2019 was the year where everything almost fell apart. I had been working 14-16 hour days for the past couple of months trying to grow my SEO agency through local client retainers.
I was out of shape, I couldn’t sleep, I had no hobbies, the bills were piling up on the kitchen table, and I was on the verge of shutting down the company. The thing is, our SEO agency was making some money, but not enough to justify the stress, and it certainly wasn’t going like I imagined it would when I set out to become an entrepreneur.
Two years later and now, in 2021, things are quite different. I live the “laptop lifestyle” now. The SEO agency runs almost entirely on autopilot. I was able to buy my first exotic car. I paid off all my debt. I finally have the time to do the things I love: travel, workout, stay at nice hotels, invest in assets, and eat high quality food both at home and at restaurants. And most importantly, I’ve been able to take care of the people around me: I gave my little sister a car and helped my parents pay their mortgage.
So, how did things change over the last two years? What took a struggling SEO agency and transformed it into a juggernaut, currently partnered with multiple national brands, working on 7 and 8-figure projects?
The answer: I changed the way I thought about an SEO business.
Instead of offering SEO in exchange for a monthly retainer, I used it to build passive-income producing assets: lead generation websites.
In 2019, I did not understand just how the retainer model had been holding my agency back. And so before moving onto the lead generation section, let’s break down retainers, as changes are, it’s what you’re selling right now.
The Retainer Model Paradox
In order to grow an agency through retainers, you need more to be constantly bringing in new clients. So let’s go over what it looks like to do that successfully.
When you’re starting out, you have a lot of time, but not much money. Thus, you can spend most of your time farming for clients. So let’s say you pick up some clients. Your money goes up, and now because you have to fulfill for that client, your time goes down.
Now, you have less time to spend farming for clients, but you keep chugging along anyways. You pick up a few more clients, and then you hit the plateau where most of your time is spent fulfilling instead of bringing in clients.
This is the retainer model paradox: the more clients you take on, the less time you have to increase your revenue.
That is, unless you are a master of developing systems and building teams.
So, let’s say you are a master of systems, or maybe you’re trying things out as you go.
The next logical step is to start hiring.
A business tends to have 3 core departments: Marketing -> Sales -> Fulfillment.
The first department you start hiring for is going to be fulfillment in order to free up your time.
You start outsourcing and creating systems to automate your fulfillment process (p.s, if you’re stuck below $10k/mo, this is how you break that plateau).
With something as complex and ever changing as SEO, it can take months to build out the right teams capable of proper audits, on-page optimization, schema implementation, GMB optimization, citation/social creation, site-sculpting and backlink building.
The takeaway from this is that building a system for just one of the business cores is already a monumental task.
If this was a lead-generation agency, you could stop there, at having one system built.
But because you’re trying to grow through retainers, in order to increase your income, you need more clients. In order to get more clients, you need marketing + sales to be just as dialed in as fulfillment.
And so, the next department you start hiring for is marketing.
In order to build a marketing system, you need to know how to bring in clients to the point where you can teach someone else how to do it. You’ll need to understand what your niche’s biggest pain points are, what keeps the owners up at night, the best way to get the owner’s attention and then know how to jedi-mind trick a cold lead into wanting SEO.
Very few people can do this with SEO retainers/contracts without playing a pure numbers game.
While this can be personal bias, most SEO agency owners I’ve met never figured this system out. Instead they slowly grew through referrals, BNIs, and the occasional lead that comes in from ranking in your own city.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!
Lastly, as if YOU attracting and closing clients wasn’t hard enough, now you need to build a sales department. That means the marketing department needs to produce enough volume to justify a sales department, and then that sales department probably needs a solid sales script.
Is it impossible to grow through client retainers? Absolutely not. You can grow through retainers, but it takes way more time and is harder to scale. Retainers are perfect for people who are just getting started as they can offer a bit of stability and a chance to practice building your SEO systems.
If you could increase your income without having to take on more clients, you could just bypass having to build a marketing or sales department altogether. You could effectively stop at building out your fulfillment team.
The Pay Per Performance + GoHighlevel
The goal of a pay per performance model is to increase your passive income by building digital assets that you own, while having as few clients as possible, with as high of a budget as possible.
What this practically looks like for most people is to start a lead gen business working with local companies and then transitioning into working with whales (national lead buyers).
Why Pay Per Performance?
Simply put, pay per performance is the most efficient offer you can make to a cold prospect and thus the easiest type of deal to close.
Pay per performance is low risk, requires little commitment, generates clear MONETARY results for the client, and won’t limit your income to the number of clients you work with.
Compare that to an SEO contract which has high commitment, high risk (because, let’s face it, pretty much every business owner has been burned by a low quality SEO agency), unclear monetary results (you can’t guarantee X leads, or even calculate an ROI for the client), you don’t retain any of the work you do or assets you build (they belong to the client) and worst of all, your income is tied to the number of clients you work with.
And so the solution is pay-per-appointment lead generation.
If you go up to a business owner and say “Hey, I’m going to book appointments for your business, and all I want is a cut of what I make you.”, you’re essentially offering them the best deal possible. There’s no risk to them; the results are clearly defined with a predictable ROI and almost no commitment needed from the client. It makes it extremely easy to get a “yes”.
In the past, this model would have two core problems:
- What happens if the client leaves?
- Small business owners don’t have the best closing rate on leads.
Luckily, we have something that solves these factors: enter HighLevel.
Scaling from Local to National: The Blueprint
My first SEO business around 2017/2018 was appointment booking for plumbers. We had the #1 rankings for plumbers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orange County, Phoenix, and Las Vegas despite working on an extremely tight budget and battling against the industry titans like Roto Rooter and Rooter Hero.
We spent 2-3 months building and ranking the websites for each city and then about a week finding buyers for the leads being generated.
Our first buyers were small local businesses and we dealt with the two core problems mentioned above, first hand.
Some clients left, others we fired. But virtually all of the small businesses had sub-par operations (no 24/7 service, administrators that sounded like they had a permanent hangover, no follow up, etc…).
However, after 6 months, we were generating enough leads that they could all be sold to a single national company: e-local.
Working with a national brand gave us a ton of advantages:
- If we wanted to make more money, we didn’t have to find more buyers. We could just put up more websites, in more cities, and “fulfill more”, resulting in a direct increase in income.
- National brands have their systems dialed in – they’re excellent closers, always answer the phone, and track ROI. If the ROI is positive, they will never cancel on you. This leads to a stable and reliable source of passive income.
- They would always pay on time and without any issues.
- They required little to no communication from us other than us sending over the monthly call log / invoice.
- They were completely fine with us keeping our assets/websites, and thus if they ever left, we still maintained the lead sources and would just need to find another set of buyers.
When we eventually switched to e-local as a buyer instead of small businesses, e-local paid significantly less per lead, but, because their systems were dialed in, and they closed more deals than small clients, we were actually making more money. Additionally, the income was now truly passive as it required little to no communication with clients, did not require a marketing department, an onboarding team, or a sales team.
Even before HighLevel, this model was a success. But HighLevel is what inspired us to transition from a retainer model to a pay per performance model in 2019, when our SEO agency was struggling.
In 2019, when we re-launched this model, the HighLevel suite gave us access to solutions we could never afford before. These GHL solutions made the initial starting phase of our lead-gen project far more profitable and way less painful compared to the first lead gen business I had launched in the plumbing space.
And while, back then, we had to do lead gen the hard way, you’ll get to do it the easy way now, through HighLevel.
Here’s how we used HighLevel and all of its automation functions:
- Our web form submissions were integrated with HighLevel – once somebody filled it out, we could market to them until they unsubscribed from our list. This meant that the same lead could be booked multiple times for multiple payouts since we owned their contact information. This also meant that over time, we were building a database of warm/hot leads, which is an extremely valuable asset that we’ll sell later down the road.
- Our calls were saved on HighLevel and that cut our Callfire cost from around $500/mo to just $80/mo with Twilio.
- We gave customers access to a HighLevel calendar where they could book for an in-home estimate directly. This calendar was integrated with GoHighlevel’s appointment booking confirmation sequences which increased the show-up rate by about 30%. 30% more appointments = 30% more revenue.
- We used GHL pipeline control to manage leads and run targeted HighLevel marketing campaigns (SMS, voicemail drops, and emails) based on where the lead was in a stage.
- We used the GHL check-in function to dramatically boost the number of reviews our Google My Business listings were getting, which resulted in an upward spiral of rankings, leading to more leads, and more reviews – all the way to the top positions.
On a side note, soon GoHighlevel will be releasing their integration with WordPress. This makes us extremely excited, because at that point, we’ll be able to clone entire GHL websites that are already SEO optimized and contain the GHL back-end set up. Once the GoHighlevel team releases this, it’ll be like literally printing money for SEOs in the lead generation space.
Editor’s note: As of October 2021, HighLevel now has a WordPress Integration.
Organic Scaling Blueprint for Lead Generation
The organic scaling blueprint is what I call the process that took us from our first couple of sites and local buyers to working with national brands. It’s a process that you can follow and it does not need to be over complicated. If it seems like it’s easy, that’s because it is easy.
Here are the exact steps we followed to scale the agency:
- We built new lead-gen websites, each with their own unique hosting, domain, logo, brand identity, and Google my Business listing.
- We integrated the sites with GoHighlevel and used the clone feature to have a fully functional, backend for our 20+ sites (in a matter of a few minutes).
- We kept all these businesses in a tight geographic area.
- We optimized each of the sites using a combination of CORA, POP, and Surfer SEO for the on-page as well as a variety of tools for backlink building.
- We called small businesses to be temporary buyers for the leads (because we control the CRM, appointment setting, and lead follow up, all the buyers have to do is literally show up, and service the client. This means that as long as they answer the phones, then the rest of their back-end systems are irrelevant). The small business owners fielded the calls until the sites were ranking and providing decent volume. At the end of the month, we’d have a VA listen to the recorded calls and we’d send out an invoice based on how many appointments were booked.
- Once we had a reasonable amount of volume/appointments, we reached out to the local industry leader (a national brand) and said “Hey, we’re booking XXX appointments in YYY city for the following services: ZZZ. We currently work with the following local companies “ABC” but are interested in doing business with you. Would you be open to working with us on a pay-per-booked-appointment basis”?
- BONUS: Some of the national brands we picked up were done directly by selling GoHighlevel remarketing campaigns FIRST, and then SEO second. By simply taking their database, plugging it into GoHighlevel and running an SMS campaign, we’d generate huge results in a short period of time for those companies on a pay-per-appointment basis. At that point, we’d just say ask them “Hey, what if we kept generating NEW leads on a PPA basis through SEO in the cities where you’re not ranking?” All of the companies we proposed this to said yes.
The advantage to building out the lead generation assets first is that you’ll already have the volume to get paid on by the time you work with a national company.
The advantage to selling the GoHighlevel remarketing campaigns first is that you’ll get an injection of cash.
Either way works.
Once a national company said yes, we switched the call routing (located in GoHighlevel) to funnel the leads to the larger companies. We then repeated this process in other vertices within our niche.
Repeating this process without GoHighlevel would’ve been a nightmare. Their ability to automate all sorts of remarketing campaigns gave us the ability to fund these projects at a time when the agency was struggling. Our favorite feature was that once we built out the backend for one of the lead gen sites, we could just use GoHighlevel’s clone feature to copy it over to all the other sites. This significantly reduced the amount of time, team members, and money required to launch the project.
If you have any questions or want to learn more about our process and systems, here’s how you can get in touch: