Graham Cochrane grew up wanting to be a rock star. Today, the father of two girls, ages 10 and 12, is a rock star of the million-dollar, one-person business world.
He owns two seven-figure businesses in Tampa, Fla., where he lives: Recording Revolution, build around a blog and YouTube channel he built to help others learn about music production, and the highly automated GrahamCochrane.com, where he offers coaching and courses to help people develop passive income sources. He learned to set up his businesses in a way that allows him to work five to six hours a week—producing content such as his podcast The Graham Cochrane Show—and spends the rest of the time with his family and doing things he loves, like playing music, working out at the gym and going on long walks. Along the way he wrote a book called How to Get Paid for What You Know, released this spring.
The number of million-dollar, one-person businesses continues to climb with 43,012 breaking into the $1 million to $2.49 million in revenue category in 2019 (the most recent year for which Census statistics are available), up from 41,666 in 2018. An ultra-elite 2,553 made it to $2.5 to $4.99 million in revenue, and 388 made to $5 million in revenue and beyond.
“Million-dollar, one-person business” obviously isn’t a scientific term. These are what the Census bureau calls nonemployer businesses—those with no employees except the owner or owners. The vast majority of nonemployer firms have one owner, but some are partnerships or have several owners.
The number of businesses in other high-revenue categories grew as well.
· 312,422 hit $500,000 to $499,999 in revenue, up from 297,498 in 2018.
· 694,289 reached $250,000 to $499,999 in revenue, up from 668,152 in 2018.
· 2.2 million businesses reached $100,000 to $249,999 in revenue, up from 2 million in 2018.
At the same time, the total number of nonemployer firms in the country grew from 26.5 million to 27.1 million, part of an ongoing trend in which more Americans are embracing solo entrepreneurship or creating tiny businesses with a handful of employees. Whether this trend held up during the pandemic remains to be seen until the Census numbers for 2020 and beyond come out. The number of new businesses in the U.S. has been skyrocketing. However, small businesses faced extraordinary challenges during the pandemic, and we will not know the revenue trends until the Census bureau crunches the numbers.
Although owners breaking $1 million are, essentially, the Olympic athletes of the one-person business world, they are a great example of what one person can accomplish when amplifying their impact through the right strategies. Here are some that worked for Graham Cochrane. I’ll be profiling a few more million-dollar, one-person businesses in August.
Lean into your area of expertise. It’s easiest to build a high-revenue business if you skip the learning curve and find a niche in an area you already know. In Cochrane’s case, while the musician was playing in a band called Unit 5, he got a college degree in audio engineering—building a knowledge base that would be the foundation for his future entrepreneurial career.
Be willing to experiment with your business model. After graduation, Cochrane worked in a recording studio in Virginia. “I realized the hours were incompatible with having a life,” he says. He decided to go freelance and opened a small recording studio in his home, working by day as an audio engineer at a software company. Somehow, he found time to write and record his own music.
In 2009, he moved to Florida and started his blog and, later, his YouTube channel, so people could see what he was teaching them to do on his computer screen. “I realized people wanted to learn more about music production and recording music than they wanted to hire me to produce their own albums,” he says. By that time, audio equipment was becoming much more accessible.
Build on what is working. Looking for ways to monetize the videos and articles he was creating, Cochrane created a course about Pro Tools—which he describes as the equivalent of Photoshop for music—for which he charged $45, marketing it to his YouTube list. “That is when I realized there is something here,” he says. “I sold five or 10 copies that week. I remember that first sale coming through, and it was a lightbulb moment.”
Cochrane doubled down on his blogs and YouTube content. He also introduced more courses, so he had something to sell, and a more expensive course to see if he could make more money per sale. Although friends said he was giving too much content away for free, he found that the more he shared, the more his business grew.
By year four, Cochrane had so much work on his plate that he hired a friend to help him with emails and customer service, as well as occasional video editors and graphic designers. (Interestingly, an informal survey of 50 businesses I did for my book Tiny Business, Big Money found that the four-year mark is an inflection point for seven-figure businesses. They hired their first employee, on average, and also hit $1 million in revenue in year four. Why is year four so significant? I’d love to know. That is worthy of further and much more extensive study).
Learn to love automation. Cochrane, along the way, also launched GrahamCochrane.com, his personal brand, and set it up to scale up. “The great thing about this type of business, where you’re doing information products and online courses, is so much is automated,” says Cochrane. “Automation is so powerful. The content I make every week on YouTube and my podcast has an exponential component, so people can find it on their own. It’s almost like marketing 24/7. Email marketing is automated. Bringing people into the ecosystem and offering them my products, it’s all happening automatically. I’m not limited by how many hours I spend or clients I serve. It’s mostly asynchronous.”
Be generous. Today, GrahamCochrane.com is a subscription membership site, which delivers a new mini-course, hosted on the platform Kajabi, to subscribers every month, and they can join a live coaching call with Cochrane. Inspired by Tim Ferris’s book The 4-Hour Workweek, he only works five to six hours a week because his business model is so heavily automated. “As long as I’m focused on creating regular, valuable free content to drive more leads into my email funnel, the funnel will take care of the rest,” says Cochrane. “It offers products, my membership keeps growing and my workload stays the same.”
But nothing stays static in business, and Cochrane says he is “ruthless” in examining his business model every six months to makes sure he’s doing thing efficiently—and cutting out tasks that take a lot of time without contributing to business growth. “I go through that list and say, ‘What are the 80% of the things on this list that only contribute to the 20% of the revenue in the business or less?’” he asks. “I can see a direct correlation between doing that task and making money.” It also saves him a lot of time to do the things that matter. “I take my kids to school and pick them up every day,” he says. Having freedoms to embrace the daily routines that really matter in your life is what business ownership is all about.
Anna Sicoli contributed research assistance to this story.