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Wednesday, Nov 29, 2023

How Covid-Era Students Launched a Business

startups: Affiliate marketing venture is seeking customers.

Santa Clarita-based Earn and Trade is one of an abundant number of companies to be founded at the peak of the pandemic, in 2020. 

With company shutdowns, layoffs and furloughs in full force, many people put on their entrepreneurial hats and launched their own small companies from home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 4.4 million new businesses were created across the nation in 2020, a 24.3% increase from the previous year. 

Frustrated with being stuck at home, Earn and Trade’s co-founder and chief executive, Dylan Bertalli, wanted to figure out a way to remain indoors while making money online. To his dismay, there were no trustworthy sites that allowed him to make significant cash. So, he built one himself. 

Earn and Trade is an affiliate marketing company that allows users to earn points for signing up for trials and get rebates while shopping online at stores like AutoZone, Sephora and Forever 21. The points can then be turned into gift cards. Last week, the company announced it had integrated PayPal into its websites, so users can also trade points for cash using the online payment system. 

Affiliate marketing has gained a lot of traction in recent years; globally, the industry is worth more than $17 billion, according to Kinsta, a WordPress webhosting platform. In fact, U.S. spending in this sector increased from $5.4 billion in 2017 to $8.2 billion this year, according to BigCommerce, an e-commerce platform. 

With more than 100 advertisers, when users make money, so does the company. 

“What we do is we partner with these advertisers, and they have a set number that they give us per action. For example, with DoorDash it’s $20 per person that we get to sign up as a DoorDash driver, and our value proposition for that is 50% every time, no matter what action it is. Users on our site earn $10 and we earn $10 if they do it,” Bertalli explained. “And then it’s the same thing with percentages. Macy’s gives us 4% back on purchases that come from our affiliate link, and we give 10% back to the users and then we take 10% of that.” 

Birth of the idea

Before Earn and Trade, Bertalli was a junior attending classes at California State University, Fullerton as a finance major and was working an unpaid internship at student-run investment firm Titan Capital Management, where he analyzed assets. When the Covid-related stay-at-home order was put in place, Bertalli traded his dorm room for his childhood bedroom, and although he continued to work at his internship, his opportunities to make money diminished significantly. 

“My job for this internship was as an analyst for assets, and every single report I was submitting was a buy report, because I was like, ‘all right, we’re at the bottom here, let’s start buying stocks,’” Bertalli said. 

Looking at the market at the time, he realized that it could be smart to make some investments of his own. 

“I didn’t have money at the time because I was an unpaid intern and I was a college student, so then I started looking for ways to earn money online. There were very few websites that you could earn a significant amount of money on,” Bertalli continued. “The websites where you could earn a significant amount of money weren’t trustworthy. A lot of them had bad reviews or the payouts weren’t consistent.” 

Bertalli saw this dilemma as his chance to attempt to build his own website that would allow users like himself to earn cash. 

“I thought I might as well try to learn how to build a website,” Bertalli said. “Worst-case scenario, I’d waste some time and have learned a new skill that I can put on my resume when I go to look for jobs.”

After finding a fitting, available domain name, Bertalli started binge-watching YouTube tutorials on website building and spending up to 13 hours per day learning how to code. After he realized his idea would be possible, he called up his best friend, Josh Paktan, co-founder and chief financial officer of Earn and Trade. 

Building a team

Paktan and Bertalli met in a general education course at CSUF, and after finding out they were both in the same major, the two became quick friends. Paktan said they were both heavily involved on campus and took their education very seriously, but the pandemic put all of that on pause.

“We were always on campus, always engaging with professors and networking. When Covid hit, we were like, ‘what are we doing right now,’” Paktan said. “All of a sudden, we’re sitting at home doing online classes and it wasn’t fulfilling enough for us.”

That’s when Paktan received Bertalli’s call about building Earn and Trade from the ground up together; Paktan instantly accepted the offer to start the company. 

Flash forward to a year and a half later, and Paktan and Bertalli knew that as finance people there was a limit to the technical side of things that they would be able to learn from YouTube. 

They contacted and interviewed several people from their university’s computer science department to find someone who could help with the technical development of their website before adding Josiah Peedikayil to the team as chief technology officer; he handles site maintenance and security. Peedikayil said he had always been semi-interested in the startup world, but in order to get involved in one he needed to be convinced that there was a strong team behind it. 

“For me, the biggest thing was I needed to believe in the goals and vision of a company to really get involved,” Peedikayil said. “When (Bertalli) approached me with Earn and Trade and wanted to bring me in, I knew I really wanted to do this and could see myself doing it in the future.” 

Peedikayil continued to say that Bertalli and Paktan’s drive and passion are what really made him believe in Earn and Trade. He said a team like theirs, where everyone works well together and whose different skill sets complement one another, is hard to find. 

“(We) went into this pretty young, so whether it be taxes, working with third parties or vendors, a lot of that is new to us,” Peedikayil said, “We have to take things as a challenge and work together internally as a team to find a solution to overcome them.”

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