Houston Business Journal by Tanya Rutledge, Special to the Houston Business Journal Date: Friday, March 23, 2012, 5:00am CDT
It wasn’t long after launching Fair Marketing Inc. that Roger Janik realized he was on to something big. The problem was, the big opportunity was in a completely different business than originally envisioned.
With just $10,000 in the bank as a safety net, Janik created Server Side as a Web development and design company in 2005. And for the first several months, he was able to bring on several clients by bidding on projects advertised online through business exchange websites.
But after just a few months developing and designing websites as a sole practitioner, Janik began to see ads for projects to help companies get their names at the top of the Web page when potential customers conducted Internet searches using keywords. The process, called search engine optimization, made Janik realize he needed to learn how to do it — and fast.
He bought several books — including “Search Engine Optimization for Dummies” — and with the help of a mentor, taught himself the business of SEO.
After a few months of researching the process, Janik felt ready to begin bidding on the SEO projects advertised on the Internet. In a move he believes ultimately helped Server Side get off the ground, Janik started charging rates that were only about 25 percent of the going rate for SEO work.
“I wanted the business, and I knew I needed to find a way to get into this line of work, so I charged a very low rate,” Janik said.
While undercutting competitors’ prices can sometimes be a double-edged sword, Janik said he never regretted getting his foot in the door by charging lower prices. Unlike the Web design work he had been doing and billed by the hour, clients signed up for SEO work by paying a monthly residual.
“It’s charged on residual, so even bringing in clients at this lower rate was still a lot of money for me as a small business owner just starting out,” he said. “On Web design, it was one-off projects, so I never knew if I’d be able to pay my bills.”
The lower rates also helped him attract small and midsize businesses to the practice of SEO, which was still fairly new and not yet at the top of clients’ minds when it came to marketing efforts, Janik said.
“Charging such a low rate in the beginning allowed some companies that might not otherwise have tried SEO give it a try — just by dipping their foot into the water,” he said. “It was still so new that people weren’t sure yet if they wanted to spend money on it.”
In the early days, armed with low rates, Janik was still finding a lot of his SEO clients by bidding on freelance projects online, a practice he moved away from as the business grew. He has also gradually increased Server Side’s rates to mirror those typically charged in the industry.
With clients spanning a vast array of industries — apartment locators, dentists, lumber companies, weight loss services, outdoor decking firms, medical flight companies and energy firms — Server Side now has a roster of more than 90 clients. The company’s staff has grown to 20 employees, plus 10 full-time freelancers.
Janik said the process of adding employees was also done gradually, except over the last year, when seven new employees were brought on board to meet client demand.
“I never brought in a new employee unless the profit was there,” he said. “I never wanted to get into debt.”
That growth curve has escalated over the past couple of years as revenue has begun to climb briskly. Server Side’s revenue growth between 2008 and 2010 landed the company in the No. 9 spot on HBJ’s 2011 Houston Fast 100 list of fastest-growing private companies.
But as the practice of SEO has grown, so has Sever Side’s competition, with many traditional advertising and marketing agencies getting into the now-booming business. Many Web marketing firms also have been putting more emphasis on SEO work for clients.
But because Server Side specializes in SEO, Janik said he has been able to partner with several larger agencies that outsource that particular aspect of the work to his firm, creating more opportunities to embrace competition, rather than fight it.
“Competition has increased exponentially over time, but we saw that as an opportunity to partner with some of these companies to bring that specialty to the table,” he said. “Because we were established so early on in the game, our reputation is already there.”