How I Started An SEO Agency For Lawyers Generating $3.6M/Year

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Chris Dreyer and I’m the CEO/Founder of Rankings.io, LLC. My company is a hyper-focused SEO (search engine optimization) agency; we help elite personal injury law firms dominate first page rankings.

In 2018, we were #858 in the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing companies in America. Our revenue is just under $300,000 per month and we’re on pace for another record-breaking year.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I graduated college with a History degree, fully intending to become a high school teacher and coach. I landed a job shortly after graduation as a detention room supervisor, of all things.

Find someone whose work you admire and apply both their mistakes and successes to your own trajectory. Most any mistake that can be made has been, so take advantage of the availability of the stories of others to sidestep the pitfalls that caught them.

You can imagine what my daily routine was like: sitting in the same small room, managing the same recurring cast of misguided youth and assorted screw-ups. One day, bored out of my skull, I Googled “how to make money online” (not joking: that’s literally the query I used). This led me to a few digital marketing courses...and I was instantly hooked.

I’m competitive by nature, so when I entered the world of affiliate marketing, I really enjoyed the process of taking a site from nothing to something. In short order, I had sites ranking #1 for “double chin,” “stained concrete,” “Acai fruit,” and a host of other terms. By the end of my second year in affiliate marketing, I was making more money from my side job than I was from my primary. Naturally, I did everything that my parents didn’t want me to do: I quit my job, moved to Florida, cashed out my teachers’ retirement account, and threw an enormous party at my new place.

how-i-started-an-seo-agency-for-lawyers-generating-3-6m-year

The party was so successful that I received an eviction notice shortly afterwards (Mom, Dad, if you’re reading this: I’m sorry).

In 2012, the Penguin algorithm update came along and basically nuked my income from orbit (taking my 100+ affiliate sites and making them basically useless), but I found a job with a full-service digital agency that specialized in marketing for attorneys. While that company is no longer in operation, I did learn the ropes of legal marketing, and this further seated my passion for the field/niche.

One of the main reasons that I loved working in the legal marketing field was (again) the competition: ranking affiliate sites was relatively easy and had long since ceased to pose a challenge to me, but SEO for lawyers was hyper-competitive and required me to bring my A-game at all times. I loved it so much that in less than two years, I opened my own agency.

Take us through the process of starting, launching, and growing Rankings.io.

I didn’t save a lot of money when I was younger (as you might imagine, based on how I treated my retirement fund), so I bootstrapped the company with a $15,000 loan from my sister, who is herself a very successful entrepreneur (she and her husband own a plumbing company). In the early days, I didn’t have to worry about operations: I didn’t even have any clients yet. I acquired my first clients strategically through LinkedIn, Google+ (now dead), and YouTube marketing.

At first, I took on any digital marketing project that came my way; I had to be willing to try anything. gave those projects my all and this helped build a reputation for high-quality work.

To this day, our leads are largely from referrals and word-of-mouth. In fact, we only have one full-time marketing staff member, so that highlights the importance of setting the tone early and staying cognizant of how you’re perceived within the industry.

In the earliest days, I ran the business from my apartment. We didn’t have any clients, so all of my time was spent on acquisition. I basically unpacked my brain, creating videos to detail what I knew, and used that to build some authority. I would say I created at least one YouTube video per day back then.

I was also heavily engaged on Google+ (it’s dead now, but at the time, it was a great source of lead generation for me). I ran a community of legal professionals, connecting lawyers to their peers. Running that community also built a lot of authority for me, as managing those relationships put me in contact with a wide range of lawyers and firms; it made me a known quantity to them.

Lastly, I knew from the beginning that LinkedIn would be the most valuable social network for connecting with my specific audience. I spent a lot of time there, networking, creating endorsements, writing recommendations, and participating in LinkedIn groups.

From all of these efforts (YouTube, Google+, and LinkedIn), I was able to land three or four solid clients within the first month. The revenue from those surpassed what I had been making at my “real” employment and gave me a solid foundation from which to begin working for referrals.

Back then, we regularly charged $1000-2000/month for SEO. I distinctly remember the first time I signed a client to a $3500/month retainer; I literally did a happy dance. These days, our minimum client engagement is $10000/month, which certainly feels surreal to say when I think back on how things began not so long ago.

After my tenth client, I began looking to hire my first employee, as things were moving well enough that I needed the help. At the time, I was extremely pleased to hire Steven Willi (a web designer who also understood SEO), but the years that followed would only serve to reinforce the belief that he was basically a unicorn: for those of you familiar with EOS/Traction, Steven now serves as my Integrator (the individual who executes the Visionary’s ideas and who is the glue that holds the organization together).

Even the manner in which we met was frankly serendipitous: we were both attending a very casual birthday party for a mutual friend. I asked him what he did, he said he designed websites, and I said I was looking to hire someone to do exactly that. It’s hard to explain now how lucky I was, having someone like Steven appear at exactly the right time. He’s an absolute stud and helped propel my business to an entirely new level. In his first week, I signed five new retainers and I can tell you that any nervousness he might have had over making such a bold move (joining a startup) evaporated rather quickly.

Interestingly, in terms of scaling the company, things have gone contrary to what one might expect: rather than our teams increasing in size as the company has grown, we have learned how to work leaner and get more from less. One of the biggest advantages of having a hyper-specific niche is that your process creation, SEO strategy, and acquisition all target the same persona/avatar. For example: when doing keyword research, we can create one expanded editorial calendar that will appeal and apply to most of our prospects. Instead of throwing paint against the wall with our marketing budget and hoping that we attract, we throw the paint directly at personal injury lawyers. LOL

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

In all levels of retention, it comes down to some form of warmth and competence (warmth, in that clients want frequent and quality communication, transparency, reliability, etc.; competence, in that they want results). One of the things that we’ve done successfully is separate account management and project management.

Our account managers act in a client-facing role: they have their “heads up,” looking for strategic opportunities and advantages, and they guide the client’s campaign. Our project managers have their “heads down,” focusing on completing the work in-scope, on-time, within budget, and correctly.

When everyone gets busy, everyone naturally needs thinks that the company needs to hire more staff, but in most cases, there needs to first be a retrospective on the circumstances that are making us busy and ways that we can improve efficiencies within our existing team.

In many digital agencies, the account manager is also focused on implementation. What we found is that when an individual is in the weeds, concentrating on doing the work, it’s difficult to see opportunities. Your head is “down,” if you will. Consequently, we chose to split strategy within the team, putting account managers in the forward-thinking position and project managers dealing with the day-to-day deliverables/execution. This rather simple, segmented approach has gone a long way towards helping our retention.

Oftentimes, when you hear about the success of a company, you assume that they are bringing a large team to bear. However, we have always focused on maintaining exceptional service first and foremost (rather than expanding our workforce) and this has, in my experience, been easier to do with a lean team. We only have 15 total employees, with only one each in Sales and Marketing. Instead of growing horizontally (with a massive volume of sales/clients), we have chosen to concentrate on a more select group of clientele who are also growth-minded when it comes to their firms/practice. The more success that we deliver for our clients, the more opportunities there are for us.

Most of our leads come from referrals, due to our reputation for high-quality work. We frequently run Net Promoter Score surveys, gauging our clients’ happiness and willingness to speak on our behalf. In addition, during the exploratory phase of engagement with us, we help those prospects who aren’t a good fit for us find the proper representation (via other agencies whose work we respect). As you can imagine, being so hyper-focused on legal SEO only, we must strategically say no to a majority of our prospects. This lends itself to natural reciprocity, a psychological trigger that Robert Cialdini discusses in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

We typically produce at least one solid piece of content per week and try to make each one epic. Our focus is on promoting that content properly, rather than generating a large volume of new content in short order.

Internally, we refer to our content promotion strategy as “the Jordan Content Promotion System.” It looks something like this:

Scheduled social syndications on (23 total; 1 per day for seven days, then 1 per week for 5 weeks, then 1 per month for 11 months):

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Pinterest

Content/Social Curation on:

  • Medium
  • LinkedIn Pulse
  • Scoop.it
  • Empire Avenue
  • Email Newsletter

Paid Promotion:

  • Facebook Boost
  • LinkedIn Boost
  • Twitter Boost
  • Influencer Fiverr Gigs x20

Other:

  • Social Sprout
  • Twitter Promote Mode

Another large component of our success with retention is being process-oriented. We are believers in “The Checklist Manifesto” and treat inconsistency as the enemy. These processes are continually improved and tightened, eliminating much of the possibility for missteps, large or small. As a result, our clients know that if we say we’ll do something, it’ll happen exactly according to the blueprint that we lay out for them.

Lastly, one of the most important aspects of growth and retention is our specialization in not just SEO for lawyers, but personal injury lawyer SEO. This competitive advantage allows us to refine our processes even further (our editorial calendar, link building techniques, etc. are all focused on one niche); it means that we “speak the language” of our customer much more so than a generalized SEO agency.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

In 2019, we’re still firmly in a period of exponential growth in terms of revenue (and, more importantly, profit). In my first year, I grossed $79,000; my second, $300,000; my third was $700,000. In my fourth year, I finally cracked the million mark, grossing $1,100,000. Afterwards, things proceeded at a steady clip, breaking the $2,000,000 mark in the following year and $3,000,000 the year after that.

This year, we are aiming conservatively $4,000,000, but regardless of the final number, our profitability will be higher and we’ll continue to focus on high-quality work.

One of the biggest changes our agency has made recently is to not only focus on law firm SEO, but to niche down even further and specialize in personal injury law firm SEO. This decision was made strategically: somewhere around ⅔ of our gross revenue was already coming from our personal injury clientele (who made up just under 50% of our client base). By focusing on just those clients who were generating the most revenue for us, we were able to refine our processes and make our team much more flexible and responsive.

These changes today are actually an outgrowth of some hard decisions that have been made over the past couple of years: in early 2018, we had to decide whether we wanted to expand horizontally (bringing in clients from other verticals and growing our company by volume) or vertically (working with a smaller number of clients in larger markets and growing the company through net profitability).

Each growth trajectory has its own pros and cons. As our goal is to be the most respected SEO agency in the world, we felt that horizontal expansion would only dilute our focus. We are now even more selective when deciding which clients to sign, as we can only work with a limited number of firms and still provide the service that we want/they deserve.

Having a smaller number of clients makes us more agile. We can implement strategic initiatives much faster and this innovation allows us to stay ahead of both the curve and our competition. Keep in mind, I want to reinforce that our quality and reputation is the lifeblood of our company and inbound leads; referrals are happily given, because our clients see the difference that we make for them.

how-i-started-an-seo-agency-for-lawyers-generating-3-6m-year

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

One of the most painful learning experiences was the consequences of over-hiring, which I learned in 2017.

When everyone gets busy, everyone naturally needs thinks that the company needs to hire more staff, but in most cases, there needs to first be a retrospective on the circumstances that are making us busy and ways that we can improve efficiencies within our existing team.

If you’re just selling hammers, a consumer is going to shop on price, because there are hammers in many stores. If you focus on a unique service, product, or offering that solves a problem, you are instantly seen as the best… because you’re the only one solving that problem.

We implemented Profit First accounting practices at the beginning of 2018 and it transformed how we viewed our company’s finances. Essentially, it forced us to take the expected profit out first, rather than looking for it in what’s left after the bills are paid. Think of brushing your teeth: when you have a new tube of toothpaste, you are very liberal with how much you put on the brush...but when the tube is almost empty, you can manage to squeeze a lot of use out of very little actual toothpaste. Profit First is a lean methodology to managing your money; it forces you to stop buying new tubes of toothpaste, if you will, until you absolutely need one.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Business Framework - EOS/Traction

“EOS®, the Entrepreneurial Operating System® is a comprehensive business system, integrating a holistic business model with a complete set of simple business tools proven business process to align and synchronize all the pieces of your business to produce the results you want.” It’s comprised of six key business factors: Vision, Data, People, Issues, Process, and Traction. We implemented in company-wide in mid-2018 and it has been a game-changer for us.

CRM - Pipedrive

It’s a simplified, kan ban approach to lead management.

Project Management - BaseCamp 3

It’s simplified, but it’s also full-featured and easily understood. We have also used Trello, and while we liked some of the features (particularly the visual style), it didn’t allow for organizational hierarchies that we wanted. BaseCamp just makes it easier to manage our teams and requires very little training for new employees, as it’s intuitive.

Communication - Slack

Ease of use and familiarity. Everyone texts and Slack is essentially just iMessage.

Finance - QuickBooks Online, Profit First

QBO allows for my Director of Finance and our CPA to collaborate via the cloud (as they are not in the same location). Profit First is for reasons detailed previously.

PEO/HR/Payroll - Insperity

Again, ease of use (bundling our benefits, HR resources, and payroll together under one umbrella).

SEO Tools - Ahrefs, SEMrush, Agency Analytics, Google Suite, Screaming Frog

The above tools are industry-standard and should be familiar to everyone in SEO. They are to SEO what, say, a socket set is to a mechanic: they’re just a part of every digital marketer’s toolbox (well, at least the competent ones).

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I’m a serial reader/listener/pursuer of knowledge and generally consume at least 60 business books per year. Tony Robbins put me on tilt this week when I heard that he read 700 books in seven years; I’m coming for your record, Tony. ;)

Books - The E-Myth (Michael Gerber), The Win Without Pitching Manifesto (Blair Enns), Traction (Gino Wickman), Value-Based Fees (Alan Weiss), The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement (Eliyahu M. Goldratt), The Art of Client Service (Robert Solomon), Profit First (Michael Michalowicz).

Podcasts - Entrepreneurs on Fire (John Lee Dumas), Smart Agency Masterclass (Jason Swenk), Build a Better Agency (Drew McLellan), How I Built This (Guy Raz)

Resources - Coaching and mastermind: Vistage Worldwide, Sakas & Company, Gemsbok Consulting, Jason Swenk; SEO training/education: Gotch SEO Academy, Traffic Think Tank

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Model the masters.

Essentially, find someone whose work you admire and apply both their mistakes and successes to your own trajectory. The old saying that there’s nothing new under the sun is largely true in business: most any mistake that can be made has been, so take advantage of the availability of the stories of others to sidestep the pitfalls that caught them.

It isn’t even necessary for those role models to be in your industry. While there are certainly a number of SEO professionals whose work I hold in high regard, there are just as many from other fields who I’ve sought to emulate.

Find and concentrate on a unique selling position.

If you’re just selling hammers, a consumer is going to shop on price, because there are hammers in many stores. If you focus on a unique service, product, or offering that solves a problem, you are instantly seen as the best… because you’re the only one solving that problem.

Due to being the only one, you can dictate your price much more easily. The issue with being just another hammer goes hand-in-hand with another saying I love: Seth Godin said, “The problem with the race to the bottom is you just might win” (meaning that continuing to lower your prices guarantees that you’ll eventually not be profitable).

Some others things I live by:

  • Sales cures all.
  • Don’t do anything half-assed.
  • Integrity is everything.
  • Learn from your mistakes.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We’re always looking for talented and ambitious SEO experts. If that’s you, you can send a resume to [email protected].

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
Chris Dreyer,   Founder of Rankings.io

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Ask A Question


Craig Pearce
5 months ago

Being so niche, how do you handle competing law firms that want to hire you? For example, if two clients want to rank high for "auto accident law firm" how do you handle providing the best for each client?

Chris Dreyer
5 months ago

We provide geographic exclusivity to specific metros. Here's the cut and paste from our terms of agreement:

"Geographic Exclusivity.
The parties agree that, in the event RANKINGS grants an area of exclusivity to the Client for the term of the Agreement, the exclusivity shall be limited only to Client’s primary practice area, as determined by RANKINGS. In no event shall any grant of geographic exclusivity by RANKINGS (including but not limited to with respect to RANKINGS’s ‘The Attorney Rankings System’) to Client provide for an area of exclusivity larger than a 20 mile radius from the Client’s Headquarters. For the purposes of these Terms and Conditions, “Headquarters” means the Client’s center of operations and principal place of business. Each Client shall have only one Headquarters. If Client has multiple offices, including virtual offices, and the Client and RANKINGS disagree over which of Client’s offices constitutes its Headquarters, then RANKINGS’s determination shall govern. Furthermore, no area of exclusivity granted to the Client shall extend into any jurisdiction where the Client is not licensed to practice law."

I know some agencies don't provide exclusivity, but I find that approach very unethical.

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