8 Valuable Lessons from Our First Year as a Digital Marketing Agency

Happy birthday

Last week, GDI celebrated its first year as a company. The past 12 months have been a heck of a ride and we’ve done some cool things along the way. Those include:

  • Growing the company to its current valuation of 6.5 million pesos
  • Helping more than 60 websites do better digital marketing
  • Speaking at SMX West
  • Organizing two well-attended events, PeepCon and The GDI SEO Training Camp.
  • Making hundreds of new friends, allies and business partners
  • And other cool things I can’t openly talk about

Now, all of these things are nice and exciting but I feel that the true rewards of being in the game came in the form of valuable lessons that we’ve been learning on the fly. If you’re planning to start your own business or you already have one and you’re trying to get on the right track, this post is for you. I’m sharing 8 of the most valuable lessons we learned in our first 365 days as a digital marketing startup.

1. SEO Should No Longer be Your Main Marketing Approach


Web Seo Chart On Blackboard

In the past five years, we’ve watched updates like Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird wreak havoc on low-level SEO techniques. We’ve also seen how new features such as personalization, localization, Knowledge Graph and Direct Answers have made Google’s SERPs infinitely more nuanced. If you aren’t reading between the lines, I suggest you wake up and smell the coffee. Google’s implicit message is simple: you can no longer rely on SEO to be the main driver of your online business.

The days of doing SEO for the sake of attracting visitors who may turn into your loyal audience members is over. Today’s digital marketing game is all about developing loyal followers who will generate the kind of usage and off-page signals that will give you a lift in the SERPs. Strong rankings no longer build online prominence. Online prominence now boosts search engine rankings.

Editorial excellence, consistency, focusing on user experience and providing intrinsic value are the core elements of building a loyal audience. These are the things that GDI constantly educates its clients about due to the fact that these things will propel winning SEO programs for the foreseeable future. This isn’t me preaching warm, fuzzy white hat SEO rhetoric: Rand Fishkin himself has talked about this shift in how we should think about SEO.

2. Make Friends with People Who Don’t Do What You Do

Digital entrepreneur meetup

Don’t get me wrong: you should make friends with as many people as you can. GDI knows that and we go out of our way to be active in the SEO scene for networking opportunities. Some of the people whose company we enjoy the most are our direct competitors. We have zero hostility towards them just because we understand that the market is big enough for everyone to co-exist.

However, if you ask me which friendships have produced the greatest business value in our first 12 months, I’d tell you that none of them are with fellow SEOs. Relationships with web developers, designers, general marketers, business developers, government institutions and schools have produced the vast majority of the financial rewards that our network has yielded.

That’s because they don’t do what we do. When they see SEO, SEM and content marketing projects, they don’t think about taking it for themselves. Their first impulse is to call people whom they can trust to do these things and more often than not, those people would happen to be us.

Moral of the story: don’t attend just the meet-ups and conferences that are dedicated to your niche. That would be like being a straight guy and going to a singles bar where everyone else is a straight guy. Go to gatherings with more diversity so you can stand out and meet people whom you can form symbiotic business relationships with.

3. Pleasing Everyone is Impossible. Being Fair is Enough.

As GDI’s CEO, it’s my responsibility to make sure the business is running and profitable so its employees and clients can mutually share its fruits. In some cases, I’m tasked with making tough decisions that will not be popular regardless what choice I make. People will always have something to say but at the end of the day, I have no regrets about any of my calls because I try to serve the greater good all the time.

From letting go of employees, choosing to donate the profits of our events to good causes and sharing internal resources to the rest of the community, everything has its pros and cons. I have come to terms with the fact that people will not always agree with my thought process but as long as I am fair to them and I deliver good results in the end, they will respect my decisions.

4. If it Don’t Make Money, it Don’t Make Sense

a businessman sitting in a desk showing a drawn dollar sign in h

A common mistake I’ve seen a lot of startups make is putting together an ambitious project out of sheer passion without thinking through the monetization aspect. Following your dreams and doing what you love is cute and all, but getting people to pay for what you do is a completely different matter.

I’ve seen people try to start blogs, mobile app development teams and design agencies because they think it’s cool and they hope it might offer an escape from their day jobs one day. They start off starry-eyed and enthusiastic about what they do. After a few weeks, they start to realize that all their work is generating zero revenue and it can’t support their basic needs. Little by little, the collective will of these startups is broken until they accept failure and crawl back to their day jobs.

I know this because I’ve failed in the past and I never forgot the things I learned when I started GDI. From the very start, we made sure we had a solid client base and a steady stream of leads so the cashflow stays uninterrupted. Today, we are paying employees way above the industry average because we planned to succeed and we had the discipline to execute that plan. We never banked on just passion to carry us through: we banked on skills, relationships and marketing savvy to achieve financial stability.

5. Referred Leads are the Best Leads

We get our business leads in a variety of ways. Search engine traffic, speaking gigs and our blog readership are just some of them. In our first full year, however, we’ve come to realize that the best leads don’t come from any of those channels. Direct referrals by people familiar with our work are the easiest to convert into paying customers.

Existing clients who’ve been pleased with the results they got from us refer at least 2 more potential clients on average. Former bosses, business partners and industry friends also point highly-interested people to us. The great thing about being referred is that you don’t have to do a lot of selling to the prospect. Most of the time, the referrer has already done the work for you by telling the lead how good you are.

To date, more than half our client portfolio can be attributed to referrals. That just goes to show that you can run a profitable online business even without being a dominant SEO force.

6. Don’t Underestimate the Value of Follow-Ups

Speaking of leads, don’t waste them by allowing negotiations to end when a client stops emailing. People who inquire about digital marketing services are usually very busy entrepreneurs and managers. In a lot of cases, their schedules get crammed and communications with you could fall through the cracks. As long as a prospect doesn’t tell you outright that he’s not interested, send regular follow-ups to keep the conversation alive.

Checking with a client every one or two weeks is normal. Most of them will not be annoyed by your persistence. It shows that you’re highly interested in doing business and most people take that as a sign of your commitment if an engagement materializes. There’s nothing wrong with sending reminders and checking with people you are conversing with, so keep sending the emails periodically.

7. Outsourcing is the Present, Local is the Big, Near Future


Digital marketing in the Philippines

GDI and most other digital marketing agencies in the Philippines were built on the premise of generating income from Western clients looking for low-cost offshore work. That remains true to this day as our company still generates around 80% of its income from customers in the US. However, the growth of the local digital marketing scene is undeniable. More and more companies are realizing the importance of establishing a vibrant online presence.

Naturally, this drives the demand for services that we offer such as SEO, content marketing and PPC. What’s more exciting is the fact that people with digital marketing skills are well-positioned to start successful online businesses in other niches. Believe me when I say that GDI is looking very seriously at building web properties that sell things like agricultural products, food ingredients, toys and many more. 😉

The Philippine online marketing gold rush is on. The people who capitalize today will be the business tycoons of tomorrow.

8. You Can’t Grow by Staying Underground

When we started out, there was a temptation to not register GDI as a legitimate Philippine company because that would mean the BIR would come knocking on our door and start eating away at our hard-earned revenue. However, we made the decision to make everything legitimate and by September of 2014, we were fully incorporated in the SEC. Sure, we’re never excited to hand over money to the tax man, but we’ve also come to realize that what we pay in taxes comes back in the form of other benefits.

For one, it allows us to issue official receipts to our customers. Without this, we can’t do business with big companies operating in the Philippines. That would be suicidal considering the fact that the growth of the local economy is trending very well.

As a registered, privately-owned corporation, we are also allowed to sell shares to private investors. Interest in GDI is high right now and I wouldn’t be kidding if I said we could raise around 3 million pesos in a few weeks if we opened ourselves to investors today. Of course, we don’t feel we’re ready to do that just yet but it’s nice to know we have that option.

Ultimately, GDI is still a very young enterprise and we still have a lot to learn before we can call ourselves a complete success. Right now, we’re just glad to have survived our initial year and we’re looking forward to the challenges that lay ahead.