How to Bootstrap a Startup

How to Bootstrap a Startup

I left my last startup cash-strapped.

I had no skills in the B2C software space besides CRO, managing blog designs, and paid advertising.

Yet, here I was days later attempting to scale a B2C software startup, Squibler, in the writing vertical.

The good news: we knew people would buy.

We ran Google ads to a test landing page and people purchased.

There was no product on the back-end so we refunded people.

The bad news: there wasn't enough money at the time for development or marketing to see Squibler through.

That's when years of startup experience pointed me in the right direction.

Sell Services that Align with Your Startup's Needs

I'd been writing content for seven years, but my SEO knowledge was limited to the extent of knowing you should put keywords in your title, headline, and paragraphs.

That was it.

I didn't even know how to research keyword traffic unless using Google Keyword Planner.

The funny part is I had scaled a couple of blogs to 100K visitors with knowing almost zero SEO. I relied purely on my own personal brand and the ability to produce content. 

Scaling a business like that isn't repeatable. I didn't have time to produce that type of content while still making money because I was starting over with almost no team.

My biggest concern was I didn't want to take time to learn SEO. I was cash-strapped from leaving almost all money in my previous startup for a multitude of reasons and had to focus on selling myself.

Needing work, I applied to two full-time jobs. This was after being a founder for the last couple of years. It's not the best feeling in the world to go from founder to employee, but you have to do whatever it takes to survive.

I didn't want to lie to companies and dip out three to six months in. So I limited my choices to specific job roles within very specific companies.

In the end, I only had two companies I wanted to work for. They weren't entirely receptive. I figured if it didn't work with them, I'd try the whole freelancer/founder thing again.

But I wasn't sure what services to sell.

The viral LinkedIn game died and people would no longer pay several hundred dollars for a status that I could write in thirty minutes. I didn't want to jump into PPC because I had done that and knew the game well. In short, I dislike relearning technical systems and marketing tactics I already know.

And SEO - my knowledge wasn't there yet.

To that end, I realized I didn't have much of a choice in what I'd sell if I wanted to grow my company. I'd need to find alignment and do what would help me scale my startup.

So I asked myself, "What services align with my startup's needs?"

  1. SEO and content marketing
  2. Prototyping software interfaces
  3. Writing books

Learn Fast by Cutting Through the Bullshit

I wondered how I could become an SEO expert in a matter of months. Then I thought about what Nassim Taleb would say,

"Put skin in the game."

Rather than test my SEO skills with a client, which is unethical if you don't know what you're doing, I began testing on Squibler.

The good news is I was working on sales automation for one client and ghostwriting a book for another client so I wouldn't have to worry about funds for a bit.

The ghostwriting aligned well with Squibler's purpose to help writers author books and I enjoyed it. The sales automation stuff wasn't particularly interesting as I wasn't learning anything new, but my client was a renowned marketer and conversations with him were priceless.

Fortunately, I have a strong network and I reached out to many of the seasoned SEO professionals in it including Aaron Agius, Nick Jordan, Sydney Liu, Omid Ghiam, and Albert Ai. My first cousin is also the head of marketing for an agency that primarily focuses on local SEO.

All-in-all, I built a solid network fast of experienced SEO professionals who'd acquired sites, scaled blogs to 500K+ organic traffic and more.

I didn't care to follow any blogs about SEO except for Brian Dean's work. The reason is I knew 99% of what's out there is primarily junk.

Instead, I relied on people who've done it and adopting the best software tools like Ahrefs and studying all their tutorials.

A Sign of Life

I hired a few writers for Squibler and created writing and SEO guidelines that'd constantly evolve over the next couple of months.

My thoughts went like this, "If you can become an experienced professional in Facebook Groups, Facebook and Google ads, Quora, LinkedIn, sales automation, and content, then you can do this. The track record is there so believe in yourself."

The problem with SEO is it takes time to see results.

Often, lots of time.

That's unless you have a few tools already in your kit.

When I was in college, I was thinking of getting a Ph.D. in stats. I took two extra stats classes for the heck of it because I liked it so much. The Ph.D. might've happened if I didn't get disillusioned with the school system's lack of entrepreneurship.

In following years, I'd take a Data Analysis bootcamp at General Assembly and get comfortable with Excel and SQL in one of my day jobs.

When I jumped into SEO, something clicked. It felt like a drug analyzing data and crunching numbers again. I loved every minute.

As I had mentioned earlier, I also had my network. Professionals told me if my writing guidelines and SEO frameworks needed improvement. They'd also provide guest posting and other backlinking opportunities.

On top of that, I also understood epic content and branding. The last tool in my kit is I had managed a 7-figure ghostwriting service at my previous startup. I knew how to recruit quality writers and train them.

Combining these tools gave me the speed to become exceptional in SEO - fast. In only a month, we were ranking for keywords I never thought we would for a new site. This data was impressive enough to land a couple of clients.

Do What Others Won't

As I learned more about SEO, there was a clear divide in who reigned in the industry. If you bought sites to increase the overall SEO of yours, which is often the fastest way to grow your SEO ranking - you clearly had more experience than other SEO professionals.

The bigger and more relevant the sites you bought with positive results, the bigger the sign was that you knew what you were doing,

So I put skin in the game and bought an online writing app called The Most Dangerous Writing App. As of writing, I'm in the process of buying a second writing app.

Learning all the SEO involved in doing an acquisition like this was definitely new, but very rewarding. Now, I'm comfortable acquiring websites that receive a significant amount of traffic and backlinks. Moreover, my friends consider me an experienced SEO professional. And I finally get to teach them a few things.

The other piece you can't take for granted in evaluating an SEO and content marketing professional is their ability to garner quality backlinks to rank content faster.

Sure, going through broken links and gathering all the articles written about a competitor that no longer exists can help you identify some backlinking opportunities. But there's also an opportunity cost to strategies you put in place and their results.

That's when having a strong network comes into play. It's the fastest way to get quality backlinks. Thankfully, I have a strong enough network to do just that.

The last part I'll include in this post is SEO professionals who have a background in working with developers and designers have a competitive advantage when ranking for the hardest keywords. For example, Canva has a site they use to rank for "photo editor." It leads to an almost identical version of their product and is one of their largest sources of quality leads.

The part you don't see is the SEO professional who worked with a designer and developer to essentially prototype what this would look like and the keywords it would rank for. Projects like this are much harder than simply keywording a homepage or blog post. It's using engineering through marketing to rank competitively. This is one example of many.

The Results

In only two and half months, I took Squibler from 0 organic visitors to 35,000/month, and overall, 50,000 website traffic visitors/month. That's with a product that was very underdeveloped. But now that we have the funds, traffic, and most importantly, time - we can push forward on the product side. Now, we're almost ready to deliver on our product's promise that people many months ago paid for through a Google AdWords campaign.

Niching Down

I don't want to do SEO and content for every company. I only want to do it for companies I deeply believe in. Moreover, my goal isn't to build an SEO and content agency. It's to learn and eventually build my own successful company by helping people do the same.

That's why I also taught myself how to do prototyping for software interfaces. Squibler operates on a bootstrapped budget so we don't have a full-time designer to really understand our industry and deliver on our product's interface vision.

Instead, I have a hard-working, product-minded co-founder who pointed me in the direction of prototyping software and tutorials to learn it. And I have a UX and UI consultant we work with for further direction.

With a background in working on countless WordPress websites and now Webflow (I just built my first website in the technology), prototyping felt like second nature after a 15-hour weekend sprint. Now, I can prototype new features for software interfaces, fast.

Rather than put a ton of focus on landing clients, my goal is to apply my knowledge to just a few companies whether they need sales automation, prototyping new features, PPC recommendations, SEO audits, content marketing, or CRO.

It's just me at the end of the day with many deep-T skills and very reliable freelancers I've been working with. Moreover, a number of lengthy processes everyone needs to follow to get work done.

And that's what makes it fun - I get to stay in the weeds where I can learn without sacrificing my quality of work.

You Already Know What You Want

Before I founded my last startup, I met with the person who'd be my future co-founder and now former co-founder. I told him that I had the ambition to only work on a few clients and to bootstrap a startup. Yet, he convinced me otherwise. Two years later, I'm back pursuing my original dream. It's no coincidence.

Yet, it almost didn't happen. That's why when I was ready to become an employee, I only put two companies on my list. Because none of them hired me full-time - I assume it's the past-founder badge -, I went off on my own again.

By choosing not to feel scared about runway or job security, I was enabled to push forward for what I thought would bring me the most growth in all aspects of my life. I was rewarded immediately.

As silly as it sounds, we all know what we should do to bootstrap any area of our life that we want to grow. It's whether we're willing to put our fears aside to make it happen.

Because we're human, our tendency is to overcomplicate this simple lesson. But deep down inside, we all know what the right answers are. It's just about being brave enough to pull them out.

 

 

Published in Growth, Product

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2 Responses to “How to Bootstrap a Startup”

  1. Angelo says:

    Since SEO isn't as quick and "easy" as back in the days, many people overlook it just because they want the quick "growth hack" that will change their day. Interesting to see how you switched from being the king of total viral traffic to the more consistent approach of SEO 🙂 Great learnings and love the transparency, you're a great source of inspiration. Thanks, Josh

  2. Michael says:

    Hi Josh, great post, love you writing!
    i appricate your hustle, all those events must not have been easy to handle emotionally. keep up the good work, much success with your new software! ill defently check it out.