Today I’m excited to introduce you to Michael Epstein, a 35 year old millionaire who achieved that status at just 30. As you know, I love sitting down and talking to awesome and successful people, and Michael is definitely one of those individuals! The purpose of these interviews is to educate and inform, and of course, entertain. I want to show you that you can really be successful at a young age if you put your mind to it, and every millionaire I’ve interviewed shows this is possible
Today, Michael is no exception. He founded his first business in college with just $500, and then generated over $1,000,000 in sales his first year – yes, really! I’m really excited because Michael has always been a side hustler like me, and he was able to turn his hustle into something amazing. You can currently find him at GetOnlineWithMe.com.
Let’s get to know more about Michael and his story…
1. Tell me about yourself and what you stand for?
I’ve always been an entrepreneur and enjoyed working. I was always starting businesses since I was a kid. I would identify a market need, then start a business to fill it, even if I didn’t have previous experience in the industry.
For example, in high school I started a successful mobile car detailing business as a summer job to cater to affluent individuals in our town, even though I didn’t even consider myself a car enthusiast. I started my previous company, a manufacturer of video gaming accessories and operator of a number of e-commerce sites, 14 years ago while still in college and also working nearly full-time for a retail consulting company.
I wasn’t a “gamer,” but identified an opportunity in the market and just recently lead that company to a successful acquisition. I’m an entrepreneur at heart and now enjoy helping other businesses achieve their online goals. I look for opportunities to work with other entrepreneurs with the vision, resources and commitment to execute at a high level, and who value high standards and a great team.
2. What was it like to start a company while still in college?
I was not only in college at the time, but working nearly full-time at a consulting firm, managing their technical infrastructure and online strategy. I would be calling customers or associates on the walk to my next class, checking emails for my business while at my job, sneaking into the break room to make a call if something important came up, packing shipping boxes in my college apartment, or just whatever had to be done. But it helped me with time management and forced me to utilize my time efficiently.
3. How did you ever manage to grow a business so quickly in the first year?
We had to be creative with marketing, figure out how to utilize our limited resources optimally, and just hustle. We had no brand and no traffic.
So I focused initially on creating an in-house affiliate program in the very early days of affiliate marketing and then spent countless hours identifying and personally reaching out to various sites relevant to our industry to recruit them to our program. This was also before programs like Google Adsense made it easy to integrate advertising into your website, so a number of webmasters were receptive to the idea, especially when I offered to send out free products for them to post a review on their site. This allowed us to get exposure on lots of sites without putting up any money up front, which is hugely beneficial to the cash flow in a start-up. Only when we generated revenue through the affiliate did we have to pay anything out.
Once we got a site or two within a specific niche, I leveraged that to go recruit others within that niche. Then once we were popular within that niche, I’d go after similar niches and continue to expand. I then leveraged the growing collection of positive press on these niche sites to pitch our products to larger print and online publications. For resources, we brought in high school kids to help with our fulfillment operation after school and college interns to help with some marketing tasks in exchange for college credit.
4. What was the biggest risk you ever took? Do you regret it?
One area that I feel I excel at is managing risk. I’d consider myself a relatively conservative entrepreneur, because I don’t “bet the farm.” I generally never wanted to invest in something that I think had the ability to take down our entire company if it didn’t go according to plan.
From acquiring businesses to starting a new ad campaign, I look at how to structure a deal or break down a new initiative into smaller, measurable pieces so that we can start to gauge the performance at a fairly early stage and with minimal downside risk. Taking risks is, of course, part of business and critical to the continued success of a business. It would have been great to have many of the decisions I made end up turning out better. For example, not every product we created was a winner, but we had wholesale partners who we knew could help us liquidate these products and at least break even. I do not regret having made these decisions as long as I relied on the best possible information available to me at the time.
I would have much more regret had I not taken any risks. (<- Click to Tweet)
5. What about a failure – tell us about a time you failed at something.
This may sound cliche, but I consider all negative experiences to be important learning experiences.
Have I not closed deals? Made a bad choice in an advertising campaign? Hired the wrong person for a position? Absolutely, and countless more decisions that ultimately proved incorrect in hindsight.
But to me, real failure would have been making a bad decision that caused the company to go under, and thankfully, we were never in that position. To my point about not having regrets, I actually have a genuine appreciation for “failure” because it makes me more confident the next time about which direction to take or not to take.
6. If you could make one change, what would it be?
As I mentioned, I don’t really think about regrets or changes. Things are how they are, and I focus on how to make the best of my current situation and the future.
7. When you made your first million, do you think it changed you?
As a person, definitely not. I think time and experience has given me a maturity and perspective that changed me far more than whatever amount of money I have in the bank.
As an entrepreneur, in some ways it relieved a little pressure worrying about whether the doors could get shut on us tomorrow, but in many ways, it actually increased the pressure to continue performing successfully. I had proven to myself that I’m capable so I set my own personal bar higher, and I also had more people relying on me at that point (business partners, employees, family, etc.) so I felt a bigger obligation to them.
7. Being younger, how are you currently managing your money (investments, professional help, etc.)?
I have a wealth management firm that helps me with my investments, but also have made a number of real estate investments on my own. They can offer good cash flow opportunities and diversification if you’re heavily invested in financial products, but also typically take a lot more work. That’s been a learning experience, like starting any new venture. I also set a small amount of assets aside to make some random investments in individual stocks or other things that may interest me personally.
8. Entrepreneurship or college for today’s high school grads? Which do you think is more important?
I think it really depends on the circumstances. Certainly you have entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg who had an idea that couldn’t wait. Obviously no one is questioning whether dropping out of college was a good choice for him.
Real world experience is tremendously valuable, but what I felt I gained most from my college experience was an understanding of problem solving on my own, both academically and personally. I do think this helped prepare me for what was ahead.
Is taking a marketing class required to successfully market a business? No. Can it be helpful? Probably. But I think the question is whether you really have the burning idea along with a strong understanding of your market which creates a business opportunity that simply can’t wait (or can’t be done simultaneously while in college, which is what I did.)
9. What advice do you have for young adults when it comes to money and entrepreneurship?
It’s a great time to become an entrepreneur when you’re young. You generally have far fewer expenses, obligations and responsibilities, particularly when it comes to your family. The risk of starting a business starts to look a lot different once you have a mortgage and family that you’re responsible for – not to mention perhaps a standard of living that you’re already accustomed to.
However, it’s worth noting that while technology has made it inexpensive to start many types of businesses, it is naive to think that all it takes is a great idea to become a success. While the news tends to aggrandize and glorify the companies with a handful of people and a few months of work getting acquired for millions of dollars, this is not realistic. You don’t hear much about the failures, which are far greater in number. There are countless products and services all competing for attention, so the days of “if you build it, they will come” are long gone. Expect it to take far more time and likely more money (especially when time is money) than you could possibly anticipate and even an incredible idea still takes exceptional execution to create a successful company.
What I Learned From Michael Epstein
What an amazing story with so many great insights and pieces of advice. A few key things stand out to me that I will definitely be taking away and sharing with others.
First, I’m glad to hear Michael talk about failure and how many ideas don’t become a success. I personally am a big believer that people can earn more, and that you CAN start a business relatively easily. But I sometimes forget about the failure part. Failure is important, and nothing lasts forever. I also agree that it always takes more time that you expect – it took 2 years before I saw a decent number of readers on this site.
I also love Michael’s hustle. Man, to be working for one company, going to college, and starting a business – that’s insane. But it shows that if you really want it, you can make it happen!
Thanks for sharing your story Michael.
What do you think of Michael’s story? Can you imagine that level of hustle?
Robert Farrington is America’s Millennial Money Expert® and America’s Student Loan Debt Expert™, and the founder of The College Investor, a personal finance site dedicated to helping millennials escape student loan debt to start investing and building wealth for the future. You can learn more about him here and here.
He regularly writes about investing, student loan debt, and general personal finance topics geared towards anyone wanting to earn more, get out of debt, and start building wealth for the future.
He has been quoted in major publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox, ABC, NBC, and more. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes.