Blog Startup Journey

Behind the Scenes: How We’ve Built a $5M/Year Business in 3 Years With Content Marketing

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We’re pulling back the curtain on three years of intensive learning and doing.

Last Thursday, I shared the story of how our startup almost died.

We were only a few short months from running out of cash, and things didn’t look good.

Our marketing efforts were failing, and nobody was visiting our site or signing up for our product.

We were desperate.

We were lost.

And we were terrified.

That was when we decided to finally get serious about content marketing.

We spent two months doing nothing but research, writing and talking to content marketers we respected about how they turned their blogs into actual drivers of growth for their business.

And what we learned changed everything for us.

Read on to get the story (plus, you’ll get the scoop on a brand new program we’re launching to help you build your own content marketing machine).

Pulling Back The Curtain On Content Marketing Success

If we wanted to succeed with content, we’d have to learn from those who already had.

So that’s what we decided to do: send emails to every content marketer that we respected, and see if they’d be willing to chat.

Unsurprisingly, most of our emails went ignored.

But email outreach is a numbers game, and of the 40+ emails that we sent, a handful of successful content marketers agreed to talk.

From the very first call, we realized that there was an entire world beneath the surface of content marketing strategy that we had been missing the entire time.

They asked questions that challenged us and made us think about our strategy in ways that we, embarrassingly, had completely neglected before:

It quickly became clear that we needed to do things differently.

And so, we did one of the scariest things imaginable for a startup about to run out of money: we stopped everything, and we went into a hole to regroup.

What we did in those next two months changed the story of our company forever.

Today, more than 250,000 people read our content each month, more than 5,000 customers trust us with their business, and we’re generating nearly $5 million in annual recurring revenue.

All of that is thanks to the strategies we discovered and put into practice in those early days.

Rebuilding and Relaunching

Just as we did with our product, we decided to rebuild our content marketing strategy from the ground up with an eye towards what could actually help our market, rather than what we thought might look nice on a blog.

We spent our first few weeks doing very little other than reaching out to people in small business communities—our help desk product is geared toward small businesses—and trying to get people to talk to us.

It was a lot like doing customer development for a product, learning everything that you can about your market and pulling the best possible product out of them.

We’d look all over the internet in places where small business owners congregated: Twitter, LinkedIn, and even reddit.

We tried to understand what people actually wanted that we could deliver in our content.

We asked them about their challenges and goals, and what they wished they had that they didn’t already have.

And then we debated, at times in very heated exchanges, how we could actually turn our learnings into a content marketing strategy.

Very early on in the process, we made a deliberate decision to not focus on customer service content.

The reality is that at the time, we couldn’t really figure out how to differentiate ourselves from the myriad customer support blogs that were already out there; that has changed today, but back then we were still green and struggled to come up with a way to create support content that would stand out.

Slowly, we began to think more and more about the other challenges that small business owners were telling us that they were having.

Cash flow challenges.

Hiring challenges.

Product challenges.

Marketing challenges.

Growth challenges.

While the answer was right in front of us, it wasn’t until we actually compiled all of these responses into a list that we realized something.

“Holy shit.

These people are going through exactly the same things as we are.”

And as far as we searched, we couldn’t find any other content publishers telling that story: the real story of a small business, struggling with the same challenges as everyone else, and sharing everything that they learned along the way.

It wouldn’t be enough to just share “lessons learned,” of course.

There was plenty of content out there for that.

But nothing told the story in a way that mirrored the real experience of most small businesses; a narrative that started with the creation of the company and followed it, step by step, win by win, fail by fail, lesson by lesson, through its journey.

If we wanted it to be truly authentic and transparent, we decided, we’d have to actually share our own numbers (which, at the time, were embarrassingly bad).

It seemed like a crazy idea.

But we didn’t have a lot of options, and the more we discussed it, the more we realized that this was the blog we wished had existed when we launched Groove. The one that could’ve helped us solve a lot of the problems that we struggled most with, long before they had become so bad as to threaten the existence of the business.

We didn’t have a whole lot to lose, and small tests weren’t working; we had to do something big, and different, and we decided to go all in with our idea.

After another month spent writing, designing and strategizing, we launched our new blog.

A Startup Journey Begins

Two months later, our blog, “A SaaS Startup’s Journey to $100,000 in Monthly Revenue,” finally launched.

Our promise was a simple one:

And right away, things were different.

Within 24 hours, the blog had 1,000 email subscribers. And of course, we wrote about that.

Within a month, we had 5,000.

People were engaging with our content.

They were commenting and sharing at a level we’d never seen before.

We finally had the early traction that we ached to see—but never got—with our earlier efforts.

And most importantly, after a little while, people begin to sign up to use Groove.

People were reading our content, and then paying us money for our product, just like those other content marketers we looked up to.

We began to see real business growth on the back of our blogging efforts.

What Content Marketing Has Meant to Our Business

In the last three years, millions of people have read our content, and that number is growing quickly, with nearly 250,000 visitors each month.

Content is the only marketing channel we invest in, and over time, it has helped us grow to nearly $500,000 in monthly revenue.

We’ve done that by helping as many people as we possibly can get through the same problems that we’ve struggled with.

We’ve built relationships with amazing entrepreneurs who have helped us grow our business.

We’ve been written about and featured in hundreds of articles, blog posts and case studies.

Everyday, people who have never used our product in their life are recommending us to their friends.

And most importantly, in a world where almost every product is a commodity and can be copied quickly and cheaply, we’ve built a brand⁠—and a level of trust⁠—that nobody can take from us.

It’s been worth millions to us so far, and it’ll be worth many, many more times that to us in the future.

Today, we’ll show you exactly how we did it.

3 Key Behind-The-Scenes Wins That Helped Us Grow Our Blog

In the early days, there were three key wins that helped us more than anything else to drive traffic and get engagement with our content.

The best part?

Anyone can do these.

1) We plagiarized our content topics

We ripped off our content topics.

Almost every single one of them.

And the people who we stole them from? They loved it.

That’s because our post topics were stolen directly from the mouths of our audience.

Everyone that signed up for the product back then would get an email that looked like this, with a simple question:

Often, we’d see the same responses over and over again.

For example, several founders wrote back and said “I’m having trouble finding a technical co-founder for my business.”

So we turned that into a post:

We also looked at what people were posting in online communities, and found challenges like these that were getting a lot of attention:

And again, we turned that into a post.

For many people, there are few things more irresistible online than seeing a post title that speaks directly to a problem that has been haunting them at the top of their mind.

And by stealing your content topics from your audience, you can engineer that irresistibility.

2) We went straight to the gatekeepers

We didn’t have much of an audience when we started.

But we knew that there were quite a few people out there that had huge audiences that overlapped our market.

If we could build relationships with those people, we thought, we’d have a shot at exposing our content to millions of people.

So that’s what we did.

But rather than send the usual “hey, I wrote a post, can you please share it?” email that so many influencers get dozens of each day, we went a different route.

First, we didn’t just send them a link to the post. We asked for permission to share an exclusive link to the post with them. This is a technique that we learned from the brilliant Derek Halpern, and it was incredibly effective: more than 85% of the people we sent the email to said yes!

Why?

Because we’re not shoving our content in their faces, as most people do. Instead, we’re giving them a very brief synopsis of the content, and asking if they’re interested in reading more. That way, when we do send them the content, we’re no longer making such a huge ask; they were the ones who asked us to share!

Second, we didn’t ask them to post our content on their social networks. Why should they? They had no idea who we were yet, and there’s no good reason for them to waste their audience’s attention on us.

Instead, we asked them for feedback on the post. It’s a much more benign ask, and more importantly, helped us start real back-and-forth conversations with people. The feedback we got from expert bloggers helped us make massive improvements to our content, and still does.

And most importantly of all, much of the feedback that we got validated our idea to write about our journey:

Before you ask anyone to help you grow your business, think about how you can help them grow theirs. Only reach out to people who you can legitimately help, and find a way to make your ask interesting for them. Remember: nobody cares about you until you give them a reason.

3) We weren’t afraid to screw up

Over the years, we’ve tested thousands of things on this blog, from the way we phrase our titles to the length and format of our content to the style of our images.

The overwhelming majority of those tests fail to improve our results.

But every now and then, we stumble on a test that pays us back ten-fold for all of the effort that we put in.

For example, a couple of years ago, we ran a simple A/B test on one of our blog posts to see if narrative-based storytelling was helping or hurting engagement.

We sent some of our visitors to a version of the post that started with a simple story that led into the “meat” of the content, while others found a post with a no-nonsense intro that jumped right to the point.

The result?

The post with the story intro had nearly 300% more people scroll all the way to the bottom, and average time on page was more than five times higher.

Remember: in terms of pure “value” to the reader, these posts had exactly the same content!

The only way we can get results like these is by not being afraid to mess up by testing things that seem different or strange.

The best thing that can happen is that you completely change your business.

The worst thing that can happen is that you learn from it.

We’ve shared a lot. And now, we’re going to share even more.

Announcing a New Course to Help You Build a Profitable Content Marketing Machine

Over the years, we’ve been asked quite a few times to teach a content marketing course.

It’s not something that we’ve done yet, mostly because we’ve been focused on other things.

But our growth has opened up a lot of new opportunities for us, and one of them is the bandwidth to create the best content marketing course on the planet.

We’re working on a premium online course that’s designed to take small businesses through the process of building a real, revenue-producing content strategy from the ground up, just like we did.

We’re packing years of wins, fails and lessons learned into six weeks of super-actionable content that—if you commit to doing the work—will result in your own working, scaleable content marketing machine.

This is going to be a paid course; we’re investing a lot of money in making it incredibly valuable, and we want people who have the means to commit to building a real content machine (because yes, content marketing does cost money).

(If you can’t afford to invest in marketing yet, don’t sign up for this course. Read the hundreds of posts on this blog, and use the content to help you get there.)

We’re building the course now, and want a small group of motivated students to help us make sure that it’s amazing.

To be in our first class, apply below:

Want to join a six-week course that will show you exactly how to build a profitable content marketing system?
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About the Author

Alex Turnbull is the CEO & Founder of Groove (simple helpdesk software for small businesses) who loves to build startups and surf.

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