He used this escape-from-broke-jail plan to start a business

If you’re looking to start a business, here are seven business ideas a multi-million dollar entrepreneur shared because he doesn’t have the time to work on them.

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Karthik Vijayakumar
Published on: May 27, 2024

Syed Balkhi is thirty-two years old today. He made his first million dollars by starting a blog as a teenager. Even today, he’s constantly scanning for business opportunities.

“If someone wants to do it reach out to me, I would like to invest in it,” he says, expressing his deep desire to invest or buy profitable businesses.

He used this escape-from-broke-jail plan to start a business

Over the years, Syed has built a portfolio of businesses – online and offline.

According to his website, the number of online businesses he owns is twenty-seven. And from listening to this podcast, I know he owns at least ten gas stations and a bank.

How are they performing?

They are compounding at double-digit growth.

“Over 20 percent,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes.

In my last post, I shared some GOLDEN nuggets – he nonchalantly kept tossing them throughout that interview.

But the hosts of the podcast didn’t stop there. They brought Syed back to the podcast six months later.

It was a sneeze-tease!

It almost felt like the hosts teased Syed with a feather🪶, and he would sneeze a business idea💡. And they both seemed to enjoy the game.

tickle sneeze

“Okay, what’s the big deal with business ideas, Karthik?”

You’re right. Like Monish Pabrai put in a recent interview on the podcast:

“Ideas are like a**holes – everyone has one.”

So yes, this post isn’t about just ideas.

Coz some of them are more than just ideas. They are strategies…

No, not strategies. Let’s call them learnings. Sounds more appropriate.

And these learnings are based on Syed’s observations and research.

As he admits in this interview, there are two ways to build a business:

  1. Build one from scratch, or
  2. Acquire one to get an instant jumpstart.

No matter which path you take, this one’s for ya!

Let’s get digging into the first one.

1. Escape from broke-jail plan

Those words are not mine. They are Shaan’s. He’s a co-host on the podcast.

And this one’s for you if you’re starting from scratch. Perhaps you’re thinking of dipping your toes in business. Maybe you’re starting one on the side.

In either case, you start with what you have – a skill.

Let’s say you have identified that one skill. Now all you want to do is to use that to “escape” your day job or from “broke jail.”

So you spend all your time trying to find people who need help with that skill.

Are you a skilled writer? Then you wanna find people or businesses looking for writers.

If you’re an AI developer, you’re looking for businesses looking for AI development skills.

Technically speaking, your goal is to build cash flow. And building cash flow isn’t a business idea. It’s a building block of any business.

If you have a B2B skill, tools like Apollo, Instantly, or Clay can help you find your audience.

2. AI-Wrappers to build vertical-focused tools using AI

Vertical AI, baby. That’s what it’s called.

Tell me something:

Let’s imagine you signed up to run a full marathon. What would you want to wear:

  1. your everyday sneakers, or
  2. a running shoe

The second one, right?

It’s the same with businesses too.

A legal business will not want to use general accounting software. They’d prefer legal accounting software instead.

It’s the same with Generative AI or Gen AI, as it’s popularly known.

A doctor will not want to use ChatGPT. That’s why Josh built BastionGPT – it’s ChatGPT for healthcare professionals.

A patent attorney will not want to use ChatGPT. So Jack created PatentPal – it’s ChatGPT for intellectual property.

You see what’s happening? Yeah, Syed calls them AI Wrappers.

Simply put, you are making AI work for a specific industry or vertical.

But hang on before you jump over to the next one!

Heard of Steven Schwartz?

Or, did you hear about the lawyer who used ChatGPT and cited fake cases?

Well, if you haven’t, it’s true.

Perhaps some guardrails in your AI Wrapper to keep your customers out of troubled waters is a good idea!

3. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Arbitrage

This one surprised me!

What does an act by the federal government have to do with business?

As it turns out, it does – and some businesses are USING THIS TO MAKE MONEY too.

Curious how? Let’s put facts first. Here’s the definition of the act:

The Freedom of Information Act has been effective in the United States since 1967. According to Wikipedia, FOIA requires

“full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased or uncirculated information and documents controlled by the U.S. government upon request.”

“So what does this mean to my business?”

Let’s say you run a career coaching business. Your target market is all students passing out of university.

For a nominal fee, you can get the names, phone numbers, and even mailing addresses of all the students passing out of any university in the United States.

If you help veterans with career coaching, you can file a FOIA request with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs!

Let’s say you’re bidding for a new business. How about getting some insight into your competition? Sure thing!

You can use FOIA to get access to the bid of a competitor that won the previous contract.

Isn’t that priceless?

Can you imagine what this can mean to your business?

4. Productized Services with Offshore Market

This one is pretty simple.

Let’s say you’ve acted on the first idea in this list. You now offer your skill as a service.

Your business is cash flow positive. You can consider this one as your next step:

Productize the service. Even better, find people outside the United States to fulfill the service.

Syed specifically refers to countries where the cost of living is way lower than in the United States, where you can also find top-quality talent. Think of countries like India, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

If you’re a writer, you can offer writing as a productized service. Meaning, you can sell writing services as a product. And every time a customer signs up for the service, you get your team in India to fulfill the service. It’s as simple as that.

Take it up a notch? Slap a label!

Syed talks about how his company invested in Sea Hawk Media. It’s a company based in India that offers WordPress services. Today, Syed’s company, WPBeginner, offers WordPress Maintenance and Technical Help to its customers. How do they fulfill the service? Sea Hawk Media does it!

White-label baby!

So what’s a market that’s hot in this category?


And specifically, Quickbooks. That’s Syed’s pick.

Sam Parr: how big of a business do you think you could build just on the QuickBooks platform or the QuickBooks ecosystem?
Syed Balkhi: You know, just like Shopify has an app store, QuickBooks has an app store. And if you take a couple of apps that might be doing two, three million, four million in that range, and you buy five of those 2 million businesses you just built a $10 million business that may not be cross-selling enough so you can unlock more value they might be mismanaged gems.”

Did you hear that?

Cross-selling. Isn’t that fascinating?

And there’s an idea hidden right there.

5. Barnacles on Whales

Have you seen a whale? If not, look at this picture.

Barnacles on Whales
Photo Credit: Robin Kundis Craig

Do you see the white spots along the sides of its tail?

Barnacles – that’s what they’re called.

And they are marine invertebrates. They begin their lives as microscopic larvae. Eventually, they latch onto whales and live the rest of their lives. Think of them as hitchhikers!

No, they don’t feed on whales. They just live and grow on these gentle giants – and feed on plankton in the water.

But what do barnacles have to do with business?

Well, you see, Syed talked about bookkeeping.

Specifically, he talks about Quickbooks and Xero apps.

“I believe there’s a lot of value in someone acquiring multiple one of these QuickBooks apps or Xero apps. Or maybe  (you take a) QuickBooks app, then port it over to Xero, and so on. And then you cross-sell so it. It doesn’t matter if the user switched from QuickBooks to Xero or vice versa you’re still keeping that customer. You can even multiply that effect by going and buying multiple ecosystems, so you can sell QuickBooks and Shopify or on WordPress and so on. I think there’s serious potential here” – Syed Balkhi

These apps are to Quickbooks or Xero ecosystems, like barnacles to whales.

“I think this ecosystem you can find like wonderful businesses that are not going to be venture growth, but they’re going to be extremely profitable.” – Syed Balkhi

6. X but Open Source

The Open Source movement had a rough start. And it continues to get bad press even today.

But if one thing is true, it’s this – open source attracts the money!

History shows us that every time a proprietary or “open source” software got popular…

An Open Source software was born.


  • Apple iOS became popular. Android was born.
  • WordPress became popular. WPEngine was born.
  • Airtable became popular. NocoDB was born.
  • Calendly became popular. Cal.com was born.
  • Notion became popular. Appflowy was born.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Well, that’s what Syed was alluding to.

VC firms like OSS Capital have taken a special interest in Open Source software. It’s in fact, a special subset of Open Source software, called Commercial Open Source Software or just COSS.

Like this idea?

If so, here’s a spin on this idea:

Open Course for X.

Need some examples?

Think Notion but for Doctors.

Does this interest you?

Look for a market with a large TAM (Total Addressable Market).

7. Strategic Venture Fund

If you’re more an investor than an entrepreneur, this one’s for you.

Create a strategic venture fund.

And, just like OSS Capital, invest in specific kinds of businesses.

Do you need some ideas?

“One I really wanted to do was just a flipper. So you basically would say hey I want to invest, but I’ll be out when you raise your Series A. I’m really helpful in this zero to one but as soon as you get to your Series A, I’m out. Because a normal venture fund is like seven to ten years, and you’re hoping for this like 1000x outcome. But the Seed to Series A valuation lift is like 3x, and it’s usually in 12 to 18 months. And so if you could just pick well, like what startups are most likely to get to a Series A, or you’re just in an environment where a lot of companies are able to raise their next round, you can flip. And for the founder, it’s great because you’re like cool. I could take this capital today, but it’s actually non-dilutive. Like they’re going to be out by the next round and those same shares go to the next investor. So it’s actually less dilutive than normal capital.” – Shaan Puri.

Position yourself right as an investor. And if you did it right, you could be well on your way to growing a profitable portfolio of businesses.

Bottom line: Create disproportionate value

Let’s wrap this all up with Costco – the store most Americans visit every month. Some, every week.

Why? Because Costco makes a simple promise: you can buy everything at the store at cost plus 10%.

And how much do you pay?

$120 per year.

And you likely recover that yearly investment of $120 in just a weekend visit to the store!

Every dollar you save in subsequent visits? Priceless.

Costco built a huge subscription business off of this simple promise. And that’s because they do one thing right: they create disproportionate value for their customers. And that’s the bottom line.

Now do yourself a favor – listen to the podcast.

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About the author 

Karthik Vijayakumar

Hey, it's me, Karthik. I'm a copywriter and a ghostwriter, too. This blog contains exciting things I gleaned from books, podcasts, and personal experiences. But it's also more—a showcase of my work as a ghostwriter. For instance, you can see the difference in writing styles—this post differs from this one. I help CEOs, founders, and C-Suite executives write content to build authority and trust and grow an engaged audience.

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