Many professional speakers found their businesses wilting when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. James Taylor’s thrived, bringing in seven-figure revenue. Unable to log the 300,000 miles of air travel he normally does in a year, he made the transition to working virtually in 2020. Throughout the pandemic, he spoke to business audiences about topics such as “SuperCreativity” and innovation from his home studio in a bucolic town near Edinburgh, Scotland, where sheep graze outside of his window.
One reason Taylor did so well was a slow and steady commitment to email marketing. He has a list of 125,000 people and sends out marketing messages daily to keep business flowing. Taylor, 43, built that list gradually after starting his career as a professional keynote speaker in 2017. He’d spent his early career as a professional manager for a number of Grammy Award–winning artists after growing up in a family of musicians (his father and grandfather are jazz musicians), becoming a jazz drummer himself, and marrying an award-winning jazz singer, Alison Burns. After moving to Napa Valley, California, to work as vice president of an online music school business, Taylor began getting invitations to speak at industry conferences. He started saying yes and found he enjoyed getting up on stage. “It felt like coming home to me,” he says. “Speaking isn’t the same as performing but there are a lot of commonalities about connecting with the audience. There’s also a love of being on the road.” With a natural talent for speaking, Taylor soon found himself in high demand. “I went from being completely unknown in speaking in 2017 to doing fifty keynotes in twenty-five countries in 2019,” he recalls.
By early 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Taylor generated about 70 percent of his income from in-person speeches for corporate clients. His business took off after he learned that speakers’ bureaus arrange 70 percent of better-paying gigs in his field and got accepted to several. This enabled him to bring in $10,000 to $30,000 for a speech. The rest of his income came from events he organizes, such as his International Speakers Summit, a music publishing company he runs with Alison, and SpeakersU, a membership program on how to become a highly compensated global keynote that he introduced in 2018. He also hosts the SuperCreativity podcast, which launched in 2016.
Taylor is part of an exciting trend: tiny microbusinesses making big money—revenue in the high six figures, the seven figures, or beyond. It’s never been easier for regular people to create a successful business with a tiny team of 20 people or fewer, whether it’s made up of a regular group of contractors, traditional employees, or a hybrid team of both. Thanks to the explosion of free and low-cost digital tools, better digital payment options, the growth of freelance hubs, the ease of marketing on social media, the growth of online education via courses and masterclasses, and greater acceptance of remote work (which grew by leaps during the COVID-19 pandemic), small businesses can operate with new efficiencies and less startup capital than in years past.
Tiny businesses tend to get overlooked in the world of entrepreneurship, where the mindset is often “Go big or go home.” However, they represent a large portion of businesses in the US and the world. Currently, there are 30.7 million small businesses in the US, and of these, 5.3 million have between one and twenty employees. Another 26.4 million are nonemployer firms, meaning they have no paid employees on payroll—the group I covered in my book, The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business.
Some nonemployer businesses operate more like employer firms than a traditional one-person business, even though they don’t run payroll. Unlike a one-person business that may use one or two contractors on an occasional basis—perhaps a bookkeeper and accountant—they depend on a regular team of freelancers and agencies, whom they coordinate almost like employees. Maybe these firms employ a virtual assistant, a bookkeeper, a social media agency, and a copywriter, all of whom operate their own businesses but come together once a week in a team Zoom call, similar to employees
Like Taylor, many of these entrepreneurs keep their tiny businesses lean by choice. Just as many people are seeking a simpler lifestyle and, in some cases, embracing trends like the “tiny house” movement, these entrepreneurs are deliberately opting for a minimalist approach to business. They pride themselves on traveling light—while still accomplishing what they set out to do: make a living, build economic security, have enough cash to do the things they want to do in life, and give back. “The big issue is control and lifestyle,” says Steve King, partner in Emergent Research, a consultancy in Lafayette, California, that studies self-employment. “For a lot of people who are starting businesses, their objectives are very idiosyncratic. Once they reach those objectives, they don’t want to grow very much. The added benefit of growth is outweighed by the pain of managing the business.”
Although small businesses took a beating during the pandemic, there are still a lot of upsides to running one today. Many people don’t realize what tiny businesses are accomplishing. Among those 5.3 million tiny businesses, the average business had just four employees and annual revenue of $816,180, with a payroll of $162,755, according to US Census Bureau statistics for 2017. (Payroll is the highest cost in many businesses.) That leaves $654,425 to cover any remaining overhead and take as profit. This is likely just the beginning. US business formations skyrocketed by nearly 42 percent in 2020, as people put their time under lockdown to use in reinventing their careers—and the trend has continued into 2021.
Achieving high revenues and profits takes a commitment to showing up every day, along with ingenuity, resilience and a gift for stretching a tiny startup budget, particularly in the challenging business environment we face right now.
Here are some of the strategies that have helped Taylor build his successful business.
Stay flexible: In February 2020, Taylor was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, after doing a talk for a soft-drink company, when the country decided to close the border because of covid. He barely made it onto the last flight out. Taylor stopped doing in-person events temporarily after that trip and transitioned to an all-virtual career almost overnight, offering his services as both a speaker and emcee. At his home in Scotland, he set up a studio, equipped with five cameras, elaborate lighting, and green screens, where he could deliver events with the highest level of polish. In some cases, he appeared at virtual events via hologram, Peter Diamandis–style, a trend he believes will be increasingly important. He also embraced technologies, such as augmented reality, to add special effects that borrow from the gaming and live events worlds.
Make marketing easy. A big part of Taylor’s success in building a sustainable business has been how he markets himself. Given all of the time it took to prepare for his speaking work and to actually do it, he needed to minimize the hours he spent on this to keep his business running efficiently. To that end, he thought about how to apply the 80-20 rule to marketing, asking himself, “What is the lazy way of building a speaking business?”
That question sparked an idea that still guides him. Given that his topic is creativity, he looked online for the top ten creativity speakers, did some research to find out where they were speaking, and then began an email outreach campaign to the same clients and conferences. “The smart thing is to be finding clients who have already booked speakers on exactly the same topic you speak on and who are in the same fee range or a higher fee range,” he says.
Using his Ontraport, a customer relationship management software, his team began sending notes from his assistant’s email address with a 30-second promo he’d filmed, saying, “I noticed you’ve hired X. I’d like to introduce you to James Taylor, a top keynote speaker on creativity and innovation. Click on this video and you’ll know if James is your ideal speaker.” If they clicked on the video, he’d programmed Ontraport to stop sending emails and would instead send a message saying, “Let’s get you time on James’s calendar.” Typically, about 10 percent of people respond to one of these emails marketing him as a speaker. If they don’t respond, Taylor sends them another email with a link to a video. “By the fifth one, I’m talking about Scottish country dancing and its relationship to creativity!” he says. “For some people, that is the only one they respond to.”
When Taylor sent his first mailing, one prospect said yes to retaining him right away. She was organizing a conference in the Middle East. “She had hired a previous well-known speaker,” Taylor recalls. She loved the title for his speech—“Creative Places.” When asked if he had a video of it, he was glad she was interested but hadn’t even written the speech yet. That said, he was confident he’d be able to deliver it. “It’s brand new,” he responded to her. “It’s very current.”
To prepare for the speaking engagement, Taylor reached out to local Rotary Clubs and asked if he could speak to them for 20 minutes on the same subject as his speech. Taylor found plenty of takers and, though he is a vegan, soon found himself on a “ham salad tour.” “I would do ten in a row, sometimes two a day,” he says. “I learned what worked, jokes and different things. By the end of that, I had a speech.”
Learn to love your e-newsletter. Taylor uses email marketing to promote his course and events, too. To engage with prospects who attend one of his free events, such as the International Authors Summit (where I first met him when I spoke there), he might first give them access to a free report, quiz, or infographic if they opt into his e-newsletter. “You might add 10,000 people to your list in the space of a month when you do those summits,” he says. “Is that the perfect quality list? Sometimes not, but you know most of these people are interested in the same thing.”
Once people subscribe to his e-newsletter, Taylor offers them helpful information and tips on building their speaking career. He also mentions his paid offerings, such as membership in SpeakersU, which has a subscription model where people pay by the month or year. To keep improving his email marketing, he studies great copywriters, like David Ogilvy and Gary Halbert, and others he considers great storytellers.
That’s the approach that has grown his list to 125,000 people. Taylor’s team now sends out emails once a day, but not to the entire list. He has broken the list into three or four different segments by specific interests and targets them accordingly. “For our brand SpeakersU, on Tuesdays, we’ll send out the new podcast episode,” he says. “Then maybe two days later, we’ll do another email to them about a video I’ve done.” He uses Ontraport to make sure he’s not sending emails to people who aren’t opening his messages. “If we don’t see much movement, we don’t send them stuff anymore,” he says.
Because videos are Taylor’s preferred way of communicating, he develops the main messaging for his marketing communications there, then has his team turn the transcripts into blog posts, articles and quote cards for Instagram. His recommendation for anyone looking to market themselves is to understand which medium is most comfortable for them and to use that to build their material. Ask yourself, “Where do you instantly go to get the idea out of your head?” he asks. Once you express the idea there, you can always transform it into material for the other media, he says.
Don’t do it all yourself. To keep all of these initiatives in motion, Taylor relies on a team of five to six freelancers. When he is getting ready for an online event, this team tackles administrative details, like setting up pre-event calls with clients and creating marketing collateral, like graphics and videos. He turns to a photographer in Astoria, New York—thousands of miles away—who specializes in doing virtual photoshoots that look like they were shot on location, for promotional photos. “Technology, when it’s done well, should disappear,” says Taylor.
Keep an eye on the bottom line. Even when he factors in the cost of paying his team, speaking at online events has made Taylor’s business more profitable. He found that he can do more virtual events in a week than in-person ones, which might require ten hours or more of travel to get there. “Even though, on average, the virtual keynote fee is 30 percent less, you’re saving all of that time on travel and can do multiple events in a week,” he notes. Although he has started doing in-person events when we last spoke, knowing how to build and market his online events business has given him a whole new revenue stream to help his business grow.
Although current events have brought a whole new set of challenges to small businesses, they’ve also brought many opportunities, as Taylor’s story shows. Building a tiny business that makes big money is all about seizing the chances for growth that are right in front of you, if you’re open to them.