When Denise Duffield-Thomas was in her teens and twenties, her friends always turned to her for personal advice. “I was everyone's problem solver,” she recalls.
She was a bit surprised, years later, to discover that it was possible to build a career around dishing out similar guidance—as a coach. “This was what I was doing for free for my whole life!” she says.
After studying at the Inspired Coaching Academy, run by veteran coach Sandy Forster, and establishing a successful practice of her own, Duffield-Thomas gradually focused her attention on helping women build their financial know-how and entrepreneurship skills through Money Bootcamp, a course and online community she created in 2012. She is also the author of the books, Get Rich Lucky Bitch, where she dishes out practical business advice to women with a dose of irreverent humor, and Chillpreneur, aimed at entrepreneurs who seek work-life balance.
Duffield-Thomas and her husband Mark, who serves as her marketing manager, built the business to AUD 3.4 million for fiscal 2020, ending in June 2020 [that converts to about USD 2.4 million as of October 30], according to Duffield-Thomas, relying on a handful of contractors, such as a part-time virtual assistant and a bookkeeper and funding growth out of cash flow. They managed this while raising three children ages six and under.
The couple is part of a fast-growing trend—the growth of seven-figure businesses with no employees on payroll. In the U.S., there were 28.5 million nonemployer firms—those with no W-2 employees—in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Among them, 41,666 hit $1-2.49 million in revenue that year, the highest total on record and an increase of nearly 48% since 2011. While these are the Olympic athletes of the micro-business world, they show what is possible for a very small business to accomplish.
While data on the number of seven-figure nonemployer firms in other countries is harder to come by, these exceptionally successful microbusinesses are popping up around the world.
Here is how Denise and Mark Duffield-Thomas built their business while juggling the demands of raising a young family.
Take time to lay the groundwork. When Duffield-Thomas started her coaching practice in 2010, she had recently relocated from London, where she attended London Metropolitan University and worked in corporate events and new media, to the Greater Newcastle area of Australia, her country of origin.
To attract her first clients, she called local gyms, health food stores and crystal shops to see if any had a spare room where she could hold free goal-setting workshops. She put up posters around town and advertisements on Facebook and the Meetup website and, to make sure people showed up, offered attendees a free coaching session. “I totally over-delivered,” she recalls. That hard work paid off: Often, the attendees became paying clients.
Gradually, Duffield-Thomas built enough confidence to start charging for her workshops. She was excited to find takers for the first Saturday workshop where she charged $97.
“After that workshop, I went to the fanciest restaurant in town and bought a tall glass of champagne,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I can make my own money. This is amazing! And I’m helping people. That’s even better!”
Create a business that’s convenient for you. Although the paid workshops kept her busy, she found that between the prep work and follow up, they were eating up her weekends. She began to look for another way to deliver them that allowed her time to relax.
Then it occurred to her to move the workshops to Facebook, which was much more convenient and a better fit. “I’m an introvert,” she says. “I’ve always gravitated to online work.”
The success of Duffield-Thomas’s workshops helped her bring in coaching clients from around the world. Some signed up for one-on-one sessions; others chose group coaching.
That meant her schedule changed dramatically. “I was having my first coaching session at 4:30 am,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to ask people to stay up late in the U.S. or the U.K. I was trying to do the same with my group work.”
Working around the clock left her exhausted. And there was one other challenge, as her services caught on: “There were no more hours to do this,” says Duffield-Thomas.
Duffield-Thomas realized she needed to rethink her business model once again and set some boundaries around her time so she could scale her message. In 2011, she wrote and self-published Get Rich Lucky Bitch, and she wanted to write more and develop her group coaching program, which was morphing into Money Bootcamp. “I needed to free up some energy,” says Duffield-Thomas.
Study other successful businesses. The solution came when she studied the business model of entrepreneur and author Marie Forleo, whose work she admired. One thing that struck her was its simplicity. Forleo was running only one major educational program at the time.
Duffield-Thomas decided to focus her energy on her course, Money Bootcamp, for which students pay $1,997. To give that pursuit enough time and maintain her income, she increased the price of her coaching services and then transitioned to selling six-month coaching packages, where she worked with fewer clients—just four. It was a leap of faith. “This is what I had to do to ultimately serve more people,” she says.
Spread the word. Once Duffield-Thomas published her first book and started promoting it, she began getting invitations to do podcast interviews. She made herself available whenever she could be. “I did about 200 of them in one year,” she recalls. “I would get my hair done on Monday, and all day Monday and Tuesday, I would do them. It was a lot of sweat equity.”
Meanwhile, Duffield-Thomas built her platform by publishing her content regularly through a blog and posting tongue-in-cheek videos on YouTube that were aimed at women entrepreneurs, like How Women Sell In Business vs. Men. “Some of the blocks we have around money—you have to laugh,” she says.
Unknown to her, an acquiring editor at Hay House Publishing was following her work and had joined her email list. Eventually, the editor reached out. Hay House Publishing acquired Get Rich Lucky Bitch in 2015, as well as Chillpreneur, published in 2019.
Make time for your personal life. While Duffield-Thomas was building her business, she and Mark, also volunteer ethics teacher at one of their daughter’s schools, were also living a very full personal life—and with the business growing, they wanted to keep it that way. “We don’t have 40 hours a week to work on this business,” she says.
In addition to raising their family, they embarked on building a house and bought a rose farm, which they plan to turn into a retreat space for entrepreneurs. “I want it to be a place where people can press flowers, make bread or pick lemons,” says Duffield-Thomas. That plan has been on hold temporarily, because of the pandemic.
To pull it all off, Duffield-Thomas and her husband are not hesitant to bring in help when they get busy. “We have people who look after our kids and walk our dogs,” she says.
Be patient. Duffield-Thomas didn’t expect overnight success when she started her business, though she always dreamed big: “I've always wanted to have a million-dollar business,” she says.
Keeping her eye on that goal gave her the patience to let her revenue grow steadily. In fiscal 2011, she brought in AUD 63,000. By 2012, she hit $146,532. That grew to $221,103 in 2013, $579,198 in 2014, $1.3 million in 2015, nearly $1.4 million by 2016, $2.6 million in 2017, then dipped to $2 million in 2018 as she adjusted her business model, and grew again $2.8 million in 2019 and more than $3 million for 2020.
Along the way, Duffield-Thomas learned an important lesson she now teaches other budding entrepreneurs: “To double, triple or quadruple your income, you have to work less. You have to leverage the work you do.”
It's a counterintuitive approach—but clearly, it's served her well.