We Grew Our Authentication Tool To $200K/Year With Zero Marketing Spend
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Heya, I’m Ch Daniel and along with my brother Ch David, we’re running Legit Check By Ch and Simple.ink, a Notion Website Builder. But today we’ll be talking about the former.
To put it simply: we’re an authentication company for luxury items — we help people tell between fake and real items. Think clothing, sneakers, bags, watches, etc. We live in an 80/20 world, so I’ll skip over the long tail of side-products we have and tell you about where the bulk of our money comes from:
- People upload pictures upon checkout -> we come back with a verdict (e.g. “this item is fake, and here’s why”
- We help people get their money back from scams — got back as much as $5,000+
In terms of why you should read my story, or what I’ve got to share with you: we’ve almost reached 10,000,000 users, about 300,000 to 400,000 new users every month, and have 25,000+ paying customers.
But everything I said is complicated. Let me simplify. We turn messages into $200,000+ per year (with 95%+ profit margins):
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
To put it very bluntly, we didn’t set out to build a business.
We just “woke up” one day with one. Let me explain.
Back in 2017 (I was 19), I started learning how to code an app. I quickly found out I hate coding myself, but somehow managed to finish and publish the app. It was an authentication app, where I wrote a couple of guides on how to spot fake items.
In my head, this was all just a side-project, but it was very nicely received on Reddit and Facebook Groups — it even spread through word of mouth, which in hindsight was a nice signal. But I was blind, in all honesty.
I got into a cycle where: I would check analytics -> See a major milestone (e.g. 5k users) -> Celebrate for a few minutes -> Get back to what I was doing, which was freelance graphic design.
It never occurred to me that this would be a business. I’ve done that a few times: 10k users, 50k users, 100k users, etc. At about 300k-350k users (this is April 2019), I was getting 3 to 10 emails a day from people asking me to authenticate their items. I helped them.
But it was too much to handle. So that’s when:
- My younger brother, David, joins — he was only 15 but he had the vision that the company needed
- This side-product became a business
- We started charging for authentications, instead of helping people for free (and missing some messages here and there - oops)
- This became an AHA moment that this is… in fact, a business? We weren’t sure, but we just did what the people needed for now.
Take us through the process of designing and prototyping your first product.
We still didn’t know how to code, so other than paying for hosting, we didn’t want to spend too much on a side-project that the market was pulling out of our hands. Limited thinking, I admit. But what do you expect out of two youngsters (15 and 21 at the time)?
What was our only option then? No-code.
So we wanted to be scrappy - there’s no doubt about that. The aim was very straightforward: people need to upload pictures when they check out -> we’ll be back with a message. Fingers crossed that they will, as we wanted to set the highest prices on the market.
And so we did (the initial prototype took about a week to build, using as many out-of-the-box solutions as we could — scrappy, as I said), and then our first users came… on the same day. That was expected though, given the traffic we’ve had. The unknown wasn’t related to “how are we going to get our users”. It was more about “who the hell needs this — and more importantly, how do they need it?”. And the rest is… not history, but rather a “stream”. It’s like a river: people use the service, they give you their feedback, you improve, rinse and repeat. But you don’t plan for it, that’s why it’s a stream: it just flows. No need to “think” as in “anticipate”. It just happens and you’re part of it.
Why set the highest prices on the market though? I thought I wouldn’t want us to spend 8h/day writing messages, so we might as well have low-volume but high prices to make up for that. Besides, the thinking was: we’ll pour the money back into writing guides, as that’s where this traffic was coming from. It seemed like a fair loop and, fingers crossed it’ll be right.
If you’re scared of launches, just do your thing and launch it. Startups are never “done”, unlike albums, paintings, etc. Or iPhone launches. Yes, Steve Jobs did it, but you’re not launching hardware probably. And those are different times.
In terms of building, we’ve used Webflow, WordPress, and a tool called Udesly to link the two. On top of that, we’ve stacked WooCommerce with a bunch of plugins that were, to say the least, not optimized. It was SUCH a horrible experience but it sometimes worked.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The experience we thought of was this:
People chose their service (e.g. a Nike authentication service OR a Gucci authentication service — it didn’t make any difference if I’m being honest, but people wanted to know we do authenticate Gucci), then they paid, then we came back with a verdict. That was the system we thought of.
To build it, the plan was to do it as scrappily as possible: I used whatever could get us a shop-looking-like website, which was Big Cartel. They even had a freemium plan, so… there wasn’t any need for any specific amount of money, besides perhaps website hosting? And of course the payment processor fees, but that doesn’t require any investment - they just get a commission.
In other words, the costs to build this were negligible, since we were paying for hosting anyway. We paid with our time, of course, but that was it. It took me years to realize the luxury behind this situation, so this isn’t to brag, but what I’m saying is: that it doesn’t have to be this scrappy — we might’ve had this whole business slip through our fingers because of our scrappiness.
Building, then, meant connecting the new eCommerce store (for the digital service) to the already-existing website.
So we built it, put it out, and launched quietly (we only had SEO traffic, so no need for a big ceremony - more on SEO in a bit).
I’ll be honest, I still don’t know or care about big ceremonial launches. Probably the experience of Legit Check spoiled us, but in our next company Simple.ink, we only tweeted a bit and that was it.
My bite-sized piece of advice: if you’re scared of launches, just do your thing and launch it. Startups are never “done”, unlike albums, paintings, etc. Or iPhone launches. Yes, Steve Jobs did it, but… you’re not launching hardware probably. And those are different times.
Earlier I promised I’d come back to the SEO part. I’ve written the whole story of launching the business in the past, but the short of it is that we:
- What we got lucky with: we’ve hit an SEO goldmine: something that was under-served and that was getting more and more demanded
- What we’ve done with that luck: we’ve squeezed every last bit of our luck, learned SEO, learned why it was that we’ve reached high positions, and ever since then have done everything we could to solidify our positions.
- Luck can be transferred: see the Mcdonalds' story. If we wouldn’t squeeze our luck, someone else could’ve done it for us. Getting lucky is half the job (or maybe less). Squeezing out your luck is the rest.
- Makes you think: how many times is it that you are getting lucky, but you’re not squeezing it out?
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Ever since we launched, we did what we initially planned: poured back the money we made into making the guides better. Today, David forefronted the effort of building the world’s largest Library of Authentication Guides, with 1,000,000+ words published.
Those are 1,000+ items covered in authentication guides - all for free. Remember the traffic figures I mentioned above? Those are coming from these guides.
In terms of revenue, we’ve changed our Stripe account a few months ago, but you can do the math on the following $133.4k made in 7 months.
What works these days?
More of the same: more SEO, more link building, more article-writing, etc.
Our biggest takeaways:
- Whether consciously or unconsciously, I stick by my words all the time on my Twitter account — build distribution before you build product:
- Build-in public: embed:tweet. It’s better to do it later rather than never as I did. But it’s even better to do it sooner
Retention is an important part of building a healthy, sustainable business. I don’t have anything too valuable to share here, so I won’t take any of your time with stuff where I can’t excel in terms of the value I can bring you. We’re a digital service, so it all boils down to 5/5 stars, 101% commitment to customer support. That’s pretty much it!
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Let’s see. We’ve been profitable since day 1 of launching the business — again because we’ve built distribution before we’ve built the product.
Margins used to be 98%+, simply because, at the end of the day, we were being paid for a message or two. In the meantime, we’ve started investing our revenue into either the company or, other companies!
That could mean two things (and it means both):
90% of our traffic comes from SEO, and the other notable (if you can call it that, next to 90%) channel is word of mouth, as we’ve got a weak (but existing!) viral loop: buyers and sellers share our guides when discussing a purchase.
We don’t spend any money on ads or direct marketing, so boring answer there: $0.
We do have some social following, but we’re not focusing on those. Rather, we’re doubling down harder on SEO (and that doesn’t mean just Google).
Customer acquisition cost is mostly 0 because of focusing fully on organic, and speaking of those, I’ll re-share the numbers:
- 10,000,000 users
- About 300,000 to 400,000 new users every month
- 25,000+ paying customers
And that’s pretty much all the metrics we follow. I would personally look at more metrics if I knew what I could do with them. I don’t, since that’s not our focus for now!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
We probably missed not only a few months of growth - probably a few years. But hindsight is 20/20. What I’m doing differently now is I’d dream bigger from the beginning.
Once again, I’d build distribution before building the product. With Simple.ink, we’ve done just that — in the months following up to our launch (meaning: as we were building it technically), we were “planting the seeds”. That’s what I can recommend to anyone.
I noticed that some efforts (SEO, brand building, viral growth, etc) need to be looked at like a farmer, not like a hunter. When you’re a farmer, you plant some seeds. And then you wait.
You might have some more pieces of land where you plant stuff, and you gotta make sure they don’t all need attention at the same time (unless you can handle it!). But you can handle them in this system.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Today, it’s still WordPress that powers our blog.
We’ve taken the money we’ve made from the business and poured it into building custom systems that allow doing a better job. But no code got us there. It is possible!!
Basecamp is at the center of our business, and that prevents us from software bloat: no need for Slack/Discord + Asana + Trello +, etc. We’re pretty much revolving around Basecamp as we wanted to minimize tab-switching fatigue.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Personally, The Power of Now. Business-wise? Same book.
My favorite podcast, although possibly not always 100% helpful due to the story-telling (but at least entertaining if not helpful!) is How I Built This with Guy Raz. See us there sometime in the future, fingers crossed!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The whole article is sprinkled with my lessons and teachings — or at least the best I could find.
But here’s my catch: don’t listen to any advice. Not even mine. It sucks.
Yeah, sure, it might be good. But it probably sucks. Why? Because it doesn’t apply to you? The world isn’t black or white. Maybe you need more black and my advice gives you more white. Who knows?
Use any advice as a pointer, if you feel like it helps:
- You’ll either be right and it helped
- You’ll be wrong, but you’ll at least train your feeling for what advice to use
Win-win regardless. But it won’t feel like that. It’ll sting. But it’s better than thinking there’s “salvation” in finding “the right advice”. Screw advise. Learn from nature - from what people are doing.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
If you’re an excellent builder (and have a got a tiny bit of business sense, or a bit more), hit me up anytime.
I have the resources: I might invest, I might join/partner up, I might advise.
I don’t structure any of my businesses so that they take up all my time (or so that they need me in 100%) — just so I can be ready for Lady Luck when they swing by. Maybe you’ll bring Lady Luck? Message me.
Twitter probably works best - don’t be shy. I don’t care about how many followers you have or how fancy your profile is. All that matters is that I get what can come out of your hands.
Where can we go to learn more?
Oh for sure visit our Notion Website Builder and Simple Notion Forms.
It’s why we’re here to share the story of Legit Check By Ch: to shape the next things we’re building with the revenue LCBC is making! Truly hoping to come for a part 2 on StarerStory and share with you lovely readers how the thread continues from LCBC to Simple.ink.
Besides, follow David and myself Daniel on Twitter, as that’s our central place.
If you’re an entrepreneur or an aspiring one, check out The Usual SaaSpects, my podcast (where Pat Walls’ episode should already be live!).
And join my community, Reddit SaaS, if you’re into software-as-a-service businesses!
If you’ve gotten to the bottom of this article: THANK YOU! And have a lovely day wherever you are.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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