In the September edition of our London founder interview series, we spoke to Julian Canlas, a long-time Indie London and Weekend Club member. He's the co-founder of Embarque.io, a productised SEO content marketing business on $3,500 monthly revenue.
Hey Julian, can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into building products?
Sure! I’m Julian, one of the co-founders of Embarque, which offers productised SEO content marketing services. I’m an SEO content strategist by trade.
My line of work involves creating a top-to-bottom SEO content strategy for brands based on their current needs and how well they’re attracting clients through organic search. This includes doing SEO content audits, keyword research, formulating and implementing an SEO content calendar and aligning content marketing, branding and SEO objectives altogether.
In my opinion, great SEO blog posts should be able to build a community. SEO content that is generic, bland and not written with a specific audience in mind tends to perform poorly in terms of community-building and search ranking, based on my experience.
For Embarque, my main job is to make sure that the SEO content that we create:
- Has the right branding, positioning and messaging,
- Knows about the product (we also offer SEO, product-based blog posts), and
- Can be repurposed into different marketing assets.
In short, for me, great SEO blog posts are ones that you’re not afraid to show to your existing community and even to your friends. It builds a community, ranks on Google, and converts. It’s a tall order, but focusing on these 4 things is how we’ve been getting clients.
Where did the idea for Embarque come from, and how did you validate it?
The idea behind Embarque didn’t come from me, but from my co-founder who wanted to scale up his blog output but was frustrated by the hiring process involved in getting a good content creator. It’s hard to find someone who’s adept in SEO, knows about branding, and product-based community-building through content.
Hiring a content writer is harder than people might expect. It can take quite some time to find the right person with the right skills and expertise to handle your content marketing processes.
And once you’ve found the right person, they’re also limited in what they can produce within a specific amount of time.
With Embarque, not only is the quality there, but we can also scale our processes up to fulfil orders within a short amount of time.
How did I validate it? Here are some points:
- Getting this to $3,500 in monthly revenue. I already had a hunch that it would more or less work because other productised content marketing services already existed. It’s a highly competitive market.
- Getting clients through personal referrals. Some of my clients came from referrals from my personal network.
- Getting good feedback from prospects and fellow entrepreneurs. Key decision-makers have been curious with my productised SEO content marketing services. While I have still yet to scale up my customer acquisition process, all of my clients are high-paying ones.
Validation wasn’t the problem, as much as differentiating ourselves from our competitors. Fortunately, we’ve managed to differentiate just by providing great value in our services. All of our clients decided to upgrade their packages after the first month. Providing great services is our secret sauce for growth.
Can you tell us about your business model?
Embarque offers productised SEO content marketing services. Our services are in packages and individual options with fixed prices. We have a pricing page publicly available, which means that everyone can see the same prices.
As a business model, service productisation makes the pricing process so much more transparent and eliminates the awkward price negotiations that I really hated as a freelancer. With Embarque, there are 3 main pricing packages to choose from. No more, no less.
Having a productised offering also allows companies to effectively scale up their SEO content strategy and use it as a growth engine. For example, if a company wants to order 20 blog posts in a month, they’ll get it within that time frame.
And, finally, productisation also allows me to niche down to processes that I enjoy doing and scale them up. I love blogging and marketing, but being a freelancer or a contractor can also mean getting into corporate politics that I frankly do not enjoy. As a content marketing agency offering productised services, people pay for clearly-defined deliverables, and they leave it at that.
Productising my writing has allowed me to specialise in SEO and writing — two things that I genuinely enjoy doing. So productising my services means that I can focus on what I love.
What’s the vision for Embarque?
The main vision for Embarque is to power the SEO content marketing processes of major SaaS and other online service-related brands.
SEO content marketing doesn’t have to be shit and generic. In terms of vision, one of my goals is to make people understand how great SEO content marketing works.
In the next 2 years, my goal will be to scale up my customer acquisition process. Right now, my main ways to get clients consist of referrals and my personal network. These are not sustainable and scalable.
I also want to branch out by offering SEO outreach services. I still need to figure out how to competitively price my backlink outreach services, and what the workflow will be. Backlink outreach can be quite a labour-intensive process, but most people don’t realise this. I need to find a way to communicate this to potential clients. Not easy.
What’s your tech stack?
Jekyll, Netlify, Stripe, Google Docs, Asana, Slack and Zapier.
What growth tactics did and didn’t work for you?
My main philosophy with growth is to prioritise what’s worked while trying out other potential growth channels.
What has worked by order of success
Customer success. This is, by far, my most successful growth channel. Clients who have worked with SEO content marketers know how hard it can be to find great ones. In terms of the quality of our services and industry standards, I’m very aware that our packages are quite underpriced, and my current clients are very satisfied with our work. Our growth is more product-based than anything else, and I want to keep it that way.
Guest posting. Through this, I get backlinks, and they realise the quality of my writing. I also optimise my guest posts for search, so if they have the right domain authority to rank, then my guest article will get some search traffic over time. When this happens, they want to replicate this success and consequently use Embarque. Win-win-win (yeah, triple)! This was the case with VEED, my biggest client.
My personal network. Most of my clients and prospects came from my professional network, but I’ve never worked with them, until Embarque. I don’t work with any of my past freelancing clients through Embarque because their marketing needs can be quite scattered for productised services.
Referrals and community participation. People have referred Embarque to their friends who need some SEO blogging services or landing pages. I’ve also gotten prospects from Reddit, Email Geeks, Indie Hackers, Indie London, Maker Mag, Content UK and Weekend Club. That said, I don’t have a well-defined strategy to get clients through community participation. This will soon change.
What hasn’t worked
These channels haven’t worked for me, but I think that this is more of a case of me doing things without planning. I’d still like to pursue growth through these channels in the future.
Cold outreach. I unsuccessfully cold-emailed some brands I want to work with. That said, I didn’t have the most sophisticated cold outreach funnel, so I’d like to try this out more when I have more time.
Social media ads. I got poor results from this, but I also think that I haven’t pushed my retargeting to where it should be. I’d like to try more of these.
What I want to try more of
Social media. Our social media game is piss poor because it’s not a priority, and other channels have given us more returns. I’d like to spend more time growing our social media presence.
SEO. I truly believe that SEO is the most scalable way to reach clients and expand a brand’s digital presence. Social media is saturated, and public relations is not sustainable. With SEO, you can get into a flywheel growth, in which previously badly-performing blog posts from two years ago can get be optimised to get organic search traffic. I have a plan to grow through SEO, which I will soon execute ;).
LinkedIn outreach. I want to see how to do cold LinkedIn outreach to reach prospects.
What was your lowest point in building Embarque so far, and how did you get out?
I’m naturally a sceptical person, who operates with a lot of doubt on my work and that of others. However, in my career, hobbies and side projects, this has largely been a good thing for me, because it’s allowed me to work even harder than most people and become excellent at what I do.
My lowest point in growing Embarque was during the second month, when I seriously started to question the way I was growing our processes and trying to acquire clients. I had faith in my services because I’ve already grown publications and blogs through organic search. But I wasn’t sure if I was growing Embarque correctly. I felt like I was out of my depth.
I was about to throw in the towel on Embarque, until I received my first clients in the first week of the third month. They came around the same time. Getting them helped me realise something important: you shouldn’t give up if you believe in your product and the value it brings to people.
Your belief in your vision will lead you to success. My first clients ended up super happy with my services, and this encouraged me to go on.
It’s not the best answer. I know. But I don’t have a better one. I was lucky that my clients came in during the third month, and that I didn’t give up so early.
Moral of the story is: even if you’re not sure how to go about with other parts of your business, your product needs to be excellent, and if it already is, growth will eventually come.
You just need to hang on and keep hustling.
“You might not be a marketer or a product person. No one cares. As a founder or CEO, you will need to wear many different hats to be successful. If you’re a cash-strapped developer, accept the fact that you will need to market your own product to grow..”
How do you stay focused and avoid distractions?
I’m not a very disciplined person, and I’ve been diagnosed with attention hyperactivity deficit disorder (ADHD). But I’m also extremely passionate at what I do, and I can get quite obsessed with things that interest me. To avoid distractions, I have mechanisms set in place to stay focused. Here are some of them:
Timeboxing. This is a time management technique that involves setting time for various tasks, and breaks in-between them. This allows me to give all my effort and energy into completing a certain task, without feeling overwhelmed. I have a full-time job, freelancing clients and Embarque to grow, so I need to know how to spend my time wisely. Collectively, these help me earn around five figures per month, but this means that I have 13-15 hour work days. I’m planning to make some changes, soon, however.
Having physical workspaces. After my full-time job, I go to either my favourite café or a library and work there until 10 PM. When you have your space for work, you get shit done.
Join professional communities like Weekend Club, Email Geeks and Indie London. They make you more accountable and help you improve on your craft. If you’re operating within a certain industry, make sure to join relevant communities for meaningful industry interactions.
Use article templates. This is also more specifically related to blog writing, but I’m pretty big on using content templates for my SEO blog posts. Effective writing depends on having a clearly-defined structure and well-defined arguments. These blog templates help me ensure that I don’t waste time thinking about a blog structure that works.
Entering a flow state. The great thing about writing is that once you get into a state of concentration, it’s hard to snap out of it. When I write for a client, I take advantage of my flow state and write multiple blog posts for them at once. This way, it’s much easier to stay on-brand and write about their product. This technique also allows me to write 10,000 words in a work day.
How would you have done things differently if you started again?
I regret not niching down my services early on.
Selling productised services is not the same as selling yourself as a freelancer. From my experience in marketing, clients tend to favour freelancers who are versatile generalists and can wear many different hats at once for marketing growth.
When it comes to productised or packaged services, you need to centre your messaging around what you offer and make potential customers see the value in them.
While you may end up with a smaller pool of potential clients, those who are looking for your high-quality services will convert much more easily.
I originally positioned Embarque as a productised agency for end-to-end content marketing services. That was a mistake. It’s quite hard to price orders with so many options for deliverables. Email copy is different from SEO blog posts. It’s quite difficult to persuade a prospect about your authority to write for such different mediums.
After niching down to specifically SEO content marketing services (e.g. writing SEO blog posts and landing pages, optimizing old blog posts for SEO, etc.), we began to grow in terms of revenue. And when I say growth, I mean in the thousands of dollars.
It turns out that we’re not in the market for people who want to purchase one SEO blog post per month. To date, all my clients have only purchased one of the packages, and my most expensive package is, by far, the most popular.
All my clients realise the power of great SEO content marketing for growth, and they’re keen to work with me after realising that I can help them achieve their goals for this channel.
What are the most common mistakes you see Indie Hackers make early on?
Believe in your success and growth. As an indie hacker, please, do not quantify the risks of venturing into a business through research and statistics, or you’re bound to fail. I cannot stress this enough. Statistically, most companies fail. You have to think that you’re part of that very small minority that will succeed.
Numbers are important, but startups mostly grow through unconventional measures that defy best practices or conventional logic.
Your way of growth might not be scalable in the long run, or it may be relatively slow in the beginning, but you already need short-term growth to survive. Believe in your growth and double down on what’s worked in the past.
Scale things that don’t scale. If you’re a small business, differentiate by providing services that allow you to act fast in a way that bigger competitors won’t be able to. Most content marketing agencies that are bigger than Embarque require handling time to process their orders. Many productised services interact poorly with their clients. With Embarque, an SEO content manager joins your company’s Slack channel and can collaborate with different people in your team. I want to keep it this way as we become bigger.
Focus on agility. You might not be a marketer or a product person. No one cares. As a founder or CEO, you will need to wear many different hats to be successful. If you’re a cash-strapped developer, accept the fact that you will need to market your own product to grow.
I prefer to work on SEO content strategy and creation. I hate sales, but I need to do more of it in order to grow. In the future, I will hire a business development person to do this job. But until that happens, this task falls under my responsibility.
Prioritise product excellence above anything else. Nothing can replace a great product, neither sales nor marketing. Make sure that your product can compete well in the market, and figure out where your product stands in terms of quality through competition research.
Communicate with your clients! Involve them in your processes. Listen to their concerns and adapt your product roadmap to address some of their most relevant and widespread needs.
Be honest with your services. There are no two ways about this. I try my best to be forthright with my clients and what can be achieved with our services. I don’t make false promises, or give poorly-conceived advice. Many marketers do these, and I’ve made a personal choice early on in my career to be different. This may help you increase revenue for one month, but if you break their trust, it’s game over. And if your services exceed their expectations, they might want to pay more. Customer success is a seriously underrated growth tactic.
Separate good feedback from bad ones. There’s definitely an art to figuring out what good advice is and isn’t for your company. While you should communicate with your clients, you should be able to figure out if their concerns resonate with many others, or if they don’t
Learn. Plan. Execute. Make sure that all your processes have a good balance of these three things. Otherwise, your efforts might not end up being meaningful.
What else have you built before Embarque, and what were the biggest lessons from those experiences?
In the last 3 years, I’ve been solidly working 80-90 weeks. While I was in London, I’d take Bus 149 from Tottenham to Liverpool Street Station for my day job, because this allowed me to work on my freelance projects.
There were times, when I’d work on the bus, half-drunk after a meetup because I had to submit a certain project and didn’t have enough time to do it beforehand. In a way, I’d like to think that my efforts paid off, and helped me develop the right skills to build Embarque.
I’ve also realised something important recently: I have a day job because it gave me a false sense of financial security and reason not to pursue entrepreneurship. Throughout my career, my freelancing work eventually earned significantly more money than any of my day jobs.
Growing Embarque has taught me that while the risk is inevitable, the returns involved in success is much more than anyone can imagine. This success gives people the freedom to lead the life they’ve always wanted to have.
I don’t advocate working long hours like I did (and still do), but I’d be lying if I said that I had a healthy balance between work and leisure. Having a balance still isn’t my priority, and this has never been my reality. I want to work on things based on my passion.
For me, my passion is my happiness. I’ve learned that working passionately is where I get my fulfilment.
Favourite indie products?
- MentorCruise for mentorships
- VEED for video editing
- Weekend Club for the awesome community of entrepreneurs
- ContentUK for great content marketers
- OneUp for social media scheduling automation.
If we’re also talking about initially bootstrapped products, then Grammarly is up there.
Favourite apps on your homescreen?
Gmail and Slack. Grindr for my travels and couch surfing.
- Indie Hackers (my go-to podcast while jogging)
- Neil Patel’s Marketing School (quick, 5-minute podcast episodes on marketing)
- SEO Conspiracy (one of the best for SEO)
- The Bootstrapped Founder
- Gimlet’s Startup
- Hidden Brain
- Cashing In On content Marketing
- The Tim Ferriss Show
I’m sure I’m missing more.
Where can people stay updated on you and your projects?
LinkedIn: Julian Canlas
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