Thu, 7 June 2018
The Comeback Kid
In 2013, Eric Siu bought a failing SEO agency for two dollars. Today, he’s built it into a digital marketing powerhouse that serves giants of the tech industry.
These days, Eric Siu rubs elbows with the internet marketing elite, hosting a popular podcast with online guru Neil Patel, and leading the successful agency Single Grain, which boasts clients like Uber, Amazon, and Salesforce.
But go back about six years, and Eric Siu was just a 25-year-old new hire entrusted with the monumental task of saving a tanking company.
“A month into it, the CEO pulls me aside,” Siu recalls, “and he's like, ‘Eric, you know, 48 people, their families, they're riding on your shoulders right now, and if you can't hit numbers in the next month, we're gonna have to let you go.’”
Siu had taken a job leading the marketing for education startup Treehouse. He loved the product and the team, but he had no idea the revenues were stagnant. It hadn’t hit its numbers goals in the last two years, and when Siu came onboard, the company had only five or six months of cash left in the bank.
“I was like, ‘Oh, damn. We're gonna go down, and it's me that's kind of responsible for revenue growth because it's a subscription-based product.’”
After seeing some traction on Treehouse’s YouTube account, Siu took a gamble and put all the company’s budget into YouTube advertising. This was 2012, and Facebook ads hadn’t quite taken off. And for Treehouse, which teaches video courses on coding and web design, YouTube was a natural fit. Siu began bidding on promising keywords, and the team created an inspirational video ad inspired by Apple’s slick aesthetic.
“We just started cranking out a bunch of sign-ups that way,” Siu says. “The price point wasn't that bad, and so things started to really blow up there.”
From there, Siu fired their PR agency and started working with one that was paid for performance. By the time he left Treehouse, Siu says he’d helped take the company from about 500 new subscribers a month to between 3,500 and 4,000. Now, Treehouse sees $15 million in annual revenue, according to a March 2018 Mixergy interview with CEO Ryan Carson. “So they're fantastic now,” Siu says. “They're just building on top of everything that they're doing.”
That may sound like an exceptional comeback, but it was only the beginning for Siu. From there he embarked on a career of getting into tight spots, taking risks, sometimes failing, and then making comebacks, all culminating in the success of his digital marketing agency.
Lose Money Now, Make Much More Later
It’s important to note that, while Treehouse was bringing in more customers, it wasn’t profitable in the short term. That gets to an important concept that Siu believes isn’t talked about enough, but has been an important one in his work to breathe new life into companies—the payback period.
They payback period is the length of time required to recover the cost on an investment. According to Siu, mastering the payback period can mean the difference between a quick, small ROI, and building a company with a huge payday.
For SaaS businesses, payback period tends to be long, with some companies not breaking even on an investment until 18 months out. But if they look at the long term, they know they can make back way more than that initial investment if they’re patient, understand the lifetime value (LTV) of a customer, and know their numbers well.
In episode 551of their Marketing School podcast, Siu and Patel talk about the difference between seven-figure versus nine-figure businesses. Seven-figure businesses want a return on investment right away. Nine-figure businesses, however, are willing to lose money at first because they know the lifetime value of their customers.
Siu points to ClickFunnels as a great example of how understanding payback period can pay off in the long run. The marketing funnels software company is completely bootstrapped and reached $60 million in annual recurring revenue in 2017.
“The reason they're able to do that is because they have their numbers locked down,” he explains. “They are willing to perhaps even break even or lose money on the front end, right? So let's say when they first acquire an email or even a free trial in the beginning, they're going to lose money, but they know that their funnel in the backend is so locked down that they can upsell people on, you know, their mastermind or other bundles, things like that.”
Siu gives a hypothetical example too: Let’s say it costs you $1,200 to acquire a customer who pays $100 a month. The payback period, then, is 12 months. But if you can find a way to increase that price to $300 a month, you’re looking at a payback period that takes one-third the time. With the extra cash from the monthly recurring revenue of that customer, you can reinvest in your company to grow it faster. That’s why Siu emphasizes the importance of getting your pricing right. In fact, he says if he could go back to his Treehouse days, he would increase prices.
The Single Grain Salvage
Before he even hit the one-year mark with Treehouse, Siu set his sights on the next rescue mission: a failing SEO agency where Neil Patel was a partner. Armed with the marketing chops he honed at Treehouse, Siu was up for the challenge.
“But going to a company that I thought had a lot of problems,” he says, “that I thought was a house of cards, that I thought was going to be in big trouble—that was a different challenge.”
And even though he wasn’t thrilled to return to the agency world, the gamer in Siu saw it as a fun opportunity. “I thought the challenge of saving a stagnant company was really interesting because...I just see every challenge as, like, the game, right? It's just fun to play.”
At the time, Single Grain was an SEO agency with four partners. When Siu came onboard, he says the company was doing about $1.1 million a year, relying completely on SEO services, mainly link building for clients. But then the Google Penguin update happened, decimating Single Grain’s efforts.
“The work that the company was doing was no longer having an effect,” Siu says, “so customers just started churning left and right, and that's when we had to basically make a change. And that's when I popped in.”
But Siu had his work cut out for him. This time around, it wasn’t just marketing. He was in charge of operations too, and the company needed to get some processes in place. “Basically, when I came in, everything was on fire.”
Siu had to lay some people off because their roles were no longer relevant after the Google update. He then turned the company’s efforts to content marketing as the next logical step. Upon a recommendation, he hired a head of content marketing, which ended up being a mistake.
“This person was actually really toxic and caused four of our clients to leave,” he says. After that, two employees quit and morale was low.
Even though things had gone from bad to worse, Siu hung on.
The $2 Buyout
So let’s take stock of just where Siu was at in 2013: He was hired to resuscitate a dying company, he had to lay off employees, he hired the wrong person for a key role, his employees’ morale was low, and oh yeah, he had to take out a personal loan just to make payroll.
“I didn't know what the hell I was doing,” Siu says. “And I think a lot of times when it comes to business, or just when you're starting out, honestly, I think it's okay to say you don't know what you're doing.”
And then, leadership started to cave. One of the partners admitted to Siu that he wanted out, and the other three agreed that the company was worth nothing. While this easily could’ve been the end of Single Grain, Siu had an idea.
“I said, ‘Hey, guys, I will buy the company, I’ll take on the load, I'll put it on my shoulders, I'll see what I can do with it.’”
He offered one dollar to Neil Patel and one dollar to another partner, for 10 percent of their shares in the company. The other two partners, he offered to pay with profits from the company.
“So it's a buyout, but the contingency is if the company fails, I will owe nothing. So we signed that agreement, got it done, and it was off to the races,” Siu says.
He had his work cut out for him, as the company was in the negative when Siu took over; plus, its source of leads, Neil Patel, was now gone.
Meanwhile, as everything seemed to be falling apart, Siu continued to try to grow a podcast, Growth Everywhere,spending six hours a week recording and producing the episodes. One year into it, he was getting only nine downloads a day. But again, he powered through.
“Here's the thing,” he says, “you just keep going, right?” Now Growth Everywhere gets up to 80,000 downloads a month. Plus, it turned out to be a great lead generator for Single Grain.
Slowly but surely, Single Grain began gaining leads through organic search. Siu decided to refer those leads out and worked out referral deals with agencies, getting 25 to 30 percent of the lifetime of each customer. Siu says the referral income generated about $250,000 to $300,000 a year, but he wasn’t satisfied. “The kind of competitive spirit in me is like, ‘Okay, I wonder if we can build this thing up to be a paid advertising agency.’"
So Single Grain started experimenting with taking on its own clients and noticed retention went up, and clients were happier. Traffic was coming in from the podcast, organic search, and speaking events. Today, the company has 34 people working at an office in downtown L.A. The Single Grain website has gone from 4,000 visitors a month to about 80,000, and Siu believes it will reach half a million fairly quickly.
Content Marketing Is King
Take a look at Single Grain’s website, and you’ll see big client names such as Intuit, Amazon, and Salesforce. So what’s Siu’s secret for snagging premium clients? “Every single client that we have, whether it's a Uber or Lyft or TrustPilot, or whatever it is exactly, all came from content marketing.” In fact, up until recently, Single Grain didn’t even have an outbound team.
In the past, Siu says people from his management team have challenged him on the amount spent on content marketing, asking to see the ROI. So he did a breakdown of each client to see where they came from: podcasts, organic search, relationships Siu built up with people, and speaking opportunities. “It was all basically content marketing.”
When clients come through inbound or content marketing, Siu says, the sales cycle is much shorter than with outbound. Instead of waiting months for a deal to close, the time is cut down to weeks. In addition, the lifetime value of that client is longer, because after reading your blog posts, listening to your podcasts, and watching your videos, they feel like they know you. That leads to a longer-lasting relationship.
Another note Siu adds about client acquisition is that it pays off to specialize. At first, Single Grain focused on paid advertising for SaaS and education companies. They were able to boost their prices based on their specialty and proven framework.
“If anybody's trying to sell anything,” he explains, “when people ask you how you're different, the more you can niche down, at least in the very beginning, the more you can charge premium prices and the more you can focus in and maybe grow faster.”
Most of the employees at Treehouse were remote, so when Siu took over Single Grain, shutting down the San Francisco office and transitioning to a remote company seemed like a no-brainer. But as Siu puts it, it’s one of the “massive mistakes” he made.
Without having built up a rapport with his team and without understanding the relationships they had with each other, Siu says he shouldn’t have made an executive decision of that size, especially without asking for team input. “That totally devastated the culture, in my mind,” he says. “And I think when it comes to a services-based business, like this, where it requires a lot of creativity and collaboration, it's tough to have a completely remote atmosphere.”
So Siu shifted to a hybrid method: He and the team work in the office three days a week and remotely two days a week. “I just know that when we're in the office…we can just get so much done that way.”
To maximize productivity, Siu uses these two tools:
In addition to those tools, Single Grain has one-on-ones, as well as traction meetings with each team. “That's helped make us into a well-oiled machine,” Siu says, “and everyone's much happier now.”
Eric Siu’s Tips for Hiring Great Talent
When it comes to tapping into new talent for the team, Siu’s got a process worked out for that too.
Leveling Up: What’s Next for Single Grain
Never one to slow down, Siu’s already working on his next big projects. Right now, Single Grain is working on a SaaS product called ClickFlow, which helps companies get more organic traffic by boosting organic click-through rates.
On top of that, he’s writing a book, entitled Leveling Up as a nod to his competitive gaming days. “I just see this entire thing as a game,” he says. “Just plugging things together, making systems work, making it all happen.” Once the book is ready, he hopes he can use it to educate people on marketing and maybe even recruit talent to his agency or others. Siu also plans to do more live events and add an education component to his company.
“I think it all kind of plugs in together,” he says. “And I think the ultimate goal is just to give back and invest in education, because that's what I love.”