When you hear the word “cryptocurrency”, what springs to mind? Bitcoin? Volatility? Fad? Whatever your preconceptions, you can’t deny its impact on the world economy. From helping Venezuelans escape hyperinflation to making overnight millionaires, cryptocurrency has created wealth and opportunity – with a generous dash of controversy – for millions around the globe.
Himanshu Kumar, a college drop-out from the Indian city of Bengaluru (Bangalore), was one of those quick to spot an opportunity. Crypto was on everyone’s lips but few understood it. Could he help educate people in this much-maligned and misunderstood industry? With just $150 in his bank account and a healthy dose of introspection, Himanshu stepped into the breach.
Today, Himanshu runs AMB Crypto, a global media company that serves digestible, unbiased cryptocurrency news to traders, enthusiasts, and entrepreneurs. He employs 15 graduate journalists, has a newsletter with thousands of subscribers, and over 3 million visitors to the website every month. Best of all, that $150 is now an annual income of over $2.5 million.
While these numbers make great soundbites, they do little to reflect the profound obstacles that stood in Himanshu’s way. Not only was he tasked with demystifying a complex, fast-evolving technology but he would also battle Google algorithms, legal challenges, and a volatile market in which people’s attention waxed and waned faster than the tides. How did he make it?
Meditating His Way out of a Rut
Himanshu was a student of enormous potential. He applied to and passed the prestigious and notoriously difficult India Institute of Technology entrance exam, which 1.5 million people take every year and only about 1% pass. But after a year of study, he became disillusioned, finding the syllabus uninspiring and too stuck in the past, and quit to reflect on his next move.
“I dropped out after a year to join a meditation center,” Himanshu said. “I needed time to decide what to do with my life so I stayed at the temple for a month. There you have to wake up at five in the morning and meditate for six hours per day. You also have time to talk with other people there. It was challenging but life-changing and made me realize I wanted to help people.”
Emerging from the temple re-centered and refreshed, Himanshu wondered how he could best use his skills to help people. Where could he have the most impact? “I remember searching Google for what was trending at that time,” Himanshu said. “I read about space, mars, cryptocurrencies, and lots of other ideas.” Still undecided, he chose to develop his digital skills.
“I started freelancing, helping companies with SEO,” Himanshu said. “From this, I got my first job in 2017 as head of SEO for an education startup. There, I met my co-founder Jeevan Thomas, who’d spent around eight years in media and journalism. He had worked for Times of India which is one of the biggest publications here.”
Himanshu and Jeevan soon realized they had a lot in common. For one, they’d both invested in cryptocurrencies bitcoin and ethereum, and were keen to learn how to trade them effectively. With so little reliable data online, however, it was proving difficult. “We wanted price information and technology updates, but there was nothing. This was the gap that became AMB Crypto.”
Surviving Crypto Winter to Winning Their First Client
Himanshu and Jeevan founded AMB Crypto in 2018. The year before, bitcoin, one of the first cryptocurrencies to capture the public’s attention, hit an all-time high of around $20,000 (it’s since tripled that record, but that’s another story!). Just days into 2018, however, as crypto mania swept the globe, the market crashed. Prices plunged by up to 65 percent.
By September of 2018, bitcoin had lost 80 percent of its value. Hundreds of billions of dollars had been wiped from the cryptocurrency market. The cryptocurrency “bubble” had burst. Or so it seemed. Despite harsh criticism from politicians and investors (Warren Buffett famously called bitcoin “rat poison squared”), the industry survived, but it was a painful time for Himanshu.
“In 2017, when bitcoin reached $17,000, we thought this was going to be big,” Himanshu said. “We launched our site and both Jeevan and I handed in our notice at our jobs. I had just $150 in my bank account and spent $50 on the domain. We were dependent on AMB Crypto. It was do or die. Then one week into launch, the market crashed, and India considered banning cryptos.”
It was a double-whammy of bad news. As prices fell, cryptos fell under immense regulatory scrutiny. The industry became synonymous with scams and money laundering. What had begun as an attempt to build an efficient, democratic value system, Himanshu argues, devolved into a playground for speculators, with little attention paid to the good these assets could do.
“It affected our mental health,” Himanshu admits. “We didn’t know if it was possible to report about cryptocurrencies if India banned them. But when we did the research, we realized India hadn’t banned cryptos just said they weren’t legal tender. That gave us enough room to write about them and to correct a lot of the misconceptions about the industry.”
With room to report, all that remained was monetization. The clock was ticking on that meager seed of $150. They had about a month’s runway to prove a viable business model. They’d been mulling advertising and sponsored posts when a thought occurred to Himanshu. Why not share the stories they were writing with the crypto projects to see if they’d pay for them?
“We’d been staying up late to finish some drafts for AMB Crypto,” Himanshu remembers. “We’d written this piece about a crypto project and I said to Jeevan, ‘Why don’t we just ask the project if they’d pay us for coverage? We’re writing about it anyway.’ So we did. We sent an email to the project founder asking for a paid sponsorship deal. To our surprise, they said yes.”
That $5,000 deal was the start of an outreach campaign that enjoyed a 30-40 percent success rate. Despite an endlessly shifting political narrative, people’s appetite for crypto news remained strong. And since Himanshu’s goal from the outset was objective reporting of facts, not hearsay, they became a trusted voice in the market, ending 2018 with a fat $250,000 in revenue.
Playing Snakes and Ladders with Google
Despite the crypto price crash, AMB Crypto prospered in its first year. Each month added another 100,000 or so visitors, and by 2019, they had around 1.6 million. But in June of that year, something extraordinary happened. Google updated its broad core algorithm and a wave of high-authority websites lost ranking. AMB Crypto was one of those hardest hit.
“In 2019, around 70 percent of our traffic came from Google,” Himanshu said. “After the update, we went from 1.6 million visitors per month to 400,000. Our traffic dropped by 75 percent. Our clients were angry as they didn’t understand why they weren’t seeing as many referrals. It was also much harder to win new ad deals when our traffic was less impressive.”
Explaining Google’s broad core update is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, several cryptocurrency news sites, as well as an English daily newspaper, reported huge drops in traffic. Some didn’t survive the changes. For Himanshu and Jeevan, the update reversed a year’s worth of work, and if it hadn’t been for some forward-thinking, might’ve ended everything.
“We hired the best journalists and our expenses were increasing every month,” Himanshu said. “We even hired a legal team. But when the update happened, we lost traffic and clients. Luckily, we’d been saving a bit of our monthly profit from 2018 just in case something bad happened. We drained that emergency fund, about $300,000, just to keep the business going.”
Having learned a valuable lesson, Himanshu and Jeevan spent the rest of 2019 surviving on a few hundred dollars a month while they explored new distribution channels. They joined news aggregators, issued a newsletter, and started a YouTube channel. In time, traffic recovered to new highs. Today, only 8% of their 3 million monthly visits is from Google.
Despite their success, the co-founders have never let their standards slip. AMB Crypto produces a prodigious amount of content but imposes strict reporting standards on the teams producing it. They continue to hire accomplished journalists and employ a large team of editors and legal advisors to help ensure objectivity and high reporting standards.
“It’s important that we don’t affect the market,” Himanshu said. “We just report on the facts. I’ve seen many other news sites recommend this or that cryptocurrency as an investment and I think this is what gives the industry a bad name. Our writers must do a lot of research on anything they write about and our head of content and legal team must sign everything off.”
Himanshu admits to receiving a lot of emails asking for corrections. Usually, it’s just small technical details or something that has recently changed within a project or technology. It’s hard keeping up with such a dynamic industry, Himanshu says, but he values the sense of community: “We collaborate with the community on accuracy which helps boost our credibility.”
“Give It Just One More Month”
Himanshu credits the success of AMB Crypto to his reluctance to let go. Rather than obsessing over long-term performance, he focused on the here and now, no matter how difficult the situation was. “It could all change in a month,” Himanshu said during several of his darkest moments. But at what point do you stop flogging the proverbial horse?
An emergency fund helps cushion those falls, Himanshu advises, but could you survive on $250 per month? Himanshu’s persistence is almost super-human. In many ways, his fortunes (and entrepreneurship in general) reflect the wider crypto market: a volatile journey of ups and downs, of elation as numbers rise to desolation as they fall, but above all, staying true to itself.
“We don’t want to take $10 million and lose our freedom.”
This wouldn’t have been possible, Himanshu argues, had they accepted funding. “I love that Jeevan and I manage everything,” Himanshu said. “We don’t want to take $10 million and lose our freedom. We want to be able to launch different things. Right now we don’t need any kind of funding because we can hopefully survive for another four or five years.”
It’s this “survival” mindset that’s the cornerstone of Himanshu’s success. Whether it was legal challenges, the vagaries of public opinion, market crashes, or a bewildering algorithm update, he’s overcome incredible odds to build a multi-million dollar business. Yet even with such enviable success, I’m certain Himanshu and his team have much more to show us yet.
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