Growth is hard, there’s no way about it. Fix problems as they arise, keep your core values close, and you’ll eventually weather the storm.
Mihai Aperghis is the founder of Vertify, a Romanian SEO agency with strong content marketing know-how. Starting out in SEO over 10 years ago, he’s worked with hundreds of websites and businesses in various local and international industries, has spoken at several SEO events and has contributed to some of the most popular industry blogs. Together with his partner, Alexandra, he focuses on creating efficient optimization strategies and growing the Vertify team.
With a love of sharing knowledge, Mihai is a constant presence in Google’s Official Webmaster Hours hangouts and is part of the Top Contributor program in the Google Webmaster Help Forums, helping out site owners with their issues. He also built Search Analytics for Sheets, a highly popular tool now used by tens of thousands of SEOs and webmasters.
Outside work, Mihai has a Master’s in Telecom & Software Engineering, he is passionate about science & technology and gets quite competitive when it comes to gaming.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
I started thinking about entrepreneurship about 10 years ago. As the final project for a marketing course, I had to come up with a business plan for a fictitious company of my choice. Quite fascinating for me, since all my other courses typically involved a lot of math as part of my Telecom Engineering student track. It was one of the few occasions I had to solve something that involved more creativity and fewer formulas.
It was around that time that I also started hearing and reading about SEO, and even played around with a couple of websites to try to get them to rank highly in Google and sell some advertising space on them. Ads were pretty bad back then in terms of how relevant they were, especially visual ones, so I imagined a company that would create a platform to intermediate ad buyers (brands) and sellers (websites), but with the unique feature of focusing on distinct “vertical” niches in order to provide a high degree of relevance and quality for all parties involved.
Since my company had to have a name, I took the word ‘vertical’ and an online synonym generator, and two days later I had it: Vertify, something between ‘vertical’, the distinct feature of my product, and ‘certify’, a verb that typically infers quality. Plus, I had created a word that, at least according to Google’s search results at the time, did not exist (that’s no longer the case, and, unfortunately, I didn’t grab the .com domain at the time – I guess you live and you learn).
Fast forward 3-4 years after that marketing course, as I completed my Bachelor’s and then Master’s in Bucharest, it was time for me to make a decision – get hired at one of the local telecom companies and start building a career, or go on a limb and start my own business. It didn’t take long for me to decide, as I still kept fresh the thrill I had creating that business plan a few years back. With quite a bit of SEO experience already under my belt, it was an easy decision – forgo my advertising platform idea but start an SEO agency that would cater to both local and international clients.
Vertify was actually a great name for it, despite it being created for a slightly different purpose. You see, as an SEO agency, I wanted to offer the highest possible level of quality services, especially at a time when most agencies in this space were delivering very spammy services (especially local ones). One way to do that was a self-imposed rule to never work with more than one website in a specific industry, a specific… vertical, if you will. That would let clients know that, when it comes to search engine rankings in their own niche, they would have my full attention and dedication.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
The agency has grown since its inception in 2012, and we’re 8 people now (soon to be 10!). As an SEO aficionado, I still work quite a bit on coming up with the best strategies for our clients, especially on the technical side of things, and add that extra value when I can. Alexandra, my partner, focuses on the creative and marketing part of SEO, where she and her team come up with ideas to increase our clients’ traffic and exposure.
So, most of our time is typically still spent on the execution/operational side. Since we have no salespeople, Alexandra and I are also the ones that do most of the talking to new leads that typically come from recommendations.
Due to the ever-growing amount of things that come with team and client growth, productivity typically requires well-designed training sessions and operational processes that the team can use so that our attention goes to more high-level work, and so that we have more time to also deal with the business aspects of the agency.
We’re still working on that 🙂
How do you bring ideas to life?
Most of our ideas are a mix of creativity and data points that we get from our research and understanding of each client’s business. Our goals are to increase search engine rankings, sure, but whether it’s a piece of content, a marketing campaign, or simply improving something on the website itself, our ideas are sourced from data that comes from actual users. They’re the ones using these search engines anyway, right?
Bringing these ideas to life is typically an effort that also involves the client since without his/her input or approval, most of what we do doesn’t get to see the light of day. Luckily, our clients trust us to deliver high quality work, so it’s coming up with the ideas themselves that’s key to everything that we do.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Improving user experience. All search engines (and most businesses, really) focus on this one thing in order to stand out. Google manages to do this by offering increasingly more accessible information in their search results – just think about how their search results used to look 10 years ago.
This poses a never-ending challenge for SEOs, as they constantly need to stay up to date with every change that happens in order to maximize the visibility (and therefore, traffic and potential sales) of their or their clients’ websites in the results. This challenge is further enhanced by the fact that, with all the secrecy surrounding search engine algorithms, you never have all the puzzle pieces.
On the other hand, all this makes it easier for specialized agencies, which do have the resources to keep up with all the new information, to outperform bigger but more generalized digital marketing firms.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
With more clients and a bigger team, it’s extremely easy to get lost in the ever-growing amount of work that you need to do, at the point that it becomes a routine to come in the office in the morning and leave at night without remembering exactly what you did or how productive you really were.
Setting goals allows you to focus on coming up with a strategy to achieve an outcome. With goals set, it gets easier to prioritize work, to delegate, to feel like you’re moving forward.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Interfering with the timeline can have serious consequences, you know. But really, I’d mention just what I wrote above about setting goals. It’s a simple notion that can have an amazing impact and can be a true driver in everything that you do.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
That’s pretty hard to do, as I think there are very few things that I completely agree or disagree with versus the majority opinion.
I guess it’s not related to entrepreneurship, but I find Sam Harris’ take on free will (or rather lack thereof) quite interesting, which a lot of people seem to disagree with, at least at first thought.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Well, two things, actually, which are kind of closely related.
One is being empathetic. And that means more than just putting yourself into someone else’s shoes (since that’s still you, your take on things, just in a different situation). It’s more about seeing the other person’s point of view, where they’re coming from, why they do what they do, say what they say. It’s not always easy to do that (though it gets easier with time), but it’s key to understanding people, which is a pretty good skill to have as an entrepreneur.
Second is thinking about what you’ll say before you say it. As an entrepreneur, you’ll realize people interpret information differently based on how it’s worded. Their reaction, both short term and long term, can be adjusted to be in everyone’s best interests by simply using the right words. That usually translates into a better relationship with your team and your clients.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Since the vast majority of our revenue comes from recurring clients, it’s highly important to get those first few months in where the client is happy with the work you’ve done so far and trusts you to be their long-term provider. With SEO that’s usually harder to do, as it can take 6 months, a year or more until clients see significant results.
As such, we tend to invest a lot more time and resources in these months to get those early wins and prove the quality of our efforts, even if that means lower (or even no) profit. This, however, has allowed us to have clients that are almost as old as the agency itself. Just as with SEO, we’re ‘playing the long game’.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Growing the agency has probably been the hardest part of being an entrepreneur. As someone that is deeply involved with the work they do, I feel much more comfortable doing SEO work than worry about who I need to hire next and what the P&L looks like.
I guess the roughest time was when we (me and my partner, Alexandra) went from just us two to four people. It took us the better part of two years to get used to having a team and learning what it takes to manage one. It affected what we do, how we do it, revenue, costs, and created a set of challenges that we’ve simply never dealt with before.
There was no easy solution to it really, it was mostly trying to see the big picture, holding on to our core values, figuring out how to patch things up just enough so that they keep working, and improving over time.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
A chatbot for a specific industry (I won’t use the word ‘vertical’ again, think that point has been made pretty well so far). Basically, find the most common issues people have in a specific niche, and create or train a chatbot to answer those questions. This can be of great value, especially for e-commerce websites, and can scale easily if you offer it under some form of a subscription model.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Our Moz subscription. They recently improved a core part of their tools, the Link Explorer, and the subscription includes a lot of other goodies that help us with our research part of the SEO process.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
Asana. Asana sits at the core of our projects and aggregates all of the information that the team needs to carry out our work. Actually, I’m the one who uses it the least, since most business-related tasks and projects aren’t in Asana yet, which is something I definitely hope to change.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Scaling Up by Verne Harnish is something that I’d recommend to any entrepreneur looking for growth. Also, The Marketing Agency Blueprint by Paul Roetzer is pretty neat for anyone in the digital marketing space (especially Chapter 1 – Eliminate Billable Hours, which really works for any kind of business that offers services).
What is your favorite quote?
“Always deliver more than expected.” – Larry Page.
It’s kind of a default setting I’m on and is one of the agency’s core values. It ties into what I mentioned earlier about our business growth strategy.
– User Experience will likely become the main driver for most online businesses.
– Setting goals makes you focus your efforts and allows you to move forward.
– Empathy is a great skill to have for any entrepreneur. It helps you to win over clients and, more importantly, your team.
– Growth is hard, there’s no way about it. Fix problems as they arise, keep your core values close, and you’ll eventually weather the storm.
– Overdeliver whenever you can. It makes your team proud of their work and your clients more trusting of your team.
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.