*PS. Below you will find an auto-generated transcript of this episode.
Arek Dvornechuck: Hey, what's up, Branding Experts? Arek here and welcome to On Branding Podcast. And today, my guest is AJ Silber, who is a serial entrepreneur with passion for digital marketing and organic lead generation.
Hello, AJ. Thanks for joining us today.
AJ Silber: Hey, thanks for having me today.
Arek Dvornechuck: Thank you so much. So you specialize in SEO and lead generation and you grew your previous company. To a multi million dollar exit, which was an SEO agency, one of the leading SEO agencies. And now you run this company called Small Business Bonfire, where you have basically entrepreneurs to basically do what you've done with your previous company, right? To start and scale their business through, SEO and other techniques and tools like, free resources, actionable articles, courses and stuff like that. So can you just talk to us about your story? How are you able to grow your company so fast? It took you only four years, right?
What kind of tools and techniques do you use to be able to do that?
AJ Silber: Yeah. So I'll actually start with a story which will just be a small piece of it. But essentially I was really into SaaS, software as a service. That was where I started. I had two failed, albeit, SaaS companies in college. Just a little insight, equity based trades rarely ever work. Especially when you're building out software, in my experience. I was always the business side of the equation, I always did the business marketing side, boots on the ground stuff. And what ended up happening is, I actually got a local brewery as a client while I was doing the side hustle kind of SaaS piece. And I was doing social media for those guys. And I think when I started, it was just AJ Silber Freelancer. And then that SaaS company ended up falling through. My co founder ended up going to work for PayPal. And then after that, again, I'm now doing this marketing freelancing. I said, okay it's better to rather than try to start another SaaS thing, I had something that was already working for me, right? So what I ended up doing is, I like to say I like to whole ass one thing rather than half ass two things is traditionally what I say, to quote Ron Swanson. So what I ended up doing is I really took that. I rebranded it to “The Launch” is what it was called. We were primarily doing social media marketing and kind of marketing consulting. And then I met a mastermind group in Minneapolis that taught me, took me under their wing and kind of taught me how to do SEO the right way. I learned from those guys, trial and error work. I then rebranded The Launch to the Gorilla Agency and then over the course of four years, I think the biggest thing and why we were able to grow so quickly, it was really two things.
First and foremost, I am a firm believer in search engine optimization in terms of lead flow. I think it works incredibly well, especially if you're targeting the right keywords or the bottom of funnel stuff that's really gonna work. And so we really drank our own Kool Aid in that regard. So over the course of a couple of years, we ranked the website we got on the first page of Google. We ended up getting a ton of lead flow from that. And then my background, I would say that I'm like, 40 percent marketer, 60 percent sales is the mix that I would say that I am. So really like when we were getting all this lead flow, I was able to close a lot of that business.
And I really did sales all the way up until the exit. For the most part, I was the number one salesman. The lead flow was of such high quality. We weren't dealing with a lot of junk leads, so we never really had a need for a full built out like sales department. And the service offering was a high ticket, high dollar amount. I mean, we weren't charging like 500 bucks a month to do SEO, we were charging five, six, 7, 000.
So it was really that coupled with, I would say standard operating procedures internally. That's something that I learned, throughout my 10 years in business, we built out stops and ran our company based on standard operating procedures. So we were really delivering the same product every single time and kind of a scientific methodology way. So those two things I would say, like the consistent lead flow via SEO and then having again a really great product that we offered our customers, I think was the kind of two, main ingredients to our growth,
Arek Dvornechuck: Yeah, it definitely does. So basically you went from doing social media marketing, for your previous company, right? And then you went on, full in on SEO to generate leads. And that helped you actually scale your own SEO agency. But also you offer those same services to your clients, right?
And then, of course, these are high ticket clients, it's a few thousand dollars. So you had to learn how to sell those packages as well, those services.
SEO obviously worked in the past. Do you think SEO still works currently? We have this influx of AI generators. ChatGPT and stuff like that. Anyone can do that. Anyone can write articles. It is not really, like in the past, you had to do so much research what do you think? What's the future of SEO? Does it still work? Would you still recommend doing that? Or is it evolving into something different?
AJ Silber: Yeah, I'm really glad that you asked that question. I actually have written a couple of blog posts on Small Business Bonfire about this, and this has actually been the topic of several of my newsletters. I think SEO is becoming a bit more challenging and has been over the last six months or a year because you're right.
Like people who don't really know much about SEO can produce a thousand pieces of content a month and rank that content. I think the biggest difference that we're gonna see into the future that we're already seeing a little bit in the SEO landscape, at least for me personally, is really, focusing heavily on good SEO, and I think that includes EEAT, so E E A T, so Experience, Expertise, Authority, and Trust. So it's incorporating that into the content, right? So if you look at, again, all of my articles that I read at a small business bonfire, from my personal perspective in business. So it's doing things right like podcasting, I think is like a huge piece of it, like getting your name out there is like an experienced expert. So that's part of the reason, to be transparent, like why I'm even doing a lot of these podcasts, obviously I'm helping the entrepreneurial community with some of the stuff that I've learned. But the big thing, for me personally, I guess the give and take of it is really focusing on kind of that E. E. A. T. And having a really good strategy helps so like having an excellent SEO strategy, writing content based on that strategy and kind of from your own perspective.
The other piece that I think is gonna be really huge in the future that we've actually incorporated. So, little sidebar, I sold the business to Phil Singleton, who owned a SEO agency outta Kansas, Kansas City Web design and SEO. He's on the precipice, man. He's like the knife edge of SEO he really is, that's what he lives and breathes. And I think one of the things that I learned from him is really focusing heavily on video content. So having video on a webpage, still helps, rank brain dwell time, all that good stuff, putting a name with a face. But if you can take a video and again, give your expert kind of experienced opinion on subject matter and then have, call it, AI, write that content based on, again, your experience, your expertise as opposed to just hitting compose. I think it is also really huge. So again I think Phil pioneered, in my opinion the video piece of that too. And I think that's going to play a bigger piece in SEO moving forward. So it's not just a content mill and publishing a bunch of content. It's really who's writing the content and ranking people over just pieces of content, if that makes sense.
Arek Dvornechuck: Yeah, I think you're totally right. I'm doing SEO myself, for my business and it's been working for me for years. But definitely you're right, so it's about good SEO, and now Google is adjusting, they're changing the way they operate. So they're gonna try and optimize their search engine because if people can generate so much content, as you mentioned, just by hitting compose, It's just going to be trash everywhere, right? So it needs to be more personalized. I think you're right in this context, it's going to move towards video.
You need to do video. Also, you need to do a podcast. It's good to have that. And it's good to have some more, personalized pieces, right? So if you write an article, if you want to use AI generators, feed it with a lot of information, right? Or, let's say your podcast transcription in order to write an article and things like that. So maybe repurposing content rather than just generating more generic content that anyone can do.
AJ Silber: Just to even expand on that even further, I use AI generated content every single day. I love it. I personally use Jasper. I think Jasper is fantastic in terms of AI content. What I'll do is I really heavily brief out an article and again, I'm writing this from my own kind of experience and expertise, right? So what I'll do is I'll heavily brief out an article and then my team will actually go in and write a lot of the content and then I'll circle back and again, add in more of that kind of experience and expertise, depending on the subject matter so like having that good brief makes a huge difference. And I think, you know, not to beat at a horse here. One of the points that you made is, I think Google is going to get smarter. I would say this exact same thing already happened in SEO. It just happened with links, right? Link building. So like link building circa 2008, I mean you could get a bunch of crappy links to your website and your website would rank. Years later Google said like those crappy links don't actually help in SEO and I think that exact same thing's gonna happen in content in the future. Google's gonna get smart enough to be like this is a content mill. I'm not ranking the rest of this website if that makes sense.
Arek Dvornechuck: Yeah, definitely. I can see that happening. And I can see in the search console, there was a decline, now I'm going up. But, yeah, I think they are just readjusting, and they're getting smarter, right? Because obviously people are going to do that. Yeah, that's a good tip for you guys who are interested in doing that SEO still works. It definitely is a great way to generate leads as you mentioned. Still, it's good if you just combine SEO with video marketing, YouTube, having a podcast and generating quality links if you have a podcast, right?
And you can get backlinks from other podcasts. So these are quality backlinks, right? You also help businesses structure their business for exit, right? You help them generate leads through SEO and email marketing and all those things, but also, how to structure your business so you can smoothly think about exiting in a few years, right? And you can navigate that multimillion dollar exit.
What are some of the lessons that you've learned yourself?
AJ Silber: Yeah. Thank you so much for asking that question 'cause I think there were a lot of them. Some of the stuff I think that comes to mind that I did right and there were a few things that I think I could have done differently, throughout the process. I think that what I did right is that when somebody's gonna come in and buy a business, especially in that kind of lower seven figures or mid seven figures mark, what they're really looking for is they're looking for a turnkey operation.
If I was going to go, cause I'm on the hunt to really acquire some kind of businesses at this stage. And I'm not looking for a business that hinders on the founder. You know what I mean? If they're heavily involved in the day to day operations. Sayonara, I don't really want that business. So I think the biggest thing that I did specifically was that I removed myself out of the day to day operations very early on. Granted, I was still heavily involved on the sales side of things, but that just required like some training and that was really my last piece where I was actually involved in kind of the operations of the business otherwise, I worked on the business as opposed to in the business when I would sell somebody, on our services, I would hand it off to the team and they would do the rest and there was points when I really, to be honest with you, I was heavily involved in what was going on, but there was pieces of the puzzle that I wasn't even fully aware of, if that makes sense at a point, we had 15, 16, 17 employees.
So I think the biggest thing is getting yourself out of the day to day operations. The other piece is focusing on profit. I think a lot of businesses don't realize, like, when you're gonna sell a business, I always say, if you're planning on selling in the future, start three to five years before you're gonna plan to sell it. And the idea is that you want to show that consistent EBITDA moving up, right? Obviously, if you're making a hundred grand EBITDA today, right? We want to see 150, we want to see 200. And we want to see there be an EBITDA, first of all. Earnings before interest and taxes before, for those who don't know. But the idea is that hey, is the business making money? Does it have profit? Because that's typically what they sell on, is a multiple of EBITDA. I think ours was a 4X multiple. So the idea is that again, like we want to show profit and we want to have that kind hopefully from day one for the folks who are just starting a business.
If you don't have profit today or your profit margins aren't super great. Like working on that, cutting expenses, streamlining operations is really what you need to focus on in order to sell for a higher, multiple higher, multiple, easier buy, things of that nature. And I think those are probably the two things again. Easy to say, get yourself out of the day to day operations, AKA don't work in the business and make a lot of money and you can sell it. But again, I think those are the two things that I did really well. I think again, going back to like things that I could have done differently is that I probably could have focused more earlier on. This was one of those things that, to be honest with you I wouldn't say that it came out of the woodwork, it was pre planned in a way and we had always shown like a really high profit margin for an agency. Again the kind of everything just went into alignment. I think that I could have probably, again, in the spirit of full transparency, I think we could have probably sold for maybe a little bit of a higher, multiple higher number if I had planned further in advance. So that's my biggest, again, takeaway was if you're going to sell, start three years out, four years out and really focus on those kind of key operation pieces that are going to make you, bring you out of the business, make the business more money, and be easier to sell.
Arek Dvornechuck: Right. So for you guys who are interested in selling your business in the future, you will have to at some point remove yourself from the business, right? And I'm guilty of this myself, although I'm not thinking about selling this business, I'm trying to start a new business, and then I would definitely have to apply some of these things that you just mentioned, right? To, try to as early as possible, focus on the profit, streamline the business, and remove yourself from the business. So don't make the business dependent on you, right? Because it's going to be hard to sell later on, right? Don't work in the business, work on the business, hire people to do the stuff and, you know, streamline all the processes. So that's been great.
So now you are running Small Business Bonfire, right? Where you help entrepreneurs, start and grow their business and prepare for exit in the future. So what do you think? What are some of the key challenges and problems that entrepreneurs face these days. Whether it comes to lead generation, I don't know, website design, optimization and stuff like that.
AJ Silber: That's an interesting question. It depends on the industry to be honest with you. And it really depends on the entrepreneur and kind of what level they're at, because some of the problems that business owners face at $5000 a month it's very different from the problems that business owners face at $200,000 a month or a million dollars a month.
It's really a gambit. I think the biggest thing is again, the more that, I work with businesses, the more I see like that kind of that operational pieces missing, at a very high level. What are these businesses? Money comes in the door. So first of all, like how is that money coming in the door through lead generation? How are we generating leads? How are we closing those leads? If it's a service based business, if it's a product based business, right? Like, how are we moving product? And then how are we facilitating the rest of either the service or, again moving that product out the door and getting it shipped and those functional kind of structural pieces. I think like throughout that entire kind of cycle again, depends on where the business is at. They have different issues throughout that entire process. I think one of the bigger ones that I typically see that I think I can help with more, is that lead generation piece. I come from an SEO, SEM background social media marketing, email marketing, kind of everything like digital marketing I cut my teeth on. So I think those are the areas that I can, again, like I can point out very easily and be like, okay, “here's a big issue for you”, “here's a big issue for you”. Like, how are you getting leads? How are you closing leads? I think is probably one of the biggest things, because as we know sales cures all, right? If you can get more lead generation, if you can close more leads the rest of the stuff you could run a terrible business for years that way, as long as you got good lead flow when you're closing leads. Obviously in order to scale, you're gonna have to have the kind of operational piece, but I think that's probably the biggest thing that I see most of the time.
Arek Dvornechuck: So lead generation and marketing, right? Okay.
So that's been great. So we're gonna link to your website. smallbusinessbonfire.com. You are also on social media, right?
AJ Silber: Yeah, thank you. I guess I want to just take one moment for a plug that has nothing to do with me, to be honest with you, and it's more a service that I use in order to get on this podcast. I use podcast bookers, I love them. And so again I got to give a shout out to those guys because they're the ones who got me on this podcast.
But you can find me specifically either go to smallbusinessbonfire.com. I write an email newsletter on a weekly basis. It's free. It's called “the bonfire field guide”. And so I would just go to our newsletter page, sign up for that. If you want to get a weekly tip from me inside business tip, I take five to ten hours to write them every single week. And then find me on LinkedIn, just AJ Silber. Find me on Twitter AJ_Silber. So Twitter and LinkedIn are probably the best social places where you can find me.
Arek Dvornechuck: Twitter. Okay. Okay. So we're going to link to that. And for you guys, if you want more tips from AJ, just sign up to his newsletter. We're going to link to your website as well. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.
AJ Silber: Yeah, thank you for having me again.
Arek Dvornechuck is a strategist and designer who helps brands grow by crafting distinctive brand identities, backed by strategy. Need help with your project?—Get in touch
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