The easiest way for Creators to make money online

Good morning! This is The Zero to One. 馃殌

Welcome to my first newsletter. Let鈥檚 set the playing field:

  • Purpose: Equip you with actionable tactics, tools, and resources to turn your idea into a business (from Zero to One 馃槈).

  • How: By reverse engineering leading startups. Giving you the key insights to replicate their growth - and saving you 25+ hours of research.

  • Frequency: Twice a week.

    • Tuesdays: Tools, resources, and interesting lessons from those who鈥檝e done it for you to take advantage of.

    • Thursdays: Deep dives of leading high-growth startups.

I鈥檓 looking forward to taking this journey and learning with you!

Here鈥檚 what鈥檚 in store for you today:

  • Stan deep-dive: How this all-in-one creator store, on a mission to help creators make a living for themselves online, went from $0 to $15M in just three years.

  • News bites: What鈥檚 happening in the startup world.

Stan: $0 to $15M helping Creators make money

What do you get when a former Goldman Sachs banker and Stanford dropout meets an ex-Big Tech coding genius?

A startup that enables creators to work for themselves by making a living online.

Naturally.

The founders of Stan, John Hu and Vitalii Dodonov, are on a mission to help anyone be able to work for themselves and pursue their passions as a creator.

In just three years, Stan went from idea, to $5.0M in seed funding, to 30k+ customers and $14.7M in ARR.

And the Stan team doesn鈥檛 intend to stop here. They plan on being the next billion dollar company shaping the Creator Economy.

This is the story of how Stan went from Zero to One. 馃殌

Business model: How Stan makes money

Stan鈥檚 business model is simple. They take all of this:

And for one monthly fee, combine it into an all-in-one creator store, hosted through your link in bio.

Making it the easiest way for creators to make a living online.

Stan鈥檚 growth

John first started with the idea of building a creator business through his TikTok. Where he conducted a ton of market research, validated different ideas, spoke to his future customers. This is how Stan found its first customers:

Stan officially launched in May 2021 and by the end of 2022 was doing over $1M in ARR.

Using this foundation, Stan consistently tested (and continues to test) different growth strategies. When they found one that worked profitably, they scaled it. Double down on what works.

This is when Stan鈥檚 revenue exploded from $1.7M ARR in Jan 2023, to $14.7M in ARR by the end of the year. An 8.5x growth!

To date, Stan has helped over 30k creators make a total of $15M+.

Key Success Factors (KSFs)

There have been plenty of success factors to Stan鈥檚 growth. Here are the 4 (plus a bonus) that stood out most to me:

馃弰 1. Leveraging Personal Brand: Founder John Hu used his background at Goldman Sachs and at Stanford to grow a following on TikTok, raise VC money, and hire a superstar team.

馃摴 2. Building in Public: Stan builds trust with customers by opening the process of building Stan; showing us the ups, the downs, the day-to-day, and what is typically unavailable information such as their financials.

馃摙 3. Empowering the Stan Team: John and Vitalii understand that building a billion dollar business is a team sport. And that their main job is to empower and enable their team. Stan gives its employees autonomy, ownership, and trust to drive their work and build the best product possible.

馃帠锔 4. Putting the Customer First: Stan is solving a problem that its founder John was facing as a content creator. This allows Stan to deeply understand their customers and serve their needs. Putting the customer in the driving seat for the product.

馃弳 Bonus. Persisting: If there鈥檚 one thing I鈥檝e learned about John over these 25+ hours researching him and Stan, it鈥檚 that he lives by what he says, and at the core of this is his 鈥渘ever, ever, ever give up鈥 approach to building Stan.

馃弰 1. Leveraging Personal Brand

Before launching Stan, John was pretty much the poster-child for parents around the globe. UNC -> Goldman Sachs -> VC -> Stanford (P.s. please don鈥檛 tell my mom this).

John understood this. He knew he had credibility and that he could help others get where he had been. He used this to grow his initial following on TikTok.

Other than to help others, he started creating content to understand what it was like for a creator to make a living online as well as build more authority to help him build a business in the creator economy.

He posted his first TikTok in October 2020. 7 months before Stan publicly launched.

But social media isn鈥檛 the only place where John leveraged his credibility. He also used it in attracting new hires to Stan.

Hiring for an early stage startup can be challenging. You have to convince top talent to leave stable, high-paying jobs to come and work with you and your (largely) unproven business.

However, John鈥檚 background and personal brand proved to be critical in building out the Stan team. With Stan鈥檚 first hire saying John鈥檚 background in finance at Goldman Sachs and in VC was a key reason for her joining.

Raising money at the early stages of a startup relies a lot on why a VC should invest in you. Not just your idea. Having worked in VC, John understood that and positioned himself as a proven creator, his own customer, on top of being ex-Goldman, ex-VC, and a Stanford MBA.

John continued to leverage his credibility. Successfully raising $5M for Stan at a $25M valuation.

馃摴 2. Building in Public

I first came across Stan through one of John鈥檚 Youtube videos on building his startup into a billion dollar business. I was instantly intrigued.

And he delivered. The video was value-packed, authentic, open, entertaining, and inspirational.

It was one of the best company YouTube videos, if you can call it that, I had seen. And I have watched a LOT of YouTube.

John came across as this likeable guy with a great idea. And after one video, I wanted to see him win. As I imagine many others did.

But not only was he using content to build a community behind him. He was reaching his customers where they hang out. On YouTube and TikTok.

With every video Stan and John build more trust. He does this through showing Stan鈥檚 financials, critiquing his mistakes, opening up about his own struggles with mental health, and showing Stan鈥檚 credibility.

One example is when John does a Shark Tank style pitch to massive content creators (including Karl Jacobs and ZHC). Every single one of them said they loved the ideaand would invest - some even taking his phone number down.

As a smaller creator this is a huge signal that Stan is legit.

Most importantly though, in every video, John gives a ton of value. Sometimes it鈥檚 learnings on how to build a company, get into Stanford, or grow a TikTok account. Other times it鈥檚 inspiration. And sometimes his videos are just entertaining (and a little bit cringe, but in a good way 馃ぃ ).

馃摙 3. Empowering the Stan Team

Stan is a team effort. You can鈥檛 build a billion dollar business with two people.

Vitalii and John understand that they need to be leaders. Not just doers.

So they prioritize hiring and empowering awesome people. Giving their team autonomy and trust, while creating a culture for them to thrive in. This is how you get the best out of your team. And ultimately build the best product.

Take Collab Fest. An event to celebrate creators that the Stan team (not the founders) came up with, managed, and executed autonomously. And by the looks of it, the event was awesome.

Going through all John鈥檚 videos, you really see how much the founders love working with their team and creating an awesome vibe and culture at work. Allowing his team to live by Stan鈥檚 value of 鈥渟park joy鈥.

馃帠锔 4. Putting the Customer First

The team at Stan understands that building a great product is not about adding features you think will be cool. It鈥檚 about deeply understanding and empathizing with your customer, and using this to shape the product.

The team at Stan set out to find out who would be extremely disappointed if they could not use Stan again and why.

They then went a level deeper, why would that reason devastate them (stay with me). And they kept asking 鈥渨hy鈥 until they got to the core of what their customers loved the most, that Stan helped them make money. Specifically:

  • How simple it was to get set up (It only takes a creator an average of 10 minutes to create a store)

  • How easy the checkout process was for their customers

Stan then doubled down on these. Introducing new features that helped creators make money, like email marketing, as well as adding features that made checkout even more seamless.

Not stopping here, Stan went deeper on why their casual fans were not fanatics and addressed their issues, such as making Stan look nicer.

The Stan team kept doing this until they eventually reached 45% (a massive jump from the original 10%) of customers saying they would be extremely disappointed if they couldn鈥檛 use Stan again.

The awesome thing about doing this, i.e., creating a great product, is that great products lead to success for customers, which leads to customers referring Stan, which leads to new customers, which leads to them having success, which leads to them referring Stan鈥 it becomes a never-ending cycle, or as the Stan team calls it, their Growth Flywheel.

The average Stan customer now refers 2+ new users over their lifetime.

Remember, you鈥檙e building a product for a specific customer. Don鈥檛 guess what they want. Speak to them.

馃弳 Bonus. Persisting

One thing I鈥檝e learnt about John in my 40+ hours of research is that he does not give up.

He worked his way through school, subsequently cold-calling his way into Goldman Sachs (<1% acceptance rate).

And now he鈥檚 doing the same with Stan.

John posted >100 TikToks. Reached out to hundreds of creators to get feedback and validation. Cold-emailed dozens of VCs and Angel investors. Targeted and cold-messaged key hires on LinkedIn. Facing constant rejections.

But he pushed through all these rejections. Grew over 100K followers on TikTok. Had some of the biggest creators on the planet as early adopters. Raised $5m, including from his top choice VC. And hired star employees from industry giants.

It鈥檚 also a message he constantly pushes himself: don鈥檛 ever ever give up. You will succeed if you persist and learn from your mistakes.

Actions you can take to replicate Stan鈥檚 success

I love the way Stan was and continues to be built. Only raising money when it has a use. A focus on customers. And ultimately, profitability.

There is a lot to be learned from Stan鈥檚 story. Here are my favorite ways you can replicate their success:

Build a following on social media 馃摫

Stan started off as a one-person TikTok account about three years ago. And is now making $14.7M in ARR. Insane. John attributes a large part of Stan鈥檚 success to simply creating valuable content.

Building a following gives you thousands of targeted users (as long as you build a product in the same niche as your content) to validate ideas with as well as an exclusive pool of potential customers who have already built trust with you, reducing friction when they consider buying your product.

While at the same time giving you credibility to those outside of your community, such as investors and new customers.

This is a tip I used myself to build a real estate media business while in university. I built an Instagram following of >100K for luxury homes in South Africa.

I then used this credibility and platform to grow a media agency (content production and social media growth) which I am currently in the process of selling.

Starting to post on social media can be intimidating however. There are three common objections to creating content:

  1. What content do I create? 馃摻锔

  2. How do I find the time to create content?

  3. How do I grow? 馃搱

John answers all these super well in this video.But to summarize.

  1. What content to create? 馃摻锔

We all create 鈥渟awdust鈥 - insights, learnings, and challenges from our day-to-day jobs, businesses, or hobbies that would be interesting content.

To guide you a bit more here, think about what someone a few years behind you in your work or hobby would want to know to get to where you are.

Often people feel as if they are not qualified to speak on certain topics. But remember two things:

  1. People learn best from someone one step ahead of them. Because you can provide the most actionable value the closer you are in your journey to your audience.

  2. You don鈥檛 have to position yourself as an expert. You can learn with your audience. Or you can fit somewhere in between. Take me for example. I am not starting from zero, I have built profitable businesses in the past. But I鈥檓 also by no means an expert. I have never raised venture money nor have I scaled a business. But, what I can do well is research, synthesis, and extract key insights so you don鈥檛 have to.

  1. How do I find the time to create content?

Stop thinking of creating content and your job/business/hobby as separate. It鈥檚 not about balancing the two. It鈥檚 about harmony. Integrate creating content into your life.

Doing something cool? Document it. Had a win or a setback? Talk about it.

Look at your daily and weekly schedules and ask what is interesting that you can film or write about.

A system you can use is the content pyramid:

  1. Core content: This is generally a longer piece of content, i.e., a YouTube video, podcast, or newsletter.

  2. Short-form content: Core content can then be cut up and repurposed into Shorts/Reels/TikToks.

  3. Snippets: Core and short-form content can then can get repurposed as LinkedIn and Twitter/X posts or even an Instagram story.

Using the content pyramid method, you can create multiple pieces of content in one sitting. Reducing the time required and increasing total reach.

  1. How do I grow? 馃搱

Building a following is a lot like building a business. You have to test to see what the market wants. Spoiler, it鈥檚 always some type of giving - education, entertainment, or inspiration. Then double down once you鈥檝e found it.

John mentions that the difference between those that made it and those that didn鈥檛 is never giving up. I agree, plus being consistent. When I started my real estate business on Instagram I posted 3 feed post a day and over 5 stories a day. Everyday. For months.

It took a while to grow, but once I figured out what my audience liked, my growth exploded. At the peak I was growing over 800 followers per day and reaching over 1 million accounts per week.

So commit to posting 100 times (consistently) and you will NOT fail.

Embrace transparency 馃攳

John is extremely open and honest with his audience. Both personally and with the business. He doesn鈥檛 shy away from topics like his struggles with mental health and burnout - even to the point where he almost stepped down as CEO.

He brings you along his journey. Unfiltered. Talking through Stan鈥檚 finances, pitch deck, investor meetings, interviews. Essentially everything. Even sharing his investor updates.

When you embrace transparency with your audience, it builds an engaged and loyal community who trust you and, importantly for your business, are more willing to buy from you.

Find what you鈥檙e comfortable sharing. And find a community to share it with - whether it鈥檚 Reddit, a private Discord community, YouTube, Twitter/X, or even local events. You never know who might be listening, a potential co-founder, investor, customer, or a founder friend.

Don鈥檛 compromise when hiring 馃鈥嶐煉

To build a successful company you need great people. How you are judged as a founder, in the end, is how well you hire.

As Graham Weaver, founder of Alpine Investors put it in his interview with John: If you hire B grade people. You are a B grade leader. If you want to be an A+ CEO, you need to hire A+ people.

This is something Stan has done really well. They never rushed hiring. Only filling a role when they believed they had found the right person. Creating a team of 20 stars in every position.

But how can you improve your hiring process? Three tips:

  1. Create hiring criteria to grade candidates. For technical ability and, importantly, culture fit.

  2. Poach employees from brands you look up to. Reach out on LinkedIn to these employees and set up intro calls. It will be hard to hire when you鈥檙e still a small startup, so it's important that you be persistent.

  3. Never compromise. Only hire someone when you feel 100% confident that you have found the right person.

Deeply understand and connect with your customer

I think if I had to pick the biggest reason for Stan鈥檚 success, it would be that they truly understand their customer and their customer鈥檚 motivations, pain points, and needs. And then incorporate this into the Stan product.

It helps significantly if you are your customer, i.e., in this case, a content creator, but you don鈥檛 have to be. You can just research and speak to more potential customers than anyone else does so that you gain a deep understanding of what problems they need to have solved.

Most successful founders have in common that they can empathize with their customers. You don鈥檛 want to guess what your customers want or need. You want to understand them in such a way that you are certain what your customers need solved.

Put yourself in their shoes and ask what problems you would like solved and how you would like to be marketed to.

Building the best product possible requires rooting it in empathy for your customers.

Around the ecosystem 馃棡锔

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