Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Mark: We are Mark Byrne and Dan Trindade, Directors of Not Just Another Agency in the UK. Our flagship company is Business Awards UK, which is the fastest-growing awards platform in the UK, having served hundreds of start-ups, solopreneurs, SMEs, and large enterprises.
I joined the company in an advisory role in early 2022, then as a Director in September 2022. NJAA is a digital agency that focuses primarily on B2B lead generation, semantic SEO, and content at scale, mainly working on referrals. These are the areas we've become highly proficient at over the years, and the reason we were able to scale Business Awards UK so quickly.
Dan: After I completed a proof of concept back in 2020 and 2021, we covered a lot of ground quickly together, and the awards were launched in November 2022, with a budget of less than £1,000 GBP, and by March 2023 we had a gross turnover of £25,000 to £30,000 per month.
I met Mark when I was his line manager, believe it or not, and I was an Ecommerce Manager. Mark was a Content Manager back then, taking a break from self-employment. We quickly realized we shared a lot of entrepreneurial traits and had a passion for SEO and content.
My background in CRO meant we were the perfect partnership, and as we shared our other knowledge, we began talking about my proof of concept with Business Awards UK - which was conceptualized with two of my closest friends many months previous.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Dan: The idea came to life when I began looking at the level of competition in the UK awards arena - and I just knew we could compete in any sector. After many, many WhatsApp conversations, we realized that we could scale the business immeasurably. As a side gig to my full-time job, I started work on the website whilst Mark began planning the copy and content.
Mark: We're both prolific entrepreneurs and have a diverse background in all manner of digital disciplines, with a knack for bootstrapping everything we've ever needed. We've done our best to gain knowledge in everything from SEO, content marketing, web development, e-commerce, PPC, AI - you name it.
The real turning point was when I shared the MJ DeMarco book with Dan - Millionaire Fastlane - which essentially gave you a roadmap for success. Regardless of your business type, MJ's CENTS (Control, Entry, Need, Time, and Scale) methodology should apply, ensuring your business can really fly.
We could tick every box with Business Awards UK, and we started to nail down all of the value we could bring to the awards industry. Completely changing the way it currently worked.
Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.
Dan: It was all about being different and attuning our value props to what the masses wanted. We used to be those masses, after all. In the UK, awards platforms we'd had dealings with are essentially "pay to play", meaning companies with the deepest pockets usually walk away with the most illustrious awards.
Or maybe they just know a few of the judges. This is why (especially marketing) awards get a bad rap a lot of the time. We aimed to put that right in the first instance by removing all barriers to entry.
Our awards are 100% free to enter, which saves entrants anything from £99 - £299 per category entered. This is significant because it opens our awards to everyone - not just those with deep pockets. We also don't look at company size as an indicator of your achievements in a category.
For example, a CSR award might go to a small business that went the extra mile for their local area as opposed to a large enterprise that donated a large sum to a charity. Entries are judged on merit by a panel of experts who cover a wide spectrum of business acumen.
Our main USP is that you don't pay any fees unless you are chosen by our judges as a winner - which essentially means our awards are risk-free. You are not paying out potentially thousands and just hoping you'd win. You only pay a fee when you're getting the value and benefit.
Mark: The biggest differentiator (besides being free entry) is the PR and publicity package our winners and finalists receive. You see, with other awards platforms, you go to a ceremony (another few grand in expenses and lost time), and you get a few photos and do a little networking.
Our publicity package provides massive value to winners and finalists, in that they get tangible exposure and recognition on Yahoo! News or Finance, Business Insider, and many other syndicated press release platforms. On top of that, we directly contact hundreds of UK journalists in their industry, increasing the chances of being interviewed or covered by the press.
If that wasn't enough, we create content pieces that provide SEO value, and we're also rolling out digital PR campaigns to further enhance the profile of winners and finalists. Our strapline is not just words - “Recognition starts here”. The objective is instant industry recognition entrants can use in their own marketing and mass exposure on trusted platforms.
Dan: The initial website was pretty basic to look at and just had to have functionality that people expected when entering awards. A short education piece on why Business Awards UK was different, categories to choose from, and a quick entry form. In all honesty, we got the education part wrong for the first few months and people just didn't "get it".
They thought everything was free, and when we informed them they had won and it was time to pay an award acceptance fee, they didn't know why they were being charged. Now, education and pricing are front & center. It's 'to the point' and very clear how we work.
Mark: The one thing we were missing for a long time was actual social proof and trust value. We needed to get some content on there that made people trust us, and see others benefiting from the awards they'd won. Dan got his CRO hat on, and I got my content cap on, and we set to work like we would any other project.
Not only did this increase our conversion rates when we added photos and content, but it started ranking our pages much higher (once we got out of the Google sandbox). We were now competing with the top dogs in the industry, and the rollercoaster had begun trucking up the hill.
Dan: A lot of the costs early on were avoided by rolling up our sleeves and doing the work ourselves. We essentially used almost every single bit of experience we'd gained over the years and put it all into Business Awards UK. Once we started earning revenue from the Small Business Awards 2022, we put it straight back into the testing of various lead generation methods we'd not explored.
We already knew SEO and social sharing worked, as well as display advertising on awards directories - but we were curious how direct sales would work. We blew a lot of money very quickly and didn't even blink. We knew what we were doing, but on the outside looking in, it just looked like we were throwing good money after bad.
Mark: These tests taught us so much about user experience, user journey, and what people expected from us before they'd put an entry in. We took all of this knowledge and began doubling down on the stuff that worked and started to see massive gains in organic conversions and our tried & tested lead generation methods.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Dan: The Small Business Awards 2022 were the only ones we closed successfully at a profit, and then we launched the Freelancer Awards, Developer Awards, Creator Awards, and others, but they were nowhere near as successful for many reasons. We'd looked in the wrong places for a lot of the leads, and we'd spread ourselves too thinly with content.
We couldn't scale this fast yet. It was only when we started investing in AI tools and changing our approach on platforms like LinkedIn and direct email that we started to see success.
In today's world, you can soft launch a new product or service within days and get instant real-world feedback.
Mark: We launched the Recruitment Awards, Travel Awards, and Property Awards soon after. It cost us about £7,000 to get these launched properly, gather all of the data and approach the leads we needed to fill each of the awards.
We had also realized that we were heavily involved with the operational side (onboarding judges, contacting winners, and dealing with admin) and this was costing us time on lead generation, SEO, and content. We hired our first member of staff, Jess, part-time, and got back to what we were good at.
Dan: With Jess ensuring the awards were judged, finalized, and invoiced Mark and I focused on bringing in entries for the open awards. We nailed the Recruitment Awards using a combination of our own LinkedIn lead gen and outreach, and - of course - SEO. We went after low-hanging fruit keywords and began ranking quickly, then turned our attention to the Travel Awards.
For this sector, we bought up a bunch of editorial space and reached out to travel agencies in areas like Manchester and Liverpool. In return for a free entry, we secured them a spot in an editorial that would get them 20 million pairs of eyes on their company. It worked great.
The SEO value of these editorials also pushed up our rankings, and Google quickly realized we were a trusted awards platform. We rarely struggled to rank a page. We closed all of the open awards, and by now were seeing around £20,000 per month in revenue.
Mark: Our display ads, directory listings, cold outreach, and SEO were all running so smoothly by now, and the entries were flooding in. At this point, we could have sat back and enjoyed the bank balance, but instead, we invested in the one thing we knew would give us long-term gains: people. We hired my wife, Kate, as Operations Manager, and my son, Oliver, as a Digital Marketing Apprentice.
Kate ensured the entire business stayed on track, developing relationships with every entry, and making sure we hit every deadline, whilst Oliver supported both Dan and me with data gathering, analysis, and design work.
At this point, we had to create hundreds of personalized badges, order trophies, respond to emails, create web pages, gather social proof, and could not let anything slip through the cracks. We automated what we could, built a solid CRM, and started work on launching new awards while we were in the peak awards season - summertime.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Mark: As soon as we realized that LinkedIn outreach and direct email worked well for us, we amped it up. We isolated the types of companies and which roles gave us the best response rate and began scaling operations to the limits of our email servers and LinkedIn's Sales Navigator. We tweaked everything constantly and had AB testing up the wazoo until we had a conversion rate we were satisfied with.
Cold email gave us a 26% response rate, because we've dialed in on the targeting and opening email, and LinkedIn continues to bring us a 10% average response rate and 2% conversion rate.
The good thing here is it is completely scalable and affordable and we never run out of prospects on LinkedIn. Our email list (previous entries and people asking to be reminded of key dates) converts well at around 20% depending on the sector.
Dan: Organic and social account for about 70% of our organic entries, and we convert this traffic at about 4% on average. Our peaks can hit as many as 20 entries per day, however. As you'd expect, we are aiming to increase our content marketing and invest heavily in SEO. Our new hires in July will be taking care of both social and content, and ensuring we have rankings for each award sector.
We recently opened our Regional Awards, with 46 counties covered, and over 60 sectors per county. This is an epic project and we're throwing all of our lead gen and marketing methods at it. We've tied it into a PPC campaign targeting specific counties, and so far we've gained a lot of knowledge that will also help us increase our SEO rankings quickly. We're able to see which counties do best and where we can get quick wins.
Mark: Our stats might seem low to some, but this is a UK-only audience, and we convert like crazy. So, by that logic, you only need quality, qualified visitors and the rest is gravy. We're also huge believers in getting quick wins. We use a fantastic GA4 report suite that's based on a Looker template to find quick SEO wins where we are sat on page two for keywords, but with a little attention - we can boost them to page one.
Full credit to Nimit Kapoor for this template. These "Striking Distance" reports let us plan our content to take advantage of the traffic that is just sitting waiting for us.
Of course, our business model lends itself to a kind of viral link-building that you don't get in other industries. Of the thousands of backlinks we have, the majority of high-quality links come from just a few places: our press releases and PR placements, and our winners & finalists' websites. After all, everyone shares their "Winner" badge on their website! Besides that, we get listicle links from blogs making lists of the best awards platforms companies should use in specific sectors, which is excellent for semantics.
So, for the 24 - 60 companies who are winners and finalists, we get about 30 contextual text links and image links for every award we complete.
Our Ahrefs backlink charts:
Our share of voice (SoV) has come on in leaps and bounds, and we're now approaching a massive coup on the leading awards platform in our industry as far as keywords in the top 5 (Dec 2022 - Jun 2023 below).
In one month we have also managed to increase our category and country rank with Similarweb - a platform we've come to trust a lot more in recent years as far as analytics (June vs July ranks below):
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Dan: Our intrinsic costs are pretty high, but it is 100% intentional. Our biggest cost is staff at around £18,000 per month, but we are just starting on our growth trajectory, and each member of staff is transferrable and utilized on our agency side (NJAA). Update August 2023: We now have five staff besides directors; Operations Manager, Marketing Communications Manager, Content Marketing Manager, Key Accounts Manager, and a Digital Marketing Apprentice. We're still lean by any standard, but these core staff will eventually manage their own small teams as we grow both our agency and Business Awards UK.
We gross around £30,000 per month right now, but our upcoming national awards will close in July, August, and September, grossing around £40,000, £130,000, and £130,000 respectively.
Mark: A lot has changed since week one! We have recently changed our pricing structure and winners now get one trophy included with the award acceptance fee of £375 +VAT. Extra trophies cost £99 +VAT. Our Regional Awards have a fee of £199 +VAT and trophies cost £99 +VAT.
Our costs are only the PR and publicity, which can cost anything up to £3,000 per sector. Our trophies are currently manufactured in the UK, and we run at about a 30% margin on these, which covers our staff and admin costs. Our mail servers, tools, and software cost us around £3,000 per month, which is essential to the business.
Dan: The future is pretty bright! Our regional awards close in September, and our gross will be £1,300,000 if we fill 100% of the sectors and categories. Based on the current fill rate and number of entries per county, we're on target, and it feels insane. Of course, we will be investing a lot of money back into the business to stack yet more value for our winners and finalists. Next year we will launch all of our 60 national sectors and all of our regional awards, with an estimated turnover of £4,000,000 in 2024.
Mark: We're looking at expanding into the USA, Australia, and other English-speaking territories, but we're also discussing partnerships in Spain, Portugal, and more. Watch this space (or get in touch if you want to run an awards platform in your country!)
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Mark: Nothing is more important than stacking value for customers/clients. You can always give more or do more to ensure they have zero objections to clicking the button. Besides that, the obvious one is looking at what your competitors do, and spanking them on USPs and differentiators.
Our biggest competitors did not see us coming, and for them to compete with us would mean changing their entire business model and suffering early costs as we did. They rinse people for money when it comes to awards ceremonies, so we doubt they would even bother. You can sponsor bottle caps at these ceremonies, and the shine is certainly wearing thin for the majority of people.
The main thing we hear from our entrants is that they are GLAD we don't have a ceremony. Some companies don't want to suffer the added expense and lost time for these ceremonies.
With all that said, if we ever do decide to introduce an awards ceremony, you can bet it will be focused on benefits over profits. As for the networking opportunities, we plan on introducing a way for our entrants to network with each other very soon, but they already do via social media - congratulating each other!
Dan: Win over your brand advocates early on. Even if it means a direct cost to your business. We had one or two people very early on who loved our awards so much, and never missed an opportunity to tell others. We couldn't have experienced the massive growth without these people along the way.
I would also say that spending money on what matters is key. We could have both taken money out of the business to live the high life, but instead stuck with a modest wage to pay our bills. We brought staff in early so we could be freed up and focus on bringing in more and more traffic and leads. We also spent money testing stuff and never regretted learning what didn't work. We always got usable data from it.
Mark: Don't underestimate your network. These are the people who want to see you succeed, so take advantage of them. Make connections, grow your network, and find people who can help you. Then, reciprocate!
Another growth hack is commenting on your competitors' posts on LinkedIn and Twitter. For instance, I congratulate people for winning awards from our competitors.
This usually gets a click to my profile and then they see another potential awards platform they can enter. If you are in any B2B vertical you should be doing this. Not advertising, or spamming, but actual meaningful replies to comments are massively valuable.
One other thing: I believe a lot of our success comes from the fact that people click on our links as well as other awards companies in the top 10. They enter multiple awards. You can transfer this to other business types in the form of content marketing. Let’s say you are a commercial window cleaner.
You’d attack phrases like “office window cleaning prices” or “office window cleaning price comparison”. People tend to open a lot of pages when they are top of the funnel, so make sure you target these phrases.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Mark: We swear by Make.com, ChatGPT, and OpenAI for speeding up processes, and we're making a move from Bitrix24 to Monday.com for our CRM, as it allows many AI integrations and automations. We use WordPress as our CMS and our main plugins are Gravity Forms, Tablepress, Elementor Pro, and RankMath. Our preferred email marketing CRM is Brevo.
Dan: We also now have an affiliate program with Awin, which has already started getting traction. With publishers like Microsoft and OperaGX on board, we are excited to see what the future brings! For LinkedIn outreach, we use Sales Navigator and Skylead, and for email, we use Instantly, Apollo, and utilize a bunch of mail servers. We just add our in-house special sauce!
Mark: We've been working quietly in lead generation for a while now under the Not Just Another Agency banner, so we have this dialed in. This was the catalyst for Business Awards UK to take the industry by storm. If you are in B2B, and you don't have a trusted, scalable lead generation engine at your disposal, this should be your initial focus.
In a gold rush, you don't want to be digging for gold. It's much easier and more profitable to be the one standing outside the mine selling the pickaxes.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Mark: For me, it goes without saying: Starter Story was a game changer for me. As a follower of Pat's from the early days on Reddit, I have tuned in to snatch pearls of wisdom from the best and learn from mistakes, too. Besides that, They Ask You Answer by Marcus Sheridan and MJ DeMarco's Millionaire Fastlane. I was almost set on going back to being a 9-5 employee, and suddenly my eyes were reopened by these two books. Koray Tuğberk Gübür has also been instrumental in my semantic SEO journey. Also, meeting Dan Trindade in the first place was kinda spectacular!
Dan: The digital PR expertise and teachings of Fery Kaszoni are incredible. Besides being a genuinely great guy, he's one of the most generous marketers on the planet. Also, Simon Sinek's The Infinite Game and Start with Why.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Dan: In the large majority of previous projects (and there have been many), most of my time was spent on the research and planning stages. By the time I was ready to roll out the product or service, I had lost motivation, focus, and momentum.
In today's world, you can soft launch a new product or service within days and get instant real-world feedback. One week of doing this will teach you more than 1 year of research and planning. In essence: just take action and get to market quickly.
Mark introduced me to this powerful concept that I now always use when analyzing a business idea: in a gold rush, you don't want to be digging for gold. It's much easier and more profitable to be the one standing outside the mine selling the pickaxes.
Being an entrepreneur at heart is like having a disease. If you just ignore it it will make you sick and unhappy. Do something about it today and earn your freedom. True happiness is sure to follow.
Mark: You're already in the right place at the right time. You're here, on the Internet's best platform for aspiring and successful entrepreneurs, and you have the most magnificent vehicle for making money in the past 100 years - the internet.
So, soak everything up. Then start trying, failing, trying, and failing. It is the only way. Both Dan and I have a long list of ideas that failed and succeeded, and reasons why we didn't retire from them. They were all just valuable experiences that eventually put us in a good place for Business Awards UK. I always say - "Experience is the best teacher - first you get the test, then you get the lesson".
Where can we go to learn more?
- Not Just Another Agency
- Business Awards UK
- Mark on LinkedIn
- Dan on LinkedIn
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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