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Interviews

How I Started a $1.3M/year Podcast Agency for B2B Brands

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

My name is James Carbary. I am from a small town in central Oklahoma, right outside Oklahoma City, and went to college at the University of Central Oklahoma. I studied business (I probably didn’t learn anything from college as it relates to business) and then got the opportunity in 2008 to go on a sweepstakes trip. 

My roommate’s brother in law won sweepstakes through a phone company called Alltel. We got to go to New York City on a private jet with 10 of my friends and go to a Giants vs Cowboys game. I sat in a suite next to Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and had the chance to hang out with Barry Sanders throughout the game. It was on that trip that I met Jeff, and he changed the trajectory of my entire life. 

He owned a logistics company that had contracted with Alltel to do the logistics work for our sweepstakes. They handled everything: they charted the jet, rented the limo bus, organized the police escort all around New York City, etc — and I hit it off with him. About a year and a half later, he asked me to move from Oklahoma to Orlando to run the helicopter division of his company. 

That was my first taste of what it looked like to be an entrepreneur because I got to work for Jeff for the next three years. It was Jeff’s mentorship over that time that inspired me to start my own business. A couple of years after leaving Jeff’s company, I decided to start Sweet Fish Media.

I’d gotten the entrepreneurial bug. When I was let go from a tech company that I was working for (it was a young company and their funding dried up), I thought: Man, I just got engaged. I’m either going to start my own thing, or I’m going to go spend five years working for somebody else, wishing that I would have started my own thing

Because I had recently become very aware that content marketing was going to be a big deal (and already was), I decided to plant my flag in content marketing and start Sweet Fish, which at the time was a done-for-you blog writing service; we’ve now pivoted into becoming a podcast agency, specifically for B2B brands, mostly B2B SaaS companies. I wanted to start my own business because I was passionate about content marketing and I have a deep desire to do my own thing and be the captain of my own ship. Freedom is a big motivator for me — and owning my own business gives me that freedom. 

Finding the idea was was pretty simple. I saw that content marketing was powerful and creating content that allowed your ideal buyers to come to you, as opposed to you having to go to them (and I really liked that concept, even though the idea wasn’t practically unique). 

The idea came from realizing that a B2B company can strategically use a podcast to do business development, meaning they can ask their ideal clients to be guests on your show. I think we were pioneers in thinking that instead of using podcasting as just a means to grow an audience, you can also use it to interview your ideal buyers, build relationships with people that can buy from you, and then ultimately turn those relationships into new business. When we started advocating for that approach for our customers, they started seeing results as well.

I already had a podcast that was seeing those kinds of results: we’d reach out to 100 complete strangers to be a guest on our podcast, and 80 of them responded saying that they would be interested in being a guest. That’s when we pivoted the business from being a blog agency to being a podcasting agency.

I started by reaching out to my existing network and got a few clients that way. Then we reinvested the money from that into our own content marketing and started generating business well outside of my own network. We made $1.3 million in revenue last year and are on pace to do 2.3 or 2.4 million in revenue this year. We started in 2015, so we’re about five and a half years in. 

We have a twofold-tiered business model, one of which is to produce podcasts for B2B companies. They pay us to do all the pre-production: finding guests, reaching out, booking guests, doing the audio engineering for the podcast, the repurposing of that podcast content into written content, into micro-videos, and into written content for LinkedIn and their blog. Then we distribute and publish all that content.

Recently we’ve also become an independent media company, meaning we’re building our own media properties. B2B growth show is our first; we’ve got four others where people pay us to be a co-host of the shows that we own. It’s our job to grow the audience for those shows, and our customers pay us to have their voice shared on those shows on a regular basis by being a co-host.

We’re very fortunate our revenue has only gone up and to the right. We’ve just about doubled the size of the business every year since we’ve started. A huge reason for that is hiring our current Director of Partnerships, Logan Lyles. Bringing on someone like Logan (who had a background in selling copiers for 10 years), with his level of professionalism and understanding of sales and how to work a sales process really transformed our business. I think the business tripled in size the year he joined the team. That was a huge reason we’ve been able to grow. 

Another factor contributing to our growth was riding the wave of popularity and podcasting in the early days. It was difficult convincing B2B companies that they needed a podcast and we’re very fortunate to be in an industry that’s growing rapidly. Now especially with COVID, companies are realizing that they need to figure out digital communication — podcasting sits right in the middle of that. 

Besides Logan and I, we also have 20 full-time employees. I think our staff makes up about 72% of our adjusted gross income.

2. How do you attract and retain your customers?

Our first users came just from my personal network. As for our marketing techniques, I actually wrote a book called Content-Based Networking: How to Instantly Connect with Anyone You Want to Know. Our strength and superpower lies in content-based networking. 

We started a podcast called B2B Growth. Through it, we’ve been fortunate to have grown the audience for that show over time. We now get over 130,000 downloads on our podcast, but the strategic way that we use our podcast is by having our ideal clients on as guests on the show, (i.e. VP of Marketing at a B2B SaaS company with 50 plus employees) and we use that content collaboration as an opportunity to build a genuine relationship with that person. Sometimes they eventually come back to us and we just have a direct conversation after the interview and ask if they are looking to start getting into podcasting.

This year, just because we’re creating so many relationships (not with just anybody), we’re not trying to get marketing thought leaders; we’re going after people that can actually buy our service, and build relationships with them by bringing them on as a guest on the show. It’s a marketing technique that has been our secret sauce..

I read a book called Never Lose a Customer Again by Joey Coleman. The thing I learned most from that book was that instead of celebrating winning a new customer, we need to be celebrating getting a result for each of our customers. People don’t sign up just for the sake of signing up for your product or service. They sign up because they want to get a result. By building our processes and building our team in such a way that we can actually deliver a tangible result that moves the needle in our customers’ businesses. 

If you’re helping your customers get results and building processes and systems that are optimized around getting those results for them, then they have no reason to leave. For the longest time, I thought the result that our customer wanted was to have a show. But, what our customers actually want is to have an audience, so we’ve got to build in components of our service that actually help our clients get an audience and help our clients interview the right people that they want to do business with. When we help them do that, they see results and they stick around.

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

When you’re working with people in a service-based business, you’re obviously dealing with people a lot. Lots of challenges come with that. If you have a difference of opinion, you have to figure out how to communicate really well. 

I still don’t think that’s something we’ve mastered here at Sweet Fish, but we’re figuring out how to communicate as a fully remote team. 

The biggest thing to overcoming these challenges is simply getting up and attacking the next day and not getting bogged down with a mistake. It sounds cliche but you’ve got to move forward and learn from every mistake and see it as an opportunity to grow. 

We were originally a blog writing agency that pivoted into being a B2B podcast agency, so we focus specifically on producing podcasts. But we’ve also added services like: video content, written content, audiograms and other types of content that relates to the podcast. 

The tagline on most of our employees on LinkedIn says: we produce podcasts for B2B brands. That’s an intentional strategy. Because, even though we do a lot of other things, I want to make sure that our positioning is rock solid and very differentiated. I don’t want to be just another marketing agency, because there are lots of those and they don’t stand out in the crowd. I don’t want to be just another shop that can do digital marketing. 

I think there are very few agencies focused on podcasting. It allows us to own the ocean, as opposed to having to be very competitive with a bunch of people that claim to do the same thing, even though we do a lot of the same thing that other marketing agencies do. We see enormous traction in the marketplace.

A mistake people often do is not addressing conflict soon enough. I’m a nine on the enneagram, which means I hate conflict. I have had to learn a lot in the last couple of years around, being more proactive in communicating when I’m frustrated about something and not letting it boil up and become this massive problem that then becomes an explosive reaction. I’ve learned to bring those things up earlier in the process and communicate a lot sooner than I would have. I’ve learned many things, but this is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned.

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

I read all the time. Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage is my favorite book of all time. Craig Groeschel’s leadership podcast is super helpful. 

We used Trello a lot, but we’re about to move over to Asana. But in terms of products, Trello has been a huge resource for us.

Having strong people has also been imperative for growth. Many people would say that being only five years in, we should not have the leadership team that we have. I sacrifice a lot of profit to have the leadership team that we have (it demands a higher level of compensation), because I believe it’s been one of the best things that I’ve ever done in the business. I managed to put a group of people around me at the leadership level who are much smarter than me in their respective areas. 

The business has grown significantly more by bringing in a competent and incredible leadership team than if I’d hoarded the profit and tried to make those decisions myself. Bringing on someone to do people and culture, take over our hiring and processes around that, someone to run operations and finance, someone to run sales, someone to run audience growth, and someone to run creative. Having the right people to take lead on these things is allowing us to scale the business at a clip that most agencies never experience. 

5. What is your advice for those are starting productized services?

One mistake I see product services making is not being specific enough. When it comes to your positioning, get hyper-specific with what you do and who you do it for. The reason our tagline isn’t We Help B2B Brands Grow is because it’s vague. But when we say We Produce Podcasts for B2B Brands, it says explicitly what we do and who we do it for. We could probably even be more specific and say we produce podcasts for B2B SaaS companies, but we keep it at Brands just because for brevity it’s a little bit shorter. 

Also, you gotta have really clean processes. That’s something that we’re trying to get better at. As you scale and grow quickly, it’s really hard to outgrow your processes. 

6. What are your plans for the future?

I want to be the biggest business media company in the world. I truly believe we’re building something really, really special here. Our Why is to inspire people to own their career because 90,000 hours of your life shouldn’t suck. I think the way we’re going to inspire people in their career is by producing niche content that is hyper-relevant in a bunch of different industries and for a bunch of different job functions — perhaps for every industry and for every job function. 

Regardless of what type of work you do, I want Sweet Fish to have a media property focused on serving that niche. I want to grow the audience for each of those media properties. I would imagine there’s going to be close to 1000 in different media properties that we’ll own by the time this thing is said and done, and we will have incredibly engaged audiences for each of those media properties. 

I don’t want to be a service business forever. I think being a service-based business right now will fund our ability to build a media company without going and having to raise outside money. Because of my desire for freedom, I don’t want to be handicapped by what an investor says that I have to do. 

We’ve got five media properties right now, between B2B Growth show, the B2B Sales show, the Manufacturing show, the CIO show and Crafting Culture.

7. Where can we learn more about you?

 Find us on sweetfishmedia.com. I’m also on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn is where I’m most active. You can find me there.

Categories
Interviews

Making $32k/month Building Websites for Churches

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

I’m Paul, I run a company called The Church Co. It’s a website builder for churches. The key difference being that, compared to other website builders out there (building your own), we build the websites for the church in 7 days and then hand it over for them to maintain. We think that maintaining a website and building a website are two different skill sets. 

I got my degree in digital media in The Internet and Interactive Design back in 2007. Then I decided to go to Bible school. I moved to Sydney, Australia (where I went to Bible school) and ended up getting hired at a church there, going back and doing web design. During that process, I started learning about using my skills together and combining two of the passions that I had. I started The Church Co years later, which is ultimately the combination of both of those things.

I had some friends that worked at different churches and was able to reach out to them to trial it. We ran it for free for a year and a half before ever taking payments. We lost half of our customers the day we turned the payments on, and then just started building them back. It all grew word of mouth via happy customers and Facebook groups.

The Church Co makes $30k-32k a month in subscriptions. We have optional add-ons like custom themes, sermon and blog imports. If you need more than the 15 pages that will do for free in the build. There are one-time fees which accounts for around $3,000 a month in addition to the subscriptions.

Our pricing plans start at $20 for basic, $50 at premium, and ultimate for $199. The basic plan is simply everything you need for a standard website: web pages, blogs, sermons (which are podcast events systems). The premium plan has nice church features that we’ve added that are geared towards interaction with members that come to your church. One example is a sermon note-taker where the pastor can outline their sermon notes and you can follow along via your phone, add your own notes, and then compile and send them to yourself. We also have a small group locator, which shows small groups that meet in the community that are all part of your church. We’ve got options for live streams, chats, and online giving/donations through stripe.

These features are all niche-targeted features that make it easier to manage and get more interactions. From here, we incentivize people to upgrade as well. The ultimate plan has all the same features as premium, but we manage your content for you. You’ll basically never have to log into your website — just email us and tell us to do something for Christmas and we’ll spin up a page for you.

For expenses, we vary between like $9k-11k each month. This includes salaries, servers, intercom, etc. We pay contractors in addition to our full-time people (myself and one other individual) that we have to build other websites for the churches. This varies with how many people sign up and how many hours it takes them to build the sites. 

Before COVID I would’ve considered a customer a day (totaling about 30 for the month) to be a great month. Then we started doing the same amount in a week when stay-at-home orders came to the point of gaining 100 new customers in a month — which was wild! We spend a lot of time on customer support and brought on a lot of contractors to kind of help get that done. 

It was mind-blowing that there were so many fully functioning organizations that had never had websites. It was an unfortunate event that was bad for a lot of people, but it really pushed many into a digital space, which we were prepared for. In the last three months, we did the equivalent of how many sites we did all of last year, so it scaled quickly. And luckily the processes were all in place to make that happen.

2. How do you attract and retain your customers?

The main way we’ve grown is word of mouth, especially through really niche Facebook groups. My background from working in the communications role at a church helped me get involved in those groups, just to be a help to other people. I never spammed my product (nor did I ever have to). We haven’t invested money into any ads except maybe a few dollars for some Google ads and a few dollars for some retargeting Facebook ads. 

As far as retaining customers, one of the beauties of websites is, you don’t change them that often. We work really hard to get you on your domain name, and once you’re on that, then you’re typically going to stay for 3+ years. We do a lot of work in the beginning stages to onboard people, build their site, and get them up through launching. What makes it different to most SaaS products is that you can see if someone stops logging in — that’s when they churn. But for us, that’s when they’re happy, and good to go. Really happy customers could log in once a week just to add a new event or upload a podcast from the weekend. 

One of the reasons that we found why organizations churn is when they get a new volunteer that is familiar with another website builder. We ensure they stick around by separating the data from the design, which means you can change your theme at any time and it auto adjusts the layout. 

We release new themes every year. The goal is that if you’ve been on the platform for 5 or so years, and want a new look, you can just browse our theme library, preview and activate without needing additional work. 

This is the big focus: getting people onto the domain and then making sure we’re releasing new features. It’s helped with keeping customers. 

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

When I started this company, I thought people would see the website and think that it’s much better than what they could build themselves. I realized that you’re not actually selling the final product — it’s the experience of making the product. 

It was within the first 6 weeks with our first trial customer that I realized people were not going to build their own websites (or they’d take 6 months to do it, which was way too long of a sales cycle). I thought, well, I built the system, I can do it pretty quick. So we started offering our done-for-you website building, which was a game changer. It ran great for a while when we did it all for free (but requested payment for site launch). 

Then we burned out a few times. So we started asking for credit card information first, as a commitment to do this, and we would build a website — which worked great until we got websites that requested 500 pages. That would take us a month to build, and there’s no way it was sustainable. 

This was iterated down to the point we are today: we start building the website which is a free 15 pages, (about the average size of a church website). Making money was never the goal. 

Before I had contractors I used to get up at 5am and go to a coffee shop, build three websites and go to my day job for 8 hours. Then I’d come home, have some family time and then, after everyone’s asleep, jump back on and build more websites. It wasn’t the most fun in that stage, and it continued that way until it scaled enough with revenue to hire people to do that for me. I think a lot of people quit when they hit that first wall, instead of thinking: what’s the wildest solution to this (even if it’s not like a fun one)? 

We pivoted from my original idea, in that I thought people would build their own websites (which was not the case). Currently, I’m in the middle of a bit of a pivot as well, adding design to our service.

We’ve never been a design tool. We’re no code and we’re no design. Our ideal customer is a church that doesn’t have a creative staff member. and the value is on the content. We convert about 25% of trials into customers, which is pretty high; but the feedback we get from the other 75% are usually about design related things (i.e. they have a design in mind they wanted to implement). Part of the big push on version 2 is adding more design capabilities and flexibility for the people that want it. 

There were a lot of assumptions I made around design in the initial version that looking back, I would have done a little bit more research: i.e. surveying a few people working in churches that weren’t my friends to see what they were struggling with and what they needed. 

I would have also made strategic partnerships earlier (I was very anti-affiliates for a long time). I would see 10 people spamming affiliate links in the Facebook groups and would immediately be biased against the products because it needs affiliates to sell. While I don’t think we suffered from refusing to do affiliates, a lot of competitors did which kept paired them up with influencers in the space. We ended up caving and now have an affiliate plan. 

Another challenge was letting go of control on intercom, but it needed to happen. It’s the only communication we have; there’s no phone line. Anyone who gets the role needs to be well vetted in communication skills and sales, the ability to convert someone that’s just browsing into a paying customer. 

I was a bit too close to the product. I’m more prone to talk about specific technical things that customers would simply not understand. Handing the role off to someone else has made more sales and has overall been one of the best moves I’ve made.

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

The Indie Hackers community. I think having really ‘switched-on’ people that are willing to give you constructive and honest feedback is really valuable. I suppose it’s a bit like having a life coach. It’s gotten us to where we are today. 

When we added a chat to the dashboard, it helped drive sales (despite chat being the bane of my existence). You can’t log into any of the major competitors’ sites (that I know of), and live chat with a web developer to ask them questions. We do, and it was a tool that really helped us move forward in the early days and it continues to scale now.

Other tools that we use:

  • Slack – for communication and all our notifications. 
  • Zapier – we’ve set up automation to send us slack messages (which got out of hand two weeks ago because there were so many signups and cancellations). We drive everything into Slack through Zapier.
  • Asana – the task manager. When a new sale happens, a new task is automatically added and automatically assigned, as well as follow-ups that need to be done with customers, etc.
  • fly.io – we’ve recently started using this startup that does edge servers, edge computing, and they’ve been amazing to work with. We use them for things like SSL and caching.
  • Intercom
  • Google Analytics
  • Notion
  • Stripe – our payment gateway. It’s been incredible to us.

Other helpful things for the business comes down to just working unbelievably hard, as much as I didn’t want to. That was ultimately the best decision. I knew that it was going to be a short period of time, but it just had to be done. That year and a half where I was getting up at 5am was worth it, because now we can cruise at our own pace. 

I’m not happy about the COVID pandemic, but it did drive some incredible growth. I think it also helped the churches themselves accelerate their growth, especially since they are usually out of date as far as tech goes. It pushed many of them to upgrade their systems and reach people more in a digital space, which I believe has been really good not only for us, but for them. If there is a silver lining to COVID at all, it would be that we’re moving more towards getting to connect more with people as well by being online.

Much of our success is also credited to those Facebook groups. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today. The fact that these groups have 20,000+ people in a group that are all in charge of their website for the churches meant we had a network and even customers — all without having to advertise or spam. 

5. What is your advice for those who are starting productized services?

When you hit a wall, think of the best solution to it, no matter how hard or ridiculous it sounds – and then just try it. Also, get into the habit of just shipping things — if we’d waited to build our entire product where it is today, we still wouldn’t have launched. So, start simple and build from there. Don’t just give up. Definitely do things that don’t scale, and then figure out how to scale them.

I think the biggest mistake people make is not being disciplined and not shipping. So many people would have app ideas and samples, but they don’t work on them. There’s no game plan. You’d have to be very disciplined about it and have the end goal in sight. For me, that was always to work for myself and be my own boss. I worked the extra hours to get to that point. 

6. What are your plans for the future?

I’m hoping to finish Version 2 (as I previously mentioned) before the end of the year. It’s a massive project– we’re rebuilding everything that we’ve built in the last five years. We want to get more into the space of allowing for more people to design their own sites, instead of being limited to the themes that we have.

We’re also aiming for more strategic partnerships, and adding a few more features to the things we currently have that are more CRM-based (like sending an email to the people that are registered to your account). Not trying to be a full CRM in any way, but maybe a lite version of one. 

The other biggest thing that everyone requests is a native app, but I’m on the fence about it. It might be something we add in the future, but as of now I’m still undecided. With all the new API’s that we’ll build in Version 2, the app would be a lot easier to build. Perhaps when we hire another software engineer.

Within the church space, we have a few competitors that have done proper seed rounds and have VC backing and it’s a little hard to compete on against their advertising. But the thing is, we’ve discovered that the word of mouth is so much stronger in our community than the ad spend. 

From my perspective, within the groups of our target audience, we’re recommended the most out of any kind of website platform out there. The potential blocker is a lot of the funded church platforms that could probably outbid us on all marketing. 

If you read through like Facebook reviews, the one thing that everyone says about us is that we have the best customer service. I think that is just a massive selling point for people. People have been skeptical about the lack of contact through a phone line, but after a little bit of conversation and explaining that:

  1. The lack of phone number means we can afford to charge $20/month because we don’t have to hire out a call center, and
  2. If the site crashes, everyone’s site crashes, and we’ll be immediately notified and be working on it (although a site crash has never happened), 

they’re at ease and comfortable with working with us. The simple fact that they talk with us and they can see through intercom that we are responding very quickly goes a long way. Treat your customer well, they’re the ones that are paying you. Having happy customers brings us more.

7. Where can we learn more about you?

I’m generally not too active on social media. But you can find more about me at PaulJosephCox, on Twitter and Instagram. Although my Instagram is probably overrun with photos of drums and my daughter. 

We are @TheChurchCo on all social media platforms.

You can also find me on Indie Hackers. I’ve been posting everything on The Church Co product there. I’m happy to connect with anyone there and chat — it would be great to meet a few more people.

For the Productized Community: I know almost nothing about marketing and advertising. If anyone has anything that they know is working really well as far as segmenting and targeting people, I’m all ears. Also, if anyone wants to look at our website and offer some feedback or suggestions, by all means! I’m also happy to run some Google Optimize AV testing and report back on the results of those if you want to test an idea, and you’re curious if it works. 

If anyone has questions, you can definitely reach out to me and I can tell you about our process. It might not be the same for you.

Categories
Interviews

Creating a $2k-10k/year Side Project Reviewing Websites

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

I’m a software developer, UX designer, and open sourcerer. Currently, I live in Vermont; but I’ve always been a bit of a digital nomad. While wandering through Bali with Hacker Paradise, I decided to build a silly project called The User Is Drunk, where people would pay me to drunkenly review their websites. My friend Scotty Allen, loving this idea, suggested we try “The User Is My Mom”, and he introduced me to his mother, Pam. So, since then, I’ve been working with Pam reviewing websites. She’s a bit ornery and doesn’t understand computers, which is perfect – there are a lot of older or technophobic users out there, and websites need to be easy for them to navigate. I help out by offering a designer’s review, along with her review, so it’s more than just a simple user testing service.

Both of these businesses were side projects – albeit, very successful. I’ve always wanted to just make stuff, and that both of these went viral and we got a lot of press was pretty validating for that idea. We just hacked together the website in a couple of hours and launched it on Reddit and HackerNews. Since launching, The User Is My Mom has brought in somewhere around five to ten thousand, I believe. I haven’t kept track, and I don’t market it – why bother? We just want to occasionally have more pocket money, and I’m content with how it is. Since Scotty parted ways to go make his wildly successful YouTube channel Strange Parts, I’ve just split the money, whenever it comes in, with Pam.

Currently, This User is My Mom makes under $2k a year, but we’ve never made more than $10k.

2. How do you attract and retain your customers?

I don’t. I wait for them to come to me. I’m not interested in running this business full time, and never have been; and neither is Pam. So, why bother marketing? I like the idea of not needing to grow the site; it keeps it fresh, and fun, and interesting. Occasionally, we’ve had repeat customers come back for more reviews following a redesign, which is always great.

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

We haven’t had a lot of challenges. The main criticism I’ve received is that the service is sexist or ageist; I’ve talked to Pam about this, and we disagree. Sites do need to cater to older users, and Pam is doing this voluntary. It’s wrong to deny her agency, in that. So, those criticisms haven’t really stuck (which is more than I could say for The User Is Drunk, which does have legitimate concerns attached to it).

We tend to not get a lot of press or new users, which has never been a problem, although it would be nice to see it be a bit more active. When I’m ready and when I want to, I know I can always grow it. But I’ve been very happy with how it is, and that’s that.

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

We started out with a great network of friends to up our message – around a hundred individuals through Hacker Paradise and our immediate networks. This meant that easily broadcasting it and getting a small bump on Reddit and HN wasn’t a problem. On top of that, I used to use a tool called Plasso to bring in funds, which was great, until they sold to GoDaddy (which isn’t). And I had free videos served from Screenmailer, before they closed down, which means I almost lost some videos. I did lose a lot of early videos through an accidental Google deletion, which really sucks. Always back up your videos, friends. That has made it harder to rebrand or launch more marketing, when, in the past, I’ve occasionally wanted to, but right now I’m alright with it.

Once, Pam did a review and I lost it due to technical glitches. I couldn’t have her review the site again – it depends upon novelty. So, I hired another friend’s mom, who really wanted to do it. There haven’t been a shortage of people who ask “Can I help out?” Bringing them on in an as-needed basis has been easy to do, and also really helps remove some of the stress of the business.

5. What is your advice for those that are starting productized services?

Just go for it. Don’t worry about design so much as implementation. Don’t sit on an idea. Never sit on an idea. Do it now.

Besides that, ask yourself: do I actually want to do this? I find I am very unmotivated by money (which is really unfortunate for a lot of reasons), which makes it hard for me to do good work if I don’t care. Keeping the stress low for The User Is My Mom has been instrumental in allowing it to keep going as it has.

Another thing I would highly suggest is to write a contract with your cofounder, writing down clear exit strategies, before starting. After a couple of months, Scotty wanted to do other things. It was absolutely no stress at all for him to phase out, because we already had an agreement in writing. I’m so glad we did this.

6. What are your plans for the future?

I’ve got a few things up my sleeve at the moment, mostly involving birding websites (I’ve become a big birder since leaving Bali, which makes me sad, because they have some great birds there). Right now, though, I’m taking work day by day. It’s hard to focus during a pandemic, the rise of fascism, and a global depression. I can’t focus. Can you?

7. Where can we learn more about you? 

I’m on Twitter @richlitt. You can see a lot more of my projects at burntfen.com. And I’m always available for questions, comments, or consulting. Hope to see you around, O reader!

Categories
Interviews

How I Started a $650k/year Transcription Service

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

I am a 90’s kid. I grew up in a small town in North-East India called Silchar. I think I heard about Google when I was in high school and was fascinated by startups ever since. I enrolled in Engineering with the intent of starting up on my own one day. I finished my graduation in 1999 and worked for a couple of companies before taking the plunge in 2006. 

My first startup was a hardware startup. It failed and we closed it down in 2008. I repurposed one of the internal tools into a Skype call recording plugin and released it for free. It took off and even got featured in LifeHacker! I started exploring various freemium business models around it and stumbled upon the audio/video transcription industry. 

I noticed a gap in the market and decided to target it. Transcription is a painful and laborious process. The quality depends largely on the skill of transcriber. My idea was to build a crowdsourcing system for audio/video transcription with in-built quality control mechanisms. The goal of the system was to produce accurate, consistent, and repeatable transcripts. It was like a managed marketplace with flat rates and a quality-of-service guarantee. 

I was broke after my first failed startup and decided to bootstrap this one. I kept working on it as a solo developer and was soon ramen profitable. By 2010, it had grown big enough for me to incorporate a company. In 2013 we opened our first QA center in Bangalore and in 2016, we opened our office in San Francisco. But I had to return back to India in December 2016 due to visa issues. That forced me to change the strategy and in 2018 I decided to turn Scribie into a “lifestyle” business. 

Right now, Scribie is a fully remote company with just two employees. I do all the coding and business development and Aaron, the other employee, does Data Science. We have two independent contractors from Philipines; Vivian is our Customer Success Manager and Judith is our Operations Manager. The rest are all freelance transcribers from all over the world. 

We have transcribed more than 4.5 Million minutes of audio and certified around 30K transcribers. Around 150K people have attempted our transcription test and more than 20K customers have used our services. 

Our revenue in 2019 was around $650k.

2. How do you attract and retain your customers?

Our first users came from the Skype recording application. Some were academics recording interviews for dissertations. Others were journalists and podcasters. We offered the service free initially but quickly had to make it paid because of the high demand. Thereafter it spread by word of mouth. Word of mouth is still very strong for us. We still have customers who signed up 8 years ago.

We have been fortunate in a way that we always had a high demand for our service. We never really had a sales or marketing team. We just followed the best practices for SEO and organic search was always strong for us. We always keep our blog fresh and post articles every few weeks. We also use AdWords and run PR and promotional campaigns whenever required.

Good customer support has been the key factor for customer retention for us. Vivian has been with us since 2015 and she has done a fabulous job. Our NPS score is in the high 60s. We don’t have many customer complaints and we diligently follow up whenever there is. 

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

Our biggest obstacle has always been the dearth of skilled transcribers. Transcription is not everybody’s cup of tea. Only people who like repetitive and monotonous work are able to excel in it. It also requires good typing and comprehension skills. Therefore we have a low transcriber conversion rate. That limits our capacity and therefore our revenue. 

We have tried various approaches to solve this issue over time. We started with a 4-step transcription process that distributed the effort and optimized the workflow. The idea was to reduce as many pain points as possible for the transcribers. It helped but didn’t solve the issue.

In 2013, we tried training our in-house transcribers. That did not work as a good comprehension of English is a valuable skill and there are better jobs available for them. We abandoned that approach in 2016. 

In 2017, we turned towards technology. We built our own speech recognition engine and released several productivity tools to assist our transcribers and increase their productivity. Our capacity growth rate has increased since then, but the growth is still linear. 

I have mostly resigned to the fact that our capacity growth will always be linear. We are not going to be the next unicorn and will never have that hockey stick growth that SV startups aim for. But we will still be around in 10 years’ time when automation takes over the market as high-accuracy manual transcription will still be required for niche cases.

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

Hacker News has proved to be a valuable resource for me. Everything I learned about startups, I learned from HN. It is a great community for tech entrepreneurs and it would be my top recommendation. I am actually a YCombinator reject.

My best decision was to keep focusing on quality. Quality is a hard problem to solve, especially in an industry that requires manual labor. Manual labor is hard to scale, which is why there is no dominant player in this industry even though the market is large and there are tons of services to choose from. Our single-minded focus has enabled us to carve a niche and survive in this highly competitive space. And we are still working on this problem. 

The other good decision was not to diversify and start offering other products/services. We are good at transcription and we know how to keep our customers happy. We have built a well-oiled machine that works and works well over a period of time. That’s one of our strengths.

It however remains to be seen if we are able to survive the 2020 recession. This is going to be the hardest year for us. We have prepped for it and I am confident that we will make it through. 

5. What is your advice for those that are starting productized services?

My biggest learning has been that our transcribers are our most valuable resource. We have always believed in paying honest money for honest work. We have our share of detractors and there are many negative reviews about us, but we still have active transcribers who signed up years ago. Our service runs because of our transcribers and we would have died long ago if our transcribers did not value us. I am a big fan of worker-owned coops and I hope that one day we’ll be able to convert Scribie into a coop. 

The one thing which I feel others miss out about transcription is that quality is a hidden requirement. Customers will not state it upfront, but everybody wants the best possible transcript for their file. And if they are dissatisfied, they will just leave and vote with their feet. That does not mean speed and cost are not important, but you cannot have all three. 

6. What are your plans for the future?

Our goal is to achieve a modest 10% year-on-year revenue growth. However, given the oncoming recession, our first goal is to survive 2020. This recession is likely to shake up the market and the companies which survive this will be placed very nicely.

We are working on a full redesign of our website. A new state-of-the-art UX will help us optimize our conversion funnel and achieve our revenue target. 

On the personal front, I want to get back into books. I used to be an avid reader before Scribie consumed my life. I am looking forward to getting back to that habit.

7. Where can we learn more about you? 

I sometimes post on Scribie’s blog. I am not on Twitter or Facebook (deleted my account in 2008). I am a long timer lurker on HN.

I hope my story starts a discussion about lifestyle businesses. Scribie is a fully bootstrapped solo founder company. We never raised any external funding (I did try but it never worked out) and that has given me a lot of freedom to choose our path. There is nothing wrong with running a lifestyle business. It can still give you a lot of satisfaction and impact many lives.

Categories
Interviews

How I Built a Hiring Platform for Content Writers to $100k/year in 6 Months

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

I am an ex-management consultant turned entrepreneur. I have built 3 successful ventures and successfully sold one – all in the content marketing space. My entrepreneurship story started with GodotMedia – a content creation agency, offering all kinds of content writing and content management services. Being an engineer, I guess building high-quality tech had to happen next, and that’s how my next venture ended up being a machine learning-driven content curation and social media management platform called DrumUp (successfully exited in 2018).

Running Godot Media for over a decade, we realized – while a lot of clients were happy with a managed service (working with an account manager), there were many who wanted to work with writers directly. We also noticed that, while Godot Media had a team of in-house writers, scaling a full time employee model was proving to be difficult, considering a lot of the writers prefered to freelance. These were the two considerations – Narrato – a content ordering platform and freelance writer marketplace, was born out of.

With Narrato, we also wanted to evolve a content ordering and writing process that is both easy and fast. This meant that there should be no lengthy forms to fill and several articles could be requested in one go – which is not the norm with other writer marketplaces. We also wanted to move away from yet another kind of freelancer marketplace model, which required inviting proposals and bidding – a highly time consuming and effort intensive process. In addition, we wanted to offer our customers a suite of useful content tools. And, we wanted to offer all this at an affordable price.

These were the objectives that drove us to build Narrato – a fast and elegant productized service to get content written by the best writer for the job.

Narrato’s initial customers happened to be leads from Godot Media who were looking to work directly with writers and had consequently not chosen Godot Media’s managed offering with a single point of contact. These customers were happy managing their projects on Narrato and gave us a lot of positive feedback in shaping Narrato into a user-friendly and quick platform to work with.

Narrato was launched late last year (2019) and by Mar/April 2020, we were already at a $100,000 ARR, and growing fast MOM. We offer a 4 tiered writing service and pricing to fit all kinds of business and agency budgets. 

The Narrato platform also has nifty tools to check for plagiarism and suggest copyright free images for written content (all free of any charge or subscription). And, now we are working on an AI and NLP driven content quality writing assistant, which will go over and above just grammar issues to assess content quality and recommend improvements. We plan to implement the writing assistant for our writers and also offer it as a tool for our customers on Narrato.

In the near future, we plan to expand our content offerings to eBooks and social media content. We also have plans to offer visual content production services as well.

2. How do you attract and retain your customers?

As I mentioned above, our first users were relatively easy to get, as we tapped into leads from our agency business. Next came the real challenge – how to maintain a steady flow of registrations and activate customers to start ordering content on Narrato.

We tried to solve it in 2 ways – one by focusing on product related activation and retention tactics, and second, by focusing on inbound and content marketing for Narrato. 

Product driven effort: We built a powerful onboarding system including a good email drip campaign to get new customers to place their orders. A key component of this system was offering a very low cost trial (just $1 for the first article), that helped customers get started and discover the power of the platform. This practically free trial sometimes does attract not-so-serious customers, but has given us some of our biggest clients as well. We also offer volume and one-time discounts to spur ordering activity. In addition, we pay close attention to product improvements to give our customers a superior and smooth experience. I don’t think we have fully nailed the UX yet, but we are constantly improving and moving the right direction, and have received some great feedback.

Inbound and content marketing: We are working on building some awesome content on the Narrato blog, which is driving some traffic. In addition we have also been focusing on a lot of partner marketing and cross-promotion efforts, which are yielding great results. We also have a small paid marketing campaign, but our long term goal is to generate all traffic organically. 

Retention: We are very product driven in our approach and believe a great product will result in great customer retention. With this in mind, we are investing significant resources in building tech that aids writers to deliver better content. We are also improving our algorithms all the time to get better at matching writers to jobs for the best outcome. 

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

Managing marketplace dynamics: We are just getting started and have luckily done well so far. But we have also realized over the past few months that marketplace dynamics are a balancing act – there have been months when the content demand was outpacing the active writer supply. However, we were soon able to ramp up our new writer qualification and induction process, which brought the balance back to the system to meet our delivery timeline goals. 

Product prioritization: We are constantly working on improving our product and prioritizing which features to build for our customers. This often is not an easy decision, as data and feedback from clients is always a bit blind-sided or biased. And sometimes, all we do is go with our hunch on the next big priority area.

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

Prior experience: I think having been in the industry for a long time helped us a lot. Also, experience building DrumUp taught us a lot of things about prioritizing effort, launching the product, gathering team momentum, and marketing. We are building on that experience and going from strength to strength.

Well-thought of team roles and responsibilities: Clearly defining team functions and responsibilities have helped us run a smooth operation. It is for this reason every team member’s primary responsibilities are well thought of and clearly laid out.  Being a self-funded company, we still have to manage resources judiciously and team members often pitch beyond their primary responsibilities in limited capacity. This has helped us stay nimble and adaptable. 

Extensive use of tech: Tech has been a big enabler – every time we automated something or used tech for a better workflow, we have reaped loads of benefit in terms of efficiency, scale and accuracy. So we strongly incline towards technology solutions as against human processes, wherever possible.  

5. What is your advice for those that are starting productized services?

Don’t wait too long before productizing your service if you can. If you think you have a solid model that’s working well across your engagements, start working on automating and creating a process that can be successfully applied again and again. 

Also, try not to solve for every customer, and focus on a niche of customers for whom the model works and gets good results. Oftentimes, you get blindsided chasing revenue and pick any and every project that you can. And along the line, as you pick projects that take you away from your productized offering, you end up spending too much time and energy on customized solutions for a small set of customers. This kind of effort is not only short-sighted but severely hampers your growth as a productized offering, which would have scaled faster and easier. 

Lastly, investment in technology is critical as you scale your productized service. The technology could be custom developed or picked off the shelf. But without tech, you will find it nearly impossible to scale your service.

6. What are your plans for the future?

We want to offer our customers more content types to order on Narrato including social media content and eBooks, and graphics and videos in the long term. 

We also are investing heavily in developing technology that will allow content quality assessment and improvement. Additionally, we are looking at ways in which we can assist our customers through the content life-cycle using technology.

So there are several efforts underway to develop Narrato into a powerful content services and tools platform.

7. Where can we learn more about you? 

Websites: Narrato , Godot Media

Blogs: Narrato Blog , GodotMedia Blog Twitter handles: @sophiasolanki@narratoio@godotmedia

Categories
Interviews

Making $2k/month Helping Businesses Secure Quality Interviews on Podcasts

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

My name is Mark Colgan. I’ve got 12 years of experience in the B2B SaaS space, focused on sales and marketing roles, and started my career in sales and in recruitment. I then pivoted into marketing about 5 years later, where I’ve been usually the first digital marketer in B2B SaaS companies that I developed my skills, building out a lot of the MarTech systems and CRM implementations. 

In 2017, I took a year’s break and went traveling from South America to Southeast Asia, but did a couple of freelance projects whilst I was away. That gave me the confidence and then planted the seed in my mind that I could work remotely and not have to work from an office in the future. That was a really important moment for me. 

When I returned to the UK, I set up my own consulting company where I mainly helped B2B SaaS companies with their marketing automation, and just making sure that they selected the right tech stack and integrated it effectively — and that often resulted in me doing the implementation, and then they optimised it to get the best out of it and the return on investment. 

I met David Henzel about a year and a half ago. He owns a number of businesses, one of which he asked me to come on board to run the sales and marketing and I’ve done that for the last year. We’ve grown the business and I spotted an opportunity to utilize and leverage my skills of cold email outreach rather than pitch a product or service — instead, pitching people and secure them interviews on podcasts within their target audience. 

Now, if I go back to the very first job I had, I was representing individuals and selling them into roles. I really get to tap into a lot of the training and skills I acquired over a decade ago, and then utilize those skills for securing interviews for people on podcasts. 

I’ve been a big podcast fan for years! I’ve listened to podcasts before they were even apps like Pocket Casts. I see it as a huge opportunity at the moment, especially with the Coronavirus and the impact that’s had on the industry. It’s also an incredible way to get in front of a targeted audience. I think the mistake that a lot of people make is that they tend to only target the bigger and more established podcasts with have huge downloads, whereas I’ve seen really good results — in terms of revenue — generated from smaller podcasts with a very well defined niche audience. 

For the first 4 months of this year, I managed to book 30 interviews for myself, David and GQ, one of the other co-founders. I knew that my processes worked and knew that my system would work. In fact, we generated around 37% of net new revenue from podcasts, so we knew it was a good strategy. I proved that it worked for myself, and now I’m in the very early stages of building out this process so that we can offer the stuff that I do for other people.

Right now we are making a small amount of revenue, around $2,000 per month, and that’s with a couple of friends and family that trusted us enough to pay a slightly discounted rate for the service that we’re operating right now. We have six customers signed up. But again, a lot of them are friends and family that resulted in us reaching out to our network to see if anybody would be interested. 

Our current pricing is $849 per month. That secures a guarantee of four interviews booked per month now, though not every interview will go live in that same month. We’re seeing a really high success rate from outreach, to meeting, to interview scheduled, because we really personalize the message based on the value that our customers can give to the podcast audience. I think that’s the key. 

There are some lean expenses. We have a project manager and it’s just myself and her working at the moment. But, we are actively hiring a booking agent who will manage the day-to-day and the actual outreach for our customers. In terms of expenses and margins, a conservative expense would be around 25% of revenue, relieving 75% in net profit. 

2. How do you attract and retain your customers?

My background is in sales and marketing and I love this stuff. I mentioned before that we got our first users just from speaking to our network, but one of the ways that one of the channels that we’ll be leveraging is content. I honed my skill on content creation over the years. 

One of the things that I like to do is forget about SEO at the very beginning. Because it takes a bit more time to see the compound impact of SEO, I definitely believe in it — but it’s not the quickest way to attract new customers. What we’re doing at the moment is we’re creating content that solves the problems that our customers have, one of which is utilising podcasts for lead generation. Another one is for building out relationships with podcasts themselves. How do they promote their podcast? And how do they encourage their interview guests to promote the podcast so we will be creating content which will then be used in our outbound email campaigns? 

I fall back to it every time because it’s the easiest way to build a repeatable and scalable sales process and have that Predictable Revenue coming through. 

In terms of customer retention, things I’ve learned from TaskDrive is that onboarding and the first experience that they have with the brand is extremely important. From a psychological point of view, if they have a negative experience, or it doesn’t go quite as to their expectations, it’s extremely hard to convince them that we are a trustworthy and credible business. 

Over-communicating, under-promising, and over-delivering when it comes to the onboarding and throughout the engagement is key.

There are a number of things that we’ll be communicating with our customers that they have no idea about, but we will add them into their engagement with us to surprise and delight them. 

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

I think one of the biggest challenges is getting comfortable building as you’re flying. In an ideal world, you’ll have your team ready, they’ll be trained, all the processes will be documented and tested. But it’s simply not the case when you’re beginning. 

Another challenge that I have is that a lot of this content and context is in my head. I have to make sure that I remove any sort of confirmation bias when creating processes, and I usually do that by asking myself: Could a six year old do this process? 

Everything has to be broken down into such simple steps, even though you’re employing small. Even with people who are very capable there needs to be no room for any guesswork in the processes that need to be followed. And for any of those processes which require some critical thinking and creativity, there needs to be frameworks and guidelines around how they should approach that to maintain the status tone of voice that we’re looking for. 

The speaker podcasts, in this case, it’s the email outreach: making sure that it’s personalized — not waffling on or pitching too much — and other challenges and obstacles. I think it just comes back to balancing that supply and demand. Onboarding is such an important process. I wouldn’t want to be in a position where we have too many customers for us to serve, although it’s a nice problem to have. I want to make sure that we are able to fulfill their requirements. 

Another mistake that I’ve made in the past is making sure that you qualify out people as much as you qualify in: if somebody might not be a fit from a demographic, or from a stage of their journey, don’t be afraid of saying no and rejecting them as a client. Personally, I always like to point people in the right direction. Pretty much 100% of the time my gut feeling has been right; when I know that someone’s going to be a nightmare client they’ve turned out to be. So don’t be afraid of saying no, even if it’s your only deal or first customer. When you’re starting out and don’t have too much revenue, you’ll want to say yes to everything.

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

I think the first thing is maybe my habits and my own skill set. I’m addicted to sales marketing. And I have taken the approach to always learn by doing. I don’t read books and listen to podcasts if it’s solving a problem I don’t yet have. So I have a very good ability to focus intensely on just the one main problem or challenge that’s facing me at the moment. 

I feel I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so maybe that’s why that comes a bit more naturally to me. But having that ability to focus just on one key challenge is really essential. I often joke with my co founders and team that you have to hit everything with the simple stick and don’t overthink things. Sometimes we think too far ahead and get bogged down in material when we really don’t need to. 

I’m a huge fan of a number of different blogs and books. Podcasts are probably my main vehicle of how I learn. I listen to podcasts when I’m cooking, when I’m walking anywhere, when I’m at the gym, when I’m showering. It’s such a great rich format to listen to. Because it’s using the stories that people tell, it’s a lot easier to retain, digest, and interpret rather than reading a 4000 word guide on something. I tend to look at the challenges that I have all the things I’m trying to solve and then look to solve them by sourcing the content directly. 

Good decisions that I took in terms of hiring: at the moment, I have a project manager who I’ve worked with in the past, she knows me and how I like to operate. She knows that I’m extremely particular with the detail and that helps knowing that somebody understands that and can also uphold that level of quality. Another great decision is implementing this business with the EOS system from Gina Whitman’s traction book. 

In terms of habits, I take time to block everything. My life is run by my calendar. It took me a little while to personally get over that it felt very weird to put in things like dinner with friends or lunch with your partner. My calendar even says some stuff like shower, eat, just because it’s so packed, but I managed to really increase my productivity by having everything planned. I also block out time where it doesn’t actually say what I have to do, but it is just free time for me to do something. I’m doing a lot of work at the moment myself personally on meditation and journaling, which has been a bit of a struggle to get started with myself, but I know that I just need to persist with that until I then start to see the benefits of that.

Also, a word of advice: get glasses that block out blue light. It’s been a real game changer for me. 

5. What is your advice for those that are starting productized services?

I can’t stress this enough: any established business should always be speaking to people and connecting to new individuals. I hired a salesperson and her quota of new sales for the first month was ZERO because I wanted her to have as many conversations with our ideal customers as possible. I wanted her to understand what challenges they face on a day to day, what things are working, what things aren’t working, what strategies have they tried, what tactics are they using — because all of this information needs to be absorbed by you and your company so that you can communicate more effectively, and really resonate with your audience. 

When starting a productized service, the landing page doesn’t need to be perfect. The focus should be on perfecting the processes and refining our operations, rather than being worried about padding on the website, all the colours used and things like that. I would make sure to just throw up a landing page, articulate the content.

Just remember, everything is a constant evolution. You want to be changing your content on a regular basis, the more conversations you have with customers and hear how they describe the challenges that they face and how they’re overcoming them. 

I think one mistake I see others making is not having social proof on the website. It makes sense to record a video, perhaps of you talking through what the process is once people sign up — I’ve actually got that on my to-do list to do with Speak on Podcasts.

6. What are your plans for the future? 

Right now I’m focusing on perfecting the processes: making sure that somebody external can come in that hasn’t worked with me before, but can actually deliver the work, ensuring that we are planning ahead. We pitch for people to appear on podcasts and will essentially be reaching back out to the same podcast if we have another customer that falls within the same category. 

Any podcast host wants their guests to come on and promote the show/interview because it helps increase their own brand awareness and potentially bring in more subscribers for that podcast. So we’re going to do everything we can to assist our customers in promoting that podcast, even though that’s not part of the service that we’re offering. I want to get us to start thinking about helping our customers be more successful and how we can help potential referral partners be more successful and get a great referral. 

7. Where can we learn more about you?

Here’s my LinkedIn. You can also find me at speakonpodcasts.com.

My question for the community is: what’s people’s perceptions on podcasts? What do they think the future is for podcasting? Do they listen to podcasts themselves? I would love to start a discussion around the topic of podcasts.

Categories
Interviews

Freelance to Productization: How I Make $5k-6k/month As A Zapier Expert

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

I’m Andrew and I founded Luhhu – we’re Zapier experts.

I’ve always been entrepreneurial – with a much bigger interest in running a business than working for one. As a teenager, I used to buy scrap computer parts, reassemble working units and sell them locally. Then when I got to university I started a web design business for extra money.

The next few years were spent in London doing sales, before I travelled and eventually found myself as an expat in Budapest. My next go at a business was setting up a lead generation company for language teachers – and through that I learned to use Zapier.

Did I mention I tried my hand at writing? That ended when I tried to sign up to Upwork but got rejected? Undeterred, and on a whim, I signed up again as a Zapier specialist and this time got through.

That was the end of 2017 and through 2018 I grew a very successful freelance career, starting at $40/hour and reaching $125/hour when, in 2019, I decided I needed to have an agency so I could scale. No real planning went into the move other than to create a brand and website and put together a small team of contractors to work with.

Fast forward to 2020 and after a solid year of $60k revenue and a double-digits profit margin, we’re on track to 2.5x that this year. Our running costs are minimal, with a remote, freelance team and just a handful of software subscriptions.

In terms of revenue – we’re doing on average $5-6k per month.

2. How do you attract and retain your customers?

Getting a listing on the Zapier Experts directory has been a real boon for winning new clients – UK ones in particular as I’m one of the only UK-based agencies listed.

Outside of that I continue to win clients through Upwork and Fiverr where I first started as a freelancer, and thanks to the active following I’ve built up on places like Twitter and Reddit by evangelising for Zapier and nocode in general, I continue to get semi-occasional requests and referrals.

It stuck with me the advice I’ve heard from a few people that everything you do compounds on itself – and it’s true. After doing this a few years now I’m always surprised when I get a new client or opportunity from an unexpected place.

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

Most of the challenges we’ve faced are the natural ones associated with transitioning from freelance to agency. Aside from developing a brand and building a website – how Luhhu positions itself and the type of clients we look for is in constant flux as we learn and experiment.

A holdover from my freelance days, we’ve always tried to say yes to any client (that has the budget), no matter which industry they are in or which tools or processes they’re looking to automate.

We have our strengths, and that tends to be ecommerce companies, law and accounting firms as well as education providers – but we’ve taken other weird and wonderful projects, some of which we’ve struggled to make profitable, because they’re in an area we have less expertise in and therefore have taken us longer to deliver.

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

Twitter’s ability to drive my business as well as help me solve all sorts of problems and get connected with interesting people has been invaluable. I invest hours a day in there, talking about Zapier, signposting resources, joining discussions and trying to help people – and the ROI has been clients, team members, new business opportunities and great resources.

On a wider scale, I think we’ve been lucky to join the market at the right time – the move towards lean businesses with as few staff as possible and a focus on efficiency, means the skills of an agency like Luhhu are in constant demand. In essence we’ve never really had to look for work, but as I mentioned before, it’s become more about working out the types of projects where we can do the most effective work.

5. What is your advice for those that are starting productized services?

Look for a skill you have (or can pull together in a team) that is in real demand. Understand why companies need it and what the value is to them. Manage that and you’ve got the basis of your product. From there you need to first deliver it once, at least, profitably, and then work out how to deliver it at scale.

6. What are your plans for the future?

As I’ve said, growing our revenue and client base – but in a focussed way – is the big target for 2020. To achieve that we’re investing heavily in SEO and I’m looking to work with a couple of different agencies to achieve that.

This will mean properly articulating the types of clients and industries we can really help people automate and then producing content and resources on our website to attract them.

7. Where can we learn more about you? 

You can check out our blog, or find me on Twitter at @AndrewJDavison

Categories
Interviews

How I Started a $25k-30k/month App Marketing Agency

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

I am Steve P. Young and my business is App Masters. We are an app marketing agency. 

I always knew I wanted to start my own business. Back when I was 12 years old, I used to sell cassette tapes to my classmates in elementary school and I never knew what that journey would look like, but I was just climbing the corporate ladder and hitting all these achievements, but didn’t feel fulfilled. I didn’t know how I would eventually start my own business or where that business would be. 

But, in 2011 I started making apps on my own. My son was 18 months at a time and I was just started creating apps for him and through that, I started building up a little bit of side income. I was like, Whoa, this is kind of cool. I was generating anywhere from $1,000 — 2,000 a month of income on the side. I was running marketing for a startup in San Francisco at the time, but in 2013 I decided to start a podcast and I thought: 

Oh, I love listening to podcasts. I wish there was a podcast on apps. Let me just start a podcast and interview some of my heroes in the app space and see if I can turn this side business that I have with ads into a real business. Maybe finally I’ll be an entrepreneur that I’ve always wanted to be.

I built up an audience and they started coming to me for marketing help. Now, I thought I was going to be making money off an app, not off of providing services for apps. That journey always looks different than when you originally envisioned, but it now started coming to me that six months after starting the podcast. 

I ended up leaving that startup job in San Francisco to pursue this full time. I’ve been doing this ever since in 2000. At the beginning of 2014 I officially went independent and full time.

Did you have an MVP? How did you get your first users?

What happened was, while I was still at my corporate startup job, somebody in the audience said, Hey Steve, I work for a bigger company and he was out in India and we’re launching a new app. Can you help me? 

And I was like, What? I don’t know much. I don’t know how to do this. 

He’s like, Don’t worry, I trust you, because he’s been listening to me from day one. So he had that embedded trust that I could then sign my first client that way.

My MVP was an ugly landing page. It was just that simple landing page that just said, Want help with your app launch? That was it. Contact us. I think I was charging $500 at the time. Obviously we’ve increased our rates now, but that’s how I first started and included a lot of things that I don’t actually focus on anymore.

What do your business model and pricing plans look like now?

We’ve productized our services, so instead of doing customized proposals, our packages start anywhere from $1,000 and we even have a different model where it’s $470 a month, and that’s for a certain set of marketing packages. Our base package really starts at $4,000 and includes a couple of different things with ASO, PR, Apple features, core things. We started stripping out different things that we didn’t feel like would add value to our customers. And it goes all the way up to $20,000. We currently have an MRR of $20k-30k.

We’ve got three full-time staff in the Philippines and one in India.

2. How do you attract and retain your customers?

What I found in my business is the more content I create, the more business is generated. And so I think I need to do a better job of this, but there are seasonal impacts. December usually is a slow month for us, and the summer is usually slow too. But I’ve also seen a correlation between the number of inbound leads versus the amount of content I create. So long as I continue to create content on YouTube and through the podcast. 

In 2015 I really got serious about YouTube. I started creating more and more, but before people would just find me through the podcast. Now people are finding me from YouTube and that’s primarily where most of my business comes from now.

Video marketing is huge, and I think if you start creating more video content and sharing some of your best strategies with your audience – even if you don’t want to build a following on YouTube – just having that video on your homepage with your best marketing tips and what that does is for all those who are interested in working with you. They see you, they trust you,  and you’re sharing really valuable tips. So when they come in as an inbound lead, they’re already warmed up.

If you don’t want to do a podcast like I do or a YouTube video, a simple content marketing hack is using big publications (such as Forbes, Entrepreneur.com, or Business Insider) and become the source for their stories. You can do this if you’re a designer, writer, or if you love to talk – you can do this anywhere. That’s how I found my first initial podcast guests.

In terms of retention, it’s as simple as continuing to add value to your customers. What I’ve also found through the years is that if you just continue to be in the space, people start connecting with you. Some of the heroes I wanted to reach out to when I was just starting out to have them on my platform are now reaching out to me to be in mine. It’s being consistent with whatever you’re doing, whether it’s creating content or serving your customers

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

The beginning of the first year was horrible. It tore my relationship apart with my wife and we just had a lot of fights cause I didn’t know where that money would come from. She had her own business. So she was starting to feel the pressure of having to earn an income back when she was doing her business. I was feeling the pressure too and it was detrimental to our relationship. 

Obviously we’re over it now, but that’s one on the personal side. 

The other challenges were trying to do too much, especially in the beginning when I didn’t know where the money’s going to come from. I was trying to do courses, create an agency, all this content stuff, and I had a consulting client and I was trying to do too much at once and nothing was really taking off until I realized that what’s working right now is people are coming to me to help with their marketing of apps and I need to focus on that right now. I canceled all the courses, I stopped doing everything else and I just focus on growing the agency. 

And just like that, I doubled my year one revenue in year two.

I think the one thing that I’m most proud of is diversifying the business. Those courses that I created back in 2014 are still things that I use today and now I’ve diversified the business so that it’s not just an agency model. We do have courses, we do have podcast sponsorships, so there’s a lot of money coming in from different things. While most of it’s coming from the agency, there are still ways I can diversify and make money other ways, especially during uncertain times like these.

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

There’s one book that I’ll recommend called Story Brand (by Donald Miller). This is like 7 years into my business and I was like, Oh, I’ve been marketing so poorly — and I’m a marketer! But sometimes you better market other people’s stuff than you do your own products because you just have a better understanding and outsider view. Story Brand is a great book because it ‘concises’ all the messaging for marketing.

For me, masterminds have been super helpful. I built a mastermind with just app entrepreneurs when I first started because I joined a mastermind before I even took the jump to entrepreneurship. I think masterminds and that Story Brand book are ones that have been super, super helpful because then you can bounce ideas off of other people.

In terms of hiring, it helps to have someone you can rely on. Obviously it takes a long time to hire that person, but that’s been the best decision. The fact that you can hire somebody who can oversee the rest of your team. One of the people I’ve been working with since the beginning has been a game-changer, and she’s been amazing with hiring good people under her.

As for habits, I wake up really early, usually around 5-5:30 AM to get an hour in of work because actually during these quarantine times, we have to homeschool the kids. The work is limited and I just try to decide the most important thing that if I only got this thing done, I would feel so accomplished. I won’t check emails or anything like that, I’ll just go straight to the computer and focus on the single most important thing I need to get done. Exercise has always been important because I feel a lot happier when I do. So I usually try to work for an hour, workout, and then start the day.

5. What is your advice for those that are starting productized services?

Build the audience, create content even before you start thinking about what it is. Once you build that audience, they’ll start telling you what they want. Be able to talk to your core audience, get them on the phone and batch all of your calls back to back.

Secondly, look at unlimited services. I am a big believer that that’s where we’re all headed. I pay for a lot of unlimited services like Bench for my bookkeeping and Video Husky for my video editing. I have a business called Copy Masters where we provide unlimited copywriting.

There’s another hack called clarity.fm and I was one of the first people to sign up. I have clarity.fm/steve and I ranked really well on that platform. If you’re looking for experts in any space, you can search for them. In the early days I would use it to schedule my calls. I got a ton of reviews and it became a social proof element for me.

6. What are your plans for the future?

I wanted to build out more unlimited services especially in the app space, and I am working on a couple of different virtual summits while also doing the courses. We’ve been doing these for the past couple of years already, so I want to continue doing that.

We’re aiming for slow and steady progress. Sometimes we as entrepreneurs, especially me, tend to have too many different ideas and then half-ass most of them. I’ll be focusing on one project at a time. This month is all virtual summits; we’ve got a virtual summit in June, and we’ve done the recording and everything’s done so now we’re just driving traffic towards it.

7. Where can we learn more about you? 

You’ll find everything at appmasters.com. If you want to check out our YouTube channel, it’s appmasters.com/youtube.

For me, as someone who always knew I wanted to have my own business since I was a very young kid, but I never did it. I’ve been a lifelong side entrepreneur and I never took that leap, I was always hustling. 

So my question to the community is: What’s holding you back? I want to challenge you to think about deeper levels.

Categories
Interviews

Building an $18.7M/year SEO, Content, and Marketing Agency

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

I’m Clayton Johnson, CMO of The HOTH

The HOTH started in 2010 as a productized service for link building. We had 1 product and launched an offer on an internet marketing forum in a buy-sell section. The offer hit and the company started. 

Over the course of the last 10 years, we expanded from that 1 product service to now over 17 products, mostly around SEO services, content, and marketing. Price points vary from $50 to $50k+ per month. 

You can see our product lineup here https://www.thehoth.com/products/

Now we have an office of ~50 core staff in St. Petersburg FL and work with thousands of freelancers around the world that work on producing the products.

2. How do you attract and retain your customers?

We were lucky because we started with a strong product market fit – our first product was in high demand so it didn’t take a lot to have people try it out. We went through a few phases of growth just trying the normal stuff – small partnerships, some conferences, some blog posts, etc, but finally stalled out and couldn’t grow.

I was at the time the COO – I was in charge of ops. I’m obsessive about operational procedures but it turns out, that’s not what drives growth, so I started shifting into marketing.

We focused on creating marketing & sales systems that produce leads and sales consistently. All of our marketing pretty much stems from this idea of identifying customer questions, creating that content, and promoting that content. This is mostly what we focus on now and it works really well.

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

There were so many obstacles, but I forget most of them because I’m mostly focused on solving them and moving on.

One obstacle that I do remember was that we stalled out in growth in 2013. These types of plateaus happen all the time in businesses, and you usually need to change something internally to get over that hump. 

In 2013, I focused on myself and tried to make a personal transformation – my outlook, my personal goal setting, eliminating complaining etc. Then I focused on moving from operations to learning marketing and implementing marketing like a mad man. That was a big growth change for us, we 20x’d over the next 5 years.

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

I read a couple books early on that made it clear that we should focus on productizing – the E-Myth and Built to Sell. We went hardcore into ops mode there and made our business scalable. 

In the beginning, we really focused on running a tight ship but keeping it lean. We use a lot of Google docs, spreadsheets, and then graduated to tools like Asana, Groove, Slack. We hired a developer to build our platform as well and that was huge.

My favorite book that is required for our marketing team is Dot Com Secrets by Russel Brunson. It’s the best book if you don’t want to have to jump between 1 thousand courses. 

In terms of learning, I try to balance 1 skills book with 1 mindset/self-help book. 

For instance, read dot com secrets (marketing book) and then read the power of now (self help book).

If you keep just reading marketing books, you’ll find yourself stalled out because you don’t have the emotional foundation to do what you need. If you only read motivational type books, you’ll have all the motivation in the world but you won’t be able to actually execute anything.What really helped grow our business though above everything was the people we hired & the culture we created. I wrote a whole article about that here.

5. What is your advice for those that are starting productized services?

Focus on your customers and finding product market fit. This will make everything way easier. If you skip this it will make everything WAY harder. 

Once you have product market fit, make sure you do marketing, and don’t stop. Learn real marketing and apply it to your business. When you stall out, realize you gotta do something different.

6. What are your plans for the future?

We’re continuing to develop more products for The HOTH that expand outside of SEO, for example we just launched HOTH PPC which is a productized Google Ads management service.  We applied all the principles we learned with our other SEO / content products to this. We also recently acquired FreeUp, a platform that connects you with top freelance talent. I’m excited to grow this company as well and implement a lot of the things we learned growing the HOTH.

7. Where can we learn more about you?

You can find The HOTH Blog here: https://www.thehoth.com/blog/

You can contact me via email clayton@thehoth.com

Categories
Interviews

Making $160k/year Offering Unlimited Membership Site and Tech Support

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

I’m Vic Dorfman—founder of MemberFix

For over 5 years we’ve been working with WordPress membership site owners (and aspiring membership site owners) to plan, set up, and maintain their subscription businesses. This includes strategy sessions to pick the best tech stack for each project, full project management services, and high-level implementation by an experienced and passionate team. 

We operate on an agency / productized services model in which we sell both ‘flex’ developer hours and monthly support plans. We work with prospective customers to determine and clarify their requirements, develop acceptance criteria, scope out their projects along with estimates, and once we have expectations on the same page—get it all done!

We’re very passionate about this industry. We’re always proactively learning new software, refining best practices, and nurturing relationships with many of the key tech providers in the membership site space, which allows us to help our customers pick future-proof software solutions that work best for their unique needs.

I’m a Ukrainian-American who was laid off from his cushy job and impulsively bought a one-way ticket to Thailand about 7 years ago with $2k in my checking account and $22k in credit card debt. Mission: start an online business or die trying. Since then, MemberFix has grown into a fully distributed organization with over a dozen amazing team members (mostly from Eastern Europe). In calendar year 2019 we brought in roughly $160k in revenue with approximately 20% profit margins. We’re on track to top $200k in 2020 with improved margins. We work tirelessly on our processes which results in efficiency gains each and every quarter. Our most substantial expenses come in the form of team salaries but this is one area where we don’t skimp.

We never built an MVP as such. Rather, we took the “unlimited ‘insert your service here’ for only $XXX per month”, productized services model popularized by Dan Norris (WPCurve) and kept iterating on it. We also introduced hourly work because we realized that our insistence on recurring-only business was a huge hindrance to our growth as a company and as individual professionals. This hourly offering has been a big part of our recent growth and has forced us to evolve at a rapid pace.

Our mission is to be the premier WordPress membership site agency in the world, and the number one authority on WordPress membership site software.

2. How do you attract and retain your customers?

We get a lot of our customers through our prodigious content marketing efforts, including our YouTube channel. We also get a fair bit of business from referrals. This is our main marketing technique. 

In terms of retaining customers, I think that’s an evolving process. First, we aim to do a great job on our customers’ projects, under-promise, and over-deliver. We’re not always successful and we’ve invested heavily in business consulting around critical areas like customer service and project management to ensure that we absolutely delight everybody with whom we work. 

Services, whether productized or otherwise, require you to always put the customer first, own up to mistakes, and have a kaizen approach to continually improving your workflow so that errors and mismanaged expectations become less and less of an issue as time goes on. 

We also offer all of our customers complementary strategy sessions with me monthly. This is a big value add to many of our customers as another experienced entrepreneur can often provide a second opinion. These sessions have have resulted in our customers making changes that have directly resulted in significant revenue growth. It’s a win / win.

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

It would be impossible to list the never-ending onslaught of challenges and obstacles that come with growing a business. 

One salient challenge was scaling from “just me” to a full team. I initially attempted to hire help in India, Philippines, etc. but soon found that the work culture in those countries ran counter to my professional values. I made two unsuccessful attempts to scale with team members from South Asia before I decided to start hiring in Eastern Europe exclusively. This was a critical decision because we were able to start filling our team with individuals who are not only talented and ambitious but share a certain value set that’s conducive to doing business in a professional manner. 

This was also the catalyst that propelled me from the “do it” guy to the “work on the business” guy, which itself presented a whole universe of new challenges that I’d not faced before. I would say our rockstar team is synonymous with our success. And while hiring methodologies like the A Method and TopGrading are probably appropriate for a certain size organization and discourage intuitive (“voodoo”) hiring methods, my ability to hire great colleagues has been directly proportional to my ability to listen to my gut.

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

Bringing on our operations manager, Viktor was a huge shift for us. He helped us implement Airtable and Python to automate many time-consuming, mundane, but important parts of our business like Payroll, time tracking, accounting, etc. Viktor is also responsible for creating SOPs, trainings, hiring, and other efficiency-gaining activities. 

Airtable, by the way, is critical to our business. Promoting from within has also been a stimulus to growth. In particular, promoting one of our talented developers, Sorin, to the technical project manager role allowed us to properly invest in project management consulting, adopting ClickUp for PM activities. It also energized Sorin in an amazing way to be in a more challenging and interesting role, which taught me that you have to have the right people on the bus and have them in the right seats!

5. What is your advice for those that are starting productized services?

My main advice would be to focus on selecting the right type of business.

Our own business is exciting and dynamic but it’s also undeniably difficult to scale because every customer comes to us with unique requirements that can’t be handily documented, repeated, or automated. This has essentially required us to grow into a proper agency in order to learn the business technologies that work in a dynamic, high touch, services context.

Certain other businesses like SEO, for instance, can lean much more heavily on automation because the tasks involved are often repetitive and technology-centric. This is the kind of business that lends itself to smooth scaling.

The other suggestion I can make is to get very clear on terms and track your numbers ruthlessly. You’ll find that you’re operating unprofitably for some percentage of customers, and you need to build in enough cushion such that you can make a profit on even the most demanding edge-case customers. Not to mention, meticulous books could be the difference between a smooth acquisition one day and a pass.

6. What are your plans for the future?

While we have well-defined relativistic goals (OKRs) for things like traffic, revenue, margins, and so on, the main focus for now is to continually invest in getting our core business processes to a world-class level. 

Our aim is for every customer whom we help to experience delight and a totally smooth delivery of their projects and tasks. This to me is the foundation of any real success because truly great customer service is its own marketing. Doubling revenue while churn and refunds also double because you bit off more than you can chew doesn’t help anyone, does it?

This is why we reinvest heavily in education and high-level consultants. We want to be the absolute best at what we do.

Apropos to this point, we were in talks with a company eyeing us for a strategic acquisition late last year. and it made me realize that I would like to exit MemberFix in the next 24 months or so. But I wouldn’t dream of selling an investor an asset that wasn’t first running like a Swiss watch, largely self-managing, and ideally self-multiplying. And on the same token, any acquisition would have to involve a distinct upside for our team in the form of access to better opportunities, career path, money, access to high level mentorship, etc.

I don’t anticipate any specific roadblocks but I anticipate that there will be roadblocks and plenty of them. On any given day I’m vacillating between “I hate this shit…” and “I love this shit!” because there are constant challenges with being an entrepreneur. Ups and downs. But I know that because of the difficulties that I’ve been through with my wonderful team, and specifically in a services based business like ours, I’ll be able to handle just about anything.

7. Where can we learn more about you?

You can find us at https://memberfix.rocks