Founder and CEO are often used interchangeably in the startup scene, but the roles can differ. Mark Whitman cofounded Contentellect but was a hands-off investor and advisor for the first couple of years. In August 2021, however, he took over from his cofounder as CEO.
His first goal was to grow the company from $250,000 to $1 million in annual revenue. Just 12 months later, he’s close to hitting that goal. Over 800 businesses rely on Contentellect to deliver quality content and links every month.
But how did he manage it?
Sell Your Expertise as a Service
Mark Whitman has been a bootstrapping entrepreneur since 2010. While he’s originally from South Africa, he’s lived and worked all over the world but currently resides on the island of Guernsey, off the coast of Normandy, France, with his family.
Mark has founded five businesses, from software products to travel websites, and is still involved with most of them. He has grown some of these startups to six figures, crediting his online success to quality content and authoritative links.
Before founding his first business, he was working in management consulting and was a digital nomad before the term existed.
Mark says, “Because I’m originally from South Africa, I was leveraging geographic arbitrage (a fancy word for relocating from a high-cost area to a low-cost area to save money). I was living in Southeast Asia, Mexico, Central America, Eastern Europe – anywhere it was cheap. Then I read The 4-Hour Workweek, as many digital nomads of that period did, which inspired me to start a business.”
Mark launched several content websites, specifically in the adventure travel industry, doing affiliate marketing and advertising. He built a team of freelancers to produce all the work needed to make these websites successful, hiring talent in South Africa at a reasonable price.
Mark’s success sparked questions from others wanting to replicate it: How do I create good content? How do I build links? How do I start a content website myself? How do I do affiliate marketing? He says, “Since I had an entire team and the systems and processes in place to create content at scale, it made sense to package it up and sell it as a service.”
How to Productize Your Content Marketing Service
Even though it was a great idea, Mark didn’t want to run an agency. He had been a management consultant before and knew what client-based work looked like. So, how could he launch this service-based business in a way that worked for him?
Mark says, “Two key aspects needed to be in place to make Contentellect happen. First, the service needed to be productized, with a simple purchasing journey and clear deliverables. Second, since I didn’t have the time or inclination to run the business, I wanted to partner with someone who would be able to run the day-to-day.”
Traditional agencies tailor their services to each client. Mark says that, in general, the client is expecting results as opposed to outputs. Especially when it comes to SEO, people are looking for the result. They don’t care how they get there. They just want to rank on the first page of Google.
But SEO strategies can be unpredictable and may take months to show results. It’s not something you can guarantee. Mark says, “When you productize your service, you remove the tailored side of things and position the offering around output instead of results.” Productization meant selling the building blocks for SEO: quality content and authoritative links.
Mark also wanted to find a CEO. He reached out to his friend Marc Bromhall (yes, that’s Mark and Marc) who he’s known since they were six years old. Marc Bromhall was looking for a new opportunity, so he came on board.
In February of 2018, Mark and Marc cofounded Contentellect. Mark helped set up the company, providing strategic management oversight and investment, and Marc was in charge of running the day-to-day operations. That’s how the cofounders tackled the business together for the first two years.
Contentellect’s first customers came through LinkedIn and Mark’s network. The founders also emailed software companies to sell their services. They built a database of 30,000 SaaS companies by manually searching websites like Capterra and G2.
Through drip email marketing (sending a pre-written set of messages to customers or prospects over time), the founders generated leads. While the conversation rate was tiny, it was enough to provide a consistent stream of new customers. Most customers signed up for a recurring retainer, providing Contentellect monthly recurring revenue.
How to Transition Smoothly Between CEOs
In late 2020, Contentellect had grown to $20,000 in monthly recurring revenue, close to a quarter of a million dollars annually. However, Marc was keen to sell the business.
Mark says, “He had fallen out of love with running an agency and wanted to do something else. So we decided together to sell the business. We even listed it on MicroAcquire for a couple of days. But then Covid struck. Because of my involvement in the travel industry, I got hit massively in the following months.
“But I was also sitting on quite a lot of cash that I’d saved over the years. I decided that the best deployment of my capital would be to buy out my cofounder and run the agency myself. Especially since we didn’t know how long the pandemic would last, it was the least risky business decision for me (as opposed to launching another business, for example). I bought Marc out in July 2021.”
Once a month, the cofounders met to discuss numbers, strategies, and employees, so Mark knew how the business worked. Transitioning to CEO was a lot easier for Mark because there were no surprises. He says, “We agreed on a price, I gave him the money, and the next day I was running things. It wasn’t like buying a business I didn’t know anything about.”
The founders also asked a key employee to run the day-to-day for six months before they finalized the deal. After Mark took over, he didn’t have to get involved in operations at all.
But when he became CEO, he had to decide what to do with the company. He could either maintain it and grow one of his other businesses or focus all his attention on Contentellect. He decided on the latter, setting an 18-month goal to grow the company run rate from $250,000 to $1 million by December 2022.
Expanding Services and Markets to Reach Revenue Goals
Since Mark took over in July 2021, he has expanded Contentellect’s services beyond content writing (like blog articles, eBooks, and product descriptions) to include link building and journalist outreach for a full SEO service. Contentellect now also offers bulk content campaigns (think 1,000 blogs, for example) for a one-off price.
Bulk content has proven to be popular with customers. To establish yourself as a top authority in any niche, you need to publish a lot of content. First, you need to define all the keywords in that niche and group them intelligently (Contentellect has developed a tool called KeyClusters to do that). This tells you which topics to write about for that particular niche. For a micro-niche, this might be 50 to 100 articles, but in a larger niche, this could be anywhere from 100 to 1,000 articles.
Mark says, “In my opinion, that’s the best strategy anyone can deploy for SEO. Drip feeding two or three articles a month won’t move the needle much. Creating a lot of high-quality content as fast as possible is an effective way of becoming a top authority in your niche. If you’re working from scratch, you need to produce thirty, forty, or even fifty articles a month at scale.”
Contentellect has also expanded its target audience. Initially, the company chose SaaS companies. But in recent months, they’ve opened up to online businesses in general that have an internal marketing team or SEO person. Contentellect also works with SEO agencies that whitelabel the content for their respective clients. Those agencies might not have a content arm or enough writers, so Contentellect helps them increase their output.
Mark has also focused on the company’s SEO and content marketing plan. Ironically, Contentellect relied almost exclusively on cold emailing to bring in leads, not organic traffic. Mark says, “We needed to go from nowhere on the internet to everywhere our audience is. We’ve revamped our site to target high-intent keywords and created an extensive content plan for our blog.”
The Challenges of Growing Too Quickly
Mark’s initiatives to grow the business have succeeded. In October of 2021, Contentellect hit over $70,000 in revenue, with $30,000 in MMR. The link-building side of the business went from zero to $30,000 in revenue. And with the newly-added bulk content service, only one or two new customers need to sign up every month to generate significant income.
This extreme growth exposed some of the weaknesses in the business Mark needed to address. “We nearly broke because we didn’t have the team or systems to deal with that level of growth,” Mark says.
“It’s not like in the software industry where you can scale that fast without things breaking. The cost for each additional customer is pretty much zero in SaaS. But for a service-based business, when a new customer comes in, you need to recruit new team members like account managers, writers, and so on. So I stopped selling completely and haven’t turned our sales funnel back on since then.”
It has taken Contentellect eight months to build and train the full team and make sure all the operational systems are in place. Mark also created more second-tier management roles to support the expansion.
The Contentellect team has grown from three to 13 members. In addition, the writers’ pool has gone from 26 to 105 freelance writers. Mark says, “The amount of people you need to screen to get to a hundred and five quality writers is epic. We screened over a thousand people and put them through writing tests and interviews to find the best writers.”
But all that hard work is paying off. In March of 2022, Contentellect hit a new milestone of $80,000 in revenue. Now, around 40 percent of the company’s revenue comes from recurring subscriptions and 60 percent from one-off payments (but repeat customers are very common). The next challenge is to make that revenue more consistent from month to month. From April to July of 2022, the company generated around $70,000 per month.
Mark says, “About three weeks ago, we got to the point where everything is officially in place. Now, we can turn the dial back on and start selling again. By December 2022, I would like the company to generate $85,000 per month with a good portion (more than fifty percent) of this as monthly recurring revenue. I don’t have aspirations to build something much bigger than that – I want to be able to focus on my other businesses as well. So, a million in turnover with thirteen full-time employees and 105 writers is exactly where I want to be with Contentellect.”
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