Categories
Interviews

Growing a $20k/month SEO & PR Ghostwriting Agency

Learn how Greg went from freelancing to building his $20k/month SEO agency.

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

Hi there. My name is Greg Heilers. For the past six years, I’ve been a ghostwriter and bylined writer. I have run an agency for 3 years – Jolly SEO.

We started out as Jolly Content, doing onsite content: blog posts, articles, and product descriptions. We kicked off with 4,000 onsite pages for Groupon.com and then slogged through two fairly brutal years doing content with really thin margins.

In 2019, we side-stepped into a ghostwriting service that is primarily an SEO play. I’ll get into more what the other benefits are of ghostwritten outreach.

Like a lot of founders, my cofounder, Morgan Taylor, and myself started an agency with the idea that we would be kicking back somewhere, working part-time, making the big bucks while other writers churn out all the work. I’d already put in 3-4 years freelancing and working my way up from your basic content mill at $12 a piece all the way up to $500 an article.

If we thought that’s what agency owners did, we were in for a rude awakening. 

How I found the idea of ‘ghostwritten outreach,’ as we call it, came from a comment on someone else’s post in a popular job board for writers called the Cult of Copy Job Board. I freelanced this service for a year with two clients who still work with us today, and they’re fantastic clients.

I transitioned them over to our company once we began scaling our team because I could no longer freelance write all of this. Building the team was a natural transition because my partner and I already had a team of writers creating onsite content – we just needed to rebuild a team that was ready for this type of work.

Today, we’re making about $20k per month in revenue, not profit. 30% of that goes to the writer team. Another 10-20% goes to admin and marketing, and the owners get to split about 10K a month, which is pretty solid for two guys putting in about 30 hours a week.

We’re hoping by the middle of 2020 to hit 40k MRR to put us up to full-time status. We need to scale up our marketing as we hope to scale the company, so I expect that margin to get a little slimmer, possibly even tipping into 55-60% of revenue in total expenses. That remains to be seen in the middle of the year.

2. How do you attract and retain your customers?

The first users were transitioned over from my freelance business. That alone took 3 months to convince them that quality wouldn’t suffer, that output would grow as my personal time was really minimal and it wasn’t giving them all they needed.

They both demanded, “Please, as much work as possible, budget unlimited,” but I just wasn’t hitting that ‘unlimited’ goal.

Our second phase was acquiring initial customers from the Cult of Copy Job Board. I grabbed one announcement spot every other month – I get it for a week for about $200. We close 1-3 sales from that $200 every single time I do it. A sale for us is worth anywhere between $2000- $15,000 a month, and our clients stay between 6-18 months. The LTV there is pretty good and the ROI on that one ad is phenomenal.

In our next phase of client acquisition, we recently outsourced LinkedIn based outreach with Lead Cookie.

The best that we can do for retention is keep our quality up. That’s our focus.

We have a minimum criteria for us to even bill our clients. We are in the business of securing them placements in the media that come with dofollow DR 50+ backlinks – that’s domain rating for those who don’t know the lingo – and for us this is critical. We never bill for anything that doesn’t hit this criteria.

As a result, our clients occasionally get freebies – that’s fine with us. We qualify our work as generating brand awareness and building executive authority. We’re ghostwriting pitches to the media day in and day out on our clients’ behalf, and they never pay for anything that isn’t live and doesn’t meet the criteria.

It’s really customer service at the core, and that helps us retain our customers for the long term. They know they’re never going to get billed for anything that isn’t already helping their business.

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

I think inherent in any service business is team management. Again, the scenario of the agency owner kicking back on the beach just doesn’t hold water.

We need to monitor our writers’ output in terms of quantity and quality, while keeping team morale up. This means giving feedback in a positive way, encouraging the writers, checking in with them, and asking if they need to switch to a less demanding account in terms of quantity – in short, we’re there for them.

Our biggest pain point is keeping writers motivated. We have a stellar team, but like any freelance writer, they’re always looking for new gigs, scanning to see what’s on the horizon. Sometimes, they take on too much work to actually execute, and again and I don’t blame them; been there, done that, will do again.

But that leads to a shortage of output for us and our clients that can lead to revenue shortfall in the short term, and long term jeopardizes our accounts.

As for our administrative hurdles, I forced us to do our data entry on Google Sheets on the financial side for 2 years cause I was too much of a miser to pay for QuickBooks. I eliminated at least 5 hours a week of my work by accepting QuickBooks for $100 a month. 

We’ve definitely pivoted from our original business of doing onsite content, super low margins, basically begging prospects to let us have a chance to do a trial piece for them. Now, we have a service where you only pay for results. We don’t promise anything other than what we can deliver, so we only work with clients who see the value in what we deliver. We want to work with qualified clients.

A huge lesson for us was truly niching down to the point that the service itself qualifies or disqualifies a prospect. It just makes everything so much simpler with sales and also with retention. We only promise what we can deliver and that’s it.

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

I mentioned QuickBooks, which has freed up a lot of my time this year, now that I’m not micromanaging our spreadsheet – and forcing my partner to do the same by dragging him onto the spreadsheet every day.

I’ll admit I follow Gary V for mindset stuff. Also, Linkedin has been really fun to connect with other people.

Facebook groups are great for learning and establishing yourself as an authority.  I’m not talking about making cheesy sales posts, but engaging in comments on other people’s posts, and occasionally posting when you have something genuinely valuable to offer. 

Throwing away our old service was definitely a good decision we made. For months we had suspected that was what needed to be done – just cut ties. Those last clients we had were the cream of the crop in terms of content and content marketing. I really loved them, but the margins were so thin. It was so time-intensive, and I kind of pleaded with my partner for a few months until he saw the light and realized it was time to double down on a productized service. 

We were never in danger of being insolvent. We always paid the writer team first, but we needed to finally take care of ourselves. Otherwise, burnout was going to be real over 2 years into the business.

I have always been of the mindset that a manager should have done the work they’re overseeing at some point. Personally, I have ghostwritten for founders of billion dollar exits, CEOs of hundred million dollar AR companies, and CEOs of small businesses. I personally executed our service for a year, landing over 350 media placements between clients.

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

Set up systems that forced me to get out of my own way. That’s something I’m still learning now, so it’s really advice to myself. But, as soon as I got out of my way on the administrative side, that was a wonder.

Another piece of advice is regarding billing. We offer a service where clients only pay after we do the work for them. That’s actually a mistake in most lines of work. Granted, in our service we have to start small and scale up, so there’s time to see if they’re going to pay.

But, I see this time and time again, where individual freelancers or small business owners don’t get paid upfront and then they get left following up on invoices. People say, “Take them to small claims court,” but it’s just not going to happen. It’s not worth the legal fees.

6. What are your plans for the future?

I want us to stay focused on this service. At the same time, we have a second service we’re trying to promote. It’s very similar and I’d really like to see us continue to develop new services. 

As an internet marketing company, I think that’s the only way we’re going to stay relevant – listening to what our clients actually need and filling that role for them.

We’re at $20K a month right now in revenue. I’d like to sit at $40K MRR by the middle of the year. To achieve that, we’re going to continue posting those really great ROI ads once every other month, as well as LinkedIn outreach, and that’ll get us baby-stepping towards that goal.

I’d also like to engage with a Facebook ads service provider or a coach. I’m very game to learn that skill, but I’m not going to learn solo through trial and error at this point. There’s too much at stake, and I want to hit that goal quickly; it would take me years to build that skill set.

A big blocker–short of a global recession–which would probably impact us: dealing with writer burnout. We love our writer crew.

Right now we’re doing a lot of individual hand holding and checking in. Maybe we need to standardize having a person that does this task – not the owners – because otherwise we’re going to risk owner burnout, constantly trying to deal with team morale.

Maybe we need a manager for that. Someone who comes from within and understands our service, the pain points of our team, and helps increase quality – both for customer and team member experience.

7. Where can we learn more about you?

Check us out at jollyseo.co. I’m on LinkedIn. I post pretty regularly. 

If I were to ask one question of you, it’s this: If hypothetically you wanted our service, what are your biggest objections to working with us?

If you wanted media placements for yourself, and you understood that an earned high DR, dofollow backlink delivers value, and you are even game to spend $375 per billable placement… what more could I answer?

Do I need 100% transparent case studies? Do you need to see 100% aligned sample placements? Is it that you don’t want to give a $500 deposit cause you don’t know who we are, and worry that we might take that $500 and run? Is it because you can’t do a two month commitment?

I’m looking for more insights into what people who aren’t exposed to us would have as an objection. As we get into the next phase of Facebook ads to people who’ve never heard of us before, that will be immensely useful. That’s what I’ve got for today. Feel free to ask me followup questions. I’d be happy to chime in. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *