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Beyond SEO: From Startup To $17M/year Full-Service Digital Agency

Learn how Dean helped build a small startup company to an 8-figure digital enterprise.

1. Hello! Who are you and what is your business?

Hello, my name is Dean Chew and I am the Managing Director for Ayima Asia, which is the Asian arm of Ayima Ltd, a global full service digital agency headquartered in the UK.

I joined Ayima in the UK when it was just a small startup with 6 or 7 staff and from there have been part of the positive growth to nearly 200 staff across 8 global offices based in London, Hong Kong, Manila, Vancouver, Stockholm, New York, San Francisco, and Raleigh.

I am originally from a small town in the UK called Lincoln. I’m 36 now but left school 20 years ago at 16 to work as a self-taught front end web developer, which at the time was fairly cutting edge considering the infancy of the internet and the lack of any sort of training courses around it.

After a few years of working for local web development companies I started to become interested in search marketing; which at the time was just SEO and PPC. I ended up building a website that sold car GPS navigation (before everyone had a phone that could do it) with the USP that we would hack the firmware and uploaded all the speed camera locations onto it. We were getting hundreds or orders per day as users were purchasing from us via PPC and SEO channels. I rode this wave for about a year before my competitors learned how to also include the speed camera locations, and larger companies started selling the devices with almost zero margin to undercut us. After that I had a few years working as Head of SEO for an online mobile phone retailer before moving down to London and joining an exciting SEO startup agency, Ayima.

When I joined, Ayima had just been founded by four partners all of which had been working for Party Poker. The company was founded with no outside investment and was at the time relying on a single large gambling client and a handful of smaller clients. The large client had been secured by effectively being competitors of Party Poker and on the receiving end of being outdone in the SEO space for online gaming. Due to the SEO and digital marketing background of the founders and staff like myself it was relatively easy to gain early traction and win clients in a wide variety of markets. Unlike many startups of today, we were not providing a single product or SAAS, but were relying on an agency model which is extremely resource intensive and where building relationships with potential clients and industry peers was paramount.

Fast-forwarding to 2019, Ayima is now a publicly listed company on the Swedish Nasdaq and generates revenue of around $17,000,000 USD per year.

From providing a core service of SEO, Ayima is now a full-service agency providing solutions for:

  • SEO 
  • PPP 
  • Paid Social 
  • Regular Social Media
  • Web Design
  • Analytics 

…and we have recently just launched our “Kickstart for Startups” service which aims to help startups be found and convert customers online – an area which we feel many startups ignore to their detriment. Away from the traditional agency services we also provide free SEO industry tools and plugins that are used by hundreds of thousands of users, and we have just launched our SAAS product, Updatable which allows users to update their websites in real time with no coding skills required, regardless of which CMS or platform the site is built on.

The road from startup to digital agency has taken about 12 years. The first 2 years saw some quick growth but after losing a couple of key clients we started to slow down. I was involved with opening a back office in Asia which helped us increase our margins and offer new services outside of “just SEO”. Client retention was by far the biggest headache as it was often out of our hands why clients stopped working with us. issues could be as simple as budgets being moved elsewhere in the business, but could also be political with contacts moving departments and new people coming in with their own connections. At the start of the venture staff costs accounted for about 80-85% of revenue, but today that is closer to 47%. As the company grows we have found that retaining quality talent is paramount and having the right managers in place can make or break an entire department, service, or product.

2. How do you attract and retain your customers?

As I mentioned in the first question, our first client was signed due to connections in the industry and from them effectively wanting to hire the team that was previously out ranking them. From there the other early clients were nearly all exclusively referrals from companies we were working with who were very happy with the results of our campaigns. As we grew we started to ensure we were seen at industry conferences, not only just with booths but by ensuring our staff are the ones speaking on the stage and imparting knowledge to the audience. Further to that we also hosted a bunch of get-togethers at local bars and pubs where people in the industry could just hang out and chat. It didn’t necessarily correlate with clients being won, but it did keep our company in the minds of people. Ironically, for a digital marketing agency not a great deal of our clients used to come through online sales, and even after 12 years we are still not as strong with outbound sales channels as we should be. It seems that no matter how well you do, there is still always something you can do better.

In terms of customer retention, when you are an agency servicing a client then a huge part of that is the relationship your consultants and account managers have with the client. Results are of course very important, but if the client doesn’t feel like they are special to you then more often or not they will go and find someone else who can make them feel important. I think having a key number of super on the ball account managers and ensuring existing clients are present at things like the events I mentioned earlier are key to keeping them happy and retained.

3. What were your challenges and obstacles of growing your business?

I think the largest early obstacles was finding the right team leaders and department heads to build the teams around. Everyone is so focused on ensuring that the you are delivering things for the clients that you might not realise that certain people aren’t in the right position to be happy, or to bring out their best. This can then end up with people leaving since they don’t feel they are a good fit, or people continue to work in a manner that creates division and infighting with resentment starting to foster. I am a big believer in the DISC personality profile system, and I believe that you need department heads and a management team who can cover all aspects of DISC to ensure the employees have the right structure and support to succeed. Finding and keeping the right talent for your company, no matter what the size, is a huge part of being successful.

4. What has been helpful to help you to grow your business?

I think most business owners and managers will tell you that luck and timing play their fair part in success. Almost every industry is littered with companies that came along with the right idea at the wrong time before ultimately failing. Ayima was founded at a time when SEO was starting to enter into marketing managers vocabularies, corporations as a whole understood that they needed to allocate some budget to SEO and PPC before their competitors got their before them. Because our company is very much agency based there wasn’t a particular platform that helped us in the early days, but about 4 years ago we switched all our teams to Slack as our main method of communication. This has had a huge positive impact on allowing all our staff around the world to communicate and collaborate in real time. When we sign a new client we also created a dedicated Slack channel where the account managers, consultants, and clients can discuss everything. This saves a ton of turn around time with not having to wait for emails, and it makes sharing files, code, design etc very simple. I would say that Slack has had the largest impact on the efficiency of our business.

From a personal standpoint, I think mental health is very important. I have always been a driven person, fairly confident, was never bothered by stress as it was just another method of motivation. However, as I entered my thirties I started to develop health anxiety and I realised I was spending far too long in front of a computer. I started to ensure I meditate for at least 20 minutes per day, and using apps like HeadSpace or Waking Up have really helped with this. When you are younger you don’t think much about mental health, but as you get a little older it becomes so important. I think developing personal mindfulness alongside growing your business can only have a positive impact on how you look at things and make business decisions. I promise you that after 20 minutes of meditation, your ability to retain information and the clarity of decision making is greatly increased.

5. What are your plans for the future?

Ayima traditionally tends to service corporate style clients, and whilst those clients do have large marketing budgets to work with it can often takes weeks or months to get things signed off and executed. I have recently been spending a lot of time in the Asian Startup scene and I have been really impressed by the vision  and ability of startup founders to get their ideas off the ground. It is exciting and refreshing to see the passion, pride, and energy that these people are putting into their business and it is something that I want Ayima Asia to be involved in. Right now we are offering Kickstart for Startups (https://www.ayima.com/kickstart) which is a digital marketing service tailored towards non-corporate clients. We have a dedicated startup team with an account manager who can work with smaller budgets to incubate startups and ensure they are getting the guidance they need with the most value in the digital landscape. Kickstart includes our soon to launch SAAS product, Updatable that allows almost any kind of website updates with SEO best practice built right in. I hope to attend a lot more conferences and I would like to start some Ayima backed workshops in Hong Kong for startups who are interested in getting together to discuss digital marketing over a beer. We’ll see how much interest there is and announce something soon.

Outside of the startup specific focus, Ayima will continue to expand our Paid Media, SEO, Social Media, and content marketing offerings across the globe. Since we are a public company there is a lot of scrutiny on revenue and profit, so unlike in our growth stages where we were lean and could make decisions quickly, there has to be a lot of boring risk assessment and analysis with project stakeholders.

6. Where can we learn more about you?

You can check out the Ayima website for more information on how we work with startups https://www.ayima.com/kickstart – you can find me on twitter.com/dean.chew, although I don’t tend to post much of interest on there. I do hope to become more involved with Productized Startups Facebook group.

I would be very interested in any feedback from startup founders on how important they view SEO and Social Media as a means of promoting their products? If they worked with a company such as Ayima, what is the single most paramount thing that Ayima can help them with? Finally, what sort of monthly budget do founders feel they can allocate to digital marketing and how would that tie into their overall company goals and KPIs?

Thank you.


Dean Chew – Short Speaker Bio

Dean entered the digital marketing industry in 2002 through jobs that combined sales, coding and marketing, but he discovered that he was most interested in SEO because it was simply more fun to see the changes he implemented directly impact ROI. He brought his interests to Ayima in 2008 when he joined the then-burgeoning startup team. Soon after, he made the move from London to Asia, where he built and continues to manage a thriving & ever-growing business operation as Managing Director of Ayima Asia. In addition to regularly speaking at events about SEO and digital marketing strategy, Dean delivers industry-leading results for enterprise-level & startup clients alike in sectors such as online gaming, telecoms and finance.

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