Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Gregory Elfrink and I’m the director of marketing with Empire Flippers. We’re a three-time winner of the INC 5,000 award for being one of the fastest growing companies in America and we help people buy and sell online businesses.
In the last few years, we have become the thought leader and one of the largest M&A advisory businesses for digital assets in the sub $10 million range. Though, I am pretty certain we will soon be selling businesses above that $10 million mark as well.
We have brokered over $50 million worth of deals, and since we’re a big believer in transparency we also created a scoreboard that details most of our stats - from the hundreds of thousands of website visitors we get to our pool of potential buyers that grow by the hundreds every month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
We originally started out as an outsourcing company in the Philippines that helped businesses in the USA with various administrative tasks, but when we lost one of our main clients we had to find a way to fill our team’s hours.
If you are committed to systems and process, then failure holds no meaning because it’s simply you learning the systems and processes better.
So, we heard about this whole niche site thing and had our staff start creating micro niche sites monetized with Adsense. If you’re not familiar with the term, niche sites are usually just small sites that are talking about a specific thing. Usually, they’re heavily informational based (Ex: How do you stop snoring?) but can also include product reviews. Most of them are monetized either through Google Adsense or Amazon’s affiliate program, or a mixture of both. We blogged about the whole journey and soon started selling the sites we made.
Though we had a lot of success with this, not all of our sites turned into successes and we had our fair share of failureas well. Overall, we succeeded more than we failed and when we started selling the websites our team was making, we ran into something VERY interesting to us.
A lot of people in our audience who also had sites came to us asking if we could sell THEIR website in exchange for a commission.
We thought… well isn’t that an interesting idea?
Soon we rebranded completely to Empire Flippers and went into the brokering field full time.
As far as me personally, I came on board with the company in 2016. My background is pretty varied but most of my career before Empire Flippers was in the oil fields in Alaska.
However, I’ve always been obsessed with internet marketing and I saw in Empire Flippers something truly exciting - a product that could literally change someone’s life forever whether they ended up buying or selling a business through us.
This is still at the core of my enthusiasm for the company. I’ve seen so many stories, met so many people, whose lives have changed dramatically because of our service. It’s really inspiring.
Take us through the process of getting started and launching.
Our launch was pretty simple in many ways - we started off initially as just a blog. We blogged about building up these micro niche sites for a few months, then we started blogging about how we had sold other peoples niche sites for them. Soon, we added a very rudimentary marketplace to our blog where we would publicly list deals for sell.
This has grown significantly since the initial days. Where before we were a blog that happened to have a marketplace, we are definitely more in the category of a marketplace that happens to have a blog.
Initially, all of our promotion was pure content. That remains true up to today. The majority of our leads still comes through organic traffic, and our audience loves sharing our empirical research and case studies we produce based off real data in the marketplace.
Our business model’s core became connecting people with an online business they wanted to sell with people that wanted to buy an online business. When people submit their business with us, we charge them a $297 first time listing fee.
This is really just to weed out potential tire kickers, but it also covers some of the manhours that goes into vetting the businesses as we make sure every business on our marketplace really is earning the money and the traffic the seller states it does. Once the business is live on our marketplace, we start marketing that business and our team of business analysts begin negotiating with potential buyers. It is only after the business is successfully sold that we get cut of the sales price of that business.
That commission cut ranges from 8% to 15% depending on the size of the business, and again we only take that if the business is successfully sold. We’re pretty buyer-centric despite often giving sellers the best price possible for their business.
We have an entire department devoted to migrating a business over from the seller to the buyer, and we include a revenue verification period for the buyer so the buyer can confirm everything is as stated by the seller. As far as I know, we’re the only broker that offers so many safety nets for both the seller and the buyer to make sure everyone is getting what they want.
Our secret weapon - transparency
It’s helpful that other brokers are often secretive with their actual numbers, so one way our promotion has become effective is just how transparent we are. People find it refreshing and they can relate to you better when you’re sharing both your success and failures and just the reality of the situation instead of always trying to sell them on something.
As far as financing goes, we’re entirely self-funded. We’ve looked at the possibility of taking on outside money but turned away from the idea. While we could grow much faster (potentially) with that capital, we like the fact that we’re the captains of our own ship at the end of the day.
While we want to become the biggest and the best, we still also want to be building a business that represents us and our values. A big part of that value system is being able to live a life by design rather than forced into doing things because you have to meet shareholder expectations or other similar concepts.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The most important aspect of retaining our customers and really our brand evangelists has always been being able to listen to feedback. Sometimes that feedback is painful to hear. You hear about good friends selling their business with someone else and you get it, they had a better opportunity to do it with someone else than us.
Yet, it is exactly that kind of feedback that ultimately makes us better. We are always tweaking the way we work to make sure that everyone feels like the best deal they’re going to get is with us.
My best advice is you shouldn’t care if you fail and you shouldn’t care if you succeed. The only thing that matters is you simply do.
Over the years, this has become truer and truer. We’re not perfect, but we often can get the best price and the most buyers looking at a deal than anyone else.
When it comes to marketing, much of our marketing remains the same: content. We published case studies, do polished testimonial videos, success stories with our buyers and create original research on various business models.
While we produce a lot of content for SEO, a lot of our content is also middle of funnel content for people that are already aware of what we do. This is something most content marketers just don’t do, but it can be incredibly powerful.
A good example of this power is the blog post we wrote called Winning the Wire Race. This blog post was written because people wanting to buy businesses would send in the wire to us but then not get the business because someone else’s bank wire would hit our account first. Obviously, the other buyers that sent in the wire didn’t like this.
We used to joke about the wire race internally, but then I created this blog post that explained how the wire race works and how buyers can leave credit on file with us by wiring us money before they find a business they want to buy. That way when they do find a business, they can instantly acquire that asset without worrying about the wire race.
Now, no one is searching for how to win the wire race on Google, or if they are than they are most likely not googling for what we’re talking about.
As you can see below, middle of funnel content does not produce a lot of pageviews.
But it also not really supposed to do that.
It exists purely to move people along the buyer’s journey and into your funnel on a deeper level by providing “inside knowledge”.
You can see our analytics on this post here:
A little over 1,000 page views since we published it and placed it into our marketing automation has led to some of our most voracious buyers leaving money on file with us and buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of assets from us.
That is why we’re so passionate about content. It’s a long game for sure, but it’s a long game that just plain works and can you set you completely apart from the competition.
While we’ve remained closely tied to our blog as the main gateway for this, we are starting to expand into other powerful media channels like Youtube so we can expand our content bases to audiences that prefer other types of media, such as video.
We’re also working on a much more robust email automation funnel that will help people personalize their entrepreneur’s journey regardless of where they are or what kind of business they’re working on.
While we do everything you might expect such as paid ads, conferences, webinars etc., it is still content that remains our strength. In fact, content fuels every aspect of all our marketing whether it’s organic, a paid ad, or a conference sponsorship.
I think one mistake people make often when it comes to being content marketing focused is they focus too much on the SEO style content. While SEO is great for getting new eyes on your products, it is not the end all be all of the content.
Content exists at every stage in the marketing funnel. What I find is most content marketers have almost zero content speaking to their leads that are in the middle and bottom of the funnel of their buyer’s journey.
If you can focus on this section the most with your content, you’ll often get the best bang for your buck. It is this kind of “insider knowledge” that people crave and is the reason why they’ll join your newsletter in the first place.
When I first came on board, we didn’t have an editorial calendar at all. This was the first thing we changed when I was still the content manager. Initially, we did two blog posts per week, every week and kept that up for a little over a year.
Initially, I would just use Ahrefs.com to analyze competitor websites and “shoulder niche” websites. A shoulder niche website is just a website that talks about something that is very similar to what your business is talking about, and this can open up the floodgates of potential SEO traffic that your competitors aren’t going after.
An example of this would be me putting a website like Moz.com into Ahrefs. Usually, you’ll want to go after a shoulder niche website that has a similar or lesser domain rating (DR) than you in hopes to outranking them. Moz, in general, is an SEO SaaS tool but they also talk a ton about internet marketing in general. That is the content crossover that both of our businesses share. So I would look through Moz’s Ahrefs data and see what kind of keywords could I possibly turn into an article for the Empire Flipper’s blog.
You can Moz’s overall stats here:
And here is ours at EmpireFlippers.com:
One day we’ll hit the legendary DR of 90+! :-)
There is likely a plethora of websites in your niche or slightly broader than your niche that talks about similar topics that your audience would love as well. Plus, if you aim your SEO efforts at going after keywords that are ranking on a lower DR website than yours, then there is a good chance you’ll eventually outrank them with some SEO efforts and start reaping the benefits of that keyword’s traffic.
If you want to make content a big focus like us, then here are some of the best kind of topics we have done that has worked well for us:
- Controversial topics specific to your industry (Example: Our post on private blog networks)
- “Breaking news” articles, which helps you feel on the bleeding edge of the industry for your audience. (Example: When Amazon cut their affiliate commissions)
- Data-driven studies using your own original research (Example: A blog post we did on people selling Amazon FBA businesses using real sales data from our marketplace)
- And of course… case studies of people that have used your product and created an interesting story because of using your product.
Right now, we’re working on making a content production system so we can produce even MORE high-quality content. For now, until we get the system done, we’re keeping to a blog post every two weeks.
The only reason why we have pushed our editorial back so long is it gives us time to write more in-depth pieces, plus we have so much content now that we are working on updating every piece and implementing them throughout our marketing funnel.
Ideally, in the future, we’ll have been producing enough high-quality content about buying and selling online businesses to rival any media company out there.
My best advice is to consider your company as a media company. It doesn’t matter if you’re a local plumber, a furniture store owner, or a SaaS founder. Almost every niche can benefit from having a media mindset with their content marketing.
In my opinion, content is the future of marketing and that future is being laid down right now. It is the one kind of marketing you can do effectively that even the most well-funded competitor will struggle to just “throw money at” and usurp your position.
What’s the business model and how you do make money?
We’re an online business broker, specializing specifically in online businesses. What this means is if you have an affiliate site, an ecommerce store or a SaaS business that you want to sell, you can come to us and we will help you find a buyer or investor to take over the business.
Our business model as a broker means we will help sellers build out respectable Profit & Loss (P&L) statements, help them get all of their documentation in order and ultimately market their business for sale.
We handle everything from helping both the seller and buyer on negotiations, to actually migrating the business over to the new owner. As far as I’m aware, we’re the only broker that has a consistent vetting and migration department. While other brokers will do a one-off vetting for an influential seller, we vet all of the businesses that come to our marketplace to make sure they’re legitimate opportunities that are making the money the seller says they’re making.
Our average traffic to our site sits between 80,000-120,000 visitors per month. We have seen way bigger spikes than this though, like when we got onto the front page of Reddit for an AMA we did.
We usually have between 80-100+ businesses live on our marketplace at any given time (89 at the time of this writing), and we’ve sold just under a 1,000 businesses at 949. With over $61 million of businesses sold and a buyer pool of 105,000+ buyers, we’re the largest curated marketplace in the world.
This is all in alignment with our big vision to become the #1 place for helping people buy and sell online businesses.
Our operations have grown from a small five-man team to having full blown departments and department heads, including sub-departments. Right now our departments are:
- Operations (Vetting, Customer Service, Migrations)
Considering we grew so fast into a 50+ person company, our plans for 2019 is going to be focused on increasing our process and efficiency. When a company grows so fast, it is not uncommon for its entire dynamic to change. It really is like reinventing yourself over and over.
So, we’re going to be making our processes even better and our customers even happier as we create better workflows.
There are a couple BIG things we’re planning which will likely happen at the end of 2019 or early 2020, but…. I can’t exactly say what those are just yet :-)
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Personally, as an employee and someone that hangs out with entrepreneurs day in and day out, I have found one thing the most surprising and helpful to me.
You know all those books about business that you read that always say the same thing about how having a vision statement and a core values document is important?
I used to think this was just some nice feel-good fluff years ago. But as your company grows bigger, even as your department gets bigger and more complicated, I realize more and more just how VALUABLE these concepts really are.
If you are ever going to build systems in your business that work whether you’re there or not, that means you also need to bake into the system the ability to make decisions. Sometimes, the system is going to need to make really hard decisions where there is not any data on what the system should or shouldn’t do. Even if you tried obsessively to be present for all these decisions, there is just no way you can be once you get big enough.
That means you need to rely on your team making decisions from the right “operating system”.
That operating system is your mission, core values, and vision statement. It should be bred throughout your culture whether it is the entry-level worker or the VP of your company.
It gives them a valuable document of principles to base their decisions from and is invaluable to you as a founder.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
At the marketing department at Empire Flippers, my favorite three tools are:
Marketing automation and sales CRM in one, having all of our tools live in the same place is incredibly effective for us gathering correct data. Something that is quite a complicated thing for us since we’re a marketplace dealing with both buyers and sellers as our customers.
Monday.com (project management software)
Marketing is filled with endless projects, so it is important to have something that can truly organize everything. I’ve looked at Asana and other tools but I just never could get behind them. Monday is super flexible, great UI and is geared as a project management tool for creatives like a marketing team.
Ahrefs.com (competitor analysis tool)
While we don’t use this constantly, at the start of an SEO campaign it is a fantastic tool to do research on your competitors. It also has a lot of great features they’ve added over the years that replaces several other tools. Similar to Hubspot, I prefer tools that have multiple tools all in one to reduce the learning curve and keep things simple.
While not a marketing tool, I think there is a system of goal setting that is important for companies as they mature. This applies mainly if you have a sales department.
Rather than having marketing project goals, look to bind sales and marketing goals together. If sales need to hit a certain revenue goal, break down that revenue goal into how that looks like from a lead perspective. Now your marketing team has a real tangible numerical goal to hit.
This model used by many companies, including Hubspot and is called MQLs or Marketing Qualified Leads. We’re still new at testing this model out, but so far it has given us something to really shoot for and aligns marketing and sales together more.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
My favorite podcasts are not actually business podcasts, at least not in the normal respects. I love Freakonomics by Steve Dubner and Making Sense by Sam Harris (formerly called Waking Up). I think both of these podcasts often analyze things we take for granted in a critical fashion that makes you think. It opens up all kinds of doors for creativity and just in general thinking deeper about the world.
For the same reasons as above, I also used to read the Wait But Why blog religiously when he was posting more consistently.
As far as helpful business books, I still love the classics like Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. The first one is great for the inspiration and motivation and the second one is a pragmatic way to build out your Rolodex.
At the end of the day, I think wealth is truly measured in the relationships you keep rather than your bank account. That makes Dale’s book one of my favorite reads and I’ll read it every couple years again to refresh myself.
I would also recommend The Richest Man in Babylon as a pragmatic view on personal finance, and most things related to Stoic philosophy (Marcus Aurelius, Seneca etc.)
These books are very much principles first rather than tactics.
There are tons of awesome business books on tactics, but they become outdated. If you study the core principles of things, then you can apply those principles to the ever-changing global marketplace.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My best advice is you shouldn’t care if you fail and you shouldn’t care if you succeed. The only thing that matters is you simply do. Fall in love not with the product or the niche, but in love with the systems and the processes.
If you are committed to learning the systems and processes, success is an inevitability for most of us. Likewise, if you are committed to the process, then failure holds no meaning because it’s simply you learning the systems better.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Right now we’re not looking to hire in 2019. This could change but it is unlikely. We want to systemize our departments and workflows better before bringing on more people.
However, there is a good chance we’ll be hiring a content manager for the marketing team in early 2020.
Where can we go to learn more?
You can learn more about us at EmpireFlippers.com.
You can stay updated on most of what we’re up to at our blog EmpireFlippers.com/blog
And if you want practical business insights and fantastic interviews with other amazing entrepreneurs, check out the Empire Flippers Podcast on the podcast platform of your choice.
- Justin Cooke, Founder of Empire Flippers
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Shoot me an email!
- Pat Walls, Founder of Starter Story