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How Bold Entrepreneurs Are Breaking $1 Million In One-Person Businesses

Allen Walton, 27, lives a life many Americans can only dream of: He is on track for seven-figure revenue in a business that has been a one-man show until very recently, when fast-growth made it necessary to hire someone to answer the phones. Walton manages his year-old online store, SpyGuySecurity.com, from his home in the Dallas area, where he lives with his wife, Karen.
He’s not a graduate of an elite business school. “I was a high school failure,” says Walton. “I had a 2.9 GPA.” Before starting the business, he worked in a security camera store for $11 an hour. But he was a quick study of the spy-camera business and tapped what he learned create a store that sells about 100 products he is confident his customers want.
Walton is part of an exciting trend in the U.S economy: the growth of ultra-lean businesses that are hitting and exceeding $1 million in revenue at a stage when they have no employees other than the owners.
According to new statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 30,174 “nonemployer” firms that brought in $1 million to $2,499,999 in 2013. That’s up from 29,494 in 2012 and 26,744 in 2011.
And there are many more nonemployer businesses getting close to the $1 million mark. In 2013, there were 221,815 bringing in $500,000 to $999,999, a number that held steady since 2012.
What’s driving their success? One factor is the growth of the internet, which has enabled individual entrepreneurs to plunge into a vast, global marketplace cheaply and quickly. “It’s provided a whole set of capabilities and tools these entrepreneurs can access,” says Andrew Karpie, a principal analyst at the Research Platform in San Francisco, who studies online platforms used in the labor area.
But it also reflects a shift in attitudes. Rather than adopt Henry Ford-era business models, where scaling up depends on hiring legions of employees, these entrepreneurs travel light. When they need to expand their individual capabilities, they generally rely on contractors such as web designers or firms that handle outsourced functions, like billing. As their businesses grow, so do those of the contractors they hire.
Ask Robert Smith, 41, who expects seven figure revenues this year at RSA Public Relations, in Loves Park, Ill. He has built his one-man business by relying on freelance help he finds on sites like Elance and Fiverr and mutually beneficial partnerships with other entrepreneurs to promote each other. He loves having the freedom to spend time with his family, something that the structure of his business allows–and is coming across more owners like him.
“It’s a lifestyle,” he says. “We don’t want to work 14 hours a day to make $1 million a year. I like to go running during the middle of the day. I like to be able to have a life and not be chained to my desk 12 hours a day.”
Some of these million-dollar businesses are inspired by writers such as outsourcing guru Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, and MJ DeMarco, author of The Millionaire Fastlane—whose book on entrepreneurship Walton says changed his life. “It trains you to shift the way your brain thinks from a consumer mindset—“I’m going to spend all this money I don’t have” — to a producer mindset, where you provide value to other people and in return become valuable,” he says.
As Smith points out, $1 million in revenue does not translate to $1 million in take-home pay. These folks have overhead and pay taxes, like any business owner. But they are doing something that many solo entrepreneurs can learn from: Maximizing the earning potential of their tiny businesses in creative ways, so they have freedom from the financial pressure many free agents feel.
This is the third year I am reporting on the growth of million-dollar nonemployer businesses. Many readers have been curious about who the entrepreneurs are behind these firms and what kind of work they do. Here are the stories of Walton and three others who hit the million dollar mark or were on track to do so while still operating as solo entrepreneurs. Some of these entrepreneurs eventually grew their businesses to the point that it made sense to try a traditional employer model. Others are still their firm’s only employee. If you want to start your own ultra-lean, million-dollar business, they have some interesting insights to share.
Allen Walton fell into selling spy cameras by accident. After attending community college for a couple of years, he needed a job. His mother noticed a local security-camera store was hiring. “My mom walked into the store,” recalls Walton, then 21. “It had a help wanted sign. She got me an application and told me I had to fill it out.”
He got the job, but eventually got tired of working there and decided to strike out on his own. Toying with the idea of opening an online store, he read books on topics like online marketing, including Ultimate Guide to Google GOOGL -1.52% Adwords by Perry Marshall, Google Adwords for Dummies and Ultimate Guide to Pay-Per-Click Advertising by Richard Stokes. “If you want to be an entrepreneur and succeed, you’re going to have to crack open books about things you never thought you’d read,” he says. Then he took $1,000 he’d saved to build his own spy camera shop on the web, going into business in May 2014.
Fortunately, Walton had learned a lot about picking the right inventory from the years he spent selling cameras and other gadgets at the store. “I know from talking with them face to face and hearing about their situations,” he says. “I know exactly what products they want and what they are using them for.” Walton estimates he sunk $7,000 to $10,000 into inventory when he first started.
Thanks to his Google Adwords campaigns, the store picked up customers quickly. He says they range from the U.S. Army to parents who want to make sure children with autism are not being abused by caregivers.
Walton built the business to its current level of revenue on his own and never had a plan to hire employees. But he realized that money was flying out the door when he wasn’t available to answer the phones while eating lunch at an In-N-Out Burger restaurant with his father. He’d forgotten to log out of his customer service chat system—and ended up closing $2,000 sale that came in. “I looked at how many phone calls I was missing,” he says. “I was only answering 30%.” Walton hired a friend who mans the phone and the site’s live chat as a W-2 employee in March. He also contracts with a marketing firm.
His advice to other want-to-be internet retailers? “Be a sponge for the sort of knowledge that will make you wealthy,” he says. Whether that has meant reading a book on writing product descriptions or studying master salesmen in action, he’s willing, because he knows it will help him grow his business.
Dan Mezheritsky, 29, founder and President of Fitness on the Go, an in-home personal training franchise, Vancouver, Canada
As a junior national champion decathlete in Canada, Mezheritsky tore his hamstring at age 20 at the Canadian Olympic trials. “Having to go through a lot of rehab, I learned a lot about the body, but after a tear like that, it wasn’t really possible to compete,” he says. Mezheritsky decided to become a personal trainer but wanted to accomplish more than he could as a solo operator.
In 2005, he started Fitness on the Go in Vancouver where he hired other personal trainers as employees. Within the first three years he sold $1.5 million worth of training, he says.
But working with the employees was frustrating. He didn’t find them to be particularly motivated to help him grow the business. “The personal trainers would build a very good relationship with the customer,” says Mezheritsky. “What that led to was the personal trainer or customer proposing a side deal. If the trainer was being paid $20, and customer was paying $60 they would agree to $40, cut Fitness on the Go of the equation and work on their own.”
Sometimes trainers were unprofessional in other ways. One trainer asked to use the washroom at a customer’s house—and took a shower. “She comes out dressed up to go out for a Friday night,” says Mezheritsky. “The customer calls us and says `What is this?!Thanks to his Google Adwords campaigns, the store picked up customers quickly. He says they range from the U.S. Army to parents who want to make sure children with autism are not being abused by caregivers.
Walton built the business to its current level of revenue on his own and never had a plan to hire employees. But he realized that money was flying out the door when he wasn’t available to answer the phones while eating lunch at an In-N-Out Burger restaurant with his father. He’d forgotten to log out of his customer service chat system—and ended up closing $2,000 sale that came in. “I looked at how many phone calls I was missing,” he says. “I was only answering 30%.” Walton hired a friend who mans the phone and the site’s live chat as a W-2 employee in March. He also contracts with a marketing firm.
His advice to other want-to-be internet retailers? “Be a sponge for the sort of knowledge that will make you wealthy,” he says. Whether that has meant reading a book on writing product descriptions or studying master salesmen in action, he’s willing, because he knows it will help him grow his business.
Dan Mezheritsky, 29, founder and President of Fitness on the Go, an in-home personal training franchise, Vancouver, Canada
As a junior national champion decathlete in Canada, Mezheritsky tore his hamstring at age 20 at the Canadian Olympic trials. “Having to go through a lot of rehab, I learned a lot about the body, but after a tear like that, it wasn’t really possible to compete,” he says. Mezheritsky decided to become a personal trainer but wanted to accomplish more than he could as a solo operator.
In 2005, he started Fitness on the Go in Vancouver where he hired other personal trainers as employees. Within the first three years he sold $1.5 million worth of training, he says.
But working with the employees was frustrating. He didn’t find them to be particularly motivated to help him grow the business. “The personal trainers would build a very good relationship with the customer,” says Mezheritsky. “What that led to was the personal trainer or customer proposing a side deal. If the trainer was being paid $20, and customer was paying $60 they would agree to $40, cut Fitness on the Go of the equation and work on their own.”
Sometimes trainers were unprofessional in other ways. One trainer asked to use the washroom at a customer’s house—and took a shower. “She comes out dressed up to go out for a Friday night,” says Mezheritsky. “The customer calls us and says `What is this?!
Thanks to his Google Adwords campaigns, the store picked up customers quickly. He says they range from the U.S. Army to parents who want to make sure children with autism are not being abused by caregivers.
Walton built the business to its current level of revenue on his own and never had a plan to hire employees. But he realized that money was flying out the door when he wasn’t available to answer the phones while eating lunch at an In-N-Out Burger restaurant with his father. He’d forgotten to log out of his customer service chat system—and ended up closing $2,000 sale that came in. “I looked at how many phone calls I was missing,” he says. “I was only answering 30%.” Walton hired a friend who mans the phone and the site’s live chat as a W-2 employee in March. He also contracts with a marketing firm.
His advice to other want-to-be internet retailers? “Be a sponge for the sort of knowledge that will make you wealthy,” he says. Whether that has meant reading a book on writing product descriptions or studying master salesmen in action, he’s willing, because he knows it will help him grow his business.
Dan Mezheritsky, 29, founder and President of Fitness on the Go, an in-home personal training franchise, Vancouver, Canada
As a junior national champion decathlete in Canada, Mezheritsky tore his hamstring at age 20 at the Canadian Olympic trials. “Having to go through a lot of rehab, I learned a lot about the body, but after a tear like that, it wasn’t really possible to compete,” he says. Mezheritsky decided to become a personal trainer but wanted to accomplish more than he could as a solo operator.
In 2005, he started Fitness on the Go in Vancouver where he hired other personal trainers as employees. Within the first three years he sold $1.5 million worth of training, he says.
But working with the employees was frustrating. He didn’t find them to be particularly motivated to help him grow the business. “The personal trainers would build a very good relationship with the customer,” says Mezheritsky. “What that led to was the personal trainer or customer proposing a side deal. If the trainer was being paid $20, and customer was paying $60 they would agree to $40, cut Fitness on the Go of the equation and work on their own.”
Sometimes trainers were unprofessional in other ways. One trainer asked to use the washroom at a customer’s house—and took a shower. “She comes out dressed up to go out for a Friday night,” says Mezheritsky. “The customer calls us and says `What is this?!

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