[Case Study] The Expose of a Billion Dollar Publishing Behemoth
There are few people that I look up to in this world.
One of them is a man who was raised in the tobacco fields of Maryland.
He came from nothing and built a billion dollar empire… yet he dresses modestly, often crams his 6 foot 4 frame into economy class seating on economy flights, and despite being about 70 years old, still spends his spare time fixing up old homes and participating in cattle drives on his farm.
His name is Bill Bonner. Bill is such a talented writer that even my mentor Mark Ford, the founder of ETR and multiple best-selling author gives Bill reverence.
But wait, there’s more.
Bill is the “accidental (and unconventional) founder” of a billion dollar publishing company, Agora Inc.
He started Agora in a small apartment in Washington, D.C. in 1978, and armed with only his wits, a trusty typewriter, and only a few dollars to his name, Bill has grown Agora to become one of the largest publishing companies in the world with offices in India, Brazil, Ireland, England, France, and Germany.
Today Agora and its subsidiaries (including Agora Financial, The Stansberry Research Group, Early to Rise, and many others), bring in well over $1 billion a year.
Over the past two decades, I’ve been lucky enough to network and receive mentorship from some of the biggest names in the company (including Porter Stansberry, Matt Smith, Bill’s son Will, Tom Dyson, and of course, Bill’s business partner, Mark Ford).
And along the way, I’ve discovered seven key lessons that allowed Agora to grow to the 10-figure mark and become the publishing behemoth they are today.
Here are 7 of those lessons.
1. Find Your “Big Idea”
To build a billion dollar business, you need one thing…
A billion dollar idea.
Listen. I know that the gurus have told you time and time again:
“You can’t take ideas to the bank.”
“Your idea doesn’t matter, your hustle does.”
And, most famously, “Million dollar ideas are a dime a dozen.”
But the gurus are wrong.
No, a billion dollar idea in and of itself won’t make you any money. But it’s still the first step to building a billion dollar company.
Uber, AirBnB, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, Microsoft…
…Every successful and disruptive company started as nothing more than an idea in the Founder’s head.
Agora was no exception.
In fact, Agora’s entire business model is built around the big idea of giving other people a proven platform where they can monetize their big idea (and I’ll explain more about how they do that later).
Every successful business starts with a big idea.
And the most successful businesses start with a contrarian idea that goes against what the masses believe.
At its peak, my Turbulence Training fitness business brand did over $5 million in annual sales and was built around one big idea that “You don’t need to do boring cardio to lose weight” (a very contrarian idea at the time).
Bedros Keuilian’s Fit Body Boot Camp franchise is built around the contrarian idea that “Big box gyms are the worst way to get in shape.”
Today Agora is making millions of dollars selling the big idea that “Pot stocks are the worst way to make money.”
Time and time again, you will see that BIG and CONTRARIAN ideas are the foundation of disruptive billion dollar companies.
Your big idea isn’t enough to make you billions (or even millions).
But it is the first step.
2. Create a Corporate Culture of Laissez Faire
Tony Robbins once did an interview with a successful client of his who had eight children.
When Tony asked his client how he handled the stress of raising (more than half a dozen) kids, his answer was simple.
“Tony,” he said, “I learned a long time ago that the key to raising successful children is not to have too many rules. We focus on the few rules that really matter and let the rest slide.”
Agora Inc. follows this same principle with their children (aka subsidiaries), by adopting a corporate culture of Laissez Faire.
With more than 40 companies under the Agora umbrella, it would be impossible for the executive team to manage and effectively scale them all at once.
Instead, they provide new companies with the training and resources they need to succeed and then push them out of the nest, to learn and fly on their own.
Sure, some of the companies fail.
But the excellent training, structure, and nearly four decades of experience in dozens of niches…most of them are wildly successful.
In my own business, this philosophy of “live and let live” has been one of the driving forces behind our growth in the past two years.
When one of my employees or contractors comes to me with an idea for how something could be improved, nine times out of ten, my response is always the same:
“Give it a try and see if it works.”
No micromanaging. No looking over their shoulder. And no b.s.
Granted, this only works when you have great employees (see the next point on that).
But at the end of the day, no great business was ever built by a team of micro-managers.
You need to give your team the autonomy they need to do great work and find solutions to your biggest problems.
3. Invest Heavily in Great Employees
Agora Financial (AF), one of the most successful Agora subsidiaries, recently paid my old friend Justin Goff, a world famous copywriter, more than $30,000 to spend one day coaching their team through the process of creating high converting copy.
When most people read that, their gut response is to go:
“Woah! $30,000! That’s a TON of money…why not just have the team read a bunch of books or check out an online training program or read Justin’s free email newsletter?”
The reason is simple.
The head honchos over at AF know that the majority of their revenue comes from the quality of their copy writing.
And even though $30,000 might sound like a lot. To a company with millions of email subscribers, they can make that investment back with one email.
What’s even better is that they are investing in the appreciating and compounding asset of their employee’s skills.
Too many entrepreneurs cut corners when it comes to investing in their team.
They won’t think twice about spending an extra $50,000 on a new car for themselves or $10,000 for a new Rolex.
But the idea of investing $25,000 in the education of their employees–people who can help them make money while they sleep–is too much to stomach.
Listen, if you are serious about taking your business to the next level, then you MUST invest heavily in your employees.
Let me give you an example of this in my own business…
I recently bought my Editor an $1,500 course on copy writing and email marketing optimization.
In the first week after he went through the course, the strategies he’d discovered directly resulted in an extra $22,000 in revenue in under four days.
More than 10X the initial investment.
And the best part?
Because it was a compounding investment in his skill as a copywriter, the $1,500 I “spent” continues to make the company (and my Editor) more and more money each month.
Invest heavily in your great employees.
They are your biggest asset and, if you follow the next lesson I’m about to share with you, every good investment you make will yield at least a 100X ROI in the long run.
4. Do Whatever it Takes to Keep Great Employees
In addition to their controversial newsletters and contrarian ideas, Agora Inc. has built a reputation as being one of the best companies where a copywriter can work.
Not only do they pay their copywriters handsomely (I believe the starting salary is $80,000 a year), but every writer is given the opportunity to make huge amounts of money through commission.
When your copy goes out to a list of 1,000,000+ people, even a 2% commission rate can mean a multiple 5-figure payday.
The lesson here is simple…
Once you have hired a great employee you need to do everything in your power to keep them motivated, engaged, and excited to work with you.
I recently hired a “superstar” employee of my own and realized that my management skills are not yet what they need to be to keep these types of employees around.
So I turned to my mentor Mark Ford and asked for his guidance.
Here’s what he told me:
“It’s something that is so important. I’ve written about this many times over the years.
And I’m thinking about it right now because I’m involved in an imbroglio over one of Agora’s top marketers leaving one franchise to join another. He’s leaving because the publishers did not listen to the following advice:
Recognize the value of your superstars: You can populate your business with great employees if you put the work into it and create the right environments, but superstars — they are rare. A superstar is worth 5 to10 great employees.
Recognize the fact that you cannot hide them from the competition: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen very smart CEOs try to do this. It works for a while and then one day a competitor discovers them and makes them an offer that is way above what they are making.
When that happens you are screwed. You can offer to meet or even beat the new offer, and you might even retain that superstar, but he/she will never trust you and always resent you.
Understand what motivates them: Superstars are not motivated primarily by money. Nor is praise a sufficient reward. What superstars want and need most of all is the opportunity — the freedom and the support — to accomplish great things. That is what makes an otherwise great employee a superstar
Compensate them strategically: Money is not the primary motivation, but money matters. Superstars should be paid a base and an incentive compensation. The base should be just above — say 5% — of what someone else would offer them to do the same job. (And by that I mean someone else that recognized their value). The incentive compensation should be structured so that they could make a shitload of money — even more than you — but it should never be so much that they are getting more than they clearly deserve.
Don’t overcompensate: This last point is complicated but it’s important. It’s very easy to overcompensate people with incentive plans. And when you do you can spoil them to the point where you will have to let them go.
One final thing: Despite what I’ve said, when your business is relatively small, like yours is, you may not be able to compete with the sort of compensation he could get at, say, Agora (a billion dollar company). Even if you gave him the same base as an Agora copywriter (say $80,000) it would be nearly impossible for him to make the same incentive compensation with ETR because the revenues are too small.
In that case you have to make him feel like he is working for a good business that is doing good. From what I’ve seen, you are already doing this. In fact, I’m sure you are already doing much if not all of what I’ve suggested.
5. Stay Relevant and Speak to What’s Happening Now
In addition to their big contrarian ideas, impeccable corporate culture, and proven systems for hiring superstar employees, Agora’s success is due to their ability to speak to what is happening right now.
If you’re subscribed to any of their newsletters or read any of the company’s copy, nearly every offer and service they pitch revolves around something that is hyper relevant to the reader today.
Whether it’s Trump’s new tax laws or the legalization of marijuana or the rise of cryptocurrencies, everything they do speaks to the “Zeitgeist”–the current social mood during this point in history.
Not only does this make their offers seem more relevant, but it creates built in urgency that incentivizes their readers to take action NOW.
Oh, Canada just passed a bill legalizing recreational and medicinal cannabis? Legal shrooms you can grow at home now available across the continental United States?
Well, you’ve only got a few months (at most a few years) to capitalize on this opportunity before the market gets over saturated.
Trump just passed a new tax law that gives investors an extra loophole to reduce their tax bill?
If you don’t know about it NOW, you might not be able to take advantage of it later.
In my own business, I’ve used this idea with my Instagram Social Story Selling System.
In 2019, Instagram is quickly replacing email as the preferred method of connection and communication.
And most marketers aren’t even aware of the massive potential the platform has.
However, if you have a proven system for monetizing Instagram (like I offer in my course), you can make 6 to 7-figures a year working less than you do right now.
But here’s the thing…
I’m not lying when I say that this opportunity might not be available in a few years.
Just last month Instagram updated their algorithm and made it more difficult for users to reach their own followers with content. This exactly what Facebook started doing back in 2012.
Plus, every day, more and more businesses flock to the platform and, pretty soon, Instagram will become just as oversaturated and frustrating as email marketing, possibly more so.
And by speaking to this…to the reality facing marketers and entrepreneurs right now in 2019, I’ve been able to make massive profits while helping a ton of people.
Now over to you…
What is happening in your industry right now that you need to use in your marketing?
What real-time events and changes are happening that you can capitalize on to motivate your prospects to action and close the sale?
6. Create a Pure Profit Pyramid
A while back, Stansberry Research ran a promotion titled “The End of America”.
The promotion was so effective that it launched the company into the public spotlight and even allowed them to run TV ads to a VSL.
But the most interesting thing about this particular promotion was not the topic or the product itself…
…Rather the “profit pyramid” the company used to make hundreds of millions of dollars from the promotion.
It went like this..
For $49, you could get access to their basic newsletter. This served as an SLO (self liquidating offer) to help the company break even and pay for their growing ad expenses.
However, after the initial purchase of $49, customers were then given the opportunity to invest in SR’s backend newsletter for a further $3,000.
Then, they were given another opportunity to invest $15,000 for lifetime access to all newsletters.
And the result was millions and millions of dollars in profit and one of the most (in)famous and successful newsletter campaigns of all time.
On the surface, this “profit pyramid” seems relatively simple.
But here’s the thing…
I’ve coached thousands of entrepreneurs over the years and one of THE biggest mistakes I see over and over again is that otherwise smart businessmen don’t give happy customers a chance to take their purchase to the next level.
Listen, in every market, there are a small handful of people who are not only willing to spend more money to get the best offer possible…but they want to spend that money.
For example, you can go out right now and buy a basic Ford F150 for about $28,000. But every single day, someone out there decides to spend $70,000 on the same truck because they want all of the bells, whistles, and extra goodies that come with the top of the line models.
And when you don’t follow up with existing customers and provide them with higher end offers to help them get results faster, you’re actively leaving money on the table and depriving them of the opportunity to get the results they want.
In my own business, I’ve had clients who purchased one of my online programs, loved the content, and then decided that they wanted to work with me one on one.
Some of those clients decide to invest $7,500 in my business growth workshops. Others want the “next level” and invest $20,000 for a one year membership to my Unstoppable mastermind. And others still want one-on-one access to me and pay $25,000 for a single day of coaching.
In fact, most of the profit in my business comes from upselling happy customers on higher ticket items.
But if I didn’t have those offers in place or weren’t actively promoting them to my list, I’d barely break the 6-figure mark each year (let alone each month).
Whatever your business model, you can find ways to create powerful high end offers that will drive tons of revenue for a relatively small amount of effort.
And when you do, your business will never be the same.
7. Consistently Provide Value and Make The Offer
I’m going to let you in on a super secret strategy that only the top 0.0001% of entrepreneurs know.
You ready for this?
Here it goes…
You can’t make money if you aren’t making offers.
Insightful, I know.
Despite my sarcastic tone, this really is one of the biggest mistakes I see entrepreneurs making.
Not only are they not making high-ticket offers to their best customers…they aren’t making offers at all.
They think to themselves:
“Well, I know I should make more offers, but I don’t want to bug people.”
“I just create great content and hope that my customers will find my products page.”
If you want to make more money, you have to start by making more offers.
One email or Instagram story a week isn’t going to cut it.
Will you bug some people? Yes!
Will you get rich while helping the right people? Absolutely.
It’s up to you to draw the line and strike that fine balance between giving value and asking for the sale.
For example, even though I’m a fan of the controversial Grant Cardone and have invested a significant amount of money with his companies, his email marketing is beyond annoying.
Every day is a deadline, extended deadline, or URGENT final notice. Sure, it works… for a while. But over the long term it’s not the best strategy. (That said it’s getting better now that my friend Frank Kern has gotten involved with Cardone’s email strategy.)
Agora, on the other hand has discovered the “Goldilocks Zone.”
After four decades of iteration, they’ve created a system where they aren’t sending offers too often or too little…but just right.
They send thousands of words of valuable content each week and earn the right to make an offer. And they make multiple offers both within the free content and dedicated promotions.
In your business, you must do the same thing.
Yes, you should send plenty of free valuable content to your customers.
But you also need to ask for the sale.
When you have the big idea and great employees in place, the final piece of the puzzle is consistently providing value and making killer offers.
If you will do this over a long enough time frame (it took Agora 40 years!) you too could build a billion dollar empire.
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