Nellie Akalp and her husband/business partners are self-made entrepreneurs based in Westlake Village, CA. They started their first business back in 1997 from their small apartment living room with just $100. The business, an online legal document filing service, was the first of its kind at the time and rapidly grew. In 2005 it was acquired by Intuit for $20 million.
The couple took a few years off to focus on their growing family (they have four children) but Nellie soon found herself bored so she decided to get back to work. In 2009, once their non-compete was up, they launched their current online legal document filing service, CorpNet.com. She found success at business the second time around as the company has been recognized on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing privately-held companies in America.
StarCentral Magazine recently caught up with Nellie to discuss her journey to entrepreneurship and here’s what went down:
Can you describe your journey to success? When did you start? Did you ever imagine you would become this successful?
Instead of following the traditional path of joining a law firm, after graduating from law school, together with my husband, we decided to become business partners and launched our first business, an online legal document filing service in 1997.
We were quite successful—by 2005 we had sales of about $1 million a month—and sold the business to Intuit for millions. We never really anticipated that level of success when we launched.
After we sold, and as a result of a non-compete, we took three years off. I did dabble in other types of businesses at that time – I opened a clothing line but it wasn’t that interesting to me. Instead, during that time, I was (informally) helping my friends build their businesses and realized how passionate I was about helping people turn their small business dreams into reality.
When the non-compete ran out, I looked back at the industry we had been in and realized that no one was offering what I wanted to offer at the level and to the extent, I envisioned offering assistance to startups and legal and tax professionals -and so we started CorpNet.com in 2009.
What is your main source of income?
I am an entrepreneur, so I am always dabbling in multiple opportunities at any given time, so I have income being generated at all times from multiple sources. However, CorpNet.com is my baby and it is my main source of income right now. CorpNet is a legal document filing service that provides new and existing business owners with comprehensive, cost-effective services when it comes to starting a new business. Whether it be incorporating, forming an LLC, or setting up a fictitious business name, sole proprietorship, partnership, we can assist business owners in all 50 states.
Plus, we help existing business owners with their business filing needs that are required to keep their business in compliance. That includes modifying their business information, filing an annual report, or statement of information to keep the company in compliance. Finally, if entrepreneurs want to take the next level and protect their intellectual property we offer trademark protection and copyright filing services. To be clear, CorpNet does not provide legal, tax, or financial advice.
What are you currently doing to maintain/grow your business?
We continue to innovate, introduce new services, and invest in marketing and raise our brand awareness. It’s important to evolve.
How did your business stand out? How did your brand stand out from the rest of the other brands out there that is similar to your niche?
When we launched CorpNet in 2009, we were in the middle of a recession. And the market was saturated, unlike when we started our first business in 1997. So I knew I had to do something to make CorpNet stand out in the market—and I figured out business blogging was a great way to establish myself and CorpNet as a go-to resource in the entrepreneurial marketplace.
Today, I’m still blogging—and I take a lot of pride in it. I write for our own company’s website, for many small business sites, and on industry-specific blogs—particularly in the accounting field.
I love sharing my insight, not only on starting, running and growing a business with other entrepreneurs, but also sharing what’s going on in the world of small business and entrepreneurship today—there’s just so much to keep up on.
Another way we stand out from our competitors is in our participation in social media. When we started CorpNet, I knew we had to be a little disruptive in order to create a niche for ourselves and stand out from our competitors. This was at the infancy of the social media movement—so we launched CorpNet relying heavily on social media.
What form of marketing has worked well for your business throughout the years?
As I noted, we’re big believers in social media at CorpNet. We understand social media doesn’t deliver immediate sales. But, it’s a tool we use to engage with people, to let them know we’re here, to show we’re experts in our fields and a resource for aspiring and existing entrepreneurs and small business owners.
Social media helped me establish myself as a small business expert, a serial entrepreneur, and someone who business owners can rely on.
It’s important to remember social media is not about being self-promotional—it’s about really engaging with people.
What money mistakes have you made along the way that others can learn from (or something you’d do differently)?
When launching CorpNet, having the notion of I did this before so I can do it again. Instead, it’s important to remember every new venture is a new venture and you have to look at it as a new baby. What worked before will not necessarily work now.
What have you learned in the process of becoming wealthy that others can learn from?
Making the money we did didn’t change us as people. We view money as a tool to use to get us from point A to point B or letting us reinvest in our business. From a personal viewpoint, making money enabled my husband and me to build our family (we have four kids) and to live a life beyond our wildest dreams and still doing so and it has also helped us pay it forward.
Do you have any favorite business-related or personal development related books that you can recommend to other entrepreneurs?
The book—and it’s my favorite book of all time—that helped me when we launched our first business is Delivering Happiness, written by Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos. I also learned from a book called Leaders Eat Last, which is leadership and how as a leader, it’s up to you to motivate and empower your team.
And I’m proud of a book I wrote—The No-Nonsense Guide to Small Business Marketing, a downloadable guide where I share what I’ve learned on my entrepreneurial journey.
My current all-time favorite is Super Attractor by Gabrielle Bernstein which lays out the essential methods for manifesting a life beyond your wildest dreams.
What is your experience with paid advertising, like PPC or sponsored content campaigns?
I think it works if you work it! What I mean,n by this is that even if you pay to play, you must have your game plan after you receive the lead and have the proper funnels in place to nurture and cultivate that lead into a sale. You must know your numbers and know your break-even point and have a number in your head as your ROI before you invent in Paid ads or any sponsored type content.
What new business would you love to start?
I love cooking, baking, and making people happy so I think if I were to start a new business it would be a restaurant, a gym, or some sort of a lifestyle business.
If you could go back in a time machine to the time when you were just getting started, what would you do differently?
I have loved my entrepreneurial journey and really do not have any regrets. That said, if I would have done anything differently, I would have probably chosen my friends and business associates with a little more scrutiny had I known better, but you eventually learn with time and by making mistakes.
If you could go back in a time machine to the time when you were first making a name for yourself, what advice would you give yourself?
I think I have done a pretty good job of creating a brand for myself to date. If I were to do it any better, I would say to launch a book and conduct speaking engagements to encourage others to go after their dreams and goals as I did.
What is the toughest decision you had to make in the last few months?
Well, that is easy, having to take my business with all my employees to a remote-based organization and maintaining profitability and growth and also as a result of Coronavirus. It has been a difficult transition but we have been able to keep our doors open, which I am thankful for.
What is the best advice you have ever been given?
The best small business advice I ever received is that in order to get whatever you want you have to ask—and hunt for it. If you don’t at least try, you will never ever know the answer.
What advice would you give to a newbie Entrepreneur setting up their first business?
My advice to entrepreneurs just starting out is to ask yourself, “Are you really passionate about this idea?” because it all begins with you and how passionate and how much you believe in the product or service that you’re about to launch. You need to believe in it first before you can get anybody else to believe in it and get on board with you.
Once you’re sure you have the passion for the idea and you’re ready to take the next step, find a mentor, and test the waters. Talk to people who are already in business or do a test out there with your potential target market. Don’t just talk to family or friends about your idea—they will always tell you what you want to hear. Start slow and steady and don’t rush into anything. With time, everything will fall into place.