Sol Orwell, 32, might seem like the ideal candidate to raise venture capital–but there’s one obstacle. He loves having the freedom to travel spontaneously and doesn’t want anyone else to control his time, even if they’re willing to pay for it. “I value my independence more,” he says. Orwell, who lives in […]
“To me, traveling is much more important than making a lot of money,” Orwell said when we spoke recently. “I make a decent amount. I can go for an hour-long walk and not worry I have to get back and make money. Next week, I’m going away for four days to a music festival. The next week, I’ll be away for four days for a bachelor party. The next two weeks I’ll be in Sweden. That would not be possible if I brought in VCs. I don’t feel I need a $5 million house, fancy cars, or fancy watches. I don’t begrudge anyone who wants that lifestyle. Traveling is the main thing I focus on.”
Orwell is part of a small but growing group: Entrepreneurs who generate seven-figure revenues without any formal employees. In the U.S., recent statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau show there were 30,174 “nonemployer” firms that brought in $1 million to $2,499,999 in 2013. That’s up from 29,494 in 2012 and 26,744 in 2011. “Nonemployer firms” is a term the government uses to describe businesses that have no formal employees other than the owners.
Often, the independent spirits behind these firms—inspired by gurus like Tim Ferriss— love the freedoms that come with running a business where they are the only employees. Instead of relying on the traditional business models of the past, built on hierarchical systems of hiring nine-to-fivers, they tap into flexible webs of contractors and new technologies that expand their reach beyond what one person can do.
Orwell developed his love of travel while growing up. Originally from Pakistan, he lived mostly in Saudi Arabia and Japan, owing to his father’s work as an engineer for an oil company. His family spent some time living in Houston before moving to Canada. An avid reader of George Orwell, he eventually changed his given name to reflect this source of inspiration. “I found that Orwell and his writing kind of opened my understanding of pragmatism over idealism,” he wrote to me in an email exchange after our call. As for Sol, short for Solomon, he said, “I just wanted a name that was short and memorable and kind of… fit me.”
Orwell started Examine.com four and one half years ago because he had a goal many people share: He wanted to slim down. He started researching nutritional supplements that would help with that goal. “As I started losing weight, I realized supplement companies put a quick one over you,” he says. “There is all of this research out there on supplementation but no organization putting it together.” By filling that untapped niche, he realized he could build a thriving business.
Orwell was already a seasoned entrepreneur at the time. While still in high school in Canada, he founded a company involved in online gaming. Then he jumped into businesses involved in domain names, local search and daily deals. There was one common thread: He relied on independent contractors to help the businesses grow. In the case of Examine.com, Orwell hired Ph.Ds and other experts on topics such as lipidology, cardiovascular disease and public health to evaluate the research on various supplements.“Whenever something is going successfully, I spin it off into a company and bring in contractors to run it more attentively,” he says. “I give them equity, let them run it and recede into the background.” He holds onto a majority stake. In Examine.com, for instance, he owns more than 75% of the company.
Two years ago, Examine.com released its first product, a mega-sized ebook—The Supplement Goals Reference Guide–looking at reams of human research on supplementation. Orwell has sold the $49 product through a custom site he put up. It has generated $150,000 to $200,000, by Orwell’s estimates.
Although it did well, when Orwell asked for feedback from customers, he heard a common refrain: “I love your stuff but it’s too nerdy. I can’t read it–or my mom can’t,” he says1 That led Examine.com to create a series of 16 shorter “Stack Guides” offering more streamlined information about supplements for laypeople. “After that we had serious revenue,” says Orwell.
Generating that money helped him reinvest in the business. “I was able to bring in a lot of contractors,” Orwell says. “We were able to build this entire team of subject matter experts we can turn to whenever we need advice on a particular topic.”
Last November, Examine.com released a new product, its Research Digest, aimed at professionals. For $30 a month, subscribers find out about the latest studies on nutrition in a twice a month newsletter.
To promote his products, Orwell uses email lists he has built up over the years. “If people are willing to give you their email address, which they treasure, they are willing to listen to your message,” he says. None of the products are printed. “It’s all digital,” says Orwell. “There’s no physical copy for anything.”
Orwell is already itching to start his next venture. All he’ll say about it at this point is it involves pets. “I’m already talking to different vets,” he says. “You just need to a find a niche you can dominate.”
One source of perennial inspiration for his entrepreneurial lifetyle is 37 Signals, which makes the product management app Basecamp. “They are very well known for evangelizing you can grow rich slowly,” says Orwell. “It’s not a zero sum game. A lot of VCs view it as a zero sum game: You’re either the number one messaging app or you’re nowhere.”
Orwell sees things differently. “You don’t need to be rich to be rich in life,” he says. His seven-figure business allows him to enjoy something that’s more valuable than money: The time and financial freedom to do what he loves–exactly when he chooses.