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In this episode of E Coffee with Experts we have Jon Zacharias, cofounder of GR0. A self taught SEO expert, Jon has battled inner conflicts to emerge as a successful agency owner with a client list that’s ever growing. So what’s his secret? Matt asked him some pointed questions about building an agency business from scratch and sustaining the growth. The answers will inspire you, for sure. Watch now.
For people starting out in Digital Marketing – Learn, Learn, Learn. Go find a business, tell them you’ll help run their ads for them. Write Articles. Keep Trying. Never Give Up
Thank you, man. I’m so excited to be here.
I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. And I thought about monopoly and you can’t win at monopoly unless you know the rules. And so, I figured, if I knew the rules, I can be a good entrepreneur. So I wanted to learn the rules.
Yeah, so my dad created Revenge of the Nerds. And he was one of the great TV show writers. He won many Emmys for the happy days and The Partridge Family. And he had an amazing writing career. It was interesting growing up in the heart of Hollywood, and all the craziness that you hear about it’s all true. And it was cool. We got to go to all the movie premieres. And we were right in the middle of the whole thing. And I got to go to really cool schools and meet cool people. And a lot of stuff I’m very grateful for today.
Well, basically, what happened was, I was working for one of my dad’s friends at a wage in our class action law firm in Loyola, which essentially came, what we’re doing is we’re suing people for not paying employees overtime. We’re doing it on a class level. And so what we would do is, we would get all of our cases from another law firm. You know, you pay large referral fees. If your lawyer to lawyer is sharing cases, you can do a 25% referral fee. We were doing all the work. And they were doing nothing. And then we’re paying them out 25%. So I was looking into how they were getting these cases. And I noticed that they’re getting them all through search engine optimization. And that’s when I had that kind of aha moment, that light clicked in my head. And I said, Whoa, that is freakin powerful. You can get your website to show up on Google when people search for certain things. And everybody trusts Google.
Correct. So he was supportive enough and trustworthy enough to give me his credit card and say, “okay, figure this out”. And so, I started writing blog posts myself and figuring out how to get featured on other online sites. And I realized when you wrote a really good blog post, and then you link back to it from the Huffington Post, it would shoot to number one on Google. And I kind of discovered how it worked through trial and error, and it was very powerful and magical. You’re playing with one of the most complicated advanced algorithms in mankind’s history.
No, I went to this conference in Las Vegas called The Rainmaker Institute. It was a legal conference for lawyers to learn how to market their firms. And that’s the only course I’ve ever taken on SEO; everything else has been self-taught ever since.
Yeah, of course. As the co-founder of a big agency with hundreds of clients, it helps my partner and me navigate through various issues that we deal with daily. Everyone knows how annoying it is to ask outside counsel for a question on a version and answer as on a contract or something. We were able to deal with a lot of those smaller issues quickly and in-house. And then also, if we need outside counsel to navigate through things, I’m able to understand what they’re talking about and make sure that we’re not getting ripped off and make sure that they’re not doing a bunch of work that isn’t required and that kind of thing.
Not to the world of SEO, but entrepreneurship. Critical thinking is how I’m able to analyze both sides of every argument, rather than just always looking towards my one side.
What, the Law Firm?
I was in law school and figured out I wanted to do Digital Marketing. I’m not the kind of guy that can plan, it just happens. You don’t know when it will happen, but you just find it and you’re obsessed with it, you can’t stop thinking about it. I wanted to be the best in the world at it. And I felt like I was for a very long time. So I would spend my entire day and night, 23 hours a day taking amphetamines, which is Adderall, and essentially learning SEO. And I did that for nine years.
Yeah, it was amazing what I was able to learn. I was able to do everything. I was able to code a website myself, and I taught myself HTML. Launch it on WordPress. Optimize it for all the right keywords. I had 10,000 publishers that I was working with. But the problem was, I wasn’t taking care of myself and I wasn’t thinking about interpersonal skills. So I couldn’t keep clients for long periods, not because the work product wasn’t good. The work product was always the best in the world. It was my behavior that made it difficult for me to keep clients. So showing up on time, being responsible for those types of things.
I knew I had a problem. It was pretty obvious. I’m not afraid to share about my past, I have no shame in it. I was taking copious amounts of prescription drugs, enough to kill me. And I just wasn’t willing to get help. Everyone I loved, everyone I cared about from childhood slowly started to disappear one by one, until I was left by myself. And, one of my dad’s friends, who’s a pretty well-known person, not going to give any names or anything, but who has been through recovery before, reached out to me as the last line of defense. And he asked me if I wanted to get sober, and I told him, Yes, I did, but I just didn’t know where to start. And he offered me a solution, a way out, meaning to go to rehab. And my life was in such shambles in 2016. And I accepted his offer and went to rehab.
Yeah, look, I’ve been trying to start Gro for 12 years as I mentioned earlier. I’ve been trying to start an SEO agency for years. I had another one back in the day called Enough Solutions we were the best in the world of SEO, but we couldn’t keep clients because of interpersonal relationships with myself. What happened was, that there was a new wave of SEO going on in the background. And what was happening is that all of these eCommerce brands had been built on Facebook advertising. And they were looking for ways to expand their footprint online. And SEO just happened to be an owned channel that you can own and scale. So I started doing it for a few companies and got them to number one on Google, when you would Google, whatever their product was there, they were selling, whether it was roses, the last of the year, or pool floats or whatever. And there was no competition. I mean, their brands were just exploding on Google. And so Kevin, and I had become close friends in recovery. And he was closely watching the progress that I had been making. And he was the head of growth at a company called Open Listings, which became Open Door. And so he had a cushy job and nice salary, and stock options, and all those good things. And I was telling him to jump ship when we had three clients and just an idea and he was kind of hesitant. I went back to him 30 days later, and I said, hey man. We’re at 30 clients. And he said, you went from three to 30 clients in one month? And I said, yeah, why don’t you come to meet me, and we work and I’ll show you what I’m doing. And he kind of sat there and saw me do some pitches and saw the way that I was managing the accounts and all that good stuff. And he’s like, this thing is a rocket ship. I’m jumping on this ship as quickly as I can. And so we rebranded to Gro. We co-founded the company. We’ve been best friends for five years. And I couldn’t be happier with everything that’s going on right now.
And we’ve grown to over 300.
These eCommerce brands are all closely connected. There are forums, Slack channels, telegram channels, and people were posting; “ I got this crazy SEO guy and he got us to number one for this term. And our business has exploded” And we had a cool product at the right time and the right market, and it just took off. I was doing it all, I was managing the accounts, doing the sales, the whole thing. And then Kevin came in and started to help me transform this thing into a proper business.
I found this girl on Upwork. Her name is Bridget, she’s fantastic. She’s employee number one at GRO. And what we would do is, is that every month after I took the orders of content, because, we built the best article writing business in the country. We have 200 writers right now, writing exclusively for GRO. And when we built this thing we had no writers. And so I found her on Upwork. And when I got so many clients and I couldn’t write all the content anymore. So she said to me; “Hey, look, I can find amazing writers for you”. And I said, “Okay, great. Let’s do it”. And she found five amazing writers. Amazing writers. And they started to learn SEO and they started to do the writing. And then we started hiring the writers.
Good question. We’re doing that now. But we did it because we found talented individuals who knew SEO and could manage accounts as well. And so I found five other guys and girls that were just amazing talents. They had been doing SEO, they knew SEO, and I felt comfortable handing off the 30 to 50 accounts I was managing myself to these other individuals and making sure that the clients were comfortable. Once that happened successfully, then we started doing SOPs and stuff around everything that was going on. But the truth of the matter is, if you have a talented Account Manager who knows SEO and can build a proper plan and strategy and present it to the client, that’s all you need, especially if they have really good resources around them. They’ve got good backlinks from third-party sites, good press publications, relationships to back them up, and then good writers in their corner. I mean, that’s all you need.
Yeah, companies that sell products on Facebook and Instagram, I’m sorry, on Shopify directly to consumers not by the retail model?
No, we have a SAS pod. We have a b2b pods now, and legal pods for lawyers. But yeah, we represent about 300 of the biggest eCommerce companies in the world. And we do all of their content writing and all their link acquisition.
It spread like wildfire. We didn’t have any sales team. We’re not trying just to do it. We are not like one of those agencies that do outreach to every company in the country, trying to generate sales. We did a good job of having a really good product and letting it speak for itself.
Qualities? So there are two different types, right? The account manager has a very high emotional intelligence. At the end of the day, clients are paying a lot of money, and they want to work with somebody they can connect deeply with. So on the one end of the spectrum, we’re hiring some good people with high people skills, and emotional intelligence skills. And then they need to be backed up by, technical people because SEO is a very technical skill field. So they need people that know how to crawl websites, do the HTML coding, and do keyword research. And so we built our pods, it’s like two people pods. You have a strategist and an account manager and those are the two. So basically, those two roles cover a lot of different types of people.
Of course. We do the keyword research, we come up with new ideas that they have never even heard of before. We believe in longtail, we’re not the type of SEO company that tricks the client at the beginning into thinking like, “Hey, we’re going to get at number one for protein powder”. What we do is we make a living out of finding outliers. So high search volume terms that have low keyword difficulty. And we build out content calendars around those words. And then we write the best piece of content that’s ever been written on that subject matter using the best writers in the world coupled with Google’s natural language processing API. That is how great the articles are that we’re writing,
And then we calibrate with the client, to make sure that they’re happy with the keywords that we’re going after. And then we build dynamic KPIs based on all that. So we’ll go; “hey, here are the 50 articles that we’re going to be writing for you in the first six months. If all of them hit page one on Google, here’s how much traffic you’ll get”. So the client knows exactly what they’re paying for upfront.
Yeah, we see it as a performance marketing channel. We understand it. We don’t look at it like it’s fun. We look at it like it’s life or death. And the SEO itself needs to grow and start paying for itself in the first six months. If it starts paying for itself, now these brands have a channel that’s paying for itself and scaling.
That’s a common term. So Facebook has it built into their algorithm, where you can whitelist celebrity accounts, meaning they can rent out their account to run ads through their account. So we went to the celebrities, and we said, look so and so brand wants to work with you, they don’t have a million dollars to pay you upfront, but what they will do is, is that they’ll give you 50k upfront. And every time that a sale is generated through their account, they’ll give you 20% of the back end on the sale. And so we let these eCommerce brands start working with the biggest celebrities in the world, in running ads through their accounts, as long as the celebrity likes the products. That’s the game. And then some of these brands that scaled the campaigns do a million dollars a month. So they’ll spend a million dollars a month, making two to 3 million off of that. And then the celebrity makes 600k a month off of doing nothing besides renting out their Instagram account. This is good for the celebrity because; we all know how shitty Instagram’s algorithm is now. In organic, social is dead. Let’s say you have somebody, just as an example, you have someone like Paris Hilton. And you got 20 million followers on Instagram. And once you post the story on Instagram, only 200,000 of her 20 million followers see the story, aka are engaged with her. So what these types of campaigns do is re-engages her following with her because now they’re seeing her over Instagram and Facebook again with products that she loves.
I don’t know like to give out names.
I don’t like to give names, but we’ve worked with many big ones.
You learn that skill, you just have to know how to find them.
Totally. I know how to get to the agencies. I know how to get- I just knew how it all worked. And having that kind of credibility where your family has done good stuff has been helpful. Full transparency- My family completely cut me off. And I don’t receive anything nor do I need to receive anything from them. My grandfather also invented dove chocolate ice cream. So I come from a family line of a lot of big hits. And I had a lot of cool people around me growing up. So I don’t get starstruck. You know what I mean, those are the people that my family is friends with. And so it helped me to do that. But more importantly, what helped me the most was how well our core business was doing. Because everyone in Town was hearing about this new SEO agency that is growing and skyrocketing out of control right now. And basically, they wanted to do business with us. We have these brands that we work with, that are extremely coveted. Like these aren’t like small brands. These are like $200 million a year, the coolest products in the world.
The celebrities didn’t have access to these products. The celebrities had access to Nike and Adidas and yada, yada, yada. They didn’t have access to Aragon and Ritual and Eugenics. All of these brands spend a shitload of money on Facebook.
We have over 100 employees now. Weare hiring as fast as we can. But we’re doing it responsibly. We have two full-time recruiters. We screen- we tried to find the best talent in the world all day long. But we hire at least like probably 10 people a month, at least start every month. We’ve been doing this for two years, I’ve been sober for five years.
We have a product that we created, where we get our clients featured in the news, in My Roundups, and Forbes and Huffington Post, New York Times, and we do it on contingency. So we only charge them after we successfully do it. And the fees are really reasonable. It’s like $900, Forbes is 900 bucks, Men’s Journal is 400 bucks, and they’ve never seen a product like that before.
I always had that was never the problem again. I never had a problem getting clients, I worked with some of the biggest companies in the world. But I was a drug addict. And when you’re a drug addict, you’re not thinking about relationship building, you’re thinking about drugs. And so, even though I had the best products, and sometimes we get the clients and the best results that you could ever imagine, people just didn’t want to deal with me because I was not fully there. And so the product was always good. It’s the same product I have been doing for the last 12 years. But now the difference is that I’m focused on remaining, not only sober but emotionally sober. So I do a lot of work on myself daily to make sure that I stay open-minded, honest, and willing and willing.
We have different packages. It depends on just how many words of content you want a month, like 10,000-words packages, 20,000-words packages, and 50,000-words packages. Each one of the packages comes with technical on-page optimization. So no matter what we’re fixing your website’s metadata. The truth is that metadata has become like cable stakes over the last few years. Now, a lot of these companies are confused they think that if they fix their metadata, they’re going to rank number one for baseball bats. They don’t realize that that will only happen with good content and good links.
Correct? Or how much they should have. It’s not necessarily how much they think.
There are so many of them.
Yeah, I got a company named Fun Boy ranked number one for pool floats. They started at Walmart and they’re selling those floaties that the Kardashians sun and that was an amazing one. We got another company that sells roses that ranked number one for black roses, blue roses, green roses, and red roses last year. We got a Protein company ranked number one for protein powder. We got a women’s shoe company ranked number one for women’s shoes. We got a women’s vitamins company ranked number one for prenatal vitamins. We got a massage gun company ranked number one for massage guns. I mean, there are just hundreds of stories.
Well the pool floats one was the first. The feedback was just so powerful, they just started telling everyone. Everyone they are friends with, to hire this guy, you are struggling with Facebook ads and he is going to show you something that’s just going to blow your mind.
Now I like building teams. That has changed a lot. At the end of the day, I know what I am limited in and capable of doing on my own versus what I am capable of doing with the right team. And I think I just built an amazing team that we can use to keep growing. We have won all sorts of awards. We have won every award you can think of. And it wasn’t like we are putting a gun to our employee’s heads. They want to go out and scream at the top of their lungs- “We love this place. This is where you want to work”. And the reason why is because we lead with love and not fear. We don’t try to scare people into wanting to work with us. We love up on them. We treat them the right way. We run it like a professional sports team. Everyone has to pull their weight because you are going to be on the playing field and if you dropped the ball and the ball gets passed and the end of the game, we will not win. Besides that, as long as you pull your weight we provide you with the best amenities. The best services. The best this- we do comedy shows at our company in the middle of the day. We have built this in a very innovative, unique, and cutting-edge way.
My partner and I together- I am extreme. He is extreme. We are extreme on different ends. And we land somewhere in the middle every single time. And that is what creates a nice nice push and pull balance where it just naturally happens. What we have built is a direct result of the relationship that he and I have with each other.
For me it is. Some people can do without great partners, but we play for different things. I am not playing to become a billionaire. I am playing to change as many people’s lives as possible. And when you are on that type of mission versus making as much money as I can as fast as I can type of a mission. Having the right partner is nice when you share the same values and visions.
Oh yeah. Of course. In fact, we went and taught at USC the other day. So some colleges are starting to do it.
Trial and error. Learn, learn learn. Get some money. Go find a local business and tell them you are going to run their ads for them. Go into Facebook and learn how to create ads. Go into Google and learn how to create ads. Write some articles, put them on the web, and keep trying and never give up.
It’s the digital age. tell them- Give me a $3,000 a month budget, I want to buy ads on Google and see how many people I can drive to your store.
Let me see how many phone calls I can generate for you.
Non-branded traffic is the key metric. How many clicks are we getting to your website for a month from people that are not looking for your brand? And then how much revenue are we generating for your company?
No one has it right. And it leads to all sorts of problems with Facebook page, Apples lack of tracking now. And Google pixels going away in 6 months. You have to be. But yeah. We have ways of doing it. My memory is proprietary about how we do it. But we give proof that the content we generated for you is making you x amount of dollars a month and it usually far exceeds the amount you spent on building it. So it’s a good deal for them.
SCM rush is great for keyword research and so is Atras. Moz.com is great for backlinks.
Just to never give up. You don’t know when it’s going to pop. I wanted to give up so many times, but something in me wouldn’t let me do it. Especially with the drug struggles, I had to start over and learn how to think again, without drugs. And then I started the company and I found the most amazing partner anyone could ever imagine. And two years later we are this big. The whole point is you don’t know what is going to happen. No one knows the future. No one knows what is going to happen 3 seconds from now. Why won’t it happen to me? That is the question you have to ask yourself. You keep hearing about it happening to other people why can’t it happen to you. The only way it can’t happen to you is if you don’t try. Wayne Gretzky had a great quote- You miss a hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.
Iceland. Twelve hours.
Revenge of the nerds.
IOS. All-day through.
Go on my website, GR0.com. G-r-zero dotcom.
All right. Thank you, man.
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