I’m Stephen, one of the co-founders here at Higher Levels. I’m going to tell you about how I went from broke as a joke, confused, in massive debt, no one believing in me, failing for almost 5 years online… To making over $100,000 per month, creating over 7 figures online in less than 2 years, traveling the world, and living a life most people can’t even imagine to be a reality.
Let’s start with the struggle phase. And trust me, if you stumbled upon this writing, please understand I’m going to hold nothing back here. You’re going to get the raw, the unfiltered, the transparent, and the genuine; you're gonna get it all.
‘Til I was 10, I lived in Long Island, New York. My family is Italian, and from New York, and I grew up in a big Italian family. If you know the Goodfellas, or 29th Street, or any of those movies with Joe Pesci or Robert Deniro in it, then you know what my family looks like. But, I never really learned much about money growing up. My parents never were “rich”. We lived average/middle class. But I was always taught “money doesn’t grow on trees” and things like that. I never really learned about money, or anything about business.
But I was always clever to figure out ways to earn money and get the things I want. When I was in just 7th grade, I really wanted a PSP (PlayStation Portable) so I could play it on the bus to and from school. Other kids at school had it, and it was an expensive device, around $300 at the time. My parents couldn’t afford to buy me that, so I went to lengths to figure out how to get one myself. So I started Googling, “How to get a free PSP” and all these sorts of things. I was only 13 years old. I found a website where I could “win” money online from these arcade games that you would play each day, in exchange for installing an ad-server on your computer that would send ads and pop ups to you all day (lol).
If you got the highest score in one of the games, you’d win either a $300 Visa gift card, a PSP, or an iPod Video (30GB) - it was your choice if you won which award you received. When you won for the day, they’d process it and send it out 60-90 days later… To a 13 year old at the time, a PSP and an iPod Video was the coolest and best tech you could own! I was determined to figure out a way to win. I started networking with the people on the platform, the people winning the most ofc. I asked them how they were winning, and after talking with them for a while, they revealed to me their little hacks to getting the high score pretty much every day. So I started doing them, I started following what the best people on the platform were doing, and no wonder, I started winning too. You could only win one prize per month though, so when I won following these new strategies, I immediately selected a PSP. I was stoked! However, I was still doubtful it would ever even come.
But however, I kept on, and I won a prize for the next month as well! And then I selected an iPod Video… 60 days later, nothing in the mail. But I kept playing. I had faith because, although the website looked kinda sketchy, I could see real genuine people were using it and receiving prizes. So I really believed it would work for me too. I won again, and selected a $300 gift card. At the end of that 3rd month, I said okay…… -__- it’s been about 90 days, and still nothing. Until I came home from school, and there it was: Both a PSP and an iPod video in the mail! I was beyond hyped… Legit you had no idea how hyped I was. I felt like anything was possible at this point lol. My parents were extremely confused, as they had no idea what I was doing online to get this stuff. But they were happy for me too, because I was happy and it seemed kinda legit to them. So I kept playing! And then I won ANOTHER $300 gift card for the next month. That next month on, I received $600 in Visa gift cards in the mail, and then that website got shut down and stopped working. But, it was amazing while it lasted. For the time being, it worked for me to get that PSP and I made some cash, which felt like a lot to a middle schooler. And it was because I refused to quit. So I succeeded.
As I grew older, I always had that entrepreneurial spirit in me, always seeing the value in being able to connect people and things together. I was always good with people. Going through high school, I worked all sorts of odd jobs, from working at McDonalds, to working retail at a PacSun, to working as a barista at a coffee shop, and I was only working these jobs to simply save up money for college, because that’s what I was told to do. My parents were never able to give me any money for college, so by the time I finished high school, I ended up just going to college through some scholarships and the rest on good ol’ fashioned student loans to get through it. I attended Florida State University, and at 17, I left home for the first time and moved to a city over 5 hours away from family, knowing no one except my roommate.
I wanted to become a doctor. So I went to FSU on a pre-med track (BS in Biological Sciences), and it was a hell of a ride. It took me about 6 years to graduate (the super-SUPER senior vibe) because I truly wasn’t that smart with all of the science stuff. I put in the work, but about halfway through the process, around my sophomore year, I realized I didn’t really love the idea of becoming a doctor anymore. So I said okay, what else can I do with a pre-med track? I realized I could become a Patent Attorney specializing in working with Pharmaceutical companies and doing stuff for them. Why did I want that? Well, I was always told that Doctors and Lawyers are successful and wealthy. That if I wanted a good life, I should do that. So that’s what I did (or at least tried to do).
To me, I just wanted freedom. To be able to do what I wanted, with who I wanted, when I wanted. To contribute in ways that created a massive ripple effect in the world, in positive ways dear to my heart. And to have fun doing it…
In college, I was definitely having fun, but not really focusing on anything game-changing for the world like I really wanted to. I was partying pretty much every day, people would wonder how I did any school work haha. I wonder that too. But I did the whole fraternity thing (Spring ‘13 Delta Lambda PIKE at FSU) and it was insanely fun, a hell of an experience that taught me so much about life. It honestly taught me way more than my college classes did, and that’s where I really started thinking, what is this whole college thing all about? Is it really just mostly about juggling things? Juggling social life, with school, with your girlfriend, with work? Is it just about getting drunk every day? Partying your ass off? Or am I supposed to really be learning something else?
Through the fraternity, I met some key friends who introduced me to network marketing… I was only 19 years old, and this was my first experience with business. I saw some guys that were just a couple years older than me, making over $100k a month. I was blown away… I didn’t even realize that was possible. Nor did I really even believe it yet in my core. But once I saw someone else doing it, in person, seeing their phone and their app from the company that showed them how much money they made that day and that week, I was blown away… This person didn’t have a job, they worked for themselves, they didn’t play by societies rules, just like I didn’t when I was growing up, always finding my way (like with the PSP and the iPod).
I saw myself in this person. I saw that I could do this too if I set my mind to it.
So I focused pretty much fully on it. I started letting school go on the back-burner, and really started focusing full time on creating success with this new business. I ended up alienating myself from most of my friends at that time due to the nature of this new business model I had gotten into: networking marketing. It teaches you stupid things like call all your friends and family and ask them to purchase your products… It’s so ridiculous to think people even do this, and that it would EVER work! But I did it for almost 4 years. Even though it does work for some people, because there are successful people doing it, it alienates you from your social group, and honestly can ruin friendships and family relationships too because when someone doesn’t buy from you you might feel like they don’t support you, even though they just don’t support what you’re doing, or the product you’re selling…
The network marketing model is far from the best way to build a business, it’s actually quite the worst. But it was all I knew at the time. I didn’t see any other vehicle to true success and freedom. And I refused to see myself leave college and get a job. So I stuck with it. For almost 4 years. All the way from my sophomore year, to my 6th year in college when I graduated. But I never had success with it. I spent over $20,000+ over those 3.5+ years (which at the time, was a TON of money for me), but never had any success really at all, besides maybe a few hundred bucks over that entire time… I got to the point where I maxed out all my credit cards, I didn’t have any more money, and I really had to make something work. I was completely back against the wall.
Even my girlfriend at the time was like “Wow… Um… you really need to figure out something and make it work. My dad can help get you a job! Please Stephen just get a job, then figure out the business later.” But to me, this suggestion felt worse than death. I knew that if I gave in to it all, if I went and got a job, that it’d be 100x harder to actually make it work once I was then having to commit 40-60 hours a week to something else, on top of me trying to figure out the business.
I refused to do that. I refused to step into a job and work for someone else, I knew it was possible to achieve what I wanted to achieve myself, because I knew people who were doing it. So I went out and with zero money, reached out to someone I knew who I looked up to, someone who had what I wanted, who was successful in network marketing with me but actually moved on from it to succeed with other things. I hopped on the phone with him, and we spoke, and I told him my situation, and he told me he could help me. I was beyond stoked, and I was ready to do whatever it took. However, then he told me the price to work with him, lol… My heart sunk. $5,000 to work with him one on one. I was like Shit… Well… How will I get the money? It became a Must for me. He told me that something he did in the past was to leverage an investment into a mentor like this onto a credit card. This way, I could take out a credit card and then use that money, interest free, to pay him for the mentorship, and then also pay back that credit card every month, and if I made the money fast enough I could also pay it all back before the first year was over. So I leveraged the money at 0% interest; that was the plan. I applied for a Visa card and was approved for $8K. I couldn’t believe it. It was like a godsend for me, and I knew it all lined up. So I pulled the trigger as soon as I got the card in the mail, I took the leap and invested. At this moment, I became officially all in.
I didn’t desire to become a doctor and spend 6figs more to go to med school after my 6-year debauchery at FSU, so I went all in with this new mentor and never turned back. It was crazy but, my first month after investing this lump sum of money into myself to learn something totally different online, I was able to make $12,000 in profit. I was 23 at the time. And this was the first time I ever experienced money like this. It was revolutionary to me, but it made sense because I was simply following someone who had what I wanted, and listening to them every step. Not re-inventing the wheel, but really just following what he said to do. My second month, I made over $18,000. My 3rd month, $25,000. After working with my first real mentor, over the course of about 6 months I had made over $100,000 online. Crazy… Especially crazy because I never handled money like that before. So what did I do? Naturally… I spent it all.
I did what EVERY NOOB ENTREPRENEUR does, and goes and blows all the cash because he’s never had it before in his life, and doesn’t know how to manage it, and also thinks that because it happened this month, it is going to happen forever. When something bad is happening, people think it is going to last forever. When something good is happening, people also think it is going to last forever… And that was me. I thought I had it all figured out! So I went and did the glamorous trips w the girlfriend, started buying designer like Louis, Gucci, etc. All of it. Started renting a brand new really sick apartment, way out of my price range (but 4 months down payment would lock it down). So I got it, fully furnished the entire thing from scratch, with custom painted floors, and the most beautiful view of the downtown skyline over the water in St Pete, FL.
Of course, I was way over my head. But I didn’t know it yet… I started networking with some of the high level people in my building, since everyone there was older than me and clearly successful if they were living in the same place, and I felt like I was on top of the world, like I completely had “made it”, like I was truly succeeding in life and I finally felt that I was a part of something greater. I thought that absolutely nothing could go wrong. Until everything tanked.
I learned the hard way, that when you’re only making about $20k on average every month from your online business, that if you decide to completely switch gears, to “improve” it and try doing something really new, to “innovate” it and go to the “next level” in the aim of wanting to progress and succeed.. That switching those things up might actually make you start earning way less, not way more… It might make you start earning nothing. And that’s basically what happened.
At what felt like my all-time highest high, was about to become my all-time lowest low… And boy was I in for it with this lesson. I had my monthly expenses higher than ever before, living with little to no cash reserves, and everything tanked. Once I ran out of money, I was scrambling every day in this new model (which was a fucking Agency model btw where we did digital marketing services for local business owners, absolute trash model to work in because it just leads no where but to misery eventually due to the fact it legit doesn’t scale anything besides the amount of headaches you have). I wasn’t making any money, and because of all the partners on the business, we’d have to make over $100,000 in revenue that month just to have me get paid about $5,000, which is what I needed JUST to pay my bills on time (not to eat lol, thats not including that). Then the first month came around where I finally missed the rent…
I missed it, and I got a message from the landlord. “Hey Stephen. The check didn’t go through. Send another check back and also pay the late payment fee of $150, and the NSF fee of $50 for the check that wasn’t accepted. That is a total of $X,XXX.”
My heart sunk. I didn’t know what to do… But I ended up figuring out how to get the bare minimum to pay the rent, through selling some of my stuff, and then had another month ahead of me. I started to have an empty apartment again. It was an emptier place, with an emptier vibe. When I would leave to go get the meal I would eat for the day (no joke lol) I would come back and legit feel like a prisoner in this amazing beautiful brick castle in the sky. With painted floors. And now just a lonely couch, TV, bed, and an Xbox.
So the next 30 days, I needed to make sure we would earn enough revenue to make the money for the rent the next month. That was the bare minimum payment I needed to have a home. So that’s what I was going to do. However, again, things didn’t go as planned. We kept doing the agency and doing the same things, just going harder. We did so much cold outreach via email that we literally broke the email servers for the white-label agency company we were working with. Their higher-ups in the company reached out to us and inquired why 85,000+ emails were sent so rapidly, and they almost cut us off. Our rep said it was okay, so we did it on their server. And even that level of outreach with the model only net a few clients, and all of them but one were cranky nightmares to work with. So by the end of the month, I didn’t have the rent again. I was at rock bottom.
I was too embarrassed to message the landlord about the late rent. Since we mail the checks I just didn’t mail it, and when the rent was late again by a few days, he said he received no check this time. I told him it’s because I can’t pay it right now but I should be able to in a couple weeks. He said it’s no good, and he threatened to sue. I told him my situation, he sympathized with me a bit as a business owner himself, seeing a guy like me learning a real hard lesson, and he just made me move out and kept my security deposit for a few grand. I even helped him get someone else into the unit, so it ended up working out really well actually for me. And I got to escape with the lesson of not ramping my expenses up at the first sights of a true “win” in my entrepreneurial journey… I moved out of the place, and then basically ended up in a much cheaper place, that I could actually afford at the time given the circumstances, in a situation where I finally gave up the agency and said i was finished with it, and I just went on back to what I was doing back when I was making $20-$30k a month. This was affiliate marketing and selling digital course products as a consultant. I started making about 10k a month again real quick. I was back on my feet. I learned a hard lesson, and I was ready to build something amazing again from a firmer foundation.
I go on, and started traveling a bit, and going "all in" again. I met in NY with some close friends I’ve made through business for "The Path" conference, which was with 10 awesome studs who are all crushing it in different aspects of life. It was a true mastermind. The first one I ever really attended at this time of my life. It took things to a new level, and I hit $20-30k/mo in recurring consulting revenue per month.
Was in NY for a little while just exploring the city, then I flew to California to celebrate July 4th camping under the stars at Big Sur. After that I went back to my pretty dope apartment in Tampa. Stayed a few months just focused on consulting, and then went to Medellin, Colombia. First time I ever left the country at this point. Now, consulting was paying the bills, even though it was super time consuming, I spent all day working all the time, and I hated it... SO I realized I had to stop. I fired all my clients. I wanted to start fresh with an automated model, something that would make me truly happy… Something that could ACTUALLY scale to 6 figures and beyond per month, something to create a larger and more profound impact on the world.
I realized consulting was a golden jail cell, and I invested in Sam Ovens to learn about how to really scale a consulting business. Then within a few months, again from hiring a mentor who had what I wanted (Sam was making around $50M a year at the time), I transformed the entire business, automated things in a way that could allow for scale, and I was making money again, very solidly. Solidly enough to spend new years in Barcelona that year at the top of the W in VIP. Was truly a fucking epic experience, and felt so damn good to be on the upward swing once again, but with lessons learned (somewhat), and a way better foundation.
TO BE CONTINUED...