From A "Hustle House" Of 3 In Barcelona To An International $2.5million Agency In 3 Years
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Bostjan Belingar and I’ve started an Email Marketing Agency about 4 years ago. We’re specializing in email and SMS marketing for eCommerce stores. This means we take over a client’s customer list start sending out promotional messages and set up all the automated sequences for them.
Depending on the niche, a strong email + SMS strategy implemented well can generate as much as 10-50% of total store revenue.
We now manage retention marketing for about 70 eCommerce stores worldwide including well-known brands like BlendJet and SunWarrior. Our team has about 70 members from about 20 different countries.
We’ve been 100% remote with zero offices since before it got cool and manage all the operations online via Slack, Asana, Zoom, etc. We closed our 4th year at about $2.2M and will aim to do $3-4M in 2022. The net profit is around 30%.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve done a lot of different things to earn money in the past. From breakdancing on the streets of London to being a human guinea pig for big pharma. From making professional videos for businesses including high-end escorts to working with behaviorally difficult children, teaching, bartending, selling pot, moving furniture.
Never let lead gen die out, and always keep a bunch of cash in the piggy bank should the well run dry.
I am and always was a generally happy person, able to find fun in any work. I was always learning new things and meeting new people. Yet I was always living from paycheck to paycheck and hated it. Seeing that $0 on my bank account once made me swear to myself to never let it get that bad again.
But it wasn’t until I was about 25 that I decided to go all in. I finally decided to go pro, to burn the bridges and go all in. I’ve decided to take all the money I saved up over the years which was about $8,000 and start the “Hustle House”.
I rented an amazing flat in the center of Barcelona and used my social media to attract 3 other like-minded guys to live there with me. My premise was simple: “We’re all going to live there together and go hard on our businesses. At the same time, we’re also going to try to eat and live clean, work out, and chase the girls as much as possible. And we’re going to help each other with advice, accountability, and setting an example.”
So we moved in and started working on our craft. Every guy had his own thing, and I thought I would be a copywriter. I had started to learn about online marketing while being a camera guy for two big YouTubers, one in the dating and one in the fitness niche.
I met one of their marketers (big up Fritz!) and he kindly allowed me to help him with some stuff and learn as I go. I would be reading materials from the old-school direct response copywriters such as Eugene Schwarz Claude Hopkins and Gary Halbert. I devoured it all and started to work on my craft despite being a non-native English speaker.
I’ve done a few projects together with my mentor Fritz. We’ve done copywriting and ads for some Youtuber in the trading niche, and then I did copywrite for some insurance companies and some emails for a pet eCommerce store. But then the workflow and the revenue split weren’t entirely to my liking, so I decided to go solo.
I only got a few gigs for a few hundred bucks off of Upwork and my savings were running out. But then several months in, I closed my first client for $2,000/mo who not only wanted the email copy but also that I design and send out the emails.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
So the funny part about that 2K/mo deal was- I had almost no idea of how to send out emails. I knew how to write them, but nothing about design, the technical aspects, segmentation, deliverability, etc. However, I learned fast.
Once you decide to go all-in, sales are all that matters. You don’t need a logo, you don’t need a website, you need to sell.
I devoured every article and YT video available and pretty much hit the ground running. If you boil it down, it isn’t rocket science. You need an email list, and you need some copies for the email. Is it a promotion, or a tips-based nurturing email? And you make a little email banner in Canva that has a bunch of templates already. You load all that up into a drag & drop editor of Mailchimp/Klaviyo/random CRM, select the segment of the list, and hit send.
And well, quite a lot of time went into each email. 1-2h for the copy, 1h for the design, 1h for QA checks. And then came the fixes from the client, revision rounds. And then pre-brainstorming on the content, the offers. Thinking about the future offers… And once 1 email was done, there would be 5 new ones that needed to be done.
Very soon my days were full of email creation. I could barely continue doing lead gen with UpWork. So I asked a friend that recently lost his job if he wanted to help me on a part-time basis with some “online stuff”. I showed him the UpWork stuff and the email stuff I was doing, and he started to help as much as he could. That friend’s name is Olin and he’s now our Head of HR and has just celebrated his 4th anniversary.
Olin’s help allowed me to systematically focus and improve on various other parts of the business. I was wearing many different hats during a regular, very long workday. A part of the day for example I was learning about sales, creating my own sales scripts, thinking about overcoming objections, and what are the best ice-breaker questions to start a sales conversation with.
Another part of the day would go into learning about email. How many times a week do we send? How to segment? How many pictures per email so deliverability is good? What to do if an email goes to spam? How to create more email revenue? What are some other key automated email sequences like cart abandon and welcome flow? The months flew by and all of a sudden I was also thinking about hiring, managing, etc.
A nice milestone came about 6 months in when I officially incorporated in Estonia and chose the name Hustler Marketing. Before it was all just PayPal transfers, no website, no logo, just pure hustle. I think we were doing about 15-20K/mo by then and had like 5-6 clients each paying around 2-3K/mo. At that time our team was about 5-6 people, and I invited them all to Barcelona for some fun and strategy planning.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Around that time my social life started to slowly die out. There were just so many moving pieces and I was still involved in every single thing. But the massive amounts of work and focus I brought to the table together with that of my slowly increasing team created results fast. We had more and more clients, with better and better results. So it was easier to sell more, then hire more people so we could fulfill, then sell more again.
Just about 12 months in, around Nov 2018 we were probably already close to like 20 people, and maybe making around 60K/mo, I don’t remember. I hired a COO and was already thinking about retiring in a year or two. That was pretty naive.
In Jan 2019 when I returned from a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat, all hell broke loose. My COO quit so did like ⅓ of my team. We’ve lost the majority of our clients over December. Some of it was us working with pretty bad stores who got banned on FB and just went out of biz, and some were due to our poor performance. There was no QA, very few systems, etc.
Q1 2019 was the only month in history where we lost money. Jan was around a 6K deficit and Feb & March were projected for a 10K loss. I only had 15K left in the piggy bank and there were 20 people on the payroll.
Not everyone was at a full-time level, but the pressure was still huge. My agency mentor Tim Kilroy helped immensely. Not by a fancy strategy or some clever new tips, but by a simple message I needed to hear. “Right now you gotta go to all the past leads you ever talked about. It doesn’t matter what it takes. Right now you have to go and close more new business or this will all go away.”
I remember crying alone in my room after the call. And then a few hours after that, I started to send out emails to all of the past leads as well as to any new opportunity, whether it was an eCommerce store or not.
Somehow it worked out. I brought in the revenue and the clients and then April was kind of like a breakeven month, and then we started to be nicely profitable again. I think we had closed the year at 600K revenue, so quite strong for the 2nd year.
However, that experience made me forever attentive to the lead gen. Never let lead gen die out, and always keep a bunch of cash in the piggy bank should the well run dry. Lead gen has been a thing I have been thinking about consistently for the past 4 years and I still think about it today.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I think something that was an integral part of our growth pretty much ever since we began was the quality of our service. I mean on every level. Copy, design, strategy, technical aspects. We have always been improving each of these elements all the time. But the biggest thing was probably the care and attention of the project manager, or the account manager as we call them for the client.
Our account managers have no more than 2-3 accounts each, so the level of service communication and availability is truly amazing. Clients are on average just extremely satisfied with our service. This meant that even if we didn’t bring in a ton of new business each month, recurring revenue would be steadily growing month by month as clients simply didn’t leave.
Of course, we still had client churn, mostly because of the poor quality of eCommerce stores we worked with. A lot of them were small and not established enough, and we didn’t have enough credibility to get to the big ones yet. Of course, we lost some clients due to our performance too.
But all things considered, the net inflow of new stores and business was always bigger than the stores that left or went broke. We’ve also pretty much always been profitable, and our recurring revenue has always been greater than the expenses - which are mostly just salaries. I can’t explain to you how much weight got loaded off my shoulders simply by knowing that.
Not those critical things having been said, of course, we have been doing a lot of lead gen on various channels, some of it more and some of it less successfully. Let me break this down by channel here:
Cold Email Outreach
This is probably the best lead-gen channel for us historically. We’re doing this for about 2 years already and it delivered about 30-50 qualified opportunities a month to us (ie. sales calls with ecom stores doing 50-100K/mo+ in rev). We’ve tested about 12 different agencies and they all sucked. They promised to deliver at least 10 calls a month and took my 3K for that and never delivered. Only 1 freelancer could consistently deliver though. It took about 6 months to crack the right email script, and for him to polish the list-building processes that would deliver solid leads.
This is a really bad channel for us that we haven’t made work yet. We’ve run FB ads 3 times, once by an ex FB employee, once in-house, and once with an agency. We spent about 30K in ad spend besides the management fees on all that and only got some poor leads in return. We’ve also tried Google and LinkedIn ads, with no greater success.
This is working relatively well, despite it not being very scalable (so far). We’ve always been tight to a small number of software partners. Mostly Klaviyo and recently also SMS Bump. We’re a Klaviyo Platinum Partner, have sat on their advisory council for a year, and prefer our clients to use Klaviyo as their CRM whenever possible. In return, we get dedicated Klaviyo support, and sometimes even some leads if it makes sense. Recently SMS Bump has been very good to us and we’ve delivered many SMS clients to them too. In the past, we’ve done some good work with Recart (FB Messenger Marketing).
We’ve also tried various partnerships with other agencies over the years. The idea is simple - share leads with each other. For example, we could send a store to an Ecom Ads agency, and they could send us leads back for email marketing. But in many cases, things kind of fizzled out. We have a pretty solid SEO partner right now called Benjamin GoldenWeb who sends some leads our way and vice versa.
Platforms are a good lead gen channel and this was the only thing we started with. For the entire first year or two, this was exclusively what was used to generate leads, besides referrals of course. There is a lot of junk on Upwork so you have to become and screen out the stuff that is not a real opportunity. You also need to understand the platform, the algorithms to make sure you get maximum exposure. If you do it all right, you can be successful. There is a good mastermind run by Aleks Vitkin called Business Mentor Insiders that is great at teaching you this model.
We are becoming much better with SEO and Organic. Ever since I hired our marketing Director Monica in August 2020, we’ve been focusing a lot more on content marketing and SEO optimization. The website visits are higher every month and now leads from organic search are booking calls. WOW! It takes a while to get started and requires specific expertise, but it’s not resource-intensive and works very well with a long-term focused brand.
We of course get a lot of referrals too. This goes back to the 1st point. Our service is good, and we work mega hard to delight our clients. So they don’t shy from telling their friends. Or from bringing in other projects to us once they start more stores etc.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, I’m quite content with where Hustler is - but that doesn’t mean we plan to stop growing. I think we can reach 8 figures annually in 2-3 years, but I’m not hellbent on it. It’s just a number and there are many ways to grow that don’t immediately reflect on the revenue.
Now we’re upwards of 200K/mo and the net profit is around 30%. I expect that to drop as we initiate across the board salary raises in Q1 2022, as well as invest in further growth. We plan to increase the sales team from 3 to 7, the marketing from 2 to 5, and also open up a proper product department.
The product department is certainly a very exciting idea that has been slowly cooking in my head. We’ve done very well with email marketing for eCommerce as our main and only product for pretty much most of our 4 years of operation.
We’ve started to add SMS as a service around May 2021 and it has gained good traction since. About 10% of our revenue is SMS now and the potential is higher. We’ve tried to do a small test launch of other services - FB ads for ecom, social media management, and content production, but none of them worked out.
Of course, a new service/product is incredibly attractive for any agency as it allows you to upsell your existing client pool as well as tap into new markets. However, I learned that we can’t just “come up with'' an excellent service on the side.
It requires serious market research, customer interviews, careful design, and a ton of financial projections to back it off. And that’s before the implementation even starts. Another way to deliver the new product could also be the acquisition of a small agency that already has a good product.
Another very exciting idea is to potentially open up a new email marketing for SaaS. As an email expert, I see A LOT of opportunities there as the email marketing for SaaS is generally of pretty poor quality and has lots of space to improve.
Besides all the business growth we’re playing with, we of course don’t plan to stop growing our team either. We regularly try to improve salaries, increase paid time off days, and do end-of-year bonuses like the 13th salary.
This year we launched a $500 travel bonus for everyone to meet up with at least 1 person from our team. This brought over 30 employees - including most of the heads - meeting up in over 24 cities across 12 countries and of course, brought a lot of cool pictures, and vibes to our Slack channel. I’m hoping we can get the majority of the team together in 2022, that would be something cool. Here's a glimpse of the meetups:
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One slightly annoying thing about our business model is that it requires a large team. I embrace it now, but looking down from a perspective, it’s plain to see that 70 people at low to mid-7-figures annually is not a very high revenue/employee biz model. On the one hand that pushed me and also the senior management in people skills. I’d say I learned a lot about hiring and managing people.
The most difficult thing to screen when hiring, especially for managers, is emotional intelligence. How to tell whether a manager will be willing and able to step into their subordinate’s shoes and try to resolve a situation with care and not just bark out 2 orders and expect the situation to be fixed.
People are not machines, we are all extremely complex. I have spent a lot of time in the last 2 years working with a psychologist to polish and improve our people processes. I’d say our culture is great, but it didn’t happen randomly.
So here’s what I’m getting at: Think carefully about a business model before starting. Think about scalability, how many people will it require if you grow fast. Whether you like working with people or not etc. Had I known this before, I would approach the growth of my agency differently. I’d still stay in this biz model because I think it’s relatively risk-free, but I’d go a bit differently about it.
Lastly - I’ve noticed something in most business people I respect. You can generally be quite lenient and friendly, towards partners, prospects, employees. But when it comes to negotiating the price or the salary, you have to be tight. I’m not saying merciless, because any deal needs to work for both sides. But if you manage to tilt the scales to your side a little bit, you will be reaping the rewards of that 1 difficult moment for months and years to come.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
First of all, I think you need at least a few months' savings to go all-in on an idea, or you start doing it on the side together with your main job until it starts to produce enough money that you can safely quit your main job.
Second, I think it’s very beneficial to have worked at some good jobs first. You will learn at a much quicker rate than trying to come up with everything on your own - and be way less stressed about it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with working at a good job where you get to learn good stuff every day and be paid for it. And then once you’re ready with your skills and savings, you can go all in.
Once you decide to go all-in, sales are all that matters. You don’t need a logo, you don’t need a website, you need to sell. Of course, this depends a little bit on the business model, but you can apply “only sales matter” to any niche. Is there any traction? Are you selling? Do you have visitors? Does anyone care about what you’re talking about?
If you spent 3-6 months going HARD after something and you see no traction, there is a problem. You might need to change to doing something else, radically change your strategy, get mentors, etc. It’s foolish to “keep trying” doing something for years without any real traction. This is where I think most people fail.
You have to go out of the sandbox of “I have this great idea…” and into the real world and see if somebody would pay for that idea.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re always hiring account managers, designers, and copywriters. New positions are popping up regularly. Check out our website to learn more.
Where can we go to learn more?
These are old, but still some good stuff there:
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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