Follow our journey, where we share everything we're doing to grow our content marketing agency, Contentellect, to $1m+ in annual revenue.
Successes, failures, tips and tricks - this case study is a no holds barred look into our company.
We started this case study in July 2021 with the aim to hit our $1 million annual revenue goal by the end of the December 2022. We hit $775,000 in 2022, not far off our goal but some way to go. We've now stopped updating this case study, but I can report that the business is still growing very well. I hope the below provides lots of insight and inspiration on growing an agency.
- Contentellect was started as a content writing service by myself and my co-founder, Marc Bromhall, in February 2018.
- Marc ran the company and I was involved as a passive investor and advisor.
- We went through a number of iterations on our proposition (see screenshots below), first targeting affiliate marketers and later settling on a monthly blog management service, primarily for SaaS companies.
- By mid 2019, we hit $10k in monthly revenue, then $15k, and by mid 2020 we reached $20k. Around 60% of this was monthly recurring revenue (MRR). Marc wrote a great post on this journey here, so I won't cover this part of our story.
- Things then stalled.
- Marc was looking to do other things, and I was looking for a new challenge. Covid had shagged my travel business, Mountain IQ, and although I was starting to scale a VA service called Tasket, I saw an opportunity to give Marc what he wanted and give myself a new challenge.
- Marc and I agreed a buy-out and in July 2021, I took over the reins at Contentellect.
- Grow revenue from $250k to a run rate of $1m+ over the next 18 months (August 2021-December 2022). In other words, by December 2022 I would like the company to be generating $80k per month with a good portion (50%+) of this as MRR.
Why Share This Information
- I have a condition called Shiny-Object-Syndrome (SOS). Basically, I get excited about a project for a few months until another (shiny) project passes my desk and I lose interest. Sharing this case study in pubic is my attempt to try stay accountable and cure my SOS.
- I've also just parted with a hefty stack of cash (by my standards at least) to buy Marc out, so without trying to be crude, I can't afford to f*ck this up. My wife will have my nuts if I do.
What I'm Not Sharing
- Profit and margin numbers
- Email templates, databases and intellectual property
Historic Revenue Numbers
- 2019: $116,724
- 2020: $186,642
- 2021: $494,637
- 2022: $775,581
Most Recent Month (December 2022)
Every month I will update these numbers.
- Last Month Revenue: $59,621
- Current MRR: $33,545
What We're Doing
- To 4x growth in under 1.5 years is not going to be easy. Here's a quarter-by-quarter breakdown of what we're doing.
Q3-2021: July, August and September 2021
Here's a summary of what we got up to in Q3-2021.
Tasket merge and integration
- I mentioned I started a VA service, called Tasket, in 2020. There were lots of synergies in team, systems and clients between Tasket and Contentellect. I therefore decided to merge these businesses. This has added around $10k MRR to Contentellect and more than doubled our team from 3 FTEs and 35 freelancers, to 8 FTEs and 80 freelancers. The bigger team means we can expand faster and deliver at scale. You can read about the Tasket merge here.
Proposition and product range expansion
- Up until July 2021, Contentellect focused exclusively on content writing services. This is a great service with lots of headroom, but to grow quickly I felt we needed a broader proposition.
- I therefore repositioned Contentellect as a content marketing agency that focuses on Content Writing and Link Building. Both services are perfectly complimentary, so the cross sell opportunity is huge, and importantly, they are both relatively easy to productise.
- I also expanded our product range into other productised services. So far I've added two complimentary writing services - eBook writing (something we've done in the past but never pushed) and product description writing services. I've also added a white-hat link building service called Haro Outreach (this is a seriously great service and is proving to be very popular), a VA Service and Social Media Marketing (both legacy products from Tasket that we might build out in the future).
- Finally, we have helped a number of agencies on a white label basis but we have never actively sold white label services. I decided this is potentially a huge opportunity for recurring business, albeit at a lower margin. We have the scale to support agencies with super high quality content, so we launched our white label content service. We already have two big agency clients and since formally launching the white label service, we have one very promising conversation in the works (potentially $6k MRR).
- The broader product range means we can sell more stuff to the same clients, and future-proof the company from emerging technologies, like AI writing software.
$40k in Bulk Content / Haro
- Bulk content was a service I had successfully launched at Tasket. The demand for large bulk content packages is amazing. I knew I needed to bring this service into Contentellect immediately. I had my developer create a new checkout that provided customers with discounted pricing based on their order size, and we launched in late July 2021.
- In the first two months we've sold $30k in bulk campaigns, including a $16,900 sale.
- In August we also moved the Haro service across from Tasket and this has proved very popular, selling $10k in its first month. Haro is the type of link building service I wish I knew about when I was building links at scale. We've managed to secure our clients links on The Washington Post, Forbes, USA Today, Shopify and Zendesk, to name a few. See our Haro case study here.
Team and system integration
- Contentellect is a people-heavy business. Our success as we grow hinges on our ability to recruit and train an amazing team and develop streamlined systems to maintain quality productised services at scale.
- To this end I spent a good part of July/August 2021 building detailed company documentation for recruitment, training and operations. This information was very fragmented so we now have a central knowledge-base hosted on Slite. We've formalised our vision and values, built a detailed strategic plan that the whole organisation knows about, and implemented a compensation policy that shares the financial success with the entire company.
- I then built detailed onboarding and training materials for new recruits and existing staff. This has been sorely missed in the past so it feels good that everyone now gets an accelerated training experience when they join the team.
- We implemented Slack for communication, which has been an absolute game changer. The team and all our freelancers work much more cohesively now. If you have more than 5 people in your team I highly recommend implementing Slack and getting off email and tools like Skype.
- Finally our Head of Ops, Megan and our Head of Business Development, Kayla, rebuilt our SOPs and operational tools. We already had fairly detailed SOPs in the company but they hadn't been updated in a while and with our new products and larger team it was important these documents reflected our processes today.
- All of the work above was painstakingly boring, but I know it will be critical to our success and I feel much better that it is now done.
Demand response marketing at scale
- Contentellect has grown, almost exclusively, through demand response marketing (specifically, cold email marketing to SaaS companies).
- I plan to ramp this up and expand the target audience to eCommerce brands for our new product description writing service, digital agencies for our new white label content service, and strategic targets like content site investors and affiliate marketers for our bulk content service.
- In the past we've used Gmass for email marketing. I've switched this to Mailshake as I find deliverability is better and it's easier to track follow-ups and automated actions.
- Marc built a huge database of SaaS prospects in 2019 and 2020 by manually scraping sites like Capterra and sourcing emails using Hunter.io. We're hitting this database again, along with a new database of agencies and eCommerce websites that I secured from BuiltWith.
- Cold email prospecting is a numbers game. Our conversion rate is around 0.1% - for every 1000 emails we send we secure 1 new client. I'm hoping to increase this conversion rate with more compelling email copy. So far, so good. We secured two new clients and have a number of warm leads.
SEO & Content Marketing - eating our own dog food
- Marc and I did some light touch content marketing for Contentellect, but to be honest we've relied almost exclusively on cold emailing for sales and growth.
- That is about to change.
- Key to our growth will be our SEO and content marketing plan. We need to go from nowhere on the internet to everywhere (where our audience is).
- Our organic traffic metrics are dismal for a company that is three years old! We do less than 500 organic monthly visitors and our Domain Rating is 17 (with just 69 Referring Domains).
Here's what we got up to on the SEO and content marketing front in Q3.
- Revamped our site architecture to target high-intent "service" keywords. Our homepage used to target Content Writing Services, but it never ranked. As we're now a multi-service agency, I set-up highly optimised service pages targeting the following keywords: Content Writing Services (here), Link Building Services (here), Haro Link Building (here), eBook Writing Services (here), Product Description Writing Services (here), Virtual Assistant Services (here) and Social Media Marketing (here). Our homepage is now targeting Content Marketing Agency. The homepage, service pages and case study pages (like the one you're reading), have been carefully interlinked to carry link juice around the site.
- Created a detailed content plan for our blog. Over the next 3 months (Q4) we will produce around 60 high-quality blog articles that reinforce and interlink with our service pages. Part of this process will include updating the 29 existing posts on our site that aren't very good.
- Created business citations across 20+ sites like Good Firms and Clutch, and setup a review profile on Trustpilot and G2 - we plan to use the former as our central repository for customer reviews. We secured 3 reviews so far and will scale this to 20+ by the end of Q4.
- Updated our marketplace listing on Legiit. This platform has generated nearly $20k in direct sales and many $10,000s in referral sales when customers discover us on Legiit and then start working directly with us. We've never optimised for it though, so we updated our listings and have already seen a good uptick in business. We also listed on Fiverr.
Q4-2021: October, November, December 2021
- We billed $159k in Q4, including just over $72k in October - our biggest month to date. To be honest, this level of business nearly broke us. It exposed some of the key weaknesses in the business that we will need to plug if we're to achieve our $1m revenue goal. The team however were awesome, and really pulled together to get the work done!
- Broke $30k in MRR. This is a big milestone for us, but we have a long way to go.
- Recruitment for writers and account managers went into overdrive. We had Sandy and Tahiya join our account management team and recruited another 16 writers.
- We held our first team get-together in Cape Town. Although not everyone could join, the event went off really well, and we managed to get some cool team pictures too with our new Contentellect t-shirts. Hopefully I can join next year's meet-up in Sunny SA!
- Introduced a number of team / culture initiatives including birthday and work anniversary gifts, a monthly "Learning Hour" where we come together to learn about digital marketing techniques, ideas and trends, and formalised our 6-monthly team reviews. The culture that is emerging at Contentellect is really great, and something I hope we can nurture over time. As the Slack screenshot below shows, working at Contentellect does really feel like a family. We're doing our best to make Contentellect a fun, welcoming and caring place to work.
- Launched a HARO campaign for Contentellect. Unfortunately this quickly fizzled out as we got way too busy with client work. We've now restarted this so will be interesting to see the results at the end for Q1 2022.
- Published 35 articles to our website, many of which have started ranking, and updated many old articles. Our best blogging service article has done really well and has already generated at least one customer. Traffic is on a solid uptrend and we've increased referring domains from 69 to 223, organic keywords from 123 to 792, and DR from 17 to 22.
- We built and launched a keyword grouping software called KeyClusters. Up until November we were using ClusterAI for topical keyword clustering, but this tool was very unreliable and buggy, not to mention super expensive. As my developer and I already own SerpsBot, it was relatively easy to create KeyClusters. We ran a soft launch on Facebook and things have taken off from there. We now have 150 users, quite a few paying customers and lots of great feedback. I'm still not sure how we will scale KeyClusters, but ultimately it is a great internal tool for the team at Contentellect
Q1-2022: January, February, March 2022
- After a couple of trial runs we secured a major client onto our link building service. They plan to spend around $6000 a month. In January they spent $6000, February $8000 and March $16,000 - looking good! In addition to this client, we secured three more clients for our link service, two of which has signed up to a monthly plan.
- Megan and Kayla have now taken on their new operational roles as Head of Content and Head of Outreach, respectively.
- We had the busiest quarter to date for our HARO service, with 18 active campaigns on the go at one time. We are now averaging 100 HARO pitches a day and have secured some killer links for clients, including Yahoo, MSN, The New York Times, Forbes and The Washington Post. It's a challenging service to deliver but I feel we now have a streamlined service and solid team.
- Abie joined as an account manager.
- I spent two weeks in Cape Town in February, and got the opportunity to meet the team in-person for the first time.
- We added a series of 11 x link building articles to our site that are already starting to rank, see here. We also updated quite a few old blog articles - starting to feel like we have a very solid blog.
- Our PerkUp keyword clustering case study went gangbusters on Facebook, and generated a tonne of interest in our keyword grouping tool, KeyClusters. We went from about 100 users to over 350 users and generated over $2000 in sales. Maybe I should take this software tool a little more seriously...
- We implemented a new client dashboard and checkout using SPP. We are now able to seamlessly adapt and refine our services, pricing and deliverables on the fly, and clients get a much slicker interface with a ticketing system for support. The dashboard reporting is epic.
- We implemented an affiliate program. Clients and affiliates can now earn 20% commission on all referred orders.
- We had our biggest month to date in March: $80,818 in revenue.
Q2-2022: April, May, June 2022
- We consolidated our offering under two main verticals - copywriting and outreach. These are the two SEO building blocks that marketing teams and agencies need, and with our strong positioning towards the white-label market I think we're poised for continued growth.
- Under the outreach vertical we launched a new As Seen On ABC CBS NBC Fox service to compliment our popular Haro outreach service. We have an outsourced supplier for this service and were very impressed with the links they got us on our test campaign - here are a few from Fox and NBC affiliates, as well as Benzinga and Digital Journal.
- Tamsyn joined as an account manager and we recruited Kayla D (yes, another Kayla) as an outreach manager. This brings our team size up to 13 full time, and 105 freelancers!
- I was interviewed on the SPP podcast (see below).
- We published only a few blog posts this quarter - many less than I hoped - but traffic is starting to pick up and we've generated quite a lot of business from our article reviews of competitors.
Q3-2022: July, August, September 2022
- Kayla D and Philip joined the team as outreach managers.
- Our mid-year team get together went off really well, with putt-putt golf and dinner at the Mozambik.
- We published another 14 blog posts. Our organic traffic and SEO performance is really picking up steam now and we're generating solid inbound from it - just shows, blogging works.
- Our As Seen On service has really started to take off. Since launching in July we've sold 31 campaigns so far, and generated over $10k of business. It's a volume game, so we still have a long way to go but the service looks very promising so far.
- We engaged Josh from Faulks Digital to create short video run-throughs for each of our services. I think he did a great job and I'm confident the videos will increase conversions and limit the number of sales calls I need to do. Here's one that explains our PAYG blog service.
- We turned over $182,000 for the quarter, averaging just over $60k a month. We're not quite at our $80k a month run-rate, but the business feels very solid from a sales, marketing and operations perspective.
Q4-2022: October, November, December 2022
- Kayla organised our first virtual event - a virtual escape room - with the company Confetti. It was the first time I had ever done something like this and it went off a treat. Everyone seemed to have loads of fun. I highly recommend it.