Karl Hughes

Karl Hughes

How We Found Our First 30 Clients

How We Found Our First 30 Clients

It’s been less than a year since I started Draft.dev and we’ve already built up a roster of 32 clients, over 60 freelance writers, and a full-time staff of five. I’ve learned more than I could have imagined—especially about sales and marketing—and I’ve had a ton of fun doing it.

We’ve also gotten to make a much larger impact than I expected to at the outset. Millions of people have read our work, and we pay tens of thousands of dollars to our writing staff every month.

This extra income is significant for many of them:

While the milestone of 30 clients is arbitrary, it does feel a lot more like I’m running a business and not just freelancing anymore.

So, I wanted to capture a bit about the journey so far as it might be helpful to other entrepreneurs. In this post, I’m going to cover what we do and how we arrived at product-market fit, the customer acquisition channels we used to get there, and a bit about where we’re going next at Draft.dev.

Hopefully, some of these lessons will be applicable to your business too.

What We Do

Draft.dev is a “productized service” that creates content for companies who want to reach software engineers. I’ve written before about how we have have built a scalable process around producing technical content and hiring people, but essentially, we’ve standardized enough of our processes that we can take on clients pretty much as fast as they are ready to start.

The challenge has been figuring out what our clients need and what we can consistently do well. The spot where those two things overlap is our “sweet spot,” and as we’ve dialed it in, it’s allowed us to provide more value to our best clients while increasing prices and our average deal size.

Today, most of our clients are marketing or developer relations teams at well-funded tech startups and mid-size enterprises. The companies we work best with:

  1. Have a strong marketing leader
  2. Know that content marketing works for them
  3. Are struggling to produce enough technical content
  4. Appreciate planning and disciplined processes

Of course, it took trying a few things to get here.

How it Started

I started out by taking on pretty much any client who wanted content aimed at software developers.

Some were engineering team leaders, others were brand new startups who had never tried content before, and some were closer to my ideal client today.

After working with several “personas,” I learned which ones we worked best for and started referring clients who weren’t a good fit off to my competitors or other freelancers.

If you’re starting a business, you have to realize that not all revenue is created equal. The more distracted you are by customers who are a bad fit, the less time you’ll have to pursue the customers you do your best work with.

Unfortunately, a lot of small businesses chase immediate revenue over a long-term, sustainable strategy. Sometimes the founder is inexperienced, and sometimes outside forces (investors, vanity, etc.) are pushing for this. I’ve seen this mistake enough in past startups I’ve worked for that I made it a priority to avoid this “distraction revenue” as much as possible.

Not all revenue is equal

The Power of a Niche

I’ve talked before about how powerful niching down was for Draft.dev, but I’ll continue to beat this drum.

If you’re not taking on funding, you don’t have to find a TAM (total addressable market) worth $1 billion or more. You can easily start in a smaller market if it’s not impossibly hard to find leads in that market.

I knew we’d just have to get 10 or 20 clients to make Draft.dev work as a business, so as I narrowed my focus, I learned where people in my target market were hanging out and started looking for people I already knew in those spaces.

I spent a lot of time on social media, sending emails to friends and colleagues, and writing about what I was doing.

With a very narrowly defined niche and a relatively wide existing network, Draft.dev started picking up steam. After working on it full-time for three months, I was starting to hire other people, and by nine months I already had over 20 clients and almost 50 writers.

Acquisition Channels

Picking a niche makes marketing easier, but you still have to do the work to actually reach people in your target market.

I’ve tried a lot of different channels, but here’s what has worked to get us to our 32 clients today:

Breakdown of our customer acquisition channels

I’ll offer a little more explanation for each of these channels in the sections below.

1. Saw Previous Work 22%

We have a naturally viral service: we write content that will be published publicly on the internet and is designed to perform well in search engines. While we don’t mention Draft.dev in the posts or bylines, prospects will ask our writers or clients, and this eventually gets back to us.

Even before I started Draft.dev, I was writing here on my personal blog or on other company blogs, so I had a bit of a following already. Several of our early clients saw these blog posts, looked me up, and reached out. We’ve had people reach out thanks to content I wrote 5+ years ago, so now I’m in the habit of periodically updating these old posts.

I expect this channel to continue being a strong performer as the number of clients we serve grows and we invest more in guest blogging, podcast appearances, and writing on the Draft.dev blog.

The takeaway: Create things on the internet and share them. Content has a longer shelf life than you realize.

2. Paid Referrals (19%)

One of my mentors is a marketing consultant. Since he doesn’t do content production and we don’t do high-level marketing strategy, our businesses were a perfect compliment. We signed a referral agreement early on, giving him a financial incentive to pass clients to us.

I still offer paid referrals to a few consultants I trust, but this channel is less of a focus now that we’ve got our footing. Free referrals from satisfied clients are just as strong and don’t cut into our margin.

The takeaway: Establish 1-2 strategic partnerships or referral sources early on.

3. Personal Introductions (19%)

I spent nearly 10 years as an engineering leader in Chicago startups, so I came into this business with a lot of valuable industry contacts. Several made introductions that led to a sale.

As our client base expanded, referrals from existing clients are also becoming a significant source of leads. My guess is this will only grow, assuming we continue to provide high-quality work to our clients. This year, one of our account management goals is to start soliciting these referrals more deliberately.

The takeaway: Build and maintain a network. I can’t stress how valuable this has been for closing sales, hiring, and finding advisors and mentors.

4. Linkedin (13%)

Linkedin outreach is all the rage these days.

B2B marketers report that 80% of their social media leads come from LinkedIn, with 40% seeing LinkedIn as their most effective channel for driving high quality leads. - Maddy Osman, Kinsta

I tried a little bit of cold Linkedin prospecting last year. It was time-consuming, and while it worked okay, I dropped it as inbound interest grew. Half of my clients who came from Linkedin are actually inbound. In these cases, they saw something I posted (or something shared by a mutual connection) and reached out.

I realized early on that social networks (especially Linkedin and Twitter) were going to be great channels for us. So, I invested in it by bringing on a social media manager as one of my first hires.

The takeaway: Social media can work in B2B sales if you maintain a consistent presence and spend time on it.

5. Slack (9%)

While I don’t use Slack for work, I am in several professional networking Slack groups. By simply being active, helpful, and keeping an ear on a few groups, I’ve built several relationships that eventually led to clients.

My plan this year is to find a way to scale this up a bit. There are dozens of good Slack communities for our niche, so if I can find a way to monitor them for relevant conversations, I might be able to make this a more reliable channel.

The takeaway: I think Slack is better as a professional networking tool than a work tool.

6. Twitter (6%)

I’ve been pretty active on Twitter for over a decade now. Once I started writing more, I got more active and like Linkedin, found it to be a good place to source leads and share content.

Both clients I’ve found through Twitter were inbound, but I’ve had some conversations using outbound too. Typically, the pattern is that someone mentions me when another person asks about hiring a technical blogger or writer.

The takeaway: Your followers want to be helpful, so turn them into lead sourcers on Twitter.

7. Email Newsletters (6%)

I run a few email newsletters now with over 3,000 subscribers now, but given how specific Draft.dev’s services are, it hasn’t been a huge source of new deals.

I tried advertising in two industry email newsletters last month and just closed our first deal as a result of those ads. This ended up being a great ROI, so I plan to do more of this as we grow.

The takeaway: Email newsletters are a great captive audience, and advertising in small, niche newsletters can be extremely cost-effective.

8. Cold Emails (3%)

I ran one cold email campaign in December. I sent 100 personalized emails over the course of two days to companies that are in our target market. From those efforts, I got one client.

This is actually not bad as cold email goes, but I’ve noticed that clients coming in from a cold email are the most skeptical. They tend to want small trial runs, which are difficult to execute given the highly specific kind of content we write.

The other problem with using cold email as a growth channel is that our target market really isn’t that big. There might be 5,000 companies that are the right size and industry, and of those, some fraction will be looking for content, and an even smaller fraction want an outside vendor.

So, I’ve paused our mass email efforts for now to focus on trust-first channels like content and social media.

The takeaway: Cold email might work for smaller ticket items, but it is a hard channel to build trust on.

9. Events/Conferences (3%)

In April, I started reaching out to Meetup groups and conferences to get more involved in groups that are relevant to our target market. This channel is new, but I’ve already closed one deal and have several more in the pipeline. It seems to be working well, and I enjoy it, so I expect to scale this up in 2021.

The takeaway: Being an invited speaker will help you quickly build trust with an audience.

What’s Next?

Looking at this breakdown is both encouraging and concerning.

On one hand, it’s great that the quality and quantity of our work is helping drive growth. It’s also nice to have a lot of channels going as we aren’t overly reliant on any one of them.

On the other hand, we don’t have one of those easy “money in, sales out” type funnels. It’s really hard to predict how many new clients will come in from any of these channels at this point, and some of them won’t necessarily scale too well.

That said, my goal is to create a profitable lifestyle business here, so growth isn’t everything.

We still have a lot of opportunities to add value for our clients. This year, we started offering SEO keyword research, social media collateral, and a developer relations career platform. While doing all these things at scale will present new challenges, I’m really excited about figuring each of them out the way we’ve figured out written content at Draft.dev.

I hope this breakdown has been helpful. If you’re looking for more good reads on building a business, check out my favorite books for startup founders or follow me on Twitter for more.

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