Eric Siu is the CEO of Single Grain, an agency that specialises in SEO and growth for SaaS and online education companies. We talk about Eric’s prolific approach to content marketing, building a lead generation machine that runs on auto-pilot, and the challenges of hiring a great team. Eric shares how one hire cost Single Grain over $1 million, and what systems he’s implemented to tighten Single Grain’s hiring process.
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You’re listening to the 10X Your Agency podcast where every Wednesday for the next 12 weeks you’ll be learning strategies on how to scale up your agency and grow your client base from successful agency owners, whoíve been there, done it and built a highly successful agency. Youíll learn how they attract clients, what their biggest causes of client churn were, and what their challenges were at different stages of building their agency. My name is Marcus Taylor and Iíll be your host.
Hey guys, welcome to episode 4 of the 10 X Your Agency podcast. Today we are joined by a very special guest Eric Siu who is the CEO of Single Grain, a really fascinating agency based in California who specialize in helping SAS companies and online education companies increase their growth through SEO and content marketing. Eric is also the founder of the Growth Everywhere Podcast which is one of my personal favorites. If you havenít checked out Growth Everywhere, Iíd highly recommend doing so. So today we are going to be talking to Eric about how to use content and podcasts to acquire clients for an agency as well as a couple of tactics about how to hire a great team. Eric itís a great pleasure having you here on the podcast, how is it going?
Eric: Good Marcus, how are you?
Marcus: Doing well thank you. Before we jump in, I was wondering can you share a little bit about what Single Grain is and how does Single Grain differ to other agencies?
Eric: Yes absolutely. So Single Grain, we are a digital marketing agency. Originally we started in San Francisco. Down here in Los Angeles now and we mainly focus on what we are good at so we are not going to say we are a full-serviced digital marketing agency. We focus on paid advertising. So that could be Gmail ads, Facebook, YouTube ads and things like that. And then we also cover Search Engine Optimization. We have specialized in working with a lot of different technology companies, from the really big ones like Salesforce and a lot of companies that [inaudible 00:01:51] and have reached product market that they are not ready to scale. We are really familiar with SAS, online education is my background so weíve also worked with a lot of education companies as well. So our thing isówe try to nature down on and we only focus on what we are good on and we try to work with either [inaudible00:02:07] kind of companies or education companies.
Marcus: Awesome. Why was the move from San Francisco-just kind of the heart of the tech world-to Los Angeles? What drove that move?
Eric: Yes good question. Iím not the original founder of the company; I actually took the company over about three years ago. Iím based in Los Angeles. Iím born and raised in Los Angeles so I just moved it down here just because itís easier that way. But what we did originally was we removed the San Francisco office and we made the team remote. Because I had a background working remotely when I was part of Tree House which is an online education school.
Marcus: Okay cool. My first question is, having followed Single Grain and your work over the past couple of years, one thing that Iíve been really impressed and really inspired by is how you focused on creating content that seems to enable you to be everywhere at once. Well most other agency owners out there are out in the field building up their pipeline or speaking at conferences to build a pipeline. I get the feeling that rather than doing that, you are playing the long game; you are building causes, you are building infographics, long form blog posts, podcasts and I was wondering can you share some insight into why you are approaching acquisition in this way. Whatís going through your head while you are creating all those pieces of content?
Eric: Yes, first and foremost I can say of all I subscribe to the Neil Patel school of doing things. He is a friend and he serves as a mentor figure as well. When I first started learning internet marketing probably seven years ago thatís just how I started things out. It just made sense to me. You look at a lot of the venture back start-ups, the VCs are pouring in money and they expect to see things happen quickly, they want to see traction quickly. So often times the things you see in the headlines are how do we acquire users as quickly as possible and thatís through paid advertising. To me, marketing is more holistic. You think aboutóyou are good at the foundation of what you do, if you donít have a brand you start building up content first and you are learning as you are going but then as youíre teaching at the same time so it reinforces what you are learning. So thatís the benefit to me too. But then at the same time you can also draw traffic to that content too and really start to indoctrinate people. So I donít think you should think of marketing as silos where itís just paid advertising. I think when you start to build out content it is a 12 to 24 month journey. It is grueling and you have to be very patient but we used to play a lot of poker growing up and you learn to be patient and you learn to roll with the punches. So to me, playing the long game, deferred gratification itís not only built into the agency but itís based in to how I think of life in general.
Marcus: And is this something a strategic decision that you made a while ago in order to get a competitive advantage over agencies or is it just the approach that you fell into when you were building up Single Grain?
Eric: Yes, I would say it kind of both. So it is the approach that I kind of fell into but at the same time you look at other agenciesóyou can take a look using tools like [inaudible 00:05:02] or Hrefs to see what they are doing and hereís the thing. This is actually interesting because a couple of weeks ago I was looking at another agency we worked building over here as a satellite office but I was looking and there are about 12 sales people in one room. And I look at what we have and we donít need those sales people. They are out there prospecting but the thing is we have these leads coming in on auto-pilot just because we are putting out good content out there and you know you doing podcasts like this, people start to get to know who you. They start to get to know who you are as a person and you know people like to work with people. I think if you are first starting out, absolutely you need a prospect but I think you are going to get to a certain point if you are doing good content out there, the clients are just going to start coming to you.
Marcus: That kind of leads me on to the next question which is if you had to eliminate every acquisition channel, every marketing channel that Single Grain currently uses to generate leads, all but one, what would be the one tactical lead source that you would keep or keep to double down on?
Eric: We were talking about content so I would say it has to be content/ SEO, those two go hand in hand. What I will also say to add to this I that a lot of people talk about ìcontent marketingî but itís getting harder and harder because you see a lot of marketers out there that are already writing the long form content, right? So how do you continually stay ahead of the game? How do you stand out from the rest? You can look at sites like backlincko.com, he only has like thirty-ish blog posts and heís driving a hundred thousand plus visits month and itís because his content stands out, itís really well researched and itís not easy to duplicate. So we are kind of switching over to that model now where we are going to do a lot more researched posts. And I think thatís just what Iím going to continue to do because once you have that foundation going you are going to drive organic traffic but then you could also lay on other marketing mediums later down the road. So that would be a good way to go about it. And content doesnít have to just be blog posts, you know we are doing this podcast right now. The podcast has been great in terms of lead-gen for us too.
Marcus: If you had to pick between one of those two, like if we had to sort of go Single Grain blog or Single Grainís podcasts, which one those do you think you would if you had to only keep one of them?
Eric: Iíd say for it today, itís probably going to be the blog but who knows whatís going to happen. In the next couple of years it might be the podcast because if itís growing faster and itís scaling more but for today as of October 2016, Iím going to say the blog.
Marcus: Cool. Have you found anything interesting around the podcast because obviously not many agencies are using podcasts as a method for lead generation? Have you noticed any interesting insights around like the quality of leads or the type of leads that you get from that?
Eric: Yes, I will say the quality of leads is much higher because anybody thatís listening to this podcast right now, they are a different person, they are trying to learn. They are going out of their way to find this. You know podcasts are still very much in the early days. You can look at your [inaudible00:07:45] all you can look at itís the number of downloads you are getting per month. So itís still very primitive. Iíd say these are the later stage early adopters. So lead quality is much higher, they are ready to work with you because they know who you are, they are much easier to close. Also for us, the Growth Everywhere podcast wasnít intended to drive leads, initially it was just to give back and thatís the thing, when you start doing a podcast, you start pulling an audience, you find that itís good to defer trying to monetize it for a while until you build that audience up. And two three years later, weíd finally start adding a mid-role which is like an advertisement in the middle of the podcast just directing people back to the Single Grain. And itís a very light message and thatís been working pretty decently.
Marcus: Awesome, cool. So when you joined Single Grain, you said it was about three years ago that you took the reins at the company, where was Single Grain at when you joined the company?
Eric: When I joined, I really never intended to come back into the agency game. It was a sinking ship and I thought it would be an interesting challenge to go from being a successful technology start-up to helping a sinking ship to see if I can really turn it around. We were basically an SEO company in the past and what we were doing before I came on was no longer working in terms of bringing results for clients. At that time thatís when the Google Penguin and Panda updates came out and a lot of agencies were starting to fold. It was kind of a disaster time for us.
Marcus: So what the one big strategic change that youíve made at Single grain thatís had a huge difference for the company?
Eric: I think it has to be hiring. Thatís the one thing you never want to compromise on. So I would say that also translates to, when you come into a sinking ship, youíre going to have to make tough decisions to let people go. Itís all about what the team looks like. So hiring and also making sure that you retain the great talent and keep people happy. Thatís the most important thing otherwise you are not going to be able to grow as an agency and you might as well stay as a soloprenuer. But hiring is the hardest thing because you need to be very empathetic and you understand what youróyou know this is the stuff that people donít like talking about but what are your core values? Does this person align? Do I want to hang out with this person later? Would my team like to hang out with this person in the barbeque? A lot of these questions that seem like they are boring and unneeded and they donít apply to you but they actually do.
Marcus: And whatís been one of the biggest challenges around hiring that youíve had to go through or biggest mistake perhaps with hiring at Single Grain?
Eric: Iíll give you one mistake, we lost close to seven figures on one bad hire.
Eric: This person yelled at clients. We lost four clients and this person also caused two people to quit and was just dipped morale. But my thing was, I didnít do enough due diligence. This person was highly touted by somebody that I respected. We didnít dig deep enough. We didnít do enough reference checks. And we did run through this person through a test, I always recommend running people through a test but we ignored the red flags. We thought this person would be great but at the end of the day, I would say the biggest mistake was not doing enough due diligence and not seeing if this person was a cultural fit because at the time we didnít define what our core values were, what we really wanted in an individual. Thatís what happened, it was just not a fit. At the end of the day, Iím not going to blame this person, itís ultimately on me. Any type of hiring mistakes it all leads back to the leader of the company at the end of the day no matter what it is.
Marcus: And so whatís Single Grainís hiring process look like now?
Eric: We go through a lot of referrals. Iíd say one of the biggest things for us is using angel lists, thatís another one of those things where if you are looking at angel lists, you are looking at sites to invest in or businesses to learn about. Angel lists is great for that. Typically itís for angel investing but they actually have a recruiting section that you can use for free and you can manage your job postings there. I love angel lists and I like using also depending on what Iím looking for, If Iím looking for writers I would use the Pro Blogger blog my [inaudible00:11:21] for a lot of references and we use good old LinkedIn as well. We also would reach out to people directly. Thatís proven to work pretty well.
Marcus: And once theyíve come in itís testing and then references after that.
Eric: Yes the testing is probably the biggest thing that a lot of people interview well but you find them going to test you know how well do they communicate with the team? How thorough are they? Things like that. Youíll see pretty much in the first week or so.
Marcus: So did you kind of paid a couple of days where they just integrate into your team as a trial period or how does that trial part of the process work?
Eric: Well what we do is still talk to people through Skype and sometimes it will just be like Skype chat; there is no audio or video and after that they get through to the next phase and theyíll pay them hourly and theyíll have to track their time and itís generally around $25 an hour. So for us it depending on the role it will be $15-$25 an hour but our tests, they might run for a couple of days or a week or so and ten weíll evaluate from there.[aside] Before we go on, if you are looking to grow your client base and capture more leads for your agency then Iíd recommend checking out Leadformly. Leadformly is a lead generation tool run by yours truly, that enables you to upgrade the forms on your website to conversion optimized forms, that are going to increase your conversion rate and help you capture more qualifying leads from your website. Using Leadformly, weíve seen agencies capture up to 700% more leads. So if you are interested in giving it a try we have a 14-day free trial that you can check out at leadformly.com. Thatís l-e-a-d-f-o-r-m-a-l-y.com. Once again thatís at leadformly dot com.
Marcus: From listening to your podcast recently, youíve just released a Udemy course on hiring oróis that right?
Eric: We have a couple of courses that weíve done. We have a course on hiring because we literally searched for how hire youíre not going to get anything so [inaudible00:13:12] word article from monster.com. But yes, we have a hiring course. I actually have a content marketing course on Skillshare. I think you can access that for free or pay 99 cents or something like that and we also have a summit that we did. These are all [inaudible00:13:27] presentations with some of the great marketers and sales people around. We generally do a lot of stuff like that because we create so much content and we try to package it together.
Marcus: These courses on hiring and these different kind of skill share things that you are putting together, whatís the motivation behind it? Why are you putting these together? Is it lead generation or–?
Eric: The hiring course that was kind of scratching my own itch and because I had been in education, we wanted to see if we could launch a product around it. So that was just to kind of get our feet wet. Itís great now because we still use it internally to send the people that go through. And also the Skillshare course thatís when Skillshare reached out directly to me. They said theyíd fly over and shoot at my place. So I decided to do that and itís been great. Thereís something one of my friends [inaudible00:14:11] says when youíre hiring or not hiring, he says, ìWhen you help people itís like a drug.î And it really is. And with the Skillshare course, I think over 4000 students have taken it and there hasnít been one negative review. I think the average score is 100%. So itís good to look at the comments and help that many people. And yes itís been good, itís not intended to make money or anything like that. Itís just that to be out there and then also I can share it with people on my team that are just joining, it could be new people, just to educate them on content marketing.
Marcus: I think itís such a good thing to have, as you say, itís one of the things where people just donít want to talk about this stuff and frankly from my position every business has these challenges, us included. And there is no obvious place to look for a solution. So I think itís really great what you are doing putting these courses together to really tackle these very uncomfortable issues that a lot of businesses have. So I think thatís really good, weíll include a link to the course. Is it just on Skillshare or–?
Eric: Yes so the Skillshare course is called Content Marketing Blogging for Growth and if you want access to the hiring course, we actually package all of our courses together now; with all of our agency processes, also the summit that I talked about. Thatís calledóI can give you a link to that afterwards ñ the growth [inaudible00:15:24].
Marcus: Awesome. Now that sounds really good. Is that in Los Angeles as well?
Eric: Yes, that lives under the Single Grain umbrella.
Marcus: Cool, Eric Iíve got a couple of quick fire questions I want to go through at the end but before we jump into that, whatís the biggest challenge that youíre facing at the moment with the agency?
Eric: I think the biggest thing is, we are growing right now so we are trying to bringing in more talent but we are trying to be selective. Some people are a little over-extended right now and my job is to relieve them. I think growth the intention is really onóshould always be on hiring and retaining great talent so thatís my focus right now. But at the same time itís also saying no to a lot of different opportunities. As you get bigger and bigger having so much content out there a lot of people reach out and say, ìHey, hereís a great opportunity.î So itís about saying no more and just focusing on building a great team.
Marcus: How many people do you currently [inaudible00:16:12] at Single Grain?
Eric: We have about 20.
Marcus: 20, okay so have you noticed anyóI think a lot of people say that usually when you get to go from like 10-15, or 15-20, you kind of see is huge changes in the dynamics of the team. Have you anything like that?
Eric: Not so much for me. I think generally what I hear is when you go to like 50 or so, things really start to change. I havenít really experienced any change on my front.
Marcus: Cool with 20 people and it still feels like the sameóhow many people were there when you joined three years ago?
Eric: About the same, I would say probably 15, 16 or so.
Marcus: Cool, okay Eric, so my first quick fire question for you is number one book recommendation.
Eric: Number one boo recommendation, there is [sic] so many. I would say it has to be The Billionaire Who Wasnít. I think itís going to add a lot of perspective.
Marcus: Iíve not read that but Iíve heard itís amazing.
Eris: Life changing.
Marcus: I think Rand Fischkin actually always talks about that one. Going to have to get that one ordered. Favorite tool right now.
Eric: Favorite tool right now has to be, Iím just looking through my bar right now. Iíd say itís dropler because dropler just makes it easier for me to take screenshots annotate them and it goes through my clipboard immediately. Just speeds up the process.
Marcus: Is that similar to the Evernoteís skitch?
Eric: Probably, if Evernoteís skitch is intended to annotate stuff I guess it would be similar.
Marcus: And thatís just a [inaudible00:17:34] plugin?
Eric: It actually sits in your toolbar so itís actually an app.
Marcus: So whatís one piece of advice that you would give to an agency owner whoís looking to go from six figures annually to seven figures?
Eric: Well, yes thatës a good question. I think it would be a lot processes and documentation. Documenting everything that you do because when you document you are able to scale faster and you donít have to keep repeating the same thing over and over. Often times when you go from six to seven figures itís really about [inaudible00:18:00] more people in. If then you try to plug more people in, itís going to move a lot faster because sometimes people arenít the right fit and if you have to retrain you are going to waste a lot of time and money as well. Time is a luxury that you just donít get back.
Marcus: Is there any kind of specific process that you remember implementing that made a really big difference for Single Grain?
Eric: For us I would say putting all of ouróthis is a process for the processes putting everything into Google Drive for everyone to access so literally organizing the folders saying, ìOkay, these are the team resources.î And we put all of our educational [inaudible00:18:31] in there and then we have a client folder template when we [inaudible00:18:36] just duplicate that folder.
Marcus: Itís one of those things like you sort of think like it should just happen organically [inaudible00:18:46] but you are right. When you start to get 20 people and people donít know where to store files it can quickly become quite messy.
Marcus: What has been your biggest cause of client churn, particularly perhaps in the early days when you were growing?
Eric: I have to say not giving the clients enough attention and also I would say this is my fault because when I came on, it was intended to fix a lot of processes so I wasnít really involved in client accounts but really checking in with the clients to see what their sentiments are, how they are feeling, what else they need help with? So I would say the biggest mistake was not providing enough check-ins and not providing enough ideas. The accounts kind of went on auto-pilot and thatís why the clients were leaving. Now the clients are always coming up with new ideas we are always asking what else we can do. Any other introductions we can make we are truly becoming a partner instead of just a vendor.
Marcus: Have you systemized that approach of checking in with clients? Doo you have any kind of process around that or–? Whatís your take, are you kind of gut-feel and look after the client in a very case by case way or more kind of process based?
Eric: Yes, well have calls with them by weekly basis but then for each account, Iíll strategize, weíll get into a meeting with their account managers each week and weíll talk aboutóokay weíll look at each clientís metrics. Theyíll have very specific [inaudible00:19:59] they are trying to hit and weíll look at the numbers. Like why are they going up, why are they going down and then weíll have a discussion around it like ,îOkay hereís what we can be doing.î Or the account managers can be like, ìHereís where we are stuck. Hereís where we need help.î And weíll just brainstorm because often times what we did in the past, it just went into a black hole and if people struggled they just kept it to themselves but now itís just out there. We put it out there, we give feedback to each other and it just makes things a lot easier and you can tell. You can see when people are lighting up when they are getting new ideas and when they see the results, itís a good feeling.
Marcus: So before we go to my last question, how do you spend your time? As the CEO you are doing so many of these different things: youíve got the Growth Everywhere website, two different podcasts the one with Neil Patel as well, the marketing school.
Eric: Yes [laughs] I counted the other day that Iím probably working on nine different things right now but I always say to people, the only reason I have this amount of time is because Iím not committed to anybody right now and I donít have children yet so Iím fortunate enough to be able to do that but itís probably going to have to taper down. But to answer your question in terms of how I allocate my time, what I found was that when I started getting on the sales calls with these potential clients, my conversion rate is anywhere from 50% -88%, thatís when the proposalís out so right now it just makes sense for me to close. We do have people qualifying so sales is part of it, hiring is a big piece of it and then also retaining and making sure people are more happy, thatís the other part. Also my main thing is, if I can just do this, Iíd be happy. If I could just do marketing, like I just do that but a lot of it is the marketing the content creation portion of it right now. Whether itís doing stuff like this; creating podcasts, blogs or speaking at events.
Marcus: Awesome, my last question for you Eric is what is next for Single Grain?
Eric: Yes, great question. So the way I look at Single Grain, I told you I wasnít really looking to get back into the agency game and the reason for that is because I think agency is great but Iím just more interested in how technology can change the world. So the way we look at it is itís an incubator to the projects that we have going on. For example, I have a gun blog right now thatóIím not even into guns, I know itís a hotly debated topic but we have a gun blog and itís growing rapidly. Itís getting six figures traffic a month. So we are building projects like this where we think we can take the Single Grain business model of content and really apply to all of these other ones and just grow businesses that we think can operate efficiently and have fun while we do it because right now some people on my L.A. team, we have one guy in Japan right now, just went to Japan last week. My partner is in Vietnam right now, one of our writers in Vietnam right now so we are all about having fun and keeping things light not putting a lot of pressure on people because when you do it itís like why even exist if you are going to stress about it all the time?
Marcus: Awesome, that sounds very amazing. That sounds like an amazing company youíve got and some really great stuff that youíve been doing.
Marcus: Itís been a huge pleasure having you on the show and really really insightful. So thanks for sharing all these with us. If people want to learn more a bit about you, a little bit more about, particularly the various courses that you have, what are the best places for people to find out a little bit more about that. Weíll obviously include on the show notes but where should we send people?
Eric: Yes absolutely, so just go to Growtheverywhere.com, thatís the podcast. Thatís where all the courses are available and then if you want also go to singlegrain.com thereís a podcast section with marketing school and thatís with Neil Patel and thatís our daily podcast. We have a lot of decent blog content out there and you could just look at our blog content and copy that model and it will probably end up working out for you in terms of driving more organic traffic.
Marcus: Awesome, well thanks again Eric and weíll see you soon.
Eric: Thanks Marcus.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the 10X Your Agency Podcast. If you are interested in acquiring more leads for your business Iíd like to invite you to a free webinar that Iíll be hosting on how to acquire 300% more leads from your website without increasing the traffic. In this webinar, Iíll be sharing how you can turn your website into a lead generation machine, four strategies on how you can boost your form submissions by 300% and much more. So if you are interested, all you need to do is go to Google, type in, Leadformly acquire more leads. Thatís Leadformly spelt L-e-a-d-f-o-r-m-l-y acquire more leads and the landing page to register for the webinar should appear at the top. As I said itís completely free and we run this webinar every single week. So once again, thanks for listening to this weekís episode and stay tuned for next weekís episode of the 10X Your Agency Podcast.
Episode 1: How I Grew an Agency That Built 8 Online Ventures & Led to a TEDx Talk (Marcus Taylor, Venture Harbour)
Episode 2: How an 18-Person Agency Built 64 Startups With an ROI 10X Higher Than the Average European VC (Tim Morgan, Mint Digital)
Episode 3: How a PPC Agency Reached $250K Monthly Recurring Revenue in Under 2 Years (Johnathan Dane, KlientBoost)
Episode 4: How to Hire a Great Team, Attract Leads on Autopilot, and Scale an Agency (Eric Siu, SingleGrain)
Episode 5: How to Grow Your Niche Agency & Avoid Common Hiring Pitfalls (Danny Ashton, NeoMam Studios)
Episode 6: The Mindset & Beliefs Needed to Build an Agency (Paul Rouke, PRWD)
Episode 7: How an Agency Reached 100,000’s of Marketers by Building Software (Dan Sharp, ScreamingFrog)
Episode 8: From Selling an Agency & Burning Out to Launching SaaS & Giving Away $1M Worth of Free T-Shirts (Sujan Patel, Web Profits)
Episode 9: Agency Culture Hacking: How to Set Values, Work Remotely & Retain A-Players (Jonathan Anderstrom, Creed Interactive)
Episode 10: How to Scale & Sell a Multimillion Dollar Agency (Jason Swenk)
Episode 11: Running an 80-Person Agency After a Multi-Million Dollar Sale (Tim Grice, Branded3)
Episode 12: Building a £4M agency with 270 clients in 2 Years (Mark Wright, ClimbOnline)