How We Run Growth Machine
Late last year, our founder and CEO Nat Eliason joined Andrew Warner’s Mixergy podcast to talk about how he started Growth Machine and grew it into a seven-figure agency — despite pressure not to start an agency.
“Don’t do an agency. It’s miserable. Everyone hates it. Why would you work for clients when you can build a product company?” a number of Nat’s friends said.
So why did he?
It was a natural fit. In 2015, Nat’s personal site was getting upwards of 500,000 visitors per month. He knew how to build a website, create content for it, and drive traffic to it. But at the time, he didn’t know what kind of product or company he wanted to build. He was already getting inbound leads for SEO and content consulting — so he decided that was the business he was going to build.
The first couple times Nat consulted with other companies on their SEO, it was hit and miss: It worked really well in one instance, and it didn’t work out well in the two other instances.
With the successful client, Nat was able to set up their SEO and content efforts, and he helped hire a full-time marketer to keep it going. At the two other companies, content fell to the wayside when the in-house team didn’t have the resources to maintain the program.
It was clear that companies wanted a good content marketing program, but if they didn’t have a content marketer or team to run it, it would fall apart. It couldn’t be someone’s second priority. Nat decided to take the inbound leads he was getting and use them to start Growth Machine in fall 2017.
But there are tons of content marketing and SEO agencies out there, so since the earliest days of Growth Machine, we knew we needed to distinguish ourselves from the pack. Here’s how:
We know who we are and who we’re not
“The big difference between us and most agencies is that we don’t bill ourselves as a marketing agency where we’ll do whatever you need marketing-wise,” said Nat on the podcast.
We’re not a full-stack marketing agency. We don’t run clients’ social media accounts or maintain their Google Ads. We do SEO, content creation, and link building. Our in-house team is made up of professional editors, SEO experts, and experienced project managers.
“We’re excited about leveraging our skills and abilities and what we’re learning to grow our own brands. For instance, we learned a lot about doing SEO research and content writing with the goal of conversions from doing Cup & Leaf versus the goal of just generating more traffic. So by eating our own dog food some of the time, we learn a lot more,” said Nat.
We focus on good writing
We’re able to create high-quality content because we have a writer matchmaking service called The Writer Finder. To date, we have over 5,000 writers, and for each client we find the absolute best writer for their desired level of expertise and what they want in the content, including the voice they’re trying to match.
Once we identify a writer for a client, we have our own internal training documents, videos, and quizzes that writers have to pass in order to make sure that they can create compelling SEO-focused content. Then our team edits all the articles to make sure they’re in line with our and our clients’ editorial standards and style, as well as reviewing them for SEO. Finally, we help the client get the post up on their site, often by publishing it in their CMS ourselves.
We’ve created a scalable people and systems operation
Across all our clients, we’re publishing over 100 articles per month. It’s a lot to keep track of.
“We’ve got a four-person editorial team plus a part-time editor who helps pick up slack where it’s needed. It’s extremely systems-driven. We really can’t let anything slip through the cracks when there’s that much moving around week to week,” said Nat.
Each client has their own Asana board where each card represents an article, and each card has several subtasks that ladder up to it: first draft, edits, second draft, a round of client feedback, prep for publishing, etc. Every single one of those steps needs to be carefully tracked since we’re working with so many writers and so much content.
Here’s a peek under the hood when it comes to actually working with us:
First, we’ll do an audit: We take a look at all the top pages you have right now and which keywords you’re currently ranking for. We love using Ahrefs for this. For instance, we might see that one of your pages ranks number six for a given keyword. We’ll ask: What do we need to do to get this page into a high position? When was it published? What do the other top pages on Google that are ranking for this keyword have that your page does not? How do we expand it? How do we amp it up?
Then we’ll create a content strategy: We’ll figure out our priorities, which will most likely consist of a balance of improving your existing pages and creating new content. Maybe we’ll focus on creating more internal links from other pages on your site to increase traffic flow as well as link building. We’ll also come up with a keyword list that will ultimately guide our content strategy as we create the content. That’s where our high-quality writing and editing comes in.
Finally, we’ll execute that content strategy: We’ll create and maintain that Asana board so we can hold ourselves accountable. And the subtasks that ladder up into a given article include all the revisions and prep work we do. That work includes three especially important tasks:
1. An analysis of similar content compared to our article (to make sure ours is better!)
2. A plagiarism check to make sure your content is unique
3. An SEO check
We’re selective about our clients
We’re most successful when we work with clients who recognize the business need for a content marketing program. It’s important for us to build good relationships with them. Ultimately, our day-to-day feels like we have partnerships with our friends where we’re helping their businesses grow — and that’s really satisfying.
“[A] reason [agency life can get] miserable is when you have no choice in the clients you take on and you’re beholden to whoever you have. We’ve fired a number of clients over the years. We say no to a lot of people in the sales process … who are pushing back too much on price, things like that. We can be pretty selective in who we work with and that means that we really like all of our clients. They’re all really nice people,” said Nat.
We’re upfront about any instances in which we feel like we can’t meet a potential client’s needs. It rarely happens, but if there’s a reason we can’t find the kind of writer a client is looking for — either because of niche expertise that we don’t have, or because the writer with that expertise has too high of a per-article rate — we’ll pass on that client. If we don’t think we can be successful together, we don’t want to waste your and our time.
Check out the podcast to learn more
Interested in learning more about the story of Growth Machine and Nat’s personal site, and how we grew Cup & Leaf? Listen to the full podcast episode on Mixergy.
And if you’re looking for SEO and content marketing services, well, you know how to reach us.
- 2:52: What Growth Machine is, why Nat started the company, and what it’s like to work with us.
- 11:10: Leveraging our skills and abilities to grow our own brands, such as Cup & Leaf, and focusing on sales vs. site traffic: Nat talks about how to think through your keyword strategy when your priority is sales instead of traffic.
- 14:21: How experts use Ahrefs: Nat walks through an example of how a user would go into Ahrefs to check their page ranking, how highly ranked they are for keywords, and how to make sense of where to start optimizing.
- 18:17: Some backstory: How Nat got started in marketing by way of Zapier (and how Zapier’s content is still one of the best in the business).
- 29:30: How Growth Machine got its earliest customers, and some fun tidbits on Nat’s personal site.
- 39:00: How we created Cup & Leaf and turned readers into customers.
- 42:43: Webflow vs. WordPress: Nat and Andrew talk through the key differences and how these stack up against other website builders.
- 50:11: Mac apps that Andrew and Nat like: Alfred, Front, Yoink, and more.
- 59:43: On chasing the digital nomad dream.
- 1:03:40: On managing a business, the occasional uncertainty of being a bootstrapped company, and re-winning existing clients.