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Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

Growing a SEO Productized Service to $12K in MRR

Julian
Julian
July 27, 2021
Category of startup
Marketing
Country of startup
Remote
Revenue of startups
$10k-$25k/mo
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

Growing a SEO Productized Service to $12K in MRR

Julian
Julian
July 27, 2021
Category of startup
Marketing
Country of startup
Remote
Cause of failure of the startup

Julian founded Embarque, a productized agency for premium content that converts, at affordable prices. They've worked with hyper-growth startups such as VEED, MentorCruise, and Levels FYI, and are currently generating +$12,000 MRR.

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Hi Julian! Who are you, and what are you currently working on?

I'm currently the founder and CEO of Embarque, a productized agency for premium content that converts, at affordable prices.

At the moment, most of our clients hire us to create SEO content, including blog posts and landing pages. We've worked with many hyper-growth startups such as VEED, MentorCruise, and Levels FYI. So far, it's been great.

What's your backstory? 

I've been getting paid for my writing since I was 16 (I'm now 27). I earned a BA in English Literature with Creative Writing on a scholarship from UEA, one of the UK's most competitive universities for the program. Founding a content marketing agency might seem like a natural progression, but I didn't have a desire to grow my own revenue-generating business until I stumbled upon the indie making community in October 2018 when I was in London, UK. In fact, before that, money was an afterthought, and my living conditions were scrappy, to say the least.

For instance, throughout my time in London, I slept on friends' couches for a few months, lived in a house under renovation for free in exchange for (very bad) carpentry work, and rented a pantry as a bedroom. During the last one, the house was located on a street in Tottenham that was quarantined twice due to gunshot noises. That said, the room was only £380 with utilities included, so I'd say it was a fair deal for London standards!

While being part of the indie making community, it dawned on me how lucrative my skills were in writing and community engagement. I expanded my network in the scene by taking part in fun online blogging initiatives, such as being an editor at Maker Mag and actively engaging in relevant communities.

The indie making community has changed my life on a financial level. Three months after being part of it, I was earning 2.5x more than my full-time salary in a French email tech company by working with founders and bootstrappers. It helped me develop a healthier relationship with money, understand the value of my work, and see how launching and growing companies can be darn fun. The community has helped me understand that I can build an ethical business and provide a reasonable stream of income for content writers and other creatives. 

So that brings me to Embarque. I owe much of my creative growth to extremely talented — yet overlooked — underground writers, artists, performers, poets, and journalists who are either brown, queer, women or a mixture of these identities. At Embarque, we want to link talented English-speaking content writers to founders and companies that need their services. As a nod to my creative roots, we aim to make our hiring practices as inclusive as possible. As the saying goes, 'talent is everywhere, opportunity is not.'

On the client-facing side, we want to help bootstrappers and early-stage startups grow fast through quality content marketing. A year into the business, I’d like to say that the results speak for themselves.

How did you come up with the idea?

I'm a first-time founder, and the idea behind Embarque came about in a chat that I had with Dominic Monn in May 2020. As the founder of MentorCruise, Dominic was looking to scale his SEO content production efforts but hated the process of looking for writers. So he pitched the idea of me launching a content writing marketplace. 

I found it interesting but quickly realized that it would take a long time to see profitability with that business model. It also still wouldn't eliminate the vetting process completely. Platforms like Fiverr and Upwork can be interesting, but people's skills in writing, editing, and content strategy can vary widely. Content mills tend to produce spun content of subpar quality, underpay their writers and are often involved in shady practices that I don't want to be part of.

Eventually, I stumbled upon the productized service business model employed by some of the competitors in the content marketing niche. It was perfect for Embarque. Productizing our content marketing services allows us to show our pricing transparently, focus on being good at selected key offerings, and scale our growth through these services. On the operations side, we can look for and vet talented writers to make sure that our clients get quality content, on time.

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How did you go from idea to product?

As far as businesses go, productized services are relatively easy to launch. You don't even need a website to begin a business. Embarque went from idea to launch in roughly four weeks, partly because I still had a full-time job and ongoing freelancing gigs. That said, the website took less than an afternoon to create. The layout was pretty unexciting, but I wanted to build something quick to deploy and functional.

Embarque Landing Page

When I launched, I received a total of 0 orders. The first two months of growing Embarque were some of the hardest on an emotional level. I was having a serious bout of impostor syndrome and didn't fully understand the length of a sales cycle for productized content marketing services. I recently learned that the summer months are usually a grueling time for agencies and online businesses for acquiring new clients. 

Nevertheless, I decided to plow through, remained active in some online communities, published helpful content, and included some samples on the homepage from previous work.

Closing clients as a freelancer is different than as an agency founder. As a freelancer, people already trusted my abilities in writing content. As an agency founder, clients also need to trust my skills in hiring the right people. 

After around two and a half months, my efforts began to pay off. A founder who wanted to jumpstart his SEO content production found me on Twitter and decided to buy a package. Then VEED, a video editing platform, followed. MentorCruise also became a client. By September, I had reached $4,000 MRR. In December 2020, I reached six figures annually.

Since then, I've realized that Embarque is not really in the business of one-off orders. 80% of our clients are returning ones that pay for the Steer package valued at $1,250 per month. I only learned how lucrative scaling content marketing production can be after some months in, but it wasn't at all how I envisaged the business model would be.

A year into the business, the homepage still roughly looks the same, just with more social proof baked in. It has been a bit neglected, and I do need to spend time making it more conversion-driven. 

What were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

Community engagement and word-of-mouth referrals. I have experience in online community building, so I already knew how to interact with groups and the like, but I would be lying if I said that I was disciplined in my efforts. My acquisition efforts have been mostly haphazard at best, but this is something that I do want to change in the future. 

However, there were a few specific milestones that have helped us grow our revenue by a large amount. Here are some of them:

I also got some package clients by being active on Weekend Club, Indie London, ContentUK, Email Geeks, and the Productize Community on Facebook. It's worth having evangelists in relevant communities that will readily talk positively about your services, rather than doing the bragging yourself. Having evangelists brings more credibility to your business. Aside from that, you can always provide value by sharing your progress in a vulnerable, authentic way. Lean into the human side of growing a business and share the unsavory bits. Don't fight the funk. 

I got a significant portion of my MRR (around $5,000) through personal referrals. This isn't easily repeatable, but when you've come to a point where you are steadily getting clients, remember to nurture your relationship with every single one. If your services require client-side account management, make sure that you're personable and reachable. If you're a SaaS business, automate meaningful engagement with your customers, such as through email campaigns asking them direct feedback.

In the next few months, my focus is on refining and systemizing our growth processes. I'm also in the process of doubling down efforts on certain channels, namely affiliate, sales, and SEO. These will be exciting times for us!

Since starting Embarque, what have been your main lessons?

I've learned a ton about profiting on scalability. Before Embarque, I had only worked with agencies as a freelancer and had no idea about the business development side of things. I didn't have a sense of people's purchasing habits for high-ticket content marketing services. As I mentioned, I mistakenly thought that my main market would consist of people who would buy single articles or the lower-tier packages. In reality, we mostly have repeat clients who pay for the top packages valued at $1250 or above.

B2B clients will pay a lot for vendors who can scale their content production without much hassle. Why? Because scaling production is a process in itself that requires coordinating, vetting, and hiring writers, editors, fact-checkers, and content strategists. If a vendor can relieve them of these tasks, clients will be willing to pay more so that they can focus on other strategic initiatives that will help grow their business.

Another important lesson that I've learned is that there is a limit to being scrappy. Scrappy is great when you're in the process of getting your first clients. That said, once you've achieved product-market fit, not having robust processes due to an overreliance on scrappiness and 'quick' fixes can lead to problems later on. I learned this the hard way when I didn't spend enough time hiring new writers and had to turn down a very big potential client. Make sure that you're quick to react to market changes and trends, but not at the cost of building processes and systems that allow your startup to work and grow.

Finally, I've known this for quite a long time but somehow forgot along the way: use your connections. I was so busy building my own company and making it seem like I knew what I was doing that I forgot that there are people in my network willing to help me thrive and succeed in growing Embarque. Contact the people you've worked well with in the past. If they are willing to work with you again, this can eliminate a lot of hassle in the hiring process.

What were the biggest obstacles you overcame? What were your worst mistakes?

I’ve made so many mistakes along the way that I’m not super proud of. I'll mention some of the main operational and personal obstacles with building Embarque. I'll start with the operational ones.

First off, creating a hiring pipeline for skilled writers, fact-checkers, and editors is really, really hard. If a working relationship does not pan out, then you're back to square one in the hiring process, which can easily last for more time than you want. 

I have encountered several issues related to hiring that I had never expected to happen. Here are a few off the top of my head:

  1. Writers using plagiarized or spun content. We've caught a writer hired through referral spinning content from various sources, and I was not ready to tackle this issue when it happened. It ruined a relationship with a bootstrapper whose work I greatly admired. Oh, well. Since then, we've doubled down on our fact-checking efforts and implemented a zero-tolerance policy for all types of plagiarism, including duplicate content and content spinning. 
  2. A candidate submitted a portfolio full of content written by a GPT-3 tool. No joke. This only happened once, but I was shocked by how the person thought they could get away with it. I'm confident that people who can't distinguish good writing from bad would be easily fooled by this.
  3. Writers not meeting tight deadlines. An added issue of being a remote-first company is having employees who will ghost you if they don't meet deadlines or expectations. 

Hiring can still be a struggle. At Embarque, we have a certain quality that we want to uphold. The content marketing industry is tough. One poorly written article can instantly sour a long-term relationship with a client. We need great writers who can follow guidelines, are proactive, and can think clearly and strategically. These qualities allow us to compete against other agencies that promise similar results at significantly higher price points. 

As for my personal obstacles, I decided to pursue a Master's program that I ended up not liking, and it took a lot of time and energy that I could have spent on building Embarque. There were times when I had to decline large orders because I had too much coursework to do. 

This will probably sound cliché, but the biggest issue I face is taking care of my mental health. I struggle with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD). I have a history of substance abuse mainly attributed to BPD. That said, these very issues mean that I can be obsessive towards achieving things and can do 15-hour workdays without much of a break. The lockdown has helped me focus on work, but I hope I won't regress once everything opens up again.

Finally, being a first-time founder, I can get into my head quite often and find myself procrastinating on things out of fear of not doing them well enough. I've learned some prioritization techniques to ensure that I do the tasks that move the needle forward.

What tools & resources do you recommend?

I use quite a few tools to manage Embarque.

SEO:

  • Ahrefs - Almost a requirement for anyone serious about SEO.
  • SEO Scout - For finding fresh keyword opportunities based on queries you're ranking for. Great when integrated with your Search Console.
  • Frase - We use the NLP-based content editor.
  • Google Analytics - Standard web traffic analytics.
  • Google Search Console - To find keyword opportunities for content updates.

Finances:

  • Stripe - Payment processor.
  • Mercury - Company bank.
  • Brex - Credit card company.
  • Wise - European wire transfer service.

Operations:

  • SPP - Client portal.
  • Notion - Internal workspace.
  • Slack - Internal communication.
  • Gmail - Email and scheduling.

Setting up your business in the US: Firstbase - Fantastic experience, although it took quite some time to get incorporated.

Content Resources:

Groups I’m fond of:


How are you doing today, and what are your goals for the future?

Some exciting stuff ahead. I’ll be launching a newsletter blog called SEO for Startups, which aims to teach startups how to use SEO to scale their marketing without breaking the bank.

In the next few months, I will be focused on growing all aspects of the business, from operations to customer acquisition. I have not been able to work on Embarque as much as I wanted to, so I'm pretty excited about what lies ahead. In particular, I want to:

  • Work on expanding our key offerings, including technical content creation and making our email copywriting services more apparent. For the technical content bit, I'm currently collaborating with very talented indie makers such as Basile Samel to work on expanding our technical content services.
  • Boost our marketing strategy. From SEO to social media, I'm working to make our social media presence more active!
  • Build out our sales and affiliate program. Many people are inquiring about becoming an affiliate for Embarque, and we're already seeing some promising returns after onboarding an affiliate partner.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you're interested in updates on what I'm up to, feel free to follow me on Twitter. I’m really excited to launch SEO for Startups. 

Otherwise, if you want to say a quick hi or ask about our services, just send me an email! :D

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