The following is an extract from my 2nd book The 1% Secret
WARNING: This is PERSONAL … perhaps the most personal I have EVER been online…
Hi! Nice to meet you, my name is Martyn Cook. I’m the author of this very book you hold in your hands, so I thought it would be good to tell you a little bit about myself.
My entrepreneurial journey started when I was just 14 years old. At school, there was a girl in my class who was quite artistic and used to create graphic design doodles on her computer. Now, being 14 and thinking that might be a way to get girls (whilst really having no clue), I started practising graphic design on my dad's computer to try and impress her. Of course, my endeavours tragically failed. I never got the girl, but it did ignite the spark that led to a lifelong love affair with graphic design.
So, romantic efforts aside, I kept on with the graphic design work. I began creating business cards, menus, websites, posters and leaflets for local businesses throughout my teens. These businesses loved the childlike prices I was charging, prices that (to a teenage boy) of course seemed a lot, but in comparison to the budgets these companies had, were actually peanuts. They could see I was enthusiastic, hard working, and they were clearly happy with the end results, as many became repeat customers.
Despite this passion for design, I knew that in the real world you had to make real money, so whilst this work provided great pocket money throughout school, I knew that it wouldn't be enough to help me realise the kind of life that I was looking to lead. But like any teenager, I didn't really know what I wanted – how could I possibly decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life? 60 years is a long way to see into the future. What if I chose the wrong path? Like many people tend to do in similar situations, I followed the same path everyone else was taking. I went from school to sixth form, which is essentially school for 17-18 year olds, and tried hard in my exams (although admittedly I didn’t study that hard) which resulted in me being offered a place at the University of Leicester to study psychology.
Why psychology? Well, given that I didn't really know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I came to the conclusion that psychology would be a worthwhile subject to study. I figured that no matter what business I go into or what path I take, I'm always going to be selling to someone at some point. I'm always going to be dealing with people in one way or another, so having a better understanding of people would help me in whatever path I took. I'd also studied psychology throughout sixth form and found it really fascinating, so I thought, “Why not?”
Once I had the acceptance letter in my hand from the university and the initial feelings of happiness passed, I started questioning why I was going. I felt like I was just doing the same as everybody else, following the crowd. I was going to university because that's what you're supposed to do. So I started thinking, what was it about university that actually interested me? It wasn't the lectures. It wasn't the learning, particularly. What I really wanted, after deep reflection, was independence – the freedom to be able to live in my own home and fend for myself. After realising this, I asked myself a difficult question. Could I get all of those things without going to university? Without spending three or four years of my life racking up a ton of debt? It wasn’t a question I felt I could answer immediately, so I decided to defer my university start date by a year to continue wrestling with it.
In that year, I of course wanted (and needed) money, so I did what anyone else would do and got a boring office job. In my case, this was in an insurance brokers. Not particularly exciting, but then I also moonlighted four nights a week as an entertainer in the biggest nightclub in the East of England. Now, how I became an entertainer is a story for another day, but perhaps the decision makers at the nightclub saw some kind of cooped up clown within my personality. Either way, by day I was sifting through names and addresses, wearing a shirt and a tie (despite never seeing any customers or clients) taking phone calls, notes and learning more about the insurance world than I ever cared to know. By day I was generally having my soul crushed. But by night, I was entertaining people like some kind of circus clown, bringing joy and laughter until the early hours.
I learned to fire breathe, stilt walk, perform angle grinding shows, become a human statue, and later, how to DJ. Not at the insurance brokers, of course. I was part of a three man squad called the ‘Cheese Hunters’, a terrible name that we'd given ourselves. We were responsible for creating wacky outfits, finding new ways to make people laugh, creating show stopping displays, and generally being the young and reckless 19 year olds that we were – all to the profit of the nightclub, of course. I kept this night time work secret from the day job boss and colleagues. I could just imagine the scenario if they found out and disciplined me for it, demanding that I choose between one job or the other, that I couldn’t work both.
So I set a goal of trying to make it to at least six months before they found out. Perhaps by then one of my colleagues might stumble across my act when on a night out, or I’d accidentally turn up to work with some human statue paint still on my ears. I figured that if I could make it to six months, then if and when that complaint came in, I could point out that I'd been doing just fine in that time. I had passed countless performance reviews, been reassured on a number of occasions that my work was great, and that they'd never had a problem with me before. They didn’t know that they’d never experienced me working at my very best, but they were happy with what they were getting, so what’s the problem, right?
But looking back, I’m not sure how I did it. I was working 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, but going out with my friends on a Monday night, and then working in the nightclub from 10pm to 3am every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Somehow I managed it, and I was earning a lot of money for someone of my age. I even managed to do the odd design gig here and there in my free time. I was loving life, meeting great people, I had money in my pocket and had long since written to the University of Leicester to cancel my placement.
With the money I earned, I teamed up with a friend and in September 2007, aged just 20, we managed to pool our money together to buy a house, taking out a 101% interest-only mortgage. Now, of course things don’t work that way anymore, mortgages like that just don’t exist these days, it was crazy. Even our fees were covered with this mortgage line, it had ridiculous interest rates, but that didn’t matter to us. Finally, I had the independence and freedom I wanted. I was meeting interesting people, I had my own house and I was fending for myself, which was the main reason I wanted to go to university. Life was great.
Those of you savvy with your dates will know that September 2007 was just
months before the recession hit. It was a disaster, our house went into negative equity as the housing market crashed. The world at large suffered, with many losing their jobs and savings. The businesses that remained had to tighten their belts and slash costs. This had an impact on my day job, with the company taking away benefits like free meals, bonuses, and other nice- to-haves. They even abandoned pay rises in line with inflation, so as our costs increased our salaries didn’t. Unfortunately, this led to my colleagues becoming increasingly competitive. In some cases, it even led to backstabbing, with people stepping on each other to try to get the few remaining crumbs of the rewards the company was still promising.
I grew tired of it all. It's not in my personality to backstab. It's not in my personality to put down other people in order to succeed myself, so I could see that I was setting myself up for a fall by not getting involved. Colleagues were using the fact that I was working at night to try and one up me, to point out to my boss that my performance was dropping and that it was because of my life choices. The final straw for me was when, in a one-on-one with my boss (who could be your best friend one day, then switch to horrible dictator the next), he informed me that the carrot that had been dangled for over a year – of a big pay rise and bonus – was no longer going to happen.
In a flash of clarity, right there in that meeting, I asked myself, “Why am I doing a job that I hate? What am I doing with myself here?”. With the economic crisis well underway, I had no chance of progression. I wasn’t enjoying it and I figured there must be something better I could be doing. This meeting took place on a Friday. That evening, I travelled to my parents' home and called a family meeting. I declared that I was quitting my job to start a design company. Now, of course my parents were worried, but they listened to me. They asked questions. They challenged my temperament, wondering if I was caught up in the heat of the moment. They expressed concerns, reminding me that we were in a recession, that I had a mortgage to pay. But after a lot of discussion, they ultimately gave me their full support. My parents are fantastic for this. They are willing to listen, and they will typically understand my vision once we've gone back and forth enough. I do truly dedicate a lot of my success to the free reign and support that my family give me. I know that isn't something that everybody has, and so I am extremely grateful for that.
Back to the story. On Monday morning, I walked into the office with my
letter of notice in hand. My boss, who may have well have been expecting this (given how the Friday meeting ended), took my letter straight to HR and requested that I be put on gardening leave immediately. Maybe he knew my personality, or maybe he could see in my eyes that I was deeply unhappy. Either way, he decided it would be better for me to not be imparting my thoughts onto my colleagues and instead put me on gardening leave, which is basically a full month's paid leave, which meant I could go home and get cracking on building my design company. What a win-win for me! I was happy to skip the leaving party in favour of a full month’s pay and to get the jump start on this next stage of my journey.
I can honestly say that I didn’t look back once. I built my design company and immediately started spending my daily hours doing what I loved. Now, I didn't really know how to run a company, so a lot of it was trial by fire. I made a lot of mistakes, but eventually I was gaining clients and keeping myself busy. I converted the attic space of my house into an office, and I was in there from 9am to 2am whenever I wasn't DJing, and 9am to whenever my DJ work started the rest of the time. I worked my butt off, but I loved every minute.
It was at this stage that I became obsessed by traffic. My business was an online business, and all of my customers were coming from Google searches at the time – at least all of my new customers. I'll get to that in a moment. I'd registered my site with all the notable business directories, but really that just led to sales calls. When I deep dived into my analytics, I could see that the majority of my customers were coming in from Google searches, who were then enquiring on my website. The remainder of my business was coming in from the various nightclubs I was now DJing at by night. I ended up doing video ads, flyers, and posters for about ten different nightclubs as word spread, but I knew that my nightclub customers weren’t scalable.
I had these customers because I was working in the clubs. Whilst it did spread to 10 nightclubs, it was unrealistic to expect it to spread to 100 or 1,000 more. This meant it was the outside traffic that I was looking for. That's where I figured the scale would happen. That's how I could generate enough customers to turn my one man band business into an agency. But I was reliant on Google traffic, and their constant algorithm changes were wreaking havoc on my customer acquisition plans. Just like many before me, I found it difficult to keep up with the constant changes to the SEO landscape, the new dos and don’ts when generating backlinks, creating content, and so on, particularly when running the design company itself by day and the entertainment by night.
Then one day, I came across a Facebook group where people were buying and selling Facebook pages. I didn't know what I'd stumbled upon. I didn't realise selling pages was possible. I certainly thought it was against the terms of service, and yet here was a group of maybe 20 or 30 people who had loads of Facebook pages to sell and other people buying from them. This was fantastic to me, because this was a time before the Facebook EdgeRank algorithm existed. This was a time where if you had a Facebook page, every fan of that page saw what you posted, for free.
As I delved into this group further, forming relationships with other members and extending my network, I witnessed firsthand Facebook pages that were grown from other pages, to the size of 170,000 – 200,000 fans in a day. These page owners were creating new Facebook pages with witty titles and then sharing this new page on their existing pages, resulting in the new page growing to tremendous sizes. It was much simpler back then, when Facebook pages with really catchy names (and perhaps the odd image) would go viral, and hundreds of thousands of people would start jumping on board, becoming fans. It was truly the Wild West days of old Facebook. I took every spare penny I had and made it my mission to buy as many Facebook pages as possible. I didn't really know what I wanted to do with them, but I knew that with the traffic, impressions and attention of the people on those Facebook pages, I could figure out what I wanted to sell later. The traffic was the most important thing for me at that time, as I'd learnt from my design business, where more traffic from Google led to more customers.
Over a period of perhaps 6-9 months, I was purchasing pages like crazy. Yes, I got scammed a few times, this was inevitable. I was dealing with people I didn't know, and paying money before I had access to the pages. No amount of precautions could be taken to absolutely protect yourself from scammers, but I did manage to find a group of people that were trustworthy and professional to deal with. I was soon able to build up my portfolio of Facebook pages to more than a hundred. These 100+ Facebook pages had a combined audience of 20 million fans. It was crazy! I was able to speak directly to 20 million people, just by posting a series of Facebook statuses.
It was during this time, speaking to an audience of 20 million, that I learned
a fair amount about dealing with the masses. I learned that it’s impossible to keep everyone happy, I learned which topics led to big traffic and which topics didn't. Without me knowing it at the time, it was really a masterclass in copywriting and understanding what it takes to make something go viral. It was an incredible journey, and this journey took me into the world of buying and selling traffic online. I already had a lot of traffic at my disposal, and I partnered with others outside Facebook, i.e. those with massive Twitter account followings as well. I was creating content websites powered by Google AdSense, that myself and my partners would drive traffic to, earning from the advertising impressions.
As I learned more about this, I also learned how you could create digital products online and how you could segment your traffic so that only the most targeted audience would see your posts. I began to dabble in Facebook ads, and I was beginning to realise that in this online world, I could fulfil my dream of being able to run my business from anywhere in the world with just a laptop and wifi. I discuss this more later on in the book, but I remember taking myself off to Cyprus for one week completely on my own. I was flying alone, travelling alone, worrying what people would think as I sat at a table for one in local restaurants, and so on. I wanted to prove that I could do it, that I could be self sufficient – even abroad – and run my business with only my laptop.
During this incredible week, I had a campaign running and traffic was being driven to it automatically. I managed to sell £6,000 of product during the six days I was out of the country. This campaign more than paid for my holiday. It more than paid for all of the travel, accommodation and food, with thousands more left over. It was at that point that I felt like I'd fully proven and stress tested the laptop lifestyle, the ‘running a business from anywhere in the world’ model, and was determined that this was the way forward.
From that point on, I built a number of internet business over time. I created e-commerce stores, softwares, apps and much more. I sold the social media marketing company that I wrapped around my Facebook pages, and learned a great deal about business during that time as well. I scaled my businesses with virtual and outsourced workers, softwares and automations and learned how to truly maximise how well a business could run without a physical office or location.
I’ve been on this journey for well over ten years at the time of writing. Ten
years since that first dollar I earned online. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve failed many times, but I’ve accomplished things that many can only dream of.
My goal with this book is to translate my learnings into an easy to follow guide that helps business owners like you to scale. My hope is that as your business scales and as you generate more money, you will in turn use that money for good, to find ways to provide value and give back to the world. If I can help you to achieve that, and you in turn help others as a result, then this book was well worth writing. The hours spent, planning, producing and launching will have been well spent. I hope that my experience runs through this book in a way you’re able to follow and understand. I hope that you leverage these 1% improvements in your businesses and that you change the world for the better.
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