Hello! My name is Paul Jansen, 38 years old, from the Netherlands, and I’m the founder of Graphue.
11 years ago I finished university and decided that I was not going to work for a boss. I had already dipped my toes in online business when I was 13 when I started an online dating platform. It was 1996 and to my knowledge, online dating didn’t exist back then in the Netherlands, so I convinced two friends with some developer skills to get in business with me. We started this online dating platform...which failed miserably.
Fast forward to 2010, when a friend told me about this wonderful concept called affiliate marketing. Since I can remember, I was looking for ways to make money the lazy way, and this concept of making money while not having to deal with inventory all blew my mind.
We went into business together and started an affiliate newspaper subscription website. Pretty soon I found out that we needed to drive traffic with SEO if we wanted to make passive income, so I devoured everything about SEO that I could get my hands on and optimized the website. The website did take off after a few months and was indeed very passive (SEO was quite easy back then!).
With enough time on my hands, I started to look for new business ideas and I discovered that you could buy online businesses from other people through a website called Flippa.com. I couldn’t believe the average multiple which was like 6-8 months profit at the time, but I wanted to see for myself and bought a small business for a few thousand dollars. The website earned back the investment in 3 months with a relatively small time investment, so this was working!
I bought some more businesses and since I’m never short on ideas, I also started new businesses from scratch. I was and still am terrible at anything technical, but luckily there was something called oDesk (now Upwork) to outsource every technical part of the business.
Fast forward again to 2021. I still run a portfolio company of perhaps 50 websites (I never count them so I’m not sure actually) in affiliate marketing, lead gen, digital products, content, and platforms with a team of around 45 FTE. The niches vary from legal to rehab to personal finance (I just acquired juststartinvesting) to graphic design and the business that I was asked to talk about is in the latter niche.
Tell us more about your portfolio of affiliate sites.
Sure, so after I started with that first affiliate site in 2010, I saw that you could run your typical affiliate site pretty hands-off. I always have ideas and can’t stop myself from starting new things (I’m now better at that haha), so for the first few years every quarter or so I either started a new project or bought a website.
From those 50 websites, there are only 20 that make at least a few hundred per month. Some of the remaining 30 are mainly just there to support the bigger projects, by driving traffic to the other sites for example. Or they are failed projects that I just can’t let go of.
It’s a lot of projects to manage but how I see it is that I’m more of a portfolio manager at an investment firm. I try to do as little ‘actual work’ as possible and put the right people in place.
The project that I’m probably most proud of is a Dutch rehab platform I run together with a partner - Afkickkliniekwijzer.nl. It’s not my biggest earner but we have helped a lot of people over the years and receive many responses from people who e-mail us saying our content helped them beat addiction or they found a rehab facility through us that saved their life.
Let’s talk about Graphue - your latest project - how did you come up with the idea?
A few years back I purchased flat-icons.com from Flippa. The business was pretty small at the time with one freelancer designer on board, but I loved the business model of productized designs.
We grew the business to around 30 FTE and one of the guys in the team suggested that we should expand into presentation templates, as he saw those selling well on platforms that we were selling our icons on.
We spun up a WordPress website and hired a small team of presentation designers and just got started. That’s how I build or buy most of my businesses actually: very intuitively. I feed my intuition by reading and researching a lot in general, but I usually don’t do deep research on a business idea if I feel that there’s an opportunity. Not saying that’s the right way though, it’s just how I do it.
Take us through the process of building the MVP.
To build the website, we first hired an agency for the design and when we were happy, we used two freelance developers to build the website; one who sliced the design and built the Wordpress backend and one specialist for Woocommerce. I think it cost us $10-12K to build everything. If I would just be starting, I would just use a good Wordpress theme. I wanted custom for this website, but it was a lot of hassle and I don’t see that much value over working with a good standard Wordpress theme.
Here are a few of the early sketches. We haven’t deviated much from the first designs:
For the initial batch of presentation templates, we hired a few specialists. One very experienced template designer managed a few more junior designers. The designers worked for about half a year to get us a nice amount of templates. Now we have two full-time template designers in-house who take care of new templates and we’re in the process of hiring the third one.
That’s how I build or buy most of my businesses actually: very intuitively. I feed my intuition by reading and researching a lot in general, but I usually don’t do deep research on a business idea if I feel that there’s an opportunity.
It’s not only designers you need. We also have people who take care of uploading the templates to the website and the various marketplaces we sell on. Then there are people doing topic research for new templates, writers for the texts on the templates and the product pages, and a lead designer who signs off on all templates. These people also work for the icon business, so we didn’t need to hire new people for Graphue.
Describe the process of launching the business.
When everything was ready, we created a lifetime deal and launched on Product Hunt. We got to #3 for the day, which was OK, and gave the first few thousand dollars in sales, customer feedback, and some strong backlinks that help with SEO.
If you want to stand a chance of getting to the top positions of the day on Product Hunt, you’ll need to mobilize friends, friends of friends, and existing customers to help you. Ask them to interact on your PH page. You can’t directly ask to upvote I believe (not sure what happens if the Product Hunt Police finds out though). This guide by Demand Curve is a great resource on launching on Product Hunt. It has everything you need to know. You’ll have to subscribe to the newsletter to read the second part, but it’s worth it.
As with all my other businesses, Graphue is financed out of the cash flow. I would only take outside investment when I need it and rather grow a bit slower. That’s more a personal preference; I always liked my independence and I feel that having investors would mean more responsibility. I already have a girlfriend and two kids, so that’s enough responsibility for me.
Since launch, what has worked to grow the business?
Most of my businesses drive almost completely on SEO, so one of the reasons to buy flat-icons.com was to diversify and not be completely at Google’s mercy. With Graphue, we’re doing the same and that’s selling our templates on design marketplaces like Creative Marketand GraphicRiver. You pay an absurd amount of commission (GraphicRiver takes a 55% cut!) but the marketing is pretty much done for you. Another marketplace that we’re using is the Appsumo Marketplace. We created a special lifetime deal for $49 that is selling quite well.
The templates are also sold on our website, but at the moment just a small part of the revenue comes from our website. We do some SEO work in the background, but it’s not a focus for this business. When the domain is aged a little bit more, we’ll start pushing SEO a bit more and try to get strong backlinks and have a content strategy, but in the meantime, we’ll focus on the marketplaces.
The strategy for the marketplaces is to be ‘everywhere’. The nice thing about these templates is that they keep on selling and it’s fairly passive; Icon sets that we’ve created 5 years ago are still getting sales to this day.
The good thing about Graphue is that we can build on the knowledge of Flat-icons. We know what’s working for us and what isn’t. Because the products are so similar, we can apply the knowledge almost one-on-one. The price point of both the icon sets and presentation templates is fairly low and up-selling is not easy, so it’s hard to get paid traffic working. Same for email marketing; customers are looking for that specific template at that moment and getting repeat purchases is just very tough.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
This is a nice little niche business, and I see it more as a division of the design business. There is room for growth, especially in sales on our website. At the moment it’s just a few hundred dollars per month, but if we start ramping up content and links we should be able to turn that into a considerable monthly amount.
Trustworthy people don’t need to say they are, they just are.
Looking at the income from the marketplaces, it’s hard to give exact numbers because there’s a lot of overlap with our other design sales. We have some stores where we sell icons, 3D illustrations, motion graphics, and more together with the presentations, and it’s just too much hassle to break down the income exactly. Roughly, we’re at $8K per month and the profit depends on how you see the costs of the templates are these an investment or costs of goods sold? I could make a good argument for taking the entire salary of a designer as an investment because we can sell the templates over and over, but I’d say it’s fair to take most costs as a part investment, part costs of goods. We’re profitable either way.
The plan is to produce more templates and innovate within the products. We are doing 3D animations for example, and we’re looking to build presentation templates with the 3D animations built into the presentations.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
For the last 10 years, we developed many new websites and still we’re making loads of mistakes. You would think that after developing so many Wordpress websites, setting up a new one would be a breeze, but for whatever reason, every new project has its challenges.
I think for the next project, we won’t be doing fully custom again. You give up some advantages by using a Wordpress template, but IMO it’s not always worth all the trouble to build something fully custom. If it’s your one business, then yes, custom might be the best option. But if you have so many sites as we do, it’s better to standardize. That’s also the reason why most of our websites are on Wordpress. I hear all the time ‘you should use this fancy new site builder or this no-code tool bla bla bla’ but just going with something that you know is often the best option. Don’t forget that your people also need to learn new systems when you switch to something else. We have beautiful SOP’s on Wordpress, but if we change to Webflow for example, everyone needs to get used to Webflow and there is always a learning curve for everyone involved.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I personally like to keep it simple and go easy on the fancy tools. In the design business, we use:
That last one was not my decision, but the team wanted to switch from Trello, so I reluctantly agreed. If it would just be me, I’m perfectly fine with Trello and its simplicity, but the Operations Manager wanted to switch and she gave good reasons and I think that as a business owner, you need to empower people and let them make decisions.
For my other businesses, I do use some more tools. I love to go on Appsumo and buy lifetime deals. Most of them we hardly use, but there are ones that stick. A few that we’ve been using for quite some time are Missinglettr for social media scheduling, Yodel for our call center and Snagit for screenshotting.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I never got why everyone was listening to podcasts, but since I discovered My First Million with Sam Parr and Shaan Puri, I’m hooked! I listen to it whenever I can and through this podcast, I also discovered ‘How to take over the world’. They describe the pod themselves as: “HTTOTW tells the stories and analyzes the lives of the greatest men and women to ever live. By examining their strategies, tactics, mindset, and work habits, How to Take Over the World helps you understand the great ones so that you can follow in their footsteps.” Nothing to add there.
I just read what is now one of my favorite books: The Almanack of Naval Ravikant. You can download it for free - just google it - and it’s a fantastic read with not only useful business tips but also on how to live your life.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If you are just starting, it’s super important to be curious and try to learn as much as you can. Some people are more ‘do-ers’, but in general, I see that the most successful people are hungry for learning. When you like what you do, it shouldn’t be an effort to consume content. Pick the right sources to learn from. Most candidates that I interview for an SEO position, for example, get their SEO knowledge from generic blogs. Dig deep and see who are the true experts in your field.
Pick the people you work with very carefully. If you are starting a business with a partner, two things are key: a similar ambition level and complementary skills. Another note on working with the right people: I’ve been screwed over a few times during my career and it has always been by people who are very materialistic, dress impeccably, and dream of driving Lamborghinis. Oh, and never trust someone who says he’s trustworthy. Trustworthy people don’t need to say they are, they just are.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I’m always looking for talented people! Full-time, part-time, junior, or senior, as long as you are a curious individual and a nice person to work with, there might be a match. Here are a few positions I’m currently looking to fill:
Right-hand / COO. I don’t think I’m particularly good at day-to-day operations, so I’m looking for someone who can help me on the operational front. Contact me when you are an 80/20 thinker and a true operator. Needs to have SEO skills due to the nature of the business. I will teach you everything that I know so that in a few years you can either run your own business or become a partner of mine
Marketing hacker and SEO specialist. This is a fantastic position in which you can learn things you won’t learn anywhere else. You’ll learn tricks like how to game certain online marketplaces and how to (legally) steal audiences from competitors. The person I’m looking for is all-around smart, technically savvy, and a little bit pigheaded (not too much though
Designers - 3D, animations, icons, presentations
Heads up, I’m usually hiring from lower-wage countries or digital nomads. Get in touch at [email protected] if you are interested in any of the above positions and I’ll tell you more about it.
Where can we go to learn more?
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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