Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey there! My name is Alan Silvestri and I’m the founder of Growth Gorilla, a link building service for SaaS companies (Software as a Service). I started the company end of summer 2018 so it’s been going for a little less than a year.
We are different from most other link building companies because we do genuine, manual and quality outreach link building to acquire backlinks to our clients’ sites. What we do is more “PR link building” than just SEO link building to increase rankings and traffic. Our clients are, for the most part, profitable software companies and startups that are publishing great quality content consistently but that don’t have the time or resources to promote that content and build backlinks to it.
The company has grown from zero to 10k in monthly recurring revenue mostly in the last 7 months and most of our clients have stayed with us for a minimum of 4 months, so we’re pretty happy with how things are going and excited for the future!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was born and raised in Italy where, since I basically got out of school, I’ve been working as an electrical engineer for 9 years at an industrial automation company. During that time I was also playing in a punk rock band (name is “NeverAlone”, look it up, it’s great) and felt constricted in that job (that I also quite disliked).
The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll learn from your mistakes (‘cause there will be many of those). Learn from others who have done what you want to do and take massive action.
I’ve always wanted more freedom (and money) to be able to play with the band, go on tour and such but it was pretty hard with that kind of job and so around 2014 I started googling for “how to make money online” (I kinda cringe at this now lol). My brother has also read the 4 Hour Work Week, told me about it and I was hooked. The possibilities seemed endless and I fell into the online marketing rabbit hole.
At the beginning I still had no idea what my strongest skills were or what could be interesting and so I stumbled on and tried a few different things. Some of those failed attempts were:
- A Kindle ebook
- An Amazon FBA (fulfilled by Amazon) physical product
- An SEO agency (done the wrong way)
- Probably a few more that I can’t remember right now
The first few successes came with Amazon affiliate websites. I came across a training course by Andrew Hansen called “The Rankings Institute” which was teaching how to leverage SEO and traffic from Google to sell Amazon products on a website.
I loved the idea and the fact that it didn’t take a super high initial investment. All I needed was a couple hundred bucks and my own time. I began studying and practicing what I learned in my spare time (evenings and nights after the day job) and things started to click.
My first website was selling hair removal products for women lol.
Weird niche I know, but it worked, I made my first dollars online and I became passionate about SEO and building and growing digital assets that generate traffic and money. This was the first time that I actually felt like this online thing could actually work out.
Around 2015 I got hired as a part time SEO person by someone who had the budget and wanted to start his own site. He was putting in the money, I was doing the work and getting paid by the hour. It was great to make the first few bucks and I learned a ton.
During that experience my work slowly shifted towards mostly doing email outreach to build backlinks to the site and that is basically how I came to do what I do now.
At the end of 2017 I was (finally!) able to quit the day job. With some money saved up, I moved to the UK, sold my hair removal website (that I hadn’t been touching for the past 2 years) for $7k and started my new adventure in 2018 :)
Take us through the process of designing and prototyping your services.
Growth Gorilla (at the beginning I use a different site and brand "Black Swan Digital") started off with the idea of having a productized service. Something that (one day) could run without me and that I could potentially sell for a big exit down the line. As mentioned, I was mostly working on outreach link building at this point and so the concept of creating a link building agency came pretty naturally to me.
What helped the most at the beginning is the approach I took to the whole thing. I went through a training course by Brian Casel called “Producttize” where he was teaching how to do some initial interviews of your target clients to find out what their pain points are, what they are looking for in a service like yours etc.
This allowed me to really dive into what people wanted in a link building service and also find my ideal niche. Software companies.
The key findings I got from those interviews with founders and marketers are:
- SaaS companies are sophisticated = they know what SEO and link building are and understand the value of them
- A lot of SaaS companies are making good money but are quite small and lean = they have the budget to pay for my services and I don’t have to go through the middle men/gate-keeper to talk to the founder or marketing manager.
- A lot of SaaS companies are publishing content consistently and spending a ton of money on it but don’t have the time or resources to promote it.
These takeaways were enough for me to decide to focus on just doing 1 thing (link building) for 1 type of client (SaaS) and doing it well. I also really liked link building as a service because it’s a recurring service that people need (usually for 6 to 12 months minimum) and are willing to pay for because it takes a lot of time and is pretty tedious.
At first, I was trying to offer any type of link building strategies to my clients:
- Guest post outreach
- Broken link building
- Resource pages link building
- Skyscraper link building
With time though, I realized that doing 1 thing and doing it well is really helpful in terms of effectiveness, efficiency, and profitability.
In my days working on affiliate sites, I didn’t have a huge budget for extra content or linkable assets (infographics etc.) and so I had perfected a particular strategy to build backlinks to existing content (articles that are already published on a website) that didn’t require much time on my end thanks to the use of automation and software.
That was my Aha! Moment.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I set up a quick, pretty generic website under the name "Black Swan Digital", that didn’t have much in it and got to work on interviewing people.
With that feedback I was able to create a landing page that made sense and that described what I was offering (and why I was qualified) pretty well.
This is also when I decided on the new name and brand "Growth Gorilla". I'm a huge 80s fan and I love the synthwave/retro wave style, so this is how the new website and landing page came about.
A side effect of those customer interviews was that a few people got interested in what I was building and asked me to start as my first “test clients” at a VERY discounted rate of $400 per month. I didn’t complain, I still had some money saved and thought this was the best way to get my feet wet and test the service.
Most issues with clients can be avoided by simply sending them a message saying that something went wrong and explaining why instead of doing nothing and waiting until they find out themselves.
My startup costs were just setting up the website (a couple hundred bucks) which I did by myself plus a few SEO tools that I needed to do the work.
Remember, up until that point I had only worked on my own sites or 1 other affiliate website. Working for clients, I quickly found out, was a whole other thing. I had more responsibilities and had to manage communications, reporting AND doing the work at the same time.
Things were quite hectic but I was able to manage the first 1/2 clients on my own. The first thing I learned is that while I’m quite good at coming up with systems and processes to semi-automate parts of the work, I don’t really like doing the repetitive tasks.
At this point I saw the service was performing well and the test clients were quite happy. I decided it was time to try and scale this up.
My first hire was a part-time contractor from the Philippines. RJ, is still with me today (full time) and is one of my best team members :) With him I was able to remove myself a little bit from the day to day repetitive work and focus more on getting clients, perfecting and marketing the service.
We quickly started getting eyes on us and I got in touch with Nat Eliason of Growth Machine, an SEO focused content marketing agency who at the time wasn’t offering link building as part of their service and asked if we wanted to join forces. I knew Nat from his blog and admired him as an entrepreneur so I decided to give this a go.
This relationship really showed us the potential of what we had going on. We were able to deliver some solid work and open the doors to more clients. I also learned a ton on managing partnerships with other agencies, how to rapport with them and how to set expectations correctly with them and their clients.
The biggest lesson from the first few months of business is probably the importance of managing expectations with clients and being honest and proactive. Things aren’t going to go as planned, especially in the beginning and so you really need to be open and honest with your clients.
Let them know that results might take a while to arrive in the beginning but that you are going to do all you can to deliver and make sure they are happy about your work.
Most issues with clients can be avoided by simply sending them a message saying that something went wrong and explaining why instead of doing nothing and waiting until they find out themselves.
Trust and integrity are vital if you want to run a service business.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Up until this point, we’ve only been getting new clients through inbound marketing. I started publishing articles and writing for other well-known websites, which has gotten us some traffic and attention.
That said, the best channels for us have proven to be facebook groups and Slack channels.
Since we’re targeting SaaS companies, I went looking for specific Facebook groups in this market. I found “SaaS Growth Hacks” which is a very active group where founders and marketers discuss anything related to marketing and growth for their companies. That group is also where I started asking people to do my initial customer research interviews.
I made some connections and found my first test clients from that group.
Besides that I also joined Traffic Think Tank, which is, in my opinion, the best private SEO community online. All of the BIG names in the industry are there and a ton of other marketers and founders just looking for advice.
I’ve always been very active in that group providing value and advice to people in my area of expertise (link building) and this has brought people to us asking for help with their link building. Since we have made it very clear that we focus on SaaS companies, most people asking were in fact, SaaS companies :)
I guess what brings most people to us as a service is our system for link building. We position ourselves as a high quality manual outreach link building service, which is different from most other services online that are, in fact, brokers i.e. they have existing relationships with a ton of websites and sell the same links to anybody who pays them.
Nothing wrong with that kind of service, it's good and it can work, we simply want to work with more sophisticated companies who understand and appreciate quality, manual work.
We mostly build links to existing content that is published on the client's site. To do this, we've developed a system over the years that allows us to find all of the pages that "might" be interested in linking to our client's content. Once we have a prospect list, we email them and find creative ways to ask them to include our link.
The process, and the tools we use, are outlined here in detail, but the main concept consists in this thing I like to call "patterns".
We start off by analyzing all of our client's competitors’ backlinks with Ahrefs and other tools to find what these “patterns”.
Patterns are basically the different types of articles (and related search queries) that tend to link to content similar to our client's.
For example, while looking at the links pointing to this article (let's pretend that this is an article competing with our client's article), we found that the following articles were linking to them:
- What Is* Knowledge Commerce?
- 4 Webinar Hosting Mistakes that can Ruin You to Oblivion - Smallbiztechnology.com*
- Capitalizing on Marketing Knowledge: How to Monetize Your Expertise
- 5 Legitimate Ways to *Earn MoneyOnline
- How to Make Money Online Using Popular Online Trends - WPJournals*
You can see the “patterns” highlighted in green.
Next, we want to try and find as many sites as possible that match our patterns.
Manually, this would be done with a google search like intitle:pattern intext:”our target keyword”
What this does is look for articles that have our pattern in the title and our keyword in the text of the article.
These are all the pages that we could pitch to have our client's link placed.
We’ll basically repeat the same process for all patterns and keyword variations and we’ll do it at scale with a set of well known and proprietary tools and systems.
Here's what the system looks like from a 50,000 foot view:
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
As of today we are making an average of $10k per month in recurring revenue with 4/5 clients and we are profitable. I know we can do much much better and I really want to systematize even more to be able ramp this up to six figures per month.
The team now is composed of myself and 3 contractors. RJ is our full-time link prospector who finds the websites and qualifies them, Shaun is our part time copywriter who personalizes our email for outreach and Spring is our part-time outreach manager who handles all email replies and negotiations.
Most of our client requests still come from social media and slack groups plus a few from our blog. I plan on ramping up the blog by publishing more on it as well as guest posting on other people’s site.
One thing I will probably start doing in the near future is implementing an outbound sales process and system ‘cause I know I can’t rely too much on inbound.
Our plans for the future in terms of the service are to expand a little bit and offer a secondary service selling just individual links to people who don’t have the budget to work with us on a monthly retainer.
I have also started offering consulting calls on an hourly basis to people who are looking for practical advice to implement in their own business and I would love to create an online course to teach people how to implement our system, another option for those who don’t have the budget for our done for you service.
All of these will be (once in place) nice ways to generate some cash flow and make connections with people who might, one day, want to become customers.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The main thing that has helped me being successful is, in my opinion, my willingness to learn. I pride myself with having a growth mindset and am constantly reading books, listening to podcasts and buying training courses that I think could improve my mindset and/or business.
In order to find something you like doing, you have to try a few other things that you dislike doing. You’ll never know what it is that you enjoy if you don’t try a few different things.
The caveat here, is to be able to distinguish the good stuff from the junk. There’s a ton of bad advice out there in the online marketing world and you need to dive in head first to see what’s good and what isn’t.
Here are a few other takeaways I got from my first year in this business:
- Find one thing that you have gotten very good at and create systems and processes for delivering that at a larger scale that doesn’t require too much of your own time. Then focus on what you like doing and are good at doing. I, for example, am still working on the overall client strategy and managing the communications.
- Be honest with clients, admit your mistakes and be patient when things seem to not be going the way you expected. Focus on what you can control and accept what you cannot with a willingness to do better next time.
- Impostor syndrome is REAL. Especially at the beginning (but happens now as well), I felt like a fraude. Even though I knew I was doing good work and delivering results, I kept feeling like I was stealing money from my clients. The best way to fight this, has been to talk to clients, ask for feedback and create an environment where we are all working together on the project. You’ll be surprised with how many clients just tell you how happy they are of your work and this could even be a way to get some great testimonials.
- When I hire people, I almost exclusively look at their attention to details and their attitude. Since our system is based on a set of predefined procedures (SOPs), the most important thing for me is that the person is able to follow instructions. That said, I also want someone who believes in what we do and is willing to learn, improve and always get better.
- Start now, get perfect later. The only way you learn something, I believe is by doing or if you will, by learning and studying THEN doing. Don’t forget the doing part.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We have everything on Google drive so Google docs for SOPs (standard operating procedures) and Google sheets for our project and outreach management. We use a system that was originally created by Ryan Stewart (he is now selling the whole thing and more at theblueprint.training, highly recommended). We have simply modified it to fit our process and needs.
Our clients get their own dedicated workbook where they can check our work in real time:
- Live links in real time
- All the single tasks we perform on a daily basis
- Actions and replies (to communicate if we need their input on tasks, emails etc.)
- Targets (the pages oftheir site that we are going to be building links to)
- Logins (every shared account we create or use for their project)
- Questions (our intake questionnaire)
For team communication we use Slack, we have a channel for each client where we discuss the projects on a daily basis.
For employee tracking I use Top Tracker, it’s free, super easy to use and my team can automatically generate invoices from their hourly tracking.
For lead collection I use Typeform on my website.
It’s worth noting that all of these tools are 100% FREE for use. We don’t currently have paid subscriptions for them cause the free functionalities are more than enough for now.
Link Building tools:
1). Competitor link research
Ahrefs is by far my only weapon of choice to dive into what others are doing. I’m currently on the Standard plan, which at $1,790 / year is the most expensive tool I have but it’s well worth it. I use it everyday and couldn’t be happier.
My Favorite Ahrefs reports are the main backlinks report (it has useful filters to sort lists), the “best by links” report (great to find competitors pages that get the most links) and the “New backlinks” report (great to see what’s been working well for competitors in the past few days, weeks or months).
2). Prospecting for outreach
We use a variety of different tools for prospecting, which in my opinion is the most important part of the link building process.
In order of how we use them:
- Google + semantic.io + Google sheets formulas (free) to find search queries
- Scrapebox (paid) to find prospect URLs and weed out the junk
- URL profiler (paid) to weed out the bad sites using SEO metrics
3). Finding contact information
4). Outreach management
We’ve started off using Mailshake but transitioned to Buzzstream (paid) because we like the added CRM functionality.
I use Calendly to schedule and book meetings with potential clients and consulting calls. I’m on the pro plan, which allows me to use the Stripe integration for faster payments.
We use Zoom for all team and client meetings/calls. Free plan for this.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Since the beginning, I’ve always been a fan of paid training courses. I believe you get what you pay for, so if you get something for free, it might not be the best thing ever.
As mentioned the first training that got my journey started was The Rankings Institute by Andrew Hansen, now not for sale anymore, but he recently launched a new course here: https://digitalworth.com/
Other than that, as I already mentioned, The Blueprint by Ryan Stewart is probably the only thing you need to buy if you want to scale an SEO agency.
That said, not ALL free stuff is useless, I mentioned I read a ton of books and listen to a lot of podcasts so here’s a nice list to begin with (most of these are not SEO related, I prefer to keep my reading and listening for self improvement/business stuff):
Favorite books from the past 4/5 years that made a huge impact on my life and business:
- The obstacle is the way, Ryan Holiday
- Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday
- Money, Rob Moore
- Wealth Can't wait, David Osborn
- The miracle morning, Hal Elrod
- Gorilla Mindset, Mike Cernovich
- Wooden, John Wooden
- Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
- How to be a capitalist without any capital, Nathan Latka
- The Mastery of Love, Don Miguel Ruiz
Currently reading (and loving):
- Money Podcast, Rob Moore
- James Altucher Show
- Tropical MBA podcast
- Three Month Vacation Podcast, Sean Desouza
Other than these, I like to listen to individual episodes where someone I’m looking up to gets featured. I simply google their name + podcast, or search their name in the Apple podcast app. I do the same thing for particular topics I’m interested in at any given time.
A special mention is also due to paid memberships and masterminds. I’m a huge fan of accountability and networking groups (it’s also where I got most of my clients from).
My two favorite groups are:
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
As mentioned earlier, start now, get perfect later (it’s also a book), don’t get bogged down in useless details or shiny objects. The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll learn from your mistakes (‘cause there will be many of those). Learn from others who have done what you want to do and take massive action.
Most people I know who would like to “be their own boss” and work online get paralyzed by the fact that they don’t know how to do something or that they can’t seem to find anything that they like. This is a mistake in my opinion. I believe in order to find something you like doing, you have to try a few other things that you dislike doing. You’ll never know what it is that you enjoy if you don’t try a few different things.
I would also avoid listening to the “follow your passion” advice. In the beginning, your passions are probably only “hobbies” that don’t have the potential to make money. I was the same with my band.
While I knew I could make it happen it just required too much effort and the conditions in my environment weren’t ideal. It’s been a fun ride but I got to the point where my passion for music got overthrown by the lack of real, tangible results (mostly in the form of money).
I had to drop everything there, try a bunch of things that seemed interesting and that I knew I could eventually figure out to find my TRUE passion.
SEO, digital marketing and broadly speaking, creating systems, processes and teams around a service that people find valuable and that are willing to pay for, are what really excites me. This, in turn, all serves my most important core value, freedom.
Where can we go to learn more?
People can also email me with questions and just to get in touch at: [email protected]
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Find out how!