Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?
Hi, I'm John Doherty. I'm an entrepreneur, digital marketer, and outdoors afficionado currently building a few companies, most notably Credo. I've been in digital marketing since 2009, but was trained as a web developer in college and also worked as a technical support consultant for a software company.
Credo is a service that connects businesses looking to grow their online audiences with vetted agencies and consultants who specialize in the work they need and the business they operate. It initially launched in 2013 and I went fulltime on it in September 2015 after some career turbulence. We primarily help businesses who have over $2,000 a month to spend on an SEO or digital marketing provider.
Credo started as directory, then morphed into a more automated marketplace, and has since returned to the middle as a high touch service helping businesses, as well as a directory. We've had some major fits and starts, but at its core Credo is a subscription-based referral service for high-value digital marketing projects. I'm excited to share the lessons we've learned with all of you.
Credo currently brings in ~$25,000 per month in revenue. We made approximately $356,000 in revenue in 2017 before expenses.
What motivated you to get started with Credo?
I started my business in its very first incarnation in February 2013, so about five years ago now. I started it on the side as I was working at an agency because I decided to stop doing my own side consulting, yet I had a lot of businesses coming to me looking to hire me to consult with them.
I also had some friends who had hired bad SEO agencies and whose businesses were hurting as a result, so I decided to do something about this. I decided to build a high quality network of marketing providers that I knew and trusted, and did this through inviting the best I knew. Over time, this process has changed of course!
I validated the idea by asking a marketing friend if he'd be willing to pay me $50 for an introduction to a potential client. He asked me what my PayPal was, and I had $50 in my PayPal account three minutes later.
Fast forward a few years and I had both left the agency in New York and then been laid off by the company I was working for in San Francisco. I had approximately three months of financial runway plus my wife's salary, but I needed to pretty quickly generate revenue.
Fortunately I had long wanted to see what this company could become, and being laid off gave me the opportunity. Short term, I leveraged my personal network from my six years in SEO and marketing to pick up some consulting clients, which gave me a longer financial runway. I also began work on the Credo product, which I created on WordPress using my rusty PHP and CSS skills as well as creating systems using a few premium plugins. You don't have to code everything from scratch!
What went into building the initial product?
I took an iterative approach to building the product, as I believe in shipping fast to get feedback and then iterating into the right solution for the problems identified.
The first product was a public-facing website with some category pages for the directory and individual user profiles where businesses could contact the listed agencies and consultants individually. Our business model at this point was pure commission. When an agency closed a client, they paid us a percentage.
The first real Credo product was actually a marketplace built on WordPress using Gravity Forms and GravityView, which allowed you to display Gravity Forms entries publicly. Coupling that with PaidMembershipsPro to allow accepted marketing providers to pay us monthly, I was able to create a system allowing businesses to submit their project, which then was sent to the agencies and consultants who do that work. The providers could then contact the business and try to turn them into a paying client.
From start to finish, it took me and a few contractor developers three months to get this version live. I did most of the work, but I used contract developers from Codeable and then individually to build some custom functionalities. I bootstrapped the development from Credo revenues, which were around $3,000-$5,000 per month at the time, and paid myself from the consulting work I did for three months, which gave me another four months of financial runway to build the product.
How have you attracted users and grown Credo?
My first launch after building out the first version of the site with public profiles was a combination of Product Hunt and my own professional network. But to be honest with you, it didn't do much because I did not have the focus of my company defined, or a strong statement into what we do and who we do it for.
The initial businesses looking to find an agency contacted me personally wanting me to consult with them, and I was able to then refer them on to other agencies, as I was busy with consulting work. I solved my own problem of not knowing where to send clients who were not a good fit for me.
As a professional marketer (though not a great brand marketer), I've taken the approach of building an audience over trying to brute force growth through advertising. I believe that advertising can be a great way to pour some gasoline on a fire you already have burning, but you need that fire first.
While I've tried a lot of different strategies related to ads, the four channels that have driven the most projects and growth are:
- Consistent content on the Credo blog and in the form of bigger guides that educates the person we are trying to reach (marketing managers and above).
- Outreach to other websites to get referral traffic (which also has the knock-on effect of links back to our site which help with our organic rankings and traffic).
- SEO. I'm constantly putting out content and posting on other sites around marketing topics, so this is a great way to build links and gain referral traffic.
- Retargeting through Facebook to bring people who viewed our conversion page but did not convert back to the site.
The Credo site currently generates around 20,000 unique visitors and 32,000 pageviews per month. Traffic has over doubled from January 2017 until the present day, and the number of projects created on Credo have grown approximately the same amount.
First, I've always invested in consistent blog content that generates consistent traffic through SEO. For a time I contracted with a writer to create content for the blog, but it lacked the punch I wanted for my brand so we stopped working together. We have also created some large marketing guides for the real estate and e-commerce verticals. This year we plan to do more of these and build into some bigger launches in a more strategic way, as we know these work.
For a time I was very consistent about reaching out to people who have created blog posts targeting "competitor" keywords for sites I have considered competitors in the past. One thing I've learned though is that if someone is looking for "competitors", they are likely budget shopping and not as serious about finding the right partner as they are about getting a good deal. So while this helped increase conversions and traffic, it may not have helped the business as much as I hoped, with the exception of one referral partner.
Third, SEO has been a big driver. I think of SEO traffic in two ways — one set directly meant for conversions (such as my SEO agencies page) and one set meant for driving traffic higher in the conversion funnel (such as our blog). In July 2017 I released a big update for SEO where my developer and I created pages using multiple taxonomies (e.g. "SEO agencies" instead of just "SEO" and "agencies"), which effectively 6x'd the number of pages we had to drive traffic through the marketplace. This resulted in 3x traffic growth to those pages, and in a business which drives 50% of its business from SEO this made a meaningful difference in the business.
And finally, advertising. As I mentioned, retargeting has shown a great return for us in bringing back people who left the site to create a project. Before I made some changes and targeted higher volumes of projects, Quora was a great conversion driver. But other attempts have failed, as my customer requires mutiple touches and trust to be built before they even contact us. In 2018 we're investigating this more.
What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
Our business model is currently a hybrid subscription plus commission model. Agencies and consultants pay us monthly to get listed on the service, after they've been vetted for quality. We also have an annual subscription which gets them listed in the directory.
We've been through three business models at Credo, and the current model is a hybrid of the first two.
The first model was pure commission as I mentioned. We sent a referral to an agency, and when they closed it we received a percentage for three months. This was very good when big projects closed, but revenue was not consistent as we were essentially replacing revenue every three months and not able to really affect close rates very well.
Then I moved to the subscription model, which allowed us to grow and hit six figures in revenue roughly 12 months after initial launch and four months after the revenue model change. This was fantastic, but was ultimately unsustainable because incentives were misaligned, and what I was selling people did not make sense. I was selling them a volume of leads, when I wanted to be selling them clients. This model had a lot of churn, so while I was able to grow revenue monthly I was constantly replacing churned revenue and then building on top of that. It was unsustainable.
The current hybrid model of subscription plus commission on closed projects works very well. I've taken a lesson from Richard Branson in protecting the downside (our needs are met monthly by subscriptions) and there's upside in closed projects. I also know exactly how to grow revenue, which is ultimately through generating a bigger audience on Credo and then occasionally bringing on new providers to whom we send work. Everything hinges on enough projects coming into the system.
Revenue has gone up and down as I've changed models. From May through November 2017, software revenue was 27,000, 23,000, 20,000, 27,000, 23,000, 20,000. It has now become much more consistent and has grown through December and January. We operate around a 30%-40% profit margin, with some months lower as we invest in new areas, or as payments come in late from some customers. We have never had an unprofitable month.
What are your goals for the future?
I've crowned 2018 my year of no hustle. This means over the course of 2018 I am planning to not increase the amount I work, but rather to use the revenue we have to hire a team that will let us grow quicker than I could on my own.
Some of my goals for the business, though, are to triple traffic and conversions, as these are direct leading indicators on our revenue. I plan to accomplish this through a focused content marketing and promotion effort which we will leverage into bigger press coverage.
In 2017 I learned a lot about what works and what doesn't, and 2018 is the year to focus and double down.
My other focus is future-proofing our business from competitors entering the market. No business is truly competitor-proof, but I have some positioning and offering ideas that should make it very challenging for someone to take us out long term.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
I've faced some big challenges over the last two and a half years. So many that I think I could write a book about them.
The biggest mistake I learned was not doing proper research and vetting out new business and pricing models before moving to them. I've tended to ship things very quickly instead of doing the research, and this ultimately has made Credo grow way slower than it should have. If I could do it again, I'd spend more time talking with pricing experts about pricing and would have rolled out pricing changes much slower.
One mistake that almost killed Credo early on was being served a Cease & Desist for copyright infringement the day before Thanksgiving 2015, merely two months after I started working for myself. And the worst part is that they were right. Instead of fighting it, I chose to rebrand. This took me approximately two months and ultimately was the right move for my company, but it took a lot of needed focus off of getting initial market traction. I would have done a lot more copyright research to make sure I was not violating any copyrights or trademarks before launching.
And finally, I had to learn to balance work and life. I ended up in a very challenging place at the beginning of 2016, so much so that I started taking a mood supplement and saw a therapist for nine months. While in retrospect this is one of the best things I've ever done, it was also very challenging to work through.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The best thing I've done to move my company forward is admitting that I don't know everything, nor do I need to do everything. I've found mentors, some of the best in the world at what they do, and paid them for their time to help me out. That expense has returned itself many times over, and I've made some good friends out of it.
Secondly, I've made a lot of bad decisions, but I've also kept the attitude that the only way you fail is when you give up. I've almost given up a few times, but I've pushed through. Through changing business models and dealing with and ultimately firing bad customers as well as one employee, I've always kept my eye on moving forward and being better each day.
That is why Credo still exists today.
What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?
I recently had someone tell me this: "I have tried to different ways to make money without any capital but nothing works. I want to do drop shipping and don't know but I only know basic stuff. Any advise or suggestion would be much appreciated".
My advice to them was this: "My advice — stop reading all the digital nomad/tech blogs and start developing skills that people will pay you to do for them. Once you have that, then leverage that to raise your rates so you work fewer hours for the same money and can spend time getting something like a drop shipping business off the ground."
Stop chasing the easy money. Those who are willing to put in the work to become a master of their craft and then learn how to position themselves and sell themselves are the ones who will succeed. A constant stream of "X tips to do Y" will leave you feeling unsatisfied, and you'll learn a lot more by learning on the job.
Finally, a few of the books that have made a big impact on me are The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, Playing to Win by David Sirlin, and of course The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. I don't really listen to any podcasts consistently as they take too much time and I'd rather read.
Where can we go to learn more?
I'm happy to answer any questions in the comments below! I'm quite transparent into business, so nothing is off the table!
—, Founder of Credo
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