Sol Orwell was in the forefront of the million-dollar, one-person business trend, building Examine.com, a health information site he founded in 2011, to more than $1 million in annual revenue with a small team of contractors.
But million-dollar, one-person businesses don’t stay static. (You can read about the early history of the business “A Young Entrepreneur’s Passion for Hacking His Diet Sparks a Seven-Figure Business.”). While many founders go deep on fine-tuning boutique solopreneur businesses without ever adding employees, others eventually opt to go the traditional route and scale up. Orwell, based in Toronto, is taking a hybrid approach. He relaunched his site recently after tripling the size of his virtual team to about 25 people, with a mix of contractors and employees, and now projects about $2 million in revenue for 2022. His goal is to build the business to nine-figure revenue.
“It’s important to have work that really excites you, especially given the Great Resignation,” says Orwell. “My mission is to build a company I am really proud of.”
Examine.com sells nutrition information, such its supplement guides, via a subscription model that goes for $19 a month or a discounted $144 a year. Prior to the relaunch, he and his team organized the site around specific nutrients, like Vitamin D. Now the information is bucketed into the health challenges that cause people to search the internet for nutrition-based solutions, with 25 categories (such as “cardiovascular”) that cover 65-80 health conditions (like “high blood pressure”). The site also offers insights into “outcomes.”
“People don’t care about Vitamin D,” he says. “They care about ‘I have high blood pressure.’”
Orwell decided to relaunch the site after a rough patch at the company in 2019. “We had gotten a bit lost,” says Orwell. “This is one of the conundrums of the one-man business approach. To be honest, it was communication on our part, on the mission and vision. In mid-2019, we re-set everything. We started going toward the holocracy approach, and full financial transparency.” (Holocracy is a system of management based on nimble networks of people who organize themselves. By full transparency, he means he shares data such as income and expenses with his team on a monthly basis.)
Things started to improve. Then Covid hit. “Covid annihilated us,” says Orwell. “Personal trainers, a huge customer segment, got annihilated.”
Orwell and his team doubled down on their search engine optimization work and marketing through their customer relationship management (CRM) software. They also assigned a customer success associate to every customer. “From the moment someone buys, we want to make sure they don’t churn,” he says.
This approach has been working, with the company now serving more than 10,000 customers. Although a change in the Google algorithm hit traffic hard at one point, it has taken a big bounce back up. In addition to many customer reviews on Trustpilot, one thing that has visitors flocking is Examine.com’s approach to organizing information. If someone is searching for “migraines,” they will find answers to common sub-questions, like “Does not getting enough sleep cause migraines?” as well as a list of relevant studies on migraines.
“Instead of visitors having to find it across 20 different blog posts, we are putting it all in one place,” he says.
To scale up, Orwell had to double down on his investment in researchers. 75% of his payroll is made up of researchers, typically experts such as MDs and Ph.Ds.
With an eye on building an attractive work environment, he runs the company on a four-day workweek and is introducing benefits such as four months of paid paternity leave. He has also introduced six-months of maternity leave, which covers team members regardless of the outcome of the pregnancy. On a monthly basis, the company provides 20% of pre-tax profits to employees.
What Examine doesn’t offer is unlimited vacation. “We try not to give lip service to company benefits,” says Orwell. “Companies say you can do unlimited vacation. How many follow up on it?”
With business humming, Orwell plans to grow the company to 40 employees within a year—a goal that seems like he will have no trouble reaching. Although Orwell has added complexity to the business, he still runs it using lean digital methods, such as communicating through Slack, rather than holding a lot of formal meetings, an approach that many people like. Another draw is the employee handbook he made publicly available. “For five positions, 480 people applied,” he says.