Steven Schwartz, a student at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and his childhood buddy Cameron Zoub could easily have taken part-time jobs delivering pizzas when they wanted a flexible way to make money. Instead, they started a two-man technology and strategic consulting company called Varfaj Partners in September, 2018, which they project will hit $1 million in annual revenue this year at its current growth rate. The company, based out of a WeWork in Midtown Manhattan, specializes in website development, mobile development and intelligent automation.
They are part of a fast-growing trend. In the U.S., there has been an uptick in the number of nonemployer firms—those where the owners are the only paid employees—that have hit $1 million to $2.49 million in annual revenue. There were 36,984 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Burea, a 38% increase from 26,744 in 2011. The majority are solo businesses but some are partnerships and family businesses.
Many small website development companies struggle amidst intense global competition and never get to seven figures. Why is Varfaj Partners growing so quickly? Recently, Schwartz, the firm’s CEO, and Zoub, head of growth, shared some of their business strategies.
Address real gaps in the marketplace. The idea for Varfaj Partners took shape when Schwartz did an internship for a company involved in web design. He thought he could design websites at a similar level of quality at a more competitive price than the market rate—and do it more quickly—and set out to do just that.
Schwartz teamed up with his friend Zoub, a partner in a previous startup who attended college in Austin. They’d previously launched an online sneaker-purveyor called SoleStrike, which specializes in limited stock merchandise and, they say, has grown to $2 million in annual revenue.
Source talent creatively. With NYU’s campus filled with students who needed flexible work schedules, the duo began enlisting friends to attend networking events and recruit potential clients, paying them a commission. “We’re lucky to be in New York City, where there’s a networking convention every single night,” says Schwartz.
They’d soon built up a team of about 20 of these reps. Many students saw there was a benefit to the paid mingling. “A lot are recruiting for actual jobs,” says Schwartz. “It doesn’t hurt for them to go out and meet new people.”
The co-founders also turned to their network to find contractors to help with the technology work. “Since the company has been growing, individuals who want to work with us have reached out,” Schwartz says.
Let your work do the talking. Given their youth, Schwartz and Zoub knew they had to prove themselves to get work with corporate clients. Reaching out to contacts they made at Fortune 500 companies, they offered to do pro bono projects.
“If we’re not willing to give away the work for free with confidence they will come back, it’s not a good enough product,” says Zoub.
One early client was a billionaire entrepreneur who came to speak at NYU. When Schwarz offered to do a project for free, the entrepreneur took him up on it, enlisting Varfaj Partners to create websites for startups in his investment portfolio.
“When we did our first project, they loved it—and we continued to do paid work for them,” says Schwartz.
The co-founders discovered an advantage in doing these early projects. Many companies are trying to sell to millennials and Gen Z. “We are the target audience for a lot of these products,” says Schwartz. “We have a huge network of college students to beta test.”
As a result, they have not hesitated to be honest about suggestions clients make that are likely to fizzle. “We’ll be upfront and tell them we don’t think it will fly,” says Schwartz.
“They respect you more when you’re upfront,” says Zoub.
Automate the hunt for work. To supplement its student sales force, Varfaj Partners has created a bot program to search LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook for posts in which someone says they are looking for the services the company offers.
Setting this up was second nature to them. “Our sneaker business was entirely focused on automation,” says Zoub. It enabled automated purchases of shoes before they sold out, he explains. “The only way to do that was be faster than humans,” he says.
Get personal. Once they make contact with prospects, Schwartz and Zoub leave the automated approach behind and meet many in person, when feasible. And they continue to put in face time once a project has started.
“Building a website should not be a super stressful thing,” says Schwartz. “We like having fun with these projects. We try to do it correctly and have a great time working with clients.”
Because clients aren’t always familiar with the web, the partners have learned to create only one web page at a time, so they don’t have to fix 30 pages if a client doesn’t like some element of the design. “If they like it, great,” Schwartz says. “If not, we’ll do revisions on that one page.”
Ultimately, says Schwartz, it’s about bringing a business-to-consumer mindset to the B2B world and getting to know their clients as people. “We try to make them feel special,” he says.