Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey! My name is Rick van Haasteren and I run SiteGuru, an SEO tool for online marketers and website owners.
SiteGuru crawls your website and finds SEO issues, and tells you how to fix them. Things like missing meta descriptions, wrong page titles, slow pages, but also broken links and pages without any links to them. If you’re running a website, you know how it grows over time and how hard it can be to keep track of all your pages. SiteGuru aims to give you the full picture.
Unlike many other SEO tools, SiteGuru doesn’t just give you a list of all your pages and their SEO data. Instead, we’re giving a list of actionable tasks so you can quickly start improving your website.
My current MRR is around $400. Enough to cover my hosting costs, not enough to quit my job.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve been working on side projects for as long as I can remember. I’ve built an online HTML course, a travel blog, and many other things - some successes, mostly failures. Although I think failure isn’t the right word. I wasn’t always able to capture a big audience or make it profitable, but I always had fun and learned tons of new things.
One of the things I built is a wine webshop that specializes in South-African wines. I run it together with my wife. I can tell you, starting a business together is a great way to test your relationship. The webshop is doing great, and an extra benefit is that we always have plenty of good wines if we feel like opening a bottle.
During my day job as a project manager at an internet agency, we would launch new websites every few weeks. I noticed that with every launch, there would be a couple of small issues that affected the website’s performance in search engines. A missing meta description, a few big images making the site really slow, or a no-index tag that was missed. Ough!
I wanted to create a checklist in Excel that our developers could use to make sure they didn’t miss anything. The problem with those checklists is that, well, nobody actually uses them. Instead, I created a tool that checks the homepage and listed the issues. All you had to do is enter the URL and you’d get the results.
If I would have known how hard it would be to build an SEO tool, I probably never would have started.
I loved the idea of building this into a full-blown website audit tool, but I knew it would be a lot of work. To validate the idea, I took a few weeks to build a minimum viable product. Then, I set up Smartlook, a screen recording tool, and I would spend $10 on Google Ads every day to drive some traffic to the website. Each day, I would get about 10 visitors and I watched their recordings. It was clear that people liked it, but I also saw what wasn’t working, and how I could improve it. It’s a super cheap way to test your product, and it’s almost as good as sitting next to your customers and see them use your product.
I still have my day job and spend time in evenings and weekends building the product.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Building an SEO tool is hard. Like really hard. If I would have known how hard it would be, I probably never would have started.
Every website is completely different. There are so many different things to take into account. I won’t go into all the technical details, but just to give a few examples: we check the length of your meta description and found that sites in Hebrew, Japanese and some other languages would give warnings even when the meta description was perfect. Not something I thought of beforehand, but super annoying for some of my users. There are many other examples like this, things you cannot foresee when building something this complex.
Luckily my first users were super helpful to share issues they experienced, which helped to improve the quality of the reports.
Once I had established that people liked the product and would sign up for it, I built it into a full-blown SEO tool
Another example was when I introduced the broken link checker. I thought it would be super useful to see which links on your site are broken. Since the tool was already checking every page on your site, I thought that it would be quite easy. Well, I was wrong. Checking thousands of links without crashing that website turned out to be a lot harder. And believe me, when an SEO tool brings your servers down, you’re not a happy customer. It required a lot of tweaks to remove all the false negatives and keep all servers humming along nicely, but I finally got there.
I’ve been able to keep my server costs at around $200 even though the tool is checking thousands of pages every day.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Working in my day job while building the product myself, I was able to keep my costs low. I didn’t need any financing and that gave me a pretty much infinite runway without any pressure.
Once I had established that people liked the product and would sign up for it, I built it into a full-blown SEO tool. I probably took too long and should have ‘resurfaced’ sooner, launching a simple version. Instead, I took about 6 months before I launched on ProductHunt. That resulted in a nice amount of signups.
Secondly, I contacted as many startup directories I could find to get listed. I kept track of that, the full list is in the SiteGuru Startup Directory List. It’s an easy way to do outreach and get noticed, but be aware: you’ll attract mostly fellow founders, and that may not always be your ideal audience. For SiteGuru for instance, I should have focused on marketing agencies and SEOs instead.
Define your ideal target audience that would value and pay for your product and then start hanging out where they hang out
If I could do it again, I would have started promoting the product from the start. Creating content, building an audience and sharing what I was doing, instead of locking myself up and developing for months.
Also, don’t make too big a deal out of your ‘launch’. It’s not the big step that decides whether your product will succeed or not. It’s one of many small steps you need to take into building and marketing a product.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
After the initial launch of Product Hunt and being listed on a lot of startup directories, the biggest driver of traffic has been StackSocial. It’s a service that offers super cheap deals on various products, promoting these deals on big sites like TechCrunch and TheNextWeb.
Even though you’ll have to offer a really low price, it’s a great way to reach a massive audience, while making some money at the same time. I don’t think it’s a sustainable way of growing, but as an early-stage startup, this can be a great way to grow if you’re able to keep your marginal costs low. In the user graph below, you see the big jump that’s coming from StackSocial. I haven’t regretted it!
Content marketing is probably my biggest untapped source of traffic. The SEO Academy on the websites drives quite a bit of targeted traffic looking for answers to SEO questions. I should be expanding that, but I haven’t done that enough for 2 reasons. Firstly, I tend to keep developing the product until it’s perfect, even though it probably never will be. Instead, I should divide my time between building the product and creating content. So yes, that’s my main job for the coming months.
Secondly, every SEO company out there knows about the power of content marketing, so the market is super competitive. Despite these challenges, I’m convinced that I can create the right kind of content for my audience, build links and improving my rankings in the process.
Keep going, don’t give up. Don’t expect to have a big hit in a few weeks. Building a great product takes time
Regarding retention, email updates have been a great way to keep customers active. We’re checking their website every week, and they’ll be notified whenever something changes. That’s a big source of traffic.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
SiteGuru currently has about 6000 users, and about 20% of them are actively using the tool every week to check their website.
Most of these users are on the free plan, a small percentage is on the $9 a month plan. Luckily that number has been increasing recently. I’ve made some changes to the free and paid plans to make it more attractive to sign up, and that seems to pay off.
Earlier, there was a free 2-week trial after which you had to sign up to keep using the product. Hardly anyone did that because not a lot of people saw the value in those first 2 weeks.
Instead, there’s an endless free plan, with one limitation: it just checks 5 pages. To see more pages, you have to upgrade. The endless free plan works great because those free users get an email every week about how their website is doing, so they stay engaged. At the same time, the server costs of checking 5 pages are quite low, so that works for me.
This new strategy, combined with low acquisition cost (no advertising) allows me to run a ‘profitable’ business, even though it’s a small amount. By focussing more on the right audience - content marketers, SEO’s, agencies - I hope to grow the number of paying users and make SiteGuru an established SEO tool.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I wish I would have thought more about who the perfect audience for my product would be. I’ve spent a lot of time targeting customers who like the product, but just use it once to quickly improve their site and move on. They would never pay for it, it’s just not important enough to them. Pro tip: first define your ideal target audience that would value and pay for your product, and then start hanging out where they hang out. You’ll learn their lingo, what’s important to them, and what they’re looking for in a product.
Deal websites like StackSocial or DealFuel can be a great source of traffic, but keep in mind that you’ll have to offer a very good deal and that you’ll attract price-sensitive users. If you can handle that, it’s a nice way to build up your brand.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
SiteGuru runs on Amazon Web Services. I’m sure there are cheaper and simpler alternatives out there, but an SEO tool is quite complex. As a result, I use a lot of different AWS services, from EC2 for my servers, to Lambda for serverless computing and RDS for my database.
Next, to the tech stack, I’m an avid Todoist user. Every issue I encounter or idea that comes up ends up on my to-do list and I regularly run through it and re-evaluate the things I should work on.
I already mentioned Smartlook. I still have a habit of watching a few screencasts every week, to see how people are using the product. I recommend this to everyone: without exception, you’ll see something that frustrates your users or that doesn’t work. It really helps you to get into the minds of your customers. I’m also a big fan of Google Analytics to see the high-level picture.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Getting Real by Jason Fried and DHH from Basecamp was a real eye-opener for me. I always thought that it should be possible to run a profitable online business without huge investments. Just built a product that is useful to your customers. This book confirmed that.
Start small, stay small by Rob Walling and Company of One by Paul Jarvis are 2 books that confirmed that you don’t need a big company to build something cool. To me, there’s nothing wrong with a lifestyle business, and these books show how to achieve that.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Keep going, don’t give up. Don’t expect to have a big hit in a few weeks. Building a great product takes time, and there will be moments at which it feels like you’ll never gain traction: no one responds to your emails, you don’t have any new customers and sales are slow. Just keep going. After a while, the pieces will come together and you’ll start gaining traction. Remember that every overnight success has been years in the making.
Share what you’re doing. Take some time every few weeks to blog about how you’re trying to grow your product, and share it on platforms like Reddit, IndieHackers and StarterStory. Not only is it a great way to get feedback and new users. It’s also very good to reflect on what you’ve been doing and learn from that.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I could probably use an entire marketing team and a few developers, but I’m not in a financial position to hire any people yet. Maybe that’s a blessing in disguise: it forces me to focus on the most important things, and keep the tool simple.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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