On February 7, 2023, we’ll hit our first anniversary of launching this brand.
It has been a crazy fun year, with moments of stress and frustration. This is a reflection piece that looks back on what we’ve achieved in Year 1 and how we did it, what was hard and why, and how we’re growing the company going forward.
I share this publicly because I believe transparency helps others — but I write it mainly for myself. This year especially, after a frustrating fall with limited work time, it was helpful to remind myself that we’ve come a long way and have a lot to be proud of.
Before we dig in… I want to send a big THANK YOU to everyone who supported this brand over the last year, whether you subscribed to our email list, bought of one of our reports, or shared the website with your colleagues. Truly, we would not be here without you.
If you want the short version of how the year went, this infographic sums it up:
Posts I’ve written previously about launching They Got Acquired:
What you can expect in this post:
Lots went right this year! Here’s what I feel good about.
On the whole, I’m happy with how far we’ve come and what lies ahead for this company. This internal knowing that we’re on the right track is what drives me forward. Even when I have moments of self-doubt about pieces of this puzzle — and I had plenty of those this year — I am confident about the company as a whole.
This might sound obvious, but it’s a big deal, because a year ago when we launched, I considered They Got Acquired as somewhat of an experiment. Would this business work? Is helping entrepreneurs sell their business a big enough niche to carve out a meaningful audience? Am I qualified enough to solve real pain points?
The more we’ve learned about our community and what they need, the more confident I am that we are on the right track. There are still plenty of details to figure out and execute on. But what started as a seed of an idea is growing into a company that has already helped a lot of people and has the potential to make a lot of money.
That’s a completely different place than we were a year ago.
It’s easy to skip over this big-picture win, but the truth is, this is one of the most important parts. I had fun growing this brand over the last year, and I believe the people who helped me did, too! I love the early days of a new startup, that satisfied feeling of creating something out of nothing.
I’ve also been reminded of how much I enjoy some of the more tedious tasks that are required in the early days of bootstrapping a business. It took a while to get comfortable with this again after serving in a leadership role where I supported people and teams who did the work. But now that I’ve got comfortable, I like the tinkering and figuring out how to use new tools, even down to getting a page on our website to look right.
On some days the little tasks feel like they’re getting in the way of creating something bigger than myself, but the longer I reacquaint myself with the lean-team mentality, the more I enjoy it. Because in the early days, doing the little things well can move the business forward in a meaningful way.
If I look at what’s most fulfilling about what we’re building, it’s the entrepreneurs we’re supporting.
In just a year, we have helped thousands of founders understand and think through the sale process, and connected them to resources to help them sell. I’ve personally had nearly 90 30-minute conversations with founders who are thinking about selling, and helped many of them take the next step that was right for them.
I see a huge opportunity to demystify the sale process — and we’re already doing it for lots of founders. Even cooler, many of those founders are women. Women in business are drastically underserved, and we are providing a safe space for them to figure out how to get the ROI they deserve. That is a huge win.
Here’s what one of the founders said after we helped him find an M&A advisor he could trust:
I visualized the building of this brand as four buckets:
The challenge as a bootstrapped, solo founder is giving each bucket the attention it deserves; the spinning plates feeling is real.
Here’s a high-level look at what we’ve done for each of these buckets over the last year.
We have a fantastic team of contractors, and this year wouldn’t have been possible without them. Most are content creators — writers/reporters, an editor, podcast producer, designer, researcher — plus an operations manager.
I spent a lot of time this year vetting writers, and you can see that with how many bylines we have on the website: 25.
The hard part with a small team is that losing just one person requires a rewiring of priorities; you have to make time to replace them so the engine can continue to run. We had to do that a few times this year as writers moved onto other projects.
We now have a reliable team of part-time people who do awesome work, and I’m so grateful for that.
In the early days, I spent energy on workflow, figuring out how we would do our work. Once we figured out which tools we’d use and how we’d use them, this moved into the background.
Here’s the tool stack we landed on:
How our tool stack is shaping up for @TheyGotAcquired:
👉 @ClickUp for project management
👉 @TwistWork for team collab
👉 @GoogleDocs for writing/editing
👉 @Loom for asynchronous explainers
👉 @typefully app for Twitter threads
— Alexis Grant (@alexisgrant) February 4, 2022
This is my core strength, so it makes sense that our content engine would run smoothly. Yet this was still no small feat. When you start a new content brand, it’s not just about creating the content, it’s about figuring out what that content even is. What’s the best format? What’s the voice? What information do you include?
We are in a great groove here, both creatively and operationally. Here’s a look at how we set up our editorial process in ClickUp:
While our team reports and writes our stories, I am heavily involved as an editor. I spend a lot of my time figuring out what we’ll write about, who will write it, assigning posts, and then editing them when they come in.
We have an assistant editor who edits some of our content, but I desperately want to decrease my time spent on content so I can focus more on the business side of the house. Yet this is where I need to be patient, because I also recognize the value of being heavily involved in shaping content in the beginning, as we figure out what we stand for. Not only are we offering a first impression for our readers, we’re also figuring out content for ourselves. If we nail this early, it will serve as guidance for the team in years to come.
We’ve published 153 stories on the website, with 25% featuring female founders. We also sent 110 newsletters to our subscribers, without missing a single scheduled slot. When you’re building a content business, consistency is everything.
We’re focusing on three main revenue streams:
Here’s what each of these look like.
💰 Sponsorships: We’ve worked with sponsors (advertisers) for both our newsletter and our reports. This has been super helpful from a cash flow perspective and also… a pain in the ass.
I don’t love advertising as a business model because it’s a constant treadmill of selling, but there’s demand to reach our audience; there’s almost nowhere else you can target this niche of founders who are thinking about selling. Plus, I’ve enjoyed working with most of our sponsors — I just don’t enjoy outbound sales.
Overall I’m happy with the progress here, especially that we’ve been able to increase our value to sponsors as we’ve grown our email list while maintaining great open and click rates. But I have some thinking to do re: how to accomplish our sponsorship goals long term without requiring my own energy. Maybe we’ll hire someone else to work on this in 2023.
But those are just the tip of this iceberg. The real potential is in allowing users to log into our database directly to filter our acquisition data as they choose, or pulling custom reports for them that meet their needs. (Think: if you sell e-commerce companies, being able to pull comps in the industry and size range you choose, as well as buyer lists.)
Our database of acquisitions has thousands of records, covering mostly private deals between $100K-$50M over the last few years. We’ve done some competitive analysis with similar products that exist already, and we have a lot of data that’s not compiled elsewhere.
Year 1 was about building the database; Year 2 will be about making it accessible to people and companies who value the data.
💰 Referrals: We made dozens of referrals to M&A advisors, brokers and other partners who can help the founders looking to sell. Only a few of these referrals have converted so far — it typically takes months or even years for a founder to go from interested-in-selling to a closed deal — but we’re hoping to see more revenue from these partnerships in Year 2.
Will we become a brokerage? For the moment, our answer is no. I’m more excited by the opportunities with our deal database. But I’ve learned to never say never.
The biggest win revenue-wise over the last year was figuring out how these streams would each contribute to the business. We leaned into sponsorships more than I expected because of the demand, and that cash flow has helped us cover expenses while we grow the database products. Referring founders to brokers wasn’t even on my radar as a revenue stream when we launched, and now we’re projecting it in our top three for the coming year.
We’ve grown our email subscriber list to 4,581 — up from 1,000 subscribers when we launched a year ago — and have an average open rate of 54%.
I’m really happy with that for our first year, especially given we haven’t leaned on paid social yet. We don’t need a huge list for this business to be successful; we just need a high-quality, niche list.
A few wins that contributed to this growth:
I’ve had moments of feeling frustrated at how in-the-weeds I am in building our email list, but then I remind myself: this is one of the most important things I can do for the business.
Our email list *is* our business. That’s our No. 1 KPI other than revenue. It’s one of the only measuring sticks that matter. Optimizing here is a good use of my energy and time, and as a bonus, I get to learn along the way.
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It’s easy to share the wins, but this year wasn’t all rainbows. Here’s what caused me stress.
The hardest part about the last year for me personally has been keeping expectations around growth and progress reasonable, given I’m still doing a lot of the work myself. This was a huge mindset adjustment for me — bigger than I expected — after spending years at The Penny Hoarder, where I had dozens of full-time employees under my wing and plenty of resources to move projects forward. I find myself expecting that kind of movement now even though it’s just me and a team of part-time contractors.
This early grind is typical for a bootstrapped founder; it takes a while to put the foundations in place that will generate revenue, and you have to do most everything yourself until you have the money to hire other people. It’s fun in some ways and frustrating in others.
While we certainly wouldn’t be where we are without the team — they write all the content, do the design, produce the podcast and more — the jobs that relate directly to generating revenue, like pushing products out the door or selling sponsorships, are still done primarily by me.
Yet my time and energy are constrained. This is partly because I’m a parent (I share caregiving responsibilities with my husband), and partly because I choose to prioritize my physical and mental health over the business, so I spend time hiking, driving to yoga, and even sleeping that could otherwise be spent on work.
I’m proud of my husband and I for making this shift in priorities a few years ago, after working at full speed while trying to raise babies drove us both into the ground; we even chose where to live based on health priorities. But while it feels fantastic over the long run to use middle-of-the-day hours (when we have childcare) to hike, it still sometimes feels uncomfortable in the moment to choose the outdoors over work, especially when work time is scarce.
By far the most challenging piece of this was how much my family and I got sick in the fall of 2022. Every parent knows this, but when you have a family, you not only take sick days when you need them, you also take sick days when everyone else is sick and needs you to look after them. This led to an absurd number of sick days and far fewer work hours than I’d projected.
The biggest negative result was that some of the product launches I’d planned for Q4 did not happen, which affected our revenue. More on that next.
I’m noticing I put this in the “needs improvement” section rather than the “went well” section, and realizing I’m probably being too hard on myself. Maybe I should spin it in a more positive light — not to affect how you see this, but to affect how I see it.
We brought in $83,000 in revenue this year — pretty darn good for Year 1 of a bootstrapped business.
But we fell short of my big goal of bringing in enough revenue to cover expenses (not including my salary) by the end of the year.
Earning enough revenue to cover expenses is important to me for two reasons: 1) it shows the business is actually solving a problem that people will pay for and 2) it lets me avoid putting more of my own money into the company.
We’re bootstrapping @TheyGotAcquired.
Here’s how much money I’ve put into the media brand so far and what our finances look like 6 months after launch 👇
(This feels vulnerable, but here goes…)
— Alexis Grant (@alexisgrant) September 13, 2022
But the truth is, this was kind of an arbitrary goal for this year. I’ve been binge-listening to Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You To Be Rich podcast, which features real couples talking about money, and it’s helping me recognize that this goal was more about my own hangups about money than an actual measure of success.
We barely missed this mark, and we didn’t hit it mostly because we didn’t push out the products we’d planned in the second half of the year as I explained above. We were on track as early as the summer, when we had our first profitable month — but then didn’t keep that up.
The tough part is that since I’ve put the foundation in place for our content machine, we have expenses every month (mainly writers) regardless of how much revenue we generate. Our burn rate is about $10,000/month.
But here’s the wonderful thing: I won a fellowship and grant from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and The Garage, the university’s entrepreneurship incubator, which has covered those expenses. It’s about $80,000 over the academic year, or nearly $9,000 a month (before taxes).
So we actually are covering our expenses, just not yet in a repeatable-and-sustainable-revenue way.
The grant funding has been tremendously helpful, because it allowed me to be sick and care for my family this fall without stressing about money or tapping into our savings. It extended our runway and gave me time to keep thinking long-term, rather than scrambling to pay this month’s bills.
We achieved so much this year… and yet there are still things we didn’t get to.
On one hand, I feel like I didn’t do enough. On the other, I know that, ironically, ruthless prioritization has fueled our success. Look at how much you achieved, I say to myself some days, even without working that much!
I leaned hard into Tom Ferris’ “to get big things done, let small bad things happen.” Small bad things I’ve let happen this year include:
What’s coming up in the next year? Here’s what we’re excited about for Year 2 of this business in our four buckets:
🙌 Monetize: This is priority No. 1. We have the foundations in place, so building out products and getting them live is the next step, with a focus on making our data accessible to entrepreneurs and M&A professionals.
I still consider Year 2 a building year, but I do want to see our revenue streams begin to flow.
Also aiming to bring in at least a few referral conversions, while better understanding the quality of the leads we’re sending to partners.
Give myself permission to ignore audience growth for the first half of the year to get our products live.
🙌 Team: Hire a full-time writer either this year or in Year 3. I also see us adding more editing guns and a part-time ad salesperson.
🙌 Content: Continue to publish with ease, and launch Season 2 of the podcast; though I give myself permission to do this later in the year. As always, never miss a newsletter.
I’ll come back to these goals six months in and adjust them for the rest of the year based on results and opportunities.
Year 1 was about building the foundation for this company.
Year 2 will be more of building that foundation — but in a way that’s geared more toward generating revenue. Let’s get it!
It doesn’t feel right to write a looking-ahead post that focuses solely on business, when my real goal is to build a business that supports my life. And the truth is, without basic personal pieces in place, I will never reach these business goals.
I wrote about my personal goals in a separate post. To sum them up: eat healthy (I had this goal last year, too), keep working on expectations (a theme from this round-up), plus more quality time with my husband and friends.
That’s a wrap. Bring it on, 2023.
I’m always open to questions in the comments, on Twitter @alexisgrant or via email at alexis@TheyGotAcquired.com.