This is an interview with Jeff Howell of Lease Ref.
Hey, Jeff. Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
I am a recovering commercial real estate broker ?.
I spent 17 years working in commercial real estate, straight out of business school. I enjoyed my time learning the business and working on behalf of corporate space users, mostly in premiere office buildings in downtown Toronto.
I hit the stage in my career where I was looking for something a little different and I decided to join one of my clients as their Director of Growth in the healthcare SaaS space.
I also launched my side hustle a few months prior and it’s incredible how skills learned doing one role can then be applied to the other role.
How did you come up with the idea for your online side hustle?
The steps to completing a commercial real estate lease are always the same.
Basically, they are: beg for the business, win the business, read the lease, assess the client’s requirements, look for space, decide on renewal vs relocation, and then negotiate the lease.
The reading of the lease and writing a report was always something that took 1 – 3 hours. Then that meeting would last about one hour. The funny thing is that no matter how small or large the client, no matter their level of sophistication, it always seemed to be the most enlightening hour of the entire journey.
And this is a journey that has countless hours, and lasts many months.
That one hour was an eye opener for every single client.
One day, I just thought, what if we could get a line up of people with their leases, just wanting to get their “score card” on their lease.
Many of those tenants would actually be half-way home to renegotiating their own lease, or would at least be educated on what to do next, and what to ask for in the next lease. This would level the playing field for those tenants, in a game that favors landlords. These tenants need a referee…a Lease Ref!
When did you launch Lease Ref and who is it for?
The site went live in February of 2017. It is for any business that rents commercial space, but bigger companies have more resources – there are no shortages of brokers that want to help out big companies. Really big companies have in-house real estate professionals.
Lease Ref helps the small business owners that cannot spend thousands of dollars on a commercial real estate lawyer to review the lease.
The typical profile of a Lease Ref client is a 1,000 square foot shopping mall tenant who is trying to figure out the 40,000 word lease in front of them and they start googling what each clause means.
They then stumble upon an article that answers their question and realize there are all kinds of other blog posts that answer questions they did not know to ask and there is a paid service for us to just review the whole document and provide your score card back to you within 24 hours.
How did you earn over $13K the year after starting the site?
Part hard work and part dumb luck.
The hard work part was reading hundreds of blog posts on SEO (I literally sorted the blog posts over at Moz and read every single one, including watching every Whiteboard Friday).
I then wrote over 100,000 words of content and used Venngage to create my own graphics.
My goals were to give away all the secrets – everything I have ever learned about commercial leasing – and try to make the content as engaging as possible. I also created the world’s only commercial real estate infographic repository (pretty electrifying, I know).
I did my own link building using Help a Reporter Out, contributing whatever I could think of to get high authority backlinks.
The dumb luck came later when I looked back and realized with all the research I had done I was still a rookie, working in isolation, with a mindset of doing everything myself and I allocated a budget of absolutely nothing towards experts that could have helped me.
Nonetheless, I had enough brute force with my approach that I was able to get enough traffic through the sheer volume of content that I published, and now I am much more scientific about what gets published today.
What strategies helped you increase traffic?
The downside to my niche is that no single keyword is a home run. My top keyword is only searched 1,300 times per month, according to Ahrefs. Many of the keywords are only searched 150 times per month.
But what I discovered is the value of two things: the long tail, and the value of targeting keywords that are easy to rank for.
The long tail just means that there are all kinds of ways people take the root keyword you want to rank for and there are almost an unlimited way people with modify that search with words before and after that word.
For example, if I want to rank for “negotiate commercial lease” and that keyword is only searched 200 times per month, my blog post can also rank for “negotiate commercial lease California” and “how do I negotiate a commercial lease?”.
My approach has been to take a root keyword, and write a long form post that is much more thorough than my competition. And try to rank for both the main keyword, and use the long tail variations as subheadings, and answer those questions thoroughly within the post.
After I have enough data (about 12 months), I then look at the long tail variations. If I am not on page one for those queries, I create shorter articles that specifically go after those searches.
For example, if I have a “How to Negotiate a Commercial Lease” article that ranks # 29 for the same query + California, then I will put on my list of articles to write: “How to Negotiate a Commercial Lease in California” and I will then link to the main article from this new article and vice versa.
I call it a hub and spoke system in which you have a “Complete Guide” article (mine are 3,000 – 5,000 words) – the hub, and then these spokes are going after just one very specific keyword (which can be several words long), which is very uncompetitive (usually it is a zero on the keyword difficulty score in Ahrefs).
How much are you currently making from Lease Ref per month and in what ways?
$5,000 – $9,000 right now. It is very consistent, and so is the traffic at about 15,000 visitors per month.
Unfortunately, right now there is no income that I would call “passive” (the golden word in the online space).
I am still time-for-money (albeit very nice money for very little time).
I have not formed any partnerships yet (though this is on my radar), and I am really against any advertisements as I do not think the payoff is enough for me to compromise the experience for the buyer.
The revenue requires human eyes reading the lease and starting a new report. Though we have a strong checklist and template to get through the lease quickly and it ensures we do the same high quality job every time.
What are the steps you take to create buyer intent content?
Great question. Most of that comes from my experience.
I essentially spent 17 years doing focus group sessions with customers so I understand their pain and their worries.
There are certain terms that I know will only be searched online by commercial tenants during a lease negotiation, such as “how to get out of a personal guarantee”, or “how to negotiate a letter of intent”.
For those queries, I have built comprehensive how to guides to answer all kinds of questions. Here they are:
How to Write a Commercial Lease Letter of Intent
Personal Guarantees in Commercial Leases: The Complete Tenant Guide
I have also given thought to the top of funnel questions – things tenants will be searching for when they are still looking for spaces, such as “what are flex buildings” or “how to hire a commercial real estate broker”.
How exactly do you build links to your site?
I would put myself into the category of what people consider a “boring industry”.
Despite what the white hat SEO consultants preach, it is incredibly difficult to create such amazing content that other websites want to link to. That is why I created so many infographics for my industry and frankly, I don’t see why anyone would want to link to that content.
So I asked myself, what really is my story and who would want to tell that story?
So right now I am focusing on the story of a commercial real estate broker with no digital skills transforming into a blogger with a call to action that allows you to have a virtual real estate advisor for a one time fee within 24 hours.
By taking this approach, I have been able to be featured on Nichepursuits.com, Sidehustlenation.com, Her.CEO, and that was also my approach in reaching out to Lidiya as well ?.
You just have to have a good story to tell and take the initiative to reach out. Most importantly the outreach needs to be focused on relationship building and providing value to the audience of the person you are reaching out to.
What tools do you rely on to run your online business?
The number one tool is Ahrefs. I do all my keyword research there and it allows me to monitor what is working for the competition.
I am experimenting with Page Optimizer Pro. It’s a bit early but I’m fascinated with their approach. For low competition keywords I think it’s less about links and more about picking the perfect balance of optimization and this analyzes all the top results and allows you to make quick tweaks to your site.
I am about to go live with Drift which I am very excited about because I have a relatively highly priced offer and answering a few questions can make the difference between getting the order or not.
The chatbot playbooks should also be able to automate much of that for me and it will be a way for me to collect some email addresses to further engage with prospects.
My most non-blogger tool I use is Hubspot. I use the free version and it allows me to see who is opening my emails and how many times.
That allows me to know who has received my outreach and when to follow up. I also have all my suppliers and clients in the system, which will allow me to scale with new employees and eventually sell the business in a very organized way.
How has your life changed ever since becoming self-employed?
Well, here’s the thing. I’m still at my job. I am not the I-hate-my-job guy. I actually have a dream job with amazing people that are all smart, funny, creative, inspiring and a joy to be around. My company is also a tech start up that is doubling in size each year. It’s a great company to be at.
So my dilemma is what do you do when you want your side hustle to go to the next level and you have a job that you love? Right now my answer is that I am burning the candle at the both ends, which I know is not sustainable.
How does a day in your life as an online business owner look like?
When I was only doing Lease Ref, it was both exciting and lonely at the same time. I would be in my basement all day long and I was learning, but not earning.
I carried the anxiety of not knowing if this was going to be a hit or a miss. It’s not easy to be by yourself with just yourself and blind faith.
These days I have the excitement in knowing that my hypothesis was correct – this is a service that is required and people will upload their lease for virtual advice through the internet.
Since I am still doing both roles, I went from being 9-5 to 5-9.
What are your top tips for anyone who wants to monetize a niche site?
Treat it as a real business. You have to make investments upfront in a business and for an online business, that investment is in your education.
I now look at $1,000 and $2,000 courses as a small investment into training myself on a successful system.
I easily lost much more money than that on just the mistakes I know I made (the mistakes I didn’t know I made I still don’t know about them!).
What’s next for you and Lease Ref?
I have a number in mind. Once I hit that number I will force myself to make a decision.
It could be that I sell the business or that I run it full time. I will definitely need to pick a team and not be spread so thin. Stay tuned!
Stock Photo from g-stockstudio @ Shutterstock