How To Go From $0 to $1,000,000 in Two Years

A Couple of years ago I wrote a post about how it was the year you had to quit your job. I gave the reasons why.

It wasn’t a gung-ho “you have to be an entrepreneur” article. It was more: bad shit is happening in the corporate world and bit by bit you’re going to feel the urge to quit.

Correctly, many people asked, “well, what’s next? What should I do?”

I’ve begun asking people who did it.

What did they do? How do you quit your job and basically, make a million dollars?

Not everyone is Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page. Not everyone is going to drop out of college and create an iphone or a time machine or a toilet that resizes itself automatically depending on who is sitting on it (although that would be pretty cool).

Some people would simply like to quit their jobs and make a good living. Some people would simply like to quit their jobs and make a million dollars. In that movie (the Justin Timberlake vehicle), JT says, “A million’s not cool. A BILLION is cool.”

Well, actually, very often a million is pretty cool. Not everyone is going to be a VC funded $100 million hotshot.  Sometimes it’s nice to make a million dollars, be your own boss, and use that financial freedom to catapult to success.

So  I called Bryan Johnson, who started a company called Braintree. You might not have heard of Braintree but you’ve heard of their customers. They provide credit card transactions or payment services for companies like  OpenTable, Uber, Airbnb, etc.

I’ve never spoken with Bryan before. I am not an investor in Braintree. As far as I know I’m not even an investor (unfortunately) in any of the clients of Braintree.

I like to call people who I think have interesting stories and hear what they have to say. That’s the way I build my network of not only financial contacts but potential friends. I’m shy and ugly and don’t have many friends.

But I knew Bryan had an interesting story of how he set up Braintree and I figured it would fit this category of “what do I do next?”

In 2007, Bryan was a mid-level executive at Sears. He quit his job and within two years was making over a million a year for himself. Eventually Braintree grew much bigger and raised $34 million from Accel and others but that  wasn’t what was interesting to me.

“How did you do it?” I asked him. “What are the steps”. And he told me. So I will tell you.

“I hated my job,” he said, “and I never believed in the idea of getting a fixed wage. I had been a salesman before in the credit processing business where I would go out and get merchants like restaurants or stores to switch credit card processors to whoever I was selling for. So I figured I could do this but not work for myself instead of another company.”

Rule #1: Take out the middleman

Instead  of Bryan going back to the company he used to sell for, he cut out the middleman and went straight to Chase PaymentTech, worked out his own reselling agreement with them, and did all of this BEFORE leaving his job at Sears.

Many people ask me, “I”m at a job, should I raise VC money yet?” NO, of course not! First you have to hustle. VCs want to back someone who shows a little Ooomph!

Rule #2: Pick a boring business

Everyone is always on the lookout for “the next big thing”. The next big thing is finding rare earth minerals on Mars. That’s HARD WORK. Don’t do it!

Bryan picked a business that every merchant in the world needs and he also knew that it was an exploding business because of all the online stores that were opening up.

You don’t have to come up with the new, new thing. Just do the old, old thing slightly better than everyone else.

And when you are nimble and smaller than the behemoths that are stuck with bureaucracy  you can often offer better sales and better service, and higher touch to your customers. Customers will switch to you.

Rule #3: Get a customer!

This is probably the most important rule for any entrepreneur. I’ve written about this before on TechCrunch. People want to go the “magical path” – i.e. get VC money, quit their jobs, build a product, and then suddenly have millions of customers. It NEVER works like that.

Bryan found ten customers (out of the first 12 he approached) who would switch their credit card processing to him. He figured he needed to make $2100 a month to quit his job and move to Utah with his family. With his first ten customers he was making $6200 a month, so he had margin of safety. He quit his job and suddenly he was in business.

Rule #4: Build Trust While You Sleep

This rule is often “Make Money While You Sleep”. But Bryan already was making money while he slept. He was making money on every credit card purchase with his first ten customers.

“I didn’t want to be going up and down the street looking for customers,” Bryan said. “And I wasn’t a developer so didn’t set up a way for people to just sign up online just yet. So some people started telling me I needed to blog. And to blog well you need to be totally transparent or people will call you out on it. So I started blogging about what was really happening in the credit card industry. How many merchants would get scammed and so on. Then I’d put my posts on the top social sites at the time: Digg, reddit, and StumbleUpon, and sometimes the posts would get to the top of these sites and my site would get so much traffic I would crash.

“But I became a trusted source about credit card processing. So before long all these online sites that had previously had a hard time figuring their way around this would start contacting me to set up their payment gateways and other transaction services.”

So a couple of things there.

Rule #5: Blogging is not about money

Blogging is about trust. You don’t sell ads on your blog (rarely), you don’t get the big book deal (rarely), but you do build trust and this leads to opportunities.

In Bryan’s case it led to more inflow, rather than him going door to door and it also let to his biggest early opportunity.

“Basically, OpenTable called me and they wanted a software solution to handle storing credit cards, handing the data to restaurants, and being compliant from a regulatory standpoint. I signed a two year deal with them that let me get developers and we build their solution. Suddenly we now had more services to sell to customers.”

Rule #6: Say YES!

He started out just connecting merchants with Chase Paymentech. Then OpenTable asked him to do software development when he’s never developed software before. He said YES!

He got software developers, built a great product, and quadrupled his income or more. And then it put his business in a whole new stratosphere of services he offered customers.

Suddenly, word of mouth was spreading and other online companies started using Braintree’s services: Airbnb, Uber, etc. And the VCs started calling because all of their clients were saying Braintree was providing all of their payment services.

It’s not that easy for startup online companies to get payment services.

Bryan told me, “For each new customer we’d put together an entire package for Chase Paymentech on why this customer could be trusted and should be a valid merchant. Which leads to…

Rule #7: Customer Service

You can treat each customer, new and old, like a real human being.

“We intuitively sort of knew what we didn’t like in customer service everywhere else: being put on hold, being switched around, etc so we made sure there was as little friction as possible between the customer calling and actually getting help from us.”

When you are a small business, there’s no excuse for having poor customer service.

Your best new customers are your old customers, and the best way to touch your old customers is to provide quick help when they need it.

Customer services is the most reliable touch point to keep selling your service to them.

“Ok,” I said, “I have to ask. At what point were you making over seven figures?”

“By Year 2, I was making over a million a year,” Bryan said, “and the business was continuing to grow. We were doubling every year. We couldn’t hire fast enough.”

In 2011, after four years in business, Braintree took in it’s first dime of money -$34 million in a Series A round. And right now, according to Crunchbase, they process over $5 billion worth of credit card transactions annually.

Not bad for someone who quit his job and just wanted to figure out a way to get his bills paid.

  • You said that its okay to do slightly better than everyone else however i read in Peter Thiel’s Zero to One where he claims that if you just do slightly better than everyone else you will attract competition, and that sounds legit what do you think of this.

    For eg: I am in college right now (I know wrong choice but lets just live with it for now) and i have a blog or built a small product. At this point my product can easily be copied by my classmates or my hostel mates so Peter Thiel claims that its better to not have something thats just slightly better but to take the time to build something thats substantially different what do you think of this

    PS: Great blog been following for quite awhile now keep up the good work :)

    • James A.

      “if you just do slightly better than everyone else you will attract competition”

      hmm, how about creating your own “competition” ? Splitting activity so you remain under the “radar” so to speak ? What do you think ?

    • Slightly better==better, When you’re slightly better keep on being slightly better. Sure new competitors will come when they see you’re generating revenues. But if you don’t start you’re never going to get anything.

      Personally, I think it’s logical to rethink when you’ve unique idea and you need to run with it and you won’t be able to do it. If the idea is already there in the market then, of course, you have to better than competition to survive.

    • Don’t spend your time worrying about competition. Thinking about competition before you’re even in business is a surefire way to never get started.

      James is right—do something a little bit better. You’ll learn quickly that this is indeed all you need.

    • TwistedWords

      Slightly better allows you to get the most important thing: customers. Then service the hell out of them to learn their deeper or broader needs. This allows you to build something substainally different. Facebook started as only slightly better than MySpace. Google started as slightly better than Yahoo and Alta Vista. Apple started as slightly better than Commodor and TI. Apple started building a personal computer with a slightly better UI that sat on your desk. That lead them to create a handheld computer that also worked as a stereo, TV, and phone.

    • Hardik Vaidya

      Hey Naman,
      While I understand your confusion, Peter Thiel’s approach and that of James is quite different. One thinks creating impact as the first choice, and the second one believes in creating one in the process.

      For instance, James’ phenomenal blog was maybe not created with the objective to change lives and impact the world. Although his material is downright brilliant, far far better than most out in this space, his objective was to spill his guts out. In the process, he’s ended up impacting our lives in more ways than one.

      Peter on the other hand spots trends or opportunities that he wants to vastly make a difference in. He maybe starts out with a massive ambition. For instance, his Thiel Fellowship, was created to find changemakers under the age 20. His objective was clear. Give an environment, resources and tools to these folks, they’ll end up changing the world. PayPal came in took the world by storm.

      I think the approach is vastly different.
      But to help you with your concern, I think it would be helpful to adopt James’ approach, simply for the fact that you focus on the variables under your control. Your effort, your motivation etc. The result could be massive success or not, but it won’t deter you from moving forward. I like to think of James’ example of failing in 17 businesses out 20. The 3 that he made a killing in has served him pretty well, to my limited knowledge.

      Competition will always be there, whether you acknowledge or like it. You can’t run away from it either. It is great to have competition, since it serves as an indicator that there’s a market for it. Also, if raising VC money is part of your plan, having no competition, might be a scary thing for VCs, since there’s nothing to look for reference.

      Hope this helps.

  • Dylan George

    #7 is what sets Braintree apart from Stripe. When I have a problem, I pick up my phone and call support. Within minutes I’m talking to a knowledgable, enthusiastic customer service representative who is willing to do whatever it takes to help me out.

    This is great background about the start of Braintree. I would love a follow up article or podcast discussing the current state of this industry and how Bryan plans to take on his main competitors like Stripe.

    P.S. I hate the title of this blog post, why not something about the actual meat of the article, regarding Braintree and the credit card processing industry? I’m assuming it’s to attract the most amount of clicks possible, but I almost didn’t read this because of the spammy title.

  • This is not really related to the article as a whole. But I literally had a conversation about Braintree for the first time in my life five minutes before reading this article. Weird…

    • James A.

      Coincidences. Or breadcrumbs :) ?

  • Great suggestions. I especially liked #3, #5 & #6. In hindsight, I would have been much further ahead of where I am currently if I had replaced my income before leaving my job 7 years ago. That drain of equity over time becomes a big anchor that drags down your forward progress.

    I also appreciated that you mentioned finding something boring. One of my mentors used to say if your business is exciting, you’re doing it wrong. Because exciting means it’s a roller coaster. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, just look for ways to quell the highs and lows.

    Another great article. Thanks James!

  • I try to raise money selling to invest in the creation of a new hi-tech company

  • Frida


  • Vendetta