Sol Orwell talks about limiting ego, refusing venture capital and trusting employees to do their jobs. The founder of Examine.com seeks to be true to his purpose and mission and to live comfortably – and that means not growing his companies at all costs.
Sol is the founder of Examine.com, where you can get unbiased information about nutritional supplements. They do not brand or sell their own supplements, even though it would make them more profitable. Instead, they depend on the trust they create by being an unbiased voice. While it’s not the most economically successful business he’s started, it is the one he’d be most happy to tell his friends about and that he wants to be associated with. At this point they have about 170,000 e-mail subscribers, although they’ve probably culled over 150,000 from the list as well.
Sol’s philosophy is to build something that’s so compelling that people can’t resist it, and want to share it with their friends. It’s guided him since he started building an online gaming directory, through a local directory for Toronto made by manually walking part of the city, to online gaming currency sales and now to Examine.com
Unlike many entrepreneurs, Sol hasn’t accepted venture capital. While he’s not opposed to it, he doesn’t find it a useful tool for his particular goals. For him, taking investments would mean he’d give up the ability to live comfortably, as he’d have to worry about the investors. While he knows it does make sense for some, he doesn’t see it working well for him. Instead, by bootstrapping he’s able to figure things out and scale the company at the pace he finds best.
Sol has a fascination with the philosophy of George Orwell, particular with the famous quote from Animal House: “All animals are created equally, but some animals are more equal than others”. He recognizes that the unique circumstances of his life – including living in Saudi Arabia and Japan in his childhood, then the US as a teen, and finally moving to Toronto for university, allowed him the opportunity to develop and attain his level of success.
Like many children, his parents expected him to become a doctor – and in his case it was actually something he considering. But he’d starting his first online business at 16, and by his first semester in university, he was devoting himself more to his business than to study. He lost his scholarship and would never have made it into medical school, but he’d found his path. When he graduated in 2005, he had made enough to take almost five years off, leave his assistant in charge of his company, and live off the proceeds while traveling the US. He could have continued to live that way but felt aimless and the desire to learn and grow in life.
Having been overweight for a lot of his life, Sol began investigating how to get healthy, and that’s what fueled the idea for Examine.com. He relies on experts to do the writing; his area is to help create and develop the site, but always developing it to see who can replace him each step of the way.
Two keys to growth have been
- Asking email subscribers what else the site can offer for them
- Building trust with influencers, who became willing to promote his site
Sol makes a point of hiring good people, and trusting them to do their jobs. He doesn’t like to micromanage, and is always looking to see who can do the job better than him and what is necessary for him to do and what he can hand off to others. He knows his employees will make mistakes – he’s made plenty, and some of the worst, himself.
He currently writes on SJO.com, sharing thoughts about entrepreneurship. But he tries not to let ego take over; he doesn’t want to talk from a bully pulpit, but instead sharing what’s on his mind.
To sum up his philosophy for success, Sol relies on comedian Steve Martin – “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” With Examine.com, they built it so well, it didn’t matter that it was just Sol and a friend with a degree in dietetics. They didn’t set out to make it a big brand, they just set out to do it well. Excellence can speak for itself. Excellence doesn’t come from producing more; it’s found in learning more and reading more.
Advice for Entrepreneurs
- Don’t overcomplicate or overthink it
- Solve someone’s problem
- Try to make quick progress