I Bootstrapped A $240K/Year SEO Agency [From UK]

Published: March 27th, 2022
Alex Robinson
Novus Digital Ltd
from Northampton, UK
started August 2019
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hi, my name’s Alex and I’m the founder of Novus Digital. We’re an SEO agency with a twist, meaning that rather than bamboozling clients with buzzwords, our campaigns are all about delivering measurable return on investment.

Based in the UK, we work predominantly with UK and US brands - from small local businesses to international household names. Our purpose is to deliver campaigns that offer value and return on investment for our clients, regardless of budget.

After the initial scramble, every fresh agency goes through of “we’ll work with anyone”, we’re now transitioning to SME service-based brands and eCommerce stores with a $1-10mil turnover. In reality, however, many of the processes we have in place to manage SEO campaigns are applicable to almost any business.

With our head office, sales, and account management center in the center of the UK, we’ve built our operational unit in Mumbai and are currently transitioning to set up a registered company in India, to give our team more of a sense of stability and belonging.

We’re currently a team of 8, with ambitious growth plans for 2022. Currently generating $20,000 per month, we’re currently deliberately running on below target profit margins. The goal for this was to build the strongest possible foundation in terms of team and processes in order to allow us to grow exponentially, whilst minimising the operational pains that come with this.

The Novus Mumbai team, taken New Year 2022

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Despite having worked at digital marketing agencies Dapa Marketing and Pelham Heath for most of my professional working life, the idea of starting my own had (perhaps naively) never crossed my mind. Whilst I’d love to claim grand inspirations, Novus ended up launching through chance.

An old client had been struggling to get hold of Dapa for some time and, as their past account manager, managed to track me down. Again, naively, I passed over contact details for the director and went on my way. It was only a couple of days later my brain kicked in and I decided “actually, you can do this”.

At the time I’d had a year out from marketing as I’d need to get my head straight after some personal family issues and was working a couple of days a week, freelancing for a local heating company. I rang my old client back, reminisced about the glory days, and planted the seed about working together. We’d had an excellent working relationship in the past and the rest is history - they were our first client.

Having worked specifically in SEO for around 6 years, starting work on a campaign felt instantly like coming home. But Novus had to mean something different. Meaning “new” in Latin, I wanted our ethos to be exactly that. With so many SEO agencies bleating about rankings and keywords, I wanted to create a new approach that clients cared about - focusing predominantly on how many leads and how much revenue we could generate for them.

I’m a firm believer in sticking with what you’re good at and personally, I’d always prefer to work with partners that are specialists in what they do.

Launched on a shoestring budget of barely a few hundred pounds, I brushed up on my knowledge, spoke to old colleagues, and set about doing everything possible to start growing so that I could start covering rent, stop freelancing and make the agency I knew I could.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

I’d started my digital marketing career in the sales team at Dapa. However, it didn’t take the directors long to discover that sales weren’t my main strength, and operational bedlam gripping the back end of the business moved me to the role of Operations Manager. Here I set about learning about what everyone in the business did, the systems they operated, and how everything worked.

It didn’t take long to uncover huge inefficiencies and holes in almost every part of the business, so I spent the next month building a compartmentalized CMS system through Asana, to ensure consistency, scalability, and accountability.

After reconnecting with an old colleague, Harry, who’d recently just launched his web development agency, Zestcode, we got talking about partnerships, a partnership that is still going strong, and we now share an office.

Just as the initial startup process had launched from a fortuitous phone call, as it happened Harry was looking for a white label SEO partner to work with him on a sizeable project. This led to me reconnecting with an old colleague in Mumbai, Uzma, which allowed us to start putting together and evolving processes from our experience and building a system that would allow us to grow into the future.


Myself (center), CEO of Zestcode (left) and our first big client Chris from Clintons (right)

Discipline is essential and complacency is dangerous.


Myself and partner Penny, the day after launching Novus. Penny supported me hugely financially through the start of the business

Describe the process of launching the business.

Initially, Novus was launched with nothing in the way of budget. With only a few hundred pounds in the bank, it became a case of putting together what we could in the way of a business whilst we waited for the first client invoices to clear and we were generating cash flow. Somewhat embarrassingly for a digital agency, our first website was knocked together on Divi in a few days by myself and stayed with us for almost 2 years, until we published our current website.

Launching in August 2019, we were completely unaware of what was around the corner. After a swift start, we managed to pick up 6 clients within those first few months, predominantly from recommendations and working with other agencies. However, shortly after our 6th month, Covid hit and overnight everything changed.

I’m incredibly grateful to all our clients, who stood by us through the pandemic and who we achieved great results for, however, new inquiries and sales completely stopped in the UK. Whilst most digital agencies experienced a boom period as every business looked to move their offering online, in SEO we didn’t see the same. SEO is a long-term investment, and with so many businesses suddenly on red alert for their survival, there was no appetite for long-term investment.

Through that first UK Covid lockdown, I learned the importance of developing client relationships. Rather than diversify into new areas that we didn’t have the expertise to deliver to clients, we firmed up our existing processes and set about being able to deliver the most effective SEO campaigns possible, solidifying relationships with our customers for the long term. To this day, we’ve never lost a client.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Whether the right or wrong business decision, our ethos has always been heavily weighted towards client retention. The Novus mantra of “new SEO” that delivers for our clients is the core of everything we do. Honesty, integrity, and managing expectations allow us to maintain excellent client relationships.

For me, taking accountability has always been a priority. A client needs to see when you’re not doing as well as you’d like, as well as when you’re knocking it out of the park. In the digital agency space, there’s no shortage of “yes men and women” - those that are constantly looking to tell the client what they want to hear. But clients genuinely appreciate the truth - the good, the bad, and the ugly. So long as you have a plan of how to address the issues you find, that’s what matters.

As mentioned, we have ambitious growth targets for 2022. Due to huge distrust within the SEO industry, clients are naturally skeptical and often reluctant to open a dialogue with SEO agencies. Therefore most of our new business comes from outbound marketing. The best for way us to do this is to show what we’ve achieved for previous clients.

Example results from a top campaign of 2021

For us, the single greatest tool we have is LinkedIn. It allows us to connect with prospective clients in a personal way, at scale. Our cold sales structure has evolved over the last 2 years from simply mass messaging prospects, to directly engaging with them, with hyper-personalized, actionable, and value-packed video SEO audits, directly into their inbox.

As well as LinkedIn, we’ve worked alongside several partner agencies working on cold email campaigns - directly identifying our prospective client's specific pain points and opening a dialogue with them.

Once we’re in front of a prospect, although not revolutionary, our sales approach becomes about positioning ourselves as the authority who can fix those aforementioned pain points whilst allowing the client to explain and discuss what it is they need from us. From there, it’s all about delivering.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Novus is currently supporting 8 team members, including myself, in full-time employment across 2 continents. In terms of profits, it’s not where it needs to be just yet, but we have the operation now in place to grow 2x without adding any additional resources to the business.

I’m a firm believer in sticking with what you’re good at and personally, I’d always prefer to work with partners that are specialists in what they do, so although I have toyed with the idea of diversifying into additional markets, I don’t see us bringing any additional services in-house anytime soon.

As an agency, our biggest cost is, naturally, staff and we have a lot of operational power that we can utilize for our clients’ campaigns. After staff costs, we have to pay for the office, standard running costs for our campaigns and tools and tech which allow us to operate on a day to day basis.

For more specialist projects we do also from time to time bring on partnered agencies or freelancers to fill any gaps we have internally, for example, for Facebook ads and PR.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I make mistakes every day, so does my team. You have to admit it to yourself and those around you and learn from it. How can any of us expect to grow if we’re not making mistakes?

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Discipline is essential and complacency is dangerous. As mentioned earlier, the pandemic completely blindsided us in terms of business growth and I believe significantly set us back, but ensuring that you’re constantly working to move forwards is crucial.

When starting an agency (and I assume any business) you’re typically wearing so many different job hats that it’s important to stay focused on the most important aspects of your role. I’ve been guilty of putting my attention on those parts of the business I want to work on, rather than those that need working on.

The most notable aspect of this is sales - becoming complacent with the number of clients we have, rather than pushing forwards and striving for better is a personal regret and something I’ve worked to change. If just starting an agency, ensuring the new business is never an afterthought is so so important.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Aside from all our geeky SEO tools that wouldn’t be relevant to most, Google Drive and Clickup have been the two greatest tools we utilize.

As an ops-minded director, I’m constantly analyzing and tweaking our processes and campaigns for maximum returns. This meant evolving from a simple Clickup board with all our clients’ workloads piled in together, to reconsidering every aspect and process of every task we operate to make the process as streamlined as possible.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I’ve listened to plenty of inspirational books over the years, but I imagine most of these have been covered plenty of times. Rich Dad Poor Dad, Choose Yourself, The Leader Who Had No Title - these were all excellent at grounding me.

However, my biggest recommendation is Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. I found this book at a particularly difficult time of my life and gave me a renewed confidence that I could achieve what I wanted to.

The biggest takeaways for me were “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today." and “Tell the truth, or, at least, don’t lie” - which helped form the basis of my “honesty first” approach to client relationships.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

If you’re just starting, my advice is to go for it. Don’t overthink it, don’t over plan every detail - jump in with both feet as soon as possible and start working on something. I’m guilty of this too, wanting everything to be perfect the first time around, but it’s such a damaging habit. It’s far better to start doing something badly and evolve as you go, because ultimately nothing is ever going to be perfect the first time, no matter how long you spend planning.

I’d also say don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I make mistakes every day, so does my team. You have to admit it to yourself and those around you and learn from it. How can any of us expect to grow if we’re not making mistakes? Novus and I in particular still have so much to learn and so much to develop, but every day is the opportunity to make mistakes and grow.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

I’ve made no secret that sales aren’t my strong point, so we’re currently looking to grow a sales team, with some solid progress already. We’re also always looking for great writers, and I’m always interested to hear from anyone keen to get a head start in digital marketing.

If you’re interested in learning more you can contact me directly at [email protected].

Where can we go to learn more?

We’re notoriously poor at talking about ourselves and what we’ve been doing, particularly on social. If this is something you could help us with - maybe it’s worth a conversation?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!