Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name’s Alex and I started ESL With Purpose, LLC. Our mission is to see millions of English learners change their lives through English skills.
Our flagship products are the Phrase It™ cards and Phrase It™ dice. I currently make between $600-$1,000/month, depending on inventory flow and availability of profit reinvestment.
I started with 0 sales a day in 2017 and now average 2-3 sales per day. In 2019, I started an online course to teach English called Learn American English Online: English on the Street. I designed this to help more students plus increase cash flow to keep my inventory cycles going.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) during my undergraduate studies on a volunteer level. Over time, I acquired a TEFL certification and more experience while working other full-time jobs and growing my skills in other interests. My heart, however, was always drawn to hanging out with international friends and helping them improve their English.
Don’t give up. If I would have quit when I lost $17,000, I wouldn’t have learned anything. It was a good educational moment. Failure does not define your business. How you respond to situations does define it.
Phrase It grew out of need to enhance student learning in a fun and dynamic way. Specifically, I developed a dice game to help English language learners through the use of phrasal verbs. Then it turned into a card game.
Here’s the WHY video:
And check out some students playing the Phrase It™ dice game:
Often an overlooked aspect of English language learners, the use of phrasal verbs form a critical piece or constructive glue that enhances fluency like a native English speaker. Although there are over 5,000 phrasal verbs in English, learning the most common ones can make a difference in understanding news headlines, reading articles, speaking and listening at the grocery store, getting a loan for a business, paying the bills, and a whole range of survival skills.
I tested Phrase It among my teaching peers and received permission from a few local schools to test it out in the classroom. Teachers often need resources that that help them break out of the mold of boring activities. While teaching English myself, I originally put some verbs and prepositions on some wooden dice. Then I thought, “hey, I wonder if I can get these made for many teachers?” So I started the journey towards developing the Phrase It dice. At the time of development, I was still teaching ESL part-time and working another part-time non-profit job.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I reached out to a few manufacturers in the U.S. to see if they could get my dice made. The costs were astronomical for custom dice. Most of the people who make them in the U.S. are used to game board types or custom gamers.
Learn who your audience is and what their needs are, then serve them.
I was looking for mass production of an educational game, not so much a custom board game. I did find one manufacturer out of Kentucky who did put together a few prototypes for me at a high cost. I called him and he told me, “yeah, to go any cheaper you’ll have to go out of country. Sorry man but that is my price.” I was okay with using him for the original dice. His quality was solid and he laid it out in a graphic format that I could then share with a mass manufacturer (like in China). I think this guy had a small-time C&C operation but he was worth paying for the prototype.
I researched manufacturers on Alibaba until I found one that could produce what I wanted: something with a box that could hold my 8 dice. After searching for the right one, I found a manufacturer who could do what I wanted. My idea was to use a fly-fishing type of box to hold each dice cube. In this way, teachers can organize the dice better or repurpose the box however they see fit.
TIP: In order to get a good price, it’s important to sound professional when emailing others on Alibaba. The “how to sell on Amazon” course I took helped me with best tips and strategies. It’s important to ask for multiple quotes on a variety of MOQs (Minimum Order Quantities) instead of just a small number. It helps the manufacturer think that you are capable of placing larger orders in the future. They may cut you deal because of this. For example, instead of saying, “How much for 5 sets?” you can say “What is your MOQ for the following quantities: 300, 500, and 1,000?” Also, make sure you reach out to more than 3. I recommend getting quotes from at least 5 different manufacturers.
When it came time to do the cards, I reached out to Chinese manufacturers again. I found the shipping costs were too high and the paper quality too low for making the Phrase It™ cards. I finally found a solid printing company in the U.S. who could produce not only the cards, but the box style I wanted. The shipping costs were significantly lower too.
As far as startup costs, it took around $4,500 to get inventory orders, a Shopify site, setting up with Fulfillment by Amazon, and using other resources like Manage By Stats. I applied with the U.S. government with my Trademark for Phrase It. I had to set up an LLC and pay my local state the necessary fees (about $50 a year) to get it going.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The initial process took several months from getting the prototypes in hand to placing the larger inventory orders.
My wife and kids helped me shrink wrap the dice sets and organize the books to package with the cards. It became a fun family activity!
Now when we have to reorder dice inventory and prepare them, we try to quality check each dice (let’s face it - a good handful of units will not be the best quality coming from China) set before packaging and shipping them to Amazon.
The books I had made through Amazon’s CreateSpace (before they changed everything now to under Amazon only now) and the card sets from the U.S. manufacturer. Then we packaged and prepared those as a family too.
For initial investment, I used some money from a credit card and other money that was given to us by an angel investor (no expectation for any pay back). I did try to run a Kickstarter campaign but so many people wanted to have me pay them for their company to advertise for me on Kickstarter. So many gimmicks out there I didn’t want to go that route. I also used a personal loan and got distracted by chasing another product called Magnetic Building Blocks.
Honestly, this was not in my niche fully and I failed to make it work after running a too deep of discount coupled with high Cost of Goods. I lost $17,000 on that mistake. My mistake was running a sale and being away from internet access for 24 hours. I later checked my account and sold 375 units in one day! It felt awesome until I realized they were all at 70% off. Huge loss!
Now I’m using my current Phrase It brand to pay back debt while keeping the cash flow alive enough to order more cards/dice for my niche audience and target market.
As far as launching, I ran some FB ads plus Amazon Sponsored Product ads. This sold a few, but honestly word of mouth and organic Amazon searches seemed to yield better results. After a while, I realized I was blowing my ad spend on Amazon and realized that they just wanted to make money off my ad spend instead of truly helping me reach my audience. Throughout this process, I took an online course on how to sell on Amazon and get my listings optimized the best way (see my story about taking that class here and more details on my profit/loss).
I attended an educator conference which resulted in $1300 in sales in just 2 days. I realized attending a conference like this in the future will continue to yield more results. I grew my most interested email sign-ups and subscribers while at the conference too. Other advertising involved YouTube ads and more Facebook ads with email subscriber sign-ups. I also embedded sign-up forms on my website to continue to generate leads.
The 2 biggest lessons I learned: (1) Watch your Ad spend and budget and (2) Know your Cost of Goods before ordering and selling! And I mean everything from product, shipping, fees, etc. It adds up and if you’re not careful it can cripple your cash flow.)
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The best steps that I use to keep and retain customers is by providing ongoing, relevant, and valuable content.
One example is my YouTube channel where I teach phrasal verbs almost every Friday. The key with YouTube is being consistent with your audience and message. Although I like marketing strategies and tactics, my YouTube channel videos are not about that. They are about helping students learn and improve English and for teachers to use the videos on how to play Phrase It. If I deviate from that too much, I might lose subscribers. I still have some personal videos from when I first joined YouTube, but the majority are built around my Phrase It brand and English language learning.
Another example is ongoing emails and engagement on social media with LinkedIn, TikTok, and Instagram. LinkedIn is great for connecting with other marketers and teacher professionals.
I joined a few groups on there with similar interests. Instagram has a higher usage among Millenials and the next generation, so I try to post daily on this platform. TikTok is like the new Instagram but with a stronger focus on video.
In just 1 week, I had 35k views for a dice video! It has powerful viral potential. See that video on my TikTok account here. It’s also a place to be silly and have fun with your videos!
I sync my Constant Contact account to share my email on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. When I craft my email like a blog with free info, it pays off in the long run. The neat thing is all I have to do is write the email and schedule ahead of time. Then boom! It reaches my email subscribers + my social accounts in one action.
Meeting people in person at conferences yields results. It provides new networking opportunities where I can demonstrate the Phrase It™ brand to instructors in real life.
Conferences provide opportunities for me to teach workshops and help educators understand how Phrase It™ can be used in practical and tangible ways. It is easier to go through Q&A sessions on the spot.
I also reach out on occasion to what Seth Godin dubs as “sneezers” (influencers) who are educators in the field of teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) or similar educator platforms. A few of them have left great reviews and are now raving fans of Phrase It™.
One took a nice picture and posted it in her review. (see the image)
What has worked
Creating a video that gets ranked on YouTube. I had a friend help me make a video called How to Order at a Subway as an English lesson for part of my online course. I have over 95,000 views on this video and it has helped generate more traffic to my website and to my other YouTube video lessons. Currently, I average 2-3 sales a day on Amazon for all of my combined efforts with social media, emails, and YouTube focus.
After taking the Amazing Selling Machine course, it taught me step-by-step instructions on how to write the best headline, bullet points, and character limits on Amazon for SEO searches. I now rank on page 1 because of what I learned for the search terms “esl games” and “games for esl” and “phrasal verbs” and a few other targeted words. Getting to page 1 is huge for ongoing sales and traffic on Amazon.
One challenge is that when you try to private label what so many other people are doing, you just come off with having white noise in the market. It is best to build a trusted brand over time that generates a sustainable business. In this way, the resale value of that brand and business will increase over time. It’s okay to private label, but please consider doing it with integrity and not writing dishonest reviews of others just to get ahead. This will devalue your brand and product on Amazon.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
If I wouldn’t have gotten sidetracked with the Magnetic Blocks, I think I would be much more profitable at this point. However, I am making just enough to pay the bills and keep things afloat. I developed an online course to try to generate additional cash flow for the business while still selling the Phrase It physical products.
Gross Margins are in the $1,000+/month range while net profit is more like $600 or less. My cost of goods range from $2.50 up to $5 a unit. I get 300+ unique visitors to my ESL With Purpose site per month.
I’m not sure about the actual traffic numbers on Amazon, but I do know that is one of my highest sources of traffic. My YouTube channel and email reports give me the best analytics on how I’m doing. I get about 3-5 new subscribers per day on YouTube and an open rate of 25-30% in my emails. Of that 25-30%, my click-through rate is close to 20% or higher.
Almost all of my sales are coming from Amazon at this point. I have had a few international and U.S. buyers order on my Shopify site directly. Shopify works great for when I attend conferences. I don’t have to pay any FBA (Fulfillment By Amazon) fees for the conferences. I have had a few educational institutions place bulk orders and a few libraries order with POs (purchase orders).
Plans for the future include attending a national educator conference in 2020 (Over 6,000+ attendees) and another local educator conference. When I release Phrase It™ 2 (coming soon), I plan to reach out to everyone who bought the original version in the past on Amazon and through my other channels. My ambitious goals are to sell 10 units on Amazon every day and about 3 online courses per day.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I have found that consistency each week makes a difference. Since starting my Phrase It Friday videos, I noticed more comments and engagement from my target audience. When I run YouTube ads and strategically place them towards my niche demographic and targeted keywords, I get more email sign-ups. After running a targeted 5-day YouTube ad at $6 per day, I increased my email subscriber list by 300.
I discovered that putting a landing page and sign-up link in the Youtube ad directs customers right where I want them to go in order to build more trust with them. Then building out an 8-day or 14-day email sequence helps with further purchases and engagement. I’ve also heard about using ManyChat or other Chatbot-like options for Facebook to grow my audience, and I may try it when my cash flow increases.
I was using Kajabi for my online course, but they charge so much per month that I had to stop because of my cash flow. I branched out on Udemy because they at least have high traffic to their site. Unfortunately, they take a big cut, but at least it’s free traffic with zero overhead expenses. With Kajabi, I had to pay more for advertising to direct traffic to the site. I do love Kajabi’s all-in-one platform and someday I may use them again. With a minimal budget left for ad spend and to keep my money for debt and reinvesting in physical products, I couldn’t justify the Kajabi expense anymore. So far, I sold 5 online courses through Udemy in May 2019.
Clarity in my communication has helped too. Some of the best decisions I made were reaching out to other educators to let them know about Phrase It. Attending conferences and continuing to teach English learners online has helped me stay relevant in the industry. Positioning my product on Amazon has definitely helped my traffic and conversions.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As mentioned before, I currently use Amazon for my Phrase It brand. I use this because the conversion rates are very high. Each product description on Amazon is like a sales page rather than just a “product page.” It is uniquely designed to convert and if you follow the right steps like quality SEO, good images, and a good title, it helps.
I use Shopify, GSuite for documents and email, Manage By Stats (linked to Amazon as a CRM follow-up tool), and the Amazing Selling Machine to keep up on Amazon trends. I often refer back to the Amazing Selling Machine course to add new products or grow my business. I use Constant Contact for email marketing because they stay up-to-date on spam filters, have mobile-friendly templates (most people check email on smartphones), and they follow the most recent GDRP and CAN-SPAM policies. They also pick up the phone and actually help you with troubleshooting.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I love the Building a StoryBrand podcast because it helped me rethink how I communicate clearly with my niche audience. Even audiences who don’t know what I do can now know because I’m using some of the tips. The book, Building a StoryBrand, walks you through step-by-step instructions on how to quit losing money with the wrong marketing methods and get clear on what you do. For marketing advice, read Seth Godin’s This is Marketing and Purple Cow. Those 2 books offer powerful advice in a day of media clutter.
I do enjoy Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income podcast, Entreleadership, and The Small Business Storytellers. Together, each of these podcasts have valuable information from the start-up level all the way to the mid-size (or larger) businesses. I learned a lot about how to get better on YouTube from Pat Flynn’s interviews. Brian Buffini’s podcast was also influential for me in continuing to inspire the immigrants and English learners I have come in contact with. A favorite book of mine by Brian is The Emigrant Edge: How to Make It Big in America. Brian is in the Real Estate industry, but I find his principles carry over into other industries.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
5 Things You Need to Know When Growing Your Business
- Learn who your audience is and what their needs are, then serve them.
- Get on a budget or get someone you trust with numbers to get you on a budget.
- Manage your cost of goods and stay debt-free as much as possible.
- Don’t give up. If I would have quit when I lost $17,000, I wouldn’t have learned anything. It was a good educational moment. Failure does not define your business. How you respond to situations does define it.
- Get rich quick is a myth. Consistency and serving others are your allies.
© 2019 Alex Bricker
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Currently, we are not looking to hire. Follow us though as we may need the following positions in the future:
1.) Content writer (preferably past experience teaching English as a Second Language) and
2.) Social Media Marketer
If we have enough demand and capital to invest in hiring, those might be the first 2 positions we will want starting on a part-time basis.
If you are interested in volunteering on those levels in an unpaid volunteer position, let me know. Email [email protected].
Where can we go to learn more?
For more videos and updates, follow, like, and share:
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
Get our 5-minute email newsletter packed with business ideas and money-making opportunities, backed by real-life case studies.
- 4,818 founder case studies
- Access to our founder directory
- Live events, courses and recordings
- 8,628 business ideas
- $1M in software savings