Tony Tovar’s north star has always been whatever was the exact opposite of a 9-5.
Today, he’s an expert digital marketer, public speaker, and creator of digital advertising courses. He’s made over $1M/year working for himself.
When I spoke with him over the phone, I could hear the self-reflection that can only come from years of trial, error — and major hustle.
How Tony got his start
Tony has been selling services since he was a kid with a lawnmower. Like many entrepreneurs, through his early adulthood he experienced conflicting pressures of whether to get a job or work for himself. “I always had the entrepreneurial bug. I always sold services or just hustled,” he said.
In 2001, he started a degree in Computer Science at the University of Texas at Austin but quickly realized being an engineer wasn’t for him. He dropped out of school, lost his scholarships, and started making decent money working at a distribution center.
But the familiar frustration returned.
“I realized, dude, I’m capped out, I can’t make any more money than this. I feel like there’s a ceiling on how much I can grow.” So he decided to return and pay his way through an Economics degree by freelancing for a local SEO/digital marketing agency. At graduation he again found himself at a crossroads: pursue a career in finance or stay independent.
“Wait a second. Didn’t I want to escape the 9-5 and now I’m going back to it? So I asked myself, ‘What can I do that is lucrative, popular, and seems to be cool?’ So at the time, I was looking at people like Noah Kagan, Nathan Barry, and Ryan Deiss.”
Around this time, Tony started the Austin Entrepreneurs Meetup group to build a network for himself. “If I’m not going to do the corporate 9-5 thing, then I want to meet entrepreneurs and learn what it’s all about. And so I figured I would host the meetup in town.”
Then Tony met Noah Kagan.
A few months later, he invited Noah to speak at his meetup group. At that point, Noah was coming up with his idea for monthly1K.com. People loved his talk. “It was very unorthodox—he was telling people off almost, like ‘Stop doing this’ or ‘Do that.’ At the end of it, he was like, ‘We’re actually going to start a course on entrepreneurship and how to start a business online.’ I think he had 12 people sign up if I remember correctly. So he used that as validation for his idea.”
Lesson #1: When it comes to business ideas, validation is everything
After taking the course, Tony learned more about this important concept of validation from Noah. The idea is simple: get actual paying customers before fully launching/investing heavily in an entrepreneurial venture. You have to see if your idea works. Make sure the market responds to it or it will never survive.
Tony continued working freelance with various digital marketing agencies until one of them offered him the opportunity to do sales. “I was very reluctant. I had just gotten married, but my wife was very supportive. One of the main reasons I started on this entrepreneurial journey was because of Veronica.” So he said yes and was able to exponentially increase his earning potential by working on commission.
After about a year and a half in sales, however, the itch came back.
“People were starting to recommend me as an SEO and marketing guy. I had gotten a referral through my meetups and connections in Austin. I closed my first deal with an IT company for $990/month — recurring contract. So I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I made my first dollar!’ Then I had no hesitation. My wife was very supportive again, so I jumped in full-time.”
But this time his idea was fully actualized and he had validation. Oh, also he had learned how to sell.
Lesson #2: To sell, address the right pain point
“If anything, the most important step to entrepreneurship is learning how to sell something. You have to understand how to sell. And then just go out there and sell it. Once you know it, once you believe in it, once you know there’s nothing else better than what you’re selling — then go out there and face the world, with their internal false beliefs, and do your best to sell them on whatever you have to offer.”
“Look, people have pain points in their lives. At any given point, there’s something that they’re struggling with. An obstacle. A frustration… something. The psychological aspect of it is, if you understand my pain, you must have the solution. If you know the pain so vividly, and you can depict it in a daily life scenario, then they feel obliged to talk to you.”
Lesson #3: Really listen to potential customers
In Tony’s case, he runs digital advertising campaigns for all kinds of local companies. Every quarter he targets a different local industry. So that’s a lot of different pain points to understand and target.
His secret: surveying consumers. Tony recommends the ASK Method developed by Ryan Levesque and the concept of Customer Research popularized by Jeff Miller over at the Agency Scaling Secrets FB group. “A good survey will get the right language and pain points out of your customers so you can start to do segmentation. One of the big questions I recommend asking is, ‘When it comes to [problem], what is your biggest frustration?’”
Here’s Tony’s other tips for surveying people about pain points:
1. Pay attention to longer survey respondents.
“Hyper-responders” are the ones who are invested in the problem and who are really looking for the solution you provide.
2. If people are responsive to local digital surveys, that’s a good sign they’ll buy.
“Validation occurs at the table, but micro-commitments are a good sign toward validation in a local market,” Tony says.
Lesson #4: The follow up is where the money is
As a digital agency, Tony says, “The money’s in the list, but you have to keep tabs. I’m honed in on one thing: something I call client therapy. I report everything back to my clients. I want to be there for them and make them my buddies.” For Tony, communication is the key to keeping a client engaged with your services.
Lesson #5: If you want to get somewhere, talk to someone who’s already there
“If you want to get somewhere faster, you have to talk to someone who’s already done it. If you have to pay, just do it. One time, I took Noah to a UT football game and I asked him if he thought it would be a good idea to pay for mentorship from someone who had already achieved things that I wanted to accomplish. Without hesitation, he said ‘Do it! I like shortcuts!'”
We live in the most connected time in history. If you look up to someone, even if they live across the world, you can connect and learn from them. Surround yourself with people who have already achieved the goals that you have in your sights.
They might give you shortcuts and ideas. But more important, they’ll remind you that it’s possible — because they’re the living proof.
Currently, Tony is expanding from running digital advertising for local companies to speaking and educating others about digital advertising. Learn more about Tony at adexperts.com.
How did you start your business? We’re all about that hustle. Inspire us by sharing your story in the comments.