Benji Hyam – TALKS WITH PETRI
Entrepreneur Benji Hyam shares his inside view how to succeed in content marketing, where you should focus and what to expect, and how to get results. He also reveals his life-changing movie experience.
Entrepreneur Benji Hyam lives in San Diego, California and he is the co-founder of Grow and Convert (a content marketing agency). He also co-founded the SaaS app Wordable.io (which was acquired in Nov 2017).
Before making the move to San Francisco, he lived in San Diego for 16 years where he started his first content agency Social Proof Interactive, worked at Mitek Systems and Vistage Worldwide– both in marketing.
He enjoys surfing, travelling, and eating great food.
(NOTE: The text may contain errors, misconceptions and even comical unintended contexts. Please use it only as a reference to the actual audio conversation from where it has been transcribed.)
Petri: Hey Benji! What have you been doing lately? What have you been excited about lately?
Benji: I’m excited about our business overall. As most people know, COVID hit in March and the future looked grim for a little bit. We didn’t get a lead for about two months, but I would say the last two months here have been the busiest we’ve ever been. We’ve had like a new lead every day, tons of interesting companies that want to work with us.
It’s been exciting the last couple of months. That’s what I’m most excited about is we’ve just been challenging ourselves to try to grow our team and fix our operations so that we can scale.
Petri: Did you analyse why did you not get any leads during that time? And I’m guessing that was quite exceptional in your case.
Benji: Yeah. We’ve never had a period since we started the agency that we went a full two month period without getting a new lead. That was very abnormal for us. When we were going through it, we were trying to analyse it and it sounded like there was a lot of uncertainty. Business stopped. The markets went down. Everyone was just uncertain what the future was going to bring. I don’t think people were making new investment decisions. And coming out of that period in May and June as people started to adapt to this new normal then people realised they still need to invest in their business. They still need to grow. Business went back to business as usual.
Petri: Are you the new Amazon in a way? Amazon has been getting so much new business because of this new situation. Everybody’s coming online. Everybody wants to do digital. Every marketing or sales is digital nowadays. You’re hitting gold, are you?
Benji: I wouldn’t say we’re Amazon. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Actually, I do think services businesses will benefit in the future, especially if the economy continues to go down. What we’re going to see is a period of layoffs. We already went through that here in the US right when the COVID hit. And what happens is people try to cut their overhead in-house. Then they go through this period where they still need work done, and then it’s less risky for them to hire agencies or freelancers or contractors than it is to bring people on full-time. I do think that maybe over the next few years service businesses should benefit if the economy keeps struggling a little bit.
Petri: Can you explain a bit for the audience who are not so familiar with what you are doing? What’s your model? How do you work, and what are your typical customers?
Benji: We started the business in 2017. It’s a content marketing agency. The differentiator in our agency compared to most agencies is that we do every part of content marketing from conducting user research and customer research at the beginning of an engagement to figure out who the customers are that we should target and what their pain points are.
Then we come up with the entire strategy for how we’re going to get in front of them, what content we should write. We produce the articles. Another differentiator there is that most people just hire freelance writers and expect them to be experts on the subject matter that they’re writing about.
What we do instead is our writers act like journalists to produce marketing content. We typically interview people inside of the company to get their expertise on whatever we’re writing about and then turn those interviews into full articles on the subject. Then we drive traffic to the articles that we publish through both paid channels and SEO.
And lastly, we measure conversions, which is abnormal I would say for most content marketing agencies. Most content marketing agencies are measured by output. The number of articles that they produced per month, or it’s measured by just traffic increases. And we knew that historically because I had run marketing for two different companies previously and had tried to hire agencies to help me execute on what I needed on the content marketing side.
When it came down to questions around what results that they would drive, most of them didn’t have great answers for that. Most of them just said: no, no, no, we don’t measure results. We just produce these articles per month and then over time you should see traffic increase. There wasn’t really a process around measuring the results or even figuring out how to drive traffic.
When we started our agency that was something that we wanted to fix was just having our goals aligned to the same goals that our company would want.
Petri: You were pretty much the first ones to do that anywhere, quite transparent and ambitious with your goals as well too. Do you want to explain a bit the thought process why did you select that approach from the beginning? Obviously, you were doing these things already with other companies. You were not testing them the first time, but still it is quite bold to say that you started from zero and these are my goals and this is how we do it. Observe and learn!
Benji: Yeah. To fast forward two years or 18 months from when we started the agency when we decided that we wanted to do the agency as the business model, the question became how do we show the results that we were going to drive for the companies and then how do we keep clients?
And when you think about answering both of those questions, it led us to that we have to be really good at measuring the results that we’re driving. We have to actually be able to measure all the way through conversions so that we can like prove the ROI of the business.
And how do we keep them? Same thing. We had to be better than any other agency in terms of executing on content marketing and showing the value of our service. I don’t know why it’s abnormal for other agencies to really focus on the results portion. it’s really just because it’s difficult to execute on. Content marketing is a number of different parts that you have to get right.
And a number of different skill sets. If you think about it, you have to be really good at writing. You have to be good at strategy. You have to be good at driving traffic to articles and measuring conversions. It’s both the right brain and left brain. And it’s also multiple people who are typically responsible for this.
Inside of an organisation, if you were trying to build this in-house, you would need someone who leads the strategy and who can come up with the topics and the right topics. Then you need a team of writers and then probably need someone who’s focused on driving traffic to the articles.
And there’s probably another person that’s responsible for converting them. It’s typically a lot of different roles and a lot of different skill sets. It’s just a hard problem to solve for, to be honest. And it took us a long period of time to even get the process right for ourselves.
We’re talking a series of years and testing different people and different operational structures. In the last couple of years, we finally figured out how to execute on it. It’s not an easy problem to solve is the short answer.
Petri: Can you scale the model? You started pretty much by yourself and with your business partner and you were doing almost everything. There was no one else to help you so you needed to do those things. Now, you have more people there so you’re starting to have more specialised staff and help there.
Is this a scalable model? Because like you mentioned somewhere that this is more art than science, it’s not like you figure out the playbook, continue to rinse and repeat. You need to constantly learn and adjust a lot of things.
Benji: That’s a good question. We’re still figuring that out. We have somewhere like 14 clients now. A year ago that seemed impossible for us. Two years ago it definitely seemed impossible. We had a completely different operational structure and we had a bottleneck in our organisational structure that didn’t allow us to scale.
Now, the way that we designed our agency, it is a modular system and it’s very flat. And that is the structure that will allow us to scale. The issue that we had before was we tried to have a centralised editor so one person who would edit all of the different accounts.
And it created a massive bottleneck in the company where if this person left, there would be problems. If this person was behind, but there would be problems. What we tried to do is empower different people on the company from writers and our content strategists to take on more of that responsibility and absorb that one role into each other. Now, with the current structure that we have, I do think that it will allow us to scale to double, triple, quadruple the amount of clients. If we so choose that we want to continue to grow like that.
Petri: Can you tell something about your company culture and how you’ve been structuring the company? Are you completely remote also at this point?
Benji: A lot of the way that we designed the company was one to do things opposite of what I hated inside of other companies and two to satisfy somewhat of a lifestyle business. What does that mean?
I had a lot of negative experiences prior in my career where you feel like you’re at work and you’re not really that productive, but you’re forced to be there eight hours a day.
Going into a physical co-location was tough. I had bosses that were micromanagers. When we started this business, we just wanted to do things the opposite. We have a fully remote business. There’s no clocking in and out. Everyone just does their work on their own time.
Something that I’ve learned throughout my personal career is some people are morning people, some people are night people, some people get creative energy at different parts of the day. it doesn’t really make sense to force people to all work the same way when everyone has different working habits that work for them.
We brought that thinking to this company and try to make things very outcome-oriented. Everyone knows that they have certain tasks they need to accomplish and certain goals that they’re trying to achieve, and they can do those on their own time and whatever way that works best for them.
Another thing that’s different is instead of fixed salaries and getting let’s say a percentage bonus every single year everyone can make as much money as they want by taking on more and more work. They’re incentivised to either optimise their life for money if they so choose or their lifestyle.
We have people that just run one account and they have other side projects on the side and other things that they want to invest their time in, or they have a family and they only want work to be a certain portion of their life. We have other people that want to make a ton of money and want to take on a number of accounts and their salary can scale infinitely as they figure out how to take more of those on.
Petri: And that works because it’s results-orientated. It doesn’t matter how much you put in hours. It’s just that you reach the results. If you’re really good at it then you know exactly how to surf the trend now. What’s really working and you’re at the top of your game. You can make a lot of money.
Benji: Correct. It was all about figuring out the right incentives really. At the end of the day, it is what’s going to incentivise people to produce their best work. What’s going to incentivise people to stay with us a long time. Another thing that I realised throughout my career is the second you lose someone in the company you’re losing years worth of knowledge. Even though, if that person’s only working on some role that may seem somewhat insignificant to the company. There’s their whole learning experience that they had to go through to figure out how to do their job well. And the second you lose them, even if you can find someone that has the exact same skill set on paper, they’re probably not going to be as effective as the person before.
Devesh and I have really tried to focus on how can we keep people long-term. How can we create a working environment that allows people to continue to challenge themselves and grow? Because every time I’ve left a job previously, it has always been from when I’ve stopped learning something new. The more we can help people either expand their skill set or learn something new the longer we’ll keep them. And the more we can challenge our people the longer we’ll keep them. And then the more that we can create a great working environment that’s low stress the longer we can keep people. The focus for us is really finding great talent that are motivated and have potential.
And trying to incentivise them to stay as long as they want for us. That’s why there’s a different mindset around people having side projects. People even working for other people while they work with us. I don’t really care what people do on the side or what other hobbies or motivations they have as long as their work gets done. It’s to the best of their abilities, they’re enjoying what they’re doing. It’s a different mindset than most companies have, but I also think it’s important for this next transition of the way people work that is coming in the near future here.
Petri: Could you give some case examples, because there might be someone in the audience still a bit wondering what do you actually do? Why is it significant? What are the actual exciting things? Maybe you’re going to explain something from your own experience when you were starting the company yourself, or maybe there’s some customer case you could run through a bit so we can get a bit of more in-depth understanding of the concept?
Benji: What is content marketing? Essentially what our agency does is we try to acquire new customers by figuring out what people would be searching for online. And that would lead them to a solution like the product or service that we’re doing marketing on their behalf of. An example of that is there’s a concussion treatment centre based out of Provo, Utah.
They have a really unique way of treating people that have something called post-concussion syndrome. That means that someone has typically had multiple concussions in their life and they’re suffering from a number of different symptoms from loss of focus to constant headaches to depression.
There’s all these larger symptoms that come from getting post-concussion syndrome. They have a unique way of doing treatment, where they take an FMRI at the beginning of their treatment to scan the brain and see where the problem areas are. And then they do a series of exercises over a week period.
And at the end of the week, they do another FMRI and they can see a massive improvement in a lot of their patients. 75% of the people who’ve had chronic illnesses for 10-30 years improve after their treatment. It’s on the cutting edge of research. They came to us to try to help them generate new leads for their business.
What we did is we flew out to Provo, Utah. We met with a bunch of their doctors. Tried to figure out what their competitive advantage is. What patients would be searching for if they were to try to find treatment for concussion and then we produce all their articles. We figured out what are the keywords that we should go after that would lead someone to find treatment like this.
Some examples of that would be concussion clinics in the US. If someone was searching for that we ranked number one. Multiple concussions, if you search for that keyword, they’re either in the top three spots, something like that. We rank for post-concussion syndrome, concussion treatment, all of these different keywords that indicate someone is looking for a solution like this concussion treatment centre.
Before we publish the articles, we interviewed their doctors to get all their expertise. They do this research a lot. They work with a lot of these patients. Therefore they have a lot of the subject matter expertise that is more specific than we would get interviewing other doctors that don’t have the speciality.
We publish it for them. And then we drove traffic through SEO and also paid. We advertise their articles on Facebook, and we build links to their articles. And I believe over the last year, we’ve been working with them for 13 or 14 months, we just crossed 83 000 visitors for them on their site last month that read it on a monthly basis now all the content that we’ve produced. And then, in terms of conversions, I believe we make up something about 40% of their total conversion volume on a monthly basis is attributed to us.
Petri: Can you put that into some significance if that’s not classified data? Before you started, what was their level and how much of their revenues and sales are done via you and the ways you do it?
Benji: Before most of their business came through referrals. Patients that came in had a positive experience and either told their doctor or told a friend who had a similar symptom about this treatment and then they would get clients that way. It wasn’t super predictable in terms of new business.
Now, 40% of their total volume or more, it might even be, comes through their website. It was building a completely new channel for them that they didn’t have. That’s a lot more predictable. Now, they’re getting 80 000 people on their website per month that are interested in concussions or potentially have some of these problems that they solve for.
It gave them enough business to open…I think they have two new centres that are opening up. We maxed out the volume in their existing in-person location. And now they’re building I believe a new one in Texas because they have this massive lead volume that they didn’t have before.
And then I also think that they have a local treatment centre in Utah that they’re building for access patients as well.
Petri: How much time does all this stake from their side to get those new leads?
Benji: It’s very minimal. That’s the value of the service. The way that most people do this in-house is they would either put this work on an employee and say: hey, I’d love for each of you to write an article on this topic. The problem with that is they also have their other job to do. And many of them might not be writers.
All that we require from the company in-house is about an hour-long interview per article. We do three articles per month and that pretty much gets us the results that we’d need. That’s three hours from their team. Then we take care of all the work from there in terms of doing the writing, doing the editing and then on their end, they can review the article before it’s published. Then we take care of everything from there. And we just have a monthly call reporting on where things are up and allowing the company to ask questions to us as well. But that’s pretty much all it requires on their end.
Petri: Three articles a month. That doesn’t sound too much. Usually blog posts, you could write them once a day or something. What’s the story behind there?
Benji: Most people focus on volume and not enough people focus on the quality. That’s the reason why we only do three a month. We’ve been able to outperform almost any company who’s had the volume-based playbook previously with just three articles a month because of the process that I explained.
We’re doing the research to figure out what articles that you should write. Most companies don’t spend that much time coming up with what topics are right. Typically the way it’s done internally is someone in the company says, Oh, we should write a blog post on this. And then people do it and there’s really no strategy around it.
Every single blog post that we create a super strategic and serves a purpose and we prioritise high intent articles. So something that we think would drive a conversion over the volume of a keyword that we’re going after or any other kind of metric. That allows us to get results faster.
The work that goes into writing each article is way more robust than most people would do. We’re interviewing a subject matter expert in the company, writing on their behalf and spending a lot of time editing. It’s not really scalable for us to produce 10 articles a month using that process.
It requires a lot of time in terms of the interviewing, coming up with the questions for the interview, doing all the editing on the backend. We just believe the better process has to be really strategic in the topics that you write about and then just write way better articles.
Our quality bar is: is this the best article on the subject and the search results? If yes, we’ll publish it. And taking that mindset over just trying to optimise for volume is what gets us the results over a lot of the other approaches.
Petri: How long can those articles bring traffic on average?
Benji: If they’re ranking for an SEO keyword and like many of ours do until someone outranks them and beats the articles. It can be a period of years. And that’s the value of doing content marketing as opposed to some of the other channels like paid. Once you’re able to get the article to rank for the respective keyword, the cost comes down over time.
You’re investing something upfront, but it’s a long-term investment. And once you start getting the traffic, it compounds over time. As opposed to a channel like paid where you get results faster, but results diminish over time because costs go up and there’s more competition.
Petri: It’s like a long-term investment and obviously things will change. But if you focus on the core deliverables and your value proposition, it would be almost like an evergreen.
Petri: Can you explain what’s the process to figure out who is the best customer?
Benji: It’s a good process. What we do is we interview people inside of the company who have direct interactions with the customer. When we would kick-off a new client, we want to talk to the sales team. We want to talk to the customer success team. We want to talk to you, the CEO and the founders, to understand why they created the business.
We ask a series of questions and questions, for example, are, who are the other competitors in the space? What is your competitive advantage? Why do customers buy? Tell me the last three sales calls that you had were that were positive and what were the customers? What were some of the questions or pain points that they had?
What we’re trying to do is from all the different stakeholders who have interactions with the customers who typically don’t get together and hash this stuff out, we’re trying to look for similarities and patterns in their responses in terms of two things. We’re trying to figure out who the customer is.
What is the title of this person or what is just like the persona? Is it more are male than female often? If it’s a B2C business, do these people have certain characteristics? If it’s a B2B business, what titles are the people in the company? Who are the different stakeholders involved in the decisions?
And then what we want to really figure out is why they buy. What are their pain points? What are the challenges? What are the questions that would lead them to a solution or a product like the one that you’re selling? And again, we’re just looking for patterns of their responses and then we’re backing into, okay, based on all this information, what are the keywords that we should go after?
What are the topics that we should go after? And then we come up with a set of hypotheses in terms of the various topics that we should go after. There’s a mix of different types of keywords, different types of pain points, different types of articles that we’re creating. And then we just produce them and wait to see the data to adjust from there and see what works and then double down on the things that do work and try to scale those up.
Petri: That sounds like a heavy-duty process. Even those questions , what are you doing? Where are you really good at? Oftentimes, I would imagine there are no straightforward and easy answers to these questions.
Benji: It’s not. It’s both qualitative and quantitative. Even before we do these interviews in person, we’re going into their CRM or the customer data and trying to sort by customer type, like certain people who have purchased multiple times versus those who haven’t. If it’s a SaaS product, different plan types.
We’re organising things like that. And then we’re also asking pointed questions at the different segments. For example, we might run through these questions for if it was a SaaS product, the people who buy the smaller plans versus the people who buy the larger plans. What’s the difference in, who the buyer is and what their challenges are so that we can target the best customers for the business.
We also might look at things through the lens of which customers have the highest customer value, which customers have the lowest support headaches. So they don’t take a ton of company resources which are the most profitable. We look at it through those lenses as well. And then we ask the open-ended questions to try to get this qualitative feedback because that’s what’s really important for us to be able to come up with the right ideas to go after for these companies.
Petri: Sounds like that you would be excellent to figure out also for startup companies who don’t know yet who their customers are. They are putting the MVP together. Bring you in and we figured it out together!
Benji: Yeah, it sounds fun, but we actually don’t work with startups anymore. That was something that we learned the hard way. That’s a huge challenge for the company to figure out. And I almost think that the company needs to go through that process themselves. And once they figure out who their company is or who their customer is, and they validate what they want to sell.
Then it makes sense to bring us in to scale that. So one of the requirements that we have to work with anyone is that they need to have a proven cold sales channel. Because if they’ve done that they’ve already validated that they can sell to a customer that doesn’t know them. Oftentimes, companies make this mistake where they’ve grown off of referrals or their network.
And then they’re trying to scale this. Well, they haven’t proven that they can sell that to people that don’t know them before. Oftentimes, that’s where companies make mistakes. What worked for the warm introduction or someone in their network doesn’t necessarily work for someone that knows nothing about you.
Oftentimes, the positioning of the company, of the product or the service or the messaging is way off, when you’ve only sold through warm channels. We make sure that we check for if a company has sold through cold channels before. And if they have then it tells us that their website is already likely to convert if we’re just able to drive the right people to them and educate the customer.
Before February, we took on a lot of those earlier companies and just realised it’s too difficult and even affordable to drive the right people to the website. And theoretically, everything should work. It doesn’t because oftentimes their website hasn’t been proven to convert.
Petri: The problem could be that there’s no real product-market fit. Even though you can do your job, the company hasn’t done theirs. The value proposition is not there. So people are not buying.
Petri: When you have already written the articles, you have already figured out who are the best customers, where do you go to find those people, the audience, online? How does that work?
Benji: We think of things in two different ways. One is short-term promotion. It’s basically, how can we get the articles in front of these people right away? Because the long-term promotion, the second thing that we do is SEO and what most agencies do there is they just publish and sit around and wait for Google to rank the articles.
But that the problem is as an agency that could take a period of six months a year or multiple years. Again, if we’re focused on keeping clients we need to be able to drive traffic and results immediately. The short-term stuff that we do is mainly around paid now. Historically, it was something that we called community content promotion, where the concept is someone has already done work previously to build a community around the customers that you’re trying to get in front of them.
To shortcut that instead of trying to build our own audience from scratch, which could take a long time, let’s just find these existing communities that already exist of the target customer and share the content on those places. Some examples of that would be there’s subreddits that are probably related to the industry or the target audience that you’re going after.
There’s Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, there’s Quora threads, there’s email newsletters that already have the target audience that you want on them. What we were doing in the beginning of our agency is we were just finding what these different resources were. And we were sharing the articles in those places. That worked really, really well when we had three or five clients. When we started getting to 8-10 then it started to break down. What we did instead was tried to figure out how can we replicate the same process in a more scalable way. We ended up testing paid advertising. Specifically, now we do paid advertising on Facebook and we’re also testing Twitter.
And on Facebook, what we do is we take that information from the user research and then we figure out what cold audiences should we target. Based on behavioural and interest targeting, who are the audiences that we should go after and we create ads to go after those then we do lookalike audiences as well.
We take maybe a page on the website that contains high-value users such as “I thank you” -page after someone has filled out a form or a demo request, and we advertise to people that look alike the same users that have already visited your website. And then we also do straight retargeting and those three ways to get us in front of the right people.
And then we also do the same thing on Twitter as well. On Twitter, you have the ability to advertise to accounts that look like certain people. You could take essentially your competitors and create a lookalike of those and try to get in front of similar customers as your competitors have.
And all we do is share the articles and since they’re all educational and value-adding and should be helpful to their customer. Typically when someone sees us come across their feed, it is relevant to them. They come in. And, sometimes convert that way. That’s typically the way that we’re driving traffic and getting in front of the company’s target customers.
And then the longer-term stuff on the SEO side. Again, it’s figuring out the right keywords that have this buying intent. And then, we do active link building where we have a link building contracting agency that we’ve worked with almost since the beginning of the business. And what they do is they write guest posts on sites in the industry with a link back to the post that we’re trying to build a link to.
And we’re strategically building links to the articles that we want to move up in the rankings. It’s a combination of both the paid, the short term stuff, and the long-term stuff that gets us results over time. Typically in the beginning of an engagement, you would see more of the traffic come from the paid channels and the short-term stuff.
And then over the long-term, SEO should really start taking a majority of the traffic.
Petri: Why does it take so long time with SEO to kick in like six months? And now you revealed the other component. It’s not just like you post the article with optimised keywording you need to build the inbound links as well. So that obviously takes time as well. Could it happen fast or is it the rule of the thumb that it’s always like 6-12 months and then you start to see something happening? Because that’s quite risky from the customer’s perspective, you’re doing something and then you just wait for six months and Oh, it didn’t work! Well, in 12 months in total we will see.
Benji: That’s why we combine the short-term and the long-term. Because for companies that are earlier on, it takes much longer. There’s a ton of different factors that weigh into whether something will rank. For example, how long the site has been in existence, what the domain authority is, how many backlinks that house to the site, is the content all on the same topic or not?
There’re hundreds of different ranking factors that play into this. It just takes a lot of time. A site that has been around a long time and that has published good content we do see faster results coming from SEO.
There’ve been sites that we’ve worked on that have a domain authority of let’s say, 70 to 90, which is pretty high. Those sites we can publish an article that we think is better than anything else that we’re going after and have it ranked within the first month. You can start to see SEO results in let’s say the first two or three months from that and it continues to increase over time.
Other clients, we’ve had where it takes six months to a year to start seeing multiple results on the first page where traffic really starts to compound. It really just depends on the business and the industry. For example, for our own business, we’re competing against every other marketer.
It’s a lot harder to get your content to rank because there’s so much content being created in the marketing industry and you’re competing against almost every other marketer. Whereas something like this concussion treatment centre that I gave an example of there’s very few good marketers producing content for businesses like that. There’s much more of a wide-open opportunity for the businesses that don’t really have a ton of great marketers in the industry.
Petri: What do you think of YouTube? People are doing a lot of videos. That’s also the way to learn a lot of things. If you want to get some new skills you go there and you type it in. Is that something we should be also focusing on in the future?
Benji: Yeah, I think so. And video will continue to get bigger and bigger. The funny thing is that people since YouTube has existed to say that video is the next big thing. You should stop producing content. I don’t view it as that way. I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game where one is going to completely take over the other.
They serve different purposes and the way that I view it is that you should just do whatever you are best at. If someone in the company is very skilled at video or they’re very skilled at podcasting. Sure, then that might be the right medium for you to distribute your content to the audience that you’re going after.
If you have someone that’s good at writing or you want to compete that way, that’s also a great way. It’s less about the tactic or the channel, and it’s more about figuring out what the right messages and what you have unique to say, and what’s compelling and then figuring out the right way to get it in front of the customer.
And that could be through video. It could be through audio or it could be written. And I don’t think that one is superior over the other. I do think that written content has somewhat of an advantage because search is so prevalent online, and people use Google to find information and you could make the same argument for YouTube as well.
That if you created a video on a specific topic, again, people can find that through search. Whereas a podcast there isn’t that infrastructure built yet to where you can really search for information with audio. I tend to lean towards written and video, and we’re just now starting to experiment with video. But it’s not something where I would say our business is at risk because we’re not doing video.
There’s always going to be a demand for written information. And video is just another channel that we could explore if we wanted to accelerate the results or just expand our audience through a different channel.
Petri: Let’s go back a bit in time. You were in high school and you were not performing too well. That’s something you already have written in the articles and what happened then? You became passionate and you found your, I wouldn’t say purpose, but you found a way forward and you started to excel.
Benji: Yeah, in middle school and high school, I was always thinking about the future, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I explored doing architecture, getting into real estate. My dad was in real estate at the time, so I thought I might want to explore that. I was just taking a bunch of classes.
I had no passion for it. I took physics and biology and all these sciences. It didn’t really resonate with me and I didn’t do too well in a lot of them. Then I had taken a marketing class in my junior year. Just sitting in that class, combined with the teacher, it just clicked for me and I realised that that’s what I wanted to do.
And there was actually this movie, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, What women want is funny as it is that movie also, I watched it maybe in that marketing class. But what’s fascinating about it is Mel Gibson works for this advertising agency and he gets the Nike account. And he gets the Nike women’s account and he needs to come up with an advertising campaign that will propel Nike as the leader for women’s shoes.
The whole movie is about him doing customer research. He has to try to figure out what women want to sell the shoe to them. And that whole process of him just going through that exploration and trying to figure out what people wanted and what propelled them to buying. Something in that movie resonated with me where I just realised that’s what I would really like to do. I would want to have a product that people really like or a service people really like and try to figure out what motivates them to buy.
I don’t know what it is about that. it’s just a big problem-solving challenge. That’s not easy. And that’s what excites me about it. But yeah, that class and that movie combined put me from this period where I didn’t do too well in school. I didn’t really get bad grades, but I had like a three point something average, like low threes. And then when I figured out I wanted to do marketing, I got a 4.0 the rest of my high school.
The main reason was because with the grades that I had, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get into a really good university for marketing. I decided I wanted to get to San Diego state at that point in time. I needed to get my grades up. I got a 4.0 from that just now having locked in exactly what I wanted to do and having a target school that I wanted to go to. It just motivated me to do better in school and get my grades up so that I can get a good education and then a career that I wanted.
Petri: What happened next? What were your first steps in the business world?
Benji: In 2011 or 2010…
Petri: We are still in the crisis period…
Benji: Yeah, the crisis period. So I had an unfortunate series of events happen on my personal life. So my parents got divorced. They lost a lot of money in the great recession. And my junior year of college, I was on my own financially. That motivated me very quickly. I just realised I had no safety net.
My junior year in college, I started working for a friend’s startup that did t-shirt printing and I was running marketing for them. So trying to figure out how to get new business for them. It was a really good learning experience working in an early startup like that. There were maybe six people that were full-time and we were selling to other campuses, other universities, Greek life. And I was responsible for doing a lot of the sales and marketing for that. One of the main ways that I drove business was reaching out to people on LinkedIn for that company. And because of that, I had spent a lot of time improving my LinkedIn profile.
Because I was selling to them I had to make myself look good on LinkedIn. And because of that chance circumstances, someone reached out to me. It was over summer, I was going into my senior year of college and asked me if I wanted to come for an interview for a job. And they said they were really impressed by my LinkedIn profile and that I should come to the interview for this social media role that they had opened at the company.
And I was like, I don’t really know anything about social media. It’s not really what I want to do long-term, but I need a job. And the company sounded like a really good opportunity. It’s called Vistage International and they do CEO coaching. They run mastermind groups with CEOs of $5 million-plus companies and share learnings amongst each other.
I thought the mission of the company was really cool. My dad had heard of it before. I went into the interview and got the job. I started working full time during my senior year of college. And then my grades started tanking again because I was spending the majority of my time working.
I was working 40 hours a week and then trying to go to school at the same time. And then it just didn’t really work out. But I figured at that point in time, you know what, I don’t really care if my grades go down at this point as long as I graduate. Because I already have what everyone goes to university for which is a full-time job and a career that has started. So that was my thinking at the time.
Petri: That’s quite neat. You were already doing the recruitment process or reverse recruitment process: finding a job for you without realising that you’re looking for a job for yourself and then you’ve got it. Then you were secured, but you were not too happy with the corporate life.
Benji: Yeah, it wasn’t. One, I got hired right out of college. The salary that they gave me at the time right out of college, I thought was really good. And then about a year into working there, I realised that I was undervalued for my work, especially because I had a lot of achievements in the first year or two for the company.
I had grown their blog to about 20 000 visitors a month. Our reading that I had built out a program to get new customers for them on LinkedIn that was driving a ton of new business for them. I had also figured out an advertising channel on LinkedIn that was driving a ton of new business for them.
I was doing paid advertising, so I was actually starting to expand my just social media role, which was, I came in to manage their social media accounts like their Twitter, their LinkedIn, and then had developed all these new programs inside of the company that were driving business.
At this point in time, I felt like I was undervalued. We had this time in the company where I actually got another offer from another company that was willing to pay me like $15 000 more than what I was being paid. I brought the offer to someone in the company. It was my boss at the time and they’re like, Oh. And I was like, I really don’t want to take this offer, but it just shows that I’m undervalued and all I want to do is get a raise to match this and I want to stay at the company.
What ended up happening was they’re like, okay, yes, we can take care of this. It’s no problem. And they dragged it along for a year. And at the end of this process, they came and sat me down in a meeting and said, I have some really good news for you. We’re going to give you a 5% raise, which is way better than what we give the most people: 3%.
And you should be happy with this number. The number that they gave me was like $10 000 or more lower than what I had requested. At that point, I was just really frustrated with this corporate work environment. I ended up leaving less than six months later and I started my first agency mainly just because I was frustrated and thought I was really smart at the time and that I could start a business and I was going to be super successful and I learned the hard way I was quickly over my head.
Petri: And at first, your own business was a lifestyle business in the beginning, wasn’t it? You were building it the way you want it to do the business.
Benji: Yeah. I actually took someone that I had hired at Vistage and we left and co-founded the company together. Initially, the first service that we were offering was to other Vistage coaches. One of the things that I had developed inside of the company was a way to try to find new members, new CEO’s, for these coaches to coach, using LinkedIn.
Inside of the company, I was only able to help a limited amount of people because I was only one person. We thought it would be a really good service to just offer this individually for coaches and have them pay out of pocket. The first contract that we took as the agency was Vistage. I left as an employee, and then I had a contractual arrangement with them to continue offering part of the service.
The mistake that I made is just having one source of revenue and that contract only lasted three to six months. And I thought it was going to continue a lot longer than it would. And in the meantime, we were going to develop other service offerings and we just took our foot off the gas pedal and got comfortable with the one client that was paying us pretty well.
And we didn’t end up developing the new service offering or really going after new clients. We were just focusing on making sure our website looks pretty and making sure we had a cool logo and all these things that in hindsight really don’t matter when you start a business. About six months in, revenue started drying up and I just realised I wasn’t as passionate about doing those services.
I really started the business more to make money, but I really didn’t care about the work that I was doing on a daily basis. And I didn’t really like it. We ended up just closing down the business. It ended up well. We ended profitably and then I took another job in the meantime and ended up getting a $20 000 salary increase from the previous job.
This was from me leaving that first job to me starting the company to getting another job a seven month period. So all in all, it ended up better for me. I got a better title. I got a higher salary just from taking that transition in between and starting the business. And then the company that I joined, I really didn’t enjoy the work that I was doing well, I mainly joined for the salary increase because I needed money at that point in time. And at that point in time, I realised that what I really wanted to do was run marketing for a company. And I realised that all the best marketing was done in San Francisco and in many of the startups at this point in time.
I decided I wanted to move to San Francisco to run marketing and a startup. So that’s what I ended up doing after that job.
Petri: So it didn’t work out from the beginning like you have it now. You were also experimenting and testing and you were already putting the ground working in there with all the steps after high school.
Benji: Yeah. The first business was really learning what not to do. In hindsight, I had a great co-founder, but we weren’t good co-founders for each other. We had very similar skill sets and there wasn’t enough of a difference in our skill sets to divide and conquer. So that was one big lesson that I learned from that.
Another was just to have a service that is not a nice to have but I must have. And the last thing is just you can never stop selling no matter how much business you have. Never take your foot off the gas pedal and having more leads and more business than you need at any point in time gives you a lot more options than being on the flip side.
So a lot of those learnings led into a lot of the differences in the way that we run the business and have the business today.
Petri: Can you elaborate a bit the difference between a nice to have and a must have? Because this is a really important key point, but it’s sometimes hard to see when you’re doing things. Do I really have something that is essential or is it just a feature?
Benji: Even in the businesses that we go after, part of it is the segment that we target. I would say it distinguishes between a nice to have and a must have. We’re not going after companies who have never done content marketing before and need to be convinced that content marketing is a good channel for them.
Because then their mindset is, Oh, this is a nice to have, but I don’t really need to invest in that because I have other channels that are working for me right now. Whereas if someone is already investing in content marketing and they’re committed to it and they know they’re not doing it as well. Our service becomes a must have for them because they’ve already committed the budget, the resources, and they know they’re not getting the performance that they want.
Our service comes in and if we’re able to deliver on what we say, there is no reason to ever fire us. That’s the difference in the way that I think about it. And then also just nuances in our service offering too. So a nice to have would be if we’re producing articles for them on a monthly basis, it’s easy to just say, well, I want a different vendor for these articles or take the writing in-house.
It’s a lot harder when we’re doing every single part of the puzzle for them. And we’re getting results to just rip us out and replace us with something else because of what I said. Typically to execute on this well, it takes a number of different people to do this. it’s not as easy as just saying, you know what, we’re going to go work with another vendor because there’s almost no vendors that do exactly what we do in terms of the whole process and measuring the results.
And it’s very difficult to hire someone in-house to replicate what we do. I think our business now as something that is indispensable to the company. If we’re able to get results for them quickly and show them the value quickly, then there’s almost no reason for them to ever let us go unless they wanted to build out the expertise in-house and hire their own team. Try to do the same thing that we do in-house. That’s typically the only reason that someone would leave after a period of time unless they felt like we weren’t getting results fast enough.
Petri: What do you think is going to happen in the future? You started more than 10 years ago going to this direction and you were doing it successfully for many clients. What’s going to happen in 5 to 10 years when we are looking into the future?
Benji: Content marketing, it’s going to continue to get harder. That’s just the general trend that we’ve seen over the last 10 years. 10 years ago, you could pretty much write anything and just put keywords on a page and it would rank and you’d get tons of business. Now, it’s the opposite where there’s tons of content and it’s finding good content that is the challenge. If you search on the search results for almost any keyword, there’s just a ton of bad content that shows up. The challenge is being more strategic and writing better content. I think it’s going to continue to get more challenging and more competitive with time.
Two, there’s an opportunity in curation. I also think that there’s more content than ever. There’s Twitter, there’s audio, there’s video. The challenge for consumers is finding the good stuff and distinguishing the good stuff from the bad stuff. There’s an opportunity around that as well in the future.
And I do think audio needs more of some sort of platform to help discover new podcasts and new voices as video and written content have that with Google and YouTube and stuff like that. That’s an opportunity and maybe Spotify wins there on the audio side.
I know that they’re investing a lot more in a podcast recently. That’s generally where I see the industry going. I just think written still continues to exist. It gets harder. Video we’ll continue to take up a larger portion of the market share just in terms of overall content consumption. Audio is still really early and there’s a lot of potential in it.
Petri: If there’s a young Benji now listening, a new Beji in high school and, and figuring out that maybe it’s time to get to the marketing. Are there some emerging new ways of doing things like when you started LinkedIn and YouTube, a lot of these channels, were pretty much the starting or they were not as prominent obviously as they are today?
What’s the direction which is more like a new wild west? Are there any of these left or are we already in incumbent industries in tech?
Benji: The way that I look at it, there’s always going to be new channels. Always, like last year, TikTok didn’t exist. And like five years ago, Snapchat didn’t exist. And 10 years ago, Facebook was just starting. There’s always gonna be these new channels. What most people don’t focus enough on is the strategy and the process.
People don’t spend enough time understanding their customers, understanding the psychology behind their buyers, what motivates them and what’s the right way to position and message a product to get people to buy. it goes back to the principles. People get obsessed with a lot of the tactics.
How am I going to advertise? What podcasts do I need to do? There’s all these channels and tactics. And people obsess over those things instead of focusing on the fundamentals. If I were to start out, I would learn a lot about psychology. I would try to understand consumer behaviour.
I would read traditional marketing books because the fundamentals of marketing in terms of doing the customer research, understanding motivations, figuring out the right way to position a message for your service are the most important things. And then once you’re able to do those things well, then it’s just figuring out the right tactic or the right channel to get in front of the audience in the short term.
And those tactics will continually change. There’s an ever-evolving opportunity to come into marketing and be an expert in one of these channels and have that be one of your specialities. There’s always advantages to being an early mover on any new platform as well. For example, if you’re advertising on Twitter right now versus five years from now, costs will be cheaper. There’s less competition. And it’s the same thing that we’re seeing in Facebook right now, where advertising is somewhat saturated and has gotten more expensive with time. People are looking for new channels to exploit going forward.
Petri: If I’m now just starting. I have my first company and I’m thinking that I need to somehow get the message out. Should I consider content marketing? You’ve been just saying that it’s getting harder and harder. There’s so much stuff. It’s not good content, but there’s so much of it. And it will take 6-12 months to get some results.
Should I just wait to get the product/market fit and do some regular sales or some other means and then knock on your door because this sounds so complicated? What should I do?
Benji: I would say it depends on what the skill sets are of the people on the company. If someone in the company such as the CEO or there’s a marketing person that can write then I would say it might be a channel that you should explore. If let’s say there’s a marketer in-house that has more paid experience.
Then I would say it’s good to start there. It really just depends on the company. Again, I don’t think of marketing as you need to focus on any one channel. And if you don’t do this channel, you’re not going to be successful. There’s plenty of companies that have never done marketing before and had a very sales heavy organisation and were super successful that way.
And then there’s been other companies that are super successful on the marketing side, whether it’s through paid advertising or content and are successful that way. And it’s more important to play to your strengths and really figure out what are the strengths of the founders and how can I find our competitive advantage either in the channel that I approach or the way that I do marketing. To give you our own example, I’ll give you two examples from my career and how this played out.
The first startup that I worked at in San Francisco was a company called Thinkapps. They did software development for non-technical founders. But the non-technical founders were not just solo people. It was typically different startups in San Francisco that maybe needed to build a product or a dev team.
And instead of having to go do that themselves, they could use us. And the two founders of our company had built a ton of products and worked were technical co-founders, and they could lead and manage development teams. It was almost like the agency that we have for content marketing now, where they took care of the whole process, but for software development.
When I was looking at the landscape in terms of everyone else who is our competitor, very few excelled at educating people, how to build great products. And I thought that’s an opportunity because if you have a non-technical founder who knows nothing about software development and they have a need to build a product, and there’s not really any other software development firm that is writing really great content about how to build products.
Again, I just saw that as a competitive advantage that we could have if we attack that channel. After testing a little bit of paid advertising. That was something that I decided to build out. We grew that blog to 35 000 readers in six months and it ended up being the number one lead channel for the company.
I don’t think it was because I just saw content as a channel that we should do it. It was more because I saw I had the expertise of these really technical great founders inside of the company. And I could build out a writing team and I’ve already done that before and no one else is doing this. So let’s go down this road and test it. That was more of the thinking. It’s not just, we should do content for the sake of doing content.
The second example is when we started our company Grow and Convert, the reason I decided to start a blog was also because of those previous experiences, I had at Thinkapps.
I had to go through the challenge of building a blog from scratch. We didn’t have a blog built on the website before. At the previous company that I had at Vistage, we had already had all that infrastructure built. Same thing at Vistage. I already had a team of writers I could tap into. Here I was starting from scratch.
When I was trying to figure out how to do this at Thinkapps. I was researching a lot of stuff online to try to find resources to help me build out a content marketing operation, and trying to find case studies of other companies that had done it well, so I could take ideas from them.
And when I was doing that research, there wasn’t a blog that really shared in-depth information or how to do content marketing well. It was a lot of high-level fluffy tactics and things that sounded interesting on the surface, but when you dug into the process and how they achieved some of these things it left a lot to be desired.
When we started our blog, that was the difference that we wanted to bring to it. We saw the gap in the market based on my own experience and trying to accomplish this myself, and then realised that there wasn’t a resource like this out there. When we started our blog, we wanted it to be that in-depth resource that shared everything about content marketing, that’s shared really in-depth case studies, the thinking behind it, how to manage all these different operational processes.
That’s why when we launched our blog, it really resonated with the people that we’re targeting because there truly wasn’t a resource like this out there prior to us starting it. Again, it all starts with understanding where the gap is in the market. What you’re uniquely positioned to solve for. And then because of those two things investing in a channel, because you think you have a competitive advantage and no one else is doing this well. It’s less about the tactic and the channel and more about finding that competitive advantage and that opportunity.
Petri: You make it sound so easy, but you’ve been doing this for a long time. So what you’re saying is that you need to become like an authority in the business. You find your own authentic voice, which is meaningful and helping the customers in an essential way. And by the trust you build with people, you can convert that trust into your sales leads.
Benji: It’s even simpler than that. Everyone starts at business because they have an idea around something that they think they can do better than anyone else. That’s like you might have this podcast because you think you’re really good at having conversations with businesspeople and extracting certain information.
I started this content marketing business because I thought my way of doing content marketing was better than what I’d seen most people do. So it starts with that really understanding the why behind what you’re doing and then figuring out what you do. if you’re to think about yourself, what do I do better than anyone else?
And, how can I use that skill set to get in front of the right people and to get my business out there? That’s what I would do. And that’s why I don’t suggest content is for everyone. Because if you’re not a writer, learning how to write is probably not worth your time. But if you’re a really great presenter, you’re a great speaker then video might be the right channel for you because you could be good in front of a camera and communicate your message through that medium. That’s why it’s more important about understanding the industry, understanding what most people aren’t doing well, figuring out what you do well, and then figuring out how to bring your skill set to a gap that is open in the market.
Petri: What is your favourite word?
Benji: Probably euphoria.
Petri: What is your least favourite word?
Benji: Moist. That word is just really hard to listen to.
Petri: What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
Benji: For me, it’s being in the ocean. I surf a lot. And there’s something about being in the ocean. That brings a calming feeling to me. it’s just humbling being in nature to where you can’t control everything around you and the environment you’re in. And there’s something about the hut that puts me at ease. It brings a lot of creative energy. Some of my best ideas have come from surfing, just being out there by myself. And I typically like to surf by myself and it’s just a great way for me to disconnect from everyone around me and just be alone in my own thoughts.
Petri: Reminds me of the great book title: Let my people go surfing.
Benji: Great book!
Petri: What turns you off?
Benji: People that aren’t intellectually curious. Anyone who’s just not curious. They accept information for what it is and, and they don’t ask why. Maybe the reason it turns me off is because for me personally continually asking why and question, why things are the way that they are, is what’s led me to some of my biggest breakthroughs.
And when I see someone just accepting information for what it is, and really not questioning or challenging it there’s something about that that turns me off.
Petri: What is your favourite curse word?
Benji: Had to do a lot of thinking about this one, but it’s wanker. And it’s not a US term and that’s why. Because we don’t say it here and I just think it sounds so funny.
Petri: You found your new niche!
What sound or noise do you love?
Benji: Again going back to the ocean, I love the sound of waves,
Petri: What sound or noise do you hate?
Benji: High-pitched voices. For whatever reason, I just can’t do that.
Petri: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Benji: My hobby on the side for the last two or three years has been investing and trading. if I ever gave up marketing, that would be the career that I would go into is just investing. There’s something for me that it’s really fascinating in the same way marketing is. There’s a lot of analogies between marketing and investing in terms of you need to really understand what’s going on in the world to be a good investor.
You need to be really good at problem-solving and try to figure out how all these different things interact and trends and betting on technology and where certain industries are going to go. And, I’ve just been fascinated. I probably spend three or four hours of my day researching investing stuff, listening to videos or listening to podcasts or looking at charts. Technical analysis is my speciality within that.
Petri: What profession would you not like to do?
Benji: Now it may sound weird because of what I just said, but finance sounds horrible to me or operations. And I know people might think finance and investing are very similar to me. They’re not like I would never want to run finance inside of an organisation. And to be honest, I don’t really like operations.
I like having the big picture, doing marketing and not really focusing on the process as much.
Petri: If you could be a co-founder of any startup in any era, which one would you choose?
Benji: I would choose now. There’s never been better opportunities to start a company. it’s easier now than it’s ever been. There’s more access to money. There’s more access to resources. Technology has made it incredibly simple to where you can start a business for almost zero money.
Our total startup costs from the very beginning were like $150 just for our website and hosting. The fact that you can start a business now with little to no money, you can bank online. You have access to people all over the world through social media and the Internet. I just don’t think there’s ever been a better time to start a business.
And I also think there’re more opportunities than ever with the world-changing the way that it is. We’re going through a massive secular transition from centralised power to decentralsed power. It’s going to take a long time to play out, but it’s going to change every industry.
There are more opportunities to start a business if you can think through how each of these industries will change over the next 10 or 20 years and get ahead of some of those changes. There’s a lot of money to be made and that there’s a lot of cool new businesses that can come out of it.
Petri: Any final words for the audience?
Benji: If I was to start a business, I would focus on finding something that I would be willing to do every day, despite not making any money from it. And the reason that I say that is because throughout the course of a business and getting it off of the ground, you’re going to come up with periods long periods, potentially, where you don’t make any money doing what you’re doing.
And if you hate the work that you’re doing on a daily basis that’s what’s going to cause you to give up and fail. If you really love the work that you’re doing and you’re passionate about it and you would do it regardless of if you made money or not that’s what will get you through those periods of hardship as you’re getting the business off the ground.
And I’ve learned the hard way, doing things just for the money and failing because of that. And then on the flip side, I learned that through doing what you love every day, the work becomes easier. You’re more passionate about it. And taking the whole idea of money off the table is what allows you to build the right business and approach it the right way.
And that’s what will lead the business to be more sustainable over time.
Petri: Thank you Benji for sharing your wisdom. This has been very informative!
Benji: Thank you so much for having me. It was a great conversation!