How Our SEO & PPC Agency Is Aiming $2M/Year With 40 Retainer Clients

Published: May 14th, 2023
Ben Dankiw
Founder, NAV43
from Toronto, ON, Canada
started December 2016
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

I’m Ben Dankiw, co-founder and CEO of NAV43. I run a technical digital marketing agency specializing in SEO, CRO, and PPC services. We help brands scale online.

While our services are pretty split in the agency we’re often most known for our SEO delivery. We have a wide range of customers across Ecommerce, Lead Generation, and even publisher sites, but we make our niche in brands looking to invest in scale in search.

We grew fast through word of mouth and success stories in our first year and averaged an MRR in the 6-figures.

The local Toronto team having some fun at an on-site shoot

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

I have a pretty wide range of passions ranging from sports (hockey and football) to fantasy (movies, dnd, novels) and nerding out online.

My school path led me somehow to a double major in Math at the University of Waterloo and Business at Wilfred Laurier University—two universities on the same street up here in Ontario in the town of Waterloo.

It’s here I met my business partner, as neighbors and eventually roommates at uni. I wouldn’t say either of us had our AHA moments until much later but it was here working at a bioinformatics company as a marketing coordinator.

I first learned about lead generation online. I was super interested in it (and wish I had learned earlier while in uni with more free time). I had a fairly strong analytical mind, with a math degree and all, and from computer gaming and basic computer skills started figuring out this whole Google Ads thing.

Hone your craft through trial and error. Get started, and make sure you love it enough to get through the boring stuff.

I would say I had a little bit of a career aha moment when I paid to go to a lead gen seminar being held in Toronto teaching about Google Ads. It was there I was convinced to quit my job and take an agency position in Toronto.

I took to this role very well and was getting outstanding results for my client in no time. It was here though that I got the first taste of how I could impact brands at a larger level. I met some awesome people in the industry and came across some great mentors across the agency and even from my marketing coops.

I was making specialist money at that time and had nothing to my name other than student debt (about $12,000) and an RRSP (About $10,000). In other words…my balance sheet wasn’t great and my specialist salary of $50,000 / year was great and all but it wasn’t getting me ahead living downtown. Life was simple, sharing an apartment with a friend.

Now at this time, my business partner was working in TV and then hospitality and we had our first true entrepreneurial “AHA” moment. He could bring the clients and I could apply all the learnings I had. We had what we needed and we started our first agency in my apartment in Toronto in 2013.

I cashed out my RRSPs (what a silly idea in hindsight!), downsized to an even smaller basement apartment, and started building our first company with Peter and another partner Bhavin.

Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.

We had a pretty great baseline to start from since Bhavin and I already knew how to execute campaigns from our day jobs.

Now at first we just took on any clients we would come across and that proved tricky. We were acting as consultants with only one piece of the puzzle on the lead generation side. We had some good wins but were finding it very difficult to standardize our processes for a smoother delivery and make our brand stand out.

We decided to sell off our clients and I would rejoin the agency world as a consultant for some agencies to increase my experience, and connections and re-visit our offering.

In our next attempt, we had more experience, and I found a partner in execution that didn’t have the same skills as me, but rather a complementary skillset.

We built up a client roster while maintaining our jobs this time, and then when the time was right we split off and hired our first employee so that we could focus on the business. It was just Tyler and me at this point with me executing PPC, him executing SEO, and Robyn executing Social Ads. We stayed specialized but we had more coverage this time across lead gen needs.

We scaled this up to ~$40k/month fairly quickly (within 3-6 months) and were building the early foundations. At the same time, Tyler and I were partnering with Pete and another old university roommate of mine to develop a tech product.

We did this by hitting our partner network and demonstrating the results we achieved in our agency roles. Since we were chief strategists executing this for the agencies we worked for we were comfortable enough to run through the case studies (while not taking brand credit). Honestly came down to just putting ourselves out there, reaching out to friends, contacts, and networking events!

Since we were small they were mostly retained with a lot of our time. They were getting a great deal having experienced digital marketers at a low-cost model and we were delivering agency-level sales results so wasn't difficult to keep them for the first year. It

Big agency value without the big agency costs. Small brands were getting access to marketers that worked on large enterprise strategies, at SMB pricing. Since we were lean we could charge more reasonable pricing.

We invested our own money into building an MVP ourselves and started shopping this around for investors. We were trying our hand at the whole silicone valley life. We weren’t approaching the right type of investors as most people we knew at this time was in hospitality and didn’t invest in tech.

Well, we found someone, sort of. While pitching our idea one of our clients and a connection from Peter came up. To make an even longer story short, he offered to buy half of our current agency for 6-figures, and front some working capital in exchange. We were also told we would potentially get our product funded, but he had another tech product he wanted us to get off the ground first.

Describe the process of launching the business.

We already had some clients so our launch came with a rebranding. We kept our restaurant clients but we started going after bigger brands.

We were profitable quickly so we didn’t end up using a lot of the working capital in the first year. However, not having to concern ourselves with cashflow scares helped us bring on talent that we might not have been able to afford otherwise.

This was essential as our strategy involved us going bold and making a splash with big brands and we needed the senior talent to execute alongside the partners.

It’s hard not to see how this sale and funding helped us get off the ground but later realized what it was like bringing on a partner who didn’t bring any other value other than finance could bring to a company.

We had to get away from the SMB pricing positioning that got us off the ground, as we knew this wasn't a scalable model from $40k to $100k where a lot more overhead is needed.

We re-branded leveraging our wins in year 1 as case studies and geared our positioning around the founders, but this time, we didn't go after SMB or low-cost projects. Now that we were full-time, we were ready to take on the same enterprise-style work we could handle in previous roles, and charge fair market value rates. Our branding was geared more towards digital marketers and targeted brands looking to scale.

We improved and built a reputation and were now ready to hit conferences and events with an enterprise brand.

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

Since 2016 we’ve had some big wins for our clients working with brands like:

For the most part, we build up brands through SEO. When it comes to PPC it’s usually a brand that needs help getting a better ROAS. One thing we learned was that these two different services, while similar in so many ways, sell differently and different brands in different stages work well with us.

So with that in mind we made our case studies work. But also don’t just get them in the background, get your clients to give you testimonials, and if you want to go 1 step above what we did, focus on video testimonials too!

One thing we didn’t do well which I wish we did from the start, was invest in our marketing. We did a great job of investing in our thought leadership, talent acquisition, and client results, but we relied too heavily on word of mouth. When times are good they’re good but when referrals weren’t coming in it became tough.

Nowadays we’re re-investing in our brand and our future.

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

We’ve been profitable and growing every year, except for last year (2022) where we had some stagnation but we’re back on track in 2023. This was a brand investment year where we lost some key clients/staff and re-invested into our agency at the same time. These swings happen in business which you forget sometimes and it was a tough time for agencies with the economy on top of that.

This year we’re looking much better moving forward. A higher % of our leads now come from digital instead of just Word of Mouth and we’re getting better at creating a system that can close these types of sales. Our site traffic is still pretty low with only a few thousand visitors a month but after finally working on our SEO I imagine that will be changing soon!

The short Term goal is to grow to $2.5M with ~40 clients on retainer. Our long-term goal is to grow to $5 million and then leverage our growth to foster a larger brand development/ niche site-building sector to build up our brands through Amazon FBA and Affiliate commissions.

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

Finding the right partner is key. Doing this as a solopreneur would be incredibly difficult (if possible at all) and make sure to choose your partners for the long term.

Be careful with your money, even if raising capital, times will not always be great and the smarter you are with your funding and equity in the good times the easier you’ll weather the hard times.

Invest in your brand and speak proudly about your results!

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

WordPress has got to be the go-to for CMS/websites since we are an SEO shop.

Ahrefs, SEMRUSH, RANK Ranger, Surfer SEO, Screaming Frog, and Super Metrics amongst others.

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

Making Money Is Killing Your Business: How to Build a Business You'll Love and Have a Life, Too By Chuck Blakeman

Find and join online groups of like-minded people/owners. Some of them might not provide the value you want but for every 2 you don’t continue with, the ones you do are invaluable.

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

Hone your craft through trial and error. Get started, and make sure you love it enough to get through the boring stuff. Because accounting, recruitment, and ops system creation are part of business life too, you better love what you do!

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We’re always looking for writers, PPC specialists, and SEO Specialists to join the team. I believe our next role is a PPC specialist with a keen interest in CRO/Analytics.

Where can we go to learn more?

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