a day, rather than churning out 12 to 25 shorter articles a day, like some of the sites in the space.
“We don’t cover any news at this point,” he says. “All of our articles are very extensive—long-form, well-researched articles.”
Although he hired freelance editors, he signed off on each article.
Miller also made a commitment to keeping his articles up to date, after getting frustrated that details about the points programs he found on other sites’ articles were outdated.
And he avoided the temptation to expand into different media like audio and video, sticking to doing written content well instead. He stayed similarly disciplined about the social media he used to promote the site, to avoid getting distracted by whatever platform was newest. “This took a long time for me to keep in mind,” he says.
Choose action over perfection. Instead of waiting until he could build the perfect website, Miller hired a freelance developer to put up a basic site right out of the starting gate. “It was everything I needed to get going,” says Miller. “You can throw something out there to get started or you can be planning for months and months and never get anything out there.” He upgraded the site as he went along. “I’m obsessed with making the site as easy to navigate as possible,” he says.
He took a similar, gradual approach to bringing on freelance writers, starting out with one travel specialist and then gradually expanding to 15, based in the U.S., Australia, the U.K. and the Middle East, whom he found through word of mouth and referrals. His wife Erin Miller helped him, contributing content and serving as a social media manager.
This strategy allowed him to self-finance. He used his income from an existing marketing firm he founded with a partner in 2012, and savings he might otherwise have put into buying a house to keep the business going.
“I had the choice of either buying a house or starting a business,” he says. “I wanted to start a business. I thought it was more suited to my personality.”
Find the right business model. To bring in revenue in the beginning, Miller used Google AdSense, but as the business grew, he decided that affiliate marketing would work better for his site financially, and he switched to his current approach. By investing in developing high-quality content that attracts a premium audience, he has been able to participate in affiliate programs that only reward him when someone actually clicks through from his site and successfully applies for credit. “They only want to pay us for high-quality leads,” he says.
Revenue grew gradually. In 2016 and 2017, Upgraded Points hit the five figures. By 2018, the year the business turned profitable, and he hit six figures. In 2017, revenue hit seven figures and has kept growing, he says.
Stay inspired. To keep growing as an entrepreneur, Miller joined a Mastermind group focused on marketing. He deliberately looked for a small group: This one has 12 entrepreneurs. “I’m a big believer in education,” he says. “I’ve learned the most so far from Mastermind groups, but they have to be smaller ones. The really big ones are a pitch fest and there are so many people it’s confusing and distracting.”
He also follows entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk and has attended his speaking events several times. “We’re in such a pushbutton era,” Miller says. “That’s the worst mindset to have when it comes to setting up a business. He talks a lot about putting work in, day in and day out.”
As Miller has found, “at some point, when you put in a lot of work, your revenue has increased. You can then afford to hire additional contractors who can probably do some of the tasks in the business better than you.”
Fortunately, he realized early on that by choosing a business in an area he was very excited about—travel—the hard work he put in wouldn’t feel like work much of the time.
“You have to be incredibly passionate about your industry as it will get tough, especially in those first few years,” he says. “That passion will drive you to overcome a never-ending set of obstacles.” Ultimately, that’s the way every entrepreneur grows and scales a business to new heights.
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