Where the Story Begins
Moviegoers tend to love great origin stories. We want to know how beloved or hated characters became the hero or villain. We want details and stories to help us make sense of their decisions and motivations. Some great movies telling origin stories include Batman Begins, Guardians of the Galaxy, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Iron Man, Monsters University, and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
My much less exciting origin story begins as an entrepreneurship student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. I was 18 years old, a freshman in college, and I knew nothing about the internet.
Mission in Brazil
After my first year in college, I left to go on a 2-year mission to Brazil where I helped people transform their lives and families by coming to Jesus Christ. While I was in Brazil I fell in love with the children on the streets in the northern part of Brazil where I served. These children were very poor. As these children approached me and asked for money, I would give them change from my pocket, but because I was a volunteer missionary, and did not receive any salary, that money quickly ran out. I vowed to do something to make a lasting difference for these children when I returned to the United States.
The Internet was the Wild West
Before I left for Brazil, I had not even heard of the internet. While I was in Brazil the internet took off. When I returned home, the internet felt like the days of the Wild West, where you could stake your claim on a piece of land, and if you worked the land for a period of time, the people became the owners of that homestead. It was a new frontier where people could pick which area they wanted, and if they worked it well, become the “owner” or category king of that niche.
Brazilian Adoption Program and the Pivot
During my sophomore year in college, I tried to start a Brazilian adoption program with my father, who was an adoption attorney. However, thanks to some very strict and ridiculous Brazilian adoption laws that are not in the best interest of children (I’m very passionate about this topic if you can’t tell…) we were not able to make it work. Some entrepreneurs would look at that as a failure, but I don’t see it that way. It was a necessary stepping stone or pivot to discover the Adoption.com business model.
I have learned that essentially every successful entrepreneur has had to learn what didn’t work and then pivot to a business model that was much more successful. Pivoting is almost a rite of passage of successful entrepreneurs. Consider as an example Instagram, which began as a location-based check-in service, and then turned into the social media giant it is today thanks to a great pivot.
The Fateful Phone Call
During the first week of school my junior year, I answered a call from someone who wanted to speak with one of my roommates. The caller left a message about a new HTML class for creating internet sites. The caller wanted my roommate to take the class with him. Neither the caller nor my roommate ended up taking the class, but I did. Before I even signed up for the second class, I was hooked on the idea of creating internet businesses.
Adoption.com Business Plan
Later in my junior year, I was tasked with creating a thesis as part of the college program I was enrolled in. The thesis had to be about a topic within my major. Because I was studying entrepreneurship, I believe I was the first student they approved to create a business plan for my thesis. I decided I would create a business plan about how to help children around the world through adoption.
As I was researching that adoption thesis/business plan, I visited the Adoption.com site for the first time. And while I was there, I sent the owner Annette Thompson an email asking if she would sell the domain name. She responded asking for $10,000. We negotiated and agreed on a $6,000 sale price. I’m very grateful Annette agreed to sell that domain name. I don’t think we could have succeeded without that. I’m very grateful for my father, Dale Gwilliam, who loaned me $10,000 for the domain name and some other startup expenses. I’m grateful for his trust and faith in me and for the expertise he contributed for years.
Adoption.com was started in February 1997 in a computer lab on the 3rd floor of the Marriott business school at BYU. One of the TAs in that computer lab was an enormous help in getting the first website launched.
Soon after its launch, Adoption.com won the BYU business plan competition in April 1997. BYU has an amazing organization of entrepreneurs called the BYU Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology. It is a group of very successful business leaders who come together to teach entrepreneurship and mentor students. I am very grateful for the help I received from that group. They put on the business plan competition, taught lessons I could apply to the business, and provided very valuable mentoring for me. This made a tremendous difference in the successful launch and growth of Adoption.com.
Sleeping Under My Desk
In those early days of Adoption.com, as is the case with most startups, there was always too much to do, not enough revenue to hire employees, and not enough time to do it all. I remember in the early days working through the night until I couldn’t stay awake anymore, then sleeping under my desk. The employees would turn on vacuums to wake me up in the morning when they arrived. Since then I have come to value to a much greater degree the essential work-life balance that must accompany a successful entrepreneur. I know that as entrepreneurs we do what it takes to get our businesses off the ground and through the challenging times, but it’s very important to maintain a healthy balance between work, family, health, and other life priorities.
Dropping Out of College
After my junior year, I dropped out of college to focus exclusively on growing Adoption.com. I moved back in with my parents to cut my costs. My father let me use a small area of his office that he had previously used for storage. I’m very grateful to both of my parents. They let me keep my costs down so I didn’t have to eat my seed corn. It took 10 years before I was able to go back and complete my undergraduate degree and my MBA.
What Does Adoption.com Do?
Adoption.com has many different adoption features and services. I have been blessed to work with a talented Adoption.com team who for decades have helped develop and provide these services. I will explain a few, so you can understand how Adoption.com works and how we have been able to generate revenue to do the good we want to do.
Adoption.com has a Parent Profiles service that works like a dating site to connect hopeful adoptive families with women who are pregnant and considering adoption. Families who are hoping to adopt and have gone through a rigorous home study process create feature-rich profiles on Adoption.com with photos, videos, endorsements, recommendations, and much more. The families pay a monthly subscription fee to host that profile at Adoption.com. Then, women who are pregnant and considering adoption go to the profiles and choose a family that they feel would be a good fit for their child. This service has helped transform closed adoption to open adoption, which is generally healthier for everyone.
Adoption.com has a photolisting where hopeful adoptive parents can connect with thousands of children waiting to be adopted. We generate income by selling advertising on the photolisting to other organizations who want to sponsor the work of the photolisting. Other than that, the photolisting is offered as a free community service. We offer it for free so that we can maximize the number of children who can find loving, permanent families. We believe that every child deserves a loving, permanent family.
Adoption.com has one of the two largest adoption reunion registries. Historically most adoptions were closed, and the adoptees and birth parents did not know each other. Today, the vast majority of adoptions are open. If the people who were part of a closed adoption want to reunite with each other, the Adoption.com Reunion Registry can help make that connection. The registrants can register for free. They can also subscribe to receive additional recurring monthly services such as viewing records and contacting other registrants.
We are constantly producing adoption content, such as articles, videos, and guides to help educate people about adoption and share uplifting adoption stories. We also have a large online adoption community to provide support for everyone touched by adoption. We give away the content and community access for free and then we generate monthly revenue through sponsorships, native advertising, and advertising banner sales.
We operate AdoptionDirectory.com, which helps people find adoption agencies and attorneys in their area. Adoption organizations pay a recurring monthly subscription to receive an upgraded listing in the directory. In the past, we have operated AdoptionGifts.com which sells adoption products such as books, jewelry, and apparel. I’m sharing these with you so you have a better idea of some of the types of monetization streams I’ve worked with.
I love Adoption.com and am blessed to have been able to work with it for so many years. I’m grateful for the amazing team who has worked so hard to create and provide the Adoption.com services. It’s kind of like working inside of a Hallmark movie. In fact, just yesterday I received a text from someone I’ve never met before, who was interested in buying a product I had for sale online. He informed me that he is the grandfather of three Adoption.com babies. I love receiving messages like that and knowing that Adoption.com has helped create families.
Over the years, numerous organizations have tried to purchase Adoption.com including eHarmony and the Walt Disney Internet Group. In December 2019, after working with Adoption.com for more than 23 years, I chose to sell Adoption.com to the Gladney Center for Adoption. Gladney was one of the very first Adoption.com clients back in 1997 and has advertised with us for decades. Gladney is one of the premier adoption organizations in America and I’m grateful that I get to continue to work with Gladney and Adoption.com.
Here are some of the key takeaways that stood out to me from today’s episode:
- We need to quickly identify the tectonic shifts affecting our businesses and seize the right opportunities, such as when I saw the internet take off.
- When selecting a business niche to pursue, entrepreneurs often have a better chance of success when we select a great sub-niche, as I did by selecting adoption. It wasn’t as big as larger niches I could have pursued (such as “family”), but it was small enough that I could be the leader in the space. Where can you be #1 in the world?
- Find an opportunity you are passionate about, just as I was passionate about helping children and families through adoption. We will be much more successful in our efforts if we are passionate about what we are doing. Further, I believe that God makes things resonate in our hearts to guide us to the work that He needs us to do. Listen carefully to the things that resonate like that.
- As we build our ventures, we are going to have situations where things aren’t going right, like my Brazilian adoption program. When we’re in those situations, don’t give up. Let’s be grateful for what we’ve learned and recognize how that has helped us move further along our entrepreneurial journey. Let’s use what we’ve learned to pivot to a better business model.
- Ask for help. There are many great people who are willing to help along the path of our entrepreneurial journeys, such as the people in the BYU computer lab, my father, or the BYU mentors who made a huge difference in getting Adoption.com launched. There are strengths and weaknesses that come from the common entrepreneurial personality type. By nature, entrepreneurs generally have confidence in getting things done and doing it ourselves. Unfortunately, as a result, we often don’t ask for help from other people as often as we should. When we ignore the resources that God has put around us and don’t ask for help, we are crippling the monetization of our businesses.
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If we desire monetization we have never before achieved, we must leverage strategies we have never before implemented. I challenge each of us to pick one thing that resonated with us from today’s episode and schedule a time this week to implement it to help achieve our monetization goals.
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About the author
I help organizations navigate tectonic shifts that are transforming the business landscape, so they can optimize marketing, accelerate profits, and make a greater difference for good.
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