Shortlist wasn’t part of some grand plan. In fact, it basically happened by accident.
While still growing my previous business, Ninja Outreach, with SEO and content marketing, I thought: “Why not turn these services into a product?”
Having access to a talented team of content creators, SEOs, designers and developers felt like something that would come in handy for future business ventures.
But then, I stumbled upon a problem in the market – there were so many mediocre SEO providers offering low-domain authority websites with minimal traffic.
And people were really tired of it (or worse, didn’t know any better and were getting taken)
So, even though there were hundreds (thousands?) of link building providers, I decided to start one more.
I started small, testing the waters, and people liked it. Demand increased and I started onboarding the first team members.
Nowadays, we consistently do over $100k a month, and I’d like to talk about how we got there, and what’s next.
Breaking into the scene wasn’t easy. SEO is somewhat of a commodity and it’s difficult to stand out.
The main obstacle in the beginning was defining why we even exist.
With so many providers, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd, so we doubled down on our quality guidelines, which have been with us from the beginning and which few companies that I’ve seen have ever matched.
We focused on minimum Domain Authorities and Organic Traffic, as well as standards for Spam Score, Trust Flow, Citation Flow and more. It excluded a lot of websites, but at least I always felt good about what was left.
It was just enough of an angle to start conversations and approach dissatisfied people in the space, and that’s exactly what we needed to get off the ground.
One of the questions I get asked the most is, how did you get your first customers?
I was lucky to connect with David Henzel from TaskDrive in a facebook group. He jumped on board and had a network of people to introduce me to..
I reached out and talked about our unique link-building approach, but more importantly – I listened to what people needed.
Being a new business in the industry had its share of struggles, but many clients were tired of paying for low-quality services. That worked in our favor, as they were open to hearing what we had to offer.
Thanks to the solid reputation my partner and I had from our previous businesses, we weren’t strangers to the industry. People knew we would deliver and they gave us a shot.
Aside from the focus on quality guidelines, we tried to position ourselves away from the typical agency model. No longterm contracts. No onboarding fees. Cancel any time. Make it about the service and the customer and not about squeezing them for every dime you can along the way.
Surprisingly, that resonated with people.
Coming from a SaaS background I was used to putting up a bunch of capital to go-to market, but I really wanted to avoid that here.
Luckily, being service-based meant we only worked when we had a paying client.
In other words, clients funded the early stages of the agency. Plus, using referrals as a client acquisition strategy proved to be cost-effective.
I’d estimate we got to our first $10k a month this way – referrals and a low cost / low margin service. We weren’t making much profit (or any), but we had people testing us out and that gave us an incentive to build out the client process, pay for some tools, and basically get our feet wet.
First comes love, then comes marriage, or in this case, the proof of concept followed by the first employees.
Our first hire was out of Macedonia via Upwork. His name was Viktor and he’s been with the company ever since.
Like many things in Shortlist’s history, it was mostly unintentional. He just seemed like the right guy for the job and I had grown comfortable on Upwork.
After that, he brought on his friends and his sister, because – why not? It wasn’t quite a “family” business, but it started to have that feel.
In the beginning, we were just a few employees, so it was easier.
But later, with more clients, the team grew and I needed to figure out another structure for the team, split people by departments, assign them different tasks…fun stuff.
As usual, we sort of winged it.
We looked at the team we had, and started to allocate different responsibilities to people based on fit.
Emi (Viktor’s sister) had a knack for visual design and studied Italian – so let’s put her in charge of branding and creative.
Nenad was a serious guy with a mustache, so, link building operations.
Darko spent time in China, so, head of sales.
Probably not the recommended route for building a team, but I trusted my intuition and my teammate’s ability to fill in any knowledge gaps and this proved to be the right decision.
Naturally, weekly meetings and monthly state of the business check-ins kept everyone on the same page while we grew together, and have functioned well to this day.
Short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain
I was fortunate enough to be able to forgo a salary for a year or two, primarily to build the team and to make sure we had the tools we needed to do the job.
Eventually we got an office in Skopje and hired a few more people to distribute the load more evenly.
During this time the business was growing, but profit was up and down depending on what we were investing in at the time.
It felt like we had the right processes and tools in place, and if we could just get enough clients and hit some scale then the math would work out.
I remember having conversations with my partner David telling him that I thought we were on to something, but the math still wasn’t working in our favor. Just another 6-12 months…
And low and behold – we got there.
And now we get to think about how to stay here.
It’s easy to lose site of the things that got you to where you are. I’ve always prided myself on trying to run a lean business, even when financially things were sound.
In the case of Shortlist, I typically wear both hats – CEO and CFO.
For example, every month I go through the books myself and look for areas of improvement. Such as NOT paying for unnecessary tools, or taking advantage of annual upgrades that’ll save money.
The Climb to $100k+/Month
I’ve always been a big small business guy and am proud that there are dozens of Shortlist customers who have been with us for less than $1k / month.
Still, I have to admit that getting to a monthly revenue of $100,000 usually means working with at least a few clients who can pay $10k or more a month or more.
Most of these clients are agencies themselves and while the end service is the same, the way in which we provide that service needs to be different.
It’s more of a whitelabel model, in fact, and that’s what we’ve gravitated towards in more recent times.
Honing in on this ICP, their needs, and how to design and deliver our service to work for them is one of the core areas of focus for us now.
Key moments of success and the impact on the team
Hitting those financial goals isn’t just about numbers. It’s ALSO about the workplace, company, culture, and employee perks.
As the business became less volatile month to month we started to focus inward on how we could make working at Shortlist more pleasant.
More money means more perks for the team – like lunch, gym benefits, and so on.
Most notably, we started doing yearly team getaways to places like Rome, Barcelona, and Turkey where we can have high level strategic discussions about the future of the business, as well as meet with everyone one on one and get a truer sense for what’s happening on the ground.
And it seems to have paid off. Employee retention has always been 90%+ each year. A few were even 100%!
And yes, all of the original employees I mentioned above are still with us (and Nenad still has his mustache) – two facts I’m quite proud of.
Looking Forward: Scaling to $500k
The journey isn’t just about big goals.
It’s about making smart moves STEP BY STEP to keep our business growing and stay ahead of the game.
Building a Brand
For a long time Shortlist was a service, but it wasn’t really a brand.
To me, a brand is more than just a business entity; it’s a stable, trustworthy, and credible presence, representing the evolution of a business.
We’ve been working continually to craft a unique identity, including:
- The design of our website
- Typography and fonts we use
- How we present our team
- Our mission and core values
Our goal is to be thought leaders in the industry.
Sure, Shortlist isn’t the most well-known name in the industry yet, but we’re taking some big steps, and there’s still plenty of room for growth.
The Next Frontier
Scaling up means diving deeper into the Shortlist community. It’s not just about what we offer in terms of services but rather about building a space where people can learn and grow.
While we’ve provided quality services to clients, we haven’t always excelled in creating our own content and conducting our own inbound marketing due to our focus on client services.
Classic shoemaker’s dilemma.
Now, with some breathing space and this milestone achieved, we can start exploring ways to engage with other agencies. We want to educate them on operational improvements and revenue growth.
And also just how running and growing an agency can be fun.
This is partly why we’ve started writing ‘Founders Journey’ style articles – to share insights and lessons from our own experiences.
Challenges aren’t going anywhere
Customer churn, market competition, providing top-quality services… these challenges are still here.
Standing out requires work, but our plan is to dive into community building and publish educational content. It’s an endeavor that demands more of my time as well as more of the business’ funds.
But it’s totally worth it.
I’ve actually enjoyed writing on my Linkedin – who knew?
As we’re making more and more progress, I’ve realized the need for a more focused strategy. With more data available now than in the early days, using this information is key.
However, the abundance of analytics tools and data can be overwhelming and distracting, so we need to concentrate on the KPIs that will take us to the next level.
This involves understanding various key aspects, such as:
- The lifetime value of our customers
- Different customer avatars and ideal customer profiles
- Their pain points and spending habits
All this new data plays a vital role in shaping and refining our strategy.
Excitement and Challenges
The team’s all about the positive outlook, but they know growth means change.
Unfortunately, this might mean parting ways with some clients and focusing more on customers with whom we’ve had success.
The truth is that we’ve hit a ceiling.
To break through, we’re giving our brand a new face, tweaking our services, and changing our positioning in the market. It takes the whole team to work together if we want to level up our game, but the golden rule is to NEVER lose sight of your customers and your employees.