How We Built a Profitable Tech Business (With 2 People, No VCs, No Outsource)

One of the best thoughts I’ve ever had to myself was: “Let’s work with what I already know.” Coming up with the idea for HotCopy was the easy part; manifesting the idea and putting the pieces into place was the hard part (and sadly, the part people don’t often talk about in detail).

Before I delve into details, let me start off by saying - this is not going to be your business gospel to success. This, instead, is a tender story of how two people met, fell in entrepre-love, and made it to the profit aisle with just two people, no outsourced help, no mentors, no VCs, no big funding, nada.

We Invested In The Business With Time, Not Money

One thing we realized from the beginning was that although we were well equipped with the skills and talent to create the product, we had no real experience in running the business. We didn’t have money to hire other people to do the work so we invested our time to learn the ropes ourselves. I say 'invested' because we were going to carry this knowledge for the rest of our lives and it doesn't expire. It’s a pretty damn good investment, I’d say.

We didn’t have money to hire other people to do the work so we invested our time to learn the ropes ourselves. I say 'invested' because we were going to carry this knowledge for the rest of our lives and it doesn't expire. It’s a pretty damn good investment, I’d say.

We didn’t have money to hire other people to do the work so we invested our time to learn the ropes ourselves. I say 'invested' because we were going to carry this knowledge for the rest of our lives and it doesn't expire. It’s a pretty damn good investment, I’d say.

Learning things yourself is great, but not the best solution if you’re in it to accelerate. So ask what your objectives are, weigh your pros and cons (writing things down have been helpful to me personally), pick your ‘investment’ and run with it.

From the beginning, my partner David and I ploughed through books, online guides, courses, Youtube videos, you name it, to create our minimum viable product and establish a company. It took us a full year, from ideation to conceptualization and product design, to complete. When it finally did, it took off smashingly.

Bear in mind, we were completely distracted the whole time. We worked day in and day out, just like everybody else. But only when we launched the platform, and it pulled in its first five-figure sale within its first month, did it finally hit us:

We had built a profitable business from the ground up with only two people, no outsource, no accelerators, no funding, no mentors, nothing. Perhaps not such a big deal for traditional businesses, but for a tech business that required a lot of specialized skills, this achievement is a rarity.

Solving One Person’s Needs is Just as Good as Everyone’s

We didn’t start by knocking our heads together to pool a list of problems we think people might be having and how we’re going to solve it. In short, we didn’t try to be the salvation to no one and everyone at the same time.

Several years prior, I worked with a regional digital agency handling editorial projects related to SEO and content marketing. They had massive demands for content and we had been using overseas suppliers to cater to the volume. But it didn’t sit well with me because here I am sitting in an office in hot and humid Kuala Lumpur, while the writers are all in the UK or the US. It didn’t make sense and it didn’t work. The company was spending thousands of dollars on irrelevant and regurgitated content by people who don’t know what they’re writing about. It was frustrating for everyone, especially me.

But it didn’t sit well with me because here I am sitting in an office in hot and humid Kuala Lumpur, while the writers are all in the UK or the US. It didn’t make sense and it didn’t work. The company was spending thousands of dollars on irrelevant and regurgitated content by people who don’t know what they’re writing about. It was frustrating for everyone, especially me.

It didn’t make sense and it didn’t work. The company was spending thousands of dollars on irrelevant and regurgitated content by people who don’t know what they’re writing about. It was frustrating for everyone, especially me.

The company was spending thousands of dollars on irrelevant and regurgitated content by people who don’t know what they’re writing about. It was frustrating for everyone, especially me.

So I Used the “Rule of One” (Starting Small) (No, Smaller)

I was a content marketer groping in the dark while leading the blind in an echoing market. Content marketing was alien turf in Asia. No one wanted to spearhead nor advocate it. So I decided I was going to do it.

I knew then agencies were throwing money to overseas content providers that produced irrelevant and low-quality content. I also knew writers in Asia were struggling to get by – Asian writers are notoriously underpaid and they don’t have a platform (something or someone) that champions them.

In August 2015, I presented an idea to my now-business partner about creating a content writing platform that connected businesses and agencies with content writers in Asia. At the time, I specifically

At the time, I specifically modelled the platform around this particular agency I had been working with, but I also had a mission to edify the freelance writing landscape in Asia, which I modelled around content writers like myself. So I had my one agency and my one individual.

The rule of one meant that we worked on solving one person’s most dire needs – no, not "it’s nice to have" or "it’s going to be useful sometimes" or "people might need this one day" – but actually trying to solve a problem one person has at this very moment, and starting from there.

That is why the ride-hailing model has been so successful at instantaneously solving people’s transportation problems. People almost always call for a ride only when they need it.

We Built a Product That Depended on Our Talents and Values

Between the two of us, my partner and I both had enough skill and specialization to build the platform on our own.

David happens to be a master (fucking awesome) programmer with more than 10 years of experience (I swear he can build just about ANYTHING on Ruby) and I naturally assigned myself to content and SEO. Us two were all we needed to build a content writing MVP.

For everything else, we hit the books, we studied, we watched Youtube videos, we took courses, and we repeated. I picked up Photoshop and video editing to help with social media and content marketing. Again, we invested with time.

But why is it important to build a product around your skills?

A long time ago, I predicted the downfall of a Malaysian startup called GrabGas. I told my partner one day, “I can’t imagine them [GrabGas founders] huddled together at a table one day and said, "Hey, I’m really passionate about delivering gas. We should build this app and start a company.” The idea was noble but it had no real values. In any case, the company didn’t seem to fare well, which brings me to my next point.

We Were In It To Build a Business, Not a Startup

Our platform grew in stages. Remember what I said earlier about my one agency and one individual ("Rule of One")? Well, now it has grown into several agencies and hundreds of content writers.

Why the rule of one worked is because we never tried to sell the idea to anyone who might need it.

We sold it to one big agency that badly needed a solution, and invited hundreds of Asia-based writers who were absolutely capable of providing the service.

From the beginning, we made a conscious decision to build a tech company that was run like a business, not a startup. For a company that relied on technology (tech companies have an overwhelming tradition of being pumped full of investor liquidity to be sold or IPO’ed in record time), being run like a business was a rarity, but

For a company that relied on technology (tech companies have an overwhelming tradition of being pumped full of investor liquidity to be sold or IPO’ed in record time), being run like a business was a rarity, but certainly not a first.

I’ve stood firmly on both sides of our user’s spectrum (both the client and writer side) and I fully understood the struggles on each side. Interestingly, for a tech company, we were very much a company powered by people.

Unlike other content writing services, and because we built upon the Rule of One, we were able to maintain very close relationships with our clients and writers. The key difference between a business and a startup is the founder’s vision for the company, and who you really aim to work for – your investors or your users? Either way, you choose your own path.

That’s not to say that being a startup is a big no-no. I believe in doing what your business calls for. We truly thrived when we stopped being paranoid about competitors, or racing to raise funds that didn’t really matter at this time (because that takes a lot of my attention and energy away from my business); and fixate on building what we already have.

The Launch: What Came After

We launched HotCopy in the summer of 2016. An email was sent to clients whom I had spoken to before, who had expressed an interest in using our platform.

Suffice to say, nothing remarkable happened at first. One agency opted for a trial run and we had a steady stream of writers joining our site.

The next week, a small project to create several pages of website content fell onto our lap (I’ll post up the results of this project on The Daily Dose, when we can get our hands on the information). Now, our writers were able to write more consistently.

But before the month was over, we had our big break. We received our first five-figure order from an agency that handled multiple content and SEO projects for multinational companies like Tune Hotels, Roomorama, Fitness First and Clarins.

It pulled us out of the water and we were profitable in less than a month after we launched.

Key Takeaways/Realizations I Had From This Journey

1. People waste a lot of time and energy (mentally, physically and emotionally) on unnecessary input.

Tim Ferriss, author of “The 4-Hour Work Week”, wrote in his book that there are ever only two real currencies: time and attention. I now realize that he was close, but the real true currency (to me, at least) was time and energy (particularly what you spend time thinking about).

As two people who work and function differently, David and I developed systems to be more effective with each other as a unit, in work and in life. We assigned keywords (like when someone says “understand”) to convey that we fully understood something and to stop any more unnecessary barrage of information, and we stop each other when we’re discussing solutions for an idea that we’re not working on right now.

As a result, we stopped wasting time and energy altogether on things that don’t really matter, and it has done great things for our sanity.

2. We took a different (riskier) route to get to the same goal, and we still came out alive wearing a grass hula and a tall glass of Sangria in hand.

There were times when we were tempted to follow the herd, but I believe those who take risks have great pride and dignity, so I never allowed myself to be herded like cattle (as it seems with hackathons and speed pitching sessions) to get to where we wanted to be.

3. We never had to learn to pitch or approach investors; investors started noticing and coming to us directly, money-in-hand.

We eliminated the ‘elevator pitch’ stage completely by creating a product that directly solved our client’s problems, which we are now able to prove with numbers.

4. We started asking “why should we let you invest in us” instead of “here’s why you should invest in us”.

With investments, it works both ways. Great companies are built upon mutual hard work, understanding, values, and benefits. Start-ups have every right to question how or what investors are in it for, and what value they’re bringing to the table that’s equal to what you’re potentially receiving out of the partnership.

5. No one is more knowledgeable than you; they just have a very different experience than you.

More often than not, we're plagued by phantom paranoia and fears that don't check out. We've met enough 'thought leaders' and 'successful' people that didn't have answers to some of our basic questions, so we decided everyone's just as lost as we are (if not even more).

6. Stop worrying about what ‘could’ be; focus on what ‘is’ and ‘can’ be.

One of the most frustrating things we faced was dealing with what other people expected of us and our platform. Don’t get me wrong, I receive criticisms and suggestions well, but only you can dictate the direction of your company because you know it better than anyone else.

We already have plans to expand into multilingual (Malay and Bahasa Indonesia) support sometime in the future so when a potential client approached us about Malay-language content early on, we didn’t scramble to prioritize it. We respectfully declined, explained that it is in the works, and assured them that they’d be the first to know when we launch it.

What’s Going to Happen Now

We move forward. Three months after our launch, we are now in talks for investment with great people whom we trust and look up to. They’re not big investors, but they’re people who have been with us since the beginning, who believe in our product and have watched us grow. And if my calculations and visions are aligned, there are definitely exciting times ahead.