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How Self-Education Gives You a Competitive Advantage

Entrepreneur Jim Rohn once said: “Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.” While this mainly refers to the value of going to college, it also highlights the importance of learning by doing.

Ishaan Shakunt went to university to study computer engineering, but when he landed a marketing internship, he decided to teach himself search engine optimization (SEO). Without formal instruction, Ishaan had to start from first principles: What was the aim of SEO? The answer led him to investigate metrics correlating to business growth. Within two years, he became a self-taught SEO expert and founded Spear Growth, a B2B SaaS marketing agency.  

Spear Growth helps growth-stage companies, like unicorns and Series A and B funded startups, build a strong sales pipeline. The agency prides itself on two core areas of expertise: SEO and ads. After only a year and a half in business, Spear Growth employs 12 people and generates more than $20,000 in monthly recurring revenue. 

In eighteen months, Ishaan had achieved what many aspiring founders only dream of. How did he launch a successful agency and build a strong team so quickly? 

How to Grab Your Boss’s Attention

Ishaan is a computer science graduate from India. He says, “I was an okay developer and tried freelancing in college but hated it. I wanted to be an entrepreneur, so I tried dozens of things, everything from opening a mocktail stand to starting an (unregistered) NGO. I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do in life. One common thread for every project was that I had to market it.”

While in college, Ishaan spent a lot of time building his network through LinkedIn. Many of his contacts taught him about online marketing, so Ishaan took a marketing intern role at a fintech startup. While he was interning, the company hired a top SEO agency to improve its website and online presence. 

Ishaan wanted to learn more about search engine optimization, so he researched, watched videos, and took courses. He started conducting his own audit, seeing where the company could improve. “The agency was doing it – and so was I. But I didn’t know what an audit was supposed to look like, so I just went overboard on details and created something that matched the company’s goals and solved their SEO concerns,” Ishaan says. 

It took the agency a month to complete an SEO audit and when they delivered the results, the leadership team was underwhelmed and disappointed. “The agency had to present their work on a call with the CMO, the VP, the director of marketing – and then there’s me, the intern that most people forgot about. I could have created what the agency presented in a weekend, and that was with the limited knowledge and experience I had in the field. The tension on the call was running high,” he says. 

Ishaan mustered up his courage and decided to interject, asking whether he could share his audit. By the end of the call, the CMO decided he wanted to own the SEO channel in-house instead of paying the agency, putting Ishaan in charge. Until that day, Ishaan had never even spoken directly to the CMO, and now he suddenly had this major responsibility.

Ishaan ran with it. He says, “The SEO industry in general is not very strategic, so not having any experience in the field was a benefit. I had full autonomy because I didn’t have a direct manager. But I had a great mentor at the company who taught me marketing basics. I drew on my newfound knowledge to solve SEO challenges logically. And with my developer background, I could automate a lot of it.”

Ishaan went on to lead all the SEO initiatives at the company, from research and implementation to reporting and coordinating with other departments. He also helped build the online marketing team and trained more than 800 people in SEO. But after two years, Ishaan felt he wasn’t learning as fast as he wanted. He left to pursue a new challenge: consulting.

“On my last day of work, the Senior Director of Marketing told me I was a pain in the ass. Why? Because I did things differently. I challenged the norm. I found my own way of doing things. And he appreciated it,” Ishaan says. 

Jump In With Both Feet, Even If You Don’t Know Everything 

Ishaan started consulting full-time in November 2020, helping companies with digital marketing. “I looked up to James Gilbert, the CMO of Flip. He was gracious enough to get on a call with me,” he says.

“I wanted to know how I could become a better marketer, even with everything I had taught myself and learned at my previous job. He gave me some invaluable insights. One of them was that CMOs aren’t marketers, they are business people who happen to specialize in marketing. To appeal to the CMO, I needed to think more like a business person rather than a marketer.”

That call was in March 2021. Two weeks later, Ishaan started the registration process for Spear Growth. But with so little business experience, Ishaan struggled with the legal, financial, human resources, and administrative tasks of starting a company. 

The founder had already gotten his first client before he even managed to complete his company registration. He couldn’t send the customer a contract or invoice because Spear Growth didn’t officially exist yet. But Ishaan knew it was important to secure his first client – and he would figure out how to do everything else later.

He says, “I don’t need to know everything about something to do it. I started talking to people who inspire me or who I want to work with, getting their advice and input. When launching Spear Growth, I didn’t even pitch potential clients. I was speaking to thirty people a week, just networking, and many were interested in what I did. Some of those people turned into my first clients.”

Ishaan is an inbound marketer, but not in the traditional sense. Usually, inbound marketing follows this approach: You create content, publish it, and promote it as much as possible. By the end of the month, maybe a thousand people will have read it. Out of those thousand, only a small percentage (maybe ten people) will be in your target audience and the right spot in the buyer’s journey. To Ishaan, it doesn’t make sense to take that long road. Instead, he pinpointed and spoke to those ten people directly. 

What helped in those types of conversations was knowing what a CMO was looking for in an SEO agency. Ishaan says, “While other agencies were talking about clicks, impressions, and backlinks, I was focusing on how SEO improvements would help a company increase its SQLs (sales qualified leads) and how it would result in revenue. As a marketer, you want to tie efforts as close to revenue as possible. I demonstrated how I would do that instead of focusing on baseline metrics. This made me stand out among competitors.” 

Letting Your Results Do the Marketing

One of the challenges Ishaan faced was the poor reputation that Indian agencies have globally. He would get disheartened speaking to people who saw that he knew his stuff, yet wouldn’t consider Spear Growth because it’s an Indian agency. Ishaan says, “It’s not their fault, of course, if they’ve had negative experiences with Indian companies, but it’s just so demotivating when it’s something you can’t change.” 

Ishaan focused on his key advantage: Spear Growth produced the best results. Now, Ishaan has clients outside of India including in the US, Singapore, and the Middle East. The agency has been growing every quarter and customers keep returning for more. 

Unlike many agencies, Spear Growth doesn’t charge a retainer. Instead, clients commit to a three-month sprint where the agency tackles one big problem, like content strategy. Ishaan explains that when you hire a typical agency, the content strategy often looks like this: They research keywords with search volumes and produce content based on those keywords. Ishaan doesn’t believe that is the most effective approach.

Spear Growth does do a lot of research, but mainly into what features are popular in the industry, what people are searching for, and what product pages competitors have created. Spear Growth recommends its clients focus on content for feature, product, and industry webpages. 

This unique SEO strategy has resulted in 60 percent of customers’ content pieces ranking on Google within two months – which is much quicker than with traditional methods. One of Spear Growth’s client’s purchased two sprints at the start of this year. Currently, most of the traffic to its website comes from those two sprints, growing the business by five times since then on those SEO optimizations alone. 

With its goal of helping scale SaaS businesses, Spear Growth also offers performance marketing. The agency focuses on paid ad success spanning the sales funnel, including landing pages, email workflows, CRM reporting, and everything in between. Spear Growth has already generated 20,000 sales-qualified leads for its clients. These impressive results in SEO and performance marketing have resulted in a 100 percent referral rate from clients. 

What’s the Best Way to Build Your Team? 

For the first two quarters, Ishaan tried to build Spear Growth’s team according to a strict principle: hiring the best five marketers in the world. “I wanted all five people to be at the top of their field, extremely driven and motivated. My vision was that this small team would create high-value work that surpassed competitors. But that plan had some serious flaws, and it almost shut down my business.”

Ishaan hadn’t foreseen what would happen if one of the five people got sick or left the company. And that’s exactly what happened. One of his employees had a personal problem and had to leave the team. As a result, Spear Growth was stuck. No one else could fill this employee’s position as he was in charge of specific tasks and roles within his special skill set. Ishaan couldn’t find a replacement. 

The founder realized this wasn’t the right model to build a team. So he drew out a new team structure on the back of a napkin in a cafe. He decided that Spear Growth would benefit from having PODs (Product Oriented Delivery). Often used in the tech world, a POD is a group of people with complementary skill sets that allows a team to be self-sufficient while working on a specific project. With that strategic shift, Spear Growth went from four to twelve team members. 

But it wasn’t just about hiring more people, it was also about moving away from the idea that you need the single best person in each marketing category. Ishaan says, “I had to do a dark exercise where I asked myself: What happens if I die? Does everything crumble or can the company keep going? Now, I make sure that if someone leaves, is sick, or something goes missing, we have processes that ensure we can continue business as usual. If anything happens on our side, the client will never know.”

The founder’s new philosophy was to build a team that could fill any gap temporarily for three months. The way he solved this problem was by making sure that every employee has foundational skills. Instead of relying on what people learned at their previous jobs, Ishaan hires intelligent individuals willing to learn. All of Spear Growth’s employees go through an intensive three-month training program – even if they have 12 years of experience. 

Spear Growth doesn’t do traditional SEO and ads, so retraining every team member before they manage an account is crucial. Employees are constantly learning new skills while working at the agency. It’s not only Spear Growth’s way of getting client results, it’s also what makes the company’s culture stand out and why people love working there. 

Ever since Ishaan discovered his passion, he’s been dedicated to sharing it with the world. The founder says, “Marketing in the B2B SaaS space is lackluster and has always been behind B2C. Few companies pushed the B2C marketing industry ahead in the previous decade. We want to be known as one of the agencies that spearheaded innovation in B2B marketing this decade, from 2020 to 2030.”

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Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew is an award-winning serial entrepreneur with three exits. He’s the founder and CEO of MicroAcquire, the world’s most founder-friendly startup marketplace, and its rebellious child, Bootstrappers, which gives voice to the entrepreneurial underdog. When not building businesses, he writes for Forbes, Entrepreneur, and now, Bootstrappers.

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