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From Side Project to 6 Figures: Building a $330k/year Case Study Service

Learn how Joel built his side project doing case studies into a 6-figure service.

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

My name is Joel Klettke and I’m the founder of Case Study Buddy. I used to work at an agency doing SEO and it was a job that I didn’t know existed until it was mine. I graduated with a degree in entrepreneurship and left university knowing more about the type of place I wanted to be than what I wanted to do – I wasn’t quite confident enough at that point to start my own business. So I went to put in an agency doing SEO, got the job through a mutual friend. There, I learned all about the analytics and competitiveness and what it took to rank in Google. But more importantly, I was there when the whole digital marketing world really started to pay attention to content and suddenly writers became valuable. This was when the penguin update happened and then the Panda update happened and all of a sudden agencies and companies realize, 

Hey, we can’t just fake it till we make it. We can’t just get by on the skin of our teeth here. We need to start paying people to write content that folks actually want to read

This was good news for me because I grew up absolutely loving writing but not seeing a career in it. I didn’t want to be a journalist or write novels. I was kind of blind to this whole world of copywriting until it beat me over the head while I was in the agency.

While I was agency-side, I started writing the company blog and websites for some of our clients. I loved that work. I thought, Hey, you know, if, if there’s a field that evolves this, that’s something I’d love to take part in. Then the whole digital world started paying attention to the value of writers.

That was when I thought, okay, this is the time to make the leap. So in 2013, I left the agency world and I started out as a freelancer, originally just content. I was writing blog posts, eBooks – not long after about a year after I was introduced to the work of Joanna Wiebe, the queen bee of conversion copywriting.

For the first time I saw this field that aligned the two things that I’d come to love: the analytical side of understanding how people behave and picking through the numbers to come up with your plan of action and your strategy, but also the creative side of writing that I’d always loved. That’s when I started to shift my entire focus into conversion copywriting: working on websites, landing pages, and emails. It wasn’t long after that that I had worked on a project for WP engine and someone that was connected to the company at the time was this super powerful person that you just don’t say no to.

He asked me if I would read a case study for a company he was connected to called Pingboard and I said, sure, absolutely. And in writing that case study, my eyes opened to a few things.

The first was that, Hey, here’s an asset that I can build a process around. It’s repeatable. Unlike websites, landing pages, some of this conversion copywriting stuff that’s really high touch. It takes a ton of skill to just understand that the core concepts, case studies were something that if you can tell a great story, you can do this really well. You just need a great process to guide you. The second thing it opened my eyes up to is once I wrote those case studies for Penguin, I thought, surely there’s a company that specializes in doing only this.

But when I looked around the landscape was blue ocean. There was one woman at the top of the field – designated case study expert. Then there was just a smattering of freelancers, add-on services to agencies. Nobody really owned the space. 

So I decided I want to own the space, I want to step up, I want to build the company. Productized services were even on my radar. I didn’t really even know that’s what I was building until I was introduced to Brian Casel’s course and all of that whole world. 

But I wasn’t calling it a productized service in the beginning. I was just building a service that had a really refined process and could get this done faster than anyone else. So to start, I wrote everything myself. I came up with Case Study Buddy pretty much right away.

In all my businesses I’ve pretty much rolled with the first name idea that pops in my head – and that’s how Case Study Buddy came to be. I spent the first 6-12 months doing everything myself, writing the studies, understanding, running the interviews and learning how to conduct a great interview and learning a lot of what could go wrong in the process. Once I’d nailed that down, my first move was to bring in my partner Jen, who’s really great. 

We had worked together agency-side; she was great on the project management side, and on the biz dev side. I pulled her in and said, Hey, will you join me? Will you build this company with me? And from there, we brought on our first interviewer, a woman named Lindsey.

I pulled in a peer of mine who’d been working with me on the conversion copy side, Steven Peters. He came on to write studies as well. And now he’s kind of our de facto senior editor. The first year was in a ‘stealth mode’ where we were essentially just doing this for people. I knew the pricing was very low. We were refining the process, we were getting better and better so that when we launched, we would be prepared. So for the first 2-3 years, the company made a 5-figure income.

The first invoices for the company went out in May 2016. I had to do it and work prior to that, but I was billing it all under my previous company. In our first few months (say May – December) we were making a verbose revenue of about $7,000 CAD – it was a profitable side project. We had no overhead, it wasn’t making a whole lot of money, but it also wasn’t my focus. I was still primarily focused on conversion copywriting where I made a hell of a lot more money. I wasn’t brave enough to make this my full-time focus, my entire gig. Even to this day, it’s not my only full-time focus, but I’m spending more and more time on it.

2. How do you attract and retain your customers?

We made $27,000 in revenue our first year in 2016. In 2017 we did $77,000, we saw significant growth. Still, this was just a profitable side project. We weren’t really running ads. We didn’t have any SEO strategy. Everything came from word of mouth. It was my own network and it just kind of grew of its own accord. 

In 2018 we decided to take things a little bit more seriously. We still weren’t running any ads or heavy marketing, but I started speaking on the subject of case studies, about the work that we were doing. We showed to make a little bit more concentrated effort in marketing.

I got onto podcasts and webinars and made sure that I was giving this thing a little bit more of a push, but still a far cry from having organized marketing and advertising strategy. That year we came very close to doing $100k in collected revenue. We built over six figures, but some of the payments were late and came in in 2019. We came very, very close to our first six figure year in 2018. Then finally in 2019, Case Study Buddy became a $330,000 company with a lot of room to grow. There’s a ton of opportunity. We still haven’t run ads.

So we’ve grown out of word of mouth, our reputation, from me speaking and being on podcasts, plus our connections and peers. But there’s still so much ground for us to cover. There’s still so much opportunity for us to continue to grow. In terms of our business model and pricing plans – what we are today and where we want to get to – we’ll shift. One of the challenges with Case Study Buddy is that there’s no recurring revenue. We’re not currently set up for a month-to-month or yearly subscription fee. Right now it’s all project-based. So we have a few different formats that we sell to people – we sell different types of case studies for different contexts, different use cases. So if you want to use a case study in cold outreach or you want to use a case study in an ad or you to use a case study on your website; there are different formats that work better for different scenarios.

We have slide decks, which we build out $1,000 if you do them independently, (we’re now talking U.S dollars) $650 with any other format of study. We have our snapshot format, which is the more traditional case study, which we’re currently charging $1,784. And then we have our narrative format, which is the most in-depth, most detailed reads like a Forbes article that we’re currently charging $1,984 and then from there, we have bundles and packages. If you bundle two different formats together, we give you a bit of a pricing break on that and if you order more than five case studies with us in a year, then we give you a loyalty discount. So if you do more than five in a calendar year, we give you a bit of a break on pricing as well.

One of our key challenges is getting to that recurring revenue. But to do that we have to expand the level of services that we offer to clients. With case studies with these content assets, it’s not like a blog post where you can snap your finger and say, Oh, we want to do two a month. There’s more involved. You have to get a client to agree to be featured in a case study, and have enough clients that have had significant wins over a certain period of time that wants to take part in a case study. There’s more leg work involved in getting these done than a lot of people expect, which is why we do really well. Because doing what we do is tricky. It’s a simple asset that’s very hard to create.

We’ve got a fantastic process for it. In 2020 where we’re trying to transition to doing more video at a fixed cost point, and then we’re also moving into strategy. We’re going to work with our clients to help them surface candidates from their own client base. We’re going to set targets with them for how many cases they want to do in a year. That way we’ll make it more of a yearly subscription model where we’ve got a target for the number of studies to publish and we’re doing more things and we’re more in the weeds with them in terms of getting those margins. Our growth has come from putting the right people in place so that Jen and I can focus on driving that growth.

As our reputation has grown, as we’ve gotten clear about our pricing and our value proposition, we’ve seen growth elsewhere as well. Some of the smartest things that we did a little bit too late for my liking are things like getting a dedicated project manager in place whose only job is to make sure that we’re executing and keeping clients happy, that all of these different projects stay on the rails. Equipping said project manager with software, a good CRM, and having someone who just loves owning that piece of the puzzle has been super instrumental in our growth.

We see decreases in revenue maybe month on month when we aren’t doing enough on the marketing front, so we’ve just been pretty consistent. We haven’t done ad campaigns or any of that stuff but when we make a push, when I speak or get on a webinar or podcast, we see spikes in revenue.

When we make some intentional efforts to go back to our client base and follow up with them and say, Hey, how’s it going? How’s your current study performing? Do you have any other winds we could talk about? When we’re committed to following up, when we execute well on following up (and that’s been our focus of the past few months), we are equipping ourselves to systematize that process in the same way we want to do it for our clients. Then we see revenue growth in terms of expenses and margins.

Right now our margins are between 50%-60% profit. We don’t have dedicated staff – we were all subcontractors, people on retainer. So when we have work come in, that’s when we generate most of our expenses. We only have a few fixed overhead though. We pay our project manager on retainer, we’re about to pay our lead editor on retainer. Those are fixed costs. We have a design service on retainer as well. But beyond that, our team isn’t a fixed cost for us and that’s allowed us to scale up and that’s a lot of us to be really agile, to save a lot of our money.

We’re now getting into Facebook ads, SEO, and a concerted strategy for doing that. But a lot of our clientele still comes from me going out and speaking at events, being on podcasts, offer partnership webinars with companies in parallel spaces. As an example I’ve done a joint webinar with Baremetrics and that did well for us – supposedly posted on copyhackers.com. 

We’re doing more these days to encourage referrals from our customers by making sure we’re communicating with them frequently, making sure they’re really happy and asking, Hey, do you know any companies who might benefit from, from what we’re doing?

It’s all about communication. Customer experience has been a massive focus for us on the back half of the year.

In terms of retention, when we communicate well with clients, the very beginning when we manage expectations well, when we treat them like they’re our only customer and we’re excited to work with them – that works really well. One of the things that we’re trying to do now is every single lead that comes in before they’ve even worked with us, I try to send them a quick personal custom video just saying, Hey, we’re so excited to see your inquiry come in. We would love to find out if we’re a fit – this is a little bit of what you can expect from the process. Here’s who you’re going to be talking to next. And in laying out those expectations and making them feel special from day one, those customers had to stay happy. We try to continue doing little things like that throughout the process to keep them happy, keep them excited, let them know we care about what they’re doing.

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

The first is finding great people to work with. I turned to my previous network – I pulled in Jen who I had worked with agency-side. She had complementary skills. I hate cold outreach. I don’t love project management. I do not necessarily love parts of the biz dev process.

Jen is an absolute sniper on those things and she’s great with organization and she’s got a different mind to mind. So, turning to my existing network to find great partners certainly helped. Steven was the same way. Someone that I trusted in the writing world in a different capacity that I thought would be a good fit here. Bringing him across meant that I didn’t have to start all over from square one. 

We’ve had challenges in terms of when you have subcontractors they can leave any time. You’re just one more client to them. We try to take care of our subcontractors, surprise them with little gifts, make sure we’re telling them how great a job we think they’re doing. A big focus for us for 2020 is building our company culture and communicating how we can get them excited to be a part of our team even if we’re just one of many they work on. 

Another challenge is that recurring revenue as I mentioned. We tried the loyalty discount to encourage people to order more, and added complimentary services that help our clients be successful with their case studies because we know clients may love the end output that we give them.

But if they’re not successful with them – if they don’t see ROI with those – then they won’t come back. And there’s so much out of our control with that. Do they share them? Do they use them? Do they use them across their entire funnel? Do they even know how to use them? So now we’ve had to pivot a little bit into advising clients on those things and to providing services like writing ads to promote the case study or writing landing pages to make them lead big nets or all of these other areas. We’ve added complementary services to help us get the most value out of every single client in every single study we can like giving value back to the customer. So finding additional ways to add revenue because when you don’t have recurring revenue, every single client is important and you need to be inspiring them to come back.

You need to minimize churn. Even if it’s not a predictable subscription, which we hope to get to, you need to create experience that they want to come back to and be super diligent in following up. Have we pivoted from our original business? Yes. Originally I wanted this to be super productized where we had strict formats, a strict process, and that’s all we did. But as we enter the enterprise around them and work with bigger companies, they want degrees of customization. They want to or need to be involved in different ways. We’ve added video as an offering, which in the early days wasn’t something that we’d considered because we know video as a medium and as a platform is exploding and if we want to be around in five years, it needs to be our primary asset. The written stuff needs to be a secondary asset, which has been a bit scary to think about.

But that’s where we’re headed now. We’ve got great partners, we’re getting better on that front. Our processes are getting stronger. So we are pivoting away from just being a written asset to being written and video. Also, this strategy component that I mentioned – that’s to help us continue to grow, thrive, survive, and stay way ahead of freelancers and other people. 

When you’re successful, the copycatting of your business model and offering is going to happen – I say that with some humility. We’re successful in that we built a 300K+ business, but there’s so much ground we have yet to cover and so much more that we can do. I don’t have any misconceptions that we’re some big way company – we still have a long way to go. 

Some mistakes I’ve made were when I’ve been too trusting with contractors. I’ve given them a long leash when sometimes they didn’t deserve it. Other times I didn’t give them a long enough leash when they did deserve it. So I’ve learned to do certain things to help that out. People who aren’t going to be a fit for the company. We do a paid writing test upfront where we have a potential writer write a study. We’ve already written that. We don’t tell them we’ve already written it, but we send them all the same assets that the writer and the interviewer had and we get them to put together the assets to see what they come up with. Before we weren’t doing paid tests; we were working off of portfolios, recommendations, referrals. But we found out that the only way to really find out if someone can hack it is to have them do the job.

I don’t believe in spec work, or getting people to do stuff for free. So, we never get them to do a study that has commercial purpose that we’re reselling. We take that cost on the chin because to us, finding a great person is going to far outstrip the fee, we pay for them to do that project. 

I think other mistakes I made we’re just not giving enough attention and focus. To this day, the bulk of my income and what I’m best known for is still conversion copywriting. I still have big clients on that side that I serve. But in 2020, I’m cutting my hours so I can focus on intentionally growing this business and focus on doing the things like running ad campaigns, optimizing the site, publishing content, being deliberate about cold outreach, and building a great customer experience that will propel us to where we need to go.

I think for a long time we coasted because this was a side project. It was making money, it wasn’t a priority, but trying to do too many things at once. Or as the quote goes, if you try to taste two rabbits, you won’t catch either one. Not having focus has hurt us and lightening my load and giving myself the time and space to work on this with intention. That’s, that’s a big change and I’m anticipating big things helpful to grow the business. 

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

In terms of creating a customer experience: probably the best book I’ve read on the subject is Never Lose a Customer Again by Joey Coleman. It’s a brilliant book because it breaks down a customer’s engagement with your company to seven distinct phases and lays out ideas for how can you make each one of those phases exciting, memorable: how can you wow them? How can you go above and beyond? How can you improve communication? It’s a Bible. It’s an absolute masterpiece, getting you to think up ideas and implement them.

Hiring a project manager was such a critical and important move. Someone whose only job is to make sure that things operate and they don’t have other things to focus on, like running interviews or trying to simultaneously grow their business. Their only job is to project manage. That was a revolution for us, as simple as it sounds.

Finding free or cheap tools that we can use that do the job we need them to. Things like close.io is our CRM. We find it tremendously helpful for scheduling and keeping things on the rails. Uber conference has a free tier or zoom for conducting interviews. 

Speaking on podcasts, speaking out events like Content Jam in Chicago, MozCon, and different events like that have helped us not only get in front of potential clients but find writers and people who want to work with us. 

I’ve talked about the good decisions I’ve made: habits, skills and abilities for me personally is just I have to schedule time to work on this business. It started as a profitable side project, but today it is its own thing. It needs to be steered and I’m the kind of person who I can get overwhelmed if I don’t schedule things in. Setting aside days of the week where all I do is address the things that most need doing for Case Study Buddy has been a big difference maker for me, using personal apps to schedule myself.

I use reminders on my phone for the tasks I need to get done and the deadline for them. Also getting our project manager to ping me and keep me accountable for the things that I said I would do. That’s for me in terms of building habits, that’s been tremendous in terms of developing skills and abilities. Reading the book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, has helped me rethink the way that we approach the future and what strategy even means and how to do it well.  The book also made to stick changing the way we talk about what we do, how we do it, how we sell it. 

Forces out my control are things like luck timing and market trends. We were lucky but also smart in that we got into the market when there were no other gigantic players doing the same thing. As long as we continue to evolve and get in front of people, as long as we don’t rest on our laurels and say we’re the market leader so we should just coast – I think we have to continue to work hard, but getting in at the time that we did before someone else figured out this opportunity certainly was a boon for the business. My personal connections have also been a huge boon for the business.

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

I would say the single biggest lesson is focus. If you are serious about a productized or a scheduled time, make it a focus, make it a priority.

We could be so much farther ahead. It’s so easy to say yes to the safe bet. It’s harder to invest in the future. For me, the honest truth is that you need to be willing to schedule time, take the plunge, and go for it. 

I see a lot of people launching productize services in niches they don’t understand. I see people launching one week of design service, one week copy SIRS, assuming that all you have to do is build a process, throw people at it, and *boom*, you’ve got a great business.

I’m baffled by how quickly people try to move. Build one at a time and do it really well and learn about the space. Don’t just go, well this seems in Vogue – if you’re reading this and think you guys should start a case studies business, that might be true, but take your time and try to understand the space. Don’t just hop into it because someone else is successful at it. I see a lot of people spinning off companies just because someone else is doing well with it. That doesn’t mean you’re going to do well with it. Play to your strengths, start something in a space you actually understand or can learn quickly. Build the process. Get the people.

6. What are your plans for the future?

It’s an ambitious goal to try to triple your revenue and account here, but I think if we figure some of these things out that we’re working on, we can do it. I want Case Study Buddy to be a $1 million company by the end of 2020. I don’t care so much about traffic, but the revenue – that’s the goal. This was the first year that, had I shut down my conversion covering business, my wife and my son and I could maintain the same standard of living we have, cause we’ve never taken money out of CSB. Everything we’ve made, we’ve just reinvested right back in.

But now, I’ve hit the point where I could live off of the company. So I think I want to hit $1 million in revenue. I want to solidify our video offering. I want to do the hard work to grow as a leader and be better at steering this company and be better at managing people. I’ve been so in the weeds my whole life, so much a person who just does the work and now I’m learning to lead the work. So I just want to continue to grow in my skill sets in terms of people, management, time management. I want to continue to learn how to just let go and let people do the things that they’re amazing at and empower them to keep doing that. 

My partner and I are gonna sit down and set monthly revenue targets, scaling up. We will formalize plans to launch our ad campaigns. We’ve set deadlines to the smaller steps that we’ll take to do that. We have deadlines for ads, landing pages – and we’re putting other people in charge. Someone who loves running ad campaigns will be running our ad campaigns. Someone who’s amazing at optimizing sites will optimize their site. We’re going to get out of our own way. We have a prioritized task list with smaller milestones and deliverables with deadlines attached. That’s what we’re going to reach those numbers because we don’t want to just wish the company would grow that way. We know what we need to do to get in front of more people. We know how we need to shift our business model to make it recurring and make it predictable and maximize more of the value. We know exactly what we need to do to get the video offering up and running. It’s just a matter of breaking those things down into smaller goals and then executing on them and putting the right people in place to take over once you’ve got moment rolling. 

At some point we may need to shift to a staff-based model versus subcontractor model and that will come with legal delays, timelines and things that take some figuring out. But we’re not afraid of that. We’ve navigated already choppy legal waters in terms of incorporating a partnership and doing all of that.

I’m excited for the future and I think if there is going to be a block or two, it could be managing churn and maximizing value. As we start working with bigger tiers of clients, there are fewer of them. We need to close every single deal possible for the size of company we want to work with to hit those revenue goals. I firmly believe that it’s possible.  

7. Where can we learn more about you? 

You can check out Case Study Buddy and see some things I’ve written. 

You can check me out @JoelKlettke (that’s my Twitter handle). I’m happy to have conversations there. You can also add me on LinkedIn

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