What's up, everyone? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and you're listening to the IndieHackers podcast. On this show I talk to the founders of profitable Internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it's like to be in their shoes.
How did they get to where they are today? How do they make decisions both at their companies and their personal lives and what makes their businesses tick?
Today I'm talking to Nat Eliason the founder of Growth Machine. Nat, what's up man?
Not too much, I'm having a wonderful Monday over here and I'm excited to chat with you.
I'm excited to chat with you as well. Do you know that you are only the second person I found on the podcast who not only runs an agency but runs an agency that helps other businesses grow. The first being our mutual friend Julian, over at Bell Curve.
Oh nice. That's right. I saw you interviewed him. Julian's a good friend. We've worked together on a couple of projects now.
Yeah, he's a good guy. I talked to him back in, I think episode 17 or 18 but let's talk about you. You run a company called Growth Machine, which is an agency where you help companies get more traffic and more customers.
More specifically the way you do it is by helping them with something called content marketing, where you're literally writing articles and blog posts for your clients. And then you get these articles to rank at the top of Google. The end result is that clients end up getting a ton of traffic from all of these people who are searching Google and landing on the articles that you wrote.
Is that a good description of what you guys are doing? What am I leaving out?
No, that's basically what we do. We take over a lot of the content production or refurbishing of existing stuff and get it in those top spots on Google and then help them optimize the conversion metrics around that new traffic they are getting.
And who exactly is Growth Machine. Is it just you by yourself or do you have a team working with you?
It started as just me back in September 2017 when I decided to go the agency route with it. I've been doing some consulting before, the consulting honestly was more of a pain than it was worth and nobody was ever able to implement the advice that well.
So I switched to the agency model where we could do everything for them and started that in September. It was just me for the first four months and then around January we hired our first full-time employee, Nora, who's amazing and then we brought on two more full-time people soon after that.
So there's three of us, three people full time with me now. We're hiring another person and we've probably got 40 or 50 contractors who work with us as well with article writing.
Yeah. It's actually a crazy hub-and-spoke model within the company. We just have a few core full-time people and then we've got tons of contractors for mostly article creation.
That's the main one, because we have to find somebody or two or three people who are experts in the niche of every client we work with. So we can't just have one writer do all of the articles.
We work with people doing ketogenic diets and team productivity management and meditation.
Just like very different areas and our strategies work pretty much across all of them but we have to get new writers. So we have a huge team of writers, then we've got promoters and people who help with editing and image creation and all of that.
So it's very like siloed out at the first steps in most of the processes.
How much revenue you guys generating nowadays? And how many customers do you have?
Because 50 contractors on top of your full-time staff, on top of yourself is a lot of people to support and you guys are entirely self funded.
Yeah well, I mean that was the scary thing with bringing somebody on full time at the beginning because I never really worked on something with multiple people, or where I had to pay salaries quite like this.
Then it started with literally just me transferring five grand from my personal account to the business account, to pay freelancers with. I learned really quickly that cash flow in a business like this, is tricky because most of your clients will not pay you on time. It'll take like 45 days to pay you.
So even if you bill at the beginning of work, you have to do two or three payroll cycles before you get the money from the clients, that you're going to use to pay your employees. So It's tricky to get it up and running in the beginning, keeping it bootstrapped but we grew really quickly and this month we're going to do about $85k in revenue.
Just nine months after we started. Yeah.
I'm in the wrong business.
So that's been super cool and luckily we've always been profitable. So I was able to bank money in the beginning to start bringing on other full-time people and make the the cash flow stuff work out for the tricky first few months of them being on the team.
But now I can't imagine doing it any other way. It was so hard when it was just me trying to wear all the hats and everybody who's on the full-time team is way better at the thing that they do than I am. So it's just a much more efficient, better process. We all get to have fun together and business is growing so it's been great.
There's a lot in there that I want to talk about. I want to talk about how you hired and structured your team. I want to talk about how you even started working on this idea in the first place.
But first I want to talk about growth. Obviously you're an expert at growth and it's hard to overstate how important the skill is because every business needs to grow. If you're not growing then you're either stagnating or declining and neither one of those are comfortable positions to begin as a founder.
How did you build up your skill set? And get to the point where you're confident enough to tell clients, hey, I can help you grow your business. I can get you to the top of Google.
Yeah, honestly it kind of started on accident. I started a blog in college because I got a Philosophy degree, which I knew wasn't going to land me any useful interesting job.
I was really interested in the entrepreneurship and marketing stuff and I had done like a startup thing in college, just to try to get into entrepreneurship. It basically failed wonderfully after a year and I realized that part of the reason it was hard for that succeed was that I didn't know anything about marketing.
Being a college student with not much cash flow, the easiest way to start learning marketing at the time seemed to be content marketing. So I started just a blog under my own name, started writing articles about random stuff. Then that pretty quickly led to me doing an internship with Zapier, which is an amazing product and company.
For anyone who doesn't know about it, it lets you automate stuff between different tools and they have a phenomenal content marketing team, it was very focused on SEO. So I got to work with them during my senior spring in college and learn a ton of their SEO skill sets and techniques and add it to my own abilities.
Then as the Zapier internship was ending I got this opportunity to go work with Noah Kagan, the guy who started AppSumo which was then called SumoMe, in Austin.
SumoMe was starting to grow and he wanted to hire the first in-house marketer to work on the marketing for the product so that he could focus on running the business and content ended up being a huge part of the strategy there. So I had to learn a ton of content marketing.
He put me in touch with people like Brian Dean who were the absolute experts in the field so I could learn from them a bit. I got that sandbox to play with for nine months with the Sumo blog and ended up growing that one from about 5,000 a month when I started to 170,000 visitors a month by the time I left. That was a mix of SEO and getting really good guests, growing the email list and just the whole stack of content marketing.
At the same time I was still working on that personal site that I started in college and through applying some of my SEO stuff to that, it was getting about 200,000 visitors a month by that point.
So that was growing a lot too and I was like, okay cool. My personal site had actually grown at that point into being a business and so when my job at Sumo ended I traveled for a year and a half, basically using my personal site as a lifestyle business and getting to go all around the world and just write articles and use that as my like main business and income.
Then eventually people saw what I was doing with my site, they had seen the stuff I had been doing at Sumo before and they started asking, "hey, can you help us figure out the content marketing for our business?".
I mean one notable one is that while I was doing this Zapier internship, I was working with another guy, Justin Mares. He's the co-author of Traction and he runs a business now called Kettle & Fire.
We had done a project together called Programming for Marketers, which is like teaching marketers technical skills, then as that project wound down he was getting started with Kettle & Fire. So he eventually reached out to me and said like "hey, can you help us just like figure out our content marketing strategy for Kettle & Fire and then help us hire someone?".
So, we got to work together for a few months, that was super fun. Got their strategy rolling and then they hired a really great content marketer and she took it from like 20,000 a month to 150,000 visitors a month within like eight or nine months.
Getting a couple of those wins doing the consulting made me feel like okay well maybe I can actually just start a business to do this for companies because it worked out great with Kettle & Fire. But the couple of other sites that I worked with on as a consultant, it just like didn't go anywhere.
They had a really hard time implementing it, they like took the advice and then didn't do anything with it and that was super frustrating to me. So I figured like, okay well, let's just start a business handling everything for them so that they don't need to hire in-house or try to figure it out on their end. And that was where Growth Machine came from.
That's just a long-winded way of saying that if you really want to get good at growth, what you need more than anything is a Philosophy degree.
Yeah, exactly. Get a Philosophy degree and then stumble onto SEO randomly. The first time that an article of my popped up on Google I had no idea what SEO was. I wasn't really trying to do it. It was just like I woke up one day and suddenly my site had gone from 10 visitors a day to 200.
That was just like crazy exciting at the time. So that made me be like, okay well, how did this happen? And then obviously, how can I like replicate it across other sites. To be fair, I love that you're saying that I'm amazing at growth and stuff but I feel like I'm really just good at one very specific thing, which is growing sites through search focused content.
Growth is such a huge umbrella and I picked that one specific thing to get really good at and build some brand around and that's worked out very well.
I want to dive into some of the details behind exactly how you got good at this one specific skill.
And maybe some of the lessons and the skills that you picked up, working at all these different jobs.
What would you say was the most impactful role or phase of your career in terms of learning?
I mean the only really long job honestly was the Sumo one. I was there for eight or nine months and then I've been doing my own stuff ever since.
I learned a ton with Zapier too. I mean, they were amazing and they treated me super well. Danny Schreiber was the guy I was working with there. He's just like awesome at all things marketing, him and Matt Gay.
They really took a lot of time to help me learn the content marketing, SEO stuff and then Noah at Sumo invested a lot in helping me just learn all of the content marketing, copywriting, email marketing. I feel like I'm learning the most now, right?
Doing this stuff where we're actually getting to work on 10 or 12 sites at once. WIth Zapier and with Sumo, it was just one site and you only had one data point for if your hypotheses were good or bad. Now if we have an idea to test something we can do it on 10 sites at once, most of which are getting like a few hundred thousand visitors a month.
So we get really good feedback on our experiments and that's made it really easy to like quickly iterate on our assumptions and it's been really fun too see the strategies work across multiple sites in multiple niches. So I really feel like this has been the biggest learning experience of all.
Yeah it can be crazy effective when you're able to experiment so much and as somebody who runs just one single website, I've got to say I'm a little bit envious of the position that you're in with Growth Machine,
At the same time you're getting to talk to all these people and read all these write-ups. So you're getting a ton of good data from that too which is probably cool.
Yeah. I'm definitely expecting some free SEO services after this interview Nat.
So let's talk about your blog because it doesn't sound like you had any particularly strong direction for it, other than I just want to start writing.
How did you go from there and grow it into something huge?
Yeah, I mean it was really just I'm going to write about whatever stuff is interesting to me. So I was reading a lot of books about psychology and decision science type stuff back when I started, so I wrote about things related to that at the beginning.
Then just as my interests have shifted and changed over time the stuff that I write about has shifted and changed too. So eventually I started writing some marketing articles there. I started writing some travel stuff, some finance related stuff when I was doing the digital Nomad stuff.
There's a whole section of the blog dedicated to sex stuff. Like it's really varied and very much just whatever I felt like writing at the time. I've tried to resist the urge to obsess over the SEO too much because I find that, at least for my personal site, if I just try to write stuff that could rank highly for a good keyword it's never quite as good as the stuff that I'm just interested in.
But what I will do is if there's something I'm interested in writing about, I'll write about it and then I can go through afterwards and see if there's a good way to tweak it to fit a search term. Sometimes there is and sometimes there isn't. The articles that do have target keywords that they can get a lot of traffic for, do really well and they help prop up the ones that are more interesting to me and I feel like writing about it.
A lot of people listening are probably scratching their heads because they have no idea what SEO is. They don't know what keywords are, they don't know how any of this stuff works.
Can you give us the high level Nat Eliason overview of what SEO is and how you do a good job at it?
Yeah I think that it's easy to over complicate it and to obsess over the tons of little variables you can tweak. I mean the way that we usually think about it at Growth Machine is just that you want to write the best or most useful article on a given topic, on the web.
And so there's really only a few parts to it then. Which is finding out what people are searching for and there's a lot of ways you can do keyword research. You can use expensive tools like ahrefs. You can use free stuff like Keyword Planner.
Just some way to figure out, are people looking for this? Yes or no. Then once you have topics that people are looking for, how do you create the best article on that topic?
That's honestly the hardest part of it because most people are much worse at writing and explaining things than they think they are. So you'll get this issue where like a director of marketing or a solo founder will start to quote-unquote try to do content marketing.
Where they say, I'm gonna write a blog post a week and then hopefully that brings in traffic. That strategy usually doesn't go that well, it requires a fair amount of time and energy and honestly money to like really do it well and make it work. And so, I'm very much of the opinion where it's like you either go all the way with it and you've got somebody where it's basically their part-time job, at least if not full-time.
Or you don't do it at all because the only way that you can consistently create the best articles on the internet about a subject within a given umbrella of topics is if you've got someone dedicating a lot of time and energy to it. The third part of it is that you also have to promote it or at least try to get some traffic to it. Once it's ranking, that brings in a lot of traffic but it's really hard to get something ranked if people aren't already reading it.
Which means you also need to putting energy into social promotion or building an email list or going on podcasts. Whatever you can do to get people to go read your stuff so that it can start to rank. I mean if you can find topics people are looking for, if you can write about them in extremely useful authoritative ways and then if you can get people to read your content and link to it, you will probably do very very well at SEO. Assuming you're not in a hyper competitive field, which most people are not.
I think it's so easy for somebody listening to this to go out and want to start a blog and start doing some research about SEO and then immediately get lost and the tens of thousands of articles that exist, that have been written about how to get good at SEO and all the millions of little variables that you can tweak.
How did you go about navigating this minefield and learn about SEO on your own? And how should other people go about learning if they want to get serious about this?
Yeah, I would say that the first thing to watch out for is what you just alluded to, which is that there is an absurd amount of content out there on SEO and 99.9% of the people writing about it don't really know what they're doing.
They're just churning out articles and unfortunately just because something is the number one result for an SEO topic, doesn't actually mean it's the best article because Google isn't perfect right? You still have to do some work to find good articles and good writers on a subject.
Try to make sure that you're not overly complicating the process. I would say, if you want to learn about SEO in general, I think you could basically just read Brian Dean's blog and watch his YouTube channel and you wouldn't really need to go anywhere else. If you are curious about it as it blends with content marketing I would very selfishly promote the Growth Machine blog, because we do write about it a lot and I talk about it a lot too.
I mean honestly, the way I learned was really the trial and error and reading a lot of stuff from, primarily Brian. His stuff is really good and just being able to read his articles, try to apply it on my site or a Sumo article and then see what happens. After two years of playing around with it, that was enough to get really really good.
With Growth Machine we can go into a site that's already getting a decent amount of search traffic and we can pretty reliably increase it by 50% to 200% within three months. It's just a lot of repetition and a lot of practice and a lot of experimenting with what actually moves the needle and what doesn't. I would caution people with the whole like reading and researching phase because it's so easy to just waste tons of time doing it.
If you can find like one good source and consume everything from that one source and then just go start experimenting. That's probably the best way to learn.
What was the first thing that you wrote on your personal blog that blew up and opened your eyes as to how much search engine optimization could really help grow your site?
Yeah, this was an article. So I started my blog in September 2014 and in February I wrote an article on doing a five day water fast. I think to this day if you Google five day water fast, it's still number one or number two, looks like I'm number two right now. It moves around a lot.
That one was really just like I had heard about water fasting as an interesting thing to try and I figured okay this would be a cool experiment to just see if I can go five days without food. So I did it and I took pretty detailed notes as it was going and then I wrote up this article about it afterwards, put it on my blog. I was not expecting it to do anything. I literally knew nothing about SEO, right?
This was the one where a few months later I woke up one day and suddenly there were 200 people a day reading it. I was like, whoa, okay, what happened here? Really, this is weird. Then that made me way more interested in SEO as a channel to go after because the blog was getting more people per day than it would before when I published a new article and I was doing no extra work.
Normally if you have a non SEO blog, you have to work to get traffic to every article and every old article. But if you have an SEO focused blog then the articles you get to rank just keep getting traffic, basically forever until somebody makes a better one.
That water fasting article alone gets about two thousand visitors a day, to this day, like three years later, right? And if you think about what it costs to buy ads, if I was selling a fasting product and I was buying ads on that keyword I'd be paying probably at least $2,000 a day for that traffic, but I get it for free every day.
That was a crazy realization that, wow if you can actually get good at this and do it for a large portfolio of topics, that can just drive and insane amount of value for your business or your personal site or whatever else you're trying to sell. It's a pretty cool channel if you can crack it.
Was there a point where you looked at what was going on and you thought to yourself, hey, maybe I should make some money off of all this traffic that I'm driving to my website?
Oh, yeah. So this is the fun part of my site, which is about a year after I started it I was having a conversation with a friend about sex. He was talking about trying to last longer in bed. It was something that I had done a bunch of research on previously and still had some notes lying around in my Evernote and stuff.
So we had talked about it and then at the end of that, he said, you should just write an article about this and put it on your site. My first reaction was like, oh God no, I'm not doing that.
Then it just kept sitting around in my head for a while and after a few weeks I just drank a bunch of wine one night and wrote the whole article in one go. Published it before I could sober up and change my mind. First, the article hit like the front page of Reddit, so I got something like 40,000 visitors in 24 hours.
Which was insane, it was like more traffic than the site had gotten in the past year I got in 24 hours. That was like, okay, that's awesome. Then within a month, I was on the first page of Google for 'last longer in bed'. And so then that article was suddenly getting up to a thousand visitors a day.
Now it gets like 3000 to 3500 visitors a day and it's done that pretty consistently for the last two years. I was like, shit this is a lot of traffic and it seems like a valuable topic.
What I noticed was that within the article there was a recommendation for an app that was on the app store, for helping women practice Kegel exercises.
I noticed that there were about 200 clicks per day going to that app. I did some back of the napkin math and I said okay she's charging $2 for her app and if I'm sending 200 people a day to the App Store to her app, if 20% of them end up buying it, that's going to be like $80 a day for her.
So I'm helping her make, what is that, like $2400 a month and I'm seeing none of that value. I made a small affiliate commission from iTunes.
So then I said okay well, there's really no app in the app store for men, for doing Kegel exercises. There are a bunch of them now because I think other people realized that this one was doing well. I just decided, okay, I'm gonna make an app for men for doing Kegels and I'll feature it in my article and some of the other articles that went up afterwards.
So I ended up getting connected with a guy who was on my email list. I sent out an email saying like "hey, I'm looking for someone to help me build an app". This guy had been reading my stuff for a while. He knew how to get a good app built but he didn't know how to do any marketing. He really wanted to learn marketing.
So he said "hey, I will get the app designed and built for you at cost, if you will keep me in the loop with all the marketing stuff you're doing for it. So I can see how you're growing it and if I can use you as a case study for my other clients". I was like awesome, that's a great deal.
So we got it built for $4,100 total, which is really cheap in the app world. It's pretty hard to get a good feel for that much but it was a fairly simple app. We got it done in about a month and half. Put it up on the App Store, linked to it from my site.
We launched it about two years ago and it's consistently made anywhere from, at the low end probably $3,000 to at the high-end $7,000, $7500 a month in revenue. With basically no ongoing work, just from my blog driving traffic to it. So that was just like an awesome bit of side passive income that helped fund my life while I was traveling and everything.
The articles were bringing in that traffic and selling the app every day with zero, really zero ongoing maintenance for me. We've updated the app once since it launched and I've updated the articles a few times. Just as they lose rankings, you've got to like tweak them a little bit.
Aside from that, that's just like ran without me having to do my else and been a great source of extra income for me and cool validation for this site and a great story to tell clients about the value of SEO. So that was really when I started to make the connection that okay, you can take this traffic and then you can actually sell products with it. That's what we help a lot of our clients do now as well.
Yeah, that's nuts. That's essentially real passive income and it's pretty rare that I talk to anybody who finds that because most businesses have this engine that requires an operator to tend to it and keep it running.
In your case the engine was essentially Google and so you could just go travel the world and the traffic would keep coming in and you'd keep generating revenue. Was this the only way that you made any money from your blog or did you ever find any other ways to start generating income as well?
That was the big one or it has been the big one so far. I mean, I would technically say that Growth Machine is the biggest one because we didn't grow to this level of revenue so quickly just on our own.
I had three years of credibility built up from doing my publishing and giving away marketing advice for free basically on the blog. So indirectly that's been the biggest monetization of my site, then there's obviously Stamina the app, there's a good amount of just random affiliate stuff as it comes up.
I don't like to promote stuff that I don't use. I get a lot from Amazon in particular because I take notes on every book I read and then I publish my notes on my site. So I've got a whole section of my site dedicated to book notes.
If you're familiar with Derek Sivers, he does this too. I think he's got more than I do but I'm working on catching up to him. If you Google a lot of these book titles plus the word summary, my site will be in the first few results. That actually brings in, just like that notes section of the site brings in about 50,000 visitors a month.
A number of them end up clicking through from the book notes to Amazon, buying the book or if you buy anything on Amazon after clicking through an affiliate link you give that site credit. So every now and then someone will buy like a $2000 camera and that's $150 bucks for me, which is awesome. That was like a cool way to monetize some of the stuff on the site.
Then the other thing I do now is because those book notes got so popular I have a product that I called The Brain. Which is like the highly formatted, annotated version of all the book notes that people can buy into. They basically just get read-only access to an Evernote folder. I think I've got something like 220 books in there now, with my detailed bolding, highlighting, personal annotations and stuff and people seem to like that. I think to either refresh books they've already read or to find new ones and so that will sell like a couple hundred a week maybe I'm just from my newsletter.
There's like a lot of little things on there that are either affiliate deals or small products, things like that. There's always like little ways you can monetize traffic once you're getting it.
It's just an interesting question of okay, if people are reading this, what would be the best product for them to buy? If you can ask yourself that question once you're getting the traffic, I don't think it's very hard to come up with product ideas for the visitors that you're getting.
I don't talk to very many people who have this marketing-first approach, where the first consideration is to make sure that whatever it is that you create, you can get it in front of as many people as possible, as consistently as possible.
I think it's really smart because a failure to do that is what kills the majority of startups. It's really hard to get people on the internet to care about what you've built. And so if you put it off, if that's not the first thing that you consider then you're really just procrastinating and avoiding solving the number one challenge that stands in the way of you and your business's success.
But on the flip side if you spend too much time thinking about these numbers and not enough time thinking about what it is that you're actually building or creating or writing, then it's easy to create something that's horrible. And so the prototypical examples here might be a super addictive game or a social network or even a blog or a publication that's super clickbaity.
Where your traffic numbers might be massive, but you're not really doing something that you can be proud of. I have to think about this a lot with IndieHackers because we publish a lot of content as well.
How do you strike the right balance between reaching as many people as you can and also making sure that you care about what you're putting out?
Yeah, unfortunately the answer is that writing extremely in-depth actionable useful guides and writing good SEO content usually don't go that hand-in-hand, unfortunately.
So that's part of why I don't try to over SEO my personal blog because I know it will necessarily lead to a decrease in value. Just to give you one example, something that Google seems to reward is people staying on your site once they come in and they read an article. They seem to penalize people who open up your article and then go back to look for something else.
So I've got a friend, Connor, who runs a company called BaseLang where they set you up with native speakers in South America to practice Spanish with. You get unlimited Spanish tutoring for $150 a month. It's a great model for people who are trying to learn Spanish. He wrote this massive, super useful 20,000 word guide to learning Spanish, put it up on the site and it wasn't ranking on the first page for 'how to learn Spanish'.
So he said, I wrote this objectively really good guide and it is a really good guide. He's like, why isn't it ranking? I had to say or I guessed it's probably that it is too in-depth, right? It is almost too useful that people will pop the page open and they see this 20,000 word behemoth of useful content and then they either save it for later and leave, which Google doesn't like if you leave immediately. Or they go back to the search results and they say, okay, let me look for something a little bit easier. They want like a quick and easy solution.
So in some ways you do have to, it's not a good way to say this but, cater to the lowest common denominator who's searching for the topic and try to write the content that will please them and that's how you stay top of mind on Google. So you don't want to write bad content, but you also don't want to go like too crazy either.
To give you a good example, we have a project internally at Growth Machine called Cup & Leaf which is tea blog. There's cupandleaf.com which is the tea blog and then there's the store, which is shop.cupandleaf.com. It's just a Shopify store, super simple. This is like what you and I were talking about before just now with the building sites, traffic first.
So the blog is very focused on ranking for everything related to tea, how to brew oolong tea, the health benefits of pu'er tea, how to make barley tea. All of those topics, getting on the first page for them and then driving that traffic to selling actual tea.
That doesn't really lead to creating the kind of interesting blog where somebody goes from one article to the next, to the next. The goal is to rank for all these keywords, have people by tea and then keep buying tea until they die.
It's not to like create a super interesting blog about tea. I'm fine with that because that's the point and I don't think anybody is going to sit there and go oh, let's read about health benefits of pu'er, let's read about the health benefits of oolong, let's read about health benefits of green tea.
Those kinds of blogs are fine too. There's nothing wrong with that. I think where it gets bad is, the worst version of this is people who don't know anything about marketing, who started marketing blog and then write like crappy little 500 word article and then gets sad nobody reads them. Don't be that person.
Then the second kind is people who are trying to rank for this SEO stuff and they do the 7-800 word pretty short, posts. They probably paid somebody $50 on UpWork to bang together and that stuff's not going to rank either and it basically just makes the Internet worse.
You can do like SEO focused content very well, where it's like very in-depth and very useful. I think if you read the Cup & Leaf content it meets that bar, they're very good articles but it's also not going be a crazy interesting blog that somebody goes through and reads for an hour. And I think that's okay too.
You just have to know which kind you want. If you want to go the route of being interesting and being very in-depth and thought provoking it's harder to make that an SEO focused blog. You have to be okay with getting a bit less traffic.
If anybody's read Slate Star Codex, that's a super interesting blog. Scott Alexander is obviously like a brilliant guy. He really does his research but I don't imagine that he ranks very highly on Google for that much and there's probably not a ton of monetization from the blog but I think that's fine because he's really interesting.
He's done a great job of that and I think that can be more important than just getting tons of raw traffic.
Let's talk about your current business, Growth Machine. You are making $85,000 a month in revenue now.
You just started this like last September and so you've only been at it for ten months, that's crazy. What motivated you to start this business?
Why not go work for somebody else with your marketing abilities? Or why not start a more scalable product based business rather than an agency?
Yeah, first I knew I could never really go work for another company. I've been working for myself and traveling for a year and half. There was no way I was going to be happy going and sitting in an office and having to do what somebody else tells me to do.
I would have been good for three to six months and then it would have gotten bored and quit. That's just, I knew that would happen. It was a question of okay, I want to start something but I didn't really know what kind of product business or tool or whatever I wanted to build.
I didn't want to just pick something because I felt the need to pick something. So I said instead, why don't I just build a business that builds businesses and then when I have an idea I want to pursue, I can just plug it into the existing structure that we've created,
I already had people asking for help with this SEO focused content marketing and so it just seemed like by far the easiest place to start. Where we are now, we've really gotten the process down and we can really apply it super well to a ton of different industries. And we know the industries that works well in and that's going to let us over time, switch more to building our own properties instead of just having clients.
Having an agency is fun and it's fine and you make good money and the lifestyle is pretty chill but you're still dealing with clients and we're pretty good about firing annoying clients. But even any client is somebody that you're still like taking orders from and also as a necessary function of the business, you must be making them more money than they are paying you right.
Or else they would fire you, so there's some projects where we see like, okay, we're obviously making tons of money for this person through our expertise we should just be building our own projects. That's where Cup & Leaf comes in, it's where we saw the tea niche as an area where we could actually do super well in content.
So we started creating that and eventually growing that e-commerce business. We're working with another couple of people on a, actually I don't know if I can talk about this publicly, but another business we saw SEO potential.
We're working actually with another really good marketing agency on, I can't say what it is, but working with them to get something started. Then I've also been looking at like, not necessarily affiliate sites but sites that can talk about an area that has a lot of traffic that doesn't need an actual product.
So we work with one company Ridester, that we've helped them rank number one or two for pretty much everything related to driving for Lyft and Uber. Then they're earning affiliate revenue for people signing up to be drivers or riders on those services and that's actually super lucrative for him.
So my question is like all right, what other areas can we just take our skill set and apply it to? Where eventually we have a portfolio of companies that we are growing with our internal processes and don't need to take on clients quite as much anymore.
So instead of having to pick that product business from the get-go, back in September, now I've built the system that I can plug other ideas into and test them quickly and throw them out. Or keep growing them and turned them into their own successful businesses within the broader Growth Machine umbrella.
That's awesome. The topic of ideas comes up pretty much every episode of this podcast because it's the phase that the most people are stuck in. They know they want to quit their job. They know they want to start a business.
They just don't know what a good idea looks like or how to come up with one. One of the things that I've been harping on a lot recently is that, in a somewhat weird twist, the best way to come up with an idea for business is to just start a business.
Then in the course of trying to run that business, overcoming various problems and challenges and working with clients and customers you'll come up with even better business ideas.
You're sort of doing this on steroids. You've got a ton of clients that you work with on a regular basis. You're trying to help them grow their website, you see what works and what doesn't and you can take those winning models and apply them to other areas and other industries and add them to your list of promising ideas.
At the same time, even before you started Growth Machine you had your blog and a blog is the same principle. You're putting out tons of blog posts. You see what people react to, what they like, what they don't like and that can give you a source of good ideas that are worth pursuing.
Yeah the blog is awesome for that because I get a lot of random ideas from the blog by seeing either what ranks or what resonates with people. Also learning, for me too, the big metric is how good is the SEO landscape in an area.
Part of why we decided to go after tea, which seems like it should be super competitive, is that the content landscape for it is actually not very competitive. And so we figured out that we could start to rank for it pretty quickly and then use that to drive sales. If you have something like SEO you can use it to, not just evaluate business ideas but also generate them.
I can like take a random topic that I might see in my environment and plug it into a tool like ahrefs and click around a bit and get a good idea of whether or not I could start a site in that area and grow it to a few hundred thousand visitors.
That's like a super easy way to generate and test business ideas. So if you can do something or if you can develop a skill like that and you could do that with ads too. You might be able to do that with also like programming.
So if you can get a really good sense of how easily you can build a tool. I think Ryan, who you had on before is a great example of this.
He's just really really good at programming and building small teams to create stuff using like Ruby on Rails and a few other core languages. So he can look at an idea and get a sense of how fast he could build it, launch something and test it.
To me having one of those skill sets makes it pretty easy to iterate on business ideas. It's like you said, you're probably not going to get the idea right the first time so you want to be able to come up with more of them and also like you mentioned too, finding the problems you run into along the way is a great way to come up with things that other people are probably needing help with as well.
Let's talk about the early days of Growth Machine after you first came up with the idea. How did you get this business up and running and get your first customers in the door?
It really just came from people who were already in my network and were asking about it. I had a couple of people who had reached out and said they wanted me to consult them on getting it started internally and I just went back to them and I said "hey, I don't want to do the consulting because it doesn't go well but what if you pay me the same amount you would pay me to be a consultant for you and instead you get all of your articles created for you. You get them promoted, you get them SEO optimized, you get tracking and updating on how your plan is going each week and you get weekly check-ins where we can talk about other marketing related stuff."
That was a pretty easy sell to both of them and we went from zero. One of them we were charging $6k a month, the next one we were charging $7k a month. Basically the day we started we had $13k a month in revenue.
Them saying yes was what made me say okay. I'm going to start the agency. That seemed like pretty good validation.
And as soon as they said yes I reached out to a few people who I had worked with before and I said "hey, I need help creating content for these guys. Do you think you can help with the management or help with the promotion or help with the article writing?"
A lot of them were set up within the first two weeks and by week 3 we were putting out content for these guys and helping them start to rank. One of them went like super well and we got them a lot. They had a pretty popular YouTube channel so we were literally just taking their popular YouTube videos and creating articles based off of them and then getting them the number one and number two spot on Google whenever someone looked for something relative to their brand.
That was a great strategy, that worked super well. For the other one, it just didn't work very well at all. They ended up having a really competitive niche that we just didn't do a good job in but we ended pretty amicably and they still prefer us to other clients.
As soon as those first two were in the door, I just started reaching out to other people and trying to build more of those relationships and we typically do three or four months initially.
So once somebody's locked in, it's like we're going to have that revenue for three months hopefully so we can keep growing and so I think by December we did like $38k in revenue and it just kept growing.
This is still just you by yourself working on the business full-time and maybe a few contractors that you'd hired as well?
Yeah me plus a few contractors in December. That was when it was hitting the point where I was just working pretty crazy hours and super stressed and things were starting to fall through the cracks and I knew that I was going to run into issues if I didn't solve the problem before we brought on another client.
Luckily I had talked to friend, Zac Obront. He's one of the cofounders of Book in a Box. He told me to hire someone for general management and like strategy and client relationship stuff before I thought I needed them. So I started that process before we had the money to hire someone for it and then ended up, growing the revenue to a point where it made sense to hire them.
Then we worked out good salary structure where she could start semi part-time and then her salary would go up with each new client she managed. Then she was able to come on January right when I was hitting my breaking point and so it just timed itself out perfectly.
Right and I want to talk about how you've been able to stretch your business that it could grow without you having to drive yourself into the ground.
You mentioned earlier that you've hired three people to work with you full-time, who are these people and what are their roles look like?
Yes, so the way our business works with a client is that there's really three things we do. We design the SEO strategy that fits their business.
We create all the articles and publish them on their site and then we promote all the content that we're creating for them, help them get backlinks, help them improve on site conversion. So we now have one full-time team member for each of those roles.
So the first person that we hired, Nora, she basically like leads all of the strategy and a lot of the client relationship side.
So she's the one telling them like, hey, here's the keywords that we want to go after, here's how we want to do it. Here are the writers you think would be a good fit. Here's like the whole content plan. Then checking in with them for tweaks to the plan as we're going and all that. She was the first person he hired.
Then Brian handles all of the promotion at the end of the process. So he actually doesn't do as much of the promotion himself, but he works with a small army of freelancers, each of whom is specialized in a certain area. So we've got a Reddit guy, a Facebook guy, a Twitter person, a Pinterest person. I think we've got a LinkedIn person.
We've got basically one person for each social network and then one person who can mine emails from publications for reaching out for backlinks. So as articles go up on client sites, Brian is taking those articles and feeding them to the freelancers best suited for that article because not all articles will do well on Reddit or Facebook groups or Pinterest or make sense to reach out to for backlinks.
So he's determining the best mix of promotion channels per article and sending them into the funnel that way.
Then he also does all the reporting. So he handles, how did traffic do this week compared to last week and the week before? How are all the keywords ranking? He puts together those reports that we send to the clients every Monday.
Then Heather is right in the middle of the process where she's actually the one interacting with the writers and giving them their deadlines, their article guidelines, editing their writing and then publishing it on the client site.
So she's going to making sure that all the articles are amazing, that they're delivered on time, that they fit the client voice and she handles pretty much all of that implementation.
So with each client they're getting they're getting a dedicated strategy person, editorial person and promotion person. Plus me hovering around the proximity helping in whatever other ways are useful and that's been a really good way to break it up.
Especially with how many freelancers and contractors we have for helping with the very specific parts of the process.
How do you go about finding the right people to work with because I'm sure there's a ton of people online who have some experience with promoting and distributing content.
There's a ton of people online who have experience with editing content. How do you make sure you hire the right people? And what are your tips for other people who might be listening and who need to hire for their small business?
We've used WeWorkRemotely.com for all of it so far and it's been awesome. They seem to have a really big newsletter and pretty much all of my job postings they get picked up by all the other job sites for some reason. So it's like getting to post on all the other sites for free and they have very consistently driven like 200 plus candidates for each role.
Not all of them are qualified obviously. So we're hiring for another editor right now and we got something like 500 applicants. 70 or so of them moved on to part 2 of the application and I expect we'll interview maybe 10 or 12.
Nora I found through We Work Remotely, Heather through We Work Remotely. Brian I'd worked with before, so I knew him from that and I reached out to see if he was interested. I think that platform has been great since we are an all remote team, we're not local and since we're bootstrapped we don't want to have to pay a headhunter $20k for an employee who may or may not work out.
Then in terms of assessing them. The biggest thing that we look for is how much of the thing they're going to do, they have done before or how much they've done close to it. So with Nora, I was basically hiring her to be me.
She needed to be able to grow these sites and know what she's doing with them and I could teach her some process, but she needed to also have pretty good familiarity with the full stack of skills.
And the thing that really stood out in her application was that she had grown her own cooking blog and health food blog from 0 to 150,000 visitors a month in about a year. I was like oh awesome, she's like already really good at this. That's a huge green flag.
And then with Heather, she was going to be doing all of the editing and publishing and when you work with ten clients and they're each doing about three articles a week you have to be able to edit and publish 30 articles a week.
It's a lot of work. So you have to be pretty quick and she had run editorial for a local newspaper where she was doing like 50 articles a week. So that was also just super, like awesome, you can meet this expectation.
So once we had that, those were really good signs for them. And then the other biggest thing was just like quality and clarity of communication in email and on the app because since we're remote company, you have to be really good at communicating over text.
You're not always going to be able to go tap someone on the shoulder. You have to be good at explaining what you're thinking, through Slack and email. So watching out for that was big too and then just how fun they seemed, if they were enjoyable to talk to.
We still have weekly meetings and everything. We want to have fun and enjoy hanging out and so just making sure they were good culture fits as well was pretty big part of it.
If we don't count that point in time when you started getting overworked and had to make your first hire what would you say are some of the toughest challenges and hardest parts about running Growth Machine so far?
I think the hardest thing is, so I guess I'll give two answers. One, there's like a psychologically difficult aspect, which is that when you work with very few clients with very high values individually it's a little bit nerve-racking sometimes because if four people decided that they don't want to work with us anymore next month, I'd be in a really stressful state.
That could be a third of our revenue just like, gone, overnight and that would be scary. We've never had something like that happen, but that is one downside of this type of work. You have a bit more volatility in revenue.
I think the most difficult thing day to day is just staying on top of different client expectations and relationships and finding really good writers who can produce on a consistent basis, content that meets their quality without being way out of budget.
That's I think the hardest part of this and that's where a lot of people struggle with their own content plans and with their own content marketing. It's hard to find good writers who can stick to a deadline and we're lucky that we have built up a huge network of them.
Occasionally we have to fire writers who can't hit deadlines or who have clients are unhappy with and then we have to get somebody new in and we've got our deadlines with them because they're expecting a certain amount of content for what they're paying each month. And that's where things can really start to go crazy.
The promotion and the planning side are fairly reliable because we have more control over that but with 30-some writers in the system, you're going to have at least one or two little fires each week at this point. So we're still figuring out the best way to manage that.
How do you find customers nowadays? Because in the early days it seemed like your first clients came from the audience that you'd built for yourself via your blog, but now that you've matured as a business and things are a little bit further along have your methods of finding customers changed? Or you still relying on content marketing?
Mostly content marketing. I mean that is what brought them in from my site. that's what we're selling. So I think we have to do a really good job of it ourselves. I've tried doing direct outreach. It doesn't work for us very well.
Personal referrals are honestly tricky because you don't want to say no to your friends friend and you also don't want to do a bad job for them. I think we've taken a few projects that we shouldn't have because they were personal referrals. So now it's just really people find our content either from other people sharing it from our blog or from our guest posts.
We did a guest post on the ahrefs blog last week or two weeks ago and that drove like 50 leads. A decent number of them were pretty qualified that we're talking to now and so that's a really good indicator that if we can get on good blogs with this good in-depth content that, I think I have some reputation for, that helps show that we can drive a lot of value for these businesses.
And the people come in much more qualified having read an article where you talk about doing the thing they're looking for help on than if you email them asking them to hire you. We charge $8k to $10k a month, that's a pretty hard thing to cold outreach someone on. They need to already want to have that level of help. So it's really just keeping that content machine going.
We're trying to publish an article per week on our blog, trying to do more of the guest posting and then obviously all the old stuff on my site helps drive it too. So that's really been the main thing. Now it's like we're just continuing to double-down on content marketing. It's what has always worked for us and it's what works for our clients.
Yeah, that's super cool because the things that you learned from working with your clients, you can apply to your own blog and vice versa. One of the books that you've read and that you reviewed on your website is Peter Thiel's book Zero to One.
One of the big points that he makes in that book is that successful companies are almost always really monopolies. That competition is terrible because it drives down prices and it's hard for you to stand out. How do you think about your competition with Growth Machine?
Are you guys a monopoly in some niche? Do you worry about the competition? And why do customers choose you and your company over some other company that can theoretically help them set up their content marketing and their SEO.
I mean this sounds cocky but I honestly don't think that there is another agency that can do quite as good of a job of creating content, that makes product businesses more money.
If there is one out there, I haven't come across them yet and I've been looking for people who feel like direct competitors to us and there just don't seem to be that many. There are a lot of SEO's who will do advice and like, hey you should do this thing. You should write this article.
And there are content agencies who will just pump out articles for you but in terms of agencies that can just come in, take over your blog or part of your blog and then grow it to hundreds of thousands of visitors per month. I don't really know many others right now and I'm not super worried about other competitors coming up.
Naturally there will be if it's a good market or if it's a good area then there should be some more competitors. We've got a really developed system at this point and we've got I think a pretty decent named brand and we've gotten some great clients.
I just feel like by going for the top of the market, charging a lot but doing a really good job and just trying to have an amazing system in place we've really priced ourselves out of a lot of competition. Most SEO's are charging maybe $2k to $5k a month.
Our minimum package is $8K and that weeds out a lot of companies that just don't have the money to invest in it or who aren't as serious. I think that's part of why we get to have really great clients in a lot of cases because the clients are willing to pay more and know that they're paying for results not just articles.
They're just like more savvy, they're better to work with and from the responses we get to our content it feels like people are looking for this and they haven't found many people who can do it well. I just think that that expertise and branding is how we build our monopoly in that sense.
It's really great that your customers are willing to pay you a premium for your services because it's actually worth it for them. And they can calculate that it's worth it for them because you're in an industry where the value you provide is really easy to measure.
I mean if I pay you $10,000 for your services and you generate $30,000 worth of traffic for me, then that's a no-brainer I'm gonna do that again. I talked to a lot of IndieHackers who are stuck because the value that their business provides to their customers is really fuzzy.
It's really hard to explain, it's several steps removed from how their customers make or save money. And so the customers don't want to pay or at least they don't want to pay a lot and it makes things hard on the founders I think.
Anyway, the last thing that I want to talk to you about today is about the fact that your business is an agency. The vast majority of people that I have on the show, that I talk to on the website are running scalable product businesses.
They're running businesses where theoretically they can add more and more customers without doing any extra work. Whereas with an agency you're trading your dollars for hours. Every new client means you have to hire more contractors or do more work yourself.
How do you grow this business in a way that makes sense? And what's your plan for taking Growth Machine to the next level?
It's like what I alluded to before, I mean my goal is not to build a huge agency. It's more for us to be a very interesting private equity company. Trying to compete with Vaynermedia or someone isn't that attractive to me. I think the ceiling on the number of clients we can work with in the way that we like to work with them is fairly low.
I think we could become a $10 million a year business doing the type of work we're doing but if we want to grow to $100 million a year, we would have to branch out into something else. I just don't think the market is big enough for this type of work to get to $100 million.
But if we can switch to owning significant shares of product companies and being in charge of their content and marketing and driving sales through SEO the way that we already do with a lot of our clients. But we're not getting equity from it.
That to me is super interesting, because if we can really be a business that grows businesses then we've got a pretty cool model, where we find stuff on the [Shopify Exchange](https://exchangemarketplace.com) that we can buy for $20k build out a huge blog behind it.
Let somebody else manage the product side and then flip it for a lot more money down the line. Or we can just have our own internal things like Cup & Leaf that we grow and sell products through.
We hire a manager for the product side of the business and the Growth Machine team runs the growth side of the business. That's just like a fun model to me because then I don't really have to pick just one business idea to focus on. I've got like that ADHD where I want to work on a lot of different things at once.
And so if we can have a few of these that we're invested in or participating in or entirely owning, that can become a pretty big business that can be pretty fun to work on. That's what I'm excited about as the next possible stage, is we grow the client side of this maybe to a few million a year, has to be super profitable.
Then take most of the profits and funnel them into our own businesses and investing in others and then that eventually becomes more and more of our revenue. I don't really know anybody else who does like a private equity model like that.
Focused on the content marketing side of things is like super different but I think we're in a cool position to go after it and so I'm excited about transitioning to that phase of the business eventually.
Something I don't think enough entrepreneurs think about is how do I build a business that's actually going to be fun to run in the long term? Rather than building a business it's just gonna be more and more work, more and more customer support, more and more of a headache. So that's kudos to you for going the right direction.
Let me end by asking, Nat what is your advice for other people who might just be getting started or considering starting a business. Should they follow in your footsteps?
Should they start an agency over a product business and what other things do you think they should know?
Yeah. I've been thinking about this more recently because I think my advice now has changed a lot from what I would have said before. I wouldn't necessarily say start an agency, but I would say get really good at something useful and freelance with it for a while to make a bunch of money to invest in something.
In building a business that you either stumble upon from your freelancing work or that you're interested in. Or that you see as an opportunity, but don't fall into the trap of trying to not spend any money because that's where I think a lot of people get hung up for long periods of time and it also makes them feel like it's more acceptable to not be making money.
So I feel like where you end up seeing a lot of entrepreneurs waste time is they say, oh I'm going to build this cool web app and they spend six months working on it. Not making any money from it, to building up a lot of opportunity cost because they could have been making money in that time.
And then they're not charging for this web app and no one's using it. But because they're not losing money, they're just losing time, they don't recognize that they're losing money on it anyway, if that makes sense.
I think it's like an easy trap to fall into. I would almost say, either do like consulting or freelancing or work on somebody else's project for a while. Build up the money so that you can invest in getting other people to do the things that you aren't the absolute best at and then just keep focusing on that thing.
For me a lot of it is just like the content marketing like that is what I think I'm really good at. I don't think that I'm an amazing like manager or salesperson or any of that. I'm trying to learn but if you can make good money doing the thing that you are good at and then use that money to get other people to help you with the parts you're not good at.
That to me is a much more sustainable way to build a business without wasting a ton of money and time trying to do everything or trying to not spend anything.
The businesses that I've been seeing do the best in the shortest amount of time or the ones that make money from basically day one. They're ecommerce products that start selling their product right away or agencies that start charging money right away.
I think it's sexy to see a story like Facebook or Pinterest or whatever. It's like wow they didn't make any money for years and then they're all billionaires but it's probably not going to happen. It might, like awesome for you if it does, but I don't think it's a good thing to bank on happening, right? Try to make money as early as possible.
I think that's great advice. Not being willing to spend money on your business is probably revealing of the fact that you're not focused enough on making money with your business, at least not as fast as you should be.
I think Nat you're the perfect person to give that advice considering how you got your start with Growth Machine making five figures in your very first month. Nat thanks so much for coming on the show. Can you tell listeners where they can go to learn more about Growth Machine and about what you're up to in your personal life?
Yes, so if you want to get in touch with me, the best places Twitter. I'm just @NatEliason. It's Nat Eliason not Nate Liason, I get that a lot. That's where I'll be most responsive.
The Growth Machine site is YourGrowthMachine.com and then you can find the blog and stuff there. Then my personal site is just NatEliason.com as well. So those are the three best spots to go.
I guess for like one article recommendation if you were interested in everything we talked about you can Google the wiki strategy and it's on my blog and the Growth Machine blog and that's like a super in-depth guide to doing this kind of content marketing that we've talked about a lot today. So that might be an interesting reading place for people to start.
All right. Thanks so much Nat.
Cool. Thanks Courtland, this was fun.
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