- Ben Huber is in his early thirties and the cofounder of DollarSprout, a website featuring content from personal finance experts to help people feel more confident with money management.
- He started his business with a friend from college, Jeff Proctor, after having been a registered nurse making $36,000 a year.
- To get DollarSprout off the ground wasn’t easy, and required the cofounders to pivot several times.
- But their hard work paid off. DollarSprout’s 2019 gross profit clocked in at $1,705,361, and the business’ revenue projection for 2019 is set at well over $2 million. Huber and his partner are set to make over $600,000 this year.
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Ben Huber is in his early thirties, but his earnings aren’t what he thought they would be at this age — they’re much higher.
Huber received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Virginia Tech in 2011, and then went back to school that summer to get his associates degree in nursing, which he completed in 2013. Huber continued his studies as a full-time student at Western Governors University from 2013 to 2015 to receive a bachelor’s degree in nursing, in preparation to become a registered nurse (RN).
Yet while his education and training were completed on schedule and he quickly landed an entry-level position as an RN, there was a problem: Huber found himself strapped with $100,000 in student-loan debt, but his starting RN salary was only $36,000 a year.
“I knew my entry-level salary wasn’t going to cut it,” said Huber. “I was barely making ends meet.” So he began actively looking for ways to create a second source of income to reach financial independence more quickly.
Huber’s first stop in this exploration was to touch base with his best friend from college, Jeff Proctor — who had earned a BS in biochemistry from Virginia Tech — to toss around some potential ideas for entrepreneurial ventures.
“We had previously ‘kicked the can’ regarding starting a business throughout our time in college together,” said Huber, who noted that since the pair was well matched in various situations, they determined that they could likely work well together. “We de facto lived together for five years as members of the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad, where we spent over 80 hours a week together, if not more,” he said.
So the two decided to officially join forces, partnering to cofound and launch the foundation of what would later evolve into their now existing business, DollarSprout, a website featuring content from personal finance experts to help people feel more confident with money management.
Their first challenge was funding. Strapped for cash without an investment-worthy idea, the cofounders launched their initial business model with just over $100 in out-of-pocket investment — 100 bucks to obtain their LLC, plus $6 per month in hosting fees to launch their business website.
Their paltry initial investment has paid off in spades. Year-to-date as of October 1, DollarSprout’s 2019 gross profit clocked in at $1,705,361, and the business’ 2019 net income was $947,584, with the revenue projection for 2019 set at well over $2 million ($2,387,506).
While last year, Huber pocketed a relatively modest $91,865 as the business grossed just south of $300,000 in 2018, he’s on track for much more this year, with his 2019 salary year-to-date at $521,544 and his 2019 distribution projection coming in at $691,599 — a far cry from the salary he was earning as an RN just a few years prior.
How did these two life sciences majors end up starting a business related to personal finance?
It wasn’t completely random; Proctor had worked for a wealth management firm straight out of college at $8 per hour, obtaining his Series 7 certification in 2014, a year after he graduated. (He was also a former CFA Level 2 candidate before abandoning his role as an investment analyst at JSW Financial in August 2015 for entrepreneurship.) Huber, too, had a financial bent as a day/momentum trading enthusiast.
The entrepreneurial bug had been latent in Huber for a while.
“I had helped launch a primitive game server/hosting business during my teenage and early college years,” Huber said. “I understood the basics of SEO, content marketing, sales funnels, etc. But I abandoned it due to lack of time and ability while in college to provide 24/7 worldwide support with little manpower.”
Despite their mutual interest in launching a startup, some relevant work experience, and their easy working relationship, the beginning was rocky for the fledgling founders. Huber describes the initial venture that he launched with Proctor in late 2014 — creating a stock membership site called VTX Capital — as “a failure … that didn’t pan out the way we had hoped.” The business closed out 2016 with a $1,876 loss.
While this first attempt as cofounders flopped, they were not deterred. “We viewed this as a stepping stone to becoming an independent broker dealer in the future,” said Huber. “We didn’t have the $100,000 to $150,000 on hand to go that route at first, so we were going to create a revenue-generating stock-membership site before eventually building out a physical location.”
Initially, Huber thought the primary reason for their first business venture failing was that their biology and biochemistry undergraduate degrees from Virginia Tech didn’t lend the needed credibility to woo do-it-yourself traders into subscribing from them, coupled with the fact that they lacked a documented history of successful trading.
But Huber later figured out the “real reason” for the failure: “We had no idea what we were doing,” he said. He added jokingly, “Who would have thought that with no traditional schooling or business pedigree, one would be inadequately prepared to drop what [amounted] to thousands of dollars in cash on what was a speculative business idea at best? Lesson learned.”
To the pair’s credit, though, they both possessed three qualities that are common among successful entrepreneurs: discipline, patience, and a commitment to putting in as much time as required to reach their goals.
“We were willing to spend full-time hours working on our online business on top of our traditional 9-to-5s,” said Huber. So they spent the first 18 months of their bootstrapped endeavor feverishly cranking out content.
Initially, the ambitious cofounders had little to show for their Herculean efforts. In the first year and a half, they netted all of $29. “Naïveté, coupled with stupidity, got us through 18 months of no progress with our mental sanity still intact,” said Huber.
Alongside their attempts to scale their business, Huber and Proctor still needed to earn a living. So Huber kept his day job as an RN, and Proctor carried on with his $8-an-hour job, with no benefits, at the wealth management firm. Every day after a grueling 12-hour shift at the hospital, Huber would head home to join Proctor in drafting thousand-plus word synopses of what occurred in the financial markets that day and providing analyses on specific companies they were following.
“Our idea here was simple: don’t worry about the money now, the money will eventually come,” said Huber. “Create value for readers and they will eventually pay you for your wisdom.”
Huber acknowledged that while this principle was nice in theory, it “falls flat” if you don’t actually have readers. So building an audience for their finance content was their next challenge to face.
“We were having an extremely hard time getting found in what was a sea of other immensely popular destinations to find tailored stock analysis,” said Huber. “Kiplinger, Morningstar, Seeking Alpha, you name it — we couldn’t carve away market share from previously established operations because we didn’t have budget or skill sets to do it. We were spinning our wheels and knew none the better.”
To save money in their tight financial situation, the business partners moved in together for what ended up being a five-year stretch. Huber fully funded all business operations, and they drafted an operating agreement whereby Proctor would “claw back” 50% of the business in sweat equity.
“I helped cover his personal expenses so he didn’t have to go back and get a second job, stopping the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle,” said Huber.
What little surplus Huber had at his disposal went into funding their business. After about a year-and-a-half of having their needs “just barely covered,” Huber said they made a realization: Much of what they were doing — which Huber described as “the drone of day-in and day-out writing commentary that fell on deaf ears” — wasn’t working. But they also realized something that was working: their personal finance commentary.
Huber explained that in the midst of trying to be “omnipresent” within their content marketing strategy, they stumbled upon Pinterest. “[While] there isn’t an audience for day trading (scalping) on Pinterest … there was an audience for side hustles. For making and saving extra money. For shrewd, tax-advantaged ways to save money for retirement.”
That realization led to a “lightbulb moment”:
“We needed to pivot, rebrand beyond the boring, corporate-sounding VTX Capital,” said Huber. “We needed something that could become a household name.”
And DollarSprout was born.
Huber noted that while the transition from jettisoning VTX Capital to creating DollarSprout didn’t happen overnight — after all, they still had to map out the content transition, address technical issues, and prepare for a PR campaign to broaden interest — the transition into rapidly scaling their business did happen virtually overnight.
“Against the advice that many entrepreneurs give about niching down when you go to start an online business, we found success in the exact opposite,” said Huber. “We went broad. Our content strategy no longer catered to an affluent audience of male millennial investors (that numbered in the low tens of thousands) — [our audience] was now the United States, [and] our content now applied to nearly 330 million people.”
Huber clarified that while this didn’t mean that DollarSprout had an instant following, it did instantly become much easier to reach people who might be interested in hearing their message. “Everyone has the potential to manage their money better,” he explained.
With a new game plan in place, instead of continuing to devote resources to maintaining an elusive omnipresent marketing strategy, the cofounders went “all-in” on Pinterest. It was a smart move. In August 2016, their website traffic — and with it, the business’ income — began to grow exponentially, from 100 readers per day to 5,000 or more every 24 hours.
From there, the venture went from $0 in monthly revenue to a consistent low five figures per month, with almost no operating costs outside of $6-$10 in monthly hosting fees. Once Huber and Proctor’s basic physical needs were taken care of, “nearly every dime” went immediately back into the business — a near 100% gross revenue reinvestment, according to Huber.
Huber said that while their monetization strategy (how to capitalize on web readers) was crude at first, it quickly became more refined as the cofounders learned more about affiliate marketing and display advertising.
Spending then grew quickly and enabled them to invest in:
- More advanced email software
- Independent contractors to help with content creation and marketing
- Enhanced website functionality and an aesthetic facelift
- Paid web traffic acquisition
Perhaps more importantly, Huber pointed out, the added revenue helped liberate the cofounders’ time so that they could devote it to their next venture. They officially launched DollarSprout on October 1, 2017.
Though Proctor had initially quit his job as an investment analyst back in 2015 when first cofounding the business with Huber, he ran out of savings by August 2016 and had to get a job as a psych tech in a psychiatric ward because of dwindling funds.
In August 2017, as the pair prepared to launch the new iteration of their business in October, Proctor quit his day job for the second time. Huber followed suit soon after, leaving his full-time RN role in August 2018, though he still fills in for occasional shifts to experience the camaraderie of his old work team and to maintain his nursing license.
“The dueling professional loyalties were behind us,” said Huber. “We were finally ready to put the VTX Capital failure behind us and embrace personal finance education with arms wide open.”
Having more time to throw at the business was like throwing gasoline on an already lit fire — things blew up (in a good way). Within four months of Huber quitting his job, the cofounders began to grow their team. The business accelerated from a consistent low five figures in gross revenue in the summer of 2018 to hitting six-figures regularly by December of that year.
No longer was the business team a group of a half-a-dozen crudely operating independent contractors. Instead, they added four full-time employees to the mix and brought on another half-dozen specialists.
“The specialization of roles meant that no longer were two people responsible for a myriad of tasks for which they were under-qualified or didn’t enjoy,” explained Huber. “It meant that we could allow everyone involved to work on the highest expected value task.”
For Huber, this meant gravitating toward marketing and away from content production. “I was no longer bound by daily writing, and became free to obsess over data and plan responses to subtle changes in the marketing environment,” he said.
Looking back on what went right and wrong, Huber honed in on the fact that when he and Proctor started their business, they lacked professional experience in the exact field they went into. That said, neither one let what some might perceive as a “weakness” bother them.
“We loved every minute of what we were doing despite our inexperience in running or scaling a business,” said Huber.
He added the oft-cited truism that entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone — especially those who lack a specialized skill set. “Coming up [with] a unique idea is hard, and the vast majority of prospective small business owners will never break out in that way,” said Huber. “But if you have a passion for a particular niche or area of business, and don’t mind learning a little bit every day, you can passively acquire all the skills you’ll need to excel in your area.”
Huber credited the duo’s willingness to get smarter as part of the method behind their madness. “Everything I learned about growing our business, hiring employees, maintaining compliance with industry regulations, benefits administration, marketing, and more came from my commitment to being a lifetime learner,” he said.
His specific life circumstances also gave him an advantage that many other prospective entrepreneurs simply don’t have. “A stable second job, no significant other or timely family commitments, a narrow social circle who understood (or participated) in our business venture — I could devote nearly unlimited time to pursuing my passion,” said Huber.
As Huber ponders his website’s mission of how to reach more readers to help them make and manage their money smarter, he simultaneously invests heavily into furthering that mission.
“[We’re] investing over 50% of gross revenue immediately back into the business using a modified Profit First Formula,” said Huber. “Our relatively robust margins — due to our relatively low operating cost — allow us to pursue top-notch talent in further specialized areas. As a fully remote team, we present as an alluring landing spot for industry experts looking to ditch traditional office-based jobs.”
For entrepreneurs hoping to achieve what the DollarSprout cofounders did before their 35th birthdays, Huber emphasized that it’s more important to jump in with both feet than to have a wholly original idea. “Your idea doesn’t necessarily have to be unique, just get started,” he said. “As you learn more about the industry you’re in, you’ll find opportunities [and] unique ways to differentiate yourself. If you wait for the perfect entry point, you stunt your development.”
He stressed the importance of planning and systems development. “At least once per month, take in a high-level overview of your business — what is working? What isn’t?” he recommended. For solopreneurs and small teams in particular, Huber believes it’s critical to spend time efficiently. “It’s your number-one asset,” he said.
Huber pointed to an error that he has seen other beginning entrepreneurs make: trying to be in too many places at once.
“Experiment on several platforms (or content mediums; i.e., video, content, etc.); find where your audience is; and then leave the other platforms behind for now,” said Huber.
Finally, he suggested recognizing that even when you do your best, others may do better. No matter — keep going and doing your own thing to your full capacity.
“Even if you find a hole in the market to exploit, someone will exploit it better and faster than you soon thereafter,” said Huber. “Move and execute quickly. Never, ever stop growing. Those who become complacent fall behind.”