Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses. And I call my listeners freedom fighters because I feel like, to some degree, we are looking for our own sense of freedom in entrepreneurship, the ability to do anything that we want within reason.
I’ll give you an example what I mean, Nat. After I came back from Antarctica, I came back to my office and I said, “Oh man, it feels so blah.” And I said, “What I feel like doing,” and I’ve been watching this YouTube video of a guy who’s unicycling around the world and watching him sleep in tents as he travels all over the world. And I thought, “Hey, there’s so many interesting beach-y areas here. I’d like to work there, but it’s too cold. I’m buying a tent. ”
So I bought a tent, it came in the mail and I’m going to go sit in different beach areas here in San Francisco and see if I can work off my iPad there. Except for my interviews, there a bunch of things that I could do in more inspiring places. And you know what, if that doesn’t work, I take that tent, I either return it if it’s not a good tent or I just leave it in the garage and I move on to something else, but I get to do what I want.
And the reason I’m bringing this up is Nat Eliason is the founder of Growth Machine. They offer a done-for-you content and SEO solution, which means that he’s getting paid by customers to create content for them, which, by the way, a lot of people are very personal about. They want the content to be exactly the kind of content that they’re looking for. It’s a very personal thing and he’s got to create something that’s in their voice, that represents their brand, etc. But on top of that, he’s got to do SEO for them, which means that he needs to drive traffic and prove that his content is converting into sales. And basically, I feel like he’s at their mercy and you say, okay, look, we all are at the mercy of our customer, but consulting work like that, freelance work like that, agency work like that, it’s pretty aggressively at the beck and call of your customers.
All right. So all right, that’s his business. Everyone’s got to put up with something, but he’s got this app that did well. He’s got this ecommerce site that did well. And what I’m fascinated by is why he’s not shifting over to that and how he’s making his consulting, I shouldn’t it call consulting, his agency business that creates content, how he’s making it into something that doesn’t drive him nuts and still excites him when he has all these other options.
All right. We can do this interview thanks to two phenomenal sponsors. The first is a company that lets you hire great developers. It’s called Toptal. And the second, if you’re a Mac person, if you’re using an Apple computer right now, listen up, Setapp is going to change your experience with your computer and then with your whole business. But I’ll talk about those later, Setapp and Toptal. First, Nat, good to have you here.
Nat: Great to be here. I’m excited to have this chat.
Andrew: What’s your revenue? Give me a sense of how big you’ve gotten.
Nat: So this year we’re going to do just shy of 2 million total and then if we’re basing off our monthly for next year, we’re probably going to be anywhere in the 3 million to 4 million range.
Andrew: Okay. So we are recording this in 2019, right at the end. You’re saying you’re basically seeing that it’s about $2 million in revenue for this year.
Nat: For this year, yeah.
Andrew: Just from doing this SEO content stuff?
Nat: That is correct.
Andrew: What is the tea company that you created?
Nat: The tea company is Cup & Leaf, and that’s like a direct-to-consumer ecommerce premium luxury tea company.
Andrew: I could see I can go to cupandleaf.com and buy some oolong tea for 9 bucks, got 12 reviews. How much revenue is that producing?
Nat: That’s doing a little over 10 grand a month now.
Andrew: Ten grand. And then the software company, I asked . . . I told you, I checked in with some of your customers to make sure you’re the real deal. I asked one of them, “What should I be asking Nat about?” And Ryan Kulp said, “Ask him about the sex app he built.” What’s the sex app that you built?
Nat: It’s called Stamena with an E instead of an I, and it’s an iOS app and that does . . . So this one’s interesting because that one’s revenue is directly tied to where I sit in Google rankings for a few key terms. Most importantly, “How to Last Longer in Bed.” And on good months like this month where it’s in the top three on Google for all those terms, it’ll make like four to six grand. And then in the bad months where it’s in a lower position, it might make two to three.
Andrew: So then I asked you before we got started, “Why would you want to do all this customer work at Growth Machine?” And you started telling me and he said, “Wait, let’s save it so it sounds fresh in the interview.” What’s the answer? Why are you doing it?
Nat: Yeah. It’s funny. I get this question a lot and when I was thinking of starting Growth Machine, this was the number one piece of feedback I got from almost all of my entrepreneurial friends was, “Don’t do an agency. It’s miserable. Everyone hates it. Why would you work for clients when you can build a product company?” And answer one was I didn’t really know what kind of product I wanted to build or what type of company I wanted to build. So I figured, in the meantime, I may as well build a company that helps build companies because that’s an awesome thing to have for your own projects in the future and to just learn about growing a company, doing something that I, at least, already knew how to do, which was SEO and content marketing.
But then why do I keep doing it? It’s sort of the same reason for both, which is that it’s really not miserable if you do it right. I think most people who start an agency or consulting business, they make a few mistakes. One, they try to start from zero whereas I was starting from already getting a good amount of inbound for help with SEO and content marketing just via my personal sites, some of the other content I’d done. And so I already had a source of lead flow. I didn’t need to go out and do like tons of prospecting and outbound. We’ve been fully based on inbound leads for the last two years. So going from zero to, yeah, that just shy of 2 million in revenue this year, it’s 100% inbound. We do like no outbound. We’ve had no sales team. It’s just been all of that. So that was sort of like the first reason that it was better was it had been . . . it was easier for us to acquire clients.
The second reason is it usually gets miserable when you have no choice in the clients you take on and you’re beholden to whoever you have. We’ve fired a number of clients over the years. We say no to a lot of people in the sales process who sound like they might be assholes or who seem like they’re . . . who are pushing back too much on price, things like that. We can be pretty selective in who we work with and that means that we really like all of our clients, right. They’re all really nice people. They’re really pleasant to work with. We have good relationships with them. It feels more like partnerships with our friends and helping their businesses grow, and that’s really satisfying. We enjoy seeing the success of our own properties like Cup & Leaf and the Writer Finder and everything, but we also really enjoy seeing the success of our clients, right. And being able to show them like their growth over the last year, being able to see what else they’re doing with their content, how they’re converting them into customers. It’s really satisfying.
Andrew: What’s the process? I imagine that it’s pretty organized. What’s your process for being able to create content that’s customized to your customer and also can deliver traffic?
Nat: Yeah. This is the other big difference between us and most agencies is that we don’t bill ourselves as a marketing agency where we’ll do whatever you need marketing-wise or like, you want some social media that, we’ll do that. You want some like Google ads, we’ll do that. We really just do SEO and primarily content and link building, right? And internally, all of our team in-house are like the strategy side. So the people who are . . . we’re hiring professional editors, we’re hiring like really high-level SEO people, we’re hiring great project managers.
And then, the way we are able to customize it for each client is that we also have this and it’s, in some ways, a small separate business of writer matchmaking. So we have relationships with 2,500 writers now. And so for each client, we can find the absolute best writer for their level of expertise that they want in their content, the voice they’re trying to match. And then we can bring those writers into our system and we have our own internal training documents and videos and quizzes writers have to pass, whatnot, to make sure that they understand our process, and then they’re able to write things that are really great for those clients. And then our team is able to edit them for all of the normal like editorial writing stuff as well as the SEO optimization aspect. And then helping the client get it up on their site, optimize the page, all of that stuff.
So it’s extremely systems and process-driven where we’ve got all these craziest Asana boards for every single client. We know exactly what step everything needs to move through exactly where it is. And you have to do that because depending on how many clients we have at a given time, we might be publishing a 100 articles a week, right.
Andrew: A 100 articles a week for a client.
Nat: Not for one client. That would be crazy.
Andrew: Oh, overall. A 100 overall, that’s a lot.
Nat: It’s still a lot, yeah.
Andrew: So the way you organize it is you have each step of your process of creating content for a client set up in its own column and then you move a customer’s card from column to column until you complete their project. Is that right?
Nat: Yeah. So think of it like for . . . if someone’s not familiar with Asana, this is going to be a little opaque. But imagine that each article is its own card, and then each card is going to have something like 10 to 12 sub-tasks within it, right. So first draft, edits on . . . topic edits on first draft. The second draft from the writer, additional editorial edits on our end, sent to client for feedback, receive client feedback, client feedback implemented, prep for publishing. Okay. Published on the site. Okay. Now we’re promoting, right? Like every single one of those steps needs to be really carefully tracked since we’re working with so many writers and so much content. And we’ve got a four-person editorial team plus a part-time editor who helps pick up slack where it’s needed. So, yeah, it’s extremely systems driven. We really can’t let anything slip through the cracks when there’s that much moving around week to week.
Andrew: I remember interviewing Gary Vaynerchuk and asking him, “Why are you creating an agency when an agency is such a pain and it doesn’t scale the same way as software.” And what he said to me was, I remember the word deploy. He said, “Once I’ve built this agency, I could deploy its marketing power towards anything, towards software that I create, towards a service that I create, towards anything.” And sure enough, he really has been creating companies and using his marketing muscle to promote it. I wonder if that’s part of your plan to come up with the tea company, yes, to promote your services business, but maybe that becomes the business, it takes off. To come up with software, and maybe that becomes a thing and just keep looking for projects that will turn into bigger businesses maybe than your agency.
Nat: Yeah. That is a big motivation. And that was why the agency started was, one, it would be awesome and we want to continue to grow the agency and we want it to be like a really big, one of the best marketing agencies in the business. And we, also, are excited about leveraging our skills and abilities and what we’re learning to grow our own brands. Right?
So the tea company was kind of the first one that we started and started experimenting on. And then we’ve got this writer matchmaking service that we’re growing. We’re launching a Shopify app in a month or two that we’re going to be pointing some of our energy towards. And that’s really exciting to us because it’s exciting growing your client projects, but it’s also really exciting growing your own stuff. And I think it’s fun for everyone on the team, too, to see that, okay, we’re not just focused on doing all this client’s stuff. We’re also using some of our leftover time and energy for these other projects that could become their own things in time.
It’s exciting to me. It mixes things up a bit and it’s a great way to start using some of that experience, and also, to learn what else we could be doing a better job of for our clients. Or like there was . . . we learned a lot about doing SEO research and content writing with the goal of conversions from doing the tea company versus what the goal of just generating more traffic. So by eating our own dog food some of the time, we learn more about what’d you learn about?
Andrew: What did you learn?
Nat: Yes. So one of the big things was just how important keyword selection is for conversion versus traffic. And the guys that Grow and Convert have a good article on this they call “Pain-Point SEO,” right? Which is instead of just focusing on, okay, what is the most traffic, like thinking about how those different kinds of topics are going to actually convert into customers is really important. So one thing that we started seeing in the analytics once we were getting a 100,000 plus visitors a month on the blog was topics like “Green Tea Benefits” converted way less like an order of magnitude less than a topic like “Best Green Tea,” right. And I think when I say that it seems kind of obvious that will, yeah, “Best Green Tea” probably should convert better, but we didn’t realize how big of a difference it would be. So most people who are looking “Green Tea Benefits,” they weren’t really in the buying mindset of getting green tea. They might have some green tea, or they heard of green tea benefits or that it’s healthy for you. Or they might even be just writing an article or doing some research and looking for info on it.
Whereas somebody who’s searching “Best Green Tea” is pretty motivated to buy. And so that became an extra layer in our process of all right, and something we had to explain to clients was, “Hey, you don’t necessarily just want 100,000 visitors a month because 10,000 visitors who are buying from you is way better than 100,000 that are hardly ever buying from you. So we’re not going to just give you a list of the highest volume keywords for your business, we’re going to find the ones that we solve your analytics and what we can infer from our other client projects. We’re going to focus on the keywords that actually look like they’ll drive sales, not just readers.” And that’s been really helpful for, one, kind of like bringing more value, being a better partner versus like just going into Ahrefs and saying, “Okay, here’s the 100,000 or here’s the 100 keywords that have the highest volume, like we’re just going to work down the list.” Right? It gives them more conversion-focus strategy, which ultimately is what they want at the end of the day.
Andrew: You mentioned Ahrefs, are you called Ahrefs, which is what I call it a lot too. I’m still trying to get the most use out of it that I can because I keep hearing people in my interviews talk about it. What do you do with that? Like if I go into Ahrefs . . .
Andrew: You do everything. So if I’m going into Ahrefs and I type in cupandleaf.com and I hit search, I see you. What should I be looking for if I’m trying to understand how you think about content creation?
Nat: Yeah. So we use it for almost everything that we do, and I can walk you through how we use it at different parts of the process. So if you came to me and you said, “Hey, Nat, I’m trying to get more search traffic to Mixergy. What are your ideas?” right? First thing I’d do is probably go into Ahrefs and plug in your URL and say, “Okay, what are all of the top pages that you have right now that are getting search traffic and what are the keywords that they’re ranking on and how highly ranked are you for those keywords?” Because that’s almost always going to be the best place to start is if you’re ranking number 8, 9, 10 on Google for say like the names of podcast guests who get a lot of search volume. My first question would be, “Okay, how do we get those that are in spots 8, 9 and 10 up to 1, 2 and 3?”
Andrew: So I’m looking at yours and I just typed . . . I pasted cupandleaf.com into ahrefs.com and then I went to organic keywords and I see you guys rank number one for the keyword “Tea for Sore Throat” and number six for the phrase “Morning Tea.” What would you do now with number six knowing that that’s within the top eight as you mentioned?
Nat: Yeah. So I would take that and I would say, “Okay, this page is ranking number six for morning tea.” First question, is that the best keyword for us to focus on right now? Assuming it is, then the next question would be, okay, what do we need to do to this page to get it into a higher position? Well, and first, when was it published? If it was published in the last three or four months, I probably wouldn’t touch it yet. But if it’s been up there for more than three or four months, it’s hanging out in number six pretty steady. Then I would say, “All right, what do the other top pages on Google that are ranking for morning tea have that this page does not? How do we expand it? How do we amp it up?” That’d be the first question. So we’d go and we’d read those results and we would say, “Oh, you know what, some of them are talking about . . . they have these other sections that we’re not covering in ours. We need to cover this section in order to be competitive with the other pages on Google.
Once we feel like we’ve filled in those gaps and there’s nothing left content-wise that could be improved. The next question is, okay, how do we drive more existing traffic to this page if it’s one that we want to prioritize? So we might create more internal links from the other pages on the site to drive more of that flow through traffic to it. And then, how do we create more external authority on it? Right? So where can we go externally to build links back to this page in order to support its authority relative to everything else ranking for morning tea.
So if we come into a client and if they reach out to us and they say, “Hey, we want to bring you guys on.” One of the first things we’ll do is we’ll say, “All right. You’re already ranking for all of these keywords but you’re on the second or third page, so you’re probably not getting any traffic for them. But with the right tweaks and maybe doing some link building to them, you could get those on the first page way quicker than you could get brand new content on the first page. So let’s start from there. Let’s get some like quick wins. Let’s get the most out of what you already have and then we can talk about making new stuff.”
Andrew: Okay. I am looking at the who are ahead of you and it looks like they focus a lot on the benefits and side effects of morning tea, which I wouldn’t have thought was a thing, but I think every single one of the pages that outranks you focuses on that. So you’d go look at the benefits and side effects and maybe add those . . . maybe at a section on each of those to your page.
Andrew: I’m with you on that. You were working for a few companies that I know. You were a marketing intern at Zapier. Is that where you got started in marketing?
Nat: Yeah. I got started in two places at once. One was being a marketing intern at Zapier. I was working with Danny Schreiber there. Absolutely incredible learning experience probably . . . I feel super fortunate to have had that experience. I got to do it my senior spring in college and I was a philosophy major. I had no marketable skills behind graduation. But my senior spring, I got the internship with Zapier. And then I worked with another guy, Justin Mares, who’s now the founder of Kettle and Fire, cofounder Kettle and Fire. And he and I did an email . . . did a marketing course through an email course and paid video course. And so I was learning from him and I was learning from Zapier at the same time senior spring.
Andrew: What do you mean? You were creating a marketing course with him?
Nat: Yes. So he knew the marketing side of it, and I was like helping with a lot of the implementation and creating some of the collateral for it. And the concept was programming for marketers. So basic technical skills marketers should know to be more effective at their job. And we started that as an email course. And this was back in the spring of 2015, so email courses weren’t as big yet. And that was back when Product Hunt still let email courses onto Product Hunt. And so we ended up getting number five Product of The Day or something and got 2,000 some email subscribers in one weekend, which was pretty big, I felt, at least at the time. And they were going through the email funnel and it was 14-day course, an email every other day.
And we did a good enough job with the emails that by the end of it, people were asking, “When do we hear about the paid version?” Right. Which is sort of always a good validation that you’ve done something well with your free product. So then we made like the paid video course and we had that running for a while. And it was fun because everything I was doing with him on programming for marketers fed into the work I was doing at Zapier and some of the stuff at Zapier was extremely helpful for getting better at the programming for marketers stuff. They just interplayed really, really nicely. It was a great crash course in marketing and content and everything.
Andrew: What’s one thing you learned from Zapier about online marketing?
Nat: Oh gosh. Well, I’ll give you two things. The first one is never mess up a company’s capitalization and spacing preferences. And this is something I really respected about Zapier was they really care about the little details of everything and I was kind of sloppy in I might add a space where there isn’t one or like MailChimp, right? Capital M, capital C, but there’s no space between mail and chimp. The C is capital, it’s not lowercase. And if you mess it up, that was one of the very frequent things in my content I’ll get editing feedback on was, “Oh, you messed up this company name here, this one here.” And those little details were really important to them.
But then the other bigger lesson was just the importance of really high quality content to stand out because their content marketing game is phenomenal. It’s still one of the best in the business. And being able to see how that worked and get really detailed feedback on everything and really like brutal in the best way feedback was so useful for quickly leveling me up in my content marketing game.
Andrew: What do they do now that’s so good? I know that in the beginning Wade came on here, did an interview about how we learned from Mixergy interviews to create pages quickly for the things that people are searching for, maybe a little more specific. They allowed you to connect any two apps to each other. And they knew that people were searching for ways to connect two apps to each other. So they quickly created a page for each two-app combination that they had. And so anyone like me who was searching for a way to connect Google Docs with Gravity Forms could just go do a search in Google come up with them in first and then they’d say, “Here’s what we do.” And you could go sign up right now for free. It was a no-brainer. What did you learn?
Nat: It’s such an incredible SEO strategy.
Andrew: So good.
Nat: And I refer to that as like the scorch-the-earth strategy, right? Do you have any programmatic way you could create a thousand pages on searches that are getting 10 to a 100 visitors a month, right? Or searches a month. Because if you can do it programmatically like they can, right. Most of those pages are automatically generated based off some set templates. And if each page brings in 10 visitors a month, well, they have 600 apps, so 600 connections amongst themselves is what? 36,000 pages. So if that’s an extra 360,000 visitors a month, that’s a lot of visitors, right? It’s a great way to capitalize on SEO traffic. So that was one side where it made me realize, “Oh, there are really cool things you can do with content and landing pages to bring in a lot of visitors.”
And then on the other side of it, there was their actual blog, right, the actual articles they were working on where it was a mix of workplace productivity type stuff. Right? That was a really big kind of vertical for them. And then also app productivity. So you know, one of the goals there with the content was to create kind of like better user guides and better resource guides for apps than the own app’s website in some cases. So we wrote . . . we were working on these mega guides to using Slack and to automating things with Google sheets and all of these different popular apps. And since we had all of the data on what people were connecting the most, that allowed us to prioritize what types of content to go after based what people were using.
And it was it was delivering a ton of value to readers. It was delivering a lot of value to zap your customers. And it was a great top of funnel way to bring new customer numbers because people might be searching, “How to Be More Productive in Slack?” They would find this mega article on using Slack better on Zapier. And then within the article, there were very tasteful plugs for the Zapier product, right? They didn’t have big full screen takeover popups saying, “Hey, sign up now.” But they would have subtle things that said, “Oh, and if you want to automatically get a notification in Slack when somebody buys from you on Shopify, you can use this app.” And there were custom short codes for it that made it super quick and simple to sign up and set it up. It was beautifully done.
Andrew: I’m on the page right now. It is so well done. So well done. So I get when they do that because people want to find out how to use software. They come here and then they realize, well, there’s a superpower I can give my software, which is connecting it to Zapier. What I’m wondering about is what’s the workplace productivity for? Every once in a while I’ll see how to be more productive at work articles from them. And I think, “What does it have to even do with Zapier? What’s their game there?”
Nat: Well, their whole thing is you’re automating repeatable processes using Zapier. Right. And I still use them every day. I would say that Growth Machine uses Zapier so much that it’s worth at least one or two employees in terms of time saved by how much we use it. And so for us, we’re using it, each of us is using it to be more productive because, for example, when we onboard a new client, we can put in their info from the proposal and the contract into a spreadsheet. And then once we fill in the final column in the spreadsheet that basically tells Zapier go and then it creates their entire Asana project, assigns all of the articles to the writers like sets up their billing tasks. It does everything. So people who are looking up things about how to be more productive at work, maybe they’re looking up how to check my email less or how to be alerted about important things or one of those little things. And then they can give advice.
Andrew: Got it.
Nat: Yeah. They give general advice.
Andrew: And the answers to that come back to Zapier. Sorry, for some reason we’ve got a little . . .
Andrew: . . . bit of a lag in the connection that’s why it sounds like they’re talking to each other. Let me talk about my first sponsor. It’s Toptal. By the way, speaking of watching how people capitalize the names of their companies. I’m especially obsessed with that when it comes to our sponsors. Somebody’s paying us, everyone on the team should know it and we deal with guests all the time. We need to be aware of the guests and how they capitalize and whether they put space between the two words. Toptal is kind of confusing if you don’t pay attention for a moment because their logo is all lowercase, but then if you look at the bottom of their page, it says “Copyright Toptal,” and it’s capital T and then lowercase T for the second T. All right, you got it. You got to pay attention to it. People care about it.
By the way, I’m on their website because I want to give my audience a sense of the kinds of developers could hire from Toptal. We’re not talking about cheap developers. I’m looking right now. I see this guy Vladimir Mitrovic, previously an Apple developer. He’s now part of the Toptal network. You could hire from them. Casey Arrington, previously at SpaceX. You can now hire him from Toptal. You could see people across the board who’ve worked at phenomenal companies. Here’s Danielle Thompson, she’s a designer. The others were developers, a designer who used to work at Blackboard. You see a financial expert who used to work at . . . well, Lehman Brothers actually. That might actually not, but you’re still getting some of the best of the best people available to you just because you’ve gone to Toptal.
Here’s another one. Saim Korlu, previously at JP Morgan & Company. We’re talking about people who work for the companies that have gone big in what they’re doing, so the person from JP Morgan is a finance expert, available to you on an hourly basis, on a project basis or a weekly, monthly basis. You’ve had friends, Nat, who who’ve been in the Toptal network?
Nat: Yeah, I can think of at least two or three friends. So I went to Carnegie Mellon University for college, which is a really good design and developer programming school. Not a great philosophy school. So I don’t know what I was doing there. But yeah, I had at least two or three friends who did it and they . . . in one case, one of them is at Apple now. Another one is one of the lead designers at a startup in New York City and they did it either when they just wanted to, like, take a break from being full time somewhere, but they were still super skilled and they wanted to really take their time evaluating other options while still practicing and honing their skills. I can think another person who was a lead designer at Facebook and he was doing it for a while and yeah, they all had really good experiences with working through the platform and it’s a significantly higher quality of freelancer than you’re going to get through most of the other options out there. Like everybody knows what they are. So yeah, I’m a big fan.
Andrew: Yeah. This is like hiring from the top Silicon Valley companies, hiring it, people away from them. If you want to get started with them, it’s top as in top of your head, tal as in talent, toptal.com. If you go to this special URL I’m about to give you, you’ll get 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when you pay for your first 80 hours in addition to a no risk trial period of up to two weeks. If at the end of the period you’re not 100% satisfied, you will not be billed. These guys are amazing. They stand behind their work. Just go to toptal.com/mixergy, toptal.com/mixergy. Let’s continue then. How did you get started with your agency?
Nat: Yeah. Well, this goes back to a bit of what I was saying before about how it’s less bad for us than a lot of other people who get into agency work. I’ve had a personal site. It’s just myname.com, nateliason.com not actually myname.com, that I started in fall of 2014. So I’ve had it for quite a while and that where I really started to learn a lot of the SEO stuff, because I wrote this article in spring 2015, didn’t know much about SEO yet. That was when I was working with Zapier and them. So I was starting to learn. And then I wrote this article and a few months later, suddenly it went from getting 0 visitors a day to 200 visitors a day. And then it was getting visitors a day and I was like, “Okay, this is super cool. I want to know more about this.” And got really into the SEO stuff.
I was working at Sumo and doing SEO work there. And then after my time at Sumo, I was just working on my personal site. At one point, it was getting 500,000, 600,000 visitors a month, right? So it was a huge amount of traffic from SEO. And then a couple other companies reached out around the same time asking for help with their SEO strategy. So I did three consulting projects just going in and trying to train them in-house, how to set it up and how to get everything going. It worked really well in one case, it worked okay in another case, and then it really didn’t work well at all in the third case.
And the big difference between the first case and the other two cases was, in the first case, I went in, I set it up, I helped get it going, and then I helped them hire someone to run with it. In the other two cases, I went in, trained some people, helped get it set up, and then I stepped out and it just sort of fell apart because they didn’t have anyone to keep doing it. Right. They didn’t have really the time. They didn’t have a dedicated content person. And so it just became everyone’s third priority.
So that kind of told me, okay, people want to do this, but if they don’t hire someone to run it, it’s going to fall by the wayside. So we should just do everything for them. And went out and talked to a few freelancers I’d worked with previously, asked them if they’d be on for taking some kind of like contract SEO work, found a few writers I’ve worked with in the past and just got the first couple of clients from people who had been asking for SEO help.
So launched in September 2017 with two clients, including Ryan, who we were talking about earlier. So I was working with him on Fomo and then working with these other guys who had a fitness YouTube channel and blog and was just, we’re doing it with them to start. And kind of from there, we put the website together and told my personal email list through my personal site that I was doing this now and started getting some more clients that way. And it just kind of kept growing over time.
Andrew: How’d you get Ryan from Fomo as a client?
Nat: Yes. So that came about because one of those first three clients and the one that actually went really well was Kettle and Fire, the bone broth company.
Andrew: And that’s because Justin Mares created it, you two were friends already, and he knew the way you were working, so he hired you to do what?
Nat: Yeah. So he hired me to come in and help them figure out their content SEO strategy for Kettle and Fire and they ended up hiring someone to run and take it over. So I trained her for a bit and then she ran with it from there. And that was a lot of fun. And I love the Kettle and Fire guys. Actually, my wife and I’s cafe in Austin is two blocks from their office. So I see them all the time now. Really, it’s super fun. So he had hired me to help them with that, but then he and Ryan were partners on Fomo. So Ryan had wanted some SEO help on Fomo and then, I think that was how Ryan and I got connected. We also had a number of mutual friends in New York City. And so I think we ran into each other at a friend’s company’s rooftop party or something for his like fundraising round. It’s just one of those small world type things. So yeah, that was how he and I got connected.
Andrew: So basically, in the beginning, you’re going to your friends and friends of friends and that’s how you got your customers?
Nat: Yeah. Friends and the bit of a following I built off of the blog. Those are the two biggest sources. Definitely.
Andrew: I should say I’ve been on your blog, it’s so well done.
Nat: Thank you.
Andrew: But I feel like you’re kind of obsessed with this stuff. Like you’ve got a list of every book you’ve read over the last few years, your rating for it, a small, I think once . . . I’m looking for it in all of these tabs that I have on my computer open about you. Like a short sentence describing it. And then there’s a long article about what you learn from the book because writing is your way of processing it feels like.
Nat: Absolutely. And those . . .
Nat: Oh and I was just going to say, and those books summaries are a great way to force myself to actually process books after I read them instead of just letting them fall by the wayside. And it’s an excellent SEO play is the other big benefit. So . . .
Nat: Well, because if you Google something like “48 Laws of Power Summary,” I am probably in the top 5 or 10. And so there might be like Amazon and Wikipedia and then me and a couple other people who publish their book notes online.
Andrew: Actually, right now you are, well, it could just be me. You’re the top a non-ad search result for that.
Nat: There we go.
Andrew: And so then what does that do for you? So if somebody clicks over . . .
Nat: Somebody clicks over, they read my notes, they think, “Wow, this is super detailed.” And then if you notice at the top of the notes, there’s a link that says “Get access to my brain” or something like that.
Andrew: Oh, that might be blocked out for me because I’ve got an ad blocker on. Let me try without. Okay. And that’s how they join your mailing list?
Nat: No, that’s how they buy the highly annotated version of all my book notes. So I have a separate product within my blog that people can buy to get, read access to an Evernote folder that has all of my bolded, highlighted, annotated book notes and it’s just a $50 one-time charge. But people come on and they see some of those notes and they start scrolling through that page like you did. And there’s, I think there’s over 250 books up there now, including some articles and speeches and things. But it’s a long list. And so the pitch is, “Hey, you’ve probably thought about reading some of these books. Just pay to like lifetime access to my notes and then you can skim through the notes before you decide if you want to buy it.” It’s kind of like the Blinkist pitch, right, similar idea. So . . .
Andrew: I see it here. You’re just using Gumroad to sell a link to your Evernote notes. What kind of revenue are you making with that?
Nat: Geez. I think that made four or five grand this year. So it’s not nothing.
Andrew: In addition, it holds you accountable. I just feel like you’re actually not doing . . . you’re not at all . . . You’re not promoting it great. The only way I could find it is like going to the top navigation and then I see the middle option. The smallest of all the options is brain. And I didn’t click it because I wasn’t sure what that was. If at the end of the article you said, “If you want more of my notes, click here to get it.” I’d understand and I’d connect over to it. But I just like seeing the way you think. And I guess what happens is a lot of people see the way you think, the way that you summarized all the 48 laws, in this case, and they share your blog post and/or they sign up for your email newsletter. Then some of those people become your customers. That’s part of the funnel.
Nat: Yup. And I also . . . I do the blog for its own sake and you’re right that I don’t promote a lot of stuff on there very well and that’s one-half a conscious decision to not make it overly marketed and one-half I’m just too busy with Growth Machine to have the time to go back and improve that stuff. But a lot of it too is driving people to my newsletter because I do like a once a week kind of links with my summary about what’s interesting about them and things I’m reading and all of that. I’ve been doing that for a bit over three years and that’s where I put a lot of the blog energy these days because I just haven’t had as much time for actual writing articles and things. But knowing I have to put out that newsletter every Monday, that’s another great way to stay accountable and to make sure I actually read some good articles throughout the week so I have something to share because if I get to Friday and I haven’t read anything, then I know what I’m doing for three hours in the afternoon.
Andrew: I like Justin Mares thing. He does an email just his friends with things that he’s done, worked on, things that his friends have done. That’s a nice way to touch in with him to see what he’s up to. And then for him not to have to sweat reading articles and preparing. Are you on that list?
Nat: He’s also got a Substack now, like a health and wellness, and company building newsletter that’s very good. But yeah, I get his friend updates as well. There’s a few people who do those and I really like it. I’ve tried to do the friend updates a few times, but for some reason I never end up sticking to them.
Andrew: You’ve got customers and then you said, “I want to do some case studies because people like Andrew Warner are going to ask me, ‘Give me an example of what you do, show me and what was . . . ‘” well, the problem was that customers said, “Well, don’t talk about us.” You are so . . . I don’t know, what’s the word? You didn’t want me to know who your customers were to the point where I stopped every recording before we doing this interview. And I asked you and I saw so much hesitation and I said, “I’m not pushing him to even to the line where it feels uncomfortable. I want to get those.”
Nat: But that was just one. I can tell you the other ones. Yeah, that was . . .
Andrew: But I sense that you needed to be tight lipped with what you are doing. It’s not like you were doing anything like black hat or anything, but you are still tight lipped, and I get it. So then, you created Cup & Leaf and what happened? How did you create Cup & Leaf and how did that translate into new customers?
Nat: Yeah. So like you said, one of the challenges we had early on was people would ask for case studies and we can . . . I want to be respectful of our clients, right? Obviously, they don’t want me publishing their traffic data, their sales data, right? If they’re not publishing it, we definitely shouldn’t be publishing it. So we were a little limited in what we could say, right? We could point to public data, but that doesn’t show all of the process and everything that goes into it. And we can list a name of clients and you can see how they’ve grown, but then it’s always hard to say, “Okay, well how much of that was you?” Right. It’s like when somebody worked as a marketing person at a company that’s blowing up and getting all this funding and growing like crazy, and they say, “Oh yeah, we helped this . . . I helped this company grow from 10 million to a 100,000 but it’s a 10% marketing team.” And you have to go like, “Okay, but how much did you do?” Right?
So we said, “Okay, we need to grow a site of our own to prove that we know what we’re doing.” And that was kind of where Cup & Leaf came from, because I’ve had a running joke in my articles about starting a tea blog. I wrote this article on the Sumo blog back in 2015. That was like, “How to Grow Site for 0 to 10,000 visitors a month.” And in that article, I talked about starting an imaginary tea blog and that was it was 2015, that was two years before Growth Machine even started. And so I kept that trope going and I said, “Okay, well let’s actually start the tea blog because I made a course for Growth Machine for people who couldn’t afford to hire us.” And in the course, I was doing all of the keyword research content planning, everything for, again, a fictional tea blog.
But this time as I was doing that research, I was looking at it and saying, “These keywords are actually really low competition. This is actually a really cool SEO opportunity.” And every now and then we find those where it’s a space that has billions, tens of billions of dollars a year going into it. But nobody’s done a good job with the SEO for some reason. And so I saw those numbers and said, “Okay, we almost have to do this blog. It was a perfect fit. It’s going to be a great set of keywords to go after. We have good writers for this. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Let’s go.” So got a nice design, put it up on Webflow and then had one of our favorite freelance writers, now a full-time member of the company, start working on it and said, “Here’s kind of like the keyword list. We’re going to do three or four articles a week using the Growth Machine process. And then we’ll see what happens.”
And yeah, 8 months later it was doing over 150,000 unique visitors a month. And we published that case study and when it launched it or when the case study launched, it went . . . it was really popular in a lot of marketing and SEO circles because I think very few agencies have as transparent as detailed of a case study with a very clear success that they share. And so it built a lot of I think trust and goodwill as an agency in an industry that can be kind of shady and can be kind of scammy. So it was super useful for that. And then ever since then, people very frequently find us through that. It gets shared somewhere, then they find us or they reach out and then I can send it to them as an overview of what we do with results. It’s been incredibly valuable. And once it was starting to get traffic, my wife and I said, “Hey, let’s . . . what if we actually sold tea behind this thing?” And then that spun out into the whole separate Cup & Leaf business that she’s pretty much fully running and now we have the first cafe in Austin.
Andrew: At first, it was just going to be a blog just to see if you can drive traffic and show how you . . . that’s it.
Andrew: Wow. I just assume something . . .
Nat: It was never originally goal to actually sell tea.
Andrew: Huh. And then why do you use Webflow? Webflow I think we’re talking to them about possibly sponsoring Mixergy. They’re a code free way to develop websites. I thought you would just use Shopify or WordPress. Why not?
Nat: Well, so first we weren’t originally planning on selling tea, so it wouldn’t have made sense to use Shopify if we were just doing a blog. And then, normally, yes, you will use WordPress, but I’ve been playing around with Webflow, was kind of interested in it and wanted to try it out for doing a blog like this. And now Webflow is my favorite CMS. I like it way more than WordPress. It is so much easier to customize your own stuff on it compared to WordPress where . . . Because here’s the thing with WordPress, right? It’s great at what it does, but the, the files are like massive. It can be really slow and if you want to change anything in your design, you’ve got 50,000 lines of PHP, CSS to wade through or you have to pay somebody online to go in and change it.
And with Webflow, it’s just like drag and drop, and super easy adjustments kind of like Squarespace or Wix. But unlike Squarespace and Wix, it’s really clean code. It’s really lightweight and it actually does well for SEO. So you get a super easy to design, really nice looking website without all of the heaviness and the limitations of the normal drag and drop website builders. So we used it for Cup & Leaf. I use it for my personal site now. I migrated from WordPress to Webflow for personal site.
Andrew: You know what, I was watching you. You started your blog, your personal blog, didn’t you, on Craft CMS?
Nat: I don’t think so. Just on Webflow.
Andrew: When I went to the internet archive, there was a link to Craft CMS and how there’s a new site and I assume that you did that. No, you went straight to WordPress and from WordPress to Webflow.
Andrew: Got it.
Nat: And we use it for the Growth Machine site as well.
Andrew: Don’t they do more than that? I mean, Webflow, don’t they also allow you to do like essentially developing to some degree, no? Or is it mostly a blog and ecommerce?
Nat: The thing that they’ve been used for the most historically is a design like designing pages, and then you can export the design code if you want to upload it onto a custom site or even turn into a WordPress theme. So originally, they were just a page builder and then they added a CMS and now they’ve added ecommerce as well. And their CMS has gotten a lot better over the last year or two.
I think when we first started using it, it really . . . it was a stretch to say competed with WordPress. Now they’ve added some other kind of essential features. And the only reason I would use WordPress now is if you were doing a massive publication and needed to have 10, 15, 20 writers on there. I think that they’re still a little limited in their collaboration tools for publishers, but for everything else, they’re awesome. I love Webflow.
Andrew: The plugins for WordPress are also what make it so popular.
Nat: But they’re also what make it risky. So the plugins are a massive vulnerability in WordPress. My personal site got hacked while I was at an alumni weekend at one point. So I was at an alumni weekend, I’d been out partying all day, and then I get a call at something like 4:00 p.m. from a friend saying, “Hey, I’m on your website and I’m getting redirected to download a malware onto my Android.” And that’s obviously not something you want to hear.
Andrew: That happened to me, too. And people thought that maybe I was up to something. All right. Yeah, that’s painful.
Nat: No fun.
Andrew: All right. Let me take a moment. I got to tell you about the software that is fun. So I had a situation where I published the photo of a guest. The guest gave me their photo, I published it and then I got an email from someone saying, “You owe me money for publishing the photo.” And I said, “Ah, this is a crank.” But the crank kept at it. And so I looked into it and turns out somehow we published, not the photo that the guest gave us of themselves, but someone else’s photo. I have no idea how. So yesterday on the team call we said, “What’s the process for doing this?” And we discovered that there’s one process for doing it, but we also discovered that my assistant, Andrea, every time a guest wants to come on Mixergy, she grabs . . . like she grabbed your photo, she got everyone’s photo and she put it in a Google Drive folder and it’s always there.
And so Arie who publishes the blog post said, “Wait, we’re doing double work. How did I not ever find it?” It turns out my assistant put a random character into the name of everyone because that’s the way her computer was naming the files and so it wasn’t searchable and people said, “Well, all right, we can’t go back in time and change all those old names. Now when we go through March 2020 and all the future guests, then we’ll start renaming them without the weird character and we’ll be fine.” I said, “No, no. We could actually just rename it.” They say, “Well, how do you rename all these files? We got a ton of them. We got literally hundreds of files.” I said, “Well, I’ve got Setapp and part of what comes with Setapp is just about any tool for the Mac, and I bet you there’s a tool that does this and sure enough, there’s a tool called Renamer. It’s amazing.
All I did was say, “Find this special character, replace it with space.” It found it, it replaced it with space and now every one of those hundreds of photos is searchable within our Google Drive easily. That’s one of the many things that I’ve done with Setapp. What’s Setapp is is it’s a subscription that gives you access to the best Mac apps out there, and . . . I shouldn’t say the best. They are the best, but I think they’re like five that people know that will be excluded from this, but the others are in there and any issue that I’ve got, they’ve got something to solve. Like I wanted to sync from Google Drive to Dropbox. There was an app that let me sync it so that I could lower my storage costs.
There’s a computer here. I’ve got a Mac on my desktop that I only use for interviews. It was so slow I wanted to buy a new one. I was about to buy a new one. Then I said, “Wait, I bet Setapp has apps that will clean my software.” And sure enough, there’s something called CleanMyMac that cleaned by Mac and made it faster and I didn’t have to buy a new computer just because I had Setapp. If you’re somebody who’s into productivity tools, they’ve got email tools that work super fast and work well. They’ve got tools that will keep you focused on one app at a time, so you don’t get distracted. They’ve got tools.
Oh, here’s one of my favorite, what is it called? Every year, my accountant sends me my taxes in just paper format, drives me freaking nuts. They’re great accountants, but it’s paper. So I scan it into my computer. And then I have to fill it out. Well, scanning is great, but signing and checking off. Oh, I know what it is, it’s not my taxes. It’s they’ve got their little binder of questions. Literally, over 50 pages of questions that they want me to answer. Some of them I need to just check off the answer to. It’s a pain to check it off using most PDF software. There’s something called PDF Pen that I got that makes it really fast to fill in forms, to fill in PDFs and send it back.
Anyway, you get where I’m going with this. Writing tools, blogging tools, maintenance tools for your computer, task management for your team and yourself. All right. It’s all available at one price and you could try it for free. All you have to do is go to, here’s the URL, teams.setapp.com/mixergy. And the reason that the URL is so long is because they’re not used to doing these types of deals, but they will make it available to you. All you have to do is go to that URL. It’s teams.setapp.com/mixergy and when you go there, you’re going to get access to the best software for it. Are you a Mac person? I bet you are.
Andrew: Do you have a tool that you especially like on your Mac?
Nat: Oh, I would say yeah. In terms of actual applications on the Mac?
Andrew: Yeah. What do you use on the Mac?
Nat: Alfred is probably the big one. Alfred and Front.
Andrew: You know what? Everyone uses Alfred because it lets you launch apps fast. Why Front?
Nat: I just really liked Front for email. It does a really good job of aggregating inboxes, and then, if you use it with your team, you can tag other team members in emails without having to forward them emails. And then it pastes in links back and forth between Slack really cleanly. So I can actually like copy a link from an email into Slack and then anybody else has access to that email can open the email directly from Slack. It’s really nifty if you’re especially for what we do in working with clients. It makes organizing that quite a bit easier.
Andrew: One of my favorites is app called Yoink. I just drag anything onto this app and it makes it easier for me to download, makes it easier for me to use it. So it’s great for getting images. It’s great for sharing files. It’s great for saving texts. If I’m researching you, I’m finding all these articles about you and we just want to quickly brag all the texts that I need about you and save it so that could do something with it later. And Yoink, of course, is part of Setapp also.
Andrew: It’s teams.setapp.com/mixergy. How’s my connection to you coming in? Do you hear me okay?
Nat: Yeah, I can hear you fine. We’re getting a tiny bit of video lag sometimes, but it’s fine.
Andrew: Yeah, it’s weird. It doesn’t usually happen with Zoom. Do you guys use Zoom too internally?
Nat: Oh, yeah. Everything.
Andrew: Zoom is such an amazing app. It’s fantastic. I can’t explain to people why it’s better than say Skype for communicating, but it is. It’s just clear.
Nat: You have to try it. Yeah. It’s just one of those weird things where there’s something about it. It’s so much easier. And they’re an amazing company. I mean, if you look at their S1 for their IPO and stuff, compared to every other tech company that IPOs, right. It’s just, it’s incredible. They actually make money. They have a business that works, right.
Andrew: I was supposed to interview the founder, Eric, and then at the last minute he said, “I got to go. I can’t do it.” And I understood that they were getting ready to go public. And before you go in public, you can’t go and do interviews. And so I emailed them, and I said, “Can I just buy into your IPO? I’m such a fan. I run my whole business on you. Not only just the interviews, which are phenomenal because it gives me your audio separate from my audio so we can level it and do all kinds of stuff. But for every meeting that we have, this is my virtual office. I can work out of a tent because I can reach everyone via Zoom and share my screen even from an iPad or an iPhone with other people on my team and say, “Look, here’s how I’m doing this thing now. Just go there.”
Nat: It’s great.
Andrew: So good. Okay. So Cup & Leaf made sense. Talk to me about this sex app and how that fits in with your business.
Nat: It doesn’t fit in with the business at all. That’s just how I got started in this world actually. So we were going back to fall 2015 now, where I had my personal site. I was working at Sumo at the same time. I was getting better at SEO and content and I said, “Okay. What are some things I could write about on my site for SEO specifically?” And I looked around a little bit, I don’t remember how I got on this search in the first place, but I realized that there was a big opportunity in like helping men improve their sex lives topic area mostly because insanely high search volume, which surprised no one and very, very low quality content, right? Everything that was showing up on the top results was tiny articles from “Men’s Health” or these really scammy looking websites trying to sell boner pills or whatever.
Andrew: What’s an example of a search term so that I can understand what you’re talking about?
Nat: “How to last longer in bed.”
Andrew: How to last longer in bed. And so something like that would have short articles that are basically meaningless and then it links over to a pill of some kind.
Nat: Yeah. Or it’ll be “Men’s Health.” What are the other ones? Other magazines like that.
Andrew: I see “Men’s Health” “Your Guide to Lasting Longer in Bed: 12 Ways to Last Longer.” Okay. And so you said, “I think I could beat these guys.”
Nat: Yeah. The hypothesis was just that their content was so bad that even though I had way less authority, maybe I could outrank them. So I wrote a series of articles, one on lasting longer in bed, one on orgasming without ejaculating, one on Kegels, one on reverse Kegels, one on like some part of increasing testosterone. And a couple of them when basically viral on Reddit, getting tens of thousands of readers in the first 24 or 36 hours, still regularly get passed around on Reddit sometimes. I’ll log into my analytics and there’ll be an extra 5,000 or 10,000 visitors on a day and I’ll go, “What happened here?” And then I’ll see, Oh, it’s all coming from Reddit again, like somebody shared it. So it . . .
Andrew: Was that intentional? I see the article, your article on how to last longer in bed is the first one that comes up when I searched for that phrase on Google.
Andrew: I went into incognito, just so I wouldn’t get that into my search history. And the second paragraph links to a Reddit poll. I’m imagining that you were doing some of this in response to stuff that you saw on Reddit. Am I right? And you were feeding the Reddit machine in addition to being fed by it?
Nat: Oh yeah. No, it was really like there was good advice and good discussions on Reddit, but then the actual content online wasn’t good. And my hypothesis was that nobody wanted to write something useful and in depth in their name because they would be embarrassed. Right. They didn’t want it associated with them, which I get right. It was . . . I had to get pretty drunk to hit publish on that article. But I’m glad I did because it was so popular and I still get emails every week or two from somebody saying, “Hey, I found your thing. It was super helpful for me and my boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, partner, whatever.” And that makes me feel good obviously. So that was the hypothesis and it really played out as being correct. It got crazy traffic when it launched and then within three or four months, it was somewhere on the first page for a lot of those search terms.
And that was when my site went from maybe 1,000 or 2,000 visitors a day to 10,000, 15,000, because those terms had such insane search volume and they were they were ranking really well. So they were bringing all those people in. And then as that traffic was growing, I was looking at what the traffic was doing on my site. And I was linking to another app on the app store for doing Kegel exercises. And part of the advice in the article was, “Hey, if you have issues with your endurance in bed, doing Kegels to strengthen your pelvic floor can help a lot.” And I was sending people to the app store to get this app to help them do it, but it was an app targeted at women. It was just okay of an app. It wasn’t that nicely designed. It was kind of buggy.
And I kind of said, “Well, I’m sending a 100 plus people a day to the app store to get this app, what if I got my own app built and sent them to that instead?” So I found a developer, he designed and built the whole thing with me. We launched it and I redirected all the links to be to that app instead. And it paid for its development in the first couple of months. And then it’s just been running passive for the last 2.5 years and I’ve updated it twice, I think. And spent probably less than a couple hours a year on it since it launched honestly. Like it’s almost a hundred percent passive, but the articles keep sending people to it. It’s almost always in the top 100 Health and Fitness apps because of all the traffic going to it and yeah, it’s bringing in nice revenue every month and it gets really good reviews on the app store. It’s actually . . .
Andrew: It does.
Nat: It’s got like what a 4.6 or a 4.7?
Andrew: What does it even do? It’s 4.7, but it’s not 4.7 because you and 5 friends gave it a rating. Well, no, it’s 506 people gave it ratings. I can’t imagine that a lot of people are going to go public on it, but it’s got good ratings from real people. What does the app do exactly?
Nat: So the idea is you can do Kegels and reverse Kegels, right. And a Kegel is like squeezing basically the muscle behind your penis and the reverse is pushing out on it and both can help men just like develop better ejaculatory control.
Andrew: So you teach people how to do that and then you have a timer for it.
Andrew: I’m worried about getting too deep into that, but that’s all it is. It’s this thing where you teach them how to do it and then you time them as they do it. It’s very basic, for 2.99.
Nat: Yeah. It’s super simple but it provides . . . Yeah, exactly. But it provides notification reminders, provides a way to sort of level up as you’re doing it and it fits with the article for people who actually want to go implement the advice in it. So people found it super valuable. There have been other men’s Kegel apps that have come out since then, but it’s still the most popular by far just from those articles. And, again, it’s like the reviews sort of speak for themselves. People get a lot of value out of it and enjoy using it. So it’s been great. And for me, when I launched it, I wasn’t doing . . . I wasn’t working for anyone at the time, but it provided enough passive income for me to go live in Argentina for a few months and travel for a little while, which was really fun.
Andrew: What was it like when you were in Argentina and traveled?
Nat: It was really nice, but I got sick of the nomad thing pretty quickly.
Andrew: What bothered you the most?
Nat: I didn’t like not feeling like I had a home base. Right. I didn’t enjoy not having a stable friend group because even though I was there for four months, it did feel like I only put half effort into making friends because I knew I was going to leave.
Andrew: And they put half effort into being with you because they know they’re leaving, or you are leaving.
Nat: Yeah. It’s fun seeing new places, but it’s also really fun having a routine and feeling productive and spending time with the people that you are going to have a long-term relationship with. So I got over it pretty quickly. And now I’m occasionally somewhat outspoken about people not chasing the digital nomad dream because almost everybody who actually like gets there and gets that passive income, lifestyle business, go live on a beach, they get bored and sick of it after a few months too. So I try to . . .
Andrew: I do find that people will get deep into it. It’s like the greatest thing, how does everyone do it? And then it becomes pretty tiring. I have to say, I really like it, but the thing that I like about it is I do make my home wherever I am and like to a deeper degree than most people. Like I will get an office. I’m also good in the office being by myself because I talk to people all day long.
So when I was in Argentina, I rented an office from Regus. I had my spot, my things were there every day. My coffee and yerba mate were ready for me. I had my restaurants that I was going to for lunch. And then it also does help to have a friends group that you’re tight with beyond where you are. I knew this guy, Morgan Friedman and his family, Celia and they would have people over all the time and so we spent a lot of time with them. I do agree that a home base and friendship circle is really helpful.
Nat: Yeah, and it’s also, you can be pretty productive while traveling and being a nomad, I think. But there’s also, I don’t know, that extra layer of sense of output that comes from having a lot of your other things figured out and not having to figure out, “Okay, where am I going to get Wi-Fi? Where am I going to get coffee?”
Andrew: I know. Or I’m getting Wi-Fi here today? But then there are too many people in the coffee shop because there’s some moms group now that decided that they’re going to make this their home base and now you’re screwed. So I do like having an office, but still, like I’m looking at you. You’ve got a mic that’s set up on a boom arm so that it’s right up on your face. You can’t just go into a coffee shop and say, “Andrew wants to do an interview with me. Great, let’s record in a coffee shop.” It does take away a lot of options. And I think also it depends on the personality of the person. Like some people really deep into it and other people just couldn’t get away from their favorite restaurant or just whatever they’ve got locally. I’m dying to do it again, but I’ve got kids. I don’t know how to do digital nomad with kids and a wife who has a San Francisco-based job. It’s just really tough.
Nat: Yeah. It could be a challenge. But I guess you could do it in the summer. It’s maybe be hard with your wife’s job, but I’ve got at least one friend who’s talked about doing that with their kids and doing kind of like a three-month nomad thing. Especially since we live in Austin and it’s pretty disgusting here in the summer.
Andrew: Yeah. I find a lot of people from Austin will leave, come to San Francisco. Even that’s a little bit tough because somebody’s got to watch the kids and I don’t want to watch the kids. I want to be focused at work. I don’t even like interruptions. Yeah. Like if there’s a fire drill and there have been fire drills while I’ve done interviews, what I’ve done is I mute myself while the alarms going off. I let my guests talk and then I come back in and I talk, and nobody knows that the fire drill even happens. I don’t want to be interrupted by fire, let alone by my kids. So that’s a bit of a pain. Let’s talk a little bit about the difficulty of your business. You had a situation where clients left you. Be open. What happened? And how do you deal with that?
Nat: We talked about this before we started.
Andrew: Yeah. You even talked to Brian, our producer, Brian Benson about how at one point there were like, what’d did you have 10 clients and how many of them left your course?
Nat: Yeah. So we’ve had a couple of . . . and I don’t know what it is, it’s just all bad things happen at once for some reason. But we had this so that they’ve been two really notable instances of this one is last March or so. We only had about 10 clients and then 4 or 5 of them dropped off in the span of about two weeks. And it was weird too because, in one case, they had just come to the end of their project, they didn’t want to renew and that was fine, right. We ended. In the other three cases, it was just weird act of God type things where they had to cancel pretty much immediately for reasons that we saw as totally understandable. And it was very amicable. It was, “Hey, look guys, we have to cut spending on this because this other thing happened and we hope that’s cool, but like we have to end this now.” We were like, “Yeah, sure, no problem.”
But three of them in the span of two weeks and we had just hired one . . . we had been four people or we’d been five people and we’d just hired number six and seven and then we lost like $30,000 some a month in revenue, which was scary, obviously, right? Because suddenly we had lost almost half of our revenue. It must be more than that then. But anyway, so yeah, we’d lost like a decent chunk of revenue and we just brought these people on and so it was like that mismatch was really scary. But sometimes things just like work out in weird ways because that freed us up a little bit to . . . we had more bandwidth then to work on process stuff. Right?
And one challenge we’ve always had is the . . . since we’re fully bootstrapped and never raised any money, we’re funded entirely on our revenue, which means we have to be kind of careful about hiring, right? We’re not like a company that’s raised a few million dollars and can go hire a head of revenue. We have to hire at least in line with or even behind revenue, where people start to feel a little, they start to say, “Okay, Nat, I feel like I’m kind of hitting my limit here.” And then we hired someone to help fill them out. Right? We can’t have too many people with tons of free time or like the numbers just don’t work out. It’s a service business. So one, that gave us some time to step back and figure a few things out, but then also it let us invest a lot more time in the clients we did have and throw some extra work and stuff their way.
And then we ended up closing one of our biggest deals at the time that was a new . . . it was like an $18,000 a month project. So that instantly replaced two of the clients we lost. And then another client, he doubled or tripled his project. So he went from 8 grand a month to 16 or 20. I can’t exactly remember. And so we ended up replacing most of the lost revenue within another two or three weeks. So just this crazy emotional swing where suddenly we were back to where we started despite that huge drop and huge gain.
Andrew: Do you get emotional? Like do you get freaked out and scared?
Nat: I don’t get . . . I wouldn’t say I get scared. I get very stressed and when I get very stressed, I can be irritable. And but the solution is usually to work, right? I find that I can like work through stress and sometimes, I just need to feel productive to help reduce that sense of stress.
Andrew: And when you do that, when you’re feeling stressed because you lost customers, do you feel like you work on getting new customers or do you work on things that distract you so that you wouldn’t get upset about that? Like looking for keywords for a client or trying to figure out . . .
Nat: No. It’s working on getting customers.
Andrew: That’s it. So you get freaked out and you say, “I need to get customers.” And if you need to sit down and get new customers, what do you do? Since so much of it is inbound.
Nat: Yeah. Unfortunately, there’s not that much I can do, but I’ve . . . I’m not a very good salesperson honestly. I dropped leads. I forget to follow up with people. I’m slow in getting things to people and when that stress happens, it’s good because then I become a really productive salesperson. Right? I’m like following up immediately and I’m behaving the way I would want an actual salesperson to behave. So I think that’s where it starts to make a difference is when things are going well. Like, honestly, I get a little more lazy with the sales process. I feel less and sometimes I have to be because we’re at our capacity and we can’t even take on new people until we hire. But once we’ve got a bunch of extra capacity, then I can say, “Okay, Hey, let’s try to get more of these people in here and figure this out.” So that’s usually where the energy is going is to that and to seeing where we can improve process to make sure some of these things don’t happen again in the future.
Andrew: To make sure that you don’t drop customers in the future with better process.
Nat: Yeah. Make sure we don’t lose customers for things that were our fault. Right. Because we had another . . .
Andrew: What specifically could you do to make sure that you don’t lose customers?
Nat: I mean there’s a few things one would be looking internally and seeing okay, when people cancel, what are the main reasons they do that? Right. We’ve had a couple of instances recently where we were hired by one person on the team at a company and then we worked with them and had a great relationship with them and then they hire someone under them. So say if you’re working with like a director of marketing and then they hire a marketing manager and then the marketing manager becomes our new point of contact and then the marketing manager fires us. And in a lot of those cases it’s like the work was still the same and the director of marketing was perfectly happy with it, but then this new marketing manager wasn’t.
Andrew: I get it. So now you’ve got a win over a whole new person.
Nat: Now we have now we’ve been developing a whole process . . . Exactly. We learned that we almost have to treat them like we’re restarting the whole sales process again. Like we need to explain what we do. We need to explain the long-term vision of it. Why we were brought on in the first place because I think to them, they’re coming in, they have no relationship with us. We’re just a number on a spreadsheet and they’re looking at it and especially for SEO, like comparing that to more direct marketing channels like ads where you can see very clear ROI, right? We spend this much on Facebook ads and this many people converted. Awesome. We spent this much on Growth Machine and like it’s way harder with search traffic because you can get some of that in Google analytics.
Nat: But sometimes it’s people show up and then they get hit with a re-targeting ad later. And so like all the attribution goes to the re-targeting ad. But the whole reason you had someone to re-target was that they came and read the content that we created. So it’s a lot more . . . it’s a lot harder to quantify like that direct relationship. And so there’s also this element I think of people who get hired for a role and then they want to, they want to do a bunch of things really quickly, right, to sort of establish that they’re kind of like in control. And we just weren’t doing a good job of transitioning our relationships with new people being hired. So now we have a process around that. It can be good to learn from those experiences as much as they suck when they happen.
Andrew: When you told me that you weren’t a good salesperson, I was reminded of something you told Brian, our producer about how when the World Cup was going on in South Africa, do you remember what you told him you did?
Nat: Yeah. So this was this is when I was in high school actually. So the World Cup was going on in South Africa and that was the one that all the vuvuzelas. So I . . .
Andrew: The things that just made an incessant noise in the audience.
Nat: Yeah, the . . . weird honking noise.
Andrew: Yeah. It was like thousands of people doing that, blowing that vuvuzela.
Nat: It was so crazy. And so that was the whole fad from that summer. And then in the fall I went to a boarding school and we had a really big football game against our rival school, and I was in an entrepreneurship club and we found a kind of like a dropship type online vendor who could make custom vuvuzelas. And so we got them made in the school color with the school seal on it. And we bought a ton of them and then sold them before and at the football games so that everybody on our side could be doing the vuvuzelas during the game and we pretty much . . . I think we almost sold out of them and we made somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000 off of it in those couple of days. And then we got in trouble with the school cause we like use the school seal without permission and stuff, but they let us keep the money. I think that was the first time I can think of that I made an exciting amount of money off of something entrepreneurial and that was a lot of fun. I wish I still had one of those lying around here somewhere because it’d be pretty cool keepsake to have.
Andrew: It opened your eyes to like a new possibility for your life.
Nat: Yeah, it did. And because it was also once it worked, we were like, man, if we had really been smart, we would have made them into opposing schools colors too and sold them to them and the parents when they got there. And that was the other big thing we learned is that the parents would pay more for them than the kids. The kids would be like, “Eh, $5, $10, I don’t want to pay that.” The parents will be like, “Yeah, $15, whatever. Sure. Here.” So as the game was going on, we started going to the parents instead of the kids and like trying to sell to them.
So that was a pretty fun experience. But I think it was like the only time the entrepreneurship club did something really successful, at least when I was there.
Andrew: All right. Congratulations on doing so well. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next app or next side business is going to come out from this. I usually close these interviews out by reminding people what my sponsor is, but I’m going to say I think I could have done a better job for my second sponsor Setapp. Tell me what you think of this. What’d you think of the way that I, that I promoted this collection of apps?
Nat: I thought it was good. It’s funny when you lead into it with the image attribution scare, I thought we were talking about SEO because that’s a very common black hat SEO tactic.
Andrew: What do you mean the image attribution scare?
Nat: So if you don’t want to, yeah, I like the somebody emailing you saying you stole their image or we’re using it. It’s a relatively common black hat SEO tactic where you download free images online and then upload them to a Flickr that says it requires attribution. And then you email anybody who was using the free image saying, “Hey, you’ve stolen my image. Please link to my site to give me credit for the image you stole.”
Andrew: Oh, really?
Nat: Yeah. We get a number of these emails since we work on somebody’s sites now. And the first time it happened, it terrified me because I was like, “Gosh, it’s liability.” And then I realized, “Wait, no, this guy is just messing with us.” But to answer your question, no, I mean it sounded like Setapp is kind of like a one-stop shop for curated collection of really good Mac apps, right? So if you go to the Mac app store and you’re, “Eh, too many things.” This is like a really nice package of things that are going to make your life better if you’re a Mac user.
Andrew: All right. So the main message came across. Here’s where I think I could have done better. I think what I could have done was in addition to my example, picked a few more expensive apps to talk about and explained that for less than the price of any one of these apps that will do something significant for your business, you can be a Setapp member and then get all of those apps. For less than the price of one, you get all of them.
And then the other thing I should have done was emphasize that this is for teams, that you could get for a lower price, one for everyone on your team who’s using a Mac and then give them all these apps that will super . . . I don’t like the superpower your computer. I think what I could have done was focused on do it for your teams and here’s what you’ll be giving your team when you sign them up and then talk about the productivity tools that that would come to them.
The reason I’m bringing it up with you is because I feel like you know my pain to some degree. I could create a great ad. I won’t know if it’s effective or not for a very long time and it stinks versus if you buy an ad you know immediately. Yeah, putting a red circle around it helped get more clicks, drove more traffic, drove more ads more and more customers and so on. I want some . . .
Nat: So for people who buy podcast ads too, right? So the companies are paying for ads on like your show or [inaudible 01:15:55]. And then they’re looking at the, the return on ad spend. And it’s sort of I think it works, right? I can attribute some of it, but there’s going to be a lot of people who don’t type in the exact URL you give them or, yeah, like, maybe I hear about it now, but then in a few weeks I hear about it again from someone else and then I say, “Oh, yeah. I should go try that out.” Right. And at that point, maybe I’ll remember to use your link, maybe I won’t. But that will have been something that’s at least half attributable to you. And they have no way to track that. It’s a challenge.
Andrew: And then the first time you hear me talk about any sponsor, you’re not fully convinced. You never heard of Setapp maybe before and now Andrew’s talking about it and you go, “Eh, I don’t think I need it.” Well, then you hear me talk about it five times and then you go into sign up. So what does that mean for them, right. Doesn’t mean it didn’t work if you ran one ad? Or does it mean that it worked, but now you’ve planted a seed and you’ve got to come back.
I actually think the podcast advertising, it’s effective because it’s so personal. Like you know it’s coming from me, but I think that we’re missing a lot with podcast ads. I’d love to be able to tag somebody who’s having listened to the ad so that then Setapp or any sponsor can come back and put an ad on the web so you can click on it and then go over to their site. You heard Andrew talk about it, but you didn’t remember in the middle of your run to stop the run and type down Setapp. You’ve got to like now go on with the rest of your life. But if you saw it online somewhere, then you might click on it and understand a little bit better and now you’re ready to sign up. I wish that it was a lot better, but very touchy there.
Nat: Imagine if Facebook released a podcast player, because then you could pixel people listening to your podcast and then you could re-target your podcast listeners for your sponsors and things.
Andrew: You know what, podcasters are very sensitive about data and how if you do release this and you do tag people, you take this one place where people are free from any kind of tagging and you suddenly turn it into a site that’s just like Facebook. I get that pain, but I feel like people would have a much better experience if they didn’t hear the same Casper ad a zillion times on every freaking podcast and then it all disappears. So when you’re ready to shop for a mattress, you don’t hear it. But when you’re not ready, you’re bombarded. Or MeUndies like or bra ads where I’m not buying bra ads. Or worse, if you’re like a Mac . . . if you’re a PC person, why should you even hear about all these Mac apps? Maybe that’s not worse, but you get it. I think people would have a much better experience. That’s just me.
Nat: I’m with you.
Andrew: All right. That’s just me. All right. Nat, dude, I freaking love talking to you.
Nat: It was lot of fun. Glad we did this.
Andrew: I think the reason I loved talking to you is because you’re a good writer and I found that good writers are the most interesting people to talk to. They could sum up their ideas well.
Nat: Thank you.
Andrew: I relate to them better. I’ve got some context before I talked to them, so I feel, in some ways, like I’m a little more familiar with you than this. Like hour and a half time that we spent together entitles me too. But it helps. All right.
Nat: No, I enjoyed this as well and if you ever make it down to Austin, shall we get together, come to the cafe.
Andrew: I’d love it.
Nat: I’d serve you some tea.
Andrew: What is your wife’s cafe? What’s your family’s cafe?
Nat: Cup & Leaf Cafe. It’s over on the East side in Austin.
Andrew: Cup & Leaf. So that’s where you ended up with the name Cup & Leaf. Did the Cup & Leaf came first.
Nat: No, no. Cup & Leaf Cafe came last. It was blog, then ecommerce store, and now cafe. So I think that’s the only SEO case study that’s turned into a cafe.
Andrew: Would you be pissed if I just sat . . . I’m looking at this cafe. It looks really nice. I like all the wood. Would your wife be pissed if I came in and just sat at the Cup & Leaf Cafe for like five hours on my laptop?
Nat: No, we actually designed it for people who want to do that.
Andrew: Why do coffee shops like it when people sit down there and feel like they own the place. They buy one cup of coffee, they’re spending five hours there.
Nat: Well, I mean we opened it more than anything because we’ve wanted to do it. Like we wanted a cafe, we wanted to try it and we wanted a place for all of our friends and friends of friends in the online, remote digital nomad internet, whatever community to have like a place to come, hang out, work, bring their laptops. And yeah, I mean if, if you . . . if somebody wants to hang out and order their one cup of tea and sip on that for three hours, like will re-steep their leaves for them.
Andrew: You will?
Nat: We’ll offer them other things as well. Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean because we serve really nice teas. So a lot of them you can re-steep three, four, five times and we’ll just like do it automatically and top up their cups because we like want it to be a great place to hang out in. We’re not trying to like maximize the throughput of the cafe. Right. We’re just trying to like make a really great spot to hang out.
Andrew: You guys serve food too?
Nat: We will have pastries starting in January.
Andrew: What about bone broth? That seems to be the big drink.
Nat: Yeah. Well, like I said, the Kettle and Fire office is two blocks away, so probably have some of their stuff. The Perfect Keto guys as well. We have like Perfect Keto bars and we can put MCT oil and collagen and CBD in your drinks and stuff. So . . .
Andrew: What is putting CBD in my tea do for me? To get me high?
Nat: No, it was just like relaxing, right? It’s sort of like a calming. For some people, it’s anxiety reducing. A lot of it depends on how much you use though and how good of a source it is. The issue with CBD is there’s basically no regulation around sourcing right now. So most CBD you buy is just, it’s like junk, right? It’s not really good quality. So we found a local Austin supplier who makes really, really nice stuff that actually has a teeny, teeny, teeny amount of THC in it. Like, it’s right at the legal line because that actually activates the CBD better. So you get a more like . . . you get the full experience of the CBD versus like the zero THC CBD is less effective. So it actually has a little bit of that odor to it, too.
Andrew: I liked the little touches in the place. I’m now looking at photos online. Somebody took a photo and says, “They have hair ties and tampons in the restrooms.” There’s like a whole jar of not tampons, of hair elastics.
Nat: Yup. Well, that’s what you get when a woman starts a local business versus guys like us, we don’t think of these things.
Andrew: What do I think about it?
Nat: My wife is like super thoughtful about all of that stuff. And you know, it’s another thing where it’s like we designed the place to be the kind of cafe we want and she mentioned how much that meant to her when she goes into a cafe or a bar and they do that. It’s very rare. So, and I think that, yeah, that person taking a picture of it and mentioning it, it’s like, “Yeah, this stuff stands out.” It’s kind of like going back to Zapier. Right? Think about the little things.
Andrew: I got to say. It’s still seems like a pain in the ass business to create. I’d love to come in there and sit down, but like all the work and making sure that I’ve got the bathroom clean. For example, I hate to clean somebody’s bathroom but clean the bathroom and make sure that people are comfortable when they’re sitting six hours and only buying one $3 cup of classic tea. And for what, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much money in it and it’s not going to scale as much. You don’t care.
Nat: Yeah. I mean, in terms of starting a business, it’s awful to start a local thing. I mean, we signed the lease . . .
Andrew: You guys picked the wood for the floor by yourselves?
Nat: Not the floor, but all of the bar, all of the tile, all of the chairs and tables and everything. It was an empty shell when we rented it. So we had to [inaudible 01:22:52] . . .
Andrew: So you’re saying five months it takes to do all that.
Nat: Oh, yeah. I mean we signed the lease in February. We couldn’t even touch the place until July because of the Austin permitting. Right. So you’re sitting on a place you rented for four or five months. You can’t even go in there and like move an outlet or start on the bar. Because if you do, you’re in violation of Austin zoning laws or whatever. So yeah, you decide you want to start a business, you find a place for it, you sign the lease and you start paying rent and then you can’t do anything for five months, which is awful. And then it starts and then all of these crazy things happen that you’d never predicted from the get-go.
Andrew: So why? I’m trying to get a sense of who you are by understanding the moves that you make. Why do that? I’m actually now just saving it into Google Maps that when I go . . .
Nat: Awesome. Thank you
Andrew: Oh, shoot. I shouldn’t have shown that. I think I’m . . . Yeah, I’m trying to do that, but so why do that? Why do all of it? I’m labeling it now in Google Maps.
Nat: Yeah. One, it had always been on my 25-year goals to open a cafe. All right. I just thought it’d be really cool to have my spot that I could go to and hang out in. I lived in Paris for a month and I was living with my sister and she and I would always go to the same corner bar and it was very clear that this corner bar was opened by these five guys who were just best buddies and wanted a place to hang out and drink beer and maybe make some money. And I loved that. I thought that was so cool. And I always thought it’d be so fun to have a cafe where my friends come hang out, where I could work from. And Cup & Leaf was growing and because then I moved to Austin and we said, “We could actually find a nice little spot and do it here.”
And we were living in New York before. It was no way it was happening there, but Austin, real estate is a little bit cheaper. And so we found a spot and we said, you know what? Let’s just go for it. Let’s see what happens. We don’t have kids yet. We’re still young. If this thing blows up and we lose a bunch of money, it’s not going to be the end of the world. There’s never going to be a better time to try to do something like this. So let’s just go for it. And it ended up costing three times what we expected and taking two to three times longer. But now it’s like I sit in there and work every day and every person who comes in that I don’t know who just finds it on the street or on Google, it’s like there’s still a joy to see walk in there and that’s really special.
Andrew: Are you comfortable to saying what it costs to set it up?
Nat: No, I’ve been working on it like working on blog posts about this. I mean, I haven’t gotten the final numbers together, but it was somewhere just north of a hundred grand, which isn’t too terrible for a physical location. But we had the monthly rent for seven months before we opened. And so that came out to about like $28,000 in rent on like an empty space that you’re not making money on. And then plumbing it was a big expense. That was like 12 grand. Doing all the woodwork was another 20, doing like the final touches for the tile and the painting was about 10. Electrical wasn’t too bad. That was like two grand. And then you’ve got to like buy all your chairs and appliances and things. Probably another, well yeah, the appliances was another 10 grand because you got to buy like a dishwasher and all of that. So I hadn’t been doing the math as I go, but yeah, we’re in the a 100, 120 range. So . . .
Andrew: Okay. I used to want that. When I lived in New York, I loved being in certain coffee shops and I wanted an office that felt like that. And then I said it’d be interesting if I could just have a coffee shop that was my office with my little space in it and I guess that’s what you’ve got there. All right. What’s a good place for people who want to connect with you to go?
Nat: Yeah, I would say for . . . if you want to work with us at Growth Machine, just growthmachine.com is great. If you want to connect with me, I’m most active on Twitter and that’s just twitter.com/nateliason or if you want to check out the blog, that’s nateliason.com.
Andrew: I really like your blog.
Nat: Thank you.
Andrew: I just like your sensibility and it comes across in your personal website a lot.
Nat: Thank you very much.
Andrew: On nateliason.com. I want to make sure that we give that out. All right. And I hope to come to your place in Austin. That’d be so great.
Nat: Yeah, please do. Just shoot me an email when you’re on the way and we’ll hang out and have some tea.
Andrew: I love it. Thanks. I’ll come on my iPad and my tent. Bye.
Nat: Perfect. Thanks, Andrew. Bye.
Andrew: Bye, everyone.