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- On his path to financial freedom, Jeff Neal tried out multiple side businesses until he found the sweet spot of high demand, low competition, and just enough intrigue to keep him hooked.
- His simple dropshipping site model means he has the benefit of low time investment and the possibility of high sales volume — if he can spread the word and boost his SEO ranking.
- Now that it’s up and running, Neal estimates he only spends one to two hours every evening working on The Critter Depot, which sells crickets, roaches, and superworms to reptile pet owners.
- In 2019, The Critter Depot is on track to earn an estimated $270,000. With a profit margin of about 13%, he’ll earn an extra $35,000 in income this year on top of his full-time job.
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The Critter Depot founder Jeff Neal started selling crickets, roaches, and superworms with the same financial goal as Stephanie Meyer when she sold her first “Twilight” book: to earn enough to pay off a minivan.
When the Pennsylvania entrepreneur and father of two dreamed up his small business, he owed $8,000 on a personal loan taken out to purchase a vehicle from Craigslist — with a whopping 27% interest rate.
“I knew I had to pay it off fast,” said Neal, who had tried out other business ideas over the years. With the revenue from The Critter Depot, a website that sells crickets, roaches, superworms, and black soldier fly larvae to reptile pet owners, he managed to pay off the loan in five months.
Why creepy crawly critters, you ask? Read on to learn about Neal’s brilliantly simple business model that brings in $270,000 in annual revenue from about 20 hours per week of work.
Latest World News The big idea (and all the small ones that came before)
All of Neal’s business ideas hatched from his expertise in ecommerce marketing, his day job for the past 10 years. His approach was to do some Google keyword research to see what people searched for online. His first attempt came from a search for “women’s shoes.” It had high volume, meaning the demand was promising.
For a year and a half, Neal teamed up with his wife on a site they dubbed Cheerful Feet before realizing the major flaws in this idea: competitors such as Macy’s, Amazon, Shoe Dazzle, Zappos, DSW, Nordstrom, and then some.
Cheerful Feet taught Neal a valuable lesson. Yes, he wanted a business with high search volume, but he also had to look for low competition. Over the next four years, he tried out a multitude of other ideas, including binoculars, thermal imaging scopes for hunters, and thermometers. He launched a Mud Run series when events like Tough Mudder and Spartan Race were all the rage, but after 1,500 hours of work and three events, he hadn’t earned a penny in profit. A couponing site performed the best, but he got bored with the idea and posted it on Empire Flippers, a site for buying and selling online businesses.
“I think it’s important to become an expert in whatever you’re trying to do,” said Neal. “I was never going to become an expert in women’s shoes or couponing, so I was going to be a horrible salesperson.”
But his persistence eventually paid off: In 2016, he struck gold with the keyword “crickets” — as in, food for pet reptiles. Neal found that despite the high search volume, the space had few competitors. He found a similar situation for “composting worms,” and the two seemed like a logical combination.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, between 1.5 and 2.5 million households in the US owned at least one reptile in 1996, the last time this data was collected. At that time, reptile owners spent on average $67 to $451 per year on food for their pets.
“I’m not passionate about roaches and crickets,” said Neal, but he knew the business had legs.
Latest World News Finding a supplier
Neal had no intention of turning his family’s home into a breeding facility. He’d create what’s called a dropshipping website, basically, a portal where customers could place orders that would be fulfilled by breeders of crickets, roaches, superworms, and black soldier fly larvae.
So the first step was to find a supplier — that was a mistake he’d made with his binocular business. After spending five months designing a logo and website to list the products, he searched in vain for a good supplier. Finding his first cricket, roaches, and superworms supplier was a snap (thanks, Google). The breeder already had similar clients, so the business relationship took off in no time.
But it turns out the easiest option isn’t always the best. Over the next year, Neal realized he could be getting a better deal elsewhere, and his supplier’s customer service wasn’t up to his standards. To find an alternative, he dug around on forums and Facebook groups. The breeder he eventually chose provided better service and more competitive prices, but they were also a smaller outfit. After a year, the growth of The Critter Depot overwhelmed their capacity, and they asked Neal to send them fewer orders.
The third time was a charm — his current breeder offers even better prices due to his volume of sales, and provides an order tracking system which improves customer service.
Latest World News Connecting with customers
Next up: the sell. Neal started off targeting forums like Fauna Classifieds and The Bearded Dragon Forum where he marketed his service and chatted with reptile pet owners under the screen name CheapFeederCrickets. He learned the biggest pain point for his customers was price. The local pet stores were selling 50 to 100 crickets for the same price that he, as a small operation, could sell a thousand.
“One of my advantages is that I don’t need this,” said Neal. “I have my full-time job to pay for my day-to-day living expenses. So I don’t have to pull a salary from this website, whereas my competitors have to pull probably multiple salaries from the markup on their crickets.”
As long as he provided great customer service, Neal knew he’d have guaranteed repeat customers. After all, a bearded dragon, the most voracious pet reptile, eats about a 1,000 half-inch crickets, or 500 roaches, per month as a juvenile. Fully grown, they consume 500 adult-size crickets or 200 roaches.
Neal’s plan was to undercut the competition on price and scoop up market share. “I mean, it’s what Jeff Bezos and Sam Walton did,” he explained.
Latest World News Staking out a top spot on Google
Another advantage of a business idea with high search volume and low competition is the opportunity to earn a top Google search result. Even still, doing so requires a multi-pronged approach, including links to The Critter Depot from other reputable sites and a library of relevant content to keep visitors on the site longer.
For the first, Neal regularly browses Help a Reporter Out, a website journalists use to find sources for stories (and how he made the connection for this one). He looks for any story for which he can serve as a source. Even if the story isn’t directly related to his business, the link to his website is helpful. He’s earned links from sites like Reader’s Digest, Forbes, MarketWatch, and American Express. These are valuable sites because they are thought to have higher domain authority in the mysterious Google algorithm.
The second half of Neal’s Google search strategy involves content. He researches and writes articles for an extensive database on how to care for 21 different species of frogs, snakes, lizards, and more. He includes scientific facts, history, and tips for feeding and setting up habitats. For example, ball pythons are “notorious escape artists” and can live up to 40 years, and the unfriendly pixie frog requires daily cage cleaning to avoid excrement build up.
He also creates videos, which help hold visitors’ attention. The most-watched video is “How To Breed Crickets” — 17 minutes of detail on the necessary supplies and layout as well as an unboxing of 1,000 young crickets in their new habitat where they’re treated to a meal of mandarin orange slices.
In another video, Neal demonstrates how to compost using black soldier larvae, which consume all kinds of decaying material, including meat and citrus, to the tune of double their body weight in one day. Shot from above a bowl of what looks like small maggots, Neal’s hand reaches in and pulls out a handful for an up-close glamour shot. He then places an entire Chick-fil-A sandwich on the wriggling mass and proceeds to show a three-minute time-lapse of 24 hours of consumption. It’s an insect mukbang complete with a rock music soundtrack.
The choices to feature the keywords “black soldier fly larva” and “Chick-fil-A sandwich” were driven by Neal’s goal to improve his search results. “Chick-fil-A is pretty popular, so I just thought combining the two would make it really interesting for people and help with certain terms on YouTube,” he said.
Latest World News The path to financial freedom
So what’s the real motivation behind this business, now that Neal has paid off his minivan?
“I want to retire as soon as possible,” Neal said. He quickly adds that he suspects people misinterpret his goal. “They think I just want to sit around on the couch all day, but that’s not it at all. The goal is accruing more income so I can have the financial independence to pursue other projects.”
And it seems to be working pretty well. Neal still works between 40 and 50 hours per week at his day job. The Critter Depot, by contrast, only takes between 10 and 20 hours of his week. In 2018, the business pulled in $180,000 in revenue. In 2019, he’s seen a 50% monthly increase, bringing the annual estimate to $270,000.
Some of this revenue goes back to his suppliers and to pay freelance technical writers and email marketers as well as a site hosting fee. All told, his profit margin is about 13%, which means he’ll earn an extra $35,000 in income this year. Not bad for a side hustle.
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So what’s Neal’s advice for other upstarts looking for financial independence through a side project?
“Number one, bootstrap everything,” he said. The Critter Depot website is pretty bare bones because Neal believes his business is not dependent on an expensive website. He also doesn’t buy Facebook ads, and he didn’t choose a business that required shipping products overseas. He doesn’t have a separate office, or really any expenses he doesn’t absolutely need.
“Keeping your expenses low forces you to think creatively, and find more efficient ways of operating,” he said. “And those new creative discoveries will give you an edge over the competition.”
Advice number two: Always be learning. Neal uses skills like graphic design, programming, Google Suite, and sales that require him to invest his time, but not his money, in the business.
After all, side hustle king and Nike founder Phil Knight is his entrepreneurship icon.
“Knight was working a full-time job as an accountant while being married with a young child, and grinding away after-hours to make Nike one of the most iconic brands in the world,” he said.
The Critter Depot may not be the next Nike, but Neal estimates he’ll pay off his home mortgage within three years, and hopes to reach financial freedom in six years, by the time he’s 40.
“But if I do it by 50,” Neal said. “I’ll count that as a win.”
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