You’d be amazed by how much you can learn on YouTube. Austin Coker built his six-figure ecommerce business after watching dropshipping tutorials for free online. A few years later, he sold it in a five-figure deal on Acquire and now runs an ecommerce SEO agency. How?
Austin protests that he’s far from entrepreneurial, he just never wanted a boss. It didn’t seem fair to work long hours, begging for every vacation day, just to line someone else’s pockets. Starting a business was always on the cards – he just didn’t know how or where to start.
That changed in June 2019 when Austin met his now wife, Morta. A Lithuanian native, she returned to Kaunus after her visa expired, and Austin followed. Unable to speak the language and with just $3,000 in savings, Austin needed money, fast, and turned to the internet for help.
A few failed dropshipping websites later, Austin met his future cofounder and they planned to start a marketing agency together. But plans changed when Austin listened to Sam Parr on a podcast explaining how he’d start an online plant business.
Austin thought: Why not follow Sam’s blueprint?
“Sam Parr of The Hustle gave an hour-long talk on how he’d do an online plant business. I’d listened to the My First Million podcast and trusted that he knew what he was talking about. My Lithuanian friend Linas and I discussed it and decided to sell plants instead of start an agency.”
Austin knew nothing about horticulture when he started Comfort Plants. By the time he sold it, however, he’d Acquired over 3,000 customers and over six figures in annual revenue (and could teach you all about succulents). Read on to learn how Austin “grew” his business to exit.
Finding Love in a Surf Shop
Austin never expected a chance meeting in a surf shop to start a new life in Lithuania. He’d lived all his life in Rhode Island, US (about an hour from Boston and three from New York). After graduating high school, he studied supply chain management at the University of Rhode Island.
“I got the degree but hated the subject,” Austin said. “It was a good fallback, though, as the industry’s growing fast. My first job, however, was as a salesperson for the largest surf and kite board shop in the world called REAL Watersports. They dominate in the US for online sales.”
Austin started at REAL Watersports in June 2019, and that summer, met his future wife, Morta, who was in the US for a summer work and travel program. Soon afterward, she had to return to Lithuania to finish college, forcing them to make a difficult decision about their relationship.
Rather than write off their summer together as a fond memory, Austin packed his bags.
“We decided to stay together. She visited me in Rhode Island and I visited her in Lithuania. She had one more year of school, so we talked it over and decided not to do this long-distance, cross-Atlantic relationship. Instead, I’d move over there until she finished school.”
Austin bought his plane ticket to leave on March 15th, 2020. He had no plans, little job experience, and hadn’t even heard of dropshipping. As the departure date loomed, the world woke up to a strange virus in China. Covid made headlines and butterflies hatched in Austin’s gut.
“Boston public schools had just shut down, and I remember my mom said, ‘I’ll help you buy a plane ticket if you want to leave earlier.’ Morta thought I was crazy, but I felt good about it. I bought an earlier flight, but on the day I was supposed to leave, disaster struck.”
That morning, Morta messaged Austin to say that Lithuania was closing its borders in 12 hours. Thankfully, his flight was among the few to depart within that timeframe. Lithuanian officials greeted him in Kaunus with a stark warning: “If you get anyone sick, we’ll arrest you.”
“Morta picked me up at the airport, and Lithuania didn’t open up again for another year,” Austin said. “If I hadn’t made it into the country, I probably wouldn’t be married. But I got in, and while stuck at home under lockdown, I started thinking of business ideas to earn some money.”
It’s Not What You Sell, But How
Austin is candid about his limits. When I asked him what interested him in entrepreneurship, he responded as many might: “I worked from the age of 16 onward and was never crazy about my bosses and the lack of freedom. I wasn’t a hustler, but I also didn’t want to become a drone.”
With the country under strict lockdown, Austin needed to figure out how to make money. The cost of living in Lithuania is about 60 percent cheaper than in the US1, but his savings wouldn’t last forever. He watched YouTube tutorials on dropshipping and started a couple of websites.
“That autumn, I’d built a couple of sites trying to sell shower heads, and other AliExpress-looking products,” Austin said. “Nothing took off. I never even got to running Facebook ads, just a couple of Instagram shoutouts that did nothing. Then I met my wife’s brother’s friend, Linas, who was good at building websites. He thought we could build an agency together using the marketing knowledge I’d learned online.”
But after hearing Sam Parr’s advice on his My First Million podcast, Austin convinced Linas they might have better luck selling plants online. According to Sam’s research, ordering plants online was more popular than ever – especially during Covid when no one could go outside to enjoy them.
A natural salesperson, Austin recognized a moneymaking opportunity when he saw one, and besides, it wasn’t what he sold that mattered, but how he sold it.
“I’ve never owned a plant in my life,” Austin laughs. “But with Covid, few people went outside, so they wanted to bring nature indoors. People would spend two to three times the price of a plant if they could get it delivered to their doorstep rather than going to a store.”
The appeal of dropshipping plants was that he could source them from other suppliers who delivered them straight to the customer. No need for inventory, warehouse space, or to build or partner with a logistics operator. Austin would handle sales, marketing, and customer relationships only – all possible from a laptop with an internet connection.
Austin built the website and settled on the name Comfort Plants. The pandemic had bruised everyone’s mental health, and plants could alleviate some of the stress people suffered. He then built a backlog of content to kickstart SEO and advise potential customers on raising plants.
“Since I knew nothing about plants, I rewrote care guides I found online hoping the author knew what they were talking about. Then we went to Lithuanian plant shops to take product pictures. I couldn’t even get my own plant because our suppliers couldn’t ship internationally at the time.”
The Diminishing Returns of Social Media Ads
With the website ready, Austin began messaging plant sellers online. His first supplier was a succulent plant shop on Etsy. Succulents are thick, fleshy plants that need little watering, so are easier to look after (and ship).
With the help of a few Facebook ads, Austin and Linas pulled in their first couple of sales. But to push the needle a little more, they’d need to supply other types of plants, too.
“In October 2020, I found a dropshipper who’d send other plant types,” Austin said. “They had a couple of huge nurseries and had a nifty little Shopify plugin, so order fulfillment was smooth. We launched with them on Black Friday and made our first thousand bucks on the first day.”
So far, so good – only one problem pestered Austin’s mind. The margins were so low. The founders didn’t dare take any money from the business for the first few months. Instead, they reinvested it into more Facebook ads to sell more plants to cover their supply costs.
“We quickly learned that our margins increased when we sold a minimum of four plants,” Austin said. “That became our strategy – selling bundles – because shipping was the most expensive part of the business. Plants are cheap but shipping them live is expensive. They need special care.”
Austin and Linas continued testing pricing and social media ads until they got the balance right. They hit $5,000 in monthly revenue…then $10,000…then $20,000…and then…revenue fell.
Apple’s privacy updates with the release of iOS 14 quadrupled their customer acquisition costs.
“Before iOS 14, our customer acquisition cost was eight dollars,” Austin said. “Then after the update, it doubled to sixteen dollars and then thirty-two in just three weeks. It was like Apple had punched a hole in our revenue. We turned off Facebook ads and tried other growth strategies.”
Austin partnered with TikTok influencers and other affiliates to sell plants in return for a commission (and free plants). They also hired a writer to rewrite their blog posts to improve SEO. None of these actions had a big effect on revenue, but the margins were fantastic.
“We didn’t make those twenty grand months anymore, but we still earned a few thousand,” Austin said. “Our margins were excellent as our customer acquisition costs were virtually nothing, especially with SEO. That kept us going for a few months before we decided to sell.”
In June 2021, Austin and Morta, now married, returned to the US permanently.
Reviving Comfort Plants’ glory days was becoming harder, especially as Austin was making more money from other projects. He’d been helping friends with content and ecommerce sites, applying lessons he’d learned building Comfort Plants.
“My business partner and I decided to sell while there was still value,” Austin said. “We were still getting sales. Our email list was solid. We would still make a couple of hundred bucks by sending an email. So we listed Comfort Plants on Acquire in July 2021.”
An Acquisition While on Vacation
Although Austin knew little of the acquisition process before listing, his friends had sold businesses before and helped to set his expectations.
The big question was the asking price.
Austin and Linas had systemized everything, kept a clean P&L statement, and their virtual assistant handled the day-to-day admin. In other words, it was a turnkey business. Anyone could take it over, and Austin believed that was worth something.
“We weren’t crushing it anymore, but we still got organic traffic,” Austin said. “We valued the business as a true plug and play. Our asking price wouldn’t change our lives – we landed on a multiple of three times revenue – but that first success basically accelerated my career as an entrepreneur. I learned so much and probably wouldn’t be where I am today without it.”
When completing his Acquire listing, Austin described exactly what a buyer could do to grow the business. Anyone with deep knowledge of social media ads could catapult Comfort Plants back to its halcyon days – Austin just needed to find that person.
“I think that we’d written a good enough description that people knew what to expect,” Austin said. “This was a great business for someone who’s already good at Facebook ads. We’d wasted a lot of money never quite getting them right. But the opportunity was there.”
Fielding inquiries was slow at first, but Austin and Linas were in no rush to sell (a decision they’d later regret). In October, they updated their listing and messaged everyone who’d shown interest. A few more calls followed, but none resulted in an offer. By November, the cofounders were getting impatient.
“We just wanted to get it done,” Austin said. “We dropped the price by fifteen percent, messaged our interested buyers, and immediately got an offer. It included an earnout, which we didn’t love, so we waited a bit longer and got another all-cash offer that let us close quickly.”
At this time, Austin was on vacation in the Dominican Republic, no doubt lounging poolside with a mojito. “I loved that I could do everything remotely on Acquire,” Austin said. “I shared the website so the buyers could check out my partner’s code, and then we moved to escrow.”
Comfort Plants was Acquired by two serial entrepreneurs, one of whom owned a marketing agency and possessed the advertising expertise to revive the startup’s sluggish growth. While Austin is happy to have sold the business, he wishes he’d been more active in the beginning.
“If we had listed it in May when revenue was higher, I think we would’ve got a better price. But my biggest regret is probably not pushing to sell in those first couple of weeks of listing. I could have done a little better at following up on messages. It’s harder to sell a business that’s been sitting for a while and that was on us for not pushing to get the deal done.”
When Austin reflects on those days in lockdown in Lithuania, absorbing dropshipping tutorials on YouTube, he’s thankful he never took a remote job. The risks, Austin argues, are so low that virtually anyone can start a dropshipping business. And if it doesn’t work, you move on.
“You can spend less than a thousand dollars, launch a company, and even if it doesn’t succeed, you’ll learn a lot,” Austin said. “I view my acquisition as jumping to the next step of my career. Not everyone’s first business is going to sell for life-changing money, but it’s enough to set you up for whatever business you want to try next. And that’s how you’ll make even more money.”
Buyers are in plentiful supply, Austin argues, and they want to skip those early set-up stages and drop into the driving seat of a car that’s already moving. People will pay to save months of building, so don’t be afraid to sell even if you’re struggling to grow the business.
“You might not have the skills to grow your business, but someone else does,” Austin said. “I spoke to people who said my business was as good as they could’ve got it in three months, so we saved people time. They don’t balk at five figures when they hope to make a million dollars. Lots of people are happy to spend the money.”
For those still clinging to a binary definition of entrepreneurial success, Austin’s story sends a clear message: Celebrate the smaller achievements just as much as the big ones. Only then can you encourage a new generation of entrepreneurs to swallow their fears and pursue their ambitions just as he did.
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