How I Made $480,000 Through Web Development and Returned to SEO

Published on
14-01-2024
Author
Aisys
Category
News
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Let me tell you a tale about an SEO expert who decided to dip his toes into the world of digital product development. It’s a journey filled with highs, lows, hopes, and failures that any startup entrepreneur faces. It’s about overcoming insurmountable odds, venturing into uncharted territories, trying new things, and finding solutions in tough situations.


I’ve been in the SEO game since 2006, creating websites and earning from Google AdSense, affiliate programs, and contextual advertising. But in 2014, I thought it was time to step up my game. I ventured into selling heavy machinery, earning a commission on each sale. The plan was simple: build websites, promote them, set up ads, and send leads to the supplier. Unfortunately, a crisis hit, and sales plummeted to zero despite hundreds of leads.


I funded everything myself, which meant my savings took a serious hit. At the time, I was living in Thailand, and I had to move into a $250-a-month bungalow. I was in a deep depression, barely sleeping, but that’s a story for another day.

The SEO Breakup

So there I was, completely disillusioned with SEO and working with external partners. The main issue: My lack of influence over the processes, not to mention a glaring absence of understanding in sales and market dynamics.


I won’t lie, I was bitter. Bitter about my partners, the economic crisis, and the world at large. I had put in the effort, and achieved tangible results — better rankings, more traffic, increased inquiries — but what did I get in return? Zero income, all expenses.


But of course, everyone needs to make a living, right? So, I went full throttle into freelancing, taking on anything and everything from SEO services to designing business cards.


In eight months, I managed to scrape together $12,000, mainly from freelancing and some residual income from past projects.


At that point, I expected to have about $8,000 in disposable income over the next six months. So, doing the math, I figured I had a neat $20,000 in the bank. It was time to find my niche.


After some online research, I stumbled upon ThemeForest — a marketplace that sells website templates, WordPress themes, plugins, you name it.


One theme caught my eye: 20,000 sales at $49 each. That’s a cool 100 grand! And there were many more like it on the marketplace.


Back then, I wasn’t into deep market analysis; I didn’t think of consulting with ten guys in the field or writing to them via their marketplace profiles. Nope, I just plunged in headfirst, guns blazing.


I decided to start a company and hire a team, confident of my success. What did I know about failure, right?

The Team

I thought I’d churn out a couple of products simultaneously, dedicating 1-2 months per product. So, I decided to hire a team right away.


Up until that point I’d been a loner, doing everything myself and thought it was simple. But then I hired:

  • Two designers – I got lucky with one. She turned out to be a gem and pretty much saved the project.
  • Two front-end developers – both turned out to be underwhelming (or maybe the marketplace standards were just too high).
  • A programmer – I went through four of them in just six months. One even had a drinking problem.
  • And then there was me – a jack-of-all-trades.


What were my skills? A bit of design, fairly strong front-end development skills, a strong work ethic, and discipline. Coding, however, was my Achilles’ heel.


Sure, I could use ‘echo’ to output stuff and I was quick at finding code snippets, but overall, you could call me a script kiddie.


Geddit?

Geddit?


Planning

There was no real plan, just dollar signs in my eyes and an Excel sheet filled with ambitious numbers.


I thought it’d be easy. After all, I’d seen plenty of businesses for whom I’d built websites and improved Google rankings.


In short: I was a noob leading a team of noobs, with a designer as our only hope.


The Results

Let’s skip the gory details of this failure, all you need to know is that my team was floundering. I couldn’t train them properly, and I was clueless about the importance of training and detailed technical briefs. So, naturally, the team dwindled month by month, and the money was running dry.


In the first month, our star designer created a stunning design for an SEO agency template. I loved it and decided to make it our first template. It was a lucky break since I was an SEO guy myself, squarely in the template’s target audience.


I spent 14 hours a day coding the design. It took a whopping 210 hours to complete the HTML coding — a number I’ll never forget. And then came a big surprise: the HTML coding was useless! When we started creating the WordPress theme, we discovered that we needed to build pages on a page builder, as that’s what customers preferred. Talk about a curveball!


By the end of the second month, the team was down to just me, the programmer, and the designer.


We were grinding away at the WordPress template, while the designer was crafting designs for future templates.


We spent about $12,000 in the first three months. Our money was dwindling, but there was still a ton of work left to do on the theme.


Another two months flew by before we finally had a finished product at the end of the fifth month. It was a real gamble — no accounting records, just playing it by ear.


The marketplace doesn’t just accept any product — they meticulously check for code quality, security, and design quality. It took about 20 days to get the first response from the moderator.


As you can guess, there were loads of errors. We’d get a rejection with 5-10 issues, fix them, and resubmit for review.


Each review took about 3 days. It was a never-ending cycle.

A Young Startup’s Search for Shelter

Thankfully, I had made some friends in Thailand, including a neighbor who was opening a fitness studio. She had rented a large house for a bunch of trainers — at times, five to nine trainers were living there simultaneously.


Eventually, I asked if I could stay with them since I was down to my last $2,000.


She put me up in the trainers’ house, but all the rooms were occupied, so I ended up sleeping on a mattress in the 12-square-meter hallway, right by the door. Don’t worry, no one stepped on me.


It was quite a sight — me living like a cat on a mat at the entrance.


I stayed with the trainers for about a month.


Then, an opportunity came up — some friends were going snowboarding for a month and asked me to house-sit and watch their cat in exchange for free accommodation. Their apartment was located beneath a villa and was 70 square meters; it was filled with nice decor and a huge 1.5-meter TV.


It was a culture shock for me — my living situation had drastically improved from a cat mat to “under-the-villa” luxury.


But the continuous marketplace rejections were soul-crushing. I was living like a zombie — checking my phone in the morning for moderator emails, eating, and then heading to the beach to swim or walk. It was the only way to keep sane.


The rejections kept piling up – 18 in total, each with 6 to 20 issues that needed fixing. It usually took 1-2 days to address these issues, followed by another 3-4 days of anxious waiting. I had no idea how many more errors they could possibly find. I felt like Sisyphus.


The journey never ends

The journey never ends


The original plan was to create several templates, but the reality was grim:

  • $20,000 had gone down the drain
  • I was in a deep funk from nearly three months of constant rejections
  • My life was as uncertain as a cat’s

When Will This End?

One morning, I woke up and lazily checked my notifications. I saw a message from the marketplace, but this time it didn’t start with the usual “Unfortunately, your…”. Instead, it read, “Congratulations! Your…”.


I was so disillusioned by then that I just went through my morning routine mechanically. I finally got to my computer, opened the product page, and there it was – my first sale for $59. Of course, the marketplace took a 50% commission.


ThemeForest has a progressive commission system – they start by taking 50% and then gradually reduce it to 30% as your sales volume increases. To reach that 30% threshold, I’d have to rack up sales of $75,000.


I felt nothing seeing that first sale, so I just went to have breakfast. After some time lost on YouTube, I returned to my computer to find four sales.


That’s when it hit me – I was running around the house, jumping, and yelling for joy. With these sales dynamics, I thought this was it – success!


In the first month, I made $8,750, half of which went to the marketplace.


Stats

Stats


I also knew that soon my template would drop from the first page of the marketplace, and sales would decline. Carefully observing other themes, I noticed that sales usually halve in the second month and stabilize thereabouts.


But there was a glimmer of hope, a path to my fortune! The math was simple: over $2,000 a month from one product. Create 10 products, and that’s an easy $20,000 per month.

The Setback

Exhausted and craving a break, my friends and I took off to Bali for a month-long getaway. However, the fear of tarnishing my reputation and receiving negative reviews on the marketplace haunted me. So, every couple of hours, I found myself checking the support panel, and assisting clients religiously.


Upon returning, I quickly created a second website template, this time for lawyers. It took about a month and passed moderation swiftly, but it was a sales disaster, barely making $200 a month.


I thought it was just bad luck. After all, many templates were selling well in the market. Plus, my designer had accumulated 10 designs by then. So, I decided to hire more people. I borrowed $19,000 from a friend, agreeing to pay back $27,000 over two years with progressive monthly payments.


This second attempt was slightly better. I hired:

  • 3 front-end developers
  • A new programmer


The plan was to work on four templates simultaneously. I taught the team a bit and even did the front-end work for the fourth template.


But trying to be both a manager and a front-end developer was a mistake. I was slow to respond to the team’s questions because it’s hard to constantly switch between tasks.


As a result, both the team’s and my productivity suffered. We started in May but only managed to launch the first two templates in September. Honestly, I could have done 3-4 templates by myself over the summer.


My main issue: I hate repetitive work. The first three templates were fine, but after that, it felt too routine.


The fourth and last template was only accepted in the market right before the New Year.


It was an epic journey. But sales were far worse than the first product, and I didn’t see any significant income growth. Moreover, I was repaying the loan throughout the second half of 2016 and all of 2017. Having to pay salaries and hoping to earn something for myself was a mental burden.


You can see the 2016 earnings in the screenshot. There was growth from September, but I had the loan to pay off. And so, as you can imagine, I had to let go of my employees.


Income for February 2016

Income for February 2016


2017 was all about paying off debts.

A New Chapter

In 2017, I took a step back and tried to update unsold templates with second or third designs, but it didn’t help.


I experimented with various types of advertising – AdWords, social media, blogs – but when you only make $40 clean per sale, it’s hard to turn a profit. Traffic in the US and English-speaking countries is too expensive.


For half the year, I struggled to boost sales, then spent the latter half cheaply traveling around Asia, waiting for my debt to be paid off.


There’s always a dip in December, but a spike in demand in January.


Income for the 2017 year

Income for the 2017 year


In 2018, I decided to create another template for a proven niche – SEO agencies. It was a long and tedious process; I incorporated 20 designs, but it didn’t change the game. However, it did sell better than my other templates that were geared toward lawyers or fitness. A good designer was hard to find, so I ended up doing most of the designs myself.


There was an initial surge in sales upon release in late spring but then became stagnant again.


Income for the 2018 year

Income for the 2018 year


Eventually, I surrendered to working just two hours a day. I dabbled in various partnerships, and freelance work, and even tried launching my own WordPress site-building course.


In 2019, I was all over the place – experimenting with partnerships and trying to get SEO clients. Nothing serious came out of it, although I have maintained one partnership, which is still evolving.


Income for the 2019 year

Income for the 2019 year


Maybe It’ll Work After All?

I don’t remember what inspired me, but at some point, I came up with a system for a conveyor belt-style template creation. I detailed it on paper and decided to seek investment.


Winter was approaching.


For over a month, I banged the drum – applying to startup incubators and talking to old clients I’d done SEO work for, as some had offered investments back in 2010.


Eventually, two investors gave me $35,000. I packed my bags and flew to Thailand.


I put together a new team:

  • 2 average designers – should have hired one expensive one instead
  • 3 front-end developers


This time, I recorded hourly videos for the team daily, reviewing their work, pointing out mistakes, and giving recommendations like a caring grandfather.


And you know what? It worked – we saw relatively fast results.


However, the marketplace had significantly raised its design standards, and our templates were repeatedly rejected. Not with constructive feedback, but bluntly labeled “trash”.


The challenge became consulting with top-notch designers to figure out what was wrong. I started getting pretty good at design myself, noticing even a 1-pixel misalignment.


After six months, I got lucky and found a strong art director. He corrected all of our mistakes, and our first few templates were accepted. He raised our design quality immensely.


During our best months, we were releasing five templates to the market, while the total market release was around 80-90 templates a month.


I dreamt of capturing a market share and dominating the marketplace.


But still, sales were challenging. However, with our design quality improving, I remained hopeful.


COVID helped our sales. After three weeks of lockdown, it seemed everyone was launching online businesses and in need of website templates.


We created 17 accepted products that year and had about 5 rejections.


At the peak, we were making $6,500 a month, plus custom work through the support service, which totaled up to $7,500. But that was the peak. Our sales stopped growing, even with new products.


This barely covered salaries for seven people, plus operational expenses. Though, I was drawing a decent salary and eating well.


I decided to sell the project through Empire Flippers, without the team.


This is the last screenshot I could find. I remember the figure being around $320,000 in sales, but apparently, I didn’t take a screenshot of that.


Income for the 2020 year

Income for the 2020 year


The Exit

I applied to Empire Flippers, filled out the P&L, and underwent an assessment. Along with the project, I promised to find someone to handle support and update the themes for $300 a month part-time, reducing costs. I received a maximum valuation of $210,000.


Everything seemed set, but then I hit a roadblock – ThemeForest’s Terms of Service prohibited account sales! They informed me of this restriction, and the six-figure income from the sale slipped through my fingers.


For six weeks, I corresponded with them, resorting to threats, pleas, blackmail, and every tactic under the sun to get permission to sell the account:

  • Claimed discrimination
  • Said I needed to pay off my mortgage or I’d be homeless
  • Argued it was unfair they were appropriating my intellectual labor
  • Pleaded that I needed the money for my family
  • Promised to create a new account and upload new templates there


I don’t know which argument worked, but they allowed it! Though they emphasized it was a “one-time exception”.


Once I got the green light, Empire Flippers listed my lot. Silence reigned for nearly a month, then a potential buyer scheduled a video conference with me.


He was a well-known figure in the Affiliate circles. We had a great chat, and an hour after the conference, the Empire manager called to say the buyer was interested.


I was thrilled until the manager mentioned the buyer wanted to drop the valuation from $210,000 to $150,000.


I was initially speechless with indignation, but then I remembered how in an American docu-series on Discovery Channel, people haggle. They start low, then gradually meet in the middle.


I played the game and told them that anything less than $190,000 made no sense for me. The manager relayed this to the buyer, and we eventually settled on $180,000, which was beyond my expectations. I popped open champagne!


Just like that, without flinching or giving in, I made an extra $30,000, though I could have easily caved to the buyer’s initial offer.

The Real Earnings

Success stories usually boast huge sums, but let me show you the real economics:

  • Of the $300,000 on the screenshot, $108,564 went to marketplace commission and taxes.
  • The remaining amount of under $200,000 covered salaries and the first loan.
  • Of the $180,000 from the project sale, a large chunk went to Empire Flippers commission (15%), investor shares (7%), and employee bonuses (15%).


In the end, I barely had enough to buy an apartment in the early construction stage, even having to borrow a bit from my sister.


That was the outcome of five years. I paid myself a salary of about $2,000-$2,500 monthly and got a bonus from the project’s sale.


Back to SEO

After my stint as a product manager, I realized I didn’t want to deal with immeasurable data like design, which can’t be quantified or compared. So, I returned to my first love: SEO and data analytics.


Together with a partner, I founded MonsterPBN. We specialize in auctioning domains and PBN building services for SEO in highly competitive niches.


I dove back into SEO analytics, while my partner, a senior developer, automated processes, parsed, and processed large volumes of domains, from which we picked the best for reasonable prices. We promote both our and our clients’ projects in the US and European markets.


If you need powerful domains or a turnkey PBN, come to us, and we’ll deliver quality as if it’s for ourselves.

Lessons Learned

What lessons did I take away?

  1. I learned to focus on quality, paying attention to every line and pixel.
  2. Management is a job in itself and should be done meticulously, not mixed with technical tasks.
  3. Devoting time to employee training and creating videos and protocols is essential for clarity and smooth processes.
  4. Investments are easier to find through connections than by applying to places like Y-Combinator, where there’s a half-year queue and often no response.
  5. Hiring employees who are genuinely interested in solving your problems is crucial for efficiency and aligned goals.
  6. Selling something with a 35-month ROI is like freeing yourself from business troubles for the next three years. It changes your life significantly.
  7. It’s crucial to seek qualified experts for advice right away. It will save you years and tens of thousands of dollars.
  8. It’s better to hire one expensive expert for a key position than two mid-level employees who need continuous training.
  9. You can’t achieve something big without top-notch specialists and employees.
  10. Never give up, even when you’re told something is impossible, or when faced with constant rejections. But then again, maybe quitting earlier would have been more profitable elsewhere.


Now, what valuable lessons did you pick up from this story?

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