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For this episode of Ecoffee with Experts, Matt Fraser has a one-on-one with Kevin Miller, CEO and Co-founder of GR0, a high performance digital marketing agency based in LA. The interview touched base on the many aspects of digital marketing, but the most interesting part was when Kevin spoke about how he turned GRO into a $10 million ARR agency in just two years. Watch for some great entrepreneurial insights.
The hardest part in building an agency is building a team, keeping a hundred people motivated at once and moving forward together towards one goal
Thank you for having me, Matt. I am excited to be here.
Kevin was immature as a school kid, liked to play around, and have a lot of fun. He loved basketball and thought he would be one day an NBA player. I’m the youngest of four kids as well. I have a twin sister. I have an older sister, who’s three years older than me. So she’s 33. And then I have an older brother who is 39. So I was just always outside. We lived in Florida. I loved playing in the neighborhood.
Oh, yeah. We lived about 10 minutes from the beach. I learned how to wakeboard at a young age and water ski and Jet Ski.
No. I’m six foot one. So the best chance was to be a point guard. But no, I just love the sport so much. It was my passion all through my childhood.
It was a very young age because I come from an entrepreneurial family. My father is a world-renowned entrepreneur. He was the CEO of budget, rent-a-car. And he took them public in 1997. And it was a very unprecedented path to do that because he didn’t come from any money. He started as an assistant trainee at Avis in the Bronx in the 1980s. And he worked his way up and then the first location he was able to buy in Daytona Beach, Florida, which is my hometown. My hometown was Ormond Beach, but I say Daytona because that’s the larger city that people know about. We grew up in Orange Beach because that was the most cost-effective, cheapest location that he could buy. He got a loan from someone for $5,000 to buy it. So he’s got a really interesting story. And my older brother is a well-known entrepreneur in the car rental space, too. I knew that I wanted to do that because I saw that they had freedom of time. And they had the creativity to go and build something cool and I always felt like that was incredibly fulfilling. And I was always looking for a fulfilling career, but I just didn’t know when it would happen. I didn’t know what I do or would be. Before starting this company and becoming an entrepreneur, I worked for five or six other people. I was always looking for my chance.
Yeah. I remember making lemonade stands in my neighborhood. I did a lot of things that I think were scrappy. In college, I would; this was 2011, 2012, and 2013, when the iPhone glass was very flimsy. Pretty much everyone you knew had dropped their iPhone and their screen had cracked, I would replace iPhone screens for people for 30,40,50 bucks. So I would go in and de-assemble a full iPhone, reassemble it, and put on a brand new screen and I would do that to just make a little bit of beer money.
Yeah, to make some beer. I had several other little tiny businesses. None of them worked at scale, and I never really made any money, but it always led me to the next thing. It always led me to the next thing until something led me finally to start this company and it started to work, and it was something I could do full time. But I’d say, before doing this full time, I probably tried at least 10 different businesses that all failed.
I had a custom Snapchat filter business in San Francisco, where I would go door to door to bars and restaurants and nightclubs in the city of San Francisco. And I would say, I can make a custom filter for everyone at your location for a specific event with your brand name and your logo on it. So people would be sending it out to their friends, and they would see how awesome this bar is. Then they would come, and it would lead to more foot traffic. And so that was a cool thing to do as well.
That was marginally successful. I think I was getting we were probably making 10 grand a month while I had a job. I was out every night trying to meet with bar owners and club owners, and it got a little exhausting.
I think what I enjoy most is the ability to come to work every day and know that I have the creativity to work on and build what I think is most important and most exciting for me. I think I get motivated by the unknown. For example, I’ve never been able to do meal prep because I don’t like knowing what I’m going to eat every day for lunch. I like spontaneity. And I like being in a position to know that I have the freedom to create what I want to create. More importantly, I’ve been incredibly fulfilled by team building. We have 100 full-time team members here at GRO. Now it’s a huge milestone for us, and getting to make a material impact on their young careers is the most rewarding thing I’ve done. I feel like I can play a real role in their livelihood. And it’s an incredibly good feeling to know that I can do that and afford a healthy workplace environment, energizing and productive. And that’s the most rewarding part of my role.
It is stressful. And if you’re not careful, the stress can overtake you. The stress can make you neglect other parts of your life, like maintaining a good relationship with a girlfriend or boyfriend or parents or siblings. It’s very easy to get caught up in your work and think that your self-worth is your work. That’s a very dangerous place to be. So finding ways not to bear all that stress on my shoulders is important. But sometimes, it’s out of my control and I can succumb to it. So I think that’s what I don’t like my mom is the opposite of me and my dad, she’s a nine-to-five woman because she wants to be. She values the rest of her life, her free time, her time with friends, and her time was exercising the way Elon Musk values his time at work building rockets and electric vehicles. It’s what makes the world go round. And so I tried to be somewhere in the middle between those two.
Well, it’s taken real intervention from myself and others. I go to therapy once a week, Thursdays from 530 to 6:30 pm. I am sober, which I’m not sure if we had previously discussed. But my business partner we met when I was going to meetings. I go to AAA meetings every day. And that’s very helpful. I’ve one tonight night in Los Angeles right after work is concluded. I started to do more self-care activities. So, for example, there’s a health clinic in Los Angeles called next health where you can get IVs and do cryotherapy. You can get vitamin enhancements via a shot, things like that. I started doing that a month ago, and that is very helpful. They draw your blood, they say, Hey, look, you’re deficient in this vitamin or that vitamin. I take athletic greens every day. Athletic greens is fantastic. If you’re an eater and don’t eat well, that can help ensure that you get the nutrients your body needs to be healthy. So those are examples of things that I’ve done that are not regularly in my nature. But they’re required to play at this level, to Excel a level of stress and responsibility. It’s required that I make and then on the weekends, I try to make time for myself, go on hikes, etc. I try to do fun things that don’t involve work because I don’t want to live in a perpetual state of burnout.
No, no, no, I’m happy to talk about it. In Florida, growing up, when I was around 17- 18 years old, I got introduced to oxycontin. I loved it. I got interested in Xanax, I loved it. It made me feel comfortable in my skin. It made me feel confident. It made me feel, a lot of different feelings that I hadn’t felt before, through not being completely sober. And I felt like I had found the way to hack life effectively. I could use these pills to my advantage and use alcohol. But it caught up with me, it became something that I liked it too much. And I became dependent on it over the years. It followed me to Washington, DC, where I went to college. It followed me to San Francisco, where I moved after college. And it became a larger and larger problem. And so I reached a point in 2016, where I felt I was emotionally bankrupt. I had a great job. I was working at Google. But on the inside, I had a lot of things that I needed to work out, self-esteem issues, insecurity issues, and imposter syndrome issues. I felt like I wanted to be a good upstanding person, but I couldn’t do it. The drugs and alcohol were holding me back. And a lot of my friends who were close to me, either had died from an overdose or were in rehab. I was one of the few that was out still out there. And so I just wanted to have the chance to do what I’m doing with you right now so badly. So I decided to get sober. And I knew where to go. Because years before that, I started going to some AA meetings, I just didn’t hear anything that I resonated with. I didn’t want to be an alcoholic or an addict because that stigma is so negative, historically.
I had spent so many nights in the tenderloin, which is like getting out of San Francisco. And I had been robbed. I had spent all my money. I had no money for rent. And I was emotionally paralyzed. I couldn’t do anything anymore. My brain wasn’t able to function, think I was bedridden. And I was withdrawing from not having oxycontin. And so I was just at the end of my road, and I looked in the mirror and started crying. And I asked God to help me.
I was at Google, currently an employee.
Yeah. And before I even worked at Google, I was doing that too. I didn’t think I had a real problem. Yeah, but I did. Yeah. Turns out that years later, I did. I just wasn’t willing to admit that at that time.
The first thing I would say is I still deal with it. The second thing I would say is, that I try to give myself more credit, and I look at the facts of what I have done. Historically, I don’t give myself any credit. When I started working at Google, it was a big deal for me, but then I was like, what’s next? I didn’t take one second to pat myself on the back for what it took to get there. Same when I was getting sober. I was like, Okay, that’s cool, but I shouldn’t have been using drugs anyway.
Yeah, disqualified. Even though they were big, we crossed, you know, $10 million in revenue, and it should have been a big deal that wasn’t really in my head. I’m like, “Okay, how do we get to 20”? So, that’s just a way that I think. But then I started counseling with other friends and they would say, look, Kevin, you went and did this, or you went and did that? And I’m like, Yeah, you know what that is me. That’s the same guy. If I saw one of my friends do that, I’d be pretty impressed. I think they, they’re the real deal. And we have Paris Hilton on our advisory board, and we have her husband, Carter, on our advisory board. We were invited to their house. We went to their wedding. I’m supposed to be there. But it’s still in my head.
I’m like, Wait, why are they inviting me to this? It’s just the cognizance recognition that I have put in the work. I do deserve a seat at the table. And understanding that, and it’s taken me a lot of time to recognise that. I saw a quote by Kobe Bryant or a video that changed my perspective on it. He said on YouTube that he never got nervous before NBA games. He knew for a fact before he stepped on the court that he had already put in more hours than the other players. Every single one. So he said, What do I have to be worried about? I’m better prepared than every single one of them. And so he believes in himself. And for me, I feel very similar. I’ve dedicated the last 10 years to this when it comes to SEO and digital marketing. I’ve worked at the best companies. I’ve worked with some of the best founders in the world. In the mecca of the startup world, San Francisco, and the same in Los Angeles. So I’ve put in my dues. I’ve worked with God, my last boss is Eric Wu. He’s the co-founder of Open door, he’s a billionaire. And we’re on a first-name basis; we’re friends. And so I’ve sort of earned my stripes, I feel now.
I was working at the Open Door, and I was starting to do freelance SEO work for a company called ripple.com. And at the same time, John and I became very close friends, best friends. And he was doing the same thing. He had a full-time job, and he was doing freelance SEO. And we were both good at it. We both got along well, and we decided to team up. And so, between the two of us, we had our first five clients. And then we decided, hey, let’s get into 10 clients before we quit our jobs. We then quit our jobs. And then we started it. And we thought, let’s go, really, really deep on SEO. We have a competitive advantage here. We know it better than most people we care about. The subject matter more than most people. I think we have a competitive edge here. I think we can win here. So that’s how we started it.
I met him in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous through sobriety. When I moved to Los Angeles, probably the second night that I moved here. A friend of mine brought me to an AAA meeting and John was there and we met.
Well, I learned about it through a boot camp that I did after Google, which was called tradecraft. Where I went and learned a bunch of different subject matters in the market, digital marketing growth marketing world, but then, really, the way I learned it was I showed up at my job in Los Angeles for a company called Open listings, which eventually became Open Door], they got acquired by Open Door. Okay. And I was ahead, and I was in charge of all organic SEO. And when I met John, I would call him probably 20 times per day, literally no exaggeration, and I’d ask him SEO questions. And we did that for two years.
Yes. For two years every single day, he’s been the biggest SEO nerd I’ve ever met. He knows everything about it inside and out. And he’s got like five years of experience more, maybe 10 years or experienced more on me, in the SEO world. And so he taught me everything he knew; we’ve talked about everything. And so by getting 1% more knowledgeable every day, I then became an expert.
Yeah, we also have our web property. We own counter.com. So we decided to build our case study that does a million unique visitors a month.
Yeah, I just felt like, Hey, we’re going to start an SEO agency, we need to have our web property and our website. And we need to prove that the strategies we’re talking about the work and that we spent our own money on it because I can’t name you one other SEO agency that has done that. And for that reason, I feel like we’re better. And we’re more formidable to win the business away from other agencies because we’ve done it and we laid out our money to do it. And so, that is an English grammar website. It answers every question you could have about; what is the preposition? What is the verb and how to use it? So, that’s been around since the day we started GRO, right around two years, and it does over a million unique visitors a month. It’s been highly, highly successful.
When I was at work at Google, I built a website. It’s called. I think it might still be live Uber-free. rides.wordpress.com, looking it up right now. Yeah, so it’s still live. It’s posted eight years ago. The last edit I made to it was eight years ago. Uber free. rides.wordpress.com. Yes. And this is a promo code where you would go. I would drive traffic from Google ads, people who are searching for Uber Uber, promo code, Uber code, Uber, Uber, $20 off because they had a promotion that if you, if I invited you, that to Uber and your first ride, I would get $20 of Free Ride credit, and so would you. So then I built a website that drove traffic to it, and it converted like crazy. I spent $1 in ADS I made, I made $50 in AD credit or Uber credit. And so I ended up doing it through word of mouth. I started doing it for my brother, and then he told his friends about us are doing it for them. One of them had a startup that a well-known venture capitalist funded to who I got introduced. He gave me his credit card. As long as this is profitable, he said go and do it. I ended up doing Uber rides for David Chang, the world-renowned chef over at the Olympics. He’s amazing. He’s an amazing person, a great entrepreneur. I ended up doing it for several people acclaimed in the business world through this just by being referred word of mouth, and I probably generated Oh, yeah, over a million dollars in Uber credit. And then eventually, Uber decided they just this was totally within their terms of service until it wasn’t they changed it one day. And then they called me and said, We’re banning you, and I explained to them very clearly, that I’m spending my ad dollars to acquire customers for you. So effectively, I work at Uber in the growth marketing department and you’re not paying me, this is a good deal for you. But they didn’t see it that way and then they banned me and I’ve never been able to ride uber since. It’s been eight years.
Yes from using their service, but I’m solely responsible for probably 10,000 new customers taking their first ride.
Of course. So then I asked them for a job. I said, Hey, I’m good at this. Why don’t I work there? And they said, No, so sometimes, weird things happen, but it was a cool experience for me and I had no money. San Francisco is expensive for a 22-year-old. So I was having a lot of fun because I was going out to bars and I was riding in black Escalades everywhere I went, all my friends were riding in black Escalades. We had free food and free drinks everywhere because they had acquired several food delivery services at that time. So if I was to do the same behaviour with real dollars I was probably spending at least five grand a month on Uber. Wow. So it was pretty significant.
We have an exceptional people team that has been; the egg and created a process for recruiting high-quality individuals at a speed that I’ve never seen before. I credit a lot of the success to that. My business partner, John is one of the most prolific, and best salespeople I’ve ever encountered in my life, my professional life. So I credit a lot of the success of that. We’re also very well networked, and we have a lot of important people who are friends with us that want to see us succeed. They’ve referred a lot of business to us, and we pay them for that. So that’s another reason why. And referral program. Yeah, we do. Yep. And it’s huge. And there are probably 100 individuals who are in that right now getting paid monthly. And those three reasons are what has led to our ability to scale along with like our relentless leadership. no one. We’ve put every ounce of our blood, sweat, and tears into this thing. This is not a lifestyle business. A lot of agencies are this is not. So I think that shows in the production.
We’ve been flying by the seat of our pants. This is my first time doing this. I’m learning as I go. I have a group of advisers that I speak to always asking the question, what should I do here? What should I do there? But honestly, I’m using my best judgment I’m building the road as I’m running down it. I’m just trying to make the best decision not all of them have been the best thing, we’ve learned in retrospect, and made tons of mistakes, but no, we’re up for the challenge. We just are trying to see what works every day. But I honestly feel like we’re moving at lightspeed. I think one business day here is like four or five business days, at any other company I’ve ever worked at.
Yes. That’s it. And where they have been in their previous life. If they have had to overcome any challenges or hardships. Are they coming from an entitlement standpoint? Are they grateful for the job, or are they thinking we are lucky to have them? it needs to be an equal distribution. How do they treat other people? We look at all those intangibles. We also look at, do they have the requisite skills to do the job they are interviewing for? That’s number one. But beyond all that, where are they meeting us on an emotional level?
Yes correct. It was Abricia in Lynchburg Virginia. he came in with that attitude. He said I am a hungry person. I need money and I am recently married. If you can train me I will do everything I can. I will work tirelessly. He was highly intelligent and we could see that from day one and he applied himself. He started as a contracted writer. We hired him full-time as an account manager. He became proficient in SEO. Now he leads our learning and development department where he conducts training. Works on employee onboarding. Things are critical to our ability scale.
It’s important in every company. it’s most important in people’s businesses in an agency. all you have is your people. The whole product is your people, you don’t have a product to fall back on.
about 75% is remote. I come into the office every day and check on the people there. We use Donut software
nutes impromptu calls with work employees at random. it could be someone who started this week or it could be someone who has been there for 2 years. Totally random. Diagnostic of department and diagnostic of seniority. We do that with all employees so that they can meet everyone at the company because that is how we are bridging the gap in remote, hybrid work culture.
Exactly. remote watercooler software.
The number one technique that we have perfected is direct feedback. We tell people politely and respectfully where they are falling short and we outline what they need to do to no longer fall short. We don’t try to beat around the bush. We don’t do anything fancy. We have found that direct feedback and direct communication in work, but most importantly in life, are critical to doing some of the hardest things for most people to do. Direct communication. Most people don’t like confrontation myself included. I have been forced to become comfortable with it. The number one hardest thing for me is telling people you are not doing well. I don’t want to tell people that. I don’t like those conversations. or we need to part ways or whatever it might be. But it is par for the course if you want to be a leader in a company. It is a skillset you must hone.
I have a CEO coach, his name is Tom Moore and he is fantastic. So I would recommend him to CEOs. I need on-hand coaching just like I need a trainer in the gym. I need a trainer in the office. That is how I treat it. there are other leadership courses like a Dale Carnegie online course I hear is very good. for me I need that on-hand coaching, I recommend any other CEO get that same thing.
Over a billion.
It’s completely public. We do three things. We do content writing. So we write a long-form blog post, number one. The people have on Google about our service. We generate backlinks by getting our clients written up in the news in a very repeatable whitehat process. And then we do on-page optimization which is the technical SEO work. Together, content, backlink, and technical SEO make for a complete and robust SEO strategy.
We didn’t want to be at the bottom of the market, which is SEO companies that work with auto dealers and things like that, because we didn’t feel like they offered real unique value. We couldn’t go over the top of the market because that is the world’s McDonalds, The Hertz, and Giecos. You need relationship, tenure, and a bunch of other stuff. We fell into direct-to-consumer eCommerce. That’s like, my friends are starting directly to consumers e-commerce companies. That is where my network was. that is where Johns’s network was. That’s who we were getting. So kind of just fell into it and then we found that our product is uniquely positioned to work for those companies. There is a very clear strong product-market fit for our process and that sector in the market. For us, we became very fortunate because direct-to-consumer e-commerce has been booming. The total number of addressable companies we can work with grows exponentially every day. We felt like that was a market we could go very deep into and have significant success for those reasons.
We have professional press writers who write these releases, and we only announce material things. Fundraising, product launches, new developments in the executive team, and things like that. We don’t do a press release just to do a press release, we have to make sure it is newsworthy, noteworthy, and makes sense from a brand perspective.
It works, but you have to make sure there is also value for the reader.
HRefs is the number one tool. SEM rush is number two. KWfinder.com is great for research. Screaming frog is great for crawling a website Those are the four I love the most.
No, I just had a meeting for an hour with our entire SEO team on SEO operations. I am deep deep into it.
There is a new one that’s coming up that Ai written content is going to replace human written content. Not going to happen. I know everyone wants to sit to happen. Google has already put out a statement saying they can detect if it’s written by a person or a machine and you could get a manual penalty for that. That’s one of the biggest myths. People are thinking; “hey you won’t need a human copywriter anymore”. I couldn’t disagree more.
I wouldn’t venture to guess because I’m not smart enough to know. They can tell intonation and emotion. They have their ways. I don’t know what they are but I believe and I would never doubt that they do.
I don’t see a lot of immediate changes. I think the people who are doing it right and offering real value to customers are going to succeed. I think they just need to be doing high-quality written content over an extended long time horizon. And if they do I think they will be fine.
It takes a long time to reap the rewards of it. longer than I thought. At least a year to be able to build that real significant, meaningful traffic that is going to impact the business.
Oh wow. `It is just building a team and keeping a hundred people happy and motivated at once. And move in harmony toward one goal, that is the hardest thing. I have come across manual penalties and different things, but nothing as difficult as leading a team in one cohesive direction.
I am just thinking. However, you can get your website written up in the new is a big one. That is what is going to get your website found online and make it important in the eyes of Google. `Whether it’s reaching out to journalists or responding to queries from Help a Reporter.com. Those are the things that I would try to focus on.
And all the readers should use that.
I would say December, I love Christmas.
I have a personal website Kevinmiller.com and on that website, they can find my LinkedIn. Instagram, Twitter, and of course my company website is gr0.com and everything can be found there as well.
I feel the same. Thank you for allowing me to join you today. It was a pleasure.
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