In 2017 I was stuck. I had been working on this site full time, and while it was fun and meaningful, it wasn’t lucrative. I was making a few grand a month, enough to comfortably live as a digital nomad, but not enough to live the life I wanted in San Francisco or New York.
It was a challenge I’d have to solve before I burned down the rest of my savings. Then someone figured it out for me.
My friend Justin had started Kettle & Fire with his brother the year before. They were growing quickly, and he saw an opportunity to take over all of the “bone broth” and “gut health” related keywords on Google. He knew I had seen some success doing SEO work for my site, so he reached out to ask if I could help look into it and potentially set up the program.
I had no idea what that service was worth, so I said $4,000 a month for three months. He said yes, and I had my first client. Within the next couple weeks two more companies, Patreon and Spire, became clients two and three, and I upped my price to $8,000.
By May those projects were done and I had made more in three months than I had in the last year. But there were problems: Doing everything myself didn’t scale. I didn’t like having to be in another company’s Slack or office. And in the Patreon and Spire case, I didn’t do a great job of setting them up to continue making progress after my project was finished.
So I took a break. Cosette and I took a long trip that would solidify our relationship, and while on the trip I wrote up an article on the process I’d been developing for helping sites with their SEO.
That article started generating more inbound from people who wanted SEO help, so while on an entrepreneurship focused retreat that September, the question I workshoped with the group was:
“Should I Start a Marketing Agency?”
The advice from the group was a resounding “no.” Agencies are miserable, they don’t scale, margins are razor thin, and so on. I wasn’t completely demotivated, but I wasn’t particularly encouraged either.
I knew I wanted to start some kind of company, and I knew I needed to make more money, I just wasn’t sure if the agency was what I should commit to.
In another conversation with Justin, he shared some advice he’d gotten around a year earlier: just pick something. Being intentional is good, but not if it’s at the expense of ever taking action. And Julian Shapiro, who was running Bell Curve, reassured me that if you did it right, none of those downsides of running an agency were necessarily true. Benji and Devesh from Grow & Convert said the same.
That was the push I’d needed. I came out of the shower towards the end of September and said to Cosette: “I think I’m gonna call it Growth Machine.”
The consulting model hadn’t worked, so I decided to go the agency route. I wanted clients to be able to plug us into their current marketing team and have us handle all the SEO-focused content production behind the scenes.
I reached out to a couple freelancers I’d worked with before who could help on the strategy, content, and promotion side, and talked to a couple companies run by friends who had expressed interest in getting some SEO help.
Everyone was a freelancer, including myself, since I wasn’t sure how to balance the risk of putting someone on salary with the highly volatile nature of having a few big client projects. Salaries were scary.
That worked out well for the first couple months. We had two clients, and I met a third at a dinner party. As the third client was ramping up I had a conversation with Zach Obront, co-founder of Scribe, who said the best advice he’d gotten was to start hiring someone to lead the projects before you need them. If you wait to hire them until you need them, it’ll be too late.
He agreed with my fear of starting to take on salaries, but also said that if you find the right person they’ll pay for themselves quickly and you’ll be able to take the company to a whole new level. As I mentioned in my Personal Leverage article, this has consistently been some of the best, and hardest to follow, advice I’ve gotten.
But I listened and put up our first hiring page. As Zach had accurately predicted, over the next month we suddenly got three more clients and I was completely overworked. I should have put it up sooner.
Sometimes the universe conspires to help you in strange ways, and one of those ways was connecting me and Nora.
I had no idea how to hire for our first role, so in the job listing on WeWorkRemotely I focused heavily on proof of experience. I knew whoever I hired would have to help run the SEO strategy for half a dozen clients, so I wanted someone who already knew how to do it.
Nora was a Booth MBA who had left a corporate consulting job the year before, and in her free time, started a gluten free baking blog which she’d grown to over 150,000 monthly organic visitors. She knew how to work with clients, knew how to grow a blog, and for reasons I still don’t totally understand was willing to join a brand new company with almost no social presence or even proof we existed.
But I couldn’t afford her. So I made her a deal: start at a lower salary and a lower client load, I’ll work hard on getting more clients, and for each new client we add we’ll increase your salary till it hits where we both want it to be.
She said yes, and we started working together. Now she’s our new CEO, but more on that later.
2018 turned out to be an incredible year for hiring. Nora joined in January, Heather, who now runs our whole content team joined in March, and Erika, who works on all our internal projects and some client writing, joined in September. All three have been absolutely integral to Growth Machine’s success and I consider them lifelong friends.
As we got closer to the end of the year we started getting more clients than we could handle. Nora was running the client strategy, Heather was running editorial, and Erika was working on projects like The Writer Finder. If we were going to take on any more clients than we had, we would need to start hiring more PMs, Editors, and probably other roles we hadn’t thought of.
For a while, we didn’t want to grow. We were making a great profit each month, work wasn’t too stressful, and life was good.
But staying in the same place can get dull. So towards the end of the year, we decided to see how much we could grow this thing.
Fortunately for us, getting more clients wasn’t the biggest challenge. It was how to scale the work we were doing.
2019 was kind of a mess. We made some great hires who I can’t imagine the company without today, but I also made some bad ones, and I feel bad that I put some people into roles where they couldn’t thrive. One of the most important things I learned that year was how intentional you have to be about hiring, and how important it is not to rush it.
I also learned a lot about client selection. I got greedy and took on a super aggressive project: 100-150 articles a month for $50,000 a month. The client ended up being an absolute nightmare, one of the worst we’d ever had, and canceled a 6 month project randomly without notice or warning, and even tried to claw back some of what they’d already paid us.
Not only did we lose around a quarter of our monthly revenue in one night, but we’d hired people to help cover that work who we now had no work for. It was a mess all around.
Despite all that, we finished the year doing just shy of 3 million in revenue, a significant accomplishment for such a young agency. And we’d grown the team to 10 people, successfully expanding our capacity for project management, editorial, and other client work from the year before.
The problem was I was still completely essential. In the lexicon of The E-Myth Revisited, I had a job, but I hadn’t built a business:
“If your business depends on you, you don’t own a business— you have a job. And it’s the worst job in the world because you’re working for a lunatic!”
Coming into 2020, I had a goal: turn Growth Machine into an actual business that could grow and thrive without me.
That meant getting very clear about where I was necessary, then systematically removing myself from those processes. I added this goal to my Roam database around January:
I sat down and wrote out all the things I did, then prioritized how I could remove myself from them.
Some were easy, like invoicing. There wasn’t any good reason I needed to be doing it, so training Morgan on our team to take it over was a quick win.
Then there were the harder things: Sales, Marketing, and Finance. I was the head of sales, the CMO, and the CFO, on top of whatever a CEO does. All that would need to change.
I started with sales. My first two sales hires hadn’t worked out, but I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Sam Hill by Bryan Harris. Sam is a rockstar sales process and hiring coach who worked with me to figure out the whole Growth Machine sales process and then hire someone to run it.
Hiring Sam remains some of the best money I’ve ever spent. He helped me better define the sales process, set up the whole hiring process, then find our now head of sales Nathan who in under a year is already doing better than I ever was.
As Nathan was getting up to speed in February, I started to look for someone to take over marketing. Then COVID hit. We lost half of our clients in the span of three weeks, had to radically reorganize what a number of people were working on, and it wasn’t even clear for a bit that the business would survive.
I learned that times of crisis can really show who’s in for the right reasons and who you can rely on. Almost everyone on the team rallied to find ways to cut costs and get us as close to profitable as possible. One person chose to quit instead, which was stressful at the time but I’m pretty grateful for it now.
While figuring out what to do to get us out of the mess, I wrote an article on “Surviving and Thriving Amid COVID.” That was another strange example of creating a self fulfilling prophecy, albeit with a hefty chunk of survivorship bias and narrative fallacy. Two months later we’d regained all the business we’d lost, and four months later we had our highest revenue month ever.
With the business reaching new heights, I started working on my goal from the beginning of the year again. In June, Amanda joined our team to take over marketing. And after a couple months, she was doing a better job with it than I had been too.
I was getting close to finishing the list, which led to an important question: what would happen when I completed it?
Once you set up your business to thrive without you, you have a few options:
I knew I wanted to shift my time back to writing and exploring other interests, so the first option was out.
The second option would certainly be the most financially lucrative, but I didn’t want to do that either. The best part about Growth Machine since January 2018 has been the team, and knowing we’re creating a good job with unusually good benefits for now over 15 people. I knew that if I sold it, whoever purchased it would start by laying off any employees redundant with their internal team, and that didn’t feel right to me.
Besides, we already had the perfect person to take over running the company: Nora.
I’d first mentioned the idea of Nora taking over to her in April, but we both knew we needed to get everything back under control amid COVID, and I needed to make sure the Sales, Marketing, and Finance areas of the business wouldn’t create any additional burden for her.
Nora had started as a project manager, but in June 2019, I’d promoted her to Chief Operating Officer since she was effectively running everything in the company. I was focused on growth and making sure we stayed profitable, she was focused on running all our client projects and building out the team that ran them.
She had turned her original job as a project manager into jobs for over a dozen people, spanning editorial, strategy, operations, and more, not to mention freelance jobs for dozens of great writers.
And now that sales, marketing, and finance are being run by people much better at them than me, she is in a perfect position to take over running the company. I may have gotten Growth Machine started, but she’s a big part of why it’s a successful business today.
We’ve joked for years about “who really runs this thing,” and as of yesterday, she’s officially in charge.
I’m definitely sad to be moving on, but I’m also extremely excited for Nora and what she does with Growth Machine from here.
The business is in much more capable hands with her running it, and I’m confident it can grow into an even more successful marketing agency over the coming years.
I’m not sure what I’m going to work on next.
I’ll help Nora as she needs me on the strategy and planning side, but that will only be a day or so each month. She doesn’t need me on the client work side: she’s already made that much better than the process I originally had.
I have a weekly “content production” cadence I’d like to keep up across this blog, the Medley, Almanack, and YouTube, but I’m deliberately keeping that commitment low to give myself time to explore other things.
It feels great to know I’ve built Growth Machine to where it can continue to thrive without me, and I’m confident that with Nora leading it, it’s going to be in even better hands than it was before.
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