Our rockstar affiliate marketing expert, Rishan Bhagowat, spent his youth growing up in South Africa, enduring one of the most politically-challenging environments of our generation.
Rishan started off with a background in actuarial science and spent his first few working years predicting human mortality for insurance companies and writing board exams.
He soon moved onto playing online poker, which allowed him to retire and travel full-time at the age of 23. But that wasn’t enough…fast forward a couple years, and he’s since built an 8-figure a year affiliate marketing empire, employing over 40 full-time employees from pretty much every continent of the world (except Antarctica).
Join Rishan as he outlines his largest challenges and most notable lessons with takeaways that will inspire you to reach similar levels.
Speech by Rishan Bhagowat | Founder, Milky Way Media
Rishan Bhagowat Speech Transcript
Thank you for that awesome intro Eric.
Guys, it’s it’s truly an honour to be here to share my story with you. I’m gonna do my very best to pass on some of the most important things that I learned along the way. And hopefully, save you guys some of the grief that I had to deal with in the last few years.
So about 20 months ago, so just under 2 years ago, I was having dinner at an airport and a guy walks up to me and asked to join me.
It was kind of weird because there were tons of other open tables around but I’m a nice guy, so I said yes.
And he sat down, we got to talking. And it turns out that he worked at one of these family office investment management type companies in Geneva, Switzerland.
At the time, I really needed some help managing finances. I just didn’t have that time taken away from work.
So I was kind of interested.
Meet New People
And we continue the conversation and a few weeks later, I ended up going to Geneva to meet his bosses, meet the people he works with.
And it was a pretty surreal experience. Like, they usher you into this really ancient looking building but kept in pristine condition into a big boardroom with a beautiful table and these curved LED screens everywhere.
A bunch of professional looking people, accountants, lawyers, finance people sitting at the table and they asked me to go through the story much like I’m gonna go through today with you guys.
And at first, as I begin to tell the story, they’re very interested in taking notes and stopping to ask questions and stuff.
And as time goes on, they kind of slow down and I wasn’t sure if I was boring or if it was going on too long but everyone kind of calmed down, didn’t say much.
And when I got done, Ross, the main guy who I deal with on a weekly basis now for Venture Capital stuff and ICO stuff, he said something along lines of “Wow, that’s fascinating. So you built this asset base, you know from about 2 and a half to 3 years in the affiliate marketing space.”
And I was like, “Yeah, that’s right.”
And he said, “Well the good news is we specialise in solving the problems that you’re having. We’ve been doing it for centuries. it’s a really old asset management company and we can do that for you.”
But then he says, “But let’s handle that tomorrow. I’ll organise some meeting. You can meet some big people and make some decisions there.”
Affiliate Marketing Is A Unique Opportunity
Instead, “Do you mind if I take you out for a drink tonight and pick your brain about this affiliate marketing thing because I’ve never heard anything quite like this before.”
And that really made me step back and realise how unique this opportunity is.
We ended up going out for drinks and dinner with 3other people at the table. And they had a billion questions to ask.
So when these people, whose job it is to help people manage their finances, when they’re super interested in something like this, that really made me realise how unique and how special this industry is.
I mean, what other industry do you know of where you can start with basically no experience like I did. Very little capital and achieve as much as we can in such a short time.
It really, really is a one-of-a-kind industry.
And I just want to tell you guys that story to impress on you that you’ve already done the hard part by finding out about this industry.
I really would love to see you guys, you know, grab it with both hands and use it to achieve whatever you’d like to.
And I definitely want to hear any stories about how affiliate marketing is as tough and how it was easier back in the day because when I got into this in 2012, was the exact same story.
People were saying, I think at the time it was dating.
“Dating offers are dying. Facebook doesn’t like them anymore. There’s gonna be problems. It’s the end of affiliate marketing.”
There’s always a way to look back and go “Oh it was easier back in the day.”
The Future of E-commerce
But with merging technology like video ads becoming much more widespread, things like e-commerce have blown up.
And I have no doubt that with the pace at which technology evolves, this is gonna continue to happen.
So to go back a bit more, I grew up in South Africa during the apartheid era. I could talk for years on lessons from that. Every race had their own place to live, their own schools, our own restaurants. We weren’t allowed to mingle.
And when I was about 10 years old, that was abolished. And all of a sudden, we were thrown together.
I mean, I’ll leave it at, I think, that had a very positive experience on my outlook, having to manage that and deal with that.
I went on to study actuarial science at the University of Cape Town and work as an actuary. Like every good responsible actuary, I think it was my first paycheck, I bought a superbike.
And took up motorbike racing at the racetrack. No idea what inspired it. I’d never ridden a motorbike before but decided to go for it.
And as you’ll find out, as I talk more and more, I’m a pretty competitive guy.
And a few months into my racing career, my weekend racing career, I was chasing someone and managed to overtake him just before the last bend before the straight.
And I really wanted to hold onto this new position so I hit it really hard down the straight, completely missed the breaking point. Ended up missing the turn, first turn off to the street and crashing at about 160km an hour.
Luckily, I’m still in one piece.
The only big thing that happened was I kind of lost my thumb, it was dangling down here. The ligament was snapped.
And so I couldn’t hold a pen for a while and I couldn’t write for a couple months.
And during that time, I was kind of bored. And I came across this video of, I think it was Taylor, Taylor KB was his name, playing poker online.
And he made a lot of money in a very short period of time.
And I thought, if this is skill, I should be perfectly qualified to do this right. As an actuary, modeling risk, yeah modeling risk, a long-term risk, is kind of what we specialise in.
So I started to dabble in it.
I think I have the gambling gene pretty bad. So the first time I deposited money, lost them the first day. Hated it. Promised myself I’d never do it again.
A week later deposited some more money, lost it again.
Again, promised myself I’d never do it again.
But sneaky affiliate marketers are very very good. I got an email, saying “Hey, deposit 10 dollars, we’ll give you a free 100, come back to party poker.”
And that’s what got me.
The third time I did it, I was very disciplined. Played the one cent, two cent game. And within 3 months, I think that the 4th month that I was playing poker, I’d made more that month from poker than an entire year’s salary as an actuary.
And that was pretty damn awesome.
That was totally unexpected. It kind of came out of the blue and opened up a lot of doors for me.
So what I ended up doing was negotiating a month’s leave with my boss to go to Europe.
I wanted to see if I could travel and play poker and if this would work out if it was realistic. And it was.
About a week into the holiday, I kind of realised a massive internal shift for me.
All of a sudden, I realised that my personal power, my personal autonomy, the ability to choose what to do, when to do it and to see direct results from the effort you put in, which is very hard at a big corporate company, that became non-negotiable for me.
No matter what, I wanted that kind of freedom and that kind of autonomy moving forward.
And that was that.
And that’s kind of my first takeaway guys.
Do Whatever it Takes
I know it’s a cliche thing in the personal development space that you’ve got to first decide what you want.
And I think even more than that, you’ve got to decide what is absolutely essential for you. What are you willing to do whatever it takes to make happen?
What are you willing to not negotiate, not given on?
And that’s been that one thing that’s stuck with me the whole time. That’s motivated me through some of the tougher times here and there.
It provides an unlimited source of energy, it’s the best way to put it.
So I went back home after the holiday. And managed to cut quite a quite a cool deal with the HR department of the company.
If they allowed me to leave for 2 years, do whatever I wanted and at any time, I could come back, get my job back or get a better job.
And if I decided not to come back after 2 years, I just have to pay them back the money that they paid for my board exams as an actuary.
Great deal, took it, set off to travel and play poker.
And that was that. Never went back to work. It was a great time.
Living the Affiliate Marketer Lifestyle
I mean, I would basically open up a map at the time. Pick a city that I want to live in. Rent an apartment for 3 months. Something near a gym with good food, fast internet, and I was set.
I could live wherever I wanted, experience a new culture, and dabble in different languages.
And I think, this traveling experience really helps understand people of different cultures. It really helps you develop empathy and understand how others are reacting to what you’re saying.
And I think it’s been a big advantage for me in board meetings and stuff like that.
So the honest truth is, once I left and started playing poker full time, it didn’t last very long.
I very quickly realised that if I wanted a healthy life, if I wanted to have a family and raise kids, being a professional poker player wasn’t very conducive to that.
The emotional swings were just really rough as were the financial swings in the short term at least. And it wasn’t a very stable way to live.
So I began looking for other things to do. And somehow, someway, I went back and have checked my emails and stuff. I couldn’t quite connect the dots, but somehow I discovered this information product business.
And I always love reading books. That was something I’ve done from a young age and I thought, I could do this.
So I created some quick inform information products and ebooks, some audio courses and video courses. Threw that out there and it sold.
I still can’t believe it the first night waking up and I got these emails from PayPal like 23 people had sent me money for something I had created. It’s pretty awesome.
It was a pretty good feeling.
From Poker To eBooks and Audio/Video Courses
And so I immediately transitioned from poker on to that.
And very quickly, I moved on to approaching authors that write books that have done very well in the real life and approaching them. Offering to digitise their stuff, create some video courses for them create, some audio courses and sell them online and give them royalties. They loved it.
It was a great business model. It lasted about I want to say a year and a half or so until I got a very nice offer from an Australian company that published real books, you know, physical hard-copy books.
They wanted to get into the digital publishing business and I couldn’t say no to the offer in retrospect.
Having spent the last 2 years in the VC world, I probably couldn’t negotiate it that way better but I was just super excited to sell my first company.
And that was that. Sold the information product business. And kind of retired and floated around the world for a bit.
And this is kind of where it gets interesting.
So I’d say after about 3 or 4 months, I got antsy. Wanted to do something, wanted a new challenge.
And one of my friends that I’d grown up with in South Africa, Michael Lee, he might be here, stayed in Bangkok for a while, now he stays in Taiwan. He was like, “Why don’t you check out affiliate marketing?”
And I was like, “What do you mean?”
I’ve dealt with affiliates before, we use them, and they used to sell our stuff in the info product business. Like they were basically our employees. you know, that was kind of my attitude.
Joining The STM Forum Family
And thankfully, I listened enough to log on to STM.
And that absolutely blew my mind, right. I start seeing these screenshots of people doing these massive volumes, massive ROI.
I mean as the product owner and the info product business, we were doing like 20% to 40% profit margin on these products. And here these affiliates are showing these screenshots with these massive numbers and massive ROIs, it was quite a hit to my ego.
But it really fired me up. And pumping up to get me that energy, a motivation to get in and figure it all out.
And that was that. That’s when I decided I’m gonna jump into the affiliate marketing world and figure this whole thing out.
And that’s my 2nd takeaway, I’ll change the slide to in a second.
There’s a really good article in the 2005 Harvard Business Review about emergent versus determined strategy.
And they define determined strategy as a strategy that you start off with, you put on paper, you’ve got this idea of some product or some problem you’re gonna solve.
An emergent strategy is a strategy that emerges from external opportunities.
And this article basically talks through a ton of these fortune 500 companies that had one strategy when they started out or one plan or one product and completely change to something totally different within a few years.
It changed to take advantage of opportunities that I have that had emerged.
Opportunities Arise Out Of Your Control
And then you know, in normal everyday language, I like to say opportunities arise out of your control and they may not have been your plan.
It’s your job as the entrepreneur to make the call as to whether spending the time to learn and take advantage of this is better than what you’ve currently got going on
And I think the reason I brought this up is even in a microcosm of where affiliate marketing is right now, when the whole e-commerce thing came along, it would have been your job to take a look at it and go, “Hey how much time is gonna take me to switch over? How big is the ceiling here? What do we have to lose?
So I think to tie that back to that Harvard Business Review article, I think it’s a strategy that a lot of these the biggest companies in the world use and something we should take to heart and use as affiliates.
So I jumped right in. Logged on to every forum, every paid forum, and every free forum I could. Read everything I could. Bought every book, no matter how old. I mean some of the books I was reading were like 5 years old.
Period Of Obsession
But I just wanted every piece of information, every reference point I could get in the affiliate marketing industry.
Learning from every resource I could, testing everything I could just trying to fail as fast as possible.
And it’s this massive initial effort this period I like to call obsession. This period of obsession where you’re learning a lot very quickly and failing very, very quickly because that’s the way we learn right? You want to fail at things as fast as possible.
This is for me personally, when I look back at all the things that I’ve really gotten into and done well at, it’s always characterised by this beginning phase of the massive effort. Failing at things very, very quickly to learn what works.
And I’m sure that you guys experienced this. When you’re posting pictures on Facebook of you traveling or on some mountain, you’ll have friends from high school hit you up and be like “Hey, you know I want to get into this affiliate marketing thing, will you help me out?”
They’ve got this idea in their head that they’re gonna roll out of bed at like 11:00 p.m. and do some yoga on the beach, you know. And have someone lay out a table and cook their food for them.
And that’s fine later on.
Build The Momentum And Learn To Compete in AM
But in the beginning, I’m just trying to make the point that there’s a massive amount of effort that goes into building that initial momentum to learning the initial body of knowledge you need in order to compete in the field.
I just want to say, be okay with this initial phase. Be okay of with being unhealthy for a little bit.
Be okay with having one thing run your life for a little bit because when I look at my past experience and other people I know who’ve been through this, we all share this common thread of a period where there’s a massive amount of effort and something dominates your life as you’re getting into it.
It was kind of interesting but the ceiling wasn’t high enough. So I looked elsewhere and someone said “hey, why don’t you try a health and beauty, it’s really big.”
And at the time I was learning Dutch, so I thought well, do it in the Netherlands throw up some health and beauty stuff on Facebook in the Netherlands.
Worked very well right off the bat.
But again, the ceiling was a bit low and I thought well where the biggest market is, you know. In my mind, if someone’s doing something, I’m pretty sure I can figure out how to do it better, after some time and after some trial and error.
US Health And Beauty
What was the biggest mark with a high ceiling? And it kept coming back to US health and beauty.
But everybody I spoke to was like “Don’t do US health and beauty. It’s very competitive. The cost of traffic is very high. Facebook and Google are very strict with their policies in those regions.”
But if there’s one way to get me to do something is pretty much to tell me not to do it. So I went and tested the US health and beauty. And that was that.
I decided this is where we’re going to kind of place our stake in the ground. This is where we were going to compete. And this is where we were going to dominate moving forward.
And what I want to say here is, once you find what works, something that meets your goals, narrow in right, focus on it and kind of try to build an unstoppable momentum.
At this phase, you’ve got your first few successes on your belt. You’re probably making some money. Try to resist the temptation to blow it out and then go partying crazy and all that good stuff.
Instead, kind of buckle down and build some kind of momentum that can’t be stopped. Cement your place at the top of that part of the industry.
That was really my goal at that time.
A Fighter In Thailand
And the way I did this, I guess the best way to explain is, some of you might know, I spent 9 months fighting full time in Thailand, here actually in Phuket, and I’m a match nerd right, I wasn’t actually never been in a fight before that.
I came out to learn Muay Thai. I decided to do one fight for fun. Lost it and that’s obviously the way to get me obsessed with anything. So I stayed and did 6 more.
And after I lost the first fight, I looked at it and went, you know, “I trained really hard for this. My cardio was awesome. Skillset was awesome, what happened here?”
And I spoke to some experienced fighters. And they said hey, “You know, it’s just that common thing off in your first fight, when you’re getting hit or when you’re about to get hit, you tense up and you don’t breathe properly.”
And this tires you up way sooner than you should have.
So you can have this amazing cardio but if you’re not able to relax and be okay with being hit you’re tensing up, you’re not breathing and you’re tired by the 2nd round.
Learned From the Experts
So here’s what I did, I had this big Maori friend like this tall, massive dude, built to play rugby from New Zealand, paid him ฿500. I think it was 4 Saturdays in a row, paid him ฿500 to get in the ring with me and hit me.
And my job was to stand there and be okay with being hit. Wasn’t allowed to hit him back, wasn’t really allowed to move. It’s kind of allowed to block but he made it past my guard more often than not.
And I stood there for an hour and let him hit me over and over and over again. Just focusing on being okay with being hit. It’s not the end of the world, probably not gonna die, probably not gonna get hurt seriously.
And that that was my strategy for getting over what I perceived was the bottleneck in my fighting career at the time, and it worked. I went on to win the next 6 fights that I fought.
And it was the best thing I did, I think, in my entire fighting career.
And the reason I bring this up is because I think the guts of building our business Milky Way Media and then re-brand to Digilitic when we moved over to Dubai in 2016, is the simple process of identifying leverage points or bottleneck.
And in the fighting thing, the bottleneck was being able to be hit and be okay with it. Not letting it tire you up, not letting it stress you out.
Create A Plan
Create a plan. My plan, in this case, was exposure. With exposure, I was going to get rid of that fear or get rid of that that automatic reaction to tense up and kind of duck or whatever.
Test it immediately.
So another way of saying this is to try to break the plan, implement it.
Try to get it to fail as quickly as possible. See if it works, get some feedback. You want that initial feedback as soon as possible and adjust the strategy if necessary.
So I use this right from day one with health and beauty in the US.
We had challenges with credit cards, initially. We had challenges with being able to spend enough, you know, accounts had limits on what you allowed to spend. We had to get over those.
We had to get over funding credit cards in time. And you know, when you’re buying 6 figures of media or even 7 sometimes a day, it takes like a day to send wires. And a wire to reach somewhere.
You’ve got these real problems you’re dealing with.
And always just came back to this. I’d wake up in the morning and go, “Hey, what’s the single most important thing I can do for my business today? What’s the plan for doing this? Do I need to speak to an expert to get an opinion on how to solve this? Do I need to do some googling? Do I need to do some reading? Do I need to do some brainstorming?”
Test The Plan and Adjust
Whatever it is. Coming up with a plan, testing that plan immediately and adjusting it if necessary.
And talking about the credit card thing, actually reminds me we had one hilarious one.
We had, and still have a MasterCard license in Europe. And there was some bug at some point in Facebook where we were running about 200 accounts in a business manager using a set of credit cards and Facebook had some kind of bug where they refunded the last charge on every single card in the Business Manager.
You can imagine MasterCard called us up and we’re like, “what’s going on here you got 213 added charges that were reversed”
They thought we were into fraud or whatever. They just couldn’t make sense of it. But yeah, that was just one example of the crazy problems you run into. And I always come back to this thing, this little plan.
Super simple. Identify what’s most important. Figure out a plan to solve it or leverage that point. Test it and fail with that plan immediately. And adjust if necessary.
And after doing this for about, I’d say 2 years by myself, 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, you realize that you’re only one person.
Automate and Delegate
In order to get to the next level of scaling, you’re gonna have to delegate and automate,
Thankfully for me, I have my little sister Alicia, who’s also an actuary that’s been able to help me out a ton with managing a lot of this stuff.
I think in the affiliate marketing industry when I think about what our superpower is, what are we really doing, we’re solving unique problems where most of the time, the creativity for the affiliate marketing stuff is not as important or as crucial as solving the problems that come with maintaining these accounts.
Being able to spend enough, having enough cap on the offers you like, managing relationships with the advertisers.
So for me, the biggest challenge in delegating this was finding someone I could trust to solve those problems. And I do get asked a lot about this, how to hire better.
And one book that I recommend a lot is “Becoming The Evidence-Based Manager” by Professor Gary Latham. If anyone’s interested in hiring better, he goes through a bunch of evidence-based strategies for employing better and it’s really helped me.
The other one, of course, was automating. We built some tools that initially were just very similar to AdEspresso.
We’re both an in-house tool. Then we automate stuff according to the style that we like to do. Integrated some machine learning because we’re all, you know, we’re nerds like that. It’s fun.
And that’s really saved us a bunch of time and helped us use our time in a more efficient way.
Thanks to being able to automate and delegate, you know. It freed up a lot of time for me.
The VC World
And I got into the VC world about 18 months 2 years ago as a way to look into high-risk investments with my personal funds. And that’s been a whole new learning experience, all and of itself, you know.
When you’re in the affiliate marketing world, I feel that a lot of our work is very personal. We’re at home, we’re working with our teams. We’re not on a daily basis interacting and working with other very successful, high-powered people.
And in the VC world and the couple deals that I got involved in and ended up on boards with, you come in contact with really impressive people.
People with just unique skill sets and talents that I couldn’t really compete with, I just don’t have that background or that inclination.
One of the biggest, like kind of eye-opening things for me in the last year, thanks to the whole VC world is being able to communicate a shared vision with other, very successful, very important, powerful people and having them able to buy into this vision and work together, collaborate on it is a very, very useful and profitable skill.
That’s what I’m trying to say here, that as much as I’d like to think so, I can’t be the master of everything.
And once I started to come into contact with people that I really admired, that I looked up to that had skills and abilities that I just didn’t, I really started to dig.
And there’s a lot of literature, business literature around this idea of being able to communicate a shared vision, being able to increase the size of the pie for everybody so that we can work together and create something bigger and better.
A Natural Progression
That kind of brings me up to the last I guess 6 to 9 months where it was the natural progression for me given the marketing background of the affiliate marketing stuff, the VC stuff and my finance actuarial background to get into the underwriting and marketing ICO business.
And that’s where I’ve been spending a lot of time recently, the last 6 months or so, that’s been a full-time thing.
And it’s pretty exciting to step into something new. Be a newbie again, you know, and go through that same process.
And as a quick summary, it’s the exact same process that I described earlier.
It started off with this 2-month period of massive focus, where I was reaching out to every single resource, speaking to every person that I could, making mistakes, making a fool of myself, trying things out, coming up with ideas, most the time that didn’t work.
But just connecting things in different contexts so that you can internalise this information better. Internalise what you understand about the ICO world and use that to solve problems in unique ways.
Once I found something that worked, which was a certain type of projects to work with and our role in them, the exact same thing, focusing in on that and going to that process of identifying leverage points, coming up with a plan and testing that plan.
And the first leverage point was, I guess, deal flow. And now it’s kind of being able to scale without me having to be involved in these things 24/7.
And that brings me to the end guys. That’s been my journey.
This is some information on how you can contact me. My email, my telegram.
I hope that I shared some stuff with you guys that you can use that will help you moving forward. That’ll save you some time and some grief.
And that’s it, thank you very much!