How one entrepreneur built, grew, and sold a portfolio of online businesses.
Andrej Ilisin is a well-recognized name in website investing circles.
He describes himself as “a husband, father, and entrepreneur.”
He’s also an SEO expert, who began building and growing websites in 2008.
Since that time, Andrej has experimented with various strategies and systems for growing niche online businesses. He had a couple of failures early on — and learned from them. These days, his wins far outweigh his defeats.
Andrej started one of his better-known businesses — Alpha Investors — in 2019. The business offers turnkey and done-for-you content sites, as well as content writing services.
Alpha Investors quickly grew and was joined by Investors Club — an online business marketplace — and Buzz Logic, which manages and scales websites. This trio of sites were owned by Andrej’s holding company, Sharp Capital.
We recently discovered that Andrej had discreetly sold and exited his entire business portfolio.
We’re always curious about how investors sell their businesses, so we reached out to Andrej to see if he’d be willing to share the details.
Fortunately, he agreed.
Read on for our exclusive interview with Andrej on building and selling Sharp Capital.
Q&A with Andrej Ilisin
Thanks for agreeing to speak with me, Andrej. Before we get into the details of your successful exit from Sharp Capital, I’m curious to get one burning question out of the way:)
You rarely give interviews. You’re also not particularly active on social media. Is that a deliberate choice, or do you feel that your time is better spent elsewhere?
Thanks for inviting me! Really glad to ‘be’ here.
Publicity isn’t really something that I ever strived for. I was always on the other side. Working in the trenches without having to worry about what everyone else thought.
Now, looking back, I’m pretty sure that was one of the reasons I chose to start developing my online skillset with SEO — and not some front-facing activity.
Being in the spotlight and/or social media is OK if you’re planning on leveraging that in some regard, but I always wanted to let my work do the talking and have people come to me instead of the other way around.
Andrej, we’ve known one another for a few years, and even worked on several projects together.
Because of that history, I won’t ask you about what Alpha Investors does. What I would like to know is where the inspiration came from to start that business.
Did you notice a gap in the market, or did the competition at the time lack vital elements or services?
Believe it or not, it wasn’t a result of a grand master plan or anything like that. It was very basic.
I started building websites back in 2008. There were many ups and downs, but the main thing for me was that I was adamant to learn from my mistakes and make sure that for every step backwards I took two+ steps forward.
Fast forward to ~2013…
I had multiple sites and sales under my belt and had crossed paths with Jon Gilham. I don’t really remember how we connected, but he liked what I was doing at the time and asked me to build him a (content) site. I did that, and I guess he liked it because he asked me to build another one :).
Then we started chatting and figured out that the stuff I was doing would fit nicely with his audience. We decided to create an MVP for the site-building service and offer it to his email list. That’s how Brand Builders was born. There were not a lot of competitors at the time, and we definitely saw a gap in the market, so it made sense to capitalize on it.
It was a one-man show at the start, but, over the next 4 years, I learned a TON on how to hire, fire, systemize, scale, modify, and pivot, etc. And I learned it the best way – by actually doing it.
Fast forward to 2017…
I sold my majority stake in the company and decided to take some time off to work on my own portfolio. That was fun at first. I’ve seen lots of (relative) success with content site building/buying/flipping, but, internally, there was a gap.
It’s weird to think about it today, but I guess that I missed the social aspect of actually building a business and running multiple teams. I say it’s weird because I’m an introvert (duh) by nature, so missing the social aspect of the business was … weird.
So, 2019 came and I realized that we’d built a successful productized service business that had a bunch of flaws.
I listed all of them out and realized that I was now in a position to build a bulletproof business that did everything my old company did, but expand on that and turn all the flaws/mistakes into positives — and ensure that didn’t happen again.
Plus, I had a solid financial cushion so I didn’t need to chase the money. I was able to focus on the proper execution. That’s how Alpha Investors came to life.
Was Investors Club a natural progression from Alpha Investors? And, what was the unique point of difference that set Investors Club apart from other online marketplaces?
Oh, I could write a novel on this topic! I’ll try to keep it short and to the point.
Prior to starting Alpha Investors, I spent 2 years solely buying, improving, and then selling websites. I had the entire process mapped out to a tee. Mind you, I’d been doing that since 2013, but in those two years, that was the only thing I did.
I had all the processes written down — from how to find off-market deals to how to do the migration and affiliate link swaps :).
During the initial phase of Alpha Investors, I started getting a bunch of emails from people asking me to help them to find, buy, and grow sites. I pretty much declined all of them because that wasn’t something we did at the time.
However, the interest was so high that I decided to beta-test a site-finding service. First, I acqui-hired Richard Patey and bought the Flipping Websites group. The group had 10,000 members at the time, and it allowed us to get a head start with our service. The interest was so high that we had a tough time fulfilling all the orders.
In the middle of all that mess, I had a quick phone call with Ewen Finser, during which he suggested that I take my skill set and turn it into something that was completely against the mainstream. I’m not sure if he remembers that call (doubt it), but I made a gigantic note on my desk to think about it.
Weeks went by and I was in the process of refining the ideas. Since being a website operator/investor/flipper had been in my resume for quite some time, I realized that the biggest obstacle to making a sustainable profit wasn’t finding the deal flow or growing the site; it was the fact that it was very expensive to sell a site due to the humongous closing fees when you sell via a broker.
I decided that it was time to do something about that, so I launched a platform/marketplace that wasn’t focused on the sellers (as all the others did). We would focus on the buyers.
Mind you, that came with a whole new set of challenges — but that’s a story for another day.
When did you start these two businesses? I recall that they were both launched within a very short timeframe.
I can’t remember exactly, but I think that it was ~1 year from when I started Alpha Investors until we beta-launched Investors Club.
What about Buzz Logic? How did that business fit into your plans?
It’s a similar inception story to that of Investors Club. A dozen or so of Alpha Investors’ clients had sites that were generating revenue, but they didn’t have time to actually manage or grow them. I figured that with my previous experience doing that type of work, combined with all the previous systems I’d built (a bit obsolete at the time), it could provide a nice cashflow boost to the business.
I created an MVP and decided to launch it for a select set of existing clients. To cut a long story short, they were really happy with the outcome, and some of them started to acquire other sites to hand over to us for management.
To be honest, I was caught by surprise. I was forced to quickly hire people to fulfill all the orders.
Now, looking back at it, I think that by doing that I shot myself in the foot. Scaling too quickly usually leads to a quality drop-off, which is exactly what happened to us. Not instantly, but over time. Luckily, we realized that and started working really fast to get the service back on the right path.
That’s when I decided it was time to splinter off that service from Alpha Investors and turn it into a standalone agency with its own staff and resources. That’s how Buzz Logic came to life.
What would you tell our readers who want to begin investing in websites? Is it worth the effort?
It’s definitely worth the effort. But, in my opinion, there are only two ways to tackle this:
- If you possess (or are willing to learn) the skillset that’s required to build/buy/grow the sites. Cheap.
- If you have the resources to hire the right staff. Expensive.
Whenever someone asks me that question, I automatically ask them about their budget.
If you have a tight budget (less than $30k IMO), my recommendation is always to learn the basics and build before you buy. That way, you can learn how the game works and create systems and processes based on your own mistakes and/or successes.
This is time-intensive, but you’ll be able to keep your initial costs down. As you and your business grow, you’ll start hiring people to fulfill the repetitive and ‘boring’ roles, and you’ll slowly begin the transition to a manager’s role.
If budget is not an issue, more often than not you’re coming from another industry (RE, funds, similar), and are looking to deploy some of your capital into an industry that’s relatively new and exciting.
It’s absolutely crucial to hire a website manager that has a proven track record. People who are looking to acquire sites for high six or seven figures are probably not looking for a job, so I presume that they’d like to hire that stuff out. Do your due diligence and hire slowly, but fire fast.
I went off on a tangent a bit, but yes, I think that investing in websites is something everyone should consider — either to do it full-time or as a method of investment diversification.
What are the major trends you predict for website investing over the next couple of years?
- Due to the current financial environment, I expect that the multiples will go down. Buyers are not likely to acquire businesses left and right — like they were over the past 3-5 years (oversimplification)
- I think that content site owners will have to step up their game and start exploring e-commerce and other front-facing monetization methods a bit more to supplement their income.
- SEO will become way more mainstream due to Cost Per Click Per Mille (CPC/M) inflation.
Are these good or bad?
It depends on where you are on your journey. If you’re a seasoned veteran, it’s mostly good. If you’re just starting out, the cost to play the game will go up.
Let’s get on to the sale of Sharp Capital.
We did not uncover any press releases or news items about your exit. In fact, the first clue you gave us regarding a sale was in this tweet:
Many entrepreneurs have a difficult time figuring out what to put in their bios:)
Even more, have a hard time figuring out how — and where — to sell their businesses.
Did you have an exit strategy from the start? And, what were your reasons for exiting Sharp Capital?
To be completely transparent – it was 100% burnout on my end.
After many years of simultaneously working for clients and on my own portfolio, my brain just didn’t function the way it used to. I chatted with my business partner, Jason Burnworth, and we decided that it was time to start exploring an exit.
It’s not something that we’d planned from the get-go. Mainly because we wanted to scale all the businesses to eight figures in combined value before even considering an exit. However, sometimes life just happens and you have to make the best decision in that moment.
Could you share a little about how you found a suitable buyer?
I found the buyer via Chris Yates, who runs Rhodium. I reached out to Chris and asked if he knew anyone who’d be interested in acquiring my businesses, and he came back to me a couple of days later and introduced me to the new (soon-to-be) buyers.
How long did this process take?
Maybe a couple of weeks to find the buyers. One month for them to do their due diligence, prep the legal work, and transfer all the assets. All in all it was very fast, straightforward, and easy.
What was the most difficult part of the sales process?
Nothing was really difficult per se. The area where we ‘struggled’ the most was with the financial reporting/PNLs.
I was in charge of those and, honestly, they were a mess. The buyers helped me figure everything out and we cleaned it all up in a week or so.
What was the easiest part of the sales process?
It went really smoothly. I think that our transaction went more smoothly than some content site transactions in the sub $10k value range. There was a lot of understanding between all the parties and we wanted to move quickly.
How did you calculate the value of your business? Did you base your selling price on a revenue or profit multiple, or on some other method or metrics?
We based it on seller discretionary earnings (SDE), mainly because it was a growing business with lots of employees and moving parts, so it made the most sense. After we cleaned up the finances, it was really easy to come to an agreement that both parties liked and approved.
Can you disclose the final price? If not, could you give us a range for reference?
It was in the seven-figure range.
Andrej, I know you won’t slow down for long. The question is: “Where will you go from here?”
On that subject, I came across an amusing Twitter thread about a domain purchase you made last year. The domain is mmawarehouse.com.
What can you tell us about that?
I’ve been enjoying a break. I can’t say that I’m dying to get back into the game, but I expect that to happen soon enough.
That’s going to be my next venture. My business partner, Jason, and I are going to go all in on the MMAWarehouse revival.
We have big plans for that business and are already working (slowly) on setting everything up. Jason has hands-on industry experience, plus he’s an awesome people-person. I, on the other hand, will handle all the technical and sales stuff. As always, from the trenches.
Andrej, thanks for all the absorbing insights into how you built, grew, and sold your businesses.
Three things stood to me:
- The value of learning by doing
- Identifying gaps in the market and capitalizing on them
- The necessity of having solid processes
The advice you’ve given on investing in digital assets is invaluable to anyone wanting to build a website portfolio.
I also appreciate your straightforward and honest answers.
People are quick to announce their successes and achievements online, but few are willing to share their mistakes or how they could do better. Not to mention the pressures of an entrepreneurial life.
I’m sure many of our readers will relate to your need to build quietly ‘in the trenches’ and stay out of the spotlight.
We know you’ll continue doing just that.
We wish you well with all your exciting ventures (and adventures) to come.