How I Grew CigarScore from Scratch to Profit in 45 Days
Speed. Building a business is all about speed of implementation and speed of delivery. Whenever you have a solid idea for a new business or product, the key to success is how fast you can deliver.
Want to listen? There's an audio version below
In the fall of 2018, my wife, Ashley, and I were in Minnesota. We'd be traveling across the country for almost nine months, and we were now freezing our combined asses off in the land of 10,000 lakes.
One afternoon, I was enjoying a rare warm day outside with a cigar while talking to one of my mastermind groups. I mentioned that I wanted to take my website building expertise and somehow apply it to the cigar industry.
One of my friends mentioned that the Where to Smoke app by Cigar Aficionado, along with several other cigar-related apps, had been banned by the Apple Appstore. Apparently, running up charges for microtransactions was okay, but all-natural cigars were not.
My other friends quickly chimed in, “Ya, I've heard about that.” And an idea began to form.
So I went to Google to do a little digging. I started trying to figure out if there was an online directory or some online source I could use to find cigar lounges. While there were a couple, none of them looked to be modern.
So I started searching on Google Maps. I searched for “cigars,” “cigar lounges,” “cigar shops,” and other keywords to see what kind of results I'd get.
I wasn't impressed. If you try to find places that sell premium, hand-rolled cigars on Google Maps, you'll get results showing CBD dispensaries, gas stations that sell Swisher Sweets, and hookah bars, but finding luxury cigar lounges wasn't that easy.
In today's post, I want to share with you eight categories of activities I took to build what is now CigarScore.com, from scratch to profit in less than 45 days.
In the last year, CigarScore has grown to become the largest online directory of cigar lounges in the world. It is visited by thousands of people every month. It has generated revenue for me. It has its own email list. And, CigarScore.com was built by following the eight-week plan I outlined in my 2016 book, Exit Strategy.
Can I share how I did it?
The Exit Strategy Plan
But to give you an idea of what its readers already know, here is a rough outline of the eight roadmap readers find in Part III.
Week 1: Lay the Groundwork
Start with your business name, then buy the domain and register for a hosting account. Create your branded social media accounts and set up your analytics and tracking pixels. Then write your mission statement.
Week 2: Outline Your Plan
Begin by identifying who your ideal customer avatar is. Outline future content marketing goals. Email your friends and family about your new project. Set up a way to collect email opt-ins.
Week 3: Logos, SEO, WordPress Plugins
Create a basic logo. Identify your search keywords and key phrases. Install WordPress plugins that add capabilities and new features to your website.
Week 4: Create Content
The best way to build a brand and a business in 2019 and beyond is through content marketing. Create the content you outlined and planned in Week 2. Keep creating.
Week 5: Connect with Allies and Future Partners
Your business won't grow in a bubble, so identify strategic connections and start reaching out.
Week 6: Build Your Authority
Research your industry. Study your competition. Anybody can be an amateur, but people want to do business with pros.
Week 7: Understand Your Numbers
Leverage the analytics and tracking data you set up in Week One. Understand your customers and users. Talk to people and ask them what they need.
Week 8: Marketing and Mindshare
After you've built according to a predetermined plan, now it's time to think about how you can get people thinking about you even when you're not talking or marketing directly to them. When people think about you, you win.
How I Grew CigarScore from Scratch to Profit in 45 Days
Now that you know, in general, how I built CigarScore.com into the best place to find and rate where to smoke cigars in the world, let's get into some specifics.
1: Put in the Work
I think we'd all be pretty surprised by how much we can get done if we stop searching for shortcuts and just put in the work.
For the first few weeks, after I realized that nobody had done what I wanted to do, I spent hours looking for shortcuts. I searched for directories I could scrape. I looked for databases that already existed that I could borrow or buy. I invested a lot of time trying to figure out a way for me to not have to do the hard work myself.
Much to my chagrin, I couldn't find what I was looking for. And, anyone who did have any sort of database couldn't be bothered to respond to my inquiries.
Seriously, I tried to find a shortcut, but none existed. So I had to put in the work. Here's how that played out.
I started with cigar lounges I knew of or that I'd visited personally. Since we'd just spent six months in Cincinnati, the very first listing on CigarScore.com was Strauss Tobacconist in Cincy. Then I moved on to major cities around the country. Then I looked at my Google Analytics to see where people were visiting the site from, and I found lounges in those cities next.
Over the next several months, I personally searched for and found almost 1400 cigar lounges, humidors, and cigar-friendly bars and restaurants across the United States. Each listing had to be verified, and that time added up to over 75 hours of hard work I didn't want to do in the first place.
x 3.5 minutes to verify each listing
81.67 hours of work
What's really interesting is what came about as a result of me doing the work myself. Had I been able to scrape a listing site or build off an existing directory, I wouldn't be able to claim that “all listings have been 100% verified by a human.” I also wouldn't be able to speak about quality control with confidence.
Because my hands have literally touched every single listing on CigarScore.com, I have invaluable knowledge about the information that I now own.
Had I found the shortcut I'd been looking for, my story might have been drastically different.
2: Software Testing
Through my coaching business, I've worked with lots of business owners and their software. Because of my web design and management company, I've gotten to build and work on websites for businesses in a wide variety of industries. However, none of that prepared me for building CigarScore.com.
CigarScore uses software and connects with APIs I previously did not know existed. Instead of copying and pasting the Google Maps embed code for 1400 listings, the software I purchased taps into the Google API to add a map to each listing, find someone's geolocation, and to provide step by step navigation to every listing on the website.
In addition to Google's API, I had to find listing software that worked with WordPress. After a few different test sites, I finally settled on WP GeoDirectory for my needs.
While GeoDirectory does have directory themes, I still chose to build CigarScore using the FocusBlog theme from ThriveThemes. This allowed me to use WordPress software and a theme architecture with which I was already familiar.
Savvy users will also recognize that I'm using Thrive Leads, Thrive Clever Widgets, and Thrive Architect to build and design all of the pages. Using software I already knew saved me a lot of time. And, by using these plugins and a few others, I can create tailored experiences for my users and place geo-targeted ads for my sponsors.
3: Business Owner Outreach
After I'd built a proof concept and had about 500 unique listings, I started reaching out to cigar business owners. What I found was:
- The cigar industry has been slow to adopt the internet
- 2% of cigar lounges used a free site from Google
- 16% of all cigar lounges had no website at all
- 66% of cigar lounges used the word “cigar” in their URL
- Less than 25% of all lounges had public email addresses
So, when trying to build an email list by emailing lounge owners, I faced some challenges. However, for the email addresses I did have, I sent cold emails. And, in these emails, I told the shop owners:
A: Who I was
B: What CigarScore.com was
C: Invited them to check out their free listing
What I did not do was try to sell them anything or ask them to pay for something that I had already created for free. I didn't try some “bait-and-switch tactic.” I offered information and an invitation.
I knew that the success of CigarScore.com followed a similar path of success to the one Facebook had early on. The key to success was users; the more people who used the platform, the more valuable (and more successful) it would become. My goal early one, and still is today, was to get as many people using a free platform as possible.
So, to get users, I started with the owners. I sent out hundreds of cold emails to every email address I could find. And, for the lounges with Facebook pages, I sent an individual message telling them I'd created a new listing for them with an invitation to check it out.
Yes, the email and the Facebook messages were similar, but they weren't identical. No, not every message got a response.
4: My Social Media Strategy
The #1 problem most small businesses face is obscurity – nobody knows they exist.
One key thing I've been teaching my coaching and consulting clients over the past several years is the importance of brand recognition. People need to know who you are before they can buy from you.
And, since CigarScore was a new brand in the marketplace, it was an unknown brand as well. I did not buy CigarScore from someone else; I created it and built it from scratch, so I couldn't leverage what a previous owner had built for me.
Additionally, CigarScore had no social presence and no followers. To overcome this challenge and beat back the obstacle of obscurity, I took a four-pronged approach.
Second, on Facebook, I “liked” the pages for almost every cigar lounge I could find. After messaging their page from my personal profile, I'd also like their business page. This allowed me to remember if I'd messaged them or not, it gave the business an additional “like,” and it also meant that the message was coming from someone who'd liked their page, which I hoped would increase the likelihood that my message would be seen.
Third, after creating a profile for CigarScore on Instagram, I started following cigar-related profiles and the profiles for the lounges on my growing list. When you follow someone on Instagram, that person gets notified and has an opportunity to follow you back.
Finally, I started a spreadsheet (because that's what I do, lol) of all of the cigar-related hashtags being used on Instagram. I came up with four hashtags I wanted to use with every post (#cigar, #cigars, #cigarscore, and #wheretosmoke) along with a list of eighty-eight other hashtags of varying popularity (from several million posts to just a few thousand). I then began using a random selection of these 88 hashtags along with my standard four on every image I posted.
As of right now, I have less than 300 followers, but that's not bad for a new brand and without showing any girls in bikinis to promote the brand 😉.
5: Partner Outreach
Leveraging the strategy from Week 5 of Exit Strategy, I then began reaching out to future allies and possible partners. While this strategy wasn't terribly effective in the beginning, it did, however, work to get the CigarScore brand out there.
I started off with simple Google searches. I looked for cigar-related podcasts and blogs. I searched for the websites of the big names from social media. And, I started trying to find contact information for the biggest cigar channels on YouTube.
Also, when I reached out to these potential partners, I did not try and sell them anything. What I offered was of benefit to their readers, listeners, and viewers. Since I knew CigarScore was going to be of value to people looking for a great place to enjoy a cigar, that's how I positioned the email.
When we recommend a great resource to someone, that person thanks us, not the person who creates the resource. And that's what I was offering – a chance for my “partners” to recommend something useful to their audience.
But, as I said, this strategy didn't work that well. Many of the people I reached out to never responded. One guy who did respond offered to sell me ad space. Another did add a link on his resources page. But most just “ghosted me,” as the youth say these days.
6: Technical Wizardry
One of the things my company does for all of its clients is search engine optimization or SEO. So, we applied our technical wizardry to CigarScore.com as well.
In addition to submitting all of our sitemaps to Google's and Bing's webmaster tools, we also dove pretty deep into Google's data highlighter tool. What this means is that we took our listing directory and used the structured data highlighter to tell Google exactly what was in our directory.
As I'll tell you more about in the next section, “content is king,” and we've optimized all of our content for SEO too. Not long after publishing this article, I started noticing a lot of traffic coming to the site from Google.
My post about the “Top 10 Cigars Under $10,” ranks so high in search that hundreds of people visit CigarScore.com each month to read it. You can click here to test my SEO efforts. If my post shows up as it does below, that's because of my technical wizardry.
And, as a bonus, most of the links on that page are affiliate links.
7: Content, Content, Content
Content marketing is the best and most cost-effective way to start, build, and grow a business. I wouldn't have any of my businesses without the visibility received through content marketing.
As I mentioned in the previous section, every month, hundreds of people search for and find my article on the best cigars under $10. Then they stick around and read more articles or watch my videos on YouTube.
Because of content marketing, I've built an email list with hundreds of people on it. Because of my video content, I have hundreds of subscribers on YouTube. Because of content marketing, CigarScore.com gets thousands of visitors each month.
As I mentioned in #3 above, the more people who visit CigarScore, the more valuable the platform becomes for me, for the listings, and for my growing number of sponsors. And content marketing fuels that growth.
Regarding that content, on the CigarScore TV YouTube channel, I post cigar reviews and unboxing videos. I also repurpose that content for Instagram TV and on the CigarScore Podcast in audio-only format.
Again, the goal is to get brand recognition, so I try to be everywhere.
8: Email List Growth (aka “The Money Is In the List”)
Starting an email list from scratch sucks. It's terrible! However, I started an email list for CigarScore subscribers from scratch. I did not leverage my existing list to boost the numbers for my new business.
However, I did use a lot of the tools listed here.
Using ActiveCampaign, I created a single list for all CigarScore Subscribers. Then I segmented that audience into two groups: Cigar Smokers and Cigar Lounge Owners. With this method, I can send emails specifically targeting each group without asking my users to claim a business listing they don't have.
Additionally, using my geo-targeting capabilities, I further tag users based on their state-specific interests. If you visit a listing for a business based in one of my more popular states, you'll get asked if you want emails about updates for those individual states.
I've also grown my CigarScore email list by opening up a merchandise store. When someone buys a t-shirt, sticker, hoodie, or another piece of merch, they get on my email list. And, as a side benefit, all of the items in my store have one of the CigarScore logos on it, which helps to spread the word about what we've built.
Finally, a significant boost to my email list has come in the form of hosting a “Best of” award. While an annual award has done great things for my email list, I've always kept in mind, “Why would a lounge owner care?” If you're not serving your customers, you'll fail.
With that disclaimer said, an award or honor people can vote on is a great way to boost your email list. In the first week, I grew my list 36.78% just by asking people to vote for their favorite cigar lounge, cigar accessory, and cigar-related show.
By adding a simple nomination form built with WPForms connected to ActiveCampaign via Zapier, I've added subscribers, driven tons of traffic to the website, and boosted the visibility of the brand immensely.
How I Made Money
As I mentioned before, the biggest problem faced by small businesses is obscurity. And CigarScore.com was no different.
Obscurity hurts businesses in two areas:
- Obscurity hides the existence of your business
- Obscurity hides the existence of your products/services
If people don't know your business exists, they can't buy from you. If they don't know about a particular product, they can't buy it.
So, to make money with CigarScore, my customers, in this case, these are the business owners, needed to know what I could offer them.
Free Forever Listings
It really bugs me when companies offer something for free, get you hooked, and then start charging. I hate it. Customers hate it. And, in my opinion, it's a bad business practice.
So, CigarScore.com offers businesses a free forever listing. In this way, we're very much like Yelp or TripAdvisor, and even Google Maps. Each business gets a free listing because the ultimate end-user that we want to serve is the consumer.
NOTE: This is another reason you need to complete the Ideal Avatar Worksheet for not only your business but for each of your products too. You need to know who you're ultimately serving every time you create something new.
Each business listed on CigarScore.com gets a free listing with basic information. The goal with a free listing is to serve the community, not the business owners.
For free, each business listing gets
- Business Name
- Business Address
- Phone Number
Plus, our users can get maps and navigation to each business for free.
NOTE: Regardless of the performance of the website or whatever happens, I know my first priority is to make it easy to find and rate a business quickly. If I fail at this, I don’t deserve to make any money.
Preferred Listing – $5/mo or $55/year
To be honest, the amount of information a user can find on a Free Forever listing is just ok. I use the site all the time, but there's one bit of information I'd really like to have, and that's the business' hours of operation. Most consumers want to know if and when a business is open so they know if they should make the drive.
NOTE: I just realized it didn't take 45 days to make my first dollar. However, the first sale did not cover the cost of the software. It was only after the second sale that I broke even with startup costs (minus my time, of course).
My very first customer for CigarScore.com came on January 15th, 2019, at 9:29 pm. A lounge owner in California found the website but realized his business was not on there yet. Then he created a new listing, added his business' information, and paid to upgrade to a Preferred listing.
A preferred listing includes:
- Everything from a free listing
- Plus a direct email link
- Plus “Open Now” Business hours
- Plus links to social media
In my opinion, this first level of upgrades makes a lot of sense. The number one thing I need to know when I find a listing is whether or not they're going to be open when I get there.
Beyond having an owner claim their listing, the Preferred Listing is like a tripwire for this business. Normally a tripwire is a product that costs less than $10 but which provides significant value and serves to convert someone into a customer.
To get a positive ROI (return on investment), a lounge owner would only have to sell approximately 1.5 additional cigars per month to justify the cost of the upgrade. If just one additional user visits a lounge they found on CigarScore.com the upgrade has paid for itself.
A Preferred listing is my tripwire (also called a “loss leader” in the offline world). It gets people in the door and converts users from subscribers to customers. I suggest you have one too.
Premium Listing – $20/mo or $220/year
The second level of upgrade is also the second sale I made just a couple of days after the first one.
A Premium listing includes:
- Everything from the Preferred listing
- Plus the ability to add custom bio and information about the business
- Plus the option to upload custom photos to show people around the business or storefront
- Plus my team will add Custom Meta-data (Google Description) for listing
Since we're SEO ninjas, the Premium option adds a ton of value. Plus, photos are a HUGE bonus for showing off all of the work someone has put into their store. Additionally, my second customer chose to add a discount code exclusively for visitors who came from CigarScore.
Elite Listing + Website – $504/year + $250 design fee
The final upgrade option offers all of the above plus a single-page website for the lounge that also removes any of our 3rd party ads. We'll cover the hosting, the software, everything. This is truly a turn-key solution for any of our customers who want to outsource their online presence.
Before we move on, do you see how each of these options build on one another? Do you see how these services leverage the experience and expertise I've developed over the past eight years?
When building something new, remember, you do not have to start with nothing; you have tools you can use and expertise you can leverage.
The next way CigarScore.com generates revenue is through affiliate marketing. I recommend all of the software I use to the business owners on my email list, and those recommendations usually include an affiliate link.
I also have affiliate ads on the website itself. Sometimes I recommend products on Amazon as well.
Affiliate marketing is an easy way to monetize your website if, and only if, you do it right and have the audience to support it. Affiliate marketing leverages the power of numbers – the number of eyeballs and the number of clicks – to make you and the affiliate partner money.
It took me over 30 days to make my first affiliate sale, and I only earned $18.44 for the entire month with only 19 clicks. However, those numbers have increased each month, and now my affiliate ads get 100s of clicks each month.
All that said, your success with affiliate marketing requires you to recommend something your audience wants. In my case, that's discounts on cigars and free shipping.
Advertisers and Sponsors
The third and final way CigarScore.com has made money for me is by offering advertising spots. If a business has created a product that could benefit the users of the site, they can pay to put either a 300×250 ad on the sidebar or a 700×125 ad below the content on every page.
As with affiliate marketing, generating revenue from advertisers and sponsors requires an audience. While affiliate partners typically only pay after a sale has been made, advertisers pay before any sales are made. You might be able to get an advertiser once but to get them to keep advertising, you have to provide results in the form of a positive ROI.
As I told one advertiser, “I want you to pay me forever!” And I mean that. I want to make my advertisers so much money that they never want to stop advertising on CigarScore.com.
And that's it; that's how I made money with a brand new platform in less than 45 days. I sold an upgraded listing, and then I sold another one. Then I started offering affiliate products. Then other businesses started contacting me to promote their products to my growing list of users.
I've said it once, and I'll say it again, every time I take the steps outlined in Exit Strategy, I get great results. While no plan survives contact with the enemy, and no script can withstand the scrutiny of the consumer, having a proven strategy and a set of time tested tactics is key to success.
As I've outlined above, anybody can take their idea and turn it into a reality if you follow a recipe I've now used and implemented nearly a dozen times for different business models and multiple products.
If you want the 8-week strategy but don't want my entire book, click here to download the Exit Strategy Companion Workbook (it's 100% free).