How Internet Entrepreneurs Build Teams They Rely On
Scaling and Delegation with Doug Cunnington
Hey everyone, Greg here, and today I want to introduce someone who might already be familiar to you: Doug Cunnington. Doug has been in the trenches for years now, building successful niche sites using organic Google traffic. In a past life, back when he was still clocking in at his nine to five, Doug also ran entire projects as a project manager. Those skills have since transferred into how he builds and runs his online businesses today.
This is such a huge and important skill to master. Becoming a master of delegation, and being able to hire and build out teams, will ultimately allow you to do things that you would never become good at it or simply don’t have the time to become good at (developing software, writing sales letters, running Facebook PPC ads, etc.).
Learning how to delegate and how to run a team smoothly allows you to take advantage of so many more opportunities out there, regardless if you’re building an app or an Amazon affiliate niche site, or running an ecommerce store.
I will let Doug take it away to share with you his journey so far, as well as how he went about building his own teams using simple processes (and the ROI that came from doing so).
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
I finished a Skype call with a team member working on outreach for me.
The outreach wasn’t going well at all. He was frustrated and overwhelmed.
After a stellar start, my team had stopped making progress. The first three weeks had been exceptional, but then team members started getting stressed out.
It was a small disaster that was growing into a large one. This lack of progress wasn’t supposed to happen, since I technically knew how to run complex projects.
It took several weeks before I could change the course of the team. The recovery period took longer than it should have, since I didn’t have the delegation system in place or an agile mindset when I needed it most.
With an agile mindset, it’s possible that the lack of progress could have been avoided altogether.
I’m going to tell you how to avoid making the same mistakes by using Agile Project Management to build a content expansion team and an outreach team. Agile is an iterative, flexible way to do activities and execute projects.
It won’t be a theoretical exercise, either, because I’ll be able to back it up with examples from Amazon Affiliate Niche Sites.
I’m going to give you principles that you can use immediately. My methods are what I find to be effective for me, however, they are not the only way to get things done. So take the principles and you can find your own methods.
I’ll give you access to all the templates I use, including content templates, guest posting templates, Upwork job listing templates, 15,000 profitable keywords, and more.
My Background as a Project Manager (and Why You Should Listen to Me)
Imagine a chimp playing in the dirt with a stick. There are three differences between that chimp and me:
- I use systems and templates.
- I’m not good at climbing trees.
- The chimp has way more hair than me.
—Doug Cunnington (pictured on the left)
I have four years under my belt as an internet marketer specializing in Amazon Affiliate Websites. Before that, I never even heard the term “niche site,” and WordPress and keyword research were brand new concepts for me, too.
“I was making five figures a month, and things were great! Then, my site got hit with a penalty from Google, and my income dropped like a rock.”
—Fictitious Internet Marketer Stereotype
This timeline paints a picture of the roller coaster ride:
I’m a Project Management Professional (PMP), so that means I have a certain level of experience working on actual projects, and I took a test given by the Project Management Institute (PMI). Some people may not give much credit to organizations like PMI, but the requirements to sit for the PMP exam are:
- 4,500 hours leading and directing projects
- 35 hours of project management education
So even if you don’t appreciate the certification, a PMP has relevant time in the driver’s seat leading projects. (If you are a PM or in software development, be sure to let me know in the comments. I would love to hear from you.)
I earned my PMP certification in 2008. In my corporate days, I worked as a PM on software projects. In one role, I was able to grow a team from approximately 45 to 100 people in 18 months and as part of that process interviewed literally dozens of people.
I’ve spent time in the internet marketing trenches; I know how to run a project and build teams. Let’s look at two examples of teams I built: A content team and an outreach team.
Both website traffic and profits increased as a result of the two teams’ efforts. I’ll explain the details and process about each team and the lessons I learned along the way.
Example 1: Content Team
Using a content team, I published over 200 articles in five months and didn’t write any of the content myself. More impressive is the huge 10X ROI from the effort. A positive ROI is the ultimate goal whenever you invest time and money in your business.
The content costs were around $4,000, including the content, editing, and formatting within WordPress. The content was the bulk of the cost, about $3,200, and the editing and formatting covered the remainder. On average, each piece of content was 800 words long.
I started publishing the content in June 2016 and finished in October. Let’s look at the revenue since that reveals the ROI:
You can see that the site made about $28,500 since adding the content in June 2016. The investment in content more than paid for itself, and when you consider the site valuation, adding content was a great investment.
In fact, the ROI is very high, essentially 10X. (Note these are rough, back-of-the-napkin figures.)
Consider the total valuation from January to June 2016 compared to September 2016 to January 2017. I used a conservative six-month average for the valuation and assumed a 25x monthly multiple.
Next, let’s look at the traffic:
The revenue is the best proof, but it’s nice to see that traffic also increased over time. You can apply the same content strategies to any website to successfully increase the traffic.
Let’s look at how I created the team.
What’s the Team Look Like? The Org Chart
Eventually, the team looked like the image below, where I’m represented by the smiley face.
This type of team is totally modular — a major advantage. I can scale the capacity of the team by creating another module. Some companies and organizations call these “pods.”
For this content team, I found that four writers working with one editor/content manager worked best.
The amount of content written by the writers each week was the right amount of content for the editor/content manager to process each week.
I took it slow at first. Let’s look at the growth of the team:
- I hired one writer.
- I served as the editor/content manager for about two weeks.
- I hired two more writers the next week.
- I promoted the best writer to be an editor/content manager.
- I hired two more writers the following week.
- I created another pod in the same way by promoting another strong writer to the editor/content manager role.
- I hired four more writers the next week.
- Finally, I had two pods, up to eight writers, and two editor/content managers.
It’s incremental growth, and it takes longer than some other options, such as hiring a content service or immediately hiring four writers and a content manager. However, my method offers three major benefits:
- You have the ability to refine the process on a small scale as the team works out the kinks.
- The content manager role rate is less if you promote a writer versus hiring a person with the title of “Content Manager” on Upwork.
- If you just hire a content service, it will be more expensive.
The other great thing about this modular approach is that I can grow and scale the team rapidly. After the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were complete and used by the team, I was able to create another stand-alone team quickly.
It’s key for the SOPs to be very clear and accurate; the way to do that is through continuous improvement.
I encouraged the team to ask questions and leave comments in the shared Google Doc containing the SOPs. If something wasn’t clear, I wanted the team to point it out. Then, I would make changes so the document was clear.
You might think you have a well documented process in your SOPs; however, you have the curse of knowledge. You can’t review your own set of procedures with a critical eye that captures what an inexperienced Virtual Assistant (VA) will see. You can try, and may do a good job, but nothing can replace actual feedback from actual VAs.
People get frustrated with virtual assistants. It’s silly because the culprit is usually bad instruction from the manager, but the manager just blames the VA. After making that mistake myself, I realized that instructions and clear and accurate SOPs made a huge difference in the quality of the VA’s work.
After a few weeks, the team gelled. Content was overflowing from the writers, and the content managers were churning out edited drafts ready to publish. It was running smoothly and took no more than two hours a week from me.
What about the Publishing Schedule?
I had more content than ever so a new, better problem arose: publishing. Some people say that you should publish on a regular basis. Others say it doesn’t matter.
I published content in batches as they were ready, so that means about 5 to 20 posts were published at one time.
I’ve never tested posting on a regular schedule, such as one post per day, but I have yet to see any ill effects arise as a result of publishing content in bulk batches.
The other reason to post the content right away is because the majority of the posts ranked in the top 10 in the Google search results and started getting traffic within a couple days without backlinks, thanks to a keyword strategy I know. (Let me know in the comments if you’re interested in more details on increasing traffic without backlinks.)
It seems crazy, but using a certain keyword research strategy called the Keyword Golden Ratio enables you to find long-tail keywords that have ultra low competition.
Check out the image below with one example of Keyword Golden Ratio compliant content. That’s just one example from my SerpLab.co.uk dashboard, and a large majority of the other 199 posts also ranked in the top 10.
Click here to learn about the Keyword Golden Ratio on YouTube. As you can see, for this project it was a no-brainer to publish the content as fast as possible.
The content team worked out well from the start because it was similar to teams that I’ve built and managed in the past. The white-hat outreach team didn’t fare as well, at least not at the start.
Example 2: Outreach Team
The outreach team was more challenging to build and get results from than the content team. There are two main contributing factors that made the outreach process harder than the content process:
- There are more steps that take longer to execute than writing and publishing content.
- Some of the steps involve external parties (people outside your team), who have no clear incentive to respond to you in a timely manner.
First, let’s look at how I initially failed at building an outreach team before we look at the new, improved version.
Don’t Do This: The Unsuccessful Outreach Team
I can laugh about this now, but I actually failed the same way twice. I adjusted once I realized the process and system was the issue, not the specific outreach manager.
Here is what happened:
- I hired an outreach manager.
- The outreach manager learned the process and system.
- The outreach manager started working on an outreach campaign, where the campaign sought to build links to one specific page on one specific site.
- I added two more campaigns to the outreach manager’s responsibilities.
- The outreach manager became overwhelmed.
- The pace of the process slowed to a crawl, to the point that no guest posts were published in several weeks.
- The outreach manager was frozen by the various steps in the different campaigns.
The first time might have been the individual. When it happened the second time, I knew that I needed to adjust the process.
The process should be simple enough, so the average person could perform the work and get results without having an emotional meltdown. I don’t want to have a role on my team where it’s so complicated and stressful that I have a hard time finding a qualified person.
Before I could figure out a better process, I had to find the reason why the team was having so much trouble with outreach.
Root Cause Analysis (RCA)
I learned about the RCA process in my project management days. When something goes wrong, management wants to know why.
As a solopreneur, your gut reaction might be to take action fast. Just do something.
But if you react without thinking about it, then you’re more likely to make the mistake again or maybe forget how you ended up in a bad spot to begin with.
It’s similar to the concept of deliberate practice, coined by Anders Ericsson in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Look at what happened and find the root cause of the failure, so we will know where to adjust in the future.
I talked to the outreach managers to find out what happened and where in the process they were stressed out. Specifically, I wanted to know which tasks and steps made them sweat.
Running more than one guest posting campaign is multitasking. I hate multitasking. Multitasking makes you feel like you get more done, but the time spent switching tasks and refocusing is where it costs you brain-cycles. Let me explain exactly how this plays out for guest posting.
One guest posting campaign might look like this:
- Search for blogs in the niche to comment on using Google.
- Comment on the blogs.
- Email some bloggers to pitch your idea for a guest post.
- Write, or hire a writer to write, the guest post.
- Edit the guest post and be sure to insert links to your target site.
- Follow up and make sure the blogger publishes your post.
- If a guest post is published, thank the blogger, and reply to all the comments.
I outlined seven of the core steps in a sequential way, but the problem with the set of tasks is that they can all be happening at the same time. If the campaign is going well, you’ll be commenting on blogs, sending emails, receiving emails, writing, and so on… all at the same time.
If you work on one campaign, your day probably looks like this:
It’s a lot to juggle and you’re probably thinking, “Hey, that does look like a lot, but it’s manageable… What’s the problem, Doug??”
One campaign is manageable, but when you layer on one or two more campaigns, you have trouble on the horizon.
Here is what happens when you layer campaigns:
You can see how it gets stressful and confusing. You may have trouble following the arrows. Well, that’s exactly what happens when you are working on three outreach campaigns at the same time.
The root cause of my process problem appeared to be related to the number of campaigns that an outreach manager works on.
That’s easy to adjust and test, so that’s what I did.
Successful Outreach Team
I’m right in the middle of testing the outreach team with the new process, so I don’t have a great deal of the results in. However, the team is running more smoothly, people are less stressed out than was the case in my other attempts, and a few guest posts have been accepted.
After making the same mistake twice, I knew I needed to adjust something. The RCA process brought out the most likely issue.
Luckily, I am working on a big, very important project called “Project Go White Hat” where the primary goal is to publish a lot of guest posts, more guest posts than any campaign I’ve ever worked on—the target is 80+ guest posts. I’ll have a project to test the hypothesis of assigning each outreach manager a single outreach campaign in the hopes that he or she will be more effective and less stressed out.
The plan for Project Go White Hat is to use the same, core white hat guest posting process that’s proven to be effective again and again. The adjustment to my original process is to have multiple outreach managers working on the same campaign.
Each outreach manager has a single campaign to work on. That simple adjustment makes a huge difference in the number of tasks the outreach manager has to think about or do each day.
The added benefit is that each outreach manager can spend a bit more time on relationship-building with bloggers, which includes tasks like:
- Commenting on more than one blog post
- Sharing content on social media
- Emailing the blogger
- Signing up for the email list
This process involves more touch points with each blogger, and that means there is a better chance said blogger will like you and establish a relationship. If someone likes you, then your pitch to guest post has a better chance of being accepted.
Here is the white hat outreach process that I use, made easier to manage with a tool like Ninja Outreach:
- Find potential blogs for guest posting.
- Develop guest post topic ideas.
- Email the bloggers.
- Write the guest post.
- Follow up.
I don’t have a large amount of data to share on the results of the new approach where each outreach VA is working on one campaign at a time, but I can share that nine guest post pitches have been accepted in about 21 days. That’s a good sign from my standpoint, and once the team works through the issues that will come up, we’ll improve the process further.
So far I’ve explained a couple examples of building teams and the results, successful and unsuccessful. Let’s look at how you can build teams using project management principles.
Using Agile Project Management Principles to Build Teams
Here are the key points to apply to your team:
1. If something goes wrong, or if a team member makes a mistake, it’s your fault.
When I coach people about expanding their business or scaling a process, I tell them three things:
- Some things will go wrong.
- You need to provide far more explicit instructions for your team members than you think.
- It will be worse before it gets better — everything will take longer than expected — because you have to teach someone how to do something new.
Your expectations must be realistic. If you think you can hire a writer or any other kind of virtual assistant, assign a “simple task” (or what you perceive to be “simple”), provide a few instructions, and achieve immediate success… you will be disappointed.
The point is, if something goes wrong in the process, you need to look at why it happened and take action to prevent it from happening in the future.
Yes, it could be that a certain VA literally makes a mistake. It’s still worth seeing if something can be changed to prevent the issue. Maybe adding a checklist to the process will ensure that steps aren’t missed, or maybe removing an unnecessary step of the process will have a positive impact.
If you don’t adopt this mentality, you’ll have an uphill battle to fight because your team won’t be able to rely on the process.
2. Start small
When you start with the fact that you’re expecting issues, it makes a whole lot of sense to begin with a small team. That’s exactly what I did, and you can model my approach using the org chart.
Even if you have the budget to hire a big team right away, you’ll become overwhelmed if you do not have your systems, processes, and handoff points working well.
Though you may be tempted to implement a slick process management app, I say keep it simple.
3. Use simple systems, like Google Sheets & Docs
As a technophile and PMP, I like to geek out about the tools and apps out there to simplify managing projects. The key concept is to simplify.
The tools and apps should stay out of the way and improve the process. The tools and apps should not dictate the process. If you’ve ever worked in the corporate world, you’ve probably seen the problems that arise when management force processes to fit technology rather than the other way around.
One issue with using an app like Asana or Trello is that you have to train your team in using the tool. Even simple apps require training, and when you consider that you may be hiring someone who isn’t tech savvy, it makes sense to use the simplest solution you can find.
For me, that’s Google Sheets and Docs. They provide all the functionality I need for simple project management, and a Google account is basically ubiquitous.
4. Grow slowly
Once you have the budding team and systems in place, continue to grow slowly. Things should be running smoothly and without any major problems. You may notice that tasks are getting completed faster than before — the team is firing on all cylinders.
You’ll be able to hire people faster now that you’ve refined the process and the SOPs.
If you’re not running in a predictably smooth way yet, then you’ll have issues. When you add more people to your team, that creates more opportunities for misunderstandings and mistakes. Inefficiency increases all by itself, even if you have good systems in place.
I want to underscore the importance of scaling slowly, and only scaling once you’re confident in your systems.
5. Documentation: Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and roles and responsibilities
Documenting processes is boring. People neglect this type of activity because it doesn’t feel glamorous. If it’s a process that you know how to do well, then it’s especially boring since you can probably do it on autopilot.
If you’re a person who likes to document things, then you’re a lucky soul. You can use that skill to get a leg up on the competition.
Dan Andrews of Tropical MBA says, “Our most powerful points of leverage will come from building SOPs from scratch,” and SOPs for a process like creating content are essential. The SOPs make processes more predictable and repeatable. Most importantly, detailed SOPs can remove a great deal of decision-making throughout the process, yielding more consistent results.
Going back to my earlier point, if a VA makes a mistake, it’s probably your fault. The root of the issue is most likely in the SOPs. It’s your job as the manager to figure out how to improve the SOPs so that any qualified person can do the job.
Take the feedback from the mistake, and do something to make the process better.
Roles and responsibilities become critical when you have a team. There are two main problems that can happen:
- A task is skipped. This happens when more than one team member expects another team member to do a task, and no one ends up doing that task.
- A task is done more than once. This happens when more than one team member believes he or she is responsible for a task.
Both situations are frustrating and annoying, but for different reasons. In fact, it’s likely that both situations will happen because both are a symptom of a poorly defined set of roles and responsibilities for a team.
Build Your Team
“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”
— Bill Gates
These ideas about building a team are 100 percent transferable to any type of team that you want to create. If you need a team of social media outreach experts, you’ll benefit from using templates and systems, and encouraging the team to contribute ideas to improve the SOPs. It’ll be great to have a clear org chart and an understanding of who is doing what through roles and responsibilities.
Remember these core principles when you build or expand your team:
- Building teams is the way to scale.
- Creating teams is challenging and is a skill that needs to be learned.
- Starting small with realistic expectations will help you progress without being disappointed.
- Reference the outreach team failure and success examples for how to deal with mistakes, issues, and other things that can go wrong.
Now, you can take the core principles and develop your own methods that are tailor-made for your business.
Once you get started, you’ll find that setting up systems, using SOPs, and refining your processes gets easier and easier.
To jumpstart your teams, feel free to use my templates as a starting point.
Here is where you can find the system I use and implement it for yourself; you can get all my templates here. You’ll need to enter your name and email address, and then you’ll have access to content templates, guest posting templates, Upwork job listing templates, 15,000 profitable keywords, and more, for free.