Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Casino Guru is a website with information about anything related to online casinos.
Business model: SEO as a source of traffic, visitors search information, the primary goal is visitor satisfaction. Natural monetization via affiliate business model - our visitors tend to play in online casinos and take our recommendations, the majority of casinos have an affiliate program.
The company generates around $500k/month in revenue and has 50+ full-time employees.
Currently, we are the world’s #3 in our segment, aspiring to become #1.
Our customer is a visitor of an online casino, however, they don’t pay directly to us.
Better have 2 times higher traffic monetized on 70% than 2 times lower-traffic monetized on 95%.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Our product is a website. The process of designing and developing it was very similar to designing and developing any website or an information system. As both I and the other main founder were software developers, this part was pretty straightforward for us. However, we still did some things pretty right and some things pretty wrong.
The funny part about any SEO-based business is that you can’t really make decent planning. Do you plan to improve some parts of your website and grow? Well, good luck with that, almighty G can have completely different plans for you.
What we made right was a decision to create a system that models all the relations and information about online casinos as structured data. As an example: almost every online casino has a list of countries from which it doesn’t allow residents to play. To capture this information we have created a database table casino_restricted_country and fill it with 1 record for every casino and every country that is on its restricted list.
This helped us to separate the information alone from the way how it is displayed on our website to our visitors. As a result, we have been very flexible and agile in changing how our website looks and works. Most of the changes are changes in the software and not in the data. If we would have chosen an HTML-per-page-based system like WordPress we would have been much much less flexible.
On the other hand, creating such a system right required significant analytical skills and expertise and a lot of software development. I consider myself a very experienced software analyst and without this experience, there are many analytical traps you can fall into (like excessive generalization when not needed, etc.).
Despite all the software skills and experience, it took us 10 months of working some afternoons and some weekends from idea to launch. So it wasn’t without a cost, because the delay in launch put us at risk of exhausting our will to continue this project before it started making money.
What we actually made wrong was the first design of our website. It was quite poor in terms of informativeness and it wasn’t very visually appealing neither. Neither I nor the other founder aren’t web designers and didn’t have the right knowledge of what is a real user experience about. Fortunately, this was about to change. And the design flexibility due to the structured data approach saved us when overcoming design changes.
Describe the process of launching the business.
At some point, I have decided to quit my SW engineer job and to go full-time on the casino.guru. Our final push took several weeks and at the end of April 2016, the product went live.
To be honest the launch of any product with SEO as the main channel isn’t any spectacular event. You deploy the system with search engine robots allowed in, set up some mandatory tools like Google Search Console and Google Analytics, check whether everything works, and continue working on improving your product.
It may take days to weeks until the first real visitor lands on your website and months to years until your product starts getting decent traffic.
That was actually our case as well. To put some numbers on the table, 6 months after our product launch we were still getting only 50 organic visitors/week.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
As I have said, launching an SEO-based product is not a spectacular event, you turn the switch and the best you can do is to go back and continue working on your product. And that is exactly what we did:
- Our strategy from the very beginning was to launch several language localizations, so I was searching on Upwork for people who would translate our website and do other work required for the website to succeed in search engine.
- We have hired the first few people to work on our casino database and other content-related tasks.
- I was learning a lot about SEO and continuously improving our frontend.
But now I know that while all the above was necessary for our success, we would still fail if we wouldn’t radically change our website design. And that’s where I must admit, we were simply lucky.
I hated working from home because I missed social contact. Therefore I joined one really small coworking space here in Bratislava. And the guy who co-owned the space was by a chance an excellent graphic designer. We were casually discussing our project and he thought, that considering niche, our website should be more colorful.
Eventually, we agreed to give it a chance and try to make a complete redesign. The chemistry between the software engineer with strong structural and analytical thinking and a photoshop wizard with great visual feeling and a lot of UX experience worked really well and within 2 weeks we have designed, a website with the potential to evolve into what casino.guru is today.
Then after 3 months of very intensive programming in November 2016, we have finally launched this new frontend and, as it goes with SEO-based projects, continued pushing forward without seeing any instant traffic increase.
The following months I consider the toughest in my whole career. The funding of this whole project consisted of roughly 30k EUR of my savings and two salaries of senior SW engineers. The other co-founder never stopped working full-time and at this point, we knew that I need to get a full-time job as well to pay the salaries of all the people who were already working for us.
So I got a full-time job, worked 8 hours in the job, and continued 3-4 more hours on casino.guru. I was working at least 1 day every weekend. We were pushing all our free time and everything we made (on top of live expenses) into the project without earning a penny for the next few months. It went so far that we had set a deadline, if our website won’t be making X EUR/month in 6 months from a certain day, we were decided to abandon this project. In the end, at some point, the company owed us 130k EUR in both our salaries and direct expenses.
Ask a lot of questions and listen to the answers rather than preach your opinions. Be always ready to change your opinion if it seems to be wrong, be open-minded.
Fortunately, we never had to face such a decision. After few months our website started to grow on one market and we made our first 13 cents. Some people say that it’s most difficult to earn the first million, I say that the most difficult is to earn the first 13 cents.
With getting more and more traction our revenues grew rapidly month over month and within few months we were break even. If I remember correctly, the break-even month (not counting our salaries) was June 2017. That’s when the struggle turned into a growth journey. We still had an insane amount of work ahead of us but we were at least making money. Hiring every new employee or subcontractor made business sense. And after few more years of hard work, improvements, and growth we are where we are.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
As mentioned earlier today we are likely the 3rd most visited website about online casinos globally. We are a company with 50+ people working full-time and we are comfortably profitable. Our website is being actively translated into 17 languages. We can afford to invest a lot of resources into development, improvements, new products, non-profit projects, basically into anything that we consider worth try or worth the effort.
For example, during 2019 we have launched our own mediation service between casinos and players and within a year and a half, we became clear world’s #2 in this niche. In 2020 we have launched our own forum and in less than a year, we have achieved engagement activity similar to top competitors.
Our main plan for the future is to diversify risk by creating different brands with a less broad focus (focused on certain sub-niches or certain countries). When starting up we went all in by investing in the casino.guru brand. That was a great strategy for that phase because we could have stayed focused on making 1 brand right. But we are also vulnerable to Google’s moodiness which may theoretically put us down anytime. Worth saying that this type of website can’t survive without ranking in Google.
A portfolio of country-specific or niche-specific brands is, therefore, a way to diversify against this risk while at the same time it is a way to make a product that fits perfectly that niche.
Besides creating more brands, we do plan to continue in what we have started - building the product with the potential to be the world’s #1 by continuously improving it on all fronts, and hope for the best.
“The ways of Google are mysterious.”
The funny part about any SEO-based business is that you can’t really make decent planning. Do you plan to improve some parts of your website and grow? Well, good luck with that, almighty G can have completely different plans for you. So we don’t bother with any detailed growth planning and we rather focus on improving the product in a speedy and efficient manner. Thankfully our business results enable such a relaxed attitude.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The journey of starting a business that evolves into a successful company is indeed a priceless experience. Being in the position of the ultimate decision-maker for any area that the company may deal with forced me to get knowledge in most areas that our company had ever dealt with. These areas include hiring, UX research, and product design, software design, internal processes, translations, corporate structures, mediation between people, leadership, data analysis, etc.
During the time I have made hundreds of good small decisions also of course as of not that good ones. But probably none of these decisions is exceptional and worth mentioning in this interview. On the other hand, there are some principles that I have collected and used in our business and I would advise any aspiring entrepreneur to consider following them:
We went into an established 20-years old niche with >1bn USD/ year revenues. We knew that this may be a profitable business and our success depends mostly on our execution, not on the viability of the idea itself. I wouldn’t recommend a completely new idea or a business model as the first business to start with (been there, done that, failed).
Avoid businesses with the chicken-egg problem. If the quality of your service inherently depends on the number of users, it is extremely difficult and expensive to beat current well-established competitors. Don’t try to make a better Craiglist or Facebook.
Become an expert in all key areas your company deals with. You don’t need to be the biggest expert on all of them but you need to have big enough expertise to validate and question anything that is done in your company. Even intermediate expertise combined with strong common sense can help you avoid a disaster. This is important because experts have often a narrow focus and may do wrong decisions from a higher perspective. There are also many snake-oil sellers and this helps you to avoid them. It’s much easier to ask questions than to answer them. So if someone claims to be an expert on antiquity and can’t tell you who was Cleopatra he probably is not that great expert.
Stay fair, stick to moral values, never abuse the situation for your profit. You have one name and one reputation and this builds up over time. When you stick to these values, your reputation will grow. A good reputation helps with hiring and future partnerships while a bad reputation can prepare you for tough times.
Ask a lot of questions and listen to the answers rather than preach your opinions. Be always ready to change your opinion if it seems to be wrong, be open-minded. And even if you have a different opinion than someone else, they’ll much easier take the different decision if you show that you fully understand their position, pros, and cons compared to your position and that you are making an informed decision and not just staying on your previous position because you don’t like to change your mind.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We do use a really wide range of standard tools related to SEO and website monitoring such as Google Analytics, Google Search Console, Google Keyword Planner, Semrush, Ahrefs, Majestic, etc. But there are 2 tools I would like to especially point out because first I consider super important and 2nd is not that well known:
Mouseflow - this tool records what are the users doing on your website. I consider it essential for any new online project because you can easily spot major UX flaws on your website. You can and should use it from day 1 because by analyzing the first 100 visitors you should be able to detect all critical flaws of your site and learn much more about your visitors. Without such a tool, even critical bugs and flaws may get unnoticed for months.
Allpositions - a tool to track your positions in SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). From what I have seen it offers by far the best pricing on the market if you need to track a lot of keywords on a lot of markets. A bit of a shame that UI is not translated to English so I had to learn some Russian words to use it.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I must admit that I’m not a passionate reader and rather spend my free time either with family or sporting outside. So out of the 3 books I have read the most influential was probably Running Lean from Ash Maurya. I read it in 2013 and I have taken from it some elemental principles.
I won’t reproduce an exact quotation but an innovative business should be done as series of small experiments. Whether the experiment succeeds or fails, in both cases you’ll learn something important from it. Therefore I don’t fear to risk resources on experiments that may play out both positively or negatively and I don’t regret if something proves as a dead end.
In regards to current sources of info, I regularly follow Glenn Gabe on Twitter (despite not having Twitter on my own to stay updated about all SEO-related stuff.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are just looking for a new SEO lead. The time to hand over this essential role has come. We are looking for a true expert in the field with many years of experience on various projects.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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