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Why It Took Six Failed Businesses for This Founder to Make His First Million

Pat Ahern built a lasting, profitable business atop the ruins of six failures. Even then, Intergrowth only earned its first million dollars after seven years and a split from its predecessor, Junto. 

For years, Pat tried making his businesses work. From reselling textbooks on Amazon to building a music platform to starting a full-service marketing agency, he learned where he struggled and excelled as an entrepreneur. Pat stockpiled these lessons until he met his soon-to-be cofounder, Dave Freund, at a digital marketing agency in 2016. 

While swapping work stories after hours at the office, Pat and Dave realized they shared similar visions of digital marketing’s future. The pair wanted to trial their ideas at the agency, but their boss wasn’t open to suggestions from new hires. 

“They’d been around for a decade and were a million-dollar business. So when two 20-somethings theorized on how to run their business, they said, ‘Hey, do your job. We’re doing just fine over here,’” Pat says.

But the ideas continued circulating until Pat and Dave quit the agency to start experimenting themselves. They built Junto, a specialist marketing agency, in late 2016. Pat wrote SEO content while Dave developed websites. The arrangement worked until the founders realized how disconnected they and their departments had become.

“Most days, I had very little understanding of what Dave was doing with the websites. And we saw the same thing on the content marketing side. He was very out of the loop,” Pat says. “Ultimately, we said, ‘Why don’t we separate this into different businesses?’”

In April 2021, Pat and Dave rebranded Junto into Intergrowth and Interweb, sister companies offering select, specialized marketing services. Under Intergrowth, Pat’s team of content marketers writes SEO articles and builds high-quality backlinks for clients. It also provides monthly analysis reports on keyword performance. 

Since the split, Intergrowth has exploded with new clients and revenue. Customers love its specialized format and educational material about content marketing. But Pat’s success stems from several businesses gone wrong. And it began when Amazon banned him from selling.

Seventh Time’s the Charm

The summer after his sophomore year of high school, Pat dreamed of making a fortune reselling textbooks on Amazon. He spent finals week dumpster-diving for barely-used textbooks instead of studying, building up an “inventory” to sell online.

But Pat’s customers didn’t appreciate the quality of these salvaged textbooks. Enough complaints built up to put Pat out of business and leave him with $500 to show for it. It was “huge money” to a teenager at the time, but he learned a valuable lesson about customer service in the process.

“I realized I shouldn’t focus on the short-term sale but the long-term customer reviews,” Pat says. “I had to create a great product and satisfy customers.”

Pat believed his next product would wow consumers. For nine months, he built a music-themed social media platform where you could post about your favorite tracks and artists and chat with friends. 

When the beta launched, he begged his friends and family to try it out. They did – but they quit the platform shortly afterward. 

“They didn’t like it. And ignorant me at the time said, ‘Damn these friends, they’re letting me down. They’re not using this platform,’” Pat recalls. “A couple of weeks later, it hit me that maybe it’s not their fault. Maybe I didn’t build a great product.”

Once again, customer feedback showed Pat where he’d gone wrong with the business. He insisted on solving a problem that hadn’t existed. 

“Launch a small version of whatever you’re working on before building the thing from scratch and hoping it’s something people want,” Pat says. “And ask for feedback the entire time. Have the humility to recognize that it’s not about you but the people who’re trying to use your product.”

Pat gave up his plans for a product-based business shortly after starting at Fordham University in 2011. Three more ventures flopped (two products and one service) before he cofounded a full-service marketing agency with two other founders.

Not every college student can balance a full-service marketing agency on top of business classes. But Pat threw himself into both. They said yes to every client, doing SEO to social media to copywriting ads. 

Pat tied the agency to his identity. He would tell himself, “I’m a successful entrepreneur who started a great marketing agency and closed high-ticket deals,” even as the business struggled to survive. 

As graduation neared, Pat recognized the business couldn’t pay his bills post-grad. He stepped away from it and returned home to live with his parents. 

“Ego came back to bite me in the ass with that agency,” Pat says. “Having the benefit of hindsight, it was a great lesson in how toxic ego can be.”

The summer after graduating, Pat moved to Denver, Colorado, joining a local digital marketing agency as a content marketer. One year later, Pat met Dave, and the urge to build returned.

They shared the same goals and believed their complementary skill sets would lead to a successful marketing agency, so they quit their jobs and started Junto (now called Intergrowth).  

Don’t Just Offer a Quality Service – Prove It

The stakes were higher for Intergrowth than any other business Pat had pursued. He and Dave had invested tens of thousands of dollars into it. They earned no paychecks and lived off staples like peanut butter and banana sandwiches for months.

The cofounders launched on Product Hunt and secured some early customers. Others followed Pat and Dave from their previous job over to Intergrowth. 

But Pat credits an early white label partnership with a large marketing agency as the event that shaped Intergowth’s future. Without that partnership, he admits, Intergrowth might have failed.

The agency taught Pat to focus on anchors early on in the business, building deep relationships with one or two clients. These clients rely on you more over time and help you build enough revenue to scale. Once you scale, Pat says, diversification is key. That way if a client backs out, your revenue won’t take a devastating cut because you have multiple sources of income. 

He learned about sales, company culture, and operation. White-labeling services also provided the founders with a $24,000 salary. With more money and knowledge in hand, Pat and Dave could focus on building Intergrowth’s client base.

They began with a mix of cold sales and content marketing to attract leads. But over time, Pat switched to SEO content creation as it delivered more consistent results. He published educational articles on Intergrowth’s website about content marketing, contributed to other publications, and joined Slack communities to answer marketing questions. 

“We started seeing more clients come from those Slack channels and soon said, ‘Let’s shift all of our efforts towards this. Let’s be an education-first business,’’ Pat says. “We tried to position ourselves as the industry-leading content marketing agency. If we could become front of mind to people, they’ll call us to help take their business to the next level.”

But Intergrowth’s success presented a new issue for Pat and Dave: Clients wanted them to do all of their marketing, not just SEO and web development. 

Splitting and Specializing to Grow

Dave and Pat leaned into their specializations at Intergrowth. They believed in hiring “humble, hungry, and emotionally intelligent” workers to train in each department’s specific skill set. They created guides and shared documents to track every completed process, so clients received exceptional service no matter who provided it. 

“I like to use Chipotle as an example because it’s a phenomenal business,” Pat says. “They have thousands of restaurants across the US that provide the same quality of food no matter where they are or who makes that burrito. Our theory was, if we can produce consistently great results, we can build a phenomenal business that helps every client grow exponentially.”

But clients kept asking for services the cofounders couldn’t provide. The pair hated turning down work, and even more so, disappointing clients. Over time, it grew demotivating. To capitalize on the company’s two core services, they needed to give each department its own brand. 

The duo spent a year and a half rebranding as Inter, which features both Intergrowth and Interweb. Each business got a redesigned website and marketing strategy to draw in a more distinct audience. They also split their published content between the two brands.

Intergrowth and Interweb launched in April 2021. For the first time since he was a teen, Pat helmed his own business, which would flounder or fly based on his actions alone. 

But he wasn’t that dumpster-diving teen selling used textbooks anymore. Now, he was determined to grow his six-figure startup into an even more profitable, specialized service business. 

New Company, New Home, New Goals

At the same time that Intergrowth launched, Pat moved from Denver to Stockholm, Sweden, to be with his now-wife. They’d dated long distance for the better part of four years and Pat’s visa was approved at the same time that the company split in two. 

Moving a business abroad comes with its complications. Intergrowth’s bank account froze its first week when the paperwork didn’t go through. Becoming a verified Swedish business also took longer than Pat expected. 

But by the end of Q2, Dave and Pat worked to separate their businesses with clearer website communication and revamped marketing strategies that targeted different audiences. 

Today, a year and a half later, Pat’s proud of Intergrowth’s progress. Even during an economic recession, it’s continued to grow and help clients scale their own businesses. He hopes to see the agency double its employees and revenue by 2025, continuing its seven-figure trend. 

Looking back, the founder imagines that 16-year-old Pat would feel both impressed and unimpressed by what he’s achieved. 

“He’d probably be super bored hearing that he’s running a marketing agency. He’d think, ‘Oh man, I thought I would’ve done something cooler. I thought I would’ve gone the venture-backed route,’” Pat jokes. “But when he looked at the inner workings, I hope young Pat would say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool. Great people way smarter than me are working on the same mission.’”

That mission started over a decade ago when Pat got banned from Amazon. Since then, he’s embraced his marketing and entrepreneurial talents to build a business he’s proud of (that doesn’t require digging through the trash). 

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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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