This is a tale of bootstrapping and bucking the conventional wisdom. This is a tale of applying an Engineer’s overly top down facts sifted through logic lens to what is traditionally a touchy feely shoot from the gut discipline. This is the story of how my little one man bootstrapped SaaS company competes with giants in marketing, even though I am but a poor dumb engineer. And yes, the title is pure link bait. Many marketers can do and do-do (uncomfortable with that) this sort of thing.
My company is called “CNCCookbook.” We are a niche SaaS software company focused on CNC (Computer Controlled) Manufacturing. Both the CNC and SaaS within the CNC world are very much niche plays. Public companies in manufacturing software are few and far between, and most VC’s wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole. To paraphrase a more colorful turn of phrase, they wouldn’t invest in it with YOUR money, let alone their own. Most of the software here is not SaaS–it arrives on a bunch of CD’s and is after much installing, dongling, and license keying, you’re left with a vintage 90’s User Experience. I love this niche because what I now from working in more progressive markets gives me an edge that I bring to Manufacturing software. I love it also because it is my hobby–yes, Virginia, I use CNC machines to make things for fun.
I’ve been at it in this marketplace for a while now. I grew the business to the point where it pays me as much as I have made at any Silicon Valley Startup except those where stock options mattered. I should know, CNCCookbook is my 8th trip unto the breach, dear friends. Now what’s all this about competing with giants in marketing?
Let’s start by looking at how CNCCookbook is marketing. I came across this great infographic from Marketing Tech Blog that shows the conversion rates of various B2B marketing techniques:
B2B Sales Channels via Marketing Tech Blog…
Strictly speaking, CNCCookbook is both B2B and B2C since the hobby CNC market are decidedly “C’s” while the business CNC market are “B’s.” No matter. The takeaway from the article is that a lot of the marketing world is a bit surprised at how some of the tried and true techniques are not working so well any more. If we look at what CNCCookbook does from this list, we have tried Webinars and Paid Search and found both to be unprofitable and ineffective. Today, we’re totally focused on our Website/Content Marketing and Facebook/Twitter. You could call it luck that we wound up on two of the highest converting channels, but we did test an awful lot of different possibilities and I have had the luxury of seeing how things worked for other companies. The latter meant that I was unlikely to try event marketing, trade shows, partners, or sales cold calling (it’s just me in this company, I don’t have time to cold call), for example.
The Facebook and Twitter work is almost 100% automated–I simply co-announce any new blog posts to those channels automatically with a WordPress plugin and I make sure any non-blog content I publish is also announced in a blog post. Simple, and effective. I monitor these and many other channels for opportunities to engage with my customers, but the rest is automated.
What do I spend most of my marketing time doing?
The answer is writing articles for the blog and web site. I alternate between blog posts and what I call “Cookbooks.” Cookbooks are in-depth go-to resources that consist of many articles. I try to introduce a new Cookbook every year and we’re up to 5 of them at this stage. They’re solid traffic producers and what the marketers like to call “Evergreen Content.” Good reference content seldom goes out of style and accretes links very well.
And how much time is spent on marketing? My days and weeks divide roughly into 20-40% marketing with the rest focused on software development. Since I believe Good Customer Service is critical to marketing, I charge my Customer Service time to Marketing as well. FWIW, I work 7 days a week and often a fair number of hours, but the business is such that I can do the work almost anywhere–from a Cruise Ship Cabin or a leased Condo on an Exotic Caribbean Island (both are real examples). As long as I have a decent but not spectacular Internet connection, I get by.
That’s a bit about how it’s done, now what’s been accomplished? What can one poor dumb software engineer working part-time (20-40% time) accomplish by way of marketing?
There are a lot of ways to look at it. Ideally, one should look at leads, but it’s hard to find out how many leads the other organizations you want to benchmark against are getting. As a reasonable proxy, I like to use SEO Traffic. Who doesn’t love free (heh, we won’t count all those hours writing content!) over the transom leads that come from searchers finding your opportunity for the first time via Google or some other search engine?
To do this comparison, I like to use SEMRush. It’s been a valuable tool for me in a lot of ways (keyword research, understanding pay per click which I ultimately have given up on, etc.). You can get quite a lot from it for free even. Here are a set of comparative SEO stats drawn from SEMRush that compare CNCCookbook’s traffic to others in our industry:
CNCCookbook vs Industry Comps for SEO Traffic…
Pardon the length of the list, but I do this for my own analysis purposes and didn’t want a cherry-picked list. These are real companies that are big names or names of interest to me in the CNC Manufacturing world. Some will be familiar like Autodesk, but most are probably unknowns unless you happen to be familiar with this market. We can pick out some highlights though:
– Makezine and Hackaday reflect the popularity of the Maker Movement, and so I wanted them here to gauge my impact on that world.
– Practical Machinist and CNCZone are the two biggest online communities in the space, so were obviously of interest. Amazing to see CNCCookbook is doing better than CNCZone as it is quite a big community.
– Haas Automation is the world’s largest maker of CNC Machines and has in excess of $900 million a year in revenue.
– IMTS is the industry’s largest trade show and an online magazine as is mmsonline.
– Kennametal, which ranks immediately below CNCCookbook is a $3 Billion a year company that makes cutters and other tooling for CNC. Iscar is a tooling company that Warren Buffet paid $2 Billion for not that long ago, and I can assure you that tooling companies don’t have zillion to one valuation ratios nor would Warren Buffet buy one if it did.
The point is there are a lot of solid businesses on the list. Many are quite large and no doubt have large marketing staffs and budgets. Yet CNCCookbook has been able to make its mark by joining their ranks, at least in terms of search engine traffic. What a triumph for content marketing–if ever there was a reason to believe in it, seeing a guy work part time to deliver these kind of results ought to be it.
Here’s another list, this time with names that will be more familiar to Smoothspan Blog readers:
Startups, Tech Marketing, and other Tech Related Comps…
These are startups, tech marketing companies, software companies, and other tech related startups I wanted to compare to. A lot of these are talked about a lot. A lot of them are in the business of telling others how to do marketing (sometimes I wonder if I should be in that business too, lol). Considering the amount of resources available to these companies and the fact that as many of them are marketing companies selling to marketers who therefore should know a lot about how to do this, I feel good about how CNC Cookbook ranks alongside.
What Should We Conclude From This?
There’s only one takeaway I would encourage you to have: engineers with limited resources can successfully market their bootstrapped companies. There are broader ramifications perhaps for broader markets and audiences, but I’ll let others decide whether they want to jump to those conclusions. I know what I did for my market and what results that produced and I’m very happy with them. We live in a time when this sort of thing is much more achievable than it once was because the Internet is so much more ubiquitous. For those who want to follow a similar path I would urge you to choose your market carefully and find one where content marketing (also called inbound marketing) can be extremely effective. You don’t need to be the world’s great graphic designer (I am so not that!), but you need to be a good writer, you need to have passion for your subject matter, and you need a market whose audience never gets enough content to satisfy their thirst for more knowledge. If you can put all that together, it’s hard to see how you wouldn’t build a following.
(Cross-posted @ SmoothSpan Blog)