I absolutely love when people stumble upon great business ideas, simply because they’re looking to solve their own problem (recall the interview I had with Steve Chou and his wife’s handkerchief business).
Brian Kaldenberg found himself in a similar situation. His wife needed a proofreader for her thesis (she was completing a master’s degree), and while there were plenty of people who offered proofreading services (they hired someone on oDesk), he realized that there wasn’t one that was ideal. Recognizing this gap in the proofreading services industry, he created the solution himself – Proofreading Pal.
As you’ll see in the interview, this wasn’t his first internet business (he discusses the first one he created), so he did have some good experience he could leverage when he brought Proofreading Pal to market. We also discuss some of his greatest challenges with the business, as well as his most effective marketing strategy.
Check out the interview and see for yourself.
Brian, it sounds like you’ve built up a great website and company at ProofreadingPal. Expert proofreading is definitely a service that people need online, so I can see why this business has been a success. Tell us a little bit about your background and journey. What was your experience prior to starting ProofreadingPal? What gave you the idea to start ProofreadingPal (and how did it all begin)?
I started my first business, www.gamerosters.com, back in 2004 as a junior at Iowa State University. GameRosters sold a niche roster file associated with the video game NCAA Football, which is made by a video game developer, EA Sports. I had learned a bit about Yahoo search advertising during a marketing internship with a company in Ames, Iowa called Demonstratives, Inc. This was before Google had really launched their own search advertising platform. I had also learned a little bit about website development in my early college years as I built several small websites for myself and a few small companies.
I launched GameRosters in March of 2004; I built the website myself, and I started advertising online via Google and Yahoo. I also immediately started working on our search engine advertising, and we collected e-mail addresses from all of our customers from the get go. Needless to say, the business really took off from there.
I graduated from college in December of 2005 in just 3.5 years, and I was fortunate enough to develop GameRosters in the first year to the point where I didn’t have to find a job out of college. I just did GameRosters.com full-time, I was making more than I ever could have with my marketing degree, and I was making this amount of money after only about four months of really hard work.
GameRosters.com was a very seasonal product, with close to 85% of the sales coming in the months of June through September, so I was able to start a website design and internet marketing company on the side, and I helped other small businesses with their online efforts. I did really well in my mid-twenties. Within about four or five years, I had grown GameRosters to just over $200,000 in annual sales, but I knew that GameRosters.com had reached a plateau. The new PS3 and Xbox 360 systems allowed files to be shared over the Internet more easily than ever before. One person could buy our product, and then he or she could share it with all of his or her friends.
I also knew that I didn’t want to design websites for the rest of my life. I had learned an awful lot about running an online business and customer service since I’d launched GameRosters.com, and I had also learned a lot from helping other individuals with their online advertising, SEO, and e-mail campaigns. So in 2008, GameRosters.com was still doing really well (it still does decently well to this day), but I started to think of other ideas for businesses.
I was looking for a business for which it made sense to sell and advertise the product or service online. I was also looking for a business that had much more demand and less seasonality than GameRosters.com. It really didn’t take too long for the idea to come to me.
My girlfriend and I (she’s now my wife) were living in St. Louis at the time. She was doing Teach for America, and they were paying for her to get her master’s degree. She had just finished her thesis, and she wanted to have a proofreader look over it for her. I had been outsourcing web development to oDesk at the time, and I went onto oDesk to see if I could find a proofreader. We found one down in Tennessee who proofread her thesis for about $150. That’s how the idea came to me. I thought that there had to be a huge demand for proofreading services.
I did some research, and I found several online proofreading companies who were already posting decent annual sales. I hired a consultant to help me speed up my learning curve on the industry, and I hired a web developer to build the website. ProofreadingPal was officially born, but the idea would sit for about another two years, as I decided the venture would need more money to attack the market in the fashion I wanted to attack it. I found an investor in March of 2010, and we started advertising in early May of 2010.The website was officially launched that month.
What has been your greatest success (or successes) so far with ProofreadingPal?
I’m most pleased with the fact that in just four years, we’ve built and differentiated ProofreadingPal to an extremely competitive level. Few can compete with our ability to offer as fast as 90-minute or 3-hour turnaround, and our ability to accept those projects 24/7.
Few can compete with the fact that we offer live customer service every single day of the year from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. CST. Few can compete with the fact that we provide both proofreading and editing as a combined service, and the fact we use two proofreaders on every document instead of just one.
I’m sure that growing a site as large as you’ve grown ProofreadingPal didn’t come without its share of challenges – what do you consider to be the biggest obstacle you faced along the way, and how did you move past it?
I would say the biggest challenge was being able to pass off duties and responsibilities to employees. I had never really had full-time employees up until year two of ProofreadingPal. That was a big challenge to start to think of the business in a way in which I was not performing all of the tasks.
I’ve never been a proofreader, but in the early days, I was handling every business task outside of proofreading. It was difficult to decide what and how to delegate, and it was even more difficult to tackle employee turnover, because new people had to be trained all over again. Fortunately, someone told me that I should read the book The E Myth, by Michael Gerber, and that really started to change my thinking. We started to build an employee manual that documented our internal processes and procedures, and this really helped me transition into new areas of the business, and it really helped reduce the learning curve for new hires.
Tell us a little bit about the site’s marketing strategy – what’s your primary source of traffic and customer acquisition? Do you have any tips when it comes to building traffic for a site that sells a service online?
Search advertising continues to be our primary customer acquisition source, with organic search being our second-biggest source. We’re well-rounded though. We do Facebook advertising. We stay active on Twitter and Facebook too.
I like to approach our traffic as if I’m building a diversified portfolio. We’re still a bit too reliant on search, but we’re working hard to find new sources of traffic. We’re starting to see more word of mouth business coming through the door now too. I don’t have any secrets for building traffic to a site. You need to advertise, and you need to work on your organic results. Everything takes money in one form or another, so be prepared to spend money if you’re looking to build traffic.
For someone who is just starting out creating a blog or business, what advice would you offer? In other words, what do you wish someone told you about when you first started?
When you start an internet business, you’re competing against the entire world. In my opinion, the risk/reward is much greater than if you’re starting a business that is only going to serve a local market or region.
If you’re just starting out, you’d better be prepared to work very hard, and you’d better be prepared to differentiate your product or service in at least two to three key areas from your competitors. No one told me this, I just did it.
If there’s one thing that I wish someone had told me when I first started, it would have been to document everything I was doing. I wish I had started creating our employee manual from the very beginning.
Let’s take a look more generally at starting a business: If you had to take your best advice or inspirational thought and put it into one sentence or phrase, what would that be?
Work hard, differentiate, focus on customer satisfaction, advertise, and good things will happen. [Click here to tweet this]
What are your favorite online resources?
I’d say Google Analytics is my favorite online resource.
Finally, where can people find you online?
ProofreadingPal accepts and proofreads documents from students, authors, and businesses 24/7. Save 10% with coupon code: dailyinterview
Thanks for tell us about your business, Brian!
What are your thoughts on this interview? Leave a comment below!
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