Working From Home: Episode 24: From Farming in Guatemala to Co-Captain of Jolly SEO with Greg Heilers
In today’s episode, Nelson is joined by Greg Heilers to discuss his journey as a digital nomad, lessons learned while growing a remote company, and balancing work and life as a business owner and father.
- Moving to China
- Pros and cons of the digital nomad lifestyle
- Shifting from the freelancer to business owner mindset
- Cultural sensitivity as a content writer
[0:53] – Nelson introduces today’s guest who shares how he found his way to living in China
[7:28] – Greg’s background in farm work and conservation projects.
[17:02] – Transitioning into living in a new city immersed in a new culture–Beijing.
[22:00] – The truth about being a digital nomad.
[30:10] – The mindset shift from freelancer to business owner.
[38:44] – Mistakes made early on as a new business owner, and lessons learned.
[46:25] – Getting more traffic to your website–discussion on SEO and related topics
[1:00:05] – Cultural sensitivity, hiring, and employee training.
[1:04:10] – Work-life balance. Starting a family as a company founder.
Greg: Just to be fair, I would never trade that time of my life for anything you know, cultural insights, languages. I got to do so many very fulfilling things for me as a person. And I hoped I was helping some other people at some of these volunteer projects, and then it just became apparent, all the things you said, you know what I occasionally saw a hippie couple with their barefoot four-year-old and it felt like that could be me you know. Now I’ve got a five-year-old and a two-month-old and it’s just not going to work. I still need to play catch up game to try to hope to buy a house one day for my kids, so they can go to a good school. So, if I had put it off even another couple of years, we’d be in a bad situation okay.
Nelson: Hello and welcome to the working from home podcast with your host me, Nelson Jordan. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Greg Heilers. He’s the co-founder of Jolly SEO, who, if you don’t know them already, are an editorial link-building agency. So very much within the SEO world, Greg, thank you so much for joining us.
Greg: [00:01:27] Oh, thank you for having me Nelson.
Nelson: [00:01:29] No, no problem at all. I think you’ve got a fascinating story. Very much not the expected. But I think people are going to get a lot from this, not just from the travel aspects that we talk about today and the cultural aspects, but also how you found your way within digital and the different kind of channels and methods that you tried out.
So I guess let’s just dive in. So. Right now you’re based in China. So I’d like to discover how that happened. So if you could go right back to the beginning and talk us through that, that would be fun.
Greg: [00:02:15] In the end of 2013, start of 2014, I was in Guatemala. I was in a place called Xela. The long name is Quetzaltenango. And I was, I guess, unbeknownst to me, ending a six to seven year period of what we might call being a volun-tourist like voluntourism. I was traveling around the world doing internships, apprenticeships, volunteering some for three months, some for nine months, some for weeks.
And I met a woman and we, you know, we hiked up the tallest mountain in central America together, you know classic, we extended our stay in the city and then it got to the point where I was supposed to go to Rome for a culinary internship and she needed to go back home to China and she said, or you could come live with me in China and I said, yeah. Okay, I’ll do that instead. And that was the end of my days doing hands-on farm work, conservation work, and the start of why we ended up connecting today. Digital has been my means of work for the past six years.
Nelson: [00:03:29] So this girl you met at the time, was she Chinese?
Greg: [00:03:34] Yes she’s Chinese and we’re in her hometown now, Hefei. It’s about three hours West of Shanghai.
Nelson: [00:03:42] Fantastic. So it was very much not your plan. What would you have done, do you think, if you hadn’t met her – would you have carried on with the kind of voluntourism or gone down a different route?
Greg: [00:03:56] You know, that’s a good question. I think I was probably aging out of it anyway I was 27ish and I remember a guy, probably in his maybe 40s, I was living in a house of about six or seven bedrooms in Xela in an old colonial house. It was awesome. It was a hundred dollars a month. And this guy gave me unsolicited advice. He said, do your internship in Rome and if the love is real, you know, it would wait for you. And I had just watched him say goodbye to someone, and this person went back to Korea and I thought “oh man, in 10 years from now, I don’t want to be doing that.” So I think it’s a real burnout factor. I don’t know if people talk about that a lot in in the travel life, but you make these temporary relationships. And I think I was growing out of it a bit. I wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship, but when the potential for a genuine one came up, I think I realized all of a sudden, why would I throw away that chance this time around?
So that didn’t quite answer your question, but I think for me it was more like, “Oh, this is it.” I don’t think I had a “This is it” until that came up.
Nelson: [00:05:18] Sure. I mean, yeah, I’m very much of the opinion, and this isn’t necessarily where I thought we’d go at this time in the podcast but it’s well worth saying, I think finding the right partner… I still think not enough people are putting the right emphasis on it. It is, I think the most important part of a happy life. You know, there’ll be others that disagree that say, okay, well you should try and be happy on your own with independence and I think there’s obviously some truth to that. You have to be the sort of person that other people like to be around and you know, enjoy being around by working on yourself. But at the end of the day, I think the partner that you choose has more impact on the quality of your life than any other decision, more than career, than your location and what you do on a day-to-day basis.
So, yeah, I’m completely with you there. I’m very much of the opinion if you got a shot at happiness through relationships, then I would go for that over any other kind of career, career path, career options, I suppose.
Greg: [00:06:40] I agree, take it. I mean, and again it’s probably not the focus of our conversation, however this person is so supportive for my work. So it is integrated there. I mean, they’re part of it you know we can talk about going freelance, I only felt so comfortable because my partner had a salary job. So that was another part of it. But again, we don’t need to go down that rabbit hole if that’s not where we’re supposed to go yet.
Nelson: [00:07:09] I’d love to, I might just delay it a little bit because there’s some things that I want to ask you about Guatemala. Obviously you worked on these conservation projects on the farms. How did you get involved in that? Was that something that you were familiar with from back home?
Greg: [00:07:27] My father’s family in Indiana in the United States, they all have a farming background. So I did grow up around that and for several years I’d worked on organic farms and also some conservation projects one in Palestine, one in Scotland. So here and there and I had been to Guatemala. That time, the first time, working at an orphanage as a caretaker. I actually wanted to work on their farm because they had a farm. The last thing I wanted to do was live with 25 kids, aged four to seven, and to be their caretaker, but that’s what I did. But the second time around, I really stuck to my guns. To be quite honest with you, I was taking advantage of the ex-pat lifestyle. The conversion ratio is really good. I could practice my Spanish; I could learn a little bit of the local languages. Guatemala has a lot of languages and it’s a really beautiful, Guatemala splits – the East is all low land Caribbean and the West is all Highlands and dry mountains.
So it was really gratifying to go to the Highlands that time. So yeah, for me, the internet has always been a great resource. I’d find these things on the internet. I’d find, like I mentioned, the hundred dollars a month lodging in a colonial style 200-year-old house in downtown, and just rent it for a month for a hundred bucks and it couldn’t get any better at the time.
Nelson: [00:09:03] Within your farming background then and your father’s family, what sort of farming had they traditionally been involved in?
Greg: [00:09:14] Oh, great question. So they were, by the time my generation comes around they were doing your typical Midwest corn, soybeans. But when my dad was a kid, things were a little more diversified. So they had animals and my dad today, and I helped just as I was kind of closing out that period of my life, set up his retirement farms. He has what we call grass fed beef and has goats that are not necessarily for meat, but they’re more for breeding, so it’s a pedigree thing. And they are for meat, they’re not milk goats, but that’s mostly what they do. You know, everything else is smaller for self-consumption, but they’re, they’re a grass-fed based animal operation.
Nelson: [00:09:59] Sure, okay so that’s more around the animal side than crops, for example.
Greg: [00:10:07] Yes. . I had focused a lot on organic small-scale like hands-on perennials and annuals, you know, vegetables, but my dad is a classic American 70-year-old guy. He loves his beef. And so that’s been his dream, you know? So that was interesting to close out my hands-on time working on an operation that really wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do. I was studying something called permaculture and so that’s when I was in Guatemala to work on their conservation. It was a reforestation project near Xela and it wasn’t really permaculture, but for me to work with local people in their ecosystem, it’s a unique opportunity to learn cultivation and management that, I don’t mean to be cliche, but as a westerner, as an American in a country where we’re relatively new to it we’re so out of touch with local management techniques, I mean, we don’t know them. They’re not on the books. So, to go to other communities and work with people for me was something I desired as hands-on learning opportunities.
Nelson: [00:11:30] What’s the main concept behind permaculture.
Greg: [00:11:34] Yeah. As far as I understand, you’re talking to a guy who’s like seven years removed now, right. But that the idea is although it’s a lot of work initially you’re supposed to be creating systems that become more and more permanent and self-sustaining so, you know, it’s a lot of hands-on work but for example, they have something called food forests. So unlike what we call monoculture, where there’s these long rows of single crops, you have a hybrid of tiered crops. So you’ve got shade trees doing one crop and something else under it and something else under it and something else under it.
And these are hands-on and the harvest are delayed by multiple years when you get into agroforestry. But the idea is eventually these systems can work together. So it’s a lot of inter planting, like intercropping, you know, beneficial stuff, integrated pest management, it’s these kinds of systems thinking where five, 10 years from now, you won’t be doing weeding because the weeds are things you would eat or the animals would eat, like you don’t need to do human labor doing that, but there’s a lot of human labor up front. That’s not to say it’s someone, you know, hands-off.
Nelson: [00:12:48] Sure. So I, I mean, as far as I understand it and just correct me if I’ve misunderstood it, then it’s about creating an ecosystem of plants and animals and bacteria that work together to kind of create this sustaining crop, I guess, as opposed to monoculture, which is very much reliant on a lot of human and chemical intervention because when you’ve got a single crop that uses up a lot of the chemicals in the soil, be it kind of nitrogen or phosphorous, and you have to end up replacing those directly with whatever it is. And I think a lot of that, doesn’t a lot of that have problems like running off into rivers creating these oxygen dead zones, right? So that’s super interesting. I think I’m going to make sure, she should be listening anyway, but I’m going to make sure my sister listens to this episode just because she’s very interested in that kind of world as well. She’s a teacher actually, but she’s always wanted to move into kind of outdoor education schools, forestry schools, and that sort of thing as well.
Greg: [00:14:15] So I think I love the concept for children. I mean, I think in another, you know how I envisioned when I would have kids they would be outside learning that way. And then of course, you know, life teaches you different things along the way. So it may not happen that way, but I definitely get my guy in the little raised beds we have in California when I can.
Nelson: [00:14:43] Amazing. Cool. So I guess just to summarize so far, you’ve obviously got the projects that you were doing all over the world, like a lot of organic and conservation, and then obviously Palestine and Scotland and then Guatemala, and then you met this wonderful woman and she asked you… was it to move to Beijing?
Greg: [00:15:08] Yeah. So she was doing, you know, classic people in their twenties moved to the big city pursued a career. She had her own cool story. When Beijing hosted the Olympics, she was an English language radio host for a US radio station during the Olympics. She had some really cool gigs she did there, and then she made remote work for her eventually. She worked in the travel industry, which is dead a few months a year, and she told her boss just don’t pay me those three months and I’ll be back and you accept me back and let me travel for three months. And he said, “yeah, win-win” so that’s how we had the opportunity to meet. So she took three months off to go learn Spanish and traveled through central America and I interrupted her trip. You know, she extended her stay in Guatemala and then she invited me to Beijing and it was very, very thoughtful of her. It was very safely planned, you know, she had a spare room so that if we had a falling out that I’d have some time. I was coming off my voluntourism stints, I had like this much money in the bank, but I had to quickly find some work, right. Beijing is not a cheap city, even though I was living for free at my new girlfriend’s house.
Nelson: [00:16:35] Sure, so tell me about that transition. I can imagine, I’ve never been to Beijing, I’ve never been to China, from what I’ve seen coming from somewhere like Guatemala or even kind of like where you grew up as well, I can imagine that there was some fairly significant differences. So, tell me about that bedding in period.
Greg: [00:17:02] Yeah, you nailed it. It could be overwhelming. That aspect of China life I’ll admit even six years later, we split our year here every year. It’s still tough for me, you know, every green light people are running across the street, you know, and in Beijing there’s literally every one minute a subway train would roll up at the subway station and it would be jammed, absolutely full, not the seats are full, but full the volume is stuffed to capacity with human bodies every minute and it was definitely stunning at first. And that’s cool, because everything has pros and cons. So I tried to find my way and the way I found it was through the little thing I could offer, which was my language. And at the time, and still today in China, English is a skill. People want to learn it. People want to pay for it. And children, adults, all Ranges. So I experimented with which bracket I felt comfortable teaching at first, because that was the quick, low hanging fruit before I got my first remote gig.
Nelson: [00:18:15] So what did you end up moving into for your translation work or for your English teaching, what did that look like?
Greg: [00:18:23] Yeah, I did some agency English teaching. I went one morning into a classroom of 50 kids and was like, yeah, it’s still not for me, I’m not doing that. I had done some of that volunteer English teaching at different points, and I already knew it wasn’t for me, but I was willing to try it again. And then I was cruising classifieds in an English language job board called the Beijinger, I think it still exists.
Nelson: [00:18:50] I’m glad you finished that sentence with that with the English translation job boards. Like when somebody says cruising classifies, I’m like, Oh where is this going.
Greg: [00:19:01] Whoa, I was only there with my new girlfriend. That would be inappropriate. Right. Yeah, no, so far, no worries on infidelity.
So I came across this gig, you know my Chinese isn’t good enough to do the translation, but they had that part handled. They just needed someone with English to polish it up and they needed it snappy because it was news cycle stuff. It was a niche and automotive industry news, and they wanted it done within a three-hour window, which probably sounds crazy to some, but when you’re new, it worked. It was good money to me. I thought it was, it was 20 to 25 bucks per hour, more or less, you know, and we did it by word and the guy was super fair and it was exciting to me. It was minuscule. It was like five hours a week probably. But it was a start.
Nelson: [00:20:02] Sure. So what kind of led you to explore other opportunities then obviously you’re making some income, you have very low overheads in terms of your rent’s already been paid for. But I guess there’s only so much you can kind of sponge off somebody and still maintain a healthy relationship.
Greg: [00:20:26] Yeah, right. So I was still transitioning and I had my last seasonal gig lined up for three months later in California. I really was endeared to those people. It’s a nonprofit serving at-risk youth and I was heading up their kitchen as the kitchen coordinator. So I knew I was going to be physically transient again and we had this plan for my partner to come meet me in the US and then we were going to go traveling together. So I didn’t want to ditch that gig. It was so minimal, five hours, I could keep it up. And then with our new plan and she was going to keep working and I didn’t want to keep being a sponge it was like, I think this is the answer. I think I tried looking for some physical location gigs in different places and I found like, be a hostel manager, but it just didn’t seem like it would transfer well, if we wanted to pick up and go. So then I finally realized like a clunky, old laptop might be the portal that I needed at the time to make that transition and like I said, I was kind of growing up and growing out of it, a guy, six years out of college still hadn’t ever had a salary gig or things like that. So needless to say, but I’ll say it, my family was absolutely relieved when I met this person because she helped me, not that she told me to, but she helped me see for myself, like, all right, I gotta play catch up game in this one aspect of life.
Nelson: [00:22:00] Sure. I suppose for me I would almost say it depends on your goals, right? Because I think there are plenty of people that make that lifestyle work for them, and that’s what they want to do. But a lot of the time people have other priorities as well. And say, for example, that sort of lifestyle doesn’t really lend itself to family life at all just in terms of the amount of money that you have coming in is fine for one person. If you watch what you spend, if you live quite a frugal lifestyle, you know, you can still afford to go out for like drinks occasionally with people. If you go to the right places and have not, you know, splurging it up the wall. It’s very much like watching the purse strings quite carefully, but enough to get by sort of thing. What it doesn’t do is give you the money and the resources to be able to provide for any children. You know, without being in some kind of serious, I don’t know, like financial edge, I suppose it can be quite difficult.
It doesn’t give you the money to feel good about your wife taking some time off to maybe help raise the children, not go straight back to work, if that’s something that she wants to do. So I totally get it. I think some people can make it work. I just think that lifestyle is kind of incompatible. You know, working five, six hours or something like that, I think it’s quite incompatible if you also have these other goals.
Greg: [00:23:52] Yeah and just to be fair, I would never trade that time of my life for anything you know, cultural insights, languages. I got to do so many very fulfilling things for me as a person and I hoped I was helping some other people at some of these volunteer projects. And then it just became apparent all the things you said, you know what I occasionally saw a hippie couple with their barefoot four-year-old and it felt like that could be me. You know, now I’ve got a five-year-old and a two-month-old and it’s just not gonna work. Like I still need to play catch-up game to try to hope to buy a house one day for my kids. So they can go to a good school. So if I had put it off, even another couple of years, we would be in a bad situation I think as far as doing right by my kids. Long-term, I still want him to have some exposure to nature and gardening. But, you know, this way is working too. He’s fluent in two languages and as he gets older he’ll understand more and more the nuances of the cultural differences, you know, like to be able to explain it to other people, he definitely understands better than I do as it is, you know? So it’s interesting you know, it is what it is.
Nelson: [00:25:14] Sure. So tell me tell me a little bit about your first step into, I think, what a lot of copywriters and content creators would call almost a rite of passage and that’s content mills, those sorts of volume incentivized gigs we’ll call them for now.
Greg: [00:25:36] Yeah. I mean, it didn’t take long, right, for me to be a super productive member of one or two content mills. It really didn’t because we lived in Cancun for five months, lo and behold, everything was so wonderful. We made our first kid and then it was like, wow, I need to actually work very, very much so right now. And so I was doing $12 blogs. It wasn’t that long ago in my life where I would be sitting in a Beijing Starbucks pumping out $10-12 blogs literally like 20 to 30 a day, like 15,000 words and just cranking them out stream of consciousness. And I was proud of myself for the ability to provide my end financially. Again my partner still had her salary job at that point. She did go back to work three months after giving birth, which neither of us wanted, but I didn’t start early enough to make that possible. But I definitely wasn’t proud of the type of work. So Rite of passage is spot on. I mean, we were doing what are considered, you know, trash articles for purely a backlink play in SEO. It’s all to boost people to the top of Google and nobody actually reads these articles. And they’re about things that nobody cares about. So if you did stumble onto an article by accident, I’m sorry to you, just yeah, it’s tough. And you know, the other end of the spectrum is, as I’m sure many of you listening know, like $500,000 articles about things that matter to certain audiences that actually push people to do what the client wants. So it wasn’t especially gratifying. But it felt like a means to an end at the time.
Nelson: [00:27:34] Sure. No. I mean, it’s a good thing to get the first step on the ladder and kind of understand what is out there, what is possible. And hopefully there’ll be people listening that have maybe started on there and then don’t know what to do next and they can maybe, perhaps follow your footsteps or something like that. For me, it was something that I’ve heard about a lot from many different people, so I know it is that rite of passage for a lot of people.
I never did that. It was quite interesting, I suppose it’s because I found copywriting and content strategy and content creation, which is more what I’m moving into these days, very late in my career. Not on the grander scale of things, but just later than most people in relative terms. Because by the time I moved into that, I already had 10 years of digital marketing experience under my belt. You know, I’d already worked in paid social, managing up to kind of a couple hundred grand in ad spend a month. I’d already been involved in PPC and SEO, and we’ll come back to that obviously in a second, and then finally into conversion rate optimization and email automation and stuff like that. So I was in this quite strange position where actually, I kind of skipped a lot of the beginning steps in copywriting and content creation, because I was in this weird phase where, you know, I was a freelancer, already had been for a couple of years and I could command what I consider good rates, good hourly rates, good project rates, within digital marketing. And then I had this moment where I was like, “well, I’m probably going to have to go down a little while when I move into content creation and copywriting”, because you know what I’m experienced in is digital, I’m not that experienced in producing this sort of stuff, it’s an entirely different ball game, but then I quickly realized that the background that I had was actually completely an asset and I could almost skip the beginning stages. Firstly, because I knew how to make freelancing work. I made the realization, even before I moved into this, that the people that earn the most aren’t necessarily the best actually producing the outcomes that people want. That’s not to say that those people haven’t earned their money and don’t do good work, but the best copywriters, for example, aren’t necessarily the ones that earn the most money. The ones that earn the most money are the ones that run their freelancing business like a business, not like they’re a freelancer.
So, I was able to skip a lot of what people consider the beginning and then the first and the second steps, which was quite nice because I was able to apply these principles and in different ways, I realized, a lot of copywriting in particular is about frameworks. It’s about thinking, okay, what format is needed here? What knowledge of human psychology is needed and what order should we put that in? And then once you combine that with a decent research process, you’re able to jump light years ahead of people who are trying to work out bit by bit and using mentors and communities and existing resources to help them grow. You’re able to just make a jump. So as I say, my point was, I never hit those content mills, but I know a lot of people that have.
Greg: [00:31:35] Yeah, I unfortunately for myself learned the hard way and that’s what I try to tell people what you said. I personally don’t have the skillset that you have. However, a lot of people really could skip those stages with even just the right positioning, as you said, to manage themselves as a business, not as… I mean, it’s like romance, right? You don’t want to come off desperate. You need to come off as on solid footing and it changes the ball game right from the get-go.
Nelson: [00:32:08] Yeah, definitely. It’s kind of this understanding that mindset shift of “I’m not a single person here as a freelancer”, I might call myself a freelancer, but realize I run a freelancing business, and as soon as you have that mindset shift, it’s so important because you suddenly have these situations crop up almost every day where you would handle it slightly differently as a freelancer versus a business owner, which is obviously what I consider myself. I have multiple businesses, but when I’m talking about the freelancing business, it is a business. It’s the same thing. Would people, when they’re talking about prices, would they expect a business to lower their prices and give you a discount just because they asked for it? No, they wouldn’t and in the same respect I don’t ever discount my work in terms of the amount of work that I do for the amount of money that I charge. I might give them a discount in terms of an incentive. Okay, this is your budget and I’m not going to lower what I charge for the work, but I might do less work. I might say okay, within that budget, you can’t afford to hire me to do X, Y, and Z. We’re just going to do X and Y for example. And that’s kind of how that works, but the mindset shift between thinking of yourself as just as a single person, a single entity versus you are the business owner. You need to make sure that the revenue coming in is solid. You need to take a good, hard look at your costs and things like that and grow the business. Also the most important thing I think for me in that mindset shift is how you think about growth. So, if you think of yourself as a freelancer, then you might be content to just take whatever projects come in the door.
You might not spend a set amount of time each week on actually growing your business. You might just spend your time fulfilling the client work that you’ve got. You might think that’s the priority. But if you think of yourself as a business owner, suddenly you realize, hang on. If I’m not spending a solid amount of time each week growing the business, that business will die. You know, you’ll get turnover within your clients. For whatever reason, it’s not always down to the quality of your work. A lot of the time when you lose a client, it’s completely out of your control. It tends to be like a new marketing director comes in and wants to put their stamp and appoint an old agency, or they want to go in a different direction or that project becomes less of a priority. And I just think that that mindset means that you switch and you think, hang on, I need to be putting at least one to two days in a week working on my business, not working in my business.
Greg: [00:35:17] It has to be whatever number you choose. One to two days a week, one to three hours a week, whatever it has to be consistent, you can’t ever stop. If you sacrifice it, you will unfortunately find the pay out in the end. I mean, you will catch yourself without work at some point you really can’t stop it, so yeah, I completely agree with you. And I really did learn that the hard way multiple times, get complacent, feel like I’ve got the right set of clients, oh what do you know? My handler at that company just switched jobs and they’re going to bring an in-house person in. Doesn’t mean, like you said, that I did a bad job. I actually did a great job. They got a new round of fundraising or whatever and they were enabled to get in-house employees. So yeah, you can’t take any of this personally, but what you’re talking about here is dollars revenue. You made a great point about, is it healthy revenue or it was actually a liability, this new project, you know, is it a good use of your time?
So yeah, these are lessons that for me took me a long time or say long, you know, I have only been a business owner a few years, but it felt like a long time. Cause it’s really painful when you’re learning these.
Nelson: [00:36:36] Yeah. Time seems to slow when you’re going through these issues
Greg: [00:36:40] It slows down a hell of a lot.
Nelson: [00:36:42] So tell me how you about the move from content mill to content agency.
Greg: [00:36:49] Yes. So, I was doing these I was doing a lot of these blog posts for a big name, Groupon and they were a little amateur hour and they literally would show everyone your payroll for the month and it was very easy to calculate just how many of them they were doing per month and you know, this was through an intermediary I don’t want to put this on Groupon the amateur hour was the intermediary that the content agency. And my co-founder at Jolly Morgan Taylor, he’s my friend since high school I roped him into this, you know, this was his first step. Unfortunately he didn’t know Nelson Jordan. He actually knew Greg Helier, so I was like, you could too could be a content mill writer. So that’s where he started and he’s still grateful for it, but again, he doesn’t know you, he knows me, unfortunately. So then he did the math and was like Greg you’re already alone doing 40% of these. Like if we just told them we could handle a hundred percent and they don’t have to deal with managing the freelance writers, I think they’d go for it. And of course they went for it. So we took on a hundred percent of it. I had previously, with my Chinese work, occasionally bid off these huge one-off projects, like a hundred thousand words of editing and so I’d find a couple of other people to sub some parts out to. And that was the start of the dream of kicking back on the beach and letting everyone do the work. And it was also the start of a really, really hard two years of learning about margin as a business owner. So that was the start of this, we did 4,002 on-site pages for Groupon on our first project and I would love to tell a funny story if you don’t mind at my expense. We paid at the tail end of that a very reasonable fee to a mentor and he told us the truth, which was you got that gig from doing however many it was, I can’t even remember the number, let’s say 50 blogs a month for a year for this SEO agency and our idea was to recreate that project. You know, multiple times $50,000 project, we were just going to sell at least one of these a month and be set for life. He said to us, you did this for like a year with this agency, that’s why they gave you the project. What in the world makes you think you’re going to cold pitch this to SEO agencies left and right out there that your crew is going to take on these $50,000 projects for them. And we thought now we’ve got 4,000 pages done for Groupon, nothing will stop us here. And it was a really brutal year and a half after that, listening to that advice, because that did not happen. We never got one of those projects again as a content agency and instead we basically became what I call a mid-tier content agency, almost like a mid-tier freelancer. Now we shopped our portfolio around, we begged for trials, we’d get dropped for reasons totally out of our control. CRO wasn’t on point, promotion didn’t exist, things like that. And yeah, it was a misadventure with a lot of lessons.
Nelson: [00:40:24] Sure. So it sounds like it can be incredibly painful, those transition periods I’m going to call them, where you were just basically trying to figure stuff out. You’re trying to come at it with some sort of process and some sort of logic and discipline, but at the same time, some of it is just picking these ideas that you have, throwing them at the wall and seeing what sticks is unfortunate element as well. It’s the reason, I’mspeaking from my personal perspective, that I feel comfortable with my direction now, but you know, there’s still things going on that I’m trying to figure out, but that’s only because 10 years of experience doing different things, trying out different things, there were times that I thought, you know what, I’m going to create my own social media agency and I’m grow that and bring on all of these fancy clients and stuff. And then I very much found that, I am still involved in social media now, but I do from a strategy perspective. I don’t enjoy a lot of the things that go on from a day-to-day perspective with that. So I don’t necessarily want to want to grow that arm of my business anymore.
And then you’ve got other things, like I was involved in PPC for a long time and now I don’t manage PPC for anyone. Not because I’m not good at it, but because I don’t feel like that’s where I do my best work and I didn’t learn about that through anything other than experimentation through trying it out for a couple of years, learning all of the basic principles, getting better, working on different clients that only at the end of it to be like, I didn’t really enjoy doing this.
You could view that as a couple of years wasted, or you can view that as, okay that’s lots of transferable skills. I still was working with a lot of great clients during the time, improving my client management, my internal management of myself and other people and then move on and then just put that down as to part of the path that you have to tread to find what you do like doing.
Greg: [00:43:05] That’s what I think is beautiful. When you said transferable skills, I was kind of sitting on that one. At least for me, that’s how it worked out. You know, just a little tweak on those at that 4 years of firsthand experience both in executing and managing a team and then all of a sudden it turned into the right model. So, and like you said, you leapfrogged through the stages of copywriting because you had several skillsets, I mean if you know CRO you’re a copywriting client’s dream, you know they don’t know these things. That’s what they think they’re getting out of a copywriter, but when they get a G doc full of words and the person didn’t actually know CRO, then it’s a nice text document, but it’s not really going to do what they hoped it would do, which is make the money.
Nelson: [00:43:58] Exactly. It’s interesting and I it’s very much, as you say, I wouldn’t trade those times at all. There were very few experiences, even I think at the beginning of my career, my first full-time job I did the same thing as your wife, very much moved to the big city, moved to London as lots of people do, and I worked as a recruitment consultant. I stayed in that job for six months, which I thought I always knew I was going to quit it because I hated it. And you know, it gave me mouth ulcers. It was incredibly stressful. It was incredibly long hours. I didn’t like what I was doing. And also I was very bad at it. You know I was not good at some robotic monotonous cold calling sort of thing, I hated bothering people, you know, I genuinely would feel quite apologetic for calling people.
So I was not meant to do that, but it took me that time to learn what I don’t like doing. You know, and I would never do a job like that, like a corporate job, a job that expects me to rock up every day in a suit, a tie and a blazer. That’s not me. In a suit that expects me to be clean shaven. Guys, if you’re listening to this on the podcast rather than YouTube channel… It’s been a little while since I’ve been clean shaven, normally rocking a bit of a beard.
But yeah, so before we get too off track talking about my story, which I’m sure people have heard multiple times, so you’re in this kind of mid-tier kind of content agency, as you described, obviously these days your jolly is more oriented around link-building. What was the trigger that made you think maybe there’s a better way, a way that we’re more in tune with, of doing that.
Greg: [00:46:09] What is that… Necessity is the mother of invention or something like that.
You know, Jolly Content as we were called then, wasn’t making me personally money. Everyone was getting paid, Morgan and I weren’t, maybe we were making like 10 bucks an hour. So I was still freelancing on the side and I’d stumbled into what isn’t copywriting, but media pitches is almost like a hybrid. There’s a little bit of direct response in there, but it also really satisfied my… You know, I have a history bachelor’s degree and I did a lot of content, so I like research. And when you send these media pitches, you’re sending authoritative content and I was ghost writing these for a couple of clients personally.
Nelson: [00:46:55] I’m just sorry to jump in there, Greg, for anybody that doesn’t know what media pitches are, would you be able to just give us a short background on that?
Greg: [00:47:07] Yeah, let’s say you’re reading an article. Let’s pick the most probably well-known one that my company does today is Business Insider.
Right? Let’s say you’re reading an article on there and they quote three to four experts. Literally quotation marks around their sentence “said so and so CEO of company name”. So to get that quote, probably the freelance writer who has the byline put it through what is called a journalism sourcing service and these are platforms, the one that we use most commonly known is called HARO, help a reporter out. It’s a wonderful platform if you want to check it out. And they just put a little, what’s called a query on there and they put a little what’s called summary description and say I’m writing an article on remote work and I’m looking for experts to contribute their thoughts. So what I would do on behalf of clients and what Jolly SEO is built on today is we’re not spinning up fabrications, right, we’re using our firsthand experience or maybe our company’s experience, but we’re also not promoting, these are media pitches, but it’s not like product promotion pitches and we’re contributing those quotes, that’s what these media publications are looking for. They’re looking for valuable contributions they’d actually want in their article. So that was something that I personally was doing for a full year before I turned to Morgan and said this is it, this is the one. We shut down the content agency. Clients need this, their founders, their C-suites, they can’t write like we can they don’t have time. Maybe they can do it, but they’re willing to pay way better than the mid-tier blogs we did and the results were so tangible compared to our articles that would sit in the back of a blog directory somewhere on their site. These were on publications they want their name in and then we get into SEO with a backlink.
Nelson: [00:49:28] Sure. So for those that aren’t aware then, other than people seeing that name in the publication, what is the value of a backlink from somebody like Business Insider to your website?
Greg: [00:49:43] Yeah. So there’s these things in Google, every time, if you use Google, you look for something there’s what they call a search engine result page, the SERPs. So everybody’s trying to climb to the top. Obviously, there’s some ads at the top, but everyone’s trying to climb to the top of the organic results and the way you get there is a few different, it could be a lot of different, we don’t actually know factors and the most commonly known ones are the links. You have both the quantity and the quality. So where they’re coming from and then content on your site, how authoritative it is. And there’s other things like user experience. So my little company, we just focus on a subset of that one factor, links, which is… we’re not looking for toxic stuff. We’re not going to any dodgy sites. We’re actually not even proactively pitching these people. We’re waiting for them to put out a call for help. And we go straight as our clients and like you said, yeah, the quote is good, but actually the majority that our clients want is that link from an authoritative site, which tells Google, wait a minute this big site thinks this little site is legitimate, and so maybe we’ll push them a little higher over someone else who doesn’t have that little bit of indicator from an authoritative site.
Nelson: [00:51:13] So the way I understand it then, you work on behalf of these corporate entities, these companies and businesses that want to increase their traffic to their website.
And they want to gain more links from what they call authoritative websites, these industry publications like Forbes, like Business Insider, those sorts of publications, because that will bring them increased traffic because of the links.
Greg: [00:51:46] Yes. I think your elevator pitch is a little better than mine. You are the copywriter. So probably. If you could just clip this and then we’ll transcribe it.
Nelson: [00:51:56] We’ll clip it up and send it to you. As I said, I’ve been involved in SEO for many years and link-building weirdly is the one… because I’ve been involved in so many aspects of digital marketing and even within SEO I’ve worked works with clients to improve their organic traffic and the conversions that come from organic as well. But the one thing that I haven’t done and hasn’t really appealed to me is to go all in on link building for any particular time, I’ve built my own links for my own website. I’ve used HARO before as well. That Help a Reporter Out, I’ve secured several links to that from my site by using the exact same thing that you do. So I know that well, it’s just I’ve never been that involved in a link-building team or anything like that, or a project that was essentially just centered around that. So I find it really, really interesting.
One of the things that I’d like you to comment on just because you’re perfectly paced to do so, is that I found with HARO a lot of the times, I just never heard back from people, you know there was a very low success rate. And I’m interested in hearing whether that was because I was not doing it as optimally as I could do, which I suspect might be some of it as opposed to like professionals like you guys who do it all day every day. But also I got the feeling that you have to create a lot of these in the first place to increase your chances of being picked up by one of these publications.
Is that true?
Greg: [00:53:46] There is a numbers game aspect. So the results on our team varies, you know, when I used to actively pitch, a one in four and a half was my conversion ratio. Our head of the program right now is similar, and he hasn’t pitched in a few months so that was what he wrapped up at. But our team spans from like one in seven to one in 15, really our active team, anybody higher than that, we usually end up, it doesn’t work for them and it doesn’t work for us. I’ll put it that way. So, yeah it’s not, that’s the most common thing I see. You know, for SEOs who are used to link building, they’re used to paying their way into articles so they’re used to literally sending an email saying I’d like to be on your site. So that has a pretty low conversion ratio when you’re dealing with a freelance journalist who is like, I’ve got a deadline in six hours, like I needed the contribution one way in my inbox. So there’s definitely nuances to it, but the most common I see is people give up after trying 20 times because they they’re just so used to sending those I’ll give you money.
That usually works pretty well on the right side. But I think if people can be a little more patient, there’s also a delay factor. You might have more wins than you realize because they take 24 hours to five months to go live. So you might have more than you realize. And HARO, at least in particular, you don’t get notified of your wins 90 plus percent of the time. So unless you’re someone like you who really knows SEO and is crawling for the results you might have some out there and that’s something we’ve learned too, of course, as a pay for results on your business. But yeah, long answer short, like one to seven and one in 15, somewhere in there, if you’re in there, you’re doing okay in my opinion. But is that worth it for your time? You know, that’s for you being the CRO guy to think about ROI on your time.
Nelson: [00:56:01] And that’s the outcome that I had and I guess that’s why even somebody like me, who knows that side of things and understands the value of those links versus the time I decided at the end of it, it wasn’t worth my time and I think that’s where your company, your agency comes in to outsource that process because it’s still very valuable and the links are, it’s just that trade off of time and do you want as a freelancer or as a business owner, do you want to get good at this? Do you want to start off at getting a one in 15 success rate for your pitches and then increase that to like a seven one in seven or one in six or one in five or whatever. Is that worth it with your time that you’d have to spend versus writing and researching. What else could you do in your business with that time? And I think that’s why you guys come in and super valuable when you mentioned it not being right for some people in terms of the people actually working for you for Jolly SEO, the freelancers that you hire is that because you pay them per successful length.
Greg: [00:57:20] Oh, we do a combination. So roughly, and again depends on their conversion ratio, but roughly half their pay comes from the success and half from the pitching. So we do per pitch and then per success. And we even tier the compensation on the success because we learned this early on. That lo and behold freelancers are good at finding the easy wins and those aren’t always the same ones that clients want to win.
So we had to fix our quality. It was about April or May was the low point of our quality in 2020 and around April or May we instituted tiered compensation internally. And, you know, I talked about the delay and wins, so it took a couple months to sing back, but our quality is almost as good as it gets without us being like an unprofitable company, you know, and doubling up our compensation on that.
But we pay pretty good for the high-quality wins and then we pay a decent rate for the low quality, from our perspective we aim for, if you know SEO, DR50 and above, that’s all we pay for.
Nelson: [00:58:38] That’s still very high
Greg: [00:58:41] Because we’re a done for you, right? Yeah. I mean, nobody’s going to pay what we charge for lower than that. And it’s once a month now we see people with the same exact positioning as us emerge. Two of our clients just forwarded me a cold email today from someone undercutting our price, but with the same messaging pitching them. So it works because of that cutoff, because anything less, maybe they would want to get good at it themselves or find a solo freelancer to get good at it over time.
I mean, the two initial clients who took a chance on me that’s exactly what they were doing. You know, we were all just kind of rolling the dice and luckily it worked. So I’m very, very grateful for those two initial clients. I really appreciate them, two years later, we’re still together.
So yeah, it’s not for everyone. It’s definitely not for every business owner. C-suite at that point you’re doing a lot of things that are writing these media pitches worth your time. I don’t write my own, you know, I have a ghostwriter on our team do them then. So yeah, it’s just a formula you have to work out on your time.
Nelson: [01:00:04] Definitely. So within your pool, I suppose, of freelance writers where are they typically based?
Greg: [01:00:14] Oh, we are probably like 80% North America and then we’ve got probably like 10% across Europe, but they seem to be British. They just have, you know, done the whole Spain/Portugal thing or something like that and then we actually do have a wonderful team member in Kenya and a couple in the Philippines. I am just so sympathetic being, you know, I know a few languages, but none of them good enough to work professionally in and I feel bad. Whereas at jolly content where we had an in-house editor, we could always accommodate ESL up to an extent. Ghostwriting C-suite executives from usually America and there’s no time for editing, it’s been really hard to accommodate and we’ve had to turn away a lot of otherwise great writers, but if the cultural fit wasn’t there with the written language, we just couldn’t make it work.
Nelson: [01:01:21] I totally get that. There’s a difference between being proficient in a language knowing all the idioms, phrases and I think it’s tone of voice as well for these sorts of things is really, really hard to gauge when you’re talking as using it as a foreign language.
Greg: [01:01:49] There’s one that surprised me a lot and I should have known better because I’m in China and culture is different in every place.
We are ghostwriters. So we need to be ultra-respectful of these fine lines, and they’re really fine lines, bounding the gray area of what’s permissible. They’re super fine and sometimes people from different cultures have different definitions of what’s acceptable to say. And so we had a couple instances where it was like, Oh, my gosh. I cannot believe like despite the thorough video-based training. So one-on-one hour-long onboarding calls the hands on coaching, you know, despite all that, I’d see it live on the internet. My clients saying something and I think I just now I got to go into damage control mode. I can’t believe that my company helps put that out there and that isn’t good PR for me to be thinking on this, but it’s just a lesson learned in terms of, I guess, you know, as much as you want to try to push boundaries sometimes you just got to know that there really are boundaries. And for us it’s been okay. We almost have to stick to this subset of writers, even though there’s amazing writers everywhere.
Nelson: [01:03:21] There’s only so much that you can cover in training. Right? You’re trying to provide the process for them and the resources to get better. But at the end of the day, they still have your training, which might be however many hours. And I might go over this period versus a lifetime of existing inside a particular culture in which is going to win out. Like we both know the answer there. So yeah. That makes sense. One thing I just wanted to talk about now is just before we wrap up is work-life balance.
In our discovery call, you mentioned that you’re working incredibly long hours until quite recently, standard for startup founders, seems to be. What was your incentive or your realization that you were perhaps putting in too many hours and your incentive to change your behavior?
Greg: [01:04:28] Well, I mean, it’s cliche and I’m not going to say this was the only thing that did it, but my then four-year-old, he just turned five, my son really did tell me that I like work more than him.
So it’s exactly what I told myself proactively before ever having a child that I would never be that kind of parent let alone, whatever your image of a father versus mother is. You know, I don’t appreciate when parents are on their cell phones around their kids. And I’ve absolutely had my laptop on my lap with him next to me and told him give me two minutes to do this and then spend 12 minutes instead.
So yeah, I think that It’s just unsustainable. I have a newborn now and so we’re heading back to America in four weeks in January, 2021 and the good news is things like that actually will force me to delegate better because I’m only going to have 10 hours a week to work until we find a preschool.
It was things like that. So yeah, it definitely was just the end of a long run of a few years. You know, we’re fortunate my wife hasn’t had to work in several years and gotten to be with our kid, which we think is more valuable than anything possible. But I would like to be part of their lives too.
And so I think maybe it goes in, you know, the work side satisfaction wise. I feel very good about how we’re serving our clients and so that is satisfying. However, you know, I shared on this podcast my life before this was very different and for me, I know I won’t be happy if I spend another five years staring at a computer screen as the majority of my waking hours.
So that’s not to say that I feel so entitled I don’t think I should work. I think that at some point I have to figure out that balance of how to keep working digitally, but also find some way to half step back into something that really satisfies me personally. Not just satisfies me in terms of serving other people, which is wonderful, but you’ve got to go to take care of yourself for the long run too.
Nelson: [01:07:08] I totally get that. I’m having some considerations really this whole year.
Greg: [01:07:15] Like a lot of people, right?
Nelson: [01:07:17] Yeah and I think that for me as well as taking on more projects that do have an impact, by the time this goes out I might have. It’s hard to say, but I might be in a position where I’m the CMO or part-time CMO of a company that is helping people to transition in their career. We’ll see if that kind of comes to pass, but the main thing for me is finding stuff that is completely outside of digital.
And for me, that’s likely to be coaching rugby. You know, I grew up playing rugby and unfortunately had to stop in my early twenties after neck injuries and quite few concussions. I had more concussions than I should have before I learned my lesson and stopped playing. But it’s something that I desperately miss and it’s a great way to be involved with people and to form a community. And it’s about making friends in that area that aren’t involved in the same things that I do on the day-to-day because the majority of my friends these days have the very, very similar lifestyles to me, you know, they’re not necessarily working from home, but they’re involved in the digital or PR industries or that people who I meet through the podcast.
So for me, getting to know people outside and people involved in my local community. I moved from, my wife and I, moved from Valencia, Spain to Staffordshire, slap bang in the middle of the UK. Beautiful place but especially because of Coronavirus we don’t know many people here at the moment. We’re not as involved in the community as I would like, so that’s kind of my goal for 2021. So I totally get that.
Greg, thank you. Thank you so, so much for coming on, it’s been fantastic to hear how you’ve gone from ka farmer to a content writer to being involved in digital, in terms of link building.
Where can people find both yourself and jolly SEO? Where’s the best place to go.
Greg: [01:09:46] I think on LinkedIn, Greg, and then my last name is Heilers. I’d be happy just to connect and we can, whether it’s talk shop, or as you said, talk about life. I think for a lot of people in transition in 2020 and 2021, and Jolly SEO is jollyseo.co just and that’s great for me. I’m happy to share more about what we do in terms of helping you do it yourself or this, there’s no real secrets. So thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Nelson: [01:10:21] No, you’re very welcome. I enjoyed our conversation today.
Greg: [01:10:24] Yeah, me too.
Nelson: [01:10:27] And that’s it for today. You’ve been listening to the working from home podcast with me, Nelson Jordan.
We’ve been talking about the good, the bad and the ugly side of remote work. Thanks so much for listening and I really hope you’ve enjoyed the time you spent with us today. If you’d like to discuss the podcast, you want to make a new friend. Or you’re interested in working with me on a copywriting or digital marketing project, then visit Nelson-jordan.com.
That’s Nelson-jordan.com, where you can also sign up to my newsletter to hear about this podcast and other exciting projects until next week. Goodbye.