Interview with Razvan Girmacea

The Challenge

Razvan is building the ultimate backlinks monitoring tool for SEO experts and online marketers. His clients come from all over the world and his services were recognized by world-renowned SEO and Marketing publications.

The most awesome part? He is building a global business from my hometown (Iasi) , and not from a world-famous tech hub. 😀

Intro

I met Razvan in 2007-ish at a Blogmeet in Iasi, our hometown. Back then he was a freelancer, one of the two freelancers I knew at the time. That fascinated me.

Having the will and knowledge to get clients and offer them valuable services… while most of us where still in figuring out what we want to do after university… it was truly inspiring.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

Hi everyone, my name is Razvan, I am 31 and I’m from Romania.

I love working in online and so far I have started over 30 online projects and initiatives. That was easy for me because I have a technical background and I can quickly build an MVP (minimal viable product) to test my theories.

I took my first steps in this direction during my University studies when I created several websites, search engine optimization portals and a few other projects. After a while, I decided to start a real business, so in 2009 I built an ecommerce website, which was selling educational toys for kids.  After growing the website and gaining valuable insights into managing a proper business, I sold it to a local competitor and started thinking about my next project.

Having over 6 years of experience in Search Engine Optimization and a good domain, I decided to start Monitor Backlinks: a service that helps people that buy, sell or exchange links online to track every single link to and from their website.

That sounds interesting… can you tell me a bit more about it?

Well, the product evolved quite a lot since v1.

Basically Monitor Backlinks allows any SEO consultant, SEO agency, business owner or marketer to track incoming links.

All they need to do is connect their domain, add the domains of their competitors and add the keywords they want to track. From that moment the process is fully automated.

The first thing we do is discover all the existent backlinks to their website and recheck all the links in order to see if they have any SEO value. Then all our clients receive a report with data about: social metrics, page ranks, if it belongs to an IP network, if it has a lot of external links and so on.

After the initial report, the system will crawl everyday the web, using Google Analytics and other sources, and it will index new links to the domain(s) of our clients. In case someone writes about them, they will be automatically notified via email.

Additionally every week we check backlinks to competitor websites. This is a very useful feature, as every search engine optimization company will start by researching you competition to find out where they can get some good links.

Speaking of clients… how is it going? Are you growing your customer base?

Yes, we are. At the beginning things stared quite slow but now is going ok. I am super happy with the conversion rate, I already have big clients, big agencies that really like the product.

In fact I have even stopped the advertising campaigns. Now I get a lot of traffic from organic search, which proves that my marketing strategy was quite good. I was able to get a good position on SERP for some really high volume keywords.  Just to give you an idea, I get up 50% of all traffic through search engines. The other half is from referrals, about 800 domains…or so 😉

 Where are your clients based? Romania or somewhere else?

Romania is one of the last countries if I look at paying customers. Most of my clients are from the US and the UK

 I bet you had a lot of ideas. As you said you had over 30 projects. How come this was the winner?

I read the Rework book from 37signals and I saw what they did with Basecamp: a handful of employees generated huge revenues. I wanted to build something similar.

That’s basically our business model. With a small team I can setup a good automatic service for which I can charge a small, but recurring fee every month. And yes I do have a lot of ideas and even after I stared this projects I had a lot more, but at the end of the day I just wanted to stop playing and do business.

And in my opinion it takes time to create a real business. You have to work hard to get clients and brand awareness.  For example at the beginning when I reached out to some SEO experts they just ignored me because I was too small…but the more I invested in creating brand awareness and the more I grew, I noticed that more and more people replied to my emails. And now, even top SEO blogs talk about my tool.

Besides, I knew this market very well so it made sense to start something in this area.

Razvan Girmacea 2

How did you fund the project?

The first year I bootstrapped and I didn’t pay for any development costs because I did everything myself. I only paid for design services and ads. During this period I also worked part time as a freelancer to make some money.

After the first year, I qualified at How to Web Startup Spotlight in Bucharest. At the end of the fifth day an investor told me he wants to talk to me about my ideas. After the event ended I waited for him for a while but I was too tired so I just left without talking to him. After two weeks I reached out to the organizer of How to Web, Bogdan Iordache, and he gave me the contact details of the VC.

I must say that at that stage I was not actively looking for funding and I had almost no idea about startup investments.  So I called Bill Liao and talked with him via Skype for 15 min. At the end of the call he told me: “we want to invest 50K EUR in your project, just tell us how you plan to spend the money”.

Well, that’ s a cool story!!

Yes. It is.

After that I start reading a lot, as I realized that from my “part time” project this has the potential to become much bigger business and that I would have to have more responsibility. At first I got a bit overwhelmed to be honest, but I got over it eventually and accepted his offer.

 Who developed it and why did you do it this way?  

As soon as I got the money I hired a developer to help me scale the business and I moved everything on Amazon servers. At that moment the product was still in the first phase: no automation, no keyword monitoring, no competitor analysis.

With the help of my new employee the product grew much, much faster. Even though it was a bit strange to lose control of everything that I have built, having someone to help me out was really good as I could focus on other things like marketing and business development.

 So how big is your team now?

We are 5 people now.

 Did you ever considered stopping?

No, once I decided to take the investment I never considered stopping.

It’s still very challenging though, but it’s normal because a complex product will lead to bigger and more complex challenges.

However this is a bit different from I imagined the things when I started it. Back then I told myself: “Ok, so I will launch the product, promote it, get some clients and make money”… simple right? In theory yes, but as the company grew I had to consider a lot more things like: resource management, financial planning, business strategy, business development, and so on.

My biggest problem right now is that I am the sole founder. As a founder I must do everything. If you are in a team you can split the tasks and things would go much easier.

Do you think luck played a part in achieving your goal?

Yes, well … in a way I guess. The thing is that if you create many opportunities and eventually you will get lucky.

For example last year I got accepted into the Lisbon Challenge Accelerator. But that didn’t just happen; in order to get accepted I had to apply and have a good idea.

Also, before being accepted here I applied for 10 other accelerators. I applied to so many startup accelerators not only because I wanted to get in, but also to get feedback. It was immensely helpful to see how other people (more experienced) perceived my ideas; an extremely valuable experience.

In the Lisbon challenge I ranked number 4 and won 10K EUR.

But coming back to luck, it is about creating a lot of opportunities. Whenever I read an interesting blog post about my industry I reach out to the author and connect with him.  And I am lucky if the guy needs my product or wants to help me. But yeah, without hard work you don’t just get there.

Why did you build a web platform. Why not an iPad app for example?

Simple. It was easier for me to start here. I know PHP, MySQL, front end and back end. I didn’t have to ask for help. I could simply do it. I saved resources, which is very important when you bootstrap and you don’t have a lot of money.

 What are the things you’ve learned or skills that you developed during this project?

I didn’t know much about accelerators and investment opportunities. Before starting MonitorBacklinks.com, for me building a business = making money. I didn’t know you could raise capital with just an idea or a basic prototype.

Also, I didn’t know that when you get an investment round you could pay yourself a salary. All I wanted to do is invest all the money in the business. But makes sense if you think about it, everyone needs a salary because everyone has expenses. This way I could stop freelancing and focus 100% on the business, which in turn grows the business faster.

Another thing that I learned is how valuable an Accelerator is. They basically give you the opportunity to validate your ideas really fast without investing any of your money. This is an amazing opportunity to grow your business without waiting years and tons of money.

 Do you think your location (city/country) influenced the project in any way?  

Romanian startups, and Eastern European startups in general, get less funding compared to startups from Western Europe or the US.

In America you can raise a lot more money with just an idea and the second round of investment is a lot higher, the evaluation is higher, and investors take bigger bets.

In Europe, the valuation tends to be smaller. Investors are more careful with their money; they invest smaller amounts and get more equity.

So being from Romania has it’s down sides but that should not stop you from going for your dreams.

 How did you promote your project so far and what was the most successful thing?

Since the very beginning I focused on organic search and I knew this would be a long-term strategy.

However, at the beginning I started with Adwords to understand better what people were searching for and what keywords had the best conversion.

 Do you have a motto or an inspiring quote?

No not really. People (their actions) inspire me not quotes.

 Where do you get your news and what type of news do you read?

I mostly use Facebook and Twitter. I follow a few people that have similar interests and they usually share only the most important part of an article, so they do the hard part for me. They act like a filter.

On top of that, I follow the RomanianStartups group on Facebook. It’s a really great source of news for things like startups, investments and entrepreneurs.

 What was the TED talk, book, blog post, life lesson or anything really that inspired you the most in making this project?

My inspiration comes from other entrepreneurs. For example, I follow quite closely Joel from Buffeapp. He is very open about his achievements and talks often about how he grows his business. I like the authenticity of a story that comes from someone that has built a company.

 Do you have a lot of competition? And how do you feel about competition?

 Yes, I do. I have both bad and good competition…

For example, there are some guys from The Netherlands that copied everything I do. From website structure, to features, to pricing they just look at what I do and they add that to their website.  It’s a bit annoying but I choose to ignore them.

It’s bad when somebody with a lot of resources start copying you because they can execute very fast and if they have a huge advertising budget they can win the game. But if there are two guys, who are working on the side, I am not worried. They will never be able to execute as good as I can.

I also have good competition. In the last two years I saw many competitors coming online; much larger teams, with lots of resources. It make my life more difficult but it’s not all bad news. If you start doing something and you don’t have any competition you probably don’t have a market, and then you will have to work like hell to educate everyone on why they should buy your products.

For me competition is good because I have many clients that came over from my competitors. They were not satisfied with their services and looked for an alternative.

 What would be the most practical advice you could give to someone that would like to do something similar? Something that he or she could apply from tomorrow.

Razvan Girmacea

 

Go to an accelerator. I cannot stress enough how much it helped me. I tell this to everybody. 

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