Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Evan Bleker, I’m an investor and entrepreneur. I started a company called Net Net Hunter, a membership community focused on a niche value investment strategy. The core of the strategy is buying cheap stocks, incredibly cheap stocks.
Our focus is on helping small investors implement a strategy known as net stock investing, which was originally popularized by Benjamin Graham in the 1930s. When I first launched the site, there was not much available in terms of resources, and I could not find enough net-nets to fill my own personal portfolio, so decided to solve my own problem.
We now offer a list of roughly 1000 international net-nets and filter through them by hand to identify the top 40 or 50 to focus our research efforts on. Along the way, I’ve collected a lot of bits and pieces written about net investing and packaged them into a learning resource. We added a community forum to share ideas and help members connect. This has been very popular. Investment analysis came later.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started investing 20 years ago in a high school economics class during the dot-com bubble. That launched my interest in business, and I spent the next decade learning about business, investing, and began starting companies. I eventually landed on Graham’s classic strategy, so started using it with very good success for the first few years, only to find the number of good quality opportunities drying up as the markets rose after the Great Recession.
Learning through experience is your best bet. Don’t wait until you understand everything perfectly.
Faced with either having to abandon the strategy or purchase expensive data, I chose the latter and decided to sell access to other like-minded investors to fund access. That was the birth of Net Net Hunter, and it’s proven a solid earner to date.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Design? Nonexistent. The first version of the site definitely hit the “if you’re not embarrassed, you shipped too late” button hard. I mocked something up in WordPress and sold access to a single list of company names. It was really bad.
From there, I began implementing basic design tweaks and new pages that would pull together some of the papers and other resources I had found scattered around the net over my previous 10 years.
Articles were the main focus for marketing, with me, myself, and I pumped out hundreds of thousands of words on the strategy and individual picks.
Once we got a good number of subscribers, they began telling me all of the problems with the site so I began improving it bit by bit. I’m happy with what we have today, but we’re still improving what we have based on member feedback.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Our launch was fairly straightforward. I emailed about 50 websites asking to partner with them on the promotion of the website. I was surprised how few people wanted to take my money. Eventually, we nailed down two, and one bailed on the agreement, so I ended up with one single ad on one site. That was enough to gain me some traction and subscribers began to flood in.
I knew that the site was a hit the first month when we got 3 customers at about $15 each. The next month we got 10, and then more. While it was a tiny amount of money, we had basically no exposure, and momentum was clearly building. A series of price rises later, we had a good amount of revenue coming in and were profitable.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
In our business, retention comes down to an investor’s own temperament more than anything else. Value investing does not work every year, and there are a lot of bright, shiny, objects in the investment space that can derail your investment plan. All strategies go through bouts of underperformance, and an investor has to have the broader perspective and emotional strength to see what is happening and to stick with the long-term plan. It’s all about the long term.
Many investors also find it hard to stick to a plan because there are too many novel opportunities available when it comes to putting your money to work. FAANG stocks and crypto are two recent examples, but they can be as mundane as a different, interesting, investment strategy. Something just a little sexier.
At other times, people get busy with life and take time away from investing, and just never get back on track.
We’ve tried to combat some of this by highlighting track records that gifted pros have earned with the strategy, including their record of underperformance versus the market, the teachings of Benjamin Graham, and have promoted the development of emotional intelligence and psychological temperament to face those dry spells. I feel this has worked somewhat, but it’s tough to face the strong innate drive of investors to abandon what they are doing, to get off course.
In terms of sales, we’re facing a fragmented group of investors who are hesitant to spend money on much of anything in life. Those interested in joining aren’t found on social media, but sometimes frequent other investing websites. To reach them, SEO has been our main strategy, followed by guest posting, podcasts, and my book, Benjamin Graham’s Net-Net Stock Strategy which was published through Harriman House in 2020.
These strategies have worked decently but given how small the niche is, we decided to move on to other startup projects.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today we have a stable cash cow that requires little in the way of daily work. All of our business processes have been written down and we’ve hired admin support to carry them out. This is a much better place to be than when I was originally working 12 hour days.
I spend most of my time these days interacting with members and combing overstock ideas to keep my portfolio full. Building a community of like-minded investors has proven extremely valuable for sourcing stock ideas - so the value goes well beyond just the monthly income. It’s a huge time saver for me personally.
Recently, though, I decided to spend some of that time and money on another web startup, EtailExpress.com, which focuses on helping internet retail companies reduce their workload by taking over core admin functions. We’re currently focused on gaining initial traction, but it’s only a matter of time when something hits. I’ll be back again with an additional StarterStory article when that project takes off.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
While initially a lifestyle business, traffic was hit pretty hard in 2018/19 due to various Google updates. SEO has gotten a lot harder and has to be more purposeful today. I would say that even if you just want a lifestyle business where you can lay on the beach with your laptop or hit the bars every night, you can’t just put things on autopilot. You need to keep up with marketing trends and spend time thinking about how you can improve what you do. I spent a good amount of time traveling and could have spent more time on marketing. The big secret to hands-off businesses is that they’re never hands-off. You always have to steer the ship.
Another key lesson is the need to spend a bit of that cash you have coming in to hire staff. Of course, you need to build strong SOPs first and then make sure you hire good people and train them well. As your business gets more successful, you’ll end up working more… so really need to outsource that work to get some of your time back. I never wanted a business to be rich, I wanted a business to be free from a job. But if you’re not hiring people to do admin work, then you box yourself into working a job anyways as your business grows.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We’re just on some basic software that’s widely available… nothing too special. We use WordPress for site software, and basic WordPress hosting. It’s not rocket science - you don’t have to build a custom site.
We’re also using Active Campaign to send emails to members and subscribers, but that’s proven a bit clunky. It’s powerful but frustrating to use.
Aside from that, Stripe has been great for taking payment, and I would strongly advise against using PayPal since they can cancel your account without reason and warning. They locked us out, stranding tens of thousands of dollars that we could not access in the process.
And, of course, we use our own internal bookkeeper through Etail Express. Almost nothing is more important than having accurate finances but it’s also time-consuming, so hiring out so you can work on more important things is really helpful.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Superfastbusiness has been a really helpful resource for learning business 2.0, really the intermediate must-dos running a membership site. James has been a great help and he’s put together a good community of experienced members.
Scale by Hoffman and Finkel has helped me learn how to take a step back by building systems, and James Schramko’s Work Less, Make More was a very good read on the basics of running a great internet business.
Lastly, getting a mentor helps a lot. I was lucky enough o meet Jae Jun of GorillaROI early into my project, and he has proven a deep well of business wisdom.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Learning through experience is your best bet. Don’t wait until you understand everything perfectly. Like skating, if you wait to learn everything about skating through books or instructional videos you’ll be way behind. No resource can teach you the details of actually doing it live.
Be prepared to fail. The reality is that 9 out of 10 businesses fail. But, you can flip that concept on your head: 1 out of 10 of your ideas is bound to work well, and the other 9 are preparation and education that you need under your belt to run a great company. Consider it the University of Hard Knocks.
Keep your bets small. Don’t mortgage your house to start a business unless it’s already working well. Rather, form a just-in-time prototype and slap together a site with duct tape and a marker. Test using a small amount of money to see if people want what you’re offering.
If you have traffic already, the more different offers you test, the more likely you will hit on something that becomes a real winner.
Where can we go to learn more?
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