Nellie Akalp founded her company Corpnet as the answer to why business filing and compliance has to be so complicated for new and experienced business owners. She wanted to go up against the big competitors and grow even bigger in the industry that she started in. Akalp walks us through how she created a new niche within the business world, pivoted when times got challenging, and the importance of finding the balance between work and family.
- Why The Entrepreneurial Path Over Legal Practice
- Getting To Market Early
- CorpNet Became the New Baby
- Content as a Driver of Marketing
- Tips for Budding Entrepreneurs
Mimi: Hi, welcome back to The Badass CEO Podcast. This is Mimi. Today, you're in for a special treat because I have Nellie Akalp. She's the founder of Corpnet.com. Instead of following the traditional legal path after law school, she decided to become an entrepreneur and start her own company that helps people incorporate, and this was during the early days of the internet. She went on to sell her first business to a public company and then built another one.
This episode is for you if you want advice about starting a company, incorporating your business, selling your business, and building a business while balancing being a mom of four. To get your Top 10 Tips Every Entrepreneur Should Know, go to thebadassceo.com/tips.
Why The Entrepreneurial Path Over Legal Practice
Mimi: Nellie, thank you so much for coming on today. I really appreciate it. I'm so excited to hear about your journey starting your company, because you took a different path than a normal lawyer who graduates from law school. I would love for you to just dive into why you decided to become an entrepreneur versus starting a typical law career in a law firm.
Nellie: Simply stated, when I graduated law school, I was living with my fiancé back then. When we looked at what the entry-level salary would be for a lawyer who just graduated law school, we really didn't think it was going to suffice the lifestyle that we were envisioning for ourselves. Both being only children, we really wanted to start a big family, so we thought, "You know what? We can't really make it on $30,000 a year as a salary." That's really what the going salary was for a lawyer just graduating out of law school.
The market was ripe. It was 1997, it was just at the birth of the internet. People were all coming out with all these different business ideas and wanting to launch it on the internet. My husband had this brilliant idea about incorporating businesses online, which he had learned from in his corporations class in law school, came home one day, shared the idea with me.
I'm a huge risk taker in life because I think you just have to go for it and do what you want. I've always been passionate about running my own business, I've always been involved in watching my family run multiple businesses. The idea seemed really exciting at the time and we went for it.
Mimi: That's great. I love the idea about taking risks because I truly believe in that, especially when you're younger, when you have the opportunity, when you don't have a mortgage or you don't have kids to really worry about to take those risks. That's a good point. At that point, when you launched in 19, what'd you say, '97? Is that what you said?
Getting To Market Early
Mimi: Because now there's other people doing what you're doing, or other companies doing what you're doing, was there other companies doing what you were doing? Was there competition?
Nellie: There was a few competitors out there that were more brick-and-mortar type of companies that have been around for a while, but nobody like ours that was going to come out and make the business filings process seamless and automated the way we did it. Again, entry was super easy. There was no barrier to entry. It was really easy to gain market share at that time.
When we launched, literally we put up a one-page website and we were just inundated with phone calls. We didn't even have a merchant gateway or credit card processing form to take on orders over the internet and over online and have it process the credit card online. Literally, people were calling us on our answering machine back then and leaving their credit card information. It was really crazy times back then.
Mimi: At that point, when you launched, what would you say your biggest hurdle was, or what was your biggest pain point?
Nellie: I would say in '97, not really knowing what we were doing and just learning as we go. We were both very young and we had just graduated law school. I mean the magic that happened between Phil and I is he's always been this computer nerd, He's been a computer techie, and he's really, really great with taking something and automating the process. Whereas, me, I've always been that person who has to be presented with that idea and then I take that idea and I run with it and I expand on it and I execute on it. I'm more your operations person, your executer on the idea. When you put those two types of people together, there's just a certain magic that happens that you can do a lot with it.
For example, when we started the company, we with just two of us in our two-bedroom apartment. Then he actually is a lawyer and practices and is admitted to the state bar of California, so he had to go away to take the bar exam, whereas, me, straight out of law school, I just didn't want to practice law. I really don't like standardized tests at all and I don't do well with it, so the likelihood of me passing the bar exam on the first shot was not that high. I already knew what I wanted to do.
When he went away to take the bar exam, I pretty much took our apartment and literally made it into an office and hired some people up, hired some part-time outsourced web developers who could quickly automate and put up a calculator for me on the website. A lot was going on while Phil was gone away to take the bar exam, and when he came back, we had a full operation going.
Mimi: That's amazing.
Mimi: Okay, so a lot's happened in the past, what is it, 14 years, right? The whole landscape of being online, your competition, you have like LegalZoom, right?
Nellie: I think it's more than 14 years. I mean, we started 1997, so 1997-
Mimi: Wow, okay. I was thinking, sorry, 2007. Sorry, you're right. My math is off. Wow, okay. That's a long, long time ago. Okay.that was like literally the internet was just starting even like …okay. In that timeframe, it's changed a lot. How have you had to adapt to that?
Nellie: Fast forward, when we started our first company, started in '97, grew it to where it was doing nearly a million dollars in gross sales revenues per month, and in 2005, we were approached and blessed with the opportunity to be acquired by a publicly-traded company. We agreed, it was a blessing. I now had three children that were really, really young, twins and then another little boy. I really was very fascinated with the opportunity of having a partner with a publicly-traded company that comes in and helps me really grow the business to what I had envisioned in 2005, especially with other competitors like LegalZoom and many others like LegalZoom entering the industry.
Unfortunately, after the acquisition took place, what you always envision not always takes place. For me it really lost its entrepreneurial spirit, so I decided to step down after the acquisition and just not work. I was under a non-compete for three years. During that time that I was under a non-compete, my husband did some traveling with the children and we focused in dabbling in other types of business ventures, but nothing really resonated with me like the idea of helping other people start businesses and helping them succeed at starting a business.
CorpNet Became the New Baby
Nellie: When my non-compete ran out, I realized I was too young, I was too passionate, I was too motivated, and frankly, I was too young to take on an early retirement. So I started CorpNet, which is my current company. CorpNet is my baby. I feel like really with CorpNet is where I feel that I've really, really focused and put every ounce of effort in it as a true entrepreneur, in building it to where I want it to go and continue to see it build.
I'm really excited about CorpNet because it really is a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to start a business, whether you are an entrepreneur, a consumer, or if you're a business professional, such as an accountant, attorney, or anyone representing a client who wants to help their client start businesses. CorpNet's been around since 2009.
With CorpNet, it's very special to me because we started the business during the recession in 2009, in the face of everybody laughing at me and telling me you can't do it again. Just because you've done it before, you have this big ego. What are you going to do, come out now that you have all these competitors that have really, really taken so much market share away from you and you're now going to be competing against your own previous business as well.
Nellie: In my opinion, when you have that belief and when you have that passion and determination and that fuel, nothing can stop you. That's really what kept me going. Believe me, we had a lot of failures with CorpNet, lots. We had a lot of disappointment, lots of failures, lots of nights where I would sit here crying with my tea.
Mimi: Now, why were the failures from?
Finding a new niche
Nellie: Because we really did start during a time when it was really hard to gain any type of market share within the industry and now I was up against my old company that I was now competing with, I was up against the 800-pound gorilla LegalZoom. A part of me did have a little bit of an ego saying, "I've done it before I could do it again."
The problem was not the business model that I had decided to start CorpNet with really wasn't the right business model. We quickly realized that we just had to completely change our business model and go and niche ourselves and become super focused and super hyper-focused and niche ourselves, offering and catering our services to a niche market rather than doing what we had done in the past.
Mimi: Before. How did you decide which niche it was going to be?
Nellie: It was really funny. It was actually during the holidays whereby we were trying to take a list of seeing who our top clients were to try to send them thank you cards and thank you goodies. We realized that most of our clientele was business professionals representing other clients, so we changed our focus to instead of going after that single transaction-based market, meaning the consumers, to more focusing on going after professionals representing clients and going after that multiple transaction-
Mimi: Because then you get the funnels from them, right? If they're representing clients, you incorporated them, but now all of a sudden they have other clients. I get it, so you have multiple. That's smart.
Nellie: Yeah. We came up with this amazing partner program, which is our top seller right now at CorpNet. It's our CorpNet Partner Program, which basically it's a free service that we offer to anyone who represents clients, whether you're an accountant, you're an entrepreneur, you're a business coach or business consultant, you're a CPA, you're an enrolled agent, QuickBooks pro-advisor. If you're representing clients and you want to increase revenues and add an additional revenue stream to your practice, you can partner with us as either a white-label reseller or referral partner and start offering incorporation and compliance services to your clients in any of the 50 states. We would act as your backend fulfillment partner.
Knock on wood, this service has been doing wonderfully for us. Coupled with the unfortunate events of COVID-19 and the pandemic that we've all been faced with, more and more entrepreneurs are going after starting their own businesses. Even our business has become even hotter and bigger as a result because they're going to their financial advisors to-
Mimi: Because they're out of work and they need to figure out something to do.
Expanding the business offering to all states
Mimi: Let's go back to 2009, you decide to launch again and go against the big gorillas. Did you, and currently do you, offer the same services? Do you offer the same product?
Nellie: We offer the same services. However, we've expanded in offering a lot more services. One of our biggest sellers right now is our tax registration services. As a result of COVID-19, a lot of businesses have been faced with having remote employees. There is a positive and negative to that. Because of COVID-19, a lot of businesses have employees that are moving from one state to another, and a lot of businesses are expanding and becoming remote businesses, having the ability to hire talent in multiple states. As a result of that, we've started offering employer registration services in all 50 states, whereby we help businesses register for payroll so that they're able to run payroll in any states-
Mimi: I didn't even think about that, having to deal with the payroll and all the different states.
Nellie: Because you, as a company, if you're going to be placing your employees on payroll, you have to register for payroll within those states that you're actually giving a paycheck to an employee. Most states will require you to register for a state unemployment insurance and state income tax, unless it's a state that doesn't have income tax, but in most states you have to register for payroll. We offer that service in all 50 states. It's been a blessing for us and it's been more of a blessing to our clients because they get to come to CorpNet and we get to assist them. We have the privilege of assisting many, many businesses and clients who don't really know where to start when it comes to registering for payroll.
Content as a Driver of Marketing
Mimi: That's great. When you launched, tell me more about … At this point, is it just word of mouth or have you put a lot of money and time into digital marketing?
Nellie: With CorpNet, because I'm a 50 state expert and I have the knowledge of gaining all these expertise in setting up corporations and LLCs and starting businesses in all 50 states, I positioned myself and marketed CorpNet from a very, very, very heavy content angle and started writing a lot of articles on different publications. Because I was so authentic and genuine and really, really knowledgeable about the types of topics that I was writing about and not really being self-promotional about it, it really created a lot of buzz for CorpNet.
Top 100 blog and contributor to major sites
I have to say, my blog right now is one of the top blogs in the nation. We're named as one of the top 100 blogs in the nation when it comes to small business. One of the reasons is because I'm constantly writing and sharing my expertise, not only as a small business owner running a business, but also with all the different and updated topics that are coming up as it relates to starting a business, running a business, managing a business, or keeping a business in compliance.
Mimi: That's great, congratulations.
Nellie: Thank you.
Mimi: Now, in addition to your blog, are you writing articles for Medium or Quora or-
Mimi: You are.
Nellie: Yeah. Most of my articles can be seen actually on many different sources. I'm a resident contributor for Small Business Trends with Anita Campbell. I write for Accounting Today, I write CPA Practice Advisor. I write for All Business, which mainly gets picked up by Forbes a lot. I've written for many, many different sources.
Mimi: How do you get that opportunity to be able to write for them? Did you submit it or-
Nellie: For me personally, I align myself with a very, very special individual who works with me today. She was right out of college back then. We talked and I said, "Hey, do you want to work for me?" She wanted to go into public relations, so it was a great match. To this day, she works with me. She's been working for me for over 13 years. You really need someone full time to be pitching you out to all these different mediums.
For me, one of the things that really worked, and I'll share this tip to anybody because I'd love to see all of you take on these tips and use it for your own business, but HARO, it's called Help a Reporter, HARO was a great resource for me, because I would go in there, I would check out what they want, especially if it was for their small business area.
You check it out daily, I mean, they send out requests three times a day. We would be on that 24/7 and really pitching me out to all these different mediums. When they have a request for, "Hey, we're looking for a small business expert or we're looking for a small business owner who can share their expertise on XYZ," I would just submit myself and Alison would help me. When you have two people doing it, you get twice the amount of responses.
Consistency pays off
Really it all boils down, in my opinion, to consistency. That's the bottom line. You cannot, in my opinion, in this day and age, pay to play. You have to be involved, you have to network yourself. You have to position yourself as an expert in what you're truly an expert in that field. For me, small business is something that I really keep up to date with and I really have to be on top of my game and I'm on my A-game for it. When it comes to the idea of small business and when I was interviewed or asked to speak about it, I would make sure that I was always available.
Sometimes it would mean at five in the morning, sometimes it would mean getting up and going into hair and makeup and appearing on Fox or on any of the TV mediums. I've done it all and I've really had to pay my dues to get to where we are today, but at the end of the day, in my opinion, it has to really do with consistency. You have to be consistent in whatever you set your mind to.
Mimi: Yes, that's great advice. Someone else had just told me about HARO. You have to have a quick response time, like some of them only give you like a 24 hour. Because I started getting them-
Nellie: You're on strict deadlines. If you don't jump it, I mean, you've lost the opportunity. It's really important too, if you want to gain that publicity, listen, be available.
Mimi: You've got to hustle, yep.
Reliability and dependability
Nellie: You'Ve got to hustle for it. One of the things with my publicist, Alison, I'm going to plug her here, it's Matryoshka Media LLC, Alison is very, very, very on top of her game. One of the reasons why, and she'll always come back to me and she goes, "You know why I love working with you is because most of my clients, we end up separating and going our own directions because not everyone will be as responsive as you." The reason why her and I have been able to work for over 12 plus years now is because when she sends me things, no matter what time it is, I'll respond to her.
As a business owner, yes, you're married to your business and it's like a baby, just like you're married to your children and your husband. You have to work for it. That responsiveness, in my opinion, is key. She'll send me something and be like, "Hey, we have two hours to respond to this. Do you want to do it?" Absolutely, and sometimes that means, "Hey, sorry, hun. I can't watch this movie with you. I've got to go respond to X, Y, and Z." But some people, in my opinion, they don't want to put that type of effort into doing something and it doesn't mean that much to them. For me, I made it a commitment for myself. It was my duty, my obligation, not only to my family, but to my team, to make CorpNet successful.
I don't take full responsibility for that because it takes a village to build a company, but I would say that, as a leader, my team respects me and they put in the same amount of effort as me because they see how much their leader works.
Mimi: That's great advice. You brought up a good point, which it's a great segue into my next question of being a mom. How do you balance it all? For example, the example that you just brought up about how you have two hours to do this thing, how do you balance being a mom on top of these deadlines and keeping it all in check?
Nellie: I'll tell you, whoever tells you that little kids are hard, think again.
Nellie: Wait until they become teenagers and they drive and they have a mouth, because it's a whole different ball game. I'm very real, I'm very raw. I don't hide the ball. I mean, I had my daughter throwing up yesterday, all day long. She's 19, but she still wants mom. She takes 19 units in college and she decided she wants to work full-time for my company. She doesn't under my discretion, but she was having a really hard time yesterday. I'll tell you having been a Monday, getting up at six in the morning to try to deal with everything I have to deal with and then come 6:00 at night, you're dealing with the hormones and the crying and I don't feel good and this and that with your teenager, it's not easy.
But in answer to your question, you just take it one day at a time. You've got to take a deep breath, you've got to reset. You have to really, really … This is how I run my life, I always look at it like this too will pass. It's just temporary, it's going to pass. Listen, I'm human. I have my days too. I have my days where I just want to go ahead and distract and just take off and just do nothing, but at the end of the day, I have so much obligation to a lot of different people, I just can't do that. For me, it's all about looking at what's in front of you and just dealing with it, head on.
I mean, that's all I can tell you, because especially with I have four children. I have twins that are 19 year old, completely two separate people. One is super, super like a mini me of me, on top of her game, always wants to be competitive, doing her work, being ahead of the game. Then I have my son, who's a complete musician, hates school, didn't want to go to school and is just a complete artist. Then I have my 17-year-old and then I have a nine-year-old. Lots of different ages, lots of different stuff going around. Then dealing with, "I want to go out," they drive and then worried about don't vape, don't do drugs, don't-
Mimi: Right, there's a lot of big problems to worry about.
Nellie: And I'm sorry, this is reality. It happens. If you don't think your kid's going to try it, think again, because they do. As far as I'm concerned, you have to be authentic and genuine with your kids and be real with your kids so that they can come and talk to you and navigate life with you, because otherwise, your kids are not going to open up to you.
For me, do I balance it all? I try my best. At the end of the day, I think it's really important to have a relationship with your kids no matter what, no matter what you have going on. For me, above and beyond anything in my life, it's I have to be healthy, I have to be sane, I have to be centered in order to be there for my husband and for my children.
With my kids, I always try to be real with them. I've never been that helicopter mom. I've never been that mom that's expected the unrealistic expectations from my kids, because I see a lot of kids in therapy today who've had parents who've been like, "You have to do this, you have to do that. You have to get straight As. You have to be in this and that and the other." I don't do that. I set an example by letting my kids watch me in how I run my life.
The one thing that I live by is whatever comes out of my mouth is equal to how I act. Your actions have to be equal to your words. If my kids don't learn anything else from me, that's what I want them to learn in life, in that make sure whatever you do, as far as what you say, is congruent with your actions.
Tips for Budding Entrepreneurs
Mimi: That's great, that's great. To close, I would love for you to give advice to entrepreneurs right now. That if there's a mom at home that's deciding if she wants to take her hobby of making candles or something into a business, what advice do you have them, that's a legal advice, but then also as an entrepreneur too? There's two different types of tips or advice.
First and foremost, to any mom out there or to anyone out there who wants to start a business, okay, first and foremost, make sure you're passionate about what you want to do, because when you're passionate about what you want to do, it's not work and it's never going to feel like work for you. I sit here right now, especially with COVID because we don't have anywhere to go and I have an older grandma so I have to be super, super careful about staying quarantined, so I work, but it's not work to me because it's so exciting for me. I love seeing what I've built to date.
When you do something where you're truly, truly passionate about, it doesn't ever feel like work to you. That's one thing that I would say to anybody who wants to start a business or go into entrepreneurship for themselves, is really, really be passionate about what you want to do.
Create your roadmap
Nellie: Once you have that passion, make sure you have a small business plan. Make sure you have a roadmap that you can quickly pivot from if things go sour, or if you need to change a roadmap. Then, in light of how easy it is these days to start a business, come to CorpNet, let us help you. Why I say that is because a lot of times people spend the money going to a lawyer, spending lots of money going to a lawyer, to help them with getting their paperwork filed with the state to start a business.
Frankly, you don't need to do that. Save that money, use it towards marketing your business, use it towards bringing on talent to help you grow your business, or use it when you actually need a lawyer to help give you legal advice for your business.
Seek advice about your business entity
But in light of how simple and easy it is these days to start businesses, you should definitely either consider using a reputable company, such as our company, CorpNet, to help you and to help guide you through the nuances of what business structure is right for you. Definitely, definitely consider setting up the business as a corporation or an LLC to give you that peace of mind and that personal liability protection asset protection you would need to protect you and separating yourself from the assets of the business.
Mimi: That's great. This has been so amazing. I'm so appreciative of your time and-
Nellie: Of course. It's a pleasure for me to be here and I'm truly humbled and honored at the same time that you asked me to come on. It's just been such a pleasure. It took me back, I don't get to share my life lately that much, but it was such a pleasure to be here, Mimi. Thank you.
Mimi: Thank you so much, Nellie.
Thank you for joining us on The Badass CEO. To get your copy of The Top 10 Tips Every Entrepreneur Should Know, go to thebadasspodcast.com/tips. Also, please leave a review as it helps others find us. If you have any ideas or suggestions, I would love to hear them, so email me at Mimi@thebadassceo.com. See you next week and thank you for listening.