(Original post from The Every Girl):

It all started back in August 2011, when we met up for a cup of coffee, laptops in hand, on a Saturday afternoon. Our friends were all at the beach or grabbing brunch or running errands. But we had work to do.

It’s crazy to think we’ve now been running The Everygirl for almost six years (No, we’re not sure how that’s possible either!), and we want to share a bit about how our company went from an idea to where it is today.

The Beginning

On August 13, 2011, we were just two women who had met less than a handful of times, and, on that day, became business partners and, over the next few months, very close friends. We were introduced via our personal blogs and decided to sit down at a Caribou Coffee in downtown Chicago to discuss a shared dream. We were looking for a way to inspire creative, career-driven women who, like ourselves, were trying to figure “it all” out. You know — career, finances (401K and why do I need one?!), decorating a home, travel, relationships, and, you know — life stuff. We wanted to create a resource that we wish had existed for our own guidance and entertainment — but there wasn’t any site like that.

Somehow, two women with creative degrees and not an ounce of business acumen launched a company and went from working full-time jobs on top of running the site (with a team of extraordinary interns) to a full-time team of five, part-time director of brand partnerships, 20 regular contributing writers, and an office in the West Loop of Chicago. If you’re in the beginning stages of a new blog or business, check out this post on Danielle’s blog about the 6 things every entrepreneur needs when they’re just starting out.

We had been blogging personally for three and five years respectively, Danielle with Breakfast at Toast and Alaina at Live Creating Yourself. But neither of our blogs made any money. That just wasn’t as much of a thing back then — everyone just blogged for fun. Or “as a creative outlet” was the expression commonly used. Between the two of us, we had over 6,000 people coming to our blogs each day, which definitely helped with the launch of our site. Danielle worked for herself from home running a graphic design studio specializing in blog design. Alaina had a full-time job doing communications and graphic design for a nonprofit based in DC (but she worked remotely from home in Chicago).

We were both single, in our twenties, and financially independent. Without those jobs (and, you know, income), we wouldn’t have been able to launch this site. We continued to work those full-time jobs for over a year while growing The Everygirl, which meant, given Alaina’s traditional 9-5pm work hours, the majority of Everygirl work was happening at night and on weekends. Basically nonstop with breaks to eat and walk our dogs.

Launching Our Website

September 2011

After what felt like endless back and forth trying to come up with a NAME for this online e-magazine website thing idea, we decided on The Everygirl. It would be created by The Everygirl, for The Everygirl. And the url was available! We couldn’t believe it. Can’t tell you how happy we both are that the site isn’t named Nori, 22, Adler Gray, or The Southport Stop — don’t laugh, but those were all serious contenders for the name.

October

Launching a website with very little funding is. not. easy. Since we both had extensive graphic design experience, the two of us teamed up to design our logo and the actual site itself, saving us well over $10,000. Yes — logo design can typically set you back anywhere from $500-5000. We found web developers to build out the site design we created for $6,000, which we paid for by each contributing half, pulling from each of our savings accounts. We fortunately had our own computers and software (Photoshop). Danielle had a nice camera to shoot content, and Alaina had a car, which came in handy for the many photo shoots needed to create content and launch the site. It’s truly been a team effort from day one.

November

To create said content in order to launch the site, we outlined what our first two weeks of content would look like. There were a few stories we wanted to cover in New York City — an apartment tour, a career profile, and some travel content. We also thought this was a great way to ensure no one thought of The Everygirl solely as a Chicago blog. We never wanted to be considered strictly “Chicago,” but instead wanted to provide content from around the country and even the world. We found really inexpensive flights to NYC and slept on the floor of Danielle’s mom’s friend’s empty apartment because there was no budget for hotels. We scheduled a handful of photoshoots in two days and ate as cheaply as possible. It was our first real business trip and it was beyond exciting.

December – January

A few ads were sold, but it took a solid two years until we grew our site and started to make enough to pay ourselves full-time salaries.

Even with our “experience” in blogging, we really had no idea what we were doing or what to expect. The world of blogs and websites has changed drastically over the past few years, and our “research” consisted of running personal blogs for a few years and making zero money doing it. Our business plan was to sell ad placements, much like you’d see in a magazine, but that’s not how we make money. It turns out that sponsored content (i.e. integrating a brand into a story) is what has worked for us.

February 22, 2012

We launched The Everygirl to the world. Over 11,000 people visited our site the very first day due to a strong organic (i.e. free) marketing campaign — mainly Twitter and the help of other blogger friends spreading the word! Of course by the following week, we had dropped to a steady 3,000-6,000 unique visits a day. Today we have over one million visitors a month, grown organically for five years and now with a relatively minuscule marketing budget spent on Facebook.

Growing The Everygirl

From the beginning, we’ve published at least two new articles a day, five days a week, Monday-Friday. We’ve consistently used social media (and, at the beginning, our personal blogs) to draw in more traffic. Pinterest was crucial the first few years since those pins (which direct users to our site) continued to grow, leading Pinterest users to TheEverygirl.com. Nowadays, both Facebook and Instagram join Pinterest as large traffic drivers. It’s crazy to think Instagram was not a thing when we first launched. The ability to adapt and grow with the changing market was always an important part of our non-strategy strategy.

We’ve always been lucky because it turns out, just like we needed this type of site, so did a lot of you! We’re so thrilled that our content has always resonated with young women online. In fact, just four months after launching in 2012, Forbes included The Everygirl on their list of Top 10 Websites for Millennial Women and Top 100 Websites for Women. It was a huge shock and honor and really gave us the confidence we needed to keep it going (even though it would be a long while before either of us saw any monetary fruits of our labor). As we said, we’ve never hired or paid a PR firm or had anyone doing marketing for our brand. It was all social media and “online word of mouth:” the amazing women we feature on the site were excited to share their features with their followers, bloggers said yes to being featured, and a story on Buzzfeed got us 20,000 new Instagram followers in one weekend.

Partnering with Brands

After a few months, we started hearing from brands who were interested in partnering with us. The process was a slow one, but after a few mistakes, like partnering with a brand that aesthetically was not a fit and one that wanted a little too much promotion, we learned what works for us and, more importantly — our readers. It was a fine line at the beginning because we needed to make money and would try to make it work, but quickly learned that if a brand isn’t an immediate fit (i.e. our readers will “love” this) the answer is always no.

We also signed with an agency that brought potential partnerships our way and took 50% of each deal. They handled some ad space on our site as well and did make us money, but we always preferred being able to work directly with the brand ourselves.

There were a few unpaid partnerships — all done to help our business grow and to make our readers happy. We developed relationships with brands we love and because we knew our readers would love the content. Our business runs on brands paying us, but we only say yes to brands we love that we are confident you’ll love too.

Three years ago, we grew our team with a part-time director of partnerships, and having Ally on the team changed everything.  Neither of us have a background in brand partnerships or sales, so having someone manage each partnership for us (and do everything from client communication and negotiation to making sure everything’s perfect) helped our company grow.

Investing in Our Company

In the fall of 2013, we knew it was time to redesign the website. While the original design the two of us created looked pretty, it was hardly optimized for functionality and user retention. We found and hired a local team of freelancers to redesign The Everygirl — our first big investment! Keep in mind we went with the freelancers because they were significantly less expensive than the big firms and it was what we could afford.

When we were just starting out and generating little to no revenue, we were terrified to open a company credit card, so we relied on a debit card. Huge mistake. Eventually, two years in, once we were able, applying for a company credit card was a game-changer. When it came time to invest in new laptops, company expenses, and eventually a third site redesign, having a credit card we could trust and benefit from was key and our company’s growth was truly dependent on those investments.

Now we use our American Express Blue Business Plus credit Membership Rewards to grow our business. It’s the only no-annual-fee small business credit card from a major issuer that offers 2X Membership Reward Points on the first $50,000 in everyday purchases each year (with no category restrictions), with 1X MRP thereafter. The card has a 0% introductory APR on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months, and expanded buying power above the credit limit for larger purchases.

Hiring Our First Employees

As we mentioned earlier, we brought on a part-time director of brand partnerships. This helped our company grow, and, about a year later, we brought on our first full-time hire — our managing editor Allyson Fulcher. Allyson took over our calendar and managing our 20 part-time writers, allowing us (again) to focus more on company growth. It meant spending a lot more money — especially when we added health benefits for the team — but hiring the right staff helped us take our company to the next level.

We weren’t spread thin and could focus on less, which helped us do more. A year later, we brought on a full-time social media manager (also a former intern), and shortly thereafter, a full-time assistant editor. Most recently, another former intern joined us part-time — four days a week. It’s crazy and exciting to think there was a point where it was just us and some very part-time interns, because we really can’t imagine doing any of this without our team.

We’re so excited to start year six with a larger team and some new ideas that we can’t wait to bring to fruition. You are why we do what we do. It is our hope that our unconventional start will inspire you to follow your heart and do what you love! Once you’ve made the decision to start your own business (if you’re there now, congrats!), make a promise to yourself to give it your all, and know that it’s a long road, but if it works, it’s so worth it. Surround yourself with people who believe in you, stop comparing yourself to others, and never forget that overnight successes are rarely a thing.

This post was in partnership with American Express, but all of the opinions within are those of The Everygirl editorial board.