How We Built A $1.4M/Year Website That Helps Freelancers And Small Businesses Pick The Best Softwares
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I am Robert Brandl, the founder of Tooltester.com. We help freelancers and small businesses create awesome websites and market them using the best web tools. For that, we create reviews and tutorials of the best website builders, hosting companies, live chat tools, and email marketing software. Since 2023, we also review AI tools.
Alongside Tooltester.com we currently also run EmailToolTester.com, which we aim to integrate into our main site within the next 12 months.
Currently, Tooltester makes a revenue of around $120k per month. We made it into the Financial Times ranking of the fastest-growing European companies (FT1000) two years in a row.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Back in 2009, I was working for a marketing agency in Germany, but I’ve always had the urge to start my own business. So I came up with the idea of taking a sabbatical. For this, I wanted to start a travel blog and share all the tips and tricks I learned whilst traveling around Asia.
So I began researching the easiest way to start a blog and … I didn’t find much. WordPress wasn’t very big at that time and all the other content management systems seemed too complicated for me.
Eventually, I found really easy website builders like Weebly, Wix, and Squarespace. But unlike today, there was hardly any information about them online. So I used a free website builder (Webnode) and put together a very small review website for them. Initial startup costs: the price of a .com domain name and a couple of stock photos.
At that time, I also got my hands on the book 'The 4-Hour Work Week', which was about to change my professional trajectory massively. After reading the book, it was clear to me that I wanted to start an online business. One that isn’t tied to a physical location – like my first office:
All this led to the creation of what is now Tooltester.com.
After launching the website, it took about 5 weeks until I had my first $30 affiliate sale. One of the website visitors found my reviews via a Google search and purchased a paid website builder package afterward, which lead to that sale. The next month, I already crossed the $100 mark, which I would have never expected. That was the moment when I thought about building a real business on top of this website.
Fast-forward another 6 months and I handed in my resignation!
Describe the process of launching the business.
After the initial launch in 2009, the website received steady organic traffic from Google - even before I knew what SEO was exactly! That changed in 2010/2011 when I invested in SEO courses and software.
In 2011, I launched EmailToolTester as a separate project for reviews of email marketing services.
A year later, I achieved what SEO experts still dream about today - a backlink from the New York Times! It was even printed in the newspaper, which made my mum proud.
Unfortunately, there was no repeatable process for this, as it was just a matter of being one of the few websites talking about website builders at that time.
Once Google started sending steady traffic and the income I had previously received at the marketing agency roughly doubled, I hired my first employee in 2013. Cautiously I hired him as an intern first but after 6 months decided to give him a permanent contract. During that year, we relaunched the website on WordPress and also added Spanish and French translations.
Today, Tooltester is operating in seven languages and employs a team of nine, plus an army of freelancers.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The number one strategy for increasing traffic to the sites has been to target highly searched keywords that are relevant to our industry. We first started focusing on reviewing the top website builders, for example, Wix, Shopify, and Squarespace, and then expanded to other relevant niches such as landing page builders, hosting providers, live chat software, etc.
After that, we also added additional niche websites like ChatToolTester (live chat software reviews), AppToolTester (app maker reviews), HostingExperto (web hosting reviews in Spanish) as well as the aforementioned EmailToolTester for newsletter services.
We’ve now upped our content production to expand our scope and reach. Organic search counts for between 80-90% of our traffic, which reached highs of 676K monthly users during the height of the pandemic.
During this time in 2020, we also acquired a competing website: HowToGetOnline.com. This was a blog that helped people get started with a website. It had a relatively strong domain with a DR of 71 - in comparison, Tooltester currently is a 78.
Just a few weeks ago, we finished the full integration of it into Tooltester.com.
We are currently waiting for the rankings to recover, which usually takes a few months after the redirects have been set up.
Our team currently consists of 5 content managers and 8 freelance writers. Each quarter we identify interesting keywords and add them to our content plan. These then get done in-house (reviews and more complex articles) or will be outsourced.
For articles and reviews that have worked well in English, we’ll also consider a translation into one of our 6 other languages.
Apart from our website, the other main channels include YouTube (where we now have almost 28K subscribers) and email (where we have approximately 87K subscribers).
We set up an automated welcome series and segmented our audience by industry. The stats we see for this are excellent, giving us an average open rate of 42% and a 13% click rate.
You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter, but we haven’t seen a great deal of engagement here compared to email and YouTube. We’re now about to start experimenting with TikTok and YouTube Shorts, and will also be investing in some paid advertising to get our newly improved brand out there.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Tooltester has been through a couple of rebrandings, the most recent one taking place between Sept 2021-August 2022. First, we changed the domain, which impacted very badly on our rankings; we saw a 30% decrease in traffic during the first 6 weeks. I’d never seen such a big downturn in traffic - it was very concerning.
Alongside this change, with the help of a branding agency, we did a complete overhaul of the website. We launched it back in August 2022, and have received a lot of really great feedback!
We’re hoping that this will strengthen our brand and put us in a good position to expand our reach through PR and advertising campaigns, as well as other efforts.
That said, a problem we’re seeing more recently is the stiff competition for the keywords we’re targeting from one site in particular: Forbes.
They now completely dominate the software reviews space, despite offering pretty thin knowledge and expertise on the topic of website builders. It seems that Google now values a really strong domain name over well-researched, in-depth content from industry experts.
And it’s not just the software review space, my Twitter community informs me it’s happening across other niches too.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
When I started out, passive income and the 4-Hour Work Week book were some major influences. The idea was to have an online asset that generates money with very little work. But that only works when there aren’t major competitors. That was a lesson I had to learn around 2012 when competing review websites entered the market left, right, and center, catching me off guard.
After this experience, I got much more cautious and abandoned the idea of passive income. But that wasn’t a problem anymore because the deeper I got involved in my business, the more I fell in love with it, seeing that we are helping so many small businesses with their online presence.
There is always a new challenge around the corner, hiring employees, learning SEO, localizing the website in many different languages, rebranding, reviewing AI tools, etc.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As you can imagine, we use so many tools, and we’re quick to change them if we come across another one that does the job better.
Our website is built on WordPress and hosted by WP Engine. I also run a personal blog, for which I use Wix. We use Mailchimp, MailerLite, and Sendinblue for our email marketing and Hootsuite and Buffer for social media scheduling.
Our content is managed on Trello and Google Sheets. We’ve recently been looking into how AI tools such as ChatGPT can help us and our users.
For SEO we mainly use Ahrefs for keyword research, Accuranker for rank tracking, and SurferSEO for optimizing content.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Since I have two young kids, I don’t get to read books as much as I would like to. Instead, I listen to many podcasts, for example:
- Business Wars
- Authority Hacker
- Tropical MBA Podcast
- Startups for the Rest of Us
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If I had to start again, I would look for an up-and-coming niche with little competition. Google Trends and Exploding Topics can be great places to find new trending niches.
I would also recommend investing in brand building as soon as you are seeing some traction. In SEO, strong brands seem to be favored significantly.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for talented freelance writers who love web tools and helping small businesses grow as much as we do!
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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