How We Built a P2.5M Business in Six Months

The number of smart Filipino digital marketing professionals who’ve set up their own businesses is small. That’s odd, considering the fact that the demand for our services is massive and it continues to grow. Even fewer is the number of Filipino online marketing entrepreneurs who’ve actually set up legitimate, ethical and profitable agencies. The vast majority of us are seemingly content with the security of our day jobs while risk-takers go out to chase – and live – their dreams. I know this because for the greater part of my career, I’ve been the exact same way.

Fortunately, things have changed quite a bit since November 2013. After speaking at last year’s MORCON and catching up with industry friend Sean Si, I realized that most of my apprehensions in building my own digital marketing business were unfounded. Meeting Philippine SEO icon Jason Acidre and Xight Interactive’s COO Jean-Pierre Prieto further solidified my belief that it doesn’t take a genius to join the market and have a little success with it. Having a well-thought out vision, a bit of skill and lots of determination is more than enough to get a fledgling agency off the ground.

Fast forward to the tail-end of May 2014 and I’ve successfully built a small but very profitable company called GDI. With the help of a talented and committed team, GDI is able to provide SEO and content development support to 20+ North American businesses and a few local ones. Six months after establishing the company, we are on our way to exceeding all our initial projections even with the fact that we did zero promotions for GDI. If you’ve ever needed that final push to set up your own online marketing business, this post is for you. Here’s a list of the steps that we took to build a P2.5 million business in just six months.

  1. Be Genuinely Good at What You Do – There are a few things that this post will teach you, but this isn’t one of them. Before you enter any business, make sure you have a very high level of knowledge in your field. In the same way that nobody would want to have a medicine undergrad perform neurosurgery on them, it’s hard to sell your services if you’re not an actual expert at what you do.

The good news is that it’s not that hard to become highly competent at SEO or any other sub-field of online marketing. Personally, I’ve never really enrolled in any specialized training or course to get to a point where I know exactly what I’m doing. However, I am very passionate about the work that I do and I constantly strive to add new things to my body of knowledge. In an average week, these are the things I do in order to stay sharp at my craft:

  • Honest Work. No shortcuts, no excuses, GDI knows that its clients pay us honest dollars and we owe it to them and to ourselves to deliver honest work.
  • Read at least 2 blog posts a day. If you’re working in the online marketing industry, you’re fortunate to have dozens upon dozens of great blogs that consistently deliver high quality content. Moz, Copyblogger, Kaiserthesage and HubSpot are some of my favorite digital marketing and SEO blogs on the web.

Of course, your learning shouldn’t stop after reading blog posts. Make it a habit to test and apply the things you read about while they’re still fresh in your mind. If you don’t, the things you read about will remain as ideas and that’s a waste of valuable time.

  • Test new tools. New tools, plugins and services are introduced to the market every week. Keep tabs on them and check out the ones that you find interesting. Most of these have trial programs that will give you a hands-on feel of the kind of value they bring to the table.
  • Talk to other people in the field. Reading is cool, but live human interaction is better. If you’ve got knowledgeable professionals in your social circles, find time to organize or join meetups where exchanges of ideas can happen. GDI is very fortunate to have met a lot of smart people in the local online marketing scene and we’ve established the habit of engaging them in light conversations at least once a month.

That said, I made it a point to hire only people who have the skills, the potential and the attitude that fall in line with this principle. My initial team is not the most advanced in terms of SEO skills but all of them can write, all of them are committed and all of them believe in the same vision that I do.

2. Go Out and Meet People – Jumping off the last point, we realized early on that having a lot of friends in the industry was essential in giving GDI a quick start. Friends and acquaintances amplified our reach and they provided the social proof needed to give our brand a veneer of legitimacy. Don’t get me wrong; we’re not doing this with the intention of using people to further our business goals. That’s hardly the point. We’re simply aware of the fact that marketing is a relationship-driven craft where your success is only limited by your ability to connect with people.

Some of the milestones that did a lot of good for GDI in the last six months are:

  • Participating in discussions at the SEO Organization Philippines Facebook group
  • Having me speak at MORCON 2013
  • Helping establish the SEO Org Philippines Pampanga Chapter
  • Speaking at Xight Interactive’s event in Black Kings Bar
  • Organizing the GDI SEO Training Camp
  • Giving interviews

Granted, these are just five simple things but the good will, the support and the business partnerships that have come directly and indirectly from our connections cannot be understated. Without the people who helped us along the way, we would not be in the right direction that we’re in right now.

3. Leverage Your Connections – Making friends and establishing connections is a step in the right path, but it wouldn’t be complete if you can’t derive direct synergies from all this social activity to your bottom line.

Having friends in the industry has allowed GDI to establish an initial client base that got the business off the ground. We were able to acquire four significant deals from the get-go and we didn’t have to sweat it because our connections did the initial work for us. Our very first clients were all referrals made by people who vouched for us and assured prospects that we’re the right team for their needs. All we had to do was send in proposals, sign some contracts and do the actual work.

Having strong connections allowed us to take on white label engagements and strategic partnerships. For instance, connections who specialize in web development tend to lean on us when their clients need SEO work. When our clients need development work, we return the favor by giving them referrals of our own. As SEO grandmaster Benj Arriola once told us, SEO is a pay-it-forward industry and we’ve found out first hand that the application of that principle can work wonders for a startup.

4. Be Selective of Clients – In GDI, we believe that business is easier and less stressful when we carefully choose who we work with. That includes the employees we hire and the clients that we take in. We don’t believe in the idea of making money at all costs. We look at the value of the work and not the price tag that comes with it. There’s no hard and fast rule in who we work with, but we do look at the following factors when assessing a lead:

  • Project size – Do we have what it takes in terms of manpower to handle the prospect’s needs?
  • Client brand – Will the prospect’s brand benefit our portfolio for the long term?
  • Potential for Success – Do we have what it takes to help the client succeed? The last thing we want to happen is to take on an impossible project, feed the client empty promises and take his money in the process.
  • Budget – Like any other form of human endeavor, marketing is heavily dependent on how much a client can commit financially to a project. The budget has to fit the client’s goals while still giving our group enough wiggle room to be profitable.
  • POC’s Attitude – The demeanor, the choice of words and the tone of the person we’re speaking to is a very important factor to us. We appreciate open-minded, professional and reasonable points of contact (POCs). If we sense that the contact is in any way arrogant, racist or dishonest, that’s a red flag. GDI loves to do its work and we love to do business – just not at the cost of extreme stress from clients with attitude issues.
  • Engagement Sustainability – Another thing we look at when we evaluate a lead is its potential for a long-term engagement. Taking on new clients all the time is tough work: understanding their business models, products, audience, site architecture, link profile, brand identity, etc. takes a significant time commitment from you and your people. As much as possible, we want to avoid doing this frequently and starting over once every few months.

Having a set of steady clients allows us to avoid that and it gives our writers and SEO specialists time to grow with the business that they’re assigned to. Mastering how a client’s site and business works is a powerful synergy in the way you form an online marketing strategy around it.

Don’t get me wrong: GDI is no prima donna when it comes to engaging its clients. We want to work with as many businesses, big or small, as possible. However, we also recognize that our time and manpower resources are very finite. We want to use those resources with the best possible partners that we are best suited to win with.

5. Get Your Pricing Right – One of the things I get asked the most by fellow digital marketers and SEO freelancers is “how do I price my services?” My answer has been very consistent regardless of who’s asking: whatever you feel the right price is.

GDI doesn’t offer standard packages because we believe that like people, each website is unique in its own way. The combinations of target audiences, technical states, information architecture, content approach, brand identity, revenue model and other elements of a website means every case is distinct even if there are other websites that are similar to it. Having said that, each site we handle is bound to have different needs which will demand varying courses of action from me and my team.

As far as pricing goes, the only rule we follow is that an account has to yield 30% net profitability for the company. That is, if an account is on a monthly retainer of $1,000, GDI has to make at least $300 from it no matter what. At least 50% of the revenue has to go to the employee and the rest can go to taxes and overhead costs. If those requirements are not met, we try and find ways to negotiate our way around the situation.

One of our guiding principles is that the workforce should always get the lion’s share of the income. As a startup, we believe in hiring a set of elite core employees who can do more work at a higher level of quality than the average person. That said, we make sure they’re well paid and we’re completely transparent about the cash flow. Sure, this model will evolve as GDI grows, but the principle will always remain the same for our core team who are now legal members of our board of directors.

6. Build a Team of Artists – One of the fundamental differences between GDI and the average digital marketing firm is the fact that we don’t hire laborers. In our minds, a laborer is someone who does factory-style work every day without much thought and with little room for creativity. Laborers are cheap because they don’t have a lot of choices with their careers. These are people who expect to get paid by simply showing up and they repeat the process until they either find a higher-paying place for their kind or they get laid off (whichever comes first).

Make no mistake: by no means am I making that statement because I feel like I’m better than most people in the labor market. As a matter of fact, I’ll be the very first to tell you that I’ve been a laborer for a longer time than most SEOs in the Philippines today have. I spent the first five years of my career bleeding myself dry in typical BPOs where I did the shittiest work imaginable in this business. Directory submissions, article directory writing, social media spam – you name it. I won’t make excuses about it but I will say what most of us already know: compliance and resignation are the only two choices when you’re working for  a company that trains and treats its employees like disposable commodities.

I was lucky enough to break out of this cycle, but I know the vast majority of Filipino digital marketing professionals are still caught in the same trap. GDI was formed partly because I wanted to offer an alternative to the status quo. I say this not to brag, but to let people know that we have the power to choose not to become a sweatshop nation of outsourced workers. That’s the reason that our team emphasizes the value of artistry over just getting the work done.

We hire people who are willing and able to think independently. We offer trainings, of course, but we also give our people the space to create their own processes and to challenge existing ones. We hate restrictive practices like word count and keyword density guidelines for writers. The same goes for link building: we welcome suggestions for process tweaks and the use of new tools as long as they’re justified.

There are no sacred cows in GDI: everyone is free to attack problems and ideas – just not the people who came up with them. Innovation and dynamism is part of our culture: everything that happens in the workplace is just work. Relationships outside the office should never be affected.

7. Learn the Art of Gift-giving – Another guiding principle that we followed in order to get a good start is the practice of gift-giving. Sure, we’re a business and we exist mainly for the purpose of generating profit. However, we also know that not everything should revolve around making money. We understand that there are things that are more valuable than transactions, so we don’t do every single thing with the expectation of monetary compensation.

When you buy something from a vendor, your relationship ends after the act of payment. Both parties got what they wanted, but there’s usually no exchange of emotions, ideas or commitments. The buy-and-sell process becomes a one-and-done affair and both parties go their separate ways. In GDI’s perspective, there’s a better way of doing things. Giving gifts to our clients, to our peers in the digital marketing community and even to our competitors allows us to establish relationships that transcend financial interests. Unlike purely transactional interactions, relationships born from gift-giving last for years and they keep on bearing fruit time and again.

Gifts don’t have to be tangible objects. Granting an interview, making yourself available for a speaking engagement, doing work that goes beyond what you’re contractually obliged to do and giving free advice are all very valuable gifts in practically any industry.  We do this for free not because we view these acts as promotional vehicles. Sure, we understand that it gives us visibility, but we’re more interested in giving gifts that people will remember us for. It allows us to showcase our character as an organization and it’s the fastest way to creating the most important conversion element of them all: trust.

8. Tame Your LizardBrain – Best-selling author and highly successful entrepreneur Seth Godin introduced the concept of the “lizard brain” in his book Linchpin: Are You Indispensible? The lizard brain is actually the amygdala, a region in the human brain that’s associated with all our primal tendencies. Godin describes the lizard brain as hungry, horny, insecure and always feeling the need to be in a dark corner where he won’t be noticed. Your lizard brain hates innovation, despises risks and wants to be safe at all times. It’s that voice that tells you not to speak up during meetings and not to stand up to your boss even when you’re sure he’s giving you flawed instructions.

Your lizard brain is terrified of big moments. It tells you to shut up in group discussions because it thinks everyone will laugh at your ideas. If something does go wrong, it’s the same voice that tells you “I told you not to speak and loot what happened to you.” The lizard brain wants to keep you boxed in, and it’s the same thing that’s keeping a lot of smart people from pursuing their dreams and fulfilling their potentials.

In GDI, we recognize that our lizard brains are parts of every person that can’t be physically removed. We will always be fearful of risks and we will always have moments of anxiety. However, we also recognize that our strength as a group lies in our ability to control our lizard brains. Doing so allows us to express our ideas, refine them and use them to formulate smart actions that solve real-world problems.

In line with our vision of building a team of artists, we train our team members to conquer their lizard brains. The first step in doing that is by giving your amygdala a name. Every time you think of something new and productive to do, your lizard brain will tell you something to try and stop you from doing it. Calling the lizard by name and telling it that you’re doing what’s best for you even if people don’t initially agree is a key in training yourself to make smart decisions consistently. That may seem like a small thing, but big companies are built on a series of making good decisions on a regular basis. Strategy is important, but if your people don’t have the ability to make sensible tactical actions, nothing gets off the ground and your efforts won’t pay off the way they should.

Ultimately, GDI is a company that’s still in its infancy.  We certainly have a very long way to go and we know we’ll have our share of bumps and bruises along the way. However, I’m very proud that we’re headed to the right direction and all indications point to us making it past our first year with flying colors. As you may know, 90% of startups fall apart in their first 12 months and we’re excited to say that we don’t plan on joining that list thanks to the eight items I just talked about.