"If you were to start over again today, what would you do differently?"
This question was asked of me recently on a podcast, and I found it ironic because at the moment I am starting a new business.
After 2 years of building up Lead Cookie and scaling myself to working 5 hours per week, I have decided to build a second venture.
Content Allies - We help consulting firms become thought leaders with content marketing.
Currently, at the time of writing this, we have 22 customers signed on so we aren't huge (yet), but we are learning a lot along the way.
In this article, I am sharing lessons learned from the early days and what I am doing differently on my second productized service business.
If there is no competition, there is probably no market
Content Allies has seen many iterations since its inception in November of 2018. In fact, I literally launched it up and then shut the whole thing down.
At the time, I was trying to focus on virtual assistant services to content marketers. And I was trying to do this on a super scaleable and subscription-focused basis.
While there are other VA services out there, no one was doing specifically what I was doing and I thought that was a good thing.
The hard reality is that if there is zero competition to your idea, then there is probably not a market for it.
Sure, there are those who will build the next Uber or Facebook... but those are few and far between.
For most of us, we are not trying to change the world. We are just trying to build a stable business that gives us freedom and prosperity in life.
So if you can't find a competitor, consider that you are chasing a bad idea.
Now with that being said, "competition" can take many different forms.
For example, in doing my research for the latest iteration of Content Allies, I found lots of companies that offered Linkedin content as one small part of a larger breadth of offerings, but no one was really owning the space.
I also found countless agencies offering email newsletters as one offer amidst their entire portfolio of services.
These small "services" that larger agencies bundle into their full packages are great places to look for a productized service idea.
If your model is flawed today, it will still be flawed 2 years from now
About a month ago, I stumbled across my original planning document for Lead Cookie. To my surprise, I ended up building almost exactly what I planned out at the start. A few things changed but nothing drastic.
And on that initial planning document, I wrote "Weakness: The business is built on LinkedIn which could disrupt our approach or force us to change operations drastically."
2 years ago I wrote that... and it is still true today.
This is a point I bring up because, at the time of writing that document, I thought I would just figure it out down the line. But that isn't really how it works out.
In fact, it is much harder to change things down the line than at the start.
When you make a change with 60 customers, you have to roll that change out to all 60 of those, which can be hell- long and painstaking.
When you only have 10 customers, you can roll out changes quickly, test things out, and then kill or scale things as needed.
I bring this point up because if you have something that is wrong with your business model, fix it early. Don't assume you will work it out down the line.
Which leads me to my next point...
Think through your risks and build a robust model
When I relaunched Content Allies in late December, I launched it as "Done-for-you Linkedin Content".
This was a hit and we signed over 20 customers within the first two weeks.
While this was all great and exciting, eventually I stopped and said, "Wait a second... I'm doing it again! We are putting all our eggs in one basket of a platform that could change and disrupt us."
For a couple of months, I just ignored this problem while we onboarded those first customers.
But eventually I looked around and realize Shit, I need to fix this now before we scale up any bigger.
So here is a simple lesson to think about with your business... Is there any platform, vendor, law, or external force that could disrupt my business overnight? Or will one exist in the next 3-5 years?
Thinking through the risks of your business model on the front end will do wonders to help you begin to change and build a more robust model.
Here is how I ended up deciding to fix Content Allies-
Linkedin as a sole social platform alone is too risky.
So instead of focusing on the platform for our offer, I decided to niche down to a wider set of productized offers for a niche customer.
So for Content Allies, we ended up deciding to make our offer focused specifically around productizing a series of content marketing offers focused specifically on B2B consultants.
Today, Content Allies offers:
Done-for-you blog writing
Done-for-you email newsletters
Done-for-you Linkedin content
Repurpose Linkedin content for Facebook
Repurpose Linkedin content for Twitter
By expanding to our service line beyond a singular platform, our business is much more robust and less likely to be disrupted. No singular external factor can make any major impact on our business.
Your service doesn't have to be in your area of expertise
When I started Lead Cookie, I started an outbound company because that was my area of expertise.
This second time around, I've chosen to take a different path. Instead of trying to focus on my specific expertise, I am focusing on the specific problems and pain points of the market.
Through running many outbound campaigns, I found a recurring trend that content marketing agencies performed extremely well with Lead Cookie.
So I knew that these services were in need and I wanted to get into the content space. And while I am a blogger myself, I have honestly never done anything more than ghostwriting a few articles through Upwork years ago.
That didn't stop me though, because I know that anything I want to learn about content can be learned, and I can hire experts who are better at this than I am.
So I hired Jess Brown, who is our lead content strategist. She's a much better content strategist and writer than I ever could be.
But Jess doesn't know how to build and run a company. So I hired her, brought her into a role that lets her use her unique strengths, and then I am building a company that utilizes her strengths and expertise.
It's easy to only look at the skills in front of you as an area of focus for your business, but sometimes you can expand out of the work that you personally could do.
Hire from day 1 so it can run without you
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the #1 mistake founders make when building their productized service and this point is worth repeating.
Hire someone else to do the work from day 1!
All of my failed attempts to productize before Lead Cookie came from me not realizing how much inherent expertise and knowledge I brought to the table.
My thoughts were, "I should run the first 4 accounts. Then we can hire others to help."
But what happens is that those first 4 accounts are really hiring you as a freelance consultant... and then once you get stretched too thin or you bring in other people, quality goes down and they leave...
Because they weren't buying your service... they were buying you.
So with Content Allies, I hired a lead content strategist (Jess) from day one literally before I even sold the first deal.
Then I just started selling things and got them started with her.
I ran the first few onboarding calls with Jess shadowing, but Jess did the work on the back-end.
In total, I have only created content for one single account for Content Allies so far... and I actually did a rather shitty job. We ended up hiring a writer to replace me after the first batch and the new writer produced at a quality 10x the level of what I had done.
This is another benefit of starting a service that is not in your personal area of expertise. It forces you to outsource because you literally can't do the work!
My adviser, Alex McClafferty, was co-Founder in WP Curve, which did Wordpress support and maintenance. Neither he, nor his business partner, were developers! They had to fix problems systematically and by having other people solve problems.
Hire from day one and keep your hands out of the work!
Build something people love while you are still small
Seth Godin has a quote somewhere that goes along the lines of:
"Imagine if instead of trying to build something to serve thousands of people... imagine you just focus on building something that 10 people love so much that they can't imagine living without you.
Then they are going to go tell their friends, and they are going to stick with you and never leave."
My adviser, Alex McClafferty, put this another way for me:
"I would take 10 customers who stick around for 12 months any day over 120 customers who churn after one month..."
The point of both of these statements is to get you to think about how you can make your service something that people can't live without, something that creates massive retention, loyalty, and connection with your customers.
At Lead Cookie, I failed to do this. We churn off ~20% of our customer base every month. The nature of our service as an outbound lead gen channel means that we will hit saturation, or people will move to other marketing tactics over time.
And in the early days of Lead Cookie, I didn't see this problem or understand it, so I scaled up without fixing the model. I was focused on sales, sales, sales early at the start of Lead Cookie instead of just focusing on building the best business that I possibly could.
On the flip side, with Content Allies, I am taking it slow. We signed an initial batch of 20 customers, and since then I have not done any additional marketing.
For 3 months, we have just laid low with these 20 customers while we focus on refining our processes and improving our customer experience.
I'm regularly hopping on phone calls with customers to learn and understand more of their pain points and needs, and we are evolving the service as a result of this.
We are so small and nimble that I can easily roll out new service lines or features with little to no headache and the team can spin those up.
With Content Allies, I am aiming to build the business model and the customer success experience to be so sticky that our customers never want to leave us.
At Lead Cookie, I was obsessed with growth. Growing fast and bragging about big numbers was a nice touch to the ego, but it wasn't the greatest for work-life balance or for building a calm company.
With Content Allies, I am taking it slow. I'm not rushing to get things done or build this up at some record pace.
Instead, I'm working 20 hours per week and giving my team projects and tasks to tackle while I coach and guide them.
Sure, I could go hustle 60+ hours per week and build out all of these new systems and processes super fast...
but what's the point?
For me, entrepreneurship is about freedom, not millions in the bank.
So if I can steadily grow my net worth while having the freedom and balance in life, then that is worth more than faster cash in the bank while living a stressed life.
Distribution vs Marketing
Throughout my entrepreneur career, I've heard other entrepreneurs talk about this idea of "distribution" when launching a new company.
They say, "If you have a good offer, good operations, and distribution, then you can build a massive company very quickly."
I never quite understood this until recently with Content Allies.
While I've been taking it slow and just working operations, I've stumbled into a few conversations that could turn into massive opportunities.
One is with a large entrepreneurial association that wants to white label our service to their 7,300 members.
The other is a software tool that wants to offer done-for-you services to their 12,000 customers.
Either of these deals could literally turn Content Allies into a multi-million dollar business in a matter of months.
They literally could make all sales and marketing irrelevant as we just struggle to keep up with the demands of these partnerships.
As these opportunities landed on my plate, I began to understand what entrepreneurs meant by "distribution".
As an entrepreneur, if you can put together a team and an offer that can fulfill, then all you need is the ability to distribute that offer to a large number of customers in a trusted way to explode that business overnight.
Let's see how round 2 goes
I put this post together to share where my head is at and what I am thinking as I enter into the early stages of this second productized service that I am building.
But to be blunt, I'm no millionaire yet, and I haven't scaled this company to some massive success.
So everything in this article stands to be proven wrong...
But my gut tells me I am moving in the right direction with this new venture, and so I am just putting this out there for the world to learn and see my work in progress.