How Two Friends Created One of the Largest Remote Working Communities

$1,000
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2
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0
Employees
product
letsworkremotely
from Bloomington
started July 2017
$1,000
revenue/mo
2
Founders
0
Employees
536K
alexa rank
platform
accounting
productivity
payments
advertising
blog
stock images
crm
education

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

Hey everyone! My name is Steven Lin and I’m the Co-Founder of letsworkremotely. My Co-Founder, Ciaran Redmond, actually lives in Denver and we have never met in person. Funny enough, we actually started as competitors right about a year and a half ago, but now we’re on our way to create the best (and currently largest) remote community possible.

Our flagship product is actually the collection of 4 remote job/digital nomad Facebook Groups that either me, Ciaran, or both of us are admins or moderators of. The smallest one has around 25,000 members and the largest one is nearing 100,000.

While there is definitely some crossover of members in the groups, they’re all super engaging (>60% active members) and growing at about 100 people a week, sometimes a day. Some of the group discussions are remote work or digital nomad relate, but most of them are remote job posts to help our members live the work/life they desire.

The main focus the past year and a half have been fostering and growing our awesome remote community. We’ve also been trying to differentiate our value proposition from the dozens of other remote job board sites out there. The website, letsworkremotely.com, has been our primary (but not large) source for revenue since the groups are free. Currently, we’re pretty much breaking even so monetization is going to be a big focus this year.

After turning down an acquisition offer from a venture capital (before I could even legally drink!) to buy our groups, we began to really understand just how valuable our community was.

how-two-friends-are-making-money-through-facebook-groups

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

This sounds terrible and I mostly accredit that to being a 19-year-old college kid, but I was bored and wanted a challenge.

Most of my summer at the time was wasted on video games, carbonation, and junk food. I wanted to do something that challenged me, be a good learning experience and hopefully make some money. After deleting all my games off my computer and phone, I fired up Google and got sucked into the wild world of making money online.

Not all of your competitors are bad, everyone is just trying to make it out there in a competitive world. Instead of trying to steal value from each other, see if you can find ways to create value together. At the end of the day, it’s always about the community and your customers.

Some of the stuff I found was really interesting but generally, they fell into three categories: blogs, online stores, and online services. Most of them usually are a mix of two or three of those categories. Blogs are content and knowledge centers including YouTube channels, streaming or even an Instagram page.

They’ll likely make most of their money by gaining loyal followers that buy affiliate products you recommend/sponsor because you’re an influencer to them. Online stores sell products (software and physical) where you make yourself or resell from a supplier or dropshipping. Online services generally mean freelancing or employment where you trade your time and talent for money.

Being 19 at the time, my expertise and credibility are very close to 0. I wasn’t a guru or nearly entertaining enough to maintain a blog. Products seemed to take too long to develop and could easily be replicated. Freelancing sounded cool, but I really wanted to build something. However, freelancing was something I did in the past and I really enjoyed working with clients to solve problems, the autonomy and working from home. That’s when I really started to explore the world of remote working, freelancing and digital nomadism.

What I found out from my exploration was that there were two very distinct types of remote workers: those who actually work remotely and those who post pictures of their laptops and “work remotely” on the beach. The latter are usually “gurus” who sell you the idea of a lifestyle, make you pay hundreds or thousands of dollars so you can “work from home” and make 6 figures while you vacation in Sri Lanka.

Now I’m not saying that it’s not possible to do just that, but the reality of it is that for most people, that’s not what remote working is all about. There’s still plenty of real companies that are hiring great remote talent with all its other benefits. If you don’t believe me that remote work isn’t just about traveling to sandy beaches, then check out Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2018 Report. Or you can try bringing your laptop to the beach, it is NOT fun or productive.

Anyways, I researched the competitive landscape and there are two big categories: freelancing and employment. Freelancing is what most people end up associating with remote work. Platforms like Upwork, Freelance and to some extent Fivver have been great at helping those interested in freelancing make a career out of it. Despite how great freelancing can be, there are many downsides people don’t consider.

Most people don’t realize how much work it takes to land a client, chasing them down to pay you, unstable income flows and covering your own expenses. Doing the work is the easy part. Like the romanticized view of remote work, this lifestyle is not for everyone despite what your Instagram feed might say.

That’s why I ended up focusing on the latter, where the market has not been explored as much but is a growing category in the remote working world. Companies are beginning to build their workforce on a remote-first basis of implementing remote work as part of their culture.

Still, there are many implicit problems with traditional remote job boards that aren’t freelance focused. Many of them make remote job seekers pay a monthly fee to access the jobs, which I think is pretty ridiculous. That’s why the first promise I made to the groups was to make it free for job seekers. Another big problem is that most resumes get sent to the void and people have no idea who to reach if there are questions. letsworkremotely was born to create the best remote community to help connect the remote talent to remote opportunities from anywhere in the world.

Take us through the process of building the product.

The initial product was really as simple as creating a Facebook group which took 5 minutes.

I used some of my graphic design skills to create a logo and added a short description of what the group would be. After that, I just started looking for remote jobs that seemed to be legitimate from searching the internet.

Grow slow. Don’t drop out of school or quit your job (unless you really want to) just because that’s what Mark Zuckerberg did. It’s not for everyone. Growing slow helps you learn and make less critical mistakes.

I would share the remote opportunity in the group and encouraged others to do same. For a few weeks, it was just me sharing the opportunities to 0 people. Eventually, I got smarter and started cross-promoting into various different social networks and by the first month, I reached 1,000 members! I was able to do all of this off of the WiFi in my parent’s home - so more or less free.

Even though Facebook Groups is amazing (if it isn’t part of your marketing plan, you should look heavily into it), there are some limitations with it being a place to find jobs. I used my experience in creating WordPress websites for clients to make a job board for letsworkremotely.

I bought the domain for $11.99 and 3 years of hosting for $166.08 on BlueHost. After finding a theme I liked on Envato for $59, it took me about a week to get it fully configured and running the way I wanted it to be. At the time it was still bare and not getting any traffic, so I used a ZipRecruiter plugin to backfill a lot of my jobs. I would then mix in the jobs that my members were sharing in my group to fill in the rest.

To get visitors to my site, I used a very similar strategy to grow my group and it has proved to be pretty successful till this day. Jobs that were backfilled or shared one the website were then shared through the different networks I was a part of. I would share mainly jobs that seemed interesting and had salary expectations as those performed the best. After that, I would keep track of what times worked and what type of jobs worked best in each network. Right now, we’re ranked in the top 1 million websites in the world according to Alexa. While that doesn’t sound like a big deal, there are over 1 billion (yes with a big B) websites in the world. That makes letsworkremotely.com in the top .1% of websites in the world.

Anyways, my strategy must’ve been too successful because eventually some of my competitors eventually kicked me from their social networks. I wasn’t spamming since I posted every couple of days or so, but they didn’t want their traffic leading somewhere else. Instead of blocking me, Ciaran actually reached out to me and called me out. He liked my audacity and wanted to team up since we shared a similar vision and knew that the remote world can do a lot better to bring people in. 3 hours later our groups doubled (probably tripled) in size and have been growing in double digits every week.

By this time, school started back up and I would try my best to balance growing my group, homework, and sleep. During the summer I spent probably 5-10 hours a day on it, but once school started it was back down to probably 3 hours a day max. With the group maturing quite a bit, it’s more self-run so Ciaran and I are less active members as we are nurturers. We just facilitate the conversations and try to help bring value to the members as much as we can with both of our busy lives.

Describe the process of launching the business.

While I didn’t have a “formal” launch, I really didn’t see my labor bear fruit until 5 - 6 months in.

I was really concentrated on growth more than I was on monetization. There were already many competitors that had remote job boards, I just had to make sure what I was creating gave a different and better value proposition. But I do remember getting my first paid customer in my RA class on a Friday sometime in February. I couldn’t hold back my excitement and couldn’t pay attention to the rest of the lesson.

The biggest lesson I learned from the process of starting is that starting is easy, continuing is hard. It’s easy to get excited fantasizing how awesome your idea would be if it all worked, but not when you actually have to do the stuff that’s not always glorious every day. I didn’t have a formal launch because I love the philosophy of “launching slow” from Aytekin Tank, the founder of JotForm. Essentially, entrepreneurship has been really glorified the past few decades with billion dollar companies seemingly appearing out of thin air.

Instead, don’t think of launching your product as much as a process on how you want to work on your product or bettering what you’re doing each day. Think of people who focus solely on the launch as a bad New Year’s Resolution and those who focus on the process as someone who makes a commitment to go to the gym every week before the year even ended.

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

So this might get some people to scratch their heads but we spent $0 on Google AdWords and probably no more than $100 in Facebook Ads in our whole year and a half of operating.

The two things that have worked the best for us has been sweat and luck. We found a good strategy and process that worked and got lucky that remote work is growing in popularity. Sweat and luck have been a good backbone to attract visitors to both our groups and main site, letsworkremotely.

I realize that people are saying “Facebook is dead” but it really isn’t. If you’re not considering Facebook Groups as part of your marketing plan, you should really think again.

For a long time, around 90% of our traffic on letsworkremotely was through social networks from the guerilla marketing we conducted. Now, it’s around 50% social, 25% search and 25% direct. I had no prior SEO knowledge, but I definitely learned a lot along the way. Free tools such as Keyword Everywhere and Keyword Keg are great to analyze what people are searching for. Don’t assume what you would search in is what other people would. Let the data do the talking.

Something I do want to mention tho is that the life of letsworkremotely hasn’t been all growth and happiness. Around 7 months in, the social networks I’ve been relying on suddenly all decided to block me to prevent cannibalization from their traffic and we got hit pretty hard (refer to screenshots below). That along with bad management of 404-page errors wrecked our Alexa rankings. We were once actually ranked under 500,00 in the entire world. It really hurt me personally because there’s nothing like losing 2,000 positions a day for 3 whole months. Thankfully we got back in Google’s good graces and found new sources to drive traffic. But that’s just part of the game.

The biggest thing I do regret is not forming better relationships with the groups I cross-promoted the jobs in. Deep down, I know if I talked to the admins and discussed how we could provide value to both our communities. The other thing I regret (and SEO sin 101) is not building better backlinks with reputable sources. I put most of my eggs in the one basket called Facebook Groups and eventually, that won’t be enough. This year backlinks will be one of our main focuses. Like my goal was since this all began, keep being challenged and keep learning.

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

As I mentioned, we’re still growing at a pretty crazy rate but would really like to turn on the revenue faucet at some point this year. Part of it was we weren’t sure of our value proposition. However, after getting a request to acquire our company (basically just for our groups) which we turned down, we realized we really did have something valuable. Our promises to our community remained the same, we’re not going to ask them to pay for thousand dollar courses ever or a membership to view the jobs.

letsworkremotely operates on a freemium job posting model - employers can post jobs for free for a short duration (10 days) or choose premium plans for longer duration, more visibility and primary support for their hiring needs. Since revenue has stayed relatively flat, that’s something we want to focus on this year. The goal right now is to develop a better marketing strategy to really get companies wanting to hire our talented remote rockstars to post more opportunities for them!

Operationally, it’s still just mainly Ciaran and me with a few other moderators that have reached out to us to help lighten the load a little of approving new members and posts. None of us have yet met in person, but plan on it sometime in the future. We do have some plans to provide more specialized remote hiring services in the future but really just playing around with our current revenue model to see what works now that our value proposition is validated.

Below are screenshots of our stats:

how-two-friends-are-making-money-through-facebook-groups

Above is my Google Analytics since letsworkremotely started. The first three months are not present because I made the rookie mistake of not connecting it to Google Analytics. So note the sharp decrease in pageviews right around January. how-two-friends-are-making-money-through-facebook-groups

This was when I started noticing that admins from the networks I originally shared the remote jobs in started blocking me to stop leading their group members to my site. Also, that’s when the 404 errors started haunting me and my Alexa rankings started to take a HUGE hit (below). I dropped over 2,000 positions a DAY. It was the worst feeling in the entire world balancing school and something you worked on so hard falling apart.

While we fixed most of the 404 errors, we were still banned from the other networks and our viewership never fully recovered. But as you can tell from the next few screenshots, our Facebook groups were growing tremendously both in terms of sheer members and engagement.

That’s where we decided to focus our time and energy once we realized the website was going to take a while to fully recover - if ever. Turned out to be a good strategy because ultimately our potential buyers just wanted our groups. So one of the things to take away from this is that not everything in your startup is going to work out the way you thought or hoped.

You have to have a thick skin and adapt when things go terribly wrong. Always pursue your value propositions and user demands.

how-two-friends-are-making-money-through-facebook-groups

how-two-friends-are-making-money-through-facebook-groups

Below is our Google Search Console performance in the past 16 months. It’s not terrible considering how competitive some of our competitors are in these keywords. While our Click through rate (CTR) is pretty good compared to the industry standard (WordStream), our average position could definitely improve.

But, if you’re building up your branding primarily through social media, that’s one of the issues you run into. So keep that in mind when you’re trying to build your startup. On the bright side, since I was a scrappy and broke college student, I was able to achieve all of this without spending any more than $100 TOTAL on marketing which competitors are spending 5-10 times that per month.

how-two-friends-are-making-money-through-facebook-groups

how-two-friends-are-making-money-through-facebook-groups

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

I’ve definitely learned a few things along the way. The old adage, “keep your friends close but enemies closer” couldn’t be truer. One of mine became an invaluable asset and wonderful friend.

Not all of your competitors are bad, everyone is just trying to make it out there in a competitive world. Instead of trying to steal value from each other, see if you can find ways to create value together. At the end of the day, it’s always about the community and your customers.

The other big thing I’ve learned more recently is to know when to say no. Last November, we received an acquisition request for our site and primarily our Facebook groups that we turned down. It was more money than I’ve seen in my entire life at once and would have paid off this year’s tuition. They even came in at a prime time too. Right when we were still dropping down 2,000 positions daily on Alexa and traffic was declining. An all-cash deal meant we could just leave the community hanging and let the “experts” deal with it. But that’s not what we envisioned and felt our community deserved. What the rejected acquisition offer did help us do was reinvigorate our depressed spirits to do even more for the community. A few days later, after some re-strategizing, we began trending up again.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Without a doubt, Facebook Groups is probably our favorite platform. It is so powerful and underutilized.

I realize that people are saying “Facebook is dead” but it really isn’t. If you’re not considering Facebook Groups as part of your marketing plan, you should really think again.

WordPress is fantastic for anyone wanting to make a simple or advanced website without having to really learn how to code. They have only gotten better since I found out about them back in high school for my first client.

Of course, Google Analytics is great for keeping track of how you’re doing as well as Keywords Everywhere (free and so good) for SEO.

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

I’m going to out myself, but I haven’t really read for pleasure since coming into college. I like to blame it on my hectic schedule and traumatization of terrible required curriculum readings. However, I do frequently listen to NPR’s Planet Money, How I Built This with Guy Raz and all the videos from Vox’s YouTube channel.

I listen to How I Built This because I love hearing inspirational stories of these seemingly mortal people becoming mythical founders in unique ways. But I listen/watch to Planet Money and Vox videos because I’m very curious and just want to satisfy that curiosity by watching interesting things that are usually unrelated to what I do or my business. However, it’s still highly important to be open about things that seem unrelated because it keeps the synapses in your brain sharp and you often end up drawing connections where you least expect to.

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

I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to share my story at first. After being a lurking fan on Starter Story, my revenue stats were just unimpressive compared to the massively more successful other founders. Also, I just turned 21 and didn’t think I was nearly wise enough to give advice. But here I am and here’s some of my advice for (mainly) younger entrepreneurs starting out.

First, you’re probably not going to build the next Facebook. That’s ok. Don’t freak out if after two weeks you made a business plan and a logo investors aren’t pounding at your door writing you checks for $50 million.

Grow slow. Don’t drop out of school or quit your job (unless you really want to) just because that’s what Mark Zuckerberg did. It’s not for everyone. Growing slow helps you learn and make less critical mistakes.

Measure success on your own terms and not against Facebook. As long as you were better than you were yesterday, that’s all that matters. Entrepreneurship is more than just making a billion dollar company.

If you’re not learning, being challenged or providing value, nothing else really matters.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We’re actually not looking to hire at the moment but… I am looking for an internship this summer (doesn’t have to be remote) to satisfy graduation requirements for my Masters in Information Systems program in the fall.

If you or someone you know is looking to hire an eager learner with an entrepreneurial spirit with a knack for marketing, analysis, and technology, then feel free to reach out to me: [email protected] and we can chat!

Or if you're looking to hire some remote rockstars, you can post a remote job here

Where can we go to learn more?

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

-  
Steven Lin,   Founder of letsworkremotely

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