Running a successful business is a commitment. Few appreciate the demands on time and energy until it’s too late. When you’re up at 2 a.m. responding to customers or fixing errant code, that commitment can feel like a drag. Some love it, of course, but others prefer balance.
Fortuna Burke, founder of It Really Works Vitamins, expected the four-hour workweek when she started her lifestyle business. Instead, runaway success almost floored her. While she traveled the world adjudicating for Guinness World Records, her vitamins were selling like hotcakes.
She made $220,000 in revenue in 2016 alone, with influencers and smart advertising pushing sales well beyond what she’d expected for a side gig. But with a child on the way, a relative in the hospital, and energy reserves spent, Fortuna decided to shift focus to family, not sales.
“I gave birth to my first child in 2017, just as the business peaked,” Fortuna said. “Trying to raise a newborn while running the business was exhausting, and although I delegated to contractors, it didn’t shift the needle much. I was always pulled back into the day-to-day.”
Fortuna has never been one to shirk responsibilities or suppress her ambitions. From earning a master’s in commercial law to writing screenplays while certifying world records for British celebrities like David Walliams, Fortuna has (almost) done it all.
But she wasn’t ready for a lifetime commitment just yet. Besides, if she sold her business during it was growing quickly, she might be able to negotiate a higher price. A year or so later, Fortuna’s meandering experience culminated in a satisfying exit on Acquire.
A Polymath in the Making
Few founders have enjoyed as varied a career as Fortuna.
When she was 16 years old, Fortuna was the top salesperson at BHS, a department store in the UK. She’d walk up to strangers to sell the store credit card, never feeling shy or nervous about speaking her mind despite the sky-high interest rates.
Fortuna’s colleagues watched in amazement as she signed up customer after customer, rising to the top of the sales charts without breaking a sweat. Although she didn’t realize it at the time, Fortuna’s flair for selling would transfer well into entrepreneurship. But she chose law instead.
“When I was about 16, I wanted to be barrister,” Fortuna said. “I studied law at university and enjoyed my first year. But halfway through my second, I realized it wasn’t for me. You work long hours as a new grad for about twelve grand a year, so you need family support to survive.”
The more Fortuna learned about the legal meatgrinder, the more disillusioned she became. “I did work experience at a barrister’s and learned that you had to come from a wealthy family to survive your early years. It was a huge investment of time and my family’s money.”
Fortuna thought: Why go to university for four years and then work placements for two before earning a remotely livable salary? She’d struggle on 60-hour workweeks while relying on handouts from family, and who knows when she’d be able to repay their kindness.
Besides, Fortuna wanted the freedom to pursue other interests.
“I did a master’s in commercial law, but by that stage, I was over it,” Fortuna said. “I took some time out for my creative passions, writing screenplays and doing a work placement at the BBC Newsroom.”
While at the BBC, Fortuna discovered the life of a journalist wasn’t what she’d imagined. The hours were long, the deadlines strict, and many of the people she met suggested it was ultimately a thankless job. In other words, you had to love it to put up with it.
While the excitement of becoming a journalist fizzled, Fortuna did learn how to write sharp, engaging copy. At the end of her placement, she took a series of dull temping jobs while she expressed her creative side by writing screenplays.
“One of my screenplays was performed at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East. I then started writing for the Chelsea Theatre. I loved creative writing so much I did a master’s in it at Oxford, hoping to make some industry contacts who’d commission more of my work.”
Fortuna devoted the following two years to writing, performing, and producing shows. One unexpected advantage of this stage of her life was learning how to market her work. “I was learning so much about marketing because half of writing the show was just trying to get people to come and see it,” she said.
Despite modest success as a playwright, Fortuna gave herself just five years to make a living out of it, or she’d give up. And in the meantime, she’d need to find a part-time job to make ends meet. (Emerging playwrights aren’t known for their six-figure salaries.)
“I told my boyfriend at the time, who’s now my husband, that everything would work out, and he said, ‘How are you going to get a fun part-time job while writing?’ So I put my CV on Indeed and the following day I got a phone call from Guinness World Records.”
If you were to define serendipity, you might use this phone call as an example. Guinness wanted a part-time adjudicator to fly around the world judging records. It was a freelance role with one adjudication per week, giving Fortuna the time to continue her master’s in creative writing.
Fortuna spent the next few years traveling and meeting people with incredible stories. Her husband proposed when she was 28, and at that point, she realized it was time to gather her creative energies and infuse them into one activity, be it writing or something else.
“I listened to a podcast with a guy talking about The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss,” Fortuna said. “I read it while freelancing and it blew my mind. I had no idea you could build a global brand as a solopreneur using freelancers, and I wanted to try it.”
From Writer to Entrepreneur
Towards the end of her master’s in creative writing, Fortuna began to hash out a plan for a business. She’d enjoyed freelancing and wanted to keep that flexibility but also needed the job security that only recurring revenue could provide. And what do people need every month?
“I settled on health supplements,” Fortuna said. “Throughout my teens, I took supplements for my hair and skin. I already knew most of the ingredients. And I had done commercial law, so I knew how to do it legally. A family friend is an accountant, so everything fell into place.”
Fortuna settled on a vitamin formula and supplier and set up a store on Shopify. Although she was open to advertising in either men’s or women’s magazines, her first placement was in Men’s Fitness. The ad resonated with men needing supplements for stronger hair growth.
“In November, 2015, I was in Singapore for a world record. I remember waking up and seeing the Shopify dashboard going crazy. All that marketing and writing experience had helped me get the advertising right straight off the bat.”
Advertising only goes so far, however, and Fortuna credits the money-back guarantee with tempting people off the fence and pulling out their credit cards. People are naturally skeptical about health products, so she had to eliminate the risk of them not working as promised.
“If people didn’t like them, they could return the packaging within ninety days for a full refund. That applied worldwide, so it was extremely rare. Only around one in a thousand people ever sent it back, though. I thought it was a fair offer and so did our customers.”
By 2016, Fortuna was making over $30,000 in monthly revenue, and she began working with Instagram influencers to push sales even higher. But two years later, Fortuna realized the cost of her success. She’d given birth to her first child and a relative was in poor health, and yet she could barely afford time away from the business.
“One of my great aunts went into hospital in 2018 and it was a stressful period trying to manage the business and family commitments. I did keep it going for about three years by outsourcing a lot of things, but by the end of 2020, I was ready to sell and take a break from it all.”
When Brokers Go Bad
Burned out and ready to sell, Fortuna met with business brokers who promised they’d help her sell her company. It seemed the simplest choice at the time. She was already stretched thin and couldn’t add the stress of an acquisition without pulling focus from the people who needed her.
But Fortuna’s first impression of the broking agreements was that they were very difficult to get out of. Many brokers also wanted to charge an upfront fee, and Fortuna felt this disincentivized them to find the best buyer and negotiate the best deal.
She’d also read horror stories in the press of founders selling privately after years of failed attempts with a broker – only to still be on the hook for the broker’s commission. It didn’t quite fit with her expectations, so she put the acquisition on hold.
A few months later, one of Fortuna’s business contacts suggested she might have better luck selling the business in India. The contact introduced her to a potential buyer who’d Acquire Fortuna’s inventory and continue selling it in India.
“At least twenty-five percent of our customers are in India,” said Fortuna, “so it seemed like the right move.” But after reviewing the contract with her husband, irregularities appeared.
“I went on holiday thinking I wouldn’t sign anything. I had the kids’ packing and stuff to do, and the contract language was weird. Then I emailed him while I was on holiday to say I hadn’t yet signed it and wanted to reread it. I also asked him for testimonials of others he’d worked with.”
You’d expect doing business over large distances would involve mutual support and understanding, but not so. It appeared this person might have had an ulterior motive. The buyer’s response to Fortuna’s question lit a fuse that burned through their goodwill.
“He got so angry with me,” Fortuna said. “He spoke to me like I was a child, sending lots of messages in all-caps and demanding that I sign the contract. I felt really uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure if I was getting scammed or the buyer didn’t like people challenging him.”
Fortuna recognized the pressure tactics as a red flag and pulled the plug on the deal. She was shocked at how easy she’d been duped into moving forwards, especially given her legal background, and warns other founders to consult with an attorney before signing anything.
Finding the Best Place to Sell a Business
While hunting for avenues to sell her business, Fortuna stumbled across Acquire. She was still raw from her experience with the buyer in India, and skeptical about the acquisition process, but after doing due diligence on the platform, decided she had nothing to lose if she listed.
“I liked that Acquire didn’t insist on exclusivity periods,” Fortuna said. “I could list and de-list whenever I wanted. The platform also encourages you to use escrow, which felt safe, and I could vet people too. I also had the option of working with a broker if I felt like it.”
Reassured that Acquire was the best place to sell, Fortuna began preparing her business for acquisition. She’d kept a clean profit and loss (P&L) statement but refined her company’s Instagram page, knowing that its 80,000 followers would be a key focus for any buyer.
Then came the buyer vetting.
“I checked their LinkedIn profiles and Companies House [a UK business registry] registrations, and I also googled them to understand what their goals and backgrounds were,” Fortuna said. “One person wanted to pay in bitcoin and I said no way. I also didn’t like people who were pushy or bombarded you with messages.”
Within a few weeks, Fortuna spoke to someone willing to pay a little above her asking price. The deal involved 95 percent cash upfront and another 5 percent at the end of 12 months. It seemed like her long journey to exit was finally drawing to a close, and Fortuna couldn’t have been happier.
“I’d heard a lot of people in the media talk about mental health, and I’d gotten to the stage where juggling the business and family was starting to affect mine. But as soon as I realized it was happening, that someone was going to Acquire the business, I felt so relieved, so happy.”
Seeing how well Fortuna had done on Instagram, her buyer was keen to grow the business through TikTok. They went back and forth a few times on the contract and due diligence until both were happy with the terms and then moved into escrow.
Soon afterward, the acquisition closed, and Fortuna stayed in contact with the buyer to help with the transition. They have a good relationship because Fortuna believes transparency is critical in every business transaction – especially after the problems she’d had selling before.
“You have to be open. I had nothing to hide, so I answered every question honestly. It also helps to be on top of your numbers. Then if the buyer asks, ‘Why did you do that?” you can simply tell them instead of thinking of excuses or covering up a mistake you made.”
Today, Fortuna is already working on a new business that she plans to list in the next year or so. Why is she working again so soon after her exit? Now she’s in control of her time, she can plan her work hours around her family rather than a business dictating her schedule.
A bootstrapper at heart, Fortuna’s advice for other founders is to start small: “Don’t take on debt at the beginning. Try to do everything yourself. Once you hire staff, running a business gets expensive – especially if you don’t have many customers. Do what you can yourself and only scale up with your business.”
Change is constant, and Fortuna’s diverse experience has taught her to extract the best she can from wherever she is. Sometimes that means sticking with a business despite the challenges, but at others, getting Acquire’d to buy time to focus on your family and plan your next venture.
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