Centori · Tyler Scionti

From HubSpot to head honcho: How a Boston native's SEO startup Centori skyrocketed to success with a revolutionary approach and 6 figures in revenue.

February 12, 2024
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  • Tyler Scionti
  • Boston, MA
  • Started in 2023
  • 6 Figures revenue
  • Bootstrapped
  • 2200 monthly visitors
  • centori.io

What's your backstory?

I grew up just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, which is also where I reside today, not far from my childhood home. For my education, I attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, where I majored in English and Economics. I've always been an avid reader with a deep passion for writing, particularly online content, which eventually led me into the field of SEO.

Initially, I started my career in finance, a common path for many economics majors. However, it didn't take long for me to realize that finance wasn't the right fit for me in the long run. Seeking a change, I transitioned to the software industry, joining HubSpot in 2016. There, I began in customer success, effectively starting my career anew post-college. My journey at HubSpot was transformative, allowing me to quickly transition into product management. This role truly became the core of my professional life, where I dedicated myself to managing teams and products.

After my time at HubSpot, I ventured into another startup based in Boston, before fully committing to Centori in 2023. Despite the various shifts in my career, I've always stayed close to my roots. The knowledge and experiences gained from both my academic background and diverse career path have been instrumental in building and growing my business. I'm eager to see how much more I can achieve with Centori moving forward.

What does your company do and how did you come up with the idea?

When I embarked on the journey of creating Centori, my background as a product specialist at HubSpot inspired me to build a marketing software tool, specifically in the SEO domain. My dissatisfaction with existing SEO tools, primarily due to their high costs and lack of useful features, especially in reporting, drove my initial idea. I aimed to introduce a new, simpler SEO software product to the market. However, the competitive landscape and the realization that many users, despite appreciating the software, were unsure of how to effectively use it, prompted a significant pivot in our approach.

This feedback highlighted a glaring gap in the market: the need for not just tools, but guidance on how to use them. Consequently, we shifted our focus towards providing comprehensive support, including group coaching, support via Slack, monthly coaching calls, and exclusive content creation. This approach is designed to equip our average marketer or founder with the knowledge to leverage SEO effectively, transcending beyond mere traffic generation to truly grow their businesses.

Our philosophy evolved to encompass one-on-one SEO instruction for higher-tier members, assisting them in crafting and executing an SEO strategy tailored to their specific business needs. This holistic approach aims to not only attract visitors to their websites but also guide them to content that converts, whether that leads to signing up for a product or booking a demo.

This journey has been a learning curve, starting with a software product that, while good, didn't fully address our target audience's needs—those who are novices in SEO. Our pivot to incorporating coaching has proven to be a more effective solution, continually shaped by customer feedback and their evolving needs.

The most valuable lesson from this experience has been the importance of listening to customer problems and focusing on those rather than being enamored with the solutions we initially think up. It's this adaptability and commitment to solving real-world problems that have made building Centori, and the ongoing process of refining our offerings, both challenging and rewarding.

How did you get your first 10 customers?

Securing the first 10 customers was undoubtedly challenging. Engaging with marketers and founders, especially from early-stage companies, underscored a pivotal insight: SEO isn't the go-to strategy for those with fewer than 25 to 50 customers, largely because it likely indicates a lack of product-market fit. This phase is more about identifying your ideal customer, capturing and retaining their interest, and figuring out the most effective channels for engagement. The process necessitates manual, non-scalable efforts to stay as connected as possible with potential customers to understand their needs deeply.

Our initial customers for Centori were primarily sourced through genuine involvement in communities like IndieHackers, not through overt advertising or promotional blasts, which often feel spammy. Instead, we focused on being helpful, answering queries, and sharing valuable, educational content about utilizing SEO for growth. This approach not only fostered engagement but also led to our first set of calls and, subsequently, our first customers.

Beyond these community-driven efforts, referrals played a significant role. Delivering exceptional service to our early customers prompted them to recommend our services within their networks. Additionally, investing in building an email list turned out to be incredibly beneficial. It allowed us to share insightful, educational content directly with our audience, further establishing our credibility and fostering growth.

While a small portion of our initial growth can be attributed to advertising and SEO, the majority came from hands-on, direct engagement and valuable content creation. However, it's crucial to recognize that what worked for us may not necessarily work for everyone. The key lies in understanding your target market, identifying where they spend their time, and figuring out the most direct and impactful way to reach them. This initial groundwork is essential for scaling from 10 to 50 customers and beyond.

As of now, Centori has grown to 21 customers, a significant achievement given the balancing act of developing the business alongside a full-time job. This milestone was reached by honing our marketing and sales strategies, demonstrating the importance of tailored, hands-on efforts in the early stages of business growth.

What steps did you take to understand and confirm that your product or service was a good match for the needs and wants of your target customers?

The pivotal step in confirming that our product or service matched the needs of our target customers was engaging in direct conversations with them. This approach revealed that merely having a great idea isn't sufficient to ensure product-market fit. Instead, understanding and solving real problems through dialogue is key. Initially, I believed developing a software product for SEO would address the market's needs. However, through numerous conversations, about 50 to be precise, with marketing professionals—starting with alumni from my alma mater for ease of connection—I uncovered a crucial insight: software alone wasn't the solution they needed.

These discussions were not sales pitches but genuine inquiries into their SEO processes, challenges, and what success looked like to them. The common thread was the lack of a strategic approach to SEO; many were simply hoping that publishing content around selected keywords would suffice. This realization was enlightening; the core issue wasn't the need for more tools but for a strategic framework and guidance.

By 2022, after three years of exploration and feedback, it became clear that providing instructional support and strategy development was where the true opportunity lay. This shift in understanding allowed me to transition to working on Centori full-time by 2023. The key lesson here is the importance of asking open, exploratory questions rather than seeking confirmation for preconceived notions. This method ensures the feedback received is honest and reflective of actual needs, rather than what interviewees think you want to hear.

Engaging in these conversations was about challenging my assumptions and allowing potential customers to highlight flaws in my initial ideas. The aim was to discover the genuine problems faced by my target market and to develop solutions that effectively addressed those issues. This customer-centric approach, deeply rooted in my background as a product manager, was instrumental in pivoting from a software-centric solution to one that integrates strategic guidance and coaching, ultimately providing a service that truly resonates with the needs of our clients.

How are you planning on reaching 100 customer?

As we're working towards reaching our first 100 customers, our approach is multifaceted, emphasizing both manual engagement and scalable automation. In the early stages, especially for acquiring the first 10 customers, the focus was on direct, meaningful interactions where understanding the audience's pain points through real conversations was crucial. This approach isn't readily automatable, particularly for products or services that aren't low-priced or low-touch.

To bridge this gap and scale, we've implemented a touchless signup flow for our group coaching tier, making it fully self-service and accessible for anyone interested. This has been a significant shift, allowing us to onboard customers more efficiently since its introduction at the start of the year. However, our one-on-one coaching, which requires a more personalized approach, still necessitates a sales call and thus remains part of our manual sales funnel.

Our scaling strategy hinges on several key initiatives:

  1. Optimizing Website User Experience: Streamlining the journey from landing on the website to entering the sales funnel is critical. Our aim is to automate as much of this process as possible, even if sales conversations are still needed for higher-priced offerings.
  2. Leveraging Content for Conversion: We're focusing on converting visitors from SEO-driven content by strategically placing lead magnets throughout our content. This not only enhances our email list but also serves as a continual sales nurturing tool.
  3. Building and Nurturing Our Audience: Through our email list and organic content, complemented by targeted ads, we're engaging with our audience weekly. The goal is to create value and demonstrate our understanding and solutions to their problems, rather than outright selling.
  4. Focusing on Proven Channels: By identifying and doubling down on channels that have historically driven revenue, such as SEO and referrals, we're aiming to maximize our growth efforts. This includes automating certain processes like referral requests through marketing automation tools.

Looking ahead, our capacity to support customers, especially in the one-on-one coaching tier, dictates our scaling capabilities. Our group coaching tier, on the other hand, offers significant scalability potential, potentially reaching hundreds to thousands of customers.

In pursuit of our 100-customer milestone, we're strategically picking our battles, focusing solely on what works and avoiding channels that haven't yielded results. This disciplined approach, prioritizing efficiency and effectiveness, guides our efforts to scale and achieve our growth targets within the year.

What distribution channels did you try that didn’t work?

The primary distribution channels that didn't yield success for us were various social media platforms. Initially, I fell into the trap of believing that having a presence on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks was essential for a business. However, this approach failed to consider where our target audience—startup founders and marketers—actually spent their time and engaged with content relevant to their interests.

Our audience doesn't typically engage with our type of business on platforms like Instagram or TikTok. Personally, I'm not inclined towards video content creation, which further diminishes the appeal and potential return on investment from these channels. Despite the initial effort to establish a presence across these social networks, it became clear that it wasn't where our audience was looking for solutions to their SEO questions or challenges.

We realized our efforts were better spent on platforms where our audience actively sought information and engaged in community discussions, such as Google (through SEO-driven content), IndieHackers, and various Slack communities. Here, by providing valuable insights and assistance, we were able to connect more effectively with our target market.

LinkedIn remains a platform I use, but more from a personal branding perspective, to establish myself as a founder and an SEO expert, and for networking and sales rather than as a primary distribution channel for our business.

The lesson learned was that not all activity equates to productivity, especially in the context of marketing and customer acquisition. Busy work, such as designing and maintaining pages on platforms where our audience does not actively engage, can be misleadingly satisfying but ultimately fruitless. This realization prompted a shift in strategy, focusing our resources and efforts only on channels that demonstrated tangible returns in terms of customer engagement and acquisition.

By prioritizing and concentrating on what genuinely works, we've been able to streamline our marketing efforts, eliminating inefficiencies and maximizing the impact of our activities on platforms that truly matter to our audience. This approach has not only been more effective but has also allowed us to avoid the common pitfall of spreading ourselves too thin across too many channels with minimal return.

What specific tools, software, or resources have been most helpful in growing your business?

In growing our business, several tools and software have played crucial roles across various aspects of operations, sales, and marketing. Here's a breakdown of the most impactful ones:

  1. HubSpot: While I might be biased given my background, HubSpot has been instrumental for us. It's not just about being a CRM; it's the integration of a powerful email tool and a forms tool that makes it invaluable. The ability to organize deals, contacts, leads, and monitor interactions like email opens provides a strategic advantage in sales and customer engagement.
  2. Email Marketing Tools: The ROI on email marketing is undeniable. With the potential return of $36 for every dollar spent, as highlighted by sources like Constant Contact, it's clear why this channel is so powerful. Owning the email list means direct access to your audience, free from the unpredictability of social media algorithms.
  3. Forms and Landing Page Builders: Tools that facilitate the creation of pop-up forms, lead magnet forms, and landing pages are essential for audience building and conversion. They play a significant role in capturing and nurturing leads over time, encouraging them to engage with our offerings.
  4. Canva: For creating visually appealing lead magnets, graphics, and marketing materials, Canva has been a game-changer. Its ease of use and versatility make it a go-to resource for quick, professional-looking designs.
  5. SEO Tools: Google Search Console and Google Analytics are foundational for monitoring SEO performance and understanding website traffic dynamics. Our own SEO reporting tool, which integrates with these Google services, helps us and our customers to make informed decisions about content strategy and website optimization.
  6. Scheduling Tools: SavvyCal, although similar tools like Calendly also fit the bill, streamlines the process of scheduling sales calls and client meetings. This efficiency is key for maintaining a smooth operational flow and ensuring valuable conversations happen without friction.

These tools collectively support a comprehensive approach to business growth, covering everything from lead generation and customer relationship management to content strategy and analytics. Their integration and the insights they provide enable us to maximize our resources, focus on high-impact activities, and continuously refine our strategies to meet our audience's needs effectively.

How did you make the transition from a side hustle to full-time entrepreneurship?

The transition from a side hustle to full-time entrepreneurship was a journey filled with both challenges and strategic decisions, especially while managing a demanding full-time job as a product manager. The process demanded significant personal and professional sacrifices, including working nights and weekends, and adapting to changing lifestyles and responsibilities. This journey underscored the importance of prioritizing and focusing efforts on tasks that directly contribute to business growth.

Key insights and strategies that facilitated this transition include:

  1. Decision Making with Partners: The decision to focus on entrepreneurship full-time was made in consultation with my wife, reflecting on why I was pursuing this path and what I hoped to achieve.
  2. Time Management: With limited hours available each day, it was crucial to utilize every available moment effectively. This meant focusing on activities that had the highest potential for growth, such as sales and promotion, to acquire the necessary number of customers to support a full-time commitment to my business.
  3. Cash Flow and Resource Management: Ensuring efficient use of resources and managing cash flow were pivotal in making the transition sustainable. This involved reevaluating our offerings, pricing, and delivery methods to better meet customer needs and drive revenue.
  4. Adjusting to New Challenges: Transitioning to full-time entrepreneurship introduced new challenges, including dealing with loneliness and the lack of structured time. The freedom of entrepreneurship, while liberating, required developing new routines and self-discipline to manage the unstructured nature of the work effectively.
  5. Continuous Learning and Adaptation: Embracing the continuous learning curve, allowing for mistakes, and taking time to step back and recharge were essential for personal and business growth. Every day presented an opportunity to take steps forward and improve both myself and my business.

This journey from side hustle to entrepreneurship underscores the complexities and rewards of pursuing one's passions full-time. It highlights the need for strategic planning, resilience, and the ability to adapt to both anticipated and unforeseen challenges.

What drives you to do what you do?

The core motivation behind my actions, both in creating Centori and throughout my career, stems from a genuine desire to help others. This might sound cliché, but the joy and fulfillment I get from assisting people, whether through teaching, writing, or guiding businesses, is unparalleled. From my early days of sharing ideas online and interacting with readers to my time as a TA and working in customer success at HubSpot, the thread of helping and educating has been constant.

Centori represents a culmination of these passions, blending product development with direct engagement with business owners, marketers, and founders worldwide. The excitement of seeing someone's business grow because of our SEO strategies, witnessing their "aha" moments, and realizing the tangible impact of our work on their success fuels my drive. It's not just about improving their SEO rankings; it's about contributing to their business growth in a meaningful way.

Despite the challenges and solitude that come with entrepreneurship, the opportunity to make a daily impact on businesses around the globe is incredibly rewarding. SEO, often maligned due to its association with spam and aggressive marketing, presents a unique avenue for redefining its value and demonstrating its strategic potential to skeptics. By showing there's a more thoughtful and effective approach to SEO, we're not just challenging misconceptions; we're opening doors for businesses to thrive in new ways.

The journey of growing a team, spreading knowledge, and helping more businesses realize their potential adds to the gratification of this path. While we may not be revolutionizing healthcare or space exploration, the role we play in transforming businesses and, by extension, lives, holds significant value. This mission—to educate, to guide, and to elevate—remains the driving force behind everything I do.

Who are some recommended experts or entrepreneurs to follow for learning how to grow a business?

Growing a business requires:

- A good product
- A good message and marketing channels to promote it
- The ability to sell

Following those core principles, here's who I'd recommend:

It's a bit cliche (as many former/current product managers do this) but I look up to Steve Jobs. Not 1980s - 1990s Steve Jobs, as much as what he learned after his failures at Apple and how he learned to relentlessly focus and reduce complexity for the sake of the customer.

I'm a big fan of Donald Miller's work as well when it comes to practical advice for marketing and business growth/management. Much of marketing gets too theoretical in my opinion, but Miller does a great job at breaking things down for the novice marketer.

The late Chet Holmes (author of The Ultimate Sales Machine) has some fantastic material on sales. His book is a great read and one of the best sales books I've ever read. Jeb Blount is excellent too (great books, excellent podcasts, and educational material).

Any quotes you live by?

Not necessarily a quote, but I'm a big believer in being generous and paying it forward. I've never gone wrong by going the extra mile for someone and being generous with my time and expertise.

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