SEO heavyweight Joe Gass and his exponential revenue growth
By Joe Gass
Ten years ago, I was the Charlotte, North Carolina, division of Heritage Printing & Graphics. It was me and an empty office. That’s it.
For the first six months, we had a single client. Today, our Charlotte location has a major production facility, is actively adding capabilities, and has over a dozen employees. Our sales have grown to $1.8 million, from $325,000 in 2009. Over that same period, Heritage Printing, with our total of three locations, has grown from $1.1 million to $4.2 million
I was never out to build an empire with Heritage; we are in business to help our customers, and I feel very blessed that we have been able to do that for as long as we have. But, in order to be able to help customers, I have to acquire them — the right ones, whose specific needs we can meet. One of the best tools for us has been the Internet. With it, we have been able to attract exactly the customers we want to attract. Then, we’ve built a response and service model that takes these potentially one-time customers and turns them into more. With this strategy, we’re creating long-term relationships, translating one-off $800 jobs into projects that can fetch $10,000, $20,000, even $100,000 and often turn into repeat business. This has been the secret to our growth.
Grounded in Print
Heritage Printing & Graphics, like many legacy print companies, has seen its share of peaks and valleys.
This is our family’s business, originally started in 1977, in Maryland, as Gass Printing Service. In 1988, after a six-year enlisted career in the United States Navy, I joined the business alongside my brother, Steve, and my father, Allen. I came in to run the company, renamed Heritage Printing & Graphics, and develop sales. We grew from $165,000 in sales to nearly $600,000 that first year and then slowly increased our revenue throughout the 1990s as we transitioned from a small quick printer to a larger format commercial printing company focused on process color publications, marketing materials, and direct mail.
By 1996–97, we started thinking about the Internet. We began amassing domain names and keyword phrases, and we licensed heritageprinting.com as our main website. We realized early on that “search engine optimization” (SEO) was an effective way to use the Internet to get business — although it wasn’t until after my “sabbatical” years (which I’ll get to) that we put the strategy to full use.
The early 2000s, however, brought a reversal of fortune. The end of the dot-com bubble, the 9/11 attacks, and the recession that followed took a toll on our company. We struggled with heavy debt and shrinking margins, even as sales continued to grow. In 2004, the company went through a reorganization, and my brother and I went through personal bankruptcy.
Around that time, I decided that I needed to step back and take stock of my life and the company. In 2005, I began a sabbatical, relocating from Washington, DC, to Charlotte, N.C., to explore life outside my comfort zone. I established and ran a local non-profit organization and devoted more time to my wife and our four young children. It wasn’t a complete sabbatical; I continued to telecommute via phone and online several hours a day. The staff back in Maryland stepped up to their new leadership roles, and the company was regaining its footing.
As I became more involved in the community in Charlotte, I started to see new opportunities for print. In 2008, I began to seriously think about what I could do to create a platform in Charlotte for Heritage to meet local needs for marketing materials and publications. I rented some space at the Printing Industries of the Carolinas (PICA) headquarters and set up a sales office. I call it a sales office, but it was empty — no desk, not even a phone. I needed the space to formally represent Heritage Printing & Graphics in the city — and to ensure that we would show up on Google Maps (remember, we were figuring out this Internet search thing). The fact was, in these early days, I didn’t need to be in my office — I was out networking.
Rounding Up Rotarians
When I got serious about expanding Heritage, I joined Charlotte’s Rotary Club. I had been a Rotarian since getting out of the Navy, and when I started setting up our presence here, this was the foundation of my networking efforts. I’d talk with people, always limiting the conversation to 30 minutes and never asking for business. It was a great six months during which I met with a lot of people and began building a network.
The first job we did here came after I met the City Manager of Charlotte. We had a great conversation, and I handed him my card. Three weeks later, I got a call from the Charlotte Economic Development Department. They needed a 176-page, perfect-bound, 5,000-run publication. It was a good-size job at the time — around $10,000 — and that was the true start of the Charlotte location of Heritage Printing. We soon changed our focus to wide-format and display graphics, and we landed a major retail chain as our sole client for six months as we learned this new business.
Two Hundred Keywords
While in-person networking got Heritage Printing Charlotte started, another chance meeting in those first months enabled us to take advantage of Internet marketing and really get the business growing. At a local Chamber of Commerce meeting, I met Kevin Smith, who worked full-time for a website developer and did freelance web consulting. I mentioned that I thought Heritage needed a separate website to represent the Charlotte market. We already had heritageprinting.com, which at the time was a fairly generic website: functional, but didn’t do what was necessary, which was to attract people — the right people — to our site. It lacked effective SEO. Most websites at that time — and even today — are built to communicate information and be attractive-looking, but not to draw in the people who are googling for the things they need. This was the question Kevin and I proceeded to work on: What are people on the Internet asking for when it comes to print, and how can we drive them to our new site, heritageprintingcharlotte.com?
“Most websites are built to communicate information and be attractive-looking, but not to draw in the people who are googling for the things they need.”
Search engine optimization is a complex science and art that can’t be succinctly described, or easily and quickly implemented. It starts — but doesn’t end — with keywords, the words and phrases people use in Internet searches to find what they’re looking for. True SEO is a way of optimizing a website so that when a potential customer enters a word or phrase in Google (or another search engine), that site appears near the top of what are called “organic” search results. The alternative is “Pay Per Click” (PPC), whereby you pay Google (via their AdWords platform) to appear high up in search results for certain keywords or phrases. We use PPC sparingly, preferring to rely on organic search. It can be more effective — users click on these results more often than PPC hits — but it’s also harder. Ranking high in organic search results is accomplished not just by using effective keywords — that is, ensuring that those keywords and phrases appear in the text on your site as well as in the metadata associated with your site — but by establishing your business as an authority. I’ll explain in a moment what that means.
If you’re near a computer right now, I can show you what SEO has done for us. Go to Google and search for “custom printed curtains.” To the right, you’ll see sponsored ads — essentially, straight-up advertising. In the main column, the first few results are paid ads, indicated by “Ad” in a small box in front of the URL. These are what PPC gets you. Below these are the organic search results. I’m going to make the assumption that heritageprinting.com is number two in the organic search results (our usual position for this search phrase). Now, this is just one of the products we offer. You can search for any of our other items — we optimize our site to attract searches for over 200 keywords — and we’ll show up in the top two or three organic search results. As a result of this postioning, we get thousands of people coming to our websites every week.
To identify the keywords to put to work for us, we have to think beyond what we, in the industry, think are important terms. We use a lot of jargon, like “wide format.” Who aside from an industry insider uses that term? Initially, we had to think about what a person — often a person who isn’t experienced at buying print — is searching for when they go online. We spend a lot of time researching and understanding what those phrases are so we can attract only the people who are buying the products and services we want to sell.
I said earlier that we do a lot of things beyond keywords in order to get high-ranking results. It’s not just picking the right keywords. You also need to create domain authority (DA) for your website. This is basically a score that determines how high a given website will rank on a search engine results page. It’s ultimately a gauge of the extent to which Google’s algorithms consider a business to be a “thought leader.” DA is highly technical, but in essence it requires not just including appropriate keywords and phrases in your site’s content, but also updating your site regularly (like having frequent blog posts or a news page), including positive reviews from customers, maintaining traction on social media, and attracting ample site traffic. This is why a brand-new company won’t leap to the top of Google’s search results. It takes time to build an online presence and authority.
Now that we’ve spent all this time building DA, we get about 1,500 visitors to our site per week — and a good percentage of these have an urgent need. Our online traffic produces approximately 60 to 70 new project opportunities each week.
No More One-Off Orders
Here’s what happens when you generate this kind of traffic and inquiry volume: Our hardest job has become interviewing the people who are coming to us. We don’t say “yes” to every project. Instead, we carefully assess each opportunity to find out two things:
- Is the project truly a good fit for us? (volume, cost, revenue, fit, etc.)
- Is there an opportunity to do additional or repeat projects for this one customer?
So if one of our popular keyword phrases brings someone to us — say “retractable banner stands,” “step and repeat banner stands,” “red carpet banner stands,” or “life-size cutouts” — it’s likely this customer is hosting an event and may have other print needs related to it. It’s our job to proactively ask questions that uncover their other print needs for this event and for the larger context of their business. After all, I’m not looking to sell one retractable banner stand; I’m trying to build a fruitful, lasting relationship with this customer. Getting found in Google search results is just the start.
This is where our staff comes in, and why I have been scaling up and hiring new employees. The people who answer our phones and field our online inquiries are critical. They are not salespeople. (In fact, we tripled our revenues in four years without having a “sales force.”) They’re also not “customer service representatives.” They are “project coordinators.” As such, they are the people who take ownership of a job from initial fit-assessment through eventual delivery. They have the design and production knowledge – and the service training – to identify opportunities and talk customers through possibilities.
This approach allows us to focus less on selling products — a banner here, a poster there — and more on helping customers develop projects — an entire trade show booth or a complete office interior.
Hiring the Right Gun
When I first got serious about launching the Charlotte location and using the Internet to grow it, I made an investment in learning Internet marketing myself — up to 20 hours a week — on top of running the business. That became unsustainable for me, so I hired a valuable, dedicated resource.
As I mentioned, Kevin Smith helped me learn the ins and outs of Internet marketing. About three-and-a-half years ago, he came onboard full-time to grow our Internet marketing efforts. Kevin does more than just tweak keywords and keep up with Google. He manages the science and art of SEO for our company — and he coordinates our social media and does regular blogging on our websites, which contribute to our rankings. I hired this dedicated resource because I’ve learned that being truly effective at Internet marketing and SEO require a firm, long-term commitment. It’s been invaluable to our success.
Amazing, Sustained Growth
After 30 years, business has shot through the roof. We have more than a thousand site visitors each week, and they convert to a growing number of serious leads that often become long-term relationships. We anticipate, for the foreseeable future, continuing to maintain a 25 to 30 percent annual growth rate.
I said at the beginning, I’m not out to create an empire. Nor do I want to grow just to grow. We have something that’s really working and is bringing value to our clients — the many testimonials on our site and the five-star reviews on Google, Yelp!, and Facebook attest to that. And we’re doing it well. In 2017, we won three Benny Awards, the highest honors possible in the annual Printing Industries of America’s Premier Print Awards, a global print quality competition.
I think of business planning and strategy like this: We’re moving from summit to summit. From these vantage points, we get a clear view of where our next destination is, and we can plot a course through the valleys and challenges to get there. This big-picture perspective enables us to see useful trends, deploy winning strategies, and set ambitious, attainable goals. And what will get us successfully from summit to summit is not just having a map, a growth plan, but the ability to handle whatever challenges come up during the journey. It’s exciting. I’m telling you, I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, but I feel like I’m just getting started.
Joe Gass is president and CEO of Heritage Printing & Graphics, with locations in Washington, D.C., Waldorf, Md., and Charlotte, N.C. He started working for the family business in 1987 and launched the company’s wide-format and signage division in Charlotte in 2009. In addition to his clients, he is also helping making a difference in the lives of others outside the industry, including supporting an orphanage and helping to rebuild earthquake-damaged schools in Nepal. Connect via firstname.lastname@example.org.