Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. It’s Andrew Warner and I’m here with an apology, not to you, my listener, but to my guest here today. Joining me is a guy who I recorded an interview with four years ago, Sujan Patel, and I didn’t publish it. Sujan, how did you feel when I didn’t publish it?
Sujan: Dude, I was embarrassed, to be honest. I knew that you didn’t publish it. For four years, I kind of thought to myself, “Man, did I suck so bad that Andrew didn’t publish it?” I was embarrassed to let you know. I’m not even sure how it happened. I think when we were talking about my dinner series is when I just reached out and I mentioned it. But I appreciate you bringing me back on the show and finding that whole email trail and figuring out what happened.
Andrew: I hunted it down like I was looking for the Holy Grail. I said, “Did I send the interview to Joe, the editor? Yes, I did. Maybe Joe didn’t edit it. No, Joe edited it.” I said, “Maybe we somehow didn’t send it over to transcription.” No, it was in the transcription service. It was in an MP3. The whole thing was done all the way through.
I don’t know why it wasn’t published. I’m so embarrassed that it wasn’t. I’m glad that you reached out. It was a great interview. In fact, you and I were going to re-record an interview today to kind of make up for the last one because I want your story on Mixergy. I think it’s an important one to tell.
I spent–I got lost. I don’t know how much time I spent just reading the transcript. I got lost in reading it. It was so good for our previous conversation. I thought that back then–this was four years ago–my storytelling abilities or my ability to lead a guest through a story were pretty garbage-y and I always thought, “I’ll get better in the future.” I read that transcript of my interview with you. I was good back then. That interview was good. You were good. You had a compelling story.
So, here’s the proposal I made to you and you agreed, so we’re going to do it. We’re going to play the full interview, as it was four years ago because it still holds up with one change. At the end of it, Sujan, you and I will come back and we’ll catch everyone up on where your business went. Your revenues were pretty strong then. I want to know did the revenues go up or down. You’re no longer at that company. What’s the project that you’re working on now?
Sujan: Yeah. I’m working on a company called ContentMarketer.io. It’s a content promotion tool essentially helping marketers and writers, content creators do the marketing part of content marketing, getting the word out, getting it out there.
Andrew: Get the word out on content that they’re working so hard to create. We’ll talk about why you’re there at not at the company that we’re about to hear about in this interview. And we’ll talk about what happened that you sold the business, what happened towards the end. It’s kind of painful, but you’re willing to talk about it and I think it’s important.
And this interview is sponsored by two companies, Acuity Scheduling and Pipedrive. Sujan, do you know Acuity Scheduling?
Sujan: Yeah. I’ve used them a couple times.
Andrew: I had an experience earlier today where someone said, “Andrew, check out this software. It will allow your members to connect with each other.” I said, “This sounds really good.” I went to the website and there was no place to buy it or to try it. There was just a “request a demo” button. So, I said, “Yeah, I like it. I want the demo. Let’s get started.”
I click the demo button. The guy emails me back in hour and says, “Andrew, are you available later today for a phone call or at 2:30 on Friday?” I said, “I’m talking with Sujan. I’m too busy today. Friday, I want to be out of the office working on outside projects.” So, I emailed him back and said, “I’m busy both those times. I’ll circle back in the future.” Sujan, you know what in the future means, right?
Andrew: Right, never. So, he lost an excited person just because he made it so hard for me to talk to him. With Acuity Scheduling–actually, you know Acuity Scheduling works. How would he use Acuity Scheduling?
Sujan: Yeah. He’d just send you a link of a few times he’s available and you can choose, essentially. So, you can make that transaction happen immediately.
Andrew: Yeah. It gives me the full calendar power. In fact, if he wants to ask me a few questions after I pick a time on his calendar, he could do it. In fact, if suddenly something comes up and one of the dates he’s available suddenly become busy, it automatically takes it off of the calendar that he shows me. It’s just so super sweet and we love it as a team because it makes our lives easier. Andrea here on the team just talked to me earlier today about how much she loves that we’re now using Acuity Scheduling because it’s easy for her to use. It’s got a lot of features, but it’s super easy.
All right. If you want to sign up for it, anyone out there should go check out AcuityScheduling.com/Mixergy. When you go to that full URL, they’ll give you a few weeks of free time to try it so you can really see how powerful it is.
The second tool is Pipedrive. Do you know Pipedrive?
Sujan: Yeah. We actually used it at my agency before.
Andrew: You did?
Sujan: Yeah. When we set that up, it actually dramatically increased our close rate. Like you said earlier, we forgot to follow the people. We left it to human error and you end up dropping a ball on something that could be really huge.
Andrew: Yeah. In fact, back then four years ago, I thought we were doing really well with booking because we got a lot of guests, but we were dropping the ball on guests, never like we did with you, I hope. But there would be someone who said, “I’m too busy,” and maybe, “Follow up with me next week,” and we didn’t get back to them, someone who said yes, they would do the interview but didn’t follow up and actually book it and we dropped off. There were also times where we didn’t have enough guests. I was scrambling last minute to find guests because I didn’t put enough people in my system.
We switched to Pipedrive. What Pipedrive does is it allows you to really organize your whole selling process. Sujan was selling consulting services. I’m basically selling strangers on doing interviews here on Mixergy. Pipedrive helped us both organize that. If you are selling anything, you’ve got to, you owe it to yourself to check out Pipedrive. It’s software that will help you organize your sales process and get more deals done and look more professional and not embarrass yourself the way I did with Sujan.
If you want to try it out, you can get a bunch of free time. They’re really giving us a lot of free time. All you have to do is go to Pipedrive.com/Mixergy. They’ve got a very, very, very generous freebie there so you can really check out how much Pipedrive can influence your business–Pipedrive.com/Mixergy.
All right. Let’s roll back the clock four years and watch my interview with Sujan Patel. And at the end of it, stick around. Sujan will catch us up on what happened to that business.
Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart, where I put together interviews for you, the ambitious entrepreneur with proven founders who tell you how they built their businesses.
In this interview, we’re going to find out how a founder who gave up on building his business ends up with a business that does over $1 million in sales. So, he gave up on it and it’s back and it’s doing over $1 million in sales. How did it happen?
Sujan Patel is the guest today. He is the cofounder and president of Single Grain, a digital marketing company that specializes in search engine optimization. Sujan, welcome.
Sujan: Hey, Andrew. How are you doing?
Andrew: Good. All right. We’re going to get to the lows. I see from the notes and from your conversation with Jeremy, our producer, that you were willing to talk openly about the lows, but maybe we can start off on a high note to let people know that this story does have a happy ending. You have some pretty big clients. Who are some of the clients at Single Grain?
Sujan: Salesforce, Yahoo, we work with Mint, Intuit TurboTax. We’re working with SlideShare, recently acquired by LinkedIn and the list goes on.
Andrew: You’re doing how much in sales every year?
Sujan: Well into seven figures. I can’t disclose exactly.
Andrew: So, last year, 2011, you did over $1 million in sales?
Andrew: And the business is how old?
Sujan: Unofficially I say it’s been around since 2005. Full-time it’s been since 2009, so about three years.
Andrew: Okay. And there was a period there where you walked away and what did you do?
Sujan: Well, I walked away and I ended up getting a job for a couple of years, about four years or so.
Andrew: All right. Let’s find out how this all happened and what happened to your business that made you say, “I’m going to go get a job.” I know that’s a big move for entrepreneurs. I want to know why that happened. I also want to know how your clients and how you built up so quickly to over $1 million in sales.
So, I’m actually going to go back to when you were 7. You’re an entrepreneur since even back then. What did you sell back then? What was the business?
Sujan: I pretty much sold popcorn, popcorn bags that my mom bought from Costco. I broke down the math. It ended up being like $0.50 a bag. I went door to door selling them for $2 a pop. My goal there was to make enough money to buy candy.
Andrew: And did you?
Sujan: Yeah. I sold like 15 packs or so, which broke down to one candy bar a day for 30 days. So I was pretty happy for that month.
Andrew: So, you’re seven years old. Your parents aren’t just going to let you go door to door because you had this idea and this vision for being an entrepreneur. There’s some kind of encouragement and time that goes into it on their part and they’re going to watch you as you do this, which to me feels like they want to encourage this entrepreneurial side of you, right?
Sujan: Yeah, definitely. My parents–I’m first-generation here in this country. My parents, I’ve seen them struggle and kind of grow their careers. My mom is an entrepreneur or has always been running her own business. So, I didn’t even ask for permission. My mom bought this popcorn. I kind of just snuck out, pretended I was riding my back and went door to door and sold this popcorn. I figured it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission and I did it. My parents, I was surprised that they were actually proud rather than upset.
Andrew: So, they weren’t watching over you as you did this door to door?
Sujan: no. I had this like hunch and I just did it. I figured I’m seven years old. I’m a cute little Indian boy or at least I thought I was cute. Who won’t buy popcorn from me for like $2?
Andrew: You’re very cute even to this day. Can I say that?
Sujan: Sure. Thank you.
Andrew: So, you know what I noticed? In a lot of American families, talking about money and talking about business at the table is just rude. It’s something that if you start doing it your parents will tell you why you shouldn’t be doing it. Here, you come from a background where your family encouraged you to have those conversations. So, what’s the benefit to you? In fact, how did it impact your life to have those kinds of conversations with your parents and that kind of encouragement?
Sujan: I think that is the foundation that made me who I am. I remember vividly my dad would take me to the gas station and make me do the math. He’d say, “I spent $50 on gas. How many gallons of gas did I get at the current pricing?” And I would have to do the math. So, all those things I think it made me who I am and made me stronger.
It made it so I could figure out the ROI and opportunity cost of things at an early age, where it’s kind of ingrained in me. So, when I’m in my 20s doing in a real business, I think back to that moment, and I automatically know the simple math that makes a business succeed or fail.
Andrew: Okay. Then you went on and you started an auto parts website. How old were you then?
Sujan: Well, I started selling auto parts like to my peers in high school when I was 16 when I got my license pretty much. It was just a means, again, to get discount parts for myself. I was really into cars. I did that for a couple years. Then at 18, I figured I can’t scale just selling to my friends or people I know or they know. I have to actually make a website or a real brick and mortar business.
I couldn’t afford a brick and mortar business. I saw a lot of the companies I would get my parts from, they weren’t doing so well. So, I figured online is the way to go. So, I made a website. It took a couple of years or a couple of months to make. I used Elance to do so. I poured about $10,000 into this project in my first year of college.
Andrew: Because there was so much inventory?
Sujan: I could get the parts for about the same cost that people were selling it online and still make about 15% to 20% margins.
Sujan: So, I figured why not. In high school, all I did was start with the local part dealership and then I worked my way up, going back to the distributor. So, I ended up getting the parts very, very cheap. And then I’m like, “Now I can scale this and actually make a good living off of this, just off a website.” I don’t even remember the sites now, but I saw a few sites making high-six figures in revenue, so I figured I could do this myself with a one or two-man shop.
Andrew: All right. I want to get into where you got $10,000 at that point and a little bit more of the mechanics of that business and then the shocking thing that happened at that company. But I have to understand your mentality.
Here you are a kid who’s 18 years old. Your big thought in life according to society should be who are you going to date, it should be where you’re going to school, who you’re going to sleep with, how much more liquor can sneak or drink or maybe how much pot you can smoke or what exotic drug–you know what most people are doing. We say in this society that yeah, of course, kids will be kids and that’s what they do. You go in a different direction. Why? What’s the need to do this?
Sujan: You know, I’ve never really liked the fact of working for someone. I’ve always wanted to do something on my own. Since I was seven, I’ve had that entrepreneurial bug or spirit. I just wanted to make something of my own.
Andrew: Is this the same–what I’m finding is for some entrepreneurs, it’s just, “I hate my life. I need money to get the life that I need. I’m going to work like mad to get it.” For other entrepreneurs, it’s, “I’m creative. I have this ability to create companies, to bring them out of my head and into the world and watch people interact with them and that’s my art and that’s what I’m doing.” Are you that second person, the person that had this need and had this talent to express yourself through business?
Sujan: I would say a little bit of that. I just do what I love. At that time, I really loved cars. So, it just came natural to me to sell car parts. I can’t sell cars. I don’t have the inventory or money to do that. So, I did the next best thing.
It’s something that at that time, I didn’t see–I was a little naïve essentially to think that I didn’t need any of my own hook or angle, meaning I was just another “me too” at that time. I learned later on in life that you can’t just be another “me too,” you’re not going to really get anywhere or not get as far. But it’s just been something that I always do what I’m passionate about. That usually gets me some good ROI or gets me further along my way.
Andrew: I like the constant referrals to return on investment. Let’s finish this and then I’ve got to find out more about the other businesses and then maybe at some point I’ll ask you about that photo over your shoulder. But I asked about the $10,000. Where did the $10,000 that you invested in this business come from, your parents?
Sujan: I took a line of credit. Part of it came from a line of credit from my credit card. And then the other part came from my dad.
Sujan: He loaned me $5,000. And then I used my credit card and took a line of credit to get the rest for inventory.
Andrew: All right. And then I said that something shocking happened. What’s the painful thing that happened to the business?
Sujan: I made the website, did everything I thought would make it successful and I got zero sales for six months. I had no way to market this business. I thought that in making a website and making a means for people to take a transaction online, I could get sales. But I learned early or learned the hard way that you can’t just make something and magically the marketing happens and everyone starts buying. I missed the core part of how to market your business.
Andrew: And so because you didn’t know how to market it, you didn’t get a single customer for six months even though you had good rates, good prices?
Sujan: Yeah, but no one could find the website. It was only people I was telling it to. Those were people I could sell to in person and not have to ship. This was in 2002. So, the concept of buying online was also a little further behind.
Sujan: Especially for the customers I was selling to.
Andrew: Why did you close the business?
Sujan: I just wasn’t making enough money essentially. It was a lot of work. I ended up getting a few thousand dollars of sales every few months. That’s kind of when I stumbled onto SEO. It just wasn’t something that–I kind of grew out of being into cars as well as it wouldn’t cover my living expenses essentially. The interest rate on this loan, on even the $5,000 was getting higher and higher each month. So, I was losing money on the interest rate alone. I figured why keep diving myself into a failing business?
Andrew: From our research, from our conversation with Jeremy, you got hacked and you said, “Screw it, I’m going to shut this business down and move on.”
Sujan: Exactly. I think when I got hacked, I got hacked several times and that last time I got hacked, I had to hire a developer to figure it out. I kind of stepped back a bit and said, “Why would I put more money into this thing? It doesn’t look like the next year or two is going to do anything different than the past year. Screw it. I’m done with it.”
Andrew: All right. I know I’m risking going to slow in this part of the story when I really want to get to Single Grain. But I’ve got to ask you–you shut down this business and it wasn’t devastating for you. For many people having one failure this early in life means they’re never going to start another business again or whatever it is that they filled out, they’re never going to touch again. Why didn’t that happen to you here?
Sujan: I think it was just I was naïve and I didn’t know any better. I realized my dad taught me when I was young to learn from your mistakes. I learned from my mistakes and that’s what helped me move forward. I know what I did wrong. So, I’m not going to repeat that mistake in the future. I was still hungry to do something on my own because I always knew the conventional method–finishing school, working some desk job was not the right thing for me.
Andrew: So, you knew that wasn’t right for you. You had this idea to be creative. Also, from what I can see by reading this, you wanted to make money. Make money to do what?
Sujan: Buy things at that time.
Andrew: What kind of things?
Sujan: Computers, cars, move into my own apartment–live the college lifestyle. I was going to a community college at the time and living at home and that wasn’t fun, same town I grew up in. I wanted to live that lifestyle like go to UCLA, what not and going to have fun, party. I wasn’t partying that hard at that time.
Andrew: I see. The other people in the room, are they hearing you as they say this?
Andrew: What are you feeling as you’re telling them, “I was this guy who didn’t get to party?”
Sujan: I don’t know. They’ve heard me say these stories in bits and pieces. So, it’s good to have them hear it from start to finish.
Andrew: All right. So, you didn’t know how to market and then you said, “Screw it. If I don’t know how to market, I’m going to end up at SEO.” Why? How do you go from being the guy who lost his company because he couldn’t market to doing that?
Sujan: Well, along the way of doing the car part business, I stumbled on SEO as a means to drive traffic to the website. I got some traffic. It never really converted into anything. But I realized that I’m pretty good at SEO. So, I started doing that through Elance and doing consulting on the side. That ended up being a way for me to make money in college better than a part-time job that my friends were working. I could work fewer hours and make way more.
Andrew: This is just by getting jobs through sites like Elance.
Sujan: Yeah. I was one of the only Indian people in the US on Elance. So, it was pretty funny.
Andrew: And your cousin, Neil Patel, who introduced us, he was killing it with search engine optimization, right?
Sujan: Yeah. At that time, he had been doing a pretty successful business on SEO. He was in high school at the time. So, I figured I could make a pretty decent living just doing consulting on Elance and it would get me by, at least for the next two or three years. At that time, I didn’t have the mindset of looking past five years. I’ve always looked at the immediate next step. So, I figured I could make my way through college just doing this and probably get a job or do my own business in the future.
Andrew: So, as the audience knows by now, we do research on guest, we also make through we get introduced to them through the right people and we do a pre-interview. Here’s one part of the pre-interview that I’ve got to just draw attention to because I don’t get. You met someone named Bob Carilli and something about him jumping up and down inspired you. What do you mean by that? Who is he? What’s going on there?
Sujan: Yeah. So, this was my first job after I’d dropped out of college and Single Grain failed the first time around or I’d stopped Single Grain the first time around.
Andrew: So, Single Grain was a search engine optimization business that you started and you got customers on Elance for. Do I have that right?
Andrew: We’ll get to where the name Single Grain came from and so on later. So, it failed. It wasn’t working. Why?
Sujan: I couldn’t get sales. The only sales I could get is through Elance. That put me back to doing an Elance-style business. We’re getting clients for a couple hundred dollars a month. Single Grain, doing it through a legitimate company and name, I wanted to get sales that my cousin was charging, thousands of dollars a month rather than a few hundred dollars a month. That didn’t happen.
Again, I made the same mistake of not being able to market it. I actually attempted to market the business through PPC and actually doing SEO, but it turns out marketing for B2B is a lot different than B2C. So, I need to be even bigger of a brand to market to other businesses to look legitimate enough to have them even pay me. So, I ended up going back to Elance and getting most of my clients that way.
Andrew: Right. If you want to get businesses as your clients, it’s harder to get them from pay per click is what you’re telling me.
Sujan: That and you have to have more of a reputable brand. I should have, in hindsight, been doing consulting more, had a lot more successes and then started Single Grain, where I have a lot of case studies and marketing material to support the brand.
Andrew: Can you tell the audience about one of the people who found you online through pay per click and what they were looking for?
Sujan: There was this dating site–there were probably thousands of people on Elance and on the web trying to make dating sites at the time. I ended up working and getting him as a client. He wanted to rank for online dating. I said, “Yeah, I can definitely do it using my SEO skills.” At the time, it was not as difficult. “I could do it for $200-$300 a month.” Looking back at it, that’s probably a huge mistake.
Andrew: $200 a month and you told him that he could rank within six months.
Sujan: Yeah, for online dating.
Andrew: For online dating.
Sujan: There are a few flaws–there are a few big mistakes that I made or I kind of overlooked. Again, going back to myself not having the right experience. The biggest thing was he was not willing to put enough investment, not necessarily in SEO, but in other parts of his site.
So, I was doing link building and giving him recommendations, but he wasn’t implementing anything. The things were not going as planned. So, three or four months in, we had very little traction, partly due to I underestimated his level of commitment and underestimated how difficult ranking for online dating was.
We ended up going our separate ways a couple months in because he pulled me aside halfway through the project and said, “Are we pacing for what you quoted me originally for?” And I’m an honest person. I said, “No, we didn’t do these ten things on time and we’re behind.” So, he decided to call it quits in an investment. I figured that’s probably the best bet. I ended up refunding his money. So, I spent a few months and didn’t make a dime.
Andrew: Wow. Painful. You could it a rookie mistake and it was a rookie mistake. You also did some search engine optimization. You actually ranked for Los Angeles SEO and you thought, “All right, I’m going to get customers from doing that.” You had a household cleaning company that found you that way. What was their response to wanting to do business with you?
Sujan: At that time, I was charging like $500 a month and they said, “Do you have anything cheaper?” They wanted to spend about $150 a month on SEO and that’s next to impossible to do anything for $150. So, I learned the hard way that getting leads online is probably not the best way to acquire businesses because all of the phone calls I was getting were from local businesses trying to rank. Local businesses don’t make enough money to spend thousands of dollars on internet marketing.
Andrew: I see. Meanwhile, your cousin, Neil Patel, my friend Neil, he was just crushing it with sales. What was he doing differently? Did you know at the time what he was doing differently or is it only in retrospect that you’re able to look back and analyze it?
Sujan: it was in retrospect. At the time I thought he was doing some things that were very similar. At the time I thought he had a big break with a client and then he built up his client base from there. What I was looking for was my big break. I’m one at the time to learn from my surroundings. I thought to him as like a thought leader in the space. So, I kind of did as he did as well as kind of other ideas I had.
But I didn’t know the whole story. So, I thought I was doing everything I could, when in reality, in hindsight, I was only doing a portion of what I should be doing to grow the business and market the business.
Andrew: When did you realize what else you should have been doing?
Sujan: Probably like in 2009.
Andrew: So, way after you shut down.
Sujan: Yeah, after years of working for other companies.
Andrew: Oh wow. I see. The decision to shut down–I’m going to get back to Bob Carilli and jumping up and down and how it inspired you–the decision to shut down, what was that like?
Sujan: That was a really, really tough decision. I really thought–this is now my second failed business or failing business–I really thought that I could do well and I could make it with Single Grain in 2005. It was really tough because I had no one else to blame besides myself and this is the second time I’m failing at the same thing, failing because of lack of growth and marketing, at least I believe it was a lack of marketing efforts, at least the right marketing effort. So, it was really devastating.
Around the same time, school wasn’t working out for me too. I kind of had my back against the wall at the time and also still carried that debt from my car part business. So, I really was at an all-time low. But the biggest thing is that I found that in having an all time, I really strived. When my back is against the wall, I have no other options other than bouncing back forward. That’s when I perform the best.
So, I took that as kind of my motivation. With nothing else going for me, I needed to make a big leap or do something huge to bounce back from this. That’s when I interviewed for a job and got a job at Argus Interactive. That’s how I met Bob Carilli. That was around the time where I saw this guy doing really, really well. At the time, I thought I wanted to make six figures and I could live a good life off of that. This guy was doing that exact thing. He told me his story and I got really motivated.
Andrew: I see. And the jumping up and down is not literally. He’s practically bouncing off the walls because he’s so full of enthusiasm and you’re saying to yourself, I want to love life the way that he is. He’s got a good family. You say, “I want that stability. He’s making six figures. That’s the life that I want for me.” Am I right?
Sujan: Yeah, exactly. He was married and I was, at the time, engaged. So, I thought of him as a good role model of who I want to be three, four, five years from now.
Andrew: But he wasn’t the right role model. Why?
Sujan: Well, I think it wasn’t that he wasn’t the role model. It was that my perception of a role model or that dream was wrong. Making six figures, I learned after a couple of years that I wanted to do more. I was more hungry than just living that lifestyle. So, I wanted to kind of go above and beyond and live and even better lifestyle.
Andrew: I see. Wow. I like the way you envision the life you want for yourself.
Andrew: Is this the place where you wanted to be? I know you’re aspiring to do even more. But is Single Grain today and the revenue you’re doing today, what you dreamed when you were working at Argus International?
Sujan: Yes and no. I want to be further along. But back in 2006 when I was working at Argus Interactive–
Andrew: Did I say International? Argus Interactive.
Sujan: Interactive. Yeah. I told myself, “In five years, I’m going to be running my own agency.” They were an agency and I saw how well they were doing. I told myself, “In five years, I’m going to be running my own agency.” And it’s about six years from then, but definitely that’s exactly what I thought I was going to do. Right now, I definitely want to go even further. I think Single Grain definitely has a lot of potential for the next five years or so. But I want to go above and beyond, striving for seven figures is great. But eight or nine figures is even better.
Andrew: What, by the way, comes with having an eight or nine-figure salary in your mind? What is it for you? Is it more travel? Is it having a big house? Is it having people treat you as a guy who has eight or nine-figure basically points up on the board?
Sujan: I think it’s a lot of–no, I don’t think any of that. I could probably do most of that with what I make now. It’s just personal gratification. I know how much I need to live a good life and I’m making more than that right now. But it’s the fact that I could achieve that personal goal. It’s more of an achievement than it is what I can do with that money.
I think there’s a lot of opportunity. Now my new dream in the next five years to own a bunch of businesses or more like be an angel investor and actually help other businesses out rather than just doing my own business. So, I think that eight or nine figure income can help me do that and do that faster.
Andrew: All right. Let’s skip over Einstein Industries, where you worked in San Diego and just jump to Oversee.net. You ended up working for them doing what?
Sujan: So, I was hired as an SEO manager to start the SEO department there.
Andrew: And Oversee.net basically has a collection of domains that they own and also some that they manage for other people. They started out, if I’m remembering right, just basically sitting on these domains and putting a bunch of links on them. Then they took some of those domains and they built them out into real properties–insanely successful company, hardly known outside of Southern California. Do I have their story basically right?
Sujan: Yeah. They’re an aftermarket domain company and a domain parking business. So, they park domains for themselves and other domainers and then they also sell domains. So, they have a handful of high-profile domains like IdentityTheft.com that they will sell to other people. That’s called aftermarket domains.
Sujan: And then they also have a handful of sites that they actually had built out into lead gen sites like LowFares.com, Low.com and IdentityTheft.com and they also had Degrees.com. So, at the time, they were only doing pay per click as lead gen. My task was to actually do SEO for these and grow a department to where these domains are making money off of SEO traffic as well as PPC.
Andrew: Right. It is cheaper. One of the sites that you worked on was LowFares.com. What is LowFares.com and what do you do for them?
Sujan: LowFares.com is a travel site, similar to like…
Sujan: Kayak. It allows you to put the dates you want to search for your flight or hotel and then compare against other companies, specifically to Expedia. The way they make money is anytime someone goes on to Expedia with their search criteria, they would make anywhere between like $0.05 to a couple dollars per click. So, the goal there was to get as much traffic as possible.
So, this is where I really shined. I learned a lot around growing an SEO department, growing a business and actually getting really good solid results with low fares within six months and one employee at Oversee. We were able to rack in about $1 million-plus in revenue a year and ranked for very competitive terms like “flights,” “cheap flights,” “airline tickets” and so on.
Andrew: Now, this isn’t just because of search engine optimization. There’s a whole business behind LowFares.com. But search engine optimization helped you guys get to seven figures. What did you do specifically that got you there? What was the most effective search engine optimization tactics that you used on LowFares.com?
Sujan: We built a good travel resource. Even now, becoming a resource, adding some value to beyond just the way you monetize your leads or whatever type of business you have is really the best part of SEO. We incorporated additional information and travel guides and research around the different areas people were flying to or getting a hotel in into the business itself.
Andrew: For example, what’s one guide that you created and how did you market it?
Sujan: Well, we found through just our database or past experience what people were traveling to. So, we built guides to Los Angeles, New York, all the major cities in the US as well as Costa Rica and things like that. Those things did really well. They got a lot of social traffic and then we built them as separate parts of the site and then realized that we could heavily integrate them back to the rest of the site.
So, when someone is searching for a flight to Los Angeles, we could provide additional information through our travel guides and articles that would help them have a better experience and have no more information around where they should stay at or when they should fly and things like that.
Andrew: I see. So, first you create this guide that basically is there to track traffic and to get links and it’s telling people about how to vacation in Los Angeles and then you get traffic to it, which you send to the main part of LowFares.com, where people can find the right fares to get there. And then you take that content and you say anyone that comes to LowFares.com and types in that they want to do a trip to Los Angeles, I want to feed them that content so they know what to do once they’re there. That’s the way it all worked out?
Sujan: Yeah, exactly. We just gave them the content around the right time. There’s a little bit of a load time when the search queries are actually happening on Expedia and what not. We fed them the content at that time. It helped a lot of people know more information around the weather, what to do, where to stay.
For example, if they were looking for a flight, we would feed them hotel information that would help them book their hotel as well as their flight. So, it not only had a value to the user experience, but also allowed upsells for when we sent leads to Expedia and so on.
Andrew: So, basically what you’re talking about is content marketing, but a lot of people who are listening to us have done content marketing, are doing content marketing, will continue to do content marketing, but they’re not seeing over $1 million in traffic as a result of the search engine optimization that’s done around this content. What did you do differently? Why did this site go skyrocketing because of your work where other people will not, will just sit there flat?
Sujan: I think the biggest thing is making the content marketing or the content you provide more in line and in sync with the product itself and providing the value at the right time. I think a good example is Mint. Mint basically is a lead gen site for credit cards, loans and so on. But they provide the right information and kind of walk the user through it rather than just giving them the option to get a credit card. So, it’s about when you do it as far as the process of where the customer is at as well as how heavily you integrate that information into the actual sale.
Andrew: I see. But then that’s still not getting traffic. What do you do to get–first of all, that’s helpful to know. Once you get that traffic and once you create the content, the goal is not to just let it sit there. It’s to get it to convert into sales. You were good at converting that traffic into sales. What about getting the traffic to come in the first place did you do that other people should know about?
Sujan: We did a lot of outreach. I think that’s the biggest part of SEO, reaching out to other sites. The biggest thing is we created a resource. We made low fares a resource for travel, whether it’s flights, vacation packages or hotels, and then we would reach out to other people, other sites and let them know. There are a lot of sites that students create, a lot of sites that are looking for more information and we reached out to them the right way, letting them know about this and then get them to link to it and actually reference it on their sites. That would help get a lot more traffic and built links and SEO value.
Andrew: And you paid some of those sites for those links.
Sujan: No. We didn’t actually pay anyone. It kind of goes back to just understanding the right mindset of the person you’re reaching out to. So, we just did a cold email and let them know that, “Hey, we’re a good resource.” We did a lot of A/B testing. We figured out that the conversions or the open rate, how we change subject titles, almost like email marketing but for link building.
Over time, we modified our email outreach to make it as streamlined as well as convert the best and convert meaning they would reference our article or they would link to it and ideally link to it. But we never really paid for anything. It was just a matter of letting them know the information was there and making the email short and sweet, short enough to where they would actually read it, but enough information to where they would actually take action.
Andrew: All right. Einstein, the company that I brushed over, you got some advice that led you to start Single Grain again, am I right?
Sujan: Yeah. One of the things there I learned was that the–one of the sales guys there, I was working on a project with one their clients. The sales guy that was handling the account pretty much told me, “This client is looking for this. Give me the most amount of information but with the least amount of work to keep them happy.” I learned there that I’m not a person that just wants to do the least amount of work or just kind of keep someone happy or maintained. I want to go and do the right thing. That’s going to help them grow their business.
Andrew: I see. Okay.
Sujan: So, essentially the person there, there was more work I could have done to actually get them better results. But because they have so many clients that said, “Do this and this alone. We’ll do the bare minimum,” which was like a set amount of tasks, even though a couple of more things would have helped and got way better results, just do these things. I kind of learned there that that’s not what I want to do. I feel like that’s incorrect or that’s not the right way to do business.
So, that experience helped me build a quality into Single Grain where we don’t just do the bare minimum. We do what’s actually right whether the client wants to hear it or not.
Andrew: All right. I want to get back into how you started Single Grain again, but first I’ve got to ask you about what’s over your shoulder. What is that poster? What do you have there in the wall of the office?
Sujan: That’s Batman.
Andrew: Oh, the new Batman.
Andrew: I see. All right.
Sujan: I’m a big Batman fan. I even have a Batman tattoo.
Andrew: You do. Where?
Sujan: On my shoulder, the new Batman as well.
Andrew: The new logo up on your shoulder?
Sujan: The new logo, yeah.
Andrew: All right.
Sujan: He’s my role model, right? He has no superpowers, made on his own, with the caveat of billions of dollars or what not.
Andrew: Do you ever feel like an entrepreneur, “How do I build something that other people want to tattoo on their bodies?” Do you ever feel like, “I love Batman. I’m glad I get to express–he’s validating what I want for my life, but I’d like people to put my tattoo on their bodies?”
Sujan: I think I experience that with my shirts, with the t-shirts and swag that we give out. I love it when people wear our shirts just because it represents our brand. I’d like to think that they do it because they like our brand as well as the design of our shirts. But yeah, definitely. When I re-designed and relaunched Single Grain in 2009, I was going for that exact thing, not necessarily tattoos, but people representing a brand because they loved what it represents and how it looks.
Andrew: All right. So, why did you relaunch the business and how did you relaunch it?
Sujan: The reason I relaunched the business was at I was at Oversee. I was there for about two years. I was coasting in the six-figure range and I didn’t really see–I look back and I thought to myself, “What can I do to make more money?” I realized that I’m not going to be able to make the seven or eight figures I want to do or make working for someone. So, I look and kind of brainstorm for a few months to figure out what exactly I can do to make that extra zero on my paycheck at the end of the year.
Andrew: I see. Okay.
Sujan: I came back. I kind of did a full 360 back to Single Grain. I realized that I’ve learned the necessary skills. I’m not naïve and I know the right way to build a business from marketing it to building a team to actually do the right things to qualify customers so I don’t make the same online dating mistake I made early on and a couple of other lessons that I learned. So, I thought to myself, “Why don’t I just do Single Grain again the right way?”
Andrew: Okay. And then you got your first client in a way that I’ve seen other entrepreneurs talk about how they got their first client. It was a big one. How did you do it?
Sujan: Essentially, I turned my day job into a client. That was my first client. I got them to pay me my full salary, my yearly salary in nine months of doing consulting. So, pretty much that’s what helped me fuel and hire my first few people and start Single Grain.
Andrew: Wait, so I’ve heard other people say, “I went to my current company, my boss, and I said, ‘I need to go start my own company and you guys should be my first client because you want to continue working with me and also because you want to continue working with me,” actually that’s basically it. I’ve never heard them do the deal you just talked about–full salary even though you’re not going to be working full-time on their business and full annual salary delivered to you over nine months. How do you work out something like that?
Sujan: I look back and I thought at the time, “How do I convey this message that this is valuable for them? How do I provide enough value to where they would actually let me do this?”
Andrew: So, how do you do it?
Sujan: So, there were two people I’ve worked with my boss’ there. One person was my direct manager, which was really into personal growth and the other person was the VP of the department, who was really finance-based looking at numbers and making sure the numbers work out.
So, I thought to myself there’s actually a way I can play this scenario out where I can leave and it would work really well. So, I sat them both down together. I talked to my direct manager about my personal goals and that my goal is to start my own business and to make that seven figures. I was just very, very honest. But I also played to the fact that she was really about personal growth.
And then I also made it in way the person that was really finance-based, that the deal I was going to make was going to help them save a lot of money, not just a year from now, but immediately. So, we were working with a handful of agencies and contractors paying them $10,000-$15,000 a month. What I proposed to them was I could do that same work for my salary monthly. So, I help them save–so, I help them save about an extra $10,000 to $15,000 if they just paid my salary for one year. So, I learned to read people throughout my years and that’s something I’ll tell you about later with how I read AJ and played that trick on him or what not.
Andrew: AJ, your cofounder/partner at this business.
Andrew: By the way, you read people–can you read me? What do I want?
Sujan: I haven’t had enough… You’re interviewing me, so I don’t really know exactly what you want. But I feel like if I sat down with you for 15 minutes and just had a casual conversation, I could kind of get what you want to do and what you’re looking for.
Andrew: And the reason you want to know that is you want to know how to position what you want and make the other person feel like it’s their… How to get what you want from someone by giving them what they want–within 15 minutes if you can do that, it means that within 15 minutes, you can get your way. So, how do you do it? How can you, in 15 minutes, tell what someone’s thing is, that they care about money more or they care about self-growth more?
Sujan: I look at the little things. Look at what excites them. In my first five minutes of the conversation, I try to say different things that would get the person sparked up. I figured out if I can get that done. I just keep trying until I get someone something that sparks them. One person I hired at Oversee, he was really into the military. He was in the reserves.
So, I realized–I had a long conversation with him and then I figured, “Oh wow, okay, military really sparks him.” So, it wasn’t money. It wasn’t anything else. It was just the military or talking about military-related things. Then I just kind of played that in how I managed him. So, I just look for the little–
Andrew: How do you play it into how you manage him?
Sujan: Someone that’s really into money, I would play that. I would relate all the goals, everything around what they’re doing on a day to day or weekly or monthly basis around how that can help them make more money. He was really into the military. So, I just kind of used those examples.
Andrew: I see. So, “We’re going to do a lot of exercises here because at the end of this you’re going to become a better soldier. The first exercise is to take this client and just SEO the hell out of him using this specific routine. Don’t bury. Just get it done and if you can do it this time quickly, tomorrow we’re going to do it with another person even faster until you become the killer of our killers in this business,” that kind of thing.
Sujan: Exactly, and then figure it out. Tell him how he can be the general of the SEO department.
Andrew: I see. Right. You don’t say you’re going to be the boss or the CEO. You say you’re going to be the general. So, you just keep putting out feelers, kind of like I did with you, where I wanted to know is it fame you want, is it love form other people you want about the tattoo. Is it money that you want, which is clearly the goal? Is it something else, to be your own boss? All those things I up those feelers out to know what drives you, you do the same thing and then you use it when you’re negotiating or when you’re trying to influence someone.
Andrew: All right. So, I love that. We will get to what you did with AJ. Let’s go on. Now, you got Oversee to say yes, right?
Andrew: How do you get next? First client is tough, very important, but it’s not the end of the game. What do you do after that?
Sujan: So, I immediately went and posted a job on Craigslist. I wanted to hire two people. I had enough money saved up and nine months’ runway to build a business.
Andrew: Because they paid you the nine months upfront?
Sujan: No, they paid me monthly but I had enough saved up to where I don’t need to take a salary for a year. At the very least, I could not take a salary for a year and survive.
Andrew: And take the money that they’re paying you and use it to pay two employees who are going to help you rock this job and help you do other work.
Sujan: Exactly. So, what I did–I didn’t want to do the work for my first client or not the grunt work revolving around it. I told them I would do the same thing these other agencies were doing for my salary. So, I was making less margins. So, immediately I had to hire people.
So, I posted a job on Craigslist, interviewed people. At Oversee, the thing I learned was how to build a team successfully and how to motivate the team and refining it, how I can read people. I also got connections. But the biggest thing was hiring the right people to start. I learned that I don’t want to hire some SEO with two years’ experience or five years’ experience because those guys are lazy. They have bad habits.
So, I know how to train people from the ground up. That’s what we do at Single Grain now. When I hired my first employee, Ross Hudgens, I found him on Craigslist. He posted a really long email. Again, this goes back to reading people. I did that same thing to where I interviewed people, all I really need is a 30-minute conversation with someone around whatever. If we can jive or kind of mash, I have a gut feeling that it’s a good decision.
Andrew: What you’re looking for is someone you can train and someone who knows the space at least a little bit?
Sujan: They’re familiar with the internet. So, they’re average internet users. When I first started, it was knowing instant messenger, being able to answer emails quickly, knowing sites like Digg and stuff like that. I just kind of built on that list and I was just trying to–I also can tell based off the sites they read. The one question I ask every interviewee is what site do you visit?
Sujan: If they say Google, Facebook or Yahoo, they’re out. Obviously, you visit Facebook. Who doesn’t?
Andrew: And Ross, what sites did he visit?
Sujan: He said Hacker News, TechCrunch, stuff like that. Then I asked him–it’s easy to say that–I asked him, “What’s a recent article that got your interest?” I read that stuff too. So, I know what’s out there. Usually they come back to me with something within the last two or three weeks. If they say the right thing, I move on. If not, I ask them another question. That’s not necessarily the only question that would get them the job, but that’s one of the first few questions that would get them in the right direction.
Andrew: Okay. You said that you’re good at training people. How did you train them?
Sujan: So, everything in SEO starts with a lot of grunt work. So, you have to be really, really diligent with what you do and be able to be productive while learning the right thing. So everything starts with manually gathering people’s . . . back with LowFares, we emailed out a lot of people. So, everything starts with them going through, looking through thousands of sites and finding contact information and learning what’s a good site and what’s a bad site.
Everything starts with that. That’s one of the first things I have people do. Over the time, I coach them weekly or daily on, “Hey, this is a good site. This is a bad site,” and kind of have them put in the time where the knowledge of telling if something is good or bad becomes second nature.
Andrew: Tell me if I’ve got this right. What you’re doing is this–you’re saying, “We’re looking for this kind of site. Go out there and find it.” They put together a collection of sites for you that you will then find contact information for and then solicit and so on. If they come back with a list that’s partially good, partially bad, you want to give them a little bit of training and say, “This one is good. Here’s why. This one is bad. Here’s why too. This one also…”
And you just keep giving them feedback. If they keep coming back with crap week after week and not understanding to whittle it down to the good stuff, you’re saying, “They just don’t get it. They’re out.” But if they get the right stuff, you’re ready to move on to the next stage.
Sujan: Exactly. I give them the list of what I call a list of criteria. That list originally is like two or three things and it becomes over time 20 or 30 things they have to look for, for each site. So, I don’t give anyone any work that I don’t know how to do myself. So, I’ve timed it out so I know how long it takes for me to do it. So, if they can kind of do it on the same time as me, they would be good at it. I’m not expecting them week one, but closer to the end of the month the first month, they should be able to do it at the same pace as me, if not faster.
Andrew: All right. So, now you have a collection of sites that you will eventually solicit for links. You have to get their contact information and you need to know the right person to do it. This is the same challenge we have here at Mixergy. I need to find the right guests. It means finding the right sites and the right contact info, etc. How do you do it? How do you find the contact info?
Sujan: I mean it’s usually out there. It’s just a matter of going to the right pages, using Ctrl + F and finding contact or searching for the @-sign. Most of the time it’s there. If not, using your brain to figure out, “Well, you’re on this page. Maybe you need to go back to the homepage or contact page or another area and kind of finding it that way.”
Andrew: Okay. So, then they put that for you. This was how you basically are looking for–you’re looking for robots, essentially?
Sujan: Yeah, drones, actually.
Andrew: Drones, you say. Okay.
Sujan: At first. I feel like this is the fundamentals of SEO that you need to learn. You’re not going to learn–unless you know like the back of your hand what’s a good site and what’s a bad site and why without really thinking about it, you can’t do the rest of SEO. So, this is a first step. Most of the time in the beginning, we never even used this information. It was just a training exercise to make sure these guys are good.
Andrew: I see. Then when you need to take them to drones to clever operators, how do you make that change? How do you take someone who was hired to basically fill a spreadsheet and make them into someone who’s clever enough to get business in a way that you couldn’t and had to shut down your business because you couldn’t back then?
Sujan: So, over the last couple years at Oversee, I made a training document pretty much as an outline of all the tasks that would make good SEO. And then over time, every week I would sit down with these guys and say, “These are the two things you need to learn this week. Let me give you a lecture around it. I want you to fill in this document.” So, I give them a two-page outline of things they need to learn to become a successful SEO and then I have them make an eBook essentially or make their own SEO guide. I do this with everybody.
Andrew: Let me see if I understand this. You say one thing you need to do is find links to sites that we will solicit and ask them to link to us. You explain it to them. You explain to them how to do it. You tell them what the result is. You don’t just say go do it. You also say, “Create a manual on how to do this?”
Sujan: Yeah, exactly. What I learned early on is it’s not necessarily about them being able to do it. It’s about them being able to teach someone else to do it. They need to know it so well that they can teach people. So, I have my first employee train my second employee and my second employee train my third employee and I keep doing this so on and so forth because if they are good enough to train it, they know it well enough to do it themselves the right way.
Throughout me talking to them as well as them writing it down, you really learn things when you have to put into a document. In order for you to write up a paragraph about a particular SEO tactic like burying anchor text, you have to really understand it. You can tell in the guide when I go read through this if they don’t understand it.
Andrew: So, if I were to, at the end of this conversation, stop recording but ask you then to show your computer screen, you can show me a manual that someone created for one of the jobs that you’ve got them doing?
Andrew: Would you do that after this interview?
Sujan: Yeah. Let me see if I can find something.
Andrew: We’ll try after this interview. I don’t want to take your attention from this because I’ve got so much to do. Now, you told me about Oversee. You told me how you found employees now who can go and take on the rest of the growth. How’d you find the next customers? You couldn’t have worked for enough people to go back and solicit your past bosses?
Sujan: No. So, then what I did there is now that I have a team or one person to really get this work done in a solid way, I can devote all my time to growing Single Grain and finding customers. So, I just went through my LinkedIn contacts, figure out who else is in the Los Angeles area that I could go meet. It turns out there are a lot of people. I let a couple of people know that I started my own business. We’re doing this work.
Sometimes I would offer them free work, saying, “Hey, I’m looking to build case studies. Let me do this for free for you and I can help you.” You can at the very least get some more traffic and more leads or whatever you’re looking for and I’ll use the case study. If you don’t let me use your name, I’ll at least use a vertical industry you’re in to prove that I’ve done this work. I’m a new business. I need to build up my report.
Andrew: That’s something that Neil told me in his first Mixergy interview that he did, that he went to people that had big reputations and said, “I want to work for you for free and then I want to tell everyone else that I did this work for you and what I got out of it.”
Sujan: So, the difference in what I did was I talked to people I knew and not necessarily people that were big and I built my business around referrals. I did a good job for them, a handful of people. They ended up referring me business.
Andrew: Can you give me an example of how you got Salesforce, Yahoo or Intuit?
Sujan: Well, that was actually a lot further along, where the way I got all of those guys was through networking. That was another in the first year of business, where I got I would say like 50% to 60% of my leads or clients, was just going out there.
So, I made a list of all of the events I want to go to and like 90% of them were a waste of time, but I went through all of them anyways. I met the right people. Sometimes I met the people at Yahoo just by sitting next to them at a conference. I didn’t know who they were. I’m a friendly guy. I talked to them. They thought I was smart enough to meet them and I ended up getting them as a client.
Andrew: What’s the conference that gave you the best return on investment, the ROI that you like?
Sujan: I believe the one in LA is called Startups Uncensored.
Andrew: Startups Uncensored, Jason Nazar’s event.
Sujan: Yeah. Exactly. I went to a few of his events. They do like a presentation. I just end up sitting random places and talking to people around me or meeting them afterwards. I met Salesforce, the SEO manager there at another conference in San Francisco. But the first year or so, most of my business, half of it came from referrals of people I just let them know I’m doing a new business, an SEO business, and the other half came from networking and meeting the right people.
Andrew: I see. What else do I want to know about that? I know what it is. You’re sitting next to someone with Yahoo. You have an interesting conversation. For most people, that’s hard, to have an interesting conversation with a stranger. But you don’t just do that. You convince them to bring them in and potentially hire you. What do you say in that short conversation to get them?
Sujan: I’m a firm believer in giving away all of the things I do, tactics, strategies, what not. So, I consider myself an open book as long as people ask the right questions. So, when I talk to people, I just kind of spit out everything around not necessarily what they’re looking for. I guess indirectly I could figure out the first couple minutes I figure out what they want and then talk about that. I just give them everything. I usually overwhelm people with information and that’s how I get clients, at least that’s how we got clients until AJ came on board.
Andrew: So, the idea was overwhelm them with so much information to say, “You clearly know it, but I can’t do this. Thanks for giving me everything. Can I hire you to do it for me?”
Sujan: Yeah. When I meet people, I don’t look to them as becoming potential clients. In fact, when I was sitting next to the guy who was from Yahoo, I didn’t actually know he was from Yahoo until the end of the conversation. I wasn’t even trying to pitch is as a client. I was telling them what we do and my background.
We had a talk around link building and SEO. We were just sitting back and forth around frustrations we’d had and so on and so forth and he had a frustration and I solved it, essentially. So, it’s just around giving people information. And then if you can come off as a smart person, why wouldn’t they hire you?
Andrew: All right. We talked about AJ. Neil Patel, I think, was the guy who said you two should meet?
Andrew: Your cousin, his friend from high school. You met him but you wanted to make sure he was the right guy to partner with. We’ve been talking a little bit about this, that you had some trick for figuring out if he was the right person. I love this. Can you tell the audience what you did?
Sujan: Yeah. So, he was here. We did some training. We kind of spent a day at the office with Neil and a couple of other people including AJ. And then we went out for drinks later in the evening.
Andrew: Sorry, the connection dropped. Then you guys went out for drinks.
Sujan: We went out for drinks later in the night. Essentially we were at a bar. I had a few beers and I pretty much–somewhere in my head, I came up with an idea of, “This guy seems like he would be a good partner. He seems like he has good qualities that I don’t have that I need to grow my business. Let’s see if he is the right partner.”
I always knew that a good business partner–I’ve tried to partner up with the right people, so I learn what I need with a business partner. I started putting myself down in a way where the person, if they’re anywhere near good-hearted or the right person, they would want to defend me essentially, saying, “You know what you’re doing,” and put me in the right place essentially.
I started putting myself down. Immediately he’s like, “From just today alone, I know you’re a genius if you could just do this and that.” So, he started me pick myself back up, but also giving me feedback and critiquing my style to give me things I could take away. So, that was a big thing that I knew that he would be a good business partner.
Andrew: I see.
Sujan: So, what sealed the deal was later in the evening when I saw him hitting on girls, I was like, “This guy is definitely a good salesman.”
Andrew: I think AJ is the first person to introduce me to Ross Jeffries, the famous pickup artist. So, I guess he does know his stuff. But going back with the trick with him, you said, “This is a rough business. I’m going to have low points. I need someone who when I have low points isn’t rushing for the door, isn’t freaking out more than me but someone who when I’m at my low can pick me back up and I’ll do the same for him.”
So, you said, “I’m going to test him. I’m going to put myself down. I’m going to say I’m not doing so well. I don’t have what it takes here or I have this trouble over there. And if just backs away, he’s not a good fit. But if he comes back and remembers and reminds me of all the things that he saw that weren’t great about me, it means he’s been paying attention and he’s a good motivator. If he’s a guy that keeps coming back and pushing me up, I can count on him in the low moments.” That’s what happened.
Sujan: Yeah. And the biggest thing that kind of flipped the switch for me that automatically made that decision was that he not only helped me pick myself back up again, but he gave me pointers along the way in a positive way who actually made me better. I think that’s a great business partner.
Andrew: That is a great partner. Why did you need AJ at all? You were running this business. You were doing okay. You don’t need AJ, do you?
Sujan: I realized I can only do so much on my own. I learned that really, really early on. I probably knew that in 2005-2006, the first time I started Single Grain. I just never had anyone I could count on. I’ve always tried to partner with people. I don’t talk about it that much, but it never ends up working out, whether the skill sets are too overlapped or the partner–
Andrew: So, why not hire someone? I’ve known AJ for years, maybe even half a decade, a decade. I’ve known him a long time. I know what he’s capable of and I’m not at all surprised that he’s able to sell for you. I’m not at all surprised he’s able to pick up women. I’m also not at all surprised that he’s able to pick you up when you low. I’ve seen the way the guy talks, at least in private. I don’t know how he came across in the interview that he did on Mixergy. I think he did well. But I don’t know if this part of him came out there.
What I’m wondering is why hire him as a partner. Why bring him on as a partner? Why not hire someone who’s good? Why not hire AJ? Why bring someone in and give him a piece of your business? What was it that you needed that you couldn’t get form an employee or advisor?
Sujan: Dedication. When you hire people, you don’t get that dedication. They don’t feel like they have the ownership. Yeah, you can give them bonuses or what not, but when you have a business partner, they’re in it just as much as you are.
Andrew: What was the work that you needed for him to do that you couldn’t do?
Sujan: It’s not that I couldn’t do it. I just didn’t have the time. I can’t manage my clients and grow the business as effectively if there were two people.
Andrew: So, you wanted him to go out and get the clients and you to make sure to manage the clients and keep them happy.
Sujan: The way I think of this is that I run the operations and strategy around what we do. And then he does the sales and marketing. So, he talks to new clients and handles all the sales as well as all the marketing of Single Grain. Again, I’ve learned that the first couple of times I’ve failed at businesses is because of the marketing.
Even in 2010-2011, it was also I could have done a lot better job at marketing, I just didn’t have the time. Maybe it’s just a lot of the mindset. I got busy or something of that nature, to market single grain effectively. So, I needed that marketing aspect. He’s a person that doesn’t take no for an answer. He’s kind of like me in a way where we overlap, like we just figured things out, but he figures things out in a different way, where I can’t figure them out.
Andrew: How does he figure things out and how do you figure them out?
Sujan: The way I figure things out is kind of hard to put in words, but I just kind of dive into each and every little part of a situation or problem and then analyze the situation or each individual reason. Kind of like the way I figure things out is kind of like IT or fixing the computer, “Oh, this doesn’t work. Let’s try unplugging this. Maybe this will work.”
AJ figures things out in a different way. I’m not exactly sure how he does it, but it’s in a different way than my, “Does this work? Oh, wait, this works.” He just tackles a problem in a completely different way. Both of out methods combined end up getting a really good result.
Andrew: He said something to Jeremy Weisz, our producer, that I didn’t get a chance to talk to him about in his interview, so I’m going to ask you. Apparently there’s a time difference, that you like to work normal hours, not 9:00 to 5:00 but roughly 9:00 to 5:00. He likes to work odd hours, but I didn’t get to ask him, “What’s the difference and how do you guys deal with that?”
Sujan: In the first six months or first three or four months, it was really hard. He works throughout the day. He could be having a two-hour lunch but then working until 2:00 a.m. I’m more of a person that works–I have set hours and then I do some mild work in the evenings. So, that was one of the biggest hurdles we had to solve initially. We ran into a lot of different snags, like things needed to get done and I didn’t know about it until the night before when I was sleeping. I had to pull some reports together in the middle of the night or early morning.
Andrew: I see, because he’s working at night it’s great for him and terrific if he can get it done, but if he ever needs anything from you, it’s the middle of the night, you’re not awake. So, that’s an intrusion on your time.
Sujan: Exactly. He’s a single guy. I’m married. So, I’m spending my evenings with my wife. I want to have some fun or relax, unwind. So, we just have very, very different work styles. So, the first three months, it was really about trying to figure out how to match up.
Andrew: How you match up.
Sujan: We eventually figured it out. We just set a time in the morning every morning and every night to sit down and figure out what–to talk about what needs to be done in the next day or so or week. What are the big action items for the business, for the clients that he’s working on or that I’m working on, what I need from him, what he needs from me.
We just did that exercise for a few weeks. Then we figured out, “We don’t really need to talk every day, we can do it every week.” Then it got to a point where our work time overlaps a few hours of the day and that’s when we’ll sync up just at the office or what not. Now we’re at the point where I know what he’s doing. He knows what I’m doing and if he needs my help, he has it, during these times.
So, we kind of reflect our work style to where we’re doing a majority of our work during overlap hours and then I’m more 9:00 to 5:00 or doing roughly those hours and he’s gung-ho around nighttime or early mornings or what not. So, we just found the time where it overlaps the most and I think now it’s even way more productive and just because we have completely different styles of working.
Andrew: What else do I need to know? Name of the company–I mentioned that earlier and never came back–how did you come up with the name Single Grain and how did you know it was the right company name for you?
Sujan: I came up with the name–it was one weekend. I wanted to file my LLC paperwork on Monday morning and I gave myself the weekend to figure it out. I came up with thousands of names that all pretty much sucked. I gave up Sunday afternoon and I was just eating food at my dining table. My mom has a daycare. So, she has a bunch of food for babies, children, what not. And there was a Gerber baby food box on the dining table and it’s said, “Now made with single grain.”
I’m like, “That sounds good, Single Grain.” I put it to the phone test like, “Hi, this is Single Grain. How can I help you?” And it sounded good. I told a couple of people–this is around the time where these abstract names were in and were cool, like the Web 2.0 names like Flickr and crap like that.
So, I said, “Let’s run with that. I think Single Grain sounds great.” And then Monday morning, I didn’t actually file my LLC paperwork. I figured out that was a little expensive for me at the time. So, I ended up doing a DBA. But that’s kind of how I came up with the name, giving up not necessarily against the wall literally, but I found something in my surroundings that can help me.
Andrew: So, did you test it with phone calls to people or were you just practicing to see what it sounded like to say, “Hey, this is Single Grain.”
Sujan: Just practicing, never actually tested it out. Surprisingly, I never got very many phone calls.
Andrew: All right. I want to talk about Mixergy Premium. For anyone who listened this far and says, “You know what, Andrew? I want even more. I want more practical information,” I want to tell them about Mixergy Premium, where we give specific, actionable, practical information and arm entrepreneurs. Then when I come back after telling people about that, I want to ask you about the question you said to Jeremy that we should have asked you, that we didn’t ask you in the pre-interview and that’s important for the audience to hear.
But first, Mixergy Premium–Sujan, do you know about Mixergy Premium? What would you say to my audience about why they should sign up to Mixergy Premium before I even tell them why? It’s okay if you don’t know it. I don’t want to put you on the spot.
Sujan: I think it’s a great way to get actionable items that you probably wouldn’t get otherwise. I would pay lots of money to learn lessons from other people rather than experiencing the failures myself. I think that’s what sums up Mixergy Premium.
Andrew: That’s exactly it. If for example you guys in the audience have ever built a site and nobody came to your site, well, ideally you go and you hire Single Grain. Actually, go to SingleGrain.com if you need that. But if you want to do it on your own, well here’s what Mixergy member William Griggs did. He did something that not only is great for building traffic, but also good for building reputation and building links. It’s the same thing that when I talk to Hiten Shah, Neil Patel’s partner, he said, “This is the thing to do.”
Anyway, here’s what William Griggs, a Mixergy member said. He goes, “I used some of the tactics in the guest blogging and networking for introverts courses to land a guest post on Mashable.” So, he gets a post on Mashable, just one, able to build it up to do more and more in the future, hopefully. As a result of this, traffic comes in. Hiten says, when I asked Hiten Shah, Neil Patel’s partner, what’s the one thing that somebody needs to do if they want to get traffic, he said do guest posts. Neil Patel did the same thing. He’s still doing guest posts.
So, William Griggs needed to know how to do it. He came to Mixergy Premium where we had someone teach him specifically how to guest blog, how to do it. We gave him a course on networking for introverts so he knew how to build relationships with people online and it worked for him. That kind of thing you can either spend months trying to figure it out on your own or you can come to Mixergy Premium and sign up and get that course and so many others.
By the way, of course you see me here, I’ve got a reputation in the space. If you’re ever unhappy with this, of course you get 100% of your money back. But thousands of people are happy with it. They’re paying every month. They’re happy. I’m confident that you, the person who’s watching can be and will be too.
So, go to MixergyPremium.com. The sooner you sign up, the sooner you can get this good stuff. As Sujan says, people who get somewhere in this world always want to just learn from others and not make their own mistakes. They want to get others to give them the shortcuts–MixergyPremium.com.
All right. Here is the final question. We asked you what should we have asked you and you said, “There’s a major shift that happened in my life after I got married.” It’s true. I’m not asking enough questions about marriage and about the personal stuff. Can you tell he audience about what that shift was and how it influenced your business?
Sujan: Yeah, definitely. I think the biggest thing I learned and the biggest thing that changed the way I think or all the way down to every decision I make is the people around me. This specifically was my wife. When I met my wife, she was working very, very hard. She goes to school and work. I was doing my own business. I’m working full time and I was a lazy guy when I was in college. That was one of the reasons I never succeeded in my first business.
But I learned that just by being around her, just by being around the person that works really, really hard, that it makes me work harder. So, I think the biggest lesson is surround yourself with people that are hard workers, successful and not necessarily people that you want to be like, but people that can help you and that can rub off a skill that you may want to have.
Andrew: I see. You’re saying that you had a situation where there was a week where she was studying and going to school all day. You looked at her when you were frustrated about a 50-minute commute and thought that was too much and you were too tired and you said, “Wait a minute, if she’s doing all that, my 50-minute commute is nothing in comparison. Of course I can work harder. Of course I can get better than this. Am I right?”
Sujan: Yeah, exactly. Just by being around someone like that–and I was tired. I took naps all the time, after work or what not–just by being around someone like that, it made me not complain about working hard and maybe subconsciously work harder just to keep up. The same thing happened with Neil, being around Neil, being related to Neil, seeing him work hard and succeed in his path made me want to be even more successful.
Andrew: Yeah. That happens to me in these interviews and I hope the same thing is happening to the audience, that when they hear you say, “This is where I was. It didn’t work out. I struggled. It pained me. I had to shut it down. Here’s how I clawed my way back one step at a time,” and then we watch you as you build it up in the story and then afterwards as we get to know you off this interview, it’s inspiring. Of course it’s like a kick in the butt and makes you want to do something.
All right. I know sometimes by the way to the audience, I know you guys sometimes feel overwhelmed by this, you feel like, “Hey, you know, this guy is doing really well or that guy did even better.” It’s really tough in this industry because there are people that got overwhelming success. Don’t focus on where they are today with their overwhelming success.
Go back and think about that first step or second step. Think about how Sujan was able to get Oversee with that ballsy proposal to hire him at full-time salary when he went to build his business. That to me is inspiration and then you just keep going following that story forward. So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed ever, just go back to that initial couple of steps and be inspired by those all over again.
All right, Sujan, how did we do here? Overall a good interview?
Sujan: Yeah, it was good. I think it was great. Is there any other things you wanted to ask? I think there were a couple things that Jeremy asked…
Andrew: You know, there were. I was feeling like we went even overboard and we spent too much time in this interview. But screw it. If you’re feeling good with it, let people hit pause if they’re too tired. You want to talk about weight loss and how you put on some pounds?
Sujan: Yeah, sure.
Andrew: What do you want to talk about? What did we miss from this pre-interview stuff that we didn’t get to? I could tell. I was looking at you and I said, “Sujan’s not exactly happy… I’m about to talk about Single Grain and the website. He’s not excited. Something happened.” What did I miss that we should have included?
Sujan: There are two things. I talked about the first time I failed at Single Grain in 2005, but there was another time in 2010 where it was an all-time low moment.
Sujan: I lost a lot of clients. So, I think the story of my life is there are a lot of weak moments in my life where I feel like failing and it’s those times where I rebound the strongest. This time, in 2010, I lost like three or four clients all within like a couple of days or week period. That kind of hurt my revenue and more than revenue, it hurt my morale. I’m running this business. Up until now, everything is going up.
Then I lost three or four clients and within 30 days, I lost about five clients. So, it really hurt. I was ready to give up. I actually started interviewing. I was ready to give up on this business. I started interviewing for jobs in the Bay Area. I even got a job. I even accepted it. And then I took the–I look back and I’m like, “What am I doing? I’m kind of going back in circles again. I’ve looked at my past and I’m like, “I just gone and done circles, maybe the circles move me forward.” But none of them move me directly forward.
So, I took the weekend off. I took a little vacay down to Monterey. I came back and just getting everything out of my head for a couple days, we came back and I’m like, “No, getting a six-figure job is not going to be the right thing for me.” It’s something… I would just end up like I was at Oversee, back to 2008 or 2009. That doesn’t keep me happy. I’m going to still want to make that seven figures, still go above and beyond.
So, I came back even stronger. I said, “Screw this. This is either going to succeed or I’m going to go home and live with my parents with my wife.” So, that was a big like, “I’m not read to give up anymore. I want to go forward and I’m going to give it all it takes.”
Andrew: So, you risk it all but then what do you do to have the business rebound when you’re risking it all? I understand that fires you up, but then what do you do with all that energy?
Sujan: I went back to how I got business in the beginning. Somewhere along the way of running business, I lost the marketing tactics again, how we got clients. I went back and did a lot of networking events. I was like fired up like I was in 2009 when I started Single Grain. I did a lot more traffic.
I went to networking events, blogged a lot more and I did PPC, retargeting, did more SEO. I built more relationships with people that helped me get more business essentially in the next six months. So, even though I finally didn’t rebound until probably late 2010 and we rebounded with getting sites like Mint and Salesforce, so that was a big success at the end of 2010 or early 2011. So, it was just a matter of networking and doing the right things now so I could set my business up six months from now.
Andrew: I see. By the way, I’m glad that you stopped me and you asked me to talk about that. That is inspiring. I underlined it in my notes and meant to get to that and I don’t know how I missed it. What else did I miss?
Sujan: I’m just looking through here. There was a time–so, over the last from 2006 to 2011, my rise to six figures, I gained about 40 pounds. I used to joke about saying the more money I made, the more weight I gained. I always have a good gut feeling. I always went with my gut feeling. So, I figured like, “40 pounds, it’s a bigger gut, better feelings.” That weight I gained and kind of just–it kind of liked held me back a lot, more personally, but it affected my business. So, I would say since 2010, I was always trying to lose weight. I didn’t want to be 40 pounds overweight.
It was early 2011 where I said, “Screw this. I’m going to go give it my all. I’m going to go exercise every day. I’m going to go on a diet. I’m going to do everything it takes to lose this weight and I’m actually going to do it this time.” Within six months, I lost 40 pounds. I did probably what was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life physically and mentally–do a 1,200 calorie diet, drinking like 6 protein shakes a day, at one point working out 8 times a week, cardio. I did kickboxing.
I learned this process of how I learned. It’s what I call Stack. I feel like that part of my life, whether it directly affected my business or not actually changed the way I think about everything. One, it gave me the courage to think if can do a 1,200 calorie diet and lose 40 pounds in such a short period of time, go through that six months and actually lose it, I can do anything. I put that into Single Grain now, that I can do anything.
Andrew: What is the Stack process?
Sujan: The Stack process is I started off doing one thing, which is going to kickboxing two times a week. Then it takes four weeks to form a habit or three or four weeks to perform a habit. Then it gets easier. Once you have a habit, it’s part of what you do. Then you add one more thing. Then you keep adding one more thing. When it gets easy, you add one more thing. Then next thing you know, three, four, five months from now, you’re doing five to ten times more than when you first started and it’s not that hard. I think I indirectly have had that mentality ever since I did that.
I’m doing a lot more work these days, more than I was six months ago, a year ago before of this Stack process. I just keep adding one thing to my workload. Last month, it was just listening to audio books on my commute to work. I just listen to audio books. The month before it was I started running. The month before was reading every night before I go to bed.
Andrew: I see. You’re actually looking at your notes to see what you’ve added. You keep a list of all the things that you’ve stacked?
Sujan: Yeah. Over time, it’s like I’m doing a lot more hours of work. It’s still in the same amount of time. Things get easier. The Stack learning process or whatever you want to call it is actually something of how I train people at Single Grain. I did that with Ross and people at Oversee. I gave them one thing. I added more things to their plate and kept adding more and more and more until it became easy for them. So, it’s something that I was able to indirectly take from hiring people and training people to actually lose weight and run the business.
Andrew: I want to see how you train them. I’m so eager. You still up for showing me your computer screen and showing me what you do?
Sujan: Actually, I was thinking about it, what you see as a current eBook on Single Grain right now is actually all parts written by our employees. I’m trying to pull up–
Andrew: I won’t pull it up while we talk because apparently it’s going to hurt our bandwidth. Our connection will get a little fuzzy. Go for it.
Sujan: I was going to say I’m looking at all of the notes that all of our employee past or present have done. Essentially, all of that is taken and edited by a copywriter, of course, and put into our eBook. So, every section, including myself writing this stuff, is put into our eBook right now.
Andrew: But here’s what you’re telling me–I want to train people the way that you’re training people. What you’re saying is let’s suppose–I’m trying to find something that’s safe to talk about here that we do. How about the way we book guests? So, what I would do is I would train the booker and say, “Look, the first step is to go and find a stack of sites.”
They go and find a stack of sites. Then I say, “The next step is I need you to find the contact information of the people there,” does that. “The next step is send out email,” does that. And then once she’s got the whole process A to Z down, I say, “Create a manual for this and be prepared to teach it to the person.” That’s when her learning of that part of the process is complete.
Sujan: Exactly. Even before they finish the whole thing, you can have them train other people on it and be directly responsible for what the other person does.
Andrew: Even if this job is only done by one person, have them train someone else just to reinforce what they know.
Sujan: Yeah, because ultimately what they’re doing needs to be repeated at some point when you want to scale further, right? It makes them get quicker at their job.
Andrew: Because they’re training someone.
Sujan: Yeah. They just learn to do it that much better because–
Andrew: Where am I going to–sorry, I’m so eager to learn this stuff that I’m interrupting you. What were you going to say?
Sujan: Even in this interview, like when I talked to Jeremy in this pre-interview, it actually forced me to look back at the whole story of my life and my entrepreneurial career or my life and think about the steps I’ve taken. So, it does that same thing. It boosted my ego a lot. I was really happy and I was excited. But at the same time, it made me realize the things I’m good at and the things I’m bad at as well as the way I learn and how I am as a person.
The same thing happens when you’re actually training someone. Let’s say you do the outreach for the Mixergy interviews and looking at sites and qualifying people. It makes you have to take a step back, look at what you do and why you do it, maybe even improve upon it, change some things and then repeat it and tell somebody.
Andrew: What’s the part that as I do this I’m going to trip up on in your experience? What’s the part that is–where do you anticipate that I’ll have problems or someone in the audience is going to have problems as they implement this, meaning have someone do the job and write it down and teach someone else. Is it that we won’t write it down? Is it that we’ll teach someone else only half-heartedly? What is it?
Sujan: I think the hardest part is starting the outline. The biggest thing is this seems like a lot of work. It seems like there are a lot of parts to it. You probably would miss a lot of things in the initial outline process. I can share with you my training outline, if that would help.
Andrew: Yes, absolutely. Can I share with the audience or this is just you and me?
Sujan: No, sure, go ahead share it out.
Andrew: You want to put it on Skype and I share with the audience. By the way, everything we’re doing is still part of the interview.
Andrew: I don’t want you to accidentally say something and then ask me to edit out because I can’t edit
Sujan: No worries. I’m an open book like I said.
Andrew: Speaking of open, you put a jacket on and covered the logo that looked so good on camera.
Sujan: I’m cold.
Andrew: I see. Part of the logo but the other part of Single Grain on your t-shirt.
Sujan: I moved into a different room. It’s a little colder in here. I’m trying to share it.
Andrew: Just in Skype chat here. I’ll pop something in there. And then once you bring it up, I’m going to have to click and open it up. I’ll tell you what–
Sujan: Am I sharing my screen with you?
Andrew: Oh, you’re sharing the screen. I wonder if the audience can see this full thing. Yeah. I see. Let me see what I see. I’ll describe it for someone that can’t see it in real time. I see. So, outline, hang on a second there–you got link building, article directory and submission, forum link building, directory submission–sorry, link building is one, then A underneath it, article directory submission, B, forum link building, C, directory submission–this is part of the outline.
So, this is all the things that need to happen for somebody to do link building, get anchor text, on-page SEO and then you teach them one step at a time with this outline. You’re saying the outline is tough to put together the first time, right?
Sujan: Yeah. It’s very, very time-consuming and probably you as a person, the person’s boss or the owner want to probably put this together and have them add to it. So, this was an earlier version. This was done in 2011. It’s a little tweaked now. But essentially, we had our employees just elaborate on this and just expand on this.
Each section was a paragraph or a couple of paragraphs. This was how our eBook just got started. People added to this. If you have a big group of people, it’s best to have them work together on this and have them do one or two sections each. If you only have a small company, one or two or three people, you want to have each person do the whole thing.
Andrew: I see. Basically what you’ve got is an outline of the manual of how the business works. And then you just keep adding different outline items and of course each outline item has a whole page somewhere or a whole section somewhere were it explains how to do it.
Andrew: All right. Okay.
Sujan: And then anytime someone learns something new–if you look on the on-page section, this whole on page section is probably a page or two on its own, just the outline itself based off the latest algorithm changes, everything. So, any time something is done. We add to this.
And then as a group now, we do what’s called SGUs, Single Grain Universities. So, every couple of–it used to be once a week on Fridays. One person researches one of these things or searches something new about SEO to the rest of the group. Now we do it almost every other day, where someone is researching something and putting it into a PowerPoint presentation or adding to this document and presenting to the rest of the book so they can learn.
Andrew: I see. Starting with the outline is a really good idea. I should do that too instead of adding items as we need them.
Sujan: Yeah. It’s good to have the person see what the final goal is.
Sujan: So, I came up with this based off of what I learned at Argus Interactive doing Elance stuff and Oversee. These are all the things that made me a good SEO. This is exactly what I want every one of my employees, everyone I train and even our clients to learn.
Andrew: I see. I know it’s a small distinction, but starting from the outline really does help organize everything else. So, what we might do internally is say how to find sites to solicit their founders for interviews and then the next step would be how to do whatever, but we never put it together in a clear way like this. This is way better.
Sujan: Yeah. It’s just breaking the task town into a very, very simple, easy to understand concept.
Andrew: Right. All right. Well, Sujan, thank you for doing this. Let’s see if we get your video back up. Thank you and thank you all for watching. Oh, I should say, SingleGrain.com. Thank you all for watching.
And we’re back at the end of the interview. Sujan, what happened to sales? I’m looking here at my transcript and you said the year before our interview, 2011, you did $1 million in sales. Did sales go down?
Sujan: No, actually sales went up. We tripled it. So, the last I was involved, end of 2013, we were pacing for $3 million in sales.
Andrew: $3 million in sales.
Sujan: I was unhappy. I decided to sell it and walk away.
Andrew: Why were you unhappy?
Sujan: A lot of things. I think for five years–it’s been five years since I’ve been running the company. The industry has changed. We kind of started as an SEO agency or consultant shop. We did things differently because we worked as an in-house team and essentially that was kind of our differentiator.
We scaled to other services, but SEO changed. Our bread and butter and something I’ve done for 12, 13 years now provided drastically lower ROI. Traffic was harder to get. So, it took longer to get, more money. It was just harder. You had to do a lot more and it provided less–that doesn’t seem like the right direction.
So, although the revenue growth was there, the ROI that our clients and customers got just didn’t make sense. I knew that what I needed to do to turn this business around–this time, we were much larger with $3 million in revenue. We had to take this boat and turn it around. At this time in 2011, this was a boat. Now it’s a cruise ship. That’s a daunting task. It’s something I thought would take a few years.
Andrew: What does turning around mean, going to a different thing you’re selling or does it mean finding a way to improve your results and give people a better ROI?
Sujan: It really meant selling other services as well as SEO. So, we did that. Towards the end, we were selling content marketing, what was content marketing and blogging and social media and paid search and we were getting good results, but fundamentally, the team, the company was built around optimizing SEO, the team structure.
So, although we were doing well in revenue internally, there was a lot of chaos to come up with the right process, consistently deliver results and also more importantly scale. So, most of our revenue–actually, three-fourths of the revenue was from SEO clients, an industry that at that time was starting to decline as far as the ROI. Then we had the arrest from the other services. But what we needed to do was take all the revenue or expand the revenue in those other services where we were not as capable.
So, in my head, I thought this is going to take at least one to two years. For the longest time, for five years, I built this baby. It’s a toddler. It’s grown up. I was like, “I’m a parent. I love what I’m doing.” I just never questioned it. But one day, I did. I was like, “Wait, do I love what I’m doing?” And the answer was at first I was like–this was summer of 2013 and I hesitated. I was like, “I don’t think so, but we’re making money, the thing is growing. We’re going to keep going.”
Towards the end, I remember Thanksgiving through Christmas of 2013 was probably the worst time of my life because I was trying to figure how I could quit my job. My job was a business. And my job, there were 27 employees. I felt like pretty bad, really, for thinking, “What should I do? Why do I want to get out of this?” At the end of the day, I wasn’t happy and I didn’t see myself being happy doing this for a year, six months, a week. When I answered myself, “Do I want to do this for a week?” The answer was, “I can hang in there.”
Andrew: Hang in there for a week.
Sujan: A week. Keep in mind, we were not structured. We probably needed a lot more management, more experience team. So, I was picking up the slack for a lot of different things, $3 million in revenue with crazy amount of bills. I remember our credit card statements were like $100,000 because we were–again, without going into too much detail, $100,000 looking at operating capital and all these things were very overwhelming. If that was my only job, maybe I could do it. But I was also filling in as the SEO, I was doing strategy, I was the account manager for some of our clients–so many hats at a cruise ship, it was too hard.
Andrew: I can see how you’d burn out on that. Why did SEO change so much?
Sujan: Google is always trying to optimize or improve the quality guidelines. They’re making it more difficult. I think there are two big updates which kind of continued on, which was Penguin and Panda. Panda had been pretty much there since I believe 2010 now. It’s been iterated upon. Penguin has been around for a long time as well, although it stared in about 2013.
With those updates, they leveled up their ability to improve the algorithm. So, over the next two years, they improved the algorithm and made it more and more difficult faster. So, it’s like not only is it harder, its changing too often. A lot of strategies that you would normally deploy would not work for every single business that we’d work with.
Andrew: I see. So, your systemized process that you worked so hard to put together was now less and less effective against the growing, more powerful algorithm.
Sujan: Yeah, exactly. My approach to systemized process just in life, I’ll do something once, figure it out and it doesn’t matter what it is, I’ll figure it out, do it ten times and then the eleventh time I’ll teach someone to do it and document the heck out of that process and pass it along to somebody.
Well, we’re running now. We’re like running in terms of what we need to do and our whole process falls apart or is starting to crumble.
Andrew: So, what did you sell it for?
Sujan: I ended up selling it for one extra years’ profit. Our profit was not in the $3 million range. So, I ended up getting an earn out over the next two years.
Sujan: Again, it was something that I didn’t walk away with a lot of money and to be honest, that wasn’t my intention. I walked away giving the business to somebody who was really passionate about it and who’s still running it now. With 27 employees continuing to work there. I think at the time there were like 40-something clients continuing to be alive. Literally, I kid you not, I could have closed it down and made like $2 million easily.
Andrew: What do you mean? Why?
Sujan: If we just shut down the doors, because of how many the delay in payments and how long it takes clients to pay us, we’re going to continue getting paid because some clients were behind and there was net 30, 45, whatever. We could have continued getting paid for about 90 days out and stop operation costs. So, it’s like pure profit for 90 days and then whatever is in the bank. That could have just been mine. I didn’t think that was right. I’m making money.
Andrew: Plus you’d still have to pay your employees severance fees and there are all kinds of other expenses.
Sujan: Yeah. Maybe not as much as I’m thinking now as kind of time has passed, but at the same time, at the end of the day that didn’t seem like the right thing to do, to cash out because I was tired.
Andrew: Sujan, two things–one, you took a job soon afterwards.
Sujan: Yeah. So, I knew what I wanted to do or I knew that I needed to find something to do and get passionate behind it. Those five years, I lasted so long. Before that, I couldn’t keep a job for that long because I would just get board. So, I wanted to find something I could get behind.
It took me three tries. One was too big and I was immediately like, “No, this sucks.” The second one was way too small and it failed as a failed startup. And then third one I ended up moving to Minnesota for. This was actually a client of ours. The client WhenIWork.com was there for the last two years. I wanted to immerse myself in SaaS and learn what marketing is like in 2015, 2016, like what is marketing today? What does it take to move the needle?
What I learned when I started Single Grain was I knew what it was in 2009–
Andrew: So, what is it today?
Sujan: It’s more complex. I think you have to think about user behavior. You have to think about UX, UI. It’s not just like, “Hey, let’s drive traffic from SEO, PPC.” It’s, “Let’s go give people the best experience possible. Let’s drive traffic that then converts that when they convert into a trial, you prompt them with a good experience. You have to figure what triggers they are.
For example, in your call, if you’re scheduling a demo, you have to figure out what he right process is. So, there’s so much more than what I did back in the day, which was top of the funnel. Now it’s the full funnel. You have to think about LTV, churn, how to turn customers into happy customers into advocates and stuff like that.
Andrew: I see. All right. And you’ve got now your own SaaS. It’s called ContentMarketer.io?
Andrew: What got you to create this?
Sujan: There are two things. At Single Grain, we sent out in the lifetime of the business, we sent out over a million emails to build links, promote content. We did a lot of outreach.
Andrew: You guys were so good at that.
Sujan: That’s what our ninja thing was. That was our claim to fame and we were really good at that. I built a lot of processes and I hacked and figured stuff out because I did it myself and then I scaled with the team.
Andrew: Figured out stuff for getting people who don’t know how to do SEO to get links to your client’s site.
Sujan: And naturally, links that would not penalize you because you could go and buy links and do all these things that are going to bite you in the butt later on. We did it and it worked.
So, now fast forward to 2015. Link building still works, but that’s not what the future is. Content marketing is clearly what people are spending or investing money in. I believe content marketing now is what social media was in 2007. It was like this buzzword that people kind of knew what it was about, but it worked and people just kept investing money into it. Now it’s like wait, you’re launching a company and you don’t’ have a Twitter profile, what’s wrong with you? So, I wanted to solve content marketing problems or content marketers’ problems
Andrew: So, specifically, what does ContentMarketer do now?
Sujan: ContentMarketer is a way for you to reach out people that you’ve either mentioned in an article or essentially build an email list or a Twitter list and reach out to them to promote your content, build a relationship. Again, you can leverage influencers as a great way to elevate your brand, leverage influencers to essentially align yourself with them, promote them, suck up and get on their good side so maybe they help you at some point.
Andrew: How would I use it for this interview, for example.
Sujan: Great way. We have a lot of people using it for podcasts. So, you would scan lists. Let’s say you want to find all the top sales guys. Let’s say you want to find all the top VCs. You can Google essentially the top VC bloggers or top VC whatever and build a list of essentially there are all these lists on the web of, “Hey, these are the top bloggers.” They mention their name. They probably link to their website. You take that URL and you scan it into ContentMarketer and we’ll go hunt down the email addresses. It’s a combination of what we did manually at Single Grain–
Andrew: But wait, if I get all these venture capitalist email addresses, what do I do with them?
Sujan: You probably want to email them something. If you want to ask them to be on your podcast, the next step is you would email them. We have a lot of different templates essentially that I personally wrote and tested.
Andrew: What about for someone who’s writing a standard blog post? How would they use ContentMarketer?
Sujan: Same thing. They would use it to promote their latest blog post. First of all, you should be writing content that you think you can promote in the first place. So, there’s a little bit that goes into the pre-promotion, which is, “What should I write about? What have people shared in the past.” You can use tools like BuzzSumo or Followerwonk or even go on Twitter and filter out various lists of authorities in a specific space or people that would be willing to share your content or have shared something in the past.
Let’s say you have that list. That sounds daunting, but it’s actually really simple. It’s as simple as going into a BuzzSumo, searching for whatever topic you’re writing about and finding the articles that have been the most shared and finding who has shared them. That’s a few clicks. Let’s say you have that. Export that .csv. You want to import that into ContentMarketer and essentially then go into writing your email pitch and you’re just sending an email.
Andrew: Sending them to do what?
Sujan: Just letting them know about your latest blog post because maybe they just shared something similar. There are so many different angles. The easiest one I did was, “Hey, I thought you might like this,” based off something you shared in the past. Sometimes I suck up. I usually start with flattering somebody, “I’m a big fan of your work,” or whatever. Try not to be as vague as possible. Try to be very, very specific.
Andrew: I see. But it’s automated. So, I can find out using BuzzSumo or tools like that who is sharing stuff that’s similar to mine. Then I go to ContentMarketer. I get the email addresses of all those people.
Sujan: And Twitter handles too.
Andrew: And then I start messaging them in saying, “Here’s what I created. I thought you might like it.”
Sujan: Yeah. You can do the same thing on Twitter as well.
Andrew: Without being heavy-handed and saying, “I saw you tweet stuff like this. I thought you might want to tweet mine,” much more subtle than that, but all automated. That’s what it’s about over at ContentMarketer.io, right?
Andrew: Cool. All right. This is fantastic. I want to end it here because we’re really definitely going over. I got carried away with that first interview. We went 90 minutes. That’s a long time, but it was worth it. I appreciate you doing this. I’d love for you to come back. I don’t know what. Maybe we can have you talk about content marketing in general and teach that. Let’s get this up, see what people think and thanks. Actually, no, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that it took this long to get it up on the site. I’m glad you said something.
Sujan: It’s all good, man. Thank you. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you.
Andrew: Appreciate it. Thank you all for being a part of Mixergy. Let me know what you think of this. Bye, everyone.