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DNQ Ep. 13: How the Founders of TripHappy Started Businesses Remotely And Made Passive Income

For the thirteenth episode of the DNQ interview series, I’d like to welcome Ben Granas, Calvin Hawkes, and Carl Grafmuller, co-founders of Triphappy and Ceramic Kilns.

I actually received their e-mail wanting to be interviewed for the DNQ series. What got me interested was the fact that these guys started their businesses while abroad. They automated their first business to support their living as well as fund some of their startup costs for their 2nd endeavor. Extremely impressed, I went ahead and asked them some questions that I were curious about.

How to Start Your Own Businesses Remotely and Make Passive Income

Sharon: Tell us about yourselves!

TripHappy Founders: We are Ben, Calvin and Carl and we are the cofounders of TripHappy. We left our jobs in New York City about a year ago, and been traveling and building our startup TripHappy ever since. So far we’ve lived in Asia, Africa and Central America, with South America up next in early 2017.

triphappy founders interview

Sharon: You guys told me you had a crazy story to share about your travels. Let’s hear it!

TripHappy Founders: We lived in a small town in China (small by Chinese standards) for a month, and we were the only foreigners in our district. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, but apparently the police were a little suspicious of Americans living in their town. After a few weeks our presence was requested at the police station, and we were detained for about 6 hours. They assumed we we’re hackers for the US government and interrogated us on our connections to various branches of the federal government, but ended up letting us go. It all worked out though, because the next night the police chief came and picked us up and took us out for a BBQ dinner!

Sharon: Haha, that’s hilarious.

How did you guys assemble your team? I feel like when I was back home, it was already hard to find anyone who wanted to go full-time building a company. Finding full-time co-founders willing to go nomadic seems impossible! Are you guys driven by a common goal?

TripHappy Founders: We met while attending New York University and each of us felt like we wanted to try something different and break the corporate mold, so after a few years of working and saving up we knew it was time to make a change. We’re pretty lucky in that we each bring complementary skills to the team, and all 3 of us love to travel and experience new cultures.

Sharon: How’d you learn about the digital nomad lifestyle and what made you guys want to do it?

TripHappy Founders: The lifestyle sort of fell into or laps as we were researching starting our own business. It became clear pretty early on that we would be able to save a ton of money by living and working overseas rather than staying in NYC.

Sharon: How did you come up with your first business Ceramic Kilns? What did you know about kilns before you started? Or did you find there was opportunity in this niche and had to do a lot of research?

TripHappy Founders: We’ve had some experience with pottery in the past, but it wasn’t until we did our research that we saw the market opportunity for opening a kiln retailing business.

Sharon: How did you research the market opportunity for ceramic kilns?

TripHappy Founders: Once we decided we wanted to open an e-commerce store, we made a list of around 50 potential products to sell. We analyzed each item by rating them against certain criteria like strength of online competitors and profit per sale. Through this analysis, we were able to identify a market opportunity in ceramic kilns.

Sharon: Where did you find your manufacturers/drop shippers?

TripHappy Founders: We contacted every single kiln manufacturer we could find in online stores, magazines, or forums. There is no trick – you just contact each company’s sales manager and ask to become a distributor. Some require you to have a physical store, but some allow for online-only stores like ourselves. Because we were new to the industry, not everyone was open to us at first. The important part is to maintain a relationship with each manufacturer. One year after we first opened, we were able to sign additional manufacturers that had previously denied us.

Sharon: How long did it take to start up Ceramic Kilns? Did you follow a detailed timeline? Did you need coding knowledge and is there any other skill that you think is handy for such a project?

TripHappy Founders: It took about 4 months to see consistent sales, and another 6 months before it was paying the bills. Web development skills aren’t totally necessary, but will certainly help, and opening a site is a good excuse to learn HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

triphappy founders interview
Sharon: How did you market the kilns business after setting it up?

TripHappy Founders: At first, most of our sales came through paid ads on Google and Bing. Overtime, our content marketing began to pay off and we now see a significant amount of sales from organic traffic.

Sharon: Did you intend to automate this business starting out? What sites did you use to outsource this work (manufacturing, shipping, etc.) and what parts did you outsource first? What were the steps you took?

TripHappy Founders: The business was meant to operate on the side while we each worked full time jobs, but automating it was a no brainer once we started building TripHappy. We found a customer service rep through personal connections and we do a lot of outsourcing on Upwork, both for our e-commerce business and TripHappy.

Sharon: Does Ceramic Kilns provide enough passive income to support all of you guys full-time?

TripHappy Founders: Our e-commerce site provides a steady income stream that pays for our living costs as well as development costs of TripHappy.

Sharon: What were some of the biggest challenges along the way? What do you think gets overlooked the most when automating businesses? Was this your first attempt or were there other business ideas you guys have attempted in the past?

TripHappy Founders: The biggest challenge was just learning how to open and operate a successful e-commerce site. None of us really had any experience running our own business at that point, so we pretty much went into it blindly. We actually started another site in a more competitive market first, but we ended up having to sell it when we realized the opportunity was small. We’ve learning so much about web development, marketing, customer service, and vendor relationships that has helped us immensely in building TripHappy.

Sharon: Can you tell us more about TripHappy? How will you monetize this site?

TripHappy Founders: TripHappy is a data-driven travel guide and trip planner. We aggregate data from our users to show you where other people are traveling in any country, worldwide. Right now we make money through our accommodation booking engine, which I think is pretty awesome. We are also in talks to license some of our tools to pretty big travel providers.

Sharon: Will you be creating more products and businesses in the future?

TripHappy Founders: We’ve kicked around a few different ideas about other businesses we could start, but right now we are focused full time on TripHappy.

Sharon: What blog/books do you read and would recommend?

TripHappy Founders: Rather than recommending blogs or books about the digital nomad lifestyle, I would recommend learning as much as possible about the market you intend to enter. There are plenty of people trying to push digital nomad how-to books, but to become an entrepreneur you need to think about your business first, and the lifestyle second. The book Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares is a fantastic resource for marketing startups.

Sharon: Do you have advice for anyone who wants to start their own business and automate it while on the road?

TripHappy Founders: Build the business first, then think about automation. Don’t get distracted with the idea of being a digital nomad before your business is even generating revenue.

triphappy pinterest

A huge thanks to Ben Granas, Calvin Hawkes, and Carl Grafmuller for coming on the DNQ interview series to give insight on how to build and automate businesses while abroad. I thought their strategies on how they did market research for their niche and promoted their business was very useful. Make sure you check them out at TripHappy!


Soul Ceramics
Trip Happy

Resources mentioned:

Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares

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