Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?
We're kind of like NerdWallet or Wirecutter, but specifically focused on the HR and recruiting software niche. Our goal is providing the best unbiased advice out there for teams looking to add tools to their HR Tech stack.
It took me ten months to earn my first advertising dollar. But now my business is providing me a six figure income. I recently hired my first full time employee, which is something I'm super proud of as I've completely funded the company from customer revenues. (A consulting gig I did for a few months in the beginning helped too, but more on that below.)
I've also started a small investing business. I got to invest very early into companies like Pinterest, Shopify, Twilio, Fiverr, etc., and so have been investing those proceeds back into a similar asset class by buying out early employees at private tech companies. But I only spend around 20% of my time on this, so I'll focus this article on my HR software review site SSR.
What motivated you to get started with SelectSoftware Reviews?
I'd originally started my career in venture capital doing early stage software investments into mostly SaaS companies. I'm a bit of a finance nerd who was also interested in tech entrepreneurship, and so this was a great job for me early in my career.
I always wanted to start a company, so I went to business school, as I thought for some reason this is what you should do if you want to start a business! I also taught myself to code. I worked on many projects, most of which failed, and finally grew a small bootstrapped SaaS company to the point where I could hire someone to replace me as a general manager.
This company was in the HR space, so I had a small personal brand there through a video series I'd done, and a lot of domain expertise. I wanted to start another business, and really loved to learn about technology. So I started a blog about the latest in HR Tech that eventually turned into more of a review site for HR software.
The blog started to take off, so I got a stable full of interns to help me with link acquisition and a bunch of SEO stuff that led to really rapid traffic growth, and the eventual ability to monetize some of this traffic via ads.
I was lucky in that I had a small income at the time from some investing I'd done while in VC that was more than ample to fund my lifestyle (I've always lived very cheaply), and now the business provides an income for myself.
What went into building the initial product?
The first product was a Squarespace site! I'm a full-stack web developer and have even built my own CMS in the past, but it's just so easy to get up and running with a WYSIWYG editor like Squarespace. Beyond the website builder, a lot of my "product" is content.
I really do love to write and share what I've learned, and so it was simple for me to generate a lot of content in the early days. I also started doing a lot of videos so that people could get used to seeing my face and recognizing our content on third-party sites.
When I started allowing advertising on SSR, I had to do a lot of spreadsheet work. My ad model is cost-per-click, and so I needed to keep track of who clicked on what, when, how much a click was, etc. So I set up Google Tag Manager (vs the siren call of wanting to build my own click tracking software), and a bunch of spreadsheets, plus Stripe for billing.
It took around ten months to go from hitting publish on the first blog post to making my first dollar of revenue, but it felt good when that hit the bank account. :)
I also took on a ten-hour-a-week consulting gig while I was first building the site. I'm lucky that I've accumulated a lot of HR and recruiting knowledge, and someone was willing to pay me a six-figure salary for ten hours a week of my time. This consulting was also helpful to my content-creation efforts as I spent a lot of time with this team as they scaled from 300 employees to 3,500 over the course of a year. We bought over $1 million worth of tools, hired a ton of people, and had to solve just about every recruiting issue you could imagine in a short amount of time during hypergrowth.
What's your tech stack?
Despite going through the pain of teaching myself to be a full-stack web developer, I'm actually a huge fan of no-code as it allows me to test and move quickly. We ditched Squarespace and moved over to Webflow for our website CMS after a little over a year. It's allowed for a lot of flexibility on the design side, and their API is pretty sweet. Plus, Squarespace is not at all suited for having third parties work on your site, due to their lack of backups and different permissions levels.
I also custom built an advertising engine with Bubble, another no-code platform. This saves me around 20 hours of tedious and error-prone spreadsheet work per month managing the ads on our site, and also allowed us to double our customer count as I could do more sales with my spare time.
How have you attracted users and grown SelectSoftware Reviews?
I never really "launched" our site. I knew from the get-go that SEO was the only way I would really be able to drive high-intent software buyers that would eventually be monetizable. So from day one I was super focused on acquiring links and building great content.
I did spend a few weeks and a few hundred dollars on different types of ads like adwords, LinkedIn, Facebook, Quora, Reddit... But the cost was just so high to get people to our pages so it didn't really make sense.
Ironically, it was a random post about SaaS valuations (like I said, I'm a huge finance nerd) that I'd written on our blog and then posted to Hacker News that got us our first deluge of links. It stayed on the front page for a while and people started linking to it. It has almost nothing to do with HR software, and the audience that came to our site was super irrelevant, but it kind of got Google to start noticing our site a bit and starting to rank our other pages.
I did a massive amount of guest blogging during all of this time to get the word out about our site, probably two to three a week for several months. I also did 15 minutes of HARO every day to try and get myself quoted in various publications. These quotes usually came with a link which is oh so important to my site's traffic growth.
In the first week of January 2019, we had zero organic site visitors. By October 2019 we had over 1,000 per week.
However, in November of that year there was some sort of Google update that didn't like our site, and overnight our traffic dropped 30%! Then, the seasonality of software buying kicked in and our December was a REALLY down month. That was tough to see and has made me ever paranoid about how dependent our business is on SEO.
A 30% drop in traffic is devastating! How'd you respond to Google's change?
To be honest, I first spent a few days being really stressed out about the hit and watching my traffic hourly to see if it'd magically come back. It didn't.
A week after the dip happened, I had a cross country trip to Seattle to visit a few friends, and so I had some time to really think about how to solve this issue versus just stress about it.
On that trip, I noticed something Google was doing with their algorithm where they'd scrape HTML that was structured in a given way and put it at the top of their search results into rich snippets. So, I restructured my site and most of my traffic came back.
However, this was clearly just a hack, and I wanted to have a way to diversify my traffic away from a reliance on Google's algorithm. So, I've doubled down on my newsletter, and also tried hard to build a brand in the HR community instead of being one faceless stop on the software buying journey.
Building a brand is insanely hard, and it's even hard to build a newsletter around a topic as stale as buying HR software. But, these efforts are slowly paying off. While SEO has been good to us in the past year, our newsletter and direct traffic have also grown considerably.
What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
When I first started this business, I was doing a consultant gig to help pay the bills. I think the site gave me more credibility, and I had a few companies who wanted to pay me on retainer to help with their recruiting. But I knew I didn't want to trade hours for dollars forever.
Six months after starting the site, I tried to start monetizing it via ads. At first, I started making bespoke videos for advertisers at $500 per video and then linking back to their landing pages. One of my first customers landed a $1 million contract through one of these videos on my site. So I probably could have charged a lot more! :) But I found it to be a bit too unscalable for my liking.
I tried a few other models: sponsored events, sponsored webinars, sponsored content... None of these really suited my interests, nor my desire to create a scalable business.
In August of 2019 I started offering cost-per-click advertising on my site. This allowed software vendors that I'd already vetted to drive more traffic to their landing pages, which eventually turned into leads and customers for them. This was a business model that aligned with scalability. It was very challenging to keep track of all of the clicks in spreadsheets and Google Tag Manager, but I knew eventually I could build a system to manage it all.
The first month, I booked $200, but by October I was up to around $1,100, and by January of 2020 had crossed the $5,000-per-month mark! I'm now able to hire a few contractors, and my first fulltime employee just based off the revenues from the business.
You saw a huge boom in revenue only after a long period of hard work and little returns. How did you motivate yourself to keep going through that period?
Like many people who have the entrepreneurial bug, I am driven by a lot more than money.
It's definitely part of my motivation, but when I wake up in the morning I am focused on the problems my business faces and how to solve them, not necessarily on the economic outcome of solving those problems... which of course can be a bad thing if you don't pay attention to where your time can be spent with the highest ROI!)
What were the stakes for failure?
I hope this doesn't come off as too arrogant, but I don't think the stakes were that high. I've been very lucky to have started building my savings when I was very young, and had gotten to a point where my investment income was enough to live off of. I also had a pretty good consulting gig going that I could've turned into a job if I'd wanted to. Lastly, I'd asked a few people for advice on this new venture and three of them tried to hire me. So, I wasn't in a precarious position financially, and had a lot of data points telling me I could get a pretty good job if all else failed.
Of course, I wanted to make sure I was able to live the life I wanted to live, which was based around bootstrapped entrepreneurship. So from that perspective it was very important to succeed, and failure would've closed that door at least for the foreseeable future.
You work in reviews. Has a negative review ever made a SaaS company upset? How did you handle it?
I definitely have had a lot of companies in the HR SaaS world get upset with me. I'm someone who hates confrontation, so it's not always easy for me to deal with these situations.
I just always go back to my north star of helping HR teams to find and buy the right software, and I'm very transparent with companies about why they did or didn't make the cut and how they can improve.
Some are still upset and I've had many heated email exchanges, and even a few attempts by companies to bribe their way onto the site! But I can deal with the stress of angry companies if I know I'm being true to the mission of SSR.
What are your goals for the future?
My goal is to become the number one place that HR and recruiting professionals trust to find advice when they are buying software. The big thing for me is to figure out how to build a brand in this space with very little marketing dollars. It really all comes down to consistently creating useful and insightful content!
Economically, I'd love to get to seven figures per year of cash flow in the next five years, which is very doable on the current trajectory. I'm now focused on how to scale our content creation, and to diversify our traffic sources.
I'd also like to start another business or two along the way. I find myself happiest when I devote 80% of my time to something, and 20% to something else.
As I mentioned earlier, I've actually started a small investing business over the past year where I am buying out the shares of early employees at tech companies. I've used the proceeds from investing in companies like Twilio, Shopify, Pinterest (got into the Series A of each through my old job) to buy shares in really amazing private companies, the first of which is set to go public this year.
What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?
Finding product/market fit is everything in startups. I've seen the same team with the same resources fail miserably, and then succeed spectacularly. Sure, they learned a few things through failure, but mostly they just found a product that people wanted. Hence YC's motto of make something people want!
In order to find product/market fit, you need to stay as lean and objective as possible. You can't devote tons of time to building some perfect product, and then delude yourself into thinking it's great even though there is no user traction.
I started with a Squarespace site. I didn't even setup WordPress for my MVP! I also had specific goals I wanted to hit by a certain date, like traffic or revenue, otherwise the experiment was just not going to work and I would've moved on to another iteration, or another idea. I killed around a dozen versions of this idea before landing on what I did. Many of those original ideas I forget about until I saw an old Typeform I put together, or a google analytics account for a domain I no longer owned.
The very best way to ensure success is to find a derivative of something that is working. I'm basically doing what Wirecutter does, but for HR software. You can make a product like a CRM, but specifically built for sporting goods distributors, or a sock that is built for crossfit athletes.
The last two pieces of advice are to focus really hard on one thing at a time, and to just do it. On focus, you need to devote all of your energy into one thing for it to work. There are too many small things that have to be done for your startup to gain momentum. On just doing it, there are so many people I talk to that don't get started because they are subconsciously afraid of failure. Embrace the pain, pat yourself on the back for attacking something hard, and go for it.
Ok, my actual final piece of advice is to take care of yourself. Almost every day I meditate and workout. I sleep eight and a half hours, I eat right, and I see my friends and family a lot. All of this stuff is the same as working on your startup because it allows you to grind day after day. If you don't take care of yourself, you will almost certainly burn out, and then you will be done.
Where can we go to learn more?
Please also feel free to post any questions in the comments below!
—, Founder of SelectSoftware Reviews
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