Skip to main content
Content StrategyField Notes

Field Notes #081: Achieving escape velocity in early stage organic growth

Achieving escape velocity in early stage organic growth

There has been increased skepticism lately that SEO is a viable channel for those just starting out. 

Certainly, competition has increased. 

Most companies, particularly in B2B SaaS, are capable of producing “pretty good” content. Add AI content generation to that, and you’ve got a flood of content on the market, lowering the value of the supply side as a whole. 

If you’re an early stage startup, you’re also dealing with two big barriers: a lack of funds, and a lack of history. You may have just launched your website with zero content; meanwhile your top 3 competitors have been publishing pages and acquiring customers for years. 

So, yes, in certain ways SEO is more competitive. 

But I’ve got dozens of data points now that you can make SEO work, even in saturated industries – for instance, we’ve managed to carve out a lead generating organic engine in the SEO and content space for ourselves:

Different stage, different aim: achieving escape velocity

SEO is like a snowball. Or compound interest. Or the Matthew Effect

Pick your analogy. 

That’s to say, the more better results you achieve, the easier it is to achieve more.

Maybe that’s due to the accumulation of backlinks; the more content that ranks, the more links you attain, and the easier it is to rank more content that gets more links, and on and on. 

Or because of navigational signals. Clicks beget clicks and build familiarity. So the more clicks you get, the more you’re served to searchers, getting more clicks, and getting served more. 

Whatever – we know that large sites have an advantage. I can tell you from my experience at HubSpot that we could rank a competitive page in less than a week, whereas earlier stage startups in the same space are not seeing that privilege. 

So we can’t expect the same outcomes at different stages, then, right? We have to play a different game in the earlier innings, namely that of achieving escape velocity. 

Let’s assume that, broadly, there is a stage of growth where the competition makes it infeasible or improbable for you to rank and achieve positive ROI. The goal of this stage, then, is to escape that stage. To set the foundations that allow you to rank consistently, drive clicks, conversions, and then scale that traffic so you, too, experience moats and Matthew Effects and compound interest. 

Think of it in time horizons or phases, laddering up in this way:

  1. Foundations
  2. Expansion
  3. Conversion
  4. Scale

Content creation economics redux

Economics is a useful framework for organic growth programs because, in business, we expect an R (return) for our I (investment). 

And how much you have to invest in order to get back a return in search depends on a few factors: 

  • The cost or difficulty to produce the content
  • The level organic competition
  • Your website authority

Plus your conversion funnel, unit economics, user monetization, etc. 

But to rank in search, it’s not as simple as “write amazing content.” If hundreds of other websites have been writing great content for many years before you, and you’re just starting out, why would Google take a chance on your site over an established brand?

The basic premise of content economics is that content must be, paradoxically, more expensive to produce results in the early days, and your early investment pays dividends in making it easier to rank less great content later. This is what facilitates expansion, conversion, and scale.

This is especially true if you’re in a competitive space (AI writing software) targeting a competitive keyword (“best AI writing software”), but it applies as well for less competitive keywords – at least until you hit escape velocity. 

(Note: escape velocity isn’t objective or quantitative, nor can it be demarcated by a certain domain rating. Too many variables. Rather, you know it when you see it – your time to rank is faster, your hit rate improves, etc.). 

So you have to write better, more expensive content and you still have a lower probability of ranking or driving business value, and you also have less money to invest in content production and SEO than your larger competitors? 

This is where many throw their hands up and try out LinkedIn organic, where at least you can hack the algorithm with selfies and rage bait. 

But before you write off SEO, consider an alternative strategy involving flanking, walmart keywords, and long game link building. 

Red oceans, blue oceans, and Wal Mart keywords

The obvious mistake: attacking big companies and their competitive keywords directly. 

Rather, employ a flanking strategy or mindset. 

A flanking strategy in war refers to attacking an enemy force from the side or rear, rather than directly from the front. The key aspects are:

  • It aims to attack the enemy’s weaker sides or rear where they are least prepared to defend, rather than their strongest front lines.
  • It seeks to gain an advantageous position over the enemy by concentrating offensive power where the enemy is least able to concentrate their defenses.

I’ll tell you a secret: it was very difficult to get a keyword with less than 200 MSV on the HubSpot roadmap, even if it was high intent and directly product related. 

This is true of most of your incumbents. So don’t compete for the 10k MSV term…yet. 

What to do instead? Walmart keywords. 

Here’s the philosophy from Sam Walton, Founder of Wal-Mart:

“While the big guys were leapfrogging from large city to large city, our key strategy was simply to put good-sized discount stores into one-horse towns, which everybody else was ignoring.”

This means, according to a great essay by Edward Ford, you should consider going after small town keywords, particularly if they are high intent, and even more so if you can build out topical authority and deep expertise in a singular niche. 

Image Source

So that’s what I would focus on for content creation. You have a much more feasible chance of ranking for these in the early days, and like I mentioned before, clicks beget clicks – so go get some clicks. 

The idea here is not to forever produce low MSV content, but in the early stages it can build up a basis of clicks and indexation, and possibly more importantly, it can buy you some time and trust to invest more in organic over time (it’s hard to invest more if you have ZERO results, but if you have nominal results, that can show promise). 

We did a deep dive on how to uncover these topics in our Red Ocean vs Blue Ocean SEO piece. A lot of these will come from emerging topics, pain points and customer research, and long tail, very specific topics. This approach maps well to the existing topic cluster model as well as Bernard Huang’s Ranch-Style SEO – all great frameworks. 

In the meantime, you also want to be building links, both manually and passively, so you can expand into more competitive and high traffic topic areas. 

Build authority with buzzworthy content

As I mentioned in the intro, our own agency’s website is now capable of ranking for competitive terms that bring in qualified leads. 

But it wasn’t always that way. 

Back in 2019, when we started this agency as a side project while working full time at HubSpot, we had no shot at ranking for competitive terms. So we did a few things:

  • We primarily sourced leads from our own network
  • We launched a podcast and webinars to drive subscribers and attention
  • We built links every month, and over time, had established a solid website authority. 

With our podcast, we created pages for each podcast, but in the early days, we also hired an agency that would create blog posts based on our conversations. These picked up links, just as the podcast pages did. 

We also invested in “coined terms,” like the barbell strategycontent economicsproduct-led contentnose-to-tail contentdecentralized content, and many more that didn’t pick up as much steam. These picked up links, too. 

It was in late 2022 that we decided to run an experiment: let’s try to publish 100 great blog posts in a month. 

It was a slow month, we had several team members, and our domain rating was in striking distance of competing for low-to-mid level competition terms. 

While we didn’t hit our 100 page target (we landed somewhere around 60 I believe), we did prove one thing: we can rank! We had hit escape velocity. 

Since then, we’ve focused on the third phase: conversion. 

Okay, so that’s the real world application. Here’s the theory:

Your content creation strategy should resemble a portfolio of bets, and we like the “barbell strategy,” which indexes on two extremes: predictable, product-led and conversion focused content, and buzzworthy content (which, in most cases, is intended to drive links). 

Buzzworthy content, or linkable assets, can take many forms, from original research (expensive but usually effective) to statistics roundups (easy to write, hard to rank) to coined terms (they work when they work, but are mostly ignored). Try a bunch of them. You’ll still probably have to do some manual outreach and promotion, but as these pick up steam, they’ll also garner organic links. 

Fast traction, demand creation, and synergistic plays

Best case scenario: you balance out the long game of SEO with some short term traction and distribution plays. 

We’ve got a client who does this to perfection. They’re just now launching to the public, but they’ve been slowly investing in SEO with us after raising their seed round. 

They started out with strong budget constraints, so we wasted as little time and money as possible. We drove targeted links to “coined term” pages, which are emerging topics in their space and act as pillar pages. We built out extremely high quality “SEO landing pads” that act as top or mid funnel content and drive searchers to sign up for their email newsletter (filled with great thought leadership) or their book.

(That’s another outcome to drive towards: build your owned audience, AKA email or subscriber list. That’s something the algorithm – social, search, or otherwise – can’t really mess with.)

Now they’re entering the “expansion” era, where we can finally scale content velocity and begin to rank for competitive terms.

All the while we’ve been building this out, a handful of people in the company have been veritable influencers in their space, with hundreds of thousands of collective LinkedIn followers, 10s of thousands on their email list, and thousands in their owned community. 

So we can test ideas rapidly, promote content via social, email, and community, and generally speaking, accelerate time to results long before we ever rank page 1 for a key phrase. 

Too many people argue on LinkedIn about demand creation vs demand capture, brand vs demand, SEO vs thought leadership. It’s obvious: they’re synergistic. 

Working with this client has been so rewarding and frictionless because they had the thought leadership salt to our search engine optimization pepper. 

SEO is hard, especially in the early days. It’s a compounding channel that accrues value as you grow your brand, clicks, and links. 

Sparktoro visualized it very well here:

Want more insights like this? Subscribe to our Field Notes.

Alex Birkett

Alex is a co-founder of Omniscient Digital. He loves experimentation, building things, and adventurous sports (scuba diving, skiing, and jiu jitsu primarily). He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog Biscuit.