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Experience Beats Education, Says Founder Bootstrapping to IPO

If you believe you need a formal business education or millions in funding to build to IPO, think again. Dominic Wells went public with Onfolio, his second bootstrapped business, without either. 

A decade ago, young Dom started his first business with no plan or concept of how to market it. While he believed he could earn five-figure monthly revenue within his first year, in reality, it took him 18 months to earn $1,000.

Dom’s slow ascent to success made him question if he could make a living as a bootstrapped entrepreneur. But the founder learned from his mistakes with Human Proof Designs, his first startup, and applied those lessons to Onfolio. Within three years, Dom’s second business earned seven figures. 

Onfolio acquires and grows profitable online businesses, scaling them to further success within months. Since 2018, Dom has taken on dozens of clients and investors who pay him a management fee to run their businesses. But by mid-2020, he decided to evolve Onfolio into a holdings company that officially IPO’d in August 2022. 

Why risk going public? Dom needed capital to hire more employees and buy more businesses. He also wanted to build liquidity for his investors and diversify their holdings by giving them stakes in Onfolio’s portfolio. They’d no longer fall foul of a single business that fails and takes all their investments with it. 

Dom spent two years preparing Onfolio to IPO, reflecting on how far he’d come from that young bootstrapper who pursued entrepreneurship on a whim. 

“There’s a quote I like that says, ‘People overestimate how much they can achieve in one year and underestimate what they can achieve in 10 years.’ And that applies to me because when I started, I thought things would move quickly, when in reality, I struggled. But I never thought I would be running a public company in 10 years,” Dom says. “Now, I understand that you can do pretty much anything so long as you have a good timeline and keep working on your skills.” 

Discover how Dom developed the skills to IPO through early bootstrapped ventures that nearly crashed and burned. 

Discovering Your Calling Half a World Away 

After graduating with a media degree from the University of Sussex, Dom eschewed a career in the film and television industry to teach English in Taiwan. 

The mid-2000s offered few opportunities for media grads. When his brother recommended he visit Taiwan, his wife’s home, Dom packed up and left behind his life of waiting tables.  

In 2008, he flew across the world and landed an English teaching job as the recession hit. His parents encouraged him to stay in Taiwan until the economy improved in the UK. After teaching for a few years and meeting his Taiwanese wife, Dom decided to stay in Asia permanently. 

But teaching English only satisfied Dom for so long. In 2012, he looked into online marketing and started building affiliate sites. Months of learning how to blog, rank at the top of search engines, and earn money reviewing products motivated Dom to build a business out of it. 

Dom’s First Entrepreneurial Test

Dom launched Human Proof Designs in November 2013, hoping to sell niche affiliate websites using online business marketplace, Flippa. But the marketplace was rife with listings promising sky-high revenue for rock-bottom asking prices. He just couldn’t compete. 

“I saw that people were selling these garbage turnkey businesses. They would say, ‘This business will make you loads of money overnight. All you have to do is buy it and plug it in, and it will print money for you. And by the way, it’s only $200.’ Which is obviously a scam,” Dom says.

“I couldn’t understand why people were buying these bad websites. But a friend pointed out that there was clearly a demand for done-for-you online businesses, so why didn’t I sell legit ones?”

But no one took him up on his offers. 

“I said, ‘Hey, I’ve built a brand new affiliate website, and if you work hard on it for a year, you could make a little bit of money.’ Nobody was interested in buying from me,” Dom says. 

It took 18 months with little profit for Dom to realize how to turn Human Proof Designs around. 

“I thought, Okay, I need to start a website, blog more, and teach people how to do affiliate marketing. I need to build an audience so that they understand the value of our product,” Dom says. “That’s what I did from 2014 until 2018 when I started Onfolio.”

In those four years, Dom taught himself how to run a business. 

“I didn’t know how to get people to notice me or how to make my product look good. I had to learn about guest posting, networking, and trying to get on other people’s podcasts,” Dom says.

“One of the reasons I struggled with my first business was because I was petrified of sales and having to make cold calls or emails. Some customers wanted to talk about buying ten websites. But I’d built this business so I wouldn’t have to do phone calls. At the time, I’d rather lose the sale than get on the phone with you. That’s not the case anymore, but it’s what I was like.”

Over time, Dom learned that if he wanted to sell, he needed to interact with customers. SEO wasn’t enough to attract new customers, especially as it takes months to see results. So he forced himself to make those calls, send those emails, and build up a network of 10,000 email subscribers. 

As Human Proof Designs grew, Dom hired employees to help code the affiliate marketing websites. Suddenly, new fears and worries plagued him: How should he delegate? How much should he pay them? What happens if he hires people and revenue drops?

“I tackled these queries through trial and error, listening to several business podcasts and attending conferences. And I’m still learning. I kind of brute-forced it and pushed forward regardless of my fears,” Dom says. “I had no idea of all the challenges I’d face. I didn’t make a business plan. I just jumped in and figured it out as I went.”

By 2017, Dom had scaled Human Proof Designs to $1 million in annual revenue. Then clients began asking for a new service: Would he run the businesses as well as build them? Dom thought about it. If he vetted the startups and charge a management fee, maybe he’d be able to grow the business even further. So he sold Human Proof Designs in 2019 to focus on his new startup – Onfolio.  

Selling One Business to Bootstrap Another 

Dom launched Onfolio in late 2018. A few months later, Dom invested the profits from his first business into hiring a COO. 

Within seven to eight months, Onfolio earned enough revenue to pay Dom a salary. By the end of year one, cash flow improved, and everyone’s salaries increased. 

All the struggles he’d encountered with his first business barely impeded Onfolio’s growth as it gained steady clients and revenue. How did the founder succeed so quickly? 

“One, I had the money to pay people from the start. Two, I understood the power of networking. And three, many people in my network had researched me and knew my reputation,” Dom says. 

He booked podcasting gigs and cut deals with customers in 30-minute phone calls – a big turnaround from the founder who used to turn down these invitations. But building Onfolio raised new obstacles. 

“It was more challenging because we were operating a large portfolio of businesses on top of running our own,” Dom says. “I had to learn about funds, private equity, structuring investment deals, and so on.”

Dom’s family had also expanded, and he now needed to balance his time at work and home. No more late nights or weekends at the office with an infant to take care of. 

The entrepreneurial challenges had also changed. Rather than worrying about whether the business was working, he had to understand how to scale it. 

“With Onfolio, I’d been told it was a good idea by people who asked me to build it. It was more scaling challenges and operating leverage. We needed to take on more clients to afford to hire more people. But we couldn’t service more clients until we hired more people.” 

Little did Dom know that the solution to this problem would come from a random message on LinkedIn. 

From Bootstrapping to IPO

Most bootstrapped founders don’t consider IPOs viable. Dom was equally skeptical when a company on LinkedIn that helps businesses go public sent him a message. They told him Onfolio seemed like a good fit, despite it being worth less than $10 million at the time, and that he could potentially 10x his valuation through an IPO. 

Dom was also growing tired of running his portfolio of businesses and wanted to build a long-term revenue stream for himself and his fellow investors. 

“I imagined a holding company where my investors all own a piece of the company, so we’re diversified. That way, I don’t have to worry about finding a business for one investor, hoping the business survives and watching them lose all their money. Instead, we all own a piece of the same pie. So if one business dies, it won’t matter because another business has doubled,” Dom says. 

“And then, somebody said to me, ‘You can take this idea public to raise capital and scale while boosting investor liquidity.’ Finally, I’ve found an idea I want to do for the next decade or two.”

By mid-2020, Dom started preparing Onfolio to go public. He completed a PCAOB financial audit for 2020 and 2021 while creating a pitch deck with his investment bank that required receipts, legal documents, contracts, and other data. He then pitched the IPO to potential investors to see if they’d invest once Onfolio went public. 

Dom prepared for an early 2022 IPO, but the Ukraine conflict altered the market and caused him to delay until August 2022. Now he sees the benefits of the IPO as a growth ramp for Onfolio in 2023.

“If we’re public, our stock is liquid, so you can just buy and sell. And you get a lot more debt opportunities as a public company. I’d also envisioned raising a fund to attract talent. But being a public company, you gain prestige and can give people liquid equity, so talent attraction increases,” Dom says. “We also impress more sellers now, purely because we’re public. When they ask whether we have the cash, we give them our audited financials, and they say, ‘Oh, okay.’”

Considering an IPO? Here’s Dom’s Advice

IPO isn’t the path for every founder, but if you want to pursue it, prepare for an uphill battle. 

“I can only speak to my experience, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I would do it again, knowing I’m more experienced, so it would probably be easier,” Dom says. 

“I don’t know if other people should because it’s a lot of work. You’re going to be in the public sphere, and people will know your net worth, and they’ll know whether your company is doing well or badly. And it’s also expensive.”

Ultimately, Dom urges founders to consider why they want to go public. Is it to sell your business after scaling? Or is it to stimulate growth and raise funds? And if you need to raise funds, is an IPO your best option, or should you consider bootstrapping or private investment? 

You’ll have to decide for yourself. But when building any business, Dom encourages you to keep learning and growing from your mistakes. 

“You don’t know what it’s going to take to succeed, so you just have to stick with it. And the thing that leads you to success is probably not what you started with, so be prepared to pivot,” Dom says. “It’s a bit of a paradox because you need to avoid giving up without doing the same thing if it’s not working. Try balancing both and never stop learning either way.” 

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Leanne Stahulak
Leanne Stahulak
Leanne’s love of books inspired her to become an author at a young age. Though she began as a creative writer, Leanne also built up her skills and experience in journalism at Miami University. After graduating with three degrees, she now tells founder stories at Bootstrappers and writes about growth and entrepreneurship for MicroAcquire.

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