Manuel Brandt

Bootstrapping a Startup to $100K: 5 Lessons Learned

Almost exactly one year ago, in October 2020, I founded BlogTec – a startup with the goal to make SEO simple.

When I founded BlogTec, I was just 20 years old, without any experience of how to run a business, and $3000, which was most of my savings. Now, 1 year later, we have a team of 15 people (including the professionals), and plan to grow that to ~40 in the next year!

In this post, I’m reflecting on 5 key lessons I learned building BlogTec in a competitive environment with almost no investments.

How Did BlogTec Start?

Before I started BlogTec, I was an employed Engineer and freelanced in SEO and content writing on the side. I faced the “issue” of having too much work and thought, “Why not build a small team and give some work away?”.

We started as an SEO and content agency. Nothing special compared to other agencies, except a more reasonable pricing through lower margins, and only offering fixed packages. I hired the first two freelance writers, and started to give some content writing work away. That was the beginning of an intense year.

Pretty fast, I realized from discussions with my customers how difficult it is for companies to get started with SEO, especially finding the right professionals. I looked at other agencies and freelance marketplaces like Upwork, and agreed with my customers that the customer experience varies a lot, and is often just not good. Also, the available solutions often charge prices that are too high for most companies (mostly agencies), or they charge super low prices and pay their professionals bad (Textbroker and Co.).

That’s when I decided to change this by building a solution that is fair for all sides, easy-to-use, and has an outstanding customer experience!

Learning 1: Be Okay to Adjust Your Product and Strategy (A lot)

I’m a big fan of subscription products. They offer a great way to serve ongoing needs, and I had the feeling that this was exactly what our customers need. That’s why we created two fixed subscription products that solved all basic SEO needs. It turned out I was right. Our customers were looking for an uncomplicated solution like this, so we kept a strong focus on our subscription model.

However, when we grew and were recognized by more companies, it turned out that more customers were only looking for content and not for SEO services, especially the bigger companies. With our big focus on bundled subscriptions, we kept mid- and big-sized companies away. When we changed this strategy and added single services, our bookings increased drastically.

šŸ’” This is just an example. In 1 year, we transformed from a one-man freelance business, to an SEO and content agency, to a tech-focused agency, to a marketplace. Constant innovation is what separates a “standard business” from a “top 1% one”. Amazon, for example, started as an online shop for books, and constantly innovated their company into what it is today.

Learning 2: Always Put Yourself in the Position of Your Customers

Another key to success is to be “customer-obsessed”. It’s important to always reflect on your business and product, and to put yourself in the position of your customers and potential customers. Who are you talking to? Who is reading your newsletter? Who is visiting your website, and what are they thinking when they look at it?

I knew that and did a good job when it came to our product. From the beginning, I wanted to create an outstanding customer experience and was always thinking about how we can make our customers even happier.

However, I totally ignored this when it comes to marketing, which I realized when we hired our Head of Marketing. The way we talked to our customers, and especially our potential customers, didn’t reflect our product well and wasn’t addressing our target audience.

šŸ’” Customer experience is not only key when it comes to product, but also when it comes to marketing. The way you communicate your product is just as important as your product!

Learning 3: No Hire Can Fix Everything

This is a mistake that many founders make. They have an issue in a specific area and expect that the right hire will fix all their problems. I see this happening mostly in customer acquisition or marketing. After building a product and getting some initial users, founders want to grow their companies and are struggling to acquire more customers.

What they do then is hiring a Head of Marketing, Head of Growth, CMO, or however they call it, with the expectation that they can lean back, and the hire will solve all their problems and make their company grow with rocket speed. However, this doesn’t work.

No Head of Marketing will be able to scale a product that didn’t reach product-market fit. Neither will nobody know a secret recipe to scale any startup in no time. Every company is different and requires different solutions to its difficulties. A good Head of Marketing will support you well and help to make good decisions. But in the end, Marketing is about generating ideas and testing them, and that’s about it.

šŸ’” Don’t expect any hire to solve all your problems. You will always have to put in hard work and be patient.

Learning 4: Set Clear Goals and Focus on Them

This is the most important task for every founder and CEO, but especially when you’re just starting, you often forget about it, which can be a big mistake!

We were growing when we didn’t have clear goals. Moreover, our main company value is freedom, so in general I’m not a big fan of monitoring people and teams much. That’s why I ignored setting clear goals for a pretty long time, and had just one broad goal: “Growth”.

However, when we grew and the team members increased, it was necessary to have such goals, so everybody knows in which direction we were going, and we can see if we’re on track. If I started at the beginning again, I would have taken care of this way earlier.

šŸ’” Define the most essential metrics, create a 5-year plan, break it down to annually, then quarterly, monthly, and finally weekly. Check in with the responsible team leaders once a week, and never skip that. Reflecting on yourself can work wonders!

Learning 5: Listen to Customers, But Accept that Your Product Is Not for Everyone

With BlogTec, we want to become the market leader in SEO and content services. The market for SEO content is huge, as almost every established business needs a website, and every website needs content.

That means that we not only have a large number of potential customers, but also that our customers and their needs are really different. Especially when you’re just starting, you tend to try to make every customer happy and adjust your product based on a single customer way too often. This is not scalable.

šŸ’” It’s crucial to adjust your product all the time, especially in the beginning. And, when you’re building a startup, you have to do things that don’t scale. Still, every product adjustment should be well thought of. Take time to talk to people from your target audience, existing customers, and your team.

These were my 5 key lessons that I learned during my first year building BlogTec.

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