Paula and Claire are two entrepreneurs who correctly identified a gap in the market and then capitalized on it. Using their collective experience connecting freelancers with companies, they launched Houston & Ko. Today their business brings in over $20k per month.
Keep reading to learn more about:
- Their professional backgrounds
- How they got into business together
- Why they created Houston & Ko
- Who their clients are and what services they request
- Their marketing strategies
- How they view SEO
- The content creation process
- The tools they use every day
- The main challenges they face
- Their greatest accomplishment
- The biggest mistake they’ve made to date
- Their advice for other entrepreneurs
Meet Houston & Ko’s Founders
Paula’s career started in one of the big consulting houses, and she has spent most of her career focusing on the area of Mergers & Acquisitions. When it comes to detail, Sherlock Holmes doesn’t stand a chance. Paula leaves no stone unturned, no question unasked, and no business plan unscrutinized. And when outside of work, Paula can be found with her face as close to the snow as possible as she carves through the Swiss alps with her hardboard.
Claire’s international career has taken her far from the green fields of Ireland, where she started with one of the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) giants, Coca-Cola. Her guiding light in project management has always been the collection, measurement, and, most importantly, the use of data to drive value. When Claire isn’t measuring, analyzing, or managing something, she can be found stretching her legs on the triathlon circuit.
We were friends long before we became business partners, but we had already put our compatibility through some pretty strenuous testing during some extreme sports —another passion that we both share.
So when it came to deciding to start a business together, it was a no-brainer. On the one hand, we benefit from having complete unity regarding our values and aspirations for growing a business. On the other hand, our skill portfolios couldn’t be any more different – so we cover it all.
Why They Created Houston & Ko
We grew up (professionally speaking) in large corporations such as Coca-Cola, KPMG, PWC, Hilti, and The Adecco Group, where we witnessed and experienced the benefits and challenges to both employers and employees of the traditional hiring model.
Of course, the freelance market was already in existence, but in its current state, it’s so complex that it doesn’t allow for effective collaboration with the fast-paced start-up world, and so the dream of a simpler, more effective, and more premium marketplace was born, and simply named Houston & Ko.
Today, Houston & Ko has more than 120 years of collective experience in providing freelancer services to various types of organizations all over the world.
Our highly-skilled team works from 17 different countries and speaks 12 different languages. Their experience allows us to deliver (almost) any type of freelancer support you might need, from administration support to marketing experts and finance professionals.
When it comes to clients, our portfolio has significantly expanded in terms of the types of organizations that find value in our support.
When we started back in 2019, this was limited to solopreneur clients such as coaches, consultants, etc. Today we’re seeing that larger organizations are adopting a new collaboration model of working in hybrid teams together with freelancers.
They value the ease of doing business with us and having H&K as the single point of contact for all their freelance talent.
We take care of finding new talent, administering legal topics, paying bills, and often also enabling communication channels.
Houston & Ko’s Growth and Earnings
We pride ourselves in the growth we have achieved since starting Houston & Ko.
In our first year of operations, we acquired a handful of ongoing business customers, which really allowed us to refine our services and acquisition model.
Since then, we have been tripling this number to approximately 30 ongoing customers receiving our support each month.
We have also been working on growing the account size of our customers and have seen success there, too. On average, we’ve increased our account size by 50% in the last year.
Initially, we started with a few small accounts, often coming from personal networks to test our product-market fit.
During those early months, we generated around 5k top-line in total, but it was less about the size and more about finding answers to our questions. Now our business, which is still in its early stages, generates 20k+ per month and continues to grow.
Their Top Marketing Strategy
We use social media to better understand and engage with our customers.
Under the pressure of building a content production engine, it’s easy to forget the true value of social media marketing.
It offers the opportunity to engage with your current and potential customers. With the key being ‘engage with’, not talk at.
Our focus is on speaking with, and listening to, our current and potential customers through polls, voting, and question boxes. Interactive content like this offers them a chance to express their opinions and allows us to learn more about what matters to them.
For example, back when we were still building our business, we asked our customers what frustrated them about the current solutions on the market. Those insights helped us shape the business we have today.
The Importance of SEO
SEO is now hugely important to our business, but that hasn’t been until recently.
This could be a controversial opinion, but as pragmatists, we believe that the full potential of an SEO strategy can only be only realized once a solid and proven product-market fit is achieved.
We’ve spent the first years focused on building a profitable business that we know solves the challenges that individuals and organizations are facing today. Our next few years are focused on scaling that business, of which an SEO strategy will almost certainly play an integral part.
Before using SEO, and maybe you’ll laugh at us for being so old school, we did sales. We do sales. As founders, we believe there is nothing more important (and sometimes awkward) than making direct sales.
We grew our current client base through email campaigns, networking, and cold calls. In the process, we learned and still learn so much about our customers, their challenges, and the messages that resonate with them.
Houston & Ko’s Content Creation Strategy
At the moment, our focus is on creating high-quality and relevant content for our customers. With that in mind, our typical process looks something like this:
First: Create polls to determine what topics our customers care about and understand their opinions on.
Second: Use this input to pipeline relevant content that addresses the topic and the differing opinions presented.
Third: Open tailored conversations with those that contributed to discuss their specific challenges and explore whether we can offer a valuable solution.
It sounds like it could be a lot of work, but we make it efficient and lightweight. We do this by following a pre-prepared content calendar and working with a fantastic (freelance) team to outsource the operations.
Achieving Current Revenue Levels
Our ambition is that the main driver of growth for Houston & Ko will always be customer demand. We are proud to be a customer-led business as we both are passionate about building valuable solutions to real-world challenges.
In early 2019, we had already seen indications in the market that the traditional employment models that brought value to both organizations and job-seekers no longer serve either audience in a new, evermore uncertain economy. As a response, we started to build Houston & Ko.
Almost four years later, we see that the challenges of today indisputably require a new talent acquisition model. Companies today are unwavering when it comes to acquiring the most highly-skilled talent on the market and also flexible when it comes to how that talent chooses to bring value to your organization.
Houston & Ko’s Favorite Resources
Primarily we read what interests us and recommend that anyone reading does the same. We think that’s really important.
After that, we recommend reading or consuming content that either inspires or educates you. Here are six books that have been doing that for us this year:
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, if you’re interested in driving your business based on strong values
- The One Thing, by Gary Keller, if you need help focusing your mind
- The Customer Funded Business, by John Mullins, if you want to know how to build a truly customer-centric business
- Why We Sleep, by Mathew Walker, if you’re curious about bringing the best you to your business
- The Miracle Morning, by Hal Elrod, if you’re committed to dedicating more time to self-development
- Clockwork: Design Your Business to Run Itself, by Mike Michalowicz, if you’re building a business that doesn’t stop when you take time off
The phone: Groundbreaking, I know. But honestly, just talking is one of the most overlooked and underused tools for business success.
Loom: Loom is a video messaging tool that simultaneously records your camera, microphone, and desktop. Using Loom is a great way to effectively communicate important messages to our team, clients, or potential leads. Additionally, it always feels a bit more human.
Octopus: Octopus is a LinkedIn tool that helps us to automate a percentage of our lead generation efforts. It allows us to be really efficient at the top of our sales funnel at the initial reach-out stage. This, in turn, gives us the time needed to spend further down the funnel with our ideal clients.
Houston & Ko’s Greatest Challenge
The biggest and most common challenge we come up against are organizations’ preconceptions about the freelance market itself.
Many organizations associate freelancing with the gig economy following the 2009 financial crisis. It was born as a result of high unemployment rates and categorized by a lack of legislation, race-to-the-bottom pricing, and exploitation of some of the most vulnerable members of society.
Today the freelance economy is a very different place that now makes up around one-third of the global workforce with more than 1.1 billion registered freelancers. This economy is nothing like the one that came before.
It’s composed of skilled professionals, where competition for high-quality talent is on the rise, rates are win-win for both companies and freelancers, and more sophisticated policies make it a safe and sustainable labor model for everyone.
Their Main Accomplishment
Our greatest accomplishment is building a profitable business.
This is an important accomplishment for us entrepreneurs for a number of reasons:
- It makes us more resilient during economic uncertainty because we have the financial resources to ensure business continuity.
- We don’t have to look for outside funding, which means (at least for now) we can maintain managerial independence.
- Profitability has found popularity with investors again after cases of aggressive scaling compromising the financial health of start-ups.
This may not be a mind-blowing response, but turning a profit is a real accomplishment and not an easy feat. Some household names take years to do it, and some like Airbnb, Stripe, and WeWork still haven’t.
What They Wish They Knew When They Started
In our previous roles, we probably didn’t realize the “tail-wind” that we had with a big corporate name behind us when we were in contract negotiations. As a result, we probably overestimated our skill level.
Sitting on the other side of the negotiation table has taught us the hard way that you usually have to swallow a little more than you’re used to if you come from a large organization.
With less clout for negotiations, you have to be a lot more thorough and cover all the relevant topics (there is no legal and procurement team backing you up). You also have to be selective about what actually matters to you, what is ”‘nice to have,” and where your hard limits are.
Another hard fact we certainly undervalued is that growing a business takes time. After building rosy business plans (that ended up in the bin), we have become more considerate about our growth expectations. It has required a lot of persistence to keep pushing and sailing through those ups and downs to grow the business to the size it is today.
Their Biggest Mistake
When you’re hungry, everything looks like a burger.
In our first year of business, we were eager to acquire customers and took on a lot of projects that lay outside of our core range of services. These projects expended a lot of our time and energy. And while they made us revenue, they didn’t make us profit.
For example, we did everything from customer service to website development to podcast management in our first year of business; it was crazy.
To combat this, we started doing a yearly business review for this purpose. We look at all the projects we undertake in terms of profitability and success. Then we decide what services we will offer next year and what services we will discontinue or find a different model for.
Now we understand it’s as important to be clear on the services we don’t provide as the ones we do.
Houston & Ko’s Advice for Other Entrepreneurs
Our advice for other entrepreneurs, at this moment, would be to build a resilient business.
Despite having passed what seems to be the heat of the crisis, the business world will remain turbulent and volatile.
Keep your focus on solving clients’ needs and your fixed costs to a minimum. You can utilize the freelance market, negotiate flexible terms, and have a diverse customer base. You just need to focus on building a robust, adaptable, and anti-fragile business model that will be able to thrive in uncertainty.