Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?
Hola! My name is Sean Marshall and I’m the founder of Social Rocketship, a digital marketing company.
Social Rocketship helps small business owners with all of their online marketing needs — from website design to SEO to social media. Our target audience is primarily small to midsize businesses based in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
The business is built on monthly recurring subscriptions, with one-off website builds and other services as additional revenue. This past year, we averaged $16,000 in monthly revenue.
What motivated you to get started with Social Rocketship?
Before 2010, I worked at various jobs near my home in Laguna Niguel, California where we were barely making ends meet. To try and move up in the world, I taught myself some basic online marketing skills, like how to build a Wordpress website. I learned that practically all the information anyone ever needs is online, and I spent hours on YouTube, various forums, and blogs, soaking in everything I could get my hands on.
And it paid off! My new knowledge actually landed me the last office job I would ever have. While there, I met with a number of business owners who all asked me for help once they found out I knew my way around online. That’s when the idea for Social Rocketship came up. I knew that the demand was there, I just needed to speak with business owners and get them on board.
After getting let go, my wife and I decided that it was time to part with the convention of working for someone else and went all in on our own business. We decided to take the plunge because we wanted to have mobility. Even though we already had kids, they were young and we wanted to travel and have the opportunity to live in other countries.
Once we got the business of the ground, we were able to do just that, with our first stop in Cozumel, Mexico. We spent a total of four and half years there because we loved it so much. Since then, we’ve spent every summer traveling around Europe and the U.S., and are currently living in Edinburgh, Scotland.
What went into building the initial product?
The first thing we did was decide to leave Orange County behind. We loved it, but we knew we wouldn’t be able to afford it while growing a business. We sold literally everything we owned that didn’t fit into our car. We became minimalists and rented a furnished house in Kirkland, Washington. I had some business contacts there so it made sense to go there first.
After that, getting started with Social Rocketship couldn’t have been easier. I got a pack of 250 business cards on VistaPrint, set up a Wordpress website in a day, and then started speaking with as many business owners as I could.
My total investment was under $200 for hosting, domain name, a good Wordpress theme, and business cards. In my first month, I made $2,450 (with $1,400 of that being new recurring revenue). I know it’s not much compared to some of the numbers you see on Indie Hackers but for me, it was huge! I was profitable from the very start.
As for the actual services, I based it all off what the business owners said they needed. After some time, I eventually productized everything into packages and came up with what I refer to as my Walmart, Target, and Nordstrom models. Basically, I had a cheap package (Walmart), with a much nicer one for just barely more (Target), and then a deluxe package (Nordstrom). Most people funneled into the Target package, with a good chunk choosing the Nordstrom package.
Packaging the services like this helped me to systematize everything and identify which businesses would stay on for a long time (I have businesses that have been with me since 2010!). This system also helps me determine which customers aren’t worth my time. I quickly learned to avoid the people that chose the Walmart package because, frankly, they made the worst customers.
As far as technology goes, I use SiteGround for my hosting, Gmail (with forwarding/fetching for my own domain emails), Dropbox for storage, and Asana for project management. I started out splitting the work between myself (big mistake), Fiverr, and Odesk (now Upwork). I eventually got my own team members (as contractors for Social Rocketship) that report directly to me.
How have you attracted users and grown Social Rocketship?
I made my first sales by speaking with business owners I knew personally, as well as those introduced to me through my existing network. We were profitable within our first month and have been growing ever since. By the end of 2011, we’d grown from our initial $2,450 to about $5k/mo, and in 2012 revenue jumped up to over $10k/mo with the addition of streamlined operational systems and new team members. We plateaued in 2013 around $14k/mo, mostly because I wasn’t actively growing the business anymore.
Over the last few years, the business has grown almost exclusively through referrals. Once business owners find a good digital marketing company, they don’t want to let go. And then they tell their friends. These referrals come in as very warm prospects, and it’s practically just a question of which package they’ll choose. The business has steadily increased to an average of $16k/mo, but I don’t have any plans on taking it beyond that.
Face-to-face networking was my bread and butter when it came to driving sales. I’m actually kind of an introvert, but when it came to putting food on the table, I did what I needed to do. Besides, it was easy being the “online marketing guy” in the room because everyone wanted to speak with me. With this business model, every single business out there is a potential customer.
Good customer service and total transparency has been key to growing the business, but networking helped grow my business faster than anything else. I know most people would rather run Facebook ads or spam/email prospects, and that can work. But I’ve believe that my retention level is so high because I had that initial, personal contact with the customer. Even now, I like to be the first one to hop on the phone with a prospect. One 20 minute call can turn into a business paying us month after month for years.
I did try various other “more scalable” methods like email, but nothing worked as well as networking.
What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
My business is based on a recurring subscription, which is vital for growth and revenue forecasting. We also do one-time websites (that are usually priced quite high), but we encourage them to go onto a monthly package once their site is complete.
The actual package costs are on a sliding scale, based on the client’s industry, work involved, etc. But — and this is super important — we always offer the three package pricing. It usually looks something like this:
- $499 (Walmart package)
- $599 (Target package)
- $1199 (Nordstrom package)
Keep in mind those are not the actual names of the packages. Also, the actual numbers can change, but the pattern stays the same. The numbers could be $999/$1099/$1999 or whatever. It’s sales psychology in action!
Most people go for the Target package, which is the one you want to sell all day. Be wary of the Walmart people and embrace the Nordstrom people with open arms.
What are your goals for the future?
I’m really happy with where my business is at now and don’t have many plans to change it. In fact, if you look at my website, it’s basically a just landing page. I don’t have any team members doing marketing.
This business has freed up a huge amount of time and allowed me to do other things, including teaching. In fact, I created an entire course kind of on accident when a buddy of mine asked me to help him make more money. I told him he could just "clone my business". To help him, I wrote up a book and then created a course to walk him (and others) through every aspect of starting and scaling a digital marketing company.
I’m pretty happy to say that my buddy, as well as a lot of other students, have gone on to successfully start businesses of their own. It’s a cool feeling. It’s kind of funny, because in doing this I’m technically creating a bunch of direct competition, but there’s more than enough business out there so I’m not worried.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
The key to scaling this kind of business is to get out of freelancer mode. Even if you can do all the work, you shouldn’t. Think like a business owner and not a business “doer”. Instead of thinking, “What do I have to do today?” think “Who’s doing what today?”
I really limited myself and my business during my first year because I insisted on doing everything myself. It was a total lack mindset. Then a friend challenged me to get one virtual assistant to do just one thing. The virtual assistant did in one hour what would’ve taken me two days. Total cost? $8. Yes, eight U.S. dollars. I was hooked on outsourcing everything after that.
That’s when I put systems in place (basically a detailed checklist in Asana) and got others to do everything for me. Unsurprisingly, my income scaled up.
Having operational systems and a good team in place will take any business to the next level. Do all that you can to get those in place as soon as possible, but don’t let it stop you from making sales. Get out there and make a sale, then turn around and get someone to do the follow-up the work for you.
When it comes to hiring team members, you get what you pay for. Yes, all of my team is overseas (mostly in the Philippines) but their salary (what they bill me, to be precise) is very competitive. It’s also why I’ve had the same virtual assistants for years.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
At the end of my first year, I read two books that completely changed how I approach my business: Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You by John Warrillow and The Millionaire Fastlane by MJ DeMarco.
These two books made a big difference in how I viewed my business and plans for my own finances. I think keeping your overall “why” in mind is suuuuuper important. My wife told me she wanted to live on a tropical island. I did too. We wanted to be mobile. So we worked hard to make that happen. It drove every phone call I made, every proposal I sent out, every follow up, everything.
Remembering, on a daily basis, why you started your business is vital.
What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?
Sell. Sell. Sell.
It’s been said that you don’t have a business until something is sold. It’s true. You can waste weeks or months perfecting your website or your product or your launch sequence or whatever. None of it really matters.
What does matter is getting one human (that’s not your mom) to buy your product. And then another. And another. And keep going. Don’t worry about having the coolest looking logo or the most attractive company culture. Just sell. Too many people overcomplicate things and focus on the wrong aspects of their business, especially at the beginning.
Yes, you can have a "cool office" with ping pong tables and pizza parties all you want after you’ve made sales. Get your product done. Then sell it once. Then sell it again. Put systems in place. Get people to do the work. Sell more. Work on scaling your revenue while reducing your own amount of personal involvement so you can focus on what you want to.
Do anything and everything it takes to make that happen. Then you’ll find yourself eating tacos on a beach somewhere. I promise.
Where can we go to learn more?
Please ask me anything you want in the comment section. I’m an open book!
I'm happy and honored to be on Indie Hackers and look forward to helping however I can. If it's in my brain, it's yours to have.
—, Founder of Social Rocketship
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